<< PreviousNext >>

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

 

 

12: Shoot Him Now! Shoot Him Now!

Beware the honorable man of peace who is forced to war. He will do anything necessary to end the conflict in his favor in order to protect his own and restore the peace. -- Unknown, as paraphrased in "Best Served Cold" by Robert Knighton

Warriors, come out and play-ay. -- Luther (David Patrick Kelly), The Warriors (1979)

"I'm going to go for violence, 'cause I know that works." -- Peggy U.V. Schroeck as "Shadowwalker," during her very first roleplaying game session, 1988

 

A rooftop overlooking a darkened street amidst the Shogakukan complex. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:23 PM

"<System! 'With A Little Help From My Friends'! Play!>"

From her position high above the action, Lisa could hear Doug's strong tenor voice clearly. She paid only token attention to his words, though, as she tried to follow his awkward backflip with her camera.

He had never mentioned this particular song to her, let alone the effect it would have, but she understood enough about his power to guess what it would do. And Lisa knew it could irrevocably turn Sylia into his enemy.

Half a virtual century and hundreds of virtual lives spent in the image of Doug's homeworld had taught Lisa Vanette many things. She had acquired a unique perspective on international relations and the politics of global social issues. She could use the crucible of Doug's tumultuous homeworld as a contrast against which to compare the world in which she had been born, and acquire insights thereon. She had witnessed -- had participated in -- dozens of wars, "police actions" and "intercessions". And she had seen the Warriors -- whose four branch teams had never numbered more than a dozen members each at any one time -- in action. Doug's boast notwithstanding, the Warriors were an army. A very successful one.

"Oh, Doug," she murmured despairingly. "Overkill is not an option."

They appeared together, though not in the same manner. What drew Lisa's attention first were the pair of roaring, writhing two-meter tall columns of blue-white lightning that danced on the roadbed on either side of the spot where Doug had landed in a painful-looking crouch. A ripple of brighter, whiter light raced up each one from base to top, and in its wake the wild energy was constrained -- in the form of a woman's body.

There was a thunderous crack and a flash like a monstrous arclight. In spite of themselves, the Sabers flinched at the visceral impact of the blast. When their flash suppression systems disengaged, all that was left of the pillars of lightning were writhing streamers of electricity snapping and hissing across the asphalt -- and two women.

Both were as tall or taller than Sylia out of her hardsuit. The one on the left was lean and hard-muscled, with a short but feminine crop of auburn hair, windblown and gently waving, surmounting her black-clad form. She wore a bodysuit of some soft-looking fabric, with a high neck and cutouts that left her shoulders and most of her midriff bare save for a golden metal ring that linked top and bottom together. Low-heeled, knee-high boots and a bolero jacket, both of shining black leather and trimmed with small metallic lightning bolt accents, completed her ensemble.

The one on the right was a figure of living chrome, from her waist-length ringletted hair of spun silver to her gleaming metallic feet -- and she was utterly, unconcernedly nude. Her bearing was curious, suggesting both a no-nonsense, all-business attitude and a matter-of-fact sensuality. A coinlike disk was visible at the top of her generous cleavage.

"Wetter Hexe," Lisa whispered with amazement as the memories welled up unbidden from the back of her mind. "Silverbolt."

As Lisa watched and took her photos, the two glanced down at the injured Doug and simultaneously took a step closer to him, looming over him protectively. Silverbolt raked a slit-eyed gaze across the Sabers, and clenched her fists. Both her hands and her eyes began to glow, blue-white again, bright enough to cast shadows. Hexe's eyes widened, and she looked at her own hands. Raising her eyebrows, she quickly glanced about herself, ending with a sly, sidelong look at Doug, almost as if to say, "Oho, what have we here?", the look an irritated but fond older sister might give. Then she settled her own tight, unyielding stare on Priss and Nene.

Behind Hexe and Silverbolt, part of the darkness between two buildings moved, twisted, and detached itself. One step took it into the street, where it revealed itself to be the form of a slim, lithely-muscled woman clad in black Spandex from head to foot. The only parts of her not covered by the shimmering fabric were her mouth and a waist-length French braid of thick, heavy hair a darker, browner shade of auburn than Hexe's. "Maggie!" breathed Lisa as she recognized the woman -- then another name came to her. "Shadowwalker." She had barely taken form from the shadows that were her namesake when she, too, spotted Doug, crouched and bleeding. There was an audible rush of displaced air, and she seemed almost to teleport to his side; her all-but invisible movement set litter swirling in the gust of wind left by her passage. With a gentleness that seemed heartbreakingly tender to Lisa, Shadowwalker reached down to her wounded husband and helped him to stand.

Priss growled and took a step forward, and the last of them appeared. With a snarling cry that echoed down the length of the street, a great spotted hunting cat erupted from the ground in front of the other Warriors, exploding upward through the undamaged asphalt like a ghost launched by a catapult. Fangs and claws bared, it dropped to all four paws in a stance that spoke of readiness to attack, and snarled a challenge to the Knight Sabers that echoed up and down the glass-sided canyon.

A perfect Jack-in-the-Box, a voice from another world whispered in the back of her mind, and Lisa realized that the cat was not an "it", but a "she"; not a cat, but... "Kat!"

In the street below, the cheetah yowled again, then her form ran like wax under a blowtorch. Yellow pelt faded as black spots expanded, flowed together, and exchanged the texture of gleaming fur for the slick shine of gleaming cloth and leather; tanned, muscled flesh appeared among the black. Blonde hair exploded into a fan around her head, then gently dropped to drape now-human shoulders as two green eyes stared balefully at the Sabers. Kat the woman now sat crouched upon the road, the elegantly-manicured fingers of one strong hand splayed out before her on the asphalt, the other hand curled clawlike in front of her impressive bosom. In tones of menacing soprano velvet that easily carried to the roof she snarled, "Keep. Your. Distance."

* * *

"<Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends...>"

The process of selecting and manifesting the simulacra only took a second, but the strain involved left me momentarily stunned and shaking. Not to mention the drain on my mana reserves, which, even with the node to draw upon, had been immense. I was, in fact, nearly tapped out. It was a good thing that they had dropped into formation around me, as I couldn't have dodged a slow-thrown bean bag there for a little while. I was more than a little concerned -- it had never been that bad before. Then again, I had never tried to manifest four simulacra at the same time before. I'd never had a need to -- I'd always had at least a couple real Warriors handy.

As Maggie helped me to my feet, I shook my still-spinning head and made a mental note to myself: Do not, in the future, summon four simulacra at once if I can at all avoid it. Especially while wounded.

"<...Gonna try with a little help from my friends...>"

I don't know how long it lasted, but for a time the street was a silent tableau as the squad surrounded me protectively and the Knights tried to assess the new dynamics of the field of battle. I caught my breath, forced my vision to stop swimming, and viciously suppressed the pain of my wounds. Then I lifted my head and looked White straight in the lack-of-eyes. "Knight Sabers, meet the Warriors. Warriors, the Knight Sabers." Hexe was already at work; I felt the ambient air temperature rise almost instantly to the range needed to support her usual thunderstorm. Completely encased in their suits, the Knights probably wouldn't notice until too late.

White's helmet swung from side to side as she checked out my new companions. "I'm surprised, Colonel," her filtered voice buzzed. "You manifest women to fight women? I'd hardly expected that kind of sexism from you."

I laughed, and so did the others. "Sexism? On the contrary, White. I'm taking you extremely seriously. I've brought out the team's heavy hitters. Each and every one of these lovely ladies can kick my little leather-clad ass six ways from Sunday. Especially my beloved wife." I gestured toward Maggie, who inclined her head with a smile.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hexe smirk. (The simulacrum was showing considerable restraint; usually by this point the real Hexe would have told me to shut up and then taken over the conversation. Instead, she seemed almost amused at the idea of me being in command.) In front of me Kat idly mimed grooming herself, feline-style. "<'Women and girls rule my world',>" I added, misquoting Prince with a vicious little grin that they probably couldn't see.

The still air was disturbed by a growing breeze. I didn't have to look up to know that the sky overhead was clouding over with preternatural speed. Of course.

"<They're just typical battlesuit goons, ladies. Have fun,>" I murmured, and grinned. Nastily.

* * *

"Sylia?" Linna murmured. "I think we may be in trouble."

* * *

"Abort primary mission. Repeat, abort mission," Katherine Madigan calmly intoned into the microphone. "Switch to observation and recovery protocols."

She released the thumb switch on the handset and swore softly. Damn him! That man is chaos incarnate! Any chance she had thought she might have to snatch some kind of success from the rapidly-distintegrating mission profile was completely gone now. Four new allies from nowhere, four -- all clearly paranormals like the Visitor -- and now even the Sabers were pausing to reconsider their attack. Knowing the mercenaries' history, though, Katherine thought it unlikely they would do more than pause. The chance that her merely human operatives, as well equipped as they were, could pull off this mission now was zero. Better to pull them back and plan a second assault than add to the debacle forming in the streets at that moment. Not to mention the unexpected storm which was suddenly brewing over the city.

At least the tiny sensor relays that her teams were leaving behind (per their standing contingency orders) were better suited to observing -- and surviving -- the imminent conflict. Between that and the post-combat sweep her people would perform to find any damaged and/or discarded fragments of the Knight Sabers' technology, she ought to be able to salvage something from this debacle. But the utter collapse of her initial plan still galled her no end.

First thing I have to do for next time, Katherine snarled to herself, is make sure that the Knight Sabers are completely out of the way! As the radio relayed confirmations that her operatives had withdrawn from the incipient combat zone, she forced herself to calm, and then began to plan once more.

* * *

Overwhelm and destroy.

As I've said before, that's the Warriors' philosophy when it comes to approaching the enemy. If we're deployed, we're not there to make nice, we're not there to negotiate a surrender, and we're not there to let the enemy walk away under their own power. We are the U.N.'s last resort in a violent and unpredictable world, and we take the "last" part of that very seriously. So it's very rare for us to fight at anything below our absolute full power.

However, this time I needed us to.

We always have at least one mid- to high-powered telepath on the team -- Skitz had been filling that role when I was ejected from homeline. We weren't the first team to realize the tactical advantage of a telepathic dataweave, but I can safely say that the Warriors have made it an artform. A dozen silent metahumans in black who move like one single organism and know the location of every hostile mind within several hundred meters? Face it. We're scary.

What I wouldn't have given for a telepath at that moment. I had brought out the best of the team not just for their raw power, but also for their finesse. I needed to tell them that it was the finesse that was really needed, without letting the Knights know. Without a telepath -- none of them were psis -- I had to resort to another method.

So even as I blustered in the face of the Knights' firepower, I appeared to fidget as I hung onto Maggie, scraping and kicking the ground with one booted foot. I wasn't really fidgeting, although I certainly was nervous enough; I was in fact using a Warriors' tap code, specialized for battle situations -- a real code, too, not a cipher like Morse. The triplets of taps I made said, "Hostile non-enemy. Non-lethal combat. Delaying action only. Divide and keep separate."

(If I hadn't had to use a song to make my allies in the first place, I could have served as the telepath. Switchboarding a dozen familiar minds was something I could do even before Psyche had decided to train me, and five minds -- including my own -- wouldn't even have been a conscious effort for me then. That being moot, however, I employed one of our several fallbacks. I would have used a gesture code if Kat hadn't been facing away from me; Maggie's sonar would have picked it up easily. It would have been a little "cleaner", but I had to make do with what would work in the situation as it was. That's why we have a half dozen or so different alternative codes.)

The ladies made their acknowledgements after the I repeated the sequence. We each have our own unique ACKs, to keep an enemy from discerning a pattern in our communications. (Mine is the first bar of "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down", whistled or hummed.) I felt Hexe's breeze play over my nose in a short-long-short series of minigusts, while Maggie's inaudible low-powered sonic caress slid across the exposed area of my cheek. Silverbolt acknowledged with focused static charge that raised and lowered the hair on the back of my left hand in a distinctive sequence. And Kat hissed up the register and down again -- which startled Blue and Pink. They twitched, and in response my teammates exploded into action.

"<No retreat, baby! No surrender!>" I bellowed as they did, knowing the start of a fight when I saw one. "And no quarter!"

Kat leapt forward and to the right a little, shifting to cheetah form and noncorp at the same time as she went through the blue Knight Saber to get at the olive one. Once through Blue, she went corp again and hit Olive high on the chest with both front paws, sending the two of them rolling down the street like a pair of kittens on a sunny rug.

Blue froze for a moment from the shock and surprise of a shapechanger in mid-shift jumping at and through her. (It's a freaky experience, I can tell you, and intentionally so. Kat may be all soft-spoken sweetness and light when off-duty, but she's a demon when it comes to psychological tactics.) In that critical moment when Blue was stunned, Diana took off and hit her at the waist in a literal flying tackle, grabbing the Knights' brawler and dragging her a good hundred meters down the street along a slightly different vector from Kat's. Their flight ended with a painful-sounding impact as Diana stopped short but let Blue continue flying -- into the concrete wall of one of the buildings lining the street.

Pink's twitch had snapped open her wings and taken her straight up, her boxy-looking flight pack surprisingly responsive and agile in the air. Over my shoulder I heard Maggie chuckle. She let go of me, and I felt her step away. I had a suspicion what was about to happen and, grinning to myself, looked up. I was right. A moment later, as Pink hovered a dozen meters up and spun in place, Maggie stepped out of a shadowed nook on the facade of the floor above her and leapt upon the Knight Saber's back. The unexpected impact sent Pink into a barely-controlled dive away from the other Knights and toward the street; Maggie held on tightly until they were about three meters from the ground, then let go and allowed herself be thrown clear by Pink's wild gyrations.

My wife's delighted laughter echoed along the concrete canyon as she tumbled to the ground, landing flat on her feet facing Pink at the next intersection. Reaching back without turning her head, she seized the half-full municipal trash can behind her with one hand and slung it overhand at Pink. "Catch, slowpoke!" she shouted and took off down the street at a leisurely jog. (It had to be leisurely -- I could actually see more than a black and auburn blur for once.)

The can arced upward, leaving a trail of litter in its path like some kind of diseased comet. Pink clumsily sideslipped away from it, barely avoiding being hit. A half-eaten something splattered across her faceplate a moment later, and I swear I heard her growl. It was probably the engines in the flightpack, though, because she took off like a rocket after Maggie, one hand furiously wiping her visor.

I would have kept watching that fight, if a sizzle-crack and a flicker of motion in the corner of my eye hadn't drawn my wandering attention back to the matter at hand. I snapped my gaze back to forward, to find Hexe's open hand twenty centimeters in front of my nose, just beyond my field. A thick, silvery liquid not unlike mercury, emitting a blue glow like one of those killer knitting-needles, sluggishly dripped from her fingers. "I think not, White," Hexe said, her Japanese no more accented than her English -- which is to say, just barely enough to sound exotic.

I uncrossed my eyes to see White lower her new weapon from its firing position. "You must admit it was worth the attempt."

Next to me, Hexe nodded and smiled. "Agreed. So is this," she snapped, and with a blast of thunder that set my ears ringing and the entire street shaking, a bolt of lighting speared down from the clouds overhead.

* * *

The ADP launched its second salvo at the boomers before the music had faded into the distance. As cyberdroids dropped and spasmed in the plaza before the entrance to Geo City, Daley watched Leon try not to shoot worried glances in the direction in which the Loon and the Sabers had vanished. To a causal onlooker, Leon's cool was undisturbed. For someone as practiced at reading his moods as Daley was after all these years, though, the inspector's disquiet was visible.

It took a third salvo to bring down the last of the rogues, and then Leon and Daley led the ground troops forward to make the official captures. The ADP progress across the plaza was slow and cautious. Weapons throughout the ranks were drawn, and the frontmost line kept a bead on the fallen boomers. As they advanced, Daley kept one ear to the radio, monitoring the chatter from the Firebees circling overhead; they would be the first to see if a particularly-canny boomer were merely lying doggo, awaiting a chance at a clever ambush.

Luck was with the AD Police this night, though -- every one of the rogues had been sufficiently disabled that they could be safely deactivated. The ADP recovery teams found their hands full for the first time in years. For far too long if they had been called out at all for an incident it had been been merely to sweep up the pieces left behind by the Sabers. Sitting on the hood of the squad car, Daley smiled to himself as he watched them unlimber every piece of near-mothballed equipment they had handy, whether it was really needed or not. Nearby, Leon stood at the driver's door, radioing a report to HQ.

A warm, moist breeze played across Daley's face and he frowned. Warm? he mused absently. In February? Looking up, he felt an ominous chill unrelated to the weather when he realized a low-lying bank of clouds was swelling with unnatural swiftness. Quickly obscuring the all-but-full moon, the clouds spiraled toward the darkened blocks of the Shogakukan Complex, into which the Loon had led the Knight Sabers. The clouds' roiling undersides, underlit faintly orange-pink by the remaining streetlights below, already cloaked the tips of the city's tallest buildings. Daley shook his head in worry. The sky was supposed to be clear all the way through to morning, and clouds just didn't form that fast. "Leon?" he called, standing up to take a step toward his partner.

As Leon looked up from the radio handset, flickers of white light darted about within the cloudbank. Then it vomited a bolt of lightning directly into the heart of the blacked-out zone. The seething pillar of electricity lasted somewhere between an eyeblink and a second, washing the plaza in a bright white light that momentarily overwhelmed even the garish neon of the nearby buildings. Then it cut off, and the thunder exploded upon them, battering their eardrums and pounding at their chests.

"Shit! Priss!" Leon hissed unthinkingly when the thunder faded, loud enough that Daley heard him. He dropped the handset and threw himself into the driver's seat. Daley hurled himself to the side as the door slammed and the engine revved. Tires squealed in protest and the engine howled, leaving a stunned and surprised Daley half-sprawled on the ground, watching as the car disappeared into the maze of streets on the other side of the plaza.

"'Priss'?" he murmured to himself, one eyebrow raised.

* * *

As she studied the action below, Lisa found herself occupied with several tasks that took up the majority of her attention.

The first was, of course, taking the necessary photographs.

The second was a cycling litany of thanks to every god she could think of that she was up here and not in the street. Not just because she was out of the way of most of the action, but because it was the perfect vantage point. In the precious few moments between the explosion of motion below and the subsequent blast of lightning, the four Warriors and the four Sabers had spread out along the length of the block into four individual battles. She was in the best place to see all of them. Thank god for telephoto lenses, she thought, continuing her silent thanksgiving.

Her ears still rang from the explosive thunder of the lightning bolt that struck less than 20 meters away. And thank god Sylia shelled out for a military-grade camera after "Sailor Loon". My old one would never have survived the EMP from that bolt.

The third task occupying her mind was a growing undercurrent of worry. Although the battles were currently at ground level, they wouldn't necessarily stay that way. Between all the hardsuits' jump jets, Nene's flightpack and (according to the disturbingly complete "memories" she had) Hexe and Silverbolt's ability to fly, there was no guarantee that they would remain there. She took a quick glance around herself to make sure she had an evacuation route if anything untoward came her way.

One other major concern preyed upon her mind: in the presence of the Warriors, the memories from Doug's homeworld were growing more and more intrusive. Worse, they seemed to be becoming an increasingly seamless part of her own memories, frightening in the level of detail available to her most casual consultation. Glancing along the street to where Nene hurtled like a buzzbomb toward the woman with the auburn braid, Lisa could feel them bubble up unbidden. "Shadowwalker," she whispered to herself. "Headmistress, Warriors Academy. Real name, Margaret Ursula Viel. Nickname, Maggie. Spouse of Douglas 'Looney Toons' Sangnoir. Born April 6, 1962. Height, 171 centimeters. Weight, 55 kilograms. Hair, auburn. Eye color... None...?"

A flick of the eyes, and she saw a cheetah rake its claws along the stomach of Linna's armor, apparently with no effect. "Kat," she recited almost automatically. "Public Relations Officer. Real name, Kathleen Mee Avins. Nickname, Kat. Spouse of Joseph 'Dwimanor' Avins. Born June 21, 1965. 166 centimeters, 52 kilograms. Blonde hair, green eyes." This was more than merely disturbing. She could clearly recall Kat's short run in the London production of "Cats" during the winter of 1986-87; she remembered that Kat had undertaken the double role of Jellylorum/Griddlebone in her Warriors ID as a combination of a publicity stunt (for both the theatre and the Warriors) and personal wish-fulfillment.

Lisa shook her head violently. I was not there, dammit! I don't care how clearly I remember the acrobatic stunts she did during her big number. I wasn't even born in 1987. Hell, Mom wasn't even born then! She viciously shoved the ersatz memories to the back of her consciousness and tried to focus on the chaos below.

* * *

"You missed," said Sylia calmly from where she crouched. Sangnoir was rapidly retreating out of the action, she noted absently.

"Yes," the black-clad apparition replied. "I meant to. If I hadn't, you'd now be a steaming heap of meat in a tin can." Her voice was surprisingly sweet, a striking counterpoint to the vaguely contemptuous look in her green eyes.

Inside her helmet, Sylia raised an unseen eyebrow. "And why is that?"

Her opponent shrugged, almost carelessly, as she idly approached. "I don't intend to kill you." She was very tall, Sylia noted irrelevantly. Were she out of her hardsuit, Sylia herself would barely have matched the woman's height.

"No?" Within her armor, Sylia tensed.

The ghost of a mocking smile flickered on the woman's face. "No."

"Pity. I don't feel quite the same obligation." Sylia's laser blade snapped open, and she exploded out of her crouch into a savage lunge.

There was a clash of metal against metal, and Sylia found herself bent over at the waist, her sword-arm twisted away and locked into place by a pair of wicked-looking black daggers -- one at her wrist, the other at the weakly-armored inside bend of her elbow. Twin coronas of blue sparks played along their edges, occasionally sending forth streamers that grounded out into her armor and her own blade. Her opponent held her in place with an effortless strength that overpowered the hardsuit's own, with one ankle in position behind Sylia's right leg to finish the takedown maneuver if necessary. A moment's shock washed across Sylia when she realized that she hadn't even seen the woman move.

"That's just one of your problems," the woman continued calmly, evenly, as if she hadn't just stopped the rush of over 125 kilos of hardsuit and wearer, and the edge of a laser blade.

"I'm impressed," Sylia said in tones that sounded far calmer than she actually felt. "A knife fighter willing to take on a swordswoman?" What she didn't say was that a knife fighter so willing would have to be either suicidally foolish, or inhumanly skilled. Sylia feared that it could only be the the latter. Stepping back, she wrenched her blade and arm free from their electrically-charged trap. Her opponent let her. Again, a sign of either overconfidence or insane skill.

The woman in black -- this particular woman in black, given the others -- simply shrugged. "I'm very good at what I do, and I have good tools."

Sylia didn't reply. Instead, she studied her opponent for a few moments; the woman didn't seem to begrudge her the time, which only added to her confusion. Sylia's attempt to divine some information about her opponent didn't help; the woman stood in a loose, relaxed stance that didn't resemble any knife-fighting form Sylia could recall save for the obvious "ready" position of the blades themselves. If anything, it looked like some of the "rest" positions Linna would take between the parts of a dance routine. Maybe she's a dancer. Maybe Linna should fight her, Sylia thought to herself with grim humor.

She held her daggers in a reverse grip just below chest height, edge-forward and not quite horizontal, their points outward, which told Sylia she was an experienced knife-fighter in a style born more of battle and expediency than of any martial art. Sylia grimaced; that much she knew already. That, and that this woman could intercept a round of armor-piercing ballistic fluid from the BB-2000 Eliminator with only her hand and display no apparent ill effects. Whatever she is, she is not a human being, Sylia decided, and threw herself into another attack.

* * *

Linna fell back, panting. In all her years of practicing martial arts, all her years as a mercenary with the Sabers, she had never fought an opponent remotely like the woman-beast before her. Boomers were fast and strong, yes, but compared to a hardsuited combatant most were almost laughably clumsy and slow. And humans were chaff blown before her wind.

Not so the opponent she faced now.

She had thought that Sangnoir was fast; he was nothing next to these women. They did not move so much as seem to teleport, disappearing from one spot and appearing in another almost instantly, a sonic crack often heralding their change in position.

The cat-woman, however, didn't seem as fast as the others. It might have been the only thing giving Linna a chance, but she doubted it; there was an infuriating casualness about the werecheetah's movements and attacks that suggested that she was taking the time to toy with Linna -- like a tabby torturing a captured mouse.

Linna vigorously suppressed a shudder at the implication.

Her opponent at the moment sat on its -- her -- haunches, licking a paw and passing it over an ear like an overgrown housecat. One intelligent and evaluating eye remained on Linna at all times, but the cheetah seemed content to allow her opponent a chance to regain her breath. In between licks, its muzzle and lips peeled back in what on a human face might have been a smile. A less than comforting smile.

What really shook her confidence was that Linna could not touch the cheetah in combat. Literally -- trying to land a blow on the woman-cat was like trying to punch a fogbank; Linna's hands and feet passed through her opponent as though she were nothing more than a hologram. Only twice, out of all the punches and kicks she'd thrown, had she managed to hit anything solid, and that had felt more like striking a slab of gelatin than flesh. Still, the cat had reacted to the hits, and that gave her some hope.

Still... Linna risked a glance at her right forearm, where four long, narrow gouges revealed the dun-colored cerametal that underlaid the brightly-colored outer layers of her armor. No normal cheetah's claws could have ripped through a hardsuit's surface coating like that. Hell, most boomer weapons couldn't damage a hardsuit like that.

Worse yet were the four cold stings across her belly. One of the great cat's paws had passed through her armor as though it were no more than mist. Its claws had barely scratched along the skin of her stomach, and Linna couldn't decide if she had just been lucky, or if the cat had chosen to hold back what would otherwise have been certain disembowelment -- a killing blow. In her HUD, the hardsuit computer blandly acknowledged damage to her softsuit and the presence of her blood, but insisted that the integrity of the abdominal armor was uncompromised. And that was impossible.

Just what kind of creature was she facing?

* * *

"Take that!" Nene snarled and let loose with the Vulcan. With a sound like an angry jackhammer, the minigun spat a stream of high-caliber rounds, leavened with the occasional tracer, at the grinning woman in black Spandex on the ground below. Her target dodged nimbly out of its way, avoiding both the bullets and the chips of concrete and asphalt sent flying when they splattered across the sidewalk and the street.

Nene screamed and swung the weapon in wild arcs, hoping to walk the line of fire into her target as she had with Sangnoir. The woman's smile never diminished; she simply backpedaled into a slash of black shadow draped along the edge of the building behind her, and disappeared from Nene's sight.

"Wha...?" Nene switched from visible spectrum to infrared. "No!" she choked out. The woman had vanished utterly. The only trace of her left in the darkened nook was a pair of footprints glowing a faint, fading orange in the false-color infrared display.

"Surprise, little merc," a warm alto voice filled her helmet. It was soft and breathy, and sounded as though the speaker were, impossibly, inside it with her. Nene froze in shock and surprise, just before her hardsuit's external microphones abrubtly cut out, and the right wing of her flight pack exploded into a shower of dust.

* * *

"Oh, no, Nene, don't go after her," Lisa murmured, lowering her camera for a moment. Damn. Doug's picked his squad well, she thought as her borrowed memories laid out all the powers and abilities of the four metahuman women for her to survey. Two lightning-throwers, who could use their control of electricity to short out or subvert the hardsuits' power and computer systems if they so chose. Both electrics were multimach flyers, too. The shapeshifter and one of the electrics were variable non-corps, which canceled out the armor value of the hardsuits completely. And the last one was a sonic -- the only thing worse for a... What was the word Doug had used? Mechanic. The only thing worse for a mechanic to face would have been a vibe. She groaned softly. Add to that Maggie's shadow-to-shadow teleport, and Nene'll be lucky to have a suit left when Shadowwalker's done with her.

She wasn't surprised to see Maggie 'port from her exposed position in front of Nene to a shadow behind her; it was no less than she'd expected. There was a brief lull in the action as Nene frantically scanned Maggie's last position. Behind her, Maggie grinned and seemed to say something, although from her rooftop position Lisa could hear nothing; all she could see was the movement of the the older woman's mouth. She saw Maggie take a deep breath, and then...

Then Shadowwalker attacked.

Lisa, no matter how she tried afterward, could never fully explain what it was she heard in that moment, or describe it to her satisfaction. All she could give were metaphors that she felt still lacked some vital essence of the experience:

It was a song; it was a scream. It was the wail of damned souls; it was a choir of angels. It lasted an instant; it lasted an eternity.

It was, she knew from her borrowed memories, a sound that was to ordinary noise what an industrial laser was to a penlight.

On her rooftop perch, Lisa shrieked and grabbed hold of a nearby vent-pipe as the very building beneath her hummed and shook, resonating to its arpeggio of harmonics and overtones. It tore into her ears like uncontrolled guitar feedback, even as her chest throbbed and pounded with the force of it.

In the street below, streetlamps shook and flickered.

Windows too close to the line of fire exploded into dust, showering the street with powdered glass.

It was visible to the naked eye, snapping into existence between the Shadowwalker and Nene, connecting them in an almost physical bond. Within the narrow cylinder of sound, rainbow glints played and flowed; with every crest and trough, the violently changing air pressure within warped and refracted the light that dared pass though it.

For a moment it seemed nothing more than a harmless visual spectacle, for all its earsplitting volume.

Then one of the wings of Nene's flight system exploded, reduced to an expanding cloud of red powder. As its tip -- sliced off as smoothly as by a knife -- hurtled through the air to smash through one of the surviving windows, the Knight Saber lost power and augered into the asphalt below.

* * *

Shakily, Priss forced herself back to her feet. Behind her, an impact crater two meters tall marred the otherwise-pristine concrete skin of an office building. She glared hatefully at the woman before her.

Taller than Sylia, the woman's body combined lean, hard muscles with lush curves that seemed more appropriate for a centerfold model. She was nude, but it didn't seem to matter. Her skin was cool, gleaming metal, as though someone had dipped her in a vat of mercury, as though she were a statue cast in chrome. Her narrowed eyes -- whites and irises both -- were the same shade save for their pupils, and even these bore a metallic sheen. Her hair was a lion's mane of curls and ringlets that seemed formed from the finest silver wire. In the center of her chest, just above and between her breasts, a small, sculpted disk seemed to be embedded; at this distance it looked like nothing more than a large, antique coin.

"Fucking boomer!" Priss snarled as she swung her knuckleguard into place. The silver woman looked faintly puzzled for a moment, and the distant, tiny part of Priss's mind that housed her rationality at moments like these noted it.

"No. I am not a boomer. I am human!" her opponent said in a heavily-accented Japanese that was at odds with her melodious voice. "I am Greek! Born on the island of Mykonos!"

"Not with metal skin like that," Priss growled, dropping into a crouch in preparation for a charge.

Puzzlement crossed her features again. "Because I am safe in my metal skin I am boomer? Then you are boomer too, little blue girl, safe in your metal skin."

Forgetting her spike shooters, Priss screamed in rage and hurled herself at the chrome woman, her knucklebomber sizzling and crackling to match her mood. With an almost bored look on her face, the woman simply stood there. Priss drove her fist into the woman's gut with all the ferocity she would have shown any other boomer, and the knucklebomber discharged its deadly payload with the impact -- but her follow-through was stopped cold, sending an unpleasant jolt back up the hardsuit and to her arm. She stumbled backwards in surprise, thrown off-balance by the unexpectedly abrupt end to her punch, and narrowed her eyes.

The anti-boomer weapon had barely marred the gleaming metal of her opponent's skin -- metal that was already flowing over and smoothing out the minimal damage. Just like the boomers she'd faced in Aqua City years before.

The woman kept her eyes on Priss and didn't spare a glance at what should have been a fatal wound. "You are not just a little blue girl, you are a stupid little blue girl. You attack me with that puny mechanical thunderpunch? Let Silverbolt show you the right way!" And with that she held up her right fist. Crackling rings of blue-white electrical fire rippled up her legs and left arm, across her torso and up her right arm, to set her fist ablaze with a seething nimbus of St. Elmo's fire that shone so brightly it lit the darkened street around them like a halogen lamp.

"Oh, shit," whispered Priss.

* * *

The Joe Cocker version of "With A Little Help From My Friends" runs for five minutes and five seconds. According to the timer display in my HUD, it'd already been playing for a bit over a minute. I figured that combined with the time spent by the merry chase on which I had led the Knights, the full run of the song would be more than long enough for the ADP to finish up its experiment at non-fatal recovery of the rogues. So what if the song's languid pace didn't match the usual frenetic rhythms of combat? I'd deal.

In the mean time, I needed to decide what to do. Oh, yeah, right!

"<System, open crypto channel designation 'Knight Sabers' receive only.>" I had a tactical edge; I was going to use it. It had taken four continuous weeks of processing for the very elementary codebreakers that I kept in helmet storage to crack the Knights' scramble algorithm. I probably could have used the systems at IDEC to speed that up a bit, but I still felt a certain kinship with the Knights -- a group who, as I have said, were still supposed to be among the good guys, even if I didn't agree with their methods. Or their philosophy. I didn't want any risk whatsoever of someone in GENOM getting the results of my work and misusing it.

Now if only I'd taken the time to actually listen to more of the decrypted samples than I needed to confirm it worked -- but I'd been too preoccupied with re-engineering that gravity gun. No matter. The live traffic would be sufficient for my needs.

"Nay, nay, report!" With that startling archaicism, an elegant-sounding woman's voice announced the first field success of my crack. Little pauses and breaks, barely a fraction of a second each but noticeable, punctuated the transmission, the high end was a little clipped, and there was a nasty bass buzz underlaying every syllable, but what she was saying was reasonably clear. Okay, so my reverse-engineered algorithm wasn't perfect -- I'd never ID the speaker by her voice, and the decrypt was stuttering, running a hair slower than realtime. But it was good enough.

"Owie owie ow. I'm -- ow -- okay, Celia," what sounded, despite the audio artifacts, like a little girl's voice shot back with a small groan. "I'm banged up some, but okay. No worse than getting slammed into a wall by a boomer." Ah. Must be Pink, who was at that moment getting up out of the ten-meter-long furrow she'd plowed in the road surface, courtesy of my wife. "I'm gonna get that witch," she snarled. With her voice, that made her sound like a peeved kitten. I smiled privately. Maggie was more than a match for some junior battlesuit goon.

I took a quick glance about myself, looking for where I could cause the most trouble with the least effort. "<'I think I better dance now,'>" I murmured self-indulgently, and jumped into the fray.

* * *

Priss waited until almost the last moment before she fired her jumpjets, sending her up into the darkened, cloud-swamped sky above her opponent. The attempt to dodge faster than this so-called Silverbolt could react wasn't entirely successful -- the plasma-enshrouded fist had still grazed her leg, discharging against the armor with a crack of miniature thunder that shook her violently. Priss' neat half-powered/half-acrobatic jump spun wildly out of control, and her hardsuit's status monitors began flashing urgent warnings.

Tucking her limbs in even as she fired the suit's various attitude jets, Priss struggled to regain control of her flight, finally righting herself at the zenith of her trajectory, many meters above rooftop level. Looking down, she saw a smirking silver face waiting below.

As she began to drop, Priss spared a moment to glance at the suit status display report and swore -- almost all of the cerametal had been vaporized from an 8-centimeter-wide swath along the inner side of the right calf. The leg itself was still structurally sound -- it could take any load or stress that she might inflict on it -- but the actual armor itself was nearly tissue-thin where the thing that called itself Silverbolt had almost-but-not-quite hit her. Right, then, she thought, smiling grimly. If I'm goin' in, I'm goin' in fists-first. Like always.

A half-roll set her up, and while she recharged the knucklebomber Priss loosed a salvo of railgun spikes. She felt some relief to see her opponent make an effort to dodge rather than simply allow the spikes to hit her. So maybe she ain't completely invulnerable, Priss mused, a grin breaking across her face. She fired her jump jets once more, sending herself into a howling power dive.

With a metallic smile playing across her gleaming lips, Silverbolt silently rose to meet her.

* * *

Plasteel lenses shattered in the wake of the blow. The sharp-edged fragments dropped to the street with dull clicks and clatters that belied their crystalline, glass-like appearance. A second blow, and one unfolding panel of Linna's new weapon was shredded into strips of twisted cerametal and frayed wiring hanging limply from the remains of their mountings. Her suit diagnostics were already blaring alerts at her, needlessly announcing the imminent death of the heat gun array Sylia had spent so many hours crafting.

So many hours to build, and so few seconds to destroy.

Linna threw herself into a rapid series of backflips to escape another assault by the cheetah, launching herself spinning high into the air with the last bounce. Feeling her acrobatics set the remaining fragments of the heat gun swinging wildly to clatter against the hardsuit, she lifted her arms and spat a command to the suit's computer.

Before she could begin to fall back towards the ground, explosive bolts fired, and the remains of the weapon flew in all directions. One piece hit a window, which burst into a storm of glass shards. Another passed through a snarling cheetah on the run without bothering it in the least.

Linna dropped to the ground in an elegant two-point landing that left her poised and ready for the charging cat. It was only a second's respite, but it gave her time to bring her panting breath under control -- her lungs were burning, and her softsuit was sopping wet with sweat, sweat that the hardsuit's groaning environmental system struggled to absorb. The creature she faced was driving her to levels of exertion and desperation that she hadn't reached since they'd faced Largo's doubles, years ago. One last weapon left to try, she mused grimly.

She held her ground as the cheetah raced up to her, praying that this gambit would pay off. At the last possible second, she let her shock darts fly.

As she had feared, they passed through the big cat's body as if it weren't there. With a pair of dull thuds, the twin monomolecular blades buried themselves in the asphalt, and Linna felt the tension on their tether/powerlines slacken.

Then the cheetah yowled in pain as electricity crackled across her body, arcing from one line to the other. The sleek feline muscles spasmed and twisted, throwing the cat away from the shockdarts and their lines to fall with a muffled, hollow-sounding thud against the ground a meter or two away. There it lay, eyes glazed and breathing heavily, but otherwise unmoving.

Linna retracted the darts and cautiously stepped to the cat's side. Prepared to leap away at the first sign of movement, she stretched out one booted foot and nudged the furred shape with an armored toe. Other than something that sounded like a breathy moan, there was no response. Linna stretched out her leg again, ready the nudge the cat once more, harder, when she realized -- her opponent was solid, no longer a living ghost.

And, momentarily at least, helpless. Time for a little retaliation.

Linna charged her leg bomber, and drew her foot back to deliver a kick.

And stopped.

This isn't a boomer, Linna thought. This... this... woman, who can be a cat, is strange. And threatening, she added as the scratches across her stomach made their presence known once again, definitely threatening.

But for all that she is a cat right now, she is a living being, a human being.

And I will not kill a fellow human being.

Linna sighed and deactivated the bomber. As gently as she could, she lifted the stunned cheetah into her arms, and retreated into the entryway of one of the office buildings. There, she laid the panting cat back down upon the concrete, and crouched protectively next to her.

And what if boomers are living beings? she asked herself.

* * *

"Stand still, darn it!" Nene growled as her opponent literally ran circles around her. She's not taking me seriously, darn it! After all the time it took to become a real equal to the others, I don't need this!

She fired a burst from the Vulcan which completely missed the woman, and hissed in frustration. Argh! I can't keep this up, I'm almost out of ammo. And what did she hit me with? The flight pack's ruined and she nearly took the gun with it. It's a miracle I didn't bend the barrels when I crashed.

Even as she attacked, she spared a fraction of her attention for the readouts and displays from the automatic sensors and analysis programs with which her hardsuit was equipped. Sound. That's what it had been -- an intense, overwhelming blast of sound focused and directed at her. The flight unit had literally shaken itself into dust when the beam had struck it and sympathetic vibration had taken over.

Sound.

Her eyes are covered.

An intuitive flash struck Nene at that moment, the same kind of hunch that she always got during her most difficult hacking runs, the kind that had always paid off. She stopped firing at the woman -- the Vulcan's magazine was exhausted anyway -- and began issuing commands to the powerful computer integrated into her hardsuit. The first disengaged the half-destroyed flight unit and its minicannon to clatter on the ground behind her. The remainder deployed her hypersensors, then plied layer upon layer of filters over the ambient noise around her, stripping out anything that wasn't what she was looking for, narrowing the target zone over and over until...

Yes! She almost cried out aloud when her guess was confirmed. A rapid cycle of ultrasonic pulses, regular but complex, originated from the woman, who had begun to approach warily now that Nene had apparently disarmed herself. Ignoring her, Nene continued to fire commands to the sophisticated signal processors that comprised nearly half the computing power available in her suit, assembling a pair of macros she knew would win her the day. The first, she mapped into the firing interface of the abandoned Vulcan. The second, almost identical, she set running immediately, routed to the external speakers on her hardsuit: sample, invert, play, loop.

The woman with the braid stumbled to a halt. She tilted her head one way, and then another, as a momentary puzzlement crept over what little of her features were visible. Then a small smile crept upon her lips. "Oh, clever, very clever, Pink," she said, not quite looking toward Nene. "Nicely done. Not perfect, but good enough to confuse." The smile broadened. "But I can't let you have the advantage."

Nene shrieked as the globe of darkness exploded and engulfed her, and the woman screamed another attack.

* * *

Sylia backpedaled calmly as the auburn-haired woman lunged forward, one black blade thrusting towards the center of her chest. Turning on her heel, Sylia parried neatly, only to find her opponent was no longer there. Damn! A feint!

She spun, but not fast enough. There was a sudden tug at her right elbow, and she knew even before the telltales lit up her HUD exactly what it was. One of those blades had cut through a dozen layers of kevlar and woven steel to sever the armored feedline to the BB-2000. Without its ballistic fluid -- now pouring sluggishly out over the ground -- the Eliminator was nothing more than a dead weight.

"Well," declared her opponent as she blurred back into visibility before Sylia, "that takes care of that little problem." She raised one eyebrow and offered a mocking smirk. "Shall we continue?"

She stood loosely, unconcernedly, and Sylia took advantage of the moment's opportunity to run her sword through the woman's chest.

"I presume that means 'yes'," she continued placidly as Sylia, in shock, withdrew the blade from her opponent's unmarked torso. Small streamers of her body trailed after the sword like wisps of fog, stretching out several centimeters before giving up and falling back into her black-clad form.

"A hologram?" Sylia mused.

"Hardly," the apparition replied, and closed again, a gleaming black blade whipping out in a whistling backhanded arc designed to slice across the chestplate of her hardsuit. Sylia only barely parried the attack, the violently sparking clash of blade against blade putting the lie to her supposition. "I admit it's not sporting to take spiritform against a mundane, even one in powered armor, but honestly, I don't care."

Steeling herself, Sylia redoubled her attack, pouring every iota of determination she possessed into her next blow. Her opponent's eyes widened momentarily, and Sylia's blade returned with a trace of blood upon it. Inside her helmet, she grinned mirthlessly -- small as they were, she'd take her victories anywhere she could get them.

At the same time, something like respect grew in the woman's eyes, and she gave a small, thoughtful nod. "Very good, White. It takes both great skill and great force of will to harm my spiritform. There may be some hope for you yet." A knife blade flickered out and with a hissing shower of sparks slammed the point of Sylia's sword into the asphalt at her feet; the force of the blow rattled the entire hardsuit and numbed her arm for a moment. "Looks like I'll have to take you a bit more seriously."

Sylia's momentary elation faded as she frowned and tugged her blade free of the ground. Small victories aside, this was a losing battle, no matter who won in the end. She shut down her voder and opened the encrypted link. "Prime to Wing," she called calmly. "Emergency pickup needed. Aggressive measures required."

"Wing to Prime!" Doc Raven's agitated voice crackled through her earphone. "I can't! There's a full-blown lightning storm over your position keeping me from dropping below 200 meters! Between that and these winds, I'm having the devil's own time trying to stay near you!"

Sylia glanced up to see what had escaped her conscious notice before -- the thick, low bank of clouds overhead, shot through with ominously flickering white light. A low, almost subliminal, rumble of continuous thunder punctuated the moment.

"Your air support isn't coming, White. Not yet, anyway." Sylia snapped her attention back to her opponent, who had politely if mockingly paused in her attack. "Not until I let it."

"How...?"

A shrug. "Nothing that moves in the air is unknown to me."

"Then you're doing... that," Sylia said flatly, with a vague gesture at the sky.

The auburn-haired woman bared her teeth. It might have been a smile. "They don't call me 'Wetter Hexe' for nothing, White."

Sylia didn't need all of her considerable fluency in German to know that meant "Weather Witch". A chill ran through her. And she had thought Sangnoir's powers were dangerous! Without further thought she launched herself again at the woman in black...

...who idly swatted Sylia's blade out of the way. "Sloppy. Very sloppy." She pursed her lips, as if in thought. "Odd. I don't usually chat this much during a battle," Wetter Hexe mused.

Sylia recovered her balance and set herself against the inevitable counterattack. "Then why are you bothering?"

It came, with a blinding speed that was both infuriating and emotionally overwhelming for the careless grace with which it was delivered. "Because, from what little I know, you are a leader who cares for her people. But you've let yourself be blinded by your emotions. I could have been you. So... Even though I doubt you'll listen, I wanted to remind you to think of your team and what you, as their leader, owe them. Not only as subordinates, but as people. Have you used their trust to make them into something they did not want to become? To turn them into murderers?"

"I hardly need to be lectured on the responsibilities of my command!" Sylia barked a bit more sharply than she had intended. Jump jets firing, she leapt high into the air to drop upon her enemy from above, swinging her laserblade at Wetter Hexe's unprotected head. She focused all the force of her considerable willpower into the blow, thanking the gods she hadn't believed in for fifteen years that her opponent had been foolish enough to reveal an exploitable weakness.

With a hiss and a crash, Sylia landed, one knee bent, her left hand stretched out to balance her. Her blade had been caught between the two black knives, their blades improbably scissored into a tight grip. With a snarl that betrayed her growing frustration, she twisted and sawed the lasersword back and forth within their trap, hoping at least to damage the weapons, but to no avail.

Her opponent recognized her ploy, and smiled as she released Sylia's weapon again. "You'll have to do much better than that, White. These blades were forged for me by Hephaestus from mithril mined by the Svartalfar, breathed upon by Indra and blessed by Marduk."

A flicker of thought led her to the obvious conclusion. "You expect me to believe you're a deity?" Sylia grunted as she ducked the black-clad woman's thrust and tried a counter-attack of her own.

Wetter Hexe blocked and smiled sardonically. "I couldn't care less what you believe. Truth is truth, no matter its face." She parried Sylia's strike, and the scrape of the black-bladed knife's edge along the sword's sent another cascade of white-hot sparks crackling and showering over the pair. "The gods all have many faces and names. Does it matter which I use? I am still who I am. And I am no mortal."

And with that she sliced through Sylia's lasersword, sending its blade clattering down the street.

* * *

In a Place that was not a place, Three Beings watched.

"Is that...?" asked One whose Voice was as that of a child.

"Yes," replied another, whose Voice was as the chiming of bells. "Yes, it is."

"So that is what the Stormsdaughter has been doing with Herself these past few decades," murmured the Third, whose Voice would have been deemed sultry by any mortals who might have heard it.

"Ssshh!" hissed the First. "You're missing all the action!"

* * *

There was a crash like two cars colliding on a highway, and Linna's head jerked up. A hundred meters away, Priss and the chrome woman had just plowed into each other in midair, then rolled away from each other to land. Even with her visor's magnification turned up Linna couldn't be sure, but it looked to her like Priss might have gotten a good hit on the other woman. Then she turned and Linna saw her yank a bloody railgun spike out of her stomach. Her metallic skin smoothed over the wound even as she threw the projectile away and batted a charging Priss aside.

A soft mewling noise, much closer, returned her attention to the sidewalk in front of her, where the cheetah now began stirring. "Hey," she said softly, "hey, are you okay?"

The only answer was a sound somewhere between a growl and a hiccup as the cheetah then lurched to her feet. Linna scuttled backwards, still staying in the entryway, as the cat shook her head and then turned green eyes upon her. The look in them, she realized, was anything but hostile.

Then Linna's breath caught in her throat as the cheetah's body melted and shifted, settling a moment later into a bizarre hybrid form that was half woman and half jungle cat. "Wow," the shapechanger said, as she turned around to sit with her back to one of the entry's plate glass windows. Her voice was a sweet soprano, laced with odd sibilant accents. "I'm still woozy. That's a nice trick with those darts you've got there."

"Thanks. You're not mad?" Fascinated, Linna stared unabashedly at her. Her body was mostly humanoid, although her legs were jointed backwards, feline-style. While her hands were recognizably human, her feet were still paws, and all were heavily clawed. Short, black-spotted golden fur still covered her unclothed body -- even her face, which was muzzled and whiskered and tipped by a coin-sized patch of dark brown nose-leather. Linna suppressed a surge of irrational envy at the lush, athletic curves of the body under that fur.

The catwoman waved one hand dismissively. "Nah. Fortunes of war and all that." She glanced around at the entryway. "Thanks for dragging me out of the street."

Linna tried to shrug. It wasn't a movement for which hardsuits had been designed, and not much of it came through, but her conversational partner seemed to catch the meaning. "I couldn't just leave you out there."

"For which I am eternally grateful." She held out her right hand, the claws retracting silently into her fingertips. "They call me <Kat>. That's with a '<k>'." She said the name and the letter in English.

Linna kneewalked forward and automatically held out her own right hand, only to have the blunt, rounded shape of its gauntlet brush ineffectually at Kat's fingers. "Oops," she said, then chuckled.

A feline eyebrow raised. "What's so funny?"

Linna grinned, although she knew Kat couldn't see it. "Irony." She held up her right arm to show the other woman its rounded shape and the five retracted manipulator "pads" on its underside. "I'm the one with a cat's paw at the moment." She chuckled again, and Kat joined her. Then she held out her left hand, in its soft, glovelike gauntlet. "You can call me Green."

Kat took Linna's left hand in hers and shook. "Pleased to meet you, Green."

"So," Linna said as they released each other's hand, "how come you're not attacking me now?"

Kat gave her a sidelong look. "Is this a problem? Because I can attack you if you want."

Linna held up both hands and laughed. "No, no. I'm just curious."

The catwoman shrugged. "Our goal is to delay you only. If I can do that by sitting and talking rather than standing and fighting, I'd much rather sit and talk."

"Fair enough." Linna crawled over to sit next to Kat. "I don't really feel right about fighting you anyway."

"Because I'm not a boomer?" The green eyes in that golden-furred face drilled right through the visor into Linna's own.

"You know about boomers?"

Kat nodded in the general direction of Sangnoir, who was running back into the combat. "We got a kind of briefing from him."

Linna considered that for a moment. "Ah. Okay. Yeah, because you're not a boomer."

"Mmm," was all Kat said in reply.

There was a brief, companionable silence as Armageddon in miniature played out in the street before them.

"So," Linna said. "Can you tell me a little about the world you guys come from?"

* * *

The battlezone was visible from blocks away -- audible, too, even over the squad car's engine. Leon brought the vehicle to a skidding halt a safe distance away and hopped out to stare at a sight unlike any he'd ever seen. Overhead, the impossible cloudbank seemed to bulge downwards like some fat beast's heavy, pendulous belly; the faint pink-orange sheen cast upon it by the sodium lights still illuminating the street only reinforced the image. Lightning flickered along and through it, filling the street with a constant low rumble like the nearby passage of a convoy of trucks.

Between street and cloud, he saw... war.

In an expanding pool of silvery liquid, a knife-wielding woman in black held the White Saber -- Sylia Stingray, he was certain -- at bay, with a blade to the throat of her hardsuit. He wouldn't have thought that would be a credible threat, but Sylia seemed to be taking it very seriously; the stub of her laserblade, cleanly sheared off at the base, glittered in the streetlights and gave silent testimony to her reasoning.

A dome of inky black further down the street gave away nothing except when a pink-armored arm or leg would break its surface and then vanish within once more.

That worried him more than the woman with the knives.

Saber Green -- he didn't know for certain that it was Linna Yamazaki, but who else qualified? -- was nestled away in a building entry apparently chatting with, of all things, a catgirl. The Loon was there, too, bloodied but apparently unbowed; as he leaned down, Green started to surge to her feet, only to have the catgirl restrain her. Backpedaling, the Loon stumbled and then caught himself; as Green sat back down at the catgirl's urging, the latter flashed a toothy, fanged smile.

That worried him even more than the black dome and Nene.

And in the middle of everything else...

Blue armor.

Priss.

Facing off against a woman made of gleaming silver.

The silver woman casually grabbed the back end of a car and lifted. When the bumper came off in her hand, she dropped it, dodged a volley of railgun spikes, and ripped a lamppost out of the sidewalk. Time seemed to slow as she drew it back like some monster bludgeon.

Before he knew what was happening, the Earthshaker was in his hand.

* * *

There was a gunshot. Silverbolt's eyes widened in surprise, and she dropped the lamppost. Idly fending off with one hand Priss' attempts to tag her with a knucklebomber or two, she reached down with the other and peeled an irregular circle of dull grey metal from the gleaming skin just above her waist. She glanced at it, looked around. "Ah," she said, and Priss followed her gaze to see Leon, his Earthshaker's barrel still smoking.

"Oh, shit," Priss muttered. "Leon, you fucking idiot."

"Excuse me, please," the chrome woman said to Priss, then with an ear-splitting crack, she appeared before the startled ADP officer. She towered over him, her nearly two meters of height all but dwarfing him, and frowned. Then she flipped the flattened bullet from her fingertips like a coin, sending it spinning through the air to clatter dully on the pavement at Leon's feet.

* * *

She was, Leon realized with a certain growing numbness, quietly and calmly floating ten or fifteen centimeters above the sidewalk, electric blue sparks crawling wildly across her body. She was also, he noticed as his eyes drifted up to gaze upon a pair of magnificent chrome-plated breasts, quite nude. To his extreme discomfort, her physical presence exuded a palpable mix of impending menace and overt femininity that reminded him uncomfortably of his wife-to-be. In spades.

A hundred meters away, Priss screamed in outrage and took off toward them.

There was a flicker of shining skin and a whiff of ozone, and Leon found his Earthshaker abruptly yanked out of his grasp hard enough to leave his fingertips tingling. The silver woman studied it for a moment. "Excuse me," she said in heavily-accented Japanese. "Is not for a policeman with little gun to fire on a Warrior." With quick, effortless movements, she flattened the full length of the revolver's barrel between her thumb and forefinger, then rolled it up against the cylinder like a ribbon on a spool. Then she held the gun between her hands and crushed it into a ball. A pair of muffled explosions and a few wisps of acrid smoke from between her fingers announced the detonation of the remaining bullets, but neither her grip nor her expression changed.

"Here." She reached out to take one of his hands, turned it up, and dropped the wadded mass of metal into his gloved palm. Leon distantly observed that the Earthshaker's remains were noticeably warm even through the leather. "Is not for a policeman with little gun to fire on a Warrior," she repeated with grim emphasis, then glanced over her shoulder. "Excuse, please, now. Must play more with the blue girl." She turned, and with another air-shattering blast she disappeared, only to reappear in front of Priss, who was now on the ground, apparently tripped and entangled by Sangnoir's scissoring legs.

The title of an antique ecchi anime floated uninvited through his mind, an unconscious echo of the silver woman's last comment, and Leon had to fight down a near-hysterical burst of laughter at the intersection of that image and his volatile fiancee.

His radio crackled.

"Yo, Inspector McNichol?"

It was the Loon, of course. Leon snapped himself out of the state of shock into which he had been sinking and glanced back down the street. The helmeted figure was rapidly skittering away from the restarted conflict between Priss and the woman who had called herself a Warrior. He brought the radio to his lips with a quick, crisp motion. "McNichol here."

"I'd just like to tell you that this is a non-lethal combat we're fighting here. Ouch, dammit! At least my side is," Sangnoir muttered. "I'm just trying to keep the Sabers occupied while your boys mop up. Would you please not fling bullets into the fray? Someone might get hurt, and it won't be me or mine."

Leon grimaced, and thumbed the transmit key. "Acknowledged." He released the button and muttered, "Not like I have any choice in the matter at the moment," as he gazed disconsolately upon the neatly crushed and rounded remains of his Earthshaker.

* * *

She'd almost panicked when the darkness had engulfed her, and if she had been relying on her own reflexes and responses, that might have been the end of the fight. But the second macro kicked in automatically, just as she had intended, sampling the deadly beam of sonic energy, inverting its phase, and using all the power of the hardsuit's external transducers to pump out a signal that she hoped would cancel the incoming attack, just as the first macro did for her opponent's pervasive sonar.

To her relief, it had worked. She hadn't been sure it would; her transducers couldn't begin to match the attack in raw power, if the sensor traces told the truth. But they had put out enough. The beam of coherent sound had lashed across her armor, lifting her up and throwing her back with its force -- but it did little more than that. To her satisfaction, the hardsuit's diagnostic systems reported only minor damage.

Switching to IR defeated the darkness and revealed her quarry, who seemed to be confused. Nene smiled nastily to herself. Play games with me, huh? Well, then, you witch, you lose. With a twitch of her finger in its gauntlet, she raised the power on the sonar jamming a notch, and watched the false-color image of her opponent flinch suddenly. Another twitch charged the sole electrode of her holdout knucklebomber.

Then Nene threw herself at the woman, firing her jumpjets as she did. She struck her target low, at the waist, with all the power of her jets behind her fists. There was the familiar, if muted, crack of a discharging bomber, and the woman went flying a yelp of pain. The inky darkness flew with her, revealing itself to be a globe as it left Nene behind. Then it flickered and vanished, leaving behind its author, sprawled upon the sidewalk and apparently stunned, just shy of the gleaming grey marble of one of the Shogakukan buildings.

With a little acrobatic tumble, Nene landed lightly on her feet and then launched herself once again, this time to drop down upon the stunned woman in black like a stooping hawk, one fist outstretched with all the combined mass and velocity of her hardsuit behind it.

Either her target hadn't been as stunned as she had seemed, or she recovered quickly, because she sensed the coming strike and twisted slightly, if slugglishly, to one side. It wasn't enough to avoid the blow, though; Nene's armored fist glanced off her just above her waist, and the redhead thought she felt the satisfying crunch of snapping ribs.

The masked woman beneath her drew in a deep breath, but Nene pounded her solar plexus with all of her hardsuit's strength, forcing her to gasp it back out in pain. Keep her off-balance, keep her on the defensive. If she gets even a moment to recover, she'll tear me to pieces! Nene drew back her fist and threw another punch, battering that hidden face. Then another. And another. Her opponent grasped randomly at the arm of her hardsuit, but Nene drove a fist back into the damaged ribs in her side. More cracking, and the woman cried out in pain.

A red haze seemed to drop over Nene's eyes. A low, growling voice filled her ears, and only dimly did she recognize it as her own. A distant cry didn't even register. "I'm... not... going to let you... win!" she ground out through gritted teeth as she drew back her fist for another punch.

But before she could throw it, something slammed into her shoulders with the force of a truck.

* * *

When Blue screamed and charged for Diana and McNichol, I blindsided her. Diana had things in hand there, and letting Blue get her two cents' worth in was potentially dangerous to the good inspector. Best to sideline her before the one unprotected normal in the fray got caught by a careless shot.

So I stormed across the street and dropped into a slide aimed to take me right between her legs as she ran. I scissored my ankles around one blue-armored calf and punched the weak spot behind the knee of her other leg, which obligingly folded right up.

It took more than a few seconds for the two of us to untangle ourselves, during which 1) Diana returned; 2) I avoided one point-blank gauss needle by the barest of margins; and 3) I swore profusely in response to the latest pain from my wounds, which hadn't approved of this course of action.

While Blue returned her attention to Diana, I backpedaled out of their line of fire. I was feeling rather pleased with myself -- until Maggie cried out. I didn't even think of what to do next. "Silverbolt!" I snapped as I turned and took a running long jump at her. "Javelin!"

With one hand, Diana suddenly shoved Blue hard enough to embed her in a nearby car. With the other she snatched me out of the air, catching me by the back of my jacket; without breaking stride she swung me through a half-circle and flung me overhand like a baseball -- straight at Pink.

I twisted in mid-air like a cat so that I was flying feet-first at the littlest Knight Saber. I hit her high on the back on a bit of an angle, just as she was about to throw another punch, and knocked her completely clear of my wife with an impact that ran all the way up my legs and jolted my pelvis. Having imparted almost all my momentum to Pink, I used what was left to roll to my feet after landing in a tumble, just centimeters short of scraping myself painfully along the marble-sheathed wall of the building next to them. What complaints my wounds had about all this were drowned out by the pounding of the blood in my ears.

Pink was on her hands and knees and shaking her head as if to clear it. I stepped in front of her and looked down for the briefest of moments; a narrow crack was visible across her shoulders. "<You have made me very angry,>" I murmured. "<Very angry indeed.>" Then I kicked her in the stomach.

Have I mentioned that the boots I wear with my uniform have heavy steel toes? U.N. safety regulations are quite specific about that.

The impact was off-center, lifting Pink more sideways than up. She gave an agonized little squeak and fell over on her side with a clatter. A moment later, as she levered herself back up on her hands and knees, I seized her by the shoulders, yanking her up and spinning her to face me. "You. Leave. My. Wife. ALONE!" Then, with the adrenaline raging through my veins and granting me a berserk strength beyond that which I normally possessed, I lifted her up and threw her into the building wall.

The thin black stone covering cracked and crumbled under the impact, revealing the grey concrete beneath. Before she could slide down, though, I was there. I planted a hand under her chin, and by dint of that same hysterical strength I held her up against the shattered surface, leaving her absurdly high-heeled boots dangling a few centimeters short of the sidewalk. I drew my fist back and stared deep into that opaque visor.

It was at this point that my brain finally started to wrest control of my body from my adrenal glands; I suddenly wondered what was going through Pink's mind -- and what I was going to do next.

* * *

Overhead, Lisa drew in her breath sharply and lowered her camera in disbelief. Doug... The anxiety that swept through her made her want to jump down into the middle of the fight and do something -- but on which side, and for whose benefit, she couldn't even begin to say.

* * *

Linna surged to her feet only to be tackled by Kat, who dragged her, ghostlike, partway into the pavement. "No!" the shapeshifter hissed at the side of Linna's helmet as the Saber froze in surprise and fear at the unearthly sensation. "Don't interfere!"

* * *

Priss' blood ran cold as she turned. The bastard had Nene up against a wall by the neck! She had to...

Two silver arms with the strength of a hydraulic press clamped themselves around her with a glittering speed that left Priss no time to react. They pinned her arms and held her so tightly in place that her hardsuit creaked under the pressure.

"Do not try it, little blue girl," Silverbolt's voice was harsh in her ear. "Or his reflexes alone will kill her. And this is not wanted."

* * *

At Sangnoir's outburst, Sylia's head snapped away from her intent study of Wetter Hexe. "Nene," she whispered in horror as she watched Sangnoir draw back his fist for a killing blow, and without a second thought she triggered her jumpjets.

Only to be batted back to the ground by a downward blast of wind that overpowered the jets with absurd ease. As Sylia crashed into the pavement, an electric sizzle surrounded her; she emitted an involuntary, wordless cry of disbelief as her HUD died and the hardsuit froze, powerless, around her.

"<Looney!>" she heard Wetter Hexe bellow from where she loomed over Sylia. Impossibly, the thunder from the sky above roared the English words with her. "<Stand down!>"

With the loss of power her visor had reverted to clear plasteel, and from her prone position Sylia watched helplessly as Sangnoir's arm twitched, almost dropped, and then returned to its original ready position. How can he suspend her like that with only one hand? the ever-analytical part of her mind wondered, and then she remembered. "My physical strength is pretty much human normal, but the adrenal mutation also gives me some burst-mode enhancement in stress situations," he had told them during their one extended conversation, weeks earlier. This certainly qualifies, Sylia thought grimly even as she feared for Nene's life.

* * *

In the plaza before the entrance to Geo City, the forces of the AD Police, the news crews, and the onlookers all froze as one when the distant thunder suddenly formed into English words that rang clearly across the square: "<Looney! Stand down!>"

A sudden atavistic fear drove itself like a spike throuogh Daley Wong. Something in that voice of thunder called to the most primitive part of his brain, filling him with the need to fall to the ground and grovel. Its visceral impact staggered him physically, and only his white-knuckled grasp on the patrol car's door kept him upright. With an obstinance that might have surprised his partner, he shook off the imperative coursing through his mind; looking around, he saw that some of his fellows were not as lucky or as strong.

* * *

Her hardsuit's cervical armor kept the pressure across her neck from strangling her, but it did nothing to help Nene's state of mind. Shock and fear and the suddenness of his attack had all but paralyzed her. As Sylia's recorded voice repeatedly announced the loss of armor integrity across her shoulders, Nene struggled to suppress the shriek of terror that threatened to bubble up out of her. She would not give him that satisfaction!

Trying to look anywhere but at those goggles with their hypnotic flickers of moving color, Nene's eyes darted from side to side as far as they could go without moving her head. A movement behind Sangnoir caught her attention. Oh, crap. The woman in black -- Sangnoir's wife, Nene corrected herself -- was struggling to sit up. Her skin-tight outfit was torn in places, she was bloodied and bruised, and her drooping, shredded cowl still served to hide her face even as it threatened to give way entirely. If she decides to get back at me, I'm dead...

The woman propped herself up on one arm, heaved a breath, and wiped the other arm across her face. The remaining scraps of her cowl gave way with the motion and fell to the ground to reveal her bruised and bloodstreaked features. Nene stifled another cry at the sight -- she had deduced that Sangnoir's wife was blind, but...

The woman had no eyes. Nor could she ever have had any.

Not with two glistening patches of fine, silvery grey fur growing on the smooth, flat skin that took their place.

* * *

I remember the first time I killed.

I was 24. It was a damned stupid accident. I didn't even use my metagift. It was with just a switchblade. I was trying to bluff him, confident I could dance around the asshole and just make him look bad in front of his mates. But he was drunk, or high on something, and he zigged when I zagged, and...

I got sick afterwards; I managed to hold it for a block or so before I dropped to my knees and threw up in some reeking, unnamed Soho alley. Then I made my way home and got sick some more.

I've taken many lives since. Most of them deliberately.

I don't get sick anymore, but it's never easy to take that power into your hands, whether you're meta or normal. The one absolute power almost all humans possess -- the power to annihilate a fellow sentient being.

I stood there and felt the rage surging, just barely controlled, railing at the battlesuited crunchie who had dared harm my wife. The rage which demanded I use that power.

I didn't want to do it. But I felt like I had found myself in a place where I had no choice. I didn't want to do it, didn't want to kill this, this playful, giggling, childlike girl of a mercenary. But I had come this far, whether I had intended to or not, I had forced myself into this corner, and I felt that I couldn't back down. No matter how desperately I wanted to. I couldn't retreat, I couldn't show weakness. I had reached a point of no return.

"<I said stand down, Looney!>" Hexe repeated, again with the voice of the thunder underlining her words. "<That's an order, mister!>"

"<What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can't tell you, but it sure feels like mine...>"

"Doug?" a hoarse whisper drifted up from behind me.

"Maggie?" I resisted the urge to turn and scoop her up in my arms.

"Doug, I'm okay. Don't do it. Remember, I'm not the real Maggie..."

That cut through the roar of the blood in my ears. Of course. Not really Maggie. A simulacrum. An animate packet of magical energy, nothing more. Not Maggie.

I should know better.

But I wanted her there so badly, wanted so badly to believe it was her...

The rage drained away with that thought, and I sighed. I unclenched my fist and lowered my right arm. Without my anger to sustain it, my extra strength faltered and my temporary anesthesia faded. In moments the muscles in my arm started to tremble, then spasm. Then, with a stifled cry of pain I let go of Pink's neck. We both barely managed to avoid spilling ourselves across the sidewalk. I'd like to think I did it somewhat more gracefully than she.

We had both straightened up, still face-to-face and (presumably) eye-to-eye, and I held that gaze. With the faintest snarl in my voice I said, "I'm a soldier, Pink. I'm a trained killer. But I'm not a murderer. Unlike you." She flinched. "I choose not to kill today. And it's not just because I was ordered not to. Under the right circumstances, I wouldn't've given a shit about those orders." Somewhere in the distance I heard Hexe snort. I ignored her and continued. "You're only doing what you think is right. I can respect that." I paused for a beat. "But I can't allow it."

And with that I turned my back on the pink Knight Saber, dropped to my knees and put my arms around Maggie. That got me a weak smile of gratitude from the simulacrum of my wife. In my ears messages crackled back and forth on the ADP band -- it sounded like Hexe's orders had had a bit of an effect on them, but other than that they'd finished retrieving all of the rogue boomers, with no deaths on either side. Mission accomplished, then. There was no reason to prolong this any further.

Without looking back at the Knight Saber, whom I could still feel was poised somewhat uncertainly over the two of us, I sighed with satisfaction. "Get out of here," I said a moment later. Then, I shouted into the street, "Just get out of here!"

A rumble of thunder from overhead punctuated my shout, and I looked up to again see the lightning-shot clouds looming overhead. "You're still doing that, Hexe, right?" I called.

I didn't have to look at her to know the expression she wore at that moment. "Naturally," she answered with just the right amount of "are you stupid or what?" in her voice.

I nodded, more to myself than anything else. "Let their plane come in to pick them up."

"Oh, by your leave, my lord Looney," Hexe replied mockingly. And at that moment the wind and thunder stopped, and the cloud cover simply dissolved away to reveal the night sky above; a pity that the city's lights washed out almost all of the stars. At least the moon, almost full, was visible now. A few moments later, a black VTOL dropped down to hover over the street.

* * *

Sylia very quietly let out her breath. When Sangnoir had let go of Nene, his companions had released their holds on the other two Sabers. Priss, predictably, tried to land a punch on the chrome woman, only to be shoved violently towards the incoming Knight Wing. Linna, however, waited calmly to be extracted from the street. Then she turned and bowed with graceful formality to the werecheetah, who returned the gesture.

Power abruptly returned to Sylia's hardsuit at the same time, and she found Wetter Hexe extending a hand to help her to her feet. Once she was again standing, she took a moment to run a quick diagnostic on the suit and its systems; they reported no damage beyond that already extant before its unexpected shutdown. Satisfied (if mystified) by the results, she looked up to see Sangnoir watching her, his posture betraying no small amount of residual anger.

"Well, White?" he asked impatiently.

Sylia weighed her options. Despite the apparent firepower he could bring to bear on them at the moment, none of her team had been seriously injured. Furthermore, if she gave the order, the Knight Sabers could certainly outlast this ... manifestation of his (assuming his companions were a manifestation and not something different). The Sabers might regain the upper hand. But there was no purpose or profit in it. Their target had originally been the boomers, not Sangnoir, and from the ADP transmissions she'd overheard, that goal was moot now. Within her helmet she frowned and made her decision.

* * *

"All right, Colonel. You've made your point," White said. "We'll go. And we'll stay clear of your 'operations' from now on." The eyeless helm tracked towards me in the sudden calm that statement provoked, sending a slight prickle down my spine. "Personally, I'd like to thank you for the restraint you've shown. But ask yourself this: Can you always afford to show it? Can you give everyone the justice, and every situation the treatment, that they deserve?" She gave a cold little bow. "I'm sorry, but we've never had that luxury."

I stared at her a moment, then sneered. "The luxury of letting slaves try to make a better life for themselves?"

"The luxury of saving them at the expense of the lives of others." Her voice and posture were hard at first, then softened as she spread her hands wide. "What else would you have me do?"

I didn't have an answer for that. I was still wrestling with with that dilemma myself.

* * *

"Linna, Priss, Nene," Sylia announced over the encrypted link, "stand down. We're leaving." As two sets of protests -- one pained, one outraged -- blared back over the channel, Sylia turned down the gain and added, "No arguments. Now."

* * *

Linna turned to Kat. "Oh, well, Mother's calling." Inside her helmet, she grinned, hoping it was audible in her voice.

Kat mock-pouted. "Can't you stay out and play a little longer?"

Linna laughed. "Sorry, maybe next time."

"Maybe," Kat agreed, then reached for Linna's hand -- her left hand, Linna noted with a smile. "I probably shouldn't make this offer, but if you're ever in our part of the multiverse..."

Linna nodded and her smile grew even broader. "I'll be sure to drop by."

"And we'll take you out to the Red Lion for a night on the town," Kat replied with a feline smile of her own that split her muzzle. "It was nice meeting you, Green."

"You, too, Kat." She inclined her head toward Sangnoir. "Try to keep the jerk out of trouble, okay?"

Kat's smile widened to match Linna's own. "We'll try. But he's a handful."

"I'll bet."

"Linna, if you're quite finished fraternizing with the enemy..." Sylia's amused tones crackled over the link.

"Coming, mother..."

* * *

Some minutes later, aboard the Knight Wing, Nene slowly strapped herself into her seat, trying to do as little as possible to exacerbate the fading dull pain in her abdomen. Once she had all the buckles snapped shut securely, she removed the helmet of her hardsuit. As the VTOL's engines spun up to full power, she turned it around in her hands to stare at its blank faceplate.

There was a round, spiky splatter of blood on it, a dark red highlight against the playful pink of the cerametal.

She hissed with a sharp intake of breath as a sudden stab of guilt drove itself home in her gut to replace the more physical pain that had predominated until now. Holding the helmet in one hand, she raised the other and, spreading its fingers wide, turned it this way and that in front of her shock-widened eyes.

The knuckles of her armored gauntlet were stained with blood. Long, thin incarnadine trailers traced spiderweb-fine lines along the gauntlet's backplate, and down to the tip of each finger. She stared, unseeing, at the armored glove; in her mind, she finally saw, actually saw what she had done -- the bloodied, torn body of the woman she had beaten mercilessly.

Closing her eyes against the threat of tears, Nene whispered, "Oh, god. What's happened to me?"

Unnoticed by her, the drying blood on her hands turned into glittering motes of golden light and vanished without a trace.

* * *

I didn't say anything more as the Knights trudged up the ramp and into their carrier. It closed behind them with a final-sounding thud, and then the black aircraft took off. Its engines' howl, almost loud enough to be painful, reverberated off the buildings on either side, but their backwash didn't touch us, thanks to Hexe.

As the Knights' plane slowly rose into the night sky, the squad gathered around me. All except for Maggie, that is, whom I had already helped off the ground and whom I now held; we just stood there with our arms around each other. Overhead, Hexe and Silverbolt hovered, alert and ready to respond should the Knights attempt any kind of sneak attack once the VTOL was in the air. But no attack came. The Knights were as good as their word.

From where we were, I could see Inspector McNichol some distance away. Like us, he stood silently and watched the aircraft disappear into the night sky. Then, shooting us -- or maybe me -- an unreadable glance, he got back into his patrol car and drove off.

"Well..." I began as the engines of both airplane and automobile faded.

"That was a waste, Looney," Hexe abruptly interrupted me. She was hovering still, her back to me. "Of time, resources and what little goodwill they still bore you."

I gaped at the simulacrum. "What?"

Hexe turned to face me and sniffed dismissively. "You heard me. Because they dared actually hurt you -- worse yet, got first blood in a fight -- the great and powerful Looney Toons had to teach them a lesson. You went for overkill because they wounded your precious ego. You didn't need to summon us to delay them. You just wanted to humiliate them and prove how much more powerful you were." She shook her head in disgust. "Typical macho dick-waving bullshit. That was unworthy of you. I thought you knew better."

I boggled. Never had a simulacrum ever given me this kind of dressing down before; something in my subconscious mind must have been far more disturbed by events than I was, and that was saying a lot.

"I mean," the Hexe simulacrum went on with the beginnings of a sneer on her lips, "what happened to your training? What happened to scaling the response to the opposition?"

"What happened to 'overwhelm and destroy?'" I countered.

Hexe rolled her eyes. The other simulacra, even Maggie's there in my arms, were silent and almost motionless, as if all the vitality which had formerly animated them had been drained away to fuel the angry Hexe before me. "This was not one of our usual operations, Looney. These were not enemies to be eliminated. All you had intended to do was delay them a few minutes, and instead you almost turned it into a massacre. Idiot!"

"Hey, they took the first shots!"

"After you shoved them off their emotional balance with an application of your metagift, then tried to violate the mind of their leader! What did you expect?"

"I told you 'non-lethal, divide and separate'," I pointed out thorugh gritted teeth.

"Oh, yes," the image of Hexe replied with her usual sarcastic edge. "Just like telling a bazooka 'only a little hole.'" She literally looked down her nose at me. "You intended nothing less than to humiliate and hurt them." She sniffed. "Well, I hope you're proud of how well you beat up a little girl with no metatalent."

I felt my level of irritation start to climb higher. "Look, you! I am not going to waste my time arguing tactics with a manifestation of my own subconscious!"

"Wrong." Hexe dropped to float directly in front of me. She's taller than I am to begin with, but when she's almost half a meter off the ground, it's like being in first grade again and looking up at an angry teacher. "This form is only partly a manifestation of your subconscious."

I stopped short and cocked my head. "Come again?"

"I am a goddess, Looney. Any true image of me with belief behind it attracts a fragment of my attention. Whether or not you realize it, you have some measure of belief in this..." she waved her right hand at her torso, "...simulacrum. I am here." She got in my face. "Believe it."

* * *

After snapping several shots of the departing Knight Wing, Lisa turned her attention back to the street level, where it appeared an argument -- in heated English -- was brewing. That's so strange, she thought, remembering her encounter with Kat in Doug's apartment and what she'd learned then. It's like he's fighting with himself. Then another thought struck her. How come I can suddenly hear them so clearly? It's like they were up here with me...

She tabled that thought for future investigation, and took a group photo.

* * *

Not entirely believing the Hexe simulacrum's claim, I dropped into magesight.

And got the surprise of my life.

Kat, Silverbolt, even Maggie there in my arms -- in magesight they were exactly what I had expected: featureless blobs of magical energy otherwise indistinguishable from any other active spell construct. But Hexe...

Inside the Hexe-shaped energy construct was the unmistakable golden glow of a soul. And inside that... Inside that was a triple helix of colored energies -- blue, green and red -- that I'd only ever seen in Hexe and a few other beings. The signature aura of an incarnated deity.

"Ho. Ly. Shit," I swore under my breath. "It is you."

"You'd better believe it, Looney." She looked me over. "And you certainly look the worse for wear."

"Getting shot and supporting four simulacra will do that to a guy," I admitted.

She raised an eyebrow. "Getting shot, surely. But you are not supporting these three -- I am."

"You are?" I said, disbelieving, and brushed my lips across Maggie's too-still forehead.

Hexe lowered herself to the ground so I didn't have to keep craning my neck to look up at her. She crossed her arms and looked down sternly at me. "Yes. Between calling me here and generating those three, you pretty much drained yourself -- and of those tasks, summoning me was vastly the harder. Don't do it again, or you're likely to kill yourself. Anyway, when I arrived and saw the situation, I took over their maintenance. Or hadn't you wondered why you had more energy to dance around with than you expected?"

I considered this, nodded, and whispered, "Song off." It stopped, but the simulacra remained. I nodded to myself. "You know, you shouldn't be able to do that."

A corner of Hexe's mouth quirked up into a fraction of a smile. "You're right. Normally I shouldn't, at least not in the avatar in which my spirit dwells on our home timeline. But this is not my avatar, and I am not bound by the constraints I put upon myself when I incarnated there." She quirked the other corner up. "Not completely bound, at least."

"Do tell."

She looked around at our three companions, who were indeed almost inanimate now. "I'll dispel them now..."

"No, wait," I said, and she raised an eyebrow. I ignored that and turned my attention to... to the image of Maggie I had in my arms. "Good-bye, beloved," I whispered and gently kissed her. She didn't respond, but that was all right. I think it would have been too much for me if she had. "Okay," I said without looking back.

Maggie, Kat and Silverbolt simply vanished. I lowered my arms slowly from their now-empty embrace, relishing the last sensations of Maggie within them.

I suppose some of what I was feeling was on my face, because Hexe then said, in a quieter, more sympathetic tone, "You invest too much belief in these golems of yours."

"I won't complain," I said, finally looking back at her. "It netted me you."

"That's as may be," she replied with a shrug, "but you'll only make more pain for yourself every time you use those songs."

"Well, then, Hexe, let me just say this." I drew in a deep breath and bellowed, "'Bugs Bunny to Earth: Get me outta here!'"

Her usual supercilious expression drained away, replaced by one of great sadness. "I'm afraid I can't."

"What?" I valiantly kept myself from shrieking outright, but I suspect I was more than a bit strident. "I thought you weren't 'constrained' here!"

She shook her head. "I'm not -- and I am. Understand something, Looney, I'm not all here. I am just a tiny fragment of my full Godhead, yanked to this universe by the combination of the ancient Covenant between gods and mortals, and the raw chaos factor of your metagift. I don't know how you got me here, or how to get back. I suspect that when I release the hold that keeps me here, I'll just automatically snap right back to the rest of my Mind and fuse back into it, without having to chart a course back to our homeworld." Her nose wrinkled as another possibility occurred to her. "Then again, I may simply evaporate into the Void instead, leaving my primary Self infinitesimally diminished." She shrugged. "I won't know until it happens. Either way, I don't have much power in this world..."

"Bull-shit," I muttered. "You just about fried the White Knight."

Hexe actually smiled. "Not the minor power I'm able to channel through a weak vessel, Doug, but that of my full, true Self. That's what I'd need to find our world from here and take you with me."

"Fuck," I said without much force.

She frowned, studying me. "There's also one other consideration. You appear to be bound here, at least temporarily, by a wyrd -- a destiny. You've been tied into the pattern of this world until you accomplish some task, at which point you'll be released." She shook her head. "This fragment of me certainly doesn't have enough power to shake you loose from that."

"Oh, joy," I growled, thinking unkind thoughts about the Three once more.

She shrugged again. "At least it will make you easier to find. Now that I know the pattern of the world you're in, we can try to locate it and come after you." She bent down and got into my face. "Just stay put!"

I wasn't so sure I could do that, though, given what the Three had told me. According to Them, it had certainly sounded like I needed to keep going forward, before I could get home. And if you can't trust Fate when it comes to what it is that you have to do, who can you trust? I also didn't want to risk the chance that this "fragment" of Hexe wouldn't make it back home at all -- otherwise I'd be stuck in this cyberpunk hell endlessly waiting for a rescue that would never come. But I wasn't about to say any of that to Hexe.

As if reading my mind, though, she looked at me sadly and shook her head. "But you're probably going to do something idiotic anyway. I know you too well, Doug," she said flatly.

I simply shrugged.

Hexe stepped forward so that she was standing almost nose-to-forehead with me. "I suppose that leaves me with only one option." Hexe raised her hands to lay delicate fingertips on either side of my helmet. "Although this world is far from my spheres of influence, I can at least do this much for you." With that she leaned forward and brushed her lips across the U.N. emblem on the front of my helmet. But I swear I could feel them on my forehead. "You'd better take care of yourself, my friend. I will tell Margaret that you are well, and that you think of her."

"Thank you, Hexe... Helene..." I hesitated, then called her by her True Name, which I had learned many years earlier and had never before used, and which I will never record anywhere, not even here. My throat was suddenly, inexplicably tight, and behind my goggles my eyes stung. "Thank you."

She released me and stepped back. "I can feel that my time is almost up, Doug, and then I'll be gone. Be well and don't give up hope. We'll be looking for you." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "After all, you know how we hate to lose. And how much we'd hate to lose you." Traceries of shining blue-white began running across her body, and a moment later, I was looking into the blazing star-eyes of a being of furious incandescent light. Then she, too, was gone.

I stood there in the silent, darkened street for several long moments. Then I called my motorcycle to come to me, and went home to heal and to sleep.

* * *

"Wow," Lisa whispered to herself. Whatever the freak phenomenon had allowed her to eavesdrop had been, it had puttered out just before that last exchange, but Lisa gave it no thought. She had snapped the shutter at the moment Wetter Hexe had transformed. "I hope that comes out! It'll make a great shot!"

"Yes, it will," a now-familiar voice said softly from behind her, mild amusement apparent in its tones.

Lisa froze, then turned around slowly. Wetter Hexe stood not three meters away, feet slightly apart, arms folded across her chest. She wasn't quite smiling, although one eyebrow was quirked in obvious amusement.

Lisa scrambled to her feet as Hexe broke her pose and strode forward. The young reporter got ready to throw her camera over the side of the building and flee if necessary. But Hexe did nothing more than lay her hands on a trembling Lisa's shoulders and smile down at her. "I know who you are, Lisa Vanette," the goddess said softly. "You are a good friend to him. Keep being a good friend. He is lonely, and although he will not admit it even to himself, he is afraid of being lost forever among the worlds."

Hexe then leaned down, and as she had for Doug, brushed her lips across the girl's forehead. "My blessing upon you, too, girl." A disturbing edge seemed to slide into the goddess' smile. "You'll need it."

Once again blue-white fire limned and consumed her shape, and she disappeared.

Stunned, Lisa Vanette, tumbled backwards to land gracelessly on her butt.

* * *

In a Place that was not a place, a Fourth momentarily appeared to Three who watched.

"Honored Aunts, once Your bargain with him is complete, kindly butt the hell out."

Then She vanished.

* * *

GENOM Tower. Thursday, February 12, 2037. 7:45 PM

"Tacteam G1 update."

Katherine Madigan thumbed the transmit key. "Go ahead, G1."

"We have negative results on salvage. As usual." The crisp, professional tone broke for a moment to reveal a familiar frustration. "By the time we got to street level, the discards had self-destructed."

Her face hidden by the near-darkness in which she sat, Madigan nodded to herself. It was no more than she'd expected. Discarded equipment left behind by the Knight Sabers invariably melted down into slag and goo within minutes. Analysis of the all-but-unrecognizable remains of an entire (though heavily-damaged) hardsuit abandoned on top of the Tower in the wake of the Largo debacle had led GENOM technicians to theorize about destructor nanites on a deadman switch, but no evidence of them had ever been found; if they existed, they disassembled themselves as thoroughly as they did the systems in which they presumably lurked.

"Noted," she finally replied. "Terminate operation and return to base."

"Recall acknowledged. G1 out."

Katherine shut down the relay and continued to sit in the shadowed silence of her apartment. The tacteam's hardened sensors had returned unparalleled video coverage of the conflict, although the audio had been somewhat spotty, particularly toward the end. Still, there was much that Katherine had witnessed about which she had to think before she reported back to the Chairman.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to begin drafting that report now. With a wave of her mouse/remote, she launched the word processor on her apartment computer and began to dictate. "New file. Standard memo. Start. To James D. Quincy, Chairman. From Katherine Madigan, Senior Vice President, Special Projects...."

END OF CHAPTER TWELVE

<< PreviousNext >>

(Version 1.1, 22 October 2003)

This work of fiction is copyright © 2002, 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.

"Helene 'Wetter Hexe' Diedmeier" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Helen Imre.

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

"Diana 'Silverbolt' Apostolidis" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.

"Kat" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Kathleen Avins.

Lyrics from "A Little Help From My Friends" as recorded by Joe Cocker, words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, copyright © 1967 Northern Songs.

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:

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/dw2conc.shtml

Other chapters of this story can be found at:

http://www.accessdenied-rms.net/misc.shtml

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:

http://drunkardswalkforums.yuku.com/

Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: The Apprentice, Joe Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Delany Brittain, Barry Cadwgan, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Helen Imre, Eric James, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.

Special thanks to Attila Imre for his information and advice on proper knife-fighting style, technique and tactics, and for his help in choreographing some of Hexe's fight with Sylia. Sorry, Attila, but I had to be just a little cinematic. Oh, and my finger has stopped hurting. I'll just let you demonstrate moves on someone else's body next time.

Finally, a special "master of obscure detail" award to Logan Darklighter, who discovered Nene's holdout knucklebomber in original BGC canon material!


This page was created on December 1, 2002.
Last modified August 15, 2011.