The lurid glow of burning fires dominated several sections of nighttime MegaTokyo, the smoke from the fires rising like grasping skeletal fingers to clutch at the sky. Every so often, an explosion would echo through the streets, echoed in turn by screams and cries of pain. It was a wild night, ruled only by fire and fear.
Inspector Leon McNichol of the ADPolice force ducked behind his squad car as burning fragments of what had been an ADP armoured truck bounced off the hood. Shit! That was the fifth truck tonight in his squad alone, not to mention the good men that had been inside, and he was willing to bet that it wouldn't be the last casualty. The groans of wounded men rose over the crackle of nearby burning vehicles and buildings. Leon peered cautiously around his car; the boomer had moved down the street slightly, and it was occupying itself by firing plasma beams, and bullets from a chaingun it had absorbed into its left arm, into the surrounding buildings. As he watched, another car down the street blew up in a fantastic flower of smoke and flame. The shattered remnants of an ADP K-12 Armoured Trooper suit lay smoking on the sidewalk. Another explosion made Leon duck behind his car again.
Whatever this boomer was, it was unlike any of the 'normal' C-55 type boomers that ADPolice had fought in the past; it was faster, stronger, and one hell of a lot meaner. Leon shuddered slightly. Boomers didn't normally appear to have emotions, but this boomer had almost gone out of its way to systematically dismantle the K-12 in the most sadistic-looking manner possible. The suit pilot was dead, no doubt about that, but it had taken a long time for him to die. Leon and his men had tried to intervene with heavy weaponry, but had been beaten back by the boomer without any trouble at all. He swore bitterly. They were going to need a miracle to get through this alive.
MRAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWWWWWWWW! A strange, screaming wail split the air, jerking Leon's gaze upwards.
A midnight black-and-silver hardsuit swept down from the smoke-riddled skies, its jets howling, spraying a firestorm of red and blue energy bolts at the boomer. The boomer roared in response to its challenger, and replied with its own salvo of plasma fire and bullets. The suit swerved easily out of harm's way; the boomer was smashed back into a pile of rubble by some of the beams. The suit grounded neatly about thirty feet in front of the ADPolice lines, flight wings snapping down to a folded position on its back, placing itself between the embattled cops and the boomer.
"Hey! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Party Time!!!!" it announced to the world at large. Leon couldn't believe his ears. The boomer lunged forward snarling, and the fight began in earnest.
The Knight Sabers
Sylia leaned forward and tabbed the switch for the Knight Sabers' shielded communications frequency. "Saber Prime to SkyKnight. Come in SkyKnight. Do you copy? Over." His voice crackled back immediately, gunfire faintly audible in the background.
"Greetings Most Gracious of Ladies! To what do I owe the honor of being addressed by the dulcet tones of your voice?" His voice was carrying a definitely English aristocratic accent. She sighed.
"Can the comedy act and get back here!" she ordered. "The KnightWing can't hang around up here forever! ADPolice are sure to notice before long and send their own planes to investigate."
"I canna go any faster Captain!" Now he definitely had a Highland Scots' burr to his voice. "I'm givin' it everything I can!" Sylia slapped a hand over her face, shaking her head. For what felt like the thousandth time she wondered why he couldn't be a little more serious about missions. She wished he would at least stop with the movie personalities and quotes. From behind her, muffled giggling filled the cabin. Well, however exasperating he was, she had to admit he was good for morale boosting.
Sylia swiveled her chair to face the rear of the main cabin of the KnightWing. Priss was rather unsuccessfully trying to smother a grin, and Linna and Nene were both convulsed in helpless laughter. Sylia's own mouth was being tugged at by a faint smile. Everyone could use a laugh, she decided. The evening's events had been anything but amusing up to this point.
The first boomer incident had started at about 7:00 PM , and had been followed in rapid succession by several others, eight at the last count. The last two boomers that they had fought had been the new, uprated C-55 types, and the hardsuits were all now showing signs of the struggles they'd endured so far. Priss' suit had scorch marks all over, and a sizable dent in the helmet. Priss herself was unharmed, thankfully. Linna's suit had a gash in the armour plating on the left leg and right arm, and one of her monomolecular ribbons had been torn off. Nene's armour looked like it had been left out in a hailstorm; small dents from machine-gun fire pockmarked almost its entire surface. Sylia's suit was also battered and beaten looking, with several dents, and the impression of a boomer's hand in her arm armour where it had grabbed her. SkyKnight's suit had still looked okay when he had answered this particular call, but that was more because he used heavier armour than any of the other Sabers.
Sylia sighed, shaking her head. They'd hoped that with the death of Brian J. Mason two months ago, the uprated boomers would have disappeared. Instead, it seemed as if production had been stepped up; almost half of the boomers they had fought in the last two weeks had been the superfast C-55 types, and it was beginning to wear everyone down. She frowned to herself. Once they got back, she was going to have to get Fargo to look into things. As a fixer, he should be able to find out more than they could through normal channels. He should be able to find out where the damn things were being produced. The only thing to do after that would be to level whatever factory was making them and hopefully leave some evidence for ADPolice to get GENOM with. Her train of thought was interrupted by another statement from the comm speaker.
"Oh yeah! Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!" They could hear the sizzle of his lasers in the background. Priss burst into laughter, almost falling out of her seat. Sylia rolled her eyes heavenward.
"Why me?!" she asked. No one answered, unfortunately. Mackie's voice from the main cockpit of the plane suddenly cut through the mirth.
"Sis? Sis! Sensors just picked up a second boomer entering SkyKnight's area! It's a combat boomer!!" Sylia swore under her breath. SkyKnight and combat boomers didn't get along overly well; he had a tendency to flip out and do REALLY reckless things when facing one. The last time he had squared off against one had been when the Sabers stormed GENOM's main tower to get at Mason. His method of killing the boomer had been to lead it into a reckless, high speed obstacle course flight through a construction area, forcing the boomer to crash. Sylia supposed his recklessness was a side effect of having been almost killed by one before, but couldn't explain why that would lead him to take such horrifying risks just to defeat it. There were safer ways of doing that. She tabbed the comm switch again.
"Saber Prime to SkyKnight. Quit fooling around; a combat boomer just entered your area and it's headed your way. I advise extreme caution."
"You always advise that," he replied, sounding amused. "Trust me; I know what I'm doing, and I....." His voice was suddenly drowned out by the sounds of screams and explosions. The line cracked up into snarling static.
"SkyKnight? Hello? SkyKnight!!! Damn! Mackie, swing us around and fly over the area where he is. We're going to have to go in."
The KnightWing banked sharply to the left. Sylia grabbed her helmet before it could hit the floor and jammed it on. The other girls followed her example, powering up their hardsuits.
"We should be over the drop zone in a couple of minutes," Mackie announced.
Leon stared in disbelief as SkyKnight rolled upright from the pavement, out of the crater that the missile barrage had created. Leon had seen the hardsuit get hit with his own eyes, and would have sworn that nothing could survive, but the suit was still moving. It looked really burned and battered, but it was still moving. If body language was any indication, it was pissed off, too. Through the smoke of the battlefield, Leon could see the advancing, deformed shape of a Bu-12B combat boomer. Where the hell had that thing come from? There weren't supposed to be any military boomers in the area!
Leon dove behind his car again as machine-gun fire from the C-55 and B-12 boomers cut through the air. The machine-gun fire was abruptly cut off by the crack-sizzle detonations of several laser bolts. An explosion reverberated down the street, and one of the boomers roared in fury. Leon risked another glance over the hood of his car.
The B-12 was attempting to nail the dodging black hardsuit with a cannon shot, without much success; the C-55 was rising from the pavement, the arm it had absorbed the chaingun into blown off at the shoulder. Leon pulled his revolver from its holster, checked the loads, and then tried for a sighting on the blue monstrosity. The boomer noticed the impudent human trying to take potshots at it, flashed a plasma beam in its direction, and then turned its attention back to its armoured opponent. Leon ducked the beam, losing the top few centimeters of his hair, and the barrel of his revolver in the process. He swore in disgust, pitching the now wrecked and uncomfortably warm revolver down the street. He turned back to watch the fight.
The two boomers now had the hardsuit directly between themselves. The B-12 fired its bazooka cannon at SkyKnight, who spun aside, straight into a ringing punch from the blue boomer. Just as the B-12 fired again, SkyKnight grabbed the remaining arm of the
C-55 boomer, and flipped it into the path of the shot with some kind of judo move. The C-55 exploded in a spray of blue armour chunks and brown liquid. The black hardsuit back-flipped to land a further fifteen feet away from the B-12, and the two stood facing each other, like a pair of gunfighters from the old west. Leon couldn't see much of the B-12; it was silhouetted against the flames of the building behind it, and difficult to see. SkyKnight suddenly spoke for the first time in several minutes.
"Looks like it's just you and me, asshole!" he observed. He dodged another blast from the boomer, but didn't fire back. Leon wondered just what the hell he was waiting for. Written invitations to shoot the damn thing?
SkyKnight's arms suddenly snapped up, and began firing red and blue energy bolts in a rapid stream at the boomer. The deafening report of a railgun being fired cracked over the scream of the crackling energy beams. SkyKnight pounded the boomer back against the wall of the building behind it by pure force of firepower, obliterating it. The boomer jerked and jolted as its left arm and sensor booms were shot off, closely followed by its right arm. The boomer's torso abruptly blew outwards, showering the street with spare parts. Relative silence returned to the street. SkyKnight lowered his arms, the whine of laser capacitors cutting off. He turned and crunched across the burned and rubble-strewn asphalt towards Leon, who had now straightened up from behind his dented car.
"Anybody need emergency airlift, Inspector?" he asked as he came up to Leon. His voice was electronically modulated, making it sound deeper and ominous, and also making it impossible to recognize. The glowing red eye-slit in his helmet also added to the overall effect, seeming to glower at everything. Leon shook his head.
"No, we should be fine; the ambulances are on their way. Thanks for the assist, though." SkyKnight bowed in a courtly manner long gone from the world.
"That's my job: 'To serve and protect', " he replied, straightening up. Leon examined the suit curiously. By now it was known that SkyKnight was one of the Knight Sabers, but he was the only one of the group who routinely went out of his way to assist the cops, lend a hand in a rescue, or save innocent bystanders who hadn't had the sense to leave a fight area, at the obvious risk of his own safety. He suddenly blurted out the question that had been bothering him for some time. Normally he wouldn't have bothered asking, knowing he wasn't going to get an answer, but it had been a long night, and he was tired.
"Just who the hell are you, anyway?!" he burst out.
"'Who WAS that masked man?'" the suit replied in obvious amusement. "'Heigh-ho Silver, Awaaaaaaaay!'"
SkyKnight shot into the darkness above, propelled by his peculiar sounding flight system, leaving Leon to puzzle out his remark.
"Hang on a minute Sis!" Mackie's voice crackled from the airlock speaker. "I just picked up Bert's transponder signal; he's coming up now. We should be able to pick him up shortly." Sylia sighed in relief, and removed her helmet. Opening the airlock door, she led the way back to the main cabin of the ship. Nene, Priss, and Linna followed, stripping off their own helmets. Priss smirked as she sat down in her seat again.
"I told you he'd be fine," she remarked. "He's too damn stubborn to get killed."
"You'd be the one to know about stubbornness, all right," Linna shot back wickedly. Priss looked annoyed, but didn't reply as Nene snickered. Sylia turned back to her control panel to see if the comm frequency was working again.
Bert grinned crookedly to himself as his flight pack carried him up to the same level where the KnightWing circled. God, that had been fun! A little hair-raising for a few minutes, but fun nonetheless. He'd even gotten to confuse Leon, although considering the fact that Leon had looked like he was running on zero sleep at the time hadn't made that too difficult. He laughed exultantly, spiraling into a crazy, lopsided barrel roll just for the hell of it. It was good to be alive. In the year or so since he'd first arrived in MegaTokyo he'd overcome a lot of obstacles to make it this far, and he intended to enjoy every moment he could.
His jets whined, lofting him closer to the now visible KnightWing. He really got a kick out of his flight system now; he'd spent a week calculating thruster port exhaust velocities and doing some trial-and-error testing to tune the pitch and vibration of the thruster noise. The net result was that when he flew, he now sounded like a TIE Interceptor right out of Star Wars. He'd also installed sound mufflers, in case he ever needed to run silently. As another project, he'd modified his laser array to make it look and sound like X-wing lasers when fired, providing a constant source of amusement. The rest of the group thought he was crazy, but he was used to that by now.
"Are you going to hang around out there forever?!" Sylia's voice snapped from the comm frequency.
"Okay, okay. I'm coming in now," he replied. He flipped over to the small airlock-landing bay near the rear of the plane, punched in the appropriate code, and entered. The door hissed shut behind him, and the KnightWing flew off into the night.
Sylia looked up from her seat as Bert entered the cabin. He'd obviously taken a couple of serious hits; his armour looked scorched and banged-up, and his 'chemical squirt gun' as he called it had been shot off of his right shoulder mount, again. He pulled off his helmet as he entered, brushing sweaty red hair back from his forehead. His brown-green eyes glinted with amusement as he caught her glance. Inwardly, she sighed.
"How'd it go?" she asked finally. He grinned, and swept her a deep bow.
"It pleaseth me to report, M'lady, that the vile creatures despoiling the populace of our fair city have been dispatched and are no more," he informed her.
"You mean you killed them," Priss interpreted. His face took on an injured expression.
"I believe I just said that, yes," he replied. Linna and Nene started giggling helplessly.
"Will you never grow up?" Sylia asked almost despairingly. He grinned again.
"I doubt it, and I certainly hope not. I'm having way too much fun." He flopped in his own chair, dropping his helmet on the floor, and stretched to a slouched position. "Ahhhhhh! Feels much better to be sitting down. There were a couple of hairy moments down there." He leaned his head back against the headrest.
"What happened anyway?" Linna inquired.
"Well, things were okay until that combat boomer showed up. The bastard hit me from behind with his missiles; that's what knocked out the comm frequency for a few minutes. The blue boomer was the same hyped-up C-55 we've had to fight before, but it wasn't a huge problem. The biggest problem was keeping the cops out of the fight. Leon almost lost his head trying to take snipe shots at the C-55. As it is, he probably won't need a barber for several weeks." Priss snickered.
"I see you lost your other gun again," Nene noted. He nodded.
"Yup. That's the only problem with modular weapons; they're great in terms of adaptability, but some bright bastard always shoots them off." Everyone else giggled slightly. He looked mildly wounded. "I didn't think it was that funny!" he protested, but he was ignored. He suddenly looked over at Sylia.
"We need to find out where these bloody things are being made, and how," he said. "I don't want to offend anyone's pride, but we can't put up with too many more nights like this one. I'm enjoying the action, but Lord am I tired!" He yawned as Nene and Linna nodded in agreement. Priss grinned crookedly.
"I thought you heroic, shining knight-in-armour types could go for days without sleep?" she asked slyly.
"You must have me confused with someone else," he returned, straight-faced. Priss laughed.
"I've already started looking into the source of these new boomers," Sylia assured them. "We should have some information by tomorrow. For now," she yawned herself, then stretched. "For now, I think sleep is an excellent idea."
Faint snoring from SkyKnight's seat was her only answer.
THE NEXT DAY...
Bert jerked upright in his chair, pillow and blanket flying onto the floor, panting hoarsely. God, what a nightmare! His mind seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in replaying his first boomer combat for him, except that he never survived in the dream version. To top that off, lately the boomer in the dream had started transforming into the now deceased Brian J. Mason in his battlesuit, who then strangled him. He sighed wearily. It didn't happen as often anymore, which was an improvement, but he wished his subconscious would just bugger off and leave him alone. He glanced at the clock; it read 6:45 AM. Time to get up, and get his houseguest up so she could get to work on time.
Levering himself out of his La-Z-Boy recliner, he picked up the discarded blanket and pillow and pitched them into the seat. Walking to the kitchenette at the far end of the living room, he made a pot of tea, and threw some bacon and eggs into a frying pan. Letting the eggs sizzle on low heat, he walked to the door of his bedroom, paused, and then grinned evilly. Easing the door open slightly, he reached around the door's edge, and flipped on the light switch. There was a muffled scream from the room, followed by the sound of a pillow impacting with the door. He grinned again and went back to check on breakfast.
By the time the bacon and eggs were done, the door had opened, and Nene had come out. She had been too tired from the night before to drive her scooter home, so he'd given her his room, and slept in his recliner. It wasn't difficult sleeping in an armchair; he'd done it before. She was not amused, glaring in his direction with a gaze that could have melted his hardsuit. Even angry and rumpled looking, with her red hair slightly awry, he still thought she looked cute. He dished up some of the bacon and eggs on a plate, and placed it at her end of the table with a cup of tea, then did the same for his end of the table. His modified toaster spat a stack of perfectly done toast onto a plate, eight slices altogether, and this he placed in the center. He looked at her. She glared back.
"Breakfast is served," he announced innocently.
"I'm going to get you for that," she threatened, sitting down and taking a sip of tea. sitting down himself, he grinned at her, gave his eggs a squirt of ketchup, and commenced eating. After a moment, she started on her own helping, minus the ketchup. Fifteen minutes of silent eating later, and they were both done. He spun the plates into the dishwasher; he could clean them later. Pouring his mug full of tea, adding milk and sugar, he sat back and regarded her with a trace of amusement on his face. Her mood was slightly better, but she still hadn't forgiven him for the light switch.
"I still can't believe you did that," she complained. "That was mean!" He grinned again.
"I wouldn't say too much," he advised. "I can introduce you to some of my father's methods for getting people out of bed; a couple of them are a lot worse than flipping on the lights, believe me!" He slurped at his tea.
"Like what?" she asked, suddenly curious. He never talked much about the family he'd left behind, several probable dimensions and thirty-eight years in the past.
"Well, his favourite method was to take the bed sheets, with you still in them, and yank them off the bed. Being six-foot-two and really strong, it wasn't much of a problem for him. His other method was used mostly in the winter; he'd open the window when it was bloody freezing, and then steal your blankets. You tended not to stay in bed for too much longer after that!" Nene shuddered. He continued, "Of course, I guess I should mention that he resorted to such drastic measures if I didn't get out of bed in time for school. I absolutely hated getting up early." He grinned fondly at the memories, lost briefly in a wave of nostalgia. He looked again at Nene, who was now smiling faintly. "So, you see, I could have been a lot harsher."
"Thanks, but I think I'll stick with the light switch," she replied, then abruptly realized something. "Hey! You said he did it AFTER he'd called you! You didn't call me at all! You just did it!!" Now she was indignant. He grinned slyly.
"Gee, did I forget that?" he asked innocently. "Sorry, must have slipped my mind." He finished his tea in a gulp, glanced at the clock, and stood up. "Come on, you can grumble about it while I drive you to work. I'll stick your scooter in the back of my truck."
"I'm still going to get you for that," she threatened again as they left.
The red pickup truck spun out of the garage onto the street. Weaving deftly though the morning traffic, it was soon on one of the curving stretches of main highway that crossed MegaTokyo. A small scooter was tied securely in the back box of the truck.
"Isn't this truck a little ancient?" Nene inquired, looking at the interior. The truck itself was a red, 1987 Chevy S-10 pickup, almost a veritable antique for this era. Bert had spent months, and a considerable pile of money, locating this particular model of truck and then restoring it. She was positive that he'd also performed some other, non-visible modifications to the truck, but couldn't prove it. He grinned.
"Some people might say that, but I don't. I'll gladly pit this truck against some of the 'modern' vehicles they have now. Besides, I owned a truck like this once upon a time; they're a damn reliable general purpose vehicle." He flipped a CD into the dashboard disc drive. The melodious harmonies of Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons' drifted from concealed speakers. She listened for a while and then, suddenly curious, asked "What other music to you listen to?"
"A fairly eclectic mix, actually," he responded, gear-shifting and swerving left to avoid the doddering Sunday driver in front of him. "Mostly classical, some movie soundtracks, some rock music, some 'moldy oldies', and some assorted pieces that don't really fit into a particular category." He grinned suddenly. "Allow me to demonstrate." he ejected the Vivaldi CD, and popped another one in. The truck cab was abruptly filled with a twanging, almost country western tune that sounded absolutely crazy. Nene started laughing helplessly as she listened to the lyrics:
I drove my Cadillac to Vegas, to satisfy my luck,
Wheelin', dealin', left ol' Vegas on a Greyhound Bus!
I sure didn't set the woods on fire while I was there,
but remember only forest fires pree-vent bears!"
She was still laughing when he ejected the CD and selected another. A glorious trumpet fanfare echoed in the enclosed space, along with the magnificent thunder of drums and the sounds of a full scale symphony orchestra. Just listening to it, one could picture a troop of heroic knights charging across the plains on white chargers to rescue someone. She thought she recognized it, partly because it sounded like one of the tunes from an old movie he watched from time to time. She looked at him, smiling.
"That's from that movie you like, isn't it?" she asked. He nodded, a wide grin lighting up his face.
"Yup! That's 'Ride of The Fire Mares' from an old movie called 'Krull'. It was never a huge hit, but I liked it, and the orchestral score is impressive."
"I can just picture you charging across the plains on a horse to it," she told him. He grinned again, as he selected the turn-off lane for the ADPolice HQ building.
"I'd wanted to put a sound system in my suit so I could have 'background music' while we were on a mission, but Sylia stomped hard on that idea." He looked faintly annoyed about that; he'd thought charging into a fight accompanied by 'Tie Fighter Attack' sounded fun. Sylia hadn't. Nene wasn't impressed with the idea either, judging from the look on her face.
"Don't you even dare!" she exclaimed in horror. "We've got enough problems keeping you under control! I don't even want to think about what you'd try if you had heroic-type music inspiring you!!" He chuckled, then assumed a hurt expression.
"I'm shocked that you would think so little of my self control...," he started, but Nene cut him off.
"Don't be. We know how your mind works. At least, we think we do!"
He laughed again, pulling up to the front of the HQ building. Getting out, he unloaded Nene's scooter so she could take it down to the parking level. She came around the other side of the truck, a grin on her own face.
"Well, thanks for the ride."
"No problem," he replied, giving her a quick hug. "Anytime. Have a good day at work." He started to turn away, then turned back. "Oh yeah, one other thing; How about dinner tonight, assuming nothing happens? I've already made reservations at the Bayshore Excelsior." The Excelsior was one of the more posh eateries in the area, catering to a wide range of tastes. Nene stared at him.
"Do you think you can afford that?" she asked. "I mean it's..."
"Don't worry," he assured her, "I can handle it, but we won't be alone; the rest of the team will be there, and if what I have planned works, I won't be the one paying." He grinned slyly.
"This isn't anything illegal is it?" she asked warily.
"Now, now, now...you're not on duty yet, so don't get official on me. It's perfectly legal. Trust me." He grinned like a Cheshire cat, hopped into the truck and drove off.
"That's usually the way it starts," Nene sighed to herself as she parked her scooter and climbed the stairs to the entrance. The red truck vanished onto a highway.
Linna ran through the park, blue eyes narrowed in grim determination, sweat soaking the headband holding her short black hair in check. Behind her, the thundering footsteps of her pursuer tracked her relentlessly. She sped through the winding paths of the park, dodging around the occasional slower pedestrian; there weren't many people in the park area at this time of day. The pounding footsteps continued to track her.
Abruptly, she wheeled and cut though a hedge, vaulting over the back of a park bench with one hand on the back, scaring pigeons into flight, and startling the occupant of the bench. Behind her she heard the rustle of the hedge, a brief silence, and then the slap of a pair of feet hitting the asphalt, closely followed by the rapid pounding of running. Good Lord! It sounded like he hadn't even bothered to use the bench as a pivot, just jumped and cleared it! She ran harder, beginning to pant a bit. The pursuing footsteps also increased in tempo, trying to narrow the gap.
She lunged down a set of stairs leading out of the park, two steps at a time, and ran hard up the street. The steps following her were silent briefly, and then the sound of a heavy impact with the pavement echoed after her, once again followed by the rapid thunder of her fast-moving pursuer. Holy shit, he'd jumped all twelve steps at once! This has gone on long enough, she thought grimly. Really leaning into it, she poured on the speed, running hard towards a white van at the end of the street. Finally, she began to leave her pursuer behind.
Sylia clicked the stopwatch as Linna flashed past, and looked at the time, writing it down on a notepad. Priss leaned against the side of the van next to her, dressed in a red track suit. Linna came around the van's far end, mopping her streaming face with a towel. A minute later, a thundering blue track-suited blur rumbled past Sylia. Judging from the sounds of his deceleration, it was taking him a good hundred feet to slow down. Sylia looked at the watch again, and made another note.
Bert came staggering around the van, chest heaving with exertion. He wiped his face on his forearm, and looked inquiringly at Sylia.
"So how was it this time?" he asked, still breathing heavily. Linna already looked to have fully recovered. Sylia checked her notepad.
"Pretty good," she replied. "You covered the distance in about twelve minutes this time. Definitely improving." As part of the Knight Sabers' training, Sylia had introduced a sort of 'running tag' exercise, where one member of the team tried to run down one of the others at full speed. The entire distance run was in the neighbourhood of a kilometer, probably more, but he wasn't sure exactly. All he knew for sure was that he'd collapsed halfway through the run the first few times he'd had to do it.
"Took you long enough to get stopped," Priss commented. He chuckled slightly.
"When you get two-hundred-plus pounds of mass moving at high speed, it does require a little room to stop. Not like Ms. Fleetfeet here," he added, jerking a thumb in Linna's direction, who grinned. "I think she's got disc brakes hidden in her shoes somewhere." Priss smirked as Linna giggled. Sylia made another note, then looked up.
"Well," she said, "I think that about does it for today. I..." She cut off as Bert reached out and plucked the stopwatch and notebook out of her hand with something best described as a devious grin.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" she asked, frowning at him.
"It's your turn now," he stated calmly, still grinning. It caught her flat-footed.
"What? What do you mean, my turn?"
"I mean," he said, grin widening, "that in all the time I've been here, I've never seen you participate in one of these little exercises yourself. I think I'd like to see just how well you do for a change; there's spare exercise clothes in the van, so it shouldn't be a problem changing, and I'm sure Linna is fully recovered by now, so she can run against you." He waited.
Sylia looked around. Judging from the grins on Priss and Linna's faces, they obviously liked his idea. Small chance of support there. She looked at Bert again. He had a challenging grin on his face.
"Look," he added suddenly, "I'll even make a deal with you: If you can beat Linna, I'll buy everybody dinner tonight......"
"Holy shit!" Priss exclaimed. "Take it Sylia! That's the first time he's ever offered to spend money on something!" He ignored her remark with an effort, and continued.
"If you can't beat Linna, you buy the dinner. I've already made reservations at the restaurant, too, so that's not a problem. Deal?" He held out his hand. She took it.
"Deal!" she said firmly. "Prepare to lose your money!" She climbed into the van, closed the door, and emerged a few minutes later clad in a white track suit. She and Linna got set at the 'starting line'.
"Okay," Bert said, resetting the stopwatch. "On your mark...Get set...Go!" He watched as the two women vanished up the street, Linna in the lead.
The Bayshore Excelsior was an elegant, twenty story building perched on the edge of Tokyo Bay. The restaurant itself was located in the lowest three floors; the upper levels were offices and penthouse suites for the very rich. The dining rooms were carpeted in a rich red material, and massive crystal chandeliers hung all over the place. The tables were polished mahogany and oak, with white tablecloths. While not as exclusive as the facilities of the St. Regis Hotel a few blocks away, it was still expensive enough that most people didn't eat there except on really special occasions. Judging from the festive air at one of the tables, this particular night ranked as a special occasion.
"I still think I've been had," Bert remarked semi-sourly, taking a swig from his glass of water. He'd shocked everyone by showing up dressed in a white dress shirt and dark tie, blue blazer and blue dress pants. He'd even combed his hair into a semblance of order. The four women seated with him obviously hadn't expected him to get that dressed up; normally he abhorred 'formal clothing', as he called it, of any sort, preferring either track suits or jeans and a sweat shirt. Sylia smiled smugly.
"I never said that you couldn't use shortcuts to catch someone," she said airily. She was wearing a white evening gown, and looked radiant. Nene, Linna and Priss all grinned; Sylia had won the bet by cutting across the park, and intercepting Linna when she'd least expected it, tagging her and going on to win the race. Bert sighed and looked around.
The other three women were also wearing evening dresses of differing styles, and all looked lovely. They were lingering over dessert now, having finished the main course of prime steak, potatoes and several other vegetables. It had been a fantastic meal, excellently cooked. Since he was paying for it, Bert hadn't held himself back, but inhaled anything edible that came within his reach. The rest of the group had been a little more restrained.
A waiter arrived with the check, which he took. His only visible reaction to the size of the bill was a slight tightening of the jaw. Sylia watched him, fiendish amusement lurking in the depths of her brown eyes.
"Think you'll have enough to handle that?" she asked innocently
"Of course; I planned in advance, remember?" He fished in an inside pocket, and came out with a well-worn green nylon wallet with camouflage colouring. It was the same battered old wallet he'd had with him when he'd first arrived in MegaTokyo. Opening it, he extracted several large denomination bills, and handed them to the waiter. The waiter bowed and left. He noticed everyone at the table staring at him incredulously.
"What?" he asked defensively. "What did I do now?!"
"Cash?!" Linna said incredulously. "You were carrying that much cash around with you?!" Unlike most people in MegaTokyo, he refused to use the 'credit card' system; until the government completely eliminated paper currency, he fully intended to keep paying cash for everything he could. Nene was staring at him, emerald-green eyes wide with surprise. Priss looked slightly envious.
"You're doing something right if you've got a wad like that!" she observed.
"Well," he replied, "I've been saving my money, mostly, and every now and then I make an investment of some kind. So far I'm staying ahead of things." He still couldn't understand how Priss, Linna and Nene seemed to be chronically short of money; Sylia certainly paid well, well enough that for the first few weeks of his stay, he'd gone wild from having money again and splurged for a while. During his university stint, he'd been lucky to have enough cash on hand to go to McDonald's occasionally for a burger, and sudden wealth had been disorienting. The waiter came back with the change, bowed once more, and left. He stuffed most of it back into his wallet, leaving a couple of bills out for a tip. Sylia sighed suddenly, which grabbed everyone's attention.
"I hate to ruin the evening with business talk," she apologized, "but we do have to discuss a particular job now, I'm afraid."
"It's about the recent boomer attacks, isn't it?" Nene asked. Sylia nodded.
"Fargo found out early this afternoon where the new boomer types are being produced, but it wasn't easy. Two of his usual information sources were mysteriously killed shortly after he'd talked to them. He's laying low himself right now, but he passed the information on to me." She fell silent. Linna frowned.
"Sounds dangerous, if GENOM is being that secretive about it," she observed. "They don't normally go to the trouble of killing informants, they usually just cover things up." Sylia nodded again.
"They've gone to extreme lengths to keep this place a secret; supplies were being routed through six different trucking companies before they reached the facility, and all six companies had no previous connections to GENOM, which made tracing the supplies much harder, of course."
"So we're going in tonight?" Priss asked. Sylia nodded.
"We'll go back and get suited up now," she told them, " then I'll give you a full briefing on the way there. Okay?" Everyone nodded agreement, then stood up. Bert tipped the waiter as they left.
The armoured tractor trailer sat parked next to an abandoned warehouse. The warehouse was located in one of the shabbiest areas of MegaTokyo, just a stone's throw from the Canyons. Five hardsuited figures watched another massive, decaying building across the street from the shadows. At length, the green hardsuit stirred and spoke.
"I don't like this, Sylia," Linna said nervously. "Secret or not, this place should have some signs of activity. It looks like nothing's been in there in months!" The white suit turned and regarded the dark blue/pink suit.
"Any activity at all, Nene?" Sylia queried. Nene's helmet swung back and forth negatively.
"There's enough background electromagnetic radiation to indicate automated equipment," she replied, "but there's nothing else. No radio signals, computer signals, nothing." SkyKnight looked thoughtfully at the gloomy edifice in front of them.
"Could they have known we were coming, and moved out?" he asked. Sylia shook her head.
"The first time they could possibly have known they had been found out was early this morning," she replied. "I don't think the facility is mobile enough that they can just up and leave. Producing boomers requires a lot of equipment."
"So what are we waiting for?" Priss demanded. "Invitations to go in?"
"And you've got the nerve to call me reckless!" SkyKnight elbowed Priss in the ribs.
"Quit the bickering!" Sylia snapped sharply, a sure sign she was edgy about this operation now. "We're going in. Keep the comm frequency open at all times; I don't want anyone getting separated."
The five suits sprang towards the crumbling building on hissing jets.
Long gloomy corridors stretched throughout the facility. A faint, smoky haze seemed to hang in the air, and the sound of water dripping echoed hollowly throughout the halls. There was evidence of recent construction, such as wiring conduits, but the building itself had not been renovated on the inside. The Knight Sabers cautiously advanced down the hallways.
"Somebody should fire their architects and designers," SkyKnight observed distastefully. "There's mold on those pipes over there, and it's so wet in here for some reason that the wiring seems to be corroding."
Linna looked around and shivered. "It's like a tomb in here," she noted. The group came to a four-way intersection and stopped. Sylia looked around.
"We're going to have to split up," she announced reluctantly. "Priss, you and Linna take the north corridor, Nene and I will take the east one. SkyKnight, that leaves you with the west one. No heroics, understand? If you see anything, you call the rest of us first!" He chuckled and swept her a bow.
"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he replied, moving off into the darkness of the west wing.
SkyKnight walked carefully down the corridor; the floor almost looked like it was collapsing in places. If this was some important secret facility, couldn't they have at least shored up the floors of the place? He wondered how many scientists they'd lost to 'industrial accidents' here. The corridor abruptly improved, becoming better lit and more solidly built-looking. A large metal door stood in the south-western wall, with a security keypad mounted next to it. He wrenched the panel off, and examined the wiring. Whoever had wired the security lock had done a slipshod job of it; a minute of hot-wiring the lock later, and the lock disengaged with an audible snap. He looked at the door, considering something, then stepped to the door and began prying it open.
"SkyKnight to Saber Prime," he announced into the comm channel, wrenching at the door. "I've found a sealed lab area or something. This end of the building appears to be in slightly better shape."
"Acknowledged, SkyKnight," Sylia responded. "Wait there and we'll join you. Saber Prime, out." The door finally squealed open as the channel cut off. SkyKnight stepped inside. The room was extremely dark, and his IR sensors weren't telling him anything useful; there were glass tanks of some kind at the end of the room and some computer monitors, but no detail was visible. Hunting around, he found a light switch, and flipped on the lights. Fluorescent glare bathed the room. He turned around, and fully realized what was in the room for the first time.
"Oh My GOD!!!" He lurched and spun back out into the hallway, falling to his knees and tearing off his helmet. He was violently, rackingly sick on the floor a moment later. Coughing weakly, he wiped his mouth on the back of his gauntlet, and replaced his helmet, clenching his teeth together to keep from puking again. He'd known GENOM was a rat's nest of evil, but he hadn't thought that they were this sick. Footsteps in the hall behind him made him spin, shouting "No! Don't look in there!", but it was too late; they'd already looked. Linna and Priss followed his example, ripping off their helmets and throwing up on the floor. Nene screamed, turned and crashed into him. He grabbed her and held her close as she started crying. Sylia didn't throw up, but stood with her face averted from the room, shoulders bowed and fists clenched.
The human brain and nervous system is a remarkably efficient natural computer, actually among the most advanced computers ever created. Humans, unfortunately, do not have full conscious control of the brain's functions and true capacity, which limits their performance somewhat. GENOM had obviously decided to remove that limitation; the tanks at the end of the room had human brains floating in them, brains that had been hardwired somehow to what looked like boomer optical arrays and microprocessors. Biotechnology hadn't been able to produce what GENOM wanted, so they'd adopted body-snatching as a materials source; two large tanks contained human skeletons with the muscles and organs still attached. The skin was nowhere in evidence. Priss straightened up from the floor.
"I'm gonna burn that bloody place down around their ears!" she announced through clenched teeth, jamming her helmet back on. It was now obvious that the uprated C-55A1 combat boomers were faster than the old ones because GENOM had used human nervous tissue as circuitry. Everyone was willing to bet that the tissue had not come from willing donors.
"I'll help!" SkyKnight declared, still holding the sobbing Nene. He could handle a certain amount of gore himself, but this passed anything she'd had the misfortune to encounter before. She began to calm down a little as he held her. Sylia abruptly wrenched the door shut again. Turning, she began stalking farther down the hallway without saying a word. The rest of the Sabers followed in silence, trying to erase the horrific images from their minds, without much success.
The door exploded inwards with a shattering snarl of steel scrap and flame. Sylia stepped through the smoking wreckage, and looked around. Computers with massive view screens lined the far wall, and status displays blinked unconcernedly from the other sides of the room. A large control console stood in the enter of the room. She walked towards it as the rest of the team followed warily, clearly primed and expecting trouble. As Sylia reached the console, the central view screens flashed into life, displaying none other than Quincy, C.E.O. of GENOM. A smile creased his craggy features as he regarded them.
"Welcome Knight Sabers!" his voice rasped from a speaker. "I'm so glad you found this place finally. I was beginning to get sick of waiting."
Quincy sat back in his chair contentedly, regarding the image of five startled hardsuits on the monitors at the far end of his office. It had taken a while, but it had finally worked. Originally, after Mason's death, the C-55A1 project had been going to be shut down because it was hideously expensive, and didn't appear to be providing the promised dividends of vastly increased combat superiority. Quincy had decided to leave it running a while longer to see if the Knight Sabers could be persuaded to investigate. He'd even authorized the release of a few C-55A1's to create havoc in the city. His patience had finally paid off; the Knight Sabers had walked right into his little trap. His quietly gloating thoughts were rudely interrupted by a voice from the speaker.
"So what the hell does that miserable old bastard want?" it asked. Quincy frowned and leaned forward, glaring at the image in front of him. He was willing to bet that it was that SkyKnight fellow who had just spoken. He adjusted the view to center on the black-and-silver suit.
"Do you know who I am?" he rumbled ominously to the image in front of him.
"Yeah," it replied, not in the least bit intimidated. "You're a legend in your own mind! You're also an arrogant, scheming, fossilized old goat who hasn't got a shred of ethics or human decency anywhere in his lousy carcass." Quincy sat back, abruptly realizing just why Mason had almost foamed at the mouth whenever SkyKnight's name had come up in the week before the Sabers had killed him. God, what an insolent bastard! Quincy also found it vaguely refreshing; no one had dared mouth off to him in more years than he cared to remember, at least, not to his face. He thumbed a switch on his desk console, then smiled at the monitor. It was not a nice smile.
SkyKnight turned as the hydraulic rumble of opening doors reverberated from the hallway. Approximately ten blue boomers started clanking up the hallway to the room where the Knight Sabers were now trapped. Oh hell, he thought, it was a trap! He began powering up his weapons as he backed away from the door.
"We've got company!" he announced, firing a plasma beam down the hallway. The boomers easily dodged the shot, and continued to advance.
"Spread out!" Sylia ordered. "Try to keep the boomers in the center. We can't afford to get surrounded in here." She was right about that; the room did not allow much room to maneuver. If the boomers surrounded someone, there was nowhere to go. Quincy's image grinned evilly from the monitors. Suddenly SkyKnight lunged forward to stand silhouetted in the door frame.
"Bert! Get out of the way!" Sylia shouted at him. "You're going to get..."
SkyKnight's gauntlets snapped up and a screaming energy storm of red and blue beams flashed down the hallway at the boomers. Angry snarls and explosions racketed from the hall, and plasma beams began to flash back through the doorway around him. The thunder of his railcannon pierced the howling energy duel, closely followed by the muffled sputter of his flare launcher. The blazing firefight lasted approximately thirty seconds before his flare launcher was vaporized off of his shoulder, and he was thrown backwards by a glancing plasma beam strike. He rolled to his feet, out of the line of fire, with a smoking hole in his lower left abdomen armour. Inside his suit, Bert gritted his teeth against the searing pain; he could feel a warm, wet stickiness beginning to creep down his side.
"You bloody insane jackass!!!" Sylia shrieked at him over the comm. "What the hell were you trying to do?!?!?"
"I managed to nail a couple of them," he reported, "and my flares blinded another one. They can't really dodge all together and avoid everything while they're in the hallway, which was why I just did that."
"How badly are you hit?" Sylia asked, glancing at the hallway. The boomers were milling around in apparent confusion and had stopped advancing for the moment.
"Not bad. I can handle it," he started to reply, but Priss cut him off.
"Bullshit! You're bleeding!" she said, coming over to take a quick look. He looked down and noted with mild surprise that a creeping red stain was trickling down the armour around the hole. Further discussion was cut off as the remaining boomers finally lunged through the door, and the room dissolved into chaos.
Quincy leaned back in his chair, listening to the scream of weapons fire and the crackle of explosions over the loudspeaker. He no longer had an image to watch; SkyKnight's quick shootout with the boomers had meant that the boomers destroyed the monitors behind him, leaving Quincy with only audio entertainment. He chuckled to himself as he turned off the speaker, letting silence return to his office. It looked like the Knight Sabers were finally done for. Just to be on the safe side, though, he pressed the last switch on his console, the one activating the countdown on the plant's power generators.
SkyKnight groggily pulled himself out of the computer console he'd been thrown into. Things were not going well. During the initial charge of the boomers, the Sabers had killed two more by firing in concert, cutting the number they faced down to four. The boomer he'd blinded earlier had already been dispatched. The four remaining boomers, however, were wiping the floors with the Sabers.
Nene was down in a far corner, unmoving. He desperately wanted to check on her, but he had to help the others first. Priss had claw marks across her chest and arms, mute testimony to the fact that she'd almost gotten eviscerated; her boomer was still trying to complete the job. Linna was frantically dodging around another boomer, avoiding its raking claws. Sylia had shot an arm off of the boomer she faced, but it had still backhanded her to a wall, and then tried to crush the life out of her; she'd just barely gotten out of its way. As for his own opponent....
He ducked again as a plasma beam tore through the air, blowing pieces out of the wall behind him. His boomer was firing plasma beams all the time, regardless of the fact that firing weapons of massive destruction in here ran the risk of hitting the other occupants of the room, or bringing the roof crashing down. The boomer had already tagged him with a couple of plasma shots. Luckily, none of them had caused a wound as serious as his first one had proved to be; his lower left side now felt wet and sticky in a large area, and it was beginning to stab him in the ribs with a burning ache. He wasn't sure how much longer he could last.
The boomer lunged at him again, intent on grappling. He belted it backwards with a right cross, buying himself some breathing space. His helmet rang like a bell as the boomer recovered and clocked him with an uppercut. He backed off, trying to get his fuzzy senses to re-calibrate themselves. Across the room, one of the boomers collapsed into three separate smoking piles; Linna had gotten a chance, and the room, to use her charged monomolecular ribbons. She sprang over the dead boomer to help Sylia against her foe.
Swordblades snapped into extension on SkyKnight's gauntlets. His thruster pack suddenly fired, sending him crashing straight into the boomer, with his swords becoming implanted in the boomer's chest. The two combatants then crashed into the wall. It howled in fury, opening its mouth to fire point-blank at its armoured antagonist. Before it could fire, SkyKnight gave a heave of his shoulders, suit musculature briefly protesting the strain, and ripped his blades upwards through the boomer's torso, messily cutting it in half. It crashed to the floor, oozing brown, oily-looking fluids from the massive gashes in its body.
Turning towards Priss, he locked his targeting computer on her boomer, and placed his laser cannons into continuous beam mode. It was extremely dangerous using that setting in here; he risked severing the building's internal framework of girders and support beams if he got too carried away with blasting. The whine of charging capacitors began to rise over the din of combat.
"Priss! Duck!" he yelled, pointing his arms at the boomer. She dove sideways, avoiding another attempt by the boomer to gut her. He fired.
Twin, pulsating red beams scythed through the air with a sizzling crackle, passing by on both sides of the boomer. He moved his arms together like a pair of scissors, slashing the beams together to intersect at a point where the boomer was. It flew apart in a flare of energy, and SkyKnight hurriedly shut off the lasers; they'd also cut huge swaths in the wall behind Priss and the boomer, and he could hear ominous creaking from that wall. As he spun around to check on the last boomer, it exploded from a combined knuckle-bomb and cannon shot to the torso. The room became quieter, flames and circuitry from shattered consoles and monitors sputtering in the background.
Sylia sagged against the wall, gasping and holding her left arm while Linna stood hunched over, also gasping for breath. Priss was climbing to her feet, seemingly unhurt. Spinning around, ignoring his own injuries, Bert ran over to where Nene was beginning to stir. He dropped to his knees beside her, slid an arm around her shoulders, and cradled her body, helping her to a sitting position. He flipped up his visor and examined her visually; no wounds were apparent. If she's seriously hurt in any way, he swore to himself savagely, I'm going to personally storm that friggin' tower and burn Quincy to smoking ashes. 'No solo actions' be damned! Nene moaned.
"Are you all right?" he asked worriedly. "Come on, speak to me! Please!"
"Owwww.....I...I think I'm gonna be sick," she said faintly. He flipped up her own visor; her face was white looking and there was obvious pain in her eyes. A boomer had kicked her in the stomach to literally fly across the room, crashing into the far wall. He'd personally blown the head off of that particular boomer shortly thereafter in the initial seconds of the fight, at point-blank range.
"Don't worry," he assured her, "you'll be fine. We're getting out of here." He closed their visors, then picked her up off the floor in his arms, ignoring the protests from his side. Turning around, he carried her towards the other Sabers.
"How's everyone else?" he asked, coming up to them.
"Sylia's got a broken arm," Linna told him, "but other than you bleeding on the floor there, no one else is badly hurt."
"Good. Let's get the hell out of here."
"No! Not yet!" Sylia gasped, trying to straighten up. "We have to destroy the production facilities first!"
"We're not going to have to," SkyKnight said flatly. "Think about it: what's the next best option to killing us with boomers? Blow up the goddamn building while we're inside, that's what! I'll bet any amount of money you want to name that somewhere in this building is a bomb and the meter's running." Priss suddenly nodded.
"It makes sense," she agreed. "Knowing how GENOM thinks, they probably figure that they can get rid of us and any evidence that way. I...." She stopped, and suddenly they could all feel it; The floor was shaking. Somewhere in the building, several booming detonations could be heard.
"Run, damn it! Run!" SkyKnight shouted. He sprinted down the hall, still carrying Nene, with the other Sabers in hot pursuit. Flames blew through the wall of the control room in a storm of exploding debris as they left. The Knight Sabers had made it out the front door by mere seconds when the entire building exploded in a thundering pyrotechnic display that sent orange and yellow flames mushrooming far into the night sky. A searing wall of heat washed over them as they fled, but they were far enough away to escape unharmed.
Mackie opened the doors on the trailer as they approached, and helped the battered Sabers inside. The door closed, and a couple of moments later, the truck drove off into the night, ahead of the sirens of the approaching police and fire brigades.
THE NEXT DAY...
Sylia sat at her kitchen table, dressed in a well-worn old grey track suit, her left arm encased in a heavy cast. A steaming cup of coffee sat on top of the Saturday paper in front of her, but she wasn't really looking at it. She stared into space, looking drawn and haggard. The mission the night before had shaken everyone up with the revelation of just how low GENOM was willing to sink trying to create perfect super weapons. Sylia's own mental anguish was amplified by the fact that it was a perversion of her father's research; he'd never even remotely considered doing what GENOM had done, but because it had stemmed from boomer research, she felt partly responsible. She was taking a sip from her cup when a knock on the door sounded.
"Come in, door's open," she called tiredly. She hadn't slept well afterwards, either, plagued by dreams of blue boomers with Quincy's face. The door opened and Bert came in.
He looked like the wrath of God this morning; he was moving stiffly, and his own face was drawn and tired looking, with black bags under his eyes. Clearly, he hadn't slept too well, either. He poured a cup of coffee, dosed it with enough milk and sugar to stand the spoon upright in, and sat down across the table from her. Silence filled the room for a couple of minutes.
"How's Nene?" she asked finally.
"Sleeping, finally," he replied. It had been a rough night for both he and Nene; she hadn't wanted to be left alone last night, so they'd slept holding each other on his couch with a blanket wrapped around them. Even then, Nene had kept waking up, screaming from nightmares about being stuffed into a tank of slimy fluid filled with human brains. His own dreams hadn't been much better. Finally, she'd fallen into an exhausted sleep, and he'd wrapped her in a blanket and set her gently on his bed. "She wasn't seriously hurt last night, thank God, just badly bruised. I just hope she can get over what she saw in that... that .... that room last night." He clenched his teeth, fighting the bile that threatened to rise at the memories. Sylia looked at him with perfect understanding, knowing exactly how he felt.
"What about your injuries?" she asked. He shrugged.
"I got them patched back together," he said, "although I don't think the doctor who plugged the hole in my left side believed my explanation as to how I got that particular wound. The other couple of hits I took were just small burns; the armour absorbed the rest." He fell silent, taking a slurp from his coffee. His suit was going to need a few days for repairs, but he just didn't have the energy to try and fix it now. His upgraded armour plating for the rest of the team's hardsuits was also ready to be installed in the new suits being constructed, but again, right now he didn't have the energy to even try. What he wanted to do was just hide somewhere and hibernate for about two weeks. "How's your arm?" he asked finally.
"It's been better," she said, smiling faintly, "but it's not throbbing anymore, at least. The cast should be able to come off in another day or so." He nodded, although he still had trouble believing the speed with which some aspects of medicine in 2033 AD could be used; back in his own era, he'd have had his arm in a cast for a minimum of six weeks, at least, if he'd broken his arm. Here it took anywhere from two days to two weeks, depending on the severity of the break. He glanced at the paper.
"Anything interesting in the news?" he asked. Sylia shook her head.
"Not really. Just some small item about a shuttle crash landing in the forested area outside the city." He stiffened, looking like somebody had just shot him. What was wrong with him?, she wondered. He spun the paper over to in front of him, found the article and began reading intently.
'The shuttle', Bert read to himself, 'has been identified as the 'Orca IV', which was stolen from the Genaros Space station by parties unknown. It has been assumed that the pilot did not survive, as no identifiable remains have been found. SDPC is placing its full resources into an inquiry into the incident.' He dropped the paper, an undefinable emotion passing over his face, and then vanishing as he looked at her.
"Doesn't say much does it?" he observed, folding the paper back up. She looked at him curiously; he'd suddenly become as emotionless as a slab of stone. What on earth could be bothering him about a crashed shuttle?
"Do you know something you're not telling me?" she asked quietly. A cheek muscle in his face twitched slightly, and something flashed briefly in his eyes, but he remained expressionless, shaking his head.
"I don't know anything," he replied. " About this, or several other topics I should know at least something about." He suddenly stood. "I hope you'll excuse me; I've just remembered something I've got to check on." He turned and left, not even bothering to finish his coffee first. She watched him leave, a thoughtful, and vaguely worried frown creasing her brow.
Damn it, now what the hell was he going to do? Bert walked rapidly down to the basement area, mind churning in disarray. He'd suddenly found himself in a position he'd been dreading for a long time now. Because he had entered this particular universe, somehow, from another one where the Knight Sabers were a fictional story, he knew more about the rest of the team and certain events than he let on about. He'd kept his mouth shut on the subject, partly because thinking about trans-dimensional causes-and-effects gave him headaches, and because no one else really wanted to talk about it anyway, since it made them extremely uncomfortable. He'd also resisted the constant impulse to use his knowledge somehow to avoid certain occurrences, his theory being that since he was here, he'd already messed up what was supposed to be.
That theory had just died a flaming death with his reading of the newspaper article. The 'Orca IV' had crashed, which meant that very shortly, several murders, dubbed 'vampire crimes' by the press, were going to occur. To top that off, the search for the stolen D.D. Airborne Battlemover would begin, a search that was destined to end with Priss having to kill one of her friends, and going through mental hell as a result, in his world at least. However, Priss was a damn good friend, and there was no way on this earth he was going to just stand idly by and watch while it happened. The only problem was, he had no idea of just how to prevent it. The best option would be to stop the D.D. before the Sabers had to fight it, and disarm the bomb.
Biggest obstacle? There was no way his suit alone could beat the D.D., and he didn't really know enough electronics to try and defuse a walking bomb, assuming he could get access to it. His own conscience and sense of honor wouldn't allow him to take the direct route of finding and confronting Sylvie, either. In the first place, she didn't know who he was, and she'd probably just deny all knowledge of anything, and then flee. That could possibly lead to other complications, like the D.D. going automatic in a heavily populated district, for example. In the second place, as far as he was concerned, she was entitled to the right to make her own decisions and live the way she wanted to, which gave him no right to come barging in on her life. It wasn't her fault that she had to get human blood to survive; GENOM had worked that little design element into the 33-S series to keep them on a short leash, but that could be corrected. Which brought him right back to trying to down the D.D. before it could hurt someone. He sighed, scrubbing a hand across his face wearily. He suddenly felt like Captain Kirk or Picard out of Star Trek, discussing the Prime Directive of non-interference in the lives of others. To hell with them! He was going to interfere all right, no matter what it cost him.
"Whatever it takes," he muttered to himself, " just whatever it takes." He turned, and vanished into the depths of the basement to prepare for the coming storm.
ONE MONTH LATER...
"Isn't this better than being holed up in the shop?" Nene asked, a faint smile playing about her lips. There was a faint hint of concern about him in her green eyes. For the last month he'd been driving himself relentlessly, completing the new suit armour upgrades in two and-a-half weeks, and then ransacking all available databases the Knight Sabers had access to on electrical systems and engineering. He was trying to build some kind of strange-looking device, but refused to discuss details with anyone. Nene felt a trifle hurt about that, but she knew Bert well enough by now to know that he would, eventually, say something about it.
Bert looked around the 'Hot Legs' club, and had to admit she was right; relaxing in a bar (even though he didn't drink alcohol) with friends was better than pounding your head against a brick wall because you couldn't get something to work. He grinned back at her.
"Yes it is, actually. I'm sorry if it seemed like I'd vanished off the face of the earth. It's just...well...I've had a lot on my mind lately. Tell you what: how about I take you to dinner tomorrow night?" He'd kept dating Nene throughout the last month, and despite his own mental hang-ups on the subject, their relationship was slowly getting stronger. She got annoyed with his tendency to clam up about certain things, but didn't push him about it, a fact he was extremely grateful for. He hated having to lie to people about what he was up to, and was already fighting a losing war with his conscience about his actions.
"Sure! I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about eating decently, the way you were going there for a while." She shuddered. He'd been living on hamburgers and fries almost three times a day briefly; it was convenient and he could eat them in the shop, even though he'd probably petrified his arteries with cholesterol. Just then, Priss and Linna walked up to their table, Priss still in her extremely revealing costume, a towel draped around her neck. Her singing attire made Bert a shade uncomfortable at times; she was a friend, damn it, and he shouldn't be ready to start drooling on the floor just because she looked hot in a particular outfit. Besides, he was going out with Nene.
"So, what did you think?" Priss asked them.
"You were marvelous!" Linna and Nene exclaimed together. "It was fantastic!" Priss cocked her head at Bert; he hadn't replied, just sat there with a faint smile on his face.
"Well?" she prompted him. "What did you think?"
"I liked it," he replied. "Can I get your autograph?" He ducked under the table as she snapped her towel at him; if there was one thing she hated, it was people asking for autographs. He resurfaced, grinning innocently.
"Was it something I said ?" he inquired politely. Priss snorted.
"With you, it usually is," she retorted. He laughed, and took a slug of pop from the glass in front of him. The front door to the club opened. A fairly tall woman in an extremely form-fitting blue and white motorcycle racing suit came in through the door, pulling off her helmet to reveal shoulder length dark brown hair and brown eyes.
"Sylvie! Over here!" Priss called, beckoning her over. The woman turned, smiled and began walking in their direction. Every table she passed suddenly acted as if an electric current had hit them; she seemed to exude a personal magnetism that was instantly attractive. Even from twenty feet away, Bert was beginning to feel the stirrings of attraction, and his heart began pounding erratically. She was extremely beautiful looking, moving with uncanny grace and style. She was also endowed with what the irreverent, Monty Python part of his mind called 'Huge Tracts o' land!'. He abruptly slapped that part of his mind down; she was a person after all, despite what some people might claim upon full revelation of the facts. She smiled apologetically at Priss as she came up to them.
"I'm sorry I missed your show, Priss," she said hesitantly, "but I had some things to attend to. I'm really sorry about that." Priss smiled back.
"That's okay, really," she replied. "I just wanted you to meet some of my friends here. This is Nene, and this is Linna." Sylvie shook hands with them; Nene and Linna appeared to have faintly star struck expressions. "And the beanpole sitting behind the table there is Bert." He stood up as Sylvie turned to him, clamping down on his thundering pulse. She was tall, about five-ten or so, but at six-three he tended to make everyone look shorter. He took her hand, and bowed over it saying, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, M'lady." He straightened up, noting as he did so that Nene, Linna, and Priss were all rolling their eyes. Sylvie seemed slightly confused.
"Don't mind him," Priss told her, "he's just weird. Comes from reading too much."
"Reading?" Sylvie asked, looking curiously at him. "Reading what?"
"Books," he deadpanned, then ducked the towel Priss threw at him.
"He reads all those adventure-type, middle-ages, chivalric, knights-in-armour rescuing the damsel-in-distress type of books. It's warped his thinking." Priss told her. Sylvie laughed.
They sat around the table for a while, the girls chatting about this and that. Bert wasn't really saying much. His own thoughts were still dwelling on how to stop the D.D. after it went automatic without huge damage to anything, himself included. He was also trying to figure out a way to shut down the D.D.'s battle computer so that it couldn't arm the micro-neutron bomb it carried. He was brooding over this problem, leaning his chair back on its two back legs when a short exchange between Nene and Linna caught his attention.
"My car died again," Linna was complaining. "I don't know what I'm going to do with it. If it isn't the starter or the battery, it's something else."
"Why don't you try hot-wiring it?" Nene asked mischievously. "It shouldn't be too hard to...." She was interrupted by Bert suddenly crashing over backwards in his chair, to impact with the floorboards in a painful looking manner. However, he was up off the floor almost immediately, a huge grin igniting his face. He started laughing, almost exultantly.
"What's so funny?" she asked, frowning. Maybe he was finally losing it; she hadn't thought he'd find falling over amusing.
"Nene, you're a genius!" he exclaimed. He leaned across the table, kissed her on the cheek, then grabbed his hat and was out the door, saying over his shoulder "Sorry, gotta run!" A stunned silence occupied the table for a couple of moments after his precipitous departure.
"What was that all about?" Linna asked Nene. She shook her head, wide-eyed, surprised by his reaction.
"I told you he was weird," Priss remarked.
Bert crashed through the door of his room, flinging his hat and coat into a chair. He dove at his computer desk, yanking open a drawer and rummaging around in it. He found the disk he'd been seeking, wheeled and ran out of his room, down the hallway to the data control room. He needed massive computer power at the moment, and the computers there were the best. When he got there, he was relieved to find Sylia wasn't in; she seemed to live in there sometimes, and he couldn't really explain to her what he was doing without letting the cat out of the bag. Sitting down at the main console, he slotted the disk, and activated the computer.
A large schematic popped up on the screen. He zoomed in on a particular section of the circuitry he was looking for, and began to study it. As he examined the data, he kept an ear peeled to make sure no one caught him using the computer for his little 'project'. The data he was examining was a fairly complete technical readout for the D.D. Battlemover. It wasn't 100% complete, however; details on things like the manufacturing process of some of its specialized parts was not included. The file seemed to indicate that the J-1 computer itself contained the complete set of specs. The neutron bomb it carried was also not included in the plans, although there was a suspicious looking space in the circuit diagrams. Sylia had gotten a copy of the plans from Fargo, and Bert had quickly copied it when she wasn't looking, hoping to find a weakness in the thing. That hope had faded quickly; the D.D. couldn't be stopped except by major league force, which he didn't have, or by detonation of its bomb, which he didn't want. The key to his whole approach was in taking control away from the J-1 battle computer long enough to dismantle the bomb.
Nene's remark to Linna had provided him with the idea on how to do that. As he examined the wiring diagrams, a grin spread across his face. Yes! If he was reading this correctly, and if he could get access to the wiring and circuitry conduits, he could completely by-pass the computer control and deactivate the bomb by 'hot-wiring' the D.D., just like some of the jury-rigging required by old tractors to keep them running back on the farm.
Once the computer was down, then he'd be able to get Sylvie out of the damn thing and get her to safety. If possible, he also now wanted to get the computer data from the D.D.; some of the technology in that thing would be great if modified for a hardsuit. However, that was a minor concern compared to the one of saving Sylvie. He knew one thing for sure: Before he could hot-wire the D.D., he had to first immobilize it long enough to get at it. His smile faded slightly as he considered that particular problem. Footsteps echoed in the hallway.
Whipping upright out of his chair, Bert grabbed the disk and deactivated the computer. Pocketing the disk, he dodged out the door at the other end of the room, shutting the door silently behind him. He sprinted as quickly and as quietly as he could down the hallway to his room; he still had a lot of work to do.
Sylia watched from the shadows as he sped down the hall, a frown creasing her brow. Just what had he been doing in there?
ONE WEEK LATER...
Sylia was seated at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and reading the morning paper, as was her usual morning routine, when Mackie walked in. She looked at her younger brother thoughtfully as he entered. He looked a little tired this morning, which for him was unusual. He didn't even greet her with his usual "Hi Sis!", which was even more unusual. His black hair was in disarray, and his clothes were slightly smudged and oily.
"What on earth have you been doing?" she asked. "You're a mess!"
"Working down at Dr. Raven's garage," he replied tiredly. He poured himself a cup of coffee, and sagged into a chair across from her.
"I'm going to have a chat with him," she said firmly. "We agreed that..."
"No, no it wasn't him," Mackie interrupted, taking a sip from his cup. "I was helping Bert overhaul the motoslave for his suit. He had some modifications he wanted to try out, and we just lost track of the time."
Sylia sat there in silence and didn't reply. Bert was forever modifying something on his suit, much to her continual exasperation, but he'd never even liked the idea of having a motoslave to go with his suit. He far preferred to rely on his own armour power, and she'd had to order him to use the bloody thing on a couple of occasions when the extra firepower was needed. For him to suddenly take an interest in it was extremely strange.
"What kind of modifications?" she asked, a frown beginning to creep across her brow. Just what the hell WAS he up to ?!
"Well, first we removed the autocannon, and then ....."
"You WHAT?!" she almost shouted. The autocannon was the only weapon mounted on the motoslaves. To take it off was asinine; the motoslave then became a defenseless exoskeleton. "What the hell did you help him with that for?!" She waited, meanwhile considering exactly what she was going to say to Bert the next time she saw him.
"Relax Sis!" Mackie tried to soothe her. "We replaced it with a weapon mount for some modular weapon he's making up." Mackie suddenly frowned himself. "It's a bloody strange socket, though. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear it was an electrical socket."
Sylia frowned again. "Any other modifications?" she queried.
"Well, we put a transformer coil between the weapon link and the motoslave power plant, which roughly triples the power output from there. Produces a lot of heat though, and I'm not sure it won't just burn out. We also put some kind of modular mount on the motoslave's left arm, but it doesn't have any power going to it. I haven't got the slightest idea what he plans to put there. He was really evasive about that; I couldn't get even a remotely straight answer about that modification." Mackie sighed. "I finally just gave up. You should know just how stubborn he can be by now." He grinned faintly at that remark, finished his coffee, then stood up. "I'm beat, so I'm going to crash for a few hours. Do you need any help with the store today?" he looked at her quizzically. She shook her head.
"Not today. You need the sleep more than anything else, and I can manage by myself." He nodded, then left.
Sylia sat staring into space, her coffee now completely cold, vainly trying to figure out what Bert was up to. She knew for sure that it had something to do with their current 'job': trying to locate the D.D. Battlemover. When she'd revealed the details of the case to the rest of the Sabers a while back, she'd wondered at the lack of immediate reaction from him; he'd almost acted like he'd known something was up. It was impossible that he could know anything about the D.D., though. She knew he didn't have any contacts that provided information on that sort of thing. He'd established a couple of 'pipelines', as he called them, with a couple of departments at the MegaTokyo University, but that was only for computer and electrical engineering information. She knew why he'd done that; his own computer and electrical knowledge was limited compared to his chemical and mechanical system knowledge. He was basically getting an unofficial education out of it.
She stood up, and began to get ready for a full day. She had to run the store, but there would be plenty of time afterwards to corner Bert and throttle an answer out of him, although a vague, undefinable suspicion was beginning to form in the back of her mind.
THREE DAYS LATER...
Bert peered cautiously around the concrete columns of the parking garage. No one in sight. He sprinted across the garage, covering the distance between himself and his truck in a few short seconds. He jumped in, slammed the door, and cranked the engine into life, spinning the red pickup out onto the streets. Damn that had been close! Sylia had suddenly been trying to corner him about his recent projects, and he'd been ducking her for almost three days straight. He suspected it was because she'd quizzed Mackie about their late-night engineering spree; she knew he was up to something.
He sighed. He didn't like having to pull a cloak-and-dagger evasion routine, but if she cornered him, he was going to have to tell her about what he knew. He wasn't going to be able to lie to her about it, which was a combination of his own reluctance to lie, and the fact that he couldn't keep a straight face while doing it. At least this way, he could postpone the inevitable confrontation, hopefully long enough to stop the D.D. first. He had one hell of a guilty conscience about it, but it was better than having to spill his guts to Sylia right now.
After an hour of driving, he pulled up to Priss' flat. She was outside, preparing to put her helmet on. Her red motorcycle stood nearby, obviously ready to roll. He parked the truck, and jumped out. She regarded him quizzically as he approached.
"Hi!" she said. "What's up?"
"Busy this afternoon?" he inquired. She rolled her eyes at the question; for the last month he'd been badgering her for motorcycle driving instructions. He'd learned enough to be competent at it, but not much else. Of course, her own ideas of motorcycle driving involved high speeds, which he preferred not to use. She'd wondered why the sudden interest, but hadn't asked. She shook her head.
"Sorry, but I already made plans today. Sylvie and I are going for a ride, then some lunch, and then I've got a practice with the band." She grinned suddenly. "Besides, you didn't bring your bike."
"I sure did! It's in the truck box under that tarp." That was weird; his truck shouldn't be able to handle that much weight. The full motoslave/motorcycle weighed several hundred pounds, and his truck didn't even look like it was carrying any weight. It was a small truck, too; the covered cycle completely filled the box. She looked at him, suddenly realizing something.
"That's not just a normal pickup truck, is it?" she said. He grinned.
"Well, I did upgrade the suspension and engine a bit," he said slyly.
"Just how much is 'a bit'?"
"Well, it can handle two-and-a-half tons without straining, and the engine is now a Mercedes-Benz fuel-injected, six litre, V-12 engine. Manual gearshift, eight gears, and also a few optional extras that the original manufacturer never included. Armour plating, for example." He was absolutely beaming at his truck. She stared at him, jaw dropping. She didn't know much about trucks, but those were some serious modifications. Very expensive modifications. She shook her head again.
"Just who do you think you are, that you need that kind of a vehicle?"
"Bond. James Bond," he replied with a grin in his best Sean Connery voice, then ducked as she swatted him.
"You're nuts," Priss told him, putting on her helmet. "I'll see you later." She turned and climbed onto her bike. She suddenly looked over at him as he was preparing to leave himself. "I almost forgot," she told him, "Sylia called. She's been tearing the place apart looking for you. You'd better check in before she sends someone after you." He nodded, waved, and stepped into his truck. Priss shrugged; she'd passed on the message. She started the bike and roared off.
Bert watched her go, thinking hard about what to do next. If she was going to a practice later, that made it tonight that Sylvie was going to try and get the data disk about her 'problem' from GENOM's Research Tower. That meant he had only a few hours to get prepared for his gambit. If it worked, there should be no problems at all in revealing what he knew to Sylia. If it failed, Sylia wasn't going to get the chance to give him shit for solo operations; he very likely wouldn't walk away from it. He was also going to have to enter Sylia's building one more time to get his suit and the gimmicks he'd prepared. With luck, he could get in and out without encountering anyone. He shifted the truck into gear, and drove off.
Bert edged cautiously down the hall to the hardsuit storage room. So far, so good; nobody seemed to have seen him enter the building. Now if he could just get to his suit, and then somehow get out again, he'd be all set. The door to the room hissed open, light from the hallway cutting across the floor through the darkness. He flipped on the lights, took a quick look around, and then sprinted to the bay holding the SkyKnight armour. He was so intent on getting into his own suit, he never noticed that one of the other suits started moving.
He quickly donned the armour, plating and suit systems snapping and hissing into place and sealing down. He jammed on his helmet, and did a quick status check; all systems were functioning perfectly. Grabbing his modular battery packs, he clamped them into the shoulder mounts of his suit, and turned around.
SkyKnight hit the floor decking on his shoulderblades, ears and helmet ringing sonorously from the flashing uppercut the white hardsuit standing over him had just delivered. He slowly got to his feet, staring at the armoured figure in front of him in consternation as his stomach suddenly seemed to shrivel and drop to below ground level. He'd been caught, after all. He tried to explain.
"Ohhhhhhh shit!" Nope, that wasn't what he'd wanted to say. His mind was refusing to function at the moment.
"You are going to get out of that suit now," Sylia told him from between what sounded like clenched teeth, "and get your ass upstairs, or so help me God I'm going to pry you out of there!" She sounded a shade on the angry side.
"I can explain, really..." he stammered.
The blade on the right arm of Sylia's suit snapped forward out of its housing, gleaming wickedly in the dim lighting.
"Right! Out of the suit! Yes! Whatever you say!" he said quickly, whipping off his helmet and starting the suit release mechanisms. The itchy feet of fear had started shuffling up his back at her response; He wasn't sure she'd really try to pry him out of the suit, but it sure looked like it right now, and he didn't want to find out for certain. Obviously he'd succeeded in pushing her too far this time. He quickly replaced his suit in its usual place, and turned around. She was still in her hardsuit. She jerked a thumb at the door.
"Get upstairs," she said flatly. "I'll be up in a minute." He left hurriedly.
Bert sat nervously on the couch in the living room, awaiting Sylia's arrival. His nervousness was exacerbated by the fact that Linna and Nene were already present, and seemed to know just what it was that he'd been trying to do. They were both sitting with their arms crossed, glaring at him. He just hoped he'd be able to explain his situation well enough to get out of the rather precarious position he'd found himself in.
He took a quick gulp of water from the glass on the table in front of him; his mouth felt as dry as the Sahara desert in midsummer. He knew why, though; Sylia did not look kindly on attempted solo operations, and what he'd been trying classed as the biggie of attempted solo actions. There were bound to be repercussions of some kind. The door swung open, and Sylia stalked in, still wearing her hardsuit undergarment. She absolutely radiated anger like heat waves, and her brown eyes seemed to be burning holes in him as she approached. He fidgeted nervously as she sat down in a chair facing him. Linna and Nene were still glaring at him from across the table.
"You are going to tell me exactly what it is you've been hiding for the last few weeks," she informed him grimly, " and why you were trying to sneak out in your suit, on your own, against my standing orders. And this had better be good." She fell silent, and waited, still fuming. His mind sped rapidly through his reply options. He settled on being blunt; time was at a premium right now, and he had to convince Sylia that he was trying to prevent a disaster. He took a deep breath, wound up what was left of his courage, and let fly.
"The D.D. battlemover is going to go automatic tonight. If I don't stop it shortly thereafter, it has an onboard micro-neutron bomb that can wipe out most of MegaTokyo that will detonate when it runs low on power." Sylia remained impassive, but Nene and Linna looked at him like he'd gone insane.
"How do you know that?! And just why do YOU have to stop it single-handedly?" Nene demanded angrily. "Your suit isn't indestructible you know! Aren't you over this hero kick yet?!"
"Because," he cut her off, "If I don't do it, then Priss will have to kill Sylvie in order to stop it, and I'm not going to sit here and let that happen." Shocked silence greeted his statement. Sylia looked at him, a puzzled frown replacing her anger.
"Just how do you know that there's a bomb on the D.D.?" she inquired. "All the technical information I've seen has no indication of a bomb anywhere."
"And just what does Priss' friend have to do with this?!" Linna added.
"This is where it gets hard to believe," Bert noted, and proceeded to explain how he knew what was supposed to happen, and why he'd been acting the way he had been lately. When he was finished, all three women looked uncomfortable. One of the reasons was definitely the fact that he knew about future events which hadn't happened yet. The rest of the Sabers had never been entirely comfortable with his 'advanced knowledge', coming as it did from a supposed parallel dimension where all this didn't exist, so he'd gone to extreme lengths to ignore it or forget it entirely. These particular events, however, could not be ignored; they were just too bloody important as far as he was concerned.
"I suppose that your story explains your actions," Sylia finally remarked, " but that doesn't excuse them. However, based on what you've said, the D.D. is the higher priority right now. We can deal with your 'activities' later." She fell silent again, thinking. Nene took the opportunity to give him a piece of her mind.
"For someone who keeps saying that you should trust your friends and confide in them," she told him, " you have a lousy track record for following your own advice." She was obviously hurt by the fact he hadn't confided in her, even partly. Some of his own internal torment over his actions washed across his face.
"I know, I know, and believe me, I am truly sorry I hurt anyone over this," he told them, almost pleading with them, "but every time I reasoned it out I kept coming up with the possibility that someone might accidentally spill the beans, especially to Priss or Sylvie. I figured that the best way to go about it was to keep quiet and get ready. Believe me, I don't like the fact that I had to lie to you about what I was up to, but at the time I felt it was the right thing to do." He lowered his face to his hands and rubbed his forehead; he was starting to get a headache over all the possibilities, and the resurgence of his own doubts and misgivings over his actions were not helping him any. "I just hope that you'll forgive me for the subterfuge," he told Nene quietly. "I didn't enjoy it at all, and the fact that I hurt you while doing it only makes me feel worse." He fell silent, eyes downcast, waiting. Sylia suddenly looked up sharply.
"You said you were going to try to hot-wire and bypass the J-1 computer, but just how are you going to get access to the D.D.'s internal mechanisms? It's not going to just stand still while you try to open it up!" She waited for a response. Bert reached into a pocket, pulling out and handing her what looked like a folded blueprint of some description.
"That's what this is for," he told her. She unfolded it, took one look at it, and threw it violently back at him. It fluttered limply to the floor before it reached him. If anything, she looked angrier than before. She was on her feet now, fists clenched at her sides, and her back ramrod straight, eyes blazing.
"NO!!! There's no way on this earth I'm going to let you try that!!! You're out of your goddamned mind!!! This is a state-of-the-art killing machine we have to fight, not some bloody mythical monster!! I absolutely forbid you to try it!!" He met her furious gaze with an unusually serious expression on his face, leaning over to pick up the blueprint. Nene and Linna sat watching from the couch, exchanging puzzled looks. Just what had he designed that could make Sylia lose control of herself like that? They knew she wasn't thrilled with his constant modifications, but they'd never seen this scale of reaction before.
"I know it looks crazy," he said calmly, folding the drawing up and stuffing it back into a pocket, "but it will work. You've got to trust me on...."
"Hah!" she almost shouted. "You bloody try to pull an underhanded solo crusade and you ask me to trust you now?!?! Especially on something this..this... this goddamned bloody crazy?!?!" She seemed to abruptly rein herself in, and became slightly calmer. "Just what makes you think this 'idea' of yours will work ?"
"It's all I can build that will work. Therefore, it has to work against the D.D."
"That's the dumbest, most asinine logic I've ever heard," she told him flatly. Nene and Linna nodded unconsciously in agreement.
"Sylia! For God's sake! I'm trying to prevent a tragedy here!" he pleaded. "I swear this isn't some glory-seeking heroic crusade! It's the only option I had left to try! And if we don't decide soon, we won't have even that option!" She sat down and sagged back into her chair wearily; if he was telling the truth about the D.D.'s bomb, and she believed he was, then he was right. Like it or not, they had to try to take down the D.D., using his gimmicks, if they wanted to keep Sylvie alive. Any other attack method would kill Sylvie, with the probable results he'd predicted.
"Unfortunately," she told him, " I can't see any way out of it right now, so we'll have to go with your plan. However, the rest of us will be there to pick up the pieces if it doesn't work. Damn it I wish you'd told me earlier about this!" She jerked her head towards the door. "Go on, get the hell out of my sight for now," she said, rubbing her temples. It felt like a migraine was coming on. "Get your stuff together and get in position. We'll meet you there." He stood, and started to turn away when her voice stopped him.
"This doesn't finish the matter of your attempted disobedience, though," she warned him grimly, "it just postpones it. Do you understand me?" He nodded.
"I understand perfectly," he replied, wincing. Bert turned and sprinted from the room, as Nene and Linna sat there looking confused.
"Just what IS this plan, Sylia?" Linna asked nervously. "I've never seen you this upset over one of his ideas before." Sylia placed a hand on her face, shaking her head as she did so.
"You don't want to know," she said almost despairingly. "Trust me, you really don't want to know."
Leon was slammed back against the canyon wall, coughing blood, his ribs flaring in agony from where his armour suit was crushed in. The cockpit canopy of his K-12 Armoured Trooper suit exploded as a massive metal, claw-like fist smashed again into it. He flinched, miraculously not getting cut by flying metal shards and glass. He'd figured it wouldn't be a problem taking out the suddenly revealed battlemover, but as he'd fought it, it had suddenly seemed to go into some kind of overdrive mode; its arms and legs had lengthened, making the whole thing almost twenty feet tall. Based on Daley's information, that meant that the J-1 battlecomputer had just taken over; Leon had only a few minutes left before the D.D. blew up, taking most of MegaTokyo with it. He gritted his teeth, and strained to get the suit to respond for one last effort. The D.D. drew back its fist again as he tried, and the cannon on its left shoulder began lining up on his head. Leon felt a horrible flash of fear and a sinking sense of failure; he wasn't going to make it. MegaTokyo was doomed to a fiery end.
The D.D. was abruptly hurled sideways by a brilliant blue energy blast that burned through the air. The renegade battlemover spun to regard the sudden challenger as Leon looked over in the direction where the shot had come from. A massive, midnight black armoured shape stepped out of the darkness. For a moment, Leon figured he'd suffered a concussion and was dreaming; the new arrival was approximately twelve feet tall, and resembled a massive robotic knight. It was carrying what looked like a twenty-foot pole in its right hand, and a large shield adorned its left arm. A familiar, electronically modulated voice spoke from the black battle machine, speaking to Leon.
"My apologies for not being able to get here sooner, Inspector. Stay down, and I'll handle this." Leon tried to warn SkyKnight about the bomb, but passed out in another coughing spasm that spread blood down the front of his wrecked suit.
SkyKnight circled the D.D. warily, scanning it. It was big, and mean looking; a massive red-gray humanoid robot sporting a large Gatling-gun-like cannon on its left shoulder, one missile pod per shoulder, and several other ports and gaps in the armour that seemed to house various weapons. To top off the offensive capabilities, the D.D. had some kind of sensor jamming field operating, making it impossible to scan the D.D.'s interior, at least with his sensors. The limited readings he was getting were giving him no joy, either; from some of the energy signatures present, the D.D. had a couple of weapons not covered in his copy of the technical specs. Great, just great. Further thought was cut off as the D.D. suddenly opened up with its rotary cannon.
SkyKnight whipped his shield up; it was basically a really thick piece of armour plating, covered with his polymer/polycarbide coating. The metal slugs clanged harmlessly off the metal, whining off into the darkness. He threw his motoroid backwards to give himself more room to maneuver, dodging a missile salvo. The landscape rocked as a plasma bolt from a shoulder projector caught him squarely in the torso, but no serious damage resulted. There was now approximately forty feet between himself and the battlemover. It would have to do. He brought his suit and motoroid systems to full power. An ominous hum pulsed through the air as he leveled and locked the lance into position.
He briefly wished he'd been able to succeed at building some kind of electromagnetic pulse gun. An EMP gun would have been perfect for this, but all his attempts to make a working model had failed miserably; every prototype had burned out in a spectacular pyrotechnical lightshow the minute any power was applied to it. He'd finally settled on an old-fashioned weapon, with a modern twist: The lance. In the middle ages, it had made the mounted knight a fearsome opponent because it concentrated the force of several hundred pounds of armour, charging horse, and rider into one sharp point, which penetrated all but the very heaviest of armour. Bert had modified the concept a little.
His lance was twenty feet long, basically a high-tensile steel alloy bar with a needle sharp point. Flying at full speed, he figured he could drive it into the D.D.'s armour, and then activate the lance's secondary attack system: a massive electrical surge from the motoslave's powerplant that would, theoretically at least, burn out or crash the D.D.'s systems. It was the next best thing to having an EMP generator, and all he could successfully build. It was also the only idea he'd been able to come up with. There was the risk that the electric charge could kill the pilot, or backfire and electrocute himself. He'd have to risk it though; being blown up in a thermonuclear explosion didn't appeal to him either. Time to get on with it.
The black, armoured shape was hurled forward by the brilliant flare of rocket thrusters towards the D.D., which responded with missiles and bullets. The missiles detonated on the shield, slowing but not stopping SkyKnight's forward momentum. Metal-jacketed slugs clanged off of the armour and the frame of his motoslave; one blasted out some of the hydraulic lines controlling the left leg. SkyKnight just barely kept his flight under control as he thundered towards the battle machine through the screaming gauntlet of offensive fire.
Four hardsuits, white, blue, green, and a dark blue-and-pink suit stationed on the edge of the canyon rim watched the duel unfolding below. Sylia stared down in a combination of consternation and disbelief at the scene spread out below her. She'd seen SkyKnight's plans and designs on paper, but witnessing his challenge to the D.D. firsthand slammed home just how ridiculous it looked, and how dangerous it actually was. Priss, Linna and Nene stared down in stunned amazement and disbelief; they couldn't believe that anyone would be stupid enough to attack a state-of-the-art battlemover with what looked like a flagpole. Rockets flared, and the massive black-and-silver figure charged towards the looming D.D.. A thunderstorm of missiles and bullets lanced towards the charging battlesuit, bathing it in fiery explosions. SkyKnight didn't try to dodge, but snapped up a huge shield to provide cover from the barrage.
"What the hell?!" Priss exclaimed. "What on earth is he doing?!" She hadn't been told why they had to hold back, or just why SkyKnight was trying to get himself blown up. "Why doesn't he just dodge?!? "
"He's going to kill himself!" Nene screamed, lunging forward. Linna grabbed her before she could try anything rash. They all watched as the hurtling figure plowed towards the D.D. through a hailstorm of missiles and bullets.
Bert gritted his teeth and prayed as the gap between the battlemover and himself narrowed rapidly. The shockwaves from the missile and bullet impacts on his shield, and the motoroid's armour, made him feel like he was being fed through a high-speed hammermill. The scream and crackle of explosions and ricochets was deafening. His armour was slowly and systematically being peeled off, and it wouldn't be long before the motoroid would start losing essential systems. He had to spear the D.D. before that could happen. The motoroid lurched sideways under a glancing missile strike, and he grimly jerked it back on course. It felt like it was taking eons to get closer to the D.D.. He was a mere ten feet from his lance point impacting with the D.D., when it happened.
A missile salvo shattered his shield into a riven tangle of smoking scrap; at exactly the same time, twin ports in the D.D.'s torso opened, and two blue-white beams sizzled through the air. His sensors identified them as a form of particle beam, similar to the ones used by the orbital space defense satellites, before the beams slammed into him. One nailed the motoroid squarely in the torso, destroying armour plating and circuitry, and the other blasted its 'head' into shards of flying metal. SkyKnight abruptly lost all forward thrust as the motoroid's powerplant died, and he did an inglorious-looking faceplant into the dirt at the D.D.'s feet. The D.D. stepped towards its downed adversary, raising a massive claw.
Sylia didn't have to order the charge; the minute SkyKnight was struck by the energy beams from the battlemover, everyone leapt forward, firing madly at the D.D. to distract it. The D.D. turned towards its new challengers, and again gunfire and explosions began to racket through the canyons.
God damn it! It can't end this way! I won't let it! Bert thought furiously to himself as he vainly wrenched at the lifeless motoroid pinning him to the ground. It was no good; the powerless motoroid was too damn heavy for his suit to lift by itself, and he couldn't get enough leverage to just get himself out of it, to boot. He could hear the rest of the Knight Sabers engaging the D.D., saving his bloody stupid ass from getting ground into the dirt. All his bloody clever planning, and he'd never considered the possibility that the D.D. might succeed in killing the motoroid's power supply. He had less than two minutes now until the micro-neutron bomb detonated, and slightly less than that before Sylvie was killed. Marvelous job of saving her he was doing, stuck under several hundred pounds of goddamned rusty malfunctioning useless jerkwater cheap shit superamalgamated scrap iron, unable to move a muscle. He could hear voices over the battlefield din.
"Priss! You've got to kill me! It's the only way to stop this thing! If you don't, I'll take Anri and you with me!" Sylvie pleaded.
"I.... I can't! I can't do it!!" Priss cried in denial. There was a loud metallic clang, and the sound of someone impacting with the canyon wall. Gunshots echoed and roared. Bert heard Linna scream, then heard the clattering bang of a hardsuit being smashed into the ground. He swore at himself again.
Oh yeah, the goddamn knight on a white charger. The invincible SkyKnight. Trust me, I know what I'm doing. God DAMN it he had to do something! He began pounding his helmeted head against the motoroid frame in helpless fury and frustration. On about the third clanging impact, his suit viewscreen suddenly became active; it flickered and status readouts appeared:
"Motoroid Interface Telemetry Link: ACTIVE Motoroid Motive Systems: NOMINAL, HEAVY DAMAGE SUSTAINED Motoroid Power Plant: ACTIVE, 85% POWER IN FIVE SECONDS"
He stared incredulously at the messages for a moment, then a faint hope began to awaken; he had an outside chance to still pull this off. Circuitry began to hum and crackle, and SkyKnight began ponderously heaving the mangled and shot-riddled motoroid up from the ground. His lance was still attached to the motoroid's right arm, thank God. As he surged erect, his sensors noted another motoroid signal from the canyon rim. His guts suddenly clenched in a freezing paroxysm of fear; he was too late! Throwing full power to his suit musculature, overriding the usual safety parameters, he spun the sluggish motoroid towards the D.D., harshly forcing it to respond to his demands as Priss launched her own motoroid into the air. The D.D. almost negligently blew her out of the air in an expanding cloud of flame with a missile spray.
"PRISS!!!" everyone else screamed, horrified. The unmistakable silhouette of Priss' hardsuit appeared from the flames and dense smoke.
"SYLVIE!!" she screamed as she dropped towards the D.D.. Her cannon arm came up and the covers on the railgun apertures opened.
"NO!!!" SkyKnight howled in denial of imminent disaster. "Goddamn it!! NOOOO!!!" He slammed the motoroid's flight system into full power, and kicked in his own suit's thrusters, again ignoring and overriding the normal safety protocols his suit computer tried to exert; suit thrusters were not normally fired while using the motoroid, since it could literally burn pieces out of the motoroid's structure. The battered ebony Knight Saber rocketed towards the D.D. like a shot from a rifle. Priss' railgun fired. SkyKnight crashed into the D.D.'s left side, a split second before Priss fired, his lance erupting out the other side of the battle machine and knocking it a couple of staggering steps sideways. The railgun spike speared his left shoulder instead of Sylvie's chest, bypassing the motoroid's remaining armour and ignoring his own armour plating completely. Trying to ignore the searing pain burning into him, Bert hit the release mechanisms on the motoroid, freeing his suit. Blasting towards the ground, and ducking between the D.D.'s legs, he gave the remote activation command to his motoroid's electrical generator. The air glowed as bright as daylight momentarily, and he dove to the ground, rolling to get away from the D.D.. An explosion washed over him from behind, echoing a woman's scream.
Sylia flinched, throwing an arm over her visor as the D.D. and the motoroid hanging on it were suddenly surrounded by a brilliant blue-white coronal glow. A scream came from the cockpit of the battlemover as it and the motoroid crackled like grounded electric arc welders. The motoroid abruptly blew up, spewing wreckage into the air, and the D.D. swung over backwards in a ponderous arc to crash into the ground. She lowered her arm cautiously; the D.D. was unmoving, a smoking, twisted mass of metal. She began running towards it.
"Nene!" she called into the comm channel as she ran, "What's the status of the bomb?" If it was still active....
"It's stopped! There's no electronic or computer activity from the D.D. at all!" Nene reported. She too was running towards the metal hulk. Linna was groggily getting up from where the D.D. had slammed her into the ground. Priss appeared out of the darkness next to the fallen battlemover, suit armour scorched, and her visor smashed. She began crawling over the mech's chest to the cockpit.
"Sylvie!!" she called desperately. No one answered. As she reached the cockpit area, she saw SkyKnight straighten up from the cockpit with Sylvie in his arms. She was limp and unmoving, and dried blood stained the right side of her bike suit, gluing it to her.
"Oh my god, no! Sylvie!!" Priss screamed as she clambered towards them. She was crying as she reached Bert; Sylvie looked as pale as a ghost.
"She's alive," SkyKnight told her quietly, then added bitterly, "no thanks to me. There was enough insulation in the cockpit to keep her from getting electrocuted." He handed Sylvie gently into Priss' arms, and then turned back to the D.D.'s metal carcass. Swordblades snapped out from his gauntlets, and he began to savagely disembowel the cockpit panels and control boards. Priss stared at him as she held Sylvie. What was his problem?
Sylia, Nene and Linna came around the side of the wreckage, all showing dents and armour gashes from the brief fight. They all watched as SkyKnight suddenly reefed on something, and staggered backwards holding what looked like a circuit board containing memory chips. He apparently suddenly noticed he had an audience, but didn't say anything. Sirens could be heard in the night air, approaching.
"What about the battle computer?" Sylia inquired.
"It burned out from the electrical charge. I didn't have to hot-wire anything; the jolt burned out all the circuits. Lucky me." SkyKnight turned suddenly and violently slammed an armoured fist into the hull of the fallen battlemover. "Oh yeah, I'm a real genius I am! Never even considered the fact that I might just screw up." He leaned against the wreckage, bowing his head. "Me and my friggin' brilliant ideas. Not only do I almost get killed, but I almost take my friends and the entire bloody city with me." There was an overtone of self-condemnation in his voice none of them had ever heard before. He furiously belted the crumpled wreckage twice more, swearing unintelligibly as Sylia stepped towards him, placing a gauntleted hand on his left shoulder to turn him around. He suddenly screamed in agony, folding to his knees as she jerked back, startled. She abruptly realized that the left shoulder of his armour, and now her hand, was covered in blood.
"Oh God! He's been shot!" Nene cried as she rushed forward to keep him from falling completely over. They could all now see the tail end of a railgun spike sticking out of the armour plating between his neck and his shoulder, right next to the shoulder weapon mounting. He pitched over on his face, out of their hands, and lay unmoving.
"Mackie! Get the KnightWing over here now!" Sylia ordered into her helmet communicator. "We need an emergency airlift!" She looked worriedly from Bert to Sylvie; both were going to need medical attention, and they still had to decide what they were going to do with Sylvie, if or when she recovered. She looked up as the dark shape of the KnightWing roared into the canyon to land a scant twenty feet away, kicking up clouds of dust. Priss ran towards the plane, cradling Sylvie in her arms as Sylia, Linna and Nene began levering the unconscious SkyKnight towards the entry gangplank. He suddenly surged upright again, struggling.
"No!" he gasped, trying to shrug them off. "One more...thing...to do!" Two metal cylinders, approximately eight inches long by one inch in diameter, popped out of concealed slots in the gauntlet arm-guards of his armour. He pushed a switch on them, then awkwardly lobbed them into the open cockpit of the D.D.. There was a flash, a hissing noise, and then a bilious, evil-looking green cloud began to drift upwards from the fallen hulk. A few flames could be seen licking hungrily at the interior of the cockpit. He turned towards the KnightWing, made a couple of steps, and then sagged forward again. The three women caught him before he could hit the ground, and dragged him into the waiting plane. The KnightWing shot into the night sky with a howl of jets, leaving the now burning D.D. to send greenish smoke signals into the sky.
FOUR DAYS LATER....
Lights bathed the machine shop in a pale fluorescent glare as Bert walked across the vast room to his 'recreational working area' as he called it. His left arm was in a sling, and his face was still drawn-looking, pre-occupied with some residual pain, but mostly with the war his mind was having with itself. His greenish-brown eyes swept the disarray, not really seeing what he was looking at. A long , mechanical-looking gadget sat on the workbench; it was a peculiar looking device, seeming to consist of a long, rectangular-ended tube connected to a squat, cylindrical magazine. Blueprints sat on the counter-top next to it. He suddenly grabbed the plans and pitched them across the room in a crumpled wad, teeth clenched. The drawings flopped forlornly to the floor as Sylia opened the door and walked in. She paused, looking from the still shifting papers to Bert, who hadn't noticed her entry. She scooped them up as she walked over to him.
"I think you'll need these," she said, extending the papers towards him as he spun around. He pulled his face straight as he realized who it was; his expression had not been pleasant a moment before. He'd looked like someone bordering between fury and despair. He reached out slowly and took the drawings, not replying. He abruptly stuffed them in a drawer.
Sylia considered him carefully; he'd always, ever since she'd first met him, had some sort of emotional shield up between himself and other people, but now it was like he'd erected huge battlements with a moat around them. He was obviously upset about something, but wasn't talking to anyone. Of course, nobody had tried lately, she supposed. Nene was still furious with him for his earlier escapades regarding the battlemover, and wouldn't talk to him right now for any reason. Sylia was privately hoping they could patch that over; she knew both Bert and Nene had some pretty deep feelings for each other. Linna was busy at her job, and Priss was still with Sylvie, who was recuperating from the dust-up in the canyons. Sylia was now more than a little concerned about him, since he'd never just completely quit talking to anyone about anything before; he hadn't spoken to a single person in the days since the brawl with the D.D.. Her train of thought was derailed by a flat, emotionless question.
"So what's the verdict?" She blinked, not knowing what he meant.
"The verdict on what?" she asked, a frown appearing.
"The verdict on my attempt at going rogue a while back. Isn't that why you came down?" His voice held all the emotion of a government tax collector. Sylia's eyes narrowed in sudden anger. She'd come down to see if she could talk to him, but if he wanted to be miserable about it, well then, she could too.
"First, I don't have to explain myself to you. I'M the one who's in charge, not you! Second, it won't kill you to try to be civil. Third, get your butt upstairs! This has gone on long enough!" She turned and stalked out of the shop, slamming the door. He waited a moment, and then followed reluctantly.
By the time she'd walked upstairs to her living room, Sylia had regained control of her temper. She poured a couple of mugs of tea, took one for herself, and sat back to wait. A couple of minutes later, Bert arrived. He sat carefully down on the couch; his over-riding of the suit safeguards had resulted in multiple muscle strains and aches, and they were still bugging him. He picked up the his mug and sipped at it. He still hadn't said anything, and he refused to meet her eyes. Sylia decided to try something to get him to loosen up.
"So how are you today?" she asked. She knew it sounded lame, but couldn't think of anything else to try.
"Oh just peachy," he responded sarcastically. "I've managed to get my friends mad at me, I almost killed someone I was trying to save, I almost got killed myself, and I just about caused the obliteration of several million people to boot. Other than that I'm fine." He fell silent, staring bitterly into his mug. Sylia wasn't quite sure how to respond. It was obvious now that he was blaming himself heavily for a lot of things.
"Well," she said, "I think..." He suddenly spoke again, almost like he hadn't heard her.
"You can't trust my judgment anymore," he told her abruptly. "You were partly right about why I wanted to stop the D.D., although I kept telling myself I wasn't doing it to be heroic. There was the faint idea of it in the back of my mind, but I kept convincing myself that I was just doing the right thing, that I just wanted to spare Priss having to go through hell over killing her friend. So I ended up lying to and deceiving people I care about, and put together some hare-brained scheme to take out the battlemover that any sane tactician would reject. To top that off, I completely ignored the possibility that I might not be able reach the D.D. before getting shot down, which is exactly what happened. That meant you had to risk your lives to save my lousy carcass, almost killing Sylvie to stop the bomb anyway. Then, my crowning achievement, I almost kill Sylvie myself with my brilliant invention. Oh yeah, I'm a real hero. A real STUPID hero." He stopped, and slugged back the rest of his drink in one gulp, setting the mug on the table. "So like I said: you can't trust my judgment anymore. I'll just get people hurt or killed." Bert slumped back on the couch, looking tired and haggard. Sylia looked at him.
"Is that it?" she asked coolly. "Or did you have any other earth-shattering revelations to tell me?" He looked at her incredulously, shocked, finally meeting her gaze.
"'Is that it?'!! That's all you've got to say?!"
"This sounds vaguely similar to what you said the night of the fight," she told him. "I'm glad you're being honest with yourself about your actions, but I think that you're being too hard on yourself by seeing absolutely everything that happened that night as a direct result of your actions. We all make mistakes; it's part of being human. There's nothing wrong with making them, just as long as you've learned from them." She paused, taking a sip of tea, then continued. "Besides, if I was really concerned about your judgment, I'd have barricaded the tech shop to keep you out. I'm not concerned, and I don't think I'll have to be. You're one of the most straightforward and practical people I've met, despite your idealistic views on certain subjects. I admit," she added as an afterthought," that I'm not happy with your refusal to talk to anyone about the fact that you knew what was supposed to happen beforehand; you're too damn stubborn for your own good, sometimes. I didn't think much of your 'electric lance' idea, either. I still don't; it's not really all that practical. However, it worked, in the end, and that's what you should keep in mind. You shouldn't sit there beating your head on the wall because you couldn't predict every possibility." He looked uncomfortable.
"But I can't afford to..." he started to say, but she cut him off in rising exasperation.
"Would you please drop the self-castigation?! Look," she told him firmly, "whether you like it or not, we need you, and all your 'heroic ideals' and crazy gadgets, even if they do want to make me pull out my hair from time to time. I'm not going to sit here and just let you toss in your hand and walk away because you're afraid of making mistakes. A real knight, as you seem to consider yourself, wouldn't just quit, anyway. He'd keep going, not sit there feeling sorry for himself! You, of all people, should know that!" He reddened, but didn't reply. She considered it a good sign that he wasn't trying to argue, since it meant he was at least listening again.
"So now what?" he asked, after a few moments of silence. She looked at him thoughtfully, considering.
"Since you brought it up," she told him, "I guess we should discuss what to do about your attempted solo run." He nodded, then sighed in resignation.
"All right. Lay it on me."
"Well, I already think you've gone through the mental anguish needed to prevent you from trying again, based on what you said earlier, but I'd like to add a couple of other deterrents." He turned slightly apprehensive, but didn't reply. "The first thing I've decided is that rebuilding your motoroid is coming out of your paycheck." He cringed as if he'd been suddenly slapped; that was going to be expensive.
"I didn't destroy it on purpose!" he protested. A faint smile appeared on Sylia's face.
"Maybe not, but I'll bet you weren't mourning the fact that it blew up, were you? I know you've never liked using it." He looked suddenly guilty, and ducked his head.
"No, I wasn't really upset about it," he admitted. He suddenly half-smiled himself. "It was about the only thing I didn't mind about that night." Sylia shook her head, still smiling slightly. She turned serious again.
"The last deterrent is a little more obscure," she informed him, "but considering your own code of ethics that you seem to have, I don't think it will be a problem."
"And the last one is what?" he inquired warily. She met his gaze squarely, totally serious.
"I want you to swear to me, on your honour as a Knight Saber, that you won't try anything like that again, and that you will tell me the next time one of these 'situations' where you think intervention is required, crops up. If one should, then I'm going to decide what's to be done. No more solo actions, heroic or not." She stopped and waited. She was pretty sure she had him right where she wanted him; he had his own sense of personal honour, and he hated having to break his word on something. It was probably a side effect of all the books he read, but she wasn't complaining right now. It was a convenient method of keeping him from flying off the handle again.
Bert sat on the couch, not replying, an uncomfortable expression on his face. Her conditions weren't unreasonable, and he really didn't have any problem with swearing on his honour, but he knew that there would probably still be the odd time where he'd feel that it was his responsibility to intervene, and would have to argue it out with her, and arguing with Sylia didn't rank high on his list of favourite activities. Oh well, he decided ruefully, nobody ever said life was easy. As he considered exactly how to respond to her request, his twisted sense of humour abruptly re-asserted itself. Smothering a grin and getting off the couch, he went down on one knee before her, bowing his head respectfully.
"I do solemnly swear, M'Lady," he intoned formally," on my honour as a Knight Saber, that I will refrain from solo operations of any description, and inform you of any conflicts of interest that should arise." He stood up and bowed in a courtly manner. "How's that?" he asked, a wide grin finally cracking across his face as he straightened up. Sylia laughed, looking at him with a smile.
"Don't ever change, no matter what I may say," she told him almost fondly. "Things just wouldn't be the same without you around." He grinned in reply and bowed again.
"Well, if that's all there is, I guess I should be getting back to work," he said, looking at her quizzically. "Anything else?" She nodded, however, so he flopped back onto the couch. "Okay, shoot."
"Don't tempt me!" she warned him with a grin, then turned sober. "I assume your 'work' as you call it is that memory module you salvaged from the D.D.?" He nodded, then grinned crookedly.
"It's the only thing I can do one-handed right now. Anyhow, I'm trying to get some of the technical specs on its systems downloaded from the memory chips. Unfortunately it's not going too well, mostly because when I fried the computer circuitry, some of the electricity burned out portions of the chips. I'm getting partial detail on some parts - enough to be useful for research perhaps - mangled garbage on others, but in at least two cases I was able to get complete technical data. One system will be very useful, the other I'm not sure about." he fell silent, contemplating his project.
"What were the intact parts you retrieved?" Sylia queried.
"The big one is the tech specs on the actuation system the D.D. used. It's similar to the hardsuits in terms of using myomers and micro-hydraulic stuff, but its roughly three to four times more efficient and powerful. If I can scale it down to a hardsuit frame, it'll mean that we'd be able to lift, oh I don't know for sure, let's say three to four tons. It will definitely put us on a strength par with the boomers, probably higher." He grinned savagely. "The idea of being able to tie knots in C-55s appeals to me for some reason." Sylia smiled slightly, and gestured for him to keep explaining, which he obligingly did. "The other data I've downloaded is a little more esoteric. It appears to be part of the computer's automatic combat algorithms." He suddenly looked uneasy about that. "I'm not enough of a computer programmer to tell you much else, though. Nene probably could do more. Anyhow, some of it might be useful when programming the hardsuit onboard computers, for things like targeting and such. One part of the program that I did understand, I ditched immediately; the part relating to just when the computer takes over from the pilot. That, we definitely don't want." He fell silent and waited for a reply.
"It sounds decent," she approved. "Give the program data to Nene and she can look it over." His face was suddenly flooded with pain.
"I think you'd better give it to her," he said awkwardly, not meeting her gaze. "She won't have anything to do with me right now, especially about this."
"Have you tried talking to her?" Sylia asked. He nodded miserably, shoulders slumping.
"I've tried phoning and everything else I could think of. I even tried cornering her outside the ADP building after work, but I almost got arrested for trespassing. She won't talk to me at all." He was just barely managing to keep from plummeting into total despair over the situation. Sylia frowned thoughtfully. She'd have to have a chat with Nene; she could understand why Nene felt hurt by his actions, but being vindictive wasn't going to solve anything, and they really couldn't afford personal squabbles, given the work the Knight Sabers were involved in.
"I'm sure it will work out," she assured him. He didn't reply, just sat with a despondent look shadowing his features. She decided to change the subject.
"I meant to ask you about something earlier, but never got the chance. What were those tubes you threw into the D.D. before we left?" He looked over at her, his depression receding slightly with something else to concentrate on.
"Those were a corrosive type of bomb I developed; they'll dissolve holes in almost anything, and start fires in some materials. I wasn't about to leave anything for the creeps at GENOM research to salvage; the bastards've done enough damage already. I'd guess that whoever tried to salvage the D.D. after we left probably said some very unpleasant things about me." He grinned nastily at the thought. "If they're lucky, they were left with the armour plate; anything else would get turned into slag."
"Didn't you tell Priss that those things were unstable?"
"They're unstable if you try to fire them as a projectile, but the casings I developed for the grenade version are extremely strong and durable, and concealing them in my arm guards provides even better protection for them. I'd like to state for the record, though, that I don't normally carry them. I'm not that sanguine about carrying dangerous chemicals around on me that I want to risk losing portions of my anatomy. My other gadgets are a lot less potentially lethal to the user." She nodded in agreement.
"Okay, we'll forget about them then. Just make sure if you feel you need them again to clear it with me."
"Not a problem," he replied with a grin and a salute. "That it for now?" She nodded. "I'll get back to work then. Oh," he added awkwardly, "thanks for the talk."
"No charge," she replied. He chuckled and left. Sylia got up and went over to the communications terminal at the far end of the room.
Bert was just pouring a large mug of hot chocolate for himself, when a knock sounded at the door. "It's open," he called towards the door, pulling a second mug from a cupboard for whoever the guest turned out to be. He'd certainly made enough chocolate; he was still depressed over Nene's refusal to talk with him, and he figured he'd need at least a gallon to cheer up. The door swung open, and Nene stepped tentatively through the door, looking uneasy. He clamped down on his suddenly lurching heart; he desperately hoped they were going to be able to reconcile. He'd finally, fully realized just how much he did care for her, and he didn't think he'd be able to stand losing her.
"Umm, hi," she said, obviously as uncomfortable as he felt.
"Hi," he replied. "Would you like some hot chocolate? I just made it." She nodded, a brief, uncertain smile flickering across her face, then vanishing. She sat down in one of the chairs scattered around the coffee table as he filled her mug and garnished it with a couple of white marshmallows. Picking up their mugs, he carried them over to the table, placing hers in front of her. He dropped into his recliner as she quietly thanked him. She sat, watching the hapless marshmallows dissolve as the silence in the room became uncomfortable, the kind of awkward silence that develops when people don't know what to say without possibly hurting each other. He took a quick gulp of chocolate to ease the sudden dryness of his mouth. He decided to take the first step; he had started the ball rolling, setting the stage for this argument, after all.
"I'm sorry....." they both said at the same time, then stopped in confusion, looking at each other. A faint smile appeared on her face, echoed by his own smile. She took a quick gulp of her drink to hide her discomfiture, and he grabbed the opportunity to speak, smile fading slightly.
"I owe you an apology," he told her quietly. "Several in fact. I guess I should start by saying I'm sorry I shut you out and didn't tell you why I was suddenly driving myself into the ground." He took a quick swig of his drink again. "I realize relationships are supposed to be based on trust, and I was too mule-headed to trust you. I'm...I..." he suddenly gestured helplessly, putting his head in his hand. "I realize I sound like a bad novel, but I am truly sorry that I hurt you, and I hope you can forgive me." He knocked back the rest of his chocolate, trying to ease the pressure he could feel building in his throat. Words were inadequate, sometimes, when you wanted to express your feelings, but he had to try. Nene had sat and quietly drank her hot chocolate, not indicating anything. She suddenly looked at him, her green eyes suddenly wet with tears.
"I didn't want to forgive you, at first," she said in a trembling voice, somewhere between anger and hurt. "You hurt me, a lot; first by not confiding in me about what was bothering you, and then by going on your merry way, not considering that I might, that the rest of us might, have some kind of feelings on the matter. Priss is our friend, too, but you acted like no one else cared. You were also still persisting in this heroic bullshit you subscribe to, and you almost got yourself killed because of it." She paused, looking over at him. "I'm sorry I was being vindictive, but at the time I was so mad I wanted to hurt you the way you hurt me." His face was twisted with a combination of sorrow, and guilt over having hurt her feelings in the first place. His feelings were evident in his eyes as he looked at her.
"You're right," he admitted. "I should have said something, but even after all this time, after all the time we spent together, I still couldn't let go of my defenses long enough to confide in someone. I know why now; I've thought about it long enough to know that for certain." It was incredibly difficult speaking, but he had to get it out now; he might not get another chance. "I was afraid of letting someone get too close to me, of getting too intimate with someone. Because of that, I acted like a moron, and I'm sorry." He grabbed the now empty mugs and whisked them over to the sink, rinsing them out. He came back and sat down, looking into her emerald green eyes.
"I'm not afraid of that anymore," he told her quietly. "The only thing I'm afraid of now is losing you because..." He took a deep breath, trying to keep a tight grip on his emotions so he could speak; his eyes were beginning to feel suspiciously moist. "Because I'm in love with you, and I think I have been since the first day we met, even if it wasn't under the best of circumstances." She smiled a little at that; meeting someone in a police station while he was under arrest wasn't exactly the most romantic way she'd ever heard of, but it had the virtue of being fairly original. "I don't think I'd be able to go on if anything happened to you," he continued thickly, "and I wanted you to know that I'd willingly do anything for you."
"That's the first time you've ever actually said that," she said, eyes brimming again.
"Said that you loved me." A quick smile flickered over his face.
"Gee, did I forget that?" he quipped, then became serious again. "It's true," he assured her. "I do love you, more than anything else, but I was too thick-headed to admit it, even to myself." He smiled ruefully. "I suppose I should have realized it sooner though; I can't think of anyone else I'd dive in front of missile salvos for." He suddenly realized that didn't sound quite right, and started floundering. "I mean, I'd do it for the rest of the team, of course, but I...." He cut off as Nene suddenly came over and sat in his lap, putting her arms around him. His own arms automatically went around her waist.
"Just shut up; I know exactly what you mean," she said, leaning over and kissing him.
ONE WEEK LATER....
The KnightWing sliced through the inky blackness above MegaTokyo, alone in the skies. The boomers were restless tonight, and the Knight Sabers had been kept busy hopping from hot spot to hot spot. They were on their way to the next one, but there was some disagreement as to how to proceed when they got there.
"You got the last two, so it's my turn now!" SkyKnight snarled at Priss. He had his helmet on, and his modulated voice sounded more ominous than a normal human one, which was why he was wearing it; he figured it was more impressive. Priss wasn't the least bit impressed, and she snarled right back at him.
"Quit being such a hog about it! You've killed more than your fair share! What happened to all that chivalry and stuff, like 'ladies first'?" He snorted.
"If you acted like you were a lady, perhaps I might ....yipe!!!!!" he ducked as Priss took a roundhouse swing at him. She looked about ready to leap on him when Sylia's voice cut through the argument.
If you don't mind, children," she said acidly, "would you mind shelving the bickering? It really is pointless, and you're starting to annoy me," she warned. Nene and Linna were shaking their heads in disbelief; Priss and SkyKnight had been arguing over who was going to drop down to the next boomer incident for ten minutes now. There was only one C-55 boomer, but the way they'd been arguing made it seem like the boomer was carrying money, or something equally valuable. It wasn't, of course; SkyKnight got his thrills from flying around in his suit, and used whatever opportunity presented itself to indulge himself. Priss enjoyed pounding on the boomers instead, and also used any opportunities to do so. SkyKnight did enjoy a good fight, too, but he wasn't as driven as Priss was sometimes on the topic. Sylia, exasperated beyond measure, decided to put an end to it.
"SkyKnight is the one going down for this one," she announced. "There's a lot of ADPolice at this scene, and they're less likely to shoot at him." That was nothing less than the truth; because of his helping the cops from time to time, Nene had told him, most of the ADPolice front line troops regarded him as an unofficial police officer. The top brass denied any such feelings, but many of them were privately for him. Priss immediately looked disgusted at Sylia's verdict, and flopped back into her seat.
"We're over the fight area, Sis," Mackie's voice came from up front.
"Okay. Thanks Mackie," Sylia called back. SkyKnight stood and walked back to the airlock entrance.
"Be careful," Nene and Sylia both warned at the same time. Nene blushed as Sylia looked over at her, smiling slightly. SkyKnight chuckled.
"Like I always say: trust me, I know what I'm doing." The door sealed behind him, and a faint roar came from the rear of the plane as the outer door released the black-and-silver hardsuit into the night.
"You can't be serious!!" Leon shouted into the car phone over the screams from explosions, and laser and plasma fire. "It's impossible! He's right here now! They couldn't have done it!!" He winced, pulling the receiver away from his ear as the chief snarled over the line at him. Leon listened, his jaw dropping. "You really can't be serious about that! I can't do that!" More snarling crackled from the line. Leon's shoulders sagged. "Yes sir, I'll try sir. I'm telling you now, though, that it won't work." He hung up, and reluctantly issued the orders to his men. They got into position equally reluctantly, loading rifles and portable rocket launchers. Leon looked over at Daley, who was hiding from flying debris behind the car door.
"Are the K-12s in position?" he asked. Daley nodded.
"Yeah, but they're not happy with this," he noted.
"Tell me about it," Leon grunted. A massive blast shockwave cracked the windows facing the street, sending pieces of what looked to have been a C-55 boomer bouncing all over. They looked over the car as SkyKnight stepped out of the swirling smoke in the street, and began walking towards their car. When he got close enough, Leon called out an order.
"Halt! You're under arrest! Don't try anything funny!" The approaching suit stopped stock still.
"What the hell is this?!" it demanded.
"You're under arrest for breaking and entering, theft, and murder," Leon informed him. SkyKnight was silent for a moment in stunned surprise.
"Murder?! You're crazy! I haven't killed anyone, unless you count boomers!"
"A GENOM warehouse was just robbed and destroyed," Leon stated. "The guards were killed, and not all of them were boomers. Surviving witnesses say the Knight Sabers did it, and we've got pictures of all of you shooting people. We've been ordered to arrest all of the Knight Sabers." Leon personally didn't want to believe it, but, according to the chief, the pictures looked unmistakable. "Now come out of that hardsuit quietly." He gave another signal, and four K-12 Armoured Trooper suits appeared from the fringes of the battlefield, surrounding SkyKnight.
"I really don't believe this," he said, looking around at the K-12s. "We didn't do it! We're not thieves, and we're certainly not murderers! Whatever happened to 'innocent until proven guilty'?" he asked. The K-12s started advancing.
"I don't make the laws," Leon replied. "I just enforce them." He, and most of his men, however, hated having to do this. The Knight Sabers were a godsend at times, and nobody really thought they were killers. Unfortunately, orders were orders.
"Well have fun trying, then," SkyKnight retorted, " because I'm not about to just fold up and go with you." The flight wings on his suit snapped out, and his thrusters hurled him upwards as the K-12s lunged forward at him. One managed to snag a leg on the fleeing hardsuit, and swung him downwards. His jets and his momentum carried him headfirst into a nearby wall with a resounding, clanging crash.
SkyKnight rolled over and away from the wall quickly, head ringing, and dodged sideways as another K-12 tried for a hold on him, swearing to himself. Boomers he could shoot with a clear conscience, but not these guys. They were just following orders. He needed to get clear of them so he could launch. He began scanning the K-12 structure as he ducked and weaved around the police suits; they were alternately trying to knock him down or grab him. Finally, his computer located what he was looking for.
Leon watched disbelievingly as SkyKnight suddenly intercepted a K-12's fist and yanked on its arm; the K-12 flipped over him and crashed into the ground. The pilot started trying to get up and back into the fight. A blade flashed through the air, and a second K-12 quit moving as it spilled its hydraulic fluids onto the pavement, freezing into an action pose like a metal statue. The remaining two trooper suits tried to sandwich SkyKnight between them; he dropped flat, and, just like something from a comedic movie scene, the K-12s succeeding in belting each other, causing dents and other minor damage, and knocking each other backwards. Leon groaned, covering his eyes with a hand. SkyKnight scrambled up from the ground and sprinted down the street, away from the police lines. As he ran, bullets began to whine off the surrounding pavement. His wings deployed again, and he shot into the darkness above in a burst of thrusters. Leon looked at Daley.
"Send the choppers after him," he ordered. Daley shrugged and complied.
"SkyKnight to Saber Prime! Come in Saber Prime! Hello? Answer me, damn it! This is urgent!" Bert snapped into his helmet communicator as he sped over the rooftops, pursued by several ADPolice helicopters of various kinds. He could normally outrun them with ease, but he was leading them away from the KnightWing's area. Sylia's voice crackled back.
"Watch your language, will you? What's so important?"
"Get the KnightWing out of there now; I'll rendezvous with you later. Right now I'm being chased by about twenty ADP helicopters."
"WHAT?!?!" she shouted back. "What the hell did you do?!?!?"
"I didn't DO anything!" he snarled back. "We've been set up, and I can't explain right now." He spun into a spiraling barrel roll as the chopper behind him tried to shoot him down. Dodging between two closely spaced solar arrays on a rooftop, he gained a few metres on them. "I'll tell you what happened later, but right now I'm leading them away from you; we don't want a firefight with ADPolice."
"Roger that," Sylia replied. She didn't sound thrilled. " We'll meet you somewhere over the Canyons. Saber Prime, out." The line went dead.
SkyKnight toyed with the chopper pilots for another ten minutes, dodging and weaving his way through the buildings, making sure to stick to relatively unpopulated areas so that stray bullets wouldn't hit anyone. Finally, he got sick of the game, and decided it was time to go.
Approximately twenty five helicopter pilots watched in slack-jawed incredulity as the armoured figure they had been chasing suddenly turned, flipped them a salute, and vanished into the night sky on a twenty foot pillar of thruster flames. He was out of sight, and radar, within seconds.
Sylia swiveled her seat around to face the airlock as SkyKnight barged into the cabin, angrily ripping off his helmet. He looked anything but amused, and was swearing sulphurously under his breath.
"We've been set up!" he announced, flinging his helmet at the wall.
"What the hell did you do to piss off the cops?" Priss asked. They'd heard police reports on the chase.
"I didn't do anything damnit! They've got warrants to arrest all the Knight Sabers on anything ranging from theft to murder!"
"WHAT?!" everyone demanded. He threw himself into his seat, teeth clenched.
"I was told that witnesses placed us at the scene of a raid on some GENOM facility; several guards got killed, and because they've got pictures of us doing it, we're on the 'most wanted' lists right now." He swore again fulminantly, almost peeling paint off the walls this time, and startling Nene and Linna. Sylia looked at him sternly.
"Calm down," she ordered. "We won't get anything except deafness out of you sitting there inventing swear words."
"CALM DOWN?!?" he barked. "We're getting our names dragged through the mud, being accused of being bloodthirsty killers, and you want me to calm down?! I want the bastard's heads!!" Sylia sighed resignedly as the rest of the girls expressed varying degrees of agreement with Bert's opinion.
She knew he was going to be fuming for a while now; he viewed any slurs on his integrity as a personal insult, ones to be responded to with force, if necessary. He'd have been perfectly at home in the middle ages, she observed to herself sardonically; he was more than willing to fight for his honour, just like a knight. It was however, a pain in the ass having to hold him down because of it. He'd improved since she'd forced him to swear not to go solo, but this was something he was viewing as a personal challenge to a war. She was going to have to keep an eye on the machine shop; he was irrational enough right now that he'd probably build a broadsword and shield for his suit and go looking for the impostors.
"I said relax!!" she snapped back. "I'm not taking this lying down, either, but we need to know exactly what is going on first!! Don't you dare go off half-cocked again!" He reluctantly sat back, releasing some of his tension.
"Sorry," he apologized grudgingly. "I just don't like being accused of something I didn't do." Sylia nodded, then looked over at Nene.
"Tomorrow I want you to dig up all the details on these accusations you can, Nene," she told her. "We need to know what this is all about." Nene nodded, her face mirroring Bert's in terms of outrage at the accusations. It almost looked like some of his chivalric ideas were rubbing off in the wrong direction. Sylia sighed to herself. Bert spoke up again.
"Oh by the way, ADPolice can bill me for two K-12s if they want to try; if we get this cleared up I'm certainly willing to cover it. It's not the cops' fault that they had to try to arrest me." Everyone looked at him, especially Nene. She was a Knight Saber, but at the same time took a great deal of pride in ADPolice.
"Just what did you do to them?" she asked. He shrugged.
"I banged the one into the roadway, and the other needs a new hydraulic system. Whoever designed the bloody things put the main hydraulic fluid reservoir too close to the suit armour in the lower torso; one slice, and they seize up without harming the pilot. Of course, then all you need is a giant can opener to get him out." Nene giggled in spite of herself while the others grinned.
"We'll think about it," Sylia told him, "but I wouldn't be too concerned. They go through enough K-12s that they have plenty of spare parts on hand." That much was true; the K-12 was a decent enough mechanized armour suit, but it was severely outclassed by most of the heavier boomers now, and usually got wrecked. There was bound to be a pile of salvaged parts somewhere.
"Mackie, get us back to the building," Sylia called to the front cabin. "We've got work to do."
"Sure thing Sis!" he called back. The plane banked sharply, swerving around, and shot swiftly into the night.
THE NEXT DAY...
"They certainly look like us," Priss commented. Everyone was in Sylia's living room watching the film footage of the events they were accused of. Nene had acquired a copy from the evidence room of the ADP building, and smuggled it back to the Saber's headquarters. Bert was watching the movies with only half his attention; the other half was on a computer terminal he was fiddling with. However, he was obviously ticked off about the impostors; ominous muttering drifted from his general direction every so often.
"This is outrageous!" Nene declared. "This makes us look INCREDIBLY evil!!" On the screen, the fake SkyKnight was gutting a hapless guard in a sadistic-looking fashion. The subdued swearing from Bert's direction turned vile. Linna shook her head.
"As far as the public is concerned, we ARE incredibly evil," she remarked glumly. Sylia sighed, and nodded.
"Unfortunately, it only takes a small amount of something like this to change public opinion," she observed. "I've already heard rumours that they want to set up a special strike force to try and track us down." Gloomy silence pervaded the room.
"HAH! Got you, you filthy bastards!" Bert exclaimed suddenly. Everyone looked at him, and he flushed bright red. "Sorry," he apologized, "but I think I've got proof that they're not hardsuits."
"Let's see it," Sylia ordered. He nodded, and flipped a switch. The movies on the display screen at the far end of the room were abruptly replaced with a split-screen view of Priss' hardsuit and her impostor.
"For one thing," he noted, zooming in on the pictures, "the colour schemes between the two suits are different; not enough for the general public to notice, but enough to be noticeable if you look closely. If you look at the gun arm on the phony, you'll notice there's no railgun barrels, and the fingers appear to be an actual hand of some kind, not mechanical fingers. I'd say that it's some kind of boomer covered with a 'shell' to look like Priss." He knew for a fact that they were indeed boomers, really hyped-up boomers, but he'd promised Sylia that he'd forget about his foreknowledge of the future and just let things proceed normally. There were going to be a couple of places in the near future where he'd have to argue about that with her, but it could wait, for now. He switched to the split picture of himself and his impostor. He suppressed the curses that sprang to mind whenever he thought about that particular enemy; his doppleganger was making him look like a bloodthirsty psychopath. He was looking forward to personally pounding whatever it was into a smoldering pile of scrap metal and parts.
"My suit, in particular, they goofed on in a couple of places. I don't carry missile launchers on my right shoulder, and my railgun doesn't look anything like that minigun on the left. They probably couldn't figure out how to duplicate my own weapons. The flight system was easy for them to almost duplicate, although they goofed again; I designed it to have a similar arrangement to a C-55's jets, but without folding up. This guy's flight pack still folds up, so there's definitely a boomer under there. Everyone else's suits are close enough to look like the real thing with just some cosmetic changes here and there, like the slight differences in the helmets. There's no way we can prove this to the cops, but at least we have an idea of what we're dealing with." He flicked off the screen and computer, leaning back in his chair, brooding. Suddenly Mackie rushed into the room, waving a paper.
"Sis! You're not going to believe this! There's an ad in the paper saying the Knight Sabers are gonna trash a bank in four days!" Sylia snatched the paper from him and began reading. She dropped it onto the coffee table a moment later.
"They're trying to draw us out," she announced. "This note is a direct challenge to the ADPolice to stop them, but it's really trying to draw us out into the open for a fight."
"Good!" Nene declared. "Let's trash them!" Linna nodded vigorously in agreement.
"Time to get down and dirty," Bert remarked, a nasty grin spreading across his face. He had been preparing a few new weapons lately, some well in advance of the present time, and this would be the perfect opportunity to test them.
Sylia shot a quick, knowing glance in his direction; she knew him well enough by now to know he had something up his sleeve. She just hoped her nerves could stand the strain of waiting to find out just what it was. She made a mental note to ask him about them later, knowing he'd probably keep at least one hidden; he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in whipping gadgets out when they were least expected. She looked around at them.
"I think that about does it for now then," she told them. "Unless anyone else has any pressing concerns?" No one mentioned any. "Please try and stay calm over the next few days. I know it won't be easy, but we need to think clearly about this right now, especially because whoever is doing this seems to know a lot about us. Just think about that before you lose control." She looked at Bert and Priss as she made her last statement. Bert assumed an air of injured innocence, while Priss merely nodded. Sylia was pretty sure they'd both behave.
"Okay, let's get going then. I know you've all got other things to do." she said, standing up to leave. Everyone else stood with her, and they dispersed, Bert disappearing almost with the speed of a wraith down the hallway. Priss watched him vanish into the depths of the building, a strange expression on her face.
Priss walked down the dark basement corridor towards the tech shop, lost in her own thoughts, trying unsuccessfully to decide how she was going to approach this particular problem. She glanced over at her companion, who was also obviously contemplating something equally serious. Sylvie spoke up suddenly, voice echoing slightly in the hall.
"Does he always spend his time down here?" she asked. Priss nodded.
"Pretty much," she replied, "especially at times like this, when something's bothering him; It seems to relieve him to build something. He's not as reclusive as he used to be, but he still goes through periods where you can't find him except for here." She shook her head. "We're gradually getting him away from being a loner, Nene especially, but it isn't easy. There's times when he's more stubborn than I am." Sylvie grinned at that; it was hard to imagine someone more recalcitrant than Priss. They came to the door; strange noises were emanating from behind it. It sounded like someone was being murdered in a strange and tortuous fashion.
Priss opened the door, wincing at the volume of sound that blasted out of the room. Someone was caterwauling away in the back of the shop, over the drone of power tools and the booming CD player next to the door. Sylvie's face took on a pained expression that almost perfectly matched Priss'; whoever was singing was either tone deaf, or didn't give a damn, it was that loud and awful. Priss finally identified the music playing as 'Hurricane', one of the songs she sang with her band. This version of it, however, was ghastly; she didn't think Bert could carry a tune with a bucket. She killed the CD player, and the singing cut off a moment later. Bert came out from around a large mechanical device standing at the far end of the shop, wiping his hands on a rag.
"Hey! Who shut off the radio....whoops!" he shut up, turning bright red as he realized who his visitors were. Considering what they'd heard earlier, Priss figured he ought to be embarrassed.
"Whatever you do," she told him, "stick to hardsuit design. Your singing isn't worth the agony it would cause an audience." He turned even redder. The girls stood watching him, grinning at his discomfiture.
"I'm gonna lock the door next time," he muttered to himself. "So to what do I owe the honour of your presence down here?" he asked them finally. "You didn't come down here just to criticize my singing, I hope."
"Got a few minutes to spare?" Priss queried. "Sylvie and I want to talk to you about something." He looked at them and nodded, pitching the rag into a nearby disposal bin.
"Sure, no problem," he replied. "I was getting ready for a break anyway." He turned, and led the way out, down to his room.
Bert handed Sylvie, and then Priss a steaming mug of coffee. Snagging his own, king-sized mug of tea, he leaned against the counter of his kitchenette, and waited for them to open the ball. They all drank in silence for a moment. Both Sylvie and Priss seemed to have something on their minds, but he didn't have the slightest idea what it could be.
"Any particular reason you've been avoiding me lately?" Priss finally asked. He blinked in surprise.
"Who said I was avoiding you?" he replied.
"I do," she said flatly. "Ever since that night with the D.D., you've been ducking me like the plague for some reason. Our argument last night in the KnightWing was the most words we've exchanged in two weeks or so, and I want to know what the problem is." Her voice was level, but he could see in her eyes that she felt hurt. Great, he thought to himself, I've managed to hurt another friend's feelings without trying. His judgment seemed to be off in more ways than one, lately.
"I'm sorry if that's what it seemed like," he said slowly, "but right after the D.D. incident, I didn't think you wanted to talk to me. You seemed pissed off that I'd almost killed Sylvie, for starters, and then you were mad at everyone else because you only found out what was going on at the last minute." He shrugged helplessly. "I honestly thought you didn't want me around at the time, so I stayed away." He stopped talking, not really knowing what else to say. He'd told her the plain, unvarnished truth, and saying anything else would just be window dressing. Priss sighed in annoyed exasperation.
"Put down your mug for a minute," she ordered. He looked at her strangely.
"What the heck for?!"
"Just do it, will you?" He shrugged again, and set it over on the counter, and turned back towards Priss. A bomb seemed to explode in his skull, as his head was knocked sideways by a right cross, and lights burst in his brain, clouding his vision momentarily. Grabbing the counter edge and shaking his head to clear it, he looked over at Priss, who was rubbing her knuckles with her other hand.
"What the hell was that for?!" he demanded, after getting his jaw straightened out again and gingerly making sure everything was still attached.
"You seemed upset about the fact I'm not angry with you," she replied, "so I thought I'd give you something to make you feel like I was. I admit I was pissed off for the first couple of days, but I'm not now. Are you going to drop the bullshit and act normal now?" Bert could see Sylvie was trying to hide a smile. He nodded, wincing again.
"Okay," he replied. "Just don't hit me anymore; damn it, that hurt!"
"C'mon," Priss gibed, "knights don't let minor things like that bother them." He sighed and retrieved his mug, taking a swig. He jerked his head towards the chairs around the coffee table.
"It'll be more comfortable sitting down," he advised. "Besides, that way I can get out of Priss' reach." The girls grinned at that and walked over to the padded chairs. Priss seized his usual recliner, but he didn't object, he just parked himself in another one, ignoring her challenging grin. Sylvie sat down across from him, becoming serious again.
"I'd like to ask you something, if you don't mind," she said hesitantly, glancing from Priss to him.
"Sure," he replied, examining her curiously. "Go ahead." Sylvie seemed nervous for some reason, although why he couldn't even begin to guess.
"Why did you go to all that trouble to save me?" she asked. He shrugged.
"Because I felt that you shouldn't have to pay for something you had no control over; you got dealt a lousy hand in life, and were just trying to make the best of it. Besides, you're the friend of a very good friend of mine; that's enough of a reason right there for me to help." He watched her as he took a swig of tea, wondering what this was leading up to. Priss was sitting there looking uncomfortable and not saying anything. Sylvie leaned forward.
"Yes, I understand that part; Priss has told me enough about you for me to know about some of your ideas, but I......I mean.." she stopped, trying to find some way to say something. Bert waited.
"But I'm just a machine," she blurted suddenly. "How could you risk your life to save someone who's only a boomer?" Priss sighed tiredly at Sylvie's question; she'd already tried explaining that it didn't matter to them that Sylvie was different. She'd been trying to explain it to her for almost two weeks now, but Sylvie couldn't seem to accept it. Her and Priss were getting along perfectly, especially since they'd been friends before, but Sylvie was convinced that everyone else only saw her as one of GENOM's boomers, as a menace to be destroyed. Priss and Sylvie both jumped as Bert slammed his mug down on the table, half rising from his chair, with an expression like a thundercloud.
"Don't you ever, EVER let anyone tell you that!" he snarled at her. Sylvie stared at him in shock as he continued, obviously angry. "As far as I'm concerned, you're not a boomer, you're just someone who happens to be a little physiologically different, that's all. Anyone using that as the dividing line between human and inhuman is a howling bigot, as far as I'm concerned. You have your own hopes, dreams, ambitions and feelings, and to me, that makes you human. In fact, I'd say that you've got a lot more humanity than the other bastards out there who claim to be human. Unless you turn into a ravening killing machine with no conscience or remorse, you're not a boomer in my book." He stabbed a finger at her threateningly. "I didn't go through all that horseshit and discomfort to save you, just to have you sit there and say you weren't worth it, so quit saying it!" He snatched his mug from the table, and slugged back the rest of his tea in an angry gulp. Priss was nodding in total agreement with him.
"I told you that's what he would say," she told Sylvie. "Now will you listen to reason? We all like you; you're our friend, and nothing's going to change that." Sylvie nodded, her eyes suddenly filling with tears.
"Thank you," she said quietly. "You don't know how much it means to me to have someone say that." Priss leaned over and hugged her, and was hugged back. Bert cleared his throat, somewhat embarrassed.
"Now that we've got that out of the way," he said gruffly, "was there anything else? I've got a few things to finish up." Women crying made him uncomfortable. Sylvie nodded, wiping her face on her sleeve, so he waited.
"Priss tells me," she said hesitantly, "that you know what's going to happen, in the future I mean." An uncomfortable expression was on both her and Priss' face as she said this; thinking about it, and the reasons for his foreknowledge, made them uncomfortable. Hell, it bothered him thinking about it, which was one of the reasons he'd tried to forget about most of it.
"I have a general idea of what MAY happen," he corrected her. "That doesn't mean it will. I've already altered a few things just by being here." Oh brother, he thought to himself, had he ever! Understatement of the year, that one was.
"Do you....do you know where Anri is?" Sylvie asked. Her and Priss had gone looking for Anri as soon as Sylvie had recovered from the fight with the D.D., but by the time they had made it to Sylvie's old apartment, Anri and everything in the place were gone. Sylvie had been worrying constantly about Anri ever since. Bert sat silently for a minute, thinking.
"I don't know where she is, exactly," he replied cautiously. He'd half expected a question of this nature sooner or later, but that still didn't make deciding just how far to go in answering it any easier. "She's still in the city; that's all I know for sure." He fell silent again, feeling that it was all he could safely reveal; to say anything else could precipitate a premature confrontation of some kind, and also saying anything else now would be breaking his promise to Sylia. Even though he didn't like it, he was just going to have to sit back and wait to see what happened. Sylvie sighed regretfully.
"Thank you; I suppose that's something, anyway," she told him. "At least I know she's all right for now." She fell silent, lost in thought. Bert stood, and gathered up the empty mugs, stowing them in the sink for the time being. He turned back to Sylvie and Priss, who were standing up getting ready to leave.
"I can promise you this much," he said to Sylvie, "we will find her, and we will bring her back." It was going to require some planning though, but there was no need to tell them that. Sylvie nodded gratefully, but Priss squinted at him suspiciously.
"You just want to charge around saving another 'damsel in distress', don't you?" she accused, pointing at him. He shrugged, spreading his hands, a crooked grin spreading across his face.
"Hey," he quipped, "it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it." Priss snorted, shaking her head.
Bert watched them leave, closing the door behind them. Turing, he walked over to the phone and snatched the receiver off of the hook, dialing a number.
"Hello, Sylia? Yeah, it's me. Have you got a few minutes? There's something we need to discuss......"
FOUR DAYS LATER....
Bert plunged out of the door to the tech shop, almost flattening Mackie in his haste to get out, a couple of strange looking devices gripped in each hand. He skidded to a stop as he realized who he'd almost run down.
"Mackie! Perfect! Just who I wanted to see!" he exclaimed. "How'd it go?"
"Fine," Mackie replied, recovering his balance. "Everything got completed on time, and I stowed the extra equipment you wanted on the KnightWing. What's the rush?" he inquired.
"Sylia just paged me; the impostors have shown up and are blasting the hell out of the ADPolice. I'm going to meet them there now, but I'm using my own flight system to get there; it's faster at the moment. I just had to grab these last two babies here, and I'm all set. Come on, or we'll really be late." Bert took off at full speed down the hall. Mackie shook his head ruefully, and ran after him.
"Does my sister know what you're planning?!" he shouted up the hallway after him.
"Most of it!" Bert shouted back over his shoulder, a twisted grin appearing. "I did save a couple of surprises, though." Mackie shook his head again.
"She's going to kill you you know!" he panted as they rushed through the door to the hardsuit storage bays. Bert grinned at Mackie as he leaped into his hardsuit, first dropping the two gadgets on a counter. Armour plates whipped into place, sealing down with hisses and clicks as the suit lining adjusted to his body contours. Grabbing his helmet, he jammed it on. Mackie watched the red eyeslit flare into glowing life as the suit fully activated; SkyKnight was ready to roll. He looked at Mackie as he retrieved his modular weapons.
"I know she won't be overly happy about it," he admitted, "but it's more fun this way. Fun for me, I mean." Mackie was willing to bet Bert was grinning hugely right now.
"Like I said," Mackie said, grinning himself, "she's going to kill you!" SkyKnight chuckled.
"It's the lesser of two evils at the moment," he replied. "Now then, you've got everything straight?" Mackie nodded. "Then let's get the hell out of here !"
The two ran out the door again, down the hallway to the access area for the KnightWing launch pad.
A red energy beam slashed the air, and Leon backed away as the left arm of his K-12 Armoured Trooper suit crashed into the rooftop, trailing sparks. He watched with a sickening, sinking feeling in his guts as the blue Knight Saber above him drew a bead on his head with its gun arm; it had already sliced off a few parts of his suit, but now it seemed to have tired of the game and was going to kill him.
"Why?!" Leon shouted at the hardsuited figure above him. "WHY??!?! I don't buy it!!!" Even now, with death staring him in the face, he couldn't believe that the Knight Sabers had turned into a death-and-destruction dealing group of terrorists. His own experiences with the group up until now argued strongly against it. Sure, they were mercenaries, but they'd never once harmed the police, or reveled in mindless carnage, as they seemed to be doing now.
Suddenly, a white flash shot between Leon and the blue Knight Saber. There was a shattering explosion as the white shape shot the head of the blue hardsuit at point blank range. Leon watched in dawning understanding, and no small amount of relief, as the white hardsuited shape landed behind the four killer Knight Sabers, and was joined by familiar-looking green, and dark blue/pink suits; the real Knight Sabers had arrived, although they appeared to be a couple of members short. His attention was jerked back to the impostors as a piece of shattered blue helmet fell off of the smoking head, revealing a balefully glowing red eye. Leon jerked backwards.
"What the hell's going on?!" he exclaimed aloud, as the four renegades suddenly expanded, bursting through the armoured shells that covered them, revealing their true shapes and natures. Four massive, heavily armed and ugly-looking boomers stood revealed, but they didn't resemble any boomers Leon had ever seen before. They looked a lot closer to the D.D. battlemover in terms of size, shape, and weaponry. The sinister quartet of boomers turned, ignoring Leon completely, and began to advance on the Knight Sabers.
Sylia watched nervously as the four impostors burst from their disguises, shredded armour shells flying off; Bert had warned her that they were actually boomers, and enhanced ones at that, but she hadn't realized that their opponents were going to be as heavily armed as they were. There were four all together; the blue one that had been impersonating Priss, the red one that had mimicked Linna, the black and red one that had been copying her, and the SkyKnight double. It was the SkyKnight double that was worrying her; it was taller and heavier than the other three boomers, and it was obviously packing some heavy hardware; the pitch black boomer had large missile launchers on its shoulders, and the several energy signatures detected by her suit sensors indicated powerful energy weapons of some kind. In a twisted way, the boomer was an evil, distorted mirror image of SkyKnight in terms of appearances and weapons. To add to her worries, neither SkyKnight nor Priss had shown up. Damn it, they knew that they were needed, so where the hell were they?!
The red boomer's head split open, and a coruscating red energy beam lashed out towards them. Sylia, Linna, and Nene all leaped skywards, avoiding it. As she flew backwards, Sylia spun around to take a shot at the attackers, but her suit viewscreen revealed only an empty roof. Where had they .......oh shit! She spun around again, but not fast enough, as the blue boomer loomed up behind her, and smashed her back towards the rooftop, severely damaging her flight pack. Sylia crashed into the roof decking with numbing force, and rolled over desperately, leaping up and away as the SkyKnight doppelganger plunged a massive arm blade into the rooftop where her head had been only scant seconds before. God, these bastards were tough! she thought to herself, trying to get her racing heart back under control. That had been too close for comfort. The blue boomer and the fake SkyKnight began to advance on her. Across the roof, Linna and Nene tried to come to her assistance, but were blocked by the other two boomers. Sylia tried to fight off the rising fear in her guts; they had to win!! MegaTokyo couldn't afford what would happen to it if the Knight Sabers lost. She charged her guns up as the killer clones stomped closer. A thunderous yell split the night sky.
"ALL RIGHT!!!! LET"S RUMBLE!!!!!"
Night suddenly turned briefly to day, as a massive, howling cascade of red and blue energy bolts slammed out of the darkness and smashed the SkyKnight doppleganger, flattening it and blowing a smoking crater into the roof. Everyone on the rooftop spun around, as the burned and angry boomer clawed its way out of the hole, to see a bulky, midnight black-and-silver suit land on the rooftop. It was SkyKnight, but a SkyKnight who looked ready for a world war; two massive, Gatling-gun-like cannons were mounted on his shoulders, next to two other, unfamiliar looking launchers, and extra-heavy armour plating covered his entire hardsuit, except for the helmet, which looked unaltered. Several other modular devices of undefinable purposes were mounted on the arms and legs of the suit.
"Sorry I'm late," Bert apologized over the comm frequency. "I had to pick up some things for the party first."
As she stared at the walking weapons platform, Sylia suddenly realized Bert actually had, in effect, built a second hardsuit for his hardsuit. It was much smaller than a motoroid, but provided boosted strength and extra armour. She also remembered him calling it the 'Overdrive Exoskeleton' for some reason.
That reason became apparent instantly. As the SkyKnight doppleganger charged the real SkyKnight, the shoulder cannons started spinning with a howling drone, spitting a firestorm of flaring laser energy at the boomer, smashing it back. SkyKnight's arms snapped up, and his normal plasma and laser bolts were added to the barrage. The light and sound level was horrific, almost blinding and deafening the observers. The black boomer was hurled off of its feet by the force of the assault, flying backwards for twenty feet before hitting the rooftop decking again. SkyKnight's shoulder guns suddenly sprang off of their mounts, being propelled towards the blue boomer. They exploded in a fiery blossom of flame, knocking it staggering backwards. Sylia suddenly remembered that 'Overdrive' meant he was literally burning the weapons on the exoskeleton out by over powering them. The exoskeleton was a limited use, one-shot weapon, designed specifically for this fight. Across the roof, the other two boomers began charging towards Sylia and SkyKnight. The shot and bombed fakers were getting up, snarling in fury.
Twin tubes on each of SkyKnight's legs suddenly detached, and went rolling around the roof. As they did so, what looked like a modified version of his chemical launcher spat a spray of fluorescent green liquid onto the four boomers, but no apparent damage resulted. What the hell did he think he was doing?!? Sylia wondered, dodging a sudden shot that one of the four impostors suddenly launched at her.
"Nene!" SkyKnight snapped over the comm, "In your sensor programming, there should be a sub-file marked 'Fog of War Conditions'; boot it up and transmit it to Sylia and Linna, okay?"
"Okay!" she replied. "What're you going to do?" she asked a second later, echoing Sylia's thoughts. Everyone was answered as roiling clouds of thick, black smoke suddenly burst from the devices SkyKnight had dropped, and the rooftop became shrouded in an impenetrable fog cloud. Not even Nene's enhanced sensors could penetrate too deeply into the murk; it was like being in a completely sealed and lightless room. Suddenly, four glowing smears appeared on all the Knight Saber suit viewscreens, labeled 'B1' to 'B4' by the suit computers, at approximately the locations where the boomers had been standing when the fog rolled in. Red transponder blips indicated the positions of the Knight Sabers. SkyKnight quickly explained.
"I've marked the boomers with a radioactive tracer compound," he reported. "By detecting the radiation wavelength, we can see where they are regardless of how thick the cloud is; the other good news is, they can't see us unless we're really close to them, around five feet or so. Our suit transponder signals mark where we are so we won't hit each other. We've got a five minute advantage here, ladies, so let's not waste it." The cloud was suddenly eerily lit up with the multihued flashes of lasers and plasma bolts from SkyKnight's direction. Explosions and howls crackled into the night sky.
Leon swore, floundering around in the murk. He'd seen the arrival of SkyKnight, and figured he could lend a hand, somehow, to the Knight Sabers in their battle. Besides, he liked a good fight, and from what he'd seen, SkyKnight's fights were anything but dull. However, his enthusiasm was rapidly vanishing as he realized that he couldn't see or detect anything in this infernal cloud. The smoke was dense enough to foil sensors and radar, and visual sighting was out of the question. He was suddenly struck a numbing blow to the stomach, and his K-12 suit was knocked backwards with a clanging crash.
"What the hell?!?" he heard SkyKnight's voice. "That wasn't a boomer!" Heavy footsteps thumped closer to Leon's prone position.
"McNichol!" he heard. "What the hell are you still doing here?!?! Are you trying to get killed?!"
"I thought I'd, you know, help out a little," Leon replied sheepishly, trying to get up. He was abruptly hauled to his feet by an armoured hand that dug into the front armour plating of the K-12 like it was cardboard. His helmet was pulled close to SkyKnight's dimly glowing eyeslot.
"I'm only going to say this once, because I'm a little pressed for time right now," SkyKnight told him flatly. "I appreciate the thought, really I do, but you're in the way. Get this cheap shit government-issue tin can out of here or I swear to God I'll pitch you off the far end of the roof!!"
The world spun crazily as Leon was pulled off of his feet, and sent skidding along the roof surface. He fell off the edge of a small precipice to the next level below to land with a clanging bang, clear of the smoke cloud. As he pulled himself upright, he could see flashes of multicoloured light and explosions backlighting the swirling billows of smoke. Damn it, he was missing what looked like the fight of the century! He was seriously considering waiting around until the smoke cleared and joining in again, when Daley's voice crashed out of the ADP radio wavelength.
"Leon!" he shouted, "the Minister of Defense has been kidnapped! What do we do?!" Leon ground his teeth together.
"Do?!" he snarled back. "We go after them you jerk!! Get a chopper ready; I'll be down shortly!" Damn it, why did he have to do everything himself?! The K-12 suit turned and clanked off into the darkness, away from the raging firefight.
The dense smoke drifted away finally, the last fading wisps revealing a scene of complete chaos; the rooftop had been churned into a rubble-strewn, crater pockmarked landscape with flaring fires burning here and there. Sylia scanned the battlefield quickly, checking on the rest of the Sabers. Everyone appeared to be okay, although SkyKnight was looking a little battered; he'd briefly gone hand-to-hand with his hyperboomer clone in the fogbank, and the two had inflicted some minor damage on each other, though nothing serious. She'd caught a couple of stray shots herself, but wasn't hurt. The four killer boomers had obviously suffered some damage from the fog-cloaked firefight; they all had burns and gouges on them, but nothing serious enough to impair them in any way. They were simply too tough to be taken out so easily. The SkyKnight faker in particular looked almost virtually unharmed; it was obviously the heaviest armoured of the group. The boomers surged across the roof towards the Knight Sabers as visibility returned, and the wild melee resumed.
Bert quickly glanced at his status displays as he threw himself backwards, avoiding a hissing sword stroke from his doppelganger. So far, so good. His booster exoskeleton was performing perfectly, and the Sabers appeared to be holding their own at the moment, albeit barely. Time to spring some of his other surprises while his exoskeleton still had power; it was designed with a large battery reserve and power generator, but when the power supply ran out, explosive bolts would jettison the entire thing, freeing his own suit, which so far had not depleted its own power reserves. Everything was running off of the exoskeleton power supply at the moment. Losing the exoskeleton wasn't a huge disadvantage, however, because then he'd be able to move faster and with more agility. Of course, it also meant he'd have to be more careful about getting hit, without the extra armour plating. He sidestepped another slash by the boomer, and riposted with his own sword blade. His answering slash skittered harmlessly off of the boomer's carapace. Hmmm, not good.
Ducking under another whistling swipe, SkyKnight dodged behind his double and blasted it with twin plasma bolts in the back, point blank. The boomer staggered forward, then spun around snarling at him. Cannon barrels popped out on its forearms, and sizzling blue energy streams scorched their way through the air. SkyKnight ducked one, but was blasted backwards by the second, losing some armour plating and circuitry in the bargain. He swore in shock. Particle beams! The damn thing was using particle beams!! His thrusters fired, and he weaved crazily through the air around the rooftop, avoiding the next salvo of probing blasts. His double charged him again as he landed, huge sword blades popping out of its arms.
A strange launcher snapped up on SkyKnight's shoulder, resembling a long rectangular tube with a cylindrical magazine at the back. Sharp, rapid-fire whipcrack detonations split the air, and a whistling silvery stream of razor-edged discs, almost like saw blades, sliced across the distance between himself and his foe. Some of the disks found gaps between the boomer's armour plating, and vanished into its body, while others either ricocheted off into the darkness or stuck into the plating. Shit! The bastard's armour was too thick for the disks to penetrate completely. The launcher was a good weapon, but not against heavily armoured opponents, it seemed. Oh well, he thought as he spun away from another attempted decapitation, you learn something new every day. Any more bright ideas? he asked himself as he fired his lasers again, singeing the boomer.
Bert's attention was suddenly wrenched across the roof by a scream. Belting his double in the head with an uppercut, momentarily knocking it backwards, he shot a quick glance in the direction of the scream. His blood seemed to freeze as he saw Linna frantically rolling around on the roof, trying to get up, as the other black hyperboomer tried to pound her into a paste on the rooftop. She hadn't screamed, though; Nene had been grabbed by the neck by the red boomer and hauled off of her feet. The boomer was drawing back a massive fist to crush her helmet into a pulp.
Time seemed to suddenly lurch and slow down, as SkyKnight flattened his doppleganger with a searing blast from his lasers, almost burning them out. Spinning around, his shoulder launcher locked onto the red boomer and spat a shrieking sleet storm of razor-edged steel at the monstrosity, as his right arm came up to target the boomer with another weapon. The arm holding Nene was severed messily at the forearm in a shower of sparks and parts by the spinning stream of discs. As the boomer roared, beginning to turn to face its sudden assailant, a wickedly barbed harpoon head blasted from the arm launcher mounted over SkyKnight's main guns, striking the boomer in the small of the back and becoming embedded in the armour plating. A long cable extended from the harpoon to SkyKnight, who gave a tremendous heave on it, like a fisherman hauling in the prize-winning salmon. The boomer was jerked backwards off of its feet, and away from Nene, to fall over and crash into the rooftop. As the cable detached from his hardsuit mount, SkyKnight pounded the downed boomer mercilessly with plasma and laser bolts, swearing foully, and audibly over the battlefield clamour.
The barrage ended abruptly as SkyKnight himself was blasted staggering forwards by twin particle beams from his doppleganger, armour and circuitry again being destroyed. Damn it, Bert swore at himself as the world jolted and spun, he'd done it again; he'd ignored one opponent in attacking another. A metallic fist dropped from above, smashing the sable-and-silver Knight Saber almost to his knees in front of the biomechanical killing machine.
SkyKnight groggily rolled sideways, and fired his thrusters to catapult himself clear of the attacking boomer; luckily his flight system hadn't been damaged, but his exoskeleton enhancement was now only a few minutes from shutdown, which would mean that he was back to relying on his own hardsuit and skills. Great, just great.
As SkyKnight landed about twenty feet away from the boomer, a shutdown became the least of his worries; the anti-SkyKnight locked both missile launchers onto him and fired. At least thirty-five warheads zoomed towards him, trailing plumes of smoke and flame. There were far too many to be able to dodge. A defensive firing pattern of laser beams, plasma bolts, and razor discs lashed out, destroying some of the missiles, but not enough of them to matter. SkyKnight was swallowed up in a massive snarling explosion of smoke and flames.
Oh God, no! Not again! Sylia groaned to herself, as SkyKnight spun towards Nene's position. She shoved the blue hyperboomer in front of her backwards with a double shot from her arm cannons, and launched herself towards Nene and the red boomer, trying desperately to get there first to save Nene herself. Bert tended to go off the deep end when anything threatened Nene. The last time he'd tried to save her, he'd almost gotten himself killed by flinging himself into a missile barrage intended for her. He'd survived, but his suit had been almost a complete write-off. The way things were going, the Knight Sabers couldn't afford to have anyone with a seriously damaged suit for any reason at the moment. She didn't make it in time.
A stream of projectiles from a shoulder launcher severed the boomer's forearm, and a cable of some kind latched onto the boomer, hauling it backwards. A sudden thought struck Sylia, and she turned towards Bert to shout a warning, but was too late. He was shot from behind by the boomer he'd ignored to save Nene, and then slammed down with numbing force by an overhand swing from the boomer. Sylia wrenched herself around to assist him; her damaged flight pack wasn't responding well. As she did so, SkyKnight shot away from the massive boomer, landing clumsily, and turning back to face his opponent. As he did so, he was engulfed in a missile storm from his doppelganger. A huge fireball expanded out from where he'd been standing, and black armour plating flew everywhere, clattering noisily onto the roof decking.
Sylia stood in stunned shock, for a moment, and then rage cut through the shock, igniting her into swift movement. Dodging sideways, avoiding a sweeping punch from the blue boomer she was fighting, she blasted the fake SkyKnight with a double salvo of cannon fire in the face; it reared back howling in fury, and tried to split her in half with a sword blade. Instead of hitting her, however, it carved a large piece out of its blue cohort, which had lunged after Sylia to try and grab her. The two boomers snarled viciously at each other, then turned and stalked towards Sylia, various weapons popping out of recessed positions in their frames.
Sylia backed away from the approaching menaces, frantically trying to think of something else to try. She had to come up with some way to end this fight fast; the battle had been raging for almost thirty minutes now, and the remaining Knight Sabers were rapidly becoming tired. If they didn't either win or escape soon, their own fatigue would get them killed. The SkyKnight copy fired a sizzling particle beam at her, which she ducked under, only to get smashed backwards by an uppercut from the blue hyperboomer. Her hardsuit creaked ominously as she crashed into the roof, breath knocked out of her lungs. As she rolled gasping to her feet, an amplified voice echoed hollowly across the rooftop.
"'Prick us, do we not bleed?'" it inquired. "'Wound us, shall we not ..... REVENGE!!"
On that last snarled word, ebony-armoured retribution thundered out of the flames and smashed the anti-SkyKnight into the rooftop decking with a crushing, jet-powered tackle. The boomer's head was smashed into the rooftop by a clenched, double-fisted overhead strike from SkyKnight. Giving the boomer a point-blank laser blast in the face, he threw himself backwards, off of the boomer, and blasted the blue hyperboomer off of its feet almost as an afterthought with a shattering volley of laser and plasma beams. As the rest of the Knight Sabers stared at the seemingly unharmed SkyKnight, they realized what had happened; all of the armour pieces that had gone flying in the missile strike had all belonged to his exoskeleton frame. His normal hardsuit had survived with only a few burn marks, and his usual explosive-bolt railgun launcher had also survived somehow.
Despite the loss of his extra weapons, SkyKnight had also just managed to inflict the first real damage to one of the hyperboomers. Aided by the pounding the boomer had taken up until now, his shot to the head had obviously hurt the thing; his impostor was staggering as it surged erect.
"You've dragged my name through the mud, asshole," SkyKnight snarled at his doppleganger, "and now you're going to pay for that!" He ducked easily under the boomer's particle beams, and again nailed the boomer in the head with a laser shot. The boomer snarled in fury and backhanded SkyKnight into a staggering step backwards.
Chest armour on the anti-SkyKnight flipped up, revealing a heat ray assembly. As the boomer fired, SkyKnight's arms snapped up, sending two plasma bolts lancing into the exposed mechanisms. At the same time, his bolt launcher spat all four of its explosive bolts into the boomer's chest with an echoing crack of thunder. A roiling red heat wave blasted SkyKnight backwards again, stripping pieces off of his hardsuit, and finally destroying his railgun. The boomer, however, fared much worse; as its chest armour snapped closed, the plasma and bolt explosions destroyed the heat array, and inflicted massive internal damage on the boomer. It suddenly lurched sideways, trying to regain control of its movement, but to no avail. Smoke and oily fluids were leaking out of crevices in its torso carapace, as it staggered around like a drunk, utterly unable to control itself enough to attack, or defend.
"There can be only one!" SkyKnight declared ringingly, as a final blast from his gas-plasma lasers blew the renegade boomer's head into spinning shards of metal and wiring.
Stunned silence swept the rooftop briefly. The Knight Sabers and the leftover hyperboomers all stared from SkyKnight to his now dead impostor in disbelief. Nene and Linna cheered suddenly, and the three remaining boomers renewed their attacks as if the cheers had been a signal. SkyKnight flipped over on his thrusters to land next to Sylia.
"Well," he remarked to her as he dodged a plasma shot, "at least now it's a bit more fair." A second shot clocked him squarely in the torso, knocking him down, as another burst from somewhere hit Sylia with agonizing force. She gasped in pain, and went to one knee, badly shaken. SkyKnight surged back to his feet, grabbing Sylia and dragging her back with him. The remaining boomers appeared to have gone berserk; they were firing wildly and constantly, and it was all the Knight Sabers could do to stay alive as they dodged around, slowly giving ground to the advancing boomers.
"We've got nowhere left to run!" Nene cried suddenly, looking behind herself. The edge of the roof ended scant inches behind them. Sylia straightened up, shrugging out of SkyKnight's grasp.
"When I give the word," she told them, "the rest of you beat it while I draw their attention."
"Sylia!! No!!" Nene and Linna exclaimed. "We can't just leave you!!"
"That's an order!" Sylia snapped, "Just do it, okay?! Get ready...." She turned to watch the approaching boomers, crouching and preparing to leap at them.
"Gooooing up!" SkyKnight suddenly yelled, as the KnightWing roared up from behind the building. The covers on its missile bays opened, targeting the boomers.
"Everybody, DUCK!" Mackie's voice yelled from the Sabers' comm channel.
SkyKnight grabbed Sylia and dragged her towards the KnightWing's lowering entry ramp, closely followed by Nene and Linna. A howling swarm of missiles erupted from the KnightWing and struck the boomers, hiding them in swirling smoke and a series of blazing explosions that destroyed the top three floors of the Tinsel City Bank. The Knight Sabers ran into the safety of the plane, the gangplank retracting, and the hatch closing as the ship banked away from the building.
The red boomer angrily smashed an arm into a girder as the fleeing KnightWing vanished into the night sky.
"Oh God, that was close!" Nene panted, leaning against the cabin wall, head hanging down. She peeled off her helmet, and shook her head, spreading her hair out; sweat had matted it into a tangled red snarl. Linna and Sylia were both sprawled in their seats in relief, helmets off, with sweat plastering their hair down to their foreheads. Bert was visually examining his scorched hardsuit exterior, but hadn't yet relaxed; he couldn't afford to, because he knew they weren't finished yet. Not even close. Sylia suddenly looked at him.
"You had that all planned, didn't you?" she accused. "That last minute rescue, I mean." Bert shook his head.
"Actually, I didn't" he replied, a sudden grin splitting his face. "I found Mackie prepping the KnightWing with an impressive missile payload a couple of days ago; he'd already planned to be hanging around watching. All I did was co-ordinate with him to make sure nothing went wrong." Sylia looked from him to glare ominously at her brother, who merely grinned back at her over his shoulder; he was used to her being upset, and it didn't bother him in the slightest. He turned back to his controls.
"We've got trouble!" Mackie suddenly announced from the cockpit. "Priss' suit and motoroid are missing from the equipment bays!" Sylia's head snapped up, and she speared Bert with a glance.
"Is this the situation you rather obliquely mentioned the other day?" she inquired. At his affirmative nod, she sighed.
"So now what did you have in mind?" she asked. "I don't think you can go charging off to the rescue anymore, considering the condition your suit is in right now. Ours aren't in any great shape, either." She frowned at him, a sudden, sinking feeling seizing her stomach. "Why are you grinning like that?!" She knew that look by now; it was the same grin he had whenever he was going to spring a new device on her.
"Allow me to show you something," he replied, turning and stepping into the rear cargo compartment of the KnightWing.
"What the hell are you doing now?!" she called after him. He didn't reply. There was a sudden staccato series of hisses, and a clanging series of impacts that sounded like a pile of tin cans falling to the deck plates. Sylia recognized it a moment later as the sound a hardsuit made when the emergency ejection circuits were triggered; the suit basically fell off the wearer into a pile of metal parts. She half rose from her seat, teeth clenched in frustration, preparing to go back and strangle an answer out of Bert. The familiar pneumatic hisses, clacks and snaps of another hardsuit sealing itself stopped her. Clanking footsteps heralded his return to the main cabin.
"What do you think?" SkyKnight asked as he stepped into view. Nene and Linna straightened up, jaws dropping, as Sylia slapped a hand to her forehead, shaking her head ruefully. He's finally flipped out, she thought to herself.
Gone was the by now familiar black armour suit with silver trim. In its place stood a knight of gleaming, burnished silver, with royal blue plating on the shoulders and top portion of the torso armour. Blue antenna wings adorned the silver helmet, which still sported a glowing red eyeslit. Structurally, the suit looked identical, but the colour scheme had been re-worked to present the appearance of, naturally, a heroic knight in shining armour, noble and impressive. His armour was so polished looking, it was illuminating the cabin almost by itself.
"What the hell IS this?!" Sylia asked again, trying to hold down her rising exasperation with him. SkyKnight flipped up his visor and grinned at her, greenish-brown eyes glinting merrily.
"This, M'Lady," he stated in courtly tones, "is the SkyKnight hardsuit, Mark Three, Battlemaster 4000 class. It's at the cutting edge of technology," he added proudly. "Upgraded myomer-microhydraulic musculature, able to press five-and-a-half tons in an emergency, around two tons the rest of the time, which makes it far superior to both my old suit, and C-55 boomers. The suit power supply is slightly more efficient, based on the power plant modifications you suggested. I've used a new alloy for the armour plating, and even managed to re-vamp the polymer coating a bit, making the whole thing about 5% lighter and 10% stronger than the old plating. Other than enhanced sensors, everything else is the same."
"Except the colour scheme," Nene remarked. "Isn't this carrying the shining knight image just a little too far?" He shook his head.
"I don't think so," he replied. "For one thing, I've had a colour change in mind for a while now. The old suit was designed to look impressive and ominous; I decided to try for a nobler look, instead of the Darth Vader approach, so that I don't scare the public quite so much. Besides, given what those impostors did to my reputation using a copy of my old suit, I feel it's time for a new look, and this is it."
"Very flashy," Linna approved, grinning. "At least now we'll really be able to see you in the dark!" He grinned back.
"Were you able to complete the other hardsuits?" Sylia asked. "Or did you spend all your time on this?" she gestured at his new suit.
"The rest of the team's suits, and the new heavy motoroids are ready to roll," he assured her, "Complete with the same kind of musculature and armour upgrades. They were ready late last night; they're all stashed back at HQ though, since there really is only storage space for one hardsuit back there. It shouldn't take you long to get changed and follow me over." He sobered, looking at Sylia. "Do I have your permission to go?" She nodded.
"Be careful, though," she admonished as he turned towards the airlock. "Don't get yourself killed trying to save Priss." He grinned at her.
"Don't worry, that's not one of my higher priorities." He turned away again when Nene stopped him.
"Just a second," she called, walking over to him. "Take off your helmet for a minute." Shrugging he complied, brushing his hair out of his eyes. Nene pulled him down, and gave him a long kiss. Bert flushed bright red as he straightened up, quickly pulling on his helmet to hide his discomfort. Linna and Sylia watched, both smiling faintly.
"No dumb heroics," Nene warned him. "Or I'll be really upset with you." SkyKnight gave her a quick hug, and entered the airlock.
"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," they heard, as the airlock door shut.
SkyKnight flew out into the night, banking away from the KnightWing as it continued back to Sylia's building. Orienting himself, he opened his flight system to full power, and shot into the night sky towards the GENOM tower like a silver meteor.
Priss sank to one knee as Anri turned away from her to stare at Largo, the knife she'd been holding clattering to the floor. Priss clenched her teeth against the sickening agony from the knife wound in her lower right side, as her blood dripped slowly through her fingers to the floor. Anri hadn't believed her when told that Sylvie was still alive. Whatever stories that Largo guy had been telling her, she had believed them completely, and she'd stabbed Priss thinking to enact revenge for Sylvie's apparent death. However, now Largo had revealed the actual depth of his plans by mentioning that an out-of control battlemover with a 33-S sexaroid at the helm would have been amusing. Just who the hell was this guy, anyway?! He seemed to know a hellish lot about the Knight Sabers and what they'd done.
"You knew about Sylvie?" Anri asked incredulously. Oh no, she thought to herself, aghast. What had she done?!
"Yes," Largo admitted, a mocking smile playing about his mouth. "You might say she was a cat's-paw of mine. She served her purpose well." He raised a hand, his expression abruptly becoming glacial. "Your usefulness is also at an end, Anri. Step aside; playtime is over!" He gestured, and a roaring concussion blast crackled through the air towards the wounded Priss. Anri stepped in front of Priss....
A screaming howl of jets announced a new arrival, as a silver streak flashed through the hole in the front window Priss had made, whipping over to interpose itself between Anri and the blast wave, mere split seconds before it hit. The gambit was only partly successful; Anri was flung backwards to collapse in a heap against the far wall by the fringes of the blast. The silver shape was smashed into one of the few intact concrete walls left in the office ,by the main force of the shot, immediately behind Priss. Largo's gaze turned flinty as he glared at the new interloper, who was prying himself out of the impact crater he'd made in the wall.
Priss crawled towards Anri, almost crying out in combined anger and grief. She couldn't tell if she was alive or dead, although no blood was visible. Armour scraping behind her drew her attention, and she painfully turned to examine whatever it was that had flashed in through the window. It was a hardsuit, and after a second, she recognized the suit construction; it was SkyKnight, but a SkyKnight she'd never seen before, clad in brilliant silver armour. Oh God no, she thought to herself, stomach sinking, don't tell me he finally bought into that 'knight-in-shining-armour' stuff literally! We're all gonna die now, she thought despairingly. He's finally lost it!
Bert cautiously appraised Largo as he moved away from the wall. Whatever Largo actually was, he was certainly impressive looking. White hair, strange steely grey eyes, and an impressive build made him a commanding figure. The arrogant way he talked and moved certainly didn't hurt the image any. The casual way he blasted things also spoke volumes about his ruthlessness. It also spoke a great deal about the level of power Bert was actually dealing with, here; his ribs ached from where the blast had hit his hardsuit. The suit integrity was still intact, but the physical shock from the impact had been horrendous. Bert stepped forward again, sidling sideways slightly to partially shield Priss.
"Well, well, well," Largo chuckled ominously, "If it isn't the intrepid SkyKnight, hero of the oppressed and defender of right." He threw back his head and laughed openly, contemptuously. "Crawl back into the outdated past you draw your ideas from," he advised the gleaming figure. "The only thing that embracing ancient, archaic concepts with no relevance to the modern world will get you is a quicker page in history yourself."
"Nice speech," SkyKnight retorted. "Do you make them up yourself, or do you hire a scriptwriter? Arrgghk!!" He was blasted backwards to crash into the floor by an infuriated gesture from Largo, narrowly missing Priss in his trajectory.
"What's wrong?" SkyKnight asked as he painfully pulled himself upright again. "Don't like criticism?" Largo folded his arms and glared at SkyKnight, as Priss wobbled to her feet. She couldn't just sit there while SkyKnight tried to take all the shots. Besides, she wanted a piece of the bastard herself for what he'd done to Sylvie and Anri.
"Choose your next words carefully," Largo stated coldly. "They may well be your last ones. Did you honestly think that you'd be able to stop me? How pathetic. You, and all your 'friends' are like worms under my feet; annoyances to be crushed without remorse."
"Don't trip over your ego on the way out," SkyKnight cracked. "It's a long fall from being the top tin-plated tyrant to.....ARRRRRRRGHHH!" He was savagely blasted back through the wall, in a shower of smoke and dust, vanishing into the darkness of the rooftop beyond. A faint clanging crash echoed afterwards.
"You son of a bitch!!!!!" Priss screamed, whipping her arm up and firing her railgun at Largo. The needle-like spike flashed through the air.....and was caught in two fingers by Largo about a foot from his head. He smiled at Priss.
"Is this all your anger amounts to?" he asked, still smiling. His smile disappeared as he flicked the spike back at her, skewering her right shoulder. Priss grabbed at her shoulder, gritting her teeth, as red pain flickered at the edges of her vision, threatening her with darkness. She stayed conscious through sheer willpower; she was not going to faint, not now, not ever!
The sound of running footsteps jerked her head up in alarm. A moving blur with Largo's face swept forward, smashing her backwards with a bone-jarring punch, through the wall to the rooftop decking below. Her suit computer fired the braking thrusters, easing her descent only slightly, as she banged numbingly into the roof surface. She rolled over, trying to stand up, as Largo loomed overhead, silhouetted in the gaping hole in the tower wall that she and SkyKnight had been used to open up.
"How foolish of you to think you were a match for me!" he declared with a sinister chuckle, smashing part of the wall out with the back of his hand. "You've come all this way only to die like a dog!"
Priss gritted her teeth and pulled out the railgun spike from her shoulder, ignoring the sickening tremors that sliding the steel out of her flesh produced. She threw it skittering across the rooftop. Forcing herself to stand upright, she clenched a fist as she stared at the arrogant bastard above her.
"I won't be beaten, not in this fight," she uttered, half to herself. "I can't be beaten!" Largo shook his head in sardonic amusement.
"Allow me to pay homage to your admirable, albeit trifling courage, Priss," he remarked, reaching for the front of his jacket. "Let me show you something, the last thing you will ever see." He tore off the jacket, and sent it fluttering to the rooftop. Priss gasped at the startling change Largo underwent, taking an involuntary step backwards.
His skin changed colour to a pale gunmetal grey, as his hair became slightly reddish. His armoured upper body expanded to look more muscular, and red veins appeared in some places. The most horrifying change was his eyes; they became pitch-black orbs with red pupils, the eyes of an evil, deranged fiend. Largo laughed again, a rolling, corrosive sound.
"THIS is the look of the true victor!" he declared ringingly. "Now I will kill you with a thought!"
"THAT was the voice of a truly pompous asshole!" SkyKnight's voice echoed back from somewhere. Largo snarled, his furious gaze sweeping the rooftop. He ducked the sudden volley of laser bolts that came from the silver hardsuit that suddenly reared up from behind the edge of the roof, and fired another concussion bolt at the annoying bastard who dared to mock him. SkyKnight was again knocked spinning off into the darkness. Largo started striding purposefully down the stairs to the rooftop level where Priss waited. Priss crouched, preparing to attack.
Metallic-sounding footsteps echoed from a shadowed doorway, and the head of her motoroid appeared. Hope flashed; if she could get to and use the motoroid, she stood a much better chance of winning with the extra armour and weapons. The faint, dawning hope withered and died as the motoroid's head crashed to the ground, being smashed by a large, metal-clad red foot. Priss backed away as three huge red, blue, and black boomers advanced from the shadows.
"Come on! Move it! Hurry up!" Sylia barked. She jumped into the new, pristine white hardsuit that was standing waiting, and whipped through the closure and start-up process. Nene and Linna were also exchanging equipment while Mackie struggled with getting Priss' new suit and heavy combat motoroid crammed into the KnightWing next to Linna's motoroid. Jamming her helmet on, Sylia pounded across the hangar deck to the plane, Linna and Nene frantically following.
Priss was smashed back into the wall behind her, pain sweeping throughout her body again. The knife wound, in particular, felt like it was burning away her innards. She could also feel the night breeze faintly on her skin, through the gaping holes where the front of her long-suffering hardsuit had been peeled off by her enemies. She snarled defiance at the loose semicircle of hyperboomers in front of her; her suit might be useless now, but she wasn't going to just fold up and die. The red boomer stepped aside slightly, and the nightmarish figure of Largo advanced towards her. Priss tried to get to her feet.
"Shit! This is embarrassing!" she muttered to herself. Getting done in by a megalomaniac monster while wounded, and, ahem, exposed and helpless, was humiliating. She ignored the fact that she was greatly outnumbered; she hadn't figured three boomers would be a problem. Largo lashed out with a kick to her punctured shoulder, which smashed her away from the wall, and threw her several feet over to crash to the rooftop again. She tried desperately to keep from giving her tormentors the satisfaction of hearing her cry out at the fresh waves of agony they'd inflicted as she fought to roll over and get up.
A gauntleted hand crunched into the edge of the rooftop. A moment later, a battered, silver-armoured figure hauled itself painfully over the edge to collapse onto the decking, gasping. SkyKnight shook his head, trying to clear the spots from his vision; he'd had to physically drag himself up the side of the building from the next lower roof level because Largo's last blast had knocked his flight system out temporarily. The suit computer was now busily re-routing some circuit paths to re-establish his jets, but it was going to be a couple more moments yet. He shook his head again, relieved to have made it. Even with the hardsuit's strength, it had been a difficult, slow climb. The physical exertion had been made worse by the fact that he didn't know what was happening to Priss.
He lurched to his feet, wincing at the twinges from his ribs; it felt like Largo had cracked a couple of them with that last blast. Damn it, when would he learn to keep his mouth shut? Bert asked himself, then answered his own question: probably never. It was painful, but still fun to mouth off to the pompous jackasses he fought every so often. His helmet turned and swept the rooftop, intently looking around.
He had arrived none too soon; the hyperboomers and Largo were advancing on Priss. As he straightened up and began running towards them, Priss was kicked by Largo out towards the more open center of the rooftop. Largo began to walk purposefully towards her. At the same time as that happened, his flight system came on-line again. Perfect!
His jets blasted, hurling him across the gap towards Largo. As he shot over, he wound up and belted Largo with an overhand right, shoving all the power he could to his suit musculature, and adding the momentum from his flight to the blow. Largo's head jerked sideways, but that was it. He'd had about as much effect on Largo as hitting an M1-A1 tank with a flyswatter would have. Bert couldn't believe it; with his inertia and suit strength behind it, that punch should have decapitated the bugger. Instead, it looked like he hadn't even made a dent! He launched an uppercut, trying to formulate some new plan of attack.
Red eyes flared balefully at him as Largo, moving too fast for his sensors to keep up, intercepted SkyKnight's next punch with his hand. The horizon spun as Largo swung him up into the air by his arm, and then slammed him to the rooftop with stunning force, headfirst. The silver hardsuit bounced twice and lay in a heap, the first bounce taking gouges out of the roof. Largo contemptuously kicked the unmoving figure over to the same area where Priss was attempting to sit up. SkyKnight made a short arc through the air to land in a clanging crash on the decking. He stirred and began moving feebly. A demonic grin stretched across Largo's features as he advanced towards the fallen pair.
Priss watched Largo advance, feeling helpless despair well up. Despite all her anger and determination, she was powerless to do anything while this bastard went about calmly killing her and her friends. It just wasn't fair! She wanted to go out fighting, if she had to, not crushed like a bug by some mechanical psychopath.
"I want power," she despairingly murmured aloud as the grinning fiend advanced, "power enough to lay this bastard low." SkyKnight stirred, and a faint reply came from him.
"One power delivery coming up," he said. "Will that be charge, cash or Visa?"
Priss gritted her teeth in frustration. She didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but why couldn't he just shut up instead of making bloody stupid comments when they were about to....
An explosion crashed through a doorway at the far end of the rooftop. Largo and the hyperboomers spun to look, as Priss' head snapped up to look also. SkyKnight concentrated on getting his scrambled wits back together so he could at least move. A large blue humanoid robot, heavily armed and armoured stepped out of the flames. It began advancing across the roof towards them. Largo gestured, and the red hyperboomer sprang forward to kill the interloper. Priss stared as the blue robot smashed the boomer into a smoking pile of scrap with an almost negligent overhand swing. The head of the robot swung to look at Priss, and as it did so, its eyes flared pink.
Priss summoned every last ounce of energy she could muster, and scrambled to her feet, running towards what she now recognized as the heavy-duty combat motoroid Sylia had been developing. She ran desperately, ignoring the pain it re-awakened, and the fact that the exertion was re-opening her wounds.
"Oh no you don't!!!!!" Largo snarled. He started to run after her, but was forced back by a volley of cannon fire from the motoroid. A second later, a double plasma blast from SkyKnight, still lying on the decking, at point blank range knocked him over. SkyKnight awkwardly rolled over and up, getting slowly to his feet and warily keeping an eye on Largo. If Largo had been mad before, he was in a towering rage now.
"You will all die!" he shouted, clenching a fist. "No matter what you do I am going to win!"
"You wanna spare us the patented bad guy spiel?" SkyKnight retorted. "It really is pointless, not to mention nauseating." He dodged Largo's infuriated swing at his head by a mere fraction of an inch, and backflipped with his jets to put some distance between them. Largo appeared momentarily distracted, because he didn't press the attack on SkyKnight. Bert wasn't really complaining about it, though; the pounding he'd taken so far was quite enough, thank you very much. It felt like he had cracked ribs and a wrenched neck and spine now, and it was making concentrating difficult, not to mention very painful.
Largo gestured the two hyperboomers towards him, turning to face the sleek blue, red-striped hardsuit that was shrieking his name as it charged him. The hulking machines clanked towards SkyKnight, eyes glowing evilly.
Priss leaped at Largo, trying to smash him flat with a kick. He leaned sideways, and she flashed past, smashing into retaining wall, destroying it. Largo wound up, and then lashed out with a fantastic punch that sent shockwaves hurtling through the air. Priss dodged aside desperately, and the blast wave pulverized the rubble she'd been standing in. Oh my God! she thought, stunned. What incredible destructive power! If he'd connected... she swallowed at the thought, her mouth turning dry.
"So you're just a worm after all," Largo remarked. Priss clenched her teeth, hatred surging to the forefront. She clenched her own fist, mentally preparing to charge the bastard. No more running away. She leaped at Largo, swinging with every ounce of her anger, courage, determination and resolve behind her attack.
The blue hyperboomer crashed to the rooftop, headless and spewing oily fluids all over. SkyKnight sagged against the wreckage sobbing for breath, swordblades retracting. The fight had been a flashing, one minute, absolutely wild and chaotic melee of blades and energy blasts. SkyKnight had almost gone berserk in his desperation to put the boomers down quickly so he could help Priss somehow. A few feet away, the black hyperboomer burned in a cheery looking bonfire. SkyKnight himself wasn't in much better shape than the boomers; his armour was gouged and burned all over, and some of the plating was gone in spots. Blood leaked slowly from a diagonal gash in his right leg armour, just above the knee. To top that off, his left arm was weaponless and smoking; to kill the black boomer, he'd had to crank the power on his guns to way beyond their capacity, and it had burned out the cannons on his arm, explosively. Other than his arm feeling burned from overheating, Bert was unharmed; the guns were designed to blow outwards if overheating occurred, sparing the suit occupant serious injuries.
He straightened up, marshaling his lagging energy reserves for just a few more precious minutes. At the same time, Priss launched herself at Largo, while he fired a roaring punch at her. The two punches met in a shattering blast that turned everything white briefly, forcing him to throw an arm across his helmet visor to shield his sight. A shockwave from the collision washed over him, shoving him back a step in surprise, but not doing any harm.
An agonized howl of outrage was torn from Largo as he was thrown back, his left arm shattering to the elbow. Priss was also thrown backwards, but in one piece. As she staggered backwards, a familiar white hardsuit stepped forward to catch her, and lend a shoulder to lean on.
"Well done, Priss," Sylia remarked, looking at the maimed creature standing a scant twenty feet away. Largo was hunched over, clutching his shattered arm, absolutely fuming. SkyKnight charged his remaining guns up.
"Humans.... how...vulgar!" Largo rasped. He began to straighten up, raising his remaining good arm.
"Hey, if that was vulgar, then this must be downright rude!" Largo was abruptly knocked off of his feet by a torrent of searing blue plasma bolts from SkyKnight. SkyKnight continued to pound the downed figure, draining his battery packs to try and destroy the maniacal ultraboomer. Unfortunately, it seemed Largo was still armoured enough to resist the attack. He stood up, ignoring the blue blasts, and continued to speak as if nothing had happened. SkyKnight cut off his fire a moment later; it wasn't accomplishing anything, and he didn't have too much in the way of power left in his suit. He grimly limped towards Sylia and Priss, ignoring the ranting Largo.
"For the crime of injuring me, a God," Largo was foaming, "I demand as atonement..... your deaths!" His remaining arm swept up.
"No!" Sylia exclaimed. "Linna!!!!"
"Roger!" Linna replied, understanding perfectly, planting the legs of her motoroid solidly into the rooftop. The massive particle cannon mounted on the frame swung to point skyward. "Nene, you'll have to co-ordinate for me!"
"Okay!" Nene replied, unfolding her sensor array from her backpack. Two quick seconds of scanning, and "Error correction, 0.06 degrees..."
Largo's arm swept down; a blue light twinkled in the sky, growing brighter with every instant.
"FIRE!!!!!!!!" Nene and Linna yelled together, as the motoroid bucked and spat its own bolt of coruscating energy into the night, hurling a challenge at the darkness shrouding the orbital satellites from view. The two crackling energy beams shot past each other.
Far beyond the human range of sight, the orbiting beam satellite flared silently outwards into an expanding cloud of dissipating flames and debris. The results of the first beam were , however, much too visible for comfort to those watching; the beam struck the roof of the GENOM tower, shredding the decking like cheap tinfoil, and it began tracking towards Largo instead of the embattled Knight Sabers. Largo howled again in thwarted rage as the flaring energy beam gouged a trench towards him, enveloping him in its hellish energy discharge. A fiery explosion seemed to engulf him. Across the rooftop, the Knight Sabers relaxed slightly.
A burned and blackened form lurched out of the flames, staggering to stand regarding the incredulous Sabers. Would nothing kill this bastard? Just what the hell was he??! Largo shouldn't have been able to move at all; by all rights, he should have been dead. His skin was a smoking, blistered rag just barely covering the ceramic-metal endoskeleton beneath, and smoke and fluids of some kind were pouring out of holes in his torso. That alone would have put down any other boomer they could think of. Red eyes burned at them from the flames.
"Sylia Stingray....." he said in a low ominous tone. Sylia reared back in shock.
"How....how do you know my name?!?" she responded. Who the hell was this?!
"I know that you and I are two of a kind, because..." Largo's voice cut off as a particle beam gun muzzle shoved itself out of his mouth. Priss tried to step in front of Sylia, but SkyKnight stepped in front of both of them, and played his last ace.
What looked like strange, double-barreled shotgun unfolded from its housing on his right shoulder and bellowed, spitting twin projectiles at Largo's chest. At the same time, a crashing report echoed from a nearby rooftop, and Largo's forehead was smashed in by a large caliber bullet. He staggered back a step, then fell off the edge of the roof as the large slugs from SkyKnight's shoulder gun provided the final nudge needed, tearing into Largo's torso and knocking him off the peak of the GENOM pyramid. The ultraboomer with delusions of godhood fell screaming into the abyss, and seconds later a massive detonation shook the air, sending flames rocketing into the sky.
All of the Knight Sabers turned towards the adjacent building to see an ADP helicopter idling on the roof, and Leon McNichol standing at the edge, his heavy revolver in hand. They regarded each other for a moment, SkyKnight flipping a salute to Leon, which was returned. As glorious dawn broke over the beleaguered city, Leon climbed back into chopper and flew off. The Sabers watched the chopper depart, flipping up their visors to enjoy the feel of the sun on their faces.
"That Leon's quite a guy," Priss remarked, smiling slightly. Her expression abruptly turned sorrowful. "I'm sorry Sylvie," she muttered to herself. "I just couldn't save her." She felt drained, physically and emotionally, both from her perceived failure, and from her wounds combined with the long battle. Her injuries started throbbing again, as if thinking about them had stimulated the nerves involved. Ignoring the pain as best as she could, for now, she dropped her visor, and turned towards Sylia.
"Come on," Sylia said wearily, "let's get out of here and go home." Everyone else nodded. Looking around, Nene suddenly noticed something.
"Hey! Where'd Bert go?! He was here a minute ago!!" Suddenly worried, she slapped her helmet closed and started scanning for his transponder signal. She'd just started to scan when the whine of his thruster jets announced his return from where ever it was he'd disappeared to. SkyKnight dropped heavily to the rooftop in front of them, cradling Anri in his arms. She stirred slightly as they watched, obviously still alive.
"Now we can all go home," Bert stated quietly.
ONE WEEK LATER.....
Bert relaxed into the couch, sighing in relief. Nene flopped next to him a moment later, and he put his arm around her as everyone else sprawled on whatever furniture was available. Pizza boxes covered the coffee table, and several bottles of pop, with stronger stuff for those desiring it, sat among the clutter. It was a sort of delayed victory party for the Knight Sabers; in the week following the fights at the bank and GENOM towers no one had had the energy to celebrate anything. Bert had needed stitches, bandages, and his ribs had to be taped up; Priss had also needed the same treatment, prompting Linna to remark that it had looked like they'd been having a contest to see who could come back with the most injuries. That particular remark hadn't gone over well at the time, with either of them.
Priss carefully folded herself into a chair next to the other couch where Sylvie and Anri were sitting. The two girls were in perfect health, and absolutely beaming; after analyzing the data disk from the GPCC headquarters, Sylia had been able to come up with a way to eliminate their dependence on human hemoglobin, and had found some obscure doctor/technician to perform the required operations. They'd been completely self-sufficient for four days now, and were enjoying their new freedom. Bert wasn't overly surprised at the secretive way it had been accomplished, since Sylia seemed to have contacts that allowed her access to almost anything. After all, she'd even procured some depleted uranium shotgun slugs for his shoulder gun, and they'd come in very useful. He snagged his glass from the end table next to the couch and took a swig. Linna sat up in her chair, looking over at Sylvie and Anri.
"So what are your plans now?" she inquired. Sylvie answered her; Anri was still a little shy around the rest of them, partly because she was getting over her guilty feelings for having been one of Largo's pawns.
"Sylia found us a place outside the city where we can stay, for a while at least," she replied. "We haven't really decided what to do yet; we're just enjoying ourselves right now."
"Sounds like a good job, to me, anyway," Mackie commented, wolfing down one of the few remaining pizza slices. Everyone grinned. Sylia shook her head, regarding her brother with amused tolerance. Sylvie looked around at them all.
"We'd just like to thank you all again for what you've done for us," she said. "You especially," she added, looking at Bert. "If it weren't for you, we wouldn't be here right now."
"Aw, shucks," he drawled in reply, smiling. "T'warn't nothing. Anyone else would have done the same." A pillow hit him in the face from Priss' direction.
"Anyone else with your nutty ideas, you mean," she corrected, as he tossed the pillow aside. Everyone snickered slightly. Nene looked up at Bert with a sly look twinkling in her green eyes.
"So what are you going to do now?" she asked mischievously. "There doesn't appear to be any more damsels-in-distress to rescue." He grinned down at her, and flashed a wink in Sylia's direction.
"Oh, I'm sure I can think of something," he replied, grinning like a Chesire cat, "if I put my mind to it."
"Oh God!" Sylia muttered to herself, stomach sinking, as everyone else burst into laughter.
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|SkyKnight, KnightWorks and The Bubblegum Zone are ©1995-2001 Bert Van Vliet. Bubblegum Crisis & related characters are all © Artmic, Inc., Youmex, Inc. Please feel free to email all comments to Bert Van Vliet|