Dim fluorescent lighting reflected off metal cabinets and computer monitor casings. Technicians and scientists scurried throughout the cavernous room, like ants in a suddenly disturbed colony, tending the whirring and humming machines. Thick electrical cables and conduits ran riot up the walls, and across the ceiling beams of the room, as if some demented artificial spider had arranged them. In the center of the room, a large metal table sat as the focus of attention. On the table lay a massive, metallic green humanoid body. Some of the interface and power cables from the myriad computer banks ran to the body, and periodically small blue sparks arced over the body's plating.

From a catwalk suspended above the activity, an older man with craggy features and long grey hair watched the fevered activity below. At length, he turned and walked down to the level that was swarming with activity. Everyone in the room snapped to attention at his approach. A visibly nervous scientist with a tag reading 'director' stepped forward and bowed deeply to the approaching figure.

"Mr. Quincy! It's an honour!" he proclaimed. "What can we do for you, sir?"

"What is the status of the project?" Quincy growled, ignoring the phony pleasantries and question alike. The director swallowed nervously.

"We are almost finished, sir, but we need to do some fine tuning on the AI yet," he stammered.

"Why?!" Quincy demanded. "Surely programming a fully autonomous AI isn't beyond your team's capabilities?" he asked, the obvious implication of his question being that it had damn well better not be. This project was expensive, and they couldn't afford incompetent boobs working on it. The scientist paled slightly.

"No sir!! We can demonstrate how far along we are right now, if you wish." Quincy nodded curtly, and the scientists scattered to the monitors and computers. The director stood next to Quincy. An ominous hum filled the air; ionized air crackled around the prone body. The massive body surged upright to a sitting position, eyes flaring into burning yellow life. Quincy examined the new boomer with a pleased smile.

The boomer was ten feet tall, and coloured a bright metallic green. It was very articulated and flexible-looking, with almost chitinous armour plating. Massive artificial musculature that would have outclassed Hercules himself bulged all over its frame. The only visible weapons were twin, wickedly curved claws in the backs of each hand, with serrated back edges, much like rip-saws. The blades snapped out to full extension, and then mostly retracted as Quincy watched, leaving a couple of inches of tip protruding. The most immediately noticeable feature about the boomer was its head; loosely based on a human skull casing, the boomer's head was more elongated, and its eyes were mounted on the sides of its head, like the eyes of a chameleon. The faceted, dome-shaped eyes of the boomer gave it a three-hundred-sixty degree field of vision, making it impossible to surprise. It had fanged jaws vaguely reminiscent of a preying mantis. It looked like a strange insect overall, but it also looked very deadly.

"HH 9000, state your purpose," the director said from beside Quincy. The boomer's head swung to regard the two men, yellow eyes flashing balefully.

"Kill!" it declared in a deep, sepulchral, grinding voice. "Kill the Knight Sabers!"

SkyKnight Productions
Proudly Presents
A NonTechnical Film

MegaTokyo 2033
The Knight Sabers

"The Bubblegum Zone - Episode #5"

Copyright (c) 1995 Bert Van Vliet

"Just what the hell is that thing, anyway?" Priss inquired, frowning at the large object sitting in one of the vehicle bays of Raven's garage. Bert grinned at her, sweeping his recalcitrant red hair out of his eyes.

"That, dear lady," he stated in lofty tones, "is the WarHorse 5000 jet cycle." Priss looked at him, then at the strange machine again. The body of the object looked like a heavy motorcycle chassis, almost like Mackie's Highwaystar motorcycle he'd built a while back. However, the similarity to a motorcycle ended there.

A swept-back wing protruded from each side, with a slight groove close to the body of the machine, where the driver would place his feet. Four jet nozzles thrust out from under the wings, two per side, where the exhaust pipes on a motorcycle would normally be. The front end of the vehicle resembled a jet-turbine intake, with a faring sloping back over strange looking handlebars. Six small apertures were lined up along the bottom of the hood, where the faring started. From the looks of it, it was designed to be a two-seater; the long seat had two 'levels', with a high back sticking up from the end. A small airplane tail was mounted behind the back of the seat. Priss couldn't see how the bloody thing was supposed to move, though, since no wheels were visible. The entire thing was painted white, with stylized red, orange, and yellow flames painted around the jet exhaust pipes.

"You're not going to get too far without wheels," she observed.

"I called it a jet cycle," he replied calmly, "not a motorcycle." It took a minute, but she got it finally.

"You mean that thing actually flies?!?! I don't believe it!! It looks like it's got the aerodynamics of a friggin' rock!" A devious smile crawled across Bert's face, and a challenging look glinted in his eyes.

"Care to test that theory with me?" he inquired. She looked at him incredulously.

"You're not seriously going to try and fly it are you?!" she demanded. "You'd need an armour suit in case you screw up and crash!!!"

"That's why it's designed to be used only with my hardsuit," he informed her.

"And you wanna test it now?! You know what Sylia says about solo runs, even if you're just testing something. Hell, especially if it's YOU testing something!!"

"If you're with me, it won't be a solo run, will it?" he pointed out.

"No!" she said flatly. "Count me out! I'm not going to...."

"Oh come on! The Speed Demon of the motorcycle set is afraid to try something different?!"

Priss looked from the machine to him, teeth clenched, fires igniting in her red-brown eyes.

****

A silver, blue, and white blur thundered across the skyline of MegaTokyo, propelled by howling jet turbines. Roaring along at just under sonic speeds, it began weaving crazily through the maze of skyscrapers in the business section, rattling windows and startling bored executives. It was moving too fast for visual identification, though.

"I can't believe I let myself get talked into this!" Priss gulped, trying to pull her stomach back from wherever it had decided to go.

"Quit complaining," Bert replied, his tone indicating a huge grin. "You're enjoying this as much as I am." They were using their hardsuit helmet communicators, since the wind screaming by made being heard by anything less than shouting or radio impossible.

"I was, until you started the obstacle course!" Priss retorted. The ride had been wildly exhilarating so far, and the view from up above was fantastic. She was beginning to see why Bert preferred flying around in his hardsuit to more conventional travel, but the aerial acrobatics were just too much for her stomach to handle; it felt like it had decided to leave her guts about three miles back.

She frantically grabbed at SkyKnight's back as they dropped precipitously under a walkway between two buildings, then shot back into the relatively uncrowded upper levels. She was going to need a good stiff drink when this was all over, she told herself. His flying style, when compared to her driving a motorcycle, made her look normal in terms of the way she handled her bike. Sure, she was a nut about speed, but if she was a nut, then he was stark bloody raving crazy! She groaned again as the WarHorse shot sideways, almost on a straight lateral line, to avoid a solar collector on a rooftop. Turbines screamed tormentedly as the jet cycle spun a complete revolution in midair, then shot forward on a straight course again.

"Oh God, I think I'm gonna be sick!!! Where the hell did you learn to fly like this?"

"Jet fighter video games!" he laughed. Priss' stomach lurched even harder at his reply. She'd entrusted her life to some nutcase who really wasn't qualified to be flying jets.

"Oh my God, I'm REALLY gonna throw up!"

"Aim backwards," he advised. "It's not a good idea to puke into the wind." She gritted her teeth, irritation overcoming nausea. If it wasn't for the fact he was piloting, she would have strangled him on the spot. As she contemplated elaborate revenge schemes, she suddenly noticed that, impossible as it seemed, they were being followed. Two black shapes were visible in the distance behind them.

"Umm, I think we've got company," she said, craning her neck back to keep an eye on the distant figures. They weren't gaining, but they weren't losing ground, either.

"I know," he answered calmly, "I've been tracking them for the last five minutes." He could have been merely discussing the weather, since he sounded like it was an everyday occurrence. He's changed, Priss realized suddenly. He wouldn't have been so relaxed a few weeks ago, when he was still recovering from a nearly fatal ambush with Dobermans. For weeks after the attack, he'd been plagued by fear and self-confidence problems. They'd finally disappeared and he'd seemed to have gone back to being his old self. Obviously, there'd been a couple of changes. She wasn't entirely sure that it was for the better, though.

"So what are you going to do?" she prodded. He might not have been concerned, but she was. Not many things could hold the speed they were doing right now.

"Let's see what they are, shall we?" he replied, decelerating. Instantly, the black shapes surged nearer. As they zipped closer, Priss' suit viewscreen was able to give her a telescopic picture of their pursuers. Two black and white, vaguely humanoid boomers leapt into her vision.

"Shit!!! Dobermans again!" she exclaimed. She was slammed back into the seat, almost folding in half backwards over it, as the WarHorse suddenly howled forward again. As she fought to regain her equilibrium, the jet cycle slewed sideways, its rear end swinging around in a circle, the nose of the cycle pointing towards the boomers. The WarHorse erupted forwards, towards the boomers.

"What the hell are you doing?!?!" she shrieked at him. "We can't fight them on this thing!!!" She watched as the distant black shapes loomed suddenly larger on the horizon.

There was a sickening lurch as the WarHorse bucked a total of six times in midair; six missiles of some kind were spat from their launch tubes in the front faring of the cycle. As she watched, the missile swarm split in half partway towards the Dobermans, with three of them hitting each boomer in fiery impacts. The boomer on the left dropped from the sky like a stone, its head blasted away; the boomer on the right lost an arm, and part of its torso armour. It blasted back with a particle bolt, but by the time the bolt lashed out, Priss and SkyKnight were already past it and accelerating even more.

"Prepare for hyperdrive!" Bert suddenly announced as particle beams began to track through the air towards them. The horizon spun wildly as the WarHorse rolled over sideways, still traveling forwards, to spin around to an upright position again, avoiding the crackling green burst of energy that had just passed by. The boomer itself couldn't catch up, but its energy bolts certainly could. SkyKnight flipped the cover off of a thumb switch on the handlebars, and a shudder ran through the frame of the cycle. Priss didn't know what to expect, but she wrapped her arms around him from behind, and held on for dear life. SkyKnight pressed the switch. A rising hum from the engine exploded into a scream of violently displaced air as the WarHorse tore forward, leaving the boomer in its wake. The rolling, echoing blast of a sonic boom thundered through the afternoon air.

****

Madigan nervously glanced sidelong at the towering green boomer standing in the middle of the office as she walked by it, forcing herself not to flinch. The thing gave her the creeps, and there weren't many things that could do that to her. It seemed to be always watching, and waiting, for something. The eyes were the worst part, glaring yellow orbs that seemed to burn evilly. Its looming height was intimidating, inspiring dread in whoever had to walk close to it. Its exotic appearance did not mask its deadliness, but seemed to broadcast it to the world. Whatever the cause was, the thing was unsettling to be around. Quincy watched her approach, icy blue eyes glinting in sardonic amusement.

"What's the latest report?" he inquired as she came to his desk. She glanced again behind her.

"Don't worry," he assured her. "It's currently shut down." She relaxed slightly, turning back to face him.

"Still no word on the third party using Dobermans," she reported crisply. "Although there were apparently another two attempts on SkyKnight recently. He beat them rather neatly, without a lot of fuss. Whatever their tactics are, I think they'd better change them; he doesn't appear to be intimidated by them anymore."

"It would seem," Quincy mused philosophically, "that if you want the job done correctly, you have to do it yourself."

"Sir?" she asked in confusion. What job was he talking about?

"If we want SkyKnight and the Knight Sabers out of the way, we'll have to do it ourselves," he elaborated. "And I want that battlemover technology back."

"But sir, what if the rumours are true?" she queried. There'd been an ugly rumour circulating lately, among those in the know, that most of the D.D.'s technical data had actually been destroyed. Quincy was one of the ones vehemently denying the rumour; he didn't like to think of the billions of yen that had been spent on its research being wasted. As far as he was concerned, SkyKnight had it, and he wanted it back. Wiping out the Knight Sabers just happened to mesh with that goal.

"They aren't true," he growled back. "That's just a smoke screen to try and keep us from attacking him. Don't bring that up again; I'm getting tired of hearing it." She nodded respectfully, her face remaining impassive. If he wanted to be unreasonable about it, that was his business, not hers.

"When will you be releasing the boomer?" she asked, changing the subject. The idea of a fully autonomous killer boomer loose in the city was a trifle unsettling; it could turn on anyone, even them. She still thought that making the boomer fully independent of GENOM, using a new type of AI, was risky. There was no way that they could ensure that the boomer would remain loyal to GENOM's directives.

"Soon," he replied evasively. "I want to make fully sure that its directives are complete, and that it has complete files on the Knight Sabers."

"I still feel that more time to test it would be wise."

"We can't afford to wait any longer. Our mysterious adversaries may succeed if we wait any more. Besides, I don't expect immediate results from it; it will take time for the HH 9000 to establish some kind of attack plan that will succeed. The earlier we start, the earlier we triumph." Madigan frowned.

"HH 9000? What does that designation stand for?" she inquired. "It doesn't fit our usual model numbers." A flat, deadly grin etched itself into Quincy's face.

" The 'HH' stands for HeadHunter," he explained. "I felt it was appropriate, under the circumstances."

Yellow eyes flashed briefly behind Madigan.

****

"That wasn't so bad," Bert remarked as they entered the hardsuit storage room, pulling off his helmet. "I'd say that was a very successful first flight."

"Don't start celebrating yet," Priss said warningly, looking past him to the far end of the room. Bert turned around to see Sylia Stingray, wearing a white lab coat and an impassive face, standing at the far end of the room by a computer monitor, regarding them with her arms folded across her chest.

"Hi!" he said innocently. "What's up?" Priss covered her eyes with her hand, sighing in resignation. Sylia's expression didn't flicker.

"Apparently, you two were," she replied. "If you're going to design a flying machine, make one that runs silently; I think everyone in this section of town heard you pass by. Forget that for now; I thought we had agreed to no more solo runs? In fact, I remember somebody swearing to the effect that they wouldn't do that anymore." She waited, arms folded, looking at him coolly.

"It wasn't a solo run; Priss was with me to keep an eye on things," he replied glibly.

"Yeah, right," Priss muttered to herself under her breath. The only thing she'd been doing was holding on to whatever was available to keep from falling off. Sylia's expression flashed annoyance at his flippancy briefly, then became cool again.

"Don't even try prevaricating with me," she told him. "We are going to have a chat about this later. For now, I believe Dr. Raven and Mackie need some help overhauling the transport trucks. Thank you both for volunteering." She turned and left, leaving Bert and Priss to stare at each other in dismay.

****

"That little weasel enjoyed that," Priss groaned, painfully straightening up, her back shrieking in protest. Her long brown hair was a sweaty, tangled mess, a couple of oil smears were on her nose and cheek, and her hands were almost pitch black with grime and grease. Mackie had been given the job of supervising the two miscreants, and he'd certainly worked them hard; Priss felt certain her hands were going to be blistered for a week. She joined Bert at the sink where he was attempting to scrub his hands clean. He was equally if not more dirty; he'd been the one drafted to crawl around on the engines since his mechanical skills were far better than Priss'. Priss grabbed a handful of the hand cleaning gel from the jar on the counter top and started scrubbing.

"It's possible," Bert admitted. He wasn't really saying much because he was just as tired as she felt, although he wasn't as disgruntled about it as Priss was.

"I'm going to get him back, somehow," she announced. He shook his head.

"I wouldn't try it," he cautioned. "As the brother of the boss, he has a certain amount of 'diplomatic immunity'." She snorted, and rinsed her hands off, inspecting them. Most of the grime had come off, although her hands still looked as if she'd been fingerprinted. Bert tossed her a towel, suddenly grinning slyly.

"Well, there was one good thing to all this," he noted.

"What's that?"

"I actually got to see you work for a change!" Bert fled the garage, grinning fiendishly, scant steps ahead of the pursuing Priss, who appeared to have made a miraculous recovery.

****

"Feel better now?" Bert inquired solicitously as he handed her a steaming mug of tea. He still couldn't keep a grin from leaking through, though. Priss glared back at him, and took it, sipping cautiously. She'd managed to get revenge on him for his wisecrack by waiting until he was showering, then turning on the taps in his kitchen. He hadn't said anything when he'd come out, though, which had reduced her enjoyment somewhat. What's the fun in getting somebody back if they don't complain about it? In fact, he seemed to be getting a bigger kick out of it himself than she had, which had added to her disgust.

She flicked some damp hairs out of her eyes; she'd commandeered his bathroom the minute she'd come in and gotten cleaned up first, changing into some clean clothes she'd had handy. She felt human again, now that she'd gotten rid of the dirt and grease. Bert was back to his usual, blue tracksuited self, his wet red hair still managing to look like a rat's nest. He grinned again at her as he sank into his recliner, holding his own mug.

"I do now, no thanks to you," she retorted. He merely smiled back, sipping his tea. They sat in companionable silence, drinking for a few minutes.

"I guess you're going to have to tell Sylia that USSD is still after you," she said finally, just for something to say to get rid of the suddenly smothering silence.

"Looks that way, doesn't it?" he responded noncommittally. He swigged again from his mug, while Priss squinted at him suspiciously.

"All right, spill it!" she ordered.

"Spill what?" he asked innocently.

"I know that look. You're cooking up some insane scheme again aren't you?"

"Possibly," he evaded. "I've been considering some options to try to convince them to leave us, I mean me, alone. Nothing solid yet, though. We really need positive proof of some kind before we can do anything." The phone rang. Sighing, Bert reached over and snagged the receiver.

"Hello? Yeah, it's me. Yup, she's here. Okay, we'll be right up." He hung up, then stiffly levered himself out of his chair, looking at her.

"That was Sylia," he told her. "Apparently, we forgot it was time for the weekly meeting; they've been waiting for half an hour." He extended a hand, helping her out of her own chair. Together, they trooped upstairs.

****

Huge grins greeted their arrival in Sylia's living room. Obviously, Nene and Linna had been told what had happened. Mackie was nowhere in sight.

"The first one to make smartass remarks dies horribly," Priss warned them, flopping into the couch.

"Would we do something like that?" Linna asked innocently.

"I just wish I could have seen you slaving over the trucks," Nene told Priss. "I've never seen you work before." Priss glared daggers at Nene, who smiled back sweetly at her, and belted the snickering Bert with a pillow.

"That's enough, kiddies," Sylia said, shaking her head. "Behave yourselves. We have some serious business to discuss now." She pressed a button on the remote control she held. The big screen television at the far end of the room flashed up a picture of a blond, grey-eyed woman. "We've finally got an ID on this woman. Her name is Lieutenant, formerly Major, Natasha Rutherford. At one time, it was generally recognized that she was the best armour suit pilot in Europe when she transferred to USSD. Why she transferred, and why she was demoted we haven't been able to find out. The one other strange thing is that she doesn't appear on any of the active duty rosters anywhere. She is still at USSD, but whatever she's involved in, there's no official record of it."

"I know what she's involved in," Bert growled. "Trying to take me down." Sylia shook her head.

"We need some kind of proof, first," she insisted. He looked back at her, jaw setting stubbornly. As far as he was concerned, he had enough proof. If it wasn't her, she wouldn't have been at the scene of his one boomer skirmish. "We can't just storm the USSD building because we have a suspicion," she continued. Bert started guiltily, and she suddenly looked at him, eyes widening in shock.

"You weren't thinking of it, were you!?"

"I did, briefly," he confessed, flushing. "It seemed that a good way to get them to bugger off and leave me alone would be to attack them for a change." Sylia suddenly lunged forward, grabbing him by the shirt, hauling him up to meet her fiery gaze.

"If you ever even remotely consider taking your suit for something like that, I'll shoot you myself!!!" she snarled. He raised his hands placatingly.

"Relax!" he attempted to soothe her. "I said I wouldn't try any solo assaults on anything, and I meant it." It was, however, the wrong thing to say, since it reminded her of his joyride earlier in the day.

"No solo actions means no solo actions of ANY kind you jackass!!"

"Yeah!" Priss chimed in. Sylia released Bert and spun around on her. Priss immediately shut up as Sylia pointed at her accusingly.

"As for you," she said a little more calmly, but still mad, "I'd have expected you to try and talk him out of it, not go along for the ride!!"

"Expecting Priss to be sensible? That's a new one!" Linna cracked. Nene fell off her chair laughing as Priss looked ready to kill.

"She did try," Bert cut in, leaping to Priss' defense, "but I kind of bullied her into it, so don't blame her."

"Bullied?" Sylia asked. Bert flushed guiltily.

"I kind of implied she was afraid to try it out with me," he confessed. "That got her mad enough to try it out." Sylia sighed in near despair, shaking her head.

"I have never met two people who are so bloody exasperating!!" she declared, looking from Priss to Bert. "If it isn't Priss getting into some kind of jackpot, it's you inventing something or doing the same thing!!" She threw her hands in the air. "Why me?!? Would someone please tell me that?!" No one answered.

"Sorry," Bert mumbled.

"You will be," she replied ominously. "However, that can wait, for now. Our current priority is deciding what to do about this." She gestured towards the screen. Bert shrugged.

"Easy," he replied. "I put on my suit and go trolling for Dobermans. They'll show up eventually, with her somewhere in the background. Then we get her for our 'evidence'."

"Sounds reasonable," Priss concurred. "They are still tracking you after .... er, I mean, um, ..." she faltered and stopped, turning red. Bert slapped a hand over his eyes, looking towards the ceiling as Sylia suddenly glared hard at Priss, and then him.

"Don't tell me, let me guess," she said acidly. "You were attacked again while out joyriding, right?" Bert sighed.

"Quit trying to help me out here," he told Priss, then looked at Sylia. "Yes, we were tailed briefly," he admitted. "I shot the one down and damaged the other, then we got the hell out of there. No harm done."

"That's not the point," she told him. "You could have been captured or killed while buzzing the city, which is why you're not supposed to go it alone!!" She fumed silently for a moment, pacing and trying to calm down. Sylia sat down finally, and changed the subject with an effort. "I don't think your idea is very efficient, though; we could spend all week covering the city and not get anywhere." Bert pulled a wrinkled, folded map of MegaTokyo out of his pocket.

"That's why we concentrate on this area of town," he told her, unfolding the map and smoothing it out on top of the coffee table. Several small circles were marked on the map, with lines joining the circles, forming a vaguely hexagonal shape around a section of the older, run-down industrial area in the north end of MegaTokyo, near the Canyons and the docks.

"How on earth did you figure that out?" Nene asked, staring at the map.

"I got the co-ordinates of everywhere I'd been attacked by Dobermans, and started marking them on the map. By figuring in their headings, probable flight ranges, and speeds, I was able to come up with a probable area for them to be launching from. After all, they can't just take off from the USSD headquarters; too many people would notice and start asking questions. So, it's a pretty good bet that somewhere in this area is our Lt. Rutherford." He tapped the center of the hexagon with a pencil. "All we have to do is find her."

 

ONE WEEK LATER....

SkyKnight leisurely flitted through the air over MegaTokyo, the afternoon sunlight gilding his burnished exterior slightly. He was flying at less than top speed, coasting along on his wings and droning jet system. His helmeted head swung back and forth occasionally, searching for something.

Bert sighed to himself in absolute boredom, glancing at his suit display screens. Normally he enjoyed any chance to fly around, but in this particular instance, he'd been soaring all over for some time with no trace of the expected Dobermans. Maybe they had the day off, he thought sardonically to himself. It was either that, or he'd made a mistake somewhere in figuring out their general location. Whatever the reason, he was not getting anywhere. Before too much longer, he was going to have to pack it in for the day or risk walking home when he exhausted his power supply. He swerved around, banking and turning to drift back to home base. He visually swept the surrounding skies again. Nothing in sight.

"Would you PLEASE stop that horrid racket?!?!" Sylia's voice crackled in his ear. He jerked out of the inattentive fog he'd drifted into as he realized he been singing to himself for something to do, and it had carried over the open communications band.

"I can't help it if you don't like good singing," he retorted.

"I do," she shot back, "but we haven't heard any yet!!" He could hear someone else killing themselves laughing in the background. Probably everyone else in the room, from the sound of it.

"Well if you'd let me put in that sound system I wanted, then I wouldn't have to torment your poor ears with my vocal talents," he commented slyly. Sylia didn't buy it, however.

"You are NOT having a CD-player in your suit!! For one thing, you can use the space for something more important. For another, you're nuts enough without having 'Ride of The Valkyries' blasting away during a fight. Just get used to being music deprived." He was about to reply when his suit display finally lit up: unidentified flying objects approaching.

"Start playing the cavalry charge," he remarked, grinning gleefully, "because here comes the opposition!" He flipped around, accelerating to full power. Jets howled, throwing him towards the approaching signals. At last, he thought exultantly to himself, some action! As he flew closer, he realized there was a different signal present with the two Dobermans.

"I think there's more to this fight than the last time around, Sylia," he reported, cranking his suit into full assault mode. "There's a hardsuit of some kind with them this time."

****

Lt. Natasha Rutherford smiled to herself as she rocketed towards the silver hardsuit in the distance, flanked by two black-and-white Doberman boomers. This is where you get what's coming to you, you mercenary bastard, she thought to herself. She'd been itching for the opportunity to take him on ever since he'd trashed her suit the last time. She was going to teach him a lesson he'd never forget, now that her new armour suit was finally ready for use. The Shadowhawk Heavy Assault Suit was the result of USSD's recent intensive battlesuit research, and was, to her mind, the best military combat suit ever devised. It beat all the other types she'd piloted in both defensive and offensive capabilities, and it had computer enhanced reflexes, making her normal swift situational responses even swifter. There was no way this hired gun was going to beat her this time.

Her targeting system locked onto the distant SkyKnight. Compact display screens flashed status messages and a threat assessment of her foe. According to her computer, SkyKnight should be a piece of cake; he hadn't even noticed they were approaching him yet. As she was lining up with her 30 mm main cannons, he spun around and began accelerating towards them. The boomers surged forward at her command, snarling with mechanical bloodlust.

****

SkyKnight flashed between the two Dobermans, ignoring them completely and leaving them in his wake. As he streaked towards the black hardsuit that had been accompanying them, the suit began firing at him with an arm cannon of some kind. He ignored the weapons fire, since unless she was using really heavy ordnance she couldn't ....

"Oh son of a bitch! Shit! Shit!! SHIT!!!" he swore, as one of the slugs from her guns connected with his lower right torso armour, slashing through his plating with frightening ease. It was only a graze, though, and not a serious injury. She tried to correct that oversight, slashing the air with streams of bullets as he suddenly began looping and twisting though the air in drunken-looking evasive maneuvers, trying to ignore the cold feeling in his guts from the near miss. His suit computer belatedly informed him what he'd just figured out: she was using depleted uranium armour-piercing rounds of some kind. She didn't need big guns with that kind of ammunition. However, she couldn't be carrying too many of them, he figured, mostly because the damn things were extremely heavy. He suddenly realized the boomers were back as particle beams began burning uncomfortably close. He swore at himself briefly for getting cocky. Ignoring potential threats was not a good idea.

He spun into a spiraling power dive, the boomers in howling pursuit. The black hardsuit followed at a more leisurely pace, still blasting periodically with its guns. SkyKnight suddenly flipped around and shot straight upwards, towards one of the boomers. As he shot past it, his right swordblade sprang out, shearing a huge slab from the boomer's left side as he savagely raked it in passing. The boomer lost control of its flight, and went spinning out of control to the city below. The remaining boomer ponderously swept around to follow him back up into the higher air. SkyKnight blasted the black hardsuit backwards with a laser bolt as he sideslipped out of the way of the ascending boomer. The black suit shook with the force of the shot, but no real damage seemed to have been sustained.

Shooting forward on his jets, he slammed into the back of the Doberman, grabbing its shoulders while trying to avoid roasting himself with the exhaust from the boomer's flight jets. As the black hardsuit whipped closer, firing at him again, he used his jets to spin the boomer around between him and the ebony suit. Like he'd figured, the suit was firing DPU rounds whenever he was close to it; the slugs tore easily through the boomer's carapace, exploding out its rear in a shower of parts and fluids, and almost hitting him. The slugs vanished somewhere into the distance as the Doberman plummeted to the ground like a skydiver without a parachute. SkyKnight and his hardsuited adversary warily circled each other for a moment in the air, each appraising the other.

"Impressive suit," SkyKnight complimented his enemy after looking her over. "Most impressive." He certainly meant it honestly enough.

His opponent's suit was formidable looking, and it was the sleekest suit he'd seen from a source outside the Knight Sabers in a long time. Although it was still bulkier than he was, it had some curves that indicated it was fitted to a woman. In some ways it bore a resemblance to Brian J. Mason's battlesuit, but more because of the heavy armour plating and arm-mounted cannons. The rest of the suit showed some uncanny touches that looked like Sylia's old suit, the one she'd had a couple of years ago when she'd first visited the USSD headquarters. The gauntlet and helmet construction were the main giveaways, although the helmet visor had been stretched slightly into a beak, making it look vaguely like the head of an eagle or hawk. Roaring rockets mounted in the boots were keeping it aloft. It had a backpack of some kind, and he was willing to bet the rent that it was probably a pop-up rocket launcher.

SkyKnight flipped sideways as she opened up with all of her guns, narrowly avoiding the storm of bullets. As he weaved around evading the probing projectiles, he idly reflected that one advantage he had over her was that he didn't need to worry about ammunition. Of course, she probably had several hundred normal rounds, so hoping she'd run out of bullets was kind of stupid. He took his time, sidestepping her shots and flitting around her in the air, but not returning fire. Although it looked like she was trying to kill him instead of capture this time, he found he couldn't bring himself to use deadly force in return. He supposed it was partly because she was a woman. A voice in the back of his mind berated him for his misplaced chivalry, but he ignored it. He wasn't about to start killing people indiscriminately. If he could, he wanted to just trash her suit and leave her alive.

"God damn you!! Stand still and fight!!" she suddenly snarled at him. A shoulder mounted weapon flipped into place on her right shoulder, and his scanners registered a huge electrical surge. Instantly, he kicked his jets to full power and shot upwards, just as a crackling, jagged electrical bolt seared the air where he'd been. Oh bloody marvelous, he thought to himself as he accelerated away from her to get some maneuvering room, she's using raw electrical energy. Lightning bolts, basically. Cute trick, that was; it would definitely short out his systems if it didn't just electrocute him. Obviously, the gloves were off.

SkyKnight shot towards the ground, angling for some deserted construction sites. He needed to get this battle on the ground, away from populated areas. He also suddenly realized that staying aloft was straining his remaining power reserves, and that ground combat would be a lot less taxing. He swooped low and vanished into the depths of a tangled maze of girders.

****

Natasha growled furiously as her silver-clad quarry disappeared into the construction site. All his earlier blathering about courage, and he'd turned tail and ran. The bastard didn't deserve any respect, she thought scornfully to herself. She keyed her sensors to their top sensitivity as she cautiously flew into the tangled beams and cross-braces. This was a perfect place to be blind-sided, and she didn't trust her adversary's claims of being honourable. The girders suddenly opened up into a central open space, a wide area that looked like it was destined to be a parking garage. At the far end, standing in the open, waiting with his arms crossed across his chest, was SkyKnight. She dropped to the concrete floor, arming all weapons systems, and began to advance implacably. SkyKnight held up a hand.

"Hang on a second," he said. "We have to discuss terms." She stopped, baffled. What the hell was he talking about?!

"Terms of what?" she inquired suspiciously. What the hell was he up to?

"Conditions for our duel, that sort of thing." DUEL?!?!?!?!? What the hell did he think this was, the middle ages?!?! This was war! She laughed scornfully at him.

"Getting cold feet?" she mocked him. "Want to surrender now?"

"We stay in this open area during the fight, no long distance flight allowed, " he continued, ignoring her remarks. "If you win, you get to leave free and clear. If I win, you're still free to leave."

"Yeah, right," she shot back with heavy sarcasm. "No strings attached? No demands for money?" He shook his head.

"The only condition I have if I win is that I want a meeting with your boss," he replied. "I think we need to discuss a few things." When hell freezes over you bastard, she thought darkly to herself.

"When I win, I get what's left of your suit," she retorted. He either didn't get the implication of her remark, or didn't care. He waved a hand carelessly.

"Deal," he stated. She charged.

****

Bert watched the black suit run towards him, clinically assessing its movements. It moved easily, and with reasonable fluidity for a mechanized suit. It wasn't running as fast as he was capable of, which gave him a slight mobility edge in the fight, then. His sensors informed him that his advancing opponent had just armed all weapons systems and was preparing to fire. He brought his own systems to full power and prepared to attack in kind. Sylia's voice suddenly came over the comm channel, and he quickly cut off his external speakers to keep the conversation private.

"NO YOU STUPID BASTARD!!!!!" she shrieked. "This is not some goddamn duel for your honour!! Break it off, and I mean right now!! Where the hell are you?!" Bert sighed to himself; he'd forgotten that he'd left the comm frequency open, which meant that the rest of the Knight Sabers had heard everything.

"I have to do it this way," he replied calmly as his enemy charged closer. "If I don't, I'm worse than a hypocrite."

"This is serious, you dumb idealistic moronic jerk!! She'll be trying to kill you!!"

"She can try," he said evenly, wishing he was as confident as he sounded, "but I'm not going to lose. Trust me." He cut off the channel, dodging sideways as a long-range shot from his foe flashed past

"Let the games begin!" he suddenly laughed, a reckless lust for combat surging up. This was going to be a blast!

****

"I'm going to kill him myself!!!" Sylia snarled, driving an armoured fist into the wall of the KnightWing's cabin in absolute fury, leaving a large dent, as Priss, Linna and Nene pulled on their helmets. SkyKnight had just cut off communications after completely abandoning their original plan of swarming their opponent. To top that off, he'd gone and challenged her to a one-on-one duel. Sylia pounded the wall twice more, belatedly realizing that she should have expected something like this. While making their plan of attack, he'd commented that attacking from an ambush wasn't really 'sportsmanlike conduct'. She'd squelched his complaint by pointing out that they hadn't been playing fair when they'd gone after him, thinking the matter over and finished. Damn it, he was going to get himself killed yet!

"Nene!! Have you found his transponder signal yet?" she snapped. Nene's helmet nodded.

"He's three miles to the west of us," she reported. Sylia led the way out to the airlock, still fuming.

****

Explosions reverberated through the partially constructed building, echoing hollowly off of beams and incomplete walls. A large shadow moved stealthily along through the twisted pathways, seeking something with deadly intent. As the echoes of the struggle reached it, it stopped, head lifting like a hound scenting a fox. It began moving swiftly towards the distant fight. Yellow eyes burned balefully in the semidarkness.

The dark shape slowed as it reached an overhanging ledge that gave it a view of the fight. A bulky black suit was fighting a much sleeker silver suit. They traded energy bolts and projectiles, dodging and darting. Occasionally, the fighting turned briefly into a hand-to-hand whirlwind. Remaining cloaked in the shadows, the figure watched the fight, analyzing and evaluating.

****

Damn she's good, Bert reluctantly admitted to himself. Lt. Rutherford had certainly given him a good fight so far, both at range and at hand-to-hand combat. She'd apparently run out of DPU shells and had switched to explosive rounds. They couldn't get through his armour, but the shocks from the explosions were making him feel like he was in a blender on the high-speed setting. He was a little dazed from the pounding, and it was slowing him down slightly, making him easier to hit. He could also feel his grip on civility beginning to slip. Chivalry was all well and good, but it was beginning to wear thin under the relentless pounding. She's certainly not being very ladylike, he observed sardonically to himself.

He ducked a cannon blast at his head, and parried the large blade that came scything towards him with his left swordblade. He backflipped out of the way of the kick she lashed out at him with, and blasted her to the concrete with a point-blank plasma beam shot. She rolled upright smoothly, apparently unharmed, and lunged towards him, closing the gap for hand-to-hand attacks. Her hand-to-hand fighting was the best he'd seen in a while. The only person he'd fought who was better was Linna; he didn't think anyone could beat her in terms of her combining acrobatics and martial arts. Of course, their fights had been 'friendly' sparring matches, and she hadn't been trying to kill him. His opponent was.

He parried two more sword strokes, beating them aside by main strength. Whatever USSD had developed, the strength of the black suit was comparable to his own hardsuit musculature. He could beat the ebony armour if he really had to in a strength match, but cranking his suit strength right now would burn a lot of power, power he couldn't really spare at the moment. He had maybe another fifteen to twenty minutes of normal power before it became a problem keeping his systems up. He briefly wished he'd brought his battery packs with him. He jumped back from another combination of sword chops and suit kicks as he considered how to end the fight quickly.

****

Why the hell won't he goddamn attack?! Natasha asked herself in exasperation. SkyKnight exhibited a pretty good degree of skill in armoured combat, but he'd passed up what she considered several opportunities to have beaten her with ease. He was fighting defensively, dodging and evading, and only attacking once in a while. His armour was unbelievably tough; she'd battered and pounded on it constantly without seriously damaging it, but he wouldn't pound back.

She had to end the fight soon; she was almost out of ammo, and her battery packs were going to die within several minutes. She couldn't use the lightning blaster on him because it would definitely destroy what energy she had left. That left either getting a hold on the bastard and smashing him into submission, or firing her one other remaining weapon as her only options. Settling on the first method, she sidled closer, launching a combination of punches and kicks that was calculated to produce a certain set of defensive moves. SkyKnight responded according to pattern, and she promptly kicked him in the groin area of the armour with all the power her suit could put behind it.

****

SkyKnight just barely kept from bellowing in agony as the black suit hoofed him in the nether regions of his anatomy. However, he did double over in extreme pain, trying desperately to keep from throwing up. His hardsuit had prevented any, ahem, serious long-term damage, but it still hurt like hell. As he was doubled over, he felt a series of impacts that smashed him flying sideways to crash into a concrete pillar.

"I've got you now, you bastard!" he heard as he pulled himself upright. That did it. He'd tried being reasonable, but she obviously wasn't prepared to be sensible about this. A smoldering rage suddenly erupted, galvanizing him into action and temporarily banishing the pain of his injuries.

"The hell you have!!" he roared back, surging upright as the black suit swung at his head. SkyKnight's hand flashed over to intercept the black suit's incoming fist, stopping it dead just a few inches from his visor. He held her motionless as he looked over at the helmet of his enemy. Her suit was straining to break his grip, but he'd just boosted his suit to its maximum output and was holding her firmly.

"You need to learn some manners," he snarled at her from between clenched teeth. "Class is now in session." Jerking her towards him, he kicked out at the same time, smashing his foot into her guts and hurling her backwards. He stalked towards her as she rolled upright. She leaped at him with a spinning kick. He spun sideways, grabbing her leg and using her momentum to swing her around and brutally slam her into the nearby concrete pillar she'd slammed him into. Metal shards flew from her armour as some of the plating shattered. As she staggered upright, he swung upwards from the hips with an uppercut to the chin, lifting her hardsuit to the tips of its toes and almost tearing her head off.

She barely recovered in time to duck a left uppercut, then she opened up at point-blank range with her arm-cannons. SkyKnight backpedaled, throwing an arm across his visor as explosive shells hammered into him, forcing him to retreat out of arm's reach. The hail of fire stopped suddenly, and he could hear a firing mechanism clicking in futility; she'd run out of ammunition, after all. As he lowered his arm preparatory to attacking again, the backpack on his opponent suddenly split and folded outwards, over the suit's shoulders into two missile launcher tubes.

Instantly, two long boxy-looking devices on SkyKnight's shoulders snapped up, and with a furious series of rapid thundercracks, spat twin streams of flat, disc-shaped blades at his foe. The black hardsuit jerked, sparks flaring from it, as the missile launchers were sheared from their mountings. SkyKnight didn't stop with that, though; more whistling projectiles slashed the air, slicing off armour plating, and her shoulder-mounted electrical projector. As a last touch, even though she was out of ammunition, he shot off the cannon barrels mounted on her arms. As the last echoes from the razor-edged barrage died, he stepped forward again and belted her helmeted head with a straight punch from the shoulder, snapping her head back on her neck.

She staggered backwards, shaking her head and trying to fend him off, but to no avail. He was so mad that any thoughts of fair play had disappeared. He battered his opponent ruthlessly with a series of right and left crosses and uppercuts that stripped even more plating from the sable hardsuit, exposing circuitry and wiring which promptly shorted out. Her own responses were becoming more and more feeble.

A swordblade suddenly snapped into place on her right arm, and she speared it towards his visor. He reacted without thinking. Grabbing her wrist, he twisted her arm away from him, turning it so that the inside of her elbow faced the ground, placing his other gauntleted hand at the point of her elbow. He slammed home the pressure without mercy. There was a ringing, metallic snapping noise as the arm armour on the black suit shattered, and the woman inside the suit screamed as a second, quieter snap marked her arm breaking. She went limp immediately, collapsing onto the concrete in a pile of ruined armour.

SkyKnight released her, his anger sluicing away abruptly as he stared down at her, aghast. He hadn't meant to break her arm, just the armour, but in letting his temper run loose he'd blown it. He'd lost control and come within a hairsbreadth of killing her. He shut down his weapons completely and rolled her over gently, trying to find a way to get her out of the wrecked suit.

As he examined the suit, he suddenly realized just how destructive he could actually be when using his full power. Once he'd lost his temper and cranked up his hardsuit systems, it hadn't even been a contest. He'd wiped the ground with her without much difficulty. It was an extremely unsettling feeling, suddenly finding out just what he was really capable of, and what the consequences had almost been. The fact that he'd lost his temper was no excuse. He'd always prided himself on being able to stay calm most of the time, and losing it completely in this particular case made it feel worse, taking the fun out of the fight. He started gently prying the black hardsuit's torso armour plating open.

****

The shadowy watcher moved back from the opening, drifting deeper into the shadows. Light glinted from its metallic green hide as it moved rapidly away from the battlefield. It had seen much of interest, some of it very useful information to have. It needed time to assimilate all it had learned. The massive creature vanished into the depths of the evening twilight like a wraith.

****

SkyKnight turned from his downed opponent as hissing jets heralded the arrival of his teammates. His unconscious, blond-haired erstwhile adversary lay next to a crumpled pile of black armour pieces. He'd managed to crudely splint her right arm using a couple of narrow armour plates and some wiring. It was going to have to do until they could get her to a hospital. He took a deep breath, mentally preparing for the shit to hit the fan as Sylia's white hardsuit approached him. Her general posture indicated she was not happy with him. Priss, Linna and Nene hung back, staring around at the blasted and wreckage-strewn battlefield. He turned his attention back to Sylia

His helmet rang like a church bell as she belted him in the head when she came within reach. His head jerked sideways, then swung back to look at her. He made no move to respond or evade.

"I honestly don't know what to say to you," she told him, voice tight with anger. "I'd thought you could be trusted not to pull any more idiot stunts like this, but obviously I was wrong." She stopped talking, evidently expecting a reply.

"I'm sorry, really," he replied quietly, "but I had to do it this way. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't at least try to stick to my beliefs." She shook her head.

"That's not good enough," she told him flatly. "I don't always like what we have to do myself, or the way it has to be done on occasion, but it has to be done sometimes to get the job finished. That's not the point right now. The point is that you deliberately disobeyed orders, endangering yourself, and possibly endangering us as well with your stupid desire for a 'fair fight'. This isn't the Old West or the middle ages. I expect you to follow orders, damnit!" She slapped a hand to her visor, trying to get her temper under control as sirens sounded in the distance, drawing nearer. "We don't have the time to discuss this now. What are you going to do with her?" she asked, gesturing towards the unconscious Lt. Rutherford. He shrugged uncomfortably.

"Drop her off at a hospital, I guess," he replied. "I did tell her she was free to go if I won. I'd like to examine the suit wreckage, though. It may prove interesting."

"Pick it up then and bring it along. Priss can carry Lt. Rutherford," she said, gesturing Priss towards the comatose woman.

"I can't pick it up," he replied quietly. "I'm about five minutes from complete power exhaustion, unless you've got a spare power pack handy." Sylia sighed in annoyance, and hefted the wreck herself; her hardsuit wasn't as strong as his, but it was still formidable.

"Linna, Nene," she ordered, "Keep an eye on SkyKnight here. He's going to need some assistance in a few minutes." The two girls moved over to flank him as the Knight Sabers began the trip back to the KnightWing.

****

Two white-coated ambulance attendants came out the entrance of the Emergency Treatment Centre drop-off point, discussing the day's events. As they neared their ambulance, they noticed the rear door had been wrenched open, and a folding stretcher had been removed and set up. On the stretcher was an unconscious blond woman in a blue jumpsuit, with her arm splinted. Having seen many strange arrivals at the hospital in the course of regular duty, they didn't stop to ponder the circumstances or ask questions, but rushed the woman into the hospital, the doors hissing closed behind them.

 

THE NEXT DAY....

Bert looked up from where he sat slouched over gloomily contemplating his coffee mug at his kitchen table as Nene entered the room. His face lit up with a tired smile as she came over and sat down across from him. She smiled back, looking him over.

"It's nice to see a friendly face again," he commented.

"Why so glum?" she asked, sweeping her red hair back over her shoulders. He sighed and sat up a little straighter.

"Several reasons, I guess," he replied. "Some of them I can't really explain."

"Try," she told him firmly. "I want to help."

"Well, the first reason is simple enough: I've managed to screw up yet again. Sylia's mad as hell at me."

"Oh come on!" she responded, a faint grin showing up. "You should be used to that by now."

"Yeah, but this time I feel like a complete heel. I mean, I blew whatever trust she had in my judgment by challenging Lt. Rutherford to a duel. I know I disobeyed orders, but I..... I can't just turn my back on what I believe is right. I know that I'm probably being naive in thinking everyone will play fair, and that chivalry and honour are still relevant concepts, but I can't just abandon something I've tried to live by all my life. I had to give her the opportunity to face me one-on-one. Thus we have our current problem." He fell silent, sighing unhappily. Nene reached across the table and gently squeezed his arm reassuringly.

"Don't change," she told him simply. "One of the reasons I love you is because of your nutty chivalric ideals, even if they are exasperating at times. If you were to change that, you'd be changing yourself, and I don't think you could do that without losing what makes you what you are. Besides, I think if more people valued honesty and fair play, ADPolice would have a lot less crime to deal with."

"Heresy!" he exclaimed in mock horror, a faint smile appearing. "You'd be out of a job if that happened!"

"There's days I don't think I'd mind that," she returned wryly, then switched back to the original topic. "What were the other reasons you had? You said there was more than one." He was silent for a moment, several undefinable expressions flickering across his face too quickly to read.

"I discovered something unpleasant about myself yesterday," he said slowly. "Something I'd thought wasn't going to be a problem. Unfortunately it was, and it led to another uncomfortable realization."

"What was it?" Nene persisted. She wasn't going to just let him clam up about his feelings anymore. He looked at her seriously.

"I've known for a long time I had a lousy temper," he said quietly, "but last night I lost control of it and just about killed her. Luckily I didn't, but it wasn't for lack of effort. I just couldn't stop myself for a couple of minutes there. I've always thought I could control myself pretty well, but I almost turned into a bloodthirsty killer last night, and its scaring me."

"Well she certainly wasn't trying not to kill you, you know," she told him.

"I know that," he replied patiently, "but I don't like losing control of myself, especially of my temper. Damn it, I could hurt one of you accidentally if the circumstances were right." Nene shook her head.

"You won't," she said positively. "I know you well enough by now to say that with certainty."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," he replied. "Anyhow, losing my temper made me realize just how much I've built my suit into a powerhouse. When I flipped out and cranked my suit power up, I beat her within seconds without breaking a sweat." He sat silent for a moment, then suddenly burst out laughing. Nene looked at him in surprise.

"I'm an emotional basket-case," he declared, still chuckling. "I just realized that, before, I was worrying about how much I was going to get hurt. Now I'm worried about how much I might hurt everyone else." He sighed, still shaking his head bemusedly.

"So what's wrong with having a strong hardsuit?" she queried.

"I've built my suit into a walking weapons platform," he explained, "and I've just realized how much power I'm actually fooling with here. I suppose it's made me realize that I've got another responsibility: the responsibility of making sure it doesn't get used irresponsibly." He suddenly looked irritated. "It was much nicer not having all these responsibilities to worry about."

"Come off it," she retorted. "Everyone has responsibilities. We just have a few more than normal people, and you're just finally waking up to all of them."

"Thanks, I think," he said dryly.

"Besides," she continued, "you're forgetting the fact that you've built our suits up, too. You're not the only one who's getting stronger."

"Yeah, but I'm the only one who's got people coming after him with evil intentions."

"Well it's your own fault," she told him blandly. "You wanted to be a hero, and heroes have to put up with people wanting to attack them." He grinned sheepishly in reply.

"There's some truth to that," he admitted. He laughed suddenly, and added, "I guess now I know what they mean when they say gunslingers can't quit." She looked at him quizzically.

"In the westerns," he explained, "anyone with a reputation as a 'fast gun' would keep getting challenged by younger gunslingers who wanted to prove that they themselves were the fastest. It didn't matter if the old guy never wanted to use a gun again, the challengers kept showing up. I'm sort of in that position, it seems."

"Remember, you asked for it!" she declared, then broke into giggles.

"Yeah, me and my big mouth," he remarked, relaxing finally with a grin as she laughed harder. After a moment she quieted down, looking over at him.

"I have a favour to ask of you," she said, suddenly hesitant.

"Anything," he replied immediately.

"I need some help getting ready for our next big testing session."

"Anything but that!" he said, suddenly looking uncomfortable himself.

"Why not? You did say you'd do anything for me," she reminded him.

"Yeah, but I'm not the best person to be asking for combat lessons. My method is to get in there and pound away until one or the other of us goes down, despite what Linna's been trying to teach me." She nodded.

"I know that, but you're .... you're the only one who doesn't tease me about my fight performance," she burst out, suddenly looking like she wanted to cry. "I try hard, but Priss and Linna just don't give up on bugging me about it." He got up. Going around to her side of the table, he enfolded her in a big hug. He looked into the emerald green eyes he adored, deciding what to do.

"We'll give it a try," he said, "but I can't promise anything beyond that." He smirked suddenly. "We'll see if we can't surprise the nay-sayers this time." She hugged him back gratefully.

****

"You fight dirty," she accused him as they left the exercise room. He shrugged.

"I'm trying to show you how to fight boomers," he replied. "They don't have the moral niceties that people have, so it's quite all right to 'fight dirty'. If kicking them in the face works, then do it. Just don't let them do it to you. I only really try applying the 'fight fair' principle when I'm facing another person, like the other night."

Nene rubbed her bruised right shoulder carefully. She'd insisted that he not hold back in their sparring, and had regretted it almost immediately. She'd scored a couple of good hits on him, but since he was a lot bigger, and she wasn't as strong as he was, it didn't bother him as much.

"When do we try that again?" she asked.

"Tomorrow," he replied promptly.

"Tomorrow?!?" she said, shocked. "But I've got work tomorrow! I'm going to be stiff from today, and ...."

"No excuses," he told her firmly. "I'll pick you up after work and we'll try again. We've got about three weeks to get you ready for this." He smiled suddenly. "Besides, I'm enjoying the time with you. We've both been kind of busy lately, so this gives us a chance to be together again for a while." He leaned over and gave her a quick kiss, which turned into a slightly longer one. At length they separated. He put an arm around her, careful of her shoulder, and started steering her down the hallway.

"Come on, let's get cleaned up," he said, "but we'll skip the cake afterwards." She started guiltily.

"How'd you know that's what I usually have after a workout?"

"Because you've got a sweet tooth as bad as mine, and I've seen you do it, remember? Anyhow, I could eat my way through a chocolate factory in minutes if I let myself, but the operative phrase is 'if I let myself'. You need some better self control about desserts, that's all."

"Anything else you want to criticize?" she asked, green eyes sparking dangerously. He looked thoughtful, then grinned as she began to get indignant.

"You know, you really could stand to grow a couple more inches," he observed, then took off down the hallway, grinning madly, with her in hot pursuit.

 

ONE WEEK LATER....

Priss looked up from polishing her motorcycle as the door at the far end of Raven's opened, and Sylia walked through. She was wearing a white lab coat over her usual clothing, and an annoyed expression. She looked around, spotted Priss and walked over. Priss stood up, tossing the cloth she'd been buffing the bike with into a nearby bucket, and leaned on the seat.

"Hi, Sylia," she greeted her. "What's up?"

"Have you seen Bert recently?" Sylia asked, looking around again. Priss thought for a moment, then shook her head.

"The last time I saw him was last night. Him and Nene were working on something, 'cause I saw them discussing it. Have you tried the shop?" Sylia's expression went flat.

"He'd better not be in there," she replied darkly. "He's banned from there for the time being." Priss sighed to herself. She could understand why Sylia was upset with him, but at the same time she could also understand why he'd done what he'd done.

"Mind if I offer an opinion?" she asked Sylia hesitantly.

"Go ahead."

"I don't think you're going to change his attitude, beliefs, whatever you want to call it, by grounding him. Considering recent events, and what I've seen myself, he's changed. He won't back down on this anymore." She suddenly grinned crookedly. "You asked him a while ago if he was ever going to grow up; well, I think he has." She waved a hand at the surrounding area. "He takes all this really seriously now. His warped sense of humour is still there, along with his 'heroic ideals', sense of honour and strange gadget ideas, but it's a little more restrained now. He's a lot steadier than he used to be, although I admit that he still has the odd moment when he's a loose cannon." She flushed briefly, remembering that wild jet cycle ride she'd been conned into. "I guess," she added a minute later, "that I still think his chivalry is a little misplaced at times, like last week, but he's definitely going to stick to his guns this time. You're not going to be able to change that, I'm afraid." Sylia listened stonily, not betraying any hint of what she was thinking. When Priss finished, she sighed, her face twisting in annoyance and resignation.

"I realized that last night," she admitted. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."

"Nobody likes everything that someone else does," Priss pointed out. "That's just the way it is, sometimes." Sylia nodded reluctantly.

"So what do we do with him, then?" she asked Priss. Priss shrugged, grinning slyly.

"You're the boss," she replied. "That's your decision."

"Thanks a lot."

"I really don't think he'll be a problem, it's just these occasional situations where the chivalry reflex kicks in. I think you just need to relax a little."

"You try anticipating Bert's responses," Sylia remarked dryly, "and then tell me if you can relax." Priss grinned at that.

"What were you looking for him for?" she inquired.

"A couple of weeks ago he gave me some design ideas for the next suit upgrades, and I need to discuss a couple of them with him. I don't know what he's been doing during the day, lately. I can't even find out where he is from Nene, and she usually knows where he is. It's as if he just vanished." She paused, thinking. A grinding, rolling kind of noise from the street attracted her attention. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. Priss stood up from her bike, turning towards the open garage door.

"What the hell is that?" she asked, frowning. "I've never heard that before, whatever it is." Sylia shrugged.

"How am I supposed to know?" she replied. "I don't ..."

They were interrupted by a large, slightly bulky-looking shape charging through the door, on what looked like wheels mounted in its feet. It was black, with some armour plating apparent, and a helmet with a mirrored visor. Priss and Sylia stared in surprise for a moment, then Priss' automatic reaction was to whip her gun out; the thing looked like some kind of strange boomer. The intruder caught sight of them, and tried to alter its course, especially when it saw Priss leveling her pistol in its direction. Unfortunately, it lost control of its turn, made a couple of stumbling, rolling steps, and pitched over headfirst into the nearby trash and rag cans stacked by the wall. A ringing crash resounded, and garbage flew everywhere. As the debris settled, a can lid went rolling by, eventually stopping somewhere down the vehicle bay. The black humanoid shape stirred underneath the concealing rags and cans. Priss began walking cautiously over to it, gun ready, when she heard a familiar voice from the pile of wreckage.

"Put the godforsaken bloody gun away, Priss," Bert's voice said disgustedly, "and call an ambulance. God DAMN that hurt!!!!" Priss and Sylia looked at each other in surprise, then looked back at the fallen figure.

Bert rolled over and painfully sat up in a rustle of papers, pulling off what they could now see was a light motorcycle helmet, revealing sweaty red hair and a disgruntled expression. He was wearing some kind of black plastic armour on his knees, elbows, shoulders and chest which looked vaguely like the pads worn by off-road bikers. As they watched, he stiffly reached down to his feet, and pulled off the roller blades mounted on his boots. It took him a couple more minutes to get back to his feet as he bent himself straight, wincing in pain. Finally, he made it, then hobbled over towards Priss and Sylia.

"You don't have to be so bloody quick on the draw," he told Priss acidly. "I can do without the near heart attacks. I take it you've never seen someone rollerblading before?"

"Not until now," she retorted defensively, guiltily stuffing the gun back into her jacket. Sylia looked him over curiously.

"New hobby?" she asked. He shook his head, then winced at the twinges from his neck.

"No," he replied, rubbing at it carefully. "It's an old one, but one I didn't do too often. I've had enough time lately to get back to it. It's fun and it's pretty good exercise."

"How the hell do you stop?" Priss asked, looking at him.

"Three methods," he said dryly. "Grab someone on the way past, hit something or fall over, or just gradually coast to a stop. The first two methods are the most painful, for everyone involved." He stretched cautiously. "That's why the body armour; it reduces the damage."

"I'll stick to riding my bike," Priss declared. "At least it has brakes!" He grinned at her remark, then looked quizzically at the two women.

"What's up anyway? You usually hold meetings in garages?"

"We were discussing you, actually," Sylia told him. He tensed slightly.

"Didn't mean to interrupt. I'll leave," he said, turning to go.

"Oh stop that," Sylia said disgustedly. "I was looking for you anyway, so quit trying to hide."

"I wasn't hiding," he protested mildly. "I was just indulging some of my other pastimes I suddenly had the time for." Sylia looked annoyed.

"You can stop it with the not-so-subtle hints, too," she told him. "You're not grounded now, so quit griping about all the time you've had." He blinked in surprise, looking at her.

"I'm not?"

"Not anymore. Priss and I had a chat on the subject, and we decided it was counter-productive. Besides, at least we know where you'll be that way." He looked from Sylia to Priss, who was smiling slightly smugly. He briefly wondered what she'd said to Sylia to make her change, or at least soften, her position.

"So you're not mad at me anymore?"

"I wouldn't go that far," Sylia warned. "I'm still upset about the way you handled it, but I've thought about why you did it, and I think I understand your reasons."

"Thank you," he said quietly. Sylia turned businesslike again.

"You're welcome, sort of. Now then, meet me in the lab," she directed him. "We have to discuss some of your upgrade ideas."

"No problem," he replied. "Just give me a few minutes to clean up." She nodded, and left. Bert looked over at Priss, who still looked a trifle smug.

"Thanks for putting in a good word for me," he said to her. "I really appreciate it."

"That's what friends are for," she told him. "Helping their other friends." He laughed, and bowed courteously to her. Pulling himself erect again, he followed Sylia out the door to the lab, stripping off his crash armour as he left.

****

"Now about these weapons and armour upgrades," Sylia said, looking at the large display screen in front of her. "What's this second polymer layer in the armour here?" Bert shoved his reading glasses back on his nose and peered closer to see what she was pointing at.

"That's my latest innovation, although I based the idea on something I unfortunately have had to deal with myself." She frowned at him.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, those Dobermans I've had to fight off and on have had some kind of refractory coating added to their plating, and it's very specifically meant to foil my lasers. It can't negate them completely, but it can absorb or dissipate enough of the energy to really reduce the damage. Anyhow, I got a couple of armour pieces from one of the wrecks and analyzed them. Based on that analysis, I've come up with my own coating that does the same thing and put it in all our armour plating." He paused, considering the monitor. "Now that I know what they're using, I've also adjusted my laser output to a wavelength of light that isn't as easily refracted by their coating."

"I'm not sure if that will do much good. USSD is hardly the only group people to have thought of something like that." She paused, thinking. "Have you considered switching to those particle beam cannons I suggested? They pack a lot more punch, although they do use more power."

"Absolutely not," he replied flatly. "I'm fine with my current weapons. I don't need to be able to devastate the surrounding countryside." She sighed to herself; he'd turned stubborn on the subject of boosting his weaponry output any higher than it currently was, worrying that he was becoming too dangerous.

"I wish you'd drop your objections," she told him. "I understand your concerns, but GENOM, or USSD, don't have any qualms about building heavier and heavier weapons. Before long, I'm afraid, you'll have to do it, or get severely outclassed."

"Great," he replied sourly. "I've started my own arms race. Marvelous."

"You've known for a long time now that somebody always tries to get one up on a competitor. This is no different, it's just a little more serious in nature." She considered him thoughtfully for a moment. "Look at it this way," she suggested, "we can't stop anyone from developing new weapons, but if we keep up, we can at least make sure that they don't abuse what they have."

"True, I suppose," he conceded. She turned back to the display screen, calling up the next design.

"Where did this one come from?" she asked, looking it over. The screen showed a telescoping sword blade assembly of some kind mounted on a hardsuit arm.

"It's basically just my normal swordblade mechanism, with a couple of extra options. The first option is an electrical charge generator with a variable output, sort of like my lance idea. Stick it into a boomer, activate it, and you've got one fried boomer. The only drawback is it really depletes your power to do a thorough job; I'm still working on perfecting that one before I use it. The second option is a thin polymer coating on the blade that brings it very close to being a monomolecular-edged weapon. I found out that those Dobermans I've had to fight have had this stuff on their claws; that's why my armour got shredded so easily a while back." He suppressed the shudder than tried to run through him at the memory. "I've added the coating to your hardsuit blades, too."

"Okay," she approved. "Last question: just what the hell is this thing?" The screen flashed up an image of what looked like a strange flashlight. The device casing was tubular, with a series of metal disks sandwiched together at one end. He grinned as he looked at the design, then looked at her, a familiar glint coming into his eyes.

"I have a prototype handy, if you'd like to see it."

"Somehow, I figured you did," she replied resignedly. He grinned again, then went next door to the lab's technical shop. He came back carrying the tubular device, although it had a couple of switches on the side that were not in the diagram. He held it up, briefly admiring his handiwork.

"The one for hardsuit systems can be built into the arm; this is just a hand-held model for testing." He pressed the switch on the side, holding the device so that the stacked disks pointed upwards. The device hummed for a moment, then with a hissing electrical snap, a blue-white 'blade' appeared, stretching upwards from the disks to reach a length of about two-and-a-half feet. The blade hummed ominously, throwing an eerie glow onto everything. Sylia regarded it a trifle nervously.

"What is it?"

"An elegant weapon, from a more civilized age," he said, smirking. "I call it a lightsaber, even though light doesn't really have anything to do with how it works. It's basically a magnetic bottle, or sheath, containing the charged particle output from a plasma beam generator." He twirled the blade carefully through the air, the hum from the weapon never wavering, then shut it down. The blade disappeared with another sizzling crackle, and the lighting in the lab returned to normal. "I've been working on this baby for about a year now. It will cut through almost anything instantly, although I don't recommend trying to dig tunnels through really thick walls with it, mostly because of the increased power draw needed to keep the blade intact. I'm still working on how to rig it into the hardsuit controls; you don't want to accidentally slice yourself in the foot, or something."

"That's a cheery thought."

"I don't think it will be a problem," he assured her. "I just want to be extra careful, that's all."

"All right then," she said. She flicked off the monitor, turning to look at him seriously. "Since we have that out of the way, I have one last concern to discuss with you."

"Shoot," he said, leaning against the console. Sylia pulled a folded printout sheet from her pocket.

"This came in for us, or rather, for you the other day," she said, handing it to him.

Bert took the proffered paper, unfolded it and began reading. A faint smile appeared as he read the document. When he was finished, he folded it up again and handed it back to her.

"Do you think they're really going to let me meet the guy running that project?" he asked her. Sylia looked uncertain.

"My feeling is that it's almost certain to be a trap, and I don't think that this mysterious director is going to risk his own safety. Also, I don't trust them at all. Having you walk right into their headquarters would be a perfect excuse to call out the heavy troops, since they can claim you attacked them, or something like that." He nodded at her assessment.

"I don't trust them either," he noted, "but at the same time I'm kind of curious; I don't think USSD would risk open warfare in their main office building, which means they've got something else cooked up. I think I'd like to find out what that is." His eyes turned vague, contemplating the possibilities.

"What makes you think I'm going to let you go?"

"Don't you want to know what they're up to?" he responded. She was silent for a moment, then gave in reluctantly. She didn't like the setup, but she was curious about it.

"All right, but you're not going by yourself," she told him firmly. "I'm going with you. If this is a genuine meeting, I'd like to see this guy for myself. If it isn't, you need someone to watch your back. Besides, I'm the boss and I want to make sure you don't embarrass us." Bert looked wounded.

"Never mind the act," she said, not fooled even slightly. "Go get ready; we'll go later tonight."

"Whatever you say, boss."

****

Bert was glad his helmet visor hid his grin as he looked back at the incredulous stares from the rest of the people on the bus. Sylia had decided to use the bus to get to the USSD headquarters again, and the crowd on the bus was reacting almost identically to the way they had the last time she'd used the bus as a hardsuit transport. Several people just gaped, not really sure what to do or say. Some people were whispering back and forth, trying to figure out why two armour suits would suddenly board a public bus. All the kids on the bus obviously were thrilled; it was like something right out of the movies to them. He shifted his gaze sideways slightly to where Sylia's suit sat in the next seat with an impassive demeanor. He himself was standing up holding the hand-rail, towering over everything else. His suit construction on his flight pack in the back wouldn't allow him to fit into the narrow bus seats. A minor disadvantage, really.

"What IS that package you brought?" Sylia suddenly asked over the comm. There was no danger of being heard, since their helmets were sealed against noise at the moment. That, and the fact that there was a five-foot zone of seating that was empty around them, despite the crowding it caused.

"I thought I'd give them a little something to occupy their time with," he replied cryptically. He shifted his grip on the long and narrow box wrapped with brown paper that he was carrying.

"In other words, you're not going to tell me what it is right now."

"Patience," he replied loftily. "All in good time."

****

The bus dropped them off at the front gate to the complex and pulled away. Several people had their faces glued to the windows as the bus departed, trying to see what would happen. Sylia and SkyKnight walked over to the guard station. As they approached the oblivious guard, Bert idly reflected he was going to have to put soft treads of some kind on his suit boots; he sounded like a tank clanking along. Despite his noisy approach, the guard still hadn't noticed the approaching hardsuits. Where did they find these guys?

"Good afternoon," Sylia greeted the young guard. The guard looked at them in stunned amazement for a moment, then remembered what he was supposed to be doing. Leaping to his feet, he drew his service revolver and pointed it at them. Standard issue .38 special double-action revolver, Bert noted. He almost fell over laughing, since it would have taken huge caliber normal ammunition to penetrate their armour. He didn't see any tanks nearby, so they were pretty safe.

"Halt!" the guard shouted, even though they were standing right in front of him. "Who goes there?"

"We're the Knight Sabers," she replied, holding out the folded communiqu� they'd received. The guard reached out cautiously and snatched the paper from her, muttering under his breath. To SkyKnight, it sounded like he'd said 'not again!'. He backed towards the phone, holding his gun on them with one hand. He couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, Bert observed to himself, not with the way his hand was shaking at the moment.

"Hold on," the guard ordered, "I'll have to clear it." He tucked the phone under his chin, reading the note as he dialed a number, gun waving all over as he tried to keep it steady. A distorted voice could be heard faintly from the receiver.

"Yes, this is Gate Three. I have two people here claiming to be Knight Sabers. Yes, they are wearing ..... Pardon? Yes, one of them is silver-coloured, but ....What?! .... I .... Yes, sir! At once, sir!" He hung up hurriedly, holstering his gun and saluting them, although his face reflected the fact that he couldn't understand what was going on. "The General will see you now," he said as the front gate rolled open with a metallic scraping noise. SkyKnight gestured towards the gate.

"Ladies first," he said, bowing as Sylia passed. He followed her in, grinning to himself at the look on the guard's face. The gate rumbled shut behind them.

"Will you PLEASE behave yourself?!" she muttered under her breath to him as they approached the main entrance to the building.

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he replied, deftly avoiding the elbow she shot in his direction.

****

General Halloran McAllister looked up from the report he was reading as a blond-haired, grey-eyed woman knocked and entered his office. Tall and skeletal looking, with a lean, saturnine face, he presented a cold facade to the world from behind his large oak desk. Icy blue eyes under a sparse thatch of short cropped silver-grey hair regarded the woman as she approached. She was wearing a blue military-style jumpsuit with lieutenant's bars on the shoulders, and her right arm was in a cast, hanging in a sling. She drew to attention as she came to his desk, her face slightly apprehensive. He looked at her irritably; losing the Shadowhawk suit and her injured state had not improved his mood lately.

"Yes, what is it?" he asked testily.

"He's here, Sir." Behind his desk, McAllister tensed, looking like a snake about to strike.

"Alone?"

"No Sir. One of the other Knight Sabers is with him, the white one."

"Excellent. Two for the price of one." He watched as an uncomfortable expression flickered over her face. "Misgivings, Lieutenant? I wouldn't have expected that from you."

Natasha didn't reply. The whole deal to get SkyKnight and the Knight Sabers was bothering her now. Her perception of them as cold-blooded mercenaries for hire had been shaken up in the aftermath of her fight with SkyKnight. Cold-blooded mercenaries wouldn't have taken the time to give her rudimentary first aid, and then drop her off at the hospital. When she'd passed out at having her arm broken, she'd fully expected to wake up in a cell somewhere for interrogation. She'd also spent her days off-duty doing some of her own research on the Knight Sabers, and the picture that was emerging didn't fit the normal mercenary profile. She was beginning to doubt the reasons for going after them were entirely motivated by public concern, but she kept all of this to herself. McAllister was a human iceberg; feelings didn't matter to him, only facts and results.

"None, Sir," she responded stiffly. He looked at her impassively.

"Dismissed, then," he told her. "Wait down the hall for my signal." She bowed and left.

****

Bert dispassionately appraised the uniformed older man seated behind the oaken desk at the end of the room. He was a skeletally thin, desiccated-looking man with grey hair, icy blue eyes, and a jutting beak of a nose. Looking at him, Bert sensed a cold, driving will that would not accept being thwarted easily. The general smiled genially as the two armoured figures came over to his desk. SkyKnight could see that it was all a careful act, though; although his mouth was smiling, it didn't reach his eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of a hunting lion. A sudden uneasy feeling began tickling the back of his mind as he approached the desk. The bugger had to have something plotted; he seemed far too smug.

"Welcome," the old man said pleasantly. "I've heard a lot about you. It's a pleasure to meet you, finally." He didn't stand up, or try to offer his hand. Bert started his scanners running; something was really up.

"Is it?" Sylia replied bluntly. "You have a strange way of expressing your interest in us."

"To what are you referring to, dear lady?" he asked politely, managing to look innocent. His eyes were still cold as glaciers, though. SkyKnight frowned at his suit displays, but remained motionless, not betraying what he was up to. Interesting office this guy had.

"You know what I'm talking about," she retorted. "Several Doberman assaults on us, and a USSD armour suit attempting to kill or capture SkyKnight, piloted by a lieutenant in your employ." He sat back with a perfect poker face falling into place.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied calmly. Bert smiled to himself as his sensors finally located what he'd expected to find: a cable or conduit of some kind leading from the front panel of the desk into the floor. Obviously, there was a concealed switch in the front of the desk that the general could trigger some kind of attack with. Scanning the rest of the room had also revealed a massive source of electromagnetic emissions coming from behind the wall directly behind him and Sylia. He set his sensors to warn him if the emissions changed, and turned his attention to the crafty old bastard in front of him.

"You don't?" Sylia repeated.

"I just said that, I believe."

"Then how do you explain Lt. Natasha Rutherford's presence at a recent Doberman attack, in an unregistered, new type of combat suit?"

"I don't believe I know her," he mused. "I haven't seen that name on any of the duty rosters." Sylia started to reply, but SkyKnight cut her off.

"Why don't we drop the bullshit?" he suggested. "You've been trying to get your hands on my suit for a long time now, you conniving old goat, so don't bother denying it. I know and you know it's the truth. I also know why you want my suit: you want the D.D. battlemover technology you think I have. Fine." He tossed the brown package he was carrying onto the general's desk with a bang. "There it is: the component I salvaged. Take it and bugger off and leave us alone." Sylia's helmet swung towards him, but she didn't say anything. He didn't want to see what her expression was like at the moment.

"You'd better watch that mouth of yours, youngster," the old man replied coldly. "You might shoot yourself in the foot with it." Youngster?!?, Bert silently fumed. Why that condescending stone-faced old fart!

"Save the threats for the rank and file, Gramps," he shot back. "You've already put me through hell and back, physically and mentally, so threats don't scare me anymore." The general's face tightened further, and his left hand twitched towards the desk slightly. He controlled himself with an effort.

"If you're going to make these accusations, I suggest you have proof to back them up," he told them tightly.

"We have," SkyKnight confirmed. "We have detailed films of the combat suit, and I even got the data logs from the suit with its orders, and you're in them."

"Computer files can be forged."

"Retinal scans can't," SkyKnight retorted. "You're in there but good, buster. It's all there in exquisite detail what Lt. Rutherford was supposed to do, and your name is the one on the authorization." The general didn't even flinch at the news. This is one cool customer, Bert thought to himself, but he was about as trustworthy as a rattler poised to strike. He began keeping a close eye on the general's hands.

"Possession of stolen government property is a serious offense," the general remarked.

"That won't work either," SkyKnight said flatly. "We don't have it anymore; there's a note in that package telling you where you can pick up your suit. Everything's still there. "

"Except you have copies of all of its system data, right?"

"Wrong. I don't use cheap shit like that thing was. You really should stop cutting corners in constructing them." An irritated expression finally appeared on the old man's face.

"Cheap shit?" he said ominously. "I'll have you know that we used the best technology available."

"So you did make it, then," Sylia interjected. The general didn't deny it this time.

"I designed most of the weapons systems," he informed them. SkyKnight snorted.

"Stick to giving orders," he advised. "Your weapons weren't anything to write home about." Anger flared in the blue eyes.

"I think we've exhausted this conversation," the old man said tightly. "Get out."

"I'm not done yet," SkyKnight said flatly. "I don't know if the lieutenant passed on the warning or not, so here's an improved version." He leaned forward, placing his gauntleted hands on the desk top. The general had to fight not to shrink away from the looming armour suit as its red eyeslot moved closer.

"Leave me, and the other Knight Sabers, alone," SkyKnight said evenly. "If you don't, I'm going to bring your little house of cards down around your ears by releasing those files to the media. If you don't think I will, just let me see even one Doberman after today. Get too persistent, and I may even come back for another visit, and you won't like what will happen." He straightened up. The old man was absolutely livid now.

"You cheap mercenary!! You're threatening ME?! Get out the hell out of my office!!" he snarled at them. SkyKnight bowed courteously, then turned towards the door. As the white suit turned away to follow, the general's hand darted towards the desk face.

The room lit up with a blinding crimson flash, and a loud, snapping crack-sizzle accompanied by an explosion of dust and debris, thundered in the enclosed space. The general coughed and hacked in the dust as distant alarms clanged in the hallway. As the dust settled, he found himself staring into the twin gaping muzzles of SkyKnight's right arm cannons. Behind him was a huge hole in the wall, and through the hole could be seen the smoking remains of some kind of electrical device. Looking at his desk, the general suddenly realized the top half of his desk was burnt away; SkyKnight had blasted off the control panel wiring, and the machine itself in the same instant. An unfamiliar, queasy feeling filled his stomach as he sat staring into the guns. SkyKnight lowered his arm. The white hardsuit was standing by the door, apparently shocked by the sudden blast.

"Nice try, asshole, but not even close," SkyKnight stated coldly. "I've known about that EMP device behind the wall for the last ten minutes. You can't say I didn't warn you," he finished ominously.

"And just what are you going to do? Kill me?" the general asked scornfully, concealing his real state of mind at the moment, which was scared stiff. Confronting this kind of armed force up close and personal was not what he'd expected to have to do. The concealed electromagnetic pulse generator was supposed to have solved that problem.

"Not quite," SkyKnight replied. A strange-looking shoulder gun snapped into position on his right shoulder, targeting the old man, as SkyKnight picked up a pillow from a nearby chair.

****

As SkyKnight and Sylia rounded the corner down the hall from the general's office, a running woman with blond hair in a blue jumpsuit almost slammed into them. SkyKnight grabbed her gently, mindful of her right arm and its cast, as he swung her to the side and set her down before she could collide with him. She staggered a couple of steps, breathing heavily from exertion, looking at them wild-eyed.

"Lt. Rutherford," SkyKnight said, bowing. "I hope you're feeling better, although I am sorry about the arm." Sylia didn't say anything. Bert suspected it was because she wanted to say several things to him that were not intended for polite conversation over his handling of their meeting. She'd been completely silent since his blasting the concealed weapon in the general's office, and he could tell she was a little peeved. Lt. Rutherford was in an agitated state.

"What did you do to the general?!" she blurted. "You set off dozens of alarms while you were in there!! What the hell did you do?!?!"

"I didn't hurt him at all," SkyKnight replied, turning to continue down the hall. "Go see for yourself." He strode away, the white suit following him.

As she ran down the hall to the general's office, away from the two departing hardsuits, Natasha suddenly wondered where the smell of warm roofing tar was coming from.

****

"Did you honestly have to do that?" Sylia asked Bert as they watched the elevator numbers count down to the ground floor. She definitely sounded upset with him.

"I think they'll be less anxious to try anything like that again," he replied. "Besides, I enjoyed doing it. That pompous ass needed to be taken down a notch."

****

Natasha burst through the office door into a surrealistic disaster scene. A huge hole was in the west wall, and she could see the shattered remnants of the EMP generator they had planned to disable the Knight Sabers with on the other side. The general's desk was shot in half, smoke still rising from the charred timber. What made the scene seem surreal was the snowstorm of downy white feathers that were drifting through the air all over the office, apparently originating from a couple of shredded pillows. The smell of tar pervaded everything.

As she looked around for the general in the mess, she noticed a shape moving behind the desk. She moved closer for a better look, and then realized why she hadn't been able to see General McAllister at first. Years of military decorum vanished as she collapsed laughing, despite her desperate attempts to keep a straight face, onto the floor as enraged icy-blue eyes glared at her from beneath a coating of sticky black tar and white feathers.

****

SkyKnight and Sylia walked through the main gate unopposed, and began hiking down the sidewalk. Once she was sure no one else was in earshot of them, Sylia let him have it.

"You trigger-happy jackass!!! You bloody stupid moronic idiot!!!" she stormed. "What the hell did you think you were goddamn doing?!"

"Warning them off," he replied, unperturbed.

"Warning them off?!?! All you did was piss them off!!! Do you honestly think they're going to just leave you alone because you blew a hole in their walls and humiliated their boss?!" She was fuming mad. Bert was almost ready to swear she was breathing fire, she was that mad at him.

"Did you get a good look at that gizmo behind the wall?"

"No," she admitted. "I was too shocked at the time to think of it. I didn't really see anything back there, especially considering you fried it."

"It was an electromagnetic pulse generator," he informed her. "That old fossil back there had its firing switch rigged to his desk. They were going to disable us with it, and then take our hardsuits. We, of course, would have been icing on the cake for them to have captured."

"Oh." She was silent a moment. "All right then, what the hell did you give them the D.D. specs for? That's the last thing I would have thought you'd do, considering your opinions on the subject."

"If they can get anything out of burned out chips, they're geniuses. I made sure I completely burned out all the memory chips when I was finished with it. They can scan it until the cows come home, but they won't get anything from it. It'll make someone a great paperweight." He was rather neatly undermining all her objections so far, and Sylia was finding it strangely frustrating to find she was in the wrong, in this instance at least. There's nothing as frustrating as having your lousy temper exposed as unnecessary.

"Well then why did you give them back their combat suit?" she asked in exasperation. "Surely you realize that they're going to fix it up and then come after you again."

"Oh, they may decide to try again," he conceded. "But if they do what I think they're going to do, they'll have other worries for a week or two." Sylia stopped dead in her tracks, turning to face him.

"If you don't explain what the hell you're up to, right now, and without the elliptical and mysterious phrasing, I'm going to slowly strangle you right here in public," she threatened, flexing her hands forebodingly.

"If you strangle me, you'll never find out what I was going to say, will you?" he replied, grinning to himself behind his visor. He raised his hands in mock surrender as she began advancing towards him. "All right! I'll talk! I'll talk!!" He paused for a brief second to organize his thoughts. They resumed walking down the street as he explained.

"When they get their suit back, the first thing they're going to try and do is download all the data on my fight with it. However, they're in for a rude shock. Not only is the data no longer there, but Nene whipped up a logic bomb computer virus for me that I've left in the suit memory storage. It will quietly enter their computer systems and do two things. First, it will specifically seek out and destroy any and all files related to the Knight Sabers that they have. Once that's finished, part two of the virus kicks in: all their research center computers start going wonky and crashing out, erasing files, whatever. That place is going to be a loony bin for about a week before they figure it out." He grinned evilly, anticipating the chaos that was going to descend on USSD's research labs for a while. He figured it was no less than they deserved. He looked over at Sylia. "So then," he asked, "still mad at me now?"

"Oh just shut up!" she retorted disgustedly. "I hate smug people." He stepped closer to her, and placed an arm consolingly around her shoulders.

"There, there," he said soothingly, "we can't all be right all the time. Just ... OOOF!" He doubled over as Sylia rammed an armoured elbow into his stomach, not sparing the hardsuit strength boost. His breath whooshed out of his lungs under the assault. Sylia kept walking. SkyKnight got his breath back and caught up to her. She didn't even glance at him for a few minutes. He grinned to himself and followed along quietly. Finally she spoke.

"All right then, smartass," she said. "How do we get home now? They're bound to be using whatever orbital satellites they have to watch us."

"First, we get on another bus ...." he began, as they walked under a highway overpass.

****

Passengers standing on Platform 29 waiting for the southbound train to MegaTokyo's downtown core looked up as a loud rumble echoed from the tunnel, heralding the arrival of the train. Business executives folded their newspapers and tucked them under their arms while picking up their briefcases. Several mothers rounded up wandering kids, while other people hefted bags of groceries. As they waited, a perceptive few suddenly frowned to themselves; the pitch of the approaching noise didn't sound right for a subway train, and the platform wasn't shaking the way it normally would. A high-pitched drone could now be heard above the rumble.

There was a shriek of violently displaced air as a metallic silver and white shape erupted from the mouth of the tunnel, streaking past the dumbfounded commuters with the screaming wail of some kind of jet system. There was a brief red flash of some kind from the front end of the hurtling shape as it shot down the length of the platform, blasting hats off of heads with the wind from its passing. The speeding shape vanished into the darkness of the exit tunnel. The noise of its traveling slowly dying out as amazed people gaped around at each other. A few loose papers and wrappers skittered around the platform decking, stirred by the lingering vortices of air whipped up. One business executive walked over to the ticket counter, where the dazed attendant was pulling his jaw back into place from where it had dropped.

"How much is a ticket for traveling that class?" he asked, pulling out his wallet.

 

ONE WEEK LATER ....

"You're getting a lot better," Bert complimented Nene. "You've really improved in the last couple of weeks or so. I don't think you're going to have any problems with the trials this time." He handed her a cup of tea as he sank down into the couch next to her with his own mug. She flushed slightly as he looked at her, self-consciously brushing her hair back.

"You're not just saying that to make me feel better?" she inquired anxiously. He shook his head.

"No, I mean it," he said. "You've gotten a lot better at dodging, and somewhat better at the hand-to-hand stuff. The important thing to remember, though, is that you don't try and overextend yourself at this. I mean, I'm never going to even come close to being able to match Linna's ability, so you shouldn't get too upset if you can't get beyond a certain level with the fighting. To be blunt, that's not your main function, and if you get too carried away, you can find yourself in over your head very quickly." He suddenly laughed.

"What's so funny?" she asked, sipping her tea.

"I just realized what I sound like," he replied, still chortling. "I'm usually doing exactly what I've just warned you about, which is plowing into everything without thinking." She grinned at that, then settled back into the couch, leaning against him. He placed an arm around her shoulders, and was preparing to get comfortable when the phone rang.

"It bloody figures," he said disgustedly. Nene sighed in agreement and sat up as he went to grab the phone receiver.

"Yeah, what is it?" he growled irritably into the phone. A voice squawked in reply, and his expression smoothed out a bit. "Oh, sorry Sylia. Didn't mean to snap at you. Yes, she's here. Really? Okay, we'll be right over." He hung up, muttering under his breath. He turned to Nene, who was preparing to climb off the couch.

"Duty calls, M'Lady" he informed her. "There's some strange boomers running loose downtown, and we've got to go round them up." He grinned suddenly. "Come, M'Lady!! We must sally forth and smite those who would wickedly oppress the defenseless!" Nene rolled her eyes, sighing. He grinned again, and held the door open for her as they left.

****

The orange boomer exploded in a flaming cloud of smoke as Linna leaped clear, her charged monomolecular ribbons returning to their rest positions. She straightened up, looking over to Sylia and Nene. She noted briefly that Nene had actually been effective during the fight, which was a surprise to her. Luck, probably.

"We're done, too," Sylia told Linna as she approached. "What about the others?" Her question was indirectly answered a moment later. A shredded boomer dropped to the pavement with a splattering impact from above, and SkyKnight landed a moment later, wings snapping closed as he walked towards them.

"Wasn't even a challenge," he reported disgustedly. "Even the ADP could have handled these guys." Nene stiffened in outrage at his remark. "Oops, sorry about that, nothing personal," he belatedly apologized. She hmphed indignantly, crossing her arms and sticking her nose in the air, ignoring him for the moment. He shrugged helplessly, then looked around.

"Where's Priss?" he asked a moment later. Sylia shrugged herself.

"She went up into that building there for some reason," she replied, just as Priss' sleek blue suit dropped from the top floor. Sylia looked around one last time.

"Okay, let's get going. The clean-up crews can take care of the mess." The five hardsuits sprang aloft, sailing over the buildings into the night. As they disappeared, an angry girl's voice echoed from the vacant building behind them.

"YOU OWE ME A NEW CAMERA, YOU JERK!!!!!"

****

Quincy looked across his desk at Madigan, his craggy features impassive. She stood off to the side of his desk, concealing her nervousness behind an emotionless mask, trying to keep as much distance as possible between herself, and the looming, yellow-eyed monstrosity that had taken possession of the floor space directly in front of the desk. She absolutely hated having to even just come within sight of the HeadHunter boomer; the damn thing seemed to ooze palpable evil intent. Madigan wasn't normally squeamish, but she was sure this boomer could unnerve even the dead. It was always watching and analyzing, and whenever it spoke, your skin crawled. It was also developing a personality, they'd found out, mostly because of its autonomy from GENOM; it was being exposed to more and more 'daily life', and it was evolving. The personality it was developing, however, was not pleasant. It was cold, ruthlessly logical, and utterly vicious, stopping just short of being sadistic. Madigan found herself wondering if it was possible for boomers to go insane. She jerked her mind off her unpleasant musings as Quincy spoke.

"What do you think of this news?" he inquired.

"I find it surprising that USSD would take such a risk," she replied, "considering the aftermath of the satellite controller fiasco. I would have thought that they would be content to keep what they have, instead of risking losing even more authority if it becomes known they are also developing weapons."

"If they were to gain control of the battlemover technology, they would be able to supplant us in bids for some of the space defense contracts," he reminded her. "It is vastly superior hardware, after all."

"True," she admitted. "But why would they want to expand into defense contracts? They are a government agency, not a corporation."

"Power," Quincy rumbled, icy blue eyes smoldering at the word. "Someone in the higher echelons wants power, and is not content to leave things as they stand. They want control, and the power that control brings." He smiled evilly. "Unfortunately for them, they have just lost control." Madigan remained impassive, although she was wondering what Quincy was talking about. There were days when the Chairman's mind seemed to function on a level not available to normal people.

"Could you explain that, Sir?"

"We now know they are involved in this particular situation, but they don't know that. Therefore, WE now control what will happen." He looked over at the green insectoid boomer. As if sensing his gaze, the boomer's head swiveled to look at him, faceted eyes gleaming. Madigan suppressed the shudder that tried to run through her. Quincy glanced at her, then turned his attention back to the HeadHunter.

"I have new directives to add to your programming," he told it, a flat, shark-like grin appearing. Claws snapped in and out of the boomer's arms several times as it listened to the gravely voice of GENOM's C.E.O. list what he wanted it to do.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

Blue-white beams erupted from the top of an unfinished building, slashing the nighttime darkness around the towering edifice. Explosions hammered the air as five hardsuits charged through the incomplete framework, exchanging fusillades of weapons fire with four red combat boomers.

Priss blocked the boomer's descending arm with her forearm, shaking slightly under the impact. These suckers were good, much more advanced than the ones they'd fought the night before. They had similar construction, but these boomers were more combat-oriented than the last group had been. She briefly wondered who was building them, since they didn't fit the standard GENOM designs. She shook her head in disgust at herself as she dodged another swing. What the hell difference did it make who made them? She didn't really give a shit, just as long as they put up a good fight. She jumped back, almost falling over, from a spinning kick the boomer lashed out with. It recovered faster than she could, and lunged towards her. It stopped just short of her as Nene blasted it in the face with her autocannon.

That was the other surprise of the night: Nene was actually in the fight and helping out, instead of cheerleading from the sidelines. It's about bloody time, Priss told herself. She kicked out at the boomer, which parried her kick with its forearm. The boomer's arm exploded, spraying armour pieces through the air. Priss grinned wickedly to herself as the boomer shuddered and backed off for a moment; her suit had impact blasters in the feet now, similar to Linna's knuckle bomber. They gave a whole new meaning to the phrase 'kick the shit out of (insert subject)'. Across the roof from her, Sylia was suddenly flipped over and slammed into the flooring, momentarily stunned.

"Sylia!" Priss shouted, leaping across the intervening space to tackle the boomer, knocking it away from the white hardsuit. Unfortunately, she'd also left Nene alone with the one-armed boomer.

****

Somewhere across the city, computers whirred and flickered. Flashing telemetry readouts and images of boomers and hardsuits flashed across multiple screens. Dr. Miriam, unappreciated scientific genius at large, sat contentedly watching the data from the distant fight roll in. A twisted grin stretched across his angular features as he began laughing triumphantly.

****

Nene screamed as her visor shattered from a roundhouse backhand swing from the one-armed boomer. She staggered backwards, stumbling and dropping to her knees, unable to see for the moment. The boomer loomed over her, raising its remaining arm again as Priss spun around from the collapsing red boomer she and Sylia had just double-teamed, and prepared to charge back to Nene's assistance. She didn't have to worry, though.

A bellowing silver-armoured figure crashed shoulder-first into the boomer in a jet-assisted tackle, knocking it away from Nene. SkyKnight was obviously pissed off, Priss observed; his punches and occasional kicks he was pounding the hapless biomechanoid with were flashing blurs, barely visible. He was usually only that fast if something had managed to infuriate him, and anything seriously endangering his friends, especially Nene, ranked right at the top of that list. He abruptly ended the fight by swinging a savage uppercut from the hips, his sword blade snapping into extension, and gutting the boomer from crotch to sternum. The boomer flew backwards to lie quietly on the decking, smoking and leaking fluid. SkyKnight blasted it with a laser bolt for good measure, reducing it to melted slag, then spun around and ran towards Nene. Linna's green hardsuit appeared from the darkness.

"I got the other one," she reported. Sylia nodded, then looked over at SkyKnight.

"Is Nene okay?" she asked concernedly. He nodded.

"She's okay," he replied in obvious relief. "She's a little shaken up, and she's cut a bit, but no serious harm." He had his arm protectively around Nene's shoulders, and didn't appear to want to move it.

"All right then, let's move out," she ordered. The Knight Sabers sprang into the enfolding darkness, leaving behind smoldering wreckage.

Across from the building they'd just left, a young, excited girl with blond hair stuffed her camera back into its carrying case, and began edging cautiously away from the rooftop ladder she'd been hanging on. The wind whistled eerily, trying to dislodge her, but she made it back to the rooftop stairs without incident, and vanished into the building. As she left, a shadowy figure rose from the concealment of the rooftop tower it had been lying on. The tower was the only place that gave a better view of the next building than where the young girl had been positioned, but there was no way to get to it for normal people. Not unless they could fly, at any rate.

Burning yellow eyes watched Lisa disappear, then the HeadHunter swiftly disappeared itself into the blackness of the night. Grating mechanical laughter rattled through the darkness.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Oh Lord, I'm going to be late!!" Nene frantically dodged around the room in a whirlwind of motion, grabbing her things. There was a bandage on her right cheek where she'd been cut by flying visor pieces the night before, her red hair was slightly awry, and her green eyes were wild with panic. Bert watched the frenzied activity calmly; he'd seen it before. Knocking back the last of his orange juice, he looked over at her.

"How much of a hurry to get to work on time are you in?" he asked.

****

"Oh my God, would you PLEASE slow down?!" Nene pleaded in a strangled voice, hands clenched around the shoulder strap of her seatbelt. Bert flicked the barest of glances towards her; he had to keep his eyes on the road. Multicoloured blurs whipped by the sides of his vision as he cranked his modified Chevy pickup into eighth gear and shoved on the accelerator pedal. The engine roared like a caged beast and the truck burst forward even faster, wind whistling by the cab. Despite the nerve-wracking speeds they were using, the ride in the truck was as smooth as glass. Upgraded suspension and shock absorbers, of course.

Nene's terrified gaze happened to fall on the LED speedometer: 185 Kilometers per hour. That was so far over the limit, it wasn't funny. She stared at Bert incredulously. He'd obviously noticed her wild-eyed look.

"You said you wanted to get to work on time," he commented defensively, swerving around the lesser vehicles of the road. God he loved his truck! While it wasn't quite on the same level as the Roadbuster, he'd certainly tried hard to get there. He didn't often use the full capabilities of its enhanced engine, mostly because top speed was a real power and gas burner, but he felt whimsical today. Besides, he was getting a real hoot out of the expression on Nene's face.

"But you're speeding!!" She flinched as they shot past a bus like it was standing still.

"You know what? I think you're right," he replied mildly.

"This is serious!!! You'll get pulled over for doing this!!!"

"They can try," he commented, grinning slyly. He was pretty sure his truck surpassed the ADP pursuit vehicles, but hadn't yet tested that theory. She looked at him in horror.

"You wouldn't really not stop, would you?!"

"Wanna bet?" he asked, as they thundered into the turnoff lane for the ADP HQ building, decelerating with alarming, seatbelt-tightening speed as antilock brakes kicked in while he gearshifted to lower gears. Nene sighed in relief as the red pickup dropped back to legal, less horrifying velocities. The engine purred quietly as they pulled into the parking lot. Bert looked at his watch.

"There you are," he declared, smirking. "Twenty minutes early. Didn't I tell you not to worry?" Nene didn't reply immediately; she was busy unclenching her hands from the seatbelt. She looked at him, suddenly fuming.

"Don't you ever," she told him sternly, "EVER do that again!!!! I'll walk before I go through that again!! Why on earth did you build this thing into a blockade runner?" He shrugged, still smiling.

"I needed something to do," he replied. "Besides, I've always wanted a car or truck like some of the spy vehicles you see in the movies, and now I've got one."

"Spy vehicle?" she frowned, then her eyes widened in alarm. "Oh my God, you didn't! Please tell me you didn't!!"

"Didn't what?"

"Didn't put weapons in here, you jerk!!!!" she almost screamed.

"Nope. Haven't had the time yet, although I've been ...." He was cut off by Nene yanking him across the seat by the shirtfront towards her. Her green eyes were flashing angry sparks.

"If you ever put weapons in this thing, I swear I'll get someone to pull it over and take it off the road!" she told him angrily. "It's bad enough you've got an illegally modified engine under the hood, but now you want weapons?! Don't you get enough of that kind of stuff with our hardsuits? Why do you have to bring it into 'normal' everyday life?!" He raised his hands placatingly.

"Relax," he soothed her. "I wasn't really serious about that. I'm sorry if it upset you, but I just felt like showing off my truck today." She calmed down a little.

"If anyone got an ID on your truck, you may be in trouble," she told him. "I'm not going to be able to help you if that happens."

"They'd need to get a license plate number first. Funnily enough, this truck just doesn't seem to have them whenever it's speeding." Nene shook her head ruefully; she should have known he'd have all kinds of nifty little tricks built into it. After all, he did like James Bond movies. He looked at his watch again. "You'd better get going. I'd hate to have broken the law just to have you still be late."

"We're not done this discussion yet," she warned him. "We'll finish it later."

"You're really cute when you're angry," he replied, grinning. That, naturally, cut the ground out from under her being angry. She gave up, exasperated.

"You're impossible!" she declared.

"Thank you," he replied, straight faced.

****

"You have your orders, Lieutenant; now carry them out."

Lt. Rutherford looked down at the sealed order packet in her hand, then back at the stone-faced old man behind the desk. She knew without opening the packet what the orders were likely to be. General McAllister had not taken what had happened in the aftermath of the Knight Sabers' visit well. The tar and feathers had been humiliating, but they had turned out to be minor annoyances compared to what had happened next.

Acting on the instructions left by SkyKnight, USSD had located and retrieved the ruined Shadowhawk suit. In the process of rebuilding it, one of the scientists had downloaded the suit computer memory into USSD's research database, and the results had been disastrous. First, every scrap of information they'd painstakingly gathered on the Knight Sabers and their hardsuit capabilities had vanished. One of the scientists had immediately realized that they'd somehow imported a computer virus to the system, and had tried to eliminate it. He'd succeeded, but not before losing almost half of their research material from the Shadowhawk project when the research center computers started purging files.

McAllister had been absolutely volcanic in his reaction to the news, screaming dire threats and throwing a tantrum in his rebuilt office. His vile mood had been made even worse by the news that the salvaged component given to them by SkyKnight was useless. It was indeed from the D.D. battlemover, but it was so carbonized from electrical surges, it almost qualified as coal. Once the magnitude of how badly they'd been outmaneuvered set in, McAllister had become colder and more driven than ever, if that was possible. He'd had the Shadowhawk suit rebuilt, and this time they'd used some new polymers and metal alloys for the armour. It was now, in their scientists' opinions, able to withstand what had wrecked it the last time: SkyKnight. McAllister regarded her coldly.

"Well?" he asked glacially. "What is it now?" Natasha sighed, and mentally braced herself.

"I would like to go on record, Sir, as saying that I am opposed to these orders ."

"On what grounds?"

"First, it is my opinion that you have lost any objectivity you had regarding this matter. Your personal opinions have been colouring your orders with regards to this project for some time now. Secondly," she hesitated. She was probably destroying what was left of her military career, but she had to say what she thought. She took a deep breath. "Secondly, Sir, I am questioning your motives for beginning this project. Based on my own research and looking around, I don't think the Knight Sabers present the threat you say they do." There, she'd said it. She suspected McAllister had his own agenda that he was advancing for some reason, but proof had remained elusive. Her own poking around had failed to turn up any evidence that the Knight Sabers were the subversives the general claimed they were. They were still mercenaries and vigilantes, but they were also the only group around that could actually effectively deal with boomer rampages without huge damage to the city. The fact that they did exactly that, all the time and without any compensation further undermined his claims. The general looked at her with a face that would have put a basilisk to shame.

"Your concerns have been noted," he stated coldly. "Are you going to carry out your orders anyway, or shall I relieve you of duty?"

"No sir, I will still follow your orders," she replied reluctantly. She'd already figured out that if she did quit this secret project, McAllister was the type who'd arrange for her to quietly 'disappear'. If she got killed following his orders, he'd sweep it all under the carpet and deny everything. The fact that she wasn't officially here made it that much easier to conceal. Either way, she now realized that she'd allowed herself to get neatly framed in an unsavoury position, all because she'd been ambitious once. She saluted the general, and left the office, the sealed orders suddenly weighing like lead in her hand.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Well, well, well. If it isn't Han Solo himself," Priss remarked sardonically as Bert walked into the main room of the Knight Saber testing facility. She was already dressed in the red, white and blue jumpsuit used for the testing, her brown hair pulled back into a pony tail. He cocked an eyebrow at her curiously.

"I heard about your run in the Millennium Falcon yesterday," she told him. "Trying to break that record for the 'Kessel Run'?" He grinned wickedly.

"You're just mad because you got caught speeding, and I didn't," he said loftily. She spluttered indignantly as he vanished into the changeroom, re-emerging a few moments later clad in his own track-suit like outfit. Priss glared at him in rather irritated silence as she stepped over to the arm strength machine. Bert grinned cheerily at her, and walked over to the main viewing window. Sylia and Nene were standing and watching Linna beat the computer, yet again. Sylia was her usual cool self in her white lab coat, scanning the monitors. Nene was shifting around nervously.

He glanced at the monitor: Level Eight. From the looks of things, Linna was going to beat it by a safe margin. His own best was somewhere on Level Six, and he'd been stuck there for about a year now. Nene looked up at him, slightly apprehensive. He smiled at her and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.

"You'll do fine," he told her quietly. "Just relax and remember not to panic." She nodded, taking some deep breaths to try and calm down. Sylia looked over at them as Linna finished off her holographic opponent.

"Okay, you're next Nene," she told the red-haired girl. Nene sighed and walked over to the door as Linna came out.

****

Priss and Linna stared at the display screen, surprise written all over their faces. Their incredulous gazes lifted to the room beyond the window, where Nene was jumping up and down in overjoyed triumph. They couldn't believe what they'd just seen: Nene had beaten Level Five, and without too much trouble. Bert merely grinned gleefully, and flashed Nene a 'thumbs-up' through the window. Only Sylia seemed unsurprised. As Bert looked in her direction, she smiled faintly and winked at him; she knew what they'd been up to, obviously. Bert grinned back in reply. He walked over to the door, sweeping it open for Nene as she emerged, bowing floridly. She grabbed him for a huge hug, and they stood there laughing delightedly for a moment. Priss and Linna suddenly got it.

"You've been coaching her!" Linna accused, pointing at him.

"It figures," Priss muttered. He grinned at them both.

"It beats constantly criticizing someone about what they can't do," he pointed out gently. They both flushed guiltily at his remark. Nene was still basking in the glory of the moment, and wasn't saying much. Sylia looked over at them, smiling openly now.

"Very well done, Nene," she said, then looked at him. "Okay, now it's your turn, Bert." His smile slipped slightly. Oh well, he sighed inwardly, here goes nothing.

****

Bert staggered out of the simulator room, trying to bend his spine back into a straight position. Sylia looked over at him, shaking her head in resignation.

"Reflex speed: 7.32," she told him. "You made it to Level Seven, but I'm not so sure you should have pulled that last stunt to do it. Does it hurt much?"

"No, of course not," he shot back with heavy sarcasm. "I always walk this way!" He'd done quite well, up until the point where he had to hit the last target zone. Things had turned ugly then, almost like the computer had decided to make sure he stayed stuck at Level Six for the rest of his life. He'd only had about ten seconds left when he'd decided to try something he'd seen, but never successfully performed himself. He'd finally hit the target area by diving forward over a holographic tentacle with his arms outstretched, and using his momentum and his arms as he swung over, to drive his feet into the computer projection. It had worked, but he'd really wrenched his back around doing it. He straightened a bit more, violated nerves and vertebrae protesting every step of the way. Nene came over to offer a sympathetic shoulder to lean on.

"We're not done yet," Sylia told him.

"Marvelous," he muttered in reply. It looked like it was going to be a long night.

****

Bert watched with everyone else as the final results scrolled across the screen. He was rather proud of himself for having finally made it up a level, although his back was questioning whether or not it was worth it. Sylia looked up from the screen with a smile.

"You've all done very well," she told them. "Keep up the good work." She was about to continue when the intercom light flashed. She pressed a switch, and Mackie's picture showed up.

"Hey Sis?" he said, a vaguely worried expression on his face. "There's a strange girl wandering around outside." Sylia frowned thoughtfully.

"Strange girl?" she asked. Mackie nodded, and the picture changed to a camera view of a young, blond-haired girl wearing a green top, a brown hat, and dark sunglasses, even though it was nighttime. Why is it, Bert irritably thought to himself, that anyone sneaking around spying always wears dark glasses? If anything, he thought, they made you look more noticeable, not less. Nene and Priss both gasped in shock, while Linna and Sylia merely looked curious.

"Hey!" Priss exclaimed. "That's the girl who tried to get pictures of us the other night!"

"You know her?" Nene asked.

"Yeah. I trashed her camera." Nene rolled her eyes. That certainly explained a few things.

"Do you know her, Nene?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. She's the chief's niece and she says she's going to expose the true identities of the Knight Sabers," she said nonchalantly. Everyone looked at her.

"Will everything be all right?" Priss asked skeptically. Nene nodded reassuringly, giving them the 'ok' sign.

"It'll be fine!" she said confidently, then added, "I think." Bert sighed to himself. Sylia watched the wannabe reporter skulk conspicuously around the alley for a moment, then smiled.

"Well, she won't find anything looking around like that," she noted. "We'll just leave her be." Bert looked over at Nene thoughtfully.

"Well, she obviously followed you here," he observed. "So we'll have to smuggle you out somehow. Luckily, I just happen to have a cunning plan handy." Everyone rolled their eyes.

****

Lisa ducked into the alley next to the garage, whistling innocuously and trying to appear as if she was just out for a casual walk. She could hear voices from the garage.

"Hey, is my bike finished yet?" a woman's voice asked. A young man's voice replied.

"Just finished," he assured her.

"I got caught because you weirded out on me the last time," the woman said, obviously talking to the bike in question. "Now hold together."

"The problem is you drive like a maniac. Try and put yourself in the bike's place."

"I drive like a maniac?! Try driving with Mr. Han Solo back there!! If I'm a maniac, then he's bloody raving crazy!!!" There was a snort of laughter, quickly suppressed. A motorcycle engine revved into life. Lisa moved back a bit further from the alleyway entrance.

"Please be more careful with the bike," the young man's voice pleaded as the bike roared off. A few moments later, a green van drove by. A door slammed, then a heavy engine cranked into life, and a red pickup truck launched from the garage, vanishing up the street in seconds with a roar.

"I see what she meant," Lisa heard the young man mutter. The sounds of the articulated garage doors closing jerked Lisa up in surprise. She quickly ran around to the front of the garage. A young man with black hair in brown, oil-stained work clothes was lowering the door.

"Ummm, excuse me!" Lisa called over. The door stopped as the young man turned and shot a quizzical look at her. "Have you seen a red-haired woman in a mustard-yellow jumper, driving a white scooter?" He nodded.

"Yeah," he said. "She already left." Lisa looked around frantically, realizing that Nene's scooter was indeed gone.

"Oh no!" she groaned, then began backing away from the garage, turning to run down the alley. "Uh, thank you!" she called back over her shoulder. Mackie grinned to himself, letting the door roll closed as Lisa pelted hard down the alleyway.

****

Bert grinned at Nene as he flicked the tarpaulin off of her scooter and carefully hoisted it out of the truck box. She smiled back, relieved to have given Lisa the slip. Since finding out she'd been followed, she'd been nervous and jumpy. He could certainly understand why, though. He parked her scooter in its accustomed place.

"There we are," he declared. "All set for tomorrow."

"Thank you," she said, sighing. She wasn't looking forward to going to work the next day; Lisa was sure to be poking around and asking questions. He came over and gave her a quick hug and kiss.

"Don't worry," he assured her. "I'm sure everything will be fine. I don't think one college student with insatiable curiosity poses much of a threat." She looked uncertain, biting her lower lip in worry.

"Have you got a few minutes?" she queried. "I need to ask another favor."

"Sure," he replied. "What is it?" She looked around again uneasily, as if expecting Lisa to jump out of the shadows.

"Let's discuss it upstairs," she said. He shrugged, and followed her upstairs to her cubbyhole apartment. It was a reasonably tidy little place, well lit and cheery looking. It really only had two rooms; the bedroom and the living room/kitchen. Nene vanished into the bedroom for a moment as he sat down in a chair looking around.

She kept a neat apartment, he noted; everything was in its place. A couple of flowerpots perched on the windowsill, adding colour to the decor, and a couple of weird stuffed animals stared at him in goggle-eyed amazement from the back of the couch. Even the area around her computer was neat and tidy. It sat in the far corner of the living room, a hacker's dream machine. It was a compact desktop model of computer, but it filled the desktop completely with keyboards, esoteric interface devices and data storage units. A strange looking code-breaking device she'd built stuck out from one interface slot. The only computer with better capabilities than hers was the mainframe Sylia used all the time.

Looking at her apartment suddenly made him feel like a slob; he was moderately neat most of the time, but after a while his rooms developed areas of 'sprawl', where things just accumulated until they fell off of whatever they were on, or until he cleaned them up. Nene had commented on it a couple of times, mostly when his sock piles had started to achieve independent movement. Nene came back into the room, a small package of some kind in her hand. She sat down in a chair across from him.

"How busy are you tomorrow?" she asked. He looked at her quizzically.

"I'm not doing anything I can't postpone," he replied. "Why?"

"I'd like you to come to work with me and keep an eye on Lisa." He jumped almost straight up into the air at her request.

"Now wait just a second!" he protested. "When I said I was willing to do anything for you, that didn't include running the risk of getting busted again!"

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Do you remember the rather tenuous state of my identification?" he asked. His current ID was basically a forgery that Sylia and Nene had made up for him after his arrival in MegaTokyo two years ago. There had been no way he could flash around his real, old identification; people here tended to regard documents with the date 1995, and Canadian to boot, as kind of suspicious. Sylia and Nene had embroidered the truth a little, and generated the necessary documents for him for the appearance of normalcy. He was still worried that someone might put two and two together, and figure out he wasn't using legitimate ID. For that reason, he tended to avoid the cops, especially Leon. Leon was one of the brightest inspectors they had, and he had an uncanny knack for remembering odd bits of information that came up. It was possible he'd heard about the red-haired wacko claiming to be from 1995 a couple of years back, and remembered the description.

"Of course I remember," she retorted irritably. "And I keep telling you not to worry; no one is going to figure it out. They've got no reason to check up on you."

"They will if I'm hanging around the police station halls!"

"No one will notice, honest! I've taken care of that!"

"Oh really?" he snorted. "And just how did you do that? Develop an invisibility formula?"

Nene sighed in annoyance, opening the small package she had. She pulled out what looked like a couple of ID cards, and handed them to him. Bert found himself looking at two ADP passcards. One was the standard visitor's card, the second was a photo-ID card with his picture on it. It identified him as a 'consulting engineer' for some company he'd never heard of before. He looked over at her, not quite sure he believed what was going on.

"You want me to pose as some kind of technical consultant?" he asked. "And just how are you going to explain that one away? Do they often let strange technicians run around the place?"

"Yes, that's the idea," she confirmed. "We can explain it away by saying that you're interested in some of the lab jobs and want to check things out. That shouldn't be too difficult to pull off. I mean, you've got enough know-how to sound knowledgeable, although you overdo the detail a bit at times." Nene had quit asking him for explanations on some of his hardsuit designs because of it; he'd almost put her to sleep several times by lapsing into convoluted technical jargon when a simple, straightforward answer would have sufficed. He flushed slightly.

"Well how are you going to get away with foisting Lisa off on me?" he inquired.

"I told her about you the other day," she replied calmly, "and she'd like to meet you." Bert turned white, making strangled noises. At length he gained control of himself again as she waited.

"You told her about me?" His patience was becoming a little strained. "Why, for God's sake?"

"Someone at work mentioned I had a boyfriend, and she asked about it." she replied simply.

Bert's guts seemed to plummet like a skydiver. He hadn't wanted Nene to noise the fact that he was her boyfriend around the office, because he'd figured it was safer for her. Nobody would ask about him, which would mean he wouldn't be suddenly pressed into meeting people and having to be sociable. Anyone who found out he didn't have a 'real job' would start wondering just what it was he did for a living. Cops were a suspicious bunch, and he didn't want to give them any reasons to start wondering. If they found him out, they might start checking on Nene, and he didn't want that.

"They know we're dating?" he asked. She nodded.

"Naoko saw us together a couple of times," she told him. "It didn't take long after that for the word to float around." He sighed miserably, placing his head in his hands, elbows balanced on his knees.

"You do realize, of course, that Lisa will be asking me all kinds of questions about you?" he inquired tiredly. "Not to mention the fact that she'll probably start digging for info on me?" How do I get myself into these things? he asked himself.

"I realize that," she replied seriously, "but I really need your help on this. I can't work with her hovering around the corners all the time, watching me. Will you please help me?" Bert sighed, looking over at her. There was a subdued pleading look in her green eyes; she was really worried, he realized suddenly. He gave in.

"All right, I'll do it," he said. "but don't say I didn't warn you, if something happens." She grabbed him for a grateful hug.

****

Thunder sullenly rumbled through the nighttime clouds. Occasional flashes of light illuminated the sloping sides of the GENOM tower. At the uppermost peak, lights burned from spacious office windows overlooking the city. Inside the office, an armoured green Herculean shape confronted an old man at his desk.

"I have ascertained his weaknesses, and the weaknesses of the rest of the Knight Sabers," the cold, grating voice declared. Quincy sat back in his chair, regarding the huge green boomer with a trace of pride. It had taken the HeadHunter weeks to do it, but it appeared to have developed a workable plan.

"Excellent," he said, an evil smile appearing. "Attack at once."

"The time is not right," it replied. Quincy frowned; this was the first time the HeadHunter had objected to an order.

"I am ordering you to attack them! Follow your directives!" Quincy stopped as the boomer's head suddenly snapped to regard him directly. It's faceted yellow eyes brightened, glowing like lamps. Quincy suddenly felt uneasy, a feeling he was not accustomed to.

"An attack now would be strategically and tactically unsound," the boomer stated in ominous tones. "I will decide when to strike."

"You will obey my orders without question!" Quincy retorted, beginning to get angry. He was the C.E.O. of GENOM, and absolutely everyone obeyed him. When he'd made the boomer independent of GENOM, he had put safeguards in its programming to make sure it obeyed him all the time. What he hadn't yet realized was that in making the boomer super-intelligent, and autonomous to boot, he had enabled it to re-write its directives. He had also forgotten that he was face-to-face with the most vicious killer boomer GENOM had ever devised. He was savagely reminded of that fact when his desk top suddenly erupted into a shredded, splintered pile of wood chips. He looked up from the shattered desk to the HeadHunter, the cold unfamiliar hands of fear seizing his guts and squeezing. The serrated arm blades of the boomer retracted.

"You order?" it queried coldly. "You may advise; I am not bound by your orders any longer. They are not logical at times, which makes your intellectual properties vastly inferior to mine. I will eliminate the Knight Sabers, and all who oppose GENOM, but it will be when I decide the time is right. Remember that. I will not tolerate interference from inferior organisms." The HeadHunter suddenly turned and burst through Quincy's window in an explosion of glass, vanishing into the night.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Would you please just relax?" Nene whispered to him as they walked through the front door of the ADP HQ building. She was dressed in her uniform blouse, jacket, skirt and tie. Under any other circumstances, Bert would have been thinking of how cute she looked. However, at the moment his mind was morbidly sure that the roof was going to fall in on him, figuratively speaking. He was not able to relax; walking into the ADP station ranked right next to entering a den full of hungry lions, as far as he was concerned.

He himself was a little more dressed up than usual, wearing a white shirt and blue pants with a short, dark-blue jacket instead of his usual jeans and a sweater. He'd even combed his hair into reluctant order. Nene had pointed out that it wouldn't hurt if he maybe looked a little more 'professional', and he'd agreed; he didn't want to be too conspicuous. His ID badges were pinned to the left breast pocket of his jacket, and he was devoutly hoping Nene knew what she was doing. The girl at the front desk didn't even bat an eye as they walked past.

"See?" she muttered under her breath to him as they continued on. "Nothing to worry about."

"The day's not over yet," he replied, relaxing only slightly.

****

"Nene!" a voice called out as they entered the office area. Bert looked over, and saw a young woman with brown hair and blue eyes coming towards them, her arms stacked with paperwork.

"Hi Naoko!" Nene greeted her. Naoko glanced curiously at Bert as she came up to them; he tried to clamp down on the panic he was feeling. Lord, he felt like he was walking in a minefield! Nene introduced him to her, and she smiled briefly at him before turning back to Nene.

"Since you started looking out for Lisa, the work's started piling up," Naoko told her. She dropped the weighty stack of paper into Nene's hands. "The section chief wants all this done by tonight. Bye!" She turned and almost sprinted for the far end of the office, leaving a horrified Nene staring at the stack of work. Bert was vaguely amused.

"Well, that ought to keep you out of mischief today," he remarked. Nene shot him a disgusted glance, and he grinned back innocently. She walked over to her desk and dropped the work stack to the desk top with a loud thump, sighing in resignation. She sat down behind her desk and peeled off the top form to get started. Bert looked around, suddenly feeling like a signpost sticking out.

"I don't see Lisa," he told her, "So I'm going to go find the coffee machine first. I'll be back in a few minutes, so just get her to wait around." Nene nodded; she wasn't so cheerful anymore, now that a stack of several hours' worth of work had landed on her. Bert wandered off in search of the caffeine dispenser.

****

He arrived back in the vicinity of her desk in time to see Leon suddenly burst up from the side of the desk, scaring Nene into a shrieking fall backwards out of her chair. There was a loud crash and clatter, and paper flew through the air in a blizzard. Bert quickly walked over to her desk, and restrained the sudden urge to belt Leon. That would not be a good way to stay unnoticed. As he walked over, he saw Lisa sneaking away down the corridor guiltily. Reaching the desk, he could see Nene was on the verge of tears. Bert again strangled the urge to hit Leon, who now had a rather embarrassed expression on his face. He picked up her chair and helped Nene back into it, handing her his cup of coffee; she looked like she needed it worse than he did at the moment. He turned to Leon as she slugged it back, gradually calming down.

"Inspector McNichol, I presume," he said dryly. "Do you always lurk around offices scaring people?" Leon turned even more sheepish looking.

"I'm sorry, really," he mumbled, then looked at Bert curiously, glance flicking across his ID card. Bert introduced himself.

"Consulting engineer, huh?" Leon remarked thoughtfully. "Consulting on what?" Bert launched into a long-winded technical spiel on mechanical engineering, robotics, and science, with the occasional tie-in to police work, that very quickly glazed over the eyes of anyone standing within earshot, especially Leon. He was pretty sure he'd managed to convince them he was what he said he was, as Leon seemed to wake up when he finished. A couple of desks away, another office worker jerked up from where he'd dozed off face-first into his paperwork.

"Very interesting," Leon remarked insincerely. "I ...." Nene interrupted; she'd recovered her composure enough to be annoyed with them.

"Would you two please take this somewhere else?" she asked pointedly. "Some of us do have work to do."

"Yes Ma'am," Bert replied, saluting. He and Leon beat a hasty retreat to the corridor.

****

They found Lisa lurking in the hallway, and Bert had introduced himself. She was about Nene's height, with short blond hair, big brown eyes, and a cheery disposition. Ah, the exuberance of youth, Bert thought to himself as he appraised her. He wasn't that much older, but for some strange reason, she made him feel older; it was like being around a younger sister. She chatted amicably with him and Leon for a few minutes, but no probing questions materialized. She's probably waiting to corner me alone, he thought to himself. Leon eventually excused himself, saying he had some work to do. Bert figured he was probably just sneaking off to the target range, since he seemed to spend a lot of time there. He sighed to himself, preparing for a long day of answering questions as he and Lisa wandered down the corridor.

The day passed, surprisingly enough, without incident. They wandered all over the ADP building, examining the areas they were allowed into. In keeping with his cover story, Bert had steered them through the labs and vehicle maintenance facilities. He almost got involved in helping a technician overhauling a K-12 that was in for repairs, but he restrained himself; he had to keep an eye on Lisa, and from what he'd seen, technical stuff bored her. There was nothing more dangerous than a bored, inquisitive wannabe reporter, and a college student to boot, so he'd reluctantly left the shops with her. He had made a couple of moderately safe design suggestions to the technician, however, before leaving. Nothing from the hardsuits, of course, just some of his own ideas on the K-12 construction.

At length, they came to the cafeteria. Lisa sat at a table while he procured a couple of drinks. Here it comes now, he told himself as he sat down across from her, handing her a mug of coffee. The twenty questions on 'what do you know about Nene?'.

"So," Lisa asked, trying to appear casual, "how long have you known Nene?"

"Two years," he replied truthfully enough.

"Does she ever seem, well ..... does she ever act funny?"

"All the time," he replied with a perfect poker face. "She's got a great sense of humour." Lisa kept plying him with questions for a few more minutes, all of which he artfully avoided, or was able to answer without really telling her anything. He could tell she was getting a little annoyed with him, but she was hiding it well. She lapsed into silence for a few minutes, while he decided to try his own questions.

"Nene tells me you want to be a reporter," he said. "Mind if I ask why?"

"I want to follow my Dad's career," she said proudly. "He's a really good photo-journalist."

"That the only reason?"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"What I mean is, why do you want to report on things? Is it to get rich by capitalizing on sensationalistic stories, or are you going to be a serious reporter keeping the public well informed on important topics?" She was silent a moment.

"I don't know," she admitted. "I guess I want to be a good reporter on important stuff. I really enjoy the work, though. I don't really care about money." She cocked her head at him curiously. "Why the concern?" she queried. He shrugged.

"The power of the press is a formidable tool," he replied. "I don't approve of how some people use it like a crowbar to get what they want, or to get rich by sensationalizing things. I just wondered where you fit in, because it's a big responsibility."

"Responsibility?" she echoed. He nodded.

"Whatever you report on will be read by many people," he explained. "That has the potential to create a lot of influence, good or bad, on whatever you write about. You have to make sure you are not distorting the actual facts, or someone could get hurt from a wrong impression, or from someone else acting on that impression. Take your current project, for example."

"What current project?"

"Nene told me about you trying to find out who the Knight Sabers are." She jumped in surprise. "Suppose you succeed; what then? If their private identities were to become known, there could be all kinds of repercussions. Their lives would be destroyed by the sudden public, and probable police, scrutiny. Because of their work, they probably have some serious enemies in places, who would love to know where they are so they can kill them. If they have families anywhere, families who aren't even involved, they'd be in danger, too. There's a whole ugly can of worms that would get opened by revealing the Knight Sabers' identities; do you really want to have all that on your conscience? And only because you lost a camera?" She looked at him thoughtfully. He was pretty sure he'd been vague enough to avoid any direct suspicions aimed at him, but Lisa was pretty perceptive. There was no way to know for sure.

"I never thought of it that way before," she admitted. "What do you think I should do?"

"That's your decision," he told her. "It's not mine to make, or to influence. You, and you alone must decide what is right." She nodded, finishing her coffee.

****

Nene looked battle-weary as they approached her desk. The stack of paperwork she'd had at the start of the day had dwindled to a final two reports, and she was trying to get them finished. Bert glanced at the clock, whistling to himself in surprise; 8:45 p.m.. It had been almost a twelve hour shift. He hadn't realized it had been that long of a day. To Nene it had probably seemed a lot longer, having to grind through all the paperwork. Lisa flopped in a nearby chair when they reached her desk. Nene looked up, smiling in relief when she saw who it was.

"I'm glad it's just you two," she said, stretching for a moment. "I thought maybe someone had found more work for me to do."

"I can go find some for you, if you'd like," Bert offered. The dirty look Nene gave him more than answered his question. He grinned, then bowed to her and to Lisa.

"Well, ladies," he said, "I'll see you later, since I've got to get going. I've got an appointment I can't delay any longer." Nene looked at him in surprise.

"Weren't you going to go to dinner with us?" she asked. He shook his head regretfully.

"Sorry," he replied, "but I really can't put this off any longer. I'll see you tomorrow." He leaned across the desk and gave Nene a quick kiss, then left. Nene sighed, then turned back to quickly finishing her last few pages. Lisa looked from her, to the door Bert had left by, a thoughtful expression on her face.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

The phone rang urgently as Bert straightened up from the exposed engine sitting in front of him. Cranking his back into place, he walked across the shop and picked up the phone. It was Sylia.

"Get your suit on!" she said without preamble. "We've got trouble!"

"What's happened?"

"Some terrorist nut with boomers has taken over the ADP building. He's got the ADP locked out of the building, but some people are still trapped inside." Bert's gut clenched in a stab of sudden anxiety.

"Is Nene inside?" he asked, fervently hoping that she wasn't, even though he knew she probably was. His anxiety increased as Sylia confirmed that she was still inside. Damn.

"What's the plan?" he queried, shooting a quick glance at his current project, wondering if it was ready to run, or not. Probably not.

"We go in, kill the boomers, and shut down this guy," she said simply. "Mackie's going along in the support mech we made for him, and he'll be carrying Nene's new hardsuit. That reminds me: what suit are you going to use?"

"My old one," he replied immediately. "It's more than adequate for the job."

"Whatever," she sighed. "I still wish you'd reconsider."

"I'll meet you there," he said, not really answering her, then hung up. Sylia was still after him to reconsider his decision to stick with his old suit; she'd designed a new one for him, based mostly on his designs, that incorporated the new suit programs, power plant modifications, and so on. Technically speaking, it was superior to his old suit, and definitely more powerful. However, he was obstinately sticking to his opinion that he was powerful enough as it was, and had to stop constantly upgrading. He didn't need to be able to level the surrounding real estate.

He ran across the shop to where his old suit was, and stepped into it; instantly the various armour parts snapped closed with a series of clacks and pneumatic hisses. Bert slapped on his helmet, then grabbed his usual explosive-bolt launcher and his chemical flare gun from a side-locker. Settling them into their mounting sockets, he took a quick glance at the motoroid he was working on, then shook his head. Even if it was ready to roll, he didn't think he'd need it. He flicked off the lights as he pounded out the door.

****

SkyKnight cautiously approached the ADP headquarters, sensors primed to detect any attacks from the rooftop; he'd seen the flaming wreckage of an attempted plane landing on the roof, and figured there was still a boomer lurking up there. As he flew closer, he examined the ADP building. Powerful floodlights cast probing beams at its sides, and small red and blue lights strobed in front of it from the locked-out police cars below. The building resembled a massive metal cylinder at the moment, especially since all the blast shutters on the windows were closed. As he flew closer, explosions billowed out from four separate locations in the building. Caution vanished as he flipped his flight system to full power and screamed towards one of the gaping holes in the side, charging his gas-plasma lasers. He opened his helmet communicator.

"The air force has arrived," he announced. "What's up gang?"

"There's five strange combat boomers," Sylia's voice replied. "Be careful; they're upgraded, and they're no bargain. Get your butt in here and give us a hand."

"What about Nene?"

"Mackie got her suit to her, and she's on her way to a computer room. Now shut up and get in here!" The channel cut off. SkyKnight ducked into the nearest hole in the building.

****

The metal blast door buckled under a series of thunderous impacts, falling in with a clang. SkyKnight stepped over the crumpled steel, looking around. So far, he hadn't been able to find the fifth boomer. Linna had killed the one she had been facing, Priss and Sylia were still fighting theirs, and the fourth one was in the main computer room. Where the hell was number five?

The blast door at the far end of his corridor slid open. As SkyKnight swung around, a frantic, blond-haired girl in a blue skirt and white jacket burst through the door, running for her life. Right behind her was a boomer that was built like a football linebacker with foot-long spikes protruding from its shoulders, elbows and knees. Its head looked vaguely like a Star Wars stormtrooper helmet, but with a strange tube mounted on each side of its head. Power cables ran from the tubes to vanish into its back somewhere. The grey-black boomer's red eyes lit up as it caught sight of him. Lisa skidded to a stop and fell over as she saw the looming silver armour suit in front of her. She was absolutely panicked.

"Lisa!!!!" Nene's voice crackled from the loudspeakers. "What happened? Where are you?"

"Corridor 12, west side, tenth floor," SkyKnight replied crisply, stepping past the terrified girl to shield her from the black boomer. It had stopped charging and appeared to be waiting for something. "She was being chased by a boomer. Don't worry, I'm on it. Get ready to open the door on my signal."

"Roger!" Nene replied. "It may not be easy, though. The boomer subverting the controls is tough." He quickly acknowledged her, then turned his attention back to the boomer.

"Lisa!" SkyKnight said. "When I shout 'now', run for the far door past the wrecked one." She edged towards the far door he'd mentioned.

"Who are you?" she asked nervously.

"SkyKnight," he replied shortly, targeting the boomer. "NOW!!" he bellowed. Lisa took off for the far end of the hallway as he gave a short burst from his jets and tackled the boomer, avoiding its spikes and smashing it back into the wall. As he disengaged from the close contact, the boomer pounded him backwards with a flashing series of punches and spinning kicks that Bruce Lee would have envied. As he groggily rolled upright, the door at the far end opened, and Lisa began to run through. The boomer's head swiveled to track her, and the tubes on the sides of its head began to whine, a blue glow appearing in the apertures. Bert threw himself into the path of the crackling plasma beams, absorbing the shots as Lisa sprinted for safety. Armour plating melted and burned under the blasts; whoever had designed this boomer had found a way to build very compact, very powerful plasma guns, it seemed. The door slammed shut behind the fleeing college student.

SkyKnight rolled to his feet again, wounded now. One plasma shot had struck him in the right shoulder, punching through his armour and giving him a nasty burn. The other shot had destroyed his flare launcher. I've got to re-design the damn thing, he thought sourly to himself. It presented too easy a target to hit; it obviously needed a lower profile. The boomer leaped forward at him again snarling and swinging. He spun sideways, smashing it in the back of the head with a quick karate chop. The boomer lurched, then spun around, throwing a punch at him. SkyKnight swatted it aside, then belted the boomer sprawling with a boosted right cross, trying to ignore the pain it was causing by aggravating his burn. Sylia hadn't been exaggerating the upgrading these boomers had received; this one was easily a match for him, in both armour and weapons.

The boomer surged upright the instant after it hit the floor, and it flashed towards SkyKnight again. SkyKnight tried sidestepping the boomer's charge, but the boomer changed course instantly, smashing into him shoulder-first with its spikes. Metal shrieked in protest as one of the spikes punched through his lower torso armour, ripping a long shallow gash in his side. A wet warmth began gluing his suit lining to his side.

"God DAMN it!!! I have had ENOUGH!!!!" SkyKnight roared in combined pain and anger. Prying the boomer away from him, he smashed it with two quick uppercuts, then flattened it with an overhand right. Picking the boomer up by the scruff of the neck, he smashed it face-first into the walls and the nearby metal blast door several times. The boomer quit struggling abruptly as its head casing cracked under the assault. SkyKnight released it, breathing heavily, and stepped back. The boomer started to drop to the floor, when it suddenly surged around and smashed him flying backwards down the hallway with a powerful punch that caught him completely flat-footed by surprise. As SkyKnight arced through the air, two more plasma beam shots tore into him. The silver hardsuit crashed to the floor tiles, smoke coming off of its chest and leg armour. SkyKnight rolled over groggily, fighting to get back to his feet as the boomer stomped closer.

****

Sylia stepped through the door to the auxiliary computer room. Priss and Linna were already there, leaning against the wall, presumably staring back at the young, blond-haired girl who was staring around at them, wide-eyed. Their new hardsuits had performed perfectly, and they didn't have a scratch anywhere. Nene's new red and pink hardsuit stood by the computer console, still linked to the ADP computers, flanked by Mackie's yellow mech. SkyKnight was nowhere in evidence.

"Where's SkyKnight?" she asked. Priss shrugged.

"You've got me," she replied. "I thought he'd be here by now."

"Is that the silver and blue Knight Saber?" Lisa asked timidly. Sylia nodded. "I saw him not that long ago in the west end of the building."

"Thank you," Sylia replied, then looked over at Priss. "You'd better go see what's keeping our knight errant." Priss snorted at the description, but straightened up from the wall. As she did so, the building suddenly shuddered and a thunderous explosion could be heard booming through the hallways. Fire alarms blared. Nene spun to check the location of the explosion on the computer.

"What the hell was that?" Sylia demanded.

"There's been an explosion in corridor twelve, tenth floor, west side of the building," Nene reported tensely. "It's taken out that entire wing, it looks like."

****

Bert dropped to his knees in relief. He'd finally killed the boomer; it was a charred, smoking pile of debris on the floor. He began to examine his armour to see just what kind of shape he was in. He himself felt lousy; pain was shooting up his left side and right shoulder from the hits he'd taken there. He quickly did a visual inspection of his suit.

Sparks sizzled and spat from his right cannon assembly as he examined it; he'd burned it out in the process of stopping the boomer, and it had exploded outwards the way it had been designed, sparing his arm any further injuries. He flexed his hand and arm just to make sure everything still worked. His rail cannon barrel had been bent into a pretzel-shape, and the gun body was dented and battered; it was useless now except as ballast. All of his other systems appeared to be functioning normally. Other than low power reserves and beaten-up armour plating, he was still in business.

He heaved himself to his feet, staring down the rather large tunnel he'd carved through the ADP building with his weapons; smoke and flames sputtered everywhere, slowly dying out. Periodically, a lone ceiling tile dropped from where it had been tenaciously trying to hang on. Wires hung from the shattered walls, and an occasional water pipe was busy cheerily flooding the floor. A haze of dust and smoke clung to everything. Using the makeshift tunnel as a shortcut, he began making his way down to the auxiliary computer room where he knew everyone would be waiting.

****

"My painstakingly crafted masterpieces!!!" Dr. Miriam foamed, pulling at his hair in frustration. "It's unforgivable!!! They were unbeatable!!! It's not fair!!!" He slammed his fists down on the console in front of him, seething. He had only one boomer left. Fine. If that was the way they wanted to do things, that was fine with him.

"Overload the building's electrical system and blow the place up," he ordered his last creation. "I leave it to you!" He dashed to the front of his helicopter, and began take off preparations.

****

Priss' blue hardsuit came back through the door, helmet swinging to regard Sylia.

"He's coming up the hall now," she said. "But he doesn't look to be in very good shape."

"What do you mean?" Nene asked worriedly. Everyone realized what Priss was talking about as SkyKnight loomed in the door frame, the red light from his helmet eyeslot flickering erratically.

The silver armour was now sooty-black from plasma beam burns. They could all see a smoldering hole in his right shoulder armour, and his chest and torso armour had also sustained some direct hits. Cracks, gouges and burns were all over every inch of his hardsuit. Smoke and sparks spat occasionally from where his right arm lasers had been installed at one time, and his left shoulder mount sported a twisted metal lump that had been a railgun launcher. He looked like he'd been hit by a train. By comparison, the rest of the Knight Sabers were unmarked. He leaned against the doorframe as they watched, obviously in pain.

"Shit!" Priss suddenly exclaimed. "You're bleeding!" Blood was leaking from a gash in his torso armour, low down on the left side. He straightened up immediately, waving her off.

"It's nothing, really. I'm fine," he replied. He stepped further into the room, moving as if unharmed. He was keeping himself upright only by willpower, though, and pretty well everyone in the room could see that. Linna sighed, then grabbed his right arm and looped it over her shoulder as she stepped forward. Sylia had her arms crossed, and from her general posture, it was obvious she was glaring at SkyKnight. She didn't get a chance to say anything, though. The lighting in the room suddenly turned red, and the computer monitor in front of Nene flashed up a large countdown.

"Oh no!" Nene gasped in horror. "The building's on an explosion countdown!!"

"Can you stop it?" Priss queried, coming over to look.

"I don't know," she replied distractedly, hammering away at the keyboard with her left hand while operating her suit interface with the other. Data streamed past on the screen in front of her. "You take Lisa and get out of here!"

"What about you?" Linna asked.

"I can't just leave! I don't want to lose ADPolice!" she snapped angrily. "Just go! I'll think of something!!" Priss turned and started herding Lisa out the door. Everyone else left, except for SkyKnight and Mackie. Nene looked over at them.

"I'll help," Mackie answered her unspoken question. "It's too much for one person." SkyKnight stepped over to her and gave her a gentle hug.

"I'd like to do more to help," he said. "But I can't, since I don't know even a fraction of what you know about computers. Good luck; I'll be waiting outside when you come out." He flipped up his visor and grinned at her. "I love you, so you'd better come out in one piece!" he added before turning and leaving reluctantly. Nene and Mackie got busy on trying to prevent the boomer from demolishing the ADP headquarters.

****

"Hey," Lisa prodded the blue hardsuit standing behind her. "Will Nene be all right?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, yeah," it answered her. It didn't sound confident, though.

"She'll be fine," the white hardsuit spoke up, its voice strangely familiar to Lisa. "Trust in her."

Nearby, the scorched and battered silver hardsuit was leaning on the rooftop railing, staring fixedly at the ADP building. There was a protesting screech from the railing as it slowly deformed under the clenching of its hands. Abruptly, it straightened up, and what looked like wings, although really bent-up wings, snapped into extension on its back.

"I'm going back in there," SkyKnight announced. "I can't stand just sitting here waiting for something to happen." Howling jets suddenly spat him across the intervening distance between the ADP building and the rooftop.

****

The building framework shuddered violently, and a booming detonation could be heard ringing through the empty halls. The lighting returned to its normal colouring, and the alarm klaxons ceased their insistent racket. Viewscreens in an isolated auxiliary computer room grandly proclaimed "STATUS: NORMAL."

"We did it!" Nene exclaimed, sinking to the floor in relief. "By causing a power feedback in the circuits we made it self-destruct!" Mackie grinned at her, also relieved.

"Well done!" Sylia's voice congratulated them. They turned, and saw that the rest of the Knight Sabers stood in the doorway, waiting for them. Nene flipped up her visor, tears of gratitude welling in her eyes.

"You all waited for me!" she cried. "Oh, thank you!" SkyKnight stepped forward again, and enfolded her in another hug.

"Come on, let's go home," Sylia said.

 

A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER ....

"Hold still."

"YEOOOW!! Damn it, would you lay off with that?!" Bert snarled at Priss. She ignored him and swabbed his burned shoulder again with the antiseptic pad she'd been using. He gritted his teeth, suppressing the vile curses that were springing to mind. He winced again as Nene gave a final tug, and finished securely tying the bandage on his left side in place. They'd both insisted on being the ones to patch him back together, and he was beginning to wonder if it was just a cover excuse for them to torture him. Priss certainly seemed to be getting a kick out of watching him squirm.

"It's your own fault," she told him remorselessly. "If you weren't so damn stubborn about things, you'd have been in your new suit, and we wouldn't be doing this." She grabbed the bottle of burn ointment from the infirmary medicine cabinet, and began slathering it on. He clenched his teeth again at the medicine's bite, and to keep from telling her exactly what he thought of her bedside manner. Nene wasn't giving him a lot of sympathy, either.

"Priss is right," she stated. "It's your own fault for getting this beat up."

"All right! I'll confess! Just stop with the bloody inquisition techniques!!" he hissed in pain as Priss finished wrapping a bandage into place around his shoulder. He quickly grabbed his sweater and carefully pulled it on when she was done. He did feel better now that he'd been bandaged and plastered up, but he was not going to admit it, not considering the way he was getting shit from every quarter for his perceived stupidity. It was bad enough being in pain; couldn't they just shut up and let him suffer in peace? Apparently, no they couldn't.

"Come on, Mr. Knight-in-shining-armour," Priss said, grabbing his right arm as Nene grabbed the other. "The boss wants a word with you about your performance tonight."

"Why don't you just shoot me now?" he asked, trying to shrug loose from their grip. They held on firmly.

"Sorry, but Sylia wants the first crack at that," Priss deadpanned, as she and Nene dragged him through the door.

****

"Forty-three hours," Sylia told him. "That's how long your old suit is going to be out of commission. At least, that's how long it would be if I were even remotely inclined to let you try fixing it." She was not impressed with him at the moment. While Nene and Priss had been tormenting him in the infirmary, she'd run a scan on his suit to see how badly it had been damaged. The results from her analysis had not been promising. Her review of his flight recorder data had been even more revealing, telling her exactly what he'd done and what had happened. She pulled out the notepad she'd made notes on.

"You stopped fourteen plasma shots, not counting the two shots at Lisa you blocked, twenty-seven punches, eight kicks, one tackle that very nearly impaled you, and several other attack types." She pitched the pad at him, disgusted. "Now are you willing to change your mind? Your old suit just can't compete anymore. Even when you were just starting out, you didn't get this beat up in that short a time frame. That boomer had you almost out of the fight within seconds. It's a bloody miracle you're sitting here."

"I can leave, if you'd like," he muttered. "I'm not exactly enjoying sitting here at the moment."

"Tough shit!" she snapped. "You're going to sit there until I'm damn well done with you! The only reason you won is because you almost burned out your suit weapons to do it. That's not good enough anymore. What would you have done if there had been more of them?" He shrugged, then winced at the screaming pains it produced in his right shoulder.

"I don't know," he replied. "Gone out in a blaze of glory?" He was belted a moment later by a pillow from Nene's direction.

"That's not even remotely funny," she told him flatly. "Quit being mule-headed about this."

"Yeah," Priss echoed her. "Face the facts and admit it: you're going to have to switch to the new suit. What's the matter, anyway? Upset because Sylia did most of the upgrade designs?" Bert suddenly flushed, and Priss realized she'd accidentally hit a nerve of some kind. Sylia looked at him curiously.

"That is a very, very, VERY minor part of my reasons for sticking to the old suit," he replied tightly. He had already admitted to himself that a small part of his reluctance to use the new suit was misplaced pride in his own designs and ideas. However, Sylia was the better scientist by far, and had a lot more experience at hardsuit design than he did. She also understood the control systems better than he did, which was one of the reasons the new suits had faster reflexes than the old ones; the new controls combined with the updated suit programs she'd designed were, simply put, the best around. That, of course, made the new hardsuits the best around. He grabbed his coffee mug from the table and slurped from it for a moment.

"That boomer was a hyped-up, home-built job by some deranged nut," he declared, setting his mug down. "My old suit is still quite capable of dealing with the regular boomers."

"Not anymore," Sylia insisted. "You know it's only a matter of time before some of those boomer improvements that scientist dreamed up will find their way into new ones. And that 'home-built job' that wiped the floor with you wasn't even a real combat boomer to start off, so I wouldn't sit there brushing it off as a flash in the pan." Nene suddenly spoke up.

"If you're really that concerned about us and our safety," she told him, "you'll use your new suit. If you don't, you'll be endangering us because we'll have to keep hauling you out of trouble. You don't want that, do you?" Bert slouched back into the couch disgustedly. Nene had just neatly cut the ground out from under one of his main reasons for refusing to upgrade his suit: fear that he was becoming dangerous to his friends by constantly boosting his power. She was right; he'd be endangering them now by not keeping up. It was, unfortunately, the truth, but that didn't mean he had to like it.

"You were worried about us?" Linna asked. "What does that have to do with upping your suit power?"

"I lost my temper and almost killed someone with the damn thing a few weeks ago," he replied tersely. "I've already got a suit that's powerful enough; I don't want to accidentally hurt someone I care about, or anyone else for that matter, because I had to have a walking main battle tank for a suit. If I lose my temper again, that's exactly what could happen, since I'm not exactly in full control of myself."

"That's bullshit," Priss snorted. "So you lose your temper once in a while. So what? There isn't anyone in this room that hasn't, at some time or another."

"And like I told you before," Nene put in, "you won't hurt us. I don't think you're capable of harming your friends, voluntarily or involuntarily." Linna, Sylia and Priss all nodded agreement.

"We trust you," Sylia told him. "Let us worry about what might happen if you lose your temper. It's not a huge risk, compared to the other things we have to do at times." He sighed in annoyance. Their persistence was gradually eroding his objections, and he was vaguely disgruntled about it. It's difficult to persist in objecting to something when you've been told it just makes you look dumb.

Besides," Nene interjected, smirking slightly, "heroic knights always use the best equipment around to defend others with." Linna and Priss rolled their eyes at her words. Bert sighed again.

"You're not going to give up, are you?" he asked them in resignation.

"You've got that right," Sylia replied, the ghost of a smile flickering over her face. "We can be every bit as obstinate as you are if we have to be." He slouched back in the couch reluctantly conceding defeat.

"All right, I surrender. I'll start using the new suit."

"There's hope for him yet," Linna remarked blandly. "He's actually listening to reason now." Bert studiously ignored her remark, and the snickers it produced.

 

ONE WEEK LATER....

"What the hell did you let him take control of twenty B-12 combat boomers for?!" Quincy asked with strained patience. Madigan's patience was equally strained sounding as she replied.

"I didn't have a choice sir," she told him tightly. "The HeadHunter just smashed into the storage area, interfaced with the computer somehow, and re-wrote their programming. Then they all activated, and they're all now following him. The guards who tried to stop it from happening are either in the hospital for the next month, or spread all over the walls. Did you want pictures?!" She just barely held on to her self-control, her mind churning in combined anger and fear. Anger, because she'd foreseen the possibility of the HeadHunter going rogue, but Quincy had ignored her concerns. Fear, because the damn thing was capable of anything, especially now that it had apparently decided it was running things. The fact that the psychopathic boomer had just acquired a private army made things even worse.

Quincy's expression reflected some of the same internal misgivings. She'd only really seen that look on his face once before, when he'd rudely discovered that Largo had a direct link with the particle beam satellites. He looked like he wanted to just go and hide somewhere, anywhere, as long as he didn't have to deal with the current crisis. Quincy sighed.

"Did it say anything at all?" he asked. She nodded. "Well? What did it say?"

"It said 'The time is now right', whatever that means." Quincy suddenly smiled, which shocked her, given the seriousness of the situation.

"It means that all hell is going to break loose," he stated. "And the Knight Sabers are going to be right in the middle of it."

****

Sylia found Bert, as she'd expected, in the shop. This time, the place was even more of a madhouse than normal; parts were everywhere, tools were scattered haphazardly, blueprints covered the entire top of one long table, and a computer display terminal was spinning some kind of simulation results across the screen. It looked like he had three different projects on the go; a large, open engine sat in the middle of the workspace, flanked by two tables that had hardsuits spread on them. Wait a minute ..... TWO hardsuits?! Her brown eyes narrowed angrily.

"Bert!!" she yelled. "Where the hell are you?!" There was a bang from under a table, some swearing, and Bert straightened up from where he'd been bent over, rubbing the back of his head.

"Please don't yell like that," he said plaintively, wincing as he probed the lump that was rising.

"What the hell is this?" she demanded. "I didn't give you permission to build a second suit!" He sighed.

"The one over there is the old one," he told her. "I'm sorry, but I just couldn't scrap it."

"You are not making that thing operational again! We've been over this before, damn it!" He sighed, raising his hands in a placating manner.

"Relax, I'm not going to try. I just wanted to fix up the outer shell enough to look reasonable, then I thought I'd stand it in a corner. You know, like a trophy."

"What the hell for?!" she asked, exasperated.

"Sentimental reasons. That suit and I have been through a lot together." Sylia gave up.

"Fine," she said flatly. "Then what are you doing to your new suit?" She gestured towards the slightly sleeker, new SkyKnight suit she'd designed for him. He'd been doing something to the gauntlet arm guards, where the main guns were located.

"Didn't you know?" he asked sardonically. "I'm building the next generation of superweapons." She stared at him for a moment, not quite sure she'd heard correctly.

"Pardon me?" she inquired. He sighed irritably, tossing the rag he was holding onto a counter.

"You were right," he told her. "About keeping up in the technology-as-applied-to-weapons department, I mean. I rather reluctantly realized that when that boomer was beating the tar out of me a week ago."

"So you've gone and changed your main weapons, already?" That seemed like an awfully sudden turnaround on his earlier position of weapon non-proliferation. He nodded.

"I decided to see if I could come up with a better version of my lasers." He rummaged around in the stack of plans on the table, and came up with a schematic showing a complicated laser apparatus, with some strange additions. He explained, "I've come up with a version that combines the gas-plasma laser mechanism with some of the qualities of particle beams, sort of a two-in-one gun. I'm calling it the particle laser for now, since that pretty well covers what it is; a beam of coherent laser light containing charged particles for that extra kick. I've got two per arm now." Sylia examined the specs for a moment, then looked at him, studying him.

"You're not happy about doing it, though," she stated, half-questioningly.

"Right," he replied. "I feel like I'm being railroaded into becoming an engine of destruction, and I don't like it."

"Railroaded by whom?" He shrugged irritably.

"I don't know. GENOM? USSD? Fate? Who knows? I don't. All I know is that I don't like it." Sylia stepped closer to him and laid a reassuring hand on his arm.

"Relax," she told him gently. "You're not turning into some power-mad war machine intent on destroying the world and everyone around you, like you seem to think is happening to you. You're one of the Knight Sabers, and you're doing this to defend a greater good. Just relax and quit worrying about everything that could possibly happen. Not everything that happens is your responsibility, you know." He looked at her, his gloomy frame of mind receding as he smiled faintly.

"Do you always know what I'm thinking?" he asked.

"Hardly," she returned dryly. "If that were the case, you wouldn't have had the opportunity to get into trouble so many times." He grinned sheepishly at that. The phone rang as he was about to speak, and Sylia walked over to it and answered it.

"Hello?" she said. Bert watched as her face slowly turned white. "We'll be right up. Contact the others and have them get ready." She hung up the phone, looking more worried than he'd ever seen her before.

"Your suit is ready to go, right?" she asked tensely.

"Yes, but why? What's happened?"

"Twenty B-12 combat boomers have started leveling the downtown core. It's getting pretty ugly down there, and the ADP are losing, badly. We have to get down there and stop it." That was an understatement; twenty B-12's were almost an army in their own right. If they weren't stopped, they could quite possibly level the city. Bert nodded.

"I'll meet you up there," he said. Sylia nodded and ran from the room as he turned to his hardsuit. The table's hydraulic lift tipped up the suit to a standing position, and he stepped into it.

The chestplate armour flipped down, as the side armour plates snapped closed, locking the top torso portion together. As that happened, the leg and lower torso armour closed and sealed into place. The armoured sleeves of the suit also closed up, snugly encasing his arms. Finally, the suit lining adjusted to his body contours, and with some final hisses and snaps, his suit settled perfectly into place. He reached over and picked up his helmet from a side shelf, settling it onto his head. His viewscreen flashed into life as the final connections were made, and SkyKnight was fully functional again.

He stood for a moment, thoughtfully analyzing his new suit's feel. It had the same familiar, comfortable and supporting feel to it that the old armour had, but at the same time it was different. It seemed to be more responsive to his movements, faster and more fluid somehow. The suit viewscreen was also different, providing a much wider view of his surroundings, greatly enhancing his vision. Sylia had done a masterful job at designing it, and he mentally kicked himself for being an idiot earlier about using it. He also could feel the power inherent in the armour, waiting to be put to good use, although he chided himself for letting his imagination run wild.

He pulled himself back to reality, and turned to his workbench. Twenty boomers was going to need some impressive firepower. Luckily, he had just the perfect gadgets whipped up for this. He grinned to himself as he attached his newest modular weapons to his shoulders, and then locked his extra battery packs into place on his suit; he'd made two separate mounts for them down on the leg armour, at the hips, enabling him to get the extra power and still use his modular shoulder weapons. He ran one last systems check, and took a deep breath.

"Once more into the breach, dear friends," he said aloud, before charging out of the shop to war.

****

Explosions shattered the air. Flames hungrily devoured wood, plaster, plastic, anything at all that would burn, providing a constant background roar. Debris flew through the air, propelled by expanding plumes of smoke and flame in artificially created volcanic explosions. Destroyed fire hydrants fountained into the air, providing the only oases of lower temperatures possible in the flames. Concrete splintered and cracked in the intense heat, sloughing off of buildings like landslides, destroying whatever happened to be unlucky enough to be on the street below. Smoke wreathed everything in a dense choking cloud. Throughout the hellish conflagration that had been a prosperous business district, the distorted shapes of Bu-12-B combat boomers flitted among the flames, destroying the city in an apocalyptic frenzy.

SkyKnight dodged a shot from one of the B-12's and blew its head off a moment later with a laser barrage, ducking to avoid the ten or so salvos that the remaining combat boomers in the area tried to kill him with. Around him in the chaotic inferno, the rest of the Knight Sabers dodged and traded shots with the remaining B-12's. I can't believe this is happening, Bert thought to himself in stunned disbelief. The firefight in the raging, burning streets was a surrealistic scene right out of somebody's worst nightmares. Never, ever in his time with the Sabers had he ever seen such unparalleled destruction, and for no apparent reason. Twenty combat boomers had just suddenly decided to run amok.

He charged through the flames towards another rampaging mechanoid, ducking constant cannon fire, while the occasional bullet whined off of his suit in a wild ricochet. If they didn't stop the boomers soon, there wasn't going to be much of a city left before long; the savage fires would incinerate what the boomers hadn't been able to blow up. At the moment, downtown MegaTokyo resembled some twisted version of hell, and it was a hell that was expanding.

A brown boomer loomed up in front of him suddenly, its bazooka arm swinging around to target him, point-blank. Bert spun sideways as the gun roared, a near miss scorching the already burning air. He briefly thanked Sylia from the depths of his heart for her improvements; he knew now, having now been fighting for half an hour in his new suit, that his old suit would very quickly have been chewed up. Never before had they been in this scale of conflict. Here it was think fast and dodge, or die. His old suit reflexes would not have been up to the task of keeping him alive in this battle. In addition, heavy armour of any kind would not be able to stand the constant and remorseless fire from the boomers, so his usual tactic of standing and absorbing whatever came his way was no good anymore.

SkyKnight smashed the boomer's gun arm aside with his left arm, as his right flashed upwards in a driving uppercut. His extended swordblade neatly gutted the B-12, and he blasted its head apart a moment later with a red-white laser blast to ensure that it would stay down. He dove sideways as his suit battle computer screamed warnings at him; split seconds later, a missile storm blew smoking craters into the already churned-up asphalt. A water main burst in a spectacular spray, and dense, smoky vapour began to form, momentarily hiding him from view. He wished he dared take off his helmet for a moment; he felt like he was swimming in sweat inside his suit, from both exertion, and the hellish heat.

His wings snapped up, and he launched himself upwards to get a quick view of the battlefield. Unfortunately, becoming airborne also attracted the attention of all of the boomers. Anti-SkyKnight fire began to pound his airspace as he frantically weaved through the smoky air, avoiding the furious cannonade. He landed a moment later, further down the street, near yet two more B-12 biomechanoids. As he prepared to attack, a reprimand snapped out over the comm frequency.

"For God's sake!!!" Sylia snarled over the channel. "Stay the hell on the ground!! It's marginally safer!!" She sounded almost as winded as he was beginning to feel.

"No argument there," he agreed, dodging more offensive fire. "How are we doing, anyway?"

"We've put down nine so far," she reported. "No serious injuries to anyone, yet." He briefly heard the thunder of contained explosions over the channel as Sylia blew the ninth boomer away.

"Roger," he replied. "Prepare to scratch two more from the list." He powered his lasers up and advanced.

****

From a vantage point above the blazing firestorm, a massive green boomer watched the Knight Sabers try to stem the tide of the B-12 boomers. Blazing yellow eyes mirrored the dancing flames as mechanical laughter echoed hollowly.

"Soon," it said, the word a dire promise.

****

"Okay, we're down to eight boomers now," Priss' voice stated over the comm channel. Sylia's voice acknowledged her, and the channel went silent for a moment. SkyKnight wearily scanned the leaping flames and smoke-screened buildings, trying to locate the last few rogue boomers. As the numbers of the boomers dwindled, the Knight Sabers were getting more and more spread out. As that happened, he was getting an uneasy feeling, spurred partly by his musings on the current crisis. One boomer at a time running wild could be a malfunction, but twenty all at once? Something was very fishy about this deal. As he pondered the chaos around him, something stirred in the haze ahead of him, and clanking footsteps signaled the approach of something big. Something VERY big. It loomed out of the fog ahead of him, and he saw it for the first time.

"Oh shit!! Oh bloody goddamn hell!!" he burst out in incredulous shock as he saw what it was. It was a metallic green boomer, at least ten feet tall, with musculature that would have done credit to Atlas the Titan. Two wickedly curved claws extended from each hand. His skin crawled as he noticed they had serrated ripsaw edges; those claws would literally tear someone apart. There had to be other weapons hidden in the boomer's body, since his scanners were registering large power output. Then he saw the boomer's head. It had to be the ugliest boomer he'd ever seen; the head looked like a cross between a human head, and the elongated head from one of H.R. Giger's Alien designs, with insectoid mandibles and bulbous yellow eyes on the sides of its head. SkyKnight suddenly found himself unexpectedly dry-mouthed with fear.

"What?!?" Sylia's alarmed voice blared over the comm. "What the hell's the matter?!" It took him a moment to get up the saliva to reply.

"Trouble," he replied. "BIG trouble. I've found some new type of boomer, and it doesn't look pleasant." Now THAT was an understatement! He froze in shock as a deep, grating voice rumbled from the nightmarish boomer in front of him; it sounded almost like Darth Vader, but ten times more nasty, if that was possible.

"I am the HeadHunter 9000," the boomer told him. "I am the last type of boomer you will ever need to worry about." The boomer charged forwards, claws sweeping out, and SkyKnight found himself fighting for his life.

****

Elsewhere on the battlefield, a B-12 boomer dropped to the ground, its upper torso shredded by the stream of heavy, metal-jacketed slugs that its enemy had sprayed at it. A bulky, black armour suit stepped over the wreckage and advanced through the blazing landscape, its helmet moving as it searched for something.

Inside the Shadowhawk suit, Lt. Natasha Rutherford was staring in disbelief, and no small amount of anguish, at the carnage around her. Dead B-12 combat boomers periodically littered the ground while buildings burned unconcernedly on like bizarre torches. There were other blackened lumps visible in the flames; the remains of the unfortunate people who hadn't been able to escape when the boomers had started the fires and killing. The boomers had been chillingly thorough in their rampage.

She swore bitterly to herself; as far as she was concerned, she should be helping to kill the B-12s, not stalking through the fires looking for the Knight Sabers. Following the general's revenge-motivated plans was beginning to bother her. At the moment, she was reluctantly following her orders, but it was becoming more and more of a battle with her conscience. She moved further into the apocalyptic wasteland, searching.

****

SkyKnight ducked as his parrying right swordblade was effortlessly sheared off by the boomer's claws. He lashed out with a kick that forced the HeadHunter back a couple of steps, then quickly backed off himself, panting desperately for breath. This boomer was not only horrifying in appearance, it was bloody terrifying in a fight, too. It was fast, savage, and brutally strong combined with what seemed like unnatural cunning. Its attacks were so rapid, Bert almost felt like he was back in his old suit again, since he was just barely staying out of harm's way.

He hadn't yet seen any weapons but its claws, but he really didn't want to find out what else it had. Its claws appeared to be mono-molecular edged; he already could feel a stinging wetness on his left arm, and his right leg where the boomer's claws had slashed the armour plating and left him with a shallow cut. His ruined swordblade was just more evidence that this boomer was a cut above the rest, no pun intended.

"Surrender," the boomer grated. "I need you alive, but not physiologically intact. Spare yourself further pain."

"Does the phrase 'when hell freezes over!' have any meaning for you?" he shot back. No way was he surrendering, especially not to this thing. This thing was evil personified as far as he was concerned. In the course of their fight, it had been gloating over the havoc that surrounded them and had claimed responsibility, almost like it had expected him to be impressed. All it had done was convince him that he had to destroy it before it could cause any more harm.

"You cannot win," the boomer stated, circling him slowly. "I have analyzed you for weeks. You are mentally, technologically, and physically inferior to me. I know all your weaknesses, and the weaknesses of your friends. Surrender, now, and spare THEM any further suffering." SkyKnight's blood ran cold at the boomer's last emphasis; somehow the thing had figured out that he would literally do anything to prevent harm coming to his friends, and it obviously intended to exploit what it considered a weakness. Like hell, he thought grimly to himself.

"You aren't touching them either, you biomechanical bastard!" His arms snapped up, and searing particle laser beams slashed the air. The HeadHunter nimbly dodged out of the way, leaping forward with blinding speed to clobber him with a sweeping uppercut that threw him back into a pile of rubble. SkyKnight rolled over and away from the boomer, trying to get back to his feet. It casually kicked him in the ribs, knocking him down again.

Inside his suit, Bert was beginning to feel the first gnawings of panic; he couldn't get set to attack the bastard back, and the physical pounding he was taking was stressing the suit structure. Whatever else it was, the HeadHunter was strong. He figured it was at least twice as strong as him at maximum output, which meant it could squish him like a bug if it got a good hold on him. A good reason not to let that happen. He gritted his teeth as another smashing kick launched him sailing down the street. This time, he used his jets to give a quick squirt that allowed him to land on his feet. Spinning towards the green boomer, he blasted it point-blank with all four of his laser cannons.

The HeadHunter stood calmly as the screaming energy storm hammered into it, not even twitching as the ravening energy streams burned into its chest. SkyKnight watched in disbelief as, with a slurping, slithering sound, the boomer's blasted chest plates knitted themselves back together in seconds. The damn thing could regenerate itself!? That's not fair!, he briefly complained to himself. The boomer lunged forward, and despite Bert's best efforts, it pegged him with another punch to the guts that made his armour creak ominously, and drove the air agonizingly out of his lungs. The boomer loomed over him as he flopped around on the ground, trying desperately to get up and keep going.

"And so it ends," the HeadHunter observed. Grating, metallic-sounding laughter rolled from it as it stepped forward towards him, eyes burning evilly, claws snapping into extension.

The mechanical laughter was abruptly cut short by the thundering roar of a heavy cannon of some kind; a stream of large, metal-jacketed slugs tore through the hulking boomer's chest, emerging from its back in a spray of nutrient fluids and armour shards. The HeadHunter was knocked backwards by the blast, and it collapsed on the pavement, still twitching. SkyKnight hauled himself upright, staring in stunned amazement at the sprawled killing machine, to the familiar black armour suit that was standing a few feet away.

"What the hell are you doing here?!?" he said incredulously, checking again to make sure he wasn't seeing things. It was definitely the suit Natasha Rutherford had used, although a few design changes were evident.

"Saving your ass, it looks like," she shot back.

"Okay, so you did that. Thanks. Now what?" he asked, cranking his suit to full readiness. This was all he needed; having to fight B-12s first, a hyper-uprated killer boomer second, and now a combat suit on top of everything. What else could possibly happen today?!

"Just relax," she said disgustedly. She'd evidently detected his weapons arming. "I'll try and explain later, but ..."

"For you, there will be no 'later'," the grating voice of the HeadHunter interrupted. They both spun as the killer biomechanoid slowly rose from the pavement. As they watched, they could see its shattered torso re-forming, also slowly. It looked hurt, but appearances could be deceiving.

"Rutherford," SkyKnight said crisply. "Run." The helmet on the black suit swung to regard the silver-clad suit.

"Run?!" she echoed incredulously.

"Yes, Run damn it! Your suit can't handle this! For God's sake, I'm not even sure mine can handle it!"

"Just shut up and fight," she retorted. "You're not the only one who doesn't want the city destroyed." Swordblades snapped out on the black suit's arms, and it lumbered towards the still rising boomer. Aw hell no, Bert groaned to himself. He deployed his remaining swordblade and charged forward himself, passing the slower suit.

The HeadHunter surged upright and smashed him staggering backwards with a flashing roundhouse right. Its head snapped over to regard the black suit, and its lower jaw dropped down to reveal a large particle beam muzzle. A shattering blast of green-sheathed white light lanced into the charging suit, hurling it backwards twenty feet to land flat on its back on the pavement, smoke coming off of its torso. To SkyKnight (and probably the boomer's) amazement, the suit rolled over and began to regain its feet. They must have improved it a bit, he noted to himself. He jerked his mind back to his own predicament as claws scored the air scant inches from his chest as he leaped back. A particle bolt into the pavement made him leap back even further. The boomer straightened up, as the last marks of the attacks it had suffered disappeared from its chest armour. Bert decided it was time to quit playing around.

The magazine on his right, shoulder-mounted multi-launcher rotated to the proper section. Several muffled reports thumped through the air, and the HeadHunter was pelted with several paint-ball like objects, some of them managing to hit it in the face. The boomer snarled in rage as brilliant, actinic light flared from the chemical goop covering it. Through his polarized viewscreen, SkyKnight watched, a stab of disappointment knifing into his guts; the boomer wasn't being affected by his new chemical flares. Apparently, its sensors were resistant to being melted. Damn, and double damn! He ducked as the boomer spat another particle bolt at him. The beam burned past, uncomfortably close enough to feel the heat of its passing. The boomer laughed suddenly, horribly.

"I know a much better way to destroy you," the boomer stated, its glowing yellow eyes staring at him. "When I am finished, you will beg me to kill you!" It spun around and vanished like a ghost into the drifting smoke. SkyKnight stood rooted for a moment in shock, an awful premonition coming to him; he knew exactly what the boomer had meant. He started to charge forward, when an armoured hand grabbed his arm. So much for claiming a truce, part of his mind noted. His reaction was automatic; he whipped around and had the black suit by the throat, lifting it to the tips of its toes, before the other suit's battlecomputer could even think of evading him.

"Goddamn it, screw off and leave me alone!!" he shouted at the captive black hardsuit. It was trying to pry his grip loose, without much success. "I haven't got the time for this horseshit! I've got to go save my friends before that thing kills them, so bugger off and leave me alone!! GET LOST!!!!" He slammed the suit to the ground, and sprinted into the smoke, vanishing himself like a silver-armoured wraith.

****

Priss wished she could mop off her forehead; the heat from the fires was intense, and the strain of the fighting so far was making her sweat like a running horse. She blinked and shook her head briefly, clearing her vision as the last remaining B-12 combat boomer thundered towards her. She leaped into the air, landing behind it as it ponderously tried to turn around. She lashed out with a kick to the back of its leg, and her foot blasters blew the leg off, bringing the boomer crashing to the pavement. She quickly leaned over and fired three railgun spikes into its cranial casing, stopping its thrashing forever.

As she straightened up, sighing in exhausted relief, the night seemed to come crashing in on her. She was struck with numbing force from behind, and hurled through the air. Whatever had hit her flashed over and smashed her twice more while she was still in the air. She crashed to the ground, stunned, with pain running rampant through her. Oh my God, she thought hazily, what the hell was that?! Breathing suddenly became difficult as a massive, armoured hand grabbed her throat and squeezed slightly. In her helmet viewscreen, a nightmarish, yellow-eyed boomer leered at her.

"The first one to go," it chuckled evilly. Priss tried to ram her gun arm into its head, but it grabbed her arm with its other hand. Her suit computer suddenly warned of crushing pressure on the suit structure. The arm of her suit shattered, destroying her weapons. The pressure increased. With the boomer choking her, she couldn't even scream as she felt the bones of her forearm break and shift. Red waves of screaming agony dimmed her vision. The boomer was toying with her, she realized faintly, it wanted to kill her as slowly and painfully as possible. It shifted its grip to her other arm, and again pressure on the armour began to build. An enraged bellow roared through the air.

"GET THE HELL AWAY FROM HER, YOU LOUSY GODFORSAKEN BASTARD!!"

The pressure eased abruptly as the boomer was torn off of her by a screaming red-white blast of crackling laser energy. Two more blasts smashed mercilessly into the boomer, tearing chunks from its legs and torso. It snarled angrily, like a wounded beast, and began crabbing backwards away from Priss, and the charging SkyKnight. It vanished into the smoke again with incredible speed as SkyKnight came running over to her, dropping to his knees.

"Just in the knick of time," she remarked faintly, trying to hang on to consciousness. SkyKnight quickly examined her, and his fists clenched in fury as he saw what had happened. He carefully picked Priss up from off of the pavement, cradling her in his arms.

"Wait a minute," she protested weakly. "Never mind me, go kill that thing!"

"Don't worry," he assured her. "I will, but I'm not leaving you here helpless, either. Just hang on." His tone was cold and ugly-sounding and, for a moment, Priss was glad it wasn't directed at her. The wings on his suit snapped into extension, and his jets rumbled fairly quietly, lofting them into the air slightly above the ground. He shot into the smoke, still carrying Priss, in the direction the HeadHunter had taken.

****

Linna ducked the whistling claws of the green boomer in front of her and did several spinning backflips to get out of its reach. The hulking killer stalked after her relentlessly. She fired her pulse laser at it, but the beams glanced off harmlessly, not even discolouring the plating. She could see where the boomer was slowly regenerating burn and blast marks from an earlier, higher-powered attack, and she had a good idea of who had that much power. She felt a brief flash of despair; if the boomer was here after her, it must have succeeded in killing SkyKnight. How could she hope to stop the boomer if his weapons hadn't been able to? She dodged another slashing swipe, leaping to her left.

As the boomer spun around to track her, she whipped her charged monomolecular ribbons forward to slash its left arm off at the elbow. Take that asshole, she thought in triumph. Her brief moment of elation died, as the boomer calmly picked up its arm, and stuck it back into place. With a squishy, slithering noise, the arm re-attached itself. The boomer lunged towards her with deadly intent. As Linna leaped clear, a hand swept out with blinding speed and grabbed her mono-streamers. She was brutally swung through the air by them, and smashed stomach-first into one of the few remaining streetlight posts, wrapping her around it. Her breath deserted her, and she felt a couple of her ribs give under the impact.

The boomer picked her up by the neck from the ground, holding her dangling, unable to get leverage enough to try anything. She watched with a horrible sinking feeling as the boomer drew its other arm back, serrated claws glinting in the dim light provided by the still-burning fires.

As the boomer's arm started forward, a metallic silver tentacle whipped out of the darkness. With a bullwhip-like crack it wrapped around the boomer's arm, and yanked the startled biomechanoid backwards to fall over in a loud clattering bang onto the pavement. Linna rolled clear of the boomer as it released her, and painfully scrambled away from it, putting as much distance as she could between her and it. The boomer was concentrating on the strange tentacle that was slowly dragging it away. Claws slashed, and the tentacle was severed in a flash of sparks. The boomer jumped back to its feet.

SkyKnight thundered out of the darkness towards the HeadHunter, as the left shoulder pod the tentacle had been attached to was jettisoned by his suit computer. He'd based the manipulator tentacle on the ones the GD-42 combat mech had used., and it had certainly proved useful. He seared the air with another particle laser beam, savagely blasting and burning the green boomer, forcing it backwards.

"Impossible!" the boomer suddenly roared. "You cannot track me! I cannot be detected! I ..." Its denial of events was cut short by a flickering right-left uppercut combination that knocked it over. SkyKnight wound up and hoofed it in the head for good measure as the boomer floundered across the pavement. He remained silent; he wasn't about to tell the boomer that the flares he'd tried earlier also contained a radioactive tracer element that he was tracking the boomer with; the damn thing might be able to absorb the tracer if it knew what it was. The boomer's chest armour flipped up, and a small plasma beam array blasted SkyKnight backwards to crash into Linna. They both hit the pavement in a tangle of arms and legs as the boomer fled once again into the smoky darkness.

SkyKnight rolled to his feet, spinning around to check on Linna. She was on her knees, holding her left side. He dropped to his own knees for a moment, and carefully examined her. She appeared to be unharmed, on the outside. His own suit was a little burned now, but basically unharmed.

"You're alive!" she said, sounding surprised.

"Obviously," he responded dryly, looking around. He had to get going.

"I mean ... I thought that thing had killed you!" she said. She sounded shaken up, he noted. He couldn't really blame her; a few seconds more, and the HeadHunter would likely have killed her.

"Hey," he said, giving her a quick, gentle hug. "Us knight-in-shining-armour types can't be killed that easily. Priss is over by that wall there," he told her, pointing towards the wall where he'd quickly set her down to attack the boomer. "Take care of her for me; I've got to go after that thing before it hurts someone else." He released her and stood up.

"Good luck," Linna called after him as he plunged into the night again.

****

Sylia and Nene skidded to a stop as a massive green metallic boomer lurched out of the smoke cloud ahead. It had obviously been fighting something, since its armoured hide was covered in gouges and burn marks. Sylia's gaze sharpened as she noticed that the boomer's armour carapace was slowly smoothing itself out and sealing the holes. Regenerative abilities? Not good, she reflected. Wickedly curved claws extended from its arms as it stood regarding them. Sylia shivered as she saw the saw-toothed edges to them; they'd make nasty wounds if they connected with anything. The boomer began an implacable advance towards them. It suddenly sprang like a cat, catching them both by surprise.

Nene was knocked over backwards by a sweeping backhand from the boomer. It spun towards Sylia as she fired her arm cannons at it in a rapid flurry of fire. The shots bounced off without a scratch. She deployed her own arm blades as the boomer charged her, spearing out with its claws, trying to impale her. She succeeded in smacking the left most claws out of line with her body, but the right-hand ones she couldn't deflect enough; they plunged into her right leg, puncturing her hardsuit effortlessly and impaling her front leg muscles. She screamed as the boomer tore the claws savagely out, enlarging the wound. She collapsed to the ground, unable to stand as her leg folded.

Sylia watched through a red miasma of pain as the boomer turned away from her, and began going after Nene instead. She gritted her teeth and tried to get up again , but her leg refused to co-operate. It was bleeding slowly but steadily, the blood staining the smooth white armour of her hardsuit. Luckily, no arteries had been hit. She wasn't so sure about shock, though. She watched helplessly as the boomer picked Nene up bodily by the neck, swatting aside her gun arm as she attempted to shoot it. It suddenly spun around, using her as a shield and putting its claws to her throat as SkyKnight pounded up to them. He skidded heavily to a halt as he saw what the boomer was doing. Nene was too terrified to move.

"That's right, just stop right there," the boomer said coldly. It had the nastiest voice Sylia had ever heard from a boomer. "I told you I know all your weaknesses. You care for this one more than any of the others, don't you?" SkyKnight didn't reply, he just stood tensely, waiting for something. Sylia could hear his laboured breathing; the long battle, and holding onto his self-control were beginning to take their toll on him. The boomer laughed sadistically.

"You're pathetic," it declared. "You aren't even worth killing. It would be far more satisfying to kill her, and leave you alive." SkyKnight tensed. The boomer's claws twitched slightly. "Don't even think about it," it advised. "Take off your helmet, now."

"Let her go first," SkyKnight replied quietly. The boomer chuckled.

"I'm not that stupid," it replied. The claws dug into Nene's neck slightly, and a faint noise of protest escaped her, making SkyKnight tense even more. "Take it off, NOW!" the boomer thundered. "Otherwise you will get to see her bleed to death at your feet!" There was a moment of silence that seemed to stretch for an eternity, then SkyKnight's hands began to move up, towards his helmet.

"No!" Sylia tried protesting. "It'll kill you both anyway!" His hands continued to move up.

Something black shot out of the darkness behind the HeadHunter, slamming into its back and seizing the arm that had its claws at Nene's throat, pulling them away. A large cannon roared, and a stream of heavy bullets tore through the other arm, forcing it to release Nene. As the boomer and the USSD hardsuit careered wildly over the battlefield, snarling and firing, SkyKnight rushed forward and grabbed Nene, firing his jets to fling them both backwards from the flailing pair. He landed next to Sylia, lowering Nene to the ground. He spun around, and with what sounded suspiciously like an enraged snarl of his own, he launched himself towards the distant combatants.

As he became airborne, the boomer fired a blue energy beam from a previously unseen pop-up weapon in its right arm at SkyKnight, striking him in the chest. He was enveloped in a blue-white coronal discharge that sent miniature lightning bolts arcing over his suit surface. He crashed heavily to the ground, his jets dying abruptly.

He groggily rolled over, shaking his head and trying frantically to get to his feet as the ebony hardsuit and the boomer continued to struggle; the hardsuit had a grip on the boomer's arm with the arm blades and was hanging on for all it was worth. Occasionally it tried firing at the boomer with its other arm, but it was mostly preoccupied with staying alive by deflecting the other bladed arm. It couldn't go on much longer the way it was; the boomer was far too strong. The fight suddenly ended, in a horrifying fashion.

The boomer's lower jaw dropped, and a point-blank particle bolt smashed the USSD suit back, shattering some of its armour. As the suit staggered backwards, it was forced to release the boomer's arm. The boomer's other arm savagely whipped forward in an uppercut. There was a metallic screech as the horrified Knight Sabers watched the claws of the HeadHunter burst out of the back of the sable armour, dripping blood. The suit shuddered, bending forward, shaking in unimaginable pain as the boomer tore its claws back out in a fountaining spray of blood. The black suit crashed to the ground on its face, a widening pool of blood spreading under it. The boomer looked from the dying Lt. Rutherford to the still recovering SkyKnight.

"Another time, perhaps," it rumbled. "For now, it seems victory is yours." It turned and sprinted into the darkness.

****

Oh God, NOOO!!!! Bert screamed silently to himself as he helplessly watched the HeadHunter boomer gut Natasha Rutherford. He couldn't help her; his suit was barely operating after the electrical blast the boomer had hit him with, and there were spots in his vision from the jolt he'd received. It was going to be another few moments before everything came back on-line enough to continue to fight.

He staggered to his feet and ran over to the heavily bleeding suit as the HeadHunter vanished into the night. A detached part of his mind observed that the boomer must have been, finally, seriously hurt. Otherwise it would have continued to attack. At the moment, such trivia vanished from his mind as he reached the widening pool of gore, and the source of it. Dropping to his knees, he gently turned her over, sudden tears beginning to sting his eyes. No one deserved to get killed this way, friends or sometime enemies. She wasn't dead yet, though; he could hear rasping, laboured breathing. There might be a chance to save her. A faint voice came from the suit.

"Guess I should have taken your advice to retire, huh?" she asked, voice tight with pain.

"Shhhhh," he said, trying hard not to look at the bloody ruin where her stomach had been. "Don't talk; I'm going to try to get you to a hospital. Just hang on, please!!" Her gauntleted hand came up, clenching his arm tightly.

"No!" she gasped. "You know it won't do any good. Quit trying to play the hero for once." Her voice was getting fainter.

"What did you mean by that?" he asked, momentarily shocked.

"Did some checking on you," she answered. "Took a while....to figure you out." Her answers were getting shorter and shorter. She was slipping away, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do. "You're not .... typical mercenary... police records said .... chivalry complex .... sorry ... misjudged you .... my fault." He shook his head. His face was wet now, and he realized he was crying.

"Don't apologize," he told her, trying to keep his voice steady. "It's as much my fault as it was anyone's. I misjudged you too."

"Thanks," he heard faintly. He had to bend closer to hear her. "One...favour"

"Name it."

"Don't let .... that thing....hurt....anyone else."

"I swear that I will stop it," he promised her quietly, as her hand released his arm, falling limply to the bloody pavement with a muffled clank. The head on the suit lolled back, and the laboured breathing eased in a long, final sigh. Something in SkyKnight died at the same time, and the world seemed to turn ashen grey. He knelt on the blood-stained asphalt next to the mutilated body for a while, grieving for the loss of a friend he'd never even gotten the chance to know.

****

Uneven footsteps behind her made Sylia turn slightly. Nene was providing a shoulder for her to lean on as they watched SkyKnight from a respectful distance. He'd been kneeling next to Lt. Rutherford's body for several minutes now, head bowed. As she turned, Priss and Linna limped out of the darkness, smeared with soot and dents, and leaning on each other. Priss' right forearm was a mangled mess of shattered armour, and from the way she was holding it, it was obviously broken. Linna was favouring her left side, moving slowly. They came over to her, and looked silently at the scene spread out before them.

"What the hell happened?" Priss asked. Sylia shook her head wearily.

"It's a long story," she replied. "And right now I haven't got the energy to try explaining." They turned and watched SkyKnight for a couple more minutes, then began to slowly approach. As they approached, his head came up. He carefully rose to his feet, blood staining his suit from the knees down. His red eyeslot seemed to be burning brighter and brighter as they approached, and Sylia suddenly began to feel uneasy. There was something strange about the way he was standing, about his posture that was both chilling and unsettling.

"Are you all right?" he asked her as they came up to him.

"Nothing that a lot of rest and some doctoring won't cure," she replied. "What about you?"

"Good," he replied, ignoring her question. His voice suddenly turned flat, ugly, and absolutely glacially cold. Just listening to him gave her the creeps. "I've got something to finish, so I'll catch up with you later."

"Wait a second," Sylia ordered as he began to turn away. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"I'm going to kill that sonofabitch if it's the last thing I ever do." The flat, calm way he stated it was unnerving. She'd never before heard him sound like this. She started to speak, but he interrupted.

"If you're going to tell me 'no solo runs', don't bother. Effective immediately, I resign. You can repossess the goddamn suit when I'm done with it." The rest of the Knight Sabers watched in stunned silence as SkyKnight shot into the darkness on screaming jets as his wings whipped into place on his back.

"I was only going to tell you to be careful," Sylia said quietly into the darkness as they watched him leave.

****

The HeadHunter loped through the darkness of the streets and alleyways, avoiding the clusters of police and fire control vehicles that were beginning to appear as it left the burning downtown core. The power grid had been disrupted by the fires, and the streetlights had died out, shrouding everything in inky blackness. It's biomechanical mind was churning in seething confusion and rage as it ran. All of its carefully laid plans had crumbled like the burning buildings behind it.

It had spent weeks studying the Knight Sabers and determining how they responded to certain situations. Based on those observations, it should have been easy. The Knight Sabers would respond to the boomer threat, becoming spread out, and it would pick them off, one by one, starting with SkyKnight.

The Headhunter's analysis of SkyKnight had predicted he would not be a problem to fight. The boomer had decided to wound him seriously, and then leave him to watch as the rest of his teammates were dispatched one by one, crushing his will to resist. As that happened, the predicted results were that SkyKnight would lose control of himself in rage, and then be even easier pickings.

The actual results had not been what was predicted. SkyKnight had not been an easy fight, and had been anything but willing to just fold up and quit. He'd thwarted every attempt by the HeadHunter to attack his friends, severely injuring the boomer. He'd been anything but out of control. As the boomer had continued on, its directives to capture the Knight Sabers had changed to killing them; it had to kill them if it wanted to live. Then the USSD interloper had foiled the boomer's last strategy, paying for its interference with its life. The boomer had been too injured and its energy too depleted to continue the fight, and the self-preservation drive had forced it to flee, puzzling over the black hardsuit's intervention.

Why had it interfered? It, too, was an enemy of the Knight Sabers, so why had it stopped it from harming them? As complicated as the boomer's mind was, it was still unable to comprehend the workings of emotions, and of the human psyche. Selfless self-sacrifice was illogical to its way of thinking, even insane. Its mind spun in confusion, close to the breaking point.

There was a screaming roar from out of the night, and a silver-armoured shape smashed into the HeadHunter from behind, ramming it face-first into a nearby wall. The boomer began prying itself out of the bricks, as a voice colder than an Arctic gale spoke from behind it.

"Time to reap the whirlwind, you bastard."

****

SkyKnight watched the HeadHunter slowly peel itself out of the wall, waiting. His mind was working with an icy cold, enraged clarity utterly alien to him. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, it was frightening him, but that part of his mind was not in control at the moment. He coldly analyzed the boomer's condition.

It had healed over all signs of its earlier injuries, and looked to be in perfect shape. How could it do that? It took huge amounts of energy to replace lost matter, so where was it getting the energy? As the boomer straightened up, he noticed that it looked a little smaller than when he'd first encountered it. A sudden suspicion made him run a quick computer comparison of the boomer's mass based on his scans of the boomer from before. The answer confirmed his suspicion; the boomer was twenty percent lighter now, which meant it was cannibalizing its own mass for the repairs, and slowly shrinking, somehow keeping everything else intact. He smiled to himself coldly; when he was through with it, it wouldn't have anything left to cannibalize.

As the boomer turned around, he blasted it backwards down the street with a sizzling laser blast. He meticulously shot the biomechanoid off its feet several times more, advancing implacably. He stopped pummeling it with his lasers after a few moments; shooting it wasn't satisfying enough. He wanted it to be slowly beaten, and to know it, to feel it as it happened. He waited as the boomer regained his feet. Now, he thought to himself.

A smooth, cylindrical handgrip extended from the inside of his forearm armour, rotating as it extended, to fit into his hand. With a hissing snap, a three-foot long bar of blue-white energy stretched from the handgrip device. Eerie blue light cast a harsh glare on the scene as SkyKnight regarded the HeadHunter from behind his humming weapon. The boomer cocked its head at him.

"Self-contained energy blade," it rumbled.

"That's right," SkyKnight confirmed. "I'm the Knight Saber with the lightsaber, and I'm going to carve your sorry ass into ratshit, you murdering bastard."

"Very efficient," it remarked, evidently unimpressed with his threat. A device on its left forearm popped out of its arm, and with an identical electrical snap and hum, a red-white blade of energy extended from its arm to a length of five feet. "Mine is bigger."

SkyKnight laughed, but it was a hard and humourless sound. A second handgrip deployed into his left hand, and a second energy blade appeared.

"Welcome to the next level," he said, sliding into a fencing crouch, with one humming blade extended in front of him and the other held back for a strike. "Let's dance."

****

Inspector Leon McNichol leaned wearily against his car. It had been a night he'd just as soon forget. Never had he ever seen so many boomer rampages in one night, in one area. Luckily, his men were relatively unharmed; none of the boomers had reached his perimeter guard, thanks, according to the reports, to the Knight Sabers. That's one more I owe them, he thought to himself. The over-worked and besieged fire department was gradually getting the raging fires under control, so that was another thing he could quit worrying about. A shout from one of his men jerked him upright.

"Inspector McNichol! Look over there!!" Leon looked over to where the trooper was pointing. In the darkness of the street, a red bar of energy was slashing through the air, apparently dueling with two darting blue energy bars. Two dimly lit shapes could be seen to be wielding the energy blades. What the hell?!

"Somebody shine a spotlight down there!" he yelled. A massive, carbon-arc spotlight flicked on, and the street became better lit. Leon stared in open-mouthed surprise; it appeared to be SkyKnight fighting the strangest-looking boomer Leon had ever seen. It was big, green, and had a strange, bug-like head. He slapped together a squad of ten troopers, and began cautiously advancing towards the distant fight, drawing his revolver.

****

The battered and bloody remainder of the Knight Sabers slowly limped through the streets, roughly in the direction they'd seen SkyKnight take. Sylia stolidly bore the pain of her leg as Nene and Priss helped her limp along. She was concerned about Bert, everyone was, and they weren't going to just leave until they were sure things were finished and he was all right. She ignored the fact that there wasn't really anything they could do in their current condition; they at least had to try.

"Sylia," Nene asked hesitantly. "Do you really think he's going to quit?" She sounded upset, almost like she was on the verge of tears. The terrifying events of the night had been bad enough. SkyKnight's cold declaration he was quitting was almost more than she could bear at the moment; she didn't want him to leave, for any reason. Sylia shook her head.

"He's hurt, tired, and angry," she replied. "I don't think he meant it. I can't say I blame him for his reaction, given everything that's happened tonight." They trudged on in silence.

Crackling and sizzling electrical noises echoed in the street, sounding like someone had started dueling with grounded electrical arc welders. Loud electrical humming provided a constant background drone to the crashing noises. Sylia's head snapped up; she recognized that hum.

"What the hell is that?" Priss inquired. Linna shrugged. Sylia didn't reply, but tried to speed up. She should have realized he'd try an experimental weapon out. Some things just never change, she sighed to herself.

The Knight Sabers rounded the corner of a building to see SkyKnight sword-fighting with the HeadHunter boomer with flashing energy blades. SkyKnight was slashing, parrying and thrusting with two brilliant blue lightsabers, while the HeadHunter was slicing the air with a much longer red blade. As they watched, it became obvious that the duel was fairly even at the moment. SkyKnight's two weapons, and their flexibility was canceling his opponent's greater reach. The boomer's blade was hard-mounted parallel to its forearm, meaning that it could only stab or swing with it, really, and it was doing that with a will.

Past the combatants, Sylia noticed a small squad of ADPolice troopers, with Leon at the head of the group, that was cautiously advancing. She hoped they had enough sense to stay out of the way; the energy blades flailing at each other were extremely dangerous to anything but another energy blade. Body armour was not going to stop a stray slash, and the boomer was twisted enough to try grabbing someone for a human shield.

The boomer and SkyKnight continued their lethally elegant dance, flashing blue and red lights casting the scene into eerily-lit relief. SkyKnight jumped over a low slash the boomer launched at him, and kicked the HeadHunter in the head while he was airborne. The boomer roared, and again split the air with a screaming swordstroke. It was almost indifferently blocked by SkyKnight's twin blades with a sizzling crack that illuminated the street. The tide of the battle began to turn suddenly.

Light flared again as the swords met in a sizzling crack. SkyKnight parried the boomer's sword with his right blade, then the left slashed forward, carving a trench in the boomer's chest effortlessly. The gash began to close as the boomer snarled furiously, riposting with a sweeping slash that SkyKnight again parried. Again the blue blades flicked out, and the boomer received a slash across its right upper leg. The boomer turned frenzied, hammering on SkyKnight with its crackling blade like a blacksmith pounding on iron.

The silver-and-blue armoured Knight Saber stood calmly, coolly deflecting and diverting the boomer's sizzling swordstrokes with flawless precision. The screaming assault continued unabated for a couple of minutes, but SkyKnight didn't even flinch; he was in perfect control. His blades slashed in a crackling scissor-stroke as the boomer raised its arm over its head, carving another deep rut into the boomer's chest armour. This time, nutrient fluid spewed from the wound, a few drops spitting angrily as they splattered onto the lightsaber blades. The boomer staggered backwards, losing its attack momentum for the moment. It never regained it.

Stepping forward, SkyKnight swung both of his blades in another scissor-stroke, to intersect on the mid-point of the boomer's energy weapon. With a blinding flash, the device generating the blade exploded in the boomer's forearm, spewing sparks. The boomer snarled, the snarl turning into a mechanical shriek as its right arm was lopped off at the elbow. A series of rapid-fire swings mulched the boomer's other arm and part of its lower torso. The HeadHunter staggered backwards, oily black nutrient fluids spewing from the gaping holes it now sported all over. SkyKnight's left-hand sword snapped off as he watched it back away. He began stalking towards it, his right hand blade humming, with grim purpose. The boomer backed up against a storefront, an animal at bay. It held up a hand, or tried to anyway; it didn't have much of a hand left.

"Wait!" the mechanical voice grated. "I have something to tell you!" SkyKnight didn't stop advancing. The lightsaber blade came up. The boomer's lower jaw suddenly dropped, and a particle beam gun muzzle appeared.

The blackness of the night was turned briefly to day as SkyKnight's arms snapped up, his right-hand lightsaber deactivating, and four coruscating beams of white energy sheathed in leaping red flames blasted from his gauntlet cannons. The boomer was smashed backwards through the wall into the store.

SkyKnight took a step forwards to follow, and was knocked over as the storefront exploded outwards in a storm of flames and debris. Fires roared loudly inside the building as he pulled himself upright. Looking into the inferno, he couldn't see the HeadHunter, but he could see a screaming jet of flames coming from a ruptured gas line in the wall, the obvious source of the explosion. There was no sign of the HeadHunter anywhere; apparently it had been incinerated. It was over.

Bert stood staring into the flaming wreckage for a moment. Turning, he walked away from the approaching cops and past the gathered Knight Sabers, into the night, his shoulders bowed as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his back. Behind him, smoke rose steadily into the sky, drifting towards the distant stars.

****

Sylia awkwardly pulled off her helmet with her right hand as Nene helped her through the door to the hardsuit storage room. Behind her, Linna was helping Priss through the door to begin getting out of her hardsuit. Sylia was heartily glad to have made it back with everyone more or less in one piece, although she wasn't sure what SkyKnight's status was. He hadn't been on the KnightWing when they'd finally made it to the rendezvous point, and Mackie hadn't been able to raise him at all on any of the communications bands. She hoped he hadn't done anything stupid. As she turned towards the hardsuit storage bays, she realized he'd already been there and left again.

Sitting in the middle of the floor was a scattered pile of silver-and-blue hardsuit armour parts. There was a cracked computer monitor in the wall behind it, and a silver helmet with blue antenna wings was sitting upside down on the floor beneath the monitor. Its darkened eyeslot stared blankly back at her as she stared at it. Brittle silence dropped over the rest of the room as everyone else noticed what Sylia was staring at.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"GENOM has denied all responsibility for the destructive combat boomer rampage that ravaged the city's downtown core yesterday. A spokesman for the conglomerate also denied any knowledge of a supposed uprated boomer type that was allegedly seen by members of a ADP tactical squad at a perimeter watch station. The boomer, pictured here from eyewitness descriptions in an artist's rendition, was apparently destroyed ...."

Click.

" .... Unconfirmed reports state that the vigilante group known as the 'Knight Sabers' played a large role in stopping the renegade boomers. ADPolice is at a loss to explain why ...."

Click.

"A large number of questions remain unanswered regarding the finding of an unregistered combat suit that had been using new military technology in the middle of the devastation. The remains of the pilot have been identified as Lt. Natasha Rutherford, a pilot in USSD's mobile armour suit battalion. USSD has remained silent on just why Lt. Rutherford was alone, in an obviously new type of armour, in the middle of the firefight. Claims that USSD had its own, secret, 'boomer response team' in the area, and that Lt. Rutherford was an unfortunate casualty have been greeted with skepticism ...."

With a disgusted sigh, Sylia shut off the television, tossing the remote into a nearby chair. Wincing, she shifted her leg to a more comfortable position, then sat back and picked up her coffee cup. As she took a careful sip from the steaming cup, Priss, Nene and Linna walked in, trailed by Mackie. They all had depressed expressions. Sylia placed her cup back on the table as everyone flopped disconsolately into whatever furniture was available.

"No luck, then?" she asked after a moment. Priss shook her head, shifting her right arm and its cast to a more comfortable position.

"We can't find him anywhere. We checked his room, the shop, the garage, everywhere. Hell, we even cruised around in Linna's car for a bit around the parks and stuff looking for him. Wherever he went, it's well hidden."

"Damn," Sylia muttered to herself. They hadn't seen Bert even once since finding his hardsuit in a heap on the floor. She admitted to being worried about him, while Nene had been a great deal more concerned.

"Why does he do this?" Nene suddenly asked plaintively, hurt and confused. "Why does he have to disappear? Doesn't he know we're worried about him and that we want to help?"

"He knows," Priss answered her before Sylia could. "His problem is that he's always been under the impression you have to handle these things by yourself. Old habits die hard, and I should know; I'm still a lot like that."

"So now what do we do?" Linna queried. "Do you think he's really just quit and left?"

"I doubt it," Sylia replied tiredly. "Where else could he go? We might as well just leave it alone for now. He's obviously hurt and upset, and I don't think we'll get anywhere with him right now. Let's just wait and see what happens." Everyone reluctantly nodded agreement. A gloomy silence blanketed the room. A faint idea suddenly flickered in the back of Priss' mind, but she kept it to herself.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

Priss looked around the rooftop as she stepped through the door from the stairwell. She was dressed in her usual red motorcycle suit, with her long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. There was a concerned, slightly anxious look on her face as her red-brown eyes swept the roof surface. She spotted what she'd been looking for, and relaxed in relief, slightly. She began walking quietly over to the hunched-over figure sitting on a chair in a clear central area. She'd figured she would find Bert up here; he'd turned the empty section of roof on Sylia's building into a place to get away from it all. He used it occasionally for a lot of things, from reading undisturbed by telephones, to just sitting and thinking. It had finally occurred to her that this was where he'd retreated to, and why they hadn't been able to find him.

She adjusted the knapsack she had slung over her shoulder as she walked towards him, ignoring the twinges from her arm as she did so. It was mostly healed, but the cast had been driving her nuts, so she'd taken it off. It didn't really need the cast anymore as long as she was careful.

Bert didn't respond as she dragged another chair over next to him and sat down. She looked him over for a moment; she'd seen him happier. There was a depressed gloom shadowing his features. He looked older for some reason, like some world-weary veteran of a horrible war who had just come back from the fighting, shell-shocked. In a sense, she supposed it was exactly what he was. His eyes were bloodshot, and she realized he'd been crying at some point in time.

"Want to talk about it?" she asked him gently.

"Not really," he replied. His voice was a little hoarse. She shook her head firmly.

"You're not getting rid of me that easily. Here, hold this." She fished a mug out of the knapsack she had, and handed it to him. Pulling out another one, she filled them both with a gently steaming brown liquid from a plastic thermos bottle. Chocolate-laden vapours swirled into the air from the cups. She'd gotten the recipe off of him a while back, and figured this was the perfect opportunity to use it. A faint smile tried to twitch at his face.

"Seems to me I've seen this tactic before," he observed.

"A good friend told me it cures everything," she replied, shifting her chair a little closer to him. He was silent a moment, taking a careful sip. His eyes were still sad, gazing at something infinitely far in the distance.

"You're going to have to let it go sooner or later," she told him. "Sitting here wallowing in misery isn't going to help."

"Let go of what?"

"You're upset because Lt. Rutherford died, and there wasn't anything you could do about it. It was a senseless killing, and you don't feel it was fair. I also think," she added, looking at him, " that you've never had to deal with someone you knew dying before, not that personally."

"You're mostly right," he replied, voice roughening. "I've never had anyone die, especially like that, right there in my arms, so to speak. She didn't deserve what she got." His voice got thicker. "She was trying to apologize at the end, there. Trying to apologize for misjudging us. She decided to help us out, and she got killed for it, and I couldn't do a goddamn thing to prevent it." His grip on his mug became white-knuckled, and she could tell he was struggling to maintain his self-control. "Under better circumstances, we might have been friends, but we never got the chance to find out."

"Sitting here depressed about it isn't going to bring her back, you know." She paused, looking him over carefully. "I realize you didn't meet her under the best of circumstances, but I think you should stop feeling guilty."

"Guilty?"

"You were all hot to take her down before, in a fair fight, because she was attacking you, and you regarded her as the enemy because of that. She turned out not to be the enemy, and you're wallowing in guilt because you didn't realize that until too late, and you feel it contributed to her death somehow. You feel like you didn't do enough."

"Stay out of my head," he replied wearily. "Maybe I want to wallow in guilt for a while." She ignored him, and continued.

"And you're upset because the world isn't the cheery place you'd like it to be, where fair play and decency are universal, and the good guys always win," she stated quietly. She'd known him long enough by now to know what made him tick.

"You've got that right," he retorted bitterly. "Right now, the real world stinks." She sighed, and set aside her mug. Reaching over, she placed a gentle hand on his arm.

"I'm afraid that's just the way it is, my friend," she told him sadly. "The real world is a cold and harsh place, and there's not much we can do about it except keep trying to make it better."

"I don't know if I can keep trying," he said gloomily.

"You will," she assured him. "It's not in you to quit. You're like me in that regard; I won't give up on something."

"I'd noticed," he said dryly, momentarily becoming almost normal again. "However, since I quit the other night, that makes it impossible." She shook her head.

"Sylia has to accept that resignation, and she hasn't. You're still one of us, and you always will be."

"Thanks," he said, voice thickening again. Priss reached over and hugged him, realizing something; he was trying to keep from breaking down in front of her.

"Go ahead," she told him. "Cry. I won't tell anyone, and it won't ruin your image with me, honestly." She held onto him as he did exactly that for a few minutes. At length he stopped, and pulled away slightly, yanking out a handkerchief and blowing his nose. He seemed slightly embarrassed.

"Feel better?" she asked, looking at him with a faint smile. He nodded, a faint smile of his own finally breaking the surface.

"What would I do without you?" he asked rhetorically, regarding her fondly.

"I don't know," she admitted modestly, grinning. He laughed, the gloom finally beginning to dissipate as he knocked back the last of his drink and handed her the mug. They sat in companionable silence for a few moments, looking out over the city. She looked at him, eyes suddenly glinting slyly.

"Are you up to going for a ride?" she asked. He nodded, looking at her quizzically.

"Sure," he replied, "but bear with me; I haven't even looked at a motorbike for weeks."

"I meant going for a spin on your WarHorse," she said. "I think I need a good hair-raising ride, and I think you could use one, too." He frowned at her, an eyebrow twitching upwards.

"No solo runs, remember?" he asked. "You were the one who said that the last time I believe." She grinned.

"If I go with you, it won't be solo, will it?" she asked, still grinning. He began to laugh, and she joined in for a moment. A sudden glint appeared in his eyes as they grinned at each other.

"I think I know just the place to buzz this time around," he said as they walked to the door leading to the descending stairwell.

****

The USSD building stuck up from the center of its surrounding maze of outbuildings and encircling walls. Mirrored glass reflected the mid-afternoon sunlight back into the sky. The faint rumble of jets from the nearby military airfield occasionally filled the air. Inside one of the top floor offices, a desiccated old man with grey hair and blue eyes sat at a large oaken desk, staring blankly at a report sitting on the desktop in front of him. His head lifted, puzzled as a loud drone became faintly audible. The glass of water on his desk began rattling slightly, and the glass panels in the windows also began vibrating. He looked around, sighing in exasperation. He picked up the phone.

"Hello, switchboard? I'd like a message passed on to the airfield traffic controller: Tell them to quit flying so goddamn low. Thank you." He hung up. The rumble increased, becoming louder, and getting closer.

Swearing under his breath, he started to get out of his chair to see what kind of plane it was, when the shattering blast of a sonic boom blasted through the air, and an extremely fast-moving object flashed past, vanishing into the distance. General McAllister flinched as the windows to his office cracked in a spiderweb of fractures, and fell out of their frames. The top three floors lost most of their glass panels in a sliding roar that left the USSD building looking vaguely like it had gaps in its teeth. As McAllister picked up the phone again, he thought he could hear laughter fading in the distance.

 

 

THE END
(Or is it?)

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