The calm of the evening shoppers in the downtown shopping mall was shattered by the blast of gunfire. Security guards dropped as hot streams of lead slashed the air and killed or seriously wounded them. Six, heavily armed bandits wearing ski masks burst from the 5th National Bank, armed with assault rifles, and at least one portable rocket launcher. They sprinted down the marble-finished tiles of the mall, dragging bags of money, as terrified civilians dodged and ran for cover. The six desperadoes burst out of the front doors to the plaza, and found themselves confronted by a semicircle of police cars, blocking their exit with strobe lights blazing. Off to the side, from behind his car, a plainclothes officer raised a megaphone to his mouth.

"This is the ADPolice!" blared from the megaphone. "Throw down your weapons, and put your hands up!" The answer was not what they had anticipated; one robber whipped the rocket launcher up and fired it at the police vehicles; the cops dove for cover as the rocket flashed towards them. There was a sudden hissing roar, and a flash of red and blue streaked out of the sky, intercepting the missile before it could reach the unfortunate cops. There was a snarling explosion, and a cloud of black smoke laced with angry orange flames blossomed out from the blast's center. A figure dropped out of the cloud, to land on the pavement between the cops and the crooks. Both sides stared at the strange invader of their dispute, and several jaws hit the ground in disbelief.

The strange interloper was an armoured figure, a sleek combat hardsuit. Its armour plating was mostly a metallic, sky-blue colour, and was very streamlined-looking. The helmet, also blue, had a featureless mirrored visor, and looked like a modified motorcycle helmet. Two small antenna wings stuck up from roughly where the ears would be. A red cape of some vaguely metallic-looking material was attached to the shoulders, hanging down its back, and it also had red armoured boots. No weapons were immediately apparent, although there were some suspicious bulges on the forearms of the suit that hinted at concealed gadgets. What really raised eyebrows was the fact that the suit had, emblazoned on its front chestplate, an inverted, irregular red-bordered pentagon with a yellow center and a stylized red "S" in the middle. An identical symbol was also displayed on the cape, in the approximate center of the suit's back.

The suit began walking calmly towards the crooks. Panicked, they started firing at the approaching red-caped figure. Bullets whined harmlessly off of it, and it quietly reached out and snatched the guns out of their hands by the barrels. Cops and robbers watched in stunned disbelief as the armour suit bent the guns into interesting, artistic-looking shapes, and then threw them clattering onto the pavement. The crooks stood paralyzed, afraid to even try running. The flashing police lights glinted in the helmet visor of the suit as it turned to look at them one last time. A resonant, mellow-sounding electronically modified voice came from the helmet.

"The next time you boys want to make a withdrawal, get an account first," it said. A high pitched whine began, and the blue hardsuit shot skyward, cape flapping, propelled by boot-mounted jets. The red-and-blue shape dwindled into the sunny afternoon sky as the dumbfounded police quickly grabbed the dazed crooks, handcuffing them.

Behind his squad car, Leon McNichol looked from the apprehended criminals to the silent sky above, lowering his megaphone and sighing.

"That's what I love about this town," he muttered to himself. "It's never dull."

SkyKnight Productions
Proudly Presents
A NonTechnical Film

MegaTokyo 2034
The Knight Sabers

"The Bubblegum Zone - Episode #6"

Copyright (c) 1995 Bert Van Vliet

"Somebody has an overactive imagination," Leon told Daley as they came through the front door to the ADP office. Red-haired and green-eyed (and cute, too!) Nene Romanova looked up from her desk as they entered. Another stack of the seemingly endless paperwork that filled the ADP offices had landed on her desk, and right now any conversation was welcome as a way to get away from the work.

"Hi Leon!" she greeted him. "Who's got an overactive imagination?" Leon veered over to her desk, while Daley went to his desk to start filling out the inevitable report.

"This guy," Leon replied. He pulled a photo from his jacket pocket and showed it to her. "We got the picture from the security cameras; he helped foil a bank heist yesterday, and he's shown up at several other crime scenes. We don't mind the help, much, but we still have to try and find this guy." Nene found herself looking at a picture of a sleek blue and red hardsuit sporting a red cape, with an "S" on its chest.

"Why on earth does it look that way?" she asked, frowning. The design looked familiar, for some odd, unexplainable reason.

"I told you the guy's strange," Leon said. "We checked around, and that design and symbol matches, get this, the 'Superman' costume."

"Superman?!" she repeated disbelievingly. Leon nodded.

"Superman," he confirmed. "He was a comic book superhero who flew around saving people all the time and fighting various bad guys. The ultimate good guy, really. Whoever built that suit there has kept pretty close to the character concept. It flies, has super-strength, and appears to be pretty damn tough; it intercepted a rocket meant for us, and didn't get a scratch. It doesn't appear to have weapons, though." Nene looked from Leon back at the picture, an uneasy suspicion forming. She'd have to show this to Sylia.

"When did this guy first show up?" she asked Leon.

"About three weeks ago," Leon answered absently, mind elsewhere.

"What are you going to do?" she queried. He shrugged carelessly.

"There's not a lot we can do, really. We can't exactly pull him over and ask for ID. We'll just have to wait and see what happens." He chuckled suddenly.

"What's so funny?"

"If the comic company that has the Superman stuff trademarked finds out he's using that symbol, he might find himself with a lawsuit on his hands."

"But they can't really catch him, and they don't know who he is, so what good would that do?"

"That's what's so funny about it." Leon grinned and walked off, shaking his head bemusedly. Nene stuffed the photo in a pocket, and turned back to her paperwork, part of her mind thoughtfully going over Leon's words. Yes, she definitely had to tell Sylia about this.

****

Sylia Stingray dropped the photo to the coffee table in front of her. Incredulity was evident in her brown eyes as she stared from the photo to Nene.

"Is this supposed to be someone's idea of a joke?!" she asked. Who in their right mind would run around in an unarmed hardsuit using a ridiculous-looking colour scheme? And with a cape, to boot! Nene shrugged.

"Whoever it is, he's serious, despite the loony appearance. He's stopped twenty-five armed robberies in the last three weeks by himself. In one case, the police found the crooks tied up with about twenty feet of bent-up aluminum railing from a storefront. They had to get a guy with a hacksaw to cut them loose so they could arrest them. He never says too much, just the occasional smart remark, and whoosh!, he's gone."

"Somebody reads way too many comic books."

"That's sort of what Leon said."

"What are they going to do?"

"Not much. He's not harming anyone, and they can't really get him anyway." Sylia sighed, and sat back, thinking. She suddenly stiffened in apparent shock, sitting bolt upright again.

"How long ago did this guy show up?!" she demanded. Nene looked surprised.

"About three weeks," she answered, puzzled.

"How long has Bert been on his 'vacation'?"

"A little over a month, now." Nene's eyes widened. "You don't think he ... I mean, he wouldn't ... would he?"

"A mysterious caped hero charging around the city, and you don't think that fits his personality?" Sylia asked pointedly. "You know better than anybody about his hero hang-up."

"So how is he doing it then, if it is him? He hasn't been back here since he left, and I've never seen anything remotely like that hardsuit before, so where is he keeping it?"

"I think I know of a possibility," she replied mysteriously. "Let's just keep it a secret for now." Nene sighed resignedly. There were times when Sylia seemed to know what everyone else was doing, even when they themselves didn't know at the time.

"So what are we going to do?" she asked. Sylia's face broke into a sly smile.

"First, call Priss up. She's not busy right now ...." Sylia began laying out her plan in detail.

 

TWO DAYS LATER ....

The red-caped hardsuit landed neatly, dropping the last bankrobber to the asphalt in front of the ADP squad cars. The robber floundered around on the pavement, trying to get away from the hardsuit; the crook was swathed with what looked like about a hundred yards of electrical wiring from somewhere, and he looked like some strange kind of caterpillar as he writhed. The assembled police officers had the vaguely ill look of men who have just had their safe, normal universe suddenly upended by the appearance of something bizarre.

"Special delivery," the suit announced to the cops. "One erring citizen who's seen the light."

"For God's sake arrest me!! Please!!!" the trussed-up felon pleaded to the cops, still flopping around. "I'll confess!!! Just keep him away from me!!"

What sounded suspiciously like a chuckle escaped the azure armoured figure. Spinning around, with a dramatic flourish of its cape, the suit took a couple of running steps and launched itself into the air.

"Up, up, and awaaaaay!" they heard, as with a hissing roar and flap of its cape, the hardsuit shot away into the evening sky. From a nearby building, four shadowy figures also took to the air and followed the caped figure.

****

A couple of miles from the scene of the strange arrest, the blue hardsuit dropped to a rooftop. Once on the rooftop decking, the suit suddenly doubled over, staggering around drunkenly, and howling laughter could be heard. The suit sagged helplessly against the side of a rooftop solar collector, laughing so hard it was having problems breathing. At length, it regained control of itself, straightened up, and began walking across the roof, towards a door. As it walked, its gauntleted hands began moving towards its helmet.

"Excuse me, but we'd like a word with you," a woman's voice said. The suit whirled, and then took a step backwards in evident surprise. Four hardsuits, white, blue, green, and red-pink stood in a loose semi-circle on the roof, looking back at it.

"Ohhhhhhh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit! OH SHIT!!!" the electronically modulated voice said, sounding very unhappy. The blue suit with the cape backed up a further step as the white hardsuit stepped forward. The blue suit was taller than the Knight Sabers, and looked stronger. From its reaction to their appearance, though, one got the impression that the Knight Sabers were fire-breathing dragons compared to it.

"Good," the white suit said calmly. "You obviously know who we are, right?" The silver-visored suit nodded jerkily. It had to clear its throat a couple of times before speaking.

"You're the Knight Sabers," it said in a sick-sounding voice.

"That's right," Sylia confirmed. "And we're not impressed when some other hardsuited upstart starts flitting around our city, especially someone dressed like you are. Just what are you doing here?"

"Sightseeing." The other three hardsuits advanced menacingly at its reply. There was a faint clank as the red-caped suit backed into the wall behind it.

"We're going to need a better answer than that," Sylia informed him.

Recessed launchers of some kind sprang up on the azure suit's forearms. As they came level, there was a tremendous thunderclap accompanied by a blinding, absolutely dazzling, flash of white light. As the Knight Sabers tried to clear their suddenly speckled and spotty vision, the whine of the strange suit's flight system announced that it was leaving.

"Damage report!" Sylia snapped. "Who's hurt?!"

"No one," Linna replied. "Whatever it was, that weapon was non-offensive in nature."

"It sure as hell offended me!" Priss retorted, shaking her head dazedly. "My ears are still ringing!"

"Let's go after him, but I want him unharmed. No weapons," Sylia ordered. Everyone acknowledged her, and the Knight Sabers sprang into the air. The chase was on.

****

The red-caped suit flew towards a towering, unfinished skyscraper. As it flew, its arms reached back and grabbed the edges of the cape fabric. With a faint hum, the cape edges became stuck to the suit arms, and the rest of the cape billowed out and developed stiff spines. The suit arms moved forward again, and the whole cape became a hang-glider like apparatus. Its jets fell silent, and the suit glided quietly into the building infrastructure. The gliding wasn't perfect, but it did get the suit a fair distance inside the building before it had to put its feet down, landing neatly. The cape collapsed into cloth-like folds again as the suit helmet swung nervously back and forth, searching for something. Finding nothing, it sighed in relief, and relaxed, shoulders slumping.

"We've got him!!" A blue, red-striped hardsuit shot out of the darkness, tackling the red-caped figure from behind at knee level. At the same time, a green hardsuit tackled it in the chest from the opposite direction. The Superman suit folded like an accordion under the assault, and all three clanged to the floor in a flailing tangle of arms and legs. They rolled over and over on the floor, the blue suit trying frantically to get loose, and the two Knight Sabers trying to hold on.

With a surging heave, the blue suit threw them off. Leaping to its feet, it began sprinting for the outer edge of the building again. As it ran, a pink hardsuit leg was thrust in its path from behind a beam. Unable to avoid it, the running suit tripped over the leg and went crashing headfirst into another metal beam. There was a loud, ringing clang, and the suit dropped again to the floor as Nene began walking towards it. The blue-and-red suit rolled over clumsily, shaking its head dazedly, trying to get its bearings and get away. It settled for awkwardly scrabbling away on hands and knees from Nene; it couldn't quite get to its feet yet. It stopped when it found itself looking at a pair of white armoured legs. Looking up, it found itself being studied by the blue visor of Sylia's suit.

"Not so fast," Sylia said. "You're going to answer my questions now." The blue suit threw itself sideways, rolling up to its knees. A high-pitched whine erupted, and it shot past her on screaming jets, striking sparks from the flooring as it was literally dragged along the floor before it made it out of the building, into the night again. Sylia watched him go, smiling to herself. Priss, Linna and Nene walked up to her.

"Sylia, why the hell are we doing it this way?" Priss inquired. "Why don't we just shoot the bastard first, and then ask the questions?"

"It's more fun this way," Sylia replied. "Fun for me, that is. Come on, we don't want to lose him." She activated her own flight pack and flashed into the night after the blue suit. The remaining Knight Sabers looked at each other, shrugged, and then followed.

****

The red cape rustled quietly as the blue and red hardsuit tried stealthily sneaking down an alleyway near a relatively deserted housing area, avoiding the nearby garbage cans. Its helmet was swiveling constantly, making sure there was no one around. It stepped out from the wall, preparing to sprint across the open space in front of it.

"GOTCHA!!!" Priss crowed exuberantly as she plowed into it from behind. The azure hardsuit hit the pavement face-first with a clanging bang. Priss tried getting the suit in a hammerlock to hold it still, but to her surprise, she found she couldn't even budge the arm of the suit. The suit was almost completely ignoring her wrestling attempts as it stood up, tossing her off. She couldn't believe it; the only hardsuit stronger than hers was SkyKnight's, although Sylia's suit was a very close second. No one else to date had made a suit of comparable size that could surpass hers in the strength department.

"I really hate to have to do this to you," she heard the electronic voice say. "Sorry."

The suit suddenly lunged forward, grabbing her and spinning her helplessly up into the air with some kind of fancy judo move. There was a loud echoing clatter as she landed in the garbage cans, and the lights went out momentarily as the blue suit thumped a full garbage can over her head, covering her in smelly debris. The odour of rancid fish, and other, equally fragrant aromas assailed her. Wavering between rage and nausea, Priss floundered out of the garbage, teeth clenched. The red-caped suit was gone, however.

****

The Superman suit sagged back against the wall, audibly gasping for breath as the three hardsuits stalked slowly towards it. It had tried every trick in the book, and a few that weren't, to escape the Sabers. None had even come close to working. When it straightened up, it was knocked down again as Nene and Linna both tackled it like pro football linebackers. It finally seemed to give up as they jumped on it, going limp and letting them haul it upright to face Sylia, who assumed a commanding stance, facing the colourful suit with her arms crossed over her chest.

As she was about to speak, footsteps sounded from behind her. Turning she saw Priss come striding out of the darkness. Her normally blue suit was stained different colours, and garbage of all descriptions clung to it, from candy wrappers to coffee grounds. A unique (interesting?) fragrance filled the air around her, and her general posture indicated she was pissed off. Sylia tried hard not to laugh at her appearance; she had to appear serious for a few more minutes at least. Nene and Linna were also trying to suppress snickers. The caped suit seemed to shrink away slightly as Priss stood, hands clenching and unclenching, obviously glaring at it. Sylia turned her attention back to the strange suit.

"Okay, buster," she said, trying to sound threatening. "I want some answers, and I want them now."

"Do I have a choice?" he asked with a sigh.

"No," she told him flatly. "For starters, who the hell are you?" She waited.

The silence seemed to stretch endlessly for a moment, then the suit reached a hand up to its visor, flipping it up. The Knight Sabers found themselves looking into the familiar greenish-brown-eyed and red-haired face of Bert Van Vliet, alias SkyKnight. He was red-faced and extremely sheepish looking. Sylia sighed, slapping a gauntleted hand to her visor.

"I knew it," she declared. "I just knew it had to be you. Who else would be this idiotic?!" She was interrupted by Priss leaping forward onto Bert, knocking him over.

"You sickening bastard!!!!" she shouted as she grabbed him. "I'm gonna kill you!!!" Priss grabbed his neck and started pounding his helmeted head on the pavement while trying to strangle him at the same time. Sylia finally burst out laughing as Nene and Linna tried to drag Priss off of him.

****

"That was supposed to be a vacation?" Nene asked Bert as he pulled his sweater over his head. "Running around the city playing superhero?" She was not impressed, standing frowning at him with her arms crossed. She'd already changed back to her normal pink blouse with blue skirt and jacket, and he was clad, as usual, in jeans and a sweater.

They were back in Sylia's building, in Bert's basement apartment. He was due for a 'debriefing' as Sylia called it, a 'shit session' as he called it, and 'a goddamn deep shit session' as Priss was calling it. Bert had postponed the lectures slightly by pleading the need to get showered and changed first, and had been given an hour. Nene had followed him down to his room, berating him all the way. He sighed.

"I did spend the first week-and-a-half relaxing, honestly," he told her. "Unfortunately, after that I got kind of bored, and I missed flying around in my hardsuit. I couldn't really come back and get the SkyKnight suit ...."

"Not that Sylia would have let you," Nene interjected. He ignored the interruption.

"So I designed the Superman-type suit and used that. I didn't think ...."

"Nothing new, there," Nene remarked wickedly. He flushed, but continued speaking with an effort.

"I didn't think any harm would come of it. I didn't really think it was a solo operation, because it didn't have any connection with the Knight Sabers."

"Except that you used some of our hardsuit stuff to make it."

"The designs, yes I did. The materials, no I didn't." She looked at him, puzzled.

"Well then where did you build it, and with what?" He sighed again.

"About a year ago, I used some of my savings to buy some property on the outskirts of the city. I put a house with a basement lab in the exact center of the place. I figured it would be a good place to do some of my experimenting without accidentally nuking Sylia's lab." She nodded in agreement; one of his chemical experiments had backfired stupendously once, making the lab smell like dead skunks for two weeks. Sylia had not been happy, using words Nene hadn't even thought she knew about on Bert, putting even Priss' normal angry swearing to shame. It had been something of a shock, since Sylia was normally cool, calm and collected. Hearing her swearing like a longshoreman was like suddenly finding poisonous snakes in your sock drawer.

"So you built it there?" she asked. He nodded.

"Most of it," he replied. "There were a couple of things I had fabricated here earlier, using my own supplies."

"Where'd you get the materials?"

"I bought them," he replied simply. She stared at him; the hardsuits were hideously expensive pieces of equipment. Even a low estimate started at a few hundred thousand yen. "I told you before I'd saved a lot," he said defensively as she stared at him. "What's the point of being filthy rich if you don't use it? I've had the materials and components lying around for months, but I never got a chance to use them. Like I said, I was bored when I built the suit." Nene rolled her eyes upwards in exasperation.

Bert walked over to the counter and poured a couple of mugs of tea. He had a few minutes before he had to go upstairs, and he needed all the caffeine he could get right now. Nene picked up the other mug as he began slurping on his. A faint smile suddenly appeared.

"It's nice to have you back, anyway," she told him.

"It's nice to be back," he said, looking over at her. "I really missed you, you know," he added quietly. He leaned over and kissed her on the lips. She plunked her mug on the counter before wrapping her arms around him. After a couple of moments, they separated a little.

"I missed you, too," she said, looking coyly up at him. "Although I don't think Priss is very happy about your return right now." He winced.

"That would be an understatement," he observed. "Maybe I should get a bulletproof vest before going upstairs." Nene giggled, then finished off her tea. Sighing, he finished his own drink and set the mug on the counter. Arm-in-arm, they marched out the door, heading upstairs.

****

"You have a damn funny idea of what constitutes a vacation," Sylia informed him. "I thought you said you needed some time off because you were feeling burned-out?"

"I was, at the time," he replied. "And I did just take it easy, for a while. Unfortunately, I got bored, so I built the suit. Believe it or not, I had one hell of a ball flying around in that suit, and to me it was a kind of vacation. I was able to fly around saving people and helping the cops. No mega-destructive weapons, no boomers, no evil corporate plans. It was just really, really fun and relaxing good old-fashioned superhero stuff." He sighed, lost for a moment in nostalgia. He was jerked out of it by Priss clobbering him with a pillow. She was still just a tad upset with him; a faint trace of old coffee and fish head smells still clung to her, despite her efforts to get rid of it.

"Old-fashioned superheroes didn't go around throwing people into the garbage!" she snarled. Bert sighed.

"I said I was sorry," he told her, tossing the pillow back to the couch. "How many times do you want me to apologize?!" She glared at him, not the least bit mollified.

"I'm going to get you for that if it's the last thing I ever do!" she shot back. Evidently, she was not in a forgiving mood. Linna suppressed giggles, pulling her face straight as Priss glared stonily in her direction. Nene had already laughed herself silly while downstairs, and was able to remain mostly expressionless. What looked suspiciously like a smile was tugging at Sylia's mouth, but she remained cool, turning back to continue the lecture.

"What's even dumber than your running around dressed like that," she told him, "is the fact that your suit had no offensive weapons whatsoever. Just what were you planning on doing if you did meet a boomer?" He shrugged nonchalantly.

"Beat it into a pile of scrap, I guess."

"Right," she said dubiously. "And just how were you going to do that?"

"Strength, mostly. The Superman hardsuit is about one-and-a-half times stronger than the SkyKnight suit." Sylia stared at him, then began to turn slightly red. Bert began to look a shade nervous as Sylia's expression turned stormy.

"You used the new experimental actuator designs, didn't you?" she queried in a deceptively mild tone. He nodded reluctantly, swallowing nervously.

"What other experimental gimmicks are in that thing?" she asked, still in a mild tone.

"Umm, well, you see I, uh ...." he faltered. He swallowed twice, took a deep breath, scraping his rapidly departing courage together, and plowed on. "I also put in that new anti-missile ECM stuff, the StarBurst flare system, the new armour plating, and the glider cape." Sylia sighed, a long, slow exhalation that seemed to carry traces of fire and brimstone with it. She glared at Bert.

"In that list you just mentioned," she said ominously, "I believe that for two of those items I said 'more testing first', did I not?" He nodded weakly.

"But you used them anyway." He nodded again, looking sick.

"They worked," he protested feebly, then shut up as she glared at him again.

"So they worked. Big deal!! You'd have had a hell of a time explaining what the hell happened if they hadn't, wouldn't you?!?" she demanded, seething. Sylia held on to her temper, avoiding a blowup, with a superhuman effort. It wasn't the first time he'd used experimental devices in hardsuits that she didn't feel were ready, but she wished he would quit finding ways to make each instance more infuriating than the last.

"Does this mean you're going to be putting a cape on SkyKnight?" Linna asked curiously; they'd seen how his glider cape idea had functioned. Bert shook his head.

"I can't," he replied. "The SkyKnight armour is just too heavy to glide. It's jets, or nothing. I did like swashbuckling around in a cape, though."

"That explains the Batman armour," Sylia remarked. Bert turned absolutely white as he stared at Sylia.

"Batman?" Nene asked. "His suit was Superman, wasn't it?" Sylia glanced at her, then back at Bert.

"Do you want to tell her, or shall I?" she asked him. Bert looked like he'd been slugged in the wind, but he did give Nene an answer.

"Okay, so I did design another superhero suit. Is that a crime?!" he asked plaintively. Nene slapped a hand over her face despairingly, shaking her head in disbelief.

"How did you know that, Sylia?" Priss asked, glancing at Bert with a disgusted 'it figures' look.

"Our knight-errant here forgot to take his designs off of the main computer," Sylia told her. "I found them both there, Batman and Superman, but there weren't many details on the Superman one."

"So you knew it was me before you went after me tonight?" Bert inquired in sudden suspicion.

"I did," Sylia replied. "I didn't tell anyone else though." A wicked smile spread across her face.

"Well then why the hell did you do it that way?! I almost had a heart attack when you braced me on the rooftop the first time!!"

"That was the idea," she smirked. "I thought it might teach you a lesson to get the pants scared off of you." Bert groaned, putting his face in his hands. "Besides," she added suddenly, "I got one hell of a kick out of doing it that way."

"You're starting to sound just like him," Nene told her accusingly. Sylia smiled back innocently, not replying.

"So now what happens?" Bert asked, having regained his composure to a small degree. Sylia looked over at him, again turning cool and businesslike.

"Since your vacation is now officially over, we're going to put some of your creative energy to work again, this time on something that's not going to irritate me."

"I wouldn't bet too heavily on that aspect," Priss cracked. She was ignored.

"And just what would that be?" Bert inquired, sighing.

"First, you're going to upgrade the new suits I'm building with the new actuators. I want it done by Thursday."

"Thursday?!?" he blurted. "But it's only Monday now!! I can't do it that quickly!! I ....."

"If you can build your own hardsuit to play with in one week," she stated, unperturbed by his interruption, "then I don't think upgrading the new ones will be a great problem for you." He stared at her helplessly, unable to think of any reply. She smiled back at him, a vaguely smug look flickering across her face as she pulled out a lengthy list. "This is what else needs to be done," she told him. "I don't think it will take you too long to finish." Bert read the list, stomach sinking; there was about two weeks' worth of work listed, with completion dates added in.

"Oh Lord," he muttered to himself. "Why me?!"

"Face it," Sylia told him blandly. "You're just too good at what you do." He glanced at her sourly, but didn't reply as everyone else grinned.

 

TWO WEEKS LATER ....

Click!

"ARRRRRRRRGH!!!"

With an agonized yowl, Bert flipped over fast, grabbing his pillow and plastering it over his face as laser-like shafts of white light stabbed at his eyeballs, brutally dragging him awake. After a few moments of tortured flopping, he cautiously lowered the pillow, and squinted towards the door of his room. His smoldering, bleary-eyed gaze spoke eloquently of what he intended to do to the person who'd flicked on the lights. Leaning against the doorjamb, red-brown eyes glinting in fiendish amusement, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, Priss was observing his sluggish reanimation with undisguised glee. She was dressed, as usual, in her motorcycle outfit, and her helmet was tucked under one arm.

"Good morning! Time to get up!" she declared, grinning evilly.

"Nene told you about that light switch trick, didn't she?" he asked, seething.

"She might have mentioned something about it," Priss admitted, smirking.

"Of course you know," he informed her ominously, "this means war."

"Oh, I'm really shaking!" she retorted with a grin. "Quit griping and get up."

"Why? What time is it?"

"Eight in the morning," she replied. Bert rolled over, wrapping the blankets and the pillow back around him.

"Go away," came his muffled voice. "I'm hibernating. Come back in a week." Priss sighed, shaking her head.

"If you don't come out of there," she told him, "I have a nice cold bucket of water handy." Greenish-brown eyes appeared in the folds of the blanket, glinting menacingly.

"You'd better not do it," he growled back. "Don't forget, I know where you live!" Unimpressed, she reached around the doorframe and hefted something that sloshed noisily, although he couldn't see what it was. With a sigh he unrolled himself, and sat up in the snarled disarray of his bed, draped in a tangle of blankets and sheets.

"All right, all right, I'm up," he announced sourly. "But I'm not doing anything until you're out of the doorway." She snorted.

"No need to be modest," she cracked. "I've seen you without clothes enough times when patching you back together to know what you look like." She ducked the pillow that came flying her way with a grin, and retreated to his living room to wait for him.

****

Bert slurped noisily at his mug of tea while Priss paced back and forth irritably. He was in a somewhat irritated frame of mind himself; he was a lousy morning person, and his rude awakening had not improved his disposition any. He swallowed the last few pieces of toast and washed it down with the last mouthful of tea. Priss stopped pacing long enough to look at him.

"Are you done yet?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'm done," he replied. "Now would you please tell me what the hell you had to drag me out of bed for?"

"It's Tuesday," she replied obliquely. He wasn't impressed.

"So what?! That's hardly a justification for ruining my eyes and waking me up! After all the shit I've had to do over the last two weeks, I think I'm entitled to sleep in for a change!" He was gradually becoming more and more like a cantankerous bear as the morning progressed; two weeks of non-stop upgrades to the new hardsuit models, vehicle repairs, and any other work Sylia had been able to think of, had almost completely exhausted him. The more rational part of his mind chided him for being miserable about something that really was his own fault, but he'd had a lot of practice at ignoring that part of his mind. It would be a shame to break that habit now.

"Well it's your own goddamn fault," she shot back, sounding exactly like his conscience. "You're the one who went playing Superman all over town. Even you should know better by now than to go flying around town solo, especially when you know you're going to get caught."

"So sue me!! I decided to have fun for a change, not parade around in a goddamn war machine bristling with weapons of total destruction. I hardly think that it should sentence me to twenty years of hard labour just because I did something for enjoyment." She looked at him, raising an eyebrow. She hadn't expected the conversation to take off in this direction.

"Is that what you think of us now? As war machines?"

"I don't know what else to think, lately," he replied. "I spend a lot of my time designing better and more efficient ways to kill things. That sounds like a war machine to me." He turned away, staring bitterly at the rows of books in his bookshelves, not really seeing them. Priss came over to him and put a hand on his shoulder; his shoulder muscles felt tight as bowstrings to her.

"You're still upset about what happened a few months ago," she said quietly, her tone implying a question to be answered. Approximately three months ago had been when he'd been forced to watch helplessly as a former enemy who'd turned ally was eviscerated by a vicious killer boomer. Bert had fought the boomer immediately afterwards, almost berserk with rage and the drive for revenge. The HeadHunter had been supposedly destroyed in a gas explosion during the fight, but not even trace remains had been found. Bert had been sunk in grief and guilt over his role in Lt. Rutherford's death, and had come within an ace of leaving the Sabers completely as a result. Priss had been able to talk him out of it, and had thought the matter closed. Obviously, he didn't think so.

"I'd have to be made out of stone not to be," he answered. "She's dead, and it's largely my fault." His time off had not helped in resolving his feelings on the matter.

"I thought we'd been over that before," she responded patiently, turning him around to look her in the eye. "You did everything you could at the time. There was no way for you to stop the boomer at that moment, not with half your suit systems out. If you'd tried to, that would have probably been you spilling your blood and your guts out onto the pavement, not her. She knew the risks involved, and she still chose to help you, to help us, out. I think she'd be one of the first ones to tell you to quit the bullshit and get on with things."

"You don't think it's my fault?" he queried. "Well it is. Ever since I've arrived here, all I've done is build weapons and hardsuits, originally because I had these grand ideas of heroic knights defending the public good and stopping evil all over the city. What happened? I've contributed to the problem, instead of solving it. Every goddamn asshole with a laboratory and machine shop has been building his own weapons to try and outperform mine. I haven't done a goddamn useful thing. All I've done is escalated the arms race." There was an abiding bitterness in his eyes as Priss looked at him.

"That would have happened even without you," she told him. "Come on, you know that much is true, at least. GENOM was developing weapons long before you ever came on the scene. And what's this bullshit about not having done anything useful?" she queried. "You saved Sylvie, and Anri, and several other people. You've saved our lives a couple of times and, despite what you may think, I think you have helped make things a little better. Improving the world is not going to be a miraculous overnight process." She looked him over thoughtfully. "That's why you built those superhero suits, isn't it?"

"Pardon? You lost me there."

"You built those superhero suits because, for a while at least, you wanted to believe that it was possible to do these things instantly, like it seems to work in the comics a lot of times. Right?" He sighed, eyes getting a faraway look for a moment.

"I suppose that was part of it," he admitted. "The other part was that Superman and Batman seem to get along quite well without weapons, and I can't seem to do anything at all that doesn't require guns or swords."

"What's with this sudden weapon hang-up?"

"I'm afraid at times that I'm becoming just a little too quick on the draw."

"You're worried about becoming used to the constant fighting, you mean." He nodded.

"I don't want to start becoming careless, or perhaps I should say nonchalant, about it. If that happens, I become little better than a combat boomer in terms of conscience."

"You worry too much," she told him. "About a lot of things that you really shouldn't. You're going to work yourself into a breakdown if you keep this up. I know you pretty well, I think, and I think that you're never going to become callous about this, so don't worry. I've been at it a bit longer than you have, and I'm still whole. Well, mostly whole," she amended. "I do occasionally wonder what we're doing with ourselves, but nowhere nearly as often as you seem to brood on the subject. Lighten up for once, will you?"

"Sorry," he said, partly apologetic. "I'm never in the best of moods first thing in the morning."

"I'd noticed," she replied with a wry smile. He grinned sheepishly in return, then returned to his original topic.

"You were going to tell me why you woke me up," he suggested.

"You said you'd help me move some stuff around my place, remember?" He frowned, trying to remember. He did recall some vague promise to help her clean up her place. A sudden related thought made him grin evilly.

"What's so amusing?" she asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

"If you're cleaning the place up, I guess the mess finally escalated to the 'fire hazard' category. Or was that the 'disaster area' classification?" He sprinted from his room before Priss could take a swing at him.

****

"Thanks for the help, I think," Priss said as she sank down next to where he was sprawled on her newly discovered couch; it had been under a ground cover of CD's, papers, laundry, and several other unidentified items. "I don't think all the smart remarks were needed, though," she added. Bert merely grinned; as they'd progressed through her trailer/apartment, he'd made wisecracks about getting teams of archaeologists in to catalogue her stuff, or about having discovered new lifeforms in other areas. It had irritated her no end, which of course was why he'd done it.

"Why the sudden drive to clean up?" he inquired. She shrugged uncomfortably.

"I just felt like it," she replied defensively. "I can't stay the same way all my life, and cleaning things up here seemed like a good start." He considered that for a moment or two, then looked at her thoughtfully.

"So you've decided to try for that pro singing debut you mentioned?" If she'd decided to start being a little neater, he figured she must have decided to try and advance her singing career, since both indicated an attempt at a lifestyle change. She nodded, suddenly shy about talking about it for some reason. He gently put an arm around her shoulders; she stiffened at first, then relaxed. "I wish you the best of luck," he told her seriously, giving her a brotherly-type hug. "If you don't mind a somewhat biased opinion, I think it's about time. You're a damn good singer, and I'd hate to see you spend the rest of your life singing in bars and becoming disillusioned because of it." She looked at him gratefully, and gave him a hug back.

"Thanks," she replied. "I'm really nervous about it, actually."

"Don't worry, you'll do fine. For somebody with the temper of a devil from time to time, you sing like an angel." Priss wasn't quite sure how to respond to the somewhat backhanded compliment, so she let it pass. Bert released her and stood up, gently pulling her up with him.

"Come on," he said with a smile. "Let's go get some dinner. I'm buying."

"Sounds good to me," she replied with grin as they left.

****

Somewhere across town, yellow shafts of light stabbed through subterranean blackness. The dim shape of a black-haired, blue eyed man in work clothes and a yellow hard-hat moved forward in the humid, inky darkness. John Harama, a city maintenance engineer, walked through the blackness, wishing he could turn off his sense of smell. God, he hated when his turn at this particular duty came up! Why couldn't they have put the damn electrical junction boxes and transformers above ground, instead of running the lines and the boxes through the same tunnels as the sewers?! It always smelled awful, and every so often you picked up some kind of exotic bug that could make you sicker than hell for weeks.

He grumbled to himself about the unfair vicissitudes of life as he splashed along. He wished the two maintenance boomers following just behind him were capable of working unsupervised, but alas, such was not the case. He had to destroy his sinuses just to make sure the damn mechanoids didn't short circuit half the city while they repaired whatever had caused the fault in the electrical grid. He sighed to himself; boomers had their uses, but in a lot of ways they were more trouble than they were worth. He quickly checked his map again; it should be just around the corner.

He blinked in surprise as his probing flashlight beam located the small side tunnel leading to the metal cabinet that was supposed to have been covering the massive fuses and capacitors needed to route power through this area. Sparks were spitting in the blackness where the cabinet was, and from what he could see in the dim lighting, it didn't look like any transformer explosion he'd ever heard about before; it looked more like something had torn it apart. He gestured to one of the construction boomers.

"You there," he directed it. "Go in there and see what the damage is."

"Yes sir," the nasal-sounding mechanical voice replied. The boomer set down the large toolbox it was carrying, and splashed through the muck, walking up the side tunnel. There was a sudden protesting squawk, and a strange, almost metallic, tearing sound. The boomer dropped flat to the concrete, not moving. A goddamn malfunction of some kind, he thought disgustedly to himself. What a time for that to happen! He sent the other boomer in, and exactly the same thing happened; a strange noise sounded, and then the boomer dropped like a stone. He frowned to himself; odd that they'd both just malfunction like that. Maybe they'd hit a live wire? Sighing in resignation, he started to step forward carefully, his hand reaching for his walkie-talkie to report in.

Something stirred in the darkness ahead. As he started to raise his flashlight for a better look, that something struck him a numbing blow to the stomach. He doubled over gasping in shock, then sudden agony, flashlight and radio clattering to the floor. A burning pain worse than anything he'd ever felt before burst from his stomach area, flooding his vision with spots and bringing tears to his eyes. He sagged helplessly against the tunnel wall, a sudden sickening feeling assailing him with the pain; his pain-numbed stomach felt wet and sticky. As he raised his shaking hand towards his eyes, the faint glow of his dropped flashlight revealed a slick, red wetness on his hands: his blood.

"Oh my God, no! Please!!" he whimpered before he collapsed facedown on the concrete.

A red stream trickled down the slightly sloped tunnel to merge with the sewage stream, as strange slithering sounds echoed in the tunnel.

****

Inspector Leon McNichol watched grim-faced as white-coated ambulance attendants carried a body bag on a stretcher out of the entry tunnel to one of MegaTokyo's myriad underground sewer tunnels. The attendants looked like they wanted to throw up, and he couldn't really blame them. A maintenance worker had been killed in one of the more gruesome methods he'd seen in his years of police work. The man had literally had his guts churned up inside of him by some kind of knife or other edged weapon, and the sight coupled with the awful smells down there were enough to turn even the toughest man's stomach. The victim had been in considerable agony at the time of death, judging from the frozen expression on his face. Because boomers were involved somehow, the ADP had been called in. It had quickly become apparent that this was not a 'normal' boomer crime.

What had made this case strange, aside from the sadistic method used to kill the worker, was the condition of the boomers he'd been working with. The one had been speared through the chest by something, then its left leg and arm had been removed, almost like the killer was after parts. The second boomer was missing a large chunk of its torso. It had not removed by tools, though; it looked more like it had been dissolved somehow. Weird. There was definitely something strange going on, but he couldn't even begin to guess at what that was. Sighing to himself, he brought his mind back to bear on the task at hand.

"Hey!" he shouted to an officer at the perimeter. "Find me the forensics guys!"

****

"Thanks for the dinner," Priss said. "It was delicious."

"No problem," Bert replied, leaning back in his seat and grinning at her. "Consider it repayment for putting up with my sense of humour."

"Sorry," she told him deadpan. "That's gonna take more than just one dinner." He chuckled, taking a swig from his glass of pop. Priss was working her way through a bottle of beer. Finding themselves at loose ends after dinner, they'd dropped by the nightclub where Priss usually sang to relax for a while. It was usually a quiet place, except during performances of course, and it wasn't a bad place to relax. At the moment, the bar was mostly deserted with only a handful of people scattered around.

"So what are you planning on doing with yourself?" she suddenly asked. He blinked in surprise.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he replied. "I do a lot of stuff. Especially lately," he added dryly.

"I meant outside of the shop end of things. You spend all your time on building things and designing gadgets, but I really think you should think seriously about getting some kind of an outside job. It might help you to relax if you've got something else to concentrate on."

"Sorry, but I don't think there's much out there that I'd be qualified for at the moment. Besides, working for somebody from nine-to-five doesn't really appeal to me anymore."

"I didn't mean a completely regular job. What about part time? You've definitely got enough technical know-how to be a technician somewhere. You can't spend the rest of your life doing make-work projects in Sylia's basement." He sighed irritably.

"I already realized that," he told her. "But getting a regular job would interfere with our extra-curricular activities, and I don't want that."

"Bullshit," she snorted. "In the first place, Nene's been balancing the two for a long time now with no major problems."

"Yeah, but only because she can hack into the ADP computers and write her own ticket," he interrupted. She ignored him, and continued.

"In the second, in case you hadn't noticed, we haven't done anything boomer related, or anything else, for almost two-and-a-half months now."

"Don't remind me," he replied sourly. She stared at him.

"I thought you were the one worried about becoming too violent; now you're telling me you're upset because you haven't been able to get into a fight?!"

"I know it sounds hypocritical," he said defensively. "But I enjoy getting out in the suit and flying around, and I admit I get a kick out of the brawling. I can't help it; I just like the feelings I get from bombing around in the suit."

"You mean you like parading around impressively playing the hero," she corrected, sardonic amusement evident on her face. He flushed.

"All right, if you want to put it that way, fine. I do. That wasn't a crime the last time I looked." Priss sighed, rolling her eyes.

"You're impossible," she told him.

"You're not the first person to have told me that," he grinned.

 

ONE WEEK LATER ....

"Damnit, I'm going bloody stir-crazy!!" Bert fumed, pacing back and forth. Sylia watched him from her chair, sipping at a cup of tea.

"Well what do you want me to do?" she asked in a somewhat irritated tone. "Go out and find you some boomers to pound on? Never mind, don't even think about asking it!" she warned as he swung around towards her with a hopeful look. His face settled back into a disgusted expression, and he resumed pacing as Sylia watched him.

The main reason for his agitation was fairly simple. They were almost approaching three months without any jobs as the Knight Sabers, and except for his brief fling earlier in his Superman suit, he hadn't been able to use his hardsuit at all. Despite his concerns over becoming a war machine, he genuinely enjoyed flying around in his armour as SkyKnight, and he enjoyed the rough-and-tumble of a good fight from time to time. He supposed it classed as an addiction, since it felt like he was going into withdrawal from not being able to use his armour.

The reason for the lack of boomer activity was also fairly simple: GENOM was no longer the main driving force it had once been. The corporation had suffered some stunning setbacks in the last few months, completely unexpectedly. The first shock had been a massive lawsuit filed by Gulf & Bradley, claiming breach of contract in their joint uprated boomer project. GENOM had immediately filed a counter-suit, and the two companies were dueling it out in the courts at great expense. Next, GENOM had lost the exclusive rights to producing boomers, and several small companies had stepped in and started churning out cheap labour boomers, undercutting their profits.

The final blow had been huge, albeit mysterious, financial losses. It was a sure bet that the losses were directly related to GENOM's secret development projects, but solid proof was lacking. Topping everything else off, Quincy had effectively vanished, and there was no word on just who was running the huge conglomerate at the moment. Given time, GENOM would probably recover to a top position again, but at the moment it was on the ropes. The money problems had, probably, slashed whatever funding was going to boomer development, meaning that there were less and less combat-oriented boomers out there to stop. Having less boomers to save the public from was driving Bert slowly crazy.

"Maybe you need something else to occupy your time with," Sylia suggested. He slapped a hand to his forehead.

"Please," he said in a pained tone. "Don't you get on the bandwagon too!"

"What on earth are you talking about?" she asked, puzzled.

"Priss was asking me when I plan to get a real job, Linna's been bugging me about it, and even Nene made some remark about giving my hobbies a rest."

"It's not a bad idea, really," she commented judiciously. "I've always thought you spent too much time playing with the hardsuits, and now that things are quieting down, there's not as much need for it." Bert sat down in the chair across from her, a look of strained patience crossing his face.

"Look," he said. "I don't need, or really want, a 'real job' working for someone else right now. If the Saber business does pick up, then it would be a problem. The other thing is that I really don't need the money. Ever since I got here I've been gradually saving up what we made from the Knight Sabers, and making some investments. I now have a very comfortable and steady outside income set up, with enough spare to indulge my occasional wilder whims."

"I'd noticed that," she remarked dryly. "But being affluent doesn't necessarily make you happier; you need something else to do or you're going to become incredibly bored, and probably resentful of the situation."

"What do you suggest then, O wise and enlightened one?" She ignored his sarcasm, and thought for a moment.

"Since you don't want to work for someone else, why not open your own business of some kind?" she asked. "After all, you are a pretty good technician and engineer. It may take a while to get customers, but it would be better than lurking in the shop and basement all the time."

"Yes, but most of my technical expertise is in areas the average citizen doesn't even know about," he reminded her.

"I didn't mean you should open a hardsuit shop, you twit!" she retorted irritably. "I meant something like a computer or electronics store. That's a relatively harmless front, much like my store downstairs."

"That brings into play the state of my identification," he pointed out. "How much probing would my records take before they discover I wasn't really here two to three years ago?"

"You worry too much," she told him.

"I know, but I can't help it a lot of the time." They sat silently for a few minutes, Sylia sipping her tea as Bert brooded on his concerns. He suddenly looked over at her.

"There is another option that might preserve my sanity," he suggested hesitantly. Sylia looked at him narrowly; from his expression, he knew already that she wasn't going to like what he was about to suggest.

"What is it?" she asked flatly, although she had an idea what it was.

"How about letting me ....."

"No!"

"I haven't finished yet!!!" he protested.

"You don't need to!" she shot back. "You are not taking your suit out and going looking for trouble!"

"I wasn't going to go looking for trouble! I just wanted to fly around in it for a while every so often!"

"If you want to fly, then buy yourself a goddamn plane!!" she almost shouted, clearly becoming exasperated. She masterfully regained control of herself again before she could lose it completely.

"Sylia," he pleaded. "I'm serious. I'm going nuts not being able to get out occasionally. Blame it on my 'heroic ideals' if you want, but I seriously think I'm going to snap if I can't get up there in the suit and soar around occasionally, and a plane just doesn't cut it." He fell silent. She looked at him, face twisting in annoyance and resignation.

"You'd still try and do it anyway if I said no, wouldn't you?" she queried. Bert sat there for a moment, his face a study in agonized indecision, then heaved a long, regretful sigh.

"Probably," he admitted reluctantly. "I'm sorry to have to disappoint you." While his own sense of honour didn't like him breaking his word not to take solo runs, he knew himself well enough to know that he wouldn't be able to hold off much longer from taking his suit for a spin; he honestly felt like he was going nuts from not being able to use his hardsuit for flying around. Sylia sighed herself, leaning her head back with her eyes closed for a few moments while he waited. At length, she straightened up and looked at him.

"I'm not going to give you carte blanche to just sail off anytime you feel like it," she informed him, holding up a hand to forestall any reply he'd been about to make. "Here are my conditions: First, I'll let you try it out twice per week, and you can pick which two nights. Second, you damn well report to me personally BEFORE you go out; I don't want you suddenly going missing. I also want you checking back in with me when you return. Third, you're limited to one hour of flight time, so don't even think of flitting around town playing 'heroic knight'. If you're any later than one hour, you'd better have an ironclad reason for it, or you're grounded again. Finally, I don't want you going looking for trouble, understand?" She paused, waiting expectantly.

"Only one hour?" he protested. Sylia's expression turned stony. "Nevermind! One hour is fine!" he added quickly, before she could change her mind.

"Did you understand about the 'not looking for trouble' part?" she asked sternly. He sighed.

"Yes, I understood," he replied. "Why is it everyone thinks I go looking for fights?!" he complained suddenly. "All right, I admit I enjoy the action most of the time, despite my moral musings on the topic, but I don't go out of my way to get into trouble."

"You don't go out of your way to avoid it, either," she replied pointedly. He flushed bright red, embarrassed. "So then, do we have a deal?" she asked. He nodded, a faint grin beginning to appear.

"It's a deal," he confirmed. "Want a signature or something?" She shook her head.

"Your word is good enough, for right now, anyway." She jumped as he almost dove off the couch towards the door, obviously in a hurry. "Hey! Where are you going?!" she called after him in surprise.

"To use up my first hour!" he called back over his shoulder as the door swung shut behind him.

"Please be careful," she sighed to the empty space he'd just left.

****

SkyKnight blasted across the skyline of MegaTokyo, wings deployed and flight jets screaming like banshees. Anyone watching would have thought he was drunk; his flight was anything but straight, combining barrel rolls, wild spins, and every other possible aerial acrobatic there was that was normally only seen in old barnstorming shows. There was an unbridled exhilaration evident in the way he was flying, a carefree 'what-the-hell' attitude that would make normal airplane pilots turn pale if asked to fly the same way. After several minutes of wild maneuvering he did level off, and he coasted along in a straight line for a few minutes, savouring the freedom of soaring over the city.

Bert grinned to himself as he flew easily along, reveling in being airborne again. He'd become addicted to the thrill of powered suit flight ever since he'd first tried it, and finally being able to get up in the air again had eased some of the stress he'd been feeling lately.

As he roared along, part of his mind wandered over the discussions he'd had with his friends lately. He knew they were right, however much he might hate to admit it; he did have to find something else to do with his time. The only problem was that he'd gotten so used to a sort of free-wheeling schedule where he set his own times and rules, that he didn't figure he'd last long in a regular job anymore. To top that off, he'd been out of the so-called 'regular' working world for so long, he wasn't too sure just what his actual qualifications as an engineer were anymore. In the back of his mind, Sylia's suggestion that he form his own business was turning around. It certainly had attractive elements, but he wanted to consider it a while longer first. He irritably pulled his mind back to enjoying his flight time, since he had about thirty-five minutes left.

Skimming low over the rooftops, he began leisurely weaving through the solar arrays that peppered the building roofs. As he was weaving along, the scream of someone in absolute agony pierced the night air. Old reflexes took over; SkyKnight immediately whipped around and shot earthward, towards the direction the scream had come from. I don't have to look for trouble, he thought wryly to himself. It managed to find him all the time by itself.

As he descended, another, fainter yell pealed out, and he boosted himself to a higher speed. Whipping into the alley the screams had come from, he cut out his jets and came to a skidding, running halt as his feet hit the ground and his wings snapped closed. At the far end of the alley, faint, fading moaning was coming from an open area that the street opened onto. He pounded towards it, emerging into small plaza that was in front of yet another building under construction; with all the cheap labour boomers that had appeared, the construction industry was flourishing. There wasn't a section of MegaTokyo at the moment that didn't have some kind of restoration or building project going on.

SkyKnight rapidly scanned the area, then found the man who had screamed. He spun away, trying to hold his guts down before they could rebel and spew out whatever they contained; the man was beyond help, especially with his guts torn open like they were. Whatever had killed him had done it in a slow and excruciating manner; there were drag marks on the ground from where the man had been trying to get away, and some of the splatter marks around the body suggested the killer had been herding the dying man around by kicking him. The scene spoke of a cold ruthlessness that was sickening to think about.

Bert cranked his sensors to their highest sensitivity, and began trying to find out if there was anything else in the area that might have done this. He'd arrived very quickly, so there was an outside chance that the killer, whatever it was, was still in the area. Flickering readouts sped past his vision; no heat traces, no tracks, no electromagnetic signals, nothing. Absolutely nothing to indicate anything else had ever been here. He made a mental note to upgrade his sensors sometime so he could investigate things more effectively. He turned his sensors back to passive detection mode, and prepared to leave; he could hear approaching ADP sirens, and didn't need or want complications.

The searing green energy bolt that crackled from the shadows caught him completely by surprise, hurling him backwards into the wall. His hardsuit chest armour became uncomfortably warm, but no serious damage resulted. SkyKnight shoved himself off the wall, reflexes becoming primed for the next attack. When it came though, he was still anything but ready for it.

He stared in horrified shock as several massive steel girders came catapulting out of the darkness. He was unsuccessful in dodging them all, and two crashing impacts from a pair of the beams sent black curtains of unconsciousness sweeping across his vision. His last, flickering thought was that he should have listened to Sylia.

****

The sleek blue ADP pursuit squad car screeched to a halt just short of the taped-off boundaries of the crime scene. The gull-wing driver's door flipped up, and Leon McNichol piled out of the car. He stuck his mirrored sunglasses over his eyes, checked his revolver in its holster, and walked calmly over to the perimeter. A nervous ADP trooper in body armour with an assault rifle lifted the cordon tape for him as he walked through. Leon started looking around the scene, when his attention was grabbed by Daley's hail.

"Hey Leon! Over here!" Leon walked over to his where his partner was standing, noting that there was a K-12 lurking in the background as he did so. Just what the hell was going on?! Armour suits were hardly necessary for a murder scene, boomer related or not.

"What's going on?" Leon asked as he came up to Daley.

"Another murder," Daley replied. "Just like that maintenance engineer last week, and the couple since then."

"Okay, but why the K-12?" Leon asked, looking again at the suit. Daley pointed wordlessly towards what Leon had taken for a pile of scrap, and Leon walked over to get a better look. As he moved closer, he realized it was actually an untidy pile of massive steel beams that had been piled there. His glance sharpened as he noticed that something must have thrown the beams, since there were gouge marks from impacts on the wall behind the pile, and one beam had even gone through the bricks. Something very strong had been chucking those girders around, but why?

"Over to the right," Daley called. Leon shrugged to himself and moved over. As he did so, a crumpled silver-and-blue hardsuit became visible, pinned under two of the girders. There was no movement from the suit, and its chest armour looked to be crushed in. SkyKnight's helmet eyeslot was glowing feebly, but there were no other signs of life from the suit.

"Holy shit!" Leon swore in surprise. He spun around, beckoning Daley over.

"Did he have anything to do with the murder?" Leon demanded as Daley walked up to him. Daley shook his head.

"Nope. For one thing, there's no trace of the victim's blood anywhere on him; the forensics guys already took a quick look. There was also a witness, amazingly enough, and he said SkyKnight showed up after the fact. We've already got the witness down at the station; he was scared shitless about what happened here."

"What did happen?"

"Well, SkyKnight apparently showed up in response to the victim screaming, and he got royally creamed as a result."

"I'd noticed that," Leon commented dryly, looking at the downed suit.

****

Bert gradually clawed his way back to consciousness through a smothering blanket of darkness, and no small amount of pain. As he woke up, his foggy senses informed him that he was flat on his back, his chest hurt abominably, he had a blinding headache, and there was a crushing weight on him that was making breathing difficult. What the hell had happened? He'd answered his instincts in responding to someone screaming, and then .....

He tried to sit bolt upright as the full memory of the attack flashed back, but failed; there were two heavy steel beams laying across his body, making it impossible to stand up, or even squirm around right now. Damn. He ran a quick status check on his suit systems, trying hard not to panic at being immobilized; it had to be one of the more unsettling feelings it was possible to have. The results scrolled across his helmet screen.

The suit armour had nearly been breached by the combination of the energy blast, and the impact of the metal beams. His chest armour was now just barely holding everything together, and had saved him from being killed. The problem was that it had also been crushed in to the point where another couple of inches or so more, and he wouldn't have been able to breathe at all with the armour collapsed. His skin crawled at that realization, but he shoved the fear aside, concentrating on the rest of the damage report.

The rest of the suit was relatively undamaged, and his power reserves were more than adequate to get him home again, if he could get loose. A second thought made him glance at the suit chronometer readout, and his stomach plummeted as he realized he was an hour overdue back at Sylia's building. She's gonna kill me, he thought despairingly to himself.

"So what do we do with him, then?" a voice intruded on his private worries. He frowned, glancing at his suit displays. As he watched, a red-haired man in street clothes walked into his field of vision, accompanied by a tall man with brown hair and wearing mirror sunglasses, also in street clothes: Leon and Daley. Great, he thought to himself sourly. Cops. Just what he needed right now.

"We haul him out of there, and then take him downtown, I guess. We have to follow procedures, you know."

Leon, Bert fumed silently to himself, sometimes you're so law-abiding, it's disgusting. After all the help he'd given the ADP over the years, Leon still wanted to haul him into the station. Marvelous, he thought disgustedly. That does it, I'm leaving!

He began carefully bringing his suit back to full power; he was going to have to really boost the suit musculature to get loose from this predicament. These beams were really heavy, meaning whatever had thrown them was stronger than he was. Not a very pleasing realization. He shifted himself, mentally crossed his fingers, and began shoving on the beam across his chest with all his might, levering it up and away from him. The pile of steel pinning him down began to shift.

"Hey! He's still alive!" somebody shouted, as he gritted his teeth and pushed harder, ignoring the flaring pain from his chest, and the whining of the suit systems as they began to feel stressed from the massive weight. After a few interminable moments, he finally succeeded in shoving the beam across his chest over to the side, and let it crash heavily to the ground. Another few seconds of painful straining, and his legs were free.

As he staggered upright, he realized that, individually at least, the beams hadn't been too heavy for him to lift. What had really been holding him down was the weight of the half-dozen or so other beams laying across the ends of the ones that had been pinning him. Altogether he estimated there was about six tons of steel sitting there. Ouch. He drew in a careful breath, mentally trying to gauge how badly he was hurt. Other than sharp chest pains as he breathed, he figured he was in good enough shape to get away and back to HQ.

A massive, mechanical hand dropped onto his shoulder from behind, and his suit computer informed him that there was a large battlesuit behind him, an ADP K-12. Damn it, he thought, mind racing. Now what was he going to do? He didn't feel up to a tussle with a police suit at the moment, overlooking the fact that he wouldn't fight the ADP to begin with. Leon walked around in front of him as he stood there contemplating his next move.

"Are you coming quietly?" Leon asked.

"Why? Are you arresting me?" SkyKnight countered. Leon looked troubled, mulling something over.

"Not really," he said finally. "You're in the clear as far as this murder investigation goes, and I really don't have the inclination to try to arrest you for parading around with illegal hardware. It's saved our asses enough times to allow a little leniency here and there. Besides, you look like you've had enough problems for one night." A faint smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, and he waved the K-12 off. It clanked off to its transport truck as SkyKnight looked back at Leon, sheepishly admitting to himself that he might have been wrong about him.

"Thanks," he said. "I appreciate it."

"No problem," Leon replied. "You'd better get going, though. The press will be here before long, and I know you're camera shy." He had that right, Bert thought fervently. Getting his picture splashed in the paper would really piss Sylia off, moreso than she probably was right now. He turned to leave, then swung back for a moment.

"One last question," he told Leon. "You said 'investigation', which implies that there's been more than one murder like this, right?" Leon nodded.

"This makes the fourth in the last week," Leon replied, then his gaze hardened. "Don't even think about it," he warned. "Leave this to the police, or I bloody well will throw you in jail next time."

"Trust me," SkyKnight replied. He saluted Leon, and shot into the air on his jet system.

"Why doesn't that reassure me?" Leon muttered to himself as he watch the silver figure dwindle into the night.

****

Nothing travels faster than bad news, a fact Bert was reminded of as he limped into the hardsuit storage room. He hadn't even made it in the door before a furious Sylia, and an equally mad, but also worried Nene, grabbed him, demanding to know what he'd been doing, and if he was all right. He managed to fend them off long enough to get out of his suit, but then it was game over. An incautious prod by Sylia in his chest region doubled him over gasping in pain, and the two women literally dragged him, protesting all the way, down to the infirmary.

"And you wondered why I wouldn't let you out in your suit!" Sylia snarled at him as she carefully prodded the massive black bruise on his chest; it felt spongy in spots, indicating cracked or broken ribs. "You jackass! It thought you said you didn't go looking for trouble?!"

"Ouch! Damn it!!" he responded, wincing and trying not to yell. "How the hell was I .... OW! .... supposed to know I was going to get clobbered with steel two-by-fours?!" He really wished she'd quit poking him in the ribs; it was painful enough already.

"What happened, anyway?" Nene demanded. "I was just leaving work when the report came in over the radio that there was a downed silver armour suit at a murder scene."

"Somebody screamed, I dropped down to take a look, and something dropped half of a building on me. I ....YEOW!! Enough already!" he pleaded with Sylia. She stood back and looked at him, mixed frustration and worry flashing across her face.

"You're going to have to get to a hospital this time," she told him seriously. "You have at least two broken ribs, and I don't want to risk complications. Nene can take you over." He sat up carefully, wincing and slowly pulling his shirt back on. His ribs certainly felt broken, and it was making movement of any kind difficult.

"Fine," he replied. "I can pass this off as a shop accident without too much trouble." She nodded.

"I'm going to examine your suit while you're gone, and have a look at your flight recorder. We'll decide just what we're going to do with you when you get back."

"Great. Just great," he muttered to himself as Nene steered him out the door.

****

"Are you okay now?" Nene asked, hovering nervously by his side as he sank into Sylia's couch. Her green eyes were concerned, a concern mirrored in Sylia's brown eyes as she handed him a mug of tea. He nodded, suppressing a grimace at the stab of pain from his taped-up ribs; he'd had three broken ones and one cracked. He'd managed to endure the lecture from the doctor on unsafe work habits, such as working alone with heavy equipment, with a straight face as the doctor had re-aligned everything and bound it up to heal. He'd briefly wondered just what the good doctor would have said if he knew the real reasons for his busted ribs.

"I'm fine, other than the fact that I can't bend over and it hurts every so often," he replied. "However, I'm not really complaining. I'm more upset over the fact that I can't do anything for a few days."

"Can't do anything?"

"Yep. I can't lift anything, move around a lot, or even breathe hard for at least four days, preferably a week. The doc was very insistent about that." He sighed resignedly. "I'm just upset that I can't fix my suit up right now."

"Just what makes you think I was going to let you just carry on like nothing had happened?" Sylia inquired, folding her arms across her chest. "Your first night out, against my better judgment, and you manage to get almost killed by what has to be a boomer of some kind. Even though you didn't see it, from what you said, and from what I got from your flight recorder, it almost has to be a boomer of some description; nothing else could just casually pitch steel girders around like twigs."

"Yeah, but not even C-55s are that strong, normally," he pointed out. "So that means we've got a new type running loose. A homicidal new type." Sylia nodded.

"It looks that way," she agreed, frowning. "Unfortunately, I don't know of anyone right now who is trying to develop combat boomers. Even GENOM has quit that for the time being, apparently."

"Is anyone working on anything boomer related?" Bert asked.

"Zone corporation and OmniCorp are collaborating on developing a new AI for boomers, one that is supposed to make them smarter, and bring them to a more human level of behaviour and mannerisms. Other than that, no real boomer development is happening right now."

"A new AI?" Bert repeated, scowling. "I don't like the sound of that." Sylia looked at him in surprise, raising an eyebrow.

"Why not?" she inquired. "I think a lot of the fear people have about boomers will disappear if they can be made 'friendlier'. My father never intended for them to become war machines, you know." A faint flicker of some deep emotion flashed over her face at the mention of her father, but it was too quick to identify.

"I've got nothing against boomers specifically," he said slowly. "However, if the rumours are true, the HeadHunter was a 'next generation' AI, and that thing was a goddamn flippin' psychopath. How do we know that this new AI won't cause the same problems?"

"For one thing, the boomers that will be utilizing it are not being made with the purpose of killing other people," she replied. "I wouldn't worry; the scientists working on this project are not war-mongers."

"I sure hope you're right," he said, sighing and leaning back in the couch. Nene sat down next to him, and carefully shifted closer to him, mindful of his ribs. Sylia sat down across from them.

"Let's get back to our original topic," she suggested mildly. "What makes you think I'm going to let you back out there once you've healed up? I think you've just demonstrated why I didn't want anyone out by themselves." Bert winced at the twinges shifting around on the couch produced as he considered an answer.

"Mostly because if there's a killer boomer loose out there, I've got to find it," he told her.

"Why? So you can get your chest caved-in again? I don't think so. Besides, we're a team, remember? Maybe you should wait until everybody can get in on this."

"We can't just let it run loose!" he protested. "It'll keep on killing people, for one thing. For another, if this thing is more powerful than C-55s, the ADP is just going to get slaughtered when, or if, they find it."

"You didn't do so hot yourself," Nene observed tartly. Her opinion was that he was just anxious to get back out so he could go charging around heroically. "In fact, I'd say you got your butt kicked pretty good, Mr. Invincible-knight-in-shining-armour!"

"All right, so I was a little rusty," he growled at her. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"

"Sylia's," she replied firmly. "I don't want you getting yourself killed just trying to prove how noble or heroic you are." He muttered something under his breath disgustedly, and slouched back.

"Traitor," he mumbled disconsolately, taking a slurp from his mug. A quick grin flickered across Nene's face, then disappeared.

"It's a question of how effective it would be," Sylia explained patiently. "Ignoring the fact that I don't want you soaring around by yourself for the moment, it isn't very effective to just randomly fly around looking for it, and hoping you'll run into it. Let the ADP investigate for a while and see if they can come up with a pattern to this thing's activities. Then we'll think about hunting it down." Bert sighed again irritably.

"You're the boss," he replied sourly. It was hard to argue with her logic, but that didn't mean he had to be happy about giving in. A faint smile appeared on Sylia's face.

"How nice of you to finally remember," she observed blandly.

 

ONE WEEK LATER ....

SkyKnight clanked into the hardsuit room, stripping off his helmet as he went. Sylia looked up from the computer console she was sitting at, some of the tension lines in her face easing slightly. She hadn't been thrilled with the idea of Bert going for another joyride in his suit, especially given what had happened the last time, however he'd promised not to respond to any incidents this time, and she'd taken him at his word. This time, at least, things had gone off without any problems.

"So how was it?" she asked. He swept his recalcitrant red hair out of his eyes and grinned at her.

"Fantastic," he sighed blissfully. "I wish I could travel like that all the time. Nothing can even come close to the thrill of high flying. You really should try it yourself some time." None of the other Knight Saber suits had the flight power his did. In his original designs, he'd purposefully built a souped-up and scaled down dual-turbine jet engine into his suit for the added flight power it provided. Since then, he'd modified things a little, and was up to the flight speeds and capabilities of small jetplanes for short time periods. Sylia shook her head.

"I'm happy traveling a little more conventionally," she noted. "Besides, I wouldn't fly with you I'm afraid, not after hearing the horror stories about your driving and piloting." She didn't mention the fact that she hadn't enjoyed the one brief flight she had taken with him; rocketing through a dark subway tunnel at just under sonic speeds had been upsetting, to put it mildly. "I'd like my nerves to remain the way they are, thank you very much!" she finished. Bert looked wounded, assuming a hurt expression.

"I'm shocked that you'd believe such slander!" he declared in an aggrieved tone. "I ..."

"Spare me the theatrics, please," Sylia suggested dryly. "You and I both know it's an act anyway. For somebody whose ideal vehicle is a turbo-charged jet engine with wings, I don't think you can stand there and truthfully claim not to be a speed freak." He grinned sheepishly; Sylia had not been impressed when he'd built the WarHorse jet cycle, as he called it. She'd been even less impressed at his taking it for a test drive, disturbing half of MegaTokyo in the process.

"Can't blame a guy for trying," he observed, stepping over to his suit storage bay, and starting the release mechanisms. He climbed out of his armour with the fluid ease of long practice, and vanished into the adjoining changeroom. He came out again a few moments later, clad in a blue-gray tracksuit.

"You're always trying," she remarked, a faint smile playing about her mouth. Bert mimed pulling a knife out of his back.

"The things I have to put up with around here," he lamented. "These constant, unfounded accusations and remarks reflecting on my integrity and ..." He ducked the notepad Sylia pitched in his general direction, and shut up. He picked up the pad from where it had sprawled on the floor, and handed it back to her with an innocent look. She shook her head ruefully, sighing.

"You really are a pain in the ass sometimes, you know that?" she asked.

"Part of the job description," he deadpanned, then changed the subject. "Did you consider my request of the other day?" She nodded.

"I've found a place I think will suit what you were after, and I've made the arrangements on your behalf. You can start building there anytime."

"Thanks. I really appreciate it."

"I just hope it works, and keeps you out of trouble," she commented. "Speaking of trouble," she added, glancing meaningfully at him, "that reminds me of something else."

"And that is?" he prompted curiously.

"I'm going away for about a month, and while I'm away, the building is getting a facelift, so to speak. While the construction is going on, you won't be able to get into your usual apartment and the shop. I'm sorry to inconvenience you, but I don't want anyone getting curious about the basement levels, so they'll be closed off." He nodded.

"No problem," he assured her. "I've got my little 'home away from home' set up that I can live in for a while; I just have to move a few things from the basement to tide me over, and I can lock the rest up." He frowned suddenly. "What's so much trouble about that?"

"That's not the trouble I was referring to. I was referring to just what you are going to do while I'm away."

"Do? What do you mean?" he asked innocently. She wasn't fooled.

"You know exactly what I mean," she accused, spearing him with an irritated glance. "I'm not dumb enough to believe you can stay out of your suit for a month, or keep your nose out of trouble, either. So just what do I do with you, then?"

"I think I can restrain myself enough to keep to our twice per week agreement," he replied.

"I'll take your word for it, then. I'm assuming you have space in your private shop set up for hardsuit storage?" He nodded; he'd had it set up when he'd first built the place, and had been keeping the Superman suit there. That particular hardsuit was now stored elsewhere in Sylia's building in a secure room. It was unlikely he'd ever be using it again, which was a bit of a shame; it had been an absolute blast running around town in it.

"All right then," Sylia said. "You have my permission to move SkyKnight there for now. SkyKnight ONLY," she added warningly.

"Of course," he replied, just a shade too quickly. "What else would I use?"

"You aren't cut out for being sneaky," Sylia told him flatly. "I know about the new designs for the Batman armour you've been bouncing around lately. I don't want to come back and find that you've gone off the deep end, built another superhero suit, and been swashbuckling around town in it. Am I making myself clear?"

"Perfectly," he sighed regretfully. "Pity. They were such nice designs, too." She ignored him, so he changed the subject again.

"You're off to visit Mackie in Germany, I presume," he inquired. Mackie had gone off to one of the technical universities there to hone his engineering and technical expertise. Sylia nodded.

"Partly," she said mysteriously. "Plus I have a few things of my own I want to do. You're not the only one who needs time off now and again, although I do mean taking the time off to relax, not using it to get me mad."

"I was relaxing," he protested, a huge grin spreading across his face. "Vacations are meant to have fun on, and I WAS having fun. Besides," he grinned wickedly. "I'm used to having you mad at me. I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Get out," she said disgustedly. "Go bother somebody else for a while, please!" He chuckled and bowed to her.

"Your wish is my command, O Glorious and Beautiful Leader," he stated extravagantly, ducking out the door before she could find something other than a notepad to throw at him.

****

"Okay, what have we got?" Leon asked Daley, slugging back the remainder of his coffee, trying hard not to spit it back across the room. The coffee tasted lousy at the moment, partly because it had been made almost triple strength in an attempt to keep everybody awake; Leon, and almost everybody else, was on the tail end of a double shift and was gradually losing the fight to stay awake. Everyone looked disheveled, with messy hair and bags under their eyes. With everything that had been happening lately, sleep had become a very short, and very precious, commodity.

"Not much," Daley replied, hauling his head off of his hands. He'd almost drifted into sleep, elbows on the desk, supporting his arms. They were the only things keeping him from folding completely into his desk and dozing off. "We've had twelve killings so far, all with identical methods; all were killed by massive internal bleeding, caused by someone, or something, ramming a very big knife into them and churning it around. That's the only common factor, there's no other links between the victims." Leon sighed, scrubbing a hand across his face wearily.

"Run the list by me again," he requested. "Maybe we'll see something we missed." It was unlikely, he figured, but it was all his plodding mind could think of at the moment. Daley nodded, and fished out the list and handed it over. Leon focused his bleary sight on the page, the black letters seeming to swim for a moment on the white page. God was he tired!

Of the victims, seven had been scientists, and the other five appeared to be people who'd been in the wrong places at the wrong times. There was no pattern at all to the murders, but there were plenty of strange quirks.

The first quirk was boomer related. The construction boomers who'd been killed with the maintenance engineer weeks earlier had had parts removed, and there had been similar circumstances in all of the other cases. In each one, anywhere from one to several boomers had been killed also, and had been missing some parts. It was the last five killings that had Leon worried; the boomers that had been stripped were all C-55 combat boomers. In each case, the boomers had been used as guards, and they had been stripped almost to the endoskeleton frame for parts, including the weapons. From the fight indications, each boomer had been dead in seconds, which meant whatever had killed them was one hell of a lot faster and meaner. The second quirk was about the dead scientists.

All of the scientists who had been killed had been working on boomer research, but nothing even remotely resembling combat boomers. Only GENOM had worked on that type of development, and the scientists had been working for some of the other small companies that had sprung up when GENOM's fortunes had been reversed. Whatever had killed them had taken the time to destroy all of their research material, and stolen some assorted equipment. The companies involved could not, or would not, identify what equipment had been stolen. That was severely hampering the investigation, of course. There had to be something common to the projects the scientists had been working on that would give an idea of what was going on.

Throughout the whole investigation, the questions of what was doing the killing, and why remained unanswered. One incoherent witness to one of the murders, the one SkyKnight had briefly made an appearance at, had only seen a large and bulky shape which had blended into the shadows and disappeared. That was the only description they had; none of the various security systems present at some of the crimes had been able to capture an image of the killer, either. It was as if the killer had somehow shut them off just before committing the murders. Leon's mind began to wander as he started to nod off. The phone shrilled suddenly, jerking him awake, and he grabbed the receiver.

"Hello? Yeah, it's me. What?! You're sure? Hang on, we'll be down in a few minutes." He hung up, grabbing his coat and forcing his protesting body to its feet.

"What's up?" Daley queried, also forcing himself upright. Leon looked vaguely concerned.

"Another murder," he replied. "The only catch this time is that there's a dead, stripped, B-12 combat boomer at the scene, and there wasn't even a long fight. Apparently, the B-12 was wasted within minutes." Daley whistled in surprise as he followed Leon out the door.

"That does not sound good," he observed.

"No kidding. We haven't had any good news for weeks now," Leon replied sourly as they left.

 

THREE WEEKS LATER ....

Nene sat disconsolately in front of her home computer, not really paying attention to what it was doing. Her emerald green eyes had a far-away depressed look as she stared around at her small apartment. The computer whirred mindlessly on, quietly working at cracking the protection codes to the database she was trying to access. A knock at the door pulled her out of her gloomy thoughts, and she got up to answer the door, tossing her glasses next to the console. Sighing, she walked over and opened the door.

"Hiya Beautiful!" Bert greeted her with a grin, handing her a bouquet of flowers. Her face lightened up immediately, and a smile wreathed her face as she stood back and let him into her apartment. She placed the flowers in a handy vase on a nearby table as he closed the door, and turned around to face him.

"So, what brings you to ..... mmff!" She was cut off from speaking further as she found herself being gathered up in a passionate embrace and kissed. After an initial moment of shock, she relaxed and enjoyed the moment, which stretched into several moments. After a few more moments, they separated, and she looked up at him, eyes somewhat bemused looking. He grinned slyly back at her, his own eyes twinkling merrily.

"That was some greeting!" she told him, still a little breathless. "What's the occasion?"

"No really special occasion," he replied, steering her over to the couch and sitting down with her. "Other than the fact that I'm in love with you." He grinned fondly at her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders as she relaxed against him, sighing.

"Besides," he suddenly added. "I'm in a marvelous mood today, and you looked like you could use something to cheer you up. What's the matter?"

"Oh, nothing specifically," she said moodily, her momentary cheer disappearing. Bert rolled his eyes, sighing in exasperation. He reached over and gently tilted her chin up, forcing her to look at him. Greenish-brown eyes met emerald green ones.

"Look," he told her seriously. "You get all upset when I don't confide in you, so stop borrowing my habits. Why are you walking around looking like you've just lost your best friend?"

"Because I have lost my friends," she replied gloomily. Bert's left eyebrow hit his hairline as he looked down at her in surprise.

"What on earth are you talking about?!" he inquired. She sighed again disconsolately.

"The Knight Sabers are breaking up," she declared morosely. "Linna and Priss are getting wrapped up in other things, and don't even want to think about the Sabers right now. Sylia's vanished, and nobody seems to care." She looked at him suddenly. "You've also been kind of busy lately, and I haven't seen you around that much, either. Why not? What's been so important lately?" He raised his hands defensively.

"Whoa! Hang on a second!" he said, putting a hand to his forehead. "One thing at a time, please." He paused for a second to organize his thoughts.

"Okay," he said. "Let's take that list in reverse order. First, I haven't been around as much lately because I've been slowly working at getting my latest project set up for opening in a few more weeks. That has taken a lot of my time lately, and I'm sorry I haven't been able to get by more often. Second, Sylia is in Germany right now, or Europe, somewhere, and she is coming back; she just needed some time off. As a matter of fact, I think I sent you a message about where she was."

"I didn't get it," she informed him. "What have you been working on that's so important?"

"I decided to open my own business," he replied. "Partly because I got tired of everyone nagging me to find something else to do with my time."

"I didn't nag!" she protested, flushing. "All I did was suggest that you could find other things to do than upgrade hardsuits."

"Yeah, but you only suggested it about ten times a day for a while there," he countered dryly. "Anyhow, I finally decided opening my own business was the best option. Sylia found me a site where I could build what I was after and made all the legal arrangements, and so forth. Most of the construction is done now, and I'm finishing up the rest by myself; I'm enjoying the work, and I don't really need help."

"What IS this business of yours?" she asked. He grinned.

"It's a combination of things," he replied. "It's kind of hard to lump it under one heading, but let's call it a shooting club. There'll be an archery range on the ground floor, and some stuff upstairs. It's something I know a fair bit about, and can work at and still enjoy. I'm still planning some of the other things that will be available."

"Are you going to be able to make anything of it?" Nene asked. He nodded.

"I did some advance checking, and I've already got a list of people who want to get memberships for the target ranges, and a lot who want to learn archery. Strangely enough, there aren't that many clubs of this kind in the city, despite the interest out there." He shrugged, then looked at her. "That's what has been keeping me occupied. That, and the fact that I'm living sort of outside the city at the moment; while Sylia's building is being fixed I can't get in there." She nodded in agreement, having seen all the construction going on at the place.

"Now then, what's this about the Knight Sabers breaking up?" he asked her. "I hardly think that will happen."

"Oh yeah?" she retorted. "Priss is worried about anything happening to her before her debut, and won't do anything else at all, and Linna is spending every waking moment watching the stock market so she can get rich. They didn't even want to try getting these armoured bank robbers who've popped up lately; Linna said there's 'no profit' in getting them, and Priss doesn't want to get hurt. That means we've lost two of the team, and they don't even seem to miss the Knight Sabers."

"Nene," he said gently, giving her a hug. "People do change; expecting them to stay the same way, or in the same job, doing the same thing for the rest of their lives is a little unrealistic. Priss and Linna are just re-arranging their lives right now, but that doesn't mean that they've given up on the Sabers. If we didn't try something new occasionally, or try to improve our lives, we'd very quickly become unhappy with life in general. I don't think you're being very fair in expecting everybody to remain the same."

"Maybe you're right," she admitted grudgingly. He laughed, and hugged her again.

"Maybe this will make you feel better," he announced, leaning over and kissing her once more. She didn't argue with him, and she did feel a bit better afterwards. They sat silently for a few more minutes, enjoying each other's company while the computer whirred away in the background on her desk.

"What was that comment about bank robbers?" he suddenly asked. "I hadn't heard about them."

"Don't you watch the news? About a week ago a group of illegal military combat suits robbed the Glory Bank. They escaped with a few million in cash and gold bullion, and they wrecked a few of the ADP vehicles in the process."

"Military combat suits, huh?" he repeated thoughtfully. "Were they big and blocky-looking robotic types with dome-shaped heads? Missile launchers and rotary Gatling cannons?"

"That's them," she confirmed. "You did see the news, then?" He shook his head.

"No, but I've heard rumours of these guys before. They pack some serious hardware, and they're a topnotch group of military mercenaries. I think they call themselves 'The Illegal Army', or something like that."

"Where'd you learn that?"

"I read a lot," he evaded. "I saw them mentioned in some newspaper a while back." She accepted that, and they sat again quietly for a while.

"Has there been any progress on that other case yet?" Bert suddenly asked.

"Which other case?"

"The one related to the murder scene where I got buried under steel beams by some boomer."

"None," Nene replied, shaking her head. "Leon hasn't been able to come up with anything yet, partly because he's been run ragged on other cases lately. As for the killings, some of them seem to be related, but there's no real pattern to be found yet." Nene looked at him, a mischievous smile flickering across her face. "Sorry, but there's no opportunity to play 'heroic knight' just yet."

"I wasn't worried about that," he replied distractedly. "I just hate loose ends, and a homicidal boomer is a loose end as far as I'm concerned."

"Remember," Nene warned. "Sylia said no flying around looking for it by yourself, and you gave your word."

"Relax," he soothed. "I said I wouldn't go looking for the boomer, or whatever it is, on my own, and I meant it." That much was true, at least. Nene eyed him with an expression of extreme skepticism.

"You want me to believe that, don't you?" she asked. Bert grinned innocently down at her, and gave her a gentle squeeze.

"Trust me," he assured her. "I know what I'm doing."

"Oh my God," Nene groaned. "Now I know we're in trouble!"

****

Bert tossed his hat and jacket into the chair by the door as he closed it. Whistling cheerily, he flipped off his sneakers and padded across the living room to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, he poured himself a glass of iced tea and chucked in a couple of ice cubes. Returning to the living room, he hit the 'play' button on his CD player, and soon thunderous fanfares and symphonic waves of sound reverberated through the room. He flopped onto the couch and relaxed with a contented sigh.

The rest of the evening had gone pretty well. Taking Nene out to dinner had gotten her off of brooding on the future of the Knight Sabers and cheered her up enormously. He'd enjoyed it too, especially since he hadn't seen her much, not with all the things he'd been trying to do at the same time lately. After dinner, they'd sat and talked about miscellaneous stuff for a while, avoiding any references to anything serious, and then decided to call it a night. Bert had dropped her off at her apartment and then, after a protracted goodnight kiss, gone back to his place. With a reluctant sigh, he dragged his mind off of the pleasant memories to consider what to do next.

Nene's news about the bank robberies had started an uncomfortable suspicion crawling around in the back of his mind; he had a hunch that the robberies were related to the new AI development Sylia had told him about, but he lacked proof. At the same time, he also was getting the feeling that the recent spate of murders were also somehow related to the AI project, especially since about half of the victims seemed to be involved in boomer-related work. Again, however, he lacked proof. All he had was a bag of airy theories and hunches that weren't going to get him anywhere. He shelved the second problem for later consideration.

The most straightforward option to consider regarding the first problem, was confronting the combat suits at their next robbery. It was also, of course, the most dangerous choice; not even in his wildest imaginings did he believe he could take out five heavy assault mobile military suits by himself. They were battle-hardened veterans of a far harsher school than he'd seen, for one thing. For another, they functioned as an extremely well-coordinated unit. That, coupled with the numerical odds, meant that he'd get slaughtered in a firefight.

He mused over how to approach the problem for a while, slowly lowering the liquid level in his glass. Frontal assault was a foolhardy option, no matter how noble or heroic he might feel. Almost three years with the Knight Sabers had hammered some realities into his chivalric ideals, finally. Dead heroes can't do much, and he had far too much to live for to want to get done in for trying the classic medieval knight's approach to a problem: plow in headfirst.

In the back of his mind, a voice was reminding him that he'd promised Sylia he wouldn't get into trouble. Once again, he ignored it. This was something the ADP couldn't handle on their own, and people were going to get hurt or killed if he didn't intervene somehow.

As he sat turning the problem around and examining the angles, the answer came to him. It was crazy, but he figured it just might work. A wide grin spread across his face as his greenish-brown eyes lit up, and he sprang off the couch, sprinting for his basement workshop. He had a lot to do, but the night was still young.

Momentarily forgotten, his CD player unconcernedly played, ironically enough, 'The Sabre Dance' to the empty room.

 

ONE WEEK LATER ....

"Leon, you're crazy!!" Daley shouted as Leon clambered into the K-17 armour suit in the back of the ADP transport truck. He grabbed a handrail on the truck wall as the truck swerved around a corner, still speeding towards the latest bank robbery, and continued to try and talk his partner out of his lunacy. "You haven't got a hope in hell of beating those suits in that thing! These are serious military suits! You won't stand a chance!"

The K-17 was the latest version of the old ADP K-12, which had finally been retired. The K-17, however, was even more of a cheap tin can than the K-12 had been. It was lighter, which meant it wasn't as physically strong, had no flight capability whatsoever, and even had less offensive weaponry. The politicians, in responding to the fickle cries of the public, had decided that the ADP could live with less heavy equipment and replaced the K-12 Armoured Trooper with the less powerful, and less costly, K-17 mechanized suit. Even though he knew he had a very poor chance of winning, Leon was still going to challenge the military suits when he arrived at the scene of their current robbery.

"I have to do it!" Leon snapped, as the torso sections of the suit whined closed and locked with hydraulic clacks and snaps. "These bastards have to know they can't just walk all over the ADP whenever they feel like it. Besides, our reputation is at stake here! I'm not going to roll over and just let them walk away without a fight!" The helmet canopy snapping down sealed off further talk as the truck screeched to a halt.

****

"I bet it's our last supper," Nene remarked gloomily as she surveyed the room. A vast feast lay spread on a table, with five places set up in an elegant display of silverware and china. Linna and Priss were also a little nonplused at the fancy setting; when they'd shown up at Sylia's temporary apartment for dinner, they hadn't expected this scale of grandeur. Nene had been contacted by Sylia, who'd obviously returned from Europe, and been told to get everyone to drop by for dinner. Nene had called everyone up, and they'd assumed it was to be a casual dinner. The way the dinner was laid out, though, seemed more appropriate to eating at a fancy place like the St. Regis Hotel.

As they stood wondering what to make of the setup, Sylia walked in. She was dressed in a white blouse with a dark jacket and skirt, cool and sophisticated-looking, as always. As she came into the room, her smile of greeting slipped slightly as she noticed that they were one person short. She cocked an eyebrow quizzically at Nene.

"Where's Bert?" she inquired. Nene looked apologetic.

"I'm sorry, Sylia," she said. "But I just couldn't get him on the phone at all. He's not at home, and I couldn't find him anywhere else." She sighed, a sigh which was echoed by Sylia.

"Some things just never change," Sylia observed wryly.

"I'm sure he's not getting into trouble," Nene hastened to assure her.

"Wanna bet?" Priss asked sardonically, rolling her eyes.

****

ADPolice troopers yelled and dove for cover as several missiles spiraled towards them from the bulky combat suits standing in front of the Tokyo 3rd National bank. Leon gritted his teeth inside his K-17 suit and waited for the shattering explosions to come. They never came.

Just as the missiles were a scant few feet from the doomed police, a screaming flurry of crimson energy bolts flashed from the darkness up the street. All of the missiles exploded in flowers of smoke and flames before they could hit any of the ADP vehicles or personnel. For a moment, complete silence swept the street as everyone's gaze swung to look up the street in the direction where the blasts had come from. Nobody was visible, but there was a strange, swirling cloud of white smoke that was filling the street completely.

As everyone watched, the dense cloud of white mist rolled eerily down the street, cloaking the landscape in drifting strands of whiteness. The mist wasn't thick enough to blanket sight totally, but it was enough to look extremely unnerving. The sudden appearance it had made was also strange. Several cops started muttering uneasily to each other, as Leon and the renegade combat suits looked around incredulously at the drifting fog.

As they looked, a hollow, echoing laugh began to drift through the air with the fog. It was an eerie, hair-raising laugh that went on and on, mocking the listeners and making them uneasy at the same time; just listening to it made Leon's skin crawl. The red-domed combat suit suddenly stepped towards the direction from which the fog had come.

"Who's there?!" it shouted in an amplified voice. "What the hell is this?!" The laughter continued. The rotary cannon in the suit's left hand roared, strafing the dense fog bank beyond with probing blasts . Heavy bullets slashed the air, smashing into buildings and shattering windows.

As the echoes from the fusillade died off, a large, dark shape loomed in the fog. The shape was somewhat distorted by the strange lighting effects the fog was producing, but it was very definitely a man-like shape in silhouette. The dark shape appeared to be wearing a wide black hat, and a voluminous black cloak which billowed around it. No face was visible. The eerie laughter could now be heard coming directly from the figure.

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" the shade asked in a deep, rolling voice. "The Shadow knows!" This time, all of the military suits fired, shredding the fog bank with furious streams of steel-jacketed bullets and missiles. Explosions lit the fog bank with orange flashes. The figure laughed on, unaffected, and began walking purposefully forward. The red-helmeted suit stomped forward to meet it.

The figure flickered and wavered, almost like a film projector image, and then there was a sudden blur of movement; a cloaked figure flashed across the space separating the two to bodycheck the combat suit backwards, flying to land at the feet of the other suits with a loud clang. As everyone stared, the dark shape reached up and whipped off the hat and cloak, sending them fluttering to the side. Dim light flashed off of brightly polished silver armour.

"Unfortunately," SkyKnight's normal, electronically modulated voice said, "the Shadow couldn't make it tonight, so I'm filling in for him." There was a definite undertone of amusement in his voice. He's crazy!, Leon thought to himself, and not for the first time, either.

"You son of a .... KILL HIM!!!!!" the downed red suit bellowed in rage.

****

"Now that we've solved that problem," Sylia remarked dryly. "I think it's time we discussed our next job." Nene flushed slightly as Sylia shot an amused glance at her; she'd blurted out her fears that the Knight Sabers were breaking up, and they had been neatly laid to rest by Sylia. She was now a little embarrassed at getting carried away by her emotions, but she was also deeply glad that the Sabers were staying together. She turned her attention back to what Sylia was saying.

"Our client this time out is Zone Corporation," Sylia told them. "They want us to guard a research project of theirs."

"Zone Corporation?" Linna repeated, puzzled. "What could they have that's so important?"

"They're working on a new boomer AI that's intended to make them more human-like in behaviour, and somebody has started stealing the parts. The people doing the actual stealing are a mercenary team known as 'The Illegal Army', a very high-priced group."

"The Illegal Army?" Nene echoed faintly, colour draining from her face as a sudden horrible suspicion struck her. No, he wouldn't have! He couldn't have!! Sylia glanced at Nene, and her gaze became alert.

"What is it?" she demanded. "Why do you look like that?!" Nene swallowed nervously.

"Bert already knew who they were," she answered.

"You don't mean he's already gone after them!" Priss exclaimed. "He'll get slaughtered!"

****

SkyKnight parried the slashing swordblade of the red suit, and somersaulted forward with a jet thruster assist, avoiding the missile strike that scored the asphalt where he'd been standing only seconds before. Landing on his feet and twisting sideways to dodge a point-blank cannon shot, he blasted the grey combat suit in front of him with a scorching red particle-laser bolt; the suit flew backwards with a loud crash and lay smoking for a moment, before rolling awkwardly over and clattering to its feet. SkyKnight flipped backwards on his jets, landing neatly about twenty feet away from the Army suits.

These guys are good, Bert noted breathlessly, gasping for air. They seemed to always know where each of the other members of their group were, which had foiled his attempts to get them to shoot each other in crossfires. Adding to the problem was the fact that their hardware was some of the best he'd ever seem; he was almost certain that some of their weapons were far more advanced than the usual military weapons. Obviously, someone was supplying them with very advanced, very illegal stuff. Surprise, surprise, he thought sourly to himself.

He hadn't been going to engage the Illegal Army at all, originally. He'd wanted to see if he could get them to chase him, sparing the cops any injuries, and then lose them somewhere over the city. That way, even though it meant letting them get away with the robbery, it meant nobody got hurt.

Even the most meticulous plans were subject to chance, however, and chance had walked up and kicked him in the face; Leon, filled with righteous indignation, had attacked the lead suit, and gotten trashed almost instantly. The red suit had been going to finish him off, and SkyKnight had been forced to physically intervene.

Prior to Leon screwing his plans up, he'd been working at dodging around, and trying to determine which armour suit was carrying the stolen AI technology. He'd started firing his lasers, managing to distract the suits long enough for the ADP to get Leon out of there, and now it was down to SkyKnight versus The Illegal Army. So much for planning, he though sourly to himself; he hadn't wanted a full-blown firefight, but he was stuck in one anyway. As he watched, his opponents regrouped. The lead suit, the red one, turned towards SkyKnight.

"You're not bad, boy," a gravelly bass voice came from the suit. Bert clenched his teeth; sure, he was younger than they probably were, but he wasn't that young! "But you'd better surrender before you get hurt. There's nothing to be gained by fighting us any further."

"Spare me the bullshit, old man," SkyKnight shot back insultingly. "I don't surrender to anybody, especially thugs like you." Evidently, the warsuits didn't care for his remarks, as a snarling missile storm leaped from their launchers and flashed towards him. SkyKnight decided it was time to get really serious, and get away from this shindig. If he didn't do it soon, it was only a matter of time before they would eventually succeed in blasting him.

As SkyKnight shot straight up into the air, his right shoulder weapon snapped up, and spat a series of objects at the renegade suits. As the suits spun out of the way of the supposed attack, the objects detonated with a series of blinding flashes and stunning thunderclaps. The blasts were close enough that the concussions momentarily disoriented them. The missile strike they'd fired at him harmlessly blasted large holes in the pavement beneath him.

The rotary magazine on his launcher spun around to the next chamber, and again it spat projectiles. This time, however, two metal cylinders clanked to the pavement and burst, releasing dense, choking clouds of sooty black smoke that soon covered the entire streetscape with an impenetrable shroud to unaided sight. Shouts of surprise volleyed from the smoke cloud as SkyKnight plunged into the swirling cloud.

****

From the shadows of an alley, not too far from the fight, a bulky shadow moved. The hulking, misshapen figure watched the explosions and flashes of energy that were backlighting the swirling smoke for a moment. Something metallic made snapping noises for a minute or so, then the figure turned away from the battle. Within seconds, the alleyway was deserted again.

****

A blazing blue blade of energy carved a swath through the smoke cloud, then disappeared. There was the sound of several heavy objects hitting the ground, accompanied by an outraged shout. SkyKnight suddenly plunged out of the smoke cloud, carrying what looked like a small metal briefcase of some description. As he ran, his wings snapped into extension on his shoulders, and with the roar of powerful jets, he shot upwards into the night sky. Below him, five very angry heavy assault suits charged out of the cloud, ignoring the still present ADP, and their puny weapons fire, completely. Two of the armour suits had what looked like shredded cargo containers on their backs.

"After him!!!!" the red suit screamed. "Don't let him get away!!!"

****

Bert kept a wary eye on his suit displays as he skimmed the rooftops of MegaTokyo; he didn't think he'd lost the Illegal Army just yet. He grinned briefly, congratulating himself on getting away without a scratch. It had worked, mostly; he'd been able to get the AI component off of them without major damage to either the police, or the surrounding real estate. The only question now was, just what was he supposed to do with the component?

As he considered that particular problem, five heavy armour suits suddenly erupted from the roof of the building in front of him, shattering the night sky with cannon fire. SkyKnight dodged aside in shock, avoiding the deadly volley, but crashed into a nearby roof and skidded to a clattering halt as a result. As he rolled over and got to his feet, his heavily-armed foes landed on the roof, fanning out and surrounding him. This is not good, he told himself, beginning to feel a little trapped as he looked around. Somehow they'd managed to get ahead of him to ambush him. Great, just great.

"Hand over that component, NOW!" the lead suit snarled. SkyKnight shrugged, and tossed the case towards the red suit. As the suit reached up to grab the case, a sizzling pair of crimson laser bolts blasted the case into flying pieces. Anything the case had been carrying dropped to the rooftop in a smoking slag heap. There was a moment of awful silence, one in which the helmet optics of all of the renegade war suits swung over to regard SkyKnight. There was a palpable air of menace in those unseen gazes.

"You didn't really think I was just going to let you have it back without any problems, did you?" SkyKnight asked politely.

****

"So what are we going to do, Sylia?" Nene asked worriedly as Sylia hung up the phone. She'd decided to try calling Bert once more before declaring him AWOL, giving him one last chance, but he hadn't been home. She looked at Nene, traces of exasperation evident on her face.

"It's too late tonight to try and find him," she said quietly, looking at the clock. It read 11:45 p.m. "Tomorrow's Saturday, so we'll all go over to his place in the morning and see just what the hell is going on. I'm sure he'll have a good explanation."

"They usually are good," Linna agreed dryly. "Whether or not they're believable is the problem, most of the time." Priss snickered.

"I just hope he's all right," Nene muttered to herself.

****

SkyKnight painfully doubled over as the grey combat suit standing in front of him drove a metal-clad arm into his guts. His hardsuit creaked ominously under the impact as his breath deserted him, but the armour structure remained intact. As he sucked some air back into his tortured lungs, the two warsuits holding his arms hauled him upright again. Slightly behind the grey suit beating on him, the leader's red suit was standing watching with its arms crossed across its chest. His view of the suit suddenly jolted crazily as a backhanded blow to the helmet wrenched his head sideways, causing a fresh spike of pain to erupt from his neck as it twisted.

Bert shook his head, trying to clear it long enough to formulate some kind of escape plan. Another crashing impact jolted the world, sweeping red sparks across his vision. You moronic jackass, he briefly berated himself, you just couldn't leave it alone, could you?! You just had to play knight-errant again! After his blasting of the briefcase containing the component, the Army suits had decided that a rather drawn-out revenge would be fitting; they'd grabbed him as he tried to escape, and were now beating on him, mobster-style.

He wasn't sure how much more of a pounding he could take; their suits easily had the same physical strength as he did, and they packed quite a punch, no pun intended. They were also holding onto him with no problems, despite several tries to get loose. Yet another numbing strike to his stomach doubled him over, and a sweeping kick upwards to his chest knocked him back upright again with the crunch of armour plating being crushed. Panic began to claw at the edges of SkyKnight's mind as he gasped for air.

"I warned you about what would happen, boy," the deep-voiced suit said conversationally. "Too bad you didn't listen. You've cost us a lot tonight, and now you're going to foot the bill." SkyKnight jerked under another pair of punches, fighting to remain awake under the onslaught. His armour was battered and dented now, and beginning to show some cracks in places.

One chance, Bert hazily thought, I've got one more chance at this. As the grey combat suit in front of him drew its arm back for another blow, SkyKnight grabbed the arms of the suits holding him, and kicked out with his feet, using his captors as supports. Like he'd hoped, the suit in front of him grabbed his feet. Now!!

"Afterburners!!!!" SkyKnight barked harshly. His suit battlecomputer reacted instantly to the emergency vocal command, and his boot-mounted solid fuel booster rockets fired, without the usual ignition countdown.

There was a brutal, wrenching slam as he was catapulted backwards across the roof on a twenty-foot pillar of incandescent flames, dragging one of his captors with him and tearing loose from the other one. The grey warsuit that had been standing in front of him and holding his feet, briefly, was flopping around in absolute agony on the roof like a beached fish. There was a huge melted hole in the chestplate of the suit where his rocket exhaust had struck squarely, and hoarse screaming could be heard coming from the downed suit. Bert had a momentary flash of sympathy and regret. It didn't last long, since they had been trying to kill him, after all.

SkyKnight shot over the edge of the roof, still dragging one of the grey suits. As he worked at shaking it loose, the remaining warsuits began charging forward, aiming their weapons. SkyKnight kicked in his jets to assist his still roaring rocket thrusters, and immediately the added thrust began spinning him and his clinging foe like a pinwheel. The violent whirling tore the grey suit loose finally, and SkyKnight flashed into the darkness above in a fiery gyre as bullets and missiles shrieked through the air after him. The silver-and-blue hardsuit vanished into the night, leaving behind four VERY upset mercenaries.

****

Some time later, SkyKnight staggered into his darkened secondary home on the outskirts of MegaTokyo. There was no danger of being seen. In the first place, there were no other residences in visual range, and his house was screened by thick stands of trees. In the second place, he always used his flight mufflers to come and go, so no one would hear anything out of the ordinary to arouse suspicion. The only oversight on his part had been in not having some kind of secret, outdoor entry to his workshop. Oh well, nobody's perfect, he thought wryly to himself.

Closing and locking the door, he unsteadily thumped through the house to the living room. He really wanted to sit down for a few moments before trying to get out of his suit; he was bone-tired and in considerable pain from the drubbing he'd received. Hopefully, it was all just bruises.

Entering the living room, he sank carefully onto his couch, faint creaks from the frame protesting the extra weight of his suit. With a grateful sigh, he leaned back, pausing long enough to remove his shoulder-mounted railgun and chemical launcher, dropping them to the carpeted floor with muffled clanks. Then, he reached over to his left arm guard, and popped open a small, recessed panel; he extracted a small object, closed the panel, and examined the object for a moment.

The item in question was a rectangular wafer of some kind, about six inches long, by four inches wide, and about a half-inch thick. The wafer appeared to be clear acrylic plastic, with four 'rods' imbedded in the center, and strange circuitry was visible on the embedded pieces. The rods almost looked like small fuses of some kind. The ends of the wafer were covered with metallic caps, presumably where the thing would get hooked into whatever it was intended to be used in.

A faint grin appeared behind Bert's helmet visor as he examined the AI component. As far as the Illegal Army knew, the component was dead. However, early in his retreat, he'd removed the component from the case, almost dropping it in mid-flight, and hidden it in his armour while closing the case back up. He'd figured he could bluff them into thinking it destroyed, and then leave before anything happened, all the while actually carrying the real component away. Everything had worked according to plan. Almost. Well, okay, maybe not EXACTLY according to plan. Aw hell, he was bloody lucky to be sitting there!

A sudden wave of weariness made him yawn, and he foggily realized he wasn't going to make it down to his shop to get out of his suit. Yawning again, he carefully tucked the AI piece into a drawer on the coffee table, hiding it under some old National Geographic magazines. Shutting down his armour power, he sat back on the couch and let sleep finally catch up to him. Loud snoring soon reverberated from SkyKnight's helmet as the red glow from the eyeslot faded, and the silver-and-blue hardsuit sagged limply onto its side on the couch.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Nice place," Priss observed as Sylia parked the van next to the red pickup truck sitting in front of Bert's house. The 'place' in question was a small, two story, wood-paneled, two-toned brown house. Even though it was of fairly new construction, the house had a weathered, rustic look to it. The trees, and unbridled growth all over the place of the grass and vine creepers added to the effect, and made the entire place look like it had been transplanted right out of some rural landscape. A cool breeze rustled the leaves, providing a soothing background noise. Everyone climbed out of the van, and began walking towards the front door.

"Why doesn't he cut the grass?" Linna asked, forging through a small meadow. The grass was slowly overpowering the walkway to the front door.

"Because he likes it this way," Nene defended him. "It looks nicer with all the greenery."

"It is kind of relaxing-looking around here," Priss agreed, looking around again at the vegetation. "Maybe we should take vacations here, too."

"If you don't mind," Sylia said acidly. "We're not here to sightsee, remember?"

The four women trooped up to the door, but no one answered the doorbell, or the loud knocks they pounded the door with. Sylia reached into her purse and fished around for a moment. She came up with some kind of lockpicking device, which she proceeded to open the door with. The door swung open, and they walked inside.

"Why am I not surprised?" Priss remarked, looking at the polished suit of medieval plate armour standing just inside the small front foyer of the house. The effect was marred somewhat by the wide-brimmed hat sitting at a cock-eyed angle on the helmet, and the jacket hung on the suit's shield. Linna rolled her eyes in agreement. Everyone dropped their own coats on the hapless hollow knight, and spread out to search the house. It was a fairly cozy place, neat, but at the same time with a homey, 'lived-in' feel. The rooms were well lit by daylight from the large windows, offering panoramic views of the outside trees.

Priss frowned suddenly; she could hear some kind of a droning buzz coming from another room. Following the noise, she entered a comfortable living room, and saw what was causing it. She looked at the ceiling for a moment, slapping a hand on her face. The grinding sounds continued. Sighing, she stepped back to the door of the room, and leaned out into the hall.

"Sylia!" she called. "I've found him!" A few short moments later, everyone else arrived. Sylia reacted much the same way as Priss had, and Linna didn't really know what to make of it. Nene just stared, wide-eyed, unable to believe what she was seeing.

A very beaten and battered-looking SkyKnight was blissfully snoozing the morning away on the couch. The snoring reverberating from his closed helmet sounded like a chainsaw chewing its way through a stack of hardwood boards. He'd had a rough night, judging by his dented condition; there were deep dents and cracks all over his armour. There were also a couple of gouges in other spots, and his chest armour was slightly crumpled in. A pair of modular weapons had been pitched onto the floor. A set look of awful determination appeared on Sylia's face, and she advanced towards the comatose silver-and-blue hardsuit, gritting her teeth.

"Wake up!" she commanded, shoving on his shoulder. He snored on, ignoring her persistent prods and shoves. "BERT!!!!" she yelled, startling Nene and Linna. No response. Cranking his nearby CD-player to maximum volume didn't even make him twitch, although it made everyone else wince in pain at the decibel level engendered. Shaking him violently didn't work. He snored on, oblivious to the world. Sylia gave up, dropping into a recliner.

"You're going to need a bomb to wake him up," Linna noted, also slumping into a padded easy chair.

"Well, the light switch trick isn't going to work this time," Nene sighed. Priss grinned in agreement, then her red-brown eyes suddenly lit up with an idea.

"Hang on a sec," she said. "I'll be back in a minute." She sprinted out of the room, and came back a couple of minutes later, wielding a large axe handle.

"I saw this sitting by the door," she explained. Stepping over to the loudly snoring hardsuit, she wound up and clobbered his helmeted head with the handle.

CLAAAAANNGGGGGGG!!!!!!

"ARRRRRRRRGHH!!!" SkyKnight surged out of the couch with an agonized howl and dropped to his knees in the middle of the floor, holding his head in his hands as the last echoes of the impact died off. He shook his head dazedly, trying to clear his ringing ears.

"First, you have to get his attention," Priss drawled, leaning on the axe handle. Nene and Linna burst into helpless laughter. SkyKnight's helmet swung around to regard Priss, his helmet eyeslot flaring bright red as his suit reactivated. He rose to his feet, and began advancing menacingly towards the impudently grinning Priss, ignoring the giggles from the sidelines.

"You .... you... I'm going to..." he spluttered. Sylia's voice froze him in his tracks.

"You were going to explain just why you were sleeping in your suit, I believe," she commented mildly. His head swung over to look at her.

"You're back," he said, sounding stunned.

"Obviously," she replied dryly. "Just what the hell were you up to last night? You missed a fairly important business dinner." He stood there silently, evidently trying to frame a reply, when there was a thump at the front door. Nene went to see what it was.

"Well, I, umm, err, ah..." he stuttered, still trying to think of a coherent reply. He hadn't expected Sylia to come back just yet, and having her suddenly crop up in his living room was very unnerving. That, coupled with his rude awakening, had left him a little foggy, mentally speaking. Nene suddenly came back, waving a newspaper and shooting him a really disgusted glance. Bert caught a quick flash of a front page photograph, and his stomach lurched sickeningly with an awful premonition.

"We know exactly what he was doing, Sylia," Nene announced, giving him another withering look. "It's all on page one." She handed Sylia the paper. Sylia began to turn an interesting shade of violet as she examined the front page; there, in full-coloured glossy splendour, was a picture of a silver-and-blue armour suit fighting five heavy assault suits in front of a bank. The headline trumpeted "ARMOUR WARS!" in bold black letters. SkyKnight panicked, and dove out of the room, followed by Sylia's angry shout.

"BERT!!!! GET BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!!!"

****

"How the hell was I supposed to know that a press crew was going to show up?!" Bert protested, handing Sylia a mug of tea and looking like someone called onto the carpet in front of a firing squad. He was out of his hardsuit now, clad in normal clothes. He hadn't really wanted to get out of his suit, though; Sylia had been mad enough that he had wanted to keep a couple of layers of armour plate between himself and her, just in case. Once she'd calmed down, somewhat, he'd hesitantly suggested they could move out back to his deck for a drink. He hadn't eaten yet, and since the deck was right next to the kitchen, it meant he'd be able to at least get bawled out on a full stomach.

"You just couldn't leave it alone, could you?" Sylia glared at him as she took the mug of tea. "You just had to go charging in to save the day." She was less volcanic than she had been upon seeing the newspaper photo, but she was still upset with him. Publicity of the kind he'd garnered, the Knight Sabers could do without.

"I can't say I'm surprised," Priss observed from the lounge chair where she was sprawled in complete, contented relaxation; she'd found his beer supply that he kept on hand for the occasional drinking guest, and was single-handedly working at draining it. Linna had scoffed some pop from his fridge, and Nene had snagged a mug of tea after raiding his cookie container. He swigged nervously from his own mug of tea and didn't reply.

"What I find even more unacceptable than your reckless stupidity," Sylia told him, "is the fact that it was bloody pointless. I ..."

"Now wait just a second," Bert interrupted. "If I managed to save the lives of the cops by intervening, then I don't consider my actions pointless. I'm going to do whatever I can to keep innocent people from getting killed, and nothing is ever going to change that." There was a hard edge to his voice. Sylia looked at him, slightly surprised; it was the first time he'd actually cut her off in the middle of a lecture, and used what could be called an unfriendly tone of voice to her.

"I understand your feelings on the matter," she told him. "But you have to face reality, damn it! You can't run around solving everyone's woes!"

"I don't anymore," he replied calmly. "But I do help with the ones I'm capable of, and I was capable of handling this last one."

"Right," Linna snorted. "That's why your suit looks like it was used for batting practice by a baseball team with steel bats." Nene burst out laughing, then guiltily quieted down as Bert and Sylia glanced over at her. Sylia looked back at him.

"I wasn't going to put it as picturesquely as Linna did, but she's essentially right: You got the crap beat out of you. Actually, I'm amazed that you're standing there with no problems. You could have been killed, you jackass!" He shrugged.

"Comes with the territory," he replied carelessly. Everyone stared at him, not quite believing their ears.

"My, aren't we getting blas´┐Ż about this?" Nene observed, frowning. Sylia remained expressionless, but alarm bells were going off in the back of her mind at his rather cavalier attitude. For someone who used to worry a lot about whether or not he was becoming callous as a result of the more-or-less constant fighting, he sounded awfully close to being on the edge of becoming insensitive.

"Why don't you explain just what that meant?" Sylia suggested, still keeping her feelings hidden.

"It's pretty simple," he said, shrugging. "I've had people trying to kill me for almost three years now, for various reasons. I'm used to it."

"Meaning you don't give a shit if they succeed?" Priss asked, also frowning now. A flicker of irritation crossed his face, and he sank into a deck chair, rubbing a hand tiredly over his face. He took another swig of tea before answering. Everyone waited, Nene seeming to hold her breath.

"Of course I give a shit," he replied wearily. "I've got too much to live for to want to ever give up on it." His gaze flickered around at them, lingering a few moments longer on Nene than anyone. She relaxed slightly, sighing in relief. "The possibility still scares me, constantly, but I'm not going to creep around afraid of whatever might be lurking in the shadows anymore. It took me a while to realize it, but I was driving myself close to a nervous breakdown constantly worrying about it."

"A little concern wouldn't be out of place," Sylia informed him. "I'd rather have everyone a little scared, instead of walking around going 'I don't give a damn' all the time."

"I am concerned," he repeated patiently. "I'm just not letting it dictate my every move anymore. I'm still careful about what I do, but I refuse to let 'what ifs' constantly bug me anymore. It may not have looked like that was what was happening before, but it was, believe me."

"If you're being so careful," Nene asked, "then why did you get so beaten up last night?"

"That," he replied sourly, "was not my fault. I hadn't even been going to fight them up front, originally. Unfortunately, Leon decided to get in on the action, and things just went to hell after that."

"I want to see your flight recorder disk," Sylia suddenly demanded. Bert stood up, sighing in resignation as he looked at her. She wasn't as mad anymore as she had been, but she wasn't exactly happy, either. Viewing his flight data probably wasn't going to improve her mood.

"I've got a viewer wired into the television," he told her reluctantly. "You can watch it in there if you want."

****

Complete silence blanketed the room as the screen flicked off. Bert carefully kept from meeting anyone's gaze as his friends stared at him.

"I hope you realize how incredibly lucky you are to have gotten away," Sylia said quietly. He nodded, not replying, and not meeting her gaze.

"I hadn't realized just what those rockets of yours can do," Priss commented. Bert flinched, but still didn't reply.

"You probably killed the one that was standing in front of you with them," Sylia noted, watching him closely.

"I know that," he admitted quietly, expressionless.

"And that doesn't bother you?" Nene asked, looking at him with an unsettled expression.

"Of course it bothers me!!" he snapped, locking gazes with her. She could see a deep regret, tinged by guilt, over what had happened in his eyes. "I didn't want to kill him, I just wanted to get away. Damn it, I don't want anyone, and I do mean anyone, getting hurt as a result of my actions, but it was me or them. I suddenly found myself willing to pick me over them. Is that a crime?!" His took a huge gulp from his mug, a bitter expression flashing over his face and disappearing. The drive for self-preservation had made him use his suit booster rockets in a last ditch attempt to escape, but he hadn't liked the fact that he'd toasted one of the warsuits in the process. Taking someone out in a fight was one thing; literally cooking somebody in their armour was another.

"No, it's not a crime," Sylia answered him. "However, I think you should stop treating yourself as a criminal because of it. We'd much rather have you here alive, instead of dead because you wouldn't do what was necessary."

"Yeah, well, 'necessary' stinks most of the time," he growled.

"That's life," she told him simply. Silence filled the room for a few minutes again. After a few more minutes of quiet, Bert sighed and looked over at Sylia with a resigned expression.

"So what's the sentence going to be this time?" he asked. She threw her hands up in no small amount of exasperation.

"I honestly don't know," she replied. "Nothing much seems to act as a deterrent for long anymore. I suppose I should be happy that you at least lasted most of a month before getting into trouble."

"Bill him for the suit repairs," Priss suggested casually, smirking. Bert looked like he'd been stabbed. Nene and Linna grinned, as a slow smile spread across Sylia's face.

"What a marvelous idea!" she exclaimed. Bert made a few strangled noises, white-faced; fixing his suit was never, ever, what could be called cheap.

"That'll fix him," Linna gloated, grinning evilly at him.

"Anything but that, please!!!" he pleaded. No dice, it seemed.

"It's a very neat and tidy solution," Sylia said. "We can just chop the costs off your paycheck whenever you get out of hand." She had an absolutely serene, almost smug expression on her face now. Bert winced as if he'd just been struck a mortal blow, then glared at Priss, who by now had a VERY impudent expression on her face.

"Sooner or later," he told her ominously, "I'm going to get you for that." Her eyes held a fiendish glee as she looked back at him.

"I wouldn't try it," she advised, grinning. "You're in enough trouble already."

"I'm used to it by now, believe me," he retorted sourly, slouching back into the couch with an expression wavering between disgust and helpless frustration. Everyone except Sylia snickered at his remark. He looked over at her, managing to assume an at least halfway normal expression.

"So what was this all-important dinner that I missed?" he queried.

"It was to discuss our next job," she replied. "However, you jumped the gun on it, I'm afraid; we're supposed to guard an experimental AI for the Zone corporation, and the Illegal Army are the ones stealing the pieces. I don't think Zone is going to be very happy that you blasted one of their research pieces, however. I...." She stopped, as a crafty and slightly nasty grin spread across Bert's face.

"Uh-oh," Priss muttered under her breath. He was up to something, she just knew it.

"I just know I'm going to hate myself for asking," Sylia said in resigned tones. "But just why are you grinning?"

"I'd say a little bargaining is called for," he remarked, leaning forward and putting his elbows on his knees. He was wearing a very smug and self-satisfied expression.

"Bargaining?" Sylia inquired, looking at him narrowly.

"How much do you think it's worth to get the AI piece intact?"

"What do you mean intact?" Linna put in. "You blasted it...... didn't you?" Her voice trailed off in uncertainty as his grin became wider.

"You have the piece, don't you?" Sylia asked flatly. His gloating expression couldn't mean anything else but that.

"I might," he said evasively. "I want to know just what it's worth to you if I were to produce it."

"And just what do you want?" she asked, crossing her arms across her chest.

"Oh, nothing much," he shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. "A reprieve might be nice."

"What would you do if I just ordered you to hand it over?"

"Oh, I suppose I'd think about it for a while," he replied with a smirk. "Technically speaking, though, when I rescued it, we hadn't been hired by Zone yet. I think that makes the AI piece come under the heading of 'finders keepers', hence 'up for sale'."

"An honourable knight wouldn't be trying to twist the situation to his advantage, you know," Nene suddenly interjected. She'd been so quiet over the last few minutes that they'd almost forgotten she was there. "Sylia's the boss, so you should be just giving it to her with no strings attached. Or have you dropped the chivalry and honour stuff?"

"No, I haven't," he replied, grinning at Nene. "However I'm having one hell of a time watching the expression on Sylia's face right now." Nene sighed, rolling her eyes; some things just never changed.

"So what's your decision?" Sylia asked. He grinned sidelong at her, and then sighed himself, regretfully. Reaching into a drawer on the coffee table, he pulled the small wafer from under some magazines, and casually tossed the AI component over to her. She caught it out of reflex, and stared at the component, then at Bert. There was a trace of incredulity in her gaze.

"That was where you were keeping it?! Your coffee table?!"

"I didn't happen to have a safe handy at the time. Besides, who'd come looking for it? As far as anyone knows, this is just a civilian residence. There'd be no reason to come barging in and search the place." He grinned again. "And who'd look in a coffee table drawer for a top-secret component, anyway?"

"He does have a point there," Linna admitted. "I certainly wouldn't look for it in there."

"Just how did you manage to hang onto it?" Priss asked, looking at the circuit-laden wafer in Sylia's hand. Bert explained, and she shook her head in reluctant admiration.

"You are one sneaky bugger," she told him.

"Thank you," he replied politely. He knew she didn't mean it entirely as a compliment, but he took it as one anyway. Sylia carefully wrapped the component in a clean handkerchief, and tucked it into her purse. She stood up, looking over at him.

"Is your suit still flight-capable?" she asked. He nodded.

"Good. Tomorrow, I want you to fly it back to my building and get it back into its storage bay where it belongs. Since the renovations are all finished, you can get in without problems now. You can get back to your apartment, too." He nodded. Living in his basement apartment was more convenient, but at the same time he'd become attached to his suburb house. He'd have to figure out some kind of schedule for using it.

"Anything else?" he asked. She shook her head.

"Please try and avoid getting into trouble between now and then," she told him. "Surely behaving for a day or two isn't too much to ask." An innocent grin cracked Bert's face.

"Trust me," he replied, before dodging the barrage of pillows and magazines that sailed his way.

 

THE NEXT DAY .....

SkyKnight soared through the early evening twilight, the fading rays of the setting sun gilding his battered exterior as he flew over the sprawling city. There were no acrobatics to his flight patterns this time; it was just a straight 'point-A-to-point-B' flight. After all, he had promised Sylia that he'd try to keep from getting into trouble. He snorted to himself at that thought. He promised her that a lot; unfortunately, he couldn't always deliver. He honestly tried to keep his word, but things just seemed to have a way of screwing up on him, which was a result of the combination of his own personality and the occasional kick from chance. Oh well, he wryly observed, at least it's never dull around here.

As he flew along, he kept a close eye on his suit status displays. There didn't appear to be any malfunctions from his mauling of two nights before, but he didn't want to take chances. He hadn't had the time for more than a quick check of the suit during the day, and a cursory examination hadn't found any technical problems. The armour plating was going to need the kinks ironed out of it, but that wasn't essential at the moment, since it didn't affect the flight systems. He soared on, half of his mind on his flight controls, the other half meandering aimlessly and enjoying the freedom of flight.

His full attention was suddenly jerked back to the here and now by the crackling hiss of a brilliant green energy bolt that burned through the air bare inches in front of his helmet visor. Instantly, he veered sideways, and began a series of crazily looping aerial corkscrews as more energy bolts blasted through his immediate vicinity. What the hell was going on?! His sensors weren't picking up any boomers or anything in the area, but something had obviously decided to use him for skeet shooting practice.

He dodged and weaved all over the night sky as the probing blasts continued for a few moments. From what he could see, they were coming from a rooftop down below, but there was no way he could get down there to confront his assailant; the bolts were already uncomfortably close to hitting him, and getting closer would just make it easier for him to get hit.

As he sideslipped a last salvo of energy blasts, two of the shots succeeded in hitting him. The first shot hit him in the lower right torso armour in the front, turning him in midair, and the second one hit him in the side and holed one of his flight system's back-mounted jet turbines. The turbine died in a spectacular flash, spewing pieces of shrapnel into the air, but not injuring him. Oh shit, he groaned to himself, as the rooftops suddenly loomed a lot closer, and his remaining jet turbine system began to squeal from the stress of trying to hold him up by itself. He managed to clumsily aim for a nearby rooftop, hoping to come to a stop on it. As he went down, he caught a brief glimpse of something big, dark, and extremely deformed-looking springing away from him across the rooftops as it left the area.

"OOOF!" he grunted, as the heavy impact of his hardsuit with the roof decking drove the air from his lungs and ignited sparks in his vision. He skidded along the rooftop, and ended up piled headfirst into the wall that ran around the outer edge of the roof. After a moment to gather his wits and his breath, he groggily rolled over to his knees and dragged himself upright, using the wall for support. As he did so, a sudden sharp stab of pain from his side almost folded him over again. His cautiously probing gauntlet found a hole in his armour plating, low and on his right side, and there was a sticky crimson stain on his gauntlet as he brought it up to in front of his visor.

"Awww shit," he sighed disgustedly, sliding down the wall to sit with his back to it. His side now felt like it was on fire. "Why does this always happen to me?! It's just not fair!" he complained out loud to no one in particular. It didn't feel like a serious wound, but even minor wounds could bleed excessively. There was also no way he could get back to Sylia's building now, not with half of his propulsion system fried. That meant there was only one thing he could do, even though he hated the thought of what the results were going to be. He activated the Knight Saber's communications band.

"SkyKnight to Saber Prime," he radioed, bracing himself for the response. "I have a small problem ...."

****

"One day. One bloody lousy day, and you couldn't stay out of trouble. What am I going to do with you?!" Sylia harangued him from behind as he limped into the hardsuit storage room. Priss was right behind her, but mercifully, she wasn't saying anything, for once.

Bert tossed the blood-soaked wad of cloth he'd been pressing over the hole in his armour onto a nearby table. Pulling off his helmet, he disengaged the suit closure mechanisms and carefully stepped out of the armour. He grabbed the makeshift packing he'd been using and again pressed it over the bleeding wound, grimacing at the discomfort; it was below his ribs on his right side, and it throbbed constantly. It had already soaked a fair portion of the side of his undergarment with blood. He turned to look at Sylia. His mood was not pleasant; he'd been hoping to get back to his apartment and relax for the night, but getting shot down had kind of ruined that plan. Having to endure yet another lecture on his behaviour was not cheering him up, either.

"Look," he told her irritably. "I didn't ask for someone to come along and use me for target practice, but they did. My sensors didn't detect anything, so I don't know what it was, and I didn't even know it was in the area until it shot at me. Now for God's sake, get me a bandage and stop giving me shit for something that wasn't my fault for once!!!" His voice had started rising during his brief outburst, but he managed to stop himself before he actually shouted at her. She wasn't trying to be miserable; she was genuinely concerned about him. His problem was that he was tired. That, coupled with the blood he'd lost so far, while it didn't look like much, was sapping what reserves of strength he had left and making him short-tempered. Priss grabbed his arm as he swayed on his feet, and Sylia grabbed his other arm to support him.

"I'm sorry," she told him, "But I do worry about you, you know, and you really are a pain in the ass sometimes." A faint grin spread across his face.

"That's part of the job description," he told her. "However, I'm sorry too. I shouldn't have snapped at you, but it's just that I'm tired and sore right now. I honestly don't try to upset you on purpose but ...."

"But it just happens," Priss finished for him with a grin as she helped Sylia steer him out the door and down the hall.

"I just wish it would quit happening so bloody often," Sylia remarked wryly as they helped him into the infirmary room.

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

Nene stepped carefully around the untidy stacks of boards and two-by-fours that littered the floor as she looked around. Careful not to disturb some of the more precariously balanced piles, she began walking across the room towards the sounds of someone hammering nails in the adjoining room. The area she was walking through was eventually going to be a large archery range. The basic equipment and layout was complete, with the room divided into about twenty 'lanes' by painted lines on the floor. The lanes ended at a re-inforced wall at the far end of the room, with target frames mounted on it. The wall was padded with a thick, resilient material, almost like corkboard. The idea was that it would stop arrows hitting the targets and the wall itself, hopefully without breaking them.

She thoughtfully glanced at a set of blueprints flung over another lumber pile as she passed. She didn't know a lot about architecture, but the plans looked fairly straightforward. There was going to be an archery range on the ground floor, and a few rooms on the second floor. The second floor rooms hadn't had names printed on them, so she figured Bert must still be trying to make up his mind what to use them for. The hammering continued unabated.

As she stepped through the door, she looked around, and began walking over towards him. He glanced over at the sound of her footsteps, then straightened up, tossing the hammer into a nearby bucket of nails. He was covered in sawdust and sweat from head to foot, but looked quite happy to be so. He gave her a big smile as she came up to him.

"Hi!" he greeted her, wiping a dusty sleeve across his forehead and smearing more sawdust onto his face without realizing it. "Pardon me for not hugging you or anything, but I don't want to cover your uniform in dirt." Nene was dressed in her ADP uniform, her slim figure accentuated by the uniform blouse, jacket and short skirt. God, she's beautiful, he thought fleetingly to himself. "What's up?" he queried.

"Oh nothing," she said, smiling back. "I'm on my lunch break, and I thought I'd stop by to see how you were."

"You heard about last night, then," he said, sighing, and leaning against the sawhorse behind him.

"Yes," she admitted, flushing slightly. "How are you feeling, anyway?" He shrugged.

"It only hurts when I laugh," he quipped. Nene's expression turned a little annoyed.

"You may think it's funny to joke about almost getting killed, but I don't!" she told him hotly. He sighed.

"Nene," he said, looking at her seriously. "I love you more than anything, but I wish you wouldn't worry so much. I'm fine, really. If I'm not wisecracking about it, then you can start worrying. It's only if it's really, really serious and painful that I don't joke about it."

"You joke about almost everything, though."

"It's the way I am. I've found out that if you can't go through life without a sense of humour about a lot of things, you won't enjoy yourself very much, at anything. If you don't learn to laugh at life every so often, you'll become disillusioned very quickly."

"That makes some sense," she conceded. She sighed herself. "I can't help worrying about you, though. I love you too, and I really don't want to have to go through the kind of strain I felt the first time you got seriously hurt, all over again." She stopped, a catch in her voice at the memory of seeing his shredded suit sprawled on the ground with blood everywhere. She'd never had a friend that badly wounded before, and it had been a heartrending experience.

He looked at her, his eyes reflecting his understanding; he'd had similar feelings himself when she'd almost been killed by the HeadHunter boomer. The biomechanoid hadn't actually wounded her, but it had held her hostage in front of his eyes. The sight of the boomer holding its claws at her neck had almost driven him over the edge.

As it was, that sight, combined with the boomer's previous attacks on his friends had destroyed the normal restraints he kept on his temper, which was one of the reasons he'd been able to beat the boomer; his fighting ability improved whenever he was angry. His lousy temper was the one aspect of his own character that scared him at times. He'd warned Nene about his temper a few times, mostly because he didn't want to accidentally hurt her in any way. She insisted that he worried too much about it, a statement that he supposed carried a grain of truth. However, it wasn't easy living with the results of actions committed in raging anger, and he figured a little worry wouldn't be misplaced in this case. He suddenly realized she was speaking, and jerked his mind out of his gloomy contemplations.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "What was that last bit?"

"I said," she replied, glaring at him for not listening, "do you have any idea what it was that shot at you?"

"No," he admitted. "I was flying along minding my own business, trying to get back to Sylia's, and something declared war on me."

"What was it shooting?"

"Green energy bolts. I'd say they might have been particle beams, but they weren't quite as powerful." She frowned suddenly.

"Didn't you say that was what you got shot with a while back, when you got clobbered at that murder scene? Green energy beams?" she asked. Bert frowned himself; he'd forgotten that little detail. He mulled it over for a moment or two longer.

"You're right," he said. "But the first time, the beams weren't as powerful; they only scorched my armour. Last night the shots were punching through my plating with no problems." Another memory resurfaced, and he examined it. "Come to think of it, I did see a big shape of some kind leaping away on the rooftops as I went down. I couldn't tell what it was, though."

"A boomer maybe?"

"Probably. It looked big enough."

"So that must mean it's after SkyKnight, if it took some more snipe shots at you."

"Also probable," he admitted. "The only problem is that there's no way of finding out for sure right now, and I'm not about to strut around just so some crazy machine can take potshots at me." Nene suddenly leaned forward, feeling his forehead.

"Hey! What the...?! What gives?" he demanded, leaning back.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked. "That actually sounded like common sense, for a change."

"Ha ha, very funny. I use common sense a lot, thank you very much."

"When did this miracle occur?" she asked impishly, green eyes sparking in mischief. Bert sighed, looking at the unfinished ceiling.

"It's always been there," he stated irritably, looking back at her.

"You could've fooled me," she told him, grinning.

"Don't you have to go to work?" he asked pointedly. She giggled impishly, gave him a quick peck on the only clean spot left on his cheek, and left.

****

"How're the ribs, Leon?" Daley asked as Leon carefully lowered himself into his desk chair. He was moving very slowly and deliberately, having had to get three broken ribs taped up. His brown hair was slightly snarled this morning, and he had a disgruntled expression on his face.

"I'm fine," Leon grunted irritably. "I'm more pissed off at being publicly humiliated in the press." The newspaper article of a couple of days before on the bank robberies had not been kind to the ADPolice, calling them several things, not the least of which was incompetent. As an example of the supposed incompetence, it had used Leon's attack on the military suits, saying that an experienced and qualified officer would have been able to deal with the situation more effectively. The author of the article had completely ignored the differences in the technology used in the two suit designs. The ADP K-17 wasn't even fit to use as a trashcan, let alone a fighting machine; anyone taking it into a serious firefight was not going to come back under his own power. Leon had known, but still insisted on trying to take them on. Unfortunately, he had paid, and was still paying the price for his headstrong challenge.

"At least you're alive," Daley commented mildly, leaning back in his chair, a trace of amusement visible in his face. Leon glanced sourly at him.

"Don't start," he warned. "I've already had all the shit I want to put up with this morning." It had started with a reprimand from the new chief, and just gotten worse from there on in; almost everyone in the office had made a wisecrack of some kind at his expense. Daley grinned, then assumed a more serious demeanor.

"In case you hadn't heard, we did find one of those suits after the robbery," he remarked.

"Found it? What happened?"

"It met up with something that didn't like it, evidently. There was a hole about a foot-and-a-half wide melted through its chest. There wasn't much left of the pilot." Leon whistled in surprise.

"Where's the body now?" he queried. This he had to see for himself. Daley's expression, however, informed him that it wasn't going to be possible.

"The Government seized it," Daley replied disgustedly. The forensics guys had just gotten started on it when some unmarked vehicle pulled up downstairs, two guys flashed some high-powered ID, and then took the suit and the leftovers away somewhere."

"Shit," Leon growled. "Did the forensics team get anything?"

"Not much. The pilot was mostly human, and they didn't get a chance to examine the suit. It was some really high-end hardware, let me tell you."

"Wait a minute," Leon interrupted. "What do you mean by 'mostly human'?"

"The pilot had a mechanical arm, and legs. They weren't normal prosthetics, though. They had enhanced artificial muscles and circuitry that resembled boomer systems. That was all we got before the Feds took everything away." Leon pondered the information while Daley stood and went over to the coffee machine.

"So now what?" Leon asked when he returned. Daley shrugged.

"We keep looking for them, I guess. And wait."

 

THE NEXT DAY ....

"Checkmate," Sylia smirked, brown eyes twinkling. "Again, I might add." She sat back with a smug smile as she picked up her teacup and sipped at it. Across the chessboard from her, Bert sat staring at his rather forlorn-looking king surrounded by the opposing army of bishops, knights and rooks. He glanced irritably at her as he grabbed his own mug, and took a large slurp. He'd found out that Sylia actually played chess, and had suggested a few games now and then might be interesting. He wasn't a great player himself, but he did enjoy the occasional game.

He'd won the first couple, rather neatly, but then Sylia had unleashed the big guns; he'd lost the last seven games in about twenty moves each. Total game time for all seven, about an hour. She didn't take a huge amount of time to plan her moves, she just looked at the board for a moment or two, then moved a piece. Bert's defenses hadn't lasted too long, but had crumbled almost instantly. He was now rather annoyed, suspecting she was secretly laughing up her sleeve at him.

"Do you want to try another one?" she asked. "Or have you had enough for one day?"

"I'm not that dumb," he retorted. "I think I'll call it quits for now, thanks." She had a very definite smile on her face now, he noted.

"You're no fun," she remarked in mock-disgust, a remark he pointedly did not respond to.

They sat silently for a while, finishing off their tea. Bert suddenly looked over at her, his expression becoming serious.

"I didn't get a chance before," he told her, "but I wanted to apologize for snapping at you the other night. I was out of line."

"I think I can forgive you, given the circumstances," she smiled. "I don't think I'd be in that good a frame of mind myself, given what happened."

"Thanks. I guess I should also apologize for my previous antics, too." He suddenly grinned. "Although I think that particular one is overdue by several months." She smiled in wry agreement with him.

"I'm not always thrilled by your actions," she admitted. "You have this unfailing knack for complicating what should be a simple, straightforward operation."

"Sorry. Force of habit," he quipped.

"I'd noticed," she replied dryly. "I've never faulted your teamwork; you are certainly capable of working well with the rest of us. Unfortunately, you still have a rather stubbornly independent streak that rears up every so often, like a few nights ago." She sighed suddenly. "I suppose I've gotten used to it by now," she remarked. "I don't like it, most of the time, but it doesn't bother me as much anymore."

"You could've fooled me," he interjected with a wry grin. A quick smile flickered over her face at his remark, then vanished.

"Your jumping the gun on upgrades is what ticks me off the most now," she continued. "I really wish you wouldn't do that. There is a reason for testing them out in the lab first, you know."

"I know," he assured her. "But the ones that you and the others might be using especially, I want to test myself first. That way, if it doesn't work, nobody else gets hurt."

"Quit trying to take responsibility for absolutely everything, will you?" she told him testily. "It would be a hell of a lot easier, not to mention quieter, if you'd quit trying to do everything single-handedly."

"Sorry. Force of habit," he repeated, grinning again. Sylia rolled her eyes and let the matter drop. After another few moments, Bert sighed and looked over at her.

"What's happening with this Illegal Army business?" he asked her. "I haven't heard anything lately."

"I'm afraid you won't, either," Sylia replied resignedly. "They appear to have quit stealing the pieces, I guess mostly because they figured you fried one of them. If even one piece is missing, the AI is useless."

"You haven't told Zone we have the 'dead' piece?"

"No," Sylia shook her head. "I had decided it might be better to wait and see what happened, but that appears to be a bust. Absolutely nothing is happening. The Illegal Army seems to have gone into hiding."

"I can think of one way to draw them out, but I'm afraid it involves some solo grandstanding." Sylia gave him a searching look.

"Let me guess: you're going to challenge them to a fight."

"Not quite," he evaded. "I was thinking more of waving the AI piece as bait, along with SkyKnight's presence. That should draw them out, and then we jump them." Sylia blinked in surprise.

"Excuse me?" she queried, looking at him strangely. "Did you say 'we'?"

"Yeah, why? What's wrong with .... Hey! What gives?!" Bert irritably pulled back; Sylia had suddenly leaned forward and felt his forehead.

"I think that's the first time you've suggested a group attack on someone; before it was always 'SkyKnight versus them'. Are you sure you're feeling all right? "

"I feel fine," he retorted peevishly. "I'm just not dumb enough to think I can take on all five .... four of those warsuits by myself."

"My God, that actually sounded like reason." Sylia had a faint smile flickering on her face. "The intrepid SkyKnight, actually suggesting he's not invincible."

"Har har har, very funny. Have you and Nene been comparing notes, or something?"

"Pardon me?"

"Nevermind."

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

"Damn it, this is getting out of hand!" Leon swore, staring around at the carnage. What had been a police transport van was smashed into a guardrail on Highway #21, and the back end of it looked like a giant can opener had been used on it. The entire road surface was awash in blood, and the covered remains of the ADP officers who had been in the van were spread around the scene. Daley didn't reply, but it was obvious from his expression that he was of the same mind.

"We've got to find whatever is doing this killing, and stop the goddamn thing," Leon stated, staring around again. "It's obviously the same thing that's been doing it for the last few weeks, but why would it switch to police vehicles now? And in broad daylight?" The officers had all been killed by massive gut wounds, the same kind as had been cropping up for weeks now in seemingly random victims. These murders, and all the previous murders and boomer strippings were causing the entire investigation to become bogged down in seemingly unsolvable questions. As Leon tried to piece the puzzle together, a trooper came running up. Skidding to a halt, he saluted Leon.

"Sir, we have a report on what was in that van," the officer reported.

"What was it?"

"The van was a prisoner convoy truck, and the prisoner being transported was Dr. Richard McLaren." Daley and Leon stared at each other.

"I think we're in trouble," Leon said slowly.

****

Somewhere in MegaTokyo, a gaunt man with unkempt white hair and a mustache was regaining consciousness. He was sprawled on the dirty concrete floor of a room ten feet by ten feet, dimly lit by a cracked yellow lightbulb. He sat bolt upright with a terrified gasp as some hazy memory prodded him awake, and stared around wildly. The man was wearing a drab grey prison uniform, and was reasonably tall, although his gaunt frame showed evidence of lost weight. He was scruffy-looking, with a day's growth of beard on his face, and he had the pallor associated with someone who's been out of the sun for a long time. He climbed to his feet, getting up off of the floor.

Dr. Richard McLaren stared around frantically at the small room he'd been thrown into, trying vainly to figure out just what the hell was going on. One minute, he'd been in a van being transported to a different detention facility, and the next he'd been in the middle of a war of some kind. The van had been smashed into a guardrail by something, and the guards had been killed in rapid succession by that something; it had been moving fast enough that he hadn't gotten a clear glimpse of what it had actually been. Okay, so he hadn't really looked, being more occupied with trying to escape, fearing for his own life. Whatever had broken him out of jail apparently wanted him for something.

Booming footsteps, the slow tread of something big and heavy, echoed in the hallway outside the door. The door was torn off of its hinges; apparently his new captor wasn't worried about property damage. A huge, misshapen hulk loomed in the doorway, and McLaren stared at the apparition in stark terror. He'd never been an overly brave man; proud, yes, but never brave. Prison had taken a great deal of the starch out of him, leaving him a shell of the man he had once been, and the events transpiring now were almost more than he could handle.

"Who are you?! What do you want?!" he shrieked, backing into the wall. The massive figure stepped forward. It was a boomer of some kind, but one he'd never seen before.

Vaguely humanoid-looking, it looked like it had been assembled out of the pieces of several other boomers, which was why it looked deformed. Its right arm, shoulder and torso portion had been salvaged from a B-12 combat boomer, and the rest of the boomer's body was a collage of blue and grey armour plating and parts, evidently from C-55 and other boomers. The head of the boomer was not visible; it seemed to have a semi-transparent canopy over its head, and a red glow was emanating from it. Other parts of its body had been patched with scrap metal from somewhere; patches of green, red, yellow, and other colours gave it a bizarre motley appearance. The entire thing was about twelve feet tall, and it would have been almost comical-looking, if not for the fact that the boomer had large guns mounted on its shoulders, and scythe-like claws with serrated edges on its left arm.

"Dr. Richard McLaren," a distorted voice rumbled from the canopy 'helmet'. "I have a job for you: I require your unique services."

"Why should I help you?" McLaren blustered. "What's in it for me? AIEEEEGHK!!" McLaren's scream was choked off by the boomer's knuckles pressing into his throat as its claws neatly stapled him to the back wall. He hadn't even seen the thing move, but it had him pinned almost instantly. His skin crawled at the feel of the blades on both sides of his neck, and a thin trickle of blood wormed its way down the side of his neck from a small cut. He stared up at the glowing dome where the boomer's head presumably was, scared absolutely shitless.

"You will assist me," the voice snarled, "or else you will die. Choose swiftly."

McLaren made his choice.

****

"Are you sure this is going to work?" Sylia asked, a look of profound skepticism on her face. Bert grinned crookedly, a familiar glint appearing in his greenish-brown eyes.

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he intoned, tucking his helmet under his arm. Sylia slapped a hand over her face in a theatrical gesture.

"There's times I seriously doubt that," Priss remarked, shrugging her shoulders and trying to get her suit settled into place. It still felt uncomfortable; she swore under her breath, and squirmed some more. "Why did you have to use my friggin' suit as the base for this crazy thing?" she inquired irritably. "This is goddamn uncomfortable, not to mention awkward." Her hardsuit had a pair of large cannons mounted on the shoulders now, and she wasn't used to moving with the extra weight; it made her feel top-heavy and sluggish.

The cannons were the centerpiece of Bert's plan for handling the Illegal Army if they responded to the bait he was going to wave around. The new suits weren't ready, or going to be for quite some time; the control systems had developed some exasperating bugs. That being the case, he'd jerry-rigged the prototype modular cannons into Priss' suit. Her normally sleek hardsuit looked strange now, with two blocks of tangled wires and tubes clamped to the shoulders.

"Sorry," he replied with patent insincerity. "But your suit is the only one that can handle the extra weight and power draw at the moment. I suppose Sylia's could too, but she's already got the other gun mount on hers," he noted, casting a quick glance at her white armour suit. Sylia's suit now had a long gun barrel of some kind rigged onto her right arm, extending a couple of feet past the hand. It vaguely resembled the outfit that had been hacked into Priss' suit, but it wasn't quite as bulky, and it had a small box-like magazine protruding from the back. Sylia wasn't as visibly disgruntled as Priss over the situation, although privately she was nervous about his bargain-basement modifications.

"You're positive nothing will screw up?" Linna asked, glancing nervously at his contraptions. She was privately glad he hadn't butchered up her suit; aesthetically speaking, his gadgets had all the appeal of a garbage can. Bert slapped a hand over his face, sighing.

"How many times do I have to repeat myself?!" he demanded. "I know it looks like shit, but they work!! They work now, and they'll still work later!! Quit worrying!!"

"Well you're not the one using them this time!" Priss snarled. "So don't tell me not to goddamn worry!!" Bert gave up and ignored her, and looked over at Nene. She was standing quietly off to the side, a faint smirk on her face as she watched Priss grumble about the situation. Her gaze switched to him as he looked over, and they exchanged a quick smile.

"How's the new sensor stuff?" he queried, casting a quick glance at the shoulder pod her suit now sported on the right shoulder. It was a finished piece of equipment; it had a smooth, red metal exterior that concealed its internal workings, and a small antenna dish was mounted on the front end. The mount it was attached to was temporary one, but the sensor pod itself was destined to become a permanent piece of equipment for her new hardsuit.

"No problems," she assured him. "I ran a quick test of it and it's working perfectly."

"I think I detect some favouritism here," Linna remarked slyly, glancing from Nene to Bert. "I notice the gadget for Nene's suit is a lot nicer looking than the others." Bert flushed slightly as Nene smiled innocently, but he didn't bother to reply. He slapped on his helmet, and the red eyeslot in his faceplate flared into glowing life as his suit circuitry began to hum. Sylia sighed, and the rest of the Knight Sabers also donned their helmets. Priss grumbled again as she slid her helmet between the two bulky shoulder guns to get it on her head.

"This is ridiculous!! How the hell am I supposed to goddamn fight with these bloody things on here?!" she burst out. SkyKnight sighed, looking heavenward.

"Look," he told her, "we're not supposed to get into hand-to-hand range if this works. Take it from someone who knows firsthand: they are not a bargain in close fighting. You won't need to get in close to them, so quit worrying!"

"Far be it from me to suggest that one of your gadgets will fail," Sylia spoke up, "but she does have a point. What if it does get into hand-to-hand?"

"Then the systems can be ejected, IF it becomes necessary." Priss relaxed a bit at his statement, and Sylia nodded as she looked around at the team.

"Everybody ready?" Sylia inquired one last time. Everyone replied affirmatively, and she looked over at SkyKnight's silver-and-blue form.

"All right," she sighed. "Get going, good luck, and PLEASE be careful this time."

"Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he replied, being echoed by everyone in the room in perfect unison. He chuckled, swept them all a bow, and clanked out of the hardsuit storage room.

****

Rotor blades furiously churned the air with a steady, reverberating drone, keeping the two small, one-man ADP helicopters aloft as they swept along through the air on patrol. The pilots ceaselessly scanned the skies and the city below for anything amiss. On the one hand, they were glad it was a quiet night; on the other, it was kind of boring flitting around with nothing to do.

"God, I wish something would happen," the one pilot remarked out loud over his helmet radio. An amused voice came out of the night and answered him before his partner could.

"You really shouldn't wish for things like that," it chided the pilot. "You just might get them." Shocked, the pilot who had spoken looked over to his left, and saw a silver armour suit with blue shoulders flying next to his chopper an arm's length away, easily keeping pace with his helicopter. It had wings extending from its shoulders, and a subdued whining rumble was coming from exhaust ports low down in the flight pack on its back. The helmet on the suit swiveled to regard the pilot, red eyeslot glowing brightly.

"Wha...?! Wh..?! What the hell are you doing up here?!?!" the stunned pilot burst out, barely maintaining control of his chopper. There wasn't an ADP pilot on the force who didn't know who this guy was by now; the general consensus was that no one ever wanted to fly on or near anything he might be piloting, based on what observers had reported.

"Passing along a friendly message," SkyKnight replied. "You might want to keep your choppers and ground units away from the dock district for a couple of hours or so, starting right about now." The silver-clad hardsuit saluted the pilot, and erupted forwards into the darkness, vanishing in seconds with a screaming roar. The ADP pilots watched wordlessly, jaws hanging, then the formerly bored pilot hit the switch for his radio transmitter.

"Dispatch, this is chopper #4," he broadcast. "Something just happened you should probably know about...."

****

SkyKnight swept into the deserted storage yard with a roar, kicking up a cloud of dust as his turbine exhaust hit the pavement. Braking jets fired as his feet swung down towards the ground, and he landed neatly in middle of the dissipating dirt storm. His helmet swiveled slowly, as his sensors probed the concealing darkness of the dock warehouse district; nothing appeared to be there. He shrugged, and began to wait, crossing his arms over his chest.

Although he appeared outwardly calm, inside his suit, Bert was more than a little nervous. The Illegal Army had responded to his proposal to meet, but had insisted on this place as the meeting grounds. Since he was trying to get them out into the open, he'd had little choice but to accept, even though he was pretty damn sure it was a trap of some kind.

He ran another sensor sweep of the area, wishing he could wipe the nervous sweat from his brow. The unknown factor in this whole deal was just how the warsuits would react. They'd either try negotiating a little first, then try to seize the AI piece, or else just try to seize it immediately. There was also, unfortunately, the possibility they might just opt for revenge, not caring about the AI fragment, and try to kill him. It was that possibility that had him sweating; based on his earlier fight with them, he knew he didn't have a chance of getting all of them before they got him, the leader especially; Colonel Lando was by far the best of the group at battlesuit warfare.

The uneasy feeling he'd been having ever since landing intensified as time dragged slowly by. They were out there; he could feel hostile intent seething in the air like a palpable presence. He ran yet another sweep with his sensors; negative results scrolled across his suit viewscreen. Damn it, what the hell were they up to?!?!

Just for something to do, he began playing with the visual ranges displayed by his suit viewscreen, and adjusting the light filters. Infrared...ultraviolet....negative image -what a neat one that was!-.....colour filters...oh shit!!!! As he swept his visual range display through a particularly high level of light frequencies, ones not normally visible to the unaided eyes, four lines appeared. Each of the four lines was perfectly straight, extending off into the surrounding darkness, and they were all centered on his chest. Laser targeting rangefinders!!!!

SkyKnight shot straight up into the air on howling jets, not even waiting for his wings to fully deploy, as a shattering storm of bullets and mini-missiles crashed through the space he'd been standing in only mere fractions of a second before. Huge chunks of concrete and asphalt were hurled into the air just below him as he rapidly ascended. Sweat streamed off his face as he realized how close a call that had been. His flight wings finally snapped into full extension, and his flight system became fully operational.

SkyKnight jinked sideways on his maneuvering jets, putting a streetlight pillar between himself and his still-hidden foes as another fusillade tore through the air; the pillar was sheared off by the shrieking projectile storm, and SkyKnight looped away in a twisting corkscrew, avoiding the flying shrapnel and the falling post. With a backwards somersaulting flip, he touched down on the pavement again approximately 100 feet from his previous position. As he did so, the thunderous clanking of heavy armour approaching boomed through the night air. Four blocky-looking warsuits stomped from the concealing darkness; he knew by now that their apparently ungainly appearance was just that, appearance only. The warsuits were at least as mobile as he was.

"That's far enough!!" he shouted at the Illegal Army as they advanced. He punctuated his command with a laser blast that blew fragments of pavement out from under their feet as they advanced, but they ignored his command and the shot both.

"Hand over that AI piece," the lead red warsuit said flatly. The suits stomped closer; they were about sixty feet from him, and closing.

"What about due process?" SkyKnight inquired, starting to back off while watching his sensor readouts like a hawk. At the slightest twitch from them, he was going airborne; his wings were still deployed, and his jets were on standby. If they even sneezed, he was going to be out of there faster than a quarter horse from the starting gate. "I though we were going to negotiate a little bit first."

"To hell with you, asshole," the suit retorted. "You killed one of my men, and you've cost us a lot of time and effort. The price has already been fixed: either way, you die tonight."

"I was afraid you'd look at it that way," SkyKnight sighed. "Don't say I didn't warn you, then."

"Warn us?" Lando laughed derisively. "Warn us about what? I read the file on you: You're just a spineless, gutless amateur playing at being the hero in shining armour."

"There's a file on me?" he asked, ignoring the 'spineless amateur' remark with an effort. At the same time, he was absurdly flattered for some obscure reason that he'd become famous (or infamous) enough to warrant his own top secret file somewhere.

"Yeah, there is," Lando confirmed. "You're an headstrong idealist with delusions of being the heroic knight in shining armour. You really should've left this kind of work to the adults, boy," he sneered. "Now hand over that AI piece, and we'll make it nice and quick."

"Screw you, you lowlife scumsucking bastard," SkyKnight shot back. Calling him 'boy' again had been the last straw. "The only thing I'm handing you is a goddamn thrashing. Prepare to defend yourselves!!"

The guns and missile launchers on the warsuits swung over to target SkyKnight as his right shoulder gun snapped into position, spitting a rapid-fire stream of projectiles at them. The first few objects burst with blinding flashes and stunning thunderclaps, momentarily disorienting them enough that their return fire tore ruts into the asphalt around him instead of hitting him. The last few of his chemical blasts burst quietly, and a thick white smoke cloud shrouded the area almost immediately, hiding the combatants from each other.

"Goddamnit!!! Not again!!" Lando's voice roared. "Quit trying to hide, you cowardly bastard!!" Searching sprays of machine-gun fire began slashing through the air as the Illegal Army tried to nail him. Somewhere in the murk, there was a startled yell, and one of the warsuits came sailing out of the fog to crash headfirst into a nearby building, punching a hole through the wall. Bricks flew everywhere, and after a moment, clattering movement could be heard from inside the building as the warsuit floundered back to its feet. Meanwhile, several loud clangs resounded, and the sounds of more warsuits hitting the ground echoed through the docks.

"So I'm a spineless amateur, am I?" SkyKnight's voice volleyed through the air. "I'll show you spineless, you half-assed chickenshit!!" A crackling blast report seared the air, and the entire cloud turned briefly bright crimson, as the red warsuit belonging to Colonel Lando sailed out of the edges of the cloud to land flat on his back in a loud bang. Smoke was coming from off of his armour plating on his torso, but he rolled over and upright, apparently unharmed.

Accompanied by the screaming roar of his jet turbines, SkyKnight blasted out of the cloud bank, smashing Lando down to the pavement again with a shoulder tackle. The red warsuit bounced along the pavement for a few feet, then stopped when it hit a nearby wall. SkyKnight flashed upwards to hover briefly over the battlefield and the Illegal Army.

"Looks like you should have brought more men, asshole," his amplified voice taunted them. "You're not having much luck killing this particular 'headstrong idealist', are you? Maybe you're the ones that should go home to your mommies before you get hurt playing with the big kids." With that parting shot, SkyKnight wheeled around and flew off into the night as the suits regrouped.

"I want that insolent smartass killed," Lando stated in a deadly voice. "I don't care how, just do it." The four renegade battlesuits sprang into the air on flaring rockets, and took off after the departing silver hardsuit.

****

"SkyKnight to Saber Prime. They've taken the bait, and we should be in your area in about five minutes."

"Acknowledged, Skyknight," Sylia replied, taking a quick glance around. Everyone was in position. "Be careful leading them on."

"Trust me," his voice replied over the comm channel, just before the line cut off. Sylia sighed, a sigh that was echoed by the rest of the Knight Sabers, Nene especially; whenever he said that, something usually went haywire, spectacularly.

She shifted as she stood waiting, taking a quick peek around the corner of the rooftop solar array she was hidden behind. Spaced out behind other solar arrays on the warehouse roof were Priss, Linna and Nene. She ran another check on the launcher device clamped to the right arm of her hardsuit, and the computer verified that it was working. It didn't settle her nerves any, however; these had to be the most 'fly-by-night' devices she'd ever seen put together. Bert's comments to the effect that they were 'good-old-fashioned dirty engineering works of art' hadn't helped.

"God, I hate these things!!" Priss' voice muttered over the comm channel. Sylia refrained from commenting; Priss had been constantly griping about the crude cannons ever since they'd taken up their positions.

"They're coming!!" Nene reported. "Bert's transponder beacon just entered my detection range." A couple more tense moments passed as the Knight Sabers got ready to follow through on the rest of the plan. Within moments, sensors weren't necessary to detect the approach of SkyKnight and the renegade combat suits; thundering explosions were audible in the night air, and a rapidly approaching series of explosions could be seen. Staying just ahead of the roiling explosion wavefront was SkyKnight's silhouette, and the drone of his flight system began to carry through the air to them.

"Everyone remember to wait for my signal," Sylia quietly ordered as the traveling air war moved closer to them. The jerry-rigged cannon on her hardsuit arm obediently powered up at her command, humming quietly. This particular gun only had four shots, so she was going to have to make them count. A few feet away, an eerie glow began to emanate from the interior workings of the cannons Priss had wired into her suit; Sylia briefly hoped that the glow wouldn't give them away as SkyKnight and the howling firestorm pursuing him swept into their area.

The silver-garbed Knight Saber thundered past her hiding place, out in front by about twenty feet. Behind him, propelled by roaring rocket packs, piercing the air with the occasional barrage of gunfire, were four blocky military battlesuits. Three were black with grey trim, and the lead suit was mostly red with some black armour plating. All four looked extremely dangerous, and very, very angry.

As she watched, SkyKnight looped around and up into the air, climbing rapidly. As he ascended, crimson laser bolts whipped downwards towards his pursuers. For the most part, the Illegal Army ignored his shots, unleashing a withering hailstorm of bullets and missiles in reply. What they hadn't noticed was that in stopping to take a few potshots, SkyKnight had forced them to slow down for the moment, making them perfect targets.

"Get ready!" Sylia snapped, targeting the rear-most warsuit with her improvised cannon. Her suit computer whirred for a moment, establishing a target lock. Off to her right, Priss stepped out from behind the solar panel array she'd been hiding behind, and began sighting her makeshift weapons in on their foes. An ominous hum was pulsing from her weapons, as the glow brightened. As they got ready to fire, the Army suits suddenly surged forward towards SkyKnight.

"Anytime now would be nice, if you don't mind," SkyKnight's exasperated voice crackled over the comm frequency. Sylia flinched as he swerved around a very near miss from a slashing swordblade while avoiding a point-blank cannon shot from another direction; the Army had managed to pull even with him, and were trying to put him down, immediately and permanently. "I can't keep this up forever, you know!!!"

"Damn it, get the hell out of the way!!" Priss snapped back. "I can't fire these things with you sitting there in the middle of the bloody fight!!" She was right; now that the warsuits had caught up to him, he was caught in the middle of a flailing tangle of armour as everybody tried to take a piece out of him.

"Never mind me!! Just shoot, goddamnit!!"

"But we can't fire with you in there..." Sylia started to say, when a red-armoured arm slammed into SkyKnight's guts from somewhere in the mid-air melee, catapulting him downwards towards the street level. With a triumphant yell, the red suit flew down after him, with the other three in hot pursuit.

"DO IT!!!!" SkyKnight bellowed as he fell, spraying a sheet of laser fire upwards that momentarily halted the advance of the battlesuits.

"Priss," Sylia reluctantly ordered as her arm came level, "fire."

****

SkyKnight seared the air with another storm of particle laser energy, desperately trying to keep the renegade combat suits at bay. His laser beams weren't doing a goddamn thing to the lead warsuit, but they were definitely forcing the other three back from him with some minor damage resulting.

He wrenched himself sideways as the scarlet battlesuit dove at him, intending to grapple him into a crash-landing on the ground. Lando grabbed his shoulder as he hurtled past, spinning the two of them around dizzyingly, and a swordblade sprang into extension on his other arm as he drove it at SkyKnight's visor.

His own swordblades snapped out, and he frantically parried the incoming point while trying to pry loose the iron grip on his shoulder plating and stay airborne at the same time. Awwwww shit!!! he swore to himself as he struggled; it had been a perfectly feasible plan originally, but now things were slowly going to hell. Ideally, he wasn't supposed to have gotten into the middle of the chaotic hand-to-hand whirlwind that was happening right now.

"Sylia!!" Bert pleaded again over the comm. "Never mind me, just shoot the bastards!! My armour can take the fall!!"

On the tail end of his entreaty, a sizzling, semi-transparent wavefront of coruscating bluish energy crackled through the air, rippling like a heat distortion. It washed over the combatants in an eerie electric display; miniature electric bolts arced all over the surfaces of the black armour suits, causing them to stiffen and plummet towards the ground.

As they fell, whipcrack reports echoed through the air, and the three black battlesuits became ensnared by what looked like bolas of some kind; steely cables whipped through the air, wrapping up their arms and legs as the weights on the ends spun around their bodies. When they stopped spinning, the weights became stuck to the tangled-up suits like magnets. The three black suits crashed into the street below, creating huge impact craters, and lay still.

Bert gritted his teeth as the electromagnetic pulse wave crashed into him and Lando; the charge immediately crashed out most of his systems, including his flight system, and gravity took over from there. SkyKnight and his crimson-armoured foe began dropping like stones towards the pavement below, still turning over in mid-air.

As they fell, SkyKnight realized that, impossible as it should have been, the red warsuit was still moving, trying to get a better hold on him. You idiot, he berated himself a moment later; evidently he hadn't been the only one to think of shielding some of his systems from EMP attack; his own strength actuation and movement systems were still functioning because he'd managed to shield them as much as possible from the EMP effects. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than having his suit seize up completely. The ground rushed closer in his viewscreen as he tried to shake loose his clinging enemy.

They hit the pavement in a bone-crushing impact, SkyKnight unfortunately on the bottom. Spots flared in his sight as the air was forced from his lungs by the weight of the red battlesuit landing on him, and jolting pain spread through his chest as he heard something crack; the weight of the battlesuit landing on him had crunched in his chest armour slightly, probably cracking a rib or two again. That was, unfortunately, the problem with any kind of body armour: in order to be able to move around in it, the armour had to have flexibility and articulation. That same flexibility left the door open for severe impacts to cause the armour to buckle inwards, injuring the pilot. He lay there for a moment, sucking in shuddering gasps of air, trying to scrape together enough willpower to move.

His viewscreen flickered erratically; and intermittent status reports flashed on and off. According to his scrambled computer, his main weapons, modular weapons, flight system, and most of the backup systems were off line. The only things really running at the moment were the movement actuators, the main power supply, and some of the control circuits, including visual display. It would be several more minutes before everything came back on-line again, meaning he was stuck on the ground and defenseless at the moment.

Metal ground on metal, as the red suit sitting on top of him shifted, and began to climb off of him to stand upright. As SkyKnight watched, Colonel Lando's warsuit staggered away from him for a few feet, then stood quietly, as if assessing its condition. Gathering his reserves, SkyKnight rolled upright himself, ignoring the hot knives of pain that stabbed at his ribcage as he did so. He noted clinically that his suit was sluggish in response to his movements, meaning that he was even worse off than he'd first believed. He was only able to make it to a kneeling position before he had to stop moving, panting and sweating from the pain. The warsuit spun around at the sounds of his movement.

"I've got to hand it to you," Lando's voice said in grudging respect. "After reading your file, I wouldn't have expected you to spring a sneak attack on us, not that it's going to help you any. Your dossier said you were a nut about honour and fair fighting."

"People change," SkyKnight wheezed back; he was having difficulties breathing at the moment. After a few more breaths, he had the wind to continue. "Besides, honour works two ways; for it to be any good, the other person needs to have it as well. As for the fair fighting, that depends on the circumstances. You sure as hell don't fight fair, so why the hell should I give you the chance to kick me in the head when I'm not looking?" Lando didn't reply, but began to raise the suit arm that had the hand-held missile launcher, pointing it in his direction. Oh shit, Bert wearily groaned; he didn't have the strength to try dodging, and his sluggish suit responses at the moment meant he was as good as dead.

There was a loud, sharp report, and the red warsuit became entangled in a long cable, weighted at the ends, that flew out of the darkness to wrap itself several times around the armour suit, preventing it from raising its arms any further. The suit jerked in surprise as SkyKnight sighed in total relief, finally getting to his feet and turning in the direction the shot had come from. As the scarlet battlesuit struggled with the cable, Sylia's sleek white hardsuit stepped out from the cloaking shadows. As she walked over to SkyKnight, she pulled loose the now empty launcher from her right arm, dropping it onto the ground behind her.

"Hiya boss," Bert hailed her, grinning behind his visor. "What kept you?"

"You were in the way," Sylia replied dryly. "I didn't think you wanted to get too attached to our friend over there, so I had to move over." As she spoke, the familiar blue, green, and red-pink curvaceous shapes of Priss', Linna's and Nene's hardsuits came into view. He noted briefly that Priss had already jettisoned the EMP cannons as they came over to stand next to Sylia.

"Broads?!" snarled Lando from where he was trying to get loose. "You had to go out and get a bunch of goddamn women to help you?!"

"Watch your mouth in front of the ladies," SkyKnight warned. "They happen to be my friends. Since you haven't met before, allow me to introduce you to the rest of the Knight Sabers."

"Shut up, you pompous asshole," Lando spat. "I know who they are." He was silent a moment. "At least now I know what you do on the weekends."

"Pardon me?" SkyKnight inquired in a mild tone, an inkling of what the mercenary was suggesting beginning to grow.

"Surely I don't have to draw you pictures," Lando retorted with, judging from the sound of his voice, a nasty leer. "One guy with four women? What's it like?"

"You slime-sucking filthy bastard!!!" SkyKnight's anger, normally tightly restrained, flared white-hot at the innuendo. His right swordblade snapped out and was hurtling forward before he'd realized it; it never reached his intended target, mostly because Priss, Nene, and Linna all jumped on him and dragged him backwards from the evilly laughing warsuit.

"Whoa!! Calm down!! He's not worth it!!! Relax!!! Chill out!!!" Priss panted, hauling back on his right arm. It wasn't easy; even at only partial efficiency, his suit was still formidably strong. Linna grabbed the other arm as Nene looped an arm around his neck, and together they were able to hold the raging silver-and-blue hardsuit barely in check. The profane epithets that were snarling forth from his helmet were hot enough to melt the pavement around them, and the air was almost turning blue. Priss tried to memorize some of the choicer curses as she hung on to him. Sylia watched the struggle for a moment, then turned to the still chuckling bound warsuit.

"What I want to know," she told the red-clad figure, trying to ignore the scorching oaths from behind her, "is who hired you to steal the AI? I know you weren't stealing it for yourselves; that's not your style."

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Lando chuckled. "Screw off, toots. The Illegal Army answers to no one."

"The Illegal Army is finished," Sylia retorted flatly. "You've been beaten, Colonel, or hadn't you noticed?" The noises behind her were beginning to die off. Either they'd strangled him into quiescence, or else he was finally calming down.

"Beaten?" he chuckled ominously. "I haven't even begun to fight yet." The blocky robotic suit suddenly seemed to swell; the cable entwining it tightened, and then snapped with a metallic whip-like sound. Sylia backed up a few steps in stunned shock as the robotic figure loomed over her; those cables weren't supposed to have been able to be snapped that easily.

"Your EMP attack was a masterful idea," Lando told her. "Too bad it won't work on me; I just played along until I was sure I had all the Knight Sabers present." Twin missile tubes popped out of the shoulders of the warsuit, and guns of some description folded out of the forearms of the armour. Sylia backed up further as the weapons swung over to line up on her, and got ready to dodge.

"Looks like this is where I collect the kill bonus for your heads," Lando remarked. The handheld missile launcher in his left arm began to swing over to Sylia. There were some startled yells from behind her, then the sounds of three hardsuits falling to the pavement. A split second later, SkyKnight whipped past her to slam shoulder-first into the red suit, knocking it backwards. As the suit flew backwards, SkyKnight grabbed the hand-launcher, tearing it loose from its owner's grasp. He crushed the barrel in his fist, and pitched the ruined weapon down an alley as the blocky warsuit climbed back to his feet.

"The only thing you're going to collect," SkyKnight told his rising foe, "is your walking papers."

"Tough talk, boy, but can you back it up?" Lando asked sneeringly. SkyKnight surged forward, his lunge timed to coincide with a flashing uppercut. His opponent casually slapped his punch aside, then flattened him to the pavement with an overhand swing. The battlesuit's foot lifted, and was about to come down on the gasping and prone SkyKnight's helmet when a blue hardsuit smashed feetfirst into its helmet canopy. The red suit fell over backwards with a loud clang, as Priss turned her fall to the pavement into a roll that brought her to her feet again.

"Damnit," she snapped, dragging SkyKnight back to his feet as she kept a wary eye on the loudly swearing warsuit, "You're not up to this right now! Back off and let us handle it!"

"No!" he snarled back, still wheezing slightly. His ribs had to be worse than cracked; each breath was stabbing agony, but he wasn't going to quit, not until Lando had gone down for the count. As he was about to straighten up, he was shoved over backwards by Priss, and grabbed by Nene and Linna.

"What the hell is the big idea?!?!" he burst out, trying to get loose. They hung onto him grimly, as Sylia stepped in front of him. Behind her, he could see Priss sparring with the scarlet battle armour, keeping it occupied.

"You are to stay out of this fight," Sylia ordered him flatly. "Nene's scans show that your suit is only partly functional, and that you've got broken ribs. You are in no shape to slug it out with this guy. We'll take care of it. Nene, make sure he stays put."

"But ...." Bert started to protest, as Sylia and Linna suddenly sprang into the air to attack the red warsuit, leaving him behind. "Damn it, I'm fine!! Let go of me!!" he snapped irritably at Nene, who had reached up and grabbed his shoulder to hold him back. She was standing half in front of him, her red-pink hardsuited figure keeping him from advancing.

"Nothing doing," she replied firmly. "You're not going anywhere. Sylia's orders, remember?" Looking past her, he watched as Linna ducked under a savage roundhouse sword slash from the red combat suit, and jumped back from a kick. At the same time, Priss was nimbly avoiding raking cannon fire from the suit's right arm; they appeared to be plasma cannons, as blue energy blasts were tearing holes in the pavement. Off to the side, Sylia was working around behind the embattled mercenary. He started to step forward again.

"Damn it, I've got to help them!! I can't just stand here and ...AARGH!!" He reeled and staggered backwards as Nene slugged his suit in the ribs. A red miasma of searing sparks dimmed his vision as he dropped to one knee, shuddering and gasping, eyes watering from the pain. Nene knelt next to him putting her arm around his shoulders.

"I'm sorry I had to do that to you," she told him gently, "but I love you, you jerk, and I'm not going to let you kill yourself just to prove you're the noble knight type, and to get revenge for his remarks about us. You can't handle a fight right now; you're not in the shape for it. The fact that you just folded up when I hit you should tell you that much. I can't hit nearly as hard as that guy can, but you dropped immediately."

"I'm ... I'm fine," he gritted between clenched teeth. "It's just bruising; I can ..." His helmet jerked sideways as Nene belted him in the head.

"Will you please stop with the macho bullshit?!" she asked plaintively, her voice a mixture of anger and frustration. "You're going to kill yourself if you keep this up!! You've got three broken ribs right now, and two cracked, and you're not going anywhere!!" Behind her, The red warsuit jerked backwards from Linna's mono-streamers as they sizzled through the air, smacking Priss aside as she tried to shoot the warsuit's helmet dome. The suit dodged sideways as Sylia's left arm blade scythed through the space it had been in only seconds before. Bert gritted his teeth again as helpless frustration welled up. Here he was, stuck on the goddamn sidelines because of bad luck. Marvelous.

"How...how do you know I've got broken ribs?" he asked her, trying to take shallow breaths. She relaxed slightly, hoping he was willing to see reason for a change.

"These new scanners Sylia designed are pretty thorough," she told him. "They can get complete readings on any electronic or mechanical device, like those suits, and I can even do a minimal medical scan on people; that's how come I know what your condition is. The more time I can get to scan something gives better results, of course." There was a brief moment of silence as the shoulder pod on her suit hummed briefly. "Your suit is almost back on-line," she reported, "and so far you don't have any internal injuries from the ribs, but if you keep trying to move around, you might get them."

There was an explosion from the nearby battle, and SkyKnight's head snapped up to take a look. He was in time to see Priss' hardsuit go flying backwards into a wall from a point-blank missile blast. She bounced into the wall back-first, then folded forward to land on her face, unmoving. Sylia and Linna pressed the attack on the red warsuit, forcing it away from the fallen Priss.

"Priss!!" SkyKnight called over to her prone form. No response. "Shit," he growled, forcing himself to his feet, despite Nene's attempts to hold him down.

"Bert! Please!" she pleaded desperately. "You're going to make it worse!!" He was about to reply when another explosion racked the air, and Sylia's white hardsuit flew past them in a series of skidding bounces that ended when she hit a nearby wall. She rolled over, and shakily began getting to her feet. SkyKnight could see where parts of her torso armour plating had melted, exposing the circuitry, and smoke was rising from other parts of her hardsuit. As he turned back to the fight, Linna backflipped frantically, avoiding a swordblade that carved a divot from the asphalt as the warsuit tried to chop her in half. The battle was turning against the Sabers, disastrously.

"I'm sorry, Nene," Bert told her, mentally steeling himself for what he was going to have to do. "I don't think I can sit this one out any longer." He gave her a quick hug, then pulled himself straight, taking a careful breath. She was right about one thing: he was in no shape for a long fight, so he was going to have to make it quick. There was only one weapon he could use that had the power to end the fight that rapidly.

Lando evidently had detected his movement, and divined his intent, despite being occupied fighting Linna. As SkyKnight started to move forward, pulling out of Nene's grasp, the twin missile launchers on his shoulders fired a snarling storm of spiraling warheads at the silver, and red-pink hardsuits. The sensor antennae on the backpack of Nene's hardsuit sprang out immediately, trying to counter the guidance systems of the missile drones; she was unable to divert all of them, however. SkyKnight could see that at least two to three missiles were going to hit him or her.

He calmly stepped in front of Nene as the missiles struck home; shattering explosions engulfed the world in a red wave that faded to blackness.

****

"Wake up." The gravelly voice echoed in the black void he seemed to be floating in. He didn't respond, but shied away from voice, trying to hide.

"I said wake up, damn you!!" A crackling wave of reddish-tinged light swept through the void with a thunderclap, searing him with agony. The wave carried him with it, eventually filling his sight with redness. Sounds began to intrude on his awareness: humming circuitry, faint crackling fires, and metal creaking and clanking. Where was he? What had happened?

SkyKnight opened his eyes slightly, closing them again as the world swam around in his vision. His breathing sounded loud and raspy in his ears, every inch of his body was afire with pain, and there was the faint taste of salty iron in his mouth; blood?! How...how had he....? The thought refused to form, and he began to slide back into oblivion.

"Wake UP, you goddamn bastard!!!" the bass voice roared. "I want you looking at me when you die!!" A clang accompanied the red wave this time, and the sudden spike of pain briefly cleared the mental fog he was swimming in. Memories of the current events flashed back, as Bert gritted his teeth and opened his eyes.

The first thing he saw was red warning lights flashing in his suit display, the second was the red and black assault armour suit evidently standing over him; he was apparently laying on the ground on his back. A large gun muzzle was staring him in the face. Ignoring the menace standing over him, he quickly glanced at his suit display messages, and his heart sank. His hardsuit had sustained severe damage from the missiles, and he was currently at 45% efficiency and running on bare minimum reserve power. In short, he was screwed; those missiles had packed much more explosive force than standard missile loads, and had wrecked his suit almost completely. He flinched as the suit standing over him slapped his head with the gun barrel again.

"Ah, so you're finally awake," Lando gloated. "Good. I like to have my enemies know they've been beaten before I kill them."

"Wh... what ...." SkyKnight tried to speak, then convulsed in a coughing fit that felt like his ribs were stabbing his lungs. With his luck, they probably were; he tasted blood again as he coughed.

"The broads?" Lando guessed, shrugging. "They're not dead yet, but they will be soon; right after I finish you off." The warsuit leaned down, and locked a mechanical hand around his throat, hoisting him into the air to hang suspended from the suit's arm. SkyKnight grabbed at the arm, trying futilely to pry it loose. "First, however," Lando's voice rumbled, "I want to see what you look like." The battlesuit set the gun it had in its other hand down; evidently Lando had found another launcher somewhere. The warsuit's arm began to reach for his visor.

No!! a voice in the back of his mind shrilly protested, this can't be happening!! Damn it, the Knight Sabers weren't supposed to lose! He wasn't supposed to lose!! A faint glow of stubborn anger began to kindle; he wasn't about to just hang there and let this bastard get away with this, scot-free. If he was going to go down, then so was the warsuit.

"Any last words?" Lando asked, as the hand on his suit paused in front of his visor. Unnoticed, a cylindrical handgrip device extended from SkyKnight's right arm armour into his hand as he hung there, helpless.

"Yeah," Bert rasped; breathing and talking were becoming difficult. "I've got some last words I'd like to say." He gathered his reserves, attempting to draw some last ounces of strength from his anger. He was going to have to time this perfectly.

"Let's hear them."

"Eat shit and die, you goddamn cocksure asshole!!!" SkyKnight snarled, as a brilliant blue-white flash crackled through the air accompanied by an electric snap-hiss. The red warsuit staggered backwards, howling in rage, dropping SkyKnight to the ground as the arm holding him was sheared off at the elbow by his suddenly ignited lightsaber blade. Bert fell to his knees, then surged upright again, locking his knees to try and stay upright. The humming blue blade wavered through the air as he swayed on his feet like he'd been drinking.

"You just don't know when to quit, do you?" Lando asked irritably.

"That's right," SkyKnight confirmed. "I just keep going, and going, and going...." He quickly suppressed the images of Energizer bunnies that sprang to mind; he was feeling light-headed enough at the moment that he'd probably collapse laughing if he didn't control himself.

"If you want dumb remarks to be your last words, that's fine with me, boy," Lando replied, bending over to pick up the fallen hand-cannon from the pavement. "You can't even walk right now, so carving me up was a futile effort." Despite having his arm lopped off, he seemed more annoyed than actually angry. SkyKnight finally noted that there wasn't any blood coming from the arm; instead, what looked like boomer lubricants were slowly dripping onto the pavement.

"In fact," Lando noted, "all I've got to do is stand here and wait for you to pass out again; you're almost there now."

"Damn you to hell," SkyKnight replied faintly, swaying on his feet again. His lightsaber sputtered and closed down as he dropped heavily to one knee. Corrosive, mocking laughter echoed through the air.

"So much for the Knight Sabers," Lando remarked, still laughing. He stepped forward.

SkyKnight dove forwards, right arm outstretched towards the looming warsuit. Too late, Lando realized he'd been suckered into stepping closer, and tried to backpedal. As the mercenary frantically backed away, SkyKnight's lightsaber ignited again with a snap-hiss, and the three-foot blazing energy blade stabbed out, right into Lando's armoured torso. Effortlessly, the humming blade speared deep into the suit, and then erupted out the side, carving a huge, deep trench in the armour as Bert wrenched the blade sideways. Oily fluids spewed everywhere, as the warsuit clutched at its side, and crashed to its own knees in front of him.

"You....you...you sneaky bastard!!" Lando snarled. The flow of lubricants slowed to a trickle, but the suit apparently couldn't get back up.

"So sue me," SkyKnight retorted weakly. It was becoming a real struggle staying awake.

"You may have beaten me, but I'm sure as hell not going alone!" Lando told him.

"So be it, then," SkyKnight replied. His mind was beginning to wander, and he realized he'd finally pushed himself into going into shock. He began crabbing towards Lando on his knees and left arm, his right arm holding his humming lightsaber out and away from his body. As he crawled towards the gutted armour suit, it tried to raise its hand-cannon to target SkyKnight for a final shot.

As he crawled, his suit viewscreen suddenly flashed a new warning message. Bert watched in horrified shock as his lightsaber died again, this time for good. His suit power levels had dropped to the point where the computer automatically shut down all weapons to keep the suit moving. He was now completely weaponless.

"Problems?" Lando mocked him, as the gaping maw of the warsuit's gun came level. A glow of some kind of energy build-up began to form. There was nothing he could do; he didn't have any weapons, and he barely had enough strength left to move. SkyKnight tiredly sagged back onto his knees and closed his eyes, summoning up a mental picture of Nene. If he was going to finally get it, he wanted to be thinking of her. A kind of sorrowing regret filled him as he waited.

A shattering blast thundered through the night; energy sizzled and spat as metal shards flew through the air. SkyKnight opened his eyes in surprise as the suddenly headless warsuit in front of him crashed over backwards to lie smoking and motionless on the pavement. He partially turned, and saw the battered and scorched forms of Priss and Sylia.

They were both a mess; on each of their suits, armour plating was cracked, melted, and missing. Sparks were occasionally spitting angrily from exposed circuits. Priss was sitting on the ground, propped up against a wall, and Sylia had crawled onto a pile of rubble, like a sniper behind an embankment. The gun arms on their suits were still smoking from the salvo they'd fired. In the smoke behind them, he could see two other hardsuited shapes moving awkwardly, but couldn't tell who was who.

"I have never," he told Priss and Sylia feelingly, "seen two women as beautiful as you two are right now."

"Bullshit," Priss shot back weakly, trying to stand up by using the wall as a support. "You're just saying that to get on our good sides." Sylia didn't reply, but managed to get to her feet.

"Can you get up?" she finally asked him, moving slowly over to him. Nene and Linna appeared from the smoke, looking as equally trashed as the rest of the Knight Sabers.

"No problem," he replied. SkyKnight stood easily, and then fell flat on his face on the pavement with a loud banging crash as the effects of the night's festivities finally caught up to him.

****

It took a long time, but he awoke finally, surfacing from a strange morass of hazy, confused images and nightmares. The first thing he realized was that he was breathing easily and without pain, which was an immediate relief. For a moment he just enjoyed the luxury. He could feel bandages tightly wrapping his chest, and after a moment, realized he was bandaged up in a few other places as well. Despite the subdued soreness and stiffness he felt refreshed and rested. He recognized the room finally as his own bedroom in his apartment in Sylia's building. His mind also woke to the fact that he wasn't alone.

He looked over in shock at Nene's sleeping face next to him. She was a little banged-up looking herself; her left arm was bandaged and in a sling, and she had a band-aid on her right cheek. She was dressed in a pink blouse and blue skirt, wrapped in an old flannel blanket he kept around for snoozing on the couch with. Evidently, she'd decided to keep him company. He didn't mind in the slightest.

He reached out carefully, ignoring the protests his muscles were making, and gently brushed her lustrous red hair out of her face. At his touch, she stirred, and her emerald-green eyes opened. Seeing he was awake, they filled with a relieved joy.

"Oh thank God you're all right!" She grabbed him for a hug, which he returned gladly, with interest. After a moment their lips met, and he was able to forget his injuries for a few moments. Nene withdrew slightly, her eyes becoming slightly misty-looking; his own eyes felt a little wet.

"I love you too," he told her, wrapping her up in another hug. "For a while there, I wasn't sure if I'd see you again." He began to get choked up at that thought; despite careful planning, he'd just about had his heroing days ended, losing her at the same time.

"Shhhhh," she told him, placing her hand over his mouth. "Don't even think about it. We're both here, and we will be for some time." She pulled her hand away and kissed him again. After a bit, they lay together, enjoying the feel of each other's presence.

"How's everyone else?" he finally asked, feeling like a heel for not having asked sooner.

"Sore," she replied dryly. "We all got a real whaling from that guy, but yours was the worst." She hesitated, for a moment. "You've been unconscious for three days, now," she told him quietly. "You had some fairly serious internal injuries, plus the ribs and a few other wounds. You developed a fever for a while; last night you were having nightmares of some kind, so I spent the night with you." He lay back, absorbing the information. Considering how he'd felt just before passing out, he supposed he wasn't overly surprised.

"What about you?" he asked. She smiled at him, and reached out and brushed her hand along his cheek.

"I just had some bad scrapes, cuts, and bruises," she replied. "Mostly because you stepped in front of those missiles for me. Most of the bruises came from you landing on top of me when we got thrown backwards from the blast."

"Sorry," he mumbled, flushing slightly. She giggled, hugged him, and again they lay quietly for a while. Bert's gaze wandered idly around his room.

"Didn't you have to go to work?" he asked suddenly. She shook her head.

"I had some vacation time coming, and I decided to use it. Why, did you want me to go?"

"NO!!!" he almost shouted, jerking upright, then flopping back with a strangled groan. "God, no!! I don't ever want you to leave," he said in a more reasonable tone. She smiled impishly at him.

"That's a good thing," she remarked, leaning towards him again. "Because I'm not about to." Her lips pressed down on his.

****

"So they failed?" the gravelly voice of an older man inquired.

"As I warned you they would," a deep, rumbling voice replied. "The Knight Sabers will not be dispatched by mere hired thugs."

"Well you're hardly up to the task yourself, are you?" the older voice inquired irritably.

"All things come to those who wait," the sepulchral voice replied in glacial tones. "In time, I will be able to deal with them as they deserve. Until then, we wait and prepare. Do not taunt me further: the results would be most unfortunate."

****

"God, you look like shit," Priss told him as he stiffly limped into Sylia's living room, with Nene providing some steering and support. He supposed he did; he'd had a quick glimpse of a rather pale red-haired figure with dark circles under the eyes, covered in various places with bandages, when he'd looked in the mirror. He hadn't been able to lay in bed anymore, though, despite Nene's attempts to keep him there.

"You're no prize yourself right now," Bert retorted with a grin.

"True, I suppose," she admitted. Her left leg was propped on the coffee table, splinted from the knee to the hip. She also had her cheek and forehead plastered with bandages.

"Nice to see you up," Linna remarked. Her right arm was in a sling, and she appeared to be favouring her right side a bit.

"It's nice to be up," he told her feelingly. She grinned in wry agreement, shifting around and wincing.

"You'd better sit down before you fall down," Sylia remarked as she came into the room from the kitchen. She was balancing a tray with a teapot and several cups. She was moving stiffly, but didn't have any immediately visible trophies of their fight from a few days ago.

"Whatever you say, boss," Bert grinned, hiding a wince at the twinges lowering himself to the couch produced. Nene sat next to him, and carefully leaned against him as he put an arm around her shoulders. Sylia poured the tea, and everyone took a cup, sitting back and relaxing. After a few more minutes of silence, Bert lowered his cup and looked quizzically at Sylia.

"So what did I miss while I was out of it?" he queried.

"Not much," Sylia replied. "I returned the AI piece to Zone, and we even got a small bonus for it. I figured the best way to use it would be to order in dinner tonight as a sort of celebration."

"No argument there," he agreed, being echoed by the rest of the group. "What happened to the rest of the Illegal Army suits?"

"They self-destructed when the ADP showed up," she told him quietly. Bert stared at her disbelievingly.

"They blew themselves up?! What the hell for?! What was the point, then?!" She shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know," she responded. "It was probably in their training not to surrender. Anyhow, as it turns out, they weren't what we thought they were."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," Nene informed him, "That when I scanned the suits, I found out they were pretty much boomers inside those suits. There was very little that you could actually call human anymore." Bert sat silently, digesting the information. He looked up at Sylia.

"So we basically got the crap beat out of us for no good reason," he said. "I mean, they killed themselves, so we couldn't even find out who hired them."

"True," she conceded. "However, look at the job as 'community improvement'; they certainly won't be terrorizing anyone ever again. Besides, I have a hunch that we may be hearing from their employers, whoever they are, again. They went to a lot of trouble to hire the Illegal Army, and whatever they were after, they'll be trying again."

"What a cheery thought," he observed sourly. "We've got to sit here and wait for some shadowy bunch to attack us again." Sylia smiled, spreading her hands in a shrug.

"I'm afraid that's part of the job description," she told him.

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED....

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