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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.

Drunkard's Walk II: Robot's Rules Of Order

by Robert M. Schroeck



Chapter 2: All This, And Robot Stew

Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story. -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Notebooks

The truth is a snare: you cannot have it, without being caught. You cannot have the truth in such a way that you catch it, but only in such a way that it catches you. -- Soren Kierkegaard


IDEC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of GENOM. Saturday, June 28, 2036. 8:51 PM.




"Good evening, ma'am. Sorry to disturb you, ma'am."


"Half an hour ago we had a possible interpenetration incident."


"No, ma'am. Not in the lab.... We're nowhere near that stage, as you'll recall from our status reports. It was... it was somewhere out-outside the lab."


"Somewhere in the city, ma'am. No, ma'am. An incursion."


"No, ma'am. We didn't cause it. We were more than thirteen hours from the phase one test when we detected it."


"But the project... we're almost..."


"It will take no less than six months. None of our equipment is portable, let alone designed for field use."


"Six weeks? We can't..."


"My apologies, ma'am. I understand. Yes. We will attempt to locate the incursion site and perform some kind of survey right away. Yes, m'am. Good-bye, ma'am."


"Fucking lavender-haired bitch."

* * *

An alley near the Tokyo Tower. Sunday, June 29, 2036. 12:11 AM.

AD Police Officer Daley Wong was wearing his business face as he climbed out of his car. "I heard the bare bones version on the ride over. What have you got?"

Inspector Leon McNichol pulled off his shades and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. "Well, for one, I very highly doubt that this gathering of upright young citizens was attacked without provocation." He replaced his dark glasses and stared into the alley. "Ever since the Griffin, the Outriders have had a chip on their collective shoulder. This sounds more like they tried to shake down someone -- or something -- that they shouldn't've."

Daley nodded, his eyes slightly unfocussed in concentration. "Do you buy the boomer story?"

Leon motioned towards the alley, and the two officers slowly made their way around the ambulances and the police vehicles. Emergency personnel were treating a variety of leather-clad gang-bangers. He shook his head. "Not quite. If it was a boomer, it was the closest thing to a nonviolent boomer that I've ever seen. Out of a dozen victims, not one death. No one even critically wounded. Broken bones, concussions, abrasions, bruises, but no actual wounds. Some internal hemorrhaging, according to the paramedics, but that's to be expected given the beating they took." He ducked under the yellow boundary tape.

Daley snorted as he followed suit. "Point taken. That's like no boomer attack I've ever heard of. No matter what they're claiming."

"Also no traces of pseudoflesh, no shredded clothing or shoes, no Abotex nanomarkers, none of the usual leftovers."

The two stepped into the shadowed alleyway. Around them, ADP officers bustled, taking scans and measurements, and collecting evidence. "There's another thing. Look," Leon said, kneeling next to a pair of officers bent over something on the ground. The cracked and worn pavement was almost completely buried under a layer of dirt and garbage. Traces of the fight remained in the soft surface. Leon indicated a particular footprint. "Check this out." Centimeters away, one of the officers poured alginate into a form held steady by another.

Daley knelt next to Leon and peered at the mark. "Bootprint. And...?"

"Well, first off, there's only one set of these prints. They're pretty distinctive, especially compared to the Outriders'. You ask me, it's our perp." Leon waved vaguely down the alley. "Look."

Daley rose and traced the prints back through the alley. He whistled. "This boy's a real dancer, isn't he?"

Leon nodded. "Some kind of martial artist, I think. More evidence that it wasn't a boomer." He shot a grin at his partner. "Unless they're making kung-fu cyberdroids these days."

Daley looked less amused. "Genom does sell bodyguard boomers," he pointed out. "Don't they...?"

"Yes," Leon nodded. "But they go for brute strength over finesse. Not to mention overkill. Whoever or whatever this was, it's much slicker -- and didn't use deadly force."

"Why do you keep saying 'whatever'?" Daley continued to track the attacker's steps.

"Because no human, no matter how good, should be able to do what these prints indicate." Leon rose and paced off one section. "As far as I can figure, our perp made a seven-meter running broad jump here."

"And he still managed to fight off a dozen Outriders while he was getting up from that?" Daley whistled again. "Not bad."

"Wrong," Leon said, staring at the ground. "He didn't land on his butt, like you'd think. He made the jump, and pivoted on one foot as he landed -- looks like he kicked one of the Outriders -- then kept on moving. Like a seven-meter jump was just another kind of step for him. Oh, and it gets better. If you follow his prints back far enough, you'll find that they end. Looks like he jumped down from the top of one of the buildings. But he landed flat on his ass that time."

Daley made a choking sound. "And he walked away from that?"

Leon nodded. "Whatever this guy is, he's not human, at least not any more," he pronounced. "It looks like we're dealing with a boomeroid. But I haven't seen or heard of a boomeroid with this kind of augmentation in at least 10 years."

"A heavily-boosted boomeroid martial artist." Daley shook his head. "It's going to be hell trying to find him and take him down." The two men began to make their way back to the mouth of the alley.

"That's why I'm having our forensics boys go to town here. We're going to need every shred of evidence we can get to I.D. this boy. That bootprint is going to be a good start, but I've also got MacNamara interviewing the conscious Outriders so she can try to put together a composite sketch of the guy." He stopped short at the sound of a commotion at the alley's end. "What the hell?"

Leon broke into a half-run, and after a moment of surprise, Daley followed. They found one of the officers engaged in a quiet but energetic argument with a tall, athletic-looking fellow with glasses.

As they skidded to a halt, Leon barked, "What's going on here, Lieutenant?"

Lieutenant Vong saluted, and turned the downward stroke into a gesture that encompassed not only the bespectacled man, but also several other persons, who stood tensely several feet away. Their faces betrayed a mixture of annoyance and fear, which interested Leon. At their feet were at least a half dozen silver and black cases of the kind used for transporting scientific equipment. "These civilians say they want to see the crime scene, sir."

Leon raised an eyebrow and looked at the tall man in glasses. "Daniel Ohara, IDEC," he said, bowing slightly towards Leon. He held out a sheaf of papers. "We have authorization to survey the site after your people are finished." With his other hand, he swept a shock of his light brown hair out of his eyes. "They will be finished soon?" he added, his emphasis making it clear that, as far as he was concerned, they had better.

Leon forebore to answer. Instead, he slowly and carefully removed his glasses, closed them, and put them away inside his leather jacket before carefully unfolding and reading the papers. Ohara and his people were from a subsidiary of GENOM, no big surprise, and had a special dispensation to examine the scene. He made a note of the signature on the orders -- yet another name to add to his list of public servants slopping at the GENOM trough. He grunted, and flicked his eyes up to see Nakamura and O'Shaughnessey giving the alley the final once-over.

He handed the papers back to Ohara. "So, what brings a bunch of GENOM tech geeks out to a dirty alley after midnight on a Saturday night?" he asked.

Ohara compressed his lips into a flat, unconvincing simulation of a smile. "When may we survey the alley, Inspector?" he insisted.

Leon looked over to see O'Shaughnessey giving him the high sign. He turned his attention back to the civilian. "What is your interest in this crime scene, Ohara-san? You do realize that your permissions and letters there don't exempt you from my questioning if you're somehow involved in the commission of a crime?"

Ohara's right eye twitched, and he half-turned to look back at his team for a long moment. He seemed to be weighing the question in his mind. Finally, he turned back to Leon. "One of IDEC's businesses is maintaining GENOM's network of celphone repeater stations. We have one such station in this alleyway, suitably camouflaged, of course, to prevent vandalism. It reported systems failure to our central monitoring station a few hours ago. Since GENOM demands that its comm grid be functioning perfectly at all times, we were dispatched to handle the repairs. Evidently whatever... altercation... occurred in the alley must have damaged it."

Leon nodded. "Of course. Well, our forensics team is finished with the site now. Please, make yourselves at home."

"Thank you, Inspector." Ohara turned to the waiting team. "Okay, let's go," he barked. Shouldering their cases, they trotted into the alleyway.

"As cover stories go, that was pretty lame," Daley commented once Ohara and his team were out of earshot.

Leon nodded. He turned to the lieutenant. "Vong, have someone keep an eye on them until they finish. I want a report on what they do."

"Yes, sir," Vong snapped, and ran off.

Leon watched him go. "Now I'm sure it was a boomeroid. Must be something that got away from them." He scanned the area around the mouth of the alley. Already most of the emergency vehicles had departed. Just one ambulance and a half dozen ADP cars. "C'mon, Daley, let's go see what Fuko has for us."

* * *

Sgt. Fuko MacNamara sat poised on the edge of her canvas-seated chair, studying the image before her. Something was eluding her. She checked her notes once again, then the image, then the notes. Ah! There it is! she thought. Reaching into the tray which held her favored tools, she pulled out a light blue pastel stick, and with a few deft strokes added the missing detail to her sketch. She straightened and surveyed the drawing as a whole, then nodded. Done.

She slid her seat back, and took a quick glance around herself. Most police artists had to make do with a pencil and a sketch pad, but Inspector McNichol had arranged a few square feet in one of the vans in which she had cobbled together a miniature studio. Not that her services were frequently called upon -- one Bu-55C looked pretty much like every other Bu-55C -- but the Inspector had decided that when she was needed, it was best if she had as many tools of her trade to hand as possible. And while she sometimes made more money selling sketches and studies of the Knight Sabers on the fan market than she did from her regular paycheck, it was hard to beat working for someone who understood what she needed not only to perform her job well, but to enjoy it, too.

Footsteps outside alerted her to an impending arrival. It didn't take a genius to guess who it would be. She reached over to her right and gathered together the other sketches she had made, based on the descriptions given to her by the conscious Outriders. She hadn't quite believed her ears, but it wasn't her job to judge -- all she needed to do was turn their words into images. And Inspector McNichol would be very interested in these images, Fuko was sure.

A moment later, the van doors clanked open and Leon stepped into the brightly-lit vehicle. He doffed his shades. "What've you got, Fuko?" he asked as he slid them into a pocket.

As Daley climbed into the van behind him, Fuko silently handed him the three sketches and waited for his response. As he slowly rotated through the drawings, Leon let out a puff of breath that was almost, but not quite, a snort. "This is our alleged boomer?" He held out the sketches so that Daley could see them as well.

"This is what they agreed on," Fuko confirmed.


The top sketch was the one on which she had just put the finishing touches. It and the following drawing gave two views of the head of a man in what appeared to be a customized motorcycle helmet and goggles. Fuko's pastel work brought it out in full color -- the goggles were dark with odd multihued highlights, in sharp contrast to the mottled, almost pearl-grey color of the helmet itself. Most of his face was hidden, but he seemed to have sharp cheekbones, and there was the suggestion of a clearly-delineated jawline.

The helmet was one of those full-head "pot" designs, with a square opening for the face that would normally be covered by a sheet of plexy. In the drawing, it appeared to be open to the air, though, with the goggles taking the place of the protective shield. It had a few other odd touches, too. On either side, a hemisphere about the size of a grapefruit half bulged over the ears; the one on the left bore a short whip antenna. There was a square panel of some sort under the bulge with the antenna. And centered above the square opening was a oval-shaped smudge of light blue.

"Kind of reminds me of a boomercop, with the helmet and goggles," Daley finally said.

"Yeah," Leon replied. "A little, but not enough. What's this?" He indicated the blue smudge with a fingertip.

Fuko shrugged. "Haven't a clue. Two of the Outriders mentioned it though -- a round, light blue mark right above the opening. What's really interesting, though, are these." She stood and pointed out the strange lines and dots of color she'd added to the bulbous dark goggles.

"Why?" Daley gave her a sharp look.

Fuko didn't look up from the sketch. "Everyone who got up close to this guy mentioned them. I think they're some kind of head-up display."

Leon gave a low whistle. "Damn. That sounds suspiciously military."

"Yeah." Fuko nodded soberly.

Leon shuffled the pages and brought up the one full-figure drawing. It was far cruder than the color head sketches -- a simple pencil sketch, quickly done and yet dotted with telling detail. Together, he and Daley studied their quarry: a lithe but sturdy figure in what looked like light-colored biker leathers -- a Harley-Davidson logo on his right breast encouraged that identifcation -- topped off with heavy boots, a broad belt and gloves that looked like welder's gauntlets.

"That's a distinctive outfit," Daley noted.

"The interviews put his height at about 170 cm or so, if we allow for the helmet. His weight's probably about 75 kilos, then, based on his build," Fuko said. "The outfit is leather or a good synthetic, several shades darker than the helmet. The Harley logo is a cloth patch, not paint or a plastic applique, and flapped a little, like it wasn't securely sewn on."

Leon raised an eyebrow. "Very thorough, Fuko."

"'You know my methods'," she deadpanned. "I try to please."

"Speaking of which..."

"I'm having dinner with my fiance tonight, Inspector."

Daley began to chuckle, but had the good graces to quickly disguise it as a cough. Not before his partner had stepped on his foot, though. "My apologies, Sergeant," Leon recovered quickly. "No offense taken, I hope."

She flicked a smile at him across her drawing board. "None, Inspector." She nodded at the sketches. "I hope you have good luck finding this guy."

Leon's own smile faded slowly from his face. "So do I, Fuko, so do I."

* * *

Sunday, June 29, 2036. 3:27 AM.

The thin wedge of waxing moon shining through the great window was barely enough to limn the room's furnishings, bringing them just to the edge of visibility but no further. Sylia was enveloped in shadow, her legs curled up under her as she huddled on the armchair farthest from the window. A low hiss emanated from the speakers of the multimedia center which covered the wall next to her.

What to do about Lisa Vanette?

Sylia found herself plagued by the dilemma Nene had raised. When she had established the Knight Sabers five years ago, she had intended to enforce all the rules she'd set down. At the time, she'd been certain that each and every one of them had been of vital necessity to the long-term security of the Sabers. But bare months after she brought them together, they stopped being her private mercenary army. They became first her friends, and then her family; and one by one, the rules were dropped by the wayside, regulations replaced by the ties of loyalty, blood and yes, love.

Now Lisa Vanette threatened to shatter those ties.

Sylia sighed in the darkness, and watched the quiescent red and green telltales of her sound system. It had been at least an hour since the Billie Holiday ROM had ended, and she could not bring herself to restart or replace it. It was at times like this that she found herself, to her own surprise, missing Mackie intensely. Of the few whom she was close to, it was only to her brother that she could unburden herself at times like these. With him in Germany, she had to struggle through these dark hours alone.

What to do about Lisa Vanette?

For what seemed like the hundredth time since Nene's visit, Sylia found herself contemplating the Eleventh Rule of the Knight Sabers. Could she bring herself to kill Lisa if the girl were a threat? Or had the Last Rule always been unenforceable bluster on her part? She had killed in the past -- it was not a matter of squeamishness. Mason had died at her hand, and others. But they had deserved it -- no, all but begged for it. Could she murder a young girl whose only sin was curiosity, a girl who had proven for three years that she could be trusted?

Ever since Lisa had come to her attention during the ADP headquarters incident, Sylia had had contingency plans in place to handle her. While it had been one of those plans, it still had been a great leap of faith for her to simply try to talk Lisa out of seeking to publish her photos. Was another such leap possible now? Was there some way to turn Lisa from a potential liability to a potential asset? Was there a way to spare her? Should she be spared? Lives hung in the balance either way; if Sylia were wrong...

And for what must have been the hundredth time since Nene's visit, she found no easy answer waiting for her in the darkness.

As the speakers hissed softly, Sylia leaned her head back against the top of her chair and fought back tears of frustration.

* * *

Sunday, June 29, 2036. 2:15 PM.

For once, Leon thought, luck seems to be going my way.

Despite it being Sunday afternoon, he had gone into the office to follow up on the boomeroid case. When he'd arrived, there was good news waiting for him in his v-mail. According to the summary screen, Vong had completed his report on that suspicious tech crew, and Daley had a new break on the case. An attachment icon punctuated the latter. A fresh cup of coffee in his hand, Leon settled into his chair and brought up the first message.

"Inspector McNichol," Vong's image barked, "I personally kept watch on the technicians from IDEC, as per your orders. Upon entering the alleyway, they unpacked a wide variety of equipment, some of which looked pretty crude, as if it were half-built or experimental. About half of them got involved in locating and opening some sort of junction box which, as they claimed, was camouflaged quite well. I also noted that it was apparently untouched by the fighting in the alley." Vong's image jittered suddenly, the result of the v-mail system's storage routines automatically cutting out a too-long pause. "The rest of them paid no attention to the first group, and were the only ones using the oddball equipment. Ohara-san was one of these, sir. I don't know what they were doing, but after wandering around the alley for a while, they all ended up standing around in one spot. As far as I could tell from where I stood, it was about the place where you'd determined that the perp initially landed in the alley." Another jitter. "I'm pretty sure the ones at the box weren't really repairing anything. Endless part swapping and meter readings, and one of the techs kept giving this really envious look over at the ones roaming the alley. Also, as soon as the others were obviously finished, they immediately closed up the junction box and packed up. All told, they took about an hour." The image jittered again. "I've submitted a written report to your email, sir." Vong nodded curtly, then the screen flickered and returned to the message menu.

As Leon saved the v-mail in a folder he labeled "Boomeroid 28/6/36", he almost allowed himself a smirk. "Gotcha," he whispered to himself.

A moment later, he clicked on Daley's message. "Hey there, Leon-chan." Daley leaned in to the camera, flashed a charming smile and winked. "I'll bet you're watching this on Sunday afternoon, aren't you? You should be at home relaxing."

"Yeah, like you believe that," Leon muttered.

"Not that I think it'd happen, mind you," Daley's recorded image continued as he leaned back and put on his professional face. "Anyway, we got an interesting piece of evidence handed to us. N-Police gave us the vid of the 110 call that set them on the Outriders to begin with. Get this, the caller was our perp, or at least someone who matches Fuko's sketch pretty well, given the usual awful resolution the vid has. I've attached a copy to this mail. Check it out and get back to me with your thoughts." Daley leaned in to the camera again. "On Monday, Leon-chan. I want at least one day of rest. Ja!" As he gave a jaunty wave, Daley flickered and was replaced by a dialog reading "Launch attachment?".

Leon's finger hovered over the "confirm" icon for a moment, then stabbed at the screen. The mail window closed and a vid playback window opened. A tinny "Hello, yes," issued from the speakers as Leon squinted at the image. It was black-and-white, just slightly out of focus, and pixelated from the 110 system's own compression routines. It was far from photographic quality. But the image was clear enough to see the speaker was a close-on match for Fuko's sketches, just as Daley had said. Even the mysterious mark over the helmet opening was there, although at this resolution it was little more than a grey blob.

The short vid ended when the caller abruptly hung up, and Leon played it again. "I think there's been some kind of gang fight. Yes, Shiba Koen near the Tokyo Tower." His voice sounded... odd. And his Nihongo was oddly accented and intoned. Not like the fluent speaker with a tenor voice that the Outriders had described, more like a recent student of the language. Not only that, but the voice sounded familiar; for the life of him, though, he couldn't put his finger on it.

He replayed the message several times, studying the crude image intently. Around him, the squad room bustled with its own special assortment of distractions, somewhat reduced because it was Sunday; he ignored it all, narrowing his focus down until his world consisted of himself and the monitor. It was hard to tell with the blur and the low resolution, but he thought that the face in the vid looked cheery, almost smug. He was certain the voice was a put-on, a fake. It sounded too phony.

One other thing caught his attention. "My name? Quincy Black. I'm a tourist, just in from the States," spilled out of the speaker. He ran it back and replayed it. "My name? Quincy Black." And again. "My name? Quincy Black."

Leon leaned back in his chair. It was a sure bet that there would be no record of any recent American tourist with that name. If he knew his partner, there'd already be a report from Immigration in Daley's inbox confirming it. No skullsweat needed there. No, it was the name itself. Leon shook his head and chuckled. How obvious can you get? he thought. A poke at both Quincy and whatever "black" project produced him. He chuckled again. I think I could get to like this guy.

Retrieving the location of the call from the vid's header data, Leon closed it out and stashed it in the folder he'd created earlier. Then he brought up the map system. Marking the sites of the fight and the telephone booth, he made several calls of his own. That should do it, he thought when he was done. With a tentative direction of travel and Fuko's sketches, the boys on the street should be able to find someone who's seen this guy in a couple of days or less. He reopened the vid and stared once again at the blurred face of his quarry.

* * *

Virtual Space. Monday, June 30, 2036. 1225 GMT.

The spider was small and heavily camouflaged. It bore a number of genuine (if misappropriated) tags and passes to present should it be challenged, but its primary mode of movement and defense was simply to not be seen.

Every night it made its rounds, seeking tidbits of interest and squirreling away copies even as it noted their locations for future investigation. Sites of proven value received priority in its search algorithm, after which it was permitted to make random walks through connected systems. At this moment, it was browsing a system which had been downgraded from its former high priority for lack of interesting traffic in recent weeks.

The spider encountered and indexed the usual ebb and flow of an actively-used system, browsing for keywords and discarding the dross. One of the new folders included a keyword in its name; the spider opened it and scanned. Quietly, unhurriedly, dispassionately, it copied the files it found within and reflagged this system as high priority.

* * *

Sunday, July 6, 2036. 6:42 PM Local Time.

I was prioritizing again, this time in the middle of cooking dinner. Carefully managed, I could live off the gems for at least a year, but I might need them in the next universe. Best to look for a job of some kind, and best to stick with what I knew well. That meant any or all of: computer engineering and cybernetics, mercenary, or thaumatology.

In an idle moment late last week, I'd shifted to magesight and discovered that MegaTokyo sat on top of a simply monstrous node of mana. However, as far as I could tell from the mass media and my almanacs, there were no operant mages here. Just like my earth, there was lots of folklore, but unlike my earth, nothing recent and real. Curious.

So that ruled out thaumatology as a job category. Mercenary work would have me moving around too much, and I didn't want to get too far away from my point of arrival. I didn't know enough about my means of transit, but I was fairly certain that I needed a "weak point" in local space-time in order to form a gate, and the only one I knew of was here. So, no travel.

That left computers. I'd have to bone up on the local tech. But then again, I'd planned to, anyway. In most areas, this world was about equal to homeline despite the 40-year difference, but they were nicely ahead of us when it came to commercial-grade computers and nanotechnology. I was looking forward to bringing home some potentially useful samples.

Second priority behind that was transportation. In Velgarth, I got around on horseback or by foot because everyone else did. Now that I was back in a mechanized society, I needed wheels. A motorcycle, preferably. It would help my money situation if I were to get a used or near-junked one and rebuild it myself. Not to mention be a distraction during the long weeks ahead.

All this was assuming I didn't hit the right song immediately. I didn't think I'd be so lucky.

I didn't get much farther than that thought when there was a knock at the door. I turned from the rangetop to answer it.

* * *

"Thank you ever so much for inviting me to dinner," Lisa said as she removed her shoes, taking care not to knock her camera against the doorframe.

She looked back up and blinked in surprise. In the moment it had taken her to bend over, Doug had already returned to the tiny stove of his kitchenette, and stood with his back toward her. "No problem! It was the least I could do to thank you for your help."

"Oooh, it smells great! What is it?"

"Souvlaki," he called back over the sizzling food and the rattle of the vent fan.

"What's that?" Lisa asked. Leaning against one of the two rickety chairs that along with an equally uncertain table made up Doug's "dining room", she folded her arms behind her head and studied Doug. She'd known him for almost a week now, and looking at him was still a novel experience for her. At about 170 cm, he was not that much taller than most of the men she knew, and shorter than some, but he had a trim, athletic build that reminded her of a runner or a gymnast -- strong and firm without being overly muscular. A few decades ago, his close-cropped blond hair and blue-grey eyes might have made him look exotic here in Japan, but her own appearance made it clear that there was nothing unusual there any more. His face, which she couldn't see at the moment because he was bent over the range top, was smooth without being boyish, and well-chiseled without any cragginess. Attractive, but not pretty-boy. What struck her most, though, was his grace and dexterity. And he cooks, too. She sighed softly to herself.

"It's Greek," he said, looking over his shoulder. "A friend of mine from Athens taught me how to make it."

"Neat! Do you do a lot of cooking?" Lisa glanced around the small apartment. She'd ended up helping Doug move in -- not that there was very much to do. It was more for the company -- both for herself and for him. Doug was obviously very new to MegaTokyo, and he definitely appreciated her friendliness and companionship. Not to mention her help in finding him some better furnishings.

I mean, really! she thought. It's like he has a homing instinct for the absolute worst thrift shops. At least he's got some usable furniture now. She glanced around the tiny one-room apartment. Besides the dinette set, Doug had a small single bed (A futon would have been more efficient, but he's so... American, Lisa mentally sniffed), a dresser and a large wardrobe. You know, he didn't have all that much stuff when he moved in. Why does he need such a large wardrobe?

"Hello, Lisa? Earth to Lisa?"

"What? Huh?" She felt a blush of embarrassment heat her face. "I'm sorry, I was, um, thinking about work. Please forgive my inattention."

Doug sighed good-naturedly. "Lisa, you don't have to be so formal with me. It's okay -- everyone gets caught up in their job at some time or another." He patted her on the shoulder in a manner she was sure was supposed to be reassuring; she almost shrank away before she caught herself. For all his expert Nihongo, he still acted like an American, but she'd rather not insult or offend him despite what her mother would have called his "unwarranted liberties". He meant well, and that was what really mattered, as far as Lisa was concerned. "Anyway," he continued, withdrawing his hand, "I was saying that I'd forgotten to get the ouzo. I'm going to dash downstairs to the liquor store and get some, okay? I'll be right back."

"Uh-huh," Lisa replied, nodding. Then, "Will the food be okay? Do I need to do anything?"

Doug glanced over to the stovetop, where a large covered pan now stood, poised over a low flame. "Nope, it'll be fine. I'll be right back. Sorry to make you wait."

Lisa gave a vague wave as her eyes drifted back towards the wardrobe. "It's all right, Doug, go do what you need to do," she said with mock seriousness.

"Okay, great, be right back!" A slam trod on the last word. Surprised, Lisa spun around to stare at the apartment door. Faintly, she could hear running feet receding very quickly. She blinked twice. Then a grin crawled onto her lips as her curiosity got the better of her again.

Without quite realizing how she got there, she found herself in front of Doug's wardrobe. It was large, built out of heavy, dark wood. Real wood, not chipboard, which had surprised both of them when they'd discovered it. It had a simple, geometric pattern of grooves and moldings decorating its surfaces. The doors did not stretch its full length; they hung flush to the top, but ended about 30 centimeters from the ground, leaving a lower section that might serve as shoe and boot storage. Years of waxing and polishing in its early life had left a slightly sticky buildup on it -- light on the flat surfaces, thicker in the deeper grooves -- a brown patina you could easily scrape up with a fingernail, revealing lighter wood beneath it. Just as dark were the pulls on the door, an aged brass that was almost black with tarnish.

Without hesitation, she yanked open the wardrobe doors.

To her surprise, it was full of clothes. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but since she hadn't seen Doug unpacking any clothing, nor had he shopped for any with her, it seemed strange that he had so much. Idly, she paged through the various items on their hangers, going through a couple of suits and shirts and jeans and tunics and...


She stopped and removed an item from the wardrobe. It was indeed a tunic, of a vaguely medieval design. It was cut from a fine, light-grey cloth that looked hand-woven, and it was trimmed with a flat braid of metallic silver and gold. A pair of matching breeches hung inside it, folded over the wire hanger. They both looked hand-stitched, too.

Her curiosity piqued, Lisa replaced the outfit and shuffled through the rest of clothing. Maybe a third of it was similar medieval outfits, in a variety of styles and cuts. They all had obviously been used quite a bit -- a few showed mends, and all bore signs of frequent wear.

On a whim, Lisa took out a particularly ornate tunic made of some type of supple, soft leather, bleached perfectly white. She hung it on the wardrobe door, and took a photo of it. She replaced it, and continued to search. "Hmmmm," she murmured. I wonder if he's one of those whaddayacallits -- medievalists. Maybe he's a member of some historical re-creation group?

At the far right end of the rod, she came across another leather outfit, this one more familiar. Pants and jacket, it was made from a thicker leather than the tunic, but no less flexible, and dark grey in color. A belt of a lighter shade hung from the hook of the hanger. It resembled a motorcyclist's leathers. These, too, bore the signs of long use.

The jacket was an almost antique-looking style -- instead of a closure down the center, it had a flap that stretched from the right side of the chest to the left, and which sealed with a series of large chrome clasps. The only highlight on the entire outfit was a strange patch on the right breast of the jacket. It was about 13 centimeters tall and shaped like a shield, except that the top edge was scalloped by two shallow bites that left the upper corners and the center slightly pointed. All but filling the shield were a pair of stylized Romanji letters in black: "LT".

Without any hesitation, Lisa hung the outfit on the wardrobe door and took another photo.

As she replaced it in the wardrobe, her hand struck the last item on the rod, what looked to be a zippered body stocking made of an opalescent white fabric. To her surprise, there was a dull, faint "tok" sound; it felt as though she had struck a sheet of plastic. Carefully, she took it out of the wardrobe and examined it.

It felt slick, like plastic, and it seemed far too stiff compared to how thin it was. From the outside, at least, it seemed to resist flexing and folding. But she discovered during her investigation that when manipulated from inside, the garment gave no resistance whatsoever. Experimentally, she cupped her hand within it, stretching a part of the fabric taut over her fingers, and prodded its outer surface with the forefinger of her other hand. It was as though she had poked a sheet of metal -- the cloth refused to flex or stretch, and she ended up with a stubbed finger. And strangely, the fabric seemed be ever so faintly warm now.

The tip of her abused finger in her mouth, Lisa frowned. She'd never heard of any fabric that acted like that. It was a definite mystery, and she didn't like mysteries. Only the fact that Doug would be returning soon kept her from assaulting the leotard with knives and forks and other implements from the kitchen in an attempt to test its limits. She took another photo and reluctantly returned it to its place on the rod.

Painfully conscious of the probable time left her, Lisa dropped to her knees and peered into the lower section of the wardrobe. A leather backpack, again looking hand-made and obviously empty, lay flat against the bottom. A pair of boots, their tops stuffed with heavy leather gloves also sat there; they were all the same color as the belt with the biker leathers. But what caught her eye was the helmet. She reached in and withdrew it.

She didn't know what to make of it. It resembled a normal motorcyclist's helmet the way that a motorcycle resembled a bicycle. Turning it over and around in her hands, she studied its bumps and protrusions, the domes over the ears, the short whip antenna, the goggles that seemed to be an integral part of it. It looked smooth, but running her hands across it revealed the traces of much hard usage -- nicks and scores and scrapes that weren't immediately visible to the eye because of the mottled and marbled light grey plastic from which it was made. In the center of the "forehead", right above the helmet's square opening, was the light blue world-map symbol of the United Nations, curiously enough.

Looking inside, she was startled to find a half dozen rubber-covered switches and controls in the front, and something that could be a microphone. Where the wearer's ears would go were rings of thick foam padding surrounding what looked like small speakers. From either side of the goggles, flat cables ran under the padded lining that covered the rest of the helmet's interior. The lining was soft and seemed absorbent; Lisa cautiously lifted the helmet to her face and sniffed at it tentatively. There was only the faintest trace of a perspiration odor.

Glancing at her watch, she resisted the temptation to try the helmet on. Doug could be back any minute now, and it would be embarrassing enough to be caught going through his wardrobe; no need to compound her faux pas. She resigned herself to simply examining it.

Lisa's fingers found the panel before her eyes noticed it -- a small, clear plastic square under the right ear. A ridge of plastic along one edge caught on her fingernail, and slid back when she turned the helmet to investigate. Underneath was a set of buttons like a calculator keypad. Impelled by curiosity, she pressed one, then more. At first there was no noticeable result. But after a few seconds' button-pushing there was a mechanical "click", and two small headlamps appeared, popping up from cleverly-disguised recesses above and to either side of the front opening. They blazed brightly into her eyes, and she flinched, almost dropping the helmet. At the last moment, she grabbed it again by the ear-domes; to her surprise, the helmet kept rotating in her hands for a quarter turn. There was another "click", and suddenly music blasted from the helmet -- heavy, dark music with a pounding beat and a gravel-voiced man growling in English:

"<Something's wrong, shut the light,
Heavy thoughts tonight,
And they aren't of Snow White.
Dreams of war, dreams of liars,
Dreams of dragon's fire,
And of things that will bite...>"

"Ahhh!" Half-deafened, Lisa frantically stabbed at the buttons until the music cut off in mid-roar. She dropped the helmet unceremoniously and gave it a venomous glare. Oh, jeeze, is he coming, could he have heard that? she suddenly thought, panicked. Almost without thinking, she snapped a shot of the helmet.

She cautiously pushed down on the lamps to force them back into their recessed housings, and twisted the hemispheres over the ears back to their original position before she gingerly picked the helmet up and returned it to the wardrobe. Then, with a nervous glance around her, she scampered back to her seat at the dinette to await Doug's return. She was sorely tempted to explore further, but the store was on the ground level of their building, and if he wasn't already walking back down the hall, he would be shortly.

Five long minutes later, the knob rattled, and Doug popped through the door, a brown paper bag cradled in the crook of one arm. "Sorry I took so long," he said sheepishly. "There was a hell of a line at the checkout."

Lisa flashed a smile at him. "That's okay. As long as we get to eat now!"

* * *

Dinner was delicious, if I say so myself. I'm a competent cook at best, but I lucked out that night -- it was perhaps the best souvlaki I've ever made. I put in a bit of extra effort to find a Greek grocery and a real butcher (with real meat, not soy) for the ingredients, and I guess that did the trick.

I'm glad, too, because it was a new experience for Lisa -- her first taste of Greek cuisine. She hardly said anything at all through dinner; she was too busy sniffing and tasting and making "mmmm" noises over little morsels she would chew for almost forever.

"I can't believe I've never had Greek food before," she said once between bites. "This is so cool... I love it! I'm going to definitely find a Greek restaurant or two now." I chuckled at that. It was also the most she managed to say at once during the whole dinner.

We didn't really get to a real conversation until we hit dessert. Not that I minded. Just watching her face as she hit and then savored each new flavor was a big kick for me. But eventually she ran out of lamb and veggies and then we were nibbling on the baklava over mugs of thick Turkish coffee (which, I admit, came from a rather good instant mix I'd discovered a couple days earlier). "You know," she said, sipping on her coffee, "You know all about me and what I do..."

"Well, yeah, you were so excited that you couldn't stop talking about it," I interrupted.

She stuck her tongue out at me, then continued. "But you never did tell me what you do for a living." She gazed at me intently over the rim of her cup.

I shrugged. "Well, I'm unemployed right now...."

"You know what I mean. Silly."

"Well..." I slurped from my mug. I could tell her about being a Warrior, but, well, why make things complicated for myself? I'd have to explain more than I think she'd be prepared to believe. I couldn't just say, "I'm a metahuman operative working for a specialized United Nations peacekeeping force in a parallel universe," and leave it at that, could I? So, an edited version of the truth. "Well, I've worked for the government in England for the last 12 years or so. I studied cybernetics and computer engineering, I've got BSE's in them from Princeton," (I intentionally neglected to tell her I was class of 1984 and had just missed my 52nd reunion) "but I've got a couple other skill sets under my belt, thanks to my job. Some are fairly esoteric, others aren't."

"What kind of computer engineering?" she asked. "Hardware? Or software?"

"Both, actually. I hack code and gear equally well."

Her eyes brightened. "Really? I have a friend who's a bit of a hacker herself. Maybe I should introduce you two..."

I shrugged. "Maybe."

Lisa took another bite of her baklava. "England, huh? How'd you end up here?"

I sighed in spite of myself. "Now that's a long story." I weighed carefully what I wanted to tell her. "I'm sort of stranded here at the moment, and I need to work until I can manage to go home."

"Stranded?" She leaned forward slightly, her gaze boring into me. "Stranded how?" Her eyes widened suddenly. "You're not in the country illegally, are you?"

To cover my nervousness, I puffed myself up in a semblance of offense, trusting to the traditional Japanese politeness to save me from further questioning along these lines. "I think you'll find my papers are in order, Vanette-san," I said, maybe a little more sharply than I'd intended.

Bullseye. She deflated a little and murmured, "Gomen, Doug-san. I did not mean to pry," as she turned her eyes toward her lap.

I relaxed and smiled at her, trying to take the sting out of the exchange. "No problem, Lisa. My status as a resident here is as legal as it could possibly be." Which was a wonderfully truthful but misleading description. With any luck it would dissuade her from pursuing the topic further.

Fortunately, she brightened right up -- a bit mercurial in our moods, aren't we, Lisa? -- and returned to rapidly firing questions off at me. I held up my hands and laughed. "Hey, hold on a moment. What is this, '60 Minutes'?"

Lisa paused. "Huh? What do you mean, '60 Minutes'?"

I shook my head. "Never mind. Why are you grilling me like this? I feel like I'm the subject of an 'in-depth investigative report'." I grinned to show her I wasn't really offended.

She smiled back at me. "Well, I am a reporter. And you're an interesting person! I want to learn as much as I can about you."

I raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? Everybody has his deep, dark, dangerous secrets."

Lisa's smile broadened into a grin. "Not from me, they don't! Come on, spill it."

I draped a mock-innocent look on my face. "Spill what?'

She leaned in towards me. "For one thing, tell me about this friend of yours who taught you Greek cooking."

"Oh! Well, I think you'd really like Diana..." I was off and running, having diverted her away from the uncomfortable questions I didn't want her to ask.

* * *

Monday, July 7, 2036. 11:50 AM.

Daley Wong tossed a manila folder onto Leon's desk. It landed precisely in front of the inspector, who looked up in surprise. "That's the transcript of the interview with the jeweler, Ishikawa. Our mystery boomeroid walked into his shop less than an hour after the attack on the Outriders and sold him several gemstones." He pulled out the chair next to the desk and swung it around to sit backwards on it, folding his arms across the back and resting his chin upon them.

"Gemstones?" Leon asked.

Daley nodded. "Good quality stones, unusual cuts. A ruby and two emeralds, a couple carats each. He still had the gems, so we took them as evidence. I'm having them compared against theft and insurance reports."

Leon nodded. "For how far back?"

"I told them to stop at a year." Daley reached into his shirt pocket to withdraw a digicam print and handed it to Leon, who whistled. "These are the rocks. Apparently our boy made out pretty well; he haggled for a while and came away with about 103,000 yen. On an anonymized credit chit," he added in a disgusted tone as faint sounds of yelling drifted from the Chief's closed door.

"Great," sighed Leon. "So we can't trace his movements with it. What else?"

"Well, we've got the jeweler's security camera records from that night, and they tally up with the Outriders' descriptions and the 110 call record."

"Well that's good, but it doesn't help us find him. No other witnesses?" Leon leaned back in his chair and stared at a discolored spot on the ceiling above him. There were several centimeter-wide holes in the brownish blotch. Leon wished he had a sharp pencil handy.

"No one who will admit anything. We..." Daley began, but he was interrupted by a cheery greeting from across the squad room.

"Hi, Leon! Hi, Daley!" Lisa called from the door. She skipped lightly around the intervening desks and officers to end up standing before them, hands clasped behind her back and rocking heel-to-toe on her feet with barely-suppressed energy. She looks almost entirely too precious for words, Daley thought. Her camera swung on its wrist strap, peeking out from behind her and then retreating like a shy three-year-old, over and over. She was dressed in shades of green today, from her knee-length skirt to her beret. "So! What's new with you guys?"

"Lisa!" Leon leapt up and spun his wheeled chair around to offer a seat to her as Daley stood and offered his own greeting.

Lisa dimpled. "Domo," she smiled, and arranged herself daintily in the chair.

"So," Leon said, "Nene tells me you're back in town permanently, working for the 16 Times."

"Uh-huh!" Lisa nodded enthusiastically. "Right now I'm getting 'human interest' stories," she briefly made a face, "but I'm hoping to get a crime beat soon."

"Why aren't you doing that kind of story already," Daley asked, "what with Chief Todo being your uncle, and all?"

"Because I haven't told them he's my uncle."

"No?" Leon leaned back on his desk as he raised an eyebrow.

"Of course not!" Lisa was indignant. "I want to earn it on my own merits, not because of who I'm related to!"

The faint sounds of outraged police chief escalated, to be suddenly brought to a stop with the rattle of an opening door.

"Speaking of which..." Daley muttered, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. Behind him, a pair of officers fled Chief Todo's office for the elevators, sheepish looks on their faces. Behind them, the Chief himself barreled out of his office in a rage. His mouth worked wildly as he took great gasping breaths, apparently at a loss for further words.

"Hato and Ramirez?" Daley asked softly without looking.

Leon nodded. "Hato and Ramirez."

Daley sighed eloquently.

"What'd they do?" Lisa whispered, leaning in to the two officers.

"Don't ask," Daley muttered.


"Don't," Leon repeated softly but firmly, "ask."

Lisa's eyebrows shot up under her bangs, but she didn't pursue the matter. Instead, she stood and said, "Well, it's been nice talking with you two, but I have to go. I'm taking Uncle to lunch." She grinned happily. "I'm introducing him to Greek food today!"

"Well, have a good time, Lisa-san," Daley offered.

She turned a blazing smile upon him. "We will!"

Leon stood and loomed over her. "Maybe later this week you and I can do dinner?" he said, wearing what he thought was his most charming smile.

Lisa giggled and reached up to pinch his cheek. "You're so cute! Of course not! I know you're serious about Nene's friend Priss! Ja!" she said as she turned. "Uncle!" She waved as she trotted over to Chief Todo.

"Face it, Leon-chan," Daley mischievously said, sotto voce, "I'm the only one for you."

Leon dragged his chair back to his desk and plopped down into it. "Not tonight, dear, I have a headache," he growled.

* * *

Tuesday, July 15, 2036. 5:22 PM.

Most customers never saw Hot Legs this way. The location of its front door -- down a set of stairs in a narrow alley -- gave the impression of a cavernous underground space, dark even at the height of noon. It would be a surprise to those customers to discover that the club actually possessed a few windows in one of its exterior walls -- grimy and long since painted shut, but windows none the less.

They faced west.

Once every day, late afternoon sunlight would slide between the buildings of MegaTokyo just so, darting around the many structures that sought to intercept it, and impact almost physically on the windows of Hot Legs. After muscling its way through the pollution-painted glass, golden light would then saunter into the club like a celebrity with a pass for a private party, heading for a favorite table.

The light's preferred place in Hot Legs at this time of year, for the few minutes that it graced the establishment, was the front edge of the club's one stage. A long, narrow strip of molten yellow would daily paint itself right along the lip of the stage, after shimmering through and around the holoprojectors and fog machines that sat behind the performers' area. Some of the late afternoon light would dribble off the stage to bathe the front edge of the dance floor, only to be immediately sucked up by scuffed and stained yellow wood there.

On this particular afternoon, the light entered Hot Legs to witness the aftermath of a rehearsal. The members of "Priss and the Replicants", a small-time band with good connections and high aspirations, were in mid-conversation.

"Face it, Priss," said L Kowalski, the drummer. His first name was Leon, but he preferred to be called just "L". This, he felt, was cooler, and it also minimized confusion with Priss' cop-he's-not-my-boyfriend-call-him-that-again-and-I'll-rip-your-lungs-out-friend. (Anything that minimized potential trouble on that front was the course of action to take, in his opinion.) He was finishing the breakdown of his set, snapping the latches on the next-to-last case as he and the others tried again to convince Priss. The visiting sunlight danced across the chrome fixtures and sparkled annoyingly in Priss' eyes.

"Why are you being so stubborn about this, Priss?" asked the bass guitarist, Estelle "Zhora" Hiyobara-Leibowitz. For many reasons (most of them personal), the Replicants were rife with stage names.

"I've got my reasons," Priss growled from where she sat, cross-legged, on the edge of the stage. She scowled as she shielded her eyes from the too-bright sunbeam that insisted on getting in her face like a persistent groupie.

"Yeah, but what are dey?" Roy, the lead guitarist demanded. "We been playin' with you for what, near five years now, Priss. An' it's allus 'we ain't ready to tour'. Dammit, Priss, we gots lotta gigs in town, we gots lotta fans in the clubs, we gots lotta our soundroms in the online stores, we even gots our own specialist bootleggers. If we ain't ready to tour yet, we's shit, an' no one knows it!"

Priss looked around from under her hand. The others were nodding and making noises of agreement, and she gritted her teeth.

"Roy's right, Priss," Estelle said, kneeling next to her. "We know the Reps are your band -- you put us together, you made the sound -- but we don't want to see the Reps just sitting in MegaTokyo with our thumbs up our asses for the next ten years. We can make it big, but to do that we need a contract, and we ain't going to get a contract without touring and getting us wider known."

"I can't leave," she whispered, more to herself than anything else. "I can't leave MegaTokyo." What the hell am I supposed to say? "I can't go touring because I'm one of the Knight Sabers and have to hang around in case of a boomer attack"? Shit. Like I could. Priss turned out of the sunlight, rubbing her eyes as she unlimbered her legs and swung them over the edge of the stage. "We can push the online stuff," she offered without opening her eyes. "Get more netstations to pointcast our songs. Maybe find a DJ who'll ride our new ROM hard for a few extra yen. We've already picked up some international fans that way. If we can build that audience up enough, we won't need to tour."

Rick, the keyboardist, sighed explosively. "Been there, done that, got the 20-yen royalty check, Priss." She could hear his fist thumping on his keyboard case. That was a bad sign -- the Casio was his obsessively-protected baby. "It's not enough. The problem with netdist is that we only get the listeners who are likely to find us on their own anyway. We need to do the clubs -- more clubs, Priss, out of town -- to get a broader audience than the netstations serve, and to get the word of mouth going. We need the word of mouth, Priss."

Priss felt a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, baby," Estelle said gently, "is there a problem you wanna talk about? Something that's keeping you from touring? Don't want to leave that cop friend of yours behind, maybe?" She gave a throaty chuckle that managed to sound almost lewd. "We can make some kind of arrangement, I'm sure."

Priss shook her head without saying anything.

"Dis is shit," Roy spat. "I'm in da band because we's good, dammit, we's good. We's good enough ta get rich doin' dis shit, and we'd be goin' sum'ere and gettin' rich if she would let us! Why? She coulda gone solo t'ree years ago! Dat agent dumped us and almost made her an idol singer! But she came back to da Reps! Why?" He narrowed his eyes. "Maybe yez afraid o' da big time? Maybe ya wanna play it safe, be da big fish in da little pond? Dat why you won' let us tour, little Miz Priscilla Perfect?"

In an eyeblink, it seemed to the Replicants, Priss had gone from her seat on the stage to Roy's throat. "Don't call me that! You don't know what I..." She spluttered to a halt, partly too enraged to speak, partly from shock at what she'd been about to say and do. As she stood there, one hand twisted in the material of Roy's t-shirt, the other centimeters away from her knife, her mouth worked soundlessly. The others from the band rushed over to separate them.

Priss let Rick and Estelle lead her to L's stool, which he had yet to pack. She sat down heavily. "Fuck," she swore under her breath. "Damn, Roy, I'm sorry, I really am."

"'Sawright," Roy finally, reluctantly grunted as L hovered around him.

Damn. Damn damn damndamndamn. She sat there silently, kicking the heels of her boots against the stool's centerpost. They're right. I am keeping us from hitting it really big. How the hell did it come to this? I'm sabotaging the thing I always wanted! But what else can I do? How do I make a choice? Can I make the choice? The Replicants or the Knight Sabers? As she swore softly to herself, the sun finally fell too low and the last traces of the visiting light evaporated, leaving her momentarily nightblind in the suddenly-darkened club. "What did you have in mind?" she finally asked, without looking up.

Around her she heard soft noises of elation. She didn't have to see to know what was going on. L and Roy were probably quietly high-fiving. Rick was most likely wearing that shit-eating grin of his that he put on when he got his way. And even as she kept a hand on Priss' shoulder, Estelle moved in such a way that Priss knew she was pumping a punch into the air. Yay. You all won, she thought unenthusiastically. Hooray for our side.

Rick's feet appeared in her line of sight. "I've been doing some calling around," he said as she raised her eyes to see an unfamiliar three-ring binder in his hands.

"You've been planning this behind my back," she accused.

Rick had the grace to look embarrassed for a moment. "Well, yeah," he admitted. "Look -- we can start small to begin with, since we've never been on the road before. I was thinking maybe we could do just twelve or fifteen weeks on the road at first, instead of, like six months or more." He began rattling off potential bookings up and down the islands, Kagoshima and Sapporo and everywhere in between. "Earliest we can get a spot most places is three-four months from now. That gives us some time to prep and rehearse a new act..."

How the hell can I manage this? What the hell am I going to tell the others? Priss thought, ignoring Rick's spiel. What the fuck am I going to tell Sylia?

* * *

Wednesday, July 16, 2036. 6:00 PM.

The phone rang, startling Nene, who was again concentrating intensely on a recalcitrant code fragment. Rather than break her focus, she ignored it after the first ring, trusting to her video mail system instead. She raised a half-eaten donut to her lips.

"Hi, this is Nene!" spewed her recorded voice brightly from the bedroom. "You know the drill!" A familiar beep followed.

"Nene." It was Sylia. Nene snapped to full attention, her donut and her programming problem both forgotten. "Bring Lisa Vanette to my office tomorrow night. 8 PM. Tell her the dress code is... casual."

Nene lunged for the phone by her computer. "Sylia!" she yelped as she punched the "video accept" button, crushing her donut in the process. Powered sugar and crumbs sifted down over the machine's various buttons.

"Good evening, Nene." Sylia's image and voice were cool and calm.

"Sylia, what did you decide?"

Her expression did not change. "You'll find out tomorrow night, Nene."

"But Sylia..."

"Tomorrow, Nene." Sylia glanced down as she reached for something just off the bottom edge of the screen. Then she looked back up at Nene. "Oh, and Nene? Don't wear anything you wouldn't want damaged or dirtied." The screen flickered off.

Nene stood stock still for an entire minute, wondering just exactly what Sylia had in store for Lisa.

* * *

Wednesday, July 16, 2036. 6:35 PM.

As soon as the door to her apartment had latched shut, Lisa slumped against it and slid to the floor, cradling her camera in one hand. Her shoulderbag lay where she'd dropped it, and she listlessly reached into it to pull out a large, sweat-soaked handkerchief. She mopped her forehead. God, what a day for the air conditioning on the train to go out.

Her apartment's own feeble AC was groaning away in the corner, but the temperature was barely lower than that outside. She sat there for a few minutes, legs splayed out and head back against the door, before sighing and standing up. Maybe a cold shower... As she unbuttoned her blouse and dropped it on the floor, she reconsidered. More likely it'll be tepid. But that'd still be better than nothing.

She made her way to her minimal bathroom, leaving a trail of increasingly intimate apparel behind her. As she peeled off her panties, she turned the cold on full. Without bothering to test it she threw herself into the stall.

Half an hour later, Lisa padded out of the bathroom naked except for the towel wrapped around her hair. She retrieved a can of Coca-Cola from her dorm-sized refrigerator and popped it open.

Sipping from the can, she stepped around her folded futon and began rummaging through her bureau, oblivious to the blinking light on the v-mail display atop it. It wasn't until she had selected a t-shirt and a pair of shorts that she noticed that she had messages waiting. She hit the "play" button and began to pull on her shirt. The effort of maneuvering it around the towel without stretching the neck took most of her attention and left her eyes covered, but she heard the audio portion of the first call.

"Hello, darling, it's momma." Under her t-shirt, Lisa rolled her eyes. Oh joy. She reached out blindly for the "skip" button. "Just my weekly call to see how my little girl is doing in the big..." The piercing soprano voice cut off abruptly, to be followed by a beep.

"Hey, Leese, it's Doug." Lisa's head finally popped through the neck of the T-shirt, leaving her face-to-face with the recording of her neighbor. "I was thinking I'd like to maybe go out and do some clubs, hear some live music. But I don't know which places are good and which ones I should avoid. You've talked about some of the clubhopping you do, so I was wondering if you'd have any recommendations for me? Better yet, would you mind showing me around this weekend? That is, if you want to be my tourguide." He laughed. Lisa got a dreamy smile at the thought of squiring her hunky neighbor around in public.

"Anyway, if that wouldn't be too much of an imposition, let me know, all right? Thanks! Bye!" The screen went bright blue, and the beep sounded again. Lisa continued to visualize showing Doug off to Nene and her friends, and was imagining the jealous looks she'd get when the third call startled her completely out of her reverie.

It was Nene. "Lisa?" she said, a tentative tone in her voice. "Hi, it's me. I've just been told, um, well, you know what you asked me? My boss wants to see you about it. Tomorrow night, at eight o'clock. I'll pick you up at 7:30, all right?" Nene reached for the switchhook, then stopped. "Oh, and, um, dress casual, okay? See you then." She flashed a smile, and then the screen went blue again.

Lisa blinked. This was a development she hadn't been expecting at all. And Nene looked a little nervous -- but that was to be expected, given the delicacy of the situation, wasn't it? Still... she thought, I wonder if I should be worried?

* * *

Wednesday, July 16, 2036. 9:12 PM.

It took me a little more than a week, but I got myself a job, dilberting for a small hardware company not yet owned by GENOM. Whoopee, I wouldn't starve before I worldjumped out of here.

One benefit of my new job was that I could afford to splurge on a cycle. For sufficiently low values of "splurge", that is... I found this junkyard, in the part of MegaTokyo they call Timex City -- I never did find out why -- which is actually inside a massive chasm opened up by that big quake they had. Anyway, I discovered this place while exploring the city in between job interviews. It was a little hard to get to, but it had a good selection and was close to a fair-sized garage that I saw some local bikers frequenting.

Anyway, I browsed their stock, and put down cash on the barrelhead for a dead cycle. I got a good price, because it was a 20-year-old model (god forbid, the wheels were still mounted on forks!) and the engine had already been cannibalized for parts. No prob for me; I had a plan or two for a custom powerplant.

Anyway, I'd already arranged a place to work on it. The building I was in, for all that it epitomized the concept of "low-rent housing project", actually had storeroom/garages on its lowest levels that the tenants could rent. The rates were exorbitant compared to the apartment rents, but easily within my new means.

I managed to stumble into some kind of special deal, though -- there was some kind of bad karma on the only available garage in the place. The rental agent was reluctant to explain the matter, but as far as I could gather from his circumlocutions, some kind of crime or tragedy was connected to that room, and no one in the last few years but yours truly, the stupid gaijin, even wanted to be near it. So I got a good break on the rent from the desperate management.

Anyway, I went over to the junkyard after my first day of work, retrieved my purchase, and rolled it on bare, dented rims the couple of kilometers to my building. Once there, I ensconced it in my new workshop.

And I do mean workshop. Whoever the poor sod was who'd last had the place, he'd tricked it out rather well. Big workbench, lots of cabinet space, lots of electrical outlets, well-lit. One other bonus -- one of the cabinets was locked, and when I pried it open, I found a good supply of tools suitable for use on cycles and their engines, still in fair shape.

I have to admit that out of morbid curiosity, I'd examined the shop pretty thoroughly once I'd gotten the key, looking for some clue to its bad rep. Whatever its history, I was pretty sure that violence wasn't a part of it. Neither the floor nor the bench bore any traces of bloodstains, even well-cleaned blood. No bullet holes or patches of same. It looked pretty innocent. In fact, the only indication (besides the tools) that there had even been a previous renter at all was something rather sweet and romantic -- a heart with "NA + JBG" inside it, carved into one corner of the workbench.

So I gave up on trying to find out and focused my attention on the task at hand. Which was to say, my new hobby: turning an engineless, twenty-year-old frame into a working machine. I'd set myself the goal of assembling a motorcycle as close to the one I had at home as I could possibly get. Of course, I was going to have to skip a few features. I wasn't going to be able to make it flight-capable, not without a 'drillium powercell and an Anson GravMaster2 I wasn't, but I was confident I could make it one of the fastest things on the road. After all, I'd done it to a 1936 Harley. I should be able to do it with a 2015 Mitsubishi.

* * *

Thursday, July 17, 2036. 7:53 PM.

Lisa was surprised at first that she wasn't required to wear a blindfold or ride in Nene's trunk. But a moment's thought cleared up her confusion. Why bother when I'm going to come out of this meeting okay, right? She tried not to think of the only other likely outcome in which her knowledge of the Knight Sabers' headquarters was no danger to them, but she couldn't help growing a little nervous. Lisa began to wonder if maybe she should have left some kind of failsafe message for her family or the police in case she... in case she didn't come back from tonight's meeting.

No, don't be silly, she told herself. They're not going to do anything to you. She tried to generate her usual sense of confidence, but the effort faltered and she found herself drifting toward vague fear and worry anyway.

Nene's little car bounced as she turned off the street and into a parking garage, and Lisa's awareness turned back to the outside world. She spotted a sign that read "Parking for tenants, employees and Silky Doll customers only -- Others will be towed", bathed in a blotch of golden light from the setting sun, and felt a surge of exhiliration.

I was right! she exulted to herself. She is the white Saber! She'd long suspected that the mysterious Sylia Stingray with whom she had spoken three years ago was in fact the leader of the Knight Sabers. This was the first solid confirmation she'd had of her guess.

Nene parked, then turned and gave Lisa a confident smile. "C'mon. Let's go see the boss."

Nene led her into the building, rapidly punching an access code to unlock the door from the garage. Lisa looked around. They were in a room that was probably the employee lounge for the Silky Doll.

It had taken her six months to find any biographical details on the mystery woman whom she'd met that night in Timex City, a woman who was far too elegant in manner and dress to be simply strolling around that neighborhood at that hour. Sylia Stingray was elusive, even reclusive; and there had been next to nothing on her in the usual search engines. Lisa had had to dig deeply, using some not-entirely-licit accounts on the University research machines to come up with the one photo and the fragmentary bio she'd assembled. The sparseness of the available information told her gut that she'd been on the right track. That, and one or two telling details -- such as the name of Sylia's father.

The next time she'd visited MegaTokyo, she arrived four days earlier than she'd told either Nene or her uncle that she would. She spent that time watching the Ladys633 building from the hotel across the street. When she spotted Nene and her friends Linna and Priss all making near-daily visits to the Silky Doll, visits that often lasted several hours, she was certain.

And now she had the final confirmation. She was here, to learn about the Sabers directly. Maybe the first person outside of the four-woman group so entitled. She shivered. Nene took firm hold her hand and led her through a door into a dimly-lit hallway. At its far end, there was a door through which Lisa spied streetlights and dark, blocky shapes -- the store proper, she thought.

They stopped at the last door before the end of the hallway. A faint, narrow line of light seeped out at its edges. Nene gave Lisa a look that was probably meant to be reassuring, but seemed fearful, instead. Turning back to the door, Nene knocked once, then opened it. "Here she is," she said confidently.

Sylia Stingray sat cloaked in shadows. The lamps in the room were lit, but they were positioned such that their glare hid the woman; she herself was a silhouette, faintly outlined by the streetlamps that shone through the window behind her. Lisa thought she could recognize the hairstyle, but almost nothing else about the woman was visible.

"Thank you, Nene, you can go now." The voice was the one Lisa remembered from that night -- calm, controlled, elegant.

Nene hesitated. "But..."

"That will be all, Nene." There was a whipcrack of ice in the second dismissal. Nene flinched, then nodded. She squeezed Lisa's hand reassuringly, then dropped it to retreat back into the hall.

"Please, sit," Stingray said after the door shut. The sharp click of the latch engaging echoed ominously through the room. There was a single chair, positioned precisely in front of the darkness-enshrouded desk. Lisa sat.

She hazarded a quick glance around the room. It looked like an ordinary store manager's office. Shelves held what appeared to be bound financial records and distributors' catalogs. A door in the left wall presumably led to one of the rooms she'd passed in the hallway.

A rustle of paper drifted out of the shadows, and the silhouette bent its head. "Vanette, Elisabeth Michelle, aka 'Lisa'. Born 21 April 2015 in MegaTokyo. BA in Journalism, 2036, University of Kobe. Currently dwelling at apartment 2533, Building 4, Morita Federal Housing Complex, Ota ward. Current employment status: journalist/photographer, 16 Tokyo Day Times. Parents: Mayumi Sato, housewife, and Claude Foucharde Vanette, photojournalist. Father deceased, March 23, 2034, cardiac arrest. Your only other living relative is Beauregarde Todo, the Chief of the AD Police, uncle by marriage to the late Hitomi Sato, who died in the second Kanto earthquake." There was a pause. "I can go on for quite a while, but I won't. Suffice it to say, we have a complete dossier on you, Lisa. We know everything -- except: why?"

Lisa found herself unable to answer. Her heart was pounding and she was sweating. Her mouth had gone completely dry. She had just wanted to hear a few war stories from Nene; she never expected to end up in this position. For the first time since receiving Nene's message, her vague worry about the wisdom of her request crystallized into dread and panic. Oh my god, she thought. I'm going to die, she's going to kill me, my body'll be found in the harbor and she'll smash my camera! Finally, she managed to croak, "Why what?"

"Why have you kept our secrets?"

"What...?" Lisa gasped. That was not the question she'd been expecting.

"You've known who we all were -- if not right away, then certainly you knew within a year of our first meeting." Sylia's voice was level and ice-cold. "You could have gotten yourself a dream job with any major news service in Japan with the photos and information you had. Certainly any GENOM-owned newspaper would have rewarded you handsomely. Instead, for three years you keep such a career-making scoop a secret, and go to work for a second-string news bureau after graduation." There was a pause. "No sooner than you get the job, though, you come begging for tidbits of information on us, Lisa. Can you imagine how this might look to me? Do you need to wonder why I might ask you 'why'?"

Lisa shook her head frantically, her eyes wide in fear. "No, it's not like that! Nene's my friend! They're all my friends! I've gone dancing with Linna, I've been to Priss's concerts! I couldn't betray them! I wouldn't!"

The shadowed figure said nothing.

Lisa took a deep gasping breath. "It's more than just friendship, too! It was something you made me understand that night. I'd made a mistake, and I never realized it. I wasn't acting like a journalist -- I was just a little girl with a grudge. I wanted to get even with Priss for breaking the camera my father gave me. It was the last gift he gave me before he died," she sobbed.

Sylia seemed to bow her head in the darkness, but still did not respond.

"That hurt, and I wanted to hurt you back. The papers said you were evil mercenaries, and I so wanted to believe that. I'd forgotten that I had a duty."

"A duty?" Her interrogator seemed intrigued. "To what?"

Lisa sighed, and wiped the tears that had begun to flow over her cheeks. "To the truth. I forgot what my father had taught me -- what being a journalist is about. I realized that I'd trusted sources that could easily be biased. I realized that I was biased. And that I'd allowed my bias to warp how I saw you." She drew a deep breath. "Knowing Nene before I found out she was a Saber helped me realize that. I was already changing my mind when you talked to me. What I saw during Dr. Yoshida's takeover of the ADP building just confirmed that I'd made the right decision.

"I went back to school and relearned everything I knew about the Sabers -- from honest, balanced sources, or at least sources whose bias I knew and could filter out. You're mercenaries, yes. But you do so much good for this city! You have nothing to fear from me, Ms. Stingray. I wouldn't endanger that -- or my friends! -- for anything."

"A pretty sentiment." The woman opened a drawer to her side and withdrew something that Lisa couldn't make out. "With your curiosity and knowledge, though, I fear it is far too dangerous to my people and to me to allow you to run around free and unsupervised any more." Closing the drawer, she stood and stepped around the desk, her hands working with the object. Lisa heard an ominious ratcheting sound, like the mechanism of a gun, and a stab of fear shot through her stomach.

Sylia Stingray stepped into the light and stood before Lisa. She wore high heels that pushed her already-impressive height to nearly two meters; she towered over Lisa, who shrank back into her chair. In her hands Sylia held an oddly-shaped pistol. There was no expression on her face at all, and Lisa realized that she was going to die.

"I'm afraid, Lisa Vanette," Sylia said, gazing down at the pistol in her hand, "that you leave me no choice..."

She paused, almost imperceptibly.

"...but to recruit you into the organization."

Lisa clamped her eyes shut and shrieked in terror.

A moment later, she realized what Sylia had said. "What?" she squeaked, daring to open one eye.

A ghost of a smile played across Sylia's lips. "I'm recruiting you for the Knight Sabers."

Lisa opened her other eye, and stared incredulously at Sylia. "I don't have any kind of fighting skills."

Sylia waved dismissively. "Oh, I'm not recruiting you for the front line."

Lisa straightened up in her seat, re-arranged her clothing, and tried to reclaim some measure of lost dignity. "Then what do you want of me?"

Sylia leaned back and rested against the edge of her desk, stretching her legs out and still playing with the pistol. "There has always been more to the Knight Sabers than just four women in armor, Lisa. There is also a small support team, specialists all. I'm adding a new specialty to that team." She smiled, a true full smile this time, and Lisa felt herself relaxing despite the gun in her hostess' hands. "After six years of operation, we have acquired a rather... mixed... reputation, mostly due to the media efforts of our enemy. I want to change that. I want you to be our 'mouthpiece', as it were."

Lisa frowned. "You want me to slant stories in your favor?"

"No." Sylia shook her head. "Merely make sure that accurate, unbiased material is as available to the public as the official GENOM position."

Lisa nodded slowly as she thought it over. "I could live with that."

"I'd also like for you to act as a... I think 'chronicler' would be the best word. Or perhaps 'historian'. Someone to write up accounts of our activities, with an eye towards future generations who might need an explanation -- or a warning."

A grin spread across Lisa's face. "I like it." Then she got a shrewd look. "And what do I get in return for my contribution to the team?"

Sylia tipped the gun so that its barrel pointed at the ceiling, and stared at the sight on its end. "Well, you get to live." She chuckled as Lisa flinched. "Seriously, you'll receive a share from the fee for every paid job we take. Your share will be somewhat smaller than what the other members of the support team get, as your position will not be as mission-critical as theirs, but I don't think you'll be disappointed. You can be paid in cash directly, or have it laundered through means we've employed since we began; I'd recommend the latter. As part of a special public service organization, your salary will of course be tax-exempt. We have a very good medical plan, and a liberal vacation policy." Sylia raised her eyebrows and quirked one corner of her mouth in apparent amusement. "Is there anything else you'd like to know?"

"Just one. Why risk offering this to me?"

Sylia's expression changed to utter seriousness, as if a switch had been thrown. "Because you've shown yourself worthy of our trust in the past, I choose to trust you now." Lisa nodded, and Sylia added, "So, do you accept the position?"

The door to the adjacent room burst open and Nene flew in. "Say yes, Lisa! Say yes!" Lisa started giggling and before she realized it, she was on the floor laughing, as much for the release of tension as for the absurdity of the situation. Nene stood and stared. "What did I say?"

From the open door, Priss and Linna looked into the office. "Nene!" Priss growled and rolled her eyes.

"Do you think we can deal with two of them?" Linna asked completely straightfaced.

It took a few minutes, but Lisa eventually calmed down. Sylia waited patiently, as though she were used to, but above, this kind of activity. When she finally got her laughter under control, Lisa stood and saluted Sylia. "I accept the position!" She held the salute for a few seconds, then relaxed and added, "And Ms. Stingray, if you could please put down the gun, it would make me feel a whole lot safer."

Before Sylia could reply, Priss grabbed the gun from her hand. "This?" she asked. "You don't have to be afraid of this -- it's part of tonight's celebration. Paintball at the Survival Shoot, then we treat you to dinner!" Priss waved the gun, which went off with a sharp popping noise. There was a loud splat and a large, wet red mark appeared on the ceiling tile above her. Surprised, Priss looked up just in time for a dollop of red paint to drop onto her face. "Aw, shit."

* * *

Friday, July 18, 2036. 11:31 PM.

The view from the top of my building was quite beautiful, even given that I was living in a low-rent housing project. The Morita buildings were located in south-central MegaTokyo. Most of the northern horizon was dominated by GENOM's Cone and the upscale neighborhoods, and at night was simply gorgeous. It reminded me a little of looking at L.A. from the Hills -- this intricate, almost ethereal, webwork of lights that pulsed and flowed like a living thing.

Unfortunately, the lights of the city, as beautiful as they were, also drowned out most of the stars on the clearest of nights. That particular night, though, the sky above the city was cloudy, and the reflected light from the city below turned it a near-uniform glowing pink-grey which looked almost like the inside of some great beast's stomach. I thought of GENOM again and shuddered. The moon was down to a narrow sliver, all but hidden by the clouds.

But sightseeing wasn't why I was up here at this hour.

I walked back to the concrete hut which housed the access stairway. I'd left my helmet on the roof in the shadows that wrapped themselves against the side wall of the hut. I picked it up and thought about how long it'd been since I'd seen her. More than two years for me since I'd been catapulted out of my universe. More than two years. I held my helmet under one arm and after rotating the external speakers to their "on" position, I flipped open the keypad. Without looking, I entered the sequence I wanted, all but the execute key.

I gently put the helmet down, and hit the last button. A moment later, that famous piano intro began, the brief keyboard riff that's kept Eddie Wilson and the Cruisers a household name despite the thirty-six years since his death. It wasn't the single version, though, but a rare bootleg from their 1961 performance at Fairleigh Dickinson. I've always felt it was far superior to the better-known album cut.

"<The dark side's calling, now nothing is real
She'll never know just how I feel
From out of the shadows she walks like a dream...>"

"<Hello, love>," she said from behind me. I smiled and turned to watch her step out of the slash of black cast behind and to the side of the hut by the bright spotlight over its door. She wasn't in her duty uniform, but in her "out partying" garb: miniskirt, jacket, thigh-high boots with ten-centimeter heels, all of black leather, a silver chain belt, and that little velvet bustier she favored. Instead of the duty-wear French braid, her auburn hair was flowing loose except for two slender plaits at each temple, and she was wearing her favorite black Ray-Bans.

"<Hiya, Gorgeous.>" I spread my arms and she flowed into my embrace.

"<I see you didn't call me up for a combat, for once,>" she murmured into my ear after we broke the kiss.

"<No, not this time.>" I soaked up the feeling of her in my arms, knowing how brief a time I would have her.

She held me at arms' length, and cocked her head at me, her left ear just a little forward, in that way she has when she's taking a good long "look" at me. "<You're lonely and homesick,>" she said finally.

"<No, how can you tell?>" I rolled my eyes at her.

She tweaked my nose. "<Silly. How could I not know?>"

I grabbed her hand and kissed her knuckles. "<Damn it, I miss you. It's been over two years since I talked to you...>"

"<The real me,>" she gently reminded.

I nodded. "<It'd be so much easier if you were here with me. I don't know how I managed alone for all those years before I met you.>"

"<Think of it as just another challenge for you, Doug.>"

I made a sour face. "<To be absolutely honest, Mags, I could really do with far fewer challenges in my life.>"

She laughed, a musical chime that echoed off the surrounding buildings. "<Doug, you'd be bored silly in less than a week.>"

"<You're probably right.>" I smiled at her. "<But either way, I'd rather be living my life at home, not here.>"

Maggie's expression grew pensive as she seemed to look off to my right. "<We'll find you. Don't worry. You know we won't have taken your disappearance lightly. I'm certain we're doing all we can to figure out where you are. You did vanish right in the middle of a battle, after all, and we all know you wouldn't just up and run away. We're looking for you, Doug. I'm looking for you.>"

I shook my head, not in disagreement but in disbelief at how lucky I was. "<Jeeze, Maggie. I love you. I can't wait to see you again.>" I took her hand and led her to the low wall ringing the edge of the building, and we sat down.

"<So, what have you been doing with yourself?>" she asked.

"<Well, I've been settling in here, planning for a long stay, even though I'm hoping to leave soon. I'm trying to keep a lower profile this time, too. I'm building a cycle. Oh, and I've made a friend.>"

She favored me with that cute lopsided grin of hers. "<Only one?>"

I snorted. "<Only one. I've been busy.>"

"<I'm sure you have. Anything else?>"

"<I've been trying to get home, of course. But it's hard. I need a different song for each worldjump. And each failure burns me out for a couple days, even when they don't just turn around and bite me on the butt. I hate it!>" I pounded my thigh with my fist even as she wrapped an arm around my shoulders and drew me closer. "<I hate how helpless it makes me feel. Damn, but I wish there was someone I could ask about all this, but experts in worldjumping are a bit rare.>"

"<Maybe you should just sit tight and wait for us to show up.>"

I shook my head. "<Staying put would be the logical thing to do, but you know what Hexe says -- 'logical' and me don't always go together.>"

"<Correction.>" Maggie held up one finger. "<'Rational' is the word she uses. Rational and you don't always go together.>"

"<Thank you ever so much,>" I said, dripping loving sarcasm over every word. Then I kissed her, a brief peck. "<Anyway, I tried that already in Velgarth, the first world I was in. I was there for two years, Maggie, two years. Either you guys are having a lot of trouble, or we've got a nasty time differential; either way, I really think it's up to me to find my way home. It may get me lost worse, but at least I'm doing something to get back.>"

Maggie nodded. "<That does make a certain twisted kind of sense,>" she admitted with a frown.

My eye was caught by a flash of red. The inside of my helmet pulsed with a ruddy glow from the HUD, and that could only mean one thing... the song was almost over. I'd been so caught up in her that I hadn't even noticed. "<We're just about out of time,>" I said as I stood and pulled Maggie to her feet. In those boots, she was eight centimeters taller than me, but I raised myself up on my toes. She giggled at my effort, and kissed me again. "<Maggie, I love you. I need you. And, oh god, I miss you so badly. I'll find my way back to you, I promise.>"

"<Come back to the real me,>" she reminded me once again. "<I love you, too. Please keep...>" But the song ended with a flourish and the thunder of recorded applause. She evaporated in my arms before she could finish the sentence, and I was left with nothing but the shadows that drifted out of my embrace and into the night.

And I knelt at the retaining wall and pounded my fists against the cinderblocks as I cried wordlessly in front the panorama of MegaTokyo. It hadn't helped. It had only made it worse. And I swore to myself I would never again summon the simulacrum of my love for anything other than combat.

* * *

Lisa scampered down the stairwell as quickly as she dared, cradling her camera against herself with one arm wrapped protectively around it. She skidded to a halt on the landing for the 22nd floor, and slumped against the green-painted cinderblock. Holding up her camera, she stared at it and pondered the new images stored within.

Still giddy from the excitement of the previous night, she had spotted Doug heading up to the roof with his mysterious helmet and had followed him. Her intention had been to ask him a few probing questions. Instead, she had witnessed something that had completely driven her recruitment into the Sabers from her mind and had only deepened the mystery surrounding her neighbor.

What did he mean? Lisa thought. What did I just see?


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(Version 1.1, 25 September 2001)
(Version 1.2, 22 October 2003)

This work of fiction is copyright © 1998-2001, Robert M. Schroeck.

Bubblegum Crisis and the characters thereof are copyright and a trademark of Artmic Inc. and Youmex Inc., and are used without permission.

"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.

"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.

"Maggie 'Shadowwalker' Viel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

Lyrics from "Enter Sandman" by Metallica copyright © 1991, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett.

Lyrics from "On The Dark Side" by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band copyright © 1983, John Cafferty.

These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.

For a full explanation of the references and hidden tidbits in this story, see the Drunkard's Walk II Concordance at:


Other chapters of this story can be found at:


The Drunkard's Walk discussion forums are open for those who wish to trade thoughts and comments with other readers, as well as with the author:


My thanks to Jurai-Knight for a useful suggestion.

Many thanks to my prereaders: Kathleen Avins, Joseph Avins, Barry Cadwgan, Helen Imre and Peggy Schroeck. Additional prereaders for future chapters welcome.

This page was created on October 25, 1998.
Last modified November 11, 2017.