A silver comet split the murky evening sky over MegaTokyo, becoming slightly gilded by the last fading rays of the sun. Those citizens of the sprawling metropolis who happened to look up saw a brief, high speed flash that was weaving and ducking around rooftops, antenna masts and solar panel arrays at a fantastic rate of speed.
The speeding streak abruptly veered off from the main downtown regions, knifing through the air in scant seconds to the region of MegaTokyo popularly known as the Canyons. Formed by the Great Quake of 2025, the Canyons were a jagged, twisting scar that ran through the approximate center of the city to the bay. They were also known as a refuge for the homeless and dispossessed of the city; small communities of shacks and old buildings peppered its length. It was also, of course, a natural refuge for the less socially acceptable elements of human society. Occasionally, the Canyons also proved useful for other purposes.
The airborne streak dipped into the gaping chasm, and began using the gorge as an obstacle course, weaving through the twisted tracks of the valleys at breakneck speed. A high-pitched, roaring whine now reverberated off of the walls as the shining missile sliced through the darkness. After several minutes of hair-raising flight, the flying object's forward momentum decreased slightly as braking thrusters fired. As its velocity dropped, it became possible to see it for what it really was: An impressive-looking suit of technological armour.
The armour suit was mostly bright silver, with royal blue shoulder and upper torso plating. Blue antenna wings jutted out from the helmet sides, and a glowing red eye-slot was visible in the faceplate as the helmet swung from side to side, surveying the surrounding darkness. Short wings protruded from the suit's shoulderblades, and a strange-sounding flight jet system was visible on its back, holding it aloft.
SkyKnight slowed even further, leisurely coasting along just above the lip of the canyon walls. His sensor display indicated no helicopters or airplanes in the area, so he figured it was safe to slow down for a moment. Besides, he couldn't fly and check in with the High Command at the same time. He opened the Knight Saber's communications frequency.
"SkyKnight to Saber Prime, come in. Over."
"Saber Prime, here," Sylia Stingray's familiar voice replied. "Well? How's it going?"
"Fantastic!" he enthused. "The new flight controls and collision avoidance software are a dream! The suit almost flies itself now!"
"Don't get too carried away!" she warned severely. "We don't need to scrape you off of the ground or a building if you burn it out or if the program crashes!"
"Awwwwww, come on! Look at all the fun you're getting out of the anticipation! I know I'm enjoying it. I ..... " he cut off, frowning as his suit display flashed warnings at him. Two unidentified blips had appeared, from the northeast and northwest, and were converging on his position at high speed.
"What?!" Sylia demanded. "What is it?! What's wrong?!"
"Two radar contacts," he reported, kicking his flight system to a slightly higher speed. "Extremely fast, and heading my way." He frowned again at the negative messages on his screen. "My suit comp can't I.D. them." He ramped his speed up a little more; The blips were way too fast for ADP helicopters. A pair of boomers, perhaps?
"Get back here now!!" Sylia ordered. She didn't like the suddenness of this any more than he did. "We'll meet you part way, and then find out what they are."
"Okay," he replied reluctantly. He was concerned too, but it still stuck in his craw to run from something. He veered around, and began homing in on the KnightWing's beacon signal, speeding up to full power. As he did so, the two blips swerved to intercept him, tripling their speeds instantly.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed involuntarily into the comm. "Sylia! These things just....ARRRGHK!"
Something white and metallic flashed from the depths of the night. SkyKnight was struck with numbing force in the stomach and chest. Stunned, with his breath knocked out, despite the protection of his hardsuit, Bert spiraled out of control towards the bottom of the canyon below, his jets cutting out. The two white figures swung around in midair, and began to dive towards the plummeting lone Knight Saber.
The Knight Sabers
Bert desperately sucked some air into his lungs as his helmet viewscreen flashed crazily rolling cliff walls, night sky, and the rapidly approaching ground at him. The experimental flight control software was inoperative, and he was out of control; the program had crashed out when its navigational reference points had been sent spinning by the impact. Possible combat conditions hadn't been programmed into it yet, mostly because they'd assumed no attacks would occur.
Wrenching the suit into manually controlled flight, SkyKnight fired his thrusters, angling himself into a slower, gentler descent. He didn't have time to avoid the ground completely.
"OOOOFF!!" He bounced and skidded along the ground, flipping over twice, for a distance of thirty feet. He rolled over to his feet groggily, feeling his left shoulder, which had taken most of the initial impact. He finally found the time to wonder just what the hell had hit him. The answers to his dazed mental query dropped out of the dark sky to confront him, slamming into the ground with metallic clangs.
SkyKnight stared in mixed surprise, and involuntary fear, taking an inadvertent step backwards. The two attackers were nightmarish, vaguely humanoid boomers, between ten to fifteen feet tall, with white and black armour plating. Their arms and legs ended in claws, not hands and feet, and they appeared to have guns of some kind built into their forearms. The boomers' heads were smaller than normal boomers, somehow looking more bestial. Wait a minute..... feral-looking boomers...... Dobermans!!!
What the hell was going on?!? he wondered silently, backing up a couple of steps further. Dobermans, to the best of his sketchy knowledge, were only used in outer space installations, on Genaros specifically, to hunt down escapees or other 'criminals'. They weren't supposed to be loose in populated areas; Their intelligence seemed to be limited to 'seek and destroy'. They were very, VERY good at the 'destroy' part of the equation.
SkyKnight felt sweat break out on his forehead as the hulking boomers advanced; according to his suit computer, the threat level they presented was substantial. They had heavier armour than B-12 combat boomers, and the power level being registered by his scanners suggested they had particle beams, not the usual boomer plasma beams. Their heavier size was bound to mean greater strength. This was not good; one he could probably handle, but two were going to be a problem, especially since his flight system wasn't at full efficiency. His arms snapped up, and scything red laser beams split the air as the two Dobermans swept forward, snarling.
"Damn it all to hell!!" Sylia snarled, slamming a hand down on the console. SkyKnight had just disappeared from the scopes, after being cut off, violently from the sound of it, from speaking. She grabbed her helmet and dove out of her chair, jamming it on. A lousy simple, test flight, shot to ratshit by some damn unforeseen assailant. Why did SkyKnight always seem to attract trouble?! He was worse than a bloody magnet for drawing problems, especially when they didn't really need them. Running to the cockpit, she jerked open the door as Priss and Nene donned their own helmets. Because it wasn't really a working night, Linna hadn't come along; she had other stuff to do.
"Mackie! Get us to the last location Bert broadcast from!" He nodded, hauling back on the flight control yoke. Sylia grabbed the doorframe and held on as the KnightWing heeled around sharply, and then shot forwards like a scalded horse.
SkyKnight dodged aside desperately, gasping for breath, as a slashing claw scored the canyon wall behind him. His jets flared briefly, catapulting him over the raging Doberman trying to gut him. Turning in midair, he blasted it in the back with a concentrated burst of laser fire, trying to penetrate its armour plating. It was a futile effort; so far his energy beams hadn't been able to even slightly crack the boomers' armour. The armour plating seemed to have some kind of refractive coating that was dissipating most of the energy. The same could not be said of his armour, however; burn marks had scorched the plating on his right shoulder and leg from uncomfortably near misses.
The unharmed biomechanoid spun around as he landed, spitting a crackling green particle bolt in his direction. Bert ducked, then was bone-crushingly smashed into the other canyon wall by a roundhouse arm-swing from the second boomer. Stunned by the force of the blow, he was sluggish in dodging the boomer's follow-up claw attack. A horrible metallic shriek sounded, and a wave of numbness swept through him, closely followed by burning pain stabbing into his chest and ribs. SkyKnight doubled over in agony, as his side abruptly became warm and wet feeling inside his suit; the boomer's claws had ripped open the left side of his torso armour, leaving deep gouges across his chest and ribs.
SkyKnight fired his thrusters again, shooting forward along the ground surface, away from the boomers. They growled furiously, and charged after him, firing their arm lasers. He made maybe thirty feet before a wave of nausea swept him, leaving him light-headed. Trying to concentrate, he suddenly veered sideways and diagonally backwards. The two ravening boomers thundered past, belatedly skidding to a halt. The left-most one suddenly pitched forward, as the ravaged silver suit slammed into its back. Rearing high over its shoulders, SkyKnight shoved its head forward with his left arm, exposing what there was of its neck, while his right arm came back for an overhand punch. As he rammed his fist down, his swordblade snapped out. The boomer suddenly seemed to grow a beard as the end of the sword burst through its neck, just under the chin. The glow in its eyes faded as SkyKnight wrenched the blade sideways to erupt from its neck in a spray of orange fluid and wiring. The massive hulk crashed to the ground, spilling the hardsuit to the dirt.
Bert fired his thrusters again, literally dragging himself along the ground to get some distance between himself and the one remaining boomer. He now realized he was going into shock; it was getting difficult to concentrate on anything, and it had taken his last ounce of willpower to hang on just long enough to kill the one Doberman. Obviously, he was more seriously wounded than he'd thought. His jets conked out, and he skidded to a stop, rolling over heavily to end up with his back propped against a boulder jutting out from the cliff face. His mind noted distractedly, as the remaining Doberman thumped closer, that he was going to have to polish his suit again; it wasn't supposed to look red all over the chest and left leg, it was supposed to be gleaming silver. He frowned, trying to concentrate. That wasn't right, something was wrong with that thought. His hazy mind tried to remember what he was doing on the ground as the black and white boomer loomed over him, raising a claw. Darkness rolled across his sight as a white hardsuit dropped feet first out of the darkness above to smash the Doberman backwards into a fall.
Sylia swore in anger, and rising fear as the hulking boomer surged upright, bellowing in rage. She wasn't afraid of the boomer, though; she couldn't get any response at all from Bert. The bestial mechanoid spun to the left as Priss shot at it, ignoring Sylia for the moment. She took a quick glance at the downed SkyKnight, and her fear intensified. He was flat on his back, with ragged rips in his torso armour visible, and a couple of smoking burn marks on his right shoulder and leg. Blood seemed to be covering the entire chest and left leg of his armour. Nene was kneeling next to him, but wasn't getting any response at all to her frantic inquiries.
"Nene! You'll have to get him away from here so Mackie can pick you up," Sylia ordered, charging her guns and preparing to charge. "He can't bring the plane close to this thing." Nene acknowledged her command, and began gently trying to drag SkyKnight away from the fight.
As she started to move him, the boomer swung around, eyes igniting. It charged towards Nene, mouth opening. Shit! Sylia swore, diving at the boomer. Her palm cannons fired upon impacting with the boomer's armour, blowing holes into its torso. It continued to charge, thrusting her aside like an irritating fly, and didn't stop until Priss leaped to its shoulders, and let it have several railgun spikes and autocannon shots through the neck, half severing its head, similar to the way SkyKnight had killed the other one. It crashed to the ground as Priss leaped clear, the fire in its eyes dying out.
Sylia picked herself up from the ground, then sprinted over to the prone silver suit, Priss right behind her. She puzzled over the boomer's last minute behaviour as she ran. It had obviously been programmed to take SkyKnight, and only SkyKnight, out; when Nene had tried moving him, it had immediately ignored everything else to charge her, or him. But who would have access to Dobermans, and why send them after him? She shelved the puzzle for later consideration as she came to Nene and the downed SkyKnight. He still hadn't responded to anything, and it was obvious from a closer look that he was in a bad way. She grabbed his arms as Priss grabbed his legs, with Nene supporting his back. It was going to start him bleeding again, but they had to get him into the KnightWing and then to their medical facilities. Hopefully, he wasn't going to need surgery of any kind; it was going to be hard to explain something like this to a hospital.
The KnightWing obligingly arrived, landing in a swirl of dust in the center of the canyon. The three Knight Sabers quickly and carefully carried their fallen comrade to the opening landing gangplank, and carried him inside. The hatch closed, and the sleek plane shot into the air on screaming jets to vanish into the night.
As the KnightWing left the area, a somewhat bulky, black, robotic shape detached itself from the shadows. Light flared as rocket thrusters hurled it aloft, wheeling around to fly away in a direction opposite that of the departing ship.
"I think he's coming out of it."
"I'll go get Sylia." A door opened, then closed, and rapid footsteps receded down the hall.
Where was he? What had happened? It felt like he was flat on his back in a bed somewhere. There was a tight pressure around his chest that seemed to extend from his shoulders to his hips; bandages of some kind. The room had the cool, antiseptic feel that hospital rooms seem to have, and he could hear air conditioning whirring faintly in the background. Bert slowly opened his eyes. A series of light and dark fuzzy blurs swam in front of his vision, clearing after he blinked a couple more times. The blurs resolved into the, by now, familiar decor of the Knight Sabers' infirmary. A worried-looking Priss was perched on a chair next to his bed, regarding him anxiously. He tried a weak smile.
"Now I know I'm in hell," he quipped. "This is exactly like I pictured it." Priss jerked.
"Don't you dare joke about that!" she snapped, red-brown eyes suddenly brimming. "Damn it, we thought you'd been killed!" He tried shrugging, but couldn't get the energy together for even a slight twitch.
"I'm sorry," he apologized weakly. "Force of habit." She shook her head angrily.
"Well get rid of it!" she snapped, wiping her eyes. "Some of us don't find it funny at times like this." He nodded tiredly. God, he felt drained; it was an effort even speaking. Raging thirst suddenly entered into the picture, and Priss got him a glass of water with a straw at his request. After slurping it down, he felt slightly better. As she set the glass aside for him, the door to the room opened again, and an anxious Sylia came in, followed by an even more anxious Nene. He managed a wavering smile as they came over to the bed and sat down on a couple of other chairs.
"How do you feel?" Sylia asked quietly.
"Like they just ran the Calgary Stampede over top of me," he replied wryly, and then steamrolled the ground flat." Sylia shook her head, sighing, while Nene seemed to perk up slightly.
"If you can joke about it, I guess you're going to live," she remarked, leaning forward and sweeping some stray red hairs out of his eyes. "Although I wish you'd quit giving me heart attacks all the time, picking fights and all." Her green eyes became suspiciously moist as she looked at him. He looked back at her warmly, smiling.
"Believe me, I didn't want this one; it wanted me for some reason." His smile faded, and a cold hand seemed to clutch at his guts as vague flashes of that nightmarish fight came back. He'd survived only by the barest of margins this time. Not even his near miss when fighting Mason had come this close. Nene leaned forward, worried again, and squeezed his hand. He tried to squeeze back.
"I'll be fine, eventually," he assured her. "It's just unpleasant realizing I came as close as I want to get to...to..." he faltered. He'd almost been killed, and the thought left him with a peculiar, chilly hollow feeling. The feeling they say you get when someone steps on your grave.
"You didn't, and you're not going to," Sylia broke in, seemingly sensing his frame of mind. "You're going to get better, and then we can finish testing the new flight system." He needed something to get his mind off the ambush, she decided. He looked over at her.
"How bad was it, anyway?" he asked quietly. Nene started to reply, but Sylia cut her off with a quick glance, almost warningly.
"You lost a lot of blood," she told him, "mostly from the slashes across the ribs and chest; we patched them up, but for a while there, it looked like we'd have to fake up a story and get you to a hospital. You also had some cracked ribs, again, and a couple of burns from particle beam shots. The slashes were the main injury though." She fell silent, experiencing again briefly the horror she'd felt at seeing his injuries; it had not been promising looking when they'd peeled him out of his suit.
"How about my suit?" he asked. She flashed an irritated look at him.
"Just forget that for now," she said flatly. "You're going to be here for a week, minimum, before you can even try light stuff again, so just relax and enjoy the rest." He nodded tiredly, sinking back into the pillow; he didn't have the energy to argue. Besides, he knew just from what his body was telling him when he tried moving that she was right about his being bedridden for at least a week.
Sylia stood as Bert dropped into a deep, slightly drug-induced, sleep. Priss rose with her, and they both left, leaving Nene to watch him.
"So what do you think that was all about, anyway?" Priss asked Sylia as they left the infirmary. Sylia looked back at her thoughtfully, but with a slightly worried frown creeping in.
"I'm not sure," she admitted, "but the way it happened suggests someone was keeping an eye out for him, and when they caught him alone, they acted. It's a good thing we were nearby." Priss nodded.
"They went to a lot of trouble, whoever it is," she pointed out. "Not even GENOM has tried using Dobermans before. Normally they'd just overwhelm somebody with C-55's or B-12's."
"That's precisely what's worrying me," Sylia answered as they reached the elevator. "It doesn't fit the pattern of anybody we've had dealings with before." The doors hissed closed behind them.
"I told you to capture him, not kill him!!"
"I'm sorry, Sir, but the Dobermans have problems distinguishing between 'kill' and 'capture'."
Sunlight filtered dimly through metal shutters on the windows, casting faint rays through the gloom of the office; no lights were on in the room, although a wall display screen provided some faint illumination. An ominous, shadow-cloaked figure sat behind a massive oak desk. Icy blue eyes could be seen glinting occasionally. A ramrod-straight figure stood at attention in front of the desk. The second figure could be seen to be fairly tall and slender, with obviously feminine curves. Long hair of some colour was pulled back into a neat bundle, and infrequent flashes of pale grey eyes could be seen.
The shadow behind the desk swung around in its chair to regard the viewscreen picture. It was a shot taken from an aerial angle, and it displayed a sprawled silver suit of armour with blue shoulder plating. Huge gashes were carved across its chest, and blood seemed to be everywhere. The back of a Doberman boomer partially blocked the view, but enough of the suit was visible to be recognizable. The shadow sighed, and blue eyes glinted briefly as it turned back to regard the other dark figure.
"It's possible he survived," he observed, " especially since the rest of the Knight Sabers dragged him off."
"Maybe they just didn't want to leave anything for the ADP to investigate," she offered. She obviously didn't think anyone could survive what looked like almost complete loss of blood.
"That is also a possibility," he conceded. "Continue your surveillance and keep me informed. I'll decide when to strike again." The woman bowed and left. The darkness deepened as the viewscreen flicked off.
TWO WEEKS LATER....
Bert sagged into his recliner, gasping for breath, mentally swearing at his body, which didn't seem to want to co-operate with him at all. He'd been in the infirmary for a week and a half before Sylia had decided to let him try moving around again, and he'd spent a lot of the time since then moving around his room, getting used to walking again; it seemed like he'd forgotten how while being flat on his back. Even short distances seemed to lengthen into miles, and his stamina had dropped through the floor making it a real struggle getting anywhere. He persevered though, mostly because he couldn't stand sitting still any longer.
He leaned backwards, putting up the footrest, ignoring the dull ache from his healing side. He suspected his injuries had actually been worse than he'd been told initially, but everyone he tried cornering on the subject turned evasive. He sighed, shifting around and trying to get comfortable. Carefully lifting his mug from the coffee table, he took a couple of swigs of tea, then set it down. He stared into space, brooding.
He was going out of his skull with boredom. Because of his shaky condition right now, he couldn't putter around in the shop, and Sylia had temporarily banned him from the computer room, her reasoning being that if he designed anything else at the moment, he'd be trying to build it himself the next. He grudgingly admitted she was probably right. Archery was also out of the question right now. He'd read most of his books cover to cover enough times to be able to quote all of them verbatim, and one can only play X-wing on the computer for so long before you get sick of it. Which left him stuck with absolutely nothing to do. He took another gulp out of his mug, just as a knock sounded. He swallowed too quickly, and spluttered and choked for a moment before he could call out that the door was open. Linna walked in, a cheery grin lighting her face.
"Good morning! How's the walking wounded today?" she asked brightly. It was disgusting the amount of bounce she seemed to have all the time, especially in the mornings, he reflected sourly, and especially right now, because at the moment, he felt like a road kill on the highway's edge: flat.
"Well I was okay," he retorted dryly, "but something tells me that's about to change." She grinned at him, blue eyes sparking mischievously as she sat down in a chair across from him.
"You sound better, anyway," she told him, "so I guess we can start with that." He looked at her warily.
"What do you mean by 'start with that'?" he inquired. "Talk is about all you're going to get out of me at the moment; I haven't got the stamina to walk across the room yet." She nodded.
"That's why I'm here," she replied, grinning. "I'm off work for a few days, and Sylia told me to get you back in shape again, or at least, on the way back to it." She stood up, looking down at him. He looked back, becoming worried.
"You can't be serious! I ...." She cut him off with a tone that would have served an army drill sergeant well; she'd obviously just switched to instructor mode.
"You can walk to the exercise room, or be dragged. Your choice."
Bert sighed in resignation, and slowly extracted himself from his chair. Well, he told himself, you were the one who said you were bored. He wasn't sure that this was what he'd wanted to cure his boredom, however. He moved slowly after Linna out the door.
He collapsed on a side bench, wheezing like a steam engine. Linna regarded him from where she stood, the tracest amount of sympathy visible.
"Come on, you can't give up now! We've only been at it for half an hour!"
"Damn it, leave me alone and let me expire in peace," he rasped back. While it had been only thirty minutes, it had felt like thirty years to him. His heart pounded like a jackhammer, and sweat rolled off of his face. Obviously, healing up had taken a lot out of him. Some faint capacity in the back of his mind asked what had been left behind, but he ignored it. Linna came over and sat down beside him, her blue eyes serious for a change.
"I know it's hard," she told him quietly, "honestly, I do; I've had to do it myself once, although I wasn't hurt nearly as badly, but you can't just flop and quit trying. If you do, it will take even longer to get back to normal, so please try. You want to get back to your hardsuit anyway, don't you?"
"Of course," he replied, ignoring the sudden flare of discomfort from his left side at the mention of his suit. Everything was healed by now; it was just a psychological side-effect, he told himself sternly. Sighing, he heaved himself off of the bench again.
THREE WEEKS LATER....
Priss leaned against the console, helmet under her arm, and covertly watched Bert as his hardsuit hissed and snapped into place. Physically, he looked reasonable. He was almost back at the shape he'd been in before his 'incident', as he called it, but mentally, she wasn't so sure he was okay. He was sweating, and looked vaguely pre-occupied with something. Her gaze sharpened as she noticed his gauntleted hand was shaking as he reached for his helmet. No one else had seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary; Nene was at a computer console, with Linna and Sylia standing behind her, watching the screen as it flashed details on their current outing. All were suited up and ready to go. Priss walked over to him.
"Are you okay?" she asked, low-voiced. He jumped, dropping his helmet with a bang. He almost angrily snatched it from the floor, jamming it on as Sylia turned and shot a quizzical look in their direction.
"I'm fine," he said flatly, "let's just get this over with." Priss' worry increased; he'd never sounded like this before. She wrestled with her conscience about whether or not to say anything to Sylia as she sealed her own helmet, and followed everyone else out the door.
The last boomer crashed to the ground in a spray of blue armour pieces and orange-brown nutrient fluids. Priss snapped the covers on her railgun barrels shut as she straightened up from the vaguely gunslinger-type crouch she'd been in, looking around. Not a bad fight, really. Six blue, C-55 boomers had decided to go to the local mall, but not for the shopping. They'd gone on a murderous rampage, killing several innocent people and holding the ADPolice at bay. That had ended abruptly when the Knight Sabers dropped in to make them foot the bill for the carnage.
She looked over at SkyKnight, still concerned. He'd been awfully quiet throughout the fight, and his fighting hadn't been up to his usual full-speed-ahead-and-damn-the-torpedoes approach; he'd killed one boomer himself, and that was it. Before, he'd have taken out at least two to three. Priss had accounted for three all by herself. Something was really bothering him, and she had an idea what it might be, but didn't want to ask him about it in public. She turned as Sylia walked over to her.
"Good work, Priss," she approved. "I think we can get out of here and let the ADP clean up now." She turned towards SkyKnight, starting to walk over, when the roof of the mall blew in with a thunderous blast. All the Knight Sabers spun around as two hulking black-and-white boomers dropped through the gaping hole, landing on the slick marble floor with a clanging crash.
A clang from behind her made Priss glance backwards; SkyKnight had backed into a wall, and it looked like he was trying to keep going. Her stomach tightened as she heard, faintly, an anguished litany of "No, not again! Nononononogoddamnitno...." She didn't have time to spare anymore thought for him, though, because the two Dobermans charged, spraying a sheet of laser fire from their arm guns at the Knight Sabers. Everyone dodged clear, then surged to the attack, except SkyKnight. He was still seemingly frozen to the wall. It rapidly became apparent that the boomers were after him again, as the one smashed Sylia aside like a rag doll, and the other bashed Linna backwards into a storefront, as they wheeled and charged towards him and Priss.
Priss flipped into the air, over the top of one of the charging boomers, landing astride its shoulders and blasting its head into a smoking pit on its body in a repeat of her earlier method of Doberman killing. The only weak point they seemed to have was around the head area, and if you kept your wits about you, she figured, it was a cinch to fry them. Besides, they really weren't that bright. As she rolled clear of the falling carcass, a series of clangs and impacts sounded. Ohhhh shit!, she swore to herself as she stood up. The other one had reached SkyKnight, and was trying to either crush him to a pulp, or grab him. He was frantically dodging around, scrambling back and away from the rampaging machine, not even trying to fire.
"For God's sake shoot the damn thing!!" she yelled as she charged across the floor. He couldn't be in anything less than total panic, she decided as she ran. Damn it, she'd figured he had some kind of mental hang-up over the fact he'd almost gotten killed, but hadn't said anything. After this is over, she promised herself grimly, she was going to talk to him about this. "OOOOF!!" she gasped, as the Doberman suddenly spun around, swatting her in the stomach to send her crashing through the window of a sporting goods store. She hit a rack at the end of her trajectory, and was promptly buried in an avalanche of baseball bats and golf clubs. Clawing her way out of the pile, swearing foully, she lunged to the front of the store in time to see Nene shooting the boomer in the face.
Snarling the boomer lashed out at her, missing by scant inches as she lunged backwards, almost falling on the slick flooring.
"Bert!! Do something!" she cried at the paralyzed silver suit, as the boomer thundered towards her. It smashed Nene through yet another storefront. Priss launched herself through the air, aiming a kick at the creature's head, but it smacked her to the ground with a sweeping backhand. She rolled frantically as claws plunged into the flooring where she'd landed. The boomer was suddenly hurled forward by a flaring blast of red and blue light. Finally! Priss thought in relief. The relief disappeared when she realized that SkyKnight wasn't in full control of what he was doing; he was destroying the building as often as he was hitting the boomer. Glass and concrete flew everywhere in a hailstorm of jagged pieces. The snarling mechanoid charged him again, ignoring his laser blasts to belt him staggering backwards. It loomed over him, raising a claw.
As Priss dove at the boomer, a sudden image of what had happened the last time flashing before her, SkyKnight's arms snapped up, and a shattering blaze of red and blue laser and plasma energy exploded from his gauntlets.
"LEAVE ME ALONE!!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed, as the Doberman's head and shoulders disintegrated in a smaller, less spectacular flash. It was mirrored by the sudden volley of flames that erupted from SkyKnight's cannon assembly on his right arm, sending pieces of its housing flying. He was on his knees, shaking like tree in a hurricane as Priss ran over to him. They way he was hunched over made it look like he'd been injured again. She dropped to her own knees beside him, grabbing his shoulders.
"Are you all right?" she asked worriedly, even though she was sure by now that he wasn't. "Goddamnit, answer me!!" she prodded him as Nene staggered over to them, also dropping beside him.
"Leave me alone," he wheezed hoarsely, almost desperate sounding, shuddering and trying to draw away. Priss held on, and Nene suddenly also grabbed him. Sylia walked up, dents on her torso visible, and appraised the situation at a glance.
"Let's get out of here," she ordered. "Drag him if you have to, but we need to get out of here now; there may be more of them." Bert surged upright, dragging Nene and Priss with him, at her words. They hung on grimly; for a moment if felt like he was going to bolt wildly, but he relaxed a little, and the Knight Sabers quickly vanished into the night as the first few ADP troopers rounded the far corner of the corridor.
Dark clouds skittered across the night sky, seemingly avoiding the even darker summit of the GENOM corporate tower as if fearful of what lay inside the monolith. Lights limned the huge ziggurat, giving the impression of a glorious halo. Anyone who knew of GENOM's less publicized activities would have found such a comparison an extreme mockery of the truth.
Quincy turned from where he faced the window. He'd been gazing over MegaTokyo like some feudal lord gloating over his fiefdom. As he turned, Madigan straightened to attention. She'd survived the chaos that had briefly visited the Tower a couple of months ago, and had emerged from the fires and wreckage to become more firmly entrenched in the GENOM hierarchy than ever, a purple-haired phoenix with grey-blue eyes.
Quincy still trusted her implicitly, and had given her the task of monitoring some of the stranger goings-on that had been occurring lately; some of them were less than above-the-board, it seemed, and he needed to know just what the hell was going on. He sighed, bringing his mind back to bear on the current puzzle, and walking over to his desk and sitting down. He flipped through the photographs on his desk; brief flashes of the Knight Sabers skimmed through his vision.
"No idea who is trying to kill the Knight Sabers?" he asked Madigan finally. He really didn't mind himself; in fact he wished the mysterious third party luck. However, something was afoot that didn't involve GENOM, and it was somewhat upsetting to be left out of the picture.
"Not the Knight Sabers in total," Madigan corrected, brushing a stray hair from her eyes. "It seems as if this third party is interested only in SkyKnight." She pulled another photo from a file folder under her arm and handed it to him. "One of our 'informants' located this the other day. It's slightly over a month old."
Quincy looked down at an aerial picture of a battlefield; two smoking heaps that had been boomers were visible off to the right, while to the left, three familiar hardsuits were dragging a blood-covered, shredded silver suit off the site. Quincy suddenly grinned horribly, like the rictus on a mummy. It had to be the best photo he'd seen in a while; he briefly considered getting it framed and hung on his wall like some kind of trophy. No, that was what he wanted the Knight Sabers' heads for, he decided regretfully. Damn but it was tough keeping your priorities straight. He looked again at Madigan.
"Will this interfere with our other projects?" he asked.
"It shouldn't," she judged coolly, "but I am considering all possibilities."
"Proceed, then. Keep me informed." Madigan nodded, bowed, and left, the doors to his office closing behind her with a cavernous bang.
"I can't get him to say anything, Sylia," Nene reported tearfully. "He's just sitting there, staring into space with a strange expression." She stopped, swabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. She knew this wasn't one of his normal stubbornness bouts, but something far more serious. She was worrying herself almost sick over it, but until they could get him talking about it, there wasn't much they could do. Sylia sighed, looking over at her.
"Thank you for trying," she said quietly. She'd hoped Bert would talk to Nene, at least, but even that had failed. He'd gone into what looked like terrified automatism once they'd made it to safety; since getting out of his suit he'd moved as if on autopilot, and hadn't said a word to anyone. She continued, "You'd better get going to work. Try not to worry, though. I'm sure he'll snap out of it eventually." She wished she was as sure as she sounded. Nene nodded jerkily and left. Sylia sat back, looking at Priss, who was staring moodily into a cup of cold coffee.
"I'm sorry I didn't say anything earlier Sylia," she said tiredly. "Damn it, I noticed something was wrong with him. I should have said something! Maybe then this wouldn't have happened." Sylia shook her head, covering her face with a hand.
"Don't blame yourself, please don't; I get enough of that from him when he's normal. This is something I should have foreseen, given the seriousness of what happened." She lifted her own coffee cup and took a sip.
"So what do you think it is?" Priss asked.
"I think it's mostly fear of being killed. He came awfully close to it the last time, and I should have guessed he'd be shaken up by it. Beyond that, I can't really say." Priss stood up abruptly, looking at Sylia.
"I'm going to give it another shot," she said over her shoulder, striding out of the room.
He was sitting hunched over slightly on the couch as she entered his room, a pained, far-away look on his face. His eyes almost appeared glazed, staring vacantly at something invisible to any outside watchers. He was absently rubbing the area of his old injury as Priss came over and sat down in a chair across from him. His expression didn't flicker at all; it was as if she wasn't there.
"I'm not going to leave until you talk to me," she informed him. No response. She waited a couple of minutes, but he didn't change or respond to her presence. She sighed finally.
"I didn't want to do it this way," she stated apologetically, "but you're not giving me much choice in the matter." She belted him, a right cross, good and hard.
His head snapped sideways, dragging his body with it to half fall off of the couch. His expression swiftly changed to obliterating, mindless fury as he suddenly sprang erect, lunging towards her. Priss frantically dove sideways out of the chair, momentarily shocked. She hadn't expected THAT level of reaction, she'd just been hoping to jar some response out of him. As she warily rolled upright, keeping the chair between them, she saw some dawning sanity and awareness return to his eyes. He blinked, suddenly looking the closest to normal she'd seen in a long time.
"What....I...what are you doing here?" he asked, wincing and rubbing his jaw, where a large lump was now rising. Priss still kept the chair between them as she replied.
"I came down to try and pry you out of whatever shell you've been hiding in," she said, watching him like a hawk. "I didn't realize that it was almost going to get me killed, though." His face suddenly changed back to the tormented mask she'd seen all too often lately.
"Just go away," he said, sinking back to the couch, shoulders slumping. "Leave me alone." Priss came around the chair and dropped to the couch next to him, grabbing his chin and forcing him meet her eyes.
"Talk to me damnit!!" she demanded. "I'm not going to just leave! I'm concerned about you, you stupid, stubborn, stuck-up asshole!" she spluttered. She couldn't think of enough adjectives to describe the way she thought he was acting. "You told me once you thought I was like a sister to you; well I care a lot about you too, so talk goddamnit!!" She resisted the urge to shake him, since she really didn't want to trigger a reflex like the last one had been. She waited, watching something undefinable flicker at the backs of his greenish-brown eyes. At length, he pulled away slightly. Rising, he went over to the counter, walking stiffly, as if against his will, and poured two mugs of tea from the pot on the counter, dosing them with milk and sugar. He handed one to her as he sat back down next to her, taking a huge swallow from the other.
"What do you want to know?" he asked, the words sounding like they were being dredged out of a mine. She relaxed slightly.
"What happened last night?" she asked. He didn't reply immediately, taking another sip.
"Do you know," he asked, forcing the words out, "what it's like to have someone trying to kill you, and you don't know why, and they almost succeed?" He took another huge swallow. "About a month ago was the closest I've ever come to getting killed, and it's scaring the hell out of me, although that doesn't even begin to explain what it feels like. When those other two boomers came crashing in last night, I..." he faltered, taking another huge gulp and emptying his mug. His shoulders were hunched together, and his whole body was as tight as a bowstring. A haunted look was in his eyes. Priss hesitantly put an arm around his shoulders, trying to offer some kind of comfort. He took a deep breath and continued.
"When I saw them I ... it .... for a moment I was back there, getting my ribs torn open again. I could feel it, literally feel it happening all over again." He shuddered violently, squeezing his eyes shut against the memory, breathing raggedly. "After that, things got kind of hazy. I vaguely remember shooting, but all the time I felt like I'd had my chest sliced open again. I don't really remember much past that, until you slugged me, that is." He rubbed his jaw again, wincing. "I kept trying to tell myself, at the time, that it wasn't real, that I was imagining it, but it didn't work." He sighed. Priss nudged him gently in the ribs.
"That's not the only reason, is it?" she asked quietly. "I'd noticed before last night that you weren't even in the shop once since you healed up, and for you that's unusual."
"What are you, psychic?" he retorted. He was silent again for a moment or two. "I ... it's kind of hard to explain," he said awkwardly, trying to avoid the question. At a look from her, though, he continued. "It's not pleasant to rather rudely discover you're not as invulnerable as you thought you were," he said, frowning slightly in concentration. "I mean, I usually just sailed into a fight, secure in the knowledge that my armour could handle whatever I was fighting could dish out. Sure, it wasn't perfectly invulnerable, I did get hurt here and there, but up until then nothing had ever....." he paused, sorting his thoughts out. "Nothing had ever just brushed me aside and sliced through my suit like it wasn't there before. It's one hell of a feeling to suddenly discover that your armour's no more protection than a cloth shirt. Add to that the fact that I couldn't even scratch their paint job, and you've got one deluded Knight Saber with a sudden feeling of complete powerlessness. I couldn't stop them, I couldn't touch them, and I found myself asking just what the hell I thought I was doing. All my marvelous designs and such were no bloody good at all." He gestured helplessly. "The bottom line is, if you'll pardon the melodramatic phrasing, that I've lost my nerve. I seriously don't know if I can put on the suit again."
"You're not going to quit!" she said, appalled. He couldn't quit, she told herself. Impossible; he enjoyed working in the shop too much and flying around in his suit to just up and quit, overlooking the fact that he really didn't have anywhere else to go. He shrugged.
"I'm .... I don't think I'd be of much use on an outing right now," he said awkwardly. "I can't even look at my suit right now without breaking into a cold sweat." Priss shook her head.
"You can't just quit," she insisted. "It's like riding a motorcycle; if you fall off you have to get back on again and keep going, otherwise you'll be scared of it forever." He didn't reply. She switched tactics.
"What about Nene? I think she'd have something to say about this."
"She won't want to have anything to do with a coward," he predicted gloomily. Priss grabbed him by the shirtfront and hauled him around to face her, teeth clenched.
"You're not a coward just because you've finally started seeing some sense, you asshole!!" she almost snarled. "It's about goddamn time you realized that this is serious work, and that it is dangerous; you almost seemed to feel it was all a game at times. Up until lately, you've been incredibly lucky; you could quite easily have been killed by Mason, or by Largo, or by a boomer, or by anything else I can think of. And quit blaming yourself for getting beat up!! If Sylia can't design an indestructible hardsuit, why the hell should you be able to?! You're so goddamned egotistical, stubborn, blind and dense sometimes, it's disgusting!!" He glowered at her, not replying, and she continued. "Besides, I think you're not giving Nene the benefit of the doubt. She loves you; if she didn't she certainly wouldn't have been spending most of her free time watching you snooze in the infirmary! To top that off, I know you're in love with her, so I don't think you'd just pack up and leave, not unless you're a real creep to boot." He flushed.
"Thanks, I think," he said dryly. "Any more character assassinations, I mean 'assessments' you want to make?" He sounded almost like his old self for a moment. She shook her head, a faint smile appearing.
"No, but I can keep going if you'd like."
"Thanks, but I think I've had enough of being called an asshole today."
"Anytime," Priss replied blandly, smothering a grin.
THE NEXT DAY ....
Bert sat, unconsciously rubbing his left side, staring absently out the KnightWing's window at the lights of the sprawling city below. He suddenly became aware of what he was doing, and jerked his hand away, forcing himself to grab the arm of his seat. The frame creaked ominously, and he relaxed his grip a bit; he'd forgotten for a moment how strong the suit was. Sylia watched him, masking her concern behind an expressionless face. Priss and Linna were also watching him closely. Both were suited up. Nene was at work, having been given a night shift by her ADP supervisor.
"Are you sure you're up to this now?" she asked. He nodded uncertainly.
"If I don't do it now, I'll never get the nerve up again," he replied, flicking a sidelong glance at Priss. He looked slightly pale, but he appeared to be in control of himself, Sylia judged. "Besides," he added, "I'd kind of like to get my flight system fully operational again; it's a pain having to walk everywhere." She relaxed slightly.
"Okay, get going then." Sylia watched as he clumped to the airlock, settling his helmet into place. The red eyeslot flashed at them briefly as the door closed.
"Okay, that should do it! I've got all the data we need now, so come on back!" Sylia's voice ordered.
SkyKnight wheeled around in midair and began tracking his way back to the KnightWing's locator beacon. The flight had been uneventful, so far. He'd put the suit and the flight system through its paces, transmitting the performance data back to Sylia on the KnightWing. His own performance hadn't been up to his usual par, he knew, mostly because his guts were strung tight as wires at the moment from nervousness. He kept glancing at his scopes to make sure there was nothing else in the air with him; he had an awful feeling of impending disaster. He knew it was mostly nerves, but couldn't convince himself to calm down. He opened his jets to full throttle, and sped onwards, suddenly anxious to get back to somewhere where he didn't feel so exposed.
"Roger, Saber Prime," he responded. "I'm coming back now; make sure you leave the door open." The sudden flash of his suit viewscreen warned him something had just entered his sensor range. He knew without looking what it was.
"For God's sake put a lid on the profanity, and get back here!" Sylia shouted, and he realized he'd been swearing into the comm frequency. He ramped his speed higher, stressing the jet turbines dangerously.
"They're back!" was all he was able to croak into the comm channel in reply. The two blips were gaining on him again, and his guts had frozen solid. His mouth was dry as dust. His side suddenly began to throb. God no, not agai....
Claws slashed the air; there was a horrible, metallic squeal. A wave of cold numbness, followed by screaming agony washed through his chest. Blood stained the entire front of his armour as he ...
"NOOOOOOO!" he howled, clutching at his head. His flight became a wild, downward corkscrew for a few moments before he could regain control. Sweat poured down his face as he wrenched himself back into a straight course. It wasn't real, he told himself, trying to breathe slower, he'd survived. His ribs still seemed to be screaming at him, though, and fear was a live current clawing though him. He cranked his jets to 150% power, horribly close to the blowout level, getting away his only thought.
The blips inexorably moved closer. He cut the jets back to normal power suddenly, and gave the command for the one emergency system he tried not to use too often. It came on-line, and his suit computer began giving him a countdown.
"SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER IGNITION ENABLED: FIRING IN FIVE SECONDS"
The blips moved closer.
"FOUR ..... THREE ...."
SkyKnight dipped downwards and dodged as green particle beams seared the air. A Doberman thundered through the spot where he'd been only a moment ago.
"TWO .... ONE ..... IGNITION .... FIRING"
A twenty-foot long column of white-orange flames flared from the nozzles on the backs of his armoured boots, bathing one of the Dobermans behind him in incandescent flames. Both boomers howled in fury as their prey vanished in seconds into the night like a flaming meteor.
Far below in the darkness, a bulky, black armoured figure turned and angrily slammed a steel-clad fist through a nearby wall as the silver-armoured Knight Saber disappeared.
THE NEXT DAY....
Nene looked up as Bert walked into the room, her face brightening as she saw him. He was dressed in a blue track suit, and had obviously been working out at something. Despite the fatigue, he looked better than he had days before, even considering the scare he'd gotten last night; he'd been a basket case for about two hours after they'd made it back to Sylia's building. She was happy he'd apparently snapped out of whatever it was that had been bothering him. He smiled at her, coming over and giving her a hug. She wasn't content with that, though, and grabbed him for what turned into a lengthy kiss. He didn't seem to mind at all. He grinned fondly at her as he straightened up, then turned somewhat more serious.
"Are you busy right now?" he queried.
"Not at all," she replied. "What's up?"
"I had an idea about last night, and I need some help getting the information out of the computer networks; you can make the computers turn handsprings compared to me. Of course," he quipped, "I'd turn handsprings for you myself." She flushed slightly.
"Flatterer," she reproved him as she stood up, and followed him to the data room.
"Okay," she said, sitting back and looking at him. "We're logged onto the MegaTokyo InfoNet. Now what do you want to find?" He leaned against the console edge, staring at the screen thoughtfully.
"I'd like a list of names of corporations, including government agencies, that have access to really advanced communications and sensor equipment. By really advanced, I mean space-age or top-notch military technology." She nodded, and punched in the request parameters. A list of about five hundred names popped up. She glanced over at him, eyebrows raised in a silent question. "Now drop any that are small consumer businesses," he directed. The list shrank to about two hundred. He gazed at the list for a few moments, thinking.
"Drop any companies without connections to either Genaros or the moonbase." The list dropped to thirty-five. "Okay, now out of those companies, find the ones that have equipment rigged to detect orbital stuff and the like." Keys clattered, and the list shrank to ten. Nene wished he'd tell her where this was leading. He took a deep breath.
"Eliminate all but the places that can re-align their sensors to blanket the entire city with a detection grid." The computer hummed for a couple of minutes, and list dropped to two names: GENOM and USSD. Nene looked from the flashing names to Bert. He had a faintly self-satisfied look on his face.
"I thought so," he muttered to himself, lost in thought.
"Would you mind explaining?" Nene asked with strained patience. He grinned at her.
"It suddenly occurred to me to wonder just how whoever is after me knew exactly where I'd be. Our suits don't show up on regular radar, like airport radar, because we fly too low. The KnightWing has all kinds of sensor stealth technology packed into it, so they weren't using that as an indicator. No, they had to be detecting my suit's electromagnetic signature, or something like that, by itself, and that means highly sophisticated, extremely powerful sensors. Like I figured, there are very, very few companies out there that have that kind of technology. Of course, we do, but we're kind of a special case. Anyhow, that list there confirms what I had in mind." Nene looked at the two names again.
"But GENOM doesn't use Dobermans," she pointed out. "At least, they haven't before. And why would USSD be trying to get you, anyway?" He shrugged.
"I don't know," he admitted, "but look at it this way: Dobermans are a space boomer, and USSD deals with space defense, so they'd have access to them. B-12 combat boomers are a shade too noticeable, and traceable, for them to use openly. Using Dobermans, which the average person hasn't seen before, would help divert any suspicions there may be. A point on the positive side, for them, is that since GENOM makes the Dobermans, GENOM would get the blame for loose boomers." Nene pondered that, shutting down the computer. Green eyes thoughtfully regarded him as she stood up.
"It does make some sense," she conceded, "but that still doesn't explain why they would become interested in you or your suit. Are you going to mention this to Sylia?"
"Not yet. I'd like some more proof first. Thanks for the help, by the way."
"No charge," she replied, grinning. He laughed and held the door for her, bowing deeply as she passed. He was still grinning as he caught up to her in the hallway. She looped her arm through his as they walked down the hall to the elevator. She suddenly looked up at him.
"Are you up to going out again?"
"I think so," he replied.
"What are you doing next Saturday night?" she asked.
"Nothing really," he replied absently, mind elsewhere. "Why?"
"If I can get tickets, would you like to go to a concert with a friend from work and me? She's working at getting some together. She took the day off just so she could stand in line." She shook her head; she still couldn't believe Naoko had been there since 3:00 am.
"Who's giving the concert?" he looked at her curiously.
"It's that band that just started touring again lately: Vision and The Revengers."
"Sounds good to me," he remarked, keeping his face straight through a supreme act of willpower. Oh boy, just what I needed, he thought. More complications. It looked like life was about to become very interesting, very shortly. "If you can't get tickets, though," he continued, "you go with your friend. It won't destroy my Saturday if I miss it." The elevator doors hissed open as they approached, closing behind them.
THREE DAYS LATER.....
Sylia sat down in the bucket seat, smoothing her skirt out. She glanced around briefly at the milling crowds outside, then grabbed the armrest as the carriage on the Ferris wheel began lurched and began moving upwards. She looked across the car at the blond-haired, blue-eyed man in the wrinkled grey suit across from her, an eyebrow quirking upwards.
"You think you're Harry Lime, choosing a place like this for our meeting?" she inquired. Fargo smirked.
"Just a little change of atmosphere," he assured her. "Besides, this way we don't have to worry about eavesdroppers."
"All right," she sighed. "What's the job this time?" He handed her a data disk and explained. She sat silent for a moment, then looked at him. "Bodyguarding someone associated with GENOM does not sit well with me," she informed him.
"But the fee is fifty million!" he stated enthusiastically. "Twenty in advance, the last thirty on completion." Sylia sighed again, cynically figuring he was just after his cut, then dismissed the thought as uncharitable. Sure, Fargo wasn't the most legal-minded person in the world, but he'd always been fair and honest in his dealings with her, to the best of her knowledge.
"All right then," she told him. "We'll take the job." He nodded, and she asked about her other concern. "Did you have any luck finding out about that other matter?" Fargo suddenly sank into the seat across from her, looking uneasy.
"I've never offered an opinion on your work before," he told her solemnly, "but right now I'd advise you to tell whoever is parading around in that silver armour suit to retire and find another job."
"Explain," Sylia ordered flatly, crossing her arms. Fargo sighed, and fished in a pocket for a cigarette. He couldn't find matches, though, and stuffed it back. He looked at her, blue eyes unusually serious.
"The line forms on the right with regards to this SkyKnight," he said cryptically. "At last count there were four companies offering unofficial rewards for either his suit, or him personally."
"Why, for God's sake?!" Sylia burst out. Hardsuits were hardly a new phenomena, it was just that the Knight Sabers had the best around. Why the sudden interest?
"By now it's known that he's the one who actually took out the D.D. battlemover," Fargo continued, "and it's also known that he got some kind of salvage from it before it mysteriously melted into a slag heap. Several people are extremely upset over that. Whatever he got, it's the only technology left from that project; all of the plans and specs were placed on board the thing, and all other records were expunged to make it impossible to trace. It was supposed to go to the Communists, prototype and plans, and then all trace of its manufacture by GPCC would vanish. Since it was the latest, state-of-the-art hardware, the fact that it was stolen and apparently up for grabs excited a lot of interest." Fargo stared absently out the window. "Several groups are positive he's using some of the battlemover technology, and they want it, at any cost. As a side benefit, there's a lot of interest in his own weapons systems." He stopped talking, and sat brooding over his own private worries.
"And just who is it that wants it?" she prodded. An irritated look flickered over his face, but he replied anyway.
"The main players are GENOM and USSD, although neither has any notion of the other being in the field yet. GENOM is still working on their plans and haven't tried anything. There's a couple of small military hardware companies that are drooling over the prospect of having the D.D. technology also, but they're playing it really safe; they're watching everyone else like vultures, hoping to pick over the carcasses." He shook his head, falling silent again.
Sylia sat, pondering the information. She had expected GENOM to be involved, but not USSD. Although, she reflected, she supposed she wasn't overly surprised. After all, they had tried for covert scans of her and Nene's hardsuits when they'd briefly visited their HQ a couple of years back. Everyone was in for a rude shock, though, she figured; very little of the D.D. technology files had actually survived the battle, and the Knight Sabers were really only using the D.D.'s scaled-down actuation system.
"Why is USSD so hot to get illegal technology?" she asked. Fargo shrugged.
"Once they get it, it's government property, and hence legal. They want it because they're trying to get back into the driver's seat with regards to military defense. They've had several military and space contracts taken over by GENOM, and they want them back. To that end, they've already spent millions recently on all kinds of weapons research. Nothing on boomers, just mechanized combat suits, computers. and other weapons. Our tax dollars at work," he commented sardonically. They both stood up as their car swung down to the unloading dock. Fargo held the door for her.
"Keep me informed if anything changes," she told him as she left.
TWO DAYS LATER ....
"I should've gotten to infiltrate the hotel too!" Priss complained, flopping back onto a pillow on the floor. She sat up again as howling laughter exploded from the other end of the room, glaring dangerously over at Bert. He was barely hanging on to his chair, he was laughing so hard. Sylia looked over at him from the monitor bank, raising an eyebrow.
"What's so funny?" they chorused, although Priss sounded a lot more upset than Sylia. He pulled himself up, gasping for air.
"I'm sorry," he chortled, "but it's just the thought of Priss in one of those uniforms, bowing and scraping to people at tables, having to be nice, smile all the time, and be painfully polite to them. HAHAHAHAHAHAA!!!!!" He did fall off the chair this time, sending papers flying as he collapsed in gales of breathless laughter. A faint grin etched Sylia's face; he did have a point about Priss having to be polite all the time. Priss looked insulted, and sat glaring daggers at him for several minutes. Eventually he calmed down enough to stagger upright, gather his papers up and sit down again. Faint snickers still escaped him as he went back to working on whatever it was he'd been doing. Priss flounced around to face Sylia, studiously ignoring him. Sylia turned back to her monitors.
"I'd love to see him out there cleaning stuff up," Priss suddenly muttered to Sylia. Sylia shook her head, glancing sidelong at Priss with a faint smile.
"He'd stick out like a neon sign," she replied, under her breath. "How many other six-foot-three people with red hair and a hockey-player build have you seen lately? He'd be instantly noticeable to anyone." Priss reluctantly agreed.
Sylia regarded the center screen, which was displaying an older, grey-haired man in his late fifties to early sixties, with a mustache lounging in a chair by the pool side. Occasionally, Dr. Richard McLaren would leer around at the girls passing by. 'Lecherous old goat' was one term she'd heard Bert use to describe him. He'd threatened to drown McLaren personally if he even glanced sideways at Nene while she was in his vicinity, but Sylia had managed to calm him down, slightly. Sylia sighed, and let her mind wander over other concerns briefly.
She hadn't yet told everyone else about what Fargo had revealed regarding the recent Doberman assaults, Bert especially. She wanted to be sure he was fully recovered, physically and mentally, before they tried any kind of response, especially since some major league concerns were involved. The fact that he seemed to have gone back to his design projects was a good sign, but she was reserving judgment until she got a chance to evaluate his hardsuit responses again. Sudden curiosity about his current work grabbed her; he was poring over a map of MegaTokyo, drawing circles and lines on some of it, and consulting a notepad full of calculations from time to time. She was about to ask him what was up when an image from the monitors distracted her.
"Well, would you look at that!" she commented. Bert looked over briefly, but didn't reply, going back to his scribbling.
"What's up?" Priss inquired.
"Second floor coffee shop," Sylia pointed out, smiling. "Window seat." A brown haired man in a blue jacket lounged in a seat, and after a moment Priss recognized him.
"Leon!" she exclaimed. "What's he doing here?"
"This job is getting interesting, isn't it?" Sylia asked.
You don't know the half of it, Bert thought to himself, drawing another line to intersect with others on the map.
Bert soared through the air with a muted rumble of jets, behind the sleek blue hardsuit leap-frogging from signboard to rooftop to signboard; he'd engaged the mufflers on his flight system, which made him much quieter in flight. They were perfect for right now, since they didn't want to attract notice. The familiar, crawling fear in his stomach had returned when he'd donned his suit, but he'd managed to ignore it for the most part. Having to concentrate on the task at hand helped a bit.
"Be careful you two," Sylia's voice advised. "There's something funny about that ambulance."
"Roger. We'll watch it," Priss replied. The white van they were following suddenly took an off-ramp leading to the darkness of the less classy areas of MegaTokyo, the docks. It was obviously not taking McLaren to the hospital. Priss began to narrow the gap between them, trying to pass the van to get ahead of it. She suddenly stopped, and turned towards him, forcing him to veer sideways so as not to slam into her.
"For God's sake, don't do that!" he snapped. "You wanna get knocked over?!"
"You can carry double, right?" she asked, ignoring his reprimand. "We need to get ahead of them."
"Sure, no problem," he replied. He moved closer to her, putting an arm around her waist. Jets rumbled, and they shot forward, passing the rogue ambulance and getting a good lead on it.
"Okay, stop here," she ordered. He dropped lightly to the road and released her, the headlights from the van approaching ever closer. Priss stepped into the middle of the road, while he hung back, cloaked in the shadows, a glowing red eyeslot faintly visible above a sheen of silver armour. The van screeched to a halt. Bert scanned quickly around; he couldn't detect anything out of the ordinary.
"Get the hell out of that ambulance!" she yelled, snapping her gun arm up to point at the driver. The phony attendant raised his hands, and all hell broke loose.
"Look out!" SkyKnight shouted, as a scuttling blue, crab-like robot thundered out of the darkness beyond the lights. Twin red laser bolts from the side glanced harmlessly off its armour plating as it speared a pointed leg at Priss. She leaped into the air, her jump jets kicking in to boost her to the top of a nearby bridge structure. She swung herself down and over, hand over hand, on the cross-braces and beams, just staying ahead of the searching gunfire that spewed from a large looking cannon on the front of the four-legged tank. Blue plasma bolts hammered into the mech from the darkness; SkyKnight was obviously still trying to damage it, but didn't appear to be having much luck. Her jets flared again, kicking up a concealing curtain of water as she flew down to the water's surface. Probing blue-white laser beams sliced the air, trying to find her.
Damn it all to hell, Bert swore silently as the blue mech turned towards him. It obviously had some kind of radar-foiling equipment, since it still wasn't showing up on his systems. It was also very heavily armoured, resisting his lasers and plasma guns alike with fine impartiality. He dodged and ducked as the mech tried perforating him with its Gatling cannon. He hadn't tried his modular weapons, since he figured that for a railgun to work against the thing, he'd need to find a weakened spot first. So far, he hadn't found any.
Crackling blue beams scythed towards him. He flipped out of the way, scorching the air with a cranked-up laser bolt in reply; other than paint burns, it didn't do much. SkyKnight ducked two more hungrily searching beams, pounding back with plasma bolts. His plasma bolts seemed to be the most effective, since the mech shuddered slightly from the impacts each time. Vibrations were probably all he was giving it, though. As he dodged another hailstorm of bullets, a crashing impact from the mech's front leg smashed him back into a small construction shed. Sheet metal and two-by-fours cascaded down on top of him in a roiling clatter. As he floundered out from the debris, he heard Priss' railcannon blast three times, as she dropped out of the air shouting "Let's do it!!".
"Priss!!!! Noooo!!! DON'T DO IT!!!!" he bellowed over the comm, hurling off the last few pieces of wreckage.
She clanged onto the back of the thing, as her railgun spikes fell off, not even leaving a scratch. Bert swore fulminantly as he launched towards her and the mech, already knowing he wouldn't be in time. His own fears for his own safety had vanished, to be replaced with frantic desperation to save her from certain disaster. A long, prehensile cable snaked out of the mech, grabbing Priss by the legs, and whipping her through an arc in the air to crash into the ground. She screamed hoarsely as a second tentacle wrapped itself around her arms and neck, and the two tentacles contracted, bending her backwards into an extremely painful-looking, spine-wrenching hog-tied position. She went limp suddenly as something snapped sickeningly and audibly, and the cables retracted. The rotary cannon swung to line up on her prone body as SkyKnight surged closer.
Praying fervently, he blasted the mech with his lasers and plasma beams in the one, suddenly exposed portion of its construction: the sensor 'eye' which had popped out to target Priss. A smoking blaze of sparks and flames shot from the sensor pod. The mech floundered around behind him as he dropped to the ground next to Priss, ignoring it completely.
Dropping to his knees, he gently cradled her shoulders with his right arm, while he flipped up her visor with his free hand. She was out cold, white-faced, with blood trickling from the corners of her mouth. Something burst inside him, and for a moment all he could see was red. An ugly, obliterating, raging fury burst from the restraints he normally kept on his temper, and for a moment he trembled with the urge to turn and attack the blue mech. To kill, to destroy, to maim its pilot was his only thought.
Sanity re-asserted itself as he closed her visor, and gently laid her back on the ground. As sorely as he wanted to, he couldn't just plow into a fight now; he had a responsibility to get her out of here to safety first. The marauding mech could wait. A sudden sixth sense warned him, and he spun around, standing up and placing himself squarely in front of the downed Priss. An impressive gun muzzle stared back at him.
Kou swore in fury as the sensors flared and went off-line, leaving his display monitor dark. He wrestled with the controls for a moment, keeping the lurching GD-42 Combat Mech under control. He slapped the switch for the emergency backups as he sourly wondered what else could go wrong with the night.
The kidnapping of McLaren had gone smoothly enough, but then they'd been attacked by two armour suits of a kind never seen before. To top that off, he'd received a report that Reika had been followed by some strange girl, whom his men had captured. GENOM must have spies all over this stinking city, he thought to himself grimly. At last, his monitors came back to life. He grinned savagely to himself, spinning the mech around to target the main cannon on his foes.
As the computer system locked onto its target, the silver armour suit with blue shoulder and torso plating suddenly surged upright from where it had been kneeling, spinning around to stand between the gun and the fallen blue suit, but not attacking. Kou frowned, fingers twitching on the fire buttons and trigger. It had been attacking a moment ago; what was stopping it now?
Bert stared into the yawning bore of the Gatling cannon aimed at him, dry-mouthed and sweating. He was pretty sure it wasn't going to get through his suit, despite the confidence problems he was having, but he was more worried about what would happen to Priss, since she couldn't dodge. He desperately wanted to get her out of here, but that would mean turning his back on the robot to pick her up, and he couldn't take that risk. He was going to have to wait and pray that the mech left; he didn't have the firepower necessary to stop it.
As he stood facing mechanized death, he suddenly realized that the paralyzing fear that had dogged him since his bloody and nearly fatal struggle with the renegade Dobermans was gone, washed away in the stress of combat, and his concern for Priss. Shock therapy, he wryly observed to himself, drawing renewed strength from his strangely renewed courage. He stood a little taller, waiting to see what would happen.
Kou stared at his monitors, puzzled. He'd been staring down the red-eyed silver suit for two minutes now, but it hadn't stirred. What the hell was this?! An idea suddenly flashed in his mind.
Twitching the mech sideways, he locked the cannon on the prone blue form behind the silver-clad figure. Instantly, it stepped between them again. Kou fired a short burst at his opponent. Heavy slugs clanged and whined off of the armoured shape. It held up an arm to shield its head, but stood its ground, shaking slightly under the impacts. Kou's respect for his enemy grudgingly went up a notch as he flipped the covers back down on the firing switches; his enemy was protecting its fallen comrade, heedless of his own safety. Strange, he thought to himself as he sent the mech off into the night, leaving the battlefield. No GENOM agents he'd ever encountered before had seemed that honourable. Most were quite willing to sacrifice their associates. He shelved the question for some time when he had less pressing things to worry about. Darkness swallowed the retreating GD-42.
SkyKnight whirled as the mech scuttled off into the darkness. Kneeling, he gently scooped Priss up, being careful of her arm. Wings snapped out on his back, and he shot into the air with a screaming roar; he didn't need the mufflers for silent running anymore, and they slightly reduced his speed. He sped over the warehouse rooftops, opening the Knight Saber communications band.
"Sylia!" he called, not bothering with the proper protocols. "Get the infirmary ready! Priss is in bad shape!"
"What the hell happened now?!" she demanded. "I TOLD you two to be careful!!!"
"Yeah, yeah, so sue me later!" he retorted. "We got trashed by some kind of combat robot. I've never seen anything like it before." That wasn't entirely true, but there was no need to go into that now. "I'm not exactly sure what's wrong with Priss, but she's out cold."
"I'll meet you halfway with my car," she told him, then cut off the signal. SkyKnight rocketed onwards, spurred by concern for his friend.
Sylia clambered out of the driver's seat, as the familiar silver-and-blue shape of SkyKnight clanked to the asphalt. He was cradling Priss in his arms. She opened the back door, folding the seat down, and he bent over, gingerly placing Priss inside. He straightened up, turning to face Sylia as he closed the door.
"I can give you the details later," he stated quietly. "I'll accept the responsibility for what happened." She briefly wondered what he was talking about, but set it aside for later consideration.
"Get back to HQ," she ordered, "and we'll decide what to do from there. I...what?! What is it?!" she barked. He'd suddenly jerked and half turned to face the direction he'd flown in from.
"I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count," he replied calmly, flexing his gauntleted hands. He turned his back to her, walking forward a couple of steps as the wings on his suit snapped up again.
"No!" she ordered, stepping forward and reaching up to grab his shoulder. " No solo actions! Especially not now!! Damn it, you won't have any backup!! I'm ordering you to get back to the building!" He turned around, shaking his helmeted head negatively as he gave her a sudden gentle hug, and then stepped back.
"No," he stated quietly, iron determination evident in his tone. "I'm sorry, but not this time. No more running away. Get Priss to safety; I WILL be back. Count on it."
Sylia stared helplessly as SkyKnight surged into the air, swinging around and roaring back towards the darkness of the docks, like a silver-and-blue clad hawk.
Bert flashed towards the two blips on his radar scope, jet turbines shrieking like enraged fiends. For the first time in a long time, he felt normal again, flying freely through the air, exulting in the experience. The crippling fear he'd suffered earlier was gone, replaced by the more normal, subdued nervousness he'd always felt before any fight. A sudden, familiar-feeling grin stretched across his face; he was actually looking forward to the coming brawl. Don't get too reckless, he warned himself, sobering slightly as the Dobermans swept into view; it only takes one mistake to get killed.
He thundered upwards, climbing rapidly as the ravening boomers howled and tried to shoot him down. Green energy bolts sizzled through the night sky, missing the hurtling hardsuit by a safe margin. SkyKnight sideslipped a laser salvo from them, then corkscrewed wildly across the sky away from the biomechanoid killers. His insane-appearing flight patterns didn't hamper his aim; crackling crimson laser beams repeatedly stabbed at the Dobermans, infuriating them, but not really harming them. He sighed inwardly. So much for that tactic; it was going to have to be hand-to-hand, even though his side ached at the thought. He quickly suppressed the reaction.
Light flashed from his polished exterior as he banked sharply, driving back towards the boomers. They snarled, and leaped forward on their own thrusters to challenge him. Coolly, with almost abstract precision, SkyKnight blasted the left-most boomer backwards from the other with a double plasma burst that knocked it spinning. Streaking towards the second, his right swordblade snapped out of its housing. The boomer spat a sparking particle bolt at him, but he swiftly ducked under it. Using his left arm, he clothes-lined the boomer, then grabbed onto its shoulder as the two combatants spun through the air, knocked into a downward spiral by their collision. As they tumbled, SkyKnight shoved its head sideways, driving his sword deep into its neck. He braced himself briefly, then tore its head off.
Jets howled, and he shot away from the falling carcass, quickly orienting himself, as a searing energy beam from the surviving Doberman blasted the already dead boomer in half. The pieces dropped to the bay below, trailing smoke and sparks. SkyKnight spun into an Immelman turn as the last boomer howled its rage to the skies and continued to sear the air with searching particle beams.
In the darkness of the warehouses below the airborne struggle, a bulky shadow stepped forward. The sheen of pitch black armour plating glinted dully as the figure moved out into the open. Faint swearing, audible to anyone dumb enough to try to get close to the robotic shape, could be heard coming from the dome-like helmet. Metal-sheathed fists clenched in helpless anger as the figure watched SkyKnight flash through the air ahead of the last boomer, ducking and weaving at breakneck speed through the air.
Inside the mechanized armour suit, pale grey eyes stared furiously at the status readouts being relayed by the boomers. Damn it, it was all going to hell! After the last encounter, when SkyKnight had fled squealing with his tail between his legs, they'd anticipated an easy capture at the next opportunity. Instead, SkyKnight appeared to have developed a spine again; he'd wasted the first boomer thirty seconds into the fight, and was well on his way to toasting the last one. His form was back to the levels they'd observed earlier, and his fighting had even apparently improved somewhat. Shit!!!! Faint clanks sounded as the suit stepped forward some more to witness the end of the battle, oblivious to the fact that it now stood in plain sight.
A taloned hand speared forward towards his chest. SkyKnight grabbed the wrist of the boomer, deflecting the strike, while at the same time the swordblade snapped out on his other arm. As the two combatants careened wildly through the air, he slashed at the elbow of the boomer, putting as much suit strength behind the blow as he could without really overbalancing their precarious flight through the air. The boomer's arm was sheared off, spraying fluid and fragments, leaving SkyKnight holding about three feet of armoured arm. He belted the boomer in the head with its own severed appendage, using it like a baseball bat, then pitched the severed limb away, down towards the warehouses below.
Spitting greenish-white particle bolts, the boomer surged forward again. Enough is enough, Bert decided. Whipping sideways on screaming jets, he targeted the Doberman's back with his bolt launcher as it thundered past. He swerved around doggedly, staying behind the boomer as it tried to spin around to face him again. Four thunderclap reports cracked the night air, and four tapered bolts plunged into the boomer's back, through its exposed flight jet orifices. Shattering explosions burst from its torso, spewing flames and debris, as it abruptly lost all flight capability. SkyKnight watched, grinning triumphantly to himself, as the boomer splashed into the bay just at the dock edges. A column of water surged upwards with a sullen rumble as the boomer detonated under the water.
"Oh yeah!!" he laughed, corkscrewing through the air in a victory spiral, "Damn that felt good!! We are Armed and Dangerous again!! Whoopeeee!!" He reined in his enjoyment of the moment as his vision suddenly picked out from his suit viewscreen what his sensors weren't telling him: A black armour suit stood in the entrance to a warehouse. It looked like a scaled down K-12 in some ways, but somehow more advanced at the same time. Some weaponry was visible, but judging from his non-existent sensor readings, it had to be carrying a truckload of ECM equipment and sensor stealth modules. This shady suit was obviously what had been pulling the strings on the ambushes on him. Jet turbines roared, and the silver-clad Knight Saber thundered down towards the strange suit.
"Have at thee vile, recreant knave!!!" he suddenly bellowed as he shot towards the ebony armour suit. "Prepare to defend thyself!!"
Grey eyes widened in shock as SkyKnight suddenly charged down out of the skies above. Oh shit, he could see her! This was not good, she thought, panicked; she wasn't equipped to deal with armed force, especially not at this level. The suit was an espionage model with limited weapons and armour, it couldn't stand .......
A smashing crash resounded as two armoured feet impacted numbingly in the stomach region of the suit, hurling her backwards, through the warehouse and out the wall on the other side in a plume of smoke and concrete dust. Displays flared and went dark as systems died, and the suit became a dead weight on her limbs; the blow had destroyed both the suit's power plant and battery reserves. Sweating, she could dimly see a silver shape loom out of the darkness over her through the semi-transparent helmet visor, a faint red blob marking the approximate location of its eyes as it glowered at her.
Bert stared at the smashed and ruined mechanized suit in his display screen. This was his enemy?! One body shot, and the thing had been turned into a shattered wreck! Whoever was piloting it was stuck inside; an eyeball estimate pegged the mass of the dead armour at around five hundred pounds, most of that apparently being rockets and sensor equipment, and no one was going to just pick that up and walk away.
"Go ahead, kill me you mercenary bastard!" a woman's voice snarled from the wrecked hulk. For a moment, the cold voice of utterly ruthless practicality urged him to do it, then his own conscience and honour re-asserted itself. He couldn't kill a defenseless person, and a woman to boot, leaving chivalry aside for the moment. If it was a fair fight, then let the cards fall as they may; a fair fight was a different situation entirely. Killing her in cold blood would make him no better than a combat boomer.
His right sword blade snapped out as he stepped closer to the metal carcass. Scanning the wreckage, he carefully peeled off the outer layers of armour plating. Bracing his foot on one side of the armour, he cracked it open like a walnut, and extracted the pilot, who spun away from him.
Long blond hair floated in disheveled array around a thin, angular face with furious grey eyes. She was tall, about five-eleven, with a trim figure, like a conditioned athlete. She was wearing some kind of vaguely military-looking blue jumpsuit, but no other identifying patches or insignia were on it. She defiantly stood ramrod straight in front of him, head back, looking at him with mingled anger and disdain. He briefly admired her nerve, if not her common sense; were their positions reversed, he wasn't so sure he'd be as calm looking.
"Well?" she demanded acidly. "Go ahead, do it! I'm not going to beg, if that's what you were hoping for, you cold-blooded mercenary bastard." He sighed; she seemed to like that description.
"First of all, I'm not going to kill you," he replied. "I don't operate like that. Secondly, just where do you get off calling me a 'mercenary bastard'?" he inquired politely. "Seems to me that you're the one who's sneaking around trying to pull 'hits' on people for someone else." He gestured towards the scrap pile that had been her suit. "Most private citizens don't have that kind of hardware."
"You work with an illegal group of armed thugs," she stated flatly, "and you are continually for hire for exorbitant sums of money. You're a mercenary." She certainly had a narrow view on the subject, he reflected, not to mention the fact she'd avoided comparing herself to him. That indicated some kind of 'official' mindset. He smiled to himself; it was only a hunch, but he was willing to bet she was a USSD officer.
"I don't suppose all the boomer rampages we stop, thereby saving the public from unnecessary suffering, counts for anything?" he queried. She snorted.
"If you were as public-minded as you claim, you'd surrender yourself to the proper authorities; you don't have the right to decide what should or shouldn't be done for the public."
"And you do, I suppose?" he retorted sarcastically. She was hoping to get her hands on the hardsuit technology if they surrendered; it was written all over her face who she thought were the 'proper authorities'. "I have a great deal of respect for the law, lady, and even a small amount for 'the system', but this way works, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for the government. We may not be perfect, but we try real hard."
"Well why don't you..." she began to interject angrily, but he cut her off with a slashing motion of his right hand.
"Just shut up and listen," he told her flatly. "There's no way you, or anyone else for that matter, is getting their greasy little paws on my suit, or anyone else's. I'm not going to let you invent better ways of offing your neighbours with them. I use this armour to defend people who can't defend themselves, and I'm proud of it." He straightened up, voice ringing. "This suit stands for a lot of things, not the least of which are honour, decency and courage. You wouldn't know about that last one," he remarked caustically, "since you seem to like bushwhacking people. Anyhow, the bottom line is this: You're NOT going to get it to pervert it into some abomination like the D.D. battlemover was." She jerked as if slapped. Aha! he thought, smirking to himself; she knows something about that, then. Interesting.
He took a step towards her, and she involuntarily retreated, then stood her ground flushing furiously. He grinned to himself, then gave her a sweeping bow.
"It's been a real 'blast' getting to know you," he cracked, "but I've got to go now. My advice to you is to retire to a less stressful job, and to tell the General to bugger off and leave me alone. Don't come after me again; you won't like what will happen." Wings snapped up, and his jets howled, hurtling him off into the darkened skies, leaving behind an angry young woman. As he disappeared into the night, she turned and vanished into the shadows herself.
Sylia paced the carpet, alternating between worry and anger. She was worried about Priss, who was unconscious with a broken arm, and Linna, who'd gone missing. She was both furious and worried over Bert for having gone charging back after his pursuers, against orders. She didn't think he was up to it, not yet.
Nene watched her from the couch, lost in her own, similar worries. She'd been knocking back cup after cup of tea in her agitation at a pace that would have even outstripped Bert's normal consumption. Sylia suddenly spun to regard the red-haired computer expert.
"When Linna was interrupted, she was near the cemetery where Irene is supposed to be buried. I think there's a connection there, so when you get the chance, have a look at Irene's past. I think there's something there we're missing," she told her. Irene was far from dead, in reality. After that hectic night when she'd been rescued, and Bert had dropped in on their lives, they'd faked an explosive death for her in an 'accident'. Then, they'd quickly whisked her off into a hideaway Sylia had set up to protect her until things calmed down. Linna made regular visits to her, keeping her up to date on things. Irene was finding it hard to stay in hiding, but it was preferable to being killed by assassin boomers. Nene nodded.
"Do you think Linna will be all right?" she asked worriedly, taking another sip of tea.
Sylia didn't have time to reply. The door flew open, and a gleaming silver hardsuit with royal blue shoulder and chest plates burst through, tearing off its helmet, revealing Bert's familiar snarled red hair and green-brown eyes. He looked anxiously at Priss, who was still out like a light, lying on a bed in the corner of the room. Her right arm was in a heavy cast.
"How is she?" he asked quietly, coming over to them. Sylia looked him over carefully; he appeared to be unharmed. In fact, he looked better than he had in weeks. Her concern lightened somewhat; at least something good had come from all the commotion lately.
"She's got a broken arm and some bruises," Sylia replied, "but nothing serious."
"Thank God," he sighed, deflating slightly. "I ....." He was interrupted by Nene flinging herself on him in a huge hug. It wasn't easy, since he was a couple of inches taller in his suit, but she managed it. He gently hugged her back, bending down to give her a quick kiss on the lips. She stepped back as he released her, eyes shining, to regard him.
"You're cured," she stated, mouth hovering on the edge of a smile. He nodded, a grin creeping across his own features.
"I'm fine now," he confirmed, holding out a steady, gauntleted hand. "See? No more shakes, no more flashbacks, and most importantly, no more paralytic fear." Sylia smiled also at the news.
"You beat the boomers then," she half-asked. He nodded again.
"I'll show you the flight record later. It should be interesting, considering I think I met one of the people pulling the strings on the operation. She's probably on a bus back to her HQ by now."
"Her?! Bus?!" they both exclaimed, looking at each other. He grinned again.
"Yes, it was a woman," he said. "She needed to take the bus because I trashed her suit; it wasn't really meant for combat, judging from its design." He suddenly shook his head irritably. "That can wait. What's happening here?" Sylia looked at him, but decided not to pursue the matter right now.
"We have another problem," she began as he carefully sat down on a chair.
"Do you have anything to say that can explain your incompetence?" a steely voice rumbled from behind the shadow-cloaked desk. Blue eyes glared from the semidarkness.
"None, Sir. I accept full responsibility." The grey-eyed woman standing in front of the dark shape never wavered.
"At ease, Lieutenant," the voice suddenly sounded tired. He shuffled through the report on his desktop, a small reading lamp illuminating the pages. "You aren't being relieved of duty; there's no one else who could fill the bill for your particular talents. However, the loss of the espionage model of the Shadowhawk suit will set us back several months. Damn it, I told you to stay under cover!!"
"I'm sorry Sir. It won't happen again."
"I know it won't," he snapped. "We're changing our approach. The new combat version of the suit is ready to be tested, so I want you to go and get familiar with it. The next time we get a chance at this 'SkyKnight', you'll be in there with the Dobermans. Then we should be able to capture the bastard, or at least get some salvage from his carcass."
"Very good, Sir."
"Was there anything else?"
"Yes Sir," she hesitated. "I didn't put this in my report, but we did talk before he left. He knows who we are, Sir."
"WHAT?!? Impossible!!!! Not even GENOM knows what we're up to right now!!! What did he say?!"
"He said, and I'm quoting, 'Tell the General to bugger off and leave me alone.' He also made the usual threats of dire retribution if we kept after him." She fell silent. The figure behind the desk sat in stunned silence for a moment. How had he figured it out?! There was no physical evidence anywhere; they'd gone to extreme lengths to make sure.
"He's bluffing," he said flatly. "He can't know anything concrete. He's just trying to see what he can shake loose. You can go now; I'll call when I decide to start the next set of operations." The woman bowed and left. The report on the desk was suddenly crumpled into a wad by a clenched fist.
THE NEXT DAY....
"At least now we have a face we can work with," Sylia observed. Nene had gone to work, and she was sitting in the computer room with Bert, going over his flight recorder data. She'd watched it all, but was concentrating on his footage near the end, the footage that showed the face of a blond, grey-eyed woman. She thoughtfully regarded the image, then looked at Bert.
"I also notice you figured out that USSD was behind it," she noted. He nodded, smiling faintly.
"I got bored," he quipped, "so I decided to figure out who it was."
"I found out a couple of days ago myself," she told him, "but I wasn't going to pass on the information until I was sure you were over the problems you had. I'm pretty sure you are now, so I'll give you the details later. Right now, we need to decide what to do about this mech you fought. It's obviously tied into Linna's disappearance somehow." A picture of the crab-like mech popped up as she pushed a switch. "It's an impressive piece of work," she observed. He nodded agreement.
"It gets even more impressive when you stand there staring into its gun muzzle," he remarked wryly. "I really don't want to do that again; it felt like the longest two minutes of my life."
"Actually, I'm rather proud of you for doing it," she told him. He blinked in surprise.
"Excuse me? I think I missed something there."
"A few weeks ago, you'd have plowed merrily into it, trying to kill it for hurting Priss. This time, you took the harder choice of doing nothing and protecting her." She smiled suddenly. "There's hope for you yet," she teased. "You're finally growing up about this stuff." Bert reddened uncomfortably.
"I haven't changed that much!" he protested weakly.
"As long as it's not for the worse, any change is an improvement."
"Thanks, I think."
Linna rubbed her wrists in relief. The handcuffs hadn't been painfully tight, but they had been very uncomfortable. Having to sit on a hard, straight-backed wooden chair for several hours hadn't helped either. She shifted slightly, watching the two men standing near the door to the room she'd been imprisoned in. The one was a short man with black hair, in greasy white coveralls; he was doing something to the lock on the door, although what that something was exactly, she couldn't tell. The second man was a tall man in a white jacket and pants with a green shirt. Brown eyes regarded her thoughtfully from under a thatch of straight black hair. She'd heard enough to know he was called Kou, and from what she'd managed to overhear, he was nominally in charge, although Reika seemed to be making a lot of the decisions too.
She sighed in mingled anger and despair. Reika was carrying on a personal vendetta against GENOM for killing her sister, and was destroying herself in the process. Her entire life, based on what Irene had told her in their many conversations, had been devoted to her singing, and she was throwing it away to become a hardened killer and criminal just to satisfy her crying need for revenge of some kind. Reika hadn't believed her insistence that Irene wasn't dead, mostly because Linna couldn't provide proof, not without blowing the Knight Sabers' cover. She couldn't do that, no matter how much she wanted to help Vision. She watched as Kou walked over to her.
"I'm sorry for the cramped accommodations," he apologized uncomfortably. "I understand you were a friend of Miss Irene's."
"I AM a friend of Irene's," she corrected. He ignored the correction.
"In twenty-four hours the lock will disengage," he said, gesturing towards where the mechanic was closing everything up. "By tomorrow night, you will be free."
"You're going to kill Quincy, aren't you?" she accused. He didn't reply. "Don't drag her into this!" she pleaded. "Do you want to make Reika, Vision, a murderer?!" A tormented look flickered briefly over his face as he silenced the suddenly turning mechanic with a gesture. They turned and left without a backwards glance, the door clanging shut hollowly behind them. Linna sighed and began unbuttoning her blouse.
"I get absolutely nothing on Irene's past," Nene reported over the comm frequency. "I can only guess that some major organization is concealing it." Sylia looked over at SkyKnight, but he shook his head slightly.
"There's no movement from Quincy's end, either," she replied. "Maybe I miscalculated." She lapsed into contemplative silence as Nene broke the connection, leaning against the water tower on top of the building where she and SkyKnight sat in their suits waiting for something to happen.
SkyKnight certainly seemed relaxed; he had his arms behind his head with his feet up, propped between a pair of rooftop vent covers, the picture of indolence. Sylia wished she could do that, but she was still worried about Linna and couldn't relax.
"If this is related to Irene," he suddenly asked, even though he himself knew it was, "what are we going to do?" Sylia's blue faceplate swung in his direction.
"Then you get to go pick her up," she replied. "We'll probably need her to convince these kidnappers that we're telling the truth."
"That's going to take a while," he noted. "I'll have to go back down, get changed, get my truck and...."
"You go and get her in your suit, you twit! We're going to need you in your suit ready to roll when the crap hits the fan here."
"Oh, sure," he shot back sarcastically, "I just swoop in and carry her off. Riiiiiight. Real low profile, that is. I'm sure no one will even raise an eyebrow," he snorted.
"We'll deal with that later. For now, speed is the essential consideration."
"There's another problem: She's never even seen me, in or out of my suit, so how do we know she won't just scream and make a fuss or run when I show up? She'd certainly have reason to believe she was in danger again."
"That's where all your marvelous personality and charm comes into play," Sylia told him blandly. "I'm sure you'll think of something." She was glad her helmet hid her grin.
"Thanks a lot," Bert muttered to himself.
"Nene, are you okay?" Naoko asked, frowning slightly. Nene looked up from her seat to her freckle-faced, brown haired friend.
"Am I okay?" she repeated, puzzled. "What kind of a question is that?!" Naoko took her pen and tapped a word out on the keyboard, the letters scrolling onto the screen: VISION. Nene gasped, suddenly remembering.
"Oh my God! The concert's tonight!!" Naoko's eyes narrowed in irritation.
"You mean you forgot?!? How could you ...." She stopped, staring in dumbfounded amazement with Nene at the terminal as the computer started bleeping and flashing, suddenly spewing reams of data across the screen. Nene hit the 'print' button, snatching the pages as they came out of the computer. As the last page came out, she jumped up.
"Thanks Naoko!!" she said. "I've got to rush these to Leon, but I'll meet you out front for the concert. Bye!" She ran down the hallway, leaving a confused Naoko to stare after her.
Sylia stood up as Nene quickly reported what she'd found. SkyKnight was stiffly unfolding himself from his slouched position and standing up as she turned towards him. He stretched, towering over her briefly, armour creaking slightly, then relaxed sighing.
"No rest for the weary, eh?" he asked rhetorically.
"You poor thing," Sylia commiserated with patently false sympathy. "Just quit griping and go get her. We'll transmit the location to meet us at to you shortly."
"Roger," he replied, saluting lazily. "Fly the friendly skies with SkyKnight Airlines," he quipped as his wings snapped out. Sylia watched as he vanished into the sky with the howl of jet turbines.
Irene plastered herself against the door with her back to it, wild-eyed. There was some huge silver robot or boomer standing outside, asking for her by name. Oh God, they'd found her, she thought in panic. She had to get away! The only problem was, she didn't know where she could go. Linna's place, perhaps? Her mind raced as she dashed across the room. She heard a voice from outside the door, deep and penetrating.
"Aw come on Irene! I can't stand out here like this forever!" Wanna bet? she thought briefly, flinging clothes into an overnight bag; the door to the apartment she'd been set up in was a reinforced steel door, and the walls were exceptionally strong, too. He could stand there forever as far as she was concerned. She was going out the back way.
"For God's sake, I'm a friend of Linna's!" Yeah right! she thought sarcastically to the figure at the door. I'm sure Linna has lots of machines for friends! She ran a quick, last minute check on her bag.
"I didn't want to do it this way," she heard, "but you're not giving me much choice in the matter." A thunderous impact made the door bulge inwards. Irene dropped her bag in shock and fear as the door was neatly folded over in half by the silver humanoid shape, then crunched into a small wad, and set aside. As the red-eyed thing clanked through the door, she grabbed the fire poker. She didn't have a fireplace, but it was there for decoration. The armoured shape stopped as she tried to look threatening, waving the poker in what she hoped was a menacing manner.
"Don't come any nearer!" she warned. "I don't want to use this!" To her rather intense disgust, the robot almost fell over laughing.
"Oh, this is rich!" it chortled. "A fire poker. WAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!" It straightened up, still snickering. "Please put that down," it said, "I can explain, really, if you'll give me a chance." Irene was torn between outrage at not being taken seriously, and sudden curiosity; she'd suddenly realized that, whatever this thing was, if it had been an assassin sent by GENOM, it wouldn't be trying to talk.
"Start talking," she said, crossing her arms, but still holding on to the poker.
"I'm a friend of Linna's," it repeated, "and I've been sent to pick you up by a lady named Sylia. You know the name, I trust?" She frowned. Linna had mentioned a few times that someone named Sylia had set up the apartment, but had been somewhat evasive about any other details.
"How do I know you're not lying?" she demanded. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
"My name is SkyKnight."
"Never heard of you," she informed him.
"I'm one of the Knight Sabers," he replied obliquely. She frowned again; by now she knew that Linna was a member of the Knight Sabers, but Linna had never mentioned anyone named SkyKnight.
"Supposing that's true, how do you know who I am?" The figure sighed, then reached up, pulling off its helmet. Greenish brown-eyes twinkling with suppressed mirth under a messy crop of short red hair looked back at her. All in all, his face was a fairly honest one, and Irene suddenly found herself willing to trust him, despite the peculiar circumstances.
"Believe it or not, we have met before," he told her. "Unfortunately, at the time you were passed out, and I was carrying you away from an assassin boomer a couple of years ago." His normal voice sounded much nicer than the electronic one, she idly reflected.
"So, you're the one who saved me!" she exclaimed, trying to remember his name. Linna had certainly told her enough about the guy, and what had happened, now what was his name?! She herself had only the vaguest recollection of that terrifying night, but her hazy memory did remember someone resembling him leaping out of the darkness.
"I remember now!" she burst out, "You're Bert, the one Linna keeps saying is crazy!" A pained expression spread across his face.
"I'm going to have to have a chat with her," he muttered to himself, then turned his attention back to Irene. "I do get called that occasionally," he admitted, "but I'm a nice guy, really. I've just got some unique ideas, that's all."
"Like rescuing damsels-in-distress?" she asked curiously. Linna had mentioned that playing the heroic type was one of his pet obsessions.
"What is this?!?!" he suddenly demanded, throwing his arms up, almost dropping his helmet. "Does everyone get told that?!? Okay, so I'm honest, courageous, honourable, and I like to rescue beautiful women from horrible danger. There!! Are you happy now?!" he fumed. He was REALLY going to have to have a chat with Linna, he reflected. Being called crazy was one thing, but she was making him sound like he was Galahad or something. He didn't think he was that bad, or that good, depending on the point of view. Irene suddenly laughed.
"I believe you," she stated, "you certainly fit what I've heard about you."
"Thanks, I think," he said. "Shall we go then?"
"Whoa, wait a minute! Go where? Why?"
"I can explain on the way," he said, slapping his helmet back on. "We're kind of pressed for time right now. Grab a blanket."
"Would you please just tell me what this is about?" she asked again, grabbing a blanket from the next room. What did he need that for? SkyKnight sighed, placing a hand over his faceplate briefly.
"It's about your sister, Reika. She's in town," he said, coming over to her and wrapping the blanket snugly around her. She gasped as he suddenly picked her up in his arms, and carried her out the door, heading for the roof.
"Hey! Wait a minute! What are you doing?! What was that about my sister?! Why are we going to the roof?!" She tried to get loose, but he held on firmly, opening the door to the roof, and stepping out into the afternoon daylight. He was also ignoring her questions.
"If you get airsick," he said, "my advice is to not throw up into the wind." Wings snapped into extension on his back. A high-pitched rising drone came from behind him, and they suddenly began to rise into the air. Jets snarled, and Irene was pushed into his armoured chest by sudden acceleration.
A faint "Heeeeeeeeeelllllp!!" wafted through the air as the silver figure shot into the distance with its passenger.
SkyKnight touched down next to the orange van parked near the end of a wharf. Wings snapped down as he gently lowered the feet of his passenger to the ground. Irene staggered around for a minute, with the blanket hanging on her like a cape. Her short brown hair was a mess, and her brown eyes were wide with fright. She almost looked like she wanted to hug the ground.
Bert grinned briefly to himself; she was a lot quieter now than when they'd started. She'd screamed for almost the first two minutes of flight before calming down, nearly drowning out his flight system noise. Once she'd become quiet, he'd been able to then explain just what the situation was. She'd wanted to be taken directly to Reika, naturally, but that was not an option. She was just going to have to wait it out. He placed a gentle hand under her arm to steady her. She sagged onto it gratefully, and they began walking closer to the van.
"Do you always fly like that?" she asked, shuddering. It was extremely unsettling to be hurtling above the city with nothing around you, she thought. He nodded.
"Yup! It's the only way to travel!"
"I'll stick to the bus, thanks," she told him. He chuckled, then knocked on the side of the van. The door slid open, and a young man with black hair and brown eyes jumped out.
"Irene, this is Mackie. He'll keep an eye on you while I'm off taking care of some business." Mackie grinned and bowed to her, and she smiled back. They helped her into a seat up near the front of the van, which she sank into gratefully; she was still shaky from that express flight. Mackie turned to SkyKnight, pulling two items out of a box by the door and handing them to him; they looked like weapons of some sort. She watched as he clamped the strange looking devices to his shoulders somehow.
"How are things so far?" SkyKnight asked, shrugging to settle his suit into place a little better.
"You'd better get going," Mackie replied. "I think they started the party without you." SkyKnight nodded, then turned around, sprinting for the dock end. Just as he reached it, his wings snapped out and jets roared, spitting him out over the bay towards a distant artificial island.
Linna shoved the crumbled piece of masonry off of her legs and staggered upright, holding her throbbing left arm. Quincy had boobytrapped the battlefield, it seemed, in addition to unleashing some horribly deformed, but immensely powerful boomer on them. Not even Reika's combat mech was having much luck with it, and had already suffered some damage. The mech was backing away from the massive, steely-grey monster, raking it with cannon fire. The boomer advanced with deadly purpose towards the mech. Linna prepared to attack it again when a familiar voice volleyed across the site.
"Gangway! Coming through!!!" she heard. SkyKnight shot into view and smashed into the back of the boomer feet first. He bounced like a tennis ball off of a brick wall, but his impact did make the boomer turn around to attack him. Beady red eyes glared at them from a small, bestial head. Talons speared towards SkyKnight who dodged aside, then plastered the boomer's face with a salvo of laser fire. The boomer snarled in irritation, then tried to grab him.
Bert whipped himself sideways, narrowly avoiding the clutching claws. Damn but this thing was tough! Hitting it had felt like he'd broken his legs, and his laser shots weren't doing anything to its armour plating. The thing was ungodly fast, too; for something huge and heavy looking, it had the reflexes of a cat on drugs. His suit computer threat analysis program had flatly refused to identify the boomer's threat level. Not good, he reflected, dodging another claw swipe. Railgun spikes flashed from behind him, glancing harmlessly off of the creature's metal hide. Twin blue laser beams from the combat mech seared the boomer. It roared defiantly, slamming another claw towards its silver armoured assailant.
SkyKnight suddenly fired his thrusters, lunging forward under the biomechanoid's attack to tackle it at about knee level. He grabbed its leg and revved his jets to full power. They shrieked agonizingly, as he succeeded in shoving the boomer's leg backwards, causing it to tip forward, overbalanced. He swung around to point skywards, still hanging onto the leg, and his jets began to sound even more tortured as the boomer's full weight suddenly came into play. The boomer howled and began thrashing as SkyKnight struggled to keep it off balance. Linna leaped onto it as it thrashed, blasting any section she could reach with her knuckle bomber. Some armour fragments flew, but she still couldn't seriously damage the thing.
"Linna! Get clear!" he ordered. "I'm going to try something." His suit screen flashed the countdown across his vision as Linna leaped clear.
Sylia watched in disbelief as flames suddenly roared from SkyKnight's boots. He'd fired his emergency boosters!! What the hell did he think he was doing?! Incredibly, the massive boomer began to move, dragged by the raw power of the solid fuel boosters. SkyKnight had angled himself in such a way that the two of them began spinning on the spot, with the boomer at the centre of rotation. As they picked up speed, they resembled a massive fireworks pinwheel, with a twenty-foot tongue of flame erupting from the one end. As they spun ever faster, the boomer's body actually began to lift clear of the pavement, lifted by centrifugal force.
The spinning became even more frenzied as the scream of jet turbines being revved beyond their tolerances mixed with the roaring crackle of burning rocket fuel. All the Knight Sabers ducked as the incandescent flames lashed the walls in the narrow street, and even the combat mech backed up a few steps. Sylia was getting dizzy just watching; she wondered how much longer Bert could do it, and just what it was he was trying to do, anyway.
Oh God, I'm gonna be sick!!! Bert thought, clenching his teeth against the rising nausea in his guts, and the whirling vertigo in his head. He only needed a few more seconds to get the momentum he wanted. The strain was brutal though; he was positive that hanging onto the boomer had stretched his arms two feet, and his back was becoming very warm from where his jets were howling like banshees. The world was spinning maniacally; flashing glimpses of walls, his comrades, the blue mech, and the nearby bay flashed through his vision.
Abruptly, as his flashing revolution reached the point where the walls were his next sight, he released the boomer's leg, simultaneously cutting off his rocket boosters and firing his braking thrusters. Physically, the world seemed to stop spinning as his motion stopped with a horrendous lurch and squeal of stressed out jets. Electronics sizzled and spat ominously in his flight system. Mentally at least, his mind still felt like the world was revolving. He fought to focus his thoughts for a moment, and to keep from throwing up in his helmet from dizziness, as the huge boomer went crashing out of control into the building in front of him. It smashed a huge hole in the wall, then crashed through the floor into the basement area.
SkyKnight flipped his gas-plasma lasers to continuous beam mode and fired at the building foundations. Ravening red streams of laser light gouged huge ruts in the building, further weakening it. He swept the beams back and forth, undermining the building. The boomer surged into view, just as all ten floors of the building collapsed, right onto its head. SkyKnight dropped to the ground, staggering around drunkenly as the building roared into a sunken pit of rubble, spewing dust into the air and burying the boomer. Everyone ducked flying bricks, some of them clanging hollowly off the blue mech.
All the other Knight Sabers stared from the weaving and wobbling SkyKnight, who was approaching, to the shifting pile of masonry and girders. Bert tried to walk straight, but his legs refused to co-operate. Priss finally grabbed him, dragging him to a halt.
"Just stand still for a moment, you nutty jackass!" she told him.
"I can't believe you just did that," Linna commented, coming over to them. "You really are crazy!"
"That reminds me," he replied, helmet swinging to regard Linna. "We have to talk later about ....." He broke off, spinning around as a massive claw burst through the rubble.
"Aww SHIT!!" he swore, then added a few expletives reflecting on the boomer's parentage as the battered and dented megaboomer crawled out of the crumbled concrete.
"Well, it was a nice try, anyway," Sylia commented as the Knight Sabers fanned out again. This time, however, the boomer ignored them, charging forward towards the blue mech, swinging its claws. After the first hit, the mech backpedaled furiously, firing its lasers and Gatling cannon, blasting holes in the concrete and pavement. Priss suddenly realized that the sensor pod on the mech's side was a shattered ruin.
"The sucker's blind!!" she shouted. Dashing forward, she fired her jets, swooping over to land on the mech's back. She stuck her right hand into the ruined sensor pod and grabbed the wires. Her screen display flickered briefly, then her suit computer informed her that an interface had been achieved. "Can you see yet?!" she called to the mech's crew. "I'll be your eyes!" The weapons fire abruptly re-aligned on the boomer, indirectly answering her question.
"Reika!!" Linna shouted to the mech, "immobilize the thing!"
"Just get yourself out of here Linna!!" Reika's voice crackled back from a loudspeaker.
"Oh shit!!! Too late!!!" Priss yelled as the mech charged towards them. SkyKnight tried tackling the rampaging mechanoid again, but got stomped into the pavement as it thundered into the mech. The mech's front limbs wrapped around the boomer as it slammed into it. Priss was knocked loose from her perch. Sylia leaped onto the back of the boomer, plunging her arm blade between two armour plates, slashing around inside the boomer's innards. Blue fluid gushed all over. Linna jumped up next; she wound up and drove her knuckle bomber deep into the boomer's body. A massive explosion tore through it, spewing lumps of bio-synthesized flesh onto the pavement, including a lump that looked like a brain.
"Stinking monster!" Linna yelled at it as she landed clear of the explosion. SkyKnight hauled himself out of the boomer's footprint in time to hear Reika say something about a self-destruct device. As he cranked himself upright, the top blew off the mech in a billowing cloud of smoke. One ejection seat, carrying a man in some kind of flight suit shot skyward. The second didn't appear; the boomer had seized the left arm of its occupant.
"REIKA!!!!" Linna screamed. She dove frantically at the mech and began heaving at the claws holding Reika in place. SkyKnight flashed over to hover next to her. Quickly glancing at the terrified Reika and the frantic Linna, he extended his right swordblade, plunging it into the boomer's wrist, severing the tendons and cables operating the claws. Reika fell free to be grabbed by Linna. Both of them soared off rapidly, striving to get clear of the coming blast. Priss grabbed McLaren from the street corner where he'd been hiding and followed them, Sylia right behind them. SkyKnight took one last look at the doomed boomer, and then took off towards safety. A cataclysmic explosion seared the air behind him, hurling him forward even faster with the shockwaves. He fled, just a handsbreadth ahead of the roiling waves of fire that expanded outwards from the center of the explosion.
Linna slapped Reika sharply. Reika's head jerked sideways, then spun back to regard the green hardsuit, anger and pain flaring in her eyes. Kou started forward, but the white hardsuit behind him grabbed his shoulder, shaking its head negatively.
"How long are you going to go on like this?!" Linna demanded angrily. "You're throwing your life away on some stupid, pointless, unnecessary revenge trip!!! Irene is not dead!" Vision shook her head angrily, tears flying from her eyes.
"Why do you keep insisting she's alive?!?" she cried, eyes streaming. "Where is she then?!?!" Linna started to reply, but was interrupted by two familiar voices and the droning whine of a flight system.
"Here we are," SkyKnight was saying, but he was cut off by Irene's shouted "Reika!"
Vision spun around incredulously, her jaw dropping as a battered silver hardsuit dropped to the small island they stood on, and gently dropped a blanket-wrapped Irene to the decking. Yes, it was definitely her sister; she'd recognize Irene's short brown hair and brown eyes anywhere. The blanket dropped to the ground as Irene ran forward to throw her arms around Reika's neck, sobbing in joy.
Bert turned away, smiling to himself, from the two crying women holding each other to look around at the rest of the assembled group. Sylia, Linna and Priss were standing watching the tearful reunion with Kou, who also looked like he wanted to cry himself. Reika's mech technicians were clustered in another corner. McLaren was standing as far away from everyone as possible, looking like he was going to try diving into the water. SkyKnight clanked forward towards him. McLaren spun around, but Bert lunged and grabbed him by the arm, slamming him back against a nearby stone wall fragment.
"Just stay put Mr. Hotshot Boomer Designer," he told him ominously, as a white motor launch pulled up to their island. Leon jumped out as Nene appeared at the rail, followed by a red-haired man who had to be Daley. McLaren lunged forward past Bert towards Leon.
"Thank God you're here!" he gasped. He gestured at the Knight Sabers, Kou and the two sisters. "These are the people who kidnapped me!"
"You lousy, lying bastard!" SkyKnight snarled, flexing his hands and stalking towards the older man. He stopped at a gesture from Sylia. Leon brushed past McLaren, walking towards Reika and Irene. Kou suddenly stepped forwards, extending his arms to Leon.
"I'm the kidnapper," he said simply. "They had nothing to do with it."
"Kou! No!" Reika and Irene exclaimed together, as handcuffs snapped closed behind Leon.
"Richard McLaren, you are under arrest!" Daley informed the startled scientist. He began listing the charges as he dragged the protesting man aboard the boat. Leon turned and saluted the startled girls.
"Ms. Vision, we appreciate your help in arresting this criminal," he stated, a faint smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "In return, we'd like to escort you to your concert, if you will allow us." He waited. Reika looked around at everyone, then back at Leon, eyes brimming again.
"Yes, please!" she whispered, as Irene hugged her again. Leon and Kou got onto the boat as Reika and Irene turned to the Knight Sabers.
"Thank you for everything," Vision told them. "How can we ever thank you?"
"It's not necessary," Linna told them. "We're just happy you're back together."
"Just knock 'em out at your concert," SkyKnight added. Irene suddenly grabbed the silver suit and hugged it. He hugged her back. As she stood back, he swept a deep, courtly bow to Irene and her sister. Over on the boat, Nene rolled her eyes and sighed. SkyKnight straightened up. As he did so, Reika's eyes lit up.
"I know!" she exclaimed. "How would you like to go to the concert? We can sneak you in the back!" The Knight Sabers looked at each other; Sylia shook her head.
"We're not really dressed for it," she began, but Reika interrupted.
"Oh, come on!! There's nobody backstage but my techs, and they've seen you already! We've smuggled in the mech before, and you're a lot smaller. Pleeeeease?!" she tried wheedling. Sylia started to shake her head again, but Bert spoke up.
"It would be an ideal way to keep an eye on them, and make sure nothing else happens," he remarked. Sylia looked at him, then at Vision.
"All right," she sighed reluctantly. "It'll also give us a chance to talk afterwards, I suppose. We do have a few loose ends to tie up. We'll meet you at the docks then." Reika and Irene climbed onto the boat as the Knight Sabers shot into the air towards the dock.
THE NEXT DAY....
A wrench clattered noisily onto a side bench as Bert straightened up from the central worktable. He stretched, his back creaking as his vertebrae popped back into place. The SkyKnight hardsuit was on the table, lying on its front with its jet system open and spread all over the rest of the table. He squinted into the miniature jet turbines, and shook his head, sighing. They were going to have to be rebuilt; he'd managed to cause warps and cracks in most of the turbine blades with his boomer-throwing stunt of the day before. They still worked, sort of, but at a tremendous loss of efficiency. Luckily, he did have a spare set handy. He'd just finished swapping the damaged turbines for their replacements, and was re-tuning the powerplant output to the new turbines when the door to the shop flew open and Linna stormed in, black hair flying, and her blue eyes flashing dangerously. Now what did I do?! he wondered briefly as she stomped up to him.
"I knew it!!" she declared. "I just knew you'd be down here!!! You asshole!!" She was in a real foul mood for some reason. Bert flipped a clean rag over the exposed systems to keep dust and dirt out. He could finish it later, since Linna obviously seemed to feel he had something else he was supposed to be doing.
"What's the problem?" he inquired. "Did I miss a training session or something?" He ducked, startled, as she took a slap at him. "Whoa!!! Wait a minute!! What the hell did I do?!?" She stared at him, still fuming. After a moment, she regained control enough to speak.
"Reika and Irene are upstairs and they'd like to meet you face-to-face for a change, although I don't know why, since you seem to prefer your machines here!" He could almost see smoke rising from her, she was that mad. "Are you trying to avoid them or something?!"
"Now just a minute," Bert cut her off, beginning to get a little steamed himself. "I've only been down here since breakfast, which for me was six A.M., and it's only two o'clock now so I...oh shit! Two o'clock?!" He stared at the wall clock in shock. He'd only meant to work to about eleven; obviously, he'd gotten so involved he'd forgotten what the time was. Linna stood glaring at him, arms crossed. He turned sheepishly to her.
"Ummm, sorry 'bout that," he apologized. "I'll be up just as soon as I get cleaned up." She didn't move.
"I'm watching you until you get up there, otherwise you might backslide," she told him. He sighed. Leaving the shop, he went down the hallway, to the stairs to his room to get cleaned up. Linna trailed after him.
He entered the room, sweeping his still-damp hair out of his eyes, Linna stalking in behind him. Reika and Irene were parked on a couch by the window, Kou was uneasily relaxing in a chair next to them, and Nene, Sylia and Priss were seated in other chairs. Everyone had a drink of some kind within reach, and a small pile of sandwiches sat on a tray in the middle of the coffee table. His stomach rumbled embarrassingly as he came over to them. Sylia was looking at him knowingly.
"He was in the shop, right?" she asked Linna, who nodded, and glared at him again as he turned slightly red.
"I'm sorry, really," he apologized to everyone. "I just lost track of the time."
"So what else is new?" Priss remarked, prompting giggles from the rest of the girls. He glanced at her sourly, but didn't reply. Looking around, he found a mug and filled it with some tea, giving it his usual sugar and milk shots. Everyone waited while he quickly wolfed down four sandwiches in rapid succession, then sat back. Reika and Irene were both watching him with faintly amused expressions, while Kou looked at him appraisingly. Bert figured he was probably remembering their fight of a few days ago.
"Ready to talk now?" Nene asked. She knew him well enough by now to know he hadn't been hiding on purpose, but it was exasperating just the same how he managed to become completely absorbed in whatever he was working on. He grinned at her.
"I think I can last for a while now," he assured her. She shook her head, but smiling.
"I'd like to thank you again for saving Irene," Reika spoke up suddenly. "However belated the thanks might be. You don't know what it means to have her back again."
"That's okay," he assured her. "I'm just glad you're back together."
"We can never really repay you for what you've done," she continued hesitantly, "But we wanted to give you something, at least. Based on what everyone has told us about you so far, we figured this would be the best present." She reached into a pocket, and pulled out an optical data disk in a case and handed it to him. "We didn't have a suit of plate armour and a shield to give you," she deadpanned. "It's some of the engineering data on our combat robot," she told him as he took it. "We didn't include everything, but there should be some stuff on there that will interest you. Don't worry; I cleared it with my grandfather first." Bert stood and bowed to her, stuffing the disk in a pocket, then sitting back down.
"Thank you," he said. "You didn't really need to, but thanks just the same." He couldn't wait to get a look at the disk; the GD-42 had been a fantastic piece of engineering, and he was curious to see what, if anything, could be modified for a hardsuit. That could wait, however.
"Now then," Irene suddenly spoke up, "Since we've never really met before, why don't you tell us about yourself?" Reika nodded in agreement. Bert suddenly grinned crookedly, a sparkle of mischief flaring in his eyes. He cleared his throat, and began speaking in a deep, grandiloquent voice.
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." he began, then dove off the side of his chair as every pillow in the room suddenly launched in his direction. He rolled smoothly to his feet, the picture of innocence. "Was it something I said?" he inquired, receiving several dirty looks in return. He sat down and started over.
"So what are you going to do now?" he asked Reika, taking a swig of tea. He'd finally been able to answer all of their questions. Irene and Reika seemed to share the rest of the Knight Sabers' opinions about some of his heroic ideals, although to a lesser degree, since they had contributed to rescuing Irene. Kou was the only one who hadn't expressed an opinion. Bert figured it was partly because Kou privately approved of some of the concepts; he had his own sense of honour and loyalty, and it was all directed to Reika.
"After this tour is over, I'm going back to my singing," she replied, smiling at Linna. "I had someone talk me into it. Irene's coming back with us where we can keep an eye on her." She elbowed her younger sister, grinning slyly. "It'll also help keep the number of distressed damsels to rescue down for you." Irene blushed slightly, while Bert shook his head, sighing in resignation; it seemed he was stuck with that particular joke for a long time now.
"You'll keep in touch, won't you?" Linna asked anxiously. She hated losing friends.
"Count on it," Vision assured her. "And don't worry about your identities, either; aside from us, no one else will ever know." She looked at Sylia with that last statement. Sylia nodded slightly; she wasn't entirely comfortable with the increased number of people who knew about the Knight Sabers, but given what Vision and Kou had been involved in, she knew they could be trusted to keep secrets.
Bert stood looking out the window absently, sipping his tea, lost in thought as the conversation turned to lighter topics. He was privately glad everything had been resolved regarding Vision, but his mind wouldn't relax. There was one outstanding problem yet to be resolved, and it had been nagging him for days: what to do about the groups trying to bushwhack him. He knew that the fight wasn't over yet, not by a long shot. He was just going to have to wait and see what the future held.
"Never ponder the future, for it comes soon enough," he murmured to himself, turning back to the warmth and companionship of his friends. The future could wait; other things were more important right now.
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|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|