rogue1@netcom.com (Rogue1)
Jeffrey Paul Hosmer
4001 Old Quarry Terrace Alexandria, VA 22306

Howdy everyone!

As promised long ago, here's the first chapter of the sequel to my Bubblegum Crisis fanfic, Angel of Darkness. I'm sorry it took so long, but this story went through some major rewrites. Other chapters will follow this one, but I think having part of the story out in the nets will inspire me to finish the stupid story all the faster. It worked on AoD, so why not again?

Originally this story was to take place on the Genaros Space Station, but I changed that after I was exposed to another anime. Watching it, I thought, "I wonder if this and BGC are compatible?" Well, I think they are. The other anime will go unnamed for now, but there are a few clues (I don't think I made it very hard) as to which one it is. Feel free to mail me with your ideas and questions about it.

Angel of Darkness is available on the RAAC FTP site at ftp.cs.ubc.ca pub/archive/anime-fan-works. (At least I think that's the address... :) If you haven't checked it out, do so. Zoner does us all a great favor by keeping all the stories there. If you can't ftp it, email me and I'll send you a copy.

For those interested in anything else I may have written, I do have a short Ranma1/2 fanfic entitled "Girls' Night Out." It is also available from the ftp site, or by emailing me.

I am writing other stories, and I have ideas for more, but they're all works in progress. If you'd like to get on my pre-reading list to help me proof these monsters, send me email.

Comments, criticisms, flames, and money can be sent to: rogue1@netcom.com

And now some credits:

To Gryphon, Zoner and the whole Undocumented Features gang for their stories, which inspired me to take to the keyboard and write my own stuff.

To my college roommate Jay, who proved that anime is a virus by infecting me with it. :)

To everyone who wrote me after I put out Angel of Darkness asking for more. Here you go, sorry I took so long, can you please stop threatening my family? :)

Enjoy!


Bubblegum Crash! : Angel of Light

Jeffrey Paul Hosmer aka Rogue1

February 28, 1995

 

Chapter 1

 

"The Knight Sabers were an icon of one of the more troubled times in world history and, as such, were much more important as a symbol than for any gains they made in their war with the GENOM Corporation. In a world were the nation-state and the mega-corporation were gaining ascendancy over individuals, the Knight Sabers showed that people were not helpless drones, impotent before the whims of those mighty entities. Individuals could make adifference. Where ever they are today, I salute them."

-- Dr. Theodore Armstrong,

in a speech to the World Sociological Convention

New York City, 2055

 

THURSDAY, 16 AUGUST 2034

0300

It sat on a small section of land reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, a squat, concrete warehouse, illuminated by powerful lights set at ten meter intervals along its chain link fence. Under one light a small sign proclaimed the warehouse's identity:

 

GENOM PRODUCT DISTRIBUTION CENTER A-216.

AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

 

Signs with the international symbol for electricity also marked the fence, warning any passerby of the potentially lethal charge running through the fence. The fence surrounded three sides of the complex, while the black waters of the bay lapped impotently against the concrete wall that supported the structure on the fourth side.

With the whrrrr-crunch typical of its kind, a security boomer came around one side of the building and into sight of the bay. Eight feet tall, it resembled a large, bipedal, armored insect with a recessed head which barely protruded from its armored torso. Two sensor booms extended from its shoulders, the "eyes" on the booms focusing on the bay. The boomer's right arm ended in a bazooka/machine gun combination which was held at ready as it looked for intruders. Sensing nothing, it continued on its patrol.

For a few minutes the waters of the bay remained still, then something began to emerge. Two wedge-shaped booms rose slowly out of the water. Soon, a V-shaped metallic head, with a red sensor glowing faintly in the center of its face, rose to the surface between the booms and regarded the warehouse. Behind it, the waters of the bay began to part in four other spots.

 

The Distribution Center was one of GENOM's hubs in its boomer shipping network. The GENOM Tower Arcology may have housed all of GENOM's MegaTokyo manufacturing facilities and employees, but the finished product had to be sent outside for shipment because it lacked direct access to the sea and air. The distribution center was actually nothing more than a heavily guarded warehouse where the boomers were loaded onto a boat or aerodyne cargo module.

Lately, though, more and more manufacturing was being done outside the vast arcology as well, almost as if space within the Tower was being used for something else, though no one knew what.

A block away from the center, a large GENOM tractor- trailer turned a corner and headed for the center, the roar of its engine disturbing the hot, muggy night.

Man, why do I always pull the graveyard shifts? thought Jim Ashima, covering a yawn with one of his big, beefy hands as he drove his tractor trailer up to the center's main gate. His rig belched forth exhaust fumes as it hauled its heavy load of combat boomers, all ready to go fight in the Polar War.

They're welcome to them, Jim thought to himself. The last thing MegaTokyo needs is more boomers.

He stopped his truck just outside the gate. Almost immediately, four security boomers converged on him. Their bazookas snapped to a ready position, all pointed at him.

"Delivery from the Tower. Access code: 22464479-Baker," recited Jim as the boomers approached. The lead boomer's eyes flashed in recognition as it accepted the code, and the boomers lowered their weapons.

Jim breathed a sigh of relief. One of his greatest fears was that one day they would fail to recognize the code and he would become another boomer-related homicide statistic. He drove his truck up to the center's loading dock and backed it up to the doors. Once in place, menial labor boomers appeared and began to unload the trailer's cargo. Jim lit a cigarette and waited for them to finish.

"Howdy, Jim!" came a human, and female as well, voice from outside his cab.

Jim leaned his head outside the window. It was Clara Hamanabe, one of the human supervisors of the center. He smiled at her as she stepped up to his cab. Long-legged and blonde, and just slightly plump, (enough to make her worth a man's while, Jim thought) she was a sight he always liked to take in.

"Hey, Clara," he said, pushing back his GENOM cap. "Slow night?"

"A real lonely night, Jim," she said, winking slightly. "You free after this?"

Jim's smile broadened. The graveyard shift might not be too bad, after all...

 

Five large figures now stood in the shallow water of the bay next to the distribution center. Though modeled after the human form, they were over 25 feet tall, and covered with black armor except for the joints at the shoulders, hips, knees, and elbows, which were covered by a flexible grey material. The lead figured reached up and grabbed the top of the concrete pier with one of its large metal hands. Moving with surprising agility, it quickly climbed onto the center's grounds, followed by its comrades. Alarms began blaring as soon as they set foot on the grounds of the distribution center, but the black giants seemed unconcerned.

 

Jim and Clara were both startled when the alarms suddenly went off. The security boomers, which had been watching the unloading of the truck, suddenly spun around and tore off, back thrusters flaring, towards the bay.

"What the fuck--?!" exclaimed Jim as he craned his head out to see what was going on. As he did, his jaw dropped open and his eyes widened in surprise.

Five metal-skinned giants were marching on the center. They were as black as night, except for the evilly glowing red eye on their V-shaped heads, reminding him somehow of a hawk in flight, and some grey around their joints. They stood taller than the center itself. One of them, reaching the center's wall, drove its hand effortlessly through the steel reinforced concrete, tearing it like paper.

The security boomers were now opening fire on the giants. Sparks flew off the giants' armor, but the machine gun slugs had no real effect. One boomer fired its bazooka and caused a giant to lurch backward a step. But then it righted itself and glared in the direction of the boomer. Shielding their sensors with their arms, four of the giants began to engage the boomers.

The battle was amazingly one-sided, with the giants' sheer size and strength rendering the boomers powerless. Even as Jim and Clara watched, a giant effortlessly picked up one of the security boomers and crushed it, orange fluids spraying grotesquely and dripping down the giant's hand. Dropping its victim to shatter against the ground, the giant reached for another one.

A second giant was slowly squashing a security boomer under its foot, as one might crush a cigarette butt. The pinned boomer continued to ineffectually empty its weapons at the giant until, with a spasm and a shower of sparks, it lay still.

The other two giants were decimating the boomer ranks with particle beam weapons that had popped out of their forearm armor. The blasts filled the night with loud zaps, bright flashes of light, and the sharp smell of ozone. Boomers shrieked as their metal bodies were torn apart by the blasts.

During all the mayhem, the fifth giant was continuing to tear through the wall of the center. Screams and shouts could now be heard from inside as it made a sizable hole in the structure.

"My men!" shouted Clara, finally roused from her shock. She got ready to hop off the side of Jim's cab and run inside the building. At that same moment, the giant launched something into the warehouse from some sort of shoulder- mounted weapon. A shockwave of heated air rolled over the two humans as the inside of the warehouse exploded into flames. Before they could even blink, a series of secondary explosions began to shake the building as boomer power cores and ammo from their weapons began to detonate.

"Oh, FUCK!" exclaimed Jim. He grabbed hold of Clara with one meaty hand. "Clara, they're goners! And so are we if we don't get out of here!" He opened the door of his cab and dragged Clara inside. It was a tight squeeze, but he wasn't concerned with the niceties.

Not caring that his trailer was still open, Jim gunned his truck's engine and stomped on the gas. Time to get the fuck out of here! he thought wildly to himself.

Just as his truck was pulling away from the burning warehouse it suddenly jerked to a stop. Inertia caused Jim's chest to slam into his steering wheel rather painfully. Looking in the rear view mirror, he saw an incredible sight.

One of the giants had picked up the end of his trailer and was lifting it off the ground.

"What's wrong?" screamed Clara shrilly.

Not bothering to answer, Jim stomped on the gas pedal again and he heard the squeal of his rig's tires on the ground as they fought against the thing's pull.

"C'mon, baby!" yelled Jim. "C'mon, please!"

With a screech of tearing metal, the connection between his truck and the trailer suddenly broke and he went careening forward. Smashing through the fence with a burst of sparks, Jim drove furiously down the road, intent only on getting away as fast as possible.

The giant, meanwhile, watched him go impassively, then dropped the trailer it was still holding. It aimed its arm at the rapidly departing truck, a forearm-mounted weapon glinting evilly. Targeting sensors effortlessly tracked the target, marking it for destruction, but then it lowered its arm and a small hatch under its head opened. A human face popped into view and watched as Jim's truck disappear into MegaTokyo. The face was a very pretty female one, and its owner paused only to run a hand through her startling green hair before re- entering the "giant" and turning back to the center. By now, most of the center had been demolished and was in flames, and all of the security boomers lay crushed under the feet of the gigantic machines.

A siren began to wail in the distance. Cocking its head, the giant waved at its four compatriots and then they all returned to the bay.

 

THURSDAY, 16 AUGUST 2034

0430

 

"--and the heat wave shows no signs of letting up. Phil?"

"Thank you, John. Next, on 'The Day Fresh' we have the latest news on the destruction of the GENOM Distribution Center in District Three." Behind the anchorman, a small image of the smoldering distribution center could be seen. Firemen were dousing the ruins to put out the remaining flames and men in dark suits and wearing shades could be seen talking to people. "GENOM continues to deny reports that the explosion was a result of terrorist activity, and claims that building collapsed due to "structural flaws" that had gone undetected. Fortunately, no humans were hurt in the collapse, though several million dollars worth of boomers literally went up in smoke. The GENOM statement comes after members of the radical Anti-GENOM Front claimed responsibility for the explosion. The ADPolice is still investigating the case.

"Now, we go to Miss Nakamura and the latest celebrity news. Nakamura-san?"

"Hi! The latest news is the surprise relocation of the hit star, Vis--"

Sylia Stingray turned down the volume of her television set and laid back on her bed, pondering. She was in her medium-sized apartment, located over the Silky Doll Fashion Center. The room was tastefully decorated, in a subdued way. Everything was neat and organized, almost to the point of sterility, though there was small touches--flowers arranged by a window, photos placed on the walls--that assured the casual observer that a human being did live here.

Sylia was watching the early news while preparing for bed. The very early news. "The Day Fresh" was an all-news program that ran from midnight to five in the morning, and was the best source for detailed news of what was happening in MegaTokyo. The recent incident at GENOM's distribution center bothered her. It seemed that MegaTokyo was becoming more and more violent every year and her personal crusade seemed to be in danger of failing as the city slowly tore itself apart.

Was I really so naive to think I could solve all of MegaTokyo's problems by taking out GENOM? thought Sylia. Or that four women in armored suits could succeed in doing that? It took years for me to even admit to myself that destroying GENOM would be catastrophic to the economy. Now, all we can do is try to contain the damage GENOM does. It's a holding action at best.

No, that's not quite true, she thought to herself, on reflection. We stopped Largo. If he had taken over GENOM... Sylia shuddered at what might have happened if Largo had succeeded in his plans.

It seemed that MegaTokyo was diversifying its problems. Trouble now came in all varieties: Anti-GENOM activists who would stop at nothing to achieve their goals; religious fanatics calling themselves "The Cult of the New Machine" who practically worshipped the boomer as the supreme form of life; and cyberpsychotics, people who had traded so much of their flesh for chrome that they lost all touch with reality.

The Knight Sabers may no longer be adequate for this job, thought Sylia. We could handle boomers, but with all the extra jobs coming in... It's too much for the four of us to handle.

Unbidden, her mind presented the solution: Expand the Knight Sabers. It was not a new idea, but she had resisted this solution before because of the security risk and, more importantly, because the Knight Sabers were like a family. Adding new members was not something to do lightly.

Sylia thought back to the early days. They had been four strangers united only by a hatred of GENOM and what its boomers were doing. Priss, because her boyfriend had been killed by GENOM; Linna, because her parents had been killed by a rogue boomer's rampage; Nene, because, well...

No, Nene didn't fit the pattern. She had been selected because she had cracked a sophisticated "help-wanted ad" Sylia had placed in the net. While she had not been the best fighter, she was unparalleled in Electronics Counter-Measures and computer programming.

And, she had to admit to herself, their early missions had been like a hurt and angry child striking back at his tormentor. They had been nothing more than nuisances to GENOM. Over time, their mission had changed slightly as they strove to protect the citizens of MegaTokyo from the megacorporation that dominated their lives.

The four of them might not be enough now for that mission, so the problem remained: Who to add to the group? It had to be someone who could be trusted, someone they already knew and could get along with.... Two names sprang instantly to mind. One, she filed away for later. It was not feasible at the moment to bring that person in, not until a lot of design work could be done. The other one could be brought on immediately, but would she do it?

Sylia looked back at her TV screen in time to see a clip being played of a young girl giving a press conference. She was a tall, well-built beauty with brown hair, except for a green-dyed shock of hair over her eyes. She was standing in the MegaTokyo Airport, today, by the date in the corner, and was answering questions.

Sylia smiled slightly. It seemed that it would be easy to get an answer.

 

THURSDAY, 16 AUGUST 2034

0715

 

"What a mess!" exclaimed ADPolice Detective Leon McNichol. Clad in a leather jacket, jeans, t-shirt and ever- present shades, Leon surveyed the burnt out wreck of GENOM's distribution center. The sun was just climbing up over the horizon on the bay and colored the entire scene in a golden- red light.

Leon's partner, Daley Wong, came up behind him, clad in a tan suit jacket and a pants, and a pink dress shirt. He was sweating visibly in the morning's heat.

"Whoever did this was thorough, Leon. None of the workers inside survived, and all of the boomers in the center were destroyed." Daley glanced at his note pad, whose pages were starting to curl in the humidity.

Leon gave a chunk of charred concrete a kick, sending it flying. "Is everyone accounted for? Humans and boomers? And where there any witnesses at all?"

Daley glanced at his pad again. "Well, the numbers of bodies and boomers match the numbers GENOM gave us--"

"Which proves nothing. I'm surprised that they even let us on the site. Especially after claiming originally that no one was hurt."

"Yeah. Their PR people really fumbled that one." Daley consulted his notes. "Forensics says that this place has already been given a pretty thorough going-over," he said. "Someone was here before us."

Leon snorted disgustedly. "Why do we even bother?" he asked rhetorically. He sat down and leaned back against a relatively clean chunk of concrete that was laying at an angle nearby. "Well, let's see if we can find something they miss--YAAAAAAAA!"

The concrete slab, which was barely in place, fell backwards and dumped Leon into a small depression that had been covered by it and some other debris. A small cloud of dust and soot rose in the air.

"Leon! Are you OK?" Daley cried as he rushed to help his partner.

"Yeah... whoo, that first step was a doozy. I--" He trailed off as he examined his surroundings. "Daley, tell me I'm not seeing this."

"This" was the depression Leon had fallen in. It was about four to five feet long with very regular sides and was only a couple of inches deep. It had obviously been made by something hitting the concrete very hard.

It was also in the shape of a foot.

 

FRIDAY, 17 AUGUST 2034

14:35

 

"That's it! The wedding's off! I want nothing to do with him!" shouted Priss at the top of her lungs.

Priss stomped around her friend Linna's apartment. That felt good, so she stomped some more, causing the small three- room apartment to vibrate slightly as she vented her rage. She ran her fingers through her extremely short brown hair while her reddish-brown eyes glared angrily at Linna, who lay face-down on her bed, reading a financial magazine. She seemed unconcerned about Priss's tantrum.

"The nerve of him, anyway," Priss fumed, continuing to glare at her friend. Seeing that she was getting no sympathy, Priss flopped down in a beanbag chair, her red-and-black motorcycle leathers creaking softly as she moved. She sprawled there for about a second, spread-eagled and staring at the ceiling before she lifted her head and scowled fiercely.

Linna looked up at Priss, unperturbed. "So, what do you want me to do about it?"

"I don't know... Help me out here!"

Linna sighed and adjusted the headband keeping her short black hair in place. She was smaller than her friend, though not by much, and her body was as fit and toned as Priss's. Currently, she was wearing a t-shirt and cut-offs and looked quite comfortable as she lay down on her bed. Though almost any sane male would call them both as beautiful, Linna's beauty was more feminine. Priss was a tomboy and a scrapper, and attracted a far different sort of man than Linna.

Linna propped herself up on her elbows. Raising her feet into the air, and crossing them slightly, she looked back at her friend and sighed. "Priss, don't bother with the theatrics. It's not going to work this time."

"Theatrics? What--?!"

Linna interrupted her. "Look. The first time you and Leon broke up, I listened to you rant and rave, helped you dry your tears and I even went and spoke to Leon for you. Nobody was happier than I when the two of you got back together.

"But this is the SIXTH time now," she said, sounding exasperated. "One of you says or does something, and then you both go bouncing off the walls! Leon moans to Daley, you gripe at me, or Nene, or Sylia, even! And each time, you two got back together."

Linna smiled impishly at her friend. "Face it, you two are meant to be."

"Bah!" snorted Priss, but she couldn't keep the expression on her face. She broke into giggles at the ludicrousness of the situation and then mock-sighed. "I guess so, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. How do you know Leon talks to Daley?"

Linna sat up on her bed, crossing her legs to get more comfortable. "We compared notes."

"You did what?!"

Linna nodded. "I called him up after your second break- up. Since them, we've talked each time, so we can steer you guys straight.

"What do you guys think you are, matchmakers?"

Linna ignored the question and continued on. "By the way, he says he knows a place where you can get a great deal on a bridal gown." Linna laughed as Priss made a face. "C'mon, you'll look great!"

Priss stood and stretched in her racing leathers. "I'm much more comfortable in this, or a hardsuit, thank you," said Priss. "Besides, the thing would probably be as uncomfortable as hell. And Leon would be miserable in a tux."

"All the more incentive for you guys to take them off after the ceremony," Linna suggested mischievously. She then ducked as Priss threw a nearby pillow at her.

Linna recovered quickly, though, and grabbed a pillow of her own. Thus armed, she swooped down on her target. Priss ack!-ed and tried to defend herself with a ridiculously small seat cushion and the two friends then proceed to bash each other silly. After a particularly hard swing from Priss, however, Linna fell down to the floor, the breath knocked out of her.

"Watch it, Priss," Linna croaked, in between great gasps of air. "You're stronger... than you... think..."

Priss looked down at her friend, concerned. "Oh, shit." She helped Linna back on the bed, looking worried. "I'm sorry, Linna. I haven't made a mistake like that in days."

Linna looked closely at her, concerned. Though she looked normal on the outside, Linna knew that impression was false. A few weeks ago, Priss had had her body cybernetically enhanced because of feelings of guilt when Nene had been seriously injured in combat. Billions of microscopic machines, known as nanoids, had restructured her body, making it stronger, faster, and tougher than any normal human could be.

Priss had been happy with the result at first, but the nanoids went wild the first time she went into combat, merging her body with her hardsuit and turning her into a crazed psychopath running amuck through downtown MegaTokyo. Only Leon and the Knight Sabers had been able to help her, and they had almost been too late in the end. Priss still retained some of the abilities she had gained, though, and would keep them until she died. The doctors had determined that this was a irreversible effect of what she had gone through.

"Don't worry about it, Priss," said Linna, having caught her breath. "Just be careful with Leon!"

Priss scowled as her friend broke into giggles, but couldn't hold it and soon joined her friend in laughing.

Linna's doorbell rang. Linna, still giggling, got up and activated the small video-intercom by the door. The picture of a beautiful, brown-haired girl appeared. She winked and waved at Linna through the small screen. Linna's jaw dropped and she hurried to open the door.

"Reika? It's great to see you! What are you doing here?" asked Linna, totally surprised as she gave her friend a hug.

"Oh, you know. I was in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop by," said Reika Chang to her dumbfounded friend. Known throughout the world as her mysterious rock-and-roll alter ego, Vision, Reika didn't often get a chance to be 'in the neighborhood.'

The two had met under less than auspicious circumstances, when Vision had come to MegaTokyo more than a year ago to avenge the murder of her sister, Irene, who was also a friend of Linna's. Irene had gotten too close to a secret GENOM project and had been assassinated on the orders of Brian J. Mason. Vision had planned to assassinate GENOM Chairman Quincy, but Linna and the Knight Sabers had, in the end, convinced Vision that murder was not the way to honor her sister's memory and Vision resumed her career as a singer.

Linna and Vision had kept in touch, though they hadn't had a chance to meet in person since then.

"What are you doing in MegaTokyo?" Linna continued. "I hadn't heard of any concert tour or promo--"

"I know. I wanted to surprise you." Vision looked her friend in the eye. "I'm moving here."

"Here? In MegaTokyo? That's great!"

Priss coughed in a not too subtle manner. Linna blushed, suddenly remembering her friend.

"Oh, sorry. Reika, this is my friend Priss. Priss, this is Reika Chang."

Priss got up and offered her hand to Vision. They shook, each sizing the other up.

"Nice to... meet you," said Priss.

"The same," said Vision.

"Priss is getting married to Leon McNichol. Do you remember him, Reika? From the ADPolice?"

"Oh, yeah. He's the one who DIDN'T arrest me," Vision said with a laugh. "You're a lucky girl, Priss."

Priss blushed, embarrassed. "Don't tell him that, it would go right to his head."

Linna laughed. "And that's the truth. Sit down, Reika. What are you up to?"

"Well, I finished a sensational tour of Europe just recently and I've been working on some new songs... But I needed a change in my life. I wanted to come here to where Irene lived. It's something I should have done sooner. My last visit was just a bit hectic," she added, with a laugh.

"Well, you know what this means, don't you, Linna?" Priss asked slyly.

"Huh? What, Priss?"

"We HAVE to have a party!"

 

SATURDAY, 18 AUGUST 2034

20:15

 

Linna's apartment was decked out to the nines for a very small, very special party. Streamers and ribbon were everywhere, clashing horribly with the underlying decor. Balloons floated just out of reach, as if trying to avoid capture. Half of a large cake sat on the kitchen table (only Nene and Leon had actually eaten any sizable amounts, though; the others had claimed to be on diets. Nene had also claimed a diet, but seemed to have forgotten about it by her third piece of cake.) Now the party members sat around Linna's living room area, in the drink-and-gab phase of the party.

Priss and Leon were sitting in Linna's beanbag chair. Leon, his lanky frame looking suitably relaxed as he stretched out, was formally dressed, which for him meant a clean T-shirt (black today), a good pair of jeans, boots, sunglasses, and his usual leather jacket. His hair was slicked back, except where Priss had toyed with it and the few unruly strands that fell over his forehead. His ADPolice badge, was attached to his jacket.

Priss sat across his lap, dressed, as usual, in her racing leathers, looking slightly drunk. She had appointed herself the over-all director of the party and seemed determined to make sure everyone had a good time, even if she had to kill them to do it. This had resulted in quite a bit of alcohol being consumed. Right now, Priss had her arms around Leon's neck and giggled every now and then. She and Leon seemed wrapped up in their own little world.

Nene sat on the couch, trying to ignore Priss and Leon while listening to Vision relate tales of Vision and The Revengers' European Tour. Nene was the smallest member of the group, but made up for it with energy. Her bright red-hair mirrored her personality perfectly, and her green eyes sparkled brightly. Right now, she seemed embarrassed by Priss and Leon's intimacy and she sipped at her mineral water distractedly. Nene still wore her ADPolice uniform with the knee-length skirt and white boots. She had taken off the jacket and sash and left them by the door, however, so she didn't look too formal.

Sylia could not look anything but formal, however. She wore a simple black business suit, with a white blouse that had ruffles down the front. The short black skirt that went along with it was almost too short, but worked well with her regal good looks. Her bluish-black hair was carefully styled and she stood by the window, often just staring out into space. But if anyone had asked her what had gone on this night, she could have recited the events almost verbatim.

Linna sat across from the couch in a comfortable brown armchair, sipping a white wine. Her headband was in place, and she wore a comfortable white-and-black sweater (the one Nene always said reminded her of a cow) and a loose pair of jeans. Linna was tired from trying all night to keep the damage done by the party to a minimum. Leon kept leaving his drinks in odd places, where he could never find them again, causing him to go and get another drink to conveniently forget. Nene had dropped her cake-laden plate, and Priss, who had already been mildly sloshed by that point, had made matters worse by attempting to clean it up. Only Sylia and Vision had been no trouble.

Next time Priss says we HAVE to have a party, grumbled Linna to herself, we do it at HER place.

Vision, sitting on the couch next to Nene, wore jeans and a 'Vision and the Revengers "Never the End" European Tour 2034' shirt. She had been keeping them all enthralled with her stories of the places she had seen and the escapades she and her band had gotten into while touring the Continent.

"...and Kou broke the bottle over his head!" finished up Vision, recounting an encounter with a particularly obnoxious fan. "The poor man had to take about 12 stitches."

"Serves him right," slurred Priss from the beanbag. "Ya haveta be rough with them, sometimes." She points her thumb at Leon. "Take this lug here, f'r instance... He hit on me at a fast food place!"

Vision laughed at that. "No! Really?"

Leon shrugged as best he could. "I happened to meet her there by chance. I was a big fan of her music from the first," Priss smiled up at him for that, "but never could get near her. So I took a chance." Leon smiled at the memory. "I still have scars from that night. She shot me down hard."

"I tol' him to go chase some boomers' asses instead of girls'!" Priss added.

Leon blushed slightly. "I think Priss's had a bit much too drink..."

"I have not!" slurred Priss. "Jus' watch... "

Priss got up and attempted to walk a straight line between the couch and a glass-topped coffee table.

"Priss," began Leon, "you don't have to prove--"

"Be careful, Priss!" exclaimed Linna, as she watched Priss stumble forward.

Priss lost her balance and fell almost immediately. Fortunately, there was the couch nearby, but the amount of alcohol in her system caused Priss to overreact, flailing her arms wildly. Her left hand connected solidly with the glass- topped coffee table, shattering it.

"Ow!" cried Priss as the sharp glass cut her. Sitting up, she grabbed hold of her wounded hand and examined the cut. Even as she looked at it, though, it was closing as her nanoids repaired the damage and, while they were at it, metabolizing the alcohol in her bloodstream. Priss's eyes cleared almost immediately.

"Shit," cursed Priss. "I'm sorry, Linna. I don't know what..."

"That's OK, Priss," sighed Linna. "I can get it repaired--" She noticed that Vision was starring at Priss, mouth agape. "Is something wrong, Reika?"

Vision fumbled for the words. "How did she... what was... Would someone explain what just happened?" she finished plaintively.

Priss sighed and faced Vision. "I've undergone some... changes, since we last met, Vision."

Vision's mouth worked for several seconds, but no sound came out. Her face suddenly cleared. "You're a cyb--"

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Reika," Linna interrupted quickly, "but we're still dealing with this ourselves. Priss isn't as bad off as she likes to think, though."

Vision sat there quietly, taking it all in.

"But that's all behind us now!" said Nene, a little quickly. "Everything's back to normal, right?"

Priss looked at Nene for a second and then picked up an empty beer can. In a few quick motions she squashed it down to something the size of a marble, without any signs of strain. "No, Nene, nothing is 'back to normal.'"

Vision looked at Priss for several seconds, then reached over and hesitantly placed a hand on Priss's shoulder. Priss almost flinched at the touch, and looked away. Vision let her hand drop. "I'm sorry," she began, "I--"

"S'not your fault," Priss said. "Forget about it."

"But... I-"

"I said, FORGET IT!" Priss snapped. Everyone looked up at the sudden outburst.

"I'm sorry, I was only trying to apolo--"

"I don't want to hear it, OK? I know what you really think. You think I'm like one of those fucking boomers, don't you?!"

"Priss, that's enough," Leon said after a moment.

"Keep out of this, Leon!" snarled Priss.

"I didn't say that!" Vision retorted heatedly.

Priss reached out and grabbed Vision by the throat, moving far faster than a human could. Vision had had extensive combat training, but, before she had a chance to react, Priss had her in a grip of steel. Slowly, she lifted Vision off the floor.

"Priss!" Sylia said sharply from her position by the window. Priss started and dropped Vision, who collapsed to the floor, gasping. Priss looked around, a haunted expression on her face.

"I-I think I'll go and get some air..." Priss said, quickly leaving the apartment.

"Priss! Wait up!" Leon said as he rushed after her. "Miss Vision, I apologize for Priss..." With that he ran out of the apartment.

 

The apartment was quiet after the couple had left, except for Vision's heavy breathing. Sylia went back to the window and watched as Priss and Leon exited the building, walking down the street past their parked motorcycles.

"She's not getting any better, is she, Sylia?" Linna asked quietly.

"No. Her psych reports show a progressive decline. The psychiatrists feel that she's on the edge of slipping back into cyberpsychosis."

"It can't be that bad, it just can't!" Nene wailed. "Sylia, can't we do something?"

"Would... someone tell me... what I did wrong?" Vision asked from where she sat on the floor, clutching at her throat.

Linna helped Vision over to the couch. "It's not your fault, Reika," she began. "Priss should never have gotten cybernetics in the first place. It was a rash decision, and little things set her off. She tries to act normal... but it's wearing her down."

"She hasn't written any new songs since the incident," Nene added in a subdued tone. "Just sits in her trailer and plucks at her guitar. And she doesn't play in front of people anymore either."

Vision winced. As a singer, she knew how bad her life would have to get before she would give up performing. More to the point, she had been there, having almost given up singing to devote her life to vengeance for Irene. "Is there nothing that can be done?"

"The psychiatrists are uncertain. Cyberpsychosis is still a relatively new phenomenon. And she doesn't help by refusing to see them," Sylia answered. "I think only one person can help her, and that is Leon."

 

I wish Dr. Stingray was here, thought Leon as he walked along behind Priss. She'd know what to say.

They both continued down the street in silence for a while until they came upon a small park and Priss swerved, almost blindly into it. Leon could only trail along, helplessly.

The park was small, barely more than a fountain and a some bushes, a small speck of green in the concrete and steel of MegaTokyo. The fountain was quiet now, dark and still. Leon looked around reflexively, but none of MegaTokyo's street scum seemed to be out tonight, a welcome surprise. The oppressive mugginess must have been too much for even them. He came up behind Priss and put his hands gently on her shoulders.

Priss spun around suddenly and buried her head in his jacket. He could feel wetness (tears, he realized) soaking into his T-shirt. Awkwardly, he put his arms around Priss.

"Shhhh... It's going to be alright, Priss. Don't worry," Leon said in as soothing a voice he could manage.

"L-l-leon, I-I could have hurt her," Priss sobbed into his chest. "What's the matter with me!?" she wailed. Priss felt she was adrift in a stormy sea, without an anchor, nothing to hold her steady.

"Priss... I-" Leon stopped. What do you say to her? he asked himself. What could you possibly say that would make things better?

"I love you, Priss," he said softly. Like a lifeline, Priss clung to those words desperately, still crying quietly into Leon's shirt.

"But-but HOW can you," she asked, still not looking up at him. "Dammit! I'm not even human any more!"

"Yes, you are, Priss," Leon began. Then Priss looked up him, her face cloaked in shadows.

Leon gasped. Her eyes were glowing a very faint red in the darkness.

"See?" Priss said bitterly. "I'm not. I'm no better than any damn boomer! I-"

Leon grabbed Priss by the shoulders and pushed her back a bit. "Priss, stop it," he said, using the same tone of voice he had been taught for suicidal people. "You're just going to drive yourself crazy if you keep this up."

"Damn it, Leon, how can you be sure? When I'M not even sure?"

Leon looked at Priss soberly. "You remember that night on GENOM Tower?"

When Priss had gone on her rampage, she had finally been stopped by an experimental boomer on top of GENOM Tower, her neck broken. Thinking that she was dying, she had confessed her love to Leon before losing consciousness. Swift action on the part of the Knight Sabers saved her, however, using nanotechnology to heal the damage.

Priss nodded in answer to Leon's question.

"Well, when you lay there--broken, mangled, more a part of your suit than anything--I found myself thinking, 'That's not Priss. That can't be Priss.' Then you opened your eyes. And I saw YOU, Priss. You were there, frightened, desperate..." Leon swallowed hard, pausing for a moment, "...dying. And when you saw me, your eyes lit up from within. I knew then, that no matter what had happened to your body, you were still there."

"Leon... I-"

"Priss," Leon interrupted, "don't you see? You're still you, despite the changes. But you're not accepting it, and that's killing you."

"You-you don't know what it's like, Leon," Priss replied. "I have to use a light touch to handle anything. I can feel these little nano-whatsits, sometimes, when they go to work on me. It's like ants crawling through my veins. Nothing looks or sounds the same anymore... I wake up at night, screaming, thinking that I'm really a boomer Priss, and not the real one, that you guys replaced me... that I'm like..."

"Like who, Priss? Sylvie? Anri? They were boomers, you know." Sylvie and Anri had been two 33/S type boomers who had escaped from the orbiting Genaros Space Station, seeking freedom from the slavery GENOM imposed on its sentient boomers. They had died tragically in MegaTokyo. Priss had been forced to kill Sylvie, whom she had befriended, to stop a rampaging war machine that was bonded to her systems, and Anri had sacrificed herself to save Priss from Largo.

"But-"

"No buts, Priss. If they could be human, where it really counts, then you can, too. Besides, how would they feel if you killed yourself over this, or anything, for that matter? How would all of us feel? Priss, live for us." His voice became very quiet. "For me."

Leon stepped closer to Priss, lowering his head towards her. Priss was torn with indecision for a moment, and then they kissed. For several long moments, all sensation left Priss, everything but the kiss. She felt nothing but her love for Leon, and his love for her. She felt... human.

 

The door to Linna's apartment opened to admit a sheepish- looking Priss and a contented-looking Leon.

"I'm sorry, Vision," Priss began. "And I'm sorry, Linna, for disturbing the party. I shouldn't have lost my temper." Priss seemed a lot calmer now, for some reason.

Well, thought Sylia, whatever he did, it seems to have worked. I hope that this change for the better is permanent. But that would be hoping for too much, Sylia realized.

Vision looked up at Priss a little hesitantly. She remembered the fear she had felt while Priss was strangling her. Remember what she's going through, she thought angrily to herself. How well would YOU deal with it?

"I'm the one who should apologize, Priss," she said, slowly. "I reacted badly. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it, Miss Vision," Leon said amiably. "It's hard at times." He put his hand around Priss's shoulder. "With all the boomer incidents, it's easy to automatically fear and mistrust anything like them. We have to overcome that." He looked at Priss, who looked back at him smiling slightly.

Vision looked at the two of them, and for a moment felt both happy for Priss, to have found someone like that, and envious of her.

"I am glad that this matter was settled." Sylia interrupted the silence. "Because it has a bearing on a small piece of business that we have to take care of tonight."

"Oh, c'mon Sylia," Nene protested. "This is a party, not time for business."

Sylia smiled slightly at Nene, and then resumed her talk. "There's no point in letting this wait. First of all, I would like to officially thank Detective McNichol for his discretion, on behalf of our organization."

Everyone looked at Sylia, slightly stunned. Granted, Leon knew they were all members of the Knight Sabers, but no one had ever spoken of it openly. Leon, for his part, had kept silent as well. He knew, they knew he knew, he knew they knew he knew... and so on. None of them had wanted to upset this arrangement by any overt declaration. Now Sylia was changing the game.

Leon just shrugged. "Hey, anything else wouldn't have been cool." Priss swatted him lightly. "Ow! What was that for?" he complained. They all shared a small laugh.

"Reika Chang." Everyone's attention went back to Sylia, who was continuing as though she hadn't been interrupted. "Our organization has been around for several years. In that time the threat we have been fighting against has grown. To meet it, we must expand."

Everyone grew very quiet. What Sylia seemed to be building up to was almost unthinkable.

"Would you be interested in joining us?"

Vision sat back, stunned. The enormity of what she was being offered caused her entire mind to go blank. She had assumed when Linna had said that she having her 'closest friends' over for the party, that that meant the Knight Sabers, but she hadn't expected such an open declaration, or this offer!

Linna looked at her friend. Sylia had spoken to Linna about this decision, since Linna was closest to Vision. Linna knew Vision to be a brave, competent fighter, and had vouched for her. Now, what would she say?

Vision sat for a moment, lost in her thoughts. Irene, she addressed her dead sister, is this what you would want me to do? Is this another way I can make sure you are at rest?

Vision had given up her vendetta against GENOM, concentrating on her music as a way of commemorating her sister's life. But now, she was being offered a way to avenge her sister that did not mean killing anyone.

Vision looked up slowly. She spoke softly, almost too quietly to be heard. "I would be honored."

"Yippee!" squealed Nene, instantly breaking the mood. Everyone laughed, Leon loudest of all. Nene blushed in embarrassment.

"Well, this calls for a toast," said Leon, who immediately grabbed a beer. Everyone else found a drink. Then Leon held up his drink and said:

"To Vision and the Knight Sabers."

"To the Knight Sabers!" everyone chorused.


I want to thank everyone who wrote to me, praising the first chapter and offering their ideas, questions and criticisms. They helped shape this chapter. If you like what I write, go ahead and send me mail, I welcome feedbac of any sort.

I also want to thank my pre-readers, whose help was invaluable. If you'd like to join my pre-reading list, just drop me a line.

Chapter 1, and _BGC: Angel of Darkness_, the predecessor to this story, are available on the r.a.a.s. FTP site, ftp.std.com under the /archives/anime-fan- works/BGC directory, or I can mail copies of them to you.

Well, enough of me rambling...

Bubblegum Crash!

Angel of Light

 

Chapter 2

 

"The Quake struck at approximately 10:45 this morning, and registered about 9.5 on the Richter Scale.... Reports are sketchy, but the city of Tokyo seems devastated. Authorities are already naming this the Second Great Kanto Earthquake, and it is living up to its name. Estimates on the number of dead are running into the millions... over a trillion yen in property damage. Reports also show that most of the reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay has fallen below sea level again, though Aqua City appears intact. Our satellite imagery now shows huge fires consuming vast portions of the city..."

NHK Broadcast, September 14, 2025

Day of the Second Great Kanto Earthquake

 

MONDAY, 20 AUGUST 2034

04:12

 

BZZZZZZZZ!

Vision mumbled something incoherent and reached over to hit the snooze-button on her alarm. She was laying face down above the covers on her bed, clad only in lingerie, attempting to beat the ghastly heat. After fumbling around with the alarm clock for several seconds, she realized that it wasn't making the noise. Someone was at her door.

Vision cracked open one eye and saw that the blue digits on her alarm clock read 4:13AM, a good hour or two before she would usually get up. Cursing her inopportune guest, she got out of bed and struggled into a short silk robe and stumbled over to the door.

Vision turned on the door's vidscreen and saw Linna's smiling face. She was clad in a simple white T- shirt and red running shorts, with a matching red headband.

"Good Morning, Reika!" chirped Linna as her friend let her in.

"Linna," said Vision slowly, "before I kill you, why are you waking me up at four o'clock in the goddamn morning?"

Linna looked unconcerned at her friend's ill mood. "I'm here to start to get you in shape. We start with some warmups, and then a good run. We'll go easy--"

Vision just stared at her friend, her mind not prepared for the strenuous task of thinking this early in the morning. "What?"

"C'mon, Reika. Do you think our suits do all the work? You need to be in tip-top shape. Sylia's orders," Linna continued, more seriously. "I'm in charge of your physical training. Now, get dressed. Move it, move it!"

Vision went and got dressed automatically, following Linna's command before she even realized it. "Has anyone ever told you that you'd make a good drill sergeant?"

"Only everyone I ever taught aerobics to. Now let's get going!"

 

The run had begun well, Vision being in what she had considered good shape. Linna ran ahead of her, not looking back once, and set a steady pace. Vision followed grimly, determined not to fail. They ran for quite a while, though, and Vision began to stumble and weave a bit, her breath coming in gasps.

Linna kept running, seemingly unaffected.

Vision gritted her teeth and kept after her friend, running along the streets of MegaTokyo, which were still dark at this hour. Streetlight and the ever-present neon advertisements offered a great deal of illumination, though. Despite the night, the heat and humidity were horrible. Vision's T-shirt and shorts felt soaked with her sweat.

Finally, just as spots were starting to appear in front of Vision's eyes, Linna slowed to a brisk walk. She turned to her charge.

"Cool down time. Here, have a sip of some of this," she said, handing Vision a small water bottle. "Only a little now."

Vision sipped at the lukewarm water, which tasted very sweet to her at that moment. She followed Linna, feeling the aches in her thighs, calves and feet. They were almost back to her apartment, Vision noted.

"You did pitifully today," Linna continued. "You'll have to better tomorrow."

"How... how could... you tell how... I was doing?" gasped Vision, her breath still coming in long gasps.

"I could hear your breathing a mile off." Linna smiled cheerfully. "I'm going to go finish my run. You go and make sure you stretch out before you go back to sleep."

"Okay..."

"I have work today, but do you want to get together tonight for dinner?"

"Sure..."

"Great! I'll give you a call! Bye!" With that, Linna took off running again. Vision could only slump against the wall of her building and look after her in disbelief.

 

MONDAY, 20 AUGUST 2034

05:17

 

Jim Ashima awoke with a start. For several long minutes he just stared at the wall of the alley he had fallen asleep in. Finally, he placed a grimy hand to his face, and moaned to himself.

"Clara, I'm sorry..." he mumbled as he slowly got to his feet. He scanned his surroundings furtively and then started shambling off.

He was in the Canyons, a section of MegaTokyo that had fallen below sea level during the Great Quake. Some sections of it had been rebuilt over the years, but many parts were still contained only crumbling buildings. It had become a haven for the homeless, the dispossessed, and those who wanted to avoid the attention of the police... or GENOM.

Jim Ashima was one of the latter.

After witnessing the attack on the Distribution Center, he had taken Clara back to his place and together they had watched for news of what had happened. When he saw that they were claiming it was an accident, the hairs on the back of his neck began to rise, just as they had during his time in the Service. Right before an op went bad, he had always felt that way. Back then, he had learned to pay attention to those feelings, but this time he let himself be talked out of heading to ground.

The security boomers had shown up at that evening. Clara had died in the first salvo and he had had jump out of his two-story window. For once in his life he was glad his room had overlooked the dumpster. Relying on instincts and skills he hadn't used in more than five years, Jim had made his way to the Canyons. For the last several days he had been tending to the ankle he had twisted in the fall and watching his back for another attempt.

When an op went bad, he remembered, you find cover and assess your options. While the Canyons didn't look like the jungles of Southeast Asia, the principle remained the same.

Jim shuffled out onto a street, trying to resemble one of the homeless who lived in this area. Now and then he glanced in the direction of the GENOM Tower, trying to think about what he could do now.

Later, he thought to himself. Survival first. The rest comes later.

 

MONDAY, 20 AUGUST 2034

15:00

 

Leon strode quickly through the hallways of the ADPolice Headquarters. He had just gotten a notice asking him to report to the Chief's office.

Goddammit, he thought to himself. If he's going to try to pull me off the Distribution Center case, I'll tell him... Just because GENOM doesn't like us nosing around their business is no reason to act like corporate puppets! We're police officers!

Leon was working himself up a full head of steam as he charged toward the Chief's office. He was so preoccupied, he almost ran into a very cute young woman with short red hair. She was running down the halls, preoccupied with the large sheaf of papers she was carrying.

"OH! I'msorryLeonIwasn't--" Nene babbled as she clutched at her papers, which were threatening to topple onto the floor.

Leon grinned and ruffled Nene's extremely short hair, a legacy of her injuries a few weeks back. She scowled when he did that and shook her head away.

"Stop that!" she exclaimed, irritated.

"Sorry, Nene. And don't worry, I wasn't really looking where I was going either. I'm off to see the chief about something."

Nene's eyes grew a little wider. "The Distribution Center case? Wait a second, I have something here..." Nene tried to shift the pile of papers to one hand so she could free the other. The pile began to topple, so she immediately grabbed at it, causing it to lurch back the other way. Leon reached out and took it off her hands.

"Thanks," Nene said as she pulled out a small disk. "I had to look pretty far back in the files to find something that could have made that impression you found, Leon."

"But you DID find something?" Leon asked, trying to keep the pile of papers from collapsing.

Nene looked wounded. "Of course! Here you go!" She stuck the disk in one of his shirt pockets and then they awkwardly transferred the pile of papers back to Nene, somehow managing not to drop any of them. "Remember, you owe me one, Leon!" cried Nene as she tore off around a corner, proud that her paperwork was still in order. Leon was still smiling after her when he heard a loud "Oof!" and the sound of papers flying everywhere. With a small chuckle, he resumed his trip toward the Chief's office.

When he got there, Leon was surprised to see that Chief Matsui was not alone. Leon did not know much about the new Chief other than he had been hand-picked for the job when his predecessor had been retired due to incompetence. At least Chief Matsui had been a cop, and not an -administrator- looking to finish out his twenty years. The Chief was pushing the retirement envelope, but looked ready to hand anyone who tried to retire him their heads.

Sitting in a chair in front of the Chief was an old, white-haired man with a drawn face and drooping eyelids that suggested he was half asleep. His eyes had flickered toward Leon as he entered, but his face showed no sign of acknowledging the fact.

"McNichol," said the Chief, a large, squat man also with white hair. "Take a seat."

"What's this about, Chief?" Leon asked, flopping down on another chair.

"It's about the Distribution Center incident--"

"Chief!" shouted Leon, getting up and slamming his hands on the chief's desk. "You can't pull me off this case! We can bow to GENOM every time a crime touches them! How can we call ourselves cops if we do that!?"

Chief Matsui scowled at Leon, while the stranger just sat back calmly.

"If you would listen to what I have to say before going off half-cocked, McNichol, you'd know that you're NOT being pulled off the case."

Leon stopped dead. "I'm not?"

"No. In fact, we're giving you some help on this case."

"Help?" asked Leon, still shocked by this unexpected turn of events.

"Yes. This man," the chief nodded toward the stranger, "will be taking part in your investigation. I think that his expertise will prove most valuable."

"Expertise?" asked Leon, cursing the fact that he sounded like an echo. "Expertise in what? I already have a partner--"

"No, he'll just be along to advise you. You're still partnered with Daley Wong."

"Then who--"

"Allow me to introduce myself," said the stranger suddenly in a calm and quiet voice. "I am Chief Kiichi Goto, Metropolitan Guard, Special Vehicle Command 2, Second Unit... retired," he added with a small smile. "Pleased to meet you."

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2034

16:30

 

"Fargo, you know I don't like daytime meetings," Sylia said crossly to the blond man in the rumpled suit who sat next to her in the small cafe.

Fargo lit another of his cheap cigarettes and met her gaze calmly. "This couldn't wait, Sylia."

Sylia sighed and sat back in her chair. "What do you have for me?"

"It has to do with the Distribution Center mess that GENOM is trying to cover up."

Sylia considered her menu idly, and spoke as if she was commenting on the wine selection. "That was just another example of GENOM's carelessness. A boomer going rogue--"

Fargo interrupted her. "The evening after the incident, a pair of GENOM security boomers attacked an apartment in District 3 belonging to a certain Mr. Jim Ashima. Formerly employed as a cargo hauler by GENOM."

Sylia just looked at Fargo.

"The point of this is, Sylia, that Mr. Ashima was on the graveyard shift the night of the explosion. According to my sources, he should have been at the Distribution center delivering boomers when it was destroyed. Now he has mysteriously lost his job and GENOM is trying to kill him."

Sylia considered this. "So he saw something they are trying to cover up?"

Fargo shrugged. "It's a possibility. GENOM doesn't target every low echelon truck driver it lets go for assassination. I figured anything they didn't want revealed might be useful."

Sylia considered her options. Fargo was, in the terminology of the streets, a Fixer. He arranged deals and made sure that people with a demand got connected with people who had a supply. The semi-legality of his profession never seemed to bother him much.

"This is hardly something we can handle, Fargo. Can you do something about it?"

Fargo grinned tiredly. "Already got some of my people making discreet inquiries. If he's still alive, I'll find him and get him to safety."

"Good." The next came grudgingly. She did not exactly -like- the man, but she respected his professionalism. "I think you may be right this time. Something big could be going on."

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2034

17:00

 

Linna picked up Vision around five o'clock and they drove out to MegaTokyo's Chinatown to grab a bite to eat.

"Are you sure this a good place?" Vision asked as they pulled up in front of a small, dingy, eating establishment.

"Sure! I've been here before," replied Linna, getting out of the car. "The food's pretty good and the prices are right. Just don't expect too much from the staff. Last time I was here with Irene--" Linna bit her lip. She had forgotten that she and Irene had eaten here the night she died.

Vision either ignored the comment or hadn't heard it, so Linna continued. "Anyway, come on in!"

Moments later the pair had ordered their dinners and were talking in a corner booth.

"So, have you lived in MegaTokyo all your life, Linna?" asked Vision.

"No, but my parents moved here when I was really young. I don't really remember living anywhere else." Linna smiled slightly. "If my father had his way, though, I wouldn't have seen much outside his dojo, though."

"Your father runs a dojo? What sort?"

Linna's smile faded. "Ran. Both he and my mother died several years ago."

Vision looked stricken. "Oh, Linna... I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

"No, that's OK. It was a while ago, and I've sorta gotten used to it by now."

"How did they--?" Vision paused. "If this is too personal, I under--"

"No, I don't mind talking about them." Linna paused and collected her thoughts as their food arrived. After taking a couple bites out of her lo mein, she continued.

"My father was a master at jujitsu and kendo. He had devoted his entire life to mastering those arts. Some people said he might have gone further, but he met my mother, and they fell in love.

"I was the only child they ever had. My mother had a difficult time in childbirth, so the doctors told her it would be best if she didn't have any more children."

Linna smiled warmly as she sorted through her memories. Vision felt a little envious of her friend. Her own parents had died when she was very young. Irene hadn't remembered them at all, but Vision did, and she wished she could have known them better.

"Father was very strict," continued Linna, "but he loved me. I could tell. He drilled me in self-defense from almost as soon as I could walk."

"So that's why you're such a good fighter!"

"That's part of it. I was also a dancer and studied gymnastics for several years. But that comes later.

"Mama was an activist. I forget exactly what she stood for, except that she felt very strongly about an individual's rights against the corporations. She worked out of home, most of the time, so I was with my parents a lot when I wasn't at school."

"That must have been nice..." said Vision, trailing off as she silently wished her family life had been as good.

"It had its drawbacks. When I went on my first date, Father insisted on meeting the boy while he was sparring." Linna giggled. "Poor Hikaru. He nearly fainted when he saw my father pummeling his partner."

Vision laughed. "Grandfather was the same way, except he would meet them in his office with one of his meanest-looking bodyguards standing behind him. As a result, my dates were very well behaved." Vision smiled. "Even if that proved a little frustrating at times." Linna burst out laughing.

The two ate quietly for a few minutes. Then Linna continued. "Father wanted me to go to business school, so that I would be able to live well. He once told me he wished I could take over the dojo. I was one of his best students, he said." Linna smiled at the remembered praise. "He wasn't very demonstrative, my father, but that just made it all the more special when he did something for me or my mother."

"Why couldn't you take over the dojo?"

"Well, unfortunately, Japan is still rather conservative about some things, and the martial arts community is even more so," said Linna with a frown. "Father knew that it would be an uphill battle for me to take over the dojo, and didn't want me to go through that. So I went to school and studied hard. I was at the top of my class. Then the Quake came."

"And your parents--"

"No. We made it through the Quake." Linna shuddered, remembering that horrible time. The ground rolling underneath her feet like a storm-tossed ocean, buildings collapsing on themselves, people running and screaming in the streets.

"We were lucky, actually... Father's dojo survived pretty much intact. He and his students organized rescue parties and helped search for people trapped in the wreckage of buildings. Mama and I stayed in the dojo and helped some Red Cross workers set up a field hospital."

Linna's eyes clouded over as she looked back at that time in her life. Vision noticed this with concern. She was sure that Linna had seen some terrible things, things young girls shouldn't be subjected to....

 

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2025

14:59

 

Linna sat, her eyes wider than they had ever been in her thirteen years of life. People, covered in blood and dirt, were being frantically worked on by Red Cross doctors right here, in the middle of her family's dojo.

The Quake had done its best to break Tokyo into a thousand pieces. When the shaking had finally stopped, Linna had looked outside her window to see a wasteland. None of the familiar buildings on her street were left standing. Instead, she saw devastated, crumbling buildings, some leaning against each other like trees that had been broken by the wind.

Somehow, her home had survived mostly intact, though Linna doubted there was an unbroken pane of glass anywhere in the house.

"We're losing him! Shock him, now!"

"CLEAR!"

Linna looked over at the frantic Red Cross people as they struggled to save someone's life. The futility of their efforts soon became evident to even her eyes, but they kept trying, driven to desperation by the horrors they had seen.

"Yuriko?" came a deep, quiet voice.

Linna's mother looked up from where she was giving a patient water. Linna's father stood in the door, his gi covered with dirt and soot. Behind him, several of his students were carrying makeshift stretchers.

"Hiromi!" exclaimed Linna's mother. She looked at the stretchers. "Put them over there," she said, pointing to the last empty stretch of floor.

"One needs immediate attention, Yuriko." Linna noted that her father's voice was lower than normal, and that he kept glancing her way. Was something else wrong?

"Doctor! Doctor, over here!" Yuriko called to the head of the Red Cross team. He was a tall, thin man with long brown hair, tied back in a pony-tail, and round glasses. He seemed very, very tired. Blood and dust covered his clothes. Linna's father took him over to a makeshift stretcher as Linna watched, curious.

Her father and the doctor huddled over the stretcher, the doctor working intensely on whoever was in it. But his movements were lackluster, as if he knew the result was unavoidable.

After several minutes, he spoke. "I'm sorry. If we could get her to a real hospital, she would have a chance. As it is, I don't even have the drugs to make her passing easy..." The doctor's voice was numb. Far too many patients had died today, and the pain of it all had gotten so great, he barely felt it... it just was.

Linna could now see their patient and gasped. It was Hana, one of her best friends. Her chest was covered in bloody bandages, and bits of red froth covered her mouth. Her breathing had a gurgling sound to it. Though Linna couldn't know it, Hana's lungs were slowly filling with blood, drowning her. The worst of it were Hana's eyes, open and glazed over by great pain

"F-father...?" stammered Linna.

Linna's father looked at Linna quietly. "I'm sorry, Linna... there's nothing we can do to help her." His face seemed sadder than Linna had ever seen it. She noticed, for the first time, lines running down his cheeks from his eyes in the dirt covering his face. Her father? Crying?

Linna just stood in shock, noting in a distant way that Hana was looking at her now, her face full of pain. While her father and the doctor talked, Linna reached out a hand and took Hana's. She squeezed it gently, and was gratified when her friend squeezed back, a small hint of a smile crossing her face.

Linna looked up at her father, who was getting ready to go back out to look for more survivors. When he saw her and Hana, a look of pride crossed his face, warring with the sadness. He came over to Linna and whispered, "Keep Hana company, Linna. She'll be happier, knowing you're with her." With that, he left Linna and her friend alone.

It took Hana a horribly long time to die.

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2034

17:15

 

Linna was silent for a while before continuing. "The city was a long time recovering from that quake, Reika.... GENOM's talk about rebuilding the city was right on the money. So many people were dead, and so many more had lost their homes, their jobs, their friends and relatives.... GENOM was the first there with aid. They flew in supplies, set their boomers to work in building shelters and rescuing survivors... No one cared about the price we would have to pay for that aid. We learned, when the first rogue boomers appeared... My parents--" Linna stopped, unable to continue. THe grief and helpless rage of those events still haunted her.

Linna's voice sounded uncharacteristically bitter to Vision and she said, "I didn't know you hated them so much...."

Linna blinked. "Oh, I don't hate them. I leave that to Priss." She smiled briefly. "What I don't like is the way GENOM abuses its power, and the methods they use to get it." Linna threw up her hands in disgust. "I'm not even sure why we do it anymore, except..."

"Except?" Vision asked.

"If we don't, who will?"

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2034

22:00

 

"Right this way, Mr. Larson!" said the construction foreman as he led the dark-suited man toward the main construction shack. Around them, construction boomers and their human overseers worked feverishly on the new GENOM Product Control Center (GPCC for short.)

Brian Larson watched the activity coldly, his oddly mismatched gold and silver eyes glittering faintly with reflected light. Aside from his eyes, there was nothing extraordinary about him. Anyone looking at him would see just another executive with short brown hair, a thin wiry body and a face that, while not handsome, was striking in a certain way.

But the man carried himself like a king, his body language showing nothing but contempt for those around him. His face was impassive, and no one present could look him in the eye for very long. There was something not quite human about him, they thought.

They were right. Larson was not human, but rather a highly sophisticated boomer whose AI had been modeled after a former GENOM Executive named Brian J. Mason. Mason had died facing the Knight Sabers two years previously. While possessing all of Mason's memories, skills, and ambitions, he no longer thought of himself as Mason, instead choosing a new name, one befitting his new identity. Brian J. Mason was only a fading memory.

Only Largo remained.

Largo strode into the construction shack, closely followed by his hulking Bu-67a bodyguard. The site foreman jumped to his feet as he recognized his visitor.

"Mr. Larson! Wh-what a surprise to see you here..." he said, his words trailing off as Largo looked at him. For almost a minute, Largo coldly evaluated the man.

"You are seventeen days behind schedule, Mr. Karn," he finally said in a toneless voice. "I am here to find out why."

"S-sir, Mr. Anderson--"

"Anderson has been terminated," Largo stated, a small smile touching his lips briefly. The way he said "terminated" implied something beyond Anderson being fired. Anderson had been the executive vice-president in charge of rebuilding GPCC. "So don't hold on to any hopes of him saving you. I want you to tell me now, in detail, why you are behind. And then, if I let you keep your job, we will discuss how you will get back on schedule."

"Y-yes, sir!"

 

His meeting with the foreman complete, Largo took a few minutes to look over the unfinished GPCC building. He walked among the unfinished walls, and floors, one part of him noting details about the construction while the rest of him considered other matters.

Anderson had been sloppy, Largo noted. He had barely covered his tracks when he diverted funding and supplies from GPCC to his pet projects. And when the Distribution Center fiasco came up--

Largo frowned to himself. The destruction of a GENOM Distribution Center a few days earlier still bothered him. The situation had been made worse by Anderson's incompetent handling of the affair, which had exposed his other activities to Largo.

When Anderson had received the first spotty reports from the center, he had ordered a complete lock down on information concerning it. The fool had even destroyed any intact memory circuits from boomers at the site and ordered the deaths of the only surviving witnesses. He had been sure that the destruction had been caused by a defective boomer, one resulting from his skimming, and had not wanted any evidence that might have implicated him to be found.

Could one of the other Special Assistants to the Chairman have been pulling Anderson's strings? Largo wondered. Anderson was a drone by temperament. He couldn't have risen as far as he had without backing. And Chaiman Quincy collected people with unique abilities, giving them in positions of authority like the one he had given to Largo. One and all, they were ambitious, cunning, and ruthless.

The trail of incompetence he had followed had ended at Anderson, but that did not mean that Anderson had been the end of it. Any one of the others could have been behind it, using Anderson as a puppet/scapegoat. Or Anderson might have exceeded his authority and been discarded, with no ties left between the puppet master and the puppet.

Leaving me to sniff around looking for the true culprit with almost no clues! growled Largo to himself. Even the damned ADPolice might know more about this than we do!

Largo glared toward the distant bulk of the GENOM Tower, thinking of the man who would use him, Largo, as a hound. Chairman Quincy had brought him back after his last defeat at the hands of the Knight Sabers, and now kept him dancing at the ends of puppet strings.

I make my own destiny, Old Man, my own future! And soon, you won't be in either!

 

Just a few hundred feet beyond the GPCC site the waters of Tokyo Bay lay quiet beneath the grey night sky. A faint murmur started to be heard above the lapping of the waves, slowly deepening into a low rumble that caused nearby structures to vibrate in response.

 

Largo turned and looked toward the bay, his sensitive hearing detecting an anomalous noise. Frowning, he attempted to isolate it.

That sounds like an engine of some sort... he thought to himself as he localized the noise. It's out over the bay, approximately... 100 meters up? His frown deepened to an outright scowl as he activated his uplink protocol.

<Accessing MegaTokyo Airport database... no flight plans on file. Accessing MegaTokyo JSDF database... no flight plans on file. Accessing Radar Tracking... no unauthorized air traffic detected.>

Nothing? thought Largo. That implies a sophisticated cloaking device. One last option.

<Accessing Satellite Reconnaissance... No authorization. Link closed. Exiting.>

Largo ground his teeth in frustration. Quincy had made certain that he no longer had any access to the orbital laser satellites that circled the globe. All that power so tantalizingly close, yet beyond his reach...

The noise grew louder. Largo walked swiftly in the direction of the bay and looked out over the water. For several seconds there was nothing but the low rumbling sound.

Then, without warning, five black humanoid figures, each about 25 feet tall, dropped beneath the clouds. Huge, delta-shaped wings sprouted from their backs, where a powerful plasmajet sent the figures toward the GPCC site at an astounding velocity.

For a second Largo refused to believe what he was seeing. It was just a momentary hesitation, but it almost proved costly as the five giants suddenly launched dozens of missiles from shoulder-mounted launchers. Spiraling lazily, the missiles roared into the site.

Huge, fiery explosions lit the night, their loud roars punctuated by the shrill screams of humans in pain and fear. Largo nearly fell to his knees as the unfinished GPCC building rocked.

<WARNING! Air-to-Ground Missile approaching! WARNING!>

Largo looked up in time to see a small, bright object rocketing toward him. His Bu-67a bodyguard ripped itself out of its skin and used its particle beam on the missile, detonating it several yards away. The blast flung it and Largo back, deeper into the unfinished building.

Largo growled, a fierce animal sound. I am Largo! he thought at his opponents. No matter what you are, you will not find me easy prey!

Largo reached out to his bodyguard.

 

Outside, the giants touched down just outside the construction site and began to make their way inside. Their massive arms reached toward the building, intent on tearing it down. The construction shack was smashed underfoot, reduced it to kindling, almost unnoticed by the giants. By now, most of the human workers had fled or been killed by the missiles. The construction boomers, without supervision, were harmless, and ignored.

That was about to change.

 

Largo gripped the head of his bodyguard tightly and his fingers burrowed into its armored skull. The boomer gave a silent scream as its AI was brutally violated by sophisticated programs. Largo closed his eyes and his mind joined with the machine.

<Fusion achieved. Accessing GENOM OverNet.>

Largo's vision suddenly expanded into a vast plane that seemed to stretch into infinity. In the center of it all stood a representation of GENOM Tower. From the Tower, brightly glowing strands, like a spider's web, stretched in all directions. The strands represented the OMS, OverMind Control System, the nigh-invulnerable over- program that shackled all boomers to GENOM's will.

Largo laughed and reached into the flow of the OMS. Its power flowed into him, filling him with a heady rush. This was the power he craved! The ability to control dozens, no, hundreds, no, THOUSANDS of boomers. To have them dancing at his strings. Snarling, he gave his commands.

 

The construction boomers at the GPCC suddenly stopped milling around aimlessly. Their eyes flashed red and, as one, they charged the giants assaulting the site. With a ferocity as unsettling as it was unexpected, they leapt at their enemies, attacking with construction tools or, in most cases, their bare hands.

The giants reeled backward in shock. One giant fell, a half-dozen boomers tearing at its leg, and three more boomers began clawing at its head and shoulders. Boomers dug their hands into the black armor and began peeling it away, while the giant flailed, its arms sweeping the boomers away, only to have them replaced by more.

The other giants were doing no better. They unleashed their weapons into the mob of boomers, lasers cutting the boomers in half, missiles scattering boomer parts everywhere. But more boomers just rose to take the places of the destroyed, and they fought like rabid animals.

Finally, one giant broke away, boomers still clinging to its arms and legs, and it leapt into the sky, the brute power of its plasmajet achieving what aerodynamics would have denied. Executing a tight spin, it flung the boomers into the bay. The other giants, their armor torn and crumpled, followed its example, except for one giant whose wings had been damaged. Two of its comrades grabbed it by its arms and hoisted it into the sky.

Largo exulted as his enemy ran. I am unstoppable, he thought, reaching deeper into the OMS, feeling the roar of its power fill him. YES!

[UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS -- PURGE PURGE PURGE]

Suddenly the power turned to agony. Throughout the construction site, boomers fizzled and sparked as the OMS burned them out. The program wiped their minds and burnt out their AIs permanently. GENOM allowed no dissension.

Largo howled as the power burned him, trying to destroy his mind. He flailed backwards, tearing his hand out of his bodyguard's skull. The bodyguard exploded a second later, its own power core forced into an overload by the OMS.

For several seconds, Largo lay still. Then, slowly, he got unsteadily to his feet. He looked at his hand, which was frozen in the shape of a claw, the false skin burned away from the metal skeleton. He grimaced.

<Right hand: 10% functional. Fusion systems: OFFLINE. Uplink Systems: OFFLINE. Intrusion Countermeasure System: OFFLINE. Estimated Time for Repairs: 21.3 hours>

All that power, and it had turned against him. Without the OMS codes, he could do no more than touch it, and that only at great risk. Still, the gamble had paid off, he thought. Whatever those things were, they are gone for now.

But WHAT were they? he thought to himself. Where did they come from?

And when will they be back?

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2034

22:30

 

"So, what shall we do next, m'lady?" Leon asked, performing a mock bow as he did.

Priss smiled weakly at Leon as they walked down one of the brightly lit strips that filled MegaTokyo. Lately Leon had been trying hard to keep her spirits up with a dizzying succession of dates, all of them aimed at getting her out and about. They had just spent a good amount of the evening going from one club to the next, moving so fast, Priss couldn't even remember the names of all of them.

She looked briefly down at the small diamond ring Leon had given her when he had proposed. Such a small, simple thing, she thought. I didn't think I would ever get married... Now look at me... and look at him.

Leon, while awaiting her answer, seemed more relaxed than she could remember him being. For once, his ever- present shades were tucked into his jacket pocket. He seemed so boyish without them.

"I don't know, Leon," she finally said. "Why don't we just head home?"

"Calling an end to our night together already?"

Priss grinned. "Now, I didn't say THAT, did I?"

Leon's smile grew wider, if that were even possible. Bowing again, he said, "M'lady's wish is my command. We shall--"

Leon's speech was interrupted suddenly by a faint beeping from his watch. He glanced at it irritably, knowing it was his emergency ADPolice pager.

"Duty calls?" Priss asked wryly.

"Duty calls," he agreed. "But I intend to take a rain check on that offer." He winked at her.

"What offer, Mr. ADPoliceman?" she said coyly, smiling at him. Leon chuckled as he led them back to his car.

As they were passing one of the alleyways that opened onto the street, several shadowy figures suddenly burst out of it and grabbed them, pulling them back into the shadows, away from the strip. Relaxed and off-guard, Priss and Leon were too surprised to struggle for one second, which was all their attackers needed to club them both over the head. Everything went black.

Priss, however, did not stay unconscious long, her augmented body recovering quickly. Opening her eyes slightly, she tried to see how bad off she and Leon were.

There were five of their attackers, she noted. Leon was just within her field of vision, but he seemed to be out cold. Priss waited, trying to see when would be the best time to fight back.

"OK, let's loot 'em and get out of here!" whined one of her attackers.

"Just a sec, just a sec," came a gravelly voice. "The girlie here ain't half-bad... maybe we could take her back?"

Priss gritted her teeth at that. With an effort, she calmed herself. Patience, she thought. Leon's life as well as mine depends on it.

One of the thugs, she noted, was rifling through Leon's jacket. She almost winced when she saw him pull out Leon's ADPolice badge.

"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ! This guy's a cop!"

With the snick! of a switchblade opening, the gravelly voice answered. "Then we'll just have to make sure he don't talk, in case he saw us..."

Low murmurs filled the alley as some of the others started to protest. It could have been animals grunting for all the sense it made to Priss. These things were going to kill Leon! That thought was all that ran through her head. Gathering herself, Priss sprang at them.

 

Leon groaned and shook his head, and was immediately rewarded with a spike being driven through his head. Or at least that was what it felt like. He moaned again and ran his hand up to feel his head for an injury. He idly noticed his hand was wet and sticky. Slowly, he opened his eyes and tried to focus on it to see why.

His hand was covered in blood.

That sight brought Leon back to his senses in a hurry. Once his eyes focused, he noted that his hand wasn't the only thing covered with blood. His pants, jacket and shirt were also splattered, and the alley looked as if a red paint bomb had exploded. Leon took a deep breath and nearly gagged on the fetid air. Fortunately, none of the blood seemed to be his.

Priss! came the thought. Where was she?! Leon staggered to his feet, using the wall of the alley for support and stumbled down the alley, looking for Priss.

He found her behind a dumpster. She was kneeling, facing a blood (and worse) splattered wall, slowly rocking back and forth. Her arms, Leon dimly noticed, were covered in gore up to her elbows. Blood was splattered all over her body, but her face was almost untouched, save for a smear on her cheek.

"Priss?" Leon said hesitantly.

Priss swung around, leaping to her feet faster than he thought possible. She was moving into an attack stance as he watched, her eyes dull and lifeless, Leon noted with horror. He had seen that look before, in cyberpsychos when they had gone completely over the edge.

Priss's hand stopped just short of Leon. Blinking, as if she were waking up from a trance, her eyes looked at him in confusion. "Leon?" she said, in a quavering voice. "How did I--?" She looked down at herself, at the blood...

Priss started to scream. Loud, horrible cries that Leon had never heard the like of before. She sank to the ground, her hands flying to her face, clawing at it. Leon grabbed her hands and tried to stop her, but her augmented strength was too much. She clawed at her face, still screaming.

"Priss!" Leon shouted. "Priss, stop it! Please!"

As if on cue, Priss fainted, the shock of everything too much for her to handle. Leon caught her sagging body, trying to ignore the ruin she had made of her face. He fumbled inside her jacket, looking for the little communicator all the Knight Sabers carried. Finding it and flicking it on, Leon turned on the emergency distress beacon Priss had shown him once, and sat back, cradling her in his arms, hoping Sylia or Linna showed up before the police did.


Howdy!

Well, time for another installment of the series. I'm amazed that I'm keeping with my self-imposed deadline of one installment a month, but here it is. Let's hope I can do as well with AoL4.

Some of you may be wondering how long this story is going to be. Well, I'm wondering that, too. _Angel of Darkness_ ran five parts and I had planned that from the start. However, I feel that AoD was a bit rushed, so I'm trying to take my time and get things right. Also, while I have an idea of how the story will go, I don't know the particulars until I sit and write them. So, that means that AoL will be finished when it's finished... and I hope you enjoy the ride.

Well, some of you have guessed the other anime I worked in (and after AoL2, I didn't think it was very difficult anymore.) For those of you who don't know, I am mixing in some of the characters and elements of _Patlabor_ into BGC. I was introduced to Patlabor over the summer and was suddenly struck with the idea that the histories of PL and BGC could be compatible. This story does explain my reasoning as it goes along.

So, you Patlabor fans out there, I hope you enjoy what I do with the old familiar characters... some of them have changed and others haven't, but change is part of life.

If you haven't seen Patlabor, I hope you won't be too confused. I think that I am explaining things as I go along well enough (or I will explain later). Basically, the giant robots and Chiefs Goto and Matsui are from Patlabor. We'll see another Patlabor character introduced in this chapter.

Well, enough rambling. As always, comments and questions are welcome at rogue1@netcom.com. Parts 1 and 2 are available at Zoner's FTP site: ftp.std.com. They are in the directory /archives/anime-fan-works/BGC under the file bgc.angel.light. If you can't get them from there, mail me and I'll supply you with a copy.

Rogue1 04/26/95

Bubblegum Crash!

Angel of Light

 

Chapter 3

 

"When most people think of GENOM, they think of a single, though gigantic, corporate entity. Most of them do not realize the scope of the GENOM family. In Japan, GENOM either owns outright or has interest in most corporations above the single-store retail level. If you live in Japan, and especially in MegaTokyo, it's almost impossible to do business without interacting in some manner with GENOM."

"But GENOM is not alone. It competes with several other 'mega-corporations' that rival it in size and power. While GENOM holds the preeminent position, it does so only by adhering to an age-old rule: Always watch your back."

The Age of GENOM

Steve Nealson

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

09:35

 

"--and that is our position. I believe this joint project will prove most profitable to both our companies." With that, Mr. Wilhelm Godhardt, Executive Vice President for Special Projects of SCHAFT Enterprises, sat back down in his chair.

Godhardt was in one of the many conference rooms located on the top floor of the GENOM tower. At the far end of the conference table, in front of several large windows sat three men. Squinting slightly against the morning sunlight, Godhardt watched the oldest, a craggy-faced man with his gray hair carefully slicked back from his forehead. He was Masada Quincy, Chairman of GENOM.

To Quincy's left sat a distinguished-looking man, his once-black hair cut short and neat. He seemed to be in good shape, but his age was beginning to show.

The third man, seated at Quincy's right, was the youngest of them by far. He was a compact American with a slightly sloppy appearance. Nothing overt, just several small things that made him seem slightly less groomed than the other two. Through the man's brown hair Godhardt could make out the shiny metal of a cyberjack rig and barely repressed a shudder.

Godhardt felt the urge to flinch when Quincy turned his gaze on him and fought it back. Showing a weakness was never advisable at the negotiations table.

"An interesting offer, Godhardt-san," Quincy rumbled finally. He turned to the distinguished- looking man on his left. "Shinohara-kun, what is your opinion?"

Godhardt shifted his gaze to the President of Shinohara-Toyohata Heavy Industries, a GENOM subsidiary of GENOM, and mentally reviewed what he knew of the man. Asuma Shinohara had made a name for himself back in 2027 when he had merged Shinohara Heavy Industries with its former rival, Toyohata Industries and allowed GENOM to buy out the company while retaining control over day-to-day operations. Quite a feat considering GENOM's propensity for swallowing smaller companies.

"Mr. Godhardt's proposal is... intriguing, Quincy- sama," began Shinohara and Godhardt's eyes narrowed. There was an undercurrent of hostility he did not like. Then again, the man had been a lieutenant in the Special Vehicles Command 2, so perhaps he still held an old grudge or two toward SCHAFT. Shrugging inwardly, Godhardt tuned back into the conversation.

"We can handle our end of the deal, the basic AI and musculature of the boomer. But, while SCHAFT's work in joints and articulators is revolutionary, I feel obligated to point out their company track record."

Godhardt felt his anger begin to rise. He gritted his teeth and sat back in the chair, trying not to let his ire show.

"They have been known to take on larger projects than they can handle and this led to the closing of their Japanese branch offices in 2024," Shinohara continued, apparently taking no notice of Godhardt's reaction.

Closing! thought Godhardt furiously. They had been all but chased out of Japan by GENOM! An upstart company that hadn't even existed before the turn of the century! Godhardt had only been in the middle management of SCHAFT when GENOM had risen to ascendancy in Japan, but the resentment and anger had lingered in the corporate memory.

"Thank you, Shinohara-kun. You raised several fine points," Quincy said, his voice giving no sign of whether he agreed with his subordinate. Shinohara sat back down, carefully not looking at Godhardt. Quincy turned to the other man. "Kelly-san, what are your views?"

Dixon Kelly nodded politely to Quincy. "Quincy- sama, the situation is not quite as bleak as Shinohara- san would like to think."

Shinohara made as if to interrupt, then stopped himself. Kelly was one of the Chairman's Special Assistants, and, as such, had no defined position in the GENOM hierarchy. However, they were handpicked by the Chairman and could invoke his authority, so no one crossed them without good cause.

"While SCHAFT's track record is, I'll admit, not without its blemishes, it does have the resources to keep its side of the proposed deal. Since Shinohara- san has just confirmed that he can cover our part, I see no problems with agreeing to the proposal. The terms, as you can see, are quite generous."

Kelly sat back and looked idly at Shinohara, who refused to meet his gaze. Instead, he looked at the Chairman. Finally, Quincy began to speak.

"Godhardt-san, I think we require a little more time to consider your proposal. We will meet again this afternoon."

Godhardt smiled and nodded. He went through the normal pleasantries and left the room, the door closing behind him with an audible click.

After the door closed behind Godhardt, Quincy turned to Kelly.

"Kelly-san, I expect to see the figures you based your conclusion on within the hour."

"Yes, Quincy-sama," Kelly replied without hesitation and headed for the door. Shinohara was preparing to do the same when Quincy turned to him.

"Shinohara-kun, stay for a few minutes, please." It was not a request.

Kelly's pace faltered a little. He almost looked back but shook his head and continued out the door. When Quincy tells you to do something, you better do it.

"Yes, Quincy-sama?" Shinohara asked, after the doors closed behind Kelly.

"I am... disappointed that you chose to raise that point in front of Godhardt. It showed a... lack of tact." Quincy's voice was level, but there was a hint of steel in it.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I still think this deal is too good to be true. I've looked at the same figures as Kelly, and it's true that they have the resources he claims. That's the point, though. They don't need us in this deal, yet they come to us offering it on a silver platter."

Quincy considered that. "You raise valid points, Shinohara-kun, but the final decision for this rests with me. Do not belabor your arguments. I will keep them in mind as I decide." The steel was more evident than ever in Quincy's voice.

"Yes, sir," Shinohara replied.

 

Outside the GENOM Tower, Godhardt got inside his limo and spoke to the man beside him.

"I meet with them again this afternoon. They're still debating the offer."

Colonel Johann Hineman, looking every inch a soldier in his dark crimson SCHAFT Security Systems uniform, nodded curtly. He respectfully removed his red beret as Godhardt sat next to him, showing his short grey-blond hair.

"Does it look like they'll be making a decision soon, sir?" he asked, a touch of contempt tingeing his tenor voice as he said sir. Godhardt didn't notice.

"Possibly. But it doesn't matter whether they agree or not at this stage, does it? We've already gotten what we want out of this trip."

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

10:05

 

Vision knocked again on the door to Nene's apartment and waited impatiently, fighting off a yawn. Linna had run her ragged again this morning and she had to bump a rehearsal to meet Nene for part of her training. And now it seemed that Nene wasn't even home!

The door cracked open to reveal a very sleepy looking Nene, clad in a bathrobe. Her eyes flew open when she saw Vision.

"Ohmigosh! I overslept! I'm so sorry, Vision!" Nene ushered her guest into her room and then ran around, trying to clean the place up.

"Uh, that's OK, Nene. I..." Vision trailed off as Nene ran around her, picking various items off the floor and furniture and stuffing them out of sight. The apartment was a nice one, Vision reflected. Roomy for one person, very bright and airy, and rather... disorganized. Magazines, most of them on computers, lay about and most had pages marked with little yellow post-it notes. Posters of various bands decorated the walls, including a rather large one proclaiming the Vision and the Revengers 2033 MegaTokyo concert, Vision noticed wryly. Vision also noted a large CD collection and a very sophisticated computer set up.

Nene finally stopped her frantic cleanup. "I'm sorry I wasn't ready, Vision... I set my alarm and everything--"

"It's OK, Nene... I understand. It's your day off and all." Vision smiled and mustered what enthusiasm she could. "So, what are we doing, anyway?"

Nene's manner went all professional, despite her disheveled hair and bathrobe. "Sylia wants me to acclimate you to our VROS."

"VROS?"

"Virtual Reality Operating System. The hardsuits are controlled through," Nene mimicked Sylia regal tones, "'a combination of kinesthetics and manipulation of a virtual computer interface.'" She then broke into the giggles and Vision joined in.

"So, what do we have to do?" Vision asked.

"Well, my computer here is hooked up with Sylia's. I'm going to kludge up a few programs here for you and then we'll go over to Raven's and run you through the simulator there."

"Why didn't you just have me meet you there?"

"Well... I like using my computer for this... Sylia won't let me customize the big one as much as I'd like and... well, Priss is in the infirmary over there. She and Leon were attacked last night... I don't know all the details, but Sylia didn't want us over there this morning."

"That's awful! Are they all right?"

"Sylia said Leon was OK..."

"What about Priss?"

"Uh, she didn't say anything. Just made some excuses and hung up." Nene looked troubled for a minute, then turned toward her computer. "Anyway, let's get started!"

"Uh, how long will this take, Nene?"

"Oh, no more than a couple of hours."

Vision groaned, seeing her schedule flying out the window again.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

11:46

 

Priss awoke slowly, and tried to open her eyes. Nothing but darkness greeted her and she felt a momentary stab of fear in her chest. The fear grew when she tried to bring her hand to her face and found herself tightly restrained. She pulled at the restraint as hard as she could and felt it begin to give when a familiar voice spoke up.

"Don't try to move, Priss," Leon said, comfortingly. "Here, I'll get the bandage off your face."

She heard something ripping and a moment later a heavy bandage was lifted from her eyes. She blinked at the sudden explosion of light and colors that slowly resolved into Leon's face.

Looking around, she saw that she was strapped down on a bed in the small infirmary Sylia had installed at Dr. Raven's Garage for the Knight Sabers. Leon, with a five o'clock shadow and looking like he had not slept in days, was hovering over her worriedly.

"Leon, you look like hell," Priss croaked, startled at how raspy her voice sounded.

"You don't look so hot yourself, Priss," Leon said gently. "How do you feel?"

"Like hell. Why am I tied down? What happened? I remember... I-I don't remember..." Her memory of the night before was a total blank, starting right after she and Leon had been attacked. She felt vaguely nauseous just thinking about it.

"Take it easy... just start at the beginning. What exactly -do- you remember, Priss?" Leon asked guardedly. He started releasing the restraints, though as he spoke. Priss was glad to feel them loosen. She had felt like a trapped animal in them.

"We were attacked and dragged into an alley... you were out cold, they were going to do something..."

--a knife, blade flashing in the streetlight... Blood covered-bricks... a squelching sound, something soft under her fingers--

Priss screwed her eyes closed against the riot of images and sensations that suddenly exploded in her mind. They faded slowly, but she felt them, lurking in the back of her mind. "What happened, Leon?" she finally asked, looking up at him again.

"Priss... I--"

"Dammit, what happened?!"

Leon looked uncomfortable. "When I came to, the punks who grabbed us were all... dead."

Priss's head fell back against her pillow. She couldn't have done that, could she?

--hands covered in blood, bones snapping under her grip--

Priss moaned. "Leon..."

"Yes, Priss?"

"I killed them, didn't I?"

Leon hesitated before replying, but there was only one answer he could give. "Yes."

 

Leon stepped out of the small infirmary in Dr. Raven's Garage and met Sylia's gaze. Sylia looked almost worried and that surprised him. She rarely let any emotion show, especially around him, an outsider. He took out a cigarette and lit it.

"How is she?" asked Sylia.

"Physically, she seems OK," Leon began, looking away. "She's resting now. Her eyes have healed... I was worried..." Leon's voice trailed off.

Sylia actually shuddered. Priss had torn her face up pretty badly before she had finally collapsed. She had apparently been trying to rip her eyes out of their sockets, trying to erase the memory of what she had seen.

"What..." Sylia paused to take a deep breath. "What do you intend to do, Inspector McNichol?"

Leon looked down at his feet. "I don't know what I can do... I don't particularly care about those five. Every last one of them was a murderer, rapist, or convicted felon, but... the law's the law... I'll have to report that Priss and I were witnesses. And if I tell them what I saw, it's not going to go well for Priss."

Sylia nodded. "Of course, you didn't actually see Priss... do that."

"It won't matter. Once the prosecutor knows she's a cyborg, he'll play the psychosis angle for all its worth... at best, she'll wind up in an institution."

Sylia led Leon toward the door as they both headed out. She frowned. "We will deal with that when the time comes. I don't see what else we can do right now."

"True, I--"

Leon was cut off as the door to Raven's garage banged open. (The spring needed work, but with Mackie in Germany, more and more of the trivial maintenance work was left undone.) Vision was led inside by Nene, who yelped when she saw them.

"Sylia! Leon! You scared me," she exclaimed with a little laugh.

"Hiya, Nene-chan, Miss Vision," Leon said with his patented smirk and a wink. He shook hands with Vision while Nene turned to Sylia.

"How's Priss doing?"

"She's sleeping right now," Sylia replied. "I take it that you're here to show Vision the Operating System?"

"Yup!"

"Well, don't disturb Priss. She needs her rest."

"Well, I need to get back to ADPHQ," Leon stated, putting on his shades. "No rest for us dedicated public servant types. Right, Nene-chan?"

Nene blushed. "Uh... right."

With a smirk, Leon strolled out the door

Sylia followed him. Turning to Nene, she said. "You can have the mainframe until 7:00 this evening, Nene. I'll need it then, along with any data you and Vision compile.

"Don't worry, Sylia. This'll take me no time at all!"

 

"OK, Vision, we're set!" Nene crowed two hours later.

"Finally," mumbled Vision as she walked over to where Nene was working on the Knight Sabers' mainframe computer. Nene had spent the last two hours tapping away at keys, pausing only to ask Vision something. It had left Vision almost terminally bored.

"So, what do we do now?" she asked.

"Well, we put you in the simulator," Nene replied, pointing to a large frame that reminded Vision of the news clips she had seen of astronaut training. "We need to fine-tune your hardsuit OS and show you how to use it. Oh, here, you also need to wear the helmet and gloves," Nene said, handing Vision several items.

Vision looked at the helmet dubiously. It looked like a motorcycle helmet as rendered by a cubist. Sighing, she strapped herself into the frame and put it on.

"I can't see anything," she complained.

"Don't worry, I'll turn it on. It'll be a bit disorienting at first."

Suddenly Vision was almost blinded by a burst of light and sound. When she opened her eyes, she was greeted by a strange view.

The small computer room in Raven's Garage was replaced by a vast gray plane stretching off into infinity with an equally nondescript sky overhead.

"Strange, isn't it?" came Nene's voice from behind her.

Turning, Vision saw a familiar red and pink hardsuit that she knew belonged to Nene. It started to wave, and then stopped in mid-motion. "Oh, I forgot. Just a second..." The hardsuit shimmered and was replaced by Nene, dressed in a faintly luminescent bodysuit in the same colors as her hardsuit. "My fault. I usually use that icon when I'm on Saber business."

Vision shook her head and looked down at herself. She seemed to be garbed in the same bodysuit, only hers was all white.

"Now, don't move around too fast," Nene warned. "You can get pretty disoriented and we want to keep things simple for right now. The OS is learning from your movements so it can anticipate you, but we shouldn't overload it at first."

"I suppose that improves your reaction time in the suits?" Vision asked.

"Yes. You have to learn to be able to think through your movements as you go. Then the suit can anticipate and aid your movements. But you still have to move physically. We can't afford to be too dependent on software in combat."

Vision moved her real hand in front of her face and saw her virtual hand mimic the movement jerkily. She could see it and knew it was responding to her will, but it felt disconnected from her.

"It's... strange."

"You'll get used to it. Now, we'll do something fun first of all. Sylia wanted to know how you wanted your suit to look, so I thought we could work on that." Nene waved her hands in a theatrical manner and a plain, white hardsuit, designed much like Sylia's, appeared.

"Now," Nene continued, "this is a 'bare bones' hardsuit. No options, modular weapons, or paint job. We need to set about making it yours."

"How different can we make it?"

"Well, there are some limits, but as long as you don't get too fancy, there should be no problems."

Vision studied the suit. "Well, the head needs to be changed first. It looks too... forbidding."

Nene nodded. "OK, now come over here and shape the head the way you want it to look, as if it were clay. Try to keep a clear image of how you want it to look."

Vision tried it. Her virtual hands were clumsy at first, but she slowly got better at using them. It seemed that the more she worked with them, the easier they got to use. She mentioned this to Nene.

"That's the software adapting to you. I hardly need to 'mold' things anymore, because my software has gotten pretty good at interpreting what I want."

"How does it read your mind?"

"It doesn't, really. It's a biofeedback process. It's scanning your reactions, both your physical reactions and your brain waves, and assigning meanings to them. Right now, as you are using your 'hands,' it is monitoring what you are physically doing and matching that with its scans. It knows when it makes a mistake when you physically do something different from what it thought you were going to do. Like I said, it takes it a long time for it to get it right consistently."

"So, what would happen if I tried to use one of your suits?"

"If the suit didn't have your personal data loaded in, it would misinterpret your thoughts and you would be spending half your time fighting it. It's sort of an extra security measure."

Vision stepped back and looked at the new head. She had made the head a little more angular than the basic model and made the eye slit wider, giving the suit a, well, friendlier look, in her opinion.

"Looks good! Kinda like an old cartoon I saw once." Nene said, looking at it. "You know, one of those where the cars and planes turn into robots?"

Vision giggled slightly. "Well, maybe it's based a little on that... Now, we need to color this..."

Vision looked at the unfinished suit and then went to work. She didn't want her suit to be too much like the others, so she chose red and black as her primary colors. She colored the arms, legs, and torso a bright scarlet red, and left the joints black, creating the impression of red armor plates over a black bodysuit. The eyeslit she colored yellow, as a final touch.

"What do you think, Nene?"

"Cool! At least Priss and Linna won't kid you about it like they did with mine... though I don't see what's so terrible about using pink...."

"So, now what?"

"Well, we can work on the control systems... here, let's try your new suit on..."

Nene made a sweeping gesture and suddenly Vision was looking at the inside of a helmet.

"Wha--?"

"Don't worry. You're now inside a simulation of your suit. Take a look."

Vision looked at herself and saw that her icon did resemble the suit she had designed. "So what do we do?"

"Well, if you want to start slow, we can just have you walk around and try some simple maneuvers, or..." Nene let her sentence trail off challengingly.

"Or?"

"We can try a combat sim."

Nene was suddenly clothed in her own hardsuit and she stood there, looking arrogantly at Vision.

"Easy for you to say, Nene. This suit doesn't have any weapons yet."

"It's all part of Sylia's new modular design. We can put on some of the weapons she's designed for your suit and see how they work. She assumed, by the way, that you'd prefer a forward role, like Priss or Linna, rather than a support role like me or Sylia."

Vision nodded.

"OK, then she made up some weapons that I think you'll like. Let me just call them up and snap them into place."

Even as she spoke, silver-colored devices appeared in the air around Vision and clamped into place on her hardsuit. A large backpack-shaped device snapped onto her back, while smaller modules slipped into place on her forearms and shoulders.

"Great... I'm armed with weapons I have absolutely no idea how to use... why do I feel like I keep getting thrown in the deep end?"

"Because you are," Nene replied nonchalantly. Vision looked up and was a little disturbed to see Nene apparently sitting on the 'ceiling.' "Sink or swim, Vision... that's the name of Sylia's game. At least you have a few edges, like this combat sim, that we didn't have when we started out. Any questions before we begin?"

"Uh, yeah... which way is up? You're making me dizzy sitting there..."

Nene flickered and suddenly was sitting sideways, relative to Vision. "I am? Gee, I'm sorry. I'm pretty sure up was this way," she said, pointing up. Well, at her 'up.' Then she flickered again and was floating at an odd angle in mid-air. "Or maybe this way..."

Vision closed her eyes and shook her head.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

13:46

 

"Yo, Leon!" Daley shouted, running through the office toward his partner.

"Daley. How goes it?" Leon asked nonchalantly, trying to ignore his pounding headache. Ah, the joys of being clubbed in the back of the head, he thought wryly. "Where have you been? I've been playing catchup on YOUR paperwork for the last hour and a half."

Daley looked Leon's bruised face over. "Did you and Priss have a rough night last night?" he asked slyly.

Leon grimaced. "You could say that. What's new on the case?"

Now it was Daley's turn to frown. "Nada. No new leads that we can turn up. There was some sort of explosion over at the new GPCC building, but GENOM claims it was a propane tank. Man, it was a mess. Boomers were all over the place, totally fried. I paged you, but you didn't show. We just finished hunting through the wreckage a little while ago, trying to see if a rogue boomer might have done it."

"I was... busy," Leon evaded. "What about our expert?" he asked, a little derisively.

"He, uh, hasn't said much of anything, actually," Daley admitted sheepishly.

"Great, just fucking great... well, I still have this disk Nene-chan gave me yesterday... maybe it'll have something useful on it."

Daley looked at the disk. "If Nene-chan gave you that, why haven't we looked at it before?"

Because I forgot about it, Leon didn't say. "Because I was hoping to get out of paying for a week of desserts. Anyhow, let's take a look at it."

The two made there way to Daley's desk. Goto, Leon was disgusted to see, was apparently reading about the horse races.

"Excuse me," he began sarcastically. "But we may have something interesting for you to look over, Mr. Expert."

Goto barely looked up from his paper. "Oh?" he said mildly.

Leon slid the disk into his workstation and ran the file on it.

The screen lit up and music began to play over the workstation's speaker. It was obviously supposed to be stirring, uplifting music, but it was overdone and sounded tinny over Leon's poor quality speakers. The screen faded in to a picture of a short, russet-haired girl wearing a blue and orange uniform climbing into what appeared to be a large white robot with police lights located on its shoulders. The head of the robot had one large, flat antenna sticking up, making it look like a rabbit with a missing ear. On the side of its chest, just below the neck, was written "ALPHONSE" in large, block letters.

"Are you looking for a life of adventure and excitement?" began a narration. "Then join the dedicated officers of the Metropolitan Guard Special Vehicles Command 2!"

On the screen, the young girl disappeared into a cockpit of some sort in the robot's chest and it began to move. With exceptional grace, it began to fight several other giant robots, these painted a dingy grey. A giant rod, resembling a police billy-club, extended from underneath the large shield the white robot wore on its left arm. Grasping the rod, the white robot began to smash its opponents, sparks and bits of metal flying everywhere. "You, too, can pilot one of our special Patrol Labors as they help keep our city safe. Call 1-800-PAT-LABR for details!"

The giant robot on the screen turned and gave the camera a thumbs-up and the pilot's head popped out of a small hatch underneath the robot's head, grinning madly. The scene froze as Leon paused it.

"What was that, some kinda joke?"

"No," Goto said quietly. "Those machines were in service from, oh, about 1997 to 2015. Rather like boomers, I suppose, except for being 25 feet tall on the average."

"Their original job was to work on the Babylon Project, a plan to keep Tokyo Bay from rising due to global warming. Most of what they built before the project was scrapped was destroyed in the great quake."

"Now, hold on," Leon began heatedly. "How come I've never heard of these things?"

Goto settled back in his chair. "Most likely because the labor became smaller over the years. By 2010, the average height was around 12 feet. They were called powerframes or exoframes to differentiate them from their larger cousins. Since they were cheaper than the large models, they began to dominate the market."

"When Dr. Stingray created the boomer in 2022, he paved the way for the phase out of the labor," concluded Goto quietly.

"So, you think that whatever destroyed the distribution center was one of these?" Daley asked, pointing at the screen.

"No. Not that model. There were only three Shinohara AV-98 Ingrams produced and they were retired and sent to the scrap yard in 2015. But there were many other types. Some of the companies that made them are still around."

Daley tapped a few commands into the ADPolice Database. "Lessee, Nene-chan provided a list of labor companies... looks like most of them disappeared in 2022 or in the Quake. There's Shinohara-Toyohata Heavy Industries, now a GENOM subsidiary; Barumi Tech, now dealing almost entirely with computer software; SCHAFT Enterprises, but that's based in Germany... the rest, if they're still around, are all small-fry. I doubt they could pull this off."

"So, we have three major possibilities... and all of them unlikely ones," Leon summed up. "SCHAFT is too far away, Barumi is in the wrong field, and S-T is owned by GENOM."

Goto just rattled his paper as he read his paper. "Ah?"

Leon gritted his teeth. "This is awfully flimsy, Daley. We're working under the assumption that someone is using almost-forgotten technology to carry out a vendetta against GENOM. That's nuts!"

"Perhaps someone out there has a long memory... and is holding a grudge," offered Goto quietly.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

14:13

 

Sylia reached into her suitcoat and pulled out her cellular phone. It stopped beeping as she opened it up and spoke into it. "It's me."

"We have an interesting offer," came Fargo's voice. As a precaution, whenever they spoke over the phone no names or specifics were given.

"A job?" Sylia replied. She sat forward in her chair. She was in her office at the Silky Doll Fashion Center, her day-to-day business front and had worked through another lunch hour on balancing the quarterly figures. Sometimes she thought this was actually harder than designing a new hardsuit.

"No, not for your outfit. But someone is looking for people with certain... skills. Skills that your people are very good at."

Sylia frowned slightly. That could only mean suit operators.

"I take it this isn't a merc group?"

"No. This offer is strictly hush-hush. It took me a while to even make the connection. Mercs are flashier than this. I believe these people have something to do with our rival's problem."

By rival Sylia knew he meant GENOM.

"Are you sure?"

"Nothing is 100% positive, but it's mighty suspicious, especially since our rival had another accident last night. He's hiding it well, this time. I can't get any closer to this, but if you want to follow it up, I can put you in touch with the right people."

Sylia considered this. Fargo didn't have anyone who had their expertise with the hardsuits, so they couldn't take the job. But, on the other hand, the Knight Sabers were not in the best shape to handle this. Ordinarily, she would have sent Priss, but Priss was out of action for who knew how long. Nene was unsuitable for most undercover work, and her job at the ADPolice limited her effectiveness. That left Linna, but then the Knight Sabers would be at half-strength, even counting Vision. Sylia frowned, but she had very little else to go on at the moment.

"Alright, send me the details. I'll look into it. How goes your other project?" She meant the search for Jim Ashima.

"I'm still looking for the item you ordered, but it seems to be quite scarce, and in great demand these days. I'll probably need some more time."

"OK. It's important that you expedite that order."

"Understood." With a click, Fargo hung up.

Sylia sat back at her desk. She did not like it, but she would have to accelerate Vision's training. She had a feeling that things in MegaTokyo were coming to a head, and she had no evidence as to what was behind it. Leaning back in her chair, Sylia almost sighed before returning to her work.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

14:23

 

Inside the infirmary, Priss lay back in bed, staring at the ceiling. While her hearing had not been improved by the nanoids as much as her sight, she had been able to make out what Leon and Sylia had said before they left.

--at best she'll wind up in an institution--

She couldn't believe that she could have killed those thugs, but her memories, spotty as they were, agreed with Leon.

--wind up in an institution--

That couldn't be allowed to happen. Somehow, she had to get a grip on her life. Stop this downward spiral it had taken. How?

--institution--

Not here. She couldn't fix things here. Sweeping aside the bed covers and the loosened restraints, she grimaced. She had a faint memory of clawing at her own face, so she assumed that they had done this for her own protection. Now, she couldn't afford that.

She stumbled to her feet, bumping into a small tray. It fell to the floor, making far more noise than she liked. Priss froze for a minute, listening, but nothing came. Quietly, she stood shakily on her feet.

First things first, she thought, looking at the hospital gown they had put on her. I need some clothes and some money.

Padding quietly to the door, she opened it. It was unlocked and she made her way over to the clothing lockers she and the other Knight Sabers kept. Nene and Vision, she saw in passing, were busy on the simulators and their helmets kept them from seeing or hearing her.

Opening her locker, she swore silently. She had never gotten around to keeping spare clothes here, except for an extra motorcycle helmet, her hardsuit undergarment, and some exercise clothes, and a pair of boots, the locker was almost empty.

Almost but not quite, she grinned to herself. Reaching into the helmet, she pulled out a small sheaf of bills. Not a lot, but it was always useful to have a stash handy. Now, what to do about clothes?

As much as she hated to do it, she ended up raiding Linna and Nene's lockers. From Nene's she got a denim skirt and jacket, which were a little short on her, while Linna's yielded a clean white t-shirt.

Priss looked at herself in a mirror. It was not how she would usually dress, but it had a certain appeal... To some people, at least. The skirt was too short and tight--who would have thought that from Nene's clothes?--and the t-shirt was also tight. Priss snatched up her helmet and boots and quickly headed out into the garage proper.

Her luck still held, her motorcycle was there. She guessed Leon had brought it here for safe-keeping. Getting on it, she roared off into the city.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

14:30

 

Vision grunted as her suit slammed into the brick wall and shook her head groggily. A piercing alarm rang in her helmet, warning her of incoming fire and she desperately rolled to one side. A volley of missiles hit the spot she had just vacated, showering her with dust and debris.

True to her word, Nene had pulled no punches with her combat sim. They were in a devastated urban sprawl, based in part on MegaTokyo just after the Second Kanto Quake. Vision was reminded of what Linna had told her the other day about her childhood as she looked at the crumbling, leaning buildings.

She took off down the road, remonstrating herself as she ran. This was no time for that. She had to find a way to beat Nene.

Taking cover in a deserted tenement building, Vision called up a listing of her weapons on her helmet. It had taken her a little while to master how to get the various readouts in her helmet to work. She soon learned, however, that the cursor followed her eye movements and there were buttons she could trigger with her chin.

She cursed. Her forearm autocannon was nearly out of ammo and her energy weapons were drained. Nene had suckered her into thinking she could nail her from behind. But when Vision had tried to spring her ambush, Nene had turned it back on her.

Nene's hardsuit had produced some sort of jamming field that had misaligned Vision's autocannon targeting system. Vision had fired about half her ammo before she could correct. She wasn't used to the hardsuit, with its limited ammo payload and relatively weak weapons. Her old mecha had been larger and deadlier by far.

Still, she had to admit that the suit was as maneuverable as Nene had claimed. She had needed every bit of it to get away from Nene after the failed ambush.

A slight sound, the crunch of metal on loose stone caught Vision's attention. Nene was out there and looking for her. Maybe if she could get her sensors working, she could spot Nene and...

No good. I can't make head nor tail of this readout, she thought as she looked at the riot of detail on the inside of her helmet. Sighing, she shut down the display and listened.

The footsteps came closer. Nene must be coming up the street. There was a chance, Vision thought, that I can nail her when she comes even with this building.

Vision checked her ammo again. The energy weapons were still recharging. She would have to make do with the autocannon, unless she figured out one of these other devices.

No, she thought suddenly. These hi-tech gadgets Nene gave me are only fouling me up. Nene's an expert at tech, I need to fight her with something her suit can't help her against.

With a flex of her arm, Vision extended a 40- centimeter long blade from her forearm guard. The metal glinted dully in the dim light of the building.

The neck region of these suits is the weakest part, Vision recited to herself. If I can get Nene in a lock, this blade can be at her throat before she can move... I hope.

Nene came into sight then, walking down the street, with her suit antennae at full extension. Fumbling with the controls, Vision disconnected her suit's batteries. Instantly, she felt its weight settle around her body. It wasn't as heavy as it looked, but it would still slow her down. She would have to turn it back on before charging Nene, or else she wouldn't have a chance at grabbing her, let alone holding on to her. It would require split-second timing.

 

Nene grinned behind her helmet. This was so cool! Priss and Linna would never fight her in cyberspace anymore, ever since they learned that Nene's combat skills improved immensely when she knew a computer was behind it all. She felt far more comfortable where computers were concerned than she could ever feel in a real life combat situation.

She supposed for a moment that she was being unfair to Vision. After all, she had no idea how to use the suit and Nene had been using one for the last two years. Still, Sylia had told her that she wanted Vision truly tested and Nene was determined to do just that. She had had to fight long and hard to get Priss and Linna to accept her as a serious member of the Knight Sabers and she wasn't going to make it any easier on Vision.

Suddenly, her sensors pinged. A power source had suddenly appeared... behind her!

Nene spun around as quickly as she could, berating herself. She had been concentrating too much on looking for signs of Vision's suit and had neglected her infrared scans. Catching a glimpse of Vision charging her, blade outstretched, Nene began to wonder if it would be a fatal mistake.

The two hardsuit-clad warriors grappled in the middle of the devastated street. Vision had managed to partially grab Nene, but Nene's struggling made more difficult to get her blade in position than she had figured.

Nene watched the blade inch closer to her vulnerable neck. Knowing that she had very few options left, she activated a last resort weapon.

Two small booms swung up from the helmet of Nene's hardsuit and glowed briefly. Sparks played across the surfaces of both suits and they both fell over, Nene on top of Vision.

"Wha--?!" exclaimed Vision. All the systems in her suit were dead!

"EMP pulse, Vision," Nene said struggling to her feet. "Our suits are shut down until the computers can reboot. Unfortunately for you," she said as she extended her own blade manually (they had spring releases for these occasions) and held it to Vision's neck, "you don't have the time."

Vision eyed the blade. Nene had the leverage and could cut her throat open before she could make any move.

"Alright, I yield. You win."

"Yay!" Nene exclaimed, as the urban disaster area around them faded back into the now-familiar view of cyberspace.

Vision shook her head wondering, not for the first time, what she was getting herself into to.

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

17:15

 

"You wanted to see me, Sylia?" Linna asked as she entered the office of the Silky Doll.

"Yes, have a seat, Linna."

Linna sat in the chair opposite Sylia's desk and looked at Sylia in concern. Sylia looked pensive, almost worried, which meant something must be wrong.

"I have an assignment I want you to take. Normally, I'd have Priss handle it, but..."

Linna nodded, knowing that Priss was in no condition to handle a job at this moment.

"Fargo has gotten a line on the terrorists who attacked the GENOM Distribution center last week. They seem to be looking for people with certain skills."

"Certain skills?"

"They want people who know how to use powered armor, exoframes and the like."

Linna's eyes widened. "So you think they used something like that to destroy the center?"

"It looks likely. What I would like you to do, Linna, is to take advantage of this job offer to infiltrate their organization. We need more information on them before we can stop them."

Linna looked down at her hands nestled in her lap. This type of job was very dangerous, and that was one reason Priss usually got them. She had long since proven herself to be capable of handling a rough scene. On the other hand, if something wasn't done about the terrorists, then more people might get hurt...

"Ok," Linna said finally. "I'll do it. When do I start?"

"Fargo will arrange the contacts. It will take him a couple days to make the arrangements, but--"

Sylia's cellular phone rang, interrupting her. She took it out of her coat and opened it up.

"It's me." She listened for a minute, her face turning grave. "Understood. I'll see what can be done on my end."

Sylia hung up the phone and turned to Linna.

"What is it, Sylia?"

"That was Nene. She's over at Raven's, working with Vision. She just told me that Priss is gone."


Well, here it is. A little late, but I finished it: Chapter Four of Angel of Light.

I apologize in advance to all you action fans. There isn't much fighting in this one. Instead, I take the plot threads I've already woven into the story and stirred them up a little. Then, I added a few more to the mix. I hope you all enjoy it.

Previous chapters are available at Zoner's FTP site: ftp.std.com in the archives/anime-fan-works/BGC directory. If you can't access it, or can gunzip the files, just send me e-mail and I can send you the previous chapters.

 

Chapter 4

 

"What most people who study the phenomenon of the Knight Sabers fail to grasp is that the Knight Sabers never, at any point in the careers, worked in a vacuum. The stage was filled with far more characters than GENOM and the Knight Sabers. There was the much maligned ADPolice, for instance, which, while seriously outclassed, did its share of work in handling boomers. And the thought of just four women putting together the money and equipment needed to construct and maintain those suits, is ludricous. Obviously, the Knight Sabers had to have an extensive network even before they expanded."

The Knight Sabers: The Facts behind the Legends

Geoffrey Smart

 

TUESDAY, AUGUST 21, 2034

Late Evening

 

On one of the upper floors of the GENOM Tower, in an executive office, Largo glared at the computer screen before him.

The day's search had not gone well. Hour after hour had been spent poring through Anderson's records and he was no closer now to determining if the former GENOM Vice-President had been a front man than he had been when he started.

Largo might no longer be capable of feeling tired, but he could still experience annoyance. Damn Quincy and his power games, he thought to himself, for about the millionth time.

Standing up, he moved to the window, looking out over the lights of MegaTokyo. Orderly rows of streets, built since the Great Quake, grew outward from the Tower in an ever expanding circle. Beyond that circle of light, however, a disorganized sprawl of building and roads lay like a dark cancer.

Soon, the whole city will follow the new plan, the GENOM plan, thought Largo. It is a pity that the Great Quake had not wiped everything clean, leaving a blank slate for us to work on. Or that the Fusion Reactor had not blown. Then only the cyberdroids could live here and build the future.

Largo's thoughts turned dark as he considered his state of affairs. Instead, I find myself lackey again to that decrepit fool, Quincy! His fists clenched involuntarily, and he looked ready to lash out at the window. Instead, he calmed himself and sat back down at his desk.

No, I will not give Quincy the satisfaction, he thought. I have not been beaten, merely caged... for the moment.

The door to his office slid open and his assistant, Dr. Miriam Yashida, walked in holding a computer pad.

"Sir? Here is the latest information on Anderson for you, and I have a revised ETA on the Special Project."

"Never mind that for now," growled Largo. "What do you have on those damn mechs I fought at GPCC?"

"Nothing. We ran a cross-check of the images downloaded from your memory against all known boomer and power-armor types. Nothing matches. And we certainly have nothing on record that large that is flight-capable--"

"How far back did you check?"

"Excuse me?"

Largo placed his fists on the desk, glaring at Miriam. "I asked, how far back did you check, Miriam?"

"Oh," stammered Miriam, looking down at his comp- pad nervously. "I ran the cross-check through, um, the GENOM Competitor Database, and--"

"And what if it was something from before GENOM?"

"That's hardly likely, sir... I mean, if we haven't built such a thing--"

"Miriam, you dolt! I want that cross-check run against EVERYTHING in the database! I don't want you to miss ANYTHING that might have been what I fought! Do you understand?!"

Nearly dropping his comp-pad, Miriam hastened to type in a new command. "Y-yes, sir. I'm widening the search parameters now. The supercomputer should--" He broke off suddenly. "That's odd... it's already returning a match..."

"Download the information to my screen," ordered Largo.

A few keystrokes later, a technical schematic appeared on Largo's screen. It started as a three- dimensional, rotating wireframe, then filled in with framework, motors, articulators, and, finally , black and grey armor.

Largo gazed at the menacing humanoid mecha and murmured to himself, "J-9 Griffon Labor... Manufacturer: SCHAFT Industries. Created: circa 1999. Destroyed: 2000. That's it, Miriam! That was what I saw!"

"But sir, it's a decades-old design! Why would anyone resurrect such an ancient machine?" Miriam's voice held the special contempt he held for anything old. Old, to his mind, equated inefficient and useless.

Miriam had once been a boomer designer working for a GENOM subsidiary until, in his pride, he tried to destroy the Knight Sabers with his specially designed boomers. His attempt had landed him in jail, until Quincy had worked him loose and placed him under Largo. Largo's current body, in fact, was a design of Miriam's.

Largo viewed his subordinate with contempt. Such petty narrow-mindedness, he thought. Miriam will never be capable of grasping more than a sliver of the grand future I envision. Still, despite his limitations, he has his uses... for a human.

"Miriam, that is what I saw the other night. Obviously, someone has utilized the design." Largo looked at the screen again and digested the information there. "SCHAFT Industries?" he said to himself. "They're negotiating with us over a new boomer... Kelly is in charge of that project though... Hmmm..."

"Should we take this information to Mr. Quincy, sir?" asked Miriam.

"No. We have no proof linking this to SCHAFT. Besides, I want to take some time to look around. This may all be part of something bigger... if it is, I intend to be in a position to reap the rewards."

Largo's low chuckle echoed coldly through the room, causing chills to run up and down Miriam's spine.

 

Dixon Kelley walked briskly through the halls of GENOM. At age 27, he was perhaps the youngest man ever to reach the lofty, and precarious, position of Special Assistant to the Chairman. Well, youngest with the exception of the late, unlamented Brian J. Mason, that is.

Kelley thought a lot about his predecessor, wondering what Mason had done to gain the attention of the Old Man. What ability or talent had Quincy found in Mason that was worth rewarding? His records certainly showed nothing above a conscientious, efficient, ambitious businessman.

"Ah, Kelley-san. Konban wa," came a low voice behind him.

Kelley turned and regarded the speaker with the same warmth one shark may convey to another in its hunting ground. The woman leaning against the wall before him was a tall, pale, and reasonably attractive Japanese, even with the flamboyant purple-dyed hair she flaunted. After the quake, outrageous hair colors had become something of an enduring fad, becoming so rooted in society that even the more conservative business communities were accepting it in their employees. GENOM was not one of those companies, but, then again, the Special Assistants to the Chairman followed their own rules.

"Madigan-san," he said politely, bowing slightly, as one did to a perceived equal. "I thought you were still in Osaka."

"No," Madigan said, in a very polite voice. Only a native Japanese would catch the slight insulting tone in her voice, or the snub inherent in her perfunctory bow. Or someone who had dealt with such snubs for as long as Kelley had. Everything in her body language was sneering at him, declaring him a gaijin, a foreigner, an outsider. "I was recalled only yesterday. Quincy-sama wanted me to help him with some matters of importance.

Kelley, long practiced in the game, took no overt notice of the snub--to do so would only confirm her opinion of him as an uncultured barbarian--but his politeness took on a cold edge. "Oh? It must be very important to pull you away from your pressing business in Osaka. How long have you been overseeing things there? Two years?"

"About that," replied Madigan, a sharp tone entering her voice. It was common knowledge that Quincy had sent her to Osaka after the disastrous orbital laser satellite incident that had destroyed so many GENOM Towers around the world. Rumor had it that she was out of favor with the Chairman, but if that was so, why was she here?

"I hear we have a new colleague," she continued, folding her arms across her chest.

"Yes. His name is Larson. Quincy-sama hired him a few months ago. He seems unremarkable enough, but he has the Old Man's trust for now it seems." Kelley relaxed as they got onto non-threatening ground. Larson was a common rival to both of them, especially since Quincy trusted his new Assistants far more than his older ones.

"I'll have to meet him. Is it true that he terminated Anderson?"

"Yes," Kelley replied with a slight grimace. "Anderson had been involved in skimming and embezzlement. It seems the Old Man is using Mr. Larson as a watchdog of some sort."

"Hmmm..." say Madigan. "I think I definitely have to meet him. Konban wa, Kelley-san."

"Goodnight, Miss Madigan," Kelley said in English to her back as she sauntered down the hall.

Great, thought Kelley, another wild card loose. How will this affect my plans?

 

Asuma Shinohara opened the door of his home wearily. Another long night, he thought as he poured himself a double shot of bourbon and slumped down in the couch before the TV. It switched on and CNN began blaring about the day's events before he muted the sound. He leaned back, sighing, and closed his eyes.

Suddenly two slender arms wrapped themselves around his neck and hugged him close. "Another tough day, Asuma?" came a female voice.

Asuma opened his eyes to look at the woman above him. She was in her late forties or early fifties--it was hard to tell--and her russet-colored hair was streaked with grey. Yet despite her age, she was slim and in great shape, and just as beautiful as the day he had met her. Of course, some people might accuse him of a slight bias.

Taking her hands in his, he squeezed them gently. "Yeah, you could say that, Noa..." he said.

"It's them, isn't it?"

"Who?"

Noa Izumi Shinohara hit Asuma lightly on the head. "You know who I mean, Asuma! SCHAFT. You don't like working with them, do you?"

"Come on, Noa," Asuma shrugged, "I didn't like working with GENOM, but I do that everyday. It's survival."

"Then what is it?"

"I can't quite put my finger on it... it's like a hunch, more than anything... like I can see all the pieces and have some idea of the whole puzzle... but not how it all fits together."

Noa sat on the back of the couch and rubbed his shoulders. "So, what are you going to do?"

"What can I do? Quincy won't listen to me, and I'm not sure what I would tell him to do if he did."

"Maybe--"

At that instant the phone rang. It was the special work line Asuma had installed long ago, capable of receiving scrambled message to improve security against industrial espionage. Cursing silently, Asuma got up and answered it.

"Shinohara. Oh, it's you... a whole new set? By when? That's too fast, there's a risk... yeah, I agree, there's something... you're right. Send the designs by the usual way... I'll make sure they get made. Yeah, usual delivery. Take care, now."

Shinohara hung up the phone and looked at it for several seconds. Then he smiled and looked up at Noa. The depression that had clouded his features a moment ago was gone, making him look to her almost like the young man she had fallen in love with so long ago.

"What was that, Asuma? More of your special business?"

"Yeah... part of a very old debt I owe. But don't worry about it."

Noa pouted. "You never tell me anything, you know that?"

"Can't risk it," Asuma replied glibly. "You talk in your sleep."

"I do NOT!"

"Do too," he said, avoiding a swat and taking her into his arms. "So I guess I'll just have to make sure you don't get any sleep tonight, wife of mine." He winked at her and kissed her gently on the lips.

 

Inside Raven's Garage, Nene and Vision were looking vainly to see if Priss had left any word of where she was going or what she was planning to do.

"At least her suit is still in storage, right, Nene?" Vision asked. "That means she can't be planning anything too dangerous."

"It also means we can't track her by her transponder," Nene replied gloomily. "This is all my fault. I should have rigged the simulator system to let me know if anyone was moving around while we were in the combat sim. She could have been no more than five feet away from us and we wouldn't have known it." Nene morosely opened her locker. Then she let out a yell!

"What!? What is it, Nene?" Vision asked running over to the locker.

"She took MY skirt!" Nene complained. "Of all the low-down, no-good--" Nene sputtered on and on for several minutes. "It was brand new, too!"

"Well, she was in a hospital gown, right? It makes sense..."

"No it doesn't! Why didn't she take Linna's stuff, or Sylia's?"

"Maybe she just thought your would fit better..."

"Oh?! So now you're saying I'm fat?"

Linna then entered the room, having just gotten in from Sylia's. "Well, I did see you at that all-night dessert place the other day, Nene... Sure it isn't time for another diet?"

"No!" said Nene defensively. "I'm fine, really!"

Linna laughed for a moment, then looked up. "So, what brought this on?"

"Nene thinks Priss took some of her clothes," Vision replied.

"Hmmm." Linna quickly checked her locker. "I'm missing a T-shirt, too..." She then checked Priss's locker. "Her helmet is gone as well. And I didn't see her motorcycle out front. She's probably long gone."

"Any idea where she might have gone?" Vision asked.

"Sylia is checking out her trailer. I swung by Leon's, but he's still at work, so it was locked up. She might have been inside, but I doubt it."

"She's probably gone off on another of her solo tears," mumbled Nene.

"More than likely," concurred Linna.

"One of her what?" asked Vision.

Linna turned to her friend. "Priss is more of a loner than any of us, Vision... as you might have guessed. When things are troubling her, she tend to go off on her own until she works it out or... well, until she gives something a good pounding. Her last big solo run nearly got her killed, just before we met you for the first time."

"Ah... does she have any old friends or acquaintances she might visit? We could ask them if they've seen her."

Nene shook her head. "Priss has never mentioned any... She doesn't like people to know too much about her," she finished in a little voice.

"Well, we can't sit here and wait for her to come to her senses," Vision argued.

"Well, if you two can come up with any ideas for finding her, you're welcome to try," said Linna.

"And what will you be doing, Linna?" asked Vision, a touch sarcastically.

"Some special work for Sylia. Since Priss isn't here, it looks like it falls to me. Lucky, aren't I?"

Nene looked worriedly at her friend. "This isn't going to be dangerous, is it, Linna?"

Linna looked seriously at Nene and then came up and hugged her. "No more than usual, Nene... I'll be careful, I promise."

"Undercover work, Linna?" asked Vision.

"Sorta."

"I can help! I know a little about that sort of thing and--"

"No, this is my job. I have to handle it. Besides, more than one person would be suspicious. I just wanted you two to know I was going..."

A long, uncomfortable silence fell.

"Well, I guess... good-bye. I'll see you guys later," Linna finished lamely.

"Linna!" Nene said as Linna turned to go. As her friend looked back at her, she said softly, "Come back safely, OK?"

"I will... I promise."

 

Sylia let herself into Priss's trailer quietly. The lock on the trailer was very good, which, considering the neighborhood, was to be expected. But Sylia had managed to learn a few other things than hardsuit engineering and small-unit guerrilla tactics over the years.

The trailer was a mess, which was hardly surprising. Priss was not the neatest of people. Sylia scanned the room slowly, looking for a sign that Priss had been here.

She was just turning around when something pressed itself against the back of her neck. Sylia froze. It was round, and apparently made out of plastic, but she heard a barely audible click as it slid into place, the sound of a safety being switched off.

"I'm not going back with you, Sylia," came Priss's voice out of the darkness behind her. "So, why don't you just step over to the far wall, and I'll be leaving."

"Priss--" began Sylia.

"No. Don't say anything. I heard you and Leon talking, outside my room, and I'll die before I let myself get sent to an institution. So don't waste your breath."

"Priss, you misunderstood. We just want to help you--" Sylia stiffened as the gun pressed a little harder against her spinal column. She knew what it was now. Priss's holdout, a small, plastic gun, capable of only three shots per clip, but loaded with high calibre, anti-boomer slugs. At this range, they would smasher her backbone into a million pieces.

"I know Sylia, but this is something I have to work out on my own. Now, go and stand against the far wall."

Sylia carefully walked forward, picking her way through the music sheets, CDs, and other junk scattered on the floor.

"Priss, you don't have to do this alone. We're your friends, we want to help you."

"You can't, Sylia." Priss's voice grew softer. "I need to find out how much of me is left, and none of you can help me do that."

"What about Leon, Priss?"

"Leave Leon out of this," Priss replied shakily.

"Priss--"

"NO! Don't say anything else, Sylia. I won't let you talk me out of this."

"Priss--"

BAM! The shot echoed in the small trailer, the slug tearing a hole through the trailer wall just beside Sylia's head. Sylia looked at it, stunned, unable to believe Priss would go so far. She heard a scrambling noise behind her, and then the door slamming shut.

Sylia spun around and ran for the door. Pulling it open, she peered out into the night. A little ways off, she heard the sound of a motorcycle being kick- started. Pulling out her own handgun, a smaller, slimmer model of Priss's, Sylia hurried in the direction of the sound.

She was just in time to see a leather-clad motorcyclist roar off down the street at high speed. Sylia lowered her gun and frowned. Could she have said or done anything differently, to prevent Priss from escaping? She didn't think so, but deep down, a seed of doubt was laid. After so much time, the Knight Sabers may have finally lost a member.

Sylia hoped that wasn't true.

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22, 2034

Night

 

Fargo pulled a squashed pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his trench coat and tapped out one. Putting it in his mouth, he then searched for his lighter.

Damn, he thought as he searched, I hate these midnight rendezvous. They're getting damn old. He then chuckled wryly to himself. Or maybe it's just me who's getting old.

It had been just two years, he thought, since he had met Sylia Stingray. Two years of successfully acting as middleman for the Knight Sabers and their clients. Two years of "midnight rendezvous" and the like.

He wondered if Sylia ever really realized the risks he took. Probably not, he thought. She was a smart kid--it was easy to forget how young she really was--but she didn't understand the streets. He hoped some of the other Knight Sabers did.

Take her constant comments about his clothes. She didn't know, he thought as he finally found a book of matches, that it was more important for him to blend into crowds rather than look good. Or exactly how much money he put into bribes and paying informants. Or the constant threats he was under, from criminals who wanted for the Knight Sabers to be in a certain place at a certain time. Most of his fee was eaten up in "greasing the wheels," making sure that he could do his job and that his identity was as secret as theirs.

Or maybe she did know, he thought. And also knew that he never, ever skimmed any of their money, or revealed to anyone that he knew who the leader of the Knight Sabers was.

That's just good business, he halfheartedly argued with himself, not believing it for a second. It's why he never made a real name for himself in the fixing business... too many deals involved cold-blooded sacrifices and a sense of loyalty only to oneself.

Fargo broke off his train of thought as he heard a sound in the alleyway in front of him. Footsteps. He slipped his hand back inside his trench coat, feeling the comforting weight of his flechette gun. He wasn't the world's greatest marksman, but the flechette gun was to hand guns what shotguns were to rifles. One didn't have to be terribly accurate. All you had to do was point it in the right direction and the cloud of small, needle-like projectiles would do the rest. Fargo's ammo was also coated with a fast-acting neuro- toxin, yet another one of his expenses, that would paralyze almost anyone.

The slim figure coming towards him didn't seem a threat, but in this day and age, one couldn't be too careful, he thought. It--no, SHE, Fargo realized, stopped just short of the wavery circle of light cast by a dim streetlight over Fargo's head.

"You're Fargo, right?" the figure said, her melodic tones confirming her gender.

Fargo almost winced at how naive it sounded. He hoped this was just a courier. A person can get killed dealing with amateurs. He looked at her, not acknowledging his identity for several seconds.

"Look, I don't have all night for this fucking shit," the woman said acidly. "Now, either you're Fargo, or..."

Fargo heard the faint click of chambers being loaded and felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He knew he had been a sitting duck out here, but they had demanded it, and he had played this game before. They had the guns, but he had the info. And as long as they thought he knew something they didn't, he would live.

Unless, he thought wryly, they think I know too much.

"I'm Fargo," he finally said, ignoring the cold sweat that had broken out across his back, keeping his voice calm. "And my 'fucking shit' has kept me in one piece longer than you've been alive, girl," he added, his professional pride stung by her attitude. "You'd best learn that, if you expect to live much longer."

"Is that a threat, Mr. Fargo?" she sneered.

Amateurs, Fargo thought.

"It was a piece of advice, freely offered. Now, let's cut out the fucking games and get down to business. You advertised for a certain type of person. I have someone who fits the bill. In exchange for a finder's fee, I tell you a name and how to reach this person."

"How do we know you're not giving us bogus info?"

Fargo shrugged. "You don't. No guarantees in this business, except my reputation."

The figure eyed Fargo for a minute. Then she spoke. "Give us the name. We'll pay $1000 for it."

"Two is a much more agreeable number, for such an easy job. I could have told you it over phone, you know. You're the one who insisted on this cloak and dagger shit."

"Fine. Now, the information?"

Either they're complete morons, or they have money to burn, thought Fargo. Or maybe they just want me to think they're amateurs. No time for second guessing. Just give them the info and be done with it.

"Here. The info you want is one this disk," he said, tossing a small envelope onto the ground by the girl's feet. "It's a former corp operative who "quit" and changed her name and history. She should be able to handle your type of job."

The girl bent down and picked up the envelope. She was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, a bit much for this weather, but a good enough disguise. Besides, thought Fargo, I'm wearing a bloody trenchcoat. A lock of green hair fell out of the hood as she bent over, and Fargo took careful note of it.

"Here's your money," the girl said to him, pulling an envelope out of a pouch in her shirt, pulling some bills out of it, and then tossing it at his feet. He let it sit there as she backed out of the light.

Slowly, her footsteps faded and Fargo felt the hairs on the back of his neck calm down. The other watchers were probably gone as well, though one could never be certain. Fargo scooped up the money and dropped it in one of his coat pockets, then shambled off to his car.

Another night, another job, he thought, inhaling the stale smoke from his cigarette.

 

In an old car not far away, the girl Fargo had spoken with relaxed in the back of the car. A man, apparently several years older than her, with black hair and a grizzled beard, spoke.

"Did you get it?"

"Relax, Jackson," she said, her voice now more sure of itself than it had sounded when she was speaking to Fargo. "It was easy. I played the role of the naive terrorist to the hilt. I think he bought it, even."

"I wish you wouldn't take so many personal risks, boss."

"Trust me. No one would suspect me being in charge of this operation," she replied, fingering Fargo's disk, idly. Her voice grew bitter. "It's a gift of mine, being overlooked and underestimated."

"If this person works out, the Griffons will be back at full strength, Jackson. Then we have one more practice run before we go for our main objective."

Jackson shifted uncomfortably. "Boss, are you sure we aren't moving too fast? I mean, we're doing well, but after GPCC--"

"GPCC was a valuable lesson. We had gotten overconfident. If only Jeffries hadn't been wounded, I would have already moved against the Industrial Park."

"If you say so, Boss. How do you want to handle recruiting this new person?"

"Send a few men around to pick her up. We can't afford to let her go if she refuses us."

The car sped off toward Tokyo Bay.

 

"Show it to me again."

With a quiet whir, the slide projector at the back of the darkened room turned itself on and projected a still image on the screen. It was a construction site, as seen from above, done in rather washed out colors. In the center of the shot a large, robot of some kind is struggling with a group of smaller, humanoid figures. Around this figure, four other giant robots are in similar predicaments.

The slide projected clicked, showing a new slide, this one showing the strange mecha apparently blasting off into the air with the help of a large booster assembly of some kind on its back.

Several more shots followed, showing the giant robots flying over Tokyo bay, then the slide projector turned itself off.

"Lights," said the voice again, and the overhead lights flickered into life.

The man who had spoken was sitting at the head of a table, opposite the slide projector screen. He was in his mid-fifties, with gray hair and beard, though he obviously kept himself in good shape. He was wearing the uniform of a general, with the nametag reading "Griffith," in the United Space Satellite Defense league, the rather pompously named multi-national organization which tried to prevent and control the spread of orbital laser satellites. They were better known as the USSD.

"So," the general said, "is that all we have? Is there any information on anything like those mecha?"

"We've been running some discreet inquiries, General, but nothing yet," replied an aide, a colonel.

"Hmmm," grunted the general. "Gentlemen, I don't need to tell you that this is a serious matter. If someone has come up with a new weapon, one which seems obviously capable of a great deal of destruction, we have to be prepared to handle it. Now, what I want to know is, can we safely target these things? Just take them out and noting else?"

"We're not sure, General," said another aide, a captain this time. "Certainly, if they stand still, we could get them easily. But if they're moving, or in a crowded area, like in the middle of MegaTokyo, our accuracy suffers somewhat."

"Also, General, the new weather conditions resulting from Russia's nuking Glacier 1149 last month in the Polar War has seriously affected our targeting programs. Until we can study the new conditions--"

"Yes, yes," said the general, silencing him. "Now, I want a round-the-clock, twenty-four hour watch on the MegaTokyo area for these things. If sighted, I want to know immediately, is that understood?"

"General Griffith, sir?" came a tremulous voice. "Aren't we going to alert the Japanese authorities about this?"

"No."

"But, sir--"

"Pay attention, soldier! These things, whatever they are, attacked a GENOM site. Obviously, given the pictures, GENOM mounted a defense. Hence, THEY know about these things, and aren't talking. If we go public on it, we'll be going up against them, and we can't afford the public relations flack that will generate. Especially not after the problems we've had the last few years. Now, I want you all to make the reprogramming of the tracking and targeting systems a top priority. If there's nothing else on this, I guess we're done for the night."

Everyone around the table was quiet.

"OK, gentlemen, I expect to see you here at 1000 hours, to discuss the latest updates on the Polar War. Dismissed."

General Griffith got up and walked back to his private office, deep in thought.

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 22, 2034

MORNING

 

Leon yawned as he opened his locker at ADPolice Headquarters. He hadn't gotten much sleep last night. A boomer incident late last night had mobilized almost the entire ADPolice, and they had lost about half a dozen men to it before it had gone down. Then, there was the paperwork...

If I hadn't turned off my beeper and phone, he thought groggily, I might never have gotten to sleep... damn thing, constantly ringing off the hook.

"Yo, McNichol... you look like shit!" came a cry from across the room.

Leon looked up blearily, but another voice answered for him. "Better to look like it than to be it, Carlson," said a deep voice. The other officers present laughed at the old joke and turned back to their own morning rituals. Meanwhile, the large, heavyset fellow who had made the crack walked over to Leon.

"Too many hours under your belt, rookie?" he asked.

"Geez, Decker... would you stop calling me that. I've been on the force for 7 years now..."

Sgt. Richard Decker, a legend among the ADPolice for somehow surviving fifteen years on the beat, snorted. He was a big man, well over six feet tall, with his gray hair cropped close to his skull. His eyes were a steely grey and now he fixed them on Leon. "I might have let up on you once, but then you had to go and leave the front line... and now you're paying the price. You shoulda stayed a grunt."

Leon looked at Decker. As a detective, Leon's primary job was more to investigate why boomers went rogue than to fight them. He had nailed a number of people who had over-worked and not maintained their boomers properly. But before that, he had been on the front line, fighting the boomers directly.

"The cost grew too high, Decker," he said softly. "Besides, the pay's better as a Detective."

Decker's tone grew softer. "I know. It's a damn shame about Jeena. She was a pro." That was the highest compliment Decker could bestow on anyone. "Besides, maybe you're right about the cost. Especially with the rookies they send us today... sheesh."

"Not all of us are as tough as you, Decker. Besides, you have help."

"You mean this?" Decker asked, tapping his left arm. A metallic ring came back. he pulled up the sleeve to show the chrome cyberarm that had replaced his real one years ago. "I could take you with this tied behind my back, rookie."

Leon laughed. "Yeah, you could." He looked at Decker thoughtfully. "Does it ever bother you, Decker? The arm, I mean."

"Hmmm? At first, it did. It's fucking hard to accept the fact that a part of you is gone. And this," he said, tapping the arm again, "ain't a good substitute. It felt damn weird, let me tell you."

"How'd you adjust?"

Sitting down on the bench by the locker, Decker pulled out a cigar, in blatant defiance of the No Smoking sign on the wall nearby. "Why the sudden interest?"

"I have a friend who's recently had some cyberware put in. She's--um, ny friend isn't dealing well with it."

"You mean your girl?"

Leon looked back at Decker steadily.

"Don't play innocent, Leon. I saw her the other day when she met you here. She had the look, though if she's cybered, it's one of the least noticeable jobs I've ever seen."

Leon looked around, but the locker room had mostly emptied by now. "It's one of those new nano- techniques."

Decker looked disgusted. "Shit, those damn mad scientists. They'll keep messing with us until they accidently kill us all off. Look, Leon, I don't need to tell you that these nano-doohickeys are bad news, do I?"

"No, but that's beside the point. I need to know what I can do to help Priss."

"Nothing."

"Nothing? But--"

"Listen to me, Leon. Cyberpsychosis is not your ordinary run of the mill problem. It's a battle. It's something you either win or you lose, or you're still fighting. She's still fighting, I could tell that. But if she's tough enough, and stubborn enough, she'll pull through this. All the doctors in the world can't help someone fight this. It's something she has to beat."

"But--"

Decker continued, as if he had not even heard Leon. "When I lost the arm, I went through some serious trouble. I was depressed, I was angry, I was resentful of everyone around me who still had two perfectly good, just-as-they-came-out-of-the-womb, meat arms on them. And, for a while, I had a chip on my shoulder a mile long. What snapped me out of it was a fight."

"It was in a bar with some punk, over something I don't even remember now, but I got a good grip on him with this baby," he said, tapping his cyberarm, "and tore his arm right out of its socket."

Leon paled.

"Fortunately, he was another cyborg. The arm looked human enough, though, until I saw the stump fizzle and spark. And I looked down at my hands and realized I was walking on the Edge."

Decker's voice grew distant. "I took some time off, spent most of it walking around the city, thinking. When I was done, I realized I had to let go of my old arm, accept what I had, and not let it get to me. After all, I was alive, I was productive, I could do something with my life."

"Your lady friend has to accept that fact too, Leon... once she does, then she'll turn to you. Trust me."

Leon nodded, slowly. "Thanks Decker... though I'm not sure if you were trying to reassure me, or scare me there..."

"A little of both. But, anyhow, enough of the maudlin male-bonding shit. I've got boomers to trash and you've got paperwork to do." with that, Decker strode off to the ready room.

Leon sigh, strapped on his gun, and went to his desk. The messages light on his phone was blinking, he noted, but let it wait until he had a cup of coffee. Then he punched play.

"Leon, this is Nene," came the voice, far more seriously than Nene had ever sounded to Leon. "I tried calling you at home, but there was no answer. I hope you're at work. Listen, Priss is gone. She ran off last night. Call me at Raven's as soon as you get this. Bye."

Leon, set his coffee down quietly. At Daley's desk, behind him, Goto looked up from his paper and watched Leon sit back in shock. Then, with a burst of energy, Leon shot out of his chair and headed for the door, without a single backward glance.

Goto shrugged, stood up, and looked at Leon's desk. He regarded the answering machine, which now indicated there were no further messages, and hit the rewind button. Then, once the message was erased, he looked around carefully, stole Leon's coffee, and sat back down with his paper.

 

Somewhere in MegaTokyo, Priss finally pulled her motorcycle off the road an stopped to catch her breath. She had been riding all night, ever since she had almost been caught by Sylia back at her trailer. It had been a stupid risk to go back there, she thought to herself, but she thought she might need some clothes and other necessities, and that was the only place she could go.

Now, she wondered what to do. Her bike was running on fumes, and she couldn't go to Raven's for gas as usual. Her bike needed the special fuel to run properly. Regular unleaded, or what passed for it nowadays, would just make her engine seize up, to say little of what all the junk floating in it would do to her fuel lines.

I wanted some time alone to do some thinking, she thought to herself, but all I've been doing is running. She looked down at her reflection in the shiny gas tank of her bike. Outwardly, she looked the same as she did before she had had the nanoids injected. But why don't I feel the same? She thought bitterly.

Her meditation was interrupted suddenly by the roar of another motorcycle. She looked up at the mouth of the alley and realized that it was now blocked by several punks on motorbikes. Feeling vulnerable, she turned her bike around to leave, only to realize that tow graffiti-decorated dumpsters were blocking all exit down the narrow alley. She turned and face the gang again.

"So, little lady," came a deep voice from the lead motorcyclist, followed by several chuckles from his followers, "are you lost? Do you need our special roadside assistance?" In his hands, a length of chain glinted.

Priss revved her engine and prepared to fight.


Hi, loyal readers,

OK, OK... it's late. But I finally sat down and finished AoL5. I'm working on Chapter 6 as we speak. I know you don't want to listen to me ramble, so without any further ado...

 

Chapter 5

 

"'Say yes!' Kinoo yori mo atsuku ikiru dake
'Say yes!' Iyasenai kodoku o shitta kara.
'Say yes!' Kimi ni kikoeru nara kotaete.

'I can be, I can do, I can sing, I can live'"

"'Say yes! I just live hotter than yesterday...
'Say yes! ...because I've known loneliness that
I just couldn't do anything about.
'Say yes!' Answer me if you can hear me saying,

'I can be, I can do, I can sing, I can live'"

Vision and the Revengers, "Say Yes!"

Reika Chang

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2034

Morning

 

Opening her throttle all the way, Priss charged the motorcycle punks, her engine roaring. With any luck, they would scatter and give her a chance to lose them on the streets. She tried not to think of what would happen if they were still on her tail when she ran out of gas.

The punks did scatter, but they were not novices at bike combat. The leader's chain whipped out at her front wheel and Priss, having no room to maneuver, could only watch as it got tangled in her wheel spokes. The front wheel seized up instantly with a sickening crunch.

Oh, shit! thought Priss as she felt herself go flying forward and off her bike. Instinctively, she rolled with the fall, trying to minimize the damage. Her helmet and shoulders took most of the shock as she hit the pavement and stars danced across her vision as she tumbled forward, scraping her arms and legs painfully. Stupid fucking skirt, she growled at herself while trying to clear her head. Why couldn't Linna or Nene have some -proper- clothes in their locker?

Her vision cleared. She found herself looking up at the leader, his face split in an evil leer, a look made all the worse by his black mohawk and scarred face. He looked like he had gone biking without a helmet once too often.

Rolling away from him quickly, Priss came up in a crouch, her holdout pistol appearing in her hand. "Back off," she growled.

"Ooh, she's got a gun," the leader laughed, looking back at his gang. They all laughed, though a bit nervously. Turning back to her, the leader said sarcastically, "What does a little thing like you need a gun for?"

Priss raised the gun steadily at him, but he just smirked and took a step forward. Intending to fire a warning shot, Priss pointed the gun over his head and pulled the trigger.

A resounding click filled the alley.

"Those cheap plastic shits don't take well to motorcycle accidents, girlie," the leader laughed, his gang joining in more enthusiastically this time. Priss now saw that part of the gun's clip housing was damaged. "C'mon, we're not going to hurt you... You'll enjoy it, I promise." The gang edged closer.

Part of Priss wanted to leap into action and teach them a lesson or two, but the memory of another alley stopped her cold.

--Blood dripping down my hands, red hands, warm flesh cooling--

I... can't! Priss thought to herself. How can I fight them without losing control? Dimly she heard the sound of more motorcycles. Her options were dwindling. If she had no choice, she would have to fight. She shivered, despite the night's heat, teetering on a knife's edge between exploding into action or freezing up.

Suddenly, the light from the alley entrance was blocked by a huge shadow. Priss and the gang members looked back at probably one of the biggest men Priss had ever seen. Fully as wide as he was tall, the man was bald with a thick, bushy beard. A knife scar ran across one eye, sealing it shut.

"What are you up to, Moro?" came the man's deep, but surprisingly quiet voice.

Moro, the mohawked man Priss had taken for the gang leader, turned around defensively. "It weren't nothing, Kaz," he said, trying to sound confident. "Just a little fun."

Kaz just shook his head slowly. "I warned you about your 'little fun' before, Moro. Do I have to give you and your boys another lesson?" The giant cracked his huge knuckles slowly.

Moro looked at his men, trying to bolster his courage with their support. However, they looked away, not meeting his gaze. Finally, he turned back to Kaz. "No need for that. Like I said, we was just having a little fun, talking to a chick who had an accident."

"Oh, is that all?" Kaz said in an innocent sounding voice. "Well, why don't you let me see the lady home. You can go and see if there are any more chains lying around, waiting to leap into motorcycle wheels." Moro and his men winced at the sarcastic tone. "Now, get!" Kaz roared. Moro and his men bolted past him and out of the alley. He then turned to Priss, a shy smile on his face.

Priss had barely listened to the debate, taking deep breaths to calm herself. When she was in control of herself again, she looked at the man who had interceded for her and gasped. "Kaz?" she said incredulously, taking off her helmet.

"Do I--?" Kaz began, then, looking closely at her, he began to laugh loudly. "Priss! I never would have guessed! Whatcha doing, all dolled up like that?"

 

Linna tried to walk without stumbling as she was pushed along. That she could not see anything through the thick cloth blindfold covering her eyes made her job harder.

She had been asleep in her bed when they came and hadn't even heard them enter. Fargo and Sylia had told her that whoever came for her would probably confront her when she least suspected it, but she hadn't thought they would take her when she was asleep in her own room!

At least, she hoped it was her 'employers' that had kidnapped her. The men escorting her had not said much, but they had mentioned something about this being a job offer. Not that she was supposed to know that they knew about her.

Mentally, she went over her cover again. Her name was Lydia Yarrow, nee Linda Yearly, a former mercenary and corporate soldier who had left her former employers in some haste. She was good at unarmed and armored combat, and had a reputation for stealth and covert ops.

Well, she WAS good at all those things, she thought wryly, except maybe the covert ops part. And if I'm NOT good at that, I'm soon going to be in a LOT of trouble.

Her escort finally stopped. She thought she was in a room, but she wasn't certain until she heard them move away and a door close. Then a speaker somewhere in the room activated with a small squawk.

"You can take off the blindfold," an obviously electronically distorted voice said.

Linna did as she was told. She blinked a little as she looked around a small, metal room that she thought of as a closet with delusions of grandeur. There was a chair, a video camera bolted to one wall, and a small pile of clothes by her feet. The clothes were hers, she noted. They must have been taken when she was.

"You may get dressed," the voice said.

Linna glanced at the video camera and noted the red light on it. Either they weren't taking any chances with her, or there were some interested voyeurs on the other end. She mentally shrugged. There was nothing she could do about it, so she shrugged off her nightgown and got dressed.

 

Jackson glanced at the monitor his boss was watching and looked away quickly. Jackson knew that it was not a good idea to comment or otherwise show any reaction to the video of the new 'recruit' dressing. The boss knew her men considered her tastes odd, but she didn't like it commented on.

"Well, we have her now. How do you want to handle this, boss?" he asked.

The green-haired woman smiled, her eyes still on the screen. "I think I'll interview her in person. We want her on our side, after all. Besides, it won't make much difference one way or the other if she sees a little more."

Jackson frowned. Noticing this, she said, "Do you have a problem with that, Jackson?"

"I don't like the idea of you putting yourself at risk, boss. The AGF would still be nothing more than a bunch of radical dreamers without you. We need you." Jackson was mildly surprised at how easily the admission came now. When the boss had joined the Anti-GENOM Front, they had been nothing more than a group of petty terrorists who saw smashing a domestic boomer as a political statement. She had given them a mission and the tools to carry out. Thanks to her, they had the ability to hit GENOM harder than it had ever been hit, and maybe, just maybe, they could destroy it altogether.

Still, the boss seemed unconcerned. "Don't worry, Jackson, nothing will happen to me. I can take care of myself now. As for the AGF, I've taken steps to make sure you'll be taken care of if something DOES happen to me. Now, how long will it take to train her on the Griffons?"

Jackson glanced at the screen. The woman was now almost fully dressed. "I don't know. It depends how much she knows already. Bud will have to check her out, but she seems to have the right moves." Anyone who used power armor on a regular basis moved a little differently than someone who didn't. They moved gracefully, but with an air of care and certainty that came from having to think out all your moves before you made them.

The boss ran one finger down the monitor's screen, tracing the curves of Linna's body. "That she does," she said quietly. Then, shaking her head, she said to Jackson, "OK, I'm going down to talk to her. If something goes wrong, make sure my backup is ready."

"Right, boss."

 

The door opened and Linna looked curiously at the woman who entered. She was small and almost waifish, not what Linna had expected at all in a terrorist. Her combat fatigues and ski mask fit the image, at least.

"Isn't it a little hot for that?" Linna asked casually, indicating the mask and trying not to show how nervous she felt.

The woman's voice was cool and faintly amused. "The less you know, the less of a risk you are. I hope you weren't too inconvenienced tonight?"

"Depends on your definition of 'inconvenienced,' I suppose," Linna muttered. Then she tried to make her voice sound bolder. "Why am I here?"

"Consider this a recruitment. We have need of someone with your skills. And your feelings toward corporations, as well."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Of course you don't." The amusement was back, and stronger this time. The woman leaned back against the wall, crossing her arms across her chest.

Linna tensed slightly. The woman's relaxed posture was anything but, she was sure. Now, if I was her, where would I hide my holdout? she thought, scanning the woman slowly. There, yes... and perhaps a knife over there. Linna tried to appear relaxed, but, unconsciously, she began to balance her weight on the balls of her feet. If she had to move, she wanted to do it quickly.

"When facing an armed opponent," her father's voice echoed in her mind, a memory of a long ago training session, "you have to move quickly, but not in an direction he expects. If you can't get away, your best option is to catch him off guard and then get inside the reach of his weapon. He'll have no choice then but to either grapple with you, or try to break off."

The woman's lips quirked in a smile. "You don't miss much, do you?" She let her arms drop to her side, slowly, indicating she had no weapon. "You're the type of person we want, no doubt, Linda."

Linna let her eyes widen slightly at the mention of her supposed real name. Inwardly, she let out a sigh of relief. She had been afraid that Fargo's cover story may have been pierced. She then sighed out loud, as if giving up an unnecessary pretense. "So, what exactly do you want of me?"

"We want to use you, your skills, in perhaps the most ambitious undertaking ever against a corporation."

"Which one?"

"GENOM."

Linna let out a low whistle. "You don't think small, do you?" She shook her head. "Attacking GENOM is impossible. Security boomers would swarm all over us. I've heard stories about some European groups that tried what you suggested. What GENOM did to them was a warning to others."

"Ah, but we have a secret weapon," the woman said, with a touch of humor. "If you join us, I promise that you'll have a good chance of getting out of this alive."

"What about my pay?" Linna asked. "Taking GENOM down a notch, provided we stand a chance, is not something I object to, but that doesn't pay the bills."

The woman's lips quirked again. "Oh, I think the pay will be satisfactory. There might even be some... added benefits as well."

Linna wasn't sure she liked the way the woman said that, but nodded. "OK, if the plan's workable and the pay's OK, I'm in."

The woman nodded. "I thought you'd be reasonable," she said, slowly taking off her mask. "It's so nice to conduct business without resorting to threats." The mask came away in her hand, revealing a very pretty face with outrageously, to Linna's way of thinking, green hair. Her cold eyes looked out of place, however. "Most people around here just call me 'Boss,'" the woman continued, "but I'd like it if you'd call me Milly."

Linna nodded, smiling slightly. "OK. Since you know my name already, you can call me that."

"Now, let me show you our 'secret weapon,'" the woman said, knocking lightly on the door. It was opened a moment later by a hard-faced man in black, a submachine gun in his hands. He didn't let them leave before checking them over carefully, and waiting for a small nod of approval from Milly.

Linna considered Milly as she led the way down a dim hallway. The walls were bare earth in some spots, and not all the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling worked. Milly seemed too young to lead this group, but Linna could see the deferential nods she got, even from men older and more experienced-looking. Like that Jackson fellow, who looked at Linna like a doberman about to go for her neck, but followed Milly like a tame lap dog. Clearly she would have to show she could be trusted before anyone even approached being friendly to her. But Milly didn't treat her that way at all. It was odd, and that bothered Linna. Something about Milly nagged at her, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

Finally, they entered a large cavern. Linna could see now that this place was originally a natural cave of some sort that had been artificially expanded. But that was not what made her jaw drop open.

Standing in the center of the cavern were five giant robots, like something out of the old cartoons she had watched as a kid. Men in red jumpsuits swarmed over the black-and-grey humanoid machines, working on them, but Linna barely noticed. The robots were so... huge. She was used to boomers, which were rarely larger than a tall man, but these were easily eight meters tall! Add to that the black armor and red sensor slits that gave them a menacing look, Linna felt herself shiver involuntarily.

"Linda, say hello to the J-9 Mk II 'Griffon' Combat Labor. They're our 'secret weapon' and," Milly continued with a smile, "what you're going to learn to operate."

 

"Mr. Larson, Ms. Madigan is here to see you," came the voice of Largo's current secretary--he never bothered to learn their names--over the intercom.

Madigan, he mused, running a quick name search through his memory. Ah, yes. The young woman who took Mason's position. It's surprising that she lived through that night, but one does not become a Special Assistant without being able to survive.

Madigan entered the room in a dignified manner. She regarded Largo coolly, though without the distaste she had shown Kelly earlier. Kelly was a known quantity. Larson might be useful, and she wanted to assess that possibility for herself.

"Ms. Madigan, good morning," Largo said, slipping into his social mode. One of the few surviving characteristics of Brian J. Mason was his quiet charm. While rarely exercised, it had served him well, first ingratiating him into Quincy's confidences, then allowing him to forge the cabal of GENOM executives that had allowed him to cheat death. Now, while he had little interest or use for Madigan, he saw no reason to not use it. "How may I help you today?"

"Good morning, Mr. Larson. I felt I should pay a courtesy call on you, since you are new to the Tower, and I just arrived from Osaka recently." She put on her most winning smile. "It sometimes helps for those of us in positions of authority to know each other personally."

"I have found that useful as well," Largo said, considering the young woman before him. She was wearing a dark purple business suit and skirt, which suited her, he noted absently. "Especially when you reach this level, where you must often circumvent ordinary methods of doing business. Would you care for something to drink?"

"Yes, please," Madigan said. Largo went over to a wet bar on the far wall of his office. He had never used it, of course, but one must keep up appearances. Choosing an expensive brand of sake, he used a small, high-tech convenience hidden behind the bar to heat it to the proper temperature.

Madigan watched as he came back over and filled her small cup. "Thank you," she said as she took a drink. "An excellent choice, this. One of my favorites, actually."

"I am glad you like it," Largo said. Inwardly, he let his social programming take over the conversation while he studied Madigan more closely. Every now and then he took a drink of the sake, but his systems merely stored it for later disposal.

She has changed, he thought. When they had last met, she had been all aggression, a very passionate young woman. He could see now that she had learned to keep a better rein on herself. With her pale skin and lavender hair, one could almost believe she was made of ice. And her eyes, coolly evaluating him, even when she smiled. He had written her off as Quincy's flunky the first time they had met, but now he could see there was more to her than he had suspected. Perhaps she would be of some use....

For herself, Madigan could see that Larson was accustomed to power. He was quiet, not obnoxious like Kelly, yet she could see he could easily dominate a room.

He's like Quincy-sama, she thought to herself. Something about his eyes was wrong, she noticed, but she could not put her finger on it. In any case, she was sure that it would be a mistake to turn her back on this man.

For a while, they spoke of inconsequential matters, like the weather, the Polar War, and personnel reorganizations within GENOM. As they sized each other up, the conversation turned more towards business.

"So, you removed Anderson?" Madigan asked.

"Yes. He had been engaged some rather shady dealings for a long time. The Distribution Center and GPCC 'incidents' helped bring his activities to light."

"Anderson was a drone," Madigan said coldly. "He would never do such a thing without someone pulling his strings."

Largo took another drink of his sake. "You seem to know a lot about our dear, departed vice-president."

"He was a manager when I was... last in the Tower. He had no drive or ambition for anything except maybe a comfortable life."

Largo raised an eyebrow at this confirmation of his theories on Anderson. It was nothing definite, of course, but the extra data helped.

"Unfortunately, my attempts at tracing the puppet's stings have been less than fruitful. I'm beginning to think that if there is a puppet master, he was setting Anderson up to take a fall."

Now it was Madigan's turn to look intrigued. "Take a fall for what? The Distribution Center and GPCC accidents?"

"Who says GPCC wasn't an accident?" Largo asked calmly.

"I have my sources," Madigan said, meeting Largo's eyes evenly.

For several moments, no one said anything. Then Largo shook his head. "I don't think he was set up for those incidents. It was his own incompetent handling of the Distribution Center that gave his activities away, but there are no indications to link him with the accident there."

"Then maybe whatever he was to be the fall guy for hasn't happened yet," Madigan said.

Largo actually blinked at that. The idea had not even occurred to him.

"If that is so, it will be even harder to pinpoint what he was to be responsible for."

"Not necessarily. May I use your terminal?"

"Be my guest."

Madigan walked over to Largo's desk and began to type. Largo watched over her shoulder in interest.

"Now, let's see what the public database has to offer..." Madigan murmured to herself as she accessed it.

"Why the public database?" Largo demanded. "Surely no evidence would be there, where anyone could find it."

"Ah, Mr. Larson, that is where you are wrong. Sometimes, things are hidden in plain sight, especially booby traps." She typed a few more keys. "Here, under shipping. Five shipments of boomer endoframes from the U.S., shipped here under Anderson's authority."

Largo studied the entry. "So?"

"Two things. First, the shipments' weight and space allowances are far too large for endoframes. Second, except for the public database, they DON'T appear on GENOM's shipping records." Largo's eyes widened. "I think someone was setting GENOM up, not just Anderson. And they were very clever. The security on the public database is not as well protected as the rest of the system. Now, if something were to happen, something disastrous, and the press or the police could link it to these shipments... well, how could we prove we did not?"

"Since simply saying we had no knowledge of the shipments would just make it look like we were covering up. Very well done," Largo said, looking at Madigan with new respect. "Now, if we could find out what was really shipped here..." He looked at Madigan again. "Would you care to discuss it with me tonight, over dinner?"

"I'd be honored, sir."

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2034

Early Afternoon

 

Leon barely held back another yawn as he looked at the paperwork on his desk. With a five o'clock shadow and bloodshot eyes, he looked horribly tired as he sipped at his coffee.

Truth be told, Leon had spent the night looking for Priss. After receiving Nene's message, he had rushed out and spoken to Sylia. She had been as cool and closed-mouth as always around him, telling him that there was nothing he could do that she hadn't already seen to.

Leon had to admit now that she had been right, but at the time he made some sort of angry retort and spent the rest of the night patrolling the streets, looking for Priss in some of her usual hangouts.

Finally, having had no success, he had collapsed and tried to get a few hours rest before going on shift. Worries about Priss, however, kept him awake, and what little sleep he did get had been full of half-remembered nightmares.

"Good afternoon, Leon!" came Daley's cheery voice as he put a couple of doughnuts down on Leon's desk. Leon's stomach growled, trying to remind him that he hadn't eaten yet. Leon grumbled something incoherent and grabbed a doughnut.

"Oh, rough night, Leon-chan?" Daley teased. "Hope you're up to a few interviews today."

"Oh, Christ... now what?" Leon groaned.

"Well, we've got an appointment to see the head of Shinohara-Toyohata Industries today, remember?"

"Oh, right... the Distribution Center case... where's our 'expert'?" Leon said, looking at the empty desk Goto had been assigned.

Daley shrugged. "Beats me... he was in earlier, reading his paper. Do you think we need him for this?"

"No, we can probably ask a few questions without him holding our hands. Come on, let's go before I fall asleep filling out papers."

"Why don't you just get Nene-chan to do it for you like usual?"

"She's... out today. I think she has a sick friend or something," Leon evaded. Daley nodded and made some comment, but Leon didn't hear it. Looking out a window at the city, he wondered where Priss was.

 

Nene entered Sylia's office at the Silky Doll and sighed. Sylia was sitting just as she left her, in front of a computer scanning profit/loss spreadsheets. Nene could see, however, that it was the same spreadsheet that she had been staring at a half-hour ago.

In all her time in the Knight Sabers, Nene had never seen Sylia in this state. She wondered, though, if anyone not familiar with Sylia would notice. Quietly, she put the cup of coffee down next to Sylia. When this elicited no response, Nene spoke up. "Sylia?"

"Hmmmm?" Sylia focused on her and noticed the coffee, as if for the first time. "Oh, I'm sorry, Nene. I was lost in my thoughts there." She took a sip of the coffee and turned back to the spreadsheet.

"Are you OK, Sylia?" Nene asked quietly.

Sylia turned back and looked at the youngest Knight Saber. She must really be letting the situation get to her if Nene had noticed her distraction. Mackie would have noticed, she knew. He was good at picking up on his older sister's emotions, despite how deeply she buried them, and his clowning antics had often brought a smile to her heart, if not her face. Now that he was in Germany, she found she missed him, more so because he was the only family she had left.

Abruptly, Sylia wrenched her attention back to Nene, alarmed. She had never known herself to woolgather like that. Nene was now looking at her with open concern on her face. What had she asked?

"I'm fine, Nene," she said, replaying the last few seconds in her head. "Just a bit tired today, I guess."

Nene's mouth hardened into a line. "You didn't get any sleep last night, did you?" she asked, inflection barely making it a question.

"I was busy, yes. There was some changes to be made on the plans for Vision's suit, and I was working on a modification for our kinetic railguns. It was not the first time I've put in an all-nighter."

"That wasn't all you did," Nene said. "I checked. You spent half the night on the nets, looking for any mention of Priss."

Sylia put the coffee down and replied calmly. "Since you spent the WHOLE night looking for answers about Priss, I hardly think you have the right to judge my actions."

Nene's face went bright red to match her hair and she shuffled her feet like a schoolgirl before she recovered her composure. "How--How did you know?"

"A little program of mine followed your movements in the nets and kept me informed," Sylia replied, sipping her coffee again. Nene's face grew red again, this time in embarrassment that she hadn't notice the tail. Then she grew stubborn again.

"That's not the point, Sylia! We need you to be at your best right now... I mean, you're the leader of this group. We need you."

Sylia sighed. "Maybe you're right. If I go and get some rest, will that satisfy you?"

Nene beamed. "That'd be fine, Sylia--"

"As long as you go and do the same."

Nene pouted. "Awwwwww, Sylia!"

"Now, Nene. Right now, we need every one of us at their best, not just me."

"Hai," Nene grumbled.

 

A little later, Sylia lay on her bed with her eyes closed, but she was not asleep. Freed of the mindless distraction of the Silky Doll, she kept seeing Priss's face in her mind, over the barrel of a gun. Priss was shouting at her, and the barrel flashed, propelling a slug right at her--

Sylia sat up, breathing hard. She wasn't sure if that had been a nightmare or a waking dream of some sort. She hadn't had a nightmare since she was a child, unless her memories of her father being killed counted. But this had been different.

Getting up, she walked over to her refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of spring water, drinking to relieve the dryness in her mouth.

What if Nene was wrong? She thought to herself. What if I'm not what the Knight Sabers need? Have I led them to nothing but this?

Sylia sat down on a chair and held her face in her hands, wishing, for a moment, she could still cry.

 

Shinohara-Toyohata Heavy Industries was headquartered in a large factory/office building located in the center of the GENOM Industrial Park, a large collection of industrial facilities built on reclaimed land between MegaTokyo and Yokahama. The ST logo was predominant, Leon was quick to notice, with the words, "A subsidiary of GENOM" showing up in small print only occasionally. A pretty brunette was manning the phones outside the ST President's office,

"I'm sorry," she said in a brisk, no-nonsense tone, totally ignoring Leon's smile, "but Mr. Shinohara is seeing someone at the moment. If you'd like to wait..." She indicated a row of seats.

"I made an appointment for two o'clock," Daley protested. The secretary just looked at him blankly, as if to say "And...?"

Leon was too tired to deal with this nonsense. "Fine, we'll just let ourselves in." With that he strode towards the door. Daley paused only to put his hand to his head in exasperation.

"Sir? I'm sorry, you can't just barge in there... SIR!" the secretary said, futilely trying to make Leon stop.

Throwing open the doors to the office, Leon marched inside... and came to a complete stop.

The office was smaller than one would expect, with none of the grand pretentiousness most GENOM-affiliates tried for. The ceiling was of average height, and if the room was decorated with wood paneling and thick carpeting, it was done tastefully. Seated behind a desk was a grey-haired, distinguished-looking man whom Leon dimly realized must be Asuma Shinohara. But none of this is what drew Leon up short.

From his seat in front of Shinohara's desk, Goto looked up blandly at Leon. "Ah, you've finally gotten here. Good. Come take a look at what we've found."

 

"A labor museum?" Leon asked incredulously. He was now in a large room filled with displays and mock-ups of the large robotic vehicles. Daley and Goto were looking around, interestedly, while Shinohara stood off to one side, proudly.

"Labors were a big part of Shinohara Industries, back before we merged with Toyohata... and later with GENOM," he said, a faint bitterness touching his voice. "I thought it fitting to make some sort of memorial to them."

Goto was nodding to himself, looking at the pictures. "Quite impressive. Very good collection indeed."

"Don't you think you have more important things to do than admire the photos?" Leon said to him.

"Hmmmm? Like what?"

Throwing up his hands, Leon stalked away a few feet. Then he turned and faced Goto again. "I don't understand you! You're assigned to provide us with expert advice BEFORE we even know labors MIGHT be involved with this case. You volunteer nothing until we find the answer ourselves. And now you came and told a civilian about the case when you knew we were coming here today to question him."

Shinohara began to laugh. Leon glared at him. "What's so funny?"

Still, chuckling, Shinohara walked over to pull a photo off the wall. "Same old Chief Goto. You never know what he's up to until the end, and even then you're not sure what he's done." He tossed the photo to Leon. Looking at it, Leon could see a group of people gathered around the labor Goto had identified as an AV-98 Ingram. One of them was obviously Goto, although younger. He could also see the young girl from the promotional ad Nene had provided him. But another man bore an uncanny resemblance to--

"You? You were a police officer?"

Shinohara nodded. "Years ago, before my father and uncle passed away and I inherited the company. But I didn't bring you all down here to discuss my past. Or, at least, not that part of it. Come here."

Shinohara led them over to a small video monitor. It had a touch screen menu on it. Shinohara ran one finger down the list of items and then punched "Patlabors in Action" to get a submenu. Then, without hesitation, he punched another button, this one labeled "The Gates of Babylon."

The screen changed to what appeared to be old news footage. As Leon and the others watched, an evil-looking, black and grey labor fought an Ingram in a toe-to-toe slugfest.

"This happened back in 1999," Asuma narrated, never taking his eyes off the screen. "The Griffon Labor was perhaps the most diabolical labor ever designed. It was faster than anything ever produced, strong, and very resistant to damage. But it had two other little features."

"At the Distribution Center," Goto said, "it seems whatever attacked came in by sea. If a labor was involved, there is no way it could have come in any other direction and not attracted notice. The Griffon Labor possessed at least a limited amphibious capability."

"We're assuming that what happened at GPCC was another act of terrorism by the same people," Asuma continued. "GENOM says it was an accident, but we don't think so. People nearby say they heard, among other things, a very powerful jet engine." He gestured at the screen. "Well, see for yourself."

On the screen, the battle between the Griffon and the Patlabor had apparently reached some kind of conclusion. Both labors were looking extremely damaged. The Ingram grappled with its opponent, grabbing hold of the arm. Huge, delta-shaped wings sprang up from behind the Griffon's back. There was a small explosion as the Griffon shed its arm, like a lizard losing its tail, and launched itself high into the sky.

"The Griffon is the only labor we know of that had true flight capability. We think someone has resurrected this monster and is using it against GENOM."

Leon finally looked away from the screen. "Who? Who made this thing before?"

"A company known as SCHAFT built it, though they later claimed it was all done by a renegade executive named Utsumi," Shinohara said. "We weren't able to prove they did it on purpose, though we did nail them for the cost of the damages done. They also claimed all plans and specifications for the Griffon had been destroyed."

Leon thought about it. "This is all supposition, though. There is no proof that what destroyed the Distribution Center was a Griffon, let alone GPCC."

"True," Goto said. "But, I think we've taken up enough of Mr. Shinohara's time. Thank you, Shinohara-kun."

"No problem, Chief."

 

As the three policemen walked out of the ST Building, Daley was shaking his head.

"Do you always operate this way?" he asked of Goto, who was lighting up a cigarette.

"Sometimes," Goto answered, "but usually I don't have to go to so much trouble."

"Well, we still don't have anything we can use," Leon grumbled for about the hundredth time. "Without confirmation that a Griffon destroyed the Distribution Center, we have nothing to point to SCHAFT."

"I took a look at GENOM's records for the night the Distribution Center was bombed," Goto said. "A delivery was to be made by truck to the center that night."

"Right, but we found the remains of a truck at the site. The driver must have been killed like everyone else at the site," Daley answered.

"Wait a second, Daley," Leon said. "The forensics report said the remains of a TRAILER was found. They weren't sure about the truck itself. I remember they speculated that it might have been unrecognizable without a detailed examination."

"Right," said Goto. "Now, the driver of that truck was one Jim Ashima. His home was attacked by a pair of rogue boomers the night of the incident. No sign was found of Mr. Ashima afterwards, but there was the body of one Clara Hamanabe, charred almost beyond recognition. She was the foreman at the Distribution Center."

"GODDAMNIT!" Leon yelled. "GENOM was trying to cover something up, weren't they? I knew they were up to something!"

"So, Ashima and Hamanabe apparently escaped the Distribution Center... but if Ashima is still alive, how do we find him?"

Goto coughed. "Well, that is where the associate of a friend of mine comes in."

Leon eyed him skeptically. "An associate of a friend?"

Not meeting Leon's eyes, Goto pulled out a small envelope. "My friend's associate was already looking for Mr. Ashima to see what he knew about the incident. In return for my information, we get Mr. Ashima's whereabouts."

"And that is?" Daley asked.

"The Canyons."

"Great! Just great!" Leon said, sarcastically. "How are we supposed to find him in there?"

"Well, there is an address as well."

Leon and Daley looked at the note more closely. "Well, it's something. But that area is disputed gang territory. Even GENOM's security forces tread lightly there. Police officers get eaten for breakfast," Daley said.

"We need Ashima," Leon said. "If he can ID whatever destroyed the Distribution Center as the Griffon, then we can start building a case against SCHAFT."

"We're going to need some backup just to go in there, Leon."

"Don't worry, Daley... I have just the man we need in mind."

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2034

Night

 

Vision worked out to a tape of one of her concerts in the Knight Sabers' small gymnasium behind Doc Raven's Garage. Sweat ran down her face as she mindlessly went through the workout program Linna had devised for her before she left.

Linna, she thought, where are you? Vision had been by Linna's place this afternoon to find signs of a struggle and no Linna to be found. A call to Sylia had not been reassuring. Sylia had only said to wait and trust her. Yes, Linna was in danger, but they knew what they were doing and it had to be done.

First Priss runs off, now Linna has disappeared. What's happening to the Knight Sabers? she thought. Did I join them just to watch them disintegrate around me?

A more frightening thought came to her. Are they disintegrating because I joined their little family? Linna is the only one I'm friends with... I think I could be friends with Nene. Priss... I don't know. She has so much anger running through her... and Linna and Nene claim she's -mellowed- since they met her. As for Dr. Stingray... I wonder if she has any friends, even these three.

Maybe joining the Knight Sabers wasn't such a good idea. I can still back out. They know they can trust me not to talk, right? I kept quiet about Linna all this time...

Vision tried to get back into the flow of the music, put aside these negative thoughts. "Say Yes" blared out of her CD Deck, and she remembered how she came to write that song, just after Irene had died.

Irene's death had devastated her. She had spent days just lying on her bed, staring at a picture of her and Irene and their long-dead parents. She remembered the dark irony she had felt, for she had planned to go to MegaTokyo the week after her death, to surprise her and meet her fiance... and now Grandfather was returning from attending her funeral.

How long she had laid there, curled up in a little ball of denial, she didn't know. Finally, hunger and thirst made her go downstairs to the kitchen. Passing her grandfather's study, she heard him mention Irene, and, eavesdropping, she learned GENOM was behind it all. Suddenly, she had a purpose in life again. The only other thing she needed was an way to achieve that purpose, and Grandfather had reluctantly supplied her a prototype mecha which she could use to avenge both her parents and Irene.

"Say Yes" had been part of a sham tour, designed solely to give her a reason to be in MegaTokyo. It was easy to smuggle in the crab mecha with the rest of her touring gear. But the song had been another outlet for her, and she had poured into it all her grief and outrage about Irene's death. In the end, she had abandoned revenge, and resumed her career.

That's why I want to join the Knight Sabers, she thought to herself. So no one else will ever feel the way I did because of GENOM. Not for revenge, not even for Irene... this is for me. It's what I want to do.


Chapter 6

 

"In the end, one could say that GENOM was its own worst enemy. Chairman Quincy deliberately fostered an environment of cutthroat competition among his underlings and often culled his ranks viciously, ensuring that only the best worked for him. The very best got the powerful (and precarious) Special Assistant slots. One didn't get ahead in GENOM by being a 'nice guy,' so we can infer much about the characters of these people.

"Given this corporate attitude, one might wonder how Quincy could tolerate a group such as the Knight Sabers. However, every GENOM effort to eradicate the Knight Sabers seems to have been the personal vendetta of one or more Special Assistants. At no time did Quincy direct any specific actions be taken against the mercenary group.

"This has led many people to believe that the Knight Sabers were a GENOM operation, designed by Quincy to help in his cullings of the rank and file, and to assuage public reaction to rogue boomers. However, it is also possible that Quincy merely used the groups existence to his own advantage. Not even someone as farsighted as he could predict the ultimate effect the Knight Sabers would have on GENOM."

-- The Knight Sabers and GENOM: Symbiosis

Dr. Takanaka Hiroe, 2046

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2034

Evening

 

In the heart of the Canyons, Kaz's Pack holed up in an abandoned building and began to party. (A pack is different from a gang. Kaz and his compatriots would take great offense at the latter term and anyone using it would enjoy a long and painful re-education on proper terminology.) Beer flowed as the bikers told each other tales about their exploits in the day's ride. More than a few tried unsuccessfully to attract Priss's attention and were rebuffed. She just sat out in the darkness, beyond the light of the carefully constructed fire.

Lying back against a decrepit wall, Priss considered her day. Kaz had invited her to ride with the pack as they cruised around, even letting her borrow another member's bike. It had been wonderful, she admitted, to be surrounded by comrades, once again trying to prove to the world how bad they were. She had steered clear of actual combat, though.

Kaz hasn't changed, she thought, except maybe to get bigger. And he didn't have that scar before. How long has he been running with the pack, anyway...? He seemed old when I joined.

She snorted. Everyone had seemed 'old' when she ran away from the orphanage to live on the streets. It hadn't been easy, especially for a seventeen year old going entirely on attitude. Priss knew how the streets worked. They would chew up and spit out anyone not as tough as they seemed.

Fortunately for her, she was picked up by the pack, then led by Kaz's brother Daisuke. Daisuke had been only a few years older than Priss at the time, but he had an arrogant style and unparalleled skill with anything on two wheels that earned him respect. He had taught her everything she knew about motorcycles, up until the day he was shot by someone in a passing car. Priss never learned why, but the car had had GENOM plates, and that was enough.

"Priss? You awake?" came a rumbling bass voice from the direction of the fire. A huge, bulky shadow blocked the light as Kaz walked over. Behind him, Priss could hear the bikers laughing at some tasteless joke. If she listened hard enough, she knew her enhanced hearing could pick up the conversation easily. She didn't try.

"Yeah, Kaz... I'm even still decent." She took a sip of the now-warm beer in her hand and grimaced.

"You? Ha!" came an answering bark of laughter. Kaz eased his huge bulk inside and sat down beside her. "So, you gonna tell me now what brought you back to the streets?"

Priss tensed. "Who says I ever left?"

Another sharp laugh. "Come on, Priss... think we haven't seen you on stage at Hot Legs? Or heard about your bad fucking luck with record dealers? Word gets around, you know."

Priss slammed a fist into Kaz's beefy arm. "If you've watched me sing, why didn't you come up after the show, you bastard?"

Kaz held up his hands in a warding motion, laughing. "Hey, those bouncers there are MEAN." He shook his head. "Have to admit, me and the rest of the pack don't make the best first impression on authority types. We didn't want to ruin your gig by 'persuading' them to let us see you. Did get a fairly decent bootleg, tho." He grinned.

"Bastard," Priss said again with a grin.

"Now, come on, what's eatin' at you? You've gone to ground, obviously, but what has you running?"

"Myself... in a way," Priss answered nervously. Kaz just sat there, watching her. "I... made a mistake and got some cybernetics installed." Priss looked down at her hands, wishing she could lie to one of her oldest friends. "You can't tell, because it's a lot of little machines, crawling around inside me--"

"Nano-whatsits or something. Hottest thing on the black market nowadays," Kaz said grimly. "They've also burned more new chums out or turned 'em psycho than anyone can count." He stared compassionately at Priss. "I won't ask were you got the money for it, nor why you felt you had to do it. I get the feelin' I wouldn't like them answers--"

"No... I just can't tell you..." She looked away from him.

"So, whatcha going to do?" he asked, putting a hand comfortingly on her shoulder.

"I don't know... I ran... I haven't been able to think it out..." she replied, turning slightly toward him.

Kaz tsked. "Now, that was a damn foolish thing to go and do. Still," he grinned, "you got me and the pack. You can ride with us as you get your head in order."

"Thanks, Kaz..."

"Listen, Little One," Kaz began, using a nickname he had foisted on her years ago. Of course, almost everyone was 'little' to Kaz. "Will you take a word of advice from an old friend?"

"I'll listen."

Kaz chuckled at that, shaking his head wryly. "You were always like that, always wanting to go yer own way, stubbornly insisting you wuz right..." He chuckled again and Priss was surprised to feel her cheeks flush. She felt like a child who was being berated by an adult. It was not a feeling she relished.

"Listen here, Kaz, you can't--"

"Now, now... just a casual-like observation of how little you've changed..." Kaz chuckled again, then turned serious. "Now, listen... this isn't something you can out-stubborn... I've met many a chummer who's burnt himself out, and some who didn't... You gotta ride this thing like a wave, accept it and use it... or it'll smash you against the fucking rocks."

Priss thought about it. That might make sense. It was totally alien to her way of dealing with things, but... "I'll think about it... y'know something, Kaz?"

"What?"

"I've never realized... you've got the soul of a poet..."

Kaz blushed. A funny sight on such a big, rough-looking man.

"...and the mouth of an asshole," Priss concluded.

Kaz roared with laughter. "So Kiku-chan's always told me," he said, clapping one beefy hand across Priss' back. "Come on, there's beer and grub, and some music... if I get drunk enough, I'll sing karaoke with you!"

Kaz began to hum 'Konya wa Hurricane' badly and off-tune, stopping only when a rather solid fist belted him in the gut playfully.

"Never do that to one of my songs, Kaz, "Priss rejoined jokingly as they made their way to the fire.

 

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2034

Night

 

Linna sweated inside the confines of the Griffon's VR helmet. She thought working with the hardsuits would have prepared her for almost anything, but the Griffon's systems had been designed with cutting-edge technology and the style and the scale were completely different. It made piloting a Griffon have about as much in common with a hardsuit as piloting a fighter jet had with wearing medieval armor.

"Watch it, Four!" came a yell over her comm system. Instinctively, she dropped and rolled. The Griffon effortlessly followed through the maneuver, barely avoiding a missile. She swore.

To her right, there was a flash as Griffon-3 unloaded about half its missile payload in the direction the missile had come from. Half of the firestorm hit a building, which promptly fell in on itself, filling the street with smoke and dust. The rest spiralled picturesquely down streets, exploding singly and in pairs as they hit random objects.

Linna got to her feet. Moving in the Griffon wasn't the problem, really. It was the sensor system. The Griffon had optics located on its head, belly, and back, as well as side-lookers. The entire image as flashed to her on the inside of her helmet, which made her feel nauseous. Still, she gritted her teeth and tried again to make sense of it.

"Damn it, Three! You're going to get us killed! Stop wasting ammo!" came the irate voice of Griffon-5.

"Awww... wasting ammo is half the fun, Dora, baby!" came the insolent reply.

"Listen, fuckface, shape up or..."

"Or what, you gonna shoot me? Look, ADP K-12s! Yum-Yum, it's lunchtime!" Griffon-3 signed off and began running forward.

"Three! Max, get back here! You can't run off half-cocked! Damn!" Dora exclaimed angrily. Her Griffon spun to face Linna. "Four, cover me while I go help that fucker out."

"Roger!" Linna replied, arming her long-range missiles. Her scope showed the K-12 armored troopers clustered at an intersection a block away.

Max, in Griffon-3, was charging, letting loose his remaining missiles as he went, with Dora, in Griffon-5, behind him. A few missiles aimed at the ADP should help, Linna thought, engaging the system. Something flashed on one of the screens in front of her--

Then the world spun wildly as something hit her from behind. Alarms rang out deafening her and she screamed in surprise as everything went black.

Then came the verdict from on high, in bright, crimson letters: DEAD.

Linna cursed as she pulled the helmet off.

 

"So, Bud, how's our new recruit doing?" Jackson asked casually. Beside him, on the catwalk overlooking the Griffon's staging area, the middle-aged Indian man with long, graying hair grunted noncommittally.

"She's picking up the techniques fast enough, even in the few hours she's been at it," Bud said as he observed the scene below. Three Griffons were the center of attention for most of the techs swarming around. Inside the black mechs, their pilots had been involved in a complex, interactive simulation. A simulation which had ended quickly as a reinforcement squad of K-12 troopers massacred the Griffons from the rear. "But she's having more trouble getting her experience to 'cross over' from power-suit to Labor than you."

"Well, I had very little experience. If she is a former corp merc, she would have a lot more." Jackson's eyes narrowed as he squinted down at Griffon Number Four. Linda, the new recruit in question, was climbing out of it and cursing a blue streak. No motivational problems there. "And Max and Dora? How are they coming along?"

Bud grunted again. "Max has no sense of subtlety at all. Still, in a pitched firefight, he's good enough. Dora's fine unless she loses her temper. Then she's about the same. I doubt any more training will really help, in any event." For the first time in the conversation, he looked at Jackson. "I'll be leaving soon then." He sounded almost challenging.

"You're glad to be leaving us, then?" Jackson said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. If he had his way, Bud would have been terminated the instant his usefulness was over. He was not committed to the Cause, merely a hireling with useful skills. But because the AGF's backers had hired him, the AGF's concerns were secondary, even with regards to security.

Still, our backers will soon have a surprise or two on their hands, Jackson thought. That will be more than enough payback.

"I never approved of bringing the Griffon back, nor of all this," Bud replied. "The sins of my past just caught up with me."

"I don't see you turning down the money," Jackson remarked sarcastically.

"We all pay for our mistakes, Mr. Jackson," Bud replied. "Sooner or later. I think you will end up paying a lot more than I."

 

In a small room nearby, the boss and two men in suits watched the results of the Griffons' simulation drill.

"Are you sure they are ready, Ms. Jackson?" Wilhelm Godhardt asked, looking again at the data on the screen.

"Oh, yes," replied the boss, looking unconcerned. "Max--Griffon-3-- just likes to show off in simulations. In real combat, he is quite efficient." Her voice was cool and sounded almost amused as she watched the overweight executive pretend to understand the technical display. The man behind him, also dressed in a suit, looked on with the practiced eye of a soldier. He was the one she kept an especially close eye on.

"But it seems so... unorthodox..."

"If I may, sir...?" the soldier said, interrupting. Godhardt nodded to him to continue. "The type of covert terrorism that Ms. Jackson is involved in does require a certain... unorthodoxy in their methods. It keeps the enemy off-balance and confused, which helps overcome a numerical disadvantage." The lecture was delivered in crisp tones and 'Ms. Jackson' knew it was for her benefit. Godhardt was a bureaucratic fool, but nominally led the operation. The soldier was insurance against his incompetence and no doubt had specific orders covering any treachery.

"Thank you, Johann," Godhardt snapped, upset over being shown up in front of outsiders. SSS Colonel or no, he would have to learn who was in charge here! "Now, shall we go over the final stage of the operation?"

The three of them clustered around a table with a map of Mega-Tokyo on it. The boss spoke first. "After one more drill, striking at the GENOM Industrial Park, my squad of Griffons will proceed with the primary phase of the plan. We will get the Griffons as close to GENOM Tower as possible, then go on a rampage through the city, making it look like we are GENOM mechs that have gone rogue.

"We expect ADP and GENOM Security resistance to be high. That's why we targeted the Distribution Center and the new GPCC, to see what sort of defense GENOM could mount. We did well against the Bu-12Bs, but the ferocity of the construction boomers at GPCC was unexpected."

"Are you sure that you are prepared if such a thing happens again?" Godhardt interjected.

"Sir," Colonel Hineman said, "that is part of the reason a final drill against the Industrial Park was authorized. Not only to test their new member in battle, but we must see if GENOM can overcome them again."

Godhardt frowned as he looked at the map. After a minute, the boss continued. "After our rampage, which gives your security forces an excuse to intervene and look good, we disappear. Your plant in GENOM then makes sure the ADP and the press sees the falsified cargo statement."

"Yes," Godhardt said. "Then a major scandal will erupt and the way will be opened for SCHAFT to triumphantly re-enter Japan!"

"Which, in the long term, will help achieve YOUR organization's goal of eliminating GENOM," Hineman interjected smoothly.

"And you're sure that the public will buy such a flimsy story?"

"Following your rampage, the more blatant the proof, the angrier the public will be with GENOM. We have taken steps to make it look good, however. Our plant made sure a total incompetent was set up to take the fall for the clumsy cover-up. Unfortunately, he was terminated by GENOM recently, but this is even better. Now he can't be questioned about the matter. His disappearance will spread rumors of another cover-up."

The boss frowned at the map of MegaTokyo again, and then nodded. "Then I think we're ready to proceed."

 

Nene nearly banged her head against her keyboard in frustration. So far, all her data searches for information on Priss had turned up nothing. She had not held out much hope in the first place. Priss preferred to work with cash and hard currency rather than convenient, easily traceable, electronic credit.

She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced. It was cold. How long had it been sitting there? How long had SHE been sitting here? She rubbed her eyes tiredly.

Well, one last place to check, the most dangerous place, she thought. She covered her tracks in the bank computer she had just raided. A small mistake transferred $1,000,000 from Microsoft to a college student's account, but since it couldn't be traced to her, she left it. Who knows, the kid might even be able to spend some of it.

She knew she wasn't in the right frame of mind for it, but she went on anyway. First, she bounced from site to site in order to confuse any traces. Then she then activated her access-cruncher to sneak her into GENOM's nets.

 

Dixon Kelly was seated in front of his computer as well. Unlike Nene, however, he had no monitor or keyboard. Instead, a simple cord was plugged into a socket at the base of his neck. He seemed to be napping, but his eyes moved wildly beneath his eyelids, as if he were in a dream.

In actuality, his cyberjack was letting him directly access the GENOM network. His thoughts were interpreted as computer signals and computer output were translated into something his brain could use. It had been expensive and dangerous to install, even with all the cybernetics out on the market. "Wireheads" tended to go insane or die, their brains fried because they tried to process too much data too quickly, but Kelly managed the dataflow with ease. It was a rare talent that made him valuable to Quincy and GENOM.

Right now, Kelly was inside his virtual 'office,' a tiny computer node set aside for his own use. He was preparing several programs to alter data in GENOM's records.

Damn it, he thought as he reworked a troublesome line of code. All that work to put Anderson in place and he eliminates himself just as the plan is falling into place! Well, the plan is flexible enough to take some changes.

When SCHAFT had first approached him with their offer, Kelly had been skeptical. It seemed like there were too many variables and loose ends for it to actually work. But he was young, and ambitious. Having risen as far as Special Assistant to the Chairman, he knew that he could expect no more and he faced some unpleasant choices. The first was a long, slow decline as the Chairman turned to newer, more exploitable, personnel. There also was a crash-and-burn scenario where he eventually failed the chairman, just like Mason did. Neither was particularly pleasant, and the only other option was to hope the Chairman died soon. That was something the old bastard seemed to be in no hurry about.

But by helping SCHAFT weaken and then assimilate GENOM, he could gain an enormous windfall. He could head the SCHAFT-GENOM operations for the all of Southeast Asia. There might even be a chance at the top slot in a few more years. The lure proved too much to resist, and so he had put Anderson in place and inserted certain records that would incriminate GENOM once the Griffons went public. Now he just needed a new scapegoat to pin the blame on so that the Chairman never suspected him.

Hmmm... why not kill two birds with one stone. That new guy Larson is the Chairman's golden boy at the moment, and he's been getting cozy with Madigan... if I implicate them, I can take them out before they can team up against me...

An alarm caught his attention. Someone had breached the GENOM Net's Security Level One and was headed deeper, triggering one of his special, personal alarms.

Well, I needed a break, he thought, leaving his computer node for the net at large. A little cybercombat should loosen me up... I'll wait at Level Three... if the cracker can get that far, then they'll be a challenge worth my time.

 

Nene breezed through the outermost layers of GENOM's security. The real challenge lay ahead, she knew, but the ease of her success cheered her up a little.

She was too tired to even notice Kelly's secret alarm.

Up ahead was the Level Three security barrier. The first of the real challenges. No cracker knew exactly how many levels there were to GENOM's security network. Nene herself had made it to Level Five once. Someone once claimed to have breached Level Seven, but he wasn't believed. Nene believed that there were six levels total, and itched to find and crack the final barrier. The difficulty of the levels increased logarithmically as one moved deeper, but Nene was sure she could do it.

She moved deeper into the net, her programs searching for Priss's name in the files. It slowed her down and took some of her attention, so she was surprised when another icon challenged her.

The icon was that of a standard GENOM Security Daemon, a high level program for dealing with intruders. How Daemons dealt with an intruder depended on their programming and sophistication. Most merely booted you off. There were rumors that some could send you a lethal jolt of electricity through your VR setup. Nene didn't even like to think about what would happen with one of those new, experimental cyberjacks.

The Security Daemons at GENOM were styled rather unimaginatively as ebon and silver samurai. The samurai attacked with sword icons that automatically booted you off the system and ran a trace on your location. Nene didn't fear them at all. But this one moved differently, more fluidly and the blazing sword it held did not look normal. She stopped in her tracks and eyed the strange sentinel as it dropped into a combat stance.

 

Kelly smiled to himself as he faced the anonymous intruder. He or she was quite good, moving almost undetectably through the GENOM nets. The intruder's icon was nondescript, but he sensed that was no more than a cloak to fool the security systems. It was because of the cloak that he had decided to 'possess' a Security Daemon icon and spark a confrontation. Since his passive scans couldn't penetrate the cloak, he'd just have to see what was under it the hard way.

 

Nene readied her Aegis program to protect her icon against any Intrusion Countermeasures. Why was it just sitting there? she wondered, a little unnerved by the icon's immobility. Best if I hit it hard and fast. Calling up an old program, she unleashed what looked like a swarm of bugs onto GENOM's network. Alarms went off as the program icon appeared, but the bugs sped toward their target unconcerned.

 

So, my opponent is young and impetuous, thought Kelly, swiftly analyzing the Bug program. His direct link with the nets let him feel his way around Nene's program and determine a countermeasure.

The human brain is a marvelous thing. It can spot patterns and analyze familiar details intuitively, almost without conscious thought. The raw datafeed of a computer network could, and often did, overload the relatively weak organic system. But those who survived learned to sense the raw code in ways a console or VR jockey could never imagine.

 

Nene gasped as her program dissolved harmlessly against the armor of her opponent. He shouldn't be able to do that! she thought, even as she began to unlink her system. Not being a fool, she didn't want to face this Daemon without being better prepared.

Just as she began the exit routine, the Daemon swung its blazing sword through her icon. Her cloak crashed, revealing the Knight Saber icon for an instant before it deresolved into a million bits of light.

Back in the real world, Nene yanked her VR helmet off and began to type furiously at her keyboard. The Daemon's sword program had downloaded a virus into her system that not only crashed her cloak but was...

Her typed commands vanished from the screen. There was a burst of static, then the screen was filled by four simple words and a symbol:

 

BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME :)

 

A simple reboot showed that her entire system was wiped clean. Even the operating system was gone, except for a small little program that kept repeating the message.

Nene just sat and watched the idiotic message blink again and again. Someone had just blown her away on the nets and callously destroyed thousands of man-hours of work. They were backed up, of course, but could only be restored through much time and effort. She didn't cry or curse, though.

Nene just got very, very mad.

 

A Knight Saber, Kelly thought to himself as he jacked out of the network, smiling. He almost regretted not tracing her down with another little program, but then shook his head. Whoever it had been, they were almost certainly planning to strike back, now that they knew what to expect. And whoever it was, this programmer was good. Kelly relished the thought of facing this Knight Saber again, when he or she was ready for him.

 

FRIDAY, AUGUST 26, 2034

Night

 

Leon tapped his pen against his desk in a nervous rhythm. It had been almost three days now since Priss disappeared. He felt like he hadn't slept for at least that long. He swore that once he broke this Griffon case, he would take some time off and seriously search for her.

Suddenly, the dispatch alarm blared. "Attention, rogue boomer alert in the Canyons. Squad three, prepare for dispatch."

Leon's face broke into a glowing grin. Decker had done it. He sprinted for the vehicle bay. Behind him, Daley followed, barely managing to grab his coat. Goto watched them rush out the door, then leisurely picked up his phone.

"Asuma," he said when the other answered, "better give Shige and the others a call. I think things may start jumping soon." After listening to Asuma's affirmative reply, he turned back to his newspaper.

 

In the squad bay, Sergeant Decker was already in full armor. Squad Three was checking their gear and boarding their carrier as Leon ran up, still shrugging on a flak vest.

"Goddamnit, rookie," Decker bellowed, "how many times have I told you that vest don't do shit if it isn't fastened properly!" Then his face broke open in a huge, shit-eating grin. "Back in the saddle for another ride, eh?"

"If you don't mind me and my partner," Leon said, hooking his thumb back at Daley, "tagging along."

"Hell, it's an open party."

In a lower voice, Leon said, "Your men know what's really up, right?"

"Yup," Decker replied, in an equally low voice. "They're ready for a little urban reconnaissance. They're all vets, too, so they should be able to handle themselves. You sure that our partners in this dance are going to get their invite?"

"Being taken care of, even as we speak."

 

Elsewhere in the ADPolice building, one of the dispatchers answering phones made a call of his own. When the other end picked up, he began to speak quickly, but quietly.

"It's Henton, ADPolice dispatch. Listen, a dispatch for the Canyons just came in. Scuttlebutt has it that McNichol is looking for something to crack open that Distribution Center case, using the rogue boomer story as cover. Yeah, I thought you might want to know that. Good, bye."

Peter Henton sighed as the call ended. He didn't consider himself an informer, really. He just picked up a few extra yen, reporting harmless little things. It was hard enough to get by in this day and age. No sense making it worse by turning down little opportunities, right? And GENOM paid very well--

His thoughts were interrupted by a hand dropping on his shoulder. Turning around, his heart nearly stopped as the broad, impassive face of Chief Matsui frowned down at him.

"Good job, Henton. You did exactly what we thought you'd do."

Henton began to stammer out an explanation, but Matsui would hear none of it. "I want your badge on my desk and you cleared out by the end of the shift. Write up your resignation, if you like. Internal Affairs will be in touch." He gestured to the two grim-faced ADP officers behind him. "These fellows will make sure you don't make any more phone calls to your friends."

Matsui spun around on his heel and strode out. Damn, if finding a bad cop didn't leave a bad taste in his mouth. At least they were able to make use of him. He hoped that Goto was right again about this, otherwise things would go very badly for Leon when he got back.

If he got back.

 

"Sir, our informant in ADPolice has reported that Detective McNichol is entering the Canyons with a squad," intel boomer Bu78I-05673 said to Kelly in a flat, emotionless voice. "There is a 87% probability that he is hunting for the missing Jim Ashima, who is speculated to be hiding there. Ashima was scheduled for termination on--"

"I know the particulars of that case, 05673. Dispatch a boomer squad to the Canyons. They are to apprehend Ashima if they can, terminate him if not. I don't want Ashima airing our dirty laundry to the ADPolice. The Distribution Center is our problem, we'll handle it. And I want deniability on this, down the line."

"Yes, sir."

Meanwhile, thought Kelly, I better give SCHAFT a call. It'd be best if neither the boomers, Ashima, nor the ADPolice left the Canyons alive... then no one will be able to head off the plan.

 

Priss looked around the abandoned building, the third the pack had inhabited in as many days and cursed to herself. She was feeling caged in, even in the loose confines of the pack. During the day, when they were all out on their bikes, she could push the feeling away with the feel of the wind and the sun on her face. But at night, she felt trapped by the cold concrete walls around her.

The problem, she thought to herself, is that I'm not really doing anything. I'm riding around, proving I'm still the best there is on a bike, but it doesn't really mean anything.

She had spoken to Kikuko, Kaz's wife, about it once. A woman almost as large as Kaz, Kikuko had a good heart and was wiser than she let on. She said very little to support Priss, however.

"Priss-chan, of course the Pack doesn't DO anything," she had said. "We're people who try as hard as we can NOT to do what someone else wants us to do. Some of us find that enough. Others, like you, feel the need to do more. Lord have mercy, child, you can't crawl back into the womb! That's what you're trying to do." Kikuko had then eyed Priss shrewdly, making the singer very uncomfortable. "We're just a place where you can rest for a bit. Try as you might, you can't change yourself back."

Priss didn't know what to make of this. Have I really changed so much? She thought. She didn't think she was any different than she had been during her days in the Pack, but...

Her thoughts were interrupted then by a arm dropping rudely across her shoulder. "Hey, Priss-san," Moro, the thug who had attempted to mug her when she had met up with the Pack, slurred, obviously quite drunk. His interest in her had only increased over the days they had ridden together, while her contempt had grown.

She gritted her teeth. "I'd rather be alone now, Moro," she said, stepping away from him.

The biker stumbled toward her, a drunken hand turning her around. Leaning close enough that she could smell his alcohol-laden breath, he spat out, "Still think you're too good for old Moro, eh? Think that as long as that bastard Kaz is screwing you, you're safe, huh?" He wobbled unsteadily on his feet and took another drink. "Hell, I could show you a much better time than him!"

Moro belched and grinned. He would show all those assholes in the Pack. If he could steal away this bitch from Kaz, it would bring back some of the face he had lost in the alley when they met. She was also one of the sexiest babes he had seen in a long time, and that, combined with his need to get some revenge on her, drove his hormones into overdrive. Hell, all women wanted him; they just liked to play hard to get.

Priss saw red. How dare he think she would come between Kaz and Kikuko! This asshole didn't deserve any more courtesy. She'd pound a little sense into him. And if she spilled his brains across the floor, it wouldn't matter. He certainly didn't need them that much. Before Moro even knew what was happening, she had grabbed hold of his jacket and lifted him bodily off the ground. It seemed to take no more than a flick of her wrist to send him flying into the far wall with a crash. The rest of the Pack turned around to look at the fracas and someone stopped the music. Priss didn't care. The now-familiar red haze had dropped over her field of vision and she snarled as she stalked towards Moro.

"You fucking cyberbitch!" Moro screamed, pulling out his blade. It was a big knife, a Paul Hogan, "Now THIS is a knife," type, with a sharp, serrated edge. He charged Priss.

 

Inside the secret Griffon hanger, Linna sat by the open cockpit of her Griffon, going over the manual.

"Now, error code 7R means... it means..." She sighed and flipped the book open. "Damn! Hangfire in the machine gun. I should have known that."

"Cramming for the mission?" came Milly's voice.

Linna looked down to the bottom of the gantry and saw the green-haired girl climbing up to her and felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Something about Milly rubbed her wrong, a little warning sign that she couldn't pin down on anything concrete. She knew that Milly was attracted to her, but Linna thought (hoped, really) that she was open-minded enough about others that the mere fact that someone was gay wouldn't give her the willies. After all, Daley doesn't cause me to feel like this, she thought.

Of course, he's not chasing me.

"Yeah, I don't want to forget anything," Linna replied. Milly sat down next to Linna and looked at her book.

"Need any help?" she asked.

"No, it's just a matter of getting them to stay in my head. I've had to do this before, so it's no big deal."

Milly placed a hand on Linna's shoulder. "Well, if you need anything, don't hesitate to come to me. I'll be glad to help you...."

Linna steeled herself to keep from shuddering. It was Milly's eyes, she thought, that's what does it. They seem so dead at times, at other times full of pain. What could she have gone through to make her like this?

She managed a smile. "I'll do that, Milly."

Milly patted Linna on the back and then slid off the gantry to the floor below. It was a sizable drop, but she landed like a pro and seemed unfazed by it. She gave a jaunty wave and then strode off. Linna watched her go and heaved a sigh of relief when she was gone.

Well, she thought, I better go about my mission. I don't have much time. Packing up her manual, she climbed down the scaffold and hurried off to the base's small communications center.

After Linna left, the hatch to Griffon-5 slid open and Dora stepped out. A thin, mousy woman with brown hair and glasses, she glared in the direction Linna had gone. Then, moving quickly, she went over to Linna's Griffon and began fiddling with something inside the cockpit.

 

The ADPolice carrier roared through the night, sirens blaring. Cars and pedestrians scattered before it, if they were wise. No one wanted to be near the ADPolice when they were on duty, as the incidental casualties tended to be high.

Decker checked his gun for the dozenth time as Leon watched. The big sergeant didn't even seem to be aware that he was doing it. It was a nervous tic he had developed long ago.

"Do you think we'll find the man you're looking for, rookie?" Decker inquired.

"I think so. GENOM knows we're going in and is likely to act to silence Ashima. We're going to use them as hounds to flush him out so we can protect him."

"Sounds risky."

"They'll find him sooner or later. They have the manpower for it and we don't. This scheme at least has a chance of getting him out alive."

"Bah, a good man could hide from boomers for months in the Canyons."

"We're not all like you, Decker."

"Good thing, too."

Something crashed against the side of the carrier.

"What was that?" Leon asked, grabbing hold of of a bar by his seat.

"Welcoming Committee... we're in the Canyons and some gang member decided to make us feel at home." He raised his voice, "OK men, weapons hot!" Around them, the squad members clicked off their safeties and double-checked their ammo.

It was about then that the world exploded around them.

 

Despie the late hour, Sylia was still up when Fargo's call came through.

"Our agent has gotten back in touch with us. She reports that her mission has been successful and that her sales, despite an initial rocky start, have been good. I'm sending the figures by fax now," Fargo said, breaking character a little to give Sylia a little wink that she did not return. The figures he was sending were the coordinates of the AGF's secret base.

Sylia listened impassionately, though she looked tired to Fargo. That observation shocked him even has he made it. She had only rarely looked so human, and he could see that something was eating at her.

"Good. I'll prepare things at this end." Sylia hung up and considered the blank screen for several seconds, then reached over to press a button on the phone. This sent out a call to the pagers she had issued the Knight Sabers, telling them they had a mission.

 

Priss easily ducked beneath Moro's first swing. He appeared to be moving in slow motion as she feinted and danced around him, toying with him. She not only wanted to hurt him, she wanted to totally humiliate him.

The red haze didn't recede, and the need for explosive action still hungered in her brain, but now she could direct that need.

She waited for him to over-extend on a thrust and grabbed his wrist hard. He screamed as the bones cracked. Twisting around, she moved next to his side, then yanked the knife hand down to plunge it into his thigh.

"Gee, boys shouldn't play with knives if they can't handle them properly," she taunted. Moro growled incoherently at her, and yanked the blade out of his thigh, hobbling to his feet. He kept the pain away with sheer rage, trying to get at this annoying woman.

It would be so easy, Priss thought, to end it now. A quick blow to the nose, breaking it and sending bone shards into the brain. She knew how to do that. She could tear his throat out, or punch her hand straight through his chest. The options danced through her mind, each one clear and simple. She hadn't found fighting this easy since she had fought the strange liquid metal boomers on top of GENOM Tower, fighting with the alien entity her cyberpsychosis had created inside her.

After that fight, she had always been afraid of losing control, like she had in the alley. But she was in control. The kill would be her choice, not the choice of some aberrant part of her.

Kill? she thought, fighting down the red haze. It gave way slowly, not wanting to relinguish its grip. I don't want to kill him. It's not my way! Her vision cleared some more and she saw more than just Moro. Behind him was Kaz, watching her quietly, seeing what she would do. Seeing him helped her with her decision. She struck.

Ducking under Moro's weak attack, she grabbed hold of the waistband of his pants and gave a mighty heave! He howled as she wedgied him repeatedly, to the amusement of the Pack. Everyone burst out laughing. She then let him drop and looked over at Kaz, who gave a small smile of approval before going over to wrap her in a big bear hug.

"I did it, Kaz... I controlled it!"

"I knew you could, Little One. I guess there was a use for Moro after all." He grinned and she started laughing. It felt good, better than anything else in a long time.

The moment was interrupted suddenly by a flash of light in the streets outside, followed by a loud explosion. The celebration whoops stopped and every Pack member went to their bike. Except for Moro, of course, who just lay on the floor, groaning.

"Damn!" swore Kaz. "The Black Scavs are out messing with someone."

"The Black Scavs? How could they do that?"

"They got lucky and scored some kind of arms supply deal. They got no more brains than before, but a bigger punch now. We better go and chase them off again, see who they're rousting."

"Count me in."

"You sure, Little One?" When he saw her nod, he turned to the bikes. "OK, Pack, let's roll!"

 

Jim Ashima took cover in an alley when the night exploded into flames.

He had been moving carefully down the street, blending in with the other homeless who scavenged the Canyons. There had been practically no warning. The blare of a police siren, then the distinctive sound of an RPG being fired, followed by the explosion.

Peeking around the corner, he could see an ADPolice carrier, its entire front end blown away. The drivers were both dead, he knew. No one was walking away from that mess.

The troop compartment seemed to survive relatively intact, a tribute to the heavier armor used when the ADP had to transport boomer remains (which had an unhealthy tendency to reactivate when least expected.) The troops spilled out and took cover, looking for their attackers.

They didn't have to look long. Gunfire erupted from the surrounding buildings. As Jim watched, one of the ADP troopers got shot in the leg and fell to the ground clutching the bleeding wound. Whatever ammo the attackers were using, it was effective against body armor. Some of it, any way. Some shots were just knocking the ADP around.

The wounded soldier was helped back inside the carrier while his comrades laid down covering fire. Jim could now see some of the attackers, distinctive with their blackened faces. The Black Scavs, one of the more insane gangs living in the Canyons. He had been warned by some of his new- found acquaintances about them.

One of the Scavs appeared in an upstairs window overlooking the battlezone and prepared to fire some sort of heavy weapon. The ADP were on him and he was taken out by some excellent sniper fire.

Jim decided it was now time to make his getaway, while he could. He turned down the alley and began to run along it, trying to put some distance between him and the firefight. Leaping over decades-old trash, he sprinted towards the alley's exit.

He drew up short, however, when two men in black suits appeared in front of him. Despite the gloom of the unlit Canyons and the dark, moonless night, they wore shades and alarm bells rang in Jim's mind. He had seen this sort before, with some of the GENOM higher-ups. Security boomers!

"Mr. Jim Ashima. Please come with us." the first stated in a low monotone. Jim turned and ran back down the alley. Better the firefight than this!

 

Nene helped Vision put on her new red-and-black suit, fresh from the manufacturer. Since it was her first time dealing with the actual hardware, the rock singer was having a rough time. Sylia was already in her suit, prepping the KnightWing.

"Shit!" exclaimed Vision as she dropped her gauntlet. "How the hell do you manage with these things?"

"Practice. They're heavier than they look, I know," Nene replied, picking it up. "Now, let's hook up... no, you need to make sure this is ALL the way down... here, adjust this part of your... no, the other way. A bit more. A bit more. Good! Now, just a sec." Nene activated the suit clamps and, with an ease that almost seemed to mock its user, it snapped all its parts into place, locking them closed and adjusting to fit Vision perfectly. "How's that feel?"

"Like I'm wearing a 40 kilo wetsuit."

"Good! That's how it's supposed to feel. It's not too tight, is it? Not pinching anything?"

"No... agh, open it up!"

Nene quickly complied. "What's the matter?!" she asked, slightly panicky that something had gone wrong.

Vision seemed to hop up and down, rubbing her back against the inside of her suit. "Ahhh... I suddenly got an itch like you wouldn't believe..."

Nene stared at Vision dumbly for several seconds, then she began to giggle. Vision adopted a mock glare of her own.

"Hey, if you got an itch like that..." She then burst into her own giggles. Nene sealed her back inside the suit and powered it up.

Vision stood, a little unsteadily at first, but with increasing confidence. The suit felt totally different now. She could hardly tell that she was wearing it, except for the helmet. And the inside of her helmet showed a panoramic view of the world outside, barely affecting her peripheral vision at all.

"Wow..."

"It's something else, isn't it? Now, come on, before Sylia--"

The intercom on the wall beside them crackled. "Nene, Vision, are you ready to leave now?"

The two of them managed to stifle a laugh. It was easier to do than they thought, considering the situation. Priss was still missing, Linna was deep in enemy territory. And now they were going into battle against the monstrosities that had started the whole mess. There was nothing to laugh about at all.

Minutes later, the KnightWing departed Sylia's building, soundlessly and almost undetectably.

 

Shige fumbled with the lock on the front of the warehouse door for a minute. "Sorry, boss," he apologized in his high-pitched voice, made only worse by age. "It's a little stiff. I haven't used the big door in a while."

Asuma nodded absently, looking around the inside of nearly empty Shinohara-Toyohata Industries warehouse. "Understood. The Chief wants them rolled out soonest, though."

"No problem!"

In the middle of the cavernous room sat three huge vehicles, squat bulky things that seemed almost half as wide as they were long. Tarps that had long covered them lay discarded nearby where Asuma and Shige had dumped them. The black and white paint on the vehicles was faded with time, but Asuma remembered them in their glory days, and he fancifully imagined that they were ready and eager for another mission. The two smaller vehicles nearby also seemed to radiate an eagerness that seemed almost human.

"Asuma?" came Noa's voice, sounding so tiny in the large room, much like her small frame was dwarfed by the gargantuan vehicles. "Are you OK about this?"

"Yeah... I didn't think we would need them again, but Goto was right... What about you? It's been a long time since we did this..."

"If HE can do it, I can," Noa rejoined, pointing to the someone busily climbing over one of the vehicles. A short, barrel-chested, powerfully- built man, he seemed to be filled with a frantic energy despite easily being as old as Asuma.

"Yes! Pulse rifles! What's this. Hohohohoho! Grenades! Ahahaha!" the man cackled, almost fondling weapons that seemed scaled for a race of giants.

"Yeah, well, Ohta is an abnormal case."

The man looked up at that. "Shinohara! What was that?! Do you want to fight!?"

 

Linna was awake when the first explosion hit the landfill. Already dressed, she rushed out into the tunnels connecting her sparsely appointed quarters and tried to make her way to the Griffon staging area. Sylia and the others were beginning their attack, she knew, and she had to keep up the masquerade of being on the AGF's side a little longer.

The base was in chaos. The red-garbed maintenance people were screaming orders to each other as the Griffons were prepped. Linna spotted Milly giving orders to several scruffy-looking types, AGF lieutenants no doubt.

"What do you think you're doing?" snarled Jackson from behind her. "Get in your mech now!" He shoved Linna forward, then darted towards Milly. Milly broke off her conversation to listen to what he had to say, then pointed sharply towards his Griffon. A few more words to the AGF people, and then Milly was sprinting towards her own.

Linna barely listened to the babble of the techs as they strapped her into her mech and booted up its system. Another crump of an explosion, just as far out as the first. Sylia wanted to draw the Griffons out, not bury them and Linna under mounds of dirt and garbage.

"Griffon Leader to all Griffons, check in!" came Milly's voice over their secure net.

"Griffon-2, ready," came Jackson's voice.

"Griffon-3, ready to rock and roll! Owoo!" was Max's reply.

"Griffon-4, ready," chimed in Linna.

"Griffon-5, all set," came Dora.

Griffon-1's external speakers switched on, and Milly's voice blared out, "Everyone, clear the bay! Evacuate the base!"

"Marines, we are LEAVING!" crowed Max. Linna noted with some alarm that he was apparently arming his missiles.

"Max, what are you--?" she began.

"Can the chatter, Four," came Dora's voice. "Just follow us and you'll be fine!"

With no warning, Max unleashed a volley of missiles at the roof of the cavern, blowing it up and out. The Griffons, all configured for flight, leaped up out of the hole he had made and into the night sky.

 

"Sylia, I see our targets at two o'clock. They just made their own exit from their base."

"Roger, prepare for a strafing run."

"What about Linna?" Vision shouted from one of the gunnery cockpits. Like Nene, she was running the weapon systems while Sylia flew the craft.

"Linna will break towards us when we make our run. Ignore that one and hit the others with everything you've got."

"Roger!"

 

Linna spotted the KnightWing and started edging her Griffon towards the outside of the group. She had to be ready to run and prayed that the others would be too surprised and concentrated on the KnightWing to shoot at her.

As it was, her concerns didn't matter. She had no sooner taken a step when something went wrong. Metallic cables ending in cuffs of some sort shot out of the cockpit walls at her, snapping firmly around her wrists, ankles, and neck. She grunted as they slammed home, and writhed helplessly for a moment as a fierce electric shock left her weak and dazed.

"Uh-uh," came Milly's voice over the net. "Don't be a spoilspot and leave the party now, Four." She laughed, an evil sound. "We suspected you were a plant from the beginning. Those little bondage toys on you are a modification of mine, based on the old DD battlemover. Maybe you've heard about it? If not, don't worry. All you need to know is that they give me complete control over you, and your mech. Watch."

The Knightwing was making its attack run. Linna could only watch as her Griffon came to life and ran towards it, exactly as she and Sylia had planned. Except that it was also arming all its missiles at the same time.

The KnightWing drew closer and then Linna could only watch in horror as her targeting systems achieved a lock.

"Sylia, Missile Lock! It's the Griffon running at us!"

Sylia looked down at the Griffon Linna was supposed to be in, its missile pods deployed. For a split second all she could see, however, was Priss pointing a gun at her, intent on using it. Fire blossomed as the missiles shot up towards her.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Linna screamed as her entire payload of missiles spiralled upwards at the KnightWing. The plane tried to evade the deadly weapons, but it came too late. The missiles all slammed into the body of the craft, the explosions tearing through armor and lighting the night sky. A mass of flaming wreckage, the KnightWing spun out of control down into the landfill, and even the Griffons were tossed to the ground as it hit.


Chapter 7

 

"In the early 2030's, boomer technology began to advance at a prodigious rate. Modern technologists are often confused, however, by the 'backsliding' that seems prevalent in that day and age. Even before the unveiling of the Second Generation Boomer, GENOM had matter fusion, self- aware AIs, and the top secret hyper-boomers. Why then, were the models of the middle Thirties so limited?

"The answer is fear.

"GENOM had begun to fear their mechanoid slaves, fear that they may rise against humanity. Only by limiting the capabilities of the cyberdroids could GENOM hope to maintain its control. The OMS, their much fabled control system, was still in the testing stage. Some boomers showed the ability to resist it. GENOM's most prevalent nightmare had to be a self-aware hyperboomer with delusions of godhood."

-- Dr. Sylvie McNichol, "The Age of the Knight Sabers," 2063.

 

For Linna, the KnightWing seemed to fall forever. When its lazy fall finally ended, the impact knocked her Griffon to the ground, bruising her as she was thrown against the restraints. Agonizing sobs tore their way out of her breast until Milly's voice intruded.

"Stand up, Four." The Griffon obeyed mechanically and Linna could do nothing to stop it. The gleaming metal bonds clamped around her hands and feet, combined with her safety belt, held her almost immobile. Dimly, she heard Milly ordering her Griffon to take the point as the five-mecha terror squad marched toward GENOM Tower. Behind them, a cloud of smoke rose from the center of the Dream Island landfill.

 

Inside a small, dilapidated warehouse the intense activity ceased for a moment. With a crackle of static, the radio announcer's voice was loud in the sudden silence.

"We repeat our urgent announcement. Five gigantic boomers have been spotted emerging from the waters of Tokyo Bay. The boomers are almost eight meters tall and heavily armed. It is speculated that they are part of some top secret military project. Police have no comment at this time whether the boomers are connected with the explosion that occurred earlier tonight at Dream Island. The ADPolice recommends that you stay in your homes and take cover. If you can, please make your way to the civil defense shelters. These boomers are considered highly dangerous. We repeat, five--"

"Boss, what are we going to do? The Ingrams aren't ready yet!" Shige asked, turning toward Goto.

Goto seemed unperturbed. "How much longer do you need, Shige-san?"

"I could get one of them operational in about an hour. If I had the old squad, 15 minutes for the lot of them." At Goto's nod, Shige went back to work, hastily running the necessary checks to get the giant labors functional again. Much of his time was spent trying to correct the mistakes made by his "helpers."

"An hour?" Asuma exploded. "We can't waste that sort of time!"

Noa restrained her husband. "Asuma! Shige-san is doing what he can. Yelling at him won't help."

While husband and wife argued, Goto merely lit his cigarette. "I don't see what alternatives we have--" His cellular phone interrupted him. Paying no mind to Asuma (who was turning red with apoplexy), he answered it. "Goto here." He listened to his phone intently. After a minute, he said, "I understand. We'll be right there." He then turned to Shige and asked, "Are the command cars okay, Shige-san?"

Shige looked up, "Yeah, they should be okay.... I used to tinker with them in my off time."

"Shinohara, Ohta," Goto called while marching over to a series of lockers. "We have a small problem in the Canyons. Security boomers and a gang armed with heavy ordnance have pinned down some ADPolice officers, including Detectives McNichol and Wong. Let's go help them out and bring them back here."

"Help them out with what?" Asuma asked sarcastically.

In response, Goto unlocked one locker.

"Yes! There IS a God!" Ohta yelled happily.

 

A party was going on in the Canyons but no one wanted on the invitation list. Gang members, boomers, and ADPolice officers blazed away at each other savagely. In the center of the fracas, the remains of an ADPolice transport burned merrily, thanks to a helpful dose of napalm. Its composite hull, however, resisted the flame and the occasional burst of heavy weapons fire with ease.

"Where did you get this monster?" Leon shouted at Decker from inside the broiling oven the van had become.

Decker's soot-stained face broke into a grin, his white teeth gleaming amidst the black. "This is my baby, Leon!" he shouted back. "It used to be a Combat Boomer Transport, but I picked it up surplus and put it on the vehicle list!"

A loud explosion made talk impossible as the Scavs unloaded another missile on the security boomers stalking the field of battle. The boomers' particle beam weapons whined in answer. ADPolice officers taking cover around the flaming wreck added their weapons to mix. Nearby, someone screamed in pain then another explosion silenced them forever.

"We can't stay pinned down here!" Leon yelled.

Daley looked up from where he was trying to get the truck's radio to work. "The boomers are jamming us! I can't contact HQ!"

Leon nodded. "How's our friend?" He pointed his thumb at a ragged homeless man curled up in the corner. Daley shrugged.

The man was Jim Ashima, whom they had come into the Canyons to collect. Leon had taken this squad down into the Canyons, hoping GENOM would react and flush Jim into ADPolice hands. It had been a gamble. GENOM had a very good chance of finding and killing Jim before the ADPolice could protect him. The Canyons, however, was a rat's nest of streets, collapsed buildings, and abandoned tunnels. A person could hide for years in the rubble.

Unfortunately, the ADPolice had just entered the Canyons when a local gang, the Black Scavs, protested. The ironic thing was that the plan had worked. Jim Ashima had come running into their arms, followed by a squad of GENOM boomers. Leon could have done without the boomers, however, as they were striking at ADPolice and Scavs alike.

"Do you have any more surprises here?" Leon asked Decker, still yelling over the din.

Decker grinned again. "Check the rear compartment!"

Leon went back to look. A moment later he returned and began to swear at Decker, whose grin just got bigger and bigger.

 

Two Black Scavs in a building overlooking the trapped ADPolice hoisted a round into their anti-tank weapon. Getting their backers to pay for a replacement would be hard, but killing some cops was worth it. They hadn't had this much fun in a long time.

One of them turned around to the door. "Dek! Where's that second fucking round?!"

Dek didn't answer him, mainly because he was taking a little nap. He had been looking very tired, so someone helped him catch up on his sleep with the judicious application of a length of chain. Kaz, all six feet ten inches of him, loomed over the Black Scav gunners, grinning.

"Now, boys...." Kaz drawled for effect. "What did I tell you about having fun without inviting us?"

 

Priss let out a war cry as she led the Pack in on her borrowed motorcycle. It had been a long time since she had taken part in a turf war and she was having the time of her life. Around her, the rest of the Pack spread out, looking for trouble.

Jingoro, a large biker with a chrome cyberarm and an impressive collection of obscene words tattooed across his body, caught her attention. He pointed to a boomer not fifty yards ahead. She nodded.

The boomer was facing away from them, trying to get a clean shot at the ADPolice around the van. Its sensors alerted it to the sound of approaching bikes, so it turned to face them.

It got its sophisticated head snapped off by a very UN-sophisticated length of chain stretched between Priss and Jingoro as they roared by at high speed, their enhanced bodies allowing them to hold onto it. Jingoro dropped the chain and gave Priss a high five with his cyberarm. They then turned to look for another target.

The sound of wrenching metal caught their attention. Priss turned and saw something clawing its way out of the wrecked rear doors of the ADPolice van. The flames and smoke made it hard to make out, but the flashing shoulder lights gave her a good idea. Her suspicions were confirmed a second later as someone in K-13V ADPolice power armor stepped out of the smoke. With all the shit flying around, she could think of only one person crazy enough to pull it off that stunt.

 

"Yeah!" Leon said, taking a step forward in his suit. Now it was time to show these punks what the ADPolice was made of. Of course, the K-13V would not have been his suit of choice for that. It was the culmination of a "Build it cheaper, not better," philosophy and the suits' track record reflected it. Still, it was better than nothing.

He looked around the street-cum-battlefield for a target. A multitude presented themselves. Bikers, gangers, and boomers were running around, shooting, grappling, and generally making a mess. Two bikers had decapitated a boomer neatly with a chain, he noted idly. Then he got a good look at one of them.

"Priss!" he yelled, starting toward her. He was halfway there when a boomer decided he looked like a good target. It leaped, slamming into him mid-torso. The K-13 groaned under the impact, its thin armor shell buckling inward. Leon cursed and swung one fist at the boomer. His punch caught it alongside the head, knocking it back a few inches. The boomer turned back towards him, completely undamaged.

"Oh, shit," Leon said calmly. The boomer's red eyes seemed to gleam in anticipation as it closed its fingers around the chest plate of the K- 13. Its fingers dug through the eggshell armor and it lifted the power suit up off the ground. Leon threw several more punches, but they seemed to have even less of an effect than the first.

"Decker, you ass! If you're going to steal a suit of armor, why couldn't you have gotten a GOOD one?!" he snarled, helplessly.

BOOM!

 

Everyone stopped. That had not been an explosion or the sound of a heavy weapon firing. Instead, it had been a deep, low boom that had settled deep in the bones (or equivalent structures). Only Leon's boomer took no notice, but that was because its entire torso had just been smashed away. Most weapons, by nature of their function, make holes in things. This was no different, really, except that the hole was bigger than the boomer it hit.

At the end of the street, a small, stocky man held a Big Gun, the wet dream of every gun fanatic in the world. Some of those present wept at the sight of another man holding it.

BOOM!

Again, the gun spat fire. This time it caught the ground floor of a building the Scavs were using. The entire structure seemed to jump, then it began to collapse inward. The man with the Big Gun began to laugh.

"I knew making a recoilless anti-labor gun was a mistake," the man's partner groaned. He held a much smaller weapon, which he used on any target that got too close. It spat out very small, high-speed flechettes that tore through metal, stone, and flesh with equal ease. Worse, the flechettes spread out, like shotgun blasts, doing incredible damage over a wide area. Two boomers ran into his range and were reduced to tinfoil.

The Scavs then, in their wisest decision of the day, decided they had enough. Grabbing their weapons, they fled as best they could. The chatter of ADPolice chainguns, the BOOMs of the rife, or the whisper-quiet chuff of the flechettes followed them.

The boomers had less of an instinct for self-preservation. The remaining ones charged blindly toward the two men. They were certain that at least one of their number would get through. Several opened their mouths, charging their particle weapons that would surely kill these interlopers before they could fire.

They were wrong.

After the last boomer fell to the ground, the two men held their weapons on the remaining ADPolice and Pack members. A tense silence reigned. It was broken a second later as Goto stepped out onto the battlefield.

"Good work, Shinohara, Ohta," he said.

 

Nene woke suddenly, aware of someone kissing her. No, the person was forcing air into her lungs! An uncontrollable urge to cough suddenly seized her. She did so, sitting up suddenly. Her spasm continued for several minutes.

Reika stood back, watching Nene carefully. The two Knight Sabers were on a deserted stretch of the Tokyo Bay shoreline. They were wet and bedraggled, with many, small, balloon-like floatation devices adorning their armor. She had removed their helmets in order to help Nene.

After Nene stopped coughing and seemed to be breathing normally, Reika asked, "How're you feeling, Nene?"

"Like I just swallowed half the world's known pollutants." Nene made a face and tried spitting to clear the taste in her mouth. "What happened? Where's Sylia?"

Reika shrugged. "I was strapped into my seat on the KnightWing when you suddenly yelled something about a missile lock. The next thing I knew, there was a huge explosion underneath me and I was airborne." She winced slightly. "I think I'll have some colorful bruises tomorrow. I hit the water pretty hard."

As if reminded, Nene's body began to register their complaints about what they had gone through that night. Everything seemed to ache. The young Knight Saber closed her eyes and moaned lightly.

"I found you, floating face down in the water and hauled you ashore. Good thing I know artificial resuscitation. You looked pretty awful by that point."

"Thanks, Reika. Did you see any sign of Sylia?"

"No, but I saw that." Reika pointed across the bay to Dream Island. The landfill was burning brightly, sending a large plume of smoke into the muggy August sky. "It must be where the KnightWing went down. Aviation fuel burns pretty hot. I guess it ignited the garbage."

Panic seized Nene for an instant, then she shoved it back. She was the senior member here, for once, and she couldn't afford panic. Carefully, she made herself run through her options.

"Okay," Nene said, exhaling slowly to calm herself. "I'm going to search for Sylia's transponder. Give me my helmet." Reika handed it to her and she put it on. Fortunately, the displays lit up. Her chest armor had borne the worst of her damage and the suit's circuitry was water- resistant. She wouldn't want to fight hand-to-hand, as micro-fractures covered her armor, but the ECM and communications systems were intact. She just wished SHE had been water-resistant. The foul taste of the bay was still in her mouth. "Run a check on your armor, and let me know your status."

Reika nodded, and struggled to bend over and reach her helmet. It was difficult with all the flotation devices. "How do you retract these things, anyway?" she grumbled.

"Just puncture them with your blade," Nene said absently, putting her suit to work. Normally she would uplink with the KnightWing, van, or a Motoslave for the search, since they had more powerful sensors. However, that wasn't an option right now The two antennae on her helmet popped out and began to rotate.

The search quickly came back negative. Nene shook her head in annoyance and ran the search again, and a third time. Finally she spoke to Reika, who was busily popping flotation devices. "Nothing. Her transponder must have been damaged." Nene didn't mention the other alternatives, and neither did Reika.

"So what do we do now?"

"Used to be, Mackie would be nearby with the van for backup, but since he went to Germany, that's no good. I don't know if Sylia had any plans for what to do if the KnightWing went down." Nene racked her brain, trying to remember if Sylia had ever mentioned something like that to her. Then it hit her. "She DID tell me how to contact Fargo if we ever had any trouble, though. It's a place to start."

Reika looked dubiously at Nene. "So, what? We go looking for a phone?"

"Um, yeah."

 

"Nene!"

"What NOW?"

"Are you sure you want to go in there like THIS?"

"Do you want to go in there with just what we wear under these suits?"

"Good point."

The pair was standing underneath a broken-down pier looking at the Dox, a very disreputable nightclub catering to those of... wide-ranging tastes, was the first place the two Knight Sabers had come upon which might have a working phone. Since they washed ashore, they had found only two pay phones (both out of order) and the few warehouses they had broken into had been abandoned. When Reika and Nene had found the Dox, they had watched the leather and vinyl clad patrons with some trepidation.

I wish Priss was here, Nene thought as they went up to the door.

 

Largo stepped off the lift and into the GENOM Operations center. Technicians and analysts scurried around him. A 3D hologram of MegaTokyo rotated slowly in the air above him like a vast, neon spider web, showing a representation of the Griffons' progress. They were on a direct beeline for the Tower. Blue and yellow arrows, denoting ADPolice forces, were converging on them from all sides. GENOM Tower glowed amber in the center of the map.

"Go to Condition Red," Madigan barked to the technicians, coming out of the lift behind Largo. The Tower in the map immediately changed to a crimson hue.

"Prepare the security boomers," Largo added. "All of them."

A young technician looked up. "Sir? Do you mean the Fusion Boomers as well?"

Largo turned and looked contemptuously at the man, as if wondering who would question his orders. The technician quickly returned to his work.

"They will be here within a half-hour," Madigan said.

"We may have to take a personal hand in things, then," Largo replied.

 

Shige struggled to reach the main servomotor on Unit 1's left arm. He remembered the old manuals stating that this procedure was a one man job. The Boss had agreed with it... if that man had four arms and twelve fingers.

The door to the warehouse opened with a screech, but the technician barely heard it. He worked his tool into the tight space, only to realize it was the wrong tool. Cursing the entire way, he worked himself out from beneath the armor and went for his toolbox.

About a dozen very large people in biker leathers stood there, gawking at the Ingram. Shige stared at them, their clothes, their outlandish hair and swallowed audibly. Then Goto stepped out from behind then bikers.

"Ah, Shige-san... here are some helpers for you." He noted Shige's slack jaw and bulging eyes. "Is there a problem?"

 

Priss stood by Kaz, Leon, and Decker as they watched Goto introduce his mechanic to the Pack. The foursome were lounging against one of the small command cars that had carried Shinohara and Ohta out to the Canyons and back. Decker, Leon, and Jim Ashima had hopped rides with them, leaving the rest of the ADPolice squad under Daley to mop up and take care of the wounded. With the boomers destroyed, it was easy to get reinforcements from ADPHQ.

"You sure they'll behave themselves?" Priss asked Kaz, motioning towards the Pack members by the towering mecha.

"Sure," the burly man responded with a grin. "They love getting their hands greasy, and where else are they going to find something like THAT to play with?"

Priss eyed the eight-meter tall mechs with some distaste. She was worried about the Knight Sabers. Since she was told about the Griffons, she had tried to reach Sylia and see what the Knight Sabers were doing. All she got was the answering machine. She scowled and half-considered going off to Raven's Garage. Leon noticed this and shot a quiet glance at Decker, who nodded.

"Come on, let's see if they have any beer in this place," the ADP Sergeant said, clapping his meat hand on Kaz's shoulder. Kaz, noting Priss's mood, was quick to agree. The two went off, beginning to trade lies about their exploits.

"You didn't have to chase them off," Priss said quietly to Leon once they were alone.

"I thought you might want to talk... about why you ran off," Leon said simply. He pulled a slightly crushed pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket and lit one, and then offered one to Priss, forgetting for the moment she didn't smoke anymore.

"Why? You have to ask that after what I did? I lost control, Leon. I was a danger to you and everyone else." She took the cigarette and dropped it to the ground, crushing it beneath her heel.

"Priss, you've been through a lot... nobody's going to blame--"

"No, they'll just put me in an institution, right? That's what you said to Sylia. I heard it."

"I wouldn't let that happen to you."

"'It's the law,' isn't it?" Priss said, sarcastically.

"Well, sometimes, there's a higher law," Leon said uncomfortably.

"I'd have to be locked away in some steel-caged room until they thought I was 'safe.' Which would be never. I know the statistics on cyberpsychosis, Leon."

Leon nodded, not knowing what else to do. There were very, very few successes in the treatment of cyberpsychosis. In cases like Priss's, where the cyberware could not be removed, there were none. Priss had been driven over that edge once and clawed her way back. That had not been entirely her fault, however, as the shock of being forcibly bonded with her hardsuit would have caused anyone to snap. Sylia was still investigating the cause of Priss's metamorphosis, but the original nanoids had been destroyed to save her. Without being able to examine their original programming, there was not much to go on.

If Priss went over that edge on her own, she'd never come back.

"Dammit, Priss, why didn't you come to me? I would have helped you," he said angrily.

Priss kept her back half-turned on him. "I thought of that," she said softly. "But I was... afraid."

"Afraid? That I'd turn you in?"

"No! I was afraid... to trust you, Leon. I was afraid to... love you. Everyone I've ever loved has died. And I had to watch them all die." Priss hugged her arms around herself, not looking at the ADPoliceman. "I was afraid that I'd have to watch you die too." Afraid that I might be responsible for your death, as I was with the others, a little voice whispered inside her head. Daisuke, whom I couldn't protect. Sylvie, Anri... "And I'm still afraid of what I might do in a fight."

"Priss...." Leon said, reaching out to place a hand on her shoulder. She flinched slightly as he touched her, but made no other reaction. He turned her around until she faced him, her head held low. Mustering a smile, he pulled her chin up until he could see her red eyes. "I understand, Priss, I do. But I still intend to marry you. I'm too mean to die and too stubborn to give up, anyway. You'll just have to live with having the coolest cop--" Priss elbowed him, careful to watch her strength. His breath whooshed out of him and he clutched at his side in mock-injury.

"Most egotistical, you mean. And shouldn't that be 'stupid' instead of 'stubborn?'" she asked acidly. But there was a bit of a twinkle in her eyes that belied the tone.

"Oof, quite a jab you've got there. After we're married, I may have to file for abuse."

"Abuse? Why I hardly touched you, you big baby! Keep whining and I'll really give you something to cry about!"

"Children, children," Kaz said, coming back toward the altercation with a big grin on his face. Behind him, Decker, who had managed to find or liberate a six-pack, was trying not to chuckle. "Play nice, now," Kaz continued.

"He/She started it!" two voices said in unison. For an instant, everyone stared at each other, and then broke out laughing.

 

Linna wept inside her steel cocoon. She could do no more than watch as Milly, showing a remarkable ability to divide her attention between controlling Linna's Griffon and her own, pulled at the strings of the high- tech marionette. So far, the five terror-mechs had left two squads of ADPolice to lie smashed against the asphalt. The ADP's ineffectual weapons were shrugged aside with ease.

"Now, now," taunted Milly over the communications channel. "Don't sob so. You're a pro, aren't you, Miss Knight Saber? You knew what you were getting into."

"I'm not--"

Milly's voice took a dangerous turn, her hatred as evident as the gleaming edge of a knife. "Spare me the false protests! You transmitted our position to someone and the Knight Sabers appeared." More quietly, she continued, "I only wish they had sent Priss... it would have been much more satisfying to have her trapped in a combat mech, helpless and waiting to die."

"Who are you?" Linna asked, shock making her voice ragged.

"Me? I'm just a cat's-paw that has grown its own claws." Milly laughed.

 

"What does that bitch think she's doing?" Wilhelm Godhardt snapped, glaring at Colonel Hineman. "It's not time yet for the final operation!"

"Obviously, something happened to move up our schedule. The Dream Island base is in ruins. The AGF must have come under an attack of some kind." Hineman's voice was as calm as ever, his soldierly demeanor unaffected by Godhardt's vitriol.

"Well, call them back! We're not ready for this!"

"With all due respect, sir, the die has been cast. We are committed. First, if we tried to call the Griffons back, it is highly unlikely that they would obey us. Second, we would not be able to use the Griffons again after the GENOM spin doctors get done with this. We must move now."

Godhardt settled back in his chair. The two men were in a SCHAFT Security Systems mobile command trailer. Two technicians in the same crimson uniform as Hineman were listening to reports coming in from the streets and projecting the state of affairs on a monitor for them to see. It was not good. The Griffons were making a beeline for the Tower, ignoring all other targets and attacking only when the ADPolice made an attempt to stop them.

"What is she thinking, Johann? She's already tossed the plan to the winds." Godhardt was calmer now, resigned. His career was ruined. Success might save him, but he no longer believed such was possible. Some of the animation went out of his face as he spoke, like a puppet tossed aside, its dance on stage over.

Hineman chose his words carefully. "It may be that she has panicked and is simply hoping to do some damage to GENOM before she is stopped." Hineman considered this highly unlikely. His observations of the terrorist leader told him that she had her own agenda and was following it. It was because of this possibility that he had opposed using the AGF in the first place, but he had been overruled.

Godhardt thought about it. "Yes. That could be it." He made a decision. It may not be the best one, but it was the only possible one he could see. "Contact our agent at GENOM. Make sure he sees that the only way ANY of us will survive this is if GENOM fails to mount a credible defense."

"Yes, sir."

 

The Griffons' march on GENOM continued with hardly any pause. Of course, they hadn't reached the mega-corp's security perimeter yet. Milly knew that they would face the stiffest resistance there.

Her VR display suddenly pinged and showed a new threat. The ADPolice was mounting another futile barricade. She was surprised that they had the manpower left to try it. In another lifetime, she might have pitied them.

"Fresh meat!" Max yelled happily over the comnet.

"Stow it, Max!" Milly snapped.

WARNING! Her monitor flashed. IONIZATION DETECTED! WARNING!

"Shit! SCATTER!"

The Griffons broke in five different directions as the wrath of god descended in a bolt of azure flame.

 

"USSD just tried to destroy the targets with the orbital laser satellites!" a GENOM technician reported shrilly.

"Someone replace that man," Largo said idly, his link with the computers before him having already informed him of the hit. "Sloppy," he commented to himself. "The shot was partially diffracted by the atmosphere. They haven't accounted for the new weather conditions yet."

"USSD often leaps before it looks," Madigan commented, her fingers flying over the keyboard in front of her. "Do we want to run the risk of them trying again?"

Largo considered the holo. The satellite strike had been detected by the Griffons before it had hit, probably because a sufficiently sensitive sensor array could detect ionization from the satellite's targeting system. The shot had gone off the mark in any event, deflected by the new warm air currents that were seething around MegaTokyo. It had hit a building instead of the street. The building had collapsed, knocking over two more before the chain reaction subsided.

"I don't think they will try that again, but it would be best to interfere with their communications in case they prove to be that stupid."

"My thoughts exactly." Madigan turned to a technician gave a short series of commands. The technician set to work, jamming USSD's communications. "We want GENOM to deal with this threat. Correct?"

"Of course. Anything else would be a public relations nightmare."

"As if this wasn't one already."

"It is containable, my dear." Largo looked surprised at the endearment that crossed his lips. He and Madigan shared a glance before they returned to their duty. A small smile, unseen by anyone, crossed Madigan's face.

 

Milly picked her Griffon up off the ground. The shockwave of the blast had knocked them all flat. "All Griffons, report." she said.

"Griffon-2, OK," came back Jackson's voice.

"Griffon-3, ready to kick some major ass!"

"Griffon-5, OK," said Dora.

Milly checked her readouts on Griffon-4, the one with Linna. The displays were blank. Concerned, she ran a diagnostic and tried to re- establish her control over it. Nothing.

"Can anyone see Four? I can't link up with it."

"Nope, no sign here," Max replied.

"I don't see it either," came back Dora.

"I think I saw it run toward the buildings that collapsed when we scattered," Jackson said. "It might be buried under a ton of rubble."

"I'm not even getting a transponder reading. Damn! She must have been caught in the blast."

"Who needs that traitorous bitch, anyway?" Inside her own cockpit, Dora smiled. While being the victim of an orbital strike wasn't what she had in mind when she had sabotaged Griffon-4's computer, it was just as satisfying.

"We need--" Milly began, when a shrill alarm went off in her cockpit, warning her of a missile lock. "Shit! The ADPolice! What does it take to make them give up?! Scatter and engage!"

 

"The ADPolice certainly is dedicated, if foolish," Madigan commented.

"Their foolish pride aside, they will not be a factor in this. The Griffons are destroying them." Largo steepled his fingers and studied the incoming information.

"Not too easily. It looks like someone has finally authorized some heavier weapons."

"It won't change the outcome of this fight, but it WILL improve our chances."

 

The work on the Ingrams was now moving quickly along. The Pack's best mechanics, though unused to the technology, loved finely-made machines and they recognized the craftsmanship of the Patlabors as a smith would recognize a well made sword, or a mechanic a finely-tuned car.

Shige had to direct their work, but they knew how to use the tools, and were picking up the fine details as they went along with a skill that would have done his old boss proud.

Priss was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, under Leon's watchful eye. Occasionally, she would start for the door to the warehouse, then stop indecisively before resuming her pacing. Finally, Leon had enough.

"Look, Priss, just go. We've got things under control here." He lowered his voice, "You can do it again, I know you can."

Priss glared at him.

"You're going to go in the end, anyway," he said with a shrug.

Any reply she might have made was cut off by the beep of Goto's phone.

The former chief of the SV2 Unit 2 sat up straighter in the seat of his command car where he had apparently been dozing and answered it. Unconsciously, everyone not already involved in something clustered around him for news.

"Right. Got it. We'll send someone." Goto looked up at the people standing around. "What?" he asked.

Priss reached in and grabbed his collar. "What's the news?!" she grated out.

"Oh, that. The Knight Sabers have called in."

Priss let go of him, stunned. "They called you?"

"No, not exactly. They called an associate of mine. It seems they need to be picked up from a club called the Dox. Their transportation crashed on Dream Island while confronting the Griffons."

"Are they OK?"

"Both of them are fine."

"I'll go. I know where it is." Priss turned and ran to her motorcycle. She mounted it and slipped on her helmet. Gunning the engine, she paused to look back over her shoulder at Leon, who gave her a thumbs up and a wink.

Goto, looking nonplused, just shrugged.

 

The motorcycle's tire squealed as Priss skidded to a stop in the secret parking garage underneath Sylia's building. She shut off the engine and leapt off it, putting down the kick stand with hardly any conscious thought. Her pace slowed, however, as she reached the equipment lockers. When she stood before hers, she hesitated, her hand hovering over the access pad.

Inside it sat her new hardsuit. Her fourth, in point of fact. Her first had been lost in her near-fatal confrontation with Largo. The second had been replaced just this year, when Sylia had produced her new designs. The third--

She shook her head. She didn't want to think about it. This hardsuit was perfectly safe. Sylia had made it for her, tailoring it for her new strength and reflexes. And she was needed out there.

"Right, let's go," she said, beginning to strip her clothes off.

 

Linna shook her head slowly, coughing in the smoke and dust-filled air. The last thing she remembered was a brilliant bolt of blue, then nothing. She opened her eyes and was panicked by the blackness that greeted her. She was blind! her thoughts yammered in her skull, running around and around.

After a moment, however, she got a grip on herself and realized that it was just her VR Helmet. It was off-line, feeding her no information or telltales at all. She reached up and pulled it off.

The Griffon was lying on its side, at roughly a 45 degree angle. Most of its indicators glowed a bright red. She barely noticed, for the manacles that Milly had shackled her with were gone.

"What happened?" she asked aloud, trying to make sense of the situation. Hesitantly, she tried to query the mech's computer, but got no response.

"I don't get it," she muttered. "That might have been an orbital strike, but it shouldn't have taken out the computer unless I was hit dead on... and I wouldn't be around after that. The computer system is triply shielded." She tried again to coax a response from the Griffon, but got nothing. Next, she tried to open the upper hatch, but something was blocking it. Remembering the damage a satellite strike could do, she assumed she was buried under rubble.

Better not try the emergency ejection system then. I might just be slammed against a pile of rock, she thought. Only one thing left, then.

She reached over and flipped a cover off one button and hit it. With a hum, several of the red displays turned green, and a short message flashed across the terminal.

MANUAL MODE ENGAGED.

"OK, Linna," she said aloud, "let's see how good you really are at this." In manual mode, the Griffon was entirely reliant on its driver. There was no auto-balancers, no combat computer, no error correction. Bud had trained her how to do it, for it was conceivable that battle damage could take out the computer systems. She had fallen flat on her face more times than not, however.

 

Fire and rescue vehicles were clustered around the site of the orbital strike, trying to assess the damage and pick up the pieces of the ADP assault on the mechs. The Griffons had moved on by now, of course, intent on keeping their appointment with GENOM. Wounded and dead were scattered all over the battlefield, giving them plenty to keep them busy.

Nobody noticed the pile of rubble begin to shift.

At first, it was just a few rocks, then the entire pile seemed to move. Several rescue workers yelled for everyone to stand back, fearful that the pile was going to collapse and maybe crush some of the workers.

Instead, it seemed to explode outward as the damaged Griffon-4 clawed its way out of the rubble. The mech's armor was dented and scratched, and some of its external weapons were mangled, but its movement seemed unhampered. After one look at the black and grey monster, most people took off running. A few ADPolice officers shot at it with their handguns, to no effect. The Griffon ignored them, however, and turned toward GENOM Tower. Slowly, it began to walk, sometimes leaning on nearby buildings for support, as it drunkenly swayed. Despite its obvious problems, however, it kept to its course.

 

The oversized truck rumbled into the parking lot with the subtlety of a tank division. It was steel-grey in color and running with its headlights off. The windows were tinted black, obscuring any clear view of its driver.

From his seat by the door to the Dox, the bouncer looked up in annoyance. That... thing was taking up valuable space reserved for his establishment's clientele. The bouncer, who went by the sobriquet of "Brain" (because he was working toward his doctorate in Philosophy in spare time) immediately saw in this an opportunity for some controlled mayhem.

In the colloquial, it was time to bust some heads.

"All right, buddy, move that thing out of here!" the bouncer yelled at the truck. Despite his academic leanings, Brain was still an imposing physical specimen, standing about six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, all of it muscle.

"'Cor, is it going to be trouble, Brain? Need me to rough someone up?" came the whiny voice of another bouncer, an English expatriate with an annoying accent.

Brain favored his fellow bouncer with a withering glare.

In the meantime, the truck had come to a complete stop in front of the club's doors. Brain moved in front of it and repeated his challenge when the driver's side door opened.

Brain found himself looking up at the barrel of a very nasty-looking weapon. The driver of the truck was clad in sapphire blue armor that gleamed in the fluorescent lights of the parking lot, accented by ruby-red stripes that ran down the sides and over the black-visored helmet. The armor covered a very feminine form and made no effort to hide the fact, molded as it was to the figure's curves. Very lethal-looking weapons were placed on the forearms and shoulder-mounted booms. These facts had barely registered in Brain's mind when the figure spoke.

"Don't piss me off," her electronically modulated voice said. "It's been a bad fucking month."

"R-right," Brain replied. "You'd be here for your friends, right? They're inside."

The Knight Saber nodded and hopped out of the truck's cab. "Don't touch the truck," she said, unnecessarily. Brain and his fellow bouncer nodded. With that, she ducked inside the Dox.

"Gee, Brain, weren't you gonna--"

"Don't make me hurt you."

 

Priss activated her image enhancers as soon as she entered the gloomy confines of the Dox. The bar was kept in a nearly impenetrable gloom, made even denser by the brilliant sodium lights trained on the three stages where scantily-clad people performed acts of rather dubious morality. Multi-colored strobes went off at random intervals, disorienting and confusing the patrons. They captured cigarette smoke in their glare, freezing it in serpentine coils in the dank corners and high ceilings. Her suit's sensors cut through the gloom and light display with ease.

Her suit caught some attention, but most of the bar's patrons were fixated on two others. Priss shook her head in amusement as she watched Nene try to wave off the drinks being pressed upon her by a seven foot tall leather-boy wearing something reminiscent of Roman gladiatorial armor. Nice muscles, she thought to herself, involuntarily.

And these guys are tame compared to SOME of the freaks in MegaTokyo, Priss thought. She looked around for the third hardsuit she had hoped to see, but Sylia's silver-and-blue was nowhere to be found. The rocker frowned and quickly shouldered her way over to her friends.

"Priss!" Nene exclaimed over the Saber comm channels when she saw her friend. She ran over and hugged her. "You're back! I'm so glad!" Nene's red helmet suddenly swiveled back and forth, looking over the attentive crowd, and the computer hacker seemed to withdraw inside herself a bit. "Could we please get out of here?"

Priss chuckled. "Surely someone of your 'looks and incredible brains' can deal with a place like this, Nene."

One of the female patrons danced suggestively close to the red-and- pink hardsuited vigilante and whispered something that Priss didn't catch.

"Priss! Can we just GO??" came Nene's high-pitched voice, almost shrieking.

"Okay, okay, let's just collect Vision. Where's Sylia?"

Nene still had the jitters, but Priss could hear a strange note in her voice as she replied, already heading for the door. "I'll tell you outside!"

Priss tried not to laugh as she pulled Reika away. The singer in the red-and-black hardsuit was speaking with a woman clad in chains, leather, and metal studs in almost every pierceable part of her body. The woman held a leash connected to the collar of a man who wore only a mask and a leather loincloth. The man was on all fours, letting the woman sit on his back. The two seemed to be discussing the relative station of men and women in a relationship, and Priss was sure it was QUITE enlightening. She wondered if she should take notes for dealing with Leon. He'd look cute in that costume.

 

Dixon Kelly immersed himself in GENOM's net, letting the waves of information slide through him, calming his panic. Here, inside the machine, he was beyond all those petty limitations of flesh. Or so he told himself.

His SCHAFT compatriots had fumbled and the whole plan was in danger of collapse. That was a sobering thought. Thinking of what the Chairman might do if his role in the affair was discovered (and it would be, Dixon knew that with certainty) would have driven others to flight. But where could anyone run to that GENOM couldn't follow?

No, he thought, slipping into the idioms of his homeland, the best defense is a good offense. The original plan MIGHT still succeed, if GENOM took enough damage this day. With that in mind, he reached out and nudged a few stray threads of data.

 

Outside one of the entrances to the GENOM Tower, the one in line with the Griffon's advance, three boomers stood silently. Made out of blue steel and plastics, they were thin and wiry of build. They looked nowhere near as impressive as their more combat-oriented brethren, but looks were deceiving, in this case.

A new command entered their electronics brains and their eyes flashed red. They turned and faced each other, getting into a huddle, and then the metallic skin of their arms and shoulders began to bulge. There was a grinding crunch as the boomers' arms exploded into a serpentine nest of metallic tentacles, which sank into the other boomers skins easily, merging them together into one mass. Then, like metallic vines, the tentacles shot out and latched onto the skin of the GENOM Tower itself.

 

"Mr. Larsen! The Fusion Boomers have activated themselves!"

"Let me see it!" Largo commanded, turning to face the gigantic holographic image. It switched to an external camera view of the main GENOM entrance, where the three Fusion boomers had been stationed. They were now lost from sight in a tangled, wriggling mess of machines and wires that was slowly growing up the side of the Tower. As Largo watched, the smooth outer skin of the arcology bulged and twisted as the fusion tentacles burrowed beneath it. Suddenly, the image disappeared in a burst of static.

"They've assimilated 2.3% of the Tower's mass already!" came a report.

"Send the shutdown codes!" Madigan snapped, standing beside Largo.

"I already sent them. The boomers aren't responding!"

Madigan and Largo exchanged glances.

"Sabotage," Largo said.

"It must be. The same mole as before, do you think?"

"If so, he or she must be extremely skilled with the GENOM Net."

"Kelly!" Madigan snarled.

Largo's brow crinkled in thought, a human affectation as he ran down Madigan's logic. "Yes, it makes sense. With his cyberjack, he could do it." His lips quirked into something resembling a smile. "How ironic, treachery by the Chairman's Special Assistant."

Madigan sat back down at the console. "What do you think we should do about it?"

Largo turned towards the technicians. "Activate the disaster protocols and then get yourselves to the shelters. Miss Madigan and I will oversee this area."

The nearest technicians looked startled. "But, sir..." one of them stuttered.

"Now." That quiet command quickly cleared the room. A strident klaxon began to go off all throughout the building.

"ATTENTION! DISASTER PROTOCOLS NOW ENGAGED. ALL PERSONNEL, PLEASE REPORT TO YOUR DESIGNATED SHELTERS! REPEAT, DISASTER--"

"In response to your question, my dear, I think this is something that we Special Assistants should deal with ourselves."

Madigan looked into his eyes calmly, "I agree."

The hologram in the center of the room blinked and an image of Chairman Quincy appeared, looking down on them gravely. "Larsen, Madigan, report."

"Sir, we believe Mr. Kelly has allied himself with outside elements to arrange this disaster. We were just about to deal with him."

Quincy's larger-than-life image nodded. "Very good. Do everything in your power to contain this problem. Remember, GENOM is a respectable company. It is regrettable that one of own has caused this fiasco." His tone carried the weight of a death sentence.

"Understood, sir." Madigan said quietly. Largo simply nodded his acknowledgment, his eyes showing only a glimmer of his hatred for the man whose image floated before him. Quincy seemed not to notice as his image disappeared.

Largo placed his hand flat against the console before him. "I don't suppose you have any special skills to help in this?" he asked.

Madigan smiled slightly. "A few. And you?"

"A few," Largo repeated with a similar smile. "It seems the time for secrets is passed."

Madigan nodded. She rolled up the sleeve of her left arm, baring it to the elbow, before Largo's puzzled gaze. Then, without glancing at him, she tapped a section of her forearm.

The skin fell open, as if on a hinge, revealing a cyberlimb of incredible complexity.

While Largo examined it, she spoke. "Over 95% of my body is cybernetic, built along the lines of the old 33-S boomers." Her voice was flat, without inflection, but he could sense subtle currents of emotion beneath it. "My brain is about all that's left of my original body, and it has been enhanced considerably by microprocessors." Two thin cables snaked their way out of her arm and she deftly hooked them into the IO ports of her console. "I think I can take on Kelly."

"WE can take on Kelly," Largo said. His hand flexed, digging though the thin metal skin of his console, fusing his systems with it. It was Madigan's turn to watch in amazement as Largo made the computer a part of his system. "Do you trust me?" he asked, reaching out his hand to her. His skin and hair changed color, become reversed images of their usual shades.

Without hesitation, she took his off-green hand in her own. There was a staccato flicker in her vision as their systems connected.

And then she was lost in the entity known as Largo. Images buffeted her, flowing by so quickly they seemed to make little sense until she asserted herself, making them slow. She saw Brian J. Mason kill Katsuhito Stingray and, in turn, be killed by the scientist's daughter. She saw part of the GENOM executive survive and swear revenge, revenge that led the new hyperboomer to the summit of GENOM Tower, to face her and the Chairman. She tasted the defeat there, like ashes in her mouth, his revival months later, and the even more shameful defeat at the Fusion Reactor. She could see the ambitions and passions driving him, and the cold logic that fed his dreams. Man was weak and flawed. Cyberdroids were limited. Only in their fusion could true greatness be achieved.

Largo, for his part, saw the young woman that had been Kate Madigan. Driven by ambition and the need to overcome any challenge, she had rocketed up the ladder of success, ruining her competitors and letting no one stand between her and her goals. Her flesh and blood had been cold-bloodedly sacrificed on the altar of ambition when it became a nuisance. He saw her meet Quincy and felt her fierce loyalty to the idea of GENOM, which Quincy had seemed to symbolize. Power and control in one package.

They pulled back out of their link and looked at each other.

"Yes, I trust you," Madigan said, stepping closer.

"Let us go and deal with Mr. Kelly, then," Largo said. Just before he plunged them into the net, he proved he had not forgotten everything about being flesh and blood. He drew her into a kiss, which she accepted eagerly, her cold mouth pressed against his. And then they were in the net.

 

"What do you mean, Sylia's GONE?" Priss yelled. The truck she was driving swerved across the road, clipping a foolish nighttime driver and sending him off into the shoulder. What was he thinking, driving on his side of the road without watching for Priss?

"Watchtheroad! Watchtheroad!" Nene screeched.

"Why didn't you look for her, Miss Brains, huh? She could be hurt out there!"

"I looked!" Nene protested. "There was no sign of her transponder. If her suit was intact, I would have found it!"

"But to just leave--!"

"These things are tearing up the city! What were we supposed to do?"

Priss glared at her fellow Knight Sabers, but had to concede the point. "OK," she growled at last, "but I ain't convinced Sylia's gone, not by a long shot."

"What are we going to do now?" Nene asked.

"What are you asking me for?"

"Well, aren't you in charge?"

Priss started to laugh at the idea. Her, in charge of a group? Hell, she didn't even take orders well, what good would she be at giving them? But the laugh died when she realized she was the one with the most combat experience there. Without Sylia or Linna, there was no one else the job could have fallen to. Damn it all.

"Shit!"

"Priss?"

"OK, OK, I'm in charge! Goddamn it all to hell."

"So, what ARE we going to do?" Reika asked, popping some aspirin she had found in the first aid kit to help her bruises.

"I brought the Typhoon II Motoslaves," Priss said with a grin. "They should help out against those monsters, no sweat."

"The Typhoons?" Nene said with a slight quaver in her voice.

"Priss, I've only used the Motoslaves in sims. I've barely got a handle on this suit!" Reika protested.

There was a brief pause.

"Oh, shit."

 

At last, they had reached the Tower.

Milly let a slow smile cross her face as she looked up at the monolithic structure. The last time she had been here seemed like a lifetime ago. In a sense, it was a lifetime ago.

"Hey, Boss! What's going on there?" Jackson's voice crackled over her speaker.

She looked more closely at the Tower's base and saw that something was not right. It looked like a metallic fungus was growing across the face of the arcology. At spots, the skin of the Tower had burst open like festering boils and spewed forth writhing metallic tentacles that covered everything.

"It looks like a Fusion Boomer or two is at work, but why would they assimilate their own building?" Dora asked, confused.

"Can I shoot it?" Max, as ever, was unconcerned with the big picture, except to see how many holes he could put in it.

"Well, it seems someone else is causing some trouble for GENOM tonight. It will make our job easier. Griffons, prepare to--"

"KNIGHT SABERS, GO!"

The shout was electronically amplified and easily heard. It was meant to be heard, a challenge thrown down at their feet. As one, the Griffons turned.

Behind them stood three robotic knights in shining armor. The lead one was primarily blue and gold in color, sporting a large hand gun that it leveled at the four remaining Griffons. Slightly behind it stood two identical figures, though one was red and pink, and the other green and gold. Though the height of technological sophistication, they looked as ludricous arrayed against the Griffons as the ADPolice armored suits, standing only as high as the Griffons' thighs.

Milly activated her external speakers. "Ah, I was wondering if any of you had survived." She paused and cocked her Griffon's head as it looked at them. "Oops, sorry, it looks like one hasn't. Your friend was the victim of a satellite blast, I'm _so_ sorry to say."

"BASTARD!" the blue and gold one yelled, opening up with her Motoslave's 35mm handgun. As she emptied her clip at the Griffons, they scattered. The lead one, the one which had taunted her, launched several missiles from its shoulder-mounted pods. The missiles burst between the Griffons and the Knight Sabers, blanketing the area with heavy smoke.

"Jackson," Milly said over their private comm link, "keep the Knight Sabers busy while I go for the Objective."

"Right, boss. Good luck."

"I make my own luck," she said, then turned her Griffon towards the Tower.

 

"BASTARD!" Priss yelled, emptying her handgun at the Griffons. Part of her was screaming for Linna, another part was screaming in rage at the monster taunting her and her friends. She wanted that person's blood. The redness crept into her vision, but she rose above it, channeling it into something useful.

The Griffons played it sneaky, however, covering the battlefield with dense white smoke. There was more to it than ordinary smoke, since it reflected her radar returns as well, but she was beyond caring.

"Come on, let's go get them!" Priss yelled. She activated the jets on her Typhoon and shot up into the sky. Behind her, the others did the same.

It was well that they did, for the Griffons came lumbering out of the smoke at that moment. The lead Griffon saw them flying overhead and immediately lifted both arms toward them, opening up with the forearm- mounted machine-guns and energy weapons. Armor-piercing rounds and brilliant beams of light shot up, only to be dodged by the nimble smaller mechas.

The green and gold Motoslave swooped down towards the Griffons. Inside it, Reika gritted her teeth against the G-forces as she barreled toward the monster mech.

"Reika, pull up! What do you think you're doing?" Priss yelled over their communications net. She tried to take some shots at the other Griffons, who were now leaving the cloud, but she had emptied the clip and she wondered if her rage was going to cost her a new friend.

But Reika knew what she was doing. The controls on the Motoslave were, fortunately, only a little different from the GD-42 Crab Mecha she had piloted. She waited until the AI on the Motoslave, Linna's Motoslave, told her the time was right, and then pulled up hard on the flight controls. The Motoslave barreled towards the lead Griffon, dodging its fire, and then, at the last moment, swooped upwards. Its right foot caught the Griffon in the head, smashing the delicate sensors held there.

 

"SHIT!" Jackson swore as most of his displays died. "Dora, hook your sensor feed up with my mech, now!"

"Gotcha, Jackson!"

"All right, let's kill some people!" Max crowed, and let loose with what few missiles he had left from their engagements with the ADPolice. Jackson was surprised he had any, but Max had obviously been hoping to unload a few onto GENOM.

The missiles spiraled toward the hovering pink and red mech. It didn't seem to notice them at first, but then began a frantic series of dodges. Jackson thought the pattern looked familiar, then realized that it was similar to some of the evasive patterns used by the mech that had blinded him. He punched his evaluation into his battle computer.

"Dora, Max! They're using some sort of computer-operated defense pattern!" he shouted into the comm. His battle computer flashed a solution to him. "I'm downloading a firing pattern to you now!"

"Roger!" Dora shot back.

"What?" Max said.

 

"Fuck! What made you try that, Reika?" Priss yelled.

"But Priss, it's not too different from what you've--"

"Not NOW, Nene!"

The job of leader was not what it's cracked up to be, Priss thought to herself.

The Griffons took away any further chance for ruminations with a hail of fire. All three of them were shooting like there was no tomorrow. At least there were no more missiles.

She and Reika dodged around the shots manually and were ignored by the Griffons. Nene merely had the Motoslave's AI handle it while she did what she could to the Griffon's targeting systems. The Griffon's battle AIs saw the pattern they had been programmed to look for.

Hence, Nene was caught off guard when the Griffons fired their missiles at her, homing right in on her Motoslave, ignoring her evasions. The explosion lit up the night sky with a brilliant flash.

 

Together, Largo and Madigan fell into the GENOM computer system. The VR environment was already suffering from the Fusion Boomers assault. The icons were fuzzy and indistinct as more and more of the Tower fell to rogue boomers.

It was ironic, Largo thought, that he had to fight humans and boomers trying to do what he had always dreamed off. But this attempt was doomed to failure. It was a distraction, that was all, for an attempt by other humans to take over GENOM. Too much of the Tower's vital systems were fusion resistant for the Boomers to succeed, no matter how much damage they did. Besides, Largo would rather HE be the one to wrest GENOM from Quincy.

They arrived at level six, the deepest level of GENOM's security net, sure that they would find their quarry there. The level appeared empty and featureless, all icons hidden and cloaked by cipher programs that were constantly updated by programmers and security boomers. No unauthorized access had ever been made on level six.

"Kelly!" Largo called out, his icon appearing as his "Larsen" persona.

"We know you're behind this. It's no use trying to hide."

Madigan stood beside him, her icon's hand linked with his, just as their bodies were linked in the real world through his fusion systems. "We know all about SCHAFT and the Griffons, Kelly. You've lost."

A GENOM Security Daemon appeared before them, but they could tell immediately it was not an ordinary Daemon. It's resolution was too good, and the flaming katana it held was no ordinary security program. Also, a silver cable stretched out behind it, linking it, the two special assistants could see, to the Fusion Boomers assimilating the Tower.

"LOST?" the Daemon shouted, in Kelley's unmistakable voice. "IT IS YOU WHO HAVE LOST! I DON'T NEED SCHAFT ANYMORE, NOT WITH THIS!" Kelly brandished the katana which crackled with the power the boomers stole for him. "ONCE I ACCESS THE OMS FILE, I WILL HAVE ALL I NEED!"

Largo and Madigan shared a worried thought through their link. Kelly had discovered the OMS, the most secret file in all of GENOM. Its security almost resembled a whole new level in its complexity. Just finding it was a monumental feat. Could Kelly actually access it?

"We can't allow that, Kelly," Largo said. Nothing more need be said.

"WHO SAYS YOU WILL BE ABLE TO ALLOW ANYTHING?" The katana slashed down at them, forcing them to leap backward. "I'M SICK OF ALL OF YOU! I'M -BETTER- THAN ALL OF YOU! BUT YOUR FUCKING JAPANESE PREJUDICES AND ARROGANCE MAKE YOU SO CERTAIN THAT NO 'GAIJIN' COULD POSSIBLY BE AS GOOD!" Kelly was ranting now, punctuating every phrase with a sweep of his sword.

Largo and Madigan kept moving back, avoiding the sword with well timed acrobatic leaps. They did not let go of each other hands--in fact, they could not, as it was a symbol of their link. Largo's cybernetic systems analyzed Kelly's sword program and oversaw their defense while Madigan's human brain sought a means of counterattack, using its unique ability to analyze and intuit patterns.

There, she said over the link. When he attacks, he draws from the shields on his link to the boomers. If we can sever that, he will lose control over them and of their power.

How can we do that while he's keeping us on the defensive? Largo thought back.

We have to sever our link and make him think he did it.

Largo barely received that thought when Madigan went into action. As Kelly launched his next attack, she swung their linked hands toward the sword. It sliced through their icons, sending howling waves of feedback through both their systems. Largo had not felt such agony since his disastrous battle on top of the Tower, when the Knight Saber known as Priss had destroyed his arm. Even though the damage this time was only symbolic, it felt the same.

Madigan screamed and lightning crackled all over her icon. Largo felt an involuntary scream growing in his throat as her icon began to derezz. Whatever her plan, the fury of Kelly's attack had been too much. At the least, her systems were fried. At worst, permanent brain damage had been done.

There were no words. Kelly did not deserve such. Largo merely readied his most powerful attacks and unleashed them at Kelly, with attacks that visually resembled his gravity blasts. They slammed into an invisible shield around the Security Daemon.

Kelly laughed and raised his sword. "AND NOW, YOU DIE!" The sword fell.

"Bye-bye, Gaijin" came another voice.

Behind Kelly's Security Daemon, Madigan's fuzzy icon suddenly firmed back into full detail and produced a handgun-shaped icon. She fired, directly at the base of the silver cord attached to Kelly's icon. With a small explosion, the cord severed.

Kelly screamed, his scream echoed outside the net, in the real world, by the Fusion Boomers who had attacked GENOM. The virtual light on level six dimmed and flickered as the OMS awakened. Still imperfect, still being refined, it was yet a vessel of awesome power. The three programmer icons could only watch in awe as its might flashed out like a bolt of flame down the silver wire. It shriveled as it burned, but the OMS was not to be denied. The Fusion Boomers outside screamed again, this time a despairing scream, as their brains fried inside their skulls.

Kelly recovered first. He staggered and twitched helplessly as he stumbled, but he still made his way toward the OMS, which flickered and spat lightning fitfully, returning to its sleep.

"Kelly, stop!" Largo called out.

"It's... mine!" Kelly screamed, reaching into the OMS. The security programs reacted to his touch, eating at his icon as acid would. Still, Kelly manage a triumphant laugh, his voice hollow sounding as the OMS ate away at -him.- "So... much... power..." he croaked. "So vulnerable..." The laugh died. "It's... killing me... but it's... vulnerable..." His icon died, vanishing from sight.

Largo stood over the place Kelly had stood. Madigan came and stood behind him.

"I'm sorry if I took you by surprise... Kelly was growing stronger the longer the Fusion Boomers were at work. We had no time to waste."

"It's immaterial," Largo replied, absently studying what he could see of the OMS. "Your plan worked, and success is all the matters." He paused and looked at her. "I am... gratified that you survived."

She actually smiled at that, then turned more serious. "Did Kelly harm the OMS?"

"I don't think so, but something is different. The security programs seem intact, however. It's still inviolate."

"Perhaps... he did something in the real world?"

Largo spun on her. "Of course!"

 

Milly piloted her Griffon into one of GENOM's loading docks, turning her weapons on the massive steel doors. They broke easily under her onslaught.

She shuddered slightly as she once again entered the halls of GENOM, but stamped down on the feeling. She was beyond that sort of thing now. She could not repress a small sigh as she put her Griffon on automatic. She would miss it, the giant mecha of mass destruction that had given her the power to bring GENOM down. But it had served its purpose, and she had learned all too well what happened to tools which had served their purpose.

"Good luck, boy," she whispered, slipping off it. She now wore a GENOM jumpsuit, identical to the sort worn by the common workers of GENOM. She checked to make sure that she had her handgun and knife ready, and she started off.

 

"It's no good," Madigan repeated. "The Fusion Boomers assimilated most of our boomers, and our other security forces are spread too thin." She didn't have to mention that the disaster protocols also cut them off from getting to it.

The two had returned to the real world, and they were studying the situation on the threat boards.

"Kelly HAD to have sabotaged the physical security around the OMS somehow. We have to keep someone from SCHAFT getting to it!"

"Well, the Griffons are fighting the Knight Sabers now, so I don't see who else we could call upon for help..."

"The Knight Sabers? Let me see it."

An image of the battle flashed on the screen. Three Griffons facing two hardsuits in Motoslaves. Largo's eyes narrowed as he noted that Sylia's silver and blue colors were nowhere to be seen.

"They've taken some losses... or some of them were missing."

"There were only three of them to begin with in this attack. The third one was a rather garish pink, I believe. It was destroyed early on."

Largo nodded, remembering that one of the Knight Sabers, the one with the pink hardsuit, was notoriously slow at combat. He knew what to do, then. He closed his eyes, and activated his personal commlink, sending it on a specific carrier wave, using ancient codes that had been devised long ago by Katsuhito Stingray.

-Sylia,- he called. -Sylia Stingray.-

 

The fight was going badly.

Priss and Vision pounded at the Griffons with everything they had, but the mechs sheer size worked against them. They could buzz around the giants like flies, but their weapons had about as much effect as a bee's sting. They could leave holes in the Griffon's armor, but there was too much armor and not enough vital points. The Griffons did a better job of guarding their sensors, too, preventing a repeat of Reika's initial coup.

"Dammit!" Priss screamed. "Jam their targeting sensors!"

"I'm trying!" Nene screamed back. She sat in the back of the van, trying to coordinate her efforts with its equipment, but losing her Motoslave, which she had been flying by remote, left her at one remove from the field. She didn't dare bring the truck within sight of battle for fear the Griffons would realize what it was there for and blow her up as easily as they blew up her Motoslave. She was making do with what information Reika and Priss could spare from their AIs, but it wasn't as good.

A sensor alarm went off. "Priss, we've got three... no, SIX vehicles approaching, and three of them are HUGE!"

"ADPolice?" Priss asked, in between dodges.

"No, they don't match ADPolice profiles--" She broke off. "Here they come!"

The vehicles squealed around the curve in the road, coming toward the battlefield far faster than seemed safe for their bulk. The lead three vehicles were actually quite tiny, but the three oversized tractor trailers that followed them took up the entire road. Sirens wailed and lights flashed, leaving no doubt to the nature of the vehicles, if their white and black coloration wasn't enough.

The battle stopped, the participants distracted by the newcomers. As they watched, the large vehicles spun around and came to a stop. The three smaller vehicles also stopped in front of the larger.

In the silence came the crackle of an loudspeaker, and a voice came over it from the center small car. "Attention Griffons, this is Chief Kiichi Goto. We are a duly deputized force with the authority to arrest you for the incidents at the GENOM Distribution Center and GPCC Construction Sites. Please shut down your vehicles and disembark at once!"

The Griffon's answer was best summed up by Max, who let loose a stream of machine gun shells at the little car. It hurriedly backed away as the pavement in front of it exploded.

The response was totally unexpected by the Griffons. From each of the large vehicles, large hydraulic legs shot out and clamped down on the pavement. Then, with a whine of old hydraulics, the payload beds of the huge trailers began to rise. Lying on the beds, like bodies on a slab, were three giant mechs, easily the size of the three Griffons. Red lights on their shoulders began to flash, making them stand out starkly in the night.

The Ingram Patlabors, the last of their breed, had arrived.

One of them, with a large number "3" on its shoulders, stepped forward cockily. "This is Inspector McNichol of the ADPolice! Your rampage ends NOW!"

"Oh, shit..." Priss muttered.

 

-Sylia. Sylia Stingray.-

The voice came from a long way off, slowly piercing through the layers of darkness that separated her from reality. Pain came with the voice as she struggled toward consciousness. Her entire body ached and felt like it was held together by only the most fragile of connections.

She opened her eyes and tried to will the landscape to stop spinning. The last thing she remembered was a long fiery plunge, riding the KnightWing down to its end, the emergency ejection seat only functioning at the last moment, a short flight followed by a hard landing, and then nothing.

-Sylia.-

That voice... it seemed familiar. It was coming over her helmet commlink. As her vision steadied, she checked the identifier and froze. She had only seen that identifier three times before, and the man who had used it was dead, twice over.

-Sylia, the OMS is vulnerable. It MUST be protected.- A download followed, showing the exact physical location of the GENOM Holy Grail. She gasped, despite the pain that sent through her head. To reveal this to her, things must be desperate.

-Imagine what things would be like if the terrorists got their hands on this, Sylia... you don't want that anymore than we do.-

Sylia tried to move and groaned as fresh pains shot though her left hip. It felt like it was broken and she could feel shock setting in. She was bleeding, she could also tell, and pretty badly. Her hardsuit was moderately damaged, but the first aid center was still working. It injected pain-killers and quick healing agents. The pain receded. She thought again of making this automatic for her suit, like it was for the others, but she trusted her own judgment too much to place something like that in the hands of a machine.

Slowly, trying to make herself more comfortable, she activated her comm-system. "Saber One to Saber Team, come in."

 

"Saber One to Saber Team, come in."

"Sylia, is that you?" Priss shouted into her comm-system.

"Priss? You're back? What's your situation?"

Priss looked around. The Griffons and Patlabors were in a tense stand-off, each uncertain of the others exact threat. But at least two of them, one on each side, seemed itching for a fight, and LEON was piloting one of the Patlabors, which filled her with no end of confidence.

"Um, well, it's relatively stable, I'd say. What's YOUR situation?"

"I'm hurt, but OK for now. It's not important."

Bullshit, Priss thought, she could hear Sylia's voice growing fainter as she spoke.

"Sylia, give me your position, your transponder is out, we can't pinpoint you by it."

"It's not important... listen, Priss... Terrorists are after... the OMS." You have to stop them, or millions will... suffer." Following this was a download of a location in GENOM Tower. Priss barely glanced at it.

"Sylia, you have to give me your location!"

"Hurry, Priss..." Sylia fell silent.

"Sylia!!" Priss cursed and switched channels to Nene. "Nene, can you pinpoint her location?"

"Just a moment, Priss... yes, she's still transmitting. I'm narrowing it down... DARN! Lost the signal."

"Did you get her location or not, dammit?"

"Um, well, within 50 meters or so..."

"Good, take Reika and get her."

"Where are you going, Priss?"

"I have something to take care of in the Tower."

With that, Priss activated the jets on her Motoslave and rocketed towards the nearest loading dock.

 

Goto, Asuma, and Decker hovered around their command cars, watching the Patlabors and Griffons stand off.

"Man, I ain't seen things so tense since that fucking 'cease-fire' in Korea," Decker cursed.

"You and me both," Kaz said. "How much longer is this going to go on?"

"Not much longer," Goto said.

"THEY"RE NOT GOING TO SURRENDER. EAT HOT PLASMA, CRIMINALS!" came Ohta's voice from the loudspeaker of the Patlabor with the large number "2" on it. His labor, in a smooth economical motion, pumped the action of his gigantic pulse rifle and fired it at the Griffons.

They dodged it, of course. The blue-white flash of energy that came from the muzzle rocketed out, the reaction forcing even his massive mech back a half-step. It slammed into the side of the Tower, tearing a gigantic hole through the remains of the Fusion Boomer rampage.

"OHTA, YOU MORON!" came Noa's voice from the last Patlabor, the one marked with a number "1" and the name "Alphonse."

The Griffons evinced a whole new level of speed in dealing with the Patlabors. Against boomers and ADPolice armor, they had only needed their strength and size, but when finally faced with something their own size, the Griffons had to fall back on the trademark of the original: Speed. They rushed the Patlabors, coming from three sides, moving almost too fast to be seen.

Noa and Leon tried to bring their rifles to bear, but the Griffons were upon them before they could fire. There was a loud crunch as the mechs collided.

Inside his Patlabor, Leon cursed. The controls weren't that different from the ADPolice armor (which made sense, since the ADP armor was a descendent of this original design) but he had no experience with driving something this big. He was here as a warm body and because he felt that someone should represent the ADPolice in this fight. He flailed backwards, trying to keep his mech upright. Then he checked for damage.

There was none. Looking over to one side, he saw the Griffon that had hit him looking in shock at a mangled arm.

"I don't get it," he muttered. "What happened?"

"Noa, Ohta, Leon, it seems that the Griffon's armor is made out of modern composites... lighter, but not as strong as the Ingram armor. Try to close in hand-to-hand with them." Goto said over their comm network. Faintly, Leon could hear Asuma talking to Noa over his personal line.

The Patlabors always deployed with a the Forward, the mech unit itself, and the Backup, someone in the command car at the site who could take a more strategic view of the battlefield. Goto, Shige, and Asuma were filling these roles for them now.

 

"Damn, what are those things made of?" Max groused.

"Looks like its steel-based," Jackson replied. "Our armor is designed to deal with particle beams and fusion attacks. We weren't supposed to meet up with something like this."

"So what do we do now?" Dora asked.

"We still have the edge in speed, let's use it! Scatter!" Jackson threw his mech into sudden motion, heading for the number 3 mech. Max went after the gun-wielding lunatic in the number 2, and Dora went after number 1. "Aim for the sensitive areas, like joints and sensors... maybe we can cripple them!"

 

Priss landed before the GENOM loading dock. Something had already been here and blown a huge hole in the gates.

"I guess this is where the other Griffon went." Priss said, disengaging from her Motoslave. Its AI went on automatic immediately, alert for any threats. "OK, boy, you go first." I must be getting old, Priss thought to herself. I'm getting CAUTIOUS.

The caution paid off. Deep in the shadows of the loading bay, a red light flashed. With no other warning, Griffon-1 launched itself at the Motoslave, its guns blazing. In response, the Motoslave raised its shield, but the bullets and shells blew it backward slightly.

"Bastard!" Priss yelled, launching herself in the air. She hovered for a moment above her Motoslave and swung out her railgun. With a sharp SNAP! and discharge of ozone, she sent a spike right toward its sensor array. The Griffon covered its face with its hands, blocking the hypervelocity missile. Shocked, Priss dropped back down behind the shield of her Motoslave, which was now taking pots shots at the Griffon with its 35mm handgun. It hit, but just pitted the armor covering the Griffon's chest and arms.

Damn, I hope it doesn't have any missiles left, Priss thought.

The missiles launched a second later, of course.

Damn! OK, God, DON'T do me any favors!

The first missiles slammed into her Motoslave's shield, detonating and destroying it utterly. The next one hit the mech in the chest and smashed on through, shattering its spine and blowing it backward like a rag doll. Priss readied herself to try and dodge the onslaught.

Suddenly, a great roaring sound hit her ears, making her stagger. The sound crashed past her like a wave, and she was vaguely aware that she was only catching the slightest part of that wave. A red and black figure stood beside her, arms outstretched, the sound pouring out of a chest- mounted emitter that had previously been hidden by panels of armor. The panels had swung aside, not unlike a boomer heat beam's shielding, to allow the weapon to fire.

The wall of sound hit the missiles and they all went up in a massive explosion. Priss shielded her head with her arms as the blast and shrapnel washed over her. Then she turned on her rescuer.

"Vision! What are YOU doing here? I told Nene to take you with her!"

Reika closed the panels on her chest. "And I decided you needed my help more than she did." She and Priss ducked outside the loading bay, out of sight of the Griffon. It chose not to follow. "I may be the rookie, Priss-san, but I know better than to go alone into the heart of enemy territory."

"What the hell did you use, anyway?"

"New sonic weapon Sylia made up. She apparently thought it was appropriate for me. So, what are we going to do?"

"Where's your Motoslave?"

"I left it on auto between here and the fight. It might be able to slow down the Griffons if they get past the police. Do you think we'll need it?"

Priss just gave Reika a look which was unfortunately lost behind her visor. "You have any other way to take out eight-meter-tall mechs?"

"As a matter of fact..."

 

The three Ingram Patlabors fell into a defensive huddle, keeping their backs to each other, denying the Griffons a chance to split them up and defeat them in detail.

"Take THIS!" Ohta yelled, firing another shot at the evasive Griffons.

"And THIS! ANDTHISANDTHISANDTHIS!!!"

"Ohta! Stop wasting ammunition!" Asuma shouted, but he could hardly hear himself think over the constant roar of the pulse rifle.

Leon and Noa were more cautious, trying to wait for a good shot. The Griffons tried several times to close with them, but were driven off by the pulse rifles each time. The impasse was not going to last, however.

Jackson reached a decision. "Dora, Max... prepare to feint toward the city. If we look like we're escaping, they'll have to come after us."

The Griffons broke off their harrying of the Ingrams and sprinted for the city streets.

Only to be stopped by something standing in their way.

In the middle of the street, swaying slightly like a punch-drunk fighter, its armor scored and crumpled with damage, stood Griffon-4.

"Looks like the traitor doesn't know when to quit!" Dora sneered. Griffon-5 jumped forward, arms outstretched to take on its former teammate.

"Dora! She's not worth it!" Jackson yelled, to no avail. His threat monitor wailed and he spun around. The Ingrams were closing, led by that gun-wielding maniac. "Damn! Max, can you handle both #2 and #3? They seemed to be the less skillful ones. I'll take on #1."

"Gotcha! Prepare to die, assholes!" Max raised his arms and let out a stream of cannon fire at the Ingrams. Number 2, as was typical, stopped and raised his pulse rifle.

Jackson headed off the #1 Ingram. It still held its pulse rifles close against its chest, not even unlimbering it to have ready. He hoped to sweep by it on one side and try and incapacitate its sensors.

He never got close. Noa dropped her pulse rifle and swung her old baton, which she had hidden behind the weapon's bulk. Moving swiftly, she caught the Griffon alongside its head, shearing it clear off. The decapitated stump sparked and sizzled fitfully as the giant mech reeled backward. She followed it up with a spinning wheel kick, her Ingram moving as smoothly and certainly as any human, catching the black and grey mech in its side. There was a dull crunch as armor buckled and tore beneath the hit. Jackson's Griffon stumbled and fell to its knees. With a little side-step, Noa got behind it and raised her baton high, bringing it down in a underhand sweeping motion to thrust it into the Griffon's spine. Its back broken, the terror mech slumped down, lying still.

 

Max, Ohta, and Leon faced each other tensely for a moment, then Max spoke, using his loudspeakers. "Think you're a big man with that gun, don't you, cop? Do you think you're faster than I am?" In an almost comical gesture, the Griffon stood like a Western gunslinger, hands twitching at its waist, its forearm cannon gleaming.

"Is that a challenge, punk?" Ohta screamed back.

"Um, is this really a good idea?" Leon offered.

"Ohta, you moron! Just shoot him!" Asuma yelled, a little less restrained. Beside him, Goto lit a cigarette and just smiled.

"Shut up, Shinohara! This is a challenge between men! McNichol, don't interfere!" Ohta barked.

"Whatever...." Leon said, backing off. He looked around for Priss, just to make sure she was OK and became alarmed when he realized he couldn't see her anywhere. If she had gone off somewhere and gotten into trouble. He immediately went looking for her.

Ohta slung his pulse rifle behind his mech's back and stood before Max. "Draw, criminal!" Ohta yelled, focusing his anger, his rage on his opponent. Long ago, Ohta had found a talent that no one else had ever apparently possessed before, the ability to focus his near-constant anger into a Zen-like state of enhanced concentration and control. He now focused that concentration on his opponent.

Max pulled back on his controls to raise his arms and fire.

Ohta's Ingram shot out its right hand, down to its calf, which popped open to reveal a large, perfectly scaled, handgun. In one fluid motion, he grabbed it and fired from the hip. Before Max's arm even reached chest level, a single shot blew the Griffon's head off. The second, hitting the chest plate square on, tore through the armor and entered the pilot's compartment, killing Max instantly (and messily.) The third and fourth shots smashed the hip joints, causing the terror mech to slump to the ground.

"Yes! Take that you low-life scum! I LOVE SABOTS!" Ohta screamed, laughing maniacally. Unlimbering his pulse rifle he ran maniacally over to the Griffon and began pumping it full of point-blank plasma again and again, screaming epithets the entire time.

"Is he always like that?" Decker asked Goto, back at the command cars.

"I took him off his medication today. It may not have been a good idea." Goto replied.

 

"Bitch!" Dora screamed at Linna, launching her Griffon at the Knight Saber. The two mechs collided loudly. Linna scrambled with her controls as she toppled over backwards, trying to regain her balance. Dora was on her in a flash, her Griffon standing over the fallen mech. She raised her foot to bring it crashing down on Linna's chest armor.

Linna made sure she was there to meet it. Rolling desperately to one side, she got her Griffon out of danger and struggled to her feet. Dora was after her too quickly for that, however, and Griffon-4 got kicked in the face, sending it back into a building, smashing the storefront.

"You should have stayed dead, bitch. Now I have to get my hands dirty. I didn't want to do that, but Milly will forgive me for killing a traitor." The terrorist's voice got ugly with hate. "I don't know what she saw in you, anyway!" Griffon-5 began to pummel the nearly helpless mech. "You don't love her! I do!" she screamed as her fists smashed into Griffon-4's head and chest.

Linna tried to raise one of her mech's arms to protect herself. Dora grabbed on to one and began to pull. There was a screech of metal and then the arm came off in Griffon-5's hands.

Dora looked at it dumbly for a moment, giving Linna the chance to scramble out from underneath the Griffon and get to her feet. She took several deep breaths. "Focus, Linna," she muttered. Her Griffon was hurt bad and the loss of the arm was crippling. What chance did she have against Dora?

Then, as if he was right there beside her, she heard her father's voice.

 

He had been explaining armed vs. unarmed combat to her in the dojo. "The armed opponent has an advantage, usually in strength and reach, but they can still be taken out, no matter how fearsome their weapon. They can be disarmed. You may have to take a hit or two to get close, but once you are there, the unarmed fighter has the advantage."

"What if you are the one with the weapon, Father?" Linna has asked.

"An unarmed fighter cannot be disarmed because her weapon is a part of them. The armed fighter must make her weapon a part of them, an extension of their body. Then, they cannot be disarmed." Her father had smiled then, "At least not unless your opponent is very good."

"And if I am so badly outclassed? What can I do then, Father? If I have no choice but to fight?"

"Linna-chan, let me tell you a story. There was once a tea ceremony master who had been made a samurai by his lord. Now, he had no idea how to use the swords, but he accepted them anyway. One day, he inadvertently insulted a young warrior, who challenged him to a fight. Panicked, the tea master went to a swordsman, asking for training. In response, the swordsman asked the tea master to prepare some tea. He did so, his movements done easily and swiftly, with no thought required. The swordsman told him then to imagine that the sword was like his tea ladle, something that the tea master was used to and familiar with from long practice. If the tea master could reach the same state of calm non-thinking, and if he held his sword high and attacked at the same time as the young warrior, he might at least take his opponent with him. The tea master did this, and when the young warrior saw the look in his eyes, his acceptance of death, then he backed down, and did not fight the tea master. Now, your enemy will not always back down, but you can still defeat him, if you are willing to pay the price."

 

Linna slowed her breathing, calming herself. Mentally, she said a small prayer of thanks to her father's spirit for his teachings, and prepared herself. She stopped thinking of her Griffon as a machine, a device, but rather saw it as herself, facing Dora in hand-to-hand combat.

Griffon-5 stood up and tossed aside Griffon-4's arm contemptuously. "This ends NOW, traitor," Dora hissed over the comm system.

Linna made no reply. Her Griffon just stood there, awaiting her opponent's attack. Inside the cockpit, one of her hands stood poised over a shielded switch.

Griffon-5 charged Griffon-4, its hands outstretched to grab the chest plate and tear it off.

Griffon-4 spun around at the last moment and began to run. Dora crowed in triumph at her foe's cowardice. Griffon-5 grabbed the other, snagging its remaining arm, then putting it into a half-nelson. "Now, I'm going to tear you in two, bitch!" Dora hissed.

Linna uncovered the shielded switch and hit it. Alarms began to ring inside her cockpit and red lights glared. She paid them no mind but instead reached down between her feet and pulled at a yellow and black cord.

Dora got five more seconds to gloat, then the hatch above Griffon-4's cockpit blew off and the pilot's seat shot through it up into the air. Two seconds after that, the self-destruct charges SCHAFT had designed into the Griffons, the ones meant to hide their involvement in case capture was imminent, went off, enveloping Griffon-4 and Griffon-5 in a ball of flame.

Linna saw the flash and then the shockwave hit, sending her chair tumbling through the air. A building loomed suddenly before her as she spun around wildly. She braced for the impact--

--and a giant white hand caught her as gently as an outfielder's glove catching a pop fly. It was still a rough stop, and Linna couldn't help but scream as she felt her left shoulder dislocate in a blaze of agony, but it was better than smashing into the side of a building. Looking up, she saw one of the giant black and white mechs was holding her. The pilot, a little old lady with russet-colored hair

"Sorry I couldn't get here sooner," she said with a smile. "But I guess I was just in time."

 

The Griffon in the loading bay watched the entrances with the patience only a machine could muster. It had been instructed to guard this point and it would, until it received new orders. The SCHAFT AI was undismayed by its diminished stores of ammo and missiles. It would fight until it was destroyed, regardless.

Motion by the main entrance caught its sensors. Two figures in hardsuits were rushing it. It brought up its cannon, but the targets jinked and turned erratically, not giving it any pattern to anticipate.

The hardsuited warriors approached to within point-blank range. Then Priss leaped high into the air, the jets on her back firing to give her extra altitude. While leaping, she unlimbered its railgun and began firing, taking careful aim at the Griffon's sensors. Programmed to protect its delicate 'eyes,' the Griffon once again raised its arms to shield them.

As it did so, Reika ran forward and ducked between its legs. She spun around almost instantly, a large, glowing blade extending from each wrist, and slashed at the back of the Griffon's knees. The glowing blades sank into the delicate joint assemblies easily, crippling the monster mech.

The Griffon fell forward, stopping its fall with its hands. As it did so, Reika leaped up onto its back and scrambled to its head. Once there, she began to plunge her blades into its delicate sensors.

"Get going, Priss! You're the only one who knows where this damn thing is we're suppose to protect! I can hold this thing now!"

Priss wavered for a moment, then nodded and rocketed down the halls of GENOM.

"Yeah, this will be a piece of cake," Reika muttered. At that moment, as if to mock her words, the Griffon reached up blindly and managed to grab one of her legs. She shrieked as it flung her off its head (now a mangled wreck) and into one of the loading dock bays. The impact knocked the breath out of her and left her senseless, barely aware of the scraping sound of metal on concrete. The sound of the Griffon crawling towards her.

 

Milly pried open another security door. When the disaster protocols had been triggered, the doors had slammed down all over GENOM Tower, blocking almost all access. However, to her surprise, the doors between her and her objective were all unsealed and easy to open. She saw no guards and wasn't too surprised. The Fusion Boomers had taken out most of the boomers, and the humans were now safely locked up in survival shelters.

"Never look a gift horse in the mouth," she said as she easily forced open another door, shoving the heavy steel assembly to one side. "But this is too easy."

Suddenly, the doors opened onto a large room filled with computers, each of them softly whirring and beeping as they went about some task. In the center of the room, a large, horseshoe-shaped super-computer sat, cables running from it to all the other machines. And, easily visible in the center of the U, was a hand-sized block of molecular crystal, used for storage of terabytes of data in an easily portable form. The OMS.

"At last," she breathed. She reached up and put her hand on the soft humming piece of crystal. "At last, freedom."

Gently, she pulled at the crystal, working it loose from its socket. It came free easily, darkening to opacity as it did so. The computers protested with a high-pitched hum, which ran down to silence. One by one, they shut down, as if she had pulled the plug on the entire set-up. In a way, she thought with a grin, she had.

"Put it back."

She started at the unexpected, yet familiar vice from behind her. Her hand twitched to her gun, but the menacing snap of a railgun capacitor charging stopped her.

"None of that," Priss said, aiming her railgun at the terrorist's back. "Now, turn around, slowly."

"I don't think you'd like that... Priss," Milly said.

Priss felt the blood drain from her face in shock. "How do you know--?" she began to ask. Then the terrorist turned around and let Priss see her face, a very familiar face, framed by vibrantly green hair. Its features tended more towards cuteness than beauty, but with a particular elfin charm that had attracted its share of admirers.

Priss's hand dropped to her side and her knees nearly buckled. What she was seeing was impossible, but somehow, one strangled word escaped her lips.

"A-Anri..."

"Hi, Priss," Anri said softly, mockingly. "Miss me? Gee, I guess not, since you just LEFT me here over a year ago!" The words flew like a railgun spike at the Knight Saber, hitting deeply.

"I-I thought you were dead... like Sylvie. I thought Largo killed you..."

"Oh, yes, that made everything so easy for you, didn't it? No loose ends, no boomers for friends, no more complications." Anri's voice became even more venomous as she stepped closer to Priss. "I should have expected it, though... what further use did you have me? What further use did ANYONE have for me? I was never more than a tool to you, to ANY of you!"

"T-that's not true! Sylvie--"

"DON'T YOU SAY HER NAME, MURDERER! YOU KILLED HER! WHAT RIGHT DO YOU HAVE TO TALK ABOUT HER!" Anri's face was contorted by rage as she screamed at Priss, lunging forward with the need to strike the focus of her rage. Priss winced at her words and at the pain she could see in her old friend.

"Do you have any idea what I went through, Priss?" Anri asked, now only three feet from the Knight Saber. "They threw me out with the TRASH! I was just barely hanging onto life, and it took me almost six MONTHS to regenerate my systems on Dream Island! I had to feed on the blood of RATS until I could move enough to find humans, or be able to synthesize my own!" She was screeching now. "I'VE SEEN HELL BECAUSE OF YOU! And you can go to hell for all I care!"

The last line was delivered very quietly, almost unheard by its audience. But Anri suddenly had a knife in her hand, vibroblade which, if used with enough strength, could cut through almost anything. Its edges gleamed as she suddenly plunged it into the breastplate of Priss's hardsuit. Its sharp point, driven by boomer muscle, slid through the armor and entered Priss's heart.

Priss staggered back, in shock. The redness swirled around her eyes, but a new element, a darkness she remembered seeing on GENOM Tower's summit when she had almost died, was rising faster than it. "A-Anri..." she croaked, before she fell over.

Anri looked down at the body at her feet and stepped around the widening pool of blood. Then, OMS crystal in hand, she headed for the door, whistling a happy little tune.

 

Reika struggled to regain her senses as she heard the Griffon crawl toward her. It had thrown her a good distance, but she knew she didn't have much time, even if it was crippled. She scrambled to her feet--

--only to be smashed down by a large, black fist. She screamed as she fell back against the wall, expecting the next hit to mash her into a pulp.

"NO, YOU DON'T!" shouted a electronically amplified voice.

Reika looked up, struggling to clear her vision. A large white blur stood over the low black blur she knew to be the Griffon. Shaking her head, she saw it was the Patlabor #3, the one Leon was piloting. As she watched, he brought a large baton down on the Griffon's back, severing it neatly. There was a small explosion, and then the Griffon lay still.

"L-Leon?" Reika asked as she stood shakily.

"HOWDY!" he said, flippantly, making his labor give her a snappy salute. "WHERE'S YOUR PARTNER?" he asked, concern evident in his voice.

"She went that way," Reika said, pointing at one of the doors leading out of the bay.

Leon popped his head out of the upper Ingram hatch and yelled down, "We better go look for her, then... she has a knack for getting into trouble." With that, the Ingram knelt down, allowing Leon to clamber out of its chest hatch, onto its knee, and then down its arm to the ground. He drew his "Earth Shaker" .60-caliber revolver and started toward the door. Reika followed, a bit shakily at first.

They found the trail easy to follow, as they came across one open security door after another. Leon hurried along, quickening his pace almost without realizing it, as his concern for Priss grew. It grew even worse when they finally came to the OMS room, and he saw her lying there in a pool of blood.

"PRISS!" he screamed, running to her.

"Oh, no..." Reika whispered, hurrying behind him.

Neither of them looked back to see a waifish figure sneak out of a utility closet and run back the way they came.

Leon hovered over Priss, afraid to even touch her. "This is bad..." he muttered, looking at the pool of blood surrounding the still figure.

"No... shit, Sherlock," Priss muttered, suddenly, her voice rough with pain.

"Priss! You're alive?" Leon exclaimed.

"Barely..." she whispered. "Get... knife... out..."

Leon turned Priss over and was almost sick at the sight of the knife buried up to its hilt in her chest. He yanked it free and tossed it aside.

"B-better..." Priss managed to say. "Nanoids... couldn't heal... my heart like that... Leon, it was Anri..." Tears fell from Priss's eyes. "I left her to become like that... it's all my fault!"

Leon caught Priss up in a helpless hug. "Shhh, Priss... It's OK. We'll find her... help her somehow. I promise." His eyes hardened as Priss fell unconscious. "I promise we'll find her."

Epilogue:

 

Sylia opened her eyes to be greeted by several smiling faces by her hospital bed. She managed a slight smile in return and tried to sit up straighter, which caused her to wince in pain.

"Damn, and you said I was stubborn, Sylia," Priss said with a grin. She was sitting by Leon, fully recovered from her wounds, thanks to the nanoids in her body.

"But you're looking much better, Sylia! You'll be out of here soon, I know it!" Nene piped up. She was the only one who had seen how badly Sylia had been hurt by the KnightWing crash. If she had taken any longer to get to her...

"You have to take better care of yourself, Sylia," Reika chimed in. "You know what they say, if you die, we all get a promotion... and I don't think Priss is THAT eager to be leader."

"NO WAY!" Priss said emphatically, drawing a laugh from all present.

"So," Sylia said, "does someone want to fill me in on the situation?"

"The AGF is finished," Linna said quietly, her arm still in a sling from her battle with Dora. "They've lost their backers and their headquarters. The only problem is, their leader never resurfaced."

"She got what she was looking for, Sylia," Priss said miserably. "I couldn't stop her... it was Anri."

Sylia's eyes widened. "That explains a lot," was all she said, giving Priss a sympathetic look. "What is GENOM doing about it?"

"Besides cleaning up the mess?" Leon asked. "They're blaming the whole thing on SCHAFT, and there's some evidence to back them up. SCHAFT, for its part, is blaming their executives here for having their own agenda, but no one is buying that story. I don't think SCHAFT will be welcome in this country any time soon. Chief Goto and a Mr. Jim Ashima testified about the Griffon mechs and SCHAFT's previous involvement. And GENOM was helping us for once." Leon's voice turned very ironic for the last sentence. "The City also gave the old Patlabor squad and me a medal, but they're denying the Knight Sabers were involved... typical, I suppose."

Sylia nodded turned toward the large bay window in her private suite. The Griffons were finished, but the loose ends still dangled. A sexaroid was loose with the power to potentially control any boomer she wished. Someone she thought dead had spoken to her, warning her of the OMS's weakness. That would have to be investigated carefully. What would happen next?

There was a knock at the door. Chief Goto stood there, a bouquet of flowers in his arms. "Ah, hello," he said. "Mind if I visit for a moment?"

"Uncle Kiichi?" Sylia asked in surprise.

"UNCLE KIICHI?" everyone exploded.

"Well, not really," Goto said, smiling. "I'm a friend of the family. I just let her and her brother call me 'uncle' after their father died."

"You knew Dr. Stingray?" Leon asked, his sunglasses slipping off his face in surprise. Goto nodded. "Somehow, that makes sense," Leon said.

Everyone had a laugh, then Priss turned to Sylia. "Hurry up and get better, Sylia, and we'll have a party to celebrate." She winked at Linna.

"Hold on, not at MY place again! That's how this whole mess started!"

 

"I am disappointed by your failure to guard the OMS, Larsen, Madigan," Chairman Quincy said gravely from behind his desk.

"We took every precaution we could, sir," Largo replied. "We'll get it back before the terrorist can assemble the machinery to utilize the program."

"You had better, Larsen. If you and Madigan had not performed so well against Kelly, I would not even be considering giving you this chance. Find the OMS, and find it quickly!"

"Yes, sir!" they both said, and then they were dismissed. Together, they walked down the halls of power, neither looking at each other. Finally, Madigan spoke.

"Where should we begin looking, do you think?"

"My dear, we shall not be looking. I think the Knight Sabers have excellent reasons of their own to find this terrorist in question, and they seemed blessed with an uncanny sort of luck." He ushered her into his office. "We shall use them to find the OMS, and then dispose of two problems with one blow."

"And how will you use them?"

"Through a traitor in their ranks."

"A traitor? I find that hard to believe."

"Look at this, then..." Largo said, calling up a camera feed on his monitor. "Thanks to a serendipitous accident, we have discovered the identity and enough personal information about one of the Knight Sabers to construct a doppelganger, a specialized 33-S2. This boomer will infiltrate the Knight Sabers, and, when the time is right, eliminate them."

Madigan looked at the screen and smiled. She hooked her hand in Largo's, their systems once again linking in a union far more profound than anything a mere human could experience.

On the screen, a naked Nene Romanova floated in a large nanotank, being watched over by Dr. Miriam Yoshida.

 

Somewhere, in a safehouse she had prepared long ago, Anri contemplated the OMS crystal and began to laugh.


Author's Notes:

Well, THIS has taken forever... it's been almost two years since I started this story, and it's been changing ever since I first came up with the idea. I apologize it took me so long to finish this last bit. The first six parts are, of course, available at the RAAC archive.

Anyone who has read the first six chapters of this story will note that the format has changed slightly in this chapter. I'm sorry for any inconvenience this causes, but my writing style changed over the course of writing this chapter, hopefully for the better. I may get around to reformatting the first 6 chapters some day, if I can find the time.

This is the last story I will put out in chapter format... I won't tease any more. Now that this is finished, I have learned my lesson.

As you may have noticed, I have a sequel in mind... maybe you'll see it some time this year. :)

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the ride. Comments and criticisms are welcome at jhosmer@ix.netcom.com. Let me know if you want to be part of my pre-readers group.

Also written by me are:

BGC! Angel of Darkness - The predecessor to this story.

Ranma 1/2: Girls' Night Out - a short, but interesting tale of Akane and Ukyou and what they might do when Ranma is out making a fool of himself, again.

And look for these coming attractions, if I ever finish them...

Ranma1/2 Elseworlds OVA 2: Akane 1/2 (with the redoubtable John Biles)

For Jeanne Hedge, who waited not-so-patiently. :)

What has gone before:

Chapter 1:

 

In the dead of night, five gigantic mecha emerge from the depths of Tokyo Bay and smash a GENOM warehouse, leaving no witnesses except for a trucker, Jim Ashima, and his companion, Clara. When Sylia sees a news report on this, she wonders if the Knight Sabers are enough to handle the problems of MegaTokyo any longer. She begins making plans to expand the Knight Sabers, a move prompted in part by Reika Chang (AKA Vision) visiting the city. Meanwhile, Leon and Daley begin investigating the destruction of the warehouse and find a giant footprint from the mecha.

Priss visits Linna and goes on at length about how she is going to break up with Leon, but Linna has heard it all before and is not impressed. She and Daley have been listening to the couple bitch, moan, break up and get together again for too long. Their talk is interrupted by Reika, who pays a surprise visit on Linna, announcing that she is moving to MegaTokyo on a permanent basis. Priss immediately declares that they should hold a party.

The party goes well, until Priss tries to prove her sobriety (or lack of it) and injures herself. Reika is shocked by the speed in which Priss's cuts heal and the story of how Priss came to be enhanced by nanotechnology is told. Vision tries to apologize for her reaction, but Priss's temper flares and she attacks the other singer. She comes to her senses before any harm is done and runs out of the apartment, followed by Leon. The others discuss how Priss has been on the edge of true cyberpsychosis ever since her rampage through MegaTokyo. Outside, Leon catches up to Priss and convinces her that he will be there to help her, no matter what happens. They kiss and return to the party, where Sylia offers Reika a place in the Knight Sabers. Reika accepts.

Chapter 2:

 

Linna is put in charge of Reika's training, running the singing star ragged their first morning. Meanwhile, Jim Ashima, escapes from a contingent of security boomers into the anonymity of the Canyons, a section of MegaTokyo devastated by the Second Kanto earthquake. The boomers killed his companion Clara and he swears to find some way to avenge her.

At ADPolice HQ, Leon runs into Nene (almost literally) and she gives him a disk with some info she says he'll find useful on his case. Leon then sees the new Chief, who assigns him some help: Former Chief Goto of the old Patlabor command, SV2.

Sylia meets with Fargo, who tells her about Jim Ashima. She puts him on the trucker's trail and he promises to find him. Linna and Reika go out to dinner and Linna tells her about the Second Kanto Earthquake and how her family survived it. Linna's father ran a martial arts dojo and had organized his students into rescue parties after the quake. Linna had to watch a very good friend of hers die in the aftermath. Linna admits to Vision that she's not sure why the Knight Sabers keep fighting GENOM, except for the fact that there is no one else.

Largo, in his role as Brian Larsen, GENOM Special Assistant to the Chairman, visits the site of the new GPCC building. A GENOM VP named Anderson had been found guilty of kickbacks and fraud and had also been responsible for covering up the warehouse incident, sending the combat boomers to kill Jim Ashima. His heavy-handed incompetence had gotten him terminated. While Largo overlooks the site, the mechs attack, flying in at low altitudes. Largo taps the OMS (OverMind Control System) and uses it to send every construction boomer at the site against the mechs, heavily damaging at least one of them and forcing them to flee. The OMS then almost purges Largo for unauthorized access.

Priss and Leon go on a date, but it is interrupted by a gang mugging. Leon is knocked out while Priss, with her enhanced physiology, is only stunned. The gang is about to murder Leon and have some fun with Priss when Priss attacks them. When Leon comes to, he finds Priss sitting amid the bloody, mangled corpses of the gang. She almost attacks Leon, but stops herself in time. Looking at herself, she begins to scream and claw at her eyes before fainting. Leon uses her Knight Saber communicator to call for help.

Chapter 3:

 

Chairman Quincy holds a meeting with Wilhelm Godhardt, a representative from SCHAFT, a German-based mecha company with whom GENOM is considering a joint project. With the chairman is Dixon Kelly, a Special Assistant with a cyberjack enhancement, and Asuma Shinohara, one of GENOM's vice-presidents. Shinohara objects to the proposed project, while Kelly supports it. Quincy tells Godhardt they need more time to decide and, after the SCHAFT man leaves, chastises Shinohara for belaboring his points. Outside of the GENOM Tower, Godhardt meets with SCHAFT Security Systems Colonel Johann Hineman in his limo and they discuss the meeting, which they reveal to be no more than a cover for something else.

Reika goes to Nene's apartment so Nene can work on constructing the programs for the singer's hardsuit. She catches the hacker asleep, but they soon get to work. Nene reveals she would rather work at Raven's Garage on this, but Priss is there, recuperating from some incident.

At Raven's Garage, Priss wakes up. Leon hovers over her, concerned, and at first she can't remember what happened. It comes back to her quickly however. After Leon leaves, Priss eavesdrops on him and Sylia discussing how serious this is and that Priss may have to be institutionalized if they can't find a way to help her.

Nene and Reika arrive to do some work on the computer for Reika's suit. The hacker takes Reika on a tour of cyberspace, teaching her about how the hardsuit operating system is a learning system that can almost read the user's mind through biofeedback. They work on the look of Reika's suit. Finally, Nene talks Reika into a combat simulation, explaining that Sylia wants Reika combat ready as soon as possible.

At the ADPHQ, Leon and Daley discuss the GPCC battle (which GENOM is calling an industrial accident) and Leon finally views the disk Nene gave him. It has information on an old form of mecha known as a Labor, which was used for many different purposes until the rise of the boomer phased them out of business. The disk also lists three companies that once built Labors and are still in existence: Shinohara-Toyohata Industries, a GENOM subsidiary; Barumi Tech, now a computer software company; and SCHAFT Enterprises.

Fargo contacts Sylia, informing her that an unknown group is looking for powered armor operators. He tells her that it might be connected with the group hitting GENOM sites. She decides that, with Priss out of action, that Linna will have to check this lead out.

Priss slips out of Raven's garage, raiding the Knight Sabers' lockers for clothes. Nene and Reika are busy on the combat sim, were Nene is trashing the rock singer, despite some inspired tactics by Reika.

Sylia speaks to Linna about her undercover mission and Linna accepts. However, before they can talk any further, Nene calls to tell them that Priss is missing.

Chapter 4:

 

In the halls of GENOM, Largo discovers that the mechs he fought at GPCC are known as Griffon Combat Labors, a specialized form of labor originally constructed by SCHAFT. Dixon Kelly meets with Madigan, another Special Assistant, whom Quincy has just recalled from Osaka. She had been relegated to that post after the first encounter with Largo.

Linna, Reika, and Nene meet at Raven's and discuss Priss's disappearance and Linna's new assignment. Sylia checks out Priss's trailer and finds Priss, but Priss goes so far as to shoot a hole in the wall to keep Sylia from stopping her. Priss explains she needs to go out on her own to find a solution to her problem and that no one else can help her.

Fargo meets with the people looking for powered armor operators. His contact is a young girl with green hair who seems incredibly naive. He gives her a faked dossier on Linna. Once she leaves with it, however, the contact drops her act and becomes totally professional. She meets up with other members of her group and is addressed as the Boss.

USSD, the United Nations Strategic Space Defense force which controls the orbital laser satellites, has a meeting over what to do about the mech attacks. The satellites recorded images of the attack on GPCC. It is revealed that weather patterns in the MegaTokyo area have been disrupted by a nuclear explosion in Siberia, as part of the Polar War, and the USSD targeting programs have not adjusted yet. General Griffith orders the satellites made ready in any event.

Leon has a talk with a veteran ADPolice officer, Sergeant Richard Decker. Decker is a professional and also sports a cyberarm. Leon talks to him about cyberpsychosis, hoping to discover a way to help Priss. Decker tells him that it's Priss's fight. Only she can help herself.

Meanwhile, Priss runs into some external troubles, namely a group of bikers who want to have an interesting time with her.

Chapter 5:

 

Priss charges the bikers on her motorcycle, but they disable her bike with a chain. She pulls her gun on them, but its barrel was bent in the accident and is useless. For a moment, she almost falls into the same bloodlust that claimed her before, but is saved by Kaz, the leader of her old bike pack, who happens to come along.

Linna, meanwhile, has been recruited by the terrorists behind the mecha attacks, the AGF (Anti-GENOM Front.) The Boss sees her personally and inducts her into the band, showing her the Griffon labors they have been using in the attacks.

Largo meets with Madigan and the two have a meeting of minds, discovering that Anderson, the incompetent VP Largo terminated, may have been the front man for someone else, setting GENOM up for a fall in the near future. A quick search of the GENOM public database confirms this. The two decide to discuss what to do over dinner.

Leon, Sylia, and Nene all conduct their private searches for Priss, with no luck. Sylia begins to have doubts about her ability to lead the group. Leon and Daley go to Shinohara-Toyohata Industries to interview its president about labors. They arrive to find Goto already there, talking with Asuma Shinohara. Asuma shows them his pet project, a museum devoted to labors. There, they learn that the most likely labor culprit is the Griffon, which was produced by SCHAFT. Further, Goto reveals the possibility of a witness, Jim Ashima, who could identify the Griffons and implicate SCHAFT. Furthermore, he says he has a lead on where Ashima is, thanks to a "friend of a friend."

Chapter 6:

 

Priss and Kaz, after a day of bike riding, talk about Priss's problem.

Kaz tells her that she can't run away from her problems.

In the AGF's hideout, Linna takes part in a training simulation in the Griffons, under the watchful eye of Bud, the man who piloted the original Griffon. Her fellow Griffon pilots, Max (a missile-happy moron) and Dora (a quiet, but competent woman who is jealous of the attention the Boss gives Linna) manage to do all right, but Linna is "killed." Wilhelm Godhardt and Colonel Hineman meet with the Boss and watch the exercise. They talk about one more mission before they try for their real objective. Their plan is to blame the Griffon rampage on GENOM, using the falsified information in the GENOM public database to prove this. The furor over this will allow SCHAFT, they hope, a chance to re-enter the Japanese market.

Nene searches the net for Priss, and finally decides to try and raid the GENOM mainframes. She runs into Dixon Kelly who, with his cyberjack, manages to easily dump her off the system and implant a virus into her computer, erasing all her files. He also identifies her as a Knight Saber, but doesn't follow the lead at this time, hoping to meet her again on the nets.

Leon, Daley, Decker and his squad head off for the Canyons on a false alert which they arranged so they can search for Ashima. A GENOM informant in the ADPolice reports this to GENOM, and is then apprehended by Chief Matsui. It turns out that Leon and Decker decided the best way to find Ashima is to use GENOM to flush him out. It's dangerous, but the Canyons has too many hiding places for their limited resources. They no sooner arrive in the Canyons then they are attacked by some sort of heavy ordnance.

Priss is still hanging out with the Pack, trying to sort out her feelings when she is approached by Moro, the biker who tried to accost her earlier. He insinuates that she and Kaz have a relationship and she loses her temper, throwing him against a wall. He pulls a knife on her. The red rage she felt before threatens to overwhelm her again, but she thinks about what Kaz told her and beats it back, controlling it. She defeats Moro, giving him a wedgie to remember her by. The Pack then hears about another gang, the Black Scavs, attacking the ADPolice with some arms they got from a backer. The Pack rides out to deal with this, since the Scavs are on the Pack's turf.

At the AGF base, Linna and the Boss talk. The Boss intimates she'd like to be more than friends and co-workers. Linna is very nervous about that and puts her off. She then goes and sends a message to Fargo, informing him of where the AGF is located. Dora watches this and, after the other two leave, she sabotages Linna's Griffon.

Sylia, Nene, and Reika get suited up (Reika for the first time) and head out in the KnightWing to deal with the Griffons.

The remaining members of the old SV2 Patlabor Unit 2 meet in a Shinohara-Toyohata warehouse, where their old Ingram Patlabors have been stored since the early 21st century. Goto has ordered the old machines prepped for one last fight.

The KnightWing attacks the Griffon base on the Dream Island landfill. The Griffons burst out of the base to deal with them. Linna prepares to change sides, but the Boss is ready for that, activating a restraining system in Linna's Griffon that gives her complete control over it. She tells Linna it is based on the DD Battlemover. She then makes Linna fire her missiles on the unsuspecting KnightWing. Sylia, devastated by this latest apparent defection in the Knight Saber family, freezes up and the KnightWing takes the missiles dead on.


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