Dusk was settling over the varied buildings of the University of Waterloo campus. The sun cast its fading rays across the city, through ragged holes in an advancing cloud bank It was a typical Friday night, with a large portion of the students off campus in movie theatres or in bars participating in "stress relief". The remainder were usually engaged in various other pastimes from studying to sports. The sun disappeared as the heavy black cloud bank sealed it off from view.
The door to the Physical Activity Centre banged open, and a tall young man strode out. He was in his early twenties, wearing blue jeans, a blue sweater, a well-worn jean jacket and a black baseball cap. Casting a quick glance at the foreboding sky, he started walking quickly southward through the maze of buildings. He hoped he'd have time to make it to his friend's apartment before those clouds overhead broke. He didn't mind getting wet himself, but it was bad for his equipment. He adjusted the quiver of arrows, and the unstrung longbow that hung over his shoulder. Maybe he should have just skipped archery practice.
As he made his way across campus, he received some unusual looks from other people still wandering along the paths. He grinned faintly to himself as he imagined what they must be thinking. He even thought about what might happen if someone called security. "Hello, Campus Security? Yes, there's this really tall guy with red hair and brownish-green eyes walking around campus with a bow and arrows. No, I haven't had anything to drink, and no, he hasn't shot anyone......"
A sudden crack of lightning brought him out of his reverie. Damn. He broke into a run, trying to get to the covered pedestrian overpass across University Avenue before the storm broke. There it was, just up ahead. There was another flash overhead, and he ran faster. Just as he jerked open the door and lunged through, there was a deafening roar of thunder and a lightning blast that turned everything white.....
The Knight Sabers
He sagged against the wall of the overpass tunnel, shaking his head to clear it of the dancing spots that last lightning flash had made. God, that one had been close! He was almost willing to swear it had struck the entrance to the tunnel as he'd gone through. Ridiculous. If that had happened, he wouldn't be standing there blind, they'd have been scraping his fried carcass off the floor. He took a deep breath and shoved himself off the wall as his vision finally cleared.
He started to continue down the tunnel when his mind finally registered what his hearing, and his dazed sight were telling him. He was not in a tunnel. He was standing in broad daylight at the mouth of a dingy alley. Looking around, he could see skyscrapers towering above the lesser buildings. He looked up the street he was standing on. There were people everywhere, shopping, talking and walking all over. There were so many people around, it made downtown Toronto during rush hour look like a deserted parking lot. His mind caught up with him on another, previously unnoticed fact: most of the signs were in English and Japanese, the rest were Japanese only. He stood there, mind numb, as he tried to sort out how he had gone from a university campus at night to a large city in the daytime. Maybe he had been hit by lightning, if he was hallucinating this badly.
Unable to think of anything else to do, he started to drift down the street, oblivious to the looks his clothing, and the weaponry slung over his shoulder, were getting. One conscientious citizen stepped into a video phone booth after he had wandered by and punched in a phone call. An official-looking face answered his call, and a short conversation ensued. The man hung up, and quickly left the phone booth, moving rapidly in the direction opposite to what the young man had taken.
The sound of approaching police sirens gradually penetrated the mental fog the young man had been wandering in. Sirens? He looked around. What, a robbery someplace? What was happening?
He was abruptly answered when four howling patrol cars surrounded him with strobe lights blazing. Suddenly, he was at the center of a circle of grim uniformed men who were all pointing rather large caliber weapons at him. He was still gaping in disbelief when the command came from one of the officers off to the side:
"ADPolice! Drop your weapons and put your hands up!"
Weapons? What did he....oh no, it couldn't be. The sound of rifle bolts being cocked persuaded him to hurriedly drop the long bow, backpack, and arrows and put his hands up. An officer behind him seized the offending implements, as a second officer grabbed him and threw him into the back seat of a cruiser, slamming the door. Two officers got into the front seat, one driving, the other watching the prisoner in the back seat.
Suddenly he sat bolt upright, whacking his skull on the low ceiling of the cruiser. As he wilted back, holding his head in his hands, two realizations flashed in his mind with stark clarity. The first was that, even though the police had spoken in Japanese, he had understood them perfectly. The second realization was the sudden recognition of the police force name. ADPolice, the anti-crime unit specializing in boomer related crimes, in MegaTokyo, 2032 AD. MegaTokyo, the city where the Knight Sabers fought boomers and GENOM on a regular basis. No! It wasn't possible! He had to be dreaming! But it all looked and felt so damned real.... especially considering he'd just bashed his head in on the roof. He stayed that way, holding his head and trying to make sense of a suddenly upended universe for the rest of the ride.
When they reached the station, he was hauled out of the car and up the front steps. He wasn't really paying attention to where they were taking him, he just followed along hoping for something, anything to come and get him out of this. They entered a large office area, and parked him at a desk with the admonition of "Wait Here." He looked around, faintly curious for the first time. There were computers all over the place, with operators tapping away at the keyboards. Other staff were busily filling out forms, writing reports and placing phone calls. It looked like, well... it looked like a typical police station, with some futuristic elements thrown in.
His contemplation of his surroundings was interrupted by the arrival of (he assumed) a police detective. The detective, an older man in his mid-forties, balding with a blonde mustache, dropped into the chair across the desk from him, fished a form out of the desk drawer, and pulled a pen from his pocket. He gave the young man a searching glare, then quickly scribbled a few lines in the box marked 'Physical Description'.
"Name?" he inquired coldly.
"Bert Van Vliet"
"I guess you could say 'completely lost and bewildered university student'"
The detective looked at him, then wrote 'claims to be university student' on the form.
"Have you got any identification? And while you're at it, how did you get into MegaTokyo, and why were you running around the streets with a restricted weapon?"
Bert sighed and pulled out his wallet. Flipping out all of his identification, he passed it over the desk. The detective looked at it, then did a double take.
"This says you were born in 1970."
"Gee, you look awfully good for someone who's supposed to be sixty-two!" The detective slammed his hands down on the desktop. "Is this some idea of a joke? I want current ID, not some bloody forgery!"
"I think I can explain..." Bert began.
"Well then do it! And this had better be good."
"...but I don't think you'll believe me."
"I'll be the judge of that. Start talking."
"What are you, nuts?! Do you honestly, for one second, expect me to believe that bullshit?!"
Bert sighed. He wasn't entirely sure that he believed it himself, but being dimensionally displaced was the only answer he could come up with. It was either that, or else he had finally snapped from too much homework, and was having massive delusions. "Well I AM telling the truth, even if I do sound like I'm crazy."
"I don't have time for this shit! You're being discharged. I don't have time to do work for the psychiatric wards! Wait here. I'm going to get someone to finish this 'report' and kick you out. And I don't want to see you in here again, not unless you've smartened up!" The detective turned away snarling.
"Can I at least get my backpack back?" he called after him.
"Here!" His backpack was flung at him from two desks away by the retreating detective.
And a pleasant day to you too, Bert thought sarcastically at his receding back. He sat slumped at the desk, unhappily rummaging through the thoughts of his interview with the detective. He supposed that he couldn't really blame the man for not believing him. Hell, if someone else had told him the same kind of story, he'd have been calling the funny farm on them. He suddenly grinned crookedly to himself.
"You are about to enter a region where time and space as we know it does not exist," he intoned under his breath to himself. "You are about to enter... the Twilight Zone."
A girl's voice interrupted his gloomy thoughts. "Excuse me? Are you Bert Van Vliet?"
He looked up, into a pair of emerald green eyes in a face framed by magnificent red hair. She was cute, with a slender figure, dressed in a uniform blouse, short skirt and white boots. It took him a minute to find his voice. "Uh, yes...yes that's me."
She smiled. He was blown away all over again by that smile. "I'm Nene Romanova. I've been told to finish this report, and then to...." she stopped, obviously trying to find some way to say something politely. He had a pretty good idea of what that something was.
"...and then to kick my posterior out of the building," he said dryly "right?"
She flushed slightly. "Something like that. What did you do anyway? I've never seen detective Anderson that mad about anything before." She looked questioningly at him as she sat down behind the desk.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," he answered.
"Try me," she said as she picked up the report.
Nene was silent as she walked him back to the front entrance. He looked down at her, since he was a good deal taller than she was, and noted that she seemed to be mentally chewing something over. His own mind was dwelling more on the fact that she was cute, rather than his current predicament. She looked up at him suddenly, and he turned beet red and dropped his gaze as if caught at something. They were nearing the front lobby.
"I'm not sure I believe all of your story," she told him finally, "but you've repeated it so many times with no alterations that I'm sure you believe yourself, at least."
"Thanks, I think. I guess partial sympathy is better than nothing."
"How long will you be in town?" she asked. He had to fight off hysterical laughter.
"Quite some time. I haven't the foggiest idea how to get out of here."
"Do you want directions to the airport?" she asked.
"Sorry, but I don't think an airport is going to help me any. Thanks for the thought though."
By now they had reached the front doors. Nene held out her hand. "Well, good luck, wherever you end up. Maybe we'll see each other again."
He grinned at her. "Probably. Right after I get picked up for vagrancy most likely."
She smiled back, then turned to leave. His voice drifted after her, becoming muted by the closing front doors. "Give my regards to your friends...." She turned around quickly to find out what that parting shot had meant, but he was gone.
Bert strode quickly away from the ADP building. He wanted to get as much space as possible between himself and the cops. Damn it, he should have said something else to her. But what could he say? 'Hi, I'd like to meet the Knight Sabers'? Besides the fact that everyone in the office would overhear any remarks like that, all Nene had to do was deny it, and he'd probably be sitting in a rubber room. Besides, he'd never mentioned that all this didn't exist, where he came from. That would definitely have had him in a psych ward for assessment.
He walked on, not really paying attention to where he was going. His mind rambled over everything that had happened, especially over the fact that he could seemingly read and write Japanese, when he'd never studied it. Could it be a side effect of watching all those anime tapes? Imagine that, learning a language through watching movies. Better than learning it through classes. He shook his head, grinning at his own whimsy.
After a while, he realized he was walking on the sidewalk of a highway overpass, it was dark, and he had no idea what he was going to do for someplace to stay the night. He was considering this problem when he saw a black sportscar drive onto the on-ramp for his level. For some reason, the car looked familiar. Suddenly, he could hear someone screaming off in the distance. "Irene!"
His pulse quickened. Could it be....? He had started trotting in the direction of the voice when a young girl with short brown hair staggered to the top of a set of stairs about 100 feet away from him, and collapsed, weeping in fear. The black car hissed past him as he ran forward, and stopped in front of her. The door started to open as he kicked himself into running overdrive, his mind racing furiously. What could he do? He needed a weapon, or a distraction of some sort. As he pounded closer, his eye fell on a nearby (thankfully empty) garbage barrel, the steel kind. A twisted grin spread across his face, despite the situation.
Irene cried uncontrollably. She had tried to get away from the strange black car that had been following her, but to no avail. Aided by her terror, the car had herded her into a deserted stretch of highway with no problem. She was sure that whatever it was that was following her was going to kill her now. Through eyes blurry with tears she saw the black car coast to a stop in front of her. She could hear what sounded like Linna's voice in the distance screaming her name, and she thought she could hear someone else running nearby. A tall woman with blond hair and a predatory grin stepped out of the black car. Irene gasped as she was grabbed by the shirtfront and hauled up off of the pavement. She watched in abject terror as the woman flexed a hand, and her nails turned into long steel claws.
Linna ran desperately down the alley she had seen Irene take. God, she pleaded silently, please don't let anything happen to her! As she ran, she screamed Irene's name again.
"Irene!" echoed from the night as the boomer drew back its clawed hand. "May fortune favor the foolish!" Bert prayed fervently as he sprang at the boomer with the barrel swung high over his head.
The boomer's hand had started down, and Irene fully expected to die shortly thereafter. Suddenly movement in the darkness exploded into somebody who came leaping forward to slam a garbage barrel down over the boomer's head and shoulders, and shove the boomer sideways. The shock, however, was too much for Irene, and even as the boomer dropped her, she fainted.
"Oh shit, no! Not now! Faint later!" Bert swore as Irene folded to the pavement. A sudden squealing of stressed steel made him look over. Although he had wedged the barrel well down on the boomer, it was splitting the steel like tinfoil. Still swearing, he grabbed Irene, slung her over a shoulder, and staggered under the load. How could such a small girl weigh so much? He ran ponderously down the steps, two at a time, ignoring the protests his knees made at the stress they were being subjected to. Behind him, there was a sudden SPANGing noise as the rest of the garbage barrel was split apart. He tried to run faster.
Linna rounded the corner in time to see some crazy nut slam a barrel over the head of a boomer, grab Irene, and start bounding down the stairs with her over his shoulder. He was tall, with red hair, but that was all she could tell at that distance. She didn't recognize him, at least, but at the moment that wasn't important. She ran towards them as the sounds of a motorcycle grew from behind her.
The boomer suddenly reared up over the edge of the bridge, and hurled what looked like a crumpled wad of metal at Irene and her rescuer. "Look out!" Linna screamed at them.
"Shit!" she heard, as the fleeing man leaped down the last six steps and landed heavily at the bottom of the stairs, his knees almost buckling. The crumpled barrel whizzed past and ricocheted of the wall harmlessly. The boomer hissed angrily, and climbed back into the car and drove off. It could wait for another opportunity.
The stranger pounded up to Linna, panting hoarsely from exertion. "Run!" he gasped. "That thing is still up there!". Linna started to reply, when Priss screeched her bike to a halt near them, and flipped up her visor.
"What happened?" she demanded. "Where'd the boomer go?"
The stranger looked behind himself, then sighed in relief. "It must have decided to try again later." Without asking, he suddenly stepped to Priss' motorcycle and lowered Irene to the seat. He kept an arm around her, because she was still unconscious, but it had to be easier than holding her on his shoulder. He sighed in relief, and his breathing became a bit less labored.
Linna was on the verge of tears. "Oh thank you! Thank you! Is she hurt?" She began to examine Irene for injuries. He shook his head.
"Luckily, the boomer didn't have time to do anything yet. I think she's just in shock."
"Would someone please tell me what just happened?" Priss asked.
Linna told her, and Priss turned to stare open-mouthed at the red-haired stranger. "You're either one of the luckiest buggers alive, or the craziest. What made you try a stunt like that?!"
"Let's call it a bit of both," he replied, grinning, " and I didn't have any better stunts at the time."
"Who are you anyway?" Linna finally asked, frowning slightly.
He bowed slightly, greenish-brown eyes twinkling with some inner joke. "My name is Bert Van Vliet. I'm currently completely lost, but that's a long story, and I'd rather not go into that right now. Anyhow, can we get out of here now? I really don't want to be around when that clawed horror comes back."
Linna and Priss looked at each other, then started to say that they appreciated his help, but no, he couldn't come with them, when he decided to drop the bombshell. It was either that or risk sleeping on the street, he figured.
"Oh, come on Linna! I saved your friend, doesn't that count for something? Besides, you're going to need an extra set of hands to help carry her for a while, unless you want to tie her to the back of Priss' bike."
He was greeted with shocked silence. He could almost hear their thoughts. Priss' hand twitched towards her jacket slightly. Noticing it he added with a half-smile, "I'm unarmed, so you don't need to unlimber your shooting iron there."
Linna looked at Priss, who finally shrugged. "What the hell, he has helped. Sylia can decide what to do next." Linna nodded agreement.
Placing Irene carefully on the back seat of the motorcycle and holding her up, the group started to move off. After about fifteen minutes, they were spared further exertion by the arrival of Mackie in a cube van. Everybody except Priss climbed in, and the van moved off.
Sylia looked through the door of the living room at Irene's mysterious benefactor. He was seated at the kitchen table with Mackie, slurping massive amounts of coffee laced with sugar and cream from a plastic mug he'd dug out of a blue backpack he'd been carrying. Aside from being a caffeine addict, he looked harmless enough. She looked over at Priss. "What do you think?" she asked, indicating the coffee-sponge sitting in her kitchen. Priss shrugged.
" I don't know what to think. He was brave enough to save Irene from the boomer, and that really took guts." she replied. "Guts or total stupidity. There's something else, though." Sylia waited.
"He knew who we were," Priss said slowly, "our names I mean. He knew our names before we'd even had a chance to say anything. He even knew who you were."
A thoughtful frown creased Sylia's brow. "That is strange. I think we'd better ask him a few questions once Nene gets here."
"She's an ADPolice officer. She'll be able to check him out. Where's Linna by the way?"
"She's settling Irene into a guest room. I think she's still in shock, not that I blame her for it. We're going to have to hide her somewhere, though. That boomer could come back."
"Hmmm. We'll deal with that problem later; she should be fine for now. Well, let's go talk to this rescuer." Sylia led the way out of the room.
This was definitely real, Bert decided. Partly it was the fact that he hadn't been able to keep his hands from shaking since his encounter with the boomer. That reaction usually only occurred when you had just been really scared by something to the point of shock. Having a fifty-pound crumpled ball of steel pitched like a softball at your head by something that looked like the Terminator in drag was a damn good start. Recognizing Priss and Linna as he'd run towards them had helped a bit. Realizing he was actually sitting in Sylia Stingray's kitchen demolishing her coffee supply single-handedly was the finishing touch. Why was he scared? Fear of the unknown, probably. Anyhow, the coffee was helping to steady his shaking, and that was something, anyway. Good coffee, too. Mackie just sat there staring in awe as he worked his way through his third pot of coffee of the night.
His most pressing concern right now was trying to figure out some way to bring up the subject of the Knight Sabers without blowing his chances of being able to stay here for a while. He was bright enough to realize that he wouldn't last long in the city by himself. He was just thinking this to himself when Sylia and Priss came in from the living room, and, as luck would have it, Nene accompanied by Linna came in the other end of the kitchen. Oh hell, he thought, now I'm in for it.
Nene was listening to Linna describe the events of the night so far when her gaze fell on a familiar, red-haired figure. "You again!" she gasped, eyes widening. Conversation died completely as everyone else in the room looked from Nene to Bert. He looked ill, as if he'd seen something he'd sooner not confront. He abruptly buried himself in his coffee mug again.
"I think this calls for an explanation," Sylia remarked mildly.
The object of their scrutiny said nothing, just took another pull at his mug as if he was trying to drown himself. Nene began to explain how they had met earlier. He slugged back the rest of his coffee as she reached the part about his story to the detective, and quickly mixed another cup. Maybe he could get wired enough on caffeine that he wouldn't mind so much.....
As Nene finished, he was aware of everyone staring at him. It felt like lasers boring holes in his skin.
"Well?" Sylia asked him quietly.
He sighed, "She's mostly right," and proceeded to fill in a few gaps. The silence was thicker than ever when he was done.
"You don't honestly expect us to believe this, do you?!" Priss burst out. "Oh come on!"
"Funny," he replied, "that's almost exactly what the detective said. Believe me, Ms. Asagiri, I'm not lying. I think if I had anything to gain by lying, I could come up with a better story." His use of her last name had silenced Priss more effectively than any other statement he could have made. It had not escaped the notice of the others seated at the table, either. Quiet reigned for a few minutes. The silence was split by the electronic warble of a phone call from somewhere in the apartment. Sylia got up and went into another room. Everyone else continued to stare at Bert, who was beginning to fidget as a result of the scrutiny, and the truckload of coffee he'd consumed. Suddenly Priss spoke up.
"I don't trust you," she said, glaring hard at him. "You're hiding something. The fact that you seem to know us when we've never met you is enough of an indication."
Bert looked around the table at the surrounding faces. Linna looked troubled, absently running her fingers through her hair, but at least she didn't look hostile. Priss, on the other hand, was looking at him like he was a boomer she was going to blast. Mackie looked faintly curious. When he looked at Nene, he suddenly realized that he wasn't going to have long to wait before at least one person voiced aloud their suspicions on the subject. Judging by the thoughtful, if slightly nervous, look she was giving him , she had guessed what it was he knew. He was willing to bet though, that she hadn't even come remotely close to guessing why he knew what he knew.
Sylia came back into the kitchen. She handed Mackie a folded note, which he took a quick look at before leaving. She looked grimmer than she had before, and the way she regarded him made him extremely uneasy. His stomach lurched suddenly, a combination of excess coffee, and extreme nervousness over what he was going to do now. Might as well get it over with, he sighed to himself. He was about to speak when Nene interrupted him.
"You know, don't you?" she asked quietly, looking at him with those marvelous green eyes. The way she emphasized it left no doubt as to what she was talking about. Linna's expression changed to one of shock, while Priss looked colder than ever. Only Sylia remained unchanged.
He nodded. "You're the Knight Sabers." There was a hiss of indrawn breath from Priss' end of the table. He glanced quickly at her to make sure she wasn't pulling her gun.
"Would you mind telling us how you know this?" Sylia asked. Despite the quiet way in which it was phrased, he knew it was nothing short of an order.
"All right," he replied tiredly, " but if you thought I was crazy before, you haven't heard anything yet."
When he was finished, the only face without an expression of complete and utter disbelief was Sylia's. Telling somebody that they don't exist where you come from is bound to have that effect. Finally Sylia spoke.
"I don't think you're lying. You don't look like it, and you don't sound like it. The main question now, I'm afraid, is what do we do with you? We can't just turn you loose, aside from the fact that you say
you have no place to go." She waited expectantly.
Here it was. The opportunity to do something he'd dreamed about for years handed to him on a silver platter. The other three girls were watching him closely, also waiting for his reply.
"How about an extra Knight Saber? I do know a few things that may be useful." He stopped, not trusting his voice to hold together any further. Priss snorted, but Sylia looked thoughtful.
"And just what are your, shall we say, qualifications?" she asked.
"Well, I'm an engineer, although my specialty is chemicals, and I'm a decent marksman, if I do say so myself." He grinned suddenly. "Although perhaps I should qualify that by mentioning that it's with a longbow that I'm the best at. And I've got a pretty good knowledge of computers."
"The engineering could be useful, but I don't think we need a hardsuit trying to fire arrows." Sylia stood up. "We'll discuss it further in the morning. Right now, the rest of us have work to do. Linna can show you to a guest room for the night."
Bert stood up and bowed. "Thanks. See you in the morning, I guess."
"Oh, one other thing," she added as an afterthought. "Give Nene that identification you say you're carrying. She can check it out to see if it's authentic."
Bert fished out his wallet and handed it to Nene. Canadian money wasn't any good here anyway, overlooking the fact that from what he'd seen, nobody used cash anymore. He snatched his backpack from the floor by his feet, and followed Linna out of the room.
Linna led him down the hallway to a bedroom with a small adjoining washroom. She hadn't said anything to him, and it was making him slightly nervous. He looked at her as she opened the door to his room and asked, "You don't trust me, do you?"
Linna looked at him carefully. He was tall, and his hair was an unruly mess, but his eyes seemed honest enough. There was something else, though. There was an almost a palpable emotional shield holding his feelings in check. Despite the defensiveness, he looked honest and good-natured. She smiled at him finally. "You risked getting killed to save a complete stranger. I think that makes you trustworthy." She gave his arm a brief squeeze, then ran down the hall.
Maybe this will work out after all, he thought. He closed the door, and flopped on the bed. He didn't have time to undress before the long day caught up with him. In seconds, he was snoring like a sawmill.
The orbiting satellite fired its massive particle beam earthward. A coruscating blue bolt of sizzling energy vaporized what was left of the GENOM facility that had been the home of the super boomer project. Four hardsuited figures regarded the hellish conflagration from a safe distance.
"Well, so much for the black box," Priss remarked.
"It's better this way," Sylia replied.
"Huh?!?!" Nene said incredulously. "What about the 20 million?"
"There'll be other jobs," Linna said. "Let's get out of here."
The four turned and climbed into the transport truck. Mackie started the engine, and the truck vanished into the night. The fires burned on unconcernedly.
When Sylia awoke late the next morning, she found that her inadvertent house guest had been up for some time already, even before Mackie. He'd already had breakfast, whipped up a pot of coffee and a pot of tea, and then cleaned up after himself. He'd even gone so far as to clean the kitchen from stem to stern. Polished surfaces gleamed everywhere. When she came into the kitchen (fully dressed), he was slouched at the table sipping at a large mug of tea and flipping through an old newspaper. He looked rumpled and scruffy, having slept on top of the bed fully clothed all night.
" Morning," her greeted her as she came in.
"Good morning," she replied. She looked around at the now scrupulously clean kitchen. "You didn't have to do that you know."
He shrugged. "It seemed like the best way to repay your hospitality at the time. Besides, I needed something to keep me occupied." He took a swig of tea.
Sylia fixed her own breakfast, covertly watching him as she ate. He was brooding over something this morning. His mood was almost physically visible, like a small stormcloud over his head. She didn't say anything until she had finished her meal and cleaned up. She poured herself a cup of coffee, then turned to regard him.
"Would you like to talk about it?" she asked.
He blinked, startled. "Was it that obvious? Sorry, I don't normally brood like that, but it's a combination of things. The first reason is, I'm not a morning person. I'm always an absolute bear in the mornings, at least until I've had some caffeine. The second reason, at the moment is kind of complex." He fell silent, taking another pull at his mug. "I'm still trying to sort out just what happened, why I'm here, that sort of thing."
" And what have you sorted out so far?"
" That I really don't know anything, really. All I've got is a heap of airy theories, and the fact that all this appears to be completely, 100% real. Which is both comforting and alarming at the same time."
"Would you care to explain that?" she asked, sipping her coffee.
He looked at her thoughtfully. "The alarm comes from the realization that I almost got gutted by that thing last night. The comfort comes, I guess you could say, from the fact that I've wanted to do this in the worst possible way for a long time now."
She frowned. "Wanted to do what?"
"Get dressed up in a suit of powered armor and solve the world's evils, protect the innocent, and all that jazz. I think it's called the 'hero complex'. Maybe it's a form of insanity. Who knows?" He refilled his mug with tea, and gave it a shot of sugar and milk.
"I think you have an overly romanticized view of our work," she informed him.
"Maybe," he replied, "but I'd still like to do it."
She was silent for a minute. "What are your plans for today?" she asked finally. "We can't show you anything yet, at least not until we hear back from Nene."
"Well, I could use some clothes and a couple of other things." He grinned. "I didn't exactly pack for the occasion."
She nodded. "I'll get Mackie to show you the local stores, everyone else is busy today. After that, we'll get you settled in a downstairs apartment."
"Got a basement area I could have?" he inquired.
"Yes, but why?"
" It's quieter, and I can do some of the renovation myself. I tend to be a bit of a do-it-yourself handyman."
She nodded again. "We'll look into that when you get back."
Mackie and Bert returned later in the day, having hit most of the local clothing stores. They found Nene had arrived, and was discussing something with Sylia. Bert assumed Nene had good news, because she gave him a wide smile as he entered. That smile should be regulated, he thought. I think I'm getting addicted to seeing it. Or to seeing her, his subconscious added a minute later. He sat down at the table across from the two women.
"It seems there's some truth to your claims," Sylia told him.
"You proved there was some kind of time-dimensional warp? I'm impressed."
"No, but your identification is authentic, considering it's thirty-seven years out of date. Nene checked with the archives for international documents, and your ID card, driver's license, and such matches perfectly what was used in Canada in 1995. She even got the lab to check the paper used, and they swear it's genuine."
He relaxed, sighing with relief. "It's nice to know I'm not totally out of my mind."
"You're not entirely broke, either," Nene put in.
"I had the anti-counterfeiting division examine the bills in your wallet. Not only are they real, but they're worth several thousand yen to currency collectors."
He burst out laughing." Sonovagun! I think that's got to be the first time in history that the Canadian dollar was worth a lot."
They looked at him blankly.
"Sorry," he apologized, " Inside joke. You really had to have been there."
"At any rate," Sylia put in, "we're also getting some current ID made up for you. You can't run around MegaTokyo with your old ID, but I think you realized that already." He grinned sheepishly.
"Well, now that we have a much better idea of your background, we can start showing you some of the operations," Sylia said. "Nene will show you around the building today, and tomorrow night we're having trials again. You'll be participating, so we can get a better idea of your abilities. We'll put off any other decisions until tomorrow night. OK?" He nodded.
"We'll see you later then, " Sylia said. She got up and left. Bert was silent a minute, then he looked over at Nene smiling slightly. "Shall we go?"
She got up, smiling back. "Certainly! Where would you like to start?"
"I'd like to see the hardsuits first, actually."
"No problem. Come on." She turned and left the room. He followed, sternly ordering his pounding heart to behave. It ignored him.
Bert looked around the training centre. He wasn't really sure what he had expected to see, but it certainly fit his ideas of a high-tech hidden testing facility. Strange, esoteric looking machines of undefinable functions lined the wall, their humming providing a subdued background noise. One wall was dominated by the viewing window overlooking the holo-simulator room, with a control panel sitting in front of it. Sylia was standing in front of the window watching Linna, who was practicing at level 8. Nene and Priss had already had their tests. Priss had completed level 6 with no problem, but Nene was still stuck at level 5. He was not looking forward to finding out just where he ranked. He was so nervous he couldn't stand still in one spot for long.
He looked around again. Priss was doing the arm strength test, and Nene had just finished the leg strength one. Nene walked over to him smiling reassuringly. "Don't worry, you'll do fine." He smiled back. God, he was really developing a crush on her! Red hair, green eyes and a marvelous personality, he thought, the most lethal combination on the planet. He tried not to let any of his feelings show. Let's try to keep this strictly business for a while, at least, he told himself.
Priss had finished her last test, and had walked over to the window to watch Linna knock the photons out of her holographic opponent. Aside from saying hello initially, she appeared to be ignoring him. He supposed he wasn't overly surprised, but it was a little upsetting just the same.
"Your turn Bert," Sylia announced. "We'll start you off at level one, and see how far you get. Think you can handle that?"
He nodded. After having been working out at the university for a while, he figured he was in pretty good shape. He stepped towards the door to the holo-chamber as Linna came out.
"Good luck," she said, giving him a grin that was two parts mischief and one part sympathy.
"Thanks. I'll need it," he replied wryly. The door closed behind him.
He exited the chamber wiping away the sweat streaming down his face and panting heavily. It had certainly been an experience. The strange blob that he'd had to fight at level one had gradually evolved, growing tentacles and becoming slightly thinner as he'd advanced. He'd surprised himself by making it to level 4, but that was where it had ended. "Not bad for a first time," Sylia remarked as he came out. "Time for the other tests."
"Arm strength, 8.5....Leg strength, 7.35....Running, 6.0....Reflexes, 3.52. A decent first score, except for the reflexes, but that can be improved with practice," Sylia informed him.
"No problem," he replied, mopping up the last traces of sweat from his face " How do I go about this then?"
"Well, for starters, Linna can give you some instruction at the health club she works at, after she's done instructing of course. The rest you can practice on your own when you have the time."
He came out of the locker room, having showered and changed. He was wearing a brown, wide-brimmed, flat-crowned hat, and a long black coat. He looked, Linna realized as he walked over to where she was standing, like a gunfighter out of an old western movie in that getup. She shrugged mentally. To each his own....
"Well, when would you like to start on the practicing?" he asked. He seemed vaguely nervous about the prospect.
Linna considered that for a moment, then replied, "I'm usually free at 3:30 in the afternoon. We can start there and see what develops. If that's OK with you."
He grinned suddenly, eyes twinkling. He shocked her by abruptly whipping off his hat and almost sweeping the floor with it as he gave her a courtly bow. "I am at your service, M'Lady." He straightened up, grinning now at her bemused look. " And I look forward to it." Jamming his hat back on, he turned and strode off into the night as everyone stared at him.
Bert peeled himself painfully off of the mat where he'd landed. Linna stood at the other end grinning at him, hands on her hips, her blue eyes glinting with devilish amusement. He paused for a second to get his wind back, which had deserted him when he'd reached the end of his brief flight through the air.
"I can't believe I said I looked forward to this," he muttered. He hadn't realized that having Linna show him the finer points of dodging around to avoid getting hit was going to result in his impacting with the mat once every five minutes. Linna grinned again. She wasn't even working up a sweat.
"You should always be careful what you ask for," she admonished in mock-seriousness, running a hand through her hair. "You might get it."
"I don't recall asking to get plastered to the mat every few minutes." He stretched, making sure his back was still intact.
"You're too big," she needled him. " There's more of you to get hit or throw around."
"Great," he growled indignantly, "just great. Now I get insults too."
"Come on, you're not going to learn anything standing there complaining." She got set in a ready stance. He sighed, and moved to match her. They sparred a bit for a few minutes, then the world spun out from under him again. The breath whooshed from his lungs as he met the mat yet again. His control on his temper was beginning to slip as he surged to his feet. Gritting his teeth, he moved towards her, irritation becoming a driving force. Linna's expression was still one of amusement.
It abruptly turned to surprise. When she parried one of his tentative swings, he suddenly seized her arm as he spun to present his back to her. She found herself rocketing through the air, having been pulled forward and flung over his back. There was a bone-jarring thump as she bounced on the mat, twice.
He stared at her with a suddenly horrified expression. He dropped to his knees beside her on the mat. "Oh hell, I'm sorry, Linna! I didn't mean it to be that hard! Are you all right? Say something!" He put an arm around her shoulders, helping her up. She waved him off.
"Relax, I'm fine," she said, sucking in a large gulp of air. "I'm just surprised, that's all. Where did you learn to do that?" She cocked her head at him curiously. He looked horribly embarrassed.
"I read a book on combat judo once a few years ago. That was the only move I remembered how to do, but I'd never used it on anyone before. God, I'm sorry! I let my temper get out of hand. It won't happen again, I promise." He was absolutely wallowing in self-guilt.
"Look," she told him firmly, "I'm fine. It takes a lot more than landing on a mat to hurt me. Besides, I want you to keep up that stuff. If you can remember any more of those moves, it will be a lot better for you when you finally get in a fight. Now stop apologizing, and ditch that sense of chivalry towards women you're waving around. If you don't, I'm going to really bounce you off the mat." She got up, dusting off her hands, and looked at him. There was a look of faint surprise on his face as he got up.
"How did you know about that?" he inquired.
"About my 'sense of chivalry', as you called it."
She rolled her eyes. "All anyone has to do is look at some of the books you read to figure that out. Adventure, knights in shining armor, saving the galaxy, heroes rescuing damsels in distress and that sort of thing. Well I'm not in distress, and if you call me a damsel, I'm going to wipe the mat with you."
He grinned sheepishly. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Come on, let's try that again." Linna got set again.
The arrow whistled through the air, burying itself to the feathers in the boomer's head. At the far end of the archery range, Bert put down his bow and sighed. Archery had always been relaxing before, but lately it just wasn't the same. He pressed a button on the wall, and the retrieval system brought the stuffed boomer facsimile down to his end. He pulled his arrows out of it, and sent it back to the far end of the range. He'd built the range himself shortly after moving into the basement, and after getting his bow back from ADPolice. He'd spent several hours relaxing and honing his aim during the several weeks that had passed since then, but it was rapidly becoming unsatisfactory.
The reason was fairly simple. Even though his training had progressed to the point where he was at level 5 in the holo-simulator, Sylia still wouldn't allow him to accompany the rest of the Knight Sabers on a mission yet. Oh, he could ride in the HQ truck and provide tech support, and he'd learned enough to be able to do basic repairs on the hardsuits, but he couldn't convince Sylia to let him put on a suit and go with them. It was, he thought sourly, a right royal piss-off. He wasn't sure how much longer he could put up with it, either. His own sense of honor was all that had prevented him from trying at least one brief solo run with his suit, which was completed, but not tested. He was brooding over this when the door to the archery range opened, and Priss walked in. She was dressed in her usual red leather motorcycle suit with her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.
"Hi," she greeted him hesitantly, "Got a minute?"
"Sure," he replied, curiosity seizing him. She'd never come down here before. "Just give me a second to clean up."
Priss watched as he deftly unstrung the bow with a motion born of long practice. He hung it crosswise on a pair of hooks in a narrow cabinet at the end of the room, then added the quiver of arrows. Closing the doors, he turned to face her. She looked preoccupied with something. Mentally, he shrugged.
"Would you like something to drink first?" he asked.
"OK, sure. That would be fine."
She followed him out of the room and down the hallway. They came to another door, with a small sign next to it. He opened the door and stepped through. She glanced at the sign before following.
She grinned to herself, and entered the room. He was rummaging in a refrigerator, and as she came in he asked, "Coffee, tea, pop, or something else?"
"How about a beer?"
He straightened up from behind the fridge door, holding a beer can in one hand, and a can of pop in the other. The door swung shut as he walked over, and he handed her the beer. He popped the tab on his pop can and swigged from it
"Thanks." She opened her drink as she looked around at his room. Not bad actually. She'd seen a few bachelor apartments in her time, and they usually were disaster zones. This one was actually pretty neat.
Bookshelves lined part of the west wall, filled with everything from fantasy novels to physics books. A small kitchenette was built into the southwest corner, complete with a fridge and microwave. Four comfortable looking armchairs sat around a coffee table in the middle of the room. A door at the south end was open, and she could see the end of a bed projecting past it. A small closet was right next to the entrance door for shoes and miscellaneous stuff. Posters and pictures on varying themes covered the east wall. The only real mess in the place was around the computer at the far end of the room; paper was strewn everywhere, giving the appearance of a small snow field. There were colour diagrams of some sort tacked to the cork wall behind it. Suddenly seized by insatiable curiosity, she drifted forward to look at them. Bert followed her silently.
As she came closer, she realized that the diagrams were actually several hardsuit designs. She regarded them thoughtfully as she sipped her beer. They ranged from the bizarre looking to more normal looking. One suit design showed a bright chrome-coloured suit with no visible guns, but it was equipped with a sword and a shield. A caption read "Templar Armor - Mark I. Impractical for ranged attacks." She looked at the others:
- "Wolverine Close Combat Armor - Adamantium unavailable"; The suit was a orange-brown combination of colours, with a helmet that looked vaguely like a snarling animal. Three wickedly curved blades extended from each hand.
- "Thunderbolt Mark 7 Assault Armor"; This suit looked like a hedgehog. It had gun barrels protruding from all over it's torso and arms. Bizarre.
- "Rifleman Mark 6 Long Range Fire Support Suit"; A relatively normal looking hardsuit, its most prominent feature was a double barreled railgun on it's right arm, extending a couple of feet past the suit's hand, and a large railcannon mounted on the left shoulder.
- "Mark 10 Imperial Interdictor Super-Heavy Assault Armor - Serious Firepower for the Serious Boomer Killer"; This suit needed only wheels to make it a formidable piece of artillery. It was larger than an ADP K-12 suit, and it sported four, six-inch guns mounted two to a shoulder. A massive sword blade extended from the left arm, and a fifty-caliber minigun was mounted on the right arm. A missile rack was mounted on the rear of its torso. It looked like it weighed about 5 tons.
- "SkyKnight Combat Armour - Initial Design"; This suit was midnight black with silver trim. It had dual plasma cannons mounted on each arm, and a sword blade extended from each arm just underneath them. Heavier armor plating was evident through the chest, and on the shoulders, knees, and elbows. The helmet resembled the helmet on her own suit, except for the fact that it had a flatter faceplate with a glowing red, V-shaped eye slot in the faceplate. Flight jets were visible on the rear of the torso, and the rear of the legs, exactly like the jet arrangement on a C-55 boomer. The overall effect was one of a powered suit of plate armor from the middle ages. She had a sudden hunch which suit design he preferred.
She looked up from the drawings at him. He was smiling curiously at her.
"Well?" he prompted. "What do you think?"
"Very interesting," she replied. "You gave the SkyKnight design to Sylia, right?"
He flushed. "How'd you guess?"
"It's the only immediately practical looking design," she told him, "and its the best looking one. Besides, I know you've got this thing for heroic knights in armor."
He flushed again, taking a slurp of pop to cover his embarrassment. "Well, it's already built. It was just finished last week. Hopefully I'll be able to try it out soon." Something akin to impatience flashed across his face. "I've already created a re-design though, based on some concepts I've been kicking around."
"Got a picture of it?" she asked. He nodded, and handed her another sheet of paper:
The suit pictured was not a great deal different in overall appearance from the first design, except that it was a little sleeker, and had a weapon mount on each shoulder. What looked like folded jet-fighter wings hung from the back. There were several strange looking guns pictured down the left side of the page.
She looked up at him again. "'Battlemaster?" she inquired. "Isn't that a little pretentious?"
"I let my ego get a little carried away," he grinned sheepishly. "But if my design ideas work, I think it will come pretty close to earning that title."
"Yup. I've designed several modular weapons for the suit. The old design has a mount on the left shoulder, but it's not as adaptable as the new ones. It can only fit the one gun I've whipped up."
"What is it?"
"It's an experimental railgun launcher."
"What's so great about that? My hardsuit's already got railguns."
"Ah, but it doesn't fire these now, does it?" He handed her a metal object from a desk drawer.
It was approximately 6 inches in length, with a diameter of half an inch, and tapered at both ends. Vanes started at one end, much like the fins on a missile, then stretched in a gently twisting spiral down its length, to come to a needle sharp point at the other end. It weighed about a pound, she judged. Her own railgun spikes were much lighter, and didn't have steering vanes on them. She couldn't see what the advantage was, and told him so.
He took the projectile back and placed it back in the drawer. "I call them railgun bolts. They're a lot heavier than standard railgun rounds to give them more inertia when fired. The vanes provide extra stability in flight, like the feathers on arrows, which is where I borrowed the idea from. Inside each bolt is an explosive charge with a two-second delayed reaction, impact-sensitive timer. The idea is that the bolt penetrates into the innards of a boomer and then blam!....no more boomer, ideally. At the worst, severe internal damage should result. Because firing heavier bolts requires more power to get good penetration, the launcher has it's own battery which assists the suit's normal power. It only carries four bolts, and after they've been fired, the battery needs recharging. I can't wait to try it out sometime." He grinned and drained his pop can, tossing the can into a garbage bucket nearby. Priss finished her beer and followed suit.
"I'm impressed. What are these other guns here?"
"Those are multi-purpose launchers for things such as smoke bombs and flares. I had originally designed one that fired corrosive bombs, but I scrapped that idea. Too dangerous."
"If you get hit in the weapon system, half your suit would melt off, taking the skin with it."
"That would be bad," she agreed.
"I've also been kicking around some general hardsuit defensive improvement ideas. I'm still developing a couple of them. One is ready to try out sometime soon; it's a form of chainmail covering for the suit joints, made out of a polycarbide alloy. It's extremely flexible, but strong. It may not stop things like railgun spikes, but it will certainly stop things like blades and bullets." He grinned "I find it faintly ironic that an invention of centuries ago can solve a modern problem."
"What are the other improvements?"
"Different metal alloys for the suit armor, with some special polymer/polycarbide coatings I've been cooking up. The final results should give lighter and stronger armor plating."
"You have been busy, haven't you?" Priss shook her head in reluctant admiration. He suddenly looked at her.
"Okay, you didn't come here to see my little projects. What's on your mind?"
"I came to invite you to a party tomorrow night."
"What?!? A party? Me? Why?" He looked thunderstruck.
"You've been living as a virtual hermit for the last month and a half. Linna, Nene and I think you should get out more often and see some more of the city, such as it is. You can't hide down here all the time, so you can either come willingly, or we'll drag you. Here's the address; it's a club just a few blocks over from this building. My band and I are playing at the start, so make sure you get there early." She turned to go.
"Um...hold on a second." He'd finally found his voice again.
"Yes?" She turned around. He had a faintly uncomfortable look on his face.
"Why now? I mean.....you've never said two words edgewise to me before,..and...I thought......I was under the impression that you didn't like me very much."
She was silent for a long moment, then looked up and met his gaze. "I didn't, originally. I mean, you dropped out of nowhere with some insane story, and then blackmailed Sylia into letting you join the Sabers."
"Hey, I didn't blackmail anybody! I just was trying to....."
"I know, I know. But that was what it looked like to me at the time. The fact that you also seemed to know a lot about us made me uncomfortable, especially because I wasn't sure just how much you did know Since then," she paused, " since then I've watched the way you've been working hard to fit in. You're improving in combat simulations, and judging by what I've seen here, Sylia will probably be using at least some of your ideas fairly soon. Linna and Nene both trust you completely, and Sylia seems to also." She smiled suddenly. "This wasn't exactly the way I'd pictured telling you, but I think you're an okay guy. Now that we've got that out of the way, I'll see you tomorrow." She turned to leave.
"Thank you," he said quietly as she shut the door behind herself.
Priss and the other band members exited the stage, followed by loud applause. Bert drifted away from the front of the stage in the direction of the bar. He was actually enjoying himself somewhat. The music and singing had been excellent, and he'd even managed to screw together his courage long enough to get a dance with Linna, and then Nene. Luckily, he hadn't stepped on anyone's feet, either. Passing the bar, he snagged a glass of iced tea (the non-alcoholic kind). He sipped it as he surveyed the crowd.
The club where the party was going on was a little more upscale than the club Priss normally sang at. It was reasonably well lit, the interior was almost spotlessly clean. Because it was in a slightly better neighbourhood it didn't have walls covered in graffiti surrounding it. Looking around, he suddenly realized he couldn't see anyone familiar. Priss had vanished backstage, partly to change her clothes, and partly to avoid autograph seekers. Linna and Nene where nowhere to be seen. Sylia was out there somewhere, which had been a surprise, since he hadn't thought she was the type to go to a dance club for a party. Leaving them aside, though, he realized he didn't know anyone else there. A sudden surge of loneliness washed out of nowhere to engulf him, lowering his mood appreciably.
He wandered through the crowd, trying to fight it off, without much success. Despite his talk with Priss of the day before, he still didn't feel entirely comfortable around the rest of the women. At times, he felt like the proverbial fifth wheel, just hanging around like a nuisance. The isolation he was now experiencing in the crowd didn't help any. Suddenly, he felt a hand on his elbow. It was Nene.
"Hey, why the long face?" she inquired. "The party's not that bad, is it?"
He looked at her. She seemed genuinely concerned, but the long habit of keeping things bottled up prevented him from saying anything. Confiding in someone had backfired stupendously on him on at least two occasions, and he didn't really want to blow his tentative foothold here. It had also been his experience that most people don't want someone else's problems unloaded on them. He forced a smile onto his face.
"Hey, it's nothing. Just letting my mind wander a bit."
"Well, if you say so." She sounded dubious about his reply, but moved off. After she was out of sight, he made his way to the door, snagged his hat and coat from the coat check, and left.
He arrived back at Sylia's building, and let himself in through a side door. The walk back to the building had cleared his mind a little, and he didn't feel quite so despondent anymore. His footsteps echoed hollowly through the halls. Almost of their own accord, his feet led him down to the hardsuit storage room. The door hissed open, revealing the suits standing in their bays against the far wall. The only illumination in the room was the light from the banks of computer monitors at the far end. He stood in front of the bay containing his suit. His face reflected the internal war going on, between temptation to try the suit on, and willpower attempting to resist the desire. He turned abruptly and left.
His next stop was the communications room. He scanned the monitors and police wavelengths; nope, nothing major happening anywhere in the city. MegaTokyo appeared to be getting a break tonight. He turned away, and was about to leave when a voice suddenly crackled from the radio tuned to the ADPolice wavelength.
"Dispatch, this is chopper 12. A renegade boomer has been spotted moving south along Twelfth street, currently located at the intersection of Twelfth and Yamaha. Identification, model Bu-12 combat boomer. Request backup immediately! Repeat, request backup imme........"
There was a sudden blast of sound in the background, and the line went dead in a burst of static. The boomer had noticed the helicopter.
He rushed to the computer map console and called up a map of MegaTokyo. It took him a couple of minutes to find the streets the chopper pilot had called in. He stiffened suddenly in shock. If the boomer kept heading south, it was going to pass right by the club!
He swore to himself softly. Now what the hell was he supposed to do? If he phoned the club, it could take minutes to get Sylia in that crowd, assuming anyone could even hear to answer the phone. If he tried running back to find her, he'd arrive in the area at the same time as the boomer, and that wouldn't solve anything. There was no way ADPolice would make it there in time to stop the boomer either. That left one option only. One that was bound to get him in deep trouble later. He sprinted from the room, back down the hallway.
The loading ramp extended from the suit bay. The gleaming black and silver armor suit stood open, waiting for its pilot to step in. He took a deep breath, then stepped over to the armor and started donning it. His feet slid into the boots first, which locked themselves down, then he stuck his arms into the sleeves, which promptly snugged themselves down to his arms. The upper torso armor swung down as the leg armor closed, both locking into place with metallic clicks. The lining of the suit adjusted itself to his body, contracting slightly and allowing the final armor pieces to seal into place. He picked the helmet up from off of the console and put it on.
Immediately, the suit systems started to hum. His viewscreen flashed on as the onboard computer ran a system-wide diagnostic, then pronounced the suit operational. A quick sensor scan of the surroundings proved the sensors were working. There was only one more piece of equipment to check, then.
He picked the four-barreled launcher up from off of the floor where he had set it. Checking to make sure it was loaded properly, he reached up and settled it into the specially designed socket for it. The computer registered the new system, and declared it fully operational. He was ready, he hoped. Clanking across the floor, he opened the door and left the room to the computers lining the walls.
Bert soared from the roof, arcing high over the building as he looked around to get his bearings. The suit felt fantastic, like nothing he'd ever experienced before. He'd assumed it would feel restrictive and slightly clumsy, but it wasn't. The armor was a fantastically comfortable fit, bracing him and thrumming with power. He could move perfectly, with no interference at all from the armor. Soaring above the rooftops on the flight system was exhilarating beyond belief. He abruptly pulled his mind back from the sheer thrill of wearing the suit for the first time. There wasn't time for a joyride.
Banking sharply, he soared off in the direction of the club. After several minutes of flight, he could see the street that the club was on. He could also see the form of the Bu-12 combat boomer as it entered the street and flew down it. It was big, with strange looking booms mounted on its shoulders. Its right arm was a large looking bazooka or cannon of some kind.. He'd arrived just in time. Powering up his plasma cannons, Bert launched into a dive as his targeting systems established a lock on the boomer.
Nene had just noticed that Bert had been missing from the party for some time. She had begun to ease her way through the crowd towards Sylia and Linna to see if either of them had seen him, when the shattering crash of an explosion from outside in the street cut through the noise of the club. Shocked, she turned towards the club's large front window in time to see a combat boomer rocket through the fading flames of a fireball. The boomer roared past the window, obviously intent on something further up the street. Nene started to move closer to the window to get a better look, when she felt a hand on her elbow. Turning, she saw Linna and Sylia behind her, both with slightly worried expressions. Priss was coming up behind them through the now nervous crowd.
As she reached them, she asked "Anyone know what's going on?"
Linna started to shake her head when Nene interjected "A combat boomer just flew by, but other than that, I haven't a clue."
Looking around, Sylia suddenly asked "Where'd Bert go?" They all looked at each other.
"The last time I saw him," Nene said slowly, "was about an hour ago. He seemed kind of preoccupied with something, but didn't want to talk about it."
"Could he be outside?" Linna wondered. "It is getting a little stuffy in here, after all."
Priss had moved closer to the window to look up the street. It was a little hard to see, partly because a lot of the people in the club had by now gone out front to see what was happening. Stupid jerks, she thought to herself irritably. There's a boomer stomping around outside, and everyone runs to look. If the AD Police showed up, it was going to become even more dangerous when the inevitable firefight ensued. In fact, it looked like there was a firefight going on right now.
There was another blast of flame up the street, and suddenly she saw something rise above the street level, being propelled by some kind of flight system. Blue-white bolts were stabbing downward from its outstretched arms. It was some kind of hardsuit, vaguely familiar looking....She gasped, stomach clenching in a stab of anxiety as she suddenly recognized the suit design. The suit was black and silver, with heavy armour plating, and it's helmet had a glowing red eyeslot and wing-like antennae on the side. The blue beams it was firing were coming from the tops of the suit gauntlets, and it appeared to have a launching tube of some kind on its left shoulder.
She spun around to say something to Sylia, but found it was unnecessary. Sylia was standing right behind her, and from the faintly stricken look on her face, it was obvious that she had recognized the suit too. Nene and Linna looked at the both of them perplexed; their position hadn't allowed them a glimpse of what was going on.
"What is it?" Nene asked. "What did you see?"
"There's a black hardsuit fighting the boomer outside." Sylia's voice was tight.
Nene's face turned white as Linna asked "Isn't there anything we can do to help?"
Sylia shook her head. "There's a fire blocking the one end of the street, and the boomer's at the other end. All we can do is watch."
The four turned back to watch the battle.
This was not, Bert decided as he dodged another blast from the boomer's cannon arm, one of my brighter decisions. The boomer had shrugged off his initial attack, and was proving to be tougher than he'd thought. His own inexperience with hardsuit combat was catching up with him. Sure, he'd been training a lot, but there was a hell of a difference between a simulator and the real thing, a difference he was learning about now. He was suddenly finding out firsthand just why Sylia had been reluctant to let him try the suit out in the first place. Damn it, he though irritably, it sure looked easier in the comics and videos.
The boomer suddenly lunged out of the smoke ahead of him, smashing him sprawling with a roundhouse swing of its cannon arm. Bert rolled over and leaped to his feet as another round of cannon fire scorched the pavement where he'd been only a moment before. He fired his own salvo with his gauntlet cannons, the blue plasma beams shoving the boomer backwards, but otherwise not seriously harming it.
Time to try something new, then. His experimental railgun system came on-line as he flung himself backwards to avoid another roundhouse swing. He pushed the boomer back with another plasma burst to buy time for the targeting system. Come on, come on, lock will you! The readout pinged, and there was the sudden slam of recoil as the railgun spat its payload of four bolts, rapid-fire, at the boomer. The first one was a complete miss, as it sailed past the boomer and blew an innocent trashcan off of the sidewalk. The second one the boomer blew out of the air, wielding it's bazooka arm like a point defense gun. The remaining two bolts struck the boomer in it's left arm, punching neat holes in the armor plating. Then the boomer's arm blew off. Well, whaddaya know? he thought with a grin. It works!
It was a temporary victory. Twin ports on the boomer's torso opened, and it fired its own missiles at him. Oh hell, he swore as he used his thrusters to hurl himself violently upwards, out of the path of the missiles, I forgot that the damn thing has missiles! His dodge was only partly successful, as one missile blew off the armour plating on his left shoulder, taking the now-empty railgun launcher with it. A second missile struck him squarely in the chest, blasting him backwards out of the air. A red wave of pain washed through his vision, but he managed to stay awake. His hazy senses suddenly woke to the fact that the missile had blasted him backwards into a direct collision course with the club. There wasn't time to try to use his flight system to stop his descent, but there was another option left. His port thrusters fired, angling his trajectory towards a lightpost in front of the club.
He grabbed it as he sailed past, trying to swing himself away from the front window. It worked, sort of. Something snapped in his left arm and his suit readout suddenly screamed stress and collision warnings at him. He was desperately trying to keep from throwing up inside his helmet from the pain, though, and didn't notice, not even when he finally crash landed on someone's parked car. Nothing ever had, he thought dimly, hurt as much as it did now. He flopped off the hood of the car to the pavement, trying valiantly to get his legs under himself.
Nene had her hands clenched in front of her mouth. Linna and Priss were both completely silent, watching the scene outside with anguished expressions. Sylia was standing ramrod straight, her face white and tight with strain, her fists clenched. Bert was getting cut to pieces, and there was nothing they could do about it. His suit wasn't going to stand the pounding much longer. The left shoulder was a smoking wreck, and sparks could be seen arcing from the exposed circuits. One antenna wing was gone from his helmet, and his torso armour appeared cracked and scorched. He was visibly wobbling as he tried to get to his feet. Through the smoke and flame beyond him, they could see the massive shape of the boomer approaching.
I've only got one more chance, Bert thought as the boomer clanked towards him. His main power was down to only 25%, and by sheer bad luck, the auxiliary power systems were not operational. He backed away from the boomer, formulating his plan as he frantically shut down and re-routed the power from all the non-essential systems he could think of. After a moment's hesitation, he added the plasma cannon power to that list. Firing them now would shut him down anyway. The power readout stabilized, and increased somewhat. Here goes nothing, he thought wearily as the boomer thundered forward, firing its machine gun. He leapt away into the air, ignoring his screaming ribs and shoulder, and fired his thruster pack. He rose rapidly above the boomer, then banked and soared away from it down the street as fast as possible. The boomer, strangely, didn't seem to want to pursue. It turned away and started back in the direction it had originally been going. So much the better, he thought grimly as he made his final adjustments to his targeting computer.
"He's running away!" Priss said in stunned disbelief.
"At least he's alive!" Linna retorted defensively.
Nene said nothing, she was still white-faced and trembling as she watched the destruction outside. Sylia glanced at her, but said nothing either as she turned back to the window. They had turned back just in time, because something thundered screaming out of the sky above the boomer. The air rang with a bellowed word:
Bert's targeting system scanners had finally located the weakest armor on the boomer's back and given him a targeting lock. Wheeling high above the boomer, he extended his sword blades and locked them into position. It was now or never.
He swerved around and began a power dive towards the boomer, with his arms extended out in front of himself. He kicked in the emergency thrusters to try and get more velocity. The tortured scream of horribly stressed thruster jets and electronic systems rose in his ears. He ignored it, and the spreading fire from his shoulder, intent only on burying his blades in the boomer's back. He shouted the only battlecry he could think of at the time as he smashed into the suddenly turning boomer, and lodged both blades deep into its torso.
Everyone watched in disbelief as the armored figure smashed into the back of the boomer at high speed, driving the blades from its forearms into its torso. The impact alone sent shockwaves rippling through the air, and hurled both combatants forward twenty feet. The boomer lurched around, trying to fling off the antagonist who had suddenly become attached to its back. It wasn't having much success though. As she watched, Priss noticed that the blade points had come through the front armor of the boomer angled in such a way that it was going to be difficult for the boomer to throw the hardsuit off. What the hell did he think he was doing ?
Why won't the damn thing die ? Bert wondered in desperation as the boomer lurched and thrashed around the street. His collision with it had crushed some of the boomer's rear armor, and the imbedded sword blades had caused damage severe enough for the boomer to lose control of its weapons, but it refused to go down. His own armor had suffered more damage from the collision, and his remaining power reserves were dying slowly. Clenching his teeth, he began to force his arms apart, driving the blades towards the boomer's sides, trying to cut off the top portion of the boomer's torso. Please God, he prayed, let the suit systems hold out a little longer. He struggled on, trying to eviscerate the mechanical monstrosity.
The boomer was on it's knees in the street now, but still trying to thrash around. Priss noticed that gashes were slowly widening in the boomer's front armor, and suddenly understood what it was that Bert was trying to do. Correction; had succeeded at, because the entire top section of the boomer's torso flew apart in a spray of nutrient fluid, armor, and internal parts. The boomer collapsed, still twitching, to the pavement. The hardsuited figure on its back collapsed on top of the wreckage.
"Linna, Nene," Sylia suddenly snapped, " Get back to the building and get your suits. We may have to fly him out of here. The fire at the end of the street has died out enough to get past."
There was no danger of being overheard; everyone else was in the street crowding closer to the dead boomer to have a look. The two girls ran from the deserted club, and down the street.
"Uh-oh," Priss muttered, "AD police just arrived. Look."
Sylia turned. Two ADP K-12 armor suits had arrived, and were cautiously approaching the fallen combatants. Behind them could be seen the flashing lights of patrol vehicles.
"Well, now what do we do?" Priss asked.
The only thing he was sure of was that he was still alive. He could still hear the crackling of burning wreckage around him, and still feel his wrenched shoulder. His ribs were also adding their own complaints. He opened his eyes, and experienced a brief moment of panic when his eyes met blackness. His viewscreen flickered into dim life and gave him a rundown of his suit condition. It did not look promising. All weapons, even the extendible sword blades, refused to function. Main power was down to 10%. The actuation system that gave enhanced strength and agility was barely operative, and his flight system was marginal at best. What else could go wrong? he wondered dimly.
He got his answer when something rolled him off the boomer to the pavement. Through the crazy flickering of his main display he caught glimpses of a K-12 police suit. Oh hell, he thought, I really don't need this now. He began firing up the thrusters for one, last-ditch flight.
"I don't think this guy survived," he heard.
"Well, even if he did, we'd have to arrest him."
"That doesn't seem fair somehow. He did stop the boomer after all."
"Hey, the law's the law."
That has to be Leon, Bert thought hazily, only Leon could come up with a line like that. That's it, I'm leaving. The thrusters on the suit fired, lifting him clear of the startled K-12's and off into the night. He faintly heard as he left the battlefield, "Hey wait a minute! You can't do that, you're under arrest!"
His flight was less than steady as he flew back towards Sylia's building. He had to fight to keep from blacking out, and the flight control system was almost shot. As he dropped towards the roof, he noticed a green and a dark blue/pink hardsuit waiting for him. They lifted into the air beside him, and helped him make a gentler landing than he would otherwise have made, because it was precisely at this moment that his power system died completely, leaving him sightless as well as flightless. Suddenly, there was a solid surface beneath his feet again. He shakily managed to bring an arm up and flip up his visor so he could look around.
Linna was holding him upright on the left, and Nene was guiding them towards the rooftop door. Both of their visors were up, and he could see a combination of relief and worry on their faces. Perversely, it made him feel a bit better. At the same time, he felt suddenly guilty for having thought that they didn't care about him.
As they limped together into the hardsuit storage room, they were met by Priss and Sylia. They had both initially looked worried, but then Sylia's worry vanished to be replaced by a sternly reprimanding look.
"Just what the hell did you think you were doing?" she demanded. "What were you trying to do, kill yourself?"
A weak grin suddenly appeared on Bert's face. "Hey, some of us just party differently than others." That was the only answer Sylia got for some time as unconsciousness rushed up and claimed him finally.
He awoke slowly, gradually becoming aware of his surroundings. He was flat on his back in a bed somewhere. He blinked, suddenly coming fully awake. It wasn't his room, he was sure of that much.
Sunlight streamed in through a window, revealing the bed, a table with some flowers on it, a chair, and not much else. There was a folded newspaper on the table, and it was when he tried to sit up to reach for it that his body caught up with him. He flopped back on the pillow with a strangled groan. He ached all over, especially his left shoulder and chest. Upon examination, he found that his arm was splinted and taped up into immobility, and his chest was swathed in bandages.
Dimly, he began to also remember the reasons for his current state. Oh God, he thought suddenly, I'm going to get better only to get strangled by Sylia for going after that boomer alone. He tried to sit up again, but failed miserably.
Just then, the door swung open, and Priss entered carrying a tray. Noticing that he was awake, a crooked, conspiratorial grin appeared on her face.
"Hiya, killer," she greeted him, placing the tray on the table. It had a teapot, milk, sugar, mug, and a plate of sandwiches on it.
"Quick, somebody shoot me before Sylia does," Bert groaned.
"I think the boomer took pretty good care of that," Priss teased. "Besides, you can't die until everyone has had their shot at scolding you."
"'Everyone'? Who else is there?"
Priss sat down on the chair next to the bed and began ticking them off on her fingers. "First, Sylia's mad at you for taking off after a combat boomer alone. Second, Nene's mad at you for almost getting killed. Oh, Linna's in that group too. Thirdly, Pops and Mackie have some words to say to you about what you did to your suit. It's going to be a write-off for a week."
"What, you're not in the list anywhere?"
Priss' grin faded slightly. "I don't think I need to say anything. I think it was stupid, and you've realized that it was stupid, so you don't need me to sit here saying 'I told you so'. The Knight Sabers are supposed to be a team effort."
"'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone' and all that." Bert shifted slightly and winced at the resultant twinges.
Priss actually colored slightly. "Never mind that! I at least know how to handle a hardsuit in a fight. Although," she paused, " I think I understand why you did it."
She turned to the table and poured him some tea. "Now eat up. You're going to need all your strength for the next couple of hours." She moved the tray closer to him, gave him another grin, and left.
Bert sighed, and reached for a sandwich. It didn't take long to devour the sandwiches and tea, since his stomach started snarling with the first mouthful. He swallowed the last bit of tea thinking sardonically 'And the condemned man ate a hearty meal' to himself. Maybe he could hide under the bed. No, not only was it ridiculous, it was too obvious. There was no way he was going to make it down the hallway, not in his present state, so they wouldn't have far to look. He abandoned that thought abruptly as the door began to open again. Time to face the music.
It hadn't been as bad as he'd feared. He'd had a stern lecture from Dr. Raven on misuse of equipment, and been informed that when he was better, he could look forward to assisting in the reconstruction of his destroyed suit. Meanwhile, Mackie stood grinning in the background.
Next, Nene and Linna had come in. Their scolding had ended when Nene dissolved into tears and given him a huge hug that had started his ribs throbbing again. He found himself unexpectedly touched by the concern, since he'd figured that the girls regarded him as a nuisance and a liability. He was beginning to realize just how wrong he'd been. Then they'd left. Two down, one to go.
He took a swig from a glass of water, nervously awaiting his final arrival. Just when he figured that his nerves couldn't take the waiting anymore, the door swung open and Sylia walked in. She certainly looks nice today, he thought nervously. She was wearing a white blouse with a jacket and skirt that looked almost.....formal? businesslike? imperial? His stomach began to knot itself in nervous anticipation.
Sylia said nothing, just sat down in the chair and looked at him expressionlessly. He tried without success to meet that gaze. His guilty conscience was working overtime. Sylia still didn't say anything, just sat there and watched him squirm. The silence seemed to thicken. Finally, he could stand it no longer.
"All right! I confess! I did it! I'm sorry! It won't happen again! I..." he blurted, and then stopped in confusion as a smile, the first he could recall seeing, spread slowly across Sylia's face.
"Yes?" she inquired, still smiling slightly.
Bert sighed. "I'm sorry I took off by myself after the boomer. I realize it was a dumb thing to do, but..aw hell...I just couldn't stand not doing anything anymore!"
Sylia nodded. "Believe it or not, I had noticed that you were getting impatient." She paused, then added wryly, "But I didn't think you'd pick so public a way to rebel."
"Public?" he asked faintly.
She nodded, and handed him the paper he'd been unable to reach. There, splashed across the top of the front page was the headline "UNKNOWN HERO SAVES THE DAY!", with a picture of the dismembered Bu-12 boomer below it. Lifting into the air behind the boomer was his suit, looking like a train wreck, but still mostly recognizable. An ADP K-12 suit was visible on the fringe of the picture. As he skimmed the article, he noticed that the writer was making the fight sound a lot more glamorous that it had seemed at the time. It was also gushing over the miraculous fact that property damage had been kept to a minimum. Great, he thought sourly, I save lives but get cheered for keeping insurance premiums down.
He looked at Sylia, his face suddenly white. "Is this picture going to..? I mean will it...? Was I....?" She shook her head. "No choppers were in the area to follow you, and nobody else tried. As far as AD police are concerned, you're a mysterious benefactor in a hardsuit. There's nothing to link this incident to the Knight Sabers. We will have to change your suit's appearance a little, though, just to help allay any suspicions there might be."
He sighed, then grinned, looking over at her. "You know, I've had a few ideas about that already," he began tentatively.
"Later," she said firmly. "First you've got to heal up, and then you're going back into training. Some of those shots you took could have been avoided. And you can't go around ramming everything. It's unprofessional looking."
"Yes, boss," he sighed humbly. She laughed warmly as she stood up. "Welcome to the Knight Sabers!"
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