Night hung over the sprawling metropolis of MegaTokyo like a thick blanket. Flashy neon signs and streetlights hurled back the darkness with their multi-hued challenges as the citizens of the great city went about their usual routine without a care in the world. Tall buildings shouldered their way skyward, artificial monuments to progress. From the top of one of these buildings, two armored figures were looking down at the man-made canyons created and watching the city night life. One was clad in a sleek hardsuit of blue, with red stripes on the helmet and legs. The suit's profile was unmistakably female, while the other was definitely male; it was taller with broader shoulders. The second suit was much heavier and bulkier looking, a midnight-black suit with silver trim that looked vaguely like a knight of the middle ages come forward to the present and given a technological overhaul. The helmet on the black suit turned towards the blue one. An eerily glowing, V-shaped slot in the helmet's faceplate regarded the other.
"How much longer do you think they're going to be?" an electronically filtered voice asked. The other suit shrugged.
"It depends. They're trying to herd the boomer away from the populated areas without anyone else getting hurt too badly. We try to avoid firefights in the malls; it tends to upset people. If this works, we'll be able to see them in a few minutes. Relax."
"I am relaxed."
"No you're not. I can hear every system on your suit whirring when you run checks on it. You've done it every five minutes for the last half hour. Now quit that." Priss shoved the other suit's shoulder gently. "Don't worry, you'll do fine."
"Okay, I admit to being a little edgy, but you can't really blame me. This is the first time I've been allowed to accompany the rest of the team on an outing."
"Well we certainly weren't going to leave you behind, not after that last stunt you pulled." Guilty silence was her only answer. "At least this way we can keep an eye on you," she continued.
"Is that why you got paired up with me? They figured you'd be the best one to tell if someone was going to go solo?" He ducked the mock-irritated swing she aimed in his direction.
"Smartass." Priss turned back to watching the night life. After a moment, Bert joined her. The city was strangely attractive-looking at night, some of the far off lights looking like stars......
"Priss, Bert, the boomer's headed your way," Sylia's voice over the shielded comm frequency interrupted his reverie.
"All right! Told you it wouldn't take much longer," Priss told him. "We got that, Sylia. We're moving to intercept now." She'd just finished that sentence when she heard jets fire, and the black suit shot into the night without waiting. Swearing under her breath, she leaped into the air, activated her own flight system, and followed. If the boomer doesn't kill him, she though to herself in exasperation, I just might!
The Knight Sabers
Bert roared through the air, exulting briefly in the thrill of flight. Who needed airplanes when you could travel like this? His sensors located the rapidly approaching boomer, scanned the recognition database in his onboard computer and gave him a tentative ID: C-55 series boomer. "Better than a combat boomer," he muttered to himself, adjusting his course to intercept. He still woke occasionally from raging nightmares about his last fight with a rogue Bu-12B boomer. Aside from the fact he'd gone after the boomer alone, and against orders, the fight had almost killed him. His nightmares kept replaying the fight in his mind like a B-grade movie, but with a vastly different ending than what had happened. His sensors suddenly beeped; something was catching up to him from behind. He grinned to himself, realizing who it must be.
"You jerk!" Priss reprimanded him over the comm channel. "You're supposed to stay with me, remember? Or do you really like cleaning the vehicle garage so much that you want to do it again?"
He winced. Cleaning the garage where all the suit and vehicle modifications or repairs were carried out had been part of his sentence for going solo, and it was periodically waved over his head like a sword whenever it seemed he was getting too out of control. He wasn't anxious to repeat that experience, because it seemed that the dirt and clutter level of the garage had escalated mysteriously when he'd been assigned to do it. Nothing he could prove, of course, and everyone else had protested innocence. Yeah, right.
"Sorry," he apologized.
"Like hell you are. You're worse than I am, charging headfirst into a fight." Priss had pulled even with him now; her flight system didn't have the same level of power his did. His own flight system was designed for long-range, direct fast flight, and he'd purposely doubled the lifting power of his jets because of his bigger size and heavier mass. The other Knight Saber suits were more of a short range jump-jet style of system that had more aerial maneuverability than he did. At least if I ever get them all really mad at me, he thought to himself with a grin, I stand a good chance of being able to outrun them. The boomer was within visual range now, a steadily growing blue shape. Suddenly Nene's voice crackled over the comm.
"Be careful intercepting that boomer! AD Police just sent two choppers into your area to try and down it. Another boomer also just appeared a few minutes ago; we're fighting it now."
"Affirmative, Nene," Bert responded. Two small, one-man choppers with rotary chainguns were visible behind the boomer. "I can see them from here. Looks like they're....yeah, they're firing at it. Damn! They're going to tick it off and then..."
His observation was interrupted by the flash of a plasma beam; one of the choppers vanished in a fireball.
"You biomechanical, rust-faced, useless piece of shit!" Bert swore at it. He opened his flight system to full power and flashed ahead of Priss, trying to reach the boomer before it could kill the other pilot.
"Bert! What the hell are you doing?!?!? You can't...." Priss was howling at him from back where he'd left her. Looks like I'm cleaning the garage again, he thought sourly.
The distance between the boomer and himself was narrowing rapidly. 400 metres....350....200...almost there! He was beginning to target his weapons for a quick burst when the remaining chopper opened up on the boomer again with it's chaingun. The boomer slewed around in mid air, opening its mouth and targeting the chopper. Damn it, he wasn't going to be in time to stop the boomer from firing. He suddenly altered his course slightly, angling to intercept the chopper. He had one option open if he wanted to save the pilot, but if he missed, it was a toss-up between whether he'd get diced by the rotors on the chopper or fried when the boomer exploded the chopper.
He thundered past the boomer, hearing the telltale sizzle of a plasma beam generator behind him preparing to fire. This was going to be close! His flight computer matched velocities with the chopper for a split second by braking with a hard blast of thruster fire, sliding under the beating chopper blades by scant inches. Bracing a foot against the chopper frame, he grabbed the pilot's body armor and bodily ripped him loose from his seat, snapping flight restraints and control systems. His jets blasted at emergency power, down and away from the chopper as the brilliant blue-white shaft of energy from the boomer tore through the air and destroyed the chopper in an expanding ball of flame. Scrap metal clanged off of his back, but no serious damage resulted. He rocketed earthwards, stopping short of the ground with a hard blast of thruster-fire. Heavy deceleration g-forces briefly assaulted him, but he was able to handle it, thanks to the suit's acceleration compensators.
Dropping the stunned pilot to the ground, he flipped around and shot skyward again. Hmm, not bad. He'd saved the pilot, was only down to 85% power, and all systems appeared to be operating perfectly. A worthwhile trade, even if he was going to be in the doghouse for the next week over this particular escapade. As he soared upwards, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder why the boomer hadn't followed him.
He was answered when he cleared the rooftop of the building in front of him. Priss had shot the boomer at long range with her railgun to distract it, and was now in hand-to-hand combat with the thing on a rooftop. As he zoomed closer, she ducked under a roundhouse swing and sprang back from a spinning kick that the boomer launched at her. Wait a minute.....since when had boomers started acting like Bruce Lee?! Priss was a great fighter, but this particular boomer was no slouch either. It was striking, parrying and kicking like a champion martial artist. It suddenly connected with a kick to the head, and Priss was knocked back against a wall, dazed despite the protection of her hardsuit. The boomer moved closer to her, suddenly sprouting claws on its right arm.
"Hey asshole! Pick on someone still standing!" Bert fired a quick plasma burst at the boomer's back as he landed on the roof. It had no noticeable effect, but the boomer spun snarling, and leaped at him, claws upraised. He dodged past its downward swipe - Linna's combat training sessions with him were gradually taking hold - and spun around to put himself between the boomer and the still dazed Priss. The boomer had a railgun spike through it's lower left torso, and what looked like autocannon damage to it's left leg, but it wasn't seriously hurt. It stalked towards him, raising its claws again.
"Priss! Are you all right?" She didn't answer. Damn. "You're going to pay for that," he informed the approaching boomer. It snarled in reply, slashing forward with its claws again.
The sword blade built into the gauntlet of his suit snapped out as he parried the boomer's claws, knocking them out of line with his body. Then the world suddenly jolted crazily, as the boomer caught him in the helmet with a flashing uppercut and kicked him in the stomach armor, knocking him backwards to fall on top of Priss, who was still trying to get up. This is not going well, he thought hazily, ears ringing from the blows.
Blue energy bolts from his gauntlets hammered the boomer backwards, buying him enough time to roll free of Priss and get to his feet again. He advanced cautiously, noting that his plasma beams had finally damaged the boomer, but it was still moving as if unhurt. His railgun launcher snapped into position on his shoulder, and several sharp reports split the night air as it fired its four explosive bolts. He watched in stunned disbelief as the boomer, moving faster than any of the bio-mechanoid monsters had a right to, dodged the first shot, kicked the second out of the air, and caught the third. The fourth bolt punctured the boomer's left arm, blowing it off at the shoulder in a spray of fluid and parts a minute later. The boomer shuddered slightly, then hurled the captured missile back at him.
"Shit!" He folded over backwards in his haste to avoid the projectile, and then wrenched himself to his feet. We need help he decided. "SkyKnight to Sabers," he announced over the comm channel, "we could use a hand here. Heck, we could use several hands!". He ducked under another plasma bolt, fired in reply, and missed.
"Affirmative SkyKnight," returned Sylia's voice, "we'll be there as soon as we can, but we're still dealing with this other boomer. Just hang on." The channel shut off.
"Easy for you to say," he muttered to himself. The boomer suddenly rushed forward again, slashing wickedly with its claws. Bert ducked again, but not quick enough; his railgun launcher was torn from its shoulder mount.
"You bastard! Do you know how long it takes to build one of those things?!" Bert snarled. He caught the boomer's remaining arm as it swung back towards him, and grabbed its throat with his right hand, shoving its head back so that it couldn't fire its plasma beam at him. The fight abruptly turned into a contest of strength, one he wasn't sure he could win. In his suit, Bert stood around six foot-six, and had enhanced strength through the suit systems, but the boomer easily topped eight feet and was a pure combat machine, designed only for offense. The myomer and micro-hydraulic systems in his suit began to whine with stress as the boomer began forcing him backwards, step by grudging step.
The 55-C boomer staggered as Sylia's cannon blasted half of it's lower torso off from point-blank range. A second later, Linna's olive-green hardsuit vaulted past the boomer, whipping its monomolecular edged ribbons through the boomer's body and neatly bisecting it. The boomer collapsed into a twitching heap in two places. Linna landed neatly behind it. She looked over at Sylia.
"Which way now?" she asked.
"I'm not sure," Sylia replied worriedly, "I can't get them on any of the frequencies." That alone was cause for worry, and the fact that it had been Bert, not Priss who had called for help was an even better cause. It meant that Priss had been hurt, or at least was unable to respond. "Nene, have you been able to find them?"
"No, not a trace," Nene said. "I can't lock on to their transponder signals, either. There's something interfering with the signal. I'm trying to bypass it but....."
" They're over there! Look!" Linna interrupted, pointing. A blue flash of plasma fire lanced into the night sky from a building several blocks distant.
"Let's go! Hurry!" The three hardsuits sprang into the air towards the distant fight. As they sped towards it, another blue bolt pierced the heavens.
Damn it, I can't let this bloody thing win, Bert thought desperately. He had to stop it somehow. He was still locked toe-to-toe with the boomer, his grip on its throat preventing it from blasting him or Priss with its energy beam, but it was slowly overpowering him. His status readout was flashing overload warnings at him. The suit musculature was at 95% of recommended operating stress levels, and it wouldn't be much longer before it burned out. He didn't dare let go now, either, because he had no hope of dodging a point-blank plasma blast. Come on, he prayed silently, someone get here!
A blue shape suddenly materialized off to his right as Priss lunged forward out of the darkness. The boomer couldn't move to adjust to this new aggressor, and it's head exploded as Priss shoved her cannon arm against its skull and let it have several shots through the head, point-blank. The boomer went limp, folding to its knees, and then collapsing onto it's side as Bert stepped back. He sighed in relief, as his status readouts returned to normal, relieved of the horrible strain he'd subjected them to.
"Thanks, that was beginning to get desperate," he said as he turned to face Priss.
" No problem. You really shouldn't try wrestling them though, just shoot the buggers." Priss was swaying unsteadily on her feet. Concerned, he took a step towards her.
"Hey, you're hurt!" It must have been more serious than he'd figured. She tried to wave him off.
"No, I'm fine, really. Just dazed." She took a step, then almost toppled over.
"No, you're not. Hold still." He grabbed her left arm and looped it around his shoulder, sliding his right arm around her waist to help hold her up. She stiffened noticeably, and tried to pull away. He held on.
"Look," he told her firmly, "you don't normally sway all over like someone who's just drank half a brewery, so just shut up and hold still. I'm not trying anything funny or devious. I'm concerned about you, damnit, so you can either acquiesce gracefully or I'll bloody well throw you over my shoulder and carry you that way!!" She was silent a moment, then reluctantly sagged against his support. Suddenly, she laughed faintly.
"What's so funny?"
"I'll bet the heroes in those books of yours don't talk to the maidens they rescue that way," she told him, still laughing. He grinned wryly to himself. At least her sense of humour was intact.
"True, but that's because most of the damsel-in-distress types aren't as stubborn as you are, and don't argue with people trying to help them," he told her.
The hissing roar of flight jets announced the arrival of the rest of the team. Instantly they were surrounded by the familiar colours of Sylia, Linna and Nene's suits. Linna ducked under Priss' right arm to provide extra support, ignoring her protests.
"What happened?" Sylia demanded. Priss started to answer, but was cut off by Bert.
"She got kicked in the head by that smoldering slag heap over there, and can't walk straight. I can give you the fight details later, but right now she thinks she's fine, even though...."
"He threatened to carry me if I didn't let him help," Priss put in.
"I'd pay to watch that!" Nene commented, a grin evident in the sound of her voice.
Linna laughed and added "I think I would too!". They dissolved into giggles, as Priss snorted.
"Some friends you are," she said indignantly, "you're supposed to defend me, not let this oversized tin can bully me." Bert started to reply, but was interrupted by Sylia.
"We can discuss this later," she told them, "let's get out of here."
"I almost forgot," Bert added as they prepared to leave, "there's an ADP chopper pilot down in the alley somewhere. Anyone seen him?"
"We saw somebody running back towards the main streets as we flew over," Nene replied, "so I guess that was him. How'd he get down there though? What happened to the chopper?"
"It's a long story," he told her. He didn't want to get lectured right now on reckless behavior.
The five suits vanished into the night with the hiss of thrusters. Several buildings away, a sleek black helicopter lifted off from the rooftop where it had been concealed. Banking slightly, it flew off into the night towards the massive ziggurat of the GENOM corporate facility.
"What are we going to do with you?" Sylia asked Bert in exasperation. "I can appreciate your wanting to stop the boomer from killing anyone, but playing 'chicken' with an ADP helicopter to rescue the pilot was reckless stupidity! What if you'd missed?" she demanded. Bert managed to look both guilty and defiant at the same time. They were all back at the Sabers' headquarters, their suits placed back in the storage bays. Nene and Linna had taken Priss upstairs to have her head examined, a process Bert had passed a smart remark on and gotten belted for. He'd thought it was funny, but Priss obviously didn't share his sense of humour. He was alone now with Sylia, who was taking the opportunity to give him a first class reprimanding. She was absolutely furious, something he'd never seen before from her. Her brown eyes were almost spitting fire on their own.
"You have a responsibility to the Sabers to act as part of the team! You can't always go haring off on some glorious grandiose rescue mission! Did it ever occur to you that Priss might have been killed by that boomer while you were off playing 'hero of the hour'?"
"Well....no.. I mean I..."
"Exactly. You didn't think! Well you'd better start thinking, or you and the vehicle shop are going to become even more familiar," she threatened. "If you can't have some consideration for your actions, then you and your suit will be grounded, even if I have to personally dismantle it!" His face tightened at that threat; flying his hardsuit was too exhilarating to ever want to give it up.
"I'm sorry, honestly," he mumbled, looking at the floor, "and I'll try to keep from doing it again." Sylia nodded, and turned to go, when his voice stopped her.
"Err....have you got a moment?" he asked hesitantly. She turned around, giving him a hard look.
"All right, what is it?"
"There was something I wanted to discuss about that fight, if it's okay with you."
"And that is?"
"That boomer wasn't a normal C-55; it seemed to be doing things that they normally can't do." He pulled a data disk from his pocket. "I've got film footage of the boomer if you've got a minute."
"Where did that come from?" she asked, suddenly curious.
"I put a flight recorder in my suit."
" What? Why on earth did you do that?"
"I figured if I watched films of fights I was in, I could figure out what I was doing wrong and hopefully correct it." He walked to a computer console, stuck the disk in a slot, and called up the appropriate file. Sylia walked over to the computer screen, as a long-distance view of the boomer with two helicopters behind it from his helmet perspective appeared. "I'll skip this part here," he said hastily, but she cut him off.
"No, you won't. I want to see this stunt for myself." She turned to watch the hair-raising pilot rescue, not saying anything. Bert looked faintly sick. Hearing secondhand about his little escapade from Priss had made her mad enough as it was. Seeing it from his viewpoint from actual footage was bound to be worse, because all of the data from his suit systems were displayed in the lower left corner of the screen, revealing just how much stress and risk he had actually subjected himself to. She looked at him inscrutably, but said nothing else, turning back to watch the film as it came up to his fight with the boomer. Her gaze suddenly became intense as she noticed the speed and complexity of the attacks the boomer was using. When it was over, she looked at him thoughtfully.
"You're right. That model of boomer shouldn't have been able to react that fast, especially not fast enough to catch railgun projectiles." She stared blankly at the monitor, lost in thought. Abruptly she turned to him. "Leave this disk with me; I want to go over it again and see what a more detailed analysis will show."
He nodded quietly, and left. She turned back to the monitor, staring at the frozen picture of the boomer as it advanced towards the camera. She had a sudden premonition of impending doom, but shrugged it off. Turning off the monitor, she pocketed the disk and left.
The GENOM tower loomed over MegaTokyo, dominating the landscape. Inside its cloud-shrouded upper levels, a meeting was going on. Seated around a small table were three scientists and two men in expensive suits. Brian J. Mason, director in charge of boomer development, sat impassive and immaculate in a dark blue suit at the right hand of a much older man in a white suit with greying hair. Quincy, C.E.O. and main driving force behind GENOM's ambitions, had a face that looked like weathered granite, craggy and foreboding. His icy blue eyes seemed to miss nothing. At the far end of the room, a fourth, very nervous scientist was operating a computer projection screen, and giving a briefing to the assembled men. The film footage being shown by the computer displayed the fight between the strange C-55 boomer, a blue hardsuit that was infuriatingly familiar to both Quincy and Mason, and a strange looking, midnight black-and-silver hardsuit.
They watched expressionlessly without comment. When it was over, Quincy speared the luckless scientist at the projector with a cold gaze. The scientist tried hard not to flinch.
"And what is your analysis of this operation?"
"The initial plan was working sir," the scientist offered hesitantly, "but the appearance of a fifth, previously unknown hardsuit was a complication we were not expecting. Our analysis shows that the C-55A1 was about to kill the lone blue Knight Saber when this new suit showed up and engaged it. We have searched all records for known designs, but none are even remotely close. Some of its designs seem to be based on the Knight Sabers' technology, but there the similarity ends."
"It appears to be the same mysterious hardsuit that destroyed a Bu-12B combat boomer several weeks ago," Mason observed quietly. "There are some structural changes, but the colours and general outline leave little doubt that it is the same one. Its appearance on the scene of the fight suggests that the Knight Sabers have added a new recruit." Quincy turned back to the scientist.
"Have you analyzed that suit's combat capabilities?"
"Yes sir; it demonstrated a level of competence well below the rest of the Knight Sabers. Despite the fact that it has heavier armor and different weapons, the suit was severely damaged by the C-55A1 in hand-to-hand combat. The only reason it survived was that the blue Knight Saber recovered enough to help destroy the C-55A1."
"Incompetent or not, I want that data analyzed to find a weakness in that suit, and I want it in two days!" Quincy demanded. The scientist gulped and nodded. Mason spoke again.
"Show me the footage of before the fight; I wish to see what that suit was doing before it came to the rescue of the blue one." The scientist nodded again, and called up the appropriate file. The assembled men watched in somewhat amazed silence as the insane-appearing rescue rolled across the screen. Utter silence filled the room for a couple of minutes afterwards. At length, Quincy spoke.
"Those do not appear to be the actions of someone incompetent in handling a hardsuit," he said mildly, looking around at the rest of the room.
"That was the reckless act of a headstrong individual," Mason replied. "If he can be tempted to perform such rash acts again, he will be easy to destroy."
"Not destroy," Quincy rumbled, "capture. If we can, I want that suit for analysis. If not," he paused. "If not, then we can analyze the pieces." He stood up. Everyone else stood up also, and bowed to him, Mason included.
"Continue with the C-55A1 project," he instructed, "and inform me when the next set of prototypes are ready for testing." Everyone bowed again, and left. Quincy glared balefully at the hardsuit image on the screen for a moment, then shut it off and went back to his office.
Priss lay sprawled on the couch in Sylia's apartment, an ice-pack covering her forehead, and her arm across her eyes to keep offending lights out of her vision. She'd had to spend the night at Sylia's, because the boomer's kick had given her a concussion, and Sylia had flatly forbidden her to try and drive her motorcycle home. She'd even had Mackie lock it up just to be on the safe side. Now, the morning after, she'd developed a pounding headache that throbbed incessantly. She heard the door to the room open, and then a voice intruded on her misery. It was Bert.
"Hi," he greeted her, his voice sounding uncertain. "Are you up to some company for a few minutes?" She pulled her arm off of her eyes, wincing at the explosions the glaring light produced, and squinted in his direction. He was standing hesitantly in the doorway, a tray with two steaming mugs of something in his hand. He was dressed, as usual, in blue jeans, white sneakers, and a blue sweatshirt. Priss was willing to bet he had several identical sets of those clothes. His hair was an unruly red thatch, like always. His face was a mixture of concern and guilt, but she wasn't sure what the guilt was for. She sighed and waved him over.
"I guess I can stand it for a few minutes, as long as you're not going to make smartass remarks again." He grinned sheepishly as he came over and set the tray down on the coffee table.
"Sorry, but my sense of humour gets the better of me sometimes," he said, handing her a mug and sitting down in a chair across from her. She took the mug; it was filled with a rich brown liquid that was steaming gently, and smelled extremely inviting.
"What is it?", she asked, taking a sip. Not only did it smell good, it tasted better. She took another swallow appreciatively.
"I guess you could call it an old home remedy for when you're not feeling well: it's hot chocolate combined with company." He slurped from his own mug. "It took me a while to locate the ingredients to make this stuff properly, though. I hate that powdered ready-to-serve stuff in the cans." He grinned. "Although I think if you drank this too often, you'd really start to put on weight, especially since I'm using real cocoa, and a couple of other things." He fell silent, taking another pull at his mug. Priss wasn't sure if it was the company or the chocolate, but as she worked her way through her own mug, she was beginning to feel better. She finished it off, and set the mug back on the tray regretfully.
"That was delicious," she told him," thanks."
"Glad you enjoyed it," he replied. "It seemed to me that it was the least I could do, since I almost got you killed last night by leaving you behind." He fell silent again for a moment. "I just couldn't let that boomer kill the other pilot, though. I had to do something, anything, and...well.....you know what the result was." He drained the last of his chocolate, and placed the mug next to hers on the tray.
"I understand," she told him, "but you're going to have to realize that we can't solve everyone's problems, or protect everyone like we want to." He could see the shadows of painful memories flicker briefly across the backs of her red-brown eyes. He nodded wearily.
"I do know that," he answered, "but that doesn't stop me from wanting to try. I'm going to have to, though. I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if any of you were seriously hurt, or even killed, because I had to answer to my 'heroic urges', as Sylia calls them." She could tell his emotional shields were up for some reason; he was hiding something.
"That sounds like you actually care about us," she probed.
"Of course I care!" he snapped, the sudden fire in his tone making her blink. "What the hell made you think I don't?! Damn it, I care about all of you, a great deal, and...." He shut up, slowly turning red. She looked at him thoughtfully. Best to be direct about it, she decided.
"Are you falling for me?" she asked. He looked like someone suddenly confronted with a venomous snake.
"How do I answer this without putting my foot in my mouth?" he muttered to himself. He looked at her. She looked right back at him, totally serious. He sighed.
" The short answer is no, I'm not. I mean I like you a lot, hell, more than a lot. You're good looking, if a little stand-offish, although that tends to disappear around your friends, but I've never entertained the idea of a relationship if that's what you're asking." He grinned faintly. "The whole truth is that I tend to regard you as sort of a sister, I guess because we have enough similarities in personality to make it seem that we're related.." He stopped, clamming up again. She nodded to herself. She didn't see him much, but his reply fit with what she'd seen.
" So when are you going to ask Nene out, then?" she asked him, point blank. He literally jumped about a foot off of his chair in surprise. His face was a study in shock and incredulity.
"How did..? Who told..? What...?" he floundered, trying to pull his suddenly shattered defenses back together. She had a huge grin on her face.
"I can't.....I mean I'd like to but...but....I just can't. How did you know?" he demanded suddenly, defensively.
"I'm not blind," she retorted. "I saw the look on your face the other day. You were sitting here reading the paper when Nene came in to ask Sylia something, and you folded up. A bomb could have gone off, and you wouldn't have noticed. You tend to get this dazed, dreamy expression whenever she's in the room." She gave him a parody of it that made him wince. "Although, you sure hide it well whenever she's looking in your direction. If you feel that way about her, why the hell don't you say something?" She waited for a reply. The silence stretched into several minutes. When he finally spoke, it was as if the words were being dragged kicking and screaming into the light of day.
"I can't because....because on the few occasions I've summoned up the courage to ask a girl out, I was turned down, or they already had a boyfriend. That was bad, but I was able to handle that. What I couldn't handle was the isolation that resulted; suddenly, even though we'd been friends, there was this restraint whenever we talked." He suddenly stood, went into the kitchen, and came back with a glass of water. He took a huge mouthful before continuing. "It didn't take long for them to stop talking to me completely, so not only had the date idea backfired completely, but I was a friend shorter, and I've never had a huge supply of friends. On one other occasion, she said yes, then turned around saying that she'd been joking. It was a week or two before I got over that one." His face reflected the complex emotional mix that the memories were bringing back. She felt a sudden stab of sympathy; she hadn't realized just how much was eating at this guy. She leaned forward, putting a hand on his arm.
"And now?" she asked gently. He looked at her. There was genuine concern and sympathy in her eyes, which comforted him somewhat.
"And now? Now I have a hard time relaxing my guard long enough to try to get really close to someone. I guess it's an evolved survival reflex; I don't think I can afford to lose control of some of my emotions. God knows I've got enough of them to lose control of." He took another slug of water. He couldn't believe he was telling her all this, but somehow it felt better getting it off his chest after all this time.
"There's also the constant fear that I'll screw up somehow and destroy what I do have. I'd rather try and maintain the friendship than risk sinking it completely because I want something more. I think I'd snap if it happened again. Add to that the fact that I really don't have the faintest idea of what to do if I did get a date, and you've got the perfect recipe for a colossal disaster." He stood again, almost angrily, and returned the now-empty glass to the kitchen. When he sat down again, silence blanketed the room again. At length, Priss spoke.
"Well, I think you should at least try, rather than sitting there letting it boil away inside."
"Easy for you to say," he snorted.
"I've had my own share of problems," she told him," but we'll discuss them later. Maybe. You really ought to try and ask her out."
"I can't! I lock solid even thinking about it! I don't enjoy having my guts suddenly wrapped around my spine, but that's what it feels like anytime I consider it! Maybe given more time I'll calm down enough to try, but right now I feel like I want to jump out the window instead." He suddenly turned stubborn. "I'll try later, after a while." She gave in reluctantly.
"All right, whatever you say," she said, looking at him. He'd managed to pull his emotional walls back together and was preparing for a siege. He stood up, and she stood up with him. She suddenly realized her headache was gone. His 'home cure' seemed to have worked. He picked up the tray, holding it in one hand..
"Don't you at least feel better having talked to someone about this finally?" she asked quietly. He looked over at her, a faint smile finally creeping onto his face.
"I suppose I do, but if anyone else asks, I'll deny it." He suddenly stepped close to her, gave her a quick, one armed hug, and then fled through the door. Priss sighed as she flopped back on the couch. Maybe Linna would have better luck at convincing him to try and do something.
ONE WEEK LATER...
Priss stormed down to the basement level, teeth clenched, with Linna close behind her. It had been a week since she'd managed to get Bert to admit that he had feelings for Nene, but since then, he'd gone into hiding. Except for showing up for his usual training sessions with Linna at the health club, he'd been impossible to find. She and Linna had compared notes and finally decided that they had to do something to force his hand, or else he was going to just go on moping around and ducking the issue forever. She almost kicked to door to his apartment open, and looked around; he wasn't in. She had a sudden hunch, and went to the level with the suit repair facilities, Linna following.
They entered into a warzone; metal parts, tools, and wiring were strewn all over the room. It looked like a bomb had gone off. A small, 3-D holographically generated diagram of a hardsuit sat in the middle of a pile of spare parts on a table, and a coffeepot on a hotplate sat next to it. As Priss looked around, Linna checked the coffeepot; the coffee had been evaporating there a long time, and was now akin to an excellent vintage of diesel fuel. How could anyone even think of drinking that stuff?! She shuddered. Suddenly Priss beckoned her over to where she was standing by a door at the far end of the room. Linna came over and looked.
Standing in the middle of the room was the SkyKnight hardsuit. It had obviously just been completely rebuilt, since a couple of structural changes were evident. It now had folded jet-fighter type wings built into the thruster pack on its back, and it sported a weapon mount on each shoulder. The armour plating was different looking; it was still heavier than any of the other hardsuits, but it looked more streamlined. Kneeling beside it, closing an open panel in the leg armour, was Bert. He looked completely out of it, concentrating on nothing else but the armour. This has gone far enough, Priss decided. Jerking her head towards him, she and Linna walked over.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?!" she demanded. He fell over backwards, startled by her voice. He groggily pulled himself up, stood up and looked at her. Linna and Priss both stared at him; he looked like shit. He obviously hadn't shaved in several days, his clothes were wrinkled beyond belief, and his bloodshot eyes had huge bags under them. He almost looked like he was recovering from a hangover.
"Upgrading my armour. What does it look like I'm doing?" he answered, puzzled sounding. His voice was hoarse. Priss suddenly realized that he was out on his feet, and didn't really fully understand what was going on. Linna had come to the same realization. Sighing, she grabbed his left arm as Priss grabbed his right one, and they hustled him out of the shop.
"You didn't have to be so bloody thorough!" Bert glared at them. He was now reasonably clear-eyed and clear headed. He 'd also shaved and showered, and was now presentable looking in clean clothing. He took a mouthful of the fresh tea Linna had made up, and slouched back in his chair.
"Well you didn't leave us a hell of a lot of choice!" Priss glared right back, still pissed off with him. Working together, she and Linna had hauled him into the washroom, stuffed him in the shower, and left the cold water running at full blast for several minutes. The result had been a thoroughly drenched and sodden, but now completely alert young man. They had given him a flat ultimatum of fifteen minutes to clean himself up, and then gone into his living room to wait. He'd been out in ten minutes. He pointed an accusatory finger at them.
"Well you didn't have to enjoy it so much, either!"
Linna giggled. "Maybe we did, just a little," she agreed impishly, "but you were asking for it."
"And just what did I do that deserved an attempt at cryogenic suspension?!"
"I'd say disappearing for a week would be a good start. That and the fact that you are obviously not getting any sleep. If we hadn't grabbed you, you'd probably have passed out down there in the shop." Priss glared at him. "Just when was the last time you slept, anyway?"
"I don't know. What's today?"
"Friday," Linna informed him.
"Fascinating," he mumbled to himself. "I seem to have lost a couple of days somewhere." They both gaped at him, not quite believing their ears.
"You mean you haven't slept since Wednesday?!?" Linna asked incredulously. "No wonder your practice sessions were so lousy!" He shrugged.
"I used to do it occasionally at university if I didn't have enough time to work on something."
Priss grabbed a nearby pillow and belted him with it. "What are you trying to do, ruin your health? What would you have done if we'd had to use the hardsuits? You'd have gotten killed, that's what! You jackass!" She shook her head in disgust. Bert took another mouthful of tea, puzzled.
"Would someone please tell me what I did, or didn't do to deserve this?" he demanded of the world at large. "Okay, so I was dumb to push myself. I hardly think that calls for this level of rancor that I'm getting!"
"Do you remember what we talked about last week?" Priss asked patiently.
"Which talk was that? I don't......oh. That one."
"Yes, 'that one'! If you think you can hide down here and avoid the question forever, forget it, chum," she said grimly. "Linna and I have decided that you're going to get this out in the open, one way or another." Linna nodded in agreement. He looked from one to the other, and decided he didn't like the implications of that.
"What does 'one way or the other' mean?" he inquired guardedly.
"It means," Priss told him," that either you go willingly and ask Nene out, or we'll bloody drag you to her, in public, and make a big stink about it."
"You wouldn't!" he exclaimed, face whitening.
"Try us and find out," Priss said grimly.
"But...but that's blackmail!" he protested.
"You're damn right! Like we said, this has gone on long enough." Priss stood up, and hauled him up with her by the shirtfront. "Nene's in the control room right now, working on some stuff for Sylia. She's alone. You're going to go up there right now and ask her out, or you're going to be very, very sorry you didn't."
"But I look like hell right now!"
"You should have thought of that sooner," she responded implacably. "Now get going." Priss and Linna started herding him towards the door.
"Don't I even get a last request?" he asked before they shoved him into the hall.
Nene sat in front of a computer screen, her emerald green eyes thoughtfully watching information flash across the screen as her fingers skittered across the keyboard at blinding speeds. She suddenly leaned back, rubbing her eyes, and then stretched, running her hands through her long, vibrant red hair. She wasn't having any luck tracking down a company Sylia had asked her to find. The company name was in all the stock market portfolios, but any records of the company business dealings were non-existent She wasn't sure why Sylia wanted information on this place, but she was sure it had something to do with some of the recent boomer attacks. She sighed, and was preparing to dig some more, when the door to the computer room opened, and Bert walked in.
"Good morning," he greeted her. "How's things?"
"Not bad," she replied, smiling up at him as he walked over to where she was sitting. "I can't find any information on this parts company Sylia was interested in, though. It's as though they don't exist." She looked at him. He suddenly turned bright red and dropped his gaze, clearing his throat nervously. He was also sweating like it was an oven inside the room. What on earth could be wrong with him?
"Are you coming down with something?" she asked concernedly. "You don't look well."
"Hm? Oh no, I'm fine," he said, then fell silent. An uncomfortable silence fell, and seemed to get thicker. Bert was positive she could hear his heart hammering away inside his chest like a jackhammer, he was that nervous. He cleared his throat a couple of times, but said nothing. She sat watching him, a puzzled expression on her face. Come on, come on, he told himself, ask her out damnit! She sat up.
"Well," she said, "I've got to...."
"Wouldyoubewillingtogotodinnerwithmetonight?!" he blurted. She blinked in surprise. She hadn't understood a single word he'd said. She looked at him strangely.
"Pardon me?" she queried.
He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. His innards felt as tightly strung as piano wire. "I said 'Would you be willing to go out to dinner with me tonight?'"
"'Dinner' as in 'Date'?" she asked, a faint smile beginning to appear. He nodded. The faint smile turned into the most beautiful smile he'd ever seen. He felt like he was walking on clouds.
"I'd love to! Where did you want to go?" Good question; where did he want to go? There was euphoric cheering going on in the back of his mind, and it was a little difficult to concentrate.
"There's a steak house not too far from here. I figured we could start there, and see what happens after that. How about, say...8:00 tonight?" It was all he could do to keep from bouncing up and down in glee. She wanted to go out with him!!
"That's fine with me," she smiled at him. "I'll meet you out front at 8:00 then. Right now I've got to finish this stuff for Sylia. Okay?" He nodded. He suddenly bent, gave her a quick kiss, startling himself as much as her, and was gone out the door. It looked like he'd covered the distance between her and the door in two leaps. She turned back to the computer, but couldn't quite keep her mind on her work anymore.
"How long has he been gone?" Linna asked. Priss glanced at her watch.
"About twenty minutes," she replied. "We'll give him ten more minutes. If he still hasn't done anything then we...." She was cut off by a yell from the hallway that broke the sound barrier.
A red-haired tornado with a huge grin burst through the door. "She said yes! She said yes!" he cackled gleefully, almost bouncing off the walls. Priss suddenly found herself engulfed in a bear hug as he swung her around a couple of times. Linna received similar treatment. Finally he calmed down enough to stand still. His eyes were glowing like the headlights on a car.
"I take it the operation was a success," Linna noted dryly, glancing sidelong at Priss. He grinned at them both.
"You bet! We're going for dinner, and then some other stuff afterwards." He still couldn't quite believe she'd said yes, but was enjoying the feeling too much to complain.
"'Other stuff'? Like what?" Priss asked curiously.
"Oh, I don't know. A movie, maybe. Some dancing perhaps, I don't know. I'll worry about it later!" He couldn't really concentrate on details at the moment; his mind was still going at Mach 2.
Priss and Linna exchanged a grin. Their plan seemed to have worked. "You've got a few hours to catch up on your sleep then," Priss told him, "so I'd suggest you do it. We'll be watching you, so don't even think of trying to go back to the shop." They left. He went into his bedroom and flopped on the bed, trying to make up for lost sleep. His emotions refused to shut down, though. A voice in the back of his mind kept screaming exultantly 'You did it! You got a date with Nene!'.
As he finally drifted off to sleep, he had enough presence of mind left to pray that nothing would happen that night to screw things up.
"Sir? Sir, the prototype is ready."
Brian J. Mason turned from the computer console he was watching to regard the scientist who had spoken. Dressed in a dark blue suit, with his black hair slicked back, he looked vaguely like some menacing creature of the dark in the dim lab lighting. His face was expressionless, as usual. Anyone meeting his gaze suddenly felt uneasy, as if they had just locked gazes with a shark. He regarded the scientist for a moment longer.
"Very well. Set up the testing ground, and prepare the other C-55 boomers for deployment. I shall attend to arranging for the test subjects myself." The scientist bowed, and left the room.
Mason picked up the phone. After a moment, a gravely voice answered.
"Yes sir. We are ready to begin your collection project." A nasty smile spread across Mason's face as he considered the night's work to be done.
"I knew it! I just bloody knew it! God hates me," Bert declared morosely, flinging himself into a padded chair. Sylia looked at him with a trace of sympathy; she'd heard about his plans for the evening. Nene was taking the news a little better than he was, since she was used to having plans disrupted.
"I'm sorry, really I am," she said, "but the circumstances in this case are unusual."
"What kind of job is it, Sylia?" Priss asked from where she sat on the couch with Linna.
"That's what is unusual: We're being paid ten million in advance to meet some representative of a corporation to further discuss the details of an assignment. Beyond that, we can't find anything else out. Nene spent the afternoon checking for some kind of information on this company, but there's none out there. It's as if they don't exist." She didn't mention that she'd had Fargo, the group fixer, look into it either; other than a vague rumour that it was a front company for GENOM concerns, he'd been unable to find out anything else.
"Something doesn't sound right about that," Linna said, frowning.
"Sounds like a trap to me," Bert observed. He was grudgingly getting over having his plans ruined for the evening. Sylia nodded.
"Judging from the location we're supposed to meet at, I'm almost sure it is. It's a recently opened construction site near the Aqua City area, but it's closed right now."
"So what?" Priss declared. "It's not often we get a job lately, especially one that pays in advance. We can kick their asses later if it is a trap." Silence fell for a moment.
"So what are we going to do Sylia?" Nene asked.
"We'll go," Sylia decided. "I don't think it will be anything we can't handle, but we'll be very careful anyway."
"At least I'll get an opportunity to try out my modifications," Bert muttered, almost to himself. Sylia looked at him sharply.
"Modifications? You mean you've already done them? I thought we had agreed to more lab testing first." She waited. Bert sighed.
"Trust me, they work. I've put in enough time and testing to guarantee it. I can even give you a demonstration if you want." Now it was Sylia's turn to sigh.
"All right," she said, "everyone get suited up, and then we'll have a look at this demonstration. You can do it in the far vehicle bay; there's nothing to get damaged if something doesn't work the way you say it will." She stood up. "Let's go people."
SkyKnight clanked into the entrance of the far vehicle bay. He'd already donned his helmet, and mounted his railgun launcher on the left shoulder. He was carrying a strange-looking contraption in his left hand, and a steel plate approximately a foot square in the other. The other Knight Sabers stood in their hardsuits and watched as he propped the plate up against an empty box at the opposite end of the bay, and then came back to where they were standing.
"Okay; I call this the chemical incendiary gun, for lack of a better name," he told them, showing them the device he was holding. It looked like a sawed-off shotgun with a bulbous magazine projecting from the top. The mounting assembly underneath the gun barrels was split in the middle, making the entire thing look like it could be folded in half, which was verified a second later as he did exactly that. Cracking the weapon open, he exposed the inner chambers of the weapon.
"This chamber here holds the first part of the compound, in a form similar to paint balls," he said pointing it out to them. "By itself, it's harmless. It can't become active unless the second component is present in the mixture. This cylinder over here contains the second ingredient. The two components only become mixed when the gun is fired; it's a part of the firing mechanism really. It mixes the ingredients and provides part of the power to propel the shot." He snapped the gun back together, and placed it in the weapon socket on his right shoulder. "Now for the demonstration."
He turned and placed himself in the end of the vehicle bay, facing the steel plate at the far end. A hum filled the air, then a dull 'whoomp' noise echoed in the bay as the launcher spat a round ball onto the center of the plate. It stuck to the surface, covering a two-inch circle. Nothing happened. Priss snickered.
"Looks like it's back to the drawing board," she remarked. "You really should..."
She was interrupted by a sudden flare of actinic light from the steel plate, accompanied by a loud, hissing sizzle. When everyone could see again, they could see that the surface of the steel plate where the chemical ball had stuck had been melted. There was a brief period of silence, which Sylia broke.
"What exactly just happened?" she inquired.
"The complete chemical mixture uses phosphorus, magnesium and a couple of other reactants to produce a blinding flare," he explained. "In addition to the flare, the surface temperature of the object reaches about 2000 Centigrade for a couple of seconds, just long enough to melt sensor arrays, which is what I had in mind. I originally figured that I could use it to blind boomers with just the flare, but their optic systems have filters to prevent that, so I worked on the idea of melting their inputs. It will work, but you have to hit them in the face with it. Our hardsuits have automatically polarizing sensors, so the light flare won't blind us."
"What happens if the gun gets broken open?" Nene asked. "Then you've got that gunk all over your suit. Won't that melt it?" He shook his head.
"The chamber containing the priming ingredient can't be cracked open by anything I've tried so far," he replied. "I made sure it was reinforced so that if the gun got hit, I wouldn't suddenly find myself on fire. There's also a third chamber in there that contains a neutralizing agent. If the chemicals did leak all over after a hit, the neutralizer would prevent any serious damage, I hope."
"Any other modifications or inventions we should know about?" Sylia asked.
"Well, I've added wings to the suit, as you can see. They've got small maneuvering jets in the end, so I can try things like barrel rolls and the like. They also provide greater flight stability. The only other major change is the suit armour plating."
"It doesn't look very different," Priss observed.
"Don't judge a book by its cover," he responded. "The new plating is a forged vanadium-osmium steel alloy coated with a polycarbide and polymer mixture I devised. It's thirty percent lighter than the old armour, but stronger. The polymer coating resists everything I've tried so far, except huge temperature increases. The kind of temperature needed to remove it is the kind you'd get only if you stood in the middle of a missile strike. Assuming you survived, you'd have to re-coat the armour, but that's a small price to pay."
"It all sounds good, but I still don't like the idea of field testing it now," Sylia sighed. "However, it's too late to do anything about it. Let's get going."
Everyone turned and left the bay. The lights flicked off, and silence filled the darkness again.
"Are you sure this is the right address?" SkyKnight asked. They'd been scouring the construction site for an hour with no trace of anyone. Finally, everyone gathered at a central open area, where a couple of cranes were parked off to the side.
"I'm positive this is the right place," Sylia answered. "Nene, did you detect anything?" Nene's helmet swung back and forth negatively.
"Not a trace of anyone, human or boomer," she responded. Priss looked around at the surrounding darkness of half-completed buildings.
"I don't like this," she said uneasily. "Nene may not have detected anything, but I feel like we're being watched, and whoever it is, is not friendly." Linna nodded agreement.
"Well, we'll spend a few more minutes looking," Sylia decided. "If nothing happens, then I guess we'll just...."
"KNIGHT SABERS!" boomed a voice from the darkness. Everyone spun around, trying to locate the source of the voice. It seemed to come everywhere from the blackness of the night.
"I AM PLEASED YOU WERE ABLE TO MAKE IT! I WOULD SO HATE TO BE DISAPPOINTED IN MY EXPECTATIONS!"
"Sylia, I'm detecting some movement off to the west," Nene announced nervously. "I can't tell what it is yet, though."
Sylia nodded. "Keep scanning," she ordered, then stepped forward to respond.
"Who are you and what do you want?" she shouted back into the darkness.
"WHO I AM IS NOT IMPORTANT. WHAT I WANT, IS. I HAVE GONE TO A LOT OF TROUBLE TO ARRANGE THIS MEETING."
"Well just what the hell DO you want?!" Priss yelled.
"I WANT THE ARMOUR OF THE ONE CALLED SKYKNIGHT."
Stunned silence fell. Everyone's head swung to regard the black-and-silver hardsuit.
"What the hell does he want my suit for?" Bert asked, puzzled. "Why not yours too, if he wants a hardsuit?" Strange; that voice was vaguely familiar to him, even with electronic distortion.
"It doesn't matter what he wants it for," Sylia told him flatly. "Whoever it may be is not getting it, not for any price."
"SURRENDER SKYKNIGHT TO ME AND THE REST OF YOU WILL BE ALLOWED TO LIVE!"
"Yeah, right. Like we believe that one after all this," Priss muttered. She didn't believe for a second that whoever it was, was going to let them just leave.
Suddenly, Bert stepped forward, seething mad. He abruptly had a very good idea of who the hidden speaker was; he'd finally recognized the voice, and the devious level of planning involved had suggested someone who was a schemer par excellence. It had to be Brian J. Mason out there somewhere. SkyKnight's amplified voice crashed out into the darkness.
"You want me?! Then why don't you come and try to get me yourself, you spineless two-faced bastard!! I'll tell you why you won't! You haven't got the stones in your bag for a one-to-one confrontation, Mason! You think you're such hot shit, but you hide behind an army of boomers! You're lower than worm shit! If I said you had shit-for-brains, that would be giving you credit! Hell, protozoans have more brains than you!!" Sylia grabbed his arm.
"SkyKnight!!!" she said in a strangled voice, "What the hell do you think you're doing?!?" He shrugged her off, and continued.
"Why should I surrender to you what you're not man enough to take?" he taunted. "You emasculated jackass! I've got news for you! Hell will freeze over before you get anything from me!" Now to really turn the screws; if he could make Mason think that someone else knew a lot about his ambitions to rule GENOM, it might goad Mason into making a mistake that would force his removal from GENOM, hopefully permanently.
"And another thing, you pompous windbag!" he shouted. "You're not nearly as clever as you think you are if you think Quincy hasn't noticed your scheming!! Put that in your pipe and smoke it, you lousy four-flushing, yellow-bellied, lily-livered, filth-ridden snake-in-the-grass! You lousy crock of cowardly horseshit!" He fell silent.
There was no reply, just an ominous silence.
Far away in a hidden control room, Mason whirled away from the speaker console, white-faced and trembling with rage. Some of the technicians shrank away from the expression of absolute fury on his face. No one had, ever, EVER dared to speak to him that way! For that alone, they were all going to die, he decided. What made the insults even worse was the fact that everyone in the room had heard SkyKnight's words. Unless he killed everyone present, versions of the story were going to be all over the place within days. He turned to one of the technicians.
"Release the boomers," he told the tech in an icy voice. The tech cringed.
"But sir," he said hesitantly," I thought we were trying to capture them..?"
Mason's face turned purple. "I said release them!" he screamed. "I want them dead! Do you hear me?! DEAD!!" He spun away from the technician, trying to regain his usual unemotional demeanor, as the technician slowly reached forward and keyed in the appropriate commands on his console.
Mason's boomer guard stood impassively by the door, watching.
SkyKnight was suddenly hauled around to face Sylia. He couldn't see her face because her suit helmet was closed, but her tone of voice was a pretty good indication she was just a little upset.
"Just what the hell was all that in aid of?!" she demanded angrily.
"I figure that Mason is the one pulling the strings on this operation," he told her calmly. "I was trying to get him really angry so that he'd do something stupid. The remark about Quincy was just something I dreamed up to throw him off balance; I was actually bluffing about knowing anything." She relaxed slightly, and released her clenched grip on his front armour.
"I don't know about Mason," Priss remarked, "but you sure would have pissed me off talking to me like that." He grinned inside his helmet.
"I wouldn't try talking to you like that," he told her. "I don't insult women, especially women who carry guns." She snickered.
"Where on earth did you learn to insult and swear like that?" Nene asked.
"I grew up on a farm. After listening to my father swear whenever something went wrong with the machinery, I had a pretty good idea of how to do it myself. I'm really only that offensive when I'm mad though, and this elaborate setup to get us was the perfect trigger. I hate being maneuvered into traps."
"Uh-oh, here they come!" Linna said, pointing. Four blue boomers bounded snarling out of the darkness. The fight was on.
Mason stood watching the monitors with a crazed-looking smile. His eyes seemed to almost burn in the dimly lit room. The boomers were engaging the Sabers, and soon they would be joined by the C-55A1 prototype boomer. Then the Knight Sabers, and that insolent bastard SkyKnight, would pay. The thought both calmed and pleased him immensely.
The boomer staggered backwards, shrieking in mechanical fury, as its optical sensors melted from the intense heat produced by the chemical compound coating its face. It staggered around, helpless and completely blinded. It was completely dead a second later, as two explosive bolts from SkyKnight's railgun launcher punched through its torso armour, and blew it into a pile of smoking scrap. SkyKnight took a quick glance at his handiwork. Not bad; the whole fight on his end had taken about a minute. It was amazing the mileage you could get out of unconventional weapons and tactics. He scanned the battlefield to check on the rest of the team.
Linna was having no problems at all; the boomer she was facing was abruptly sliced in half by the charged monomolecular ribbons that were attached to her helmet. Priss was dodging around her boomer, which seemed intent on physically smashing her, but didn't appear to be in trouble. Sylia and Nene were taking turns shooting at the boomer they were engaged with, dodging the boomer's return fire.
He ran towards the back of the boomer Sylia and Nene were facing, and let it have his two remaining bolts in the back when it wasn't looking. It blew apart in a spray of parts and oily fluids. Spinning around towards Priss, he plastered her boomer with a pair of plasma bolts, which knocked it staggering sideways. This gave Priss the chance to give it a couple of railgun spikes through the head, which she did. The boomer collapsed on the ground, sparking and twitching. She looked over at him.
"Thanks," she said, "but I didn't really need help."
"I can go find you another one if you'd like," he offered. She laughed.
"No thanks! I'm relieved it went this well, actually."
"That was almost too easy," Linna noted. "What was supposed to be so terrifying about four, C-55 boomers? They didn't even have any strange new weapons."
"I have a hunch that we're not through yet," Sylia told them.
Mason snapped off his viewscreen, almost snarling in anger. Four minutes! It had taken the Knight Sabers just four minutes to wipe out the boomers. The 'computer projections' had predicted a minimum ten minute fight. The real fight had been much shorter, mostly because that bastard SkyKnight seemed to be using some kind of exotic weapon system not covered in GENOM's weapons database. Well, he wasn't finished yet. He stood up.
"Release the prototype," he ordered. A technician punched a button on his console.
"The C-55A1 has been deployed," he reported. "ETA on battlefield: 2 minutes." Mason smiled. Time to leave.
"Excellent," he told the technician. "Keep me informed of the progress of the battle; I will be waiting in my helicopter." He turned and left the room, his bodyguard following.
"If that was all there was to the show, I think we should get our tickets refunded," SkyKnight remarked. Nene giggled, but Sylia shook her head.
"Somehow, I don't think so. This setup was too elaborate to use only four boomers. There has to be something else, something we haven't seen yet." She turned and scanned the darkness, looking over at Priss and Linna. They were over by a crane, checking it out to make sure nothing was concealed either in it, or under it.
SkyKnight turned and started to walk towards Nene. If that was it for the night, then maybe they could salvage some of their date after all. Because he was the only one looking in Nene's direction, Bert was the only one to see a massive blue shape loom up out of the darkness behind Nene. What the..?! Her sensors should have detected it! Hell, his own sensors should have been able to detect something that close! The chest armour on the boomer flipped up, revealing not the standard heat ray assembly used by normal C-55's, but a full spread of missiles, all targeted directly at Nene.
"Nene! Look out!" SkyKnight screamed, his flight jets kicking him forward at emergency power before he even realized he'd called for it. He flashed across the twenty or so feet separating himself from her just as the boomer fired its missile spread. No time! he thought fleetingly, only one thing I can do. As he reached Nene, SkyKnight grabbed her by the waist, and used his jets to spin himself in midair, flinging Nene back the way he'd come, and placing himself squarely in the path of the missile strike. At least I'll find out just how good my armour upgrades are, he thought, before the world vanished in a shattering roar of flames and shrapnel.
"Bert!!!!" Sylia, Priss and Linna gasped in horror. At his screamed warning to Nene, they had all turned quickly to see what the problem was, and had witnessed his immersion in the flames of a massive missile strike. A blue boomer that easily topped eight-and-a-half feet was walking around the flaring conflagration where SkyKnight had been standing. Nene was groggily picking herself up off of the ground, thirty feet or so from the advancing boomer.
"You son of a bitch!" Priss yelled at it as she sprang forward, "you're going to pay for that!" She fired a railgun spike at its chest as she leaped in to give it a follow-up kick to the head. Linna vaulted into the air, intent on knuckle-bombing it at the same time. Sylia dodged sideways and fired both of her palm cannons at the advancing menace. Nene was still too groggy to try anything. It was then that the remaining Knight Sabers suddenly realized that they were dealing with the main event of the night.
Dodging Priss' railgun shot, the boomer suddenly slashed out with the edge of its hand, knocking her sprawling. At the same time, it reached up and grabbed Linna's arm as she attempted to bomb it, yanking her out of midair. The boomer then threw Linna directly into Sylia, causing both of them to land in a crashing heap. Priss leaped in again, trying for an autocannon shot to the head, but the boomer swatted her gun arm aside with catlike speed, and then backhanded her into a nearby wall. It advanced on her, claws snapping out from its right arm. The biomechanoid spun away from Priss, snarling, as Sylia's autocannons opened fire from behind it. Spinning like a top, the boomer dodged her shots, and grabbed Linna again as she tried to get close to it to use her ribbons on it. It slammed her to the ground, headfirst, and then kicked her twenty feet across the ground to lie stunned against a pile of lumber. It began to advance on Sylia, claws extended, intent on killing the nuisance that was shooting at it.
Less than two minutes had passed, and already three-fifths of their forces were down. This boomer, Sylia realized, had to be the same up-rated type that Priss and Bert had almost been killed by a week earlier. It was faster and more agile than any normal C-55 boomer could possibly be. She was assailed by a sudden wave of doubt; she wasn't sure whether or not the Knight Sabers could beat this opponent. Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by a harsh, almost insane-sounding, electronically amplified laugh that echoed over the battlefield.
"HAHAHAHAHAHA! You fool!! Now you will learn the true meaning of the power of the Dark Side of The Force!!" it cackled. What the hell....??
A battered and burned SkyKnight suddenly crashed feet first into the boomer's chest, sending it sailing backwards to land on its back, its claws retracting. SkyKnight rolled to his feet, and advanced on the boomer. It was amazing he was moving at all; both modular weapons from his shoulder mounts were gone, leaving the mounts as smoking wrecks, the stabilizer wings on his flight pack were melted shards of metal, his armour was burned and cracked looking in several places, and his helmet was missing its antenna wings. He'd obviously taken the brunt of the missile attack, but somehow his armour had shielded enough systems to remain functional. The boomer snarled viciously, surged to its feet, and lunged at the crisped hardsuit.
It was met with a crashing, right roundhouse punch that seemed to materialize out of thin air, rocking it back on its heels. It rocked twice more from flashing, power-assisted uppercuts before it started to respond with its own punches and kicks. Sylia stared in disbelief; the boomer and SkyKnight were pounding away on each other like a pair of blacksmiths trying to find out who could forge iron the fastest. SkyKnight seemed to have completely forgotten about his guns in his obvious rage. Pieces of armour flew off every few minutes, but most of the pieces seemed to belong to SkyKnight. He was definitely getting the worst of the deal, as the boomer landed two hits to his one.
Linna, having recovered from her impact with the ground, advanced cautiously towards the embattled pair and then fired her pulse laser at the boomer. It had some success, causing burn damage to the boomer's left leg and torso. The boomer snarled, backhanded SkyKnight, and started to advance towards her. It was driven to its knees by a clenched-fist, two-handed overhand strike from SkyKnight.
"NO!" SkyKnight shouted at Linna as the boomer turned back to him, "This bastard's mine!!" Claws snapped into extension on the boomer's right arm again as it got to its feet. It wasn't moving with the same fluidity and grace as it had originally, but it was still moving faster than any of the Sabers.
The boomer slashed forward with its claws. A swordblade snapped from SkyKnight's left gauntlet as he parried it, the swordblade becoming entangled with the boomer's claws. SkyKnight's right arm abruptly slashed across the claws, breaking them off at the wrist. The boomer howled in fury, which was cut short as SkyKnight knocked it backwards with a blistering roundhouse right. As the boomer landed on its back fifteen feet away, a high-pitched rising whine could be heard coming from Bert's hardsuit. The boomer was slowly getting to its feet again; it appeared to have finally suffered real damage from the physical pounding it was getting.
"'Cry Havoc and let slip the Dogs of War!!'" SkyKnight suddenly declared, raising his arms to point at the boomer. The high-pitched whine increased even higher in tone. "Draw you scumsucker! This town ain't big enough for the both of us!"
The boomer snarled in reply; its mouth snapped open, revealing its plasma cannon. Before it could fire, though, the air was lit with brilliant crimson light from two coruscating red beams emitted by SkyKnight's gauntlets. They tore through the boomer's chest and head like it wasn't even there, and continued on to sear smoking holes into the crane behind it. An ear-splitting, sizzling CRACK accompanied the energy discharge. The boomer collapsed into a smoking heap.
Mason clenched his fist in anger, slamming it down on the console where he was sitting. He'd come so close to finally killing those damn Knight Sabers! It had looked as if SkyKnight had been killed immediately, and the others would soon follow. Somehow, he'd survived and then killed the boomer with yet another bloody previously unseen weapon. Where the hell was he getting the damn things?!
Signaling his chopper pilot to leave the area, Mason extracted a slim, black case from his pocket. The case had a small keypad on it, which he used to enter a code. Smiling to himself, Mason pocketed the device as a small explosion leveled the building his chopper had just left.
"Yes! Victory is mine!!" SkyKnight laughed exultantly, fists clenched in the air above himself. "Now we're playing with Power!!" The rest of the Sabers stared at him, thinking he'd lost his mind.
He lowered his arms, turned and slogged wearily over to where the other Sabers had gathered during the battle royale. As he approached, they could see that most of his armour plating was gone, or down to bare metal in places; sparks arced from exposed circuits, and smoke was rising from a couple of other locations. He swayed on his feet as he reached them. Priss suddenly grabbed him to help hold him upright.
"We seem to be reversing roles," he observed. His voice was back to normal.
"Just shut up," Priss told him, "this is no time for jokes."
"On the contrary," he corrected faintly, "it's the perfect time." Sylia shook her head, placing a hand on her visor as she did so.
"Why didn't you tell me you'd installed those gas-plasma lasers you'd been playing with?" she demanded. "I specifically told you not to try those yet! They were unproven! They could have exploded!"
"Is that what those red beams were?" Nene interjected. "I thought you'd overloaded something to cause that effect."
"They worked, and no I didn't." he replied, then fell silent Sylia sighed again.
"Why me?" she demanded of the world at large, arms raised tragically over her head. "Why me?"
"Because you're a wonderful boss, and you like me too much to shoot me," he replied. From his tone, he had a wide grin on his face.
"Never mind the bullshit," Sylia told him firmly. "You and I are going to have a long chat about this later." Now it was Bert's turn to sigh. The other girls giggled slightly.
"Let's get out of here, Sylia" Linna said. "I think that's it for the night." Sylia nodded. SkyKnight straightened up enough to walk under his own power as they moved off into the darkness. Nene slid under his left arm to provide support, and he looked down at her.
"So," he said brightly, "Are we still on for dinner?"
Nene giggled, and replied, "I think I could manage that."
THE NEXT DAY
Sylia looked up from her newspaper as Bert limped in through the front door. Other than obvious stiffness, he appeared to be his usual self; a tall, slightly unkempt-looking young man with a snarled mess of red hair. He came over to where she was sitting on the couch, and dropped into a chair across from her. She handed him a cup of tea, which he accepted, and took a quick sip from. A faint grin finally appeared as he regarded her.
"I guess you want to know what the hell I thought I was doing last night?" he queried.
"That would be a good start," she agreed, sipping her own tea.
"It's kind of hard to explain, actually," he shrugged. "When I saw that boomer behind Nene I just....."
"Not that," she interrupted him sternly. "I know why you did that, I think. I meant the cornball lines in the middle of a fight. That, and risking an overload in your suit by rigging it with new weapons that we had agreed were not to be used yet." She waited. He looked mildly embarrassed.
"The weapons I added because I was absolutely positive that they would work, and because I figured that I may need the extra firepower, even though it was an uncertain proposition at best. The 'cornball lines' as you called them are.... well I guess you could say they're a mental defense mechanism." He fell silent, taking another swig from his cup.
"And just what is that supposed to mean?!"
"I've always poked fun at things that really worried me; it was one of my methods for dealing with exam stress during final exams. If you can get anything funny out of a situation, you can generally relax and concentrate better. Well, what we're doing is a heck of a lot riskier than any exams I've ever taken, and occasionally it scares the shit out of me. If I thought about it for too long, too seriously, I'd be a basket-case from hypertension." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, I'm having fun, and I think it sounds impressive, sort of like when Dirty Harry says 'Go ahead - Make my day!'"
Sylia sighed in resignation. "You're impossible," she told him.
"I know," he replied, straight-faced. "It's one of my many charms." Sylia burst out laughing.
"Modest, too, aren't we?" she said, getting control of herself. "Very well; we'll let the quotes pass, but I'm not so sure I'd want 'Now you will learn true meaning of the Power of the Dark Side of The Force!' to be my last words." He grinned sheepishly, and stood up.
"And next time, please tell me when you're using new weapons. I don't like finding out on the spot." she added, looking up at him.
"Trust me," he assured her with a wide grin, "I know what I'm doing."
Sylia watched as he left, a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
ONE WEEK LATER
Bert whistled happily to himself as he finished the last connection, and closed the armour panel. There! His armour was now completely rebuilt (yet again). It had been a week of painstaking work, replacing burned out circuitry and rebuilding various sub-systems. He'd had to completely re-fabricate the components of his flight system, which had taken most of the missile impact, and he'd also had to re-forge almost every single armour plate for the suit exoskeleton, and apply its protective coating mixture. The old armour plates had been a scorched and shattered mess, and completely unsalvageable. The new weapon systems had also had the final bugs worked out. The SkyKnight hardsuit now carried two plasma cannons, and two modified gas-plasma lasers as its main armament. He'd improved the power coupling on both sets of guns so that they didn't suck quite as much power, and even found a way to pulse the lasers without sacrificing any hitting power. The effect when they fired was not unlike the laser bolts from an X-wing starfighter out of a Star Wars movie, a fact he took a private delight in. He had yet to tell Sylia about that particular improvement, however. His sword blades still provided hand-to-hand capability.
The other good news he'd received that week had come from Sylia; she'd finally given the go-ahead for him to start fabricating his unique defensive upgrades for the rest of the team's hardsuits. The new suits were going to be much more stronger structurally, and able to handle more punishment. No one else particularly wanted to try using his 'chemical warfare weapons' as they called them, but that wasn't a major issue.
To make life even better, he'd taken Nene out twice more since their first date after the fight in the construction yard. So far, by mutual consent, and after a long, personal discussion, they were taking it easy and not rushing things. Neither of them wanted to repeat previous disappointments. Life was good, he reflected. He was happier now than he had been in a long time. His reverie was interrupted by the door to the tech shop opening. He turned around to see Nene entering. His welcoming smile faded slightly at her worried look.
"What's wrong?" he queried as she came up to him.
"Sylia wants you to suit up and watch the vehicle bay; we just got word that a friend of Priss' was orphaned when his mother was killed in some kind of an accident The accident occurred when GENOM tried to strong-arm some people out of their apartments."
"Uh-oh," he said, "Let me guess: Brian J. Mason was there." Nene nodded.
"Sylia's sure that Priss is going to try and go solo to get revenge," she told him.
"So we're going with her, right?"
Nene blinked. "How did you know that?"
"Call it a hunch. Am I right?"
"Yes. Sylia thinks that Priss would try going without her hardsuit if she couldn't get to it; this way we can at least keep an eye on her and keep her from killing herself."
"Okay, no problem. I'll meet you down there."
"Okay; I'll tell Sylia that you're ready. You be careful, too, though."
"Hey," he said, a hurt expression on his face," come on, you know me!"
"Precisely," Nene responded dryly. "That's why I told you to be careful." He laughed, and gave her a quick hug. She hugged him back, and then left.
Bert quickly rummaged in a storage cabinet, and came out with a pair of what looked like crescent-shaped shoulder plates for his armour. The main difference was that they were about four inches thick by two inches wide, and about a foot long. He set them aside on a table, then reached up to the shoulders of his hardsuit, and pulled off the railgun launcher and the 'squirt gun', as he now called his chemical gun. He stowed the weapons in a locker, then grabbed the two strange armour pieces and locked them into place on his shoulder mounts. If they were going to storm GENOM's tower, he needed pure firepower, not variability. The 'shoulder pads' were actually high efficiency battery packs that increased his energy reserves by 200%. With them, he should have more than enough juice to toast several boomers and power his other systems. Grinning in anticipation, he opened his hardsuit and began donning it.
It was the quietest ride he'd ever seen. Since everyone had boarded the armoured transport truck, complete silence had reigned. Priss was obviously not in the mood to talk, having retreated behind a barrier of silence that made small talk, or talk about anything for that matter, extremely unwelcome. He could take a rough guess at the emotions she was fighting right now, but he figured he'd be able to corner her later and talk it over with her. So far, for some strange reason, he'd been one of the few people who could get her to talk when something was bothering her. Probably because a lot of his own personality was similar to Priss'. He fully intended to use his insight later, mostly because he didn't like watching friends suffer. Sylia, Nene and Linna had also sensed Priss' mood and weren't talking either, to her or to each other. The warning light at the front of the truck trailer flashed; They had arrived at GENOM's front door.
Priss and Linna climbed on their motoslaves, while he, Nene, and Sylia went to the roof of the truck. They launched into the air as the truck's loading booms deployed the motoslaves after crashing the gate. Sylia and Nene made straight for the top of the tower, while SkyKnight provided air cover for Priss and Linna. He really wanted to go up top with Sylia and Nene, though. Brian J. Mason was sure to be up there, and he really had his own axe to grind with that one. His sensors beeped; three boomers dead ahead and closing fast.
"Incoming bogeys at twelve o'clock high!" he announced over the shielded comm frequency. "I've got the one in the rear!" He kicked full power to his flight system, and shot ahead to engage the boomer. Then he recognized it: it was a Bu-12B combat boomer, exactly like the kind that had almost killed him months earlier. He swallowed the wave of gut-wrenching fear that the recognition produced; he had improved at hardsuit combat since then, and had some new weapons to try out. This boomer shouldn't be able to give him huge problems. He powered up his laser array and began targeting the boomer.
The boomer didn't wait until he was close enough to fire; it fired what looked like every missile it owned at him in a storm of smoke and flame. He kicked himself into a crazy, spiraling combination of a barrel-roll and an Immelman turn that no sane airplane pilot would ever consider, and dodged the missiles. A definite improvement over the last time; if he got shot out of the air here, it was a long way to the ground. He fired a laser bolt at the boomer, scorching its torso as it dodged, but otherwise missing completely. The boomer opened up with its machine gun and bazooka, which SkyKnight dodged almost contemptuously. More laser bolts split the night sky, one of them taking off an optical boom on the boomer's right shoulder. It howled, and charged him on flaming jets.
SkyKnight flipped around and headed earthwards in a screaming power dive. He'd had a sudden idea, and he was curious to see just how good the boomer's flight programming was. As he plummeted down, he angled towards some uncompleted superstructure on the east side of the GENOM building, the boomer in hot pursuit, still trying to tag him with a cannon shot. As he neared the tangled maze of girders and concrete, SkyKnight found what he was looking for; a tunnel, of sorts, with some bends in it that ran through the center of the construction. It was just big enough for the boomer to enter. Perfect. As he sped into the yawning opening, he could almost hear a voice saying "You're required to maneuver straight down this trench to the target area...."
The boomer screamed in after him, still firing and still following. This was where it got tricky; there wasn't enough room to dodge the boomer's shots, and traveling fast enough to stay ahead of the boomer was risky because if he missed a corner, he was going to look like a can of ketchup dropped from a skyscraper. He twisted around the next bend in the shaft, beams and girders whipping past his sight, the roar of his flight jets loud in the enclosed space. His onboard computer absolutely hated what he was doing; it was screaming proximity and imminent collision warnings constantly and insistently. He ignored them; The boomer was still back there somewhere.
The tunnel suddenly narrowed, the shaft becoming half as wide as it had been. He flipped sideways frantically, his flight wings striking sparks from the shaft walls, and then he was clear, rocketing out the other end into the night. As he winged his way upwards towards the summit of the GENOM pyramid, he smiled to himself at the fading explosion that followed him.
Mason fired his cannons at the white-hardsuited figure in front of him, but it dodged easily, and fired in reply. He ignored the shot, letting it bounce harmlessly off his armour. The GENOM Mark 12 Assault armour was more than a match for the Knight Sabers' pathetic weapons. The targeting computer tracked the white suit, and began predicting a flight path for it, while across the roof surface from him, his C-55 bodyguard was trying to pulverize a frantically dodging dark-blue-and-pink hardsuit. He turned, tracking the white suit as it landed on the top of an outbuilding; he blasted the building out from underneath it in a roar of flame and swirling smoke. He scanned around; where had she gone? His search was interrupted by a familiar mocking, and violently hated, voice.
"Heeeeyyy! Nice suit! Where'd you get it, at K-mart?" The air was abruptly filled with a firestorm of red-and-blue bolts that shoved him backwards. He snarled in wordless anger as SkyKnight dropped to the roof decking twenty feet in front of him, flight wings snapping back to a folded position on his back. There was still no sign of the white hardsuit.
"It looks like your mommy finally decided to let you come out and play with the big kids," the insolent black-and-silver bastard added. That did it; Mason threw his cannons into auto-fire mode and swept the rooftop with a hailstorm of explosive shells, not caring that it was severely stressing the suit's heat sinks, or destroying GENOM property. SkyKnight flipped easily out of the way.
"Awwwwwww! Whassamatter? Did I say something to hurt your feelings? Too bloody bad!" SkyKnight lashed out with his own barrage of laser bolts, the red beams searing the air. The beams caused some minor burn damage to Mason's suit, but the refractive coating on the armour was designed with foiling lasers in mind, and negated most of the damage. SkyKnight seemed surprised. Mason abruptly charged him.
"I'm going to kill you! You and anyone else who dares to interfere with me!" he announced, firing his cannons again. All he wanted to do was get that arrogant bastard in his hands for just thirty seconds..!! He fired once more, bracketing the dodging black hardsuit.
"Oh yeah? You and what army, you....AGHK!!" SkyKnight's voice cut off as the left gauntlet of Mason's battlearmour closed around his neck; he hadn't seen it coming. Mason began to laugh triumphantly as he hoisted the struggling SkyKnight off his feet to hang suspended before him.
You stupid, stupid, absolutely moronic, idiotic bastard, Bert told himself, trying to pry loose the tightening hydraulic grip around his armoured neck. He had just forgotten Rule #141 of armoured combat: Don't Try To Be A Smartass When The Other Guy Is Trying To Kill You! It now looked like he was about to pay for his stupid bravado; he couldn't get enough leverage to break loose, and Mason's suit was too heavy for him to lift with his flight system to try and escape that way. To top that off, he couldn't get a line of sight on anything to aim his weapons. He was in serious, really deep shit here.
"Where are your insults now, SkyKnight?" Mason's contemptuous voice demanded, grip tightening further. "I hope you enjoyed what they are going to cost you: your life."
There was a sudden explosion of searing agony in his midsection; he was thrown backwards to land crumpled on the rooftop decking, curled around the burning pain in his guts.
Mason watched his foe fly backwards from his point-blank cannon shot to the torso, laughing exultantly. SkyKnight bounced amid a spray of armour parts and lay crumpled in a most satisfactory manner on the rooftop. He turned away from the sight, and staggered as a charging white hardsuit blew a hole through his armour, and his guts, with a point-blank shot, exactly like he had just done to SkyKnight. He had just forgotten Rule #142 of armoured combat: Don't Ignore Your Other Opponents. Amid the rising, burning pain from his midsection, Mason grabbed the left arm of the hardsuit, and then grabbed the helmet faceplate, forcing it open. The black-haired, brown-eyed, angry face of Sylia Stingray looked back at him. He opened his own faceplate, and stared down at her.
"So, it was you, Sylia!" He started tightening his grip on her helmet, trying to crush it. A sudden sharp pain in his neck flooded his mouth with the taste of iron and salt; his blood, he realized, suddenly choking, losing all strength and collapsing face-down on the rooftop. Darkness rushed up and carried him off, railing against his fate.
Sylia turned wearily away from the downed grey battlesuit and its spreading pool of blood, closing her helmet visor. Priss and Linna were coming towards her, motoslaves parked by the edge of the roof. Silence fell, broken only by the whistling wind, and the distant wail of police sirens approaching. She looked across the roof to where Nene was kneeling by a crumpled black-and-silver hardsuit. Helpless anger and sorrow welled up; Why hadn't he listened to her about taking this more seriously?! Now it was too late. She began to walk slowly across the roof towards them, Priss and Linna following quietly.
It was when Nene grabbed the downed SkyKnight by the neck, and started pounding his head on the rooftop decking that she realized he wasn't dead, at least, not yet. A faint smile appeared as she ran across the rooftop towards them.
"You idiot! You jerk! You asshole!" Nene cried, cradling the head of the black hardsuit. "Why did you have to do that?! Why couldn't you just let Sylia take care of him? I knew your 'heroic ideals' were going to get you killed! You promised me you'd be careful, you stupid, stupid bastard!" Tears dripped onto the interior faceplate of her helmet, but she didn't care; One of her best friends (well, ok, more than a friend) had just been killed, and she wasn't concerned about what effect crying into hardsuit systems would have. Her grief was interrupted by a faint, pain-wracked voice.
"I think you've been spending too much time around me," it observed. "You don't normally talk like that." Nene gasped, grief forgotten temporarily. She flipped up the faceplate on the black suit to see a faintly grinning face.
"You're alive! Oh thank God!" she hugged him fiercely, crying again.
"Careful!", he wheezed, "I'm not sure what's still attached!" She looked at his stomach armour; it was a mess. Mason's parting shot had completely vaporized most of the armour plating, exposing the circuitry, and driven a couple of shards into the left side of SkyKnight's lower abdomen; other than that, there were no serious wounds. Bert's new armour plating had served its purpose well. She was willing to bet, however, that he still had a few cracked ribs from the concussion of the blast. Hmph!, she thought to herself briefly, he deserves them for putting me though all that worry!
"Don't worry," she told him, "you're still in one piece, although you shouldn't be." He grinned faintly again.
"So," he asked, "how about dinner tonight? I could use a good meal right now and I..."
Nene slammed the visor of his helmet down, grabbed his neck, and started pounding his helmeted head repeatedly against the rooftop, her teeth clenched.
Sunlight streaked across the skyline of MegaTokyo, dispelling the shadows of the night. The city awakened, its muted nighttime hum changing into the roar of daily business and traffic. A woman sat slumped on the front steps to her home, head and arms propped on her knees, dressed in a red leather motorcycle suit with long, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail.
Priss looked out at the surrounding neighbourhood, her red-brown eyes red-rimmed from crying, trying hard not to look at where several apartment buildings had been standing the day before. It didn't work; there was a noticeable gap in the skyline nearby, a gap that felt like it had taken up residence in her heart, permanently wounding it. One of her friends was dead, and she wasn't likely to see the other again for a long time. Her depressed train of though was interrupted by the arrival of a red pickup truck. She frowned. Who the hell could that be? The driver's door opened, and the driver climbed stiffly out; he was wearing a brown, wide-brimmed, flat-crowned hat and a long black duster coat. There was a blue knapsack of some description in his left hand. When he closed the door and turned around, she recognized Bert's greenish-brown eyes and tousled red hair under the hatbrim.
"Morning," he greeted her quietly, coming over and sitting down beside her. "I figured you could use some company this morning." He was moving slowly and deliberately, and with good reason; Mason's cannon shot had cracked a couple of ribs and left his entire front stomach and chest one hideous bruise. He wasn't even supposed to be up.
"You should be in bed," she told him. He shrugged.
"I've already had all the 'I-told-you-so's' I can handle this morning. Besides, this is more important." He dug two plastic mugs out of his backpack, handed one to her, and then extracted a large, stainless steel thermos bottle. He popped the stopper open, and filled her mug, and then his, with a brown, gently steaming liquid. The enticing aroma of chocolate wafted to her nose, lightening her mood despite her attempts to keep it otherwise. She smiled faintly, taking a sip.
"Is this your cure for everything?" she asked. "Hot chocolate?"
"Yup," he agreed. "Works most of the time, although I don't think there's a medical association on the face of the planet that agrees with me." He paused, took a mouthful of his own drink, and then continued. "In this particular case though, I think talking is the larger part of the cure." He fell silent, nursing his mug in his hands. Silence stretched for a few moments.
"You dropped Sho off this morning?" he inquired.
"Last night actually; after we were finished. At least now he can live in the country like his mother wanted." She fell silent again, fighting back tears. He looked at her compassionately.
"And you're blaming yourself for not having done something to prevent her death," he stated quietly. "You think that there was something you could have done that would have stopped the equipment operator from wrecking the building, or Sho's mother from entering the building, and you're flogging yourself over not having done it. You're also hurting because you've lost another friend, and her son is now orphaned. Right?" He finished his chocolate in a large gulp, and waited. She was looking at him as if he was a wizard, surprise showing through the grief.
"How did you know that?" she asked finally.
"I've had my share of problems," he told her with a smile, "but it stems mostly from the fact that our personalities are very similar. Both you and I are terribly hard on ourselves when something goes wrong, and you bottle up your emotions more effectively than I ever have. I can tell you right now though, that holding it inside doesn't help, it just prolongs the misery. Keeping your feelings hidden makes for a long and lonely road, but it doesn't have to be that way. You helped me to see that a while back." he paused, putting a lid on his mug and placing back in his pack. Priss didn't reply; she just continued drinking. He continued his analysis.
"Leaving that aside for the moment, what could you have done? If you'd tried to shoot Mason at the time. then either his boomer watchdog would have killed you, or the police would have arrested you. That wouldn't help anyone. Secondly, there was no way you could have kept Sho's mother from trying to run back inside, either; she was running back inside for Sho's sake, not her own. Her own safety probably never even crossed her mind. She would have gone regardless."
"I should have done something! I..I..I just don't know what! It's just not fair! I should have done something!" Priss started crying. He reached across, set her mug on the step, and then gathered her to his chest in a large hug. He held her gently that way for some time while she wept. After a while, she finally subsided and stopped, pulling back a little.
"Thank you," she gulped, still sniffling.
"No problem," he replied, digging a clean, folded handkerchief out of a pocket and handing it to her. She took it, and swabbed at her face. "That's what friends are supposed to be there for; helping their other friends." They sat there in companionable silence for a while longer, and Priss began to feel better. Again, she wasn't sure if it was the chocolate or the company, but this time she was willing to bet heavily on the company. She quickly finished her now cold chocolate, and handed him the mug. He capped it, and stuffed it in his pack. Reluctantly, he stood, looking at her.
"Think you'll be okay now?" he asked gently. She nodded.
"I do feel better now, thanks, but if anyone else asks, I'll deny it." His answering grin echoed her own. His face abruptly became thoughtful.
"How busy are you this afternoon?" he queried.
"Not very. Why?"
"I need a few pointers in the fine art of handling a motorcycle; Sylia whipped up a motoslave to go with my suit a while back, against my protests. Now the only problem is, I've never ridden a motorcycle. If you don't show me how to use the damn thing, I'll have to put training wheels on it."
Priss collapsed in helpless laughter; the sudden image of SkyKnight on a motorcycle with training wheels was just too much. She laughed so hard, she flopped off of the steps gasping for breath, and it was another minute or so before she could breathe again. Bert reached down to help her up, a sly grin on his face. Bastard, she thought to herself without any rancor, you did that on purpose! Her depression was now completely gone. He hoisted her off the ground, still grinning.
"So how about it?"
She laughed again, and nodded. "I think I can manage that."
Select this link to return to the previous page...
|SkyKnight, KnightWorks and The Bubblegum Zone are ©1995-2001 Bert Van Vliet. Bubblegum Crisis & related characters are all © Artmic, Inc., Youmex, Inc. Please feel free to email all comments to Bert Van Vliet|