|Jeanne Hedge <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Andy Skuse <email@example.com>
"Bubblegum Crisis", in its various anime incarnations to date, is
property of and copyright Artmic (R.I.P.), Youmex (R.I.P.), AIC, and
AnimEigo. "Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal" is property of and copyright
Dark Horse Comics.
"Into the Shadows" was written November 1997 - February 1998
Related works can be found at: http://www.jhedge.com
Into the Shadows
Jeanne Hedge &
11/97 - 2/98
The truth does not live in the light. Light is not truth. Light
can be manipulated to conceal the truth. To blind us. To trick us. To
divert our eyes away from what is really going on.
For me, the truth lives in the shadows.
To expose the truth, I must place my trembling hands into dark
corners, and step into the blackness wearing armor made from
knowledge, and a helm to shade my eyes from the light.
Like an unpolished sword still blackened by the forge, I will
fight the sun, and not shine.
Come what may....
1. DYING WISHES
The garage was almost silent, except for the low hum of slumbering
machinery. The light in my office spilled out through the doorway
into the darkened service bays, washing dimly over vehicles that
waited patiently to be whole again. Tiny red and blue power indicator
lights pierced the shadows along the back wall. In the distance, I
could hear the monotonous sounds of the factories that surrounded the
garage, as they continued to grind, rumble and churn through the
night. For me, the day was finally over, and all I wanted to do now
was rest my tired old bones. But I had a visitor, and she needed my
advice. My tired bones would have to wait.
"Sylia, why must you do this?" I finally replied. "Do you really
think your father would have approved?"
The young woman before me faltered for a moment. The pleading look
on her face quickly changed to one of seriousness as she considered
"Doctor Raven," she replied, her voice now reflecting her stern
gaze, "if my father would not have approved, then why did he provide
me with the information and tools to deal with the problem?"
Damn. That razor-sharp ability to reason that I had instilled in
her was coming back to haunt me.
As I stared out the doorway into the darkness to consider her
words, my aged eyes struggled to make out the discarded pieces of
rusting metal that lay strewn about the garage floor. And as I
thought hard about what I was going to say, my vision began to
deceive me. The twisted metal pieces and their shadows had somehow
altered their shapes, combining in the dim light to look a bit like
severed metallic limbs. A bright red fluid was seeping out of the
torn appendages, flowing out upon the garage floor towards me....
"Can't you see what they've done with his work?" she continued,
her anger now rising uncharacteristically to the surface.
She paused, and I could see the frustration in her eyes as she
struggled with her words.
"I can't wait any longer, Doctor. They've turned his grand designs
into schemes of greed, and I can't let it continue."
"Sylia...." I looked into her eyes again, wishing that she had
never received that damned data unit. But it was too late to change
that. My friend -- her father -- was gone, and the wisdom of his
wishes was getting harder to see each time that Sylia came to visit
me. She wasn't going to drop it.
I closed my eyes for a moment, then turned back to render my
anticipated reply, but my words were stolen from me. She was standing
beside my computer, her arms still folded across her chest in a
gesture of contained patience, her eyes still burning with defiance.
Schematic readouts and technical blueprints displayed themselves on
the computer's screen in a hypnotic sequence. Images that I had seen
many years ago. Abandoned by my reply, I looked away again, back into
the darkness of the garage. The severed robotic limbs I had seen
moments before were once again cold, rusted, lifeless, metal pieces,
the "blood" simply a dried oil stain.
Foolish old man. If only Katsuhito were here....
Fine. There was no way I was going to let her do this by herself.
She was bright -- very bright -- but _they_ would not hesitate for
even a second to silence anyone who opposed them. How many others had
died because of their ruthless determination? Someone had to do
something, but I did not want to lose her to _them_. I had already
lost one close friend....
I smiled bravely and took her hands in mine. "Sylia, if you must
do this, then I will not stop you...."
Her hard gaze altered slightly, but the determination in her eyes
"But," I continued, "you must do this right. Preparation,
planning, and teamwork will keep you from getting killed. You must--"
"Teamwork?" she blurted out, taking her hands from mine and
stepping away, turning her back to me. The tone of her voice went
cold. "This is my fight. I see no reason to--"
"Sylia, please listen to me. I know the young think they know
everything, but someone as bright as you are should know better. You
can't do this yourself. I want to help you. And I am sure that your
brother will not just sit by and watch. He will want to help too. You
know what he is like."
She nodded. Perhaps she was listening after all.
"And while you have inherited your father's research, as well as
his talent for making those ideas a reality, don't ever forget what
happened to him." I paused, trying to gauge her reaction. "He was
alone, Sylia, and he thought that he, too, could deal with the
problem himself. He was a great man, but great men, and great women,
can make mistakes. Please, don't make the same mistake that he did."
I wish I could have seen her face, but she remained turned away.
"Sylia, will you let me help you?"
After a few moments, she slowly nodded again.
"Good. Now, if you still believe that this is important to
She suddenly turned back, then crossed the room to embrace me, her
eyes bright with unshed tears. "Thank you," she whispered softly, and
then kissed me on the cheek. "I think I needed to hear that." She
broke the embrace and stepped back slightly, taking my hands in hers.
"And yes," she said, in a more normal voice, "it is still very
important to me."
I smiled. "Okay then, you will need to make some plans. I suggest
that the first thing you do is find someone to help you."
She looked up at me with a quizzical expression on her face. "But
you just said that you and Mackie would--"
"Yes," I replied, cutting her off, "We will help you. But I am an
old man, and Mackie is still a young boy. We can help you build
anything you need, but I think you might need more help than that.
What will you do when you are outnumbered? And believe me, they
_will_ outnumber you. That has been their strategy in business, and I
have no doubt it will be their strategy _outside_ of business."
Sylia slipped her hands out of mine, and took a few steps away
from me again, her right hand covering her mouth as she considered my
Finally she faced me again, her eyes burning fiercely now. "I
think, Doctor, that you may have a point."
2. THE CHOSEN ONES
It was over.
It was all over, and I had lost. I guess I shouldn't have tied
everything into this one last shot, one last audition. I was only
looking to be shot down.
As if I ever had a realistic chance to be a star in the first
place. Dance was my life, but it seemed now that devotion does not
always equal success.
I was sitting huddled in the spotlight, spending my last few
moments in its warmth while the Chosen Ones huddled around the
Producer, when I realized I was being watched. I looked up just as a
someone stepped from the darkened house to the edge of the spot
shining brightly onto the barren stage. Nice shoes, I thought.
I looked up from the red heels to see a tall, dark-haired woman
wearing a red business suit. Not too trendy, but definitely stylish,
in her own way. She took off her dark, wrap-around glasses and smiled
sadly at me.
"I'm sorry. I thought you did very well."
Someone turned off the spot and the stage lights, and the house
lights came up. I got up as well. "Thank you. I guess it wasn't good
enough, though." I was rather proud of myself for not letting it show
just how much it hurt.
She gave me that sad smile again.
Well, not letting it show too much, I guess.
"Yamazaki-san, I have a business proposition I would like you to
consider. May we go somewhere a bit more comfortable to talk about
"A business proposition? What sort of business?" I asked,
intrigued in spite of myself. Finding work this quickly would
definitely make today's misery bearable. And give me the opportunity
to continue eating. My bank balance was at a new low.
"I can't really discuss it here," she replied, looking around as
the other dancers began to gather their things and leave the stage.
One or two gave me gloating looks. "Perhaps at the coffee shop across
I considered things for a couple seconds. The thought of my nearly
non-existent bank balance forced the decision. "All right. I need to
clean up and change. I'll meet you there in fifteen minutes, OK?"
"Fifteen minutes, then," she agreed. Putting her glasses back on,
she turned and made her way back into the theater.
I realized then that I didn't know her name.
"Give me back my gun."
"Then at least give me my goddamned knife!"
"Asagiri-san, civilized people don't carry weaponry into public
I did a double take. Ms. High-and-Mighty Corporate Executive-type
runs me down, threatens me, does a full body search, threatens me,
takes my weapons, threatens me, takes me to this dive for coffee, and
then carries on about civilized behavior? Quite a few things didn't
add up. I was outta there.
"Look, lady, ain't been a very fuckin' good night. You ran me
down, wiped me out, and totaled my bike. I don't know who you are or
who you're working for, and for some reason you think I should trust
you. Well, listen up princess, I don't want anything to do with you
_or_ your damned business proposition!" Once again, I tried to get
up, and once again she tightened her grip on my wrist so I couldn't
"As I told you before, I'm unaffiliated," she said calmly, as if I
hadn't just finished yelling at her. "I'm certainly not involved with
Genom or any of the other multinationals. Let me have a few minutes
of your time to make my proposition, and then you can decide if you
want to participate or not. I think you'll find it worth your time."
Corporate power suit, dark glasses -- at night, yet -- and she
says she's not working for someone. Right. And I'm Batman. "Who the
fuck do you think you _are_?" If she thought she could _buy_ me, she
was in for a surprise.
"Someone who would like to keep certain... organizations from
trampling the rights of the common man. Interested?"
"Do-Gooders Anonymous?" I sneered. "Pass." I got up from the
table, and this time she didn't try to stop me. I guess she realized
I wasn't buying her line one bit. The entire set-up smelled anyway,
and I had to do something about my bike.
I started to walk away when she said, not loudly, but loud enough
that I could hear, "Don't you want your revenge, Priss?"
I turned around and stared at her. She gazed calmly back, eyes
hidden by the shades.
"Look what they've done to you. Your lover. Your entire life.
Think of what you had, and what you have now. This is your big chance
to get back at them without throwing what's left of your life away.
The only real chance you'll ever get."
Unwelcome scenes from the wreckage of my life flashed before my
eyes. It was all still too fresh, too raw. "You bitch," I whispered
under my breath, feeling the dampness on my cheeks. "You goddamn
"Please sit down, Priss." She asked, this time. "I really think
you'd be interested in what I have to say." She paused for a minute,
then took a sip from the cup of coffee that had sat untouched since
it was delivered. "Besides," she said into the cup, "you might find
that you and I have more in common than you think."
"So you need a hacker to help you take Genom down?"
"That's not what I said, Romanova-san."
"No, but it's what you meant." I grinned. I loved putting people
off-balance, and this lady was no exception: the look on her face was
priceless. Now, to find out what she was really after. "Why me?" I
asked, my question echoing her expression.
She just sat there for a minute, as if she was considering
something. Then she sighed, and said, "Of those who managed to crack
the code embedded in my electronic message, you are one of the few
who met the additional requirements necessary for the position."
Additional requirements? OK, I was game. "What additional
She stared at me again. Dead end question, I guess. Then she
changed the subject. "There will be some field work involved, and--"
"Cool! I get to be a spy!" Her sigh sounded a little exasperated
to me, so I decided I'd better tone it down a bit. I may like cute
things, but that doesn't make me stupid. "All right, all right. What
else?" I asked, holding my hands up in what I hoped was a placating
"You will need to improve your physical conditioning. You'll be
required to carry some of your equipment with you, and that will
require strength, stamina, and agility."
Conditioning? OK, I thought, I really need to go on a diet anyway.
She was watching me, so I nodded for her to go on.
"A certain amount of personal danger is also involved." Eh?!
_Personal_ danger? What does a hacker do that's personally dangerous?
Nothing, that's what. I like to daydream about it, but I guess I'm
not really cut out for a life of--
"And you're going to have to get a new job."
Now wait just a-- "But I like the job I have right now!" I
"Working behind the counter at an ice cream parlor is not
convenient." I think the lady was a little ticked off at me.
"Hey! It's convenient for me!"
"But not for me, and not for the business at hand." She got a very
serious look on her face, and took her dark sunglasses off. That
scared me a little. I've always heard the phrase "steely blue eyes."
Hers were brown, but the same thought applied.
She put the glasses into her bag, and her hand remained in the
bag. That scared me a lot. "Who _are_ you?"
"Don't misunderstand me, Romanova-san. This is not a game. Perhaps
I've told you too much as it is. I need a decision from you. Now."
What had I gotten into? "If I say yes, can I leave if I change my
mind?" I asked so quietly that I could barely hear my own words.
"It will be dealt with, if you change your mind."
I didn't like the sound of that either. On the other hand, she had
me cornered, in all meanings of the word. I thought about it for a
minute. I had thought this was a joke, but it had gotten way out of
hand. And I couldn't see any way out.
"All right. I'm in. What do you want me to do?"
The hand came out of her bag, and in it was a plain card, with a
handwritten address on it. "Be there tomorrow night, 22:00." Then she
handed me an envelope. "And be _here_ tomorrow morning, at 7:00, for
your pre-employment baseline testing and evaluation. The details are
in the envelope."
Pre-employment baseline testing? I guess my confusion must have
shown on my face, because as she stood to leave, she smiled. Very
slightly, but it _was_ a smile. I think.
"Welcome to the AD Police, Romanova-san."
I was dead.
3. THE ART OF WAR
21:45. In fifteen more minutes, I'd find out who was serious about
joining me, and who I was going to have to... deal with.
This had been too long in the planning to go wrong now, and I
wasn't about to let personnel matters slow things down. Over a year
on the equipment design and testing alone, and it still wasn't done.
But that time hadn't been wasted.
I'd taken some advice Dr. Raven had given me to heart, and had
gone back to school. Not just in the traditional sense, because I'd
done that too, but there are some things you don't learn in a
classroom. So in the guise of a 'round the world vacation, I traveled
and learned everything I could from the best I could find. Physical
training. Conventional military and urban guerrilla tactics. Team
tactics. Weapon systems and armaments. Command and Control. The
quickest and best ways to disarm, injure, and kill. Field medicine.
The Zen of the Battlefield.
And in my spare time, I was closeted with Dr. Raven and Mackie,
adapting the equipment I hoped to one day use to what I had learned
during my newly gained experiences.
But now we were at a crossroads. The designs could go no further
until we knew exactly who would use the designs. For months I had had
several people under observation and investigation, and I chose who I
thought best from among those. In one case I had to nudge events a
little to make her more receptive to my proposal, but in the end all
agreed to join me.
Now it was time to find out if they actually would.
And then we could get on with the business of finishing the
equipment and training the team. My team.
Still ten minutes to go. I took the time to go through their files
one last time. As if the contents weren't already seared into my
memory. Linna Yamazaki: - Born 20 October, 2012. - Part-time dance
instructor at Phoebe's Phitness Emporium. - International
competition-level expert in Tai Chi Chuan - Parents deceased, 2027,
result of an uncontrolled boomer. - Lived with relatives until she
completed high school. - Accepted to three universities after high
school. - Career choice: to become a professional dancer. - Still
trying to break out of chorus roles. - Extravagant tastes, without
the financial backing to support them.
If one word described Yamazaki, I thought, it would be
'dilettante'. She'd never stuck with anything for very long in her
entire life, be it job, hobby, or man. I wondered if she could stick
with this. I glanced at her banking records again and smiled.
Yamazaki was designated to be the Close Combat Specialist. The one
to get in quickly, do the job, and get out quicker. Next in the queue
was Priscilla Asagiri: - Born 27 May, 2013. - Small-time singer in
the band 'Priss and the Replicants'. - Former bike gang member. -
Minor criminal record related to her gang activities. - Parents
deceased, 2025, in the Quake. - Senior high school dropout. - Lived
in an orphanage, ran away on average once/month. - Moved in with
leader of her gang when she finally left the orphanage. - Lover died
just last week. She blames Genom for it. - Now living in an abandoned
refrigeration trailer in District 3.
Why did I go after her? She'd lost everything that had ever been
dear to her, and she was definitely not thinking straight. She was
going to be nothing but trouble and I really didn't have time for it.
She had already tried to kill me once; I would need to watch my back.
But if I could direct her rage at the world to more appropriate
But I was going to have to do something to get, and _keep_, her
under control, and do it right away. Asagiri was the designated Point
because of her street knowledge and skills, and Point has to keep her
I closed the file and opened the next. And smiled. Nene Romanova:
- Born 31 August, 2014. - Counter girl at Yoshiro's Ice Cream Parlor.
- Self-taught computer hacker, extraordinaire. - Ran away from home
due to oppressive family life. - Senior high school dropout due to
boredom with course work.
This girl was going to be the key player in this organization, I
thought. If someone didn't kill her over this 'cute' bit of hers
first. She was not really a fighter, in the physical sense, not like
the other two. But she was smart, a _lot_ smarter than she lets on.
She had to be, with the kind of Electronic Intelligence and
Electronic Warfare work she was going to be doing.
I was going to have to watch her when it comes to the tech,
though. She was likely to--
The buzz of an alarm interrupted my musings, and I glanced at my
wristwatch. Five more minutes. I closed Romanova's file, then tied
into the live security scans.
And there they were. Romanova was getting out of a cab, just in
front of Yamazaki's car, parked at the curb out front. No sign yet of
Asagiri. Well, she still had five minutes....
An eternity if you were faced with your own destruction. Even a
few seconds could mean the difference between life and death in
combat. All the movies I had ever seen in which someone was fatally
injured had lied. People don't die within seconds of being shot or
stabbed. They writhe. They struggle. They clutch at their wounds
disbelieving. They gasp for air through blood-choked lungs. They
fight the inevitable. Dying is never the quick and relatively
painless event that Hollywood has portrayed. I learned this fact when
I embarked on the journey that took me around the world, to learn how
to fight -- and how to survive.
I had trained hard at home prior to the trip, conditioning myself
and getting my body into top shape. I had studied satellite maps of
the various regions. I had purchased the best equipment that was
available and then had it customized to my specifications. I believed
that I was as prepared as I could be. I was wrong. All the exercise
and expensive custom equipment in the world did not prepare me for
the kinds of conditions I would face outside MegaTokyo's cement
Rain-soaked forests, swamps, mountains, and deserts opposed me to
the point that I very nearly gave up. But each time my body cried out
for me to end its misery, I thought of my father. I thought of the
gun. I thought of the man who pulled the gun's trigger, ending my
father's life. My body learned to obey my will, no matter how raw my
hands and feet got, or how badly every muscle ached. I would finish
this, no matter what.
Then came the trip to a _real_ jungle.
I can remember the silence, but for the snapping of a huge fire.
Two dozen angry painted faces suddenly staring directly at us, their
sacred hunting ritual rudely interrupted by outsiders. My breathing
The hunt began.
We did not sleep that night. We had to keep moving or find a
hiding place and hope they did not find us. One by one, my group was
systematically separated, then picked off one by one by the silent
The memory of that night always reminds me of stories I had read
of shipwreck survivors in the Pacific. Those that had survived the
sinking ended up clinging to what was left of their ships as they
waited to be rescued. Sharks picked them off in the night, one by
one, leaving each survivor to wonder if he would be next. And as my
companions and I hid under a fallen tree amid an ocean of green and
black, the sharks circled around us silently, the quiet pierced only
by random gunfire, or an occasional scream as another of our
Four of us left. And the sharks were getting closer. I would not
die there in the jungle. I could not. And I would not let my
companions die. We made a plan and we swore to each other that we
would follow it to the letter. Armed with one high-powered rifle that
was low on ammo, three handguns, and four hunting knives, we faced
the sharks, come what may....
I can still see their faces.
I can still hear their screams.
I shook myself from my reverie and checked the time again.
Hm. Asagiri was going to be late....
4. WITH AN IRON HAND
We were led to a small room at the back of a surprisingly clean
looking garage. I looked through the door, feeling nervous in spite
of myself. The room appeared to be some sort of office/conference
room. A desk, with a laptop computer and an old-style audio-only
telephone resting atop it, had been pushed off to the side. A small
table next to it held a hot water thermos, a small collection of
cups, a teapot, instant coffee, and tea. In the center of the room
was a collapsible square game table, with a chair tipped forward
against each side. A small sofa rested against the far wall.
I glanced back at the girl who had introduced herself as Linna
Yamazaki. She appeared a little anxious herself. I hoped I looked
calmer than she did. She gave me a sickly smile, then stepped around
me and into the room.
The point of no return, I thought.
Taking a deep breath, I entered and joined her on the sofa. We
both watched as our hostess followed us into the room, softly closing
the door behind her. "Tea? Or coffee, perhaps?" she asked as she
walked over to the thermos. "I must apologize," she added, "the
coffee is instant."
Linna and I both asked for tea, and the lady poured three cups.
"Thank you for coming," she said as she turned back to us. "My name
The telephone rang, interrupting her. She picked it up and
listened for a few seconds, said, "Yes, send her in," then hung up
the phone. "A moment, please," she apologized as she turned to the
The door burst open, and in walked this... creature. Well, not
walked. Stomped would be more like it. Dirty black motorcycle gear
with yellow trim, and oily, tangled brown hair wild about her head,
and a cigarette dangled from her lips. The room was suddenly
permeated with the smell of gasoline and alcohol. She looked like
something that just crawled from under a rock. This person had been
asked to be here?
Our nameless hostess was not amused. "I said 22:00, not 22:10."
"I'm here, ain't I?" She reeked of attitude too, all of it bad.
When she flipped her cigarette to the floor without using her hands,
then ground it out with her boot's heel, I thought Linna looked as if
she was in shock. I _know_ I was.
"When I tell you to be somewhere at a certain time, I expect you
to be there at that time, if not before. I also said no alcohol. No
alcohol, no drugs, no criminal activity."
"I'm clean," came the sullen reply.
The lady sniffed the air and raised an eyebrow, looking at her
measuringly for a moment. She then turned back to Linna and me,
leaving the "wild woman" standing behind her.
"This is our fourth team member, Priscilla Asagiri. And as I
started to say, before we were so rudely interrupted, my name is
Sylia Stingray. My late father was Katsuhito Stingray, creator of
what are commonly known as Boomers. Eight years ago, employees of the
Genom Corporation murdered him, destroyed his laboratory, took his
work, and perverted his dream. Genom now runs roughshod over the city
and is moving rapidly toward world domination.
"The four of us are going to make sure they don't succeed."
"Any questions, ladies?" After speaking non-stop for nearly an
hour, Sylia Stingray finally sat in one of the chairs surrounding the
card table in the center of the room. She looked... expectant, maybe?
Like she thought we would be bursting with questions about her mad
scheme to bring down one of the largest multi-national corporations
in the world.
Questions? Yeah, I had them. But my head was spinning and I
couldn't begin to think where to begin.
Poor Nene, sitting beside me on the couch. She'd gone pale about
five minutes into Sylia's monologue. I don't know what she was
expecting, but I'm sure it wasn't this.
A special operations team, to fight boomers and put a crimp in
Genom's style. The combat bit wasn't an original idea; that's what
the AD Police was for. But then again, look at where that's gotten
the AD Police.
Priss, leaning against the closed door, had a funny look on her
face, a crazy glint in her eyes. I suddenly realized that she was
looking forward to what we'd unknowingly walked into. I shuddered
inside. Did she have some sort of death wish? This could make us all
very dead very quickly, boomers or not.
"Well, since you have no questions right now, I'll go on. I'm sure
questions will come to you later." Sylia sounded disappointed.
"These are the rules under which the Knight Sabers Organization
will conduct its business." She looked at all of us in turn as she
removed a small card from her jacket pocket. "I expect you to follow
them to the letter."
"Rule number one: Do not divulge any information concerning this
organization. This means you do not tell anyone _anything_ about this
organization or your activities within it. You will not let anyone
know this organization exists."
Seemed fair enough to me. We were supposed to be secret, after
"Rule number two: Do not act upon a personal grudge. Life can be
unfair, and unpleasant things happen. But don't get the organization
I wondered why she was looking directly at Priss when she said
"Rule number three: Do act upon the mutual consent of all the
members. This means that everyone must agree on an overall plan of
action before we begin an activity.
"Rule number four: Do not secede from this organization." She
looked at each of us in turn, but it seemed like she looked at me
longest of all. I tried to look back, but ended up dropping my eyes.
How did she know I was having second thoughts about this already?
"Rule number five: Members are personally responsible for any
damage done to the organization's equipment unless that damage was
Sounded expensive. But what defined 'unavoidable'?
I was here to wipe Genom off the map and kill boomers, not be
preached at with a bunch of lame rules. But Sylia continued to drone
"Rule number six: Do not divulge any information concerning our
clients. The identity of our clients is need-to-know. Do not be
surprised if you don't always know who our client is."
Who the fuck cared about clients? I wanted Genom.
"Rule number seven: Do not gather information on your own. The
task of intelligence-gathering is to be distributed evenly among all
"Rule number eight: Do keep in contact with the other members
Shit. Just how many of these things _were_ there, anyway?
"Rule number nine: The members do not know each other outside of
Wait a minute! How do you keep in contact with someone you're not
supposed to know? "Hey, uh...." I tried to break into her little
speech, but she went on over me.
"Rule number ten: Do not get involved with a man."
Staring at Yamazaki again. Hmmm... this could be interesting.
"And finally, Rule number eleven: The penalty for violating any of
the ten regulations listed above is death." She looked around at us
again. "And it _will_ be enforced."
I stared at her. Just who did this bitch think she was? Yeah, she
was offering me the one thing I wanted most in the world, but this
There was a thump, and I looked over at the sofa. Romanova had
I descended the stairs into a smoky haze and a flood of memories.
Memories of alcohol induced laughter, sadness over lost friends, and
late nights. Memories of wasted time and energy. The place hadn't
changed much. Same dim lighting, same claustrophobic atmosphere, and
the same awkward quiet, like I was being watched from a dark corner.
I made my way past the billiard tables, sat down at the bar, and lit
a cigarette. And waited. "White wine please."
Suddenly there was a voice behind me. A voice that sounded as if
the speaker had been sitting in a dark corner a moment ago.
"It's been a while, Sylia."
I looked into the mirror behind the bar to see him standing
directly behind me, a cigarette in his left hand, blonde hair
disheveled. He hadn't changed one bit since that ill-fated trip to
Colombia, where we'd first bumped into each other. Maybe if he combed
his hair once in a while he could be considered handsome. By some
"Please, have a seat, Fargo. I'm paying this time."
He laughed as he sat down next to me, that same unnerving
too-quiet chuckle that used to make me think he was laughing at me.
He really hadn't changed.
"Thanks, Sylia. Very kind of you."
He made a quick gesture to the bartender, to which he received a
I smiled and tapped my cigarette into the ashtray between us. "I
thought you said you never stayed in one place long enough to become
too familiar with the locals?"
The laugh again, this time with a smile. "Well, I suppose the
jungle and a bar are similar in some ways." He continued looking
straight ahead, gazing off into space. "Something about this place
keeps me coming back though. Good times and memories maybe? Speaking
of which, how are Rob and Sarah these days?"
"Married. Didn't you get their letter?"
"Maybe... Married eh?"
"Huh. I don't know why I'm surprised. After all," he turned to
look at me, "nearly getting killed in the jungle is enough to drive
two people into each other's arms."
I said nothing. Hmm, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
The bartender returned with our drinks, looking expectedly at
Fargo. Before I could protest, the bartender was walking away with a
"I thought you'd given up, Fargo."
He smiled again. "And I thought you never wanted to see me again."
Hadn't changed.... not one damn bit.
"Okay, look, I asked you here to discuss business. That's all. If
you want to reminisce about your romantic past, then I suggest you
That laugh again.
"I need some information, Fargo. I need someone who can get inside
He stopped laughing and took a long drag on his cigarette, then
turned and gave me a dark look. "I see you've done your homework.
This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain accident from your
past, would it?"
"I see. I hope you're not thinking of doing something stupid,
Sylia. You already know that they play hardball at the Tower."
I took a sip of my wine before speaking. "I think you know me
better than that."
"Ah yes, always prepared for anything. Okay then. What can I do
I ordered him another drink, and this time I made sure that he
5. FRIENDLY FIRE
I had planned from the outset to get the Knight Sabers used to
working together by appointing each of them an expert in certain
areas, with the "expert" responsible for the basic training of the
others in that area. Since Asagiri, and especially Romanova, needed
to increase their level of physical conditioning, this seemed the
perfect place to begin.
So the two of them went on a month-long intensive physical
conditioning program, with Yamazaki in charge. I thought that as a
professional fitness instructor, she would be used to helping people
through activities they had trouble with, and would encourage them
and work with them until they _could_ perform whatever exercise they
were doing, and do it well.
After two days I realized I might have made a serious mistake.
Maybe Yamazaki was that way with her clients, but not here. She
and Asagiri seemed to have developed a mutual dislike for each other.
They reminded me of a pair of Alpha wolves, trying to establish
dominance by snapping at each other at every opportunity. And
Yamazaki took advantage of her temporary status as instructor to
drive Asagiri beyond reason during the classes.
That Asagiri was able to handle almost everything Yamazaki put her
through seemed to make Yamazaki push her even further. I cringed to
think what Asagiri would do to her when the time came to learn how to
_really_ handle a motorcycle, and they switched roles as instructor
And Romanova was caught in the middle of it. They were both all
over her, the big dogs picking on the runt of the litter. She became
slow and tentative about everything, and, unfortunately, she usually
failed at whatever she tried. She proved to be even less adept during
the weaponry familiarization course than she was at physical
activities. She was trying, that was true, but she just couldn't seem
to get the hang of things.
And neither of them let her forget it. She started relying more
and more on trying to charm her way out of things, but that just
seemed to irritate them more, making it worse. Yamazaki called it
'The Attack of the Over-Cute,' which reduced Mackie to embarrassed
blushes when he heard about it. Some ancient hentai anime reference,
Fortunately, things were going much better for her with the ADP,
where, as arranged, she was training as a Communications Specialist.
But with the Knight Sabers, the only time she seemed to be the same
person I recruited was when she was working alone, dealing with the
computers and learning about the electronics she would be working
with. The rest of the time she suffered in silence, her
self-confidence almost gone.
I didn't want to get involved with it. With them. They were going
to have to work together, but that didn't mean they had to like each
other. They weren't supposed to be friends anyway -- that would be
disastrous to organizational security.
I already knew she wasn't a fighter, not in the physical sense,
and had planned for that accordingly. That was part of what the rest
of us were for: to buy her time to do her electronics work relatively
As long as Romanova was able to fulfill her assigned function
within the Organization, I decided to let them sort it out between
Weapons loaded and in hand, we got our final instructions. Me
against Yamazaki. I was going to kick her sorry ass all over the
"All right, _ladies_," Sylia said. Did she always have to
emphasize 'ladies' like that? "This will be the final match for
today. The same rules as in your earlier matches apply: reach the
objective, recover the target, and return with it to your base. If
your opponent has already recovered the target, you are expected to
take it from her and return with it to your base. You have twenty
minutes to complete the assignment."
She took my weapon from me and checked the status readout on the
side, above the trigger guard, gave it back, then did the same with
Yamazaki's. "The batteries are fully recharged, so be careful of your
target. I don't want any unnecessary injuries. Being hit by a pellet
at full charge will not be a pleasant experience."
"I'll say," Nene muttered, rubbing her butt. Hey, it was the only
way I could get her to _move_ in the two-on-two game. Jeez.... talk
about useless. There's got to be _some_ reason she's still around. I
mean, _everyone's_ beat her at this. And at everything else we've
But I knew about pellets too, courtesy of the Ice Queen, and it
was pretty embarrassing. But she seemed to think that playing
capture-the- flag with weapons that fired electric pellets would
"prove to you that, despite what you may think, this is not a game"
faster than a standard paintball game would. Got _my_ attention,
that's for sure.
At least I lasted longer than that slut did against the Boss. What
did she think she was doing, with those stupid backflips?
"Asagiri! Did you hear what I said?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure," I lied, putting my brain into instant-replay
mode, trying to figure out just what she _had_ said while I was
enjoying the memory of Yamazaki's fiasco. A quick glance showed
Yamazaki taking her body armor off, so I decided maybe I should be
doing the same.
I got Stare Number 137 from Stingray-sama, and Nene snickered.
"Shut up, Nene-_chan_," I said in my best mock-sweet voice. "Unless
_you'd_ like to do this instead."
"That's enough," Sylia said, a bit of warning in her own voice.
"I'm not in the habit of repeating myself, but I want you and your
friend there," she looked over at Yamazaki, "to be perfectly clear
about this. I am _not_ going to have someone hurt themselves, or
someone else, due to stupidity. But I also know that when the match
starts, the two of you are going to try to continue this little
_game_ you've been playing with each other, regardless of what I say
Yamazaki lifted one eyebrow as she gazed at me, and smiled.
"Furthest thing from my mind."
"Yeah, right," I snorted in reply.
"So, to discourage some of your dumber moves, neither of you will
wear body armor or helmets in this match. Perhaps an increased risk
of personal injury will slow you down."
Sure it will.
Sylia took a deep breath. If she were a normal person, I'd almost
think she regretted what she was about to say. "The only safety gear
you may wear during this match are goggles and gloves. No body armor,
no helmets, no insulating mesh. If you get hit, you'll receive the
full charge of the pellet. If you jump off a structure or out of a
tree, you have nothing to pad you but what God gave you.
"Remember," she continued, "I want to see basic ground tactics,
not Tarzan impersonations. Now take your starting positions, and wait
for the signal."
Yamazaki headed off toward her base, and I started toward mine.
Keep smiling, toots. I'm gonna wipe it right off your face.
She had to be around here somewhere.
I was making good time, considering my leg was still tingling. At
least it wasn't numb anymore. Her aim never had been as good as she
thought it was, and it certainly showed this time. But even that
graze had me totally down for thirty seconds, and still moving slowly
three minutes later. And it _hurt_.
But I had a good idea which way she was going. She'd used the same
route against Nene and had tried to use it against Sylia. Before she
was utterly humiliated, that is. And she'd gone that way again in the
Sylia wasn't the only one who could deal out humiliation. That
bitch was gonna pay double for sneaking up and shooting me, and then
taking the target.
Taking the same route twice was a dumb move, especially for
someone who was supposed to be 'street smart.' Four times in a row
was sheer idiocy. Obviously she hadn't been paying attention when we
discussed basic tactics and not falling into patterns. Did she really
think no one would notice?
So I was ready for her when she came trotting up, glancing
occasionally over her shoulder. I don't think she ever considered
that she should be looking ahead too.
I stepped onto the path in front of her, and the look on her face
was priceless. I guess I was a bit too confident, though. She got off
the first shot. I dove for the ground, and when I looked up she was
heading into the brush. So I shot her. In the back. Three times.
She dropped like a stone.
Levering myself back to my feet, I limped over to where she'd gone
down so I could take the target and head back in the other direction.
She'd gone down, all right. There was a two meter drop, and when
she'd fallen she'd gone over the edge.
I slid down the slope and walked over to where she lay, arms and
legs akimbo. She was scratched up from the brush, muddy, and looked a
little dazed, but the soft ground of the creek bed had cushioned her
fall a little. Her weapon was gone.
Safe enough. I knelt next to her and reached into her pocket,
recovering the target. But when I got up to leave, something about
the look on her face made me turn back. "Are you OK?"
Liar. "Are you sure?"
She closed her eyes, ignoring me. Be that way. I started to walk
I had only gone a couple meters when heard her mumble something.
"I can't... can't feel my legs."
Oh shit, my mind kept repeating as I walked back over to her.
"It's probably just the pellets," I suggested, trying to be
"You sure? It didn't feel like this before."
"Sure I'm sure." I hoped. "Look, you shot me, and I'm fine now.
It'll wear off in a minute. You should know that by now." Of course,
right about then my leg decided it wanted to take a nap, and folded
up on me. I crashed down into the mud beside her.
"Fine, huh?" There seemed to be a glint of laughter amid the pain
on her face.
"Fine," I repeated as I shoved myself up to a sitting position,
then scooted into a little less... squishy... position. "Quite a pair
we make, huh?"
She didn't answer that, just lay there. After a bit, my leg
stopped hurting so much. I thought again about taking off, finishing
the match. For some reason, I really didn't want to leave just yet.
"I think I can feel them a little bit, now," she offered after a
few minutes of silence.
"Great! See, I told you it wasn't anything." Thank God.
"Yeah." More silence. "Nice shot," she muttered grudgingly. I
think this was the first time I'd heard her compliment anyone.
"Yours too." It wasn't a kind lie either, I realized.
"But you didn't have to shoot me in the back." Ah, the qualifier.
"You would have."
"Probably," she agreed.
More silence. Asagiri tried to sit up, didn't quite make it,
ignored my arm when I offered it.
"You know, you're not too bad at this stuff," I said hesitantly.
Where did _that_ come from? But I knew it was true. Today was full of
She looked as surprised as I felt. "You too."
The ceiling appeared, then quickly vanished.
UFF! Uhhhhhhh... the mat again. Hello Mr. Mat.
"Did you see her fly Linna?! Just like a baby bird falling out of
You'd think they'd get bored of making fun of me. Ohhhh, my back
"Keep that up Nene, and you'll make all the boomers dizzy while
they flip you over their backs!"
"Oh yeah?!" I shot back.
Ever since 'The Great Pellet War of 2031' ended in mutual
annihilation a couple months back, the two of them had become, well,
not best friends but definitely more relaxed with each other. But as
usual, what was good for Sylia's team had a downside. Now that they
weren't constantly trying to one-up the other, they were teaming up
to pick on me.
The terrible twosome stepped forward, the light vanishing as they
bent over me. "Yes?" Priss said, her voice taking on a nasty tone.
"You have something else to say then?"
I turned onto my stomach to get up, my reply barely a whisper,
"WHAT?" Priss freaked.
"Did you hear what she called me? APE WOMAN!"
"Yeah. Well, Priss," Linna replied, "sometimes you can be a bit--"
"A BIT WHAT?! Go ahead! I'd like to hear this!"
Things couldn't get much worse... who was I kidding?
6. TRIAL AND ERROR
The thick metal door swung open into the darkness with a fluid
ease. As my eyes slowly adjusted, myriad arrays of tiny lights began
to emerge, some blinking rhythmically while others burned steadily in
silent contrast. The artificially induced chill of the room swept
over me as I stepped inside. A random pattern of soft electronic
chirps met my ears, combining with the many grids of light to create
the illusion of some sleeping machine, waiting patiently to be
roused. With the flick of a switch, the machine was awakened from its
slumber, and the room was awash in dim fluorescent light.
After closing the door and locking it behind me, I began the
routine of checking the hardsuit power regulators. Power on-line, all
monitoring systems initializing. Nice and quick too. That's good to
see. Mackie seems to have locked down the energy leak. What would I
do without him.... Now, let's see how well they took their charges.
Doors.... Where's the--? Ah. Open....
Stepping away from the main console, I entered the suit storage
area where four white armored suits hung on metal hooks on the wall,
ready and waiting. White. The color of purity. In some cultures, the
color of good. And in others, the color of death.
Not that that meant anything in this case. It was the only color
that had stood up to the temperature extremes tests. Final color
schemes for the suits could wait until after the preliminary testing
Ok, next step: inspect each of the suits using the onboard
diagnostics center. Display bezel initialization: Check. Display
alignment: Ok, Mackie said to wait for the cross-hairs to...
check. Comm Link: Hello? Testing! Check. Environmental status:
22.2 degrees Celsius. O2 levels: Full. Jet ports: ...check. Damn
those are loud! May have to work on that. Armor integrity: 100%.
Weapon Configuration: Check. Currently unarmed and off-line. SUIT
SYSTEM STATUS: READY.... GO SIS!
As I continued to inspect the suits, I actually began to feel a
little nervous. My gaze shifted away from the lockers, and I took a
long look around me. All the hours, all the work, all of this
technology, all of the money spent.... It was finally a reality. But
would the suits work? Would they protect us from whatever _they_
might throw at us? What would happen if the suits failed? What if
someone was _killed_? This whole thing was starting to sound pretty
crazy. I wonder what father would say if he could see me now.
Ok, stop it right now. We've done the homework. There was no
turning back now. It was time for us to--
Hm, interesting. When did I start using "us" and "we" all the
All right, let's get started here. Everything looks go. The soft-
suit relays are up and running, so let's see how the hard-suit--
A knock at the door.... At this hour?
"Just a moment," I called out.
The door swung open. Doctor Raven stood in the doorway blinking.
"Why is it so damn dark in here? Did Mackie forget to install the
rest of the lights?"
I could not help but smile. "No, I asked him not to. Please
Doctor, come in. I'm just about to try mine out."
Raven-hakase took a few tentative steps then shut the door behind
him, mumbling something to himself about the darkness as he entered
the room and looked over the console. As soon as his eyes had
adjusted to the dim light, he looked at me studiously.
"So how does the softsuit feel?" he asked.
"Fine. I was worried that the wiring harness might be
uncomfortable, but I can't feel the ribbon cables at all."
"I'm glad you stopped by Professor. I think I'm going to need some
"Oh?" he replied. "Help with what? Are you going to test them
"Yes. Well, just mine for now."
"Hmm. Did Mackie sort out that power leak yet?"
"Did he manage to isolate that overload in the main redundancy
power relay for the weapon selection processor?"
While the Doctor continued to look over the console's readouts in
the main room, I went back into the suit storage area and studied my
own hard suit more carefully this time. For the initial testing
phase, the suits would be without weapons. This was not an easy call
to make, as the added weight would require further adjustments when
the advanced testing took place later, but I did not want any
accidents at this phase of the project. One step at a time. But each
suit did have all of its environmental and communication systems up
and running. Working out the bugs in those two areas would keep us
busy enough until the weapon testing stage.
Now, let's see if all of my efforts to customize the suit to the
wearer's dimensions were worth the trouble.
Reaching up, I lifted my suit off the hook that held it upright.
Although I bore the full, dead weight of it for only a few moments, I
realized then that I was going to have to either develop a better
storage method or lighten the suits. Someone who was tired or
injured, or simply not physically strong enough, would never be able
to manage manipulating a hardsuit into the boarding position.
Once on the floor, the suit slowly slumped downward and folded out
like an X, exposing the interior and allowing easy entry. I reached
inside and placed my hand flat against the inner walls of the leg
armor. Nice and cool. Well, the environment controls seemed to be
working properly. With a short hop, I raised my right leg and then
stepped down into the suit firmly. Raising my left leg, I adjusted my
balance and attempted to step down, only to find that the suit was
about to topple over. I instinctively reached back with my left hand
and grasped for a hand-hold on the wall to steady my balance. My
forward tumble abruptly halted, and I looked back to see what I had
grabbed to stop my fall. In my hand was the right forearm of the hard
suit next to me. I looked towards the console area to see Doctor
Raven grinning at me knowingly.
"You see?" he said as he continued to smile. "Teamwork!"
I was too embarrassed to laugh.
After finally managing to get both legs into the suit, I pulled up
on the handles at each side. I then leaned forward into the upper
half of the suit and inserted my arms and hands. The suit's sensors
immediately kicked into gear, and an array of latches, internal and
external, made their connections automatically. I then leaned back
again to complete the whole process, the latches at the sides and
back of the suit securing themselves to the front with reassuring
clicks. Hmm, it was snug all right, but it didn't feel too
restrictive. I raised my arms experimentally a few times, then tested
the flexibility of the leg armor. Even better range of motion than
I'd estimated. Stepping away from the wall, I walked around the room
a bit, getting a feel for the entire range of motion, and to adjust
to the extra weight.
It was strangely exhilarating. The light pressure of the armor
plating all around my body suddenly gave me a sensation of
invincibility. Immediately I could sense that I had control over an
incredible amount of power, as the various motion circuits reacted to
my movements. As I continued to move around the room, Doctor Raven
suggested I test the load bearing abilities of the suit. Eyeing a
stack of large, empty packing crates that had given myself, Mackie,
and Priss a short workout earlier in the day, I planted my feet in
front of the nearest one and shoved hard towards the far wall. The
sound of splintering wood filled the room as the crates disintegrated
against the wall. Damn! This was incredib--
"Sylia... is that smoke?!"
I looked down frantically. "Where? Where do you see it?!"
Everything happened so fast. Suddenly Doctor Raven was beside me,
trying to help me get the suit off as a thin stream of smoke drifted
lazily out of a vent at the top of my right thigh. I tried to remain
calm, but the latch release switches in the handles were not
responding. My hands scrambled over the exterior of the suit, trying
to find the manual release for the latches that were holding me
prisoner as the burning circuitry inside my suit began to radiate its
heat inwards against my leg.
"The latches are stuck! Mackie! Get Mackie!"
Doctor Raven fumbled with the latches for a moment longer, then
ran to the console intercom.
"Mackie! Get in here! NOW!"
The smoke was starting to get pretty serious, as was the heat
against my leg. I coughed as I continued to struggle to free myself,
but the latches were locked tight, and the release switches would not
respond. Think Sylia, think...
I suddenly felt two hands grasp the release handles and shove
upwards simultaneously. Hard. The suit collapsed downward around my
legs, causing me to fall forward onto the floor. Instinctively, I
closed my eyes and kicked out to push myself clear of the burning
"Grab the fire extinguisher, Doc! Hurry!"
"It's okay, Sis. You're all right now."
I opened my eyes. Ten feet away, the white hardsuit lay on the
ground, the lower half now engulfed in flames.
As Mackie helped me to my feet, Doctor Raven reappeared with a
fire extinguisher and quickly doused the fire, but the smoke
continued to drift up into the ceiling long after the flames had
I stood for a long time, staring at the charred hardsuit,
contemplating how close I came to getting seriously injured. A quick
inspection of my right leg showed that I had escaped with a minor
burn. Fire. I had thought of everything--ballistic impact tests,
laser pulse absorption rates, even water immersion. But fire... how
could I have overlooked something so simple?
He looked up at me as he wrestled with the first aid kit. "Yeah
My hands were still trembling. "Thank you, little brother."
He said nothing. Just smiled.
Teamwork indeed, Raven-hakase.
7. GRAND DESIGNS
"Hi!" I called out as I strolled into the briefing room. I hadn't
felt so good about myself in ages, and I guess my elation showed.
Even _Priss_ realized something was up.
"You're cheerful tonight, Nene-chan. What happened, you finally
find yourself a new "Hello Kitty" bento box?" Priss was lounging on
the couch in our small meeting room, cigarette burning in the ashtray
balanced on her chest.
"No I did not! And even _you_ can't spoil my good mood this time,
Ape-woman, so don't even try. I'll have you know that I qualified on
the pistol range today!" It had taken a lot of practice, time I'd
rather have spent on other things, but I'd finally done it! Sylia was
going to be _so_ happy when she heard. Qualified, I could assist
Field Investigations, and she'd been wanting me to have legitimate
reasons to snoop around into things that _weren't_ in the ADP
Priss snickered. "Look out world, Nene-chan's got a gun! Just be
sure you don't shoot yourself with it."
Before I could think of a comeback, the conference room door
banged open, bouncing back off its hinges. "What's up?" Linna walked
through the door and across the conference area, flopping into a
chair at the table, kicking her omnipresent gym bag underneath.
"Just waiting for Sylia," Priss replied as she stubbed out the
cigarette and joined her at the table. "Hey Nene-chan, use some of
that energy to get us some coffee. None of that canned shit, either.
The real stuff."
Hmph! I heard Priss laugh and then begin talking with Linna. I
think Linna was giving her grief again over her smoking. _I'd_ like
to give her some grief, that's for sure, but she never takes me
seriously. Someday I'm going to show her that I'm not useless, like
she thinks I am. Like _both_ of them think I am.
I finished pouring the coffee, including one for myself, carried
the three cups back to the table and sat down. Linna glanced at
Priss, this sly look on her face. Uh-oh. I think I liked it better
when they were trying to kill each other instead of working together
to pick on me.
"So what's this good news that's got you so happy, Nene-chan?" A
set-up, I'm sure, but no telling what Priss told her.... "Are they
handing out free ice cream samples outside? You'd better watch your
waistline, if you want to fit into one of those suits Sylia has been
"Now wait just--"
"Speaking of suits," Sylia interrupted from the doorway, "if
you'll follow me, there are a few things I'd like to show you this
evening." We all jumped a little, startled. None of us heard her come
in. How does she _do_ that? Mirrors? She turned, and disappeared down
Linna and Priss got up and followed, but Priss turned back at the
door. "Better hope those suits come in larger sizes, Nene-_chan_."
"Romanova-san! Asagiri-san! Where are you?"
Priss just grinned and headed off. "Coming!"
"Questions, ladies? Comments?"
I was pretty impressed, despite myself. It was obvious a lot of
thought had gone into these 'hard suits' Sylia and Doctor Raven had
designed. I thought we'd get to try them out, but Sylia said there
had been some 'technical difficulties,' and they weren't quite ready
yet. Instead she'd been boring us with the technical specifications.
Quite important to know, I'm sure, but not when I'm tired.
"Hey Sylia, how come Nene-chan doesn't have any weapons in her
suit? Since she's an expert shot now, she can show us all how it's
"Yes, congratulations on your qualification, Romanova-san. In
addition to increasing your value to the AD Police, it will be a
great asset to our organization." Priss looked a little deflated at
Sylia's praise of Nene. I don't think she intended for her wisecrack
to lead to a compliment. Nene just smiled, proud of herself.
Justifiably so, I'd say. Nene can be OK. Sometimes.
"There will be weapons installed in all the suits," Sylia
continued, addressing all of us, "but not until initial testing is
completed. Because of the power drain caused by the onboard
electronics suite, Romanova-san's suit will carry purely defensive
weaponry only. Everyone else will have a range of offensive and
defensive weaponry installed in their suits."
"That means we'll have to watch out for her as well as ourselves
_and_ carry out the job as well, right?" I asked.
That's one thing I like about Sylia. No beating around the bush.
Priss, on the other hand, looked like she'd swallowed a rotten egg.
Over the past few months the one thing I'd learned about Priss was
that she wasn't much of a team player. Oh, she'd help you out if you
asked, but something weird was going on inside her head, and
everything else was secondary to that. One of these days I'll figure
out what her problem was, but it didn't take a mind reader to figure
out what her immediate problem was. She wasn't happy at learning
she'd be watching out for Nene along with everything else. I don't
know what she thought she'd be doing -- Sylia was always saying that
we had to work together, after all.
"Um... Sylia-san?" As cheery as Nene had looked just a couple
minutes ago, she looked really uncomfortable now. "I don't like the
I think I felt my jaw hit the floor, and mine wasn't the only one
heading south. "What's wrong with the color?" Sylia sounded
surprised. "That color scheme was specifically selected for your suit
for its heat radiation properties and for ease of identification."
"I don't like red and gold. That gold trim around the hips will
make me look fat."
"FAT?!" Priss totally lost it at Sylia's exclamation, laughing so
hard she was quite literally on the floor. I'm not sure if it was the
look on Sylia's face, or that Nene was actually trying to stand up
Sylia quickly composed herself, glanced around as if making sure
no one had seen her lapse into humanity, and cleared her throat. "All
right, Romanova-san. I'll consider modifying your hardsuit's color
scheme. Any other _meaningful_ comments?"
Well, now, if Nene could do it.... "I've got to admit, Sylia-san,
she does have a point. I'm not too crazy about red, blue, gold, and
white myself. To be honest, it's kind of ugly."
"And I don't like lime green, white, and gray. Maybe something in
black. With red racing stripes." Racing stripes. Of course. Priss
_would_ want racing stripes on her armor.
"And while you're at it, do something about those tank treads for
feet, will you? I like to ride my wheels, not walk on them."
A soft tapping on Doctor Raven's office door brought us back from
the world of heat sinks and microcircuitry. He looked up just as Sis
slipped into the room. "Ah, Sylia, how did your meeting go?"
"Overall, quite well, Doctor." Uh-oh. Something was up. She
_sounded_ as calm and cool as ever, but she had this look in her eyes
that I hadn't seen in a long time. The one that on anyone else might
be described as 'impish.' "But there are a few things that we need to
go over. Do you have a few minutes?"
Pops grumped around a bit before admitting that he could talk with
her right away. I think he does that just because he thinks he has
to. He'd never admit that he'd do anything she wanted him to do.
"Mackie, would you excuse us?"
"Uh, sure. OK, Sis." I got up and headed for the door. "You sure
you don't need me, Pops?"
"It's Doctor. And I think you've got a vehicle to work on, young
man. Now go." He grabbed me by the elbow and walked me to the door,
while Sylia just stood there, that look still on her face.
Something made me turn back to give him a bit of warning. "You're
on your own, Pops," I said as I left the room.
"DOCTOR! And what do you mean, I'm on my own? Come back here,
you--" Whatever else he might have said was muffled by the Sylia's
closing the door behind me.
Things didn't stay muffled for long. A few seconds later I heard
this bellow, loud enough to shake the prints tacked to the walls.
"THEY WANT _WHAT_?!!!"
Girls. Probably want to do something stupid like paint the suits
"This is _stupid_!" Priss yelled as she dashed the stack of
schematics off the table in our small meeting room. "Why the _hell_
does she think we need to know all this crap! All I'm here for is to
shoot at things; I don't need a technical readout on how the
goddamned gun _works_!"
Priss in full roar might scare lesser mortals. I just sat there on
the couch and let her have her tantrum.
"Who does she think she is, anyway, shoving us around like that?
C'mon, Linna, let's go in there and try the suits on."
To say that Sylia's declaration that no one could try out their
hardsuit until they had demonstrated basic knowledge of how their
suit's major systems worked had annoyed Priss was an understatement.
The fact that she had to wait until I had tried my suit on had
irritated her, but Nene being first in line had really pissed her
I got up, setting my cup of tea aside, and walked over to the
table. "Look, Sylia-san has her reasons, Priss. Would you let someone
ride your bike without them knowing the basics about how the engine
"Nobody but me rides my bike," she declared flatly.
"You know what I mean. Now pick up your mess and start reading.
The sooner you finish with that, the sooner you'll be in your suit."
Priss opened her mouth to reply, but whatever she was going to say
was cut off by a loud crash. We looked at each other, and I walked
toward the door. I could hear someone calling for help from the
direction of the suit storage area. "It's Nene!" I yelled, then
sprinted in the direction of her voice.
The sight that greeted our arrival was pretty funny looking.
Nene's freshly repainted suit had somehow come unanchored, and had
fallen forward, knocking her flat on her back with the pink and
lavender armor on top of her. She was trying to push it off of her,
all the while making these little "ow" noises.
Priss started laughing. "Hey Nene, I know you're desperate for
some action, but, uh, isn't this a little extreme?" I closed my eyes
and shook my head. Leave it to Priss. Mind always in the gutter.
Nene was not happy, to say the least. "Don't just _stand_ there,
get this stupid thing off me!"
Here came Nene, right on schedule. As she limped through the door,
I gave her a dirty look. This cute bit had to stop, now, or I was
going to do something she'd regret. "Nene, it's been a week, and all
you had was a pulled muscle. Now act like an adult and quit whining!"
Nene put this martyred expression on her face. "But it still
"It wouldn't if you'd done the stretching exercises I showed you
for keeping it loose!" Linna cut in. Well well, _this_ was
interesting! I do believe she was as fed up as I was.
"You two are always picking on me!" Nene shot back, using her
usual line for anytime someone looked at her cross-eyed.
Linna stepped over to Nene. "Want some cheese with that whine?
That's _all_ you're good for, you know. Whining. About everything."
"You know, Nene-_chan_," I added, coming up on Nene's other side
while her face got red, "you better learn to take care of yourself.
There isn't always going to be someone around, and you wouldn't want
something _bad_ to happen, now would you?"
"Yeah, Nene-_chan_. You better shape up fast, or else what are you
going to do the _next_ time something bad happens? Having your
hardsuit fall on you is the least of your problems."
Of course, Sylia walked in about then. From the look on her face,
she'd heard at least part of what we'd said. Nene looked like she was
going to cry, and Linna looked a little guilty. She had to learn how
to hide her feelings better. What was said needed to be said. I was
_not_ going to spend my time babysitting Nene.
Sylia just stood there, looking at us, absolutely no expression on
her face. What was _she_ thinking?
"All right, ladies," she finally began, as she motioned Nene
toward her suit. "Tonight we'll be going over the various displays
and functions available from your suit helmets. At the same time,
we'll fully seal the suits for data acquisition purposes. This means
the external air supply will be cut off. You will be breathing air
provided by suit systems, and there will be plenty to breathe. Any
Sounded about as clear as anything else she says.
"No? All right, everyone put on your helmets and seal your suit's
systems. Outer visors will be up. You have to be able to see to be
trained on this." Sylia smiled at that last. Was it supposed to be a
Sealed up, visors open, we all stood there watching the master
display while Sylia took us through "Everything You Want To Know
About Helmet Displays" for about the 43rd time. The canned air wasn't
too bad. It certainly wasn't fresh -- actually it smelled a little
funny -- but I guess that's normal.
After a while, I got bored. It wasn't easy to see in these
helmets. Sylia had messed with them a little, and had promised us
things would be taken care of. But for now, I decided to come up with
my own entertainment.
First up was to see what I could see of the others. Maybe someone
else was as bored as I was. But Sylia was intent on the subject at
hand. As usual. And Nene was paying attention to the screen. I think.
I can never tell what she's doing when she's in that suit of hers.
Maybe I should be a little more careful about what I say to her.
The brat might get some guts some day and cyberjack my bike's
ignition computer or something. Nah. If she did, she'd die, and she
Linna, though, looked a bit red faced and watery-eyed. "You okay?"
I asked over a private channel.
"Fine. All of a sudden my eyes started watering, and my head's
stopped up, that's all."
Her voice sounded a little funny. "You sure? It could be something
with the system. Maybe you should open up."
"Priss, I told you I... I... I'm..... aCHOO!"
Huh. You don't see this every day. Ought to liven things up,
that's for sure. "Uh, guys," I interrupted the lecture, "I think
Linna's got something more interesting on her display." They looked
over to see a fine mist of water droplets now covering the inside of
Linna's visor. I _think_ they were water droplets, anyway. And other
At least I didn't have to clean up this mess.
8. REAL TIME
22:00. Despite the situation, I smiled inside as I donned my suit
of armor, remembering our first meeting. Even Priss managed to be on
time these days. The last six months had been a learning experience
for all of us. For me, perhaps, more than anyone else.
Things had not been as simple as I had thought they would be. I
had thought that I could just hire the people, train them, give them
equipment, and then give them their orders, and that would be the end
of it. I'd been so wrong.
It had been a shock when I'd realized I wouldn't be able to bring
Genom to its knees without wreaking havoc in other areas. I was not
about to injure the innocent in order to deal with the guilty.
But it had been a bigger shock to realize that I was becoming
friends with the others. I hadn't wanted or needed this. My job was
going to be hard enough without bringing friendship into it. I'd
wanted to remain apart. I'd seen people die. I did not want to send
friends into dangerous situations to die as well. But it was
happening. And I couldn't stop it.
And then, perverse fate laid all my careful plans to rest. A group
of boomers was tearing up the area around the convention center.
In my head, I knew we should not go. We needed something simple
for our first time out. Something to build confidence in ourselves
and our equipment. But my heart said we needed to do this. The area
was usually crowded and it would take the AD Police at least thirty
minutes to get there. We could be there in fifteen. If we didn't go,
people were going to die.
I picked up my helmet from the shelf where it rested, and stared
at my reflection in the visor, then shook my head to clear the mental
driftwood. I had to be sharp now. I would not let them see any
As I walked from the storage area to the waiting Silky Doll truck,
the perversity of it all struck me anew. Sylia Stingray, the "Ice
Queen," leading her forces into battle because her heart said it was
the right thing to do.
I had never been so scared in my life. I wanted to stay with
Mackie and the truck. I could do the scans Sylia wanted from there.
I wanted to, but I couldn't. She said nothing would happen to us
if we remembered our training. I remembered my training, all right.
That was the problem. I'm not any good at this kind of thing.
Why did I let her drag me into this? I'd gotten involved because I
was bored one night and that electronic ad was too tempting to let
go. Later, I was afraid she'd go through with her threats. Now that
I've been working with her for a while, I know she couldn't do it. I
"Romanova-san, are you ready to begin jamming?" Sylia's voice was
so clear through the speakers, it was as if she was standing next to
me. Of course, she _was_ standing next to me, but that's beside the
point. "It is important to block the communication signals between
the individual boomers."
"All set, Sylia-san. I've got the frequency you gave me locked in.
I'm ready to rock on your signal."
"Ready to _rock_, Nene-chan?" Priss. As usual. She didn't have to
have her faceplate up for me to picture the mocking look on her face.
"You just stay here, nice and safe on the roof, and leave the rocking
to people who know how to do it."
"Asagiri-san, please, now is not the time," came Sylia's resigned
voice. "All right, ladies, you know what to do. You have your
assignments. Trust in your equipment, yourselves, and each other, and
things will work out fine."
There was a long pause, and I thought I heard someone mumbling
over the circuit. Isolating the signal, I realized it was bleed-over
from one of the private channels. And the mumbling was Linna.
Before I could say anything, Sylia came back onto the group
circuit. "Here we go. On my mark. Three. Two. One. Knight Sabers...
As I began jamming, the three of them dived off the rooftop and
into the conflagration below. After a few seconds I realized
something was wrong. The jamming wasn't working. I increased the
power, but it didn't help.
"Nene, are you jamming?" Sylia again. She sounded winded already.
I had to do something. The frequency was locked, I couldn't change
it. But I had to.... What if I.....
.....got caught? The AD Police database was heavily guarded by
several layers of password security, not to mention their newly
upgraded encryption system. If I did get caught, the punishment was
rumored to be instant. No trial, no jury, just a painful death by
neural feedback loop. Ick.
But I never thought about that. That kind of demise was only for
the witless. I'd been into lotsa bases where the stakes were much
higher, and I'd cut out with the same number of gray cells I had
going in. They'd have to tweak their 'sniffers' to the max to catch
As I 'looked' out over the Net's matrix using my headset,
shimmering beads of silver pulsed across the glowing pink lines of
the grid; graphic representations of information as it flowed to and
from the various gateways of the web. I loved to sit here in "L2
Land" and just watch the world go by, and guess where each packet was
going. Nothing outside mattered. The last place on earth where
someone could escape, and not see another single person unless they
wanted to. A place to _really_ get away from it all.
But there was no time for that now. I had spent the last few weeks
'rusing the AD Police database from a distance, and tonight it was
time to make my incursion. My most trusted online advisor, "Ikegaki
Grrl", had put me on to a rumor about something kicking over at AD
HQ. Something crazy about AIs being used as guardians. Okayyyyyy. Of
course, I had to see for myself. Nothing heavy, just a quick peel to
see what all the fuss was about.
Twenty-four password check-points, eight levels of encryption,
twelve fire-nodes and fifty-six router table stealth mods. Piece of
cheese-cake. Yeah right! I was starting to break a sweat. So much for
the quick peel. This onion had more skins than a snake! But the hard
part was over. Or so I thought.
I had just jammed my foot in the front gate, when suddenly I was
up to my synapses in AI sentinels, with more waiting in the cache! My
cutters weren't working, and every virus I had initiated had been
eaten alive in a matter of nanos by the sentinels. My retreat script
didn't even see the dark of night! Ikegaki had been right; these AI
'thingys' were definitely kicking! For the first time in my 'career'
I was in over my head. I had to act fast or I was going to join the
deleted files of the witless.
"Relax Nene," I told myself. "You can pry yourself outta this one,
but you have to relax and take a second to think. Just think..."
It was time to modify myself.
After a quick scan of the nearest AI, and an adjustment to my
'avatar's' appearance code, the sentinels abruptly backed off. That
was my cue to cut. I could have loitered a bit, seeing as I now
looked exactly like one of them, but I was in rough shape. Later.
Once I was back in "L2 Land", I could breathe again. The silver
packets of data were still making their way across the grid as usual,
and everything was calm. I had lots of time to think now. Time to
think about what I had seen, and what new dangers I might have to
face in the future.....
.....or the present.
I had to modify myself.
Reroute my hardsuit's secondary power relay to the frequency
stabilizer processor! Divert the jamming signal to my auxiliary comm
transmitter! Crank the output! Unlock the frequency and reacquire!
.....That's IT! Quick scan... got it! Now crosspatch, and then....
"How is it now, Sylia?" I asked, trying to sound professionally
"Whatever you've done, Nene, it's working. Keep it up."
Oh my god, they're so big. There's no way I can do this.
I ducked and spun away yet again as I tried to face off with the
boomer target designated as mine. This just wasn't working. It was
just too big, too fast.
I'm fine against people, situations I know. I thought I could
handle this. I can't do this. It's too much.
Even if I could get close enough, I couldn't get my knuckle
bombers primed to fire. I can't get the ribbons primed. If only I had
time to _concentrate_!
I was panicking. I should get out of here, now, before I get
killed. I couldn't call for help. They had their own problems.
This was crazy. Why had I agreed to this. The money isn't worth
getting killed. Let the police do their job. I can't do their job for
them. What did I think I was doing when I said 'yes'?
And in the half-second it took for those thoughts to flash through
my mind, my opponent was on me again. I tried to dance away, tried to
gain myself more time, but got caught instead.
I'm sure they heard me screaming in Yokohama when the boomer
started pulling me in by my ribbon-cutters. Sylia did. "Linna! Linna,
hang on! I'll be right there!"
I was out of time. This was it. I was dead.
The boomer raised its fist, about to turn my suit into a green
splotch on the ground, when suddenly it was all clear to me. I knew
what I had to do.
Forget what they are. Forget that they are not human. Clear your
mind. Do not let them intimidate you. Stay focused on where you are
and what you are doing. Stay focused. Stay... focused...
"No! You are not concentrating! Now, let's try for real this
Try for real, he says. Like I haven't been trying all this time.
Fine, I'll show him 'for real'.
I picked myself up off the mat and attacked again, this time with
fire in my heart.
It wasn't long before I ended up on the mat, face down, again.
"Linna... what was that? Were you angry?"
Slowly, I picked myself up again, this time foregoing another
attack to address my master's question.
"No... well, yes. I guess I was... upset."
"Ah," was all he said in response.
"But how can I not be angry," I shot back, "if you keep defeating
me? How am I supposed to learn anything this way?"
He turned away from me for a moment to consider my question.
Bright sunlight flooded in through the wide doorway to the dojo,
casting long shadows on the floor, while the songs of small birds
just outside the door caught my ear. My heart was still pounding in
my chest from the workout.
"Linna..." he began, "Do you hear the wind?" he asked, his voice
taking on a whimsical tone.
For a moment, I closed my eyes and listened carefully, and I could
hear the swish of the wind as a warm summer breeze swept through the
"Yes," I replied.
"Mmm. And do you see the shadows at my feet?"
My eyes immediately locked onto his feet, the long shadows of
afternoon stretching from his feet across the worn wooden floor.
"Yes, I do. But--"
"And--" he said, cutting me off sharply, "do you hear the birds
outside, Linna? Do you hear their songs?"
Again I closed my eyes to listen...
I opened my eyes abruptly to see my master now standing inches
away, and directly in front of me. "Wha?" was all I could say, in a
"Linna, what are you doing?" he said, his voice now very serious.
"I... I'm list-- I was-- listening."
"Because I told you to?"
I nodded, not really sure if that was the right answer.
"Linna." He smiled, and stepped back from me. "Are you here to
listen to the wind?"
"Uh, I don't think so. But--"
"Correct Linna. You are not. All of the things going on around you
must disappear. They must vanish while you are here. Forget them. All
that matters is what is going on right now, right here."
"When you are faced with an opponent, do not think about how big
they are, or how strong they look. Do not think, period. Do not dwell
on things like anger, fear or hate. You must focus on defending
yourself. That is all that matters." He paused to let his words sink
in a bit. "Now Linna. Are you ready to try again?"
Do not think. Period. Stay focused. Period. Okay, I think I can
handle that. "Sure," I replied.
He smiled again and stepped back to his side of the mat, then
assumed the ready stance. "Ready?"
I nodded, my own hands raised in front of me, and my eyes narrowed
as my body filled with a new enthusiasm to learn.
His smile vanished. "Begin!"
Circling. Searching for the opening. There! No, too slow. Circle
back. Strike high! Block the counter! Break the hold! Free. Drop and
leg sweep. Gah! Missed. Back on your feet quickly! Circle again...
focus. Stay focused Linna. Don't let anything else enter your mind.
Your mind must be empty of any other-- Block! Block again! Too fast!
My anger came flooding back to me, but as I lay there resting, my
anger faded, and I could hear the wind, and the songs of the birds
outside. As I turned over onto my back, I could see the shadows from
my Master's feet as he stood over me with his hand extended to help
"Ya know something?" I asked, as I continued to lay there on my
back, ignoring his hand.
"What's that?" he replied slowly.
"I can hear the birds, and I can hear the wind. But, for some
strange reason, I can't see your shadow anymore Master."
He looked down at his feet momentarily. Just long enough.
.....I looked into the glowing red eyes of the boomer before me,
it's right fist raised high, ready to crush me. I moved on pure
instinct at that moment, my mind suddenly freed of the danger I
faced. A quick blast of my hard-suit's jets shot me up and over the
stunned boomer as I commenced the knuckle bomber's power-up. Upon
landing, I quickly bent down to pick up a chunk of asphalt that had
been ground up underneath the boomer's metallic feet. The boomer spun
to face me, just as I tossed the chunk of rock behind it. It turned
away for a split- second to follow the harmless projectile with its
sensors, as my knuckle bomber completed its charge.
God_dammit_, you goddamn mothersuckingfucker, _DIE_ _YOU_
The boomer exploded as it crashed to the ground, and it wasn't
enough. I hate those things. I hate anything to do with them.
"Look out, Priss!" someone warned, and I spun around. Another was
coming up from behind. I leaped over a burning car and I ran to meet
Sylia wants us to take them out as fast as possible. Fast is too
good for them, but it's the only way I can kill as many as I can.
I cocked my arm back to punch through, dimly hearing someone
yelling about ranged weapons. Piss on ranged weapons. I want to get
close. I want to kill them with my bare hands. I want to tear them
apart and watch them bleed. I want to do the same thing with their
monsters. I want them to burn. I want them to die die die die
"Get up, Priss."
"Come on, Priss. You're on my arm. Get up."
Umm.... "H... Hiro?"
"Who else would it be?" I opened my eyes, and looked into his
beautiful brown ones. "You'd better not be thinking of Taki," he
"And if I am?" It was hard to not laugh at the look on his face
then. I leaned forward and kissed the end of his nose. "You know
there's nothing going on between Taki and me."
He smiled back. I love his smile too. "Priss, I've got to get up
now, but if you don't get off my arm we may stay here all night too."
"Fine by me!" I kissed him again, putting a bit more into it this
time. He wrapped his other arm around me and rolled me on top.
Unfortunately, this freed his arm up, and when he finished the roll,
with me back on my back, he sat up and got up off the mattress.
"Keep that thought," he said, pulling on the clothes he'd left on
the floor that afternoon. "I'll be back in a little bit."
"Where are you going?" I asked as I got up and began getting into
my own yellow and black leathers.
"Remember those data disks that were in the car Kumi took the
other day?" I nodded that I remembered, and he went on. "I finally
got a look at what was on them. I'm no techie, but it looks like
those guys over at Genom are up to something again." Genom? "Toshi
made contact with them, and we're doing an exchange in a couple
He turned around, pulling his jacket on, and smiled at me. "We're
going to really make out on this, Priss. Plenty for you and me and
everyone else. All the bikes we'd ever want, and a record contract
for you. Just think, nothing to do all day but ride. Just you and me,
"Hiro, are you sure about this? You know the rumors...."
"Not a problem. It's all set." He stood there for a minute,
watching me look at him, then stepped up and gathered me into his
big, strong arms. "You can't go with me to the exchange," he
whispered, "but there's still a couple hours yet. How about we go for
I kissed his neck as my answer, and led him out of the room.
The ride was wonderful. It was a cool night, not too much traffic.
For long stretches, we were the only ones on the road.
Hiro and I started racing down these open stretches, just enjoying
testing our bikes and ourselves. Enjoying being together. Then this
car came up behind us.
He blew past me and got on Hiro's back wheel. Hiro started racing
in earnest, trying to get away, and the car stuck with him. I'm good,
but they pulled out so far ahead that I couldn't keep up, couldn't
see what was going on.
A couple minutes later I saw the car far ahead of me. As I closed,
I saw someone get in the back and the car pulled away.
And when I got closer, I saw the wreck at the side of the road.
I was off my bike before it was slowed, running for Hiro. Blood
was splattered everywhere, like someone had filled a balloon with red
dye and dropped it to the pavement..
I dropped to my knees and took his limp body in my arms. "Hiro,
talk to me. C'mon, say something. Don't do this to me, I need you."
It couldn't have been very long, but it seemed like years before
the cops showed up. I was still there, still talking to Hiro, my
hero, trying to get him to open his eyes. "Hiro, you can't do this to
me, what am I going to do without you, I love you, I need you, come
on Hiro, open your eyes, please Hiro, please...."
"Miss." Something touched my shoulder, and I looked up into the
face of a young cop, wearing body armor and sun glasses.
I looked back at Hiro. "Go away."
He tried again. "Please Miss, you have to get up now."
"No!" I lashed out at him with my arm....
.....and it was caught out of mid-air.
"It's me, Priss. Calm down." Who was... the *whump* of an
explosion, nearby, interrupted my already confused thoughts. I
started to roll onto my back, with an assist from whoever had caught
my arm. A figure in white armor swam into view, kneeling at my side.
"Linna, if you're finished, I could use your help with Priss." I
groaned. The noises coming over the communication channel pounded
through my already aching head.
"Sure, what's wrong?" Linna came up beside Sylia and took my other
"She's a little disoriented; I think that blow to the head was
worse than we thought."
"Leave me alone," I muttered as I shook their hands off me and
tried to get up.
Nene dropped down beside them. "Oh, come on Priss, you're hurt.
Don't try to be a hero all the time."
9. INTO THE LIGHT
According to the news reports, only seven people had died before
we got to the convention center area and took on the boomers. Only
seven. Tell that to their families.
I pushed a button on the remote, changing the radio to another
station, then sat back and sipped more tea. In the hour or so since
I'd arrived home, the media had managed to work itself into a frenzy.
They didn't know what to make of it. We were being described as
everything from a 'new type of boomer' to 'corporate mercenaries' to
'heroes of the people'.
Nene's laser etching "Knight Sabers" into a section of pavement
wasn't helping matters. That was being described as 'the calling card
of a new vigilante army, ready to take back the night.' I was going
to have to have a little chat with her about that.
The government was quiet so far. So was the AD Police. Chairman
Quincy of Genom, though, was calling us 'terrorists.' Figures. What's
the old saying? "It takes one to know one."
The suit systems had worked well, but not as well as I'd hoped.
The weapon's systems arming sequence was too complicated and took too
long. That was going to have to be addressed immediately.
Fortunately, it should not be too difficult to deal with.
Nene's electronics systems were going to require a major redesign
effort, though. She was going to have to have to be given more
flexibility of action in case of changing conditions. I was kicking
myself for forgetting this simplest of lessons. You cannot restrict
your options to fit your plans, and by limiting the capabilities of
her systems I had almost gotten us all killed.
Physically, the suits had handled the stress of battle fairly
well. With the exception of Priss's helmet, it was just a few easily
dealt with scrapes.
The helmet was another story. When that car exploded behind her,
it blew her head first into the side of a building, breaking the
outer liner and cracking the inner. Luckily she got away with only a
concussion, but it could have easily been much worse. I wasn't
looking forward to the many hours of examination it was going to take
to find out why this had not happened during laboratory testing.
I looked up as yet another radio newscast made reference to the
evening's activities, and smiled slightly. At least we could look
forward to a rest. The 'mystery vigilantes' were not going to be
making another appearance for a while.
Maybe by then Dr. Raven would be able to develop usable shades of
red and black paint for Priss's suit. Then we wouldn't have to listen
to her complaining about wearing blue and pink "kiddie colors" any
Still, they were coming together well as a team, and, more
importantly, were becoming strong friends.
I yawned and got up from the couch to go to bed. Halfway across
the room I stopped in my tracks. What was I thinking?
I had had my doubts about how it would work out, at first. They
were all so different, so... at odds with each other. And then,
despite all the personality clashes, all the friction, something
happened. I still don't know what the trigger was for certain. It
could have been any number of things.
Perhaps it was something that happened during the first pellet
matches. Or maybe it was when someone put pepper flakes in the air
filter of Linna's helmet. Or when someone reworked the circuits on
Priss's motorcycle so that the sound system kept repeating "I'm an
ape- woman!" at full volume.
But whatever the trigger, they'd started to come together. There
was still some friction, but now they were beginning to work as a
team. My team. And now, perhaps, my friends?
It dawned on me that somewhere along the line I'd stopped thinking
of them as Romanova, Yamazaki, and Asagiri. They'd become Nene,
Linna, and Priss. And I had called them by those names to their
And they had accepted it.
Epilogue. AGAINST THE SUN
The city was so much more beautiful at night. So many tiny lights,
like millions of distant stars dotting the sky, each struggling to
burn against the darkness. And in the heat of battle, they would
inevitably forget about the coming morning light. A blinding tide
that would illuminate those places where shadows had lived the night
before. Snuffing out the torches of a million smaller lights with one
powerful sweeping wave of luminance.
Obliterating a million dreams, and moving on to obliterate a
million more without ever looking back.
Fire with fire.
I closed my eyes, trying to remember exactly what my father had
looked like just before he was murdered. I did not have long to wait.
I could never forget. His image was forever burned into my mind,
along with all of his dreams. Dreams that would never see the light
When I opened my eyes again, I tried to focus on the fading lights
below, but my tired eyes were brimming with tears that would not
fall. I wiped them and tried to look out at the city again.
In the glass, I saw my own reflection, staring back at me.
I smiled, as the first warming rays of morning stretched out over
Four candles against the sun.
I sat down on the window sill with my back against the cool glass,
letting the last flickers of street light from the city wash over me.
We would fight against the hungry light, come what may.
Jeanne's Comments: Well, I certainly hope you found Sylia, Linna,
Priss, and Nene to be somewhat out of character. If they're not, Andy
and I didn't do our job. Yes, that's right - these are _not_ the
Knight Sabers you know from "Bubblegum Crisis," or even the Knight
Sabers of "Bubblegum Crash" or "Grand Mal." "Into the Shadows" is
about the beginning of the process where these people grew up to
become those people. I also certainly hope you enjoyed going along
for part of the ride.
Back in November '97, I was toying around with different ideas for
my annual foray into BGC fanfic writing. My last fic, "Ten
Questions," was mainly done in the first person, so I wanted to try
to do an entire normal-length fic (10Q _is_ a bit on the short side)
that way. The 'beginnings of the Knight Sabers' storyline came from a
half-remembered comment from someone on alt.fan.bgcrisis, who
wondered about the early days of the Knight Sabers and if they had
trouble learning how to walk in armor with high heels. I've no idea
why I thought rotating the first person viewpoints would be a good
idea, but not too long afterward I had a start on a "Sylia recruits
the Knight Sabers" fic, told in rotating first person POV.
He's been writing his own BGC fic, "Bubblegum Cross," for a while
now, and had, from time to time, sent me sections of it to comment
on. So I decided to return the favor, and asked him if he'd comment
on the start I had made. Well, I got comments back all right -- just
not the kind I was expecting. Andy quite politely reminded me that
this was the fic he'd suggested we write together over a year
earlier, something I'd totally forgotten about.
So we became partners on this project, and I don't regret one bit
of it. "Shadows" isn't the fic I started out to write, but I think
it's become something better than that. And if you are wondering who
wrote what, I'll tell you here and now: Andy wrote the good stuff.
^_^ Andy's Comments: Knowing how much trouble I have had trying to
complete a fanfic on my own, I have often wondered how two people
could ever agree on all of the elements that go into a story to write
together. Jeanne and I have differing basic approaches to writing.
She excels at focusing on the heart of the story, the character's
actions and their dialogues, and what is going on in the here and
now. I try to make sure the story is foremost in my mind, but I tend
to forsake those things sometimes, in favour of spending alot of
energy trying to use elements of the story's setting to parallel
current or past events in the story, or to deeply foreshadow coming
Headed for disaster, right?
Well, as we started sending our revisions back and forth, enjoying
the inspirational fuel that we were supplying each other, I tried my
best to focus on the heart of the story, feeling it was important
that we try to make it seem like only one person wrote it. But it
didn't take long before I started to feel as if something was
missing, to the point that Jeanne even mentioned my lack of
adjectives. After asking myself if that was a bad thing or not, I
added some sections to the beginning of the story, specifically the
parts that describe Dr. Raven's garage with the factories all around,
and the rusted pieces of metal that "changed" in the dim light. It
felt right to me, but would Jeanne like it?
As it turned out, she did. And the revisions soon flew back and
forth at an increased pace. But freedom has a price when you write
with someone else. Two people writing however they feel like could
quickly degenerate a story into a disjointed yarn. After a few
"frictionous" but healthy discussions about how much was too much, we
came to an agreement concerning various aspects of our writing
approaches. With a consensus reached, the story happily picked up
where it left off, with two people working within their own styles,
but armed with an understanding. So, I have learned that it isn't
important for two people to agree on _all_ of the elements that go
into a story, but to agree on _enough_ of the elements, so that each
person feels that they can contribute in their own unique way within
a framework, to make something that is truly a combined effort. A
rich lesson that I will never forget :)
Lastly: Jeanne says I wrote the "good stuff", but the truth is,
she wrote the "great stuff" <g> We'd both like to thank our
terrific pre-readers (Ed Becerra, Mike Breen, Chris Davies, Shawn
Hagen, Shawn Kester, Richard Lawson, Nicholas Leifker, CJ Scott
a.k.a. "The Pig", and Bert Van Vliet). Your time and assistance are
truly appreciated. And in case you're wondering, the preliminary suit
designs Sylia rolls out in Chapter 7 are based on the _real_
preliminary suit designs the animators were toying with back when BGC
was first being worked on. Weird colors and wheels for feet and all.
If you're curious (and lucky), they can be seen in several of the BGC
Please let us know what you think! Andy Skuse can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org Jeanne Hedge is at email@example.com