This story begins some time in 2030, before Bubblegum Crisis (2032-33) or Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal (2031). It contains violence and some harsh language. Please do not read it if this offends you.

Bubblegum Crisis, in its various anime incarnations to date, is property of and copyright Artmic (R.I.P.), Youmex (R.I.P.), AIC, and AnimEigo. Bubblegum Crisis: Grand Mal is property of and copyright Dark Horse Comics.

Into the Shadows was written November 1997 - February 1998

--Jeanne Hedge and Andy Skuse


Firelight.

Warming. Comforting.

Consuming. Destroying.

Obscuring.

The truth does not live in the light. Light is not truth. Light can be manipulated to conceal the truth. To blind us. To trick us. To divert our eyes away from what is really going on.

For me, the truth lives in the shadows.

To expose the truth, I must place my trembling hands into dark corners, and step into the blackness wearing armor made from knowledge, and a helm to shade my eyes from the light.

Like an unpolished sword still blackened by the forge, I will fight the sun, and not shine.

Come what may....


INTO THE SHADOWS

by Jeanne Hedge and Andy Skuse


1. DYING WISHES

The garage was almost silent, except for the low hum of slumbering machinery. The light in my office spilled out through the doorway into the darkened service bays, washing dimly over vehicles that waited patiently to be whole again. Tiny red and blue power indicator lights pierced the shadows along the back wall. In the distance, I could hear the monotonous sounds of the factories that surrounded the garage, as they continued to grind, rumble and churn through the night. For me, the day was finally over, and all I wanted to do now was rest my tired old bones. But I had a visitor, and she needed my advice. My tired bones would have to wait.

"Sylia, why must you do this?" I finally replied. "Do you really think your father would have approved?"

The young woman before me faltered for a moment. The pleading look on her face quickly changed to one of seriousness as she considered my question.

"Doctor Raven," she replied, her voice now reflecting her stern gaze, "if my father would not have approved, then why did he provide me with the information and tools to deal with the problem?"

Damn. That razor-sharp ability to reason that I had instilled in her was coming back to haunt me.

As I stared out the doorway into the darkness to consider her words, my aged eyes struggled to make out the discarded pieces of rusting metal that lay strewn about the garage floor. And as I thought hard about what I was going to say, my vision began to deceive me. The twisted metal pieces and their shadows had somehow altered their shapes, combining in the dim light to look a bit like severed metallic limbs. A bright red fluid was seeping out of the torn appendages, flowing out upon the garage floor towards me....

"Can't you see what they've done with his work?" she continued, her anger now rising uncharacteristically to the surface.

She paused, and I could see the frustration in her eyes as she struggled with her words.

"I can't wait any longer, Doctor. They've turned his grand designs into schemes of greed, and I can't let it continue."

"Sylia...." I looked into her eyes again, wishing that she had never received that damned data unit. But it was too late to change that. My friend -- her father -- was gone, and the wisdom of his wishes was getting harder to see each time that Sylia came to visit me. She wasn't going to drop it.

I closed my eyes for a moment, then turned back to render my anticipated reply, but my words were stolen from me. She was standing beside my computer, her arms still folded across her chest in a gesture of contained patience, her eyes still burning with defiance. Schematic readouts and technical blueprints displayed themselves on the computer's screen in a hypnotic sequence. Images that I had seen many years ago. Abandoned by my reply, I looked away again, back into the darkness of the garage. The severed robotic limbs I had seen moments before were once again cold, rusted, lifeless, metal pieces, the "blood" simply a dried oil stain.

Foolish old man. If only Katsuhito were here....

Fine. There was no way I was going to let her do this by herself. She was bright -- very bright -- but they would not hesitate for even a second to silence anyone who opposed them. How many others had died because of their ruthless determination? Someone had to do something, but I did not want to lose her to them. I had already lost one close friend....

I smiled bravely and took her hands in mine. "Sylia, if you must do this, then I will not stop you...."

Her hard gaze altered slightly, but the determination in her eyes remained. "But?"

"But," I continued, "you must do this right. Preparation, planning, and teamwork will keep you from getting killed. You must--"

"Teamwork?" she blurted out, taking her hands from mine and stepping away, turning her back to me. The tone of her voice went cold. "This is my fight. I see no reason to--"

"Sylia, please listen to me. I know the young think they know everything, but someone as bright as you are should know better. You can't do this yourself. I want to help you. And I am sure that your brother will not just sit by and watch. He will want to help too. You know what he is like."

She nodded. Perhaps she was listening after all.

"And while you have inherited your father's research, as well as his talent for making those ideas a reality, don't ever forget what happened to him." I paused, trying to gauge her reaction. "He was alone, Sylia, and he thought that he, too, could deal with the problem himself. He was a great man, but great men, and great women, can make mistakes. Please, don't make the same mistake that he did."

I wish I could have seen her face, but she remained turned away.

"Sylia, will you let me help you?"

After a few moments, she slowly nodded again.

"Good. Now, if you still believe that this is important to you...."

She suddenly turned back, then crossed the room to embrace me, her eyes bright with unshed tears. "Thank you," she whispered softly, and then kissed me on the cheek. "I think I needed to hear that." She broke the embrace and stepped back slightly, taking my hands in hers. "And yes," she said, in a more normal voice, "it is still very important to me."

I smiled. "Okay then, you will need to make some plans. I suggest that the first thing you do is find someone to help you."

She looked up at me with a quizzical expression on her face. "But you just said that you and Mackie would--"

"Yes," I replied, cutting her off, "We will help you. But I am an old man, and Mackie is still a young boy. We can help you build anything you need, but I think you might need more help than that. What will you do when you are outnumbered? And believe me, they will outnumber you. That has been their strategy in business, and I have no doubt it will be their strategy outside of business."

Sylia slipped her hands out of mine, and took a few steps away from me again, her right hand covering her mouth as she considered my suggestion carefully.

Finally she faced me again, her eyes burning fiercely now. "I think, Doctor, that you may have a point."


 

2. THE CHOSEN ONES

It was over.

It was all over, and I had lost. I guess I shouldn't have tied everything into this one last shot, one last audition. I was only looking to be shot down.

As if I ever had a realistic chance to be a star in the first place. Dance was my life, but it seemed now that devotion does not always equal success.

I was sitting huddled in the spotlight, spending my last few moments in its warmth while the Chosen Ones huddled around the Producer, when I realized I was being watched. I looked up just as a someone stepped from the darkened house to the edge of the spot shining brightly onto the barren stage. Nice shoes, I thought.

I looked up from the red heels to see a tall, dark-haired woman wearing a red business suit. Not too trendy, but definitely stylish, in her own way. She took off her dark, wrap-around glasses and smiled sadly at me.

"Linna Yamazaki?"

"Yes?"

"I'm sorry. I thought you did very well."

Someone turned off the spot and the stage lights, and the house lights came up. I got up as well. "Thank you. I guess it wasn't good enough, though." I was rather proud of myself for not letting it show just how much it hurt.

She gave me that sad smile again.

Well, not letting it show too much, I guess.

"Yamazaki-san, I have a business proposition I would like you to consider. May we go somewhere a bit more comfortable to talk about it?"

"A business proposition? What sort of business?" I asked, intrigued in spite of myself. Finding work this quickly would definitely make today's misery bearable. And give me the opportunity to continue eating. My bank balance was at a new low.

"I can't really discuss it here," she replied, looking around as the other dancers began to gather their things and leave the stage. One or two gave me gloating looks. "Perhaps at the coffee shop across the street?"

I considered things for a couple seconds. The thought of my nearly non-existent bank balance forced the decision. "All right. I need to clean up and change. I'll meet you there in fifteen minutes, OK?"

"Fifteen minutes, then," she agreed. Putting her glasses back on, she turned and made her way back into the theater.

I realized then that I didn't know her name.

* * *

"Give me back my gun."

"No."

"Then at least give me my goddamned knife!"

"Asagiri-san, civilized people don't carry weaponry into public places."

I did a double take. Ms. High-and-Mighty Corporate Executive-type runs me down, threatens me, does a full body search, threatens me, takes my weapons, threatens me, takes me to this dive for coffee, and then carries on about civilized behavior? Quite a few things didn't add up. I was outta there.

"Look, lady, ain't been a very fuckin' good night. You ran me down, wiped me out, and totaled my bike. I don't know who you are or who you're working for, and for some reason you think I should trust you. Well, listen up princess, I don't want anything to do with you or your damned business proposition!" Once again, I tried to get up, and once again she tightened her grip on my wrist so I couldn't move.

"As I told you before, I'm unaffiliated," she said calmly, as if I hadn't just finished yelling at her. "I'm certainly not involved with Genom or any of the other multinationals. Let me have a few minutes of your time to make my proposition, and then you can decide if you want to participate or not. I think you'll find it worth your time."

Corporate power suit, dark glasses -- at night, yet -- and she says she's not working for someone. Right. And I'm Batman. "Who the fuck do you think you are?" If she thought she could buy me, she was in for a surprise.

"Someone who would like to keep certain... organizations from trampling the rights of the common man. Interested?"

"Do-Gooders Anonymous?" I sneered. "Pass." I got up from the table, and this time she didn't try to stop me. I guess she realized I wasn't buying her line one bit. The entire set-up smelled anyway, and I had to do something about my bike.

I started to walk away when she said, not loudly, but loud enough that I could hear, "Don't you want your revenge, Priss?"

I turned around and stared at her. She gazed calmly back, eyes hidden by the shades.

"Look what they've done to you. Your lover. Your entire life. Think of what you had, and what you have now. This is your big chance to get back at them without throwing what's left of your life away. The only real chance you'll ever get."

Unwelcome scenes from the wreckage of my life flashed before my eyes. It was all still too fresh, too raw. "You bitch," I whispered under my breath, feeling the dampness on my cheeks. "You goddamn bitch."

"Please sit down, Priss." She asked, this time. "I really think you'd be interested in what I have to say." She paused for a minute, then took a sip from the cup of coffee that had sat untouched since it was delivered. "Besides," she said into the cup, "you might find that you and I have more in common than you think."

* * *

"So you need a hacker to help you take Genom down?"

"That's not what I said, Romanova-san."

"No, but it's what you meant." I grinned. I loved putting people off-balance, and this lady was no exception: the look on her face was priceless. Now, to find out what she was really after. "Why me?" I asked, my question echoing her expression.

She just sat there for a minute, as if she was considering something. Then she sighed, and said, "Of those who managed to crack the code embedded in my electronic message, you are one of the few who met the additional requirements necessary for the position."

Additional requirements? OK, I was game. "What additional requirements?"

She stared at me again. Dead end question, I guess. Then she changed the subject. "There will be some field work involved, and--"

"Cool! I get to be a spy!" Her sigh sounded a little exasperated to me, so I decided I'd better tone it down a bit. I may like cute things, but that doesn't make me stupid. "All right, all right. What else?" I asked, holding my hands up in what I hoped was a placating gesture.

"You will need to improve your physical conditioning. You'll be required to carry some of your equipment with you, and that will require strength, stamina, and agility."

Conditioning? OK, I thought, I really need to go on a diet anyway. She was watching me, so I nodded for her to go on.

"A certain amount of personal danger is also involved." Eh?! Personal danger? What does a hacker do that's personally dangerous? Nothing, that's what. I like to daydream about it, but I guess I'm not really cut out for a life of--

"And you're going to have to get a new job."

Now wait just a-- "But I like the job I have right now!" I complained.

"Working behind the counter at an ice cream parlor is not convenient." I think the lady was a little ticked off at me.

"Hey! It's convenient for me!"

"But not for me, and not for the business at hand." She got a very serious look on her face, and took her dark sunglasses off. That scared me a little. I've always heard the phrase "steely blue eyes." Hers were brown, but the same thought applied.

She put the glasses into her bag, and her hand remained in the bag. That scared me a lot. "Who are you?"

"Don't misunderstand me, Romanova-san. This is not a game. Perhaps I've told you too much as it is. I need a decision from you. Now."

What had I gotten into? "If I say yes, can I leave if I change my mind?" I asked so quietly that I could barely hear my own words.

"It will be dealt with, if you change your mind."

I didn't like the sound of that either. On the other hand, she had me cornered, in all meanings of the word. I thought about it for a minute. I had thought this was a joke, but it had gotten way out of hand. And I couldn't see any way out.

"All right. I'm in. What do you want me to do?"

The hand came out of her bag, and in it was a plain card, with a handwritten address on it. "Be there tomorrow night, 22:00." Then she handed me an envelope. "And be here tomorrow morning, at 7:00, for your pre-employment baseline testing and evaluation. The details are in the envelope."

Pre-employment baseline testing? I guess my confusion must have shown on my face, because as she stood to leave, she smiled. Very slightly, but it was a smile. I think.

"Welcome to the AD Police, Romanova-san."

AD Police?!

I was dead.


 

3. THE ART OF WAR

21:45. In fifteen more minutes, I'd find out who was serious about joining me, and who I was going to have to... deal with.

This had been too long in the planning to go wrong now, and I wasn't about to let personnel matters slow things down. Over a year on the equipment design and testing alone, and it still wasn't done. But that time hadn't been wasted.

I'd taken some advice Dr. Raven had given me to heart, and had gone back to school. Not just in the traditional sense, because I'd done that too, but there are some things you don't learn in a classroom. So in the guise of a 'round the world vacation, I traveled and learned everything I could from the best I could find. Physical training. Conventional military and urban guerrilla tactics. Team tactics. Weapon systems and armaments. Command and Control. The quickest and best ways to disarm, injure, and kill. Field medicine. The Zen of the Battlefield.

And more.

And in my spare time, I was closeted with Dr. Raven and Mackie, adapting the equipment I hoped to one day use to what I had learned during my newly gained experiences.

But now we were at a crossroads. The designs could go no further until we knew exactly who would use the designs. For months I had had several people under observation and investigation, and I chose who I thought best from among those. In one case I had to nudge events a little to make her more receptive to my proposal, but in the end all agreed to join me.

Now it was time to find out if they actually would.

And then we could get on with the business of finishing the equipment and training the team. My team.

Still ten minutes to go. I took the time to go through their files one last time. As if the contents weren't already seared into my memory.

Linna Yamazaki:

     - Born 20 October, 2012.
     - Part-time dance instructor at Phoebe's Phitness Emporium.
     - International competition-level expert in Tai Chi Chuan.
     - Parents deceased, 2027, result of an uncontrolled boomer.
     - Lived with relatives until she completed high school.
     - Accepted to three universities after high school.
     - Career choice: to become a professional dancer.
     - Still trying to break out of chorus roles.
     - Extravagant tastes, without the financial backing to support them.

If one word described Yamazaki, I thought, it would be 'dilettante'. She'd never stuck with anything for very long in her entire life, be it job, hobby, or man. I wondered if she could stick with this. I glanced at her banking records again and smiled.

Yamazaki was designated to be the Close Combat Specialist. The one to get in quickly, do the job, and get out quicker.

Next in the queue was

Priscilla Asagiri:

     - Born 27 May, 2013.
     - Small-time singer in the band 'Priss and the Replicants'.
     - Former bike gang member.
     - Minor criminal record related to her gang activities.
     - Parents deceased, 2025, in the Quake.
     - Senior high school dropout.
     - Lived in an orphanage, ran away on average once/month.
     - Moved in with leader of her gang when she finally left the orphanage.
     - Lover died just last week.  She blames Genom for it.
     - Now living in an abandoned refrigeration trailer in District 3.

Why did I go after her? She'd lost everything that had ever been dear to her, and she was definitely not thinking straight. She was going to be nothing but trouble and I really didn't have time for it. She had already tried to kill me once; I would need to watch my back. But if I could direct her rage at the world to more appropriate targets....

But I was going to have to do something to get, and keep, her under control, and do it right away. Asagiri was the designated Point because of her street knowledge and skills, and Point has to keep her head.

I closed the file and opened the next. And smiled.

Nene Romanova:

     - Born 31 August, 2014.
     - Counter girl at Yoshiro's Ice Cream Parlor.
     - Self-taught computer hacker, extraordinaire.
     - Ran away from home due to oppressive family life.
     - Senior high school dropout due to boredom with course work.

This girl was going to be the key player in this organization, I thought. If someone didn't kill her over this 'cute' bit of hers first. She was not really a fighter, in the physical sense, not like the other two. But she was smart, a lot smarter than she lets on. She had to be, with the kind of Electronic Intelligence and Electronic Warfare work she was going to be doing.

I was going to have to watch her when it comes to the tech, though. She was likely to--

The buzz of an alarm interrupted my musings, and I glanced at my wristwatch. Five more minutes. I closed Romanova's file, then tied into the live security scans.

And there they were. Romanova was getting out of a cab, just in front of Yamazaki's car, parked at the curb out front. No sign yet of Asagiri. Well, she still had five minutes....

 

....Five minutes.

An eternity if you were faced with your own destruction. Even a few seconds could mean the difference between life and death in combat. All the movies I had ever seen in which someone was fatally injured had lied. People don't die within seconds of being shot or stabbed. They writhe. They struggle. They clutch at their wounds disbelieving. They gasp for air through blood-choked lungs. They fight the inevitable. Dying is never the quick and relatively painless event that Hollywood has portrayed. I learned this fact when I embarked on the journey that took me around the world, to learn how to fight -- and how to survive.

I had trained hard at home prior to the trip, conditioning myself and getting my body into top shape. I had studied satellite maps of the various regions. I had purchased the best equipment that was available and then had it customized to my specifications. I believed that I was as prepared as I could be. I was wrong. All the exercise and expensive custom equipment in the world did not prepare me for the kinds of conditions I would face outside MegaTokyo's cement jungle.

Rain-soaked forests, swamps, mountains, and deserts opposed me to the point that I very nearly gave up. But each time my body cried out for me to end its misery, I thought of my father. I thought of the gun. I thought of the man who pulled the gun's trigger, ending my father's life. My body learned to obey my will, no matter how raw my hands and feet got, or how badly every muscle ached. I would finish this, no matter what.

Then came the trip to a real jungle.

I can remember the silence, but for the snapping of a huge fire. Two dozen angry painted faces suddenly staring directly at us, their sacred hunting ritual rudely interrupted by outsiders. My breathing stopped.

The hunt began.

We did not sleep that night. We had to keep moving or find a hiding place and hope they did not find us. One by one, my group was systematically separated, then picked off one by one by the silent moving shadows.

The memory of that night always reminds me of stories I had read of shipwreck survivors in the Pacific. Those that had survived the sinking ended up clinging to what was left of their ships as they waited to be rescued. Sharks picked them off in the night, one by one, leaving each survivor to wonder if he would be next. And as my companions and I hid under a fallen tree amid an ocean of green and black, the sharks circled around us silently, the quiet pierced only by random gunfire, or an occasional scream as another of our companions died.

Four of us left. And the sharks were getting closer. I would not die there in the jungle. I could not. And I would not let my companions die. We made a plan and we swore to each other that we would follow it to the letter. Armed with one high-powered rifle that was low on ammo, three handguns, and four hunting knives, we faced the sharks, come what may....

I can still see their faces.

I can still hear their screams.

 

I shook myself from my reverie and checked the time again.

Hm. Asagiri was going to be late....


 

4. WITH AN IRON HAND

We were led to a small room at the back of a surprisingly clean looking garage. I looked through the door, feeling nervous in spite of myself. The room appeared to be some sort of office/conference room. A desk, with a laptop computer and an old-style audio-only telephone resting atop it, had been pushed off to the side. A small table next to it held a hot water thermos, a small collection of cups, a teapot, instant coffee, and tea. In the center of the room was a collapsible square game table, with a chair tipped forward against each side. A small sofa rested against the far wall.

I glanced back at the girl who had introduced herself as Linna Yamazaki. She appeared a little anxious herself. I hoped I looked calmer than she did. She gave me a sickly smile, then stepped around me and into the room.

The point of no return, I thought.

Taking a deep breath, I entered and joined her on the sofa. We both watched as our hostess followed us into the room, softly closing the door behind her. "Tea? Or coffee, perhaps?" she asked as she walked over to the thermos. "I must apologize," she added, "the coffee is instant."

Linna and I both asked for tea, and the lady poured three cups. "Thank you for coming," she said as she turned back to us. "My name is- -"

The telephone rang, interrupting her. She picked it up and listened for a few seconds, said, "Yes, send her in," then hung up the phone. "A moment, please," she apologized as she turned to the door.

The door burst open, and in walked this... creature. Well, not walked. Stomped would be more like it. Dirty black motorcycle gear with yellow trim, and oily, tangled brown hair wild about her head, and a cigarette dangled from her lips. The room was suddenly permeated with the smell of gasoline and alcohol. She looked like something that just crawled from under a rock. This person had been asked to be here?

Our nameless hostess was not amused. "I said 22:00, not 22:10."

"I'm here, ain't I?" She reeked of attitude too, all of it bad. When she flipped her cigarette to the floor without using her hands, then ground it out with her boot's heel, I thought Linna looked as if she was in shock. I know I was.

"When I tell you to be somewhere at a certain time, I expect you to be there at that time, if not before. I also said no alcohol. No alcohol, no drugs, no criminal activity."

"I'm clean," came the sullen reply.

The lady sniffed the air and raised an eyebrow, looking at her measuringly for a moment. She then turned back to Linna and me, leaving the "wild woman" standing behind her.

"This is our fourth team member, Priscilla Asagiri. And as I started to say, before we were so rudely interrupted, my name is Sylia Stingray. My late father was Katsuhito Stingray, creator of what are commonly known as Boomers. Eight years ago, employees of the Genom Corporation murdered him, destroyed his laboratory, took his work, and perverted his dream. Genom now runs roughshod over the city and is moving rapidly toward world domination.

"The four of us are going to make sure they don't succeed."

* * *

"Any questions, ladies?" After speaking non-stop for nearly an hour, Sylia Stingray finally sat in one of the chairs surrounding the card table in the center of the room. She looked... expectant, maybe? Like she thought we would be bursting with questions about her mad scheme to bring down one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world.

Questions? Yeah, I had them. But my head was spinning and I couldn't begin to think where to begin.

Poor Nene, sitting beside me on the couch. She'd gone pale about five minutes into Sylia's monologue. I don't know what she was expecting, but I'm sure it wasn't this.

A special operations team, to fight boomers and put a crimp in Genom's style. The combat bit wasn't an original idea; that's what the AD Police was for. But then again, look at where that's gotten the AD Police.

Priss, leaning against the closed door, had a funny look on her face, a crazy glint in her eyes. I suddenly realized that she was looking forward to what we'd unknowingly walked into. I shuddered inside. Did she have some sort of death wish? This could make us all very dead very quickly, boomers or not.

"Well, since you have no questions right now, I'll go on. I'm sure questions will come to you later." Sylia sounded disappointed.

"These are the rules under which the Knight Sabers Organization will conduct its business." She looked at all of us in turn as she removed a small card from her jacket pocket. "I expect you to follow them to the letter."

"Rule number one: Do not divulge any information concerning this organization. This means you do not tell anyone anything about this organization or your activities within it. You will not let anyone know this organization exists."

Seemed fair enough to me. We were supposed to be secret, after all.

"Rule number two: Do not act upon a personal grudge. Life can be unfair, and unpleasant things happen. But don't get the organization involved."

I wondered why she was looking directly at Priss when she said that.

"Rule number three: Do act upon the mutual consent of all the members. This means that everyone must agree on an overall plan of action before we begin an activity.

"Rule number four: Do not secede from this organization." She looked at each of us in turn, but it seemed like she looked at me longest of all. I tried to look back, but ended up dropping my eyes.

How did she know I was having second thoughts about this already?

"Rule number five: Members are personally responsible for any damage done to the organization's equipment unless that damage was unavoidable."

Sounded expensive. But what defined 'unavoidable'?

* * *

I was here to wipe Genom off the map and kill boomers, not be preached at with a bunch of lame rules. But Sylia continued to drone on.

"Rule number six: Do not divulge any information concerning our clients. The identity of our clients is need-to-know. Do not be surprised if you don't always know who our client is."

Who the fuck cared about clients? I wanted Genom.

"Rule number seven: Do not gather information on your own. The task of intelligence-gathering is to be distributed evenly among all the members."

Uh-huh.

"Rule number eight: Do keep in contact with the other members regularly."

Shit. Just how many of these things were there, anyway?

"Rule number nine: The members do not know each other outside of this organization."

Wait a minute! How do you keep in contact with someone you're not supposed to know? "Hey, uh...." I tried to break into her little speech, but she went on over me.

"Rule number ten: Do not get involved with a man."

Staring at Yamazaki again. Hmmm... this could be interesting.

"And finally, Rule number eleven: The penalty for violating any of the ten regulations listed above is death." She looked around at us again. "And it will be enforced."

I stared at her. Just who did this bitch think she was? Yeah, she was offering me the one thing I wanted most in the world, but this was nuts!

There was a thump, and I looked over at the sofa. Romanova had fainted.

* * *

I descended the stairs into a smoky haze and a flood of memories. Memories of alcohol induced laughter, sadness over lost friends, and late nights. Memories of wasted time and energy. The place hadn't changed much. Same dim lighting, same claustrophobic atmosphere, and the same awkward quiet, like I was being watched from a dark corner. I made my way past the billiard tables, sat down at the bar, and lit a cigarette. And waited. "White wine please."

Suddenly there was a voice behind me. A voice that sounded as if the speaker had been sitting in a dark corner a moment ago.

"It's been a while, Sylia."

I looked into the mirror behind the bar to see him standing directly behind me, a cigarette in his left hand, blonde hair disheveled. He hadn't changed one bit since that ill-fated trip to Colombia, where we'd first bumped into each other. Maybe if he combed his hair once in a while he could be considered handsome. By some women.

"Please, have a seat, Fargo. I'm paying this time."

He laughed as he sat down next to me, that same unnerving too-quiet chuckle that used to make me think he was laughing at me. He really hadn't changed.

"Thanks, Sylia. Very kind of you."

He made a quick gesture to the bartender, to which he received a silent nod.

I smiled and tapped my cigarette into the ashtray between us. "I thought you said you never stayed in one place long enough to become too familiar with the locals?"

The laugh again, this time with a smile. "Well, I suppose the jungle and a bar are similar in some ways." He continued looking straight ahead, gazing off into space. "Something about this place keeps me coming back though. Good times and memories maybe? Speaking of which, how are Rob and Sarah these days?"

"Married. Didn't you get their letter?"

"Maybe... Married eh?"

I nodded.

"Huh. I don't know why I'm surprised. After all," he turned to look at me, "nearly getting killed in the jungle is enough to drive two people into each other's arms."

I said nothing. Hmm, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

The bartender returned with our drinks, looking expectedly at Fargo. Before I could protest, the bartender was walking away with a decent tip.

"I thought you'd given up, Fargo."

He smiled again. "And I thought you never wanted to see me again."

Hadn't changed.... not one damn bit.

"Okay, look, I asked you here to discuss business. That's all. If you want to reminisce about your romantic past, then I suggest you call Sarah."

That laugh again.

"I need some information, Fargo. I need someone who can get inside Genom."

He stopped laughing and took a long drag on his cigarette, then turned and gave me a dark look. "I see you've done your homework. This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain accident from your past, would it?"

"Maybe."

"I see. I hope you're not thinking of doing something stupid, Sylia. You already know that they play hardball at the Tower."

I took a sip of my wine before speaking. "I think you know me better than that."

"Ah yes, always prepared for anything. Okay then. What can I do for you?"

I ordered him another drink, and this time I made sure that he didn't pay.


 

5. FRIENDLY FIRE

I had planned from the outset to get the Knight Sabers used to working together by appointing each of them an expert in certain areas, with the "expert" responsible for the basic training of the others in that area. Since Asagiri, and especially Romanova, needed to increase their level of physical conditioning, this seemed the perfect place to begin.

So the two of them went on a month-long intensive physical conditioning program, with Yamazaki in charge. I thought that as a professional fitness instructor, she would be used to helping people through activities they had trouble with, and would encourage them and work with them until they could perform whatever exercise they were doing, and do it well.

After two days I realized I might have made a serious mistake.

Maybe Yamazaki was that way with her clients, but not here. She and Asagiri seemed to have developed a mutual dislike for each other. They reminded me of a pair of Alpha wolves, trying to establish dominance by snapping at each other at every opportunity. And Yamazaki took advantage of her temporary status as instructor to drive Asagiri beyond reason during the classes.

That Asagiri was able to handle almost everything Yamazaki put her through seemed to make Yamazaki push her even further. I cringed to think what Asagiri would do to her when the time came to learn how to really handle a motorcycle, and they switched roles as instructor and student.

And Romanova was caught in the middle of it. They were both all over her, the big dogs picking on the runt of the litter. She became slow and tentative about everything, and, unfortunately, she usually failed at whatever she tried. She proved to be even less adept during the weaponry familiarization course than she was at physical activities. She was trying, that was true, but she just couldn't seem to get the hang of things.

And neither of them let her forget it. She started relying more and more on trying to charm her way out of things, but that just seemed to irritate them more, making it worse. Yamazaki called it 'The Attack of the Over-Cute,' which reduced Mackie to embarrassed blushes when he heard about it. Some ancient hentai anime reference, I imagine.

Fortunately, things were going much better for her with the ADP, where, as arranged, she was training as a Communications Specialist. But with the Knight Sabers, the only time she seemed to be the same person I recruited was when she was working alone, dealing with the computers and learning about the electronics she would be working with. The rest of the time she suffered in silence, her self-confidence almost gone.

I didn't want to get involved with it. With them. They were going to have to work together, but that didn't mean they had to like each other. They weren't supposed to be friends anyway -- that would be disastrous to organizational security.

I already knew she wasn't a fighter, not in the physical sense, and had planned for that accordingly. That was part of what the rest of us were for: to buy her time to do her electronics work relatively unscathed.

As long as Romanova was able to fulfill her assigned function within the Organization, I decided to let them sort it out between themselves.

* * *

Weapons loaded and in hand, we got our final instructions. Me against Yamazaki. I was going to kick her sorry ass all over the field.

"All right, ladies," Sylia said. Did she always have to emphasize 'ladies' like that? "This will be the final match for today. The same rules as in your earlier matches apply: reach the objective, recover the target, and return with it to your base. If your opponent has already recovered the target, you are expected to take it from her and return with it to your base. You have twenty minutes to complete the assignment."

She took my weapon from me and checked the status readout on the side, above the trigger guard, gave it back, then did the same with Yamazaki's. "The batteries are fully recharged, so be careful of your target. I don't want any unnecessary injuries. Being hit by a pellet at full charge will not be a pleasant experience."

"I'll say," Nene muttered, rubbing her butt. Hey, it was the only way I could get her to move in the two-on-two game. Jeez.... talk about useless. There's got to be some reason she's still around. I mean, everyone's beat her at this. And at everything else we've done.

But I knew about pellets too, courtesy of the Ice Queen, and it was pretty embarrassing. But she seemed to think that playing capture-the- flag with weapons that fired electric pellets would "prove to you that, despite what you may think, this is not a game" faster than a standard paintball game would. Got my attention, that's for sure.

At least I lasted longer than that slut did against the Boss. What did she think she was doing, with those stupid backflips?

"Asagiri! Did you hear what I said?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure," I lied, putting my brain into instant-replay mode, trying to figure out just what she had said while I was enjoying the memory of Yamazaki's fiasco. A quick glance showed Yamazaki taking her body armor off, so I decided maybe I should be doing the same.

I got Stare Number 137 from Stingray-sama, and Nene snickered. "Shut up, Nene-chan," I said in my best mock-sweet voice. "Unless you'd like to do this instead."

"That's enough," Sylia said, a bit of warning in her own voice. "I'm not in the habit of repeating myself, but I want you and your friend there," she looked over at Yamazaki, "to be perfectly clear about this. I am not going to have someone hurt themselves, or someone else, due to stupidity. But I also know that when the match starts, the two of you are going to try to continue this little game you've been playing with each other, regardless of what I say or do."

Yamazaki lifted one eyebrow as she gazed at me, and smiled. "Furthest thing from my mind."

"Yeah, right," I snorted in reply.

"So, to discourage some of your dumber moves, neither of you will wear body armor or helmets in this match. Perhaps an increased risk of personal injury will slow you down."

Sure it will.

Sylia took a deep breath. If she were a normal person, I'd almost think she regretted what she was about to say. "The only safety gear you may wear during this match are goggles and gloves. No body armor, no helmets, no insulating mesh. If you get hit, you'll receive the full charge of the pellet. If you jump off a structure or out of a tree, you have nothing to pad you but what God gave you.

"Remember," she continued, "I want to see basic ground tactics, not Tarzan impersonations. Now take your starting positions, and wait for the signal."

Yamazaki headed off toward her base, and I started toward mine.

Keep smiling, toots. I'm gonna wipe it right off your face.

* * *

She had to be around here somewhere.

I was making good time, considering my leg was still tingling. At least it wasn't numb anymore. Her aim never had been as good as she thought it was, and it certainly showed this time. But even that graze had me totally down for thirty seconds, and still moving slowly three minutes later. And it hurt.

But I had a good idea which way she was going. She'd used the same route against Nene and had tried to use it against Sylia. Before she was utterly humiliated, that is. And she'd gone that way again in the team matches.

Sylia wasn't the only one who could deal out humiliation. That bitch was gonna pay double for sneaking up and shooting me, and then taking the target.

Taking the same route twice was a dumb move, especially for someone who was supposed to be 'street smart.' Four times in a row was sheer idiocy. Obviously she hadn't been paying attention when we discussed basic tactics and not falling into patterns. Did she really think no one would notice?

So I was ready for her when she came trotting up, glancing occasionally over her shoulder. I don't think she ever considered that she should be looking ahead too.

I stepped onto the path in front of her, and the look on her face was priceless. I guess I was a bit too confident, though. She got off the first shot. I dove for the ground, and when I looked up she was heading into the brush. So I shot her. In the back. Three times.

She dropped like a stone.

Levering myself back to my feet, I limped over to where she'd gone down so I could take the target and head back in the other direction. She'd gone down, all right. There was a two meter drop, and when she'd fallen she'd gone over the edge.

I slid down the slope and walked over to where she lay, arms and legs akimbo. She was scratched up from the brush, muddy, and looked a little dazed, but the soft ground of the creek bed had cushioned her fall a little. Her weapon was gone.

Safe enough. I knelt next to her and reached into her pocket, recovering the target. But when I got up to leave, something about the look on her face made me turn back. "Are you OK?"

"Yeah."

Liar. "Are you sure?"

She closed her eyes, ignoring me. Be that way. I started to walk away.

I had only gone a couple meters when heard her mumble something. "What?"

"I can't... can't feel my legs."

Oh shit, my mind kept repeating as I walked back over to her. "It's probably just the pellets," I suggested, trying to be comforting.

"You sure? It didn't feel like this before."

"Sure I'm sure." I hoped. "Look, you shot me, and I'm fine now. It'll wear off in a minute. You should know that by now." Of course, right about then my leg decided it wanted to take a nap, and folded up on me. I crashed down into the mud beside her.

"Fine, huh?" There seemed to be a glint of laughter amid the pain on her face.

"Fine," I repeated as I shoved myself up to a sitting position, then scooted into a little less... squishy... position. "Quite a pair we make, huh?"

She didn't answer that, just lay there. After a bit, my leg stopped hurting so much. I thought again about taking off, finishing the match. For some reason, I really didn't want to leave just yet.

"I think I can feel them a little bit, now," she offered after a few minutes of silence.

"Great! See, I told you it wasn't anything." Thank God.

"Yeah." More silence. "Nice shot," she muttered grudgingly. I think this was the first time I'd heard her compliment anyone.

"Yours too." It wasn't a kind lie either, I realized.

"But you didn't have to shoot me in the back." Ah, the qualifier.

"You would have."

"Probably," she agreed.

More silence. Asagiri tried to sit up, didn't quite make it, ignored my arm when I offered it.

"You know, you're not too bad at this stuff," I said hesitantly. Where did that come from? But I knew it was true. Today was full of surprises.

She looked as surprised as I felt. "You too."

* * *

The ceiling appeared, then quickly vanished.

UFF! Uhhhhhhh... the mat again. Hello Mr. Mat.

"Hahaha!"

Priss.

"Did you see her fly Linna?! Just like a baby bird falling out of the nest!"

You'd think they'd get bored of making fun of me. Ohhhh, my back hur--

"Keep that up Nene, and you'll make all the boomers dizzy while they flip you over their backs!"

Linna.

"Oh yeah?!" I shot back.

Ever since 'The Great Pellet War of 2031' ended in mutual annihilation a couple months back, the two of them had become, well, not best friends but definitely more relaxed with each other. But as usual, what was good for Sylia's team had a downside. Now that they weren't constantly trying to one-up the other, they were teaming up to pick on me.

The terrible twosome stepped forward, the light vanishing as they bent over me. "Yes?" Priss said, her voice taking on a nasty tone. "You have something else to say then?"

I turned onto my stomach to get up, my reply barely a whisper, "Ape woman..."

"WHAT?" Priss freaked.

Linna giggled.

"Did you hear what she called me? APE WOMAN!"

"Yeah. Well, Priss," Linna replied, "sometimes you can be a bit--"

"A BIT WHAT?! Go ahead! I'd like to hear this!"

Things couldn't get much worse... who was I kidding?


 

6. TRIAL AND ERROR

The thick metal door swung open into the darkness with a fluid ease. As my eyes slowly adjusted, myriad arrays of tiny lights began to emerge, some blinking rhythmically while others burned steadily in silent contrast. The artificially induced chill of the room swept over me as I stepped inside. A random pattern of soft electronic chirps met my ears, combining with the many grids of light to create the illusion of some sleeping machine, waiting patiently to be roused. With the flick of a switch, the machine was awakened from its slumber, and the room was awash in dim fluorescent light.

After closing the door and locking it behind me, I began the routine of checking the hardsuit power regulators. Power on-line, all monitoring systems initializing. Nice and quick too. That's good to see. Mackie seems to have locked down the energy leak. What would I do without him.... Now, let's see how well they took their charges.

Doors.... Where's the--? Ah. Open....

Stepping away from the main console, I entered the suit storage area where four white armored suits hung on metal hooks on the wall, ready and waiting. White. The color of purity. In some cultures, the color of good. And in others, the color of death.

Not that that meant anything in this case. It was the only color that had stood up to the temperature extremes tests. Final color schemes for the suits could wait until after the preliminary testing phase.

Ok, next step: inspect each of the suits using the onboard diagnostics center.

     Display bezel initialization: Check.
     Display alignment: 

Ok, Mackie said to wait for the cross-hairs to...

                        check.
     Comm Link: 

Hello? Testing!

                Check.
     Environmental status: 22.2 degrees Celsius.  O2 levels: Full.
     Jet ports: ...check.  

Damn those are loud! May have to work on that.

     Armor integrity: 100%.
     Weapon Configuration: Check.  Currently unarmed and off-line.

     SUIT SYSTEM STATUS: READY....  GO SIS!

Mackie....

As I continued to inspect the suits, I actually began to feel a little nervous. My gaze shifted away from the lockers, and I took a long look around me. All the hours, all the work, all of this technology, all of the money spent.... It was finally a reality. But would the suits work? Would they protect us from whatever they might throw at us? What would happen if the suits failed? What if someone was killed? This whole thing was starting to sound pretty crazy. I wonder what father would say if he could see me now.

Ok, stop it right now. We've done the homework. There was no turning back now. It was time for us to--

Hm, interesting. When did I start using "us" and "we" all the time?

All right, let's get started here. Everything looks go. The soft- suit relays are up and running, so let's see how the hard-suit--

A knock at the door.... At this hour?

"Just a moment," I called out.

The door swung open. Doctor Raven stood in the doorway blinking. "Why is it so damn dark in here? Did Mackie forget to install the rest of the lights?"

I could not help but smile. "No, I asked him not to. Please Doctor, come in. I'm just about to try mine out."

Raven-hakase took a few tentative steps then shut the door behind him, mumbling something to himself about the darkness as he entered the room and looked over the console. As soon as his eyes had adjusted to the dim light, he looked at me studiously.

"So how does the softsuit feel?" he asked.

"Fine. I was worried that the wiring harness might be uncomfortable, but I can't feel the ribbon cables at all."

"Good."

"I'm glad you stopped by Professor. I think I'm going to need some help."

"Oh?" he replied. "Help with what? Are you going to test them now?"

"Yes. Well, just mine for now."

"Hmm. Did Mackie sort out that power leak yet?"

"Yes."

"Did he manage to isolate that overload in the main redundancy power relay for the weapon selection processor?"

"Yes."

"Hmmm."

While the Doctor continued to look over the console's readouts in the main room, I went back into the suit storage area and studied my own hard suit more carefully this time. For the initial testing phase, the suits would be without weapons. This was not an easy call to make, as the added weight would require further adjustments when the advanced testing took place later, but I did not want any accidents at this phase of the project. One step at a time. But each suit did have all of its environmental and communication systems up and running. Working out the bugs in those two areas would keep us busy enough until the weapon testing stage.

Now, let's see if all of my efforts to customize the suit to the wearer's dimensions were worth the trouble.

Reaching up, I lifted my suit off the hook that held it upright. Although I bore the full, dead weight of it for only a few moments, I realized then that I was going to have to either develop a better storage method or lighten the suits. Someone who was tired or injured, or simply not physically strong enough, would never be able to manage manipulating a hardsuit into the boarding position.

Once on the floor, the suit slowly slumped downward and folded out like an X, exposing the interior and allowing easy entry. I reached inside and placed my hand flat against the inner walls of the leg armor. Nice and cool. Well, the environment controls seemed to be working properly. With a short hop, I raised my right leg and then stepped down into the suit firmly. Raising my left leg, I adjusted my balance and attempted to step down, only to find that the suit was about to topple over. I instinctively reached back with my left hand and grasped for a hand-hold on the wall to steady my balance. My forward tumble abruptly halted, and I looked back to see what I had grabbed to stop my fall. In my hand was the right forearm of the hard suit next to me. I looked towards the console area to see Doctor Raven grinning at me knowingly.

"You see?" he said as he continued to smile. "Teamwork!"

I was too embarrassed to laugh.

After finally managing to get both legs into the suit, I pulled up on the handles at each side. I then leaned forward into the upper half of the suit and inserted my arms and hands. The suit's sensors immediately kicked into gear, and an array of latches, internal and external, made their connections automatically. I then leaned back again to complete the whole process, the latches at the sides and back of the suit securing themselves to the front with reassuring clicks. Hmm, it was snug all right, but it didn't feel too restrictive. I raised my arms experimentally a few times, then tested the flexibility of the leg armor. Even better range of motion than I'd estimated. Stepping away from the wall, I walked around the room a bit, getting a feel for the entire range of motion, and to adjust to the extra weight.

It was strangely exhilarating. The light pressure of the armor plating all around my body suddenly gave me a sensation of invincibility. Immediately I could sense that I had control over an incredible amount of power, as the various motion circuits reacted to my movements. As I continued to move around the room, Doctor Raven suggested I test the load bearing abilities of the suit. Eyeing a stack of large, empty packing crates that had given myself, Mackie, and Priss a short workout earlier in the day, I planted my feet in front of the nearest one and shoved hard towards the far wall. The sound of splintering wood filled the room as the crates disintegrated against the wall. Damn! This was incredib--

"Sylia... is that smoke?!"

"What?"

I looked down frantically. "Where? Where do you see it?!"

Everything happened so fast. Suddenly Doctor Raven was beside me, trying to help me get the suit off as a thin stream of smoke drifted lazily out of a vent at the top of my right thigh. I tried to remain calm, but the latch release switches in the handles were not responding. My hands scrambled over the exterior of the suit, trying to find the manual release for the latches that were holding me prisoner as the burning circuitry inside my suit began to radiate its heat inwards against my leg.

"The latches are stuck! Mackie! Get Mackie!"

Doctor Raven fumbled with the latches for a moment longer, then ran to the console intercom.

"Mackie! Get in here! NOW!"

The smoke was starting to get pretty serious, as was the heat against my leg. I coughed as I continued to struggle to free myself, but the latches were locked tight, and the release switches would not respond. Think Sylia, think...

I suddenly felt two hands grasp the release handles and shove upwards simultaneously. Hard. The suit collapsed downward around my legs, causing me to fall forward onto the floor. Instinctively, I closed my eyes and kicked out to push myself clear of the burning hardsuit.

"Grab the fire extinguisher, Doc! Hurry!"

Mackie's voice.

"It's okay, Sis. You're all right now."

I opened my eyes. Ten feet away, the white hardsuit lay on the ground, the lower half now engulfed in flames.

Damn.

As Mackie helped me to my feet, Doctor Raven reappeared with a fire extinguisher and quickly doused the fire, but the smoke continued to drift up into the ceiling long after the flames had died.

I stood for a long time, staring at the charred hardsuit, contemplating how close I came to getting seriously injured. A quick inspection of my right leg showed that I had escaped with a minor burn. Fire. I had thought of everything--ballistic impact tests, laser pulse absorption rates, even water immersion. But fire... how could I have overlooked something so simple?

"Mackie..."

He looked up at me as he wrestled with the first aid kit. "Yeah Sis?"

My hands were still trembling. "Thank you, little brother."

He said nothing. Just smiled.

Teamwork indeed, Raven-hakase.


 

7. GRAND DESIGNS

"Hi!" I called out as I strolled into the briefing room. I hadn't felt so good about myself in ages, and I guess my elation showed. Even Priss realized something was up.

"You're cheerful tonight, Nene-chan. What happened, you finally find yourself a new "Hello Kitty" bento box?" Priss was lounging on the couch in our small meeting room, cigarette burning in the ashtray balanced on her chest.

"No I did not! And even you can't spoil my good mood this time, Ape-woman, so don't even try. I'll have you know that I qualified on the pistol range today!" It had taken a lot of practice, time I'd rather have spent on other things, but I'd finally done it! Sylia was going to be so happy when she heard. Qualified, I could assist Field Investigations, and she'd been wanting me to have legitimate reasons to snoop around into things that weren't in the ADP computers.

Priss snickered. "Look out world, Nene-chan's got a gun! Just be sure you don't shoot yourself with it."

Before I could think of a comeback, the conference room door banged open, bouncing back off its hinges. "What's up?" Linna walked through the door and across the conference area, flopping into a chair at the table, kicking her omnipresent gym bag underneath.

"Just waiting for Sylia," Priss replied as she stubbed out the cigarette and joined her at the table. "Hey Nene-chan, use some of that energy to get us some coffee. None of that canned shit, either. The real stuff."

Hmph! I heard Priss laugh and then begin talking with Linna. I think Linna was giving her grief again over her smoking. I'd like to give her some grief, that's for sure, but she never takes me seriously. Someday I'm going to show her that I'm not useless, like she thinks I am. Like both of them think I am.

I finished pouring the coffee, including one for myself, carried the three cups back to the table and sat down. Linna glanced at Priss, this sly look on her face. Uh-oh. I think I liked it better when they were trying to kill each other instead of working together to pick on me.

"So what's this good news that's got you so happy, Nene-chan?" A set-up, I'm sure, but no telling what Priss told her.... "Are they handing out free ice cream samples outside? You'd better watch your waistline, if you want to fit into one of those suits Sylia has been talking about."

"Now wait just--"

"Speaking of suits," Sylia interrupted from the doorway, "if you'll follow me, there are a few things I'd like to show you this evening." We all jumped a little, startled. None of us heard her come in. How does she do that? Mirrors? She turned, and disappeared down the corridor.

Linna and Priss got up and followed, but Priss turned back at the door. "Better hope those suits come in larger sizes, Nene-chan."

"Look, you--"

"Romanova-san! Asagiri-san! Where are you?"

Priss just grinned and headed off. "Coming!"

* * *

"Questions, ladies? Comments?"

I was pretty impressed, despite myself. It was obvious a lot of thought had gone into these 'hard suits' Sylia and Doctor Raven had designed. I thought we'd get to try them out, but Sylia said there had been some 'technical difficulties,' and they weren't quite ready yet. Instead she'd been boring us with the technical specifications. Quite important to know, I'm sure, but not when I'm tired.

"Hey Sylia, how come Nene-chan doesn't have any weapons in her suit? Since she's an expert shot now, she can show us all how it's done."

"Yes, congratulations on your qualification, Romanova-san. In addition to increasing your value to the AD Police, it will be a great asset to our organization." Priss looked a little deflated at Sylia's praise of Nene. I don't think she intended for her wisecrack to lead to a compliment. Nene just smiled, proud of herself. Justifiably so, I'd say. Nene can be OK. Sometimes.

"There will be weapons installed in all the suits," Sylia continued, addressing all of us, "but not until initial testing is completed. Because of the power drain caused by the onboard electronics suite, Romanova-san's suit will carry purely defensive weaponry only. Everyone else will have a range of offensive and defensive weaponry installed in their suits."

"That means we'll have to watch out for her as well as ourselves and carry out the job as well, right?" I asked.

"Correct."

That's one thing I like about Sylia. No beating around the bush. Priss, on the other hand, looked like she'd swallowed a rotten egg.

Over the past few months the one thing I'd learned about Priss was that she wasn't much of a team player. Oh, she'd help you out if you asked, but something weird was going on inside her head, and everything else was secondary to that. One of these days I'll figure out what her problem was, but it didn't take a mind reader to figure out what her immediate problem was. She wasn't happy at learning she'd be watching out for Nene along with everything else. I don't know what she thought she'd be doing -- Sylia was always saying that we had to work together, after all.

"Um... Sylia-san?" As cheery as Nene had looked just a couple minutes ago, she looked really uncomfortable now. "I don't like the color."

I think I felt my jaw hit the floor, and mine wasn't the only one heading south. "What's wrong with the color?" Sylia sounded surprised. "That color scheme was specifically selected for your suit for its heat radiation properties and for ease of identification."

"I don't like red and gold. That gold trim around the hips will make me look fat."

"FAT?!" Priss totally lost it at Sylia's exclamation, laughing so hard she was quite literally on the floor. I'm not sure if it was the look on Sylia's face, or that Nene was actually trying to stand up for herself.

Sylia quickly composed herself, glanced around as if making sure no one had seen her lapse into humanity, and cleared her throat. "All right, Romanova-san. I'll consider modifying your hardsuit's color scheme. Any other meaningful comments?"

Well, now, if Nene could do it.... "I've got to admit, Sylia-san, she does have a point. I'm not too crazy about red, blue, gold, and white myself. To be honest, it's kind of ugly."

"But...."

"And I don't like lime green, white, and gray. Maybe something in black. With red racing stripes." Racing stripes. Of course. Priss would want racing stripes on her armor.

"But...."

"And while you're at it, do something about those tank treads for feet, will you? I like to ride my wheels, not walk on them."

* * *

A soft tapping on Doctor Raven's office door brought us back from the world of heat sinks and microcircuitry. He looked up just as Sis slipped into the room. "Ah, Sylia, how did your meeting go?"

"Overall, quite well, Doctor." Uh-oh. Something was up. She sounded as calm and cool as ever, but she had this look in her eyes that I hadn't seen in a long time. The one that on anyone else might be described as 'impish.' "But there are a few things that we need to go over. Do you have a few minutes?"

Pops grumped around a bit before admitting that he could talk with her right away. I think he does that just because he thinks he has to. He'd never admit that he'd do anything she wanted him to do.

"Mackie, would you excuse us?"

"Uh, sure. OK, Sis." I got up and headed for the door. "You sure you don't need me, Pops?"

"It's Doctor. And I think you've got a vehicle to work on, young man. Now go." He grabbed me by the elbow and walked me to the door, while Sylia just stood there, that look still on her face.

Something made me turn back to give him a bit of warning. "You're on your own, Pops," I said as I left the room.

"DOCTOR! And what do you mean, I'm on my own? Come back here, you--" Whatever else he might have said was muffled by the Sylia's closing the door behind me.

Things didn't stay muffled for long. A few seconds later I heard this bellow, loud enough to shake the prints tacked to the walls. "THEY WANT WHAT?!!!"

Girls. Probably want to do something stupid like paint the suits pink.

* * *

"This is stupid!" Priss yelled as she dashed the stack of schematics off the table in our small meeting room. "Why the hell does she think we need to know all this crap! All I'm here for is to shoot at things; I don't need a technical readout on how the goddamned gun works!"

Priss in full roar might scare lesser mortals. I just sat there on the couch and let her have her tantrum.

"Who does she think she is, anyway, shoving us around like that? C'mon, Linna, let's go in there and try the suits on."

To say that Sylia's declaration that no one could try out their hardsuit until they had demonstrated basic knowledge of how their suit's major systems worked had annoyed Priss was an understatement. The fact that she had to wait until I had tried my suit on had irritated her, but Nene being first in line had really pissed her off.

Nene has a Close Encounter I got up, setting my cup of tea aside, and walked over to the table. "Look, Sylia-san has her reasons, Priss. Would you let someone ride your bike without them knowing the basics about how the engine works?"

"Nobody but me rides my bike," she declared flatly.

"You know what I mean. Now pick up your mess and start reading. The sooner you finish with that, the sooner you'll be in your suit."

Priss opened her mouth to reply, but whatever she was going to say was cut off by a loud crash. We looked at each other, and I walked toward the door. I could hear someone calling for help from the direction of the suit storage area. "It's Nene!" I yelled, then sprinted in the direction of her voice.

The sight that greeted our arrival was pretty funny looking. Nene's freshly repainted suit had somehow come unanchored, and had fallen forward, knocking her flat on her back with the pink and lavender armor on top of her. She was trying to push it off of her, all the while making these little "ow" noises.

Priss started laughing. "Hey Nene, I know you're desperate for some action, but, uh, isn't this a little extreme?" I closed my eyes and shook my head. Leave it to Priss. Mind always in the gutter.

Nene was not happy, to say the least. "Don't just stand there, get this stupid thing off me!"

* * *

"Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow."

Here came Nene, right on schedule. As she limped through the door, I gave her a dirty look. This cute bit had to stop, now, or I was going to do something she'd regret. "Nene, it's been a week, and all you had was a pulled muscle. Now act like an adult and quit whining!"

Nene put this martyred expression on her face. "But it still hurts!"

"It wouldn't if you'd done the stretching exercises I showed you for keeping it loose!" Linna cut in. Well well, this was interesting! I do believe she was as fed up as I was.

"You two are always picking on me!" Nene shot back, using her usual line for anytime someone looked at her cross-eyed.

Linna stepped over to Nene. "Want some cheese with that whine? That's all you're good for, you know. Whining. About everything."

"You know, Nene-chan," I added, coming up on Nene's other side while her face got red, "you better learn to take care of yourself. There isn't always going to be someone around, and you wouldn't want something bad to happen, now would you?"

"Yeah, Nene-chan. You better shape up fast, or else what are you going to do the next time something bad happens? Having your hardsuit fall on you is the least of your problems."

Of course, Sylia walked in about then. From the look on her face, she'd heard at least part of what we'd said. Nene looked like she was going to cry, and Linna looked a little guilty. She had to learn how to hide her feelings better. What was said needed to be said. I was not going to spend my time babysitting Nene.

Sylia just stood there, looking at us, absolutely no expression on her face. What was she thinking?

"All right, ladies," she finally began, as she motioned Nene toward her suit. "Tonight we'll be going over the various displays and functions available from your suit helmets. At the same time, we'll fully seal the suits for data acquisition purposes. This means the external air supply will be cut off. You will be breathing air provided by suit systems, and there will be plenty to breathe. Any questions?"

Sounded about as clear as anything else she says.

"No? All right, everyone put on your helmets and seal your suit's systems. Outer visors will be up. You have to be able to see to be trained on this." Sylia smiled at that last. Was it supposed to be a joke?

Sealed up, visors open, we all stood there watching the master display while Sylia took us through "Everything You Want To Know About Helmet Displays" for about the 43rd time. The canned air wasn't too bad. It certainly wasn't fresh -- actually it smelled a little funny -- but I guess that's normal.

After a while, I got bored. It wasn't easy to see in these helmets. Sylia had messed with them a little, and had promised us things would be taken care of. But for now, I decided to come up with my own entertainment.

First up was to see what I could see of the others. Maybe someone else was as bored as I was. But Sylia was intent on the subject at hand. As usual. And Nene was paying attention to the screen. I think. I can never tell what she's doing when she's in that suit of hers.

Maybe I should be a little more careful about what I say to her. The brat might get some guts some day and cyberjack my bike's ignition computer or something. Nah. If she did, she'd die, and she knows it.

Linna, though, looked a bit red faced and watery-eyed. "You okay?" I asked over a private channel.

"Fine. All of a sudden my eyes started watering, and my head's stopped up, that's all."

Her voice sounded a little funny. "You sure? It could be something with the system. Maybe you should open up."

"Priss, I told you I... I... I'm..... aCHOO!"

Huh. You don't see this every day. Ought to liven things up, that's for sure. "Uh, guys," I interrupted the lecture, "I think Linna's got something more interesting on her display." They looked over to see a fine mist of water droplets now covering the inside of Linna's visor. I think they were water droplets, anyway. And other stuff.

At least I didn't have to clean up this mess.


 

8. REAL TIME

22:00. Despite the situation, I smiled inside as I donned my suit of armor, remembering our first meeting. Even Priss managed to be on time these days. The last six months had been a learning experience for all of us. For me, perhaps, more than anyone else.

Things had not been as simple as I had thought they would be. I had thought that I could just hire the people, train them, give them equipment, and then give them their orders, and that would be the end of it. I'd been so wrong.

It had been a shock when I'd realized I wouldn't be able to bring Genom to its knees without wreaking havoc in other areas. I was not about to injure the innocent in order to deal with the guilty.

But it had been a bigger shock to realize that I was becoming friends with the others. I hadn't wanted or needed this. My job was going to be hard enough without bringing friendship into it. I'd wanted to remain apart. I'd seen people die. I did not want to send friends into dangerous situations to die as well. But it was happening. And I couldn't stop it.

And then, perverse fate laid all my careful plans to rest. A group of boomers was tearing up the area around the convention center.

In my head, I knew we should not go. We needed something simple for our first time out. Something to build confidence in ourselves and our equipment. But my heart said we needed to do this. The area was usually crowded and it would take the AD Police at least thirty minutes to get there. We could be there in fifteen. If we didn't go, people were going to die.

I picked up my helmet from the shelf where it rested, and stared at my reflection in the visor, then shook my head to clear the mental driftwood. I had to be sharp now. I would not let them see any doubts.

As I walked from the storage area to the waiting Silky Doll truck, the perversity of it all struck me anew. Sylia Stingray, the "Ice Queen," leading her forces into battle because her heart said it was the right thing to do.

* * *

I had never been so scared in my life. I wanted to stay with Mackie and the truck. I could do the scans Sylia wanted from there.

I wanted to, but I couldn't. She said nothing would happen to us if we remembered our training. I remembered my training, all right. That was the problem. I'm not any good at this kind of thing.

Why did I let her drag me into this? I'd gotten involved because I was bored one night and that electronic ad was too tempting to let go. Later, I was afraid she'd go through with her threats. Now that I've been working with her for a while, I know she couldn't do it. I think.

"Romanova-san, are you ready to begin jamming?" Sylia's voice was so clear through the speakers, it was as if she was standing next to me. Of course, she was standing next to me, but that's beside the point. "It is important to block the communication signals between the individual boomers."

"All set, Sylia-san. I've got the frequency you gave me locked in. I'm ready to rock on your signal."

"Ready to rock, Nene-chan?" Priss. As usual. She didn't have to have her faceplate up for me to picture the mocking look on her face. "You just stay here, nice and safe on the roof, and leave the rocking to people who know how to do it."

"Asagiri-san, please, now is not the time," came Sylia's resigned voice. "All right, ladies, you know what to do. You have your assignments. Trust in your equipment, yourselves, and each other, and things will work out fine."

There was a long pause, and I thought I heard someone mumbling over the circuit. Isolating the signal, I realized it was bleed-over from one of the private channels. And the mumbling was Linna. Praying.

Before I could say anything, Sylia came back onto the group circuit. "Here we go. On my mark. Three. Two. One. Knight Sabers... Sanjou!"

As I began jamming, the three of them dived off the rooftop and into the conflagration below. After a few seconds I realized something was wrong. The jamming wasn't working. I increased the power, but it didn't help.

"Nene, are you jamming?" Sylia again. She sounded winded already.

I had to do something. The frequency was locked, I couldn't change it. But I had to.... What if I.....

 

.....got caught? The AD Police database was heavily guarded by several layers of password security, not to mention their newly upgraded encryption system. If I did get caught, the punishment was rumored to be instant. No trial, no jury, just a painful death by neural feedback loop. Ick.

But I never thought about that. That kind of demise was only for the witless. I'd been into lotsa bases where the stakes were much higher, and I'd cut out with the same number of gray cells I had going in. They'd have to tweak their 'sniffers' to the max to catch me!

As I 'looked' out over the Net's matrix using my headset, shimmering beads of silver pulsed across the glowing pink lines of the grid; graphic representations of information as it flowed to and from the various gateways of the web. I loved to sit here in "L2 Land" and just watch the world go by, and guess where each packet was going. Nothing outside mattered. The last place on earth where someone could escape, and not see another single person unless they wanted to. A place to really get away from it all.

But there was no time for that now. I had spent the last few weeks 'rusing the AD Police database from a distance, and tonight it was time to make my incursion. My most trusted online advisor, "Ikegaki Grrl", had put me on to a rumor about something kicking over at AD HQ. Something crazy about AIs being used as guardians. Okayyyyyy. Of course, I had to see for myself. Nothing heavy, just a quick peel to see what all the fuss was about.

Twenty-four password check-points, eight levels of encryption, twelve fire-nodes and fifty-six router table stealth mods. Piece of cheese-cake. Yeah right! I was starting to break a sweat. So much for the quick peel. This onion had more skins than a snake! But the hard part was over. Or so I thought.

I had just jammed my foot in the front gate, when suddenly I was up to my synapses in AI sentinels, with more waiting in the cache! My cutters weren't working, and every virus I had initiated had been eaten alive in a matter of nanos by the sentinels. My retreat script didn't even see the dark of night! Ikegaki had been right; these AI 'thingys' were definitely kicking! For the first time in my 'career' I was in over my head. I had to act fast or I was going to join the deleted files of the witless.

"Relax Nene," I told myself. "You can pry yourself outta this one, but you have to relax and take a second to think. Just think..."

Think.

It was time to modify myself.

After a quick scan of the nearest AI, and an adjustment to my 'avatar's' appearance code, the sentinels abruptly backed off. That was my cue to cut. I could have loitered a bit, seeing as I now looked exactly like one of them, but I was in rough shape. Later.

Once I was back in "L2 Land", I could breathe again. The silver packets of data were still making their way across the grid as usual, and everything was calm. I had lots of time to think now. Time to think about what I had seen, and what new dangers I might have to face in the future.....

 

.....or the present.

I had to modify myself.

NOW!

Reroute my hardsuit's secondary power relay to the frequency stabilizer processor! Divert the jamming signal to my auxiliary comm transmitter! Crank the output! Unlock the frequency and reacquire!

.....That's IT! Quick scan... got it! Now crosspatch, and then.... and.... YES!!!!!

"How is it now, Sylia?" I asked, trying to sound professionally cool.

"Whatever you've done, Nene, it's working. Keep it up."

* * *

Oh my god, they're so big. There's no way I can do this.

I ducked and spun away yet again as I tried to face off with the boomer target designated as mine. This just wasn't working. It was just too big, too fast.

I'm fine against people, situations I know. I thought I could handle this. I can't do this. It's too much.

Even if I could get close enough, I couldn't get my knuckle bombers primed to fire. I can't get the ribbons primed. If only I had time to concentrate!

I was panicking. I should get out of here, now, before I get killed. I couldn't call for help. They had their own problems.

This was crazy. Why had I agreed to this. The money isn't worth getting killed. Let the police do their job. I can't do their job for them. What did I think I was doing when I said 'yes'?

And in the half-second it took for those thoughts to flash through my mind, my opponent was on me again. I tried to dance away, tried to gain myself more time, but got caught instead.

I'm sure they heard me screaming in Yokohama when the boomer started pulling me in by my ribbon-cutters. Sylia did. "Linna! Linna, hang on! I'll be right there!"

I was out of time. This was it. I was dead.

The boomer raised its fist, about to turn my suit into a green splotch on the ground, when suddenly it was all clear to me. I knew what I had to do.

Forget what they are. Forget that they are not human. Clear your mind. Do not let them intimidate you. Stay focused on where you are and what you are doing. Stay focused. Stay... focused...

 

THUMP!

"No! You are not concentrating! Now, let's try for real this time."

Try for real, he says. Like I haven't been trying all this time. Fine, I'll show him 'for real'.

I picked myself up off the mat and attacked again, this time with fire in my heart.

It wasn't long before I ended up on the mat, face down, again.

"Linna... what was that? Were you angry?"

Slowly, I picked myself up again, this time foregoing another attack to address my master's question.

"No... well, yes. I guess I was... upset."

"Ah," was all he said in response.

"But how can I not be angry," I shot back, "if you keep defeating me? How am I supposed to learn anything this way?"

He turned away from me for a moment to consider my question. Bright sunlight flooded in through the wide doorway to the dojo, casting long shadows on the floor, while the songs of small birds just outside the door caught my ear. My heart was still pounding in my chest from the workout.

"Linna..." he began, "Do you hear the wind?" he asked, his voice taking on a whimsical tone.

For a moment, I closed my eyes and listened carefully, and I could hear the swish of the wind as a warm summer breeze swept through the trees outside.

"Yes," I replied.

"Mmm. And do you see the shadows at my feet?"

My eyes immediately locked onto his feet, the long shadows of afternoon stretching from his feet across the worn wooden floor. "Yes, I do. But--"

"And--" he said, cutting me off sharply, "do you hear the birds outside, Linna? Do you hear their songs?"

Again I closed my eyes to listen...

"Linna!"

I opened my eyes abruptly to see my master now standing inches away, and directly in front of me. "Wha?" was all I could say, in a trembling voice.

"Linna, what are you doing?" he said, his voice now very serious.

"I... I'm list-- I was-- listening."

"Why?"

"Because you--"

"Because I told you to?"

I nodded, not really sure if that was the right answer.

"Linna." He smiled, and stepped back from me. "Are you here to listen to the wind?"

"Uh, I don't think so. But--"

"Correct Linna. You are not. All of the things going on around you must disappear. They must vanish while you are here. Forget them. All that matters is what is going on right now, right here."

Hmmm.

"When you are faced with an opponent, do not think about how big they are, or how strong they look. Do not think, period. Do not dwell on things like anger, fear or hate. You must focus on defending yourself. That is all that matters." He paused to let his words sink in a bit. "Now Linna. Are you ready to try again?"

Do not think. Period. Stay focused. Period. Okay, I think I can handle that. "Sure," I replied.

He smiled again and stepped back to his side of the mat, then assumed the ready stance. "Ready?"

I nodded, my own hands raised in front of me, and my eyes narrowed as my body filled with a new enthusiasm to learn.

His smile vanished. "Begin!"

Circling. Searching for the opening. There! No, too slow. Circle back. Strike high! Block the counter! Break the hold! Free. Drop and leg sweep. Gah! Missed. Back on your feet quickly! Circle again... focus. Stay focused Linna. Don't let anything else enter your mind. Your mind must be empty of any other-- Block! Block again! Too fast!

THUMP!

Dammit.

My anger came flooding back to me, but as I lay there resting, my anger faded, and I could hear the wind, and the songs of the birds outside. As I turned over onto my back, I could see the shadows from my Master's feet as he stood over me with his hand extended to help me up.

"Ya know something?" I asked, as I continued to lay there on my back, ignoring his hand.

"What's that?" he replied slowly.

"I can hear the birds, and I can hear the wind. But, for some strange reason, I can't see your shadow anymore Master."

He looked down at his feet momentarily. Just long enough.

THUMP!.....

 

.....I looked into the glowing red eyes of the boomer before me, it's right fist raised high, ready to crush me. I moved on pure instinct at that moment, my mind suddenly freed of the danger I faced. A quick blast of my hard-suit's jets shot me up and over the stunned boomer as I commenced the knuckle bomber's power-up. Upon landing, I quickly bent down to pick up a chunk of asphalt that had been ground up underneath the boomer's metallic feet. The boomer spun to face me, just as I tossed the chunk of rock behind it. It turned away for a split- second to follow the harmless projectile with its sensors, as my knuckle bomber completed its charge.

Long enough.

* * *

Goddammit, you goddamn mothersuckingfucker, DIE YOU SONUFABITCH!

The boomer exploded as it crashed to the ground, and it wasn't enough. I hate those things. I hate anything to do with them.

"Look out, Priss!" someone warned, and I spun around. Another was coming up from behind. I leaped over a burning car and I ran to meet it.

Sylia wants us to take them out as fast as possible. Fast is too good for them, but it's the only way I can kill as many as I can.

I cocked my arm back to punch through, dimly hearing someone yelling about ranged weapons. Piss on ranged weapons. I want to get close. I want to kill them with my bare hands. I want to tear them apart and watch them bleed. I want to do the same thing with their monsters. I want them to burn. I want them to die die die die diediediediediediediediedi..........

 

"Get up, Priss."

Unn....

"Come on, Priss. You're on my arm. Get up."

Umm.... "H... Hiro?"

"Who else would it be?" I opened my eyes, and looked into his beautiful brown ones. "You'd better not be thinking of Taki," he growled.

"And if I am?" It was hard to not laugh at the look on his face then. I leaned forward and kissed the end of his nose. "You know there's nothing going on between Taki and me."

He smiled back. I love his smile too. "Priss, I've got to get up now, but if you don't get off my arm we may stay here all night too."

"Fine by me!" I kissed him again, putting a bit more into it this time. He wrapped his other arm around me and rolled me on top. Unfortunately, this freed his arm up, and when he finished the roll, with me back on my back, he sat up and got up off the mattress.

"Keep that thought," he said, pulling on the clothes he'd left on the floor that afternoon. "I'll be back in a little bit."

"Where are you going?" I asked as I got up and began getting into my own yellow and black leathers.

"Remember those data disks that were in the car Kumi took the other day?" I nodded that I remembered, and he went on. "I finally got a look at what was on them. I'm no techie, but it looks like those guys over at Genom are up to something again." Genom? "Toshi made contact with them, and we're doing an exchange in a couple hours."

He turned around, pulling his jacket on, and smiled at me. "We're going to really make out on this, Priss. Plenty for you and me and everyone else. All the bikes we'd ever want, and a record contract for you. Just think, nothing to do all day but ride. Just you and me, babe."

"Hiro, are you sure about this? You know the rumors...."

"Not a problem. It's all set." He stood there for a minute, watching me look at him, then stepped up and gathered me into his big, strong arms. "You can't go with me to the exchange," he whispered, "but there's still a couple hours yet. How about we go for a ride?"

I kissed his neck as my answer, and led him out of the room.

The ride was wonderful. It was a cool night, not too much traffic. For long stretches, we were the only ones on the road.

Hiro and I started racing down these open stretches, just enjoying testing our bikes and ourselves. Enjoying being together. Then this car came up behind us.

He blew past me and got on Hiro's back wheel. Hiro started racing in earnest, trying to get away, and the car stuck with him. I'm good, but they pulled out so far ahead that I couldn't keep up, couldn't see what was going on.

A couple minutes later I saw the car far ahead of me. As I closed, I saw someone get in the back and the car pulled away.

And when I got closer, I saw the wreck at the side of the road.

"HIRO!!!!!!!!!!"

I was off my bike before it was slowed, running for Hiro. Blood was splattered everywhere, like someone had filled a balloon with red dye and dropped it to the pavement..

I dropped to my knees and took his limp body in my arms. "Hiro, talk to me. C'mon, say something. Don't do this to me, I need you."

It couldn't have been very long, but it seemed like years before the cops showed up. I was still there, still talking to Hiro, my hero, trying to get him to open his eyes. "Hiro, you can't do this to me, what am I going to do without you, I love you, I need you, come on Hiro, open your eyes, please Hiro, please...."

"Miss." Something touched my shoulder, and I looked up into the face of a young cop, wearing body armor and sun glasses.

I looked back at Hiro. "Go away."

He tried again. "Please Miss, you have to get up now."

"No!" I lashed out at him with my arm....

 

.....and it was caught out of mid-air.

"It's me, Priss. Calm down." Who was... the *whump* of an explosion, nearby, interrupted my already confused thoughts. I started to roll onto my back, with an assist from whoever had caught my arm. A figure in white armor swam into view, kneeling at my side.

"Linna, if you're finished, I could use your help with Priss." I groaned. The noises coming over the communication channel pounded through my already aching head.

"Sure, what's wrong?" Linna came up beside Sylia and took my other arm.

"She's a little disoriented; I think that blow to the head was worse than we thought."

"Leave me alone," I muttered as I shook their hands off me and tried to get up.

Nene dropped down beside them. "Oh, come on Priss, you're hurt. Don't try to be a hero all the time."


 

9. INTO THE LIGHT

According to the news reports, only seven people had died before we got to the convention center area and took on the boomers. Only seven. Tell that to their families.

I pushed a button on the remote, changing the radio to another station, then sat back and sipped more tea. In the hour or so since I'd arrived home, the media had managed to work itself into a frenzy. They didn't know what to make of it. We were being described as everything from a 'new type of boomer' to 'corporate mercenaries' to 'heroes of the people'.

Nene's laser etching "Knight Sabers" into a section of pavement wasn't helping matters. That was being described as 'the calling card of a new vigilante army, ready to take back the night.' I was going to have to have a little chat with her about that.

The government was quiet so far. So was the AD Police. Chairman Quincy of Genom, though, was calling us 'terrorists.' Figures. What's the old saying? "It takes one to know one."

The suit systems had worked well, but not as well as I'd hoped. The weapon's systems arming sequence was too complicated and took too long. That was going to have to be addressed immediately. Fortunately, it should not be too difficult to deal with.

Nene's electronics systems were going to require a major redesign effort, though. She was going to have to have to be given more flexibility of action in case of changing conditions. I was kicking myself for forgetting this simplest of lessons. You cannot restrict your options to fit your plans, and by limiting the capabilities of her systems I had almost gotten us all killed.

Physically, the suits had handled the stress of battle fairly well. With the exception of Priss's helmet, it was just a few easily dealt with scrapes.

The helmet was another story. When that car exploded behind her, it blew her head first into the side of a building, breaking the outer liner and cracking the inner. Luckily she got away with only a concussion, but it could have easily been much worse. I wasn't looking forward to the many hours of examination it was going to take to find out why this had not happened during laboratory testing.

I looked up as yet another radio newscast made reference to the evening's activities, and smiled slightly. At least we could look forward to a rest. The 'mystery vigilantes' were not going to be making another appearance for a while.

Maybe by then Dr. Raven would be able to develop usable shades of red and black paint for Priss's suit. Then we wouldn't have to listen to her complaining about wearing blue and pink "kiddie colors" any more.

Still, they were coming together well as a team, and, more importantly, were becoming strong friends.

I yawned and got up from the couch to go to bed. Halfway across the room I stopped in my tracks. What was I thinking?

I had had my doubts about how it would work out, at first. They were all so different, so... at odds with each other. And then, despite all the personality clashes, all the friction, something happened. I still don't know what the trigger was for certain. It could have been any number of things.

Perhaps it was something that happened during the first pellet matches. Or maybe it was when someone put pepper flakes in the air filter of Linna's helmet. Or when someone reworked the circuits on Priss's motorcycle so that the sound system kept repeating "I'm an ape- woman!" at full volume.

But whatever the trigger, they'd started to come together. There was still some friction, but now they were beginning to work as a team. My team. And now, perhaps, my friends?

It dawned on me that somewhere along the line I'd stopped thinking of them as Romanova, Yamazaki, and Asagiri. They'd become Nene, Linna, and Priss. And I had called them by those names to their faces.

And they had accepted it.


 

Epilogue. AGAINST THE SUN

Daybreak.

The city was so much more beautiful at night. So many tiny lights, like millions of distant stars dotting the sky, each struggling to burn against the darkness. And in the heat of battle, they would inevitably forget about the coming morning light. A blinding tide that would illuminate those places where shadows had lived the night before. Snuffing out the torches of a million smaller lights with one powerful sweeping wave of luminance.

Obliterating a million dreams, and moving on to obliterate a million more without ever looking back.

Fire with fire.

I closed my eyes, trying to remember exactly what my father had looked like just before he was murdered. I did not have long to wait. I could never forget. His image was forever burned into my mind, along with all of his dreams. Dreams that would never see the light of...

Day.

When I opened my eyes again, I tried to focus on the fading lights below, but my tired eyes were brimming with tears that would not fall. I wiped them and tried to look out at the city again.

In the glass, I saw my own reflection, staring back at me.

I smiled, as the first warming rays of morning stretched out over Tokyo Bay.

Four candles against the sun.

I sat down on the window sill with my back against the cool glass, letting the last flickers of street light from the city wash over me.

Daybreak.

We would fight against the hungry light, come what may.

End


Author's Notes:

Jeanne's Comments: Well, I certainly hope you found Sylia, Linna, Priss, and Nene to be somewhat out of character. If they're not, Andy and I didn't do our job. Yes, that's right - these are not the Knight Sabers you know from Bubblegum Crisis, or even the Knight Sabers of Bubblegum Crash or Grand Mal. Into the Shadows is about the beginning of the process where these people grew up to become those people. I also certainly hope you enjoyed going along for part of the ride.

Back in November '97, I was toying around with different ideas for my annual foray into BGC fanfic writing. My last fic, Ten Questions, was mainly done in the first person, so I wanted to try to do an entire normal-length fic (10Q is a bit on the short side) that way. The 'beginnings of the Knight Sabers' storyline came from a half-remembered comment from someone on alt.fan.bgcrisis, who wondered about the early days of the Knight Sabers and if they had trouble learning how to walk in armor with high heels. I've no idea why I thought rotating the first person viewpoints would be a good idea, but not too long afterward I had a start on a "Sylia recruits the Knight Sabers" fic, told in rotating first person POV.

Enter Andy.

He's been writing his own BGC fic, Bubblegum Cross, for a while now, and had, from time to time, sent me sections of it to comment on. So I decided to return the favor, and asked him if he'd comment on the start I had made. Well, I got comments back all right -- just not the kind I was expecting. Andy quite politely reminded me that this was the fic he'd suggested we write together over a year earlier, something I'd totally forgotten about.

So we became partners on this project, and I don't regret one bit of it. Shadows isn't the fic I started out to write, but I think it's become something better than that. And if you are wondering who wrote what, I'll tell you here and now: Andy wrote the good stuff. ^_^

* * *

Andy's Comments: Knowing how much trouble I have had trying to complete a fanfic on my own, I have often wondered how two people could ever agree on all of the elements that go into a story to write together. Jeanne and I have differing basic approaches to writing. She excels at focusing on the heart of the story, the character's actions and their dialogues, and what is going on in the here and now. I try to make sure the story is foremost in my mind, but I tend to forsake those things sometimes, in favour of spending alot of energy trying to use elements of the story's setting to parallel current or past events in the story, or to deeply foreshadow coming events.

Headed for disaster, right?

Well, as we started sending our revisions back and forth, enjoying the inspirational fuel that we were supplying each other, I tried my best to focus on the heart of the story, feeling it was important that we try to make it seem like only one person wrote it. But it didn't take long before I started to feel as if something was missing, to the point that Jeanne even mentioned my lack of adjectives. After asking myself if that was a bad thing or not, I added some sections to the beginning of the story, specifically the parts that describe Dr. Raven's garage with the factories all around, and the rusted pieces of metal that "changed" in the dim light. It felt right to me, but would Jeanne like it?

As it turned out, she did. And the revisions soon flew back and forth at an increased pace. But freedom has a price when you write with someone else. Two people writing however they feel like could quickly degenerate a story into a disjointed yarn. After a few "frictionous" but healthy discussions about how much was too much, we came to an agreement concerning various aspects of our writing approaches. With a consensus reached, the story happily picked up where it left off, with two people working within their own styles, but armed with an understanding. So, I have learned that it isn't important for two people to agree on all of the elements that go into a story, but to agree on enough of the elements, so that each person feels that they can contribute in their own unique way within a framework, to make something that is truly a combined effort. A rich lesson that I will never forget :)

Lastly: Jeanne says I wrote the "good stuff", but the truth is, she wrote the "great stuff"

* * *

We'd both like to thank our terrific pre-readers (Ed Becerra, Mike Breen, Chris Davies, Shawn Hagen, Shawn Kester, Richard Lawson, Nicholas Leifker, CJ Scott a.k.a. "The Pig", and Bert Van Vliet). Your time and assistance are truly appreciated.

And in case you're wondering, the preliminary suit designs Sylia rolls out in Chapter 7 are based on the real preliminary suit designs the animators were toying with back when BGC was first being worked on. Weird colors and wheels for feet and all. If you're curious (and lucky), they can be seen in several of the BGC art/design books.

Please let us know what you think!
Andy Skuse can be reached at drraven@ravensgarage.com
Jeanne Hedge is at jhedge@rcn.com


Story Page back to the Short Story Page.

Into the Shadows, 26 March 1998