The nighttime breeze rustled the leaves of the trees in a sibilant hissing. Crickets chirped raucously, uncaring of the fact that they were disturbing some of the residents of the area who preferred to sleep during the night. The other denizens of the night quietly went about their routine, scuttling through the grass or flitting through the air.
The usual nighttime sounds were interrupted by the sound of staggering, uneven footsteps. Pained, rasping breathing accompanied a dark shape that was swaying unsteadily through the blackness of the small forest tract. Animals and insects fell silent as the shape passed them, some of the animals immediately fleeing the area in fear of the unknown. The figure paused at the edge of the trees, staring towards a small house where yellow lights burned cheerily in the windows, beckoning. The figure started walking towards the house and tripped, landing heavily on its hands and knees. After several tries, the dark shape regained its feet, and continued to totter towards the house.
Inside the house, a tall young man with red hair and greenish-brown eyes decided to call it a night. Tossing the thick hardcover book he'd been paging through into a nearby chair, he turned off the CD player, and carried a coffee mug into the kitchen. He unceremoniously chucked it into the kitchen sink, adding to the pile of mugs that was slowly growing. He flicked off the kitchen lights and padded back out to the living room, where he started turning off the room lights.
Velvety darkness filled the house, dimly lit by the lights filtering in from outside. As he prepared to go upstairs, he heard a feeble knocking coming from the back door of the house, next to the kitchen. Glancing at the illuminated clock on the wall, he frowned; it was 11:35 PM. Who the hell could it be at this hour? He shrugged, and went to the back door, grabbing a baseball bat from a hallway closet as he went. Placing the bat within easy reach, he unlocked and opened the back door.
With a low, exhausted moan, a figure fell forward heavily into the room. He caught the toppling figure before it could hit the floor, grunting briefly as the dead weight of the strange visitor hit his arms. Panting with exertion, he draped the slack form over one shoulder as he awkwardly closed the kitchen door, and re-locked it. Gasping, he carried the limp body into his living room, and gently placed it on the couch. He ducked back out to the kitchen, and took a quick look around again, grabbing the discarded bat and stuffing it back into its closet. Walking around the room, he whipped all the curtains closed, then walked over to the couch and flipped on a light so he could see his nocturnal visitor.
The light revealed an attractive young woman, about five-foot-ten, with shoulder length dark brown hair. She was slender, but with a full, well-rounded figure. She looked like she'd been through a war; her clothing was torn and ripped, covered in dirt, almost like she'd crawled a few miles to get there. She was wearing a long, dark coat over what looked like a bodysuit of some kind, and blood was soaking the coat at her right shoulder. Her face was scratched and covered with dirt. Her eyes fluttered open as he watched, and he found himself staring into wide golden-brown eyes. With a start, he recognized her.
"Sylvie?!" Bert asked incredulously. "Is that you?!"
The Knight Sabers
Sylvie woke slowly, the sounds of morning activities gradually percolating through her awareness. Where was she? She vaguely remembered trying desperately to reach somewhere safe, and staggering through the darkness. She frowned to herself, forcing herself to remember. She'd made it to a house, and then couldn't remember anything after that.
As she sat up in the bed she was in to try and get her mental bearings, she realized she must have been successful; she was in what was obviously a guest room in someone's house. The bed was a single bed, with white sheets and navy blue blankets. A dresser and mirror were against the far wall, and a padded easy chair was in another corner with a reading lamp. It was obviously a guest room, because it didn't have the distinctive touch that rooms occupied by someone full time gradually acquire.
As she looked at herself, she realized she really must have been unconscious for a long time; she was now wrapped up in an old bathrobe, and some clean clothes had been left piled on the nearby chair. The clock on the dresser read 12:45 PM. Somewhere along the line, she'd been cleaned up and her injuries treated; her right shoulder was now bandaged up, and the pains from it were no more than a minor annoyance now. She also felt refreshed and rested, which made for a pleasant change from her more recent state.
Flipping the blankets off, she got up and got dressed, being careful of her shoulder. The clothes that had been left for her fitted perfectly, although the red and blue motorcycle racing suit was maybe a bit snug across the chest and shoulders. Opening the door, she wandered out and through the house until she found her way downstairs.
"Hi there!" Bert greeted her with grin as she entered, and she smiled wordlessly in reply. He plopped a plateful of bacon and eggs down at her end of the table with some toast and a steaming mug of coffee. She started the coffee first, taking the first few swallows with an air of deep appreciation. With a sigh, she lowered the mug, and started on the food, suddenly aware of just how hungry she actually was.
Bert sat down across from her with a mug of tea and his own, larger plate of food; he'd figured she wouldn't be getting up early, and had postponed his own breakfast until she got up. The net result was he felt like he was starving. He dug into his breakfast, rapidly downing it.
As they ate, he appraised her. Sylvie looked a lot better than when she'd collapsed in his kitchen, but there was a kind of wary nervousness to her that hadn't been there the very first time he'd met her. She hadn't said anything so far, but he was fairly patient. After a few minutes they finished their food, and he refilled her coffee cup, placing the cream and sugar within easy reach.
"Feeling better?" he asked quietly as she settled back with her cup. She looked at him, and could see the unspoken questions in his eyes. She nodded.
"Yes, much better, thanks," she replied. "I guess I owe you an explanation." Her voice was light, soft-sounding and melodious with a somehow alluring quality to it.
"I'd appreciate it," he confirmed. "Last night wasn't exactly the way I'd pictured meeting you again." She sighed, turning pensive.
"I need your help," she told him. An eyebrow twitched upwards in surprise.
"I'll help if I can, but first I think you'd better tell me what the problem is."
"Someone's trying to kill or capture me," she told him. He frowned, taking a swig of his tea.
"I think you'd better start at the beginning," he suggested. "Tell me what's happened, and when it started, and we'll take it from there." She nodded, taking a sip from her mug.
"It started about a week or two ago," she told him. "At first I thought I was being paranoid, because I kept seeing this black car around. I couldn't think of why anyone would be following me, so I ignored it. Then, about four days ago, a woman who looks like me was grabbed right off the street I was living on by these men in a black car, one like the car I'd seen. She turned up in a hospital two days ago, but her memory of what happened is gone, completely. It was when I noticed from the picture in the paper that she looked a lot like me that I began to get uneasy. Last night, I got home to find the apartment smashed up and overturned, and someone took a shot at me. That was how my shoulder got hurt, although the bullet went through without causing major harm. I got away, and I tried to get here. I guess I made it."
"You made it," he confirmed wryly. "Although the condition you were in, you wouldn't have gotten much farther." He decided not to mention to her that he wasn't always staying out in the suburbs; she didn't need to know that luck had played a large part in her actually finding someone in the house. He was silent a moment longer, ruminating, then he looked her straight in the eye.
"Don't take this the wrong way, but why me?" he queried.
"You're the only knight-in-shining-armour I know," she deadpanned, and Bert rolled his eyes. She'd picked up on that little joke of Priss', and liked to use it fairly often. "Besides," she continued, "you were also the closest person I knew. And I can't go to the police, for obvious reasons."
"True," he conceded. If the cops somehow found out she was a 33-S sexaroid (God how he hated that term; she was a person, not a thing!), then they'd probably be trying to kill her in the next instant. The 33-S series were all supposed to have been destroyed. His head suddenly snapped up.
"You said the apartment was trashed; where was Anri?"
"I don't know. I think she's already been taken," she replied levelly, although he could see the effort it was taking her to remain calm. Sylvie and Anri were almost inseparable, a closeness born out of their common origin and experiences, and having to rely on each other to survive when they'd first arrived in MegaTokyo. He leaned across the table and squeezed her arm reassuringly.
"Don't worry. We'll find her." He suddenly grinned crookedly, a sly twinkle appearing in his eyes. "Remember, rescuing distressed damsels is my specialty." Sylvie laughed then, shedding a portion of her worry as she did so. He grinned again at her as she quieted down.
"Well, you've certainly helped this damsel often enough," she quipped. "Thanks for the clean clothes and such."
"No problem," he replied, flushing bright red. Sylvie looked at him, a sudden sly smile appearing; she knew exactly why he was blushing. He was shy around women, and having to clean her up last night when she was unconscious must have been really uncomfortable for him. He was a nice enough guy, she reflected briefly, he just had a rather stiff and somewhat old-fashioned sense of propriety.
"Does Nene know you're spending your nights with other women?" she teased him impishly. He turned even redder, and didn't reply. She quit prodding him, and returned to a less sensitive subject.
"Where'd you get the clothes, anyway?" she asked.
"Priss borrows the house from time to time when she wants 'to get away from it all', and she left some clothes here. You two are a pretty close match in height and weight, so I figured they'd fit." Silence fell for a few moments.
"So what do we do now?" she asked.
"We go and see Sylia," he replied. "She's got contacts I can only dream of; she should be able to find out what's going on. I've already phoned her and told her we're coming over."
"Thanks. I appreciate the help."
"No true knight would do less," he replied, straight-faced, making her roll her eyes. They both stood up, and Bert dropped the dishes into the dishwasher. Quickly stuffing the other dishes in, he started the washer up. Sylvie followed him out to the front of the house, where he grabbed a baseball cap and beat-up jean jacket from off of a suit of armour in the hallway, and put them on.
"Hang on a sec," he told her. "I'll tell Sylia we're leaving now."
"Do you always check in like this?" she asked curiously.
"I do now," he remarked wryly. "It's a long story." He picked up the receiver and tucked it under his chin as he dialed. He was halfway through the number as he realized there was no dial tone. The line was dead.
"Uh-oh," he muttered, suspicion flaring into life. He dropped the phone, and whipped over to a front window, scanning the outside scenery through a gap in the curtain. Sylvie began to get worried.
"What is it?" she asked anxiously, coming over to him.
"I think they've followed you," he replied tensely. "There's some guys sneaking around to the back in the bushes, and there's the tail end of a black car beyond the trees there. Damn! This complicates things a bit."
"What do you mean by 'complicates'?" she asked, heart beginning to pound uneasily. He didn't reply. Running over to the brick fireplace at the end of the living room, he opened a concealed panel, and flipped a couple of switches, and then sealed the panel shut again. Sylvie couldn't even see where to open it. A muffled thud reverberated throughout the house.
"I just sealed off my workshop," he told her. "If they do get in and search the place, they won't find anything."
"What are you going to do?"
"We're leaving," he told her. He went over to the hall closet, and pulled something tubular out of a jacket pocket, and stuffed it inside his coat. "How fast can you run twenty feet?"
"Pretty fast. Why?"
"We've got to sprint to my truck," he told her, taking another quick look at the back door. Still no one in immediate sight. "You run for the passenger side."
"We're not going to be able to outrun them in that thing," she objected flatly.
"Priss hasn't told you about my truck, has she? That's not a normal pickup truck anymore, trust me on that."
"How do you know they haven't fooled with it?"
"Because none of the alarms have gone off."
"Okay, when I say 'run' you run like hell for the truck and don't worry about me, okay?" She nodded, and he got set to open the front door. He pulled another small pair of gadgets from another pocket.
"Smoke bombs," he explained tersely. "They'll give us a few seconds of cover." There were another few moments of nerve-wracking waiting.
"RUN!" he barked, jerking open the door. Sylvie shot through and pounded towards the truck as a couple of soft 'whooomp' noises behind her sent thick sooty clouds of smoke billowing into the air. Bert was right behind her an instant later, almost passing her. She dodged around the truck, wrenching open the door and diving in just as he piled in behind the wheel. About ten men in dark outfits waving guns of some kind came running around from the back of the house.
"Get your seatbelt on and lock the door," Bert directed her as the engine snarled into life. Cranking the truck into gear, he floored the accelerator and wrenched the wheel sideways. The truck spun in a very tight circle, wheels sending rocks from the gravel laneway flying through the air. As he floored the gas pedal, the charging men started firing. The red truck leaped forward, engine roaring defiantly, away from them. Sylvie flinched as a couple of bullets whined off the back window, then looked at the glass. There wasn't a mark anywhere.
"I told you this wasn't a normal truck anymore," he reminded her, as they shot past the black car that tried to block them in. Bert squealed the truck onto the street, and began racing away, trying to get to the main highways of MegaTokyo.
"What else can it do?" she asked, glancing behind them again. A second black car had joined the first one, and they were preparing to follow. Bert grinned tightly.
"Watch," he replied. He tabbed a dashboard switch. Immediately, the dials in the dashboard flipped around to reveal LED displays and readouts. A small radar screen hopped out of what Sylvie had taken for the ashtray. A row of buttons in a panel labeled "Nifty Tricks" dropped out of the bottom of the dashboard next to the steering wheel, and a computer display screen of some kind popped out of the glove compartment. The screen lit up, displaying an image of the pursuing cars. Statistics on their pursuers scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
"I'm impressed," she told him. "Is that it?"
"Not quite." The black cars were very rapidly catching up. Bert flipped a switch marked 'Turbo', and immediately the truck engine began to sound like an enraged animal of some kind. With a roar just short of deafening, the truck seemed to blast forward like a shot from a gun. Sylvie was almost positive they actually left the ground for a few seconds. The truck left the black cars in its wake as it shot onto the on-ramp for the cross-city highway.
"They're still back there!" Sylvie reported in stunned disbelief. The black cars had indeed kept pace, and were gaining. Irritation flickered across Bert's face; he hadn't thought there were other vehicles around that could match his. He'd have to fix that, later. Multiple blurs flashed past the sides of his vision as he began weaving in and out of the main traffic flows.
"Let's see how they like this, then," he remarked. He hit a button on the 'Nifty Tricks' panel, and a launch tube of some kind popped up from the floor in the back box of the truck. Sylvie watched as targeting crosshair appeared on the lead car in the computer screen. With a dull thud, the launcher spat what looked like a pop can at the car; the can burst, covering the car's windshield with a bright red coat of paint. The car promptly lost control as the driver lost his vision, and smashed into the retaining wall, spinning around and rolling over several times. It came to a halt in a mangled heap. Luckily, the other drivers on the road avoided the wreck. The remaining black car continued to pursue.
"One down," he observed, weaving and darting among the slower vehicles. Sylvie was gripping the door handle and her seatbelt with a white-knuckled grasp; the speedometer readout said 275 Km/hour, and she certainly believed it. They were shooting past the other cars like they were standing still. The black car was keeping pace.
"These guys are serious," Bert commented. "Not many people have cars that souped-up."
"I think we already knew they were serious," Sylvie retorted tartly. "If they weren't, they wouldn't have shot at us."
"Sorry," he apologized. He tabbed the launch switch again, and another projectile arced through the air. This time however, someone leaned out the window and blasted the paint grenade with a handgun before it could hit the car. It splattered in the air harmlessly, missing the car as the gunman pulled his arm back inside. Bert whistled to himself; these guys were good.
He shifted the gears higher, into top gear and began to pull away. As he did so, what looked like a fifty-caliber minigun hopped out of the front hood of the pursuing car.
"Oh SHIT!" Bert and Sylvie exclaimed together at exactly the same time. Bert wrenched the truck sideways as a burst of fire from the car tore through the air. His truck was bulletproofed, yes, but not against that size of ammunition!
"Another thing on my list of 'things to do'," he muttered to himself, flicking a glance at the status readouts on the dashboard.
"I don't know why we're driving around here," Daley complained as Leon pulled over into the passing lane. "Nothing ever happens on the highways anymore. Why do you bother? Come on , Leon, surely we can find something better to do?!"
"I like driving around," Leon replied shortly. "As for nothing happening, I.....what the hell?!?!" The ADP car rocked violently in the backwash of a flying red pickup truck that flashed past. Leon stared, stunned, at the radar readout. That truck had been doing 325! It also bore a vague resemblance to a red pickup truck that periodically outran the Highway Patrol cars. Just as he started to pursue the speeder, a black car howled past, almost at the same speed. The black car had what looked like a cannon mounted on the hood.
"Nothing ever happens anymore, huh?" Leon remarked sarcastically. He floored the accelerator, and pushed the buttons for the car's pursuit mode. Instantly, airscoops opened on the hood, and airfoils on the back and sides of the car snapped into place. Sirens blaring, Leon threw the ADP pursuit car after the two road racers, trying to catch up. As they drew nearer, Daley called in the occurrence, requesting some backup; vehicles this modified weren't going to be easy to catch. The speedometer gradually crept up, and Leon finally maxed the car out at 310 Km/hr, which was just enough to stay even with the black car. Just as the police car pulled even, the muzzle of a VERY big rifle of some kind stuck out the rear window.
"Oh SHIT!!!!" Leon swore, wrenching the car sideways, away from the armed car. The gun bellowed, tearing a hole through the side of the hood of the squad car. Leon fought valiantly to keep the car under control, as the engine died and the car lost all power. Smoke and flames poured briefly out of the hole in the hood.
Stomping hard on the brakes, Leon swerved around, desperately trying to avoid hitting other innocent motorists. Tires squealed tormentedly, and the world spun around crazily. Crash balloons burst open as they slammed into the highway retaining wall and came to a bone-jarring halt, the front end of the car being smashed into crumpled tinfoil. Silence fell for a few moments, broken only by the hiss of air escaping from the crash bags, and the background rumble of unconcerned motorists as they continued to drive by. Leon looked over at Daley, who was pulling himself out of the dashboard crash balloon.
"Oh yeah," he remarked again disgustedly. "Nothing ever happens around here."
"What a bloody cold-blooded bunch of bastards," Bert remarked, clenching his teeth in helpless anger as he watched their pursuers calmly shoot an ADP car off the road. His truck was at its top speed at the moment, and the black car was still keeping pace.
"I think we've got problems," Sylvie said. "I think we're going to run out of main highway before long." She'd caught a quick glimpse of a sign as they'd rushed past. Bert nodded.
"I'm going to try something," he warned her. "Brace yourself." They were getting closer to an off-ramp to somewhere. As they got nearer, he hit another switch; instantly, a dense smoke cloud billowed out from behind the truck. Within seconds, the entire highway behind them was wreathed in black smoke. The instant the black car was lost to sight, Bert whipped over to the off-ramp, tromping hard on the brake pedal; antilocking brakes kicked in, almost standing the truck on its front bumper. Sylvie gave a strangled gasp as the seatbelt tried to hang her when she lurched forward from the steep deceleration. Bert hung on grimly, watching the mirrors and display screens. As he watched, the black car shot past, continuing on down the highway. Like he'd hoped, they had missed his maneuver in the smoke, and were too far gone to correct their path now. Getting off the main highway, the red truck quickly vanished into the maze of downtown buildings.
"Thanks," Sylvie said, accepting a large mug of coffee from Sylia as she sat down. Her hands were trembling slightly as she drank. Bert appeared to be taking everything calmly in stride; his hands were steady as he slurped at his drink. Sylia sat down, thoughtfully regarding them. She was cool and beautiful looking, as usual, with her black hair perfectly in place and wearing a crisp white blouse and dark skirt. She was about to start speaking, when Priss burst through the door. Priss was dressed, as was normal for her, in her red motorcycle racing outfit, with her hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her eyes lit up when she saw who was in the room.
"Sylvie!" she exclaimed delightedly, flinging her motorcycle helmet into a chair. Sylvie's face lit up with an equally pleased smile. Dropping her mug onto the table, she and Priss hugged briefly, before sitting back down. Priss dropped into a chair next to her.
"So what's going on?" Priss asked, red-brown eyes curious. "Sylia called and said I should get over here right away."
"It's a long story," Bert remarked from the couch. There was a faint grin on his face, as he looked at them both.
"We've got time," Sylia told him. "Why don't you start from the beginning?"
"Yes Ma'am," he replied, mock-saluting. He and Sylvie spent the next few minutes relating everything that had happened recently, occasionally pointing out some small point the other had missed. When it was all over, Priss had a kind of stunned look on her face; what she'd just heard sounded more like part of a spy movie than real. Sylia suddenly smirked, looking at Sylvie.
"You have my sympathies," she told her. "I'd wondered why your hands were shaking, but if you got to experience him driving, then I understand perfectly." Priss burst out laughing, almost falling out of the chair as Bert looked irate.
"I like that," he said indignantly. "I risk my life and truck getting her to safety, and all I get is insults!"
"And I do appreciate your efforts," Sylvie told him wryly. "But next time, couldn't we take the bus? I think I aged ten years during that ride."
"It could have been worse," Priss informed her. "If he'd offered to use 'The WarHorse', then you could really start worrying."
"The WarHorse? What's that?"
"It's a flying machine he whipped up," Priss told her. "It goes with his hardsuit. Basically it's a jet engine with wings." She shuddered; she liked speed, but not that much that she wanted to be speeding at a few hundred feet off the ground. She gave Sylvie a quick synopsis of the first time she'd gone for a ride with him on the jetcycle. Sylvie looked faintly green when she was finished the description of his aerial maneuvering. Bert muttered something irritably to himself, and glared briefly at Priss, but didn't say anything out loud. Contemplative silence fell for a few moments.
"Well," Sylia said finally. "I'll make some discreet inquiries and see what I can find out, about Anri and about your pursuers. The question now is, where are you going to stay? You'd better lay low, too," she added, looking at Bert. "Whoever these people are, they'll be looking for you, too." He nodded distractedly, mind obviously elsewhere. Sylvie shoved him in the ribs, and he jerked slightly.
"Hm? What were you saying, Sylia?" She sighed.
"Pay attention," she told him irritably. "I said you'd better lay low, too."
"Mmhm," he mumbled in reply, eyes turning distant again.
"Earth to SkyKnight," Sylia snapped, really annoyed now. "What the hell is the matter with you?" He seemed to shake himself, and his gaze cleared as he looked at her.
"I was just thinking about those cars that chased us," he said. "Those kinds of modified vehicles don't come cheap, or legally for that matter. There's very few places that can handle that kind of work, so I thought I'd look into that end of things a bit."
"They may have done the work themselves," she pointed out. "These people seem to be very well-armed and equipped, so it's not beyond the realm of probability."
"True, I suppose," he admitted reluctantly.
"I'm so glad you agree," she said sarcastically. "However, you are staying under cover. Do you hear me? They're sure to be looking for you now in addition to Sylvie, so you and your truck are staying hidden. End of discussion."
"There is another possible course of action," he pointed out quietly.
"And that is?"
"We could let them catch me," he replied. "You could follow along, and then we'd be able to find out where they are and just what they're up to."
"No. It's too risky, and you're not cut out for undercover work. You'll just have to wait and see what happens."
"Excuse me, but do I get a say in any of this?" Sylvie asked, somewhat testily. As if on cue, Priss, Sylia and Bert all looked at her.
"NO!" they chorused, grinning.
Bert led the way down to his basement apartment, Priss and Sylvie in tow. It had been decided that Sylvie was bunking in the basement level with him; there was less of a chance that someone might see her than if she stayed upstairs. It looked like he was going to be on the couch again for a while.
He sighed to himself. He wasn't overly comfortable with the idea of her staying at his place, but he wasn't about to say anything. His unease wasn't from any dislike of her, but more from the fact that she always unsettled him; Sylvie was extremely attractive, and moved with an unconscious, almost sensuous grace all the time that prompted the occasional less-than-pure thought to crop up. It wasn't intentional on her part, but it was disconcerting.
As they walked along, the two women were discussing recent events and comparing notes on what they'd been up to, but he wasn't really paying attention. His own mind was out in orbit somewhere, trying to make sense of everything that had happened that morning, and come up with a plausible reason for it. Sylia hadn't offered any opinions on the events, which was standard procedure for her; she wasn't as prone to speculation as he was. He sighed disgustedly, and gave up trying to figure out what was going on. There were just too many unknowns at the moment. Somebody elbowing him in the ribs jerked his attention back to the present.
"Pay attention, will you?" Priss told him irritably. "Not getting enough sleep lately, or something?"
"Sorry. What did you want?"
"I said, what are you doing for dinner tonight?"
"Not a hell of a lot," he sighed. "If we're laying low, we can't exactly eat out. I'll pull some stuff from the freezer and thaw it out."
"Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all. You should know by now that you don't need to ask that."
"Well I wouldn't want to interrupt any deep, intimate conversations you two might want to have."
"Pardon?!?!" Bert looked at Priss, stunned, and saw lurking gleams of amusement in the backs of her eyes. Sylvie was trying to hide a smile, without much success.
"Well, you two did spend last night together, right?" Priss asked. "I thought maybe you'd want to pick up where you left off." Bert turned bright, flaming red.
"I ... what... you... Nothing happened!" he spluttered. "We didn't leave off anywhere!! What did you tell her?!?!" he demanded of Sylvie, who was now grinning hugely. Priss burst out laughing.
"The look on your face," she chortled, shaking her head. "What's the matter? Guilty conscience?"
"None of your damn business," he muttered, flushing again. Priss became slightly more serious, reaching over and nudging him in the ribs.
"Relax, will you? I'm only teasing," she told him.
"I don't like to joke about things like that," he said stiffly. She sighed, swapping an exasperated glance with Sylvie.
"You can be such a stuck-up, stick-in-the-mud at times," Priss told him. "Just because you feel attracted to Sylvie, or anyone else for that matter, doesn't mean you're being unfaithful to Nene, or something." Bert didn't reply; he didn't want to stick his foot in his mouth with an incautious remark. Besides, this particular line of conversation was not something he liked to discuss openly. He was normally shy around women, and their candor on this subject was extremely unsettling.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Priss prodded, grinning. "You do find her attractive, right?"
"I'd have to be blind not to," he replied shortly. "For that matter, the both of you are very good-looking women."
"Why, thank you. I didn't think you'd noticed," Priss said blandly. "I thought you only looked at hardsuits most of the time."
"Damn it, go take a bloody flying leap somewhere," he shot back, agitated. "Leave me alone."
"You don't have to worry about anything happening," Sylvie tried reassuring him. "I like you, but not that much." She suddenly looked contrite. "Oh, I'm sorry! That didn't come out right! I meant ..."
"Let's just drop the subject, okay?" he suggested in a pained tone.
A week passed, relatively uneventfully. Bert divided his time between some projects he had on the go in the tech shop, and keeping Sylvie company. She wasn't technically inclined, and watching him build or test things had become boring to her very quickly. He hadn't really noticed her restiveness, until she threatened to brain him with a pipewrench if he didn't at least talk to her occasionally; he still wasn't very good at picking up on the subtleties of other people's behaviour, especially women. He'd apologized profusely, and started keeping her company more often, even going so far as to show her a few basics about archery to pass the time.
Priss dropped by fairly often, sometimes with Linna, which helped somewhat in keeping Sylvie occupied. Nene even showed up a few times, although her work schedule lately hadn't allowed much time for anything else. Bert usually managed to find an excuse to get out of the room whenever the women started giggling together; he knew it was only a matter of time before they started teasing him about having Sylvie in his apartment. To his undying disgust, even Nene had gotten in on the act, which made things even worse, of course.
Damn it, why can't they just let it drop?, he thought irritably as he slapped a wrench down on the workbench next to him. They all knew he was not comfortable discussing his feelings, especially deeper-seated ones that were private as far as he was concerned. Despite that, they persisted in bugging him about it, almost like they were hoping he'd snap. He yanked his mind off the subject before he could start fuming about the situation.
Snatching a portable diagnostic scanner from the workbench, he ran a last scan on his hardsuit, which was standing upright in the center of the shop. According to the readout, everything was fine. He hadn't modified anything or added new systems this time, but had given the suit the equivalent of a tune-up. With all the strange goings-on lately, he didn't want to be modifying something and then get caught without a suit. As he shut down the scanner, the phone rang. Walking over to a nearby table, he pulled the phone out from under the blueprint pile on top of it and picked up the receiver.
"Quit playing down there, you twit," Sylia's voice told him irritably. "You're late for the weekly meeting, again."
"Sorry," he apologized. "I guess I lost track of the time."
"What else is new? Just get up here, now."
"Yes, O most lovely and forgiving of bosses," he replied extravagantly, smirking to himself. Sylia hung up without replying. "Some people have no sense of humour," he remarked to his suit as he left. The SkyKnight suit stood quietly, light reflecting from its polished surfaces as the door closed.
"I wish I had better news to report," Sylia sighed. "Unfortunately, I don't. Whoever these people are, they're very clever. I wasn't able to find out anything at all about who they might be, where they are, that sort of thing." She sat down in her chair, looking across at Sylvie sympathetically. "I couldn't find anything out about Anri's whereabouts, either. I'm sorry."
Sylvie nodded, biting her lip, as traces of tears gathered in her eyes; she'd lasted most of the week by clinging to the hope that Sylia could find out something, anything at all about Anri. Bert wordlessly passed her a clean handkerchief, and she swabbed at her eyes with it, as Priss put an arm around her shoulders to offer some comfort. Gloomy silence sank over everything for a few moments. Bert looked over at Sylia.
"I know you weren't thrilled at my idea of a week ago," he said, "but don't you think it might be worth a try now?"
"It's too dangerous," she told him flatly. "They might just opt to kill you rather than waste the time it might take in forcing answers out of you. I'm not willing to take that risk."
"What about if I go out into the open again?" Sylvie suddenly asked. "I'm the one they're really after, after all."
"It's your decision," Sylia said reluctantly. "But personally, I'd rather wait a bit longer and see if we can't turn up something."
"I can't wait anymore!" Sylvie protested in an anguished tone. "I've got to do something!! Anri's in trouble and I've got to help her!!" Sylia sat quietly for a few moments, thinking, then she looked at Sylvie and sighed again.
"All right," she conceded. "We'll have to think up some way of tracking you, though, and work up some kind of plan to approach this. I ...."
"I'm going with her," Bert announced quietly. Everyone's gaze swung to stare at him.
"Didn't we just finish this conversation a minute ago?" Sylia asked crossly. "You're not cut out for covert work, so just forget it!"
"We can't let her go out by herself," he replied calmly. "Besides, I'm the one who helped her escape the last time, so they'll probably expect to find us together."
"This is another one of those 'noble knight to the rescue' responses, isn't it?" Nene asked resignedly. A sheepish grin appeared on his face.
"Partly," he admitted. "It's also partly that Sylvie's a friend, and I don't like the idea of her going out there by herself."
"She can take care of herself a lot better than you can," Linna told him. It was a true enough statement; Sylvie was stronger and more agile than the average human, and she had a couple of other unique abilities as well. Stubbornness suddenly reared its ugly head.
"Look," he said flatly, "I'm concerned about her, and I want to go along. Topping that off, those bastards shot at my truck, and I'd like to find out for myself just what's so important that they'd try armed and armoured cars on the highways."
"Hey, if anyone should be going with her, I should be," Priss stated.
"No good," Bert replied, shaking his head. "If an unknown third person were to show up, they might smell the trap and just open fire."
"There's a pretty good chance of that happening now," Priss retorted hotly. Sylia held up a hand to forestall any replies; Bert and Priss could start arguing about something at the drop of a hat, and she really didn't want the hassle right now.
"I'll let you know my decision later," she announced. "Right now, I think I need a few minutes alone with our 'noble knight' here." Bert sat impassively, not responding to her remark as everyone left. Nene shot him a worried glance. He flashed her a quick, reassuring smile then turned his attention to Sylia as the door to the room closed. She looked back at him for a few minutes as the silence in the room seemed to become oppressive.
"Just what do you think you're trying to prove here?" she asked him finally.
"Nothing at all," he replied quietly. "I told you the truth: I'm concerned about Sylvie and I don't like sending her off without backup."
"The term 'backup' implies that you'll be together in whatever situation arises. That might not be the case; they might decide to just kill you and take Sylvie."
"That's a possibility," he conceded. "I don't think they will, though."
"You're risking your life on a theory."
"We do that all the time with the hardsuits."
"This is just a little different, damn it!" she snapped. "At least with the hardsuits, you've got the armour between you and any screwups. You won't have that luxury if you push ahead with this; this is deadly serious business."
"I am aware of that," he retorted irritably. "I'm not as blind as you all seem to think I am."
"You do realize that, if they do capture you, they'll probably question you? I trust I don't have to draw you any pictures of what that could entail." He nodded, but didn't reply. "Doesn't that scare you at all?" she queried. "I know it scares the hell out of me, and I'm not the one thinking of going along on this."
"It scares me a lot, too," he admitted quietly. He didn't need descriptions of what interrogation techniques might be used; he'd heard enough about some of them to know he never wanted to have to go through them. He wasn't sure just what his tolerance for something like that would be, either. "But this is something I have to follow through on. I'm already involved; just from the fact that Sylvie came to my place, they've probably got my house staked out right now. If I want them off my back, then I've got to go through with this." He looked at Sylia seriously; greenish-brown eyes met brown ones for a long moment. In her eyes, he could see the worry and concern over him she was hiding. In his eyes, she could see the fact that he was indeed scared of what might happen. She could also see the stubborn determination to go through with it anyway. She briefly wondered if that made him brave, or merely foolhardy.
"All right," she sighed. "You're going with her, then. We'll think up a plan later tonight. I'd tell you to be careful, but in this case I'd be wasting my breath."
"As much as I can, I will be careful," he promised her.
"I suppose that's something, anyway," she replied tiredly. "Go on, get out of here for now. I'll call you later on." He nodded, and quietly left.
When he got downstairs, he found his apartment was deserted except for Nene; everyone else was mysteriously absent. Dressed in her trim ADP uniform, she was pacing the floor like she was trying to wear a groove in the carpeting. Her long red hair was slightly awry, and her emerald-green eyes were wild with worry. She flew into his arms the instant he stepped through the door.
"Please don't do this!" she pleaded, grabbing his arms by the elbows. "It's too dangerous!! You don't have to prove anything!"
"I wish people would quit telling me that," he remarked sourly. "I know it's dangerous, and I'm not trying to prove anything. It's just something I have to do."
"Why?!" she demanded. "Why do you have to do it?! Is it to prove what a noble, heroic person you are?!"
"Nothing like that," he replied patiently. "I'm just helping out a friend."
"Helping out a friend doesn't mean you have to risk being killed!"
"I'll be fine. Don't worry so much."
"I can't help it!!" she cried, eyes suddenly brimming. "I love you, you stupid jerk!! I don't want to lose you because you had to go charging off to the rescue, trying to live up to your stupid chivalric ideals!!" She burst into tears, and he hugged her to his chest while she cried. After a while, she stopped, sniffling slightly. He dug out another clean handkerchief and handed it to her. He looked down at her fondly for a moment, his own eyes a trifle moist-looking.
"And I love you, too," he told her, bending over and kissing her lightly on the lips. "I don't want to lose you either, but I can't just sidestep this; my conscience won't allow it. Sylvie and Anri need help, and I've got to follow through on what I've already done. Believe me, I'm not as calm as I look about the prospect of doing it; in fact, it's scaring the hell out of me."
"Well then why go through with it?" she asked plaintively.
"Because I have to," he repeated. "I know it's a lousy answer, but it's just one of those things, I guess. I'll be careful, I promise."
"You'd better come back okay," she told him tearfully. "What am I going to do if you don't?" He didn't answer that thorny question; instead he gathered her up in a passionate embrace and gave her a long kiss. They stood like that for a while, each holding the other, drawing some measure of comfort and strength from one another.
The red pickup truck moved easily down the highway, keeping up with the flow of nighttime traffic. After several minutes of cross-city travel, the truck took the off-ramp leading to the outskirts and suburbs of MegaTokyo.
"You don't have to do this, you know," Sylvie told him as they drove through the darkened streets. She was dressed in a form-fitting white, blue, and yellow motorcycle suit identical to the one she'd been wearing before, the first time he'd met her. The fact that she looked stunning was helping to keep his mind off of worrying about how dangerous things were going to get.
"If someone else says that to me just once more, I'm going to scream," Bert told her flatly. All of the other Knight Sabers, from Sylia on down, had tried to talk him out of accompanying Sylvie, and each one had said almost exactly the same thing. It was Nene's impassioned pleas that had actually disturbed him the most, waking him up to the fact of what he really stood to lose if something went wrong. The thought had been in the back of his mind, but she'd managed to bring it vividly to the forefront. He wasn't sure he'd needed the extra concerns, though; he was already jumpy enough about what might happen. Nevertheless, he was going through with it.
"You're a friend," he told her. "I always help out my friends. Period. End of discussion."
"Sorry," she apologized. "I just don't ..."
"Don't want me to get hurt because of you. Right."
"I'm serious!" she protested.
"So am I," he replied. "Please, stop worrying about my welfare. I've already got enough people doing that for me," he remarked dryly. He flicked a quick glance at his rearview mirrors; nothing was back there that shouldn't be there. He shifted to a lower gear, slowing down to the proper speed limits for a residential area.
As they moved further out, the houses began to get more and more spaced out, with the dark shapes of trees filling the gaps. This particular suburb of MegaTokyo was not a cheap place to live; with the crowding of the main city, land was at a premium, especially land that was near a wilderness area. This particular residential district had been developed with an eye towards keeping it reasonably natural-looking, which was one of the reasons he'd invested in a few acres here. The quietness of the area was very relaxing. It probably wasn't going to stay quiet much longer though, at least, not tonight.
"I envy you, actually," Sylvie told him quietly. "You're being very calm about this."
"It's all an act, believe me," he replied wryly. "Right now I'm so scared, that I've got enough nervous energy to power the city." Sylvie giggled a little at his comparison.
"I'm scared too," she replied absently, looking out the window at the darkness. "Mostly I'm scared of losing my freedom. Whoever these people are, they obviously intend to take that away." He flicked a quick glance at her; her expression was tight and stiff.
"Don't worry," he tried assuring her. "We're not about to let that happen." The entrance to the laneway to his home come into view. "Okay," he breathed. "Here goes nothing."
Bert switched off the headlights as he turned into the driveway. The truck carefully crept up the driveway, the engine purring quietly, gravel scrunching under the tires. In the gloomy semi-darkness, everything looked quiet and normal. Appearances could be deceiving, however.
Sylia had decided the best option for flushing out their pursuers would be to go back to his house; they were bound to be watching it. Arriving quietly under the cover of darkness would make it look like they were attempting to sneak in to get something out of the house before leaving, and would undoubtedly draw out the enemy.
The next step was in allowing himself and Sylvie to be captured; if everything went according to plan, the remainder of the Knight Sabers would covertly trail them to wherever their enemies' base of operations was. With luck, they could then stage a rescue and find out what was going on. The only problem was that there were a great many unknowns that could throw a wrench into the plans.
"Can you see all right?" Sylvie suddenly asked. Her vision was much better than the average person's, where his sight was limited to the normal human visual range.
"I'm fine," he assured her. He could see enough to get by, and he knew exactly how the layout of the property ran; he could have driven around the area blindfolded. He stopped the truck short of the front steps, and turned off the engine. Thick silence seemed to settle over everything as the last rumbles from under the hood died.
They got out of the truck warily, closing the doors softly, and cautiously sneaking up to the front door. A cursory glance didn't reveal anything out of the ordinary, and he opened it. Hinges squealed slightly as it swung inwards, and they stepped through, closing the door behind them.
"Doesn't look like anyone's been here since we left," Sylvie whispered to him. The silence around was so absolute; even her whispering sounded loud.
"I'm afraid they're out there, though," he whispered back. "Listen." Sylvie listened, but couldn't hear a thing. It was completely still outside.
"I don't hear anything."
"Precisely; we should be able to hear the crickets outside, at least. That means somebody's hiding in the bushes."
"Well, it's not like we didn't expect it."
"Right," he agreed. "Well, time to get on with the show."
"You too." He gave her arm a quick, reassuring squeeze, and drifted quietly down the hallway to the stairs leading up, as she glided off to check some of the other downstairs rooms. He was positive his heartbeat was echoing off the walls; he was so nervous, it was pounding like a runaway racehorse.
He moved cautiously up the stairs, avoiding the ones he knew creaked under his weight. At the top he paused again, listening. It was utterly, eerily silent, and it was really giving him the creeps. Drawing a careful breath, he moved towards his bedroom. Still nothing happened.
Entering the room, he scooped a duffel bag out of the closet, moving on feel, and his memory of where everything was located. He was stuffing a few clothes in the bag, making it look like he was getting ready to leave for a while, when there was an outcry of some kind from downstairs, followed by a muffled thud. His pulse immediately jackhammered higher, as he crept back towards the stairs.
As he approached the stairs, there was a rustle behind him, like cloth rubbing on cloth. Bracing himself for the inevitable, he started to turn around. Something crashed into him, and white lights flared agonizingly in his sight, before fading to a blackness even deeper than the night's darkness.
Several stealthy shapes quietly flitted down the back steps of the house, carrying what looked like two bodies. They were dressed completely in black, and difficult to see in the dim lighting. After carrying the two still forms through the small forested tract of land behind the house, the shapes unloaded their burdens into the back of a dark, nondescript van. Some of the disguised figures climbed into the back with them, while the rest turned and vanished into the trees. The truck engine silently revved into life, and the van moved slowly away.
After the van pulled away, another stealthy figure rose from the bushes on the outskirts of the trees nearby where it had been concealed. Light flashed briefly off of blue-painted armour as Priss launched into the air on silenced thruster jets.
Thunderous crashing noises accompanied by sheets of blinding pain assailed Bert as he slowly regained consciousness. As his hazy senses became more aware of his surroundings, he realized the pain and noises were side-effects of the massive headache he had now. His head throbbed evilly as he lay there, trying to regain some measure of strength. Good God, what the hell had they hit him with?! The back of his skull felt extremely sore, like they'd slugged him with a club or something. The magnitude of the headache that was a result was enough to turn his mouth dry and make him feel like he was going to throw up, and he really didn't want to try moving.
Other elements of his situation began to gradually intrude on his awareness. He was laying face-down on something. There was a cool, slick-feeling surface underneath him. Trying to open his eyes intensified the pain waves, but he persevered. Through his slitted eyes he could see metal flooring. The vibrations coming from the floor meant that they were in a vehicle of some kind, a van probably.
As he tried shifting imperceptibly, he became aware that his hands were tied tightly behind his back, and apparently his feet were also bound. This is not good, he noted to himself. He'd been hoping they wouldn't bother tying him up, but obviously, whoever his captors were, they were taking no chances. He gritted his teeth, and tried to roll over to see what was going on. As he rolled over, a booted foot slammed numbingly into his stomach.
"Just lie still and maybe we won't hurt you," a cold voice told him, as he lay there gasping and retching, trying to get his breath back. Through waves of nausea, he could see four, black-clad figures seated on benches along the van wall; all of them had guns of some kind. Across from him on the floor, he could see Sylvie. She looked unharmed, but was still unconscious. She was also bound hand and foot. She was also blindfolded, which struck him as strange, until he remembered what she could do with her eyes if she felt like it. That thought made him tighten up inside; if they knew enough to blindfold her, then it meant that they knew exactly what she was. The man who had kicked him drew back his foot again, when one of the others stopped him.
"Just leave him be, for now," he told the other one. "Our orders are to get them unharmed, and that includes roughing them up. There'll be time for that later if they don't cooperate."
What have I gotten myself into?, Bert asked himself, lying back and trying to will his headache into submission. He closed his eyes and worked at controlling the vague beginnings of panic that were beginning to form, as the van continued on towards its destination.
"They're entering the warehouse district now," Nene's voice reported over Sylia's helmet communicator. "Still no problems with the beacon." Sylia acknowledged her report, and the channel cut off.
Glancing at the display screen in front of her, Sylia sighed to herself, adjusting the flight controls slightly. So far, everything was going the way they'd planned; Bert and Sylvie had been grabbed, and Priss had followed them as far as she was able to. According to Priss' report, they had appeared to be unharmed at the time. Sylia, Linna, and Nene in the KnightWing had picked up where Priss left off pursuing the van when it had exceeded her flight system range; The sensors in the KnightWing could track the vehicle from very long distances, making it highly unlikely that the ship would be spotted by the van's occupants. They couldn't see the van themselves, but Priss had managed to get a radio beacon transmitter stuck to the inside of the rear bumper of the van earlier, and the KnightWing was following the signal.
They flew along quietly for a few more minutes. The silence was a combination of tense nerves, and worry over the events occurring. Sylia was quietly praying that nothing would happen, but at the same time she was getting a very uneasy feeling.
"Uh, Sylia?" Nene's voice came over the channel, sounding very uncertain. Sylia's stomach dropped; it couldn't be good news, not when she sounded like that.
"Yes? What is it, Nene?"
"We have a problem: something's starting to block the signal." Sylia's stomach sank even lower; she hated when she was right about things like this.
"Blocking it how?"
"Interference from something, maybe a power source down there. Whatever it is, the signal's getting weaker and I'm losing it." Nene sounded like she was trying desperately to keep from panicking; keys could be heard clattering furiously in the background as Nene tried re-configuring the computers to screen out the interference and keep a lock on the signal. Sylia waited, a kind of despairing dread gnawing at her guts. The key clattering stopped.
"I've lost them!!" Nene wailed. "I can't get any signal at all now!!" The dread turned to shards of icy fear that stabbed at her innards. For a few moments, Sylia's mind was blank as she tried to come up with some kind of a plan.
"Can't we fly around until we pick up the signal again?" Linna's voice inquired.
"Only for a little while longer," Sylia replied wearily. "We don't have the fuel for a prolonged flight, and besides, we don't have much night left. We're going to become visible in another couple of hours, and they'd notice a strange airplane circling around."
"So what are we going to do?" Nene quavered. Sylia couldn't blame her for being worried; her own feelings right now were less than pleasant, and she was keeping them contained by sheer force of willpower right now.
"For now, we're going to have to do a general sweep of the area," she replied. "Tomorrow night, we'll be able to narrow the area down and look for them in a smaller area."
"Tomorrow night?!" Nene protested. "But anything could happen between now and then! They could be killed! They could be ...."
"I know that," Sylia cut her off quietly, but firmly. "And they knew that something might happen that could screw things up, but they chose to accept that possibility. I'm sorry, but that's all we can do for now. I don't like it either, but that's the way it has to be. Getting hysterical won't help them, either." The line was silent for a few moments.
"Yes, Sylia," Nene replied quietly. "I'll get back to trying to locate the signal."
The KnightWing flew onwards into the brightening sky, searching.
Bert couldn't really see much as he was dragged feetfirst out of the back of the van. Inky darkness masked the entire area they were in. From some of the echoes he could hear, he guessed they might be in a large warehouse or abandoned factory of some kind. His captors half-carried, half-dragged him across the open floor to a side door, opened it, and pulled him through into what looked like a storeroom. Behind him, he could hear them doing the same thing to Sylvie. He was more than a little concerned about her now, because she hadn't yet regained consciousness.
He was dumped into a straight-backed chair, and had to fight to keep from falling off of it onto the floor; with his hands and feet tied, his balance wasn't the greatest. A dull, heavy thud from the corner announced that they'd just dropped Sylvie onto the floor. He gritted his teeth at their treatment of her, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. He was just going to have to get used to that fact, for now. He flexed his hands experimentally; the ropes were tight enough that his hands were turning numb, and he was getting a little worried. He wasn't going to be able to get loose anytime soon, that much was for damn sure.
Footsteps approaching from the doorway drew his attention, slow and purposeful. Whoever was coming walked like they owned the place, so it was a pretty good bet that he was about to meet whoever was in charge. Lights flashed on, forcing him to shut his eyes momentarily as they tried to adjust to the new lighting levels. Eyes watering, he squinted in the direction of the doorway.
There were two people, actually. The first man was fairly tall, blond, with a muscular-looking build, in a grey suit and tie. His steely blue eyes flicked over Bert, and the recumbent Sylvie, evaluating them, although his gaze seemed to linger on Sylvie the longest. The second man was BIG. He stood about six-foot-six, and was extremely broad-shouldered. He had black hair, and was wearing sunglasses with a dark suit; the guy had 'bodyguard' written all over him, and his size coupled with the sunglasses meant he was probably a C-55 boomer. Marvelous. The blond man's gaze swung back to meet Bert's.
"We're so glad you could join us," the man remarked. He had a cool, suave voice that seemed to be utterly devoid of feeling.
"It was a little difficult turning down your gracious invitation," Bert replied dryly, looking around the room. It was a bare-walled, slightly dusty storeroom, with no furniture other than the chair he was in, and one other one. A grimy fluorescent lightbulb in the ceiling was providing the light. A faint smile twitched at the man's mouth, then disappeared.
"I can see we're going to have some interesting conversations," he observed.
"I think so. Oh, you probably won't want to talk for the first little while, but that won't be a problem for too long, I should think." Bert suppressed the shudder that tried to shake him; he knew what this suited creep meant, all right. The jerk in the suit turned towards the small group of black-clad men who were standing at attention by the far wall.
"Take the sexaroid down to the lab; the doctor will want a look at it." He flashed an appraising glance at Bert. "I don't think I'll need anything else just yet." They saluted, and picked up Sylvie's body, dragging her out the door, and away. The grey suited man pulled up another chair, and sat down in it about five feet away from Bert, well out of reach of anything he might try. The boomer bodyguard moved to flank his location. Blue eyes stared at him intently for a few moments.
"I'm surprised, actually," the man remarked. "I figured you'd be another boomer, after helping the 33-S to escape from us the first time. Most normal people know better than to get involved with them."
"Her name is Sylvie."
" 'Her'? Try 'it'; it may look female, but it isn't. Sexaroids are a boomer with somewhat limited uses."
"That why you wanted her? Not having any luck with human women?" The man's face turned absolutely vicious for a moment, then became a calm mask again.
"I wouldn't get too smart-mouthed if I were you. I think you know what uses I'm referring to; I don't think you could be this involved and not know what they're capable of."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Sylvie's a friend, and just a friend. She needed help, and I provided it."
"How can anyone be friends with a programmed automaton? It's only a machine."
"She's got a hell of a lot more humanity than some people I could name."
"All right, I think we've pretty well covered that subject," the man said glacially. "I want to know who you work for."
"You obviously work for some kind of secret organization; that truck you escaped in is not your standard, run-of-the mill vehicle. That means you have some impressive, and rich, backing. I'm not going to ask again: Who are you working for?"
"None of your goddamn business." A resigned look covered the face of the blond-haired man, and he stood up from his chair. He stepped to the door, and muttered something to a guard standing outside the door. The guard left, and the grey-suited man turned back towards Bert.
"I'd hoped you'd be willing to be reasonable, and spare us the extra trouble of having to persuade you that it's really in your best interests to talk. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case." The door behind him opened, and another black-clad man appeared, carrying some more rope.
"Make sure he's secured," the suit told the new arrival. "We don't want him falling off the chair." The man nodded, and quickly tied Bert tightly to the chair with the coil of rope. Bert's stomach started crawling around in his guts uneasily; it was one thing to say you weren't worried about possible torture, but quite another to be actually facing it.
As he watched, a second man, brown-haired and wearing a white lab coat shoved a small cart through the doorway. On the cart was what looked like a stereo amplifier unit, and it was attached to two batteries of some kind. Wires ending in adhesive tape stick-on electrodes hung from the front of the unit, and it was with a sick, sinking sense of certainty that he realized what they were going to do. The blond-haired suit watched him with a self-satisfied smirk as the cart was wheeled over to someplace behind him.
"Feel like talking yet?" he inquired politely, as the technician in the lab coat stuck an electrode on each of his temples. Bert glared at him.
"Go screw yourself, asshole," he retorted. The suit shrugged, and gave a signal. The room disappeared in a white haze of searing agony.
Somebody screaming in pain jerked Sylvie awake. Her confused mind floundered for a moment as she fought to organize her thoughts. It was when she tried sitting up to take a look at her surroundings that she realized that they had been captured after all, and that she was in serious trouble. She was strapped down on a table, arms at her sides, tightly enough that she couldn't even squirm too much; her body was held down at the ankles, waist, wrists and shoulders by what felt like metal straps.
Her panicking mind noted that she was also blindfolded. Not being able to see was more demoralizing than anything else she could think of; she was already powerless to prevent whatever her captors, whoever they were, were going to do, but not even being able to see what was going to happen was even more upsetting. Her imagination wasn't helping her stay calm, either; it was inventing all kinds of possibilities that were making her skin crawl.
Another hoarse, agonized yell from somewhere in the building made her start, although the way she was secured turned it into more of a twitch. After a moment, she recognized the voice; it was Bert, and it sounded like they were really working him over. She clenched her teeth in sudden, helpless fury, and strained at her bonds again. It was a futile effort; they wouldn't budge. There was a rustle of cloth from off to her left.
"Ah, it's awake," a cold, clinical voice noted. She had an instant mental image of a wizened old man in a lab coat.
"All right, let's start the examination then," a second voice ordered. It was younger sounding, but no less cold and detached. As she wondered what they were talking about, a hand pushed down on her blindfold, keeping it in place, as another pair of hands slid under it, and placed what felt like sticky tape on each of her temples. Electrodes, she realized, as she felt wires being attached to them. The pressing hand on her blindfold withdrew.
"Where do the other ones go?" the younger man queried.
"Where else?" the older voice replied. Sylvie felt hands suddenly unzipping her bike suit, and opening the front, exposing her chest. She tried pulling free again, vainly. When she tried opening her mouth to yell, to scream, to just protest somehow, a wad of foul-tasting cloth was rammed roughly into her mouth. Tears began to soak into the blindfold as she lay there, gagged and completely helpless while the scientists examined her body, poking and prodding her, and stuck electrodes on her chest and stomach.
"Pretty good emotional emulation program," the young voice noted. "Even looks like she's crying."
"Who gives a damn about that? We're not here to evaluate their programming. Just start scanning. And quit drooling over the view; it's a machine, you perverted jackass."
Sylvie continued to cry quietly as what sounded like computers began to hum in the background, not quite drowning out the sounds of someone in pain down the hall.
"Who are you working for?"
"Go... hang... yourself .... you rat-faced .... AAARRRRRGGH!!" Bert convulsed again as the technician behind him hit the switch on the controller/amplifier once more, searing him with electricity. The chair creaked slightly as his straining muscles pulled at the ropes, and spots danced in his tortured vision. The current shut off, and he sagged limply in the chair, twitching, and sucking air into his lungs in gasping sobs. Red flashes still flickered in his sight.
He wasn't sure how long the interrogation had been going on, but it felt like forever. The only constant in the world right now was pain. The crashing headache he had now made his earlier one feel like a minor annoyance; it was a wild, roaring storm of hammering pulsebeats that stabbed agony at every interval. Every single muscle was sore, shooting fiery pains into him from the stretching and straining they'd received under the electrical attack. His heart pounded loudly in his ears, and he thought it was acting erratically at times, but wasn't sure he wasn't just hallucinating. He felt utterly lousy; even if he wasn't tied up, he didn't think he'd be able to crawl, let alone walk, ten feet at the moment.
"All right, that's enough for now," the grey-suited leader directed disgustedly. "We don't want to kill him yet. Untie him and dump him in a cell; we'll continue this later. Oh, make sure he's got water. We wouldn't want him dying of dehydration on us, now would we?"
"You useless shitheaded ratbag," Bert spat weakly. "You're real brave, torturing someone when they can't defend themselves." He was ignored; the leader turned and left, followed by his hulking bodyguard.
Two black-clad guards cut him loose from the chair, yanked off the electrodes, and dragged him out of the room. Bert kept his eyes squeezed closed, teeth clenched against the stabbing pains pounding incessantly at his temples as they dragged him several metres down from the storeroom to another door. He was dimly aware of being carted through a corridor to another small room. The guards stood him in the doorway to the room, and cut loose his hands and feet. When they shoved him forward, he collapsed bonelessly on the floor as the door shut. A click and some snapping noises announced that the door had been locked.
After a few moments, he gathered what little strength remained to him, and crawled awkwardly over to the cot in the corner of the room. Getting onto it drained his last few reserves, and he passed out, flopping limply forward onto the bare mattress.
Sylia walked into the data control room to find Nene still there. The slender, red-haired computer expert was poring over a computerized map of the industrial area where they'd lost track of the signal from the van. Her hair was a disheveled mess, and her emerald-green eyes were slightly bloodshot-looking, with dark circles under them; she looked like she hadn't slept in days, even though it had been only several hours. Sylia suddenly realized that Nene hadn't gone home after they'd gotten back the night before, but had spent the entire time since then at the computer.
"Nene, what on earth are you doing?" she asked, walking over to the computer. Nene started guiltily, looking over at Sylia.
"I'm trying to figure out where they might have gone, based on where I lost the signal," she replied, sounding worn and tired. Sylia leaned over, and gently took the light pen she was using to mark the map away from her. Setting it over to the side, she shut off the monitor.
"You need sleep," she told the red-haired girl. "Passing out at the computer isn't going to help them."
"I've got to figure it out! It's my fault we lost them!"
"Oh no, not another one!" Sylia sighed, slapping a hand to her forehead. "You're starting to sound like Bert," she told Nene. "He's usually blaming himself if something doesn't work right. It's not your fault, Nene. These things happen; technology isn't foolproof."
"But I've got to do something!!" she cried. "I can't just sit and do nothing!!" She burst into tears, and Sylia gently embraced her until she stopped. She straightened up, pulling Nene up out of her chair. She brushed her red hair back out of her face, smiling at her.
"I'm worried, too," she told Nene, "but we can't let it rule what we do. Now come upstairs, have a cup of tea, and then get some sleep for a few hours. We're going searching again tonight."
Sylia steered the tired girl out the door, flicking off the lights as they left the room.
"So how did the interrogation go?" The speaker was a middle-aged man in dark blue fatigues, with grey-black hair in a crew cut.
"Wonderful," the blond, grey-suited man snorted. "I think I've learned a few new swear words from it all. Whoever he is, he's got quite a vocabulary."
"Wouldn't talk, eh?" an older man in a white lab coat guessed. Pale blue eyes regarded the other men, as he stuck a pipe into his mouth, and slowly stoked it into life. The older man had iron-grey hair in a shaggy haircut, and was fairly gaunt-looking.
"Nope. Stubborn bastard, that one is."
"It won't last. This method of persuasion is very effective," the middle-aged man shrugged.
"Do we have the time to spare?" the white-coated scientist asked. "I'm almost done examining the sexaroids, and we can start fairly soon on the modifications, but time is of the essence here. We've got to be out of here and back at the main base before our activity becomes noticeable." He sat back, puffing on his pipe. A bluish-grey haze began to wreath the area where he was seated.
"I don't think we'll have to wait much longer," the grey-suited man replied, shifting away from the dense smoke cloud that was forming. "He's putting on a 'tough guy' act, but I don't think it'll last much longer. Speaking of him, what did the search teams find at his place?"
"Nothing," the crew-cut man replied. "Absolutely zip. The house looks like it might have a basement area, but we can't find it. There wasn't anything else out of the ordinary, either."
"What about that device?" the scientist asked. "Any ideas?"
"Device?" the blond man asked. The crew-cut man gestured impatiently.
"We found some kind of weird cylindrical thing in a toolbox at his house, but there's no switches or anything. We got power readings from it, so there's a battery in there somewhere, but we can't figure out what it's for." He jerked a thumb at the pipe-smoking scientist. "We gave it to Doc to play with."
"Speaking of playing, what about the sexaroids?" the grey-suited man asked.
"Watch your mouth, Hollister," the fatigue-clad man warned. Doc chuckled.
"Relax, Hiro," he soothed. "My colleague is the one who's drooling on the floor right now; seeing naked machines doesn't turn my crank."
"I always said Yamada was weird."
"If we can get back to my question?" Hollister asked irritably. Doc grinned around his pipestem.
"To answer your question, the brown-haired one already seems to have the parts necessary to linking with our systems; the green-haired one doesn't. It won't be a great hardship to install them, though." Doc frowned suddenly. "The funny thing is, they've both been modified so that they're no longer dependent on human plasma. Their internal blood supply is now completely self-regulating and regenerating. Whoever dreamed up how to fix the usual 33-S blood problem is a genius." Hollister whistled in surprise.
"That's a serious compliment, coming from you," he noted. "Can you undo it, though? We need them dependent on an outside source to keep them under control."
"Quit trying to tell me the obvious," Doc grunted, sucking on his pipe. "It shouldn't be too hard to do." His tone was hesitant, however. Hiro looked at him, raising an eyebrow.
"There's a slim possibility that reversing the process might kill them. Have you got a ready supply of 33-S sexaroids if it does?"
He awoke slowly, stiffly. His headache had subsided to a dull pounding, and his muscles were now only stiff instead of on fire. He carefully sat up, and immediately regretted it. He felt light-headed, and the room swam around in his vision sickeningly. Bert sat there on the edge of the cot for a moment, holding his head in his hands, gathering his thoughts from wherever they'd fled to. God, he felt awful. He'd never had a hangover before, but he was willing to bet what he had right now was a close second; his head felt like it was twice its normal size, and his stomach was lurching around uneasily.
He stared around at the small room; it was small, about ten feet by ten feet, with the cot, and a small table. Both were bolted to the floor, and there was nothing else in the room that could be converted to a weapon of some kind. The only other object in the room was a bucket in a corner, and the faint reek coming from it made it obvious what it was meant for.
He checked the room visually again, carefully this time, looking for a possible escape route. The examination didn't take long, and he gave up in disgust. There was no air vent panel in the room, so there was no chance of getting out of there through a ventilation shaft. The only door to the room was metal-clad, impervious to anything he could try. He was stuck, at least until someone opened the door.
He stood up, testing just how lousy he felt. The room swam a bit more, but his head was clearing, and he could actually move around a bit now. He noticed that there was what looked like a jar of water and a sandwich on the table. Despite his immediate suspicion of the food, his snarling stomach forced him over to have a look at it. It smelled normal; at least, nothing had been added that he could detect by smell. His stomach roared again, and he quickly devoured the food. The sandwich was on the stale side, and the water was lukewarm, but it tasted better than anything else he could think of at the moment. The brief meal also improved how he felt overall, although he was willing to bet a great deal of it was psychological only.
Bert sat back down on the cot, trying to fight off the fear that was beginning to hover at the edges of his mind. He was in very serious trouble here, and it could only get worse. It would probably be only a matter of time before they came to interrogate him again, and he definitely didn't want to go through another session. The vague flashes he remembered of the last time made him break out in a cold sweat and shudder uncontrollably. It was without a doubt the worst ordeal he'd ever had to endure, and he wasn't sure he'd last another one. He had to escape, somehow, get Sylvie, and get out.
He found himself wishing for his hardsuit with an intensity that was alarming; he'd never realized before just how much he relied on his suit, partly for the hardware, and also partly for the psychological boost it provided. To a certain extent, his personality did change slightly whenever he donned the armour, mostly because he had a large degree of confidence in the defenses it provided. In the armour, he became SkyKnight in total, a silver-clad heroic knight. Outside of the armour, he was a more normal person, with normal abilities. Not having the suit, especially now, made him feel helpless and exposed; he was down to relying on his own skills, strengths, and abilities. Oh yeah, he was in deep trouble.
He sat there, waiting, trying to come up with some kind of plan.
"Out of the question," Doc retorted testily. "I'll need at least another ten to twelve hours before I can start on modifying the sexaroids."
"What's the hold up?" Hiro asked, equally irritably, sparks flickering in his blue-grey eyes. "I though you said it was easy to install and modify the parts."
"You're forgetting that sexaroids have much more biological equipment than other boomers; this isn't just some old computer system where we can swap circuit boards. We have to finish fully scanning and mapping their systems before we try anything. If we don't, there is a very good chance they'll shut down and die." Doc sat back, sticking his pipe between his teeth, moodily puffing it into life again. Hiro ran a hand through his hair disgustedly, and sighed.
"All right, fine," he grumbled. "I'll give you twelve hours."
"Oh thank you, thank you, thank you," Doc said acidly. "I don't want to rub it in, but you didn't really have a choice in the matter, remember?" Hiro didn't reply; their orders stated that Doc had final authority in anything relating to the boomers, but that didn't mean he had to like it. A heavy, disgruntled silence fell over the room briefly. At length, Hollister sighed, and sat up from where he'd been slouched over in a chair.
"What do we do with our uncooperative guest?" he inquired.
"Work him over some more," Hiro directed. "If he won't talk...." he shrugged carelessly.
"If he won't talk, I don't want him summarily executed," Doc put in. The other men in the room looked at him.
"I know I'm going to hate the answer, but why not?" Hollister queried. "Alive, he's a liability."
"We can use him as a test subject for some of our projects. We don't exactly have volunteers lining up at the door, you know."
The door to the small room swung open. Two black-clothed guards, wearing light helmets of some kind, stepped into the room. After a quick glance around, they stepped over to the cot next to the far wall, each of them grabbing an arm on the limp, red-haired form sprawled on it. They dragged the slack form out the door, down the hall, and out into the central area of the building. Carrying their burden, they walked down the outside wall several metres to another door and opened it, dragging the limp body they were carrying through it into the small storeroom beyond.
Just as they shut the door to the room, the supposedly unconscious body they'd been carrying became violently alive. Bert yanked his right arm free of the grasp of the startled guard holding it, and smashed a fist into the throat of the guard on the left; the guard collapsed choking and gagging, immediately and completely out of the fight. The remaining guard quickly realized what was happening, and attacked with his own punches, attempting to subdue him before he could get the upper hand. The red-haired figure ducked two swings, then slammed the chair he'd grabbed onto the guard's head in an overhand swing that cracked the man's helmet; the guard dropped without a sound into a crumpled heap. Bert set the chair down, and quickly checked the pulses of the comatose men, sighing in relief when he found one. Straightening up, he turned towards the door.
The door burst open as he turned towards it, and a dark moving blur flashed through. Bert was grabbed by the neck and hoisted easily off his feet before he could even blink. As he pulled vainly at the iron grip around his neck that was slowly strangling him, he could see the impassive face of the blond man's bodyguard at the other end of the massive arm holding him. There was a faint red glow visible behind the lenses of the guard's sunglasses, revealing the fact that the guard was actually a boomer. Damn it, Bert snarled mentally, pulling again at the choking grip, it figures that they'd have a boomer around! After everything that he'd survived as one of the Knight Sabers, he was going to get strangled by a boomer. Kind of ironic, actually. As he hung there suspended from the boomer's arm, slowly strangling, the grey-suited man walked in through the door, a smug smile on his face.
"I suppose I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't tried to escape at least once," he remarked. He gestured, and the boomer threw Bert into the nearby chair, the force of the throw knocking the chair over backwards, sending him crashing to the ground. Lights burst in his brain as his head smacked into the concrete floor, and he rolled groggily over, trying to get up. The boomer picked him up again, and slammed him back into the chair with enough force to rattle his teeth.
It held him on the chair, one hand painfully clamped onto his shoulder, as two more guards came in, carried out the unconscious ones, and came back in with a couple of lengths of rope. Bert's mouth turned dry, and he began to sweat as they began re-tying him to the chair. The grey-suited man watched, smirking the whole time. If I get the chance asshole, Bert promised him silently, I'm going to wipe that smirk off of your face. At the moment, though, the chances of that happening were looking exceedingly small.
The boomer released its clenched grip on his shoulder, and walked back over to stand by the door. Bert tugged lightly at the ropes as the guards stepped back; they were tight, but he felt there might be enough slack to get a hand free eventually, although what to do then was the next problem. The guards saluted the grey-suited man.
"The prisoner is secure, Mr. Hollister," the one reported. Hollister nodded impatiently, and the black-clad men left. As they left, the brown-haired technician in the white lab coat who'd been zapping him before came in, wheeling the small cart carrying the electrical controller in front of him. Oh God, please, a voice in the back of his mind whimpered, not that again!! He pulled again at the ropes, trying not to look like he was squirming. Hollister was regarding him with an amused expression.
"We don't have to do this, you know," Hollister told him. "All you have to do is tell me who you are, who you're working for, and just why you were helping out the sexaroid."
"I told you," Bert replied, trying to keep his voice steady, "Sylvie's a friend. As for the rest, that's on a need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know." He was not going to expose the Knight Sabers, no matter what happened. Besides, he was sure they were going to fry him anyway, so he figured he might as well make a smart remark while he was still able. His heart began pounding harder as he felt the technician behind him stick the electrodes onto his temples again.
"This is your last chance, buddy," Hollister warned, his voice becoming glacial. "Either you talk now, or you're in for a lot of pain."
"You're no buddy of mine, you sick bastard. Go hang yourself."
"Have it your way, then," Hollister shot back, flicking a hand signal to the white-coated technician.
Once more, the room dissolved into a white-hot fog of screaming agony.
"They're at it again," the younger-sounding voice remarked, as the voice of somebody howling in pain cut through the air.
"Naturally," the older voice responded. "We've got to find out what, if anything, the guy knows, and this is the only way we have available right now." The voices fell silent, the only noise in the room becoming the background hum of lab equipment, and the clatter of someone inputting data on a keyboard.
Oh my God, what are they doing to him?! Sylvie thought despairingly, as she heard Bert screaming again. She was still blindfolded, and still strapped to the table. She had no idea how long they'd been prisoners, but it felt like days. She was becoming stiff and sore from being held in one position for a long time, and not being able to move to alleviate the stiffness was maddening. The gag was also still in place; they'd taped it in, preventing her from spitting it out. The taste of the thing was awful, but she didn't dare allow herself to throw up, or she'd choke.
"Had any luck with that gizmo they found at his place?"
"Nope," the older scientist replied. "It's giving off energy of some kind, but I can't figure out anything else; we don't have the right equipment for fully analyzing it here. It'll just have to wait, I guess."
"What about the sexaroids?"
"We're supposed to install the linkage parts in the other one later tonight."
Other one? They must mean Anri! Sylvie felt a momentary flash of relief to know that Anri was all right, for the moment at least. What had the scientists meant about 'linkage parts', though?
"It's strange that this one already has the parts for superweapon synchronization," the younger voice remarked. Sylvie suddenly realized with horror what they intended to do: they were going to stick the necessary parts for linking to weapons systems in Anri, and turn her into some kind of monster under their control. Her already dry mouth turned dryer, and her stomach seemed to shrink, as she realized the same fate was also in store for her. She began to squirm desperately, trying to get loose. She didn't want to lose her freedom, and the thought of being enslaved in such a way was worse than her current situation.
"It's not so strange, really. Before the sexaroids were mostly destroyed, many of them had the synchronization parts already. It's not beyond the realm of probability that some of them escaped the initial crackdown."
"True, I guess," the younger voice conceded. "What are we going to do about their blood supply?"
"We're going to try and reverse the regenerative processes at the same time as we implant the linkage parts. Then we modify the brown-haired one's blood supply."
In the back of her mind, Sylvie began screaming.
"This is the area of the warehouse district we're going to concentrate on," Sylia said, pointing to a circled area on the map of MegaTokyo. "Nene did some calculations, and this is the most likely area for them to have taken Sylvie and Bert." Sylia took a quick glance at Nene; she was still dozing in an armchair.
"How are we going to do it?" Priss asked, frowning at the map. That was a lot of area to cover in one night.
"You and Linna will be covering the ground on your motoroids, and Nene and I will be scanning from the KnightWing. Nene came up with a filter program that should eliminate the background emissions that drowned out our locator beacon the last time, and the motoroids will have it in their sensor packages as well. I don't like splitting the team up like this, but it will increase our chances of finding them."
"Is there any chance Bert or Sylvie could signal us?" Linna asked. Sylia shrugged helplessly.
"That would be the perfect way to find them," she replied. "The only problem is that they'd need access to a radio or something, and I doubt the kidnappers are going to give them one." Gloomy silence sank over the room for a moment, as everyone present was momentarily lost in their own worries. At length, Sylia stood up, and looked around at them.
"Well, we're not going to get anywhere sitting here, so let's roll," she said. She gently nudged Nene awake, and the Knight Sabers left to begin searching again.
"That's enough for now," Hollister directed. The technician nodded, and turned off the power. The red-haired figure tied to the chair slumped forward, breathing in shuddering gasps. Bert raised his head from where it had flopped forward to when they'd shut off the power, and fixed the blond-haired man with a murderous, if bloodshot, glare. Hollister appeared unaffected.
"Leave him here," he directed. "We'll work him over again in a couple of hours; we don't have the time to wait any longer." The technician nodded silently and left, followed by the guards. Hollister was the last to leave, casting a last glance at Bert.
"You'd better re-consider not telling us what we want to know," he advised him. "You're not going to last much longer." He left, followed by his bodyguard, and the door slammed shut.
"I'm going to last a hell of a lot longer than you are, bastard," Bert muttered thickly to himself. He felt worse than ever, which wasn't really surprising, given the circumstances. However, despite that, he had to escape, and he had to do it fast; Hollister was right about him not being able to take much more. He closed his eyes, took several deep breaths, and began working at pulling his hands loose. Sweat broke out again on his forehead, partly from the effort, and partly from trying to withstand the blasts of pain stabbing inside his head as he struggled. The ropes had loosened slightly while they'd been interrogating him, and there was the slim chance that he'd be able to get free.
After several more minutes of heartbreaking struggle, he finally succeeded in pulling his right hand free; the left followed shortly afterwards. He shrugged off the ropes holding his upper body to the chair, and bent over to untie his feet. It was difficult concentrating on the task at hand, but he persevered. As he worked the last ropes loose, he realized his hands were covered in blood; in pulling his hands loose, he'd really rubbed the skin raw, and it was bleeding now. He'd worry about that later, he told himself; right now, getting away with the rest of his skin intact was the larger concern.
Bert took another deep breath, and stood up, very promptly falling over to land in a heap on the floor. Swearing at his body under his breath, he lay there for a moment, praying nobody outside had heard anything that might bring in guards to have a look. It took several more minutes of trying, but he finally was able to get to his feet, and walk towards the door. His motion wasn't perfect, however; he was swaying like a sailor just after shore leave as he lurched in the direction of the exit. He gritted his teeth, as his stomach suddenly flipped, and managed to keep from throwing up. He had to pull himself together; he could feel time slipping away from him like sand through his fingers, and it wouldn't be much longer before Hollister and the others came back.
He leaned against the wall next to the door, trying to breathe quietly, listening; it didn't sound like there was anyone outside the door. He eased the door carefully open a crack, peering cautiously through the crack. He was in luck for a change, since no one had been left outside the door to watch their 'guest'. They probably figured he wouldn't be a problem, and they were pretty close to being right on that score.
Easing the door open further, he slipped outside and closed the door carefully again. The cavernous room he was in now was barely lit by a few lightbulbs hanging high above. He had the impression of vehicles at the far end. He was momentarily tempted to check them out, but scrapped the idea. He couldn't just leave yet; he had to find Sylvie. He wasn't about to just abandon her here to the pack of slimy bastards that had captured them; they probably were doing worse to her than what they'd done to him. He suppressed the flare of rage that the thoughts produced; he couldn't afford to lose his temper right now. Anger was a luxury he didn't have the time to indulge in.
He moved carefully down the wall, in the direction he vaguely remembered being carried before. He passed the first door he came to; he was pretty sure it led to the room they'd been keeping him in. As he moved further on, he came to a corridor leading deeper into the building. After a moment's hesitation, he moved down it.
As he quietly walked along, he briefly wondered where the guards were. If this was such an under-the-table operation, it would have made sense if they'd posted sentries all over the place. The fact that they hadn't was puzzling; it implied lack of manpower, or else complete confidence in their own invincibility. From his own standpoint, he wasn't about to complain about lax security however.
A door banged open somewhere up ahead, and Bert froze, dread shooting icy fingers through his guts. He couldn't get caught, not again! Anything but that!! He shot a frantic glance around, then tried sprinting quietly for the next door down the hall. As luck would have it, it was unlocked. He eased the door open, silently praying his good luck would hold out, slipped inside, and closed the door. As the door closed, smothering darkness enfolded him, dimly lit by the very small amount of light coming in under the door.
He carefully moved backwards, away from the door as footsteps came closer, and ducked behind a stack of boxes. Evidently he'd picked a storeroom to hide in; there were worse places. As the footsteps came even closer, he realized he was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking, badly. He had to fight to keep his breathing slow and even. A voice in the back of his mind was yammering in fear at the prospect of being caught and interrogated again; he never, ever wanted to have to go through that kind of pain again. He crouched down and waited. The footsteps passed the door, and continued on, dwindling into the distance.
Bert relaxed with a relieved sigh, letting his head drop back against a box behind him. Unfortunately, nudging the box toppled a small object that had been sitting on top, and it rolled off, hitting him square in the face. Stifling the pained exclamation that came to mind, he managed to grab the object before it hit the floor. For a moment he sat there, holding the cylindrical device, and rubbing his cheek where the thing had hit him, swearing mentally at how his luck ran sometimes.
He peered closer at the gizmo he was holding, and realized it was a small flashlight. After listening closely for a moment more, he flicked it on. Dim yellow light sprang into being; the batteries weren't the best anymore. He carefully played the light around the room, hoping nobody would come by and see the light under the door. There wasn't anything really useful in the room; it appeared to be mostly janitorial supplies, and a few other things like broom handles and such. Damn; he'd been hoping he'd found the spare weapons, but apparently there were limits to just how fortunate he could get.
He flicked the light around the room once more, then shut it off, pocketing the flashlight. He sat back down on the floor, trying to figure out what he could do next. He needed some kind of a weapon, so he could hopefully force or bluff his way to where they were keeping Sylvie. A closet full of bleach and detergents wasn't going to help him at ......wait a minute! He yanked out the flashlight, and played the light beam over the boxes again. Drain cleaner.... liquid bleach .... turpentine, and all kinds of other corrosive and dangerous chemicals. There was even a large bottle of hydrochloric acid. A twisted grin appeared; he'd been sitting on a gold mine, and hadn't realized it. He resisted the urge to start laughing maniacally.
He rummaged around in the boxes he felt he'd need, gradually assembling a small array of containers. He even located an old rucksack of some kind that he could carry them with, and quickly packed them in, padding the bottles with some scrap packing from one of the boxes to keep them from clanking.
Okay, he was armed now, after a fashion; now what? He had to find some way of moving around without getting caught. One option was to slug a guard and swap clothes with him. Unfortunately, none of the guards traveled alone; from what he'd seen, they all traveled in pairs. In his current shaky physical condition, even one guard would be difficult to subdue. Two of them would wrap him up without a problem. He sighed, and looked at the ceiling for inspiration of some kind, and he found it. Directly over him was a grille for a ventilation shaft, about three feet square, held on by a couple of screws.
After a few moments of work with a can lid, he unscrewed the grille, and it swung down into the room on its hinges. Carefully, he shoved the bag of chemicals up around the edge of the ventilation shaft, and then began the laborious process of hauling himself up there as well. It wasn't easy; he was weak and shaky from a combination of the abuse he'd suffered so far, and hunger. Just the thought of food made his stomach snarl, and he quickly shoved those particular thoughts to the back of his mind.
Eventually, he made it, and lay inside the shaft, gasping for a moment. Once he'd regained his breath, he pulled the grille back up and wedged it into place. It would pass only a very cursory inspection; if anyone looked too closely, they'd know someone had opened it. Taking a deep breath, he began carefully crawling through the ventilation shafts, shoving the bag of chemical bottles ahead of him.
"What makes you so sure he knows anything? You've been trying for hours now to get him to crack, with no results. Maybe he's telling the truth."
"Like hell he is!!" Hollister snapped, glaring at the blue fatigue-clad man across the table from him. "The bastard's hiding something!! He's got to be working for some covert group, or else he wouldn't have had the resources to put together a truck like that one he was driving. The goddamn thing beat our best pursuit vehicles easily, and that's not exactly something to sneer at! Add to that the fact that he was helping that sexaroid to escape, and you've got somebody who's hiding something!" Hiro shrugged.
"So he's a technical or mechanical wizard. Big deal. That's still no justification for taking more time to grill the guy. As for helping the sexaroid, maybe they were in bed together. I don't know, but I don't really give a shit. Why don't you just turn him over to Doc, and let the scientists have their fun? At least he'll be out of the way, and out of your hair."
"I'm going to break him," Hollister growled, eyes flashing. "Sooner or later."
"Make it sooner, then," Hiro advised. "We can't wait much longer; Doc will be modifying the 33-S's in a couple of hours, and once that's done we go back to HQ."
Leave it to me to get lost trying to escape, Bert thought to himself disgustedly. He'd been crawling quietly now for what felt like hours, and he hadn't found where they were keeping Sylvie. Hell, he hadn't found anything except empty rooms, and a couple more storage rooms. He sighed miserably, resting his forehead on the cool metal of the ventilation ducting. For a moment, despair threatened to overwhelm him; he'd made all kinds of grand claims of being able to help out Sylvie, but here he was stuck God knows where with no idea of where she was, and he was feeling sicker by the minute himself.
The faint echo of voices carrying through the ducting brought him back from the edge of giving up completely. He carefully controlled the faint flash of hope he felt, and began crawling again, trying to get to the source of the voices. As he crawled, he carefully pushed the bag of chemical bottles ahead of him; he didn't want them breaking in here.
After an interminable period of time, he edged cautiously up to a vent cover in the wall and peered through. He found himself looking down on a high-tech lab of some kind. Massive computer banks lined the far wall, with large clusters of cables joining them to what looked like moveable diagnostic units. There were workbenches covered with scanners, oscilloscopes, parts and tools. What looked like a small portable computer was sitting on a side table, attached to some strange looking cylindrical device that it appeared to be analyzing. In the middle of the room were what looked like two operating tables, and they were occupied by two feminine forms.
It was all Bert could do to keep himself from diving through the vent when he recognized Sylvie as one of the women on the tables; she was strapped down, blindfolded and gagged, and the bastards had opened the front of her bike suit, leaving her half naked, and wired her to one of the diagnostic units with a tangle of wires and electrodes. The other woman was in the same condition, and Bert guessed that Anri was the person on the second table. Anri looked to be in rough shape; bruises were visible where her clothes were torn, and she wasn't moving. Sylvie, on the other hand, could be seen trying to squirm loose every so often, and didn't look as beaten up.
There was a young scientist standing at one of the computers with his back to the women, and to the vent grating on the wall. All Bert could see was black hair and a white lab coat. As he watched, another older scientist with shaggy white hair walked into the room.
"All right, Yamada," he called to the younger man. "Get the sexaroids prepped for surgery. I'll be back in a few minutes." Surgery?!? What the hell were they thinking of doing?!?
"Sure thing, Doc. Shouldn't take longer than a few minutes," Yamada replied. As Bert watched from his vantage point, the older man left. Sylvie's squirming seemed to become more agonized; she was terrified of whatever was going to happen, and he couldn't blame her one bit.
Bert eased back into the ventilation shaft, opened the bag of chemicals and carefully sorted through them. Now that he'd found his friends, he had the vague beginnings of a plan to get them out. It all depended now on timing, and no small amount of luck.
As he sorted, he kept glancing out of the corner of his eye at the room. Evidently Anri was the first one on the list, because Yamada began tearing off her blouse and exposing all of her upper body. That did it; the cold, utterly impersonal way they were treating Sylvie and Anri, like they were mere machines, ignited a cold fury in him. He shoved his rucksack to the side of the ventilation shaft, and got ready; the shaft was only about ten feet from the ground, and he figured that even in his shaky condition, he should be able to manage that distance.
As he got ready to kick loose the grille, Yamada turned and vanished into a side room. Perfect! Bert quickly dislodged the vent screen, and let it swing open. He hung the bag of chemicals on the edge of the cover frame, and then carefully slid out of the duct shaft, keeping a white-knuckled grip on the edges to prevent a slip, and a noisy fall. After a short drop, and a staggering landing, he was inside the lab. He pulled loose the packsack from where he'd hung it, and tucked it underneath a table; he didn't need it right now.
Quietly drifting over to the door that Yamada had vanished into, he pressed his back against the wall and waited, a cold rage still burning inside him. The door opened, and the young black-haired scientist emerged, flipping through some notes on a small clipboard. As he came through the door, his peripheral vision evidently noticed Bert lurking by the door, because he spun around, with the beginnings of a startled exclamation forming. He never got the chance to finish his shout though; fueled by anger and desperation, the punch Bert slugged the man with knocked him over backwards. As Yamada fell, the back of his head glanced off of a table; he was out cold before he hit the floor.
Bert relaxed slightly, rubbing his right hand to make sure everything was still intact; the bastard had a hard head. He wouldn't stay out for long, though, so Bert had to think of some way to secure him.
He started rummaging through the messy workbenches, hoping to find some twine or wiring or something. His eyes lit up when he found a couple of rolls of duct tape. Two minutes later, Yamada was very securely stuck to a nearby chair, with a piece of tape stuck over his mouth. Bert tossed the remainder of the tape onto the counter with a grin, then turned his attention towards his friends.
He cast a quick glance towards the main entrance to the lab, and then sprinted over to the table securing Sylvie. She'd evidently heard the sounds of his brief scuffle; there was an air of tense waiting about her.
"Just hang on a second, Sylvie," he reassured her in a low voice, taking another quick glance at the door. "I'll have you loose in a second." Sylvie made some kind of a muffled noise that sounded relieved.
His first action was to pull off the electrodes they'd stuck to her stomach, chest and head, his second was to zip up the front of her bike suit. Searching around, he found the button to release the straps holding her, and pushed it; the straps retracted with metallic snaps. He helped Sylvie to a sitting position, then reached out and gently pulled loose the tape holding her gag in place, and pulled off the blindfold. Sylvie coughed and spat for a moment as she stretched, eyes squinted shut against the glare. After a moment her golden-brown eyes opened fully to look at him. Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears, and he found himself engulfed in a crushing hug.
"Oh thank God you're okay!" she cried. "I thought they were killing you!!" She burst out crying as he awkwardly held her, not quite sure what to do. After a moment, he banished his conflicting feelings. She was a friend, and that was all there was to it. He returned the hug, arms tightening around her, trying to comfort her somehow. After a couple of moments, Sylvie regained her composure, wiping her face on her sleeve and stepping back from him slightly, looking him over finally.
"Oh my God!!" she exclaimed, face whitening, "you look like shit!!"
"Thanks a lot," he replied dryly. "It's nice to see you, too. Forget me for the moment, how are you?"
"I'm fine, I guess. They didn't ... they didn't... have time to .... modify me," she replied. She was trembling like a leaf, although he couldn't tell if it was fear at almost losing her freedom completely, or anger at her captors. He gave her another quick hug.
"Can you manage for now?" he queried as he pulled back. She nodded wordlessly.
"Then you'd better take care of Anri," he said quietly, glancing over at the next table. "She may not remember me." Anri hadn't even twitched yet, which was alarming.
"Anri!! Oh no!! What have they done to you?!" Sylvie jumped off the table she was on, and rushed over to the next table, obviously fighting back tears. She began to release Anri, as Bert turned his attention to the entrance to the lab.
He pulled the bag of cleaning chemicals out from under the table, and lined the bottles up in a row. Hunting around, he found some empty stoppered beakers, and a bucket. He poured the hydrochloric acid into the bucket, and set it aside. Next he began mixing some of the solvents and drain cleaners together in some of the flasks, sealing the stoppers down with duct tape while holding his breath; the stuff absolutely reeked, and the fumes were toxic to breathe. He didn't have a hell of a lot of choice, though. If they wanted to get out, they were going to have to risk using garage-type chemistry. The mixtures in the bottles began to foam as he worked, and he hoped they wouldn't blow up before he was ready.
Approaching footsteps from the main hallway echoed in the room, causing Sylvie to freeze in panic, and Bert to whip around hunting for somewhere to hide. Sylvie dropped to the ground, out of the line of sight, when he motioned for her to do so. He quickly sprinted over to beside the main door, grabbing the now empty bag he'd been carrying the chemicals in, and plastered himself flat on the wall with his back to it.
The door swung open, and the white-haired scientist he'd heard called 'Doc' earlier started to walk in. As the man's gaze fell on the one empty table, and the bound Yamada, he started to spin around to shout for help; he never made it.
Leaping forward, Bert jammed the bag over the man's head, and yanked him backwards off of his feet, slamming his head to the floor with brutal force. Doc went limp immediately, and soon he too was taped to a chair. As he was securing the man, Sylvie went back to freeing Anri.
Casting a quick glance down the hallway from the lab, Bert whipped back over to his chemical concoctions, and set them up in the hallway just outside the door to the lab, all except for one flask; the last flask he carefully set down on the countertop, well away from the edges where it might get knocked over. He was all set now, except for tying up some loose ends.
Bert walked quickly over to where Sylvie had freed Anri. She'd wrapped Anri in a spare lab coat, and was worriedly examining her. Anri looked terrible; her eyes were vacant, glazed with horror of some kind, and she was bruised and battered looking. She looked like she'd been really mauled before being captured.
"How is she?" he inquired, as he came up to them. Sylvie shot him a quick, worried glance.
"I don't know, she won't respond to me," she replied, on the verge of crying again. Bert frowned to himself. He hadn't thought that being kidnapped would unbalance someone so much that they'd become semi-catatonic. His eyes widened suddenly as an idea struck him. He motioned Sylvie a little apart.
"I think part of the problem is the fact that they've had her as a captive for a week or so," Bert told her in a low voice. "I'd be willing to bet they've kept her strapped to that table the whole time." Sylvie's eyes widened in shock, and no small amount of outrage.
"But that's ... that's ...." She trailed off as words failed her.
"Inhuman," Bert finished quietly, casting a quick glance at Anri. "I don't think she could handle being so tightly restrained that she couldn't even move for so long, coupled with the rough way they were treating you, and it may have..." Bert hesitated; he wasn't a psychiatrist, and he didn't know for sure that Anri had gone off the deep end from her imprisonment and treatment.
"You think she may have lost her mind," Sylvie half-asked, eyes suddenly brimming with tears.
"It's a possibility," Bert reluctantly conceded. "But there's no way to know for sure right now. Let me try to talk to her."
Sylvie moved aside, and he stepped forward, reached out and took one of Anri's hands. Her response to his touch was not what he'd expected. Her eyes widened in stark terror, and she screamed, a shrill, agonized wail that blasted his eardrums. Bert jerked back, releasing her as quickly as if he'd touched hot iron, as Sylvie grabbed Anri in a hug, and tried to calm her down.
"Anri, please! It's okay, he's a friend!! Please calm down!!" she pleaded. It wasn't having an effect though; Anri continued wailing. Worse, her screams had attracted attention. Bert could hear running footsteps approaching.
"Aw shit!!" he snarled, running toward the noise, snatching up his last flask as he ran. He reached the door, jerked it open, and pitched the flask into the hall. There was a loud bang, closely accompanied by glass shattering, and a misty greenish-white cloud began filling the hallway outside. Bert slammed the doors, and yanked a table over to in front of them as a barricade. In the hallway, surprised shouts turned into strangled gagging and choking noises. Some of the vapour began to drift in around the cracks in the doors, but not enough to be dangerous yet.
"What was that stuff?" Sylvie asked. She was holding Anri tightly to her chest, and Anri's screams had died off into racking sobs. Sylvie looked like she wanted to cry herself.
"Some cleaning chemicals I found," he replied tersely, casting another glance at the door. "At the moment they're breathing hydrogen chloride gas, and a few other nasty things. It won't hold them off for long; we've got to get out of here."
"But that was the only way out!"
"Then we improvise!" he snapped, glancing hurriedly around the lab. There had to be something in here he could use as a weapon. His searching gaze passed over everything. Wiring, bottles, computer parts, small tools, a portable computer wired to something cylindrical, but nothing he could ... wait a second! His gaze swung back to the portable computer. Bert stared incredulously for a moment, then walked over to it. He tore loose the wires attached to the cylinder, and examined it. A grim smile crossed his face as he recognized it, and he pocketed the cylinder. He looked back at Sylvie.
"Can Anri be moved?" he inquired. "You'll have to carry her, I think."
"Yes, I can carry her."
"Good. I don't know what they could have done to her that could provoke that scale of response, but she's going to need help getting out of here." Sylvie nodded, and started to reply, when she was interrupted by a faint, barely audible whisper from Anri.
"He...he touched me," was all she said. She repeated it twice more, before collapsing again, weeping. Bert and Sylvie stared at her blankly, then looked at each other. Sudden comprehension flashed like a lightbulb in Bert's mind.
"She didn't mean me, I think," he said slowly. "I think she meant...." He trailed off, and they both turned to look at the two tied scientists. They were awake, and had been for some time, evidently. The older one was glaring at the younger one. Bert walked over to the two men, and ripped the tape off their mouths.
"You molested her, didn't you?" he inquired in a quiet, deadly tone. Yamada flushed slightly, and Doc looked at him disgustedly, but didn't say anything.
"You sickening bastard!!" Bert snapped, fury igniting like a furnace blast. "Is that how you get your kicks?! Molesting helpless women?!"
"What women?!" Yamada snapped. "It's a machine, a goddamn sexaroid for ...urghk!!" Bert had the captive scientist by the throat before he completed the sentence, his face distorting in fury.
"She's a human being with feelings, not some playtoy, you shithead!!" he snarled at the purpling scientist, his grip tightening. "So she's physiologically a little different, so what?!?! That makes it okay to... to... to use her to satisfy your sick desires?! I oughta kill you right now, you lowlife filth-ridden slime-sucking ....asshole!!!!" Words failed him in his towering rage and disgust at the scientist. His grip clenched further, and Yamada's eyes began to bulge as his face darkened. After a moment, though, Bert released his stranglehold, and let the man slump forward, gasping for air.
"You're not worth it," he told the gagging man. "I'm not going to dirty my hands on a piece of shit like you."
"Nice speech, son," the older scientist remarked, then shut up at the murderous glare Bert gave him. He turned back to Sylvie, who was hugging Anri even tighter, and staring at Yamada with mingled horror and rage of her own. Bert took a quick glance at the doorway.
"We've got to leave, now," he told them. "That gas cloud is breaking up."
"But we can't get out that way!" Sylvie protested. She stared in confusion at Bert as a huge grin spread across his face.
"We don't need that door," he said cryptically. "We'll make our own."
"Pardon?! What's that supposed to mean?!"
"You'll see. Trust me."
"Oh hell," Sylvie sighed. "We're in trouble!"
"What the hell do you mean we don't have gas masks?!" Hollister bellowed, throwing a frustrated glance at the white-green vapour cloud shifting in the hallway ahead of him. The guard he'd yelled at flinched.
"We weren't given them, sir!!" he protested defensively.
"Shit!! Have we got breathing apparatus of any kind?!"
"No sir! It wasn't necessary at the time; we never expected to encounter gas attacks!"
"Goddamn it!" Hollister swore, furiously pacing back and forth. After a moment, he stopped pacing, spinning around to look at his boomer guard.
"Get in there," he directed the biomechanoid. "Kill that red-haired bastard, and take the sexaroids alive." A grim smile spread across his face as the hulking boomer walked steadily forwards, vanishing into the gas cloud.
"Is that everything?" Bert asked, casting a last glance around the lab. Sylvie nodded, and patted the now-bulging rucksack sitting on the table.
"That's everything," she confirmed. "All the notes and data disks on what they were trying to do."
"Good," he grunted in reply. "One last thing, and then we're out of here." He turned, and walked over to the scientists again.
"One last time," he told them flatly. "Which direction is the fastest way out of here?"
"You're wasting your breath," Doc replied calmly. "We're not telling you anything. What are you going to do with us if we don't? Torture us? From what I've seen, you haven't got the guts to do something like that."
"It's a question of morals, not guts," Bert replied tightly. The white-haired scientist was right, damn him; he couldn't torture someone in cold blood, even after what they'd done to him.
"Well I haven't got that holding me back," Sylvie interjected from behind him, her voice utterly cold and alien sounding. He looked at her in shock; her face had gone flat and hard, and merciless-looking. He realized with a queasy feeling that she was quite capable of carrying out her threat. She started to move towards the men, and he stepped between them.
"Get out of my way," she told him, a cold look in her eyes. He shook his head.
"I understand how you feel, believe me," he told her, meeting her furious gaze with an entreating one of his own. "But I can't let you do it. Do you really want to lower yourself to their level?" He waited nervously; if she decided to go ahead, there wasn't much he could do. Sylvie was physically stronger than him, even when he was in perfect shape. As he watched, the fury faded from her face.
"Damn you," she said bitterly, turning away to go back to Anri. Bert sighed in relief, turning back to the scientists, pulling out the cylinder he'd pocketed earlier.
"Last chance, guys," he warned. "Either talk, or you'll be singing soprano for the rest of your lives." It was a tremendous bluff, but all he had left to try. Yamada turned white, but Doc snorted.
"You'd need a knife, first," he observed dryly. "A metal cylinder isn't going to help you."
Bert grinned evilly. He held up the metal cylinder, and pressed in three locations on its side. The areas he was pressing sank in, and something in the cylinder clicked. Instantly, a row of three flat buttons popped up from the other side of the device, where they'd been recessed. At the same time, an irised opening in the one end of the device opened up. Bert pointed the open end of the device at the now white-faced scientists.
"You were saying?" he inquired politely. Doc swallowed nervously; he didn't know what the device was, but it was obviously a weapon of some sort. Just as he opened his mouth to reply, heavy footsteps stomped up to the mist shrouded door. A huge silhouette appeared in the windows of the doors, and the doors began to bulge inwards, shoving the barricading table back. Doc smiled as the doors were flung open to reveal Hollister's boomer bodyguard.
Red eyes flared behind the dark sunglasses the boomer was still wearing. It stomped forward into the room, trailing some of the toxic gases from the hallway, and began walking towards Bert.
"Looks like you're staying," Doc remarked, looking at the boomer. "Permanently," he added a moment later, as claws tore through the synthetic skin on the boomer's hands. A moment later, the rest of the boomer's skin, and clothing, burst apart in a sickening manner as the biomechanoid's body expanded to its full armoured height. It stalked towards Bert, claws upraised. There was no hurry to its movements; the puny human it was to kill had nowhere to go.
"Bert!! Run!!" Sylvie screamed as the blue killer stalked closer to him. "Why are you standing there?!?!?"
Bert watched as the boomer clanked closer. Six feet away....five....four...three....now!!! As the boomer's claws started to swing down, Bert ducked, swinging his right arm in a sideways arc. As he swung, a loud, hissing, electrical snap crackled in the room, and a penetrating hum pulsed through the air. A blazing blade of energy three feet long slashed through the air, twice. The boomer's right arm crashed to the floor on the first slash, and the second slash carved the boomer's chest in half. The boomer dropped twitching to the floor, gushing orange-brown fluids, as Sylvie and the tied scientists stared in slack-jawed amazement. Bert straightened up, and they could all see the cylinder was emitting the brilliant blue-white blade of energy that had bisected the boomer. He grinned crookedly down at the dead boomer, and then grinned at Sylvie, tipping her a quick wink.
"What the hell is that?!" Sylvie asked, still stunned.
"Call it a beam saber, or a lightsaber," he replied. "I can explain later." His grin vanished, and he turned towards the two dazed scientists.
"Now then," he said ominously. "I believe we were discussing changing the status of your pathetic social lives." Yamada was white-faced and sweating, and Doc was only slightly less upset, but no one answered. Yamada shrieked as the humming blade passed about an inch in front of his nose in a whistling swipe. A moment later, Bert caught the stench of urine from his direction, and Yamada passed out completely.
"You milksop pantywaist little chickenshit," Bert muttered contemptuously. He turned his attention back to the older man, hefting his humming weapon suggestively. Doc swallowed, but remained silent. With a disgusted sigh, Bert closed down the saber, and turned to Sylvie.
"Pick a direction," he told her. "We're going to have to wing it."
"What about them?" she asked, pointing to the bound forms behind him.
"I'm not about to murder them," he replied. "They're not worth it, besides the fact that my conscience won't allow it."
"You're being too easy on them," she told him flatly. "They were torturing you, and they had worse in store for us."
"I know," he replied evenly. "But repaying evil with evil doesn't do you any good. All we have to do is just knock them out, okay?"
"Fine. Leave that to me," she replied. She walked over to the two men; Yamada had regained consciousness. They stared uneasily at her as she walked closer. Sylvie smiled suddenly, and it was an alluring smile. Bert felt the sudden sizzle of attraction from her. What the hell was she doing?! Yamada and Doc appeared stunned, staring at her wide-eyed.
"I still think he's being too easy on you," she told the two men, "unfortunately, he's right: you're not worth it, so I guess I'll have to settle for doing...this!" Her eyes suddenly flared brilliant red. Bert wrenched his gaze away from her quickly, while Doc and Yamada stiffened, eyes glazing before they slumped forward, unconscious.
Sylvie's eyes returned to normal as she turned around, looking at Bert, who was sweating from the effort it had taken to resist the desire to look at her during her brief display. He didn't know how she did it, but it was certainly effective. A faint, hurt look appeared in Sylvie's eyes as she looked at him, evidently guessing some of his confused thoughts at the moment.
"So you do think of me as a boomer, then," she noted sadly. Bert stuffed his lightsaber hilt into his hip pocket and walked over to her.
"No, I don't," he told her quietly. "You are a very good friend of mine, and a very attractive young woman as far as I'm concerned." He reached out, and gathered her up in a hug. Her arms tightened around him gratefully for a moment.
"Thank you," she said, wiping at her suddenly streaming eyes. He smiled, and gently pushed her towards where Anri was still sitting lifelessly.
"Come on, get Anri. We're leaving." As Sylvie went to get Anri, Bert took a quick look around the room, and shrugged mentally. He walked to the north wall and examined it; it appeared to be drywall material, and not concrete like he'd feared. Concrete could take too long to get through for what he had in mind. He sprinted back to the table, slapped on a pair of safety glasses, grabbed the bag full of research data, and ran back to the north wall.
He pulled his lightsaber from his pocket, and examined the wall, noting the location of electrical outlets. The blade hissed into crackling life, and he slashed at the wall in four sweeping strokes, carving a rough rectangle through the wall in an exploding storm of dust and debris. Behind him, Sylvie coughed and spluttered in the dust cloud.
"What the hell are you doing?!" she wheezed. She was half-carrying Anri, with one of her arms held across her shoulders; Anri was walking automatically, not really paying attention to anything at all.
Bert didn't reply, but kicked the rectangle in the middle; it fell into the next room with a crash. He bowed to Sylvie, making a sweeping gesture towards the improvised door.
"Ladies first," he told her, grinning. Sylvie sighed and carried Anri forward.
"I think I'm getting a faint signal, Sylia," Nene reported over the cockpit radio. "It's distorted, but I think it's not too far away. I'm working on figuring out its origin."
"Okay, Nene," Sylia responded. "Keep scanning and let me know what happens."
"Nothing noticeable down here," Linna reported, the engine rumble from her motoroid audible over the channel. "This entire area looks dead."
"Keep looking," Sylia sighed. "They've got to be down there somewhere."
Bert ducked back behind the doorframe as streams of hot lead poured through the opening. He quickly slammed the door, throwing the bolt, and turned around to face Sylvie as a bullet hailstorm hammered the door. She was sweating from the effort of dragging Anri along in their escape effort, but had flatly refused to allow him to help, telling him he was already shaky as it was, and that trying to help carry her would finish him off. He'd reluctantly conceded she was right.
"We can't get out that way," he told her, stating the obvious. "So I guess we'll have to backtrack, and hope we hit an outer wall, or something."
"Okay," she agreed. "How are you holding up?"
"Fine, no problems," he lied. He was sweating himself, and not just because they'd been running. He felt sick, and it was getting worse. He felt light-headed, and every so often his vision blurred and he had to grab at something to keep from falling over. The only thing keeping his hands steady was sheer willpower. That, and the fear of mishandling his lightsaber; if he slipped up while using it, it was going to be a messy accident.
Bert charged back down the hallway, Sylvie hauling Anri along behind him. He adjusted the knapsack of research data as he ran, wishing it were lighter. It wasn't really that heavy, but his depleted condition wasn't helping things any. They came to another metal-clad door as they ran, and Bert turned the knob, slamming a shoulder into it as he barged through.
"Ooof!!" He bounced like a tennis ball as the door remained stubbornly locked. Picking himself up off the floor, he waved off Sylvie, and yanked his lightsaber from his pocket. Loud pounding echoed from the way they'd come, and the bullet-riddled door he'd locked began to bulge inwards as the men on the other side began forcing it open.
"Here goes nothing!" Bert muttered, mentally crossing his fingers. The blue-white blade sizzled into existence, and he gave the locked door a quick slice, kicking it open as he shut down the sword again. He waved Sylvie and Anri through first, following them through it and then wedging the door closed behind them with a scrap of wood. It wouldn't hold for long, but it was better than nothing.
He turned around, and sprinted into the room; the door had led to a small anteroom, not a main one. He skidded to a halt just before crashing into Sylvie and Anri, who had stopped. Sylvie turned around, a bitter, resigned expression on her face.
"We're stuck," she told him. "There's no way out of this room, and we can't go back the way we came." Bert looked around, noting finally that they'd stumbled on the building's boiler or power generator room. Two large rumbling machines sat in the center of the room, with control panels lit up, displaying temperatures and a few other meaningless statistics. There were pipes and electrical cables all over the place, leading off into conduits that fed into other parts of the building. Sylvie was right: there was no other way out of the room, not that he could see.
He suddenly stiffened, and ran around behind the machines; a moment later his grinning face appeared around the edge of the nearest one.
"Jackpot," he declared. "There's a small access stairwell door here; we can get to the roof at least, and maybe get to another building from there." Sylvie's eyes lit up in hope, and she quickly carried Anri around to the door. Bert held it open as she stooped and stepped through. Anri followed her lifelessly.
"Get going," he directed Sylvie. "I'll be along in a minute."
"What are you going to ..." she started, but he cut her off as he sprinted back to the control panels on the generators.
"I'll explain later!" he snapped, punching some buttons, and twiddling some dials. "Just get up there!!" She nodded, and started the long climb as a low, humming throb began to build. The generators began to rumble ominously as Bert stepped back. He ignited his lightsaber, and proceeded to thoroughly slash apart the control panels. He surveyed his smoking and sparking handiwork with no small amount of satisfaction, then ran to the stairwell door, ducking through and closing it as the rumble from the generators turned into a thundering roar. He pounded up the stairs after his friends.
In the now deserted room, the metal housings on the machines began to shake, and smoke began to waft from cracks between the access hatches as the machines continued to roar like enraged lions.
Sylvie gasped for breath as she dragged Anri through the small door leading to the roof. Staggering away from the doorway, she started frantically looking around for an escape route. Her heart sank as she realized there were no other buildings they could jump to, and there were no fire escape ladders. Behind her, a gasping and stumbling Bert lurched through the doorway.
"I don't think there's anywhere we can go from here," Sylvie told him as he walked over to them, still huffing. She noted with alarm that he didn't look good; he was sweating and shaking, and extremely pale.
"Well they won't be following us, at least," he told her quietly. "I cut the stairs apart halfway up."
"That means that ...."
"We're stuck up here," he finished for her, sighing. "Come on, let's move away a bit." He started herding Sylvie towards the far end of the building, away from the stairwell.
"Because shortly the power generators are going to blow, and I want to be as far away as possible when they do." Sylvie stared at him incredulously.
"You mean if we don't get off of here, then we're going to go up with the building?!" He nodded tiredly.
"I don't want to get caught again," he told her quietly. "I'm not going to be able to last much longer as it is; getting tortured again would be the final straw." He sighed resignedly, and swayed on his feet, recovering himself before he fell over.
"How can you just make that kind of decision without asking me what I thought?!" she demanded angrily. "I...."
"You know what will happen if they catch you again," he reminded her. "Would you rather face that?" Sylvie fell silent, trying to sort through her whirling thoughts for an answer, but was unable to find one. The rooftop began to tremble, like the prelude to an earthquake.
"I'm just sorry I couldn't get you two out of here," Bert told her as they came to the edge of the building's roof. Jumping over was out of the question; they were about six stories up. There was a low retaining wall running around the roof edge, and they sat down with their backs to it, Sylvie propping Anri up in a sitting position against it before sinking down next to him. She looked over at him as he sat there; there was a faraway, regretful look on his face as he stared blankly across the roof. She reached over and squeezed his arm, her momentary anger at the abrupt news vanishing.
"You tried your best," she told him softly. "Nobody can do any more than that. At least we're still free." He smiled sadly at her, and gave her a quick hug, but didn't reply. Sylvie reached over and grabbed his hand, grabbing Anri's hand at the same time as the rooftop began to buckle.
With an ear-splitting BOOM, a column of flames and smoke erupted from the rooftop near the stairwell, shaking the building with the shock of its release as it spewed burning wreckage through the air. The conflagration speared into the darkness of the night, as smaller detonations shook the building from within. Sooty black smoke boiled skywards, and hungry flames began licking outwards from the hole in the roof, gradually creeping towards the exhausted trio.
"Holy SHIT!!!" Priss' voice blared over the communications channel, as a towering column of flames blasted into the air from a not-too-distant warehouse complex. "Sylia!! Did you see that?! That's got to be them!!"
"We see it," Sylia confirmed. "You and Linna get over there and take a closer look; we'll be right behind you." She wrenched the control yoke on the KnightWing around, heeling the sleek craft sharply around to the left to shoot towards the inferno. There was a startled yell from the cabin behind her, and a loud bang as Nene was thrown from her seat by the sudden maneuver.
"Sorry," Sylia briefly apologized, gunning the throttle. The ship flashed closer to the explosion site.
"This place is really wasted, Sylia," Linna's voice reported. "Almost the entire building is on fire now. We saw a few black cars and a van make a getaway, but there's no way to know for sure if that was them."
"Anything, Nene?" Sylia queried, circling the burning building at a safe distance.
"No," she replied dejectedly. "No transponder signals at all. I...Just a second!" Scanners hummed, and a secondary readout sped across the screen in front of Sylia. "It's them!!" Nene suddenly shrieked. "Look down there!! At the edge of the roof!! It's them!!! Oh God, it's just got to be them!!!" She sounded like she was about to try jumping out of the plane herself to have a look.
"We're on it!" Priss shot back, before Sylia could even get the words out to order them to investigate. After a moment of tense, nail-biting silence....
"It's them, all right," Linna reported, relief evident in her voice. "We're coming up shortly."
Bert watched the flames eat their way through the roof towards him, a kind of weary resignation filling him. He hoped he'd at least suffocate from the smoke before getting burned; sizzling like a steak in a barbecue was not the way he'd envisioned going out. Beside him, Sylvie had one arm around Anri, and was tightly gripping his hand with the other. Her face was slightly anguished-looking as she watched the flames draw closer.
"There was so much I wanted to do," she sighed. "All those dreams I had of being free."
"Sorry," Bert apologized again weakly, fighting to keep his eyes open; consciousness was becoming a fleeting quantity. She shook her head, looking at him with a faint smile.
"It's not your fault," she told him. "I....." She was interrupted in whatever she'd been going to say by a voice that sounded like it came straight from heaven.
"Are you guys gonna just lay there all night?!" Priss' amplified voice crackled over the roaring of the flames that were a few mere feet away. As Sylvie jerked to an upright sitting position in incredulous shock, as a red robotic-looking shape landed carefully on the roof a couple of feet away on hissing jet thrusters, joined a moment later by an identically built green one.
"Oh thank God!! How did you get here?!" Sylvie burst out, quickly getting to her feet, and hauling Anri off of the roof decking. Bert slowly regained his feet as well.
"We were passing through, and we saw your signal," Priss replied blandly. "We figured you could use a hand."
"You can say that again!" Sylvie panted as she carted Anri over to Priss' motoroid.
"Okay," Linna's voice said impishly. "We figured you could use a hand!"
"Can we save the comedy for later?" Bert asked, coughing and limping over to her motoroid. "It's getting a little too hot for my tastes." The heat was washing over them now in waves, bringing more clouds of choking smoke with it.
"No arguments there," Linna agreed. "Are you going to be able to hang on okay?" At his nod, her motoroid carefully picked him up as Priss carefully scooped up Sylvie and Anri. Jets roared, and the two motoroids blasted into the air. As they flew upwards, towards a circling sleek, black jetplane, the remainder of the building collapsed with a loud rumble, sending more flames and smoke billowing into the sky.
"N-Nene!" Bert gasped in a strangled voice. "Ease up on the hugs! I'm not unbreakable!" The pressure around his ribcage diminished slightly as Nene eased her grip on him; she'd forgotten about the hardsuit strength enhancement for a moment and almost crushed him when they'd gotten on the plane. She was still clinging to him, crying uncontrollably in relief that he was all right; he felt like crying himself, having made it back more or less in one piece. For a while there, he'd been afraid he wasn't going to make it back to her. He had his own arms wrapped around her hardsuit, which made it a little uncomfortable, but not unbearable; he was happy with any contact at all at the moment.
He ran his hand through her hair; she'd already flung her helmet across the room to give him a quick kiss before starting crying again. At his touch, her tear-streaked face looked up at him, a question in her brimming green eyes.
"I'll be fine," he reassured her with a smile. "All I really need is some rest, and a lot of food." She didn't reply, and he winced as she buried her face against his chest, squeezing him again.
Across the cabin from them, Priss and Sylvie were worriedly examining Anri, with Linna hovering anxiously in the background. Their reunion had been equally tearful, if a bit shorter. Anri had passed out and was not responding to anything, and Sylvie was beside herself with worry. After several more tries to get some kind of response, they wrapped Anri in a blanket, and propped her up in one of the seats, belting her into it and sitting down themselves. Priss looked over at him finally, wiping almost angrily at her eyes to try and stop crying; her hardsuit made that task somewhat difficult.
"You look like shit, you know," she told him.
"It's nice to see you again, too," he replied dryly, grinning. She flushed.
"Sorry," she apologized. "I guess I'm not too good at this kind of stuff."
"No!" he exclaimed. "I'd never have guessed!" She grinned sheepishly, then came over and gave him a quick hug, Linna following a moment later.
"Don't worry about Priss," Linna told him. "She was as worried as the rest of us; she just wouldn't admit to it." Linna sat down near him and Nene as Priss, not acknowledging her remark, went back over to sit with Sylvie.
"How bad was it?" Linna asked quietly, glancing from Sylvie to him. "Sylvie looks okay, but you look like you've been through the wringer." Her blue eyes were full of concern, a concern mirrored in Nene's eyes as she calmed down enough to sit up slightly and look at him without crushing him in her arms.
"It was bad," he admitted quietly, shuddering slightly at the hazy memories. Surrounded now by his friends, he found it difficult to believe it had happened, but the lousy way he felt more than confirmed that it had indeed happened. "I'd rather not elaborate right now," he said awkwardly, looking away from Linna's gaze. "Sylia's going to want a full briefing, and I'd rather not have to...to...to..." He swallowed, and shoved the memories to the back of his mind. "I'd rather not have to repeat it more than once."
"That sounds fair enough," Sylia's voice remarked from the cockpit. As Bert looked up, her white-hardsuited figure came through the cockpit door into the cabin. Everyone had been so wrapped up in reunions that they hadn't noticed that the plane had now landed. She stripped off her helmet as she came in, giving him a warm, relieved smile. "Welcome back, by the way."
"Thanks; it's nice to be back," he told her fervently. "For a while though, it looked kind of touch-and-go."
"Good thing we were passing through, then," she remarked blandly. She sighed, and looked around at the assembled group. "Let's all get downstairs to somewhere more comfortable," Sylia suggested. "Then we can talk further."
"Anywhere, just as long as there's food," Bert replied. As Nene started assisting him in standing up, his stomach roared loudly, punctuating his remark. He flushed bright red as everyone else snickered, and everyone filed slowly out of the KnightWing's entry airlock, Sylvie and Priss carrying Anri between them.
"Aaaah!!" Bert sighed, sinking back into the couch. "It's nice to feel normal again." He flicked his damp hair out of his eyes; he'd opted to have a hot shower first, before eating, and he'd felt better almost immediately. The large amount of food he'd consumed since then had helped complete the cure. He finished wolfing down the last of his final sandwich, and Nene handed him a steaming mug of tea as she sat down next to him, snuggling a little closer and putting her arm around him. He smiled his thanks, wrapping his free arm around her and holding her close.
"Now all Sylia has to do is re-stock her kitchen," Linna dryly noted. "I didn't think one person could eat so much at one sitting."
"Sorry," he replied, taking a deep draught from his mug. It tasted fantastic; it was amazing how good something as simple as a hot drink could taste after an ordeal like he'd just lived through. "But I've been on short rations for the last couple of days."
"We'd figured that out," Sylia noted with a wry smile. "I don't mind the hassle, though. It's a small enough price to pay for getting you back to normal; you really looked peaked."
"I suppose I did," he admitted quietly; he'd seen a gaunt-looking, pale-faced young man with black circles under his eyes when he'd looked in the bathroom mirror. Adding to his bedraggled look had been a bloody gash on his forehead that he didn't remember getting, and his rope-burned wrists. He didn't look as hollow and wasted now, and his colour had improved, so he at least didn't look like he was going to drop in his tracks anymore. The black lines under his eyes were going to be there until he got some sleep, and that was probably going to be at least a couple of hours yet.
"We'll try not to drag it out," Sylia promised quietly, divining his thought. "I know you're tired, so we'll try to keep the questions simple for now."
"Fair enough. Where is Sylvie, anyway?"
"She's settling Anri into a guest room," Nene piped up. "Priss is helping her."
"How is Anri doing?" he said, looking at Sylia quizzically. She shook her head, spreading her hands helplessly.
"She's in very deep shock, that much I know for sure," she replied. "As for the rest of her mental state, I can't say right now. I'm still not entirely sure what factors caused her to react this way."
"I can take a very good guess right about now," he muttered to himself. He felt vaguely guilty for having left Yamada alone, but at the same time he couldn't just stand by and let him get murdered by one of his friends. Even though he felt like he'd done the right thing, at the same time he felt disgusted with himself at letting the bastard get off lightly. While offing the slime wouldn't have helped Anri, it would have been satisfying to eliminate the source of the problem. In a way, that thought was worse than any other: wanting to kill someone, no matter what the provocation, made him feel soiled. He forcibly jerked his mind out of the confused morass of feelings it was sinking into as Sylvie and Priss walked into the room, both looking very tired.
"How's Anri?" he asked. Sylvie sighed, and flopped into the couch across from him, Priss sitting next to her. Sylia handed them each a cup of tea, which they took.
"We got her to eat a bit, and she's sleeping now," Sylvie replied. "She still won't talk, but she's not as ... as catatonic as she was before."
"That's a good sign, isn't it?" Linna asked. "Maybe she's coming out of it."
"It's too early to tell, I think," Priss replied. "We'll just have to wait and see." Silence fell for a few moments, which was broken by Sylia clearing her throat slightly.
"I realize you'd like to forget about most of what happened," she stated, slightly apologetic-looking as she looked from Bert to Sylvie. "But I think we'd better hear the complete story right now." Everyone looked at Bert, evidently thinking he should be the one to start elaborating on all the recent events.
"It was a dark and stormy night...." Bert started, grinning when everyone else glared at him. "Sorry," he apologized insincerely, smirking. "I just couldn't help myself. Anyhow, after we'd arrived back at my house, we sneaked inside and split up to take a look around...."
"....and that was when you picked us up," Sylvie finished the narrative, voice trembling slightly as she remembered some of the thoughts that had flitted through her mind at the time. For a few moments, it had looked like she was going to die, and the thought was not pleasant to contemplate. Priss reached over and squeezed her arm reassuringly, Sylvie giving her a grateful smile in return. Sylia sat back in her chair, frowning thoughtfully to herself. At length, she looked up.
"We're going to have to proceed very, very carefully on this," she told them. "Whoever those people were, they're very well-organized, and evidently well funded; this obviously isn't some fly-by-night mercenary organization."
"So what do we do now?" Linna inquired.
"We wait," Sylia replied simply. "I've got to check with my sources to see if anything turns up. In the meantime," she paused suddenly, looking over in Bert's direction. Everyone else's gaze swung over to stare at whatever it was that had caught her attention: Bert hadn't been able to stay awake any longer, and had dozed off, head back and sprawled loosely on the couch next to Nene. Faint snoring could be heard. Sylia shook her head ruefully, smiling.
"In the meantime," she sighed, "I guess we should all get some rest."
THE NEXT DAY....
Bert flinched as bright streamers of sunlight slashed across his face. He lay there for a moment, mentally cursing the sun for getting up so early and waking him up at the same time. He felt better, feeling rested and moderately energetic, but at the same time he felt stiff and sore all over. Well what else do you expect?! he asked himself. Considering what he'd been through, he was damn lucky to be alive, and shouldn't be complaining about minor annoyances like sore muscles.
Stifling a groan, he opened his eyes, and sat up, the blanket that had been draped across him falling off the couch onto the floor. Couch?! Wait a minute, where the heck was he?! He looked around, confused, then realized that he was in Sylia's living room. Great, he sighed to himself; he must have dozed off during the debriefing, and they'd left him there. He hoped he hadn't snored too loudly.
Sighing again, he gathered up the blanket and left it sitting folded up on the back of the couch, and stood up. He quietly went into the washroom, checking first to ensure that no one was inside, then quickly cleaned himself up a little. Splashing some cold water on his face helped completely revive him, and cleared the last few cobwebs of sleep from his mind. Thus refreshed, he went back out to the living room. Taking a last look around, he started towards the door; he'd thank Sylia later for putting up with him.
"Not having any breakfast?" Sylia's voice stopped him. Turning, he saw her standing in the door to the kitchen, a cup of steaming coffee or tea in her hand. It always amazed him how she could look so crisp and immaculate at any time of the day; her dark blue-black hair was neatly arranged, and there wasn't a wrinkle anywhere on the white blouse and dark skirt she was wearing. He suddenly felt scruffy and awkward; he hadn't shaved, and his clothes were a mess from having slept in them.
"Ah, well, you see..." he flushed self consciously. "I thought I'd already cleaned out your refrigerator enough, and didn't want to impose further."
"Nonsense," she told him. "It's no imposition; get in here and sit down."
"Yes, Ma'am," he sighed. His stomach growled suddenly, and he turned beet red with embarrassment. Sylia smiled warmly at him.
"At least part of you has some sense," she observed dryly, turning and leading the way into her kitchen. Bert followed along, and sat down at the table at her gesture for him to do so. She placed a large mug of tea in front of him, and he quickly added the right amounts of sugar and milk, taking a huge swallow. As he rather blissfully enjoyed the initial booster shot of caffeine, he realized Sylia hadn't sat down. As he was about to turn around to see where she was, he felt her gently examining the bandage on his forehead from off to the side.
"You could just ask how it is, you know," he said testily, realizing he'd been duped into sitting down long enough for her to look at him. "Luring me in here with tea was kind of sneaky."
"I know," she admitted calmly, walking around to the other side of the table and sitting down. She regarded him with a faint smile on her face, amusement glinting in her brown eyes. "I also know that you'd deny anything was wrong if I did ask. This way, it solves the problem before it can occur. Besides, I know you can't survive without at least one cup of tea in the mornings, so it was the safest ploy available."
"Hmph," he muttered, taking another swig, flushing. He hadn't realized he was so predictable, but her analysis had been dead on. As he sat there drinking, Sylia got up again, and went over to a pan on the stove that was cheerfully sizzling away. She dished up some bacon and eggs onto two plates, and placed the one in front of him, sitting down with the other. He thanked her quietly, and they ate in companionable silence for a few moments. When they were done, he quickly stood and snatched the plates before she could move, and carried them over to the sink, washing them and standing them in the drying rack. Coming back to the table, he courteously refilled her coffee cup, and his mug, and sat down again.
"That was delicious by the way," he told her as she looked at him. "Thanks."
"No problem," she replied, shaking her head. "I was quite capable of doing the dishes though."
"Sorry, but I prefer to help out," he told her. "You've done enough running around after me, and put up with me being on your couch overnight; I'd say that helping clean up is the least I could do."
"Whatever you say," she sighed, dropping the subject. They sat silently drinking for a few moments.
"I realize that you probably don't want to talk about it," Sylia said quietly, "especially because you really glossed it over last night, but I think we should talk about what they did to you while you were a prisoner."
"Do you?" He was silent a moment. "I don't think so; I'm trying hard to forget it."
"Bert, please," Sylia said, looking at him seriously, a quiet plea in her eyes. "I'm asking as a friend, not your boss. You need to talk to someone about it; bottling it up won't help. Sharing your problems helps you to get over them. If you sit there denying that it happened and hasn't affected you, it's going to get worse, not better."
"I'm aware that I'm not entirely...normal... because of it," he told her quietly. His face was tight and stiff, and slightly pale. Sylia noticed that the grip he had on his mug was white-knuckled with strain. "I don't want to discuss it; It was almost two days of pure, unmitigated hell that I want to forget about, and that's final. I'm sorry."
Sylia didn't get a chance to continue; standing swiftly, Bert vanished from the room before she could even think to try and stop him, leaving his tea unfinished. The door to her apartment banged closed as she started to stand up to go after him, and she sank back into her chair.
"Now what do I do?" she sighed to herself, staring wearily at her mug.
ONE WEEK LATER....
Priss pulled off her helmet, shaking her head to loosen her compressed hair. Off to her left, Sylvie was doing the same. Sighing, Priss hung her helmet on the handlebars of her bike as she put the kickstand down, and stepped off the machine, unzipping her jacket at the same time. Sylvie came over to her around the bikes, looking quizzically at the medium-sized brick building standing across the street from where they'd parked.
Two stories tall, the brown brick building had double entry doors in front, with large bay windows on either side. Nothing much could be seen through them, as curtains obscured the view. There was a place on the wall above the doors that looked like it had been prepared for a sign of some kind, but no sign was mounted yet.
"So what is this place?" Sylvie asked. "I've never seen it before."
"It's one of Bert's ongoing projects," Priss remarked dryly. "He's turning it into an archery range-slash-recreational facility. The reason it's an ongoing project is because he's doing all the work himself, and he keeps getting himself buggered up so that he can't work at it. He refuses to let anyone else help, either."
"That sounds like him," Sylvie agreed. Priss nodded wryly, and the two women began walking over to the building.
As they entered the front foyer of the building, Priss realized that the place wasn't too far from opening anymore. A few weeks ago, there'd been lighting fixtures all over the place, panels hanging, and dust everywhere. Now, everything was in its place, and was almost glowing with cleanliness. A laminated map of the facility hung on the wall opposite the door, and they walked over to take a look at it.
Priss squinted at the map, then began to laugh. She pointed wordlessly to a spot on the map as Sylvie looked at her in surprise. Sylvie looked where she was pointing. A small red arrow pointed to a spot on the map, and there was some text in an attached box:
Sylvie grinned herself, shaking her head. She scanned the rest of the map, noting that the entire bottom floor was an archery range. The top floors were equipment and exercise rooms and an arcade.
"Looks like it might be fun to come here once in a while," she remarked. Priss nodded.
"That's why we've been bugging him to get it finished," she replied. "He's been letting us use it ahead of time, but I got kind of sick of dodging lumber piles. Come on," she turned, beckoning. "He's probably in the archery range right now."
The two women walked down the hallway a short distance to the door to the archery range. As they walked, a steady 'thwock' noise sounded periodically from the range, the sound of arrows impacting solidly with a target.
Priss opened the door, stepping through first. As she entered, the red-haired figure standing with his back to the door spun quickly, longbow whipping around, and an arm going back for a draw from the quiver of arrows on his back. For one awful split second, Priss felt like she was going to get an arrow in the guts; there'd been a harsh, unfriendly expression on Bert's face for a brief moment. It disappeared as he realized who was entering the room, and he relaxed his stance, hanging his bow on a nearby stand designed for the purpose.
"Priss!" he exclaimed, a pleased grin spreading across his face. "Oh, hi Sylvie," he added a moment later, still smiling. "Didn't see you back there at first." He walked over to them as they looked around the room, Priss nodding in approval as she looked at the now finished room.
The entire room was vast, and was divided into about twenty-five lanes about four feet wide by painted lines. Each lane had a small post next to it with some switches on it for adjusting the range the target was placed at; the targets themselves were on a track system, and could move anywhere from thirty to one-hundred feet away from the archer. The back wall of the range was covered with a thick, resilient material, like corkboard, to help stop arrows from breaking on it.
The floor was polished hardwood, and the walls were paneled with something similar looking. She realized it was actually plastic of some kind as she peered closer at it; wood paneling could get gouged by stray arrows, making it look shoddy in no time flat. The high ceiling had recessed fluorescent lights in it, with thick, frosted plastic panels over the bulbs.
"Very nice," she approved, as he came up to them. "Looks a lot better without all the sawdust."
"True," he grinned, then sobered slightly. "So what brings you to this neck of the woods?" he asked. Priss might have been imagining it, but she thought she detected a faintly suspicious and unfriendly light in the backs of his eyes. Whatever it was, it disappeared when she told him their reason for coming.
"You got us started on trying archery, so we figured you could give us a few more pointers." Sylvie nodded in wordless agreement, looking at Bert appraisingly. Priss figured she'd just had the same idea that had occurred to her.
"Sure!" he agreed enthusiastically, a broad grin wreathing his face. "I was getting kind of bored shooting by myself." He quickly located them the appropriate equipment from the racks at the back of the room. The girls got set up, and started launching arrows at the distant targets.
They passed a rather pleasant two hours that way, Priss and Sylvie picking up a few more archery basics and improving their aim. After such an extended period of shooting, they'd needed a break, so Bert stepped up to the firing line and placed a few decent shots in the targets himself while they rested. While not a fantastic marksman, he could generally put most of his arrows where he wanted them to go. His two friends watched him shoot for a few moments, swapping a glance. Sylvie shrugged slightly, and Priss sighed.
"So how have you been feeling lately?" she queried tentatively. There was the barest flicker of anger on Bert's face briefly, then he looked over at Priss, drawing out another arrow.
"I feel fine," he replied shortly, nocking the arrow, and snap-shooting it into the dead center of the gold on the target. Sylvie's eyes widened at the shot's accuracy, and at the speed with which it had been done. He wasn't looking at her, though. His brownish-green eyes were staring into Priss' red-brown ones, and there appeared to be a strange light in the backs of them. "Any particular reason for asking?" he inquired.
"No, not really," she replied, an uneasy feeling crawling through her guts. "I just haven't seen you much in the last couple of days, and I wondered if you'd been feeling okay."
"I feel fine," he repeated tightly. Turning back to the line, he drew and fired another arrow; it smacked into the target right next to the last arrow he'd fired.
"Nothing you wanted to talk about?" Priss prodded; she was unprepared for the reaction her query received.
Bert's face turned flat and harsh as he sighted down the shaft of the arrow he'd been holding at full draw when Priss had asked her question. The hand gripping the longbow turned white as his grasp became clenched. The arrow snapped from the longbow with an angry thrum, and the two arrows already imbedded in the target face shattered in a shower of splinters and feathers as the incoming arrow point struck the nocks, and continued on to impact in the exact center of the target. Priss recoiled as Bert rounded on her; there was a blazing fury in his eyes, overlaid with something she couldn't identify. He was trembling with what looked like barely-controlled rage.
"Sylia sent you, didn't she?! DIDN'T SHE?!?!" he snarled, advancing a step. Sylvie and Priss stared at him, shocked, as he continued speaking, his voice raising to a near shout. "I'm getting sick of people asking me if I'm all right. I'm fine!! Do you hear?! I'M FINE!! So bugger off, get lost, and LEAVE ME ALONE!!"
He hurled his long bow clattering down the range, uncaring of the damage it might inflict on it, dropped his quiver of arrows on the floor, and stormed out the doors, slamming them behind him. Priss and Sylvie stood rooted to the spot in dumbfounded shock.
"Wha...what did I say?!" Priss asked her weakly. "I've never seen him act that way before."
"I don't think he's gotten over the kidnapping," Sylvie stated quietly. She was staring at the door Bert had slammed behind him, quiet sympathy and understanding on her face. "He didn't really tell the rest of you what happened, but I've got a fairly good idea." She hesitated, glancing uncertainly at Priss.
"What happened?" Priss asked quietly, although judging from Sylvie's expression, she had a good idea of what was coming.
"They tortured him for several hours, at least," the brown-haired young woman replied. "I'm not sure of the details, or the exact length of time; I was strapped to a table, blindfolded the entire time, and I didn't see much of anything. But I heard the scientists discussing what they were doing...and," she hesitated again, then sighed. "I could hear him screaming in agony several times, and each time it went on for quite a while. I thought they were killing him at times."
"Good Lord," Priss said, stunned. "The way he described it, it sounded like they'd just roughed him up a bit." Sylvie shook her head.
"There was more to it than that," she told her friend. "I overheard the two technicians joking about the interrogation; they were using some kind of an electrical device to shock him." Anger suddenly flashed across her face. "And they were taking bets as to just how much more he could stand."
"Shit," Priss muttered. "No wonder he's been acting funny." She couldn't understand why he'd flown off the handle, though.
"I can understand some of what's going on with him," Sylvie sighed. "It wasn't any easier for me, having to lay there helplessly while I was...was....examined...listening to what they had planned for Anri and me." Her face had gone pale and stiff as she remembered her own ordeal, and the fear and horror that had gripped her as the scientists had casually discussed forever ruining her life. Priss stood up and gave Sylvie a quick hug, comforting her. Sylvie hugged her back.
"Well," Priss said as she stepped back, "I don't care what he said; he's not fine, and he needs help. Whether he bloody wants it or not, I'm goddamn giving it to him." Her eyes narrowed in determination, and her lips set in a grim line.
"You really care for him, don't you?" Sylvie asked, looking over at Priss, curiosity in her gaze. Priss looked away, flushing slightly, as if embarrassed at being caught at something.
"Not in the way I think you mean," she replied quietly, "but yes. He told me once that I was like a sister to him; well he's the closest thing to a brother I've got, and despite the fact that he pisses me off constantly, I really l... like him, and I'm not going to stand around and watch him self-destruct. I've been able to snap him out of some problems before, and I can do it again."
"I'm coming too," Sylvie announced. "It's partly my fault that he's like this anyw..."
"It is NOT your fault!" Priss snapped, stepping up and standing nose to nose with her friend. Startled, Sylvie stared back into angry red-brown eyes. "He knew what the risks were as well as you did," Priss told her, "and he still chose to go with you. That doesn't make it your fault, or even his for that matter. We can't help how our minds will react to what happens to us in a lot of cases, and this is one of those cases. Now quit blaming yourself! What is it about Bert that makes everyone around him want to blame themselves for problems they couldn't prevent?!" she demanded. "I'm so sick of it, it's not funny!"
"Sorry," Sylvie apologized meekly. Priss sighed, running a hand over her face.
"Never mind," she said. "Let's go find Bert and try to figure out what to do next." The two women quickly gathered the scattered archery equipment first, placing it in the appropriate storage areas, then walked out into the hallway. Priss took a quick look at the map nearby.
"Let's try the upstairs lounge," she told Sylvie. "He might be up there having a drink and trying to calm down."
"I thought he didn't drink?"
"Not alcohol, no. He practically lives on tea." Sylvie nodded, abruptly remembering that she'd almost always seen him with a mug of some kind in his hand. They went over to the stairs and started the climb to the second floor.
"Now how am I gonna do this?" Priss muttered to herself. Sylvie overheard her, however.
"I don't know," she replied, unknowingly echoing the thought that had rolled through Priss' mind. "But I want you to be careful."
"Why? He's never hurt anyone yet."
"Priss," Sylvie grabbed her sleeve, forcing her to turn around and look her in the eyes. "I know he'd never harm his friends when he's normal, but did the way he reacted back there look normal to you?" Priss didn't reply, looking troubled. Sylvie waited expectantly, and Priss sighed.
"No," she admitted. "That was not normal for him. Are you saying he's gone crazy?"
"No, but he IS very upset. I think you should be careful, that's all."
"Okay, okay," Priss grumbled, turning around and resuming the climb up. She figured Sylvie was worrying needlessly, then remembered the strange light that had been burning in Bert's eyes, and suddenly wasn't sure anymore. He's my friend, she told herself, I've got nothing to worry about.
She repeated that to herself several more times as they reached the top of the stairs, but it hadn't helped ease her mind. After Sylvie's observation, she kept seeing in her mind's eye Bert spinning around and almost drawing an arrow on her, and then the picture of him shouting at her in wild-eyed fury.
There was a tight, nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach as she walked along the hallway, and she recognized it as the jitters she sometimes got before going into a serious fight with her hardsuit. I am not going to fight him!, she snarled at her subconscious. He's not that far gone! Despite her conviction, she couldn't entirely banish the doubts that were now churning gleefully around in her mind.
"He's there," Sylvie suddenly announced. "I just heard someone moving in the room ahead." Priss took a quick glance at Sylvie; she appeared calm, and Priss briefly envied her.
"Here goes nothing," she sighed, reaching out and opening the door. It swung open, revealing a small room that looked sort of like a living room from a residential home; two couches lined side walls, a wooden coffee table sat in the center, and a bookshelf by the wall opposite to the door was crammed with magazines and old paperbacks. A small table by the door held a small white coffee maker, and a teapot. Sitting hunched over on a straight-backed chair, his back to the door was Bert. Priss opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off.
"Did I perhaps not make myself clear?" his voice asked coldly. There was an ugly quality to his tone that raised the hairs on the back of Priss' neck. "I don't need help, and there's nothing we have to talk about. Go away."
Priss stared at his back for a moment, swallowing nervously. Steeling herself, she walked slowly over to him. His tense, hunched-over posture didn't change as she approached, but to Priss it felt like the hostility level increased exponentially the closer she got to him. She chided herself for over-reacting. She was dimly aware of Sylvie moving softly up behind her, but was concentrating on her red-haired friend.
"You don't really mean that," she told him quietly. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Come on, surely you...."
He erupted; there was no other word that could describe what happened. At Priss' touch, he surged to his feet with an enraged snarl, knocking the chair he'd been sitting in flying backwards. With violent speed, he spun around and launched a murderous punch at Priss' head, his face distorted in rage. She was too shocked and stunned by his volcanic reaction to try and dodge.
Another arm flashed between her and Bert, intercepting the strike. Sylvie easily parried the blow, then grabbed Bert's arm, and threw him into the nearby couch. There was a loud crash as his weight hitting it drove it back into the wall. He sprang off of it instantly, his point of aim shifting from Priss to her.
"Bert, please!" Sylvie pleaded. She reached out and grabbed his arms as he tried to attack her somehow, and held him to a standstill. "For God's sake, we're your friends! Snap out of it!!"
There was no reasoning with him, however. He stayed grimly silent, a snarl etched on his features as he strained at trying to get loose from her grip, something Sylvie realized he was very close to doing. While he wasn't normally capable of beating her strengthwise, the insane rage he seemed to be in was giving him energy he didn't normally have. Priss was still standing, staring in wide-eyed shock at him, a very unpleasant, chilling feeling working its way through her guts.
"All right," Sylvie panted, her own face becoming grim. "If that's how you want to be about it...." There was a sudden blur of movement from her as she released his one arm and struck quickly; a loud crack sounded in the room. Bert's head jerked sideways from a short right hook, and he continued to lean over sideways, falling over and crashing into the coffee table. The table rocked and creaked ominously, but didn't break as he flopped limply off of it onto the floor in a heap, out cold.
Priss abruptly sat down on the other couch; her suddenly trembling legs wouldn't support her anymore. Sylvie quickly came over to her, keeping a wary eye on the unconscious red-head on the floor, and crouched down next to her.
"Are you okay?" she asked her friend concernedly. A frightened pair of red-brown eyes looked back into concerned golden-brown ones.
"I...I think so," Priss answered shakily. Having one of her friends turn vicious and attack her unprovoked had scared her worse than anything else ever had before, even boomers. "I ... I just never... never dreamed he'd try anything like that. I've... I've never seen him like that, ever. I mean....sure, I've seen him angry plenty of times, but that was.... wasn't anger, not exactly." Sylvie nodded, taking another glance at the comatose form on the floor.
"Should we ..."
"Tie him up?" Priss finished for her, shaking her head. "No. Even though it'd probably be safer, I don't think it would help. He's not thinking clearly and... and he might think he'd been captured again, or something. Come on, we'll put him on the other couch and wait for a bit." The two women lifted the slack form onto the couch, then sat back to wait.
While they waited, Priss poured two cups of tea from the teapot over on the small endtable. Like she'd figured, it had been full, and was still hot. She gave Sylvie one cup, and took the other herself; she needed the caffeine to steady her nerves right now.
"Should we maybe get Sylia over here?" Sylvie asked suddenly. Priss thought seriously about it for a moment.
"No, not yet anyway," Priss decided. "I'd rather try and talk to him once more myself." She sighed. "He generally prefers to handle emotional problems on his own, partly 'cause he thinks getting help from someone else will tarnish his dignity, or his image, or whatever. I'm sort of the same way in preferring to keep things private, so I'd rather not get anyone else involved, unless it becomes necessary." She fell silent, not liking the thoughts that were parading through her mind. What if they couldn't snap him out of it?
Bert stirred slightly on the couch, groaning. Priss exchanged a nervous glance with Sylvie, then stood and walked over to the couch where he was laying. She sat down next to him, waiting nervously, while Sylvie quietly flanked the couch, just in case.
He twitched a couple of more times as consciousness slowly re-asserted itself, and then opened his eyes. Priss sat quietly, afraid to say anything that might prompt another violent outburst. Bert sat up slightly, suddenly wincing and gingerly feeling his jaw and cheek, which now sported a large lump and an angry bruise. Greenish-brown eyes met hers, and Priss relaxed a bit; his eyes were normal-looking, no longer looking like gateways to a furnace. As she watched, however, horrified awareness appeared in them, as he apparently remembered what had just happened.
"I tried to kill you, didn't I?" he said hoarsely, his expression somewhere between despair and panic. Priss didn't know how to respond; if she said no, he wouldn't believe her. If she said yes, he might just drop off the edge.
"You weren't yourself," she told him calmly, avoiding the question rather neatly, she thought. The ploy failed, however.
"Oh God, NOOOOOOO!" he howled despairingly. He lunged forward, trying to get off the couch; at the same time, Priss grabbed him, preventing him from trying to bolt. He made an attempt to get free, but she held on, enfolding him in a hug. As she held him, he started to cry. She kept a tight hold on him as he sobbed into her shoulder, and looked over at Sylvie.
"I don't think we'll have to call Sylia," Priss told her quietly. "Maybe you'd better get him a drink ready, though; this may take a while." The brown-haired woman nodded, and went and filled an extra cup with some tea, placing it nearby on the coffee table. She then picked up the straight-backed chair from where it had been left on the floor earlier, and carried it over to where Priss was holding the still-crying Bert. She sat down on it, near the couch and Priss.
It was several more minutes before he was able to regain control of himself and stop crying. Priss maintained a tight grip on him the entire time, trying to offer some comfort from contact alone. She reluctantly released him as he tried to sit up, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and noisily blowing his nose. He wouldn't meet her concerned gaze, however, and Priss got the impression he was still ready to bolt. She reached out, taking his mug from the table and placing it in his unresisting hands. He drank mechanically, still not looking at her.
"Bert, look at me," she ordered him quietly. Bloodshot greenish-brown eyes met hers briefly, and then flinched away. "Oh no you don't," she said firmly, reaching out and forcing his chin up to look her in the eye. "You've got to quit hiding; it's not helping. Please, talk to me."
"No," he croaked, his voice a hushed rasp. "I...I don't want to, I...I can't. Please, I just want to forget about it. Please!" he pleaded, voice turning choked-up.
"But you can't, can you?" she asked him gently. "Maybe if you told us about it, it would make you feel better, and let you forget about it, if that's what's wrong." She had a hunch that there was something else, not just the memory of his interrogation that was bothering him.
Bert was silent for a long moment, looking drawn and haggard, taking a drink from his mug. Sylvie and Priss swapped a concerned glance again. Priss was about to speak again when he started talking suddenly.
"First, they just started asking questions," he said hoarsely. "They had me tied up, sitting on a chair, while some guy in a greyish suit asked the questions. I...I didn't tell them anything, either about Sylvie, or about my 'employer', as they phrased it, and..." He took a huge swallow, draining his mug, almost choking on the drink. "And then they tied me to the chair, and that's when they..." He shuddered uncontrollably as the memories came flooding back. Priss grabbed him as he spasmed, hugging him fiercely again.
As she held him, be haltingly told them the rest of what had happened: the constant, agonizing pain that gradually increased in intensity, the incessant questions from Hollister, and his failed escape attempt. He couldn't stop shaking throughout the entire story, crying occasionally, and Priss realized that he was going to be a long time recovering from what had happened, if he ever did completely recover. A few tears of her own escaped her eyes as her own anger kindled, directed at the bastards who'd hurt two of her friends, each in different ways, but each equally seriously. She brought her attention back to him as he finished telling them about finally escaping, and then finding Sylvie and Anri. He filled her in on a few things that had been missing from his earlier version of events as well.
"...I...sabotaged the power generators, partly because I ... didn't want to get caught again," he told her. "I knew I couldn't last through more... couldn't stand the pain any longer....it....I ... figured it was better to get blown up than tell them anything. Then you rescued us." He broke off, quiet finally. Priss could feel him still shaking slightly, but she let him pull back. He blew his nose again, and scrubbed at his eyes. Sylvie handed him another mug of tea, which he accepted with a wavering smile of thanks. He took a swallow of the hot drink.
"I tried to forget it," he said quietly, setting the mug on the table. "It worked, but only for a very, very short time. A few days ago, Sylia asked me if I wanted to talk about it, and then it was game over. I...was...back there, suddenly, and I could feel the shocks all over again...and I left. I...knew I was...losing control of myself; I could feel it happening... I didn't want to ...snap and hurt anybody, so I stayed away from everyone for a few days."
"I'd wondered why you'd been avoiding Nene," Priss noted quietly. "She asked me about it the other day, if I knew if you were all right." She looked over at Sylvie, then back to him. "That was partly why I came over today; I figured you were having problems of some kind."
"Problems," he repeated with a bitter laugh. "Oh yeah, problems. I wish it were as simple as you make it sound."
"What do you mean?" Sylvie put in.
"The ... torture was bad enough; what it did to me as a result is worse." The anger was suddenly back, flaring in his eyes, but undirected and very tightly restrained. Priss resisted the urge to shy away from him.
"Having to sit there, helpless, in pain, while some smirking bastard got his kicks from it was infuriating, although that's not even close to being the right word for describing it," he told them in a tight voice. "For the first time in my life, I wanted to kill someone, in as slow and excruciating a method as I could come up with. I wanted to do to him exactly what he was doing to me; I wanted to kill him so badly, I could feel it." He squeezed his eyes shut, a tremor running through him.
"Nobody ever made me want to do that kind of thing before...I hated...hate the bastard for doing that to me...making me capable of thinking it...and I hated myself for even thinking it; I don't...won't kill other people. I can't!" he added despairingly, the anger disappearing. "Even if you were to put him here in front of me, and give me a gun, I don't think I could...do it, and I hated myself even worse at that realization; they all deserve to be hunted like rabid animals, wiped off the face of the earth...and I can't do it!!" His expression became tortured again, and the grip on his mug turned white.
"So there I was, having more or less constant flashbacks, hating myself because I'm ...unable...to do what should be done...and that's when it happened."
"When what happened?" Priss asked, alarmed. Bert's gaze was haunted as he looked at her.
"I went for a walk the other day," he said in a low voice. "Just a walk to get some fresh air, and stretch my legs a bit. I suppose I was hoping it would help clear my mind. Anyhow, I went through the park a few blocks away...and...and some guy who was a little drunk came staggering towards me. I stepped out of his way to avoid him, but he'd drunk enough to get belligerent. I wasn't expecting it, and he hit me; when I could see again, he was out cold on the ground, blood all over his face. I'd nearly killed him; he had a broken nose, a broken arm, and some bad internal injuries. I saw it in the news later, but he didn't know who'd done it." He looked away from her, guilt all over his face. "I...panicked when it happened...ran for a few blocks, then came back here. For the last three days I've been living here and sleeping on the couch."
"Why?" Priss asked. "Why the hell didn't you call one of us?!"
"I needed some food later that same night," he continued as if he hadn't heard her. "When I was on my way out of the store, some lady bumped into me." He looked ghastly, and Priss had a sudden, horrible flash of premonition. "It was an accident, pure and simple, but something took over; I just barely managed to keep from lashing out at her, and I got the hell out of the store before I lost it completely. Since then, I've stayed away from everybody and tried to act normal; I didn't want another reaction like that happening, especially not to someone I care about, and that's why I didn't call anyone." He looked at Priss again.
"I'm...sorry I tried to ...to hit you," he said raggedly. "I'll understand if you don't want to stay around me...I don't even want to be around me right now." Priss reached out and gently pulled him towards her. Leaning forwards, she gave him a quick, light kiss on the lips, something she'd never done before, and then wrapped him in another hug. There was a very stunned expression on Bert's face as she pulled back.
"I think I can forgive you, given the circumstances," she told him with a gentle smile. "And I'm not leaving; you're... you're part of my family, and I'm not going to just leave you alone, you twit." There was a warmth and concern in her red-brown eyes that she normally kept tightly shielded from view, and seeing it thawed out some of the cold tightness he felt in his guts.
"Thanks," he replied, wiping a shirtsleeve across suddenly streaming eyes. Priss exchanged a relieved smile with Sylvie. A faint smile appeared on Priss' face as she turned back towards him.
"You're welcome," she told him blandly, then added, "but if you tell anyone else I kissed you, I'll deny it and then strangle you."
"Don't worry," he assured her, a wavering smile appearing briefly. "I wouldn't want to destroy your image."
"Hmmm," Sylvie interjected, a mischievous smirk on her face as she looked at Priss. "I wonder how much keeping quiet about that is worth?" she mused, then burst out laughing as Priss gave her a very narrow glance that made all kinds of dire threats. After a moment, however, she grinned, and was relieved to see another smile on Bert's face. It wasn't much of one, but it was a start at, least. Silence settled over the room for a few moments. Bert reached out and picked up his mug again, slowly drinking the last of his now-cold tea.
"What do you plan to do now?" Priss asked quietly. Bert took a deep breath, and slowly released it in a resigned sigh.
"I don't know," he replied, not meeting her gaze. Priss reached out again and forced his chin up, trying to ignore the brief, involuntary tensing of his muscles that occurred when she did. Red-brown eyes bored intently into greenish-brown ones.
"You can't hide forever," she told him. "Especially now; we won't let you. I think that you at least owe Nene an explanation. She's already upset that you effectively dropped off the face of the earth, and she'll be even more hurt if you don't personally tell her what the problem is. You love her, right?"
"That's why I have to stay away from her right now," he said in an anguished tone. "There's no guarantee I won't...snap...and....I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I hurt her."
"If you keep hiding behind that excuse, you won't get any better," Priss told him flatly. "Sometimes it's better to confront these things. It's painful, I know, but it's true."
"I can go with you, if you like," Sylvie offered hesitantly. "I could be there to...to stop you, if it became necessary."
"Sylvie!!" Priss hissed, alarmed, as Bert's face turned white, and his hands clenched. After a moment, his colour returned to close to normal, and he relaxed slightly. "I appreciate the offer," he told her after taking a ragged breath, "but Priss is right: this is something I've got to do myself."
Nene was puzzled, and a little hurt. She'd been happy that Bert had finally called her up, and asked her out to dinner, but it hadn't been what she'd expected. The first shock had been his pale, somewhat wild-eyed appearance. Somewhere he'd picked up a large bruise and accompanying welt on the left side of his jaw and cheek, but he wouldn't talk about it. In fact, she was having problems getting him to talk about anything at all.
Dinner had been an unnaturally silent meal, during which Bert seemed to be grappling with some inner torment. Several times he'd looked like he was about to speak, but had then kept quiet. Nene had caught flashes of some strange emotion in his eyes at times, almost like he was scared of something. His behaviour was so unlike his regular demeanor, she'd felt like she was looking at a stranger most of the time.
When dinner was over, and he'd paid the bill, he had suggested that they go to a small, nearby coffee shop where they'd often gone in the past for dessert and a drink. She'd agreed, and they'd started strolling along towards it.
It was when Nene looped her right arm through his left, the way she usually did when walking next to him, that she realized something was really wrong: he'd flinched, and seemed to be fighting some kind of internal struggle. She could feel him trembling slightly, and began to get worried. They reached the coffee shop without incident, although he hadn't relaxed at all by the time they'd arrived. He held open the door for her, and followed her inside.
The coffee shop was pretty much deserted, but that was a normal state for this tucked-away place. It was a secluded little place, somehow cozy and intimate, and that was one of the reasons Bert and Nene had frequented it. The only other person in the place was a tall young woman with long black hair and thick, tinted glasses sitting by herself at a table near the front window, reading a newspaper. She didn't even glance up as they walked past.
The young, brown-haired waitress took their order, and brought it over to them as they sat down at a small, shadowed back table. Bert took a careful sip of his steaming coffee, while Nene sipped at hers and quickly demolished the piece of chocolate cake she'd ordered. He remained silent, watching her, and she was suddenly sick of the silent treatment. She wiped her mouth off with her napkin, and was about to give him a piece of her mind, when he cleared his throat.
"I've got something I've got to tell you," he told her, the words sounding like he was scraping them painfully from inside of himself. She looked into his eyes, and could see rigidly suppressed pain, but didn't know what the source was. "I'm sorry I ...couldn't...earlier, and I know it won't be easy for you to hear it. I...." He took a huge gulp of his coffee, and she was startled to see moisture gathering in his eyes. Concern supplanted irritation.
"Hey," she said gently, reaching across the table and clasping his hand. "It's all right; whatever it is, you can tell me." She tried to ignore the way he tensed when she touched him.
"I'll try," he said, and swallowed a couple of more times, and then started speaking.
He told her everything about his ordeal in a flat, tight voice. It was a little easier for him to tell her about it than when he'd first confided in Priss and Sylvie, but not by very much. When he was finished, Nene's eyes were also brimming with tears.
"Why didn't you come to me sooner?" she asked plaintively, and he could see hurt in her face now. "Couldn't you trust me, after all we've been through?"
"I trust you completely," he said, scrubbing angrily at his eyes. A suddenly bleak expression swept across his face. "It's myself that I don't trust anymore."
"And just what's that supposed to mean?!"
"This won't be any easier for you to hear," he told her quietly. He proceeded to tell her about the mental aftermath of the kidnapping, and about the incidents earlier in the week. She sat in stunned, wide-eyed shock as he told her about his violent initial reaction to Priss trying to break through his emotional barriers.
"I....I couldn't control it," he told her, desperation showing in his eyes. "I just about killed one of my best friends. If Sylvie hadn't been there..." he trailed off, shuddering. "That's why I didn't call you before," he said. "I didn't want anything happening to you; I'd never be able to forgive myself."
An awkward silence fell, thick and suffocating. Nene sat staring at Bert, her mind a tangled maelstrom of thoughts and emotions. There was a small measure of anger over the fact that he hadn't gone to her for help in the first place, tinged with a vague resentment that he'd told Priss what was wrong first, instead of her. She dismissed those thoughts a moment later as being unnecessarily vindictive; he'd explained why things had happened the way that they had, and she could see that it hadn't been easy for him. Judging from what he'd told her, even though it sounded like he'd left something out, it couldn't have been too easy for Priss, either.
Her other emotions couldn't be dismissed so easily, however. There was a very definite edge of fear in there over his apparent instability; partly she was afraid for her own safety, but she was also afraid for him. At the same time there was a helpless anger over what had been done to him to cause the current situation. Frustration that she couldn't help him the way she wanted to washed over everything else for a moment.
She floundered in the complex quagmire of thoughts and feelings for several minutes, before latching onto the one solid fact in the whole mess: he needed help. Despite the fact that he was no longer himself, she still loved him. It was probably going to be a rough ride, but she had to help him out.
"So what are you going to do now?" she asked.
"I really don't know what I'm going to do," he told her, eyes suddenly wild, a white-knuckled grip clamped onto the table's edge. "I...I'm constantly trying to hold myself in now; I'm afraid of the slightest little thing provoking a ...reaction." He struggled to keep a grip on himself so he could finish speaking. "I've ...become my worst nightmare...I'm ...dangerous to everybody now. I can't relax, and I can't forget it..." He started crying suddenly, and Nene quickly moved her chair over to sit next to him and hugged him tightly. He clung frantically to her, like someone drowning might grab at a life preserver.
"I just want to go back to being normal," he gulped, sniffling as she held him. "But no matter how hard I try, it happens again sooner or later, and I almost attack whatever triggered the reaction." He sat up slightly, and pulled a handkerchief out, blowing his nose and stuffing it back into a pocket. "I don't know how much longer I can keep it up," he finished wearily. I..." His voice cut off as Nene kissed him hard on the lips, holding him to her tightly. When she pulled back, angry tears were brimming in her green eyes.
"You can keep it up for as long as you have to," she told him. "You've never given up on anything before, so don't you dare do it on me now. I'm not going to let you just quit."
"But you can't...." Bert was cut off as she kissed him again.
"Just shut up," she told him flatly as she pulled back. "I'm not going to listen to the 'You can't risk yourself around me because I might hurt you' speech. You need someone to help you through this, and like it or not, I'm doing it. If Priss were here, she'd agree with me. I don't care what you think of yourself right now, I trust you, and I love you, you jerk. I'm not leaving, and that's final."
"Yes you were," she snapped angrily, interrupting him. "I know how your mind works, trust me on that. You were going to suggest that I leave now and stay away from you, and hopefully you'd get better, and to look you up then, right?" She glared at him, and he suddenly flushed, but didn't reply. "I'm right, aren't I?" she persisted. He hung his head guiltily.
"That was what I'd thought might be best," he admitted. "I..."
"Oh yes I can!" she snapped again. "Quit trying to get me to change my mind; it won't work." She glared at him as he opened his mouth to speak again, and he meekly subsided. "Better," she approved. "Now then, we're going to get you home, and pour some more tea into you; that usually helps. Then we're going to discuss how we approach this from now on. Okay?"
"What can I say?!" he grumbled. "You're not giving me a choice, are you?"
"You're damn right!" she told him flatly. "Now get up." He stood up as Nene went over to the counter and settled the bill. She then walked back to where he was standing uncertainly. Steeling herself, she reached over and looped her right arm through his left arm again, looking up at him. There was a faint twitch of his muscles that she could feel, but she could also feel the effort he was putting into trying to keep himself under control.
"That wasn't so hard now, was it?" she said brightly, giving him a warm smile. "Let's go."
"Yes Ma'am," he replied, the faintest trace of a smile on his face. They left the shop, arm in arm, and vanished up the street.
After the red-headed couple left the coffee shop, the black-haired woman at the other table groaned in relief, and pulled off the thick glasses she'd been wearing, tossing them onto the newspaper. Massaging the bridge of her nose, eyes squinted shut, she sighed, leaning back and letting her head loll back over the back of the chair. She stretched, arching her back, and sighed, luxuriating in the stretch. A young woman with long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing a red leather motorcycle suit came into the shop from outside, looked around, and walked over to her table.
"How'd it go?" Priss asked the woman. The woman reached up, and pulled off the long black wig she'd been wearing, revealing short, shoulder-length dark brown hair.
"It went okay," Sylvie replied, then rubbed at her eyes again. "Just don't ask me to wear glasses like those again; I think I've gone cross-eyed."
"Sorry," Priss grinned sheepishly. "It was the best disguise I could come up with on short notice."
"No kidding," Sylvie noted dryly, then sighed as Priss sat down across from her. She ordered a couple of coffees when the waitress came over to check on them. Once the waitress was out of earshot, Priss leaned forwards, eyes anxious.
"So how did it go?" she queried.
"So far, so good," Sylvie replied with a relieved smile. "He had a couple of moments where it looked like he might lose it, but he kept pretty much under control. I almost went charging over when Nene hugged him, but nothing happened."
"He told her everything?"
"Yes," Sylvie sighed again, falling silent as the waitress brought their drinks. "I really hope he can get over this; listening to it all over again didn't make it easier for me, so I doubt it was a snap for him."
"Sorry 'bout that," Priss mumbled again, looking glumly into her coffee cup. "I hope he gets better, too."
"Do we really have to sneak around keeping an eye on him? I really hate spying on people."
"I hate it too," Priss admitted. "But I'm concerned about him, and given the circumstances, I don't think he'll mind." The two friends sat in silence for a few moments as they drank their coffee. Sylvie placed her cup back on the table, a curious look in her golden-brown eyes.
"Are you going to tell Sylia about what's going on?" she asked. Priss looked suddenly uncomfortable, running a hand through her hair as her mouth twisted indecisively.
"Not yet," she decided finally. "We'll give him a day or two to talk to Sylia on his own initiative; I'm sure Nene's going to ask him about that. If he hasn't said anything...then I guess I have to tell her," she finished with extreme reluctance. She couldn't escape the feeling that telling Sylia what he'd told her in confidence would be ratting on him, even though it was important information as far as the rest of the Knight Sabers' safety was concerned. She looked over at her friend.
"For now," Priss sighed, "We wait."
THE NEXT DAY....
Sylia looked up from her perusal of the daily paper as a knock sounded at her apartment door. She stood up, folding the paper and neatly placing it on the nearby coffee table. Smoothing the wrinkles from her skirt, she walked over to the door an opened it.
"Hi Sylia!" Nene greeted her cheerily. "Are we interrupting anything?" Standing towering behind her, with a tense, edgy expression, was Bert. Sylia had a sudden suspicion that this wasn't just a normal social call, but restrained her curiosity for the time being.
"Nothing that can't be done later," she replied, stepping back from the door with a welcoming smile. "Come on in." She turned and led the way back into her apartment, the red-haired pair following. While they took off their jackets and shoes, Sylia poured three more cups of tea; luckily, she'd just made another potful.
She set the cups on the coffee table, and sat down in her own chair, as they came over and sat on the couch next to each other. Sylia noted that Bert was moving warily, almost like he was expecting something to attack him. It was concealed from the casual observer, but Sylia had known, and observed, him for long enough to be able to tell when he wasn't himself. His usual good-natured demeanor was gone; it was almost like there was a different person sitting in her living room. They'd barely sat down, when Nene jumped up again.
"Sorry," she apologized. "I've got to go to the little girl's room." She vanished into the depths of the apartment in a rush, leaving Bert and Sylia sitting alone.
Sylia picked up her teacup, and cautiously took a sip, Bert following suit. He hadn't yet met her gaze, which by itself was an indication of a problem. Sylia might have been imagining things, but she was almost ready to swear that his apparent tension level had increased the minute Nene had left the room.
He was sitting leaning forwards with his elbows balanced on his knees, holding his mug. There was a stiff, tense feel to his posture. Very peculiar, she noted to herself. As she sat covertly examining and appraising him, she noted that he had an impressive bruise on the left side of his face that she'd missed the first time she'd seen him. She was about to ask him about it when there was another knock at the front door
Sighing, Sylia got back up and went to see who it was. After a moment or two, she came back into the room with Linna trailing behind her. Linna stopped to hang her coat over a nearby chair as Sylia went back to her chair and sat down. A moment or two later, the cheery blue-eyed, black-haired girl followed Sylia over to the coffee table area. Linna was her usual energetic self, dressed in a green sweater, slacks, and the ever-present yellow headband holding her hair back. She looked over at the silent, red-haired figure on the couch; Sylia followed her gaze to him, noting suddenly that he hadn't greeted Linna when she'd come in. Linna's concern was about another matter however.
"Hey there!" she greeted him, walking towards him. "How come you missed our practice session this week?" She came up behind him, and started to put a friendly hand on his shoulder, just as Nene came back into the room. Fear flashed across her face as she noted what Linna was about to do.
"No! Linna, wait!!" she cried, starting to dash over, but was too late by about a second or two. Linna's hand came to rest on Bert's shoulder. Sylia was facing Bert, looking at him, so she saw everything that happened next.
A tremor of some kind shook him, as his eyes went flat, cold, and absolutely deadly-looking; it was like suddenly looking into the eyes of a large hunting tiger. There was an almost metallic ringing and cracking noise as the porcelain mug he was holding shattered when his hand clenched. He started to surge violently to his feet, a look of utter hostility on his face as Sylia watched, frozen in suddenly terrified shock. It was like there was a whole other person in the room; she'd never, ever seen him react this way before, to anything.
Bert whipped around to face Linna, who was backpedaling in sudden fear. As he took a step forwards, Nene was suddenly between her and him.
"Bert!! No!!" she half-commanded, half-pleaded, reaching out and placing a gently restraining hand on his arm, which had started to lift. There was frantic entreaty in her tone, and very tightly controlled fear in her eyes. "Come on, ease off, calm down! It's Linna, remember?! Come on, you're with friends..."
She kept up the flow of verbal soothing for a few moments, her words seeming to penetrate through whatever had taken over as his implacable forward advance halted. He hesitated, then shuddered abruptly. As Sylia watched, his face and eyes returned to normal. Linna was still staring at him, half-paralyzed by shock and fear, hands half raised to ward him off. Bert's face flooded with panic, and almost total despair as his friends stared at him.
"No..." he said hoarsely, backing up a stumbling, faltering step. "Oh God, please, no.." He backed up further, a wild look on his face, almost like he was going to turn and start running away.
"Shhhh," Nene tried comforting him, gently taking his hands. "Don't worry, I'm here. Come on, sit back down, you'll be fine." He didn't resist as she steered him back to the couch, and sat him down. There was a numb, hopeless look on his face now.
He sat staring blankly ahead, as Nene took a quick look at his right hand, which was bleeding from where shards of his mug had been driven into the skin when he'd crushed it. She quickly scooped up the fragments of the mug from the floor, and took them out to the kitchen. She made a side-trip to the bathroom again, and came back with a gauze pad and long bandage strip. She bandaged up his hand securely, glancing worriedly at him the entire time. He wouldn't look at her, either.
Linna carefully walked around the couch as Nene tended Bert, giving both of them a wide berth. She sat shakily on another chair, not too far from Sylia. The two women watched wordlessly as she tended him. When she was done, Nene grabbed another couple of cups from Sylia's kitchen, and poured tea into them. She gave one cup to Linna, who was still staring at Bert as if he'd grown fangs and horns, and gently placed the other one in his hands. He drank automatically, staring unseeingly at a spot on the floor. Sylia cleared her throat hesitantly as Nene sat back down next to him.
"Nene," she said seriously, glancing at Bert. "I think we deserve an explanation about just what is going on here."
"Well," the slender red-head replied uncertainly, "I'm not sure where to start, but..."
"Easy," Bert's voice interrupted, sounding hollow and stretched. "I'm losing my mind."
"You are not!!" she flared, turning on him as Sylia and Linna tensed. "I wish you'd quit saying that!" she berated him, tears forming in her eyes. She tilted his head up to look in his eyes, and could see he was on the verge of crying himself over what had just happened. "We discussed this last night," she reminded him gently, speaking to him as if there was no one else in the room. "You knew it wasn't going to be easy, and that there'd be rough spots; this was just one of them."
"I tried to stop myself," he said, almost like he was pleading. "I tried, but I couldn't!! What do I do if it happens again?!"
"You control it, just like you have before," she replied, leaning forwards and hugging him. "Please, just try and believe in yourself about this." He hugged her back desperately, almost like he was trying to draw strength from her. After a moment or two, they separated. Nene turned back to facing Sylia and was about to speak, when Bert's hand on her arm stopped her.
"I'm the one that owes Sylia the explanation," he said quietly, a spasm of some unidentifiable emotion passing over his face. "She has a right to hear it directly from me, especially since this directly affects everybody."
"Go ahead," Sylia said equally quietly, expressionless. "I'm listening."
"...and that's when we decided to come over and tell you everything," Nene finished, taking a sip from her teacup to ease the dryness of her mouth from speaking. Sylia and Linna were both utterly silent; some of what they'd heard had been heartbreaking to say the least, and the rest had been frightening. There was quiet sympathy on Sylia's face as she looked over at Bert. He looked back briefly, then turned his gaze away as if ashamed of something.
"So what do you plan to do now?" she asked him quietly. His hand shook as he rubbed it over his face, sighing.
"I don't know," he replied in a tired tone. "I wish people would quit asking me that. I'm happy if I can last five minutes without going over the edge right now. I just don't know anymore." He smiled suddenly, bitterly. "Having to devote all your effort to trying to keep from attacking everyone who comes near you doesn't allow time for long-term planning." At his words, a brittle silence fell. Nene reached over and gently took his hand, squeezing it reassuringly. He gave her a wan smile, and squeezed gently back.
"Well," Sylia sighed suddenly, "we'll just have to wait and see what happens, I guess. We'll help in whatever way we can..."
"Aren't you relieving me of duty?" he interrupted, frowning. Sylia shook her head.
"No, I'm not," she replied simply. "Partly because you've already regulated yourself, I've noticed; in the past, you'd have been using your suit as an escape. You haven't this time around, so I don't think I need to keep you away from it."
"That's not what I meant. I meant that you can't risk taking me along on any jobs that turn up."
"Again, that won't be much of a problem: we haven't had any in weeks. If one does turn up, we'll make a decision then." Sylia sat back, looking thoughtful. "You raise an interesting point, however. Do you know how you'd react in your suit? It is a different situation than being out in public by yourself."
"I haven't the faintest idea," he admitted. "I've been so scared of flipping out that I've stayed away from it; I really didn't want to risk losing control while wearing the equivalent of a mobile weapons platform."
"I think we should conduct a test to see," she declared. "We can use the testing facility at Raven's to keep things controlled, and then we can see exactly how you've been affected. Does that sound fair?" Bert looked dubious, but nodded.
"Good," Sylia said. "Drop by the garage at 8:00 tonight then, and we'll do it then."
"I hope you're right about this," he sighed, levering himself to his feet. Nene also got up, gathering up their mugs and carrying them out into the kitchen. He turned to go, then turned towards Linna. Despite her attempts not to, she cringed slightly and tensed up. His expression didn't change, but in the backs of his eyes, she saw something flinch and die a little.
"I'm...sorry about...earlier..I...I'm sorry," he said awkwardly, then turned and walked rapidly to the door of the apartment, shrugging into his coat and hat and pulling on his sneakers. Nene caught up with him, grabbing her own coat and shoes, and they left together, leaving Linna and Sylia alone, each preoccupied with their own tangled thoughts.
Priss knocked loudly on the door again, teeth clenched in profound irritation. She waited for a few moments, arms folded over her chest, tapping her foot.
"Maybe he's not in?" Sylvie suggested hesitantly. She was leaning against the far wall, clad in her usual blue, white, and yellow form-fitting bike suit. Priss shook her head, glaring irritably at the stubbornly locked door.
"He's in there," she declared. "Nene told me that she left him here, and it hasn't been that long. His truck is still in the garage, and the shop was empty, so he is definitely in there." She slammed her hand on the door another couple of times, and gave it a kick for good measure. Still no response.
"Aw shit!" the brown-haired singer swore. "I wish for once..."
The door opened, and a shadowy shape moved in the darkness of the room beyond.
"If I let you in, will you stop making so much goddamn racket?" Bert's voice asked sourly. He turned, leaving the door open, and walked back to his recliner, which was where he'd been sprawled before Priss' knocking had finally driven him to answer the door. Priss followed him in, Sylvie right behind her. They sat down on the couch as he sank back into his chair. Bert's mouth twisted in a bitter smile as he looked at them.
"You brought your bodyguard, I see," he noted. "Smart move."
"Stop that!!" Priss snapped angrily. "Sylvie was concerned about you too, you jackass! She's not my bodyguard! We're not afraid of what you think you might do!"
"You should be," he muttered darkly. "Give it time."
"Bert, stop it," Sylvie said, quietly but firmly. "I understand part of what you're going through..."
"I doubt it," he interrupted. "You don't have most of your friends flinching when you look at them." The memory of Linna cringing away from him slightly when he'd turned towards her before leaving Sylia's seared him like burning coals whenever he thought about it.
"You don't think so?" she snapped, sparks flashing in her eyes as sudden anger gripped her. "I don't have all that many friends; I can't get close to most people because they'd freak if they found out I'm a boomer. I'd say that makes us about even: we've both got people afraid of us, and we can't help it because it wasn't our fault. Quit being such a goddamn stubborn asshole, and let us help!!"
"You've been spending too much time around me, I think," Priss muttered under her breath to her friend. She'd never heard Sylvie swear before. Sylvie ignored the observation.
"You can't help me," Bert said hoarsely, hands suddenly clenched on the arms of his chair. "Not unless you can re-write the past." Sylvie shook her head, sympathy and sorrow appearing in her eyes.
"I can't, and neither can anyone else," she replied sadly. "It's been done, and we have to live with the results. There's lots of things that I did in the past that I'd like to go back and change, but I can't. You've got to quit dwelling on it and move on."
"I can't move on," he gritted, pained remembrance flashing in his eyes. "I'm almost attacking my friends all the time, and I can barely stop myself when it happens. How the hell am I supposed to move on, and to where?!"
"I can't answer that for you," she told him. "That's something you've got to decide for yourself. I think you should quit dwelling on it so much though; you're so convinced it's going to happen, that if you don't start thinking about something else, then it's going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
"Sylvie's right," Priss echoed. "You've got to get your mind off of it."
"I've been trying," he said tightly. "You think I enjoy being like this?!"
"No," Priss said carefully, "I don't think you enjoy it at all, but it seems to me that all that holing up by yourself is doing is allowing you to brood on it, which you don't need." Silence fell for a few moments as everyone in the room became wrapped up in their own private thoughts. Sylvie remembered something suddenly.
"Oh, by the way," she spoke up. Bert looked quizzically at her and she continued. "Thank you for the flowers."
"Flowers?!" Priss asked in surprise, as Bert flushed red. "What flowers?!"
"He had a large bunch of flowers sent to Anri's room," Sylvie explained quietly. "The one dresser looks like a small greenhouse now."
"Why you old softy," Priss grinned at him. Bert flushed again.
"I figured they might help cheer her up," he muttered, then looked at Sylvie. "How is she, anyway?"
"Much better," Sylvie said, appearing relieved. "She's taking an interest in what's going on around her now, and she's speaking occasionally. She's still a little withdrawn, though," she added, meeting his gaze squarely. "Sort of like someone else I could mention." Bert didn't reply to her observation. Priss stood up suddenly.
"Well, sitting down here hiding isn't helping you any," Priss declared, "so let's get out and do something."
"Like what?" he inquired cautiously. Priss grinned.
"You haven't been bike riding in a while," she noted. "Why don't we hop on our motorbikes and go for a ride?"
"Good idea," Sylvie enthused, her golden-brown eyes lighting up. "I haven't been out for a ride in ages, either."
"That's settled then," Priss stated, cutting Bert off before he could speak. "We'll go for a ride, come back here, and then go over to Raven's."
"Do I at least get a chance to say anything about this?!" he put in irritably.
"Nope!" Priss and Sylvie chorused, grinning.
SkyKnight stalked warily down the deserted alleyway, the glowing red eyeslot on his helmet cutting a crimson swath through the darkness as his helmet swiveled from side to side. Light flickered dimly off the polished surface of his armour as he passed a feebly glowing streetlight.
"Come on, relax damnit," Bert muttered to himself. There was a nervous feeling crawling through his guts like ants at a picnic. The comfortable closeness of his hardsuit had eased some of the strain he'd been feeling earlier the minute he'd put it on. He supposed it had something to do with the fact that, subconsciously at least, he believed that no one could harm him while he was encased in the hi-tech armour. Now if only he could...
Two red blips appeared on his helmet display; his suit computer had just located two renegade boomers off in the distance, slowly closing on his position. Deciding to speed things up, SkyKnight kicked on his jets as his flight wings deployed. The silver-clad Knight Saber shot forwards like a missile, jets howling exultantly.
He banked sharply around a corner, and there they were: two C-55 boomers, armed and expecting trouble. They hadn't expected trouble to come hunting them quite so eagerly, however. The first one died instantly in a withering hail of red-white particle-laser bolts that reduced it to twitching slag; the second boomer ducked a whistling sword swipe and sprang backwards, hooked claws snapping out of its forearms. It sprang at the silver hardsuit with a snarl.
SkyKnight's jets cut out at the same time, and he dropped solidly to the ground, bracing himself. As the boomer dove at him, he ducked under it and gave it a boost, hurling it up into the air. Two quick laser blasts through the tumbling boomer's torso dropped it into a smoking heap of spare parts onto the asphalt. SkyKnight straightened up, sighing disgustedly.
"That was it?!" he complained out loud. "That wasn't even...."
The world blew up suddenly in a shattering blaze of blue light and searing pain. SkyKnight was hurled sideways into a nearby building by a salvo of plasma beams. As he groggily tried to get to his feet, a blue armoured form swept out of the darkness, flanked by five other similar forms. Ambush!, his mind hazily noted; the two he'd just trashed had been decoys.
SkyKnight was smashed backwards by a sweeping roundhouse punch from the lead boomer. As he fell, one of the boomers targeted him with a pop-up arm weapon, and his scanners registered a massive electromagnetic energy surge. Wait a second...electromagnetic...
"NO!!" SkyKnight yelled, just as a crackling blue lightning bolt blasted from the boomer's arm, hitting him squarely. SkyKnight convulsed in the coronal discharge, writhing in pain.
-Pain washed through him again as he heard the technician flick the switch. Fire seemed to race through him, eating into every fiber of his being. He spasmed, screaming, as a smirking, blond-haired man with icy blue eyes watched him. The ropes holding him, creaked but didn't give in the slightest. Oh, God please, a voice shrieked in the back of his mind, make it stop!!!
"You might as well talk," Hollister's voice advised, penetrating through the red-hot miasma he was drifting in. "This isn't hurting me in the slightest; I don't feel a thing." Another wave of searing agony stabbed into him, battering at his rapidly crumbling reserves.....
"Nooooooooo!!!!!" SkyKnight screamed, head back, every muscle contorted in remembered pain. For a few split-seconds he was as immobile as a statue, locked into an agonized posture. The helmet on the silver suit came back up to regard the advancing boomers, and the helmet eyeslot flared bright red.
The fight after that point wasn't very long.
"End simulation," Sylia Stingray quietly ordered the computer. The computer obediently stopped the virtual reality testing program as she sat back in her chair. Silence reigned in the room for a moment. In the chamber beyond the observation window, a shaking and pale, red-haired figure began stripping off the VR helmet and telemetry suit that had linked him to the testing computer.
"Geez, Sylia," Priss finally said, breaking the heavy silence that had settled over everyone. "Did you really have to go and do that to him?! He had enough problems without that!" Sylvie nodded in quiet agreement from behind her.
"I'm sorry," Sylia replied quietly, but firmly. "But we had to duplicate actual combat conditions; it was the only way to make sure."
"Hitting him with electrical feedback was a little harsh," Nene said resentfully. She scrubbed angrily at her watering green eyes. "He was fine until you did that." The telemetry suit that was part of the virtual reality testing room Sylia had designed worked two ways: it transmitted data on the suit's wearer to the computer, and it could also transmit signals back to the wearer that helped simulate environmental stimuli, including being hit with weapons.
"I'm sorry," Sylia repeated, sighing. There was a sorrowful look in her brown eyes. "I had to try everything, and some of the newer combat boomers do have electrical generators. Getting physically hit wasn't producing any responses. In fact, he was successfully holding himself back; his response time to physical attacks was greatly down from what it used to be."
"So instead you hit him with electricity and drove him over the edge," Priss said flatly. Her red-brown eyes had a faintly condemning look in them.
"I didn't enjoy it, damn it!!" Sylia snapped, standing up and rounding on Priss angrily. "He's a friend of mine, too, you know, but we have to know every aspect of what's wrong with him!"
The door to the testing chamber opened, and Bert emerged, tight-lipped and moving stiffly. He didn't look at anyone, but vanished the down the side hallway, heading towards the changeroom to change out of his undergarment softsuit. Nene started crying again, and Linna wrapped her up in a hug. The black-haired young woman held onto her friend tightly as she cried, and looked over at Sylia.
"So what's the verdict, then?" she asked. "Although I think I know what you're going to say." Sylia sighed, and sat down wearily.
"Unfortunately, I don't think it would be safe to allow him to go with us on any missions that crop up," she sighed. "You saw what happened: six combat boomers dead in twenty-five seconds flat, and he then attacked the simulations of the rest of us." She sighed again, and called up the test results on the screen. A chart appeared, with two wavy lines on it, one red and one green. The red line followed almost the same path as the green, except it was a bit lower down on the chart. It then surged to a very sharp spike, and continued on at a much higher level than the green one.
"The green line is his results from the last test we did, before all this happened," Sylia explained. "The red line is the results from tonight; he was holding himself below normal until he got hit with the energy weapon. After that," she hesitated, "after that, his combat ability increased exponentially. He was fighting equivalent to Level Ten for a very brief time period."
"Level Ten?!" Linna gasped incredulously. "But that's...that's..." Her voice trailed off; her own personal best was Level Eight, although she was almost ready for Nine. Bert's usual level was Seven, and it had taken him quite some time to reach even that.
"That's what happens when you remove all the conscious and subconscious controls on someone, it would seem," Sylia said quietly. "His...trauma...seems to have done that to him as a self-defense mechanism. He never wants to have to suffer through anything like that again, and now he unconsciously reacts, violently and without restraint, to a perceived threat to prevent that happening again. He's quite right when he says he's dangerous now; at that level of ability, uncontrolled, he could quite easily kill everyone here if he lost control while in his suit."
There was a crash from the doorway as someone stumbled into it; everyone spun around to see Bert backing away, horrified denial written all over his face. Sylia's stomach dropped as she realized he'd overheard her last few remarks.
"Bert, I didn't mean..." she started, but it was too late. He spun and ran from the room. The sound of a door crashing open echoed down the hallway.
"Bert!!! Wait!!!" Nene cried, starting to run after him, closely followed by Priss and Sylvie. Linna stood indecisively for a moment, then ran after them. Sylia swiveled her chair around angrily, facing the computer monitor, wiping away the tears that started streaming from her brown eyes.
Stars glinted coldly in the night sky as the silver and blue motorcycle skidded to a halt on the gravel laneway, spinning chunks of stone through the air. The bike fell over onto its side with a crash as its helmeted rider jumped uncaringly off of it, stumbling over to the front steps of the small, two-story brown house standing dark and deserted. The rider, who was wearing dark blue clothing and a dark blue helmet, dropped to his knees just in front of the steps, and stayed hunched over on his knees for a few moments, shaking in some kind of distress. Anyone listening might have thought they heard someone crying.
After several minutes, he straightened up, and wearily hauled himself to his feet. The figure reached up and stripped off his helmet, revealing messy red hair, dimly seen in the semi-darkness, and a wet-looking face. Bert looked around at the surrounding shadows, not really seeing what was there, and slowly climbed the steps to the front door. He unlocked it and went inside.
After the door closed, shadows began moving around in the bushes, creeping nearer.
"...at that level of ability, uncontrolled, he could quite easily kill everyone here if he lost control while in his suit..."
"NO!!" Bert slammed a hand down on the computer console in front of him, teeth clenched in desperate fury. He wiped away the streaks of wetness from his face. "I am not going to lose control!!" He leaned back in his padded swivel chair, hands over his face as he tried to banish Sylia's words from his mind. It didn't work; instead they bounced around like a marbles thrown into a pinball machine, clattering around chaotically in the depths of his mind.
He swore bitterly again at himself as he stared blindly around at his basement workshop, looking at the clutter of devices he used to take great pleasure in tinkering with. The faint coating of dust on them proclaimed the fact that he hadn't been his usual self in quite some time. As if he'd needed more proof of that. He stood and began pacing the confines of the shop, trying to decide what to do next. The perennial question, part of his mind noted sourly: What are you going to do now?
"I don't goddamn know!!!" he snarled at himself, then caught himself before he could start belting things again, forcing his mind into a calmer state. To his surprise, it was a little easier than it had been in the past, but that was a very minor victory. Once in a while just didn't cut it; he had to permanently beat the thing that was dogging him before he did finally snap for good, the only question was how?!
His kettle whistled urgently from the corner of the shop, and he went over to it and brewed up a pot of tea. While it steeped, he paced some more, his mind spinning its wheels.
There was one option that was always available: he could leave. Leaving would virtually guarantee that he couldn't harm Nene, or Priss, or anyone else that he cared about for that matter. However, that wouldn't solve anything, and would create new problems. He didn't have any friends at all anywhere else, although in his depressed state at the moment, he wasn't even sure he had them here anymore.
If he moved to somewhere where he was completely surrounded by strangers, it wouldn't be any easier to control himself; in fact, it could become harder, leading to a blow-up that could seriously injure someone. From his own bitter experience, he knew he had to face this directly, somehow, but he was completely fresh out of ideas as to how to do that.
He poured himself a cup of tea, adding sugar and milk, and sat down again in front of his patiently waiting computer. He sipped at the hot herbal concoction, unconsciously relaxing as he did so. For a few moments, he emptied his mind completely of all thought, and just sat drinking.
He finished his drink, and sighed, stretching. He suddenly realized that he felt calmer, and tried immediately to find the reason why, hoping to find a possible solution to his problem. It wasn't just the hot drink; if that had been all that was necessary, he'd have consumed gallons of tea days ago. No, it had to be something else....
A red light flashed on the computer console, distracting him from his line of thought. Irritated, he slapped the monitor activation switch. Brightly fluorescing letters sprang up on the screen:
What the hell was this?! He'd never had burglars before! He hit the switch for the house's internal security cameras, and hit the switch labeled 'light amplification'; he'd left all the upstairs lights off. He'd had the cameras installed originally to record events when he wasn't going to be using the house, but he hadn't anticipated having to use them to ever foil a crime in progress, especially when he was in the house at the same time.
All thoughts of burglars disappeared from his mind as the image of a quartet of men wearing light-amplification goggles, and carrying slim, but deadly-looking guns of some kind flashed onto the screen. The guns bore an unmistakable military look, almost like streamlined M-16's. The intruders were clad completely in black, and were moving with an air of competent efficiency.
What the hell was.....oh SHIT!!! Bert's stomach dropped as he realized he'd made a huge mistake by coming back to his house on the outskirts of the city. Sylia had still been investigating the identity of the group that had carried out the kidnapping, which meant that, until they were located and dealt with, they still presented a serious threat. It had made sense at the time that the kidnappers would be keeping an eye on all the places where they'd seen Sylvie, on the off-chance that she might show up again, and for that reason he wasn't supposed to have gone back to his house until they were sure it was safe. Unfortunately, in his distraught condition, habit had taken over where reason had failed.
Bert began breathing faster, and sweat broke out on his face as he realized that the stealthy intruders above were here for him; he'd probably been identified as an accomplice, therefore grabbing him would likely lead them to her. He shuddered suddenly, gasping and trying to remain calm as his pulse thundered in his ears. Now what the hell was he supposed to do?! The clawing, yammering fear of being caught and interrogated began battering incessantly against the bulkheads of his sanity.
Bert dove at the phone; even though he'd ran from his friends, he needed them now, in the worst possible way. He snatched up the receiver, trying to keep his hands steady enough to dial the phone number for Sylia's, then stopped. With scorching profanity, he hurled the phone across the room. The line was dead; he'd never had it repaired since the last time.
Now what?! NOW WHAT?!?! his mind shrieked at him, as he stood there sucking in huge gulps of air while trying to get his pulse rate and breathing back to normal. He couldn't just grab a weapon and waltz upstairs to face them; besides being the height of stupidity, these men were obviously professionals. In all likelihood, they'd shoot him if he tried that, although they were probably trying for just a capture. He was reluctant to fight them hand-to-hand anyway; he couldn't risk snapping and killing them, no matter who they worked for. He watched the four armed men on the screen, as the view split up into four smaller sections; they'd split up and were searching the house, room by room. Shortly, they'd likely be moving upstairs.
If you attacked them it would be self-defense, a voice in the back of his mind whispered. They came after you; reprisals are justified. Go ahead, do it!
"NO!" he snarled defiantly at himself. Embracing what he was trying to get rid of in order to save himself was not the answer. If he had a way to fight them without losing his control and killing them, then he'd consider it. Turning into a ravening berserker on purpose was out of the question.
He spun around, his frantic gaze sweeping his basement shop again for some kind of inspiration. Behind him, the computer continued to relay the images of the four stealthy figures sneaking around upstairs.
Conner McAuliffe was an unflappable mercenary, one who left nothing to chance. A topnotch operator, he planned all his 'extraction' operations meticulously. A tall, tow-headed man with sandy brown hair, a saturnine expression, and a ragged scar down the left side of his face, he'd successfully performed hundreds of snatches, ranging from people who'd fled to various countries to get away from the mobs, to the occasional scientist for some of the international mega-corporations. Picking up an unidentified man with red hair wasn't going to be a problem.
He didn't concern himself with why his employers this time wanted this particular person; that wasn't what he got paid for. He had something of theirs, they said, and they needed him to get the whereabouts of it from him. No problem.
He'd carefully evaluated the likely location where he was going to eventually find his prey. It was an ideal location for a quiet pick-up. The house where his quarry lived was on the outskirts of town, in an isolated area with lots of natural cover. That meant no possibility of nosy neighbours having to be dealt with, and if they did raise a stink, any police interference would take too long to arrive to be of any concern. It was a perfect set-up. He'd had brief doubts that perhaps it was too perfect, but had ignored them.
Setting up his men in shifts to watch the house had worked like a charm: about half-an-hour ago, they'd reported a lone figure arriving who matched the description of their quarry. The reports also indicated that the man was either sick or drunk; he'd been staggering around like he'd been overindulging, and it had taken him several minutes to get the front door open. So much the better; even though he wouldn't have had a chance, he'd been described as someone who'd likely fight back given the chance, and Conner preferred to get his victims with minimal fuss.
"Foxtrot One," hissed one of his men over the radio. "We've searched the downstairs portion of the house; no sign of the target. Moving to upstairs."
"Roger that. Proceed carefully," McAuliffe replied quietly over his radio headset. He sat back to wait again, quietly confident. His men were the best; several years of skulking around the various hotspots of the world had ensured that. Their target was as good as in their hands already.
A narrow gun muzzle peeked carefully around the corner of the doorway. A moment later, the bug-eyed protuberances of sophisticated light-amplification goggles, usually called 'nightvision glasses', poked past the doorjamb as the stealthy mercenary wearing them carefully looked into the room beyond. There was nothing immediately apparent in the room, and the black-clad man moved softly into the room. He'd reached the mid-point of the room's floor when a soft footfall sounded behind him.
The man spun with the reflexes of a cat, just as the room lights flicked on. The man stifled a yell of surprise and pain, as his sensitive goggles immediately amplified the increased light into almost solar-like intensity, blinding him. As he wrenched off the goggles, his watering eyes briefly glimpsed a dark shape in front of him before something crashed into his face. Lights flared in the man's vision, then faded to blackness as he dropped heavily to the floor, unconscious.
The lights in the room quickly flicked off again.
"Delta Four!" McAuliffe snapped hoarsely into his radio mike. "Answer me! What is your status?! Where's the rest of the team?!"
"I don't know; I'm almost aAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!" McAuliffe yanked off his headphones as Delta Four's voice suddenly imitated the screeching yowl of a cat with its tail under a rocking chair. "Oh GOD!!! IT'S GOT ME!!!" he screamed. "IT'S GOT....." The line went dead abruptly.
"Delta Four!! Come in!! Aw shit!!" the mercenary leader swore, pitching his headset across the small, cramped communications cubicle in the back of his operations van. Slapping on his hat, he grabbed his custom-made rifle, and began clambering out of the van. One of his few remaining men met him as he got out, eyes so wide that McAuliffe could see the whites of them in the darkness.
"Sir!!!" the younger soldier snapped a shaking salute. "What's going on?! We've lost contact with all four men who went inside!"
"Get a grip on yourself," the scarred merc said coldly. "We've hit a snag, that's all. Get the rest of the men ready; I'm going in myself."
"Yes sir!" the man replied, turning and sprinting towards the other black van parked nearby, as McAuliffe vainly tried to figure out what was going on. Almost twenty years of clandestine operations, and this was the first time he'd ever had something turn sour on him, especially in this weird a way. WHY?! he snarled silently at the sky above. He checked his ammo, jacking a shell into the chamber of his carbine.
A crashing in the bushes nearby brought him spinning around, and brought his remaining five men into readiness, silenced machine-guns snapping into position. A tense waiting feeling filled the air.
"AAAAAAAAAAHGH!!" A scream split the night as one of his men re-entered their position. However, the man was also sailing through the air, twenty feet off the ground.
The luckless mercenary bounced hard, and rolled on the rough ground, coming to a stop a few feet away from the startled soldiers. Everyone stared incredulously at the feebly moving, black-clad man; there was blood on his face, and his left arm appeared to be broken.
"Please!" the injured man pleaded, tears of pain streaming down his face as he tried crawling closer to his comrades. "Keep it away from me!!" In the darkness beyond in the direction where the hapless man had come from, a misty cloud of smoke began to filter through the trees. A large dark shape loomed in the mist, and something glowed evilly, flashing blue briefly. Some of McAuliffe's men muttered superstitiously, and began to draw back. McAuliffe had another explanation.
"It's a boomer! It's a goddamn friggin' boomer!!!" he snarled, opening fire on the dimly-seen apparition. He couldn't really tell whether his armour-piercing bullets were affecting the shape, but it disappeared abruptly.
"Get the heavy weapons out!!" McAuliffe ordered. "We'll nail the bastard that way." He watched his men struggle to unpack the portable rocket launcher they'd brought, mentally swearing at his "employers". The goddamn bastards could have warned him that this guy had access to boomers; at least they could have been better prepared that way!
Something loomed out of the bushes next to the van where his men were uncrating the rocket launcher. Instantly, they grabbed for their guns, but the shape vanished as quickly as it had come. A low chuckle rolled through the air as they spun around, searching for the elusive figure.
"You have chosen a dark path to walk," a low voice intoned from the darkness. It was an eerie, hollow voice that raised the hairs on the backs of everyone's necks. "You have chosen the path that will lead you to your downfall," it added a moment later. "Now you will never again see the light of day."
One of his men panicked at the dire pronouncement. Flinging his rifle aside, the scared mercenary turned and ran, trying to get as far away as possible.
"No, you stupid bastard!!" McAuliffe started to yell. "We've got to stick togeth..." He was cut off by a low WHOOSHing noise, and a dull, sickening-sounding thud. The running man vanished as if the darkness itself had swallowed him. The scar-faced merc spun, and started to run towards the van and the missile launcher, when it happened.
With a leathery flap, reminiscent of giant wings, a dark shape landed from the dark sky above, right in the middle of his men. He could only vaguely make out what he was seeing: a large, man-like shape, coloured black and dark blue, and ...wearing a cape?!
As McAuliffe gaped incredulously, the bulky figure snatched a rifle from the hands of one of his men, and clipped him in the temple with the butt of it; the man folded without a sound. The rifle butt was brutally driven into the guts of a second man, terminating his will to try and fight. A third man seemed to suddenly defy gravity, briefly, as the black shape grabbed him and flung him into the air. There was a loud crack as the soldier's head impacted with a nearby tree at the end of his express flight, and he collapsed bonelessly to the ground. The fourth, final man was flung directly at McAuliffe.
"Oh no you don't, you boomer bastard!!" the tow-headed mercenary snarled, ducking the improvised missile. His former employee bounced into the ground behind him, and lay there groaning in pain. McAuliffe opened fire at the slowly advancing shape.
As it drew nearer, McAuliffe realized it was actually an armour suit. The suit was midnight black, with dark blue, almost black gauntlets, boots and helmet. The helmet had what looked like swept-back pointed ears, and there was a coldly glowing blue eyeslot in the helmet faceplate. A long cape billowed behind it as it walked, and a silver symbol of some kind glinted on the chest of the advancing battlesuit, as McAuliffe's bullets shrieked and whined harmlessly off of its plating.
"You have been weighed in the scales of justice, and found wanting..." the suit proclaimed in a sepulchral tone. It advanced implacably, snatching the now-terrified merc's gun from his hands, and effortlessly snapping it in half, dropping the pieces to either side. A long, wickedly sharp-looking blade sprang out with a loud snap from the armoured shape's right arm as the scar-faced man tried to back away. The armoured arm came up and back for a downward chop. "...and the sentence is Death."
McAuliffe screamed, closing his eyes and throwing his arms over his face as the blade came hurtling down towards his head.
"Oh GOOODDD!! Don't kill me!!" McAuliffe screamed, opening his eyes a crack, and then squeezing them tightly shut again. Below him, the tiny lights of the city twinkled mockingly. Above him was the star-speckled expanse of the dark night sky.
"You are in no position to ask for favours," the cold voice of the armoured shape holding him aloft declared. Large, bat-like wings were spread from the suit's back, and a quietly droning jet system of some kind held the suit and its captive hovering in place. A gauntleted hand was clamped around the erstwhile mercenary's right ankle, dangling the man head-first towards the very distant ground.
"For God's sake..." the merc started pleading.
"God has nothing to do with this," the harsh voice declared flatly. "You broke into an innocent man's house with intent to commit murder..."
"We weren't going to hurt anybody!!" McAuliffe protested. "We were just supposed to capture him!!"
"Why?" The question was asked in a harsh tone that brooked no nonsense.
"I don't know why!!" the dangling man said wildly. "I was just told to pick him up!! We were to pick him up, and then arrange to take him to their base! That's all I know!! I swear to God, that's all I know!!!"
"That's not all you know," the suit said menacingly. "You also know where your 'employer' can be found; I want that information."
"I...I can't tell you that!!! My life wouldn't be worth....AAIEEEEGAGHK!!" McAuliffe's scream choked off into a strangled gasp, as the suit briefly released him to free-fall towards the earth below, then caught him again by the belt and shirtfront after he'd only fallen about ten feet.
The terrified merc's face was pulled closer to the glowering helmet eyeslot of the suit. He swallowed, desperately trying to work some moisture back into his mouth.
"Your life isn't worth shit right now," the suit snarled, "so you've got nothing to lose by telling me who hired you, and where to find them."
"If I tell you, will you let me go?" the scared man bargained. The helmet on the suit nodded, once.
"If I think you've told me everything I want to know, then I'll let you go," it promised. The armoured hand holding his shirt clenched tighter. "Now talk."
"Okay, okay," the mercenary gulped. "I was hired two weeks ago by an old buddy of mine by the name of Hollister; we'd knocked around Europe for years together, so he knew my reputation...." McAuliffe gave the dark battlesuit everything he knew, including the location of where he was supposed to have dropped off his prisoner. It was in an isolated location, far to the northwest of the city, in the middle of an isolated wildlife preserve.
"They set it up there because they figured nobody'd ever look there," the brown-haired former kidnapper stammered. "They knew all the right people to pay off or get rid of so that nothing would be said, and they set up a small base there. That's all I know, I swear."
"And how do I know that's all you know?"
"Because I gave my word," the mercenary shot back defiantly. "How good's yours? Are you gonna let me go now?!" There was a tense silence for a moment, broken only by the quiet whine of the suit's propulsion system.
"You're right," the suit said finally. "It does boil down to how good your word is, doesn't it?" There was another moment of silence. "Very well; I said I'd let you go, and that's exactly what I'm going to do." McAuliffe's eyes widened in sudden fear as he realized what the suit meant.
"No!!" he howled in terror, trying vainly to grab at the suit's arm as it released its clenched grip on him. "Not like thAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT!!!!" The screaming mercenary plummeted towards the ground, gaining speed as gravity gleefully pulled him downwards.
McAuliffe screamed profane imprecations as the ground rushed closer, heaping every curse he could think of on the head of his former compatriot who'd gotten him into this mess, and on the bloody sick bastard in the armour suit who'd just dropped him from great heights. Just as he was preparing to become one with the ground, and shuffle off to whatever realm awaited him, his downward drop stopped with a brutal, gut wrenching jolt that forced the air from his lungs, and his dinner from his stomach as something grabbed his belt from above.
"Fooled you, didn't I?" the mechanical voice asked rhetorically, chuckling.
Light flooded the basement as a staggering, blue-black armour clad figure lurched down the stairs. Bert yanked off the helmet of his Batman hardsuit, flinging it violently across the shop, where it smashed an inoffensive pile of junk, make that spare parts, off of the table in a clatter. Sweat poured down his face as he leaned against the hardsuit storage table, shuddering and gasping.
"No, damn it, no..." Another tremor shook him, as he gritted his teeth, shaking his head violently. His gauntlets clenched, leaving imprints in the metal surface of the table. The fit passed, and he straightened up, and quickly took off the dark coloured hardsuit. He collapsed with his back against the nearby wall, and slid down it to sit with his head back against it, shivering.
He'd won, but only by the barest of margins; he'd been fighting himself every moment he'd been in the suit, trying to keep from losing control. The knowledge that the intruders had been probably going to take him back to be questioned had been gnawing at him the entire time, goading him into a blind fury. Topping that off, he'd had several flashbacks of his interrogation when trying to subdue the men sent to capture him. Each time, he'd managed to stop himself before killing the man in front of him, but there were now several former mercenaries who would be collecting disability pensions from now on.
The memory of hearing bones snap like rotten twigs welled up, and he was suddenly sick on the floor nearby. Coughing and retching, he wiped the bile from his mouth with a shaky hand, and crawled away from the reeking puddle. They deserved worse, a voice in the back of his mind declared flatly. You should have killed them; then they couldn't bother anyone ever again.
"No," he muttered defiantly to the nagging voice, "I won't kill people." Another surge of nausea left him doubled up in pain as his stomach spewed out the last of its contents. Holding his sore guts, he staggered to his feet, painfully walking over to the blue-black hardsuit on the table. His hands were still shaking slightly as he reached over to the left gauntlet arm-guard of the armour, and popped open a small panel. He extracted a small floppy disk, which contained the flight recorder data from his 'outing', including all the information that the mercenary he'd terrorized had given him.
As he was closing up the panel, he noticed a slick, reddish stain dried onto the right gauntlet, near where the swordblade mechanism was; blood, from when he'd slashed one of his attackers, nearly eviscerating him. Slapping a hand over his mouth, he spun around and made two steps before his stomach tried rebelling again. He grimly fought it back under control.
Hunting around for a rag, he quickly cleaned up the mess he'd made of the floor, forcing himself to think about something else as he did so. When the last of the smelly mess was cleaned up, he picked up the data disk, and went upstairs, flicking off the lights as he left.
Once upstairs, he changed out of his undergarment softsuit and had a quick, hot shower, which made him feel a little bit better. He quickly dressed again in a well-worn blue tracksuit, and threw a few other clothes into a knapsack with some odds and ends needed for staying overnight somewhere. Given what had happened tonight, he couldn't risk staying here the rest of the night; he'd go find a motel someplace, and then go back to Sylia's in the morning and hand over the disk.
As he thumped down the stairs, a wave of weariness slammed into him, almost making him trip and go diving headfirst down them to the ground floor. He caught at the railing before that could happen; the brackets holding it to the wall creaked threateningly as he used it to navigate the rest of the way down the stairs. What the hell was wrong with him?! It wasn't that late!! Damn it, he couldn't afford to be tired right now!!
He staggered into his darkened living room, and sat down on the couch, dropping his pack to the floor while giving his shaky legs a rest. Just for a few minutes, he promised himself. He just needed to sit for a few minutes to get his wind back....
Bert folded over onto his side on the couch cushions, completely exhausted, physically and emotionally depleted and unable to stay awake any longer.
THE NEXT DAY.....
Sunlight cast a dappled pattern through the leaves of the lofty trees surrounding the small brown house. Birds sang cheerfully, as the normal scurrying daytime residents of the area went about the daily business of survival. So what if there were strange metal or plastic objects laying in the grass in several places? Unless it was edible, they couldn't have cared less.
A rumbling drone in the distance resolved into the sound of twin motorcycle engines, drawing nearer. A few birds took wing in surprise as two motorbikes, one red-white and blue-striped, and one blue and white marked machine, came flying into the gravel laneway, and skidded to a halt. The riders were two fairly tall, shapely women; one was clad in red leathers with long brown hair trailing from beneath her blue, red-striped helmet, and the other woman was wearing a very form-fitting white and blue motorcycle racing suit with a matching helmet.
Sylvie pulled off her helmet, and ran a hand through her hair as she took a quick glance around. Everything looked normal enough, but there was something....peculiar about the surrounding scene, something strange that she couldn't put a name to.
"Look!" Priss pointed, interrupting her line of thought. "He did come here last night!" Sylvie looked, and saw a heavy, but fairly sleek-looking blue and silver motorcycle. The bike was dumped over on its side, however.
"If his bike's here, he must still be," she noted. Priss shook her head negatively.
"Sylia told me that he had a spare hardsuit here," Priss informed her. "He probably came here, got into it, and flew off someplace."
"Are you still mad at her?" Sylvie asked quietly, looking over at her friend.
"Hell yes!!" Priss snapped, muted anger showing in her red-brown eyes. "We're supposed to be helping him get over this, not rubbing his face into things that are going to set him off again!! She didn't need to do that to him, goddamn it; by now he's probably miles away." Priss shut up, and started walking towards the front door, frustrated anger evident in her body language. Sylvie sighed to herself, and followed, looking around. Her searching gaze came to rest on something long and dark in the grass nearby. Curious, she veered over to have a look, and found herself staring at a very lethal-looking rifle of some kind.
"Priss!!" her strangled outcry brought her friend around and running over to see what the problem was. Sylvie pointed wordlessly at the discarded weapon.
"Oh SHIT!" Priss swore, gaze snapping up to probe the surrounding area. As she did so, Sylvie finally pinpointed what had been bothering her about the scene.
In places, the grass had been trampled completely flat, like there'd been a scuffle of some kind. Several trees had branches snapped off, almost like something had gone flying through them at high speed. As she moved around a bit, she noticed the occasional gash across a tree trunk, and a moment later identified it as a bullet scar. All in all, it looked like there'd been a brawl outside during the night.
"Come on!!" Priss hissed at her, turning around and sprinting for the front door. "We've got to check the house!" Sylvie hesitated for a moment, then snatched up the rifle and ran after her.
The door frame had been shattered around the lock, and the door was wedged shut somehow to keep it closed. After some effort, Priss and Sylvie forced it open, and stepped inside. The house looked remarkably normal on the inside; whatever action had occurred last night hadn't disturbed the rooms too much. As they moved cautiously through the house, a comatose, red-haired figure laying on the couch came into view. A relieved look flashed across Priss' face.
"Thank God he's still here," she sighed, deflating slightly in relief. The two women moved into the living room, looking around. Bert was out cold, snoring slightly, but he didn't appear to be injured. A bulging backpack lay near him on the floor, indicating that he had been about to leave. A small floppy disk had fallen out of one of the pockets on the backpack, and Priss picked it up curiously, turning it over. It wasn't labeled, so she shrugged and tucked it back into his pack. She started to reach over to shake Bert awake when Sylvie's hand on her arm stopped her.
"I'd wait for a few minutes," she advised softly, a warning look in her eyes. "He's not expecting us." Priss nodded reluctantly, remembering what his reactions to surprises were at the moment. Suddenly thirsty, she went out to the kitchen and rummaged around for a glass. She found a clean one, and filled it with water. Sipping at it, she walked back into the living room where Sylvie was sitting in another chair, watching Bert as he slumbered.
"I think you can lose the rifle now," Priss observed dryly; the sleek black gun was sitting propped up against the arm of her chair. Sylvie flushed slightly, looking sheepish.
"I wasn't sure what we'd find," she explained, taking the weapon and sliding it under the sofa, out of sight. "I figured it might be a good idea to take it along." Priss nodded wordlessly, looking down at her sleeping friend as she took another drink of water. He can't even relax when he's asleep now, she noted with a trace of sadness; even though he was oblivious to the world at large at the moment, there was a tenseness to him, a defensiveness that was apparent even when he should have been completely relaxed. As she watched him, he twitched and stirred in his sleep, muttering something inaudible.
"Bert?" she called gently, leaning forwards over the back of the couch to look closer at him. "You awake?" His body twitched in some kind of a reflex action, startling Priss; in her current wary state, she'd half expected him to leap up primed for an attack. As she jumped from his sudden movement, she lost her grip on her glass of water. With perfect, improbable precision, the base of the glass hit the edge of the couch back, and dumped the entire glassful straight into his face; then the now-empty glass flipped nimbly over him to land on the carpeted floor on the other side of the couch with a dull thud.
"Wha..BLUB!" Bert's startled exclamation was lost in the sudden coughing and gasping fit that inhaling some of the water produced. He flopped off the couch, wheezing and sputtering like a car with water in the carburetor as he tried to clear his air passages. He floundered on the floor for a moment, spraying water onto the carpeting as he coughed. Sylvie couldn't stand it any longer, and collapsed in helpless laughter, laughing so hard she almost fell out of the chair. Priss stood behind the couch, a horribly embarrassed look on her face, even as a grin began to form.
"What...." Bert tried again, then sneezed in a mammoth exhalation that almost blew him over. He coughed some more, wiping water from his face as he crawled to his knees, then stood up. Finally getting control of himself, he glared briefly at the nearly-hysterical brown-haired woman in the nearby chair, then at the red leather-garbed woman standing behind the couch.
"Thanks for the drink," he said acidly. "Any particular reason you tried to drown me?!"
"It was an accident!!" Priss protested, trying desperately to suppress the grin that she felt creeping across her face.
"I'll bet," he muttered sourly, casting another withering glance at Sylvie. She noticed his irritation, and tried valiantly to control herself. It didn't work; she collapsed again, laughing helplessly.
"I'm so..sorry!!" she gasped between peals of laughter. "It's just th...that...the look on your face...I'm sorry!!" She leaned back in the chair, laughing again even harder. Unfortunately, in leaning back, she overbalanced the chair, and went crashing over backwards. Priss folded over the back of the couch, laughing herself at that particular mishap, and a grudging grin even spread across Bert's face. Chuckling himself, he stepped over to Sylvie, and gave her a hand up. After a few more moments, everyone regained control of themselves.
"So to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?" he asked them, glancing at them. Like she'd noticed before, Priss could see a cold wariness in his eyes.
"We came to see if you were all right," she told him. "We were concerned about you, especially after the way you bolted last night." Priss stepped up to him, ignoring the tension that briefly enveloped him. Looking him straight in the eye, she added, "From the looks of things outside, I'd say we were right to be concerned. Care to tell us about it?"
Greenish-brown eyes stared back into red-brown ones for a moment. Priss watched something flicker through them, settling into a weary resignation. He sighed tiredly, and motioned for her to sit down. Priss dragged a chair closer to the couch and sat in it as Bert flopped into the couch.
"After I....left, I came back here, as you no doubt noticed," he told them. "I was trying to sort things out in my mind about what I was going to do about my....problem." His voice was flat and emotionless as he related what had happened. When he got to the part about his scuffles with the would-be kidnappers, his expression and voice became strained, as if he was barely holding himself back from cracking.
"I took out the ones in the house first," he told them. "It was almost absurdly easy; I got three of them by just flicking on the lights and then slugging them. The fourth guy had realized what was going on, and he put up a fight."
"What happened to him?" Sylvie inquired.
"I grabbed him and smashed him through the upstairs window," he replied flatly. "Probably broke some of his ribs from the punch, and hitting the ground from the second story wouldn't have helped his condition any." He hesitated, then continued speaking. "I was having...difficulty...keeping myself in check; if I'd really let go in my hardsuit, I'd have killed him."
"What happened then?" Priss asked quietly.
"I went out and got the rest of them," he said simply. "The Batman hardsuit is meant for stealthy night operations, and it was perfectly suited for what I had to do." He quickly hit the highlights of the clean-up, glossing over the fact that he'd just barely kept from killing the mercenaries, leaving them seriously injured instead. He also told them about getting the location of their foes' base from the leader of the mercenaries.
"Now we're talkin'!" Priss exclaimed, eyes lighting up as a nasty grin spread across her face. "Now we can go trash the bastards!!" Sylvie nodded in emphatic agreement, then noticed that Bert was remaining quiet, apparently indifferent, or at least, unexcited, about the news.
"What's wrong?" she asked, looking him over quizzically. "I thought you'd be jumping at the chance to pay them back."
"Yeah!" Priss agreed. "Where the hell's the phone?! I've gotta call Sylia; there's no way she can say you can't handle yourself in a suit now!" She jumped up to start looking for the phone.
"Sit down, Priss," he said quietly.
"What?! Why?!" she demanded, looking at him. He looked back at her, expressionless.
"Because the phone's dead, and I'm not going along when you go to get these guys." Astonished silence cloaked the room as the meaning of his last statement hit them.
"Why the hell not?!" Priss demanded. "You successfully whipped those bastards last night with no problems, in your hardsuit. You didn't freak out, right? I'd say that makes it safe to take you along. What's wrong? Don't you want to go and pay these bastards back?"
"OF COURSE I WANT TO!!!!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs, suddenly on his feet, every muscle tensed in fury. There was almost a blaze of angry light from his eyes as he shouted at her. Priss fell over backwards into her chair, taken by surprise at the sudden shift in his behaviour. "I want to go get them so badly, I almost went roaring off myself last night, armed to the goddamn teeth!!" he snarled, shaking as he slowly brought himself back under control. "I want to goddamn grind them face-first very slowly into the friggin' ground, inch by bloody painful inch...." he gritted, fists clenched.
"And that's why I'm not going," he finished quietly, sinking back down into the couch, putting his head in his hands. Sylvie relaxed; for a moment, she'd been afraid she'd have to stop him again as he flipped out.
"I didn't quite follow all that," Priss said awkwardly.
"I can't be trusted at the moment," he said hollowly, not looking up. "I've got no business being anywhere near a hardsuit for at least a few weeks; last night, I could barely restrain myself from going berserk, and the...strain...from having to do it...screwed me up for a while. I was throwing up on the floor because of it afterwards."
"Damn it, you can't just...."
"Priss, please," he interrupted. "Don't be stubborn about this. I appreciate the concern, really I do, but I can't go along. I'm sorry, but that's the way these things go sometimes."
"Well, shit!!" she swore, flinging herself disgustedly into the sofa next to him, folding her arms sullenly across her chest. In her mind, he was ready to accompany the rest of the Sabers on a mission. So what if he'd messed up a few hired thugs?! The bastards had deserved whatever they got.
In her opinion, the fact that he'd left them alive was proof that his control was better; if she'd been in his situation, she wasn't so sure she'd have worried about leaving them alive. At times she felt he was being hopelessly idealistic and naive by not meeting force with force; if someone shoved you, you shoved back as hard or harder. If you didn't show them you meant business, they'd come back again.
There was also the perception that showing someone mercy was a sign of weakness; it had been her experience that if you weren't as tough-appearing as your opponents, they'd try to walk all over you. Showing someone mercy was offering them an opportunity to knife you in the ribs later. She wished Bert would be a little more practical about their work at times; they'd come hunting him, and in her opinion, he'd have been justified in wiping them out.
"Priss," his voice penetrated into her irritated thoughts. She glared over at him, but he ignored it.
"I'm sorry if hearing the truth pisses you off," he told her seriously, looking deeply into her eyes, "but you're going to have to get over it. After what happened last night with those kidnappers, and before that at the testing facility, I have to agree with Sylia: it's too dangerous for the rest of you to have me go with you."
"Those incidents are not the same goddamn thing!" she snapped angrily. "Sylia pushed you over the edge on purpose, hitting you with an electrical jolt..."
"And she was right in doing it," he said firmly, cutting her off.
"PARDON ME?!?! You're going to sit there and tell me that you think ..."
"I didn't say I enjoyed it, or was happy about it, goddamnit!!" he snapped, silencing her with a slashing gesture. He was silent a moment, his face reflecting his own disgruntlement with Sylia; it vanished, and he continued speaking. "However, Sylia's the leader, remember? She has to make decisions while keeping the good of the team as a whole in mind. Taking me along on a mission right now is too big a risk to everyone else." He sighed, then looked squarely at her. "So you can quit hating Sylia on my behalf, okay?" Priss turned bright crimson.
"Who said I was?" she muttered finally, looking away.
"I do," he replied firmly. He reached out and tilted her chin up with his hand looking into her eyes again. "I know you pretty well, remember? How much did you swear at her after I left? Or did you just opt for making her feel guilty?" Priss flushed again, angrily jerking her head away from his hand and shoving it aside.
"She opted for the guilt trip," Sylvie commented quietly from the sidelines. "Both her and Nene were pretty upset."
"Thanks for the support!" Priss shot back at her caustically, flushing yet again. Sylvie was unaffected, understanding some of what Priss had been feeling at the time.
"I'll talk to Nene later today," Bert sighed, then looked over at Priss. "As for you, you owe Sylia an apology, I think."
"An apology?!" she spluttered. "When Hell freezes over!! I'm...." her voice trailed off as he continued to gaze steadily at her. "Oh all right," she groused sourly. "I'll apologize."
"Thank you," he said quietly. He suddenly leaned forwards, and gave a surprised Priss a quick, soft kiss on the lips. She stared at him.
"What the hell was that for?!"
"That was a thank-you for the concern," he told her, sighing and standing up and stretching.
"Well that's what friends are for," she muttered, flushing uncomfortably as she stood up. For some unfathomable reason, him kissing her seemed to have flustered her. Sylvie had a slight smile on her face, but didn't comment as she also stood up.
"Now what are you going to do?" she asked, glancing at the backpack on the floor. "I hope you weren't still thinking of leaving."
"I was only leaving as far as the nearest hotel," he informed her. "I figured it would be safer than staying here for the night in the events that they sent someone else. However, I made the mistake of sitting down for a short rest, and it turned into a long one." He shook his head, irritated at himself for passing out. Bending over, he pulled his recorder data disk from the backpack, and stuffed it in a pocket. "That's all I need," he announced. "We can leave now, I guess."
"Ummm, not quite yet," Priss reminded him. "We'd better hide all the guns and shit laying around outside first. That would be a little hard to explain if the cops come by."
"Ladies first," he said with a faint grin, gesturing towards the door.
"Chivalry," Priss muttered, her emphasis turning it into a curse word. She led the way out the door, Sylvie and a smirking Bert following.
"No reports of anyone matching that description?" Nene asked hopefully. Her face fell at the negative reply from the person on the other end of the line. "Okay, thanks," she sighed, "Good-bye." She hung up the receiver, trying desperately to hold together until the end of her shift, which was a mere ten minutes or so away.
She hadn't been able to find a trace of Bert at all through her ADP connections, and he hadn't gone back to Sylia's, or over to his archery range that he'd set up. Priss and Sylvie had taken off to check his suburban home, much to Sylia's displeasure, but that had been the last she'd heard. It was as if he'd vanished, and Nene couldn't fight off the lurking fear that maybe this time he'd taken off for good. She tried to present an impassive face to the rest of the office, but she was only partly successful.
"Hey Nene," Naoko hailed her as she walked by. "Cheer up, will you?! It's not that much longer!" With a cheery wave, the brown-haired, freckled girl disappeared down the hallway.
"Oh, go drown yourself in the secretarial pool," Nene muttered disgustedly. She didn't want to cheer up; she wanted to be mad at everything. She was mad at Sylia for pushing Bert into a relapse in the testing chamber; she was mad at Priss for getting mad at Sylia, and also for being the first person Bert usually confided in; she was mad at Bert for taking off again and hiding. In short, she was generally ticked off at the world, and didn't care at the moment who knew about it.
At long last, the end of the shift came. With a tired yawn, Nene stood and stretched luxuriantly, sweeping her vibrant, long red hair back over her shoulders. With a sigh, she smoothed out her skirt, loosened her tie a bit, then shrugged into her jacket. She bent over and started rummaging around in the space underneath her desk, trying to find where her purse had gotten kicked to. As she searched, she heard some steady footsteps approaching her desk.
Oh God, not tonight!! she groaned mentally. Lately, one of her supervisors had taken to dropping extra work on her at the end of a shift, work that usually had to be done right away. She was getting to the point of blowing up about the situation, and all the stress she'd been under lately wasn't helping things. She sighed, and began to brace herself for the worst.
"Lose something?" a quiet, familiar voice inquired. Nene straightened up so quickly that she cracked her head on the edge of the desk, and folded over again, clutching at her head in pain as stars danced through her sight for a minute. Almost immediately, she felt someone gently support her by the arm, and help her into a chair. Blinking eyes that were watering from the brief flash of pain, she looked up into Bert's greenish-brown eyed face. He looked a little worn, and his hair was still an unruly mess, but she was glad to see him.
Springing up, she threw her arms around him, pulling him down for a kiss. A brief stiffness seemed to flash through him, but a very short moment later, Nene felt his arms tighten around her as he returned her kiss. They stood like that for a moment, enjoying the feel of holding each other. A few people across the office carefully hid smirks at the sight.
"Feeling happier now?" Naoko dryly observed as she walked past the red-haired couple, pulling on her own jacket. Flashing them an impudent grin, the brown-haired girl vanished out the door as Nene turned beet red, and pulled away from Bert. He was slightly flushed himself, looking sheepish. Nene's irritation at Naoko's smart remark reminded her that she was still angry at Bert.
"Where the hell have you been?!" she demanded angrily. "I've been worried sick about you, especially after...."
"Just take it easy," he cautioned her, holding up a hand, and Nene remembered that the middle of a police station wasn't the best place to discuss their extra-curricular activities. Flushing again, she quickly grabbed her handbag from under her desk. Bert offered her his arm, and she took it as they began walking out of the office, down to the entrance to the building.
"Hey," Nene suddenly asked, looking over at him. "How'd you get into the building?!"
"Those passcards you got me a while back, remember?" He fished in the inner breast pocket of his jacket, and came up with a couple of scuffed plastic cards: an ADP passcard, and a visitor's card. "I hung onto them figuring they'd come in handy later on."
"Oh." They lapsed into silence again as they walked. She noted that he seemed less tense than he had before, but the edginess was still there, like a vulture perched over him. She immediately dismissed the mental image as too morbid to think about.
They made it out of the building without incident, and began walking along the street, towards a local donut shop where they occasionally went whenever Nene couldn't stave off her chocolate addiction any longer. She waited until they were seated in a secluded booth with their donuts and coffee before trying to give him the third degree again.
"All right, buster," she said, trying to sound stern and commanding. "Where were you last night, and why didn't you call me earlier today?"
"I'd like to see my lawyer," he replied blandly. "I want legal counsel before I answer any more questions." Nene's gaze transformed into a glare hot enough to burn holes into concrete; she didn't feel like joking right now, although the fact that he just had was an indication that he might be getting better. He held up his hands placatingly as she opened her mouth to retort.
"Okay, okay," he soothed her, sighing. "I went back to my house last night after I left the facility..."
"Bert!!!" she said in a strangled voice. "You know what Sylia said about that!!! How..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, so it was a stupid thing to do," he cut her off irritably, a sour expression settling onto his face. "Hindsight is always perfect; I shouldn't have done it, but I wasn't thinking very clearly last night. Well, we know for sure now that they're watching my house at the moment."
"What happened?" Nene asked concernedly. Bert's face turned stiff as his eyes turned distant, remembering.
"They sent another kidnapping team after me," he said tightly. Nene sucked in a sharp breath, fear and concern warring for dominance in her face. "It's lucky I was in my basement shop," he continued, "or they might very well have caught me again. My security system picked them up, and I was able to deal with them after that."
"Deal with them how?!"
"I put on my ..." He took a quick glance around suddenly, then continued speaking in a lower tone. "I put on my Batman hardsuit and went hunting," he told her. "I got every last one of the bastards, and I even managed to get some information from the leader; I passed it on to Sylia earlier today, and she's looking at it now."
"Those kidnappers you mentioned," she asked quietly, unease suddenly gnawing at her. "How many were there altogether?"
"Nine, I think, ten counting their boss. I don't remember exactly. I stuffed them in their truck after it was over, drove it downtown, and left it someplace where it would get found quickly."
"That was you?!" she whispered, face paling. "We got a report today of a van being found in the downtown area very early this morning. It was full of military equipment, and there were ten seriously injured men packed inside of it. They were all in shock about something."
"That was them," he confirmed, nodding. "Why?"
"Doesn't that...? How can you...?" Nene trailed off as she stared at him. The ten men he'd just casually dismissed had been in critical condition when found. One was paralyzed for life, from the mid-point of his back down, and two others were never walking again without crutches. The remaining six men had all had serious injuries ranging from crushed ribs and limbs to ruptured internal organs. One man, the presumed leader, had several cracked ribs, and had been in lousy shape mentally. He had been babbling about someone dropping him from the sky; he'd also confessed to all kinds of crimes, demanding to be locked up and 'kept safe'. All of the men had required hospitalization, and were going to take quite some time to recover.
"How come it isn't bothering me?" he suggested.
"You were a little....harsh...with them," Nene said awkwardly. Bert's face tightened, and a brief tremor ran through him.
"Maybe I was," he replied, sounding strained. "But they were going to ....to take me back to ... to be questioned. I couldn't allow it." Cold anger flared briefly in his eyes, but it was undirected, general. "I was fighting to keep from killing them the entire time I was in the hardsuit; and I just barely managed it." Another tremor ran through him as he remembered the see-saw battle he'd had to fight with himself. "I was throwing up afterwards, that's how rough it was. I'm not going to sit here and lie, however: I don't feel all that much remorse over what they got. They were coming after me with intent to do serious harm, and there is no way I'm going to 'play nice' just for the sake of sparing them some discomfort. They played with fire, and they got burnt."
Bert quit speaking, staring moodily into his coffee cup. Nene stared at him, concealing the trickle of unease that ran through her now. Up until now, he'd always held himself back when fighting unarmoured human opponents. On the rare occasions when he'd encountered unarmoured opposition, he'd merely disarmed them without laying a hand on them physically, and then bundled them up for the police to pick up. In fact, he'd always prided himself on being restrained. The harshness he'd shown in dealing with the kidnappers, while understandable, given the circumstances, now revealed a hard edge that she was sure hadn't been there before.
Nene sat, her coffee growing cold as she tried adjusting to this change in him. Fundamentally, he hadn't changed, at least, she hoped that was the case. Before his ordeal at the hands of his and Sylvie's kidnappers, he'd always had a humourous outlook on life which, while annoying at times, was one of the things she'd liked about him. It had been combined with a sort of innocent 'the good guys always win' attitude that she'd found endearing. Despite all the hardships and traumas they'd been through before, he'd always emerged more or less unchanged, his good-natured demeanor always present, his chivalric and heroic ideals intact.
That wasn't the case now; while his old personality showed signs of re-emerging, there were some subtle differences to his manner that she was picking up. One, the hard edge he'd just revealed in dealing with his attackers, was unsettling. She couldn't quite pin down what the other changes were yet, and she found herself wondering if they were going to be equally unsettling. She found herself fervently hoping that the original 'Knight-in-shining-armour' she'd fallen in love with had survived, without his 'armour' becoming tarnished by what he'd been through.
"What did Sylia say when you talked to her?" she asked abruptly, wanting to change the subject so she could quit contemplating such disturbing things. Bert looked up from his coffee cup, a wry smile appearing briefly.
"About what you'd expect," he sighed. "The words 'dumb jackass' and 'never listen' cropped up occasionally. Then she told me to get lost so she could look at the data disk I gave her."
"Are you mad at her about last night?" Nene asked hesitantly. Bert's face tightened briefly, then relaxed.
"I was, for awhile," he admitted. "But even though I didn't like it, she was right in doing it. Anything that might pose a threat to the team on an operation has to be controlled or eliminated. Personal feelings can't be allowed to interfere in that decision. I told Sylia I wasn't mad at her, and that seemed to make her feel better, so I doubt very much that she herself liked what she had to do to me." He looked over at her. "Are you still mad at her?" he queried.
"I...I'm not sure," Nene replied uncomfortably. She'd been mad enough at Sylia an hour or so ago, but now she felt unsure. Bert seemed to have accepted it, which meant that it was pretty pointless for her to keep holding a grudge. Something suddenly hit her. "Hey, how'd you know I was mad at Sylia?!"
"Sylvie mentioned that you and Priss were a little ticked off with her, and weren't shy about letting her know it," he replied absently, looking out across the small shop. A suspicion flared in the back of Nene's mind.
"You saw Priss and Sylvie first?"
"Yeah," he nodded, returning his attention to her. "After the ruckus was over last night, I'd been getting ready to re-locate to a hotel for the night; I passed out on the couch instead, and they found me there just before lunchtime." His face seemed to freeze for a moment as he shuddered. "I'm just glad they found me first," he said quietly. "If they'd sent another capture team..." His voice trailed off, and he took a slurp of his coffee.
"So you told them what happened first?" she queried. He nodded, looking puzzled briefly.
"It would have been a little rude not to tell them why the place was a mess, and why the door had been kicked in," he pointed out. "Why? Wasn't I supposed to tell them?"
"Never mind," she evaded, concealing the sudden jealous surge that sprang up. Why was it always Priss who found out these things before she did? Or Priss who always seemed to be able to get him to open up?!
"Nene," he said, peering at her closely. "Please don't do that. Why do you look like you just ate something distasteful?" Nene was silent for a moment.
"How much do you like Priss?" she asked suddenly. Bert blinked in surprise.
"How much...? What kind of a question is that?!" he asked, puzzled. "She's a good friend, you should know that."
"Romantic feelings?!?!" he repeated incredulously. "What the hell is this?! Nene, I love you, for God's sake!! Priss is just a very good friend; at times she's more like a sister than anything, but that's all there is to it!!" He couldn't quite believe this was happening. Sure, he liked Priss a lot; she was good-looking, great-looking in fact, and she had a reasonable sense of humour. Her at times hard-boiled manner, which made getting near her difficult, was a shield she used to conceal her real self from all but her closest friends. Once you got past the tough outer shell she presented to the world, there was a rather pleasant young woman who cared deeply about all her friends. She was on the headstrong side, and could be a little blunt at times, even irritating, but she was basically as nice a person as he'd known, and he was glad she was a friend.
Even as he thought that, his memory suddenly replayed what he'd felt when she'd first given him a quick kiss. He knew it had been meant as a gesture of friendship, nothing more, indicating that she trusted him, despite his problems. However, at the same time, he'd felt a slight thrill at the feel of her lips on his. They'd felt very warm and soft, somehow inviting...
As he tried to strangle off that recollection, he remembered suddenly that the same thing had happened when he'd kissed her as a method of thanking her for being concerned about him. Oh good Lord, was he developing a crush on Priss?! No, he told himself flatly, she's just a friend; that's all. Still, a voice in the back of his mind noted, kissing her WAS nice, wasn't it?
He irritably suppressed the nagging voice of his subconscious, and returned his attention to Nene. She was waiting for him to finish speaking, a faintly suspicious look in her emerald-green eyes.
"I love you," he told her firmly. "That's the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Priss and I are good friends, nothing more." A wry smile appeared suddenly. "Although at the moment I don't think she considers me much of a friend."
"Why's that?" Nene asked. She tried to ignore the faint fire of jealousy that was still smoldering in the back of her mind; she believed him, at least she thought she did, but that still didn't change the fact that he'd gone to Priss first, several times actually, now that she thought about it.
"Well, I said Sylvie had mentioned you two were mad at Sylia," he explained. "Knowing Priss, I figured that meant she'd said something to Sylia to upset her. I was right, as it turned out. Anyhow, at the moment she's pissed off at me for making her apologize to Sylia for giving her a rough time."
"You made her apologize?!" she said incredulously, staring. He nodded.
"I explained things to her," he replied. "She didn't like what she heard, but she did, eventually, see the reasoning behind it."
"That's a minor miracle right there," Nene observed dryly. "Priss listening to reason."
"Now, now," he admonished with a grin. "Be nice." He glanced at the clock, sighed, and stood up. "Sylia wanted us back at her place by 9:00 PM, so we'd better get going." He courteously helped Nene out of her seat, and they left the shop.
"If that 'friend' of yours was one of the best, I'd really hate to meet the worst."
Hollister seethed with ill-concealed fury as he stood facing the older man with grey-black hair in blue fatigues across a large metal desk. His straw-blond hair was slightly messed-up, and his suit was slightly wrinkled-looking; his steely blue eyes were as hard as sapphire chips as he glared across the desk.
"McAuliffe was the best covert operative that was available," he gritted. "I don't know what happened to screw things up...but I'm sure that bastard had something to do with it."
"Drop it, Hollister," Hiro advised wearily, dropping into a padded swivel chair. "You've been trying for two weeks now to get a lead on him; just give it up." Hiro irritably shoved the file folder on his desk to the side. A picture of a younger man with unruly red hair and greenish-brown eyes slipped out, and he angrily stuffed it back inside, not wanting to be reminded of what that particular person had cost them.
"When Hell freezes over!!" Hollister snapped. "That guy has no records older than two to three years, and even then they're flimsy at best; before 2032, it's as if he didn't exist. No apparent employer, but he's got the money to build souped-up vehicles, and he paid a massive amount of money, in CASH, for that house of his. Now doesn't that sound funny to you?"
"No," Hiro retorted. "There's plenty of people who can afford to still use cash. The point is, you've got no proof that he's some kind of covert operative; he could just be somebody who inherited a pile of money, and doesn't want nosy bastards prying into his affairs."
"How many rich heirs get involved with sexaroids, and have exotic weapons at their disposal?!"
"Hollister," Hiro sighed. "Give it up. We can't postpone all our operations because you're obsessed with some guy who set us back a little..."
"A LITTLE?!" Hollister yelled. "You call vaporizing one of our operating locations 'a LITTLE setback?!' Are you goddamn crazy?!"
"I'm only going to repeat myself once more," Hiro replied tightly. "Drop the subject, and get back to your usual assignments. If you don't, we'll find someone who can follow orders."
"Really?" Hollister's sudden smile wasn't a nice one; it gave Hiro the creeps instantly. "Just go ahead and try to replace me," the blond man invited. "It would be interesting to see what would happen...to you," he noted in a thinly-veiled threat. Steely blue eyes stared coldly into grey-blue ones. "Don't push me, Hiro," Hollister warned softly, leaning forwards and placing his hands on the desktop. "I know I'm right about this guy, and one way or the other, I'm going to prove it. It's just a matter of time."
Priss flopped into Sylia's couch, nursing a cup of coffee in her hands. She sipped at it cautiously, not wanting to burn herself on the piping hot beverage. As she sat drinking, the sounds of Sylia and Linna puttering around in the kitchen drifted over to her. She leaned back, propping her feet up on the coffee table as she waited for everyone else to either arrive, or finish what they were working at.
Red-brown eyes gazed unseeingly out the large bay window of Sylia's apartment that overlooked the city; blackness broken only by the beacons of city lights was visible. She sipped at her coffee again, wishing everyone else would hurry up so they could get the bloody meeting over with. She was bone-tired from helping Bert clean up his 'mess' at his place earlier in the day, and from spending the rest of the day with Sylvie and Anri. Anri was still a little withdrawn at times, but she was rapidly making progress. Before long, she'd be up to going out once in a while.
Priss yawned mightily, almost dumping her coffee in her lap. She took another gulp, trying to keep from drifting off. All she wanted to do now was go home and sleep, but instead she had to sit here and wait, bored stiff and falling asleep.
"It wouldn't kill you to help set things up, for a change," Linna observed, coming over to the couch, placing a small tray of assorted sandwiches in the middle of the coffee table. She almost absently shoved Priss' feet out of the way and off the table at the same time. Priss sighed disgustedly, but didn't say anything; she was too goddamn tired to try arguing with anyone right now. She stuck her feet under the table, and took another drink from her cup; the caffeine wasn't really helping.
"Anybody home?" Nene's cheery voice called from the door. Sylia replied affirmatively, and after a few moments the slender, red-haired and green-eyed communications specialist came into the room. She must have just come from work Priss noted; she was still wearing her white uniform blouse, tie and blue skirt. Nene gave her a cheerful wave by way of greeting, although Priss thought she detected a faint hint of animosity in her green eyes for a moment. She nodded at her in reply, dismissing that thought as the product of an overtired imagination. There was no reason for Nene to be upset with her, and she'd never done anything to her to warrant holding a grudge.
While Nene vanished into the kitchen, Bert's towering form walked uneasily through the door. He flashed Priss a quick, uncertain smile, then grabbed a sandwich and parked himself in the small sofa that sat a little apart from the others. Nene came back in a moment later with a pair of steaming mugs in her hands. She handed him one, and squeezed into the sofa next to him. They leaned back together, and started waiting with Priss.
The relative silence was broken by another knock at the door, and a moment or two after that, Sylvie came into the room, running a hand through her hair tiredly. She gave everyone a weary smile by way of greeting, and then flopped into the couch next to Priss.
"Well, well, the gang's all here," Bert noted from his slouched position on the couch. Sylvie smiled, shrugging.
"Sylia said I might want to come to this meeting," she replied. "I don't know what it's about though."
"Join the club," Priss remarked, stifling a yawn. "None of us ever know what these meetings will be about."
"A free surprise in every box," Bert said dryly, a faint grin briefly appearing as Nene rolled her eyes, but didn't add anything. At that point, Linna and Sylia came in, carrying a few extra drinks for those who hadn't already gotten them. Sylia was her usual immaculate self, in a crisp white blouse and dark burgundy skirt, and Linna was in a green outfit with a yellow headband. They sat down in separate chairs, and Sylia looked around at the assembled group.
"We have some important business to discuss tonight," she informed them all. "It deals partly with the group of people who kidnapped Bert and Sylvie, and," she hesitated briefly, taking a swig from her teacup. "And I'm afraid it also deals with a matter we'd all rather forget about."
Priss frowned; she didn't like the sound of Sylia's last statement. Sylia picked up a remote control from a small table next to her chair and pressed a switch on it; instantly, shutters on the windows snapped closed. She pressed another switch, and the large-screen television at the far end of the room lit up as the room lights flicked off, and displayed what looked like technical schematics for a large robot of some kind.
"These specs are part of the data files that Sylvie and Bert managed to confiscate in their escape," Sylia's voice explained quietly. "The files show that the group holding them wasn't strictly a mercenary group; it looked like they also had a hand in designing and developing weapons. There were several design ideas in those files, some of them not really feasible at the moment, but this one is the one that concerns us the most."
"So it's a mech of some description," Priss said, waving a hand dismissively. "Big deal; we've fought mechs before." She ignored the fact that each time the Knight Sabers had fought a mech of that size, they hadn't come off too well.
"Maybe this will change your impression," Sylia's disembodied voice spoke from the blackness. "This is what the 'mech' will look like when completely armed and armoured."
The screen shifted, lines moving down the display as the computer displaying the specs began rendering the image in full, 3-D colour. A vicious-looking, humanoid robot with heavy, red and gray armour plating began to take shape. The arms of the robot ended in heavy, grasping claws, and it sported several weapons, ranging from missile pods to a heavy, rotary machine-gun. Everyone in the room immediately recognized it, Sylvie sucking in a sharp breath of pained memory.
It was the D.D. Battlemover, slightly re-designed, but unmistakable in all of its lethally elegant glory.
"Almighty God," Bert's voice swore. "They're trying to rebuild a goddamn doomsday weapon." It was hard to tell what his expression was in the darkened room, but he didn't sound impressed; his voice was borderline towards a snarl.
"Close, but not quite accurate," Sylia's voice corrected. "There's no 'dead-man switch' linked to a bomb in this version, which makes it a somewhat safer proposition to have to fight. However," she hesitated again. "However, the way this version has been designed makes it much, much worse."
"In what way?" Linna asked. "It's basically just a really big hardsuit, isn't it?"
"In the old version, the pilot was manually controlling the machine," Sylia told them quietly. "The computer took over if the pilot became seriously injured. That's not the case, this time."
"What do you mean?" Sylvie asked uneasily, a suspicion beginning to form in the back of her mind.
"This battlemover is controlled by a...a fusion of pilot and battlecomputer," Sylia said. "There is no cockpit per se; the pilot is directly linked to the machine." The image changed on the television screen, revealing a person-sized cavity in the exact center of the robot.
"How do they get the pilot back out?" Nene wanted to know.
"They don't," Sylia replied flatly. It took a moment for the meaning of her words to sink in.
"You mean," Bert asked tightly, "that becoming the pilot of that thing is a one-way trip?"
"That's right," Sylia confirmed. "That's why they wanted sexaroids; sexaroids have a greatly enhanced...interface capability for linking to superweapons, and they have faster reflexes than normal people. The fusion of a sexaroid and an armoured exoskeleton like this would be almost unstoppable. Once they have the pilot they want, the pilot is spliced into the control substructures and systems, and physically linked to the computer in a manner much like the way the J-1 computer fused with its pilot when the conditions were right. A nutrient delivery system keeps the pilot alive intravenously, eliminating the need to open it back up once the pilot is inside, other than for maintenance. The overall result is an almost impervious battle machine with much faster response times for attack and defense, and greatly enhanced decision-making capabilities. The linkage is also one-way; the only way to remove the pilot after they've completed this process is to kill him...or her," she finished quietly. Stunned silence filled the room.
"That's sick," Linna said, sounding ill. "That's...it's...."
"Inhuman," Bert said harshly, his voice sounding like the wind off of a glacier. For a moment, Priss thought she saw his eyes flash in the darkness. "They've doomed whoever they grab for use in that thing to permanent...permanent slavery, haven't they?"
"Yes," Sylia sighed. "I'm afraid they have. They didn't...don't consider sexaroids people, however; to them, they were just merging two machines." Sylvie started crying suddenly, and Priss quickly put an arm around her shoulders, trying to comfort her.
"There's more, I'm afraid," Sylia said apologetically. "Sexaroids were their preferred pilot, mostly because of their linking capabilities, but also because they could be easily controlled with their need for human plasma."
"But?" Bert's voice asked tightly. Sylia sighed again.
"But they didn't limit themselves to using sexaroids as pilots," she said in a low, pained tone. "These designs have a fall-back option of using a human as the nerve center of the machine. Unfortunately, given the crudity of the design, and the complexity of the human nervous system, there are some major drawbacks to using humans as the pilots."
"Those drawbacks being what?" Priss asked, not sure she wanted to hear the answer. Beside her, Sylvie was slowly getting herself back under control; the revelation of what had almost happened to her and Anri had shaken her up, especially when she considered how narrow an escape they'd had.
"The pilot would be in constant, severe pain from the splicing of his or her nervous system with the computer systems," Sylia explained, sounding distressed. "Their projections for the lifespan of a human pilot inside their 'improved' battlemover was one week, at best."
"What...what happens at the end of the one week?" Nene quavered. She felt like she was going to be sick; she'd known that the group that had kidnapped Sylvie and Bert hadn't been overly scrupulous, especially given what they'd done to her friends, but she hadn't imagined that they could be that twisted. She could feel Bert twitching beside her, like he was desperately holding himself back from an explosion.
"The pilot dies," Sylia replied flatly. "At the very least, they are driven mad by the pain of the procedure. The probability of that happening before the one week time limit is better than 75%, however."
"What's the life expectancy of a ...sexaroid at the helm?" Bert asked tightly.
"Several years, barring defeats in a combat." Silence dropped over the room as everyone considered the implications of her statement. Several years of being permanently bonded into a war machine, unable to ever again walk freely among friends, forced to fight constantly....
"Excuse me for a moment," Bert said, sounding strained. Priss saw the dim outline of him standing up, and moving off in the direction of the washroom. A moment or so later, the unmistakable sound of someone violently throwing up in the washroom could be heard.
"Bert?!" Sylia's suddenly concerned voice spoke up. "Are you all right?!" She flicked the lights back on, standing up and starting to walk over to check on him. The light coming back on revealed the shaken and pale faces of the rest of the assembled group; they all looked like they wanted to be sick, also. Sylia couldn't really blame them. Her study of the research notes Bert and Sylvie had obtained had revealed a perversion worse than she'd previously thought possible, worse even than GENOM's use of human nervous systems for enhanced combat boomers of a couple of years ago. At least the people used as 'donors' in those twisted creatures had been beyond suffering.
As she walked toward the bathroom, he came back out, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. He looked up as Sylia walked towards him, and their eyes met. In his eyes, Sylia saw a terrible, implacable fury, coupled with a sick revulsion at the information she'd just revealed.
"You are going to shut these bastards down, aren't you?" he asked quietly, shaking slightly as he evidently tried to hold himself together. Sylia nodded, her eyes reflecting perfect understanding of his state of mind.
"Count on it," she assured him firmly. "We've located their base, based on the data you gave us, and we're leaving in half an hour."
"Good," he said quietly. "Make sure you shoot Hollister for me." Sylia nodded wordlessly; she knew how badly he wanted to actually go with them on this operation, and at the same time was glad he was willing to make the effort to stay behind. Although he was a good friend, she had to be realistic: despite the axe he had to grind with these people, he wasn't mentally or physically ready yet to get back into his SkyKnight armour. The fact that he'd agreed with her earlier in the day had eased some of the strain she'd been feeling over her decision of the night before.
"Was that it for the night?" Bert asked her. "I think I'd like to go get some fresh air." Sylia nodded again, and he turned to go. Hesitating, he turned back towards her, and his gaze flickered around at his friends. "I want all of you to be careful," he added quietly. "Don't get hurt trying to get revenge on my behalf; I'm not worth losing any of you over, ever." With that, he turned and was gone. Nene looked worried, but kept calm, glancing occasionally at the door he'd left by.
"I think I need some fresh air too," Sylvie said, still pale and shaken-looking. "And I've got to check on Anri," she added. She vanished out the apartment door also. Priss looked at Sylia, a question in her eyes. Sylia nodded, looking around at the remaining Knight Sabers.
"Let's roll people," she said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Bert flicked on the light switch by the door of the shop as he closed the door that had remained unopened for so long a time. Pale light washed across the shop, sweeping back the shadows, etching lines of relief into the clutter. He stared around at the slightly dusty workshop, jaw clenching and unclenching, eyes flickering restlessly over everything. An almost palpable aura of anger seethed around him as he walked across the floor of the shop to a nearby worktable that was covered in blueprints. He swore slowly, bitterly, twisting every ounce of venom he could from the words.
The D.D. Battlemover. The one weapon he'd never hoped he'd have to worry about ever again was back. He supposed he'd known in the back of his mind that it was a foolish, futile wish: something that was that advanced, that promised a vast advantage on the battlefield for its owners was too lucrative a goal for anyone in the military-oriented fields to ignore. Despite the fact that the Knight Sabers had successfully dealt with the original, destroying the only complete set of technical specifications in existence at the same time, he'd realized that, someday, it would be back. He'd denied it to himself, but it hadn't done any good.
The way of the world never seems to change, he noted to himself, suddenly feeling old and tired. Wars were the one constant in the world; men were always going to build bigger and better weapons to outperform their neighbours' weapons. It had been that way for centuries. Just because the technology had advanced, didn't mean that man's knowledge of technology's ramifications had matched it. The sense of responsibility necessary for using it wisely, had also not kept pace. In most cases, it was woefully lacking, almost non-existent.
An obscure pain stabbed into his heart as he realized that, no matter what he wanted, it was never going to end; the arms race would continue, mercilessly steamrollering innocent bystanders who wanted nothing to do with it as it roared along. If it wasn't GENOM, it was USSD. If it wasn't USSD, then it would be some shadowy group on the fringes of society, like the one that had attacked him and Sylvie.
At the thought of her, a cold rage re-erupted, directed at the bastards who'd resurrected the battlemover, and tortured him. For a group of people to willingly be that cold and unscrupulous, for lack of a better word, and to intentionally design something that removed a person's freedom and cut them off forever from human contact, more completely than he'd believed possible was... inhuman in a way he couldn't even find words to describe.
A faint rumble echoed through the room, distracting him from his gloomy thoughts. He recognized it a moment later as the sound of the KnightWing taking off from the concealed launch bay in the roof of Sylia's building. His friends, gone off to battle, and without him.
His teeth clenched again as rage threatened to overwhelm him. After a shaky moment, he brought himself back under control. He looked down at the stack of tentative blueprints in front of him; the familiar circuit and exo-skeleton diagrams for his hardsuit stared back. He looked from the diagrams, to the dully gleaming, silver-and-blue hardsuit that stood neglected in a corner. He dimly remembered the satisfied feel he'd gotten from working on it in the past, what now seemed like eons ago. A faint spark, long dormant, re-ignited.
With a sweeping gesture, he swept the blueprints off of the table, into the trashcan; it was time to start over, and rebuild whatever he could salvage of his former life.
Sickly moonlight glimmered through the canopy of leaves overhead, as the rustlings and scurryings of nighttime denizens died away at the approach of four, stealthy, armoured shapes. Light glinted off variable-hued armour plating as four hardsuits crept quietly through the forest, or tried to.
"Agh! SHIT!!" Priss snarled, frantically grabbing at a nearby tree branch as her foot stepped in something that squished underfoot, and slid greasily. The branch she grabbed at snapped with a report that cracked like a pistol shot in the quiet of the night, and her blue-hardsuited body crashed nosily to the leaves and sticks of the forest floor in a rustling crackle. The rest of the hardsuits froze for a moment, fearing the noise might have attracted some far-flung sentry to investigate.
"Nothing moving, Sylia," Nene's voice whispered softly over the Knight Saber's helmet comms. "And there aren't any remote sensors yet," she added after her sensor pack hummed for a few moments.
"Okay; keep scanning," the white-hardsuited leader replied. Sylia's suit looked ghostly in the dim lighting as she turned towards where Priss was disgustedly picking herself up from the ground. "Could you please be a little quieter? We don't want them to know we're coming."
"It wasn't my goddamn fault!! Tell the bloody animals to quit leaving goddamn booby traps on the ground!" she shot back irritably. Linna and Nene snickered, despite trying to keep quiet. Sylia sighed, and began leading the Knight Sabers forwards again.
They slowly made forward progress, towards the location of the hidden base they'd found out about. As they got closer and closer, they had to stop more and more often, as Nene's sensors picked up concealed sensor emplacements that she had to then fool into believing that nothing was wrong. Some of it was fairly easy; the sensors were above ground and could be physically re-wired. The rest were buried beyond their immediate reach, and Nene had to establish a remote link with them by satellite up-linking, and then hacking into the communications grid that joined the spread-out detection devices. Once that was accomplished, she'd set about accessing and re-programming parts of their command paths.
"Okay, that's the last one," the red-haired hacking genius declared, as she shut down the remote link to the last sensor pack. "We should be able to get up to the base with no problems now." Everyone else sighed in relief, and relaxed; having to stand absolutely quiet and still while Nene silently went about disarming the early warning systems hadn't been easy. Their nerves had been jangling the entire time, wondering if she was going to be able to successfully pull off her subterfuge, or if they were going to find themselves in the middle of a firefight suddenly.
"Okay, let's go," Sylia ordered. "Full readiness, and keep your eyes and ears open."
"Roger," everyone replied quietly. The small group fanned out into a rough semblance of a skirmish line, and began gliding through the rapidly-thinning forest.
"There's ten men on guard at the front 'gate', heavily armed," Nene's voice reported tersely over the comm channel. "My scans show them as human, but there's a couple of EM signatures hidden back behind them that could either be boomers, or battlesuits of some kind."
"See if you can find a side entrance, then" Sylia replied, taking a quick peek through the concealing scrub she and Linna were hiding behind. "I'd rather not announce our presence yet with a frontal assault. Priss, make sure you watch her back, and both of you make damn sure you're not seen."
"Okay," they chorused. Sylia started to shut down the channel.
"Trust us," Priss added a moment later, before the channel cut off.
"I HATE when people say that to me," Sylia muttered testily. Off to her right, a subdued chuckle came from Linna's green hardsuit.
"It could be worse," she said impishly. "It could be SkyKnight saying that."
"I wish it was," Sylia said quietly. "We could use the extra firepower; these people are more heavily armed than I'd believed at first." She looked again through the gently waving branches at the concealed complex a few yards away from them.
The entire facility was built into a low, sprawling hill. The front 'gate' had been disguised as a natural cave, and a tightly-packed gravel dirt and gravel road led up to it. Just inside the mouth of the cave, large steel doors could be seen, with a small watch station placed just inside of them. Although the hill was mostly featureless, with some scrub bushes artfully placed to look natural, there was a squat pillbox gun emplacement on the top, looking vaguely like an anti-aircraft battery. The gun muzzles that protruded from it slightly didn't look like standard ack-ack guns, however; they looked more like either powerful lasers or particle cannons. She was quietly thankful they'd left the KnightWing a couple of kilometers back in the woods; sensor stealth wasn't much protection against getting shot down.
"I think we've found something," Nene's voice suddenly reported. "We're checking it out now."
"Nothing!!" Hollister swore, pitching the data disk he'd been scanning through across the room. "Absolutely goddamn nothing on him at all! Who the hell IS he?!"
Hollister stood up, angrily kicking his chair backwards, and began to pace the small, sparingly-furnished office he occupied at the moment, fuming in impotent anger. He couldn't find out a goddamn thing about that red-haired bastard, other than what he'd already gleaned from exhaustive searching of available records. He spun around, snatching the single piece of paper that contained all he knew about the man who'd screwed up one of his projects earlier, and glared at it yet again, as if he could force the paper to divulge extra information by sheer force of will alone.
It remained stubbornly unrevealing, and he hurled it back to the desk with a blistering oath, resuming his pacing. He had a name, Bert Van Vliet, and an age, apparently 28 or 29 by now, but nothing else. No employer, no known friends or living relatives, no known country of origin, and no past, other than some spotless-looking academic documents that smelled of being altered.
To Hollister, given his own past, it indicated that he'd worked for someone very high-powered at some time in the past; the only groups capable of expunging a person's past from all records completely were either government agencies, or mega-corporations like GENOM. Hollister doubted that he worked for GENOM; from his brief exposure to the man's personality, he knew he didn't have the right psychological profile, or ruthlessness. For another, a GENOM agent wouldn't have cared at all what happened to a pair of sexaroids. The company used boomers like firewood; two sexaroids wouldn't amount to a spot on their balance sheet, especially since they could always build more of them out on Genaros.
Hollister had even combed through some of his old contacts out in the shadowy realm of the intelligence agencies. They'd never heard of the guy, either. It was almost like the friggin' bastard was an alien from another world; nobody knew anything at all.
Hollister swore again, then glanced at the LED clock on the wall, and sighed irritably. Great; now he was late for checking with Doc on the status of the research project. He straightened his tie, smoothed out his jacked, and left, slamming the door behind him.
"This takes time, Priss," Nene hissed angrily. "We can't just kick in the hatch and hope they don't notice! Why don't you go storm the front gate, if you're in such a hurry?!" She glanced at the rapidly scrolling alphanumeric codes that were whizzing past on her suit viewscreen as her suit computer worked at cracking the security codes on the concealed access hatch they'd found. It would have been logical for a place like this to have more than one entrance, otherwise the occupants could find themselves bottled up by a large enough force. At the moment, her suit had cracked fifteen of the necessary twenty levels of encryption that were on the door locks.
"Well excuuuse me," Priss muttered. Her crouched, blue-armoured shape shifted around irritably. She'd been hunkered down for almost ten minutes now, and the waiting was driving her crazy. The bastards who'd hurt her friends were no more than several metres distant, and she couldn't get at them. "I just asked how it was going; no need to snap at me." The helmet on the red-pink suit swiveled to look at her.
"It's going fine, just don't distract me," Nene replied, returning to the task at hand. Almost there.....got it!!
With a muffled thunk, the thick bars holding the circular door closed retracted into the frame, and the door quietly rolled open on well-oiled tracks. Two antenna-winged helmets peered cautiously around the doorframe, and looked down the long, bare hallway that extended into the depths of the hill.
"We're in, Sylia," Nene whispered over the comm. "We're going to take a quick look around, and we'll signal you when we're ready."
"What signal will you use?" Sylia asked. Nene started to answer, but Priss interrupted.
"Don't worry," she assured her leader. "You'll know what it is when you see it." There was an eager tone to her voice, and Nene recognized it as the itching desire to get into a fight; she was having the same feeling at the moment. If she was really lucky, she'd find a certain blond man in a grey suit at the same time.
"Priss!!!" Sylia's strangled voice came back over the comm. "For God's sake control yourself!!"
"We'll contact you shortly," Priss replied, and then cut off the channel.
"Sylia's not going to like that," Nene volunteered. Priss looked over at her.
"Too goddamn bad," she said flatly. "I've been waiting a long time to pay these bastards back for what they did to Bert, Sylvie, and Anri. They're going to pay, starting with Hollister, if I can find the slimy asshole...."
"Take a number and get in line," Nene said grimly, in a tone Priss hadn't heard from her before. "I've got the first shot at Hollister if we get one."
"You haven't shot anyone before in your life," Priss snorted. Before she could continue, Nene's helmet was suddenly faceplate-to-faceplate with hers. Priss jerked backwards in shock as the angrily quivering red-pink hardsuit stepped up to her blue one.
"Well I'm going to start tonight!!" the slender, suited red-head hissed angrily. "You're not the only one who cares about Bert, thank you very much!!" With that, the red-pink suit whirled around, and started stalking angrily down the hall. Priss stood uncertainly for a moment; what had she meant by that last remark?! She tried to dismiss the flare-up as nerves, and followed after her.
"I'm going to strangle her," Sylia gritted, shutting off the helmet comm again; Priss still wasn't responding. "Just because SkyKnight isn't here acting like a loose cannon, doesn't mean she has to take his place!!"
"She's been pretty upset lately," Linna offered timidly. Sylia's gauntleted hands clenched.
"We all have been," Sylia replied tightly. "That's no excuse for acting irresponsibly on a mission!" She fell silent again, trying to control the whirling storm of anger and fear that was churning around inside of her. She knew exactly how Priss felt, but that was still no excuse to jeopardize her own safety, not to mention Nene's, just for the satisfaction of revenge. She glanced at her suit chronometer again, praying that her teammates...friends would hurry up, and come out in one piece.
"This is perfect," Priss gloated quietly, taking a quick, furtive glance around. She glided stealthily towards the large transport truck standing near the wall of the large, hangar-like room they'd found. "There's no one on guard around these things."
"Just be careful," Nene's voice cautioned over their helmet comm. "I can't jam the motion sensors and cameras forever, and someone is bound to be walking through here sooner or later and see something." Her red-pink hardsuit was hidden out of immediate sight around the corner of the hallway where it entered the hangar.
Priss took another look around the cavernous room. There were several small trucks around, all of them black or dark blue, with no identifiable markings. Four black cars were lined up along the one wall, and there were large wooden crates of all kinds scattered around the room. In the exact center of the room, a good several hundred feet distant, sat a sleek, fast-looking black helicopter. It almost resembled an Apache gunship, but it was definitely more streamlined, and built for speed.
She reached the rear door of the truck trailer, took another glance around, and jumped up into it. Her hardsuit computer switched to light-amplification visuals as darkness enfolded her, and she could see scores of small metal boxes stacked in the long trailer, with some larger crates intermixed. The labeling on most of the crates read "DANGER! EXPLOSIVE!". She scanned through the crates, trying to find just what she was after. H.E.A.P. rounds, DPU's, chemical-incendiary rounds...she shrugged finally; any or all of the crates would serve what she had in mind. She started prying open one of the crates.
"Priss!!" Nene's voice whispered urgently. "Someone's walking to the trailer!! Get out now!!"
"Shit!! I can't, damnit! I'd get seen!" Priss retorted, just as the door began to swing open. A black-clad man, wearing what looked like light body armour and an opaque faceplated helmet looked in...and saw her blue hardsuited figure as she tried to hide behind some of the boxes.
"Oh SHIT!" he exclaimed, grabbing at a radio. "Central!! We've got an intrudAAAGH!!" The man's report ended in a burbling scream that was drowned out by the thundercrack of Priss' railgun spitting a titanium steel-alloy spike through his guts. The guard collapsed, bleeding heavily, and sirens began howling all over the building as red strobe lights began revolving.
"That's torn it!!" Nene yelled over the comm. "I can't jam them anymore!! Get the hell out, now!!"
"Son of a bitch!! SHIT!!" Priss snarled, swearing at how she'd just been given the finger by fate. There was a faint click as the small, U-shaped, magnetic-grapple explosive charge concealed in her hardsuit arm, just under the main gun barrel, flicked out. She slapped it into one of the cases of high explosive rounds, where it stayed stuck, and then dove out the back door of the trailer.
Gunfire of all kinds started hungrily searching for her as she hit the floor on a shoulder and rolled, coming up to her feet and sprinting for cover. As she ran, two shapes leaped impossibly high into the air, clearing some of the nearby trucks easily. Boomers!!!, her mind shrieked at her, as the two humanoid figures expanded to full combat readiness, leaving tattered rags of synthetic skin behind. Priss blasted the head off of the lead boomer as it landed, and ducked the sizzling blue plasma beam that the second one shot at her.
The blue-armoured biomechanoid dashed towards her with frightening speed, claws popping out of one arm, and a small machine-gun snapping out of the other. Priss frantically backpedaled, avoiding the raking swipes and gunfire as she tried to get set to attack. The boomer had caught her off-balance however, and it wasn't about to let her get set.
As it lunged at her again, a red laser blast scorched past Priss's right shoulder, hitting the boomer square in the optics. The boomer howled, rearing backwards in surprise, and Priss took the opportunity to smash it in the head with a high kick; the biomechanoid's head blew off as the impact blasters in her suit feet did their job.
"You're welcome," Nene's voice spoke from behind her. Priss wheeled, panting, partly from the exhilaration of a fight, and partly because it had been a close call. She abruptly remembered what it was she'd been running from in the first place.
"Oh shit! Thanks! GET DOWN!!" she snapped, and tackled the red-pink hardsuit at the waist. Nene let out a startled, indignant squawk as the two armoured shapes hurtled backwards into the hallway they'd entered by. Thinking they were fleeing, some of the guards ran forwards, firing their assault rifles.
Inside the loaded tractor trailer, the timer on the explosive charge Priss had left behind hit zero.
"Offhand, I'd say that was Priss' signal," Linna said, stunned, as a massive wall of roaring flame blasted out through the main gate of the hidden facility. The ten guards out front either died immediately from the shrapnel storm that accompanied it, or flopped around, screaming in agony on the ground, burning like macabre torches. The shockwave from the blast briefly folded over the shrubs they were laying down behind, and a wall of hot air washed over them. A few pieces of scrap clanged mournfully past them.
"Let's go!!" Sylia snapped, leaping to her feet and charging into the chaotic inferno that the front gate of the base had turned into. Linna jumped up, and sprinted after her.
As the white and green hardsuits barreled into the facility, the massive bulk of a B-12 Heavy Assault Boomer exploded from a nearby, concealed niche. Linna just barely avoided a pointblank cannon blast from the boomer's arm, and Sylia ducked under the mini-missile that the boomer's torso launcher spat at her, the micromissile blasting a large hole in the wall behind her.
Dust and smoke from the explosion mingled with the heavier, oily smoke from the initial blast as the two hardsuited women, neither in a pleasant frame of mind, both jumped up and hit the boomer in the head casing from opposite sides with perfectly synchronized cannon and pulse laser shots. The B-12's head disintegrated instantly. Spewing sparks and smoke, the armoured body toppled over to the floor, and the two Knight Sabers charged onwards into the facility.
Red flashing lights made strange patterns in the swirling, choking haze that filled the room. A trembling hand reached up, grabbed the edge of a table, and then pulled a grey-suited figure with a dazed expression into view. Across the room, a gaunt, older man with iron-grey, shaggy hair was painfully getting to his hands and knees.
"Ow, goddamn it!" Hollister swore, as pain lanced into his scalp. He lifted a trembling hand to his forehead, and stared blankly at the red smears that appeared on his fingers as he brought it back down. "What the hell happened?!" he demanded of no one in particular.
"The intruder alert went off just before the blast occurred," Doc groaned, straightening up, grimacing; he was getting too old for this shit, he told himself. "I'd say we have some unfriendly visitors." He wiped off his hands, and smacked some of the soot and dust off of his lab coat.
"Impossible!" Hollister declared. Doc sighed, shaking his head.
"You should know by now that nothing's impossible," the old scientist snapped irritably. "Look at the lab for God's sake, and then tell me it's impossible." Hollister glared angrily at the old man, his gaze briefly flicking to the cracked and ruined computer monitors, the overturned beakers and analytical equipment....
"All right, fine then," he said flatly, squaring his shoulders and straightening his jacket, ignoring the smoke and soot marring the fabric. "Let's go get the chopper and get the hell out of here."
"No argument there," Doc agreed. "Just let me grab my research notes, and I'll join you."
"Fine," Hollister replied, moving towards the hallway. "See you in five minutes."
"You....ARE....bloody....crazy!!!" Nene wheezed, coughing in the acrid smoke that swirled over them. Priss rolled off of her, coughing a little herself, and shoving away some of the ceiling tiles that had collapsed onto the two women when the munitions truck had blown up.
"We needed something impressive for a signal," she said defensively, standing up, wincing as the multiple bruises gained from being so close to ground zero of the blast complained. Nene pulled herself up the wall to lean against it as she got her breath back. The two hardsuits were covered in grime and scratches.
"I'm impressed," Nene assured her, shoving herself off the wall. "But I don't think Sylia's gonna like it." She ran a quick sensor sweep of the surrounding area. "Uh-oh, company," she reported, sounding worried. "There's at least six C-55 boomers coming towards us."
"All right!!" Priss cheered. "Let's rock!!!" With that, the red-striped, blue suit charged out into the weirdly lit haze beyond the door. A split second later, blue energy beams began to lance through the hazy room, and the whip-crack blast of Priss' railcannon roared through the air. Nene could hear her shouting "Okay you bastard!! Let's do it!!"
"She IS crazy," Nene muttered to herself. Arming her own laser weapon, she poked her helmet around the corner of the hallway cautiously. Priss was in the middle of a wild melee with four blue C-55's; the other two were already smoking, gushing heaps on the floor nearby. The survivors up to this point were trying to grab the rapidly moving hardsuit in their midst, without much success. Priss was in full fury, and the boomers were finding out that their warranties had just been terminated.
Nene watched as the blue battlesuit swept the legs off of one with an explosive kick while ducking the clawed swipes of the other three. As she vaulted over one of the standing boomers while placing a hand on its head, she let the downed boomer have a railgun spike between the eyes, and blasted the boomer she had jumped over a split-second later with her main cannon at point blank range. Both boomers died messily, spraying synthetic fluids everywhere.
Priss landed neatly on the floor, and proceeded to pound on one of the two remaining boomers with reckless enthusiasm. Unfortunately, she also forgot that there were still TWO boomers, not just one. The second reared up behind her, and Nene's sensors detected the power surge of a plasma beam generator preparing to fire. Their new armour was good, but she doubted that the hardsuits could stand point-blank shots.
Her battlecomputer gave her a target lock on a weak spot in the C-55's armouring, and Nene leveled her gun arm at the boomer. The laser emitter spat a crackling red bolt of energy into the boomer's skull casing, just at the base of the 'spine', and the C-55's head blew off from the sneak shot, before it had a chance to fire at Priss. Nene grinned to herself; while her weapons didn't have the power that Priss' or Sylia's had, her upgraded gas-plasma laser and enhanced pinpoint targeting sensors made for a deadly combination.
"Thanks," Priss' voice crackled over the comm. "Nice shot."
"Practice," Nene quipped. As she watched Priss gleefully pound the last C-55 into crumpled scrap, she saw a man-like shape flitting through the smoke haze across the vast room. She frowned, and hit the image amplification. A grey-suited man with blond hair seemed to leap into her sight, and instantly anger roared in the back of her mind. It couldn't be anyone else but Hollister.
"You're mine!!" she snarled to herself, eyes narrowing. Forgetting all about Priss, she sprinted across the mostly deserted hangar floor, charging after the grey-suited man.
Hollister pounded down the hallway to his office, coughing and gasping in the smoky haze that now pervaded the entire complex. Behind him, the crackle of fires and the occasional boom from a firefight of some description echoed. He smashed the door to his office open with a shoulder. He grabbed a nearby satchel, and started sweeping papers and datadisks into it. Slapping it closed and locking it, he opened his last desk drawer, and reached into it for his last possession.
"Hold it right there, asshole," the flat, electronically-filtered voice of a young woman ordered. Hollister froze, and looked over at the doorway; a red, white, and pink armour suit topped with a red helmet that sported long antenna spars was standing there, pointing a weapon arm at his chest. "Get your hands up to where I can see them," the suit ordered tightly. The blond-haired man's mind raced as he tried to think up a way out of the situation.
"Why certainly," Hollister said smoothly. "Don't shoot; I'm not armed." He started to straighten up, then dove sideways as his right hand whipped up what he'd been grasping in the desk drawer: a large-bore gun that resembled an automatic. The hardsuit froze for an instant in shock as the gaping muzzle of the gun leveled on her, then fired her laser at the grey suit-clad man. The gun he held bellowed with a crashing report at the same time. The hardsuit fell back out the doorway, collapsing into the hallway with a scream as the rocket-propelled DPU pistol round smashed it in the guts.
Hollister snarled in pain as the searing laser bolt smashed into his left shoulder. The blond man dropped to one knee in agony as his left arm quit responding to his efforts to move it. He forced himself to his feet, stuffing the gun into his waistband, and grabbing his briefcase. He stepped over the prone armour suit, noting briefly that it had one hand clamped over the bloody hole in its stomach armour, and was still trying to get its gun arm up for a shot at him again.
"Better luck next time, bitch," he gritted, as his arm flashed agony at him again. Giving the helpless and wounded suit a good-bye kick in the side, he ran awkwardly back towards the hangar where he hoped the helicopter was still waiting.
"Priss!!" Sylia's voice blared over the comm. "Where's Nene?!"
"Whaddaya mean, 'where's Nene?'?!" Priss snarled, ducking under another claw swipe from the new C-55 boomer she'd found to play with. The boomer's head parted company with its body a moment later as she belted it with an uppercut. "How the hell should I know?! She was right behind me a moment or two ago!" Shit, she swore to herself, as the C-55 dropped into a heap in front of her; Nene wasn't the type to go running off by herself, so where'd she gotten to?!
Priss' helmet swiveled around as her suit sensors tried locating Nene's transponder signal. All their suits had unique transponder beacons that made it easier to find them if they'd been hurt or incapacitated. She couldn't pick up Nene's however.
"Where DID that bloody girl go to?!" Priss muttered, worried now. Nene was now not too bad in a fight, which was better than she'd been in the past, but she still wouldn't stand a chance against more than one boomer. She should have known better than to take off on her own. What the hell could have come...over....her.
Priss' guts seized in an icy paroxysm of dread. There was only one thing that could have prompted Nene to suddenly disappear, and she knew what that was only because she'd been keeping an eye peeled for the bastard herself: Nene must have gone after Hollister.
"Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiit!!" Priss snarled to herself, heart racing. She looked around, and then sprinted for the nearest hallway to start looking for her friend, praying she'd be in time to prevent a mishap of some kind. She ran at full speed through the smoky rooms and halls. The bloody place turned out to be a maze; she re-emerged back into the hangar with still no sign of Nene.
Priss ducked into another side-corridor and sprinted down it, fear beginning to lend wings to her feet. If anything happens to her, I'll never be able to face Bert, she thought to herself. Damn it, I was supposed to be watching out for her!!
Priss skidded around a corner, slamming into the wall in order to stop, and her worst fears seemed to be confirmed: just down the hall, laying on the floor, blood coming from her stomach armour, was Nene.
"NENE!!!" Priss shrieked. "Damn you!! Why'd you have to go and get shot?!" She ran over and dropped to her armoured knees next to the supine red/pink suit. Nene moved feebly as Priss moved her hand to get a look at the wound. Whatever the weapon had been, the shot had shattered the armour plating completely, revealing the circuitry and Nene's softsuit underneath. There was a ragged, bloody hole in her side, and Priss felt sudden tears sting her eyes; it looked bad, but she didn't know how serious it really was.
"P-Priss?" Nene croaked feebly. Her helmet moved slightly. "Hurts....cold," she said, shaking slightly. Priss hugged her gently.
"Relax, you'll be fine," she tried soothing the injured girl. Nene shook her head.
"Never mind me," she said weakly. "Hollister....that..way," she tried pointing, but Priss grabbed her arm, forcing it down.
"Never mind," she told the red-haired girl. "I'm not leaving you here." Helpless anger burned incessantly in the back of her mind. She desperately wanted to go after Hollister, but there was no way she was leaving Nene now.
"Oh no!! Nene!!!" Linna's voice cried from behind her, Priss turned slightly, and saw her familiar green hardsuit running towards them; a savage, mirthless grin spread across her face inside her helmet. She stood up, gently disengaging from Nene.
"Look after her," she told Linna flatly. "I've got some business to take care of." Priss stepped across Nene's body, and pounded down the hallway in the direction that the wounded girl said Hollister had run.
"I was wondering if you'd make it or not," Doc observed, as Hollister ran up to him, panting. He peered around the crate he was hiding next to, and looked through the swirling smoke towards the black helicopter. "I'm not sure if the Airwolf is working, though," the scientist cautioned. "It was sitting almost right next to the explosion."
"It'll take a lot more than an explosion to hurt that baby," Hollister assured the older man, pale and sweating. "It was designed to take a real beating."
"Well, don't say I didn't warn you if it won't fly," Doc sighed. "Can you fly it with only one arm though?" He'd noticed the bloody, smoldering hole in the blond man's suit and shirt at the shoulder, and had drawn his own conclusions.
"Don't worry," Hollister gritted, wincing. "I can fly it with just my feet." He looked around suddenly. "Where's Hiro and Yamada?"
"Yamada's dead," Doc said flatly. "The stupid bastard panicked, and ran across the floor, trying to get out the front door; he got caught in a crossfire."
"He wasn't a great loss," Hollister dismissed the report. "What about Hiro?"
"Right here," a hoarse voice croaked. Doc and Hollister swung around, Hollister half-drawing his pistol. The burned and blistered face of the older, blue-uniformed man smiled painfully at them as he staggered up to them. "Got caught in the control room by an explosion," he explained. "Hurts like hell, but better than the others. Let's get the hell out of here." The three men started moving towards the helicopter when an angry woman's voice snapped through the air.
"This is payback, you heartless bastard!!"
Hollister dropped immediately to the floor, smoothly whipping out his gyrojet pistol, and forcing himself to remain steady as his burned left shoulder screamed in pain when he landed on it. As Hollister dropped, a sharp, thundering crack split the thick air, and the railgun spike that had been intended for his head instead speared through Hiro's, shattering his skull instantly into a gory spray. The blue-clad man dropped without a sound, never even knowing what had hit him.
Hollister rolled over fast onto his stomach, thumbing off the safety on his gun. He swung the gun towards his foe and squeezed the trigger, emptying the clip. The blue and red armour suit that had fired at him was smashed off of her feet by the hailstorm of explosive-propelled DPU slugs. She flew backwards for a few feet, and crashed to the floor with a ringing clatter, a scream of pain being torn from her as she hit. Hollister dropped his head to his arms, almost passing out from the pain of his injury. A hand on his right arm dragged him back from the edge of the abyss.
"Get UP, damnit!! There might be more of them!!" Doc snarled. He dragged the injured blond man towards the sleek helicopter. Hollister managed to get his feet back underneath him, and the two men staggered over to the helicopter. Hollister blinked blurry eyes as he punched in the entry code for the door; he'd been hurt pretty badly, and recognized the signs of advancing shock. If they didn't get away soon, it'd be game over.
The door panel slid open, and the two men jumped inside. Hollister lurched up to the cockpit as the door closed, and he awkwardly folded himself into the pilot's seat. Doc joined him a moment later, sitting in the co-pilot's seat, even though he didn't know a thing about flying.
"Can you get it started?" the old man asked, flicking a quick look across the forest of gauges, dials and screens.
"Soon as the computer's pre-flight check is done," Hollister replied, struggling to strap himself one-armed into the seat. He managed to do it finally, and Doc strapped himself into the other. "We'll know in a minute if she won't fly."
"That's reassuring," Doc said, paling. "Why didn't you say that before?! We could have grabbed a truck!!"
"No good," Hollister said flatly. "Ground vehicles are too slow, and limited to where they have to go. He grinned tightly in triumph as the central computer screen lit up. "We're in business; let's get the hell going."
Doc took a quick look at the small screen's glowing messages:
AIRWOLF F.A.C.-45 ALL SYSTEMS READY
ANTI-PERSONNEL SYSTEMS: ACTIVE
SIDEWINDER MISSILE SYSTEM: ACTIVE
SECONDARY ATTACK SYSTEMS: ACTIVE
ORDNANCE LOAD: 100%
ARMOUR INTEGRITY: 100%
ENGINE STATUS: FULLY OPERATIONAL
"Impressive," Doc commented, " but will it get us out of here?" Hollister grinned again, and pulled a lever. A low, throbbing hum began to pulse through the chopper cockpit, and the rising whine of the engines began to sound. Up above, on top of the sleek machine, the large rotor blades began slowly turning.
"Oh shit, no!!!" Sylia burst out as she came running out of the hallway. She ran over to the crumpled blue hardsuit that lay on the floor. There were blue armour shards everywhere on the floor around Priss, but she was still trying to get up and keep going. Every so often, defiantly snarled swear words seared the air. Priss was too badly injured to be able to stand up, however; her one leg had taken a shot through the upper muscles, and wouldn't support weight. Sylia's concern was about something else entirely, however.
Dropping to her knees next to Priss, Sylia grabbed her injured leg, ignoring Priss' strangled scream at the treatment. Sylia sighed in relief when she saw the slow blood seepage from the blue armour; none of the leg's arteries had been hit. If that had happened, it would have been only a matter of a few minutes for Priss to have bled to death while she was helpless to stop it.
She quickly checked the rest of Priss' body over, ignoring her attempts to sit up, firmly holding her down. Priss' suit was, to put it bluntly, a shattered mess. Whatever she'd been shot with, it had split the armour plating like walnut shells, and given her some nasty-looking wounds in her right shoulder, lower left abdomen, and upper left leg.
"You stupid jackass!!" Sylia spat at the wounded woman. "Where the hell did you leave your brains tonight?! At home in a jar?!" Now that she was sure Priss would survive for a while at least, her anger at Priss' behaviour surged to the forefront.
"Thanks for the concern," Priss groaned, lifting her head up to look at the white hardsuit. "Why don't you just shoot me, and save yourself the trouble of helping me?" Her helmeted head dropped back to floor with a clang.
"Don't tempt me," Sylia replied flatly, looking around for something to try and stop the bleeding. The tail-end of a first aid kit peeked at her from behind some nearby crates, and she quickly grabbed it, cracking it open. As she was taping all the gauze pads the kit contained over Priss' stomach wound, which was the worst-looking, the rising whine of a motor cut through the air. As her blue-visored helmet snapped up, the rotor blades on the not-too-distant black helicopter began to churn the air, the noise from their motion increasing to a steady "thwup-thwup-thwup" noise.
"Shit," Sylia muttered as she scanned the helicopter with her suit scanners; the chopper's armour was impervious to her suit weapons. She was fairly sure that even SkyKnight's weapons wouldn't have made a mark: the hull seemed to be a kind of new armour alloy, and it was at least an inch thick. The other bad news had been that the chopper had just armed its weapons systems. There was some impressive hardware on that thing; it was a DAMN good thing that none of it could be aimed in their direction, at least, not until the chopper became airborne.
"Priss," Sylia's voice cut through her private pain, bringing her back to the reality of the moment. "Brace yourself; I'm going to have to carry you."
"Okay," the blue hardsuit gasped. "But what's the hurry?"
"We've got to get out of here, now," Sylia said. "I think they're going to blow up the place with that helicopter's missiles, and then leave."
"Let's not stay and find out," Priss agreed, clenching her teeth in anticipation of the agony moving her was going to cause.
Sylia grabbed her left arm, and looped it around her neck. Sliding her left arm under Priss' legs, and her right arm around her shoulders, and under her right armpit, she braced herself and stood up, easily lifting Priss from the ground. A stifled groan came from Priss again, but she didn't say anything else. Sylia began carrying the wounded hardsuit as rapidly as she could towards the side corridor that Priss and Nene had originally entered by. The side-door was closer, and besides, Sylia wasn't about to try walking across the hangar, in front of a primed assault chopper. The steady beat of the chopper blades increased further, becoming a droning roar, and the sleek vehicle began lifting off the ground in a swirl of smoke and debris.
Linna came out of another hallway as Sylia neared the hallway; she was cradling Nene carefully in her arms, and Nene's suit also bore the signs of some quick-and-dirty first aid.
"The side-entrance!" Sylia panted to her as she carted Priss past the green-hardsuited young woman. "Quickly!" Her hardsuit-enhanced strength meant that there wasn't any problem carrying the combined weight of Priss and her hardsuit, but the weight distribution was awkward, making her navigation a bit clumsy.
The battered and bloodied Knight Sabers vanished into the side hallway leading to their escape route as the sleek black chopper began to move forwards, towards the exit doors.
"Okay, so it hovers," Doc snapped. "Now what?!" Hollister smirked.
"Now we get serious," he replied. He reached down to the floor with his good arm, and picked up a helmet from the floor. He put it on, adjusted the chin-strap, and then jacked the interface cable from the helmet into the control console. A visor-like screen slid over his face; a brief flash of red light hit his eyes as the computer scanned his retinas, and then cleared him for complete access to the flight system and weapon controls. Status reports and targeting crosshairs flickered into dim life on the helmet screen.
Hollister wrapped his hand around the control yoke, and gently pulled back. The Airwolf lifted easily into the air, clear of the hangar floor, and its landing gear immediately retracted into their concealed underbelly housings.
"Shit!" Doc suddenly swore, pointing. "The bloody hangar doors are half-blocked! We can't get out!"
"Watch and learn," Hollister snapped tightly. He tabbed the switch marked 'Sidewinders', and a four-barreled launcher dropped from the chopper's underbelly. He licked suddenly dry lips, and braced himself.
Hollister squeezed the firing switch, and the chopper lurched as four warheads were spat towards the blocked doors. He waited a tense second, then thumbed the switch for the Airwolf's afterburners. With a tortured scream, the chopper shot forwards, as if chasing its missiles.
The four, high-explosive missiles struck the wreckage blocking the doors, blasting it into a storm of pulverized, flaming debris that flew outwards through the door. A fraction of a second later, the black helicopter shot through the now-empty doors, seemingly erupting out of the base into the night on the expanding fire wave of the explosion. The doorway collapsed a second after that, the frame stressed beyond endurance by the missile strike.
"Ohhh yeah!" Hollister sighed, relaxing, as the sophisticated chopper howled up into the higher levels of the atmosphere. Doc also sighed, leaning back and running a trembling hand over his face. His fished in a pocket, and came up with his pipe, disgustedly throwing it away a minute later when he realized that the stem had snapped.
"One last thing, and then we're outta here," Hollister said, grinning wolfishly. He hauled back on the control yoke, and the Airwolf did a tight, 180-degree turn, rolling over at the same time. The assault chopper began homing in on its former base as Hollister activated the full missile systems of the ship. Sidewinders, Amraam air-to-air missiles, and several other explosive warhead launchers slid out of concealed bays in the helicopter's armoured skin, making it look like a very nasty machine for a moment.
"Pity," Doc sighed. "It was a good base, for a while."
"Don't worry," Hollister promised him. "We're going to find out just who those people were, and then there will be a reckoning. We're not finished yet." He pressed the firing switch again; the Airwolf seemed to stop moving forwards for a moment as it shuddered under the recoil of twenty missiles blasting forwards. Hollister yanked on the flight stick, and the chopper heeled sharply sideways. Leveling the ship off, Hollister threw full power to the ships jets and rotors, and the sleek black ship vanished into the night sky with a triumphant engine scream.
A moment or two later, a thunderous blast pealed through the air, audible for miles. A snarling, mushrooming cloud of angry red-orange flames shot into the sky. Several secondary explosions shook the air moments later, and thick, boiling clouds of black smoke began clawing at the sky as if trying to pull it down.
Flickering, red-tinged light glinted off of a small group of beaten and bedraggled-looking hardsuits which were a safe distance back from the ruined hill, just under the edge of the tree cover. Two were standing upright, watching the conflagration, while the other two had been laid side-by-side on the ground, propped-up slightly against a boulder, unconscious. The ground shook again, as what was left of the concealed hill-base collapsed inwards with a roar, making the former hideout look like the caldera of an active volcano, or the gateway to Hell.
"Linna, keep an eye on Priss and Nene," Sylia ordered quietly. "It'll be faster, and easier on them, if I fly back and then bring the KnightWing here to pick everyone up."
"What about that attack chopper?" Linna asked. "It might come back." Sylia shook her helmeted head.
"I doubt it," she replied. "They'll want to get as far away from here as possible before the official investigators arrive, which is what we're going to do ourselves. Don't worry, I won't be long."
The wing-spars on Sylia's flight pack sprang up, and the white hardsuit sped off into the darkness, back to where they'd left the concealed KnightWing. Linna watched her go, then sat down on the boulder near Priss and Nene to wait.
Bert's head jerked up off his arms as the phone rang urgently. He blinked blurrily at the clock: it was 4:23 AM. What the hell?! What moron could be phoning him this early in the morning?! He started to ignore the phone, preparing to drop back to sleep, when his memory kicked him in the wide posterior. He jerked upright, realizing who it likely was.
Half-falling and tripping over his chair as he shoved back from his desk, he lunged at the phone as it shrilled again. He missed his aimpoint slightly as his foot snagged on the chair leg, and he fell over onto the floor. His falling body caught the phone cable, and pulled the phone off of the table, straight into his face. Stars flared in his vision as the hurtling device smacked him square on the bridge of the nose. Swearing in pain, eyes watering, he grabbed the now-loose receiver.
"Hello?" he said into the phone, while rubbing his nose with his eyes squinted shut; it felt like it was swelling up. "Accidents Incorporated; what can I do for you?"
"That isn't even remotely amusing," Sylia's angry voice spat from the receiver. "Get up to the landing bay now, and bring a medical kit. Bring several."
"Who's hurt?!" he asked, icy fingers seeming to claw at his entrails as his stomach dropped.
"You'll see when you get here," Sylia evaded. "Get those damn kits, and get the hell up here!!"
"Okay; be up in five minutes," Bert promised as she hung up. He untangled himself from the phone cord, and leaped to his feet. He shot from the room like an arrow from a longbow, and sprinted down the hallway towards the infirmary storeroom, praying everything would be okay.
THE NEXT DAY....
Priss opened her eyes slowly, the subdued lighting of the guest room she currently occupied making her squint. She shifted cautiously, wincing as the violated nerves in her body vociferously protested any attempt to move; bandages were wrapped all over her. Obviously she was stuck here for quite some time, and, for a change, she decided to try and make the best of it. She lay quietly for a moment, enjoying the feel of the crisp, cool sheets on her body, and the soft pillow under her head. Kind of relaxing, really....
"Ah, so the Amazon Warrior awakens at last, huh?" a familiar voice intruded on her thoughts. Startled, she looked over at the easy chair by the window.
Bert folded the newspaper he'd been reading, and stood up. He was wearing a black tracksuit with white-blue arm stripes, and his hair was its usual tangled red rat's-nest. There was a very unfriendly look in his greenish-brown eyes, however, and Priss suddenly felt nervous. She also realized suddenly that she was very scantily-clad, and pulled the blankets up a little closer to her chin. Bert apparently didn't notice her discomfiture.
"Now that you are awake," he told her, spacing his quiet words very evenly apart, "I can tell you EXACTLY what I think of your escapades the other night. Shut up," he cut her off flatly as her mouth opened to make a reply. "I'm going to finish first, and then I MAY listen to what you have to say." He turned and paced for a moment, then spun to regard her. Angry moisture gathered in his eyes, and his voice became tight with suppressed feeling.
"You stupid, headstrong, reckless, combat-crazy, idiotic, moronic, half-witted, half-assed ...JERK!!! How the hell could you go and let yourself get that goddamn shot up?! I told you to be careful, and THIS is what happens?!?! You need to have your head examined!!! You're supposed to dodge bullets, not stop them with your carcass!! What the hell were you thinking?!?!"
"I....I'm sorry," she said timidly. He didn't appear to hear her.
"Of all the stupid, brainless, asinine....wait a second! What did you say?!"
"I said I'm sorry," she replied, quietly, eyes downcast. "It's my fault Nene got shot." Bert appeared stunned; he stood there, hand half raised as if he was going to make a point, jaw hanging slightly as he looked at her, frozen in mid-lecture. After a moment, he recovered, pulling his face straight. Grabbing a chair, he pulled it over to the side of the bed, and sat down.
"Okay," he sighed. "Spill it."
"I was supposed to be watching her back," Priss mumbled, not meeting his gaze. "Instead I got carried away blasting boomers, and...and she vanished. I realized, too late, that she'd seen Hollister and went after him by herself. I went running around, trying to find her, and I did." Angry tears suddenly appeared in her red-brown eyes. "The bastard had shot her in the guts, and then left her there. I wanted to go after him, and Nene kept trying to tell me to go get him, but I couldn't leave her, not after the way I'd already screwed up." She started crying, but continued speaking.
"Linna showed up to take care of her, and I ran after Hollister," she told him. "When I caught him, the bastard caught me by surprise with some kind of high-powered, armour-piercing handgun. I blew it big-time, twice: I didn't watch out for Nene, and I missed Hollister for you." She swiped angrily at her face with the edge of the sheet, trying to stop the tears; it didn't work.
"What am I going to do with you?" Bert sighed. He stood up, sat on the edge of the bed, and hugged Priss. She hugged him back, still trying to stop crying.
"I'm not blaming you for anything except not taking care of yourself," he told her softly as he held her. "I care a great deal for you, and I don't ever want to have to play medic for you again. While the view was nice, I'd rather not see it covered in blood." Priss stiffened at his flippant remark, then relaxed a bit.
"Thanks," she replied, trying not to sniffle as she wiped at her face again. She suddenly became aware of their close proximity, and her semi-dressed state, and it awakened uncomfortable feelings. Bert suddenly seemed to become aware of the same thing; flushing bright crimson, he released her, and she flopped back awkwardly into the pillow, pulling the blankets up over her chest up to her chin again.
"You're, umm, welcome," he told her, flushing again and standing up. "Well, I've got to go check on Nene now, so I'll check back with you later on." He suddenly bent over, leaned closer to her, and gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "Get well quick," he added, looking into her surprised red-brown eyes. "Then I can properly give you shit." He fled the room.
Priss sank back into her pillow with a sigh, her mind trying to sort through the tangled maze of emotions that had erupted. She gave up after a while, and drifted off to sleep.
"No, Bert," Sylia sighed wearily, running a hand through her already mussed blue-black hair. "Nene hasn't come out from under the anesthetic yet. Give it time."
"I've given it all bloody day!!" he fumed, pacing agitatedly back and forth. He flopped into the couch, took a sip of his tea, then sprang up and started pacing again. Sylia sighed again, letting her head drop back against the headrest of her chair, closing her eyes. She just wanted to go to bed now, but she couldn't let herself sleep until she knew for sure that everyone was all right. Against her will, she drifted into a light doze.
"Sylia," Bert's voice snapped her awake. She opened her eyes to find him looking at her with sympathy and concern. "You'd better go to bed; you're all in."
"I'm not tired," she lied, then spoiled it by yawning. He shook his head.
"You need sleep," he informed her. "I can keep an eye on things for a few hours."
"Maybe you're right," she admitted, yawning again.
"I'm always right," he replied with a straight face. "Most of the time, anyway."
Sylia chuckled tiredly, but didn't have the energy to respond to his remark. She stood and gratefully went off to bed. Bert watched her go, then sat down on the couch again, drinking his tea.
"Hollister," he suddenly snarled to himself, the grip on his mug becoming white-knuckled and trembling with strain. "That's three times, you bastard, and you're going to pay for each and every one of them." He sat like that for a few moments, trying to recover his earlier calm by banishing the molten wave of fury that coursed through him. As he sat there, fighting with himself, he heard soft footsteps behind him, and a moment later a hand dropped onto his shoulder.
Reflex took over, and he was powerless to stop it. Time seemed to freeze as a cold wave washed through him. His mug went flying as he spun around, hands coming up to block the incoming attack and retaliate in kind....except that there was nobody attacking. STOP!!!! a voice screamed at him from the depths of his mind. His muscles locked as he tried desperately to fight off the automatic, instinctive reaction that happened all too often lately. After a tense moment that seemed to stretch forever, he collapsed back to the couch, gasping.
"Sylvie," he gritted, placing a hand over his face. "PLEASE don't do that; you know what the hell kind of shape I'm in right now."
"Sorry," the brown-haired young woman replied contritely. "I didn't think of it until too late." She handed him his mug. "You dropped this."
"Thanks," he sighed, setting the mug on the coffee table as she came around and sat down on the chair across from him. She was dressed, for a change, in relatively normal-looking clothing: jeans and a baggy white sweater. Her eyes were concerned as she looked at him.
"How're Priss and Nene?" she inquired. "I didn't get your message until an hour ago; sorry about that."
"Priss is okay, I guess. She's awake now, at any rate. Nene is....still out," he finished tightly. The slender red-head had required some surgery to repair the damage done by Hollister's shot, and she hadn't yet awakened. Bert was having a hard time keeping calm about it, but he had to try; getting worked up into a lather over it wouldn't help her.
"What exactly happened?" Sylvie asked.
"Hollister shot them," he said flatly. Sylvie noted the blaze of angry light in his eyes, but didn't comment. "He was using some kind of pistol that shot through their hardsuits; Nene was shot in the stomach, and Priss got hit in several locations. Priss' injuries weren't as serious because she'd been farther away when he shot, and she'd been turning slightly; the combination meant that some of the shots were really just flesh wounds, even though her suit was ruined. Nene's..." He swallowed, not liking the cold chill that spread through him whenever he thought about her injuries; he'd been a basket case during those first few minutes when he'd come running into the KnightWing's hangar, to see her laying on the floor with blood all over her suit.
"Nene's wounds were more serious because she was shot at almost point-blank range," he said raggedly. "It took almost two hours of surgery to fix everything; she hasn't come out of the anesthetic yet." He stopped talking, trying hard not to cry. Sylvie leaned over and gently squeezed his arm reassuringly.
"She'll be fine," she said quietly. He nodded, wiping at his eyes.
"She'd better be," he replied. "If anything happens to her, I'll level the goddamn city until I find Hollister, and then I'll gut-shoot him and see how he likes it." From the very calm way he phrased the threat, Sylvie knew he wasn't joking; once, he might have been, but he was deadly serious now. He looked over at the clock. "I've got to go check on her again," he told his friend. "I'll probably be back later."
Sylvie watched him go, sympathy and understanding in her eyes.
The first thing Nene saw when she opened her eyes were bundles of flowers, mostly roses. The entire dresser across from her looked like a flower bed, with a profusion of coloured petals drenching the stems. She started to sit up to get a closer look, then stopped, sucking in a sharp, pained breath as her stomach slashed her with a spike of pain. She peered under the blankets, and saw a white bandage wrapped securely around her midsection. She was still a little groggy from the medication, and for a moment, confusion held her as she tried to remember how she'd gotten injured.
Memory suddenly hit back, hard and remorseless. Nene saw again the muzzle flash of Hollister's gun, and felt again the blinding pain and shock of the hot metal slug tearing through her armour, and her skin. She started to shake, turning pale; while she'd been hurt before, this was the closest brush with death that she'd ever had.
"You're going to be fine," a quiet voice told her. Nene looked up, to see Bert standing by the bed, looking at her with a mixture of love and relief in his eyes. Before she could move, he sat on the edge of the bed and gathered her up in a fierce hug. Nene started to cry as he held her, partly in relief that she was all right, and partly from the fear her close scrape had sparked. After a few minutes, she subsided. Bert pulled back slightly, tilted her chin up, and gave her a tender kiss.
"If you ever worry me like that again....I'll...I'll....I don't know what I'll do," he told her, sudden moisture gathering in his eyes. "I'm the one who's supposed to get shot, not you."
"I'm sorry," she gulped, wiping a hand across her eyes. "It's just that...I..."
"You saw Hollister, and completely forgot the fact that I'd warned you to be careful," he said, not unkindly. "You and Priss have a dismal track record for listening to me, you know that?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" she inquired suspiciously. "What happened to Priss?!"
"She also got shot, by Hollister, trying to get satisfaction for the both of us," he replied, anger flickering briefly over his face as Nene's face paled further at the news. He hesitated, then looked at her seriously. "Your injury was the worst," he told her quietly. "It took some surgery to repair the damage, and you've been out for most of a day since then from the medication."
"I'm sorry," she said, still shaking and pale. "I shouldn't have gone after him alone, but when I saw him, I just wanted to get him back for everything he did to you." She started to cry again. "I had him dead-to-rights in his office, but he pulled out a gun and shot me. I froze up, and I missed him. I missed him!!" She collapsed into him again, crying. "I tried to get him, but I wasn't good enough! I..." Bert sighed, and then kissed her again, drawing it out this time. Nene's arms wrapped around him after a moment, and she leaned into him, returning the kiss.
"Stop the guilt trip, right now," he told her, looking deeply into her emerald-green eyes as he pulled back to breathe. "I don't want to hear it. Okay, so you're not the trigger-happy, crazy fighter that Priss, or me for that matter, is. So what? You tried your best, and that's all that counts. Besides, the slimy bastard caught you by surprise; there's no shame in that."
"You're not mad because I didn't get him?" she asked in a small voice. He smiled warmly down at her, running a gentle hand through her hair.
"I'd never be mad about that; I'd much rather have you around, unharmed, than wounded because you tried to get revenge on my behalf." He hugged her again. "Let me worry about that; you just concentrate on healing up."
"Okay," Nene replied tiredly, as a sudden wave of weariness washed over her. She yawned suddenly, and Bert gently released her back into her pillows. Tucking the blankets up around her chin, he gave her a lingering, heartfelt kiss as she dropped off back to sleep again. He watched her for a moment, relieved that she appeared to be all right. Turning back to his chair, he sat down, pulling out the book and notepad he'd been using while waiting before. Sitting back with a sigh, he began reading and jotting down the occasional note on the pad as he began his bedside vigil.
"It's not over yet," he muttered to himself suddenly, looking over at the sleeping young woman. "There will come a reckoning."
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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|