"Martin Pay" <sakiki@globalnet.co.uk>

A few preliminaries:-

1) Take as read the usual copyright acknowledgments. We all know who owns the rights; I'm just borrowing for a while.

2) Where does this come from? My desire to know what happened between the 'Asu e Touchdown' segment of Hurricane Live 2032 and the first episode of BGC. I didn't know, so I had to write it myself.

For the record, my interpretation is based solely on the 8 Crisis and 3 Crash (yes, I consider them canon) OAVs. I haven't read the B-Club Specials and have no idea what they contain. Any errors are therefore completely my own... Comments and/or criticisms welcome; flames will be treated to a dose of fire-foam.

This story originally appeared in the UK fanzine 'Tales from the Cajun Sushi Bar', Issue 4, 1994. With no modesty at all I decided it could stand a wider audience.

I make no apologies for using a UK English spellchecker.


Prelude - A Story of the Knight Sabers

Martin Pay

 

Mega-Tokyo 2031

She was nervous; honesty compelled her to admit that. She had almost been overcome by second thoughts during a mostly sleepless night, but curiosity and desire had warred with trepidation and the curiosity had finally won out. The elaborate and curious puzzle that had appeared in the municipal datanet had been the first intimation that something unusual had entered her life. It had been couched in the form of a computer game, and Naoko had laughingly suggested that not only would the challenge be too much for her, but also that an attempt to decipher the program while at work could only get her into trouble; the double dare had proved irresistible.

On the night that she eventually solved the game she had been working late, and it was almost midnight when the screen cleared to display a woman's face and the message 'Welcome to the Knight Sabers' followed by 'I want you'. Both pronouncements had given her considerable pause, and were the cause of her present worry; there were outstanding warrants for the arrest of the 'Knight Sabers' on various counts including Felony/Assault, Extortion, Reckless Endangerment, and Damage to Public Property.

There had followed instructions for the following morning - to go to a particular news-stand, where she would be met - and an injunction not to reveal her secret to anyone. The warning had been couched in quite specific terms that had convinced her that its author was indeed in earnest, although in fact she had no intention whatsoever of talking to anybody about anything; other considerations aside, being seen to consort with people on the Police 'Most Wanted' list was hardly a good career move for an ambitious junior officer.

After only a couple of hours sleep, 6.00am found her at a news- stand in the heart of the city. The vendor gave her an envelope; she opened it. Then the chase, from news-stand to 'phone kiosk, 'phone kiosk to news-stand, in a bewildering pattern that crossed back and forth over the city, leaving her breathless, sweating and sticky in the summer morning's heat and humidity, giving her no time to think, to plan, to do anything but react.

And so finally to this shabby hotel in a run-down, prime-for- redevelopment part of town - somewhere on the edge of District Two, she thought. She leaned on the door-frame for a moment, trying to recover her breath, then pushed open the grime- dulled glassed panel and stepped across the threshold. The lobby was dingy, papered and painted in dull beige and chocolate brown. The carpet was faded and threadbare; she noticed a small hole just inside the door. There were dust motes dancing in the dim light and a film of dust on almost every surface except the front desk, where previous guests' arms and elbows had left patches rubbed clear around the register, the old-fashioned brass bell and the battered credit terminal.

The desk clerk was a kid, a teenager, wearing scruffy jeans, a grubby singlet and a bored expression. He scowled as she entered, looked up from his pocket TV then leered at her and winked.

She glared back at him and crossed quickly to the desk before she could change her mind. "Excuse me..."

He scowled at her again; she could swear that he thought she habitually came to places like this.

"Payment in advance without luggage." He quoted a price by the half-hour, making it obvious that her first guess about the normal patrons of the establishment had been correct.

"No, no, you don't understand! I have an appointment..." She trailed off, face burning, as she realised just how that sounded. She tried again. "I was told to ask for room 309."

She glanced back at him; was it her imagination, or had his attitude subtly changed? He seemed suddenly charged with anticipation, a sharp clear-eyed gaze behind the surly indifference previously on display. His voice was unchanged, however, as he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the stairs. "Third floor, turn left."

"Thank you." She walked quickly across the lobby and started up the stairs, conscious of his eyes tracking her progress. When she reached the third floor her heart was racing again and her palms were clammy; she grimaced and wiped them down her jeans in a futile attempt to dry them. Outside room 309 she stopped again, hand raised to knock on the door. She had the curious feeling that this was a point of no return; that if she were actually to enter the room beyond, her life would never again be the same. She shivered slightly, and rapped smartly on the door.

"Come in." The voice was soft, calm and definitely female.

She opened the door and slipped inside, only to be brought to an amazed halt by the sight that confronted her. The room was a complete contrast to the rest of the hotel. The walls were coloured a delicate jasmine, the furnishings were of soft leather, sparkling chrome and glass, the lighting soft and indirect. The smoky-grey curtains were closed.

Standing by a table against the far wall, pouring coffee, was the woman from yesterday's video message. She was tall and slim, with short, dark, lightly waved hair, and dressed with impeccable and expensive good taste. "Coffee?" Refused with a shake of the head, she took the cup herself and sat in the closer of the two chairs. "I'm sorry about the way I've run you around town, but it was essential to make sure that you weren't followed here. I prefer to keep what secrets I have."

Unsettled by the last forty-eight hours, discretion failed at last. "Are you yakuza?"

The woman smiled, just a twitch of the lips. "No. Let's just say that my friends and I are ... free agents." She leaned back in the chair, put down the coffee cup. "By cracking that computer message, I believe that you've earned the right - and I think my friends will agree - to seek membership in our little group. I have to warn you, though, that what we do is often illegal and frequently dangerous. Very dangerous. You're a Police Officer, so you've already accepted some physical risk. Sometimes we take money for what we do, sometimes we don't; it depends on the circumstances." She sighed. "We desperately need a computer and communications expert, and you're ideally placed to help us. As I said, you've passed the first stage initiation, if you will. Are you interested in the rest?"

Still standing by the door, her eyes had not left the mystery woman's face. She was aware of her heart surging with a rush of adrenaline, her mouth dry, her palms clammier than ever, a burgeoning exhilaration in her soul. She had been looking for something to do with her life and her skills ever since leaving school and leaving home. Now she felt a sudden flash of inspiration and of hope; she truly felt for the first time that she might have found an answer here, in this hotel room. "Who..." She faltered, started again; her voice trembled slightly. "Who are you?"

Her emotions must have showed in her face; the woman in the chair touched an elegant finger to the button in her lapel. "Priss! Linna!" She smiled warmly, rose from the chair and held out her hand. "I'm Sylia Stingray." Two more women walked in through a connecting door at the other end of the room.

"Nene Romanova, welcome to the Knight Sabers!"


After a journey of well over an hour in the back of an outwardly ordinary semi-trailer - but which inside contained more sophisticated surveillance, monitoring and maintenance equipment than the ADPolice laboratories - Nene could see that the Knight Sabers were very far from being just the new mercenary group in town as the official bulletins proclaimed them. The dark-haired girl Linna spent the entire trip watching a bank of VDU's, listening on headphones and making comments into a throat microphone so softly that Nene could make out nothing of what was said except the name 'Mackie'. She could also see that the other girl - Priss, if she had caught the name correctly - was pretending to ignore her while covertly watching her very closely indeed.

After a while Nene became annoyed, particularly as Priss had not troubled even to introduce herself as Linna had done.

"Priss-san."

"Huh?" Priss looked directly at her for the first time since the journey started.

"If you want to watch me, go ahead. It's stupid trying to pretend you're not."

Priss smiled, an expression that transformed her otherwise rather sullen face. "Okay, you've got me there. I admit, I don't think you're likely to attack us, or to try and jump out." She leaned back in the swivel chair and raised her booted legs to rest her feet on the edge of the console. "I'll grant you seem a nice enough kid - "

"Kid!" Nene leapt to her feet, fists clenched. "I am not a kid!"

Just then the truck hit a ramp. Unprepared, Nene lost her balance and, arms flailing wildly, toppled straight into Priss' outstretched legs. Priss tipped back in the chair, then fell sideways to the floor with Nene on top of her.

"Shit! Get off me!" Priss struggled to sit up but Nene, momentarily panicked by her clumsiness, lost her balance again as the truck stopped and sat down hard on Priss' stomach. Linna meanwhile, attention attracted by the commotion, was laughing helplessly; noticing Priss' furious glare, however, she stood up and went to their aid.

At this point the side panel slid open. "Priss! Linna! What on earth...?" Sylia's bemused voice drifted in from outside.

"Linna! Get this stupid little idiot off me before I kill her!" Priss now sounded really angry.

"Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," wailed Nene. "I didn't mean..." She trailed off, embarrassed, humiliated and miserable, hot tears of frustration welling in her eyes. Priss gave her a disgusted look, vaulted cleanly from the truck and stalked off without another word.

"Oh dear." Sylia watched her leave, face carefully blank. "I don't think you've made the right sort of impression on Priss..." She helped Nene down from the truck and guided her over to a bank of elevators in what Nene could now see was a large underground parking facility. Linna thumbed the call button; an elevator car arrived almost immediately. Once inside Sylia slid a magnetic key into the slot and pressed 'penthouse'; the car moved off so smoothly that at first Nene did not realise it had moved at all.

After a swift ascent the door opened to reveal a lobby which Nene instantly dubbed to herself as the 'successful corporate' style; thick silver-grey carpet, walls the palest of blues, and a pair of Hokusai prints hung on either side of the double doors at the end.

Sylia turned to Nene. "You'd probably like a chance to freshen up." She opened one of the side doors. "When you're ready, please join us in the lounge."

"Thank you," replied Nene, and went into the bathroom. She splashed water over her face and pulled a comb quickly through her hair; reasonably satisfied with the result, she went back into the hallway and walked up to the lounge, where one of the doors had been left ajar. She nonetheless knocked softly then, hearing the murmur of conversation, went in without waiting for a response.

The Knight Sabers were waiting for her, Sylia sitting in an easy chair by a large picture window and Priss and Linna on a sofa in the middle of the room. Nene was surprised to also see the clerk from the hotel sitting at the far end; when he noticed her gaze, he grinned so cheerfully that she could do nothing but smile back. Sylia waved her to an empty chair and she sat nervously on the edge, then willed herself to relax and sat back.

"Welcome to my home, Nene," said Sylia, "and to the headquarters of the Knight Sabers. This building is the ... nerve-centre of our operation. My brother Mackie looks after it when I'm not here." She gestured to the teenager, who stood up, bowed slightly and grinned at Nene again.

"You didn't tell me she's pretty, sis."

Sylia rolled her eyes in exasperation and made to throw a cushion at him; he raised his arms in mock surrender, still grinning cheerily. Linna laughed, and even Priss smiled. Nene stifled a giggle.

"You'll have to excuse him, Nene. If he gives you any trouble, just throw something at him." She turned to the small table at her side and poured coffee. "Would you like a cup? And smoke if you like. Priss and Linna don't, but I admit it's a vice of mine."

Nene accepted the coffee, sipped at it - and almost choked. Sylia's idea of coffee was a brew so strong Nene thought it would probably strip the varnish off the table if she spilt it. She darted a glance at Priss and Linna and saw they were both watching her reaction, Linna with a slight smile. She realised then that neither had taken coffee for themselves; Linna had a glass of water, while Priss had opened a can of beer.

Sylia drained her cup, poured another, and leaned forward slightly. "I imagine you have a number of questions you'd like to ask. Please feel free..."

"How did you decide it was safe to let me meet you? You must know there are several outstanding warrants on the Knight Sabers, and you know I'm in the ADPolice. I might have arrested you on the spot."

"Hah! You might have _tried_," muttered Priss.

Sylia chuckled. "Priss has her own views on the ADPolice - with some cause, I'm afraid," she added to forestall Priss' angry reaction. "What you couldn't know, of course, is that we were watching you the whole time after you went to the first news-stand, and when you got to the hotel you were scanned very thoroughly by our equipment in the lobby. If you'd been carrying any form of recording device or transmitter you wouldn't have got further than that. If you'd brought your gun I would still have allowed you up, but I'd have had more ... security." She glanced across at the others. "Priss and Linna weren't at all happy when I told them what you do for a living - "

"I'm still not," growled Priss, "and I still think we're making a big mistake."

Sylia held up a hand. "We've been through this, Priss."

"That was before she tried to cripple me on the journey here!"

"Priss, enough. Please?"

Linna leaned forward. "I have no worries about the ADPolice. I just don't think they can do their job - which is to stop boomers."

"We do the best we can," protested Nene. "We just don't have the equipment because the army gets all the best stuff. And _they_ aren't allowed to operate inside the city limits without special authorisation from the Diet."

"That's true, of course," said Sylia. She sighed sadly. "But Linna's right about boomers. I admit I'm biased, but they're a very mixed blessing."

Nene watched her silently for a moment, then said quietly, "Why do you do what you do? Reading between the lines of the reports I've seen, you often risk your lives fighting boomers when you could just leave it to the Police ... it doesn't make sense."

"We all have our reasons for being here, Nene. Mine ... let's just say it's a matter of personal honour. Priss and Linna can tell you their reasons themselves, if they want to - it's not my place to do that. The question now, though, is why are _you_ here?" She fixed Nene with a suddenly-hard gaze.

"I - I couldn't resist the challenge on the computer, at first," stammered Nene. "Now I know who you are, I really want to join you if I can. I hate the way the Police can't do anything because of stupid rules - and when they _can_ act, they usually screw up."

"You're a cop," said Priss pointedly.

"Yes, because I wanted a challenge. I didn't want to work all day in an office ... so they stuck me in Communications," she finished bitterly.

"If you're just looking for excitement, then this is as far as you go," said Sylia cautioningly.

"No, no, I didn't mean that. It's true that I didn't - I don't - want to work in an office all day, but I joined the Police because I wanted to help people, to actually make a difference."

"Well, I can't fault that as a motivation. All we have to see now is whether you have the physical aptitude to ... do what we do, you put it?" Sylia stood up. "Come with me, and we'll find out."

The four women descended to the next floor of the building, and Nene discovered that Sylia was evidently even wealthier than had first been apparent. She actually owned the entire building, retaining the top two floors for her own use and leasing the remainder out as shops and offices.

"Most of our 'extra-curricular' work is done at night, so it's easier if there's no residential use," confirmed Sylia. "The businesses here also help to conceal our communications net and rather large electricity demands."

"But that's hardly foolproof," protested Nene. "If anyone were to compare the daytime and night-time figures, for example ..."

"That's just one fairly minor example of why we need you," replied Sylia. "You broke my puzzle in less user-hours than I would have believed possible, so I hope you can improve my computer security by a similar measure. I'm a good programmer, if I say so myself, but I don't have the talent for 'hacking' that you showed."

"It'll be easy enough to fix that sort of thing," said Nene eagerly. "All I need is to access the power and 'phone companies' systems." She grinned suddenly. "I could make it so you never get another bill again!"

Sylia laughed. "That would be rather conspicuous, I think! It would be too suspicious if Sylia Stingray didn't pay for anything. I can't just disappear, after all - too many people know me."

"I can," broke in Priss. "You can fix my 'phone bill any time you like."

"And mine!" cried Linna. "My boyfriend's in the States at the moment and it's getting rather expensive."

Sylia laughed again. "Which boyfriend is that, Linna?" she asked innocently. "I think I've lost count ..." There was a heartbeat's silence, then they all burst out laughing at the indignant expression on Linna's face.


A couple of hours later, Nene was beginning to think that she had made a huge mistake in taking up the Knight Sabers' offer. She had been weighed and measured with micrometric precision; much to Priss' amusement she was apparently a little over the ideal weight for her height.

"Sweet tooth!" grinned Priss, prodding her none too gently in the midriff. "You'll pop the seams in your suit!"

Worse than the measuring, however, were the physical tests. Nene had always believed herself to be in better-than-average physical condition, but she quickly discovered that she was strictly ordinary in most things - and below average in a few. Sylia was rather disappointed. "I must say, Nene, I expected you to be more fit than this, as you're a Police officer. You're not a very good advertisement for the Force ..."

"That's not really fair, Sylia," said Linna. "You heard her say she's always worked in Communications, not on the street. You don't have to be super-fit to sit behind a desk all day." She paused, then grinned. "Anyway, if you look at some street cops ..." She eyed Nene thoughtfully, then grinned again. "I run a couple of aerobics classes, and I'll be happy to enrol you!"

Nene's face fell. "Oh... thank you. If you think it'll help ..."

"Linna says aerobics are a cure for everything," laughed Priss. "Personally I prefer a good - "

"We can guess!" interrupted Linna crossly.

" - sauna!" finished Priss triumphantly. She winked at Nene, then turned back to Linna. "Just because you're sex-mad, you don't have to make her think we all are!"

"Grrrrr..."

Sylia coughed lightly. "Yes, well ... You're not giving Nene a very good impression of us, are you!" She stood up and beckoned to her newest recruit. "I think it's time we showed you just what you'll be getting into - literally. The hardsuit hangar is down here ..."


Later that evening, back in her tiny apartment, Nene was able to reflect on the events of the day. The Knight Sabers and Mackie seemed almost like a family, and she felt a sudden longing for something to which she could again belong. In some ways she still missed her own family desperately, although after living for so long on her own she could not envisage returning to her parents' house, to their rules and restrictions on her life - and to the traditional education and career path which they had attempted to force on her and from which she had finally fled. Sylia reminded her of her mother in some ways - calm, poised, unflappable - while Mackie and Linna already felt like the brother and sister she had never had. After only a few hours in their company she felt a ... rapport ... that she could not remember ever experiencing before. As for Priss ... she unconsciously squared her shoulders. She was determined to succeed, and if that meant working harder to win over the moody, aloof biker then she would do her very best. The Knight Sabers represented everything she had been seeking but had failed to find when she joined the ADPolice, and she refused to allow an unfortunate first impression to spoil everything...

She sighed, momentarily dispirited, and glanced around her. She also longed for the day when she could escape from the over-priced sardine can which her landlord insisted on referring to as a 'luxury bijou apartment'.


Off-duty the following day, Nene resolved to seek out Sylia again as there were still many questions that she wished to ask. She also felt a strong desire to visit 'Silky Doll'; every woman in Mega-Tokyo surely knew of the high-class boutique, but Nene had never been there herself as the advertisements in the glossy magazines had made her feel that she would be out of place if she so much as crossed the shop's threshold.

As on the previous day the weather was hot and humid. Weaving her way through the mid-morning traffic on her little Genom motor-scooter, Nene was glad not to be at work, especially as the office air-conditioning had failed yet again. If the pattern of the summer's earlier such failures was maintained, it might be days before an engineer arrived to fix it.

When she arrived at 'Silky Doll', she was pleased to be lucky enough to find an empty parking spot in a side street almost immediately. The blast of cool air as she entered the building was a refreshing relief from the sticky heat outside, and the sudden cessation of the traffic noise was equally agreeable.

Inside, the store was quite busy. Sylia, positioned strategically behind one of the sales counters facing the door, spotted her immediately and beckoned her over but had to decline the younger girl's impulsive offer to buy lunch due to pressure of business; a mid-season sale was in full swing.

"You can take me instead!" Linna had entered just after Nene, and had heard the end of the conversation. "Anyway, Sylia's idea of lunch is coffee and more coffee. It's very boring!"

"Okay," replied Nene cheerfully. She liked Linna, and in any event felt that some of the questions she wanted to ask were not things she could ask Sylia directly. At least, not yet. "I know a good little cafe just down the street," said Linna. "It's too hot to walk far just for lunch."

"I'll second that," agreed Nene fervently. "Lead on!"

"Enjoy yourselves," said Sylia as they left, giving a rueful shrug. "I'm sorry I can't come with you, Nene. Next time!"

Linna's concept of 'just down the street' turned out, to Nene's dismay, to be just over half a mile. Once they arrived, however, she had to concede that the choice was a good one; comfortable seats and a pleasant atmosphere of unhurried calm combined with enough tempting aromas to please even the most demanding diner. After a quick mental review of her bank balance Nene decided to treat herself and ordered steak. Linna chose chicken ("Too much red meat is bad for your digestion!") and at Nene's invitation also chose the wine; Nene's strict upbringing had left her inexperienced on the subject of alcohol, and she hesitated to display her ignorance.

Following half an hour of smalltalk, most of her steak, and two glasses of a light white wine, Nene felt sufficiently emboldened to ask Linna the question that was uppermost in her mind.

"Why does Priss hate the Police so much? I really don't think she likes me at all."

Linna put down her knife and fork. "To be honest, I'm not really sure. I think Sylia's the only one who knows the whole story." She paused, eyed Nene carefully. "Don't breathe a word of this to anyone, but I think it has something to do with the murder of her boyfriend and a bungled investigation. And I think boomers might have been involved."

"What? Are you sure?"

"Not absolutely," admitted Linna. She leaned back, gazed up at the ceiling. "I like Priss, I've known her for nearly three months now, but she's still as tight as a clam about her personal life. I think I know her as well as anyone does, except perhaps for Sylia, then sometimes I think I don't know her at all. I do know she'll do anything for you if you're her friend."

Nene sighed heavily. "I hope I can be her friend," she said sadly. "I don't think I made a good impression yesterday."

Linna laughed. "In the truck, you mean?"

Nene nodded.

"Don't worry about it, she's probably already forgotten that. As for the uniform, she'll see past that in time. It's not the clothes but who's inside them that counts."

"I hope so," said Nene doubtfully. "At least Mackie seems to like me."

Linna laughed again. "Don't take this the wrong way, but Mackie likes anything in a skirt. Just keep your eyes on the CCTV's when you're changing!"

"Oh!"

Over coffee Nene broached the other subject on her mind. She felt increasingly comfortable in Linna's company, and another glass of wine had relaxed her to the point where anything seemed possible. "Who exactly is Sylia? I mean, she obviously has money - lots of money - but that doesn't explain the Knight Sabers. She said you sometimes charge for what you do, but from the warrants I've seen the sort of money you make couldn't possibly finance you ..."

Linna frowned. "I don't really know. She sometimes talks about her father's legacy, and I'm pretty sure that a lot of our technology came from him, but actually she's worse than Priss for talking about her private life. I do know she's very unhappy about boomers." She drained her coffee cup, looked at her watch. "Good grief, is that the time already? I'll be late for class - and I'm the teacher!" She stood up. "Thanks for lunch. Say, are you working tonight?"

"No."

"Great. I'll buy you a beer. Meet me at the 'Hot Legs' at... umm... 9 o'clock. Dress is casual!"

"What? Where - " But Linna had gone.


Reference to the 'phone book and a city street map enabled Nene to locate the 'Hot Legs', on the edge of District Three. Reluctant to ride her scooter into that part of town she hailed a cab, and arrived almost half an hour early - which was perhaps just as well, as there was already a queue at the door. The crowd seemed to be about half bikers in leathers despite the heat, and half young salarymen out on a jaunt; a mixture that seemed very strange to Nene and which made her distinctly uneasy. Part of neither group, she felt horribly conspicuous. She was quite relieved when Linna arrived a few minutes later, especially after she had rejected two offers of various illegal substances in as many minutes. Also, although Linna had specified casual dress, Nene suspected that the shorts and tee-shirt she was wearing in deference to the heat of the evening were a touch too casual; she had been expecting a pavement cafe, not a night-club. Her clothes were certainly gaining her a degree of attention from the young executives that she would have preferred to avoid.

Linna's first words confirmed her suspicion. "Hi! I didn't realise you're a raver! Come on!" She pushed her way blithely through to the head of the queue and brandished a pair of passes under the bouncer's nose; he opened the door and ushered them inside.

The first thing that hit Nene was the noise, an almost physical wall of sound that battered at her eardrums. The second was the heat; the interior of the building was hot, dark and crowded, lit by flashing strobes and lasers that created a surreal effect. A band on the stage was thumping out a hard rock number with more enthusiasm than talent, a judgement apparently shared by the majority of the patrons as very few were actually paying them any attention.

Linna put her mouth close to Nene's ear and shouted, "Let's get a drink! The main show doesn't start for a bit!" She grabbed Nene's wrist and pulled her through the throng to the bar, where she ordered two beers. Nene took one, sipped at it, and hid a grimace; she really did not care for beer at all. She fended off a too-friendly hand that snaked out of the crowd at her and was about to suggest to Linna that they go up onto the balcony when the band suddenly fell silent and left the stage to a smattering of applause.

She wiped her face with the back of her hand and turned to Linna again. "Why are we here? This isn't really the most comfortable place to be on a night like this!"

Linna grinned at her. "There's someone I want you to see. She's due on any minute."

"Okay." Nene put down her beer and grabbed a handful of nuts from the dish on the bar. She could feel the sweat trickling down her back and the tee-shirt sticking to her unpleasantly, and was rather wishing that she had declined Linna's invitation. Anxious not to upset a potential new partner, however, she did not actually suggest that they leave.

After another twenty minutes or so she was beginning to have serious doubts, and was only dissuaded from making her apologies to Linna by the slow filing onto the stage of another group of musicians.

Linna elbowed her in the ribs. "This is it!"

The band struck a few chords, paused while the bass guitar retuned his instrument, and pitched into a plaintive melody. The vocalist then stepped forward from the shadows to the microphone, and Nene blinked hard. She was tall, slim and sexy, her appearance enhanced by a very short leather skirt and bandeau top. The crowd was mesmerised, and after a moment Nene could see why; although (in her opinion) the girl did not have a particularly wonderful voice she had a powerful charisma that drew all eyes to her.

Linna leaned closer, whispered, "Great, isn't she?"

Nene nodded, eyed still on the singer. "Yeah. Who is she?"

Linna laughed. "Look again," she invited.

Nene looked - and then realised with a sudden start that the singer was Priss, amazingly transformed from angry biker to seductive entertainer.

They stood while Priss performed two more songs, then Nene turned to Linna again. "She's terrific!"

"She certainly is," agreed Linna. "I thought you might like to see another side of her ..."

The two girls remained in the audience for the whole of Priss' set, then Linna insisted that they go backstage. Nene was enthralled by her first brush with show-business, and greeted Priss with a rapturous enthusiasm that had the singer quite taken aback, and not a little embarrassed.

"Hold on a minute!" Priss took off the blonde wig and hung it carefully on the stand on the tiny dressing-table. "Let me get changed, and we'll go for a drink. I'm parched!"

"Okay," cried Nene, throwing caution to the winds. "When does this place close?"

"Actually, I don't think she really likes it her," said Linna.

"Hell, neither do I," said Priss, looking at Nene with a grin. "But they pay me to sing, and it's a place to start while I try to line up a recording contract."

"Priss Asagiri, Japan's newest idol singer!" said Linna mischievously, winking at Nene.

"Not bloody likely!" responded Priss crossly.

"No, I suppose it's already too late for that," laughed Linna, and ducked as Priss threw her towel across the room.

"Aaargh, you're hopeless! C'mon, let's go get a drink!" She threw one arm round Linna's shoulder, the other round Nene's, and the trio launched themselves into the Tokyo night.


The alarm woke Nene the next morning at 7.30, and after rather less than four hours sleep the fierce electric buzz resounded through her head like a jackhammer. She reached out, eyes tightly closed, to turn off the little unit but caught the wire instead, and in trying to stop it hitting the floor got her arm and both legs tangled in the sheet and fell out of bed. The impact of bare skin on the cheap carpet shocked her more-or-less awake - and it was only then that she remembered she was working the late shift and had forgotten to switch off the alarm before falling into bed. Her head was pounding, and her stomach felt queasy; she could not recall how much she had drunk the previous night, but it had clearly been too much. She staggered blindly into the shower, turned the water on and stood under the stream, face upturned, for several minutes without moving, simply allowing the hot water to soothe and relax her.

While standing there quietly memory reasserted itself suddenly and she blushed furiously as the events of the evening rushed back to her. She had a vague recollection of a karaoke bar, a challenge from Linna (to Priss' considerable amusement) and a disinterested audience that livened up dramatically when she started to take her clothes off to get their attention. The cheers had served to encourage her, and she dropped her head into her hands as she recalled just how far she had gone. Priss and Linna had bundled her off the stage and out of the back door wrapped in a table-cloth ... *Oh my God. They'll probably never speak to me again!* She turned up the water flow, allowing the pummelling from the jets to blank her mind again. *I swear I'll never touch another drop ... *

Just when she was beginning to feel that she might be able to face the day after all her reverie was interrupted by the sound of the 'phone. She invited it pithily to do something impossible to itself, but when it failed to oblige she turned off the water, wrapped a towel around herself and went to answer it.

"Nene! Hi! What a terrific morning!" Linna's breezy tones burst from the earpiece like wasps from their nest, and Nene moved the handset further from her head.

"Linna? What - " She stopped, unable to get a word in against the flow.

"I've got a class at 9 o'clock, and a space with your name in it if you're not working. When are you on duty next?"

"Uuuhh ... I'm not ... 2 o'clock this afternoon. Oh God, you're a _morning_ person, aren't you!" She groaned softly, but Linna overheard.

"Are you okay?"

"Just peachy, except for a hangover and only four hours sleep."

"Is that all? Wasn't last night great, though? We'll do it again sometime soon!" carolled Linna happily. "Have some breakfast, and meet me at the gym. You've got plenty of time."

"Uuuhh ... okay. 'Bye." Nene put the 'phone down, padded into the kitchen and switched on her coffee-maker. She added extra coffee, almost wishing for a cup of Sylia's corrosive brew. Unable to face breakfast she nevertheless forced herself to nibble on a piece of toast between sips of coffee, and then reluctantly got dressed and set off for Linna's class. She had a feeling it was going to be one of those days ...


The day actually turned out better than the unpromising beginning had implied it might - although Linna's class was not only less fun than Linna had indicated it would be, but was in fact as least as bad as she herself had feared. Although the exercise seemed to help combat the after-effects of the alcohol, the only comparison she could think of was a form of unpleasant medieval torture; she was not at all sorry when the class finished. There was simply something about mindless jigging up and down to banal music in the company of total strangers that she found very difficult to appreciate or enjoy.

"Never overdo it at first," warned Linna seriously. "If you're not accustomed," and she prodded Nene cheerfully in the stomach just as Priss had done, "there are proper ways to work up to a full routine. We'll get you there in no time!"

"If you say so," replied Nene sceptically. "But right now the only place I've got to get to is work!"

During her mid-shift coffee break she was able to look back on her life with a more objective eye than she had hitherto managed. She realised with a little surprise that she was almost ... lonely; the double disadvantages of being a police officer and working shifts meant that like many cops she found it difficult to maintain friendships outside the job. Her closest friend was Naoko, who had been in her enrolment class; but _she_ had a steady boyfriend in the traffic division, and the girls rarely saw each other outside the office. None of her childhood friendships had survived her abrupt departure from her parents' home and relocation to the city just after her sixteenth birthday. She sighed softly; at least attending Linna's classes would enable her to meet some different people.

When she returned to her console she discovered that the workload was even slacker than usual. Her mind turned to what Linna had said in the restaurant, and she started to scribble notes to herself about boomer crime and unsolved murders, particularly as they related to one Priss Asagiri ...

 


PART II

In the still of the darkened room the hum of the air- conditioning and the quick-fire patter of rapidly-struck computer keys was clearly audible. The reflected glow from the VDU cast the operator's face into sharp relief, the glare from the screen casting a curious sheen on her fierce copper hair.

Nene suddenly stretched her arms above her head and took a deep breath, flexing her fingers and swaying slightly in the chair to relieve the tension in her back. A glance at the clock showed 1.00 a.m., and she switched off her console with a sharp frustrated slap. The Data Control Room at ADPolice Headquarters had been all but deserted for the last three hours, since the departure of her colleagues on the late shift; although policing was an around-the-clock task, the computer suite was now only manned for two of the normal three shifts following the last round of financial cutbacks.

Nene went to her locker, took out her raincoat and slipped it on while waiting for the lift. Once on the ground floor she waved goodnight to the desk sergeant before stepping out into the parking lot behind the building. Carefully putting on her helmet, in deference to the many traffic cops hanging around on their break, she wiped rainwater off the seat of her scooter before setting off for home.

The streets were quite deserted, and she had time to reflect as she headed towards her apartment. Linna's hints about the reasons for Priss' distrust of the Police had piqued her interest and made her determined to get to the bottom of the story, but despite three hours of concentrated effort to find the relevant records all her enquiries had met with the same response: 'ACCESS DENIED'. Indeed not only had all her attempts been in vain, but at least once she had triggered an alarm which in turn had 'flagged' another console. She fully expected to receive a summons from her Section Chief in due course to explain her conduct, although this did not unduly concern her; she had become adept at widening her eyes, batting her eyelids and if really necessary forcing a small tear in order to avoid the consequences of her small misdemeanours.

When she reached home some half-an-hour later she received an unpleasant shock. Illumination from the street light opposite showed that her door was ajar, the lock shattered; clearly she had been burgled. Aware that the perpetrators might still be inside, she took the largest spanner she could find in her small toolkit in one hand and her rubber-sheathed flashlight in the other and crept up the short flight of steps to her door, where she cautiously peered round the jamb. The little hallway was in darkness, and there was no sign of life. She stood up, mounted the last step and went in, pushing the door fully open with the spanner and sweeping the flashlight beam across the space inside. There was sudden violent movement; she half-turned, and received a heavy blow on the head from someone who had been standing behind the door. Her crash- helmet protected her from serious injury, but the shock momentarily stunned her and she was unable to avoid her assailant when he pushed her down the steps as he rushed past. She had a fleeting glimpse of a hard, cold face and an impression of immense physical strength before she hit the pavement, then heard a car door slam and a vehicle drive off at high speed.

After a few moments she was able to struggle to her feet. She limped back up the steps, dizzy but determined, apprehension overborne by anger, and flipped on the light-switch - only to give a small cry of horror at the chaos that lay revealed.

Every door, every cupboard, hung open, contents strewn wildly across the floor. Every piece of furniture appeared to have been destroyed; chairs and table broken, soft furnishings ripped apart and turned inside-out. Her possessions were scattered through every room, and in the lounge even her stereo, television and video had been smashed. Crossing to the bedroom she found the same scenario - drawers and cupboards carelessly and completely emptied, clothes thrown everywhere and many things slashed or simply ripped apart. Shocked, she picked up odd things at random, dropped them again. She came to the remains of her bed, and saw to her disgust that the intruder had scrawled an obscene suggestion in lipstick on her favourite dark green silk negligee. She shuddered, picked up the offending article and screwed it into a ball before remembering that it constituted evidence and should not be touched. Unwilling to leave it exposed to the gaze of her colleagues, however, she stuffed it into her coat pocket.

She found the 'phone, miraculously still intact under a pile of eviscerated cushions, and immediately called the local Police box. When she revealed that she was also on the Force the reaction was commendably prompt, and within minutes a squad car screamed to a halt in the street outside, lamps flashing and siren wailing; the irreverent thought crossed her mind that the response time would have the made the Public Relations office proud.

The uniform cops leapt out of their car and rushed up the steps, guns waving wildly, and despite the situation Nene was hard-put to stifle a slightly hysterical giggle. One man went inside to conduct his own search, ignoring her confirmation that the criminal was long gone; the other kept her company on the pavement outside, and was able to confirm that the Detective Division would try to send someone as soon as they were able. This was unlikely to be until morning at the very earliest, however, as they were currently dealing with the usual crop of Saturday night rapes, stabbings, shootings and other crimes involving more than merely peripheral violence to the victim.

Just as Nene was beginning to recover from the twin traumas of assault and burglary the squad car had to leave; two trucks had collided outside the new Genom Tower and there was a perceived need for urgent traffic control measures. *An urgent need for the Police to be very visible,* thought Nene sourly. *Just because Genom is the biggest tax-payer in Japan.*'

Their departure left Nene in something of a quandary. It was now well after two o'clock in the morning, and she had nowhere to go. She could not bear the thought of remaining in the apartment, with a door that could no longer be secured and with only the floor to sleep on. Nor could she face her parents' recriminations if she were to give in and go home; she had not set foot across their threshold since walking out almost twelve months before. Eventually she thought of Sylia. The Knight Sabers' leader had said that the team supported its own, and while her initial preference would have been to turn to Linna for help she did not have the dancer's address or 'phone number. Reluctantly she went back inside and picked up the 'phone.

After what seemed like an interminable wait, but which was in fact only thirty seconds or so, a bleary voice irritably answered.

"Yes? Hello?"

"Sylia? It's me - Nene - "

"Nene? What ... do you realise what _time_ it is?"

"I'm sorry ... " Her voice trembled, and she fought to control it. "I've been burgled ... " Suddenly the night's events became too much for her; she fought to choke back sobs. "I ... I've got nowhere to go, they broke my door and hit me ... " The tears came more freely as the accumulated tension and shock poured out.

"Nene? Burgled? Good God ... "

Nene heard sounds that implied Sylia had leapt out of bed, and heard her shout to Mackie. Relieved beyond measure she kept the 'phone pressed tightly to her ear, and was shortly rewarded by Sylia's normal cool tones. "Nene, where are you now?"

"At home." She laughed shakily, and a wave of dizziness washed over her. "He hit me on the head, but I was wearing my crash helmet ... Sylia, I haven't even got a change of clothes ... "

"I understand. Stay where you are, I'll be over as quick as I can. Wedge the door shut if that will make you feel better."

Sylia was as good as her word, and arrived less than an hour after Nene had first picked up the 'phone. She had Mackie with her, and after sitting Nene in the car with hot tea from a flask they made a quick but thorough check of the apartment, concentrating on whatever clothing might be salvageable. Their efforts were not wholly in vain; despite Nene's assertions that everything had been destroyed they found some undamaged things which they put in a case that Sylia had brought with her.

By the time got back to Sylia's building Nene was almost asleep, lulled by the hot drink and Sylia's careful driving. She roused enough to walk unaided along the hallway she remembered so well to another door, a guest room, where Sylia unpacked the case while Mackie quickly and efficiently made up the bed.

When Mackie had finished, Sylia pushed him firmly out of the room and helped Nene to undress.

"Stay here, I'll go and get the first aid kit. That's a nasty- looking scrape."

While she was gone, Nene cautiously explored her body for signs of injury. Her neck was painful, presumably a legacy of the blow on the head, although her head itself was untouched. *Score one for Genom crash-hats,* she thought gratefully. Her back was bruised from hitting the steps and the pavement, and there was messy and now aching abrasion on her left leg from mid-calf to above the knee where she had caught the edge of the top step as she fell.

As she finished the self-examination Sylia returned with a small medical kit and a bowl of warm water. She cleaned and dressed Nene's leg, and also made her own check for other injuries.

"Well, I don't think there's anything else except some bruising," she concluded with relief. "Normally I'd suggest you see a doctor, but I don't think that'll be necessary. You were lucky, I think, but you're pretty much okay." She bundled Nene into bed, went to the door and turned out the light. "Get a good night's sleep. I'll 'phone the Police and tell them where you are. We'll talk again in the morning."

"Ummm. Sylia ... " She paused as Sylia turned back, eyes gleaming softly in the faint light from the hallway.

"Yes?"

"Thanks. Really."

Sylia smiled gently. "It's all right. I'm glad I could help. See you in the morning."


When Nene woke she was momentarily disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings - and then the events of the previous day came flooding back to her. She sat up in the bed and looked around, wincing at the aches in her neck and back muscles, and noticed a small note on the bedside cabinet. She picked it up, turned it to the faint light that infiltrated the thick curtains, and saw that it was from Sylia. 'Clothes in wardrobe. Come through when you're ready. S.'

A quick check of the two doors in the room revealed the exit to the hall and an en-suite bathroom. She was quick to take advantage of the latter, and after a leisurely shower and careful towelling felt able to face the day with a measure at least of her usual optimism. An examination of the wardrobe's contents revealed a mix of her own things rescued from her flat and a selection of items presumably left for her by Sylia. She chose a bottle-green wool suit, and was shortly ready to present herself to her rescuers.

Sylia was seated at the table in the lounge, inevitable cup of coffee in one hand and a newspaper in the other. She looked up as Nene entered, and put down the paper. "Good morning! How are you feeling?"

"Hi. Better, I think. I can't begin to thank you - " She broke off as her stomach rumbled, coloured slightly. "Oops, I'm sorry! I don't think I stopped for lunch yesterday ... "

Sylia laughed. "Yes, you're definitely on the mend! Mackie and I have had breakfast, but I'm sure I can find something."

"Thank you." She followed Sylia into a spacious kitchen, accepted a cup of tea, and watched in some amazement as Sylia produced a substantial breakfast with no apparent effort.

Sylia noticed her gaze. "I quite enjoy cooking for other people - it's quite relaxing. Although I don't do it that often. There's no satisfaction in cooking for Mackie - he'll eat anything and everything!"

"No fair, sis." Mackie came in from the hall, grease and grime liberally smeared over hands, face and clothes. "I've finished tuning Linna's motoroid." He snatched up a mug of tea, turned to Nene. "How are you this morning? You certainly look fine." He leered happily at her.

Nene grinned back. "I feel pretty good, too, thanks to you and Sylia."

"Mackie! You're dripping oil all over the floor," said Sylia crossly. "Go and drip it somewhere else, please."

"How about if I just take off my overalls - "

"Out!"

"Okay, okay, I'm going! See you later, Nene."

Sylia heaved an exaggerated sigh. "I know he's my brother, but sometimes ... !"

"At least you have a family to care. I've got no-one since I left home - my father's cut me off until I apologise and go back on his terms," said Nene sadly.

"Well, the Knight Sabers are your family now. And surely the Police - "

"Oh my God, the Police! I ought to get in touch with them, they've probably been looking for me!"

"There's no rush. They know you're here, I spoke to them last night. They don't seem to be in much of a hurry."

Nene scowled. "That doesn't surprise me. They're not really interested in ordinary burglaries these days, even with a little assault thrown in. If I wasn't a cop myself they wouldn't even be pretending to do more than logging it for my insurance." She leaned back gingerly in the chair. "I suppose I'd better go and start sorting out the mess. I can't stay here forever, although I'm so grateful I can't tell you."

"Again, there's no hurry. I took the liberty of asking Priss and Linna if they'd go round to your place and start sorting things out for you. I thought you might like the help, and the company, after what's happened."

"Then I can't ask them to face that alone!" She stood up. "Can I ask you one more favour? Would you call me a cab?"

"I'll do better than that. I'll drive you myself."

"Really? Are you sure? Thanks!"


When Sylia and Nene arrived, the first thing they saw was Priss' motorcycle. The second was Priss herself, defending it from the attentions of a traffic cop who wanted it moved from in front of the fire hydrant where she had parked it. The cop won; Priss moved the bike round the corner, and the cop left.

"Gods, are all the cops round here such bastards?" asked Priss in an exasperated tone. "I swear, someone's stuck a pole up that one's backside!"

"And good morning to you too, Priss," said Sylia, clearly amused; her mouth twitched, a sign which Nene was learning to interpret as an attempt not to laugh.

"Morning, Sylia ... Nene." She looked at Nene carefully, reached out and gently squeezed her shoulder. "Sorry about that!" She waved vaguely at the figure of the retreating cop. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, thank you. And thank you for this ... "

Priss shrugged. "Hey, nothing to it. I'm sorry there's not much to rescue! We've done our best, but it's precious little really." Her face hardened. "I'd like to introduce the son-of- a-bitch who did this to my hardsuit."

As they reached the top step, Linna stuck her head round the door-frame. "Nene! Hi! Not much of a welcome home, I'm afraid. You're okay, though?"

"Yes, mostly thanks to Sylia, last night." She looked dejectedly round the apartment. The chaos of the previous evening had been distilled into various piles, neatly arranged; clothes, books and magazines, tapes and discs, and so forth - and a much larger pile than the others which comprised everything that was clearly beyond salvation.

"That bastard's destroyed a year of my life," she growled, anger flaring suddenly. "I wish he was standing here, right now ... " Her fists clenched convulsively; Priss and Linna exchanged surprised glances, then looked at Sylia - who was matching their amazement. She relaxed again just as suddenly, the anger draining away as quickly as it had risen. "I guess I'd better go talk to my bank manager. I'm going to need new furniture and new clothes, and it's bound to take ages for the insurance to pay out."


The next few days passed without incident. Armed with a small loan from the bank (but only obtained after she proved she was a desk cop, and not on the street) Nene was able to replace essential furniture and clothing and to return her home to a habitable condition. She was eventually interviewed by a disinterested detective from the local precinct, and by an even more disinterested clerk when she visited her insurance company where she completed a claim form and extracted a promise of settlement without delay.

Her shift pattern meant that she was only able to attend one of Linna's classes in the week that followed the break-in, and her injuries restricted her participation, a situation that Linna accepted with good cheer.

"I suppose working shifts is a bit like the theatrical life," the dancer remarked at the end of the class. "You often end up working when everyone else is at home, and asleep when they're all at work!"

Eventually she recalled the problem on which she had been working, and dug her notes out from the bottom of her desk drawer. It was only then that she recalled the 'flag' on her computer during her abortive attempt to access the classified records. She also realised with considerable amazement that her Section Chief had said nothing to her about the matter, an extraordinary situation in itself given his usual explosive reaction to even minor infringements by his staff.

She chose her moment carefully before digging further, and under the guise of catching up on her workload contrived on the following night to once again remain at work after her colleagues had departed. She called up the data, and again noted the 'flag'; this time however instead of quitting at the alarm she took the risk of staying on-line and back-tracking the 'flag' to its source.

"That can't be right..." She watched the result with surprise and disbelief, then quit the system, ran a diagnostic and finally ran the trace again. *Oh boy. That explains why old Iron Pants hasn't bawled me out ... but now what do I do?* A few minutes wrestling with her conflicting obligations brought her to a decision. *No-one here will believe me ... * A terrible thought crossed her mind. *Someone here installed this ... * She hit the 'print' key, tore the sheet from the machine and stuffed it into her bag. *I daren't tell anyone here, in case ... I'll tell Sylia, at least she'll listen.*'


As Nene drove towards Sylia's building through the nearly- deserted streets she noticed a car that seemed to be pacing her. She was at first not particularly concerned - although the roads were quiet there was still some traffic abroad - but when as a precaution she made several diversions through back- streets and the car stayed with her she became increasingly alarmed. She was therefore quite relieved when she finally arrived at her destination, and pressed on the intercom buzzer with some agitation.

"Yes?" Mackie's voice.

"Mackie? Nene. I'm being followed by a big black limo - "

"Come on in." The garage door rose, and Nene gunned her scooter through the gap as soon as there was clearance. She screeched to a halt not far from the lifts and paused to calm herself when there was a grinding crash that made her spin round in amazement. The black limousine had attempted to follow her in, and had been caught under the descending door. The roof started to crumple, and as the power of the door's hydraulics overcame the resistance offered by the car's bodywork the windows burst out. Three figures leapt clear only just ahead of the vehicle's fiery death, two men and a woman; they paused, scanned the area carefully and advanced purposefully towards Nene, fanning out to surround her as they did so.

Nene backed slowly towards the lifts, drawing her service revolver - which she had taken to carrying even off-duty since the attack - from her bag. "Police officer! Stand where you are!" she shouted, training the revolver on the closest of the three.

The response was simple and direct; dropping to one knee the man pulled a gun of his own from a shoulder-holster and fired a single shot at her. She flinched slightly as the bullet splattered on the wall only inches from her head and concrete splinters whined past her face. Undeterred, however, she drew a deep breath, took careful aim and returned fire with a volley of shots that was rewarded when the man flew backwards and crashed to the floor where he twitched once and lay still, blood pooling round his head.

The remaining two attackers came at Nene from opposite sides. She half turned and managed to loose a further single shot at the closest before being struck a thunderous blow on the shoulder by a heavy fist that twisted her round and slammed her into a pillar. Dazed, she fell to her knees; her revolver skittered off into the gloom.

The second man walked over to it, picked it up and to Nene's horror crushed it in his fist. Mesmerised by the sight she nevertheless struggled to get to her feet; as the third figure - the woman - moved closer to her, grinning unpleasantly, and grasped her firmly by the throat.

"Who ... who _are_ you?" croaked Nene desperately. "What do you want?"

At that moment the lift doors hissed open. Blood pounding in her head, Nene was unable to see who was there, but her assailant dropped her back to the concrete and fell into a defensive posture; the man did likewise. There was a rapid clatter of footsteps and Sylia, fully suited, leapt out of the lift. She crossed the distance between the lift car and the female intruder almost quicker than Nene could follow and planted her right fist against the woman's chest. There was a loud detonation, and the woman's torso exploded in a searing cloud of smoke and flame. Nene gasped and reflexively covered her face; metallic shrapnel and burning fluids blasted everywhere and the boomer fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.

The male boomer abandoned its human form, allowing its armoured secondary body to emerge. Nene watched, appalled and revolted, as it shed its pseudo-skin in a shower of blood to stand revealed as one of the new BU-55c models. Sylia took aim and fired; the boomer leapt sideways, and the concussion half- demolished a pillar. The ceiling creaked; plaster and concrete fell in showers.

"Officer! Get out of here!" shouted Sylia, circling away to distract the boomer. Nene did as instructed and started to sidle in the opposite direction, towards the still-open lift doors.

The boomer held its attention on Sylia, manoeuvring to keep her in its sights. It fired a shot from its mouth-mounted cannon; she avoided the blast, which smashed a large hole through the wall, and retaliated with a fusillade of small- calibre fire that made it involuntarily step back, although it was not damaged.

She was about to close with the monster again when the wail of Police sirens became audible over the sounds of the battle. The boomer hesitated for a fraction of a second; Sylia fired again. The shot sheared through its left elbow in a shower of blood and sparks, and its left hand fell still twitching to the floor. The boomer wheeled unsteadily and leapt for the hole in the wall; Sylia's final shot shattered its head in a cloud of crimson, and it collapsed suddenly like a puppet with its strings cut.

Sylia pushed Nene, still startled by the speed and ferocity of the battle, into the lift; she herself paused only long enough to briefly examine the dead man, and empty his pockets, before joining her. Once the doors had closed and the lift had started its ascent she removed her helmet; she was breathing hard, and sweat ran down her face. The stench of blood, ozone and cordite was almost overpowering.

"Taking on two of those things on my own ... stupid, _stupid_! Well, the Police can sort it out down there." She eyed Nene curiously. "Life has certainly gotten more interesting since I met you! Do you know them, or why they're after you?"

"I have no idea ... No, I take that back!" Nene took the print- out she had removed from her office and waved it under Sylia's nose. "I found out tonight that someone's tapping the police datanet. That's why I was coming here - whoever it is knows I'm on to them!"

"I see." Sylia took the dead man's wallet and flipped it open. Her eyes narrowed, her lips compressed to a thin bloodless line; wordlessly she turned it to Nene.

"Genom? But ... " She looked up at Sylia. "What on earth do we do _now_?"

"Call the others. I've some fast checking to do before they get here ... " She put her helmet back on and went straight to the back stairs, descending them at a run; Nene watched her leave, puzzled, and then turned to the 'phone.


"So the problem is, what should we do now?" Nene restated the question she had first put to Sylia in the lift, looking at the others as she spoke - Priss, slumped moodily in a chair; Linna, yawning widely but trying to look alert; Sylia, a grim silent figure by the window; Mackie, a quiet shadow in the corner. It was almost dawn. Sylia had returned only minutes ahead of Priss' and Linna's arrival, but she had said almost nothing since then, leaving Nene to tell her own story to the assembled team.

"I don't mind admitting this scares me," said Linna. "We can't fight Genom."

"They owe me," growled Priss. "I'm sorry I doubted you, Nene. You've proved to me that Genom were behind - " She broke off, looked away.

"No personal revenges," said Linna. "Besides, you've no real proof of anything." She looked anxiously at Sylia, who was gazing distractedly out of the window; the sun was rising, its fiery reds and golds reflected strangely in her dark eyes. "What do _you_ think, Sylia?"

Sylia turned, now a dark silhouette against the sun, face invisible. "I think you're both right - but so is Nene. If Genom are involved, and if they subvert the ADPolice, no-one will be safe, including us." She paused, lit a cigarette; the flare of the match illuminated her face, tired and drawn, for a second. "Nene, is there anyone you trust in the Police? Anyone with authority?"

"Inspector McNicol, I guess. At least, he's always getting into trouble for going after things even when he's told to lay off."

"Good. Give him the print-out, but make sure he doesn't find out how you got it. You don't want the Police to find out how close you are to the Knight Sabers."

"I think he rather admires the way you get things done, actually," said Nene. "I'll tell him it was specially left for him by you - he's more likely to take it seriously, then."

"Hmmmm." She leaned back against the window, stifled a yawn. "Let's hope he can do something about this without destroying the ADPolice altogether."

"That doesn't do shit about Genom, or whoever's behind all this," snarled Priss. "Like I said, they _owe_ me."

Sylia looked at her wearily. "Apart from your personal feelings, Priss, there's something else to consider. Whoever is behind all this has made Nene a target, and that has to be more important at the moment."

Priss blinked hard. "Yeah. Sorry."

"Mackie's working flat-out on Nene's suit - "

"It should be ready in a couple of days, sis," confirmed Mackie, perking up at the mention of his name.

"Good. We'll start your training then, Nene."

"That's all very well, Sylia, but you were right just now," said Linna. "Nene seems to be a target. What do we do about that?"

"Well, I destroyed the boomers downstairs, so they didn't have a chance to report back to their masters," said Sylia slowly. "Although in this case I hope the Police will take the credit! I took all their papers, so they'll be very difficult for the authorities to trace. I also checked on the address they were using; there was no-one there, so I trashed the place and brought back all the software and files I could find. I believe I secured all the evidence of Nene's involvement."

"That's good enough for me, Sylia," said Nene. "I honestly think the best thing I can do is to go back to work as normal. If I don't do anything out of the ordinary, no-one will ever suspect me."

"It's more likely they'll just step on us all, like bugs," said Linna unhappily.

"You're wrong," said Priss quietly. She looked depressed, and Nene realised why although she could think of no way to help.

"What do you mean?"

"If they - whoever 'they' are - had wanted Nene dead, they could have killed her when they burgled her place, instead of waiting until tonight. If that's what they were actually after tonight. So why didn't they?"

"I think it's clear they were actually after information, at least at first," said Sylia. "I suspect they only came after you again, Nene, when you accessed the classified files again."

"Yes - information, not bodies," said Nene excitedly. "Who my friends are, what we know ... "

"Which unfortunately is almost nothing. We know they have contacts inside Genom, but that may be no more significant than you being in the Police as well as one of us. It doesn't necessarily mean that the whole company's involved. I think it's time to step back and see what the ADPolice do to clean their own house, so to speak. We don't have a bottomless purse to fund our operations, after all."

"Is that it?" said Priss in a dangerous voice. "Because if it is, then I'm going home. I'm tired, and if we're not going to do anything about those bastards now then I'm outta here." She stood up and went to the door.

"Priss!" Sylia followed her, put a hand on the singer's arm. "Priss. You have my word that we _won't_ forget this. We _can't_ do anything now, we don't have enough information. But we won't forget. We'll keep searching, carefully, and we will find the answer you're looking for."

"Thank you for that." She looked at the others, eyes warm. "I really must get some sleep. Call me - in about a week!"

Linna yawned expansively. "I think Priss is right about one thing," she said. "I need to get to bed. To sleep!" she added fiercely, suddenly noticing Priss' and Nene's carefully neutral expressions. "Thank God I don't have a class until this afternoon."

"I'd better go as well, Sylia," added Nene. "I'm on duty again in ... umm ... four hours! I didn't think this 'secret identity' routine would be quite so exhausting!"

"It isn't normally," said Linna helpfully. "Usually it's much worse ... "

"Gee, thanks!" She went up to Priss, looked her squarely in the eyes. "Thank you."

They left together, followed by the still-yawning Linna; after a few moments Sylia heard the roar of Priss' motorcycle, followed by the gentle purr of Linna's car and the putter of Nene's scooter.

"G'night, sis." Mackie slipped out towards his own room.

"Hmm? Oh, goodnight, Mackie." She looked around the now- deserted room, strangely bleak in the harsh early sunlight. "Perhaps now I have the means to end the nightmare," she whispered.

"Knight Sabers, sanjo."


EPILOGUE

In a spacious office near the top of the Genom Tower (but not at the top - not yet) a neat, smooth-haired man sat and read a report which had been brought to his attention following a reported Police operation against one of the company's covert action teams.

Suddenly he laid the papers on his desk and stared at them unseeingly as his mind rolled back over the years; a long- forgotten name glared up at him.

Stingray...

Coincidence? He leaned forward and toggled the intercom. "Yoshito. Suspend the operation against the Romanova girl. At once. 'Yellow file' her for the present."

"Sir."

"And bring me two hard files from the vault. My personal authority. Dr. Katsuhito Stingray and his daughter."

"Sir."

He leaned back and swung his chair round to look out over steepled fingers across the towering skyscrapers and soaring elevated roadways of the teeming metropolis that would soon belong to him alone.

He did not believe in coincidence ...


Martin D. Pay General otaku and BGC Fan "Cute redheads rule..."


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