A portly, moon-faced man with brown hair, glasses and a bright, cheery disposition swept into the ArrisTech development labs, white lab coat flapping, mimicking his excitement. Flinging exuberant greetings to the other scientists present, Dr. Haynes walked over to the examination table sitting in the middle of the room. Lying on the table was a blue humanoid form, a boomer. This boomer, however, had none of the terrifying aspects of the blue C-55 series; it was only about five-feet-eight, and had a normal looking physique. There were no weapons visible in it at all.

"Dr. Haynes," another scientist working next to the table greeted him. "You're looking chipper today." Haynes grinned, a cheerful infectious grin.

"Why shouldn't I be?" he inquired. "We received the necessary funding and research data from Zone today, and we can get Adama up and running in a month or so if we can iron the final bugs out of the AI. When that happens, we'll be able to dispel the stereotype of boomers as killers using Adama as the role-model."

"This is important to you, isn't it?" the other scientist asked, gazing at Haynes thoughtfully, who nodded enthusiastically.

"Dr. Stingray never intended for his creations to become the ultimate war weapons; they were supposed to be friends to people to help them in their lives, whatever they were doing. Unfortunately, he died before we could complete the AI work, and the boomers were produced using the lesser AI version. That's why they've been such a problem: for anything other than pure combat and killing, their programming becomes unstable, unable to hold together. In some of the older models, it wasn't a problem, but all of the newer ones seem to have had that quirk."

"When will we be testing the AI prototype?"

"In about a week. We've got to assemble the pieces and test them out first before we try putting them in Adama's body."

"I sure hope nothing goes wrong," the scientist remarked, turning back to his work.

The main door to the lab slid open to admit a tall, gaunt man with blond hair and a saturnine expression, wearing a brown suit with a white lab coat over it. Brown eyes directed a piercing gaze around the lab at the fevered activity, betraying no hint of what their owner felt. Haynes turned around, and a welcoming smile lit up his face.

"Yuri!" he exclaimed. "It's good to see you again! Come over here and tell me what you think...."

SkyKnight Productions
Proudly Presents
A NonTechnical Film

MegaTokyo 2034
The Knight Sabers

"The Bubblegum Zone - Episode #7"

Copyright (c) 1995 Bert Van Vliet

"For God's sake, that's not how you hold the damn thing!" Bert sighed. He reached out and gently straightened Priss' left arm out, pushing down on her shoulder at the same time with his other hand. He nudged her feet a bit with his, correcting her stance. "Tighten your grip there, or it's going to fly loose when you release the string."

"Are you done yet?!" Priss asked, beginning to sound exasperated. Her right arm was beginning to shake from where she was holding the string of the longbow she was using back at full draw. Bert nodded dubiously, and stepped back and slightly behind her. Priss sighed in relief, sighted down the arrow, and released the nock she was holding. With a low thrum, the string slapped the arm-guard on her sleeve as the arrow whistled down the range, ricocheting off the target frame. The arrow turned some neat-looking spins in the air, and clattered to the floor. Bert sighed again, placing a hand over his eyes.

"You're flinching when you release," he told her patiently. "Draw another arrow for a sec." Priss complied, and he stepped closer, correcting her stance again.

"Okay, we're going to try something," he told her. He stepped right next to her, their bodies touching, matching her stance as his left arm reached out and steadied her left arm with his. She suddenly grinned to herself.

"Hey, this is kinda cozy," she remarked. "You do this with all your students?" Bert turned beet red, jerking away from her for a moment.

"Stop that," he growled irritably, stepping back up to her, although not quite as close as before, and again steadied the arm holding the bow. "All right, release the arrow," he directed, tightening his grip on her left arm. There was a low twang and a thump, and the arrow quivered from where it was stuck into the red circle, just outside the gold bullseye.

"Better," he approved, stepping back from her, still flushing self-consciously. "When you release the arrow you can't let the bow arm wave around, or else you'll never hit close to the target." She nodded, shaking her right arm out, and decided to call it a day.

"That's enough for now, thanks," she told him. "I'd better quit before my arm falls off."

"True enough," he grinned. "When I was starting out, I overdid it a few times and I couldn't lift my arms for hours the next morning. Don't forget to unstring the bow." Priss sighed irritably, and did as she was told. She placed the bow in the empty slot on the rack at the end of the range, and hung the arrow quiver next to it. Peeling off the arm-guard over her sleeve, she chucked it into the nearby equipment box. She'd expressed an interest in learning archery for a change of pace, and he'd enthusiastically agreed. His teaching manner needed a bit of polish, however; he was slightly impatient at times, but she put it down to the fact that he couldn't shoot a few arrows himself right now.

It had been two weeks since they'd had the final blowout battle with the Illegal Army, and he was still in rough shape from having his ribs broken, again, along with the other injuries he'd sustained; having a battlesuit weighing several hundred pounds land on you from a fall of several stories was not a picnic, not by anyone's measurements. He had tried to draw his usual longbow, but the 50-lb. draw had put too much strain on the mostly healed muscles and bones, doubling him over in immediate pain; it appeared there were limits to just how fast modern medicine could cure some injuries. It was obviously pissing him off completely that he was unable to do a lot of what he wanted to do because of his tentative condition. Priss had already completely recovered from her injuries except for some fading bruises.

"So when does this place open to the public?" she asked, looking around at the mostly finished archery range. There was still the odd pile of boards around here and there, and in some places, the light fixtures were hanging by bundled wires. It looks a lot like the shop, she noted to herself with a grin: a mess. Despite the rough appearance, most of the facilities were ready to use.

"Not for a few weeks yet," he replied, flinging an old blanket over the bow rack to keep dust off of things. "I can't finish up some of the other rooms yet, for obvious reasons."

"Mmm," she regarded him thoughtfully, sweeping her brown hair back over her shoulders. "Why don't you hire someone to finish it up for you?"

"Because this is my project, and I'm going to do it myself," he told her. "I don't need help."

"Have it your way. God, you're stubborn."

"Thanks," he replied dryly. "That makes two of us." He held the door open for her as they left, closing it behind them and locking it. They walked down the corridor to the entry foyer of the building. As they walked, Bert looked over at her.

"While we're on the subject of projects," he asked. "Whatever happened to that pro debut tryout you mentioned a while back?"

"I ditched the producer," she replied. "I'm gonna write some new stuff and try again with a different company."

"What happened to the old one?" he asked curiously. Her expression became annoyed.

"If you must know, the bastard was constantly trying to get a date with me, and dropping all kinds of hints about what we could do afterwards."

"Sounds like Leon," Bert quipped. Priss ignored him.

"The final straw was when we got to actually recording. The asshole didn't have the guts to try my singing on a stand-alone record, he was going to put me on with some other singer. Not only that, he wasn't even going to use my lyrics," she fumed. Her red-brown eyes were almost spitting sparks at the memories. Bert was briefly glad that it wasn't him she was pissed off at, and wondered if the producer was still able to walk upright. Priss continued to catalogue the wrongs that had been done to her.

"The absolutely final straw was the stupid outfit he wanted me to wear; there's no goddamn way on this earth I'm gonna be caught dead in some sappy, frilly dress with ruffles. What the hell did he think I was, a goddamn schoolgirl?!" She stalked along beside Bert, teeth clenched. He had a sudden picture of her in a dress like the one she'd described, and suppressed the grin he felt forming. However, a moment later he lost the battle with his sense of humour to keep from passing some kind of comment.

"Well, I can understand why someone might want to date you," he said. "You're a very attractive woman."

"Thanks," Priss said, flushing slightly. She seemed flustered by his comment for some reason. Bert grinned, and got ready to run.

"I don't know why the dress would get you upset, though," he added. "I think you'd look cute in ruffles." He took off, sprinting for the exit a split second before Priss took a swing at him.

"Cute?! CUTE?!?!" she yelled. "I'll show you cute, you jackass!!! Come back here, you coward!!" Priss took off after him as he made it out the door into the street.

She caught him about fifty feet away from the door.

****

White light washed through the room in a fluorescent spray, illuminating the wild tangle of parts and machines that was the basement tech shop. Dropping his hat and jacket on a peg sticking out from the wall, Bert walked over to the worktable sitting at the far end of the room. A restless, irritated expression flashed across his face as he walked over, as if he was debating something internally and was unable to answer whatever the question was.

Light gleamed off of polished silver-and-blue armour plating as he drew closer to the table, and he gazed down at his newly repaired hardsuit with a somewhat self-congratulatory smile. Despite the discomfort entailed by work of any kind at the moment, he'd succeeded in rebuilding his own armour suit in the time since the Illegal Army ruckus.

The other hardsuits had required minor repairs compared to his; eighty-five percent of his hard armour plating had been ruined completely, he'd lost yet two more modular weapons, his flight system had been smashed into scrap, and only one each of his four laser cannons and two lightsabers had survived intact. The control and power systems had gotten toasted a bit, but had been still operational. By contrast, only some armour plate patching and circuit repairs in the rest of the team's suits had been required. During the week, he'd also ignored the sly comments from everyone else about the sizes of his repair bills. All right, so he was a little hard on equipment; there was no need to make a federal case out of it!

There was one slight improvement he'd made that hadn't been on the schedule, however. Sylia was still debugging the new control software and systems, so the next set of upgraded hardsuits were still a while away. Bert hadn't wanted to wait, as usual, to try out at least one of the improvements this time around, so he'd incorporated it into his repairs.

His armour plating, while it looked the same, was now, he hoped, almost 200% stronger than his initial designs. Instead of a complex metallurgical alloy covered with his polymer coating, the base material for the hardsuit armour was now a ceramic-metal composite material, similar to what was used by the space materials industry in rocket engines and spacecraft hulls. Called 'ceramel', it was fantastically light, and far, far stronger than conventional metal alloys. It also had the added benefit of excellent heat resistance. He was hoping that the resistance would translate into greater protection from energy weapons, which had been the only shortfall of his old formulations. The polymer coat had gone on top, of course, further enhancing the plating strength.

The other benefit to the lighter armour, was a commensurate strength increase. By lightening the load that the suit musculature had to actuate, more power became available for raw combat strength, all without building in the new actuators. The new actuators were a major overhaul job, which was why he'd postponed it, reluctantly leaving that modification to be implemented in the next group of suits.

He stood next to his suit for a while, lost in thought as several undefinable expressions sped across his face. After a few minutes, he sighed as he took a quick glance at the clock, then ducked into a side room, changing to his hardsuit undergarment. Coming back into the shop, he tilted the suit off the table, and opened it up. The suit whirred and whipped into place around him after he stepped into it, snugly encasing him in hi-tech armour.

He grabbed his helmet and settled it into place as he walked across the shop to a cabinet. Positive status reports flickered through his helmet viewscreen as he walked. The red helmet eyeslot burned brightly as the sensors came on-line.

Reaching into the cabinet, he pulled out his flat battery packs, latching them into place in their hip mounts. After a moment's hesitation, he slapped one of his variable-load chemical launchers into his left shoulder mount, and yet another battery pack into the right shoulder mount. He hesitated again for a moment, half turned back as if changing his mind, then turned again, irritably jerked the door open, and clanked out into the hallway. Darkness cloaked the cluttered room again as the lights flicked off behind him.

****

Wind whistled shrilly past his extended flight wings as SkyKnight soared through the depths of the nighttime sky over MegaTokyo. Dim starlight glinted from above him, as stray light from the sprawling metropolis below illumined his silver-clad form. He wasn't worried about being spotted; the altitude he was at was much too high for visual sightings.

As he flew along, he idly reflected that it was like he was in a whole other world at the moment. Up above, the stars pierced the canopy of the skies, while below the city appeared to be wreathed in a softly-glowing mist, riddled with a multitude of glowing points of light. Some of the buildings were tall enough that they seemed to float on phosphorescent, ephemeral clouds, almost like separate islands. It was a strangely beautiful, breath-taking sight. The analytical part of his mind noted that it was light reflecting from the smog that cloaked the city that created the effect, which kind of destroyed the whimsical mood he'd briefly enjoyed.

Bert sighed; a vague, undefinable depression had been dogging him lately, and he was finding that not even flying around, his usual cure, was working this time. He supposed it stemmed partly from his inability to do anything lately; recovering from his injuries from the Illegal Army fight seemed to be taking longer than recuperating had taken in the past, due to the seriousness of the injuries. He hadn't fully recovered yet, and wasn't even supposed to be using his suit, not that it had stopped him from taking it out.

The other reason for the depression was less easy to define. Lately he'd been feeling irritable and restless for no good reason, and the fact that he couldn't figure out why was irritating him even more. He felt let-down and used-up.

SkyKnight banked through the air, veering off into a new direction as he meandered along, his mind spinning its wheels, trying to find the source of his gloom. He wasn't having any success, and he finally gave up in frustration. He swore at himself under his breath, wishing he could turn off the part of his subconscious that seemed to like nagging him with vague worries all the time. There were days when he wished he could just banish his emotions entirely. He soared onwards, as a dark cloudbank on the far horizon rumbled sullenly with the promise of a coming storm.

****

The guard looked up briefly from his newspaper as thunder grumbled ominously, audible through the building over the hum of the banks of security monitors in front of him. Giving brief thanks that he wasn't at the front gate watch station, the guard returned to his newspaper, propping his feet up on the console. Unnoticed, the monitors began to shut themselves off, turning blank one at a time in rapid succession.

****

A thundering explosion racketed through the halls, closely followed by agonized screams, shouts, and the intermittent bark of small-caliber gunfire. Startled inmates of the MegaTokyo Detention Centre looked up from their various activities and discussions at the unusual sounds. A few began to get hopeful looks, as the sudden prospect of a jailbreak loomed large in their thoughts.

A massive boomer loomed large in the end of the hallway to the cell block, destroying immediately whatever budding hopes the convicts may have entertained. Around twelve feet tall, the boomer was a misshapen, malformed hulk that sported a patchwork colour scheme, two massive shoulder cannons, and wickedly curved claws on its left arm. A hemispherical helmet canopy concealed the boomer's face, but an evil red glow was pulsing from within the semi-opaque dome.

As the boomer slowly stomped down the corridor, the serrated blades on its arm dripped crimson onto the floor tiles, and a slaughterhouse smell drifted from it. Even the most hardened crooks shrank back against the far walls of their cells, as far away as possible from the hostile biomechanoid, praying that the boomer wasn't after them. The boomer went approximately three-fourths of the way down the hall, and stopped at a particular cell, turning to face the door and ripping it free with casual strength.

Inside the cell, a tall, thin man with reddish-brown hair, brown eyes, and an angular face looked up from the tattered notebook he was scribbling in with a pencil. Other pages, covered with technical notes and what looked like boomer design sketches littered the floor around the cot he was sitting on. There was a slightly crazed look in his eyes, and a self-satisfied grin on his face as he looked up from his notebook. The grin vanished as he realized what was standing in the doorway to his cell; he'd remained oblivious to the noises, absorbed completely in his 'work'.

"Dr. Miriam Yoshida," a strangely distorted voice rumbled from the boomer. "I require your unique talents for a job."

****

SkyKnight jerked in surprise as a massive explosion flared on the nighttime skyline, off to the west of his position. The blast noise from the detonation was audible even from his location of a couple of miles away. As he watched, a towering column of black smoke, blacker even than the approaching stormfront, billowed into the sky, lit from below by the angry red and orange flames that were engulfing a large fenced-in complex. Holeeeee shit! he observed to himself; it looked like somebody's power generator had just overloaded and blew itself into orbit.

Jet turbines shrieked exultantly as he swooped around and shot towards the disaster site. He flicked on his helmet communications array as he zipped towards the conflagration, tuning into the ADPolice wavelengths. He discovered that there was no need to alert them; judging by the screaming of the dispatchers, they were already well aware of what had happened, and were sending all available units as well as the fire department. He was probably going to get there just ahead of the cops.

A booming thunderclap pierced the night air, and lightning began to dance through the clouds as he zoomed through the air, creating flickering silver flashes as the light reflected from his hardsuit.

****

"Well, well, well," the distorted voice rumbled, echoing the thunder that cracked overhead. A vast amusement was evident in the deep voice. Dr. Yoshida wondered what was going on; from the boomer's stance, it was looking up into the sky, but he couldn't see anything. The fact that the boomer had a tight grip on his shoulder and neck, preventing him from looking around, was part of the problem.

"What is it?" he asked testily. "What's going on?" Behind them, the former detention facility blazed like a torch, slowly crumbling into a charred ruin. Sirens wailed in the distance.

"There's an old friend coming," the boomer chuckled. "Unfortunately, we don't have the time to welcome him properly." The boomer's hand released Yoshida's shoulder for a moment.

"Do not look around, or you will die, immediately and in great pain," the boomer warned in a cold voice. Yoshida stood stock still, obeying the boomer. While he still had an arrogant look on his face, he was less than confident about his current predicament.

As he waited, he heard something sliding, like a visor on a helmet opening. A shattering blast of sound almost burst his eardrums, driving him to his knees in pain, as the glow of the fires was momentarily washed out by several brilliant flares of greenish-white light. There was another sliding noise, and a click, and the boomer hauled him off the pavement. Dr. Miriam Yoshida was unceremoniously dragged by the scruff of the neck into the cloaking darkness beyond the raging fires.

****

"Aw hell, not again!!!" SkyKnight burst out, as a crackling swarm of greenish-white energy bolts blasted through the thickening air towards him. He couldn't even see what the hell had fired at him, but it had evidently seen him, despite the range. The approaching barrage was enough proof of that.

In the split seconds before the fusillade arrived, SkyKnight realized he was going to get hit at least once; the way the bolts had been spaced out, he was going to get hit by one while dodging another. He flipped himself sideways in a looping roll combined with an outward moving spiral, trying to get clear of the energy bolts, but failed. As he'd feared, he was nailed square in the chest by one of the beams and thrown backwards through the air, despite the forward thrust of his flight pack. As he reeled helplessly through the air, spots flashing in his vision, two more bolts slammed into him, knocking him into a descending arc through the air as gravity won the contest with his propulsion system.

Bert fought to regain control of his fall, at the same time trying hard to retain his grip on consciousness as red waves washed across his vision; those last two shots had really, really hurt. His flight system sullenly responded to his frantic commands, slowing his precipitous fall, and aiming towards a deserted back alley. Jets roared defiantly, and his speed decreased to the point where he merely passed out from the impact as he hit the pavement with a deafening bang. Silence cloaked the alley as the echoes from the crash faded.

Lightning flashed through the skies again. The swollen clouds above opened up, and the promised rain began to fall, drenching the sprawling city below in greyish sheets of water. Rainwater trickled off the polished silver suit as it lay in a crumpled heap on the asphalt, washing some of the burn marks off of its plating.

****

"What the hell happened here?!" Leon demanded. "It looks like a goddamn war zone!" Daley shrugged, pulling his coat around tighter in futile attempt to keep the drenching rain out, watching the detention facility burn from the police perimeter lines that had been set up. Inside the perimeter, red lights strobed in a contest with the light from the grudgingly dying fires as the fire department hosed the inferno down. The rain was a godsend at the moment for the fire department, but it was making life miserable for the ADP officers who had to secure the area.

"Your guess is as good as mine," he replied, shivering as a chill hit him. "We won't really know until we can get the forensics guys to look through the rubble."

"I have a bad feeling about this," Leon muttered. He irritably yanked off his sunglasses, stuffing them in a soggy pocket. Wiping a hand across his streaming face, he glanced over at his partner. "Did the injuries that killed the perimeter guards look familiar to you, too?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Daley admitted. Both men lapsed into gloomy, contemplative silence as they watched the burning detention facility. The flames were finally beginning to die out.

Clanking, uneven footsteps in the night, coming from behind them, made them whirl around in surprise. Leon's revolver leaped into his hand as he scanned the darkness beyond the police lights. As he watched, a staggering silver-and-blue clad figure stumbled into the light. A faint red glow was visible at eye level.

"At ease!! Relax!! Hold your fire!!" Leon hollered to the few eager rookies who started sighting their assault rifles on the approaching shape. "Nobody shoots unless I give the order! Keep them under control for a few moments," he directed Daley, before hopping over the cordon tape, and splashing across the wet pavement to where SkyKnight had stopped, waiting. He stuffed his revolver back into its holster as he walked.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," SkyKnight observed as Leon approached. Leon snorted at the remark, but didn't try to come up with a witty reply. He examined the rain-slick silver hardsuit, and noticed that SkyKnight was not in good shape. Burn marks scored his torso armour, and the right shoulder of his suit was dented and mangled looking. From the way SkyKnight was favouring that arm, it was either broken, or very badly injured at least.

"What the hell happened to you?" he asked the silver-garbed Knight Saber.

"Something decided it doesn't like me," SkyKnight replied. Leon could hear the suppressed pain in his voice as he tried to appear flippant. "I was flying by when the building blew, and when I came over to check it out, I got shot down. So much for 'fly the friendly skies'."

"Shot down?!?!" Leon repeated, stunned. "Shot down by what?!"

"A boomer, I presume," SkyKnight replied, shifting around in obvious discomfort. "That is unless they've started handing out portable particle beam cannons to the general public." Leon didn't reply, but turned the new information around in his mind. The presence of a boomer explained a few things, and he didn't like the feeling he was beginning to get.

"So what happened here?" SkyKnight queried.

"This was a detention facility," Leon told him. "Something killed the guards, shut down the security system, then blasted the building. We won't know for quite some time if anyone was broken out; there's not much left to work with."

"I'd noticed that," SkyKnight noted dryly. "How were the guards killed?

"Massive gut wounds."

"Oh bloody hell," SkyKnight muttered.

"You can say that again," Leon agreed. "As if things weren't bad enough."

"What's that supposed to mean?" SkyKnight inquired, cocking his head curiously. Leon, however, didn't reply immediately, but stood looking troubled.

"Sorry," Leon replied finally, "but that's a police matter. There's only so far that I can bend the rules and make allowances for you. I got in shit from the chief the last time for letting you go; he doesn't like vigilantes, and was ready to make a public example of you when I brought you in. He ranted and raved about that one for about an hour. Hell, he was even going to try and pin the murder on you."

"It's so nice to be liked," SkyKnight observed dryly. "Thanks anyway, Inspector. Take care." He turned and walked off into the darkness, leaving Leon to stare after him. Leon turned around, returning to the taped-off perimeter as, off in the darkness, jets whined and gradually dwindled into the distance.

****

The door to the tech shop banged open as SkyKnight lurched through, stumbling sideways and almost demolishing a nearby workbench. Tortured gasping echoed from his helmet as he grabbed the table with his left arm for some support. The gambit failed, and he toppled to the floor with a loud clang, unfortunately landing on his injured right shoulder. Pained swearing seared the air, as he rolled over and crawled to where he could lean against the wall. Water dripped from his suit as he crawled, leaving wet, smeared trails on the floor.

Bert flopped against the wall, panting and sweating. He didn't know how seriously he was banged up this time, but it had taken everything he had in order to get home. The nerve endings in his right arm were screaming bloody murder, and his ribs ached from where most of the energy shots had hit his suit. He was almost afraid to look down and see if he was bleeding or not; those blasts had really packed an impressive wallop.

As he sat there, trying to force himself to try getting up and out of his suit, the door to the shop opened, and Sylia stalked in, closely followed by Nene. Both women were obviously angry with him; the glares they directed in his direction could have burned holes in battleship armour.

"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Sylia demanded, brown eyes pinning him to the spot with a furious glance. Nene didn't say anything, she just glared at him.

"Nighttime," he quipped, as he shot a quick glance at the clock. Uh-oh....it was three in the morning. He suddenly noticed that Sylia had a bathrobe wrapped around herself, and Nene was slightly rumpled looking, as if she'd just gotten up. He groaned to himself as he rather belatedly remembered that she'd been going to drop by his place, which explained her presence now; she'd probably been snoozing on the couch, hoping he was coming back before too long. Oh bloody marvelous, he sighed to himself, realizing that the two women had gotten up with the express purpose of giving him shit in mind.

"Don't get smart with me, mister!" Sylia snapped angrily. "We had a deal that you'd...." Her voice trailed off as she took a really good look at him, and her expression became even more unpleasant as she noted the blast marks on his torso armour. Nene had also noticed his burned and battered condition, and was giving him an equally hot look.

"Get out of your suit," Sylia ordered flatly. "Then I want you to get to the infirmary so we can look you over. If you're not down there in ten minutes, then we come back for you with a can opener and a crowbar." She swept out of the tech shop, Nene trailing her. Neither of them looked back.

"Why me?!" SkyKnight asked imploringly, looking at the ceiling. "I really didn't need any more problems tonight!" No reply was forthcoming, so he rolled over preparatory to getting to his feet, and began the slow, painful process of getting out of his suit.

****

"For a stupid bastard who won't listen to me, you're in disgustingly good shape," Sylia told him, pitching the small medical scanner onto a side table. "Except for the dislocated shoulder, you didn't get more than a few bruises. You're damn lucky; you could have caused more damage to your ribs, and they're not whole yet." Her brown eyes flashed angry sparks as she glared at him, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I had noticed that," he hissed back between clenched teeth. "Have we got any painkillers around?"

"No," she replied heartlessly. "I think you should sit there and suffer anyway. We had a deal covering your flight excursions, and you just broke it, buster. There had better be one damn fine explanation for that, and for your present condition."

"There is," he assured her, pale-faced and sweating. "But could we please get my shoulder fixed first?"

****

Nene walked him back down to his basement apartment, making sure he didn't keel over on the way. She was still angry with him, and had been giving him the cold shoulder ever since he'd gotten back. She hadn't spoken to him, and his attempts at conversation had been stonewalled. It wasn't helping him feel any better; in fact, it was threatening to amplify the depression he'd been trying to fight off. They came to the door of his apartment, which Nene opened for him. She hesitated briefly, then followed him in. Bert flopped on the couch, wincing as his tender shoulder complained, and Nene sat down next to him, a little apart, turning to face him.

"Would you mind telling me what you were thinking of tonight?" she asked quietly, finally breaking the oppressive silence. "Your explanation to Sylia didn't mention why you just up and left suddenly; in fact, it was artfully vague on that topic."

"I just needed to get out for a while. That's all there was to it. I didn't go out trying to find a fight, or something heroic to do, I just wanted to fly around a bit and clear my head." Nene stood, and started walking towards the door. Bert stared after her in surprise.

"Nene?! What..what's wrong?! What did I say?!" he asked, confused. She turned to look back at him.

"If you're not going to confide in me," she told him. "Then there's not much point in my staying, is there?" There was more than a trace of hurt in her green eyes.

"Please don't say things like that," he pleaded. "I love you, damnit, and I...I...I need you. Please don't leave." She came slowly back, sitting down next to him again.

"Then talk to me," she told him simply. "There's been something eating at you ever since our last job. I didn't say anything before because I thought you trusted me enough to tell me what it was on your own. Evidently, I was wrong."

"No! I do trust you! Completely! Totally! It's just that.....I....how can I tell someone what's bothering me when I don't even know myself?!" he burst out plaintively. Nene blinked in surprise.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she queried.

"It means exactly what it says," he told her. There was a weary and confused look in his eyes. "I've been trying for days now to figure out why I feel..... depressed is the word, I guess, although that's not quite right either. I... I just don't know!! I thought flying around would clear my head enough to be able to figure out what was wrong, but it didn't, and then all hell broke loose." He closed his eyes for a moment, leaning back into the couch and covering his face with his hands, sighing miserably. After a moment or two he sat up again and looked at her.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," he said quietly. "Believe me, it was the farthest thought from my mind. I'm just not the greatest at dealing with my own feelings, and I feel guilty unloading my problems on other people. I thought I could handle my emotional baggage myself this time around, and that's why I didn't say anything. I'm sorry."

"You should be," she told him sternly, then relaxed, leaning over and gently hugging him. "I wish you'd quit being so self-contained sometimes," she sighed. "Part of a relationship is telling the other person about your problems. You've gotten a lot better, but there's times I could strangle you." She shot him an exasperated glance. "Tonight is a prime example. There's nothing dishonourable, or whatever, in confiding in your friends, you know." Bert hugged her back, drawing some comfort from the contact.

"I know, honestly," he told her. "But it's still difficult breaking a habit of several years."

"No!" she exclaimed dryly. "I'd never have guessed!" She grinned and wrapped him up in another hug as he did the same, and they sat like that for a few minutes. Bert glanced over at the clock: 4:23 AM. He sighed.

"I'm sorry I ruined your night, anyway," he said. "I didn't mean to be out that late."

"No problem," she replied. "Tomorrow...oops, I mean today's when I'm on the later shift, so sleeping in isn't a problem."

"Okay. I'll go get a blanket, and then you can have my room. I'll bunk on the couch here."

"Wouldn't you be more comfortable in the bedroom with me?"

"Nene!!"

"Oh come off it," she told him irritably. "You can be so stuffy at times, you know? I meant sleeping only, you jerk. There's nothing wrong with that." Bert turned bright red, then regained control of himself. He shook his head.

"I don't think you want to be in the same area I am during the night," he replied. "I'm not sleeping the best at the moment; the shockwaves from my tossing and turning might keep you awake." Nene looked concerned.

"Still having those nightmares?" she inquired, reaching up and brushing his hair out of his eyes, then running her hand down his cheek. He nodded stiffly, not replying. "Maybe you should see a doctor about it," she suggested. "This is getting serious, if it's keeping you up now."

"Oh, right," he snorted. "I can picture it now: I walk into a shrink's office and say 'I'm having nightmares about a psychopathic boomer that almost killed me and my friends.' After they stop laughing, they'd probably lock me up in a rubber room. Besides, I can't really risk something like getting a psych analysis. I can't lie convincingly enough to fool anyone, so I'd probably blow our cover sooner or later. No, I'm afraid I'm just going to have to put up with it for a while."

"How much longer is 'a while'?! It's been almost half a year now!"

"I can't help what my subconscious does," he retorted irritably. "It won't listen to me."

"Now you know what we feel like," she deadpanned. Bert slapped a hand over his eyes, sighing and gritting his teeth as Nene grinned saucily at him. While he was recovering his composure, she vanished into the bedroom, emerging a minute later with a pillow and a blanket. She stuck the pillow behind him, then sat down on the couch next to him, snuggling closer as she draped the blanket around the two of them. Bert looked at her quizzically, even though it was pretty obvious what her intent was.

"Maybe if I keep you company you'll be able to sleep better," she explained, stretching up and giving him a quick kiss. He didn't contradict her, kissing her back and wrapping an arm around her. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and sought the sleep that had been eluding him lately, drawing some peace of mind from Nene's warm presence.

****

"Soon," the deep voice rumbled. "Soon we will be able to proceed with the final phase of our plan, and then we will both have what we want." The hulking shape of the boomer shifted slightly, the wall it was leaning against creaking ominously. Cracks appeared in the plaster, but the wall held firm.

"Excellent," an older, gravelly voice replied from the shadows behind a desk. "We've put enough money and effort into this project; it's about time we got some results."

"You knew it would take a long time. This is not the kind of operation that can be implemented overnight, especially without access to the resources you once had."

"And you know why that has to be," the old man's voice snapped. "We don't want to attract attention to our actions; this must be completely covert until we are ready."

"I am fully aware of what the reasons are. Do not presume to lecture me," the boomer replied coldly. A brief silence fell, as tension between the two figures became palpable briefly. At length, the seated, shadow-cloaked figure spoke again.

"What about McLaren and Yoshida?"

"McLaren is a rat in a maze," the boomer stated flatly. "He thinks he can escape when his tenure is over, but he is mistaken; I know everything he has tried to do and will attempt to do; I have absolute control over him. When we are finished, his usefulness will be at an end." The statement was made with a chilling finality that made the skin crawl. "For the moment, Yoshida's megalomania makes him useful to us; he is cooperating fully to the best of his abilities, believing it will get him the power and influence he craves." A derisive chuckle escaped the malformed biomechanoid, echoed by an equally amused one from the desk.

"How much longer will we have to wait?" the disembodied voice asked.

"One week. Then the final component we require will be fully assembled. There may be some interference from a third party, but nothing insurmountable."

****

Bert stirred and shifted on the couch, half turning over sleepily, not quite awake yet. He hauled himself upright to a sitting position on the couch, running a hand through his already hopelessly snarled thatch of red hair. He scrubbed a sleeve across his eyes, making a sour face at the foul way his mouth tasted. If he didn't know better, he could almost swear that someone had stuffed old gym socks into his mouth during the night.

Sighing he got to his feet, letting the blanket drop to the floor, not noticing or caring, and walked across the living room, heading for the bathroom. Because it was (for him) equivalent to early morning, his mind wasn't fully cognizant of a very important detail that he'd missed. He opened the bathroom door and stepped in.

"BERRRRRT!!!!" an outraged shriek blasted the air. Split seconds later, red-faced and now COMPLETELY awake, he dove back out the bathroom door. However, he wasn't fast enough to avoid the washcloth, soap bar, scrub brush and assorted plastic bottles that clobbered him in the back of the head on the way out. He slammed the door behind him, and plastered himself up against the wall as the last of the missiles stopped clattering on the floor, panting.

He wiped a hand across his sweaty face, mentally kicking himself for not noticing that Nene had already gotten up before him, and for not hearing the shower running before opening the door and stepping in. He'd had a brief flash of wet long red hair, angry green eyes, and a curvaceous water-and-soap slicked figure, before her angry shout had snapped him completely awake. He clamped a tight grip on himself before he could get carried away by the euphoria the memory produced; he was in enough trouble as it was already.

Sighing in combined resignation and regret, he quickly whipped up a pot of tea, and started some bacon and eggs cooking while she finished showering. After several more minutes she emerged from the bathroom, having gotten dried off and dressed. Since it was a working day, she was wearing her form-fitting ADP uniform, minus the jacket. She gave him a very hot glare as she came over to the table where he was setting up the plates.

"Uh, hi!" he grinned weakly, trying unsuccessfully to look innocent. "Breakfast is ready."

"Are you awake now?" she retorted acidly.

"Oh definitely," he assured her, wincing and rubbing the back of his head. "Your technique is flawless, if painful."

"You asked for it, you perverted creep! You get upset when I suggest we share the bed for the night, then you walk in and gape at me in the shower! You're just lucky I didn't have anything heavier to throw!"

"I didn't gape!"

"You sure did! You probably tripped over your jaw on the way out; that, or the drool on the floor." Bert turned bright crimson, right to the roots of his hair. He quickly dished up breakfast, and buried himself in his coffee mug to hide his discomfort. They ate silently for a few minutes.

"So, uh, what are you doing today?" he asked tentatively. She looked over at him, and again he turned bright red. His guilty conscience was really needling him; every time he looked at her, his mind kept replaying the brief flash of her in the shower.

"Getting locks put on the bathroom door," she shot back sarcastically.

"Look, I'm sorry," he told her, blushing yet again. "Honest! I didn't mean to walk in on you, I'm just not really alert first thing in the morning."

"No kidding! I'd never have guessed!"

"Aw come on, Nene! It was an honest mistake! I'm really, really, really sorry! Honest!"

"Okay, suppose I accept that," she glared at him. "Then why are you turning beet red whenever you look at me?"

"Uh, I, err, um..." he stammered. How did he manage to get himself into these things?!

"I thought so," she said, sitting back and folding her arms across her chest, giving him another glare.

"Well what do you want me to do about it?!" he protested defensively. "I'm only human! I can't just selectively erase parts of my memory!!" She didn't reply, glaring at him and sipping her tea. Bert sighed mentally, and gave up. She was mad at him, and that was all there was to it. Based on previous experience with her temper, he knew it would probably be most of the day before she got over being steamed at him. He quietly gathered up the dishes, carrying them over to the sink. Giving them a squirt of detergent, he started the hot water running. Nene carried her teacup over, still sipping from it as he started washing the dishes by hand. He did have a dishwasher, but the activity was helping him to relax, a little.

The rather guilty, uncomfortable silence stretched for a few moments as he tried to figure out some way of extracting himself from his current predicament. After a few moments, he sighed, settling on 'honesty is the best policy'. He dropped the dishes into the drying rack, as he cast a sidelong glance towards Nene. She was sipping her tea, not looking at him.

"You don't have anything to be embarrassed about," he told her, a trifle bluntly. "You have a marvelous figure." Nene choked and spluttered in surprise on her tea, green eyes bugging out as she turned the colour of her hair. Bert desperately suppressed the grin that he felt forming on his face, as he rescued the cup before it hit the floor, tossing it into the dishwater. After a few more moments of gasping, she recovered her breath. Her face was still a bright pink colour.

"You...you..." she sputtered. She was obviously struggling to find words for the situation, but none were forthcoming.

Mentally preparing himself for a backlash, he stepped forwards, leaning down, tilting her chin up with his hand and kissing her softly on the lips.

"You're cute when you're mad, too," he told her. She stared back at him, still wide-eyed and red-faced, completely flustered beyond any hope of an immediate recovery. He grinned at her, and gave her a sweeping, courtly bow. Turning around, he quickly finished up the dishes, stacking them in the drying rack. As he turned away from the sink, he was startled by Nene placing her arms around his neck. He looked down into her emerald green eyes, seeing at last a faint flicker of humour.

"If you ever mention this to anyone else, I'm going to strangle you on the spot," she warned him. An eyebrow twitched upwards as he grinned.

"Would I do something like...mmff?" Nene shut him up quite effectively by pulling him down and kissing him, and he gladly wrapped his arms around her, returning the kiss.

"Mind if I ask a favour?" Bert queried as he pulled his pickup truck to a halt in front of the ADP building. Nene undid the seatbelt as she looked over at him.

"I can try. What did you want?" she asked.

"Could you get me a copy of all the files related to those strange killings over the last few weeks, and the explosion last night? I've got a hunch they're connected somehow, and I'd like to check into it myself; I'm getting sick of being shot at."

"I'm sorry," she sighed, "but I can't. Sylia guessed that you'd want to look into it, but I'm not supposed to give you any information until you're completely healed."

"Bloody hell," Bert muttered disgustedly, looking suddenly sour. "You talked to Sylia this morning?" She nodded. "When?"

"While you were in the bathroom. She was looking for me specifically, so I forgot to mention it."

"And what did our Imperious Leader want?"

"Bert!" Nene exclaimed, shocked. "How can you say that about Sylia?! I thought..."

"Nene," Bert interrupted quietly, "Sylia is a very good friend, one whom I both respect and admire. At times she's almost like an older sister to me, but at the same time, I'm getting a little sick of always being treated like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. I admit that I'm not entirely blameless in a lot of the situations, but at the same time, I think it's time she quit ragging on me whenever something happens. I've paid several times over, and in currency I don't care to think about, for my own actions. I'm not being rebellious or anything like that when I do something, it's just part of my nature to be my own person, and Sylia is going to have to fully realize that one of these days." Nene was silent for a moment, looking troubled. Bert leaned across the seat and kissed her, drawing back afterwards.

"You'd better get going," he said. "You don't want to be late."

"Are you going to be all right?" she asked, looking over at him. He nodded. She suddenly threw her arms around him in a hug, kissing him again. After a moment she drew back.

"I'll see you tonight, then," she said, gathering up her handbag.

"I shall wait with bated breath for the blessings of thy radiant presence," he grinned. She rolled her eyes, shaking her head. They exchanged a fond smile as she got out, closing the door. Bert watched her walk up the steps to the front door, waving briefly as she paused at the top. She waved back, vanishing into the concrete and glass structure housing the ADP. His face became contemplative as he shifted the truck into gear and drove off. Within minutes, the red truck had vanished up one of the main highways of the city.

From the front lobby, Nene watched the truck disappear, trying to pin down the source of her sudden unease.

****

Gravel scrunched under the tires as the Chevy S-10 pickup ground to a halt in front of a two-story brown house on the city's outskirts. Bert clambered out, wincing as his ribs and shoulder briefly complained. Walking across the nearly overgrown walkway to the front door, he unlocked it and stepped inside.

Dropping his hat and jacket on the hollow, armoured sentinel standing inside the door, he peeled off his sneakers and chucked them into the hall closet. Casting a quick glance around the house foyer, he strode into the living room. After rummaging around in the cabinet underneath his stereo, he found the CD he was looking for, and loaded it into the CD player disc slot, pressing the 'Play' button. The soothing strains of classical music began to waft through the room as he walked over to the couch, flopping lengthwise on it to stare at the ceiling, brooding.

From past experience, he knew that Sylia was probably waiting right now at the shop to continue lecturing him for the previous night. However, she was in for a surprise this time: he wasn't going to give her the opportunity. He knew his own patterns better than she did, so he was going to do exactly the opposite of his predicted reactions for a while; since she expected him to try and get back to his suit to fix it, he wouldn't. It was time to get their seemingly endless feud over supposed solo actions cleared up.

He had nothing but respect and admiration for Sylia; it wasn't everyone who had the guts and intelligence to set up and keep running something like the Knight Sabers. He knew that a lot of her problem was anxiety over the fact that she felt responsible for everyone on the team, and for getting them into the kind of double life that they now led. She seemed to be forgetting the fact that everyone involved had walked in with their eyes open, fully knowing what could happen. However, she was taking some of her command duties just a little too seriously, he figured. Hurting her was the last thing on his mind, but he'd finally become fed up with always being in the doghouse. To all things, there must be an end, somewhere along the line.

He sat up on the couch, stretching and yawning. Sighing, he stood up and walked over to his bookshelf. He smirked at the books for a moment, before reaching out and pulling on the spine of one of the books labeled 'Popular Mechanics'. The bookshelf retracted into the wall, opening the doorway to his private lab in the basement. The entry way sealed behind him as he climbed down the stairs.

Bright fluorescent bulbs flicked on at his entry, and the computer console at the far end of the small workshop activated at the same time, lights flickering across the console board. He cast a practiced glance around; everything looked exactly like he'd left it. He wasn't overly worried though; the security here was second only to Sylia's.

Walking across the shop, he stopped in front of the combination hardsuit bay and worktable he'd designed; one of these days he'd have to put one in Sylia's shop, since it made a lot of things much easier to work on. On the worktable lay an uncompleted hardsuit frame, looking like hi-tech spaghetti on metal sticks; wires and myomer bundles covered the exoskeleton frame, micro-hydraulic tubing intertwined with them. The occasional microprocessor chip peeked out of the tangle, like someone lost in the jungle trying to get out. Bert gazed thoughtfully at the work-in-progress, then at the bin containing the assorted dark blue and black armour plating parts that had yet to be added. Time enough for that later.

Grinning to himself, he turned away to the computer, easing himself into the padded office chair sitting in front of it. He flicked a glance across the board, then hit the 'System Enable' button. Circuitry hummed, a series of startup lights flashed, and the large screen flashed into life. Large blue letters scrolled across the screen:

SKYKNIGHT TECHNOLOGIES UNLIMITED
FALCON 4 HYPERDRIVE MAINFRAME OPERATIONAL
SYSTEM RESOURCES: 100%
NO UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS ATTEMPTS DETECTED
PLEASE GIVE AUTHORIZATION CODE

The screen blinked, waiting patiently for a response. Bert cleared his throat.

"With power comes responsibility," he spoke aloud. He paused, a sly smile coming to his face. "Trust me, I know what I'm doing," he concluded. The console hummed for a moment.

VOICEPRINT VERIFIED
AUTHORIZATION CODE VERIFIED
CLEARED FOR COMPLETE ACCESS
HAIL AND WELL MET, SKYKNIGHT
MAY THE FARCE BE WITH YOU

Bert grinned crookedly to himself as a brief, animated picture of his SkyKnight suit saluted on the screen and disappeared. Sighing, he cracked his knuckles, and started clattering away on the keyboard, calling up his CAD program. Schematics and plans began to flash across the screen under his intent gaze. Across the lab, his phone rang, several times, but he ignored it.

****

Sylia hung up the phone in exasperation, brown eyes flashing irritation briefly, and resumed pacing the untidy shop. Her state of mind was not pleasant, alternating between frustration and anger. The frustration stemmed from the fact that Bert was nowhere to be found. He wasn't in his apartment, the shop, or his other place. At least, if he was, he wasn't answering the phone. The anger was partly left over from the night before over his going AWOL; the remainder was a little harder to find a source for.

She glanced irritably at the clock again, unconsciously running a hand through her hair in her agitation. Damn it, where the hell was he?! Normally he'd have been in before her, already working at patching the damaged armour of his hardsuit. Since he'd already dropped Nene off at work, as was usual for the nights she stayed over, he should have been back almost two hours ago. She briefly considered phoning Nene at work again; the red-haired girl had been uneasy-sounding over the phone, like she knew something she wasn't telling. She dismissed the idea after a couple more moments as unproductive.

Sylia waited another half an hour, pacing furiously, before reluctantly concluding that he wasn't coming into the shop for some reason. A small, nagging voice in the back of her mind pointed out the possibility that she might be the reason, but she ignored it. She finally left the shop, slamming the door behind her.

****

Bert leaned back in his chair, swiveling it sideways to prop his feet up on the toolbox sitting nearby. After taking a swig of tea from his mug, he set it back in a precariously balanced location on the console, then folded his arms behind his head as he waited. The computer flashed status reports as it worked. Finally, the messages he'd been waiting for flashed up:

FINAL SECURITY LEVEL BREACHED
LEVEL 5 SECURE ACCESS ACHIEVED
ENTRY UNDETECTED
WELCOME TO THE ADP INVESTIGATION DATABASE

"We have a winner!" he declared with a grin. He quickly scanned through the reams of data with a sifter program he'd devised, downloading all the pertinent files he was after. He then carefully made sure he'd left no traces behind, and severed the connection. He began to read through the data files, hunting for some kind of clue that would tell him just what had been going on lately.

****

Nene stared at the small flashing flag in the corner of her computer screen, casting a quick, furtive glance around the office. It was coffee break time, so there weren't many people in the office. She quickly called up the file attached to the flag, and read through the small attached report.

Sighing, placing her head in her hands and rubbing her temples, she closed down the file, and sat staring blankly at the computer screen. There was only one computer she knew of named 'The Falcon 4', and her watchdog program had just detected it briefly accessing the ADP databases. It had managed the task of bypassing all the security codes with astonishing ease. Not nearly as quickly as she could have managed it, but still fairly fast.

"I taught him too well, it seems," she muttered disgustedly. She'd given Bert some pointers on computers and programming because he'd expressed an interest in becoming a better programmer, mostly so he could tailor the hardsuit programs a little. Evidently, his interests had expanded to include hacking. She weighed her response options, then picked up the phone, activating the video conferencing function and dialing a number.

****

Bert was scanning through about the fifth report when his computer beeped, being echoed by the phone ringing. A small side screen lit up with a glowing message:

INCOMING PHONE CALL
ORIGIN: ADPOLICE HEADQUARTERS
VIDEO CONFERENCE CALL REQUESTED
RESPOND?

Bert frowned at the display, then his face cleared as he realized who it probably was. "Affirmative," he told the computer, swiveling his chair to face the small side monitor and activating the telephone speakers. As he'd expected, Nene's red-haired, green-eyed visage appeared in his monitor screen. She did not look impressed with him.

"Greetings, M'Lady!" he greeted her with a wide grin. "To what dost I owe the pleasure of beholding thy beautiful countenance this early in the day?"

"Don't bother with the flattery," she told him, flushing slightly anyway. "I want to know just what you think you're doing?"

"Sitting here looking at the girl of my dreams," he quipped, smiling. She flushed again.

"Will you be serious?!" she hissed, glancing around and leaning closer to the screen. "What were you doing in the Investigations database?! I told you that you couldn't look into those cases! Sylia's orders!"

"Sorry," he disagreed. "You said that Sylia told you not to GIVE me the information, and you didn't. I got it for myself, instead. Unless she specifically said 'No he can't have the information at all', then so far I haven't done anything wrong."

"Oh, I suppose hacking into the police database is legal now?" she asked sarcastically. "You know that Sylia meant you were to stay out of it entirely for now!"

"Did she actually say that?"

"Well, no, not exactly," Nene admitted. "She just said 'don't give him any of the police files', basically."

"Then what's the problem? You followed your orders," Bert shrugged. "Nobody else detected my entry, so why get worked up over it?"

"It's police business, you jerk! Let Leon handle it!"

"Oh right," he snorted. "Look Nene, Leon's a good officer and investigator but he's had this case for at least a couple of months now, with no results. I've been attacked two times now in events related to these cases, and a third attack has striking similarities to the other two. Last night he said something that made me believe there's a lot more to this than just some killer boomer running loose. He wouldn't say specifically what it was, but he was worried over whatever it was. I'd say that makes it worth my while to look into things. Besides, it'll give me something to read while I'm trying to finish healing up."

"You promise you won't go bombing around in your suit till you've healed?" she asked plaintively. He nodded.

"I promise I'll stay on the ground for now," he reassured her. "It's going to take me some time to sort through all the information, so I'm not going to just fly around looking for trouble. Besides, I'd have to fix a few things on my suit first."

"That reminds me: Sylia is looking all over for you, and she's not happy."

"Into everyone's life, some rain must fall."

"Bert, please! Just call her before she gets really steamed at you!"

"Don't worry, I'll get in touch with her before too much longer."

"You'd better," Nene sighed. "She sounded really upset."

"How about I take you to dinner after work?" he asked, ignoring her last remark. Sylia's being upset was to be expected. She sighed resignedly.

"Okay," she replied finally. "Where do I meet you?"

"I'll pick you up at work," he replied. "Take care."

"You too." The screen went dark as she hung up. Bert shut down his own screen and phone connection, thoughtfully gazing back at the main monitor. After a moment, he closed the files down for a while. Standing up, he stretched lazily, and gave the shutdown command to his computer. It obediently went to sleep behind him as he turned to walk over to his workbench. After a quick glance at the wall clock, he started sorting through the assorted piles of armour plate, and began the long task of attaching it to the hardsuit frame on the table.

****

Two days later, he decided it was time to have it out with Sylia. According to Nene, she was by now almost spitting nails at her inability to connect with him. Nene hadn't told Sylia what he was doing, or what he had said, but she was caught between conflicting loyalties over his actions, and it was making her miserable. Wanting to spare her any further discomfort, Bert had assured her that he would indeed talk to Sylia today.

He shifted gears, and the engine of the dark blue motorcycle beneath him rumbled, slowing down as he pulled up to the entrance to the underground garage of Sylia's building. He grinned briefly to himself; he'd put together this particular bike based on some suggestions from Priss, and some technical ideas from Dr. Raven. It wasn't quite the superfast racing bike that Priss had, but it did have its advantages. He'd been using it to get around town on lately, knowing that Sylia would be looking for a red pickup truck, not a blue motorbike with silver stripes.

The doors screeched and clattered open after he punched in an entry code on the access keypad. He guided the quietly purring cycle through them, and into a vacant parking space. Putting the kickstand down, he shut off the engine as the doors closed. The engine noise faded into the echoing space of the garage as he peeled off the dark blue helmet he was wearing, propping it up on the gas tank in front of him. With a resigned sigh, he swung his leg over, dismounting, and shucked off his jacket, leaving it draped across the seat as he walked across the garage to the elevator doors. They rolled open for him, and he stepped inside. As the doors rolled shut, he sighed again, gathering his reserves for the coming confrontation.

****

Sylia looked up from her morning paper and coffee as a familiar figure with tousled red hair and greenish brown eyes suddenly appeared in the doorway to her kitchen. Her reasonably calm mood was suddenly swept away by anger at seeing him, finally. With all the checking around she'd done, there was no way he could have not known she was looking for him.

"Morning, Sylia," he greeted her calmly, crossing over to the table she was sitting at. Before she could reply, he poured himself a cup of coffee, lacing it with generous helpings of sugar and cream, and sat down across from her. Taking a sip, he looked over and met her rather angry gaze; there was nothing but complete innocence in his look. "I understand you wanted to see me about something?" he inquired.

Sylia's temperature rose a few degrees; it was bad enough that she hadn't been able to find him at all, anywhere, but the insouciant manner he was handling it with now was the final straw.

"You could say that," she replied tightly, brown eyes flashing. "Let's start with the day after you broke our deal regarding your flight trips. Why weren't you in the shop like you normally are?"

"Because I didn't feel like listening to you give me shit yet again for a perceived wrong," he said bluntly.

"You didn't....." her voice trailed off as she stared at him, stunned.

"That's right," he confirmed, slurping from his mug. "I knew that you'd be in there because that's where I usually start my days, and I knew I'd have to endure another lecture on the perils of taking solo runs, or on sailing off without telling anyone, or whatever you felt like blasting me about. I don't really care anymore; I'm tired of always being in the doghouse because you think I've violated some unwritten house rule."

"There is a reason for some of these rules, damn it! I'm not doing it because I ENJOY giving you shit!!" she flared. She couldn't quite believe that he was talking to her this way.

"I know that," he replied. "Believe me, I have nothing but respect and admiration for you Sylia. You have more brains and intestinal fortitude than I've got in keeping the Sabers running, and it's a thankless job at times. I understand the need for some of the rules that you've set up, but at the same time I've noticed a bit of a double standard."

"What double standard?!"

"I don't see you laying down any extra rules for the conduct of the rest of the team," he replied simply. "I've got a list of things a mile long that I can't do without clearing it with you first; nobody else does. You're not constantly checking on Nene, for example, and she does 'recreational hacking'. Linna almost never gets any scrutiny, but considering the information we get, she could quite easily play around with the stock market a little to make extra money. Priss, out of anyone else in the group, is more of a loose cannon than I am at times, but you're not constantly watching her movements, are you?"

"There is a slight difference in all of those cases," Sylia retorted angrily. "Nobody else has this burning need to be charging around the city in a goddamn powered armour suit helping the poor, the downtrodden and the oppressed in a grand, bloody heroic manner!"

"We've hashed that particular subject out before," he reminded her. "I don't. The other night when I was shot down, I originally didn't go out with heroing in mind. I went flying to try to clear my mind so I could resolve some personal problems, sort of like the way people go for a walk. I just happened to be in the area when the explosion occurred, and when I decided to go help out, I got shot down. That was just me being in the wrong place at the right time. I didn't plan for it to happen." He fell silent for a moment, taking another gulp from his mug. "I do admit that in some of the instances I've been a major cause of the problem; in the others, what happened was beyond my control. Nevertheless, I still got yelled at because of it, and I'm sick of it. You need to relax a bit."

"I need to relax?! I need to RELAX?!?! Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?!"

"It means this," he replied calmly, undisturbed by her angry outburst. "I think you're taking some of your duties as leader just a little too seriously. You can't control absolutely everything that happens, and I think you should quit trying. Take me for example: when I started out as the greenhorn of the group, I admit I needed a lot of guidance and watching. However, it's been quite some time now, and I've been through a lot. Nothing I do now is done without thinking it through first, even if it does look crazy at first glance. However, the level of control you've tried to exert on me has gone up, not down." He drained his cup, and looked over at her, his face totally serious.

"I'm not the greenhorn any longer, Sylia," he stated quietly. "I've got the scars, mental and physical, to prove it. I have never done, nor will I ever do, anything that will compromise the Knight Sabers; you have my word on that. However, I think it's time for you to decide if you trust me enough to let me operate as a full member, instead of like someone on parole." He sighed, stood up, and carried his mug over to the sink, quickly washing it out and dropping it in the drying rack. He turned back to Sylia. Her expression was difficult to read; anger, confusion, and the occasional flash of hurt appeared in the mix.

"I'm sorry if being frank has hurt you in any way," he told her. "Believe me, it was the last thing on my mind, but we can't go on like we were anymore; it's time you also realized that." He hesitated for a moment. "I'll be at my house," he told her quietly. "I'll await your reply there."

Sylia silently watched him go, her coffee growing cold as she tried to sort out her thoughts.

****

"You really upset Sylia," Nene told him that night. "She was in a really foul mood all day."

"I know she's upset," Bert sighed wearily. "Damn it, I didn't like having to tell her exactly what I thought, especially that way, but it had to be said." He scrubbed a hand across his face, looking old and tired for a moment as he stared out the kitchen window at the back of the house. "Do you think I'm being unreasonable?" he asked her finally. Nene looked troubled, biting her lower lip, and not meeting his gaze. He reached across the table and clasped one of her hands, giving it a brief squeeze.

"I'm not trying to get you caught in the middle," he said gently. "That's the last thing I'd want to do to you or Sylia." She looked up at him and sighed.

"No, I don't think you're being unreasonable. I just wish you could have found a gentler way to tell her."

"I tried to think of one," he replied. "Honestly. But I couldn't. I finally decided being straightforward about it was the best way; I just couldn't sit still on it any longer." He stood up, looking briefly at the clock.

"Well, you've got work tomorrow, so I'd better drive you home," he told her.

"No," Nene replied quietly but firmly, standing up and looking up into his face. "I'm staying here tonight; right now you look like you could use a friend." Her green eyes were completely serious; her mind was obviously made up. Bert grinned faintly.

"Well, I know better than to try and argue with you when you use that tone of voice," he remarked. She stepped closer, reached up, and pulled him down towards her.

"You've got some brains, at least," she told him before their lips met.

****

That bloody arrogant asshole! Sylia fumed, stalking across her living room. She sat down hard in an armchair, taking an angry slurp from her teacup. How dare he tell her that she was being unreasonable! He had one hell of a lot of nerve telling her that she should relax and quit trying to control everything, especially the way he was always trying to take responsibility for absolutely everything that happened around him! She sat drinking her tea, her memory rewinding and replaying his words constantly. She resisted the urge to fling her now empty cup across the room.

She sat back in her chair, placing the cup on the coffee table and running a hand through her hair. Her brown eyes cast a roving glance around the room as her mind churned chaotically. She was not trying to control everything! She just liked to know what was going on so that she didn't get a rude shock whenever something happened, especially where he was concerned.

And that's not control? a quietly nagging voice in the back of her mind asked. Monitoring someone so that you always know what they're doing? Information is a kind of power by itself, it reminded her, and information on someone's whereabouts and activities may not be direct control, but it is still control after a fashion.

"No!" she protested aloud. "I'm not trying to control anybody!"

Are you sure? her conscience asked. He IS the only one you keep tabs on constantly. You're just mad because someone has actually disagreed with you, finally. Up until now, no one has questioned your authority. Somebody finally has, and despite the fact that they are mostly right, you're unwilling to listen because it's offended your pride.

"No!" Sylia denied again faintly, an anguished expression on her face. She sat silently, staring out the window at the setting sun as her conscience continued to prod her remorselessly.

****

Dr. Richard McLaren wiped the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand. He was pale-faced, and his face was covered with the grey-white stubble of a few days' growth of beard. He entered the final calculations into the small computer sitting in front of him, and hit the return key. He sat back, wiping his forehead again; the living conditions weren't the best at the moment, and he felt like he was coming down with something. The computer began to hum as it churned through the data.

He glanced furtively around the dark, gloomy laboratory. A few feet away from him, a tall, gaunt man with red hair in a white lab coat was gleefully putting the finishing touches on the weapons systems encased in a massive boomer body that was lying on the concrete slab serving as an operating table. The massive body was a collection of synthetic muscle fibers, wires, cables and circuitry at the moment; they weren't quite ready to add the armour plating.

Occasionally, insane-sounding laughter drifted from Dr. Yoshida. The man completely unnerved McLaren; he was completely consumed with the desires for power and revenge, and not necessarily in that order. He seemed oblivious to the fact that their strange employer was a menace to them. McLaren didn't doubt for an instant that they were going to be killed at the first convenient opportunity. He had to get away!

Booming footsteps echoed in the cavernous room, and a red blot appeared in the darkness, gradually resolving into the domed head, followed by the body, of the malformed boomer that had 'hired' them. McLaren quickly suppressed all thoughts of escape for the time being.

"Gentlemen," the deep, grating voice growled. "We ARE on schedule, I presume?"

 

THREE DAYS LATER....

Bert sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his face as he stared at the computer screen in front of him. An uneasy feeling of imminent Armageddon gnawed at him as he stared at the summary he'd finally managed to piece together out of the police files. It did not look good.

Of the sixty-three murders that had occurred, over half had been research scientists working for separate companies. However, digging through some databases had revealed the fact that ALL of the scientists had been part of the team that had been developing the 'revolutionary' new boomer AI. The development had been spearheaded by Zone corporation, one of the contenders for the top position in the corporate world after GENOM's reversal of fortunes. The small companies had been sub-contracted to work on various aspects of the AI, and had apparently just completed their parts of the work, when their scientists had been killed. It was almost as if the killer had known that they were finished, and then eliminated them to prevent anyone else knowing. In a way, the killer was herding the AI development along a path of his choosing; by killing off the researchers as they advanced, it was making sure that no one else would get the technology. That, of course, led to the conclusion that the killer was waiting until the final version of the AI was finished. When it was, then it could strike, taking the AI as it made sure that it was the only one left who knew its secrets.

At all of the locations that the scientists had been murdered at, equipment was missing. With more hacking and searching, he'd discovered that the missing equipment pieces, individually, didn't amount to much. However, when combined they provided a very-well equipped boomer development center. Whatever had killed the scientists now had an operational production lab.

When he added in the fact that Dr. Richard McLaren, one of the world's more notorious boomer designers, had been broken out of jail by the supposed killer, he got a very sick feeling that someone was trying to develop a new combat boomer using the new AI. He dismissed the possibility that the boomer was going to be built with the stripped parts from other boomers at some of the crime scenes; someone who'd gone to all this trouble wouldn't be likely to use secondhand parts.

There was only one real puzzle left: what had happened at the detention centre? There was no doubt that the killer was the same one; autopsy reports on the outside guards had confirmed that much, at least. But why had it destroyed an entire prison complex and roughly four hundred inmates? On a sudden hunch, he called up the file containing the roster of inmates for the detention centre, and started the computer searching for names with boomer-related records. Pictures of the former prisoners began flickering across the screen.

He stood up as the computer whirred away, walking over to the coffeepot on the hotplate on a side shelf. He poured himself a cup, dumping in the usual sugar and cream portions, and carefully walked back to the computer console, trying not to spill his coffee. Sitting down, he swiveled his chair to face the screen again. After several minutes more, the computer found the one record from the prison files that had a boomer-related charge attached; a picture of an arrogantly grinning man with a thin, angular face and red hair appeared in the screen. The colour drained from his face as he stared at the photograph.

"Oh my God," Bert said out loud, stunned, almost dropping his mug. "Not him!!"

****

Late afternoon sunlight slanted through the large bay windows of the apartment, casting searching fingers of golden light through the room. A dry, stained coffee cup sat on the coffee table in front of an empty armchair. Unopened mail sat next to it, the pile of letters looking somehow forlorn and abandoned. The telephone began to ring urgently, but no one answered it.

****

"Come on! Come on!" Bert fumed. "Somebody answer the goddamn phone!!" The line continued to buzz, but no one answered. "Shit!!" he swore, slamming the receiver down. His mind raced for a moment, then he picked up the phone again, dialing for the ADPolice building.

"Hello, ADPolice," the receptionist's voice answered.

"Nene Romanova's desk, please," he requested. Nauseating hold music began playing as he sat waiting, fingers unconsciously drumming the tabletop in a nervous staccato rhythm. The passing seconds seemed to bang on his nerves like counterweights in a hammermill. At last a familiar voice answered.

"Hello, this is Nene," her cheery voice answered.

"Nene! This is Bert," he replied, deflating in relief at finally getting someone. "Have you talked to Sylia today?"

"N-no," she answered slowly, her voice sounding suddenly uncertain. "A couple of days ago was the last time I spoke to her. Why?"

"I think I've figured out what was going on with those killings," he told her. He quickly filled her in on the main points, concluding with "...and I can't get ahold of Sylia. I'm almost positive that the next targets will be whoever is doing the final development work, but I don't know where that is; I couldn't find out anything about it. I thought she might know something."

"What do you think happened to her?"

"I don't know," he admitted, pacing back and forth as far as the phone cord would allow. "I realize I was blunt with her, but I didn't think that I'd drive her into hiding. Damn it, I need her advice and expertise on this; she knows loads more about boomer development than I do."

"I can try phoning her from this end," Nene offered. Bert thought it over for a moment.

"Here's what I'll do," he told her. "I'll anonymously e-mail you my summary file that I've made up, and I'll send a copy to Sylia's computer at the same time. You pass the copy I give you off to Leon, and then try to get ahold of her. I'll keep trying from my end."

"Sounds good," she replied. "I'll have to wait on handing it off to Leon though. He's out right now."

"He's probably at the target range," Bert commented sourly.

"Actually, he's out investigating one of the smaller research companies in relation to this case," she told him, sounding a little miffed at his comment.

"Which one?" Bert demanded, his stomach suddenly clenching in anxiety.

"ArrisTech Labs."

****

Dr. Yuri looked down at the sprawled, bullet-riddled and bloody body of Dr. Haynes with a small, contemptuous smile on his lean face. Lifting his gaze to the prize beyond the dead researcher, he stepped across the pooling blood carefully. Behind him, at the door to the lab, the five C-55 boomers who had executed all of the lab staff stood stoically, not indicating anything as red eyes glowed behind their sunglasses.

"Ah, Haynes," he muttered to himself. "You should have been worried more about the present, rather than the future. Now you're history, I'm afraid." He walked over to the table, gazing almost lovingly at the assembled AI sitting on the table. It had a roughly ovoid shape, looking like someone had stirred silicon chips and wiring into a mold before casting it into its current shape. Next to it lay a small humanoid boomer body, what was to have become Adama.

"Now you have a different destiny," Yuri told it. He gently placed the biomechanical construct into the padded case he'd brought for it, and locked it. Turning around, he gestured his boomer assassins out the door ahead of him, following them a moment later without a backwards glance.

****

Flashing red lights strobed through the evening air over MegaTokyo as the ever-present ADP one-man patrol helicopters flitted through the air on their assigned routes. The pilots swept the sprawling cityscape below with intent gazes, alert for trouble of any description.

WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!!!!!!!! With low-pitched drone, something big and dark flashed out of the night, blasting past the startled chopper pilots, flicking them with the stinging edges of its backwash as it vanished into the night beyond. Although the object was traveling at an insanely fast airspeed, there was almost no noise to its flight, just the shriek of the air it displaced as it flew. They had a brief glimpse of something glowing blue, shiny metallic plating, and large...large...wings?!?!

"What the hell was that?!" the one pilot burst out.

"How the hell should I know?!" his partner replied, exasperated. "Whatever it was isn't showing up on our radar."

"Should we call it in?"

"And say what? That we saw a big flying object with wings that doesn't show on radar? Get real, willya? They'd laugh us out of the squadroom."

****

Streetlights outside the ArrisTech building cast a faint illumination on a large black van that sat waiting patiently by the curbside. The front door to the building opened, and five big men wearing sunglasses and carrying assault rifles fanned out from the doorway, making sure that there were no observers. A tall man with blond hair, carrying a small case followed them out, and began walking towards the van.

"I see you have something that belongs to me," a deep, grating voice rumbled from the blackness of the night. A huge shape loomed in an alleyway across from the van, a faint red glow visible. "I appreciate your saving me the trouble of fetching it for myself." Yuri didn't even glance at the alleyway; his attention was riveted on the small case he was carrying.

"Kill him," he directed his guards, waving an arm negligently towards the alley. The five boomers sprang towards the alley, dropping the rifles and shedding their skins and clothing as they did so.

****

"What's the hurry, Leon?!" Daley asked, grabbing the dashboard as his partner screeched the car around a corner at breakneck speed. "It's a laboratory building; it's not going to get away!"

"I found out a while ago from some of my sources that some of those murders have been research project related," Leon told him, stomping on the accelerator and shifting gears, swerving around the legally driving motorists. "This ArrisTech place is doing something related to those research projects, so I figured it was worth a look."

"Okay, but why are we risking a collision to investigate a lab?"

"Because an alarm just went out that someone is having a war there right now."

"Cut across Fifth Avenue here," Daley directed. "It's faster."

****

Dr. Yuri crumpled to the pavement, a final look of surprise frozen on his face as his body slid limply off of the serrated blades of the hulking boomer. Blood dripped from the claws for a moment, then they retracted into the boomer's arm with a metallic screech.

"'As he was ambitious, I slew him'", the boomer's cold voice briefly eulogized the dead scientist. The killer biomechanoid gave a sinister chuckle, and turned around, striding across the churned up asphalt to where a small case lay on the ground. Around it, the smoking remains of five C-55 boomers lay splattered all over the pavement.

"And to the victor belongs the spoils," it gloated as it scooped up the small case. It turned away, back towards the alleyway it had emerged from.

Tires squealed behind it, and blazing red-and-blue lights flooded the scene as an ADP squad car skidded to a halt. As the boomer started to turn, Leon McNichol jumped out of the car, hauling a large-bore rifle out of the backseat of the car, aiming it at the malformed hulk.

"ADPolice!" he declared. "Hold it right there and don't move!"

The boomer's right arm, taken from a B-12 combat boomer, turned slightly. There was a shattering roar coupled with an orange flash; the squad car blew up in a fantastic blossom of snarling flames and spinning scrap. Leon was flung backwards by the blast, and he landed in a bloody heap on the sidewalk. Daley, who had also stepped out of the car, was also tossed down the street by the explosion; he smashed into a wall and fell limply to the pavement.

"How the mighty hath fallen," the boomer chuckled, stepping forwards. Leon stirred and tried to get up as the boomer's gun arm swung over to target him.

The lights went out all over the street, blanketing the area in total darkness, lit only by the burning wreckage, and the evil red glow of the boomer's domed head.

"What is this?!" the murderous boomer demanded, turning around, presumably looking around. Leon sagged back onto the pavement limply as he finally passed out.

"Excuse me," a deep, resonant, almost electronic-sounding voice echoed from the darkness, seemingly coming from all over. The boomer spun around, searching, and found nothing.

"WHAT?!" it demanded, puncturing the darkness beyond with a quick fusillade from its arm cannon. It missed whatever it had briefly seen.

"Ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?" the voice asked. The night suddenly came alive behind and to the right of the boomer as something big and black loomed out of the shadows. Something made a flapping noise in the darkness, and there was a brief glimpse of something glowing bright blue as the dark shape flashed past the boomer, smashing it to the pavement. The boomer flipped itself back up to its feet immediately, as agile as a cat, but its attacker had seemingly vanished again. The boomer maintained a clenched grip on its trophy.

"I commend you," it rumbled, backing towards the alley as its torso swiveled so that it could look around. "Not many people can evade my detection systems."

"I'd say I was flattered, but I'd be lying." There was another shadowy motion as something blurred through the darkness, and again the boomer bounced into the pavement.

"Do not anger me further, whoever you are," the boomer snarled ominously, rolling upright. "You will not like the consequences."

"Big talk from a walking junkpile!" A low whooshing noise accompanied the motion this time, and the boomer was smashed back into the brick wall of the alleyway. This time however, the boomer was prepared for the tactic. As the shape shot past it after striking the boomer, one of the boomer's shoulder-mounted cannons swung around, tracking the estimated path of its foe. A thundering crash pierced the air, and an orange-red flaming blast lit the cloaking darkness.

"YEAARRRGH!!" The agonized yell was torn from the shadowy shape as the shot nailed it square in the back. It dropped to the pavement on its face with a loud clang, striking sparks from the road surface as it skidded for a few feet. The boomer didn't wait to find out what its assailant was, but fled into the darkness of the alley as the figure stirred.

"Ow, goddamnit, ouch!" a deep, modulated voice groaned. "Somebody call a chiropractor! Argh! ow! ow! OW!!" Metallic sounding clanking sounded as the shape rolled over and shakily swayed to its feet. A long, billowing cape swirled around it as it stood, concealing its body. The cape flapped as the dark figure suddenly ran over to where Leon was bleeding on the pavement. A blue light flashed from the head of the figure as it knelt next to the fallen officer. A line of light swept the man, evidently scanning him.

"Shit! McNichol, don't you dare die on me you bastard!!" The shadowy shape scooped Leon up from the pavement, then suddenly turned, remembering. It quickly glided across the pavement towards where Daley was stirring. Daley was semi-conscious, trying to sit up. He didn't look like he'd caught as much of the blast as Leon had; he was bloody, yes, but not nearly as much as Leon was. There was another flash of blue light, and a blue line swept across Daley.

"Sorry, Daley," the voice told him. "You're not as badly hurt; you'll live until the ambulances get here. Besides, I can only carry one at a time safely." There was a whoosh, and a flapping noise that dwindled into the sky.

The streetlights began to flicker on suddenly, bathing the blasted and body-littered street with feeble rays of light as the first of the emergency response vehicles began to arrive.

****

People sitting in the Emergency Waiting Room of the Sonada Memorial Hospital stared in shock and fear as the doors were kicked open by a bulky, armoured figure with a cape, carrying a bloody body in its arms. The intruder was obviously a battlesuit of some kind, tall, with dark blue and black armour plating. The torso, arms, and legs of the suit were black, with the arms and legs ending in midnight-blue boots and gauntlets. The helmet of the suit was also dark blue, with a faintly-glowing blue horizontal eyeslot in its faceplate. Two antennae protruded from the sides, but they'd been molded into the helmet so that they swept up and back, looking like pointed ears. The suit's armour plating looked moderately heavy, but streamlined at the same time. A long billowing cape of some vaguely metallic material flapped behind it, attached at the shoulder plates. Other than suspicious bulges in the gauntlet arm-guards, the suit didn't look like it was heavily armed. Its appearance, however was definitely frightening, implying a somehow dark and predatory look. Frightened whispers swept the line of patients as it stalked past them.

The dark hardsuit grabbed a stretcher from where it sat by the wall, and gently lowered the unconscious, blood-soaked form it was carrying into it. Blood stained the entire front of the suit as it straightened up again, almost obscuring the stylized silver bat emblazoned on its chestplate. Also visible around the midsection of the torso armour was what looked like a belt made out of small squarish silver packs. The suit quickly wheeled the stretcher over to the desk where a bored nurse was filling out forms. Incredibly, she hadn't looked up once, or noticed the sudden silence in the room.

"Excuse me, this man needs a doctor, " a deep, electronically modulated voice said. The nurse still didn't look up.

"Take a form, fill it out, and get in line," she said with the bored tone of someone who has repeated something several times to several different people.

"HE NEEDS A DOCTOR NOW, GODDAMNIT!!! NOT LATER!!!" the suit bellowed at full volume. The nurse shrieked in terror as she realized what was yelling at her, and fell over backwards out of her chair in a crash, sending papers flying in a white blizzard of bureaucracy. A doctor wearing a surgical gown, mask, and hat came charging out of a hallway at the noise.

"What the hell is the meaning of this?!" he demanded. "Who the hell are you?! This is a hospital, if you don't mind!!"

"This man needs surgery immediately," the suit replied calmly. "He's got severe internal bleeding, five broken ribs, some serious burns, and some shrapnel damage from a car explosion."

"Nurse!" the doctor snapped. "Get this man prepped for surgery!!" The white-faced and shaken nurse took the stretcher containing the comatose ADP officer up the hallway, vanishing into a side room.

"Thanks, Doc," the suit replied quietly.

"Get the hell out of my hospital," the doctor snarled. "I don't need you spreading more death and destruction around here; I have enough work as it is!" With that, the surgeon ran back up the hallway to the operating room.

For a moment, the armoured figure stared after him, then turned and quietly left, cape swirling around it. It walked down the row of silent patients, stepped out into the night, and was swallowed up by the darkness.

****

The dark hardsuit shot through the evening skies like a giant bird of prey. Wings spanning a little over ten feet were spread out from its shoulders, providing most of the lift as it zoomed along. The wings were rigid, with lengthwise spines providing a firm support structure; overall, they looked vaguely like bat wings. The only noises audible as it flew were a low-pitched thrumming noise, and the whoosh of the slipstream it created as it flew.

It banked suddenly, veering into a graceful, downwards spiral. Anyone looking up into the sky might have briefly seen it silhouetted against the watery moon that was peeping through the tattered clouds scattered across the sky. Below the airborne shape, a small house surrounded by trees came into view.

The suit circled lower still, taking its time. At last it came to within a few feet of the ground, and its feet swung forwards and down towards the approaching turf. There was a quiet but heavy thump as the shadowy figure landed, wings still outspread. The rigid spines running the length of the wings suddenly disappeared with an electric hum, and a metallic snickering noise sounded as what looked like two telescoping metal rods began to retract into the shoulders of the suit. The rods were attached to the leading edges of the 'wings', and as they retracted, the wings collapsed back into a billowing cape, falling down to trail behind the black and blue battlesuit. The suit sighed, and started to walk towards the back door, cape swirling around it. Stepping up to the back door, it played with the lock for a moment, and then stepped through into the kitchen. It suddenly stopped short in surprise.

"Batman, I presume?" Sylia Stingray said from where she was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. A resigned expression was on her face, but a faint smirk was twitching at her lips nonetheless. The suit sighed again, and reached up for its helmet. The helmet came off with a metallic clacking noise, revealing sweaty red hair and greenish-brown eyes.

"I can explain," Bert started to say, but she cut him off.

"Go and get cleaned up first," she told him, glancing at the dried blood covering his chest armour, but not indicating anything. "We need to talk."

****

Bert came down from the shower, flicking his still-damp hair out of his eyes. He took a quick look around the house, and found Sylia had moved out to the living room. He poured himself a cup of tea, giving it its usual booster shots of milk and sugar, and carried it out to the living room to join her. He sat down on the couch across from her, examining her.

Sylia looked preoccupied with something, and as he looked closer, he noted she also looked tired. Her hair was slightly awry-looking, and there were the traces of black smudges under her eyes, like she hadn't slept. Her gaze was unfocused, as if she was looking at something he couldn't see. Whatever she was looking at, she didn't like it; there was a faint hint of some kind of internal anguish that he could see in her eyes. He waited quietly for a moment, sipping at his tea.

"I don't quite know how to start," Sylia finally said. She was still staring off into space, as if not looking at him would somehow help her to concentrate better. "I..." she stopped speaking taking a sip from her cup. Her eyes briefly met his, then quickly glanced away. Bert frowned to himself; Sylia had never been reluctant to look him in the eye before.

"I spent a lot of time thinking about what you said a few days ago," she told him finally. She sounded like the words were being dragged out of her. "It wasn't easy; it took me a while to figure out just why what you said upset me as much as it did." She held up a hand as he opened his mouth to speak. "Let me finish first, please. I...I may not be able to say this later, I ..." She took another gulp of coffee, almost as if she was suddenly dry-mouthed, or something. Bert remained quiet, but was becoming concerned; he'd never seen Sylia this...this...this disturbed over something before. Sylia took a deep breath.

"After you left, I confess I didn't think much about what you said at all; I was more angry than anything else. I...I realized, though after a while, that a lot of what you'd said was true." A faintly wry smile appeared briefly. "No one likes to be told that they are wrong, and I'm no exception it seems; for a long time I was upset over that one." She took another swallow from her cup, draining it, and placed it on the coffee table. "For a while, I think hate wouldn't be too far from what I felt; I felt like you'd questioned my authority, something nobody's done before. I just couldn't handle it for a while, but I managed to get over that. I did finally, reluctantly, realize that I was a little obsessed with control, especially over you because you almost always seemed to screw things up, creating headaches for me." She looked over at him, meeting his concerned gaze with a troubled one of her own. "I didn't realize it at first, but I think I resented the fact that you came sailing into my...our lives and disrupted what had been a smoothly running operation. I was wrong, in more ways than one, and I'm sorry." She looked away again, staring at her coffee cup, suddenly looking lost and alone.

Bert came to a sudden decision; he stood up, placing his own cup on the table, and walked over to Sylia. He gently pulled her to her feet, and enfolded her in a hug. Sylia stiffened momentarily, then relaxed, hesitantly hugging him back. She'd never been the outwardly demonstrative type, always having a cool reserve about her that seemed to discourage actual contact, but he decided that, in this instance at least, she needed it.

"You don't have to be sorry for having feelings," he told her, squeezing her gently again. "Everybody has them. Everybody makes mistakes, too. I should know, having made enough of my own to last two people the rest of their lives. You're a beautiful, smart woman, and I don't think you should sit there castigating yourself because you've just discovered that you're human, with the same weaknesses like the rest of us." He released her, and stepped back slightly. Sylia did also, wiping a quick hand across her eyes and regaining her composure.

"Thank you," she said. She sat down again in the armchair behind her as he whipped the cups into the kitchen for a quick refill. He came back out, handing her cup back. She took it with a quiet 'thank you', and silently drank for a few moments. Bert sat back on the couch again, slurping at his drink. After a moment, he looked over at her again.

"So where do we go from here?" he asked.

"I'm not sure," she sighed. "I'll try to stop yelling at you quite so much..."

"I'm in trouble, then," he remarked blandly. "Old habits die hard." Sylia's face flashed irritation for a moment.

"Do you mind?!" she asked acidly. "And I guess we can remove most or all of the restrictions on your flight excursions," she continued, "but the rest we'll have to play it as it goes." She took another sip of her coffee. "I would appreciate it, however, if you would still let me know when you're stepping out. That way at least we can organize a rescue if something major goes wrong."

"I don't think anything will, but yes, I can do that much at least."

"Thank you." Sylia sat silently for a moment. "I guess we should discuss now what you were up to tonight." She looked him over. "You had blood all over that new suit of yours, but it doesn't seem to be yours."

"It was Leon's."

"What?!" Sylia was shocked, to say the least. "How..?!"

"Let's go down to my lab," Bert told her. "It'll be easier if you take a look at a couple of things first." He placed his cup on the table, and Sylia placed hers next to it. Rising, Bert walked over to the bookshelf and pulled the trigger book to open the door to the basement. Sylia rolled her eyes at that as she followed him through.

"That is such a clich�, it's not even funny, you know," she told him. He shrugged.

"I like it, and that's what's important," he replied. "I don't exactly have hordes of visitors passing through, so I'm not too worried about having someone discover my lab."

Sylia looked around at his workshop as she walked in behind him. In some ways, it wasn't too different from the tech shop back at her building. The clutter was slightly neater-looking in that it was organized into piles, instead of randomly spread around. As for the rest of the shop, gadgets and partially assembled gizmos were everywhere. The Batman hardsuit was laying on a complicated-looking worktable, and a large computer console and monitor sat at the far end of the room. The console flashed at their approach.

"Pardon me for a moment," Bert said. He started the computer running, giving it his authorization code. Sylia shook her head, sighing at his choice of password. The computer greeted him, then sat waiting. Bert cast a sidelong, thoughtful glance at her, then turned to the computer.

"Computer, initiate authorization for secondary user."

WORKING....
PLEASE STATE NAME FOR VOICEPRINT RECORDING

Bert gestured wordlessly towards the computer, and Sylia stepped forward.

"This is Sylia Stingray," she told the mammoth machine. It hummed for a couple more moments, then flashed a new message.

VOICEPRINT RECORDED
SECONDARY USER AUTHORIZED: SYLIA STINGRAY
HAIL AND WELL MET, M'LADY
THY LOVELY COUNTENANCE DOTH ILLUMINATE
THIS POOR ROOM LIKE THE SHINING SUN
LIVE LONG AND PROSPER

Sylia stared at the monitor incredulously, then looked at Bert, who by now had a huge grin on his face.

"You didn't, did you?" she asked, half hoping he'd deny it. His grin widened as he tried to look innocent.

"Didn't what?" he politely inquired.

"You didn't really give this thing your personality, did you?"

"Some of it," he conceded.

"Oh good Lord!!" she sighed, slapping a hand over her face.

"It's not an AI though," he told her. "I didn't want to accidentally create HAL 9000 and have the computer saying 'Good morning, Dave' at some time in the future, so I just programmed in some personality emulation stuff."

"HAL 9000? What's that?"

"Long story. I'll loan you the movie sometime."

"I can hardly wait," she said dryly. Bert grinned. Leaning forward, he punched a few keys and called up the files he'd been working on. Standing up, he offered her his chair.

"You can page through these files," he told her. "That will explain most of the background on what I've been doing lately. When you're done that, I'll try and explain just what happened tonight. Meanwhile, I'll go get us another drink." He vanished up the stairs as Sylia sat down and started reading.

****

"...and after the boomer disappeared, I airlifted Leon to the hospital; that's where the blood came from. After that, I came back here, and you know what happened then." Bert finished his story and leaned against the worktable behind him, folding his arms across his chest. Sylia looked up at him thoughtfully from her chair.

"You've been busy," she remarked dryly. He grinned and bowed courteously.

"I try hard," he said, spreading his hands in a deprecatory manner. She snorted.

"I'll buy that; I can personally attest to just how trying you are," she told him.

"Thanks," he replied blandly, not rising to the bait. Sylia looked past him to where the Batman suit lay on the worktable, standing up and walking over to it. Bert followed her. She gave it an appraising glance, then looked at him.

"You've changed a few things from the last set of specs I saw," she noted.

"I had to," he sighed. "I took a closer look at what I was after, and the old designs were under-powered; there was no way I could fit all the ECM gear into a normal hardsuit frame."

"What are its exact capabilities?"

"Well, in terms of firepower, it's nowhere near as heavily armed as SkyKnight. Those bulges on the arm guards are a pair of railguns with fifteen shots apiece. I have a backup laser emitter hidden in the chest symbol; it's a little more powerful than a plasma gun, but not by much. Other than a swordblade in the right arm, that's it for weapons." Sylia looked dubious.

"That's taking a big chance," she remarked. "You could have some problems if you get into a fight."

"Yes, but the whole design concept behind this suit is stealth, not firepower."

"Stealth? From you? That would be a novel change," she remarked dryly.

"Har har har, very funny. This suit is a covert operations model, built mainly for surveillance and espionage, Sylia; it's not meant to be taken into an intense firefight. I used it tonight because it was all I could get to quickly."

"What else does it have?"

"Well, it's got the new actuators and armour plating, so in terms of physical defenses and strength, it's the same as SkyKnight, maybe a little stronger. Where it really shines is in the electronics department. It's got a separate onboard computer that runs the sensor stealth systems and ECM automatically, meaning the pilot doesn't have to devote his (or her) attention to the task of remaining undetected. The pilot can supervise the computer if desired, but it's not necessary. It also has a satellite telecommunications uplink, so I can access computers by modem when out in the field. Add to that a set of computer interface cables in the left gauntlet, and the codebreaking software Nene devised, and you have the perfect spy suit. It can't be detected, and it can access almost any information system. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it's invisible to radar, too. The coating on the armour helps to take care of that." He grinned proudly at the black and blue armour. "I've already built a lot of the new features into Nene's new hardsuit. She'll really be able to hum with this stuff."

"We'll have to call her Batgirl, then," Sylia remarked blandly.

"Good God no!!" Bert said in a strangled tone, glancing at her in horror. "Don't do that!! She'd kill me!!"

"Awwwww," Sylia commiserated with a wicked smile. "You mean there's actually something that SkyKnight is afraid of?" she queried, an amused twinkle in her eyes.

"Yes!" Bert nodded emphatically. "Hell hath no fury like that of an upset girlfriend!"

****

The door crashed open into the room, and the hulking, multicoloured boomer barged through it. It its left hand a small metallic carrying case was tightly clenched. The red glow from its helmet canopy faintly illuminated the darkness cloaking the room and its other occupant, a solitary figure behind a desk.

"You're late," the disembodied voice from the desk stated flatly. "I thought you said there wouldn't be any problems?" The boomer clanked over to the desk, dropping the case to the desktop with a loud bang.

"I was unavoidably detained while conducting our business transaction," the boomer replied coldly.

"Detained?"

"I had to deal with an ADP cruiser that showed up. I believe the officer used to be Inspector McNichol." The cold, detached way the boomer made the statement left no doubt as to what his fate had been.

"Ah, some good news at last." There was a brief pause. "Even dealing with them shouldn't have delayed you that much, however."

"There was a second interloper," the boomer paused. "It was a hardsuit of some description."

"A hardsuit?! What did it look like?"

"Unknown."

"What do you mean, 'Unknown'?!?! Didn't you take a look at it?!"

"Retrieving the AI intact was the higher priority; I did not care to waste more time in determining the suit's identity."

"You're avoiding the question. Why don't you know what it looks like?" The figure behind the desk leaned forward interestedly.

"Because someone has built a hardsuit that can remain undetected by my sensors," the boomer replied flatly. Its claws snapped in and out of their housings a couple of times; the boomer didn't particularly care to remember those details. "It attacked from the shadows, and managed to stay hidden."

"This is not good news," the shadowy figure remarked. "Who could have built it?"

"I have my suspicions," the boomer replied, "but it does not matter. Whoever it was wasn't able to stop me then, and when we have completed this project, he will be even less of a problem."

****

Bert came out of his kitchen, carrying a tray with another two cups of tea and a couple of sandwiches on it, to find Sylia staring at the television with a shocked and horrified expression. She'd turned it on while he was puttering in the kitchen to check on the news, and she'd evidently heard something she hadn't liked. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides, and as he watched the shocked look became replaced by grief, something he'd definitely never seen Sylia display before. Concerned, he dropped the tray to the coffee table and quickly went over to her, sitting next to her.

"Sylia?" he asked hesitantly. "What is it? What's wrong?" She turned a pain-filled glance on him.

"That lab you were at tonight...I...There was just a news bulletin on it. I knew one of the researchers killed inside," she said quietly, although Bert could see the effort it was taking for her to keep from breaking down. "His name was Dr. Haynes; he was one of my father's assistants, years ago. I...he...he was always like an uncle to me, especially after my father died; he was one of the best friends our family had.

He was going to carry on my father's work, developing boomers into what they were meant to really be, and now he's dead." She looked away, eyes suddenly wet with tears. Bert reached over and hugged her again; she cried quietly for a few minutes before composing herself, drawing her usual cool exterior back into place like a mask. Bert handed her a clean handkerchief as she pulled away from him, and she wiped her face with it.

"Thank you," she said quietly. She sat staring sadly into space. Bert snagged one of the tea cups and handed it to her, and she sipped at it mechanically.

"What else did the news bulletin say?" he asked quietly. She looked over at him.

"Not much," she replied. "There was no mention of the AI, but it was probably stolen. I don't know who else could have taken it though; the only other scientist I know of who was actively after it was my father's other assistant, and Dr. Yuri was found dead just outside the building; he'd been run through by something."

"Yuri's already dead?!" he burst out before he could stop himself. "That's not supposed to happen!! I..oh shit." He abruptly shut up, turning red as Sylia stared at him. Sudden understanding dawned in her face, understanding that was tinged with anger.

"You mean to tell me," she said tightly, "that you already knew that Dr. Haynes was going to get killed? And you didn't say anything?!" The cup she was holding started to shake slightly as she fought to hang on to her composure. Bert looked stricken.

"I...I didn't know for sure, at the time," he replied awkwardly, looking away. "I...I knew what could possibly happen, but lately things have not matched up with my 'advanced knowledge', and I...I figured that events were finally pulling away from what I knew. I didn't know if Haynes was working on the AI, and I didn't know where he was working anyway." He spread his hands helplessly, a pained look on his face. "You told me it would be better to just leave things alone and not try to act on what I knew of the possible future, so I did. I'm sorry."

"You're not the only one," she sighed, her momentary anger vanishing. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't be blaming you. You did try."

"Thanks, I think," he said glumly, grabbing his mug and taking a large slurp. "I'm kind of relieved about one thing, actually, despite the circumstances."

"What's that?"

"Given what's happened, I can safely say I don't know anything about the future anymore." He sighed, suddenly looking like a huge burden had been lifted from him. "I hope you never have to know in advance that something terrible is going to happen, and you can't intervene. It's a horrendous strain having to curb yourself because of it."

"I suppose I never really thought of that," she admitted, then looked at him curiously. "Why didn't you mention it before?"

"Because it made everyone uncomfortable," he said simply. "No one, not even you, was ever comfortable discussing it, so I kept my mouth shut. It wasn't easy, but I did it." Silence descended on the room, broken only by the carefree weather announcer on the television predicting beautiful weather for the next few days. Bert passed Sylia one of the sandwiches, which she wordlessly took. They ate in silence for a few moments, his mind turning around all the recent events. Something Sylia had said suddenly clicked.

"You said Yuri had been 'run through'?" he queried. She nodded. "Oh great," he sighed. "That means that the boomer I encountered tonight was after the AI as well. It sounds like Yuri got there first, but wasn't able to get away."

"It sounds likely," she agreed. "But we're still no closer to figuring out who that boomer belongs to."

"Then I guess we start looking."

"No rest for the weary, it seems," she sighed. She finished her snack and stood up, gathering her purse from a nearby chair. Bert quickly whipped the dishes into the kitchen, adding them to the growing collection in the sink. He grabbed his hat and jacket from the hallway, holding the door open for Sylia, and following her outside.

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

"Well now, if it isn't the Terror of the Tokyo Stock Exchange," Bert grinned as Linna stepped through the door to his basement apartment. She half-smiled back, but he could see that she wasn't really thrilled with his joke for some reason.

"Busy right now?" she asked, looking around his room. At the moment it resembled an area in the wake of a tornado. Books were strewn everywhere, and his coffee table was covered with blueprints.

"Not really," he replied, flicking his unruly hair out of his eyes. "I'm just researching some stuff I had some ideas on for future suits."

"Oh Lord, not again!" she sighed. "Don't you have anything else to do?!"

"What did you want?" he asked, ignoring her question. He was getting a little tired of hearing that question from everyone. He enjoyed designing stuff and building it; it was good stress relief, and helped to take his mind off of things. Now if he could just get everyone to stop nagging him about it ....

"Feel up to a workout session?" she asked.

"A workout session?!" he repeated in surprise. "What brought this on?! We haven't had a go-around for months now." Once Linna had started her new job, their usual training sessions together had ceased because she hadn't felt that she could afford to take the time off. To be honest, he'd missed them a lot, partly because it gave him a chance to chat with her; outside of their Knight Saber work and the occasional get-together, he didn't see her much.

"I feel like it right now," she evaded. "I can't sit around all day staring at a computer screen, watching market reports." Bert's eyebrows hit his hairline in surprise; that was the first time that he'd ever heard her suggest that she might be dissatisfied with her new job. Mentally, he shrugged. He closed the book he was holding with a snap, and tossed it onto the couch.

"Okay, you're on," he said, standing up. A relieved smile appeared on her face.

"Great! I'll meet you in the exercise room."

Bert watched her leave, a puzzled frown forming. Something was bothering her, that much he could tell; she was normally more cheery and outgoing. Oh well, maybe he'd be able to get her to talk about it. He ducked into his bedroom to get changed.

****

Linna bounced twice on her back on the mat, sliding to a halt at the far wall. Rolling over and up to her knees, she shoved her short black hair back under her headband from where it had come unstuck. Her blue eyes flashed angrily at the impudently grinning red-haired figure at the far end of the room.

"You don't have to do it so bloody hard!!" she snapped. "I'd like to be able to walk away from this afterwards!"

"You know how to stop me from doing it," Bert replied, still grinning. Linna gritted her teeth, and surged to her feet. She advanced towards him, in a ready stance; he was standing still, looking cheerful, and wide open. He had 'target' written all over him.

Leaping forwards in a flashing forward somersault, she tried to nail him with her feet. Almost casually, he leaned sideways, grabbed her ankles, and used her own momentum to send her sailing down to the other end of the room. Linna bounced again, beginning to become just a little annoyed. She must have been more out of practice than she'd figured; she hadn't been able to lay a hand on him yet, and she was just itching to wipe that grin off his face. She crawled back to her feet. Bert grinned again wickedly.

"I think I know part of your problem," he stated. "You're spending too much time polishing chairs with your behind. Either that, or you're too used to pushing just paper now."

"Shut up and fight," she snapped, lunging forward again. Again, he flipped her through the air. On the first bounce she snapped to her feet and launched herself at him in a low tackle, which he sidestepped.

"Pitiful," he sighed mournfully, shaking his head. "You should spend less time counting your money, and more time working out. I saw that one coming a mile away."

"When I want a lifestyle critique, I'll ask for one," she retorted, blue eyes narrowing angrily. Evidently, he'd still been practicing somehow, and it had given him an edge in their current match, an edge she was getting sick of having rubbed in her face.

"One lump, or two?" he inquired politely, smirking as she got set to try again. This time however, Linna appeared to have regained her old form. Bert wasn't quite sure how she did it, but there was a blur of motion, and then the air rushed out of his lungs as his back impacted with the mat at the end of his sudden trajectory.

"Now that's more like it," he remarked, as he started to get to his feet. "I ... Hey!!! Wait a sec..." He didn't get a chance to finish; Linna had moved in close again. Using some kind of spinning throw, she jerked him into another arcing flight through the air. Caught unprepared, he wasn't able to roll with it. There was a sickening, audible crunch from his right shoulder as he tried to catch himself, and he flopped to the mat with a strangled yell as his arm folded amid shrieking pain.

"Oh God, I'm sorry!!" Linna cried, dropping to her knees next to him. She helped him to a sitting position, an extremely mortified expression on her face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do that, honest!!"

"That's funny," he wheezed back, trying to clear the spots out of his vision. "It looked pretty purposeful to me." God, did it hurt!! His shoulder felt dislocated, which probably meant a trip to the hospital to get it re-aligned. Great, he groaned to himself; identical injuries to the exact same place twice in as many weeks. A new record!, part of his mind dryly noted.

"Well it's your own bloody fault," she snapped. "If you hadn't been rubbing my face in the fact that I'm a little out of practice I wouldn't have gotten mad and thrown you before you were ready." She helped him to his feet.

"You usually have a better sense of humour about these kinds of things," he observed, sweating from the effort it was taking to walk without jarring his arm. It felt like thousands of needles were being stuck into the nerves. He looked down at her as she steered him towards the door. She didn't reply, and she wouldn't meet his gaze, but kept herding him out of the room, closing the door behind them.

****

After they returned from the hospital, Bert figured it was time to find out just what was bugging Linna. He invited her down to his room for something to drink, an invitation she accepted readily enough. However, as he was whipping up a batch of hot chocolate, she paced his living room area, obviously agitated about something. Her expression was gloomy, and she seemed to be miles away. Finally, he called a halt, intercepting her on the return trip of one of her circuits around the room.

"Okay," Bert told her, gently forcing her down onto his couch, hands on her shoulders. He sat down next to her; she still wouldn't meet his gaze. "What's wrong?" he asked her directly. "I'd like to know why you're wearing holes in my carpeting, and why your sense of humour seems to have packed up and left. This has to be the first time I've ever seen you glum about anything." He reached out, and tilted her chin up so he could look her in the eyes. "What's wrong?" he repeated.

"Nothing," she replied unconvincingly, trying to look away.

"Linna," he said gently, "I think we've known each other long enough by now to drop the horseshit. Something is obviously bugging you, and I want to help. Please tell me what's up." Silence stretched for a few moments. She sighed, and sagged back into the couch, looking at him.

"I'm just not happy with life in general, I guess," she admitted.

"Can you be a little more specific?"

"Well, my new job is okay, but at the same time something's missing. It's not.... not as satisfying, I guess." She brooded for a moment as he went over and poured two mugs of hot chocolate. Dropping some marshmallows into the drinks, he handed her one of the mugs, and then sat down across from her.

"Was your old job satisfying?" he asked. She sipped at her drink.

"I guess it was, for a while, but I... I don't know. I mean, I enjoyed the working out, but teaching aerobics doesn't really go anywhere, and neither is this job. I mean, for a while it was fun watching the money roll in, but now it's... routine, I guess, I don't know for sure. All I know for sure is that I don't want to spend the rest of my life at it."

"What are you doing outside of work?"

"What do you mean, 'outside of work'?"

"I mean, we haven't been Knight Sabering for quite some time, and I haven't seen you around with the others lately, so what have you been doing with yourself?"

"Nothing," she admitted.

"Why?" he asked simply. She thought for a few moments as he watched, sipping at his own drink.

"I don't know. I....I just don't know. Mind your own business!" she suddenly snapped peevishly.

"May I make a somewhat personal observation?"

"Go ahead."

"I think your problem is a combination of boredom and loneliness."

"Pardon me?!"

"You're bored with your job," he stated quietly, "partly because you're finally realizing that hordes of money isn't getting you what you want out of life. Part of what you want, I've noticed, is a boyfriend, but you haven't had much luck in that department, and that's where the loneliness comes in, right?" He waited as an uncomfortable silence fell.

"You're not entirely wrong," she said slowly, stiffly. She didn't normally discuss personal feelings, and it was a strange feeling in itself. "I always thought that being rich would solve everything, but it hasn't. I've got everything I thought I'd ever need, but something's still missing." She looked at him suddenly. "I really envy you and Nene at times; you've got a solid relationship there, although there were times I wondered what you were up to. I've never been able to even get to the first stage of a relationship. It always falls apart on me after the first couple of dates."

"Are you trying too hard, perhaps?" he asked quietly. "It takes time to find the right person; I was extremely lucky that it was Nene. You might be rushing things by trying to force a relationship through financial success. That will only attract guys who are after your money, and you deserve better than that. Maybe if you back off from it a bit, and quit looking so hard, you'll get better results."

"But I don't want to be alone for the rest of my life!" she protested. He sighed, dropped his mug onto the coffee table and reaching over, gave her a brotherly hug.

"You won't have to worry about that," he assured her. "You're smart and you're beautiful; it'll only be a matter of time before a decent guy turns up. Just quit pursuing it so relentlessly and relax. Like I said, it takes time."

"Easy for you to say," she said petulantly. "You and Nene are bonkers over each other."

"True enough," he admitted, flushing slightly. "It took us a while to get to the point where we were both comfortable with it, though. I mean, I'm still not perfect at telling her everything that's bothering me, and I've always been a fairly private person, so sometimes telling her my feelings is really difficult for me." He paused, then smiled ruefully. "We still have our bumpy spots at times, mostly over my heroic aspirations, but other than that we get along pretty good."

"I'd noticed," she said, looking away gloomily. She knew he was trying to help, but hearing about how he and Nene were doing wasn't cheering her up. Bert stared at her thoughtfully for a moment.

"May I make a suggestion?" he asked gently. Her gaze swung back to him.

"I guess so," she replied. Bert took a deep breath, hoping what he was about to suggest didn't drive her away completely.

"How about another career change?"

"To what?" she asked, frowning at him. "All I know how to do is aerobics and financial work."

"There is one other thing I know you can do," he said quietly, hesitating again. "Dancing."

"What?! Dancing?!" Linna repeated, shocked. She suddenly turned angry. "How can you just casually suggest something like that?! Do you know why I gave it up?! How hard it was to...to..." She choked back the tears that the memory of her failed stage audition of years ago brought. She knew she'd been better than a lot of the girls who'd tried out, but that hadn't cut any ice with the directors making the decisions. They'd picked mostly girls who'd fit the 'glamorous' category: blond, blue-eyed and stacked. It had been a painful experience, one she didn't ever want to repeat.

"Yes, I know," he admitted calmly. "And I also know that you've never been happy about leaving it behind. I'm not suggesting that you try to get back all the way into stage performing. Why not try choreography or something like that?"

"I can't!! I just can't!!"

Bert stood up, walking over to Linna. He pulled her to her feet, tilting her chin up and looking her in the eyes. "Can't? Or won't?" he asked bluntly. "If I'd kept saying that a couple of years ago, despite what you and Priss told me, Nene and I wouldn't be together right now. I know it's a painful memory, but it's in the past. You're a lot stronger now, in a lot of ways, and I think you should quit hiding from it. When you've decided to be reasonable, I'm more than willing to help you in whatever way I can. If you're going to insist that you can't do it, then I can't help you." She stared at him for a moment, her wide blue eyes anguished.

"I...I...I just can't!!" she cried. She pulled free from him, and ran out the door. Bert watched her go, mentally cursing himself.

"So much for Psychology 101," he muttered to himself. Shit! He'd thought he had figured her out, but evidently he'd been wrong. He looked briefly at the clutter around his apartment, then sighed. Now he didn't feel like working anymore; instead he felt kind of depressed. Oh well, he did have a cure for that, at least. Sighing again, he went and picked up the phone.

"Hello, Sylia?" He grinned to himself as she answered the phone. "I thought I'd go up to the corner store; did you want anything?"

****

"YYYYIPEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!" SkyKnight blasted through the air exuberantly, looping and swerving in a wild, unrestrained manner. Below him the early evening lights of the city twinkled like fireflies in a field. Banking to the right, using the semi-darkened summit of the GENOM tower as a landmark, he plotted a new heading, and kicked full power to his flight system. Air was displaced with a horrendous shriek as his jet turbines screamed deafeningly, propelling him through the air in a nearly supersonic burst of speed. A grin stretched across his face inside his helmet; God he loved high-speed flying!!

Several night-flying birds squawked in outrage as the silver-blue blur flashed past them in the night air, pulling a few feathers loose with his trailing slipstream, but he didn't notice. The thrill of flight was occupying his mind at the moment, that and his concern for Linna. The noble knight trying to assist the fair damsel, he noted sardonically to himself. So far, he'd been dismally unsuccessful in that respect. So now what do you do, genius? he asked himself, as he cut his forward speed back to normal airspeeds, reducing the power demand from his flight pack.

He banked around through the star-speckled sky, the looming ziggurat of GENOM below him as he turned. The corporate building was only about half-lit; since some of their hardships, the corporation was running at somewhat reduced staff and capacity. On the one hand, he wasn't overly upset at GENOM's problems, but on the other, he did feel sorry for the workers who were caught in the middle; a large share of GENOM's employees were unaware of the rot infesting the upper layers of the company, and to them, GENOM represented merely a steady job and an income. At times, Bert found himself wondering if the Knight Sabers should be trying to topple the entire company, or just the corrupt and ruthless creeps who ran a lot of things. It was a question he wasn't going to be able to resolve soon. Anyway, things were reasonably quiet at the moment; the giant was sleeping.

Sighing irritably at his somber thoughts, SkyKnight shot off into the night again, away from the monolithic structure, heading out more towards the center of the city. The police radio wavelength crackled into life as he flew.

"Dispatch this is Unit #33," a young voice reported; a rookie cop, probably. "I've spotted at least two C-55 boomers heading down Hidokai Street, near 5th Avenue. Request backup immediately."

"Roger that, Unit #33," a young woman's voice replied. "Stay clear until the backup arrives; ETA is five minutes."

"Roger dispatch," the officer replied before the line went silent again. SkyKnight quickly called up his computer map of MegaTokyo, locating the occurrence as the map scrolled across his viewscreen. There it was, only about six blocks from his current location. Hot damn!! Some action, at last!! He whipped around in midair and erupted towards the ground on his howling flight system. The six blocks took mere seconds to cover.

As he veered into the street the officer had named, he did indeed see two blue boomers. Humanoid in form, with articulated blue armour plating, they were walking up the street, blasting the buildings as they walked with their mouth-mounted plasma beams. Concrete chunks flew through the air as smoke and bursts of flame poured into the air from the explosions.

As SkyKnight prepared to charge, a squad car came howling out of the darkness behind the two boomers, red and blue strobe lights blazing. It slewed into a sideways skid as the brakes squealed, and the car came to a halt with the passenger side of the car facing the now turning boomers. A very young-looking uniformed officer jumped out, and began lining up an assault rifle on the two boomers; the boomers showed a noticeable lack of fear as bullets pinged and whined off of them, not even scratching their paint jobs.

SkyKnight swooped up and dropped to the pavement behind the two killer mechanisms with a resounding clang as he killed his flight system power. Snarling, the C-55s spun around towards him, ignoring the ADP officer now. Blue energy bursts sizzled through the air; caught unprepared by the swiftness of the attack, SkyKnight was struck squarely on his chest armour by both beams. They knocked him a staggering step backwards...and fizzled out, their force expended. Two black burn marks on his armour plating were the only signs that he'd been hit; the plating had held up perfectly otherwise. SkyKnight suddenly laughed in triumph, ducking at the same time as the boomers lunged forwards with claws swinging.

The first boomer was suddenly grabbed by a gauntlet that easily crunched a handhold into its chest armour, and swung over bodily to intercept the backswing of the second boomer; the second boomer's claws gouged deep ruts in the first's torso, and orange-brown fluids gushed out onto the pavement. SkyKnight tossed the wounded boomer aside almost contemptuously, and concentrated on sparring with the still-intact boomer.

"You know," he said conversationally to the biomechanoid, parrying a claw strike with his left swordblade. "The problem with you guys is that you're always..." He nimbly flipped into the air, landing a few feet away as the boomer tried another point-blank plasma shot. "....always attacking; you never stop to think about what you're doing. In fact..." His right swordblade snapped out, and he fenced wildly with the boomer for a moment, steely edges creating a flickering pattern through the air that meant serious injury to whoever missed a parry. That someone turned out to be the boomer; it reeled away backwards from a torso thrust that punched through its block, leaking fluids. SkyKnight got set again to finish it off.

"In fact, I'd say you're always losing your head," he remarked. As the boomer straightened up, SkyKnight's gauntleted right fist blasted forwards, smashing into the boomer's snarling face. Armour plating snapped, and wires and synthetic materials tore under the crushing impact; the boomer's head ripped free to bounce along the pavement, coming to a rolling stop against the police car. "See what I mean?" SkyKnight asked the falling biomechanoid's carcass as nutrient fluids fountained briefly from what was left of its neck. He grinned to himself, then turned towards the remaining C-55, which was floundering around on the pavement like a beached fish; evidently it had been seriously damaged by its cohort's claws. Powering up his particle lasers, he stilled its flopping with a meticulously-placed blast into its torso. It collapsed into a smoking heap.

"I came, I saw, I whipped their sorry asses!" he laughed, momentarily getting carried away, and it was a minute or so before he could stop. SkyKnight grinned to himself as he stretched exultantly; God that had been fun! He hadn't been able to pound on a runaway boomer in what seemed like ages. It had been oddly cathartic, as if he'd been demolishing his own worries and problems at the same time. The action hadn't bothered his tender shoulder either; the miracle of painkillers, a sardonic part of his mind noted. It was probably going to be stiff in the morning, however.

Turning, he looked at the rather stunned ADP officer who was standing behind his car with his jaw hanging. He clanked over to the car, kicking some of the scrap littering the ground out from in front of him.

"Uhh, um...thanks," the officer stammered, pulling his face straight again. He was definitely a rookie, SkyKnight decided; he looked far to young to be anything other than a patrol officer, and he was shaking as he realized just how close he'd come to getting shot by the boomers.

"My pleasure," he replied bowing and straightening up. "However, next time, maybe you should listen to your dispatcher about waiting for backup," he noted. "This could have gotten ugly if I hadn't been in the area. See you around." With that, saluting, he turned and vaulted into the heavens again. Howling jets lofted him beyond the sight of the officer.

****

"He has not changed in the slightest," the mechanical voice grated, as the silver hardsuit shot out of the field of vision of the viewscreen. The angle of the camera appeared to be crooked, almost like the camera was laying on the ground. Claws scraped free of their housings as the boomer clenched a fist. "Excellent; that makes our task much easier." Across the room from it, a dark, deskbound figure reached out and pushed a switch, and the large wall monitor shut off.

"You say he has not changed, but one fight is hardly positive proof," the gravelly voice from the shadows observed.

"It is all that I need," the boomer replied. "I can destroy him physically and mentally, moreso now that I have seen him in action again. He is overconfident, and has become careless; that will be his downfall. After him, the rest of the Knight Sabers will follow."

"And when will this momentous occasion take place?" the shadowy figure asked, with just a trace of sarcasm.

"Soon. McLaren and Yoshida have almost finished adapting the AI to suit our needs."

****

The young girl backed into the counter behind her, hands clenched in front of her wide-eyed, terrified face as she stared into the yawning muzzle of a semi-automatic pistol held by a masked man in black clothes. Around the rest of the small corner convenience store, the couple of other customers were reaching for the ceiling, stiff-faced with fear. On the floor, another man was laying curled up on the floor, groaning in agony as blood slowly soaked his shirt from the gunshot wound to his stomach. The girl was young, about seventeen, with blue eyes and long brown hair, dressed in a clean, neat uniform and a nametag. She swallowed, making a small whimper as the thug thrust the gun towards her again.

"Open the goddamn cash register NOW, bitch!" he snarled. "Or do you want what that screw-up got?" There was a metallic snick as a gloved hand thumbed back the hammer. The girl, however, was paralyzed with fear. Outside in the darkness, a howling drone died off as a jet passed nearby; the noise was ignored.

"I'm only going to say this once more, you stunned bitch," the robber said ominously. "Open the...."

"Now that's no way to talk to a lady," a deep voice said from the doorway. The robber spun around, and his gun gave a flat bark. The slug whined off of the silver-armoured shape standing in the doorway, blasting some inoffensive cans of fruit juice off of a nearby shelf. The customers and the young girl gaped in surprise. The robber stood rooted to the spot in shock, his jaw almost on the ground. The red v-shaped slot in the head of the armour suit glowed ominously, glaring at the crook as the silver battlesuit began to advance implacably forward.

"Drop the gun, now," it ordered flatly. The crook suddenly seemed to wake up, and started backtracking.

"Who the hell are you?!" he screamed. "WHAT the hell are you?!?!" Everyone else in the store ducked for cover as the panicked crook started firing wildly; bullets whined and shrieked off of the plating of the suit as it flashed forwards, seizing the gun arm of the bandit and lifting him into the air by it. The red eyeslot burned ominously from a scant few inches away from the would-be bandit's eyes.

"My name is SkyKnight," the voice from the helmet told the now-sweating crook. "And I hate creeps who are rude to ladies, especially creeps who also happen to be armed thieves." There was a loud crunch, and the dangling crook howled in pain as his gun dropped from suddenly broken fingers.

SkyKnight dropped the sobbing thug to the floor, where he collapsed to his knees, holding his crushed hand. The silver Knight Saber bent and picked up the dropped firearm. As everyone watched, the gauntlet of the silver-and-blue battlearmour clenched viciously into a fist; the gun folded like rubber into a mashed metal lump. The squished gun was dropped to the floor in front of the thug with a clatter.

"Maybe that will teach you to be a little more civil, not to mention honest," SkyKnight remarked, as the injured bandit gaped incredulously from the ruined gun to him. "At any rate, you'll have plenty of time to think about the errors of your ways shortly." Police sirens sounded in the air, drawing nearer. SkyKnight turned and quickly checked on the bleeding man, sighing in relief as his sensors informed him that the man wasn't in danger of dying. Standing up and ignoring the slack-jawed stares from the other store occupants, the silver-garbed suit stepped over to the wall refrigerator, opened the door, and pulled out a bag of milk. Turning, he clanked over to the counter. A panel in his gauntlet armour opened up, and he pulled a couple of large denomination bills out of it, closing the panel with a snap. SkyKnight handed the money to the dazed girl behind the counter.

"That should about cover the milk, and the mess," he told her. "Sorry I couldn't be a bit neater."

"T-t-thank you, sir," she stammered, staring at him round-eyed. SkyKnight bowed floridly.

"It was a pleasure, M'Lady," he proclaimed grandly as he straightened up. "This humble knight was only too happy to assist." With that, he picked up the milk, turned and strode out of the store. A moment later, a loud whining roar sounded, gradually fading into the distance.

****

"Here you go," Bert said, dropping the milk to the countertop. Sylia looked up from the book she was paging through at her kitchen table.

"Thanks," she replied. "I appreciate it. I hope the traffic wasn't too bad."

"Oh, the traffic was not a problem," he replied, straight-faced, stifling a grin. Sylia suddenly shot him a suspicious glance; his voice had definitely sounded amused. She couldn't see what was so funny about driving to a corner store

"All right, what's so funny?" she demanded. Bert sighed and told her; Sylia sighed and slapped a hand over her face, gritting her teeth.

"Why me?" she asked the ceiling, but it didn't reply. She looked over at Bert. "When you said you were going to the corner store, I'd assumed you meant in your truck."

"I thought about it, but I was feeling a little depressed, so I figured taking my suit for a spin would cheer me up at the same time. Besides, you should have seen the looks on the faces of the people in the store." Bert grinned hugely, a mischievous light flaring briefly in his eyes.

"I can just imagine," she remarked wryly, a faint smile reluctantly appearing. "The robber was probably surprised, to say the least." Bert grinned again in agreement, then sobered a bit.

"Before all that happened, however, I had an encounter you should know about," he said, giving her the details on the boomer skirmish he'd briefly enjoyed. She looked thoughtful, gazing out the darkened bay window of her apartment at the night skyline beyond.

"It does sound suspicious," she remarked, frowning in concentration. "Especially following so closely on the heels of your last boomer encounter. We haven't seen a C-55 in months, but now they just suddenly pop up again? I don't think it was chance; I think our mysterious adversaries are getting ready to try something. Those boomers were a feint, a test to see if we'd respond, and how." Bert nodded wordlessly; the same thought had briefly occurred to him. Sylia sighed and looked over at him.

"You can give me a full report tomorrow morning," she told him. "We've got a lot of work to do tomorrow; the new suits are ready for some preliminary testing, finally."

"No problem," he replied, straightening up from where he was leaning against the counter. "Good night, then."

"Good night." Sylia watched him leave, then stood up, walking over to look out the window at the sprawling mega-city beyond. "Who are you?" she muttered to herself, her frowning gaze probing the darkness vainly for some kind of clue. "Just what are you after?"

 

THE NEXT DAY....

"Okay, Sylia," Bert's voice came from the console speaker. "Let 'er rip."

"Hang on a second," she replied, tabbing a few switches. Green lights flickered across the board indicating that all was ready. She raised her gaze to the thick-glassed observation window, and the apparatus in the room beyond. The large machine was a complex collection of hydraulic cylinders, wires and cables that resembled some kind of mutated nautilus machine. Standing in the middle of the contraption was SkyKnight. A couple of interface cables ran from his suit into the machine, feeding her duplicate status reports from his suit computer on how his new suit was performing.

Behind her, Priss was slouched against the wall, her helmet tucked under her arm, the absolute picture of boredom; her suit had already been run through its paces, and watching everyone else's get tested didn't interest her. Sitting next to Sylia at an auxiliary bank of monitors was Nene; she had her helmet on and the suit running. Nene had plugged her suit interface into the monitors and was giving it a shakedown test to make sure everything was working at the same time as she was watching the monitors for Bert's testing. Linna was nowhere in sight; after her suit had been tested she'd vanished, pleading ill health. Sylia had briefly wondered at that, since Linna never seemed to ever get sick, but hadn't asked if anything was wrong. She sighed to herself and turned back to the monitors.

"All right," she warned Bert. "Get ready, we're starting the strength testing....now!" A low thrum pulsed through the chamber, and through the windows the gathered Knight Sabers could see the hydraulic arms of the testing machine begin to move as they swung into position. SkyKnight gripped the appropriate handgrips and braced himself. The thrum from the machine began to increase in intensity as the pressure on the hydraulic rams began to build.

"You did turn this thing on, did you?" he quipped. His suit wasn't even straining yet. Sylia didn't bother to reply as she watched the readout creep past the ten-ton mark, which had been the theoretical strength limit of his old suit. With the new, lighter armour plating and the new myomer actuators, the predicted strength maximum for his suit was now around fifteen tons. The rest of the suits had moved up to his old limit. The reason for the large disparity in physical hardsuit power was the fact that SkyKnight's suit and systems were a lot heavier and bulkier than the rest of the Sabers; with all the things he'd put into his suit, there was just no physical way to make it any more streamlined than it already was.

"Sylia," Nene asked nervously, flipping up her visor and revealing worried green eyes, "is that thing safe? I mean, he's gone over the limits already." Sylia looked down and noted with surprise that the machine had indeed cleared the fifteen ton mark. His designs were performing better than expected. As she watched the stress readings from his hardsuit, she took a quick glance through the window; SkyKnight was beginning to shake a bit, but nothing critical. When the readout hit twenty tons, Sylia called a halt.

"Okay, that's enough!" she told him, killing the power to the machine. "We're going to have to rebuild that thing; we were getting too close to ITS maximum load!" Inside, the silver suit relaxed, releasing its grip on the handlebars.

"Damn I'm good!" he remarked, detaching himself from the machine. He clumped across the room to the door, and stepped through, pulling off his helmet. Sylia turned the machine off as the console spat out a floppy disk with the suit performance data copied onto it. She took the disk and slipped it into a pocket on her lab coat. Nene disconnected herself at the same time, and pulled off her helmet. She shook out her cascade of vibrant red hair in relief; even when not doing anything, it got kind of hot inside the helmet. Priss straightened up from the wall.

"Remind me not to arm-wrestle you in your suit," Priss remarked, prompting a grin from Bert. He ran a gauntlet through his hopelessly messy hair, sweeping his bangs out of his eyes.

"It worked much better than I'd anticipated," he admitted. "I didn't think I could make the suit structure physically strong enough to handle that kind of stress, but it would appear that I managed it. Sometimes I amaze even myself," he said modestly.

"That doesn't sound too hard," Priss observed dryly. Nene giggled, but didn't add any comments. Bert looked over at Sylia, an anticipatory grin lighting his face.

"So when do we get to actually use these suits and retire the old ones?" he queried.

"A few more days at most," Sylia replied. "I've got some final adjustments to make to the control systems. You'll just have to be patient, I'm afraid."

"Him?" Priss snorted. "Patient? Yeah, right!"

"Hey, that's not fair!" Bert protested. "I'm very patient. After all, I put up with you all the time, don't I?" With a fiendish grin, Bert ducked Priss' irritated swipe in his direction, and dodged out of the room.

****

"You are positive everything is ready?" the boomer's distorted voice rumbled. The red-lit helmet canopy moved closer to Dr. Yoshida's face menacingly. "If you are wrong, you will not live long enough to correct your oversights." Yoshida's seemingly permanent sneer slipped a bit at the threat as he swallowed a little nervously. Behind him, Richard McLaren had already turned white at the boomer's words, and backed up a step.

"We are one hundred percent certain that everything is ready," Yoshida replied, adding, "I don't make mistakes in MY designs."

"Oh, of course," the boomer replied, cutting sarcasm audible in its voice. "Which is why the Knight Sabers weren't able to beat your earlier designs, of course." Yoshida turned purple, but managed to avoid flying into the screaming tantrum that usually accompanied mention of his earlier defeat by the hardsuited vigilantes. The boomer chuckled evilly, and turned away from the infuriated scientist, walking over to the tarpaulin-shrouded body on the large platform in the middle of the room.

"Initiate the power feed to the body," it ordered. Yoshida and McLaren went over to a large, central control panel. Yoshida flipped a switch, and elsewhere in the building, a generator began to hum. Electricity began to crackle in the air around the prone form, mostly around the large power cable that was currently attached to it. The lights dimmed as extra power from the building's electrical systems was siphoned off for the process. The boomer laughed, a horrible, grating noise that clawed on the listener's nerves.

"Now for the final step," the boomer rumbled finally, as the last echoes of its laughter faded. It knelt ponderously next to the platform, peeling off some of the tarp covering near the top end; light glinted dully from polished metal plating. There was a strange, metallic slithering noise, and two crawling, tentacle-like cables began extending from the boomer's left arm, reaching out towards the prone body. The tentacles crawled into the body, interfacing with it in the head and neck region. Yoshida and McLaren watched nervously, keeping one eye on the monitors, and the other eye on what was happening.

The body under the blanket twitched suddenly, a twitch mimicked by the misshapen boomer linked to it. The two forms jerked and spasmed again, and a second low thrumming noise began to build, coming from under the blanket. Yoshida cast a quick glance at the status readouts; the new body's powerplant had just activated, and was coming to full power. The red glow from the misshapen boomer's helmet canopy began to die off, becoming dimmer and dimmer. Its movements were becoming weaker and more erratic, while the movements of the shrouded form were becoming stronger and more controlled.

There was a muffled bang, and smoke began to come from between the mismatched armour plates of the hulking boomer as the red light from the helmet dome died completely. The malformed boomer suddenly surged upright to a standing position, then toppled heavily over backwards to crash into the concrete floor, the cables from its arm tearing loose from the cloaked body. The smoking form bounced limply once, then lay still. The thrumming noise from the cloaked shape on the platform also died down, becoming inaudible.

"What happened?" McLaren demanded hoarsely, sweating. "What was it trying to do?!" Yoshida ignored the other man, irritably shoving him aside as he scanned the control monitors. Even though their strange 'employer' had not stated why it had not wanted the new AI to be reprogrammed, he'd had a suspicion that the boomer meant to personally reprogram it by directly linking with it. Evidently, it had proved to be too much of a strain on the boomer's older systems, and it had died. A moment later, he realized he'd been wrong, very wrong indeed.

The canvas sheet tore suddenly as twin pairs of scythed, serrated claws ripped free. The concealing tarp was shredded into flying strips a moment later as the boomer body on the platform surged to its feet in a wild explosion of movement. The lights in the building almost died completely as a final surge of electricity limned the massive form with crackling lightning. There was an ominous chuckle from the newly-awakened biomechanoid, a deep-voiced chuckle that burst into triumphant, rolling laughter. Yoshida reached out and turned off the power generator and monitor bank; the lights flared into life again.

Light glinted off of a standing body twelve feet tall, sheathed in metallic green plating and draped with canvas shreds from the ruined covering. Twin, saw-toothed claws were extended from the backs of the hands of two muscular-looking arms, arms that were raised over the boomer's thrown-back head in an apparent victory gesture. As the two men watched, more blades sprang out of the boomer's body; one wickedly curved blade sprang out from each of the boomer's elbows, projecting backwards, as two more smaller ones emerged from the forearms, perpendicular to its arms.

The rest of the boomer's body was humanoid in form, with articulated armour plating and large, powerful musculature. If it had any other weapons than its edged ones, they were well-concealed within its body. As the boomer's arms came back down to its sides, its head came up and forwards; two brightly burning yellow, insect-like eyes stared at the nervous scientists from an elongated head with fanged, mandible-like jaws. The extended blades and claws retracted into their housings with metallic scraping noises that scratched chillingly at the nerves of the listeners.

"Gentlemen," the HeadHunter rumbled with another chuckle. "I commend you on an excellent job." Raucous, mechanical laughter rolled through the room.

****

Bert stepped through the door from his washroom, vigorously toweling his wet red hair dry. Walking across his small kitchen to the bedroom, he draped the towel on the back of a chair to dry out. Peering into the mirror, he swept a comb through his unruly hair, forcing it into some semblance of order; it acquiesced grudgingly. He knew it was only a temporary condition; the minute it was dry, it would sprawl all over the place again. In some ways, his hair reflected a lot of his personality, he supposed. Grinning to himself, he went out to the kitchen, filling and plugging in his kettle.

As the kettle industriously hissed away at heating the water, he leaned against the countertop to wait. His expression turned serious as his mind restlessly mulled over his concerns about Linna. He was more than a little concerned now; she'd been unusually quiet before and during the hardsuit testing, her usual bounce and verve completely absent. Disappearing immediately after her suit had been tested wasn't like her, either. She'd refused to even make eye contact with him the entire time he'd been there, almost going out of her way to avoid him entirely. Since it was partly his fault that she'd lapsed into this state, he had to find some way to snap her out of it.

The kettle whistled urgently. He quickly brewed up a pot of tea, covering it to let it steep for a few minutes. He walked over to his recliner and sprawled loosely in it, folding his arms behind his head as he leaned back, looking at the ceiling. Linna had only ever mentioned her former aspirations to him once, very briefly, during his first few weeks in MegaTokyo while she was trying to whip one uncoordinated former university student into something resembling fighting condition. Their workout sessions had occasionally ended in some serious, at times personal, discussions, mostly because he'd been lonely a lot during those first few weeks, and had needed someone to talk to. She hadn't seemed to mind. He knew a bit more than she thought he did about what had happened to her, stemming primarily from his 'advanced knowledge', as he preferred to think of it.

Advanced knowledge or not, he'd evidently made a mistake in suggesting she take up dancing again. He hadn't realized that her former dreams of performing in a musical, or some other stage-type production, would still be such a sore point. Of anyone, Linna had been the last person he'd have expected to have a confidence problem; she was always so energetic and self-assured, or at least that had been his perception. He knew part of what she was feeling, having had a good share of his own confidence problems at times.

"So now what, oh great genius?" he muttered disgustedly to himself. He stood up, walking over to the counter and mixing up a mugful of tea. Sighing, running a hand through his hair, he took a slurp from his mug as he carried it back to his chair. Damn it, he had to do something; he couldn't just leave her to mope around. His greenish-brown eyes flicked an irritated gaze around the room as he tried to think of something he could do to help.

A rather hesitant knock sounded at the door, and he called out that it was open. The door swung slowly open, and Linna stepped through, first glancing around to make sure that nobody else was around. Seeing that he was alone, she stepped into the room. She was casually dressed, in a pink blouse with a sweater over top, and slacks, with her hair tucked under the ever-present headband. From the stiff way she was moving, one got the impression that she was moving almost against her will, as if someone was forcing her at gunpoint into his room. A relieved look appeared in Bert's eyes as he greeted her, and a tentative grin appeared.

"Hi there," he said. "Want some tea?" At her quiet nod, he levered himself out of his chair and poured her a cup as she sat uneasily down on his couch. He brought her the steaming beverage, plunking down small containers of cream and sugar on the coffee table nearby so she could adjust it to fit her tastes; most people couldn't handle the strength to which he fortified his drinks. He sat back down, taking another slurp from his mug as he looked at her. She was carefully not meeting his gaze, staring instead at the coffee tabletop. He waited quietly, suddenly unsure of what to say.

"So, um, what brings you to this neck of the woods?" he tried. Silence. He gave up and waited again, sipping quietly from his drink while she did the same. Finally she set her cup down and looked at him.

"Do you have any idea," she asked in a quavering voice, "just what your suggestion of the other day did to me?" Bert opened his mouth to reply, but didn't get the chance; she continued talking as if he wasn't there.

"For a long time after I left, I couldn't stop crying," she told him. "After you mentioned dancing, I kept seeing that audition over and over and over again." Her eyes became wet-looking, and a couple of stray tears tracked their way down her cheek. "I wanted to get into that production so badly I couldn't think of anything else for weeks before the audition. I drove myself almost into the ground practicing; I put everything I had into it, and it just wasn't good enough. I didn't get it, not because of lack of ability, but because I didn't fit the 'showgirl' stereotype." She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head. Bert placed his mug on the coffee table, and shifted over next to her on the couch, placing an arm around her shoulders and gently drawing her over to lean against him. "I'm not sure what hurt worse," she continued, trying to keep from crying, "the losing out finally because of my looks, or having to endure some of the snide remarks from the ones who'd made it. I don't know what I'd have done if Sylia hadn't shown up when she did."

"You didn't give up on the dancing just because someone said you weren't good-looking, did you?" he inquired gently. She did start to cry quietly at his question, and he hugged her tightly for a few moments, trying to offer some comfort.

"No," she finally admitted, sniffling. He fished out a clean handkerchief and handed it to her. "I'd convinced myself that it was my fault, that I hadn't had what it takes to get in the door, that it was a lack of ability on my part, not something that I had no control over." She sniffled again, and blew her nose on the handkerchief, handing it back to him; he surreptitiously dropped it behind him, off the end of the couch. She didn't notice.

"Well, if you don't mind a somewhat biased opinion," he told her, "you had, and still do have, the ability to do it. You're strong, graceful, athletic and you've got the strength of character needed to succeed in that particular field; in that respect, you're better now than you probably were back then. As for looks...." he grinned suddenly, leaned back slightly, and ran an appraising eye up and down her. She suddenly flushed bright red at his scrutiny, looking away. He grinned again, mischievous sparks glinting in his greenish-brown eyes. "As for looks, you don't need to worry; you're a knockout."

"Um, thanks," she said, flushing again. Still grinning, he gave her a brotherly-type hug, then stood up. Gathering up their cups he went and refilled them as she regained a measure of her composure. He came back and sat down, handing Linna her mug. She took it and sipped carefully at it.

"So does this mean you're going to give it a try, then?" he asked cautiously. She nodded, biting her lower lip as she looked at him hesitantly.

"I've got one condition, though," she told him. "I want you to help me on this; I need the support."

"That's not a problem," he shrugged. "Whatever I can do to help out, I will."

"Good," she said briskly, becoming suddenly businesslike. "Get your exercise stuff on then; I'll meet you down in the exercise room."

"Uh, pardon me?! Exercise stuff?" he repeated, a blank look on his face. She smirked at him.

"I've got to get back in shape for this, you know," she said blandly. "I can't very well work out by myself, can I?"

"Now wait a minute," he said, starting to sweat just a bit. "I don't know a thing about the kind of dancing you're referring to, and I haven't got the dexterity, not to mention the flexibility..."

"And I haven't got years to try and instruct you," she put in dryly. "I just meant stuff along the lines of our regular workouts. Surely you can handle that?"

"Well, uh, I think so...."

"Well then, what's the problem?" She didn't wait for an answer, but swept out of the room, the door banging shut behind her. Bert sat there for a moment, wondering what had hit him. He began to get a very uneasy feeling that he'd just talked himself into a crash fitness course. Marvelous.

"How do I get myself into these things?" he sighed, tossing back the dregs from his mug, dropping the empty cup to the coffee table. Sighing again, he stood up and went into his room to get changed.

****

About a week later, he was still asking himself that question. When he'd said he was willing to help her in whatever way possible, he should have placed a few provisos on that offer of assistance. Helping a friend get ready for a change of careers shouldn't have had to include getting up at five in the morning to go jogging. Nor should it have included grueling three-hour workouts in the mornings and afternoons. Linna didn't appear to be suffering any strain as a result of the increased exercise, but he himself was exhausted by the end of the day. He'd been so tired, he hadn't even been in the hardsuit shop during the week; he needed to be awake for playing with the equipment, not drooping with fatigue. Nene had noticed his increased activity, but was a little annoyed with the results.

"Honestly, I don't know why I come by lately," she complained, dropping her teacup to the coffee table. She ran a hand through her lustrous red hair, sweeping it back over her shoulders, sighing in exasperation.

"Because I love you, that's why," his muffled voice came from the couch cushions, where he was limply sprawled face-down, one leg hanging off to the side. She snorted.

"That may be true, but I don't want to just drop by to watch you sleep, you twit! Surely you can wake up long enough to at least look at me!!" A long, drawn-out sigh came from the couch. With a visible effort, Bert shoved himself upright on the couch, swinging his feet down and around to the floor. Bleary greenish-brown eyes looked over at her from beneath a snarled tangle of red hair.

"There," he announced. "I'm looking at you. Happy now?"

"You," Nene told him, "are a mess!"

"Thank you," he said dryly. "You try what I've been doing lately, and we'll see just how nice you look afterwards."

"Uh-uh," she shook her head. "You couldn't pay me enough to do that much exercise. I don't mind a little bit of working out, but you're overdoing it. Why on earth did you say you'd do it?"

"I said I'd help her out in whatever way I could," he corrected sourly. "I didn't realize that my offer of assistance was going to get interpreted as including participating in an exercise regimen. My chivalry has been taken advantage of, I think, but I can't prove it."

"You poor guy," she commiserated with patently false sympathy, grinning impishly. "I kept telling you that it was going to get you into trouble."

"Please spare me the 'I told you so' routine," he growled. "I really don't need it." Nene grinned again. Standing up, she walked over to him and flopped on the couch next to him.

"Would I do something like that?" she inquired innocently, leaning over and kissing him.

****

The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the sides of the GENOM tower, outlining the dark obelisk in a golden-red fringe. Inside the upper levels of the towering skyscraper, a fairly typical board meeting was going on. Seated around a long mahogany table, nine men in dark suits, and one woman with purple hair were having a rather vitriolic discussion. Voices were alternately raised and lowered in anger, with nothing useful apparently being decided.

Madigan sat back in her chair, gritting her teeth in suppressed fury. That pompous, arrogant popinjay!! she snarled to herself, glaring at the black-haired man in the dark blue suit who was sitting at the head of the table. As far as she was concerned, Nakamura was a fawning, contemptible sycophant; he'd spent his days before GENOM's reversals kissing up to the various members of the director's board, and his reward had been being installed as the acting CEO of GENOM in the mysterious absence of Quincy. The board had completely overlooked the fact that he had no experience whatsoever in running a hot dog stand, let alone a multinational conglomerate; she knew they'd installed him primarily because they could control him like a puppet. To add insult to injury, they'd passed her over as Quincy's stand-in, saying that 'the stresses of such a demanding position would be intolerable for you'. Translated, that meant they hadn't liked the fact that she was a woman.

This would never have been allowed to happen if Mr. Quincy were here, she fumed. He had run the enterprise with an iron grip, one that no one dared dispute. He wouldn't have allowed this travesty to take place, and he'd have been able to pull the company out of the doldrums it now found itself in. A brief wave of nostalgia surfaced as she thought back on past victories.

A loud bang on the double doors jerked her out of her reverie, and caught the attention of the other men at the table. As they looked towards the end of the room, the doors swung open slightly, and a tall, lean figure in a white suit strode boldly into the room. Icy blue eyes glared at the room from a craggy, impassive face that was framed by almost shoulder-length white hair. The Chairman was back.

"Mr. Quincy!" Madigan breathed incredulously, unable to stop a delighted smile from forming. Quincy didn't acknowledge her; instead, he glowered at the nine, less-than-overjoyed men sitting around the rest of the table.

"Gentlemen," his gravelly voice rumbled. A few of the board members flinched as his icy gaze swept them. Quincy cut straight to the point. "I have not been impressed with the manner in which you have handled our affairs. Even completely clueless, brain-dead morons should have been able to deal with the problems our competitors posed us more creatively than you have."

"Who asked you to criticize us, old man?" Nakamura blustered from the head of the table. "A fine one to talk you are; at the first sign of trouble, you bailed out and left us to hang for the vultures. As it is, you've been replaced, or hadn't you noticed?" The would-be chairman shut up as an awful silence fell over the room. Madigan cautiously moved her chair back away from the table, a move copied by the other eight board members as Quincy turned a steely glare on the younger man.

"Nakamura, isn't it?" he inquired in a deceptively mild tone. At Nakamura's nod, he continued, "If you'll check the records, I never officially stepped down, and was never officially replaced. You, sir, are a powerless jackass, installed by greedy profiteers so that they can plunder the company's resources!!" His last sentence was snarled into a very taut, frightened silence. Nakamura had gone white-faced.

"Did you think I was blind to what you were doing?!" Quincy demanded, glaring at the eight suited men, ignoring the pretender sitting in his chair. "I may not have been sitting in my office where you could watch me, but I was certainly watching you. Believe me, gentlemen," he spat, hurling the word like an epithet, "the day of reckoning for your stupidity has arrived."

"And just what do you think you are going to do?" Nakamura piped up. Quincy looked over at the younger executive, a malevolent smile appearing.

"Have you ever heard of a hostile takeover?" he queried politely. He gestured towards the double doors. As Nakamura looked over, his face suddenly blanched, turning bone-white in stark terror. It was the last expression anyone in the room saw on his face; an instant later, a blindingly bright, greenish-white energy bolt burned through the air down the length of the council table, blasting the hapless sycophant into bloody rags that flew all over the room, and destroying the chair he was sitting in as well. The energy blast shattered a large hole in the glass wall behind the gory mess, and vanished into the distance over the city. Wind whistled mournfully past the glass, the only sound in the stunned room.

Everyone in the room stared at the hulking, metallic-green apparition that now stood framed in the doorway to the meeting chamber. Burning yellow eyes swept the cringing bureaucrats as an insectoid head swiveled around. The only person not cringing was Madigan; she sat stiff as a stone statue, staring in combined disbelief and rising anger and fear at the all-too-familiar biomechanoid monster at the end of the room. Her clenched grip on her chair arms had driven her nails through the leather covering. Quincy glanced at her briefly, then turned back to the green killer at the doorway.

"You didn't need to do it that way," Quincy reproved mildly, a faintly annoyed expression on his face as he flicked a sidelong glance at the carnage. "That WAS my chair, you know."

"I'm sure one of these fine gentlemen would be only too happy to offer you theirs," the HeadHunter replied coldly, with a trace of sinister amusement evident in the mechanical voice. Eight vacant chairs were immediately offered to Quincy. Hiding a smile, he selected one, and sat down, gesturing for the other men to sit. Except for the lone executive left standing, everyone else sat warily, casting nervous glances from Quincy to the HeadHunter.

"Gentlemen," Quincy proclaimed, waving a hand at the armoured shape blocking the exit to the room. "Allow me to introduce you to our new trouble-shooter."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintances," the boomer told the assembled board members in a tone oily with equal parts of veiled menace and amusement. "I can see we're going to get along perfectly."

****

Bert sighed in relief as he closed the shop door behind him; at last, he'd finally found the time (not to mention the energy) to stop by the shop and putter. He hadn't realized that suddenly increasing his workout level had been going to drain him as much as it had. He was glad that his part of the work on getting the next set of hardsuits ready was done; Sylia could quite easily finish the control system tuning without his help, overlooking the fact that he still didn't understand everything about how the controls worked. Besides, he wouldn't have been much good to Sylia in his worn-out condition; the control systems required some painstaking precision and attention to detail, and having someone pass out, snoring, into them would not have been a good thing.

He sighed again, and stretched, wincing as his back creaked. He didn't really feel like working tonight. No, tonight was for relaxing, and he had the perfect way to relax. Grinning to himself, he got changed into his dark blue hardsuit undergarment, and padded across the cluttered workshop to where his suit stood at attention. Reaching up, he pulled off the helmet, and the rest of the suit flew open. Setting the helmet on a nearby table, he stepped into the armour, thrusting his arms into the armoured sleeves of the suit and settling his feet in the boots. Immediately, the suit snapped closed, armour plating slapping into place as the suit powerplant activated. A subdued hum reverberated through the shop as his suit finally settled into place with a final pneumatic hiss.

"Now for some fun," he said aloud with a grin. As he reached for his helmet, however, the phone rang.

"Nuts! Now what is it?!" he growled, clanking over to the phone and carefully lifting the receiver. "Hello?"

"Hi there!" Nene's cheery voice replied. "Just thought I'd better remind you that we're going out tonight; you have an annoying tendency to forget these things." Bert closed his eyes, mentally swearing at his erratic memory; he had indeed forgotten that he, Nene, Priss, and Linna were going to be dining at one of the local cafes. They hadn't gotten together for a while, and Nene had suggested that it would be a good change. Everyone had agreed, and set the time for 8:00 PM. Taking a quick glance at the wall, he noted the clock said 6:49 PM; plenty of time for a quick flight before he had to go over.

"I hadn't forgotten," he lied. "I'll be there in a bit; I'm going for a quick flight first."

"I'd figured that much out," Nene said dryly. "Don't be late."

"Trust me," he grinned, pulling the receiver away from his ear as she hung up with a more forceful bang than was necessary. "Some people have no sense of humour," he observed mournfully. He dialed Sylia's number and told her he was going for a short flight.

"Okay," she replied. "Just be careful."

"Yes Ma'am," he replied. Hanging up, he dashed across the shop, grabbing his helmet and slapping it on, then turning and sprinting out the door of the shop.

****

Quincy leaned back in his chair, a wide grin stretching across his craggy features. Exultant laughter rolled through his office for a moment. Stretching, he luxuriated for a moment in the comfort of his padded chair. As he was enjoying the moment, the doors to his office opened, and Madigan stalked through. Closing them behind her, she walked over to Quincy's desk, barely controlled fury visible on her face; fires flickered in her blue-grey eyes, and her violet hair seemed to be stirring restlessly of its own free will. Quincy watched her approach, an amused expression on his face.

"You had something you wanted to discuss?" he inquired politely.

"How in the name of God could you bring that goddamn thing back in here?!" she half-shrieked, before she could control herself. "You know that thing is a psychotic killer!! What...why..what do you think you're doing!? I have never, ever questioned your actions until now, but I think I deserve an explanation!!"

"Ah, so you're wondering if I've sold my soul to the devil," he remarked with a sly smirk. He gestured to a nearby chair. "Do sit down Madigan; this explanation may take a while." Reluctantly, she sat down, trying to compose herself.

"Let me see," Quincy mused, gazing thoughtfully into the space over his desk. "I suppose this all started to come together about two weeks after that massive firefight in the downtown core. Despite what the news reports broadcast, the HeadHunter was not dead. It very nearly was; in the fight with SkyKnight, and the resulting gas explosion, it lost an arm, a leg, and a very good portion of its torso. The regenerative factor it was equipped with just barely kept its AI alive; by the time the boomer had made it back here, it was mere hours away from dying completely. Its programming was still intact, but its body was almost decayed beyond recall by the regeneration cannibalizing it for energy."

"Why didn't you allow it to die?!" she burst out. "You know better than anyone just what it's capable of!!"

"Which is why I decided to keep it alive," he returned, undisturbed by her anger. "The HeadHunter is a weapon unmatched by any other; it would have been a waste of resources to allow the only creature with complete files on the Knight Sabers to die. That being the case, I arranged for the Headhunter's remains to be built into a temporary framework that would sustain it. Because I was keeping my actions secret, I had to build it out of whatever was available, and that happened to be a mixture of C-55, B-12 and labour boomer parts. There was, however, an unfortunate side-effect," Quincy added, looking out the window, gazing over the city. "The HeadHunter had been damaged to the point where its regeneration was running constantly in order to preserve its AI integrity; its body was consuming itself to stay alive. For that reason, it became necessary to allow it to go out into the city on forays for material. That was why there was a sudden rash of boomer maimings; the HeadHunter needed the parts for 'food'." Quincy paused, taking a swig from a glass of water on his desk.

"As time passed," he continued, "and the company's fortunes took a downturn, I saw a way I could use the HeadHunter to our advantage and eliminate the competition at the same time. Our major obstacle was the development of the new AI that Zone corporation was developing. I removed that obstacle by having the HeadHunter kill the main research scientists and taking their research and equipment. As time passed, we assembled a workable lab to construct a new body for the HeadHunter. The extra murders were window-dressing to distract the ADP from our true purpose, and they succeeded perfectly."

"What good does killing the scientists do?" she asked, becoming interested by the story in spite of herself. "Zone corporation is still a major concern, and can still compete with us."

"Not for much longer," Quincy smirked. "Have you been watching the stock markets lately?"

"No," she admitted, flushing. "I was too disgusted with what the board of directors was doing to pay attention to anything else."

"The small companies that Zone sub-contracted the AI work out to have gone bankrupt," Quincy told her. "That was a direct result of the Headhunter's attacks; the investors lost confidence in the companies because of the strange goings-on, and the stock prices plummeted. That left the door open for a buy-out, which I did. Those companies, and their research, are now a part of GENOM's corporate holdings, and all for a measly few millions." There was a very smug grin on Quincy's face now, and Madigan gave him her grudging admiration. It may not have been above-the-board, but it appeared that Quincy was slowly digging GENOM out of its hole. "As for Zone, they are very badly in debt; they overextended themselves in trying to complete the new AI before everyone else. If they'd been able to succeed, they could have recouped their losses. As it stands now, they are a step away from being taken over by GENOM." He laughed exultantly, reveling in his victory.

"That still leaves us with the problem of the HeadHunter," Madigan reminded him.

"It is loyal to the company," Quincy told her. "It appears I erred in its programming; I was trying for personal loyalty, but instead gave it loyalty to the corporate entity. The HeadHunter didn't feel that I was the corporation, which is why it resisted my commands, partly. The other part was that it was becoming a 'loose cannon' shall we say. For the moment, the common interest of the company's well-being is keeping it in line. Once the Knight Sabers have been dealt with, we shall have to re-negotiate our deal with our green friend."

"The HeadHunter will be expecting you to try something," Madigan warned. "It doesn't trust you, you realize."

"By the time it realizes what I am doing to it, it will be far too late." Madigan suddenly looked around nervously.

"Where is it right now?" she asked.

"Hunting," Quincy replied with a dark smile.

****

SkyKnight lofted through the early evening sky, admiring the way the golden light from the setting sun was gilding the spindly fingers of cloud that were groping their way through the atmosphere. The dark, sprawling, megalopolis below made a somehow fitting contrast to the illuminated glory above. The light and the dark, he briefly mused, two sides of a coin.

He banked through the air, corkscrewing briefly for the hell of it, and began tracking his way back to Sylia's building. It was about 7:25 PM, so he had enough time to get home, shower, change, and then get to the cafe to meet his friends. He began revving his flight system to full power.

"SKYKNIGHT!!!!" the loud roar cut through the air, punctuating the sizzling green energy bolt that burned past him. He shied sideways through the air in surprise, whipping around to find his attacker. A large shape was vaguely visible in the shadows of the rooftop overhang of a building below, waiting. His sensors weren't registering the being's presence, however. That, coupled with the green energy beams, meant that it had to be the strange boomer that had been taking potshots at him earlier. A faint cautionary voice in the back of his mind spoke up, pointing out the fact that the boomer had never challenged him openly before. Something was wrong with this set-up. He banked around warily, preparing to fall back so he could figure out what was going on.

"Come and face me, oh great and powerful knight!!" the shape called mockingly. "If you have the guts this time, instead of running away, squealing like a stuck pig, like you have in the past!" Another energy bolt flashed past, but SkyKnight wasn't in the same position anymore; at the boomer's words, his temper had gotten the better of him. He shot towards the rooftop in a screaming power dive, flipping sideways to avoid the other energy bolts that blasted his way. He spun around and slammed into the rooftop feetfirst, swordblades snapping into extension from his gauntlets as his flight system power cut out, ready to chop the smartmouthed biomechanoid into scrap.

"You wanted me, you got me," SkyKnight snarled to the still-concealed shape. "I'll show you just how much of a coward I am." An amused, mechanical-sounding chuckle echoed around the rooftop, and clanking footsteps began to thud on the rooftop decking as the boomer marched forward.

"Oh, I know all about you, old friend," it assured him, using the words 'old friend' like a curse word. "For example, I knew you'd respond to an insult to your courage. You're too predictable for your own good." The boomer stepped forward, becoming fully visible as the last fading rays of the sun struck it. SkyKnight staggered backwards in shock, his guts seizing up in an icy spasm of fear. Yellow eyes flared into balefully glowing life from a nightmarish insectoid head on a massive, muscle-bound, metallic green armoured body.

"NOOOO!!" SkyKnight howled in denial of what his eyes were telling him. "I killed you goddamnit!! It's not possible!! It can't be possible!!" He was shaking as if he was in the middle of an earthquake; fear, shock, and rising anger were boiling away in a frothing mix inside of him.

"Anything is possible," the HeadHunter gloated, flexing its hands in an anticipatory fashion. "I must say, I've looked forwards to this meeting for months; the prospect of killing you slowly has sustained me throughout the time it took me to recover from our last meeting. I wanted to do so much more than just shoot you down from a distance."

"That was you?!" SkyKnight whispered incredulously. It suddenly came together in a rush: the green energy bolts; the attacks on him from the shadows; the murdered people, killed by savage, disemboweling gut wounds. Exactly like what had been done to Natasha Rutherford. A rising, red tide began to wash over his sight.

Blood sprayed through the air as the Headhunter's claws burst through Rutherford's back armour plating with a metallic screech; blood dripped from the protruding, saw-edged blades as the black hardsuit bent forwards, shuddering in unbelievable pain, gasping. Blood fountained again as the boomer savagely ripped the claws back out, enlarging the hideous wound. The black suit dropped to its knees, folding over onto its face on the pavement with a clang as a bright crimson pool began to spread outwards from it.....

"No," SkyKnight's voice was anguished. There was a loud pounding noise in his ears from somewhere. "No, goddamn it, not again!"

SkyKnight had to bend closer to hear the pain-wracked, fading voice from the shattered black suit. "One...favour...ask."

"Name it."

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

"I swear that I will stop it," he promised her quietly, as her hand released his arm, falling limply to the bloody pavement with a muffled clank. The head on the suit lolled back, and the laboured breathing eased in a long, final sigh....

Oh God, almost a hundred people callously killed since then, all because he hadn't made sure that the goddamn thing was truly dead. He began to shake as he tried to hang onto his self-control. The rising hum of power systems being over-amped began to fill the air. The air around the silver-garbed Knight Saber seemed to seethe with crackling energy; the red glow from his helmet eyeslot began to turn incandescent. Energy began to glow brightly in the muzzles of his particle laser cannons. Jet turbines began to drone, and dust began to swirl uneasily in the air as the exhaust from his turbines swept it off the roof surface.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!" SkyKnight bellowed, blasting towards the green killer in front of him on defiantly roaring jets.

****

"You're sure he said he was coming?" Priss asked, glancing at her watch in exasperation; it read 8:10 PM. She irritably shoved her long brown hair back over her shoulders, catching her folded red leather jacket before it could fall off the back of her chair. Across the table from her, Nene nodded. She was dressed in her usual pink blouse with blue jacket and skirt.

"He promised me he was coming," Nene replied. "He was going for a short cruise around, and then he said he'd be right over."

"A 'short' cruise?" Linna snorted. "You know what that could end up like; he might be up there all night. He'd make a great bird, since he likes flying so much." She was dressed in a green sweater over a pink blouse and casual pants, her black hair held in place with a yellow headband. She shook her head, sighing. "After all the complaining he did about our workouts, I didn't think he'd have had the energy to go flying." Around them, other conversations provided a subdued background hum as the other patrons of the small sidewalk cafe drank, talked and ate.

"Yes, I'd been meaning to ask you about that," Nene noted. "Could you please stop running him into the ground? I'd like him to have a little energy left at the end of the day."

"Oh?" Priss queried, cocking her head at Nene curiously, a sly smile forming. "What are you two up to at night that requires extra energy?" Nene flushed bright red.

"Nothing," she retorted. "I'm just tired of talking to a snoring body on the couch, that's all."

"Uh-huh, yeah, sure," Priss said, grinning hugely. Nene began to get flustered.

"I'm serious!!" she insisted, flushing again. "We're not...."

A loud, booming thunderclap cracked through the air, stilling all noise along the street for a moment. It was echoed a moment or two later by several other roaring blasts that reverberated off of the nearby skyscrapers. After a moment, the normal street noises cautiously renewed themselves.

"What the hell was that?" Priss asked, craning her neck to look up the street from the direction the blasts had come from. Their table was fairly close to the street and the sidewalk, but she couldn't quite see up the road. "That almost sounded like someone's having a fight." The other patrons of the restaurant evidently also thought so; a large number of them paid their bills and left quickly. Priss began shrugging into her jacket as Nene and Linna began to look worried. A rising, screaming whine began to become audible, drawing nearer. Linna looked around, frowning.

"That almost sounds like an airplane going down," she observed, "but I can't see what..."

A smoking, silver flash plummeted from the sky, smashing through the top of a parked car nearby. Glass and jagged metal pieces flew everywhere as the car rocked wildly from the impact, almost flipping over. The three women stood rooted in shock, while everyone else who'd witnessed the crash was quickly leaving the immediate area. One man fled up the street, groaning "My insurance company's not going to believe this!"

A trembling gauntlet reached up from the cratered wreckage, pulling a smoking and beaten-looking silver suit into view a moment later. SkyKnight flopped over the edge of what had been the passenger door of a Mercedes, landing on the pavement with a loud bang. There were huge rents and gashes all over his armour, and blood was slowly staining the pavement beneath him. Smoke and sparks spat and hissed from his suit in several locations. Priss quickly whipped her hand over Nene's mouth before she could scream Bert's name out loud. Linna, also reaching a similar conclusion, grabbed Nene's arm before she could dash forwards.

"For God's sake!" Priss hissed into the red-haired girl's ear. "Keep quiet!! We can't have you screaming his name all over the street!" Nene was shaking like a leaf in a stiff breeze, her green eyes horrified as she stared at the silver suit. He was struggling to get to his feet, weaving around drunkenly, when he suddenly realized who was standing a scant thirty feet away.

"Oh God, no!! Get out of here, now!" SkyKnight's modulated voice rasped. "For God's sake, RUN!!!!" he bellowed, as a huge, green, horribly familiar boomer smashed into the pavement behind him, leaving deep footprints in the asphalt. SkyKnight spun around in time to get brutally smashed backwards down the street by a casual backhand from the biomechanoid. He flew through the air, jerking in pain as a green-white particle bolt nailed him in mid-trajectory. He clanged to the roadway, trying to roll over and get up. The HeadHunter ignored the white-faced women cowering on the sidelines, and began walking calmly towards the battered and bleeding hardsuit.

"Linna!" Priss snapped suddenly. "Take Nene and go get Sylia! Tell her what's going on!" Her red-brown eyes held a grim determination.

"What about you?" Linna asked nervously, casting a glance from her to the HeadHunter.

"I can't just leave him, damnit!" she shot back. "I'll think of something! Just go!!" Linna nodded reluctantly, and herded Nene up the street, away from the unfolding carnage.

Across the street from her, Priss watched as the HeadHunter mercilessly kicked SkyKnight in the ribs, twice, sending him skidding along the pavement in a shower of sparks. The boomer stalked after the still weakly moving Knight Saber. She started fishing in the concealed inner pockets of her jacket.

"No smart remarks anymore?" the HeadHunter taunted the floundering silver-and-blue suit. "What's wrong? Finally realize just how pathetic you are?" The boomer grabbed him by the chest armour, and swung him up over its head, to crunch with agonizing force head-first into the pavement behind the boomer. The silver hardsuit bounced, taking a few chunks out of the roadway. It flopped to a stop, moving feebly, still trying to get back in the fight somehow.

Blades sprang out from all over the boomer's forearms, making it look like a runaway cutlery display. SkyKnight groggily rolled sideways, just barely avoiding the points that speared into the asphalt where his head had been. A brief red laser bolt smacked the boomer backwards, allowing Bert to stagger to his feet.

"An admirable effort, but futile," the boomer remarked with a gloating chuckle as it watched him. "You're almost dead on your feet, and your suit cannot withstand me for much longer. Pity," it sighed in fake regret, "you were a worthwhile adversary for a brief moment in time." The boomer's lower jaw dropped, revealing a particle beam muzzle. A pained scream came from the helpless hardsuit as the sizzling energy bolt smashed it backwards to collapse in a crumpled heap on the ground. Triumphant laughter volleyed from the hulking killer.

Priss found what she'd been looking for; the pistol-grip and barrel sections of her compact anti-boomer gun snapped together with a loud clack. She quickly slapped a magazine into it, and jacked one of the armour-piercing cartridges into the chamber. It was probably foolhardy, but she had to try and distract the HeadHunter; she couldn't just let it grind Bert into a paste on the sidewalk. She raised the gun, sighting on the green boomer. It apparently didn't consider her a threat; it wasn't even watching her.

The gun barked harshly, and the HeadHunter snarled in surprised rage as one of its yellow eyes exploded in a small flash of flame as the explosive-tipped round accomplished its designated task. Priss didn't even see the boomer move, but suddenly she was flat on her back, head ringing from the impact with the pavement as the boomer slapped her with teeth-rattling force. She tasted blood as she gasped for breath, and a stabbing pain from her chest indicated that the slap had broken some ribs. She coughed weakly, spitting crimson, wiping her mouth on her sleeve as she watched the towering killer standing over her crush her gun in its fist, tossing it aside. Oily black fluid was trickling from where its left eye had been. She started trying to crawl away, but had to stop as her ribs poked her with red-hot knives.

"Little girls shouldn't play with guns," the wounded boomer remarked in a nasty tone. The claws on its left hand sprang into extension. "They might get hurt." Oh shit, Priss groaned to herself, here it comes. The boomer's arm swung back, and then speared downwards towards her. She closed her eyes.

A combination of a metallic screech and a meaty thunk jerked her eyes back open in surprise. Barely six inches away from her face, SkyKnight's weakly glowing eyeslot and helmet filled her vision. He'd thrown himself over top of her, between her and certain death, and was just barely holding his weight off of her at the moment. Sticking through the left shoulder of his suit, through the armour plating, were the bloody tips of the Headhunter's claws. A few scarlet drips spattered onto her jacket as she looked. An agonized combination of a gasp and a strangled yell was torn from the silver helmet as the boomer wrenched its claws back out. SkyKnight collapsed with a clatter, managing to drop over on the side instead of landing on Priss with his armoured weight. A sticky, red stain began spreading on the sidewalk beneath him as he limply sagged back over onto his back, lying next to her.

"Oh shit, no!!!" Priss burst out, crawling over closer to him, momentarily forgetting about the biomechanoid standing over them.

"Interesting," the cold voice froze her in her tracks. "I'd expected him to do that because of his infantile heroic code, but you evidently know him, quite well, it seems. Very interesting."

"Don't....don't ....you....touch....her," SkyKnight gasped, trying to roll over and get up. "I swear....kill you." His breathing was raspy and liquid-sounding; he's really, really hurt, Priss realized, clenching her teeth in helpless fury. Mocking, corrosive laughter burst from the killer boomer. It stepped back from the two of them.

"Kill me?" it chuckled. "Maybe it has escaped your notice SkyKnight, but you can't. You tried, but your time is past; you are weak, and beneath my notice now. I shall take great pleasure in killing the rest of the Knight Sabers, and you with them, later. For now, I leave you with the galling knowledge of your defeat. Till next we meet, then." It bowed to them mockingly, in a macabre parody of SkyKnight's usual gesture. Rumbling laughter trailed through the air as the hulking biomechanoid hurled itself into the air on jets that sprang out of the backs of its legs. Priss stared into the sky after the departing boomer, then turned her attention to the sprawled form of SkyKnight. Crawling over to him she cradled his helmet in her lap, ignoring the pooling blood that was starting to soak through her jeans.

"Bert?" she called gently, gingerly shaking him. "Come on, don't die on me," she pleaded, eyes starting to sting with tears. "Who am I gonna get to annoy me if you do?"

"Sorry..." she heard faintly. "So sorry ...tried...I...tried... wasn't..strong...enough..couldn't ...sorry..." It sounded like he was crying, and she realized he wasn't really speaking to her, but to someone else she couldn't see. There was a sigh from the helmet, and he went limp suddenly.

"Bert?!" Alarmed, Priss gently shoved his shoulder; his helmeted head lolled slackly to the side. "BERT!!" she screamed. "Don't you dare die on me, you stupid bastard!!!" Tears began to splash onto the scorched silver armour as she held him tightly, crying. Behind her, a white hardsuit flashed out of the darkness, closely followed by a red-pink suit, and an olive-green one. Landing, they ran frantically towards the fallen silver figure and the woman sitting next to him.

****

Quincy looked up from his desk as the bulky shape of the HeadHunter strode through the door to his office. He watched the armoured green killer approach him expressionlessly, noting that the boomer had suffered the loss of an eye. Mentally, he shrugged; that much could be fixed, at least. It wasn't a huge worry.

"Well?" he asked. The HeadHunter held up a set of claws that were still wet with a crimson stain. Some stray drips splashed onto the carpeting.

"It has begun," the boomer announced. "Soon the Knight Sabers will be nothing but an unpleasant memory."

****

An eerie, greyish mist cloaked the flat, featureless plain he stood on. Bert stared around fearfully. There was nothing visible anywhere, but something evil was lurking in the enshrouding fog; he could sense it. He started running, the featureless, drab brown ground flashing past beneath his feet.

"SkyKnight!" a sepulchral voice floated from the darkness behind him. He ran faster.

"You can't get away," the voice called. "Resistance is futile."

There was a sudden rush of air, and he felt the familiar sensation of armour wrapping itself around him. Looking down, he saw that he was encased in shining silver armour again. As he spun frantically around, buildings loomed out of the mist, thrusting themselves upwards into the sky. A broad sweep of silvery stars swept across the sky with a rush of movement. SkyKnight's head swiveled around as he backed away from the approaching menace he could sense, but not see.

There was a mechanical snarl, and a massive green boomer hurled itself at him. Towering rage burst into flaming life, and SkyKnight blasted the HeadHunter to a standstill with a blistering particle laser blast that almost burned out his laser array. The boomer snarled again in fury as it dropped to the ground, half of its torso blown away. It began crawling away as he stomped after it, leaking oily fluids all over the ground.

"I'm going to destroy you," SkyKnight told the downed boomer in a tight, deadly voice. "I'm not going to leave a killer like you running loose." The HeadHunter laughed evilly.

"Are you going to kill yourself as well, then?" it asked, still laughing. "You are a killer yourself! In order to beat me the last time, you had to become me! You had to become vicious, savage, and ruthless, qualities you are too weak-willed to embrace normally. You are no different than I; it will not take much to completely turn you into me."

SkyKnight backed off, shaking his head violently. "No! I'm nothing like you! Do you hear me?! I am not a killer!!!"

"Are you sure of that?" the boomer asked, chuckling. Its torso was slowly re-forming. "Are you positive?"

Sharp pains suddenly stabbed his arms, near the wrists; SkyKnight dropped to his knees in agony. In front of his stunned eyes, he watched in horror as his gauntlets shredded, revealing green armoured hands. Curved, serrated blades sprang out from the backs of his hands with metallic scraping noises. Red liquid dripped from the extended claws.

"NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!" SkyKnight screamed, throwing his head back in denial.

****

"NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"

Sylia jumped about a foot straight up as the tortured scream tore through the air. She sprinted for the spare bedroom where they'd put Bert. He'd woken up sooner than expected, it seemed. Linna came running out from the kitchen.

"What the heck was that?!" she asked, wide-eyed. "It sounded like ...."

"Syliaaa!!!" Nene's voice screeched from the bedroom. "HEEELP!!"

"Ohhhh shit," Linna observed, sprinting after her. The two women burst through the door to see Nene frantically trying to hold down a wildly thrashing red-haired form. Linna ran over to help her hold Bert down. His face was a snarling mask of rage, and there was a kind of angry horror visible in his feverish eyes.

"NOOO!!" he roared again, greenish-brown eyes burning with a strange light, "I AM NOT LIKE THAT!!!" Sylia didn't know what had upset him to the point of foaming fury, but that wasn't the major concern; if they didn't calm him down shortly, he was likely going to start his wounds bleeding again. The doctor she'd gotten to come over and treat him had been adamant about keeping him quiet while he healed; movement of any kind was forbidden. She could see a scarlet stain beginning to creep through the white bandages covering the left side of his chest.

She snatched a hypodermic needle from the dresser, and quickly filled it with a few cc's of sedative. "Hold him still for a moment!" she snapped, checking the needle for air bubbles.

"We're trying!!" Nene panted, grabbing a straining arm. "This isn't exactly easy!!"

"We've been working out too much!" Linna gasped, almost getting thrown off. "He's too bloody strong!!"

Sylia watched for a moment, then dove in with the needle. She managed to get it stuck into his arm , and depressed the plunger. She backed off; after a moment, the drug began to take effect, and Nene and Linna sighed in relief as the thrashing died down. Bert's eyes swung over to meet Sylia's for a moment, briefly lucid. She could see anguish of some kind reflected in them.

"I am not like that!" he repeated weakly, sounding like he was pleading with her to believe him, then he collapsed back into the pillow, unconscious. Nene worriedly swept his hair off his forehead, casting a concerned glance at Sylia, who also looked troubled. Linna carefully examined his bandages to make sure he hadn't pulled any loose, sighing in relief upon finding they were intact. The red stain on his chest wrappings wasn't getting any larger, which was a good sign.

"What was he talking about?" the red-haired girl asked. Sylia shrugged helplessly.

"I don't know," she said. "I'll have to see if I can salvage anything from his flight recorder; maybe that will give us some kind of idea what he's talking about." She placed the needle over on the dresser. "I'm going to go and give it a try," she told the two concerned women. "Keep an eye on him, and call me if he freaks out again." Nene and Linna nodded wordlessly, exchanging a worried glance as Sylia turned and left.

 

THREE DAYS LATER....

The faint hum of air conditioning gradually penetrating the darkness was the first sign that consciousness was grudgingly returning. The room he was in, wherever it was, was deathly quiet otherwise. There was a faint smell of flowers of some kind from somewhere in the room. Feeling gradually re-asserted itself; he could feel crisp sheets covering him, and the enfolding pillow beneath his head that was slightly muffling the sounds he was hearing. There was a familiar pressure on his body in several places from tightly wrapped fabric strips: bandages. When he tried shifting slightly, a fiery ache swept through him, burning its way through every separate muscle fiber in his body. He stifled the pained groan or whimper, he wasn't quite sure which it was, that tried to escape.

"Hey," a soft voice asked. "You finally waking up?" A gentle, cool hand felt his forehead, and he could feel whoever it was brush his stubborn bangs out of the way. Searing rays of light stabbed into his eyeballs as he opened them a fraction; after a moment, he opened them fully. The collection of light and dark blurs that were gleefully swimming through his vision reluctantly resolved themselves into a neatly-kept bedroom, and a worried-looking woman with long brown hair and red-brown eyes who was sitting next to the bed on a chair. Priss had her left arm in a sling, and it was evident from the stiff way in which she was leaning closer to him that her ribs had been taped up. For a moment, confused disorientation seized him.

"Where...?" Lord, he couldn't even speak decently! His voice was a hoarse croak, and he suddenly realized his mouth was dry and parched. Priss apparently knew what he was asking, however, and could see that he was thirsty.

"You're in Sylia's guest bedroom," she told him, taking a glass of water from a side table. She stuck a straw in it, placing the other end between his lips. Gratefully, he slowly slurped the drink down; a welcome coolness seemed to wash through him as he drank.

"Thanks," he sighed, sinking back into the pillow for a moment. She wordlessly placed the glass back on the endtable, watching him closely. He could now see that her eyes looked a little bloodshot, and there were dark circles under them. It didn't look like she'd been getting a lot of sleep lately.

"How long have I been here?" he asked, noting that his voice had improved somewhat, now that the membranes and tissues involved in speaking had been lubricated a bit.

"Almost four days," she told him. Hazy flashes of worried faces floated through his memory as he tried to remember the last few days. The last clear memory he had was of Priss' tear-streaked face in his cracked and flickering suit viewscreen before the numbing pain eating into him at the time had become too strong. There was the faint memory, actually more like an impression, of feeling like he was burning up. An image of a worried face with emerald green eyes and red hair kept re-appearing in the few flashes he could remember.

"How's Nene?" he inquired.

"She's holding up okay," Priss assured him. "She didn't want to go to work today, but Sylia got her to go; it won't hurt her to get her mind on something else, for a while anyway. She was really worried about you. Hell, we all were. I..." she swiped angrily at her suddenly watering eyes. "You scared the shit out of me, almost dying in my lap."

"There's worse places," he quipped half-heartedly. His emotions were churning around in an incomprehensible welter at the moment; it was difficult to say exactly what he was feeling. There was a great sense of relief about having survived, but beyond that he couldn't say for sure.

"Don't goddamn joke about that!!" she snapped. "I don't have all that many friends, and I don't want anything like that happening again, thank you very much!!"

"Don't worry," he said wryly, "doing that all over again is not high on my list of priorities." Icy talons seemed to seize his guts, and with an effort he wrenched his mind free of the sudden cascade of images from his rematch with the HeadHunter. "How are the others?" he asked, changing the subject abruptly.

"Linna's okay; she's been dropping in periodically, between workouts mostly."

"Hey, an unexpected fringe benefit," he grinned faintly. "At least I don't have to go jogging right now." Priss grinned back, relieved that his sense of humour was there; that by itself was a pretty good sign that he was going to recover.

"As for Sylia, she's been in several times to check on you. The rest of the time, she's been trying to piece together your flight recorder to get what exactly happened from it." Bert's grin disappeared.

"NO!" he yelled, jerking upright, then folding bonelessly back to the mattress, afire with pain. "No! For God's sake, stop her!" he pleaded. "Please! Don't let her see it!" Priss shook her head, checking his bandages to make sure he hadn't started anything bleeding.

"If you're worried about her finding out what the HeadHunter said to you, quit worrying," she told him. "You were feverish for more than two days, and we heard it all, several times. Between that, and you screaming about claws coming out of your hands, blood all over the place, and having failed, we've got a pretty good idea of what your mental state is right now."

"That's what you think," he told her. Gritting his teeth, he suddenly began trying to get up. Sweat popped out of his forehead as he tried to ignore the squeezing pains in the left side of his chest, and the lesser agonies from his limbs. Priss reached out and easily shoved him back down with her good arm.

"Don't even think about trying to get out of bed," she told him flatly. You aren't going to be mobile for at least another week, minimum, and we're not going to let you get to your suit so you can die heroically with your armour on, stupidly trying to take out that killer machine on your own."

"I've got to stop it," he hissed through clenched teeth. "It's my goddamn fault it's still alive; I should have made sure. I should have chopped the bastard into fishbait, and that's an oversight I'm sure as hell gonna correct!" Raging fires flickered in the backs of his eyes for a moment; anger and the desire for revenge were suddenly burning in the back of his mind like a banked fire. He tried to sit up again, but Priss easily held him down, annoyance flickering in her gaze. She was surprisingly strong, but he put it down to his weakened condition. "Damn it, let me UP!!"

"What part of 'NO' didn't you understand? I've never yet belted someone as injured as you are, but if you keep this up, I will! I swear I'll hit you so goddamn hard, you won't need a sedative for a week! You're not going anywhere!!" She meant what she said, he realized, as he stared into her furious eyes. He reluctantly relaxed, and Priss' tension vanished.

"Thank God you've got some sense left," she sighed, sinking back into her chair.

"Speaking of sense, how are you?" She ignored the implication.

"Not too bad," she replied, trying to seem casual. "I had a broken arm and some ribs, and a concussion for around a day. Nothing too serious."

"It very nearly was serious," he reminded her. "You almost got yourself ventilated by that thing. While I appreciate the concern, why the hell did you try to off the HeadHunter with a goddamn dipshit pistol?! I told you to get the hell out of the area!"

"I was trying to save your life, you jerk!" she relied heatedly. "What the hell did you go and throw yourself over me for, then?!" She couldn't quite believe the turn the conversation had taken. Besides, Sylia had already given her shit for her stupidity in attacking the green biomechanoid. Some of the things Sylia had called her had been uncomplimentary to say the least, and she hadn't realized that Sylia had known so many swear words; she'd had a sudden feeling of what Bert had felt like whenever Sylia had bawled him out in the past.

"I was saving YOUR life, since I was the one wearing the armour, damnit!" he shot back. "Even I know better than to take potshots at boomers, especially bloody psychopathic ones like that, when I'm bloody defenseless! You just about got killed yourself, you dumb twit!"

"Well I didn't ask you to...." she started to snarl back, when Sylia's voice from the doorway interrupted their argument.

"Since you both effectively saved each other's life, why don't we call it even and drop the snarling match?" she asked, walking over to the other side of his bed. They both flushed guiltily, shutting up, Priss sitting back down in her chair. Sylia looked down at Bert, who was avoiding meeting her gaze. He also looked sheepish.

"I really don't understand you two at times," she told them. "Why you have to get into arguments about anything at all, constantly, I'll probably never figure out. You both care for each other, although Priss would sooner die than admit it out loud," she noted; Priss flushed again, looking away. "Since that's the case, why don't you just try to get along instead of bickering?"

"Force of habit," they chorused, grinning slightly. A faint smile flickered briefly over Sylia's face, then she reached out and forced Bert's chin up, forcing him to meet her gaze. Looking into his eyes, she could tell his emotional shields were up, and that his apparent good humour was at least partly an act.

"I know what the HeadHunter told you," she informed him quietly, continuing to speak as his face slowly lost colour. "I was able to piece together enough from what was left of your flight recorder to know just why you were screaming 'I'm not like that!' for hours." Her calm brown eyes continued to gaze steadily into his tormented greenish-brown ones. "You shouldn't believe what it told you; the HeadHunter is a highly intelligent opponent, and it obviously knows you and your psychology well enough to push your buttons and get you going. Those insults it lured you into that fight with in the first place are enough of an indication of that: it knew you'd respond to slurs on your honour and/or courage. It also figured out that your conscience nags you about certain things, and it came up with remarks calculated to mentally unbalance you and cause you pain. It's psychological warfare raised to a more personal level; you mustn't believe anything it told you. You are not an emotionless, ruthless killer, and you never will be."

"Not everything it said was entirely untrue, though," he replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "It was created to stop the Knight Sabers, me in particular. That makes all of the deaths it's caused at least partly my fault. I..."

"BULLSHIT!!" Priss burst out angrily. Sylia looked over at Priss calmly, while Bert was a good deal more startled, staring at her in surprise. Red-brown eyes bored into his as she leaned forwards to give him a piece of her mind. "That goddamn thing knew you'd be trying to take responsibility for its actions, and you can just bet that's why it mentioned it! It's probably killing itself laughing right now because it knows that you're constantly on guilt trips for things you think you could have prevented! Get over it, for God's sake!"

"But..."

"SHUT UP!!! I'm not finished yet! I've had to listen to you moaning about this for the last two days now in your bloody nightmares, so I know what I'm talking about!" She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts, then continued. "It's not your fault that it's still around, either; you tried your best back then, and no one can do better than that. Topping that off, you couldn't have made sure that goddamn thing was really dead, not unless you've developed a fireproof suit that I haven't heard about. And quit flogging yourself over 'breaking your word' to Lt. Rutherford; she'd understand, given the circumstances, trust me on that one." She took a deep breath, intently staring into his eyes. "If you sit there wallowing in self-inflicted anguish, you're letting that friggin' thing win. Do you really want that?"

"Of course not!" he flared, anger kindling. "But....aghk!" His voice cut off as Priss reached out, teeth clenched, and grabbed his throat, strangling off what he'd been going to say.

"If you don't stop being a stubborn asshole about this," she informed him, "and resisting what I'm telling you, then I am going to strangle you right here, right now. Am I making myself clear?" He nodded as well as he could with her hand and arm in the way, and she released him.

"Crystal clear," he assured her when he could speak again. He rubbed at his neck, wincing, then glared at her, fuming slightly. "Your bedside manner is atrocious."

"But effective, I must say," Sylia remarked with a smile, shaking her head. "It was a little more crudely put than I'd have phrased it, but essentially the same ideas." Priss suddenly coloured, embarrassed.

"Now then," Sylia said, turning businesslike. "Since you're finally awake, we'll move some stuff from your room up here for now; you aren't moving from that bed for at least a week..."

"So I've been told," he remarked sourly, glancing sideways at Priss. Sylia ignored the interjection.

"...and even after a week, I'm getting a doctor to check on you before we let you even breathe hard. After that, Linna will be taking care of your rehabilitation...."

"Whoa! Wait a second!! A doctor?! Are you nuts?! I..."

"Don't worry, it's the same one who patched you back together."

"And just how did you explain my injuries away? Even the dumbest quack in the business would know that these weren't garden variety wounds from an accident!"

"This particular doctor and I have been in contact before," she told him mysteriously. "He's an excellent physician and surgeon, and he's very close-mouthed. As for the rest, I have my sources for the medication you required. Quit worrying. Anyhow, as I was saying, Linna will be guiding your physical rehabilitation. Given the fact that you're in pretty good shape, that probably won't be too big a hardship."

"Besides," Priss added with a grin. "You've still got to finish helping her out, remember?"

"I was trying to forget that little detail," he sighed, rolling his eyes. It looked like it was going to be a long week.

****

"Would you mind telling me just what you think you are doing?!" Quincy demanded. He glared across his desktop at the massive green shape that was leaning against the wall nearby. Yellow lamp-like eyes glared back at him as the Headhunter's bug-like head swiveled in his direction.

"Explain your request," the biomechanoid's grating voice directed. "I do not recall having to file plans on my every action with you for approval."

"You are here now because we had a deal," Quincy growled. "In exchange for rebuilding you, you were to take care of the Knight Sabers and assist GENOM in handling some of its 'problems'. You attacked SkyKnight, which was all well and good. However, what you didn't tell me is that you left him alive; I now have very reliable reports that state that he was still living when his teammates carried him off. That means he probably survived, which is not what I wanted. Why haven't you killed him yet, and what is holding you back from killing the rest of the Knight Sabers?!"

"Because it amuses me to prolong the game," the HeadHunter replied, straightening up from the wall. It casually flicked a hand through the air in a dismissive gesture, claws whipping in and out of their housings at blinding speed. "Killing SkyKnight outright would have been too easy. It is much more satisfying to grind an opponent down to where he cannot resist, and then spare him, leaving him with the bitter knowledge that he has been beaten. SkyKnight will now be wracked with self-confidence problems and other emotional dysfunctions that will impair his normal functions for some time; his physical incapacitation alone will probably create difficulties for at least two weeks. This will create stress on the other members of the Knight Sabers, which will in turn impair their abilities. When I am ready to end the game, it will be simplicity itself to first humiliate, and then destroy the Knight Sabers, leaving SkyKnight for the last. I intend to savor every moment of destroying his sanity fully; then will I be recompensed for the months of discomfort he has caused me."

Quincy stared at the hulking green boomer thoughtfully. It appeared that the combination of the Headhunter's programs with the new AI had resulted in some interesting emotional quirks. Before, the HeadHunter had been cold, utterly logical, and implacably ruthless. While essentially unchanged in temperament, it appeared that the new AI's more complex emotional programs had added a vicious, Machiavellian streak to the boomer, coupled with vindictiveness, and an at times macabre sense of humour. It was now deriving a grim enjoyment from its 'work', and Quincy suddenly found himself wondering just what else the boomer might suddenly find amusing to try out.

"I must attend to some other matters that require my attention," the boomer said suddenly. Without waiting for a reply of any kind, it stomped across Quincy's office and left through the main doors. Quincy frowned thoughtfully at the biomechanoid's back, a vaguely apprehensive expression flitting across his craggy features.

****

A quiet, stealthy footstep woke Bert from the light nap he'd drifted into. Opening his eyes, he found himself being regarded by a pair of well-loved emerald green eyes. Nene's face lit up with relieved joy, and he suddenly found himself enveloped in a crushing hug as she threw herself on him and started crying in relief. He carefully wrapped his right arm around her, returning the hug; his left arm still wasn't responding fully, being too painful to move as a result of the wound to the shoulder he'd taken.

The feel of her next to him eased some of the tension he hadn't even realized he'd been feeling. She pulled back slightly, then gave him a long, heartfelt kiss. He was beginning to run a little short of air when she finally pulled back, looking at him with luminous, tear-filled eyes. He reached up and gently brushed away the tracks that some runaway ones had left on her cheek. She grasped his hand as he pulled it back, and held on firmly to it, sitting on the edge of the bed next to him.

"Are you all right?" she asked in a quiet voice. He nodded, his eyes never leaving hers.

"I'm as well as can be expected, given the circumstances," he replied. "I know that at the moment I'm not quite....whole is the word, I guess, but I feel fine otherwise." Some of the tension in her eyes and face eased at his words, and she leaned forwards again, giving him a quick kiss.

"If you keep doing that, I may never want to get out of this bed," he quipped with a sly smile. She flushed slightly, shaking her head.

"I'd say you're going to recover," she noted with a sigh and a rueful smile. "The flattery level alone is enough of an indication of that." Silence drifted over the room for a moment as they sat gazing at each other.

"I'd like to apologize," Bert told her suddenly. "I didn't want to put you through hell again emotionally, but it appears that I've done it without even trying. I'm sorry, more than you can know." She continued to gaze at him for a moment, wiping her eyes.

"It wasn't easy," she admitted finally, looking away. "I couldn't stop crying for the first hour after we got you back here; you were just barely hanging on, you were covered in blood, and...and having to listen to you reliving over and over again what happened with the HeadHunter didn't make things any better afterwards." Her teary gaze swung back to him. "You were in pain over a lot of things, and I couldn't do a thing to help except sit there and hold your hand, and I think that was the worst part." He gently pulled her closer, kissing her softly on the lips.

"I'm sorry I put you through that," he repeated, "and I'm glad you stayed with me; having you around means more to me than anything else I can think of." He hesitated, suddenly unsure of himself. "I realize I'm not the greatest at expressing my feelings, but I just wanted to tell you that I do love you, and that I'm not taking you for granted."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked, frowning at him.

"Well," he said awkwardly, "It just seems that you're always giving me the moral and emotional support, keeping me reasonably stable, and I'm not giving you much except problems and heartaches in return. I just don't want you thinking I'm taking you for granted, that's all. I...." His voice cut off as she leaned forward and kissed him again. She pulled back slightly for a moment.

"Just shut up, quit worrying, and get better," she told him. She shoved him back into the pillow, leaning over, her lips pressing down onto his.

 

TWO DAYS LATER....

Dim streetlights flickered in the gloom of early evening along a deserted stretch of one of MegaTokyo's side streets. A stumbling figure weaved its way through the shadows, occasionally doubling over with a racking cough. The shape stumbled into the light, briefly revealing a tall, grey haired man with several days growth of beard. He was wearing non-descript clothes, with a dark jacket over top. The man cast a nervous, searching glance into the nearby alleys and shadows, then continued on up the street. In the distance, a phone booth came into view, its illuminated overhead sign a welcoming beacon in the darkness.

Dr. Richard McLaren coughed again, wiping a shaky hand across his mouth. Whatever he'd managed to come down with wasn't getting any better, partly due to the lousy conditions he was still living in. The sanitation was less than adequate; he'd seen dumps that were cleaner than the location he was forced to live in at the moment. He'd hoped that slightly better accommodations had been somewhere in the future after they'd completed rebuilding the HeadHunter, but that had not been the case. The boomer had flatly refused his request, saying that there was too much danger of being found out if they moved to a more public location. McLaren had weakly withdrawn his request, fearing for his life if he persisted. Yoshida remained oblivious to the squalid conditions where the lab was set up; he was gleefully designing new boomers, an army of advanced combat models that the HeadHunter had plans for. McLaren had also assisted in the design of the new boomers, for a while at least.

It was the realization that, no matter what happened, the HeadHunter had no intentions of ever letting them go that had prompted him to try and escape now; even prison had been better than his current situation. He cast another furtive glance around as he finally reached the phone booth. Still no one in sight. He stepped up to the phone, activating it and dialing the number for the ADPolice station; he'd figured the best option was to turn himself back in and tell the cops what had happened. That way, he'd at least be safe in a clean cell, instead of free with a homicidal monster looming over him.

"Hello, ADPolice," a youthful voice answered. A young woman's face, with black hair and blue eyes appeared in the small video screen.

"Inspector McNichol, please" McLaren requested. That officer was the only one he remembered from his scrape with the law of a year or so ago. The receptionist looked apologetic.

"I'm sorry, but Inspector McNichol is still off on sick leave," she told him. "Can I forward your call to someone else?"

"Yes, please. This is Dr. Richard.....AAAGHK!" Something suddenly slammed brutally into the mid-point of McLaren's spine, knocking him forwards into the phone, and an icy wave of shocking cold swept through him. The cold was quickly replaced by a roaring wave of burning pain that swept through him. He coughed horribly, blood burbling up into his throat with a strangled gargling noise as his lungs started to flood. He looked down at his chest with a sense of stunned unreality; bloody, saw-toothed blades protruded an inch from his rib cage, right in the middle of his chest. He reached a trembling hand up to the points, feeling them, hoping they weren't real. They were.

The tips of the blades suddenly vanished as they were dragged back out of his body with a wet, sickening, sliding noise. Agony worse than before seared him, draining his last few ounces of strength. The dying scientist slumped to his knees with a whimper, then fell over against the wall of the blood-soaked phone booth, staring at the massive green shape that had materialized out of the darkness behind him. The sounds of a shrieking and hysterical receptionist drifted from the phone above him.

"Dr. McLaren," the Headhunter's voice rumbled maliciously. "You're fired." Yellow eyes flared briefly as the killer machine turned and vanished into the night. Mocking laughter was the last sound Richard McLaren heard as cold, numbing darkness swept over him forever.

****

"If you try that again," Sylia warned him flatly, "I'm going to get that medication I was sedating you with back out, and you're going to stay drugged until you're completely healed. Am I making myself clear?!"

"Perfectly," Bert muttered disgustedly, flopping back into the banked pillows behind him. Sylia had walked into his room to find him sitting up in the bed, legs over the side, preparatory to trying to stand up. He'd been pale-faced and sweating from the effort it was taking, and she'd immediately shoved him back down to the mattress without a problem. He wasn't sure what was worse: the having to stay flat on his back all day, or having everyone who came into the room shoving him around, literally and figuratively speaking. "I can't just lie here all bloody day, though," he told her. "I'm going nuts."

"You sure as hell can, and you're going to, mister," she told him, brown eyes flashing angrily. "You're going to make things worse by moving around right now; there's only so much that modern medicine can accomplish in a set time period. You have got to rest and let your body heal itself."

"I've got to get out of this bed so I can go kill that godforsaken boomer before it hurts someone else," he growled back. Sylia sighed despairingly, shaking her head. She drew up a chair and sat down next to the bed on it, meeting his somewhat resentful gaze with a calm one of her own.

"I understand your feelings, honestly," she said quietly. "But let's be realistic, shall we? You wouldn't last thirty seconds in a suit right now, even if you had one that was intact, and you don't. I hate to be blunt, but you couldn't beat it when you were in good shape, so what makes you think you'd be able to beat it now?" Bert didn't reply, but sat glowering like a thundercloud, arms crossed. "I can see that you know I'm right," she noted.

"I...yes, you're right," he ground out, sighing disgustedly. Sylia thoughtfully regarded him for a moment, trying to decide if he could handle more bad news.

"There's something else you should know," she told him. "I've checked your flight recorder footage with that from a year or so ago, and this is not the same HeadHunter that killed Lt. Rutherford."

"It sure as hell is!" he retorted. "The personality of that thing, and its knowledge of the Knight Sabers are the exact same."

"True for the most part," she admitted. "The body, however, has been redesigned. It's a lot bigger, while at the same time it has been streamlined and outfitted with new weapons. I think what has happened is that the Headhunter's intelligence and memories have been transferred to a new body, and I think that it's using the new AI in that body; that would explain why the boomer was exhibiting a lot more emotion than before." Bert stared at her; at the time, he really hadn't noticed that the boomer's physiognomy had changed, being more preoccupied with trying to destroy it.

"That would explain a lot of what's happened lately, then," he said slowly, sitting up slightly. "The HeadHunter more or less admitted that it was behind the killing spree and AI theft."

"And a redesigned body would explain why McLaren and Yoshida, although he's been presumed dead by the authorities, were broken out of jail; they wanted only the best designers to rebuild it, and those two certainly are among the top."

"And that explains why I got chewed up so easily, if the bastard's been upgraded."

"Not so fast," Sylia disagreed. "The boomer attacked you when you were not expecting it in a manner calculated to upset you, and going off the deep end with your temper did not enhance your fighting performance. It wasn't strictly superior technology that beat you; it was that combined with your opponent's knowledge of your psychology. This is one instance where blowing your stack did not help you. In fact, if you'd been able to stay calm, you might have at least been able to escape before becoming too badly hurt. Don't bother," she added flatly, slashing a hand through the air in a negative gesture, cutting him off as he opened his mouth to reply. "I don't want to hear the 'I can't run away and leave it loose' argument, or the noble heroic speech, or whatever you were going to say. Discretion is the better part of valour, and in this case especially, I'd say a large amount of discretion was, and still is, required. End of discussion."

"But...." he started to retort, but her raised eyebrow combined with a level stare shut him up. He flopped back into his pillow fuming irritably. A voice in the back of his mind pointed out that she was right, a voice he disgustedly ignored. He wished his conscience would just shut the hell up and quit nagging him with annoying things like the facts. Sylia stood up, looking down at him.

"I'll be back a bit later," she informed him. "And you'd better not have been trying to move, or you'll be really sorry when you finally wake up again." She didn't wait for a reply, but swept out of the room. Bert sighed, closing his eyes and trying to will himself back to health.

 

ONE WEEK LATER....

"Come on, you slacker! Get with it!" Linna barked mercilessly. "You're the one who wanted to be up and about, and now that you are, you just want to lie there?! Get up, you lazy jerk!!" The grey tracksuited figure laying sprawled on the exercise mat rolled over and sat up. Annoyed greenish-brown eyes glowered at her from under a sweaty thatch of red hair.

"Linna," Bert said with strained civility, "I like you a lot, so I don't want to have to hurt you, but if you keep this up I'm going to have to strangle you."

"Ooooh, I'm really scared!" she snorted. "It'll take you a week to crawl over here, so I think I'm pretty safe."

"You get skewered through the chest, and various other portions of your anatomy, and then we'll see just how great you are afterwards!!"

"No excuses," she replied firmly, sweeping her hair back under her headband. "Keep moving or you're going to stiffen up, and then it'll hurt more than it does now."

"Would someone please tell me what I did to deserve this?!" he muttered under his breath as he stiffly levered himself back to his feet. Linna would have made a good drill sergeant, he reflected. Her 'command voice' was impressive, and she wasn't too bad at the verbal browbeating end of things, either.

"Come on, quit complaining," she told him heartlessly. "These exercises are simple stuff; we've got to get your conditioning back before we can start on the intense workouts."

"Intense workouts?! What the heck does that mean?!"

"Oh, weight lifting, jogging, that sort of thing."

"I am not getting up anymore at 5:00 AM to go jogging!" he declared flatly. "I need my sleep more than the exercise, thank you very much!!"

"Okay, I'll let you sleep in until 7:00 AM. How's that?"

"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you," he said in a voice that practically dripped sarcastic insincerity all over the room. Linna ignored his tone.

"You're welcome. Now get back to work."

"Nothing is worth this much hassle," he grumbled to himself again as he got ready to start the set of conditioning exercises again. "Not even getting back to my suit!!"

****

"I could use some sympathy," Bert indignantly told a giggling Nene that night. "I don't really need someone else deriving twisted enjoyment out of my predicament."

"Sorry," she said in mock contrition, before collapsing into gales of laughter again. Bert briefly considered smothering her laughter with a pillow, but scrapped the idea; he was too stiff to move much at the moment, a combination of his mostly-healed state, and the killer workout Linna had flogged him through. The first two days had been a warm-up compared to today's activities, almost as if she'd been trying to find out what his limits were. "Would you please quit that?!" he irritably demanded, glaring at her. "It's not that funny!!"

"It is to me," she retorted impishly, green eyes bright with mirth. "You should see the look on your face from this end."

"So much for support and understanding," he muttered, slouching back into the couch. Nene got out of her chair, coming over and sitting next to him, snuggling closer.

"You poor baby," she sighed, reaching up and brushing his snarled hair out of his eyes and patting his cheek. "The poor, big, brave knight, being bullied by the helpless damsel...."

"All right, enough with the jokes," he growled. "I had enough wisecracks today to last me the rest of the week." Nene grinned up at him, then reached up and pulled his head down closer to hers.

"Maybe this will take your mind off of your woes," she remarked, kissing him. He wrapped his arms around her, stiffness forgotten.

****

"Just what the hell ARE you doing?!" Quincy snarled at the green boomer that was now sprawled in a very large and heavy office chair on the other side of his desk. "Why haven't you killed the Knight Sabers?! I didn't put up with several weeks of inconvenience and lousy living conditions just so you could strut around the building in an impressive manner!!"

"I have been observing the company structure," the HeadHunter replied in a bored-sounding tone, "and implementing some improvements that were sorely needed."

"I'M the one who makes those kinds of decisions!!" Quincy bellowed. "You can't just walk into the Accounting offices and staple someone to their desk because they're a thief!! And I don't care how much you say they embezzled!! It's just not done!! We do have to sustain at least some semblance of normalcy here; there is a proper way to handle these things, and that wasn't it! We don't need word of this leaking out to the media! Thank God we were at least able to convince the staff down there that you were an escaped boomer that we got back under control afterwards; that's a common enough occurrence to be partly believable, at least."

"Did someone object to my handling of the situation?"

"Officially? No. Everyone is scared stiff of you, and I can't say that I blame them. Unofficially, however, is another story; about half of Accounting is in shock and have called in sick, and the other half are getting counseling to deal with the trauma you caused them."

"My heart bleeds for them," the HeadHunter said caustically. "I don't really care what their feeble mental state is; anyone detrimental to the corporate good must be removed."

He'd succeeded too well, Quincy realized sourly; the boomer had loyalty to GENOM all right. Unfortunately, it also had a very draconian interpretation of just what was and wasn't acceptable behaviour. He was now half afraid that the boomer would single him out for punishment for doing something it perceived as 'detrimental to the corporate good'.

"You're missing the point," Quincy told the boomer. "You weren't meant to police the entire corporate structure. You were created to deal with our larger problems, the Knight Sabers being a prime example. Now just why are you waiting?!"

"I am waiting for a long enough interval of time to ensure that SkyKnight has physically recovered. Until that happens, you will just have to wait. Do not worry, their eventual demise is assured." The boomer leaned back in the chair, placing its feet on the edge of the desk. The insectoid head swiveled over, yellow eyes staring at GENOM's CEO.

"Trust me, I do know what I am doing," it assured him, then burst out laughing, a grating, evil laugh that made Quincy's skin crawl.

 

ONE WEEK LATER....

"Relax, will you?" Bert told Linna for what felt like the hundredth time. "You'll do fine, trust me." He looked around at the other young women milling around the front entrance lobby to the theatre where the dance tryouts were being held. Everywhere he looked he saw nervous, shapely women in spandex aerobics outfits, some with towels draped around their necks, and all of them milling around anxiously. He was very pointedly trying not to admire the scenery too much; Nene would kill him if she thought he'd been out leering at other women.

Complicating his agitation was the fact that he was one of the very few men in the area, and he felt like a signpost sticking out in an empty field. To make matters worse, some of the women had been giving him appraising, to his mind predatory, looks, almost as if they were considering him for possible date material. The only other guys around were two stone-faced security guards at the main door, and a couple of others in suits who looked like casting agents; they were walking around with briefcases consulting sheaves of paper. They were being more or less ignored; he wasn't.

"I can't help it," Linna hissed back, fidgeting. She looked very nice in a form-fitting blue outfit with a yellow headband, and he idly reflected that she didn't have to worry about her looks; she was indeed a knockout. At the moment she had a baggy sweater on over top of her outfit, a towel over one shoulder and a small gym bag over the other. She ran a hand through her hair again, a nervous gesture that she'd been repeating at least once a minute for the last ten.

"You're going to pull out your hair if you keep that up," he warned her. She glared at him, and clenched her hand around the shoulder strap of her bag instead. He cautiously reached out and put an arm around her shoulders; her shoulder muscles were as taut as wires.

"Come on, relax, will you?" he repeated, giving her a brotherly hug. "You don't have anything to worry about. You're in fantastic shape, and you look great. Quit worrying." She relaxed slightly, sighing.

"I can't help worrying, though," she told him, shooting him a nervous, blue-eyed glance. "You of all people should understand how that works."

"Point taken," he conceded, looking away. Despite the more or less constant reassurances of his friends, the Headhunter's words from their last encounter continued to haunt him; he'd seized up twice during a workout with Linna when a flashback had occurred, almost getting re-injured in the process. He'd tried convincing himself that the biomechanoid's words were lies calculated to mentally screw him over, but no matter what he tried or how hard, faint doubts still remained. The fact that he was having recurrent nightmares about it wasn't helping him any. A gentle elbow in the side reminded him of where he was.

"Come on, cheer up," Linna said quietly, evidently divining his thoughts. "Don't look so long-faced, and think of something else. You can't dwell on it forever; it's not true."

"I know that," he replied, a faintly pained look in his eyes as he gazed absently across the room. "Unfortunately, it won't just leave me alone. I've tried to forget it, but I can't." The time was rapidly approaching when he knew he was going to have to do something about it. He had to get his inner turmoil cleared up, or else he was going to crack. She squeezed his arm comfortingly, giving him a reassuring smile.

The door at the end of the foyer between the two guards opened, and a young man with glasses and long brown hair stuck his head out, looking around. Instant silence fell as everyone in the room gave the opened door their attention. The man consulted a clipboard.

"Okay, Number 54 is up next!" he called out. "Audition in five minutes!" He disappeared into the room beyond again, as Linna's agitation tripled.

"That's me," she told him nervously, shoving her way towards the entry door. She showed the guards the sticker with her number on it, and they held the door open for her. Bert followed her in after a sidelong glance at the guards; they didn't object. A vast, amphitheatre-like room opened up before him, a huge room with row upon row of tiered seats that extended down to the front of the theatre, surrounding the outthrust stage like sharks around a victim. He decided not to share that metaphor with Linna; she was nervous enough already. Down by the front of the stage, a small group of people with clipboards, men and women, were conferring about something; the brown-haired man was one of them.

Bert trailed Linna down to the front looking around at the spacious room, briefly imagining what it must be like for stage performers to look out and see a vast ocean of unfamiliar faces during a performance. Only people with steel nerves could handle that kind of pressure, he figured; he himself froze solid at the thought of having to get up in front of small groups of people, let alone the huge crowds a place like this could hold. Knowing that several hundred strangers were watching your every move and evaluating you, but still maintaining enough presence of mind to perform without mistakes would be more than he could handle without cracking. His respect for Linna's strength of character went up a couple of notches.

Several cool gazes, neither welcoming nor inimical, swung over to look at them as they approached the group of directors. He found it hard to stay calm himself under those appraising looks, and he wasn't even trying out for anything. Linna looked tense, but was in control of herself.

"Linna Yamazaki?" the bespectacled man asked. At her nod, he took a quick look at his watch. "Okay, you've got a few minutes to warm up backstage; we'll call you out in about five minutes." He didn't wait for a reply, but turned back to consulting with the other clipboard carriers. Linna took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

"I guess this is it," she said, looking up at Bert. He smiled reassuringly, giving her a quick hug.

"You'll do fine," he assured her. "You have nothing to worry about. Now get up there and warm up." She nodded wordlessly, and disappeared through the door with a sign taped over it reading 'backstage'. Bert looked around, then selected a likely-looking seat near the front of the stage and made himself comfortable, settling back to wait as he tossed his hat into the next seat. The subdued murmur of the directors talking about the results so far was almost the only sound in the theatre at the moment. After a few minutes, the brown-haired man stepped forwards.

"Okay!" he yelled into the backstage area. "Number 54, let's see your stuff!"

****

"You did marvelously," Bert reassured Linna, hugging her briefly. She was a little winded at the moment, something rarely seen for her, and was busy mopping the sweat from her face with her towel. Her performance had been flawless as far as he was concerned. Her dance routine that she'd put together had been both energetic and graceful, covering the entire stage space in flashing, somehow inspiring and uplifting, motion. Her own exuberance and love of dancing had been translated across into her movements, being communicated immediately to even the most casual observer in a manner that drew them, spellbound, into watching the entire performance. If the directors had been impressed, it hadn't shown in their faces; they'd politely thanked her, and called in the next applicant. Linna had looked a little downcast, expecting at least some flicker of feeling from the directors, but that hadn't happened.

"Linna, they've got almost sixty other people to review yet," he reminded her when she remarked on it. "They're not going to show anything even remotely resembling feelings until it's all over. Stop worrying." He placed an arm around her shoulders and steered her towards the front door. "We've got time to step out for a quick bite to eat," he told her when she protested. "You need to get something into your stomach, and I do too. I got tired and hungry just from watching you gyrate around up there."

"Okay," she sighed, reluctantly allowing him to guide her out the door.

****

"The time is nearly at hand for our glorious total victory," the HeadHunter proclaimed grandly. Quincy looked over at the towering biomechanical killer with a sour expression; the HeadHunter had taken to making lofty statements lately, ones that sounded like they came straight out of old books.

"The time for what?" Quincy asked irritably. "You've been saying that for days now without doing anything. Would you mind telling me just when you are planning on living up to your end of the bargain? I have more than fulfilled mine."

"Do not nag me, Old Man," the boomer returned, voice becoming glacial. Quincy mentally gritted his teeth, snarling at the insult; somewhere the HeadHunter had picked up on that less-than-affectionate title that some malcontent somewhere in the company had given him, and had taken to using it frequently. The last one to get away with calling him that to his face, briefly, had been Largo. Anyone else using that form of address had met with an untimely demise shortly thereafter. Killing Largo was the only thing Quincy had to grudgingly give the Knight Sabers praise for; if they hadn't offed the bastard, there was no telling the problems he could have created for GENOM.

"And don't insult me," he told the boomer in an equally glacial tone. "I could have let you perish when you came to me, but I decided against it; don't force me to regret that decision." He locked a steely blue-eyed gaze with the Headhunter's burning yellow one as the tension level in the room thickened like a paste. For a moment, two implacable wills struggled for dominance, then conceded a stalemate, for the time being.

"A thousand pardons," the HeadHunter grated, sarcasm and dripping insincerity just barely concealed. It bowed in a manner that was calculated down to the barest fraction of an inch to be mocking. "I would not wish to cause you undue stress with my remarks." Quincy took the apology at face value, ignoring the mockery, and permitted himself to appear appeased.

"Now then: what time is almost at hand?" Quincy repeated.

"The time for one of your fondest dreams to come true: the destruction of the Knight Sabers."

"You've been saying that for a long time now," Quincy noted irritably. "I'd like to see some results for a change."

"And so you shall," The HeadHunter replied with a chuckle. "Shortly, I shall reveal myself again, which will undoubtedly draw them out; they will not let the opportunity to fight me pass uncontested. And then," the boomer paused, chuckling again. "they will die, slowly and in great pain."

****

A tense hush had fallen over the assembled group of spandex-clad hopefuls waiting in the front lobby of the theatre. Small waves of motion occasionally washed through the waiting throng as several people fidgeted nervously, the strain of waiting beginning to fray their already strung-out nerves. Linna was almost in that state, alternately tapping her foot or trying to pace impatiently in the very minuscule amount of floorspace she and Bert were occupying. He'd given up on trying to get her to hold still; she'd probably burst if forced to remain stationary. Although she was trying her best to remain calm, alternating expressions of doubt and hope were chasing each other across her face periodically. Reaching out, he place a reassuring arm across her shoulders, and she gratefully leaned into him, giving him a quick smile.

The door to the far end of the room opened, and the waiting silence in the room became absolute; Bert wasn't even sure most of the people were breathing, it was that silent. The long-haired director came out through the door, looking a little weary, but satisfied. There was a slim sheaf of paper in one hand. He looked at the sea of expectant faces and cleared his throat.

"First of all, I'd like to thank everyone for coming and trying out," he began. No real response was evident to his opening statement; the waiting women weren't there to listen to pleasantries. He continued speaking.

"We didn't have an easy time making our decisions," he announced, flicking through the pages he held. "You're all very talented. Be that as it may, however, the other directors and I have made our selections. In no particular order, the winning numbers are...." He paused dramatically, grinning slightly. Bert figured that the director was playing with fire doing that; the assembled women were not in the best frame of mind at the moment, and drawing out the announcements might prompt a spontaneous mass lynching.

"The numbers are: 36, 87...." he droned on for a couple of more minutes reciting about twenty numbers in total. A few faces in the crowd became utterly delighted, while a few more folded in disappointment. For some, the disappointment was too much, and they collapsed, sobbing, into a nearby friend's arms. Bert could tell Linna was desperately trying to keep a cool facade in place, but it was crumbling rapidly as the director continued to call out numbers; so far hers hadn't been called. Then the director's last sentence caught their attention.

"And finally, I'd like to talk with number 54 up front here for a couple of minutes. Thank you all for your patience, and good luck in the future." The man disappeared back into the amphitheatre beyond the door as the gathered throng began to buzz once more with conversation and movement. Linna looked up at Bert, hope and puzzlement warring for precedence in her expression as the waves of sound and activity surged around them.

"Why would they want to talk to me separately?" she asked him. He spread his hands helplessly, shrugging.

"How should I know?!" he replied. "I haven't the faintest idea how directors think."

"That makes two of us," she remarked with a wry smile. Sighing, she squared her shoulders and started to shove through the crowd, Bert trailing. After an interminable period of passing through the crowd, they made it to the entry door. Again, the guards let them through, shoving back a few of the more persistent hangers-on who tried to get in for what was probably a hysterical attempt to convince the directors to change their minds. The long-haired director was waiting just inside the door for them.

"Ms. Yamazaki," he greeted her. "I'd first like to tell you that your performance earlier was fantastic. We were all impressed with the feeling you managed to inject into your routine, and at how technically precise it was." He stopped, shuffling through the sheaf of paper he was holding for a moment until he came up with one specific page. "It was that, combined with the feeling that you're a little more mature than the majority of the applicants that we screened today that has prompted us to make this offer to you." Linna was silent, trying to look calm; Bert was silent, wishing the man would get to the bloody point.

"You originally auditioned for a role in this production as one of the dancers," the director noted. "However, we feel that would probably be wasting your talents. We would seriously appreciate it if you would instead consider doing the choreography for this production." A slow grin began to stretch across Bert's face as the director continued speaking; Linna's blue eyes were wide-open in stunned amazement and dawning joy. "We need a choreographer, and originally we'd been going to hold a separate audition for that position. However, as I said, we liked what we saw, and we hope you'll accept the job." He fell silent and waited, looking at her.

Linna stood stock still for a moment, stunned. A wide smile suddenly wreathed her features as her blue eyes turned watery with tears of joy. She nodded once wordlessly, then turned and grabbed Bert in an almost crushing hug, laughing and crying at the same time. Bert hugged her back, looking over at the brown-haired director who had a slight smile of his own.

"You can start on Monday of next week," the director told her, handing her a sheet of paper with some instructions. "We look forward to working with you." He gave Linna a brief bow, turned, and walked back down towards the stage. Bert hugged Linna again, and after a few moments, she regained her composure. Her eyes were positively shining as she looked up at him.

"I told you that you had nothing to worry about," he told her with a smile, brushing her now-disheveled hair out of her face. "Maybe now you'll listen to me more often."

"Fat chance," she snorted, then hugged him again with a grin. "Thank you," she told him. "If you hadn't suggested this and helped me out, I'd never have been able to even try again."

"No problem," he assured her. "Seeing the look on your face right now is thanks enough; I'm honoured I could help." He paused, then added, grinning, "At least now I don't have to get up to go jogging in the morning anymore."

"Who said you were getting let off the hook about that?" she inquired, eyebrows raised. "I still need to keep in shape, and it won't kill you to keep it up, despite all your groaning and moaning about it."

"How about we discuss it after dinner?" he countered. "I'm buying."

"Okay," she agreed. "But I'm still not changing my mind."

"Hope springs eternal," he remarked, sighing and holding the door open for her, following her back out to where the crowd outside was slowly beginning to finally disperse.

 

THE NEXT DAY....

"I just knew you'd be in here," Priss declared, irritably banging her helmet down on the nearby workbench, partly unzipping her red leather jacket. "That's the one constant in the universe: you being in the shop during the day."

"It's no stranger than being constantly on a motorbike, speeding all over the city," Bert retorted, closing the casing of the cylindrical device he was working on and tossing aside some unidentifiable tool. "At least I'm not running the risk of losing my license this way," he grinned impudently. Priss flushed at his remark; she'd been pulled over a few times lately for excessive speed, and the THP was beginning to come down hard on her. Bert was willing to bet they knew her by sight by now. If she got stopped too many more times, she was going to be walking for a while. Bert had commented that the exercise might do her some good, and had nearly been clobbered as a result. Priss was glaring at him challengingly, almost daring him to make a smart remark about her driving; he passed on the offer, having no desire to become bedridden again.

"So what brings you down here?" he asked, wiping his hands on a rag. "I thought you had a concert to rehearse for."

"Postponed," she replied disgustedly. "There was a booking error, and we've been moved back a week. Anyway, I came down to see if you were busy."

"It's nothing I can't deal with later," he assured her. "Why?"

"Feel like going for a bike ride?" she asked. "I'm getting sick of cruising around by myself at the moment."

"Okay," he agreed. "Give me a moment or so to clean up, and I'll be right out." He vanished into a small side room to wash his hands off, and Priss sauntered over to the workbench, looking down at the gadget on the tabletop. It was a silvery ovoid shape, with a small parabolic saucer-shaped disc on the front end. It had a squarish mounting base for where it would presumably attach to his hardsuit. She didn't have the faintest idea what it could be for, which wasn't unusual where he was concerned.

"Like it?" his voice inquired from next to her ear. Priss jumped in surprise as he continued. "It's an ECM pod, sort of like what Nene's new suit carries. I figured it mightn't be a bad idea if SkyKnight was undetectable once in a while, so I designed a portable one for myself."

"You're out of luck if you don't want to be noticed," she told him dryly. "The explosions always give you away."

"True," he grinned briefly. "I just finished it a few minutes ago, so I really don't know if it works or not." He shrugged. "It gave me something to do for an hour or so anyway. The rest of the time I've been playing with some of my chemical compounds to see if I could improve them any."

"You're a workaholic," she told him, shaking her head.

"Possibly," he admitted.

"Fixed your suit yet?"

"What for?" he asked expressionlessly. "It's a write-off; I don't think there's an intact piece of armour plate or wiring anywhere in it." His glance flicked momentarily sideways, to where a vaguely humanoid shape laying on a worktable was draped with a canvas tarpaulin: the remains of his suit.

Priss frowned at him, trying to read his expression without any luck. His face was studiously blank, not indicating anything at all of what he was feeling. An uneasy suspicion began to gnaw at the back of her mind, but it wasn't anything she could put a name to at the moment. It was odd that he hadn't tried fixing his suit yet, though. Even battle damage as severe as he'd suffered against the HeadHunter hadn't stopped him from rebuilding his suit in the past. She shoved her worries to the side with an effort.

"Okay, let's get going then," she said, grabbing her helmet. Bert held the door open for her, following her out and flicking off the lights.

****

Twin motorcycles roared down Bayshore Highway #9, weaving in and out of the slower, more sane-minded drivers. The lead machine was a low-slung red, white, and blue-striped speed machine carrying a woman driver in jeans, a red jacket and a blue helmet. Long brown hair flapped in the breeze from under the edge of her helmet. The second machine was a dark blue bike with silver stripes, carrying a male rider who was wearing jeans, a well-worn jean jacket and a blue helmet with a mirrored visor. It appeared as if the second bike was trying to narrow the gap between it and the first one; the rider was leaning low over the gas tank to present a lower profile, and he looked like a jockey trying to get more effort from a racehorse. The helmet on the lead bike turned, the driver looking back over her shoulder briefly at the second bike.

"Come on, slowpoke!!" Priss' voice drifted back to Bert with the wind slipstream. "Get the lead out of your ass!" Her helmet turned back to look forwards.

"For God's sake," Bert muttered to himself, flicking a quick glance at the speedometer. "Slow down, damnit!" He should have guessed that Priss was going to take off at high speeds eventually; she'd been reasonably well-behaved for the first half-hour or so, but she'd steadily picked up speed as they'd moved along. They were now at 130 kph, and climbing. His bike didn't have the same accelerative power as hers did, and wasn't having much luck catching up to hers anyway. What was really making Bert nervous was that they were sure to attract the attention of the Highway Patrol, and he didn't want that. Of course, he didn't want to get left behind either. Oh well, he sighed to himself, here goes nothing.

The engine beneath him snarled heartily as he gunned the throttle. Rubber squealed slightly as the blue bike popped a brief wheelie, then shot ahead, erupting past slower vehicles. Slowly, the gap between him and Priss began to narrow. There was a quick flash of light from the visor on her helmet as she looked back at him, then she leaned forward on her own machine. Bert could hear the engine howl, and again she began to draw away.

"Priss, If I live through this, I'm going to strangle you," Bert swore to himself. He was briefly considering pursuing when he saw flashing red-blue lights in the distance up ahead. The lights quickly resolved into police cars and a van stopped at a checkpoint. A sinking feeling assailed his guts as he realized they'd obviously picked up the two racing motorcycles on their radar; one of the officers was getting a cruiser ready to pursue them if they passed by, and another officer was frantically waving two light-batons to flag them down. Priss had evidently noticed the roadblock too, and despite her opinions on the Highway Patrol, she was also slowing down, although Bert was sure he could hear swearing coming from her as he moved closer. He said a few choice expletives of his own, but they weren't directed at the cops necessarily.

The two bikes had dropped to identical speeds now, and they both rolled to a stop next to the officer with the signal batons. To Bert's surprise, he noted that the cars and uniforms were ADP, not the usual THP. The officer, however, evidently knew at least one of the cyclists.

"You again?!" the officer said, shaking his head with an amused grin forming. "You must really like the idea of walking, lady."

"Oh shut up," she retorted irritably. The officer's grin got wider. "Where do we go from here?" she asked. "Let's get this over with."

"Right over there," he directed, pointing to a car that had a door open and a small portable computer sitting on the hood. "Just give your licenses to the officer over there, and she'll take it from there." Priss got off of her bike and started walking over towards the parked cruiser, angrily ripping off her helmet as she walked. Bert was still sitting on his cycle, praying fervently that the female officer that had been mentioned wasn't who he thought it was. However, no divine entities appeared to be listening to him.

As Priss walked over to the cruiser, a slender young woman in a form-fitting ADP uniform came out from behind the van. She was lovely, graceful, and had red hair with emerald-green eyes. Oh LORD, Bert groaned mentally, WHY ME?!?! He fell forward, the forehead and visor of his helmet clanging onto the gas tank of his bike, eyes squeezed shut, praying for divine intervention to get him out of the situation he found himself in. Again, God didn't appear to be listening to him.

"Hey buddy," the startled ADP officer asked him. "Are you all right?!"

"Marvelous," Bert sighed, sitting up. "Just marvelous." Swinging a leg over his bike, he stood up and began walking over, stepping past the puzzled officer. As he did so, he noted that Nene looked none too happy with Priss, who was standing red-faced next to the cruiser. As he approached, Nene looked over at him, then took a second look as she recognized him. Her face became a study in consternation, turning pale.

"Oh no, please," she said weakly. "Not you too!!"

"Yep," Bert replied, revealing a shame-faced grin as he pulled off his helmet. "I'm afraid so."

"You...you...you stupid jackass!!" she hissed back, just stopping short of shouting at him. She cast a quick glance at the other officers nearby, but none of them appeared to be watching. She glared at him, green eyes boring holes into him, then held out a hand. Bert reluctantly passed over his license, and she ran it through the machine. "50 kph over the limit," she informed him as she handed it back, adding, "I'll discuss this with you further tonight, mister."

"Thank you so much, Priss," Bert sighed, covering his face with a hand as he pocketed his license again. "I really needed this today." Priss turned redder, but didn't reply.

"You're getting off easy," Nene informed him. "At least you can drive out of here." A sudden grin spread across Bert's face as he looked at Priss. She gave him an ugly glare back, just daring him to say anything.

"Well now," he remarked, grinning evilly. "And just how are you getting home now, Ms. Speed Demon?" he inquired politely. Priss didn't reply, but stood with her arms crossed over her chest, fuming.

"I know there's somebody here who'd be more than happy to give her a ride home," Nene remarked blandly. Bert wondered what she was talking about, when he heard a familiar voice call out, "Hey! Priss! What are you doing here, beautiful?"

Bert stifled a grin as Leon McNichol, evidently now completely recovered from his accident of weeks earlier, stepped around the end of the van. Priss' expression was hard to interpret; it was a mixture of embarrassment, irritation, resignation and desperation combined with a 'why me?' look. Bert quickly donned his helmet again to keep his expression hidden, knowing he wasn't going to be able to keep a straight face. Besides, he didn't want Leon recognizing him. Nene shot him a quick glance, apparently reading his mind. She quickly made herself look busy at the portable computer as Leon came up to them.

"I heard you needed a ride," Leon remarked with a sly smile. "Lucky for you I just happen to be going your way." Priss' expression was not pleasant.

"You heard wrong," she told him. "Get your ears checked sometime."

"Oh?" Leon said. "And just how are you getting out of here? You can't ride your bike, you know."

"I'm riding with him," she retorted, jerking a thumb at Bert.

"You are?!" Bert repeated blankly. Nene didn't turn around, so he wasn't sure what she thought of the idea.

"Yes I am!" she said, dividing a glare between him and Leon. "I am not riding in some bloody police cruiser!"

"It'll be more comfortable than hanging onto the end of a bike," Leon offered.

"Not to mention that there's more room," Bert amplified. "The bike seat isn't very big, you know." The look Priss gave him made her earlier glares seem loving by comparison. A faint snicker escaped Nene, who still had her back to them.

"Come on, Priss," Leon tried again. "It'll be fun!"

"Forget it," she shot back. "I'm not giving you another opportunity to pester me about going to dinner with you!!" Leon flushed guiltily, as Priss grabbed Bert's arm in a clenched grip, and shoved him back towards his bike, following after him.

"Priss, now wait just a second," Bert tried protesting. "This isn't..."

"If you leave me here with them, I swear I'll hunt you down and shoot you!" she snarled in a low voice, still shoving him backwards. "I am not riding with Leon, got it?"

"Yeah, but what about your bike?!"

"I'll get it back from the impound yard!! I've done it before!! Just shut up and drive, damnit!"

"Fine, have it your way," Bert sighed, shaking his head. He turned around so that he could walk forwards, and walked back to his bike. He stepped onto it, putting the kickstand up as Priss carefully climbed on behind him. The officer who'd flagged them down was still standing there with a slight smirk on his face.

"No speeding now," he cautioned them before adding, "Have a nice day."

"Thanks a lot," Priss muttered disgustedly as Bert started the engine and carefully steered the bike back out into the main traffic flow. The burdened motorcycle vanished up the highway.

****

Across town, a much more violent tableau was unfolding. Fires from burning wreckage blazed wildly, the occasional mushrooming ball of flames bursting from the charred hulks as the gas tanks on the vehicles ignited. Smoke floated through the air in a choking cloud. The maimed bodies of several ADP officers lay on the pavement, the black asphalt awash with bright crimson pools.

In the middle of the carnage, a Herculean green boomer stood, facing down a K-17 armour suit. The K-17 was barely functioning. It was missing an arm and the hydraulics on its legs were sliced open, which had spilled gallons of hydraulic fluids to the pavement and caused the suit to seize completely. The suit pilot was now sweating profusely as he stared at the biomechanoid killer in front of him; he was helpless, a sitting duck. The fact that the boomer was obviously toying with him had made things worse.

The boomer's right arm swept blindingly through the air; metal shrieked, and the pilot felt a brief stab of pain. After a moment, he realized he hadn't been injured. Instead of killing him, the boomer had sliced open the front of the much-abused suit, cutting the pilot slightly; he could feel thin trickles of blood creeping down his chest from the shallow gashes.

"For God's sake!!" the rattled officer burst out. "If you're going to kill me, just get it over with you bastard!!"

"Now, now, now," the boomer rumbled in an amused tone. "Don't be rude or I will reverse my decision to spare you. I need you alive as a witness."

"Witness to what?!"

"It would be beyond your limited intellect to fully understand what my purposes are," the HeadHunter replied. "For now, all you need to know is that I am quite capable of doing whatever I wish, whenever I wish. If the ADP wishes to retain a living workforce, they will remember that and not interfere with me in the future. There is no one in this pathetic city that can stop me; you would be well advised to pass on the message."

With that, flight jets sprang out on the backs of the green boomer's legs, hurling it into the air, leaving the stranded K-17 to stand like a macabre monument in the middle of the apocalyptic-looking battlefield.

****

"Are you sure that revealing yourself so openly was wise?" Quincy asked, turning away from the large bay window where he'd been gazing out over the city.

"The Knight Sabers have a channel into the ADPolice communications lines," the HeadHunter replied. "Their actions in the past make that a certainty; they have outpaced the police several times in responding to boomer-related incidents, meaning that they themselves had access to the same information as fast as the police. That being the case, the fastest way to gain their attention again is to assault the ADP in isolated locations. Before long, the Knight Sabers will start hunting on their own initiative, wishing to stop me, and then I will have them at my 'mercy'." The hulking killer began laughing evilly. Quincy watched expressionlessly, his face not betraying anything.

****

"Son of a BITCH!!!" Bert snarled, pitching a wrench across the shop with deadly accuracy; the radio was smacked off of the precarious perch it had enjoyed by the hurtling tool, and it shattered all over the floor in a wild, skittering cascade of transistors and plastic pieces. More fulminant words bruised the air as he slammed his fists down on the workbench, bowing his head, teeth clenched in helpless fury.

"I guess I don't need to ask whether or not you heard the news broadcast," Sylia remarked from the doorway. Bert's face straightened out with amazing speed as he looked at her, not quite banishing the fury he'd earlier displayed.

"I heard it," he confirmed. "We've got to do something about that goddamn boomer before it kills someone else."

"It may not have been the HeadHunter," Sylia said, walking closer and coolly evaluating him. He looked okay physically, but it wasn't his physical state she was worried about.

"WHAT?! How many other green killer boomers with friggin' claws and particle beams do you know?!?!" he shouted angrily, then throttled his temper down with a visible effort. "It's him all right; the bastard's flaunting himself, rubbing my face in the fact that I couldn't stop him." He spun away from her, trying desperately to keep a straight face.

"And just what do you plan to do?" Sylia asked quietly, praying she wouldn't be forced to stop him from what she suspected he was likely to do.

"Do?!" he repeated, turning around and facing her, revealing a churning mix of frustration, rage, and self-disgust on his face. "Just what the hell can I do?! I don't have a working suit, and I haven't got the nerve to use it right now if I did. If that bastard's goal was mentally screwing me over, then he's succeeded admirably." A pained look flashed across his face. "There isn't a night goes by now that I don't see that thing laughing at me in my dreams. I'm going to hell in a handbasket mentally, and there's not a goddamn bloody thing I can do about it." He roughly shoved past Sylia, and ran out of the shop. She gazed after him, concern flashing in her brown eyes. After a moment, she followed him out, closing the door.

Sylia walked down the hallway, hearing a door slam as she did. After a couple of minutes, she stood outside the door to his apartment. Hesitating only briefly, she knocked on the door. No answer. Knowing he never locked the door, she opened it and stepped in.

"Go away and leave me alone," his choked voice told her from the couch. He was sitting, shoulders slumped dejectedly, with his head in his hands. "Just leave me alone."

"You don't really mean that," Sylia told him calmly, walking over and sitting next to him on the couch. She gently reached out and pulled his hands away from his face, revealing slightly bloodshot greenish-brown eyes and a tear-streaked face. He looked away from her almost angrily, scrubbing a sleeve across his face in a futile attempt to stop the occasional tear that escaped from his eyes. She reached out with a sigh and hugged him tightly; after a moment, he hesitantly hugged her back, trying to get himself back under control. It took a few more minutes, but he did it finally, pulling away from her and blowing his nose on a handkerchief that he fished out of a pocket.

"Thanks," he said quietly, his eyes expressing more than the words were capable of. Sylia smiled back at him understandingly.

"It's not a crime to show that you have other feelings at times," she told him quietly. He nodded wordlessly, and they sat silently for a few moments.

"Is the fact that you almost got killed what has kept you from rebuilding your other suit?" Sylia suddenly asked, giving him a direct, searching look. His eyes met hers briefly.

"Partly," he admitted, a gloomy expression on his face. "It's also partly the fact that, no matter what I've tried, I haven't been able to get that thing's words out of my mind; they keep playing back like an old TV re-run. Given what I'm capable of when I'm really angry, it wasn't too far from the truth when it said I was a killer; I very nearly killed Lt. Rutherford during that fight we had because of it. I....for days while I was healing up, the only reason I wanted to rebuild the suit was for revenge, plain and simple, and I just didn't trust myself; I didn't create SkyKnight to become a vehicle for revenge."

"There is a fair bit of a difference between you and the HeadHunter," Sylia told him patiently. "The HeadHunter revels in wanton killing and destruction. You don't, never have, and unless your personality undergoes a completely radical swing, you never will. You're a kind, caring individual, as I think everyone on the team will attest to. You may have a lousy temper at times, but most of us do, and there's not a thing we can do about it. It's just part of what we are. Please stop tormenting yourself over this. Your own willingness to say that the HeadHunter is partly right is probably contributing to your nightmares. Deep down you know it's not true, but yet you insist that it partly is."

"I'll try to stop it," he promised with a sigh, "but it's not easy. Believe me, I have been trying." Sylia smiled reassuringly at him, giving his arm a brief squeeze. They sat quietly again for a moment or two.

"So what were you planning to do?" Bert finally asked quietly.

"The new suits are ready," she told him, looking over at him. "In a couple of days we're going to go out and find the HeadHunter, and then destroy it."

"Sounds like a good plan to me," he replied with a faint smirk. "Are you sure you want me along, though? I'm not exactly all there at the moment."

"You're coming too," she told him firmly. "You need to get this out of your system once and for all. Besides, we're a team, remember?"

"I hadn't forgotten, believe me," he replied quietly.

 

LATER THAT NIGHT....

"NOOOO!" the agonized yell was torn from the sleeping red-haired form sprawled in a padded, reclining armchair. Bert jerked upright in his chair where he'd dozed off, the book he'd been reading flopping to the floor. With a trembling hand, he wiped the cold sweat from his face, breathing hoarsely. Another bloody nightmare, and this one had been a replay of the events of a little over half-a-year ago. The catch was that in this version, Nene hadn't been rescued; he'd been forced to watch in horror as his absolute worst nightmare came true. He shuddered helplessly at the memory.

"No way," he suddenly muttered to himself, grim purpose becoming etched into his face. "It's not going to get the chance to happen, to anyone, ever again." He stood up, walking over to his kitchen counter. Pouring a cup of tea, and then nuking it in the microwave oven, he carried the now-steaming beverage over to his computer. The machine hummed into life at his command, and he sat down in front of it. He activated the audio recording equipment that he'd hooked into the console, and recorded a short vocal message. He then programmed the computer to activate after forty-five minutes, and to then send the recorded message to a certain number.

Finishing off his tea, he dropped the mug on the counter, took a quick glance at his watch, and then sprinted out of his room and down the hallway.

****

"What a marvelous night," the HeadHunter observed, presumably looking out the window of Quincy's office at the rolling thunderclouds scudding by. Violet and bright azure lightning occasionally flickered in the air outside, throwing the contours of the sky into sharp relief.

"It's fine as long as you're indoors," Quincy observed dryly. "I doubt very much that anyone outdoors will share your opinions."

"I was thinking more that the storm resembles what will soon descend on the Knight Sabers," the boomer replied, yellow eyes briefly glancing at the craggy-faced CEO in apparent irritation. "I could care less what inferior organisms think."

****

Bert quickly stuffed the two equipment modules into a nylon rucksack, hefting it to make sure that the weight of the units wouldn't tear the seams; he couldn't afford to have something happen to them to damage them. Slinging the backpack over his shoulders, he settled it into place, adjusting the straps to fit a little more comfortably. He grabbed his motorcycle helmet from where it was hanging on a hook by the door, and then ran out of the shop, flicking off the lights as he went. Within minutes, a blue and silver motorcycle was soon motoring up the streets of the city, disappearing into the dimly-lit darkness.

****

Sylia sleepily rolled over in her bed, looking hazily at the clock as the phone rang. The illuminated dial said it was 11:49 PM. Now who the hell could it be at this hour?! She sighed irritably, briefly considering just leaving it to ring, but the insistence of the ringing phone finally drove her to get up and answer it. She wrapped a bathrobe around herself as she walked , belting it securely into place, and then picked up the phone.

"Hello?" she inquired.

"Hi Sylia, this is Bert," his familiar voice said. Despite her concerns about his emotional problems at the moment, she was more than a little annoyed at being woken up.

"Do you have any idea of what time it is?" she queried sternly, but he kept on speaking as if he hadn't heard her.

"I don't really know how to start explaining what this call is about, but I can't stand it anymore; by the time you hear this message, I'll be long gone. Hopefully you'll listen to my reasons before you summon up the rest of the troops to come after me..."

Sylia sank into a nearby chair, face turning white as she realized that she was listening to a pre-recorded message. "Oh no," she whispered to herself as she continued to listen to the message. "Dear God, please don't let it be true!" But she already knew, with a sick, sinking certainty that it was too late.

****

A switch clicked somewhere in the room, flooding the darkness with revealing shafts of white fluorescent light that reflected in glaring patterns from the heavy lab equipment that cluttered the underground development lab located beneath Raven's Garage. A tall, red-haired young man with greenish brown eyes moved swiftly down the central aisle of the room, finally coming to a stop in front of a set of five semi-cylindrical tubes. The tubes were hardsuit storage bays, and the it was the contents of one of the tubes that held his attention as he lowered a nylon backpack to the floor with a clank.

Inside stood a slightly bulky-looking hardsuit, with heavy armour plating evident on the shoulders, torso and joints of the suit. Blue antenna wings jutted out from the helmet, roughly where the wearer's ears would be, and the rest of the suit was sheathed in shining silver, with royal blue colouring on the shoulder and upper torso armour.

Bert stood in front of the SkyKnight armour for a few moments, several expressions flashing across his face in an unreadable parade. Finally, he reached out and hit the button to deploy the loading ramp for the storage bay. As the armour was moving forwards on the extending ramp, he peeled off his clothes, revealing his dark blue hardsuit undergarment which he'd worn underneath. The ramp finished extending, and taking a deep breath, he stepped forwards, and climbed into his armour, sticking his arms into the armoured sleeves, and his feet into the boots..

Instantly, the top portion of the torso armour snapped closed as the side pieces whipped around him to lock into place. At the same time, the upper and lower leg armour slid into place with a metallic clack as the arm armour snapped closed. There were a few more snaps and hisses as the final adjustments were made that allowed the suit to fully conform to its wearer. Bert stretched and shifted around for a moment to make sure that everything was working; it was. Grinning faintly at the familiar feel of his suit, despite the seriousness of what he was going to do, he picked up his helmet and lowered it into place. There was a faint click, and then a hum as the suit systems fully enabled and came on line. The bright flicker of positive status reports flashed across his face as his suit computer ran a suit-wide diagnostic and pronounced it in perfect condition.

SkyKnight bent carefully and pulled two mountable objects from the knapsack on the floor. One was an ovoid shape with a small parabolic dish on the end, and the other was a sleek, long-barreled launcher with three squarish magazines latched into slots on the end of the cylindrical gun body. The ECM device went into the left shoulder mount, and the chemical gun went into the right shoulder one. SkyKnight stooped again, and extracted two flat battery packs, which he proceeded to clamp into place on his leg armour at the hips. Again, his suit computer declared everything operational.

"One last thing," he muttered to himself. He walked across the room to the far corner of the lab where a large vault-like cabinet was sitting. Punching in the combination, he opened the door and reached inside, pulling out two stubby cylinders with mounting and interface posts on the sides. He plugged one cylinder into his left, and then right, arm armour, right next to his particle lasers, making it look like he now had three gun barrels per arm. He did another careful check of his suit to make sure everything was securely mounted and functioning. Now he was ready, he figured. Turning around again, he clanked out of the underground lab, flicking off the lights and closing the doors behind him as he left.

After cautiously making his way back to the garage level, SkyKnight carefully eased his way out the side door to the scrapyard beyond; it would be easier to take off without being seen from there. As he stepped out into the darkness, lightning flashed in the distance and thunder rumbled sullenly. Considering what was going to happen to him shortly, he figured the weather was oddly appropriate. In the back of his mind, he could suddenly hear Priss singing "Konya wa Hurricane", and he began to laugh despite the seriousness of the situation, losing some of the fear that had been gnawing at him in the process.

"Ready or not, here I come!" he announced with another chuckle. Silver wings snapped into extension, and SkyKnight shot into the high air on droning jets, banking around and swooping off into the night.

****

"....I realize that the Knight Sabers are a team effort, but I can't risk your safety, or anyone else's," Bert's recorded voice told a white-faced and trembling Sylia. "You told me that the HeadHunter knows my psychology extremely well, which is true enough. However, I also know a fair bit about its psychology. Because of that, I can't let you go with me, because the first thing the bastard will do is grab Nene and probably kill her, with the rest of you following shortly thereafter as either hostages or victims. The HeadHunter knows that I won't attack, or will at least hesitate if it has one of you in its clutches; that means I have to do this by myself." The voice paused for a moment. "I'm sorry I wasn't a little more up front with you, but I HAVE to do it this way, both for my own peace of mind, and for your own sakes." Again he hesitated. "I haven't said this before, but in case I don't come back, I just wanted you to know that, in my own warped way, I love each and every one of you. Take care."

The line went dead, and Sylia angrily swabbed at her suddenly watering eyes, hanging up the phone with a bang. After taking a moment to compose herself, she picked up the phone again, dialing Nene's phone number at work; the red-haired computer expert was on afternoon and night shifts all week.

"Nene, this is Sylia," she replied in answer to Nene's greeting. "You'd better keep an ear on the radio wavelengths. I think there's going to be a war tonight." The thunder outside rumbled as if in agreement with her.

****

"The power of the storm," the HeadHunter rumbled, watching lightning fork down out of the black clouds, striking the grounding rods on a nearby skyscraper. The hulking boomer turned away from the darkened window, walking across the shadowy upper-level office towards the darkness-shrouded desk where Quincy sat stoically. "The one power that even we cannot attain, no matter what we try. We can only approximate nature for sheer destructive power."

"My, aren't we philosophical tonight?" Quincy sardonically noted. "Feeling all right?"

"All systems are functioning perfectly," the HeadHunter replied coolly. "But at the same time, something does not feel right. I feel as if I have overlooked something, and I do not enjoy the feeling."

"Welcome to the wonderful world of humanity," Quincy said dryly. "Evidently, your new AI can even give you a case of nervousness."

"I am not nervous; I fear nothing," the boomer replied, tone becoming glacially cold. "There is nothing in this city that I need fear." The boomer's head suddenly came up, eyes lighting like lamps, their glow casting dim rays around the room. "Did you hear that?!" it demanded of the startled CEO. It spun around, looking wildly around the office, as Quincy began to think that maybe the HeadHunter had gone nuts, after all. The boomer stepped out towards the center of the office.

"There is no one but you and I," he tried soothing the biomechanoid. "Relax." He couldn't quite believe that he was trying to calm down the most ruthless killer boomer ever to walk the planet like a nursemaid.

"No! I am positive I heard....." Whatever the HeadHunter had been going to say was lost in the shattering scream of four coruscating beams of flaming, white-red energy blasting through the large picture window of Quincy's office. The sizzling beams carved through the air of the office, throwing everything into sharp relief with their light as they brutally slammed the dumbfounded biomechanoid off of its feet, sending it flying to land in a heap by the far wall. Smoke wafted from deep blast marks on the boomer's torso as it rolled over.

Quincy stared incredulously at the gaping hole in his window; nothing but darkness could be seen outside as the wind whistled shrilly across the broken glass. A second screaming energy wave shot through the window again as he watched, again knocking the HeadHunter down. The enraged biomechanoid snarled furiously as it began to regain its feet, slithering noises announcing that its regeneration abilities were busily repairing the damage caused by the energy attacks.

"That can only be one person," the boomer rumbled menacingly. Its hands clenched, and saw-edged claws sprang out of its hands as other blades sprang out of its forearms and elbows. As if on cue, a silver-clad armour suit dropped through the hole it had shot through the window.

"It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the Knight Saber with the lightsaber!" SkyKnight announced. "Did you miss me?" He ducked the crackling fusillade of green particle bolts that the HeadHunter fired at him; Quincy's office abruptly acquired a more panoramic view of the city as the wall behind SkyKnight disintegrated in a shower of concrete and smoke. "I guess you did! I'm truly touched by the concern," SkyKnight told the green killer.

"You have signed your own death warrant by coming here," the HeadHunter rumbled. "I don't know how you tracked me here..."

"I guessed," SkyKnight admitted calmly. "I figured that there was only one person in the entire city who'd be stupid enough -or unscrupulous enough, take your pick- to go to the trouble of rebuilding and then concealing you." The brightly glowing red eyeslot on the silver hardsuit swung over to regard Quincy. "If I had my way, I'd love to leave the two of you alone on an island somewhere; you two deserve each other. Sooner or later you'd get killed by your own creation, and I can't think of a more fitting fate for you, you old goat."

"Your fate has been decided already," the HeadHunter snarled. "I'm surprised that you came by yourself, but no matter. I can kill you now and then slay the rest of the Knight Sabers at my leisure; I'm upset that I won't be able to enjoy your death as much as I'd hoped, but that is a small inconvenience."

"Why don't you quit yapping and try, shit-for-brains?" SkyKnight replied. "You've met with a notable lack of success so far in trying to do me in, so I'm not very worried."

With an enraged roar, the HeadHunter began sprinting across the office to attack the silver suit. Quincy began ducking behind his desk to keep out of the line of fire. However, as the boomer charged, SkyKnight's shoulder gun fired, but not at the boomer. A stream of clear liquid was spat from the shoulder launcher onto the floor immediately in front of the boomer; the HeadHunter hit the liquid and skidded. Its feet suddenly left the ground, and it landed flat on its back with a thunderous crash, sliding around in the slick substance that now coated most of the floor.

"Looks like you've slipped up," SkyKnight remarked, leaning against the crumbled concrete near where he was standing, insolent nonchalance in every line of his posture. "I guess that's what happens when you can't keep a grip on things."

"I'M GOING TO KILL YOU!!!" the HeadHunter screamed in absolute fury. The killer biomechanoid was floundering around on the floor, trying to get a purchase on something in order to get up, but it couldn't. It had become completely coated with the substance, and whatever it grabbed, its hand slipped off of. The boomer couldn't get a foothold either for the same reason. It flopped for a few more minutes, then finally drove its claws into the flooring, which gave it an anchor point to brace itself against. SkyKnight promptly shot the flooring and the boomer, sending into another slick skid across the office. Unfortunately, the boomer slid onto some carpeting, and could then stand up without fear of falling. It surged upright, burning the air with hungrily searching particle beams from its mouth. SkyKnight ducked and weaved around, avoiding the blasts.

"You are going to die VERY slowly," the HeadHunter grated as its claws snapped into and out of their housings several times. "You will SCREAM for me to end your life quickly!"

"Ooooh, I'm scared," SkyKnight replied dryly. "However, bug-face, you've got to catch me first, and I'm warning you right now: The sky is MY domain, not yours." With that, the silver-clad Knight Saber shot out into the night with a roar, sweeping up into the night sky and the glowering thunderclouds overhead.

"I am going to flay him alive, inch by bloody, screaming inch," the HeadHunter swore in a cold, enraged voice. The boomer was actually quivering with rage, barely in control of itself. It thundered across the office before Quincy, who was cautiously peering over the edge of his desk, could say anything and sprang into the darkness on hissing jets after its armoured nemesis.

Relative silence fell in the shattered office, broken only by the wail of the wind, and the rumble of thunder. Quincy straightened up from behind his desk, surveying the wreckage and straightening his tie. He reached over and tabbed the intercom switch.

"Have Madigan report to my secondary office," Quincy instructed the receptionist. "Inform her that I will be along shortly." He listened to the receptionist's reply for a moment. "I don't care if she's already gone home to bed!!" he thundered. "This is an emergency, and I want her here NOW!!" He shut off the intercom, casting an irritated glance around the trashed office. He pulled open a desk drawer, and removed a slim black case with several buttons on it. Pocketing the device, he left the office with even, unhurried strides.

****

Brilliant crimson energy beams slashed through the black thunderclouds, mimicking the lightning dancing crookedly elsewhere on the horizon. The HeadHunter roared again in impotent rage as it was knocked cartwheeling through the air by the slam of the energy bursts. As the green biomechanoid regained control of its flight again, a silver blur flashed past in midair, smashing the boomer spinning again with a roundhouse punch to the head. As the boomer tried to steady itself long enough to take a shot at SkyKnight, the speeding Knight Saber zipped by twice more on screaming jet turbines, again smashing the HeadHunter with short, battering punches that were calculated more to unbalance it than cause real damage.

"You will pay for your effrontery!!" the boomer howled over the storm winds whipping through the air. A probing green-white particle beam seared the air, missing the hurtling silver suit by a very safe margin. A crackling red-white laser blast again scored the boomer, gouging chunks from its torso. The HeadHunter was realizing now that it had been royally suckered in allowing itself to get dragged into an aerial battle; it was exhausting its copious energy reserves keeping its massive weight airborne, and it couldn't use its main assets of strength and speed up in the air. A lot of its weapons were also designed around ground combat, and were useless in flying firefights. The high skies were very definitely SkyKnight's domain. The boomer's head suddenly swiveled around, searching frantically. Where had he gone, anyway?!

A loud snap-hiss split the air, and a blazing blue-white flash slashed through the air, as SkyKnight shot from a dense thundercloud nearby. The humming energy blade effortlessly slashed through the back of the boomer's left leg, destroying the flight jets in that leg, and the HeadHunter suddenly dropped like a stone. SkyKnight circled around above the falling figure, his lightsaber blade snuffing out.

"Don't worry!!" SkyKnight yelled tauntingly at the rapidly receding shape. "It's not the fall that gets you; it's the sudden stop at the end!!" He grinned to himself, flipping into a sideways barrel roll to avoid the crackling particle beam that the HeadHunter shot back by way of reply. The green energy stream vanished into the clouds above.

As if the shot had been a signal, jagged lightning flashed wildly, and a cold, driving rain began to slash through the skies. SkyKnight stooped in a screaming power dive, heading towards the earth below at an insane speed, passing even the HeadHunter as it fell. The biomechanoid snarled, and tried to grab the passing hardsuit, but failed miserably. SkyKnight pulled up in a steep deceleration curve that came nail-bitingly close to the pavement, and swept along the ground, vanishing into the darkness of the large warehouse nearby. As he did so, a thunderous crash resounded through the air, and the asphalt of the loading yard in front of the warehouse buckled and twisted into shattered pieces as a heavy green body smashed into the pavement, creating an impact crater several feet in diameter across.

A clawed, grasping hand gripped the edge of the nearest slab. A moment later, a very cracked and beaten-looking HeadHunter surged upright, staggering slightly. As it stood, some of the cracks and gouges in its armoured hide sealed themselves up again. In other spots on the boomer's body, thin trickles of oily black fluid oozing from plating cracks merged with the rainwater streaming off the boomer's carapace. An intensely burning, yellow-eyed gaze swept the surrounding darkness, trying to see through the falling sheets of grayish water.

"I commend you," the HeadHunter snarled into the darkness, head swiveling around. "You have found a way to mask yourself from my sensors. Most ingenious."

"I'd say I was flattered, but I'd be lying," SkyKnight's mocking voice drifted from the darkness, seemingly coming from all directions. The boomer stiffened in a human-like manner indicative of surprise.

"YOU!!! That WAS you who attacked me from the shadows outside the lab!!" the boomer roared. Claws snapped out again, and it stomped towards the warehouse, still looking around.

"Awwww! What's wrong? Don't like getting your own medicine?"

"It makes me want to kill you all that much more," the boomer replied, a predatory eagerness showing in its movements as it stalked into the echoing darkness of the warehouse. "You have no idea of how much trouble you have caused me."

"No more that you've caused me, bolts-for-brains," SkyKnight shot back. "By the way...catch!!!" A heavy object sailed out of the darkness, and the HeadHunter caught the object by sheer reflex, driving its claws deep into the object at the same time; the steel barrel died quietly. A silver flash blurred through the air immediately behind the barrel, and the furious boomer was clobbered into a backwards fall by a flashing roundhouse right. SkyKnight landed neatly about twenty feet away from the rising boomer, just barely visible in the dim lighting as a faint sheen of silver armour. The red 'V' of his helmet eyeslot glowed brightly in the darkness.

"You cannot beat me," the green boomer rumbled threateningly. "I now incorporate the latest weapons technology, which is more than a match for your miserable suit. Your infantile tricks are only annoying me, not harming me."

"Bite me, bug-face," SkyKnight shot back. "I've heard those lines before. Can't you say anything original? Besides, your warranty has expired, and I'm here to make sure you get stripped down for parts; toaster parts, preferably." He spun sideways, avoiding the blazing particle beam that the HeadHunter fired at him. "God, your aim sucks! You couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with an orbital satellite! Who designed your combat software? Microsoft? 'Warning! Windows has caused a General Protection Fault in module B3T78 of the Headhunter's targeting systems!'" SkyKnight flipped and ducked again, cartwheeling across the floor to avoid the furious barrage that the boomer spat at him. When he'd stopped dodging, SkyKnight shook his head, sighing.

"Time to go back to the lab and get your bolts tightened," he quipped. "You weren't even close, there. Need glasses maybe?"

"YOU SON OF A BITCH!!!" the boomer roared, eyes blazing like fires. It began charging across the floor space separating them again. SkyKnight knocked the HeadHunter backwards off balance with a searing particle-laser bolt, then his chemical launcher snapped up, and spat several balls of greenish goop onto the Headhunter's face, covering both of its eyes completely. The boomer stumbled to a faltering halt, trying to claw the gooey mess off of its face with one hand. The hand it was trying to remove the chemicals with became stuck to its head.

"What is this?!?!" the floundering biomechanoid roared, lurching around and trying to pull its hand free.

"New and Improved SkyKnight Crazy Glue! Bonds boomers instantly on contact! Send $9.95 plus shipping and handling for your free sample!" Bert grinned to himself, easily sidestepping the green particle bolt that the boomer fired wildly in the direction his voice had come from. He extended his right arm as he watched the enraged boomer stagger around snarling dire imprecations, and a cylindrical handgrip device extended from his arm armour into his hand. A loud snap-hiss split the air, and the darkness became momentarily dispelled by the blue-white energy blade that flared into humming life. The HeadHunter evidently heard and recognized the sound; it began backing away, as a similar handgrip device folded out of its arm, and a red-white blade appeared.

"The Force is with you, young HeadHunter," SkyKnight intoned in a sepulchral voice. "But you are not a Jedi yet!" He easily parried the sweeping slash the boomer aimed at him, knocking the red energy blade aside. Like he'd hoped, it appeared that his chemical goop had effectively blinded the boomer and severely impaired its fighting ability; he'd noticed before in the past that regardless of the level of sophistication a particular boomer possessed, its sensors were always tied into its optical sight systems. He'd gambled that covering the boomer's eyes with a dense adhesive polymer would blind it, and it had worked. With a savage grin forming behind his visor, SkyKnight began giving the boomer a lesson in swordplay that it would never forget, not for the brief time it had left to live.

****

"Disappointing, to say the least," Quincy rumbled, looking at the viewscreen on the wall of the much smaller office he'd been forced to move into. "It would appear that SkyKnight has figured out a way to effectively deal with the HeadHunter." On the screen, a green boomer was slowly retreating, flailing at the air with a red-white energy sword, while a silver-and-blue armoured figure easily parried the feeble attacks with a blue-white sword, and riposted with slashing attacks that were leaving deep trenches all over the boomer.

"I'm afraid I don't see what you're getting at, Sir," Madigan replied. Her lavender hair was crawling all over in confused disarray, and there were the beginnings of black circles under her blue-grey eyes; she hadn't reacted well to getting summoned back to the GENOM tower in the middle of the night. "His fighting style hasn't changed; he's still using the same weapons as before." She took a careful sip from a cup of pitch-black coffee in front of her.

"Not quite," Quincy corrected, watching as SkyKnight continued to carve small pieces out of the boomer. "Those chemical weapons are new; we've never seen them before. However, I was referring to his tactics. You will note that SkyKnight has been making smartass remarks that would, for a while, annoy a human opponent. Also, some of his attacks seem to have been designed with causing frustration as the sole purpose behind them. His actions are driving the HeadHunter into a towering rage because the boomer, despite the new AI, hasn't learned how to control his emotions yet. The HeadHunter has become angry enough to make mistakes, and that appears to be exactly what SkyKnight had planned: make the boomer lose control of itself."

"Will you be implementing that option you mentioned, then?" Madigan asked.

"Not yet. We'll give the HeadHunter a few more minutes to try and kill SkyKnight. If he can't, then I guess we'll just have to look elsewhere for a solution to our Knight Saber problem."

****

"Damnit, Sylia!! Get out of my way!!" Priss almost snarled, glaring hotly at the black-haired woman blocking the doorway. "I'm bloody well going after him if you won't! He's going to get himself killed!!" Sudden tears appeared in her eyes as she remembered what had happened the last time Bert had squared off against the green biomechanoid. Sylia shook her head firmly, her own face reflecting some of what Priss felt.

"You can't just go charging off into the city, not now," she replied tiredly. "We don't know just where he is anyway; we can't locate his suit's transponder beacon, and the ADP hasn't received any reports of a fight. What were you going to do? Just aimlessly fly around shouting 'Bert! Where are you?!' ?"

"Shit!" Priss spun around and stomped over to the couch, throwing herself into it savagely. She angrily scrubbed a sleeve across her brimming eyes, anger and worry chasing each other across her face. Sylia came over and sat down in her usual chair with a sigh, worry lines beginning to etch themselves into her own face.

"Why did he just suddenly take off like this?" Linna inquired from the chair where she'd been quietly sitting up until now. The strain of trying to remain calm was beginning to show in her face, as worried blue eyes looked at Sylia.

"You heard the message," Sylia replied. "Although I don't like the way he's done it, he was right in predicting what the HeadHunter would likely try to do; it did single out Nene the last time." She sighed again. "The 'noble self-sacrifice' reflex must have kicked in; he thinks he's doing the right thing by going out alone and sparing us the risk of being hurt."

"Oh, so we're supposed to like sitting here goddamn worried sick better?!" Priss spat. "If...." Priss stopped speaking, shaking her head angrily and squeezing her eyes shut as a couple more tears escaped. "WHEN he gets back, I've got a few things to say to our knight-in-shining-armour, you can count on that!!"

"Take a number," Sylia said dryly. "The line forms on the right."

****

"Come on, use the Force, Luke!" SkyKnight taunted the enraged, blind boomer. "Stretch out with your feelings!!" He slapped the Headhunter's lightsaber blade aside contemptuously with his own, the energy blades impacting on each other with a flash of light and an electric crackle. He lashed out again with his blue-white beam saber, carving another rut in the boomer's torso.

"AAAAAAAAAARGGGH!! SHUT UP!!! SHUUUTTTT UUPPPPPPP!!!" the HeadHunter bellowed, almost inarticulate with rage. It attacked with a massive overhand swing, which SkyKnight easily stepped aside from, and the red energy blade carved a deep trench into the concrete floor.

"Okay, I'll shut up," SkyKnight replied glibly, backflipping from another wild slash. "I know when my comments aren't wanted; I'm not one of these people who has to keep talking just to hear themselves speak. Why, I remember when...whoops!" He ducked under another sizzling swing, and then stepped forward, smashing the HeadHunter staggering backwards with a driving uppercut. The boomer tripped and fell onto its back, lightsaber dying out.

"Have a nice trip?" SkyKnight cracked, he stepped forward, raising his humming weapon to finish off the boomer.

There was a metallic tearing sound, as the Headhunter's left hand, which had been stuck to its face, was torn loose from the adhesive coating on its armour plating. Some of the coating tore loose also, and balefully glowing yellow eyes glared through the holes created.

"Uh-oh, not good," SkyKnight muttered, leaping high in the air, lightsaber snuffing out, to avoid the sudden grab that the killer boomer tried to grab him with. His jets kicked in, catapulting him over to land several feet away from the HeadHunter, which was getting to its feet, quivering anger visible in its every motion.

"I am going to carve you apart, piece by bloody piece," the boomer promised him.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've heard that already. Hire a new speechwriter."

The chest armour plates on the HeadHunter flipped up, revealing a series of strange-looking apertures. SkyKnight didn't know what the weapons were, but he wasn't about to stand there in order to find out. Howling turbines flung him away from the green boomer, backwards and upwards, as a barely visible wave of some kind washed out from the weapon array. There was an ear-splitting BOOM that accompanied the discharge. SkyKnight was caught by the edge of the blast, and was knocked out of the air by it, red waves of sudden agony tearing through him. At the same time, anything else in the warehouse less resistant than steel or concrete shivered as if from a smashing blow, and shattered.

SkyKnight crashed to the floor, flopping around and trying to get back to his feet. Blinding pain stabbed through him with a burning sensation. Damn, but that had hurt!! Whatever the boomer had fired had ignored his hardsuit armour like it hadn't existed. What the hell kind of a weapon could do that?! Worry about it later and get up!! his mind shrieked at him, and his body struggled to comply.

As he got to his hands and knees, a charging green shape lunged forward, and kicked him into the air with bone-jarring force. The air became brightly lit for a moment, and again sparks of pain flashed in Bert's eyes as the HeadHunter tagged him in midair with a particle bolt. His hardsuit protected him from anything more serious than physical shock, however.

Gritting his teeth and fighting the pain, SkyKnight fired his jets, turning his arcing fall into a sudden, curving swoop that shot him straight back at the HeadHunter. The surprised biomechanoid was smashed into a flying fall by SkyKnight as he flipped around and rammed the boomer feet-first. The silver-clad Knight Saber leaped clear, and began bringing one of his other weapon systems on line.

"You cannot win; resistance is futile," the boomer rumbled, getting back to its feet. SkyKnight noted that the boomer had healed most of its earlier battle damage by now, but the regeneration appeared to be slowing down. He wasn't going to complain, however; he was tired himself, sore, and slightly winded. If the HeadHunter was finally seriously hurt from the fight so far, so much the better.

"I have four words for you," SkyKnight replied. "Eat lasers and die!" A searing lance of crackling red laser energy speared through the air, nailing the HeadHunter between the eyes. The boomer howled in fury, grabbing at its head in apparent agony.

As the boomer staggered around, SkyKnight carefully raised his arms, pointing them at the boomer. Flickering readouts sped past his sight on his helmet viewscreen as his battlecomputer quickly and quietly calculated a target lock on the boomer. A green crosshair sight appeared, centered on the boomer.

"Ever heard that revenge is a dish best served cold?" SkyKnight inquired, as the HeadHunter began lowering its arms preparatory to attacking him again. "Well, it doesn't get much colder than this!" There was a sharp crack-bang, and the extra gun barrels that he'd attached to his arm armour spat two stubby-looking, torpedo-like projectiles. They crashed into the Headhunter's chest, and shattered. Instantly, a cloud of what looked like steam hissed forth, and a brittle crackling noise could be heard; a large, white, frosted patch appeared on the boomer's armour.

"And just what was that meant to accomplish?" the HeadHunter chuckled, looking down at the patch. "Nothing happened!"

"That's what you think!" SkyKnight suddenly leaped forwards, right arm driving forwards straight from the shoulder in a devastating punch. The HeadHunter was tardy in trying to block him, and SkyKnight's gauntlet smashed into the middle of the white patch. There was a sharp sound, like glass breaking, and SkyKnight's armour-clad arm was driven through the hole created, right up to the elbow.

The HeadHunter roared in disbelief and pain, shuddering and trying to disengage from the silver Knight Saber, who still had his arm buried in the boomer's chest. The back of the boomer's chest suddenly blew outwards in a smoking spray of oily black fluids and green armour shards; a coruscating crimson energy blast erupted from inside its body as SkyKnight pulled the triggers on his particle lasers.

He quickly withdrew his arm, and jumped back from the now badly wounded biomechanoid, getting his breathing back under control. Leaping in close to the HeadHunter like that had been extremely dangerous and nerve-wracking, but had been the only way to take full advantage of the effects his liquid nitrogen torpedoes had caused. One factor in his favour was that he'd managed to surprise the boomer, and that had prevented the HeadHunter from trying to kill him while he'd been in close to it. If the boomer had decided to grab him while he'd been standing in close....

The HeadHunter crashed to its knees, gushing oily black fluids from the holes bored through its body. As SkyKnight watched, the boomer shuddered again, seeming to shrink slightly, and the holes began to slowly close. SkyKnight ran full power to his laser array, lining up his guns on the injured biomechanoid. A low whine began to build as energy began to glow brightly in the muzzles of his guns.

****

"Alas," Quincy sighed, looking at the wall viewscreen through steepled fingers held in front of his face. "It would appear that SkyKnight is going to win, after all. I warned the HeadHunter not to get too involved in playing games," he said. A smile appeared suddenly. "How fortunate for us it didn't listen."

"Sir?!" Madigan couldn't believe her ears. After weeks of letting the HeadHunter run around out of control like a spoiled kid, giving it the red carpet treatment, she couldn't believe that Quincy was just calmly writing it off, and apparently pleased about it, to boot.

"If the HeadHunter had continued to live, it would have become a danger to us," Quincy explained. "I was waiting until it had killed the Knight Sabers before taking any kind of action against it, but it seems that will not be occurring." On the screen, the green biomechanoid was knocked sprawling by a cannonade of red laser bolts.

"However, since it has been beaten," Quincy rumbled, "we must make sure that no trace of it remains; that would be handing our enemies evidence of our activities on a silver platter." He pulled a small black device from his pocket, and pressed a red button on the keypad.

****

The Headhunter's state of mind was not pleasant; it had been seriously crippled, and not even its new weaponry had been able to stave off its silver-garbed opponent. SkyKnight must have upgraded, the boomer thought furiously. It should have killed him the first time it had the opportunity.

The boomer snarled in rage as it was again pummeled at long range by SkyKnight's lasers. To make matters worse, SkyKnight appeared to have developed strategies specifically designed to counter the Headhunter's advantages. The boomer hadn't been able to get within arm's reach of him, even briefly, yet.

A twitch from its internal diagnostic systems momentarily distracted the boomer's attention. Concentrating, the boomer tried to track down what the problem was. As it did so, some relays and switches inside its body closed, and the HeadHunter could feel a tightly-contained energy surge beginning to build up. The biomechanoid suddenly realized that the energy charge building up was a self-destruct device; the charge would overload the boomer's systems, blowing it up in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics.

NO!! How could this happen?! It hadn't activated such a function!! What had..? The answer dawned suddenly, and the HeadHunter frantically began trying to re-route its internal systems to stave off imminent disaster.

As the crackle and snap of stray energy began to flare around the biomechanoid's body in a flickering light display, it threw its head back, howling its rage to the skies in one, ringing word.

"QUINCY!!!!"

****

"Oh SHIT!!" SkyKnight swore, watching in disbelief as blue lightning bolts began to flicker and dance all over the Headhunter's body. His sensors were screaming at him to get out of the area; a tremendous energy surge had started to build within the boomer, and it had all the signatures of a self-destruct device. SkyKnight began backing away quickly from the spasmodically jerking boomer, but he was just a few seconds too late.

Every weapon on the HeadHunter fired in an awesome display of firepower as the wounded boomer screamed and jerked wildly; no fewer than five separate particle and laser beam weapons fired wildly into the air, along with the shockwave weapon, and some other unidentifiable projectile weapons mounted in the boomer's arms. Accompanying the weapons discharge, a blue wave of electrical energy washed outwards from the boomer, as a small, interior explosion tore out the left side of the boomer's lower torso, leaving a gaping crater that spat sparks and smoke.

SkyKnight avoided most of the wild shots, but the energy wave and the shockwave blast did tag him, smashing him backwards into a concrete pillar. Unfortunately, the structure of the warehouse wasn't able to take the punishment inflicted by the explosive display, and the roof began to cave in as the warehouse walls and pillars began to crumble.

SkyKnight rolled over, into the dubious protection of a leaning pillar, and threw his arms over his head as the warehouse collapsed into itself with a loud roar. Dust rose in a choking cloud as concrete and brick crashed everywhere. The loud rumble of the avalanche of masonry echoed for blocks, grudgingly dying off into the silence. The dust cloud vanished almost immediately, as the cold rain gleefully swept it to the ground. Lightning flashed through the sky over the tumbled ruin, illuminating the chaotic pile of stone, and the violently shaking biomechanoid kneeling near the former entrance to the warehouse.

Smoke and steam rose from cracked green plating as the HeadHunter lurched to its feet, still twitching and jerking as if still overloading. It still sported gaping holes through its chest and its left side, but the holes had sealed themselves over, without rebuilding the lost body portions; the boomer didn't have the energy left to completely heal itself, but it did have enough energy left for one more task. Turning away from the ruined warehouse, the boomer ran into the rain-soaked darkness, an enraged roar blistering the air as it ran.

"QUINCY!!!!! YOU BASTARD!!!!" it howled as it vanished into the night.

An eerie silence swept over the rain-swept rubble. Thunder rumbled again uncaringly. A large stone slab began to shift and move, and it fell outwards with a crash. A dusty, beaten and battered SkyKnight staggered out of the protective overhang that had luckily been created when the slab had crashed to the floor next to him. Rainwater rivulets soon cleansed his suit of the concrete dust that had coated him.

Bert sagged against a nearby wall portion that was still upright, silently giving thanks for having survived. He felt like he'd been run through a meat grinder, but he'd survived. He ran a quick check on his suit systems; everything was working at least, although some of his systems didn't like the combination of the abuse he'd given them, and the rain that was soaking through the armour joints in spots. As for his own condition, his left arm throbbed constantly, and he felt like he'd wrenched his right knee as well. He shoved the discomfort to the back of his mind for the moment.

"Now what do I do?" he muttered to himself. He had to stop the HeadHunter, but it appeared that the boomer had lost interest in him, and was going after its creator now. Given what had happened, SkyKnight couldn't particularly blame the boomer for its reaction, but at the same time, he couldn't just let it go back and kill anyone else. Despite the fact that having to save Quincy made him want to throw up in disgust, he'd sworn that he wouldn't let the HeadHunter harm anyone else. Besides, he was supposed to protect the public from boomers, and unfortunately, that included GENOM's CEO. Based on a strict interpretation of the chivalric code he tried to pattern his actions after, he had no choice. No matter how much the old bastard deserved to get offed by his own creation, standing idly by while the boomer murdered him would be a betrayal of everything that he himself stood for.

"There are times," SkyKnight sighed, wearily hauling himself to his feet, "when life really, really stinks." With that, his flight wings snapped into extension, and the battered silver-and-blue hardsuit shot into the soggy skies, towards the distant peak of the GENOM ziggurat that loomed over the horizon.

The grey clouds overhead began to thin, and the drenching rain slackened to a drizzle, as silence again cloaked the now-deserted ruins.

****

"Are you sure that it's destroyed?" Madigan asked nervously. "We did think that once before, but it survived."

"The device was specifically designed with the HeadHunter in mind," Quincy assured her. "The energy surge was to overload all of its systems explosively, and there was even a small detonator inside its body to ensure that the boomer was destroyed." The icy blue eyes of GENOM's top executive glinted in self-satisfaction as he leaned back contentedly in his padded office chair. "Besides, any blast that was powerful enough to knock out our surveillance grid for an entire block would undoubtedly destroy whatever was at the center of the blast."

"I'd still feel better if I could see its body," Madigan muttered. On the tail end of her comment, a massive blast blew in the far wall of the office, filling the air with flying debris, smoke, and dust. A very mangled, green, armour-plated body loomed in the hole, and flickering yellow eyes pierced the haze hanging in the room.

"Madigan," Quincy said in a strained voice, looking at the boomer with a very tense, pale-faced expression. "I wish you wouldn't make requests like that; you never know who might be listening." Madigan didn't reply as she stared in wide-eyed terror at the staggering HeadHunter.

"Quincy," the boomer snarled as it stepped through the hole it had created. "You are going to pay for your duplicity. I should have realized that you never intended to keep your half of the bargain." A sudden chuckle shook the biomechanoid, sounding like a death rattle. "Consider this the application of the 'penalty claws' of our agreement." The all-too familiar saw edged claws of the boomer sprang into extension, and it began walking towards the fear-stricken Madigan first.

"No!" Quincy barked sharply. "Your quarrel is with me! Leave her out of this!"

"Feelings? From you, Old Man? Excellent; that will make my final moments more enjoyable as you watch your prot�g� die in agony before you."

"I don't think so," a quiet, electronic voice said from the hole in the wall. Snarling in rage, the boomer spun around to look at the silver-clad hardsuit standing just inside the hole.

"WHY?!" it snarled, a shade of desperation sounding in its voice. "Why do you interfere, especially in this?! This is my business, not yours!!" The boomer didn't appear happy to see that he'd survived. Quincy's expression was comic in the warring looks of disbelief and relief that flickered across it; he was torn between dismay that SkyKnight was still alive, and relief that the cavalry had arrived. Despite the shock at the sudden developments, Quincy had enough presence of mind to reach out and press a button on his desk.

"You're not killing anyone, ever again," SkyKnight informed the boomer, stepping forward as his swordblades snapped out from his gauntlet guards. "You're finished."

"You would honestly save someone who's been plotting to kill you for years now?!" the boomer asked incredulously. "Even after all he has done?!" SkyKnight found it ironic to hear his own mental arguments coming back to him from a dying cyberdroid.

"That's right," he confirmed. "I protect people from monsters like you, even undeserving old bastards like him." SkyKnight's helmet turned slightly to look at the still-paralyzed Madigan. "Besides," he added, humour suddenly showing in his voice. "I can't just pass by a damsel-in-distress, even if she's not very ladylike most of the time." Madigan flushed angrily, forgetting about the boomer momentarily.

"So be it, then," the HeadHunter rumbled. "I shall carve that as your epitaph." It stepped forwards, raising its claws for a final strike. "'To the last will I grapple with thee, and for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee,'" it snarled, lunging forwards.

SkyKnight ducked under the roundhouse slash without replying. His right arm flashed forwards, driving up into the Headhunter's torso and ribcage, the extended sword blade punching through the boomer's damaged and weakened armour. SkyKnight's arm, driven by his suit musculature, vanished up to the elbow inside the boomer's body. A glowing red eyeslot met flickering yellow eyes for one last time.

"Rest in pieces, asshole," SkyKnight said, as the Headhunter's head blew apart in a blinding flare of red-white energy that spewed oily fluid and scraps of metal and synthetic tissue across the room. SkyKnight pulled his arm back out of the collapsing body, laser cannons smoking, stepping back as the smoking hulk crashed to the floor. Just to be sure, he hosed the carcass down with a liberal application of particle-laser fire that filled the office with dense, choking smoke. Melted slag arranged in a vaguely humanoid shape was all that could be seen when the smoke cleared.

SkyKnight sighed in total relief, stretching, as a sudden ray of golden sunlight broke through the scudding clouds outside as dawn broke. Now it was truly over. He turned to leave, then turned back to the still-stunned Quincy, who was staring at the burned husk on the floor, an unreadable expression on his face. Madigan was watching SkyKnight nervously now, wondering what he would do next. Soot and grime covered both of the unscrupulous executives, but they didn't appear to care at the moment.

"I've got a message for you, Old Man," SkyKnight stated. At his words, Quincy's head snapped up, anger at the title flaring in his eyes.

"And that is?" he rumbled in irritation.

"That the Knight Sabers are here to stay, no matter what you may try. I suggest you accept it, and save yourself the frustration of continuing these little exercises in futility in the future."

"Was that it?" Quincy asked sarcastically. "Or did you have anything else to say?"

"As a matter of fact, I did." SkyKnight's arm snapped up, and a howling laser blast tore a hole through the wall behind Quincy. In the room beyond, a sophisticated-looking computer unit shorted out and exploded. "I'd suggest that the next time, you conceal your scanners a little better; I detected them the minute you started them up. You didn't get any readings on me, because I was jamming them, but I thought you'd appreciate the advice. Sayonara!" SkyKnight derisively saluted the old man, then shot out the hole in the wall, vanishing into the glory of the dawn. Quincy sighed, placing his head in his hands and leaning on his elbows on his desk.

"I really, really hate that man," he said in a resigned voice.

****

Brilliant shafts of sunlight cast bright, dappled patterns through the leaves of the trees. A gentle breeze rustled the rain-wet grass in the early morning stillness, passing over the grass, and the rows of small stone monuments that were lined up across a green meadow. The peace of the vast area was absolute, and somehow cleansing at the same time.

A silver streak flashed through the air, gilded slightly by the early morning sunlight. Its jets rumbled quietly as it swept along the rows of headstones, until it came to one that was a little apart from the others. SkyKnight landed gently next to it, his flight system falling silent as his wings snapped shut. Kneeling, he unwrapped the bouquet of colourful flowers he'd been carrying, and placed them gently in front of the marker. Standing up again, he stood for a moment with his head bowed in silence.

"I have fulfilled my last duty to you, M'Lady," he said quietly. "Now it really is finally over." He turned and walked away from the grave.

The mild morning breeze caressed the flower petals as a droning whine dwindled into the distance, running invisible fingers over the headstone and the words carved therein:

IN MEMORIAM
NATASHA RUTHERFORD
2003 - 2034

****

Sylia jerked upright in her chair where she'd dozed off as what sounded like her front door slamming echoed through the apartment. Across the room from her, Priss and Linna groggily sat up from where they'd been dozing on the couch. Nene came out of the kitchen; she'd arrived about an hour ago after her night shift had ended. She looked tired, but she'd refused to go home and get some sleep. Sylia couldn't really blame her.

"What was that?" she asked as Sylia looked over at her. Sylia shrugged, sitting up and trying to straighten out her clothes, then gave it up as hopeless; sleeping in them hadn't done her any good. She started to get up to see what had happened, when a familiar voice called out.

"Hello?" Bert's voice called hesitantly. "Anybody home?" Despite being thoroughly upset with him, hearing his voice again caused a wide smile to spread across her face. Nene's eyes suddenly turned bright with tears in overjoyed relief at his return. She started to run towards the front door, but Priss beat her to it.

"You son of a bitch!!" she yelled as she sprinted around the corner. A loud smack reverberated through the room as Nene also rounded the corner. "Leave us behind, will you?!" Priss' voice continued its tirade.

"But..."

"I'll show you not to worry us sick, you inconsiderate asshole!!" Another smack sounded, as Nene's voice cut in over the one-sided argument.

"Priss!! Leave him alone!! I thought you wanted him back unharmed?!"

"Yeah, so I could give the bastard what he deserves!!"

"Well, you've done that, okay?! Now leave him alone!!" Priss came stalking back around the corner, angrily wiping at her streaming red-brown eyes. She ignored Sylia's raised eyebrow, and threw herself into the couch, folding her arms across her chest, glowering at the tall, red-haired young man who was now coming into the living room, with Nene holding tightly onto his arm, looking up at him in relief.

Except for the livid bruise on his cheek that was forming, and a vaguely black eye, Bert looked unharmed. There was a bit of a limp to his stride, but nothing that appeared seriously impairing. Sylia and Linna both smiled in relief at seeing he was unharmed, then Sylia's expression turned stern. She pointed wordlessly to the nearby couch, and he came over and sat down on it with a sigh. Nene sat next to him, not relinquishing her hold on him for a moment.

"Hi, Boss," he greeted Sylia with a sickly grin. "I'm back."

"I'd noticed," she remarked dryly, flicking a glance at the still-fuming Priss. "I trust you have a very good explanation for your actions?"

"Doesn't he always?" Linna remarked with a wry grin, which was echoed by a sheepish grin from Bert. Sylia waited reasonably patiently, and he sighed again, putting an arm around Nene.

"Well," he started, "the short version is this...."

****

"I can't believe you saved that old bastard," Priss grumbled after he was finished. "If anyone deserved to get offed by that goddamn thing, it was Quincy."

"Well I'm sorry," Bert sighed. "But my knight-in-shining-armour image would be shot to hell if I didn't protect everyone, impartially I might add, from boomers. Unfortunately, that includes scheming, manipulative old bastards like him."

"I'm not sure I'd have been able to do it," Sylia admitted, shaking her head. A mildly evil grin suddenly appeared on her face. "I'll bet he was just thrilled that you rescued him."

"He didn't look overly happy at my being his benefactor," Bert shrugged. "Of course, life's just full of disappointments."

"Isn't it, though?" Linna sighed, then grinned. "Luckily, there's enough good spots to be able to overlook these little things." Bert nodded in wry agreement, then sighed, looking over at Sylia.

"Well, you'd better lay it on me," he said, bracing himself. "I don't think this particular solo run was quite the same as what we discussed earlier."

"No, it certainly wasn't," she agreed, turning stern again. She looked thoughtful for a moment, pondering the possible reprisals open for use. Bert waited nervously.

"All right," Sylia said finally. "For your rather headstrong, reckless behaviour, and for worrying us sick......you get to take us all out to dinner."

"Pardon me?!?!" Bert gaped, his jaw almost hitting the floor. "That's it?! I mean...." He floundered for a moment, confused. "I thought you were going to be swearing at me, at least, and grounding me for a while," he said when he'd regained his composure.

"Grounding is counter-productive," Sylia informed him blandly. "Not to mention the fact that it doesn't do any good where you're concerned." Bert flushed as she continued. "Besides, Priss beat me to the disciplinary action part of your punishment." Sylia smiled over at Priss briefly, who grinned back sheepishly. Sylia's expression turned stern again.

"I can tell you right now, though," she warned him, "that if you ever sneak off like that again, leaving a note behind, Priss getting at you will be the least of your worries; I'll be right behind her myself."

"I shall bear your words firmly in mind," he promised, wincing and rubbing briefly at his cheek.

"Good," she replied briskly. "Let's get ready to go to dinner then. I hear that the St. Regis Hotel has an excellent menu this week." With that, Sylia stood up, and vanished into her bedroom as Priss and Linna both left through the front door. Linna gave him a quick squeeze on the shoulder as she left, and then he was alone with Nene.

"I'm sorry if I worried you," he told her, gazing fondly into her green eyes. She shook her head, smiling ruefully.

"I'm getting used to it by now," she assured him. "I guess it's one of the hazards of being in love with a heroic knight. I'm just glad you made it back in one piece."

"So am I," he told her, enfolding her in a hug. "I think I can also safely say that the nightmares are over, which is a relief." Nene looked up at him for a moment, a mischievous look flaring in her eyes.

"I guess we'll have to find something else for you to dream about, won't we?" she remarked, pulling him down towards her, and giving him a long, fervent kiss. He didn't contradict her.

 

 

THE END
(For now....)

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