INNP-Chan returns with his third fanfic, this one finally giving Linna the attention and background she deserves! And yes, action fans, there WILL be boomer fights!

As usual, your comments, flaming or gentle, are entirely welcome at: innpchan@aol.com (Innpchan)

innpchan@aol.com

Enjoy!


Bubblegum Crisis: Dance of Armor

Innpchan

1/23/96

Book One, Part One

"One, Step! Two, Step!"

The students were doing their best to follow the lissome young instructor's spins and lunges between the beats of Vision's latest single. Even though the participants in the advanced acro-step class were all in superior condition, her ability to maintain that dazzling smile and notoriously sunny disposition all the way through the grueling routines remained a mystery to them. Without exception, they were exhausted by the end of the class, but their instructor always tried to finish off the evening with a move they could only observe in awe and aspire to match-- someday.

The song neared its triple-backbeat climax, and there she went! Twirling one hand above her head in a signal to the others to continue the routine, she high-jogged a few steps back for a running start. THIS move again! She'd failed twice in the past month at the high aerial flip, and the class was silently divided between those pulling for her eventual success and those who hoped that pollyanna mask would finally be cracked.

As the final drumbeats pounded through the Phoebe's Phitness Utopia PA system, the instructor was in a fast run toward the step. The class parted to allow her room to land. She dove forward, arms compressing as her feet came over her head. Once she launched herself back into the air, her arms snapped straight out to the side so that her body formed a soaring crucifix, her head back, breast bared to the heavens until her feet lightly tapped the earth once more.

...at least that was how it should have gone. As it was, her left hand slipped out during the crucial launch and her back hit the floor with an embarrassingly loud slap. Surprise and disappointment clouded her face for the barest moment, until That Smile broke out once more and Linna laughed at the spectacle she'd made of herself.

Taking this as a signal, the rest of the class giggled as some went to help her up, assuring themselves that the padded floor had only injured their instructor's pride. Linna smiled back at her pupils and announced "Okay, be here Thursday at seven for the rematch!"

As she walked toward the locker room, she cheerily dispensed her usual mix of compliments, suggestions, and reassurance to her students. Once alone in the shower, however, she allowed a measure of irritation and anger to come forward. It was so easy in the hardsuit! The power-boosted musculature not only made the move possible, but could extend the floating arc to twenty meters or more. What she wanted, however, was that same sensation outside the suit's confines, where she could feel the wind caress her body and toy with her hair. Where she could land with silent grace instead of a metallic clank. Damn, it was frustrating! She knew just how it should feel, but it was beginning to look like she'd never make it on her own.


Making it on her own, of course, was a way of life for Linna Yamazaki. At age twelve she'd become one of the million children orphaned in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 2025. There were no orphanages and few organized shelters in those first two terrible years. Her memories of that time were a haze of foodlines and rubble-strewn corners. Alone, always alone. Hiding was easier that way. Safety in solitude. The inevitable gangs, thank God, weren't much of a worry for her since she had nothing worth taking. That is, until she turned fourteen and became uncomfortably aware of the attention she drew just walking toward the food station from the previous night's hovel. It was best not to think about what might have happened had she not also attracted the notice of a passing savior.

In retrospect, the photo shoot was one of the more disgusting displays of haute couture since Susan Sontag had taken to producing Becket plays in besieged Sarajevo. The hottest models in the latest SoCal ultraskin fashions set against the shattered, and titillatingly dangerous, remains of Old Tokyo. The photographer's search for local color was meeting with little success until Linna happened on the scene. Something in the rhythm of the young girl's walk caught her eye, and the offer of a jelly donut and a bottle of the near-mythical Diet Coke brought her close enough to talk.

Amazed at first that the lady offered food and -wonder of wonders- MONEY just to stand near the other girls while she took pictures, Linna was too overwhelmed to do anything but nod and follow directions. Smiling for the camera wasn't a problem. The nervous grin that had spontaneously appeared on her face promised to stay for months.

As it was, it only stayed until the photographer decided she had enough shots of the Poor Child and the models decided Linna could use a bath. Although the washing up was fun at first, it was starting to bring back some memories that burst through in a flood when the other girls started to apply her makeup.

Mother.

Her mother, a slim, elegant being that now inhabited the warm place Linna's mind would retreat to at night, sometimes allowed her only child to playfully apply cosmetics while she prepared for an evening with that other elegant being, Linna's father. The impromptu makeup sessions were always a time for laughter and cuddling. Linna had forgotten the rich, fresh smell of those times until the powder brush moved across her face, when she suddenly began crying and threw her arms around the girl nearest her. She wouldn't let go, and the day's shoot was effectively over. The photographer and some of the older team members were angry at the wasted time and wanted to throw Linna back to the streets, but the other girls were damned if they were going to leave their newfound little sister in this place for another moment. Faced with a potential rebellion of their stars, the others relented and Linna accompanied them to their hotel, leaving behind the slums of the unreclaimed territories forever.


Linna stepped out of Phoebe's door into the bright-as-day MegaTokyo nightlife. She looked up and down the street. No sign of Priss or her car. Priss liked to tease her about owning a dull econobox but she didn't hesitate to borrow it whenever she needed to move something that couldn't be stuffed onto her bike; which is to say, whenever she wanted to move anything. It did seem a bit odd, she admitted, for a girl like her not to have a sportier model, but she wasn't an adrenaline junkie like Priss. She got all the excitement she needed in the hardsuit, thanks very much.

The beep of a car horn broke her train of thought and she looked up to see Priss just down the street, waving out the car window. As she approached, Linna could see the back was stuffed with Priss' atrocious collection of "stage costumes." Linna would have considered "raggedy streetwalker cast-offs" a better description. They were defiling her back seat (and leaving God-only-knew what stains and odors) as a result of yet another fight with the Hot Legs club owner, who had sworn (again) that this time Priss was REALLY finished, and "she'd never work in this town again." Priss didn't seem overly concerned. She appeared to consider constant firings and re-hirings part of the job. So far, she was right.

"Hey." Priss said in greeting as Linna got in.

"That was a timely pickup." Linna responded, closing the door.

"Well, hey. It's your car, right?" Priss reached for the gearshift. A roadbike swept past, its motor howling and backfiring as it came to a stop at the curb in front of them. The rider took off her helmet and shook her hair loose, then yelled at someone on the sidewalk. The car didn't move.

Linna looked over at Priss, who was staring at the cyclist. Priss was frozen for a moment, then looked down at the wheel. "S-sorry, but..." She looked up with obviously feigned nonchalance. "Well, time to go, right?" She tried to put the car in gear, but seemed to have forgotten it was an automatic and there was no clutch for her foot to depress. As she stomped the floor in confusion, Linna reached over, took Priss' hand, and gave it a gentle squeeze.

She looked over at Linna, who gave her a small smile, said "It's okay, Priss." and squeezed her hand again. Priss disengaged her hand after tightening it almost imperceptibly around Linna's.

"Sometimes you can really be alright, Linna." she said, eyes on the road as the little Expo moved into traffic.


Young Linna's eyes were wide with amazement at the world she'd only glimpsed occasionally from behind the slashwire boundaries at the edge of the territories. There was light, and people smiling and laughing, and they and everything around them was so clean! Linna thought there was no way she could be more surprised. Then she saw the food.

The buffet in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel contained more food of a wider variety than she could ever remember seeing-- even before the quake. While the rest of the photo crew headed for their rooms, Kathy, the girl Linna had clung to earlier, had escorted her to the table. Linna was oblivious to the stares generated by her presence, and any who thought of objecting to it quickly changed their minds when Kathy's face, familiar from countless netmag splashes and holo-ads, turned toward them with a quiet menace those images had never even hinted at.

Kathy led Linna up to her suite, explaining that Linna could live there for a week, but after that they would have to find some other place for her. To Linna, spending such a long time in one spot seemed reckless, and she asked "Won't anyone attack?"

Kathy was confused by this response, then the realization of the life this child had lived during her own rise to world acclaim sunk in. "No, honey." she said, putting her arms on Linna's shoulders and looking into her eyes, "I promise we'll be safe here, okay?"

Linna decided the older girl knew this place better than she did, so she nodded her response, if doubtfully. "Okay."

After Linna finished eating, and after Kathy determined that, yes, Linna remembered what toothbrushing was, she put the exhausted and overwhelmed girl to bed.

"I have to go downstairs and see some people. You just go to sleep and I'll be back in an hour or so. I'll lock the door- do you remember locks?"

"Yes."

"Good. No one will be able to get through the door but me, so you don't need to worry. Okay?"

Linna was unhappy her friend was leaving, but she was, after all, used to being alone. And she had promised to come back. "Okay."

As she checked the lock behind her and walked down the hallway toward the elevator, it occurred to her that Linna would be a very convenient excuse should any of the men at the "Welcome to the New MegaTokyo" reception become too aggressive. She wished that she didn't have to go at all, but her manager had made it clear the company sponsoring both the photo shoot and the reception ("Ghennam"? "Ganoom"?) had to be treated with discretion. She would put in as short an appearance as seemed prudent, then get back to check on her new responsibility.

Surprisingly, none of the young executives strutting about the reception put any overt moves on her. It seemed they didn't quite have the confidence to demand the favors of an idol like herself-- yet. Their manners had disarmed her to a degree, and she stayed longer than she planned. Nearly three hours later she returned to the suite. She stepped out of her heels and walked quietly to the bedroom.

Linna was gone.

The bed was empty, the covers thrown to one side. Kathy switched on the light. "Linna?" she called. The light from the bedroom illuminated a small movement in the closet. Kathy stepped inside and saw Linna huddled asleep in the farthest corner, almost concealed beneath the suitcases and duffel bags she'd drawn around herself.

Kathy carefully moved the luggage, picked Linna up and carried her back to the bed. Linna started once and opened her eyes. Then, seeing Kathy, they closed again and the tiny body relaxed. Kathy held her all night long, and the warm, complete satisfaction this brought made for an easy transition to a deep, sustaining sleep.


After dropping Priss and her costumes off at her trailer, Linna drove home. She activated the steel gate to her complex's parking garage and drove in. She shut off the engine and finally took the opportunity to inspect the back seat without Priss around. Not bad, no obvious stains, and the smell was already dissipating.

She walked through the well-lit garage toward the elevator, smiling at the guard. "Hello Steve. Any mail for me?"

"Good Evening, Miss Yamazaki." he replied, getting up from his chair, "No, I'm afraid there isn't." Linna used to think the guards stood up for all the tenants, but then Priss came in with her one day and pointed out that standing gave them a better view as she walked away into the elevator. She knew she should be offended if it was true, but they were all sweet guys, and if they got a thrill out of looking, she guessed there wasn't any harm. Besides, although she'd NEVER admit it to anyone, she sometimes got a little thrill out of thinking they were looking. She put just a little extra sway in her step as she continued past the desk and was rewarded with the sound of Steve knocking over his chair.

She managed to keep her composure until she was in the elevator, then collapsed out of sight against the side wall. "Naughty, naughty girl, Linna." she giggled to herself as the elevator doors closed. What an end to a full day. It would be good to get to bed tonight. She was exhausted.


Linna spent the next week charming the remainder of the shoot team, as well as becoming reacquainted with a more organized society. Every commonplace experience was new in her eyes. Kathy would loan her a different set of clothes to wear EVERY MORNING. They were all too large for her of course, but Kathy showed her how to use belts or tie up sleeves until Linna could wear them without falling all over herself.

In that time she came to worship Kathy as her ideal. Kathy thought she was used to having her every need catered to, but she had experienced nothing like the intense devotion Linna demonstrated. She'd even had to define Linna's boundaries when one of the other models, undeniably a sheer bitch, had tried-- TRIED --to "borrow" Kathy's hairbrush. Linna's first kick hadn't quite connected (Kathy was never clear on whether it was a warning shot or not) and a second wasn't necessary, as the other girl ran screaming back to her manager, insisting that little ANIMAL be removed from the set.

The incident hadn't helped matters when Kathy asked her manager about taking Linna back to New York. Kathy first tried to point out Linna's obvious beauty and raw talent, but the fashion world was moving toward girls like herself-- freckled, wholesome, almost plain. Linna's already striking oriental features were "just too exotic" to be profitable in the foreseeable future.

Then her manager had been understanding, but heartbreakingly realistic about the real issue: "Kathy, do you really want to be full- time mother to this girl? Because that's what she'll need. If you do this, it's at least a four-year commitment, maybe more." Kathy painfully admitted to herself that, at 22, she wasn't ready for (or, she was ashamed to say, didn't even want) that kind of obligation. They decided her goal should then become setting up some kind of life for Linna where she could be eased into the ultra-modern city that was about to erupt into being around her.

Linna seemed to be in a perpetual state of wonder about the hotel itself, so Kathy decided maybe it would be a good place to start. A talk with the head of hotel maintenance revealed that, yes, some of the girls working in the hotel did live on the premises in a sub-level dormitory. Kathy inspected the place and, while it was a far cry from her suite, it was clean and safe. Besides, rooming with other girls near her own age would probably be good for her.

The deal was struck. Linna would work as a maid and, if she was diligent, she could move up rather quickly. In exchange for a "consideration" from Kathy, the concierge would look out for Linna and see she had what she needed. As Kathy passed a generous credit chip to him, she let a hint of menace come back into her eyes. "I'm going to be checking up on her, and I DON'T want to hear she's become someone's 'girlfriend,' understand?" He accepted the chip nervously and assured her that he did. Kathy left to tell Linna about her new life, and then to say goodbye.


Linna heard the thump from deep in her sleep. Then another bang and the sound of breaking glass. Shouts.

She awoke with a start. It was dark. She couldn't see. She couldn't move. "PAPA!" she screamed, sitting up and finally coming fully awake.

The thumps continued. They seemed to be coming from above her. Moving furniture? At this hour? She sighed. Life in MegaTokyo.

She'd broken into a cold sweat. She hadn't had an episode like that in a long time. The fear had paralyzed her. Made her think she was still buried under the heavy dresser and the collapsed floor from above her parents' apartment, saved only by the soft mattress beneath her. The rescuers had taken six hours to get to her. Linna knew they'd taken a lot longer to get to other people, but she was still terrified by the memory. Unable to move her arms, her legs. All she could do was turn her head and scream for her papa, but he never came.

She got up and went to the kitchen. It was times like this she regretted living alone. She really should call the other girls from hotel dormitory more often.

She drank some water and headed back toward bed wondering how she would get to sleep. As she crawled in she turned on the radio, hoping the music would cover the noise of the movers. She tried to calm herself. "Go to the warm places" a voice in her head bid her. Good idea. The warm places had offered solace back when she lived in the territories, when she felt alone in the dormitory, and on nights like this when the nightmare memories were just too close.

Her mother was a warm place, as was papa. Being held by Kathy was a warm place too. But tonight she went to a different one. The one she visited least often. She wasn't sure if it was her encounter with Steve in the garage that was pushing her in this direction, but she needed a special warmth tonight.

Seito, then.

The Sakai family had lived in the same building as Linna and her parents. Seito's two older brothers were always leaving him behind and he ended up playing with Linna. She didn't mind at all. They were the same age and there were no other children in the building. He would tell her all about the old things he would read about in his ever-present books. Airplanes, mostly. She still remembered the names of the models that lined the walls of his room. Shinden, Schwalbe, Valkyrie, Viggen. She just loved to hear him talk. Besides, he was nice to her.

One day, just after she'd turned twelve, he brought her some flowers he'd found growing on a nearby fence. They weren't anything fancy, just some nameless wild blossoms, but they were the first flowers Linna ever got. She'd squealed with delight when he brought them to her door. She stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind her. "You are just so sweet!" she said quietly as she leaned toward him. She looked in his eyes and saw how nervous he was. This made her love him-- yes, she realized now that was what she'd felt --even more. She took his face in her hands and brought his lips to hers. Their lips pressed together for several seconds, and the feelings rushing over her flowed not from her mouth, or her hands, but from her heart. Her face broke into a smile as she pulled back. Seito still looked nervous. He hadn't said a word the whole time. She reached behind her, opened the door, and said "Thank you. I'll see you later." as she sniffed delicately at the flowers, and closed the door again.

Oh, the feeling of that kiss, Linna thought as she lay in the dark. In all the years and all the boyfriends since, there'd never been anything even remotely like it. The quake had come only a couple of days later, of course, and Seito was dead. Everyone in her building was dead but her, she'd heard the rescuers say as they treated her injuries. Oh, Mother. Oh, Papa. Oh, Seito.

She supposed it was sinful somehow to be excited by the thought of kissing a little boy who'd been dead for nearly ten years, but she'd decided long ago that until she found someone that made her feel the same way, her heart would belong to that memory. For now, the warmth of that long-ago moment enveloped her body, released her from the fear's grip, and allowed her to sleep in peace once more.


Book One, Part Two

 

Young Linna had been diligent. First housekeeping, then room service delivery, then waitress. Her contact with the other girls broke down what remained of the shell she'd built up, and the bright, outgoing personality she'd had before the quake returned. She found that a sunny disposition made for bigger tips, too, and these were usually spent on the netmags and musichips she and the other girls devoured in their off hours, crowded around a battered old Intel HearthSite they'd acquired.

When Kathy returned to MegaTokyo eight months later, she was shocked at the transformation. The friendly but quiet girl she'd left had become a... well, the only word that came to mind was "chatterbox." She was obviously the queen of the dormitory-- no, not queen; more like "beloved princess." The other girls would do anything for her, just as Linna would do anything for any of them. It was hard to pry the other girls away from Linna, and her own celebrity didn't help, but they finally got away where Kathy could talk to Linna about the way her life was going.

"Well, Linna," Kathy laughed as they sat on the bright little terrace of a coffeeshop in the new section, "my first question was going to be 'Are you happy?' but that seems obvious." For someone who didn't have much experience with shopping, Linna had shown an amazing flair. Half their table and the other two seats were covered with the harvest of their morning's mall-hop. Linna seemed to have an excellent sense of style, almost invariably picking out just the right color or cut of any garment to complement her own best features. The single exception to this was a Holstein cow-print sweater she inexplicably fell in love with despite Kathy's strongest objections.

"Yes," she smiled in response, "I guess I am. I guess the other girls must feel like sisters, but I was an only..." Her voice trailed off and the smile faded momentarily before returning. "Well, I never had any sisters."

Kathy decided to move on quickly. "I know you're only now getting used to all this and this may seem rushed, but I won't be in town for long and I'd like to make sure of a few things before I leave. Now Linna, there's nothing wrong with it if you like it, but you could do much better than waitressing. Have you thought about what you'd LIKE to do with your life?"

Linna was obviously stumped by the suddenness and depth of the question. After a few moments she replied, "Kathy, I really like living with the girls in the hotel. We take care of each other and I'd miss them terribly if I had to go!"

Kathy reassured her. "There's no reason to worry about that right now. I wasn't talking about any sudden changes. Just asking if you'd thought about what you want to do when you're more grown up, say, eighteen or nineteen."

Linna sat and thought. Then said tentatively "Well, there were some dancers that performed at the hotel a few months ago." Her eyes seemed to take in the memory as she continued. "They would sing, and move and, oh, Kathy! They were so beautiful!" She paused, then looked sheepishly over toward her friend, "Sometimes I think I MIGHT like to perform like that, in front of people, maybe..."

Kathy nodded. It wasn't really a surprise. Linna had been a trouper from that first day, whether she knew it or not. "Well, that's one possibility. I'll ask some people I know. In the meantime, you're not doing your job."

Linna looked startled. "But I had the day off! They said it was okay!"

Kathy shook her head. "Not THAT job. This one." she said, holding a credit chip up. "There's STILL some money left here, and there's still some stores left over there."

Linna smiled and looked at the collection of packages at the table. "You know, that's something else I'd like." Linna said thoughtfully. "I've been poor, and I think living like you do is MUCH better."

"Money does have its advantages, Linna, but remember it isn't everything." Kathy smiled back as they left the coffeehouse and continued shopping.

The next day, before she left, Kathy gave Linna a one-year membership, including dance instruction, at Phoebe's Phitness Utopia, the most upscale health club in MegaTokyo. Kathy figured this was the perfect place for Linna to network and, if she had real talent, it would be spotted.

Five months later, Linna had moved from the hotel and was instructing basic aerobics classes. Furthermore, Phoebe herself had decided Linna would represent the club in the upcoming "Tohato All- Raisin Princess" competition. Things were moving quickly.


Linna had no classes the next day and spent the morning doing her weekly grocery shopping. Nene had come along, and the excursion became an exercise in removing ice cream tubs, chocolate cakes ("But look! It's 'No-Fat,' see?"), and potato chips from their cart. After dropping Nene off at her apartment ("You WON'T starve and squash does so taste good!") she returned home. Her vidphone was blinking and she hit the playback switch as she loaded the refrigerator.

The image that came on the screen brought a joyful smile to her face and left most of the food forgotten on the counter. Kathy!

"Hello Linna!" the recorded message listed the call time as only five minutes earlier. Damn Nene and her constant whining! "I can only talk for a minute but I thought I should call you right away. I just landed in Houston and on the flight from Berlin I sat next to a charming young man who says he knows you. His name is Seito Sakai-"

Linna heard no more of her friend's message. She stumbled back in shock as she tried to comprehend what Kathy had said. No! He COULDN'T be, could he? Could there be another Seito Sakai she'd met? Somewhere? No! She'd remember!

The screen blanked out as the message finished. Linna played it back again.

"...says he knows you. His name is Seito Sakai and he said he lived in your building when you were kids and he thought you..." Kathy looked a little uncomfortable "...died." She brightened. "Anyway, he said he'd be going to MegaTokyo soon, so he would try to look you up. I'm sorry this is so short Linna, but I HAVE to go. I'll talk to you soon. Bye!" The message ended.

Linna leaned against the counter, her legs suddenly weak. Seito, ALIVE? All these years? And coming to MegaTokyo? When? As she walked toward her living room the smile returned to her face. He was alive! She collapsed in a chair, and began to cry and laugh at the same time. She stayed there all afternoon, her mind's eye playing over and over again old memories too painful for the light of day, until now. The frozen foods melted and dripped to the floor. She didn't notice.


The ninety days until the Tohato pageant wasn't much time for Linna to complete her transformation from refugee waif to beauty queen. Phoebe's coaching was intense and far more grueling than she had expected.

"Wrong! Wrong! You're letting your lazy side through again!" Phoebe's condemnations seemed to fall on Linna in an unending rain, but her initial impression of the girl ("Damn, but she has talent!") remained unshaken, if unspoken.

Her routines for the pageant became her life, her obsession. "One, Two, left-and-Kick!" in infinite succession. How to stand, how to walk, how to speak and smile. Every note of her song ("You've gone Ca-li-fornia, Don't forget, Ca-li-fornia...") had to be sung exactly as planned, yet sound as though it were freshly born the night of the show. Work, dance, sing, speak...

Finally came the night she'd lived the last three months of her life for. It had all seemed easy as she walked the spotlit runway at the pageant's finish, wearing the diamelle tiara and the "Tohato All- Raisin Princess" sash. She had dominated every phase of the competition and charmed the judges from the moment she walked onstage. No problem. She felt as though she owned the world.

Afterward, as she and Phoebe basked in their victory while Linna changed, a small TV on the wall irritatingly prattled on about the evening's news: "This morning, four "Boomer" construction robots..."

"We go for Miss MegaTokyo next, Linna. No reason to waste time on any more preliminaries."

"...out of control. Genom has made no comment as yet..."

"We only have eight weeks and you'll need new routines, new outfits..."

"...Mr. Karamuto, manager of the St. Regis...

"...but tonight is for celebrating, Linna! To hell with diets..."

"...good fortune that no guests were killed, but we did lose several employees who were cleaning rooms..."

"...with Alfredo sauce! And Death by Chocolate for dess-- Linna? Linna, what's wrong?"

Linna spent the days following her victory cutting the ribbon at a new supermall, visiting a childrens' shelter in one of the new Genom-built residence blocks, presenting a trophy to a winning race driver, and attending six funerals for her friends, killed in what all the netmags had started calling the "Boomer Rampage."

Whether smiling in public or crying at the gravesites, the pointlessness of their deaths was always uppermost in her mind. They were dead, and all because some techie had built what were essentially self-propelled, semi-intelligent cranes and bulldozers? Idiocy. Sheer idiocy...


An insistent beeping from her watch drew Linna from her memories. Boomers. She grabbed her coat and headed for the door. Once in her car and on the way to Raven's, she hit the "scramble" button on what appeared to be a normal celphone. When she heard an answer at the other end, she asked "What's up, Sylia?"

A young male voice answered. "Mackie here, Linna. Sis is getting ready, but don't run any red lights. This doesn't look too bad. Just a construction boomer busting things up. Nene thinks ADP can handle it, but we're going to be standing by, just in case. No biggie."

Linna frowned, but had to agree. It had been weeks since the ADPolice had screwed up a boomer incident. Still, she knew ANY boomer was a danger to nearby civilians. "Okay, I'll be there in a few minutes."

Linna relaxed a little. With luck, she wouldn't even have to suit up. Then her smile returned, so wide she couldn't stop it. Seito was alive!


Linna did the best she could at the Miss MegaTokyo competition, but it was obvious to Phoebe that her heart just wasn't in it. It was apparently obvious to the judges, too. She was eliminated in the first round.

The next two years saw Linna working full-time at the club and competing in an ever-decreasing number of pageants, but never placing higher than third runner-up. Stage tryouts were a little better, but name parts seemed to stay just out of her reach. Girl on Bus. Second Cat. Chorus.

But then came the big budget musical revival of "Bishouju Senshi Sailor Moon." Phoebe was as encouraging as she could be. "You just can't miss this time, Linna! You ARE Rei-chan!"

Linna danced her heart out at the audition. Never before, not even at that first pageant, had she pushed so hard, bared so much of her soul. But when the judges made their decision, she was crushed. Not even so much as a callback.

She just collapsed on the stage after the other girls left, kneeling in the spotlight that would never be hers again. Gradually, she became aware of a woman standing just outside the lighted circle, wearing a tailored black and red business suit. Sharp.

"I'm sorry." the woman spoke, "I thought you were very good."

Linna studied her more closely. Ah, yes. She'd been one of the judges. A "Miss Stingray." Odd name.

"I did my best." was all Linna could think to say.

"I could see that. I think perhaps some of the other girls, well, 'knew' a couple of the judges." the woman said, taking off a pair of mirrored sunglasses to reveal kind, sad eyes. "I see in your resume that you're a fitness instructor?"

Linna nodded. "Yes. Almost three years, now."

The woman looked thoughtful, and then said "I have a job for someone with a background in physical training. It's only part time, but it pays very well..."


The Knight Sabers sat in the van and watched the ADPolice's progress on the monitors. So far they'd blocked the boomer from reaching any populated areas, but its pile-driver arms had made short work of the only K-12 trooper who'd tried to engage it directly.

"I think we'd best get ready." Sylia said, getting up and walking toward the stowed power armor. The drill for suiting up in the cramped confines of the van was as natural as breathing. First Sylia and Nene, then Priss and Linna.

Just as Nene was unhooking her bra, Priss reached over and killed the remote camera pickup. She looked over at Linna and winked. "I like to keep him in suspense, y'know? Make him think, like, maybe this time I'll forget." A muffled curse from the cab confirmed that, yes, she had indeed set the hook.

Linna giggled. Everything was perfect tonight. Seito. Alive. Coming to MegaTokyo. Soon.

Once fully armored, the Sabers stepped out of the van and boosted to a nearby rooftop where they could observe the boomer. Half a kilometer away, a solitary observation camera sent out a priority signal. The boomer turned and bound directly toward the Sabers' position, suddenly outdistancing the pursuing ADPolice.

"Sanju!" cried Sylia, and the Sabers leapt outward in a pre- determined interception pattern. Priss made the first contact, but her needleburst inexplicably missed the subtly evasive mech.

"How in--?" Priss began, shocked at her failure. The boomer leapt over her and headed for the factory district at an amazingly high speed for a construction model.

"Something funny here..." Linna heard Nene warn as she hit her boosters to take up the pursuit. This was only the second time she had used the new hardsuit since Dr. Miriam's failed attempt at taking over the ADPolice building. Just as it had every time, the new acceleration capability left her a bit breathless. Nice stuff, Mackie. Seito. Finish this up fast.

The boomer landed in the shadow of a huge assembly facility with Linna barely a second behind. Easy kill. Nice night for a little style. Watch this, ladies.

Linna hit the ground on one toe, powered up both ribbons, and after a quick pirouette the boomer lay in three pieces on the ground at her feet. No problem. Let's go home. Sweet dreams. Seito.

She heard Priss' warning a fraction of a second before she felt the blow to the side of her head that lifted her from the ground. Linna seemed to just float in the air for a moment before she blacked out. She didn't even feel her suit crash into the ground a dozen meters away.

"Holy-!" Priss shouted through the comlink as she powered up her railgun, "Nene, why didn't you spot that one?" Priss laid a stream of fire between Linna and the gleaming black combat boomer that had stepped from the shadows and backhanded her across the roof.

"It didn't show up on my sensors!" Nene yelled in reply. Priss tried to lock her targeting systems on the boomer. Damn! The little geek was right! Nothing showed on her internal systems. The boomer stepped back into the shadows and JUST DISAPPEARED. No thermal imaging, no radar echo, nothing. "Sylia, did you see that?"

"Yes. Nene, go down and get Linna. Priss, he's still over there someplace. I'm going to fire a flare. If you can't get a good lock, lift your visor and sight manually."

"Roger that." Priss replied as she lifted her visor. No sense wasting time. The flare lit the area and exposed the boomer. Its arm flashed and Sylia was thrown back past Nene and Linna.

"Eat this, bastard!" Priss screamed as she rocketed toward the boomer and kicked up at its head. The steely black features of the cyborg disappeared as the contact points of her ankle bomber struck. The boomer's body collapsed and the fight was over.

"SYLIA?!?"

"I'm alright." she replied with her usual preternatural calm, but the still-smoking crater in her armor told Priss it had been a near thing. "Nene, how's Linna?"

Nene had received no response from Linna since she'd pulled her away from the fight. Her sensors showed most of Linna's suit systems were down. "I don't know, I'm not getting any readings." Linna began to shake and double over.

"Sylia! She's convulsing!" Nene reached for the helmet's emergency release. As she pulled it off, she was shocked to see Linna laughing.

"I'm sorry, Nene. Oww!" she said, reaching for her neck. "Really, I'm okay. It's just too funny!" The other Sabers gathered around her in confusion. The looks she could imagine on their faces just made Linna laugh more. She was so stupid. On the day she finds out Seito is alive she almost gets herself killed!

Priss lifted Linna and they headed for the rendezvous point to meet Mackie and the van. "You're wierding out, girl." Priss said.

"Yeah, I know. I'm sorry." Linna replied, still laughing. She'd explain at the debriefing. It would be okay. Seito was coming.


"So, how well did we do?"

"A more in-depth study of the telemetry will provide further detail, but I feel safe in saying we're onto a promising lead here. I believe full field deployment may well be our next step."

"Are you sure? The unit was destroyed, after all."

"It was four-on-one, and it seriously damaged two of them. That's better than any previous types have done, even en masse."

"Very well. I'll make my decision once I receive your final report."

"You'll have it by tomorrow night, Ms. Madigan."


 

Now, some of you may have noticed that I have {-gasp!-} DEPARTED FROM CANON!

Yes, the short bio of Linna in the B-Club Special says her parents were killed in a boomer incident, NOT in the quake. Mea culpa. I read the bio YEARS ago and didn't see it again until AFTER Dance of Armor was half-finished. In the meantime I had simply gotten confused. However, I don't consider this a tragic departure, since neither her parents nor her orphaned status were ever even mentioned in the Holy OVAs. I hope you can all accept this minor heresy, and I'll try to make it worth your while..

In the meantime, we have to wonder about a couple of things. Why didn't Seito contact Linna before now? How did he survive the quake? Why is he coming to MegaTokyo? And what kind of boomer was that anyway?

For the answers to these questions, the return of Kate Madigan, and short lectures on interior design and the futures market (not to mention a REALLY big boomer fight!), stay on the lookout for Book Two of "Dance of Armor," coming soon.

the pig East Lansing, MI 10/09/95

Book Two, Part One

 

As he stood at the entrance of Phoebe's Phitness Utopia, Seito Sakai was in awe of the circumstances that had brought him to this moment. First, and so long ago, his delayed rescue by the European Relief Agency after four days under the rubble of his own building and another bulldozed over it after the original rescuers had apparently given up on finding anyone alive.

Then his transfer to Europe with a group of other severely injured children, where the medical division of Lippischwerke, A.G. got a lot of PR out of fitting him with a set of their latest-generation cybernetic legs. His own had been crushed beyond repair and left under the building with the bodies of all his family and neighbors. He'd remained the subject of considerable experimentation in advanced prosthetics and had been written up in several medical journals.

Lippischwerke had essentially raised him through his adolescence, and, in what he supposed was some sort of gratitude, he'd gone to work for them as soon as he was old enough. He'd been brought under the wing of a number of influential types at the company, and they'd seen fit to send him to law school, which was where he'd be right now if it hadn't been for those files...


While studying law, he worked as an analyst in Lippischwerke's legal department. His mentor decided one day that taking a look at a typical nuisance lawsuit filed by a deceased employee's family would be a good experience for him.

"We're getting as bad as the Americans." his boss complained. "Look at this one. We acquired Stern magazine for our publishing arm a few years back. BEFORE we did it, one of their reporters got himself killed while on assignment in Japan. One of those crazy robot things they get. Now this guy's family files a wrongful death suit against us. Why?"

Seito knew the expected answer. "Because we've got the deep pockets."

"Right! So your job is to go through this guy's papers and see if there's anything we can use to show the court that we're not liabile. Get me a brief by Thursday." Seito was left staring at a set of three files put into storage after investigative reporter Ernst Hartmann's accidental death in a 2028 boomer rampage.

Sighing, Seito dug in and broke the files' seal. The first file contained information on nuclear materials smuggled out of Eastern Europe in the years following the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Although the remaining governments had made honest efforts to see no materials or, God forbid, weapons were stolen, the sheer size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the complete lack of resources to guard it made the disappearence of some items inevitable.

The bulk of the file was made up of highlighted sections photocopied from numerous dry, academic studies on nuclear proliferation and possible resting places of missing Soviet materiel. Seito could see it wasn't likely to provide any help in the brief he was to prepare.

At the very front of the file, however, there was a manila envelope marked "F-Go." Seito opened it to discover long lists of companies doing business with the Ukraine, Byelorus and Kazakhstan in 1994- 95, as well as a scrap of paper with a phone number. Seito checked and found it had a MegaTokyo area code. There was also a blurry photograph of three military officers walking toward a trailer with a tall, long-haired young man in a business suit. His face was obscured by the shoulder of one of the officers. Someone, presumably Hartmann, had written names on the photo in black marker with corresponding arrows pointing toward each of the three officers. A red arrow bearing the legend "Q?!?!?" pointed toward the civilian. Seito turned the photograph over. On it was listed the date of death for each of the three officers. None had lived past 1997.

Seito opened the next file. It contained seismic reports on nuclear testing dating back to the 1995 French and Chinese blasts. Of course, it also contained seismic data on the "second holocaust" at Tel Aviv that had killed 400,000 people along with whatever hopes of peace in the Middle East were left at the turn of the century. Seito was no geologist, and the reports quickly turned unintelligible once he was past the title pages.

The last, thickest file seemed quite a change of pace. Real estate plat books, stock transactions, futures and forwards contracts, corporate manifests, all from the years 2024-2025. At last, HERE was something he could get his teeth into! He still didn't see what use these would be for the legal brief, but it was the last of the files he'd been given, so...

Two days later, a coherent picture had begun to take shape. Forward contracts under various entities' names and spread around every conceivable market on the globe. The contracts promised to deliver various commodities-- yen, corporate stocks, whatever --at a set price on some future date. There were also options to PURCHASE other commodities, mostly steel and other building materials, at a set price on a certain future date. Seito had been a little startled to note that ALL the future delivery dates contracted were within six weeks after that of the Second Great Kanto Earthquake.

Then he shook it off. Millions of forward contracts were booked every day. Hartmann was obviously investigating someone who had gotten lucky and made a killing when the quake had decimated the values of most Japanese corporations and, of course, the yen. Still, Hartmann seemed to have been looking for a connection beyond the good fortune some had received when Seito's own life had been destroyed nine years earlier. Seito couldn't imagine what. Futures and options wouldn't have done anyone any particular good unless they had known when the quake was coming...

Seismic reports?

Seito grabbed the other file. But, no! These were all reports on atomic blasts, not earthquakes! Besides, if seismologists could have predicted the quake, EVERYONE would have known about it and there wouldn't have been any advantage to holding the contracts. A concentration like this was still no good unless only YOU knew when...

A chill like nothing he'd felt since that awful night when his world had disappeared settled over Seito as he reached for the first file, ignored for days now. Missing nuclear weapons. Seismic reports. Futures contracts. Bloody hell.

Seito walked through the rows of cubicles to his boss' office. "Mr. Barkhorn? I think I've got something."

"Write up a brief and give it to me tomorrow. It's time to go home."

"Sir, I think this is a lot bigger than the lawsuit..."

Three hours later, Seito had laid out the transactions. "...and all the companies involved are subsidiaries of or shadows for these three: United Products, GPCC, and Northwest Mutual. But I can't trace them any further."

"Jesus," said Barkhorn, "GPCC is part of Genom now."

"Now? What about back then?"

"Dunno. Say, any of these companies on that list in the first file?"

Seito reached for the folder. "Let's take a look."

On the fortieth page of the 1990s companies doing business in the old Soviet states, they found a familiar name:

"GENOM- manufacture and distribution of heavy equipment for the construction and mining industries"

Neither spoke as they stared at the name, highlighted by a dead man's hand. Finally, Seito broke the silence. "Could-- could a bomb really start..."

"We have people who would know. I guess I don't have to tell you to keep this under your hat."

"No sir."

"Good. You go home and get some sleep now. Be ready to lay all this out again at nine tomorrow morning. Right now, I've got to make some calls."

The next morning, Seito presented his findings to Lippischwerke's Executive Committee. They asked a few clarifying questions, then thanked and politely dismissed him.

After the door closed, the Chairman asked "Barkhorn, are you aware of the recent discussions?"

"I've heard talk, sir, but over the years I've learned that talk is usually just that."

"Yes, well, in this case, it's also correct. How far can young Mr. Sakai be trusted?"

"As you know, sir, Lippischwerke is the only family he has. I think he can be trusted absolutely."

"Very well. I'll set up a briefing for the both of you, then we'll send him to Texas to meet with Mr. McGuire of the mining division." He looked around the table. "I think we're all agreed that this matter cannot be trusted to any phone line, no matter how well scrambled. >From there he'll go on to MegaTokyo and follow up on the late Mr. Hartmann's contacts. Whatever the outcome, this matter has to be closed within a week. The discussions are at a critical stage. Make sure he has plenty of 'grease' for the wheels, Mr. Barkhorn. There's far more at stake now than a headline. "


"How is she?" Mackie asked as he entered the Sabers' now emptied briefing room near dawn.

Sylia sipped at her coffee before replying. "She seems alright. The medscan didn't pick up any concussion or internal injuries and Priss is driving her home. How are the repairs coming along?"

Mackie held up Linna's helmet, the dome cratered and cracked in an eggshell pattern. "Couple of millimeters deeper and she'd have had a skull to match. She'll have to use her old helmet until I can fabricate a replacement. This is trashed." he said, dropping it on the table. "Your armor, on the other hand, will be ready tomorrow. I need to replace the midsection and the left hip joints. Sis," she looked up at him, "you've gotta be more careful. If it hadn't hit at such a shallow angle..."

"Fortune doesn't smile on the timid, Mackie. I can hardly hold back and let the others do all the fighting." A flicker of irritation crossed her face. "I am more disturbed about Linna's behavior tonight. I expect overconfidence and showboat moves from Priss, but not Linna. Not in combat."

"Nene said she was excited about some new boyfriend."

"That's a steady state with Linna. It's never affected her performance before."

"Um, I guess I should correct myself. It's actually an OLD boyfriend, or something. Nene said she wasn't being real clear." Mackie changed the subject. "Speaking of Nene, did she come up with any more on that boomer?"

"She's going to examine her recordings of the fight and see if there's anything useful. We're meeting tonight to go over her findings, but I'm not optimistic. My displays showed nothing, and none of the others detected the boomer either. Aside from our direct visual contact, that-" Sylia indicated Linna's splintered helmet, "was the only indication we had of an attacker in the area." She sipped at her coffee and tapped at her cigarette pack. "It's extremely troubling. Until we've determined just what happened last night, we may have to stand down for a while."

"That sucks."

"If you have any better ideas, Mackie--" Sylia snapped, then continued in a calmer voice, "I'm... open to suggestion."

Mackie was uncomfortably silent. "Well, maybe Nene will come up with something."

Sylia lit a cigarette and looked back at him, but said nothing.


Seito was already feeling overwhelmed by the shift his life had taken. Then, on the flight to Houston, the second soul-shocking milestone in two days occurred. He'd been surreptitiously looking around the plane for his bodyguard, who was to be following him discreetly throughout his travels. His protector, a rather plain- looking man he'd met in Lippischwerke's security office, wasn't evident anywhere in the first-class section.

"Looking for someone?" This was from an attractive blonde woman in the window seat next to him.

"Uhh, no." Seito lied rather poorly, or so he thought upon reflection.

If she noticed his clumsiness, she gave no sign of it. "Well, we'll be spending the next couple of hours together, anyway. My name is Kathy Gabreski." She offered her hand.

He shook it gently but firmly. "Seito Sakai."

"Are you stopping in Houston, Mr. Sakai? Or going on to Buenos Aires?"

"I have some business in Houston, then I'm going to MegaTokyo." Seito winced as soon as he'd said it. If he was going to last at this cloak-and-dagger stuff, he'd have to learn not to be so open about his movements.

The woman smiled. "Oh! I'm going to MegaTokyo in a couple of months. I have a close friend there I haven't seen in far too long." She cocked an eyebrow. "She's about your age. Are you single?"

Seito laughed. "Yes, I am. But I don't think she'd be--"

"Oh, I'm just kidding! Linna doesn't need any help getting dates, anyway. She usually has about the busiest social calender I know!" She opened her bag and flipped through a small holo-folder. "Here, look."

Seito had felt a tug of sadness at her mention of the girl's name, and the image she held out to him only made it worse. The girl in the holo had a smile that was too close to that of his lost childhood friend. Then, as he continued looking at the picture, he noticed that more than just the smile was similar. In fact, the more he looked...

Kathy saw the young man was breathing strangely, and that his face had begun to take on an ashen hue. "Is anything wrong?"

"I'm sorry, she... she just looks very much like someone I knew a long time ago."

"Well, her name is Linna Yamazaki. I met her--"

"YAMAZAKI?" Seito asked incredulously, "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure!" she replied with a small laugh. "I met her about seven years ago. She was orphaned in the quake and I sort of 'adopted' her for a while."

Seito took a deep breath, tried to collect his thoughts, and finally said, "Miss Gabreski, would you please tell me about her?"


"So," Priss said, leaning against Linna's kitchen wall. "you're REALLY okay?"

"I'm fine, Priss, really. If you're so concerned, help me clean this up before my morning class starts." replied Linna from the floor, where she was sopping up the remains of groceries forgotten from the day before.

Priss shrugged, "I thought it looked like good practice for you. I mean, you're getting so domestic on me all of a sudden."

"What do you mean?" Linna asked indignantly, looking up and pausing.

"This guy. I looked over at you when you were talking in the car. Your eyes were full of a country house and two-point-five rugrats."

"That's silly! I mean, yes, I'll be happy to see him again after so long, but..." She paused, smiled, and Priss saw her eyes leave the room again. "I guess I am excited. I just have such a feeling about this. And who knows? Maybe he IS..."

When she looked up at Priss to share her excitement, she was surprised to see an indifferent, stony gaze.

Priss shrugged again before turning for the door. "Whatever. If that's what you want."


After his arrival at MegaTokyo International this morning, he'd checked into his hotel and immediately called the number from Hartmann's file. He'd thought a long time about what to say if there was an answer. So when a grizzled, weary voice finally said "Hello?" at the other end of the line, he was ready.

"F-Go." Seito said. Short and concise.

"Interesting." came the reply, the voice noticeably brighter. "Do you think you can last until tomorrow evening, Mister...?"

"My name isn't important."

"Oh, come now! Mr. Hartmann wasn't so anti-social."

"Mr. Hartmann didn't make his meeting."

A chuckle. "True enough. Very well, man of mystery. Be at the Nishizawa Shipyard tomorrow night at ten. Dock four. A single bodyguard is acceptable. The price is one-point-five billion new yen. One chip. Tinsel City Bank. No tracers, either way. No talking. No socializing. I get the money, you get the data. We go our separate ways and walk off into the moonlight."

"That's a lot of money. Is it that good?"

"It's what you're looking for. We've talked enough, I think." The line went dead.

Seito hung up the phone and looked at his watch. Five hours until Mr. Barkhorn would arrive at the office in Oldenburg. Plenty of time to start tracking down Linna.


Seito strode to the entrance of Phoebe's. It occurred to him that if he'd still had his own knees, they'd probably be shaking. He pushed open the door and was almost immediately challenged by a receptionist. "Good Morning. May I help you?"

"I'm looking for Linna Yamaz-" His reply trailed off as he caught sight of her through the glass wall behind the desk. She was moving with an incredibly smooth, almost unearthly grace. Her every motion was driving symphonies through his soul and most of all she was really, tangibly, gloriously alive!

"As you can see, she's busy with her class right now." The receptionist was used to this. Most men who came to Phoebe's to see Linna were the ones who didn't get their calls returned. One more loser. "Perhaps you should try her at home."

Seito walked past her to the glass, ignoring her protests. Linna had him under a spell. His eyes couldn't turn away. She glanced in his direction, but he seemed beneath her notice. She looked again, this time with a flicker of irritation. And then again, with the irritation shifting to confusion, and amazement, and then she was running toward him. She stopped at the wall, her hands pressed to the glass less than a centimeter from his own. Her eyes and smile seemed to drink him in. She ran around to the door and then toward him with her arms outstretched, remembering herself at the last instant and taking only his hand.

"Seito! Kathy called me! I just can't believe you're here! Ohmigod, this is just..."

He watched her eyes well up with tears she did her best to ignore as she kept talking. Just like before, he found himself unable to say a word.


"So what do we know?" Priss asked, pacing around the table in the briefing room under Raven's.

Nene looked worried, and more than a little embarassed. "Not much, I'm afraid. The data from last night shows even less than what we saw. The boomer apparently had some sort of system that blocks our various sensors. In other words, it wasn't invisible to us, but it was to our suits."

Sylia summarized the situation. "In effect, a Stealth boomer."

Nene nodded. "You could say that, but it did more than just passively shunt away radar or jam systems. It seemed to override our tracking systems to show exactly what would be present if it were absent; which is to say, nothing."

"That would take a lot of advanced gear..." Sylia observed.

"But he was no bigger than a standard BU-12!" Priss interjected, completing Sylia's thought. "So what did he give up in order to load the extra electronics?" She bit her lip for a moment, then snapped her fingers. "GUNS! It must carry a light weapons load. That's why it backhanded Linna rather than just taking her out with a missile or cannon shot! It was conserving ammo!"

"Being stealthy, and therefore harder to hit, it may also be less heavily armored." Sylia added. "These are fine observations, but they do us little good unless we can target the next one we encounter. Nene, what countermeasures can we take?"

"I could only come up with one. A direct projection of the real-time visible light spectrum on our targeting screens."

Priss leaned in. "You mean, ' video'?"

"Yes." Nene answered sheepishly.

"Oh, GREAT! We're up against Genom's latest and greatest, and the tech-wench wants to glue her mom's camcorder to my hardsuit!"

Nene did her best to ignore Priss' sarcasm, but it was hitting pretty close to the mark. "Our suits have always had the capability, so there's no need for hardware mods. Mackie is reconfiguring the visors to have... video available as a secondary display option. However, none of the hardsuits' weapons systems is set up for video-based acquisition. Target-locking weapons would essentially be useless. We'll have to target directed fire weapons like the railguns and beam cannons by manually tracking the target in the reticle projected on the visor."

"I suppose next you'll have us holding for windage..." Priss said. Sylia looked less than pleased.


Linna arrived at the Grille of the Crafters just after seven wearing a long-sleeved mid-length black dress. It was very plain and demure, and therefore capable of riveting the attention of every male in the area that much more --when Linna was wearing it. The small plaza in front of the restaurant was filled with people listening to a concert by percussionists whose style seemed to shift randomly from Native American to African to Tibetan.

Seito had to leave after only a short time at Phoebe's, but they'd decided to meet for dinner. He'd left a message for her later in the day with the location.

The Maitre d' guided her through the reproduction 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement decor ("Mostly Wright, of course." she sniffed. Dillettantes. But, she admitted, the marquetried wall panels at least acknowledged Ellis.) to a table on the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza. Seito rose as they approached. Her heart threatened to burst at the sight of him. The Maitre d' held her chair while Seito took her hand and guided her into it. Linna hardly noticed the attention. She was still fascinated by every detail of Seito's face. The little boy she remembered was still there, but the eyes of the young man before her held the promise of fierce determination and an unstoppable will. Their eyes met as Seito returned to his seat, and she knew she was about to become the object of that will.

Linna was thankful for the high-back chairs forcing an upright posture, as she realized she was coming close to what the shoujonet stories described as a "swoon." She turned her head away toward the plaza and broke the silence. "What a lovely view you've found us."

"The ladies in your class told me you were used to the best. I hope this meets with your approval." he replied.

"It's wonderful." she smiled. "I came here with a date a couple of months ago and I'm afraid his self-esteem suffered just a bit when our Maitre d' rejected his bribe for a table and we were turned away." She knew it had suffered afterward from her request to be taken home immediately and her subsequent refusal of his calls. He had demonstrated a lack of preparedness and ability, and wasn't worthy of further consideration.

"He was clearly undeserving." Seito said, unknowingly mirroring her thoughts in his best sophisticated corporate spy persona. "I met with more success. Although I must admit to some disappointment in our host. I considered him a man of elegant taste," he indicated their surroundings, "but turning away beauty such as yours is an act of one... uncultured."

A line like this would usually have earned its author a shy smile and a batting of Those Eyes. Linna had learned these simple actions could turn a corporate shark into a flopping polliwog. Tonight, however, it was her turn to be entranced. She began to reach her hand across the table in an unforgiveably forward manner when a sharp jolt in her head and neck pulled it back. "Oww!"

"What's wrong?" Seito asked, already rising and taking her hand.

"Oh, I'm sorry, it's nothing." Linna said. Last night's boomer had apparently rung her bell more than she'd realized. "Just a little injury from my... exercise."

Seito looked at the plaza. "There's a chemist's across the way. Let me get you something." He had released her hand and was across the balcony toward the stairs before she could protest.

"This is, undeniably, IT, Linna." she whispered to herself, and suddenly comprehended the very real probability that she might never again have dinner with another man. That this night was the first with the person she could very well be spending the rest of her life with.

Adoringly, she watched him cross the plaza, weaving his way through the percussionists' swaying audience. Then a stillness to one side of the crowd caught her eye. Her subconscious knew that curious lack of motion and was screaming for her attention.

There! An older man in a clergyman's collar was standing in a slight crouch, legs apart. His only motion was a slow, deliberate, machine- like turning of the head as though tracking...

Her eyes snapped in the direction of his stare, and she knew as she stood that it could have only one target.

"SEITO!" she screamed as he neared the edge of the crowd. He couldn't hear her over the throbbing drums. The boomer (Her subconscious had already typed it a BU-55B, possibly a C.) would have a clear shot in a second or two. Before she had even consciously decided on a course of action she was kicking off her heels and starting her run. From the floor to a chair to the table and then leaping off the balcony, aiming toward a streetlight nearly halfway to Seito.

Airborne. Her arms compressed on the cantilivered pole supporting the lamp, then thrust her feet-first into a high arc ten meters across the plaza, arms snapping out to her sides. "SEITO!" she yelled again. He heard her this time, and had begun to turn around when her right arm caught him across the shoulder and she pulled him with her to the ground.

Linna hadn't had a chance to determine whether she'd been injured by her hard impact on the pavement when a white-hot knife of pain cut across her right forearm. Her own scream was lost in that of the crowd as it scattered in all directions in reaction to the laser blast. She regained control long enough to look at Seito and say "Run! It's after you!"

He looked at her in dumbfounded amazement. "But you're hurt--"

"GO!" she screamed, pushing him with her good arm as she heard the roar of a high-caliber pistol behind her. She turned to see the boomer stagger. Someone was buying them time. The boomer looked in the direction of the shot, its jaw stretching unnaturally to reveal the reflector disc of its main battery. She tried to get up and push Seito away, but her leg collapsed beneath her, useless. A second shot rang out and the boomer's jaw exploded, leaving the disc hanging from a few wires under its nose.

Linna felt Seito's arms lift her and he began running toward the corner. She screamed in pain again as they collided with the crowd and her arm was wrenched to one side. She heard the boomer's arm cannon bark twice, and no more pistol shots came. By this time they were around the corner and moving faster than Linna would have thought possible. She lifted her left arm and pointed toward the parking lot. "Take my car. The green Expo. He'll be tracking yours." She was shocked at her presence of mind.

As they reached the car, Linna thumbed the lock. Seito deposited her gently but quickly in the passenger's seat and slid behind the wheel. "Linna here! Start up!" she cried. The car's voice- recognition circuits reacted immediately and Seito punched the accelerator. The little Expo crashed through the exit gate and onto the street. Seito started working the SatNav unit. "We've got to get you a doctor!"

Linna turned to look at her arm and almost retched. The fabric of her sleeve was melted indistinguishably with her flesh. There was very little blood, but a couple of white spots on her forearm looked like... bone?

Her forehead broke out in a sweat as she felt herself going into shock. With the last of her strength she punched the address of Raven's into the SatNav box. "No hospital." she moaned, going under, "Take me here."


Book Two, Part Two

 

"I am not pleased. How could you have just 'lost' him?" The anger in the speaker's voice and eyes lost nothing over the video link.

Kate Madigan was ready for this, however, and a reckoning on several matters was long overdue. "Chairman Quincy, my initial action plan on this project projected a seventy percent increase in the likelihood of failure if I was not given access to the satellite tracking systems. My request for this vital component of the plan was refused. The point unit's sensors were damaged in the course of the action with Sakai's bodyguard and it was unable to continue tracking. The backup unit waiting near his automobile never even sighted the subject. Had I been allocated the necessary resources-"

"These excuses do not become you, Ms. Madigan. This was a simple sanction. Mason would have--"

"With all due respect sir, Mr. Mason would have gone outside his authority on the matter in order to build prestige and a power base that we both know would eventually have been implemented against you." Quincy's initial anger at the interruption was cut off by her statement of this simple fact. Such an incredible breach of corporate etiquette was shocking and, in a way he found curiously pleasant, refreshing.

She continued, "I have no wish that you begin suspecting the same behavior of me, and that is why it is imperative that you give me, freely and above board, sufficient resources to carry out my assignments. I have no hidden agendas or ambitions, Mr. Chairman. When I was made Chief of Corporate Security Genom received my complete loyalty and discretion. In every meaningful sense, sir, you ARE Genom. If you cannot believe my talents are entirely under your command, then perhaps I should seek alternative employment."

Quincy remained silent for a very long four minutes. Madigan stood her ground alone before the conference screen. Any lack of resolution now would doom her, professionally if not otherwise.

"Very well, Madigan, we shall play it your way." he finally stated. "Tell me what you need and I shall assume those resources will be used only for authorized purposes. Inform me immediately once Sakai is relocated."

"It would assist me greatly, sir, if you could tell me why he is here in the first place, and why we are sanctioning a mere legal analyst from a company that can barely be considered a competitor, much less a rival."

"You would not find our additional data of any use. Good day." Quincy cut off the link before she could protest further. Personal loyalty in a subordinate, eh? That would be a new experience. Perhaps she was even being entirely truthful, but even if she weren't, he had plenty of time to find out. He smiled. Plenty.

The other matter was more disturbing, but probably manageable even if Sakai were able to find what he was looking for. Quincy simply couldn't believe that a lapse of caution forty years in the past could threaten the global empire he'd built since.


Mackie was the first to see Linna's car pull in with a strange man at the wheel. He hit the silent alarm to alert Sylia as he and Priss jogged over in response to the Expo's blaring horn.

The man stepped out of the driver's side. "Is there a doctor here?"

Mackie saw Linna in the passenger's seat. It was obvious she wasn't in good shape. "Sylia!" he called, knowing she'd be monitoring the bugs in the garage area. "I think you better call Doc! Linna's hurt!" He pulled open the door, grimaced as he saw her arm, then lifted her eyelids. "She's in shock!"

"What happened to her?" demanded Priss, shoving Seito against the car.

"Goddamn it, Priss! I'm trying to work here! Take it over to the tool boxes!" Mackie yelled, probing worriedly at the severe burn running from just below Linna's elbow to the back of her hand.

Priss held Seito down with her left forearm across his throat, and the other arm cocked back into a fist. She glanced over toward the tool chest against the wall, and he could tell she was considering the kid's suggestion. He looked up at her with the best steely gaze he could manage under the circumstances and said "Right now all I care about is Linna. How about you?"

She looked back at him for a moment, then pulled him off the car, giving his arm a nasty twist at the same time. She shoved him away with a curt warning and a pointed finger. "I'll be watching you."

Seito ignored the threat and walked around to Linna. She was still unconscious. Probably a good thing.

"So what happened?" the kid asked while holding a medical sensor to her ear. Any response Seito could have made was cut off by the arrival of a dark-haired woman with an older man in tow.

"What have we got, Mackie?" the older man asked, elbowing Seito out of the way.

"Laser burn on the right forearm, BP too low to register, respiration rapid and shallow, pupils dilated and non-responsive."

"AND a broken right leg!" the old man observed, pointing out an ugly blackening patch above Linna's ankle. He gave Mackie a backhanded rap on the head. "Never stop at the first major injury you see!" He turned toward Seito. "Is she liable to have a back injury?"

Seito nodded. "Could be. She fell quite a way. Or jumped, or something..."

"Mackie, get me the backboard."

Mackie got up, still rubbing his head. "Hey, I can't catch everything. I'm an engineer, not an M.D."

Doc Raven was getting a pulse from her neck while he rechecked her eyes. Mackie returned with the board. He and the old man reached in to remove her.

Seito stepped forward and tapped him on the shoulder. "Doctor? Why don't you let me help?" In response to the raised eyebrow he received, he said "I pretty much grew up in a hospital. I know how to do this."

The old man stepped aside. In a moment, Linna was strapped to the board, but as he and Mackie started to lift, the dark-haired woman said "Priss, fill in for our guest." As the other woman moved to take his place, the dark-haired one caught his eye. "Would you come with me please?"

He followed her to a small, windowless office off the floor of the garage. The woman shut the door behind them, folded her arms, and said "I've got quite a few questions for you, Mister..."

"Sakai, Seito Sakai."

One level down, Nene fed the name into her standard database search routine. At the same time, she watched Linna and the others on another monitor. She keyed the intercom. "Guys, keep me up to date on how she is."

"You just keep an eye on Sylia and that... him!" snapped Priss, who had suddenly realized she was the only one in the building with nothing to do. The role didn't sit well with her. She was torn between staying at Linna's side and being nearby in case Sylia needed her. Finally, she put her hand on Raven's shoulder. "Just take care of her." Then she left for the garage area.

Back upstairs, the dark-haired woman, who still hadn't offered her name, asked "So why would this boomer shoot at you and Linna?"

"I think I was probably the target. At the moment I'm engaged in some work that would make certain persons very uncomfortable. I believe it was my bodyguard who shot back at the boomer. I tried to contact him on the way over here and got no response."

"How did you know to come here?"

"Linna fed the address into the SatNav unit just before she lost consciousness." Seito stood from the chair she'd offered him. "Look, can't I go see her? We can talk about all this later."

"I'm afraid not. There are various security issues involved here--"

"What security issues? She's just a dancer for God's sake! I'm the one they took a shot at! She wouldn't even be involved if I hadn't--"

Seito cursed himself. What an idiot! A couple of days after he stumbles onto what is arguably the biggest secret on Earth he JUST HAPPENS to sit next to a woman who claims to have "adopted" the first girl he ever loved. Could he even be SURE that was really Linna he'd been with tonight? He'd heard about some of Genom's more expensive "S"-types. They said the only way you could tell they weren't real was that no real woman was that good. He felt like an unbelievable fool. And now here he was. His only ally was probably dead, and he was a virtual captive of... who? He felt cold. Very large events he couldn't even see were in control of him now.

"Look, I don't think I'm at liberty to talk any more right now."

"That's not an acceptable attitude, Mr. Sakai. You may have been followed here, which would compromise my operation. You are also apparently the cause of injury to one of my key personnel. I think you owe me an explanation."

"I've given you one-- They shot at me and Linna got in the way trying to save me... which she did!"

The woman sat down and studied her hands for a few moments. "How do you know Linna?"

Seito looked at the question cautiously. How could knowing the answer benefit this woman? Was she just trying to loosen him up for more probing qustions later? He decided to answer. "I've known her since we were kids. We lived in the same building."

The woman's eyes snapped up to meet his with a questioning look-- and just a hint of confusion. He'd startled her, and it felt like a small victory. "Linna doesn't have any childhood friends." she stated flatly.

"I thought she'd died in the quake, and I guess she thought the same about me. We only found out about each other through a casual acquaintance a couple of days ago."

This seemed to satisfy a curiousity in the woman, but she followed up on his statement immediately. "So you came to MegaTokyo to find her."

Seito hesitated. She was working toward his assignment again. "Partly." he conceded calmly. Let her chew on that.

She looked directly into his eyes. He held his own the best he could, but it was like staring down a glacier. There was no longer any emotion there. He felt she saw him as a bug, or a worm, but he knew neither of those were right. Then he caught it. A pawn. A gamepiece on a board. And right now she was trying to decide just how to move him to her advantage, or perhaps take him out of play.

She got up from the table. "Excuse me, Mr. Sakai." She turned and walked out the door before he could say anything.


Sylia walked down the stairs to Nene's console. "What have you got on him?"

"Quite a bit, actually." Nene said. Her face scrunched in confusion. "There's a BUNCH of articles in medical journals-- Look, there's a whole sub-tree over here." she pointed at the screen. "But he's not a doctor. He's a student from Oldenburg, Germany. Seito Sakai, 22 years old. Lives at 163 Opitz Strasse and has been employed by Lippischwerke, A.G. since he was 15, currently a legal analyst. Now studying at Dittmar Juristische Fakultaet. Newer school, not very prestigious." she sniffed. "I was about to start checking the medical articles."

"Good work, Nene. I'll stop back after I've checked on Linna."

"They're still working, but Doc doesn't sound too terribly worried anymore."

Sylia strode into the minimal infirmary of the training room. Linna lay on a table, still unconscious and now hooked to a respirator. There were splints and bandages around both her legs and Doc Raven had put an IV of some sort into her left arm. He and Mackie, both masked, were busily cleaning the burn on her right forearm. A nearby tray held the cut away sleeve of her dress and numerous small, bloody bits of black cloth and flesh melted together.

"We'll be done here soon, Sylia." Doc said, not looking up from his work. "I'd recommend Sugita General for the regeneration. Mackie and I'll take her over as soon as--"

"I don't think that's wise, Doctor. Whoever shot her will be looking for someone with precisely that sort of injury and I'm sure they have the hospitals under surveillance."

This caused Raven to look up at her. "But she needs regenerative therapy! This is a bad burn, and--"

"Doctor, I'm sure I can get you the necessary equipment--"

"That just WON'T DO IT, Sylia!" he said, throwing his forceps on the tray. "She needs good, experienced people to run that equipment! You know I was just in biomech interface research. I haven't had an actual human patient since my residency! Sure, I can handle the occasional shrapnel wound or broken limb, but if we don't get her to a proper facility, and fast, she could easily lose that arm!"

Sylia looked at a bit of a loss. She'd counted on Doc being able to handle this. "Bringing her to a public or even a private facility will just make her a target." Her brow furrowed in thought and a hand rose to her forehead. "I'll need to make other arrangements. How long can you give me?"

Doc sighed deeply. "I'll do what I can Sylia, but there are no guarantees. As it stands, she could lose that arm right now, and every hour we delay is just cuts her chances further." He gestured toward her legs. "Otherwise, she's got comminuted fractures of the right tibia and fibula and hairline breaks all over her left leg. The cartilage in both knees is pretty messed up --that'll need regenerating too-- but there don't appear to be any spinal injuries. We've got her heart rate and BP back toward normal, but it's the arm, Sylia. If we don't get her to a hospital soon..." He shook his head. "...I can't make any promises."

Sylia and Priss were leaning against the wall outside the office where Seito waited when Nene called them a half hour later. They were each about halfway through a cigarette and looked for all the world like two fuming schoolgirls sneaking a smoke behind the gym.

"Sylia?" the disembodied voice inquired. "Linna's awake and she's asking for you."

"So, you gonna let me soften him up some?" Priss inquired as they ground the cigarettes under their heels.

"Please, Priss! I'm having enough trouble without your ludicrous interjections!" Sylia struck her with a steely gaze, then turned and strode away toward the infirmary.

"Not that it isn't tempting..." Priss could have sworn she heard Sylia mutter under her breath as she followed.

They arrived at the infirmary to find Linna trying to sit up over Doc's objections.

"Sylia!" she cried in a weak but urgent voice. "Where is Seito? Is he all right? Where is he?"

'"He's fine, Linna. I have him upstairs. But bringing him here was very dangerous! It exposes him and it exposes us."

"I know. I'm sorry, Sylia, but it was all I could think of! If I'd let him take me to a hospital they'd have found him and..." her voice dropped away, "...I can't lose him again, Sylia!"

Linna swallowed and got her voice under control. "Please let me see him."

"Ridiculous!" Sylia recoiled in surprise. "There's too much sensitive material down here! He simply can't--"

"Please, Sylia?" Linna asked once more, her eyes pleading.

Sylia met those eyes for a long moment, and then shocked all those present by saying "Priss, blindfold him and bring him down."

Priss looked startled for a second, then left the room. Sylia directed Mackie to close all the doors to the room and throw the remaining medical blankets over the more sensitive equipment.

"Thank you." Linna said, reaching up to grasp her hand.

Doc was wrapping bandages around her right arm. "I've got this packed with burn gel, Sylia, and I've got her loaded up with every antibiotic I can think of, but unless you've got a stasis field handy, that's all I can do." he said.

"Thank you, Doctor." Sylia replied as she turned toward the sound of the door opening.

Priss entered, pushing a blindfolded Seito ahead of her. Sylia signaled the others to leave the room with her and indicated to Priss she should stay behind.

Once the door closed, Priss removed Seito's blindfold. He looked around for a moment, but once he saw Linna, his eyes couldn't leave her face. He strode toward her and took her good hand in his.

"Hi." she said softly. She seemed to glow...

"Hi." he replied, barely a whisper.

She continued looking into his eyes. "Would you leave us alone, Priss?"

"Like hell." Priss snorted. Then, reluctantly, "Oh, I'll just go over by the door." She'd wanted to make sure Seito saw the butt of the pistol in her belt, but the likelihood of his looking in her direction seemed pretty remote.

"Are you okay?" Linna asked Seito.

"I'm just fine, thanks to you." he replied. "But how are you doing?"

Linna looked down at her bandaged arm and cast-covered leg. "Not so good, I guess." she replied with a small laugh. Then her eyes became concerned. "Why did it try to kill you, Seito? Who would want to kill you?"

Seito drew back. He was becoming good at this, even if he wished he weren't. She looked so real, so beautiful ("JUST LIKE YOU WANT HER TO!" his analytical mind screamed.).

"Linna, I can't really talk about..." He hesitated , then changed the subject to something he'd thought of upstairs. "Can I ask you a question? A question only you would know the answer to?"

Linna reacted as though he'd struck her. "Wait--, you don't think... I'm ME?" she asked incredulously. "You think I'm just trying to get some kind of information from--"

"Please, Linna." he pleaded. "Just one. I have to KNOW."

Seito could see the wall building behind her eyes as she said carefully "Alright."

Seito held her hand tighter. Oh, please... "What did I say to you the first time we kissed? After I brought you the flowers?"

She looked away from him and, despite herself, the memory warmed the very core of her being. "It was just like today." she said, meeting his eyes once more. "You were too scared to say anything."

"Oh, Linna!" he moaned, putting his arms around her.

Linna held him as tightly as she could, tears streaming down her face as she said over and over in a choked voice, "Seito." "Seito."

Priss turned away angrily and stared at the door. She had no idea why.


Linna fell into a more restful sleep a few minutes later. Priss tapped Seito on the back.

"Time to go back upstairs, lover."

Seito slowly rose and submitted to the blindfold. "I really do love her, you know."

It was the wrong thing to say. "That's what they all say, dickhead." Priss replied as she gave him a hard shove out the door. Once in the hallway with the door closed behind them, she kicked at the back of his knee.

Seito fell to the floor and then felt a hard, cold metal under his chin. "So far you've been very lucky, and I really think you should appreciate what we're doing for you. Do you?" the metal, which he now realized was the front sight on a pistol barrel, dug at his throat in rhythm with her last two words.

"Huh?" she asked, digging the sight in again.

"Yes, I certainly do." he said as convincingly as he could.

It must have been good enough, because she jerked him back to his feet and pushed him further down the hallway toward the stairs.

She took off his blindfold and he found himself back in the small, windowless office across from the dark-haired woman. The one who'd dragged him upstairs left and closed the door behind her. Seito swallowed his rage. He had to be smart about this. He decided to try to control this encounter from the start.

"If you're Sylia, then Linna says I can trust you, and that you can help me."

The woman lit a cigarette and, after a long drag, said "What would you like to trust me with, Mr. Sakai?"

Seito hesitated. No. Linna had proven who she was. It was his turn to reveal a little. "I've come to MegaTokyo to buy some information. Certain parties have attempted to stop me. I still plan to make my purchase, but I will need additional security. Can you help with that?"

She looked back at him, almost with a touch of amusement. "I have been known to provide security in the past, but I have serious doubts about your ability to afford the services of my firm."

"Don't be too quick to judge. My people have placed a high priority on this venture."

"Your people would be Lippischwerke?"

Seito felt his stomach knot. So much for controlling the situation.

She went on. "Yes, Lippischwerke is a fine company. Perhaps you can afford my services. But I can hardly accept a contract without knowing who I'll be up against..."

She had Seito, and they both knew it. She already knew his bodyguard was dead, and he couldn't even leave this office without her consent. The only way out was the truth.

"Genom." he said. "I think they know what I'm after and they are likely to put considerable effort into stopping me."

"And just what are you after, Mr. Sakai?"

"I'd like for that to remain confidential."

"Very well. How long would you require my services?"

Seito looked at his watch and saw midnight was long past. "Until tomorrow morning. I am to make my purchase tonight at ten accompanied by a single bodyguard. The next morning I will deliver the information to a courier who will return it to Germany. I will make my way back separately."

The woman looked thoughtful. "Fourteen million." she said simply.

Seito was astounded at the figure. "That's quite a lot for a little over twenty-four hours' work."

"For that I guarantee your life and, more importantly, the successful conclusion of your business-- even with Genom opposing you. Your people should consider it a bargain, especially since, your late bodyguard's bravery notwithstanding, their own security measures proved woefully inadeqate."

And so Seito hired the Knight Sabers. It was very likely the only time they accepted a contract from a man who had never even heard of them.


"Open Executive Action file on 15 April 2035 sanction. Subject: Seito Sakai."

Madigan's terminal buzzed momentarily as it called up the proper file. "Video telemetry from point unit." The screen filled with a view of the busy plaza in front of Grille of the Crafters. "Forward to subject pick-up." The image froze, then showed an image of Sakai walking through the crowd into the restaurant. The boomer that had sent this footage had been unable to obtain a clear shot during the initial contact. It was instructed to wait until Sakai left the building again. Madigan was about to advance to the next contact point when she spotted something on the restaurant's balcony. "Enhance quadrant two." The upper right area of the image grew to fill the screen.

She let out a groan. Typical 55-Series logic. The boomer, having been ordered to wait for Sakai's exit, had not even bothered to scan the balcony of the restaurant. There he was, in plain sight. No obstructions. An easy kill. Damn Quincy and his insistence on using boomer assassins! The cheapest Ginza kneebreaker would have spotted Sakai AND completed the sanction then and there! She should have learned her lesson during the Largo affair and just pulled the trigger herself. She sighed. No use crying over it. On the screen, Sakai rose to guide an attractive young woman to her chair. Madigan frowned. Was she the same one who pulled him down later?

"Restore full-screen view. Forward to next contact." The screen jumped to Sakai's exit from the restaurant. The boomer's field of view zoomed in and projected targeting data. Sakai finally cleared the main body of the crowd and the sighting reticle locked on his left ear. Just then, a blur from the upper part of the screen hit Sakai and knocked him out of the picture toward the ground. The view shifted downward and the laser's charge status indicator shifted from green to red as it re-acquired Sakai momentarily. But the shot hadn't hit him. Instead, it struck the girl.

Where had she come from? Madigan hadn't seen her follow Sakai out. She backed the telemetry up. No, the girl was still sitting on the balcony as Sakai started to cross the plaza. And she had seemed to fall on Sakai, so... she JUMPED? Madigan's jaw fell. Could she be a boomer? Maybe a 33-C? She studied the tape as it continued. The girl was obviously in pain after being shot, but that could still fit the 33-Series profile if it weren't a C-type. She was obviously a physically enhanced human at the very least, but who was she?

Madigan backsearched the telemetry for a clear facial shot. There! "Enhance grid five." The girl's face filled the screen. Madigan grimaced. She was certainly pretty enough for a 33-Series. But there was something else, something tickling at the back of her memory...

Had she seen this face before? Its presence on the screen seemed very familiar. Maybe some other surveillance tape or-- No! It had been another telemetry download!

"Access Executive Action file, Subject: Irene Can, aka Irene Chang. Point unit pre-sanction surveillance telemetry." The screen flickered into a picture of two young women talking in a small diner. The boomer was sitting in a car outside, looking through the restaurant's front window. There was the subject, Irene Can --actually Irene Chang, a daughter of the Hu Bang "Tiger Clan" consortium. But the other girl looked like she could be the one who'd saved Sakai. The observing boomer zoomed in on her face. "Freeze. Display side- by-side with last image from Sakai file."

No doubt about it. This was the same girl, right down to the headband. "Replay dialogue from Chang telemetry."

The terminal buzzed for a moment, then flashed "Data Deleted" under the image. Madigan slammed her fist on the console. Another of Mason's damn games! HE had probably known who she was! Hell, she might have even been working for him!

Then another thought occured to her. "Extrapolate dialogue from subject lip movements." Her terminal buzzed for a few moments as the footage was analyzed. The transcript it produced was spotty at best, and seemed to mostly concern shopping and some old boyfriend, but one fragment of a line from the Chang girl caused Madigan to sit bolt upright in her chair.

"...contract the Knight Sabers to avenge me."

Good Lord. Could she really be this lucky? God knew she deserved it after the seemingly unbroken run of misfortune she'd had since taking over as Chief of Security. Could this girl BE a Knight Saber? And if she was, did that mean Sakai was hiring them? Or, she considered, maybe even working for them? That would explain his carrying the girl from the scene, as such an action seemed inconsistent if she were just a bodyguard.

She reached for the phone. No one got very far in Madigan's business without a good hacker in their pocket, and Ivar was one of the best. She'd brought him with her to Genom and he'd kept busy ever since rebuilding the safeguards on what he considered a disgustingly wide-open DP system.

"Ivar? How'd you like to take a break from all that ice sculpture and do some good old-fashioned digging?"


Seito spent most of the next day at Linna's side, except for a short run to Tinsel City Bank to pick up the credit chip for that night's transaction. The funds it represented had been transferred from Lippischwerke after Seito's request the afternoon before. He was accompanied by Sylia, who assured him they were perfectly safe and under the watchful eye of her people, although Seito couldn't see anything. Spotting tails was apparently not one of his talents. In any event, no problems arose.

That afternoon, after Linna awoke from one of the short naps she was prone to take, he took one last chance with her trust. As she lay asleep, he had decided someone should know, and that she deserved to more than any other.

"Linna," he said, gently twining his fingers in hers, "I think I should tell you why I came here, in case something happens tonight."

Her hand tightened convulsively on his. Her eyes were suddenly filled with fear and concern. "Don't say that, Seito! You know I can't lose you again! I'll--"

"Shh, shh." he stroked her hair reassuringly. "Everything will be fine, I know that. But I'd still like to tell you, alright?"

She was noticeably calmer as she nodded.

"A few days ago I was reviewing some documents in a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a reporter from my company's publishing arm. It seems he'd found some evidence to suggest..." It was going to be hard to say this delicately. "...that maybe the quake...the 2025 quake...wasn't entirely a natural event."

Her eyes widened. "What do you mean, 'not natural'?"

"I mean it may have been deliberately triggered by setting off atomic devices deep underground, near the fault lines. I'm here to find more evidence, and that's why they tried to kill me."

"Who did?"

He took a deep breath. Here goes... "Genom. It looks like the higher-ups planned it for years, but I don't have any definite names of individuals. Maybe that's the information I'll get tonight, I don't know. But the last guy died trying to buy it."

"Oh, Seito..." Linna said, her voice cracking as she awkwardly pulled him to her.

"So you understand why I--"

"Just hold me for a while." she said, shivering in his arms.

Two floors above them, Sylia killed the feed from the remote microphones. She ran a hand through her hair slowly and then began checking the latest stock prices on the London exchange.


Book Three, Part One

 

The Knightwing hovered inches above the wide green expanse surrounding Genom's largely automated Oceanside Silicon Production Facility a few miles north of MegaTokyo proper. The silicon "farm" was fairly remote but its output remained invaluable to Genom's various product lines. Doc Raven, sitting at Nene's usual Combat Intelligence Center post, nodded toward the two armored figures at the side hatch.

Priss and Nene dropped out of the craft, each carrying two delayed- action magnetic mines. The shaped charges were designed to punch a white-hot jet of plasma through the toughest ceramic or metallic plating and fry anything inside. Placing these about the facility and setting them off just before Seito's upcoming meeting would, in theory, tie up the greater part of Genom's security apparatus. Priss and Nene would then remain nearby and add to the chaos with a half-dozen R4M "Shotgun" sub-munition missiles mounted on their hardsuits for the occasion.

As the Knightwing dipped its nose and began its swing out over the Pacific back toward MegaTokyo and the Nishizawa Shipyards, the two armored figures made their way toward the building in low, ten- meter leaps.

"Nothing but a couple security guards showing up on my scans." Nene reported.

"Let's hope it stays that way." Priss replied.

As they neared the structure, however, Nene detected a hydraulic pulse in the ground beneath them. Suddenly, a tiny black turret popped up from the grass less than two meters away. Nene blasted it with her arm cannon and shouted "Look out, Priss! It's a trap!"

Priss spotted a dozen more of the turrets rising WAY too close for any kind of organized engagement. She was about to hit her boosters when she recognized them. She jerked Nene's arm up just as another turret was vaporized.

"Knock it off, you ditz!" Priss said disgustedly, then blinked up the guard comm channel. "Sylia? Sorry, but your diversion came a little early! Miss 'Amazing Brain' just blasted the lawn sprinklers!"

"Omigod! Priss, Sylia, I'm SO SORRY--"

"Shut up and get under cover! Those guards won't take long to report a couple cannon shots on the putting green!" Priss grabbed her and headed for a retaining wall near the shore. "Sylia, I don't think we're gonna be able to place those mines. We'll try to stay undetected and then wait 'til just before you pick us up to take out whatever security units they send, okay?"

"I suppose it's the best that can be done under the circumstances. We'll follow your plan, Priss. Nene? Might I suggest you take no further actions this evening without Priss' approval?"

"Yes, Sylia. I'm just so--"

"We'll discuss it later, Nene."

"Yes ma'am." Nene was scared already, and Sylia's calm promise of a "discussion" dropped a stone of dread into the pit of her stomach.

Less than five minutes later, a Genom security copter buzzed along the shore perimeter of the plant. Nene had spotted it quite a way out, and her idea of moving inland along the near fenceline would have worked if the pilot hadn't suddenly shifted direction and caught them both in a random sweep of his spotlight.

"Ah, hell!" Priss said as they split up and a line of shells from the chopper's minigun chewed up the turf around her.


Linna had lain awake monitoring the other Sabers' difficulties. She sighed. The premature discovery of Priss and Nene was forcing her to take the precautionary actions she'd hoped to avoid.

"Moto Three." she said aloud, with as much volume as she could manage. The clunking vibrations that came through the floor told her the big mech had heard and was on its way. Now came the hard part.

As gently as she could, she bent her head down and stretched her neck toward her left arm. She nipped at the adhesive tape holding the IV until she caught one corner in her teeth. Carefully, she pulled the tape back until it cleared the needle, then clamped her teeth on the IV tube and, steeling herself, jerked her head to one side.

The needle came out, and Linna heavily exhaled her pain as she nudged the tape back over the wound with her chin. She looked over at her right arm. Wrapped in its gel-packed bandage and with a generous helping of the latest topical anesthetic applied, it seemed like a heavy piece of clothing draped over her shoulder. She could feel its weight, but nothing else.

She straightened her left arm, hoping she'd squeezed the elbow joint long enough to stop most of the bleeding. While Doc had seen fit to apply the powerful topicals to her arm, he hadn't wanted to strain her system by applying them to her legs as well. She picked up the three remaining pain pills and swallowed them with the last of the water as her motoroid entered the room. Hopefully they would stop the incessant throbbing long enough for her to do what she had to.

"Lift me up." she commanded the mech. It was surprisingly smooth and gentle as it carried her out of the room (Bless Mackie and his love of fine tolerances!), although the weight of the heavier cast on her right leg caused her more discomfort than she'd expected. Thinking of Mackie made her smile a little as she noticed the gauzy tee she was wearing had gathered up around her waist. Bad luck, kid. You'd have really enjoyed this.

As they entered a large storage and maintenance area, Linna glanced over at her tarpaulin-draped goal. She directed the mech to deposit her at a nearby computer console, then pursed her lips and sighed heavily. Sylia was gonna be pissed.

"Pull off the tarps." The motoroid complied, and the low, cat-like shape of the D.D. was revealed. "Open the front hatch."

Once the hatch was open, she directed the mech to place her inside. She cried out once when an unexpected slip down into the last few inches of the cockpit sent a nasty shock through her legs. Gritting her teeth, she initiated the battlemover's startup routine.

Sylia had reported the D.D. as "destroyed" after their tragic battle in the territories, thus fulfilling the terms of the contract with Kaufman. Of course, she'd realized it held WAY too many of Genom's latest innovations to be scrapped without a thorough review. Once Mackie had finished going through it, she planned to strip it for parts. True fulfillment of the contract would therefore only be "delayed."

But, Mackie being Mackie, he just hadn't been able to let the D.D. sit in a less than fully-operable condition. He had repaired the damaged arm and cable grappler systems, and replaced the original shoulder-mounted gatling cannon with a GAU-8B Avenger II he'd picked out of God-only-knew what boneyard. He'd also removed the micro-neutron warhead from the D.D.'s back, but kept the J-1 installed.

The J-1 was Linna's ace-in-the-hole. She figured all she needed to do was get the D.D. near the action, mark Priss & Nene as friendlies, and turn the automated combat system loose.

The gathering lights and the hum of the various electronics filled her senses as she gave her motoroid its last order. "Open the garage and close it again once the D.D. is out."

Linna hit the hatch close control, and slowly advanced the D.D.'s throttle. The whine of its engines had just reached a bone-rattling level when the hatch closed and cut off most of the sound. The battlemover left the ground and moved to the doorway, still in its more compact "cat" mode. Once outside, Linna brought the D.D. to its full height and engaged the main thrusters.

The D.D. gained altitude fast, quickly putting Raven's far behind. The hard g-forces of acceleration were, however, having an unexpected effect on Linna in her weakened state. Her stomach seemed to drop away as the battlemover rocketed skyward. She had to gasp for air and put her hand to her mouth in order to stop the water and pain pills from coming up.

"Oh, God." she moaned once the worst of the spell had passed. This wasn't good. If she felt this way now, how bad would it be when the J-1 started executing the sharp maneuvers necessary for combat? She hoped the pills would help.


Nene had just gotten over her relief at being out of the spotlight when she heard the minigun open up. She turned to see Priss taking wild evasive measures to avoid the stream of fire, but the numerous sparks dancing away from her armor made it clear she was meeting with only limited success.

Nene quickly illuminated the Genom chopper and lit off one the R4Ms on her back. There was barely time for the missile's package of bomblets to deploy before the expanding swarm of projectiles slammed into the little craft, wiping it from the sky in a series of winking flashes.

Nene's visor alerted to more craft inbound. "Priss! There's more coming!"

"Trying to hide probably won't do any good this time. Let's get dug in on the other side of that retaining wall and take 'em as they come in!" Priss ordered. "Sylia? How're things at your end?"

Mackie's voice came over the channel. "I just dropped her and Seito off, Priss. I'm monitoring, but they haven't made any contact yet." Mackie turned his eyes questioningly toward Doc at the C&C console.

Doc's eyes were hard as he replied to the unspoken question. "You know the client's safety comes first, Mackie. They'll have to hold out on their own for a while."

A third, unexpected voice interjected over the guard channel. "You just stay put and cover them, Mackie! I'll help Priss & Nene. I'm inbound, Priss, ETA seven minutes!"

"Linna!"

"Keep Seito safe, Mackie. I'll handle the rest."


Seito walked past the rows of dilapidated and mostly rotting docks until he reached number 4 at the far end. Like all the others in this yard it had been abandoned after the quake had shoved a massive chunk of granite upward a few hundred meters to the east, effectively cutting off the Nishizawa property's access to the rest of the bay.

Sylia had left him just after they disembarked from the Knightwing. She said she'd be monitoring him from a distance, but near enough to intervene easily if any trouble started. For the second time in as many days Seito was putting his life in the hands of someone he couldn't see. His lack of apprehension came as a pleasant surprise. After all, he thought to himself, he'd lived through it the first time.

The scattered clouds overhead let intermittent moonlight play over the abandoned junkpiles and skeletal buildings to his left. He was surprised at the lack of squatters in the area. Perhaps the old shipyards were a popular site for this sort of business, and the homeless wretches had quickly learned it was best not to be around.

Footsteps. A solitary figure stepped from a guard shack a few meters away. "Mystery man?" the familiar, if slightly nervous voice inquired.

"That's right." Seito replied.

The figure came forward, reaching into a pocket for an optical disk.

"Here's the data. Where's the money?" His hands were shaking.

Seito brought out the credit chip. The blue and silver logo of the Tinsel City Bank winked in the moonlight.

The figure visibly relaxed and held out the disk. "Take it. I've had it long enough."

The tiny valuables were neatly exchanged, and Seito stepped back.

The figure looked down at the chip. "You don't know what a relief this is."

Seito ignored him and turned around. The deal was no talking, and he wasn't going to let this guy keep him around any longer than he had to stay. He'd barely taken four steps when he heard a muffled gurgle in the shadows to his right.

"John?" he heard his business acquaintance ask. Looking toward the sound, Seito saw the gleaming blue 55-Series boomer step from the shadows holding a limp, rag doll shape by the throat.

"NO-O-OO!!!" his opposite number cried as the boomer calmly raised his free arm and let off a single beamshot. The man's headless body collapsed almost noiselessly to the ground.

Seito turned and started to run but found his way blocked by another 55-Series and a third figure. This one was much slimmer but nearly as tall, with long gray hair and an unmistakable aura of authority.

"Thank you, Mr. Sakai. You've proven yourself very capable tonight." said Chairman Quincy in a calm, deep voice. "I've been trying to flush this particular bird for a very long time. And now I only require..." he put out his hand, palm up, "...the disk, if you please."


"Just hang on, you two!" Linna was picking up two craft with Genom transponder signals three klicks north of her. She reached over to nudge the directional control, normally operated with the right hand, toward them. Getting a lock now, and closing to 1.5, she activated the homing mine system mounted over her left shoulder. Four of the self-propelled charges leapt from their housing in rapid succession and spiraled toward the first of the heavy attack helicopters.

The pilot was good. The big copter twirled down onto its nose and dropped nearly out of harm's way. As it was, only one charge connected, neatly severing the tail boom. As the craft auto-rotated toward the surf, the D.D. streaked past its companion. A long, sweeping turn was all Linna's one-handed control could manage. By the time she finally came around on the second chopper she was just able to make out the departing booster flare as its pilot, apparently having decided discretion was the better part, literally headed for the hills-- away from both Linna and the silicon farm.

"Yaa-hoo! Way to go Linna!" Nene shouted as both incoming hostiles left her visor. She now had a good lock on Linna and was trying to extend her ECM to cover the D.D., as well.

"Looks like this might work out after all--" Priss began before being nearly knocked down by the prop wash of a tilt-rotor transport sweeping by barely a meter over her head at well over 500 kph. She recovered in time to see it pitch up for three seconds before nosing back down and heading inland. An instinct told her to trigger the secondary imaging system and Nene's video feed allowed a glimpse of a bulky dark shape dropping toward the water before disappearing in a cyclone of spray.

"Stealth boomers on the ground! Can't tell how many!" Priss warned.

She heard Nene answer "Still nothing on my scans!" while she tracked the spray sent up by what had to be one of the boomers. Deciding that this was likely to be the best shot she'd have, Priss triggered all six of her R4Ms in a spread to hit the shoreline just a bit ahead of the incoming cyclone of water.

The sub-munitions broke free in a lethal cloud covering 90 meters of shoreline. The tiny flashes of the projectiles hitting the sand intensified at one point into a glittering burst and then a tumbling fireball. One boomer down.

"Keep your eyes open, Nene! No telling how many are left!"


"Unit Three down, Ma'am!" Madigan's pilot said as he settled the tilt- rotor TCC (Transport/Command and Control) ship on the lawn near the Silicon Production Facility.

"Confirmed, thank you." Madigan replied calmly from her seat in the rear of the craft. The telemetry from the third BU12C-2(St) Combat Boomer (Heavy) had blanked out just as her pilot had passed on his visual.

Two of the other units were converging on the "pink saber," who gave no sign of spotting them, while the last was about to drop on the "blue saber" from above. Madigan frowned. Only two of them?

Madigan diverted her attention for a moment to the condition of her escort helos. They were to wait and cut off any sabers who tried to escape seaward. But now one was out of communication and the other was leaving the area.

"Chaser Two! Report!"

"b-BIG mech, Sir!" the obviously shaken pilot answered. "Faster 'n hell! Took out One, and--"

"Get your ass back on CAP and do your job!" Madigan ordered. She saw the chopper slow and sweep back toward its designated Combat Air Patrol area. "Roger." the pilot complied sheepishly.

Now, where was the "big mech" he mentioned? Nothing on her screens but-- there! What she'd dismissed earlier as a flock of gulls was solidifying into something much meaner as it closed at a speed only a rare gull could match.


The D.D. fired retros in order to engage the boomers Priss said were in the area. So far, Linna hadn't picked up anything. At least she wasn't getting sick again.

"Priss, I've got you two marked, but my displays don't show any boomers."

"They're stealth boomers like the one that nailed you the other night! I'm getting intermittent signals on a direct video overlay-- One to your left, Nene! --Try that."

Direct video overlay? Did this thing even HAVE a video display capability? Linna was having enough trouble just flying it! Even worse, if her displays weren't picking up the boomers...

She lifted the red cover and flipped the J-1 master switch to "Enable." It didn't take long for her fears to be confirmed on the center MFD.

"NO HOSTILES IN DIRECT ENGAGEMENT PERIMETER"

Damn! The J-1 couldn't even SEE the boomers! She was going to have to engage them herself, but how?

No time to reconfigure the displays, even if she knew how. There was only one way to spot them. Steeling herself, she reached for the canopy release control mounted top center above the MFDs. The wind was harsher and colder than she thought it would be. Her teeth began to chatter almost immediately, but at least now she could...

"Priss! Above you!"

A combat boomer was dropping toward Priss, who had been trying to track the boomer she'd seen near Nene. She leapt to the side just in time to avoid the BU-12's crushing bulk. It was fast. Before Priss could fire a burst from her needle gun, it snapped off a cannon shot that forced her into further evasives.

Nene had avoided the boomer Priss had warned of with a high backward leap. This had put enough distance between them for Linna to try the only method of engagement she could think of.

Keeping the D.D. on a straight track over the area between Nene and the boomer, she activated the GAU-8B and slaved it to the "hat" switch under her left thumb. The muzzle flash and roar of the gatling cannon were incredible without the insulating canopy closed, even moreso because the weapon was less than a meter above her head. The first 30mm DU rounds to hit the ground were about four meters short of the boomer. She pressed the hat switch forward and was rewarded by a line of depleted uranium slugs walking their way into and through the bulky machine. Parts of the boomer were flying about the area as Linna swept by and began turning for another pass.

Meanwhile, Nene had leapt out of the frying pan and into the fire. The shattered boomer's partner had rammed into her back and sent her tumbling across the grass. Half her displays went dead with the impact and, as she began struggling to stand, she could taste a fair amount of blood flowing from a bitten lip.

Before she could get her bearings the slam of an autocannon shell half-buried her in the turf. She groaned and hacked a painful cough. That had hurt. A high-pitched whistle seemed to fill her head. "Priss..." she transmitted, but wasn't sure what else to say.


Seito was frozen. Quincy. Standing right in front of him. The man had killed his parents, taken his life, his legs. Even so, the aura of command inherent in his request had almost caused Seito to hold out the disk when a beam cannon shot went off over his head. Quincy and the boomer looked in the direction of the first 55-Type, now shivering and sparking on the ground.

The sound of torn metal brought Seito's attention back toward Quincy in time to see the other boomer fall. Sylia stood in her hardsuit with a long glowing blade extended from the right arm.

Quincy contemplated her for a moment, unmoving. Then he turned back toward Seito and said, "It seems your resourcefulness knows no bounds, Mr. Sakai. I look forward to having you on the tea-"

His words were cut off by a crisp "k-CHAK!" sound as a cannon barrel deployed from the palm of Sylia's other arm. She turned it toward Quincy and fired directly into his chest. Seito watched him fall, long electric arcs playing about the hole where his heart should have been.

"That particular trick is getting rather tiresome." Sylia's electronically altered voice said from under the deadpan of the suit's helmet. Seito was still gaping as she pushed him toward the descending Knightwing.


* Technical Note: The GAU-8B Avenger II was essentially a cut- down version of the famed GAU-8A rotary anti-tank cannon mounted on the USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II and used to such great effect in the Persian Gulf and Balkan wars of the 1990s. It was developed as an improved main battery for the Rutan A-15 Ares ground attack plane and lacked some of the muzzle velocity and cyclic rate of its predecessor. While the A-15 was never adopted by the USAF, the tiny delta-winged craft became very popular among smaller nations and saw a great deal of action with the Nationalist and Taiwanese forces during the Hong Kong War of Independence (2007-09).

 

Book Three, Part Two

 

Madigan pounded her console but managed not to vocalize her frustration. Half her force gone and only one Saber down! One thing was clear: That mech had to go. She brought up the image from a tracking camera and magnified it. Someone was flying it with the canopy open but she couldn't quite see... HER?!?!? Madigan recognized the face, frenzied and fierce as it was, as that of the girl who'd saved Sakai. Coming to the rescue of her chicks like this, and piloting what the onboard CIC was now identifying as the missing D.D. Battlemover prototype, there could be no doubt. This girl HAD to be the leader of the Knight Sabers!

She stared hatefully at the screen, wishing they could meet face-to- face. THEN they'd see who was the better! As she ordered both remaining stealth boomers to concentrate their fire on the big mech, it almost seemed as though the girl had heard her impassioned, angry thoughts, and stared directly into the camera with a fury to match her own.

Then Madigan realized what that meant.

"Run for it! Get out NOW!" She cried as she leapt for the tilt-rotor's rear hatch. She hit the ground running and the thudding impact of the first shells made her stumble. Just as she rose to her feet, the warheads crumpled the tilt-rotor's fuselage and the main tanks erupted in a rushing cloud of fire. The shock wave threw Madigan head over heels into the side of a nearby hillock. She didn't get up.


Priss and the other boomer remained in close contact. Every move she made was met by an incredibly speedy counter-thrust for the bulky 12C model. The lighter armor made them more vulnerable, sure, but Priss was now discovering the flipside to that equation: They were MUCH harder to hit. Priss heard Nene's call but could do nothing until the boomer suddenly stopped and turned away. Before she could fire any of her weapons the boomer cut loose with everything it had. As Priss put a burst of needles into the base of its skull, she saw what the boomer had targeted.

"Linna! You've got incoming!" Priss saw another spread of weapons converging on the D.D. from her right. "Bail out, Linna! There's too much!"

She was about to launch toward the D.D. when she felt a crushing grip on her thigh. The boomer jerked her to the ground where it had fallen, and as she looked into its turtle-like eye, Priss could swear it winked just before its self-destruct mechanism made the world disappear in a flash of white.


Linna had seen Nene take the autocannon shell and banked the D.D. away from the smoking hulk of the tilt rotor. Come on, Priss. Give me some help here so we can go home and get some sleep! Seito. Mmmm.

The threat indicators across the panel below her flashed urgently. Multiple warheads incoming from two directions. Then she felt the impact of a half-dozen cannon hits on the mech. Before she could take any evasive action, the battlemover jerked up into an Immelman. After a moment, Linna realized the J-1 was still active. It might not see the boomers, but it could sure as hell see incoming fire! Just as well. She was feeling very tired...

But how much damage had the mech taken? The D.D. seemed to be stalling out as it reached the top of its climb. Darn. Distantly, Linna seemed to hear Priss' voice telling her to bail out. Why did she sound so far away? Of course! The noise of the D.D.'s engines and the roar of the gatling cannon had deafened her!

Finally forcing herself awake, Linna frantically released the safety harness and tried to wiggle out of the mech's cockpit. She couldn't get enough leverage to free her legs from the tight confines. She could see the missiles now. There was no time.

The first warhead struck the D.D.'s back, destroying the thrusters, crashing the onboard systems, and tossing Linna free. The thin nightshirt fluttered around her as she tumbled like a crippled moth into the night sky.


Nene opened her eyes to see the boomer standing above her, but it was looking somewhere else. She realized the opportunity in front of her. One of the mines intended for Genom's silicon farm remained on her hardsuit. She fed in a four second delay and hurled it at the boomer before she engaged her battered suit's main thrusters and rocketed out of the earth in a shower of dirt and sod.

She didn't see the mine bounce off the boomer's stealthy skin, which among other things defeated magnetic detection. As it was, the subsequent plasma blast only tore off one arm and the corresponding shoulder assembly. The crippled boomer fired its thrusters to pursue the escaping Saber.


Priss opened her eyes. As she tried to sit up she felt a cold breeze. Her armor was cracked and fallen away in a number of places across her midsection. The servo-musculature in her left arm wasn't responding and the shoulder joint was locked. How long had she been out? Linna!

She looked around for the D.D. but didn't see it. Then an explosion to her right caught her attention. She saw Nene leaping toward a falling white shape with a boomer close behind her.

She got to her feet and hit her boosters to help, but what should have been an upward leap was instead a skidding lurch to her left. Thrusters were screwed! She called a warning, but the dead sound of her voice within the helmet told her the comlink was out as well. In frustratingly short hops, she made her way toward Nene.


Nene was busily blinking her suit's systems back on-line when the D.D. exploded above her. She looked up to see Linna falling away from the fiery remains of the mech.

As Nene angled her thrusters to intercept her friend, she was panicked. Just how DOES one catch an injured, nearly naked human being a hundred feet off the ground when one is wearing a decidedly un-soft duraluminum and ceramic ensemble moving at nearly 80 kph? Just catching Linna across the hardsuit's body would be the equivalent of hitting her with a compact car. The only part of the hardsuit that wasn't, well, "hard" was her left hand, so...

Nene slowed as much as she could as she neared Linna, then felt a jerk as she grabbed her left arm. She gathered Linna up and heard her swearing as she held her with both arms.

"Linna?" Nene asked.

"I'm OK. Thanks." she answered, shivering through clenched teeth.

Nene saw they were over the water and paled. Staying up even this long was rapidly draining what little fuel was left in the thrusters. She began to turn back toward shore when Mackie's voice came over the channel: "Nene! Drop down NOW!!"

Nene responded to the break call just as she'd been trained, instantly pitching over toward the surf. The pursuing boomer's hand glanced off her right foot as the mech passed by, flying straight into the two optically guided missiles Doc had guided in from the Knightwing. As he skillfully kept the screen reticle centered on the largest remaining piece of the burning war machine, he allowed himself to crow a little. "Old, but reliable!"

The jet spray from the hovering Knightwing soaked Nene and Linna even more than their splash into the meter-deep surf. Priss arrived under what little power she had left, and once they were all on board the craft dipped its nose and headed out to sea.


On board Chaser Two, the pilot was faced with a dilemma. He'd called for reinforcements as soon as he'd lost contact with Madigan's TCC. Talking directly to the security guards at the silicon farm only revealed that, hey, there's somebody FIGHTING out here! No shit.

Now he was getting a weak track on a large craft close to the water and moving in his direction. No, now it was changing course toward the north-- away from him. Reinforcements were still three minutes out. Should he pursue?

He snorted. No way was Genom paying him THAT much. Besides, Madigan's last orders were to stay on his CAP station, right? He smiled. His ass was covered right here. He called in the location of the bogey just as it left his screen.


Nene had gotten out of her damaged hardsuit and taken her normal position in the Knightwing. She was holding a towel to her still- bleeding lower lip. "That Genom chopper's not pursuing and they haven't sent out anything fast enough to catch us." She looked toward the front of the craft with a smile. "I think we're getting away clean, Mackie."

"Right, thanks." he smiled back. "I'm gonna take us home the long way, Sis. Too much activity down south."

"Very good, Mackie. Keep me informed if there's any trouble." Sylia replied from the back of the craft. She was standing next to Priss, who was still trying to get the shoulder joint of her suit unlocked. She'd managed to strip off the sections below chest level. Both of them were watching Doc fuss over Linna.

Her shoulder, dislocated when Nene had caught her, had been "popped" back into place, but the black and blue patch on what had been her only uninjured limb was rapidly approaching her elbow. Seito was stroking her cheek, as her head seemed to be the only part Doc wasn't working on.

"Damn foolishness. I'll have to redo both casts. God only knows what you did to your arm. I'll hardly have time before you leave, and then you'll be someone else's problem." Doc groused as he unwound the soaking bandages on her burned arm. He shuddered at the thought of all that saltwater in the burn. Thank God for the topicals.

Linna paid him no mind. Her eyes were on Seito as her teeth chattered. Mackie's jacket had replaced the sodden nightshirt but it wasn't doing much of a job in keeping her warm. She managed to stop her shivering long enough to ask "Seito? Did you get it? Can you prove what they did?"

Seito looked away. This was going to get uncomfortable. "I haven't reviewed the data yet."

"But it's got to be what you needed. You can tell the world and show everyone what... MONSTERS they are! Right?"

"It's not that simple, Linna..." he replied. Damn.

"What do you mean, Seito?" she asked, even this small exchange was exhausting her.

"What he means, Linna," Sylia interjected, "is that his employers may not be planning to use the data in that way."

Linna looked from Sylia to Seito. "What... way?"

"Lippischwerke is currently engaged in negotiations with Genom. Genom will be buying them out at a price yet to be determined. The inclusion of the information Seito has put together regarding Genom's part in the earthquake along with the data he obtained this evening should dramatically enhance the per share value Lippischwerke's stockholders will receive, wouldn't you say, Mr. Sakai?"

Seito glared hatefully at Sylia. Linna stared at him. "Seito? Look at me? Please?"

Seito couldn't. His eyes went to the floor.

"Oh, no Seito..." Linna said quietly, then screamed out "BASTARD!! You're just going to sell it back to them! And then... you'll WORK for them?!? Oh, NO Seito, no... They killed our families you bast..." her voice fell away to a racking sob.

"Sylia, stop this!" Doc said. "She's in no shape to hear it."

Priss shoved Seito away from Linna. He stumbled toward the front of the Knightwing's cabin. He saw an ugly, vicious death in Priss' eyes. He wished she could deliver it.

"Linna, Mr. Sakai paid us to help him obtain the information, not for us to interfere in his company's plans." Sylia said flatly.

Linna looked up at her. "Oh God, Sylia." she sobbed. "I didn't do it for the money."


Seito sat in the small office once again. The datadisc was plugged into the notebook computer in front of him. There was a knock at the door.

"Come in."

Sylia opened the door and stepped inside. "It's almost time to meet your courier. Was the data satisfactory?"

Seito stared at the screen. "Yes. It was what our geologists had hoped for. It's the missing onsite seismic data from the 2025 quake. The spikes here--" he pointed toward a series of sharp points on the displayed graph, "--indicate the initial nuclear blasts. Datum from other sites were inconclusive, but these are absolute proof."

"So you've done your job well."

"I suppose so." Seito took a deep breath and was silent for a moment. "How did you know what I was looking for?"

"I listened in when you told Linna."

In response to the look he gave her, Sylia easily countered "Really, Mr. Sakai, YOU'RE the one who breached your confidentiality. If you had simply remained silent, I might never have known."

Seito considered this for a moment, then asked "But why did you have to tell Linna?"

"I thought she had a right to know. She put her life on the line for you twice, and without pay either time, I might add."

"But you've made her hate me!" His fists clenched as he stood.

"Yes. Now." Sylia replied coolly, her arms folded. "But once I explain the situation to her, I think she may hate you less. After all, it's clear that if you tried to expose Genom, they'd just kill you. Right now you're a potentially valuable asset to them." She paused. "But I am curious. Are you going to work for Genom after the buyout?"

Seito, his rage faded, looked back at the screen. "I don't know. I don't think I can after all this. I guess I just needed to prove to the people at Lippischwerke that I could carry my own weight, that I wasn't --"

"Just the little crippled boy?" Sylia interrupted. Seito stared in surprise.

Sylia nodded. "Yes, I've known that from the start, too. Actually, you owe me one on that score. Once Doc found out you were THAT Seito Sakai he wanted to give you a good teardown and rebuild."

Seito smiled, in spite of himself. He could just see the old man... "Thank you, I guess."

"Well, there is a way you can repay me." Seito looked up quizzically. "Has it occurred to you that Lippischwerke will BE Genom in a matter of days? And that a betrayal of your employer after that time, wouldn't be a betrayal at all?"

Seito considered this. "I'm listening."

"Your information could be most useful to me. If you were to turn a copy over to me with the firm understanding that I would take no action until after Lippischwerke is absorbed... I would be most grateful. It might also help to put you in a better light from Linna's standpoint."

Seito was quiet for a few moments. He could see that she was playing with him and found he was too tired of all this to care. "That's quite a notion."

Sylia nodded. "I thought you'd find it intriguing. Oh, by the way, I found this little item. I think it could be useful to you." She set the object on the desk and walked toward the door. "Please just keep in mind that my organization suffered a lot of equipment loss last night. A sizeable tip might be in order."

Seito picked the object up. One chip. Tinsel City Bank. No tracers, either way.


Linna awoke to a warm, light touch. Priss was holding her hand, stroking her fingers along the back to her wrist, then starting over again, all the while staring at the blank wall on the other side of the bed.

"Hi." Linna said, flexing her fingers a little and receiving a jolt of pain in return. She winced. Getting used to none of her limbs being fully functional for a while was going to be hard.

Priss jumped as Linna's greeting startled her from her reverie. She actually blushed a little, sheepishly said "Hi." and placed Linna's hand back on the bed. "We've, uh, got to get you to the airport pretty soon. Seito left a while back. I didn't think you'd want to see him, and he didn't ask, so..."

Linna's heart fell as she recalled the events on the Knightwing. "No, I don't suppose he would have." She looked away and gently placed her hand on Priss' again. "You were right all along, Priss. I was just too anxious to give my heart away to someone I didn't even know anymore."

"Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that--"

"I know, I'm sorry I didn't listen to you from the--"

"I think you should give him another chance."

Linna thought she'd heard wrong. "What?"

"I think you're being too hard on Seito."

Linna waited for Priss to explain further. Predictably, she didn't. Linna could barely control her emotions as she said "Priss, he's going to sell information that proves Genom killed our families back to them! So if you think I'm supposed to go running back to him you'd better have a DAMN good reason why! And I thought you hated him from the start!"

Priss looked directly into Linna's eyes. "That's true, but I didn't really know why until a little while ago, when I figured he was gone and you'd never see him again. Realizing that just didn't feel as good as I thought it would." Priss stroked her fingers again. "I started to wonder why I'd disliked him so much, even before I met him. I even wondered if maybe I was..." Priss nervously patted her hand and didn't seem to know where to look. "...jealous, of him, about... you."

"Ah," Linna started, careful not to jerk her hand back. As strong as their friendship was, Linna had never really become fully comfortable with that aspect of Priss' personality.

"But that wasn't it." Priss continued. "I finally realized it was... how happy you were. You were seeing a whole happy life ahead, and he was going to be the center of it. I should have been glad for you, but..." She laughed nervously. "...you know me! Ol' self-centered Priss!"

"So you-" Linna began.

"What I'm trying to say is," Priss cut her off, hurrying to get the words out while she could. "I don't think I'm ever going to be happy again. I don't know if Sylia CAN be happy, and Nene's too damn stupid to know whether she's happy or not! Someone ought to come out of all this with a good life, and you've got the best shot!" She paused for a moment, catching her breath. "You know I've had people... taken from me. I don't think you should push Seito away so fast."

Linna was silent. There was a lot to think about. And to be with Seito again...

She pushed the thought from her mind. "But Priss, he's going to work for THEM!"

Priss reached out to stroke Linna's hair. "Then I guess he'll need you that much more, won't he?"


EPILOGUE ONE

Madigan's office gave her a sanctuary from the constant noise on the main security floor. She needed it. The infirmary where they'd patched up her numerous bruises and given her crutches so she wouldn't strain the twisted ankle had been loud enough. She'd immediately thrown the crutches away, of course. She looked weak enough without them, and over the next few days she'd need every edge she had.

Quincy hadn't called yet, but she was sure it was coming. Her first try using all the resources she'd need had not gone as well as she hoped. One probable kill, and the other Sabers apparently took the body away. All they found were a few pieces of broken blue armor.

She sighed as she leaned back in her chair. At least the silicon facility hadn't been damaged. That was something, anyway.

Her intercom buzzed. "Yes?" she answered tiredly.

"Boss? It's Ivar.?"

Madigan snorted. "You sure you want to be here?"

The door opened and the big Russian stepped inside. "Rough night, eh boss?"

"Pretty bad." she agreed. Didn't he know that being friendly with her was dangerous right now?

"Well, maybe this'll cheer you up." he laid a file on her desk. She opened the cover to find a very familiar face. It hadn't left her mind's eye since she'd awakened in the air ambulance.

"You work fast." she said, the hint of a smile curling her mouth. Address, employment history, medical records. Everything.

"It gets better."

Madigan raised an eyebrow expectantly.

"My assistant recognized her. Seems she's a rather popular girl among the mid-level types. She's dated quite a few."

Madigan grinned. Perfect. This was all the leverage she'd need. The head of the Knight Sabers, infiltrating those that might seek to take advantage of her weakness. And she had the name.

"Thanks, Ivar. I think this may be a good day to call on..." She held the file toward the window and looked past it. The city was hers again.

"...Miss Linna Yamazaki."  

EPILOGUE TWO

"Is she gone?" Sylia looked up from the printout on the table in front of her. She had thought she was the only one left in the apartment until she heard Priss' familiar tread coming from the entryway.

"Nene and Mackie are putting 'Jeanne Francaix' on the charter. I thought I'd hang around in case you needed me." She sat on the edge of the table. "Pretty clever. The manifest won't show her getting on till the plane lands in Hanoi on a seperate contract. Who came up with the alias?"

"Mackie set them up quite a while back. I thought it was rather good. Linna can pass for Vietnamese, and a different country of origin is one more hurdle for anyone trying to find her." Sylia answered, tamping out a cigarette burned into the filter. "You're from New York, by the way."

Priss smiled. "Nice. I always wanted to go there. Remind me to thank him."

"I will." She turned the papers facedown and stood. "Priss, I'm going to indulge myself tonight, and I can't think of a better, or more experienced, person to have at my side." She walked to a nearby cabinet. "What do you recommend for being depressed in good company? Bourbon or vodka?"

Priss was shaken to see Sylia and alcohol in the same room, but her instincts told her not to notice anything odd. "Bourbon. Vodka is for when you're depressed and alone."

Sylia brought a bottle and two glasses with ice back to the table. She poured for them both, then downed her first glass in a couple of gulps. She refilled it.

Priss looked over at her. "Gosh, I'd almost think you've done this before."

Sylia took a smaller sip of the brown liquid. "I save it for special occasions, or especially depressing ones."

"That's twice you've said that. What's the problem?"

Sylia took another sip and let out a sigh. "Linna. I always told myself there'd be a... casualty one day, but it's harder than I thought to see it happen."

Priss put a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, she'll probably be okay in a few months. Doc said--"

"Yes, well, I hope so, of course. But if she's not?" She shook her head. "It's all my fault, you know. That's why I sent her to convalesce in Germany. She deserved another chance at happiness, and I damn well owe her one. Maybe, with Seito not far away..." She took a rather large swallow, then looked quizzically at Priss' glass. "I know I'm not very experienced at this, but aren't you supposed to be keeping up with me?"

Priss hurriedly took a swallow to keep up appearances, then asked "So why is it your fault? She wasn't in her suit when she got shot."

"That's true, but it's not that simple. If it weren't for me, she'd have been away from this town a long time ago. You see, Linna was the only one of you I really had to recruit. Nene was looking for 'the challenge' " Sylia smiled at the recollection. "and you wanted a shot at Genom. I think you'd have done it for free."

Priss grinned. "Hell, I'd have paid you!"

Sylia laughed softly. "If you'd had any money." Her face saddened. "But Linna had to be coaxed, enticed. She had no love for Genom, true, but it was really just the money with her, at least at first. But she'd have had that anyway."

"What do you mean? She'd still be just an aerobics instructor."

Sylia raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised, Priss. I'd have thought you, at least, would suspect my secret by now. You've seen her perform. She's world-class, all the way."

"Well, I've seen her dance once or twice, but not really 'perform.' "

"Ah, well then, I guess I should tell you." She emptied the glass and lit another cigarette. "She had the part. In that silly musical. I paid off a couple of the judges to choose another girl they thought I was favoring. It made her a star. It would have done the same for Linna, I'm sure."

Sylia took a long drag on her cigarette while she looked down to fill the glass. The smoke rolled from her lips as she spoke. "I needed her more than that play did."

Her eyes rose, with remarkable hesitancy, to meet Priss'.

Priss was silent. She looked over at the dearest friend she had left in the world, and thought about what she'd been capable of doing to the life's dream of the second-dearest. Finally, she took a drink and said "Yeah, that's pretty bad."

"My father always used to tell us ' We need to sacrifice for the greater good.' He used to live by those words. He would say them all the time. Whenever he was away from us, when mother died, other times... He could rationalize just about anything with that phrase. I decided I could too."

Sylia crushed the cigarette. "I took it upon myself to choose Linna's sacrifice, just like him... just like he chose mine. Whenever I would feel bad about what I'd done, I could rationalize it. Just tell myself, 'Sylia, you need her. It's for the greater good.' " She laid a shaking hand on the papers in front of her, "And that's what makes this so much worse."

"What is it?" Priss asked in concern. She'd never seen Sylia like this.

"It's a file Seito gave me just before he left. It's all the information on Genom's part in the quake that he and Lippischwerke had put together. It contains a theory their mining expert came up with on how the nuclear devices were placed deeply and accurately enough to have caused the quake. He believes that autonomous machines were purpose-built, probably around the bombs themselves, to dig to the proper location. He theorizes that they would have needed considerable intelligence in order to avoid the many hazards they would encounter in a subterranean fault zone, and, since Genom was involved, he believes they may have been early examples of boomer AI technology." She took another drink. "I find the theory... very plausible."

"He must have known what they were planning, Priss. An operation like that takes years to put together, and he was intimately involved with every aspect of boomer development. I've been sitting here wondering just how he rationalized it. He always had such big dreams, big ideas..." She shook her head, and gave a choked laugh. "but this is a real whopper, even for him."

"Did he think maybe Genom was the best bet to start humanity toward off-world colonization? That would have met his criteria for 'greater good.' And maybe then he thought... just one city wasn't too big a price to pay?"

Priss felt unsteady. The enormity of what Sylia was saying... "Aw, Jesus."

Sylia shook her head slowly. A tear, the first of many, rolled down her cheek as she answered Priss in a hoarse whisper.

"No. Not hardly."


Well, that's Linna's story. I hope you all enjoyed it and think it was worth the wait. I have to thank Jeanne Hedge and Kakizake/Jubei for proofreading this monster. I also have to thank Geoclimber (Where ARE you?) for letting me steal the little scene in book one of Priss and Linna in her car from his "Bubblegum Climax: Free Fall." I just saw too much opportunity there for a Sweet Moment to let it pass by. I also have to thank Arcline (Austin Cline) for his German language assistance.

I've been told the ending(s) screams "SEQUEL!!!!" and, yes, I hope to get around to it sometime this year if you all think it would be worthwhile. But first, I have to finish a little idea I had that's more in the vein of my super-deformed fanfic, "Crossover Blues." How would famed voice actress Akiko Hiramatsu react if she awoke one day to find herself in the body of a buxom, red-haired ADPolice dispatcher? Coming soon to an RAAS near you--

Bubblegum Crisis: "Seiyuu Later, Astral Gater"

the pig
East Lansing, MI
1/23/96


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