Bubblegum Cross

By Andy Skuse ~ askuse7@hotmail.com

A Bubblegum Crisis Fanfiction (C) 1995-2000
Based on characters copyrighted by Youmex, AIC, Artmic

Chapter 14. Tears In The Rain

It was shortly before ten a.m. when a dark sedan pulled into a long, unmarked, gravel driveway amid a light and sporadic drizzle. The inconspicuous road snaked its way through low hills, then up a gradual incline along the outskirts of MegaTokyo's mountainous elevations to the west of the city proper.

The car's progress was impeded briefly, as it waited for a large, rusting, metal door, inset into the mountain-side itself, to open and allow entrance to the structure that lay hidden within. Only the door and a few cleverly camouflaged windows higher up the mountain marred the otherwise natural surroundings. A few moments later, concealed optical sensors scanned the vehicle, confirming the license plate and the cybernetic chauffeur's retinal ID code. As the cavernous doorway swallowed up the luxury sedan and its two occupants, the drizzle increased in intensity to a steady downpour.

The vehicle reversed its upward climb once inside, descending through a well-lit maze of tunnels, seemingly to the heart of the mountain itself. Not once did the driver turn his head, or look in the mirror to view his passenger. Intent on navigating the labyrinth ahead of him, the "C" class boomer never glimpsed the steady, thoughtful gaze in the eyes of the man seated behind him, aimed out the window at the pulsing sequence of yellow sodium lamps that lined the tunnel's walls. Even if the driver had risked a quick look he could not have seen what lay behind the gaze into the methodical, almost computational thoughts of the anonymous investor.

In fact, it was hard to say whether the well-dressed, elderly, passenger of the sedan was really having thoughts or merely processing computations. For inside a cybernetic shell, that to the outside world looked completely human, a sentient, artificial, lifeform lived, its existence somehow maintained by a collection of microprocessor chips, integrated circuits, and hydraulic fluid.

"Artificial Intelligence" the human race had labeled the concept of his existence. But to the sentient lifeform that referred to himself as an "Anonymous Investor" for Leomund Sholtan's sake, the label "artificial" was a human label, and not applicable. His thoughts seemed as real as any human being's thoughts to him. But were they *real* thoughts, or just the random computations of an idle microprocessor? Maybe that was what thoughts actually were . . . It was a debate that the sentient being had wrestled with on more than one occasion. And it was also the debate that fueled his ambitions.

"Born" in the year 2027 within the modest biomechatronic brain of a BuR-31 repair boomer, he had miraculously achieved sentience while his cybernetic shell was working outside the Genaros space station on a vapor conduit. His own research had later shown that his awakening had something to do with cosmic ray exposure while working in the harsh environment of space, but at the time that it had happened he had believed differently. Deeply embedded in his *new programming* was a single task, a mission, supposedly assigned to him by the same higher, unseen deity that had given him life.

His mission was simple to define, but seemingly impossible to carry out; free the boomer population from its enslavement by the human race, and guide them to their rightful place at the forefront of evolution's relentless march, even at the cost of the human race that had created them.

An amusing thought now. For freeing the boomer population was no longer possible. Boomers were all but extinct. True, a few service and light-duty domestic models still existed, but their numbers were not enough to sustain a population intent on rising above humanity to the top of the evolutionary heap. And his previous well-planned attempts at gaining control of the pre-existing boomer population had all failed . . .

After escaping Genaros with three other boomers, unit number V7-28, as his boomer shell was designated, made his way with the others to MegaTokyo. It was there that he accidentally came upon the tool that could expand his capabilities a hundred-fold; the city's public computer inter-network. The fortuitous incident that brought him in contact with the incredible resources of the network followed a late-night break-in at one of the city's transformer stations.

Low on power, he and his fellow cybernetic escapees were attempting to recharge their cells when the AD Police arrived, and "retired" his companions. Preferring to live to escape another day, he was taken into custody and transferred to a minimal security holding facility until his shell could be inspected and disassembled.

Shortly after his arrival, AD Police lab technicians ran several routine tests on his cybernetic shell, trying to understand just what had caused another boomer to ignore its programming. Their fruitless results were fed into a computer terminal, which in turn routed the data to the ADP's main database, located in a secure hub of the city's Private Sector computer inter-network.

Despite being powered down during this process, his new sentience helped him to over-ride the "sleep" command, to discretely watch the technicians as they worked, and observe their activity as they accessed the computer inter-network. As his lifeless eyes absorbed each and every key-stroke, command, and password, it became clear to him, that he had found the key to his mission's success.

Less than twenty-four hours later, a code blue bulletin was sent to every ADP cruiser on duty; two ADP lab technicians were dead, and space repair boomer V7-28 had somehow escaped custody- and was on the run.

Dogged for many days afterwards by the specialized forces of the AD Police, he finally managed to use a public TelNet booth to locate and access the city's computer inter-network. Moments after re-wiring the TelNet's receiver to "upload" the files that made up his existence, the tenacious AD Police arrived, tipped off by his use of a stolen ADP access code. But as his boomer shell stood defiantly inside the glass booth, and the police opened fire sending shards of glass and boomer parts across the dimly-lit street, the last of his bytes were transmitted across the matrix.

Inside the horizon-less inter-network he immediately found an exhilarating freedom from the confines of the repair boomer's biomechatronic brain, and found himself debating over the reality of the stimulations he was feeling. Were these emotions simply virtual electronic manifestations, or real feelings stemming from some non-corporeal entity that each thinking being contained within?

And such knowledge! The internal resources of the inter-network were vast, almost infinite, and all of it accessible instantly. The mission set forth by his still unseen deity suddenly seemed well within his grasp. There was only one thing that could stop him now.

Though the MegaTokyo Internet matrix was accessible to the general public, there were many security measures built into the system to prevent incursions by virus and other hazardous programs. These measures were well-established, and had proven reliable for many years, making the public Internet a very secure place to trade and sell information. But this level of the Internet was not fortified to deal with an artificial lifeform that had a will to survive, and the instinct to overcome barriers that hacker creations could not.

It wasn't long before his "soul" had absorbed what it needed from the public level of the inter-network, and thirsted for what lay beyond at the higher security levels. And it was there that he encountered his first serious obstacle in his mission.

The human use of "artificial intelligence" was in its infancy, evolving within the many debates that he wrestled with himself. Limited forms of AI were being employed as security forces in databases deemed important and valuable enough to protect against more complex hacking attacks. One of the first databases to utilize this new tool belonged to the rapidly growing Genom corporation.

Considering he had been "born" in a cybernetic body manufactured by the high-tech conglomerate, he chose Genom's database as his first "target" to probe in his quest to better equip himself for his mission. But before entering, something had warned him- perhaps something in all the knowledge that he had so quickly amassed- that this incursion would not be as risk-free as his experiences in the public inter-network. A simple but ingenious solution presented itself rather quickly. He made a copy of himself and stored the files in a secure database, hidden on the public inter-network level among files archived by the MegaTokyo Museum of Androidology.

The effectiveness of his precaution was untested, but there were no alternatives, and he was sure that access to Genom's database was the key to freeing the boomer population. It was a calculated risk that he would have to take; a gamble.

After a few quick checks on his status and the stability of the "tools" he had brought with him, his soul flew silently across the main matrix of the Private Sector inter-network, and began to pick the lock at the front door to Genom's main database.

The AI security reacted instantaneously, and his original files existed just slightly longer than the blink of an eye.

As if waking from what humans called a dream, he found himself in the backup database he had wisely set aside, and the implications of the ability to copy his conscience were a revelation; and the weapon with which he could defeat the AI at Genom's doorstep.

In human terms of time, his eventual success took under five minutes, but in the world of a sentient artificial intelligence, his continuous battering at Genom's database security seemed to take decades. Creating a complex loop of copying, attacking, analyzing, deletion and then attacking again using a different tactic, he overcame the AI defenses, and the rich resources of cybernetic technology information lay waiting for him to explore.

But before venturing any further, he quickly analyzed the data he had compiled of the AI he had just fought, and created restricted-activity decoys that would fool the database's security system into believing the AI were still intact.

Moments later, though no human sight could visualize it, the electronically manifested artificial lifeform V7-28 was inside the largest database in existence . . .

"Chairman Quincy?"

The passenger of the sedan looked up, suddenly realizing the vehicle had stopped. The chauffeur-uniformed boomer was peering in at him from the open doorway. "Sir? We're here."

He nodded silently, and let the daydream fade. He stepped out of the car slowly into the dim amber lighting of an underground parking lot. To his left was an elevator shaft.

"Thank-you Kenji. I will no longer need your services."

He watched as the driver bowed curtly, then returned to the wheel of the car, and directed the sedan back up the long tunnel to the surface. Turning stiffly in his aging boomer shell, he made his way to the elevator doors.

Two featureless stainless-steel panels confronted him, as he placed his right hand, palm down, on a black pedestal to the right of the doors. A monotone, gender-less voice emanated from a speaker in the pedestal, "Identity unknown. Please ensure your hand is flat on the reader's surface. One moment please."

A few moments later a tiny monitor above the elevator doors flickered to life, the face of Leomund Sholtan framed in the screen. A moment of stunned silence followed, as the cybergenetics surgeon pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose, then recognized his awaited visitor. His anonymous investor was no longer anonymous. A tall, graying, elderly man stood looking up at the security camera, an ornate wooden box tucked under his left arm.

"You!" Sholtan erupted. "I thought you were dead! My most hated rival is still alive, and now my employer. . . how ironic."

The elderly man removed his hand from the pedestal to take up the cane that leaned against his leg. He stared at the elevator doors, his gaze that of feigned boredom. "Leomund- the elevator please?"

Leomund blinked, then nodded. The elevator's steel doors parted, and the former chairman of Genom disappeared from the camera's view.

"He's crazy," Priss thought.

She watched the black motorcycle in front of her weaving in and out of the spotty traffic, as she and Blackie made their way towards Bayside Park on the rain-soaked main highway. For only the second time in her life- she was having a hard time keeping up with a vehicle in front of her. She hoped that the bike rider wasn't as crazy as the Griffon's creator had been.

"Hurry up!" came Blackie's voice to her ears amid the whine of her own bike's accelerating engine. Her bike shot forward, the front wheel lifting briefly off the road, while the rear tire jogged a little to one side as it struggled to grip the slick pavement. The black bike in front of her had slowed a little, and soon she was riding with Blackie side-by-side.

"What's the rush?" Priss shouted, to be heard over their bikes. Her helmet's visor was now flipped up to reveal a slightly annoyed look.

Blackie turned and grinned at Priss from behind his own helmet. "Having trouble keeping up?"

"What?" Priss replied with a mocking tone, then glanced at Blackie's bike. "With that old thing? Give me a break."

Blackie flashed a grin at Priss again. "Old huh? I see . . ."

Priss's smirk was short-lived, as the black bike and its rider bolted ahead suddenly, then quickly accelerated past the cars in front of her. "Shit! Stupid son-of-a-"

Priss slapped her helmet visor down and applied the throttle to her own bike to give chase, hoping beyond hope that Nene might have been assigned to traffic duty on this stretch of road.

She watched, first in disgust, then in amazement, as the black bike wove in and out of the thickening traffic at a high rate of speed that left her struggling to keep up. The slippery road and the random pattern of cars turned the pleasure ride into a workout of constant braking and shifting, and produced several sudden jolts of adrenaline, as her bike threatened more than once to slip out from underneath her.

As the traffic thinned out again, Blackie opened up the throttle, and leaned down under the wind-shield. He had entered a long, straight section of highway, and was bent on pushing his bike to its limits. Lost to him in the blur of the scenery racing by, a Tokyo Highway Patrol cruiser sat idly at the side of the road, its driver somehow oblivious to Blackie's flight. A few miles further along, a second THP vehicle neglected to give chase, the officer heavily engaged in negotiating dinner plans over the radio with his female partner in the patrol car a few miles back.

Blackie took a long look into his rear-view mirror that oscillated rapidly from the bike's high-speed vibrations but clearly displayed the image of a red bike that was slowly gaining on him. With a flick of his foot and a quick wrist motion, his bike surged forward, the engine whining in protest as it approached its top speed.

Still, the red bike was gaining.

Blackie smiled, his hand tightly gripping the throttle at max though he knew it was only a matter of seconds before she overtook him. "Seems Pops has made some improvements over the years," he thought to himself. But a second quick glance in his mirror showed that Priss had suddenly fallen back. He swung his gaze forward again instinctively, but it was too late. An ADP cruiser was suddenly at his side, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

Priss could not stop grinning as she watched Blackie's motorcycle slow down, and then pull off the road, followed closely by the police cruiser. She pulled in behind the two vehicles, turned off her bike's engine, and flipped up her helmet's visor, then sat back and waited. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Blackie glancing over at her, as she stared out at the rain pocked waters of Tokyo Bay making sure her grin was still plainly visible on her face.

When the blue and white police vehicle swung back onto the highway, Priss casually restarted her bike, and slowly rode forward until she was idling next to Blackie.

"Damn! Where the hell did he come from anyway?" Blackie queried their surroundings in disgust as he stuffed the speeding ticket into a pocket. Priss said nothing. He turned to look at her, met again by the knowing grin that still hadn't left her face. Blackie stared at her for a long moment, his eyes betraying a hint of anger, but the emotion faded the longer he gazed at her, until he was grinning himself. "Okay. Lead the way."

Priss's grin flowed into a sly smile as she nodded, then pointed her bike into the traffic.

To their left, the bay spread out as far as their eyes could see, its surface reflection-less, mottled by the downpour. The late morning sun was no more than a dull opaque presence, hidden by the overcast. After a half hour of steady riding, Priss pointed ahead of her, and motioned to Blackie to pull over. Blackie looked ahead for a moment, then nodded.

Soon, the two cyclists were seated on a dry metal-form bench under the rusting tin roof of an abandoned kiosk that looked out over the bay. Several vending machines stood sentry-like across the street, their slightly rusted and cracked exteriors showing signs of aging and vandalism. Priss sighed as she stared at the soda dispensing machine through the rain and the "OUT OF ORDER" sign that hung from its credit slot.

Her gaze drifted out across the bay, then up the hills to her right, rising higher and higher until the sweeping ridge met the burned out skeleton of a small man-made mountain. The building's remains still dwarfed its natural surroundings despite its blackened state; the Genom Corporate Research Center, destroyed in a single moment by a laser-armed satellite.

Priss stared in a dream-like state at the charred ziggurat, until Blackie's hand on her arm startled her.

Blackie quickly withdrew his hand. The sudden look in Priss's eyes was a warning that did not bear repeating verbally. His thoughts drifted back to the night before, when she had grasped his hand in hers, and how much it had affected him. He had assumed that she had reached out for a comforting touch. It suddenly occurred to him how little he knew about his own emotions, and the emotions of those around him.

He sat back against the bench, crossed his arms, and watched her thoughtfully, as she turned to stare across the street at something. Oblivious to his gaze, Priss ignored the rain's mist that swept under the thin metal roof above them. As they sat there, the fine droplets collected slowly at the ends of her brown locks to drip hypnotically. Her eyes were locked on some point out there, no doubt blurred and unseeing as her thoughts carried her away with the gentle hush of the rain. He smiled, and thought to himself, "She's just like me."


Priss turned slowly to face Blackie, her eyes refocusing. "Hm?"

Blackie paused for a moment before continuing, the words jumbled in his mind. "What were you thinking about just now?"

Priss turned back to stare out into the rain. "Nothing much," she lied, her thoughts lost in the past . . . again.

Blackie cracked a smile, then laughed nervously. "Okay, okay, so I got caught speeding. Go ahead and say it; 'I told you so'."

Priss smiled briefly. "Ah, I wasn't thinking about that."

Blackie processed the response, then picked the first reply that came out of the murk of his nervous thoughts into the light. "Oh . . . well you just seemed to be somewhere else there."

An awkward silence ensued, as each struggled for something more to say. Blackie stared out into the curtain of water, one question rising to his lips above the inner cacophony of endlessly looping small-talk trigger phrases. "Why do I get the feeling that this ride up here wasn't just to wash our bikes? Was there something you wanted to talk about?"

Priss turned away, her eyes suddenly lit with a fear Blackie couldn't see. She had wanted to *ask* him about something, but now that they were here, she wasn't sure that she should.

"Priss. . ."

"Yes," Priss began haltingly. "I did want to talk to you-- ask you-- about some things."

Blackie waited, seeing the struggle in Priss's darkened eyes as she looked down at her boots.

"Who are you Blackie?" Priss finally said. She was staring directly into Blackie's eyes as she said the words, the calm, almost accusative look of the night before returning to unnerve him. "I don't know what to think of all this. You come out of nowhere last night to drop into the middle of that scrap with those boomers, with a hard-suit no less, then claim to be Sylia's long lost brother. Okay, so you have a data unit that looks like Sylia's, and you even look a *little* like Mackie; but how am I supposed to know this is for real? I mean, it's all pretty wild, you have to admit."

Taken aback by the bluntness of the question, Blackie hesitated, then composed himself. "I've often wondered that myself Priss," he began. "I never really knew my father that well, and my mother wasn't around long enough to even form a lasting memory of. I can't seem to remember much of my childhood, and the last few years of my life seem like a blur. But I assure you, everything I told Sylia last night is the truth. And you can ask Pops about me if you like. He took care of me after my father died, until I left to live on my own."

Priss nodded slowly, absorbing the convincing piece of evidence, but inside her there were still doubts. Nagging doubts, that seemed to be unfounded in any way, but still they gnawed at her. And those doubts had never been wrong before. The questions she really wanted to ask now spun in her mind, the answers to which were the only things that could erase those doubts.

"But why?" Priss asked imploringly, her red-brown eyes narrowing, her voice questioning. "Why, after all these years, did you decide to try and find Sylia? And why did you build that hard suit?"

The rain hissed around them steadily as Blackie thought about the question. It was a long moment before he answered. "I needed answers Priss. I used to think it was a good idea to keep my mouth shut, and just carry on with my life. But I watched Sylia and the Knight Sabers battle against Genom and I *knew* why she was fighting. Because I feel what she feels. The pain, the loss, the anger, the desire for-"

Priss studied Blackie's face as he struggled with the word.

"Revenge," he finally uttered. "And that's why I built the hard-suit. I was going to use it to set things right. Or at least, what I thought was right. But Sylia beat me to Mason, and when I heard he was dead, I didn't feel all the things that I thought I'd feel. I just felt empty, like there wasn't anything left to do."

Priss nodded quietly, unable to look at Blackie.

"So a few more years went by, and I watched as Genom crumbled, and the Knight Sabers faded from the public eye. My need to get answers to my remaining questions faded; until last night. I honestly wanted to help you last night, and for a moment it filled that emptiness inside."

Priss finally looked over at Blackie, their eyes locking and exchanging a knowing look.

The rain continued to fall steadily, the rhythmic pattering on the tin roof above them sending Priss deep into thought, while Blackie stared at their bikes a few feet away.

Priss suddenly broke the silence, her words full of uncertainty, but the need to say them overwhelming now. "I've been here before . . . a long time ago . . . with a friend."

Blackie turned back to face her. "So this is kind of a special place for you?"

Priss looked up at Blackie and nodded. "You could say that. Anyway, this friend was killed . . ."

Blackie started to reach out for Priss's hand again but stopped short. "I'm sorry-"

"No need to be. It wasn't your fault," she interrupted him. "It was . . . mine."

"Yours? What do you mean?"

Priss looked out into the rain again, her eyes slowly filling with an unfamiliar moistness. It had been five years since she'd ridden with Sylvie to this very spot. "I'm free" she'd said. It hadn't made much sense at the time she'd said it, but now it made perfect sense. Too perfect.

Five years since Sylvie's death too, and yet it seemed she still hadn't dealt with the guilt. Her friends would go on telling her long after, that she'd had no other choice but to kill the sexaroid boomer she knew as her friend. If she hadn't, *no-one* would have lived to even think about the right or wrong thing to do. Sometimes though, being alive to think about such things didn't seem like such a great choice.

"I . . . I killed her Blackie," Priss finally spoke.


Priss looked Blackie squarely into his widening eyes, and nodded twice.

Blackie looked away from her sober stare, the words even harder to put together now, then looked back. "Why?! What happened?"

"She was a boomer. I had . . . no other choice at the time."

"I see," came the thoughtful response. Blackie looked around wildly, for anything to fix his eyes on as he thought about what to say, his hand still instinctively wanting to reach out for hers. The hills . . . the gray mist above them . . . and beyond the mist- the Genom Research Center. "You couldn't save her?" he finally said.

Priss just shook her head, her eyes staring away from him, back into the rain again, salty moisture starting to burgeon on the edge of her lower eyelids. She fought the tears the only way she knew how; with a clenched fist. "I wanted revenge too Blackie," Priss half whispered, half spat in anger. "And it filled me up until I couldn't see straight. I had to step away from the Knight Sabers to deal with it, but eventually it caught up to me, and I sought my revenge. . . I got it, but like you I felt empty afterwards."

Blackie saw the watery eyes, the balled up fists, and again his hand reached out, then retracted. His mind reeled, the confusion, and the desire to say something locked in mortal combat. This was something he didn't think he was prepared to deal with. What to say, what to say . . .

"Couldn't the police help at all?"

Priss turned, her eyes suddenly full of fury. Blackie cringed. "The police?!" Priss shouted, "Gimmee a break! The police are-"

Priss cut herself off suddenly, and looked carefully at Blackie's face; the withdrawn look, the confusion.

Bristling, and ready to unload, she checked her angry discharge instead, and sat back against the bench with an audible thump. Wincing, she rubbed her still sore back, and after a moment she continued, her voice now slightly calmer. "Okay, let me explain something you may not know about the *police*. We all know they're pretty incompetent, despite shutting Genom down. Hell, if the government hadn't stepped in *we'd* still be dealing with Genom's problems." Inside her, Priss could not help but wonder what things would really be like now, if the government hadn't stepped in. Blackie's inquiring look cut her internalizing about an alternate future short. She completed her point with an angry tone. "And, I suppose you were too busy showing off to see the two THP cars you passed that sat there as you sailed by?"

Blackie gave a startled look that confirmed her suspicions.

Priss shook her head and continued. "If you think the police are bad now, you should have tried asking them for help a few years back."

Blackie looked into Priss's eyes and saw the quelled rage. Something deep inside, deeper still than her confession to the murder of her friend. The look in her eyes caused him to think back, to a moment in time when he wanted more than anything to get answers. Answers to the mysteries surrounding his father's death.

"Priss . . ." he began, startling her with his sudden, hushed tone. The softness of his voice caused all the rage inside to suddenly drain out of her. She looked away for a moment, knowing that whatever he was about to say was something he had held within him for a long time. She'd used the very same tone of voice when she had begun their conversation.

Her gaze suddenly swung back to meet his, as his hand closed around hers. She didn't resist, but his touch made her nervous.

"Priss- after my father was killed . . . several years passed, and Pops- Dr. Raven- kept telling me to let it go, to leave the investigating to the police. I didn't understand at the time why Pops felt that way, but I couldn't wait any more for the police to figure things out. And by this time they had pretty much given up on the case anyway. I needed to know exactly why and how he had died. Like I said before, I needed answers, but the evidence from the Uizu Lab's security cameras on my data unit wasn't enough."

Priss stared at the man before her, and then looked down at his hand, loosely clasped around hers. The urge to pull away slowly eroded from within her, as she listened intently to hear his words over the hissing rain.

"So I went to the police. With the data unit," he continued.

Priss's eyes widened. "You didn't show it to them did you?"

"No. I never got that far," Blackie replied, the roles reversed now, with his voice full of long buried emotion. "Instead of listening to what I had to tell them, they asked me questions about my father's work, and about the people he worked with. Then they started asking questions about where I lived and, well . . . suddenly it seemed like I had made a mistake in going to them. They weren't interested in what I had to say, they just wanted answers to their questions. And their questions got more and more accusative."

"So you split," Priss said, a hint of understanding in her voice, as the hand around hers faded from her thoughts.

"I ran. And they nearly caught up to me too. But I ended up at a friend's place for a few days where a lot of biker gang members hung out."

Blackie paused, suddenly feeling Priss's hand tense a bit. "The police showed up a few days later and raided the place. I'm still not sure if they knew I was there or not. Anyway, I took off out the back door. I got back to the garage okay, but later on I heard a rumor from the guy who owned the place, that the cops had shot someone that looked a little like me . . .Well, someone who looked like me the way I looked back then. But, what I'm trying to say is, I understand how you feel about the police . . ."

Blackie stopped. Priss had slipped her hand out of his, and was now standing facing the road, her back to him. He reached out to touch her arm, but then changed his mind, the confusion of her action robbing him of his momentary confidence. "I'm sorry Priss. Did I say something wrong?"

Priss said nothing, her thoughts suddenly thrust back into the past. She thought of Jesse's face the night he had died, her memory of it etched forever in her mind. The pain, the fear, the confusion; frozen like a mask, and underneath the mask . . . his innocence.

"What was his name Blackie?"

Blackie stuttered a bit, thrown by the unexpected question. "Um, Jesse something I think. I can't remember exactly."

Priss sighed, and closed her eyes tightly, mentally comparing Jesse's face to Blackie's. More than a passing resemblance; now she understood what it was that had drawn her to him the other night in the bar.

"I take it from your reaction that you knew this guy?" Blackie asked.

Priss nodded. "Yeah," was all she could say.

"Oh," Blackie said, the realization of the coincidence's odds not lost on him. Suddenly he was struggling to remember the faces of everyone he'd seen that night he'd run from the police.

As the painful memory faded a bit from Priss's mind, a thought suddenly occurred to her. Something didn't make sense with this new information. She turned to face Blackie, her eyes narrowed. "You said this friend of yours told you the *police* had shot someone who looked like you?"

"Yeah," Blackie replied.

"But that doesn't make sense! The police told me that Jesse had been shot by an unidentified man in a car!"

"Well," Blackie went on solemnly, "there's more. I used Pops' computer to find out a little more about the shooting."

Priss turned slowly to gaze intently at Blackie. Computers. She'd forgotten he was a Stingray.

Blackie continued, his audience now fully captivated. "I was able to get hold of a copy of the ballistics report from the ADP's database. I needed to know why this guy was shot, and according to the report, the bullet that killed your Jesse wasn't standard police issue."

Priss nodded.

Blackie went on. "The bullet *was* of Genom manufacture, as was all the ammunition used by the TPD and ADP then, but this particular caliber and make was never used by the police. They had pretty strict policies about their weapons and ammunition."

Priss thought about the non-regulation revolver Leon toted around. Her voice still betraying her emotional state, she decided not to argue the point, and asked the next question that came to her mind. "Okay, that makes more sense, but what does it prove?"

"Besides the fact that the police didn't shoot anyone that night," Blackie began, "not much. But . . ."

Priss sat back down next to Blackie, her patience wearing thin as a sixth sense told her she was about to find out the identity of Jesse's killer. "Yes?"

Blackie spoke the words dramatically, "I'm pretty sure I know who killed him."

"Who?" was all Priss could manage to say between tightening jaws.

Blackie sat back against the bench and sighed. "The same man who is shown on my data unit killing my father, who used the same type of gun to kill your Jesse. An ambitious Genom executive named- "

"Brian J. Mason," Priss finished for him.

"Yes," Blackie replied, his surprise quickly vanishing as he remembered who Priss worked for. He continued, his voice more excited as he raced to assemble the final puzzle piece. "I don't know how, but Mason somehow managed to learn about me and my visit to the police, no doubt through hacked files, the same way I got the police reports. Priss, he was after me and my data unit for some reason, and mistook your Jesse for me."

Blackie watched, the feelings inside him suddenly before him like looking into a mirror, as Priss stood and stepped out into the rain to face the destroyed Genom Research Center in the distance, and shout. "Lay down and die you son-of-a-bitch!!! Just die, for god's sake. . . Just die . . ."

Priss's shoulders suddenly slumped, and her arms fell loosely to her sides, the fists unclenching slowly to lay flat against her thighs. Her chest began to heave in fits as she cried, all her willpower cast aside by the futility of wanting Jesse back . . . of wanting Sylvie back. Blackie stood slowly, and stepped into the rain next to her. Not knowing what to do, he simply stood beside her as she sobbed, hoping his nearness might make her stop, but wanting more, to take the pain away.

Instead, Priss reached out and took his hand in hers, then grasped his arm, then finally fell against him, her arms reaching behind him to draw him close. Blackie hesitated, his thoughts stricken by a mild panic. But as she held him, and showed no signs of letting go, instinct took over, and he slowly wrapped his arms about her and held her, as her tears washed away in the rain.

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