Bubblegum Cross

By Andy Skuse ~ askuse7@hotmail.com

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

Chapter 19. Blame It On The Moon

The autumn moon continued to climb high into the night sky, shedding its coppery skin until it appeared as a silvery disk looking down on the glowing city. Though the moon was essentially acting as a huge mirror, reflecting the rays of the sun back toward the earth, the cold light showering down on the world below collided head on with the accumulated artificial glow of the city's street lights in a battle for supreme luminance well above the heads of the downtown MegaTokyo pedestrians and commuters. There, as on every night, the moon was soundlessly defeated, its struggle for control never even considered by the creatures that lived beyond its reach.

Outside the city and its far-reaching suburbs where the light pollution did not completely blind an observer, the moon's light blanketed the trees and hills like an early frost. Small animals that only ventured out under the protective cover of darkness found themselves exposed by the full moon to nocturnal hunters if they were foolish enough to leave their hiding places. On silent wings or by patient ambush, their demise would come swiftly. But as they lay dying, there was usually enough time left for a last glimpse skyward at their alleged betrayer; a bright circle of cold light shining down through the treetops. But even in death, the dying creatures never blamed themselves for their mistake. They always blamed the moon.

And then there were creatures that walked through the silver tipped trees, to begin their own hunt, neither unhindered nor unaided by the moon's revealing light. Four figures moved swiftly and silently through the low-lying fog, guided by a voice that emanated from inside the dark mountain they had left behind. Long shadows swept across the night, lost occasionally behind the trees, until finally the light from the city overcame the moon's glow. The hunters stepped across the terminator line... and merged with the city.

* * * *

Nene looked over Mackie's shoulder as they wound their way through the downtown streets, then sighed happily at the sight that awaited her. Like a canvas that could not sit still for the painter, vivid neon colours shifted and faded all around them, while shadow-faced strangers passed each other on the sidewalk, their silhouettes dancing briefly in and out of the flickering lights. And above it all, vaguely resembling a lighthouse beacon far from any rocky shoreline, the full moon had risen higher into the sky until its leading edge had become tucked behind one of the taller buildings of the MegaTokyo skyline. Nene tapped her companion on the shoulder wanting to share the real time 'painting' with him.

"Mackie?" Nene's voice came over the helmet intercom clearly.

"Yeah?" Mackie replied, "Am I going too fast?"

Nene held her observation of the moon in check as she replied. "Too fast? No, not at all. Actually, I usually drive faster than this on my scooter--"

Mackie looked over his shoulder at Nene and grinned mischievously, stopping her in mid-sentence. "Oh really? Your scooter eh?"

"Mackie..." Nene began again, her voice sounding very serious this time.

"You asked for it," Mackie said under his breath.

Nene suddenly found herself tightening her grip around Mackie's waist as the bike shot forward with a powerful burst of speed. Within seconds they were passing cars that were already traveling over the speed limit.


"OW!" Mackie throttled back abruptly, then fumbled with the volume control of the intercom system. "Nene you don't have to yell! Sheesh!" A gentle punch to his side made Mackie pay attention. "What? What's wrong?"

Nene was silent for a long moment, causing Mackie to check the intercom's volume control again. But as he was about to turn it back up he heard Nene begin speaking in a very firm tone.

"Mackie... please. I want this night to be perfect..."

As Mackie responded by slowing the bike down to a legal pace, he felt Nene's arms wrap around his waist just a little tighter. The butterflies in his stomach that had seemed to settle down a bit on the drive into the city suddenly took flight again, as he focused on the very pleasant sensation of Nene's arms around him. He thought back to the advice his sister had given him the night before, about being considerate and thoughtful. But she had also told him to just be himself, to have fun and not to be too serious. Only now was he thinking that it had been odd for Sylia to suggest that he not be too serious. As he turned the corner and began the onerous job of finding a parking spot, he felt the two approaches colliding in his head. To be serious or to be carefree? The butterflies flew on.

With the motorcycle finally parked and its alarm activated, Mackie turned to face Nene. She was smiling at him, and the sight of her smile triggered a sudden rush of new feelings through his entire body. It was as if he had never seen her smile before. Everything about her seemed different now, but he could not quite figure out why. She was wearing the same clothes she always wore, and her hair was basically the same as it always looked, but now, she looked... different.

As they made their way down the crowded sidewalk at a decidedly casual pace, Nene gently hooked Mackie's arm in hers. Mackie glanced uncomfortably at Nene for a moment, then returned her smile, the comforting sensation of her body next to his causing the noises of the city to momentarily dissolve around them. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter whether he should be serious or carefree. All he wanted was for this moment to last forever.

* * * *

Back behind the greasy confines of Raven's Garage, Priss sat on top of a stack of old tires, while Linna leaned against the wall, both savoring a five-minute break from their "re-training" session. Priss stretched her arms above her head gingerly to test the newly induced ache in her muscles. Sylia had been merciless, pressing the two frontline fighters through an incredibly demanding battery of tests and exercises as their first step back on to the road to getting back in to shape. It was very clear to the both of them, based on the lack of small talk and kidding around, that Sylia felt that this new "boomer" threat was serious enough to warrant a return to their old training regimen. But despite Sylia's 'orders', one member of the team was conspicuously absent.

"So what do you think they're doin', right this minute?" Priss asked in a subdued voice.

Linna's eyes drifted up to the strip of sky exposed to her between the garage and the building next to it, to see the full moon hanging in the sky almost directly over them. "Well, I'd say, right about now... that they are still trying to find a parking spot downtown."

Priss laughed, then stopped abruptly as her sore arm muscles made their temporarily forgotten state of anguish known again. "Yeah, parking is a bitch. But okay, so let's say they do find a parking spot. Then what?"

Linna grinned. "Ya know, this is just a guess, but I think that Mackie, being a perfect gentleman and all, would probably--"

"What?!" Priss interrupted. "Gimmee a break! He's a pervert and you know it."

Linna frowned. "You don't think he'd treat Nene like a princess? He practically worships her. He just doesn't know what to do about it, that's all."

Priss smirked. "That's true. Poor kid may be wishing he were somewhere else right now. Eh, I know I'd like to be somewhere else right now."

Linna continued to stare up at the moon as Priss closed her eyes and began humming a song to herself. "Well, at least things will be getting back to normal," Linna offered, considering their renewed workout and training schedule.

Priss stopped humming and looked at Linna, a strange look, almost like sadness, in her eyes as she spoke, "With all the things that have happened in the last few days, I don't think things will ever be back to normal again."

Linna was about to reply to Priss's odd statement, when a red light above the door began to flash, signaling them that their break was over.

Upon seeing her two recruits return, Sylia gestured silently to the chairs in the meeting lounge. She remained standing; her arms folded across her chest, as Priss and Linna took their seats. There was an odd moment of silence as Sylia appeared to contemplate how to begin the meeting, her right hand now balled into a fist under her chin and her gaze fixed on a point on the floor. Priss was about to say something when Sylia looked up and began to speak, her voice as clear and confident as always.

"First point," Sylia began, "I think you'll both agree from your initial testing tonight that a new training schedule is required, and I expect you both to stick to it if you don't want to repeat our performance from the other night."

Sylia easily read the looks of dismay on the faces of her re-trainees, but did not completely ignore their full meaning. "And yes, Nene will be expected to adhere to the schedule too, as will I."

Priss betrayed a slight grin at the announcement, to which Sylia was quick to respond, with a very firm tone of voice. "And I expect you both to take this latest threat very seriously. If our performance the other night is any indicator, we were outmatched. And just one more mistake could have ended the life of a team member, perhaps even all four of us."

Linna looked over at Priss, who wasn't grinning now, and nodded.

"Next point," Sylia continued. "I had just enough time earlier tonight to take another look at the data that Nene was able to obtain from the ADP's assessment of the severed finger from one of the "boomers"--for lack of a better word--and I now have a strong feeling as to who may be responsible for creating them."

"Wow, that was fast," Linna said.

"You can compliment my computer," Sylia replied, then dimmed the lights in the conference room and activated a video monitor set in to the wall. An image of a middle-aged man appeared on the screen, balding, hook-nosed, and wearing glasses, which despite the wisdom of not judging a book by its cover, made the man look every bit a scientist.

"This is Doctor Leomund Sholtan, forty-two years old, former chief zoology professor at several universities during his recorded career, and once secretly employed by the government to conduct experiments into human slash animal hybrid DNA blending. He disappeared shortly after the project was shut down due to the details of the project becoming public knowledge."

"Now we're talkin'." Linna remarked as she studied the face on the monitor.

The Knight Saber's leader went on. "The government experiments were conducted under the code name Dark Matter, and the project was primarily funded by the military in an effort to create cyborg soldiers that combined human intelligence with animal reflexes and instinct. While the project was active, only one problem held them up from actually succeeding--"

"They couldn't teach them to pee in the litterbox?" Priss offered. Sylia ignored the comment and Linna's resulting snicker. "During the process of creating a hybrid being, the desired instinctual reactive functions from the animal DNA were somehow suppressed or missing, to such a degree that the resulting creatures were incapable of even the simplest thought processes required to survive."

"They sure seemed to be able to survive the other night," Linna stated, to which Priss grudgingly nodded a confirmation.

"Indeed they did," Sylia agreed. "Apparently Dr. Sholtan has been able to get around the problem somehow with his latest creations."

"But why would it have been a problem in the first place, if instinct is built-in to us?" Linna asked.

"Good question," Sylia smiled. "Scientists and spiritualists still debate about what instinct really is. Mark Twain wrote quite some time ago, that instinct is merely petrified thought; solidified and made inanimate by habit; thought which was once alive and awake, but it become unconscious--walks in its sleep, so to speak."

Priss rolled her eyes. "Mark who?"

Linna attempted to break down what she had just heard. "Okay, so you're saying that instinct is based upon thoughts we have buried in our subconscious over a long period of time and they become second nature?"

Sylia shook her head. "No, that's what Mark Twain believed instinct to be. On the other hand, other more spiritual-minded debaters have raised the concept of instinct to a level parallel with the soul, citing our inability to isolate it within the brain. Either way, one thing we do know is that Dr. Sholtan has somehow got around his problem and was able to infuse the hybrid beings with instinctive reactions, which would seem to suggest it was a chemical problem."

"Which means," Linna concluded with a positive tone of voice, "that we may be able to shut them down!"

"Possibly," Sylia cautioned, her reply neither enthusiastic nor pessimistic.

Priss had a thoughtful look on her face. "So who is financing this guy then? This certainly doesn't appear to be the kind of thing he would have whipped up with a science lab kit on the weekend."

Sylia resumed her thoughtful pose witnessed minutes earlier, as she answered. "I've been thinking a lot about that, and though I'm not one hundred percent sure, considering the Genom connection we discussed earlier this evening, I believe even stronger now that an ex-employee from Genom must be involved. The structuring of the epidermal layer, the blood components, the overall structural design of the finger itself--all Genom ideas used before, but this time with more successful results."

Priss and Linna fell silent as Sylia readied another image on the monitor. "Next-- I haven't had enough time to really study the combative techniques of our new opponents in any kind of detail. But from what little I have seen so far, I think it's time we upgraded the hard suits to deal with the problems that have been exposed by this new threat, and thanks to General Reeves as of ten twenty-three this evening, we now have approximately twenty million to spend. As always ladies, suggestions are welcome, but let's not get too extravagant. Think carefully about what you might need to better prepare ourselves for our next encounter with these new boomers. Think specifically about the problems we ran into and how to solve them."

"Okay. Finally, this--" Sylia pointed again to the video monitor, on to which the image had changed yet again, "--is Blackie training here the night before." Both Priss and Linna raised their eyebrows a little at the freeze-frame image of Blackie inside the familiar confines of the simulation room, his right arm raised to block an attack by the much-hated translucent pink hol-opponent. Sylia pressed another keypad on the side of the monitor and the frozen image came to life. A few seconds later, Priss began to frown, while Linna placed both hands over her mouth in an attempt to muffle the whispered word, "woah".

"I can see you've gathered quite quickly," Sylia continued, as she walked slowly around the conference table, "that he has more than a rudimentary understanding of the basic hand-to-hand skills necessary to participate in combat with a skilled non-human opponent. He has combined several martial techniques with more conventional fighting styles, and though he appears quite capable, if you observe more closely, the result is actually often crude and inefficient."

Linna and Priss looked at each other, mirroring a puzzled look as their leader's words started to sound like she was leading up to something.

Sylia paused the video playback, and stood with her arms folded across her chest for a moment, the lapse of time enough to indicate quite clearly that she was weighing out the various ways in which to say her next words. "I... would like to test Blackie further. I am considering asking him to join the Knight Sabers."

Priss stared hard at Sylia, wondering if she had heard her right. Immediately, she felt there was something wrong with the idea. But before she could open her mouth to attempt to articulate a protest Sylia raised her hand. "Temporarily, of course."

The room fell silent. Sylia looked back and forth from Priss to Linna, trying to gauge their reactions, but other than a slight frown from Priss, the announcement appeared to have been accepted.

Linna said nothing, as she looked at Sylia, then to the frozen image on the video monitor, and then back at Sylia. One question was on her lips, but there was something holding her back from asking. One more glance at the monitor had almost inspired her enough to speak, but Priss stood up from her chair and the very question on Linna's mind was given a voice.

"Why, Sylia?" Priss began, her words low and somewhat demanding in tone. "Why ask him to join? Sure, we got our butts kicked, but we can take these things if we train hard and get our shit together. And hell, if we upgrade the hardsuits, then--"

Sylia began to reply, her voice quiet by comparison, yet confident. "I think I understand your resistance to the idea Priss, but I think he could make the difference between a longer drawn-out conflict and a swift decisive retirement."

Priss turned away from Sylia to stare out into the simulator area, her left hand absent-mindedly stroking her long dark hair back as she attempted to assess her feelings and her reasoning. Their defeat at the military base was definitely not something she wanted to repeat, and the next time they faced these strange boomers, she wanted to be as prepared as possible. But the idea of someone else being brought into the Knight Sabers just seemed wrong, like the balance would be off, like a fifth wheel. She turned back around to respond, this time her frustration very visible to both Linna and Sylia. "You've never asked our opinions before on matters like this Sylia, and I'm not sure you're even asking for them now, but even if you aren't, I still gotta say I think this would be wrong for the Knight Sabers. Absolutely wrong."

Sylia slowly sat down at the table, and then leaned back in her chair with a thoughtful look. "Okay Priss. You're right. I haven't asked your opinions before, and you are also correct in that I wasn't asking for them tonight. But since you obviously feel strongly about this, I'd like to hear why you think this would be wrong for the Knight Sabers."

Linna shifted uneasily in her chair, and looked to Priss, as the drone of the waiting machinery outside invaded the room.

"I'll tell you why it's wrong," Priss began, looking straight at Sylia as she spoke. "Because he isn't ready for this, and he never will be."

"You saw him fight Priss. He made a difference."

"I saw him distract them," Priss countered. "That's what I saw. And okay, maybe he managed to hurt one of them when we all failed, but they left, Sylia. They left, and we didn't get to finish the fight, and I can tell you, that if we had finished the fight, Blackie would have gotten hurt. Big time."

Sylia leaned forward in her chair to rest her elbows on the tabletop. "Why would he have gotten hurt Priss? He seemed quite capable of defending himself, and the testing shows-"

"An unfinished fight and simulations don't prove shit Sylia!" Priss shouted back. "He's untrained and reckless! That laser sword of his could have hit one of us and then Leon might be trying to get DNA strands from one of our fingers, or maybe an arm or a leg!"

Sylia spoke calmly, her voice now betraying a hint of concern. "Priss, I've analyzed his abilities, and I don't see the recklessness you are talking about. On the contrary, he seems quite adept with the weapon. But to be fair, he certainly would need training to address the areas where he is inefficient, but I don't think it would take very long to get him up to speed. No longer than it took you. And you were pretty reckless yourself once, if you recall."

The feeling in Priss's gut just seemed to expand with each and every rational defense that Sylia offered. It wasn't something she could explain properly but she had never been good with words anyway. It was just something that she felt, like something bad could happen. "Sylia, I can't properly explain why I think this would be wrong for us. I don't have your vocabulary I guess. But there have always been four of us, and there should only be four of us. Bringing in someone from outside is a big risk--"

Sylia interrupted, her voice still calm, "Yes Priss there would be risks, but I intend to proceed with just as much caution as I exercised when I hired you and Linna and Nene. Blackie is still someone we just met, and I never completely trust anyone until I've known him or her for a good long while. You should know that by now."

The words "I never completely trust anyone" seemed to catch in Priss's mind as she sat down in defeat, but the feeling that this was a terrible mistake continued to overwhelm her. She glanced up from shadowed eyes to glare at the frozen image of Blackie on the monitor and the feelings inside her intensified. He would be at risk. In harm's way. And if something went wrong, he could be killed. Though she cared very deeply for her friends, if Blackie were to die... it was a loss she didn't want to face again.

"Perhaps Priss," Sylia suddenly said, "your opinion on this matter is not based solely on your assessment of Blackie's technical abilities."

Linna sat back a little further in her seat.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" Priss shot back. "What else would I be basing my opinion on?"


"What?! This has nothing to do with--"

"I think it has everything to do with it Priss," Sylia replied calmly. "In fact, I think I know what you're really thinking, and if that's the way you feel, then your protest has been noted, and I will take it into consideration when I make the final decision. But I suggest you rethink your motives. They could be dangerous to *you*."

Priss gritted her teeth, then quickly stood up and placed her hands on the table, leaning over to make her point. "Sylia, if you ask him to join, then you'll be back to four the next day. This is just wrong."

"I see. Thank-you Priss, for your opinion on this matter," Sylia shot back, her voice now cold and obligatory.

Priss looked at Sylia for a moment longer then stalked out of the room, leaving the door open behind her.

Linna looked at the open door for a moment, then looked back to offer her own opinion on the idea of "hiring" Blackie, only to find Sylia gazing up at the video monitor. As they both watched silently, the video of Blackie's assault on the hol-opponent resumed, concluding with a complicated but haphazard looking series of punches and kicks that more than defeated the translucent blob. And as the video screen went black, Linna thought she saw a smile form on Sylia's face.

* * * *

"Thank-you for seeing me at this late hour. I have been thinking about our previous discussion and I thought that perhaps we might have a little more to discuss. Please Leomund, have a seat."

The scientist hesitated at the doorway to look about the spacious and brightly lit examination room before finally taking the seat offered to him by Quincy. Unable to get completely comfortable, Leomund shifted in the seat as the elderly man walked slowly towards one of the glass windows.

"I must start off by telling you Leomund," Quincy began, his back to the scientist, "that I am quite pleased at what you have been able to accomplish so far on your own."

Leomund suddenly sat very still, contemplating Quincy's words for a moment before responding. "Uh, well, thank-you sir. But I could not have achieved any of this without--"

"Yes of course Leomund," the former Genom chairman nodded as he interrupted. "Of course. But it takes a man of vision to make a project like this actually come to life."

Leomund did not immediately reply, feeling more than a little awkward, as he could not quite agree with his benefactor's observation. He had never considered himself a man of vision before, especially since all of his past projects had always been focused on exploring what had already been discovered; a mysterious code that had been around for millions of years. Though this code had primarily been altered and shaped by his former colleagues for the betterment of the future of humankind, Leomund's experiments had always delved into the alteration of DNA, to somehow form a hybrid of species that could borrow the best physical and behavioral characteristics of each other. To take what nature had divided, and to put it together. This hardly seemed to him the idea of a visionary. In fact, he often wondered why no one had ever considered the possibilities before.

"Your silence is telling, my friend."

Leomund broke away from his thoughts to find his benefactor looking directly at him now, as if waiting for a response. "Oh. Well, perhaps... perhaps I am finding it amusing to be considered a visionary, considering so much of what I do and have done, has been about altering the past."

Quincy turned back to the window, betraying a slight smile to his chief scientist in the process. With an intentionally dramatic tone of voice, he replied, "Or perhaps you can not see the trees for the forest Leomund."

The scientist's own smile vanished as quickly as it had arrived. "The trees sir?"

Quincy turned back quickly to face Leomund, the depth in his voice still very apparent. "The trees. The trees, Leomund. Someday they will be all around us, and you will be responsible for their being planted."

"Oh! I see what you mean sir," Leomund suddenly said, laughing nervously. "I thought you meant something else. I see now..."

"You do eh?"

Quincy moved away from the window to confront the man seated before him. Without warning, Quincy tore open the front of his jacket and shirt to reveal his bare chest. Leomund instinctively leaned back in his chair, surprised at what he saw, but simultaneously fascinated by the geometric 'scars' on his benefactor's chest area. "Tell me what you see now Leomund."

Leomund found it difficult to reply as he continued to stare. "You're... you're an... an android! But, why--"

"The why does not concern you Leomund," Quincy responded, as he buttoned his shirt back up. "But the how, will concern you a great deal."

Leomund shrank back a little further in his chair, now wishing he hadn't sat down in the first place.

* * * *

Mackie put down his cup of tea and smiled as he looked across the table at Nene while she was focused on draining the rest of her chocolate milkshake. So far the evening had been perfect. No debates as to which movie to see, and no arguing over where to eat afterwards. And now here they were, in a fancy restaurant overlooking the moonlit bay, with a single candle on the table to lend romantic warmth. The meal had been excellent. Everything just seemed perfect, the way Nene had wanted it. And now that the night was nearing a close, one question remained to be asked.


The redhead finally released the straw. "Ah! That was great! I love milkshakes! Sorry I didn't save any for you. NOT! Ha!"

Mackie smiled again as Nene giggled. "That's okay, I'm pretty stuffed anyway. But I was wondering..."

"Yah?" Nene replied, looking around the restaurant for the waitress in contemplation of ordering a second milkshake.

"Well, I was wondering--have you ever... well, have you ever..."

Nene dropped her search for a waitress to look at the stammering young man across the table from her. "Mackie, Are you okay? You look like you just swallowed a spoonful of wasabi or something."

Mackie muttered to himself that he felt like maybe he had, then spoke up in answer to Nene's puzzled look. "Um, well, I was just wondering if you have ever... well, you know..."

"Ever what?" Nene blinked as she tried to figure out where Mackie was going with the question.

"Um, geez... Okay, have you ever--" Mackie stopped himself, feeling that he was on uncertain ground but also driven by curiosity about something he had wondered since the day he had met her. And after a moment of considering the consequences, he looked directly into Nene's eyes. "Nene... have you ever--"

Before he could finish the sentence, Nene's eyes widened in sudden recognition. Her hands gripped the edge of the table and her cheeks went red. And as Mackie filled with a sudden hope that he wouldn't have to finish the question, Nene picked up her water glass and tossed it's contents into his face with a loud splash.

"Mackie! How could you even THINK of asking me that!?" Nene exploded.

Mackie spluttered, still reeling from the shock. He couldn't even think, let alone reply. The sound of water dripping onto carpet reached his ears as he attempted to comprehend what had just happened. With his hair soaking and his bangs hanging down over his eyes he tried to speak. "Nene! What?! What did I--"

Strangely, there was no response. Mackie brushed the wet hair out of his face with his hand in time to see that the seat across the table was empty now. He frantically scanned the room to find Nene already marching towards the cashier's desk.

"Nene! WAIT!" Mackie yelled across the room, drawing even more stares from other restaurant patrons. He watched in horror as Nene quickly withdrew some money from her handbag and handed it to the cashier, then very quickly disappeared through the restaurant's front foyer without waiting for the change.

* * * *

At a seemingly eternal rate of fifteen degrees an hour, long rays of pale moonlight silently scanned the floor of Linna's bedroom through the wide balcony glass doors. At one end of the room, a muted video display was showing a very old black and white movie. At the other end, two figures were making love on the bed, their current state of undress made only a little uncertain by the tangle of sheets and pillows.

As the moon's probing light continued to shine into the bedroom, the two lovers eventually tired, oblivious to the silent witness to the event. Amid giggles and mock cries of protest, one of the figures lit a cigarette while his partner attempted to find her nightshirt among the laundry debris field beside the bed.

Leon took a long drag on his cigarette, then exhaled suddenly as Linna leaned over and tickled his stomach. He smiled and playfully grabbed her hand, stopping her momentarily from any further teasing. But no sooner had he detained her left hand, than her right hand reached over to pick up where its counterpart had left off.

"Don't make me get out the handcuffs," Leon warned in a sarcastic tone.

"Oh you always tease me," Linna replied, a smug look on her face.

They both grinned as Linna hopped off the bed and continued her search for something to wear.

"You know," Leon spoke in a louder than normal voice, as he studied his cigarette, "there are really only two times I enjoy a smoke."

Linna lifted a few items of clothing from the floor and eyed them briefly them before pitching them over her shoulder. "Oh yeah? And what two times would they be?"

Leon paused before replying, " Well, after sex, for one."

Linna gave up her search. "I see. And does it matter how good the sex was? Or will sex with anybody warrant a smoke?"

Leon did not betray a smile as he replied. "Oh, it has to be with someone who is really good, of course."

"I see," Linna responded. "And so who, in your very long and storied past, has ever warranted the honorary 'after-sex' cigarette then?"

Leon tapped his smoke in the ashtray beside the bed and then pretended to think very carefully about his answer.

"Oh give me a break!" Linna yelled, tossing a pillow at Leon, who somehow managed to keep his cigarette between his fingers while fending off the feather-down attack.

"Hey, like you said, I have a long and storied past," Leon said with a deadpan look before launching the pillow back at Linna.

"Okay, fine then," Linna acquiesced. "Of the many, many exploits from your past, that have been worthy of an after-sex smoke, who would you say was the best?"

Leon took another drag on his smoke, and then lodged the cigarette into a groove in the ashtray beside the bed, acutely aware that he was now locked onto for a pillow attack, and that his answer to the question held his fate in the balance. After a short pause he began to mull over the question out loud. "Hmm, ya know... I'd have to say..."

The pillow was raised a few more inches, telegraphing Linna's intent to mortally wound Leon if he should answer incorrectly.

Leon raised an eyebrow before continuing. "I would have to say... yeah, I would have to go with... Daley."

Linna shrieked. "WHAT?!"

The pillow descended onto Leon's head with a loud WHUMP. From under the pillow, muffled laughter signaled that Leon had somehow managed to survive the attack. But as he peeked out from behind the pillow that had hit him, a barrage of the remaining pillows descended, along with whatever pieces of clothing were at hand, followed by a series of combination tickle-jabs by the not-so-angry dancer.

"Alright, alright!" Leon protested to the woman now astride his waist, his hands pinned back beside his head by her surprisingly strong arms. "You're the best! You're the best, baby."

Linna abruptly checked her assault to stare down into Leon's eyes, his arms now upraised as if to fend off a sneak attack, then smiled. "That's better. But you said there were two times that you enjoy a smoke. What's the second one?"

Leon gently took Linna's hands in his, his reply sounding far more serious than their conversation thus far. "Well, this is gonna sound strange..."

Linna smirked. "Go on."

Leon looked away from Linna, out the glass doors and out into the night. "Well, right after we used to knock off a couple of rogue boomers, my old partner and I used to light up. It was like a ritual ya know?"

Linna had never met Jeena Malso, but she had heard enough of Leon's stories about her to know that his former ADP partner had left a definite impression on him. "Yeah, I remember you telling me. Makes you kinda feel like, if you have a ritual, that you'll be alright the next time you have to face trouble, right?"

"Yeah, kinda like that," Leon agreed. "At least it seemed to work back then."

An uncomfortable silence descended as Leon alluded to Jeena's death. But it was Leon that eventually broke the silence. "You guys have a ritual like that?"

Linna shook her head. "No, Sylia has only one superstition, and that is that there is no such thing as superstitions."

Leon grinned. "Smart woman."

Linna nodded, a thoughtful look evolving in her eyes. "By the way," she began as she slid off of Leon's stomach to lay next to him, "I have been thinking about your 'request' you made the other day."

Leon reached over and dislodged his cigarette from the ashtray and took a quick drag. "Oh yeah?"

Linna nodded again. "Yeah. And I think I'm going to tell Sylia that I'm resigning from the Knight Sabers when this is all over."

The uncomfortable silence returned, and again it was Leon that broke it. "Wow. I mean, I'm glad to hear you say that, but it just seems so--"

"Sudden?" Linna offered.

Leon nodded, now staring into Linna's eyes as if searching for something.

Linna grabbed the cigarette from Leon and took a quick puff, then handed it back. "Well after the workout Sylia put Priss and I through tonight, I now have *two* reasons to think about quitting the Knight Sabers. And I used to really like working out too."

Leon suddenly looked amazed. "She had you working out tonight? Serious?"

Linna smiled. "You couldn't tell? Thanks for the compliment. I can always use more of those hon."

Leon shook his head, amazed at Linna's never-ending energy. "Any time."

Linna continued, her smile fading, "Seriously though, I've never really thought much about not being a part of the Knight Sabers before. I mean, after Sylia hired me, I thought the dancing career was over, and that being a Knight Saber was my new career."

Leon gave a puzzled look. "Really? A career?"

Linna nodded again, her black hair shining in the dim light as it shook, a phenomenon that had captured Leon's attention the first time he had seen her without a hard suit on. She grinned herself as she caught Leon smiling at her, wondering what he was smiling at.

"What is it?"

Leon took another drag on his smoke and said nothing, the grin still firmly planted on his face. Linna shot him a look that said he hadn't quite got away with whatever it was he was trying to get away with.

"Well, speaking of weird secrets," Linna continued, "Sylia was acting kinda strange tonight."

"You mean more than usual right?" Leon queried with no attempt made to hide any sarcasm.

"Kinda. She was just... different. I mean, I've become used to her acting mysteriously most of the time, but this was... it was something else altogether."

Leon was now listening carefully to Linna as she spoke.

"It was like, I don't know, it was like she was thinking about stuff that I don't want to know about."

Leon continued to watch Linna as she spoke. He had always wondered about Sylia Stingray. What her real motives were. Why she hadn't gone to the police when she found out who had murdered her father. He had lotsa questions about that one. But when it became clear to Sylia that he had learned that Priss was part of the Knight Sabers, she had requested a meeting with him. The meeting was very brief, with Sylia simply requesting that Leon keep Priss's identity secret as well as her own, to which he readily agreed. He even went so far as to offer his assistance whenever he could, to which she had seemed very grateful. But there was still something odd about her that he had not been able to quite figure out. Something in her mannerisms. Something in the way she talked. He wasn't sure. But usually his hunches about people ended up being correct, which was one reason why he wanted Linna out of the Knight Sabers. And the sooner, the better.

"You can find something else hon." Leon eventually stated in a clear tone, oblivious to anything Linna had just said. "Hell, maybe you should think about dancing again. You're still in great shape."

"Not as great as Daley though, right?"

Leon laughed.

* * * *

Mackie raced down the stone steps in front of the restaurant and quickly scanned up and down the sidewalks. At first it had seemed that Nene had vanished, then out of the corner of his eye he spotted her across the street, as she was about to step into a taxi.

Without looking both ways, Mackie bolted directly into the traffic, narrowly avoiding an accident in the process as his still dripping wet hair hindered his sight. But just as he managed to reach the other side, he saw the taxi move away from the curb and quickly enter the flow of traffic away from him.

* * * *

Leomund fought for a while to focus his weary eyes at the wall of his office, contemplating his benefactor's mysterious origins and motives, before noticing the odd square of dim light that was very slowly tracing an arc across the wall to his right. He turned in his chair to find the source of the light, only to be momentarily blinded by the sight of the full moon framed in the tiny skylight window overhead. The scientist blinked a couple of times, then removed his glasses to rub his tired eyes.

As he waited for his eyes to re-adjust, Leomund absent-mindedly cleaned his glasses and returned to his thoughts about his benefactor's plans. It seemed that no matter which way he looked at the situation, the real purpose for the cyborgs still eluded him. When he had been dealing with the anonymous investor, he had originally guessed that the cyborgs would be sold to countries looking for an edge to add to their covert military forces, or perhaps even to be trained as mercenaries for an independent group willing to pay. And the anonymous investor's request that the cyborgs be field-tested against the Knight Sabers seemed to backup his initial theories. But now, after seeing this new device, this OMS as he called it, and learning that Quincy was in fact an android, well, all bets as to what the no-longer-anonymous investor wanted to do with the cyborgs, were off.

But through all the confusion Leomund was sure of one thing; if Quincy's plans became much more convoluted, it would be time to leave the project, and fast. Things had already begun to feel--what was the word he was looking for--different. The whole process of creating the cyborgs had been very rewarding, and very inspiring, but now he found his interest in their continuing evolution to be waning. And he felt very strongly that his benefactor's recent 'revelations' had everything to do with his suspicion.

"Be wary Leo," he said to himself, as he finished cleaning his glasses and placed them on his face, only to see that the moon's light was now shining down directly on him.

* * * *

"Help me... please."

Absolute darkness. And the odd sensation of something or someone close, but in what direction?

"Who are you?"

"Please, I don't have much time... I need you."

This time the child-like voice seemed to come from the side. He tried to turn towards the speaker, but it was like trying to roll over quickly in a pool of water. Something was holding him, grasping at him. Preventing him from seeing.

"Need me for what? I don't understand."

"There's no time for that now... please, help me..."

No time. But here it seemed like they had all the time in the world.

"Why is there no time? We have forever here--"

"I do not. My time is running out, and only you can save me..."

This time the voice came from ahead of him. And the speaker's child-like tone of voice seemed to suddenly get much older and weaker...

"Tell me who you are first, and maybe I can--"

"The pain! Please make the pain go away! I can't stand it any longer..."

Now the voice was above him, and it was *moving* as the last words echoed off of unseen walls.

"I can't help you if you don't tell me who you are and why you--"

"It will be too late by then! Please... I need your help... now..."

Now the speaker was moving all around him as they spoke, echoes continuing to bounce off of unseen walls throwing off his ability to judge his location. He fought a growing dizziness, and the unmistakable feeling of losing control.

"I can't help you like this! I need to know who you--"

"Please... I don't have much time left. You are the only one... the only one."

His control was slipping further and further away. He could no longer tell which was up and which was down. Echoes of his voice now seemed to bounce off of walls directly ahead of him then suddenly shift as if he had walked through the wall. All he wanted to do now, was escape, but the harder he tried, the more frustrated he became.

"Hurry, I'm running out of time. I need you..."

"No. No... Where am I? I can't... I need to get out of-- I.... I can't... I CAN'T! WHO ARE YOU?!"

Suddenly Blackie was wide-awake, rising from the warm bed sheets to rest on his elbows. He didn't dare breathe, his ears straining to pick up any sounds to remind him that he was really awake. Finally, the lights of a car passing by swept across the ceiling, the reflected headlight beams split into thin slivers by the blinds. Then the sound of tires slapping at a puddle in the street came to him through an open window. The gentle swishing of a car driving by soon faded, and he was left with the unique quiet that only a city can make very early in the morning.

Blackie took a long breath and fell back against his pillow to stare at the ceiling. As the thin layer of sweat on his arms and legs began to dry, he listened to the muffled thumping of his heart in his ears. The pounding slowly subsided as the fear was pushed aside, and the words in his dream came back to him. The voice had been very faint, but it seemed so real, and so desperate. Had it really been just a dream? He'd heard voices before; vague snippets of broken thoughts that would come to him and then fade like racing shadows of clouds, but they had never come to him in his dreams. And he was usually very good at remembering his dreams the next morning. But it was strange, how he could remember them right after waking up, but an hour later he couldn't remember anything. Gathering the bed sheets around him, he turned on his side and closed his eyes.

A few minutes later, his eyes were open again, his thoughts much too busy to allow him to sleep again. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he sat up and stared out into the darkness. His gaze slowly wandered over the familiar details of his room, cloaked in a gloom that was made incomplete only by the weak glow of the moon. His eyes continued to wander over the faintly visible details of his apartment, pausing for a long while on his guitar.

The cool night air drifting in through the open window suddenly made its presence known on his exposed feet, causing him to draw his knees to his chest and to tighten the sheets around him just a little more. As he closed his eyes one more time, the afterimage of his guitar still fresh in his mind, he spoke out loud to no-one but the darkness, "Who are you?"

V7-28's eyes opened slowly. Sweat streamed down the brow of his artificial body's forehead from the effort of his interrogation. His aged hands gradually released the tight grip on the arms of the chair he was seated in, until he felt the nervous system activity of his 'shell' diminish enough to truly relax.

Making contact with the target had taken a toll on his power supply. Staying focused long enough to maintain the link had been more of a task than he had initially estimated, and the subject had a strong resistance to opening its thoughts. But the expenditure of energy had been worth it. The subject's sub-conscious capabilities were very strong, much stronger than he could have anticipated. V7-28 smiled.

Most importantly though, he had obtained a valuable clue about his subject's whereabouts, albeit an odd clue considering the full capabilities of the subject of his scrutiny.

V7-28 closed his eyes again, the creases on his artificial body's brow becoming furrowed once more, as he channeled his energy into sending an image to his four 'followers'. The image had suddenly appeared in his subject's sub-conscious, moments before the link had been broken, and at first V7-28 had not been able to discern the object centered in the image. But after a quick search through his internal database, the object was easily identified...

An electric guitar.

* * * *

Mackie threw his motorcycle helmet down on his bedroom floor in disgust, not caring if he might wake up his sister. Grabbing a towel from the adjoining bathroom, he shook his head a few times and then proceeded to dry his hair. The night was a disaster. And he still didn't know what had happened to spoil it. It was a simple question he had tried to ask, and yet Nene seemed to think there was something very wrong with asking it. Perhaps if she had just let him finish the--

Mackie suddenly stopped what he was doing and stared at himself in the bathroom mirror. She hadn't let him finish the question...

Mackie's fingers trembled as he dialed the numbers. 'Please pick it up' he thought frantically to himself. The butterflies in his stomach suddenly took flight again.

"Mackie, if this is you, I don't want to talk to you!" Nene answered without knowing who was on the other end of the line. The NO VIDEO light on Mackie's vidphone console was blinking.

Mackie ignored the command. "Nene, wait! Don't hang up! Please! Let me explain!"

"There's nothing to explain you pervert! How could you ask me a question like that?! You pig!"

"Nene!" Mackie shouted in desperation. His heart was pounding, and though his hair was mostly dry now, he felt an odd coldness sweeping over him, as the conversation seemed headed for a quick finish. "Please listen to me Nene! I just wanted to ask you--"


"No Nene! You DON'T KNOW what I was going to ask for crying out loud! Look, I was going to ask you--"


"--if you've ever been kissed before!"


The line was silent as Mackie held his breath.

"Did you say, kissed?" Nene finally responded.

Mackie stared at the phone in amazement, still unable to breathe.

"Mackie? Are you still there?"

"I'm here. And yes, I said kissed," Mackie nervously replied, as the implications of the question became real to him. He walked toward his bedroom window with the vidphone receiver pressed firmly against his cheek and he suddenly became aware of the strong grip he had on the phone.

"Mackie?" Nene finally said, the tone of her voice now very different from when she had answered the call.

"Yes Nene?"

"Um there was something I wanted to ask you tonight too."

Mackie smiled to himself and looked out the window. The full moon had reached its zenith and was now descending towards the horizon, but its glow had not diminished. "What's that Nene?"

Nene got up from her bed and made her way to her bedroom window with the vidphone receiver still firmly in hand. With her free hand she drew back the curtains and looked out, then sighed. "Mackie, can you see the moon where you are?"

"As a matter of fact, I'm looking at it right now." Mackie waited for Nene to say something, the odd silence between their replies strangely reassuring, perhaps because he somehow knew she was still there.

"I can't see it from here. Can you put it on video for me Mackie?"

Mackie turned to look at his vidphone console and saw that the NO VIDEO light was no longer blinking. "Sure Nene. Hang on a sec."

Nene waited patiently, listening to the sound of Mackie moving furniture around in his room. She stared down at the vidphone's screen, pondering everything that had happened tonight. Everything had been so perfect, so right. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have thought he had meant something else? It didn't matter now, she told herself and smiled, as the screen on her vidphone came to life, and there in the center of the monitor was the full moon overlooking the city.

"Can you see it okay Nene?"

Nene sighed contentedly, a strange new feeling reaching deep into her heart. "It's perfect Mackie. Just perfect."

Mackie smiled to himself, as the display on his vidphone abruptly came to life and he saw Nene's face. The tingling in his stomach returned, but this time it felt good.

"Oh, and Mackie?"

"Yeah Nene?"

"The answer is no."

Nene waited for Mackie to reply, then frowned as the audio part of their connection seemed to suddenly break up.


Nene listened to Mackie trying frantically to pick up his dropped receiver. "Uh, I'm here Nene," he finally said.

"Mackie... did you drop the phone?"

"Uh, yeah, it just kinda slipped. Um, by the way Nene..."

"Yes Mackie?" Nene gazed at the image of the moon again.

"Me neither."

Mackie laughed to himself as his vidphone's display clearly showed Nene dropping her phone.

* * * *

It was a dead night at the Hot Legs. So dead in fact, that the air inside the bar was almost as clear as the air outside. Two inebriated bikers were exchanging friendly put-downs while shooting pool, as an equally drunk couple sat hunched over a table located near the darkened stage, the woman giggling every so often as her male companion leaned over her with a smug grin on his face. The bartender had long since finished wiping glasses, and was seated on a barstool reading a dog-eared paperback. Clarence had temporarily relinquished his bouncer's duties to begin putting chairs up on tables when the drunken woman's giggling suddenly seemed conspicuously absent. Clarence turned towards where the couple was sitting to see them staring back past him at something. The muscular bouncer instinctively turned to see what they were looking at.

The front doorway was sharply illuminated in contrast to the rest of the dim interior of the nightclub, and standing beneath the bright light streaming down from the ceiling were four figures, two women and two men, standing perfectly still and looking straight ahead. Even with their faces masked by shadow, Clarence immediately knew these were not regulars, and from their fixed stance, he knew they were probably looking for trouble.

Clarence quickly glanced at the bartender, who was no longer reading, and gave a quick nod. The bartender carefully placed a coaster between the pages of his novel and then slowly put the book down on the bar. He crossed his thick arms and watched Clarence approach the front doorway, then stole a quick glance at the baseball bat under the bar, and then another at the semi-automatic weapon next to the bat. The bat had several nicks and gouges on it from a long history of service in the name of peaceful imbibing while the gunmetal still shined like brand new. The bartender then looked back to the confrontation at the front of the bar, wondering if he would have to use the bat.

The three-hundred pound bouncer casually put his right leg up on the lowest step leading down into the bar and spoke, his voice edged with an authority that usually settled any questions as to who was really in control of a situation, "We're just about to close. C'mon back tomorrow night."

One of the two men grinned ever so slightly and his eyes narrowed as he looked down at Clarence. When he finally spoke, Clarence shivered, as the strange tone of this man's voice grated on his ears, the words sounding synthetic and menacing all at once. "Will *he* be here tomorrow night?"

The bouncer raised an eyebrow at the question, wondering just who the strange man was referring to, and then he caught one of the women behind the two men pointing at a picture on the wall. A picture of Blackie and his band Nexus.

Clarence scratched at his stubbled chin, then chuckled at the melodramatic tension surrounding the innocent question. "Nah, he won't be playing until the weekend. C'mon back Friday night."

Through the shadows, Clarence could see the answer register on the man's face as being what he had wanted to hear. But before he could say anything further the four figures turned in an oddly synchronized arc away from the puzzled bouncer and were gone, fading away from the bright light of the doorway to disappear out into the darkness of street outside.

The bartender breathed a loud sigh of relief, then picked up his book and tossed the coaster onto the bar.

After seeing the bikers and the couple out, Clarence locked the front door. He turned and stepped slowly down the front steps to face the bartender. "That sure was some weird shit. I hope they don't come back Friday."

The bartender snorted, not looking up from his novel as he responded, "Yeah right. You're bored out of your skull. You would have loved to kick some ass tonight."

Clarence glanced back at the door for a moment, then replied, "Not tonight I wouldn't have. Those four weirdos probably coulda taken me."

The bartender laughed but did not reply.

"Lock up after me man. I'm outta here," Clarence said, then added, "And don't let anyone in. Got it?"

The bartender just waved casually, his eyes still locked onto the pages of his paperback.

The bouncer shook his head. "Hey, what the hell are you reading anyway?"

The bartender lifted the book so the title was visible.

"True... Love..." Clarence read aloud. "Yeah right, like such a thing exists. Don't stay up to late."

Clarence felt the shock of the cool night air on his arms as he let the back door close and then lit up a cigarette. He stood in the alley behind the Hot Legs for a while enjoying the smoke and listening to the city as it finally fell asleep. Looking up, he was able to pick out the full moon beyond the lights of the city as it began to descend below the horizon. The bouncer stared up at the sky for a moment longer, the comforting sight enough to allow his thoughts to wander back to the four weirdos that had walked in just before closing time. One of the reasons he had been hired as a bouncer for The Hot Legs had to do with his ability to remember faces, to keep troublemakers from coming back to stir up more trouble. And though the four strangers hadn't caused any trouble tonight, Clarence made it a point to remember their faces anyway. There was something just a little too weird about them, other than the fact that he had never seen them around before and that they didn't look the type to be hanging around a rock club. It was something he just couldn't quite put his finger on, an instinctive feeling. A hunch.

The tired bouncer took one last drag, then tossed the remains of his cigarette onto the ground. His footsteps echoed off the walls of the deserted alley as he headed home. But the sounds of the city at night never unnerved him. He'd worked late hours for more years than he could remember, until walking home late at night was as natural to him as walking in the middle of the day. And it was this ease with the night that had numbed his senses to the four figures standing silently in the shadows at the back end of the alley, watching his every move, evaluating his physical condition, trying to detect any weaknesses like a limp or a cough. The four figures watched the object of their observation turn the corner at the end of the alley. As soon as he had disappeared one of the figures bolted forward out of the shadows and snatched up the still glowing cigarette butt. The figure proceeded to carefully sniff the filter, then stared down at the ground as if looking for something. A moment later a series of sharp clicks and low whistles were exchanged then abruptly cut off by a bright flash of blue light, and the alley was empty again.

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