Metal glinted coldly under the harsh glare from the overhead floodlights, reflecting the beams into crevices all over the vast, cavernous room. The subdued hum of electronics was everywhere, as several men in workmanlike uniforms bustled around complicated banks of monitors and computer panels. A few of the men crawled around on a large platform that was supported by squat, powerful-looking hydraulic cylinders, ministering to the large, armoured shape that occupied the lift. Here and there one of the technicians passed a scanner over open armour plating, nodding in satisfaction at the readings before closing and sealing the access panel. The chest of the large mech was sitting open, revealing an oblong cavity inside.

Only one figure in the room was not participating in the fevered activity. Tall with straw-blond hair, the grey-suited figure stood quietly in the shadows by a computer console. Arms folded across his chest, Ethan Hollister watched his men work, his icy blue eyes cool and intent, missing nothing. Occasionally, his gaze flicked to the platform, and a faint, self-satisfied smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

Thick metal doors slid open at the far end of the room, and four men wearing dark blue body armour and white helmets with opaque visors trooped through, dragging somebody with them. The motion and sounds of their approach drew Hollister's attention, and an unpleasant smile cracked the calm facade he usually cultivated. Soon, a plan he'd been working at for a very long time would finally come to completion.

Afterwards, he would have some scores to settle.

The lead guard saluted as the group came up to him. Hollister's eyes traveled to their prisoner, and again an unpleasant smile appeared as he looked at the captive. It had taken a lot of trouble to acquire her, and even more trouble to hold her; she'd already tried to escape twice, and had injured several of his men during the attempts, permanently crippling a couple of them.

The seemingly groggy captive the guards held was a fairly young-looking woman, wearing a grimy, snugly-fitting khaki uniform with short sleeves. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was blindfolded. Her hands had been shackled behind her back, and her arms were bound to her body with metallic-looking straps. She was very attractive-looking, despite the dirt and bruises, and she had a figure most men would kill for the privilege of merely being near. Hollister wasn't most men.

"Put it in," he said tersely, jerking his head towards the mech. At his words, the captive suddenly came alive.

"NO!!" she screamed, surging upright, and wrenching free of their grasp. "Let me go!!!" A well-aimed kick connected with the groin of one of her guards, and the man dropped into a groaning heap. When one of her escorts attempted to grab her, she spun and head-butted him, cracking the bridge of his nose with her forehead. He staggered away clutching at his nose, tears of pain streaming from his eyes as she strained at the bonds holding her; they began to creak ominously.

Her desperate escape attempt ended almost as quickly as it had begun; the guard standing behind her dashed forward and pulled what looked like a short club from his belt, slamming her across the back of the head with it. A loud electrical crackle sizzled through the air, and blue sparks raced all over the young woman's body; she convulsed helplessly before dropping limply to the floor.

At a curt, impatient gesture from Hollister, the remaining guards picked her up again, and started dragging her towards the hydraulic platform. Despite the charge from the stun weapon, she still tried to put up resistance.

"No! Please!" her voice carried to Hollister, sounding choked and desperate. "Please, just let me go!! I haven't..."

"Shut up, bitch." The terse command from one of guards was accented by the flat crack of a slap across her face. "Ow! Shit!!" was heard a moment later as he flipped stinging fingers numbed by the slap, and a couple of snickers came from the other guards.

Hollister remained aloof, the only indication of his interest in the proceedings being the glint of ambition in his eyes. He watched coldly as the guards hauled the crying woman up to the mech, removed her restraints, and then manhandled her into the concave cavity in the chest of the machine.

"No!! NOOOO!!!!" The despairing, agonized wail overrode every other noise in the room for a moment, causing a few technicians elsewhere in the room to exchange uncomfortable, uneasy glances. Loud, metallic snaps and clacks came from the machine, and the guards stepped back. Choked sobbing drifted from the machine.

"The sexaroid is secure, sir," the lead trooper reported. At his boss's curt nod, they descended from the platform, collected their still-groaning and writhing compatriot, and left. A triumphant smile spread across Hollister's face as he turned to a white-faced technician nearby.

"Prepare the sexaroid for the preliminary testing," he instructed, "and inform me when it's complete." The technician nodded, swallowing uneasily, and reached out to key in several commands to his computer.

Hollister turned and strode from the room, leaving behind the heartrending sobs coming from the large mech.

SkyKnight Productions
Proudly Presents
A NonTechnical Film

MegaTokyo 2035
The Knight Sabers

"The Bubblegum Zone - Episode #10"

Copyright (c) 1996 Bert Van Vliet

"NO! Absolutely not!" Priss said flatly, her hands on her hips. Her entire face bore a look of grim resolve as she glared down at the current source of her displeasure: someone's body, clad in grease-splotched blue jeans and an equally stained sweater. The majority of the upper half of the person was underneath a large machine, and shielded from the immediate effects of her glower.

"But why not?" Bert's voice replied, reverberating eerily from among the metal parts of the device he was working on. "You did admit that it was fun the last time."

"Motorcycling is safer!" she retorted vehemently. Irritated sparks flashed in her eyes as she looked disgustedly from what she could see of his body, to the machine above him. I should've known. The resigned thought briefly registered in the back of her mind as she looked at the vaguely familiar shape. The colour wasn't the same anymore, but the overall configuration of the large gadget left no doubt as to what she was looking at: the WarHorse.

Now predominantly dark blue trimmed with silver flames, the high-speed jet cycle had undergone a few changes, and not all of them merely cosmetic. It was a bit longer than it had been the last time she'd seen it, and the wings had been spread a little wider for greater lift.

The yawning turbine intake had been replaced by several streamlined air vents, built into the nose of the hull. By far the most noticeable change was the fact that the flying machine now mounted visible weaponry. Six, one-shot torpedo tubes jutted threateningly from its snout, and twin laser cannons were mounted on the top of the front faring, just in front of the vehicle's windshield. Even with the armament, it still looked like a souped-up jet-engine with wings and a seat attached.

"Drag-racing highway patrol cruisers is safer?" came the dry reply. A grunt of effort came from under the bulky flying machine as he started worming his way out from under it. "At least I don't have to worry about losing my license on this thing."

"Nobody in their right mind would give you a license for that thing!" she shot back, nettled. "And at least the ground's a lot closer!" Remembered nausea assailed her as she recalled how she'd been duped into accepting a ride on its maiden flight. It had been an utterly wild experience, frightening and exhilarating in terms of speed, and the cheerfully reckless abandon of its pilot. Normally, she didn't mind speed thrills, but this was a bit different.

The problem was that the somewhat comforting knowledge that the ground was right below her was absent when soaring around on the supercharged jetbike. The high velocity and high altitude the jetbike used meant that the slightest mechanical difficulty, or piloting mistake, had the potential to turn whoever was riding the sky-cycle into something resembling a squashed can of tomato paste; there wouldn't be time to jump off and use hardsuit flight systems to escape if they hit something. She shuddered, and quickly forced her mind away from the subject.

Bert finally succeeded in crawling out from under the WarHorse, and stood up, shaking his head in amusement, smiling wryly. A few oily smudges marred his nose and face, and his hair was a sweaty, tangled mess.

"I can't see much difference between falling from a few hundred feet up, or falling off and skidding on your face along the pavement," he noted mildly. "Both would probably hurt."

"I'm not going up on it, and that's final," Priss declared flatly, slashing her hand through the air in a negative gesture. "I mean it, Bert." She looked levelly into his eyes, and saw regretful acknowledgment appear in them.

"Okay," he sighed, giving up. "It wasn't going to be right away anyway; Sylia wants to discuss some other modifications first."

"Considering the way she reacted when you first built the damn thing, I'm surprised she let you work on it again."

"She suggested it, actually," Bert grinned. "I guess with Sylvie running the store, she's had more time to look at some of the projects she's wanted to do for a while." He patted the slick metal hull of the jetbike. "She even gave me some improvements to try on this baby here; I think if it works out, she's going to allow it to be used on some missions." A sly grin appeared. "In fact, I think Sylia was considering a motoroid-convertible version."

"Oh my God," the attractive singer groaned, slapping a hand over her face as she looked heavenward. "No way. Never. Uh-uh. I'm sticking with my old motoroid and I don't give a damn what's been improved, thank you very much!!"

"You're taking all the fun out of this!" he protested, artfully looking hurt. She didn't buy it, and didn't reply. Seeing he wasn't going to get a rise out of her, he grinned slyly again, and gave up. Glancing at the battered clock hanging on the wall, he snatched up a relatively clean rag and carried it over to the can of hand-cleaner sitting on the cluttered counter by the sink. Scooping up some of the soapy-feeling cleaner, he started scrubbing his hands clean.

As he worked at some of the more persistent stains, he glanced over at Priss out of the corner of his eye. Seeing that he'd given up on baiting her, she'd leaned against the wall and was apparently lost in thought. Her red-brown eyes were gazing absently at nothing, and her lips were pursed slightly as if she was contemplating something not to her liking. His gaze ran appreciatively over her, quietly enjoying the look of her in her usual form-fitting red and black leather bike suit. Flushing slightly, he returned his attention to cleaning his hands; now wasn't the time to start having amorous thoughts.

"Finished?" Priss's voice asked him.

"Yup, that was it for the day," he sighed, stretching and yawning hugely as he turned towards her. He grinned at her and tossed the hand-rag into a nearby bin as she walked up to him. "Feel like going to dinner?"

"Sure," she agreed readily, then grinned herself. "You buying?"

"Looks like it," he replied dryly. "I didn't get fleeced by another speeding ticket." That wisecrack earned him an irritated glance; he'd warned her about the speed trap the THP had set up along the Bayshore highway, but she'd forgotten, and had been nabbed doing well over 60 kilometers per hour over the limit. Since then, he'd been getting in sly digs at her when he could; watching her fume was kind of fun, if risky.

"Just go and get cleaned up," she told him, putting a hand on his chest and shoving him back as he started to lean closer to her. "I'm not going out with someone who looks like they just fell into an oil pit." He chuckled, and bowed slightly.

"Your wish is my command," he proclaimed with a smirk. "I'll be back in about twenty minutes, unless you want to wait in the apartment?" He glanced quizzically at her.

"I'll wait here," she told him. "Go on, go get cleaned up." He nodded and left. "Smartass," she mumbled under her breath as the door closed behind him. After a moment, her irritation crumbled and disintegrated; she just couldn't stay pissed off at him for very long either, not over something that minor. Given how close they'd become, she knew it was just an obscure way of him expressing his feelings for her.

Priss idly strolled around the shop, humming some of her songs to herself as she sorted through some pleasant memories, just letting herself relax. As she wandered around, looking at the scattered clutter, she found herself standing in front of the WarHorse again. She scowled at the jetbike, seriously considering kicking the damn thing; she hadn't told anyone, but she was positive that her ride on it had given her an almost pathological fear of flying at high altitudes in anything other than an airplane. She'd even had a nightmare about falling off of it, and had woken up drenched in sweat.

A sudden thought struck her, and a slow, wicked grin spread across her face as she looked at the blue flying machine. Casting a furtive glance at the door to the shop, she quickly hunted around for the can of silver paint he'd used to paint the jetbike's trim. She carefully pried open the can, then found a small brush.

Kneeling next to the big machine, she judiciously applied a few strokes approximately where the machine's gas tank should be, then gazed critically at her work. Nodding in satisfaction, she finished the additions, then quickly touched up the other side of the gas tank as well.

Grinning in smug triumph, she sealed the can again, cleaning the brush and putting it back. After taking a brief glance at herself to make sure there were no telltale paint flecks on her clothes, she gave her handiwork another smirk. Deciding that she did need to get cleaned up a bit now, she left the shop, heading for Bert's apartment; it was the closest, and it would keep him from coming back until after the paint had dried.

As the door closed behind her, the shop lights glistened wetly on the WarHorse's new lettering:



Paper rustled quietly as Hollister shuffled through the file folder on the cluttered desk in front of him. He skimmed over page after page, until his expression turned to one of resigned disgust as the data he sought continued to elude him. He closed the folder, shoving it aside, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh.

After a moment, he stood and walked over to a small side-cabinet, opening it and pulling out a bottle filled with an amber liquid. Pouring a glassful, and adding some ice, he carried the liquor back to his desk and sat down. Kicking off his shoes, he propped his feet up on the corner of the huge oak desk he was sitting behind, and sat sipping his drink while he stared with a dark brooding look into space.

"I'd heard that rank hath its privileges," a voice remarked dryly from the doorway, "but I didn't realize that you'd taken it quite so much to heart." A cold gaze snapped up to where the voice had come from, then thawed slightly.

"If you've got it, why not use it?" Hollister shrugged, waving the man at the door in. "Care for some brandy?"

"I've my own poison, thanks," the gaunt, elderly man replied as he tiredly shuffled across the carpeted office, sinking with a grateful sigh into the leather armchair across the desk from Hollister. He dug into the capacious pockets of the slightly-rumpled lab coat he wore, and came up with a pipe.

"At least I'll still have my lungs with this," Hollister noted, raising his glass slightly. At the same time, he reached out and pressed the switch on the strategically located air freshener nearby. It began to whir quietly as he leaned back into his chair and took another swig. Doc gave the device a slightly amused smile as he stuck the pipe in his mouth.

"I wouldn't worry about lung cancer, Ethan," he mumbled around the stem of his pipe as he fished tobacco out of another pocket and started packing the pipe with it. "Diseases can't get someone who was born to be hung." Sly mirth flickered in his expression for a moment.

"Pardon?" The ice was back in Hollister's eyes, and Doc sighed to himself. The man had no sense of humour about some things. That was one of the things that made it so difficult trying to deal with him; his emotional armour was tight and nearly impenetrable, making it impossible to get a feel for how he'd react to something. His years in the espionage world also meant that you could never be sure what his personality really was like.

"What I meant," Doc explained carefully as he struck a match, and began stoking his pipe into life, "was that for someone who gets himself involved in as many dangerous business operations as you do, cancer should be the last worry on your mind. Besides, you know they've got excellent treatments for that sort of thing now."

"Humph." The blond man didn't reply, and sat nursing his drink for a few moments in silence as blue clouds of smoke began to fill the airspace around the old scientist.

Puffing contentedly on his baseburner, Doc glanced around at the comfortably furnished office, taking in the rich finish of the wood paneling on the walls, the mahogany bookshelves, the thick, soft carpeting...the entire place reeked of luxury. It was a curious anomaly, since Hollister normally didn't seem to concern himself with creature comforts. Maybe he'd decided to start using some of the vast wealth he'd been accumulating. After a while, Hollister sighed and sat up, dropping his feet back to the floor while setting his empty glass aside.

"Was there anything in particular you needed?" he asked the billowing smoke cloud across the desk from him.

"Hmm? Oh, yes, there was. This came in for you; I picked it up on my way over." Paper crackled and rustled, then a long white envelope appeared in the haze, extending towards the desk. Hollister irritably snatched it out of the proffering hand, and tore it open.

"You're welcome," Doc noted dryly, watching as the grey-suited man extracted some folded pages and began scanning them intently. The slow smile that appeared on Hollister's face made him turn cold with dread for an instant.

"Perfect," the blond man stated, tucking the pages neatly into the file folder he'd been reading earlier.

"Mind if I ask what that was?"

"Just confirmation of a hunch I had," he waved the matter aside with his hand. "I'll be able to follow up on it now without any problems. Now then, how's the synchronization testing going?"

"Slowly," Doc replied with a sigh. "We can't rush this; we've only got the one sexaroid, and replacing her would be a real pain. It has to go perfectly the first time we try for the full linkage, or we'll kill her. Getting back on Genaros in the near future to appropriate another one is out of the question right now."

The old scientist carefully kept his voice and expression neutral as he spoke; normally, his work didn't bother him all that much, but this time it was different. While he didn't think of sexaroids as anything but a different type of boomer, it took a conscious effort to ignore the sobbing coming from the prototype battlemover. Not even gagging her had helped, and it was beginning to wear on his nerves. He must be getting old if the simulacrum of a tearful young woman could get to him.

That, or else it was the fact that his heart really wasn't in this project. Or in the whole operation, for that matter.

"We've got time," Hollister's voice sounded unusually relaxed. "And I've got some other projects to work on in the meantime." He patted the file folder near his elbow almost lovingly.

"Like what?"

"I'm glad you asked," Hollister smirked. "It's like this...."


"He's healed, physically at least," the doctor told Madigan. "Mentally, well... he's still got a few rough spots."

"Explain," Kate Madigan ordered crisply. The striking GENOM executive was wearing her usual dark business suit, her lavender hair hanging neatly, swept back over her shoulders. "What 'rough spots'?"

"Well, he tends to stammer a bit," the doctor shrugged. "And he's developed a nervous twitch. He seems inordinately fearful of something as well; we've never quite been able to determine of what, but he's constantly checking over his shoulder."

"But he is fit to release?" she asked, glancing through the thick observation window. Inside the sealed medical room, a black-haired man lay tossing and turning restlessly on a bed, tangled in sweat-soaked sheets. It had been approximately two months since they'd run Stryker through the Deep Psychology Scanner in an effort to find out who his employer was. They'd finally gotten an answer, but had nearly ruined the man's mind in doing so.

"If you mean in terms of physical condition, yes, he is fit to release," the doctor said guardedly. "His mental condition is still undetermined; I would recommend that he be kept here under observation for a few more days at least."

"Rest assured he will be watched," Madigan assured him, hiding a smirk. "I will send someone around to collect him later. Please see to it that he is properly clothed and discharged. Furthermore, I want all of his medical records sent to me." The physician bowed, hiding his unease at her orders, and she turned and left the medical wing of the Tower, walking briskly.

Several minutes later, she stood outside the massive doors that led to Quincy's lofty office, fuming at the delay as Quincy's secretary went through the formality of notifying him of her arrival. When she got the affirmative, respectful nod from the secretary, Madigan swung open one door slightly and stepped inside, casting a coolly measuring glance around the office, but didn't see anything unusual.

Closing the door behind herself, Madigan strode across the room towards the elderly-seeming Chairman, her high-heeled shoes clicking loudly on the hardwood flooring.

"Yes?" the craggy-faced old man rumbled as she came up to his desk. Icy blue eyes glinted at her from under shaggy white eyebrows. "What did you have to report?"

"Stryker will soon be released," Madigan replied. "I have arranged for him to be given his instructions by his escorts before he leaves the Tower."

"Ah," Quincy leaned back in his chair, leaning his elbows on the armrests and steepling his fingers in front of him. "And you have made the proper arrangements for when he contacts this Hollister fellow?"

"Yes sir," she nodded. "He will be under surveillance at all times, and a pair of C-55E boomers will be following him to apprehend Hollister when the contact is made."

"You seem positive of success," Quincy noted.

"He will not get away," Madigan stated flatly, unable to keep her expression from souring slightly. "I have assigned some of our best operatives to the case. Hollister will not escape us, and then we will have all the answers we need from him."

"Do not allow personal feelings to influence you on this matter, Madigan," Quincy warned, his expression turning flinty. "What happened between the two of you is in the past; this is the present. If you cannot be objective in your decision making, then I shall assign the operation to someone who can be."

"I won't allow my personal feelings to interfere with the performance of my duties, sir," she replied stiffly, her posture rigid. Quincy's eyes bored into hers for a moment, as if searching her soul for sincerity. After a moment, he relaxed and nodded slightly.

"Very well. Keep me informed."

Madigan turned away from the old man and walked rapidly across the room to the doors, opened them, and left the room, closing them behind her. Once she was safely out of the Chairman's sight, she let the internal fury that had been seething under her calm exterior boil over, distorting her face with a mask of rage for a moment.

Some unidentified, unfortunate clerical worker happened to be passing by when her brief transformation occurred, and he immediately evacuated the area lest her wrath fall on him. Watching the man flee in terror restored her equilibrium, and her expression cleared. Adjusting her jacket and smoothing her blouse out, Madigan headed for her own office.

She had a lot to do, and limited time to accomplish it in.



"Hey, has anyone seen the Chief?!" Leon McNichol yelled across the hubbub of activity stewing in the ADP offices. His question went unanswered as everyone else concentrated on trying to complete their workload before quitting time.

Sighing disgustedly, the tall inspector started weaving his way through the desks, deftly avoiding tripping on power cords and the like. You can never find anyone when you really need them, can you?! he fumed to himself. Damn it, the Chief had known that he'd had some things to discuss with her, so why had she disappeared?!

As he stalked along, a familiar blaze of colour in the sea of blue uniforms off to his right drew his attention. Smiling slightly, Leon veered over to where Nene was absently poring over what looked like some old investigative reports. The young red-haired woman was completely absorbed in her task, and didn't even notice as his shadow fell across her reading material. Even clearing his throat didn't alert her to his presence.

Leon watched her for a moment, but she remained oblivious, slowly turning pages with one hand, the other hand lifting a cup of coffee to her lips occasionally. Sighing again, the brown-haired inspector put his hands on the desk and leaned down, until his head was level with hers.

"Nene, have you seen..." he started to say, but didn't get any further, as the young red-head jumped in extreme surprise, giving a small shriek and inadvertently splashing the remainder of her cup of coffee straight into his face.

"Oh God!! I'm sorry Leon!!" Nene blurted, frantically hunting around for something to mop up the mess with. "I didn't see you there!!" Finding some napkins, she quickly blotted up the coffee that was threatening to stain the scattered paperwork on her desk.

For one long moment, Leon stood there listening to the strangled snickers coming from other desks nearby, reflecting on how Fate just seemed to have it in for him at times. He had begun to wipe the back of his hand across his dripping face when he was quietly presented with a napkin by a sheepish-looking Nene.

"Ummm....sorry about that," she apologized quietly. "You startled me."

"I'd noticed," Leon assured her dryly, taking the offered napkin and sponging off his face. "What was so riveting that you didn't hear anything?"

"The Chief gave me some reports to check over," she replied, sighing. "I'm trying to get them done as quickly as possible, and I guess I just lost track of everything."

"Speaking of the Chief, do you know where she is?"

"No idea, Leon. She got a call, then just took off. If she told anyone where she was going, I haven't heard about it. Was there something you needed help with?" Bright green eyes looked at him curiously.

"It's not that important, and I'd better let you get back to your reports; I know how much you enjoy reading them," Leon replied blandly. Nene rolled her eyes as he grinned and moved off, his expression returning to a more serious demeanor as he made for his desk at the other end of the offices. Sitting down, he looked at the pile of reports in his inbox, and sighed disgustedly.

The tall inspector's gaze drifted across the offices again to where Nene was sitting as he leaned back in his chair, trying to nerve himself to tackle the workload. In the back of his mind, he'd noticed that she'd apparently recovered from her problems of a few weeks ago and pulled herself together. The despondent air that had clung to her was gone now, and she looked back to normal again. At the same time, it was as if she'd aged a bit, becoming a bit more serious and not quite as bubbly and cheerful as she had been in the past. No, aged wasn't quite the right term ... matured, that was it.

Surprised, Leon examined that perception more closely, and found it to be true. She seemed more mature and self-assured now; before he'd always thought of her as a kid, but that label didn't seem to fit her anymore. Evidently something positive had come out of her supposed boyfriend troubles.

Leon scowled blackly at his desktop at that thought. Boyfriend troubles...he still hadn't been able to confirm his initial suspicions about her boyfriend. His records appeared spotless, and his current business, a recreational facility of all things, seemed to be a legitimate enterprise. Originally, he'd gotten a membership at the place in order to do some covert snooping around, but now he was finding out that he actually enjoyed dropping by to unwind at the end of a long day.

It was a grudgingly made admission, and even more difficult to make since the real reason for his disgruntlement was that he hadn't found anything even slightly suspicious at the place. His earlier supposition that the tall red-headed man was involved in some kind of shady operation was rapidly withering and dying without proof, and he couldn't escape the feeling that someone was laughing up their sleeve at him.

"Damn it, what are you hiding?!" Leon muttered to himself. He knew something wasn't right about that guy; he could feel it, and he hadn't survived this long on the force by ignoring his hunches. After a moment he gave up in disgust, forcing himself to concentrate on something else. It was better to wait, observe, and see if time brought him anything he could use.


"Taking a rest break already?" Priss taunted, an evil grin on her face. "Boy, you are out of shape!" She folded her arms across her chest and leaned against the mirrored wall of the exercise room.

"Why don't you give it a rest?!" Linna snapped peevishly, wiping a hand across her streaming forehead. "I told you already that all the smartass remarks weren't necessary." Sighing, she straightened up from her crouched-over position, wincing as her right leg throbbed a bit below the knee. The black-haired young woman was wearing her usual blue spandex dance outfit with pink leg warmers and a short T-shirt over the top, and an irritated expression.

"Hey, now you know how I felt when you were browbeating me into a recovery," her friend grinned.

"There is one major difference," Linna gritted, going through some warm-up stretches again. "I haven't been bitching about my injury the entire time I've been trying to recondition it!"

"True," Priss admitted easily. "But you didn't think you were going to get off scot-free, did you?"

"Hope springs eternal," Linna retorted dryly. "I'd thought you were improving in that regard." She braced herself with one hand on the railing running the length of the room, and began a second set of limbering-up exercises.

Priss watched, wincing. There was no way she could do some of those stretches; she just wasn't flexible enough. Of course, she hadn't been training most of her life for a career in dance, either. Her physical condition was good enough for her chosen singing career, and she was quite happy with that.

"So how long until you're back dancing?"

"Another couple of days, and I can get back into some easy routines," came the distracted reply. "I don't want to rush it; the bone's healed, but the muscles are still a little shaky."

"I know what that's like," Priss returned wryly. "At least in your case, the muscles weren't the main culprit."

"No, but when you've got to stay flat on your back for nearly three weeks, you lose a lot of conditioning," Linna shrugged. What had originally been a straightforward broken bone had developed complications that had required some minor surgery, and the ultimatum that she could not put weight on her leg for any reason whatsoever for at least two weeks longer than originally estimated. "I think that was the worst part: having to stay bedridden for all that time."

"I know," Priss grinned evilly again. "All of us had to put up with your lousy temper while you were stuck there, remember?"

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry." Linna flushed, looking away. "I just can't stand being inactive; I've got to move, or I go nuts." As if verifying her statement, she stepped out onto the mats in the center of the room and started a couple of simple leaps and twirls.

"Got any moves you can do without becoming airborne?" Priss asked pointedly as Linna got set to try another leap. "I'm supposed to make sure you don't bugger yourself up, and you're supposed to be taking it easy and not jumping around yet." Linna shot her a dirty look, but kept her feet on the mat as she worked on a few dance steps. Priss resumed watching from where she was comfortably leaning against the wall, and after about ten minutes, a sweating Linna came to a halt.

"You can join in anytime," she noted between deep breaths. "A little exercise wouldn't kill you."

"No, but trying to do what you're doing might," Priss snorted. "I get enough exercise other times, so don't worry about me."

"Oh, I'll just bet you do," the black-haired dancer's tone was loaded with implication. The sly grin on her face left no doubts as to what she was referring to, either. "How is Bert, by the way?"

"Oh, he's fine," Priss replied offhandedly, feeling her cheeks warm up just a bit. "Why?"

"Except for the days when he's running this place, I don't see him that much. I figured you get to see a lot more of him." Linna's grin widened just a bit, but Priss ignored the bait. By now she'd gotten used to the chaffing, and was able to control herself pretty well with regards to that particular subject. She was a lot more comfortable about things, although she still felt a bit awkward around Nene. Which reminded her....

"How's Nene doing?" The change of subject sobered her friend instantly.

"She's a lot better," Linna reported seriously. "She's still feeling a little hurt, but at least she's going out now. We've been cruising the malls occasionally to do some shopping, sometimes with one of her friends from work."

"Naoko?" Linna nodded in reply. "My condolences," Priss said dryly. She'd heard about how talkative Naoko could be, mostly from Bert. A quick grin sped across Linna's face.

"She's not all that bad," the trim dancer briefly defended the ADP officer. "At least she was concerned enough about Nene to privately ask me if I knew whether everything was okay or not."

"So she could report back to the gossip-mongers most likely," Priss snorted, then smiled ruefully. "Sorry. I'm glad Nene's feeling better, I felt ... feel kinda ... uncomfortable around her at the moment, so I haven't seen her much."

"Afraid she hates you?"

"It's not a question of fear," Priss shot back defensively. "I'm going out with the guy she dated for nearly three would you feel in that situation?! Damn it, she's still a friend, I hope, and I don't want to ... to seem like I'm rubbing it in or something. She's been through enough as it is."

"Well you can't avoid her forever," Linna sighed. "Especially not when we're working. Maybe you should try talking to her a bit more often; that might thaw some of the ice."

"I can't think of a way to do it that won't sound contrived," the brown-haired singer replied glumly, kicking at the mat as she stared down at it. "We never really hung out together that often, not outside the Sabers anyway, and it's going to look phony if I start trying now."

"I've got an idea," Linna stated, a slow smile spreading across her face. "It'll get everyone together actually, and it won't sound contrived in the slightest."


"Tell me," Sylia sighed, glancing up from the blueprints displayed on the LCD screen her desktop contained; silvery schematics glowed brightly on the black screen. "Do you know what the term 'over-design' means?"

"Yeah," Bert replied, puzzled. "Usually it means taking the worst-case scenario into account, and designing enough extra capacity into a system to be able to handle something worse than the worst case. Why?" He picked up his mug from where it was perched on the corner of the desk and took a swig of coffee.

"Because you've taken that concept and liberally applied it to your hardsuit," Sylia informed him. "Almost excessively so in some cases." She glanced down at the schematics again, shaking her head. "For example, you've got enough sensor packages in here to nearly rival Nene's hardsuit. Is that really necessary?"

"I like being able to see things," he retorted defensively. "What is this, an audit?!"

"Of sorts," she nodded, brushing some stray hair out of her eyes. "Up until recently, I haven't had the time to pay attention to the suit designs as much as I would have liked to." That, and the fact that until her injured shoulder had completely healed from their last mission, her uncle had flatly refused to let her work at all. Overprotective hadn't even begun to describe the way he'd fussed over her ever since that last outing. She quickly shook off the mild irritation that nudged at her at the memory; she wasn't a child anymore, and she wished he'd remember that occasionally.

"Now that I've got the time," she continued, "I've been working on some redesign concepts. However," she shook her head again, "I suppose I should have kept a closer eye on what you were up to, regardless of how busy I was."

"I'd like to point out that you did say I was free to modify my suit when improvements came along."

"Yes, but I didn't expect you to turn your suit into that much of a weapons platform," she pointed out. "Defensive upgrades are all well and good, but is it really necessary to be carrying quite so much ordnance?"

"GENOM certainly thinks so," he replied stiffly. "Those new A-12s are easily equal or superior to me in firepower, especially because of those Gatling cannons they're carrying."

"But we're not GENOM, and we're not trying to match them one-on-one," she parried. "We're a team. And mobility can count for a lot more than raw firepower."

"You're not seriously suggesting I take some of my stuff out of my suit, are you?!" Bert stared at her incredulously.

"Not all of it, no," she sighed. "But scaling back some things wouldn't kill you. You're not supposed to be a one-man army, you know. You're fast approaching the point where your suit just will not be able to handle the energy demands from all of the weaponry systems you're trying to mount."

"But..." his voice trailed off as his mind fought to come up with logical arguments for leaving his suit the way it was. Most of the reasons he could come up with weren't based on any fact other than the one that he felt unarmed at the idea of trimming his weapons down.

"There's also a practical reason for downsizing your hardware," Sylia informed him. Pausing, she took a sip from her own glass of orange juice nearby. "What are you going to do if you have a power failure?"


"That's one option, I suppose," Sylia's lips quirked in a faint smile. "I meant more that in your case in particular, if your motive systems lose power, you're going to be a sitting duck. Our suits can still move fairly easily if they have power problems. You, on the other hand, will find yourself carrying almost two-hundred pounds of bulky armour. You may be in good shape, but not that good, my friend. Your suit needs to lose some weight."

"I'm trying to find some lighter alloys and other materials," he told her, "but I'm having problems finding ones that can take the pounding . And I haven't had a power failure except after getting really chewed up in a fight," he pointed out.

"Your hardsuit is a linked set of complex mechanical, electrical, and electronic systems; failures will happen at some point in time," Sylia said sternly. "I'm sorry if it offends your engineering ego for someone to say that about one of your creations, but it's the plain truth."

"I'm not totally blind to the possibility of system failure due to normal, non-combat functioning," Bert gritted, his teeth clenched and fires flashing in his eyes. "And this isn't about my 'engineering ego'. I've gotten used to that suit, and the way I fight in it. My combat style uses the fact that it's bulky and armed to the bloody teeth; if I have to change styles now, I'm going to run into problems in a fight. It takes time to adapt to different equipment, time we can't afford right now, especially not with our recent job offers and the increased number of boomer incidents lately."

Sylia sat back in her chair, reluctantly conceding his point. He did indeed tailor his fighting style to his hardsuit construction; despite Linna's sometimes intense tutelage, his combat technique was still basically armoured, no-holds-barred brawling. By and large his offensive strategy was based on over-powering whatever he encountered with weapons or raw strength. In a way, it was an ironic situation to find herself in: arguing the need for less weaponry with someone who originally had been worried that he was carrying too much firepower

He was also right about the time factor; with boomer rampages maintaining a steady flow, they couldn't afford the time it would take for someone to relearn how to fight in a different suit. And with several recent lucrative job offers under consideration, she was reluctant to have anyone at less than their best.

"All right," she sighed. "We don't have to strip everything out, but I do have some suggestions I'd like you to at least consider."

"Okay," he grumbled, his mouth twitching irritably into a grimace. "I'll take a look at them. Don't expect miracles though."

"Wouldn't dream of it," she replied dryly. She considered him thoughtfully for a moment. His gaze lifted to meet hers, and trepidation filled his face as she continued to silently study him.

"Uh, Sylia? Why are you looking at me like that?" he finally asked, fidgeting nervously.

"I'm trying to decide if you can take more bad news."

"Why not?" He threw up his hands in resignation. "Give it to me now; that way I can stew about it and get it over with."

"I think it's time we also called a stop to your constant upgrading of the suits," she informed him quietly. "Piecemeal upgrading of the armour whenever the latest innovation comes along is just asking for something to malfunction when we can't afford it." She held up a hand, forestalling him before he could protest. "I know you're doing it because you think it's your responsibility to make sure we have the best protection possible, but it isn't. The final responsibility for the suit designs is mine, not yours."


"I appreciate the concern," she told him, trying to soften the blow a bit with a smile. "Really I do, but you're also unintentionally complicating things for me when I try working on the suits myself." She sighed, and shifted around a bit in her chair. "I was doing a systems check the other day on Linna's suit, for example, and I found some circuits I couldn't identify at first. It wasn't until I checked in your sets of blueprints that I found out you'd modified the controls on her knuckle-bomber systems. I shouldn't have to double-check everything to make sure I know what's been done to the systems, and I particularly shouldn't have to look for changes outside the master documentation records."

A slightly injured silence fell over the office as Sylia picked up her glass and took another sip of juice. She watched Bert over the rim of her glass for a moment, noting his expression. He was trying to maintain an expressionless mask, but there were vague traces of confused hurt flickering in his eyes, and one hand was tightly clamped on the armrest of his chair.

"It's not that you've done anything wrong," she gently assured him, setting her glass down. "I suppose I'm partly to blame myself; I was too busy at other things to give my full attention to the suits. I don't want you to stop inventing things when you get ideas, I just need to have the final say in what gets added to the hardsuits." She sighed again. "And besides, we literally can't afford constant upgrades; we don't have unlimited capital at our disposal, no matter what it might seem like. All right?"

"Fine," he ground out reluctantly after several long moments. "I'll stop with the upgrades." Sylia could hear his disgruntlement despite his effort to mask it, but let it pass without comment. She knew how much he genuinely enjoyed puttering with the suits, but it was time to start exercising some of her command authority in order to bring the technology race back under control. At least that way, she'd have a better idea of what was going on.

"I will still want your input on some new suit designs I'm considering," she told him. "But they won't need to be built for some time yet." She noted that his expression thawed a bit at her words; no matter what his current mood might be, the mention of new designs was enough to get his mind off of whatever was annoying him. The technophile in him wouldn't let him stay grouchy for long.

"Okay, okay," Bert sighed. His hardheaded practicality wouldn't let him entertain a grudge, especially not when he could see the sense in her arguments. Well, if she didn't want him upgrading the suits, maybe he could play with the motoroids...

Reaching out, Sylia tapped a finger on the viewscreen in front of her, startling him from his reverie and drawing his attention to the new schematics that had flashed onto the screen.

"Now about these motoroid systems here...."

Then again, he sighed to himself as he looked at the plans and listened to his boss, maybe not.



"I want results," Madigan icily informed the person at the other end of the line. "Not excuses. You led us to believe that you could contact Hollister again. That is the only reason you are still breathing. Don't force us to re-evaluate what there is of your position."

"But I told you already," Stryker's voice whined in her ear, "I can't force him to respond to messages left at the contact points. Even if he does become interested, there's no guarantee it'll be him personally."

"Think of a way to persuade him to check it out himself," she ordered tersely, her grip tightening angrily on the telephone receiver. "You claimed to know something of his business dealings; use that knowledge to flush him out. And I suggest you do it soon...our patience is wearing thin."

Madigan slammed the receiver down disgustedly, cutting off the fixer's sniveling reply. The doctor had been right about his mental condition; the man had turned into a groveling coward. Of course, if she'd been patient, they could have waited until Stryker had recovered a bit more first...

Kate irritably sloughed that thought off with an irritated toss of her head, the motion sending a wave rippling through her long lavender hair. They couldn't afford to wait; Hollister was a serious threat, one that had to be stomped on at the earliest possible opportunity. She knew only too well what the arrogant bastard was capable of. The Chairman might know the facts of what had happened, but he'd never met Hollister, never had to deal with the smug, condescending...

The loud crack of something snapping jerked her from the haze of churning fury she'd been unconsciously sinking into. Glancing down at her hands, she found that they, as well as her desktop, were covered in dark blue ink. Luckily, no reports had been underneath the luckless fountain pen she'd been holding, or else they'd have been ruined.

Growling at herself for her loss of control, she grabbed a handful of tissues from the box on her desk and tried to wipe off her hands, pitching the ruined pen into the wastebasket. Reaching over to the phone, she tabbed the intercom button and ordered her executive assistant to get somebody into her office to clean up the mess, and to forward a memo to the procurement department about buying cheap pens.

Rising slowly from her seat, careful not to touch her clothes or anything else, she walked across her office to the small private washroom adjoining it, and spent several minutes cleaning herself up. Her normally calm features looking like a thundercloud, she stalked back to her desk and sat down behind it, noting that the mess had disappeared and a fresh pen had been placed in the center of the desk.

After a few more moments, she managed to restore her composure somewhat. Such a loss of control was unforgivable, and she resolved to prevent it from happening again. In the privacy of her office it could at least be concealed; if it happened when she was in the Chairman's office, such a serious loss of face would undermine her position with him. So far, he hadn't indicated that he was displeased with her, but he very rarely let even his closest subordinates know the entire truth of their position...until it was too late.

The coldly beautiful exec leaned back in her chair, brooding. She was positive that her position was secure; she'd proven beyond any doubt that she was loyal to the company, and Quincy in particular. But there was still enough flexibility for someone in the command hierarchy to supersede her, or at least equal her. And the last thing she wanted was a rival.

The surest way to make certain of her future was to show Quincy some quick results on the Hollister affair. Although she literally saw red whenever she thought of the blond creep, if she could deal with it with something like her old efficiency, the Chairman's misgivings might be silenced.

With a grim smile, she reached out and picked up the phone again.


"Watch the power feed to the linkages," Doc directed, checking some of the figures jotted down on the notepad he held in one hand. "If the fluctuation goes over 2%, shut the damn thing down immediately; we can't risk burned circuits."

"Understood," the youthful technician replied, nodding. Doc divided one last glance between his notepad and the control readouts, then moved down the walkway, giving some last-minute instructions to the rest of the scattered techs at their posts. With the preparations finished, he carefully climbed down the short metal ladder to the ground level of the room; his agility wasn't the greatest anymore, and his bones ached enough some days without having to add broken ones to the effects of old age.

With a weary sigh, he stuffed his notebook into a voluminous front pocket on his rumpled lab coat, and began walking towards the central focus of the two-tiered room: the large hydraulic platform supporting the recumbent form of their new battlemover model. His mouth tightened slightly in distaste as he drew closer to the vast heap of wiring, actuators, and red-grey armour plating. As he approached, a muffled and choked sobbing noise slowly became audible.

Damn, but I hate this project. The thought briefly surfaced in his mind before he could stuff it back into hiding. He couldn't afford regrets, not now. He'd gone too far to ever hope there was a way out.

His face wooden, the elderly scientist climbed the steps leading up to the platform, and walked around the perimeter, coming to the cavity in the chest of the war machine. Armour plating and internal mechanisms jutted towards the ceiling, poised to snap closed over the hole in the machine's body. The muffled sobbing came intermittently from the interior of the large machine, where the body of a young woman being held down by metallic straps could be seen.

Doc stared soberly into the interior of the battlemover, watching wordlessly as the young woman strained periodically at her bonds, trying to escape the inevitable. Ever since she'd been captured, she hadn't ceased her attempts to escape, and they had become even more frantic since she'd learned what was planned for her. It hadn't done her any good.

The old man sighed and pulled his pipe out of a pocket, stuffing it full of tobacco and lighting it. Hollister didn't like him smoking around his pet projects, but Hollister be damned; he needed something to try and soothe what was feeling more and more like second thoughts. A bit of smoke wouldn't melt any circuits.

Leaning against the railing, Doc puffed quietly away as he stared at the sexaroid imprisoned inside the battlemover. It certainly looked human, although maybe just a little too perfect in terms of fullness of figure. There was no outward sign that it was anything but what it looked like: a very attractive young woman.

He knew from his own work however that underneath its skin was a lightweight composite skeleton, myomer musculature, and several biotechnological systems that very closely approximated the operations of the analogous organs in the human body. In fact, the systems incorporated into a sexaroid probably represented the future of prosthetics for human patients with diseases or damaged major organs. They were, after all, organic in nature. The 33-S series in particular required human blood for general operation, and repair of serious injuries to their systems. It shouldn't be a great extension to design similar ....

Doc irritably yanked his mind off that line of inquiry; there was very little chance he'd ever be able to return to his old life of cybernetic and biotechnological research, no matter how much the possibilities excited him. Dwelling on it would only depress him further with lost opportunities.

All right, so it was a machine. Then why the hell was hearing some machine sobbing in a pretty good approximation of utter despair unsettling him so much?! He chewed contemplatively on his pipestem as his eyes roved unseeingly over the open mechanism in front of him.

The problem was that the emotional responses he'd seen from the 33-S boomers he'd encountered lately had thrown doubt on the idea that they were 'just a machine'. Well ... in his mind anyway. His associate didn't appear to have any doubts on the subject. To him, the 33-S was an expensive wind-up toy with some useful features.

Doc had run into some pretty sophisticated AI technology in his time, but none of it had ever come close to approximating the reactions he'd seen from the sexaroids. They responded exactly the way a normal human woman might respond if thrust into the same situations, even down to the point of having hysterics. One that he'd encountered had even showed the symptoms of the severe trauma normally exhibited by rape victims, and no emotional emulation software he'd ever seen had been that good. The old scientist suddenly found himself wondering uneasily if there was perhaps more to the equation than had first appeared.

There were personality overlays of course; GENOM had perfected a process for scanning someone's brain patterns and duplicating them in a boomer's AI and body. Although that particular little innovation was kept under tight secrecy, it was common knowledge to some people, and guessed at by others. Could that be how the sexaroids were made to be more human-like than standard boomers? And what had happened to the original subjects that had been scanned?

The old scientist re-packed and re-lit his pipe, adding to the blue-grey haze that was slowly expanding out from where he was leaning. Whoever the original subjects had been, it was doubtful that any 33-S using such a template was still the same as the original person, mentally speaking; they'd have been exposed to a much different environment, and it was a person's experiences that shaped their personality. The sexaroids were self-aware, and were undoubtedly affected the same way by whatever they'd endured.

There was the possibility that they weren't merely personality templates. Doc uneasily recalled some vague reference he'd come across once, indicating that there was a biotechnological method for duplicating the human brain and nervous system, with all memories and experiences intact. The only drawbacks were that when the process was completed, the original human body was dead, and there were no guarantees that the new boomer wouldn't be insane as a result of the process. A highly illegal field of endeavor, it had been abandoned early on...supposedly. 33-S series boomers did have a mostly organic brain, supplemented by microchips and circuitry. It wasn't impossible then that ...

Doc snorted to himself, chiding his imagination for getting carried away. Considering the rather carnal reasons that the sexaroids had originally been created, he doubted that anybody would utilize a process that expensive just for the purpose of producing some cheap thrills. He sighed, causing a large plume of blue smoke to roll forth. All that thought and analysis, and he still couldn't say why he was unsettled.

"Doesn't really matter," he muttered aloud, partly to himself, and partly to the helpless occupant of the battlemover a few feet away. "We're both trapped by circumstances."

"You always talk to yourself, Doc?" Hollister's voice inquired coolly from somewhere outside the smoke cloud around the old scientist. Only long practice kept him from jumping in startlement.

"It's the best way to get an agreeable opinion," Doc replied calmly, smirking around his pipestem as Hollister came into view, pipesmoke curling around him. The old scientist's mind raced as he studied the cold visage of the blond man. Had he really overheard what he'd said? Did he suspect anything? Damn it, he was getting old if he was going to start musing out loud!

"True, I suppose." Hollister's chuckle had a slight edge to it. "So what are you doing up here?"

"Monitoring the system checks," Doc shrugged. "Somebody has to nursemaid the techs if they get in over their heads." For the thousandth time, he wished Hollister wasn't so damn hard to read. "No problems so far."

"Good," the blue-suited man replied with unmistakable satisfaction. "How about the GD-45? Will it be ready on time?"

"Yep." Doc nodded, sucking on his pipe and finding that it had gone out. "By the end of next week you should be able to go on your little hunting expedition."


Priss pulled away from him slightly, breathing heavily. Looking up into his face, she brushed a gloved hand across his forehead, sweeping his hair back out of his eyes.

"That was some kiss," she noted breathily. "Your day go that well?" With her free hand, she reached up and pulled off the blond wig she was still wearing, tossing it in the general direction of the table and stand where it normally sat; a soft thump, followed by the sounds of various bottles and other paraphernalia falling over indicated success of a sort. The attractive singer was still clad in her revealing leather stage costume, having just completed another concert set; the cheering and applause from the enthusiastic audience had finally died off, allowing relative quiet to return to the backstage rooms. She placed her arms around her lover again, holding him close as she waited for a reply.

"It wasn't the greatest day I've had," Bert admitted with a sigh, his gaze briefly flicking around her dressing room before coming back to her. It had become something of a ritual for them since they'd started going out together: after a performance, they'd meet backstage and go into her dressing room for a quick - or not so quick in some cases - kiss. "I had to spend all morning fixing one of the floor tracks for the archery targets; some inept jackass put an arrow into the track itself and buggered up the retraction mechanism. How the hell could someone miss the target that badly?!" he fumed.

"You poor baby," Priss commiserated, hugging him a bit tighter and kissing him in consolation. His arms tightened around her in return as he responded in kind, and the room was silent for a few moments. "Not everyone has your exalted skill at archery, you know," she reminded him when they parted finally. "And accidents happen. Do you know who did it?"

"No," he growled disgustedly. "If I had, I'd have made them help me fix the damn thing."

"That's probably why they didn't tell you when it happened." A wry smile quirked at one corner of her mouth. "You should see the look on your face right now; 'pissed-off' doesn't even begin to describe it."

"Sorry." He tried to smooth his expression out, and achieved moderate success.

"That's a little better," she approved, reaching up and patting his cheek gently. "You've only mentioned the morning; what happened this afternoon?"

"I had to spend several hours dismantling parts of my suit," he replied sourly.

"But I thought you liked working on your suit?" Priss asked, frowning.

"Not when I have to strip stuff off of the damn thing."

"Strip off?" she repeated. "As in 'take out'?"

"And the lady wins the prize," he sighed. "Yup, I had to take a few things out and scale back a bit on my weapons. Sylia doesn't think I need all the hardware I've been carrying."

"What the hell?! Since when did Sylia start thinking we have too much hardware?!"

"Since she's had the time to check over the designs. I'm also supposed to stop upgrading everyone's suit whenever I feel like it, so she can keep track of what's been added and when." He grimaced sourly. "I suppose I can see her point, but I still hate taking stuff out of my suit; now I feel like I'm undressed or something."

"Undressed, huh?" she murmured with a lazy smile, raising an eyebrow suggestively as she trailed her fingers lightly down the side of his face and neck. He flushed and pulled away slightly, not seeing Priss's grin.

"So what did you have to take out?" she asked.

"Nothing too major, I guess. Some sensor packages I really didn't need, and my solid fuel boosters mainly. The armour plating needed to be trimmed down a bit; I guess I'd gone a bit overboard with the thickness in some places, and I had more than I needed."

"If it wasn't anything major, then why are you standing there looking like you've been robbed?" she queried him, raising an eyebrow quizzically.

"Because I didn't need to do it," he snapped peevishly. "I've never had anything malfunction yet, and I prefer to be equipped for every possibility. So what if my armour is heavier than everyone else's?! I..." He caught himself before he could start ranting, and sighed deeply again. "Sorry; didn't mean to snap."

"That's okay," the brown-haired singer assured him, recognizing the traces of a bruised ego when she saw one. "I understand." Somewhat, her mind added silently. She didn't understand the more esoteric suit workings herself, and didn't really want to. She knew enough to keep her suit systems up and running during a fight, and as long as they worked perfectly while she pounded on boomers, she was happy. Her lover, on the other hand, wasn't as carefree; he put a lot of effort into the suits, especially his own. It had become an extension of himself rather than a piece of equipment, and in some convoluted and obscure way she could tell that he felt that the order to revamp his suit equated with a personal criticism of some kind.

She sighed to herself as she looked at him; holding him the way she was, she could feel the slightly angry tension that was still riding him. If he was going to be any kind of bearable company tonight she needed to get his mind off his supposed problems. Well, there was one way that had worked in the past...

Priss slid one hand up his back to the back of his neck, and pulled him down towards her as she stretched up and kissed him. Her lips melted into his as his arms pulled her a bit closer. As she held him in a passionate embrace, she slowly felt the tension leak out of him. A faint, triumphant smile tugged at the corners of her lips for a moment before she devoted her full attention to him again. After a few long, very enjoyable moments, she pulled back to catch her breath.

"That...was...fantastic," he rasped. She noted with satisfaction that he looked a little glassy-eyed as he tried to get his own breath back. After a moment he succeeded, and smiled down at her. "You really are beautiful."

"I know," she admitted deadpan. "It's one of my many charms." She grinned impishly at him as he laughed.

"Modest, too," he noted lightly, giving her a gentle squeeze. "I think you've been spending too much time around me."

"That's a possibility," she conceded blandly. "Want me to stay away?"

"Never!" She found herself seized in a tight hug again as she was soundly kissed.

"I'd better get changed," she told him, glancing at the wall clock. "We're not going to have a chance to get dinner if we don't get out of here soon."

"Okay, okay," he sighed, reluctantly releasing her and stepping back. "I'll wait outside."

"Lipstick first," she reminded him with a grin. He flushed, and irritably wiped off his mouth with a handkerchief he pulled out of his pocket. "We'll have to see if we can't find a colour that looks good on you," she teased him. "That way you won't have to worry about wiping it off when ..."

"Just never mind," he warned her. She chuckled and patted his cheek roguishly before turning towards her makeup table.

"You know," Priss glanced slyly over her shoulder at him as she pulled off her gloves. "I can't understand why you've never taken me up on my suggestion that you help me change." She smirked as he blushed uncomfortably; in some ways he hadn't changed, and she hoped he never did. He wouldn't be nearly as much fun to tease if that happened.

"There's a time and a place for everything," he told her, coming up behind her and putting his arms around her. As she tilted her head back to look at him, he kissed her softly on the lips. "And this definitely isn't the place for something like that. I'll meet you outside." Giving her one last light, lingering kiss, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.

"Spoilsport," she muttered, then smiled to herself and started changing her clothes.


Nene sighed in relief as she shambled wearily through the door to her apartment, pitching her purse carelessly across the small foyer of her cubbyhole to land on the couch. Closing the door behind her, she shrugged off her uniform jacket while trying to step out of her boots at the same time, nearly ending up in a heap on the floor as her balance wavered. Grabbing at the wall to remain upright, she finally got her jacket off and hung it up. Sighing again, she padded towards the couch, flopping on it lengthwise as she loosened her uniform tie.

She stared at the ceiling for a few minutes, letting the silence of her surroundings soak into her and replace the tension from the long shift she'd just completed. There were days she genuinely enjoyed her job, and then there were days when she could quite cheerfully shoot half of her co-workers, today being a prime example. She was positive that she'd gone through several reams of paper just to complete reports that others hadn't seen fit to finish off. Given her own neat-and-tidy tendencies, having to clean up someone else's mess grated on her, especially when it was due to laziness on their part. The fact that it had done nothing but add to her own workload had stretched her normally cheerful demeanor to the breaking point; if she hadn't gotten off work when she had, she was positive that she'd have snapped.

Nene stretched luxuriantly on the couch for a moment, weighing her options for the night. First on the list was a nice long, hot bath. She'd worry about keeping busy after that. Standing up, she walked over to her bathroom, closing the door behind her.

An hour or so later found her comfortably snuggled on her couch in her favourite fuzzy bathrobe with a mug of hot chocolate keeping her company as she drowsily watched TV. Her mind wasn't really on the newscast that was showing though, instead just aimlessly wandering from thought to unrelated thought. The notion briefly surfaced that maybe she should do something other than just sit there, but she couldn't even summon up the ambition to move right now.

Part of the problem was lingering depression. Even though it had been a little more than two months now that she'd broken up with Bert, she still found herself longing for some way to patch things back together with him. It wasn't until they'd stopped seeing each other that she'd realized just how lonely she was. Linna and Naoko's efforts to keep her active and entertained had certainly helped keep her from totally collapsing emotionally, but it couldn't replace the sudden hole that had been left by nearly three years of being together. She felt it more at night than any other time.

Nene took a gulp of her hot chocolate, trying to alleviate the sudden soreness of her throat as tears stung the edges of her eyes. The ache was still there, even though she tried not to think about it, the dull pain from what felt like a portion of herself being ripped away. She couldn't really blame it on anyone other than herself, no matter how much she might have wanted to; the root causes of their breakup had been born out of misunderstanding and hurt.

She flushed guiltily as she remembered some of her thoughts and actions at the time, and spent a moment or so mentally lashing herself for acting so irresponsibly. The damage had already been done however, so it was a pointless exercise. If she wanted to move on, she was going to have to put it behind her, and at least try and forgive herself.

With a sigh the red-haired young woman stood up from the couch, hitting the switch on the remote control to turn off her TV. Silence fell over the small apartment as she shuffled into the kitchenette and rinsed out her mug, leaving it sitting in the sink. Flicking off the lights, she yawned and went off to bed.



A knock on the door distracted Bert's attention from the novel he'd been intently reading, and he closed the book with a slightly irritated sigh. Setting it aside, he pulled off his reading glasses, tossing them on top of the book as he stood up. Massaging the bridge of his nose, he walked across the room to his apartment door, opening it as another knock sounded.

"Hi!" Linna greeted him brightly, dropping her hand as the door swung inwards. "Got a minute?"

"Sure, come on in," he replied, smiling. "Want a cup of coffee or something?" he asked as he stepped back.

"That'd be fantastic." She gave him a grateful smile as she shut the door. "It was a long day today, and I could sure use a boost from something hot." He noted that she was wearing a track suit over her spandex exercise outfit, and had a duffel bag slung over her shoulder. As always, her hair was tucked neatly under a brightly coloured headband.

"Make yourself comfortable then, and I'll get the coffee," he told her, turning and walking over to his kitchen area. A few minutes later, he set a steaming mug in front of her on the coffee table, placing the sugar and cream within easy reach. Taking a swig from his own mug, he carefully sat back down in his chair.

"Oh, this is heavenly!" Linna sighed blissfully, taking a slow, appreciative draught of her drink. "We were so busy today, I didn't even have time for lunch."

"Another show coming up?"

"No, half the people at work are down with the flu or something," Linna made a face. "That means everybody's got to fill in here and there for someone else; I got shanghaied into helping move props around all morning, and then in the afternoon I had to grind everyone through the practice routines."

"You look like you survived," Bert commented mildly, stifling a grin. Linna snorted.

"I wasn't doing the full routines myself," she informed him. "They're too complicated for my leg to take yet, and the doctor threatened to break my other leg for me if I tried anything even remotely like that yet...."

"Sounds familiar," he muttered to himself.

" I basically spent all afternoon watching everyone else," she finished, sighing and taking another drink.

"Isn't that what choreographers are supposed to do though?" he asked. "I mean, I thought you had to watch everyone to make sure they're in the right spots and so forth."

"That is a large part of what I do," Linna admitted. "But I still like to go through the routines with the rest of the dancers at least once; if I can do them, then they can't say that I don't know what I'm asking them to do." She gave him an impish grin, then sighed and looked sour. "But until the doctor says it's okay, I can't do anything except simple warm-up routines."

"I still don't see why you're complaining," he noted with a sly grin. "At least you got some fun out of barking commands at your trainees." Linna shot him a glance that spoke volumes about her tolerance for smart remarks at the moment, and his grin widened.

"So what brings you down to the catacombs?" he queried, deciding a subject change might be the wiser course. "If you're looking for Priss, she's not due back from her rehearsal for a while yet."

"No, I saw her yesterday," Linna shook her head. "I had a favour to ask of you."

"Shoot." He took another slurp from his mug, watching her over the rim.

"Can we borrow your kitchen next week?"

"My kitchen?!" Bert echoed, his eyebrows hitting his hairline in surprise. "What for?!"

"Well..." Linna hesitated. "Will you swear to keep absolutely quiet about this?"

"Linna!" Bert looked wounded. "You should know by now that I can keep my mouth shut about some things. What's going on that's got to be so secret?"

"We're giving Sylia a surprise birthday party next week," Linna told him. "And it won't be a surprise if you walk around until then with that idiot grin plastered all over your face," she added crossly.

"Sorry," Bert pulled his face straight. "So you want to make a cake down here and then take it up?"

"We're going to make the whole dinner down here," Linna corrected him. "Your apartment is out of the way, so Sylia shouldn't see any of our comings and goings while we're getting everything ready. We'll pick up the ingredients ourselves, and then whip everything together."

"Just a second...who's 'we'?" Bert asked, a sudden alarm bell ringing in the back of his mind as visions of something exploding in his apartment flared up.

"Priss, myself, Nene, and maybe Anri and Sylvie," Linna told him, unknowingly confirming a part of the suspicions that his sudden dread had been based on. "Why?"

Bert floundered in a mental quandary for a few seconds as he tried to frame a reply. Of the group of people she'd just mentioned, the inclusion of one person in particular worried him the most: Priss. Since they'd started their relationship, he'd learned at least one thing about her that he'd never really considered before: her skills in the kitchen weren't the greatest.

He supposed it was partly that she'd never had the opportunity to really learn how to do more than simple cooking. During his stint at university, he'd had ample opportunity to test his culinary skills, learned from watching his mom, and had achieved moderate success. Maybe it hadn't always been picture-perfect, but it had been edible at least. Priss hadn't had those kinds of opportunities, and as a result was limited to easily prepared foods. If it came from a can or was microwaveable, she could handle it.

A slight wave of guilt went through him at that thought; it wasn't Priss's fault, after all, and she did try hard....but it was the occasional results of the trying that gave him the jitters. He knew now a part of the reason why she ate out at fast food joints so often: less of a mess to clean up afterwards, and no risk of something exploding while heating. Of course, to be fair, her trailer really didn't have enough space for a real kitchen....

"Hello? Earth to Bert?" Linna's voice intruded on his thoughts. "Are you still with me?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah," he shook his head slightly, mildly irritated at himself for letting his mind wander.

"So why did you want to know who's going to be in on this?" Linna asked again. "Afraid something might happen?"

"Well...yes, frankly," he said uncomfortably, squirming in his chair. "I'm not really worried about you or Nene, but I don't even know if Anri or Sylvie has been near a kitchen before, and Priss sometimes has a few...difficulties... with cooking."

"I promise I'll keep an eye on them," Linna assured him. "If they make a mess, I'll make sure that it gets cleaned up."

"Well..." he hesitated for a long moment, then heaved a deep sigh. "All right, I guess you can use the kitchen," he told her. "Just don't blow anything up, okay?"

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," she told him with an angelic smile, then collapsed into helpless giggling.

Somehow, that didn't exactly reassure him.


The late night hum of activity in the ADP offices was muted as everyone quietly worked on their assignments. For some of the officers, it provided a welcome break from the hectic daytime grind; boomer incidents never seemed to happen at three o'clock in the morning, and the paperwork somehow didn't seem quite as pressing.

Nene stifled a yawn as she saved the file she was working on, then logged out of the ADP database. She stretched wearily as she glanced at the wall clock, heaving a sigh as it told her she still had another three hours to go before her shift ended. Three hours...and she'd already completed her assigned workload. She could ask around and see if anyone needed help with anything, but she didn't really feel like it at the moment.

The slender red head looked around the office, stifling another yawn. She really hated shift changes; while she could adjust to working night shifts after a couple of days, the transition period always made her feel tired and worn out. However, there wasn't much she could do about it; she didn't have the luxury of being able to pick when she could work.

After a few minutes of contemplative staring at her patiently waiting terminal, Nene decided to do some poking around in the records databases. One of her Knight Saber duties was to keep Sylia appraised of any interesting tidbits of information that might pass through the ADP's hands, but lately she hadn't had the time or the opportunity to fulfill those particular duties.

The youthful hacker cast a furtive glance around the office again; it was quiet enough at the moment that nobody would likely notice what databases she was accessing. The last thing she needed right now was to answer awkward questions about why she was in data files that she really didn't have the proper clearance to access.

Satisfied that nobody was about to come over to her desk, she quickly accessed the occurrences files, skimming through them and looking for anything that might be either interesting, or out of the ordinary. All of the boomer incident reports were unremarkable, and there didn't appear to be any GENOM-related investigations going on. All in all, an utterly fruitless effort.

Nene sighed disgustedly, irritably blowing a forelock of hair out of her eyes as she stared at her computer screen. What else was there to search? She'd covered the usual databases she investigated for Sylia, and she hadn't been given any other instructions.

She hummed tunelessly to herself for a moment as she considered her options. Her file-sifting hadn't taken nearly as long as she'd have liked it to, and she still had almost two hours before quitting time. Reaching up, she loosened her tie a bit, and then hunched over her keyboard. A minute or two of clattering keys later, and she'd accessed yet another database.

Nene flipped through file after file in rapid succession, checking for anything curious. She didn't normally check the MegaTokyo Spaceport Authority files, but there was the chance that GENOM might be routing some of their 'research material' out to Genaros, where they could experiment without fear of intervention. Genaros was pretty much owned by the corporate conglomerate after all...

A file flicked past her view, and she stopped, her curiosity piqued as she saw the word 'kidnapping' go flashing past. Scrolling back in the list, she found the file again and started reading it. The details were extremely sketchy, but it appeared that a group of armed men had grabbed a female station worker and escaped with her in a stolen cargo shuttle. That was it; no identity on the armed men, and no identity on the kidnap victim.

Nene frowned as she stared at the file, her every investigative instinct telling her that something was wrong with that report. Stolen space vehicles were big news, but not even a whisper of a theft from the space station had hit the local networks. The only way that could happen was if somebody very powerful was squelching any evidence that anything had happened. The question was, why? Why would someone want to conceal the theft?

The frown creasing the young woman's brow deepened as green eyes stared intently at the file, as if trying to will an answer to appear. The last time a space vehicle incident had occurred on Genaros, it had turned out to be a shuttle carrying illegal armaments, the D.D. Battlemover in particular. There were no indications in the file that the shuttle had been anything but empty, however.

Nene chewed contemplatively on her lower lip as she again slowly scanned through the file. She found it very odd that the kidnapping victim wasn't identified in the report beyond a physical description; it was almost like whoever was writing the report didn't care about one woman being snatched from her duties. Nene's eyes widened as she abruptly remembered the other after-effects of the Orca's crash landing: the spate of 'vampire murders' that had stirred the city into a near panic. What if the woman who'd been snatched wasn't a normal human?

Mind racing, Nene looked furtively around the office again. Nobody appeared to be about to come over to her area, so she turned back to her terminal, and carefully started accessing the personnel files for the space facility. There was the chance that the woman who'd been kidnapped was a sexaroid, and if that was the case, then there were several reasons for keeping it quiet. The first and likely foremost reason would be that GENOM wouldn't want the word out that there still were sexaroids around and that they were, ahem, utilizing them in some of their operations. The second reason would be to prevent a city-wide panic at the news of a renegade boomer being loose, especially one that might require human blood to stay alive.

The third possibility was that if the kidnapped woman was a sexaroid, she might possess the necessary hardware for superweapon linkage. There was only one organization she could think of that had revealed open interest in exploiting that aspect of their physiology: Hollister's shadowy group.

Nene shivered slightly as she worked at sidling unnoticed into the Genaros databases, her mind flitting back briefly to the research data Sylia had shown the rest of them before they'd gone out after Hollister. The inhumanity of the re-created battlemover was appalling, and the threat it posed even more so. If they'd managed to acquire a 'pilot', then it was likely that they had a working prototype ready for testing.

The red-haired hacker quickly wiped some sweat from where it was trickling down her forehead as she soothed a watchdog program into believing that she had perfect right to be accessing the files she was opening. The sentinel became quiescent again, and then she was in.

Breathing a shaky sigh of relief, Nene called up the shift duty rosters for the massive space station as she glanced at the clock on the wall: forty-five minutes until she was off-shift. With luck, nothing that required her attention would happen in that time. Mentally crossing her fingers, she began skimming the long lists of names, concentrating on the dates surrounding the kidnapping.

However, even with such a narrow scope, the list remained huge. The young ADP officer could feel time sliding through her fingers like sand as she tried to identify anyone who might have suddenly dropped out of the duty rotation. It was just too much data to try and analyze in a hurry, and she reluctantly conceded defeat...for the moment.

Nene cast a quick glance around as she swiftly downloaded a copy of the files she was interested in; once she'd figured out who the person was that had been kidnapped, it would be relatively easy to get back into Genaros's personnel files and get a copy of her file. Hopefully, the victim's background file would explain why someone had taken an interest in her.

The disk containing her copy of the data files popped briskly from her terminal's drive bay, and she scooped it up and pocketed it. After another rapid check to make sure her file tampering hadn't been detected, the red-haired hacker eased her way out of the systems she'd infiltrated, and then severed her connection to the network.

Heaving a silent sigh of relief, Nene mopped a sleeve across her forehead, leaning back in her chair. She rubbed at her eyes as a wave of weariness swept over her. Despite what many people claimed about hacking, it required some real hard work in order to accomplish, especially to get into the databases she'd just cracked into. The effort and the lateness of her shift almost guaranteed that she was going to sleep like a log when she got home....

"Hey, Nene, going to work a double shift or something?" Naoko's voice intruded on her yawning and stretching. Surprised, she looked up at her brown haired friend, who held out her jacket for her with a grin. "The shift ended about six minutes ago," Naoko added.

"I'm coming!! Just a second!!" The lassitude that had been settling over her quickly evaporated as she jumped up and fished her handbag out from the depths of her desk drawers. Tucking it between her knees, she shrugged into her jacket, at the same time shutting down and turning off her computer. The screen flicked off as the two young women left the office area.


Sylia strolled slowly down the line of storefronts of the massive shopping mall, feigning interest in the window displays of jewelry and the latest fashions. Her own clothing was impeccable, easily equal to or better than some of the so-called 'latest fashions', but her mind was far from such trivial concerns as she walked along, her handbag tucked under one arm.

Annoyance flickered across her face as she glanced around the teeming throng of people crowding the mall. She'd been checking out shops for nearly forty minutes now, and if he didn't show up soon....

"Looking for anything in particular?" A man's voice inquired from behind her, the tone low and confidential. Sylia didn't look behind her, and managed to keep from starting in surprise.

"Don't sneak up on me like that," she replied coolly, adding, "And you're late."

"Sorry, couldn't be helped," he replied, moving up into step beside her. "I had to make sure I wasn't being tailed." She accepted that; one of the reasons he kept changing their meeting places around was his fear of being watched or tailed. Her gaze slanted sideways to take a quick look at him as they walked.

The man was fairly tall and well-built, with blue eyes set in a square-jawed face under messy blond hair. An aura of tough capability seemed to surround him, and he was watching the crowd around them with unceasing vigilance. Sylia was faintly surprised to note that Fargo had actually worn a clean, unwrinkled suit for once, and didn't seem to have a miasma of cigarette smoke and beer odours following him around. He didn't look entirely out of place walking along with her, and she realized that was partly why he'd cleaned up; to remain inconspicuous.

"So," Sylia finally said, again glancing sideways at him as they walked. "Any news?"

"Not really," Fargo replied, his gaze flicking over to someone a few yards away who was reading a newspaper. After a moment, his roving eyes moved on, evaluating everything. Sylia could tell he was wary of something, and wondered if he wasn't becoming a little too paranoid; in his line of work, suspecting everyone kept one cautious, but too much suspicion could cause paralysis. "Still no indications that anyone has taken an undue interest in your friend. My people haven't picked up on anyone tailing him, and they've been watching him around the clock whenever he's not in your building."

"They are keeping out of sight, correct?" Sylia asked, a trifle sharply. "He's edgy enough now that he'd shoot first and talk later."

"They're professionals, Sylia," Fargo said patiently. "They don't make those kind of mistakes." He paused. "Why, has he said anything?"

"No, and I don't think he would now," Sylia answered quietly. "If he thought, even for an instant, that someone following him worked for Hollister, I think he'd likely go hunting them with a gun."

"Just what is his interest in this friend of yours?" Fargo inquired. "Hollister doesn't normally concern himself with civilians, only those in positions of corporate or scientific importance." There was cool curiosity in his eyes as he glanced at her. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

"That's really none of your concern. We both have our secrets."

"But if it's something that might get my people killed, I have a right to know, Sylia," Fargo insisted. Inwardly, Sylia sighed; he'd found the only argument that he really could use with her in justifying why he should know more about what was going on. After weighing her options, she decided on an edited version of the truth.

"Hollister captured and interrogated him a while back," she said, lowering her voice to where he could just barely hear her. "He managed to escape before he cracked, and destroyed one of Hollister's bases in the process." Fargo whistled silently at her synopsis.

"I can see why you've wanted surveillance on your friend then," he noted soberly. "Hollister doesn't take any setback well; he's likely still livid over losing a base." Sylia nodded slightly.

"That was my assessment as well," she replied. "And there was an attempt to recapture him a few weeks ago, so you can see why I'm being cautious."

"I take it then that you haven't told him you're having him watched."

"I can't," Sylia replied simply. "He was a while recovering from the torture Hollister put him through, and I'm still not fully certain that he is over it. I don't want to add possible paranoia to his mental hang-ups." Fargo was silent for a moment or two as they strolled along, brooding.

"Your 'friend' is a member of your team then." He said it as a calm statement of fact, rather than a question.

"What makes you say that?" Sylia's voice turned a trifle cooler at his observation. An almost-smile twitched at Fargo's mouth at the tone of her voice.

"I'm not stupid, Sylia," he told her quietly. "The fact that 'SkyKnight' wasn't acting like himself a few weeks ago coupled with this mysterious friend of yours who managed to survive a torture session with a sadistic manipulator leads to a fairly secure conclusion that they're one and the same person. People don't change that much overnight, unless something drastic has happened to them."

"You're entitled to your own opinions," she replied neutrally.

"I'm not about to tell anyone," Fargo sounded a trifle hurt, but she ignored it.

"Let me know when something else comes up," she told him, glancing at him one last time. "See you later." With that, she turned and walked off into the crowd.

Fargo watched her graceful, elegantly-dressed figure vanish into the crowd and sighed wistfully to himself before vanishing into the press of people himself.


The heavy, wood-paneled door swung open, admitting Madigan to her apartment in the GENOM executive complex. She swung the door closed behind herself, locking it, and then allowed herself a slow sigh of relief. For once, a long day had come to a relatively uneventful close.

The lavender-haired executive slipped off her shoes, and then padded across the foyer of her apartment to the main living area, luxuriating in the feel of the plush carpeting against her aching feet. Whoever had invented high-heeled shoes had obviously never had to wear them for extended periods of time, she mused idly. With all the operations she had to oversee during the regular course of her duties, her feet were usually killing her by the end of the day.

She supposed she didn't really have to personally check on some of the matters requiring her attention, but she'd found it easier. When she was confronting someone in person, she'd found that they were less likely to try lying or concealing things from her. If they were attempting a deception of some kind, they were nervous enough when talking to her that she was almost always able to find them out. A useful trait for someone involved in corporate internal security.

Kate set her slim briefcase down on the coffee table situated next to one of the overstuffed couches scattered around the spacious room . Opening it, she extracted a small cellular phone. Flipping it open and hitting a few keys, she programmed it to forward all except critically important calls to her electronic voice mail before placing the small handset over in its charging receptacle on a side table. She didn't really want to be bothered tonight by some of the incompetent twits under her. It was amazing how minor inconsequentialities could suddenly become huge disasters in the eyes of some managers...disasters that, naturally, she was expected to solve.

With an effort, Kate forced the accumulated annoyances of the day from her mind, and walked over to the large bay window of the apartment that overlooked the southeastern portion of the city. Gazing out at the panoramic view, the lavender-haired woman tried to relax. Inevitably though, her mind turned restlessly to considering one of the most pressing problems that had been dogging her lately: how to locate and shut down Ethan Hollister.

All of her pieces were in place; unfortunately, she couldn't seem to locate her adversary. She'd known he was well-connected, but it had never really occurred to her just how well-connected he was. He seemed to have invisible strings to almost all of the interests she'd investigated, and some of those interests were becoming obstructions in her search. She needed leverage, but didn't have any.

That left pinning most of her hopes of locating Hollister on the former fixer, Stryker. An involuntary sneer pulled at the corner of her lips at that thought; the man was a sniveling cur. All of his claims of being able to find her nemesis hadn't produced results. According to his 'guardians', he was spending a lot of time skulking around bars, and knowing what she did of Hollister, Madigan highly doubted that any of his operatives would be frequenting seedy watering holes.

A mental image of a smirking blond man flashed in her mind's eye, and her eyes narrowed angrily as memory took over...


The door to her office swung open as she sat carefully going over the report on the day's test results. Scowling in irritation at the interruption, Kate looked up at the intruder. Her scowl deepened at the sight of the blond-haired man lounging insolently in her doorway. Tall, and wearing a light blue-grey suit, he directed an appraising glance around her office. Finally his gaze came to rest on her, and the faintest trace of a sly smile pulled at his face.

"Ms. Madigan," Ethan Hollister greeted her cordially. "And how are you this afternoon?"

"I'm busy," came the wintry reply. "And I don't appreciate people barging into my office whenever they feel like it, especially independent 'contractors'. What is it?"

"I had something I wanted to discuss with you," he shrugged carelessly, stepping into her office and closing the door behind himself after taking a quick glance down the hallway. "And it's not like you've been easy to get hold of."

"Make it quick then," Madigan closed the report folder in front of her. "I've got a lot to do."

"Still trying to impress the bigshots, huh?" Shaking his head disbelievingly, he strolled across her office and stood gazing out at the buildings across the street. "Hoping to get promoted back to Japan?"

"What I want is none of your business," she told him flatly. Standing up, she smoothed out her skirt and turned to face him, her face hard. "You said you had something to discuss. State it, or get the hell out."

"Or you'll do what?" His face suddenly had a taunting grin on it as he glanced at her. "A junior executive, and a woman at that, complaining about me? They'd laugh you out of the boardroom." Kate glared stonily at him but didn't reply. Even though it thoroughly galled her to admit it, the smug bastard was right; he'd ingratiated himself too well with the board of directors to be threatened by her. He grinned mockingly again, as if divining her thoughts, then turned back to the window, becoming sober again.

"Europe has many opportunities at the moment," he said after a minute, gesturing at the street. "And it's opportunity that I wanted to talk to you about."

"I'm listening," she replied shortly.

"It's been interesting to see this particular aspect of boomer technology develop," he observed, almost idly. "But it's unfortunate that your company can't develop some of the more promising applications."

"I can't discuss classified information with you," she said frostily. "Please leave." He chuckled.

"Your determination is admirable," he complimented her, a crooked smile appearing. "It's almost on a par with your beauty."

"Pardon?!" The utter incongruity of the compliment caught her flat-footed. "I.what did you.what's that supposed to mean?" She retreated a step as Hollister stepped closer, uncomfortably close. His ice-blue eyes bored intently into hers.

"It means exactly what it says," he replied, his voice smooth. "You're attractive and you're no fool, either." Madigan was unable to look away as he continued speaking. "You're extremely thorough, and you've got the knack for isolating and identifying problems. You've got a keen intellect, and when you combine those with your looks, you've got great potential. My organization can use someone like you; you've got ability that's never going to get used here." Fear of something nameless surged through her at the look in his eyes; even though his mouth was smiling, his eyes were as cold as ice fields. She found that she couldn't look away as he stepped right up to her.

"Come with me," his voice was low and hypnotic. "I need you."

"I ... I can't ." she started to deny him, when he leaned forward the last few inches separating them and kissed her on the mouth. A moment later, and she felt his hands on her body. Her hands clenched into fists as she tried shoving him away from her, a muffled noise of protest escaping her.

One of his hands slid from her waist, moving upwards, and she felt him touch her breasts as his other hand started sliding around her back, pulling her closer to him. Anger exploded amidst the confusion and fear in her mind, clearing the paralysis that had gripped her. A sudden surge of strength allowed her to shove him backwards, and for good measure, she rammed a knee at his groin. Hollister swore, staggering backwards and allowing Kate the opportunity to sprint for her desk. Jerking open the top drawer, she grabbed at the gun she kept there. Hollister straightened up as she leveled the slim automatic at him.

"Going to shoot me, Kate?" he asked conversationally. His demeanor was unruffled, and except for a slight wince when he started walking towards her, he didn't appear to have been hurt by her attack. Another taunting grin flashed across his face. "Go ahead then; pull the trigger."

"Just who the hell do you think you are?!" she spat, her voice thick with rage, her hands shaking as she pointed the gun at him. "How DARE you touch me like that!! I don't care who you are, NOBODY uses me like that!!!"

"Oh please, spare me the speech." Hollister's tone was bored as he continued to walk towards her. If you're so offended, just shoot me." Madigan's teeth clenched, and her eyes narrowed in fury as her finger began to squeeze the trigger.

She wasn't entirely sure what happened next, but there was a numbing impact of some kind on her body. The gun dropped from nerveless fingers as fire seemed to race through her, but she couldn't even scream because somehow Hollister had one of his hands clamped around her throat. She could barely move as numbing pain washed through her, and dimly she wondered what he'd hit her with; out of the corner of her eye, she saw him slip some kind of weapon into his pocket.

"That wasn't very nice, Kate." The grin on Hollister's face seemed more like a snarl baring his fangs. He shoved her back against her desk, his hand still tightly gripping her neck; sparks began to flash in front of her eyes as she struggled to draw adequate breath. "It's a pity you didn't take me up on my offer; I could've offered you a lot more than you'll ever get out of GENOM's pissy little operations." His grin slid back into insolence as he reached up with his free hand and caressed the face of the terrified executive. "And you'll never know what you missed." He jerked her close, and kissed her on the mouth again before roughly shoving her away.

The shove collapsed Kate into her office chair, where she sat gasping hoarsely for breath as her strength slowly returned. Bitter fury burned in her eyes as she watched Hollister calmly straighten his tie, and start walking across the room towards the door.

"You ... you son of a bitch!!" she rasped, forcing herself to her feet. She wasn't entirely recovered however, and stood swaying, her hands braced on her desktop. He flashed her an amused smile.

"I'd wait another five minutes or so before I'd try walking," he advised her as he opened the door and tipped her a derisive salute. "See you around, Katie."

"BASTARD!!!" The door closed behind him, neatly stopping the paperweight she'd hurled at him. It banged loudly on the door, then dropped to the carpeting. Madigan took a step, intending to pursue him, but her legs folded, pitching her to the floor. She pounded a fist impotently against the carpet as angry tears began leaking out of her eyes.


Madigan's teeth clenched as she stared out the window, memory relentlessly replaying the humiliating events of several years ago. The lavender haired woman turned sharply away from the massive glass pane, stalking over to the ornate liquor cabinet by the wall; maybe a drink would help her relax and forget the past for a while. Nothing else was, that was for damn sure.

Opening the cabinet, she pulled out a crystalline decanter and a glass. She poured the glass half full of an amber liquid, hesitated, then topped it off to three-quarters before adding some ice cubes and placing the decanter back in its usual place. Taking a measured sip from her glass, she walked over to one of the large couches scattered around the spacious apartment and slowly sat down, sinking into the soft cushions with a weary sigh.

Kate glanced around at her surroundings again as she slowly sipped her drink. GENOM maintained a wing of very lavish luxury living suites for most of its higher executives within the Tower compound.

The official reason the suites were provided was that it was to provide a measure of convenience for the company's executives, offering them a place close to their work. While somewhat true, the real reason for the apartment complex being provided was security; the execs could enjoy a measure of safety from anyone who might have a grudge against them or the corporation, and the corporation found it easier to monitor its employees by keeping them close.

A cynical smile twisted Madigan's face at that thought; as the director of GENOM's internal affairs and security, she knew better than anyone what the corporation did to maintain its affairs. If someone proved to be a security risk, it was much easier and quieter to remove them while they were on GENOM property than off of it.

Sighing, Madigan drained her glass, setting it over on a nearby endtable. She glanced moodily around at the apartment again. It was sumptuously furnished of course, but all the apartments were. A few knick-knacks and such that she'd acquired here and there were the only things to indicate ownership of the residence, and she suddenly found herself confronted with a strange thought: was this all there was to her life?

It was a strange, unsettling thought, and one she'd never entertained before. Her devotion to GENOM, Quincy in particular, had always been absolute. But despite all those years of loyalty, all she really had was a few personal belongings that could easily be packed up. If something happened to her, there wouldn't be much to clean up for whoever got the apartment next. It was strange to suddenly find herself questioning her career; she'd never had any doubts before, about anything she'd done.

Madigan growled irritably at herself, putting the melancholy mood that had descended on her down to her frustration over the Hollister affair. Once she'd proven to Quincy that she could efficiently eliminate that problem, she'd feel like her old self again. She entertained herself with ideas on how she was going to kill the smug bastard as the sun slowly set over the city beyond her apartment window, casting orange-gold rays over the city.


"Doc, there ought to be pollution bylaws against that bloody thing," Hollister informed the old scientist, his expression sour. Across the desk from him, the shaggy grey-haired old man continued to puff contentedly on his pipe, shifting around in his chair to a more comfortable position. "Can't you find something to put in it that doesn't stink so bloody much?"

"We all have our vices," Doc's voice replied from the grey-blue haze surrounding the old scientist. "Besides, we've had this discussion before; I'm too old to change now, and I've got no intention of trying."

"You won't go into withdrawal if you douse it for half-an-hour," Hollister groused, shifting the whirring air freshener on his desk around, and positioning it so that it was more in the center of the desk. He wasn't sure if it helped to shield him from the unpleasant smoke and its accompanying aroma, but it made him feel a bit better.

"Well, if you'd tell me why I'm here, you could get me out of your office a lot quicker," Doc noted dryly. "Especially since you want me nursemaiding that project of yours so damn closely all the time."

"I need to know when is the earliest you could have the D.D. ready," came the reply. "Not for full operation," Hollister added, raising a placating hand to forestall the protest Doc opened his mouth to make. "What I need is a quick test run of some sort; one of our clients has been very vocal lately." The blond man's expression soured a bit further. "He's demanding some kind of proof that we can actually deliver what we say we're going to." There was a long contemplative silence as the gaunt scientist across the desk from him knocked the ash from his pipe bowl into a nearby ashtray, and re-packed it with fresh tobacco.

"I suppose we could try a limited duration activation," Doc said dubiously, sticking the pipestem between his teeth as he fumbled for a match in one of his pockets. Finding it, he struck it alight and pressed the flame to the bowl of his pipe. "Nothing elaborate, mind you," he added, stoking his meerschaum into pungent life again. "Just some basic walking around, maybe some limited weapons fire. The control interface is still acting flaky for some reason, but we're working on it."

"That should be sufficient," the blond man replied, cocking his head with a coldly curious glance. "What's the problem though? I thought you said the hardware linkage was perfect?"

"We haven't gone for the full fusion between the sexaroid and the combat systems yet," Doc replied, exhaling a cloud of bluish smoke. "At the moment, I can't guarantee that it will work. The 'soft' contacts we're using right now for testing are sufficient for our purposes, but I think the biggest problem is that she's fighting the computer control."

"She's fighting it?" Hollister's eyebrow twitched up in mild annoyance and surprise. "How?"

"I don't know exactly how," Doc replied irritably. "We may have her body imprisoned, but I'll wager that her mind isn't; she hasn't given up on attempting to get loose even now. I'd hazard the guess that her independence of thought is what's allowing her to resist the outside control."

"It's a machine, Doc, not a person," Hollister returned, his lips thinning in annoyance. "It's got a sophisticated program, not a mind. Find a way to circumvent the program, and you don't have a problem anymore."

"Well we can't do it until we directly link her to the D.D.," Doc shrugged, again managing to successfully hide his own inner revulsion; he couldn't wait until this project was finished so he could get the hell away from it. The doubts nagging at him lately over his work weren't getting any easier to live with. "And that won't happen for a few more weeks yet. If you really think you need to have that thing up and running, we can manage it for a short time period, but there's no guarantee that the sexaroid can't gain control of the systems if we can't control her."

"Understood," Hollister nodded crisply. "Have it ready for a test run in about two days."

"If by 'test run', you mean that you intend to take that contraption into the field, forget it," Doc told the blond man flatly. "I won't be a party to it. That thing is an accident waiting to explode at this point, and taking it into an uncontrolled environment is only going to make it worse."

"Your objections have been noted," Hollister replied equally flatly. "However, we've got some production schedules to keep here as far as that battlemover is concerned, and time is running out. I don't give a goddamn if you've got to hot-wire the damn thing with a car battery and jumper cables, but I'm taking it out into the field in two days." Hollister smiled thinly, cocking an eyebrow. "Of course, if you don't like my decisions, you can always resign."

"I'll choose when I want to get shot in the back on my own, thanks," Doc snapped angrily, rising from the chair, his eyebrows drawing together in a scowl. "Don't say I didn't warn you when the time comes." With that, the old scientist spun around and stalked out of the office, jamming his pipestem between clenched teeth.



Pale fluorescent lights threw a soft glow over the pale blue walls and white tiled floor of the small room, humming in a quiet counterpoint to the whirring of the air conditioning coming from recessed ceiling vents. Comfortably padded furniture was stuffed into the room, making it seem even smaller than it actually was. The only clear path through the furniture was the open stretch of flooring between the doors at opposite ends of the room.

"I hate this," Bert grumbled, slouching down on a padded bench, his arms folded defiantly across his chest. "I really, really hate this." His long legs stuck almost halfway across the small waiting room as he glowered resentfully at the floor.

"You say that every time we have to do this," Priss observed. The brown-haired singer was sprawled indolently on the bench across the room from him, both sock feet propped up on the armrest. Her arms were folded behind her head, and she was staring at the ceiling to pass the time. Her head turned slightly to regard him. "It's not all that bad."

"And given the number of times you've racked yourself up, I'd say you probably need a checkup once in a while," Linna added, an innocent smile on her face. She was seated in the chair in the corner, thumbing through a magazine from the stack on the nearby table.

"I have never liked checkups or going to the doctor..." Bert started to reply.

"Sounds familiar," Linna interjected, giving Priss a sly glance. Priss ignored the remark.

"...and I like the idea of a regular physical exam even less," the tall red-head finished, scowling. "I know why it's necessary, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. Besides, I hate having to get stuck with all those damn needles; what the hell does he need so many blood samples for?" He shivered slightly; he'd always hated needles of any description.

"The intrepid SkyKnight," Priss grinned evilly. "Fights boomers at the drop of a hat, but runs from a doctor with a needle." Her grin widened at the dirty look he shot her, but he resumed scowling at the floor and didn't reply to her jibe. Priss grinned again, but the grin slipped a bit when the door at the far end of the room opened, and Anri stuck her head around the doorjamb.

"You're next, Priss," the young woman announced with a smile. She was wearing a light blue nurse's uniform, and her dark green hair was neatly swept back over her shoulders. A sly smile flickered across her face as Priss gave a deep sigh, and hauled herself to her feet with a martyred expression; Anri giggled a bit at her expression, putting a hand over her mouth.

"Oh come on; it's not all that bad," Bert remarked mildly, smiling innocently as the brown-haired singer gave him a warning glance before sighing again and shuffling reluctantly through the door Anri was holding open. After she'd entered the room beyond, the door swung closed with a click. Silence dropped over the waiting room for a moment.

"I hate waiting," Bert muttered. Shifting around, he flopped lengthwise on the padded bench with a loud thud.

"Gee, I'd never have guessed," Linna remarked dryly. He decided not to dignify her observation with a response, and settled himself more comfortably on the bench. A companionable quiet settled over the room for a few minutes, broken occasionally by the whisper of a page turning in the magazine Linna was reading through.

The sound of running footsteps echoing in the hallway outside the waiting room interrupted the silence. The tall red-head sat up as the rapidly approaching footsteps turned into the sounds of shoes skidding on floor tiles outside the door. The doorknob rattled, and then the door burst open, admitting a breathless Nene. The slender red-head's hair was in total disarray, and her jacket was askew, as if she'd thrown it on while running out the door or something.

"I'msosorryI'mlate!" she blurted, gasping for air as she banged the door shut and sagged against it. "Butmyscooter hadproblemsandIcouldn't..." Linna blinked as she looked up, then squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, trying to interpret what the young woman's rapid and nearly unintelligible words were trying to say.

"Whoa! Nene, slow down!!" Bert stood up, raising his hands in a placating manner. "I can't understand a word you're saying; now have a seat over here and take a deep breath or two." He waited while she did exactly that, then sat down opposite her. "Now then: slowly."

"I said I'm sorry I'm late," the young ADP officer began, still gulping a bit as she tried to catch her breath. "I would've been here sooner, but my scooter was having problems, and I had to get a cab over here. Then it got stuck in traffic about three blocks away, and I had to run the rest of the way."

"You're not really late," Bert reassured her. "Everyone's been going in one at a time, so you haven't missed anything."

"That's a relief," Nene sighed, slumping against the backrest of the bench she was on and letting her head droop back as she closed her eyes.

"Hey, at least you got some exercise out of it," Linna remarked impishly, grinning when Nene opened her eyes and sat up long enough to stick out her tongue at her friend. It was at that point that the door leading deeper into the medical facility opened, and Anri again stepped into the doorway.

"Next!" she said cheerily. "It's your turn, Linna!"

The trim dancer tensed a bit, then gave a quick shake of her head and stood, tossing her magazine onto the table as she sighed. Part of her apprehension, despite the fact that she knew she was in perfect health, stemmed from anxiety over her leg; the doctor was going to be giving her the verdict on whether or not she could resume her usual athletic activities. She marched resolutely towards Anri, who stepped back with an encouraging smile as Linna stepped into the next room.

The door swung shut behind the two women, leaving Nene and Bert alone in a suddenly awkward-seeming silence.


Tendrils of clammy fog wrapped murky grey tentacles around the waterfront warehouse district, shrouding everything in chilly gloom. The thick mist seemed to muffle everything, from the pale light being emitted by the battered lamp posts, to the sounds of footfalls on the asphalt. The darkness of early evening didn't help the slightly menacing feel to the air of the seedy district.

A shadowy form took shape in the fog as it approached one of the apparently derelict warehouses, gradually resolving into a slightly stocky-looking man of average height with short black hair. The collar of his black jacket was pulled up around his neck in an obvious attempt to ward off the chill of the night air, and nervous hazel-coloured eyes roved constantly, vainly trying to see through the mist. Both hands were rammed deep into his coat pockets, and his entire posture was tense.

The lone figure slowed as the bulk of the building that was his destination loomed abruptly out of the fog like a ghostly apparition. He glanced furtively around again, a muscle spasming agitatedly in his cheek, then shivered and began walking towards the door of the warehouse. Pulling his hands from his pockets, he reached out and then paused, one hand on the doorlatch, as some sixth sense warned him he wasn't alone.

"You're late, Stryker," a disembodied voice floated from the mist behind him. "I don't like to be kept waiting." The black-haired fixer whirled sharply towards where the voice had apparently originated from, one hand half-reaching for the shoulder holster inside his jacket.

"Pull a weapon on me, and you won't live long enough to be able to regret it," the voice promised icily. The fog seemed to swirl ominously around the tall figure that appeared a few feet away from Stryker. Steely blue eyes glinted with dire promise as the dark figure stepped closer, turning into a tall blond man wearing a trenchcoat. Stryker swallowed nervously, and dropped his hands to his sides. The nervous twitch in his cheek intensified.

"You said you had some information I needed," Hollister said flatly. "Well? I'm waiting, and I've never been accused of having patience."


"Contact has been confirmed." The woman's voice came over the shielded communications link, echoing through the control room. Madigan leaned over the shoulder of the male technician at the console, her expression neutral. Two of the screens in front of her showed identical displays of two men, dimly seen in the shrouding fog. "The target has arrived."

"Have the boomers detected anything else out there?" she asked, glancing again at the visual transmission that Stryker's 'escorts' of the last two weeks were relaying to the Tower.

"Negative," came the reply, as the console operator looked up at her. "It looks like he came by himself. The scans picked up a handgun of some kind, but that is all they detected."

Fierce elation swept through the lavender-haired woman. I've got you now, you bastard! She carefully kept her expression neutral as she stared at the monitors, her gaze focused on Hollister.

"Shall I order the boomers to attack?" the young man at the console asked hesitantly, glancing up at her.

"They are to apprehend him only," Madigan replied crisply, squaring her shoulders and standing a bit straighter. "We don't want him hurt...not permanently anyway." He nodded, and reached over to the console, tabbing some switches and issuing the order.

Madigan watched the view on the monitors began to shift as the boomers began to advance on their quarry, a feeling of intense anticipation and satisfaction spreading through her.


"Three energy signatures detected," a white lab-coated technician reported, his face eerily lit by the computer console he was monitoring. Next to him, three other similarly attired young men monitored other console boards, occasionally adjusting a dial, or typing a command into a keypad. "Tentative ID: Two C-55 class combat boomers, and one 33-C class, probably coordinating the combat models." The technician who had spoken looked over at a shadowed corner, where a faint smoky haze was drifting through the dimly lit chamber. "Shall I deploy, sir?"

"Not yet," Doc's voice replied amidst another rolling plume of smoke. "Hollister will signal when he wants intervention. Until then, we wait." The tech nodded and returned to monitoring his station as the red glow of embers in a pipe bowl briefly lit the old scientist's lined and wrinkled face.

Doc exhaled yet another cloud of smoke as he looked around the cramped and dark operations room. Built into the back of a modified tractor trailer transport, it was the perfect nerve center for directing a small field operation...but Doc was heartily wishing that he wasn't involved in this particular one.

The gaunt old man drew deeply on his pipe again, but the tobacco smoke didn't help to choke off the uneasy feeling creeping through his mind. No matter how much Hollister thought was at stake, taking their revamped Battlemover out into the field like this for a 'test' was like lighting the fuse on wet dynamite; you knew it was going to go off, but didn't have a clue as to when that would happen. It was bad enough he couldn't silence the nagging voice of conscience over his actions in creating the war machine, but if that thing went ballistic in the middle of the city...

"Control efficiency at eighty-seven percent," one of the other technicians reported, breaking into his rather morbid thoughts of out-of-control rampages through the city. "Status still green; no fluctuations."

Sighing to himself, Doc stepped forward and began watching the data readouts more closely, over the shoulders of the technicians.


"So,'ve you been lately?" Bert finally asked as the silence in the small waiting room seemed to become smothering. Even though it had only been a few minutes since Linna had entered the exam room, the sudden gap of utter quiet between Nene and himself had made it seem like several hours.

It was the first time they'd been alone in the same room since that night in the doughnut shop, when he'd had to tell her he was going out with Priss. Oh sure, they'd talked since then, but other people had acted as a buffer, and with that defense gone, he suddenly felt awkward. Judging from the faintly uncomfortable expression on Nene's face, and the way she wasn't quite meeting his gaze, she was having similar a similar problem.

After what seemed like an eternity, the slender, green-eyed young woman stirred and looked at him.

"Okay, I guess," she replied, giving him a wan smile. "Just tired; work's been piling up lately, and it's hard keeping up to it all some days." Bert nodded sympathetically, noting for the first time the faint smudges under her eyes, signs of inadequate sleep.

"Paperwork, and more paperwork, huh?" he asked. At her tired nod, a faint smile pulled at the corner of his mouth, and he sighed, chuckling a little.

"What's so funny?" Nene demanded with a hint of indignation, her eyes narrowing. "You wouldn't be chuckling if you had to sift through all the reports I do!"

"I wasn't laughing at you, honest," he quickly replied contritely. "I was just reflecting on how wrong we were about the future, that's all." He chuckled again, the wry smile reappearing.

"Pardon?" Nene promptly looked confused. "What do you mean by wrong about the future?"

"You've always had computers around, right?" At her confused nod, he grinned. "Nene, I grew up in an era that didn't have everything computerized to the extent that things are now. I got to see the first personal computers appear, and got to watch as they evolved." He sighed nostalgically. "The Commodore PET, the Vic-20, the Commodore 64...all hideously obsolete now, but for their time, they were fantastic machines, and most people couldn't wait to get one." Another wry grin appeared. "I never had one myself, but I was always using them at school, mostly for games, I'm embarrassed to admit. Anyhow, then the computers became faster and had more storage capacity and so forth...."

"What does all that have to do with all the paperwork I have to do?" the red-haired young woman across from him demanded impatiently, although part of her was very interested in what he was saying. She'd always taken computers for granted; she wouldn't be able to function without one. Bert grinned again as he explained.

"The point is that at that time, one of the predictions made was that we'd see actual 'paperwork' disappear from the office. The development of the word processor was a godsend; everything was going to be put into the computer, and you'd never have a cluttered desktop again!" He made a grandiose sweeping gesture, as if clearing off a desk, and then snorted derisively. "It never happened back then, and it sure hasn't happened yet from what I can see," he summarized. "If anything, there's even more paperwork to fill out and shuffle around from department to department...something I think you could readily attest to."

"Oh yes," Nene agreed ruefully. "I only wish all the reports were on the would be so much simpler!"

"You're not alone in that wish," he grinned whimsically. "I think it's a plot to stay in business by all the pulp and paper companies myself." Nene giggled a bit, then leaned forward, her expression becoming interested.

"So what were those computers like?" she queried.

"Slow," he replied his gaze going nostalgic for a moment. "Although I never really realized it until years later. At the time, they were great machines, but when you look at what we use now, and what kept us happy back then, it's hard to believe that we got by with only a cassette tapedeck for data storage and maybe 64 kilobytes of memory..."


Hollister turned as two hulking shapes flanking a third, smaller one loomed out of the mist-shrouded night behind him. Glowing red eyes stared balefully at him as the two combat boomers came to a halt mere feet away from him at a gesture from the third figure. The apparent leader of the group was a woman with long hair; he couldn't really note any other details partly because she was standing in the shadow from one of her cohorts.

"Ethan Hollister," a melodious voice came from the third figure, "I must ask that you accompany us; there is someone who wishes to discuss certain business matters with you."

"I suppose this explains why you had to meet me in person," the blond man remarked in a casual-seeming manner, but the icy glance he gave Stryker over his shoulder was much more eloquent, promising dire retribution.

"I d-didn't have a choice," the fixer whined, cringing back against the warehouse behind him. "You d-don't know what they did t-to me..."

"Ethan Hollister," the mechanical rumble of one of the boomer's voices interrupted Stryker's faltering voice, repeating its leader's order. "You will come with us now."

"Or else what?" Hollister's voice was calm and matter-of-fact as he folded his arms across his chest. He sounded like he was discussing the weather, not standing a few feet away from an armed biomechanoid. "Given the trouble Stryker went through to get me out in the open, I highly doubt you did it just to kill me if I refuse to cooperate." His head cocked sideways as he looked at the trio of boomers with cold curiosity.

"You will come with us willingly, or you will be forced to accompany us," the female boomer replied glacially, giving an impatient shake of its head, causing a flash of auburn hair to glint in the dim light. Its comrades took a menacing step closer.

"I don't think so," Hollister replied coolly. "Doc? NOW."


"Power source detected!" the man at the console in front of Madigan reported, alarm surging through his voice. "Range, one hundred meters from target and closing."

"Identify it," Madigan snapped, her grip on the back of the technician's chair becoming white-knuckled as the tension level in the room rose drastically. "Why didn't we pick it up sooner?"

"Unable to identify at this time, combat machine not in the databanks," came the terse reply. "Humanoid robot type, estimated mass of ten to twenty tons. Further readings impossible because of the target's ECM. Searching alternate databases for tentative ID..."

"We didn't detect it earlier because I believe it was powered down or in a standby mode," one of the other techs interjected. "It's very heavily shielded."

"Have the boomers secure Hollister and retreat," Madigan snapped. "They're not..."

"Target firing!"

"Particle beam of some description....!"

"Missile spread fired!! Tracking multiple warheads...!"

Madigan stared helplessly at the control monitors as the warehouse area, and her plan, went up in a shattering snarl of flame and explosions in the time it took to blink.


Hollister coughed explosively, waving an arm through the smoke-choked air in front of him in a vain attempt to clear the air enough to be able to see what was going on. All around him, the sound of flames crackling merrily rose into the night, and a few metres away, another deafening roar of weapons fire sounded.

"Damn it, Doc, wasn't that a little excessive?!" the blond man muttered under his breath. "I could've lived without having to duck those bloody missiles, thank you very much."

"Don't blame me," Doc's voice crackled back dryly, coming through the transmitter earpiece he was wearing. "Blame your marvelous combat machine; the AI was the one that decided a missile spread was necessary. Better probability of a kill, after all."

"Yeah, but I wanted it to kill the boomers, not me!" Hollister snapped irritably.

"I did warn you that it wasn't totally ready yet," came the mild reply. "And you're the one who wanted to wait and see what they'd sent after you before attacking." Hollister didn't bother replying, his face stony as he turned towards the warehouse a few yards away. A black-haired man was slumped against the wall, clutching at his leg and moaning in pain.

Straightening his tie a bit, Hollister walked over to Stryker; the fixer had caught a stray shot from one of the boomers during the initial frenzy of the firefight that had erupted, and the blast had burned a deep wound into his leg just above the knee. From the way he was shaking, it was likely he'd be going into shock in a few minutes, if he hadn't already.

"Now then," Hollister's icy voice penetrated the fixer's pain-filled world, forcing him to look up at the blond man standing over him. A gun appeared in Hollister's grasp, and a crisp metallic click announced that it had just been cocked. "Who paid you to set me up?"

Behind the two men, a red and gray robot lumbered out of the fog and smoke-riddled darkness, fragments of a boomer trailing from the talons of its hands. It came to a halt twenty metres or so from them and then stood silently, ominously, awaiting its next order.

"What the hell do you mean, you don't know?! Do you honestly think I'm going to believe that load of bullshit?!" Hollister's voice cracked loudly, audible even from where the mech was standing.

As if his voice had been a catalyst, the D.D. twitched sharply, and a tremor ran through its frame. Orange-lit eyes flared brightly in the darkness.


"Hmmmm." The old physician looked at the long printout sheet attached to the clipboard he was holding, peering occasionally over his glasses at Bert as if looking at some kind of unbelievable lab specimen. It was beginning to make the tall red-head just a bit nervous. "Very interesting. Hmmmm." The old man frowned at the printout as he moved to the next page, one eyebrow lifting in a quizzical manner, and again he gave Bert an unreadable glance.

"Umm, look, could you just give me the verdict, Doc?" Bert asked, unable to keep from fidgeting uneasily from where he sat on the exam table. "You're making me nervous doing that."

"I'm still trying to figure out just what the verdict is," the elderly physician replied absently, rubbing contemplatively at his mustache with a finger. "Your physiology never ceases to amaze me sometimes."

"Uh, thanks, I think," Bert answered cautiously. "Just what does that mean?"

"Oh, just that you're in remarkable shape considering everything you've been through," the old man waved a hand vaguely at him as he continued reading the printout. "Nothing to worry about."

Bert fell silent and continued to watch the old medic as he read the printout, puffing thoughtfully into his mustache every once in a while. Despite the advances in medical science and scanning technology that had been made in the last few decades, the Knight Sabers' physician insisted on doing some things, like routine physicals, the old-fashioned way. Bert had asked about that once, and gotten a long-winded and detailed reply that essentially meant that technology couldn't substitute for experience.

At the moment, the way the old man was scrutinizing every page was beginning to make Bert wonder if he'd come down with some exotic condition. At least the physical part of the exam was over; he hated needles. Given the number of times he'd been injured, he hadn't thought seeing his own blood would be a problem; however, having to sit and watch as his blood squirted into a bottle was extremely unsettling for some reason. He suppressed a shudder, and tried to resume waiting semi-patiently.

"Here you go, Bert," Anri's voice pulled him out of his worried preoccupation as he sat there. He glanced at the young woman as she carried a glass of water to him, noting absently that she looked quite attractive in her light blue uniform. There was a sense of poise and self-assurance to her that had been lacking only a few short months before. Her job as a medical assistant to the old doctor had certainly helped her self-assurance ... even if her bedside manner did at times remind him of a blend of Sylia and the irascible old medic a few feet away.

"Thanks, Anri," he smiled gratefully at her as he accepted the glass, thirstily draining it. Handing it back, he sighed contentedly. "That was exactly what I needed."

"You don't have any reason to be nervous," she tried consoling him as she set the glass aside. "We're not going to have to take any more samples or anything."

"That's not why I'm nervous," he replied, nodding towards the doctor and his printout. "Normally it doesn't take this long to get the healthy verdict."

"That's because you were healthy the last time we did this," the old doctor interjected, sighing as he folded up the printout and stuffed it into a file folder. He walked over to where his reluctant, and suddenly white-faced patient was seated.

"Oh, don't look like that, it's not that bad," the old man waved a hand irritably at him. "You're suffering from slightly elevated blood pressure. Nothing serious yet, but we can take a few steps to deal with it before it becomes a problem."

"Oh? And just what steps are those?" Bert replied warily. Somehow he'd known it was going to be bad news.

"Hmmm....well, your blood tests don't show anything really out of the ordinary," the doctor noted, "so part of your problem is likely stress. That being the case, you need to relax more."

"I'm sure Priss could help you with that," Anri remarked sweetly, an innocent smile on her face. Bert turned bright crimson, and the green-haired young woman had to turn away, stifling a giggle behind her hand.

"The second thing is to watch your diet," the doctor continued, apparently oblivious to the red-head's sudden discomfiture. "Your blood cholesterol level would be happily at home in some fried chicken or burger joint. Start getting better meals and cook at home for a change; I'll have Anri give you some dietary suggestions that I'll draw up for you."

"That doesn't sound so bad," Bert conceded, getting himself back under control. Changing his eating habits wasn't a huge problem. Convincing Priss to stop going to so many burger places was going to be the real challenge...

"I'm not done yet," the white-haired old man grinned slyly. "This is going to be hard for you, but the third thing you're going to have to do is cut back on tea and coffee, a lot. What's your usual daily consumption?"

"My usual consumption?" Bert scratched his jaw as he frowned contemplatively. "Well, I usually only drink tea, and I'd say I probably go through anywhere from about sixteen to twenty cups a day. Mugs of it, I mean." The old doctor blinked in surprise, and Bert was aware suddenly that Anri was staring at him with a slightly stunned expression.

"What?" he asked defensively, looking at her. "Why are you staring at me like that?" Anri started and recovered herself, smoothing out her expression.

"Well, I'd heard that you liked tea," she tried explaining, "I just didn't know you liked it quite that much."

"It calms me down," he replied, shrugging. "I find a hot drink has a soothing effect."

"I hate to break it to you," the old doctor interrupted dryly, "but it's a stimulant, not a relaxant, and it's a stimulant you've got to cut back on; part of your problem is that you've developed a genuine caffeine dependency. Starting right now, I don't want you having more than four or five, at most six, cups per day."

Bert's jaw dropped as he stared at the old man with a horrified expression.


Shadows seemed to slither through the flickering red glow coming from the bank of control panels arranged along the side of the tight, narrow cockpit. As the lights on the readouts changed and pulsated, the darkness in the cramped space seemed to move malevolently, like a viper waiting for the right opportunity to strike from among the bundled wires and circuitry conduits. The air in the enclosed space was hot and stuffy, almost unbearably so, and tinged with a faint odour of ozone.

Pained, raspy breathing came from the slumped figure of a woman in the center of the cockpit, occasionally laced with what sounded like a racking sob. Her head hung slackly, long blonde hair falling forward to conceal her face. Occasionally, she pulled despairingly at the metal restraints that kept her held tightly to the control 'chair' she'd been forced into, although calling it a chair was an extreme misnomer. It was more like a narrow bicycle seat with arm and leg rests, and it hadn't been designed with the comfort of the occupant in mind.

Another choked sob escaped the woman as she again strained at the shackles, to no avail. She threw her head back despairingly as she stared at the ceiling of the D.D.'s cockpit, resisting the urge to start screaming; she knew that if she started, she'd never be able to stop this time. A tear trickled down one cheek, leaving its own track among the many others that streaked her face.

She'd long since lost any track of time; there was only the interminable horror of being imprisoned here, unable to move. She was still sane, but didn't know why; losing her mind would've been a relief, a way to avoid having to deal with the horror of what had been done to her, the horror of being shunted to the back of her consciousness whenever the Battlemover's computer took control of her...

A tremor shook her, and she had to bite the inside of her lip to keep from screaming hysterically again; she'd screamed for several minutes the first time the computer had relinquished control over her body during the initial testing. Being used like a puppet had sparked unbelievable horror, and nearly unbearable despair.

Her skin crawled as she remembered the sensations; it had been like being tightly bound and gagged before being sealed in a coffin with a small opening in the lid. She'd been able to see and hear everything that had happened, but had been utterly unable to do anything, even scream. She bit her lip again, tasting blood this time as she shivered violently.

Despite all that she'd endured, somehow she'd been able to hold onto some small shred of defiance, some faint, fading spar of hope that she'd be able to get free. That faint hope was all that had allowed her to resist having her mind wiped; she'd felt the D.D.'s software trying to erase her 'programming' several times, and she'd managed to fight it off each far. It was becoming more of a struggle each time though, and she didn't know how much longer she could manage it.

Her memories and sense of self were all she had left; she was not 'just a machine' as she'd heard some of her captors state. She'd had her own wants and desires before being captured, just as anyone else had. She could feel emotions, just like any other human. Unfortunately, the 'humans' didn't look at it that way...she was just a somewhat more sophisticated boomer to them.

She swallowed painfully against a dry throat; the nutrient delivery system they'd connected her to kept the biological portions of her systems alive, but didn't alleviate the physical symptoms of things like thirst. In its own way, it was a different level to the torture of her imprisonment. For just a moment, she longingly remembered the feel of drinking a cool glass of water...what seemed like eons ago.

"What the hell do you mean, you don't know?! Do you honestly think I'm going to believe that load of bullshit?!" the angry voice spat over the cockpit audio systems, interrupting her all-too-brief reverie.

Her head snapped up as her eyes narrowed in recognition of the voice, distorted as it was. For a brief moment, she again heard the cold voice as it icily commanded her imprisonment. She didn't know what he looked like, since they'd always kept her blindfolded, but she knew he was called Hollister.

Fury suddenly erupted as she realized that the prime motivator in her capture and imprisonment was nearby. It was his fault she was trapped inside the battlemover now, wired to its weapons and sensor systems against her will.

All she'd ever wanted was to be treated like a normal human woman, even entertaining dreams of being able to escape Genaros and hide somewhere on Earth; she'd heard rumours that others had been able to successfully do that. Hollister had gone beyond the casual callousness that marked the way in which GENOM used them, and ruined any immediate hope of a future of any kind for her.

She ground her teeth in helpless fury as she glared at the main viewscreen in front of her. Two thermal signatures identified two men standing several metres away, next to a warehouse. Her captor was within reach of retribution...and she couldn't do anything about it.

Or could she?

The young woman examined that thought with something akin to revulsion; she was sitting inside an impressive war machine, and she was nominally in control of the Battlemover's systems at the moment. The thought of willingly interfacing with the D.D.'s systems was distressing though; she wanted to be human, and had bitterly fought the attempts to turn her into merely another mechanical component of the battlemover.

She could feel the tenuous connection she had with the 'mech. It felt like a dull headache most of the time, through which the occasional piece of data from the Battlemover's systems invaded her mind. Most of the time she was able to block it out, thanks in part to the fact that they hadn't fully linked her to the machine yet. She'd never tried to utilize it herself; she didn't want to admit that she could.

She wrestled with herself for a few seconds, noting the bitter irony of the moment; in order to have a chance to save herself, she'd have to embrace the machine she violently hated. There was the slim chance she could escape if she killed Hollister, escape beyond the immediate range of their control equipment and try to find help. Overlooking the fact that a fully-armed battlemover loose in the city likely would attract military attention, it was really all she had left to try. It was doubtful they'd be taking the large war machine out of their base again for quite some time.

She gritted her teeth, braced herself, and then tentatively probed with her mind at the link she could feel with the 'mech. A deathly chill raced through her as her body suddenly seemed to warp and twist, becoming a small mountain of metal...NO!!! With an effort, she resisted losing herself in the D.D.'s sensor and data networks; it was a terrifying disorientation to suddenly feel like she'd left her body behind, and it took her several moments to become accustomed to it.

A grim smile played across her face as the cockpit lights began to brighten.


"Uh-oh, this is not good," one of the technicians muttered, tapping at a couple of keys on his board. On the viewscreen in front of him, a green status bar turned bright amber, and began shrinking. "We've got a problem in the control systems," he announced to the other occupants of the cramped trailer as he frantically flipped switches and hammered commands into his keyboard, trying to halt the decline of the readout. "Efficiency just dropped to forty-five percent, and it's still falling."

"What?! Why?!" Doc stepped over to behind the technician, taking in the data displayed in a sweeping glance. "That shouldn't be happening; the linkage reads as stable."

"I can't explain it, sir," the tech replied, shrugging in a combination of frustration and helplessness. "We're losing responsiveness from the weapons and actuator systems, and I can't isolate a source for the disruption; all the battlemover systems appear to be functioning normally."

"Except that they won't listen to us at the moment!" Doc snapped curtly. Leaning down, the gaunt old scientist half-shoved the technician out of the way, and quickly tabbed a few buttons. The readout changed, and lines of data began scrolling past the screen. Doc watched intently, trying to determine the cause of the fault in the data stream.

"We have movement!!" another panicky technician yelled. "The battlemover is moving towards Mr. Hollister's location!! It''s arming its weapons!!"

"Now why the hell would it..." Doc's voice trailed off, and his eyes widened as the realization abruptly hit him. Spinning around, he lunged for the communications headset he'd set aside. He jammed it on over his head, activating the microphone in the process.

"Ethan!! Ethan?! Get the hell out of there now!!" he ordered tersely. "Forget Stryker and run, unless you want a really personal demonstration of the Battlemover's weaponry!!"


"What?" Hollister demanded irritably, lowering the gun he'd been holding on a cringing fixer. He tapped the concealed earpiece with his free hand, scowling and wincing as it squealed into his ear. Static crackled, and he heard Doc repeat his message, the static garbling the words.

"Get.......Run!! fire!!"

"I didn't copy that," Hollister replied impatiently. "What" Heavy, clanging footsteps crunching on the asphalt ground made him trail off as he turned around.

Burning orange eyes glared down at the startled man as the massive red and gray armoured battlemover loomed over him. Hollister gaped up at the robot, momentarily too shocked to move. The talons of the huge 'mech flexed menacingly, as if anticipating slowly crushing the pale human in front of it in its claws. At the same time, a tremor ran through the machine, as if someone had just jabbed it with something.

"Doc," Hollister began backing away, dimly aware that Stryker was trying to crawl away behind him. "Talk to me: what the hell is going on?!" An unfamiliar feeling gripped him as he stared at the weapon he'd created. Fear began gleefully romping through his mind, turning his mouth dry and making his pulse pound harder.

"The sexaroid's taken control of the battlemover," came the terse, staticky reply. "Now run damnit!!!"

Hollister backed off another step, and then another, his feet starting to pick up speed. As he moved, the head of the humanoid war machine swiveled to track him. A noise reminiscent of a mechanical snarl rumbled from the machine as a large minigun popped into place on its left shoulder.

Hollister bolted, stumbling and dropping to his knees for an instant as his gun went skittering away on the pavement as he tripped over what was left of the red-haired boomer that had been leading the trio trying to apprehend him. The blond man lunged back to his feet, then dove sideways as the minigun opened up with an ear-piercing scream. Flame belched from the gun muzzle as high-velocity projectiles shrieked through the air, churning a spray of pulverized brick and asphalt chips into the air. Hollister rolled desperately along the ground, scrambling to keep ahead of the searching fire.


"The override isn't working, sir!!" the harried and sweating tech reported as he pounded desperately at a keyboard. "I can't get the D.D. to accept the input; I think the sexaroid's blocking the link!"

"Oh, thank you so much for that enlightening news," Doc snapped sarcastically, mind racing. Over the comm channel, he could still hear the snarling scream of weapons fire, and on the viewscreen in front of him, the picture of a desperately dodging blond-haired man surrounded by smoke and explosions flickered and wavered. Luckily for Hollister, the invisible struggle for control of the Battlemover's systems was adversely affecting the machine's targeting of its weapons. Ambivalent feelings swirled through the old scientist's mind, momentarily paralyzing him as he stared at the monitors.

Hollister was as good as dead in a matter of a few more seconds unless he did something drastic...and there really was only one more option to re-establish control of the wayward battlemover. While no one would particularly mourn Hollister's passing, even among his own organization, Doc couldn't let him get killed, no matter how much better the world would likely be for it. For one thing, he needed to find a way to free himself of his influence before that could happen; even in death, Hollister would still be able to ruin what was left of his life...

The old scientist reluctantly reached out to another control panel and typed in an access code, then a series of authorization codes. He closed his eyes as he hit the 'enable' button, then turned away from the monitors, running a hand tiredly over his seamed and wrinkled face.

"And may God have mercy on your soul...and mine," the old man muttered.

Behind him, a message was displayed in brilliant green letters on one of the display screens: FULL SYNCHRONIZATION AUTHORIZED.


Sylia closed the file folder she'd been rifling through as a quiet knock sounded at the door of her apartment and glanced at the clock, frowning a little at the lateness of the hour. Now who could that be? Setting the folder on the coffee table, she stood and walked over to the door.

Nene was stifling a massive yawn behind a hand as the door swung open, and she quickly dropped her hand with an embarrassed grin as Sylia's gaze met hers.

"Hi, Sylia. Is it okay if I come in for a few minutes?" she asked.

"Certainly," Sylia nodded, stepping back from the door. "It's a bit late for social calls though, wouldn't you say?"

"I'm sorry," Nene apologized, kicking off her shoes. "I found something at work the other day I thought you'd be interested in, and my computer didn't get through with it until tonight. I figured dropping it off after our medical exams were finished was the best way to get it to you." The young red-head pulled a datadisc from a pocket as she followed Sylia over to the couches and easy chairs, and handed it to her boss.

"What is it?" Sylia asked, turning the disk over in her fingers, giving Nene a quizzical glance.

"I found it in the some databases a few days ago," Nene replied, sitting down and valiantly trying to resist another yawn. "You said to keep an eye out for anything unusual, so I was looking around a bit..."

"Would you like a cup of coffee, perhaps?" Sylia interrupted her gently. "Before you keel over?"

"Yes, please," Nene grinned a bit ruefully. " was a long day today."

"You can keep talking while I get it for you," Sylia told her. "Where were you looking around?"

"Well, first I checked all the usual ADP files, and then I started sifting the boomer incidents, but I didn't find anything. So I started looking through the newsgroups and things like that," Nene told her, settling into the couch to get more comfortable as Sylia walked into the kitchen. "It took me a while, but I found out that there was a kidnapping a few weeks ago that never made it into the news networks."

"A kidnapping is hardly something we need to worry about," Sylia's voice noted. The sounds of liquid gurgling into a cup drifted from the kitchen. "The police do have their own investigators for that sort of thing, you know." Footsteps heralded her return, and she handed Nene a steaming cup of coffee before sitting down across from her.

"The police don't know about this one, Sylia," Nene said quietly, taking a cautious sip. "It happened on Genaros."

"Go on." Sylia's expression was suddenly taut with apprehension, and Nene had the impression that she'd already made the obvious connection in her mind and was waiting for verification.

"A woman was kidnapped from the station's personnel a few weeks ago," Nene elaborated quietly. "They got onto the station somehow, grabbed her, and escaped in a stolen shuttle. It was all very quickly hushed up; not even the spaceport authority knows about it." She paused and took a quick sip of her drink. "I downloaded the duty roster for the station and tried to figure out who'd been grabbed, since the kidnap victim wouldn't be in the shift rotation anymore, and I figured out who it was last night. Then I tried to find her personnel file in Genaros's databanks."

"Nene," Sylia's voice sounded a bit pained as she massaged the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger, her eyes squeezed shut, "didn't I tell you to let me know before you start hacking into those kinds of high-security files? We can't afford you getting caught at that, and you know that."

"But you said I was supposed to keep an eye out for anything unusual," Nene replied loftily. "I was just doing what you told me to do." She took another drink from her cup, managing to look cute, charming, and innocent all in the same instant.

"When I said 'anything unusual', I meant within the ADP itself," Sylia replied, her tone becoming a bit irritated as she glared at the young red-head. "I did NOT mean that to include hacking into military-grade systems just because you were bored."

"Sylia!" Nene's expression managed to include just the right amount of outraged dignity, enough to offset the faintly guilty flush that touched her cheeks. "I was just being thorough!"

"We'll discuss being 'thorough' later," Sylia promised her grimly, "thoroughly." Nene winced a little at that, but didn't reply.

"Did you manage to find the file you were looking for?" Sylia asked her after a moment or so of silence. Nene nodded.

"It's all on the disk," she replied quietly. "I didn't read all of it, just enough to confirm why she'd been grabbed."

"She was a 33-S boomer," Sylia's tone of voice made it a statement of fact, not a question. Nene nodded wordlessly, and Sylia sighed.

"And that means that Hollister must have a working prototype," Sylia's jaw tightened as she considered that implication. "We're going to have to do something about that before long."

"If we can," Nene mumbled glumly, more to herself than anyone else as she stared into her coffee cup.


Sweat poured down her face as she forced the battlemover to wheel, keeping its weapons tracking after the fleeing man visible on the monitors. The brutal strain of single-handedly controlling the massive 'mech while trying to fight off the attempts of its creators to regain control was rapidly depleting her, making it even more difficult to control the machine. She only had at most a few more minutes before they succeeded in subduing her again.

She gritted her teeth, clenching a hand into a fist; the 'mech translated the thought accompanying the action into a taloned lunge at Hollister. The D.D. shook with the jolt of its arm crunching into the asphalt, bare inches behind the blond-haired man as he dove aside clumsily. She could hear him shouting something, but whatever he was trying to say wasn't important. All she wanted was the satisfaction of rending him limb from limb...slowly. A grating, scraping noise sounded in the cockpit as the mech pulled its arm free of the pavement.

A hum of a different pitch than that of the usual operation of the Battlemover's systems penetrated her awareness, and she frowned momentarily, trying to determine through her link with the war machine what was going on. She was unable to get any kind of idea from the machine as to what was happening, so it was something of a shock when the metal shackles on her wrists and ankles retracted with a snap into their housings.

She stared disbelievingly for a moment, thrown into confusion by the sudden reversal. The sudden shooting agony of cramped muscles as she tried moving convinced her that it was real, that she could indeed move again. But...why had they released her?! For a moment, that concern was forgotten as she briefly reveled in the joy of the freedom of movement.

Her enjoyment was short-lived however; with a hissing snap, cables shot towards her from the sides and floor of the cockpit. Heavy manacles snapped closed around her legs below the knees; at the same time, thick metal cuffs seized her wrists. She stared numbly at the new restraints, watching with mounting horror as rows of LED lights mounted in them began to flicker and brighten.

"NOOOO!!!!!" The despairing scream was wrenched from the depths of her being as she felt a metal collar snap around her throat from behind, nearly choking her. At the same time, the last linkage restraint locked closed around her waist. She fought in futility against what was happening, crying in anguish.

A choked scream of protest was the last sound she had the opportunity to utter; with a crunch that she felt throughout her entire body, the interface probes from the control collar embedded themselves in her spinal column at the base of her skull. Liquid pain coursed through her for a moment, then disappeared in a wave of white light.

Silence returned to the cockpit of the battlemover, as flickering lights played over the deathly still form of the woman. White light glowed coldly from her eye sockets as she sat there, her face frozen in a soundless, terrified scream.


Hollister's hands were shaking as he wiped sweat and dust from his face. Blood from some cut somewhere streaked one hand as he lowered it, gasping and panting for breath. His clothes were torn, and he was dimly aware of one pant leg becoming glued to him with a wet, sticky warmth. He'd ripped a wicked gash into one leg with some debris during a frantic dive to avoid the Battlemover's thrusting talons. Or was it the Battlemover's claws that had nicked him? He couldn't remember...all of his recollections of the last few minutes were a jumbled, chaotic blur.

Barely ten feet from him, the D.D. was standing at rigid attention, where not thirty seconds before it had been trying to kill him. He watched it warily for a full five minutes, weaving and swaying with fatigue, before he began to believe that it was back under control. Wincing, he turned and limped towards the warehouse, still unable to keep from glancing back at the battlemover, just in case.

The unmistakable smell of death mingled with the lingering traces of smoke from the brief assault as he neared the warehouse. Sprawled in a gory mess was what was left of Stryker; the fixer had been unable to get out of the way of one of the volleys of minigun fire from the battlemover. There wasn't much left of the warehouse wall behind the unfortunate fixer, either.

The blond man spat a vicious epithet as his teeth clenched, his face contorting in a fury born of several sources. His hands were still shaking as he picked up his pistol from where it lay on the pavement nearby, and he clenched the butt of the gun tightly, trying to regain control of himself. With another snarled curse, he emptied the gun into Stryker's corpse, deriving some small amount of satisfaction from watching the hail of bullets further shred the mutilated body.

Trembling violently, he turned and limped off into what was left of the night.


"It's just not fair," Bert grumbled as he stuffed his coat into the closet next to the door and kicked off his shoes. "Why is it always me? It's just not fair." Scowling to himself, he padded across the carpeted living room, heading for the kitchen.

"Oh come off it," Priss retorted, exasperation showing plainly on her face as she removed her own jacket and chucked it into a nearby armchair. "It's not the end of the world just because you've got to cut back on a few cups of tea!" Sweeping her hair back over her shoulders, she followed him over to the kitchen area, and leaned on the counter as she watched him.

"Easy for you to say," he snorted, banging a pair of mugs down on the counter. "Did you want anything to drink?" he inquired, briefly remembering at least a trace of etiquette. She shook her head.

"No thanks, and you're supposed to be laying off that stuff, remember?" she asked pointedly.

"I'll start tomorrow," he growled irritably. "A condemned man gets a last meal, so why can't I have a last drink?" Priss sighed, rolling her eyes heavenward as he poured tea into his mug, added milk and sugar, and then stuck the mug in the microwave, pressing some buttons. The microwave beeped and then began humming energetically as he waited, arms folded across his chest.

"At least you weren't given a bottle of vitamins, told to get more exercise and more rest," Priss observed, her expression souring a bit as she propped her chin on her hand. "I got treated like I was some ten year-old kid who forgot to clean behind her ears or something. Don't you even think about any kind of a wisecrack," she warned him tartly, pointing a finger at him as she saw the beginnings of a slow grin seep through his disgruntlement.

"Who, me?" he asked mildly. "Wouldn't dream of it." The microwave beeped again, cheerily announcing that it was done, and Bert turned towards it while still trying to keep a straight face.

"Polish your halo," Priss told him dryly as he removed his now-steaming mug. "You just can't look innocent for very long."

"Can't blame a guy for trying," he replied, grinning openly as he took a cautious sip of his drink.

"Watch me," she grinned back. She straightened up from the counter as he walked around the end of it, and followed him over to the couch, settling in next to him once he'd sat down. They sat together quietly as he slowly emptied his mug, then set the mug aside with a sigh.

"Feel better now?" Priss asked brightly, grinning at the look she received in reply.

"I just know I'm going to hate tomorrow," Bert grumbled, rubbing a hand over his face. "Somehow, I just know it."

"Well, I know I'd hate it if I had to listen you whine and gripe about it all day," she observed dryly, reaching over and brushing his hair out of his eyes. "Good thing I'll be at a practice most of the day tomorrow, wouldn't you say?"

"Coward," he muttered, then sighed and leaned back on the couch. "I can't really say much either; I've got a long day planned myself."

"Doing what?"

"Let's see now," he mused, ticking off the items in his list on his fingers. "Sylia wants some stuff on the suits overhauled, I owe Doctor Raven..."

"Who, Pops?" Priss interjected.

"Doctor!" he retorted immediately, sounding exactly like the crusty old man for a moment. They swapped a smirk before he continued his list. "I owe him some work time at the garage, I've got to put some new targets in at the range, and then I said I'd take a look at Nene's scooter for her."

"Nene's scooter?" Priss frowned. "What's wrong with it?"

"It died," Bert shrugged. "She couldn't be any more specific than that. She can't afford to take it to a garage at the moment, so I said I'd take a look at it. If it's too complicated I'll just haul it down to Raven's and get him to fix it. She's going to be at work all afternoon, if that's what was worrying you."

"I wasn't worried about that," Priss dismissed the idea with an impatient shake of her head. "Are you?" Red-brown eyes gazed at him questioningly.

"I guess not," he replied after a moment or two of silence. "We chatted a bit while everyone else was in the exam room. We're...she's...I don't feel as uncomfortable around her as I did before," he said slowly. "But..." He stared off into space, trying to find the words to define what exactly he'd felt. "It ...still felt ... awkward," he finally said, "although that doesn't quite describe it either. I just..." He gestured helplessly, frustrated at his sudden inability to find the right words.

"Hey, don't knock yourself out over it, I understand," Priss tried soothing him, placing a hand on his arm. "Just don't try to force it. It'll happen, but that's going to take a lot more time than a just a month or two."

"Mmhmm," he muttered gloomily, staring dejectedly at the coffee table and his empty mug. She decided to drop the subject, and wordlessly snuggled a bit closer to him. He gave her a melancholy smile, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. They sat like that for a while, each lost in their own private thoughts.


"No fluctuations in the control circuits," one of the disheveled technicians reported, wiping a hand through sweat-matted hair. "There hasn't even been a twitch since the full synchronization took effect."

"Bring it back then," Doc directed crisply. "Let's pack it up and get out of here before the authorities show up."

"Affirmative," the tech replied, looking relieved as he reached out and tabbed a few buttons. "The D.D. is on its way back now."

"Fine," Doc grunted, turning away as he fumbled in his pockets for his pipe. A wave of utter weariness washed through him as he searched, but it was more depletion of the spirit than physical fatigue. He'd known that enabling the full synchronization had been the only way to stop the sexaroid and the D.D., but he still felt like somebody who'd been forced to pull the lever of a gallows trapdoor on someone he knew.

His pockets came up empty except for matches, unfortunately. The old scientist scowled blackly at a nearby monitor, and then remembered that he'd dropped his pipe in the initial frenzy of activity when the D.D. had started going rogue. He had just started to squint at the floor of the trailer in an attempt to find it when he heard the electronic locks on the entry door disengage as someone punched in an access code.

Everyone looked up in time to see a bloody and battered Hollister lurch through the door. An expression of unreasoning fury was frozen on the blond man's face. His eyes were shining with rage, and his teeth were clenched in what was almost a snarl. The blood streaming down the right side of his face only added to his shocking visage.

"Ethan, are you..." Doc started to speak, then trailed off as he realized Hollister wasn't listening to him. Instead, his gaze was fixed on the suddenly white-faced technicians at their control consoles. In a sudden flash of insight, Doc knew what was going to happen next.

"Ethan, NO!" The old scientist threw himself at the bloodied man, grabbing for his wrist as the handgun clenched in Hollister's fist started to come up. The younger man was stronger, however, and the gun continued to rise as the techs frantically scattered, hiding behind whatever was available in the cramped confines of the trailer.

"Ethan! Stop this!!" Doc gritted, trying vainly to stop the implacable leveling of the pistol. "Goddamn it, it was a technical fault!! You're not going to solve anything by shooting my tech staff! Ethan!! For God's sake, STOP!!!!!!"

The shout reverberated through the trailer, and finally seemed to penetrate Hollister's consciousness. The frenzied look in his eyes faded slightly, and a small semblance of reason returned to his expression. Doc didn't like the direction the reasoning was going, however.

"Decided to get rid of me, Doc?" Hollister's ice-blue gaze bored into the old scientist, and his voice was low and menacing. "Thought you could get me with an equipment malfunction? Or did one of your technicians decide they needed a new boss?"

"Ethan, quit being ridiculous," Doc snapped back, trying to ignore the sudden cold feeling in the pit of his stomach at the look Hollister was giving him. The elderly scientist kept a firm grip on Hollister's wrist. "I warned you that your goddamn tinkertoy wasn't ready for full-blown field testing, but you didn't listen; maybe next time you won't be so goddamn cocksure that you're right. If you absolutely have to blame someone for that thing malfunctioning, then fine: blame me. But if you're going to shoot me because I made a mistake, then you might as well shoot yourself at the same time for not listening to my advice. That's the mistake that led to all this." With that, the old man released his clenched grip on Hollister's gun arm, and stepped back.

For one infinitely long moment, Hollister and Doc stared at each other. Doc's face was outwardly inscrutable. Inwardly however, he was less than sanguine about his chances of walking away from this; he'd known Hollister possessed a bad temper at times, but he'd never seen the man in a homicidal rage before. Clearly, the near-brush with death had pushed him almost over the edge.

Hollister's face was a study in suspicion, hostility, and slowly fading rage as he glared at the old scientist. After a couple of moments, his expression slowly resumed its usual aloof cast. There was a muffled, collective sigh of relief from the back end of the trailer as he straightened, and carefully replaced his pistol in its accustomed shoulder holster.

Doc quietly released his own pent-up breath as the blond man became somewhat more like his usual self; he hadn't even realized he'd been holding it until the cowering techs at the far end of the trailer had released theirs in a quiet gasp.

Hollister swayed a bit and put a hand against the wall to steady himself. His gaze swept the length of the trailer for a moment, and then returned to Doc.

"Retrieve the battlemover, and then let's get back to the base," he directed shortly. "I've had enough excitement for one night."



"Not much left of that poor bastard, is there?" Leon remarked, gingerly stepping around the pools of sticky gore staining the asphalt. A few feet away, some rather nauseated forensics specialists were carefully scooping what was left of the unfortunate victim into a body bag to be take away for analysis, and hopefully eventual identification. "Was he carrying any kind of ID?"

"Not that we've found," Daley replied absently, devoting most of his attention to the same task that Leon was. "He was carrying what used to be a handgun...before it had several rounds of high-velocity ammunition shoved through it. If he had a wallet or anything like that, we'll probably have to strain his remains to find it."

"Great," Leon grunted. "I don't suppose we've had any leads as to what did this?"

"Something with big guns, and bigger feet," Daley joked. Leon shot him a sour glance; other than the corpse and the boomer wreckage strewn across the warehouse loading yard the only other physical evidence at the scene were several squarish 'footprints' that had been crushed into the concrete and asphalt of the compound. They were almost certainly from a very big mechanized suit...the pattern they were laid out in indicated a humanoid-style manner of walking.

The only question was, what had it been? Leon was fairly familiar with most of the modern military boomer and 'mech specs - in his line of work, it paid to know what the capabilities of possible enemies could be - but nothing he'd seen matched the preliminary assessment they'd arrived at, given the evidence available. A ten to fifteen ton humanoid-shaped 'mech, sporting energy and projectile weapons? No such thing existed...officially at least. There were always rumours, of course. Whisperings about experimental guns, stories of prototype superweapons run amok...

Leon froze as his memory abruptly grabbed him, relentlessly dragging him back in time. For a split second, a huge shape loomed over him, and he saw again red and gray armour plating, with weapons jutting from various locations...just before a crushing impact had staved in the armour of his K-12 battlesuit, breaking his ribs and very nearly killing him.

"Leon? Hey, Leon!" Daley's hand shaking his shoulder alerted him to the fact that he'd stopped dead in his tracks when the memory had grabbed him. His partner's expression was one of puzzled concern. "Hey, you feeling all right? You just stopped and went pale."

"Daley, have we still got the old case file on that SDPC shuttle crash a couple of years back?" Leon asked, glancing again at the squarish depressions in the pavement nearby. "You know, the one with that stolen battlemover aboard."

"Probably, but it's likely in the archives by now," Daley replied with a shrug. "And there wasn't much to it anyway...we got closed out of the investigation, remember?"

"Yeah, but we did get some rough dimensions and specs on that thing from the wreckage the Knight Sabers left behind when they took it out, right?" Daley snorted.

"You mean before the various governmental agencies seized it and started bickering over who had salvage rights on the carcass?" Daley asked dryly. "Yeah, I think we managed to get some pictures and rough measurements that didn't get impounded and taken away. Why?"

"Just a hunch," Leon replied absently, as he resumed walking, his partner following. "Given what we've got here, I'd say we might be looking at something built on the same scale as that battlemover was."

"But we haven't got anyone to tie this one to, Leon," Daley reminded him. "The last time it was an executive getting ambitious; we had somewhere to start." The red-haired inspector shrugged, his gesture taking in the debris-strewn warehouse area. "The only thing we know for sure this time is that it didn't come from Genaros."

Leon grunted noncommittally, and Daley rolled his eyes heavenward; Leon had apparently already decided what his course of action was going to be, and not even dynamite was going to change his mind. His partner's dogged determination on an investigation was a definite asset most of the time, but it sure didn't make reasoning with him easy.

The two ADP inspectors finally reached the shredded remains of what had once been two C-55 combat boomers. A third boomer lay nearby, evidently a 33-C, if the feminine contours were any indication. A piece of tarpaulin had been flung over what was left of the body, concealing most of it; the 33-C class boomers looked human enough that seeing one dismembered tended to upset people.

"Well? What have we got?" Leon asked the forensics technician who was kneeling on the pavement, carefully probing the wreckage with gloved hands.

"Exactly what it looks like," the man replied distractedly. "Dead boomers. One appears to have been physically torn to pieces, and the other one was hit with several bursts from some kind of high-yield energy weapon; I'll have to get this debris back to the lab before I can give you a complete analysis. I haven't found any trace of the serial numbers or ID transponders yet, and somehow, I don't think I will."

"Damn it," Leon muttered under his breath as he looked around again at the wreckage.

"What did you expect, Leon?" Daley asked wryly. "GENOM factory labels with warranty stickers?"

"Yeah, well, hope springs eternal," Leon returned, a grudging smirk appearing. "You never know; we might luck out for a change someday." He glanced over at the shrouded wreckage of the third boomer. "Guess we should take a look at that one; they're a restricted model, so we might have more success in tracking down its owners."

Leaving the technician to his sifting, Leon walked over to where the destroyed boomer lay sprawled in biomechanical death, Daley trailing him as he made some notes for later follow-up on a notepad. Crouching next to the corpse, Leon reached out and grasped a corner of the tarp, peeling it away from the wreckage.

What he saw when its features were revealed turned his face grey, and tore a startled curse from him. Daley glanced up from his notepad at his partner in surprise, but the question died on his lips as his gaze followed Leon's mutely pointing hand.

Glazed aquamarine-coloured eyes stared sightlessly at the sky, set in a face that was now alabaster-pale. A wealth of long red hair was spread on the pavement in a grotesque mockery of the body sprawled in death, stuck to the asphalt in drying pools of blood-coloured nutrient fluids. The expression frozen on the features of the biomechanoid corpse was one of surprise.

"No, it can't be!" Daley turned as pale as Leon, glancing disbelievingly at his fellow officer. "That isn't..." His voice trailed off as he stared again at the familiar visage the dead boomer was wearing.

"Chief Ichinohei?" Leon's voice suddenly sounded weary and utterly drained. "I'd have to say it is." Colour flooded back to his face as his jaw clenched, and he stood abruptly, giving the tarp an angry snap that re-covered the dead boomer. "Damn it, just what the hell is going ON around here?!?!" Spinning on his heel, he jabbed a finger at a nearby forensics technician. "You! Get that goddamn equipment over here!"


Bert irritably sponged motor oil from his face with a rag as he glared at the small motor scooter standing next to him. The scooter sat innocently, unaffected by the smoldering glance he was giving it as muddy-looking oil dribbled from disconnected lubricant hoses into the pan he'd placed beneath it. Once he was certain he'd gotten the worst of the oil off his face, he reached over and picked up the oil filter from where it had fallen to the pavement, using the rag to mop up some of the waste oil that had drained from it. He grimly inspected it for a moment, then pitched it into a nearby garbage can.

The tall red-head sighed to himself as he levered himself up off his knees, and stood stretching for a few moments. As he'd promised Nene, he'd stopped by the apartment complex where she lived to take a look at her scooter. Unfortunately, a quick look at the scooter had confirmed that it was going to need an overhaul, one that couldn't be done in a parking lot.

That, of course, had made it necessary to haul it down to Raven's garage; Doc Raven had all the tools and equipment he was likely to need. At least that part of the afternoon had been straightforward, though; since starting, he'd been fighting the blasted machine every step of the way. Almost all of the parts on it that could possibly have required some kind of adjustment had turned out to have needed it. As the crowning touch, absolutely everything on the scooter that contained fluid of some kind had seen fit to spray it all over him, which had elicited some loud and colourful comments.

Bert sighed again as he watched the last of the oil drain from the scooter, and began hunting around for the replacement filter he'd selected. He was going to have to make sure he gave Nene a schedule for getting her scooter some regular maintenance. It was no wonder the poor machine had quit on her...

"So how's it going?" Doctor Raven's voice inquired dryly from behind him as he rummaged through a toolbox in search of the right wrench. "Run out of curse words yet?" Bert looked a trifle embarrassed as he looked up at the crusty old mechanic.

"Sorry about that, Doctor," he apologized with a rueful grin. "I tend to forget to keep my temper under control when I'm trying to fix something."

"It's nothing I haven't heard before," Doc Raven replied gruffly, just the faintest trace of a smile pulling at his face. "When you get to my age, you've heard most of the really good ones anyway; it's refreshing to hear some inventive swearing once in a while." The old man looked at the mostly-reassembled scooter. "You pretty much done with that?"

"I just need to get this on it," Bert held up the oil filter, "pour in a couple litres of oil, and that'll be it."

"Good," Raven replied. "The parts for the rest of that contraption you wanted put together have arrived, and I can't do it all myself." He cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Does Sylia know about this little project of yours?"

"Why should she?" Bert asked. "It's not like I'm putting anything new or experimental into a suit this time."

"No, but she does like to be kept informed about what you're doing," Raven noted dryly. "Which is something I can certainly sympathize with in your case; I'm amazed she hasn't already developed gray hair from having to deal with you sometimes."

"This is perfectly harmless," Bert waved the question away. "She won't mind."

"It's your funeral if it turns out that she does mind," Raven snorted, shaking his head. "Hurry up with that scooter then, and I'll help you finish putting it together." With that, the old mechanic turned and stomped back to the other end of the garage vehicle bays, muttering under his breath.

Bert grinned to himself, then began cheerily humming "Hurricane" as he turned back to Nene's scooter.


"I trust you have an explanation for last night's fiasco?" The question sounded mild enough, but the dire overtones in Quincy's voice were unmistakable. The craggy-faced CEO of GENOM sat impassively behind his desk, his hands folded in his lap, and waited for a reply.

Madigan stood ramrod straight in front of the desk, unable to dispel the cold, queasy feeling churning in her gut as she tried to match the Chairman's emotionless demeanor. The operation to capture Hollister had been an utter disaster, and the only positive thing in the whole mess was the fact that there was no confirmable corporate tie to the operation.

"I made an error in judgment," she admitted stoically. "I did not anticipate Hollister having military-grade hardware as backup."

"While that may indeed have been short-sighted, that was not what I was referring to," Quincy sloughed the admission off with a gesture. "There will undoubtedly be another time to deal with Mr. Hollister, and the loss of two combat boomers is inconsequential." Quincy's eyes narrowed, and a steely glint appeared in them. "I am, however, less than pleased that the boomer you selected to guide last night's operation was one of the few humanoid simulacrums with which we have managed to infiltrate the ADPolice, and the only one capable of directing them where we wish them to go. Now, not only do we no longer have that control, but the entire police force is aware that they've been infiltrated. We will be fortunate if the almost assured purge of the police departments leaves us any covert operatives at all."

Madigan was unable to keep from turning pale as she listened to the old man; there was no mistaking the anger behind the calm-seeming words, and she sought for some way to quell the storm she sensed was coming. Unfortunately, her options were exceedingly limited. However, she wasn't about to start making excuses, despite her precarious position. Quincy regarded excuses as contemptible, and trying to hide behind something like that would be the surest way to get herself exiled to some corporate backwater.

"I selected that particular boomer because it had the most advanced sensory and communication hardware," Madigan replied stoically, shouldering the blame with something akin to fatalistic resignation. "It also possessed the most advanced adaptive tactical software and AI that we have developed to date. I felt it would be the best choice for dealing with Hollister, since it could react more readily to an unexpected situation should communications become unreliable."

"You should have more carefully weighed the possible outcomes," Quincy rumbled ominously. "If you had, you would have realized that the possibility of losing our ADP plant was more deleterious to us than that of temporarily losing track of a minor player in international intrigue. You allowed your personal feelings to influence your decision," Quincy's statement had the flat crack of final judgment behind it, and Madigan winced inwardly.

"I acted according to what I thought was best for the company," Madigan replied through suddenly stiff lips, staring straight ahead. "I made as impartial a decision as I could, given the circumstances."

"Perhaps you did," Quincy cocked his head as he looked at her coldly, like a scientist examining an exotic specimen of some kind. "However, I am not fully convinced of that at the moment. You may leave now," Quincy dismissed her abruptly. "I will expect your full report on this incident on my desk by this afternoon. I will decide what duties you will resume after I have read it." Madigan bowed mechanically and turned and left, her face wooden.

Quincy swiveled his chair towards the bay window of his office as the door closed behind the chastened executive and scowled blackly, glaring out through the thick glass as the oblivious city below continued on about its business.


Nene sat staring blankly at her video terminal, watching data scroll past on the screen but not really comprehending what she was doing. Luckily, she'd performed this particular job enough times that she could do it automatically without having to devote a lot of thought to the task. That was a definite asset, since she was still in something of a state of shock over the revelation that the former Chief Inspector of the ADPolice had been a boomer.

The news had hit the staff of the ADPolice like a bombshell, throwing most people into a state of stunned confusion. There were several people who were just sitting at their desks, unable to function as they tried to figure out just what the implications were going to be. Several others had abruptly decided that they didn't feel well, and taken the remainder of the day off as a result. Nene didn't have that particular option available, but luckily her shift was nearly over for the day...another few minutes, and she'd be able to go home and hopefully relax.

Relax. Her lips twisted into a rueful and slightly bitter smile at that thought; given the implications of the day's events, she doubted she'd be able to relax as much as she'd like to. The first thing she was going to have to do when she got home was notify Sylia of what had happened; the phony ADP chief was something the leader of the Knight Sabers needed to know about, and right now, Nene was too paranoid to either try sneaking in a call to Sylia from the station or to find an isolated phone booth somewhere. How did she know there weren't other GENOM plants around the station watching? Could they have figured out...?

The young red-headed woman quickly strangled off the unwelcome and slightly hysterical thoughts before they could cause any kind of emotional paralysis. She could fall to pieces after she got home, not before. One thought, however, did keep resurfacing, despite her attempts to keep it suppressed: just how well would her own cover records hold up in the intensive internal investigation that was sure to descend on the ADP?

And what would she do if they found out she was one of the Knight Sabers?



Bert's eyes snapped open as something suddenly roused him from what had been a rather pleasant dream. He lay still for a moment as his eyes became accustomed to the dim light of the bedroom, listening intently. He didn't hear anything out of the ordinary, so he glanced over at the alarm clock.

As he'd half-suspected, the alarm was due to go off in another ten minutes, and somehow his mind had been keeping track of the time and woken him up. It was a knack he'd found useful from time to time, and it had occasionally saved him from being late to various appointments. Reaching out carefully, he switched off the alarm.

Priss shifted in bed next to him, murmuring something inaudible in her sleep. One of her arms was around his waist, and her grip on him tightened possessively as he tried sliding out of her grasp to get out of bed. Her breathing indicated that she was still sound asleep, and he didn't want to wake her up; Priss could best be described as a surly riser in the mornings, and he'd learned fairly quickly that letting her sleep in was the wisest course. The threatened shooting of his alarm clock one morning had convinced him of that.

Besides, waking her up now would spoil what he had planned.

He considered his problem for a moment, then hit upon a solution. Carefully, he peeled back the blankets from around her shoulders, pulling the edges down to about her waist. Then he waited patiently.

As he'd figured, after a few moments of her skin being exposed to the cool air of the room, Priss shivered slightly. Her hands fumbled for the blankets, found them, and then yanked them firmly up to around her chin as she rolled over and snuggled deeper into the warmth of the bed. After a moment, her breathing again evened out into that of someone sleeping deeply.

Bert grinned to himself and carefully eased himself out of the bed. Silently, he located his clothes and pulled them on. Padding quietly across the carpeting to the door, he paused for a moment, listening intently as he glanced back at the bed. Priss slumbered on, still oblivious to everything else. He quietly slid the door open a crack, then slipped through, gently closing it behind him.

Several quick strides carried him across the apartment to where his coat and hat had been flung the night before. He slapped on the hat, and shoved an arm through a sleeve as he scooped his running shoes off the floor with his other hand. When he had everything on and was finally ready to leave, he quietly eased his way out of the apartment and ghosted down the hallway towards the stairs to the lower levels, an anticipatory grin spreading across his face.


Priss rolled over in the bed, squinting blearily at the clock on the small table next to the bed. She had to blink her eyes a few times, and scrub at them a bit with one hand before they grudgingly focused on the LED display: 8:37 AM. She sighed in disgust, and rolled over, flouncing around in the blankets in an attempt to get comfortable so that she could drop back into the warm, comforting cradle of sleep.

It didn't work.

The brown-haired woman lay there for a while, staring resignedly at the ceiling. She hadn't thought that being able to sleep in on this day, of all days, would be too much to ask, but evidently it was. She sighed again, then fought her way free of the entangling blankets; somehow, she'd managed to almost cocoon herself in them. Standing up, she stretched luxuriantly, running her hands through her hair, which had become a hopelessly snarled mess during the night.

She was dimly aware of the fact that her lover hadn't been in bed when she'd woken up, but she was used to him being up before her. She didn't know why he bothered, really; he hated getting up early almost as much as she did. He was likely in the kitchen nursing a cup of tea, and sulking over the fact that one or two cups in the morning was all he was allowed at the moment. A small smile played about her lips as she imagined him grousing about that. Stifling another yawn, she hunted around for some clothes.

Priss padded barefoot out to the kitchen area as she pulled on one of Bert's old sweaters. He wasn't there, however. It didn't look like the kitchen had been used at all, in fact, and that in itself was strange. If there was one meal he absolutely never missed, it was breakfast.

She frowned to herself as she looked around at the apartment, absently scratching her head. No sign of Bert, and no note explaining where he'd gone. She scowled suddenly; if he'd forgotten that she had today off and had gone to work as a result, then he was in deep shit. They weren't able to get very many opportunities to spend an entire day together, and she'd been looking forward to it. If he'd forgotten, she was going to kick his ass up between his ears for him as a reminder. Feeling somewhat better for having promised herself that, Priss headed off to the bathroom.

A long, soothing hot shower restored her equilibrium somewhat, and left her feeling refreshed. As she toweled her hair dry and then combed it, she considered her options for the day. She could pick up some breakfast on the way down to the archery range, or wait until she'd located him, and then make him pay for a meal somewhere as reparation for being absent-minded. She grinned to herself and decided on the latter was the more fun alternative, after all.

She hummed a few bars of music to herself as she pulled on her clothes, a sleeveless red bike jumpsuit with white stripes running up the outside seams of the legs and a short blue leather vest to go over top. After some scrounging around the apartment, she found where she'd pitched her elbow pads - better safe than sorry, after all - and pulled them on. Scooping up her gloves from where they'd been dropped, she left the apartment and headed off to the lower garage levels.

An extremely outraged howl came from the depths of the building's basement a few short minutes later.


Sylia turned a page of the morning newspaper, her brown eyes thoughtfully scanning the paragraphs of text as she sipped a cup of tea. After several minutes of quiet reading, she closed the paper, folding it and setting it aside as she gazed out the bay window of her apartment at the teeming city beyond.

The dark-haired woman reveled in the peace and quiet of the morning for a few moments, picking up her teacup and walking over to the window. Sylia was dressed fairly casually, wearing slacks and a faded-looking blouse instead of her usual neat businesslike attire. With Sylvie to look after the bulk of running the store, she'd been able to relax a bit and concentrate on her own Knight Saber-related research and study, and that didn't require dressing to the nines every day.

The peace and tranquillity of the morning was irrevocably shattered by somebody abruptly hammering on the door to her apartment. Sylia jumped, startled, and then sighed to herself; she should've known it wouldn't last.

"SYLIAAA!!!" Priss's voice howled from the other side of the door. "SOME BASTARD STOLE MY MOTORCYCLE FROM THE GARAGE!!!"

A frown furrowed Sylia's brow as she quickly set her cup aside, striding rapidly to the door of her apartment, even as a second fusillade of raucous knocking battered at the heavy panel. Unlocking it, she pulled open the door just as Priss was raising a fist to pound the door again.

To say Priss looked upset would have been like calling GENOM Tower merely 'big'; it would've been an understatement of almost epic proportions. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were almost glowing with rage. Her hair was in disarray, and she was breathing heavily, as if she'd run up all of the stairs to get to the penthouse level. Sylia took another look at Priss and decided that she was certainly furious enough to have done just that. She was faintly amazed that the singer wasn't breathing fire and brimstone.

"Call the cops, Sylia," Priss said shortly, in a somewhat more normal tone of voice as she shoved her way past Sylia into the apartment. "Your bloody basement got robbed...!!" Sylia quickly headed her off before she could explode again.

"Good morning to you too, Priss. Would you care to join me in a cup of tea?"

Priss ignored her, continuing her rant. "They took my bike. I can't find the damn thing ANYWHERE, and I KNOW where I parked it yesterday!!" Her voice started to rise again, and Sylia sighed to herself. So much for the quiet morning.

"That's impossible, Priss," she told the younger woman calmly. "The minute anyone tries to force the doors, they would set off all kinds of alarms. Are you sure it's missing?"

"YES I'M SURE!!!" Priss bellowed, rounding angrily on Sylia, then caught herself. "Sorry," she apologized a moment later through gritted teeth, taking a couple of deep breaths. "I searched the entire garage from end to end first..."

Probably more in the hope that she was going to find a culprit to strangle, Sylia mused to herself as she listened, managing to keep her expression gravely serious.

"....and I even looked under all the friggin' tarps, but it's not there. It's gone. And that means somebody stole the damn thing, regardless of your alarms."

"Well, there's an easy way to check that," Sylia noted. "We'll check the surveillance camera footage."

"You have cameras in the basement?"

"Of course," Sylia replied simply, shrugging as if it should have been obvious. "Some of the vehicles down there are expensive, not to mention the fact that if somebody were to get into the basement, they might stumble onto something they weren't supposed to." She turned, beckoning to the other woman. "Let's go take a look at the video footage."

It was a fairly quiet elevator ride as the two women descended to the lower levels of the building. Sylia maintained her aura of calm, meanwhile watching Priss continue to do a slow burn while mentally plotting elaborate revenge on whatever thief had absconded with her bike.

"I'm sorry I yelled at you," Priss managed to say after a couple more minutes. "I shouldn't have done that; it's not your fault my bike went missing."

"That's all right," Sylia replied mildly, glancing over at her. "I can understand how you'd be upset at such a discovery." Priss grunted by way of reply, and sank back into uncommunicative ire.

The elevator bell chimed softly, and the doors rolled open. Sylia led the way down the hallway to a door locked with an electronic keypad. Punching in an access code, she opened the door and entered the room, flicking on the light switch. Priss followed her in as the lights came on, bathing the room with pale fluorescent light.

The entire far wall of the room was filled with video screens, and a desk console sat in front of the banks of monitors. Each monitor showed a flickering picture of some location somewhere in the building, from the storefront of the 'Silky Doll' to the rooftop solar panels. There were even a couple of cameras evidently devoted to watching the alleyways across the street from the building. Sylia seated herself in the chair behind the desk, and tabbed a few keys on the console. A central screen blacked out, then came up with an on-screen menu.

"Where exactly did you leave your bike last night?" Sylia asked, looking up at Priss.

"What? Oh, uh...the parking spaces near the basement stairs," Priss replied, overcoming her astonishment at the huge array of monitors. It was somehow eerie to know she'd been watched and recorded by emotionless cameras anytime she'd been around the building.

"All right, that would be camera A-23 then," Sylia said, pressing another switch. "What time did you park it?"

"I think it was around nine o'clock," Priss squinted at the screen as she tried remembering. "I didn't really look at the time."

"We'll start from there and move back if we have to," Sylia replied. The central screen lit up with a picture of several parking spaces, some empty and some occupied by vehicles, near a metal-clad doorway set in a cement wall. A flashing digital time readout glowed in the lower corner of the screen and then began rolling at high speed, the minutes and seconds expanding into hours.

The two women watched wordlessly as images flickered by, moving in oddly comic high-speed jerkiness. They watched as a red motorbike striped with blue, and white pulled into a partially empty slot between two vans; a dark blue motorcycle was parked at the back of the space, right next to the wall. A woman climbed off the bike, pulling off her helmet and tossing her head to settle her hair back into place. She hooked the helmet over the handlebars, unzipped her jacket, and then left the garage, exiting through the metal door to the stairs.

The next few hours blurred past in a high-speed spooling of the tape, taking a few minutes at the most. The vehicles in the garage remained unmolested during that time, and Priss began to fidget irritably. Her arms were tightly folded across her chest as if she was trying to contain an eruption of some kind, and the fingers of one hand began tapping impatiently on her arm. Well, she fumed to herself, this idea certainly wasn't...

"There," Sylia's voice caught her attention, and her gaze snapped to the screen in time to see what looked like a cube van backing up to position itself near the parking space where Priss's bike was. As the two women watched, a man wearing a dark coat walked around from the far side of the van and opened the back door, extending a loading ramp from the van to the garage floor. Then he walked over to the red motorcycle, shoved it off of its kickstand, and began pushing the machine towards the back of the van.

"Can you magnify that?" Priss asked, squinting balefully at the screen as the man began shoving her bike up the loading ramp into the van. "I can't make out who it is."

"Certainly," Sylia touched another button, and the screen zoomed in on the culprit.

Priss's jaw dropped as she recognized a certain red-haired individual with whom she had good reason to be very familiar.

"Well," Sylia remarked mildly into the sudden flabbergasted silence of the room, "it would seem that somebody did take your bike. Was it scheduled for some maintenance perhaps?"

"I'm...I...he's..." Priss was unable to reply coherently, and remained staring in stunned disbelief as the image of Bert shoved her bike into the back of the van, and disappeared inside the vehicle with it for a few moments. Then he hopped out of the van, raised the ramp, and closed the van doors.

Disbelief began to give way to outrage as the van moved out of the viewing field of the camera. Just what the hell did he think he was doing?! What possible reason could he have had for taking her bike?! He should've known better than to just take off with it, and she grimly promised herself that she was going to educate him in that fact. Very thoroughly.

Sylia watched Priss's emotional metamorphosis without comment, wondering at the same time if she should maybe call Anri and have the young woman standing by with her medical supplies. As she considered that, a flicker of motion on one of the other active monitors caught her eye: a tall man in a dark coat was walking down a basement hallway, pulling off a hat as he went and revealing an unmistakable thatch of red hair. She started to speak, but the loud bang of the door to the room announced that Priss had already noticed the video feed, and was on her way to wring some answers out of her lover.

After another couple of moments of thoughtful consideration, Sylia switched off the viewing screens, turned out the lights, and left the room, making sure the door locked behind her. Then the leader of the Knight Sabers returned to her apartment for another cup of tea.

There were some things, after all, that went above and beyond the call of duty as leader of the Knight Sabers, and this was very definitely one of them.


Bert let the door to the corridor swing closed behind him as he began shucking his jacket, tossing it over the arm of a nearby chair, along with his hat. A very self-satisfied grin wreathed his face as he glanced at the door to the bedroom, deciding that it was time to wake the sleeping beauty up so that they could get on with the day's plans. He'd started to raise his voice to call out towards the bedroom, when the door to the apartment slammed open with a bang somehow reminiscent of the crack of doom.

Startled, the tall red head turned slightly, and found himself confronted by a very angry-looking Priss. The narrow-eyed glare she was giving him could've melted hardsuit armourplate at ten paces, and her teeth were clenched in an apparent effort to keep from blowing up entirely. Even her hair seemed to crackle angrily.

"Uh, hi, Priss," Bert started cautiously. "You're up early this morning..."

"You!!" Priss spat, stabbing a finger at him as he stared at her in surprise. Her mouth worked for a moment before she was able to continue speaking. "Where the hell did you go this morning? And where's my goddamn motorcycle!?"

"Uh, Priss, now wait a second...Look, really, I can explain..." Bert backed away from her as she advanced, eyes glittering, and her hands flexing ominously. The attractive, but irate rock singer obviously wasn't listening to his attempts to explain.

"WHAT did you DO with my BIKE, you BASTARD?!?!" she snarled again as she lunged for him, hands outstretched and evidently aimed for his throat.

The tall red-head adroitly ducked and dodged aside, not wanting to get strangled before he had a chance to explain. Priss was unable to stop her forward momentum in time and hit the back of the couch, almost diving over it into the cushions on the other side. Bert took advantage of her momentary predicament, and fled out the door into the hallway. After a split second of decision, he began running hard for the stairs at the far end of the hallway that led down to the vehicle garage on the next basement level.

"Come back here, you cowardly slime!!" The enraged howl that followed after him gave wings to his feet, especially as he heard the sounds of pursuit. At the moment, he doubted that she was going to give him a chance to explain.

"Note to self," he panted under his breath to himself as he hit the door to the stairs, slamming it open as he sprinted through and began leaping down the stairs three at a time. "Next time, don't plan surprises for Priss that involve her motorcycle." He'd known that she put a lot of value on her bike, but he hadn't quite counted on her reaction to its temporary disappearance being this extreme. If he survived, he was going to make damn sure he remembered that fact for future reference. If he survived...

He finally reached the bottom step, and half-fell, half-lunged through the door into the vehicle garage as the sounds of pursuing feet clattered down the stairs after him. Dire retribution wasn't far behind.

"I am going to strangle him. Very, very slowly," Priss growled under her breath as she wrenched open the door to the sub-basement garage and stalked through. She cast a burning gaze around the cavernous, dimly-lit expanse of the basement, but didn't see anything except vehicles. There were some non-descript cars, a few cube vans and trucks, and the tractor trailer that occasionally served as a mobile HQ on Knight Saber missions all sitting innocently in the darkness, but nothing else.

She couldn't hear anything either; except for the echoing footsteps her boots were making on the concrete floor, there was no other noise. Since Bert had been running from her only moments before, presumably for his life, that meant he'd hidden somewhere nearby.

A smug, predatory grin crept across her face as she began cautiously moving down one row of vehicles, and she flexed her hands in anticipation of wrapping them around his neck. She was going to take great pleasure in getting some answers out of him when she found him. Priss walked further along the row of vehicle bays, her intent gaze probing into the shadows around the trucks, under the cars, behind the motorcycles...

She stopped abruptly. Motorcycles? There'd only been one bike down here before...that had been what had sent her storming off to Sylia saying her bike had been stolen. Turning slowly, she walked over to the bike that had not been there earlier: a sleek, but powerful-looking machine, painted red with white and blue stripes. It was, of course, obviously a bike built for racing.

Priss ran a hand along the gas tank, her eyes hungrily devouring the lines of the racing cycle. It looked almost exactly like her old bike, but there were a few differences evident, mostly around the engine from what she could see. The bike's shocks were a bit heavier as well, evidently built for withstanding extra stress. The whole machine gleamed with the luster of newness, even in the dim lighting of the garage.

Longing to ride the bike suddenly assailed her, and she again caressed the motorcycle's gas tank. As she did so, she finally noticed the red bow that was sitting at the top corner of the bike's faring. As she stared at it, a rather embarrassing realization came over her. Her cheeks crimsoned as she looked around the garage again.

"Okay, Bert," she called into the echoing basement, trying her best to sound reasonable. "You can come out now." She didn't receive a reply, and sighed audibly. "Look, I'm sorry I flipped out on you," she tried. "Would you please get out here?"

"You don't have your gun, do you?" came the wary reply, echoing eerily in the darkness.

"Oh, just get out here!" Priss retorted. "I promise I won't shoot you or anything."

"Can I have that in writing?"

"Bert! Quit cowering in the shadows and get out here!" Priss said, exasperated. "I said I'm sorry!" Movement in the darkness resolved into Bert's familiar form, moving slowly towards her. There was a wary look in his eyes as he came up to her.

"Why didn't you say anything about this earlier?" she asked simply, jerking a thumb at the new bike, then placing her hands on her hips as she looked up at him questioningly.

"I tried," he replied dryly. "You weren't listening." Priss flushed, then glared at him.

"I meant, why didn't you tell me what you were doing BEFORE you kidnapped my bike?!" she snapped peevishly. "I came down to go for a ride this morning, and it was missing. Can you blame me for being pissed off? I thought somebody had stolen the damn thing!!"

"Well you weren't supposed to get up before noon!" he retorted defensively. "You've never gotten up early on any other day, so I was hoping that I'd be back with the new bike before you were finally awake. And it's a little difficult to make something a surprise if you ask about it beforehand!!"

"Well you still could' hell, never mind," Priss threw her hands in the air exasperatedly. "There's no point in arguing about it now."

"You feeling all right?" he queried, a look of concern crossing his face. "That actually sounded like reason."

Priss gave him a flat stare that spoke eloquently of painful retribution for the remark. He grinned boyishly at her, then gestured towards the new bike.

"Well, now that you're not going to kill me..."

"Make more smartass remarks like that last one, and I might," Priss muttered, not quite under her breath. He pretended not to hear her, and kept talking.

"...would you like to take a closer look at your new baby over there?" She nodded, and turned back to the bike as he walked around to the other side of it.

"You've probably already noticed that it's got some similarities to your old bike," Bert noted, waving at the tachometer, speedometer, and other instrumentation nestled behind the faring shell. "Doc Raven figured you wouldn't want to have to get used to the feel of a new bike, so we stuck as closely as possible to the original design for the frame and the like, but we did have to change a few things here and there to get everything to fit."

"What exactly did you add?" Priss asked, eyeing him suspiciously as she suddenly remembered his propensity for adding all kinds of 'nifty' (and in her mind, unnecessary) gadgets to whatever he happened to build. If it had just been Pops that had worked on the bike, she wouldn't have had any reservations; Doc Raven always stuck to the specs for something. Bert grinned at her again, evidently divining the path her thoughts were taking.

"Nothing exotic," he soothed. "The engine took up some extra space with the enhancements Doctor Raven added to it, and we had to beef up the suspension a bit. As for the brakes..."

"How much extra power has it got?" Priss interrupted him, unable to keep a faintly hungry look from showing.

"Oh, only about twenty percent," he replied blandly, grinning as Priss sucked in a sharp breath, again running a hand down the bike's gas tank. "Not only that, but we managed to get about fifteen percent better fuel economy than the last one could achieve."

"All right!!" There was no concealing the eagerness in her eyes now; she definitely couldn't wait to get the bike out on the highway.

"We also improved the braking efficiency," he put in, "since you'll undoubtedly have to stop at the radar traps you'll be running through."

"Now look here, you," Priss growled, her gaze narrowing as she pointed a finger at him. "That is not fair..."

"Mind you, I guess if you use this, you won't get stopped quite as often, will you?" he added, reaching down beside the bike and pulling a motorcycle helmet from somewhere that she couldn't see. It looked like her usual bike helmet, except that the visor was darkly tinted.

"I don't see how wearing a helmet is going to keep the cops off my ass," she stated, annoyed.

"Put it on and see," Bert directed, proffering it with a barely concealed Cheshire cat-like grin. "You might be surprised."

Priss sighed, her expression becoming that of someone about to be martyred as she reached out and took the helmet from him. She held the helmet in one hand for a moment as she swept her hair back over her shoulders, then carefully slid it onto her head. Nothing happened immediately; the helmet felt like any other motorcycle helmet, and the dark tint to the visor was making it hard to see anything in the gloom of the garage.

"Well?" she demanded sourly. "I can't see anything; the damn visor's too dark."

"How about now?" he asked, reaching out and pressing a switch concealed somewhere on the motorcycle's instrument panel.

Priss's field of vision was filled with a faint green luminescence, and she found that she could see most of the vehicles in the garage when she looked around, unhindered by the cloaking shadows that normally filled the basement garage. Along the bottom of the visor display was a small readout labeled "RADAR"; the indicator bar wasn't flashing, though.

"Well?" Bert's voice prodded her, and she glanced over to see that he was sporting a very smug and self-satisfied grin. "What do you think?"

"I think you're enjoying this entirely too much," Priss responded dryly. "You put radar detectors on my bike and a heads-up display in my helmet?"

"And the lady wins the prize," Bert's grin got wider. "I figured you might appreciate advance warning of impending traffic fines."

"I can still decide to get you back for this morning, buster, so don't push your luck," Priss threatened him. Bert chuckled, and then walked around the bike to stand in front of her as she pulled off her helmet.

"So," he started, reaching out and gently brushing some stray hairs out of her face, "can I assume that you like the bike?"

"I'll reserve judgment on that score until I've ridden it," Priss replied loftily, but she was unable to keep a wry smile from appearing a moment later. "Oh all right, I like it. Happy now?"

"Oh, moderately," he said blandly. "There's one other thing that's supposed to go with it, though."

"What's that?" Priss looked around. "You forgot the detachable weapon pods?" Bert laughed out loud at that, then quickly got himself back under control.

"I know better than to give you something to try hunting boomers with," he grinned crookedly at her. "No, it's something a bit simpler, not to mention safer, than that," he told her. "Hold still for a moment."

"Hold still? What...?" Priss's voice cut off as he leaned down and gave her a very passionate kiss on the lips while at the same time gathering her closer in his arms. Her own arms slid around him after a moment, and the garage became very silent for a few minutes.

"Happy birthday, Priss," he told her warmly as they finally separated for a breath or two. "Thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?"

"The thought had occurred to me," she admitted reluctantly, then gave him a mock-angry glare. "But you'd better not surprise me the same way the next time; I'm still not certain if I've forgiven you for that yet."

"Guess I'll have to work on that then," he noted lightly, quickly kissing her again before she could respond.


Failure. The mere thought of the word brought the bitter taste of bile to Kate Madigan's mouth. The fact that it had been orchestrated, however indirectly, by Hollister's hands only made the thought of it even more sour than it already was. Burning rage boiled up from the dark recesses of her soul where she normally kept it hidden, again threatening to overwhelm her self-control. She fought it off with an effort.

Madigan spun angrily away from the window of her apartment, again pacing what had become her cage for the last few days. Frustration, worry, anger, and the occasional splash of panic frothed with malicious glee in her mind as she stalked her spacious apartment, mentally clawing the walls. The silence from Quincy's office in the days since the disastrous capture operation had been oppressive; he hadn't even acknowledged receipt of her report on the affair.

The thought of having incurred his displeasure or, even more disconcerting, his wrath, was almost more than she could stand. There was a myriad of ways he could punish her perceived incompetence, and contemplating any of the possibilities didn't exactly contribute to peace of mind.

She'd spent almost every moment since submitting her report going over her actions and mentally lashing herself for perceived lapses in judgment, taking a break from that every so often to worry about whether or not she'd just managed to eliminate her career with the company. If she had, Kate had no illusions about what would likely happen; she knew too much to just be let go. She'd in all likelihood end up as a statistic in GENOM's records somewhere as the unfortunate victim of a boomer or equipment malfunction.

She shivered again, remembering the utterly cold gaze the Chairman had been favouring her with as he'd taken her to task for her actions. There hadn't been a hint of mercy, or even leniency, in his eyes. It had been the flat, chilling look one customarily associated with sharks.

By itself, Quincy's displeasure with her actions would have been bad enough, but in this particular case, by now there were undoubtedly rumours buzzing through the corporation about her fate. Everyone who'd been in the control room with her knew what had happened; she had no doubts that the story would get out, and her failure would become magnified beyond reality in the process.

If the operation had succeeded, that would've been the end of it. Because it had failed, there were going to be all kinds of ambitious sycophants coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to curry favour with Quincy. With her temporarily out of the picture, they'd be trying to make up for lost ground. She hadn't made any friends in her climb to become Quincy's second-in-command, and they'd all be trying their level best to oust her completely.

Kate ran her hands through disheveled-looking hair in an unconscious gesture of nervousness that had become an unfortunate habit lately. Her hair matched the rest of her appearance, though: the normally immaculate executive had dark circles under her eyes from a combination of stress and inadequate sleep, and her clothes were wrinkled, without their usual starched, neat appearance. She hadn't been sleeping well lately, and was so driven to distraction that her usual habits had all but disintegrated.

It was rarely when Madigan found herself unable to think of a course of action to pursue, but she found herself in that situation now. Being effectively suspended had cut off her usual resources, which meant trying to find Hollister and undo some of the damage that had been done was out of the question. She couldn't investigate by herself, either; she didn't really have a network of her own contacts. Before, she'd always relied on GENOM's reputation for helping her to 'persuade' people that assisting her was in their own best interests. The final blow was that given her current predicament, the few allies she had within the corporation itself would not risk their own positions to help her.

It was an extremely frustrating position to find herself in. She was totally powerless, and she was finding out just how unpleasant it really was. The thought briefly flitted across her mind that she now probably had an idea of what the average person felt like. Kate didn't particularly care for that bit of enlightenment.

With a loud sigh, she resumed agitatedly pacing her apartment. There had to be something she could do, some option she'd missed...


Leon took a noisy slurp of coffee from the styrofoam cup he was holding, staring broodingly across the office. It was abnormally quiet, even for a late afternoon shift. Everyone in the office was going about their duties as usual, but without much in the way of conversation. The routine boomer calls they normally had to deal with seemed to have evaporated, adding to the deathly quiet. It reminded him all to much of the calm before a storm, and he didn't like it.

Leon scowled at the file folder on his desktop as he took another slug of coffee. He'd finished his rather meagre report on the boomer incident on the MegaTokyo docks, but it had still left more questions unanswered than it had solved, and it also was leaving a very foul taste in his mouth. The ADP hadn't had much luck in terms of public relations over the years, and the news that a covert boomer from some organization had infiltrated ranks, particularly the senior ranks, wasn't going to make things any better. It hadn't hit the media networks yet, but it was only a matter of time before a leak was sprung somewhere.

The tall inspector's gaze lifted to the vacant office across the open expanse of the Investigation Division, and the armed officer standing in front of the door, which had been sealed with yellow barrier tape. The Chief Inspector's office had been closed off within an hour of the news reaching the upper brass of the department, and some special investigators from Internal Affairs had already sifted the office for any possible clues they could find.

All kinds of rumours were circulating about what had been found, but Leon didn't think they'd found anything; he'd seen the faces of the departing investigators, and they'd had the frustrated look of men who'd been thwarted in something.

He doubted they were going to find much, either; anyone in the upper echelons of command who'd had any connection whatsoever with the late Chief's appointment were doing their best to distance themselves from the affair. He'd already personally encountered the stonewalling going on when he'd tried to satisfy his own investigative instincts for his report, although he had his own ideas on just who had been pulling the strings for the appointment. Any proof of corporate complicity remained as ephemeral as ever, unfortunately.

"Inspector Leon McNichol?" A shadow falling across his desk accompanied the voice, drawing him away from his ruminations. Leon squinted up at the newcomer, an older, medium-height man with a shock of receding sandy brown hair that was turning grey at the temples, and a graying goatee. He was dressed nondescriptly, a trenchcoat over a light-coloured business suit. A clear and direct gaze met his, and Leon had a sudden sense of the drive behind that gaze. This man was someone to be reckoned with...whoever he was.

"That's me," Leon replied, rising from his chair. "What can I do for you?"

"My name's Aramaki," the man introduced himself, extending a hand. "I'm with Internal Affairs, and currently acting as interim Chief Inspector of the ADP."

"What?!" Leon's froze, his hand freezing a few inches from the other man's as he stared at Aramaki. "What did you say?!"

"I said I'm the acting Chief Inspector...for the moment," Aramaki added, almost as an afterthought. A rueful grin appeared a moment later. "Actually, I was also quite happily retired until yesterday, but I got dragooned into the job."

"Uh, yeah, right." Leon recovered enough to follow through on shaking hands with Aramaki, and then his natural suspicious tendencies began to kick in. "I didn't think they could force someone out of retirement," he noted.

"Some of us never really leave the public service," Aramaki replied cryptically, a small smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "However, I didn't particularly mind being drafted in this particular case. If you don't mind an outside observer's opinion, I'd say you've got problems."

"Thanks a lot," Leon replied, dryness and disgust mixing in his voice. "Mind telling me something I didn't already know?"

"They aren't totally unresolvable problems," Aramaki replied, "but it will depend in large part on assembling the right people to help you."

"Help ME? Help me wha...?" Leon backed off a step, his expression becoming alarmed as he waved a hand in a negative gesture. "Oh nonono...oh no you don't. No. No way. Never. I am not..."

"You're one of the most senior officers left on the force, Leon," Aramaki remarked mildly. "If it weren't for your unfortunate habit of sticking your foot into your mouth along with whatever bureaucratic condiments happen to be handy, you'd probably already have a higher rank than you do now. Your record is solid, and you've got good instincts. I need those now, not excuses; I can't single-handedly rebuild the ADP. I need good men to help with that rebuilding."

"I'm not cut out for..."

"You're a good cop," Aramaki continued to speak in a calm, level tone, overriding Leon's attempts at refusal. "You've proven time and again that you're not willing to stand idly by and let the ADP go to hell, and you've also proven that you're more than just some timeserver. You're one of the few who gives a damn about what goes on out there, and has fought to change that for the better. Are you telling me that all that was a lie? Are you willing to just walk away from everything you've dedicated your life to just because you're afraid of a little more responsibility?"

"Damn you," Leon swore at Aramaki, but without much rancor behind it. "Damn you all to hell." He'd just been neatly skewered with his sense of duty, and he didn't like it. Knowing the old man was more or less right didn't make it any easier to handle. "You goddamn manipulative, conniving, old..." he started to splutter, needing a sudden outlet for his frustration.

"May I take that as acceptance, then?" Aramaki asked blandly, only his eyes showing sly amusement.

"Yes, damn you," Leon eyed Aramaki sourly. "What did you want me to do?"

"Nothing yet; we're still screening the staff of the ADP at this point," Aramaki told him. "By the end of the week we'll have identified any other infiltrators that might be in the force. When we're done, I want you to draw on your knowledge of your co-workers and pick about three or four other officers, anyone with solid instincts and experience. Try and get a range of skills at the same time, though."

"I'll give it some thought," Leon promised. "Anything else?"

"Possibly," Aramaki gave Leon a thoughtful glance before continuing. "I'm sure you have some of your own street contacts from your years on the force," the old man told him, "so I'd like you to check with ones you can trust, and see if you can find any good hackers."

"Hackers?" Leon frowned. "What do you need hackers for?"

"Hacking, naturally," Aramaki smiled, then his expression soured. "We've found some encrypted files stored in the ADP databases, and we think they were put there by the late Chief Inspector. We can't touch a lot of them; whatever was used is just too good for our technicians to break at the moment. We're stumped, frankly, and while I'd prefer to keep this internal, we're having problems finding anyone who can do it."

"I think I might know someone who could help," Leon said after a moment of contemplation. "Let me talk to her about it first, though, before you start getting your hopes up too high."



"Look, I promise you, nothing will happen, okay?" Linna repeated for what felt like the thousandth time. "I'll keep a very close eye on everyone, so just stop worrying and beat it so I can get everything ready, okay?!" She valiantly resisted the urge to claw her hair in frustration.

"I just wanted to know what you're planning on cooking, that's all," Bert replied in a wounded tone, glancing at the collection of food-filled shopping bags that had been crammed onto all of the available counter space in his small kitchenette.

"Dinner!" she snapped testily. "What are you trying to do, gauge the explosive potential of the ingredients or something?!" Her eyes narrowed dangerously as he gave a guilty start. "Why you....get out!! You're just going to be in the way!!"

"Look, Linna, I didn't mean..."

"Out. NOW," Linna told him shortly. "Or else I'll see to it that everything YOU get tonight will be laced with enough wasabi to melt your hardsuit."

"All right, all right, no need to be nasty about it," he grumbled.

"Don't you have to go and distract Sylia for a couple of hours?" Linna asked pointedly as she rummaged around in one of the bags. "Concentrate on that, and stop worrying so much."

"I'm going, I'm going," he sighed, turning and heading for the door. "Just don't let your 'assistants' ruin my kitchen."

"Oh, come on; what could possibly go wrong?" Linna said, looking at him with an absolutely innocent expression on her face. She grinned to herself as he left, roughly slamming the door in a wordless response to her question, not even bothering to look back.


Quincy sighed inwardly as he steepled his fingers in front of his impassive face, his elbows balanced on the arms of his chair as he leaned back in it. Across the desk from him, some minor executive droned on about the benefits that would accrue to GENOM if the company were to fund a development project that he'd come up with. He didn't often have to listen to pitches from the various business analysts employed by the corporation, but some of it was unavoidable, especially for certain kinds of projects.

Although Quincy's disconcerting glower never wavered from the bureaucratic drone in front of him, his mind was elsewhere. It certainly didn't need to be present for this particular proposal; fifteen minutes into the presentation, Quincy had been able to see it was a non-viable enterprise.

In a way, it was depressing. Very few of the executives within the corporation took the long view, planning for the future. Almost ninety percent of the proposals that passed over Quincy's desk did not have the corporation's well-being in mind, just the well-being of the originator of the documents. They were always poorly planned, and left the company open to excessive risk. That was unacceptable.

There were some executives who were able to put the good of the company above their own, and keep their greed in check. They were rare, but they could be found in many of the company's lower echelons. Madigan had been one such executive that he'd had great hopes for; she was cool, efficient, very perceptive, and ruthless. At the same time, she was one of the few who weren't trying to either oust him, or take advantage of her position in order to skim a few hundred thousand yen here and there. Yes, he'd had great hopes for was a shame that she'd been unable to put aside her personal prejudices in the Hollister matter.

He was fairly certain she wouldn't make that particular mistake again. He was sure of that after watching her stew in her own juices in the days since he'd suspended her from her usual duties. Remaining silent and refusing to give her any kind of indication as to her fate had worked far better than any kind of formal and official reprimand could have. He knew her psyche almost better than she did. Given her knowledge of how Quincy operated, he knew she'd slowly sink into a mire of self-recriminations and fear, dreading the inevitable reprisal that always seemed to follow failures.

Quincy almost smiled. It had worked exactly as he'd known it would. When he finally deigned to summon her before him again, she'd be very eager to please him, seeking some way to redeem her performance in that botched capture attempt. It had been interesting watching her pace her cage, testing the limits of the restrictions imposed on her. He'd even managed to find out who she considered her 'allies' in the company. Her faith in at least two lower executives was misplaced, but she'd eventually find that out for herself.

Patience was the key, the craggy-faced CEO mused to himself. If you waited long enough, eventually an opening would appear in an opponent's defenses, and then they were yours. He'd seen it demonstrated time and time again in the cutthroat world of the corporate boardroom, and in the day-to-day operations of the company. Someday, perhaps, Madigan would realize it as well.

That was one of the reasons he hadn't particularly worried about Hollister: the man was a gnat, albeit an annoying one. Sooner or later, his arrogance in assuming he was untouchable because he operated a 'shadow corporation' beyond the law would prove his undoing. There were already intimations that he'd suffered some setbacks, and that meant that somewhere, someone had been careless. Eventually, he'd make one careless mistake too many.

It was the same rationale he'd been using for the problem of the Knight Sabers. Sooner or later, one of their number would make a misstep of some kind, and then he'd have a lever to root them out. Although it had appeared at times that he'd been actively trying to eradicate them, the truth of the matter was that he didn't particularly care what they did. They couldn't harm him, and their occasional foray into GENOM's purview didn't harm the company's profit margins in the slightest.

Besides, they provided a convenient foil for boomer control, and for the occasional test of newer models. They inadvertently provided realistic testing conditions without straining any departmental budgets, and if one of the mercenaries should become wounded or killed as a result, so much the better.

After all, he lost nothing by waiting; he had all the time in the world.


"Okay, Anri," Linna directed, "you stir that bowl there until it's thoroughly mixed, and then we can add it to the other stuff in this casserole pan. It'll need to bake in the oven for about an hour or so."

"All right," Anri replied cheerily, attacking the indicated bowl with a wooden spoon, intent on thrashing the contents into submission. She was proving to be a quick study as far as culinary pursuits went, and had managed to do fairly well with the recipe she was working on. There'd been a couple of slip-ups, but since the floor was tiled, they didn't have to worry about the spilled soy sauce leaving any stains. Well...nothing that wouldn't fade anyway...eventually.

Linna devoted a few minutes attention to the soup she was preparing, sniffing the fragrances beginning to waft from the pot, stirring it for a minute and taking a quick taste to see if any more spices were needed. She'd just started to put the lid back on the pot when she heard the clatter of metal implements in the kitchen sink, and a startled curse from Priss. Almost like a guided missile, a partially peeled potato seemed to leap over her shoulder from behind, landing with a loud splash in the soup pot.

Linna stood for a long moment, mentally counting to ten, before reaching into the pot with her spoon and fishing out the errant potato. Turning around, the spud resting in the bowl of the spoon, she looked at the crimson-faced woman who was standing guiltily by the sink with a paring knife in one hand.

"You know, Priss," she remarked mildly, "it would probably go a lot easier if you'd hold onto them while you're trying to peel them."


Crimson laser bolts tore through the inky blackness of space as asteroids careened madly around the gyrating space fighter. One shot splashed against the ship's shields, depleting their energy reserve, while the remainder of the salvo spiraled harmlessly off into the void. A crackling blue bolt of energy blasted back in return, and a bizarre, organic-looking shape disintegrated into clouds of pixels.

Bert wrenched at the joystick built into the Wing Commander XII game console, slamming home the lever for his ship's afterburners and sending his Rapier medium attack fighter into a crazily looping spin through the asteroid field, trying to shake two of his pursuers. The computer-controlled ships grimly stayed on his tail, pounding at his shields with their weapons.

Sweat trickled down his brow as he tried to devote his full attention to the game, but it wasn't entirely successful. Normally he didn't find this particular videogame as difficult as he was finding it right now, but part of his mind wasn't able to stop speculating on what was going on back in his apartment. Any time a digital explosion came from the game's speakers, he winced as the sudden image of his microwave bursting into flames, or a pot erupting on the stove intruded, destroying his concentration momentarily. He knew Linna had promised to keep things under control, but still...


Nene carefully eased the oven door closed with a sigh of relief, and set the timer for an hour. As long as nobody stomped around, the cake would be ready for the final touch after baking: chocolate icing. She hummed cheerily to herself as she checked the saucepan of melting chocolate on the stove, then began looking around for the rest of her ingredients.

One bowl was missing though, and she frowned to herself as she looked around. Before starting on the cake, she'd laid everything out neatly on the counter nearby...once she'd had enough room to do it. She wished Bert had built a bigger kitchen; it would've solved a lot of the problems they'd encountered.

"Hey, has anyone seen where I put the bowl of icing sugar?" Nene asked, as bowls and pots clattered elsewhere in the tiny kitchen. "I know I set it down somewhere around here...." There was a loud bang, as if something had been dropped, and the air was suddenly filled with a choking, sifting cloud of white. The air suddenly tasted incredibly sweet.

"I think I found it," Priss's voice wheezed in reply, as everyone in the room broke into spluttering fits of coughing and sneezing.


Bert glanced at the wall clock as he mopped sweat from his face, panting for breath. Damn it, still nearly two hours before he was supposed to get back to Sylia's building to help set up for the surprise party. Frustrated at the snail's pace with which the day seemed to be progressing, he went back to pounding on the punching bag, as if it was somehow to blame.

He worked out and practiced for what seemed like ages. While some of it would have undoubtedly have been more useful with a sparring partner, he still went through the routines, trying to find at least momentary inner peace in the exercise. He finally staggered to a halt, leaning against the wall as he wiped streaming sweat from his face. Chest heaving, he shoved himself upright from the wall, stretched a bit, and then glanced at the wall clock.

One hour and thirty-five minutes to go.

Bert slapped a hand over his face, and collapsed with a groan, falling over backwards to lie sprawled out on the mats. He decided to just stay there and stare at the ceiling for a while.


"It's just not fair," Priss grumbled to herself, a disgusted expression on her face as she stirred a large bowl of fruit punch, the spoon splashing occasionally as some of her dissatisfaction spilled over into her actions. "Why do these things always happen to me?!"

Across the room from her, the final food preparations were feverishly going on in the kitchen. Nene was artfully arranging some cherries on the top of a rich-looking chocolate cake, Anri was carefully transferring some of the main dishes to serving platters and covering them up, and Linna was moving the platters onto a small wheeled serving cart.

Priss, on the other hand, was stirring the punch bowl, which had been placed on the coffee table of the living room...far away from everyone else. After the icing sugar incident, Linna had suggested with what diplomacy she could still muster that perhaps Priss would find it easier working on something simple. With that remark, the rock singer had found herself relocated to the living room.

Heaving another disgusted sigh, she propped her chin on one hand, her elbow balanced on her knee, as her other hand and arm continued to mechanically stir the punch.

"We'll be back in a few minutes, Priss," Linna called over to her. "Then you can give us a hand setting up the last few bits, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, whatever," Priss replied sullenly, watching as the food-laden cart was whisked out of the room by the other three women. She gave the bowl of punch an inimical glance, then decided to taste it to see how it was doing.

She grimaced at the taste. It tasted mixed fruit juices. It didn't seem to have any zip to it, and in her opinion, it needed a little something to liven it up. She pondered that idea for a moment or so, and then a slow grin began to spread across her face.

Glancing quickly at the door to the apartment, she stood up and stealthily crept over to the kitchen. Opening a certain cupboard under the sink, she rummaged around in it, various bottles of assorted substances clanking and rattling as she moved them aside to peer at their labels. Nope, not that one; that was drain cleaner. That one was spare dish soap... Finally, she came up with the one she'd been looking for, hidden at the far back corner.

Grinning in triumph now, she closed the door and quickly returned to the punch bowl. Cracking the seal on the bottle, she poured a quick splash of its contents into the punch, stirred for a moment, and then tasted it. After a judicious glance at the bottle, she gave the punch another splash of the bottle's contents, then re-capped the bottle and set it aside. After another stir and taste, Priss permitted herself a satisfied smile. Humming in quiet satisfaction, she resumed stirring the concoction.

The door to the apartment was nudged open as Anri backed through, carefully pulling the now-empty serving cart with her. She gave Priss a quick smile as she trundled the cart over to the remaining food platters on the counter.

"Want to give me a hand with these, Priss?" she asked, pausing as she started to pick up a tray. "Linna said we can take the punch up after everything else is set's ready, right?"

"Yup, it's ready," Priss replied, unable to suppress a grin. "I think you'll like it when you try it." She helped Anri load the cart again, and they left with it, closing the door behind them.


Linna walked into the apartment, ticking items off the list in her hand. Everything was almost ready; the final decorations were being put up, and the food had all been transferred to Sylia's apartment. All that remained were a couple of minor items...

She glanced over at the coffee table as she came to the 'drinks' category on her list, and her brow furrowed slightly as she noted the bottle sitting next to the large bowl of fruit punch. Walking over, she picked it up and read the label. After a rueful shake of her head, a sly smile crossed her face as she glanced from the bottle to the punch bowl, and she used the stirring spoon to take a quick taste from it.

She frowned again; it certainly didn't taste like there had been anything added to it yet. Spiking the punch a bit wouldn't really hurt anyone...and Sylia really needed to unwind a bit anyway. With a shrug, she uncapped the bottle, and then poured a stiff shot into the punch bowl, stirring it around. Screwing the cap back on the bottle, she set it back down on the table before walking over to the counter. Carefully picking up the final tray, the one with the chocolate cake on it, she gingerly carried it from the room.


It was time.

Bert very slowly and carefully shrugged into his coat, checking over the inventory of his pockets in the process to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. Access card, couple of smoke bombs, keys, breath mints...everything appeared to be there. He settled his hat on his head and, taking a deep breath, turned, and walked out of his small, second-floor office.

He moved with a very deliberate and measured stride as he walked, purposefully refusing to hurry. Given the anxiety attacks he'd suffered all afternoon, he knew that if he tried hurrying, he'd likely end up running at full speed back to Sylia's building. He'd kept telling himself repeatedly that nothing disastrous had happened, but his subconscious had steadfastly refused to believe him.

The tall red-head made a quick inspection tour of the ground floor of the building, checking to ensure that all the doors were locked, before heading for the main foyer and the exit. He stepped outside, letting the electronically-controlled locks secure the door behind him.

Bert reached up and adjusted his hatbrim as he stood on the front steps of his recreational facility, letting his eyes drift up and down the street; nothing seemed amiss, and he briefly wondered if he wasn't getting paranoid after all. Lately, he hadn't been able to escape the feeling that he was being watched, and it was slowly starting to get to him. With an irritated shrug of his shoulders, he cast the thought from his mind, and began walking up the street towards the bus stop.


Linna cast a critical eye over the feverish, last minute arrangements that were going on in Sylia's living room, making sure that everything was going to be complete more-or-less in time. All of the food had been laid out on a slightly relocated dining room table, except for the dishes were being kept warm in the kitchen. Anri and Priss had managed to string up some paper streamers, and were in the process of hanging up a large sign over the table.

Linna had experienced a brief wave of anxiety over that; Priss had been so accident-prone in the kitchen that she'd had visions of the table flipping over or something equally disastrous. However, the two were doing all right, so she decided to leave them be. That left Nene to be checked on, and the red-headed ADP officer was downstairs at the moment, hopefully retrieving the punch bowl.

As if summoned by that thought, Nene opened the door to Sylia's apartment and began carefully edging the serving cart through the door, trying not to disturb the contents of the brimming punch bowl on the cart.

"One bowl of fruit punch," Nene declared. "Where do you want it, Linna?"

"Put it on that table over there," Linna directed, pointing to a small, sturdy side-table draped with a white cloth. "Oh, and don't forget to put out some cups as well."

"Okay!" Nene replied cheerily, gingerly trundling the cart towards the indicated destination. "Is there any ice to go with it? It's not very cold anymore."

"Freezer compartment of the refrigerator," Linna replied. "I borrowed Bert's ice cube trays to make sure we had enough." Nene nodded in acknowledgment. Linna watched her progress long enough to determine whether or not she'd be able to transfer the punch bowl without incident before going over to see if Priss and Anri needed any help in applying the finishing touches to the decorations.

Nene glanced over her shoulder as she positioned the punch bowl on the table, and was unable to stifle a somewhat naughty-sounding giggle once she'd confirmed that Linna was out of hearing range. A wide grin kept trying to break through her attempts to keep a straight face, and she hastily moved into the kitchen, partly to get the cups, and partly to prevent anyone from witnessing her mirth. After a few moments of helpless laughter, during which she kept a hand clamped over her mouth while hanging onto the counter, she was able to regain her composure.

Ice cubes crackled as the warm air of the kitchen assailed them when she dumped them into a large bowl. Grabbing a stack of styrofoam cups, she carried the bowl of ice and the cups out to where the punch bowl was sitting, dropping a few of the ice chunks into the punch and setting the remainder down next to the bowl. Nene then realized that they didn't have anything to serve the drinks with and went back into Sylia's kitchen, ransacking the cutlery and utensil drawers until she found a ladle.

When she returned, she used the ladle to take another quick sip of the punch. It tasted all right, but she still couldn't really tell that she'd added anything to it. She'd certainly added enough from the bottle downstairs to be able to taste something, at least. With a shrug, she set the ladle on the table, and decided to go back into the kitchen to check on the food that was being kept warm.

Another giggle escaped her as she turned to that task. It was going to be a fun party; maybe they'd even be able to get Sylia to loosen up after a glass or two of the punch.


Sylia sighed in heartfelt relief as she stepped through the door of her apartment, closing it behind her. For a moment, she plastered herself against the door, leaning on it with her head back, as if afraid someone was going to try and pry it open. She stood like that for a moment or so, letting the peace and solitude of her penthouse apartment soak into her.

She couldn't believe what a day it had been: one long delay or disaster after another. First the computers down in the data control room had started acting up by misplacing files and shuffling them around until it had been nearly impossible to find what she'd been after. After an hour of hair-pulling frustration, she'd managed to locate the offending corrupted file that had been causing the problems; another two hours had been needed to repair the damage.

Then Bert had shown up with the armload of technical schematics that she'd given him the day before, and an armload of questions to go with them. Getting him straightened out on what she'd wanted done to the hardsuits had taken an hour and a half. She was convinced he hadn't gotten enough sleep, since she'd had to explain herself several times. It had gotten to the point where she'd have strangled him on the spot if he'd said "I'm sorry, could you explain this part again?" or "But what about this...?" just one more time.

No sooner had she kicked him out, intent on barricading the door behind him, then Sylvie had called up from the Silky Doll, requesting some assistance. Sylia had arrived to find Sylvie nearly buried under boxes of lingerie that had mistakenly been delivered weeks ahead of schedule. Nearly two hours of wrangling over the phone with her distributor, and then several minutes of alternately threatening and pleading with the truck driver had sent the boxes back to where they'd come from; apparently there'd been a computer error that had caused the problem.

By the time that little crisis had been resolved, it had turned out to be closing time. Sylia had helped Sylvie close up the shop and bid her good night, intending to spend the rest of the evening alone in an attempt to unwind. She'd been edgy during the entire elevator ride to the penthouse level, half-expecting the elevator to break down; it would certainly have been in keeping with the rest of her day.

Sighing wearily, Sylia slipped off her shoes and loosened the scarf at the throat of her blouse, stretching luxuriantly and yawning. Quietly reveling in the solitude, she stepped out into her darkened living room.


The loud chorus of yells was accompanied by a flashbulb-bright flare of light, catching her completely unprepared. Sylia staggered back a step or two, blinking and rubbing at watering eyes as she tried to see what was going on.

Several grinning faces looked back at her when she could finally see again. Priss, Linna, Nene, Anri, and Bert all had insufferably smug looks on their faces, and Sylia had a sudden flash of premonition, accompanied by a sinking feeling of certainty about the reason her day had turned into such a nightmare. A quick glance around her apartment confirmed her suspicion: brightly coloured streamers hung around the room, and a very large 'Happy Birthday!' sign hung over the dining room table at the far end of the room, which was spread with covered platters of food, as well as plates and cutlery.

As Sylia tried to mentally adjust to what was going on, there was a soft knock at the apartment door behind her. Still a little dazed, she turned and went to the door, opening it.

"Surprise!" Sylvie sang out, an impish smile on her face. She hadn't quite changed her clothes from earlier in the day, opting only to get rid of the wig and glasses that normally hid her characteristic features. For one brief moment, Sylia was tempted to slam the door; judging by the sly twinkle in the brown-haired woman's eyes, she'd been in on the plot as well.

"Come in," Sylia sighed, closing the door after her latest guest had entered. "You knew what was going on, didn't you?" she accused, glaring just a little.

"Some of it," Sylvie cheerfully admitted. "I just had to keep you busy downstairs." She smiled again, and took Sylia's arm. "Now come on, you don't want to keep everyone else waiting." She gently steered the Knight Sabers' leader back into the living room, where everyone else was patiently standing around.

If anything, the expressions on the faces of her friends had become more smug while she'd been away briefly. She looked around at them, exasperation at the various little deceptions they'd all obviously connived to put over on her warring with wry appreciation of the way it had been pulled off. She'd quite neatly been outmaneuvered.

An unaccustomed feeling of warmth swept over her as she stood there. She normally tried to keep her feelings at arm's length, especially any that might indicate emotional attachment to anyone; given some of the decisions she was confronted with as leader of the Knight Sabers, she couldn't afford to allow personal feelings to influence her judgment. It had meant that she'd been perceived as cold and uncaring at times, but she'd had to do it. How else was she supposed to be able to order her friends and comrades into dangerous situations, ones that could very well end up killing them?

As she looked around at everyone again, she quietly admitted to herself that they'd all become somewhat more than friends: they'd become family. A small voice at the back of her mind nagged her with the thought that allowing herself to become emotionally involved with people she was going to have to use was a weakness, but she quashed it. Some things just couldn't be changed; she should have seen from the beginning that the shared experiences that they'd gone through as the Knight Sabers would pull everyone closer together, but she hadn't. Looking back, she found that she was rather pleased at that particular oversight.

Finally, she smiled openly, shaking her head ruefully.

"I should have known you were up to something," she declared, looking around at everyone. "Somehow, I just should have known."

"That's why we were very careful to make sure we kept you busy," Linna grinned impishly. "We didn't want to give you time to figure anything out, and you probably would've if we'd given you time to get settled and think straight."

"Come on, let's eat!" Nene interrupted plaintively. "The food's getting cold!"

There were a few scattered chuckles from the group, but that didn't stop everyone from starting to drift towards the dinner table. As Sylia looked for some indication of where she was going to sit, Bert materialized at her side, a towel draped over one arm in an attempt to look like a waiter as he pulled out a chair for her at the head of the table with a bow and a flourish. Sylia cocked an eyebrow at him, but sat down without comment.

"I'd show you the wine list," he noted with a straight face as she settled into her seat, "but we're not that sophisticated; we've only got one kind. However, we can offer you a glass of fruit punch later, should you desire it."

"That would be fine," Sylia replied with a laugh. He bowed again, and vanished into the kitchen. A moment or two later, they heard a cork popping, and liquid being poured. Bert re-entered the room, balancing a tray of wineglasses on one hand. As he walked back to the table, he gave Linna an evil grin as she nervously eyed the way he was carrying the tray. She was sitting next to Sylia, and in the direct line of fire in the event that the tray slipped.

With another flourish, he set the tray on a free corner of the dinner table. Ignoring the covert sighs of relief from nearby, he began passing out the glasses, giving the first one to Sylia. He then whisked the tray back to the kitchen, and moved to take his place at the dinner table.

"I think we've got one thing we need to do before we start eating," he noted, still standing up, as everyone showed signs of starting to make advances in the direction of the food. "Everybody ready? Okay, on three..."

Sylia tried not to wince visibly as everyone sang 'Happy Birthday' to her. Given the way some people were carrying the tune, she was glad they'd opted to do it before dinner.


Linna sank into the couch with a sigh of relief, happy that the dinner was over with. Despite all her worrying, it had all gone smoothly; the food had been excellent, and nobody had mentioned the minor mishaps in Bert's kitchen. More importantly, there hadn't been any dinner table accidents.

She took another sip from her glass of punch, letting herself relax even further. She hadn't realized how stressed-out she'd been from trying to get Sylia's birthday party arranged; now that it was over, she was definitely feeling a bit light-headed, even giddy. The punch was affecting her more than it should've, she thought. She made a mental note to delegate some of the planning to somebody else next year.

Across the room from her, Nene and Anri were talking quietly together, occasionally breaking into fits of giggling. From the sounds of it, the two women were discussing some of the antics they'd witnessed in their respective jobs.

Sylvie sat nearby, listening with a smile, drinking occasionally from her glass. She and Priss swapped comments occasionally, but didn't contribute very much to the conversations themselves. That was Priss, though; she never said much, even in large groups of friends. Although she'd never admit it out loud, Linna knew she was deriving her enjoyment merely from the company. Sylvie was much the same way, although not nearly quite as gruff about it as Priss could be.

Sylia was sitting quietly in her usual armchair, sipping at another glass of punch with an expression best described as amused resignation. She'd been that way for about the last ten minutes, ever since being informed that her birthday present was being brought up from its hiding place. Given the grin she'd seen Bert trying to hide as he'd left, Sylia had evidently formed her own opinion on what the present was likely to be, and was expecting the worst.

The leader of the Knight Sabers had definitely relaxed during the evening though. She'd been smiling throughout dinner, and had even joked with them a few times. For once, the usual shields of calm reserve seemed to have dropped. Linna was privately rather pleased at that accomplishment; she'd thought Sylia was just a bit too stuck up to have fun occasionally, and wasn't unhappy to be proven wrong in that regard.

"Hey, Linna," Priss's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Where'd you hide the present? He should've found it by now, right?"

"I gave him exact directions," Linna assured her. "There's no way he can miss it."

As if confirming her statement, there was a thud at the door to the apartment. They could hear someone fumbling with the latch for a moment, and then it clicked open. Bert shoved the door open awkwardly with one arm, using the other to maintain a secure grip on a large box.

"Gee, thanks so much for somebody helping with the door," he remarked sarcastically as he finally squeezed his way through. "It's not like I needed a hand or anything."

"What are you complaining about?" Priss asked him bluntly, as Nene and Anri applauded in the background, giggling. "You're in, aren't you?" She grinned at him as he favoured her with a sour glance.

"Just bring it over here, Bert," Linna headed them off before they started one of their almost habitual smart remark exchanges. She still couldn't quite figure out how they managed to get along together in private without strangling each other, given the way they seemed to need to keep trying to verbally 'one-up' each other in public. "Sylia's been waiting long enough for it."

"It's safe to open, I presume?" Sylia queried, eyeing the large, brightly-wrapped box with slight trepidation. "After the day you put me through, I wouldn't put it past any of you not to have booby-trapped the box somehow."

"It's perfectly safe," Bert assured her with a grin that wasn't quite angelic enough to be called innocent-looking as he placed the box on the end of the coffee table in front of her. "Trust me."

"That's it; call the bomb squad!" Sylia half-rose from her chair, as if to dive for cover somewhere. Suppressed snickers came from around the room while Bert artfully managed to look hurt.

"It's okay, Sylia," Linna soothed her. "We didn't put anything in there other than your present. Go ahead and open it."

Sylia gave her a patently skeptical glance before sighing and moving forwards in her chair to within reach of the box. She took another glance around at her friends before reaching for the bow on top of the box; six utterly innocent expressions looked back at her as everyone waited. She took a deep breath and undid the bow, pulling the ribbons away before tearing the wrapping paper off and exposing the cardboard of the box.

It proved to be sealed with duct tape, and it took her a few minutes of struggle to get rid of that. She muttered some choice comments to herself during that process, and gave Bert more than one withering glance; she knew who would've suggested that little innovation. Judging by the sly glint in his eyes when she looked at him, the bastard knew that she knew, and was enjoying her struggle with it. Nobody seemed to know where a knife or pair of scissors could be found when she inquired about it.

Finally, she succeeded in getting into the box itself, and found herself looking at a box full of what looked like styrofoam popcorn. Rolling her eyes towards the ceiling, Sylia dug into the packing, groping through the styrofoam as she tried to find whatever it was that they'd hidden inside on her while ignoring the subdued sniggering that was coming from some quarters of the room.

Her fingers encountered something cool and metallic at the bottom of the box. It was fairly heavy, as she discovered when she tried lifting it with one hand, and it was an unusual shape, making one-handed handling an awkward proposition. Frowning in puzzlement, she dipped her other hand into the styrofoam to assist in lifting whatever it was free of the box and packing. Styrofoam pieces cascaded from the sides of the box, like the foam from something surfacing from the depths of the ocean as she pulled it from the cocooning packing.

Polished black and dark blue metal flashed under the lights of the room, and Sylia found herself holding what looked like a very detailed scale model of the KnightWing. Almost three feet or so long, it was perfect in almost every detail, even down to the texture of the hull plating. As she turned it around in her hands, mystified, she noted that she could faintly see a small figure through the semi-opaque cockpit canopy, seated in the pilot's chair.

Intrigued, she started to examine the nose of the replica aircraft, pressing around the canopy with her fingertips to see if it opened. As she probed, there was a click from a cleverly-concealed button on the underside of the cockpit, and an electronically recorded voice spoke up a moment later.

"Knight Sabers, Go!"

Sylia sat motionless for a moment, holding the mini-KnightWing, not quite sure that she'd heard correctly. The strangled snickering coming from everyone else convinced her that she had indeed heard her own voice giving her usual command on an outing to the rest of the team. The plastic cockpit canopy flipped up at that moment, and Sylia's bemused gaze came to rest on a miniature figure of a red and grey hardsuit. A very distinctive red and grey hardsuit, crafted in painstaking detail, seated at the controls of the plane.

A sudden hunch about what she was holding prompted her to shift the replica jetplane in her hands as she began examining the aft fuselage of the plane. As she'd half expected, some probing revealed a concealed button that caused the top portion of the fuselage above the wings to split in half and swing open.

Sylia was unable to keep from smiling as she had her hunch confirmed: the interior of the plane had several small passenger seats, and a duplicate of each of the Knight Sabers' hardsuits was seated in each one. There was even a hardsuit figure based on some of the early designs she'd been considering for a suit for Anri: pale blue with white shoulder patches sporting the red cross usually denoting medical personnel.

"This isn't what I think it is, is it?" she finally asked mildly, looking around at her friends.

"We wanted to get you something original," Linna explained with an open grin. "You've already got lots of other stuff, so we wanted it to be something you couldn't normally get. It took some discussion..."

"Arguing," Priss interjected, correcting her with a wry grin. "Everyone had their own ideas of what we ought to be doing."

"...but we finally settled on..."

"Knight Saber action figures with a KnightWing carrying case!" everyone else chorused enthusiastically, each of them trying to finish the sentence before anyone else could. Sylia began to laugh softly, shaking her head.

"Thank you very much, all of you," she told them with a fond smile. "I don't think I could have asked for something more unique than this." She looked at the mini-KnightWing again, and suddenly cocked an eyebrow curiously.

"Why does SkyKnight's suit have white on it now?" she asked Bert. "You aren't planning another suit change are you?"

"White?" Bert repeated with a frown. "I didn't paint it white...are you sure you're looking at the right one?"

"Yes, I'm sure," Sylia replied, peering closer. "It's the fourth seat in the row here. Blue, silver, and....white..." Her voice trailed off suddenly, and incredibly, Sylia began to snicker. It quickly escalated into outright helpless laughter as she set the KnightWing model carefully on the coffee table, then collapsed into her chair. Everyone stared speechlessly at the normally reserved leader of the Knight Sabers, who was now sprawled in utter hilarity, laughing and gasping for breath at the same time.

"What's so funny?" Priss stood up and walked over to the table, closely followed by Sylvie. Nene, Anri and Linna also crowded around the table, nearly shoving Bert out of the way as everyone tried to see what had sent Sylia into near-hysterical laughter. By craning his neck, he was able to look over Linna's shoulder, but he couldn't see the hardsuit figures or the KnightWing model.

"There's the hardsuits," he heard Nene say. "Mine's there, Priss's is that one... hey, what's that white stuff on Bert's suit?"

"Is that what I think it is?" Priss asked disbelievingly.

"Is WHAT what you think it is?!" Bert demanded loudly. "I'd like to see for myself, if you don't mind!"

"It is!!" Nene's voice squealed girlishly. "Somebody put bandages on his suit!!"

It was at that point that Priss and Linna promptly emulated Sylia, dropping helplessly to the couch and laughing their heads off. Nene and Anri suddenly couldn't stop giggling, and even Sylvie had to turn away from the coffee table, covering her mouth with a hand. From the way her shoulders were shaking, though, it wasn't going to be long before she burst out laughing as well.

Bert finally managed to get close enough to the coffee table to take a look at the object of everyone's merriment. What were they talking about? He hadn't put any... That thought was never completed as his gaze came to rest on the small replica of his hardsuit. Sure enough, somebody had taken the time to painstakingly wrap and tie off small white bandages around the torso and one arm of the silver hardsuit figure. Bert closed his eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath as he fought against conflicting desires, trying unsuccessfully to shut out the laughter of his friends.

"All right," he asked levelly, trying to strangle off the grudging amusement that was slowly worming its way into his expression. "Who's the smartass?"

He never did get an answer; everyone else was laughing too hard.


It took a while for relative calm to return to the room. Every time somebody looked at the replica KnightWing, they kept seeing the bandaged silver hardsuit in their mind's eye, and that was enough to reduce them to exhausted giggling again. Sylia finally regained enough control of her composure to set her present over on a side table, out of the immediate view of everyone else. She struggled to maintain a straight face as she walked back to her chair, but it wasn't a very successful effort.

Bert had taken refuge in the kitchen, where he was salving his somewhat wounded pride with the remainder of the chocolate cake they'd enjoyed earlier for dessert. Sylia shuddered slightly at that; everyone else was still stuffed from the huge dinner, and was contenting themselves with more glasses of punch. The thought of eating anything else right now was almost too distressing to handle.

Sylia sank back into her chair with a grateful sigh. It had been a long, tiring day for her, and sitting down was an immense relief. At the same time, she felt too keyed-up to sleep. Nearly laughing her head off earlier had helped contribute to that; she still felt light-headed, and was finding it hard not to giggle at everything and anything.

"I know what we're mish...missing," Nene's voice suddenly piped up. "We need some music...what good's a party without hic! music?"

"Yeah, why not?" Priss seconded. "We oughta have some rockin' tunes somewhere." She sat up in the couch and tried to set her cup on the coffee table. She missed on the first couple of attempts, and had to scowl in concentration before she was able to connect.

"I'll get the music," Linna stated, shoving herself off the couch. "I had some CDs over by Sylia's stereo system." She walked across the room, moving with great deliberation, as if deciding where to put each step. She began to sort through the stack of CDs, squinting at the labels.

"Why don't we have a karaoke contest?" Nene asked as Linna searched the disc collection. "It'd be a lot more fun than just listening to some songs."

"That's a great idea!" It took Sylia a moment to realize that it had been Anri who'd blurted out the enthusiastic agreement; normally, the green-haired women was one of the shyer people she'd met. "Um...what do we need to do?" Anri asked a moment later, belatedly remembering that she had never done anything like that before.

"Pick a song and sing along with it. S' easy," Nene waved a hand magnanimously. "I've done it hundreds of times."

"Yeah, badly," Priss snickered derisively, picking up her cup and then nearly spilling her drink on herself. "If you can't hit the notes, couldn't you at least scare them as they go by?"

Nene loftily ignored that remark.

"Okay," Linna called over. "What do you wanna hear first?"

"Let me see what ones you've got," Anri told her, standing up and walking over.

"I'm going to get some more ice for the punch," Sylvie stated. "It's starting to get a bit warm."

"Top section of the fridge," Sylia told her. "Can't miss them." Sylvie nodded as she walked across the living room and stepped into the kitchen.

Bert was washing off the plate he'd used for the remainder of the cake as she entered. She gave him a friendly grin as he looked up to see who it was, and he sighed and gave her a rueful one in return.

"Are they done killing themselves laughing out there?" he asked as she paused for a moment.

"For now," she replied, a smile quirking at her lips as she struggled not to start laughing again herself. "I'm sure we can start again though, if you'd like," she added innocently.

"I'll pass, thanks," he told her dryly. "What's up, anyway?"

"I'm getting some ice for the drinks; the punch is getting kind of lukewarm."

"Plastic bowl in the freezer section there," he directed her. "Can't miss it."

"Thanks." Sylvie started to turn unsteadily towards the fridge, and swayed on her feet as she tried moving towards it. Bert caught her as she stumbled and fell, and he suddenly found himself holding her in his arms.

"The gallant knight erratic saves the lady fair from a horrible date," Sylvie declared, giggling and hiccuping as she looped an arm around his neck and started using that as leverage while she tried to get unsteady feet back under her. "I feel a little funny," she confided to him as she pulled herself upright, her body pressing against his.

"Actually, you feel pretty good to me," he replied, then stood there with a somewhat stunned expression as his mind caught up with what his mouth had just said.

He suddenly became acutely aware of the fact that he was holding her quite close, and immediately flushed bright red as he tried to think of a way to talk his way out of this one. His muscles seemed to have locked up because of his mental floundering, and he couldn't seem to get enough co-ordination together to push her away. Priss was going to kill him... and he suddenly experienced a surge of panic over the thought that she might accidentally walk in at any minute.

"I think that's one of the nicest things anyone's said to me in a while," Sylvie smiled warmly up at him, then reached out and patted his cheek naughtily, "but I won't tell Priss you made a pass at me... if you're nice to me." She pushed herself away from him, winked, hiccuped, and walked over to the fridge. Pulling open the door to the freezer compartment, she peered into it, then pulled out a bowl that rattled with the ice cubes inside it. Closing the door, she gave the dumbfounded redhead another wink, and walked back into the living room, swaying just a bit.

Bert turned and began quietly thumping his head against the cupboard doors.


It took him about ten minutes more to regain his composure enough to where he felt he could venture back into the living room; he didn't want to start turning red the minute Sylvie looked at him. He was still more than a little rattled by her flirtatious behaviour. She didn't often turn on the charm like that, but when she did...he shoved the thought out of his mind.

As the tall redhead made his way back into the living room, he could see that something was up. Nene and Linna were over at Sylia's stereo system, apparently adjusting something, and Anri had disappeared. Sylvie was sitting down on the couch, her back to him, sifting through a pile of CDs that had been untidily jumbled on the coffee table. Priss was sprawled lazily on another couch, snickering loudly about something, and Sylia was sipping her drink with a bemused expression.

He made a slight detour as he rejoined the group, pouring himself another glass of punch and carrying it carefully as he made his way over to where Priss was lounging.

"Came out of hiding, huh?" she observed with a crooked smile as he shoved her feet off the end of the couch, and sat down next to her.

"I wasn't hiding," he retorted defensively. "Everyone knew exactly where I was all the time." Priss laughed, then sat up and leaned closer to him.

"Come on," she teased him, poking him in the side with a finger, "you thought it was funny, too; admit it."

"You did it, didn't you?" he accused, glaring at her suspiciously. "You're the one who put those bandages on that figure of my suit, aren't you?!" Priss burst out laughing again.

"You wish!!" she chortled. "Do you think I'd be trying to hide it if I did?!"

"Hmph," Bert grunted, deciding that settling into uncommunicative silence was probably the best defense right now. Priss was right though; if she'd done it, she'd have been crowing about it, not denying it. He took a healthy swig from his glass, and kept trying to figure out who the culprit was.

"Awwwww, you poor baby," Priss mock-commiserated, grinning. "Are we picking on you?" Sylvie chuckled, but he steadfastly ignored them both and continued his brooding contemplation.

"You have to admit it was rather appropriate," Sylia put in from where she was sitting, along with what sounded suspiciously like a giggle. "I mean, you do seem to need bandages more often than most people." He opted not to reply to her observation, either.

Nene sang out "We're ready!" from over by the stereo system. She skipped back over to where she'd been sitting, and dropped into another chair, bouncing on the cushions. Her usual cheery bounce seemed to have been magnified, and he noted that she looked a bit flushed.

He'd just started to take another swig of his drink when the unmistakable opening chords of "Konya wa Hurricane" blared from the stereo speakers. As the opening bars of music played, a woman wearing a reasonable facsimile of a blond wig came sashaying out of the side corridor leading to Sylia's guest rooms, her every movement a fairly close imitation of Priss's usual behaviour during a performance.

Bert just about dropped his drink when he realized it was Anri. The usually shy and reserved green-haired young woman had slapped on a phony wig made out of leftover yellow streamers from the party decorations, and it suddenly dawned on him what the music was playing for. The panicked thought crossed his mind that if he quickly made tracks for the kitchen, he might be able to take refuge there until the karaoke portion of the evening was over.

"Oh no you don't!" Priss latched onto his arm, evidently reading his mind. "If I've got to sit through this, then you do too, buster." The way she grabbed him just about dumped what was left of his drink onto the floor.

"Waitasec...something's still mishing," Nene declared over the music, frowning as she looked at Anri. "You shtill don't look quite like Prish," she noted. "We've've..." She paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts as Linna hit the 'pause' button on the stereo. "You've got too mush coshtume," she finally judged, squinting at the karaoke wannabe.

"Okay, I can fix that," Anri replied cheerily. "Back in a sec." She disappeared down the side hall again, and a moment later she called out, "Okay, Linna, you can start the music again!"

Bert hadn't really been paying attention to what was going on, concentrating instead on trying to find some way to elude Priss's grasp so that he could retreat to the kitchen. There was no way he could sneak out of the apartment; the door was in plain sight of everyone, for one thing. Part of his anxiety stemmed from the fact that vocal musical talent was not common among the Knight Saber's membership.

He also knew it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with the bright idea that he should try singing something, and he really didn't need the hassle or embarrassment. When the music began pounding from the speakers again, he knew it was too late; he'd lost any chance there might've been to escape. He immediately took a huge gulp from his glass, as if drowning himself with punch was an option to avoid what he now knew was coming.

As before, Anri strutted onto the 'stage' in time to the music...and Bert promptly choked on his drink, slapping a hand over his mouth to keep from spraying fruit juice across the room while at the same time turning a bright red colour. Sylvie looked from Anri to him, and burst out laughing while he fought to get his breath back.

Anri had taken Nene's comparison of her attire to Priss's concert garb very literally, and had reduced the square yardage of her 'costume' by removing her blouse, revealing certain items of feminine apparel usually reserved for display in more ... intimate environments. She was now clad even more scantily than Priss usually was during a concert performance, and she launched into a spirited karaoke rendition of "Konya Wa Hurricane" without any trace of hesitation or self-consciousness.

Bert just sat on the couch, his breath recovered, with one hand clamped over his eyes, ignoring the laughter of the women around him.



Sylia stifled an agonized scream as a crashing peal of sound stabbed into her brain, intensifying the nauseating wave of pain that was crashing around and rebounding inside her skull. She rolled over in bed, tightly clenching her pillow around her head in an effort to block out the noise of the ringing telephone. Unfortunately, it continued its persistent clamour, and she was forced to abandon her pillow and crawl over to the bedside table where the phone was. Blessed silence returned to the room as she picked up the receiver.

"Yes?" she croaked into the mouthpiece, rolling over onto her back with the phone, one hand clamped to her forehead as if to keep her throbbing brain inside where it belonged. "Who is it?"

"HELLO, SYLIA," a voice boomed cheerily in her ear, the sound waves nearly blasting her eardrums out. "HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MY DEAR."

"Uncle Toshiro, my birthday was yesterday," Sylia replied, her voice barely above a whisper, "and could you please stop shouting? My head feels like it's going to explode." She kept her eyes tightly squeezed shut, trying steadfastly to ignore her physical woes through sheer willpower. It failed miserably.

"I know that," her uncle replied, his voice mercifully lowering a few decibels. " And I heard about your surprise party from my assistant, so I presumed you were busy last night. But what do you mean by 'stop shouting'? I'm speaking quite normally."

"You sound like you're using a megaphone to talk into the phone," she informed him.

"Are you feeling all right?" he asked, his tone becoming concerned. "You don't sound too good."

"I'm fine, really," she tried reassuring him. "It's just a headache; I'll be fine in a few hours. All I need is some more sleep."

"I'll be right over," came the reply. "Just stay in bed and hang on."

"No! I'm fine! I don't..!" Sylia started to protest, almost sitting up in sudden consternation, but the line went dead. She flopped limply back into bed with a strangled groan as her stomach lurched warningly.

She gritted her teeth against the throbbing that re-erupted inside her head, and fumbled around for the cold compress she'd been using earlier. She finally found it snarled in the blankets, where it had fallen when she'd rolled over. Pressing it against her forehead, she tried to draw some relief from it and get her strength back.


"Man, you look awful," came the greeting as Linna limped through the front doors of the theatre where her dancers practiced during the week. "Did you get hit by a bus or something?"

"Very funny, Ken," Linna shot the slender, black-haired young man a withering, narrow-eyed look. "Don't you have to get ready for practice?" Ken was one of the male leads in the company's current production. He was moderately talented, but he had a tendency to think he was better than he actually was, and that meant he tended to slack off during a practice session. He also thought of himself as funny...and right now, Linna wasn't in a mood to appreciate good humour, let alone bad jokes about her appearance.

"Okay, I'm going. Sheesh, what a grouch," Ken grinned at her, not intimidated by her glare in the slightest. Hefting his duffel bag, he disappeared into back of the building. Linna glared evilly after him, promising herself that she'd make him sweat a bit more than usual today.

She suppressed a grimace as her headache pounded dully against her temples, compounded by an angry twinge from her lower back, reminding her that she was going to have to watch it today. Flippant remarks aside, she felt like she'd been hit by a bus. She wasn't going to be able to goad her trainees into action by demonstrating how 'easy' everything was, not today anyway.

She couldn't decide if her first mistake had been spiking the punch, or drinking it after knowing it had been spiked. Either way, she knew she'd overdone it the instant she'd awakened: her head had felt like steel spikes were being driven into her cranium, and her stomach had seemed to be doing a marvelous impression of something churning in a blender at high speed. Topping all of that off, her back felt like she'd been knifed by someone when she hadn't been looking.

Several minutes of being gloriously, messily sick in the bathroom hadn't served to improve her disposition any. Not even the massive dose of painkillers she'd taken for the headache had helped; she could still feel it pounding away at the walls of her mind.

Breakfast had been out of the question; she'd almost had to return to pray to the porcelain god at the thought of food of any kind. She'd finally settled on having a cup of coffee, and had sat trying to remember just what had happened at Sylia's birthday party. The last clear memory she had was of setting up the stereo for the karaoke performances.

The trim dancer shook her head. She dimly recalled attempting to show her friends some simple dance moves, and that had degenerated into people collapsing in helpless laughter at some of the attempts to follow her instructions. Then, for some reason, she'd been using the back of Sylia's couch for a balance beam; falling off of the couch had likely been how her back had gotten the wrenched feeling it was complaining about now. Of course, if the couch hadn't suddenly rocked sideways from the wrestling match that had erupted at the far end...

Linna shook off the hazy recollections and hurried towards the women's changerooms. She could try and figure out later what had happened; maybe somebody else had a clearer memory.


Leon moved through the ADP offices, his eyes roving across the rows of desks and cubicles as he deftly sidestepped the occasional frenzied data analyst running by with a stack of tape cartridges or stack of reports. Some things never changed; regardless of the situation the ADP seemed to be in, there were always people running around with data that needed to be fed to the computers. Leon was privately willing to bet that they even kept track of departmental coffee consumption with the damn things.

"Did you want a copy of the form to fill out for that?" a young woman with long brown hair, glasses, and a mischievous grin looked up from her terminal as he walked by. Leon started, realizing he must've inadvertently made his last observation aloud. "I can get you one if you'd like," she offered.

"No, that's quite all right," Leon hastily assured her. "I've got plenty of reports of my own, thanks." She laughed as he quickly made for his desk before she could produce any kind of extra paperwork for him; he wasn't entirely sure that she'd been joking.

He sighed in relief as he reached his desk, running a hand through his hair. A quick glance at his inbox and phone told him that he was free to keep plugging away at his current investigation. Since his chat with Aramaki, it had seemed as if some of the department's workload had been diverted, allowing him the time to pursue the matter they'd talked about. He didn't have any proof, but Leon had suspicious tendencies.

A blaze of red off in the distance attracted his attention as he started to sit down, and he looked up to see Nene making her way to her desk. That the usually vibrant redhead was feeling a bit under the weather was obvious: she looked pale, and was squinting a little, as if the lights were too bright. The greetings and quips she was exchanging with her friends and co-workers seemed to be forced and half-hearted at best, and she seemed to be staying upright only through willpower. The brown-haired inspector regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then stood up again and walked over to her desk.

"Morning, Nene," he greeted her as he came up to her. "Got a few minutes?"

"What? Oh... hi Leon," she replied, taking a deep breath and squaring her shoulders as she looked up at him. "What was that?"

"I asked if you've got a few minutes," Leon told her, looking her over. Now that he was closer to her, he could see that she definitely looked a bit green. "Why don't we go down to the cafeteria while we talk? You look like you could use a cup of coffee or something first."

"Thanks," she smiled wanly, "but I've got a lot of paperwork to catch up on, so I don't..."

"I'm paying," he added. "I'll even throw in a piece of cake if you want."

"Uh, just coffee is fine," Nene replied hastily, turning even greener. "I'm really not hungry right now."

"Okay then; shall we go?" Leon knew she had to be feeling ill if she'd turned down free dessert. She nodded, and the two of them made their way down to the cafeteria.

Nene sat down at a table while he got the coffee, and he noted that she'd picked out a table that was at the back of the room, where the light was a bit dimmer. Considering what he wanted to ask her, a secluded spot wasn't entirely inappropriate. He didn't want anyone overhearing what he was going to be telling her, since it wasn't widespread knowledge in the ADP forces. And he most definitely didn't want any more rumours circulating than were doing so already. However, he doubted that privacy was the real reason behind Nene's table selection; he'd noticed that she'd seemed to be squinting a bit back in the offices.

Leon carried two cups of coffee over to her table, and handed her one of them, sliding into the seat across from her. She thanked him, and took a cautious sip from her mug. They sat silently for a few moments as Leon considered how to best phrase his question.

"I really hope this isn't another attempt to get me out on a date," Nene remarked as he opened his mouth to speak.

"Nene!" he managed to look hurt. "How can you say that about me?"

"Well you did try, once," she reminded him. "And since your fishing trips to the secretarial pool haven't been very successful, I'd been wondering if you were going to try again." She suddenly grinned impishly, losing some of her pallor at the same time. "See? Your reputation precedes you now."

Damn it, Leon swore mentally, flushing slightly and taking a quick gulp of coffee to hide his discomfiture, swearing silently again as he burned his mouth. He still didn't know how he'd gotten a womanizing reputation...okay, maybe there'd been a few flirtatious remarks here and there with some of the cute women in the office, but nothing that should've resulted in that kind of talk going around the office.

"I'd never try something as devious as cornering you in the cafeteria and bribing you with a coffee," he assured her, forcing a grin onto his face. "This is strictly a business question."

"What do you want to know?" Nene took another draught of coffee, sighing a little as the caffeine seemed to alleviate whatever was bothering her.

"Just how good with a computer are you?" Leon asked the question casually enough, but was somewhat surprised at the wariness that flashed across Nene's features as she lowered her mug.

"I get by," she replied carefully. "I'm pretty familiar with all the systems here, and I can get my work done on them without a problem."

"That's not quite what I meant," Leon took a quick glance around the cafeteria to make sure nobody was nearby. "I wanted to know how good a hacker you are."

"What makes you think I'm a hacker?" Nene managed to get just the right tone that would've indicated pique with anyone else. Her facial expression didn't quite make it though; there was definitely wariness in her eyes now. "I'm just good at searching databases, that's all."

"Including restricted-access ones?" Leon suggested mildly. "Come on, Nene; I don't know how you do it, but you've been able to get info nobody else has been able to get in the past, and I don't think you did that just by searching a database. Not a public one, anyway."

There was a long silence as Nene stared at her coffee cup, refusing to meet his gaze. She'd always thought she'd been fairly careful to disguise her real abilities with computers, and she'd thought that she'd succeeded. Leon's questions threw doubt on that opinion though. Somebody had noticed.

"Why?" She kept the question short and direct. Leon glanced around the cafeteria again, almost as if expecting people to be lurking under the tables taking notes, then leaned forward slowly.

"If I tell you, you've got to promise to keep it quiet, okay?" At Nene's affirmative nod, he glanced around again, then continued to speak in a low, conspiratorial tone of voice. "I'm working on part of the investigation into our phony Chief Inspector," he told her, "and we've uncovered some files of some kind that are encrypted." The tall inspector almost grinned when he saw the spark of curiosity ignite in Nene's eyes. He'd figured that might intrigue her.

Curiosity had to be one of Nene's drives; she was always asking questions about ongoing investigations, trying to find out what was going on. At times it was almost like she was keeping her own dossiers on cases. "We've tried to decode them," he continued, "but we're not having much luck."

"So what does that have to do with me?" Nene inquired.

"We want to keep this investigation quiet," Leon replied, "and for that, we need to keep it internal. If we have to bring in outside talent, there's no way it'll remain quiet for long." His gaze met hers directly. "I'm sure you can appreciate just why we need skilled people. That's why I asked: we need your kind of expertise." Nene's gaze dropped, and she appeared to be trying to reconcile something internally.

There was another long silence. Leon took another drink from his cup, watching and waiting. Nene stared at the tabletop, her fingers nervously spinning her coffee cup on its saucer, unconsciously chewing her lower lip as she thought. The look on her face was hard to read; Leon was sure he saw agonized indecision at least once. After another couple of minutes of quiet, he decided to play his last card.

"There would be a pay raise to go with this," he mentioned, trying to sound offhand and casual. The lopsided smirk that appeared on Nene's face indicated that he hadn't been entirely successful.

"Attempted bribery of a police officer's a serious offense," the slender red-head noted lightly. "I'm shocked that you'd even consider such a thing."

"If I'd mentioned it first, it wouldn't have been bribery, would it?" Leon asked blandly. "Let's just say I forgot to mention it earlier."

"Uh-huh," Nene said dryly. "And if you hadn't mentioned it, and I'd accepted your 'job offer', would I still have gotten the raise? Somehow, I don't think so."

"You're too young to be so cynical," Leon grinned at her.

"Really? Fat lot you know then," Nene's rejoinder was unusually sharp, and he blinked in surprise, thrown for a moment by the sudden rancor in her tone. It was gone a moment later, swiftly enough that he wasn't even sure it had been there in the first place. "I'll think about it," she told him, standing up. "I've really got to get back to work; my desk's probably buried under reports by now."

Leon watched her walk away, his gaze thoughtful. Generally he was a pretty good judge of character and reactions, but Nene had proved harder to evaluate than he'd originally supposed. He could tell she was intrigued by what he'd told her, but that was it; he couldn't say whether she'd accept or not. He suddenly realized that she'd also managed to evade his original question on just how good her computer skills were.

The tall inspector sighed and shifted in his seat, stretching his legs out under the table. The brief chat with Nene had also accentuated a difference he'd noticed in her lately, namely that she wasn't the bright-eyed, bouncy teenager he'd somehow always taken her for. There was obviously a sharp intellect behind those green eyes, and when combined with the poise and greater self-assurance that she seemed to have now, she became a mature young woman. He idly wondered if any of her co-workers had noticed that particular change as well.

A shadow fell across the table, and Leon looked up to see Aramaki standing there.

"Well?" the older man prompted. "What did she say?"

"We'll have to wait," he responded. "Let's give her some time to think it over first."


"Are you happy now?!" Sylia snapped peevishly as her uncle squinted at the readout on a thermometer. "I told you I was fine!!"

"Right," her uncle replied dryly. "Then why were you laying in bed with an ice pack slapped on your forehead? Was it some new skin care treatment somebody neglected to tell me about?" He snorted into his moustache at his own joke. Sylia gave him a dirty look.

"I'm perfectly able, and more than old enough to be able to look after myself," she told him frostily. "You don't have to come running over just because I'm a little under the weather." Her uncle laughed out loud at that.

"I fail to see what's so amusing," Sylia informed the old man, glaring a little.

"Sylia," the old medic said conversationally, sitting on the side of the bed and taking her hand, "I'm going to tell you the exact same thing my father told me years ago when I informed him I didn't need looking after any longer." Sly mirth twinkled in his old brown eyes for a moment. "Then maybe you'll understand why us old folks act the way we do sometimes."

"And what is this earth-shaking piece of wisdom?" Sylia asked sourly.

"It doesn't matter how old you get, or how big you grow; to me, you're still just a kid," she was informed. The old man leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. "And I'm afraid, my dear, that the exact same principle applies to you. You may be older now, and running your own ... enterprises, but to me, most of the time, you're still the wide-eyed little girl I remember from all those years ago." There was no mistaking the fond regard in his gaze as he looked at her.

"Uncle Toshiro, please," Sylia flushed a bit, suddenly uncomfortable for some reason. "Let's not be maudlin about things."

"Oh my," her uncle grinned slyly at her as he released her hand, "have I managed to crack the Imperial reserve? What a pity."

"You really are impossible sometimes," Sylia told him, frustrated at being unable to come up with any kind of a decent comeback.

"Runs in the family," he shot back with a smile, unfazed. Sighing, the elderly doctor stood up from the bed and stretched, wincing as something in his back creaked and popped ominously. He walked over to the bedside table, where a small black doctor's bag was precariously perched near the edge. He scooped up some of the scattered bottles that he'd taken out of it earlier, and began to re-pack his bag.

"Now then," he said, turning back towards Sylia, who was still silently fuming on the bed, her arms crossed almost defiantly across her chest. "Were you going to be doing any more partying this week? If you are, I'd recommend that you don't overindulge quite as much as you did this time; while I'm relieved that you finally unwound enough to have some fun, I doubt you'd enjoy being hung over again."

"What do you mean, 'hung over'?" Sylia gave him a strange look. "Was that...I was...?"

"Exactly," her uncle nodded as the light dawned in her face. "I'm surprised that you didn't recognize the symptoms."

"It's not exactly a condition I get into very often, uncle," Sylia replied faintly. Her lips tightened as she finally realized that the punch following dinner had to have been spiked. She began considering the list of likely culprits, her eyes narrowing in concentration.

"Now don't go getting angry at your friends," the old man admonished, wagging a finger at her. "As far as I'm concerned, they did you a favour."

"Did me a favour?!" Sylia couldn't quite believe what she was hearing.

"You've been under a great deal of stress, especially lately," he explained. "All of you have, actually, and there are limits to just how much stress people can take before burning out or developing severe health problems. I'd been going to suggest a few days off to try unwinding, but evidently you've managed to beat me to it." He suddenly grinned, his face creasing with even more wrinkles, and a wicked-seeming glint entered his eyes. "I'm just sorry I missed it."

"Oh really? Why would that be? And how would you know what happened anyway?" Sylia asked, an ominous tone coming into her voice.

"Anri arrived at my office just after I'd called you," her uncle told her. "She looked a bit green, and after some prodding, she told me about some of the antics that went on at your place last night. After hearing about it all, I gave her the day off to recover a bit more; you all had a boisterous night from the sound of things." He grinned at her again. "I never knew that you'd taken up table dancing in your spare time; I'd liked to have seen that."

Sylia just stared in dawning consternation at her uncle, struck speechless.


"Come ON, Bert," Priss tried cajoling him. "You're not going to die, and your head isn't going to fall off; just get up, take some aspirin, and you'll feel fine."

"Go. Away." The muffled, barely audible croak came from the disheveled pile of blankets curled up in misery in the middle of the bed. "And stop shouting. Let me expire in peace."

Priss gave a frustrated snort, tossing her head impatiently to flip her hair back over her shoulders...and immediately regretted the move as her brain stabbed her with a flash of dull pain. She grabbed the bedroom doorjamb to steady herself, taking several deep breaths while the pounding in her head subsided; evidently, the dose of painkillers she'd taken hadn't quite kicked in yet.

"Look," she tried reasoning with him again. "You'll feel a lot better if you get up and move around a bit. It's better to get your mind off how lousy you feel, and concentrate on something else." She knew how he felt though; she'd given some serious thought herself to staying in bed all day. However, she'd been hung over a time or two before, and was evidently better able to deal with it than Bert.

"You're not the one with the migraine pulverizing your synapses," came the rejoinder.

"It's just a hangover for God's sake!" Priss burst out in exasperation. "It's not going to kill you!"

"Hangover? What are you talking about? I didn't..." his voice trailed off for a moment, and an ominous quiet fell for a second. The blankets shifted slightly, and a pair of bloodshot greenish-brown eyes appeared in one of the folds, glaring at her. "Tell me you didn't do what I think you did."

"Me? I don't know what you're talking about ," Priss tried her best to look charming and innocent. It failed miserably.

"You spiked the punch!! Why the hell didn't you at least WARN me about that?!" he accused, his voice rising. He cringed back into the pile of blankets with a groan as his headache apparently decided to remind him of its presence.

"Oh come on, I didn't put that much in it," Priss tried defending herself, "and I couldn't really say anything to you with everyone else in the room without giving it away, now could I?"

"I'm going to get you for this," he threatened feebly. "I'm going to come over there and throw up all over you." Priss nearly fell over laughing at that.

"Oh yeah? How?" she snickered derisively. "Going to just levitate across the room?"

"I'm gathering my strength. Give me a few days, and I'll be able to make it over there."

"Would you quit lying there feeling sorry for yourself?" she requested with as much politeness as she could muster. "Just get up, get yourself cleaned up, and we'll get going."

"Oh, I'm SO sorry," Bert's voice dripped sarcastic insincerity. "Was I keeping you from something? How thoughtless of me. It's not like I'm sick or anything..."

"I know I'M getting sick of listening to you," Priss retorted. "Somehow, I don't think noble and heroic knights let something minor like a hangover keep them down in the mornings." Bert didn't bother to respond to that observation, being too preoccupied with his internal misery, and she sighed to herself. Crossing her arms, she leaned against the doorjamb and surveyed the motionless mound of bedding for a couple of minutes.

"I don't know why you're being so surly about this," she spoke aloud suddenly. "You were certainly having enough fun last night."

"You call being attacked by two women attempting to tie you up having fun? You damn near killed me when you and Sylvie tackled me into the couch."

"Well you were the one who started singing old romantic ballads," Priss pointed out. "Those aren't exactly party songs, you know." She didn't bother to add that she hadn't understood a word of them, since he'd been singing in English.

"Oh my God," came faintly from the blanket heap. "I was singing?" There was a faintly wistful plea in the tone of his voice, begging her to deny the question.

"Yep," Priss confirmed, a grin spreading across her face. "You weren't half-bad either ...I've heard you when you've sounded a LOT worse than last night." She gave him a speculative look as he groaned. "You know, if we could teach you to play the guitar you could almost stand in for a couple of the guys in the band when they can't make a performance."

"Oh Lord, somebody shoot me," he whined, rolling over and pulling the blankets around himself again.

Priss looked heavenwards in exasperation, trying to figure out what would be motivation enough to get him out of bed; they did have a few things to do. If she couldn't get him at least upright then they'd never get anywhere. As she considered her options, an idea occurred to her. It was a bit cruel, but at least it would get him out of bed.

Turning, she walked back out to the kitchen and started searching for a large container. Finding a jug that would suit her purposes, she ran it full of cold water. Picking it up, she carried it back into the bedroom. A moment later, an agonized, spluttering bellow rang through the small apartment, right on the heels of a loud splash.

"AAAARGH!!!! PRISS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"


Sylvie closed the door to the apartment she shared with Anri with an immense sigh of relief, reaching up and pulling off the dark wig and pair of glasses she customarily wore during the day. Tossing them carelessly onto a small table, she ran her fingers through her natural hair, shaking her head to fluff it out a bit. Kicking off the high-heeled shoes she'd been wearing, she sighed again in heartfelt relief at the softness of the carpeting under her aching feet.

Padding across the small entry foyer, Sylvie made her way to the living room and flopped lengthwise on the couch. Wriggling around, she stretched a bit and made herself comfortable, propping her feet up on the arm of the couch and wiggling her toes in delight at having them free and unconfined. It was too bad she couldn't work in Sylia's store wearing her motorcycle boots; they were a lot more comfortable. She grinned to herself as she pictured the faces of some of the store's customers when confronted by a salesclerk in biking leathers and boots.

She lay like that for a while, just relaxing as her mind went back over some of the day's events, mentally making note of store concerns that she might have to look into the next day. She supposed tending the store wasn't a bad way to spend her day. It allowed her to repay Sylia for all the help she'd given her and Anri, and it also gave her a chance to develop better social skills while making a bit of spending money at the same time. She felt a lot surer of herself in public now, and she was extremely happy about that.

The sound of the bedroom door creaking open down the hall made her sit up and look around in puzzlement. As she did, Anri shuffled into the living room, rubbing blearily at her eyes as she yawned. There were wrinkles and creases in her clothes, and her hair was in disarray.

"Anri?" Sylvie asked disbelievingly, "Why are you home so early?" Anri jumped a bit, startled by the unexpected question.

"What? Oh, hi Sylvie," Anri smiled weakly at her friend and roommate, detouring over to the couch. "Doctor Toshiro sent me home because I didn't feel well this morning. I spent most of it sleeping, so I feel a lot better now."

"Really?" Sylvie asked dryly. "You don't look like you feel better to me. Here, sit down and I'll make some coffee or something." The tall brown-haired woman jumped off the couch, and gently guided Anri to a seat on the cushions before bustling off into the small kitchen adjoining the living room. After a few minutes she returned with two cups of coffee and handed one to Anri before sitting down next to her. They sat for a while and sipped at their drinks until Anri set hers over on an endtable next to the couch, and glanced hesitantly at Sylvie.

"Um, Sylvie, can I ask you something?" Sylvie nodded, watching Anri over the rim of her cup. Anri fidgeted a bit, then blurted out her question. "Did...did I do anything strange last night?"

"Strange?" Sylvie echoed, the sudden ghost of a smile pulling at the corners of her lips. "Why? Is something wrong?"

"Well," Anri hesitated again. "I...uh...I can't really remember parts of last night," she said uncomfortably. "I can remember having dinner, listening to some music, and I seem to recall some dancing going on, but there's...gaps." She spread her hands helplessly, a beseeching look on her face. "And when I woke up this morning I had tape and yellow crepe paper stuck in my hair. I tried explaining it all to Doctor Toshiro this morning, but I couldn't. Then he started chuckling, and he said I'd better take the day off." The young green-haired woman frowned a bit. "He also said something about not partying so hard the next time. What did he mean? What next time?" Sylvie laughed softly as she set aside her own cup.

"You were more than a bit drunk last night, Anri," Sylvie told her gently, "that's all; we all were it seems."

"Drunk?!" Anri went wide-eyed. "But how?! I didn't even finish the glass of wine that we had with dinner!"

"I saw Priss a bit earlier in the day," Sylvie told her. "She told me that she'd spiked the punch before it got brought up to the apartment. That's why everyone started acting a bit strange last night." She laughed softly again. "Bert wasn't too happy with her about that, apparently; he was refusing to get out of bed this morning because he felt sick, and he was threatening to get her back. She didn't look too worried, though."

"But why'd she do it in the first place?" Anri wanted to know.

"She figured everyone needed to relax a bit, and could use some help," Sylvie explained, then grinned. "And I think everyone was certainly having fun last night, although whether they knew it or not at the time is a good question."

"Fun?" Anri echoed, making a grimace of displeasure. "What's so fun about feeling sick later on? And how can it be fun if you can't remember what you did at the time?"

"I don't know," Sylvie admitted candidly, grinning. "I asked Priss the same thing, but I never did get an answer. She mumbled something about never claiming that it made sense in the first place, and changed the subject." Anri grinned back, then sobered.

"Okay then...what did I do?" Anri repeated her earlier question, but appeared to be bracing herself for the worst this time. Sylvie told her about her karaoke performance, and Anri flushed bright red for a few moments. She began to laugh as Sylvie elaborated on some of the reactions her 'costume' had engendered.

"Poor Bert," she giggled, "it just wasn't his night, was it?"

"Don't worry," Sylvie told her dryly, "he'd lost a fair number of his hang-ups by later in the evening; when Linna started a card game that somehow turned into strip poker, he wasn't even flinching." Anri laughed even harder at that.

"Did he lose anything?" she asked when she'd regained control of herself.

"I've got his sweater," Sylvie grinned. "I'm going to wear it around later in the week and see if he's got the nerve to try and get it back."

"That's mean, Sylvie," Anri admonished, then spoiled the effect by breaking up into another fit of giggles. "Can I watch when you do?"

"Certainly," Sylvie smiled, a wicked glint coming into her eyes. "The more the merrier."


Sylia sat at a console in the data control room, aimlessly drumming a pen on a notepad as she stared contemplatively into space, frowning a little. She hadn't had much luck trying to concentrate on her work for some reason. She'd certainly recovered enough from her indisposition of the morning to be able to focus again, but it eluded her, staying just out of reach. It was mildly annoying, actually.

There was a restless, anxious feeling building in her, and she didn't like the premonitions she was getting from it. She supposed some of the reports she was getting from Fargo might be a contributing factor, but there was no single source for her anxiety, and that galled her. She'd never been overly bothered by amorphous, ephemeral worries before, so why had it started to affect her now?

A tentative knock on the door attracted her attention, and she swiveled her chair towards the door as it eased open a bit, and a familiar face peeked around the corner.

"Um, Sylia? Can I talk to you for a few minutes?" Nene's eyes were full of uncertainty, and her entire demeanor was agitated. Evidently, something was wrong, Sylia noted to herself.

"Certainly," Sylia gave her a welcoming smile. "I'm not busy at the moment." She set her pad and pen aside and logged herself out of the computer system as the younger woman opened the door fully and stepped into the room. "Pull up a chair," Sylia suggested as the young red-head looked around, "I presume you just came from work, so you must be tired."

Nene nodded, and dragged a chair from another console across the floor. Sylia tried not to wince at the squeal the legs scraping on the floor tiles produced and gave Nene her full attention as she sank into her chair with a grateful sigh. Sylia waited patiently, folding her hands in her lap as Nene fidgeted in her chair for a few moments, looking at the floor and biting her lip as if deciding how to broach whatever the subject was that she wanted to discuss. She finally sighed and lifted a troubled, green-eyed gaze to meet Sylia's.

"I had a sort of strange conversation at work today," she told Sylia, then hesitated for an instant again, "and I'm not really sure what I should do now."

"Tell me what happened," Sylia replied simply. "We'll decide what to do after that."

Nene took a deep breath and proceeded to outline her somewhat clandestine talk with Leon in the cafeteria. Sylia listened intently, trying to read Nene's emotional state at the same time. It was obvious that she was a bit disturbed by the turn of events, but there was something else there as well, almost like growing defiance, although defiance of what Sylia couldn't tell.

"I told him I'd think about it," Nene finished, "and I haven't been able to think of anything else since then."

"Do you know why he suddenly asked you?" Sylia asked directly.

"Well, I haven't been showing off, if that's what you mean," Nene replied slowly. "I've always been pretty careful at work not to give too much away...but I guess he noticed anyway." She paused a moment to think that over. "He might've asked because I have bugged him about the occasional case a time or two," she said dubiously, "but I don't see how he could've drawn a conclusion about my computer ability based on that."

"Well, he only has suspicion to go on so far, from what you've told me," Sylia mused. "The question now, is what do you intend to do? Are you going to accept the offer?" She looked at Nene with a clear and direct gaze, her brown eyes totally serious. Nene flushed a bit and looked away, as if caught at something.

"I don't know," she replied honestly. "I mean, I like the job I have now, but..." she squirmed in her chair a bit.

"But you're bored," Sylia supplied, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"Yes! No! I mean...I don't know," Nene repeated helplessly, floundering around as she tried to justify herself. "It's okay at times, but at others it's really frustrating." She gave Sylia an imploring look. "I'm not going anywhere though, Sylia; I'm not doing anything except filing someone else's reports, and occasionally getting drafted for traffic duty." She made a face at that, remembering some very long shifts of handing out tickets. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life stuck in the support staff."

"Then why don't you try it out?" Sylia suggested. Nene suddenly looked stricken.

"Because I don't want to jeopardize what I do for the Knight Sabers," she replied, wringing her hands together agitatedly. "I like what we do as the Knight Sabers, and I can still get information for us where I am now a lot easier than if I move up to somewhere where I'm more visible. It's easier to hide my hacking when I'm in a large group of people than if I get into a small specialized department."

"Nene," Sylia said gently, "you don't have to subjugate your career aspirations to the demands of the group. You're free to advance however you wish; I'm not going to tell you how to direct your life." She smiled. "I'd actually be a bit worried if you weren't interested in Leon's offer; you've always been a bit ambitious where the ADP is concerned."

"Really?" Nene's eyes brightened, and she appeared relieved. "You don't mind? I mean, I felt sort of guilty for thinking about it..."

"I don't mind," the leader of the Knight Sabers assured her. "I think it's a good opportunity for you, and I know you well enough to know that you'll be careful not to give yourself away." She paused for a moment, regarding Nene thoughtfully. "Actually," she continued, "you might be in a better position to get access to critical information if you take this new position; nobody would question you about accessing it if you're supposed to be investigating something. You'd still have to be careful, though," she added as an afterthought.

"Oh, I will be!" Nene was suddenly bubbling with enthusiasm. "Thanks, Sylia!" Nene giggled, then, suddenly sober, cried, "Oh, I'm late!" as she glanced at her wristwatch.

"Late? After last night, you're going out again already?" Sylia's abused stomach flopped again, and she shuddered mentally at the thought.

"Well, yeah," Nene replied, a little confused at Sylia's reaction. "Linna and Anri and Sylvie and I are taking Priss out to dinner to celebrate her birthday. Want to come along?"

"No, thank you," Sylia replied with a sickly smile. "Just remember not to get too carried away," she admonished as they stood up together.

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," Nene deadpanned, then giggled again at the look of consternation that appeared on Sylia's face at her choice of words. "I'll be careful," she promised before turning and almost skipping cheerily from the room.

"God, how I hate when people say that to me!" Sylia muttered to herself, shaking her head.



The night hung inky-black curtains of dampness across the sprawling city. In several locations, faintly glowing streetlights and signs tried to pierce the murky fog that was cloaking the city in darkness, without notable success. Cars moved cautiously through the streets and highways, carefully navigating the tangled thoroughfares as their drivers tried to get home without mishaps. The thick night air seemed to muffle sound itself, and the normally boisterous city was muted, as if it was waiting for something to happen. It was an unsettling night, full of semi-palpable menace.

A crimson beam tore through the darkness, briefly casting harsh shadows over the dark side street; a blue combat boomer collapsed into a smoking heap as its chest was blown out through its back in a spray of nutrient fluids and armour shards. A silver-and-blue garbed hardsuit advanced towards the smoking remains, its helmet swiveling around as the suit carefully probed the darkness for any new foes. Finding none, it sighed, partly in relief, and partly in annoyance; he'd been hoping that there would still be a couple of boomers to thump.

"SkyKnight to Saber Prime," Bert radioed. "I've just mopped up the last one; I think that accounts for them all."

"Good work," Sylia Stingray's voice replied over the helmet communications channel. "Any problems?"

"Not at this end," SkyKnight replied, looking around again. "It's awfully quiet out here, though. I.... hello? Hello?!" SkyKnight reached up and tapped the antenna wings on his helmet irritably, as the signal from Sylia suddenly disintegrated into loud, squealing static. "Sylia? Anybody there?!" he tried again, switching to the backup frequency; no response. Static hissed malevolently at him from that channel as well. Bert frowned at his helmet display as his suit computer declared every system fully operational. If everything was fully operational, then why had his communicator just died?

Uneasy suspicions began crawling around his mind as he stood there, still trying to re-establish communications and running systems checks; he'd never had an equipment malfunction before, not as immediate and as total as this one seemed to be. At least, one system had never just suddenly quit functioning without warning.

The surrounding darkness suddenly felt oppressive and menacing as he realized he was momentarily isolated from his friends. Common sense abruptly re-asserted itself, banishing the momentary flash of fear he'd felt; the smart thing to do would be to get back to the rest of the team right now, before anything happened.

SkyKnight stepped forwards, his flight wings snapping into extension on his back. The whine of jet turbines being brought to full power began to pulse through the air. As he ran through a last, quick preflight check, something clanged in the darkness behind him.

As the silver-and-blue Knight Saber started to spin around, a long, snake-like metal tentacle flashed out of the darkness, and wrapped itself around his armoured neck. A second tentacle followed it at almost the same time, wrapping around the legs of the startled hardsuit at knee level. SkyKnight was easily jerked off of his feet by the tentacles to hang suspended in mid-air, in front of a large, dark grey mech. The mech was a four-legged robot, with a large cannon assembly hanging from the front. As SkyKnight struggled to free himself, the cannon began lining up on him, and an ominous blue glow began to form in the gaping maw of the gun.


"SkyKnight!! Do you read me?! SkyKnight!! Damn it!!" Sylia swore in frustration, angrily shutting off the squealing channel, spinning around towards Nene's red and pink armour suit. The sensor antennae built into the slender red-headed girl's suit were all extended, and the suit was humming audibly with the effort and energy it was putting into scanning for SkyKnight. As Sylia turned, the familiar blue and green shapes of Priss and Linna came into range, dusting themselves off from the brief scuffle that had just ended.

"It's no good, Sylia," Nene reported before Sylia could ask. "I can't get any kind of signal at all. There's some kind of a massive jamming field around; it just kicked in, and it's blocking out everything. I can barely detect our own hardsuit transponders, and we're standing right next to each other."

"Do you know which direction he was broadcasting from?" Priss queried, stepping forward and taking a quick look around again. She needn't have bothered; the mangled, smoking remains of the ten C-55E boomers they'd fought earlier weren't going anywhere, and there was nothing else out there to see except the night. Nene nodded.

"He was transmitting from northwest of here, a kilometer or so out," she replied. "I can't really be sure if he's moved or not since then, though."

"Well then let's get the hell going!! What are we waiting for?!" Priss snapped. With that, her jump jets propelled her off into the darkness.

"Priss!" Sylia tried calling her back for a moment, but it was a useless attempt; the blue hardsuit was already far ahead of them. "Come on!" Sylia ordered. "Let's not get split up any further than we are now!" It looks like it's going to be one of those nights, Sylia sighed to herself. Why could nothing ever work out simply, without all the extra hassles, anymore?!

The three remaining Knight Sabers sprang into the air on quietly hissing jets, and sped off into the darkness after Priss.


"Damn you, you godforsaken bastard!" SkyKnight snarled under his breath, thrashing around again and trying to pry loose the slowly constricting coil around his upper torso and neck. It was no good; he couldn't get any leverage at all to use his hardsuit strength to get free. Using his jets was also out of the question; the mech had far too much mass to budge.

The tentacles gripping him seemed to be covered with some kind of high-tensile steel compound, and the actuators were fantastically strong, putting some serious pressure on his suit; it was getting hard to breathe as the cable around his neck began crushing the armour. He couldn't even begin to get it pried loose from his throat. He also couldn't figure out just what the strange mech holding him was after; despite having armed its weapons, it hadn't tried to kill him outright. Not yet, anyway.

As he vainly wrenched at the clinging cables again, SkyKnight suddenly realized that the mech holding him looked vaguely familiar. It was very large, with four segmented legs. The body looked reminiscent of a futuristic space fighter, except that there was no transparent cockpit canopy, just a swiveling sensor pod mounted on the front. All in all, the mech looked like a giant crustacean. It took a minute or two, but he finally recognized it: The GD-42?! Impossible! Damn it, what the hell was going on here?!

"SkyKnight to Saber Prime!!" Bert tried transmitting again. "I need some help now, damnit!!" There was no response to his frantic entreaty; static snarled menacingly at him from the helmet comm.

Beginning to panic now, SkyKnight deployed his right-hand lightsaber grip, preparatory to slashing through the cables. As the handgrip extended, though, whoever was piloting the mech noticed the action, and took steps to prevent its prey escaping.

"AAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGHHH!!" With a brutally wrenching jolt, the two tentacles snapped the silver hardsuit between them into a taut, stretched-out position parallel to the ground. At the same time, one of the mech's legs swept out and up in a devastating kick, slamming into the silver Knight Saber's spine, and bending him backwards around it as the tentacles maintained a tight hold on him.

White light flared agonizingly in Bert's vision, and his breath deserted him. Stunned and gasping, he was unable to do anything to lessen the impacts that followed. The mech released his upper torso, and proceeded to use the grip it had on his legs to flick him through a nearby brick wall, twice, in different locations, like someone cracking a whip. Loud clangs and crunching noises sounded in his ears as the numbing collisions with the wall battered him into semi-consciousness. Sparks flickered through his sight, and darkness began edging his perceptions; his suit hadn't been breached, but the physical shock alone was deadly enough to cause serious harm.

There was another clang as the mech dropped the silver Knight Saber to the pavement for a moment. He flopped around on the ground awkwardly, gasping and coughing, fighting to get his wind back. Had he been able to think clearly, SkyKnight could have used the opportunity to escape, but he was too groggy from the pummeling he'd received to even try.

As he automatically tried to roll over and get up, one of the metallic tentacles slithered down again, and wrapped itself around his arms and upper body, tightly pinning his arms to his sides. The tail end of the tentacle again encircled his armoured neck and applied a tight choke-hold. The second tentacle entwined itself around his legs.

Its prey thus securely restrained, the greyish mech lifted the battered silver hardsuit up, and carried it off into the darkness.


"Whatever it was, it must have taken Bert with it," Linna noted quietly. Her helmet swiveled around as she looked around at the crumbled masonry near where a dead C-55E lay splattered across the pavement. Huge holes were in a nearby wall, but it was obvious that they had been made by physical impacts. Large fragments lay scattered all over, but there was no sign of a firefight; whatever had grabbed SkyKnight had managed to do it without creating a disturbance, and that by itself was disconcerting.

"He was definitely here," Priss declared. "Look at this!" She pointed, and Sylia followed the direction she was indicating; silver paint had been scraped off onto the stone of some of the masonry and brickwork.

"Damn it," Sylia muttered to herself as worry intensified. She hoped he was all right, but couldn't shake the feeling that they'd better locate him, and fast. She glanced skywards for a moment. "Sylvie?" she radioed the distant KnightWing. "Anything on your end?"

"Negative," came the reply. "I can barely see your transponders on the scopes, and Bert just isn't showing up at all."

"Roger that. Keep scanning." Sylia sighed, stifling the urge to swear. Why did everything always have to be difficult?!

"Sylia!" Nene called, beckoning with a hand. She was standing out and away from the damaged building, her posture indicating that she was looking at the ground. Sylia, flanked by Priss and Linna sprinted over. Nene indicated a large, vaguely greasy-looking stain on the pavement where something had eaten into the concrete.

"That stuff matches one of the chemical compounds from that shoulder gun of his," Nene explained. "If it's a steady leak and it lasts, we can probably track him with it."

"Do it," Sylia ordered. "We've got to find him. Fast."


"You open his goddamn helmet!! I'm not touching that thing until I'm bloody sure it's safe!!"

"He's trussed up like a turkey, you spineless dipshit! He can't do anything to you!"

"If you're so friggin' sure, YOU open it then!!"

Bert opened his eyes, wincing as sharp pains lanced into his head from where his neck had been wrenched around. The view in his helmet viewscreen was upside-down, and after a moment, he realized that whoever his captors were, they'd hung him up by the heels. He'd have to get loose quick, and then get the hell out of wherever it was that he now found himself.

As SkyKnight started to squirm, the horizon in his helmet screen flipped right side up, and sudden crushing pressure on his suit immobilized him. He realized that the mech was still holding him captive, and the voices that he'd heard must have come from down on the ground. He had started to try to over-power the tentacles gripping him, when the end wrapped around his neck and helmet suddenly squeezed and twisted, as if the mech was trying to pry his head off.

"I'd suggest you quit trying to escape," one of the voices he'd heard earlier commented. "You'd save yourself a lot of pain if you do. Are you gonna behave now?"

"S-s-screw y-yourself, y-you asshole," SkyKnight gritted, trying desperately to get enough air as the pain from his abused neck began to mount in intensity and his hardsuit began to creak ominously from the stress. Damn it, if only he could just get enough slack to get a hand free...

"I'll take that as a yes, then," the voice replied. SkyKnight's stomach seemed to flip briefly as the mech whipped him downward, slamming him roughly into the ground. The cable arms twisted around, and he found himself forced into a kneeling position on the asphalt, still securely bound by the steel cables. The mech quit trying to use his head like a champagne cork, and he sighed in relief to himself as the pain and discomfort receded. He looked around, finally interested in just who his captors were.

Two men in dark blue or black clothes, wearing light helmets with semi-opaque faceplates that made identification impossible, stood several feet away, near a large, nondescript transport truck. It looked like they were in an old abandoned warehouse somewhere, but there were plenty of derelict buildings in MegaTokyo, so that didn't give him any helpful information. A grimy set of fluorescent light fixtures provided sickly illumination from nearby, and a battery-powered lamp glowed cheerily by the truck. One man held a large rifle-like device, and the other held a small gadget that looked like a portable scanner. The man with the scanner was pointing it at him, frowning at the readings.

"This damn thing is useless," the scanner wielder spat, stuffing the offending device into a belt pouch. "I can't get a useful thing out of it; we'd get more by looking at him visually." The rifle-carrier shrugged.

"We're supposed to wait anyway," he replied. "Relax; he's not going anywhere."

"Confident, aren't you?" SkyKnight put in. The two men looked at him briefly, then ignored him. That, in a way, was worse than being captured.

Bert ran a quick system check of his suit as he sat there helplessly; it helped keep worry at bay, and he wasn't sure just how badly he'd been worked over anyway. His body said that it had indeed been a severe beating; he ached all over.

His stomach plummeted as a glaring red message flashed onto his viewscreen. The rough treatment had damaged the heat sink system that provided all of the cooling for his suit systems; he now had maybe thirty-five percent of the cooling capacity needed for trouble-free operation. That his shoulder-mounted weapons had been wrenched from their mounts had only added to the internalized damage. He now ran the risk of overheating and blowing out his suit powerplant if he tried anything beyond just fleeing.

Bert began to sweat as he realized that whatever he tried now was going to have to work the first time; the likelihood his powerplant blowing wouldn't allow any second chances. And it stood a good chance of failure anyway; he couldn't avoid using any weaponry to get away, and his weapons systems were by far the hottest parts of the hardsuit.

SkyKnight tentatively tensed himself to see how attentive the robot was. Very attentive, he noted a moment later, wincing as the cables tightened, then loosened in a silent warning. Shit! Bert swore mentally. In all the tight spots he'd been in during his career, this one looked the most hopeless, and it was a little hard not to panic. He swore at himself several times, in scorchingly unflattering terms for getting caught with his guard down in the first place. Damn it, one would almost think that by now, given everything that had happened in the past, he'd keep a warier eye out for trouble, especially since he knew that there were people gunning for the Knight Sabers.

As he sat there stewing over his predicament, slow and steady footsteps sounded out in the darkness beyond the warehouse door, drawing nearer, and there was the dull thud of someone extremely heavy shadowing the lighter footsteps. Two people, then. SkyKnight tried once more to see if he could get a hand free, and resisted the impulse to cry out in combined frustration and anger as the mech's tentacles again tightened slightly.

A light-coloured shape appeared in the darkness, gradually resolving into a tall, well-built man in a grey suit with blond hair and steely-blue eyes. Immediately behind him walked a bulky, blue-armoured C-55 boomer, evidently acting as a bodyguard. SkyKnight recognized Hollister immediately; his muscles tensed and he tried to break free once more, the sudden urge to physically dismember his nemesis taking over.

SkyKnight managed to suppress an enraged shout, as the tentacles binding him tightened yet again. Red waves of pain swam through his sight, and after a moment of infuriated thrashing, the silver Knight Saber relaxed again, wanting to cry and howl in fury at being held helpless. A noise suspiciously like a snarl did escape his bound form, though, and he glared at Hollister, the man who'd once sat smirking and joking while he'd been writhing in total agony.

That, combined with everything that had happened when the rest of the Knight Sabers had gone after him, made SkyKnight want to kill the grey-suited man as slowly and as excruciatingly as possible. He wanted Hollister to suffer as greatly as everyone he'd injured had.

Caution suddenly cut through the veil of anger running rampant through his mind, as the sudden strangeness of the way he'd been captured struck him. It had been very smoothly and quietly accomplished, as if his captors didn't want the rest of the Knight Sabers involved. A vague, amorphous suspicion of what was going to happen began to form in the back of his mind, and cold, clammy tendrils of fear ran down his backbone.

"Excellently done, gentlemen," Hollister's suave, cool voice complimented the two guards standing nearby. The grey-suited man ran an appraising gaze over the silver hardsuit. "We've acquired exactly what we were after, with no problems and no fuss."

"Thank you, sir," they chorused. Hollister didn't acknowledge them further, but walked over to stand a few feet away from the restrained SkyKnight, the blue boomer shadowing him.

"Mind telling me what this is all about?" SkyKnight asked, trying to sound like he didn't know what was going on.

"Don't play innocent," Hollister advised coolly. "I think you know exactly what this is about. You're one of the Knight Sabers, SkyKnight I believe is the sobriquet you use, and I believe I have some unfinished business with you."

"I still don't know what you're talking about. I'd remember meeting scum like you if I'd....AAARGGH!!" SkyKnight's voice cut off, turning into a pained yell as the mech tried turning his spine into a pretzel, bending him over backwards. The pressure eased, and the tentacles forced him again to a kneeling position. Hollister had an amused smirk on his face, and Bert's gauntleted hands clenched in helpless fury as the smug bastard shook his head.

"Let me tell you a story," Hollister began in a folksy manner. He pulled up a nearby crate and sat down. "Here's the condensed version: A few months ago, my partners and I acquired some sexaroids for a project we were working on. At the same time, we ran into someone who'd been helping them, but we couldn't identify him. A short while later, he escaped, helping the sexaroids to escape at the same time, and in the process he destroyed one of our temporary operating locations. Some time after that, my partners and I found ourselves confronted by the Knight Sabers, whom we'd never inconvenienced in any way whatsoever. They trashed yet another of our operating locations, and I found myself wondering just why they'd taken an interest in our little business." Hollister paused, looking thoughtful. SkyKnight remained silent, sudden dread of what was coming gnawing at his guts.

"I checked back on the history of the Knight Sabers, what there was of it," Hollister continued, "and found out that they'd been involved with a sexaroid-related incident before: that D.D. Battlemover fiasco that SDPC botched big-time. The coincidence was a little too neat for my tastes; further checking revealed that no remains of the battlemover pilot had ever been found. That, of course, led to the conclusion that one of the sexaroids we'd acquired had been the one involved with the battlemover, which explained why the Knight Sabers intervened: they evidently considered her their property for some reason. However, since we were very secretive in how we acquired the 'roid, there was no way for them to have known it was us," Hollister paused, staring intently at the now rigid silver suit. "No way, that is, unless one of them had been involved earlier. Since their membership at the time was four women and one man, it wasn't a great leap of logic to conclude that the red-haired irritant we'd dealt with before must be SkyKnight."

"You're smoking drugs, buddy," SkyKnight said, managing to briefly ignore the sudden dryness in his mouth and the tight feeling in his guts that had appeared as he'd listened to Hollister. "I don't know anybody with red hair." Oh God, somebody had finally figured out who he was, or thought they had.

"Go ahead, keep bluffing," Hollister said smoothly. "I know that when we pry that helmet off you, we're going to find a red-haired pain-in-the-ass inside that suit, and then we can really get down to business."

"You went to all this trouble just to find out who I am?" SkyKnight stalled, mentally bracing himself for some kind of action. He couldn't just sit there and let them expose him; his mind raced frantically, trying to find something to try.

"Not quite," the blond-haired man replied. "We were interested in your suit technology, and this was just icing on the cake, really. If I'm right, and I know I am, then we're going to get a great deal of satisfaction out of wringing what you know out of you. This time I'll be able to do it properly, and you're going to sing like a canary when I'm done."

"You're out of luck, then. I can't carry a tune in a bucket."

"Fine. Make stupid jokes," Hollister sighed. "You won't be laughing much longer, I promise you." With that, the grey suited man stepped forwards, his hands reaching towards SkyKnight's visor. SkyKnight jerked his head away, and tried yet again to get free, but the cables entwining him squeezed him into immobility. The pressure was so great he could barely breathe, even with his armour's protection. Hollister's mouth twitched in an almost-smile at his effort.

"You can't get away," he informed Bert. "Just accept it." His hands grasped the red-eyeslotted visor, and tried to open it. Hollister frowned as it remained stubbornly closed. He stepped closer to the imprisoned hardsuit, braced himself, and reefed on SkyKnight's helmet again, pulling up on the visor with one hand, shoving down on the suit with the other. Other than bending Bert's head back, he couldn't budge the helmet.

"Open that damn visor," Hollister ordered flatly, stepping back as an irritated expression at being thwarted appeared. "Open it now, or we'll tear it off."

"Screw yourself, jackass," SkyKnight retorted defiantly. He gave quick thanks that he'd managed to talk Sylia into adding locks to the helmet visors. Trying to find out who was inside their hardsuits was a favourite pre-occupation of a lot of their enemies, and sealing the visors partially eliminated that risk. Now the hardsuit helmets could only be opened by the suit's wearer, or another Knight Saber with the proper access codes.

"Fine, be obstinate," Hollister snapped. He made a curt gesture to the boomer nearby. "We'll just rip it off, then." The towering biomechanoid clanked forwards, red eyes flaring balefully.

"No!! Goddamn it, NO!!" SkyKnight started thrashing again, ignoring the pain that began to build as the mech tried to control him. The boomer would probably break his neck trying to pull off the helmet while he was helpless, armour or no armour. It was do-or-die time, Bert realized; this was his last chance to try to escape. Gritting his teeth, he threw full power to all his suit systems, then gave the emergency overdrive command to his suit computer.

Instantly, power hummed and crackled through the suit's myomeric musculature, temporarily tripling its output. The interior of his hardsuit quickly became uncomfortably warm, almost hot, as his powerplant began to overheat from the sudden demand. Bert threw everything he had into one last heave; the tentacle holding his arms at his sides sheared with a protesting metallic shriek and a flurry of sparks. A blue-white energy blade sizzled into existence split seconds later as SkyKnight slashed off the end of the other cable binding his legs.

A tremendous clang resounded in his ears as he was thrown backwards, past the grey mech towering over him, by a driving uppercut from the C-55.

The silver Knight Saber rolled, twisting desperately to his feet as the C-55 charged him, intent on finishing him off. Four crackling red energy beams blasted through the air, and bisected the biomechanoid, dropping it instantly into a smoking heap. SkyKnight quickly dodged a leg swipe from the mech, and began sprinting for what he thought was the exit, ignoring everything else except the need to escape certain disaster. As he ran, Bert was prayed fervently that his suit would hold out just a little bit longer.

It didn't.

There was a sudden power surge from his malfunctioning systems, and the suit actuators burned out along with most of the other essential systems. SkyKnight staggered, tripped, and fell heavily to the floor with a ringing bang as the suit suddenly became dead weight on his limbs; he saw stars briefly as his faceplate smacked into the concrete flooring. Without the suit motive systems, he was left wearing nearly two-hundred pounds of armour plating and circuitry that had to be moved manually. Given time, he could still move, but time was a luxury he didn't have.

"Well, well, well," Hollister's voice said contemplatively from somewhere behind him. "Technical difficulties? That's too bad." There was a grunt of effort, and he felt himself being turned over to lie on his back, staring up at the rafter-laced ceiling overhead. A smirking Hollister towered over him, the grey mech looming even larger behind him. The smirk disappeared when Hollister, bending over, again tried to open his visor, and found it still sealed shut.

"Stubborn, aren't you?" he observed. Sighing, he straightened up, turning towards the armed men standing nearby; they'd been caught by surprise by the sudden flurry of events, and hadn't had a chance to move. "We'll have to improvise; get me one of the demolition charges, with a timer."

Inside his suit, Bert began to really sweat, as fear began shredding his mind.


"Sylia!!!" Priss hissed angrily. "What the hell are we waiting for?! We've got to get him out of there now!" She pulled back from the shattered windowframe she'd been peering through; through the aperture, the Knight Sabers could see a silver-clad form laying on the floor, with a large mech standing menacingly over him. They'd arrived in time to see his last-ditch escape attempt, and were now in a quandary over how to proceed.

"Shut up and let me think!!" Sylia shot back tightly as her mind raced. "We can't just charge in with our guns blazing."

"They're gonna either kill him or find out who he is, damnit!!"

"I know that!!" Sylia snarled, rounding angrily on Priss' blue hardsuit. "But we've got to have some kind of a plan first!"

"Think fast, then," Nene's voice cut in, a slight quaver evident in it. "They've just put something on his suit that my sensors say is a bomb."

Sylia swore softly to herself, feeling time steal away from her like sand through her fingers. Part of her did want to just charge in like Priss wanted to, but a blind charge wouldn't help SkyKnight; they had to have some kind of plan....

"Sylia, what do you want us to do?" The note of urgency in Linna's question drove the fear and concern from her mind, leaving a fatalistic resignation in its place. So much for not blindly charging in.

"All right," Sylia said crisply, "this is how we're going to play this: Linna.."


"This is what's called a 'shaped charge'," Hollister explained, as he bent down and placed a flat, black, rectangular object on SkyKnight's chest armour. The device stuck immediately, as if being held in place by some kind of adhesive. By tilting his head, Bert could see a digital LED readout on the end of the gadget. The timer started running as he watched.

"Marvelous invention," Hollister proclaimed, stepping back. "A shaped charge directs most, if not all, of its force into one blast in one direction, sparing the surroundings any damage. It's directed at your chest right now, by the way."

"Great," SkyKnight croaked through a now thoroughly dry mouth. Somebody help me, please! a terrified voice pleaded in the back of his mind. I really don't want to die, especially not like this!

"Of course," the blond-haired man suggested casually, "you could just open your helmet for us, and then we could shut it off, sparing you a very unpleasant death; I don't really know if the blast will penetrate your armour plating, but the physical shock from the concussion will turn your vital organs into thick jelly. I don't imagine that feels very nice, although it could be an interesting experiment," Hollister smirked.

SkyKnight wavered for a moment, almost surrendering as the prospect of his imminent demise loomed very large and ugly in his mind. He wanted to live, desperately so, but he didn't really believe Hollister was telling the truth. At the same time, however, he didn't want to go through another torture session, which was what would undoubtedly happen. He also couldn't betray his friends; if they got a positive ID on him, then there was a very real possibility of someone tracking down the rest of the Knight Sabers based on that information.

"Go to hell," SkyKnight replied wearily, letting his helmeted head drop back to lie on the floor. "You're not getting anything from me, you bastard."

"Suit yourself," Hollister shrugged carelessly. "We can ID the remains, then." Turning, he walked away, out of his field of vision.

"Damn it, somebody help me..." Bert whispered to himself as he imagined the timer on the bomb spinning mercilessly, counting down the seconds until he met with oblivion. It couldn't end like this! At least getting killed in a fight with a boomer had some vestiges of dignity to it. Anything had to be preferable to sweating the last five....four minutes of his life away because some sadistic bastard wanted him to crack.

It was more than his own life on the line though, and that was about the only thought that was keeping him from giving in as the dwindling numbers on the bomb timer flickered away. If it was time for him to cash in, he could at least make sure that the Knight Sabers didn't go down with him.

"You don't have much time left, you know," Hollister's voice mocked from somewhere off to his left.

A faint flicker of anger suddenly burned in the back of his mind, igniting a few coals of stubborn defiance; all right, even if the explosives did kill him, at least he'd still be trying to move when the bomb went off. He wasn't going to just lie there and let the smart-mouthed bastard spout off.

Bert swallowed against a dry mouth again as he tried moving his dead suit, but couldn't get the leverage necessary to roll over to a crawling position; his suit was just too bulky and awkward when unpowered to be easily moved.

Maybe he could get a hand up to the bomb and remove it instead? Gritting his teeth, SkyKnight worked at moving his arm while sweat poured down his face. With agonizing slowness, the silver-armoured arm began to lift and bend as he clumsily moved a hand towards the device on his chest.

"NOW!!!" The sharp command echoed in the cavernous warehouse unexpectedly, startling him.

Two streaks of colour, white and green, flashed over top of him, propelled by hissing thrusters as they whipped through his sight. A moment later, the thunder of gunfire, and the hissing and crackling of laser beams filled the air. There were several explosions, and a choked scream that subsided into an agonized moaning.

"Son of a bitch!!" he heard Hollister's voice suddenly howl over the din. "Get them damn it!!"

The roar of heavier weapons fire suddenly drowned out all other noise; evidently, the mech had joined the fray, as flashes of blue energy began lancing through the increasingly smoke-clouded warehouse.

"Shit!!" Bert snarled out loud as he tried desperately again to move. He was a sitting duck out in the open like he was, and the bomb timer was still running. He had two minutes left before things got messy, for him anyway. His fumbling gauntlet was unable to detach the explosive sitting on him though; it was stuck tight. Damn.

That left trying to get away as his only real option; with a grunting heave that sent screaming waves of pain racing through his muscles, he managed to roll over and flop onto his stomach as the raucous clamour of battle continued to racket around him.

Panting for breath, the silver Knight Saber began to laboriously try and crawl towards where he thought the warehouse exit was. Dimly the thought crossed his mind that he had a rough idea of what Atlas must have felt like while carrying the sky on his shoulders. Damn it, he could really use some help here...!!

"Hang on, we're here," a familiar voice came to his ears, as he felt somebody clamp a solid grip on his suit and lift him up. After what seemed like an eternity, Priss succeeded in carting his dead weight around the corner of the doorway, out of sight and out of the warehouse into the loading yard beyond. With a heave, the blue-hardsuited woman flipped him around so that he was sitting propped against the wall. "That good enough, Nene?"

"Yup, now just give me a sec...I've got to get a look at it," Nene replied, as her red-pink suit knelt in front of him. Reaching out, she gingerly examined the explosive stuck on the silver hardsuit as her suit sensors hummed, scanning intently.

"I have never been so happy to see anyone in my entire life," SkyKnight told the two of them feelingly, as an intense wave of relief spread through him. It died quickly when Nene swore, something the young red-head didn't normally do.

"I can't defuse it in time, Priss!" Nene called over her shoulder, sounding vaguely like she was going to panic right there; he couldn't really blame her, since he felt the same way. "It's a shielded electronic mechanism, and I can't jam it. Even if I could get it open, I'd need a lot more time to defuse it than we've got!" Bert glanced down at the device, dreading what he was going to see.

Sixty seconds to go.


Sylia flipped through the air again, boosting herself into the rafters of the warehouse as streamers of cannon fire from the grey mech below lashed out at her hurtling shape. Gritting her teeth, she flipped around in mid-air, hitting a roofbeam feet-first, bending her legs to absorb the shock. Without losing any momentum, she immediately launched herself into another flying dive to another section of the warehouse as heavy slugs tore through the air she'd briefly occupied.

Sweat streamed down her face as she twisted and dodged through the smoky air. Her suit wasn't really designed with these kinds of acrobatics in mind, but staying in constant motion was about the only way to avoid getting nailed by that mech down there. It was incredibly fast on its feet, and with its weapons. Its combat ability was nothing to sneer at either; while tracking Sylia and trying to shoot her down, it was also keeping Linna busy with its secondary weapons systems. Somehow they had to disable it, even just temporarily...

Her mind racing, Sylia banked sharply on her flight pack, ducking behind yet another roofbeam as a crackling blue energy beam seared the air just behind her.


The flashing green shape of Linna's green hardsuit vaulted and somersaulted end over end across the warehouse floor, evading the coiling and snapping metal tentacles that were lashing out in an effort to snare her. She wasn't having a much easier time than Sylia was in staying out of harm's way, especially since the mech was using weaponry designed to foil her one advantage: mobility. If she got snagged by those tentacles, it was game over for her.

Panting for breath, the green-armoured Knight Saber bought herself a few seconds by diving behind a support pillar, rolling smoothly to her feet. She used those precious seconds to examine her foe while catching her breath, trying to see if she could isolate some weaknesses of the mech's design to exploit.

Her brief respite ended as the mech stepped around the pillar, snapping its tentacles towards her again while blasting another fusillade at her leader off in the distance.


"It's no good!" Priss grunted as she staggered backwards from SkyKnight. "I can't get a decent grip on the damn thing, and it's stuck tight. Shit!!" The blue hardsuit dropped to her knees beside him as she again pried at the bomb casing on his chest armour. "We've got to get it off him!!" Her voice sounded like she was on the verge of total panic. "Nene?! Can't you do anything?!"

"No!" came the agonized response as the red-pink hardsuit stood wringing gauntleted hands. "Burning out the timer is all that's left, and I didn't think I'd need the EMP cannon tonight!!"

"Well we've got to try something else!!" the blue hardsuit declared frantically, wrenching again at the black device. "Shit, it's gonna kill him!!"

"Shoot it off," Bert said wearily, dropping his head back against the wall. A kind of sorrowing resignation filled him as he sat there. There'd been a few things he'd liked to have had time to do....

"What?!" Priss and Nene exclaimed in perfect sync. "You're nuts!" Priss snapped. "That'll just ..."

"I'm screwed either way!!" SkyKnight snarled back. "If you don't try, it sure as hell will go off, and I'll be just as goddamn dead anyway!! SHOOT IT!!" The LED readout in the device on his chest clicked down with implacable finality. Fifteen seconds...fourteen....thirteen...

"Priss, for God's sake!" he pleaded. The blue hardsuited woman reluctantly raised her arm, placing the muzzle of her arm-cannon close to the side of the explosive casing as the weapon's capacitors began to whine urgently.


"Wait!" Nene suddenly shrieked. "Shoot the timing device!"

There was a brilliant, actinic flare of orange-red light.


"Sylia! I've got an idea!" Linna's voice crackled in her ears as she ducked yet another blast of gunfire from her mechanical assailant. Her own return fire glanced harmlessly off the slick grey armour of the mech as she shot upwards in another twisting flip through the hazy air.

"I'm listening," she panted into the comm channel. "But make it quick; we're going to have to retreat soon. I can't keep this up much longer."

"Can you get a shot at that thing's sensor pod on top?"

"Maybe," Sylia replied warily, watching as Linna backflipped a few times to get out of reach of the mech. Another laser blast tore through the air towards her, again forcing the white hardsuit to dodge aside behind a support beam. "It's not going to be easy to do, though."

"I'd noticed," came the dry reply, "but I need to get closer to that thing; under it, in fact."

"Under it?" Sylia rapidly analyzed the idea with cool precision. "You think it's got a soft underbelly?"

"That, or at least no weaponry that can get me while I'm under there," Linna agreed. "Everything on that thing is designed to attack to the front or the sides; I don't think they thought of somebody getting underneath it. I might be able to cripple it enough for us to get out of here without having to fight a running battle." The green hardsuited dancer ducked and gracefully spun away from another whipping tentacle. "If you shoot the sensors, that might give me enough of an opening to get in there."

"Okay, get ready then," Sylia replied tersely. "On the count of three..."


Linna tensed, licking her lips nervously as she kept just out of reach of the mech's writhing appendages. Even though her idea sounded reasonable, she was not nearly as sure about it as she'd have liked to be. Unfortunately, extended contemplation was a very distant luxury at the moment.

"One," Sylia's voice counted over the comm. Linna shook herself mentally, taking a deep breath as she cleared her mind. In her mind's eye, she rehearsed what she was about to attempt. It had to be perfect the first time; the war machine looming over her wouldn't allow room for error.

"Two." Linna skipped back another couple of steps as a steely tentacle lashed through the air again, and then poised herself to spring.

"THREE!" Sylia's voice cracked over the channel. As Linna surged forwards, she caught a glimpse of a white hardsuit erupting out of the smoky rafters overhead, dropping downwards in a spiraling power dive, twisting around streams of laser and projectile fire. That was all she had time to see, as she shot forwards on her jets, using their thrust in place of the normal run that would accompany her next move.

As she'd anticipated, the mech speared a pair of tentacles towards her; sweat broke out on her brow as she used her jet-generated momentum to vault forwards over the snapping cables into a handspring off the warehouse floor. The world whirled crazily as the athletic Knight Saber continued her forward cartwheeling, each flip avoiding the mech's grasp with mere centimeters to spare. Above her, she could hear the thunder of laser cannons, but couldn't tell whose they were.

An armour clad leg suddenly swept out towards her in a sideways swipe, and a wave of icy shock swept through the hardsuited dancer's mind; she hadn't expected it to do that! Reflexes and conditioning took over immediately after that initial shock; with utter coolness the green hardsuited woman vaulted forwards again as the leg sped towards her. Timing it perfectly, she somersaulted through the air over it, even briefly placing her hands on the metal appendage for a pivot point as it passed under her.

Panting hoarsely, Linna rolled to her feet, and then realized she'd made it; above her was a vast expanse of machinery and armour plating, supported by four crab-like legs. Whatever was piloting the mech seemed to realize that it now had a real threat to deal with, and began dancing the machine around, trying to get her out from underneath it. She almost snorted in amusement; given the complexity of some of the dance routines she choreographed and performed, keeping pace with a lumbering mechanical hulk was absurdly easy.

"Sylia, I made it!" she radioed, all the while keeping under her bizarre dance partner as it clanked around urgently. If it wasn't for the fact that a misstep might kill her, it might even have been fun. "I'm going to see if I can take it out from here."


"Finally!" Sylia rasped in reply, gulping in huge breaths as she shot backwards into the rafters again on her flight pack. Orange-red streamers of energy sliced through the air from her gauntlet cannons, laying down a cover fire for her retreat. "That thing almost had me a couple of times." She shot sideways abruptly, avoiding the raking beams the mech fired back at her.

"You okay?!" her friend's voice came back immediately.

"Scorched, but fine," the leader of the Knight Sabers assured her. "Just hurry up down there; my power reserves are nearly shot, and I don't know how much longer I can last." She took a quick glance at her once-white hardsuit; burn marks and scrapes from near-misses marked most of its surface. Well, diving in headfirst had seemed like a good idea at the time...

Sylia winced as an incautious movement rubbed her armour against the shallow gash on her left hip. An armour-piercing slug had torn through her armour plating, grazing her. Since she had to pay attention to what her foe was doing, she hadn't been able to check on how serious it was. At least it didn't feel like it was bleeding...

"Okay, Sylia!" Priss's voice blared over the comm frequency suddenly. "We're clear and we got rid of the bomb!"

"How is he....?" Sylia hated herself for doubting, but it had to be said.

"He's alive, but I won't vouch for his mental condition," Priss replied, a faint touch of dryness in her tone. "He's a bit .... shaken up right now. We've called Sylvie, so the KnightWing should be here shortly."

"Make sure she doesn't bring the plane within range of that mech," Sylia warned sharply.

"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," Sylvie's voice cut in, adding a moment later, "Trust me."

Sylia wasn't sure whether to laugh or start panicking.


"Right about .... there!" Linna jumped upwards, driving her knuckle bomber into the underbelly of the mech, aiming for what looked like some kind of control conduit. The metal plating covering the machine's innards blew apart in a very satisfying manner from the impact of the weapon, revealing the interior machinery as she dropped back to the pavement, again resuming her dangerous waltz with the combat machine as its movements became more frenzied in trying to oust her from such an advantageous position.

The green-hardsuited woman examined the exposed wires, circuitry, and other unidentifiable gadgets as she almost absently kept pace with the mech. She wasn't an engineer, but it looked like this particular conduit ran from a control center to one of the legs. If she could cripple the mech by damaging its motive systems, they'd have a much easier chance of getting away. Well, time to get at it then.

Gritting her teeth, she sprang upwards again, leading with her knuckle bomber, energy crackling from the weapon's discharge ports as she ramped up the power feed to it. Her hardsuit arm sank into the mech up to the elbow as the resulting explosion churned deep into the delicate machinery inside, and she quickly yanked her arm back out, dropping to the pavement and bracing herself for any reaction from the mech.

The reaction she got was not what she'd been expecting; the mech stopped dead in its tracks, and she could hear rumbling from within the big robot. The green-armoured Knight Saber noted that the body of the machine was trembling occasionally, in accompaniment to muffled thuds from within. It didn't take her long to realize that she'd set off a series of some kind of sympathetic detonations within its systems. A slow grin spread across her face as she admired her handiwork.

"I don't know what you did, but good job," Sylia's voice crackled from her helmet speakers. "Let's get out of here; we've already got Bert."

"Just a second," Linna replied, glancing upwards again at the mech's undercarriage. "I want to add some insurance, and since it's being kind enough to hold still...."

Monomolecular ribbons slid with a sibilant hissing from their earpiece housings on her helmet; she'd gotten sick of having her neck wrenched by opponents who managed to get hold of them, so she'd insisted that Sylia make them retractable. Linna spun into motion, whipping the suddenly charged ribbons around in a deadly arc, striking out at one of the mech's legs behind the knee, where the armouring appeared almost non-existent.

The whistling ribbons sliced easily through the back of the joint; a split second later, it sheared in a shower of sparks and smoke before an explosion wrecked it entirely. The green-suited Knight Saber shot out from under the mech on her flight jets as the big machine began to topple over sideways.

As the mech crashed to the ground, it tried a last burst of cannon fire at its fleeing assailant; Linna winced as a few of the shots whizzed by in uncomfortably close proximity, but made it out the door of the warehouse into the friendly embrace of the night. Darkness quickly swallowed the fleeing green hardsuit.


"The GD-45 is critically damaged, sir," the technician at the monitors said uncertainly, looking up from his seat at the figure leaning over him. Hollister's face was cast into sharp relief by the flickering light from the bank of control panels and viewscreens in the back of the small van. Combined with the baleful expression on his face, it gave him the appearance of some demonic apparition.

"How badly damaged?" The quiet question carried an edge of steel to it, but the glare that accompanied the inquiry was directed at the viewscreen displaying a picture of the downed mech.

"There's no chance that we can salvage it before the ADPolice arrives," the technician replied reluctantly, watching his boss nervously. "If the transport truck hadn't been destroyed, we might have been able to do it, but...." he waved a hand helplessly. With the mech unable to move under its own power, the only way to get it anywhere was by tractor trailer transport. The warehouse firefight had been brought to the attention of the ADP however, and there was no chance at all that they could get another truck before the police arrived.

"Fine." Hollister's voice was chillingly cold. "Give me the data you collected during the fight." He pocketed the small floptical disk that the technician handed him, then stared for a moment at the monitors again. Flashing red letters ran across the bottom of the viewscreen showing the mech, giving a detailed rundown of what systems had sustained damage. The blond man's jaw clenched briefly.

"Give Team Two the go-ahead for their op," he directed the technician. "We're cutting our losses here." With that, he reached towards the console, and keyed in a code combination on a small panel. The panel flipped up, revealing a large button.

"But sir!" the technician protested, wide-eyed and stammering as he looked from Hollister's outstretched hand up to its owner. "We haven't recovered the pilot yet! He's..."

"He's fired; we can't afford incompetence on these operations," Hollister cut the man's protest off in an icy voice, and pressed the switch.

The image signal from the warehouse dissolved into snarling static.


"Everyone's aboard; let's get out of here!" Sylia ordered as the KnightWing's loading ramp snapped closed behind Linna as she scrambled into the main cabin.

"Roger!" Sylvie's acknowledgment was followed by a sharp rise in g-forces as the plane arrowed almost straight up, climbing for the high atmosphere. Linna was forced to grab wildly for a handhold to keep from being flung to the back of the cabin, and even Sylia had to make a hasty grab for something to keep from being dumped unceremoniously out of her chair.

"Sorry about that," Sylvie's apology was about a second ahead of the intended reprimand. "The ADP choppers just entered the area, and I didn't think we should stick around to get identified."

"Okay," Sylia sighed, pulling off her helmet, taking immediate relief from the delicious coolness of the cabin air on her face. "Just try and give us a little more warning the next time, all right?" She swiped a gauntlet across her forehead, pushing her sweat-soaked hair back out of her eyes, glancing down the cabin as she did so.

A very beaten-up silver hardsuit was lashed down at the back of the cabin. It was covered in gouges and cracks, and a large sooty-looking burn mark covered most of the chest armour. Nene's red-pink suit was kneeling next to the damaged silver armour, and she was carefully scanning it to assess the total damage. The suit's former occupant was seated a few feet away, his elbows on his knees and his face buried in his hands.

A blanket had been draped across Bert's shaking shoulders, partly to ward off the chill from being clad only in a softsuit, and partly in an effort to relieve shock. Priss was sitting next to him, her helmet off and her expression concerned. As Sylia looked over at them, the young singer's gaze lifted to meet hers. She glanced sideways, then back, and shrugged slightly.

Sylia stood up, and carefully made her way back to the pair. Swiveling one of the KnightWing's seats around, the white-hardsuited woman sat down across from Bert, exchanging another concerned glance with Priss.

"What happened?" she asked quietly, her glance shifting between the two.

"The bomb wasn't nearly as powerful as we thought," Priss replied equally quietly. "There was just enough of a charge inside it to scare someone with a big flash, but there was no way it would have caused any damage at all; it wouldn't even have cracked glass." Anger flickered in her eyes as she scowled suddenly. "The sick bastard was probably hoping he'd crack under the threat of dying."

"That's the way he operates; he enjoys seeing people suffer," Bert's voice mumbled as Sylia opened her mouth to respond. "He gets his kicks out of watching people squirm." The tall red-head hadn't moved, and still had his head in his hands. "I don't suppose anyone was kind enough to shoot said sick bastard for me while they were down there?"

"We didn't really get much of a chance," Sylia replied. "We were too busy trying to avoid the mech."

"And I didn't see him, or I would have," Priss added, flames leaping in her eyes again. "You can count on that; I owe the sonofabitch a couple myself."

"Great." Bert huddled deeper into the blanket. Sylia glanced at Priss, and took a deep breath.

"Bert?" she asked gently, "can you tell us what happened after we lost radio contact with you?" She watched, concerned, as he heaved a sigh and sat up, dropping his hands. Haunted greenish-brown eyes met hers, and she noted how haggard he looked now; it was almost like he'd aged years in the last hour or so. After the briefest of hesitations, Priss slid an arm around him, trying to offer some support.

"I got the shit beaten out of me," he replied succinctly. "I didn't even get the chance to fire back. The mech just grabbed me and that was it."

"I can sure believe that," Priss muttered, shuddering in remembered pain at the results of her own ill-fated combat mech encounter.

"When I woke up again, I was in that warehouse, hanging like a side of beef," Bert continued hollowly. "I...I couldn't do a damn thing, and my suit was buggered up enough that anything I tried was going to likely fry my systems on the spot. Then Hollister showed up." An expression of uttermost hate appeared, and for a second his eyes seemed to glow with their own inner fire. "There he was, right in front of me, and I couldn't do anything about it!" His teeth were clenched, and his entire body had gone as taut as a coiled spring as he recounted the events.

Sylia stifled the immediate urge to shove herself backwards in her seat to get away from him. "And then what happened?" the white hardsuited woman asked quietly. As abruptly as the flash of rage had appeared, it vanished, being replaced by another haunted, almost terrified look. Priss sucked in a sharp breath at the swiftness of his mood swing, and the unexpected direction it had taken.

"Bert?!" Sylia was shocked by the sudden change as well. "What's wrong? What is it?!" Bert looked over at her, and Sylia could see bone-deep fear at the backs of his eyes.

"He's figured out who I am," came the strained reply.


Pale, sickly light washed down from the moon overhead, illuminating the wispy tendrils of fog hanging in the air. The dark shape of a building loomed large in the ethereal setting, an island of shadow surrounded by streamers of light. Not even a stray breeze rustled the leaves of the surrounding forested area, and the night air was hushed.

The droning roar of engines shattered the quiet of the night as two black streamlined shapes shot overhead. The smaller and sleeker aircraft remained airborne, skimming the treetops as it pulled tight circles around the house while the larger of the two dropped towards the ground, coming to rest in the small clearing next to the house..

Sliding doors clanked open, and a stream of lightly-armoured, black-clad men was disgorged from the helicopter that had landed. Ducking low to keep away from the chopper's still-churning rotors, the squad of men rushed towards the darkened house. As they neared it, two pairs of men split off from the main group and vanished around either side of the house in a flanking maneuver, weapons at the ready. The main group dropped into a defensive stance, coming to a halt about twenty feet from the back verandah of the house.

"All clear," a voice crackled over a radio frequency. "No vehicles. Nobody here."

"Roger. Proceed," a nasal voice crackled back. One of the shadowy figures gestured, and one of the figures ran towards the back door of the house. Kneeling at the door, the man tinkered with the lock for a few tense moments, then waved a signal to the waiting group as the door swung open. With another rush, the swarm of black clad men were across the deck behind the house, and in through the door.

Once inside, they fanned out throughout the house in pairs. Dust swirled and eddied around them as they overturned furniture and rooted through cupboards and closets. Ten minutes later they regrouped in the main living room of the modestly-furnished house. A couple of them even flopped on the couch in disgust, while some of their comrades searched the room further.

"Nothing. Absolutely squat," one of them spat, swearing as he turned away from the large brick fireplace at the end of the room. "Just what the hell did he think we were going to find here?! Allergies?!" The man sneezed violently as he inhaled some of the dust his cohorts had kicked up.

"Shut up!" the leader of the group snarled. The shadowy figure turned to another man holding a compact scanning device. "Well?"

"Behind there." The scanner operator pointed. "The bookshelf."

Multiple blazes of laser energy speared through the gloom of the room, blasting the indicated furniture into flaming splinters laced with fluttering pages of paper. Behind the resulting charred heap of debris stood a large steel slab, the faint seam running around its perimeter the only indication of the fact that it was a door.

"Get that garbage out of the way, and bring in the plasma torches," the squad commander ordered. "And tell them we've found it."


The pitch black darkness of the basement room was broken by the baleful flash of a red light that began strobing urgently in the control panel it was mounted in. Circuitry and long-dormant relays hummed with renewed life as the program driving them began to respond to the circumstances that had activated it. A single viewscreen flickered fitfully as it lit up, bathing the cluttered room with eerie luminescence.

Lines of code scrolled across the monitor as algorithms churned through the system's central processor, finally arriving at a decision. Power was routed to the transmitter arrays, and two pre-arranged, coded signals were sent. One signal was beamed to a far-distant telecommunications array connected to another computer system.

The second signal was directed to the first floor of the house above.


"I can't cut this goddamn thing any faster!" hissed the man kneeling in front of the steel wall. "Whatever the alloy is, it's too tough to just carve through it!" With that, the man flipped down the protective visor he was wearing, and returned to his work. Blue light flared again as he applied the energy beam of his cutting apparatus to the doorway, lengthening the jagged rip he'd already put into the metal. Roughly one-third of the doorway had been cut through.

"Shit!" The leader spun on his heel and stalked away, fuming. Time was marching on, and they had to get clear of the area in, at most, another forty-five minutes. The next routine police chopper was scheduled to fly by in that time, and the only way to avoid discovery was to shoot it down. That in turn would bring the regular police running, and likely the ADP as well. Damn it, they had to hurry...!!

A steely, rasping noise from the darkness of the next room caught his attention. Eyes narrowing, he made a hand signal to some of his men as he advanced cautiously towards the room. Firearms were readied, and a pair of the armoured men moved in front of the one operating the cutting gear as their leader stealthily advanced.

He stopped at the doorway, peering carefully into the room. Well, IR wasn't picking up anything... Reaching up, the mercenary fiddled with a control knob on the side of his helmet, tuning his visor to a different imaging method.

Something moved in the gloom in front of him, and even as his weapon came up, metal glittered coldly in the semi-darkness. There was a solid, wet-sounding 'thunk' as approximately four feet of edged steel drove through the unfortunate man's chest, puncturing his body armour easily. He was dead before he hit the floor, sliding off the long blade that had impaled him.

Gunfire and energy beams lanced through the room, turning it into an inferno of destruction.


The muted rumble and throb of the KnightWing's engines as it drove for home was the only noise inside the cabin as a slightly scorched-looking data disk slid from a console slot. Reaching out, Nene quietly plucked the disk from the slot and sat, absently turning it over in her fingers for a moment. The young red-head reached up and irritably brushed aside a stray lock of hair that had decided to drop into her eyes as she looked up at her silent leader standing nearby.

Sylia was still staring at the now-blank viewscreen, a pensive frown creasing her brow, her armoured arms folded across her chest. Despite her vaguely worried expression, there was an aura of intense concentration around her. She hadn't moved during the entire viewing of Bert's flight recorder data, focusing totally on what it had contained.

Nene's glance slid sideways to where her green and blue battlesuited teammates were standing, also in uneasy silence. Both Linna and Priss looked slightly pale from what they'd seen and heard, and were unsure of whether or not they should say anything. Their gazes met hers briefly, and she could see the same unease she was experiencing mirrored in their eyes.

Everyone's gaze returned to Sylia, although Nene noted out of the corner of her eye that Priss kept glancing down the cabin to where Bert was hunched over in a seat. The hardsuited rock singer kept fidgeting slightly, and biting her lip every time she looked at him, her expression uncertain and uneasy.

"Sylia?" Nene finally spoke up, the silence suddenly seeming to grate abrasively on her nerves. "What are we going to do?" Sylia blinked, and seemed to come back to them from somewhere infinitely distant. Taking a deep breath, she looked around at the rest of the team.

"Nothing," she replied calmly. "We wait."

"Nothing?!" Priss exploded. "Whaddaya mean, 'nothing'?!?! The bastard's figured out who he is! We can't just sit still! Damn it, he's sure to try and get him when he's not in his armour now!"

"Hollister has come to a conclusion based on coincidental facts," Sylia replied evenly. "He doesn't have concrete proof that his theory is correct; carrying on as if everything were normal is the best option since it won't provide further grounds for suspicion."

"But shouldn't Bert at least lay low for a few days?" Linna asked. "If Hollister has figured out who he is...."

"To the best of my knowledge, Hollister hasn't located Bert in his civilian life," Sylia stated. "Until that happens, the best way of handling this is to carry on normally. If he does know where Bert works during the day, a sudden disappearance will only confirm his suspicions."

"Oh, so you're gonna use him as bait then?!" Priss retorted savagely.

"What would you have me do, Priss?!" Sylia snapped, finally revealing some traces of strain. "Hunt down Hollister's organization and destroy them? you know where they are?! How many men there are? What kind of ordnance they're carrying? Well?!" She glared hotly at the younger woman. "I'd like nothing better than to put them out of business, but we can't right now, so just get used to the idea. You're not the only person here that's concerned about him, thank you very much!"

"Sorry," Priss apologized grudgingly, smoothing out her stormy expression. "I didn't mean it that way..."

"If you're quite finished discussing me behind my back," Bert's sardonic voice floated over to them, "do I get a say in this?"

"Of course you do," Sylia replied simply as she turned around to face him. He stood up as she walked over to him, keeping the blanket wrapped snugly around himself. "This concerns you more than anyone," she added, looking critically at him as she waited for some kind of response. His eyes met hers for a brief instant; she could see the internal strain he was under mirrored in them.

"I don't think Hollister knows my 'normal' identity either," he said slowly. "If he did, he wouldn't have tried what he attempted tonight." He paused, taking a deep breath as he fought to retain a calm appearance. "Based on that assumption, I don't think I should just vanish either, not right now at least."

"But what if he does know?!" Priss asked, shoving herself in next to Sylia. "Damn it, I ..." She suddenly flushed bright red, right to her hairline as she realized what she'd been about to say out loud. "I ... just don't want anything happening to you," she trailed off, mumbling.

"I don't either," he replied. "Especially since I know what would happen." He barely controlled the shudder that rippled through him as his hands clenched. After a moment, the seizure passed, and he became relaxed again. "But would you go into hiding if you were in my place?"

Priss was silent for a long moment, as conflicting desires warred within her. The tough, fighter part of her was opposed to the hiding idea; it wanted to go and hunt down Hollister and blow the bastard away with extreme prejudice, not cower somewhere hoping to stay unnoticed. On the other hand was the selfish urge to tell him yes, she would go into hiding; she loved him and didn't want to either lose him, or have to watch him go through more psychological problems if he were caught and interrogated again. Her shoulders slumped finally.

"No," she admitted painfully. "I wouldn't." Bert gave her a tired smile and sank back into his seat, rubbing at his eyes wearily as the long night started to catch up with him. The shrill scream of an alarm from the communications console brought him leaping back out of his seat in startlement, and he had to make a quick grab to keep from losing his blanket.

"The intruder alarm?!" Linna winced, clapping her hands over her ears as she backed away from the source of the awful noise. "Now what's happening?!" Sylia sprinted to the console, throwing herself into the seat next to Nene. She quickly punched a few keys, then frowned slightly.

"It's not coming from my building," she told them as she hit another button. "It's being relayed from..outside the city." With those words, a map of the city flashed onto the screen, showing a red blip located in one of the richer suburbs of MegaTokyo. The location was fairly isolated, and bordered on what looked like a park or wildlife preserve.

"Shit!" Priss exclaimed. "Isn't that Bert's house?!"

"Burglars?" Linna queried, then caught sight of Bert's ashen grey face. "I take it that means no?"

"The only security system at my place that's directly wired to Sylia's system is the one for my basement lab," he told her, sounding like he wanted to be sick. "Casual burglars wouldn't set it off, because they wouldn't be able to even find the entrance. That alarm means that somebody's trying to break into it."

"What exactly are you keeping there?" Sylia asked, her head swinging around to pin him with an intent gaze.

"Some odds and ends of junk, my computer, and," he hesitated, then sighed, looking even more dolorous, "and there's a hardsuit there as well."

"This is not good," Nene murmured in the tense silence that followed his statement. She didn't need to elaborate further; their hardsuit technology was what gave them the edge over their foes. If someone else were to get hold of it.

"Sylvie!!" Sylia tabbed the intercom switch. "We need to change course for the outskirts of the city, right now!"

"We can't," Sylvie's voice filtered back. "We've got just enough fuel to get home; if I have to go too far off-course now, we'll be walking. Chasing after that mech tonight cost us a lot of fuel." Bert staggered backwards and dropped into a convenient seat, his expression numb.

"How fast can you refuel?" Sylia asked, shooting him a swift glance.

"Fifteen minutes," their pilot replied promptly. "Half that if I can get some help with the hoses."

"You've got it," Sylia promised, motioning to Priss and Linna, then jerking a thumb towards the KnightWing's cockpit. "How long until we land?"

"About five minutes."

"Roger that." Sylia cut off the intercom, started to turn towards Bert, then paused to look at Nene. The young hacker was sitting quietly in her seat, watching her former boyfriend with a mixed expression of worry and concern. When she noticed Sylia's scrutiny, her expression shifted, becoming calm and businesslike.

"How badly is his suit damaged?" Sylia queried. Nene grimaced, and keyed up the results of her analysis on the screen.

"It's not good, Sylia," she replied, understating the data that was scrolling by on the screen. "Most of the control circuits burned out from power surges when his powerplant overheated, and some of the myomers in the musculature were also damaged." She shook her head. "It's got stress cracks in the frame from the pounding it took, too. It won't be operational anytime soon if that's what you meant."

"Damn it," Sylia swore softly, then sighed as she looked over at Bert, who'd quietly been listening, his face as expressionless as stone. "I'm afraid you'll have to stay back at HQ," she told him. "With your suit out of it, I'm not going to risk you getting yourself killed."

"I'm going," he retorted, his voice flat. "This is my problem as well as yours. Besides, I do have a suit."

"Oh really?" Sylia's eyebrow quirked upwards, and her tone turned a few degrees colder. "And just where did you get a second suit?" If he'd gone and built himself a new one, against her express orders...

"It's my older one," he shrugged. "It may not be up to our current standards, but it's better than nothing." Bert cocked his head at her curiously. "What's the fuss? We've always kept our old suits for emergency backups, right?" Sylia looked uncomfortable.

"Normally I wouldn't object," she said slowly, "but if these are Hollister's men again, taking old technology against them might not be the best idea under the circumstances." Bert shrugged again.

"It's armour," he replied. "So it's a little clunkier than current tech; at least it'll keep my hide intact." A wry smile suddenly pulled briefly at his mouth at that remark. "And besides, you'll need me to get past the security safeguards on my lab, assuming they haven't been breached." He looked at her, his expression quietly imploring. "Sylia, please...I've got to go along on this one."

"All right," Sylia reluctantly relented, sighing. "Just don't go charging off by yourself, okay?"


The blood-smeared merc slumped against the wall, his breath rasping hoarsely as he tried to hold his submachinegun steady with one hand. Blood dripped steadily from his other arm, which hung limp and lifeless at his side, owing to the vicious slash across his bicep. His gaze never left the doorway to the room, where a pile of what looked like crumpled metal plates lay in an untidy jumble. A foot or so away from an outflung metal gauntlet lay a bloody sword.

Shaking uncontrollably, the wounded man slid down against the wall to a sitting position. A few feet away from him, the other survivors of the carnage that had taken place worked at the unpleasant task of cleaning up the bodies; the order had come from Hollister that no identifiable remains were to be left behind. A sudden resounding crash made everybody start and look around wildly, expecting another attack.

"Okay! I'm through!" A jagged, man-sized hole gaped in the steel door they'd found before all hell had broken loose; the cut piece falling inwards was what had startled the surviving mercenaries. The torch wielder stepped back from the hole, snuffing out the plasma torch he'd been using, and began packing up his tools; he'd managed to keep working during the bloody fray that had erupted, although he'd almost gotten skewered a couple of times.

"Search the basement, and take what you can carry," came the crisp command over their helmet radios. "And make it fast; you've got ten minutes before the next police patrol gets here."

Stifling the screams that wanted to come from the jarring of his mangled arm, the injured mercenary struggled back to his feet, tottering over to the hole and taking up a guard position next to it. His comrades glanced at each other, and then began carefully entering the dark hole one at a time, weapons readied.

Unnoticed by anyone, a metallic gauntlet flexed and curled a few times, before the arm it was attached to started slowly sliding across the floor towards the nearby sword hilt. The ravaged pile of armour plates shifted slightly, and coldly glowing blue eyes lit up inside the helmet.


Long black hoses snaked across the hangar floor, vibrating as jet fuel was rapidly pumped through them into the sleek plane. A dark green hardsuit stood poised next to the pump control panel on the wall, and a blue hardsuit stood underneath the jet, assisting a red armoured suit in holding the fuel hose as it twitched and jerked from the high-pressure fuel surging through it. Out of the way of the hurried fueling, Sylia's white hardsuited figure paced impatiently back and forth. Her visor was up, and she kept turning to glance down a dimly lit side corridor.

Running footsteps clanged hollowly on the flooring, and Sylia spun towards the noise. A moment later Nene's red-pink suit sprinted into view from the far end of the corridor. Sylia waited impatiently as the hardsuited young woman charged up to her, trying to adjust a shoulder-mounted projector of some kind as she did so.

"Okay, I'm ready, Sylia," Nene reported breathlessly as she skidded to a stop in front of the Knight Sabers' leader. She shifted her armoured shoulders, reaching up and again adjusting the compact EMP cannon sitting on her shoulder. After not having had it available when it would have been useful, she'd decided that carrying it along 'just in case' might not be a bad idea. "It still feels weird carrying that thing up there, though."

"Well, that can't be helped right now," Sylia replied, then glanced irritably down the corridor again. "Where is he?! We're almost ready to leave!"

"Well, he was already in his old suit when I left the equipment room," Nene said hesitantly. "He said he had to get something else though, but he wouldn't say what."

"Marvelous," Sylia sighed disgustedly, throwing up her hands and pacing again. Clangs and whirring noises from the KnightWing announced that Priss and Linna had started disconnecting the fueling hoses. "If he's not back in the next two minutes, I'm going to..."

An explosive blast of air whipped down the hallway, carrying with it the loud whine of engines of some kind. The droning intensified to deafening levels, and dust began to swirl through the air as even more displaced air rushed from the corridor, approaching the force of a small gale as a long aerodynamic shape floated into the main hangar from the side corridor. Coloured dark blue and silver, the winged torpedo-like vehicle was hovering on downward-directed exhaust streams, exactly like a Harrier jumpjet. The WarHorse didn't stop, but shot over the stationary KnightWing, out into the darkness.

Sylia swore to herself and opened a comm channel to the silver hardsuit as she sprinted for the loading ramp of the KnightWing, reaching up and slamming her helmet visor closed. "SkyKnight!!! What the hell do you think you're doing?! Don't you dare outpace us on the way there, do you understand me?!"

Hydraulic cylinders closed the entry ramp behind her, sealing the sleek plane shut. Jet engines howled, and the KnightWing shot down the short runway at the end of the hangar, abruptly springing upwards and vanishing into the night sky.


"Come on!!! MOVE it!!!" snapped a voice. "We've only got about four or five minutes left!!"

"You try carrying this goddamn thing then!!" one of the men carrying what looked like a blue-black suit of armour wheezed back irritably. "It's not exactly light!" He swore again as he tripped on the long cape that was attached somehow to the suit's shoulders, nearly dropping his end of the load.

"Damn it, pull that stinkin' thing out of the way!!" he snarled aloud. "I don't need any more back problems than I've got already!!" He panted for breath, sweat dripping down his face and splashing onto the inside of his helmet visor as he and one of the other soldiers awkwardly manhandled the armour suit up the stairs. Damn thing felt like it weighed over two hundred pounds, and some stupid jackass just had to go and put a cape on it...! Finally the two mercenaries managed to lug the heavy suit into the wrecked living room of the house.

"Okay, we're up," one of them reported in relief. "We should be out in another couple of minutes."

"Was there anything else down there?" a new voice inquired over their helmet radios.

"We didn't have time to really check, Mr. Hollister," the interim squad leader replied, motioning to the suit-bearers to get out of the room. "There was some computer equipment, but nothing else readily transportable."

"Fine. Get back here on the double," Hollister's voice suddenly had a touch of eager anticipation in it. "And make sure you handle that suit carefully."

"Roger that," the lead mercenary replied, watching as the suit was carried out of the room, towards the back of the house. "We're...." his voice died off as a metallic grinding noise came from somewhere behind him. He turned slowly, unwilling to find out just what had made the noise.

His fears were confirmed as he finished turning; the suit of plate armour that had attacked them when they'd found the hidden basement had re-animated itself, and was slowly climbing to its feet. Burn marks and bullet holes had turned the once-silvery steel plating into something resembling a scorched sieve, but evidently it hadn't been enough damage to permanently stop the thing. Weaving unsteadily, the suit of armour began a slow, plodding march towards the remaining mercenaries. The long swordblade it held glittered with dire promise.

"Out!!! Everybody, GET OUT!!! NOW!!!" It was hard to tell who the panicked shout came from, but everyone in the room swarmed for the doorway at the same time, resulting in a traffic jam of struggling men. One finally managed to squeeze through, and began sprinting for the back door with every ounce of speed he could get. The pile of struggling soldiers behind him fell through a moment later, just as a whistling swordblade slashed through the air, cutting deep into the doorframe and wall above them.

All semblance of dignity forgotten, the terrified mercenaries dove for whatever exit they could find, abandoning their weapons and hurdling the kitchen counters or scrabbling frantically along the floor. One man dove headfirst through a window, bare inches ahead of the swordstroke that turned the countertop he'd briefly knelt on into kindling wood.

The last of the thoroughly demoralized mercenaries burst out of the house, pursued by the clanking, lumbering armoured shape. As the mechanical knight shoved its way through the back door, two men near door of the waiting transport helicopter opened fire, covering the disorderly retreat, and the two men staggering under the burden of the hardsuit they were carrying.

Bullets whined and ricocheted off the animated armour, but its forward march didn't falter as it began bearing down on the slowest of the escapees, the men carrying the purloined suit. The sword it carried seemed to flicker hungrily in the night as the blade came up and back, poised for another swing as soon as it was within reach. One of the fleeing mercenaries ran back and started assisting the two men as they tried hurrying across the uneven ground.

The two riflemen backed towards the helicopter, firing steadily as the last of their comrades stuffed the armour through the door, and then scrambled onto the chopper. Rotor blades churned the air as they dove onto the chopper themselves, slamming the doors closed.

The dark helicopter lifted ponderously into the air, away from the implacably advancing suit of medieval armour. A moment later, its faster escort swooped around to flank it, and the two helicopters climbed higher, disappearing into the ragged, moon-lit clouds above.

For a long moment, the robotic knight they'd left behind seemed to be staring fixedly at the sky after them. With a creaking movement, the battered suit of armour dropped its sword to the ground point-first, and crossed its gauntleted hands on the pommel as it waited for a new opponent.


Wind whistled shrilly past two flying shapes as they sped towards the outlying districts of MegaTokyo, moonlight glinting off of their metallic surfaces. The KnightWing and the WarHorse were traveling at fantastic speeds through the night sky, but to Bert it seemed as if they were crawling along the ground at an agonizingly slow pace. He was positive he could sense their unidentified opponents slipping from their grasp.

"Sensors are picking up two contacts, moving away from us," Nene's voice reported over the comm channel. "It's hard to say from this distance, but I think they're attack helicopters."

"Don't even think about speeding ahead to try and engage them," Sylia's voice crackled in SkyKnight's ears even as his gauntlets began tightening on the handlebars of his jetbike. "If those are the same kind of attack choppers that Hollister had at his base the last time, you wouldn't stand a chance in an air battle."

"But I might be able to stop them from getting away..." Bert started to reply, but Sylia wasn't about to buy it.

"You might also get yourself killed," she retorted shortly. "We didn't go to all that trouble earlier tonight just to have you go and get yourself blown out of the air!"

"But Sylia!" he protested, glancing at the dwindling blips on his helmet viewscreen. At the moment, he was being piped the information from the KnightWing's sensor suites, since the WarHorse didn't mount that kind of long-range sensor gear. His fingers twitched again on the throttle and weaponry switches. "I've got to stop them!!! If they've gotten anything from my house...."

"Then we'll have suffered a minor setback," she replied quietly. "It can't be helped now; what's done is done, and ..."

"A MINOR SETBACK?!" SkyKnight threw a disbelieving glance at the barely visible, midnight black jet below and slightly ahead of him, as if Sylia could somehow receive the effect of his incredulous look. "How the hell can you say that?! I..."

"That is an order, SkyKnight," the calm, steely reply cut him off in mid-sentence. "The KnightWing is not a high-performance jet fighter; you might be able to catch them, but we can't. We're sticking together, and I expect you to respect that order. Clear?" The channel went dead before he had a chance to reply.

Swearing savagely to himself, SkyKnight watched helplessly as the blips on his display screen slowly faded and vanished entirely.


The remainder of the flight passed in stony silence. In the back of Bert's mind was a smoldering resentment at Sylia's rather peremptory order that he stay put. Damn it, he could have stopped them!! His jetbike was far faster than conventional air vehicles, and a lot more maneuverable. It would've been a snap to shoot them down..

He again stifled the panic that threatened to erupt at the thought of Hollister gaining even some of their hardsuit technology. He could already do enough damage with what he'd created himself; the thought of having someone as ruthless as him being able to supply the highest bidder with superior combat suits was even more frightening. How could Sylia call this a minor setback?!

Chilling fear knifed into the confused turmoil his thoughts had turned into. Hollister, one of his worst nightmares had re-entered the picture, and in such a way that he'd been powerless to do anything about it. The operation to capture him had been almost contemptuously easy to accomplish, and had left him feeling scared, vulnerable, and exposed. He found himself suddenly doubting if he was even all that safe in his 'normal', everyday life, and squelched that particular line of thought before it spiraled off into paranoia.

Trailing wisps of cloud rushed past him as he and the KnightWing broke through a cloudbank. Below them was spread the outskirts of the slumbering city, scattered houses of varying sizes in the midst of large stands of trees. In the moonlight, it looked like the landscape of a shadowy dream world, but he knew he wasn't dreaming; what he was likely to find was all too real.

Impatience finally took over. SkyKnight guided his jetcycle towards the earth in a power dive, the souped-up engines screaming exultantly as he angled for one particular house that was even darker than the surrounding neighbourhood. He pulled up into a low skim over the treetops as the house zipped closer.

"Bert!" Sylia's voice over his helmet speakers reprimanded him almost immediately. "I said not to go charging in by yourself!"

"There's nobody there anymore," he retorted irritably. "They got away, remember?" He bit off the sentence before his tone could turn any more acidic. After a moment, he regained a small measure of his equilibrium and continued speaking in a more reasonable tone of voice. "It's my house, Sylia; I've got to find out what happened. We're not picking up anything from there anymore, so it's a safe bet that they're gone."

"And what if they've left booby traps?!" his boss demanded. "Ones primed to get anybody who comes rushing in after they've left?"

"I don't think they had the time to do anything that elaborate, Sylia," SkyKnight replied wearily. "They likely wanted to just hit and run.they would not have had that much equipment with them, or the time to set it all up." Strained silence fell over the channel, and he could just picture Sylia's face at the moment: not happy.

The hurtling jet cycle broke over the edge of the sea of trees surrounding the isolated house, and dropped sharply towards the ground as he cut the forward thrust back. Jets whined as exhaust flattened the grass, stopping the flying machine and its armoured rider a few feet above the ground. Slowly, the WarHorse began coasting towards the darkened house.

SkyKnight's redly glowing eyeslot swept the nighttime scene before him, but both his sensors and the ones built into his jetbike found nothing. Above him, a roaring whine began to grow louder as the KnightWing caught up to him, banking overhead and starting its landing cycle. The silver Knight Saber debated with himself for a moment, and then landed his flying machine, killing the engines as it settled down on its landing gear. After casting a glance back at the lowering jetplane, SkyKnight swung off his mechanical steed, and began marching towards the house.

A humanoid shape became visible in the moonlit darkness as he neared the structure, and he slowed for a moment as he ran a more detailed scan of the shape. It registered as a metal hulk, with some trace electrical activity, but not enough to indicate functioning circuitry of any kind.

SkyKnight adjusted the telescopic capability his visor provided, and the blurred outline of the robotic figure seemed to move closer, resolving into what looked like a suit of medieval armour. Bert recognized the battered shape, and a grim smile briefly played across his face; at least part of his automatic safeguards appeared to have worked. The question was, how well?

The silver-garbed hardsuit reached the stationary knight, and stopped in front of it. Now that he was close enough, he could see the myriad holes and burn marks that had scored and perforated the entire surface of the once silvery steel. Faint smoke trails were still rising from some of the holes, and the unmistakable odour of burnt circuitry reached his nose, even through the filters in his helmet.

The robotic knight he'd built as a protector for his house didn't respond to his presence though, and even as he scanned it, the last flickers of power that had been buried deep within the wrecked automaton died completely. Reaching out, the silver Knight Saber gently grasped the hilt of the sword that the armour had been holding, and pulled it away. Moonlight flashed on the sword as he held it up, tilting it so that he could see the blade fully. A dark stain was on part of the blade's edge, and another grim smile crossed his face.

"What the hell is that?!" Linna's voice coming out of the darkness behind him startled him. He whirled, and very nearly lashed out with the long blade he held. After a confused second or two, he lowered the sword, sighing.

"Please don't do that to me," he told the green-hardsuited woman. "I've had a bad enough night as it is." He really needed to get some rest soon; this night felt like it was turning into one of the longest he'd ever endured and with everything that had happened, he could feel his grip on his self-control slipping slightly. A moment later, the hardsuits of the rest of his teammates appeared from the blackness of the night.

"So what is that?" Sylia's voice echoed Linna's question. Her helmet tilted as she looked at the dead robot standing nearby.

"That was my last line of defense," SkyKnight replied wearily. "I don't know how effective it was tonight, though."

"That suit of armour you had standing in the front hall was a boomer?" Priss asked disbelievingly. "Why the hell didn't you ever tell us?!"

"It wasn't a boomer," he snapped shortly. "It was a robot, a very simple automaton with one directive: protect the basement lab. If anyone found the lab, it was supposed to have activated and driven them off. Otherwise it was just a harmless hallway decoration."

"Just drive them off?" Sylia queried.

"If they were just lucky burglars, yes," he replied. "However, it was also programmed to respond forcefully to armed intruders. Judging by its appearance, I'd lay odds that Hollister lost some men tonight." A mild satisfaction spread through him at that thought, and a distant part of his mind was repulsed by it. He ignored the internal conflict, and sighed as he glanced at the shot-up automaton. "I guess we'll have to take it with us when we leave; it'll raise too many awkward questions if the cops find a dead combat robot lying around."

SkyKnight stepped up to the robot, and hoisted it over his shoulder, still gripping the sword he'd taken from it with his other hand. Without a word, he vanished into the darkness, in the direction his teammates had come from. The Knight Sabers waited tensely for him, the wind hissing quietly in the trees and grass.

After a few short minutes, the heavy crunch of his stride heralded his return. Moonlight flickered off the silver-clad Saber as he strode past his waiting comrades, and began walking towards the house again. At Sylia's gesture, the team fanned out and followed him.


Flickering light illuminated the room as SkyKnight pushed the switch. Ominous sizzling could be heard coming from the shattered light fixture in the ceiling, and the glow from the remaining intact bulb was fitful at best. He stepped into the room, followed by Priss's blue-armoured form.

"Holy shit," Priss's voice sounded awed as she stared around at the room. "That must've been one hell of a fight." SkyKnight didn't reply, but crunched across the debris-strewn carpeting towards the jagged hole that had been cut into the wall. Nene and Linna shoved into the room past Priss to see what she was talking about, and a low whistle came from Linna.

There were blast marks from bullets and beam weapons on almost every inch of the walls, although most of the fire seemed to have been directed at the far end of the room; there wasn't a doorframe anymore, just a ragged semi-circular hole. Dying wisps of smoke trailed upwards from heaps of debris that might have once been furniture.

"Anything, Nene?" Sylia's modulated voice drifted through the door behind them. A moment later, her white suit stood framed in the hacked-up doorway to what had been the kitchen.

"What? Uh, no, Sylia," Nene replied, once she'd recovered her voice and glanced at her scanning readouts. "We're the only ones here. No foreign devices, either." She glanced around the ruined room again, her mind reeling as she remembered what it had once looked like.

"Bert?" Priss's quiet voice broke into the blackness of his thoughts as he stood in front of the melted hole leading to the basement, his gauntleted hands clenching and unclenching. She stepped up to him, hesitantly placing a hand on his armoured shoulder. "You okay?"

"Not....really," he replied after a moment, still staring fixedly at the black hole in the wall. His mind was weltering in a complex mire of emotions, none of them easily categorized at the moment. Seeing the ruin of what he'd considered his sanctum from the rest of the world had left him feeling violated somehow, exposed. Adding to the mental anguish was the pained sense of loss; he'd really put a lot of himself into this house, and now it was wrecked beyond any hope of being rebuilt. "I...can't really.... I ...."

"I understand," she quietly assured him, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "We can talk later, if you want."

"Thanks." A part of his mind was quietly grateful to her as she stepped back, allowing him a measure of privacy at the moment. He needed time to sort out his thoughts, but time was a luxury he couldn't afford right now. SkyKnight tried shoving the confused mass of feelings to the back of his mind in order to concentrate on the task at hand; it didn't help much. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forwards, into the hole leading to what he'd once considered his inner sanctum.

The stairs creaked under his armoured weight, the sound unnaturally loud in the deathly silence of the house. As he started to step through the door at the bottom, the stairs creaked again, announcing that somebody was following him. Sylia, he figured. SkyKnight flipped the switch by the door, flooding the basement lab with pale white light.

As he'd feared, the light illuminated a shambles. Parts were strewn all over the floor, knocked down from the worktables along the walls. The bookshelves that had held technical schematics had been overturned, although it looked like the blueprints themselves were still there. At the far end of the room the massive computer, the one he'd named the 'Falcon' because of its speed, was dark except for a blinking red light on one panel. The main display screens gaped at him sightlessly, the glass from their shattered tubes littering the floor.

The sight that sent a pained shock to the core of his being, even beyond the ache of having his home wrecked, was the empty hydraulic worktable positioned in the center of the room. Bert stood there for a moment, his eyes closed as he tried willing reality to change, praying that his eyes were merely playing tricks on him. It didn't help; the hardsuit was gone. Someone else now had a sample of some of the Knight Saber technology to examine. A sick feeling swept him at the thought of what Hollister could do with that kind of technology in his hands.

The silver battlesuit walked wearily over to the mainframe computer and pulled a convenient metal crate to in front of the machine. He sat down, ignoring the ominous creaking noise it made as the sides of the empty crate slowly started to buckle.

Placing his armoured elbows on the damaged console, the silver Knight Saber slumped over, burying his faceplate in his hands. An aching sense of loss coupled with guilt worked relentlessly on him as he sat there, the turmoil threatening to drag him down into despair.

"Bert, it wasn't your fault this happened," Sylia's quiet voice knifed into his private hell, startling him; he'd been so self-absorbed, he'd forgotten she'd followed him down.

"Isn't it?" he shot back bitterly, dropping his hands and sitting up. "I was so sure that nobody would ever find this place that I never thought twice about keeping a hardsuit here. Well, now we know what thought accomplished, don't we?" He slammed a gauntleted fist onto a side console in fury; it shattered, throwing sparks and fragments of metal or plastic everywhere. "I should never have built this goddamn place, or at least never stored anything here."

"Someone else obtaining at least some of our technology was inevitable," Sylia told him calmly. "It was only a matter of time before GENOM or someone else acquired it through one means or another; they've had ample opportunity to scan our suits in the past," she reminded him.

"Yeah, but that's not the same as having a real working prototype to reverse-engineer!" he snapped. "Just how the hell can you stand there and be so calm about this?!"

"Because I've been planning for it from the start," she replied simply. "Secrets don't remain secret forever, especially not when they attract the attention of certain people with the right connections. Our technology has evolved since you built that suit, and not all that I've developed was in it."

"You can say what you want, Sylia," Bert replied wearily, "but it's still my fault. I was so cocksure that it could never happen, and it happened." He suddenly started to laugh, but there was no humour in it; Sylia could hear seething bitterness and just a trace of wildness in it.

"I think we'd better get you home," the leader of the Sabers told him, the nagging thought that he might be losing his self-control again crossing her mind. "You need rest."

"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad," the silver hardsuit declared, sweeping an arm at the devastation in the room around him.

"Pardon?!" Sylia muted her helmet speakers, and opened up the backup comm channel. "Priss, I think you'd better get down here; I may need some help getting him out of here."

"Gotcha; be there in a second," Priss's voice crackled back.

"Greek mythology," SkyKnight elaborated, still chuckling mirthlessly. "The Greek gods had a tendency to punish hubris by stripping the offending person of everything he held to be important; it almost always seemed to end in insanity and death for the offender."

"All right, that's enough," Sylia told him flatly. "It's done and finished with now; quit being morbid about it. We all make mistakes." Priss's helmet poked around the doorframe to the room, and the rest of her body followed a moment later as she entered the room, walking over to where the white and silver hardsuits were.

"Thought you needed help dragging me out?" Bert's modulated voice asked, his helmet cocking to glance at the new arrival. "I haven't gone off the deep end, yet at least." He sighed, and turned to the board in front of him, hitting a couple of keys. "I can't leave just yet; I've got to check a couple of things first."

"We don't have that much time," his boss told him as the sole remaining computer screen grudgingly lit up with a password prompt. Ominous crackling noises came from the large computer as it powered up, and wisps of smoke began to curl from somewhere inside the computer's casing.

"I just need five minutes at most." He didn't turn around as he started inputting commands into the computer. "Please, just wait outside for me; I won't be that long."

"Five minutes; then we're dragging you if we have to," Sylia warned him. She beckoned to the still-silent Priss, and the two women left. Priss paused for a moment at the door, but reluctantly followed Sylia.

Bert never noticed them leave, most of his attention focused on the computer in front of him. A quick check revealed that the computer files hadn't been accessed, for which he gave brief thanks; there was enough research material for a small library on hardsuit construction contained in those data files. It took another quick moment to open a network connection between the Falcon and Sylia's mainframe off in the city. Two minutes later, and the Falcon had dumped all of its data into her computer in an unused directory, wiping itself clean of all data in the process. Bert shut down the link and the computer and stood up. He had to force himself to his feet by placing his hands on the console for leverage; physical weariness coupled with emotional turmoil was dragging at him like an anchor.

Turning around, he stared around at the scattered technical manuals and blueprints, wrestling with himself for a moment. They weren't really important, since he had complete duplicate sets back at Sylia's lab, but it went against the grain to just leave them there. There wasn't really an alternative though; gathering them all up was impossible. Sighing, the silver-clad Knight Saber walked to the doorway, then paused, looking back for one last time at the room.

His hands clenched into fists a moment later, and a tremor shook the silver battlesuit. Capacitors began to whine, overlaid with the electrical humming of a power buildup. SkyKnight leveled his arm at the computer he'd so painstakingly put together, and a flaming bolt of red-white laser energy tore into the depths of the machine. Circuits melted and burned as choking smoke began to fill the room. More shafts of blazing energy stabbed out at the room, blasting holes into the concrete walls, and igniting anything even slightly flammable. Flames danced gleefully around the room, luridly lighting the destruction.

Above him, the entire house began to shake.


"Damn it, what the hell does he think he's doing in there?!" Priss fumed, her blue-hardsuited figure pacing angrily back and forth at the end of the KnightWing's entry ramp. "The goddamn place was trashed; there's nothing left to check on!!"

"He's deleting all his computer files, I believe," Sylia informed her calmly. "It's safer that way." She understood Priss's pacing and swearing were reflexive, masking deep concern and worry over Bert; she was sharing some of the same anxieties.

"Safer?" Linna's voice asked. A faint sheen of green armour plating in the darkness marked where she was leaning against the landing gear of the plane. Sylia nodded.

"There's no way we can hide what happened here tonight," she said simply. "The ADP will likely be investigating what will no doubt be reported as a boomer rampage. The less there is for them to find, the better."

"Well, it's been five minutes," Priss declared. "I'm going ba....." Her statement was abruptly abbreviated by the house blowing apart in an expanding cloud of roaring flames laced with debris.

"BERT!!!" It was hard to tell who shrieked first, Nene or Priss, but Priss was definitely the first to start charging towards the house, just as a second explosion shattered the night, hurling defiant flames skywards. Nene's red-pink hardsuit streaked after the blue-hardsuited woman, her sensor antennae spread and scanning full-blast.

"Priss!! Nene!!! Wait a minute!!" Sylia called after them, then swore disgustedly under her breath. "Saber Prime to SkyKnight, come in please," she tried radioing. A quiet hissing from her receivers was the only reply she got. "Come on," she gestured to Linna. "We'd better get down there; the channel is open, but he's not responding." Her suit wings folded out from their rest positions, and she lifted into the air, heading towards the burning house.

"What do you think caused the explosion?" Linna's voice queried over the comm channel.

"Probably Bert," Sylia sighed back. Her eyes intently watched her hardsuit viewscreen as she zoomed closer to the flaming ruin. "The only real way to make sure that the ADP doesn't find anything when they get here is to destroy the house and everything in it."

"But why didn't you say anything about it earlier?" Linna asked.

"How do you tell someone that they have to destroy their own home?" Sylia replied helplessly. "If I'd told him that he had to, he'd likely have been unable to do it; he had to realize what had to be done for himself. I just hope he's not still inside."

As the white and green hardsuits flew even closer to the conflagration, a rolling plume of flame erupted in the approximate center of the inferno, disgorging a flying silver shape that arced through the air in a graceful parabola, before landing on the grass several meters from the house.


Flames roared angrily behind him, matching the rumblings of seething rage that were stirring in the back of his mind. Bert gritted his teeth and forced himself to walk away from the burning structure behind him; a dull ache pounded at his temples as he walked, a headache brought on by the stresses and events of the night, and compounded by his current emotional misery.

SkyKnight's visor tilted towards the sky, and his gauntleted hands clenched into fists as he fought to contain his emotions. Smoke and ash drifted across his field of vision as he stood there, reminding him of what he was losing, and of what he had already lost tonight. With a snarled curse, the silver hardsuit blasted recklessly into the air. He had to get away from there before he totally snapped, and standing there listening to his house burn wasn't helping any.

Within seconds of his becoming airborne, proximity alerts flashed brightly on his helmet viewscreen. SkyKnight started to veer away, but he was moving too fast to break off from the imminent collision.

"Oh. Shit," was all he had time to say before a hurtling blue hardsuit crashed headlong into him in midair with a sound reminiscent of a car crash. More warning lights flashed mockingly in his viewscreen as SkyKnight tried using his own maneuvering thrusters to stop the crazily spinning barrel roll his flight trajectory had so abruptly become. He could hear Priss doing an eloquent job of cursing, and an instant later, a red-and-pink hardsuit smacked into the tangle.

The three entangled hardsuits crashed unceremoniously to the ground a moment later, ploughing furrows through the sod as they came to a halt. For a moment, everything was very still.

"Oh way to go Nene!" Priss snapped, pulling herself out of the pile of armoured forms and standing up. "Can't you watch where you're going?!"

"Hey!! You're the one who pulled the sudden stop with no warning!!" Nene shot back defiantly, standing up herself and folding her arms defensively across her chest. "Do you drive your bike like that all the time? No wonder it's always being fixed!!"

"Leave my bike out of this! It's not my fault there was a mid-air obstacle in the goddamn way!!"

Bert lay silently on the ground, staring stolidly at the image of the night sky in his suit viewscreen as he listened to the two women wrangle. They seemed to have completely forgotten him for the moment, which was somewhat ironic, given that they'd likely been rushing towards the burning house to see if he'd gotten out or not. Under other circumstances, it would almost have been amusing.

SkyKnight gathered together enough ambition and energy to move, and shoved himself up to his hands and knees. The movement from him reminded the two women of their earlier concern.

"Hold it right there, buster!" they chorused, then stopped in confusion, looking at each other for a moment. SkyKnight regained his feet, and wordlessly began walking towards where he'd landed his jetcycle.

"Hey, just a minute, you!!" Priss's voice was backed up by an armoured hand grabbing his shoulder, forcing him to turn around. "Just what the hell was the big idea here?! We thought you'd blown yourself up or something!!"

"Yeah!" Nene chimed in. "Couldn't you have at least warned us what you were going to do?"

"Look, I didn't have time to give everyone a play-by-play announcement," Bert replied flatly, frustration and weariness eating into him. "I'm sorry if I worried you, but this was the only way to make sure there's no evidence of anything funny. Now IF the two of you don't mind, I've had enough bullshit for one night, and I'd LIKE to get the hell out of here!!" With that, the silver-blue hardsuit spun on its heel, jerking out of Priss's grasp and stalking away, leaving behind two somewhat shocked teammates. After about ten steps, his suit flight wings snapped up, and he hurtled off towards where he'd left the WarHorse.

"He's .... not himself, I guess," Nene awkwardly observed a moment later, wanting to break the silence somehow.

"Gee, thanks for pointing that out!" Priss retorted sarcastically, then sighed and placed a hand on her visor. "I'm sorry, Nene; I didn't mean that....I just..."

"I understand," she replied, suddenly sounding tired herself. "It's...."

"If the two of you don't mind," Sylia's voice over the comm channel interrupted them. "I'd like to get out of here before the police arrive." The two hardsuit-clad women activated their flight systems, lofting into the air towards where the KnightWing waited, its engines thrumming impatiently.


Nene yawned as she stuffed her softsuit into her locker, a huge jaw-cracking yawn that only seemed to magnify the lethargy seeping through her. This had to be the longest night mission they'd ever been on, and having it added onto what had been a long work day for her hadn't helped. Sighing wearily, she closed the locker and started fastening her jacket. Footsteps sounded in the confines of the room, sounding slow and somehow reluctant.

"Um, Nene?" Priss's voice called out, sounding uncertain. "Got a moment?"

"I guess," the young red-head called back, sighing again as she tried to stifle the ambivalent feelings that filled her whenever she saw Priss. "What did you want?"

"I think we need to talk," the brown-haired singer answered, stepping around the end of the lockers, her expression sober and unusually serious.



Leon sat brooding at his desk, a computer printout spread on the desktop in front of him. His expression was sour, as if he was somehow dissatisfied with the contents of the printout. He gave the document another thorough reading, then snorted in disgust. He started to crumple the offending piece of paper into a wad, then stopped. With a sigh, he smoothed out the piece of paper as well as he could, and added it to the contents of a file folder that he pulled from the back of one of his desk drawers. He returned the folder to its drawer, and slammed it shut.

"Gas line rupture. Yeah, right, and Quincy's a benevolent philanthropist," he muttered to himself. With a sigh, he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on a corner of the desk. Office decorum be damned; he liked to be comfortable when trying to think something through.

The tall inspector scratched absently at his hair, then reached over to his desk to pick up a steaming cup of black coffee. Sipping carefully at it, he let his mind sift the pile of information he had managed to acquire. As evidence usually went, he didn't have much that was concrete. It was all very thin circumstantial evidence, rounded out by some questionable assumptions on his part.

What he had was someone with no verifiable past living in MegaTokyo, who seemed to have some pretty good resources to draw on from somewhere, and that someone was starting to be at the center of some strange goings-on. Leon scowled at his coffee before taking another sip.

It had started innocently enough, he supposed. Because of his years as a cop, he tended to think the worst of certain situations. Checking out Nene's 'boyfriend' when she'd come down with a series of injuries had seemed logical at the time; he'd seen what the results of abusive relationships could be. The only thing that particular line of inquiry had turned up was that nobody knew anything about him, officially or otherwise.

That had intrigued Leon's investigative instincts; nobody could be that clean. But as he'd probed deeper, he'd only encountered more questions. Rifle cartridges in the grass, of a kind used by a mercenary team beaten to within almost an inch of their lives by what had to be somebody in a hardsuit, near a house that hadn't been lived in for weeks, owned by somebody with no discernible means of support....none of it added up.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that the site of a lot of the strange events he'd been trying to piece together had gone up in a massive fireball the night before, leaving almost nothing behind. The official report had listed a ruptured gas line as the cause of the explosion and resulting fire that had decimated the isolated structure, but hadn't answered some of the questions that Leon found himself left with, like what had ruptured the line if nobody was living there?

And why had there been a sub-basement to the building, one that wasn't included in the blueprints for the building permit that was on file? Leon sighed. The one thing that was for sure was that he still didn't have anything solid enough to form a conclusion. And it was annoying him to no end.

The phone rang, its digital racket reminding him that he did have other, more immediate concerns to pay attention to. Reluctantly, Leon pulled his feet off the desk and sat up, pulling his chair in a bit closer to the desk as the phone repeated its urgent-sounding call. He reached out and picked up the receiver, clearing his throat and mentally bracing himself.

"ADP Inspection Division, Leon McNichol speaking," he identified himself. "What can I do for you?"

"Hi Leon, it's Nene," a familiar voice replied. "Is that 'job offer' you mentioned the other day still open?"

"Hi Nene," Leon replied, feeling a somewhat self-satisfied smile spread across his face as he glanced quickly around the office to make sure that nobody was within easy eavesdropping distance. "Can I take that to mean that you're interested?"

"I'm interested," she confirmed crisply, "but before I agree to anything I want a formal, written description of what my duties are going to involve, and what the pay scale is going to be. Can you arrange that?"

Leon pulled the phone receiver away from his ear for a minute and stared at it disbelievingly, as if it was some strange alien device. It had certainly sounded like Nene, but he'd never heard her being before; he had to forcibly remind himself again that there was definitely a sharp intellect behind those green eyes. He'd seen it several times, but somehow Nene always managed to deflect closer scrutiny from herself that might define just how smart she was. He gave his head a quick shake, as if clearing it, and put the receiver back to his ear.

"I think I can probably manage that," he said cautiously. "I'm a bit hurt that you don't trust my word, though."

"Oh, I trust you, Leon," she hastened to assure him - Leon wished he could tell if she was being sincere or merely humouring him - "but I don't particularly trust whoever asked you to make that offer in the first place."

"What do you mean?"

"Come on, Leon," there was no mistaking the dryness in her voice this time. "You wouldn't be suddenly making covert offers and taking that much responsibility for something as important as you say it is without authority from somebody higher-up. You're just not like that. Since they didn't put you in charge of the ADP, that means that whoever is running the show right now is the one who to put you up to it. And since he didn't come forward himself and ask, I'm just a bit suspicious. Blame it on being a cop," she deadpanned.

"Well, it'll probably take me a day to get the paperwork you want put together," Leon told her. "You're on shift again tomorrow afternoon?"

"That's right," she confirmed. "Since you wanted this kept quiet, did you want me to meet you in the cafeteria again?"

"I'll let you know when you get in," Leon replied. "I'm not so sure the cafeteria would be a good place for something like that."

"Okay! See you tomorrow then," Nene abruptly reverted to her usual cheery-sounding self. "Bye!"

Leon slowly hung up the phone, his mind trying to sort out the implications of the conversation he'd just had. Nene had been almost forceful in her directness about the matter, as if she wasn't going to put up with any bureaucratic maneuvering. The terms of acceptance that she'd laid out neatly framed Aramaki's proposal into something more tangible than the vague description he'd given her. Tangible enough to be used as a lever, should something go wrong.

A slow grin began to seep across Leon's face as he thought that over, and a faint hint of admiration began to creep into his thinking. Aramaki hadn't really given him anything concrete to work with, and had been deliberately mysterious about just what the limits were to what he was trying to get Leon to set up. The only answer he'd ever been able to get was that it was all for the benefit of the ADPolice. If that really was the case, and Aramaki wanted his decryption expert on his little operation, he was going to have to come clean, on that end of things at least. The old man was going to hate that; the brown-haired inspector somehow doubted that Aramaki liked being pinned down.

Leon's grin widened as he stood up to go in search of Aramaki; he just had to see what the old man's expression was going to be when he heard what Nene wanted.


"Ethan, you've lost your mind," Doc stated. The old scientist's face was lined with stress and fatigue. "You can't just expect me to drop everything to work on your latest preoccupation," he waved a hand at the far end of the lab where a handful of technicians were running diagnostic scans over a dark blue and black suit of armour that lay on a work table. "You wanted this Battlemover project finished off, and it's consuming all my time. I haven't got the technical staff to spare for anything else, and Morisato isn't nearly competent enough yet to be handed that project to allow me to work on this one."

"Doc, you're missing the point," Hollister replied patiently. "That battle armour over there is far beyond anything the military's got; put a squad of troops in suits like that, and you've got a small army that can take on boomers with a pretty good chance of success." The blond man was unable to take his eyes off the armour at the far end of the room; a cold, hungry fire was almost glowing in his gaze. "And we can mass-produce them cheaper and faster than any battlemover we could ever come up with. Just think of the potential!"

"I have," Doc replied shortly. In his mind's eye he could just see the potential ...for death and destruction. "But I've also thought about our contractual obligations as well. Do you really want to lose billions of yen and anger the people we've got contracts with? They're not going to be happy to hear that you scotched one project because you became obsessed with something else."

"We'll make the deadline," Hollister waved the old scientist's concerns away irritably. "You worry too much."

"Perhaps," Doc mumbled, sticking his pipestem in his mouth and fumbling in his pockets for his tobacco and matches. "But at least I'm still being objective enough to worry about anything." Hollister's glance finally swung towards him, and there was no friendliness in his gaze.

"And just what is that supposed to mean?" he asked coldly. Doc met his gaze without flinching - something he was later rather proud of - and took his pipe from his mouth.

"Exactly what it says," Doc told him flatly. "You've been borderline driven about finding this 'Van Vliet' character for weeks. That, and trying to prove that he's somehow connected to the Knight Sabers. Why? Because he had the temerity to actually dare to defy the great Ethan Hollister and..."

"You're forgetting the installation they destroyed," Hollister interrupted frostily, his eyes narrowing as his lips compressed into a thin, bitter line. "Not to mention the number they did on the GD-45 last night."

"You pressed the destruct button on the GD-45, Ethan, not them," Doc reminded him. "Even if the ADP had impounded it, you could've used your contacts to get the mech back before it got returned to the States." The gaunt old scientist jammed his pipe back into his mouth, and packed it full of tobacco while Hollister fumed. Striking a match, he began to stoke the pipe into smoky life.

"You've been irrational over the topic of this guy for weeks now," Doc continued addressing his original point, speaking through the blue haze beginning to gather around him. "Shooting somebody for a mistaken sighting report hasn't exactly helped that impression."

"I can't afford incompetence," Hollister said coldly, "not in a field operative. He served as an example to the rest."

"Oh, I'm sure of that," Doc replied sarcastically. "An example to them to keep their mouths shut, maybe...I doubt it's going to do much to improve their morale."

"It will encourage them to make certain of their information. Their morale is unimportant in this game."

"Fine, have it your way," Doc was suddenly sick of the whole discussion. "But I'm telling you now that I'm not going to take any of my people off the battlemover project. If you want to dissect that suit for study, you're either going to have to do it yourself or find yourself some extra scientists somewhere." With that, the old scientist whirled and stalked out of the room, trailing a cloud of blue pipesmoke, his lab coat flapping in agitation.

Hollister turned back to watching the technicians work on the hardsuit, a cold smile on his face as he crossed his arms across his chest.



"I didn't think they were using this wing anymore," Nene commented, glancing around a bit nervously as she walked along the empty corridor with Leon. All around them, vacant offices hollowly echoed their footsteps. Dust lay in a faint layer over the few sticks of furniture that were left in a few of the rooms, proof that this particular section of the ADP building didn't have tenants most of the time. Nene shivered slightly and hugged herself as if suddenly feeling a chill. "It's really creepy in here."

"They've only just finished renovating out here," Leon replied, glancing over at her. "With some of the re-structuring that went on here after that, every bloody department in the building wants the nice, new offices for themselves, and they haven't been able to move any staff out here because of the wrangling."

"But why'd this guy have to locate his office out here?" Nene prodded. "It's not like there aren't other offices available."

"Probably for the same reason we're meeting him in private now," Leon grinned. "So that nobody has anything to gossip about. He can come and go out here without anyone really noticing. For now, at least."

"We know he's up here already, Leon," Nene assured him dryly. "Naoko's been cooking up conspiracy theories in an attempt to figure out what he's doing."

"Great," Leon grimaced sourly. "I'm going to have to ask her to stop that; morale's bad enough at the moment without adding wild rumours to the mix."

"Oh, come on, Leon," Nene giggled. "You know Naoko; do you really think she could come up with something anybody'd actually believe? She just likes to talk...a lot."

"You know something? I'd noticed that myself sometimes," Leon replied with a straight face. He'd been cornered by Naoko a time or two in the past, and had been hard-pressed to get a word in edgewise. Once she started in on a topic, there was no stopping her.

The two police officers reached the end of the hallway and stopped before a wood-paneled door with a frosted glass pane set into it. There was a bracket screwed to the door just below the window for holding a nameplate, but it was empty. The only indication that the office might be occupied was the fact that the lights appeared to be on. Leon knocked briefly, then turned the knob and opened the door, waving Nene through first as he held the door open.

Nene stepped through the doorway, unconsciously straightening her uniform jacket, even though she didn't really need any adjustment; her uniform was as neat and immaculate as it could possibly be. She'd made sure of that, especially since she was going to be meeting somebody for what amounted to a job interview.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Romanova," the man seated behind the large central desk greeted her, standing up as she approached the desk. He was of average height, wearing a light-coloured suit, and had greying hair and a goatee. His smile was welcoming enough, but Nene could sense the intense scrutiny she was undergoing, masked by his bland gaze.

"Good afternoon, sir," she replied, giving him a formal bow. Behind her, Leon took another glance down the hall before closing the door. The faintest touch of a frown was on his expression as he walked over to the desk as well. Without asking, Leon re-positioned one of the guest chairs more to his liking and sat down with a sigh.

"By all means, make yourself at home," the old man said dryly, an eyebrow twitching upwards as he glanced at the younger inspector.

"Thanks, I just did," Leon grinned, settling himself a bit deeper into the chair and stretching his legs out. Aramaki rolled his eyes toward the ceiling for a moment, then returned his attention to Nene, who was standing there looking a bit nonplused.

"Please, have a seat, Ms. Romanova," he told her, the faintest trace of smile brushing across his face, "and don't worry about Inspector McNichol; he's been trying to irritate me for days now."

"Uh, thanks," Nene recovered herself and sat in the other chair, taking a quick glance around the office. It looked like any other executive office, although the lack of anything on the bookshelves made it seem a bit more spartan than most. Other than the desk and chairs, there was a coffee machine on a table in a corner, and a laptop computer on the desk.

"Now then, Ms. Romanova," Aramaki rubbed his chin as he gazed thoughtfully at her - Nene immediately assumed her most guileless and innocent expression - "Inspector McNichol tells me that you're interested in helping me solve a little problem I've encountered."

"I am, sir, provided you're willing to provide the assurances I requested," Nene replied quietly, but firmly. Inwardly, she felt like she was trembling, but she kept her nervousness concealed, meeting his cool look with one of her own.

"Please, call me Aramaki," he held up a hand, wincing a little. "Being called 'sir' makes me feel older than I am."

"I can't do that, sir; that would be disrespect to a senior officer," Nene replied. Besides, calling him 'sir' was also a defense of sorts; it kept her from dropping her guard too much.

"I'll make it an order then," Aramaki smiled. "Rank hath it's privileges, and all that."

"Whatever you say, sir."

Aramaki glanced at Leon, but realized he wasn't going to get anything helpful from him: the tall inspector had an amused grin on his face, and was obviously enjoying watching from the sidelines. Aramaki sighed internally, and resigned himself to being called 'sir' for the duration of the interview.

"With respect to these assurances you mentioned," Aramaki returned to the point of the conversation, "I can provide them, but that also changes the question a bit. If I provide them, can you prove that you can provide the expertise I'm looking for?"

"What exactly are you looking for, sir?" Nene asked, neatly deflecting the question. "Inspector McNichol said you were looking for a decryption expert."

"That's one way of describing it," Aramaki acknowledged with a smile. "I believe the other, more derogatory term usually associated with the job is 'hacker'. It's quite simple, Ms. Romanova: I need somebody who can crack top-level encryption codes on some database files we've found. Once that's been accomplished, I have in mind some security implementations I'd like to put in place in the ADP's computer system to block some of the holes some people have been getting through."

"Which 'we' are you referring to, sir?" Nene inquired. "I didn't see any mention of encrypted files in the report filed by the Internal Affairs investigators."

"How did ...?" Aramaki's eyebrows lifted for a moment in surprise before he could catch himself; that report hadn't been filed officially yet. Only certain people had access to it, and even that was restricted.

"I did my research thoroughly, sir," Nene replied calmly, only a faint trace of smugness touching her expression. "Inspector McNichol's explanation of what the job was about was rather vague, but he did give me an idea of where I should look to see if there was any corroborating evidence."

"And did you find any?" Aramaki glanced at Leon, who was still sitting there with an amused grin as he watched the two of them fence. Aramaki snorted to himself, and returned his attention to the young red-head across from him.

"Some," Nene admitted. "But I found more questions than I did answers, actually."

"Such as?"

"Who are you, really?" Nene asked bluntly. "I checked the ADP personnel records thoroughly, and there's nobody with your name anywhere in them, either past or present. I also couldn't find any kind of notice of appointment in the city's records, so that means if they did appoint you, then it wasn't a regular session of the legislature. So I was left wondering just who you are and what it is that you're trying to do here."

There was a long silence in the office for a moment as Aramaki sat motionless, his intent gaze boring into her. Nene met it as levelly as she could, her hands clenched in her lap. She briefly hoped that she wasn't visibly shaking; right now she was so nervous that she was having problems resisting the urge to flee the room.

She wasn't normally confrontational, preferring to work unseen in the background, but she'd come to the conclusion that she was going to have to start being a bit more forceful if she wanted to get anywhere within the ADP. She certainly didn't want to spend the rest of her life being one of the general support staff; she wanted to do something that had more meaning to it than shuffling someone else's paperwork.

"Well, now," Aramaki finally spoke, his words dropping into the stillness like pebbles thrown into a pond, "you have been doing your research, haven't you?" A slow smile began to seep across his face, and Nene began to breathe a bit easier.

She noticed out of the corner of her eye that Leon wasn't relaxing; he was sitting a bit straighter in his chair, and the grin he'd been sporting earlier was gone. Nene hoped he wasn't about to pull his gun, or something equally rash.

"I'd like to be able to tell you more than I have," Aramaki spoke again, his expression sobering, "but the plain truth of the matter is that I cannot. All I can say is that a great deal of what I've done in the past was for security and safety of the public. In no way am I trying to undermine the ADP with what I'm doing now. If anything, I will hopefully be able to leave the ADP in capable hands, and leave it better able to serve the public in the role it's required in. I give you my word of honour on that, and I'm asking you to trust me."

"And just what do you see the role of the ADP as being?" Leon asked brusquely, his expression almost combative as he locked gazes with the old man. Nene started at the harsh interruption.

"Exactly what it should be," Aramaki replied, unruffled. "The role of the ADP is to protect the public from boomer-related depredations, and to investigate the causes of such problems to prevent re-occurrences. Investigations, I might add, that should ideally be conducted without pressure from certain parties with vested interests in the proceedings."

"And you're going to help us do that, right?" Leon's voice and expression were patently skeptical.

"I'm certainly going to try," Aramaki told him candidly, "and I've usually experienced success in the majority of my endeavours." After a moment or two more, Leon nodded slowly and relaxed, sitting back in his chair.

"All right, I guess I believe you," he stated, eyeing Nene as she sighed in relief, not quite as quietly as she'd hoped to.

"And you, Ms. Romanova?" Aramaki asked her directly. "Are you also willing to give me the benefit of the doubt for now?" At the red-head's nod, he seemed to relax a little himself.

"Well then," Aramaki smiled, "it would seem that all we need now is for you to take a look at this." He extracted a slim sheaf of paper from a file folder and handed it across the desk to Nene. She accepted it, and began to rapidly read through what it contained.

The document outlined, by and large, exactly what Aramaki had said it would: decryption of some presumably sensitive files as well as assisting in the implementation of tighter security protocols for the ADP's computer systems. She was rather intrigued by the line that read along the lines of 'conducting investigations into the probable causes of past intrusions'; that sounded like a license to snoop around to her, and she wondered what Aramaki was hoping she'd find if and when she did. She continued reading until she reached the section regarding salary, and just about choked when she did.

"Is this correct?!" she asked incredulously, eyes wide as she lifted them from the page.

"Too much?" Aramaki asked blandly. "I can certainly cut it back if you'd like..."

"No! No, this is fine!!" Nene hastily assured him, glancing again at the page as if afraid that the text was going to change suddenly on her. "It's just...I didn't expect it to be quite that ... generous." It was at least twice what she made now - officially speaking - and was generally unheard of for anyone in the lower ranks.

"If you want skilled people, you have to be prepared to pay for them," Aramaki noted. "I'd like to point out that there is a two to three week probationary period involved. If you can prove in that time period that you can provide the skill set Inspector McNichol claims you can, your pay will be upgraded to what's stipulated on that agreement you're holding."

"I understand," Nene nodded, managing to suppress her elation. Two to three weeks? She could likely crack those encryption codes in two to three days ...unless, of course, they were more sophisticated than they'd appeared to be in her initial check. Part of her mind cautioned her about getting overeager, reminding her that she did still have to be careful, and she carefully throttled back her surge of glee. "I'll try my best, sir."

"Based on the glowing reports I've had about you, I don't doubt it," Aramaki smiled cryptically. "Now then, if everything's satisfactory, would you mind signing and returning that form you're holding?"

"Certainly, sir," Nene replied, looking around for a pen. Aramaki proffered one; she accepted it with a thank-you, and quickly scrawled her signature on the bottom of the contract pages she held. She handed the pen back to the old man along with the signed piece of paper.

"For now, you'll still be at your old desk, I'm afraid," Aramaki told her apologetically. "I haven't been able to nail down final office space arrangements yet, mostly because there's a lineup for the departments that want to move into this area now that it's been renovated. I only managed to get my office in here by pulling a few strings. I can't do that for an entire department, however. I should be able to get you your own office space in a couple of days."

"I guess that's okay, sir," Nene replied dubiously, "but..."

"I'll make the arrangements with your usual supervisor to redistribute your work to other people so that you can work on what we discussed," Aramaki told her, neatly anticipating what she'd been about to say. "I will be informing her that you've been transferred to provide some assistance and support to an investigation that Inspector McNichol is conducting. I trust I don't need to emphasize the need for discretion?" At her affirmative nod he smiled again. "Good. I believe that concludes our meeting for the day, then. You can finish your shift off as usual today, and start on your new duties tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir," Nene replied, standing up and bowing formally to him again. "I'm looking forward to working with you, and I hope I'll be able to fulfill your expectations." She turned to leave as Leon sighed and reluctantly hauled himself out of his chair, standing up himself.

"You can check back with me in a couple of hours, Inspector," Aramaki told him as Leon started to follow Nene towards the office door. "I'll have some things I'll want you to look into then."

"Whatever you say...sir," Leon replied, grinning at the sour look Aramaki gave him at the appellation. Giving the old man a somewhat flippant bow, Leon followed Nene out of the office and closed the door behind himself.

Nene was silent as he sauntered down the hallway after her. He glanced at her as they reached the elevator and waited, noting that her expression was thoughtful and far-away. Nene didn't say anything until they were in the elevator. After the doors had closed, she turned to Leon.

"What did you think, Leon?" she asked, looking up at him. "You didn't say a lot during the interview."

"I didn't have to," Leon grinned, sweeping some hair out of his eyes with a hand. "I wasn't the one being interviewed. Why?"

"Well," Nene said slowly, "I believe what Mr. Aramaki told me about wanting to help out the ADP, but didn't you get the feeling there was something he was holding back?"

"What makes you say that?" Leon frowned as he mentally reviewed what Aramaki had said, but didn't find anything to arouse suspicion.

"Oh, just an impression," Nene waved away the question with a sigh. "It's nothing."


Aramaki sat staring broodingly into space, tapping the fingers of one hand on his desktop absently. Periodically he glanced towards the closed office door, scratching his goatee meditatively. After several minutes, he reached over to the laptop computer sitting patiently nearby, and tabbed a couple of keys. The screen began to flash lines of text at him, illuminating his face and making him appear even more wrinkled than he was.

Aramaki sat silently, his arms crossed as he leaned back in his chair as he read the contents of the computer's report, occasionally nodding to himself as if making mental notes. The sound of even, unhurried footsteps coming down the hallway towards his office caught his attention. Reaching out, he pressed another key on the computer, halting the machine and blanking the screen, and waited.

The door opened almost noiselessly, and a woman entered the room. She was fairly tall, with an athletic build, and moved with a somehow predatory grace. She had straight black hair, cut in a neatly businesslike style to just above her collar, and mirrored sunglasses concealed her eyes. Her hands were stuck in the pockets of the trenchcoat she was wearing over a black, form-fitting bodysuit, and one pocket bulked suspiciously.

"You're late," Aramaki said flatly, raising an eyebrow. "You were supposed to have checked in twenty minutes ago."

"I had to shake a tail," she shrugged. "He was better than I expected."

"You're slipping," Aramaki noted. "It never used to take you that long."

"You said we weren't supposed to leave any bodies laying around," she replied, walking over to the desk and leaning on the corner. "And it wouldn't have been a good idea to just off him in public, now would it?" She reached up and pulled off her sunglasses, revealing violet-coloured eyes as a faint smirk tugged at her mouth.

"No, it wouldn't," the old man's voice was dry. "Did you find out anything?"

"Your new hacker is clean," she replied. "She might've tweaked her records a few years ago to meet the age requirement to get into the ADP, but I found about six or seven other people who did the same thing."

"That's minor," Aramaki waved that aside, "I was looking for something a bit more serious than that."

"She's clean," the woman repeated. "She's got a former boyfriend who's managed to arouse the suspicions of Inspector McNichol for some reason, but as far as I could find out from my own investigations, he's clean too." She shrugged. "The guy owns a recreational club on the eastern side of the city, and seems to be fairly well-off. Nothing criminal that I could find though."

"Inspector McNichol is sometimes a little over-zealous," Aramaki sighed.

"No kidding," she snorted. "I can check the guy out a little more thoroughly if you want, but for now I think it's a dead end." She pulled a large, folded envelope from the pocket of her coat, and tossed it onto the desk, along with a compact disc case. "There's my report, if you really want to bore yourself with the details."

"Thank you," Aramaki replied. "I'll let you know if I've got anything else for you to take care of."

"No problem; things are pretty quiet right now anyway," she replied, putting her sunglasses back on. "I kind of enjoyed the chance to get out; beats the hell out of sitting around."

"Don't enjoy the peace and quiet too much," Aramaki said wryly. "I've often found that the calm spots are usually just the lull before the storm."



"Hey, you'd better lay off that," Priss warned him, firmly but gently. "You don't want your coordination screwed up when we leave; you are riding your bike, remember?" Her red-brown eyes were concerned as she looked at him. Reaching out, she slid the glass he'd been drinking from out of his grasp. "Besides, I thought you didn't like booze?" Around them, the subdued conversations from nearby tables of people hummed quietly, creating an odd harmony with the music coming from the nightclub dance floor.

"I don't," Bert replied, slouching back in his chair and rubbing wearily at the bridge of his nose. "But you said I should relax, and having a drink was about the only way I could think of." He stared moodily at the three empty glasses sitting on the table, his consumption of the last hour.

Priss watched him as he sat there, trying to conceal her unease; she'd rooted him out from his apartment earlier in the evening, declaring that he needed to relax and get out and do something for change. He'd been a bundle of frayed nerves ever since the night of that disastrous boomer hunt, and hadn't gone anywhere that hadn't been absolutely necessary.

She'd stayed away from him for a while, respecting his need for some privacy, but it had quickly become evident that solitude wasn't what he needed. He'd sunk into a dark gloom, and seemed to have lost interest in everything. He hadn't been hiding; she'd been able to find him without problems whenever she'd needed to, but ... the energy, the drive he'd once possessed had evaporated. It was as if he'd given up.

Dinner had loosened him up a bit, and she'd been able to keep the small talk going, although it didn't escape her notice that he was carefully avoiding any questions that might have given her an insight into his true state of mind at the moment. Not good.

It was when he'd ordered three stiff drinks of rye and coke that concern had turned into something just short of alarm; even though he'd loosened up in the time that they'd been together, he'd never drank with apparent intent to get plastered. She briefly hoped the alcohol had enough of a hold on him to at least enable her to get some answers out of him.

"Bert." He looked up, his eyes meeting hers at the quiet tone of entreaty in her voice. "We've got to talk." She watched as a rueful smile tugged briefly at the corners of his lips.

"I'd figured that was part of the reason behind this," he told her, waving at the night club around them. "Guess my intuition isn't totally gone yet." He sighed, and ran a hand over his face wearily. "What did you want to discuss?"

"I was kind of hoping you'd tell me," she replied. "You haven't been yourself lately, so what's bugging you?"

"Oh, my worst nightmare dropping back into my life might have something to do with that," he noted sardonically. "That, and the fact that my stupidity allowed the goddamn bastard to get..." He stopped, grinding his teeth together as anger coupled with fear threatened to break through his control. He reached for one of the glasses his drinks had come in, and swallowed the mouthful of water that had been left by the ice cubes melting.

"I know about that part," Priss told him quietly, watching him as he fought to calm down. She gazed searchingly into his eyes. "But I can tell there's more to it than that this time." She waited, her eyes never leaving his face, her expression serious. "What is it?"

There was a long silence as he sat absently twirling his glass around on the tabletop. Priss opened her mouth to speak again, but his sigh interrupted what she'd been going to say.

"I feel....old," he finally said. "That's about the only way I can explain it."

"Old?!" Priss couldn't quite keep a disbelieving laugh from escaping. She quickly suppressed the reaction as irritation flickered in his face. "Bert, you're not that old," she told him. "I mean, you're only..." She had to stop and do some quick mental arithmetic.

"In 'real' time, physically, I'm around twenty-nine at the moment," he told her, a touch of dryness in his tone. "If you look at it on paper though, I'm supposed to be sixty-five or sixty-six by now." His face tightened a bit. "And there's been days where I feel like I am that age, especially lately."

"So what does that mean? You're going to ask Sylia for a pension now or something?" she tried joking. "Come on, you aren't sixty-five, and you're not over the hill just because you're approaching thirty. Lighten up a bit, will you?"

"So here I am, older but no wiser," he continued wearily, gazing absently into space. "And just what have I managed to accomplish in all that time?" He answered his own question before she could answer. "Nothing. Not a damn thing. We plug a hole in the dike, and three more break out. We mop the slime off the streets, and it oozes back from the sewers dirtier than ever." Frustration flashed across his face, tinged with what looked almost like fury, and then vanished again behind the tired mask. "So I've found myself wondering if there's any point to it anymore."

"There is no quick fix for the world's problems," she told him simply. "You should know by now that it takes time before things change."

"I don't even know anymore if it can be changed," he replied blackly.

"Bullshit," Priss said succinctly. "If you didn't believe it, then why would you keep trying? Because you DO think you can make a difference, and you're too goddamn stubborn to just give up." She glared fiercely at him. "I know you well enough to be able to say that as a certainty, and don't you dare contradict me."

"I..." Bert seemed to be searching for the right words, but after a moment he sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. "I just don't know anymore, Priss," he told her, his voice low and weary-sounding. "All I know is that it's becoming more and more of an effort to put the suit on. I really don't know what I'm doing anymore, or why I'm doing it, and I'm tired." A crooked, half-hearted smirk appeared. "Unfortunately, I don't dare relax, not anymore."

"Have you thought about taking some time off?" Priss asked. "I mean really take some time off. Go to some holiday resort for a week or something, just get away from," she waved a hand vaguely at the club around them, "the city, and all of this." She received a derisive snort in reply.

"With Hollister snooping around? I wouldn't be able to relax, and I'd probably start searching under the bushes to make sure I wasn't being watched. Besides," he sighed again, "there's just too much to do right now. I can't leave Sylia holding the bag, not with all the work that still has to be done."

"You have one hell of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility," Priss informed him tartly. "Sylia wouldn't mind if you took some time off; have you even ever asked her about it? Hell, she'd probably insist that you get lost for a while, especially given what you've just told me."

"And that's why I'm not going to tell her yet," he replied mildly. Priss threw up her hands in exasperation.

"You really are the limit sometimes," she told him flatly. "You've got to be the only person I know who'd condemn themselves to mental burnout just because you don't want to inconvenience someone else. You are allowed to think about yourself from time to time, you know!" Bert merely smiled in reply.

"All right, we can discuss this back at your place," Priss decided. "Maybe you'll be more willing to listen to reason there."

"I doubt it, but you're certainly welcome to try," he deadpanned. Priss rolled her eyes, and did a slow mental count to ten before she succumbed to the urge to strangle him. He could be so infuriatingly intractable that sometimes she felt like she'd have had more success talking to a rock.

"I've got to use the ladies' room first," Priss told him as she stood up. "It shouldn't take me long."

"Okay; I'll wait here," he replied, pulling his coat from where it was hanging over the back of his chair and shrugging into it. He sat back down as she moved off into the crowd, heading for the restrooms. Leaning back in his chair, he aimlessly drummed the fingers of one hand on the tabletop, watching the crowd blankly, not really seeing them.

As he sat there waiting, two men in dark blue suits materialized next to his table. One was about six-foot-four, with black hair and dark glasses and a very muscular build. Bert felt his nerves tighten in trepidation; generally, anyone with that kind of an appearance was a concealed boomer. They all had that look that said 'enforcer'.

The smaller of the pair was about five-foot nine, with straight black hair and hazel eyes. Bert's eyes picked out the slight bulge of a shoulder holster under the man's left arm as the man pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. A cold quiet seemed to suddenly settle through him, not quite dispelling the slight buzz he was feeling from the drinks he'd consumed earlier.

"I'll be done with this table in a minute buddy," he told the seated individual. "You can have it then." Stall them, part of his mind warned. Try and keep them off balance; you're not up to any kind of a confrontation right now.

"I think we both know that I'm not interested in the table, Mr. Van Vliet," the man replied coolly.

"Have we met?" the red-headed Knight Saber inquired politely, trying to keep his expression bland. "I don't remember seeing you around here before."

"Not personally, no," the blue-suited man replied with a cold smile. "But I believe you are acquainted with my employer. He's most anxious to renew your acquaintance." Bert knew immediately what he was talking about, and quickly slammed the lid on the stream of memories and the accompanying rage that started to flash back; if ever he needed to think clearly, it was now. He began to regret giving in to the urge to try using alcohol as an escape; he still felt a little fuzzy, and he was fairly certain that his coordination was off just enough to preclude any kind of a fight.

"I'm sorry," Bert shook his head regretfully, "but I still don't know what you're talking about. I haven't gone anywhere or met anyone in months."

"Mr. Van Vliet," the man sighed, sighing melodramatically, "please don't make this any harder than it has to be. It really would be in your own best interests for you to come with me."

"Sorry, I don't go anywhere with people I don't know. And not only do I not know you, but I don't wish to know you. Or this 'employer' of yours that you say I know."

"Naturally, I'm shocked at your refusal," the man shrugged carelessly, "but then again most people don't know what's good for them." The smile vanished. "However, you WILL be coming with me."

"Sorry, I've got some other engagements."

"You have no choice," he was informed.


Across the crowded nightclub dining area, a man clad in non-descript dark clothing set his glass down, nodded congenially to the bartender, and walked over to the bank of pay vid-phones near the door. He was of medium height and weight, with no really striking characteristics to identify him to a casual observer. He blended perfectly with the crowd as he maneuvered through them, somehow remaining unaffected by the press of people.

He passed another similarly-attired man as he reached the phone consoles, and made a brief, almost invisible hand signal. The second man nodded, then moved into the crowd himself. Feeding some coins into the vidphone slot, the first man deftly keyed in a number sequence, spoke briefly into the phone receiver, and then hung up, turning and moving back into the crowd.

The vidphone continued to stare blankly after him as he left.


Priss carefully elbowed her way through the densely-packed throng of people near the bar, trying to get back to her table and Bert. She growled under her breath, swearing at some of the more drunken club patrons as they lurched into her. She supposed it made a certain amount of sense putting the restrooms close to the bar itself, especially since many of the clientele probably needed a toilet to be close by at times. At the same time, it made it hell trying to get to and from the washrooms when on more legitimate business.

Shoving past another bleary-eyed boozer, she started to make her way out into the less-crowded dining area when a voice called her name out over the thrum of conversation in the bar.

"Priss! Long time no see!"

"Oh no, not now," the brown-haired singer muttered despairingly to herself. "Why me?" Sighing inwardly, she turned towards the voice and its owner.

"Something you want, Leon?" she asked, bracing herself for yet another dinner date proposal.

"Just to talk," Leon replied easily, moving closer to her, a drink of some kind in one hand. "I haven't seen you in ages."

"That was the idea," Priss informed him dryly. Leon flashed her a charming grin, letting the implications of that remark slide by.

"So, had dinner yet?" he inquired. "If not I'd be happy to oblige; I know a cozy little place down the street..."

"I've already eaten," Priss interrupted the winning speech and smile routine, her eyes narrowing in annoyance. Nope, Leon hadn't changed a bit. "And I don't date cops."

"Why not?" Leon artfully assumed a wounded look. "Hey, we're human too, you know!"

"That's debatable, and the answer is still 'no'." She managed to hold onto her patience with a supreme effort; why did he keep persisting in trying to pick her up when she'd made it manifestly clear that she wasn't interested in him?! "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to get back to my table." Turning, the red-brown eyed woman started to walk away from him.

"Well how about ..." Leon started to say, when she spun around towards him again, finally fed up.

"Look," she said flatly, stabbing a finger at him. "I'm not interested in going out with you, clear? I'm already seeing someone, so just get lost; go try and pick up one of the secretaries at the ADP offices or something. Just leave me alone right now, okay?" Fuming, she pivoted away from him again. As an afterthought, she half-turned and added, "And quit trying to get backstage at Hot Legs as well." With that, she stalked off into the crowd, deciding to take a more roundabout route back to her table; she didn't really want Leon to follow her and see Bert sitting there. The tall inspector was nosy enough as it was, and she didn't need him getting any new notions to look into.

She snapped out of her preoccupation as it dawned on her that the crowd surrounding the table where she and Bert had been sitting had thinned out remarkably; before it had been a bit of a squeeze to get through. Now, almost everyone was avoiding the very tall and muscular-looking man standing implacably in front of the table. The big man was standing behind a much smaller man, who was seated and facing Bert.

Priss's eyes narrowed as her combat senses began to tingle; she could almost feel the tension oozing from the air around the table. Bert's expression as he looked at the man across from him was icily cold, almost analytical in its detachment, and she recognized that expression: evidently, he'd just been threatened with something.

Her glance darted left and right as Priss began sneaking a hand towards her left armpit, where the reassuring weight of her anti-boomer gun nudged her ribs under her jacket. So far, it looked like no one else had noticed the impending explosion at the table. Now if she could just take out that big jerk, then the little weasel in the suit shouldn't be a huge problem.

Her hand grasped the pistol butt, concealed by the flap of her jacket as she stepped sideways so that the hulking enforcer wasn't quite blocking her line of sight to Bert any longer. As she moved, his eyes lifted to meet hers. The chill look in the back of his greenish-brown eyes sent a shiver down her spine. She suppressed the unease it had produced and tried to signal to him that she was going to try and take out the larger of the pair from behind.

Frustrated, she watched as he shifted in his chair, and then moved his gaze from her to the man across the table from him. A sudden premonition nudged the back of her mind, the whisper of intuition erupting into a scream of certainty as the tall red-head smiled disarmingly at the duo across from him.

All hell broke loose as Priss wrenched her gun from its holster...just a bit too late.


Bright, multicoloured lines snaked across the flat surface of the monitor in front of her as Sylia leaned forward, thoughtfully examining the schematics. A small 3-D hologram of a feminine-contoured hardsuit rotated above its desktop emitter off to her left, the area of its circuitry being examined highlighted a bright yellow. Sylia tapped a finger on the desktop for a moment as her gaze traced some of the circuit paths, then she tabbed a few keys on another console. The screen display shifted slightly to match the changes she'd entered, and she allowed herself a faintly satisfied smile as she took a sip from her nearby cup of coffee.

An urgent, high-pitched warble interrupted her concentration, and she sighed. Setting the cup aside, she picked up the phone.

"We've got trouble, Sylia," Fargo's voice said without preamble. "Hollister's men have located your friend."


"You really think you're going to get away with a kidnapping? In a place as public as this?"

"Of course," the suit smiled coldly. "My colleague here will go on a 'crazed rampage', which will prompt a mass panic; no one will notice us leaving in the confusion." Bert's face tightened further; as bloody-minded as it was, that ploy had a fair chance of success. Hell, better than fair; with people screaming and panicking all over the place, nobody would notice two men in the bedlam, even if the one was holding a gun on the other.

"I don't suppose I could talk you out of this?" Greenish-brown eyes flicked to the disguised boomer standing behind the suit's chair, then dropped to the boomer's master. About four feet between himself and the suit, and about seven feet to get to the boomer. The catch was that he'd have to stand up first, and he was stuck sitting down behind a table. Not a very tactically sound position. His mind raced, trying to find some way to deal with the situation.

"I'm afraid not." The man smiled thinly. "Mr. Hollister was most insistent that you accompany me, and since you're not willing to do so of your own volition..." he sighed mock-regretfully, spreading his hands in a shrug. "It's a shame really; we'd hoped that you'd listen to reason. For example, it would be unfortunate if the lovely young lady we saw you dining with earlier should happen to become one of the casualties of the evening."

"Touch her in any way whatsoever, and I promise you that you will wish you were dead." The tall red-head's voice was abruptly flat and glacially cold. "And that is not an idle threat."

"Well now, it seems we've found a way to appeal to your sense of reason." The weasel-faced man's voice was suddenly oily with satisfaction, and he appeared unfazed by the threat. "Coming with us would spare her an unfortunate and untimely demise."

"Don't push me." Bert's voice sounded tight and strained, even to his own ears. "Just get up, walk away, and forget you ever saw anything. This is your last warning."

"Although it's strange," the man across from him mused, a taunting smirk on his face. "We were told to look for you with a young red-headed woman, and she certainly was no redhead." He shrugged carelessly. "Ah well, I'll have to make certain that information is updated."

Bert didn't reply. His gaze was utterly devoid of any emotion, and his face looked like it had been carved from stone. Fear swept like a cold breeze through his mind as he sat there; it was one thing to be sitting on the bulls-eye of a target himself, and quite another to have two of his friends there with him. He'd been praying that Hollister's operatives wouldn't somehow connect Nene or anyone else with him, but time had caught up with him on that score it seemed. They knew.

And that meant there was really only one option available to him if he wanted to get out of this.

The ice running through him thawed slightly at his calm acceptance of what he had to do, and his mind began to race faster in a frenzy of rapid planning.

As he sat there, trying to frame some kind of a reply to put his antagonist off-guard, movement in the crowd beyond the concealed boomer attracted his attention; he looked up, right into Priss's eyes as she walked back towards their table. She slowed down when she saw the two men at the table confronting him, and her eyes widened as she apparently realized what was going on. Her hand started to creep towards the armpit of her jacket, where she customarily carried her concealed anti-boomer pistol. She was still about ten feet behind the boomer, far enough away that it and its master hadn't noticed her...yet.

"All right, I've made my decision," Bert suddenly announced, shifting in his seat slightly with a sigh. Behind the boomer, Priss tried to make some kind of a signal to him, but his concentration was focused on the boomer and the man seated across the table from him.

"And that is?" There was a smug, self-assured smile on the suit's face; he was positive that he'd mentally crushed his quarry's resistance.

"Go to hell," Bert replied almost pleasantly. Underneath the table, he straightened his leg with a violent snap of motion, shoving hard on one of its legs and propelling the table away from him. The table slammed into the chest of the seated man across from him with enough force to knock him and his chair over backwards. There was a loud crack as his head impacted with the floor, but having put him out of the picture for a moment at least, Bert's attention was focused on the boomer.

As he sprang to his feet, the boomer's clothes and skin tightened and split apart like rotten rags as it shed its disguise, revealing blue armour plating and synthetic musculature. The few people nearby who'd finally noticed what was going on screamed and began trying to get away, stumbling and falling over one another.

The boomer wasn't focusing on the crowd though, only on the foolish human who'd initiated combat. Its AI and sensors scanned the human, trying to determine if he posed a threat; it had been ordered not to seriously harm this particular person, just subdue him if necessary. A small energy source was detected, and the biomechanoid's threat analysis routines spent a precious moment trying to identify it.

To Bert, it seemed as if the fleeting seconds had lengthened into hours; he felt like he was moving in horribly slow motion as he pulled two thin, rectangular cartridges from an inner pocket of his coat, and spun them at the boomer. The killer machine caught the devices out of midair in a blur of motion, and crushed them in an armoured hand.

Instantly, there was a muffled bang, and dense white smoke billowed outwards in a thick cloud, concealing the boomer and everything around it for about ten feet. Bert hadn't been hoping for that to happen in quite that manner, but it was good enough; moving instinctively, he stepped around the table, and towards the boomer as he slid his last ace out of its concealed shoulder holster.

A dark, hulking shape loomed in the swirling, eddying smoke, and something flashed brightly in the darkness, accompanied by the unmistakable hiss of an energy beam. Gritting his teeth, the tall red-head took one final step as he swung his arm through the air in a sideways slash, pressing a button on the cylindrical device he held. An electrical crackle sizzled through the smoky air, closely followed by the unmistakable sounds of armour plating and circuitry vaporizing as a long blue energy blade seared through them with a loud, pulsating hum.

The boomer gave an unearthly mechanical howl, overlaid with the squeal of disintegrating circuitry as it crashed heavily to the floor, disappearing into the smoke. The pall of whitish vapour would begin to thin out in about five minutes though, and Bert took a quick glance around, trying to decide which would be the best way to try to escape and get the hell out of the club. He started to depress the deactivation switch on his lightsaber hilt -the blade was still glowing and humming eagerly, marking his location for anyone with a gun who might be watching-when he felt something small and hard rammed into the small of his back from behind.

"Move, and Hollister can interrogate your remains for all I care," snarled the voice of the suited agent who'd been trying to intimidate him earlier. Evidently, shoving him over with the table hadn't knocked him out. "Now drop that...weapon, whatever it is." Bert hesitated, mentally weighing his chances of trying a quick sidestep and backwards slash with his beam saber.

"Drop it, or your girlfriend's going to be available again," the man stated flatly. There was a crisp metallic snick as he cocked his gun. "I can't miss you at this range, but you never know: she might get hit with a stray shot in all this smoke."

"All right, all right...I'm dropping it," Bert replied, swallowing and trying to control frantically jumping nerves. His mind was screaming in overdrive, trying desperately to find a way out of his predicament, without much success. His foe had too much of an advantage in standing behind him; he had to outmaneuver him somehow.

The humming energy blade snuffed out with another hiss-snap, and the hilt clattered to the floor of the nightclub, skittering off along the floor as he dropped it. Bert tensed himself, gritting his teeth for whatever was coming next.

"Start walking, slowly," the man with the gun directed. "There's an emergency exit straight ahead and off to your left. Head towards it."

Bert took a step forwards, then abruptly sprang forwards and to his right, attempting to get out of line with the man's gun as he started to turn. Hollister's man swore, but before he could attempt a reprisal, two flat reports cracked the air of the deserted nightclub. The bullets tore into the unsuspecting agent in a wicked crossfire, and he died on his feet before even knowing what had happened. Unfortunately his last, convulsive movement triggered his own, already-cocked pistol.

The tall red-head gave a strangled yell as the deceased agent's gun coughed hoarsely, spitting its deadly projectile squarely into his back. Red waves of light washed through his sight as the pain from the impact drove the breath from his lungs. He staggered, stumbling over an overturned chair in the smoke and falling to the floor. A dull, sodden thud from behind him announced the fact that his former opponent had also fallen to the floor.

Bert sucked in a shuddering gasp of air as he began trying to crawl away; given everything that had happened, the cops were going to be all over the place in minutes. He didn't know who'd helped him out by shooting Hollister's agent, but he wasn't complaining...much.

A fumbling hand found the lightsaber hilt he'd dropped and he quickly stuffed it into a coat pocket. As he began trying to get to his hands and knees, he heard stealthy footsteps cautiously approaching.

"Bert?! Where are you, damn it!?!" Priss's voice hissed urgently, stopping him as he started to reach for his weapon again.

"Over here," he called, trying to stand up. He failed as angry throbbing erupted from where he'd been hit in the back. "I'm having problems standing at the moment. I...I think I might be shot." There was a curious lack of alarm at that thought, and part of his mind tried dispassionately to analyze the reason for that.

"We've got to get out of here!" A black shape in the thinning haze resolved into the brown-haired rock singer. She took a quick glance around as she stuffed her pistol back into its concealed holster beneath her jacket, then stepped over next to him.

His next attempt at getting to his feet was as unsuccessful as his earlier one. Bending over and grabbing his arm, Priss quickly hauled him to his feet, ignoring the strangled groan it elicited from him. "We've got to get out of here; the ADP is gonna be combing this entire neighbourhood!! Come on!!" She didn't wait for a response of any kind, but quickly shoved him along in front of her as she made for the fire exits of the club.


Daley looked down at the neatly bisected C-55 model combat boomer on the floor of the club's dining area, and at the scattered and smashed furniture around it. If the biomechanoids had emotions, then it was a sure bet that this one had died surprised. Based on the sketchy eyewitness accounts, it had been standing at a table behind someone, burst out of its human disguise, and then disappeared in an explosion of some kind.

The explosion hadn't been what had killed the boomer though; the lab technicians hadn't found any evidence of the kind of high-explosives necessary to accomplish that. They had, however, found small casing fragments from a less powerful device, a smoke bomb presumably.

That still left unexplained what had happened to the boomer. There were VERY few things that could neatly slice a boomer in half like that, and all of them required powered armour to be able to use. In fact, the dead biomechanoid resembled the remains of a casualty of an attack by the Knight Sabers; in the briefings that usually followed boomer incidents, this type of damage had been seen repeatedly at incidents where the Knight Sabers had beaten the ADP to the punch.

And that still didn't explain the bullet-riddled body a few feet away, hidden under a tablecloth.

He made a few entries in his notebook as he glanced around the club again, watching the forensics experts comb the place for any other clues there might be. It wasn't likely they'd find anything though; given the furor that had erupted when the boomer had started to run amok, any other evidence there might have been had probably been destroyed.

"Anything yet, Daley?" Leon's voice interrupted his thoughts, and the red-haired inspector looked up.

"Nope," he replied. "I think the best leads we've got are the boomer here, and that corpse over there. Anything on him?"

"No." Leon ran a hand through his hair in exasperation. "He was carrying a phony ID, one of the best I've ever seen, and we haven't gotten a match on him out of the computers yet." He held up a clear plastic bag; inside was a slim automatic handgun, fitted with an oversized silencer. "The gun he was carrying isn't a registered one; no serial numbers on it anywhere. It's been fired at least once, so I've notified the hospitals to alert us if they get anyone requiring treatment for a gunshot wound."

"Think it was a hit of some kind?"

"It's possible," Leon admitted. "But you don't generally bring a combat boomer along if you want to quietly take somebody out."

Daley nodded, then looked down at the boomer again. "So what do you think happened here?" he queried. "I heard that you were in the club when this happened."

Leon didn't reply for a moment as he stared down at the dead boomer, mentally reviewing the chaos that had erupted not five minutes after he'd finished talking to Priss. He'd been facing the back of the bar, nursing a drink and some slightly bruised feelings when people had started to scream. There'd been a couple of crashes and bangs as he'd turned around, just in time to see a huge smoke cloud billow out, almost on the other side of the club.

There'd been too much smoke to see what was going on, but several people had started screaming "BOOMER!!!" at the top of their lungs as they pushed and fought in the packed mob that was suddenly swarming away from the smoke cloud. Leon had drawn his pistol and attempted to get closer to where the alleged boomer was, but the mass of people trying to escape had kept him from advancing.

Then he'd heard a sound he recognized instantly, even over the noise of the panicky people: an electrical snap-hiss noise, followed by a pulsating hum. He remembered looking up in shock, craning his head over the heads of the people blocking his way, just in time to see a brightly-glowing spar of blue energy carving a swath through the smoky haze, the light from the weapon backlighting the figure of the roughly man-like shape wielding it. Unfortunately, the smoke had still been too thick to make out any recognizable features.

Leon had doubled his efforts to try and get over to the other side of the club, but to no avail; people were still blindly trying to flee, and he couldn't stem the tide of that may people. He had very nearly been shoved over and trampled a couple of times.

Swearing foully at his luck, the tall inspector had been forced to flow out the door with the crowd, and had fumed impatiently outside until the flood of people had thinned enough for him to force his way back inside. By the time he got back in though, the boomer was dead, and a dead man lay on the floor with a silenced handgun in his hand. Whoever had been responsible for downing them had been long gone.

Even though he knew the ADP had probably already been alerted, Leon had quickly found a vidphone and called the incident in, requesting every forensics specialist he could get his hands on in addition to the usual investigative team; this hadn't been a typical boomer incident, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.

What disturbed him the most as he mulled it over was that weapon he'd seen briefly in the smoke cloud. He'd only ever seen anything like it in action once before: when SkyKnight had been dueling a monster of a green boomer with it. Both the silver hardsuited mercenary and the boomer had been hacking at each other with energy blades of some kind, and they'd looked and sounded exactly like what he'd seen tonight. The thought that someone had developed a portable beam saber model that didn't require powered armour to use was unsettling. If it became widely available, there was no telling how it would get used.

There was also an uncanny coincidence gnawing at him, mainly the fact that Priss and her boyfriend had been in the same club as the boomer. He hadn't told the brown-haired singer when he'd tried talking to her, but he'd already seen who she'd been having dinner with: a certain tall, red-headed man with a suspiciously clean background.

At the moment, it seemed like just another strange coincidence, but Leon was getting tired of running into all these 'coincidences' lately. Something just didn't add up somewhere.

"I didn't see anything beyond what we got from the other witnesses," he told Daley. "I'm as much in the dark as you are."


"They're leaving," Priss reported quietly, pulling back from the corner of the alleyway. she'd been peeping around. She glanced back at the dark shapes huddled in the shadows of the alley. The faint light from the street glinted off of the chrome and steel shapes of two motorcycles, but seemed to be absorbed by the third figure; it was as if there was a black hole sucking all the illumination in the alley into itself. "Bert?"

"I heard," came the weary-sounding reply. "How long until you think we can get out of here?"

"About five to ten minutes," the brown-haired singer replied, walking back down the alley to where he was slumped against the wall. "How bad is it?"

"I'll live," Bert replied shortly. "I've had worse." He tried taking a deep breath, but gave up a moment later, wincing. "Damn it, I must be getting old," he muttered, not quite to himself. "I used to be able to handle pain."

Priss shook her head as she looked at him. He was nestled in the shadows of the alley, so it wasn't entirely possible to read his expression in the gloom, but his posture indicated he was in more pain than he was willing to let on.

"Kevlar lining or not, you still took a bullet in the back," she reminded him. She'd been worried that he was bleeding when she'd hauled him out of the club, but he'd reassured her once he'd been able to get his breath back. At least now she knew why he always favoured that black coat he wore: it was bulletproof.

"I didn't have much choice at the time," he replied dryly. "I'm not faster than speeding bullets yet. Thanks for shooting him, by the way." He shifted and winced.

"I didn't shoot him," she informed him quietly. "Somebody else did." Bert was silent for a moment, digesting that piece of information.

"Did you see who did it?" he queried, looking over at her. She shook her head.

"Nope. I'd be willing to bet that whoever did it was a pro, though," she replied. "It was that quick."

"I suppose it's not impossible that they were after that guy to begin with," he said slowly, turning the thought around in his mind. "But why wouldn't they get him before he got into the club?"

"Maybe they didn't have a chance?" Priss suggested, shrugging. "I'm no expert, but if they use a lot of cloak-and-dagger tactics it wouldn't be hard to keep out of sight for a while. Who cares? The asshole's out of our hair now, and that's the important thing."

"I guess so," Bert sighed, dropping the subject. "Let's see if the cops have left yet." He shoved himself off the wall.

Priss's gaze narrowed as she watched him. Something wasn't quite right; she could sense something was just a little off from his movement; it was too stiff and awkward. As he squared his shoulders with another sigh, it hit her.

He was favouring his right side, and he'd said that he'd been shot in the left side of his back.

"Okay, where else did you get shot?" she demanded, gritting her teeth in exasperation as she stepped over to him, turning him slightly to face the dim illumination coming from the street by placing a hand on his shoulder.

"I didn't get shot anywhere else," he protested, trying to fend off her hands as she pulled aside the flap of his coat. "Damn it, Priss, can't we just get the hell out of here?!" She ignored him, and continued to gingerly poke at him, peering at his side as she looked for anything that might indicate he was bleeding. "I said I'm fine....AAARRGHHMphhh!!!!!!!!!" His pained exclamation as her fingers brushed a spot halfway between his hip and shoulder was cut off as she quickly slapped a hand over his mouth, glancing warily at the alleyway mouth.

"Not so damn loud!!" she hissed under her breath. "The cops might still be there to hear you!"

"Then quit poking my goddamn side!!" he hissed back, pulling her hand away from his mouth.

"Oh, so you're not hurt there, huh?" she observed sarcastically, lips thinning in annoyance, putting her hands on her hips and glaring at him. She could now see that a ragged hole had been burned through the back of his coat on that side, and had a rough idea of what might have caused it.

"It was fine until you shoved on it." He glared back, his left hand now clamped over the spot. His breathing was rapid and shallow, as if he was afraid breathing deeply would aggravate whatever the injury was. Priss shook her head again, and stealthily glided back to the alley entrance for another peek around the corner.

"Okay, the cops are gone," she announced, coming back to him as he slumped against his bike. "Can you ride, or should I call Sylia and have her come pick us up?"

"Yes, I can ride, thank you very much, and I definitely don't want Sylia knowing about this. I'll be fine in the morning."

"Bullshit," came the succinct reply. "Maybe you can ride your bike, but you won't be fine in the morning; I'll bet you dinner tomorrow night on that one. And Sylia already knows something's happened, so you're going to have to face the music anyway."

"What, did she suddenly become psychic in the last 24 hours?" he asked sourly. "I hadn't planned on telling her about what happened until tomorrow morning; I'm too bloody tired right now to be able to stand a lecture."

"When you threw those smoke bombs, I hit my alarm callbeep," she replied simply, holding up her wrist to show him what looked like a sophisticated digital watch. "I thought we might need some armoured backup. After I got you out, I sent a second signal as an all-clear, but she's going to be waiting for an explanation when we get back to your place."

"Oh, just marvelous," he growled. He'd never particularly liked the idea of the watch-transmitters Sylia had given each member of the team, mostly because he hated pagers and anything remotely resembling them. In addition, he'd always figured that if he was in enough trouble that required Knight Saber backup, it would never arrive in time to save him from whatever he was facing. He carefully turned to his bike, unhooking the helmet from the handlebars as he pulled off his hat. "Let's get going and get this over with then."

Priss watched his back for a moment, a frown creasing her brow.


"It looks like a burn from an energy weapon, probably a plasma beam," Anri reported, swabbing carefully at the angry-looking red mark on Bert's side with an antiseptic pad, slowly removing crusted bits of burned shirt material. "It's not too serious, so I guess that boomer must have just grazed him with it."

"Graze or not, it DOES still hurt," Bert gritted between clenched teeth, his hands maintaining a white-knuckled grip on the edge of the examination table he was seated on. "So could you PLEASE stop poking it?!"

"I have to make sure it's clean," Anri replied primly, unfazed by the dark, sidelong look he was giving her. "Otherwise, it could become infected." She resumed her ministrations as he winced, grinding his teeth together. "It will hurt a lot worse than it does now if that happens," she told him.

"Well how about some more local anesthetic then?!" he demanded, flinching away from her touch. "At least that way it won't feel like you're peeling my hide off inch by inch!"

"Would you please just shut up?" Anri requested, giving him a firm, but not totally unsympathetic glance. "You're only making this harder on yourself by squirming around. I'd be done a lot sooner if you'd hold still and keep quiet. Now just relax; it won't take much longer. Just relax..." Her voice had taken on a low, soothing-sounding quality, and he found himself relaxing despite himself. Maybe it was psychological, but it did suddenly seem to hurt less.

Sylia observed them quietly from across the infirmary room, her arms folded across her chest, and a pensive frown on her face as she watched Anri working on him. Priss fidgeted impatiently beside her, shifting around on the countertop that she'd perched on, and Sylia's glance flicked sideways briefly. Priss had given her the majority of the details on what had happened at the nightclub, but Sylia could tell that there was something still bothering her. She shrugged mentally; Priss would talk about it when she was ready, and not before.

"So what do we do now?" Priss suddenly asked her, keeping her voice low. "About those goons of Hollister's, I mean."

"I'm not entirely sure," Sylia admitted calmly, keeping her own voice down as she looked over at her friend. "Laying low and keeping out of sight for a few days would probably be the wisest course, but knowing Bert the way I do, I somehow doubt that he'll be amenable to that solution. Do you think you might be able to talk him into it?"

"Did Hell freeze over when I wasn't looking?" Priss asked wryly. "I wasn't having much luck talking to him earlier in the evening, so I don't think he's going to be any more reasonable right now."

"Oh? What were you trying to get him to do?" Sylia cocked an eyebrow inquisitively.

"Just slow down a bit, that's all," Priss replied evasively. "I think he's been working too hard lately." Sylia nodded and accepted that, then resumed watching as Anri began applying an ointment of some kind to Bert's side.

"We're going to have to try something to convince him to keep a lower profile, however," Sylia noted after a moment or two of silence. "If Hollister's agents found him once, they can do it again. And help, from whatever quarter, may not be so close as it was the last time." Priss shot Sylia a quick glance. It was the neutral expression on Sylia's face more than anything else that told her there was something else going on.

"You sound like you know something about that," she observed, carefully watching Sylia for any sign of a reaction.

Sylia was silent as she considered the best way to answer the implicit question. After a moment, she looked over at Priss, her brown eyes calm and serious.

"I've been having him kept under surveillance," she admitted quietly, "I thought it would be a wise precaution in the event that Hollister did manage to locate him."

"Surveillance? You mean as in being followed everywhere?" At Sylia's nod, Priss felt her internal temperature begin to rise. "And just when did you plan to let us in on the secret? How much did you..." She felt herself flush slightly at the thought that somebody had been watching her and Bert when they'd been...involved. "Just how much did your spies tell you?" she asked tightly, managing to get herself under control.

"They weren't reporting in hourly, Priss," Sylia tried reassuring her. "The only time I was to receive a report was if any of Hollister's agents were detected; I made it absolutely clear that your personal lives were not to be interfered with. Whatever the two of you did in private remained strictly private."

"Well I'd still have liked it better if you'd told us about that beforehand," Priss groused, leaning back against the wall and crossing her arms over her chest.

"Are you sure that you would really prefer to know about it?" Sylia asked simply. "Think about it, Priss: you were able to go about your usual life without worrying. Well, without worrying as much, perhaps," Sylia amended. "How well could you have functioned knowing that there were people following you as protectors? You'd have become paranoid in no time, simply because the knowledge would keep you thinking of the fact that Hollister's men were after you. I doubt you'd be able to enjoy any kind of life under those conditions."

"Hmph," Priss grunted. "I still think it was pretty low not to tell us about it."

"We all have to make decisions about certain things at some point in time," Sylia replied obliquely. "And there will always be ones made that do not please everyone."

"In other words, 'quit bitching and get over it' ?"

"I wouldn't have put it in quite those words," Sylia said blandly, a small smile appearing, "but the sentiment is essentially correct." The two women fell silent as they turned back to watching Anri bandaging the side of their red-haired comrade. After a couple of minutes, Anri stepped back from him with a satisfied look.

"There; all finished," she proclaimed. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Easy for you to say," Bert replied, wincing a little as he tried sitting up a bit straighter and cautiously easing himself off of the table. "You weren't the one with the burn."

"Dodge faster next time then," Anri told him dryly. Bert's only reply to that piece of advice was a dark look that made her giggle. With a sigh that somehow seemed to imply that he was unfairly being put upon, Bert scooped a clean shirt from another nearby exam table and pulled it on.

"Now I want you to take it easy for the next few days," Anri told him firmly. "And I do mean 'take it easy', understand?"

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, feigning meekness before grinning at her. "Come on, Anri; you know I don't go out of my way to get into trouble."

"Maybe not," Sylia couldn't resist interjecting dryly, "but it still seems to happen just the same." A strangled snort came from Priss at the remark, and he could hear Anri stifling laughter as well.

"Thanks a lot," Bert glared at Sylia.

"Anytime," she replied, unfazed.


"If that goddamned incompetent bungler wasn't already dead, I'd sure as hell correct that oversight!!" Hollister spat, angrily slapping a computer printout onto his desktop. "Why am I surrounded by people who can't follow simple orders!? All they had to do was grab him!!" The blond man took a gulp from a nearby glass of liquor, still fuming. "Damn it, I almost had the bastard!! AGAIN!!!!" His grip whitened on the glass tumbler he was holding, but he resisted the urge to fling it at the far wall.

Doc sat quietly in the chair across the desk from him, puffing wordlessly on his pipe, refusing to comment. The old scientist knew better than to point out that Hollister had personally selected which agents had been handed certain assignments; given Hollister's moods lately, Doc didn't want to get shot for something that trivial. Right now, Hollister didn't want reminders of his own involvement, especially in matters that weren't going according to his plans. Doc still would've been happier if Hollister's usual sidearm hadn't been sitting at the far corner of the desk. Even though it was holstered, the gun seemed to breathe menace into the atmosphere just with its presence.

"Well?!" Hollister's sour voice jerked the old scientist out of his uneasy contemplation. "Don't you have anything to say?!"

"I have nothing to do with your intelligence-gathering activities, Ethan," Doc reminded him mildly. "I'm not going to comment on something I know nothing about. Besides," he shrugged bony shoulders, "you don't listen to me when I do know what I'm talking about, so why say anything anymore?"

"You still harping on that?" Hollister's glare was flat, cold, and unfriendly.

"You said in the past that you valued my opinion," Doc blew a smoke ring into the air and watched it billow away from him. In a way, it seemed a lot like his life; despite often strenuous effort on his part, things just seemed to drift away from him and dissipate. "Lately, that sentiment has seemed a bit false. We also originally agreed that I was to have jurisdiction over the tech development of whatever projects came along, including final say on what was going to be done." He drew on his pipe and exhaled another bluish cloud of smoke. "You've been ignoring that agreement and riding roughshod over everyone, even to the point of bullying two of my better technicians into working on that damned suit you found. My opinions count for very little anymore, it seems."

"I can't help it if you can't see the potential of what I'm trying to do."

"And just what are you trying to do, Ethan?" Doc snapped. "Your motives were never very clear to begin with, but lately you've become fixated on certain subjects, and it's affecting your ability to judge things objectively. Everyone else can see it; why can't you?! Because you're too goddamned stubborn to listen to anyone else, that's why," Doc answered his own question, cutting Hollister off as he opened his mouth to reply. "It always has to be your way; you're always right. Well, maybe you were in the past, but lately..."

"I get the picture," Hollister grated.

"Maybe you think you do," Doc countered flatly, "but I don't think so; just by looking at your face I can tell you're thinking 'The old bastard's imagining things'. You've got hostile disbelief written all over you right now. Well, I'm not going to sit here and waste my breath anymore." The old scientist stood slowly, placing a hand on the desk to steady himself. "I'll be working on the Battlemover project if you decide to actually listen to what I'm saying and need to find me."

"Fine." Hollister watched the old man slowly make his way out of the office, trailing wisps of blue pipesmoke. "Goddamn old goat," he muttered to himself after the door had closed behind the old scientist. "I don't know what I'm doing? I'll show you exactly what I'm doing. You, and everyone else." His eyes became as cold as chips of dry ice.



"Interesting." Madigan leaned back in her chair, her expression thoughtful as she absently tapped a finger on the datadisc sitting in front of her on her desk. "No leads on the target of the attempted operation?"

"None," came the reply. "He disappeared in the crowd somehow after taking out the boomer." The speaker was a non-descript man wearing a light grey or blue suit, with a shock of sandy brown hair graying at the temples. Mirrored sunglasses were tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket, and his hands were stuffed carelessly into his pants pockets. Despite the seeming insouciance, his gaze was alert and attentive as he made his report to Madigan.

"You said that the boomer was dispatched with an energy weapon," Kate noted. "Did you see the device in operation?"

"No," the man replied simply. "Unfortunately, I got knocked over by the initial rush of the crowd and just barely avoided being trampled. I made the energy weapon observation based on the damage inflicted on the boomer; there was a lot of scorching and melting of the boomer's armour, more that would be caused by a conventional type of hand-weapon."

"And the man who was killed?"

"An agent for a third party," the man replied. "He was caught in a crossfire from opposite ends of the building, and we're still trying to determine who pulled that one off."

"Have you identified which third party the dead agent worked for?" Madigan inquired, although a part of her knew who he'd likely been employed by.

"I put all of the details I was able to discover in my report," the man replied, smoothly avoiding directly answering the question; he'd heard rumours of how Madigan tended to react when a certain name was mentioned, and he didn't want any firsthand demonstrations. "We don't have any hard evidence linking him to anyone as of yet."

"Very well," Kate accepted the deflection. "Continue your surveillance and report back as usual."

"Yes, ma'am," the man bowed, then turned and left her office. Kate sat silently for a moment, before picking up the datadisc from her desk, and sliding it into a slot in the front face of the desk. A moment later, her desktop lit up with a display of the report it contained. Kate read through it carefully, trying to make sense of the facts it contained. The entire affair smelled of Hollister, but there were evidently some other unknown forces at work.

With the paranoia and associated covert surveillance that was rampant in the espionage world, there should have been at least some indication of who had killed Hollister's agent. That there wasn't seemed to indicate either a total newcomer to the field with exceptionally skilled operatives, or else someone who was good enough to remain undetected by all of the other assorted corporate and government agencies working out there. Neither thought was particularly reassuring to contemplate for any length of time.

Kate ejected the datadisc from her desk and gazed thoughtfully at it, turning it over in her fingers as if expecting to find the answers she sought written plainly on the exterior somewhere. There had to be an explanation for it all. All she had to do was find it.

Carefully, of course. Quincy had allowed her to resume some of her usual duties, but there was no doubt that he was watching her to see if she'd make another mistake. She'd escaped serious repercussions once, but knew that there would be no reprieve for a second mistake.

She shivered unconsciously, as if suddenly feeling his icy gaze on her, even through the cubic metres of steel and concrete between their offices. With Quincy's office being at the top of the GENOM tower, she at times felt like he was able to watch absolutely everything that went on inside the building. She knew that the building itself had extensive electronic security surveillance systems, but Quincy seemed to know instantly whenever something happened, regardless of where it was.

Madigan shivered again as she tried to shove the unpleasant thoughts aside; she had work to do.


Nene loosened her tie as she took a sip from her cup of coffee, scowling at the computer screen in front of her. Lines of incomprehensible binary and alphanumeric gibberish scrolled by on the screen, unaffected by her glower. In one corner of her monitor display, another program ran in a smaller display window, patiently testing the limits of the encryption on the data she was trying to access.

Nene took another mouthful from her cup, hardly noticing the taste as she tried to match the patience of her sniffer program, without much success. This had to be about the sixth try she'd made on this particular database without even slightly cracking the encryption. The level of security on it was incredible, and had to indirectly be an indication of the importance of whatever data it was holding. She idly wondered what it was that the phony Chief Inspector had been hiding that could be so critical.

The red-headed ADP officer leaned back in her chair, setting her cup aside, and stretched stiffly, trying to ease the knots in her shoulder muscles that were developing. It felt like she'd been sitting there hunched over her computer for hours. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that it had indeed been hours, well over seven by now.

Her stomach decided to complain at that moment, and she ruefully realized that she'd been so absorbed in her work that she hadn't even noticed missing lunch. It was close enough to quitting time for her that she decided to just head down to the cafeteria, get something for supper, and then head home. Judging by the difficulties that this encryption hack was giving her, she'd be there absolutely all night if she didn't call it a day fairly soon.

Nene stretched again before stifling a huge yawn. Locking down her terminal, leaving her sniffer program to continue patiently poking the database, she stood up and pulled her uniform jacket off of the back of her chair. She pulled it on as she walked towards the corridor with the elevators, exchanging a quick smile and nod with some of the other people still at their desks who looked up as she walked by.

The ride down to the cafeteria's level was quiet, and Nene was soon seated at one of the tables tucking into a bowl of soup and a sandwich. When she was finished her meal, she sat quietly, taking her time over a cup of coffee as she let her mind wander, trying to relax.

"Hey, Nene!" The sudden intrusion of a voice almost in her ear made her start, nearly dumping her coffee down the front of her blouse. She resisted the impulse to sigh as Naoko dropped into the chair across from her, her eyes bright and inquisitive.

"Hi, Naoko," Nene replied, doing her best to try and match her friend's cheery tone. "What's up?"

"I was just going to ask you the same thing," she replied, an artfully hurt look flashing across her face. "I haven't seen you around at all in the last few days."

"I've been busy," Nene noted dryly, taking a sip from her coffee cup.

"Doing what, though?" Naoko asked. "All we got told was that you'd been re-assigned, but they never said to what." She made a face. "Some of the other girls have been whining about having to do the work you usually did, of course."

"I'm giving Investigations a hand," Nene replied, the need to be careful nudging at her in the back of her mind. "They needed someone to handle their files, and I got picked."

"So, you're going to be working with Leon, then?" Naoko gave her a sly look. "That sounds like a pretty cozy arrangement."

"Just working," Nene replied firmly. "I'll be helping him with an investigation when he needs it, and that's ALL I'll be doing." She took another mouthful of coffee.

"Oh, really?" Naoko grinned impishly. "If it's just business, then why were the two of you having coffee in quiet places so often in the last few days? When's the big date going to happen?" Nene just about choked on her coffee.

"I am NOT going to start dating Leon, got that?!?!" Nene hissed at her friend when she managed to recover her breath. "Don't you DARE start spreading that kind of talk around the office, you hear me?!"

"Gee, Nene, your face sure is red all of a sudden," Naoko said innocently. "Was it something I said?"

"Naoko!!" Nene just barely managed to hang onto her composure. "Naoko, think about it for a minute. You know what Leon's like; would you really want to date someone who tries to play the field whenever he can? Three weeks ago he tried getting half of the women in the Records division to go on a date with him; does that sound like someone you want to go out with?"

"Maybe he just hasn't found the right girl yet. You'll never know until you try, will you?"

"Okay, fine, Naoko... YOU date him then," Nene told her. "I'm waiting for somebody who's not as fickle as Leon is. In fact," Nene suddenly brightened as a thought struck her, "I can set you up with him tomorrow ni...."

"What!? No! Nene, waitaminute!" Naoko quickly cut her off, her face quickly becoming alarmed. "I'm, uh, I'm busy all this week, so, uh, you don't have to bother..."

"Hey, Leon's flexible," Nene smiled sweetly at her now-sweating friend. "I'll just tell him that you're interested; I'm sure he'll be able to arrange to meet you whenever you're free."

"That's okay, don't trouble yourself," Naoko hastened to assure her, her words nearly tripping over each other as she tried to get them out. "I'm sure he'll be able to ..."

"Make all the arrangements?" Nene guessed. "Well, he's always got this cozy little restaurant that he suggests, so that takes care of dinner. I'm not sure what...."

"Nevermind! That's okay, really!!" Naoko suddenly couldn't wait to leave the table. "I'm sure he's already got something arranged with someone else, so I don't want to bother him. Well, I've got to run now. Bye!" She nearly bolted from the table as Nene grinned evilly to herself.

Nene swallowed the last of her coffee, feeling rather pleased with herself at actually having been able to divert Naoko for once. Standing up with a sigh, she left the cafeteria, sliding her tray through the return slot on her way out.


Hollister stood in the small control room, his arms crossed impatiently, tapping the fingers of one hand on his arm. A nervous young-looking technician sat at a console nearby, desperately trying to look efficient and businesslike as he worked at something on his display. Hollister wasn't watching him though. Instead, the blond man's gaze was glued to the activity taking place in the room beyond the thick, shatterproof glass of the observation window.

In the center of the room beyond, two men wearing white lab coats were running some last minute checks on the dark blue and black hardsuit that stood open and waiting on a hydraulic pedestal. Several thin ribbon cables trailed from under some of the armour plates, where they'd been connected into the suit's systems as a means of monitoring activity. The cables snaked across the floor to another console, which sat patiently off to the side, blinking its display lights.

As the technicians stepped away from the armour suit, a third man entered the room. He was fairly tall and well-built, and was clad in a pair of boxer shorts. As the technicians turned towards him he walked across the floor to where they waited with the suit. After a quick conference with them, he turned to the suit and began stepping into the armour.

"Ethan, are you sure you've thoroughly checked that suit out?"

The question jolted Hollister out of his intense preoccupation. Eyes narrowing in annoyance, he glanced sideways to where Doc was standing. The old scientist was staring out the observation glass, watching the activity with an unreadable expression. He looked even more gaunt than he usually did..

"Didn't expect to see you here, Doc," Hollister remarked. "I thought you weren't interested in this little project of mine."

"I'm more interested in making sure you don't kill any of my technicians," Doc told him. "I heard about this testing session, and I think you're pushing your luck, Ethan."

"Oh, really?" Hollister's voice was bored. "Why's that?"

"You've only had that suit for a week or so," Doc pointed out. "I don't think that's sufficient time to have thoroughly checked it over. How do you know that suit doesn't have any safeguards that were missed? Are you even sure that the control systems are going to work?"

"That's what this test is for, Doc," Hollister replied patiently. "Those cables attached to the suit are going to tell us what's happening with the control systems, but we need somebody to wear the suit to activate them. The suit systems won't allow remote controls; we tried that already."

"And I say again, how do you know that there aren't any internal safeguards?" Doc persisted. "It wouldn't make much sense if just anyone could put on that armour and walk off with it, now would it?"

"We checked thoroughly," Hollister irritably sloughed off the concerns. "We're not total idiots, you know. We checked for any kind of ID systems and we didn't find anything. The suit's clean. All we needed to do was find someone who can fit into the armour."

Doc didn't reply, his expression troubled as he watched the techs help the armour's occupant close and seal the suit. Hollister permitted himself a satisfied smirk, and resumed watching as well.

One of the technicians walked over and took his place behind the monitoring console as the second tech handed the suit's helmet to the volunteer, who glanced over at the main control room. At Hollister's terse nod, the man slowly lifted the helmet and slid it onto his head. The watchers could hear the faint click over the loudspeakers as something latched into place when the helmet made contact with the neck armour.

"Doesn't the fact that you didn't find any safeguards at all make you just a bit nervous?" Doc suddenly asked, glancing over at Hollister. In the main testing chamber, the second technician backed away as the power suit began to cautiously try moving.

"Reading a power buildup in the armour," the technician in the room with them announced, interrupting whatever reply Hollister had been about to make. "Suit systems appear to be initializing."

"There's a power-on self-test of some kind running," they heard the voice of one of the technicians manning the console in the main room. "Seems like the suit's computer systems are checking system integrity. Weapons aren't coming on-line yet; sensors seem to be in a standby mode."

"I can see some kind of a system readout in the helmet visor screen," an electronically modulated voice boomed from the suit. "I don't understand what it's saying looks like it's just gibberish." Hollister leaned forward and picked up the intercom microphone.

"What does the suit feel like?" he asked the suit's occupant. "Anything unusual happening?"

"It's kind of a strange fit," the man reported. The shoulders of the armoured figure shrugged uncomfortably. "And it's getting a bit warm in here."

"Try walking," Hollister directed impatiently. "We need to see if the control systems will respond to you or not."

"It's awfully sluggish," came the reply, as the suit took an awkward step forward, its armoured boot crashing ponderously onto the floor plating as it stepped off of the pedestal. "I'm almost pulling muscles trying to get it to move. The lining's getting kind of itchy in spots, too."

"Get him out of there, Ethan. Now." Doc's voice was suddenly taut with apprehension. "It's not going to work... get him OUT of there!"

"It's only been active for about a minute; maybe the systems need to warm up a bit," Hollister started to say, when he was interrupted by an exclamation from the speakers.

"Hey, this thing's getting too hot in here!! Turn it off, willya?!"

"What are you talking about? We can't turn it off; it won't respond to remote control, remember? Turn it off yourself!!"

"I ... I can't!!! I... Ow!!! It's not responding!!!" The armoured figure began to twitch and writhe. "For G-g-god's sake!! I'm burning up in here!! S-somebody do something!!!"

"The helmet!!" Hollister barked into the microphone. "Take off the helmet!! That's where the control circuitry's located!! Take it OFF, you stunned bastard!!!" Behind him, Doc turned and quietly left the room, his expression stricken.

"I CAN'T!!! IT WON'T RELEASE!!!!" the suit's occupant yelled as he wrenched at his head. The second tech ran over to try and help him, but it was too late.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRGGGH!!!!!" The voice of the man trapped inside the hardsuit rose to a bloodcurdling scream as blue bolts of electricity began to snap and arc all over the suit's armour plating. The tech who'd been trying to help him gave a yelp and leaped back from the suit, flipping his burned hands in pain, but his outcry was lost amid the crackle and sizzle of electricity, and the terrible, distorted howling coming from the hardsuit.

As abruptly as it had begun, it was over. The spasming hardsuited figure stiffened, as if suddenly stabbed in the back, and toppled over to land on the floor with a dull thud. The electrical arcing ceased, and greasy-looking smoke began curling upwards from the still figure, trailing in mournful little wisps from between armour plates.

Awful silence fell over the testing chamber for a moment. The technician who'd been cowering behind the remote console cautiously peered around it to look at the smoking armour suit, while the other technician sat slumped against the wall, tears leaking down his face as he tried to refrain from moving his blistered hands.

Inside the control room, Hollister stood staring at the crumpled battlesuit, one hand on the glass of the observation window, the other still clenched in futility around the intercom microphone. He stood like that for one very long moment, his teeth grinding together in thwarted fury. Finally he carefully lifted the intercom mike again and pressed the switch.

"Clean that mess up," he directed tersely. "I want a report on what happened in four hours." Moving very deliberately, he set the microphone down, turned, and stalked from the control room.


Priss let the door slide closed behind her as she pocketed her keycard, glancing around the empty foyer of Bert's recreational facility. When he'd first set up the place, he'd arranged for a side entrance with separate security access cards for the other members of the Knight Sabers so that they could use it whenever they wanted to, regardless of the time of day.

So far, only Linna, Sylvie, and herself had made use of that access on a regular basis. Nene just wasn't much on exercising or archery, Anri had her job as a medical assistant to keep her busy, and Sylia was too busy most of the time with her own projects to even consider going to a recreational facility.

Noting that the door to the archery range had been left ajar, Priss walked over to it, her bootheels echoing loudly in the silence. The range was empty when she stuck her head around the doorjamb; most of the lights were out, and everything appeared to be in its accustomed storage place.

That meant that he was upstairs somewhere, probably either in the arcade room blasting pixelated foes into cyber-oblivion, or else in one of the workout rooms trying to drive himself into near-exhaustion. She was willing to bet it was the latter, especially given what had happened the other night. He'd been showing signs of regressing to old habits, and she had to admit to a fair bit of concern over that.

Sighing to herself, Priss turned and headed for the stairs to the second floor of the building, again wishing that Bert would get around to getting an elevator installed. He had the room for one, and had certainly promised enough times that he was going to look into it, but so far the stairs were the only way up or down.

A few minutes later, she was walking down the hallway towards one of the exercise rooms. All of the doors were closed, but she could see light seeping out from under one of them, and could hear the pounding of some fairly loud rock music. Priss tried the doorknob when she reached it; finding the door unlocked, she opened it and stepped into the room.

She winced as she entered the room, her eardrums protesting at the decibel level the room was being subjected to; the music from the stereo system was making the wall-mirrors on the opposite side of the room vibrate. The music sounded pretty good, but it was hard to judge given how loud it was. Squinting in concentration as she tried to ignore the discomfort, she glanced around the room as she shut the door.

She located Bert almost immediately, and as she'd figured, he was out of it, mentally speaking. Stripped to the waist, wearing only track pants and running shoes, he was at the far end of the room, systematically pounding the stuffing out of a target dummy normally reserved for use in martial arts weapons practice. His expression was fixed somewhere between grim determination and an enraged snarl as he struck out at the immobile target, occasionally dodging and feinting in response to imaginary retaliatory strikes.

He'd been at it for quite some time now, she judged; his back was slick with sweat, and she could see wet spots on the mats around him from where perspiration had splashed onto them. He was totally immersed in whatever thoughts were fueling his bout of activity, and didn't seem to have noticed her entry.

Shouting over the din from the stereo system was out of the question, so she started walking around the mats to where the sound system was perched on its table, merrily blasting away. She kept an eye on him as she walked, but he still didn't seem to have clued in to her presence.

In fact, he seemed to be oblivious to a lot of things at the moment; her lips tightened in exasperation as she noted that the bandage pad taped to his right side was starting to show a red stain seeping through. If he'd been working himself hard enough to aggravate the burn that Anri had taped up for him and make it bleed, then he was definitely overdoing it.

Gritting her teeth, partly in determination and partly to keep the soundwaves from the stereo from rattling them quite as much, Priss reached out and hit the 'stop' button on the CD player part of the stereo. The sudden silence was almost like a palpable pressure on her ears, and she had a brief flash of panic that her eardrums had given way under the audio assault before she'd turned off the music.

The cessation of the music also distracted Bert, snapping the intense concentration he'd been exercising. Unfortunately for him, it occurred right in the middle of a move of some kind as he inadvertently glanced over to the now-silent stereo system. The kick he'd been in the middle of delivering missed the target dummy; as a result, he lost his balance at the same time as his concentration. In the wild, flailing scramble that developed as he tried to keep from falling over, he slipped on one of the wet patches on the mats, and hit the floor flat on his back with a resounding thud as his feet flew up into the air.

Priss sat down on the bench next to the stereo system table with studied casualness and waited, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back against the wall. The only sound in the room was the tortured-sounding gasping coming from the prostrate form laying on the mats. Breaking his concentration had apparently allowed his exhaustion to finally register, and it had taken its toll immediately, with interest.

As she watched, he made a couple of awkward attempts to roll over before he finally made it to his hands and knees. Slowly, he started crawling across the floor in her direction. She watched him, her expression neutral, but showing traces of impatience.

"Hi, Priss," he greeted her, still breathing heavily as he reached the bench and groped for a towel sitting nearby. "Something the matter?"

"Aren't you supposed to be taking it easy?" she asked shortly, raising an eyebrow sternly as she looked over at him. "In fact, I think I recall Anri telling you very pointedly that you were supposed to be doing just that."

"I know, I know," he replied, his voice muffled as he sponged off his face with the towel. He winced as, dropping it, he slowly maneuvered his way onto the bench next to her. He sighed as he leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his knees. "I tried...really, I did...but I couldn't sit still anymore." He closed his eyes as he massaged the bridge of his nose with one hand. "I thought maybe doing something would help me relax. I knew I didn't dare go near the shop, so I came here."

"There may be hope for you yet," Priss remarked dryly, remembering the number of times she'd had to drag him out of the shop for overdoing something, "but this isn't a hell of a lot different from working yourself to exhaustion in the shop, is it? The only difference is that it might be quicker than going without sleep for a day or two." She gave him a level glance. "I saw your face when I came in, Bert. You weren't trying to relax, you were trying to kill that target dummy over there."

"I might've gotten a little carried away," he replied evasively as he sat up. Scooping up his towel from where he'd dropped it, he draped it around his neck. "It was just a workout, Priss; you don't need to make a federal case out of it."

"A what? Look, Bert," she tried keeping her voice reasonable-sounding, "most people working out don't look that pissed off. And most people know better than to work themselves to the point where they start an injury bleeding."

"Bleeding? What are you talking about?" Bert glanced down at the bandage on his side, and noticed the sticky red stain that was oozing through the fabric. "Oh. That."

"Yeah, 'Oh. That'," Priss mimicked his intonation sarcastically. "Congratulations; I'm sure Anri will be thrilled to find out that she needs to change the dressing on that already." Bert reddened slightly.

"I said I tried to relax, damn it," he muttered, shoving himself to his feet and snatching his t-shirt up from the bench with an irritated motion. "What else was I supposed to do? Go for a walk? Go out to a bar? With my luck I'd run into another of Hollister's flunkies." His expression was swept by something that resembled grim anticipation for the briefest of instants. "Although," he added, "that might not necessarily be a bad thing."

"Don't go looking for trouble, Bert," Priss shook her head as she stood up. She looked up at him, her gaze calm and matter-of-fact. "You're not up to a fight right now, especially without your suit."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

"Take a step back and look at yourself for a minute," she retorted. "You're not thinking clearly, and you're definitely not your usual self. You've never gone looking for a fight deliberately."

"Well, maybe it's time I started," he snapped. "Maybe then the assholes of the world would leave me alone for a change if they know what the consequences are going to be." Priss blinked at the vehemence in his reply.

"Bert," she carefully moved a couple of steps closer to him, reaching out and placing a hand on his arm, "think about what you just said. I've never known you to casually suggest that beating the crap out of someone was the way to solve a problem."

"I don't want to beat the crap out of Hollister," he half-snarled, "I want to KILL the sonofabitch!!! 'Playing nice' hasn't gotten me anywhere except into the hospital. Well that's fine by me; if they want to play rough, then I sure as hell can too!" With that he spun away from her and stormed out of the room, heading in the direction of the showers.

Priss watched him go, frustration, worry, and understanding all churning around in her expression. "So now what the hell do I do?" she asked the empty room under her breath, but she didn't get an answer.



Doc sat silently in the chair across from Hollister, the large oak desk between them, puffing on his pipe. The old scientist looked even more frail than he usually did; dark smudges were under his eyes, and the wrinkles in his skin seemed to have been etched deeper then they had been earlier.

"Well?" Hollister demanded irritably, "aren't you going to say anything?" The blond man looked the worse for wear as well. His tie was loosened, and the top collar button of his shirt was undone. The shirt sported some sharp creases, and even his suit jacket looked somewhat wrinkled. A decanter of liquor, half-empty, sat near his elbow. Ice cubes rattled as Hollister took a drink from a tumbler, the glass rapping sharply on the desktop as he set it down.

In the day or so since the disastrous power suit test, he'd become even more irritable than usual. Doc wasn't sure if it was because he'd been proven wrong again, or because of the whiskey he'd been downing at a fairly steady rate. Everyone around the blond man had felt like they were walking on eggshells, and had gone to great lengths to stay out of his way.

Doc wasn't one of them, though; he'd finally reached the point where he didn't really care any longer. The only thing left that Hollister could do to him was to kill him, and at times the old scientist found himself wishing for exactly that. At least then he'd be free of a great many things that he was finding increasingly hard to bear. On another level of his mind though, he was vaguely alarmed at those thoughts. He still had a couple of things that he'd like to do yet, things that could hopefully remain free of the taint that marked anything related to Hollister.

"What do you want me to say, Ethan?" he finally replied, becoming aware of the growing impatience emanating from the man behind the desk. "I seem to recall voicing my opinion quite a few times and getting ignored, so why do you insist on asking me if I've got anything to say?"

"Because," Hollister gritted sourly, "you're up front about it. You're one of the few here who actually has the guts to disagree with me about anything."

"Stop shooting the other dissenters and that might change," the old man noted dryly.

"That was incompetence, not dissent," came the cold reply. "There's a difference."

"Depends on your point of view," Doc replied mildly, drawing deeply on his pipe. Exhaling a rolling plume of smoke, he changed the subject. "I presume from your inquiry that you've gotten the report from the suit techs?"

"Yes," Hollister's reply was curt. "There appears to be some control circuitry missing. Their guess is that it's something that's either worn by the suit user, or cybernetic."

"I don't imagine it's cyberware," Doc mused, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe again. "Anyone with serious cybernetic enhancements wouldn't need exoskeleton armour like that. Besides, in a combat situation the danger of feedback surges frying the nervous system would be considerable."

"Exactly," Hollister looked disgusted. "Which means an internal suit of some kind with circuitry that can pick up nerve impulses and relay them to the hardware."

"That sounds reasonable," Doc agreed, then cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Just why does that option seem to be so distasteful?"

"Because the extraction team that acquired the suit reported that they did find something like a suit of long underwear when they found the power suit, but they discarded it thinking it was some old rag or something."

"Oh." Doc wondered for a moment if the bearer of that particular piece of news was still among the living. "Well, if you're thinking that having that skinsuit might have prevented what happened, I'd think again, Ethan."


"I think that armour was 'tuned' to the original owner of it, that's why," Doc said. "Think it through; you said you didn't find any obvious safeguards to prevent someone from putting on the suit and walking off with it, right?"

"Get to the point," Hollister growled shortly, downing the rest of his drink and pouring another couple of inches of liquor into his glass.

"Obviously, not putting any kind of safeguard would be stupid," Doc continued to outline his theory as he warmed to his subject, "and many hardware safeguards can be bypassed externally. That leaves putting something else into it, something that can't be detected in just a scan of the suit. I'd be willing to bet that the suit's software had some kind of detection routine built into it that matches the occupant's brain patterns to what it has recorded somewhere. If they don't match..." His voice trailed off for a moment as he remembered the screaming he'd heard following him down the hall as he left. He shivered as the memory made his skin crawl.

"Well?" Hollister demanded impatiently.

"In this case, if they don't match," Doc said slowly, "it looks like the suit dumps most of its power directly through its contact points with its pilot, into the pilot, thereby neatly killing anyone attempting to steal it."

"And also, incidentally, carbonizing most of the onboard circuitry in the process," Hollister added bitterly, taking another stiff drink from his glass. "Congratulations; you just summarized what those idiot techs took most of a day to figure out after the fact. The suit's powerplant feed was 'unexpectedly' shunted into the pilot, killing him, after some kind of internal CPU test seemed to fail." He banged the glass down on his desk, his expression turning even blacker. "For the crowning glory, it seems that we aren't going to get much in the way of details on the suit's programs and software; anything resembling a memory chip on that thing is now about as much use as a second asshole."

"I see," Doc was vaguely aware of something like a sense of relief at the back of his mind, but decided not to try and pinpoint the source right at that moment. "What do you plan to do with it now?"

"They're dismantling what's left for analysis," Hollister replied, staring broodingly off into space. "We've got enough of our own technology here that we can probably build our own battlesuit design, using what we can recover from it and our initial scans as a base. I'd still have preferred to have kept the goddamn thing intact though."

Doc didn't reply to the blond man's statement of the obvious, and drew thoughtfully on his pipe.


Nene yawned, mumbling drowsily to herself as she rolled over on her couch. Gradually, the soft but insistent beeping coming from her computer trickled through the cobwebs of sleep still shrouding her mind, and she finally sat up, rubbing at bleary eyes. She made a face as the taste of the inside of her mouth registered - she was willing to bet that old socks were probably less foul in flavour - and made a mental note to never again drink reheated coffee that was of indeterminate age.

Covering another yawn with a hand, the young red-head stood up and stretched, glancing across her small apartment to where her computer was still beeping. After a moment of consideration, she decided to get cleaned up first; a shower would help her clear the last of the sleep from her mind for one thing. If this codebreaking run hadn't worked either, then she was definitely going to need a clear mind to try and figure out where she'd gone wrong.

She took a nice long, leisurely shower, luxuriating in the feel of the hot water as it caressed her body, washing away soap and work-related stress at the same time. When she was finished, she spent several minutes drying her hair, and then trying to comb out the tangles and snarls as painlessly as possible. Once that was accomplished, she pulled some fresh clothing out of her closet and got dressed.

Making her way out to her tiny kitchen, Nene made a pot of fresh coffee and fixed herself a mugful. Sipping it carefully, she wandered over to her computer and sat down in front of it, setting her cup over to the side. Mentally crossing her fingers, she reached out and turned on the monitor.

A slow, triumphant grin began to seep across her face as the monitor lit up with the message 'DECRYPT COMPLETE', and she resisted the urge to literally hug her computer. It had finally worked. Hour upon countless hour of hard work and frustration had finally paid off; she'd managed to crack the encryption on the final database that Aramaki had told her about.

Nene permitted herself another very self-satisfied grin, and took a long drink from her coffee cup, savouring the mingling aromas of coffee and success. It had taken her longer than she'd originally estimated, but she'd finally done it.

Of course, since she was now going to be acting as a security consultant for the ADP's computer systems, she was likely going to have to close the 'back door' that she'd used to get covert access to the files from home. She hadn't really had much choice though; her home system's codebreaking capabilities were much better than the computers she had to use at work. It would've taken at least another four or five days if she hadn't used her own equipment.

Idly, she wondered if Aramaki would allow her to upgrade the systems the ADP had for decryption. Probably not, she decided after a moment; the budget for something like that would never get past the politicians controlling the cashbox. They'd probably be afraid the ADP was investigating them for something.

With a sigh, the red-haired young woman finished off the last of her coffee and set the cup aside. Settling herself more comfortably into her chair she leaned forwards and began to rapidly scan through the contents of the database. Now that she'd finally gotten into it, her curiosity was demanding satisfaction about what it had been hiding.

She sifted through the information for a while, becoming totally mystified in the process. The database contained what looked like a collection of disjointed police reports, transcripts of conversations that must have come from tapped phone lines, and other bits of extraneous information that didn't seem to make sense to her. And yet....there had to be something she was missing; why else would someone go to all that trouble to encrypt it?

Nene sat back and rubbed at her eyes. There was still a tremendous volume of data to look through, but her initial enthusiasm had waned at the realization of just how large the stockpile of information actually was. It would take her days to read through all of it manually. Luckily, there was another option available.

Her brow furrowed in concentration, Nene opened another display window on her screen, and rapidly typed in a few lines of program code. Giving her little sifter program a last cursory glance, she activated it and turned off her monitor, leaving the program to search the database for certain keywords that she'd entered. It was just a hunch, but it was better than trying to read through the reams of data that were there by herself.

Sighing and stretching, she stood up, shoving her chair away from the desk. Picking up her coffee mug, she walked back into her little kitchenette and began fixing herself another cup.

Her computer sat quietly, whirring and humming as it patiently sorted through the database.



"Now this is more like it," Leon grinned as he leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on a corner of the desk, glancing around at the spacious office surrounding him. There were four desks in the room, a couple of them covered with cardboard moving boxes and sheaves of paper. A computer was already set up on the desk in the corner, the one Nene had decided she liked.

"The idea of moving you to a new office was to produce some useful work, Inspector," Aramaki noted dryly, "not to give you more room to put your feet up and relax." He was standing in the doorway to the small office he was now occupying, dressed in a grey suit.

"I can think better that way," Leon replied, unfazed as he grinned at the older man, dropping his feet back to the floor and swiveling around to face him.

"It's unprofessional-looking," Aramaki replied, disapproval evident in his expression. "Our public image has enough problems without people lounging at their desks like that." A crooked smile appeared on his wrinkled features. "Besides, future Chief Inspectors should have enough work to keep them busy enough that they don't have time to put their feet up."

"Will you stop that?!" Leon demanded irritably, his grin disappearing. "I've already told you several times that I don't want that job. Yes, I'll help you get the ADP's affairs in order, but I don't want to be running the show; I'm not cut out for it. Find yourself another victim."

"Don't underestimate yourself, Inspector," Aramaki replied, unruffled by Leon's remarks.

"I'm not," Leon countered. "If you put me in that job, I'd be fired within a month."

"Your diplomacy skills do need a bit of work yet," Aramaki allowed blandly, "but I'm sure we'll be able to work through that over time."

"I wouldn't bet any money on that," another voice wryly commented, interrupting whatever retort Leon had been about to make. The tall inspector shot an irritated glance in the direction of the comment, eyeing the red-haired man lounging in the doorway to the corridor balefully.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Daley," Leon noted with a trace of sarcasm. "Any other insights you'd care to offer?" Daley grinned as he walked over to Leon's desk and sat on a corner of it.

"Not yet, but I can come up with a few more if you'd like," he offered. Leon snorted.

"I think I've had enough help for the day, thanks," he replied. "What brings you up here?"

"I didn't want to break up your partnership," Aramaki answered before Daley could. "Daley seems to be able to counterbalance your...let's say 'enthusiasm', for an investigation. Besides, you've worked together before, so I won't have to worry about any rivalries or anything like that springing up."

"'Enthusiasm'?" Daley smirked as he glanced sidelong at Leon. "Is that what you're calling it now?"

"Well, it sounds better than calling it 'insubordination'," Aramaki noted blandly. "We do have to maintain at least an image of respect for authority."

"And just what will we be working on?" Leon asked, pointedly ignoring the sly remarks.

"I have some leads that I want checked out," Aramaki told him. "Nene uncovered them the other day."

"She cracked those codes then?" Leon inquired, and grinned at Aramaki's affirmative nod. "What did she turn up?"

"We're still sifting the data," Aramaki said. "At first glance it looks like a pile of useless, random information, but there appears to be the occasional hidden file. At the moment, we have the address of a couple of warehouses that are apparently being used as funneling points for illegal arms and combat boomer shipments." Daley gave a low, surprised whistle as Aramaki continued speaking. "I'd like the two of you to QUIETLY investigate them; I don't want them being tipped off to the fact that we know what they're doing, clear?"


"Very good, Nene," Sylia looked up from the printout she was holding. "I take it you didn't tell the ADP that you'd already deciphered some of the details of the database?"

"No, Sylia," Nene assured her. "I just cracked the encryption like they wanted. I figured that giving them anything else might be pushing it for now; I don't want to show up their encryption experts," she grinned suddenly, impishly, "not in my first week or two of work, anyway."

"Nene," Sylia gave the young red-head a reproving glance.

"I was just kidding, Sylia," Nene smiled innocently. Sylia raised an eyebrow, but let it pass and went back to reading the printout.

"This network address that you found in the files," she asked suddenly. "Have you already tried to check it out?"

"I tried," Nene acknowledged, a slight frown appearing, "but I didn't get very far. That address is valid, but there's an awful lot of security on it; I'd say it's as good or maybe better than the barriers that GENOM has on their computer network. I made sure I masked my location ID by bouncing my probes off of a few routers before I tried that, though," she quickly added.

"Did you get in?"

"I got past the first couple of levels," Nene shrugged. "I didn't find anything though, and I had to back out real quick. Their ICE software tries to fry anything that attempts an entry, and I wasn't really using the right equipment to fight it off."

"So," Sylia pursed her lips thoughtfully, "We have an anonymous computer network, protected by corporate-grade security, the address of which was found in an encrypted file which appears to have details on an arms-smuggling operation." An eyebrow quirked upwards. "Very interesting." She absently folded up the printout and set it aside, her expression thoughtful.

"But why would that be hidden in the ADP computers?" Nene asked. "We don't usually conduct those kinds of investigations; the ADP is supposed to be a special boomer crimes unit."

"I'd say that somebody was using the ADP systems for access to various information systems," Sylia replied. "It's only a theory, mind you, but it looks like these files are documenting the activities of a single organization, an organization that somebody was planning to try and take down, if I'm reading the evidence correctly."


"Explain that to me again," Hollister requested coldly, "the part about where our systems were infiltrated. I seem to recall assurances that nobody could get past our first level of network security, let alone make it past the second one."

"Uh, well, you see, sir....I...uh..." Sweat was trickling down the brow of the sandy-haired, gangly-looking man standing in front of the desk as he gulped, trying desperately to think of the right words. He kept mopping his face with a handkerchief, shoving very thick eyeglasses back on his nose at the same time. He was fairly young, but then again, everyone tended to look young to the old man sitting off to the side in a padded armchair. Doc wondered idly if the unfortunate network specialist was going to be able to look forward to getting any older.

The old scientist puffed wordlessly on his pipe as he watched, wraithlike clouds of bluish-grey pipesmoke swirling around him. A couple of times he'd seen Hollister give him an irritated glance over the haze and accompanying smell, but most of his attention was on the hapless technician in front of him.

"I'm waiting," Hollister said evenly, "and I hate to be kept waiting. You have exactly sixty seconds to convince me not to have you used for live target practice for some of our other projects."

"I don't know how they did it," the man gulped again nervously. "We used the latest encryption programs..."

"I'm not interested in what you used," Hollister said flatly. "I'm interested in how they got past it. Forty-five seconds."

"They, uh, well, they...hacked the system," the technician said faintly, mopping again at his face. "It wasn't software we've seen before; it seems to have been a custom program."

"You told me it would be impossible to hack. Thirty seconds."

"I said it would be 'next-to impossible'," the man whined pathetically. "There's nothing that's one hundred percent foolproof, especially related to network security. Even GENOM can't keep internet hackers totally out of their systems."

"Really? Too bad for them," Hollister remarked caustically. "But in case it has escaped your limited attention span, this isn't GENOM. I can't afford any intrusions, even minor ones. Fifteen seconds."

"But I can't tell you anything else!" the disheveled technician looked like he was about to start crying. "All we could tell is that they managed to hack our security, and where they were doing it from." Hollister's expression sharpened, becoming almost vulturine as he leaned forwards in his chair.

"You didn't say that before," he noted coldly. "Where did the attack come from?"

"The hacker was using a packet-bouncing method to mask their location," came the reply, "but we managed to trace them back through the routers to their real source."

"That being?" Hollister demanded impatiently.

"The ADP Headquarters building," came the quavering reply. Hollister sat back in his chair.

"The ADP? Well, well, well," he mused aloud, looking annoyed and intrigued by turns. "That's an unexpected development." He glanced at the sweating technician, who was trembling slightly now that his sixty seconds had expired, dreading what he was going to hear. "You can go," the blond man told him. "I'll expect to see your improvements to our network security implemented within the next twenty-four hours. If they aren't, then you'll wish you'd been used for live firing practice. I trust I don't have to detail what that means?"

"Oh no, sir! Thank you, sir!" the young man blurted in relief, his words stumbling over each other as he tried to get them out. "I'll get on it right away!" Turning, he fled the office, managing to keep from running until he made it to the hallway. As the door closed behind him, Hollister and Doc heard him pounding down the hallway, and then the heavy sounds of somebody running into somebody else. The door closed on the sounds of loud cursing and swearing, returning silence to the room.

"It was bound to happen sooner or later, Ethan," Doc pointed out, breaking the quiet. "Your arms operations do include some boomer-related components, after all, and that is what the ADP deals with."

"I know that," Hollister replied irritably. "I'm more interested in why I didn't know about their interest; I'm going to have to stress to my contact there that I need to be kept informed of everything that goes on." His eyes suddenly seemed to contain a cold fire. "And I'll need to find out who was behind that probe of our network as well."



"So what's the occasion?" Priss asked as she glanced over at the small kitchen table. It was set up for a dinner for two, complete with a crisp-looking white tablecloth, polished-looking silverware, and even wineglasses. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she folded her arms over her chest and looked curiously at Bert.

"Nothing, really," he replied evasively, stirring a pot full of something that was steaming. "I just got tired of either eating out or ordering in; take-out starts to taste the same after a while, regardless of what it is."

"And?" Priss prodded. "Come on, Bert; I know you better than that. What's on your mind? Nobody sets a table up like that without some other motive behind it, or whips up a fancy dinner setting for no apparent reason."

"I said there wasn't anything else. Has anyone told you that you've got a suspicious mind?"

"Several times," Priss refused to be diverted. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a lousy liar?"

"Several times," he admitted, then sighed, propping the spoon he was stirring with against the edge of the pot as he turned towards her. "Okay, I was also intending it as an apology of sorts. Happy now?"

"An apology for what?" she asked, an eyebrow arching upwards.

"A lot of things," he said, shrugging uncomfortably and abruptly stuffing his hands in his pockets, as if he couldn't think of anything else to do with them at the moment. "Partly for snarling at you the other day, but mostly for shoving you away over the last week or so. It was rude and ... inconsiderate on my part, and I'm sorry." His eyes met hers for a moment, then shifted away guiltily. "I'm ... just ... not ... having much luck dealing with a few things lately."

"I'd noticed," Priss assured him wryly. Straightening up, she stepped over to him, and reached out with a hand, tipping his chin up so that he was looking at her. "You could've just called and said you needed to talk," she told him simply. "I didn't need to be bribed with dinner or anything."

"I felt I had to do something nice for you," he mumbled, "Lord knows you've been trying hard enough to help me out lately, even when I wasn't listening to you." Priss gave him a warm smile, then stepped close to him and hugged him. After a moment of hesitation that she could feel, he pulled his hands out of his pockets and hugged her back.

They stood like that for a moment or two, and she could feel the tenseness in his back and shoulder muscles. It took a moment or so, but the tension seemed to ease a bit as he held her; she briefly hoped that it wasn't just wishful thinking on her part. Finally she pulled back a bit and looked up at him.

"Well, since you made dinner anyway, I guess we shouldn't let it go to waste," she noted. "Let's eat."

"I vaguely recall someone saying they didn't need to be bribed with food," he observed mildly.

"We'll worry about that next time," Priss told him. "Right now, I'm hungry."

"As M'Lady wishes," he smirked, waving towards the table with a hand. "Have a seat then, and I'll start serving."

Dinner proved to be a fish and rice casserole with vegetables on the side, and warm rolls. It was quite good, and Priss unabashedly stuffed herself. Bert was quiet throughout the meal, although she did see a bemused glance or two come from his direction as she worked away at demolishing what was on her plate. The air of quiet companionship that the dinner provided was obviously relaxing him, and she couldn't complain about that.

Finally, she could eat no more, and gave a contented sigh as she shoved her plate away. Bert cocked an eyebrow at her as a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.

"You're sure you've had enough?" he inquired. "I'd been planning on something for dessert, but I don't think that would be a good idea at the moment."

"What did you have in mind?" she asked, taking a leisurely sip from a glass of fruit juice.

"Well, I did manage to get the ingredients together and whip up a parfait or two," he replied blandly. Priss froze, her expression becoming tormented.

"You sneaky bastard," she whispered, watching as a slightly evil grin began to creep across his face. Parfaits were one of her favourite desserts, but she was so full right now that eating any kind of dessert would probably leave her in extreme discomfort. "How could you do that to me?!"

"What? It wasn't that hard, really," he shrugged nonchalantly. "Some different varieties of ice cream, some fruit...."

"That's not what I meant!" she burst out. "Why didn't you tell me about the desserts?!"

"It was supposed to be a surprise," he noted dryly. "I didn't realize that you were going to just inhale whatever came near your plate. Why, is there something wrong?" he added innocently. Priss resisted the urge to strangle him.

"If I eat anything else right now, I'll explode and you know it," she half-growled, glaring at him, "so you have to go and tempt me with one of my favourite desserts?!"

"Tell you what," he tried soothing her, "you go and relax on the couch for a while, and I'll clean up the dinner dishes. Maybe you'll feel like having dessert after dinner's settled a bit."

Priss gave him a patently skeptical look, but allowed herself to accept the deflection. She stood up from the dinner table, unable to keep from groaning a bit at how full she felt, and staggered off to the couch. Flopping on it in a semi-lengthwise sprawl, she lay there listening to the clatter of dishes and cutlery as Bert cleaned up the aftermath of the dinner.

She stretched lazily as she lay there, the pleasant languor of relaxing after a good meal beginning to make her a bit drowsy. She'd almost entered a light doze when she felt the couch cushions shift a bit, and Bert carefully eased himself onto the couch next to her. She shifted around a bit to make room for him, and he put his arms around her. They sat quietly like that for a few minutes, before Bert stirred and spoke.

"So," he said, his tone light, "feel like having dessert now?"

"Can you get it without moving?" she asked, dropping her head back against his shoulder to look up at him.

"Huh? Why?"

"Because I just got comfortable," she explained, a smile quirking at her lips. "I don't want to have to move again."

"Don't want much, do you?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, since I haven't developed telekinesis yet, I'll have to get up again if you want your ice cream."

"It can wait then," she decided, reaching up and pulling his head down towards hers. "I'm not really in a hurry," she added as she kissed him. His arms tightened around her as he kissed her back, and the apartment became very quiet for a few minutes.

"Mmmm," he sighed when they finally parted for a few moments, "we must do this more often."

"Well it's your own fault for turning into a near-recluse," she reminded him, her tone becoming just a shade tart.

"I know, I know, I'm sorry," he looked away from the reproach in her gaze. "Like I said, I just... I've just had some problems coping lately, and I figured you deserved better than having to watch me sulk and snarl at the world in general."

"How about letting me make that decision?" Priss requested, firmly reaching up and turning his head back so that he had to look at her. "I'm a big girl now, you know; I'm more than capable of deciding for myself when you're acting like an idiot."

"Thanks," he replied dryly as Priss sat up and turned to face him, "but I didn't see a reason for inflicting my foul temper on you and thereby making two people miserable. I..." His voice cut off as she put a hand over his mouth.

"Just shut up and listen for a moment," she told him flatly. "First of all, you think too damn much. Why does everything that ever happens around you have to have a reason for it? Life's not like that; in fact, it's pretty goddamn senseless sometimes, and I should know. Shit happens, and there's not a bloody thing we can do to prevent it." She looked him square in the eye. "And you sure seem to make a lot of pretty independent decisions without considering what the other person might have to say."

"I do not!" he tried protesting, pushing her hand away from his mouth. "I..."

"No?" Priss jabbed him in the center of the chest with an accusatory finger, her tone hard, and he flinched. "What would you call deciding that staying away from me because you were in a foul mood was the best course? A relationship is a two-way street, buster; you can't just suddenly close the other person off. Not if you want it to work." She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "I'm not even entirely sure you're aware that you're doing it, but every time you go off on some half-assed tangent, you've always got some well-thought out reason or rationale for doing it, and you're convinced that your way is the only way. Maybe it is, IF you ignore other people's viewpoints," she glared at him. "Care to explain that tendency of yours?"

"Well, I, uh..." Bert spread his hands helplessly. "I thought I was taking into account your feelings in the matter, so I...."

"ASK me what my 'feelings in the matter' are!" Priss told him bluntly. "Don't just assume you know what I'm feeling, got that?! I'm not going to be taken for granted."

"I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I wasn't trying to exclude you, I just..."

"Got too caught up in thinking you were being noble and self-sacrificing and sparing me undue hardship," Priss finished for him. "I think you read too many books about knights when you were a kid; it's warped your thinking." She sighed. "Just try and stop doing it, okay?"


"It would seem that we have some new adversaries to worry about," Hollister remarked as Doc settled himself into his customary armchair across the desk from him, "and from a source I never expected, either."

"You've never particularly worried about anyone before," Doc remarked, fishing around in his pockets absently, "although there have been a couple of exceptions I could mention." The gaunt old scientist pulled his almost omnipresent pipe from a pocket and stuck the stem in his mouth as he continued to frisk his pockets.

"Don't bother," Hollister told him acidly, "I've heard it often enough in the last few weeks to be able to quote you verbatim before you even say anything."

"So who are these new adversaries?" Doc asked, giving up the search of his pockets in disgust; he'd forgotten his tobacco, proof that he wasn't feeling like his usual self. Sighing to himself, he took his pipe out of his mouth and dropped it into a pocket of his lab coat.

"The ADP, believe it or not," Hollister said darkly. "It seems they've been reorganized slightly, and they're starting to poke their noses into some of my ventures as a result."


"They've got an interim chief," Hollister explained, "and there's been a sweep of the force's personnel for any moles." His expression turned sour. "They've done an impressively thorough job at it, too."

"What happened to the ones they found?" Doc asked.

"A few were apparently 'invited' to retire early," Hollister replied, "mostly the ones that had been living in the pockets of the corporations. There were a couple of others that have been reported as 'taking a leave of absence', and have vanished without a trace."

"Vanished?" Doc blinked at that. "That doesn't sound like the standard procedure for the ADP management."

"Their old management, no. Their new management, however, is another story entirely." Hollister pulled a photo out of a folder and handed it to Doc. Doc glanced at it, and saw a middle-aged, average-seeming man with greying hair and a goatee.

"The gentleman in the picture," Hollister informed Doc, "is none other than the former head of one of the Japanese government's public security sections. He was supposed to have retired, but I guess the sedentary life didn't agree with him; he's now running the ADP, ostensibly until the politicos get around to appointing a real, full-time chief." The blond man scowled. "Aramaki running things changes the picture considerably."

"You sound like you know him," Doc commented, handing back the picture.

"We've met," Hollister replied shortly, taking it and stuffing it back into a file folder. "He's a thorough professional. While he prefers to use the legal methods to get rid of somebody, he won't scruple to eliminate somebody whom he regards as a danger to the public peace if they could possibly use their connections or influence to get away. It would be too much to hope that he's not still using that crazy attack-bitch that he used to have working for him, so I'm not holding my breath on that score."

"'Crazy attack-bitch'?" Doc echoed, frowning.

"It's a long story," Hollister waved an explanation aside. "The fact that my former ADP contact was found in a downtown alley with a bullet through his head would seem to confirm that she's still around, and that he's still calling the shots."

"I see," Doc considered that news for a few moments. "And you think they're on to you?"

"Aramaki's put together a small group of people he's selected from the ranks of the ADP," Hollister leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his face, propping his elbows on the arms of his chair. "My understanding is that they're supposed to be an elite investigation squad. What's interesting, however, is that they're apparently not restricting their investigations to boomer crimes; I gather they've already started sniffing around some old warehouses I used as a front a couple of times."

"You're not worried?" Doc queried, raising an eyebrow.

"Information is power," Hollister smiled malevolently, "and now that I know what they're up to, I'm the one in the more advantageous position: I know what they're doing, but they haven't got a clue about my operations. Since I know about them, it makes it all the easier to thwart them. They can investigate old warehouses all they want, but they'll never track anything back to my doorstep."

"And you're absolutely positive that they don't know about any of your other ventures?" Doc asked mildly. "I'd be hesitant to make that assumption; those are the kinds of decisions that always seem to cause problems."

"I know," Hollister nodded. "That's why I've arranged to find out just how much they do know, in total." He leaned back in his chair. "One of Aramaki's new team is a computer security expert," he told the old scientist, "and apparently, a pretty competent one - my source believed that she was the one who uncovered the info on our warehouses. She's been re-inforcing the ADP's computer network in various ways to make it more difficult to penetrate."

"Is it working?"

"Yes, unfortunately," Hollister grimaced. "We've already lost access to some of the key nodes in the police networks. As a result, it'll be a bit more difficult to tell which of our operations they're keeping an eye on; we'll still be able to get the information, in all likelihood, just not as easily." He tapped a finger on a file folder. "I've also determined that it's more than likely she was behind the probe of our network as well; the attempt came from one of the ADP network nodes that she can get access to."

"It's a possibility," Doc conceded, "but we've got no way of knowing for sure that she was the one who cracked the network."

"Sure we do," Hollister shrugged, a malevolent smirk appearing. "We ask her."

"Excuse me?" Doc stared at the blond man, not particularly liking his expression; he looked far too smug. "What do you mean you're going to ask her?"

"Why, I've made arrangements to extend an invitation of my hospitality to her, of course," Hollister replied. "We have a lot to talk about, and I'm sure she'll be just thrilled to help us out."

"A kidnapping?" Doc said disbelievingly. "You're going to kidnap her?!"

"Why not? It's the most efficient way to get the information, and it's faster than waiting to try and find out from other sources."

Doc just stared at Hollister for a few moments, unable to think of a decent reply. Designing and dealing in weaponry was one thing, kidnappings were another field entirely. They almost always had messy consequences, and almost never provided what was expected anyway.

"There's a fringe benefit to kidnapping her as well," Hollister noted, pulling another photo from a file folder, a photo that was paper-clipped to a sheet of paper. He glanced at the picture with its accompanying piece of paper, and there was no mistaking the malicious satisfaction that spread across his face.

"That being?" Doc asked, trying to ignore the feeling of impending doom that was settling into his bones as Hollister handed him the sheet of paper and the picture. The old scientist glanced at the photo to see a very young-looking woman with long red hair and green eyes, dressed in an ADP uniform. The photo appeared to have been taken from across the street from the unsuspecting woman.

"Once we have her, we'll very likely flush her boyfriend from hiding," Hollister's voice intruded on his thoughts as he stared at the picture. "Seems that she's the girlfriend of a certain Bert Van Vliet." Hollister's eyes positively glowed. "Once we have her, it'll only be a matter of time before we get him."



The lunch hour crowds bustled along the cramped sidewalks, endless streams of people ducking into and out of shops, stores, and cafes. High above the street, the sun scuttled through fast-moving banks of white, cottony clouds, casting its warming rays on the city. The hum of the busy crowd seemed appreciative of the warmth, as if they were somehow drawing strength from it.

"Naoko!" Nene giggled, "that's a horrible thing to say about someone!" The two ADP police women were walking along the sidewalk, enjoying the chance to get out of the station and offices, even if the sidewalk was on the crowded side. The bright sunshine made the walk that much more enjoyable.

"I'm just repeating what she said," Naoko replied loftily. "I'm not making it up. You should've heard Noriko the other day...she was making catty remarks about everything, and not just her boyfriend."

"Has anyone ever met this guy?" Nene asked. "From the way she's making it sound, even Leon's beginning to look better. Why doesn't she just ditch the guy if he's that much of a creep?"

"You know her," Naoko sniffed. "She won't admit she was wrong about him, so she's sticking with him and hoping to prove everyone wrong."

"I don't think that's a very good idea," Nene said seriously. "If he's not going to be even partly willing to cooperate with her, then they're both going to end up unhappy. She should move out and get her own place."

"On her salary?" Naoko shook her head. "She said she can't afford it. A couple of us tried to convince her to move in with a friend, but she won't even try that."

The two young women continued to walk along, lost in conversation.


"Target sighted," a man apparently browsing the titles at a newspaper stand muttered in a low voice, after glancing up the street. "Approximately fifty metres from my position; she's with a friend." The man was slight of build, with straight black hair and regular features. Exactly the kind of person that could loiter in an area and not get noticed.

"Understood," a static-ridden voice replied through the transceiver earplug he was wearing. "Continue observation; we'll handle the rest."


Amazingly, the crowd had begun to thin out somewhat, something Nene and Naoko both appreciated since it meant they weren't getting accidentally elbowed or jostled quite as often. The two friends had received more than a couple of bumps from inconsiderate citizens in a hurry. They were also on their way back towards the ADP headquarters building, and the crowds were always a bit thinner near the HQ tower; since there weren't any stores nearby, there was no real reason for the public to go there unless on urgent or official business.

"Come on, Nene," Naoko urged her along, glancing again at her watch. "We're going to be late if you don't walk faster."

"I'm enjoying being able to move freely again," Nene replied, taking the opportunity to stretch, extending her arms over her head and taking a deep breath. "Besides, we've got plenty of time."

"Yeah, but I've got some stuff I need to do back at the office," Naoko whined. "I want to get a head start on it."

"Catching up on the office gossip?" Nene suggested lightly, unable to suppress a grin. Up the street, a white van was turning the corner.

"As a matter of fact, I do have some reports I need to work on," Naoko replied with a fairly good imitation of righteous indignation.

"Right," Nene agreed absently, distracted by something odd about the van that she'd noticed approaching them. It was moving slowly, not at all close to the speed limit, and it was apparently ignoring the drivers behind it that had started to lean on their horns. She could see the vague outline of somebody at the wheel, but the windows of the van were tinted too darkly to be able to make out any features.

"I wonder if that guy's lost?" she mused aloud. Naoko glanced in the direction she was looking.

"Could be," she replied. "Think we should flag him down and ask? We are police officers after all," she added piously, "and public servants are supposed to help the public."

"I've had my fill of traffic duty, thanks," Nene made a face. "We'll let the THP deal with that guy if they have to. Besides, if he wants directions he can always...."

Tires squealed as the van suddenly accelerated, shooting down the street towards them in a frightening burst of speed. Rubber screamed against asphalt again as it screeched to a halt barely fifteen feet away from the startled women. The doors on the van slammed open, and several masked men in dark clothing boiled out of the doors. Nene caught a fleeting glance of several guns of some kind as they did so, and dread suddenly ran slivers of ice through her.

"Naoko, RUN!" she grabbed her friend's arm as every instinct she owned shrieked at her to run, to get away and put as much distance as she could between herself and that van.

Naoko yelped in surprise as Nene's yank on her arm almost pulled her off her feet, but she found her feet quickly as short, sharp explosions rocked the air. Gunfire. The now-terrified young woman flinched, but needlessly. The shots fired had apparently been warning shots directed at either traffic or bystanders.

The two women ducked under the grasp of the lead kidnapper, a tall and gangly man who didn't take very kindly to Naoko's handbag smacking him square in the face as she yelled and tried to avoid him. Cursing and shaking his head as he grabbed at his nose, he missed his chance as Nene and Naoko made it past him.

"Get her, damn it!!" they heard him yell. "Quit standing there, you jackasses, and GET HER!!!"

Nene shivered inwardly at the vehemence in the man's voice, and tried to run faster. Abruptly, there was the unmistakable meaty sound of a fist hitting somebody, and Nene heard Naoko cry out in pain amid the sound of a body falling heavily to the pavement.

"Naoko?!" Nene glanced backwards, involuntarily slowing, to see her friend lying on the pavement as two of the black-clad men leaped over her prone body. The moment of hesitation proved to be her undoing.

"Got you!" the triumphant words accompanied what felt like a vise clamping onto her arm and jerking her sideways, nearly dragging her to her knees. As she started to scream for help, a hand was slapped over her mouth. As the realization that she was in very serious trouble exploded in her mind, Nene didn't hesitate.

She bit the hand covering her mouth.

It was removed posthaste, accompanied by pained swearing as she stomped backwards as hard as she could, aiming for where she imagined her assailant's feet were. She was rewarded with a satisfying crunch, and another pained yelp as the grip on her arm loosened. She was acting on pure instinct now, fear and the desire for self-preservation sending adrenaline surging through her.

"Somebody, HELP!!!!" she screamed as loudly as she could as she squirmed free of the grasp of her attacker. Another body loomed in front of her, reaching, and she drove a knee into his crotch, some half-remembered lesson about dirty fighting prompting the action. He collapsed with a groan, writhing in pain.

"Damn it, what the hell are you doing?!" somebody shouted. "The cops are going to be all over us in another few minutes! Quit screwing around and grab her!!!"

"YOU grab her!!" another irate voice spat back. "The little bitch bit me!!"

Nene tripped and stumbled as she tried to avoid both the collapsed man on the ground, and yet another assailant lunging at her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Naoko groggily moving, and experienced a brief flash of relief that her friend was okay.

As the red-haired ADP officer tried to scramble away from one assailant, she was grabbed by another one who'd finally gotten the presence of mind together to try and cut her off. Nene struck out at his face, her nails leaving bloody scratches on his cheek as she managed to tear off the cloth mask he was wearing.

The unmasked man swore and caught at her wrist with one hand, as an open-handed slap made Nene's head ring. Half-stunned, she was unable to resist as he spun her around, jerking her hands behind her. Something was quickly looped around her wrists and pulled cruelly tight, binding her hands behind her.

As she started to scream for help again, still struggling to get away, a cloth pad was clamped over her nose and mouth just as she drew breath to scream. Horror gripped her as the pungent odour of the chemicals soaked into the pad immediately turned her knees to water, and dropped a black fog over everything. She went limp almost instantly, only dimly hearing what her captors were saying as they hastily dragged her into their van.

"...more trouble than she's worth. What's the boss want with her anyway?"

"Her boyfriend's got something he wants," another voice replied, sounding like it was coming from a great distance, "or so I was told. This is supposed to bring him out of hiding."

"That's only part of the reason," someone else disagreed. "I heard...."

Despite her efforts not to succumb, Nene dropped into total blackness, the world around her fading out.


"I don't know any more than you do," Sylia replied evenly, repeating herself for what felt like the fiftieth time. "It happened less than an hour ago, Bert; not even my usual information sources are that fast."

"Come on, Sylia, you've got to know something," Bert's expression was a complex mix of frustration, repressed fury, and fear, all churning together in a volatile mix. "Damn it, there's got to be something we can do!"

"While I appreciate the vote of confidence in my abilities, I'm not omniscient," Sylia replied simply, meeting his tortured gaze with a calm one of her own. No matter what happened, she had to remain collected and strong; it wouldn't do for the leader to fall apart right now, not when everyone was relying on her for direction of some kind. "I've got all of my available resources looking into this, and that's all I can do at this point in time. I know it's hard, but you're going to have to be patient and wait; until the kidnappers make some kind of demand from someone, we can't do anything."

Bert spun away from her with a noise that was half irritated snarl, and half worried whine. He began pacing the length of her apartment living room at a high rate of speed, his hands tightly clenched behind his back. The obvious strain he was under was visible in his face; it was like watching the fibers in a taut rope slowly fraying and snapping. Sylia watched him for a few moments, a trace of sympathy in her expression before Priss's voice distracted her.

"If you don't know who's behind it," she asked, "have you got any theories?"

"I do, but it's more of a hunch than a theory," Sylia replied slowly, turning towards her. "Formulating a theory requires a few more facts than we presently have."

"Mind if we hear it?" Priss asked. She was lounging on Sylia's couch, her sock feet propped up on the coffee table. The apparent air of relaxed calm was a charade though; her gaze kept swinging towards Bert as he worked at wearing holes in Sylia's carpeting, and whenever Priss's gaze met Sylia's, she saw the rock singer's own suppressed anxiety flash in the backs of her eyes. "It's not like we've got any pressing engagements right now."

"Would you like a cup of coffee or something else first?" Sylia asked, her gaze sliding back to where Bert was still pacing agitatedly. "I think we could all use a drink at the moment."

"Yeah, sure, coffee's fine with me. Whatever you've got," Priss shrugged. "Bert?"

"Hmm? Oh....have you got tea?"

"I'll make a pot," Sylia told him as she stood up. "It'll only take a few minutes."

"Right. Fine." Bert's motion didn't stop, and Sylia wondered if he was even paying attention.

"I'll keep an eye on him, Sylia," Priss told her quietly, as if divining her thoughts. She nodded in reply, and headed for the kitchen.

Once she was in the kitchen out of sight of her friends and had the water heating, Sylia allowed her facade to slip for a few moments. Hands on the countertop, and head bowed, she resisted the urge to swear aloud as her fingernails dug into the smooth finish of the wood. Her expression contorted with worry and fear, two things she'd very carefully kept from showing in the living room.

She was scared, she admitted to herself. On the one hand she was scared for Nene's sake, and on the other she was scared about what Nene could be forced to reveal. She harboured no illusions about Nene's ability to resist an interrogation; all somebody would have to do would be to use the right drugs, and they'd have whatever they wanted from her.

Including critical information about the Knight Sabers.

"If anything happens to her, I'll never forgive myself," Sylia murmured to herself as the water started to boil. She felt horribly responsible for everyone on her team - her friends, damn it - especially when something happened to them. She had brought them into her private war, and as a result she was to blame if they got caught in the line of fire. Trying to provide them with constant protection was an exercise in futility; there just was no way to account for every possibility, try though she might.

Sylia smoothed her expression out into her usual cool demeanor as she made the tea, re-erecting her emotional bulwarks. As she transferred the teapot, cups, and other sundries to a tray to carry back out to the living room, she began considering what to do with the agitated red-head stalking her living room at the moment.

It was, of course, immediately apparent that she was going to have to do something, but she was at a loss as to just what that should be. While she'd been aware of the downward spiral his emotional state had been in since the incident with Hollister and the GD-45 'mech, the speed with which it had happened had been surprising. She'd been under the impression that his relationship with Priss had helped to stabilize him somewhat.

As she reflected on the events of the last few weeks, Sylia quietly chided herself for not picking up on it sooner. Priss had commented several times in recent weeks that he'd been doing a lot of things in the hardsuit shop, but she'd never thought to ask why. Bert had been sticking to his promise not to upgrade the suits without her go-ahead, so she hadn't thought it necessary to check on what he'd been doing. Mentally reviewing what she knew, Sylia came to the unpleasant realization that he was heading for a burnout, if he wasn't already there.

Picking up the tray, Sylia carried it back into the living room. Bert was still pacing relentlessly, his face granite. Priss looked up as Sylia re-entered the room and rolled her eyes as she shrugged, giving a slight gesture in his direction. Evidently, she hadn't been able to get him to calm down, or at least to sit down. Sylia nodded in understanding as she set the tray down on the coffee table. Pouring three cups full of tea, she handed one to Priss, then looked over at Bert.

"Bert, I think you'll find it easier to drink sitting down on the couch," she advised, raising her voice to penetrate his consciousness. "Pacing around like a caged lion isn't going to help you, nor is it going to help Nene. You can't do anything about it right now, so just let it go."

"Not quite what I said," Priss murmured under her breath, not quite to herself, "but close enough." Bert slowly came to a halt and glanced over in the direction of the two women.

"Sylia, the last thing I think I can do right now is calm down," he grated, the muscles in his jaw twitching. "I'm.... I can't just..." He brought his hands from behind himself and glanced down at them, clenching them into fists when he noticed that they were shaking slightly. "I keep thinking that..."

"Stop it, right now," Sylia's voice was steely as it cut off whatever he'd been about to say. "We don't know for sure who has captured Nene, or even that they're going to harm her. I'm scared for her safety as well, but getting overwrought about it isn't going to help anyone."

"That's easy for you to say," he shot back tightly, the ghosts of past memories suddenly pushing at him, trying to re-emerge into the light of day. "You've never had to go through what I did."

"And there's nothing to say that Nene will have to, either," she parried. "I know you went through hell and I'm sorry for it, but that is in the past now. We're in the present, and you're just going to have to get used to that fact. Now stop wearing holes in my carpeting and come over here, sit down, and drink something." Sylia's determined gaze locked with his, and for a moment rebellion flared in his expression.

As quickly as it had flashed up, it dissipated, and he suddenly looked weary and drained. Sighing, he slowly walked over to the coffee table area and sank into the couch next to Priss. Wordlessly, he accepted the mug of tea Sylia handed him, splashed some sugar and milk into it, and then sat staring moodily into his drink. Priss gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze, and he gave her a quick but half-hearted smile before going back to staring into his drink. It was very quiet in the apartment for a few moments. Sylia studied him as she sipped at her own drink.

"So, Sylia," Priss finally stirred and spoke. "You said you had a hunch about what this kidnapping was about?" Sylia nodded.

"I believe this incident was in relation to something she recently uncovered at work," Sylia replied.

"What, somebody didn't like the way she filed reports?" Bert asked sourly, shaking his head. "Nene's never had access to anything at work that could lead to something like this."

"Not before she switched jobs and got promoted, no," Sylia agreed. Bert blinked at that, looking confused.

"She switched jobs?"

"Within the ADP," Sylia clarified. "A position opened up that she wanted to apply for; she was getting a little tired of filing everyone else's paperwork and wanted to do something that was more of a challenge."

"That must've been one hell of a job switch if it led to a kidnapping," Priss noted with a frown. "What was she doing?"

"She's become something of a network security analyst for the ADP now," Sylia replied. "She was working at plugging some of the security holes the ADP computer systems have, and was involved in some decryption work as well."

"Decryption?" Bert's head slowly came up, like a wolf scenting prey. "Decryption of what?"

"Some databases they found on the ADP mainframes. They're still sorting the data, but they look like details on somebody's business organization. Details that somebody wouldn't necessarily want to become public knowledge."

"GENOM?" Priss queried suspiciously.

"It's possible, but I don't think so," Sylia shook her head. "From what I've seen, some of the activities detailed are not in the fields GENOM usually pursues, and are much more overt than they are capable of being; some of the operations were staged in very open contempt of any official reaction at all. It has to be someone else."


Leon's expression was as black as a thundercloud as he strode rapidly along the hallways of the ADP building. Anyone who saw him coming quickly found alternate routes to take to their destinations, ducking down side corridors and into offices. Daley trailed along after him, giving his partner enough space to work out his obvious disgruntlement, but at the same time staying close enough to quietly observe. And to intervene, if it became necessary.

The door to their new offices was slammed open as the tall inspector barged through and Daley winced, anticipating the sound of shattering glass to be the next sound heard as the door swung into the wall with a loud bang. The door's window pane held however.

Leon seemed oblivious to what he'd nearly done, and continued his forward advance towards Aramaki's office door. After the most perfunctory knock imaginable, Leon flung the door open with angry force and stormed through.

"Good afternoon, Inspector," Aramaki said dryly, raising an eyebrow as he hung up the telephone. "Something the matter?"

"Why the hell did you quash that search warrant I requested?!" Leon snarled, cutting right to the chase. Behind him, Daley sighed and looked at the ceiling.

"Because," Aramaki replied evenly, "the hysterical recollections of an injured young woman are not enough evidence to allow you to go crashing through buildings belonging to other people. You're going to need something more substantive than that."

"Damn it, you heard what Naoko said!" Leon shot back. "She heard those bastards say something about..."

"That still isn't enough to grant a search warrant, Inspector," Aramaki cut him off, his voice hardening. "It's what's known as 'hearsay evidence', and there isn't a judge in the city that's going to let you use that to carry out your own private investigations, not when they're rooted in hunches that have no factual basis. We have enough leads from other witnesses and from what the lab boys found at the scene of the crime to keep you occupied. If you can't separate your personal feelings from this matter, then we'll hand it off to someone who can."

Leon spun away from the desk, muttering curse words as he stalked out. He shoved past Daley without even acknowledging the other's presence, and slammed the door to the hallway behind him. Daley looked through the door at Aramaki and shrugged, spreading his hands in a 'what can I do?' gesture. Aramaki sighed.

"Just try to keep him out of trouble, Daley," he told the red-haired officer. "Keep him checking into the leads we have, and away from anything else."

"Gee, is that all you want?" Daley rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. "I'll see what I can do, but I can't promise anything."

"Fair enough," Aramaki replied. "Get going before he takes off in a squad car or something." Daley nodded and hurried from the office in pursuit of his partner as Aramaki sighed again and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. As he sat there, there was a whisper of sound, like cloth rubbing on cloth. The door to his office swung shut a moment later.

"Does he always barge in like that?" a woman's voice broke the silence, sounding eerily distorted somehow. The voice seemed to come from a point in midair, over by one of the wall bookshelves near the door.

"Not usually, no," Aramaki replied to the empty office, "but that's one reason I said you shouldn't be hanging around here. You're really not authorized to be in here; if you were discovered, things could get awkward very quickly."

"I'm not 'authorized' to be doing more than half the shit you've had me doing," she reminded him dryly. A book slid out from the shelf and flipped itself open. Pages ruffled idly as phantom fingers turned them. "I doubt that your over-eager inspector would be too thrilled to find out about some of the methods you've used to clean house here."

"That can't be helped," he told her. "Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. While I'd prefer it if we could do everything by the book, we can't."

"You're preaching to the converted, remember?" she asked. "What do you want me to do now?"

"Do some more checking on that former boyfriend," Aramaki leaned back in his chair, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "But do it quietly, all right? I'm still not convinced there's anything there, but I'd like to make sure just the same."


A very satisfied Ethan Hollister strode down the corridor, the heels of his shoes clacking loudly against the floor tiles. The blond man was in an almost buoyant mood, his expression that of somebody about to engage in a task they relished a great deal. It was all he could do to keep from rubbing his hands together in anticipation and chortling in glee.

It was about time for some good luck, he reflected to himself as he walked along. It was hard to keep telling clients it was still 'business as usual' when rumours of the little mishaps and screwups that had been plaguing him lately were leaking to the outside. Much as he might wish it otherwise, he wasn't the only one able to keep tabs on what happened in the shadowy fringes he operated in.

The blond man reached a metal-clad door and stopped in front of it, placing his hand on a flat plastic plate set into the wall next to it. The plate flashed and became warm for a brief instant while sophisticated sensors scanned his palmprint. He waited impatiently; there were faster ID access systems available, but he had to work with what he had.

The lock on the door clicked, and a green light above the door frame flashed. Pulling the door open, Hollister stepped into the room beyond. He glanced around as the door swung shut behind him, the lock snapping shut with a loud clack. Smoothing out his jacket and straightening his tie, he listened for a moment to the voices coming from the next room.

"He's not going to know," a surly-sounding voice said. "And I'm not going to let the little bitch get away with just hoofing me in the balls like that." Something that sounded like a choked, muffled whimper followed the statement.

"It's your own damn fault for trying to grope her," a disgusted voice shot back. "Did you think that because she's tied up she's just going to sit there and take that? If you ask me, you got what you deserved; our orders were to NOT molest the prisoner in any way, remember? Be thankful you can still walk, and leave the girl alone." Hollister's eyes narrowed as he listened, and his mouth set in a grim line. He began to carefully walk across the room to the slightly ajar door leading to the next chamber.

"He won't know if you don't squeal," the surly-sounding voice insisted.

"You really are scum, you know that? Why don't you go find some hooker in the city somewhere if you're having trouble controlling yourself?"

"You're a fine one to be calling me scum, considering who you're working for."

"There's a difference between what floats on top and what crawls through the slime below."

"Don't watch if you don't want to see it then. I've had it with waiting; I'm going to show her who's..."

Hollister made the last step to the door and slammed it open, his blue eyes as cold as frosted steel. There were two men in the room, clad in black fatigues. One had been standing with his back to the door, and he wheeled around in surprise, the look on his face quickly giving way to consternation and fear.

The second man was standing over a chair with a struggling red-haired woman tied to it. He had one hand on her neck and had forced her head painfully back; his other hand had gathered a fistful of her blue uniform blouse, as if preparing to rip it open. His face went through a rapid metamorphosis as Hollister watched, switching from surprise to indignation at being interrupted, and then into utter dread as he realized whose inimical gaze was directed at him, and only at him.

"Mr. Hollister!" the guard who'd spun around was the first to recover his voice. "I can explain..."

"I think I have a relatively good idea of what the situation is, thank you." Hollister's voice seemed to drip liquid nitrogen, and the air in the chamber dropped several degrees as a result. "I'm disappointed to find that even simple orders are apparently not being followed." His gaze narrowed further as he noted that the other guard hadn't released his bound victim. "Release the prisoner now and step away from her."

The man complied with alacrity, taking a step sideways and coming to attention. He was of average height and build, with oily black hair and a crooked nose that indicated it had been broken at one time or another. His face had taken on a bit of an ashen pallor as he stared at Hollister, and his eyes were wide with apprehension. His pallor also made the bloody scratches on his cheek more noticeable.

The woman he'd just released had slumped forwards and seemed to be struggling to take a breath. Hollister noted then that she'd been gagged with a wad of cloth tied into her mouth with another strip of red cloth. After a moment, he realized it was her uniform's tie that had been used to secure the gag.

"When I give an order, I expect it to be followed to the letter," Hollister remarked, his tone deceptively mild as he glanced from one guard to the other. "Silencing and then molesting the prisoner was not in those orders, if I recall correctly."

"We had to gag her before she got here," the first guard volunteered. "When the drugs wore off, she wouldn't stop yelling for help."

"So you decided to take advantage of that fact?" Hollister's tone made the question more of a statement of fact.

"Well, I, uh..." the second man gulped nervously as he tried to find an explanation that would get him off the hook, but couldn't. "I didn't really touch her," he tried lamely, "I just sort of, well..."

"You groped her and got kicked in the crotch by a bound girl," Hollister's voice was suddenly dangerously dry. "My, lucky for you she wasn't loose or you'd be in real trouble." The man flushed in both shame and growing irritation as Hollister continued speaking. "I don't particularly care what you keep your pathetic little mind amused with when you're off duty, whether it's drugs, whores, liquor, or a combination, but I will not tolerate tampering with an important captive." The blond man's voice was cold and deadly. "If anything is to be done to her, it will happen only when I say it happens. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," came the sullen reply. Hollister's gaze was thoughtful as he gazed at the guard.

"I'm not totally certain that you do," Hollister remarked, his voice suddenly deceptively mild.


Nene had never been so scared in her entire life, not even when she'd been shot in the stomach and lying in a corridor, certain that she was dying. Some remote portion of her mind kept pleading for her to wake up from the nightmare she was in, but she knew she wasn't dreaming.

Waking up from the chemicals they'd doped her with hadn't been pleasant: she'd found herself laying face-down on the floor of a speeding van, her cheek and jaw already sore from bouncing on the metal floor whenever the van hit an irregularity in the road. The discomfort from her arms and wrists had made itself known in the next instant; her wrists had been tightly bound behind her back with something that was slowly but surely cutting into her skin and cutting off the circulation. Her hands had gone numb and she'd flexed her fingers and began trying to free herself, suddenly fearful of losing the use of her hands entirely if she didn't somehow loosen her bonds.

After that, things were a blur of images and impressions that were hard to remember. Somebody had noticed that she'd regained consciousness and had flipped her over onto her back. Seeing her black-clad abductors again had made her a bit hysterical, and she'd started screaming for help again, forgetting that there wouldn't be anyone to hear or assist her.

They'd gagged her at that point, stuffing some piece of cloth into her mouth and tying it there, and tying her feet as well to keep her from kicking them. She'd continued to struggle, but that hadn't gotten her anything except sore wrists; she could still feel the dull pain where the restraints were cutting into her skin.

When they'd arrived at their destination, she'd been dragged out of the van, blindfolded, and then carted down what had seemed like an infinite number of hallways. It had sounded almost like the place she was in was deserted; everything had seemed to echo hollowly off the walls.

They'd carted her into the room she now found herself in and done a quick job of tying her to a chair. Someone had removed the blindfold, and she'd watched as most of her abductors had left, leaving two of their numbers to ostensibly watch over her. The one guard had then muttered something to the other one about 'checking out the prisoner', and walked over to her.

The minute he'd touched her, Nene had immediately guessed what was on his mind, and it wasn't anything she was interested in. Luckily for her, they hadn't really done much more than put a couple of loops of rope around her upper body and the chair back, and they hadn't bothered to tie her feet to the chair. It had been awkward to accomplish, but she'd managed to twist on the chair and kick at the guard groping her. The fact that he hadn't been expecting resistance helped her somewhat; he didn't even have a chance to try dodging.

She wasn't entirely sure she'd connected, but he'd sworn and backhanded her, making her head spin. He'd then grabbed her by the neck and had been about to exact retribution of some kind when the door had been hurled open by a blond man in a light grey business suit. At his order, she'd been released, and had been too preoccupied with attempting to breathe again to notice just who the new arrival was; the gag felt like it was choking her at times, and she really wished she could spit it out.

Once she'd realized who it was standing in the doorway though, it had become apparent that things were even worse than she'd initially supposed. Ethan Hollister hadn't changed a bit, and looked just as icily malevolent as he had the last time she'd seen him, though exact recollections of his appearance were hazy at best. She'd been laying on the ground in agony at the time, but there was no doubt in her mind about who it was. She still heard his voice mocking her in some of her nastier nightmares about when she was shot and slowly bleeding to death.

Right now he wasn't looking at her, but was making some comment to the guard who'd been about to assault her. Having missed most of the initial discussion, she gathered that Hollister was laying down the law to his subordinates. As the one guard assured the blond man that he understood his orders, Nene caught a sidelong glance from him and shivered involuntarily at the enmity in his gaze.

"I'm not totally certain that you do," she heard, mere fractions of a second before the unmistakable report of a heavy-calibre gun crashed in the confines of the room, making Nene jerk against her bonds in startlement. She immediately felt like she'd gone deaf, as the blast reverberated in the room with painful intensity. Droplets of something warm and sticky splattered her face.

The guard that had been standing near her seemed to jump backwards in surprise, but it quickly became apparent that it was far more than mere surprise as he staggered, and put a hand to his chest; it came away awash in red. The guard had time for one brief, surprised glance down at the gaping hole in his chest before he collapsed with a gurgling sigh and died. A crimson pool began to slowly spread around the body.

Nene was suddenly grateful for the gag; it was giving her something to bite on in order to keep from screaming. She could feel her skin crawling where the guard's blood had splashed her, and had to fight urge to throw up as nausea boiled through her.

She found that she couldn't take her eyes off of the handgun Hollister was holding casually as he eyed the other guard. She began to shiver uncontrollably, despite her efforts to remain calm. Hollister was saying something, but she still couldn't hear anything through the ringing in her ears. Her gaze was locked on the gun, her subconscious grimly certain it was going to spit death in her direction at any minute. Her stomach muscles were already cramping in remembered pain.

To her immense relief, Hollister stuffed his sidearm back into a concealed shoulder holster. Giving her a glance that seemed to somehow indicate a combination of irritation, impatience, and disgust, he fished a small cellular phone out of a pocket and made a quick call. Nene didn't try to meet the cold gaze that was being directed at her; she knew if she did she'd start either crying or screaming, probably both.

Hollister finished the call and dropped the phone back into his pocket. Much to her surprise, he turned and left the room, being followed by the remaining guard. With the room empty, she started to squirm a bit, tugging at her bonds in an attempt to get free. She gave up a few minutes later; whatever her wrists were bound with, there was no give to it in the slightest.

A couple of tears started to track down her cheek as the cold weight of despair began pulling at her, adding to the feelings of fear and isolation she was already fighting.


"Damn it, Ethan," Doc muttered angrily to himself as he stalked down the hallway, "you've got more guards and soldiers than most modern armies. What the hell do I have to look after a prisoner for?!" His white lab coat fluttered behind him, matching his agitated strides.

"Because," Hollister had replied when he'd asked exactly that question. "I need her calmed down a bit before I can try questioning her; right now she looks a little hysterical."

"Well, gee, I wonder if kidnapping her off the street might have something to do with that?" he'd shot back, but his sarcasm had been ignored.

"You look a lot less threatening than the guards do," Hollister had continued. "She'll be more likely calm down with you watching her than some Neanderthal with a gun."

"Ethan," Doc had tried again, gritting his teeth as he'd gripped the phone receiver a little tighter. "I've got better things to do than to..."

"The Battlemover's essentially finished," Ethan had cut him off. "You're just watching the other techs do final analysis tests right now, so think of this as a break from the tedium. You'll find her in the detention cell at the end of corridor B-35." Then he'd hung up.

"I don't need the hassle," Doc muttered to himself again. "I've done more than I should have on this damned project already; why can't you just leave me alone for a change?!"

The old scientist reached the end of the hallway, and waited impatiently for the ID systems to clear him and allow him entry into the holding cells. When the door finally slid open, he stomped through and grimly headed for the inner chamber. He wasn't quite sure what he'd expected to see when he stepped into the room, but it definitely wasn't the sight of a body laying in a pool of blood near a young red-haired woman tied to a chair.

Doc glanced at the uniformed corpse, and drew his own conclusions about what must have happened. All too often lately, Hollister's solution to a problem had been the execution of the offending individual. The stress level had increased noticeably in the last few weeks as a result; office politics had nothing on the backbiting that was happening at the moment. The gaunt old scientist cleared the thought from his mind, and looked at the captive secured to the chair for the first time.

Frightened green eyes in a pale face framed by disheveled red hair looked back at him. Even with the fear though, he thought he still detected a faint trace of defiance. She was fairly young, he judged. Young enough to still have an air of youthful innocence about her. At the same time he could see in her eyes that she wasn't as naive as she looked at first glance.

The first thought that sped across his mind as he tried to appraise her state of mind was that she was far too young to have to be involved in something like a kidnapping, especially a kidnapping tied to one of Hollister's concerns. Hell, any age was likely too soon to have to encounter someone like Hollister, he reflected sourly.

Sighing, he reminded himself that sitting in a room that was beginning to stink and staring at a captive woman was not how he'd intended to spend the afternoon. The question was, what was he supposed to do now?

He mulled that over for a few moments before coming to a decision. Hollister might have saddled him with looking after his problem for him, but there was no reason why he should be uncomfortable while doing it. His gaze fell on the name tag that was still pinned to the breast pocket of her uniform blouse as he considered what to say to her, and he cleared his throat.

"I'm going to untie you so that you can walk, Nene," he told the red-haired girl in what he hoped was a kindly and reassuring manner. "Now while you could probably get away from an old geezer like me afterwards, I think it would be better if you just go along with me. Ethan would likely get somebody else to look after you if that happened, and I doubt he'd pick anybody inclined to be gentle. Okay?"

She nodded once, stiffly, and he could see renewed fear in her eyes; she likely thought he was here to drag her off to another dungeon for interrogation or something. He supposed he couldn't blame her. In her shoes, he'd likely have thought the same thing.

Doc grunted a bit as he lowered himself to one knee to have a look at the rope binding her feet together. After a few minutes he succeeded in loosening the knots and removing the rope. Straightening up, he soon had her free of the chair as well, and helped her to her feet. She staggered a bit, but he continued to assist her until she regained her balance, trying to ignore the way he could feel her flinching away from his touch.

After a moment's hesitation, the old man reached out and undid the knot securing the gag in Nene's mouth. Pulling away the binding allowed her to spit out the packing they'd stuffed in her mouth, and for a few moments she coughed and spat as she tried to rid herself of the residual taste. Doc waited patiently as she regained her composure.

"Thank you," Nene said quietly, her voice nearly inaudible. She fell silent and watched him, waiting.

"Well then," the old scientist gestured towards the door, "shall we go?"


"I'm working on it, Sylia," Fargo's voice replied, just a trace of testiness evident. "I'm shaking every tree I can think, but so far nobody's fallen out of any of them. I said I'd call you when I had something, and I will. Try to relax and get some sleep; pestering me won't help your friend. Besides, if you're bugging me, then I can't try and locate her, can I?"

"All right, I get the picture," Sylia rubbed wearily at her forehead. "I'm sorry I bothered you, it's just....I can't...."

"We'll find her, Sylia," Fargo's voice became a shade gentler. "Get some sleep; it'll do you more good than pacing your apartment all night or phoning me every thirty minutes." The click that followed his final admonition left her staring at the telephone receiver in a combination of chagrin and frustration. After a moment or so, she hung up herself, reluctantly conceding his point.

A huge yawn gripped her, and the leader of the Knight Sabers decided to call it a night. Standing, she shut down the data terminal she'd been using to ransack whatever sources of information she could manage to access for details on Nene's kidnapping. The elusive clue to the identity of the abductors had managed to remain out of her reach. Hopefully, that was only a temporary state of affairs...she'd undoubtedly be able to better concentrate after a night's rest.


Nene sat silently, her gaze on the cup of tea steaming gently on the table in front of her. Across the table from her, the old man in the rumpled lab coat who'd taken apparently taken charge of her custody sat wrapped in silence as well, puffing on a pipe that he'd fished out of a baggy pocket. Periodically he set the pipe aside to take a drink from his own mug of either tea or coffee - it was hard to tell which it was since he was drinking it black - but didn't attempt to engage her in conversation.

She found it rather odd, actually. She'd been expecting to have to answer all kinds of probing questions about herself. Instead, she was quietly sitting in some room somewhere with a cup of tea as if she was a normal guest. The bluish haze of tobacco smoke that was drifting around the room, as well as making her eyes water, added somewhat to the air of unreality.

Unconsciously, she kept rubbing gingerly at the gauze bandages on her wrists, as if to reassure herself that she wasn't bound anymore. Apparently her captors had used some kind of plastic strips to secure her when they'd snatched her off the street, and the plastic had carved very raw and painful furrows into her skin.

The old man sitting across the table from her had muttered something under his breath that had sounded uncomplimentary when he'd seen that, and had proceeded to pull out a first aid kit and bandage her wrists after removing her bonds. For somebody working for an inhuman monster like Hollister, he'd had a remarkably gentle touch. He also was very skilled, she'd noted; his movements had been deft and sure, and she guessed that the old man had at least some medical background. It struck her as somehow incongruous that someone capable of at least some kindness could be working for somebody as soulless as Hollister.

Nene took another small sip from her drink, taking another covert look around the room as she did so. Her 'host' was remaining taciturn and refusing to meet her gaze. He'd accidentally done so a couple of times already, and had hurriedly looked away, but not before she'd been able to see guilt and indecision in his expression. It was a little puzzling; she couldn't understand why her presence would have that kind of an effect on him.

Could he be having second thoughts about the kidnapping? She was certain that at the very least he wasn't happy with having to watch over her; she'd caught traces of grumbling from time to time about wanting to be left alone in peace. He did seem like a kindly old man at times, but she knew better than to judge someone on just appearance, especially given her experiences with the Knight Sabers. Nobody was ever what they seemed.

That thought echoed in the back of her mind as she glanced around the cramped room. It wasn't what she'd typically thought the living quarters of an 'evil scientist' would look like. She wasn't entirely sure what she'd expected - specimen jars containing pickled creatures on the bookshelf perhaps - but she hadn't expected something that looked

A very beaten-up armchair was in a corner of the room, next to a floor lamp that had been angled to give adequate illumination for an occupant to read by. Nearby, magazines and books were stacked in an untidy jumble on a coffee table marked with stain rings from an interminable number of mugs of coffee or tea. There were bookcases of every possible kind crammed into every inch of space along the walls, laden with paperback and hardcover volumes. A well-worn overstuffed couch was occupying the center of the room, and a pillow and blanket were heaped untidily at one end. Either her host didn't have a bed, or else the couch was more comfortable for him.

The entire room spoke of being someone's refuge from the outside world, a place of solitude and relaxation. It felt comfortable enough that she began to relax slightly herself, despite trying to keep her guard up. The sudden wave of fatigue that rushed through her didn't help any. She had no idea what time it was, but was fairly certain that it had been several hours since she'd been kidnapped. That, coupled with the emotional strain of trying to hold herself together was finally exacting its toll on her.

"Would you like to lie down on the couch?" the old man's quiet voice asked. She thought there might have been more than a trace of compassion in his voice, but wasn't sure that she was just projecting wishful thinking into her perceptions.

"I guess so," she replied, blinking and trying to force herself to sit straighter in her chair; she'd unknowingly begun to droop where she was sitting. "I am a bit tired."

"I'll get you a clean blanket," he told her. Setting aside his pipe, he rose from his seat and tottered stiffly over to the couch. "I'll be back in a second." Scooping up the heap of rumpled bedding laying at the couch end, he headed for a small, dark doorway tucked at the far end of the room.

When he was out of sight, Nene stood up and looked around again. Part of her mind was frantically whispering to her to take this opportunity and flee. He was an old man; he couldn't possibly catch her with a running start. The door was just over there, and it would be so easy to just unlock it, duck through, and start running.

The more logical part of her mind dryly pointed out that while the old scientist might not be able to catch her, the guards stationed just down the hallway from where his quarters were certainly could. Besides, she didn't know how to get out of Hollister's facility in the first place; she'd just be running aimlessly, like a rat in a laboratory maze.

Nene blinked hard against the tears that started to sting her eyes at that realization, and had to fight against the cold feelings of despair and isolation that started flooding back. Drawing upon some last, hidden reserve of inner strength, she fought off the creeping fear that was overtaking her, and walked over towards the couch.

As she came around the sofa, something tucked almost out of sight in a corner of one of the lower bookshelves caught her eye. Unable to resist the sudden lure of curiosity, she veered over to the bookshelf for a closer look. It proved to be a picture frame, and after a furtive glance at the doorway the old man had taken, she reached out and picked it up, tilting it towards the light.

The faces of a young woman and three very young children, two girls and a boy, looked back at her. The woman was slender and graceful-looking, with very fair hair and soft brown eyes. The children around her all looked like they might be the same age, maybe four or five. As she looked at the picture, she could see a family resemblance in the faces of the people in the picture, and guessed that she was looking at a mother with her children. The picture didn't look at all faded, and Nene couldn't guess at how long ago the picture had been taken.

She jumped guiltily as somebody cleared his throat behind her, nearly dropping the picture. Clutching it tightly, she whirled around and found herself confronted by the old man, a thick flannel blanket and a pillow tucked under his arm. He glanced at what she was holding, and pain suddenly seemed to flash in his face. It was quickly masked.

"I'm sorry!!" Nene blurted, an irrational surge of panic seizing her as he opened his mouth to say something. "I just saw it when I was walking over, and... well, I wanted to see what it was, so....I didn't mean to pry! Honest!! I'll put it back!!" She spun around before he could even attempt a reply and very carefully replaced the picture on the shelf. Spinning around again towards him, she contritely clasped her hands behind her back, suddenly feeling like an errant schoolgirl called before the principal.

"I wasn't going to bite," the old man remarked mildly, raising an eyebrow. He held out the bundle of blanket and pillow towards her, and she took it, thanking him quietly.

"Will it bother you if I read for a while in my armchair?" he asked her as she turned towards the couch. She glanced back at him, and mutely shook her head, stifling a sudden yawn. Wrapping herself in the blanket, Nene bedded down on the couch, noting with faint surprise that it was actually very comfortable. Her eyelids started sag shut as fatigue began mercilessly pulling her under the heavy veil of sleep.

She dimly heard springs creak in the corner of the room as the old scientist eased himself into his armchair, and then the click as he turned on the reading lamp. The pungent aroma of pipesmoke tickled at her nose again, and she grimaced in distaste but didn't say anything, opting instead to pull the edge of the blanket up over her face in the hopes that it would at least partially filter the smell.

As she concentrated on seeking some solace in sleep, she could hear the sounds of pages rustling as they were slowly turned. It was oddly soothing...and it reminded her suddenly of the times she'd fallen asleep on Bert's couch while he'd been reading. With something of a jolt, she realized that part of the reason she was feeling more at ease was because the old man reminded her of him for some reason. Their respective living spaces were the same in feel, if not exactly in content, and she suddenly wondered if there were other similarities.

She wasn't sure how long she'd been mulling that idea over - sleep was definitely gaining the upper hand against coherent thought - when she heard the light click off, and the chair creak again in relief as the weight on it was eased. Nene sleepily opened her eyes for a moment, and watched the shadowy form of the old man move over to the bookshelves. It was very dark, but she was certain that she saw him reach out and touch the picture frame she'd been looking at earlier. There was a very soft sigh, and it seemed to her as if his shoulders suddenly slumped in either weariness or dejection.

"Why do you work for him?" the drowsily mumbled question suddenly seemed to hang in the air. The dark form by the shelf turned towards her, and there was a long silence in the room, long enough that the sleepy red-head began to think she'd imagined asking that question. The moment had an eerie, dreamlike quality to it.

"Sometimes, we don't have a choice about what we want to do in life," his voice rasped in reply, low and barely audible. Even so, she could still hear traces of some kind of anguish in his voice. "Sometimes, we're forced down the paths we take, regardless of the consequences."

Nene couldn't find the energy to reply before sleep finally overcame her.



Priss glanced across her trailer's living space as she rummaged through her refrigerator for something to drink, her gaze drawn by the sound of some awkward musical chords. Although 'dis-chords' might've been a better word for them, she reflected, wincing at a particularly dissonant twang. Grabbing a couple of cans of pop from the fridge, she straightened up and began to walk over to the source of the acoustical torment.

Slouching somberly on her battered couch, Bert was absently fiddling with her guitar. The dark and brooding expression on his face was evidence enough that he wasn't really trying to play anything even resembling music, but was just playing with the guitar to keep his hands occupied. His attention was definitely elsewhere.

Priss had suggested earlier that they get out of Sylia's building for a while, partly in the hope that a change of scenery might improve his mood. The bike ride over to her trailer had helped to pick up her own spirits - riding always had that effect on her - but she wasn't sure that Bert had even registered the fact that he'd been on a motorcycle. In some ways, he was operating on autopilot at the moment. At least he was out of Sylia's basement though.

"You could do with some lessons," Priss remarked as she sat down beside him on the couch, trying to keep her expression from becoming too pained. After a moment or two, the comment seemed to trickle through the fog of preoccupation surrounding the redhead. His eyes seemed to refocus as he glanced over at her, cocking an eyebrow in an unspoken question.

"You're not hitting the notes for whatever it is that you're trying to play there," Priss clarified for him, setting the drinks on the coffee table nearby. "In fact, I don't think you're even on a known musical scale."

"You just don't know talent when you hear it," he shot back, a faint grin threatening to crack his gloomy expression. His brow furrowed in concentration for a moment as he looked at the instrument he was holding, and he managed to pluck out the first few unmistakable notes of 'Dueling Banjos'. Priss winced again.

"Okay, that's enough," she quickly decided, reaching over and firmly removing the guitar from his grasp and setting it aside. "I think you'd better stick to just doing techie stuff and leave the music-making to the professionals, okay?"

"Hmph. Everyone's a critic," he grumbled. Priss gave him a mock-sympathetic grin as she plucked one of the drinks off the coffee table and passed it to him. He accepted it quietly and popped the tab on it, then watched as a few flecks of foam hissed out of the can as the pressure was released.

Priss opened her own drink and took a sip while watching him out of the corners of her eyes, her expression one of someone trying to unsuccessfully grapple with some inner matter. After a few minutes of silent struggle, she sighed and gave up. Squaring her shoulders and taking a deep breath, she turned towards him.

"It's about Nene, isn't it?" he asked as she opened her mouth to speak, "or perhaps I should say, it's about why I've been so worked up over her lately, right?" He took a large gulp from his drink as he waited for her reply.

"I.... Well, uh, yeah, sort of," Priss replied after taking a moment to re-collect her composure; she hadn't been expecting him to immediately pinpoint what had been distracting her. Normally, he didn't seem to be very perceptive about the almost subliminal clues that marked a relationship, such as if something were bothering her, for example. At times she'd almost become convinced that he was deliberately cultivating ignorance of such things, believing that if he didn't see it, it wasn't there and therefore there wasn't a problem.

That theory didn't hold up under scrutiny though; she'd quite often found that somehow he'd quietly figured out what had been bothering her and had taken steps towards rectifying it. The problem was that he hadn't told her about it at the time, in most cases, and it was more than a little frustrating. While it was nice to be surprised once in a while with something, she didn't enjoy being kept in the dark, even if it was well-intentioned.

"I think we need to talk about why you're getting so worked up over this," she told him seriously. "I don't think you'd be quite this... distracted if it was someone else. You've been a bit more erratic than usual since yesterday, you know."

"Hollister's kidnapped a friend of mine, and you want to know why I'm acting differently?!" he stared at her as if he couldn't credit what he'd just heard.

"We don't have any proof that he's the one behind this," Priss reminded him. "You heard what Sylia said: she..."

"I don't care what Sylia said!!!" he snarled back, the pop can in his grip suddenly becoming a twisted lump of aluminum. "I don't need proof! I know that he's behind it!! Who else has been systematically going after parts of my life that he's been able to identify?!" Fury distorted his features for a moment, not quite masking deeper fear. Priss put a hand on his arm, and he struggled to contain the outburst, unclenching his fist from around the mangled pop can and setting it on the table.

"Trust me on this one, Priss," he said after a moment, his voice becoming more reasonable. "It's Hollister. It can't be anyone else."

"And what if it isn't?" she prodded him. "You'd better at least be able to concede the possibility, Bert; you're going to snap if you can't."

"If it isn't him, which I doubt highly," he ground out between clenched teeth, "then I'm still going to personally carve them new assholes with my beam saber. And I'd do that no matter who they kidnapped, whether it was Nene, you, Linna, Sylia, Sylvie...anyone of my fa...friends."

"Okay, I can accept that," Priss nodded, "but that still doesn't explain a few things."

"Like what?"

"Like why you're acting as if it's your fault," she told him. "I know you well enough by now to know when you're wallowing in guilt over something. Want to hear a theory?"

"Do I have a choice?" he asked in resignation, not really expecting an affirmative answer.

"I think you're blaming yourself for what happened to Nene because you've still got feelings for her," Priss said simply. "You think that, somehow, you'd have been able to protect her if you hadn't driven her away from you, and that you could've saved her if you'd been there when it happened. Go ahead and tell me I'm wrong." She sat back and folded her arms over her chest, waiting, one eyebrow cocked challengingly as she looked at him.

It was utterly silent for a long moment as Bert stared at Priss. She noted his dumbstruck expression with a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction as she waited for him to say something. His mouth worked a couple of times before sound finally came out.

"How... how did you...?"

"Figure that out?" Priss shrugged nonchalantly. "It wasn't too hard; I've seen the way you generally reacted whenever something happened to Nene while the two of you were going out together, and you weren't acting a hell of a lot differently this time around. Maybe a bit more cursing and swearing than usual, but not really all that different." Red-brown eyes met greenish ones in a level gaze. "And I think that's what we need to talk about."

"You're objecting to my swearing?" he looked confused. Priss couldn't restrain a quick laugh at that, then became serious again.

"No, I mean the fact that you've obviously still got some pretty deep feelings for Nene," she told him. "You always went off the deep end before when something happened to her, and it looks to me like you're not too far from doing it again." She cocked her head curiously as she watched him turn a dull red colour.

"Priss, I went out with her for almost three years," the tall red-head pointed out. "I can't just cancel out any feelings I have...had towards her, even after...the things we said to each other." His jaw tightened briefly as unpleasant memories lashed at him, memories of certain deeds as well as words.

"I know that," Priss nodded, brushing back a few trailing strands of her hair that decided to drop into her face, "but I'm not so sure that you've really accepted that it's over between the two of you. You're ready to charge off into the city and level it to save her if you have to...exactly like you would've before. Somehow, I can't see you hitting quite the same level of anxiety if it was me that had been nabbed."

"It wouldn't happen to you," he retorted irritably, slashing a hand through the air in a negative gesture. "You know how to take care of yourself; Nene doesn't. You know how to defend yourself if it becomes necessary; anyone trying to grab you against your will is likely going to require serious medical attention afterwards. Nene doesn't have your skill or experience."

"I think she's got more on the ball than you give her credit for," Priss noted, her tone becoming a bit sharp. "Just because she doesn't charge into a fight like some armoured bull in a china shop when she's in her hardsuit doesn't mean she can't handle herself outside of one. Don't you think that's being just a bit patronizing?"

"Patronizing?" He raised an eyebrow. "I wasn't being patronizing, I was pointing out that she can't defend herself as well as you can."

"Bullshit," Priss snorted. "You just implied that she needs looking after, like some underage kid, and it sounds like you went and appointed yourself guardian without even asking about it to boot." Her gaze bored into his. "Whether you like to admit it or not, Nene is a grown woman, and she's quite capable of taking care of herself. Combat ability in or out of a hardsuit is not what you should be using to measure somebody's competence at day-to-day living."

"Damn it, Priss, I wasn't..."

"I'm not done yet," she interrupted him, poking him in the chest. "I think part of the problem stemmed from the two of you getting so wrapped up in that 'shining knight in armour and distressed damsel' routine that you didn't give half the thought you should have been giving to each other as people instead of trying to fit into some stupid image."

"It's not a stupid image!" he snapped back heatedly, reddening. "And I wasn't trying to fit myself into it!"

"Then why didn't you ever sleep with Nene?" Priss asked him bluntly. "The two of you certainly went out together long enough."

"Wha..?! What the hell are you talking about?!" he demanded, obviously confused and starting to get angry. "What does that have to do with things?!"

"I'm getting to that," Priss informed him. "I think one of the reasons the two of you had relationship problems was because you were both too wrapped up in the fantasy of the noble knight and the lady fair. Nene got disillusioned because you changed - admittedly for reasons not entirely your fault - and you were too busy putting her on a pedestal to be able to see that she needed something more than just somebody keeping her company."

"I did not have her on a pedestal!" Bert retorted defensively, trying to sort through the welter of confused hurt and other tangled emotions that Priss's rather brusque analysis was producing. Knowingly or not, she was scraping certain emotional sore spots raw, and he wished she'd just stop and let it go. "Damn it, Priss, I was willing to do almost anything for her..."

"Then how come you kept your relationship damn near in stasis for two years?" she asked simply. "Nene and I talked about it, and...."

"You WHAT?!?!?!" Bert's complexion suddenly went from an angry flush to a pale greenish tinge reminiscent of incipient sickness. He sagged back into the couch, gaping at her in disbelief.

"I said we talked about it," Priss seemed unfazed by his reaction. "It was right after you got grabbed by that mech and we ended up chasing you over half the city to try and rescue you. After that little display of yours at your house, we were concerned about you, not that you seemed to notice..."

"I was more than a little preoccupied at the time," he said tightly.

"Maybe," Priss allowed, picking up her drink and taking a quick swig. "Or maybe it was just more of your customary single-mindedness tuning everything else out. You still have a tendency to do that, you know." She shook her head in exasperation. "Anyhow, we talked about a few things. I wanted to clear some stuff up because I was getting awfully tired of feeling guilty every time I saw her. As it turned out, she'd wanted to talk about a couple of things as well."

"Such as?"

"You were the primary topic of the discussion for a while," Priss told him. "The rest was a private matter, and none of your business." She paused for a moment, eyeing him contemplatively.

"Don't do that, Priss," he sighed. "Just hit me with it and get it over with, will you?"

"I'm trying to decide how much more your ego can take right now," she replied.

"It's already been thoroughly trampled on in the last few weeks," he assured her, a sour grimace pulling at his expression. "A few more footprints aren't going to make a lot of difference." Priss weighed what she had to say for a moment, and then took a deep breath before plunging in.

"Like I said, we talked about you for a while. She was still feeling a bit hurt over the way you two broke up, and she wasn't exactly thrilled about the two of us suddenly becoming a couple." Priss paused for a moment; that wasn't exactly news, but she wasn't entirely sure how to approach what had come after that. Mentally, she shrugged and ploughed on. "She'd been able to figure out fairly quickly that we'd gone quite a bit further than just dating, by the way," she informed him. "I don't know how exactly, but she knew. And she felt even more hurt when she realized that. The two of you went out for over two years, and you never once made a pass at her?" She shook her head disbelievingly as Bert reddened. "I knew you were shy, but I didn't think you were that bad."

"The subject never came up," he said stiffly. Priss snorted.

"You mean you were too afraid to bring it up," she accused him, again poking him in the chest with a finger. "I heard about the way you reacted a couple of times when the topic inadvertently came up. Why so afraid?"

"Why shouldn't I have been?!" he half-shouted. "Goddamn it, I was a solitary loner in high school and university before I met Nene, mostly because women weren't interested in me. Nene was different though, and I didn't want..." he caught himself suddenly, and glowered at her as another flush began creeping its way up his neck. "I didn't want to push her into anything and screw up our relationship," he finished lamely.

"Screw it up how?" Priss asked bluntly. "Telling someone that you love them is all well and good, but there's more to a relationship than that, Bert. And a few kisses now and again doesn't quite go far enough either. I mean, it's not like she was asking you to marry her or something." Priss was suddenly conscious of the heat output from his end of the couch rising even further, and her eyes widened as she looked at him. "Wait a that why you never ...?"

"So sue me for being old-fashioned," he snapped, his face almost as red as his hair now. "I grew up in a conservative, rural environment, Priss, and the morals of the time frowned extremely hard on sex before marriage. Throw in my romanticized chivalric ideals as well and that should tell you why I couldn't bring myself to discuss the subject."

"Let me get this straight," Priss looked at him, cocking an eyebrow skeptically, "you didn't ask her if she wanted to sleep with you because you were afraid that it meant that you'd have to marry her? Why didn't you just ask her how she felt about that angle of things?"

"BECAUSE SHE MIGHT'VE SAID YES!!!" he yelled, springing up from the couch. Then his mind caught up with him on what he'd just blurted, and sick realization spread across his face. "Oh bloody hell," he groaned, collapsing back onto the couch in a limp sprawl and burying his face in his hands. "God damn bloody hell."

"You were afraid that she did want to get married?" Priss wasn't sure what she should be feeling at the moment, but tried not to let that distract her. "I thought you just finished saying that you'd been willing to do anything for her, right? I would've thought that marriage would've been under that 'anything' category."

"I can't ... couldn't commit myself that much, not then," Bert replied dully. "Damn it, I'm not ready to settle down and retire just yet..."

"I think you're reading more into that than there should be," Priss told him. "I don't think Nene would've expected you to go quite that far." She rolled her eyes ceilingward. "You know, you could've just asked her how she felt about the whole thing..."

"Look, do I have to spell it out letter by letter?!" he dropped his hands and sat up, turning to face her. "I've never planned that far in advance," he told her levelly. "I don't think it's fair to promise somebody something I'm not sure I can deliver. I've got Hollister after my hide, along with whoever else we've managed to attract the attention of as the Knight Sabers, and every time we go out on a boomer hunt, I run the risk of coming back feet-first, especially with the more advanced models we're seeing now. "

"So on the off chance that you might get killed, you weren't even willing to discuss any future plans, or even explore the possibility of expanding your relationship," Priss summarized, pursing her lips. He nodded, looking abashed.

"That has to be one of the stupidest reasons I've ever heard," she told him bluntly.

"Well that's purely from your point of view," he shot back, nettled. "To me it seemed perfectly reasonable. Well... at the time, anyway," he amended after a moment, then lapsed into brooding silence as he stared at the coffee table top.

The silence gave Priss a few moments to try to grapple with what she'd uncovered. Some of what she'd heard raised some interesting questions regarding their current relationship as well, questions she wasn't quite sure she was ready to answer yet. Although she hated to admit it, she hadn't really made any long term plans herself...for reasons that were similar in a few respects to what he'd just said.

"So, where does that leave us, then?" she finally asked quietly. He stirred, and looked over at her.

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "I love you a lot, for a variety of reasons," a warm smile finally cracked the mask that he'd been hiding behind all afternoon as he reached out and touched her cheek in a gentle caress, "but I'm still not ready to consider proposing just yet. And I somehow can't see you as ready to consider it, either. Not yet, anyway."

"You're not entirely wrong there," she conceded after a moment. "I've never really given a lot of thought to the future before, other than whether or not I could afford groceries or a new bike." She suddenly looked troubled. "I... I don't know; I need some time to think ..." She blinked abruptly, and sparks of annoyance flickered in her eyes as she gave him a hard look.

"What? What did I do?" he tried to look innocent, but she could still read him like a book and he knew it.

"Quit trying to divert the conversation," she growled, poking him in the chest with a finger. "This was supposed to be about your hang-ups right now; mine come later."

"Well, I think you've pretty well flayed the hide off of mine," he noted, unable to keep a dry note from entering his voice. "Do I at least get to know now why I got raked over the coals?"

"Because," she replied quietly, totally serious as she looked into his eyes, "I want you to make up your mind which of us you're really in love with: Nene, or me. You can't have it both ways."

"Huh?! What's that supposed to mean?!"

"You've told me that you love me, right? Well, if that's true then you shouldn't still be carrying on like you and Nene are an item. It's over; accept it and move on."

"I have moved on!"

"Nope," Priss disagreed, shaking her head. "You may say you have, but everything I've noticed in the last few days says you haven't. I'm not going to argue with you about it, either. I'm telling you: you've got to make up your mind which of us you want. It's not fair to me to have to put up with you constantly mooning over a former girlfriend, and it's not fair to Nene either. She's trying to move on herself, and she can't do that if you're still hanging on to her."

"Priss, I can't..." his voice trailed off as he tried to think of something, anything to say. His expression was stricken, and he felt like he'd just been slugged in the stomach. She leaned over and lightly kissed him on the lips, reaching out and putting her hand on his.

"I'm not asking you to choose right this minute," she told him. "Take a few days to think about it, but make sure that you do think about it." Red-brown eyes looked levelly into his. "Because I'm going to be expecting an answer, and I'm not going to take being put off, either."


Nene's eyes opened slowly, sleep being driven off by the aroma of fresh coffee permeating the air. Yawning and blinking blearily she sat up and looked around. Her unfamiliar surroundings confused and frightened her momentarily, until her mind caught up to her and she remembered what had happened the day before. Unfortunately, that didn't exactly settle her state of mind any.

She fought back the lurking fear and uncertainty that started its renewed gnawing at her. She was still scared of what she thought she was likely to face, but at least she could keep from being totally paralyzed by that fear. If she kept her wits about her and kept her eyes open, the opportunity to escape, however remote it might seem currently, might present itself. After all, Bert and Sylvie had managed to get away from Hollister, although....

She quickly shut that thought off. Yes, they'd escaped, but the cost of being caught in the first place had extracted an unforeseen and horrendous toll on both escapees and rescuers. She'd definitely better not dwell on that; the past was better left unexamined in this case.

Shoving back the blanket, Nene withdrew her legs from under it and stood up from the couch, stretching a bit while rubbing sleepily at her eyes with one hand. She glanced around, but nobody else was in sight. The smell of coffee and the sounds of something sizzling in a frypan were drifting from the small adjoining kitchen, and her stomach suddenly growled discontentedly; it hadn't had anything in hours, and was mightily upset at the situation. As if summoned by her suddenly ravenous thoughts, her elderly captor appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, a spatula in one hand.

"Good morning," he greeted her, smiling tentatively. "I'm putting together something for breakfast, if you're interested."

"Oh yes, I'm interested," Nene replied fervently. "I haven't eaten since...well...since whenever lunchtime yesterday was."

"Well, it'll be ready in a few more minutes. If you want to wash up first, I left you some clean towels in the bathroom," he told her as he turned back into the kitchen. The young red-head didn't waste any time in getting to the bathroom, and was filling a sink with hot, soapy water. She luxuriated in the simple ritual of bathing her face and hands, wishing she had the time to take a bath or a shower. She still felt immensely refreshed afterwards though, and almost felt halfway cheerful as she walked back into the living room and sat down at the table.

A cup of steaming coffee was awaiting her, with cream and sugar sitting nearby. After stirring some of each into the dark liquid, she took a grateful swig, sighing blissfully as she lowered the cup.

"Enjoying the coffee?" the old man asked rhetorically, setting a plate of steaming scrambled eggs and toast in front of her. At her nod, he smiled faintly. "I'm glad you like it; even us evil mad scientists like a good cup of coffee, you know." Nene coloured slightly, but didn't reply, opting instead to start on her platter of eggs.

"You didn't have to say it out loud; I could tell what you were thinking," her host remarked, a crooked grin that looked remarkably familiar briefly appearing, then vanishing behind bitter self-disgust. He fell silent as he stared into his coffee mug, his face suddenly seeming to have aged several years in the space of a couple of seconds. Nene slowly continued to eat, watching him out of the corners of her eyes.

"Why don't you quit then?" she asked quietly, swallowing the mouthful of food she'd been chewing and taking another sip of coffee.

"Nobody just 'quits' on Ethan," the old man replied, snorting. "Retirement is not an option with least, not the kind of 'retirement' that most people hope to enjoy." He sighed wearily and rubbed at his nose. "I may be old, and don't really care that much what happens to me anymore, but at the same time I'm not suicidal. I don't have the strength to try running from him, and he'd probably find me eventually anyway. And that could be worse than not trying at all."

"You're scared of him," Nene said quietly. "Is that because he might kill you?"

"No," the old man replied. "Like I said, I'm old enough that I don't care anymore. But," he hesitated a moment, then sighed and continued. "Hollister knows that, and as a result he'd be more likely to ... to use a different method of retribution. He's never stated that openly, but you don't spend several years working for someone without gaining insight into how they operate."

Nene silently finished her meal, trying to think of something to say. There was something else there, something the old man hadn't said. If he wasn't worried about what Hollister might do to him...then could he be worried about what Hollister might do to someone else? The instant the though surfaced, Nene was sure that she was right.

The question then became who the old scientist was afraid for, but she was pretty sure she knew that as well: the young woman and children in the picture on the bookshelf. Most people kept pictures of their family around, and so far her host had proven to be 'normal' enough that she didn't think he'd be any different. In fact, she'd almost have said he was a decent person ... but she still wasn't entirely sure just how forced his work for Hollister was.

Something bleeped loudly in the silence of the apartment, freezing her for a moment with nameless dread as the old man got up and walked across the room. He rummaged around in a stack of books on top of a small bookshelf as more insistent bleeping noises made themselves heard, and came up with a telephone handset. Pressing a button on it, he put the handset to his ear. Nene concentrated on her coffee cup, her hands clenching around the thick porcelain mug in sudden anticipatory dread.

"Hello?" she heard him answer, followed by a minute or two of silence. "Fine, Ethan, whatever you want," she heard him reply. "No, I won't need a guard escort; I'm not that old and feeble yet." There was another moment or two of silence, and then she heard the click of the phone handset as the old man wordlessly hung up.

Nene's throat was suddenly very dry, and she took a gulp of coffee to try and alleviate it. As she did so, the old scientist shuffled around the table and slumped into the chair he'd been sitting in with a sigh. One look at his face was all Nene needed to know that her brief reprieve was up. As she stared timidly at the old scientist, his gaze lifted to meet hers, then shifted away guiltily.

"He wants to question me now, doesn't he?" she asked quietly, privately marveling that she was able to keep her voice calm.

"Yes," he conceded reluctantly. "I'm supposed to have you in one of the interrogation chambers in another thirty minutes."

There wasn't really anything she could say to that, although part of her wanted to burst into tears at the confirmation of her fears. She held onto her self-control though; she wasn't going to give any of her captors the pleasure of seeing her break down, not if she could help it. An uneasy silence fell over the room.

"Do you trust me?"

It took Nene a moment or two to register the question, but when its meaning percolated through the fog of preoccupation distracting her, she was more than a bit surprised. She looked at the old man, and received a second surprise: while he'd looked old and tired only moments before, his expression and gaze were now filled with what looked like ironclad resolve.

"Excuse me?" she asked. "Did you just..."

"I asked you if you trust me," he replied crisply. "I think I can help you get out of here, but I'm going to need your absolute trust in order for it to work. Do you trust me?"

"I...I think so," Nene answered slowly. She was pretty sure he was sincere, but she was sure there was a catch somewhere. "May I ask why you've suddenly changed your mind? About going against Hollister, I mean."

"I've decided not to let him ruin someone else's life," the old man replied. "It may be a futile gesture on my part, but I don't think I'll be able to live with myself if I don't at least try."

"And what do you want in return for helping me?"

"You've a suspicious mind, did you know that?" he asked tiredly. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to just accept that I'm trying to be altruistic?"

"I'm sorry, but no," Nene informed him, almost apologetically.

"What I want, you can't give me," he told her sadly. "I don't think anyone can."

"Actually, I might be able to help you," Nene replied obliquely, "but the question then becomes how much do you trust me?" Careful, a remote part of her mind warned; she didn't want to accidentally reveal her Knight Saber involvement to a total stranger, but at the same time the access that her involvement gave her to ... non-conventional resources might be able to help her out here.

"Oh, really?" a faint smirk pulled at his wrinkled features. "Thank you, my dear, but I don't think an offer of police protection is going to help me much. Ethan has several influential people living in his pockets who can pull strings with the various law enforcement bodies. I think I'd be safer staying here than trying to live in 'protective custody' somewhere."

"I wasn't referring to them," Nene replied quietly. "I think I know someone else who can help you, and I know that they aren't going to be influenced by anything ... he might try." The old man's gaze sharpened and bored intently into her for a minute or two. Nene met it levelly, keeping her face calm.

"So," the aged scientist finally murmured. "It looks like Ethan's file was right in some ways. You're talking about your boyfriend, aren't you? The red-haired one?"

"File? What file?" Nene asked, suddenly tense inside.

"Ethan has compiled a dossier on your boyfriend," Doc replied after a long moment of silence. "I've seen most of it myself, but Ethan and I have some differences of opinion on the interpretation of what it contains."

"Such as?" Nene hoped her face wasn't reflecting the sudden sickly feeling coiling through her.

"Ethan's convinced that your friend is one of the Knight Sabers," Doc replied, confirming her suspicions. "I'm not, however. I think it's more likely that he's been involved in the development of their weapons systems, especially given his obvious engineering background, and the fact that he had a small development lab in the basement of that house of his. The Knight Sabers may be the most publicly-known group using powered armour, but I know that they're not the only ones. Mere possession of similar technology isn't enough to convince me that he's one of them."

"I ... I don't know anything about that," Nene managed to get out, hoping that she hadn't turned pale; evidently things were far, far more complicated than she'd originally believed, and she suddenly realized just how thin the ice she was standing on really was. "He ... he wasn't telling me everything he was involved in, and that's one of the reasons we ... broke up." While not exactly the truth, it was still close enough that she was able to get the right mixture of hurt feelings into her voice.

"Broke up?" he glanced at her sharply. "Then you weren't talking about him?"

"Well....actually I was, sort of," she replied, swallowing uncomfortably; her throat seemed to have dried out again. She hoped Bert would forgive her for 'volunteering' his assistance, but since he was already a known quantity and she really couldn't identify Sylia... "We're... still friends though, and I think he'd be able to help you."


Shadows lay like silent curtains inside the building, cloaking almost everything in concealment. Inky tendrils of blackness were curled around the neatly racked bow staves and containers of target arrows, spreading across the polished wood floorboards in dark pools. The entire building was almost totally silent, the muted rumble of the city beyond the building the only sound in the entire facility.

A loud metallic clacking noise split the silence of the archery range, and the door of what was supposed to be a private side-entrance stealthily eased open a crack, then widened a few more inches. A shadowy shape swiftly eased through the doorway and let the door slip closed behind it as it immediately sought refuge in the shadows.

Eyes gleamed brightly in the darkness for a moment as a head turned to survey the room, then soft footfalls padded across the floor of the range to the double doors at the other end of the room. Despite the figure's best efforts to remain silent, floorboards squealed in protest at the person's weight upon them. A softly murmured curse, directed primarily at the squeaky floor, drifted from the figure as it reached the doors.

Pale bluish light, filtered by the thick, tinted glass of the front foyer entrance washed over the figure as it paused at the doors, outlining unmistakably feminine contours clad in a form-fitting bodysuit of some kind. Luminescent violet-coloured eyes narrowed in annoyance as she glanced towards the street entrance. Even though the facility was closed for the evening, there were still heavy crowds outside; MegaTokyo was almost always busy.

She studied the foyer glass for a moment, and then relaxed slightly as she realized it was mirrored; it was impossible for a stray passer-by to glance in and see her as she crossed the lobby. A moment later, she suited action to that thought, streaming across the foyer to the stairs leading upwards to the second floor, her motions smooth, fluid, and very, very quick. She flowed up the stairs with almost feline agility, making barely any sound at all.

She slipped down the corridor of the upper floor, ducking quickly into each side room as she came to it and checking it out. They proved to be either exercise rooms or weight training rooms, although one room was obviously set up for martial arts training - practice weapons for various disciplines were racked on one wall, and there were a couple of well-beaten practice dummies in the center. Another couple of rooms proved to be locker rooms, with the unmistakable aroma of used gym clothes saturating the air. Irritation began to mount as she searched each room; was that all there was to this place?

Finally she reached the end of the corridor and a closed door. Beyond it lay what looked like a small library, with bookshelves covering all four walls of the room. In the center of the room was a coffee table flanked by two overstuffed couches, and just to the left of the door was a small table with a kettle and teapot on it. Her hands on her hips, the woman surveyed the room, her expression twisted in resigned disgust.

Her original premise for infiltrating the building had been that her quarry had an office in where he might be keeping records - records that might provide some kind of a lead about his background. He'd have to have a set of records for the business for tax purposes at the very least, but she hadn't even found so much as a receipt. Obviously, he didn't keep anything here of importance.

She glanced at the bookshelves again, her eyes seeming to glow of their own volition as she scanned the spines of the volumes weighing down the shelves. No leads there....they contained exactly what one would expect in a publicly accessible recreational facility: old paperbacks and hardcovers, magazines that were at least a year out of date, and assorted 'how to' pamphlets.

The rattling bang of a door slamming open downstairs froze her for a moment, and she mouthed a silent curse as she heard heavy footsteps begin pounding their way up the stairs. She quickly closed the door to the mini-library and stepped sideways so that she wouldn't be in line with the door if it opened.

Reaching up to the back of her neck, she pulled out the attached hood of her jumpsuit and pulled it on over her head. It took only a moment to settle the goggles sewn into the hood into place and make sure her hair was tucked underneath. Taking a quick glance at the doorway again, she pressed a button on the small touchpad of a watch-like device on her wrist. An almost subliminal hum sounded briefly, and electric sparks seemed to race across the surface of her bodysuit. As the sparks raced over her body, it began to fade from sight. Within seconds, she had vanished. A relieved sigh sounded faintly, then stilled as the doorknob turned.

The door was flung open with excessive force, and a what looked like a coat sailed through the air to hit the end of the one couch and hang there, like some kind of bizarre lichen clinging to a rock face. The lights in the room flashed on a second later, revealing a tall red-haired individual standing in the doorway, his expression somewhere between fury and agonized indecision.

Unseen, an eyebrow cocked curiously as hidden intruder appraised him, watching his movements as he stalked into the library and hurled his hat at the couch as well. He paced the floor a couple of times, unknowingly coming very close to bumping into her before whirling with a muttered oath of some kind and storming back down the hallway, leaving the door hanging open. After a moment, she followed, ghosting down the hallway, now at least partially lit by the light coming from under a doorway further down.

He'd gone into the men's changeroom, so she waited down the hall somewhat, her back pressed to the wall as she remained absolutely motionless. After a moment, the door to the changeroom opened, and her quarry strode across the hallway into the exercise room directly opposite the changeroom, pausing only to flick on the light switch.

Carefully, the concealed woman moved closer to the doorway listening hard for any sound that might indicate he was heading in her direction. Cautiously, she peered around the doorjamb and into the room beyond.

The redheaded man had changed into track pants and running shoes, and was shirtless. His back was to her, and she could see a large, ragged patch of scar tissue on his back, just below his left shoulderblade. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he turned around, hefting a quarterstaff from one of the weapons racks, but it wasn't the weapon that was drawing her attention. Rather, it was the four white scar lines running diagonally across his upper torso from his upper chest to down across his looked like something had tried gutting him at one time. In fact, judging by the accumulated scars, it looked like something had been trying to kill him several times. There was just no way the average honest citizen could get that torn up; The only other times she'd seen scar tissue like that was on combat veterans.

She watched him for a few more minutes, noting what there was of his technique as he started doing forms with the quarterstaff. He moved easily enough, and did show some evidence of combat training, but it was hard to say just how good he was. For one thing, he was obviously distracted by something internally - he kept losing his rhythm - and without an opponent to work against, he wasn't really showing his abilities.

Abruptly, he spun and hurled the quarterstaff away - towards the open door. Caught by surprise, she wasn't fast enough when she ducked back, and the spinning length of wood cracked her with an end on the side of the face as it flipped past her, bouncing off the corridor wall and clattering to the floor.

A noise like a choked sob drifted from the exercise room as she gingerly felt at her face, silently swearing at herself as she felt a large welt on her cheekbone forming. She peeped around the doorframe again, and saw that he'd dropped to his knees on the floor, and had his head thrown back with his hands over his face. As she started to pull back, an anguished bellow shook the air.


She didn't presume to answer for whatever being he was addressing, instead stealthily creeping back down the hallway towards the way she'd entered the building. There was no point in pushing her luck any further; the thermo-optic camouflage suit she was using didn't have unlimited power supplies, and she didn't want to be discovered.

Although she hadn't found anything of use, it had still been an interesting excursion. Very interesting indeed...


Sylia glanced from the electronic notepad she was carrying in one hand to the monitor nearby, her free hand rapidly tapping several keys in succession on the console keyboard. As a result, the erratic, wavy diagnostic lines being displayed by yet another viewscreen nearby evened out and became much smoother. Sylia nodded slightly to herself, a faintly self-satisfied look crossing her face. That was much better; the hardsuit electronics depended on a steady power feed, and anything affecting that needed to be corrected in a hurry.

Sylia set her datapad aside as she turned towards the diagnostic table in the center of the suit laboratory. On it, her own familiar white and blue armour suit lay quiescent, attached to the array of diagnostic equipment the room contained by several thin streamers of ribbon cable. As she walked over to her armour, the leader of the Knight Sabers had to stifle a sudden yawn.

As the yawn faded away, Sylia glanced at the clock and grimaced to herself at the lateness of the hour; it was definitely far later than she'd originally intended to work. Obviously, somebody else's bad work habits had started to rub off on her.

She mentally chided herself a moment later for the unfairness of that thought. Bert hadn't even been near the hardsuit workshop in days, and given the strain he was under, she was secretly rather pleased at the self-control he seemed to be exercising.

To be completely honest, he hadn't even come close recently to matching the intense single-mindedness that he'd been able to muster back when he'd been so immersed in almost every aspect of the hardsuit development. He'd been preoccupied with recent events, yes, but he hadn't been working himself to the point of collapse in the process. Not that she was aware of, at least.

Earlier in the year, Sylia had been considering gently trying to ease him out of being so preoccupied with the suits when events had taken the turn that they had. Now she wasn't so worried about him working himself to death as much as she was concerned that he was about to have a nervous breakdown of some kind. It was difficult to decide if that was an improvement or not.

Sighing as she felt her load of momentarily-forgotten cares and concerns land heavily astride her shoulders again, Sylia disconnected her suit from the monitoring and scanning equipment, rolling the cables into a neat bundle and setting them aside. She placed one hand on the smooth plating of the suit, feeling its cool hardness beneath her fingers, the armourplate masking the complex circuitry and systems that provided the suits with their power.

It wasn't hard to see how he'd become enamoured of the 'Knight in Shining Armour' image, she reflected to herself, her hand sliding down the slick enamel coating the hardsuit armour. While still a bit cliched, the image associated with those words was one of an unstoppable, armed and armoured juggernaut astride a massive destrier crashing into his foes and vanquishing them in the name of Righteousness.

The hardsuits, especially the one he'd had a hand in designing, allowed someone to do just that...up to a point. For someone already saturated with chivalric impulses and the yearning for feats of derring-do in the cause of Right (she really wanted to have a word with whomever had originated those turns of phrase), strapping on a hardsuit was the ultimate opportunity to make the dream real.

The problem was that reality was seldom, if ever, compatible with dreams. For a while, especially at the start of his 'career', Sylia had despaired of ever being able to get Bert to see at least some sense during a hardsuit combat. He'd always just barreled in, supremely confident that his armour could handle whatever his opponent could dish out. He'd almost gloried in the combat every time he'd piled in, never seeing just how dangerous it really was. While in one way that reckless approach had served him well, it had also been a dangerous liability.

She knew firsthand just how...intoxicating the feeling of power one got from wearing the suits could be. When she'd first started developing the suits, afire with the burning need for revenge for her father's death, it had been a struggle not to take the first working prototype she'd tested and go storming off to GENOM's tower to burn Quincy and Mason down where they stood. And that suit hadn't even had a fraction of the firepower that the current designs were capable of producing.

Unfortunately, part of her burden - or curse, as she sometimes felt it to be - was being able to think analytically. She'd been able to see immediately how futile a gesture that would have been, as well as the repercussions that would undoubtedly result if she'd somehow been successful. With that bitter realization still stinging her, she'd re-formulated her plans into a more long term plan, and restrained herself. She'd had to restrain herself several times over the years; access to the power she could wield if she chose was a constant temptation, she'd discovered.

Unfortunately, Bert had seemed chronically unable to comprehend that his actions were going to have consequences, and his self-control didn't always work that well. Although he'd improved a lot in recent months, he still backslid too easily for her complete peace of mind. Granted, he was under a lot of stress lately, but...

The shrill electronic scream of the intruder alarm jerked Sylia around is surprise, interrupting her ruminations. After a moment of shocked paralysis, she sprinted to the control console as the alarm continued to wail stridently. She dropped into a chair and began accessing the security programs, her fingers flying over the keyboards.

Sylia's brow was furrowed with intense concentration as she queried the system. The alarm had been an internal intruder alarm in the sub-basement complex housing the Knight Saber operations, meaning that if somebody was breaking into rooms down here, they'd already eluded the external detection systems built into the building. And that was something that she considered extremely difficult to do, if not impossible.

She drummed her fingernails agitatedly on the console facing as she waited for the system to respond; although in reality it only took a couple of seconds to get an answer, she felt as if time had suddenly started crawling along. The security system finally obediently displayed the alert on the screen, and Sylia's eyes narrowed as she saw the location: the hardsuit storage room.

A nasty suspicion began gnawing at the back of her mind as she tabbed the keyboard again, accessing the internal vidcam network. The viewscreen flashed up a picture of the hallway just outside the doorway to the hardsuit room, and the suspicion exploded into full-blown certainty when she saw the wisps of smoke drifting from the burned-in slash marks in both the doorframe and the armoured steel slab that served as the door.

The slash marks had gone through both the metal of the door and the concrete of the wall as if they'd been made of rice paper. A slagged heap of plastic and electronic components sizzled on the floor tiles beside the door, the obvious remains of the electronic keypad that had been there for security access code entry. She didn't really need to see any more to be able to guess who'd just violated their security, but she accessed one of the internal camera relays for the room anyway.

And was just in time to see the inner access door leading to the hardsuit bays sliding open to admit a very familiar-looking tall red-head. His back was to the camera, so she couldn't see his expression, but she could see the shaking and white-knuckled grip that he had around a cylindrical device in his left hand, the lightsaber that he'd developed.

Brown eyes hardened and flashed sparks of anger at the sight. Sylia spat a few words not intended for polite company - ones that would probably have shocked her teammates had they been able to hear them - as she whirled back towards where her hardsuit lay. She dashed back to her hardsuit, stripping off and pitching aside the lab coat she'd had on over her softsuit. Reaching the diagnostic table, she hit the controls to raise the slab the suit was reposing on and stood fuming impatiently as the table slowly elevated, moving her hardsuit to an upright position.

After what seemed like an interminable period of time, the suit was standing before her. Sylia quickly pulled off the helmet and activated the opening mechanism, and started squeezing herself into her suit before the it had finished fully opening; speed was of the essence now, especially because she knew how fast Bert could get into his armour and away. There was no question in her mind about needing the armour to confront him; the way he'd just broken into the storage area confirmed to her that he wasn't acting entirely rationally.

As her armour snapped closed, and the hiss of pressurizing seals sounded in her ears, Sylia gave silent thanks that she'd had her softsuit on. She'd originally been wearing it primarily because wearing the armour was the easiest way to move it around between rooms, and hadn't expected to really need it beyond that. She scooped up her helmet and settled it over her head, hearing the clicking noises as the contacts between softsuit, hardsuit, and helmet connected, completing the circuit for the control systems to start.

Sylia didn't wait for the usual boot-up diagnostics to run, instead pounding hard for the door to the hallway the minute that her suit's actuators had motive power. Her suit computer complained about the unusual procedure, flashing warnings across her viewscreen, but she ignored them. Having just spent most of the evening working on tuning her suit systems, she already knew everything was working fine.

Hitting the door with an armoured shoulder, nearly bursting it from the doorframe as she flung it open, the white-armoured leader of the Knight Sabers charged off to try and prevent a possible catastrophe while trying to ignore the hollow feeling of dread that was raising doubts at the back of her mind.


The inner door of the hardsuit storage room hissed open, revealing the familiar, gleaming bulk of SkyKnight's silver and blue hardsuit. Ducking slightly, he started stepping through the doorway.

"Going somewhere?" Sylia inquired, crossing armoured arms over her chest. She'd planted herself directly in front of the door, challenge obvious in every line of her stance.

"As a matter of fact, yes," he rumbled in reply. "I'm going hunting." She didn't need to ask to know what he was referring to.

"Bert, this isn't going to work; please don't do this." Sylia was vaguely pleased that her voice remained steady and controlled; her nerves felt anything but steady at the moment. The last thing she wanted was to have to fight one of her friends. "Please, just power down your armour and put it back. I ."

"No. I can't take it any more," SkyKnight's modulated voice replied hollowly. "I've got to do something; I can't just sit around and pray Nene is safe. If..." His voice faltered for a moment, then strengthened. "WHEN she comes home, I want to be able to tell her that bastard is dead."

"So what are you going to do?" Sylia asked curtly. "Just storm around town and hope you find him? Smash into some waterfront dive, hoping you'll be able to scare someone into revealing his whereabouts?"

"If that's what it takes...."

"And what if they won't, or can't, tell you anything?" she cut him off shortly. Somehow she had to make him see how pointless and short-sighted going on a rampage was. "What will you do then? Break their arms? Legs? Start killing them?" He visibly flinched at her last sentence, then his helmet shook in violent denial for a moment.

"I'll think of something," he replied tightly. His gauntlets tightened into fists. "I can't see where you've been any great help in tracking him down, so I guess I'll have to do it myself." Sylia jerked at the unfair verbal slap; inside her helmet, brown eyes narrowed and became hard as he stepped forward, trying to shove past her.

"Bert, snap out of it, now," Sylia directed, reaching out a hand to grasp an armoured shoulder. "This isn't going to help anyone, especially Nene." SkyKnight didn't appear to hear her, but marched inexorably towards the suit room exit, shrugging off her hand. Taking two quick strides backwards, she stepped in front of him again and shoved on his chest armour, trying to stop him, but he continued to walk forwards without difficulty. The treads on Sylia's hardsuit boots provided little purchase as she skidded across the floor; he was pushing her aside like her hardsuit wasn't even there.

"Damn it, this isn't going to solve anything!" she tried, a note of entreaty entering her voice. "I realize you're upset, going on a rampage isn't going to help!"

"I'm going to kill him," SkyKnight replied, an eerie, flat tone to his voice, even with the electronic modulation. The words were evenly spaced, and chilling in their utter finality. "I'm going to find Nene and get her out of there, and then I'm going to kill him."

"SkyKnight," Sylia said sharply, her tone becoming hard. "This is a direct order: Stop right now, and power down your suit." The silver hardsuit ignored her, still stomping forwards like an automaton, gauntleted hands clenching and unclenching. Sylia braced herself once again, trying to halt him, but again, her suit alone wasn't strong enough.

SkyKnight continued to march forward, shoving his white-hardsuited leader back and ignoring everything but the burning ache for revenge. His implacable advance had brought him to within mere feet of the exit, and the corridor to the vehicle garage, where she knew he'd already prepped the WarHorse for a quick launch.

Since reasonable entreaty had failed, Sylia decided to try a different tactic, although a cold feeling ran through her at the thought of the reaction it might provoke. She breathed a quick prayer that what she was about to try wasn't going to worsen the situation, and braced herself.

"Bert! Put that suit back. Now. Or I swear I'll fire," Sylia ordered, sticking the muzzle of her palm-mounted particle lasers into the front faceplate of his helmet. She let the guns run to full charge, sweat running down her face as she waited for a response.

The silver battlesuit stopped in its tracks. Very slowly, SkyKnight's helmet tilted to look down at her, his red eyeslot burning brightly. Sylia felt another cold wave of fear run through her as the looming battlesuit in front of her stared silently, reeking of menace. There was a taut, dangerous feel to the air suddenly as his rage seemed to focus on her.

"Get out of my way, Sylia," he said hollowly, his voice sounding like it was an effort speaking. "Either get out of my way, or shoot." His gauntlets clenched, and he started shaking. "Go on, shoot me goddamn it!"

"You don't mean that," she replied. "I know you're hurt and upset, but going off the deep end isn't..."

There was a loud clang, and the world rocked crazily. Sylia saw bright stars briefly flare in her vision as she bounced off the wall and onto the floor, helmet first, landing a good ten feet away from the silver Knight Saber. Gasping partly in surprise and partly in pain, she rolled over and shakily clambered back to her feet, shaking her head to clear it.

As she tottered upright again, she could see that he'd resumed his relentless march and was stepping through the exit into the hallway, heading for his jet cycle. "SkyKnight! This is your last warning!!" Sylia shouted at him. "I'm not going to let you do this, so stop right there!!" There was no reply. She hadn't really expected one; in the back of her mind, she'd known that there was no other way.

"I didn't want it to have to come to this," she told him, bracing herself in case her words did succeed in provoking a response, "but you're not giving me much choice in the matter." His implacable march didn't falter by so much as a step.

When Sylia had first designed the hardsuits, she'd taken certain precautions to make sure that, should it become necessary, she could stop somebody from taking their suit on a revenge rampage before they went too far. Each suit had master codes hardwired into its CPU, codes Sylia could use to access and shut down all of someone else's suit systems. At the time she'd designed that particular safety feature, she'd thought she might have to use it on Priss at least once, but that hadn't been necessary. Instead, years later, she was going to have to use it on someone who had a perfect right to be angry, but couldn't be allowed to run loose.

Circuits hummed as Sylia's comm system transmitted the proper access protocols to SkyKnight's suit. The remote access link was accepted by his computer systems without question; her access codes guaranteed that much. Sylia looked one more time at SkyKnight, hoping he'd come to his senses, but such was not to be.

"I'm sorry, but I can't allow it," Sylia said quietly.


Sylia stared in disbelief at the glaring red letters on her viewscreen for a moment. Impossible!! The shutdown codes were hardwired into the suit systems! They .

"That won't work." The flat statement brought Sylia's stunned gaze flicking up from the readout to the silver-armoured form standing in the doorway. SkyKnight's hands flexed a couple of times as he shifted his stance in a vaguely threatening manner.

"I found out about that code trick of yours and disabled it," he informed her, his tone cool and matter-of-fact. "If you want to stop me, then you're going to have to do it the hard way." It was as if there was an entirely different person speaking. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a slimy bastard to go exterminate." The silver-blue battlesuit turned its back on her and started to duck through the doorway.

"Damn you!!" Sylia spat angrily. She been bluffing before, hadn't wanted it to happen this way, but now she had no choice. Circuitry hummed urgently, and a split second later, twin lances of coruscating laser energy slashed through the air of the room, slamming square into the back of the silver hardsuit.

Smoke and shards of silver armour plating flew everywhere as SkyKnight was hurled forwards by the unexpected blast. The silver Knight Saber smacked face-first into the wall opposite him, and then collapsed in a clanging heap on the floor of the hallway. Wisps of smoke drifted from the scorched hardsuit as it lay there.

Sylia stared grimly at the fallen figure, lowering her arms and putting her weapons systems on standby; maybe now he'd be willing to listen to reason. His suit was carrying too much armour for just one shot to hurt him, but it had wrecked most of his back-mounted flight system. The wings were in pieces all over the floor, and the miniature turbine exhaust ports looked slagged. If he had any flight capability left, it was going to be very limited. As she scanned the downed suit, assessing its condition, SkyKnight stirred and very slowly pulled himself to his feet, using the wall for support.

"Well?" the leader of the Knight Sabers asked her rebellious teammate. "Are you going to put that suit back, or do we have to continue with this idiocy?"

"I haven't even started yet," SkyKnight rumbled, just before he sprang at her. She'd been half-expecting that move, and neatly sidestepped his lunge. As he shot past her, she again fired a double salvo into him, smashing the silver hardsuit to the floor. SkyKnight skidded along the floor tiles on his faceplate for a few feet, then rolled over and again clambered upright as more smoke drifted from his armour.

Sylia watched him warily as he moved, noting that her shots had blackened and scored the right side of his torso armour, but apparently hadn't penetrated his suit or caused any system damage.

She gritted her teeth, trying to force herself to remain calm as he began advancing towards her, more cautiously this time. Why, why, WHY couldn't he see how wrong this was?! She understood only too well how much he wanted to strike back at Hollister, but a crazed rampage wasn't the answer. The problem was, she couldn't seem to get through the emotional walls he was hiding behind right now in order to reason with him.

The silver-blue hardsuit was nearly within reach again, and she tensed, prepared to counter his next move. She flicked a quick glance at his stance, evaluating it expertly; when the first punch speared out at her, she deftly knocked it aside and out of line with her body.

Several more strikes followed the first in rapid succession, and Sylia parried them all, brushing them aside while waiting for her opportunity. She could tell he was putting tremendous effort into each blow, trying to knock her down relatively quickly in an attempt to keep the fight short. The thought briefly flickered across her mind that, even as enraged as he was, he couldn't force himself to really try and hurt one of his friends. At least, she hoped that was the reason.

Her defense, on the other hand, required very little effort or energy to maintain; all she had to do was let him wear himself out until he started making mistakes. He'd already made at least one; in his anger he hadn't realized that he was telegraphing what he was going to do next by his stance, and it was definitely making it easier for her to predict his next move and counter it.

The silver battlesuit's stance shifted slightly, and Sylia braced herself again.


Thunder grumbled sullenly somewhere in the distance, slowly penetrating the haze of sleep that had enveloped her. Priss rolled over and pulled the pillow over her head in an effort to muffle the noise; after running all over the blasted city all day and then doing a rehearsal with the band, all she wanted to do was sleep. Not even bothering to undress, she'd collapsed in the bedroom as soon as she'd gotten back to Bert's apartment, intent on relentlessly pursuing that goal.

Another rumble gently shook the room, and her eyes suddenly snapped wide open as it dawned on her that she was not hearing thunder; given the apartment's location in Sylia's basement, not even hurricane-force winds would be able to be heard through the concrete walls. She sat up slowly, her ears straining against the now somehow ominous silence.

It happened again; a muted rumble shivered the room, rattling some of the assorted objects scattered on the dresser. For one terrifying moment, Priss's mind flashed back to the fear she'd felt as a child, when an earthquake had nearly leveled the city, and cost her parents their lives. The urge to flee welled up almost immediately, but she fought it; earthquakes didn't make sporadic rumbles like that, so it had to be something within the building.

She got up and moved slowly out to the kitchen and living room area of the apartment, listening intently. This time, when it came, she was able to tell that the muffled noise seemed to be coming from below the floor, which meant something was wrong on the sub-basement level. She quickly mentally catalogued what was down there, and then she stiffened as a sudden thought struck her.

"Oh shit no!!" Priss swore. She sprinted across the room and frantically stomped into her boots. Jerking the apartment door open, she pelted hard down the hallway, letting the door slam closed behind her.

Yet another rumble gently shook the deserted apartment.


Shards dropped from the cracked armour casing on SkyKnight's left shoulder as he slowly hauled himself back to his feet, bracing himself with one hand against the wall which now sported a hardsuit-shaped crater. Sylia stepped back from him a couple of paces, dropping again into a guard position as she watched him.

"Give it up, Bert," she tried reasoning with him again. "I'm not going to let you do it. You know it wouldn't accomplish anything except possibly hurt a lot of innocent bystanders."

"You don't understand," came the strained reply. "I have to do it...I..."

"I understand better than you might think," Sylia retorted sharply. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to just let..."

Damn it! Sylia swore mentally, deftly sidestepping as SkyKnight stepped towards her, again lashing out at her. The white hardsuited woman stepped closer to him as she ducked under his swing. As she straightened, she struck out at him, spearing the stiffened fingers of one gauntlet at the location where his hardsuit armour had been shattered at the shoulder. If she could just disable him without really seriously hurting him...

Her blow was deflected by a forearm parry, but her instantaneous riposte with her other arm as he left himself open snapped his head back on his neck. SkyKnight's forward momentum faltered as he staggered backwards a couple of steps, shaking his head groggily. He put one hand on his helmet as if trying to straighten his neck back into proper alignment, and backed off another step. He continued to stagger somewhat, and Sylia relaxed her guard a bit.

"Willing to follow orders now?" She inquired coolly. "You're not leav..."

The wobble in SkyKnight's stance disappeared in a flash as he blurred towards her again, and Sylia had an awful split second to realize that she'd been faked out, just before a crushing impact drove her across the room to smash into the far wall. Lights sparked and danced in her field of vision as the back of her head smacked into the wall. Warning messages flashed in her viewscreen, warning her of some minor system damage, mostly to her back-mounted flight pack. She tasted blood from somewhere inside her mouth, and the frustrated anger she'd been trying to contain finally broke free.

"You goddamn stubborn BASTARD!" Sylia rolled to her feet and dropped into a combat crouch again, clenching her hands into fists. SkyKnight seemed to pause for a moment, as if sensing something he didn't like.

Sylia waited for the barest of seconds as he attacked again, spearing out at her head with another punch. Almost negligently, she intercepted his incoming fist with her own hand, while at the same time placing her other hand at the point of his elbow. In the same smooth motion, she wrenched his arm around and slammed the pressure against his elbow while still gripping his hand. He let out a strangled yell as the move painfully forced him into a bent-over position, almost all the way down to his knees as his armour creaked from the stress. She promptly kicked him in the back of the leg, behind the knee, and the silver hardsuit crashed to the floor as she released his arm.

"Power down that suit. NOW," Sylia ordered glacially as he slowly regained his feet, his right arm hanging limply. It wasn't broken, but she knew it would be a few moments before he'd be able to use it effectively; armour or not, it had hurt him. "I'm through fooling around with you."

"And go back to sitting around doing nothing?!" he retorted bitterly, trying to flex his arm. "Waiting and praying that something happens?"

"I do NOT have to justify myself to you!!" she snarled. "You don't have the monopoly on wanting revenge, you know!! If you'd stop being so goddamn cocksure of everything and open your eyes once in a while, you'd be able to see that I haven't been 'just sitting and waiting'!!" Inside her helmet, Sylia's mouth set in a grim line as Bert apparently ignored her and advanced again.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Sylia grimly told him as she parried his next punch, using a forearm block to slide it aside. The silver hardsuit took an inadvertent step forward, having overextended himself, and Sylia took the opening provided.

SkyKnight's helmet rang like a bell as she belted him in the side of the head, and his attempt to block her was just a fraction of a second too late. The leader of the Knight Sabers followed that strike with a rapid-fire series of moves that ended with her firmly planting the heel of her armoured boot into the pit of his stomach. SkyKnight's movement abruptly turned into a speedy backwards trajectory.

"That was for all the times you haven't listened to me," the white-hardsuited woman told him matter-of-factly as he bounced off the wall. He staggered around, flailing for balance, but didn't go down. She could hear him gasping for breath; despite the hardsuit's armouring, he'd still been winded by her attack. "Are you going to give up now, or do you want me to keep going down the list?"


The door to the stairwell banged open as a leather-clad figured hurtled through at a dead run. Her boots skidded on the floor tiles as she tried turning, and she smacked into the corridor wall opposite the door, driven into it by the momentum her headlong charge down the stairs had given her as much as the loss of traction had.

"Damn it," Priss shook her head to clear it, gasping for breath and staggering to her feet as the door swung shut behind her. She'd been almost flying down the stairs to the sub-basement complex in her haste, and had very nearly tripped and fallen down the stairs a couple of times. Luckily she hadn't; if she was right, now was not the time to end up breaking any bones. She glanced down the hallway, and her expression tightened as what she saw confirmed her anxiety.

A faint haze of smoke drifted down the corridor, and she could see that further down the hall some of the fluorescent lights had been jarred loose from their receptacles, showering the floor with broken glass. There was an unmistakable ozone odour permeating the air, the odour that she usually only smelled after an outing with her hardsuit...

A thundering crash overlaid with the squeal and clatter of metal on metal resounded through the hallway, the noise somehow reminiscent of a car crash. Priss started running towards the unmistakable sounds of armoured combat, swearing to herself.


"And THIS is for always saying 'Trust me'!!" Sylia snarled finally, grabbing SkyKnight's arm and throwing him bodily against the wall...headfirst. He struck solidly, collapsing in a rattling heap. After a moment or so of stillness, the battered silver Knight Saber rolled over. It took him a couple of tries to get to his hands and knees before he AGAIN climbed to his feet.

However, despite his single-minded refusal to give in and surrender, the battle appeared to be finally taking a toll on him; his movements weren't nearly as fluid as they had been, and he had slowed down substantially. He now seemed to be putting all of his strength into just staying on his feet, as if he could outlast her by doing so. Fat chance - she was willing to bet he was already out on his feet. Sylia spotted the opening she'd been waiting for, and then stepped in close to him as he moved.

Slapping the palms of both of her hardsuit gauntlets against his chest armour as she did so.

The contact triggered a point-blank beam cannon blast that filled the room with a blinding discharge of light and smoke, throwing the silver-clad Knight Saber violently backwards into the already battered wall. SkyKnight fought to stay on his feet as smoke drifted from the cracked and blackened armour on his chest, his boots skidding on the floor as he began slowly sliding down the wall. Sylia's control over her weaponry had prevented a full-power cannon charge, which would almost certainly have killed him, but he had definitely felt her attack.

SkyKnight gave a startled squawk as twin swordblades stapled him to the wall at neck level, just below his helmet, in a scissors-like move. An uncomfortably cold feeling slithered down his backbone as he looked from the gleaming blades pressed against his armoured neck to the white hardsuit attached to them.

"I am in command of the Knight Sabers, not you. Am I making myself perfectly clear?" Sylia's voice was cold and matter-of-fact. "I am not going to take being second-guessed or ignored any longer. You took an oath that you would follow my orders, and I'm giving you a direct order now: you will shut down that suit's weapons and take off that armour. You will do it now, or so help me God, I will carve you out of it piece by bloody piece."


Sylia turned her head slightly, still watching SkyKnight out of the corner of an eye. The image in her helmet viewscreen was a little unfocused, but recognizable: Priss was standing in what was left of the doorway to the ruined antechamber, her face a study in mixed anger and slack-jawed disbelief. She had drawn her pistol, but apparently couldn't figure out if she should be pointing it at anyone; it was hanging from her hand in a very loose grip.

"We're having a discussion about who has precedence in the chain of command, Priss; do you mind?" Sylia replied shortly, half of her attention still on the silver hardsuit she had pinned to the wall. "We should be done in a moment."

She turned her helmet back to regard SkyKnight, who was carefully holding very still. The red glow from his helmet eyeslot flickered erratically as they stared wordlessly at each other for a moment. The technical part of her mind made a note of the flicker as indicating either system damage from their fight, or dying power supplies.

"Well?" Sylia asked flatly. "It's your call." Anger still simmered in the back of her mind, but she was glad that she had herself back under control. While she didn't like losing her temper as a rule, it seemed that the rules were often suspended when dealing with him.

The taut silence following her statement stretched interminably as she waited. The only noise in the room was the faint crackling and sizzling coming from the ruined wall monitors and consoles. She was even willing to bet that Priss was holding her breath, it was that still. Sylia's nerves began to tighten further at the lack of response from SkyKnight, and sweat trickled down her face as she continued to wait. She prayed silently that he wasn't going to force her to carry out her threat...she didn't particularly want to find out if she could make that kind of a decision.

The leader of the Knight Sabers resisted the urge to sigh loudly in relief as her sensors informed her that SkyKnight's suit had just gone to standby mode. The glow from his helmet eyeslot dimmed substantially, and the ominous hum that had been coming from his suit disappeared as his weapons systems were taken off-line and shut down.

After a couple of moments more, she warily stepped back from him, pulling her swordblades away from his neck armour. They snapped back into their housings as she regarded him. The battered silver-blue hardsuit didn't react, or try to power back up as she'd half-feared, but slumped against the wall a bit further, head bowed.

"Get your suit off," Sylia directed curtly, pointing at the relatively undamaged door leading back into the suit storage room. "We'll continue this discussion after you've had a chance to calm down and consider your actions."

Bert slowly and painfully straightened up, shoving himself off the wall. Ponderously walking over to the entry to the hardsuit bay room, he pressed a button on the access control panel. The scorched-looking metal panel squealed loudly as it slid aside, and the silver hardsuit stepped through the doorway. Sylia watched silently as the door slid closed, then sighed again, wishing she could mop some of the sweat off her face. Until she got out of her suit, that was going to have to wait.

"Sylia." She turned as the sound of her name broke the silence, and watched as Priss walked cautiously across the floor, debris crunching underfoot, stopping only when they were face-to-face. "Just what the hell is going on here?"

Sylia reached up and removed her helmet, gratefully sucking in a breath of cooler air. She tried gingerly brushing back some trailing strands of sweat-dampened hair that had become plastered to her forehead, but the fingers of her hardsuit gauntlets weren't really suited for that task. She put the relatively minor annoyance from her mind, and looked at Priss as she tucked her helmet under her arm.

"Where would you like me to start?" she asked wearily, a welter of unreadable emotions cascading rapidly across her face as Priss watched. "Before he broke into the hardsuit room, or after?"


The door to the basement apartment banged open as Bert lurched unsteadily through the doorway. He took a shuddering breath and tried to straighten up as he leaned against the door itself, clinging to the paneled wood for support, but it was a pointless effort; he folded immediately, clutching at his chest. Pained, rasping breathing was the only noise in the apartment for a moment as he stood hunched over, half-leaning and half collapsed against the doorjamb. Finally, the tall read-head forced himself upright, and began walking towards the couch with slow, deliberate steps, swaying unsteadily every other step.

As he weaved his way over to the couch, a woman wearing a black and red bike suit stalked through the still-open door after him. The bang that reverberated through the apartment when she violently slammed the door shut made him jump, and then crumple in pain, grabbing at the arm of the couch as he stumbled the last couple of steps forward.

Priss watched as Bert awkwardly folded into the couch, laying hunched over on his side as he gasped for air. Her expression of tightly restrained anger didn't crack even slightly as she stood there, arms folded across her chest, while he tried to fight himself up to a sitting position. Finally she walked across the apartment to stand in front of him, her hands clenched tightly at her sides.

"Comfortable now?" she inquired, her tone flat, and not really inviting a reply. "Good. I've got a few things to say to you, and you're goddamn well going to listen to me."

"Look, Priss, can this wait?" he interrupted her, wincing as he took a breath. "I really don't want...."

"I don't give a shit what you want right now!!" she spat. "What are you going to do if I don't shut up? Attack me like you attacked Sylia, just because she wouldn't let you do what you wanted?!" Something flickered across his face at her words, but disappeared behind a stony facade as he slowly forced himself to his feet, anger momentarily overcoming pain.

"I said I don't want, or even remotely need, a lecture right now," he gritted, glaring at her. "What part of that didn't you understand?" Priss glared back, grimly defiant and unintimidated as he loomed over her.

"Oh, really?" she asked shortly. "I think you do; I think you've needed one for about the last three months now, considering you never normally acted like this much of an asshole before," she noted. Her eyes narrowed dangerously as she looked up into his face. "Now sit down; you're not scaring me in the slightest by standing there like a homicidal boomer." Again, something seemed to flicker briefly in his expression at her words.

"Sit down, or I swear I'll friggin' well make you," she promised him, bracing herself and readying a fist. "If you thought you were in pain before, just wait until after I get through with you."

"You're bluffing." His gaze was cold as he looked at her, and a quick shiver ran down her spine.

"Try me and find out." Priss's voice was flinty, and her eyes were hard, unyielding.

There was a taut silence that seemed to stretch interminably; Priss was positive she could feel each second plucking on her nerves as it went by. They stared at each other for a few long moments, then, finally, he slowly sank back into the couch, another spasm of pain crossing his face at the movement. She relaxed slightly, mentally sighing in relief; at least he was being semi-reasonable...for the moment.

"I really don't know where to start," Priss told him after a moment of awkward silence, turning and starting to pace, restrained fury still evident in her every motion. "I've known for a while you've been...been," she fought to find the right words for a moment, "under a lot of stress, but that doesn't even begin to be a reason for what you did tonight. Just what the hell did you think you were doing?!"

"I ..." he started to speak up, but was silenced immediately as she spun and raised a finger warningly.

"Shut. Up. Now," she growled, glaring at him. "That was a rhetorical question, and I'm not done yet." She resumed pacing. "I can understand - somewhat - why you're pissed at Hollister, and even make some very small allowances for that. I can understand why you want to get revenge. You're hardly the only person involved who wants that; hell, we ALL want to take a piece out of the bastard! What I don't understand is why you think that gives you a license to start acting like a total asshole!!!!!!"

"I have not..."

"I SAID SHUT UP!!!" Priss bellowed, then regained control of herself. "You've been an absolute goddamn bear to be around ever since that trouble at the nightclub, with very few exceptions. Now I can understand being edgy about being found out, given how many rats there are running around this bloody pesthole of a city, but that doesn't explain why you've suddenly decided to try and alienate everyone who gives a damn about you!!" She threw up her hands in frustration. "That bullshit tonight with Sylia was the final straw, buster. Either you level with me, or I'm leaving. Right now." She put her hands on her hips as she came to a halt in front of him and waited.

The taut silence thickened as he sat there, staring fixedly ahead with his hands steepled in front of his face, his elbows balanced on his knees. Priss waited...waited for what felt like ages, but he didn't say anything. She felt something inside of her wither and die as the silence continued to stifle the apartment.

"Fine then, be that way," she finally said, unable to keep bitter hurt from intruding into her voice. "I don't care anymore...obviously you're quite capable of dealing with this on your own." With that, she turned on her heel and stalked towards the apartment door, anger and confused hurt boiling together. She mentally resolved to not cry...not until she got out of his sight anyway.

"Have you got any idea what it's like to have to sit and watch as your life slowly gets whittled away?" Bert's voice rasped, capturing her attention as her hand grasped the doorknob. "To have to spend each day praying that nothing else happens, and knowing you can't do anything about it if it does anyway? To feel everything slipping through your fingers like sand?" Priss slowly turned around as he continued to speak, his voice sounding like it was being painfully scraped from somewhere within him with a dull knife.

"I thought I had it under control," he continued, his knuckles turning white with strain as his hands clenched, his gaze fixed on some point in space in front of him. Priss began slowly walking back towards him, realizing that he hadn't even registered the fact that she'd been about to leave; it had taken him that long to be able to find the right words to even begin talking.

"Until that night when Hollister used that mech to grab me, I thought I had it under control," he stated again, as a tremor of some kind ran through him. "Then it happened. First he makes the connection between me and SkyKnight. Then he trashes my house, making off with a suit and God only knows what else. Then his stooges manage to find me when I'm out in public with you. After that..." His voice turned choked, and the muscles in his jaw tightened for a moment. Priss kept her expression stony as she listened, slowly lowering herself into the chair opposite him.

"After that, they kidnap Nene," he ground out, "right in broad daylight, within blocks of the ADP HQ." He suddenly stood in a violent spasm of motion, his face contorting in mixed fury and grief. He began to pace back and forth across the living room himself, tightly clasping his hands together behind his back. "And I couldn't do anything about it!!"

"You couldn't have known that they'd try to grab her," Priss quietly interjected. "None of us expected it."

"BUT I SHOULD HAVE!!" he howled, spinning and driving a fist into the nearby bookshelf. Priss jumped as several books exploded off the shelf, thumping to the floor, and carefully got to her feet...just in case. Bert stood in front of the shelves, head bowed, his fingernails digging into the wood as his hands clenched on the shelving.

"It was like being tied into a goddamn chair and tortured all over again," he grated. "I could see the smirking bastard in my mind's eye the whole time...he knew I'd been going out with Nene, and he knew how to get to her. He's been systematically stripping away anything I've ever given a damn about, and I haven't been able to stop him. And it's worse this time because I can't even get within reach of him...he's ruining my life by remote control, and I can't do anything to stop him." Something like a snarl entered his voice. "I should've tried killing the bastard in the warehouse instead of escaping."

"All right, fine," Priss forced an edge into her voice as she folded her arms across her chest. "So Hollister's an evil asshole who needs killing. We knew that already. That still doesn't explain why you attacked Sylia and damn near wrecked the building in the process."

"I had to do something," came the strained reply. "I just couldn't sit around anymore and wait..."

"That's not good enough, Bert," Priss shook her head. "I..."

"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!!!!!!" the anguished shout cut her off in mid-sentence as he spun towards her. "I've always known what to do before," he continued in a quavering voice as he fought to get himself back under control. "It didn't matter what the problem was before, I always had an answer. I always had a way out. 'Trust me, I know what I'm doing'. It's always worked in the past...maybe not always the way it was supposed to, but it worked." Desperation appeared as he looked at her, and moisture began to leak from the corners of his eyes. "I...I don't know what to do anymore...I...I can't sit and wait, but I can't go out and get him either. Don't you see? I can't do anything...I...I can't figure out what I'm supposed to do next, and I just couldn't take it anymore." He took a couple of steps and folded again, almost diving into the couch with a strangled gasp as his injuries from his fight with Sylia angrily reminded him of their presence. With that betrayal, the last of his reserves crumbled, and he began to cry.

The last few traces of Priss's anger died away as she watched him. For a brief moment she hesitated, then threw off the indecision and walked over to him. He tried to sit up as she approached, swiping at his eyes with the back of a hand. She sank into the cushions next to him and gently hugged him; after a moment or so, he hugged her back, burying his face in her shoulder, clinging to her for some semblance of reassurance.

"I knew...I know it was wrong," his muffled voice came dully after a few minutes, "but I couldn't stop myself...I just couldn't. I had to do something, anything...but I didn't think Sylia would be there." His shoulders began to shake. "And now I've managed to screw that part of my life up as well."

Priss continued to hold him as he attempted to re-establish at least a portion of his emotional control, trying to think of something to say to him that could help alleviate the now-obvious mental anguish he was in. Unfortunately, she couldn't really think of anything; what had set him off was as much beyond her control as it was beyond his, and absolution for his actions - if any was to be had - wasn't hers to grant. All she could do was be there for him.


Sylia winced as she slowly sat down in her usual chair, setting her cup of coffee on the nearby table. Hardsuit or not, she'd definitely felt a couple of the blows SkyKnight had managed to land. It was one thing to know statistically what a piece of equipment could do, quite another to have to actually experience it firsthand.

Her lips tightened in remembered anger for a moment, then her expression smoothed out as she dismissed it; sitting and stewing about it wouldn't help her decide what she was supposed to do next, and she couldn't afford to be vindictive. With a sigh, she reached over and picked up her cup of coffee and took a mouthful of it.

And then had to fight to keep from inadvertently spitting it out as the hot coffee burned into where she'd accidentally bitten the inside of her mouth when SkyKnight had knocked her into the wall. Damn, but that hurt!! She sipped at her drink a little more carefully, nursing it in her hands as she stared absently across her living room, mulling over what to do next.

Obviously, some kind of disciplinary action was required, but she was at a loss as to just what to make it. Past punishments hadn't really worked all that well, and didn't really fit the current circumstances. Bert had enough money of his own now that docking his pay wasn't really effective, and cleaning the vehicle garages just didn't have the severity that seemed to be required. She couldn't just lock him up somewhere either - they didn't have a dungeon in the basement for one thing. A smile twitched briefly at her lips at that thought; that was carrying the medieval idea just a bit too far.

That left banning him outright from any access to the suits or the suit facilities, and that was already a foregone conclusion in her mind. She'd have to make sure he didn't have that damned beam saber this time locks weren't much good when someone could cut through the doors without blinking.

Sylia sat for a while, absently staring into space as she contemplated her options, tapping her fingers on the arm of her chair, and chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. A hesitant knock from the door to her apartment penetrated her reverie, drawing her back to the present. Wincing again, she stood and walked across her apartment. Evidently, he'd pulled himself together again. Sylia took a moment to compose herself and assume a cool expression before opening the door.

"Uh, hi, Sylia," Priss greeted her uncertainly as the door opened. "Mind if I come in?"

"Not at all," Sylia stepped back, allowing the younger woman entry. Priss stepped into the apartment and began pulling off her boots as Sylia closed the door. She followed Sylia back into the living room, and slowly sat on the couch, looking uncomfortable as Sylia sat back down in her own chair.

"I guess you were expecting Bert," she started hesitantly. "Well, uh...."

"He sent you up first to test the water?" Sylia asked, one eyebrow arching slightly. The thought briefly crossed her mind that he'd never done that before; he'd always owned up to his actions in the past and presented himself for judgment, albeit very reluctantly in most cases. Of course, nothing he'd done in the past had been quite this severe...

"No, he didn't," Priss shook her head irritably. "He's passed out on the couch right now from a dose of painkillers; I'm here on my own hook."

"I see," Sylia regarded Priss thoughtfully for a moment. "You'd like to know what I intend to do with him."

"Partly," Priss conceded. "I'm also here because..." She paused for a moment, fighting with herself in an attempt to find the right words. In some ways, she couldn't escape the feeling that she was betraying a confidence by coming to Sylia like this. At the same time, however, she felt that she had to at least let Sylia know what was happening to Bert. "I managed to get him talking," she told her sometimes-leader, and proceeded to give a brief outline of what she'd heard, taking a deep breath as she finished. "I think he's falling apart mentally, and I'm scared of what's going to happen when he does." Her gaze lifted to meet Sylia's. "I don't know if I can hold him together or not."

A very profound silence gripped the apartment in the wake of her statement.

"I see," Sylia said at length, taking a very deep breath herself as she tried to sort out her thoughts. Priss, under normal circumstances, would rather die than admit she was scared of anything, be it emotional or physical. She wasn't an alarmist; for her to become worried about something meant that there was indeed reason to worry.

"What do you suggest I do with him then?" Sylia finally asked quietly.

"I think he needs to get away from here for a while," Priss replied promptly, "and I mean really get away. No hardsuits, no boomers, no agents with guns, just peace and quiet somewhere away from the city. I think that's the only way he's going to be able to recover."

"You want me to order him to take a vacation?" Sylia asked, unable to keep a faint smile from suddenly twitching at her lips. It certainly hadn't been what she'd originally been considering, that was for sure.

"Exactly," Priss nodded. "I tried convincing him that he needed some time off before that goon with the boomer showed up in the club and jumped him, but he wouldn't buy it. Said something about 'having too much to do', and not wanting to leave you 'holding the bag'." Priss suddenly stood and started pacing agitatedly. "Damn it, Sylia, he was on the verge of a burnout before - I could see it coming - but he just wouldn't listen to me. After that shoot-out..." The young rock singer threw up her arms in exasperation. "It just got worse; I tried everything I could think of to try and get him to slow down..."

"And then Hollister's men grabbed Nene," Sylia finished her sentence for her.

"Right," Priss spat, angry sparks suddenly flaring in her eyes. "And you know what happened after that." The Knight Sabers' leader nodded wearily.

"I'd thought he was going to be manageable though," Sylia noted, running a hand through her hair in unconscious exasperation. "Up until today, he seemed to be reasonably in control of himself." She closed her eyes and massaged her temples with her fingertips, trying to ease the headache she could feel coming on.

"He needs to get away from things for a while," Priss repeated. "But he's going to have to be forced into it...he won't just come forward on his own and ask."

"If he wouldn't listen to you, what makes you think he'll listen to me?" Sylia asked tiredly.

"Because you're the boss," Priss replied. "He may not always do what you want, or in the way that you expect, but he will follow your orders. Maybe not without bitching and grumbling about it, but he'll do what you tell him to do....when he's not in the middle of some kind of emotional collapse, I mean."

"I admire your faith in my command ability," Sylia noted dryly. "And what if he refuses to take this 'vacation'?"

"Then I'll help you tie him up and throw him on the first available airplane to some other place," Priss told her with a grin. "I think if you make it clear that he doesn't have a choice in the matter, he'll cave in."



Sylia sighed as she folded the newspaper she'd been reading and set it down next to the plate holding several crumbs, all that was left of her lunch. Glancing at the clock, she decided it was time to go back down to the Silky Doll to give Sylvie a hand with the afternoon customers.

She didn't really need to help with the store anymore; Sylvie had more than proven she was able to run the store by now. However, since it was her store, she felt she should make an appearance once in a while, to at least try and give the appearance of being a responsible manager. A smile quirked at her lips for a moment at that thought; if some of her customers only knew what she was really responsible for managing.

Standing up, Sylia took her plate and coffee cup over to the kitchen sink, rinsed them off, and put them in the countertop drying rack. Drying her hands on a towel, she hung it neatly on a rack and walked out of her kitchen. As she walked through the living room towards the door to the apartment, she paused in front of a wall mirror and evaluated her appearance. Her hair still looked neat, and she hadn't accidentally spilled any food on her blouse. A touch or two of lipstick perhaps, and she'd be her usual immaculate, attractive self - the persona she cultivated for public consumption.

Another faint smile pulled at her lips as she regarded herself in the mirror. There was at least one other reason that she had found that she was using to help out in the store: it made her feel normal. She hadn't really realized it until Sylvie had taken over the bulk of the store duties, but tending the lingerie store made Sylia feel more like a normal woman.

She was able to forget - even if just for the briefest moment of time - that she was responsible for the lives of several people she counted as friends, and able to forget the burden that it placed on her shoulders. She was able to forget her quest to try and redeem her father's legacy .

And able to forget that she still had a certain problem to address, a six-foot-three red-haired one, part of her mind noted dryly.

Sylia sighed at the jibe from the sardonic voice of her conscience, reluctantly recognizing it as truth. The difficulty this time lay in the fact that she wasn't sure how to address this particular problem. They'd had something a bit more serious than a mere argument this time; how did you talk to someone whom you'd very nearly killed for insubordination?

Although she'd had some serious disagreements with Bert in the past, none of them had ever reached this scale of severity. She wasn't sure that their friendship was going to be enough to bridge the gap this time around, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to find that out. It was rather ironic actually; she was supposed to suspend emotions with respect to 'command decisions', but she just couldn't, not for this one.

Sylia's lips tightened in exasperation as she turned from the mirror; it would just have to wait until the store closed. She was honest enough to admit to herself that she was evading the issue for now, but that couldn't be helped. She just didn't .

The phone rang suddenly, startling her. Chiding her twitchy nerves for over-reacting, she walked over to the phone and picked up the receiver.

"It's me, Sylia," Fargo's voice stated before she could open her mouth. "You're not going to believe this, but your missing associate just turned up."

"What?!" Sylia's grip tightened on the phone receiver. "Is she . ?"

"She's alive," Fargo informed her, and Sylia felt a great wave of relief surge through her. She abruptly realized she was trembling, and groped for a nearby chair, sinking into it gratefully as Fargo continued to speak.

"It's the strangest conclusion to a kidnapping I think I've ever seen," Fargo was saying. "Somebody just dumped her in front of one of the small district hospitals in a parked car, then made an anonymous phone call to make sure she got picked up. They transferred her to MegaTokyo Central when they couldn't determine what was wrong with her, and..."

"What?!" Sylia interrupted sharply, icy talons of fear starting to dig into her soul again. "What do you mean they couldn't determine her condition?!"

"Relax, Sylia, she's awake now and apparently fine," Fargo said soothingly. "She was unconscious when she was found - my sources say she was in a state fairly close to hibernation - but she came out of it after they transferred her. They're doing some more checks and tests now to make sure they didn't miss anything. They may want to keep her overnight for observation, otherwise she'll probably be released early this evening."

"Thank you for the news," Sylia told him. "You've eased my mind greatly."

"That's what I get paid for," Fargo quipped. "I'll contact you again if I find anything else out." The line went dead, and Sylia set the receiver handset over. She abruptly realized that her cheeks felt wet, and that tears of overjoyed relief had started trickling from her eyes.

Annoyed at her traitorous eyes, she grabbed a tissue from a nearby box and blotted at them, blowing her nose for good measure. A faint voice in the back of her mind distractedly noting that she was going to have to patch up her makeup before going back downstairs. As she slowly regained her self-control, the phone shrilled loudly once again. Sighing, Sylia picked up the receiver again.

"Hello?" she inquired, glad that her voice seemed to be steady.

"Um, hi, Sylia!" a very familiar voice greeted her. "Uh, have you got a minute?"

"Nene!!" An immense feeling of relief washed through her at hearing Nene's voice, and she again had to fight to maintain her composure. "Are you all right? Where are you? Have they released you from the hospital yet?"

"I'm fine, Sylia," Nene replied. "I'm still at the hospital right now. Uh, I can't talk long because they'll be coming back in a minute."

"Who'll be."

"The doctors," Nene quickly interjected, her words starting to tumble together in her haste. "They're making sure I'm okay. oh yeah, and there's a couple of ADP officers too, just to make sure nobody tries anything, but they think I'm in the washroom; I'm using a hall telephone for a minute to give you a quick call to let you know I'm fine."

"Do you know how you got to the hospital?" Sylia asked. "What happened to..."

"I'll try and explain later," Nene broke in, nervous agitation in her voice, "but there's, uh, something I need to tell you right now before they come back..."


Bert lurched from the depths of his bedroom, reaching out a hand to steady himself against the wall, his other hand trying to scrub heavy sleep from bloodshot and red- rimmed eyes. His every move was stiff and pained-looking, yet he continued to grimly press onwards.

An empty apartment met his bleary gaze as he slowly made his way across his tiny kitchen area towards the washroom. Everything that he expected to see was there, but there was a . a somehow hollow feeling. It was as if the apartment was devoid even of warmth.

Not really being in any shape to analyze that little anomaly, the tall red-head stepped into the bathroom and ran the sink full of cold water. Soaking a washcloth in the icy water, he slapped it over his forehead and eyes like a cold compress and waited.

After a few minutes, the chill from the damp cloth slowly brought a little more clarity to his thought processes. Sighing in relief, he lowered the washcloth and glanced at his reflection in the mirror over the sink.

A grinning skeleton leered back at him, a washcloth of its own clutched in bony fingers. Red lights glimmered in the backs of its eye sockets.

A crashing impact on the back of his head sent white lights flaring through his sight and pain shooting through his skull. When his sight cleared, he realized he was gasping for breath, flat on his back in the bathtub, with his feet in the air and a large lump rising on the back of his head. It took a moment or two for him to realize that in jumping back from the mirror, he'd hit the edge of the tub and fallen in, smacking his head on the side.

After some pained floundering, he crawled out of the tub, and very slowly eased himself to where he could look in the mirror again. His reflection this time was of an extremely pale red-haired individual with greenish brown eyes. That didn't dispel the chill eating into him though, especially when he thought he saw the reflection begin to flicker and shift.

He left the washroom quickly, trying to control the sudden hammering that was going on inside his ribcage. He wasn't normally given to hallucinations, so what the hell had that been?

"You're dead, you idiot," a somehow familiar voice rasped out loud, apparently in response to his thought. "Hasn't that sunk in yet?"

Bert spun around, his face going several shades whiter than it had been, but there was nobody behind him; the entire apartment was deserted except for him.

"Stubborn, aren't you?" the voice observed, it's deep, grating tones sending chills down his spine "Allow me to open your eyes for you."

"What the hell is going ON here?!" Bert started to demand out loud, when the air itself seemed to explode in flames. He was unable to keep from screaming as the burst of fire reached hungrily for him. Throwing his arms across his face in a futile attempt to keep from being burned, he gritted his teeth and braced himself for the agony he was sure was about to engulf him. Nothing happened, and after a moment he cautiously lowered his arms, looking around.

The first thing he noticed was that he was suddenly, somehow wearing his hardsuit. The second thing he noticed was that he was standing on a barren, scorched plateau of some kind overlooking a landscape wreathed in a choking haze of smoke. Fires flickered fitfully in several spots as his stunned gaze swept the horizon, flaring up occasionally in sudden gouts of towering flame. He thought dimly that he could hear screaming coming from somewhere off in the distance.

"Welcome, oh noble knight," the voice boomed again mockingly, absolutely dripping with sarcasm. "I've been waiting for you for some time now." Trying to swallow against a suddenly dry throat, Bert very slowly turned around.

The first thing he saw was a massive stone archway, one he was sure hadn't been there a moment ago. As he looked at it, a line of flame raced up the inside of the archway, wreathing the entire inner circumference of the archway in red fire; inky blackness swirled malevolently in the space limned by the flames. As he stared at the... the phenomenon, flickering red letters seemed to glow along the top of the stony archway.


SkyKnight closed his eyes, telling himself repeatedly that he was imagining things, that this couldn't be happening. Any minute now he was going to wake up and...

"You wish you could wake up," the voice derided him. "Welcome to the Hell of your own creation." SkyKnight opened his eyes and glared at the source of the voice.

There was now a desk positioned next to the stone arch, much like a receptionist's desk in an office building. A massive leather-bound book lay open on the desk, and next to the book sat an old-fashioned inkwell with a quill pen. Illegible scrawling covered most of the exposed pages.

Behind the desk a massive chair was positioned, and a very large and very familiar figure was reclining in the chair with its feet propped up on the edge of the desk. The light from the fiery arch glinted off of metallic green armour plating, and brightly-glowing yellow eyes gazed back at him as he stared incredulously.

"Okay, hold it just a second," Bert held up a gauntleted hand, part of him quietly pleased at the steadiness of his voice. "Assuming for a minute I accept the assertion that I'm dead, and even assuming for the moment that I accept that I'm likely going to Hell for some of the things I've done, there is no goddamn way on this earth I'm willing to accept for even an instant that you're the gate attendant."

"And why not?" the HeadHunter rumbled, chuckling darkly. "Even boomers have hobbies you know. Sitting around listening to the wailing of the damned makes for a very boring existence; greeting the poor bastards upon arrival is much more satisfying. And you'd be amazed at how many people aren't supposed to be here." The boomer threw back its insectoid head and laughed nastily. SkyKnight remembered that laugh, and tried ruthlessly squashing the fear it produced.

"I'm not going to stand here and debate the nature of reality with you," the silver armoured Knight Saber declared flatly, slashing a hand through the air. "You're dead; I'm not. Get the hell out of my subconscious and stay out. I have enough problems without needing former enemies bugging me in my dreams."

"Aaaah, how wonderful: denial," the green biomechanoid hissed, sounding pleased as it pulled its feet off of the desk and tilted upright in its chair. "I do so love shattering illusions," it observed as it stood up, towering over him. "They make such lovely sounds when they crumble." Before SkyKnight could move, the massive boomer blurred across the intervening few feet between them, seizing the front of his armour in its talons and hauling him bodily off his feet.

"You're dead," the boomer repeated flatly, its baleful visage only inches from his helmet visor as he thrashed in its grip. "You pushed your magnificent leader too far, and she not only gutted you like some prize game pheasant, she beheaded you for good measure. You're dead. Capital D, capital E, capital A, capital D. Dead. Deceased."


"'E's passed on! This Knight is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! 'E's pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! 'E's bleedin' demised! You," the HeadHunter paused for dramatic effect, obviously savouring its words, "are an ex-Knight Saber!"

"SHUT UP!!! JUST SHUT UP!!!" SkyKnight screamed, fury igniting as he tried to quench the sudden surge of fear rocketing through him at the boomer's insistence. Whipping up his arms, he fired all of his particle lasers into the HeadHunter's face at point-blank range, at the same time bracing his feet against the boomer's chest and shoving with all the hardsuit-assisted strength he could muster. He crashed into the ground a moment later, flat on his back, and quickly rolled to his feet in a combat-ready crouch.

"Still think I'm lying?" the green biomechanoid chuckled again, smoke curling in lazy spirals from its unharmed head carapace as it folded massive, bladed arms across its chest. "And why should I be? I have nothing to gain by it."

"You always lied," SkyKnight rasped, his gauntleted hands clenching and unclenching.

"I'm not lying now," the boomer shrugged. "You forgot something in your quest to avenge yourself on Mr. Hollister, something critical that resulted in your unfortunate demise when you assaulted your fearless leader. How did that quote go?" the HeadHunter seemed to pause in thought for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. "Ah yes, Nietzsche, that was the one." The boomer plucked a book out of mid-air and began leafing through it as SkyKnight stared disbelievingly.

"'He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.'" There was no mistaking the malicious pleasure the boomer was taking in reading the quote; its voice was oily with amusement. "'When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.'" The boomer snapped the book closed with a loud bang, and it vanished in a puff of sulfurous smoke. "To phrase it another way, you became so fixated on killing Hollister that you became just as ruthless and callous as he is, alienating everyone who cared about you along the way. I didn't think you had it in you, to be perfectly honest, but it seems I was wrong. Congratulations."

"NOOOO!!!!!" SkyKnight whirled away from the laughing biomechanoid, and before the green boomer could stop him, threw himself over the edge of the plateau....


... And crashed with bruising force into the floorboards of his bedroom, tangled in sweat-soaked blankets.

For a long time, Bert just lay there in the sodden heap of blankets, shivering with far more than merely physical chill. He was sure he was alive - the way his heart was rattling against his ribcage was proof of that - and was equally sure that he'd just had a very vivid nightmare, but doubts still lingered at the edges of his mind. He tried several times to banish the images from the dream, to no avail. Somewhere inside of him a part of him was still screaming over what he'd seen and heard.

He could feel every single bruise he'd accumulated in his fight with Sylia throbbing angrily, further compounding his misery. Every attempt to move sparked a new complaint from somewhere on his battered frame, and for a moment he considered giving completely and just staying put on the floor. A few remaining shreds of self-respect and dignity made him persevere however, and he managed to crawl to his feet by using the nearby bed for leverage.

Wincing at every step, he limped to the bathroom, very carefully avoiding looking in the mirror...just in case. After relieving the raging thirst that had been tormenting him with a glass of deliciously cold water, he ran the bathtub full of hot soapy water, undressed, and slid carefully into the tub.

He just sat and soaked for a while, letting the hot water ease his physical discomfort while he tried to either forget or figure out a remedy for his mental discomfort. Forgetting about it was out of the question - it was like the nightmare had been permanently seared into his memory - so he tried to figure out what he was supposed to do next.

Heading that list would have to be an apology to Sylia, although he doubted an apology would ever fully undo the damage he'd done. Complicating that, however, was that he didn't think he'd be able to look her in the eye right now; remorse and guilt were still playing merry hell with his emotional state.

Even if he managed to somehow vocalize an adequate apology to her, he didn't have the faintest idea what was going to follow that. The thought that she might turf him out of the Knight Sabers completely was even more frightening than that nightmare had been; he knew too much to be allowed to just walk out the door, especially given some of the people trying to find him. He found himself wondering if Sylia really would kill him if it came down to it, and quickly shied away from that line of inquiry as a bone-deep chill surged through him. The sort of feeling one was said to have when somebody stepped on their grave...

With a sudden start, he realized that the bath water had gotten almost cool. Sighing, he grabbed a bar of soap and a washcloth and quickly scrubbed himself clean; he must've dozed off for a few minutes for the water to get that cool.

It took him a few minutes of careful maneuvering to lever himself out of the bathtub. Although he felt much improved in terms of mobility as a result of the hot bath, movement was still troublesome. He finally made it, then toweled himself dry. Wrapping a towel around his midsection, he padded back to the bedroom and changed into some clean clothing.

Several minutes and two mugs of fresh hot tea later, and he felt somewhat more human again. He sipped at his third mugful of tea while sprawled on the couch as he stared at the bookshelf across the room from him, his feet propped on the coffee table. The angry pains that had been pounding at him had finally receded to a gnawing ache, still there but for the most part now able to be ignored. That in turn freed him to decide on a course of action.

After several minutes of trying to come to some kind - hell, any kind - of decision about anything, he gave up. Setting his empty mug aside, he pulled his feet off the table and stood up. Walking over to the apartment entrance, he rummaged around in the closet for a moment, and came up with his usual coat and hat. Shrugging into the coat, he jammed his hat on his head and left the apartment, closing the door behind him.


"Damn it, WHY can't we talk to her yet?!" Leon demanded in exasperation, slamming his hands down on Aramaki's desk. "I thought you just said she was fine?!"

"She is," Aramaki replied patiently, stroking his goatee with one hand, "but the doctors are still giving her the once-over just to make sure that she didn't suffer any ill effects from...from whatever it was that she was given. You're just going to have to be patient, Inspector."

"Damn it!" Leon swore again, flopping angrily in a nearby chair.

"We should maybe wait a while before debriefing Nene anyway," Daley pointed out from over by the bookshelf; he knew better than to get in Leon's way when he was upset about something. "She has just been through a pretty rough ordeal, after all."

"I know that," Leon growled. "It's just... it's just not fair!" he burst out, standing up and pacing Aramaki's office again, running a hand through already rumpled brown hair.

"What isn't?" Aramaki inquired dryly. "The fact that you can't pump Nene for information right now, or the fact that I wouldn't let you try and use the affair to investigate her former boyfriend?"

"Both," Leon snapped sourly. "She might be able to tell us where they took her; if we can figure that out..."

"They drugged her in kidnapping her, Inspector," Aramaki reminded him. "It's a bit difficult to know where you were taken when you were unconscious during the trip, wouldn't you say?" Leon stopped pacing and stared at him for a moment, his mouth working as he tried to frame a reply. With something between a disgusted snort and a sigh, he gave up, spinning on his heel and stalking out of the office.

"Keep him away from the hospital, Daley," Aramaki directed. "I don't want him badgering the nurses or flashing his badge to try and get in there before the doctors say it's okay."

"Can I throw him in a cell then?" Daley asked wryly. "That's probably going to be the easiest way to deal with him right now." With a sigh of his own, he went out the office door in search of his cohort. Aramaki shook his head ruefully, then leaned back in his chair and gazed contemplatively at the ceiling, rubbing his chin absently.

Nene's reappearance had been unexpected to say the least; as the result of an anonymous phone call, she'd been found in a car parked in front of one of Tokyo's outlying hospitals, apparently comatose. She'd been rushed inside to the emergency ward for a determination of her condition, but the medics there had been stumped by her condition. While she had appeared to be merely unconscious, her vital signs had been almost undetectable.

She'd been whisked to one of the more advanced medical centers for a more thorough examination and analysis of her condition. That in turn had led to the discovery that there was some kind of chemical compound in her bloodstream that had, for lack of a better description, placed her into a state resembling hibernation.

Not having any idea of how to counter it, they'd decided to wait and see what happened while constantly monitoring her condition. An hour or two after that, and the young red-head had awoken a bit dazed and confused at where she found herself, but otherwise unharmed. Since then the doctors had been making sure that they hadn't mis-diagnosed or otherwise missed anything.

Aramaki knew that quizzing Nene as soon as possible about the details of her kidnapping was one of the top priorities that he should be pursuing, but he just couldn't seem to summon the steely resolve necessary for that. She'd just been through an almost unimaginable ordeal, and he wanted to give her at least a brief chance to get her mental feet under her before he started trying to force her to relive what had happened.

There was something about the kidnapping and Nene's 'rescue' that was still nagging at the back of his mind though. He couldn't pinpoint the inconsistency...not yet anyway, but it was rather peculiar that no demands had ever been made by her captors.

The circumstances of her return were rather peculiar as well; the doctors hadn't been able to identify the compound she'd been drugged with, for one thing. And while they could have just dumped the red-haired ADP officer somewhere to be found, tying her up and gagging her to prevent her yelling for help, or even just killed her, the fact that she'd been in a nearly-undetectable drug-induced coma suggested that somebody had engaged in some kind of subterfuge. Very interesting, indeed.

Aramaki reached out and picked up the phone, quickly dialing in a number as he put the receiver to his ear. He tapped a finger impatiently on the desktop as he waited for an answer to the call. After several rings, during which he fumed impatiently, somebody answered.

"I've got something else I need checked out," he said without preamble. "Are you up to another outing?"


Bert watched idly, leaning against the wall as the last few stragglers began wandering out the door, having stored their archery equipment away again. He hadn't been able to participate in any kind of target shooting himself - several bruised muscles had complained immediately - but acting as range master for the afternoon had provided enough of a distraction to keep his mind occupied.

The last of the archery enthusiasts had left, so he quickly checked the doors at the far end to ensure that they were locked, and then strode back to the main doors and turned off the lights. He paused for a moment, listening, but didn't hear anything beyond the faint background hum of the air conditioning.

He made his way up to the second floor, inwardly cursing some of the aches that decided to start up again at the climb up the stairs. He made a mental note to stop by a drugstore later and get a tube of liniment or something as he stopped at the head of the stairs and glanced around. Anything that would speed up or at least de-agonize the healing process would be very welcome.

He spent the next few minutes checking the video game room, change rooms, and exercise rooms to reassure himself that there wasn't anyone still working out or engrossed in conquering digital foes. The entire facility proved to be empty, and he started walking down the corridor towards the library, turning off the lights as he went, reflecting that he should probably consider hiring some help to run the place. Given the irregular schedule that the place had been under lately, the 'closed due to illness' excuse was beginning to wear thin.

His reverie was broken by the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs to the second floor, and he belatedly remembered he'd forgotten to lock the front doors to the facility. Swearing silently, he sighed and turned around, heading for the stairwell to intercept the late arrival.

"I'm sorry, but we're closed for the evening." he told the man-shaped figure as it appeared in the shadows of the stairwell. "You'll have to come back tomorrow."

"It's fairly urgent that I talk to you now; I doubt highly that I'll have the opportunity tomorrow," a voice replied. Bert frowned, slowing as he approached; there'd been something vaguely familiar about that voice, some faint, nagging recollection that refused to coalesce for him. Then the figure stepped out of the stairwell, and recognition slammed into him with the force of a physical blow.

"YOU!!" It took Bert a moment to recognize the voice as his own; he hadn't thought he could snarl like that. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't bodily throw you out of here, and I don't mean necessarily using the front door."

"You remember me, evidently," the gaunt, old man replied wryly. He was fairly tall and lanky, with iron-grey hair in a shaggy mop, an angular beak of a nose, and pale blue eyes. Although he wasn't wearing a lab coat - opting instead for a non-descript brown jacket over his clothes - Bert remembered him quite well: Hollister's chief scientist, the one who'd been preparing to 'modify' his friends.

"Oh yes, I remember," Bert replied coldly, unconsciously flexing his hands. "The only thing keeping me from going and getting a gun right now is that you probably know where Hollister is, and I'd much rather throttle that information out of you first."

"Believe it or not, I would be willing to tell you without, ah, that kind of 'persuasion'," Doc put in quickly, swallowing and taking an inadvertent step back. He hadn't been expecting a warm welcome, but he also hadn't expected to be met with quite such open hostility. He felt like the air was heating up just from being in proximity to the man in front of him. "I'm afraid that by the time you got there though, he'd be gone. The only reason I was able to get here without my absence being immediately noticed is because they're packing up to move locations again. And no, I don't know where that would be."

"Why are you here?" Bert asked flatly. "I've literally gone through hell over the last few months thanks to him, so if you're expecting anything other than a fast trip to the hospital, make your point. My patience is extremely short these days."

"I was.... sent here by an acquaintance of yours," the old man said quietly. "She was of the opinion that you ....URGHK!!" The old man was suddenly in a crushing grip against the wall, nearly lifted off his feet as the red-head suddenly blurred across the intervening feet between them and grabbed him by the front of his shirt.

"Where. Is. She?" the very precisely worded sentence gave the impression of steel being drawn, and the green- brown-eyed gaze boring into him was colder than dry ice. "You've got one hell of a lot of nerve if you think you can use Nene to get me to do anything on your behalf," he spat. "You're going to tell me where she's being held, or I'm going to start forgetting that I'm not supposed to pick on senior citizens."

"Hollister doesn't have her anymore!" the old man wheezed, trying to ease the two-fisted grip on him that was starting to strangle him. "I helped her to escape, and with any luck she's at the hospital under police protection by now. Damn it, I'm telling the truth!!" After a moment, the grip on him was released . slightly.

"Talk," he was directed grimly. "And you'd better be very convincing."

"Hollister was going to interrogate her about some ADP thing," the old scientist started speaking very rapidly, "and he..."

"You're saying that he didn't grab her because of her involvement with me?"

"That was icing on the cake as far as he was concerned," Doc replied, wishing he could escape the feeling that his life was hanging by a very thin thread and beginning to wonder if he'd made the right decision after all. "He was primarily interested in finding out how much the ADP knew; your girlfriend had been trying to hack his network security from the ADP headquarters, and she got partway in. He wanted to know how far 'partway' was."

"You said something about helping her to escape," Bert noted. "Where is she now?"

"I told you," the old man said. "She's in the hospital; I made sure she was dropped in front of one, and then I made an anonymous phone call to make sure she'd get picked up."

"And what did you do to her that required taking her to a hospital?" Green-brown eyes glittered like agates, and Doc tried not to cringe as the clenched grip on his shirtfront tightened.

"I switched the truth serum Hollister was going to use on her with another drug," he said hastily, swallowing nervously. "It basically put her into a state of hibernation, but to anyone watching it looked like an allergic reaction to the truth serum had sent her into a coma. She should have come out of it by now, though; you could always phone the hospital and check."

"How'd you get her out of his base then?"

"I, uh, convinced the medical technicians guarding her that it was better to let me take her to a hospital; Hollister had ordered them to revive her no matter what the effect might be on her."

"You 'convinced' them?"

"All right, I gassed them," Doc said shortly. "Then I was able to sneak her out of his base and get her to a hospital for proper treatment."

"How fortunate for you," the red-haired Knight Saber rumbled ominously. After a moment, the grip holding Doc against the wall was released, and the old man gratefully drew an unobstructed breath as Bert stepped back a pace. "All right, you helped Nene get away. That still doesn't explain why you came to me. If you're expecting some kind of spontaneous display of gratitude, you're in for a shock."

"I helped Nene because I'm sick of working for Hollister," Doc replied, gingerly feeling his neck. "He's already ruined my life; I didn't feel like standing by while he ruined somebody else's."

"It's a little late to be having an attack of conscience, isn't it?" Bert demanded. "You've already ruined the life of whomever you stuck in that monstrosity of a war machine you created. And I seem to recall a certain someone preparing to virtually enslave a couple of friends of mine, without any apparent second thoughts."

"We all make mistakes," Doc snapped, reddening slightly. "Mine was in letting Hollister get his claws into me five years ago. Not all of us have the gift of foresight to be able to predict the consequences of our actions and lead perfect lives, you know!"

"You still didn't answer why you're here." Doc sensed he'd hit some kind of nerve with that last comment, but didn't dwell on it.

"Do I look like a field operative to you?" Doc replied shortly, looking weary. "I need help in order to get away from him; I was told to go to you and to say that I trusted you because you'd know what you were doing."

There was a stifling silence for a couple of minutes after he'd spoken. Bert studied the old man intently, his mind working furiously as he tried to discern whether or not he'd been told the truth. He had no reason to trust the old scientist's intentions, but that remark he'd made about trusting him was an in-joke that only his friends in the Knight Sabers would know about, and not the sort of thing that would usually come out in an interrogation.

"All right, were you followed in getting here?" Bert asked grudgingly. It was a struggle to smack down the towering resentment and suspicion he still harboured towards the old man, but he managed to get it under a modicum of control finally.

"I don't think so," Doc replied hesitantly, "but I can't be sure. Like I said, I'm not a field operative; I probably made every mistake in the book in trying to get here without being tailed."

"It's safer to assume you were, then. Wait here." The tall red-head was a sudden blur of motion as he raced down the stairs. After a couple of minutes of nerve-wracking silent waiting, the old man heard his reluctant ally pounding up the stairs again.

"I didn't see anyone, but that doesn't mean anything," Bert told him. "I've got to make a phone call; I would suggest you stay put while I do that." He turned and rapidly strode down the hallway, towards the small library at the far end of the facility. The door closed behind him, and light spilled out from under it a moment later.

Doc sighed shakily and mopped the sweat from his face with a sleeve, leaning against the wall and sliding down it to sit on the floor. He couldn't seem to stop his hands from shaking, and there was an uncomfortably tight feeling in his stomach, like he was about to throw up. He was scared, he candidly admitted to himself as he sat there. Scared primarily of Hollister and what he'd likely do to him, but also a little scared of his supposed benefactor. For a minute there he'd been sure he was about to get his neck snapped like a twig; Nene hadn't mentioned the fact that her former boyfriend seemed to be borderline homicidal.

The old scientist could hear the faint murmur of a low- voiced conversation taking place in the room at the end of the hallway, but he didn't want to know the details. He just wanted to get somewhere safe, somewhere that he wouldn't have to worry if the last thing he'd hear was a gunshot. He sighed and rubbed at his face, closing his eyes. He was just so damned tired...

The light coming from the end of the hallway snuffed out after a few more minutes, and the door opened. Bert emerged from the room while pulling on a long black coat, a wide-brimmed hat perched on his head. Doc thought he caught a glint of something metallic as the redhead pulled on his coat, but with the shadows in the hallway it was hard to be sure.

"All right, we're leaving," the old man was told as a hand was extended down towards him. "We've got a bit of a trip to make." Doc accepted the proffered hand, and was easily hoisted to his feet by the younger man.

"Where are we going?" Doc asked, noting that his new associate still seemed to be ticked off about something. "Or is that something I'm better off not knowing?"

"We're going to a rendezvous point," Bert shrugged, reaching up and adjusting his hat. "You now know as much as I do. Follow me." The two men made their way down to the first floor of the building, but Bert grabbed the old man's arm as he started for the side entrance.

"Not that way," he said flatly, shaking his head. "They'll be watching that one, if they're there. There's a back entrance this way," he waved at the rear of the building. "It's closer to the parking garage anyway."

"Parking garage?"

"You didn't think I'm stupid enough to risk walking, did you?" Bert raised an eyebrow. "Besides, it's too far to try it and expect to get there tonight. If we're not there at exactly the precise time, then we're out of luck."

"But I didn't see any exits back here," Doc complained as he followed Bert into the very dark recess behind the stairs. He could barely see his hand in front of his face. "And I can't see a damn thing in this murk either; how about turning on the lights?"

"There aren't any," Bert replied, shrugging. "The best way to hide something is sometimes out in the open. Because it's dark back here most people don't even think to look for an exit under the stairwell, and the back door is pretty well concealed from observation by all the surrounding buildings. I don't use it very often."

"Aren't you supposed to have all exits clearly marked for safety reasons?" Doc asked, stumbling and feeling his way along the wall. "Don't they check for that during building inspections?"

"Funnily enough, there's been a working sign and light every time there's a fire inspection," Bert replied. "Amazing, isn't it?"

"Well then where is this glorified exit of yours?" Doc said testily. "I'm getting tired of being in the dark, both figuratively and literally."

"Right here." There was a loud clacking noise, and pale light suddenly outlined the shape of a thick metal fire door as it swung open a crack. "It looks clear," Bert reported, taking a careful peek down the alley. "Stay close to me; the door we want to get to now is about thirty feet up the alley."

"As long as you don't run, I can keep up," he was assured. "My joints aren't that limber anymore."

Bert eased himself into the alleyway, keeping his back pressed to the wall as he glanced in both directions. Nothing immediately threatening met his sight, and he gestured towards the old scientist, who was still lurking uncertainly behind the half-open fire door. As the old man stepped into the alleyway, Bert kept switching his intent gaze from one end of the alley to the other.

The bustling evening crowds continued to stream uncaringly along the sidewalks beyond the alley, blissfully unaware of the dramatic events unfolding mere metres away from them. Bert pointed wordlessly to a blank metal door further up the alleyway, set into the building directly across from the one they'd just exited, and Doc nodded in understanding.

The two men hurried towards the door, Bert still casting grim glances down each end of the narrow passage. With around ten feet to go, a black car with darkly tinted windows pulled across the north end of the alley and stopped. The doors started to open, and Bert caught a glimpse of men in dark clothing with guns in their hands.

"Shit!!" he swore under his breath, then said aloud, "We've got company. Use this to open the door; just fit the end over the keyhole and pull the trigger." He slapped a small, almost pistol-shaped device into Doc's hand, and started to lengthen his stride, stepping in front of the old man.

"A lockpick?!" he heard as he focused his concentration on the figures at the end of the alley.

"Naturally," he replied over his shoulder. "Parking garages don't normally hand out keys to the fire exits. Just do it and get inside the door; don't worry about any alarms."


"We've got the targets in sight," one dark-clad man spoke into the microphone of a transmitter headset. Next to him, four other men in black clothing readied weapons. "They're trying to duck into some other building."

"Then I'd suggest you get off your asses and get them," Hollister's icy tones replied. "I want them both alive."

"He's got a gun!" one of the other men spoke up. "Can't tell what it is though."

"Shoot to cripple," the headset-wearer directed. "Mr. Hollister said to take them ali..."

Something akin to a cannon shot thundered in the evening air, and the side window of the car exploded into glittering shards of glass, laced with flames. Men shrieked and swore as they were sliced by flying splinters, their cries drowned out by two more thundering concussions.

A second window disappeared in a fiery hail of glass shards, and one of the men inside the car screamed in agony as something heavy tore through the car door and into him. The shot blasted through the metal of the car as if it had been made of tinfoil, and there was suddenly blood everywhere.

"Help! I'm bleeding! Oh God, I'm hit bad."

"Goddamn it!!" an unidentified voice shrilled. "I thought you said this bloody car was armoured?!"

"It IS armoured, you asshole!!!" the headset wearer snarled back, trying to wipe blood from his eyes without getting glass fragments into them. "The sonofabitch is using some kind of HV ammunition!!" The car rocked under two more impacts, the tortured squeal of rending metal and shattering plastic nearly drowned out by the roaring blast of noise coming from the alley facing them.

They heard a door slam heavily, and sudden silence fell on the area. Sirens shrilled in the distance, and an alarm could be heard coming from one of the nearby buildings. The alleyway was deserted, and even the street at the other end seemed to have become deserted.

Inside the car was not quite so calm or peaceful; the hoarse sobbing of the wounded man the main noise as two of his comrades tried to apply rudimentary first aid. The rest tried to clean the shattered glass off of their clothes and skin without gaining more lacerations in the process.

The sound of liquid trickling cheerily onto the pavement beneath the car was the only other sound, and the man with the headset abruptly realized where the last two shots had gone: the car's engine. He swore bitterly.

"Don't tell me; let me guess," Hollister's voice remarked acidly over the radio. "They got away, right?"


Bert grinned savagely to himself as he ducked through the door into that Doc had opened, thumbing the safety catch on the handgun he was carrying. He'd pretty much guaranteed that they wouldn't be following him, not with their engine holed in two places and gushing oil and coolant fluids onto the asphalt.

The clanging racket of a fire alarm bell greeted him as he entered the stairwell and pulled the door closed behind him. The old scientist stood there staring at him, wide-eyed.

"What the hell was that?!" Doc yelled over the noise of the alarm. "Artillery fire?!"

"Not quite," Bert yelled back, stuffing the heavy pistol back into his shoulder holster. "We'd better get up the stairs; inside of ten minutes this area's going to be crawling with cops." He sprinted up the stairs, leading the way as Doc laboured behind him, wheezing and gasping. At the first landing, Bert paused and checked what looked like a digital watch on his left wrist. He pressed a couple of buttons on the side of the watch, then nodded in satisfaction.

"I.. really ..hope we don't.have . many more stairs to climb," Doc gasped as he hauled himself up to the first landing, his face covered in perspiration. Bert glanced at him and shook his head, pointing to the door to the second level. Doc nodded, still gulping for air, and followed him through the door.

Mercifully, the noise from the fire alarm lessened as the door closed behind them. The two men carefully moved out into the main floor space, looking around warily. They were alone for the moment, and Bert beckoned to the older man again, heading for the far corner of the garage.

As they got closer to the vehicle alcove, the quiet throb of a powerful-sounding engine greeted them. Doc started to stop in sudden dread, but his arm was impatiently seized in a vise-like grip as he was dragged along towards the sound.

The rumbling was coming from a pickup truck parked there, an older model of vehicle not manufactured any more. Doc squinted at the truck as they hurried closer, but couldn't make out much in the way of details. Faint reflections in the darkness showed red paint, and he could see roof-mounted lights of some kind, but that was it. As Bert stepped up to the vehicle, something gave a loud click.

"Hop in," he invited, gesturing to the passenger side as he opened the driver-side door. "The door's unlocked." Doc walked around to the passenger side and pulled open the door.

"Come on, come on, it won't bite," Bert fumed impatiently as the old man started to ease himself into the passenger seat. "Hurry up or we're going to get caught in the police blockade."

"I'm moving as fast as I can," Doc snapped peevishly, slamming the door shut. "When you get to be my age, the joints don't work as well as they used to, you know."

"Seatbelt," came the laconic reply. "We're likely going to need them." Doc hunted around for the seatbelt as Bert reached out and tabbed a couple of buttons from a row of them built into the dashboard. A flash of green light distracted the aged scientist from his search, and he looked up in time to see the front windshield start glowing faintly. The garage beyond suddenly seemed to become illuminated, and a bright red box-like targeting reticule faded into existence on the center of the windshield-cum-viewscreen.

"You've got a sensor suite built into your truck?"

"I've got a few things built into this truck," came the calm reply as the truck started to move, its engine purring quietly. "I'd highly suggest you get your seatbelt done up," Bert added, just as tires squealed and the truck leaped towards the ramp leading to the ground-level exit. Doc felt the acceleration shove him back into his seat, and he hastily resumed the search for the seatbelt.

The old man's stomach lurched uneasily when he realized that the seatbelt wasn't the typical shoulder and lap belt used in conventional cars, but the five-point harness normally used only in race cars. The vehicle seats were bucket seats, heavily padded, which was also unusual for the make and model of vehicle they were in. Trying to control the sudden sense of dread coursing through him, Doc quickly buckled the harness around himself, wincing as the truck whipped around a massive concrete support pillar, turning with bare inches to spare.

The truck screeched to a halt in front of the exit doorway, the engine growling impatiently as it waited for the metal panel to retract, clattering noisily along its metal tracks. Doc glanced tentatively at the man behind the wheel, noting his expression: it was the look of implacable determination. Granite would have been more yielding in appearance.

"Don't worry," Bert tried assuring him. "I can outrun ADP pursuit cars in this baby; once we get on the road, Hollister's goons aren't going to catch up."

"That's not what I was worried about," Doc muttered worriedly, primarily to himself as the truck rolled out onto the street. The truck eased into the traffic without a problem, and moved easily along with the flow of vehicles.

They had almost started to breathe easier when they heard tires scream behind them; Bert looked up into the rear-view mirror in time to see one of the side streets disgorge two black cars, identical to the first one that had been carrying Hollister's men near the archery range. The lead car smashed into an unsuspecting motorist and rammed him off of the street, where he crashed into a concrete lamp-post. The two black cars sped after the pickup truck, apparently intent on ramming other motorists out of their way in their pursuit.

"Aw, hell," Doc heard Bert say, just before he was slammed deep into his seat cushions by the sudden surge forward of their vehicle. "So much for a quiet getaway."


"Damn it, why can't the Tokyo Highway Patrol deal with a couple of crazed motorists by themselves?!" Leon griped, glowering resentfully at the dashboard in front of him, his arms crossed over his chest. "We have got better things to do with our time!"

"Somebody started shooting, Leon," Daley reminded him patiently, as he steered their speeding squad car around the other motorists, siren howling urgently. "From the preliminary reports, somebody's packing anti-boomer ordnance, and that's a bit out of their league."

"Then have them call out their own bloody tactical squad," Leon shot back. "That's what they get paid for, after all. It's not our mandate to.."

Leon's sentence was never completed. As the ADP squad car started to enter an intersection near the reported incident, there was a flash of something red, and the cruiser was rocked by a thundering, crashing impact. The cruiser was spun around like a top from the collision, narrowly missing two other speeding blurs as they shot past. Tires squealed on the pavement, and Leon saw stars briefly as something solid belted him in the head.

When the world settled down, Leon shoved the deflating air bag out of his face and looked down the street in the direction that the demolition derby had gone. Spinning in the middle of the street fifty feet away was the mangled front bumper of their cruiser, torn off in the initial collision. The racing vehicles responsible were already out of sight.

"You were saying?" Daley inquired, gingerly feeling his jaw, as if making sure it was still attached.

"Forget what I said," Leon said grimly. "Is this thing still running?"


"My God," Doc glanced backwards through the rear window, watching as wreckage from the ADP cruiser they'd just hit flew through the air. "How much did you rebuild this thing?!" Behind them, the black cars kept pace, passing the wrecked police car and throwing themselves after them.

"I reinforced the frame a bit," Bert admitted, wrenching hard on the wheel to send them careening around a corner. His gaze flicked to one of the street signs as they blurred past, and a faintly satisfied smile twitched at his lips.

"A bit?!" Doc repeated incredulously. "You tore through that squad car like it was tissue paper!"

"Most cars nowadays are plastic and fibreglass," Bert shrugged. "Don't worry, they're okay."

"And what makes you so sure of that?!"

"Oh, that would be my first clue," Bert pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. Doc looked, and stared disbelievingly as a blue and white patrol car with an extremely mangled front end became visible behind their pursuers. Lights flashing and sirens howling, it was making a valiant attempt at pursuit.

"I don't believe it," Doc muttered.

"I do," Bert grinned, glancing in the rear view mirror. "The ADP always was more persistent then was good for them." A sudden surge of reckless abandon widened his grin; for some strange reason he was suddenly enjoying himself. He flicked a quick glance at the truck's dashboard and reached down towards the CD player power button. An instant later, Priss's voice filled the cab of the truck, singing 'Konya wa Hurricane'.


"I don't care if you have to park tanks on the road, but I want them cut off!!" Leon barked into the radio microphone. "They've already wrecked God knows how many civilian vehicles, and the occupants of at least two of the suspect vehicles appear to be heavily armed; I don't want them getting away and taking their little war to some other part of the city, and if they get onto the Bayshore Loop, that's exactly what's going to happen!!"

"Hang on," Daley warned curtly, wheeling the battered pursuit car around the corner their quarry had just taken. Leon winced at the shuddering that shook the car's frame at the maneuver. The earlier collision hadn't totally wrecked the cruiser, but it had definitely knocked something out of alignment on the car; Daley was wrestling with the steering wheel whenever he had to make a corner or swerve around an unwitting obstacle, and he was sweating from the effort required to keep from colliding with anything else.

The squad car was making a gallant effort to stay with its quarry, but both of the ADP inspectors knew it was only a matter of time before the engine blew. There was a high-pitched whine coming from the engine, and the tachometer was on the red line indicating the engine was at its limits.

"Look," Leon cut off the dispatcher's reply halfway through her reply, "they're within blocks of the entry ramps for the expressways; if we don't stop them NOW, we'll never get anything on that highway in time to stop them later!"


"Three more blocks and we're home free," Bert announced over the rock music filling the truck cab; the CD player had switched tracks to the 'Crisis - Run with Anger' track, which he felt was oddly appropriate, given the circumstances. "Once we're on the expressway, they'll never catch us."

"Marvelous," Doc replied, his eyes squeezed shut as he gripped his seat cushions. He wasn't entirely sure his nerves could take much more of this; they were going far too fast for his liking. If they hit anything now, he was sure the vehicle would disintegrate into a flying cloud of debris. "Do you have to have that music playing quite that loud?"

"Hey, it wouldn't be a car chase without good theme music," Bert grinned, shifting gears and nudging the truck into a faster speed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the wide-eyed look of utter incredulity the old scientist gave him before hunching back into his seat again and getting an even tighter grip on it. The tall red-head was about to tell the old man to relax when a flash of motion caught his attention up ahead.

Barely two hundred feet in front of the speeding truck, a large moving van was backing onto the street, and was about to block the street entirely. The two-hundred foot gap became one hundred feet in the blink of an eye, and he wrenched sideways on the steering wheel, hearing rubber squeal as the hurtling pickup truck shot for the sidewalk, trying to maneuver around the van.

Unfortunately, there was a car parked in the way, a low-slung sports car similar in design to a Corvette Stingray, and he was headed right for it. Bert swore, and slapped his hand down on another dashboard button. A loud WHOOMP seemed to lift the truck several inches into the air, high enough that the front wheels of the truck hit the hood of the sports car instead of the bumper slamming into it.

Metal and glass crunched loudly as the red pickup truck used the car as something of a launch ramp, becoming airborne for an instant before vanishing into the large plate glass window of the storefront beyond the car.

Everything bounced and rocked crazily as the truck came back to earth inside the department store, surrounded by a hailstorm of broken plate glass and front window displays. The truck skidded along the slick flooring of the store, finally coming to rest in a pile of splintered checkout counters, crumpled magazine racks, and crushed cash registers. Bert could dimly hear people yelling and screaming, but was too busy trying to clear the stars from his field of vision after smacking the back of his head on the rear window to pay much attention to it.

"Are we dead yet?" he heard faintly from the passenger seat. He cast a quick glance at his passenger, but he seemed all right, just shaken up. Bert glanced in the rear-view mirror, and saw a trail of broken shelving and porcelain.

"Just great," Bert sighed as he examined the wreckage strewn behind him. "Probably the only china shop in the entire district, and I have to smash into it."

Several stunned shoppers were peering around corners at the intruding vehicle, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Beyond them, through the ruined window, he could see someone jumping up and down on the crushed sports car, waving his arms wildly and howling something at the top of his lungs. Occasionally, the man was shaking a fist in their direction.

He judiciously decided he was better off not knowing what the man was saying.

Shoving in the clutch pedal, Bert restarted the stalled pickup truck, shifted gears, and began cautiously backing out of the pile of ruined furniture. As he tried to extricate the truck from the wreckage of the store, he saw a flash of black in the rear-view mirror, and looked up just in time to see one of the black cars that had been pursuing him attempt the same stunt he'd just pulled off.

Unfortunately, they didn't have the same advantages he'd had, and instead of using the car as a ramp, they crashed head-on into it. Both cars disappeared beyond his field of vision in a spinning storm of car parts. The second car nearly stood itself on its front bumper as it screeched to a halt in the street, braking hard.

Bert slammed the gearshift into a forward gear and floored the accelerator pedal, ignoring the startled yelp from the seat next to him as the truck jumped forward and smashed into the few remaining intact shelf units between the truck and the other side of the store. He tried hard not to wince as the brittle sounds of glass, porcelain, and other fragile ceramic merchandise shattering into millions of fragments became heard once again. Whoever the proprietor of this store was, he hoped they had insurance.

The red pickup truck bulled past the last display counter in its way, and hurled itself at the front doors to the store, engine snarling. The metal door frame bent like tinfoil under the impact of the truck's front end, and the truck burst back out onto the street in a spray of glittering shards of plate glass, leaving the twisted and mangled storefront behind it. Bert wrenched on the steering wheel, forcing his vehicle back onto the street as he began to accelerate again.

No sooner had they regained the road, then the sole remaining pursuing black car rounded the corner, tires screaming at the stress being placed on them. Immediately behind them, a howling swarm of ADP and THP pursuit vehicles came flying after, with lights blazing.

"They sure are persistent," Bert noted, shifting to a higher gear and trying to pull away from the pursuing pack of vehicles. As he did so, a second swarm of police vehicles pulled to a halt at the next intersection in front of him, blocking his intended route. Bert's gaze narrowed as he saw troopers with heavy weaponry start piling out of one of the police vans.

"Hang on," he directed his passenger as he stomped on the brakes and spun the wheel. The strangled groan from Doc was drowned out by the shriek of abused rubber on asphalt as the red pickup truck spun one-hundred and eighty degrees, coming to rest mere feet from the police blockade, facing the way they'd just come from.

Tires screamed again as he rammed the accelerator to the floor, and began heading for what looked like an assured head-on collision with his pursuers. As he'd hoped, his sudden change in direction and apparent intent to commit vehicular suicide rattled the oncoming drivers enough that they started to swerve aside, before realizing that they'd just done exactly what he'd wanted.

Grinning to himself, Bert shot his pickup truck down the narrow path that had just opened, clipping several cruisers as they belatedly tried to correct their mistake and sandwich him in. Metal crunched loudly, and the truck rocked slightly, but an instant later and they'd broken free. Gunning the engine, the tall redhead resumed his interrupted charge for the Tokyo freeways.


Nene hoped she was maintaining a fairly neutral expression as she listened to the dispatcher reports coming in. She'd been involved with reporting what she could of the details of her kidnapping to Aramaki when the request for ADP assistance had come in from the THP, along with the reports of an armoured vehicle that had been turned into a tin sieve by somebody with a high-caliber weapon of some kind. It was the report of weaponry being used that had cut her debriefing with Aramaki short - the interim Chief of the ADP had decided to personally supervise the chase from the dispatch area.

She'd recognized the street address given for the incident as being within a block of within Bert's archery range, and had correctly guessed what was likely happening. Reports of a fleeing red pickup truck that was outracing even the pursuit vehicles confirmed her guess. Now, as she listened to almost blow-by-blow descriptions of what was going on, she was fighting mixed feelings of shock and disbelief. It was like somebody had hired a stunt driver to film a movie.without telling anyone else that they were going to be participating as extras.

"Use the helicopters!" Aramaki, standing nearby, was snarling into a phone receiver. "That's what they're there for after all, and I think it's become pretty obvious that catching them with cars is out of the question. Follow them with the choppers and we'll nab them when they stop somewhere; they're going to need gas eventually." With a disgusted snort, he slammed down the phone receiver, and glanced at the massive wall display screen hanging over the dispatch center for a moment, watching as tiny red and blue blips raced along the lines representing the streets and highways of the city.

"I'm sorry, Nene," Aramaki suddenly apologized as he turned towards where she was standing, running a hand agitatedly through his thinning, gray-brown hair. "I didn't mean to drag you along on this, especially not after what you've been through."

"That's not a problem, sir," Nene shook her head. "I can see that you've got your hands full with this situation."

"Now there's an understatement," Aramaki sighed, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. "You might as well take the rest of the shift off and go home. You can type up your report and give it to me tomorrow. I'll get one of the squad cars to give you a ride back to your place, just to make sure nothing untoward happens."


"Damn it, I thought we'd lost them," Bert scowled at the tiny image of the black car that re-appeared in his side-mirror. "I was hoping they'd gotten tied up in that police car pile-up back there." He deftly shifted gears again, trying to squeeze more speed from the engine. The whine of the engine's turbocharger increased in pitch, and the speedometer needle began to creep even higher.

375 Km/hour..they were going fast enough now that he was intensely hoping that nothing unexpected happened. If they had to swerve even once for anything, there was no way he'd be able to maintain control of the hurtling vehicle. Judging by the white, strained expression on his passenger's face, he guessed that the old man knew it as well. Outside the truck, the slipstream from their passage howled exultantly past the windows.

"You're not going to outrun them," Doc suddenly spoke up, his voice tight. "If they've managed to stay with you this long, then they're not going to quit now."

"I was thinking that myself," Bert admitted, glancing thoughtfully at their pursuers in his rear-view mirror. He returned his attention to the road ahead of him just long enough to avoid the tractor trailer that was labouring along the road in front of him. "But I'm not exactly thrilled with the idea of stopping for a shoot-out with them either. I came out on top the last time because I surprised them."

"I could live without that," Doc agreed. "Any ideas?"

"I was about to ask the same thing," Bert mulled the situation over in his mind for a minute. A familiar-looking sign flashing past suddenly crystallized a decision, and he yanked hard on the steering wheel, veering for the on-ramp coming up.

"But this road's closed!!!" Doc protested, reflexively throwing his arms over his face as splintered pieces of wooden construction barricade flew up over the hood of the truck. "It's been closed for years!!!"

"I know," Bert replied calmly. "I'm not entirely sure it will work, but I've got an idea," he added, reaching down and tabbing a couple of switches. Thick black clouds of smoke began to fill the air, shrouding everything behind them from sight. After a couple of seconds, Bert turned off the smoke screen and stomped hard on the brakes.

Instantly, tires screamed against the pavement, and the pickup truck shuddered and rattled, its frame groaning in protest at the strain being placed on it. For a moment it felt like the truck was going to flip forwards end over end. His seatbelt harness dug cruelly into his body, and a pained hiss from the passenger seat told him he wasn't the only vehicle occupant with that problem.

The shuddering and shaking of the truck increased as he tried applying even more braking pressure, and it actually felt like the truck was starting to rattle itself apart. Warning lights flashed all over the dashboard of the truck, complaining about the abuse. Bert was more concerned with the looming end of the road surface that he could see coming towards him. He really didn't want to go over the edge and into the Canyons; that would really be hard on his truck, and the repair bill was already probably going to hurt enough as it was.

The truck finally slid to a halt.about three feet from the precipice. Bert very carefully shifted gears into reverse, and backed away from the edge, ignoring the strangled gasping coming from the other side of the cab. He quickly turned the truck around, and pulled in close to the side of the wrecked overpass, putting the passenger side right up against the concrete retaining wall.

"What are you doing?" Doc asked him finally, after a moment or two of silence. "They're not going to get fooled by a smoke cloud," he said, gesturing at the slowly thinning black clouds a few hundred feet away.

"They're not supposed to be fooled by it," Bert replied, reaching under his coat and pulling out the massive handgun Doc had seen (and heard) earlier. It resembled a large automatic pistol, but there were some structural differences that cast doubt on that idea. "But I imagine the chemical slick I left behind at the base of the ramp has slowed them down a bit, and that gives me a couple of minutes to get ready for them." He pulled on the slide of the handgun, glanced at what was in the chamber, and nodded faintly, letting the slide snap back into place.

"What is that thing, anyway?" Doc asked. "And how the hell do you fire it without going deaf? It sounded like a cannon the last time you used it."

"It's a gun, and I'm wearing special earplugs," Bert replied, one hand on the door handle. "Wait here, and don't get out of the truck."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Doc mumbled, watching as the tall redhead got out of the truck gripping his weapon. Doc watched as he walked to the middle of the deserted roadway, and knelt on one knee. He extended his weapon arm, sighting towards the billowing smoke as he used his remaining hand and arm to steady his aim, propping his elbow on his knee. Then he seemed to set like concrete as he waited.

Doc was unable to keep the sense of panic he was now feeling from gnawing at him. The urge to flee was worming its way insidiously through his mind, so much so that he was half-tempted to unbuckle his seatbelt harness and try hopping into the driver's seat. He gave that idea up when he realized Bert had taken the keys with him. The old man reflected that he probably wouldn't have been able to drive the truck anyway, and reluctantly settled back to wait as well.

Out on the roadway, Bert became conscious of a growing sense of impatience. Damn it, they'd been barreling along no more than two or three miles behind him; they should've arrived by now. He could hear helicopters in the distance, drawing closer, and realized that he was going to have to try making a run for it if this didn't work; shaking a helicopter pursuit would be difficult.

As if summoned by his thought, a black car whooshed out of the smoke cloud, still speeding, but moving slower than they'd been in trying to catch him. Bert let out his breath slowly as he tightened his arm muscles, sighting down the barrel of his gun. Thumbing off the safety catch, he squeezed the trigger, aiming for the dead center of the car's engine as it started accelerating towards him.

The gun in his fist gave a crashing bellow, and what looked like a streak of flame flashed from a spot several inches beyond the gun muzzle to the vehicle he'd fired at. Shards of metal flew everywhere, and what sounded like a dull explosion under the hood started dark, greasy smoke leaking from under it.

Sweat began beading Bert's brow as he strained to hold the gun steady while squeezing the trigger again. Another boom, another streak of fire, and the distant car lurched again, veering heavily to one side as more pieces were torn off of it. The front hood of the car flew up, obscuring the front view of the car's occupants, and revealing the car's smoking and ruined engine.

He continued to fire, intent on methodically turning his former pursuers' vehicle into a perforated pile of scrap steel. On his seventh shot, the driver finally lost all control of the car, and it crashed into the retaining wall of the highway, scraping to a grinding halt. An instant later, and several bleeding men scrambled out of the car, barely seconds ahead of the fireball that suddenly engulfed the wrecked vehicle.

Bert stood up, coldly ignoring the groans of the wounded men sprawled on the road surface several metres away. Thumbing the safety catch on his gun back to the 'on' position, he holstered it, turned, and walked back to his truck. Doc was staring at him, his expression wide-eyed, as he climbed back in and shut the door.

"What the hell is that thing firing?" Doc asked him. "I don't think I've ever seen ammunition from a handgun capable of tearing something up like that before."

"It's a railgun," Bert told him, sticking the keys in the ignition and starting the engine. He put the truck into gear, and started back down the overpass ramp, intent on returning to the main highway as quickly as possible. "It took a lot of testing and research before I was able to make one small enough to fit a pistol frame, but still powerful enough to penetrate at least light armour. And then I had to devise a way to shield it so that the EMP surge when it fires doesn't fry your synapses; that probably wouldn't be pleasant." He fell silent for a moment.

"No, I doubt it would," Doc replied dryly. "But railguns don't fire bolts of flame, the last time I looked at the specs for one."

"That's the ammunition doing that," Bert said absently, smoothly merging onto the expressway again, and accelerating. He listened for a moment to the engine, and concentrated on the way the truck felt like it was handling, trying to determine if there was any serious damage to the engine or suspension from its recent maneuvers; everything seemed to be working normally. He mentally sighed in relief, and began worrying about how to get to the rendezvous point Sylia had given him without encountering more cops; he'd had just about enough of being pursued for the evening.

"Railguns usually fire metal flechettes or bolts," Doc observed. "What did you do to that one?"

"Call them 'ramjet rounds'," Bert shrugged. "Take a steel alloy slug, hollow it out all the way through the center, making sure that the point is scooped out like your usual hollowpoint bullet, and then put a layer of some kind of solid fuel propellant around the inside. When the railgun fires the projectile, it very quickly hits a speed that ignites the propellant inside from air friction. That gives the projectile even more kinetic energy, and boom: one very large hole in something thanks to a jet-assisted shot. The trick is finding a propellant that won't ignite until after the projectile is far enough away that you won't get flames in your face."

"There'd be a fair bit of recoil with that thing, wouldn't there?"

"Let's just say I'm glad I took care of the last of them back there," Bert admitted. "Now just shut up for a while and let me drive; I'm going to get off the expressway and use the side-streets. That should let us get most of the way to our destination."


A few hours later, the truck was parked under the edge of a concealing canopy of tree branches. They'd made it to their final stop, one of the public nature preserves on the outskirts of MegaTokyo. In the distance, beyond the hilltop copse they'd parked near, the neon radiance of the bustling super-city lit the nighttime sky, obscuring the stars twinkling above.

It was totally silent in the cab of the truck, but Doc had become somewhat used to it by now. His benefactor had retreated into taciturnity in the latter stages of their flight, but Doc supposed he couldn't blame him for that. He'd been given a lot to think about earlier, and it had been a pretty wild scramble to get this far. He was undoubtedly trying to figure out what was to come next.

The old scientist was more relieved over the fact that the redhead sitting in the seat next to him wasn't radiating open hostility anymore. That in its turn made it easier for Doc to relax a bit. The main thing was that they'd outrun Hollister's pursuers, and since then it had been very quiet. Part of his mind nagged him that maybe it was a bit too quiet, but Doc firmly stepped on his subconscious; he didn't need more paranoia complicating matters.

The wind whistled eerily past the partly open windows of the truck, not quite drowning out the muted drone of ground and air traffic carrying to them from the city. Crickets in the grass chirped in cheery contrast to the somber atmosphere inside the pickup truck. Neither man had said anything in what felt like hours.

Doc fidgeted as he sat there, trying to settle his nerves without the use of any kind of drug. He badly needed a puff or two - or five or six - on his pipe; it had been hours since he'd last enjoyed one, and he felt like he was going into withdrawal. Remembering the response his last inquiry had drawn, however, he decided he was probably better off waiting. He didn't really want to find out if it was possible or not to stuff someone's head into an ashtray.

He glanced sideways at Bert, who was still staring broodingly out at the city, his face cast into strange relief by the green glow coming from the truck's dashboard instrumentation. It was hard to read his expression in the eerie illumination, but Doc would've said that it was a mixture of weariness and depression, although depression about what he couldn't even begin to attempt to guess.

Doc started to clear his throat when a loud beeping from the truck's dashboard erupted. Bert stirred finally, and glanced at the display. After a moment he reached out and touched the screen, presumably acknowledging whatever the message was; the dashboard display that had signaled was set in such a way that anyone in the passenger seat couldn't see it without leaning over. Doc didn't need to know what was happening quite that badly.

"All right, they're here," Bert's voice rasped. He cleared his throat for a moment before continuing. "I would suggest that you don't try anything funny; these people don't have time for any bullshit, and are quite likely to deal harshly with anyone trying to set them up."

"I'm not trying to set anyone up," Doc answered quietly. "I just want out."

"Then you shouldn't have anything to worry about,' Bert remarked, opening his door and stepping out of the truck. Doc slowly followed suit, wincing as aching joints protested the fact that they'd been held in one position for an extended period of time. Walking around to the front of the pickup truck, he peered around at the forbidding darkness, trying to see if anything was out there. Bert merely glanced at him, and then leaned against the hood of his truck, folding his arms across his chest and waiting silently.

Doc started to open his mouth to say something when a twig snapped loudly, somewhere out in the dark. The old man turned sharply towards the sound, fear of the unknown surging to life. As he turned, humanoid figures appeared, bulking ominously in the darkness.

The leader of the group was clad in white armour with blue accents, and was followed by three other armour suits - blue with red accents, green, and red-pink - all with the same sleek, feminine curves. They moved gracefully enough, with none of the clumsiness normally associated with armour, but it was the lethal grace of a predatory animal.

The hardsuit bringing up the rear of the armoured party was the exception to the group. It was obviously a man's armour suit, and it was positively bristling with weaponry. By contrast, even though Doc knew that all of the Knight Sabers had built-in weaponry, his comrades appeared almost unarmed. Light flickered and flashed off of SkyKnight's silver-and-blue armour plating, and the burning red gaze of his visor's eyeslot seemed to bore holes through the old man as it settled on him.

Doc stared at the five armoured figures disbelievingly, then turned slowly to stare at Bert. The redhead hadn't moved from the truck, and his expression was impossible to read in the shadows of his hatbrim.

"Something the matter?" There was a slight trace of lurking amusement in his voice. "You did say you wanted help."

"I had something a bit more subtle in mind than," Doc gestured towards the hardsuited contingent standing a scant ten feet away from them, "that."

"I don't have access to the kind of connections that you'll likely need to get away; they do." Bert shoved himself off of his truck, and started to walk back around to the driver's side of the truck. "I'll leave you to negotiate your arrangement with them. I think I've done more than enough by now." He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder. "For what it's worth, good luck. I hope you make it."

"You're leaving me with them?!" Doc said incredulously, his expression suddenly panicked, just as the white-hardsuited leader spoke for the first time.

"You're not going anywhere just yet," she said flatly. Bert stopped, and slowly turned around.

"Oh really?" he said, in tones equally as flat. "We agreed that after I'd made the rendezvous point, I was out of it. It's your concern now, not mine."

"You stirred up half the city and the entire ADP force with your little getaway stunts," she retorted. "That is hardly what I'd call 'discreet transport'; anyone could've followed you based on the trail you left behind."

"I lost any pursuers hours ago," he waved a hand impatiently. "Look, can this wait? I'd like to get out of here and try to get at least some sleep tonight."

"I also don't recall authorizing any adaptations of our designs for scaling down to personal weapon size."

"So I built a big handgun," Bert threw up his arms. "You're paying me for research, so I researched. I'm allowed to defend myself, aren't I? What's the big deal?!"

"It's a security compromise, that's what the big deal is," the white-hardsuited woman said coldly, folding armoured arms across her chest. "And we can't afford those. You know the rules." The blue-visored helmet turned slightly towards one of the other hardsuits. "SkyKnight."

"Now wait just a minute," Bert started to say, backing up a step as a shoulder mounted device swung up and locked into place on the shoulder of the silver and blue armour suit while it turned towards him. "We had a deal, remember?"

"And you didn't follow the rules." The white hardsuit nodded curtly, and SkyKnight's shoulder weapon thundered and spat flame; the tall red-head gave a strangled grunt and flew backwards, bouncing off the side of his pickup truck, and collapsing in a limp, crumpled heap on the grass.

Something warm and sticky spattered Doc's face, even from several feet away, and he reached up a trembling hand to wipe at it. His fingers came away from his face smeared with a dark substance. It was too dark to see, but he was willing to bet it was would look red. He suddenly felt sick to his stomach.

"I'm sorry, but we can't help you," the old man heard the voice of the white hardsuit say, almost regretfully. "And I'm afraid we can't let you leave, either."

Doc looked up, just in time to see the white hardsuit leveling a palm-mounted beam cannon at him.

Then the world lit up with an orange flash.


Ethan Hollister sat wordlessly, his hands steepled in front of his face, his elbows resting on his desktop as he watched the replay of the video footage on the wall-mounted viewscreen across from his desk. Nearby, an extremely nervous, sandy-haired man in dark coloured fatigues was standing at agitated attention, fidgeting as he watched his employer watch the images.

Hollister's expression was stony, and his mouth was compressed in a thin line as he glared at the images of two figures wearing blue and green hardsuits tossing the limp, blood-covered bodies of two men into the back of a red pickup truck. The knuckles of his hands had gone white from strain, and it wasn't hard to detect the simmering anger emanating from him.

As he watched, the blue hardsuit clambered into the cab of the pickup truck and started the truck engine as the green hardsuit vanished into the nighttime shadows. After a moment, the white hardsuit that had been observing from the sidelines, back under the canopy of overhanging tree branches, also vanished into the dark, followed by the remaining members of the Knight Sabers. The truck started to slowly drive off, heading back towards the city.

Hollister slammed a clenched fist down on the remote control for the vidscreen, and the image dissolved into swirling static as the fatigue-clad man started at the sudden burst of motion, swallowing nervously. Sweat started to trickle down his brow as Hollister's inimical gaze was directed towards him. For a very long moment, the air of the office seemed chill with incipient death.

"Get out of my sight," Hollister finally grated. The man bolted in a combination of relief and fear as Hollister leaned back in his chair, bitterness and undirected anger suffusing his features. He swore out loud, slowly twisting the words and wringing every nuance of viciousness he could from the profanities.

So close. He'd been so goddamn close! And then to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory like that was . galling was probably the mildest term for it. The blond man fumed for several minutes, trying to decide on what his next course of action should be.

Doc had certainly been eliminated from his future concerns, that was for sure. Hollister's face twisted in annoyance at that thought as he stood up and walked over to the side-table containing several decanters of liquor. He poured himself a glass of scotch, and added a couple of ice cubes before carrying his drink back to his desk.

The old man would've been one of the last people he'd expected to turn traitor on him, but the fact remained that it had happened. And all because he'd gotten cold feet over some redheaded slip of a girl. Hollister took a mouthful of scotch and swallowed it, grimacing from a combination of the taste as it burned its way down, and disgust. About the only consolation was that at least the old scientist hadn't seen fit to try and destroy any of his work on the way out.

He'd initially been pleased when he'd found out that Doc had gone straight to a certain red-headed man for help. The fact that he'd known exactly where to find him implied collusion between the old man and the ADP officer. That indirectly confirmed his hunch that interrogating the woman would've revealed all kinds of useful information - pity she'd gone into a coma instead of spilling her guts to him.

The blond man scowled at his glass as he took another pull at the liquor it held. If he'd been the superstitious sort, he'd have been claiming that some higher being had it in for him; almost every move he'd tried to make that had even a slight connection to that red-haired irritant that had been preoccupying him for weeks had ended in either stalemate or outright failure. Especially when the Knight Sabers became involved.

The Knight Sabers. Hollister spat out another epithet and slugged back more scotch in an effort to burn the foul taste out of his mouth. How could such a meddling bunch of do-gooders lay any claim to being mercenaries at all? He'd thought he'd researched them thoroughly, even thought he'd managed to identify at least one of their membership.and had come up empty on all counts when he'd tried to act on that information.

Always on the lookout for talent, especially well-equipped talent, Hollister had tried making some job offers to the armoured vigilantes through some of the outside contacts he cultivated. Not only had they been rebuffed, he'd been given the message that further contact attempts would be an unwise decision on his part. And the one lead he'd thought he might have to cracking their identities had just been shot and dumped into a truck, presumably for disposal somewhere.

For a moment or two, Hollister considered sending the footage to one of the Tokyo news bureaus. He could at least get some satisfaction out of the negative publicity it would give the Knight Sabers for having committed a cold-blooded murder. He decided not to bother, especially since he didn't want to accidentally draw attention to his own activities. He was already having enough difficulties deflecting official investigations that had unknowingly started encroaching on his domain.

Ice cubes rattled in the empty glass as he set it down on his desk, feeling the alcohol burn its way through him. In a way it complemented the feelings of thwarted rage flaming at the back of his mind, but he was intelligent enough to recognize the feeling as merely indicating burgeoning intoxication. It was his sixth glass of the night, after all.

After a moment or so of consideration, Hollister got up and poured himself another drink. Carrying it back to his seat, he leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desktop. Sipping at his drink, he stared blankly at the viewscreen across the room, watching as the signal noise swirled mockingly on the monitor. He stayed that way for quite some time.


"I am not sulking," Bert gritted through clenched teeth as he carefully adjusted his position on the couch, catching his breath as an angry twinge shot through his side. "I'm just doing some heavy thinking, that's all."

"Sulking," Priss said succinctly. "'Heavy thinking' doesn't require a pissed-off expression, and that's what you've had ever since you got back here." She was lounging next to him on the couch, one leg folded under herself while she faced him. As usual, she was wearing her biking leathers.

"You get goddamn bounced off an armoured vehicle by a point-blank gun blast and we'll see just how cheery you are afterwards!" Bert snapped, wincing. "It's bad enough I had to get it in the ribs again, but she could've at least waited until I'd moved away from the truck!"

"Oh, come off it," Priss retorted. "Anri said you didn't break anything; all you've got is some extra bruising. And how many times do you want Sylvie to apologize anyway? She was just following orders; we had to make it look convincing to throw anyone watching off the trail. Something that just sprayed red paint on you wasn't going to look very realistic, now was it?"

Bert muttered something under his breath, staring morosely at the coffee table. Priss raised an eyebrow, and studied him a bit more closely.

"Okay, out with it," she directed him. "I can see something else is bugging you, and it's not just getting bounced around. What is it?"

"You have to ask?" Bert was unable to suppress a shudder. "Barely twenty-four hours after Sylia half-kills me in a fight she nearly does it to me again, and you want to know what's wrong?!"

"That was staged, Bert," Priss reminded him. "You weren't in any real danger."

"You look at her hardsuit from the business end of her weapons and then say that," Bert clenched his arms across his chest as if hugging himself for warmth. Phantasmal sword blades seemed to flicker through the air towards his head, and he shivered violently. "She sure as hell sounded convincing to me. And I really needed something else to have nightmares about, really I did." He huddled deeper into the couch, missing entirely the concerned expression on Priss's face as she looked at him.

"Nightmares?" She reached out and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Want to talk about it?"

"I'd say no, but I know you're probably not going to accept that as an answer, right?" he observed resignedly.

"You catch on fast," she grinned at him, then sobered. "Come on, you've got to stop bottling things up; no more hiding anything, remember?"

"I know, I know," he mumbled. "Just bear with me, okay? I can't change certain habits overnight."

"Tell me what happened," she said simply. Her gaze never left his face as he talked about the details of the nightmare he'd had, and she was unable to completely hide a troubled expression as she listened to him. He spoke mechanically, his gaze fixed straight ahead as he told her about the visions of hell and the HeadHunter, and what had been said. She could see that the dream had scared him more than he was willing to let on about, but didn't press him about that angle of things. Silence fell for a moment when he was done speaking.

"You have problems," she told him seriously.

"I'm aware of that," he replied dryly. "A subconscious with a propensity for quotes seems to be at least part of it."

"I'm serious, Bert," Priss told him. "You're going to snap if you don't take some time off and relax. Quiet; I'm not done yet," she admonished, holding up a finger warningly as he scowled and started to say something. "Look at yourself honestly for just one minute, for my sake if nothing else, and tell me that you're not burning out from stress." She folded her arms across her chest, giving him a challenging look.

"I don't have to look at myself," he retorted sourly, weariness suddenly leaving him drained and unable to even attempt a denial. "You were right, okay? Feel better now?"

"Just a second; I want to get a tape recorder to record this moment for posterity," Priss deadpanned, then leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips, grinning. "See? That wasn't so hard now was it?"

"Depends on how you define hard," he grumbled, then sighed. A gigantic yawn suddenly seized him, and he blinked, squinting over at the clock. Two forty-five in the morning; no wonder he was so tired suddenly.

"Want me to stick around for a while?" Priss asked quietly, watching as his head bobbed while he tried to stay awake. "Just in case you have more nightmares, I mean."

"I thought you said you weren't going to do that until I'd made up my mind?" he blinked again owlishly, squinting at her. "Spend the night, I mean."

"I think this counts as a special case," she told him, shifting around and sliding closer to him on the couch as he yawned again, his eyelids beginning to sag shut.

"Mmhmm," he mumbled drowsily, his head lolling back on his neck. The warmth of her body near his felt quite pleasant and he quickly dropped into dreamless sleep.

Priss watched him for a few minutes, then sighed to herself. She worked herself a bit closer to him, putting her head on his shoulder as she yanked on the blanket draped across the back of the couch, spreading it across the two of them. Closing her eyes, she pulled the blanket up a bit and settled down to try and get some rest herself.



Doc sat bolt upright, clutching at the left side of his chest and gasping for air. He could feel perspiration drying on his face, but the nightmare that had provoked the reaction was murky and indistinct. It had probably had something to do with the wild flight from pursuit he'd been a part of the day before; Doc certainly couldn't recall anything that had been quite as hair-raising as that ride had been.

Although staring into the muzzle of a beam cannon as it fired was probably a very close second, he amended, shuddering.

For a moment, disorientation seized him in merciless claws as he glanced around the small room he was in. It took a moment for his still sleep-numbed mind to remind him that he was in a 'safe' place, spirited there by the Knight Sabers after some rather theatrical subterfuge involving his apparent murder. He just wished he'd been warned about what they'd had planned, though.

Wincing, he gingerly probed the spot on his chest where the specially-rigged 'dud' round they'd fired at him had hit. He knew there was a livid bruise there, but they'd told him afterwards that nothing had been broken. That still didn't make being hurled backwards, unconscious, and the resultant aches and pains from the journey any easier to bear.

"Good morning," an electronically modulated voice greeted him pleasantly enough. "I trust you slept well?" Doc glanced in the direction the voice had come from, and finally noticed the presence of the white hardsuited woman he'd seen the night before.

She was seated on a packing crate of some kind that had been tucked into the corner of the room, probably because a normal chair would collapse under the weight of the armour and its occupant. She had her legs crossed, and her gauntleted hands were folded on her knees. If it weren't for the armour, she'd probably have looked like any young woman patiently waiting for someone else.

"Well enough, I suppose," Doc replied, carefully swinging his feet to the floor, and wincing again at the twinges from his back; being thrown bodily into the back of a pickup truck hadn't helped him any. "Although that wasn't the most comfortable way I've ever traveled."

"I apologize for the inconvenience, but it was necessary. Your previous employer did have some operatives lurking in the bushes last night, so I felt it was best to be as realistic as possible in order to throw them off of the scent." She shrugged slightly, her armour creaking from the movement.

"Oh, I'm not really complaining," Doc assured her, standing up and stretching.

"There's a thermos of coffee on the table there," she gestured towards a small, battered-looking table near where she was sitting. An equally rickety chair sat near it. "I'm afraid we weren't able to provide breakfast at the moment."

"Coffee's fine for now," he assured her, tottering over to the table and sinking into the chair with a sigh of relief. "Do you mind if I smoke?" he asked.

"Please do," she replied politely. "Whatever will make you feel more comfortable."

Doc wasted no time in digging his meerschaum out of his pocket and packing it full of tobacco. Before lighting it, he set it aside and poured himself a cup of the coffee, using the thermos lid as a cup. He took a gulp from it, and then valiantly resisted the urge to swear as the piping hot liquid burned his mouth - in his haste he'd forgotten it was still steaming.

Swallowing quickly, the old scientist stuck his pipe between his teeth and searched his pockets for matches. Striking one alight, he quickly stoked his pipe into pungent life. Exhaling a plume of blue-grey smoke, he sighed noisily, then glanced over at the white armour suit sitting on the other side of the table.

"I presume this is where we discuss terms?" he queried, drawing in another mouthful of smoke.

"If you like," she replied. "Although I somehow doubt that you have the financial reserves necessary to meet our usual service fees."

"You would be correct there," Doc admitted. "Ethan's the one with the billions socked away somewhere. However, I have some information that may be useful to you."

"And what would that be?" she inquired coolly. "As I recall, you already told our contact that Hollister has moved his base. From where I sit, it doesn't look as if you have much to barter with." Doc shook his head.

"I had something else in mind," he replied, picking up his cup of coffee and blowing on it before taking a sip. "Although to a certain degree, I believe that you've already had some experience with the subject of my information."

"The Battlemover? Yes, we've met," the Knight Saber leader replied, the dryness of her voice audible even through the electronic filtering. "And I believe we already have complete technical schematics for it."

"A few things have changed from the schematics your 'contact' obtained," Doc noted, puffing out more clouds of pungent tobacco smoke. "I can detail them if you like."

"That would be the minimum requirement for any kind of a deal," he was informed.

"I sort of figured that might be the case," Doc nodded.

"I also want complete details of any other of Hollister's operations you have knowledge of," she added. "I don't care if they seem insignificant or minor to you, I want to know about them."

"I can do that as well, if you insist."

"I insist," she said flatly.

" . But I'm not sure if it will be of much, if any, help to you," Doc finished. He sucked on his pipe for a moment, then realized it had gone out. He set it aside and picked up his now much cooler cup of coffee and took a slow sip.

"I'll be the judge of that." The helmet of the white hardsuit tilted slightly, in what Doc interpreted as a quizzical posture. "You said you had some additional information regarding the Battlemover, the implication being that it was not technical data. Care to elaborate on that?"

"I know when and where Hollister is going to try shipping the deactivated Battlemover out of the city," Doc said quietly. "It will be guarded, of course, but it shouldn't be anything your group can't handle. It shouldn't be too hard to destroy."

"Interesting," the white hardsuit said thoughtfully. "I find it intriguing that you now seek to destroy something you've spent several months developing."

"That was Ethan's idea originally," Doc said. "I didn't want anything to do with it, but I wasn't given a choice."

"It's a little late to be feeling remorse, isn't it?" she asked, echoing the nagging voice of his subconscious. "Your work didn't seem that forced several months ago."

"Look, I made a mistake; I admit that," Doc said tiredly. "But I'm also a coward at heart. Defying Ethan would probably have meant 'early retirement', and I didn't really want to die, thank you very much. I'm the one that has to live with the consequences of my actions, so let's just let it go at that, shall we?"

"Several other people have had to live with the consequences of your actions," she noted grimly. "You seem to be overlooking the fact that your activities did intrude on the lives of people who had no desire to become entangled in your projects."

"I know that," Doc stared at the table top for a few moments, then lifted his gaze to the white and blue hardsuit across the table. "It was wrong, but I'm not going to try and justify it to anyone when I can't even justify it to myself. All I can do is say I'm sorry it ever happened and ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt on that."

"I might," she said after a moment. "Some of your recent actions do lend credibility to your claim, if nothing else."

"Do you mind if we discuss what I'd like to get out of this deal now?" Doc inquired. "I think we've pretty well covered what you want."

"I'm listening," she assured him, folding her arms across her chest.

"I need something delivered," Doc told her, reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket and extracting a thick, sealed envelope. Delving deeper into his jacket, he pulled out a photograph paper-clipped to a piece of paper folded around it. Placing the envelope and paper packet on the table, he slid it across the table's surface towards the leader of the Knight Sabers. "The picture," he told her as she picked up the photograph and unfolded its paper wrapping, "is of. "

"Your daughter," the white hardsuit remarked, sounding thoughtful. "She believes you to be deceased, if my information is correct."

"How did you . ?!" Doc stared, open-mouthed for a moment. He shook himself, and stared hard at the white-hardsuited woman across from him.

"In my line of business, it pays to be informed," she said simply. "The lives of my teammates depend on it. I already knew a fair bit about your background; it was your current motivations that I needed to discover, since I can only make a decision once I have all the information. Please, continue."

"As I was saying," Doc cleared his throat, suddenly uncomfortable with the situation; just how much did she know about him, anyway? "The photograph is of my daughter and her children. As you said, she thinks I'm dead. As far as I know, however, I've never been declared legally dead yet. That envelope there contains my will, as well as a few other papers I hope she'll be able to use. No matter what happens to me, she must get that package. The last address I know she was living at is on that piece of paper."

"You sound like you're expecting to die tomorrow."

"I'm an old man," he shrugged. "And I've been on borrowed time for quite a while now. I also know Hollister, and it's not like him to let someone walk away from his operations." He sighed, rubbing a hand down his face. "I'm more afraid that he'll try to get her in order to force me out of hiding," he confided after a moment. "He never openly said he would, but there were some thinly-veiled implications a few times. One of those documents contains instructions that she can use to move somewhere safe, if she has to. Hollister does have a few psychological blind spots, and there are some areas of the world where he doesn't have influence."

"We don't normally act as couriers, but I think we can make an exception in this case." The white hardsuit re-folded the piece of paper around the picture, and set it aside with the envelope. "Was there anything else?"

"If it can be arranged, I'd like a flight out of Japan," Doc replied. "Preferably to some rural backwater somewhere in North America where I can live as a retired senior citizen without having to worry about assassins popping out of the woodwork."

"A flight to North America I can arrange, but I can't promise a quiet and peaceful retirement," she said, drumming armoured fingers absently on the tabletop. "That will depend on how successful we are at smuggling you out of the country and keeping the fact that you're alive secret. Although." She seemed to pause in thought for a moment.


"I may know of someone who can settle you in somewhere quiet in the United States," she told him. "But I'll have to check with them before I can say for certain." She stood abruptly, moving with fluid ease even with the armour. Doc couldn't help feeling a little intimidated as the hardsuit loomed over him, but then he imagined that their appearance was designed with that in mind.

"I have to leave to take care of arranging at least part of what we've discussed," the white hardsuited woman told him. "There will be a gentleman arriving in a few minutes by the name of Fargo, and he'll take you somewhere that's a bit more secure than this place," she gestured at the small room. "Once you've arrived there, you will start giving all the information you can to Mr. Fargo, who will pass it on to me. He will also keep you informed of our progress in arranging for your passage from Japan."

"I take it this is farewell, then," Doc creakily pushed himself to his feet, and bowed politely. "Thank you again for your help."

"Don't mention it," her helmet inclined slightly in a nod to him. "We're both getting something out of the arrangement, after all."

"True," Doc agreed. "Speaking of getting things, do you suppose this Fargo person you mentioned would have anything for breakfast with him?"


Bert took a slow gulp from his glass of orange juice as he surveyed his apartment. It was empty except for himself; Priss had already left to attend a band rehearsal. He sighed again, draining the rest of the juice and carelessly tossing the plastic tumbler he'd been drinking from into the sink.

It bounced and clattered noisily in the sink basin as he turned and walked over to the living room area. He tried flopping on the couch, but was soon up pacing across the apartment. He wandered restlessly for a few minutes, trying to isolate the cause of his agitation so that he could relax.

Neither relaxation nor enlightenment came, however. He knew part of his restiveness was just nerves; he still hadn't quite decompressed from the events of the previous day. Another part of it was, he supposed, loneliness. He'd been refusing to admit that to himself earlier, but since Priss was gone for the day, that truth was rather starkly in front of him.

He resisted the urge to sink into self-condemnation over it though, forcing his thoughts out of that line with an almost palpable wrench. Yes, he'd made several mistakes and almost alienated all his friends, but if he wanted to rebuild what he'd very nearly destroyed then spending time wallowing in self-recrimination wasn't going to do it. It wasn't going to be easy, but his first step was going to have to be trying not to act as a loner anymore. His loneliness was in large measure his own doing.

"The unexamined life is not worth living," he said aloud, grimacing to himself. He didn't really know whether it was true or not, but he was willing to bet that people who went blindly through their lives without microanalyzing themselves were a lot happier. Ignorant, perhaps, but probably happier.

In examining his own life of the last few months, he found that he couldn't isolate one root cause of his problems. Hollister alone hadn't forced him into the angry, cynical, callous, and borderline irrational person he'd become; his own paranoia and fear had combined with the blond man's influence to do that. That, and the overriding conviction that he had to destroy Hollister before the blond man destroyed him.

Bert smiled bitterly to himself, noting the irony of the situation. For someone who always preached about trusting friends, his own track record in that department was miserable. Sure, he could use his past experiences to justify that - and even have sound psychological evidence to back him up on that score - but the fact remained that he still hadn't tried very hard to break his old habits. Not in some of the most important areas anyway.

Despite the fact that Sylia was the leader of the Knight Sabers, deep down he hadn't been able to bring himself to totally trust her judgment. That in turn had led to him second-guessing her and trying to outbuild her designs to try and allow for any situation that might arise. What he should have realized early on was that trying to cover absolutely all the bases was impossible.

The progression from there had been to start acting independently of her orders...and even despite the times it had blown up on him, he'd still blithely continued along, operating as if he knew more than she did. And that just was not the case, and probably never had been to begin with. Missions were just too fluid and dynamic to be able to predict perfectly; even with all the information Sylia collected, they still ended up surprised an unpleasant number of times. Too bad he'd been chronically unable to realize that.

Then there was his situation with Nene and Priss...and that was potentially an even thornier issue than what had happened with Sylia. The last thing he'd wanted to cause was any kind of estrangement between his friends, but he'd very nearly succeeded in doing just that, and again, trust was at the root of the problem.

He hadn't wanted to admit to himself that Priss had been right in her observations about the relationship between himself and the red-haired ADP officer. However, all the time he'd had to reflect on his past in recent days hadn't allowed him to escape the realization of its truth finally.

He couldn't really say if his relationship with Nene had been love or merely infatuation though...and he realized that he was going to have to talk to her if he did want to get an answer; it wasn't something he could just analyze knowing only one side of the equation.

Priss had asked him to make a choice, and she was going to be expecting an answer probably fairly soon. He owed her that much at least; she'd done far more than merely 'be there for him' in recent months, and had been much more than merely a sympathetic shoulder to lean on. They'd gone from being just friends to being friends as well as lovers without really stopping to fully assess just what could come of that.

A quiet warmth seeped through him as he thought of Priss, and he unconsciously relaxed a bit. Initially he'd been worried that their relationship would founder somehow because it had been born out of loneliness, hurt - and a fair bit of lust, he had to admit to himself, flushing. However, he recognized the feelings he had for her now as being more deeply rooted than any he'd had before, and not based on merely physical gratification. He wanted to be with her, regardless of situation or circumstance.

In a way, that provided him with the answer he'd been seeking, but it still left a couple of questions he was going to have to resolve. And that meant he still needed to talk to Nene. There was a bit of a catch to that, though.

Bert snorted to himself and resumed his pacing - he'd stopped without even realizing it - as he tried to figure out just how he was going to get to talk to the young redheaded ADP officer. He was theoretically 'dead', and if he were to reappear in public where Hollister's goons accidentally were, then all the subterfuge Sylia had put into play the night before would be wasted.

Contacting her at the ADP HQ was out of the question; he didn't trust the phones for one thing, and for another he dimly recalled somebody mentioning that Leon had been making noises about having wanted to haul him into the station on suspicion of involvement with her kidnapping. Showing up at the ADP building wearing a disguise would not help matters any.

Further complicating matters was that he was sure Nene likely had a covert security detail following her for the moment, if they hadn't outright suggested that she could use a vacation and put her into 'protective custody' somewhere. There was no guarantee that there wouldn't be another kidnap attempt, after all. Part of him seized up at that thought, and he quickly banished it.

He pondered the best means of trying to sneak around the city without being seen, but short of somehow gaining the power of invisibility that left donning a disguise of some kind. And he didn't know the first thing about that.

The answer suddenly flashed in his brain, and he mentally chided himself for not seeing it sooner. He veered away from the groove he was starting to wear into his carpeting and walked over to his telephone, picked up the receiver, and dialed a number.

"Hi there, it's Bert," he identified himself when the ringing phone at the other end of the line was picked up. "I've got a favour to ask; how busy are you right now?"


Nene sighed and stretched for a moment, luxuriating in the movement, then shoved the plate that held a few isolated crumbs - all that remained of her lunch - away from herself. Across the table from her, Naoko fidgeted a bit and tried adjusting the sling that was securing her right arm to her side, wincing as she did so.

The brown-haired young woman hadn't escaped the kidnapping attempt on Nene unscathed, unfortunately. A square of white bandage pad was prominent on her cheekbone, from where she'd hit the pavement after being hit by one of Hollister's men, and her arm had been broken in the fall. Nene was more concerned about the psychological injuries that Naoko might have garnered as a result of the incident, however; her normally talkative friend had been silent the entire meal, and that was unusual for her.

It might've had something to do with the obviously armed guard that had been sent along with Nene - he was lounging at a nearby table with a cup of coffee, trying to look inconspicuous - but she somehow doubted that was the only reason. Naoko had been acting spooked every minute that they'd been outside, as if expecting more vanloads of abductors to show up in the next minute. The unexpectedness and brutality of the attack had evidently left her shaken.

"Naoko, you're supposed to leave that alone," Nene chided her gently as her friend kept fiddling absently with the cast on her arm. "It'll just make it hurt worse if you keep poking at it."

"How can you be so calm?" Naoko asked her, still absently rubbing at her arm. "I mean, they knocked you out and dragged you off somewhere and you're sitting there like it was nothing major."

"I don't think about it," Nene replied simply, then suddenly looked wry. "Which I'll tell you right now doesn't always work. Yes, I'm still scared they might come back, but I'm not going to sneak around and hide all day because of that." And there was the question of experience with traumatic events, she silently added. With the number of close calls she'd had as a Knight Saber between rogue boomers and other dangers, she'd become used to dealing with the stress associated with high risks.

"Come on, Nene," Naoko whined. "How can you not think about it? I'm having nightmares about what happened, and I didn't even get kidnapped!"

"Practice," Nene tried grinning nonchalantly, and was partly successful. "We're police officers, Naoko; we're not supposed to let minor little things bother us."

"Minor!?" Naoko spluttered in disbelief. "But they could've killed you! They could've raped you and then killed you!! They could've."

"Naoko, that's enough," Nene surprised herself with the steely edge she managed to put into her voice. "Yes, they could have done those things, but it didn't happen, so there's no point in worrying about what they could have done. You didn't see me wandering the halls of the HQ with a gun the week after Yoshida and his boomers tried taking over the ADP building, did you? Then you shouldn't be expecting me to creep around and act like there's kidnappers hiding in every doorway."

"Well, no, but that's.not the same thing," Naoko let her voice trail off weakly.

"Yes, it is," Nene said bluntly. "They both weren't expected, and they were both dangerous. I'm not saying I'm not scared," she added, unable to suppress a nervous shiver, "I'm just saying that you can't let it ruin your life with 'what ifs'."

Naoko mumbled something unintelligible in reply, and stared glumly into her coffee cup. Nene sighed to herself, wishing she'd been able to find a better, more gentle way to phrase it. The problem was that Naoko probably needed a shoulder to cry on at the moment, and she just didn't have one to offer; she was still mentally adjusting to everything that had happened herself. Nene sighed again to herself, picking up her coffee cup and drinking the last swallow as she wished there was something more she could do.

As she started to put her cup down, her gaze fell upon a tall figure trying to inconspicuously loaf near one of the tables by the front window of the coffee shop she and Naoko had picked to have lunch at. She frowned to herself, trying to figure out why he seemed familiar.and then resisted the urge to slap a hand over her face and groan when she realized who it was. What on earth did he think he was doing?!

"Naoko, why don't you go back to the station with Tanaka there?" Nene suggested casually. "I'll meet you back there, okay? I think I just saw a friend I haven't seen in a while, and I want to do some catching up."

"I can't do that, ma'am," Tanaka spoke up. He was about five-foot-eight, with black hair and a face that seemed to be carved from solid rock, it was that expressionless. Nene had a suspicion that he'd been picked as her guard because he seemed to be immune to her 'cute act'. She'd tried convincing him a couple of times that he didn't need to follow her everywhere, and used every trick in the book, but to no avail. He kept insisting that he had his orders and that he was going to follow them, no matter what. "Chief Aramaki said that I'm not to leave you unprotected, especially when you're outside the station."

"I'm not going to leave the coffee shop," Nene tried assuring him. "Look, all you have to do is take Naoko back to the station, and then come back for me. I promise I won't go anywhere until you get back." She waved a hand at the people around them. "It's a public place, and I'll be with a friend, so you don't need to worry." She tried her best 'charming and innocent' look on him. It bounced off without any visible effect.

"I can't do that; I have my orders," he intoned stolidly.

"Either do it, or else I'll start hollering 'pervert!' at the top of my voice the next time you follow me to the washroom," Nene threatened. Tanaka blinked, and actually managed to look a bit surprised. Naoko looked a bit startled as well.

"Now that's not fair," he objected, frowning. "I'm just following my orders; there's no need to get nasty about it. This is a serious matter, young lady." Nene managed to restrain herself at being called 'young lady'; she was pretty sure Tanaka wasn't that much older than she was.

"Look, I understand that," Nene said, maintaining the 'sweet and charming' act with a bit of effort, "but I don't think there's much danger in walking Naoko back first. I'm in a public restaurant; I won't be unprotected when I'm surrounded by this many people, okay?"

"This 'friend' you want to see wouldn't be a new boyfriend, would it?" Naoko suddenly piped up, looking slyly at her. Nene was unable to keep from flushing, although not quite for the reasons Naoko was probably suspecting.

"I just want to talk to him for a few minutes," Nene tried to look lofty. "That's all."

"'Him'? It is, isn't it?!" Nene winced inwardly as Naoko began to grin in a knowing way. "Come on, Tanaka," the brown-haired ADP officer directed, leaping to her feet and grabbing their guard with her good arm. "She'll be okay for a few minutes."

"But.but I'm not supposed to do this!!" Tanaka tried protesting as Naoko dragged him towards the exit. "Look, I can't just.." His voice was cut off by the door closing behind them.

Nene sighed to herself, mentally counting to ten as she tried to determine if she should thank Naoko later for dragging Tanaka away, or strangle her for the probable boyfriend rumours that she was going to start circulating back at the ADP. She was unable to decide, so she instead opted to find out just why a certain person was lurking around one of her usual lunchtime spots.

Standing up, Nene shrugged into her uniform jacket and picked up her handbag from where it had been hanging over the back of her chair. She glanced towards the front of the shop, and then began walking purposefully towards the small table tucked in a corner by the front window. As she approached, the figure she'd noticed earlier sat up a bit straighter.

"Aren't you supposed to be dead?" Nene asked point-blank when she reached the table.

"Nice to see you too, Nene," Bert replied dryly, raising an eyebrow. "You're looking as lovely as ever. Care for a cup of coffee?" Nene flushed, quickly glancing around to see if anyone was eavesdropping, and then slid into the chair opposite him.

"What are you doing here?" she asked him, keeping her voice low as she leaned across the table. "And what on earth did you do to your hair?!"

"I needed to talk to you," Bert replied simply, shrugging. "As for the hair," he chuckled, and ran a hand through his unruly thatch of now-black hair, "I dyed it. I think the hardest part was getting the eyebrows to match." Nene noticed that he was wearing a different jacket than he customarily wore, a light blue windbreaker, and had swapped his usual hat for a baseball cap instead. It was enough of a change in his usual appearance to throw off anyone trying to pick him out in a crowd, but not quite enough to fool anyone who knew him well. Not at close range, anyway.

"I can't really say that black's your colour," Nene looked at him critically, her expression dubious. "It looks a bit off, actually."

"Well, it was either that or bleaching my hair, and I refuse to become a blonde," Bert shrugged. "Besides that, black was the only colour Sylvie had around."


"She's been disguising herself for quite a while now," Bert pointed out. "I figured she'd be the best one to ask for some pointers."

He fell silent as the waitress came by and served them each a mug of steaming coffee. Bert paid her, and she left them alone again. Bert quickly added cream and sugar to his drink, and watched as Nene did the same, stirring it in.

"I'm glad to see you're okay," he told her quietly. Nene looked up at his words, meeting his gaze, and was a bit startled by the intensity there. "That was the other reason I came; I had to see for myself that you were all right."

"I'm surviving," she said after a moment, then shivered slightly. "I wouldn't say I'm back to normal yet, though. I'm half-afraid that he might try again when we're not expecting it, and I really don't want to go through all that again.."

"Hopefully, he won't bother," Bert said reassuringly, then hesitated. "He didn't.uh .didn't do anything to you while you were a prisoner, did he?"

"He didn't rape or molest me, if that's what you're trying to ask," Nene smiled wanly. This time she did shudder as memories flashed back. "Although one of his men was going to try, but he stopped him." Nene squeezed her eyes shut and shuddered again. "He.he shot him, right in front of me, and I had his blood all over.all over my ."

"It's okay, I understand; you don't need to give me all the details," Bert put in quickly, reaching across the table and placing a gently reassuring hand on her arm for a moment. "I'm just glad you came through it okay."

"That's just it; I'm not sure if I did or not," Nene wiped at eyes that had started to water a bit, then looked at him. "I'm still trying to figure it all out, although I think I understand a little better now some of what you went through," she told him. "Any suggestions as to what I should do?"

"Talk to your friends," he said seriously, then grimaced. "I think I've just turned myself into probably the world's biggest hypocrite by saying that, though. I had to get hit over the head a few times - figuratively and literally speaking - before I realized that myself. Talk to Sylia if you feel you can't talk to anyone else about it, but don't sit at home and stew in private about it. Trust me, I've made that mistake, and you don't want to go there." He winced as he shifted in his chair.

"What's wrong?" Nene asked him, suddenly looking concerned. "You didn't get hurt in that car chase yesterday, did you?"

"Well, no," Bert suddenly looked uncomfortable, and couldn't look her in the eye. "I, uh, had a slight accident the other day, and I'm still kind of stiff and sore from it. Nothing to worry about."

"An 'accident'?" Nene raised an eyebrow, giving him a patently skeptical glance. "I know about you and your accidents; what did you do this time? Take your suit for a solo run and get trashed by a boomer?" Her eyes widened as he started visibly and crimsoned. "You DID, didn't you?!"

"I didn't get trashed by a boomer," he denied, casting a furtive glance around the coffee shop. "I got trashed by her suit."

"Excuse me?" Nene stared at him, her green eyes wide and incredulous. "Did you just say what I think you said?" She watched as he stared into his coffee cup, refusing now to meet her gaze while he stirred his coffee aimlessly for a couple of long moments.

"I . didn't react well to the news about your kidnapping," he finally said, still focusing on his coffee cup. "I was convinced that Hollister was behind it, as a means of trying to get at me."

"I was told that they were primarily interested in what I'd been doing for the ADP," Nene informed him. "I'd been investigating hacking into their networks - officially, I mean - and they found out. Although," she added after a moment, "they did know that we'd . had a relationship. I think they were looking at your possible involvement as a bonus, rather than the primary motivation when they grabbed me."

"Sylia said much the same thing," Bert admitted, then sighed. "But I wasn't really listening.I was too busy snarling at her about sitting around and not doing anything about it." He took a large slurp from his drink. As he set his cup down again, he finally met her gaze, and she was a bit shocked by how weary he looked suddenly.

"I lasted about a day," he continued speaking after taking a moment to consider his words. "And then I just couldn't stand it anymore, so I broke into the hardsuit room - Sylia'd already changed the access codes - and put on my suit."

"Why?" Nene's question was simple and direct, and her clear-eyed gaze never left his face. He sighed, and scrubbed a hand across his eyes.

"Because I couldn't think of anything else to do," he told her. "It's as simple as that. I couldn't sit around and wait, but at the same time I couldn't go out and pound Hollister into the dirt. I've always claimed to know what I was doing, but this time I just couldn't handle the realization that I couldn't do anything at all. I knew trying to go on a rampage with my armour was wrong, but I couldn't stop myself."

"So instead Sylia stopped you," Nene surmised. Bert nodded glumly, unable to keep guilt and regret from showing.

"We had a fairly nasty fight in the hardsuit room," he told the now white-faced ADP officer. "Pretty much wrecked the place. Sylia mopped the floor with me, effectively trashing my suit in the process. That was after she found out that I'd already disabled the remote shutdown circuits the last time I'd overhauled my suit. Anyhow, she gave me the option of either following orders and powering down my suit, or getting peeled out of my armour a piece at a time."

"Oh my God," Nene sat there staring at him, stunned. "Who else knows about this?" She wasn't sure how she should be reacting to the news; this was going to take some time to assimilate.

"Only Priss, so far," he replied. "She came charging in with her gun drawn, thinking there was a boomer downstairs or something." He gave a half-hearted grin. "Her expression was something like yours, actually." He drained the last of his coffee, and pushed the mug aside. "She gave me a royal bawling-out when I managed to crawl back to my apartment afterwards."

"Good," Nene said bluntly. "Can I add anything to what she said?"

"Nene, please," Bert managed to both looked pained and irritated at the same time. "I screwed up, all right? I freely admit it: I made a mistake. Did you want that in writing?! Yes, it was a stupid move and I regret it, but burying me under further verbal reprisals isn't going to help any."

"What did Sylia say?"

"I haven't talked to her since then," Bert admitted quietly, glancing out through the front window at the pedestrian traffic outside the restaurant. "I'm scared to, actually. Bare minimum, I'm probably suspended from duty. I'm not sure I want to find out what else she's going to do."

"I ... don't know what to say," Nene said after a minute, looking worried. "What are you going to do now?"

"About the only thing I can do, I suppose," Bert sighed, closing his eyes and rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "Go talk to Sylia, and pray real hard that she'll listen to an apology. After that," he hesitated for a moment, "assuming there's anything left of me, I'll probably take a trip somewhere. Just to try and get away from it all for a while and see if I can pull myself back together or not." He glanced at the clock on the wall nearby, and frowned. "Shouldn't your escort have been back by now?"

"Not if Naoko dragged him off," Nene said dryly. "She thinks I'm talking to a new boyfriend - she jumped to that conclusion on her own, by the way - so she'll probably try and keep him from getting back here anytime soon. Why, are you in a hurry?"

"No, I just don't want to get you in trouble at work, that's all."

"Technically, I'm on 'light duties' at the moment," Nene sighed, tossing her head and sending an agitated ripple through her hair. "Which means they've been keeping me from doing any real work at the station. My boss wanted me to take a few days off, in fact. I don't think he'll mind a slightly extended lunch break."

"Hmmmm," Bert regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then seemed to gather his resolve. "There was one other thing I wanted to discuss, but, I, uh..." He suddenly flushed, and had to look away from her. "I'm not sure I should be even bothering you about it, to be honest."

"Go ahead," Nene told him, smiling a little wryly. "It couldn't be worse than anything I've already dealt with this week."

"I'm not so sure," he replied, squirming in his seat and looking extremely uncomfortable. "It's probably going to be a little personal, actually, and I ..."

"You're afraid of hurting my feelings again," Nene looked at him levelly. "I think I've learned enough over the last few weeks to be able to deal with it if it does," she told him simply. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Well," he started slowly, and Nene noticed that one of his hands had latched onto his empty coffee mug, and was maintaining a clenched, white-knuckled grip on it as he talked; she hoped it wouldn't accidentally break on him. "I owe you an apology, first off."

"An apology?" Nene was mystified. "For what?"

"For . objectifying you, instead of treating you like a real person . someone who wanted more out of our relationship than I was prepared to give, or even recognize that you needed."

"I . don't think I quite get what you're driving at," Nene said awkwardly, suddenly unsettled by the intensity in his gaze as he looked at her. The beginnings of a dim understanding began to glimmer in the back of her mind, but some emotional self-preservation instinct tried to quash it, as if her subconscious had recognized that maybe she wasn't ready to hear what he had to say, after all.

"I can't answer for how you felt at the time," he told her, "but in hindsight I think I got a bit carried away with the 'knight in shining armour and the lady fair' imagery." He reddened again and cleared his throat. "I guess I had you on a pedestal - mentally speaking - and was too blind to see that you . needed . something else from our relationship."

"Um, I . don't know what to say," Nene sat quietly for a moment, mulling that over. "I guess I was caught up in the romance of it for a while." She suddenly giggled a bit, her cheeks colouring. "I think every girl goes through a phase where she fantasizes about a white knight on a charger coming to her rescue, and for a while that's almost exactly what I had with you." Her expression quickly shifted to exasperation. "I will say that I was getting a bit sick and tired of you always managing to rack yourself up, though, especially when you were answering to one of your 'chivalric urges'."

"Yeah, well," Bert grinned sheepishly. "I wasn't doing it on purpose." Silence fell for a moment, made suddenly awkward by the fact that they were both wrestling with rather intimate feelings that they'd shared once. He cleared his throat a couple of times as if about to speak, but stayed silent.

"You said that you'd been putting me on a pedestal with that 'fair lady' stuff," Nene suddenly spoke up. "Was that why. why you," she suddenly turned a very hot red colour, almost matching her hair. "Why you never, um ." Oh hell, now what was she going to say? "Is that why you never made a pass at me? You thought you were protecting . protecting my virtue?" Nene felt like she was burning up, and she briefly wondered if it was possible for somebody to die of embarrassment. Having a stroke from the blood pressure didn't seem entirely unreasonable at the moment, that was for sure.

"In a way, I suppose that was part of it," Bert looked decidedly uncomfortable. "It . I'm afraid it wasn't quite that cut and dried, though. I . " He took a deep breath - several deep breaths - and plowed in. "I never tried . sleeping with you because I was afraid of. afraid that ." He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself; trying to find the right words for what he had to say was proving to be a monumental task. "I was afraid that you'd see it as an indirect marriage proposal, and I just couldn't commit to something like that. Not because of you," he quickly put in, seeing a faint flicker of hurt flash in her eyes. "It was because I didn't think it would be fair to promise you something long-term when I wasn't even sure I was going to still be around the next week. I..." He suddenly sighed and gave a weary shrug. "I guess it still all boils down to the fact that I was afraid of committing myself. And for that, and all the attendant misery I inadvertently caused you as a result, I'll probably never forgive myself. I'm sorry." He slumped back in his chair, looking drained and tired.

Nene wasn't sure if she should laugh or cry. On the one hand, finally hearing what his reasoning had been did hurt a little; on the other, it seemed oddly amusing in a way. She'd always had a faint, nagging suspicion that he'd been afraid to try going further in their relationship then they had when they'd been together, but she hadn't thought anybody could have reasoning that was quite so.convoluted. She finally sighed herself, shaking her head disbelievingly, eyes closed and one hand over her face.

"Nene, I'm sorry." he started to say again.

"Did it ever occur to you that you could have just ASKED what I thought about it?" she demanded, cutting him off.

"Well, I ... It's not that I didn't ... um ... no."

"I didn't think so," she said dryly, raising an eyebrow. "You worry too much sometimes, you know that? What makes you think I'd even tried to plan that far in advance for my life? The truth is, I haven't. I enjoy my job - both of them - too much to want to change that right now. Maybe someday - assuming I find the right guy - I'll marry him and settle down somewhere, or then again, maybe not. I'm not trying to sit here and plan for every 'what if?' situation that comes along."

"Oh." Bert sat there quietly for a moment. "So where does that leave us now?"

"Where do you think?" Nene replied quietly, her green-eyed gaze level and serious. "If we'd had this discussion months ago, maybe things would be different now, like maybe we'd still be together. I don't know." She sighed. "As much as it hurts to admit it now, we've grown apart; we're not the same people we were a few months ago."

"True enough," he admitted glumly, gazing out at the street. He straightened in his seat abruptly, his mouth twisting in annoyance. "Like it or not, I think we'll have to end it there," he told her, giving her a quick warning glance. "Your escort for the day is coming back along the street, and he doesn't look overly happy."

"Tanaka's never looked happy about anything," Nene replied sourly. "I think I've seen more expression on a chunk of rock than what he shows most of the time." Bert grinned at her observation, then sobered.

"Are you going to be all right?" he asked her. She met his gaze for a moment, and felt warmed by the concern she saw there. "I'd like to still try and be friends, if nothing else."

"I'd like that," she said, smiling at him. "And I'll be fine. You'd better get out of here before Tanaka gets in; I don't think he's ever seen you up close, but we'd better not take that chance."

"Okay," Bert put his hands on the table and started to rise from his seat. As he did so, he leaned across the table and gave her a light kiss on the forehead. "Take care and I'll see you later." He was at the door to the restaurant in a few long-legged strides, and then he was gone, somehow merging into the crowd outside and vanishing within seconds.

Nene sat there for a few moments, feeling a pleasant warmth spread through her. She supposed that she should feel depressed - after all, she'd just helped to confirm the end of their relationship - but she found that instead, she felt a pleasant glow of self-esteem. Their discussion had somehow given her a sense of closure; all the questions had been answered.

They were still friends, even after all they'd been through. Given the some of the acrimonious actions and words that had surrounded their breakup, that was something she hadn't been sure would happen. Thankfully, they'd both finally been able to let go of the bitterness and move on. It hadn't been easy, but she knew by now that life was like that.

Sighing, and bracing herself, Nene stood up from the table, turning as Tanaka entered the restaurant.


Sylia rapped firmly on the apartment door, her expression one of implacable determination. She waited for a minute or so, listening to hear if any noise was coming from the other side of the wooden portal, but all she heard was water trickling through pipes somewhere else in the building. It was utterly silent on the basement level, and she frowned to herself, regarding the door thoughtfully.

She knew Bert hadn't left his apartment, or at least the building, for the couple of days - Fargo had said none of his men had seen the red-head leave her building. She'd then come to the conclusion that he was hiding again, and decided that it was past time for that discussion they needed to have.

Locating him, however, had proved to be no small task; she was beginning to wonder if he'd somehow managed to turn invisible. After knocking on his door and receiving no response, she'd checked his usual haunts throughout the entire building and found nothing. She hadn't really expected to find him in the shop, since she'd blocked his access to both it and the suit facilities - and made damn sure she had his lightsaber this time - but she hadn't expected to find absolutely no trace of him anywhere else, either.

The only other option left to her now was to go upstairs to the master control room for the building's surveillance systems and see if she could find out where he was by using the internal cameras. That would be a royal pain to do, though, not to mention how time-consuming it would be.

Sylia put her hand on the doorknob, hesitating for a moment before turning it. As she'd half-suspected, he hadn't locked the door. Easing it open a crack, she listened to hear if anything was coming from the apartment, like snoring, but within everything was quiet. She pushed the door completely open, and looked in. Everything was quiet, and there was nobody in sight - and this time it didn't sound like there was lovemaking going on, either. She flushed slightly as she remembered the last time she'd entered his apartment looking for him.

Sighing in annoyance to herself, Sylia entered and walked over to the telephone. Picking it up, she dialed a phone number; nobody answered Priss's telephone though, so she hung up. She crossed her arms over her chest for a moment, bowing her head in thought for a moment. On a hunch, she picked up the phone again, and used one of the touchpad keys to scroll back through the telephone's memory. She put the phone receiver to her ear as the phone obediently re-dialed the last number he'd called before she'd used the phone.

"Hello! Thank you for calling Silky Doll Lingerie," Sylvie's voice answered the phone cheerily. "How can I help you?"

"Hello, Sylvie. It's Sylia." Her lingerie shop was among the last places she'd have expected Bert to phone, given how bashful he seemed to get on certain subjects, but that had been the number on the list. "I'm looking for Bert; have you seen him lately?"

"Hi Boss," Sylvie greeted her. "I haven't seen him since he borrowed my bottle of hair dye the other day. Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing's wrong," Sylia answered smoothly. "I just wanted to clear a few things up with him, that's all. If you see him, let him know I'm looking for him." Sylvie answered affirmatively, and Sylia hung up the phone, her stomach suddenly roiling in unease. Hair dye?! What had he...? Oh wonder she couldn't find him, and no wonder Fargo's men had reported that he hadn't left the building.

Sylia started to swear out loud when she heard footsteps in the hallway. Looking towards the hallway, she saw a tall, fairly well-built man with dark-coloured hair wearing a light blue jacket suddenly loom in the doorframe, a small, plastic-wrapped package in one hand. His gaze went from the obviously open door to the apartment interior, to where Sylia was standing, one hand still on the telephone.

"Sylia?" It was unmistakably Bert's voice, and internally she relaxed, somewhat relieved. "Is ... is something wrong?"

"I've been trying to find you for most of the morning," she told him as he stepped into the apartment and closed the door behind himself "Where were you?"

"Oh, out and around," he answered evasively, tossing his hat and jacket into a nearby chair. "I had a couple of things to take care of, and they're out of the way now." He walked over to the living room area where Sylia was standing near the couch, and pitched the small packet he was carrying towards the coffee table in the center; it made a couple of soft bounces amid the noise of rustling plastic. "Care for a cup of tea? Something else?"

"Tea would be fine, thank you," Sylia replied, noting that he was managing to avoid looking directly at her. Mentally, she sighed to herself, realizing that she was going to definitely have her work cut out for her this time around. His attitude was stiff, almost forced, as if he was very tightly holding himself in check over something.

"Okay, it'll be about five minutes or so," he told her. "Make yourself at home while I'm getting it ready."

Sylia watched him as he strode briskly over to his kitchen area, and filled an electric kettle with water, and plugged it in. As the kettle started to hiss, working away at heating the water, he started rummaging in another adjacent cupboard, looking for something. He made no attempt to engage in conversation.

Sylia's lips compressed a bit as she turned away, looking for a comfortable-looking place to sit. She'd known talking to him wasn't going to be easy, and the way he was maintaining a stony silence wasn't going to help any. Small talk seemed somehow inappropriate at the moment - the more so because she wasn't even sure he'd reply to it - but somehow she had to crack the shell he was maintaining.

She sat down slowly on the couch, trying to figure out how to start. Her brow furrowed slightly in annoyance as she drew a blank; she wasn't used to not being able to analyze a problem, and it was mildly frustrating. Of course, she'd also never had to use force on one of her friends before, either...

An arm appeared at the side of her field of vision, and she had to force herself not to jump as Bert leaned over, setting her cup of tea on the coffee table for her; she'd been so preoccupied, she hadn't even heard him approaching. He sank into a padded easy chair nearby with his own drink. Sylia was unable to keep from looking askance at the . the tankard he was using; it looked like it would easily hold double what an ordinary coffee mug might, and it wasn't the mug he customarily used.

"Aren't you supposed to be cutting back?" she asked, indicating the mug he held.

"I decided I needed the caffeine more than I needed to go through withdrawal symptoms," he shrugged, taking a large gulp of tea as if for emphasis. "Besides," he added, swallowing, "I'm following the rest of the doctor's orders, so I think I'm entitled to one small lapse."

Awkward silence fell again, thick and uncomfortable. Sylia mentally cursed to herself as she tried to find some way to break the ice. If only he'd just.

"Oh, that package on the table is for you," Bert suddenly said, his expression inscrutable as he nursed his mug in his hands. "I hope you like it."

Sylia glanced at him as she set her teacup down, puzzled, but couldn't read him at all. Sighing to herself, she reached over to the plastic-wrapped bundle he'd tossed on the table earlier and pulled it towards herself, setting it on her lap. It took a few moments of struggle with the seemingly extra-sticky tape to get the wrapping loose, but she finally peeled it away, and was left with a neatly folded bundle of white cloth.

Still puzzled, Sylia started unfolding the cloth, and found that she was holding a fairly large cotton T-shirt. As she lifted it up to get a better look at it, the bottom portion of the shirt fell free, revealing the image emblazoned on the front that it had been obscuring. Sylia stared at it for a moment, a smile starting to creep across her face, then gave up and started laughing softly.

The image on the shirt was one of the typical dragon associated with Western mythology: big, red, and scaly, with large bat-like wings, claws, and fangs. In one taloned forepaw, it was holding a suit of medieval plate armour, presumably occupied, and in the other paw it was holding a very large can opener. The dragon was licking its chops with a long, forked tongue, evidently in anticipation of its forthcoming meal. It was, she had to admit, very amusing.

"Thank you," she told him once she'd managed to regain her composure, lowering the shirt. "It's very nice," a smile quirked at her lips again, "and rather appropriate, I would have to say."

"I'm glad you like it," he replied quietly. "I wasn't sure of, uh, your measurements," he flushed slightly, "so if it doesn't fit I can get it exchanged for you. At any rate, I figured," he took a healthy swig from his drink as his voice suddenly started to get raspy, "I figured that something more than an apology was going to be necessary this time. 'I'm sorry' doesn't even begin to cover it, and even that," he waved his mug in the direction of her shirt, "doesn't really go nearly far enough either. I don't think I'll ever find the right words to tell you just how much I regret what happened." He stared glumly at his mug.

"It's a start," Sylia said simply, re-folding the T-shirt and setting it aside. "The main thing now is to try and move on and not dwell on it for too long."

"Sylia, I was trying my not-so-level best to injure or kill you," Bert's gaze lifted to hers briefly, then quickly flicked away as guilt threatened to overwhelm him. "How the hell do you move on from that? How can you trust me not to go ballistic again when I can barely trust myself anymore?"

"I didn't say it was going to be easy," Sylia picked up her teacup and took a sip. "But you have to at least be willing to try. Are you going to try, or just sit there and give up?"

"Excuse me?" Bert's head snapped up, his greenish-brown eyes igniting for a moment with anger. "I don't recall saying anything about giving up."

"Not in as many words, no," Sylia looked back at him coolly, mentally assessing what she could see in his eyes. There was still a spark of what he'd once been there, but the real trick was going to be in rebuilding it to something more than a spark. "But it sounded to me like you weren't even willing to try coming to terms with what happened. And that doesn't sound like the person I used to know; he never used to back away from a problem."

"Yeah, well, that was before the person you knew managed to damn near bury himself with several things," Bert sighed, his momentary flash of anger draining away. "I'm tired, Sylia; I don't think I can quantify just how tired. I've been fighting to keep from going over the edge for weeks now, and I'm starting to lose; I'm edgy, irritable, and paranoid now. I can't stop looking over my shoulder because I feel like Hollister or somebody else is going to leap out of the bushes at me. Hell, I can barely relax anymore, even when I'm with Priss."

"I'm aware of that now," Sylia replied. "I wish you'd come to me sooner about it; we could have probably avoided what happened."

"Maybe," he said darkly.

"Definitely," she corrected him firmly. "If you weren't so damned mule-headed about confiding in other people, especially your friends, then we could likely have helped you before you started spiraling out of control."

"If by 'help' you mean sending me to see a shrink." he started to say, scowling, but Sylia shook her head.

"Your problems lately have stemmed from a variety of factors," she told him, draining her teacup and setting it aside. "One is a rather overdeveloped sense of responsibility; you wouldn't have been leaving me 'holding the bag' if you'd taken a break from working on the suits.which you didn't. The minute you were physically capable of working again, you dove right back into playing in the tech shop."

"Now wait just a minute."

"You've been working yourself into a burnout by pushing yourself to 'act normal' again, especially since that Hollister incident," Sylia continued speaking, ignoring his heated attempt at defense. "In retrospect, I probably should have insisted on a more thorough evaluation of your condition, physical and mental."

"Look, I am NOT a basketcase," Bert growled, "which seems to me to be what you're implying."

"That wasn't my intention," Sylia shook her head again. "What I'm saying is that instead of dealing with what happened to you and coming to terms with it, you shoved it to the back of your mind and tried to wall it off, to forget about it as much as possible. The problem with that approach is that it's much like burying a drum of toxic waste underground: there will be seepage from it over time, and it will start affecting you."

"I haven't.." Bert started to deny her words, then stopped, looking troubled.

"You were on top of it for a while," Sylia told him. "I don't think you were as in control of yourself as you like to say you were. I would say that the stress from recent events served to undermine what control you did have, and from there it was a rather quick trip downhill, wouldn't you say?"

"Assuming I concede your point, just how do you recommend I deal with .what happened?"

"Stop hiding from it," Sylia told him quietly. "Admit that what happened did change you, and try to figure out where the changes occurred. You can't keep walking around quietly nursing hatred and anger over what happened to you and trying to hide it from other people. Sooner or later, it will win." She regarded him thoughtfully. "The fact that you didn't feel you could confide in anyone else about it certainly didn't help."

"Sylia, I don't see why I should inflict absolutely all my hang-ups on someone else. I mean, some of them, okay, but there are some other ones that there's just not much anyone else can do about them."

"We're the ones who have to live with the fallout from your hang-ups," Sylia reminded him, her tone becoming a bit sharper as exasperation with him started to leak through her self-control. "Talking about them does help to resolve things - even if it doesn't seem like it - and it's MUCH easier to deal with something before it becomes a crisis. That does, of course, require swallowing a certain amount of pride and admitting that, yes, you are indeed human and just as fallible as the rest of us."

Bert sat there like a minor thundercloud, scowling blackly at his mug and refusing to look her in the eye.

"You know I'm right, don't you?" Sylia prodded him.

"I'm willing to concede that you may have a point," he said grudgingly. Sylia folded her arms over her chest and regarded him levelly, one eyebrow raised, waiting. After a minute or so of her unwavering gaze, he sighed and gave in. "Okay, okay, I surrender," he grumbled. "You're right. Happy now?"

"Relieved that you're willing to be sensible, at least," Sylia replied. "Now that we've got that out of the way, I think we need to discuss what the response to your actions of the other day should be."

"I'll go get the blindfold," Bert sighed. "Do I get any last requests?"

"Stop that," Sylia admonished irritably. "I'm not about to summarily execute you."

"You didn't see yourself from the business end of your weapons the other night."

"I was a little out of sorts with you," Sylia admitted dryly. "I think you'll agree that I did have due cause, though." She regarded him as he slouched deeper into his chair. "I think you've probably already figured out that I've revoked your access to the suit facilities and shop, correct?"

He nodded.

"You're also suspended from active duty for the time being," Sylia informed him, noting his almost imperceptible wince. "That may be subject change due to circumstances if something were to come up. It will depend entirely on your behaviour in the interim, clear?"

"Clear," he sighed.

"And finally," Sylia managed to keep her face straight. "By the end of the week I want a detailed plan on where you plan to spend at least the next six to eight weeks on vacation." It took a moment for what she'd said to totally register, and she took a great deal of satisfaction in watching his jaw drop.

"You want what?!" he spluttered. "Look, Sylia, I'd thought of taking a week or two off, but six to eight weeks?! "

"Too short? All right, we can probably make it eight to ten."

"NO!!" he half-shouted, almost jumping out of his chair. He fought to get himself under control for a moment. "Let's try this again," he said after a few deep breaths. "I'm not opposed to the idea of taking some time off, but there's no way I can justify taking THAT much time off."

"You don't have to justify anything to anyone," Sylia told him. "I'm telling you: you're taking six to eight weeks off, minimum. Preferably out of the country for a while."

"I'm not being given a choice, in other words."

"Exactly," Sylia was unable to keep a slightly smug smile from appearing. "And if you try to weasel out of it, Priss volunteered to help me tie you up and throw you on the first available flight from Japan. We'd both prefer it if you went willingly, of course."

"You're bullying me," he accused.

"You poor baby," Sylia said in mock-commiseration. "I'm sure you'll get over it after a week or two of rest." Another smile twitched at her lips. "I'll tell you what: if you still feel like some other form of retribution is required by the time you get back, I'll tie you up and lock you in a basement room for a few days. How does that sound?"

"I'm shocked; I didn't know you went for that sort of thing, Sylia," Bert remarked dryly, raising an eyebrow. "Basement dungeons and restraints and stuff like that." Sylia simply smiled demurely at him, crossed her legs, and folded her hands on her knee.

"All right then," Bert conceded defeat, seeing that he wasn't going to get a rise out of her. "Could you at least tell me why I have to take my vacation outside of the country?"

"Because it gets you away from a lot of the causes of your problems," Sylia told him. "I know you; even with your access to the suit facilities cut off, you'll eventually be trying to find a way around that. I'm very neatly solving that problem by making sure you won't be tempted. In addition, certain parties now believe you to be dead; there's less chance of them finding out otherwise if you're not still hanging around MegaTokyo."

"I'll need to find someone to run my archery range while I'm away," he tried hedging. "I can't just pack up and leave without ."

"I can find someone trustworthy," she assured him smoothly. "Trust me."

"Do I have a choice?" he muttered sourly, mostly to himself.

"What was that?"

"Nothing, nothing at all," he sighed. "Did you want another cup of tea?"


"Oh Nene," Aramaki called mildly, leaning over slightly to look out through the open door of his office. "I don't suppose you know why my computer is rejecting my passwords now, do you?" He looked torn between exasperation and amusement as Nene looked up from her desk terminal, her expression one of angelic innocence. With her clean, neatly pressed uniform and bright red hair accenting the effect, he was mildly surprised that a halo hadn't appeared over her.

"Me, sir? I can't imagine why you'd think such a thing," she said primly. "I'm sitting here minding my own business, shuffling my paperwork."

"In other words you're still miffed because I wouldn't let you take on any of the investigations this morning or accompany any of the other officers."

"Not at all, sir," she replied. "I'm sure you know what you're doing."

"All right, I surrender," Aramaki sighed. "If you'll be so kind as to give me my access back, I'll give you something to do. Deal?"

"Deal," Nene grinned cheerfully. "I'll be there in a second."

Aramaki shook his head ruefully as he sat back in his chair. The problem, he reflected wryly to himself, was that Nene didn't look like she should be as sharp as she was proving to be. The support staff of the ADP was replete with cute and attractive girls, but he doubted that there was anyone capable of using 'cute' to the same, almost lethal, extent that Nene was able to. If Leon hadn't pointed out her skill with computer systems, he doubted that he'd have noticed on his own.

Her work for his 'special investigation' division had been exemplary, and had definitely taken some of the right steps required to secure the ADP's networks from outside snoops. Aramaki had shown portions of the code she'd used for some of the programming to some of his other contacts, and they'd confirmed that he had a live one on his hands. Her code had been neat, compact, and efficient.definitely not what he'd expected from someone whose records didn't indicate that level of programming skill. Aramaki was privately glad that she was on the police force; he'd already seen what hackers with comparable skills and malicious intentions could do.

"Okay, you've got your access back," Nene bounced cheerily into his office and came over to his desk.

"Thank you," Aramaki replied dryly, mentally assessing her anew. There didn't seem to be any lasting ill effects from her ordeal earlier in the week, which he did consider slightly unusual. Either the young redheaded woman was exceptionally resilient, emotionally and psychologically speaking, or else she was hiding it extremely well. He'd known kidnap victims in the past who'd taken weeks to recover, sometimes longer. "That is not exactly a nice thing to do to your superior officers, young lady," he admonished her with mock severity.

"I'm sorry, sir. I'll try not to let it happen again." Nene somehow managed to look smug and contrite at the same time. "You said you had something for me to work on?"

"Yes, I do," Aramaki confirmed. "I was hoping that you'd take the hint and take a couple more days off."

"With all due respect, sir," Nene said quietly, her expression sobering, "I'd rather work and keep my mind occupied with something useful; I have enough time when I go home at night to feel paranoid about what happened." She grimaced slightly.

"Do you want me to book you another session with the counselor?" Aramaki asked. In the wake of the shakeup within the ADP, a psychologist had been added to the force's personnel to help several individuals deal with the resultant stress of discovering that some of their co-workers had been working for agencies other than the police. It hadn't been easy squeezing funding out of the city government, but he'd managed it. Nene had already had a post-kidnapping evaluation session, and come through with a clean bill of health.

"No, thank you, sir," Nene shook her head. "It's not that bad yet; I had a harder time calming down after the ADP building was almost destroyed by those rogue boomers over a year ago. Don't worry, I'll be fine."

"All right," Aramaki nodded. "But I don't want you saying 'I'm fine' if it is bothering you; self-sacrifice is all very noble, but I don't want it interfering with your work here. Understand?"

"Perfectly, sir."

"Look, Nene, would you PLEASE stop calling me 'sir'?" Aramaki sighed. "You're making me feel like an elder statesman or something, and I'm not that old."

"I . don't think I can do that . sir," Nene replied, her mouth twitching as she tried to suppress a smile. "You're still my superior officer, after all." Aramaki sighed again, and began rummaging through the stack of file folders on his desk. As he sifted through them, he glanced at Nene and suddenly looked thoughtful.

"Were you ever issued a sidearm, Nene?" he asked suddenly. She blinked for a moment, surprised at the unexpected question.

"Well, uh, yes I was, but I keep it in the weapons locker," she replied. "I only ever passed the Level One training with it, and it's not like I've ever needed it on a day to day basis. Filing reports has never been hazardous duty," she noted, a trace of dryness in her tone. "Why?"

"Just Level One?" Aramaki raised an eyebrow. "We'll have to fix that. Luckily, there are some handgun re-qualification courses being run this week. I'll just slide you into a couple of them so that we can raise your rating."

"Excuse me?!" Nene's exclamation sounded a little strangled. "Uh, sir? Is that really necessary?! I mean I've never."

"I'd say it's necessary now," Aramaki replied smoothly. "You've moved up the ladder into a higher-risk job; being kidnapped a few days ago should be proof enough of that." He grinned at her suddenly, his face wrinkling in amusement. "All the inspectors carry sidearms, Nene. Since you're working with them all the time now, I'd say it's about time you started, wouldn't you?"

"Sir!!" Nene now looked mildly panicked. Level Two training?! She'd just barely managed to make the Level One requirements! "I don't think that's such a good idea, sir," she swallowed, flushing a little. "I'm . I'm not a very good shot."

"All that takes is a little practice," Aramaki waved a hand dismissively. "I'm sure you'll be able to handle it. Don't worry, you won't be the only woman there, and no one's going to laugh at you."

"Can I have that in writing?" she asked faintly. Her entire expression indicated that she now felt extremely ill.

"There's a session this afternoon at two o'clock," Aramaki informed her, scribbling something down on a notepad. "I'll let the instructor know that you'll be showing up, and she'll get you started."

"'She'?" Nene's eyes widened in surprise.

"That's why I can guarantee that nobody will laugh," Aramaki smiled again. "I've noticed that having an instructor who can make everyone look like a rank amateur on the target range tends to keep people quiet. Now then, run along and get your sidearm; I want you to start wearing it whenever you're on duty."

"Yes, sir," Nene sighed, resigning herself to what was likely going to be a very long week; she could already hear Naoko warming up the gossip mill when she saw that Nene had started packing a gun. "Can I have that other work you wanted me to do first?"

"Certainly," Aramaki handed her a file folder. "When you get back you can look through this file and start following up some of the leads related to it; that should keep you occupied until this afternoon. And try not to look like you're about to be martyred, Nene," he said kindly. "Have some faith in your abilities, okay?"

"Whatever you say, sir," she sighed, taking the file from him.


The pounding of hammers driving nails into boards, power-saws chewing through sheets of plywood, and the occasional curse as someone experienced a mishap filled the air. The noise was enough that it had driven away most of the birds from the nearby trees and replaced their songs with a decidedly unmusical racket. Nearby, an electrical generator hummed contentedly as it fed power to the tools being used by the construction crew clambering over the skeletal frame of a small, two-storey house.

Sawdust flew in a cloud, settling on everything in a gritty film, including the workers. One of them cursed fluently, swiping the back of a grimy glove at his forehead. This didn't improve anything; sweat either dripped onto the lens of his safety goggles, or ran in rivulets down his face.

Setting his hammer aside, he staggered to his feet and navigated his way through the interior maze of two-by-fours and struts, out to where several transport trucks were parked. He headed for the rear of one of the trucks, where another man was loitering around the large water cooler perched on the truck's tailgate. The other man waved as he approached.

"Hey, Ishibaya, how's it going?" the man leaning against the truck was wearing a sweat-stained T-shirt and grimy jeans, and a very scuffed-looking hard hat.

"Not bad," Ishibaya replied. He was similarly attired, but was an inch or two shorter than his co-worker. "We'll have the exterior finished in another day or so, and then the electricians can start their end of things." Ishibaya grabbed a battered plastic cup from a nearby boxful of them, and filled it with ice-cold water from the cooler. He took a deep draught of water, wincing slightly as the cold water made his teeth ache. Despite that, a delicious coolness spread through him from the drink, momentarily driving away the heat of exertion.

"Lookin' good then; we'll probably be done by the end of the month then," the other man opined. "Just hope once we get it up that we don't get more boomers trashing the place."

"It wasn't boomers; it was a gas line explosion," Ishibaya said, refilling his cup and drinking deeply again. "Get your facts straight, willya?"

"That's not what I heard; I heard the guy who used to own this place built some kind of a bunker underneath the house and was hacking into corporate networks from here. Then they sent a boomer squad to take him out."

"Man, I don't know what you've been drinking, but pass the bottle, will you? That has to be the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Lots of people have put additions on houses without registering building permits before; just because this guy did the same thing doesn't make him some kind of subversive," Ishibaya snorted, getting yet another cupful of water. "And anyone can get a basement put under a new house without it showing in the blueprints; all you have to do is pay the construction engineers off with enough money." He took another long swallow of water. "And everything's electronic now; they haven't kept paper blueprints on record for years. Wouldn't take much to doctor them, or erase a file." Ishibaya frowned suddenly.

"Hey, who's the joker on the motorcycle?" he asked, pointing to the shadowy figure sitting well back from the road, under the edge of one of the thick stands of trees lining the property they were building on. "I think he's been there for a few hours now. Doesn't he have something better to do than watch people working for a living?"

"I think it's the guy who owns the property," the other man said. "The foreman tried to tell him to get lost earlier, and came back looking pretty shaken. He told us to just ignore the guy and keep working." He shrugged, and picked up his gloves from where he'd dropped them. "All he's doing is watching. No skin off my back. Come on, we'd better get back to work." The two construction workers hurried back to the hive of activity surrounding the unfinished house.

Almost invisible under the trees, the dark figure remained hunched over a dark blue motorcycle, his features concealed by a mirrored motorcycle helmet. The figure had his chin propped on one hand, his elbows resting on the gas tank of the motorcycle. He stayed there for quite some time, unmoving, lost in thought.


"This has got to be one of the stupidest ideas you've ever had, and I've ever been party to," the tall athletic-looking woman told Aramaki as she stalked into his office and flopped angrily into a chair. Instead of her usual form-fitting bodysuit, she was wearing a neatly pressed ADP uniform that flattered her figure almost as much. Instead of the usual skirt that went with the women uniforms, however, she was wearing slacks. And a sidearm, one that on closer inspection was definitely not standard ADP issue.

"Really?" A smile twitched at Aramaki's mouth. "I must say that's not the first time I've heard that from you," he squinted at rank markings on the shoulder flashes of her uniform blouse, "Sergeant Kusanagi. In fact, I recall several other instances where you said exactly that."

"Yeah, well the circumstances were different," violet eyes flashed as she scowled at him. "If anyone from our former associates recognizes me, it's not going to be pretty. I was supposed to be 'retired', remember? Doing covert surveillance was one thing - at least I wasn't out in the open - but this?!" She gestured with frustration and distaste at the uniform she was wearing. "You're out of your mind. Sir," she added sarcastically.

"I realize that you're not happy about this," Aramaki sighed, "but I need someone I can trust implicitly. It's just for a day or two during the week, maybe twice a month at most."

"Come off it," she retorted. "There's plenty of other people you could get to teach combat marksmanship to the cops."

"Possibly," Aramaki conceded. "But I want the best. That's you. I also want somebody who can objectively give me their opinion on the officers they'll be training. That's also you."

"You've already conducted a thorough records check on everyone still here," she said flatly. "Hell, you've probably even got genetic scans of the rats in the basement. Why drag me into this?"

"A records check can verify factual truth about the subject, not character of the subject," Aramaki said, waving a hand to dismiss her observation. "I've got some people I've got my eye on for other roles in the ADP, but a records check won't give me a character analysis."

"And you think having me run your little troopers through a few rounds of target practice will let me do that?!"

"I'm not asking you to evaluate everyone in the building," he retorted irritably. "Just a few select people. I'm sure you know how to covertly pump them and their co-workers for information." He looked at her levelly. "I wouldn't be asking you to do this if it wasn't important."

"All right, fine, I'll do it," Kusanagi looked annoyed. "But I'll warn you now: If McNichol makes another lame pass at me, I'm going to shoot him."

Aramaki started to laugh.


Sylia had just placed the large, insulated carafe full of coffee on the living room coffee table when a hesitant knocking sounded at the door to her apartment. Straightening up, she walked across the room to answer the door, unconsciously smoothing the wrinkles out of her blouse. She checked her reflection in the mirror with a quick glance as she walked by, and permitted herself a faint, satisfied nod at her appearance.

"Okay, I've decided where I'm going to go for my 'vacation'. Happy now?" Bert said without preamble when she opened the door. He was dressed in a clean, unwrinkled white sweater and jeans, and she was mildly surprised to note that his hair was even combed semi-neatly. She attributed that to the fact that his hair was still wet; it would likely return to being an unruly mess the minute it dried out.

"Aren't I always?" Sylia asked, raising an eyebrow as she stepped aside and motioned for him to enter. As he stepped through the door, she noticed that in addition to still being damp, his hair had also returned to a mostly red colour. Sylia wondered idly just how long he'd spent scrubbing at it, and then quickly squelched the smirk that threatened to break through her cool demeanor at the image of him with his head stuck in a bucket full of soapsuds.

"Hard to say," Bert told her as he kicked off his shoes. "You can be awfully inscrutable when you choose to be."

"That's part of my charm," Sylia deadpanned. "You're not supposed to know what I'm thinking."

"Uh-huh," Bert eyed her suspiciously. "I wanted to tell you what my decision was before the meeting; that way we can iron out anything you don't like without having to get into a public argument about it."

"All right then, but I'll need a few more minutes in the kitchen first," Sylia told him. "There's coffee over by the sandwiches, but please remember to leave some for everyone else when they get here."

"I'll wait until they get here before I start ," Bert told her. She nodded, and walked back into the kitchen. A moment later, he heard plates clattering together as she continued cleaning up.

"Did you want any help in there?" he called as he wandered over towards the bay window overlooking MegaTokyo. The city skyline beyond the window looked, as always, like some great beast covered with multi-coloured points of light.

"No, thank you; I've got it," Sylia's voice drifted back to him. He sighed quietly to himself, and started strolling around the room aimlessly, looking at some of the pictures and artwork Sylia had scattered around her apartment. He smirked to himself as he passed the replica of the KnightWing, comfortably nestled in a wall-mounted display case with other curios and knick-knacks.

He wasn't much of an art expert though, which meant that some of the paintings hanging on the wall didn't make much sense to him. In fact, he was sure he could draw better than whatever artist had created that one picture there.hadn't the man ever heard of proportion? Despite the misgivings he might have about the artistic merits of Sylia's apartment decorations, he was willing to bet that everything he was looking at was not cheap.

The tall redhead had moved into the vicinity of Sylia's dining room furniture in his circuit of the apartment's main living area, and it was then that he noticed something odd about one of the chairs. Hidden from the immediate view of anyone in the central living room area, one of the chairs behind the dinner table appeared to have some sort of bundle hanging from its back.

Suddenly curious, he veered over to look at it.and stared, not quite believing his eyes. It looked like somebody had hung several coils of rope over the chair. In fact.he peered closer; yes, it was rope all right, and .wait a second.was that a pair of manacles hidden in the pile?!

"Uh ... Sylia?" Bert called towards the kitchen as he took an inadvertent step back, unease creeping through him as he looked at the chair, and the . accouterments hanging on the back of it. "What exactly is this supposed to be for?" He didn't want to look any closer than he already had, half-afraid that his suspicion would be proven right if he did.

"What is what supposed to be for?" Sylia walked into the living room, drying her hands on a towel. Her gaze traveled to where he was pointing, and she suddenly seemed amused, even if her expression remained neutral. "Oh, those," she shrugged. "Those are there in case you try to back out of taking your vacation. I did warn you about the possibility this morning, remember?"

"Yes, but I didn't were kidding, right? I mean, you can' wouldn't seriously." his voice trailed off weakly as she looked at him coolly, one eyebrow raised.

"Do I look like I'm joking?" she asked mildly.

Bert quickly retreated to the couch area, thoroughly spooked, and poured himself a cup of coffee. A large cup of coffee.

Sylia returned to the kitchen without saying anything else or changing expression. Once out of his sight however, an uncharacteristically sly smile spread across her face. On the one hand, she supposed she was being mildly evil by unsettling him that way. On the other hand, she was finding it extremely entertaining to watch him squirm while she did; she certainly still owed him some payback for all the times he'd made her life difficult.

Besides, she fully intended to see that he followed through on taking a vacation, and if threatening him was the only way to do it, then she was going to use whatever means at her disposal. Even if they were mildly evil, and took advantage of some of his.hang-ups.

Bert, meanwhile, was steadily working his way through his cup of coffee, slowly feeling his rattled nerves return to normal. He'd always thought he was able to read Sylia reasonably well, even with her habitual 'calm, cool, and collected' act, but now he wasn't so sure. She'd certainly sounded serious. In fact, she'd sounded almost like she'd relish the opportunity to try and carry out her threat. He took a huge gulp of coffee, as if to drown the sudden images that thought had produced.

"Now then," Sylia's voice said suddenly, startling him out of his preoccupation as she sat down across from him, placing a second carafe on the coffee table. "What did you decide?" She raised an eyebrow as he settled back into the couch; when she'd startled him, he'd almost leaped over the back. "Is something wrong?"

"Wrong? No, no, not at all," Bert hastened to assure her. "What's in that jug?" he asked, indicating the new decanter she'd brought over.

"Tea," she smiled slyly. "I figured there'd be better odds of everyone getting a drink if you had an alternative to the coffee." He flushed, looking slightly irritated, but didn't rise to the bait. "So, you said you'd reached a decision?" she prompted him.

"Yeah, finally," he sighed, setting his mug over on the coffee table and flopping back into the couch. "I decided to go home."

"Home?" Sylia frowned for a moment as she considered that, and then her expression cleared. "You mean you're going back to Canada." He nodded.

"There's a few places I want to see again," he told her. "It's been over thirty years since I've seen them, so there's probably been a few changes." He hesitated a moment, then quietly added, "And I'm going to try and check on a few people as well."

"I see," Sylia looked at him, her expression serious. "Are you sure that's wise? Trying to locate your family, I mean. Assuming they even existed in this universe."

"No, it's probably not wise," Bert said slowly, "just from the potential for becoming depressed alone, pondering recent events, I think I need to, for a sense of closure, if nothing else." He sighed, a dolorous expression settling across his features. "I think that's really been my only major regret about arriving here when I did: I wasn't able to tell Mom or Dad that I was fine, or let them know what had happened." He smiled ruefully. "Cross-dimensional travel doesn't exactly allow one to file flight plans or anything."

"That's your only regret?" Sylia looked at him skeptically, one eyebrow almost hitting her hairline.

"Related to where I came from originally, yes," he nodded. "I didn't really fit into my home universe all that well, Sylia; my outlook on things, opinions, ideals, wants . they were almost completely incompatible with what passed for reality back then. And while you might argue the same thing applies in some respects to here, I'd have to say that I feel at home here. I'm doing something useful, something I want to do."

"You may not like what you find out," she said quietly. "Have you considered that?"

"Yes," he said simply, shrugging. "But it still comes down to the fact that I need to know. And I don't want to just do a records search.that's not the same as actually going and seeing for oneself."

"I understand," Sylia nodded. "When do you plan to leave?"

"Not for a couple of weeks yet," he replied. "I've got to make some arrangements for my archery range for one thing. And given what happened the other day, I want to wait and see what the fallout is going to be."

"Fallout?" Sylia's expression became cloaked in cool inscrutability. "What makes you think there'll be any fallout?"

"Come on, Sylia," Bert retorted. "I'm not that stupid. That old scientist has to have told you something about what Hollister's up to; he mentioned that he had useful information on some of Hollister's operations when he showed up at my range. You can't sit there and honestly tell me that nothing's going to come of that."

"There is a possibility of a mission," Sylia conceded. "However, you're currently suspended, remember? If there is mission, you will only be accompanying us if I say so, and that decision will be based entirely on your conduct between now and that time. Clear?"

"Oh, perfectly," he assured her dryly. "You don't have to worry; I wasn't going to try anything devious or something."

"Good," Sylia nodded. "I'm going to hold you to that." She stood up as somebody else knocked on the door of her apartment. As she answered the door, Bert leaned forward, snagged the decanter she'd said contained tea, and poured himself a cup, adding some milk and sweetener.

As he settled back into the couch, sipping at his drink with a contented sigh, Sylia walked back into the living room, trailed by Nene. The red-haired ADP officer was still in uniform, although she'd loosened the tie, and was gingerly holding her right wrist with her other hand. She flashed him a quick smile of greeting when she saw him.

"I'll get you that icepack now, Nene," Sylia was saying as she walked towards the kitchen. "Have a seat and I'll bring it out to you."

"Thanks, Sylia," Nene said gratefully, veering over to the couch area and flopping into the one across from him with a sigh.

"What did you do to your wrist?" Bert asked with a frown, noting that she was still cradling her arm a bit. "Did you hit your arm or something?"

"I wish," Nene said ruefully. "I asked my boss for something to do, and he sent me off to the target range; he wants me to get my Level Two qualification. I spent most of the afternoon trying to shoot the targets, and my wrist is killing me now. I never realized my gun had that much recoil."

"Ouch," he sympathized. "Want me to pour you a drink?"

"Yes, please. I'll have a cup of coffee." Bert nodded, and set aside his own mug as he fixed her a drink. While he was doing that, Sylia re-entered the room, and handed Nene a small icepack. Nene applied it to her wrist, wincing a bit.

"There you go," Bert slid the cup across the coffee table towards her.

"Thanks," Nene carefully picked up the cup and took a quick gulp before setting it back down and adjusting the icepack on her wrist.

"Why the sudden interest in raising your handgun qualifications?" Sylia inquired. "Even with your new duties, I wouldn't have thought that would be an issue."

"I've been told to start carrying my gun when I'm on duty," Nene made a face, looking sour. "My boss thinks that I need to because I'm working with higher profile cases now, and because I'm going to be occasionally accompanying Leon or one of the other inspectors, he wants me to be armed." Nene suddenly smiled wryly. "I guess he figures I'll be able to shoot the next bunch of kidnappers."

"Peace through superior firepower," Bert quipped suddenly. "A piece of them here, a piece of them there."

Nene hit him in the head with a thrown couch cushion, her sense of humour evidently not in residence.

"Children, please," Sylia reproved them. "I don't want tea or coffee spilled on my couches or carpets, thank you."

"He started it," Nene pointed at him, scowling in mock indignation. "That was a horrible pun." Sylia's reply was interrupted by someone at the apartment door again.

"No more pillows," she warned as she left the living room. "Or else." She didn't bother to specify a penalty, preferring to leave things to their respective imaginations.

Sylia returned a moment later, followed by the remaining members of their small group. Greetings were exchanged all around as Priss, Linna, Sylvie, and Anri found seats, and settled back to enjoy the snacks provided by Sylia.

For several minutes, everyone ate in companionable silence. Sylia had to make a quick trip to the kitchen again to replenish the pitcher of coffee, but except for that, there was plenty for everyone. Even Priss was reduced to merely sipping at some coffee, having completely stuffed herself on sandwiches.

Once everyone was finished eating, Bert gathered and stacked the empty plates and whisked them out to the kitchen before Sylia had the chance to tell him not to bother. When he returned, he resumed his seat on the couch next to Priss, looking mildly pleased with himself. Sylia couldn't tell if it was because he'd cleaned up the dishes, or because he'd managed to get himself a few inches closer to Priss without being obvious about it. Almost unconsciously, he'd put his arm around her shoulders when he'd sat down, and she'd shifted slightly to lean against him.

Sylia couldn't keep from glancing sidelong at Nene, still wondering if there was any discomfort on her part in regards to the relationship between her teammates. Nene, however, didn't seem to have even noticed; she was chatting with Anri, apparently explaining why her wrist had an icepack on it.

Internally, Sylia relaxed a bit at the confirmation of a hunch she'd had that the tensions between Nene, Priss, and Bert seemed to be resolved for the most part. She'd noted earlier from the by-play between the red-haired ADP officer and her former boyfriend that they were more at ease with each other, not quite what they'd once been like, but definitely better than they had been in weeks. One worry she could lay to rest, she mused wryly. One out of far too many.

Sighing to herself, Sylia stood up, which immediately drew the attention of everyone else assembled.

"What's on tonight's agenda, Sylia?" Linna inquired, brushing her hair out of her eyes and tucking it back under her omnipresent headband.

"We don't have a lot of business to take care of this evening," Sylia told them. "There's the possibility of some paying missions later on, but I'm waiting on confirmation of some of the data before I'll say anything else." She paused for a moment to consider her words, then smiled slightly. "Tonight's meeting will probably be a primarily social function; given recent events, I don't think a quiet evening get-together is entirely out of line. Now then, the only items of business were a couple of announcements: mine and Bert's."

"Bert's making an announcement?" Linna's eyebrow twitched upwards. "Uh-oh.what happened now?"

"He'll tell you himself when the time comes," Sylia said smoothly, cutting Bert off before he could offer a retort of his own. "Now then, you should all know that I've finished the prototype for Anri's 'field medic' hardsuit, and I'll be giving her some training in using it over the next few weeks. Once she's qualified on the equipment, she'll be accompanying us on some of our missions."

"Hooray!" Sylvie cheered enthusiastically, while Anri blushed slightly as everyone looked at her.

"I'd still prefer it if certain people could try and avoid getting hurt," Anri noted, giggling a little. "I won't be carrying an unlimited supply of bandages."

"Why is everyone suddenly looking at me?" Bert demanded defensively.

"You and Priss," Linna grinned. "After all, you've got the highest medical bills so far out of the group."

"Just goes to prove who's working the hardest at whacking boomers then, doesn't it?" Priss responded slyly. "Not like some people who just flit and twirl through a fight and jump around a lot waving ribbons through the air."

"Why you." Linna sputtered, ignoring the subdued snickers from Nene, Anri, and Sylvie; Bert merely grinned, and Priss looked smug while marking an invisible tally point in mid air. "That is NOT what I do and you know it!" Linna fumed, unable to come back with a decent rejoinder.

"I think we're all aware of everyone's differing contributions to the group," Sylia moved quickly to head off any bickering. "Bert, I think you'd better make your announcement now."

"All right," he replied. "Well, it's fairly straightforward."

"Hey, you've got to stand up to make an announcement," Sylvie interrupted him. Bert shot her a dirty look, to which she responded with an innocent smile. Sighing, Bert slowly levered himself out of the couch to tower over the assembled group. Sylia seated herself, and waited with the rest of them.

"As I was saying before I was interrupted by certain parties," he groused, glowering at Sylvie, who remained cheerfully unrepentant, "my announcement's fairly straightforward." He paused for a moment, and scratched absently at his head.

"We're waiting," Sylia remarked mildly. He shot her a look, and she returned it with a totally guileless gaze. He sighed, and squared his shoulders.

"Sylia and I had a discussion the other day," he told his assembled friends, hesitating just slightly over the word 'discussion'; Sylia managed to keep her face straight at that description of what had happened. "And based on what we talked about," he continued, "as well as an evaluation of how I've been.reacting to certain subjects lately, I've decided to take a few weeks off for a vacation."

"HOORAY!!!!" It was hard to tell who the cheer initially came from, but the rest of the Knight Sabers were definitely enthusiastic participants. Bert's expression was somewhere between shock and righteous indignation.

"Are you trying to get rid of me, or something?" he asked suspiciously, glancing from Priss to Sylia, to Sylvie, and everyone else. Everyone managed to look completely innocent.

"We're just glad that you've decided to take a break," Sylia interjected, trying to soothe any ruffled feathers. "it's nothing personal."

"I guess this means we don't get to tie him up and drag him off to the airport to throw him on a plane after all," Sylvie remarked, grinning wickedly as she glanced sidelong at him. "And I was so looking forward to that." Bert suddenly seemed to choke on something and flushed a dull red colour as Priss started howling with laughter. Nene blinked in surprise, then started snickering herself, and was quickly joined by Anri and Linna. Only Sylia maintained a calm outward composure.

"I think I'm beginning to smell a conspiracy here," Bert remarked to no one in particular, trying to ignore the general hilarity going on as he looked around at his friends.

"Trust us, we know what we're doing," Sylia deadpanned, then smiled at him as he goggled at her. "Was it something I said?"

Bert could only glower at her as the laughter in the room got louder.



"What happened to you?" Daley looked at Leon, trying hard not to grin. "Did one of the fish in the secretarial pool bite back?"

"Shut up, I don't want to talk about it," Leon growled, stalking past Daley's desk and seating himself at his own desk. On the side of his face was a vivid red mark in the shape of somebody's hand. "I got belted for a harmless remark, and I don't want to talk about it."

"Harmless?" Daley looked at his partner with amused skepticism. "If it was that harmless, then why'd she slap you?"

"She jumped to a wrong conclusion, that's why," Leon retorted.

"Well you did make a pass at her last week, Leon," Nene observed sweetly as she sat down at her computer terminal, adjusting her shoulder holster to a more comfortable position. Even after a week of carrying it, she still couldn't seem to find somewhere that it didn't start to chafe her. "So I don't think making comments like 'Hey, nice piece!' the next time you see someone are a good idea, especially around Sergeant Kusanagi. She can be .irritable about things like that."

"I was commenting on her sidearm," Leon shot back, trying to ignore the hoots of laughter now coming from Daley. "I wasn't talking about her!!"

"Then you should've phrased it differently," Nene informed him loftily. "You'd better attend some of those police sensitivity courses, Leon," she added. "Your approach to picking up girls just isn't working."

"Do you mind?" Leon asked acidly. Had that been laughter coming from Aramaki's office?

"Not at all," Nene grinned cheekily. "I could keep this up all afternoon."

"If this is the thanks I get for recommending you for a job," Leon said, attempting to summon an expression of wronged innocence, and failing miserably, "then remind me not to do it again."

"I'm sorry, Leon," Nene said in apparent contrition, then spoiled the attempt by dissolving into giggles. "But it was so funny!!"

"I'm going on patrol," Leon grumbled, putting a hand on his desk and starting to rise. "At least the cars don't make smart remarks." As he rose, the door to Aramaki's office opened.

"Oh Inspector," Aramaki stood in the doorway, his face twitching in an effort not to smile, "can I have a moment of your time? There's something I'd like you to check on for me."

"Yeah, what is it?" Leon asked sourly, following the older officer back into his office. Aramaki turned towards him as Leon shut the door. "You going to get in on the act too?"

"Your pick-up lines are your own concern, Inspector," Aramaki replied, straight-faced. "Unless Sergeant Kusanagi files a formal complaint, it's not my place to interfere."

"Hmph. What did you want?"

"I want you to pick eight of the best mechanized suit pilots we've got on the force," Aramaki said quietly. "And I want a full squad of troopers to back them up. I want them assembled, equipped, and ready to roll by 21:00 hours."

"Sir?!" Leon stared at him. "What's going on? Why do you want..."

"I can't give you the details yet, Inspector," Aramaki shook his head. "I don't want anything leaking out. Just tell them it's going to be a site inspection drill."

"A site inspection drill doesn't require a squad of troopers, and a squad of armour suits," Leon pointed out. "They're going to talk no matter what."

"True enough, but believe me, I'd rather have rumours than the truth flying around this time."


"I'm really going to miss you," Bert told Priss seriously, sighing a bit. "I wish you'd reconsider." His arms were still wrapped around her waist, holding her close as he lay back on the couch. Priss sighed herself, shifting against him, her leather bike suit creaking slightly with the movement in the quiet apartment.

"We've been over this before, Bert," she reminded him, reaching up and caressing his cheek. "As much as I'd like to go with you on your trip, I can't. I've got too many things going on right now, and I don't want to screw up some of the gigs the band has got coming up. If we play our cards right we might be able to get a recording deal out of the next couple of performances; the guys will kill me if I screw that up." Her red-brown eyes gazed deeply into his. "You knightly types aren't the only ones who understand duty, honour, and obligations, you know."

"Oh, I understand that," Bert nodded, although he didn't look overly happy making the admission. "Just wishful thinking aloud, I guess."

"Maybe next time," Priss told him, giving him a consoling squeeze, stretching up to give him a quick kiss on the lips. He responded with a not-so-quick kiss, and the room became very quiet for a few minutes.

"You're probably not going to agree with me," the brown-haired singer noted when she finally withdrew for a moment to catch her breath, "but I think that you really need to go on this particular trip by yourself anyway."

"Why?" Bert tried for a light tone, but only partially succeeded. "That tired of my company already?"

"Stop that," Priss scolded him, giving him a playful swat in the head. "I'm serious about this; I think you'll have an easier time figuring things out if I'm not there to distract you. Sylia was right when she said you just walled everything away and tried to act normal again without coming to terms with what happened to you. I think you need some time to yourself to figure out exactly what changed."

"You talked to Sylia before she braced me about taking time off, didn't you?" Bert accused her. "You sound almost exactly like she did."

"Of course," Priss grinned at him, then became serious. "I was concerned about you," she told him simply. "Especially after what you told me right after that little dust-up you had with Sylia in the suit room."

"Hmph," he grumbled. "I knew everyone was conspiring against me."

"Only because you're too thickheaded most of the time to listen to reason," she reminded him sweetly. He just looked at her stonily for a long moment, one eyebrow raised.

"I don't hear any denials," Priss observed teasingly, reaching up and brushing his bangs out of his eyes.

"I refuse to answer on the grounds that I might incriminate myself," he retorted, his tone dry. "However, I will say that you'd be as good a candidate as anyone else for recognizing stubbornness."

Priss just grinned back at him, refusing to rise to the bait. She worked herself a bit closer to him on the couch and put her head on his shoulder. His embrace around her tightened for a moment then eased slightly as they sat there companionably for a few minutes.

"What are you going to be doing while I'm away?" he asked suddenly. Priss tilted her head back to look up at him; he was staring off into the distance, as if trying to see something.

"I told you already," she replied. "Mostly practicing with the band, performing at a few places, and if we're lucky, maybe doing some recording. Why?" He stirred, mentally returning from wherever he'd been, and looked down at her.

"I wanted to ask you something," he told her, "And I guess now's as good a time as any."

"Sure, go ahead."

"When I get back from my vacation, how would you like to move in with me?"

"Huh? I think I'm spending most of my time here already," she replied, puzzled. "And I don't think Sylia's going to want the both of us living in her basement full-time."

"That's why I'm moving out when I get back," he said quietly. "I've been getting my house in the suburbs rebuilt - without any hidden rooms - and it should be completely ready to move into by the time I get back. I'd like you to move into it with me once I do get back."

"Are your intentions honourable, sir?" Priss asked, her expression becoming haughty.

"Well, maybe not entirely," he admitted with a small smile. "But I do love you, and I do want to be with you. And you'd have to admit that moving into isn't exactly an option."

"True," she admitted, hesitating as she weighed her answer. It wasn't that she didn't want to be with him, but it was more her own fierce sense of independence that was making her balk. Although she'd softened in recent months in that regard, primarily because of their relationship, her trailer apartment was still hers. Sure, it wasn't the greatest of accommodations, but the battered, cramped trailer had been her home for a number of years, her refuge from the often cold and indifferent world beyond.

As she pondered his request, Priss realized that, once again, it came down to a matter of trust between the two of them. They already shared a great deal of each other's lives, as both friends and lovers, and sharing living accommodations wasn't too much of an extension to that. It did, however, mean that they were trusting one another to commit to a long-term relationship, and that was something Priss hadn't thought about in years.

It was due in part to the hidden fear that once she'd openly admitted they were a couple, something bad would happen to them. The last time she'd been in love with someone and had gotten this close to him, GENOM had killed him. She didn't want to have to go through that kind of a loss again. She was too pragmatic to entertain that reason for long, however; it just wasn't realistic to assume that if she didn't admit the extent their relationship went to that nothing would happen to them.

"You'll have to help me move a few things," she finally replied obliquely. "That okay with you?"

"T'would be an honour, m'lady," he assured her, leaning down towards her. Their lips met in a passionate, lengthy kiss. One kiss turned into several, and they were well on their way towards becoming . occupied for the evening when the phone rang.

"Do you think if we ignore it they'll go away?" Bert asked, his breathing heavy as he pulled back from Priss slightly, running a hand through her loose wealth of brown hair. The phone rang again insistently.

"You'd better answer it," she decided reluctantly, sighing. She smirked crookedly as her lips lightly brushed his again. "There's always later."

"But I hate waiting for later," he complained, disentangling himself from her slightly and reaching over the arm of the couch, fumbling around as he tried to find the phone based on feel. The telephone shrilled again impatiently before his groping hand found the receiver.


"Good evening, Bert," Sylia's voice answered him. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"No, not at all," he lied, meanwhile swearing at himself for doing so. "What's up?"

"I'm calling everyone in for a meeting at eight o'clock," Sylia informed him. "I'd like you to be there; I'll explain why during the meeting. Is Priss down there with you?"

"Yup, she's here."

"Good. You can pass the word on to her then. See you at eight."

"Yeah, sure," Bert sighed as he dropped the telephone receiver back over the arm of the couch to sort of land in its base. "I knew it. I just knew it."

"What?" Priss poked him in the ribs. "What happened?"

"Sylia called an eight o'clock meeting," Bert told her, looking disgusted. "So much for relaxing and enjoying tonight."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Priss craned her neck around and glanced at the wall clock. "We've got forty-five minutes or so. Plenty of time to," she smiled lazily at him, "relax and enjoy ourselves."

"You think so, hmmm?" Bert felt his mouth twitching into a smirk. He reached up and pulled Priss closer to him again. She didn't resist, wrapping her arms around his neck in a loving embrace.

"Maybe we should lock the door first, just in case," he started to say before she kissed him. After that, neither of them spoke for quite some time.


Nighttime MegaTokyo looked and sounded much as it always did, bright and noisy. The vast workings of the city churned on as they always did, relentless and uncaring. The city was like a huge nest of ants, but without the sense of one unified purpose. Instead, small hives of feverish activity boiled all over the sprawling megalopolis.

Near one of the innumerable harbour warehouses clustered near the waterfront, the blackness of the night sky was thrust back by the bright floodlights surrounding the fenced in shipping yard. The brilliant glare threw harsh white light onto the handful scurrying men populating the yard, artificial daylight that revealed everything.

The majority of their activity was centered around a large flatbed truck, its attached trailer weighed down by a bulky, canvas-wrapped load secured with a heavy web of steel cabling. Some of the workers scuttled over the shrouded bulk of the trailer's load, checking and re-checking the cables to make sure there was no slack in them, while the remainder of them worked at securing a pallet of wooden crates to the back of the truck.

Parked off to the side of the transport truck, an unmarked grey van sat innocuously, the satellite uplink equipment mounted on its roof the only indication of its importance. Once in a while, one of the workers would sprint over to the van and disappear inside for a few moments, then reappear and bark out a few new orders to the men preparing the truck and its load.

The entire scene wouldn't have been that remarkable in itself if the cargo loading had been the only activity taking place in that yard; MegaTokyo's ports were always bustling, and there was always shipping activity going on near the docks. What made this cargo operation stand out was the small cadre of heavily armed men doing their best to blend in with the stacks of crates piled around the shipping yard while warily scouting the perimeter from time to time.

In addition to the obvious armed troops in the shipping yard, anyone caring to look closely at the gaping warehouse doorway would have seen at several pairs of glowing red eyes glaring back at them. That was all that was visible of the boomer contingent; except for their eyes, they were next to invisible in the inky blackness of the warehouse interior. The air was charged with hidden tension.

"Damn it," Leon muttered under his breath, lowering the powerful binoculars he'd been squinting through. "They're armed to the teeth and then some; Aramaki wasn't kidding." Behind the ADP inspector, several troopers surreptitiously checked their weapons or adjusted the straps on their body armour. It was tight quarters in the alleyway, but it was also the only place that offered a vantage point to observe the shipping yard.

"They're arms dealers, Leon," Daley observed wryly. "They don't have to operate with our budget constraints." Leon snorted, and reached for his radio headset's controls. Daley turned towards the waiting squad of troopers and gave them a hand signal; silently, they began to trickle stealthily towards the shipping yard. A few yards away, a second column of ADP troopers began to slowly move towards their targets.

"The K-12s and K-17s are almost in position," Leon grimly told Daley. "They'll be ready to move in about three minutes, and then we can bust up this little party."

"Still ticked off that Aramaki wouldn't let you pilot one of the suits?" Daley inquired, trying hard not to smirk.

"Hell yes," Leon shot back sourly. "I hate sitting back and sending men into battle. If I'm asking them to risk their lives, then I figure the least I can do is take the same risks they are. And it's not like I wreck the goddamn things on purpose whenever I pilot one; can I help it that they're poorly-designed tin cans?!"


"They're moving now, Sylia," Nene's voice reported over the comm channel. "They've got about twenty normal troopers, and eight armour units. From the scans I'd say they're K-12 and K-17 Armoured Troopers, but it looks to me like these units have been upgraded a bit; their energy signature's a bit different than what it should be."

"Understood, Nene," Sylia replied, flicking a quick glance at her suit readouts and the telemetry being supplied by the red-pink Knight Saber stationed a couple of buildings over from her current location. "Keep scanning and stay under cover. How are your suit systems working?"

"No problems yet," Nene replied cheerfully. "The anti-missile system's on standby, and the shield generators are working fine."

"Good," Sylia nodded in satisfaction, even though nobody could see her. A while back Bert had designed a set of force-field generators for Nene's suit systems, and upgraded her hardsuit with them. Although they'd been exhaustively tested, this was going to be the first full use of them in the field. Their previous missions to date hadn't required them to be activated, but Sylia was taking no chances this time out. "Let me know at once if there's even a milliwatt of fluctuation from your power supplies."

"Will do," Nene assured her. "Over and out." The comm channel went silent again, and the leader of the Knight Sabers resumed waiting.

"I don't like this, Sylia," Bert's voice suddenly said. "The ADP's going to get shot to hell; Hollister's goons have enough ordnance for an army."

"That can't be helped, I'm afraid," the white hardsuited woman replied, glancing over to where a hulking, midnight-blue motoroid was standing at stiff attention. Faint gleams of silver light marked SkyKnight's hardsuit inside the heavy mech. "I don't know where the leak came from, but somehow they found out about this operation and brought in their own strike force. We can't very well go down and nicely ask them to stay out of our way, now can we?"

"Maybe not," SkyKnight admitted. "But they're going to be caught in the middle when the firefight breaks out. They probably want to capture the Battlemover, we want to destroy it, and Hollister doesn't want either of those options to happen. It's going to get ugly real quick, and I don't particularly need any more bad press from the ADP."

"Well, we won't be the ones shooting at the police," Sylia told him. "Just remember that and concentrate on Hollister's troops."

"Oh, have no fear," SkyKnight's voice was filled with grim promise. "I'm not going to get sidetracked on that score."

Sylia didn't reply to that comment, instead opting to analyze it to try and determine if she was going to have to rein him in during the mission. She'd had some qualms about bringing him along on this outing - qualms that Priss had seconded and protested about during the earlier meeting of the Knight Saber membership. However, given the inherent possibility of a protracted fight with Hollister's forces, she'd wanted to have every available gun she could muster present. If he got too unruly, she did have the option of shutting him down.although she fervently hoped she wouldn't need to use it.

"Hey, Sylia," Priss's voice crackled over the comm channel suddenly. "Do we know what that van with the antenna's supposed to be for? You never mentioned it in the briefing."

"I presume it's mobile communications center for keeping in touch with Hollister's base," Sylia answered her. "Nene tried monitoring it, but it's a shielded system; she does know that it's not actively transmitting, however."

"Think that the dirty bastard himself might be in there?"

"I doubt it," Sylia answered, silently swearing at her distant teammate for mentioning the possibility; the minute Priss had asked that, Sylia had sensed a sudden surge of tension from SkyKnight's position. That was all she needed now.having to worry about whether or not Bert would suddenly go off on a homicidal tangent if he saw the blond man. "Hollister may have personal interests at stake here, but he's never been one to expose himself to undue risk."


"Hey, what's that?" Linna interrupted Priss's reply to Sylia's observation, the servos of her dark green motoroid whining slightly as she made its arm point in the direction she was looking. "I saw something down there." The red bulk of Priss's mech turned slightly as the blue hardsuited woman looked at what she was pointing to.

"Where?" she asked, squinting at her suit's viewscreen display. "I don't see anything."

"There was something moving over there," Linna insisted. "It wasn't showing up on my sensors as anything alive or mechanical, but I definitely saw movement."

"Well, it can't be any of the ADP suits," Priss said after a moment. "They show up like a beacon on the IR spectrum."

"I'd really feel better about this if they weren't in the way," Linna observed nervously. Her motoroid twitched and shifted, mimicking her own nervous movements as she tried to situate herself more comfortably inside her machine, without notable success. "We're either going to be tripping over them, or having to save their bacon."

"Tell me about it," Priss snorted. "But the ADP always did have more guts than brains. This is exactly the sort of stunt I'd expect them to pull; they never did realize when they were outclassed."

"Ahem," Nene's voice carried frostily over the comm channel. "If you're quite through slagging my fellow officers, I'd like to point out that this is their job, and they are trying their best. It's not their fault they've been under-funded and under-equipped for the job for years."

"Yeah, maybe," Priss shot back. "That doesn't mean they couldn't at least try and stop making so many boneheaded mistakes along the way, though."

"That's enough, both of you," Sylia's voice cut off Nene's hot reply. "Nene, pay attention to your scanning; Priss, put a lid on the critique of the ADP. I realize you're not their greatest fan, but this is neither the time nor the place. Clear?"

"Yeah, right, clear," Priss grumbled.

"Good," Sylia said crisply. "Be ready to move when I give the word."

"Gotcha," Priss replied, glancing at her suit viewscreen. Everything was green, now if only she could find more patience somewhere; she was starting to get twitchy from all the waiting.

The harsh chatter of several bursts of automatic weapons fire suddenly cut through the night, overlaid with yells and hoarse shouts of anger. The two Knight Sabers tensed, and began bringing their weapons systems completely on-line.


Ethan Hollister lounged in the padded chair bolted to the deck of the van interior, his feet propped on the corner of a console as he stared broodingly at the small row of viewscreens built into the mini-command center controls the van contained.

On the screens, images of his work crews labouring to prepare the Battlemover for shipping to its new owners flickered and danced. On a side-screen, alphanumeric data scrolled in an unintelligible display, and an extremely nervous technician in a dark blue coverall was keeping an eye on it. The technician was fairly young looking with sandy brown hair, and was sweating heavily, trying hard not to draw Hollister's attention.

The blond man was wearing a trenchcoat over his customary suit, and his right hand kept straying to the left armpit of his coat, as if seeking reassurance from the handgun holstered there. He didn't look happy, which was undoubtedly adding to the agitation of the technician; the man flinched and swallowed nervously almost every time Hollister touched his gun.

Hollister was preoccupied with other matters though, and was barely even aware of the presence of the other man. He was instead brooding on the sense of unease that was eating at him tonight. He couldn't isolate a cause for it, and it was maddening. He supposed it was still partly disgust over Doc's defection; the old scientist had been the one originally slated to ride along on the delivery of the Battlemover.

The blond man shifted in his chair, his glance flicking across the display screens as he tried to pick out anything that might be amiss. So far, everything had gone as it usually did during one of his arms shipment loadings: the truck had arrived and was being loaded, and the perimeter guards hadn't reported anything unusual. Maybe that's what was getting to was too quiet.

The blond man sighed, and sat up straighter in his chair.and then jumped as a voice blared over a loudspeaker from somewhere out in the darkness beyond the compound.


"Son of a bitch!!" Hollister swore, his face distorting into a mask of cold fury, his eyes blazing. "Aramaki, you bastard!!"

Gunfire erupted in the next instant as his troops opened fire with their automatic weaponry, spraying the buildings beyond the perimeter of the loading yard with a deadly hail of searching fire. Hollister spun in his chair towards the cringing technician.

"Send the activation signal," Hollister snarled, his eyes glittering like chips of ice. "I want them dead, every single one of them."


"I'm on the boomers," Bert said calmly, his gaze speeding across his helmet readouts with practiced ease. "Those K-12s are already having problems with them; I don't think they're standard C-55s." Wind whistled shrilly past his motoroid's armour carapace as it dropped through the air, aiming for the gunfire and energy beam-laced shipping yard. He was still privately of the opinion that he'd have been better off without the thing - it felt like driving a car with flat tires when compared to his hardsuit's usual maneuverability - but Sylia had insisted, citing the need for firepower over the need for aerial maneuverability for this mission.

"Roger that," Sylia's voice crackled back. "Priss, Linna, you take the guards around that truck and try to get your demolition charges placed. SkyKnight and I will keep the other troops and the ADP occupied."

"Sylia!" Nene's voice piped up over the comm channel. "That van is transmitting some kind of signal! I think it's trying to activate the Battlemover!"

"Jam it!" Sylia ordered curtly. "We need more time!"

"I'm trying, I'm trying," Nene's voice sounded distracted. "That transmitter's pretty powerful though."

SkyKnight mentally tuned out the comm channel as he dropped to the pavement of the shipping yard with a loud clank. He made a quick survey of the battlefield again as his motoroid's beam cannon swung up to bear on the first available target.

Several feet away, two ADP K-12 suits were engaged with two lightning-fast C-55E boomers. The blue biomechanoids were ducking and dodging fluidly, avoiding the attempts of the ADP officers to target them with almost contemptuous ease. The K-12s already bore some gouge and burn marks from where the boomers had, so far, only inflicted superficial damage.

Nearby on the pavement, a third boomer was sprawled in artificial death, leaking orange nutrient fluid onto the asphalt while a battered and smoking K-17 suit was slowly struggling to leave the field of battle, its servos whining in protest. It had been holed several times by energy beams, and one of its shoulder missile pods was a smoking ruin of shredded metal; the boomers had scored a hit on the suit as it had been about to fire, and the missile payload it had been carrying had detonated with disastrous effect. He briefly hoped the pilot was all right.

"You first," SkyKnight muttered under his breath as he began charging towards the embattled K-12s and their opponents, using the motoroid's jets to skim the ground surface. Targeting crosshairs lit up on his viewscreen and began tracking the boomers. "Then we can get down to business."

The crosshairs turned green, and the silver Knight Saber flexed his hand; in response, the motoroid pulled the trigger on its beam cannon. The massive weapon roared, its recoil shaking the motoroid's frame as it spat a bolt of coruscating annihilation through the C-55 he'd targeted. The K-12 Armoured Troopers seemed to be momentarily frozen in surprise as their erstwhile foe cascaded to the pavement in a spray of oily liquids and metallic shards. Smoke hissed into the air from the wreckage.

The remaining boomer promptly realized it had a deadlier threat to its continued existence than the K-12s and veered aside, leaping high into the air in an evasive maneuver. SkyKnight threw his motoroid upwards after it, jets roaring; the boomer snarled, and altered its mid-air course to angle straight for the pursuing dark blue mech.

Bert wrenched himself to one side of the motoroid's cockpit; the mech mimicked his action a moment later, narrowly avoiding a crackling green particle bolt as it sped past. The biomechanoid that had fired at him shot past a second later, heading for the ground again.

"Damn you, hold still for a moment," SkyKnight growled, triggering the motoroid's cannon again as he changed course. His reply shot blasted a smoking hole into the pavement, missing the boomer by a safe margin as it nimbly dodged aside. The silver Saber muttered another curse; motoroids were fine against large opponents, but against smaller, agile foes they became a liability because they couldn't respond as fast as the hardsuits. If only there was a better way to have the feedback controls set up.

The boomer howled again, and sprang at him. SkyKnight whipped his right arm out of the armour housing on his motoroid, and triggered his own onboard weaponry. Twin lances of bright red laser energy smashed into the boomer, pounding it into a fall back to the ground. The boomer flopped around on the pavement, smoke billowing from the holes in its chest and lower torso.until the heavy bulk of SkyKnight's motoroid landing on its skull casing and crushing it stilled it forever.

"Okay, the boomers are down," he reported over the comm channel, while he worked at getting his arm back inside the motoroid's arm control housing. "What's next?"

Before anyone could reply, the unmistakable sound of taut steel cables snapping momentarily drowned out the sounds of combat.


"Somebody's jamming the signal, sir," the technician reported hoarsely, sweat pouring down his face as his fingers clattered on the keyboard in front of him. "I'm trying to override it, but this could take time."

"You don't have time," Hollister's icy voice replied. The blond man was staring intently at the monitors, watching the chaotic melee happening outside the van. The boomers had been destroyed by one of the Knight Sabers, and the ADP forces were mopping up his squad of mercenaries. Collusion between his enemies wasn't something he'd expected, not on this scale. "Either get that thing operational now, or you can take a gun and step outside with everyone else."

"I.I'm trying.just it!" the technician declared, swiping at his streaming forehead with a shaky hand. "The Battlemover's systems are initializing now."

"Good," Hollister nodded curtly. "Shut down the monitors and get your stuff together; you should be able to escape in all the confusion."

"What about you, sir?"

"There's something I have to do first," Hollister's grin was feral. "Then I'm leaving." Turning towards the rear door of the van, the blond man pulled out his handgun, and opened the door a crack. Peering out at the firefight, he didn't see any immediate enemies in his area. He pulled the door open all the way, and started to step outside.


Sweat dripped off the end of Linna's nose as she worked at attaching the pack of demolition charges to the flatbed trailer of the truck holding the Battlemover. Several times now, stray shots had come dangerously close to hitting the pack of explosives. Although Sylia had said that they would require an electronic signal from a detonator to actually go off, she still couldn't help feeling nervous whenever a ricochet whined by.

Across from her on the other side of the trailer, Priss's motoroid was kneeling, the chest armour flipped up. The blue hardsuited woman herself was under the trailer attaching her own pack of explosives. Linna had opted to stay in her motoroid for the job, preferring to have the extra armour...just in case.

"Okay, mine are in place," Priss reported, as her hardsuited form reappeared from under the trailer and clambered back into her motoroid. "Let's blow this sucker up."

"In a second, in a second," Linna fussed, making one last check of the explosives. She wanted to make sure that this was going to work; she remembered their last fight against the DD Battlemover, and she wasn't anxious to repeat the experience.

"Oh my God!!" Nene's voice suddenly yelped over the comm channel. "Get out of there!! It's waking up!!" As if in response to her words, the bulky shape under the canvas tarp of the trailer twitched sharply. Taut cables thrummed warningly in response, and several snapped with metallic, whiplike noises.

"SHIT!!" Priss's motoroid went up, straight up into the air, propelled by brightly flaming thrusters as she sought both altitude and distance from what was going to be ground zero of the forthcoming explosion. Linna rapidly backpedaled her own motoroid, swinging up its beam cannon to cover the trailer. Cables began to twang and snap loudly, whipping through the air with deadly force as they came free; canvas stretched and ripped.

As she backed away from the trailer and its now-active cargo, she was distantly aware of someone throwing open the back door of the white communications van located on the other side of the compound from her. She had a brief glimpse of a blond man in a trenchcoat before an unmistakable bloodthirsty howl bruised the air.


Everything vanished in a ball of orange fire as the explosives detonated with a thunderous crash of sound. The blast concussion hurled Linna's motoroid backwards like a twig caught in a tornado, and her world suddenly became a tumbling, crashing kaleidoscope of noise and garbled viewscreen images.


"How're we doing?" Daley asked, ducking involuntarily as a bullet caromed off a wall nearby and screeched harmlessly off into the night somewhere.

"The boomers are down, thanks to the Knight Sabers," Leon told him, his intent gaze still focused on the shipping yard. "One K-17 has withdrawn due to damage, and we lost one of the K-12s to that asshole with the rocket launcher before we could nail him. We've got five injured troopers, two critical - they're dragging them out now. Except for a couple of snipers hiding in the crates, I think we've gotten them all."

Once the fight had begun, he and Daley had moved out of the alley and taken shelter behind a parked car to observe and co-ordinate their squad's efforts. Leon had originally wanted to charge in with his own gun drawn, but Daley, with the help of a rather sharply-worded command over the radio from Aramaki, convinced him that it was a bad idea. Given the intensity of the firefight going on in there, he was grudgingly admitting they were right. Without body armour of any kind, he'd have been a sitting duck.

"What do you think the Knight Sabers are doing here?" Daley spoke up, glancing over at his partner. "They certainly aren't here by chance; did you see the hardware they were carrying?"

"I'm not sure," Leon admitted, "but since they're helping us out, I'm not gonna complain too loudly."

"Echo-1! Echo-1!" A panicked voice cut in over their radio wavelength. "We've got movement! They've activated whatever it is that's on that flatbed!!"

"Fall back, NOW!" Leon barked into his headset microphone. "Get the troopers out of there, and I want the K-12s and K-17s remaining to give them cover. When they're clear, the armour units are cleared to engage."

"Roger," the distant ADP replied tersely. "We're moving now."

"I thought this was just supposed to be a weapons shipment?!" Daley said to the world at large, not really expecting an answer.

"Obviously, we've got different definitions of the word 'weapons'," Leon noted grimly. "I'm going to."

He never finished his sentence; a sudden, blinding flash of orange light sent a concussive wave of heat and sound washing over them. The car they were crouched behind rocked from the force of the blast as they were pelted with papers, pieces of crates, and other refuse. The pressure wave bowled the two surprised ADP officers over into a conveniently-placed pile of garbage bags, and was quickly followed up by a choking pall of smoke.


Sylia coolly swatted at the armed mercenary trying to bring an anti-tank rifle to bear on her motoroid, using the motoroid's cannon barrel for extra reach. Bone crunched loudly, and the luckless man flew through the air and smacked into a nearby steel shipping container. He slumped limply to the ground as the leader of the Knight Sabers checked her hardsuit status readouts, and scanned for any more hostiles. Her scan came up negative, and she allowed herself to relax slightly.

Sylia had ended up in the far corner of the compound near the warehouse after one of the ADP suits had encountered a nest of Hollister's men armed with heavy ordnance usually reserved for anti-vehicle weapons. She'd been unable to keep them from destroying the K-12 Armoured Trooper, but had managed to make short work of the entrenched mercenaries after that. Based on the now-sporadic bursts of gunfire, she guessed that the ADP had come close to mopping up the rest of the opposition.

That left the Battlemover, which so far had remained blessedly deactivated; Nene's jamming was still blocking the activation signal someone was trying to send, but Sylia harboured no illusions that it could last forever.

Sylia turned her head, again sweeping the battlefield while she listened to Priss and Linna report that the explosives were in place. Approximately fifty meters from her, she could see the dark bulk of SkyKnight's motoroid clanking ponderously across the pavement, towards the trailer. Sylia had just started to speak into her comm microphone when Nene's voice cut across hers, taut with anxiety.

"Oh my God!!" Nene sounded panicked, and Sylia had to fight off her own stab of fear at her words. "Get out of there! It's waking up!!"

"Nene!!" She snapped, coaxing her motoroid into forward movement. In the distance, she saw Priss's bright red motoroid go straight up into the air. "Fire the bombs the minute Priss and Linna are clear!"

"HOLLLIISSTERRRRRRR!!!!" The infuriated bellow cut across Nene's reply, both on the channel and out loud on the battlefield. Sylia winced as feedback screeched in her ears, spinning towards the source of the disturbance.

"Oh shit no," Sylia swore, grinding her teeth together, feeling all of her earlier misgivings starting to metamorphose into uncomfortable reality. Across the compound from her, well over a hundred meters or so, a blond man in a trenchcoat was standing revealed in the door of the white van. Fifty meters closer to her, SkyKnight's motoroid was jerking sharply to face the van, its cannon coming up.

"Bert, NO!" Sylia yelled into the comm channel. "Forget about him and concentrate on the Battlemover!!"

SkyKnight's guns thundered, and then the world blew up.


SkyKnight pivoted his motoroid towards the trailer as Nene's shrill warning blasted through his helmet earphones, swinging up the motoroid's cannon. As he turned, the back door of the nearby white van burst open, and a figure stood there. The man was wearing a trenchcoat over a light grey suit, had blond hair, and a nasty-looking handgun gripped in one fist. He was sweeping a searching gaze over the shipping yard battlefield as if trying to locate someone specific.

"HOLLLIISSTERRRRRRR!!!!" SkyKnight was suddenly only dimly aware of the rest of the battle going on around him; everything was suddenly tinged with red, and it was as if he was looking down a tunnel that focused on the blond man. He thought that he could hear somebody shouting something over his helmet's comm speakers, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. With a snarled curse, he viciously wrenched the motoroid's autocannon back to bear on the white van, and the white-faced blond man standing momentarily paralyzed at the back of it.

The motoroid's cannon belched fiery retribution as Hollister abruptly recovered himself and tried diving away and to the side of the van, out of the line of fire. The bolt of energy SkyKnight had fired vanished into the interior of the van, and a moment later the van exploded in a crackling ball of flames.

A split-second later, a much more powerful explosion rocked the area, washing everything in sight with a blistering spray of flames and smoke. The blast hurled SkyKnight's motoroid through the air, towards the smoking, twisted remains of the communications van. It was impossible to tell which way was up as he tumbled through the air, sailing over the van's wreckage and into the chainlink fence surrounding the compound.

The fence hadn't been built to absorb several hundred pounds of man and machinery landing on it, and it tore easily under the impact. Fenceposts bent and squealed under the stress as the fence mesh unraveled into a tangled mess of steel wire. After several seconds of confused floundering, the silver-clad Knight Saber was able to regain his equilibrium, and began the laborious task of hauling his motoroid to its feet, all the while swearing savagely under his breath.

"Did we get it?" Priss yelled over the comm frequency. "Somebody tell me we got it!!"

"Is everyone okay?" Sylia's voice inquired a second later. "Status report everyone."

"I'm up on one of the buildings," Priss replied promptly. "Got bounced around a bit in mid-air, but I'm fine. Can't see anything for all the smoke though."

"I got knocked into a pile of the crates," Linna added a moment later. "My motoroid's not responding yet, and I think it one of its arm actuators got wrecked by the blast. I'll have a better idea in another minute or so."

"I'm still up here," Nene piped up. "I haven't moved from this spot since everything started, and I think I'll just stay right here, thank you very much."

"SkyKnight?" Sylia's voice prompted him. "Where are you?"

"Untangling myself from a fence," he replied shortly, pulling himself free of the tangled mess of wire and fenceposts. "Did anyone see if Hollister bought the farm? I had the bastard in my sights, but I'm not sure if I got him or not."

"What?! That sonofabitch is down there?!" Priss exclaimed.

"That's not important," Sylia cut her off. "The Battlemover is the bigger threat right now; concentrate on that. Can anyone see if it was damaged or destroyed?"

"I can't see a thing in all this smoke," Bert told her, doing a scan of the area. "Let me try something else." He flipped his sensors to electromagnetic detection mode, and his viewscreen lit up with a bright silhouette in the middle of the smoke cloud. He felt his stomach plummet as Nene's voice over the comm frequency confirmed what he was seeing.

"It's still active, Sylia," the red-and-pink Knight Saber reported quietly. "And it's starting to move."


Every single movement was exquisite agony, but he persevered, gritting his teeth and snarling defiance through the mask of blood his face had become as he worked at pushing himself along the alley wall. His left arm was limp and unresponsive; he was fairly sure it was broken at the very least. He resisted the urge to look at it...that could wait until later.

Dull, stabbing pains ate into his strength as he forced his legs to move; he could definitely feel where shrapnel from the twin explosions had embedded itself in skin and muscle. Every time he moved his legs, it was like someone was scraping a dull knife down his nerves. About the only consolation he could draw from that stark reality was that no major blood vessels seemed to have been hit.

It hurt to breathe too deeply, and he had to fight back fear that he might've taken a piece of the van's wreckage into something vital. He could be dying on his feet and not even be aware of it. He couldn't die yet...he wasn't finished. Not yet. Maybe not ever...

"Just another hundred feet," Hollister mumbled to himself as he painfully shambled along, fighting down the fear with an iron effort. "Almost there..." He'd lost his gun somewhere back there, and took a moment to wish he'd held onto it. If he met any cops before reaching safety, he'd be easy pickings. His blurry vision could just pick out the quietly waiting car further down the alleyway, exactly where he'd told the driver to wait.

Behind him in the night, he heard another series of detonations, and the shrill scream of a minigun as it churned out its deadly spray at whatever foe had been unfortunate enough to be targeted. A rictus grin distorted Hollister's face while he listened, making a ghastly sight combined with the blood dripping down his face. Whoever had tried destroying his creation wasn't going to find it as easy as they'd presumed.

A wave of weakness suddenly swept through him, and Hollister realized dimly that he was almost out of time. He resumed his determined lurching towards the awaiting car that promised escape.

Behind him, more explosions tore at the night.


"BERT! Are you all right?!" The chorus of voices from the comm speaker of his helmet dispelled the haze that had been floating in front of him, giving him something to focus on and use to haul himself back to full alertness.

"I'm alive," he replied after a few seconds to get his bearings. Fire crackled nearby, and around him, fried circuitry sizzled and spat. His motoroid was definitely dead, there was no doubt of that; the link to his suit that the 'mech had shared was gone, and he could tell by the dead weight holding him down that there wasn't even the slightest chance that it still had power. The Battlemover's missile spread had accomplished its goal with impressive efficiency. "My motoroid's toast though. I'm going to need a minute or two to get out of here."

"All right then; do it, and try to hurry up," Sylia's voice directed, sounding slightly distracted. In the background, he could hear thundering crashes and blasts, the sounds of heavy weapons fire. "We'll try and cover you if it notices you."

"Right. Be out in a second." SkyKnight braced himself inside the crisped hulk of the motoroid, clenched his right fist, and then tried bending his arm, as if curling weights; his left arm was at the moment trapped underneath him from landing on his side. The control housing on the motoroid's arm groaned under the stress, but didn't budge. Bert frowned, and boosted the power to his suit's musculature as he tried again.

Sweat sprang out on his brow from the effort he was exerting inside his suit, but he was rewarded by a metallic 'SPANG'-ing noise as the mechanical latches holding the arm housing down gave under the stress. SkyKnight sighed in relief, and pulled his freed arm inside the body of the 'mech. After what felt like an eternity of frantic fumbling, he found the manual control for the motoroid's release mechanisms and pulled on it.

Several sharp cracks, like firecrackers, sounded, and SkyKnight breathed a sigh of relief; the explosive bolts still worked. He tentatively pushed against the motoroid, and was rewarded by the sounds of armoured metal plates grinding against each other. The silver-clad Knight Saber wasted no time in freeing his limbs from the dead machine, and squirmed free of the confining hulk. Standing up, he swept a quick sensor scan of the surrounding area.

"Bert, DUCK!" Nene suddenly yelled, her voice blasting shrilly into his eardrums from his helmet speakers. SkyKnight instinctively dropped and rolled smoothly to the side, away from his downed motoroid, just as another swarm of mini-missiles from the apparently nearby Battlemover turned it into an even more mangled pile of smoking scrap metal.

"What the hell?!" SkyKnight swore. "Why the hell is it picking on me!?" The silver Knight Saber scrambled to his feet and fired his flight jets in a rapid burst, catapulting him skyward just as a burst of high-velocity ammunition from one of the Battlemover's miniguns churned the asphalt where he'd been standing into pulverized sand. Heavy autocannons roared from the other side of the shipping compound as the other Knight Sabers opened up with their motoroid weaponry, trying to both destroy the Battlemover and draw its attention away from him long enough for him to get away.

"Because you're moving?" Nene suggested dryly, although he could hear the tightness in her voice, even over the comm channel. "I can't tell how its deciding target priority, and I'm trying to jam its sensors, but it's proving to be tougher than I thought. Watch your back." The channel went silent as the red-haired young woman returned her full attention to her assigned task.

"Great, just great," SkyKnight muttered to himself. He was still soaring skyward, and his vantage point gave him a perfect overview of the battlefield below. The weapons fire tracking after him halted after another couple of moments, and he surmised he'd gone out of what the Battlemover's A.I. considered immediate threat proximity. He halted his ascent and hovered for a moment, trying to decide what to do next as he studied the fire and smoke obscured scene below.

The Battlemover still occupied the center of the shipping yard, and commanded the entire battlefield by virtue of having a clear field of fire at everything. Anything that might've provided someone with cover had been blown away by either the initial bombing attempt on the rampaging war machine or the ensuing firefight between the Knight Sabers and the Battlemover. In fact, he could see the ADP troopers withdrawing down an alleyway, with their remaining Armoured Trooper suits providing both cover and shielding from the decidedly unfriendly fire going on.

"Good, they've smartened up," he muttered to himself. He shoved concerns about the ADP from his mind, running a quick diagnostic on his hardsuit and bringing his particle lasers to full power. As he did so, lances of flaming energy again speared out from where Sylia, Priss, and Linna's motoroids were positioned, hammering into their hulking opponent without much apparent effect.

"You can feel free to get back in the fight anytime," Sylia's voice crackled in his ears, sounding both winded and annoyed. "We could use some help down here."

"On my way," he assured her, feeling adrenaline surge through him in anticipation of renewed combat. Jet turbines shrieked exultantly as SkyKnight turned his hovering into a screaming power dive toward the shipping yard and the Battlemover. As he dove, his weapons systems began locking onto their target.


"I'm going to have to bail out of my motoroid, Sylia," Linna panted. "That last shot went through the power coupling." Smoke boiled from the crevices of the motoroid's armour on the lower torso, sprinkled with fat sparks as the mech's electrical systems began to short out. Without waiting for an acknowledgement, the green hardsuited woman hit the emergency release controls and braced herself.

Release mechanisms sprang open as explosive bolts popped, and Linna fired her suit thrusters to spring free of the collapsing motoroid, using her momentum to turn the leap into a forward flip and cartwheel, neatly avoiding the slashing energy beam that the Battlemover tried to nail her with.

Linna ended her acrobatics with a forward roll and came up in a ready crouch, prepared to dodge again. No further fire came her way, however, and she noticed that the Battlemover was wheeling ponderously to face away from her. Frowning, she ran a quick sensor scan to try and determine what had attracted its attention.

The scream of something hurtling through the air at near-supersonic speeds answered her question even before the scan results flashed onto her viewscreen. She glimpsed a silver flash plummeting from the sky above, flickering streams of crimson laser energy lashing out at the Battlemover and splashing across its armour plating. She was almost willing to swear she heard the machine snarl as its shoulder pods popped open and spat another volley of missiles at SkyKnight. The silver streak immediately spun into an impossible-looking weaving maneuver without slowing down as it continued to charge the Battlemover from above.

"Linna! Now, while its back is turned to you!" Sylia's voice suddenly ordered crisply. "Try for the exposed weapons systems if you can."

"Roger," Linna acknowledged tersely. Using her suit jets to give her a quick burst of momentum, the green Knight Saber sprinted for her looming opponent, mentally assessing the best target. The problem was that the damn thing was just big that it was hard to ascertain what would cause it the most damage.

The Battlemover evidently detected her approach, but instead of turning to face her, it pointed one of its arms at her. For a split second, Linna was puzzled; the war machine's weaponry was all torso-mounted, so why was it pointing an arm at her? It didn't have anything that could reach.

Her question was answered a moment later when the giant mech's taloned hand shot towards her on some kind of long tentacle-like arm extension. Quelling the icy shock of the unpleasant surprise with an effort, Linna jumped into the air, somersaulting forwards as the taloned tentacle hissed past under her. For good measure, she jabbed at the tentacle with her knuckle bomber as she passed over it, and was rewarded by seeing the tentacle almost sheared off by the blast.

The green-hardsuited woman landed briefly before firing her suit jets again, launching herself at the towering battle machine. Having to avoid the Battlemover's attack had interrupted her charge and robbed her of enough momentum to do what she'd planned, but hopefully her suit jets would compensate adequately. Linna's eyes narrowed in concentration as the giant red and grey robot zoomed nearer.

The Battlemover attempted to turn towards her when a flaming blast of red-white laser energy hammered into it again, leaving a scorched mark on its armour plating and distracting it. Linna grinned to herself and made a mental note to thank SkyKnight later.

The green Knight Saber spun in mid-air as she passed the giant war machine, and the long, silvery strips of her helmet's monofilament ribbons hissed out of their housings and flicked at the Battlemover. They passed through the left missile pod of the hulking machine, and the pod spat sparks and then exploded in a very satisfying cloud of smoke, flame, and debris as Linna nimbly landed on the pavement again.

The AI controlling the war machine evidently became upset at this development, and began strafing her with beam and projectile weapons. Linna sprang away, striving for greater distance between herself and the Battlemover as the storm of destruction chewed up the asphalt behind her.


"There's something wrong here, Sylia," Bert panted into his helmet's comm system as he twisted to the side, wincing as his suit computer warned him of more incoming fire; the Battlemover hadn't removed its attention from him even after Linna's attack. "The motoroids were able to damage the damn thing when we fought it before, but you're barely scratching the sonofabitch this time."

"I know," Sylia's reply acknowledged tightly. "Nothing in the schematics we had access to suggested anything in the armouring had improved quite that much, so I'm open to theories at the moment. Nene? Have you been able to get anything from it?"

"Not much, Sylia," the red-pink Knight Saber replied as Bert concentrated on avoiding more incoming volleys of minigun fire and energy beams. "There's some kind of damping field in that thing that's blocking my scans. I might be able to pick something up if I get closer..."

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea," Bert spoke up, lashing back at the Battlemover with his onboard weapons again and watching in frustration as his particle-laser beams splashed off of the huge mech again. Behind the Battlemover in the distance, he could see Priss and Sylia's motoroids still laying down an impressive fusillade. Linna was ducking and weaving around again, trying to avoid being hit by the Battlemover's other weaponry; if not for the robotic foe trying to kill her, it would've almost resembled a frenzied dance routine. "This damn robot's tough, and it seems to react to everything."


"I think maybe we'd better call in some reinforcements," Daley noted, ducking belatedly as a ricochet whined off into the night somewhere. "The Knight Sabers don't seem to be making much headway."

"I already told Aramaki the situation," Leon informed him. "The only hardware we've got capable of dealing with this thing are the K-12s and K-17s, and we've only got one more squad available. He's sending them, but I think he's also putting in a call to the military."

"That could get ugly," Daley didn't look too thrilled at the news. "The military tends to level the neighbourhood first and plan the press release afterwards."

"Tell me about it," Leon grunted, peering around the corner of the alleyway they'd retreated to. "And the Knight Sabers are going to get caught in the middle."


"All right, that tears it," SkyKnight pulled himself out of a pile of splintered crates and crumpled steel drums. "That damn machine is going down." A smoking crater, roughly the size of two clenched fists was gouged into his chest armour, slightly to the left of center. He staggered to his feet, wobbled for an instant, and then blurred into motion, charging towards the Battlemover before it could lumber forward enough to attack Priss again, whose motoroid had finally gone down under a shower of missiles.

He'd caught one of the missiles while trying to assist her in what had proven to be an ill-advised two-pronged attack on the huge robot and had gone down, knocked flying into probably the only corner of the warehouse compound that hadn't yet been trashed. Priss's motoroid had fared the same as his own motoroid earlier.that is, it had gone down in a pile of scrap parts. Priss had been able to eject before the motoroid had met its fiery end, and was now dodging frantically as the lumbering machine stomped after her. Linna and Sylia were sniping at the Battlemover, trying to divert it, but it was ignoring them.

SkyKnight sprang into the air, his flight wings snapping into full extension as his back-mounted jets roared exultantly. Throwing full power to his jets and caution to the winds, the silver Knight Saber shot towards the Battlemover like a guided missile, every fiber of his being tightly focused on one driving goal: killing, or at least crippling the Battlemover.

Although technically it could be argued that the battle was stalemated - with the Battlemover unable to target them effectively and the Knight Sabers unable to seriously damage the big robot - the Battlemover was winning in the long run. Sylia's motoroid was the only heavy unit left to them, and it was only a matter of time before it got toasted at this rate of attrition. That meant the fight had to end quickly. And he intended to end it. Now.

SkyKnight flashed closer to the big war machine, hurtling through the air at what would normally be an insane speed this close to the ground. The Battlemover had evidently detected his high velocity attack, and wheeled towards him, unleashing another volley of its stubby-looking missiles. The missiles had barely launched when a wide beam of crimson energy tore through the air, detonating the missiles before they could reach him.

Following on the heels of the laser blast, an electrical snap-hiss heralded a sweeping blue line of energy that carved through the air with an eager hum. SkyKnight rocketed past the Battlemover, the blue blaze of his lightsaber sweeping across the midsection of the Battlemover's torso armour plating. The war machine turned to track him as he shot past, firing at its airborne adversary and missing by a wide margin. Nonetheless, the silver Knight Saber was surprised by the return fire, and banked off into the sky, spiraling into an evasive pattern out of sheer reflex. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw the Battlemover still standing hurling death and destruction after him.

"No damage," Nene's voice over the comm channel seemed to echo his incredulity. "I'm not quite sure, but I think the Battlemover's got some kind of surface force field; there was a surge in EM output from it when you hit it with your lightsaber."

"I saw it," Sylia's calm voice added. "That field must be why we can't hurt it; your lightsaber blade almost literally bounced off the Battlemover's armour." Inside his helmet, Bert's face set into grim lines.

Without a word, SkyKnight flipped around in midair, ignoring the wails of protest from his suit's acceleration compensators, and blasted back towards the ground. Bright red warning lights flashed urgently across his hardsuit's viewscreen as bolts of fiery energy began to scorch the air near the plummeting Knight Saber. He had the fleeting impression of a couple of people shouting something at him, but their words were lost in the shriek of stressed hardsuit systems and violently displaced air.

The Battlemover seemed to have figured out how to adapt to his flyby tactic, however, and particle beams began burning the air uncomfortably close to him. In fact, as he got closer to the huge red-gray machine he just barely avoided getting shot down. SkyKnight bought himself just enough breathing space to reach his goal by snapping a return shot at the Battlemover, trying for one of its beam cannons. The giant 'mech swung an arm up and blocked his shot.

SkyKnight shot under the upraised arm, firing his braking thrusters as he grabbed at what his real goal had been: one of the short, projecting wings on the Battlemover's back. The metal wing squealed and started to bend as several hundred pounds of Knight Saber swung on it, flipping around and slamming squarely into the back of the big war machine. SkyKnight quickly grabbed the Battlemover's other wing and braced a foot against it, wedging himself securely on the Battlemover's back.

"What the hell do you think you're DOING!?" Sylia's voice yelled in his ears.

"Playing 'can opener'," SkyKnight replied shortly, extending an arm. One of his lightsaber handgrips snapped into his gauntlet palm, and a second later, a blue white energy blade hissed into existence again. The Battlemover lurched sharply, trying to dislodge him, but he clung grimly to the war machine, and began pushing the tip of his lightsaber blade against the Battlemover's armoured hull.

"That's not going to work," Sylia said sharply. "Get off that damn thing; we can't fire while you're in the way."

"Sylia, please, just give me a few seconds; I'm trying something different this time," Bert replied, most of his attention on the Battlemover and his suit readouts. "If this works, I think it'll take down the Battlemover's internal field."

"You've got twenty seconds," Sylia told him grimly. "And then you are damn well getting out of there, clear?"

"Absolutely," he assured her, focusing on the Battlemover again. As Nene had said, the Battlemover did seem to have a structural force field of some kind; he could see a small field of electrical energy just under his lightsaber tip, keeping the blade from contacting the armourplate. The 'mech jerked sharply again, and he could see the flailing end of a mechanical arm as the robot's AI tried to reach him.

"All right then, smartass," Bert muttered to himself, "try this!" SkyKnight rammed his lightsaber hilt right against the Battlemover's armour without deactivating the blade. Fat sparks crackled and spat from the saber's handgrip as the device struggled to keep the power flow regulated, and SkyKnight's suit computer protested against the abuse. Underneath the handgrip, the Battlemover's armour plating began to glow a dull red as the power normally spent keeping the lightsaber blade intact was channeled into it.

Sweat trickled down his face as he fought to keep the lightsaber hilt pressed against the Battlemover; its lurching and shaking was getting stronger, and he knew he couldn't hold on forever. If he could just hang on long enough to open a hole in the thing's armour though.

Molten metal began to drip from under the lightsaber grip as the glowing circle of white-hot metal widened. In shoving the lightsaber against the armour, he'd violated the parameters his suit systems usually used to control blade integrity. As a result, the blade was attempting to re-establish itself.inside the Battlemover's armour. The power being poured into the effort was more than the Battlemover's internal field could deal with, and as a result he was slowly boring a hole into the bulky 'mech.

"All right, I can see what you're doing," Sylia's voice suddenly came across the comm channel again, "but you'd better get out of there before that thing shakes you off."

"Just a few more seconds, I'm almost through," Bert gritted in reply, watching the thin stream of melted armour dripping from under the now-smoking lightsaber handgrip. Warning lights flashed urgently on his viewscreen, warning of overload danger in his lightsaber, but he continued to grimly press the lightsaber against the back of the Battlemover.

Something suddenly roared in his ears, almost deafening him, and the Battlemover suddenly shook violently, almost dislodging him. With a sudden premonition, he realized that the Battlemover had fired its own thrusters, sending it hurtling towards a nearby building - where he was perched happened to be almost in the Battlemover's thusters. He suddenly knew with awful certainty what was about to happen.he'd do exactly the same thing if in a similar situation, after all.

SkyKnight abruptly shut down and released his lightsaber, letting the handgrip snap back into its arm housing. The armour plate he'd been pressing it against was a sizeable hollow now, with rivulets of melted metal still dripping from it, the white-hot glow starting to fade. Beneath him, he could feel the Battlemover firing maneuvering thrusters, turning in mid-air.

SkyKnight triggered the particle laser cannons on his free arm, aiming straight for the weakened spot. Metal flew and spattered under the ravening beams of energy, and the hole widened. A second burst punched through the armourplate, leaving a very satisfactory opening.

Then the Battlemover hit the brick wall of the building it had been flying towards, spinning around so that its back - and the armoured pest clinging to it - struck first.

SkyKnight felt the impact with the brickwork just as he tried firing a third blast into the Battlemover's exposed systems. Stars flashed in his sight amid the sounds of crunching and cracking masonry, and his hardsuit's structure groaned as he felt the weight of his massive opponent press against him. The impact tore loose his grip on the 'mech's back, leaving him momentarily stunned, unable to do more than try to awkwardly pry himself out of the wall he'd become embedded in.

And then a huge, metallic fist filled his viewscreen.


"Priss! Linna!" Sylia snapped. "Try for the hole Bert opened in the back of the Battlemover. Nene, try and get a scan for any other critical points; I'm pretty sure its internal field is down now." She pulled her charging motoroid to a halt, its feet striking sparks from the asphalt as it skidded on the pavement. A couple of hundred feet away from her, the Battlemover spun around from the hole in the wall it had just punched SkyKnight through. The minigun on its shoulder screamed, spraying high-velocity death in her direction as the Battlemover began concentrating on its other foes.

"SkyKnight!!" Sylia called urgently over the comm channel as she fired the motoroid's thrusters, lofting into the sky to avoid the fire. "Bert! Can you hear me? Answer me!!" Nearby the blue and green blurs of Priss and Linna's rapidly moving hardsuits swept past her position as they moved to attack. "Nene, can you get a reading on him?"

"He's alive," Nene replied. "I can't get a reading on his suit condition though."

"Ouch," another voice said faintly over the comm channel. "That hurt."

"Bert?!" Sylia had to fight warring feelings of relief and exasperation. "Are you all right?! Say something!!"

"Ouch.ow.We're going to need bigger guns. BIG FUCKING GUNS!!!"

"Sounds to me like he's going to live," Priss's voice noted dryly.

"How badly are you hurt?! Is your suit damaged?!" Sylia demanded, ignoring the by-play and opening fire with her motoroid's cannon. She noted with grim satisfaction that the shots actually seemed to be making marks on the Battlemover now.

"I can't say," Bert's voice replied. "My visor's wrecked, and my viewscreen shattered all over; I'm trying to get my helmet off so I can get the glass out of my face. Don't worry, I'll be back out there shortly."


Bert rolled over onto his stomach, fighting to clear the spark-filled haze clouding his mind. Beneath him, he could hear crumbled and broken brick crunching against his armour, and he could also hear the crystalline sound of broken viewscreen shards sliding around inside his helmet. His head and neck were both afire with considerable pain, but he tried to ignore it.

SkyKnight kept his eyes squeezed shut as he laboriously forced himself to his hands and knees, afraid to open his eyes on the chance that he might get glass particles in them. There was a wet warmth oozing down his face, and he guessed that he'd been cut by the broken viewscreen pieces. He hoped he wasn't too badly sliced up.

Carefully, the silver Knight Saber raised gauntleted hands to his helmet, and gingerly probed at it. He quickly found out that the visor was crumpled and wrenched askew, almost broken completely off, and one of his antenna 'ears' also seemed to be missing. Gritting his teeth, he tried gently pulling at his helmet, but it stayed attached to the suit, and the abused nerves in his neck shrieked angrily at the attempt. Damn.

"Engage vocal recognition systems," Bert said aloud, praying his helmet's audio pickups were still working. "Release helmet locks, authorization SkyKnight alpha four." A faint click sounded, and he tentatively pulled at his helmet again. This time it came free, and he gingerly pulled it completely off.

Blessedly cool air caressed his skin, and he carefully shook his head to dislodge any viewscreen pieces that might have been stuck to his face or hair. He winced at the fresh stab of pain the movement engendered, and carefully cracked open one eye, and then the other. He carefully lifted his head, and blood immediately started dribbling into his eyes. He swore softly; he was going to have to stop that leakage before even attempting to get back into the fight outside. And he was going to have to hurry.

SkyKnight set his helmet down on the floor, and reached around behind his back, trying to find one of the hardsuit medical dressings he normally carried. They were designed to blend in with his armour plates, and were customarily attached to his suit at 'belt level' below his back-mounted jet pack, neatly out of harm's way. They'd proven useful before, and he always carried at least a couple of them now.

Bert resisted the urge to swear aloud as he tried to find one of them. While his gauntlets allowed him to actually have his hands inside the gloves for better manipulative control - unlike Sylia's gauntlets, which were actually powered remote manipulators - there still wasn't any real tactile feedback from them. He made a mental note to do some more research on fixing that problem later.

His fingers finally encountered the oblong, raised rectangular shape he was looking for, and he pulled it free of his armour. Folding the slim object in half, he cracked open the casing along its seam and exposed the gauzy, medication-soaked padding inside. Using the dressing as a swab, he carefully wiped at the areas he presumed the cuts on his face were located, and winced as the astringent bite of the coagulants contained in the dressing confirmed his guess. Gritting his teeth, he carefully sponged off the injured areas, and after a minute or so of this treatment, the cuts grudgingly ceased bleeding. They still hurt like hell, but at least blood wasn't running down his face and into his eyes anymore.

Sighing in relief, he tossed the stained dressing aside, and picked up his helmet from the floor as he forced himself to stand. The warehouse was dark, but there was still enough residual light to be able to make out the damage to the helmet, and he winced internally when he the mangled visor. Bert gave brief thanks that the helmet had kept him from serious harm; if not for its protection, his head would've probably become a smear on the wall of the building when the Battlemover had hit him.

He needed more light before he could just jam his helmet back on though; the way the visor was wrenched askew, there was no way he'd be able to see out the helmet's visor eyeslot without bending it back into shape. Moving cautiously, the silver Knight Saber moved towards the wall of the warehouse, trying to keep the sense of urgency gnawing at him from panicking him. Finding some electrical wall boxes a short way along, he squinted at them, and then tentatively flipped a lever on one of them. Dim light sprang into being as some of the warehouse's hanging lights activated.

SkyKnight turned his attention to quickly fixing his helmet. Upending it, he shook out the viewscreen pieces still lurking inside the helmet's lining, and several glass-like shards tinkled to the floor. The hardsuit viewscreens were made of a polycarbonate compound that was supposed to be light, strong, and almost impossible to shatter like that. However, he was willing to bet that getting slugged in the head by an almost twenty-ton robot counted as extenuating circumstances.

SkyKnight examined the visor for a moment, then took the visor and helmet in both hands and began to try and carefully bend the visor back to a somewhat closer-to-normal shape. The metal of the armoured helmet creaked and groaned at his efforts, and sweat beaded on his brow as he tried to keep from accidentally breaking the helmet completely as he tried to get it at least wearable again.

After several seconds of tightly-controlled pressure, the visor was more or less aligned close to the way it had been before the impact. Visibility was going to suck royally, but he didn't have much choice in the matter. At least his voice activation systems had seemed to still be working.

He had just started to lift the helmet to don it again when a loud and crisp metallic snicking noise from behind him jerked him up short. It was impossible to mistake the noise as anything else; somebody had just cocked a gun behind him, and with his helmet off, he was a sitting duck. He mentally weighed his options, and decided that he didn't like them.

"Okay, turn around slowly," a voice ordered. "And keep your hands where I can see them."

SkyKnight sighed audibly as he recognized the voice and turned towards it, raising his hands to shoulder level, still gripping his helmet in one gauntleted hand.

"Going to shoot me, Inspector?" he inquired quietly, meeting Leon McNichol's gaze calmly.


Leon stared at the startlingly familiar armour-clad figure facing him, several things falling neatly into place in his mind with an almost audible click. In a flash of insight, he suddenly understood why certain events in recent months had happened, events that had just screamed to him of something being wrong. As he stared at the resigned-looking red-head wearing the silver hardsuit, the reasons became clear to him just why he'd encountered so much trouble.

The two men stared at each other, each assessing the other. Leon didn't care to guess what SkyKnight saw while looking at him, but in looking into SkyKnight's greenish-brown eyes, he saw a distillation of the cares and dangers the Knight Saber had undoubtedly faced. At the same time, he could also read what the cost in some instances must have been. For an instant, Leon wondered if he'd have been able to pay that cost himself if asked.

"Why?" Leon finally asked quietly, lowering his gun and uncocking it. For some reason, he just couldn't see a reason to keep it pointed at SkyKnight any longer; he'd only drawn it from force of habit anyway. SkyKnight evidently understood his monosyllabic question, and sighed.

"Because," he replied after a moment, lowering his hands and resuming a more normal stance, "somebody needs to protect the city. We can't be there all the time, but we try." He gestured at the armour he was wearing. "I do it because I believe I can make a difference, even if it's a small one. I imagine it's the same reason you stay on with the ADP."

"In part," Leon allowed, opening his jacket and stuffing his gun back into its holster. "It'd take too long to completely explain." He cocked his head suddenly, listening to the thundercrack of an explosion outside. "I think you'd better get going; I've got to get back to my men anyway before I'm listed as missing."

"You're not going to try and take me in?" A faint smile twitched at the corners of SkyKnight's mouth.

"Nah, the paperwork would be a bitch," Leon grinned. "One question though."

"Sure," SkyKnight shrugged, then added, "As long as you're not going to ask me who my teammates are."

"Was Nene kidnapped because of who you are?" Leon asked levelly, neatly avoiding the direct question.

"No," SkyKnight shook his head, then winced, reaching up and rubbing the back of his neck. "She was kidnapped because one of the ADP's investigations intruded on somebody else's turf. I've always kept my.extracurricular activities to myself."

Leon nodded expressionlessly, turned, and walked away into the darkness. SkyKnight watched him for a moment, sighed, and then carefully slid his helmet over his head. After some careful maneuvering, the helmet's contacts latched into place again, and the silver hardsuit began to sprint for the nearest available building exit.


Nene yelped and flinched as a stray beam shot clipped the edge of the building's roof as she peered over at the raging firefight below. Her hardsuit's shield system briefly flickered into visibility at the close discharge of energy, then went back to standby mode again.

It was, she had to admit, very comforting to have the shield system incorporated into her hardsuit systems. While it did have limitations on it because of power draw, it had already saved her twice from taking a hit from the Battlemover's wide-ranging fire. To a certain degree, it freed her to concentrate more on her electronic warfare duties, although it wasn't an excuse to totally ignore any combat going on around her.

The hardsuit-clad ADP officer frowned at her suit displays, trying to sift the data she was getting on the Battlemover's internal systems to find some critical system for her comrades to try targeting. The big 'mech had suffered enough damage now that she was able to get a clear scan of its systems finally, but isolating one system that could shut down the hulking robot after one or two shots was proving to be like the proverbial needle in a haystack. Not even the specs they'd had access to had revealed the depth of the redundancy in the Battlemover's systems; the thing had backups for its backups!

There was a central area inside the Battlemover that she surmised contained the 'pilot' of the machine, but she couldn't get a reliable scan of it. The pilot was the central component that would guarantee shutdown if eliminated, but this time they weren't going to get an open cockpit to try and exploit. And SkyKnight didn't have any electrical gizmos like he'd had the last time.

SkyKnight.Nene ran a quick sensor sweep of the battlefield again, and sighed in relief when she detected his suit's transponder beacon moving just beyond the fringes of the battle. She frowned at her displays as she realized that he wasn't flying, but running. Acting on a hunch, she focused a tight-beam scan in his direction, and stared at the results in consternation.

According to her readouts, he was without sensors, meaning he was almost literally blind. It also explained why he was running: the control he usually exercised over his flight systems demanded that he have active sensors. Trying to fly without them would be like jumping from an airplane with no parachute - outright insane .

"How are we doing?" Bert's voice suddenly asked across their comm channel. "Any headway yet?"

"Some," Sylia replied. "Are you all right?"

"My sensors are gone, and I've lost my HUD," Bert replied tersely, confirming Nene's scan results. "I don't dare activate my flight system for anything other than an emergency escape; I'll probably punch a hole through another building if I do; I'm in enough pain right now from the last time, thank you very much."

"All right then, that can't be helped," Sylia replied. "Stay on the fringes and try sniping," she directed him. "Under no circumstances are you to get close to that thing without your sensor systems. If you can, try and get over to where I am so I can cover you if necessary."

A crashing boom jerked Nene's attention from the conversation, and she looked down at the battle again to see a blue hardsuit with red stripes dashing frantically away from the Battlemover, which had smoke billowing from a fresh hole in its armour carapace. Gunfire chewed up the pavement behind Priss as the lumbering war machine tried to exact retribution. She fired her suit's thrusters and sprang clear of the immediate danger in a graceful, parabolic arc.

As the blue-suited woman landed, she spun around and fired her arm-cannon back at the Battlemover, much like a gunfighter shooting from the hip. The red energy bolt lanced across the ruined shipping compound and blasted another small chunk from the 'mech's metal hide.

The Battlemover seemed to give a mechanical snarl as its remaining missile pod snapped open preparatory to firing. Nene's eyes narrowed in concentration, and she made a few quick adjustments to her communications array as well as shunting the power from her force field system into her comm and ECM systems. Meanwhile, Priss was apparently diving for cover from the imminent missile storm.

Just as the Battlemover opened fire with its missile spread, a green blur flashed out of the darkness nearby and somersaulted through the air past the Battlemover. Linna's knuckle-bomber impacted solidly with the robot as she flipped past it, blasting another crater into the Battlemover. More smoke boiled out of the hole as the Battlemover shuddered, and its missile pack fired at Priss, the half-dozen or so projectiles spiraling through the air towards her.

Nene immediately pounced on the guidance system electronics of the missiles, using her boosted ECM systems to scramble their sensors before they could establish target locks on her teammate. Sweat began to drip down her brow as she fought to divert the missiles; part of the problem was that the Battlemover's computer systems appeared to have already programmed the missiles with the electromagnetic profile of their target. Wait a second.electromagnetic.

Instantlly, the red-pink Knight Saber threw every spare scrap of power she could muster into her communications array, blanketing the speeding missiles with her modified transmissions. She almost cheered aloud as the missiles suddenly veered around in a wide arc and slammed unerringly into the Battlemover. The huge robot disappeared in a concussive cloud of fire and debris-laced smoke.

"Oooh, nice shooting," Linna commented, sounding surprised. "I didn't know it could do that!"

"What the hell just happened?!" Priss's crackled over the comm frequency. "Nene? Was that you?!"

Nene's answer was interrupted as a stray breeze blew away the tatters of smoke concealing the damaged battle machine. Gaping holes were all over the big 'mech, and it had lost and arm as well as a portion of its left torso. The wounded machine took a staggering step forwards, and then toppled to the pavement with an ear-rending crash. Relative silence descended over the area as the Knight Sabers all stared at their downed adversary, Nene peeping cautiously over the edge of the roof parapet. Nobody moved for several moments.

"Dealer wins all draws," SkyKnight commented cryptically. "I think it's dead."

"Let's make sure before we start celebrating," Sylia advised dryly. "Nene? Anything?"

"Just a second, Sylia; I've got to recalibrate a few things," Nene replied, hurriedly readjusting her suit systems back to their normal configurations. "Okay, I'm scanning.negative indications on computer activity. Some residual electrical activity, but that could be from shorts in its systems. Indeterminate life signs," she added after a moment's hesitation. "I'm pretty sure it's dead."

"Hey, Nene, that was a neat trick you pulled, whatever it was," Priss noted. "Why didn't you do it the first time that thing started firing missiles all over the place?"

"I couldn't," Nene said simply. "The Battlemover's internal field was blocking me from scanning its missile systems. Without a good scan I couldn't figure out what frequency it's guidance systems were working on, and I didn't have the power to do that on a wide-band broadcast. Once I knew what the right frequency was, I just swapped your electromagnetic signatures."


"I made the missiles think that you were the Battlemover and that the Battlemover was you," Nene summarized, unable to keep from sounding smug. "Piece of cake."

"KnightWing to Saber Prime," Sylvie's voice suddenly crackled over everyone's helmet speakers. "We've got company: two SDF helicopters are entering the area with an ADP escort. You may want to get out of there."

"Understood, KnightWing," Sylia radioed back. "We'll meet you upstairs shortly."



Bert peered in the mirror at himself, rubbing absently at the white piece of medical tape on his right cheekbone. A larger piece peeped out from under his bangs, just above his right eyebrow. Both cuts hadn't been serious enough to require stitches, so Anri had cleaned and bandaged them, assuring him that there wasn't going to be any visible scarring. The problem was that whatever salve or ointment she'd put on them was making them itch like crazy, and it was maddening not to be able to scratch at them.

"Well, it could've been worse," he muttered to himself as he turned away from the bathroom mirror and stepped back into his living room. "You could've had your fool neck broken instead." If the wall he'd been up against hadn't caved in like it had when the Battlemover had hit him, that was probably exactly what would have happened, armoured or not. He shivered, and banished that unpleasant thought from his mind immediately. He walked across his living room, still absently rubbing at his cheek as his stomach growled irritably.

"Hm? Oh, morning," Priss greeted him as he came around the end of the kitchen counter. She was slouched at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, dark circles under her eyes. She looked tired and rumpled, and her eyes didn't seem to have their usual spark. While it was unusual for her to be up this early, she hadn't slept very well after their mission, instead spending the night tossing and turning, mostly due to nightmares and flashbacks from a couple of years before that hadn't allowed her to rest.

Before leaving the demolished shipping yard, she'd insisted on checking on the unfortunate sexaroid who'd been fused with the Battlemover by Hollister. Bert had accompanied her, not expecting the Battlemover's pilot to have survived and wanting to be there as moral support for Priss if nothing else. Because of the connections the big 'mech had to Sylvie's past, he knew that for Priss it was a more personal issue than most, and he knew she wasn't going to leave before checking if the pilot was alive or not.

They'd both been shocked by what they'd found inside the Battlemover's cockpit. The woman hadn't quite been dead when they'd gotten there, but had died shortly after that. Before she'd died, she'd managed to choke out her thanks for being set free.and there were so many echoes of what was supposed to have happened to Sylvie in that event that Bert had found himself unexpectedly shaken.

The real horror had been seeing the way the control circuitry had invaded the dead pilot's body, and the way she'd been restrained, totally unable to move. Bert had been thoroughly disgusted, repulsed, and infuriated at the way she'd been used; to say that the conditions inside the Battlemover were inhumane didn't go nearly far enough. He didn't think he could find adequate words to describe just how sick it had made him.

Priss hadn't taken it well either, and as a result, she'd spent the night tormented by, among others, images of her having to kill Sylvie instead of being able to save her that first time they'd fought the Battlemover. He'd provided as much comfort as he'd been able to, but not everything that had been bothering her that night was going to be that easily handled. Time was the only remedy for some of what they'd seen, since over time the memories would fade and become less painful to bear.

Although Priss was experienced and street-wise, with a fairly stubborn streak of cynicism, seeing the interior of the Battlemover had brought her face-to-face with a deeper streak of cruelty and callousness than she'd been prepared to deal with. Put simply, she hadn't thought anyone could do something like that to another person.

He'd been shocked as well, but at the same time he knew Hollister and what he was capable of from firsthand experience. As a result, he hadn't been quite as shaken on a psychological level as she had been. On one level, that was unsettling because it implied he was becoming desensitized. However, since he couldn't do much more than try to be extra-vigilant to guard against it happening, he dismissed the thought and refused to dwell on it.

"Feeling any better?" he asked quietly, coming over to her and giving her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. She looked up at him tiredly.

"A little," she replied, giving him a half-hearted smile. "Sorry if I kept you awake last night."

"Don't worry about it," he leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. "Did you want anything for breakfast?"

"No thanks," Priss shook her head. "I'm not really hungry right now, although I wouldn't mind another cup of coffee."

"Sure, just a second." Bert quickly refilled her mug from the nearby coffee pot, then got himself some breakfast, settling for a bowl of cereal. It was silent while he ate, Priss sitting across from him and staring absently into her coffee cup, tapping on it.

Bert finished his breakfast and poured himself a cup of tea. Taking a sip, he studied Priss over the edge of his mug for a moment, then made a decision.

"Come on, you'll be more comfortable sitting on the couch," he told her gently. "You can brood over there as well as over here, if you feel you have to."

"I'm not brooding," Priss objected, then sighed and started to get up, wearily pushing on the table. Bert grabbed her coffee cup and carried it out to the living room.

"Don't think I'm capable of carrying my own cup?" Priss inquired, arching an eyebrow as she followed him. Bert glanced over his shoulder at her and grinned.

"Not the way you're weaving," he informed her. "I don't need my carpeting to look like coffee stains."

"Hmph," Priss stifled a sudden huge yawn as she sank down into the couch cushions, unable to summon up the energy to respond to his sly remarks. She accepted her cup as he returned it to her and sat down next to her, slipping an arm around her shoulders.

Priss was unable to keep a slight smile from forming; Bert had been finding almost any excuse to have an arm around her lately, and she had to admit that she was enjoying the attention. At the same time, she was also grateful for the quiet, unspoken support he was offering her; after some of the nightmares of the previous night, she badly needed a reassuring presence. She quickly squashed some of the images from her dreams that tried to bubble up.

"So what did Sylia have to say to you after the mission?" Priss finally asked after they'd quietly sat together for a while. "I didn't get a chance to ask Anri what she said after she evicted everyone else from the infirmary."

"Nothing entirely complimentary," he replied, wincing at the memory. "There was something in there about taking stupid risks the way I did, not advising her before trying new tactics, and choice comments about general recklessness. I pointed out that my teamwork had been much better, but she didn't seem to be too impressed with that." Priss snorted a bit.

"Well dive-bombing the Battlemover isn't exactly what I'd call a sound tactical move either," she noted, her red-brown eyes gazing up into his. "For a minute there I wasn't sure what you were trying to do. At least warn me before you try something stupid like that again, okay?"

"Well, there wasn't time to discuss it in committee," he said dryly.

"I am not a committee," she mock-growled, giving him a nudge in the ribs with her elbow.

"I'll try and keep you posted next time," he tried soothing her.

"I hope to hell there isn't a next time, at least for that thing anyway," Priss said, unable to keep from shuddering. "Having to deal with the Battlemover twice is two times too many in my book."

"No argument there," he agreed. "I wonder how the ADP were tipped off to its being shipped?" he wondered aloud. "Nene even said that she hadn't seen anything on the ADP computer systems prior to the mission. Officially, it didn't look like the ADP even knew it existed."

"Who cares?" Priss mumbled sleepily. "At least they were smart enough to stay out of our way this time." The lack of rest had finally caught up to her, and she was rapidly losing the fight to stay awake, even with the coffee she'd had.

Bert glanced over at her, and smiled as he watched her nod off, her head lolling over to rest against his shoulder. Gently, he reached over and removed her mug from her grasp, setting it aside with his own mug. He sat there for a long time, quietly watching over her as she slept, his arms around her in a protective embrace.


"Not bad at all," Aramaki flipped through the pages of Leon's report thoughtfully. "Only three troopers seriously injured, five with minor injuries. One K-12 is out of commission for several weeks while it's being refitted." He set the report over on his desk, looking very satisfied. "We may not have been able to catch everyone involved with the operation," Aramaki noted, "but from an operational standpoint I'd say we were much more successful than most of our boomer-chasing expeditions. Both in human and material costs."

"It could've been worse," Leon pointed out. "The Knight Sabers definitely made a difference to the outcome of that fight."

"Yes, they did," Aramaki agreed, his expression neutral. "Although I can name some people higher-up who were a bit upset that you let them do your work for you."

"That I WHAT!?" Leon erupted, then subsided as he noticed Aramaki grinning crookedly.

"I've already disabused them of that particular notion," Aramaki advised him, becoming serious. "I think we're both familiar enough with certain practical realities of the situation to know that the Knight Sabers aren't our top priority for arrest, and are more help to us than hindrance. You know," he suddenly mused, "I wonder if we shouldn't consider trying to hire them; they're certainly adept at dealing with high-risk situations."

"I've just got to be there when you try and get that put into the departmental budget," Leon grinned. "I've never seen politicians have a heart attack before." Leon frowned suddenly. "Speaking of the Knight Sabers, why do you think they were there last night? You said that you didn't really find out about that operation yourself until the last minute."

"I suspect that they knew about it long before we did, and had already planned to intervene," Aramaki replied, leaning back in his chair. "They have better sources than we do, seeing as they already have closer ties to the shadowy world of illegal operations than the police." Aramaki glanced thoughtfully at Leon. "To be honest, I was expecting them to be there; I know something of the background of the person who was masterminding that operation, and let's just say there's no love lost between his organization and the Knight Sabers."


"Hollister wasn't among the casualties last night, Sylia," Nene's low-pitched voice informed her. "I've checked all the reports and hospital records thoroughly; nobody matched his description. The only thing found in the area where he was last seen just before that van explosion was a lot of blood, and a pretty sophisticated handgun."

"Sophisticated in what way?" Sylia inquired, staring thoughtfully out the bay window of her apartment, absently tapping her fingernails on arm of the chair she was seated in.

"It's almost one of those so-called 'smart guns'," Nene replied. "It's got some built-in tracking sensors and some other electronic sighting gadgets we haven't figured out yet, and it fires some kind of custom-loaded ammunition. There's nothing extra-special about the ammo though; it's your typical light armour-piercing high velocity round."

"That sounds like the sort of thing Hollister would carry," Sylia mused. "It would seem then, that he escaped after all."

"Yeah, but I don't think he was in great shape when he did," Nene told her. "The forensics reports I've seen indicated he had to drag himself away, and he was losing a lot of blood. In fact, they're expecting to find his corpse, not a live person."

"Somehow, I doubt we'll be that lucky," Sylia sighed. "Keep me posted on any developments."

"Will do," the red-headed ADP officer assured her cheerily. "Anything else?"

"I don't think so," Sylia said after taking a moment to think. "Bert's leaving on his vacation in a couple of days, so we'll probably have a going-away get-together of some kind tomorrow night. Aside from that, there's nothing else I'm aware of that needs to be done."

"Oh well," Nene sighed. "Guess I'll have to go to target practice after all."

"I'm sure you'll survive," Sylia smiled to herself at Nene's martyred tone of voice. "Think of it as an excuse for avoiding paperwork."

"You obviously haven't seen the forms we have to sign to requisition the ammunition," Nene deadpanned, then sighed. "Well, I'd better get going before somebody spots me. Bye, Sylia."

"Good-bye," Sylia hung up the phone and sat quietly for a few minutes, digesting what Nene had told her. She sighed, and ran a hand through her blue-black hair in exasperation.

She'd known that expecting to find Hollister among the casualties had been expecting too much; the blond man always seemed to have some kind of contingency plan that allowed him to escape. At the same time, it would've been nice to be lucky for a change; Hollister's death would've neatly taken care of a couple of her outstanding concerns.

They'd dealt Hollister a severe blow by destroying his Battlemover prototype , that much she knew for certain. Both from her own information, and from the information that Doc had provided, she knew that an incredible amount of time and expense had gone into the superweapon's development, enough that Hollister had been banking at least some of his reputation on the project's successful completion. Having it destroyed would damage his credibility with his usual clients, and that would in turn (hopefully) serve to hamper his activities for a while.

Hollister had lost more than a piece of technology, he'd lost face as well, and that wouldn't sit well with the blond man. Doc had warned her about the blond man's tendency to take setbacks very personally, and his growing irrationality. Sylia wasn't too concerned, however. Irrational people made mistakes, and if Hollister made enough of them, she wouldn't need to worry about him - he'd likely get killed by his associates or clients.

She knew better than to underestimate him though. Even with the setback they'd handed him, he was still a substantial threat to her and her teammates. Sylia fervently hoped that he'd be too busy recuperating to bother them for a while.

Sylia glanced at the wall clock, and for a few moments debated with herself whether or not she should go downstairs and assist Sylvie with the afternoon's customers. After some consideration, she decided she didn't really feel like it; rank did have some privileges, after all, and she felt like relaxing for a change. With everything she'd had to deal with lately, she figured she'd earned at least an afternoon off.

Sylia got out of her chair and went into the kitchen, coming back with a cup of coffee. Setting it on the coffee table, she stretched lengthwise on the couch, picked up a novel she'd been reading earlier, and resumed reading, letting the quiet and solitude soak into her.


Monitoring equipment quietly beeped with rhythmic regularity, providing a counterpoint to the soft rushing of the room's air conditioning. Wires and tubing snaked from the bank of medical monitors and metering equipment over to the nearby bed in tangled profusion. The wires and tubes ended at the blanket-draped and bandage-wrapped shape lying in the bed, providing a constant stream of information on the patient and the necessary drugs for the stabilization of the patient's condition. The entire room had that sharp, antiseptic odour that seemed to permeate all medical facilities the world over.

A slim doctor in medical scrubs and a facemask entered the room and walked over to the bank of monitoring equipment. Giving the readouts a practiced glance, he nodded to himself in approval, and jotted down some notes on the clipboard he was carrying. He barely even glanced at the patient in the bed.

"Doctor," the harsh, raspy croak from the bed startled him, nearly causing him to drop his clipboard. "How badly was I hurt?"

"Mr. Hollister," the doctor glanced again at the monitors as if they'd just lied to him or something; according to the readouts, the patient was supposed to still be sedated. "You shouldn't be trying to talk; you've just been through some major surgery, and..."

"I asked you a question," Hollister's voice seemed to gain strength. "I'm well aware of what I went though, but I want specifics." Icy blue eyes glittered from under the swath of bandages wrapping his forehead and scalp. The doctor felt a trickle of unease at that gaze.

"Well, you had some spleen and liver damage from the explosion shrapnel you took," the doctor said slowly. "We had to remove the spleen, but the other internal damage should heal without problem. There was some shrapnel in your right thigh and calf, but we took care of that. Your left arm had to have some steel rods inserted; the bone was shattered almost beyond repair, and we're still not fully sure how it'll regenerate. You also had to have several stitches in your face and forehead, and you've still got a concussion." The doctor glanced at the monitors again. "All in all, you're fortunate to have survived," he concluded. "I still don't quite understand how you made it back here."

"I have some unfinished business with some people," Hollister's smile was not pleasant, and the doctor couldn't quite suppress a shiver. "I'd hate to disappoint them by dying before I have the chance to make sure they precede me into the hereafter."

"Mr. Hollister," the doctor said nervously, "please don't misunderstand me, but it's going to be at least four to six weeks before you can get out of that bed, and it'll be weeks more of intense physiotherapy before you have the use of your left arm back, probably close to a year. You're not going to be able to just get up and resume your normal activities."

"You're a doctor," Hollister said coldly. "Think of a way to accelerate the process." Another cold smile crossed Hollister's face. "After all, your life does depend on it."


The bright rays of the setting sun bathed the massive ziggurat of GENOM tower in a rosy glow, giving the dark, foreboding structure an almost friendly appearance. Anyone knowing of the hive of ambition and corruption that the tower contained would have known the imagery to be total falsehood, but it still made for a nice metaphor.

Katherine Madigan smiled to herself as she leaned back in her chair, admiring the way the setting sun's rays beaming through her office window caught the deep red of the wine in the crystal wineglass she was holding. She didn't normally indulge herself in any frills while she was in her office and working, but today was a special occasion, one well worth celebrating with a glass or two of vintage wine. She'd been saving this bottle for a while, and the taste of success only added to the richness of its flavour.

Madigan reached out and again caressed the cover of the report she'd been handed earlier in the day, a pleased smile wreathing her normally aloof features. It had worked...Hollister's pet project had been destroyed and a great deal of his credibility had been ruined. All thanks to planting the desired information somewhere that the oft-maligned ADPolice force would be able to get to. She made a mental note to ask the Chairman if they should perhaps ease up on the ADP's budget restraints as a way of repaying them for the unwitting favour they'd done her.

What made the victory even sweeter were the reports that Hollister himself had been badly hurt during the firefight that had erupted. She was mildly disappointed that she hadn't had a body to gloat over, but was philosophical about it. Sooner or later she'd get Hollister and take great pleasure in permanently removing him from her life. The way things were going for him, she was quite certain that it would be sooner rather than later.

Madigan frowned slightly to herself at that thought. Based on the reports she'd had of the battle the night before, it appeared she wasn't the only one with a violent personal grudge against the blond man. One of the Knight Sabers, SkyKnight, had appeared to lose control of himself for a moment when Hollister had appeared. Although she intended to see if she could discover more about that particular angle, Madigan just wished he'd aimed a little better. Ah well, there would still be other opportunities.

Yes, it was a very good year, she decided as she sipped again at her wine. A very self-satisfied smile played about her lips as she lounged in her office and watched night fall over MegaTokyo.




 (For Now.... ^_^ )

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