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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.
Drunkard's Walk II: Robot's Rules Of Order
by Robert M. Schroeck
14: What For You Bury Me In The Cold, Cold Ground?
Not a silent one
But a defiant one
Never a normal one
'Cause I'm the bastard son
With the visions of the move
Vocals not to soothe
But to ignite and put in flight
My sense of militance
-- Rage Against the Machine, "Fistful of Steel"
Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done? -- John Steinbeck
But February made me shiver,
With every paper I'd deliver.
Bad news on the doorstep,
I couldn't take one more step.
I can't remember if I cried
When I heard about his widowed bride,
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
-- Don McLean, "American Pie"
Saturday, February 14, 2037, 11:17 AM
Lisa found the box outside her door as she left for her lunch with Daley: small, red, and shaped like a heart. It rested on top of an envelope, also a deep crimson in shade. She stared at them for a moment before she realized the date. Valentine's Day. I'd completely forgotten! But who...?
Doug. It has to be Doug. The thought sent a warm glow through her. He's so American. He probably doesn't have a clue about White Day or anything. But I don't care. She picked up the gift and opened the envelope to find a simple, hand-made card. "For my best friend in this whole, wide world. Happy Valentine's Day." Sweet. She smiled to herself, realizing the blunt honesty hidden in the unusual phrasing, but finding nothing offensive in it. Not exactly what I would have wanted, but good enough. Good enough.
As she stepped back into her apartment, she opened the box to find it full of chocolate-covered cherries. With a moan of delight she treated herself to a single one -- better not spoil her appetite for lunch, after all. The chocolate coating resisted her teeth for a bare moment, then collapsed, shattering into delicious shards as the thick, sweet juice surrounding the cherry within flooded her mouth. She closed her eyes and savored the blend of flavors as she slowly chewed the fruit and candy, then reluctantly swallowed. "Oh, Doug, if only you weren't already married..." she whispered, half-seriously. With great care, she placed the box and its remaining treats in her refrigerator.
I'm going to have to give him something, of course, she mused as she left her apartment a few moments later. I don't dare give him honmei-choco, I can't express that kind of feeling for a married man. But I want to do more than just giri-choco... Mou! And how do I get it to him? I have no idea where he's staying.
As she stepped into the elevator, the answer made itself known. I can go to IDEC on Monday. And it's not really honmei-choco if I don't give it on the 14th, right? Hm. I'm going to need a few ingredients if I'm going to do this right... Delighted with her logic, and planning a shopping list, she nodded happily to herself as she pressed the button for the ground floor.
Not quite an hour later, Lisa was seated in a kissaten not far from AD Police headquarters, waiting for her lunch partner. As she absently stirred her coffee, she thought about chocolates for Doug, weighing alternatives and thinking about the recipes her college friends had used from time to time.
She had gotten so engrossed in the matter that she failed to notice Daley Wong walk up to the table, until he waved a hand in her face. "Oi, Lisa-chan!" he called, and she started.
"Oh, Daley-san!" she blurted, flustered, as she stood and bowed. Daley smile privately at her overly-formal manner. "Please forgive me. I hope I didn't keep you standing there long."
"Only a moment, Lisa-chan," Daley replied as he slid into the other chair at the table. "Please, sit down, and relax. And what have I told you about calling me 'Daley-san'? You've been able to be informal with me before, you know. Or don't you remember jumping into a patrol car with me once and yelling at me to 'step on it'?"
She giggled nervously and did as he suggested. "Sorry," she apologized again, and cringed sheepishly as she realized what she was doing. "Old habits, you know. They creep out if I don't keep a lid on them."
The ADP inspector nodded, his smile only growing wider. "Yes, I know, unfortunately." Lisa giggled again.
They exchanged small talk for a quarter of an hour as they considered their choices, made their orders, and waited for their food to be served. Once the proprietor of the small cafe had placed their meals before them and left them to eat, Lisa finally broached the subject that she really wanted to discuss.
"Daley," she said after several bites, "You know I asked you to lunch for a reason, right?"
He smiled. "This is where I'd usually make some joke about saving myself for Leon-chan, but I think I can pass on that today. You want some inside information, ne?"
Lisa laughed nervously and toyed with her chopsticks. "You got me. Yeah, there was something I wanted to find out. Off the record, of course."
"Something Nene-chan couldn't get for you?" Daley asked, one eyebrow creeping up into his hairline.
"Well," she extemporized, "I don't think she'd have access to this information." Not to mention that this'd be a bad time to ask Nene for anything she might think was related to Doug, judging from how she was acting Thursday night, she silently appended.
The eyebrow rose higher, and was joined by its partner. "We are talking about the same Nene-chan, right?"
For the first time Lisa wondered just how much Daley knew or suspected about the Knight Sabers' membership. "Well..." she stalled while trying to think up something plausible.
Daley studied her for a moment. Then he shrugged. "All right. As long as it isn't too sensitive, and it stays off the record."
"On my honor," Lisa quickly swore. "This is simply background for an investigative piece I'm researching. Unless I get the same info from an unrelated source, I won't even refer to it in my article."
He nodded. "Good enough. Fire away."
Lisa placed her chopsticks on their ceramic rest and leaned forward. "The boomers from Thursday night. Have your people interrogated them, gone over their internal logs or whatever, to see who sent them out?"
"Yes," Daley said after a moment. Even though his posture didn't actually change, he seemed to slump in his chair.
"And? Who did it?"
Daley frowned. After a long silence he said, "We don't know. They don't know. They just remember activating in Geo City Plaza. Their mission recorders were zeroed out just before they woke up, too."
"Wait, wait." Lisa waved her hands in a "hold on" motion. "Isn't that supposed to be impossible?"
"Well, yeah. 'Supposed to be' is the operative phrase there." Daley took a sip of his tea. "Of course, GENOM swears up and down that there's no way to do it. The only boomers who should have zeroed recorders would be brand-new ones that have never been activated."
"Uh-huh." Lisa scrunched her nose up. "And I'll just bet that they weren't brand-new boomers."
Daley nodded. "You'd win. We traced their serial numbers and some of them were actually used in the Polar War over six years ago."
"Well, if you traced the serial numbers, then who are their owners?" Lisa asked.
"Nobody," he said with a laugh. "They were listed as either stolen or destroyed anywhere between two and four years back."
She nodded sagely. "Of course they were." She gave him a serious look. "You know that has to add up to GENOM. Who else would be able to do something as 'impossible' as zeroing a boomer's recorders?"
"Believe me, we're quite aware of that," Daley said softly. "But it's all cobwebs. There's not even enough there to be called circumstantial evidence."
"But if it's GENOM," Lisa mused, "then who in GENOM is it? From what I heard, IDEC's no longer chasing the Loon, so it can't be them."
Daley shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
* * *
IDEC. Saturday, February 14, 2037, 4:11 PM
After (carefully) dropping off my little Valentine's Day present on Lisa's doorstep, I took a bus to the Tower. I waved my badge at the security folks (I was even more certain by then that they were all boomers) and hopped an elevator to the 17th floor to get in some more R&D time.
Well, it's not like I actually had a life or hobbies or anything else to do on a grey, slushy winter Saturday, even if it was Valentine's Day.
It was the second morning since the debacle, and I still had the faint ache behind my eyes. One and a half full nights' sleep hadn't fully dispelled that yet, and I was doing my best to ignore it as I carded myself through various doors. I stopped at the employee lounge for another megadose of aspirin just as a precaution, then locked myself in my workshop for what I expected would be yet another day's worth of "frustrate the researcher".
As it turned out, I would be pleasantly surprised.
First things first, I gave my notes on the grav gun conversion a final once-over, to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything. I'd done my final bench tests on the actual unit the night before and was well pleased -- I hadn't lost my touch when it came to hacking gravtech. All that remained there was to dump the control circuitry to the nanofac, and add the necessary code to the bike's autopilot. Then I could actually install the unit on the cycle and I would no longer be groundbound.
I was really looking forward to that.
Anyway, my conversion guidelines looked solid, so I packaged them into a compressed archive. Then I set up a couple of levels of redirect through the GENOM dataweave and threw some distractions at the corporate watchdog software that was intended to prevent people from doing what I was doing. Never mind how or what -- that's my trade secret. I will tell you this, though: I didn't use my metagift, and root access is a terrible thing to waste.
So while the security programs were off chasing their own tails, I shot the archive off to several anonymous delayed-mail servers that I'd scouted out over the previous couple of days. I set the delay on each server to deadman-7/12 -- meaning release the file a week after I stopped sending daily "hold" messages or after twelve months, whichever came first. At that time, I instructed the servers, they were to mail the archive to half a dozen or so high-technology companies in the US and Japan that I had carefully selected. They would also post it to every newsgroup in USENET's "tech" hierarchy that had ".grav" in its name, as well as tech.talk, alt.aviation.new and -- just to be safe -- ten more newsgroups to be picked at random from the whole of USENET by each server at delivery time.
(Gods, I love libertarian/anarchist programmers. I snagged a copy of the source for the server program and burned it to ROM for use when I got back home.)
The resulting swarm of archive copies would hopefully get through any countermeasure GENOM could come up with, short of bringing down the entire Net. I didn't put it past them to try that, but even in that worst case, copies would still be residing on a hundred thousand independent systems by the time GENOM got its act together. Non-weapon gravtech would be free, no matter what GENOM wanted.
I completed the job by starting the nanofac up and dumping the control circuitry file to it. The fac would spit out the completed circuit block sometime on Sunday; I'd pick it up and bring it home on Monday. Then I carefully packed the kitbashed grav drive in the gym bag in which I had originally carried it to IDEC; if time allowed, I'd spend Sunday afternoon coding the support for the new circuitry and installing the grav unit on my cycle.
That done, I decided to indulge my curiosity about the initials that I'd found in the boomer brain design some days before. I ordered up a lunch from the burger place in the Tower food court and set to work trying to find all possible combinations of "boomer", "buma", "brain" and "KS" both in GENOM's internal databases and out on the Net. I did a little fancy footwork in a few non-tech systems and used several GENOM subsidiaries' subscriptions to various private databases to spread my search a little wider.
Despite my best efforts I still had to filter through a lot of Knight Sabers drek, but eventually I found him, practically a footnote in the history of boomer development as presented by GENOM: Katsuhito Stingray. (Talk about your goofy names... Or maybe not, considering pots, kettles and apparent reflectivity indices...)
Something of a latter-day Renaissance man, he worked for an outfit called Wiz Laboratories (which GENOM later took over, natch) until he died in what the official biographical paragraph described as "an accidental explosion". Parsing that through the GENOM-to-Truth converter gets us "assassinated after his critical breakthrough so we could nick all the rights when we bought the company."
Except that GENOM didn't get all the rights to boomertech -- according to certain other databases I consulted, Stingray had filed for and received a few key patents before his death, and they were still in the hands of his two children, Sylia and Mackinnison. (Who in their right mind names their kid "Mackinnison"? God only knows what damage that did to the poor boy's psyche growing up, especially combined with having his dad murdered...)
Anyway, out of a kind of paternal interest in these two probable victims of GENOM's greed, I looked into their lives. It turned out to be a more challenging task than I had expected -- both kept a very low profile. However, I found enough. They were doing well for themselves -- for some reason GENOM hadn't tried to cheat or lawyer them out of the remaining patents (probably because it would have been a PR nightmare even GENOM's spinmeisters couldn't have fixed), and those patents had been worth a lot. The girl -- well, woman, actually, since she was now in her middle-late 20s -- was a multimillionaire who apparently split her time between running a lingerie shop and dabbling (rather successfully) in real estate. The boy was an engineering prodigy who was attending college in Germany, but had previously lived with his sister in their penthouse home right here in beautiful downtown MegaTokyo. They certainly weren't suffering, despite their father's probable murder at GENOM's hands.
("They killed your parents, didn't they?")
The memory of my own voice whispered to me from the back of my mind, and I stopped for a moment to consider what it had to say. Then I pulled up what precious little there was on Sylia Stingray in the public databases -- suspiciously little, come to think of it. I supplemented it with material I had eased out of some GENOM files I really wasn't supposed to know about. I added in various news shots of both the White Knight and Stingray. I studied the combined results and thought.
Allowing for those stupid heels and the general increase in dimensions imposed by the armor, she'd be about the right height and build. Her brother had clearly inherited their father's genius, so why not her? But either one could be the Knights' technologist. She had more than enough money to start (if not continuously fund) a private mercenary force. She clearly had sufficient pull to ensure her online profile was small enough to overlook easily. She had the free time. And she had a motive that tallied up nicely with Lady White's obsession with boomers.
Add to that the fact that the name I'd overheard in their radio chatter as "Celia" could easily have been "Sylia" instead, and I was pretty sure that I had found the leader of the Knight Sabers.
I sat back from the monitor on which I had laid out Stingray and Knight images side-by-side. What was I going to do with this information?
I thought about it for a while, and the answer was clear.
It made no difference to me, in the long run, who Lady White and the High-Heel Gang really were in their civilian identities. I did reserve the information for future blackmail, though. A threat that I'd dispatched a tell-all message into the delayed-mail systems could be useful if the Knights were to change their minds and come after me; just a hint that such a revelation was on a deadman switch like the grav drive plans, and I could probably force the Knights to leave me alone forever.
I wouldn't actually do that -- I didn't want to entrust Lady White's security to a set of hacker-built relay systems. GENOM might not get its grubby little hands on the secret (not right away, at least), but god knows who else might -- and from thence to GENOM anyway. But like I said, the claim that I had would make a good threat. I'd only use it, though, if I had no choice but to antagonize them further.
As a private, personal show of good faith -- Sylia Stingray would certainly never know about it -- I erased the "KS" from the boomer brain CAD files. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, I'll admit it, and in retrospect it was a mistake. Had I bothered to think about it at all, I wouldn't have done it; it was, I later realized with disgust at myself, the equivalent of wiping a painter's signature from his masterpiece -- an act of vandalism. Those initials only led me to the identity of the White Knight because of information that, outside of the Knights' organization, I alone possessed. Someone else might have made the connection to Katsuhito Stingray, but not the leap to his daughter.
But I didn't think of any of that. I just saw a step in the chain or reasoning connecting the creation of boomers to the Knight Sabers and removed it. I blanked out the relevant parts of the files' internal change histories and reset their dates so that there was no evidence of tampering, then copied the altered files back to the server where I'd originally found them. I ran into a little trouble with a security daemon that objected to the changes in their checksums, but it was nothing I couldn't handle.
That brought me up to late afternoon, and left me nothing to do but what I had actually come there to do. What I had been dreading having to do all day: following up on Lisa's lead.
Yeah, I had been procrastinating by taking care of everything else first. This was basically because I wasn't looking forward to another big zero to round out my week.
It took me all of 45 minutes to find.
They'd stashed it in the financials subweave, whose gateway I'd never bothered to crack, and which I'd excluded from my earlier internal searches on the grounds that I wouldn't find tech info there and it would be a waste of time to look. Well, you know what they say happens when you assume...
Yeah, I hate that stupid saying, too. Makes me want to reach out and throttle the smug asshole who's saying it. Only this time I was the smug asshole.
Then again, I usually am. Heh.
This time, I'd included the financials subweave in my in-house search because of Lisa's suspicion that GENOM had crushed the offending corporation. While that would likely include direct paramilitary action using boomers -- it wouldn't be a GENOM op without'em -- there was no way such an attack would go down without a financial component. Thus there ought to be some kind of record of the corresponding economic campaign in the appropriate systems.
And so there was.
The company had been called Mirmecoleon Labs. They had been primarily a chemical weapons outfit, and in early 2026 they were poised to launch a mysterious new product, one that would establish their place in a market increasingly dominated by mechanized means of war.
Six months later, they were toast. GENOM had found out about their new product, and had attacked them on all fronts, both public and covert. I found a neatly organized report on the entire campaign. GENOM hadn't just destroyed the company, it had assassinated its officers, killed its researchers, bankrupted it, and ground it under foot. Then, after no one was left who knew or understood what the company had in the way of intellectual property, GENOM bought its assets at auction through a front company for pennies on the dollar.
And the only access to those assets was a now single link from the financial systems to a datastore flagged almost ten years earlier as "pending final disposition" and apparently forgotten. Like I said once before, GENOM was schizophrenically diversified. Entire divisions could and did go rogue for months before anyone in upper management noticed. Here was another case in point. Mirmecoleon had come up with something which GENOM's upper management had seen as a threat. Orders had been dispatched, and a different branch of the corp handled the problem, while the original order-givers forgot entirely about it. Not being the ones who had seen the threat, and not being techs, the financial division had no idea what they had on their hands. So they put it all on ice, pending further instructions which never came.
Where I had found it.
The source of Lisa's rumor.
Mirmecoleon Labs, it seems, saw its corporate doom in the prospect of the all-boomer war. Boomers weren't bothered by "conventional" chemical agents short of submerging them in something like nitric acid for a weekend. The kind of weapons that were Mirmecoleon's bread and butter were going to go the way of the buggy whip with that kind of combatant dominating the battlefield.
So they put their heads together and came up with a weapon tailored to kill boomers.
They called it Leontophonus -- "Lion's bane". Don't ask me why.
Just looking at the plain-Japanese specs, I knew it was going to be a bitch to work with. Half bacterium, half nanobot, it was an airborne agent that acted like a mold on methamphetamines. Designed to eat anything carbon-based when it found itself inside a cyberdroid, it rampaged through boomer immune systems like typhus through a medieval village -- it was the one and only original boomer plague. (Fortunately, its spores could last only five minutes without a proper boomer host, otherwise it probably would have jumped "species" and mutated into a real plague.) No wonder GENOM went all-out on Mirmecoleon -- this stuff could turn boomers into so much goo and unconnected scrap metal in almost no time.
My challenge was to teach it how to heal instead of kill.
Except for a 12-hour break to sleep and recharge my still-recovering system, I spent the rest of the weekend studying the Leontophonus organism/nanite/thingy, and eating the occasional delivery meal from the Tower food court. I had for once lucked out, for relatively modest values of "lucked out": the spoils of GENOM's takeover of Mirmecoleon included the complete nanofabrication specs for the bug (although I was pretty sure GENOM wouldn't have minded very much if those files had been "accidentally" deleted at some point). Unfortunately, they were for a different (read, non-GENOM) model of nanofac.
When I discovered that, I got up, did a little yelling, kicked a table, and went to get some tea. By the time I got back, I'd calmed down enough to go out on the Net and do a little surfing.
Just as I had hoped, some clever soul had written a program to translate between the two formats and posted it as freeware on the Net, where I found it after about 15 minutes' worth of searching. It performed about as well as any other language-to-language code translator I'd even seen, though, which meant I still had to do a lot of tedious reading and correction of the resultant code.
But since I was going to do that anyway to re-engineer the bug, I didn't consider that a problem -- just a challenge.
* * *
Monday, February 16, 2037, 9:41 AM
The phone rang. Without looking up, Katherine punched the "accept" button. As the screen flashed to life, she snapped, "Madigan."
"Madigan-san, this is Tetsuo Gorski in General Supply. I have some good news for you."
"Yes?" she murmured impatiently.
"I wanted to let you know that we didn't need to custom build your special requisition, after all. As it so happens, similar weaponry was designed and built on the orders of Senior Executive VP Mason several years ago. It was tested but never actually used, and on his death was warehoused."
Madigan stopped her analysis of the report on her desktop monitor and turned to look at the phone's screen. Gorski was a rotund, red-faced man, balding and bearded. He wore a white lab coat over an open-necked white shirt. "Indeed?" she said to the image. That doesn't sound like Mason at all.
"Yes, ma'am." The bald head nodded decisively. "When I saw your request, I thought of this old project and retrieved the prototypes and fabrication templates. The projectiles were originally intended to carry some variety of nanoagent, but the payload hadn't been perfected when the project was shelved."
Katherine nodded, her intuition confirmed. Ah. I should have known Mason wouldn't have commissioned anything simple and non-lethal.
On the telephone screen, Gorski continued to speak. "We can easily adapt the projectile for your needs." His tiny image beamed at her. "You'll have your full requisition by this afternoon."
She graced him with a smile. "Excellent, Gorski-kun. This is good news indeed. Thank you."
Katherine suppressed a chuckle at the look of surprise on Gorski's face, which was quickly replaced by a smile of his own. "You're very welcome, Madigan-san. It's been a pleasure and a privilege serving you." He bowed slightly, more than a simple token gesture of respect, she realized. "Don't let me take up any more of your time. Good day." He repeated the bow.
She inclined her head toward the phone's camera. "Good day to you, Gorski-kun, and thank you again," she replied, surprising herself with her own sincerity. The screen blanked and she hung up.
One step closer, she thought. One step closer.
* * *
Monday, February 16, 2037, 12:16 PM
I'd finished hacking the design for Leontophonus at around 10 on Sunday night. Instead of diving into testing right then and there as I was tempted to, I went home instead. I had the newly nano-fabricated autopilot component in my pocket, and the revised control code dumped to a fresh rom; I was feeling good about what I'd accomplished. Once home, I crawled into bed and got my third eight-plus hours' sleep in a row. As a result, I was finally feeling normal when I woke up the next morning.
I spent a couple minutes installing the new component in my cycle's autopilot and replacing its rom. Now, all I had to do was weld the grav unit on and run the wiring.
Wait. I needed a housing -- I couldn't just leave it in that weapons mount. I made a mental note to start fabricating a basic steel casing when I got into work that morning. The nanofac probably had something appropriate in its stock "library", but if worse came to worse I could machine it myself directly from stock I had available in the shop.
Oh, and I'd need to paint it after installing it. I made another mental note, this one to requisition some electrochromic paint after taking care of the housing; if I were lucky, I might even have it by the end of the day.
The ride in to work was uneventful. When I got into the office proper, I was still feeling good; I managed to smile warmly at Sindra and banter with Chizue, and I amused my other coworkers with my energetic greetings.
I avoided Ohara and his mafiosi -- it wasn't hard, they were usually ensconced in their offices or labs already at 9 AM -- and made my way to my workshop. I then spent the day running the design for my modified bug -- which I'd imaginatively christened "Leontophonus-A" -- through every simulation I could think of. In particular, I was trying to force it to attack (simulated) human tissue, subjecting it to every kind of (virtual) environmental stress I could think of, both realistic and over-the-top, to see if I could force it to mutate or revert. I was sure I had completely removed its ability and inclination to chow down on organics, but I've been known to make the occasional mistake, and I wanted to be absolutely certain this wasn't one of them.
As the queued simulations ran one after the other, I dealt with a different problem. I'd made extensive changes to the original Leontophonus design. The bug as it had originally come out of Mirmecoleon Labs had no brains. All its sophistication was concentrated in its ability to get around the boomer immune system. Beyond that, it simply ate and reproduced, very quickly.
I'd needed something considerably more capable. To this end, I had stolen from GENOM's own designs -- specifically, the boomer fusion nanite. It took me a little while, but I'd extracted both the more sophisticated "brain" and the "cooperative swarm" feature of the fusion nanite and grafted them both onto Leo-A. Where once it had been like a bacterial culture, the bug was now more like a colony of ants.
While this was perfect for my needs, it had one annoying side effect -- the nanite spores were now considerably heavier than the original had been, by at least an order of magnitude. They would not disperse through the air nearly as well, and once in the air would precipitate out far, far faster. Worse, they tended to clump together and form a kind of viscous pseudoliquid, much like the fusion nanites did. This made it impossible to deliver the bug using the original Leontophonus' methods. I couldn't just spray the stuff, nor could I use an aerosol bomb to blow a cloud of it into the air.
This was going to be a problem.
I pushed myself back from my desk, and let my chair roll across the room with me in it, spinning slowly as I held my legs up and out. There goes my idea of just launching a ton of the stuff into the atmosphere, I thought. I'd already edited out the lifespan limit -- it was actually a self-destruct timer cued by the combination of an oxy-nitrogen atmosphere and the absence of a couple of boomer-specific trace compounds -- and had replaced it with a limited Von Neumann reproduction system. If the bug passed my stress tests, I'd been planning simply to dump a truckload of the stuff from the top of Fuji or someplace else high up and easily accessible, and let the wind carry it to the four corners of the earth.
Unfortunately, it had ended up more like paste than powder. This was not good.
It did have some advantages, though, that I hadn't anticipated. Leo-A could hide itself among a boomer's fusion's nanites. It would also tend to cling to the boomer's surface, from which it could infest equipment or infect other boomers.
Camouflage is good. Contagious is good. I could deal with that.
My chair hit one of the parts racks on the far side of the room, and I turned myself around just enough to kick off the steel frame. I went rolling back to the desk, where I kicked off again, only not so hard, so I ran out of momentum in the middle of the workshop floor. I lowered my toes to the tile and started spinning the chair as I growled to myself and tried to think.
All I ended up doing was making myself dizzy. So I stopped my chair abruptly, digging my toes into the tile hard enough to make the rubber soles of my shoes screech in protest. Sighing, I toe-walked myself and my chair back to the desk, as the computer signified another successful simulation with a happy little "ping!" I pulled out a pad and a pen; across the top of the first sheet I wrote, "Leo-A: Delivery Methods".
I had just started to brainstorm some possible strategies (after first writing and then crossing out "Federal Express") when Sindra rang the workshop phone and told me I had a visitor waiting in the lobby.
"A what?" I blurted, then my brain started working again and I asked, "Shortish blonde girl, real tan, cute and perky?"
"Pin-pon!" Right. Lisa.
Hm. Sindra was sounding better, not nearly as twitchy. "Okay, be right out."
"Great. Oh, and Craig?" Her voice got playful for the first time in my experience at IDEC.
I got suspicious. "Yeah?"
Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Better take her someplace nice, it looks like she put a lot of work into those chocolates." She hung up with a giggle.
Chocolates? Why would Lisa be bringing me... She shouldn't feel like she has to return... It was at that moment of confusion that one of the more obscure cultural details about Japan that you just don't need if you're in the metahuman security biz wrestled its way out of a dark corner of my memory and presented itself for my perusal.
Valentine's Day. White Day. Oh... boy.
* * *
Monday, February 16, 2037, 1:34 PM
"...and that's all the ADP's been able to find out," Lisa finished lamely as they strolled through one of the plazas surrounding GENOM Tower. It was easily the warmest day in weeks, with the bright sun bringing the ambient temperature far enough above freezing that the seemingly-eternal slush was turning into quickly-moving meltwater. Still, just because it was above freezing didn't mean she couldn't snuggle; she had wrapped herself around Doug's arm and leaned her head against his shoulder. He'd eaten her chocolates as his dessert, carefully, deliberately, and pronounced them exquisite; the heady feeling that gave her almost outweighed her embarrassment at having failed him in finding out anything from Daley.
Thinking about how little she had to offer him in the way of leads, she grimaced privately. While even the lack of information might mean something useful to Doug, it still didn't make her feel any better about coming back to him with, essentially, nothing.
"Hm." She risked a glance up at him. She still couldn't quite get used to the change in his appearance. Even though he hadn't changed the color of his hair or the mustache -- which after nearly two weeks probably wasn't fake any more -- he had shed the vaguely disreputable air he'd possessed when they'd met in Eriko's a few nights earlier. Instead, even though he was dressed casually for a GENOM employee, he radiated an aura that said, "I'm a respectable young executive." Knowing he couldn't be using his powers to do it, Lisa was forced to conclude it really was just a matter of how he carried and presented himself. That kind of skill would be very useful to an investigative reporter, and she made a mental note to see where and how she might be able to learn it.
"I think your contact's right, Lisa," Doug said, shaking her out of her distraction. "It's likely GENOM. I should probably say another GENOM faction -- the whole corp is rife with little powerplays and rivalries between divisions and departments." He chuckled. "Hell. I half-expect to hear any day now that a running gun-battle has broken out between the fifteenth- and sixteenth-floor janitorial staffs over who gets the really good soap."
Lisa laughed in spite of herself. "You know it'd be easy to clean up afterwards," she offered with a grin.
He laughed, too, the first time he'd done so in her presence in a while. "Which is good, because there'd be no one left with the proper skills for the job."
He grew silent and sober again. "Best I can figure, after IDEC got taken off the task of catching me, someone else in GENOM got the assignment." His forehead creased as a thought seemed to strike him. "Either that, or they decided they could earn brownie points or personal chops by bringing me in without orders. Or maybe they have a private use for me that their higher-ups wouldn't approve of. In any of those cases, there could be any number of groups in GENOM after me, depending on how good the security was on the original chain of command. Joy."
"At least you're popular," Lisa pointed out impishly, hoping to restore at least some of his good humor.
"Yeah," he replied glumly. "Like a pig at a church barbecue. You may be the guest of honor, but when it's all over there's nothing left of you."
Lisa raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes as far as they would go. "That is so profound! Succinct, and yet very depressing," she said in the little-girl voice with which she used to tease Nene, back when they first met. She batted her eyes at him. "I didn't know you studied the great German philosophers." She batted her eyes again.
He gawped at her, a reaction she discovered was unexpectedly satisfying. Then he burst out laughing, loudly and long enough that the few other people willing to brave the park in the cold air turned and looked in their direction.
He turned and pulled her into a deep, warm hug using the arm around which she had draped herself, and kissed her on the forehead. "Lisa, you are a treasure," he said, still laughing. "Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."
Lisa said nothing, content to burrow into his chest and to be held there, no matter how briefly it would last. If he were gone come White Day, even if he were still here and gave her nothing, this -- this more than made up for it. It wasn't his love, not the way she wanted, but it was good enough.
* * *
Monday, February 16, 2037, 8:46 PM
I meant what I wrote on the card I left with her Valentine's gift.
Human interaction with someone whom I didn't loathe, who knew my secrets, who knew me, was just what I needed. Chizue was nice, and easy to talk to, but she was still almost a stranger; Lisa had become, I had realized even before I'd bugged out of my old apartment, the kind of friend with whom you share your soul. I knew how she felt about me -- even without her chocolates I'd known that. I couldn't return those particular feelings, but I think she realized that and somehow understood. Which, in its own way, made her all the more precious to me.
I have almost a dozen boon companions, for whom I'd lay down my life and who would do the same for me. I have a commanding officer whom I would follow into Hell itself without question or hesitation. I have a woman whom I love with all my heart and all my soul and all the fabric of my being, and who loves me just as strongly. I am almost as privileged as a man can be, with all these wonderful people enriching my life.
But since I lost Jack to the machinations of Arcanum and that abomination of science and magic he called the Servant Factor Virus, I have not had, I have not dared again to have, a best friend.
Not until Lisa.
It's odd. We didn't do "buddy" sorts of things, and over the previous few weeks we had seen little of each other. Our friendship was, all told, less than eight months old. But to my surprise I found that I did consider her a best friend. (Well, kind of a cross between a best friend and a little sister. At least, an idealized version of what I imagined a little sister ought to be like -- having been an only child, I had only second-hand experience with the real article.)
I'd been almost as close to Delandra, back in Haven -- after two and a half years of almost constant contact, it would have been impossible for me not to be -- but Delandra had lacked the cultural matrix that she needed to really understand me and where I was coming from. MegaTokyo and its version of Earth weren't home by any measure, but they were close enough that Lisa could make that last conceptual leap.
I was, therefore, understandably reluctant to part ways with her at the end of lunch. I think she sensed that, because as we crept back toward the lobby entrance of the Cone she wrapped her arms around me and buried her face into my coat. I tried to get her to tell me something of what she was feeling, but she only shook her head, her face still pressed against my chest.
We stood like that, silently, on the corner across the street from the Tower, for several minutes. Neither of us really wanted to let go of the other, so it was a while before, with an unspoken but mutual agreement, we loosened our grips and moved back from each other about half a step. My hands had slid down to rest on her upper arms, and Lisa's were around my waist still. Looking down at her, I saw a glint of moisture under her eyes. Had she been crying? I wasn't sure; if she had, the dry winter breeze had sucked away the evidence before I could notice it.
We gazed at each other, again silently, as smiles broke across both our faces. Then she reached up, pulled my face down to hers, and graced me with a soft, sweet and very brief kiss.
After a moment she broke the kiss, laid her cheek against mine, and whispered into my ear, "Take care of yourself, okay?" Then she whirled out of my hands and ran back across the plaza, scattering a flock of pigeons which had just come to rest on the wet, cold pavement. By the time they had settled themselves back down, she was gone.
"Damn," I whispered to myself, and watched the street into which she had vanished for several minutes. "Damn." I knew that one way or another, Lisa was going to hurt, and hurt badly, when I left. ("And what about you?" a little voice whispered in the back of my mind.) The only consolation I had was that our friendship had stayed just that, a friendship, and nothing more. I am a married man. I love my wife, and I am faithful to her by both natural inclination and conscious choice. If I had not been, I would have lost a best friend, I am sure, and the pain from our parting would only have been greater.
Which didn't make the prospect seem any less painful, unfortunately.
I made my way back up to the 17th floor. As I came through the glass doors and into IDEC's lobby, Sindra give me a conspiratorial little smile. "So?" she asked slyly.
My mood had drifted a little closer to melancholy on the elevator ride up. "So what?"
She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "So how'd it go with the little blonde cutie?" She narrowed her eyes. "You ought to know she was here last week looking to talk with Mr. Ohara or anyone else in charge. Those chocolates might just be a bribe, so be careful!"
I smiled and shook my head. "Nah, she's a friend of mine. She didn't know I was working here when she was by last week. I spotted her and gave her call -- that's why we met up today."
"Old friend, hmmm?" Sindra murmured with mock lasciviousness, and I laughed.
"Not that kind of friend!" I waved a reproving finger at her.
"So you say," she riposted.
"Go back to work, Sindra," I growled as I pushed through the wooden doors to the offices beyond. Her giggles followed me until the doors latched shut behind me.
Sindra's good-natured teasing had dispelled the creeping onset of my borderline melancholia, and I found myself smiling as I made my way back to my workshop. As usual those days I locked the door behind me. Only then did I check the status of the simulations. A quick scroll through the list of completed tests showed no red entries -- so far, the nanite was proving to be stable in the face of all manner of unusual stresses, not once operating outside of the narrow range of behaviors I had delineated in the test conditions.
I was very pleased; this was starting to look very promising. Of course, I still had the delivery problem to deal with, but I settled myself in and went back to brainstorming on that one.
That, and a couple other things.
For example, if I didn't have a decent delivery system set up by the time I was ready to test, I was going to have to administer the stuff by hand to my first few subjects. As the most likely candidates for my field tests would be boomers dispatched to take me down in combat, that meant I had to come up with some way of getting close enough to dose them with the bug without opening myself up as an easy target.
What I needed, really, was a way to pacify any boomers that might get close to me. And that meant a song.
So while the simulations ran and pinged and churned away at all the things that could possibly go wrong (and couple that were impossible, too, just to be sure), I sat down to search through my helmet archives. I took my time -- I was in no immediate hurry, of course -- but it wasn't long before I found the perfect song. The lyrics were almost hilariously appropriate, and even better, I had used it once before, back home, so I knew that it did what I needed. I hadn't tested it against any bots at the time, but given that boomers were almost indistinguishable from humans magically, I didn't expect any problems.
I laughed out loud at the selection, though. This is one I'm going to have to play with the external speakers on, I thought, chuckling, as I instructed to helmet to copy it into the cache where the songs I use most often are stored, and assigned it a keypad code. Best to be prepared, after all.
I went home early that night -- regular closing time, instead of somewhere between ten and midnight -- with a newly-fabbed steel casing stashed in my bag, and a quarter-liter can of electrochromic paint (freshly liberated from GENOM) in my pocket. I stopped in a tool-rental shop on the way home to pick up an arc-welder and related gear that I'd booked that afternoon in between my other tasks. I snagged a bite to eat from the takeout place across from my current digs, noted that I was eating too much fast food and reminded myself to cook more often, and then went to work on the bike.
I was feeling quite good, if I do say so myself. As I installed the modified gravgun in its new housing and welded it to the frame of my motorcycle, I found myself whistling "Fate's Wide Wheel" by King Thunder. A glitter-rock anthem from the 1970s, it was one of my few old favorites that wasn't stored in my helmet. To the best of my knowledge I hadn't heard it in years even before I'd been tossed out of Homeline, so why it came back to me just then, I can't say.
A minute later, I wasn't whistling any longer, I was singing.
For a long time I wouldn't sing where people could hear me, because I thought I was simply awful. Some friends I made during a subsequent stop in my journey home succeeded in disabusing me of that notion, but that would be years later. While I was in MegaTokyo, I was still convinced my singing could kill insects and stun small rodents. Even so, I would sometimes sing when the mood struck me and when, like at that moment, I was alone and it was thus (in my opinion) safe.
I came in on the middle of the song, tentatively, having whistled my way through the first verse and chorus, and I surprised myself with how clearly I remembered the lyrics. By the time I reached the last verse I was belting it out to the empty garage.
"<I'm just a traveler, upon the sea
Of time, of life, of fate's wide wheel.
Just a traveler, in this mystery
The me I am is all that's real to me.>"
I don't know; in retrospect, those lyrics should have gotten me depressed again, but somehow, they didn't. Instead, I felt... well, I guess "hope" is the best word. I had a solution cooking for the charge the Three had made of me, I had a best friend again, and soon I'd have another flying motorcycle. Things were looking pretty good, despite everything that could yet go wrong.
* * *
Tuesday, February 17, 2037, 11:28 AM
His voice was deep, rich and laced with an accent redolent of the Indian subcontinent. "My apologies, Ms. Madigan, but my men are having trouble with the new ordnance assigned to us."
Katherine closed her eyes and counted to ten in German (another lesson from Father Knecht coming in handy, she thought wryly when she was done), then opened them again. "What is the problem? Do they not function properly?" If Gorski screwed up...
In the telephone's monitor, the leader of her tacteam rubbed the back of his neck. "No, ma'am. We haven't had any problems with them at all. In fact, they're some of the best custom work I've ever seen."
She resisted the urge to grit her teeth. "Then what, pray tell, is the problem?"
"It's a matter of familiarity, ma'am. I understand that the practice ammo we've been provided duplicates the performance of the live rounds we'll be using, and that's the problem. They don't behave quite the same as either regular bullets or trank darts, and my men are having a hard time getting used to them." He sighed. "Frankly, ma'am, if we were to have to go into action tomorrow, I don't think we'd be any good to you."
Katherine was about to snap out a scathing comment, then caught herself and nodded slowly. "Fortunately, Chief Patel, you have until Friday. Put in overtime if you need it -- I'll see that it's properly authorized so you and your men don't get short-changed -- but see to it that at least one of you has some basic proficiency in those weapons. Understood?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Patel barked. "We'll go through a lot of ammo, though," he added thoughtfully.
She nodded again. "If you run out of the practice rounds, Tetsuo Gorski in General Supply will provide you with more. Is there anything else?"
He shook his head. "No, ma'am."
"Very good. I will be in touch." Katherine hung up even as his arm began to swing up for a salute. She rested her elbows on her desktop and rubbed her eyes. Just what I need. What else can go wrong?
* * *
Tuesday, February 17, 2037, 4:48 PM
The simulations ran for almost another full day, leaving me with time to keep brainstorming on delivery methods all Tuesday morning. I wasn't having any luck, and my mind kept drifting off to other subjects. In particular, I started thinking about home -- something I tried not to do except in the most general of terms, as a destination or a goal.
This time I was wondering how they were making out without me. I sat at my drafting table and tapped a pen against its surface, turning the seat of the rotating stool beneath me back and forth with little twitches of my hips and swings of my feet, listening to it squeak while thinking about how things had stood when I'd departed Homeline.
Kat's little sister had just joined the team a few weeks before I left, taking of all things a Chinese code name; then again, her dragon-mage metatalents had manifested while she was on an exchange study program in Beijing, so I guess it was appropriate. Poor girl had panicked and teleported right to Kat in the Mansion before she knew what she was doing, and hadn't that been a nasty diplomatic, customs and immigrations mess to clean up.
She'd been terribly anxious about her metagifts and being in the Warriors; I hoped that she'd managed to settle down and find her center, especially with Kat and Joe there to help her. Not to mention the fact that both of their nieces, daughters of Kat's other sister, were supposed to be attending Warriors' Academy under Maggie come that Fall. Both were already displaying metatalents at the tender ages of 6 and 10 respectively. Alison would certainly have enough family around her to help her through any bad times.
Although the girls' mother was, as far as Kat knew, a normal, it seemed quite likely to me that if she wasn't a latent, she was at the very least a carrier of the metafunction genes. Especially given that all three of her siblings were active metahumans -- according to Kat, her brother (whose civilian name I'd never learned) was also metagifted and did the vig thing under the improbable nom de meta of "Knightlight". I wondered if anybody had ever done genescans of Kat's parents. I'd wager dollars to donuts there was something special about both of them.
Thoughts of Alison and the girls led me to thoughts of other new members. Had Hexe ever succeeded at recruiting Nightbird from the Specials? Nightbird had some interesting metatalents and she was genuinely nice person, despite her prissy famous-actress mother. Word on the street had been that the Femme Five were interested in her, too -- all twelve of them. They were a bunch of nutbars, though ("Accurate counting is a tool of the repressive Patriarchy," my ass!), and Nightbird really deserved better than that. I know that Hexe would have been able to offer her a more attractive deal; I just wondered if she'd taken it.
There was also the Japanese guy with the mantis powers that we'd just started looking at -- Kamakiri, I think he called himself. I wondered what had happened with him.
So basically, instead of focusing on the task at hand, I spent my time thinking about all of these things from back home, things four years in my past and god knows how many universes away. I thought about my parents, too, as estranged as I am from them. But most of all, I thought about Maggie.
I thought a lot about Maggie.
I was thinking a lot about Maggie when the sim machine pinged three times and announced in a calm, synthesized voice that it had completed the full run of tests and conditions. I threw the results up on one of the overhead screens, leaned back in my chair and studied them.
It looked good, real good. Nothing I'd tried had made the bug mutate or misbehave. The sims predicted that it would have a tendency to colonize damp PVC plumbing in the absence of a more suitable host environment, but I could live with that -- it was far from a deal-breaker.
So far, so good. Then I scrolled to the performance projections. A quick search for the aggregate statistics and...
"Yes!" I shouted as I pumped a fist in the air. According to the sims, the mean time between exposure and basic freedom from GENOM behavioral constraints was three minutes and twelve seconds. If the boomer got tagged anywhere on the head, that dropped to as low as 45 seconds!
I wasn't too surprised; the initial stage of the infection simply cut the wires on the overlays, releasing the brain from their oversight. I suspected (and the simulations suggested) that it wouldn't be a painless process; a massive cascade of data would suddenly surge along new pathways, some of them all but unused before the infection. It would probably hurt; at the very least it would be incredibly disorienting. It wasn't going to be any fun, but then, birth is always a painful process, and that was what an infected boomer would be more or less undergoing -- birth into a wider, freer world.
The rest of the process would take somewhat longer. Leo-A would dismantle GENOM's overlays and use their raw materials to build additional subprocessors and new circuitry linking them in to the original system. The units would reflect that world's current state-of-the-art -- which was almost two decades beyond that used by Stingray in his original designs. It would take anywhere from six to nine hours, but when the process was done, the infected boomers would be smarter than their enslaved brothers, faster on the uptake, and maybe even a little... well, intuitive for lack of a better word.
(So why did I choose to upgrade them only to the local state of the art and not to the level of Warriors' proprietary tech? A couple of reasons.
First, the "are you braindead or what?" reason: Much as I might hate the thought, GENOM was certain to get their hands on one or more freed boomers eventually, and would take them apart to find out the why and how of what had happened. I wasn't going to hand them something better than they already had.
Second, the practical reason: The GENOM overlays didn't contain several of the trace elements needed to make some of our special stuff. And it was just more trouble than it was worth to program in temporary tropisms for the various rare-earths and the one island-of-stability transuranic our most advanced designs employed. Hell, I didn't know if teslium had even been synthesized in this world yet. Why saddle my newly-freed boomers with an appetite for something that might not even exist?
But I digress.)
I spent an hour and a half going over the results, making sure I hadn't missed anything. I hadn't, so I nipped over to the nanofac and dumped the build instructions for my first batch of Leo-A to its processor. This batch would implement the one temporary solution for the delivery problem that I'd come up with: capsules.
Yeah, ordinary cold-medicine, sticks-in-your-throat, bright red-and-white gel capsules. Each one would hold a couple of doses.
I figured it was a useful form-factor if I was going to have to go up to a boomer and infect it by hand anyway. Just put one in my palm and slap it against the boomer. It'd break, the bug would get on the boomer and away we go...
The fac blandly informed me that the first hundred grams of Leo-A would be ready for me in the morning. Which meant I needed a test subject. I didn't like the idea of having to wait for the mysterious new player to send out another raiding party after me; that was just too uncertain. It's too bad I can't just have Ohara send out some... more... boomers.
Right. Of course.
* * *
"I need a boomer," I said to Ohara as I leaned causally against his open door.
"What?" He stared at me from behind his desk.
"I need a boomer," I repeated. "Don't worry, I'll disable its weapons systems before I start working with it."
Several moments passed while he digested this. "Do I even want to know why?" he finally asked.
He pursed his lips and looked at me over his glasses for a few more seconds. "All right," he said. "I'll have one sent to your shop immediately."
"Thanks!" I said brightly, and walked off loudly singing some improvised lyrics to the tune of that old folk standard "If I Had A Hammer". (It was IDEC, after all; I didn't care about offending or harming anyone with my singing.)
"<If I had a boomer
I'd rampage in the morning
I'd rampage in the evening
All over this land...>"
Assorted IDEC drones prairie-dogged over their cube walls to see who was making the ungodly racket and gave me all manner of ugly looks as I passed. I am so not typical Japanese office worker material.
Ohara's promise of immediate delivery was no exaggeration. Illya showed up at my door at almost the same moment I did, accompanied by one of the maintenance guys, who was wheeling along a seriously large crate on a hand truck. I stood at the door to my shop and watched as they came to a halt a couple of meters away. "Ordered a boomer you did?" Illya asked with a grin.
When I saw the model number stenciled on the side of the plasteel box, I gave him an incredulous Look. "You keep combat boomers on-site?" I knew I'd getting a combat boomer, but I'd thought they'd at least have been storing them in a warehouse somewhere else in the city. Despite what Ohara had said, I'd expected it get delivered the next morning at the very earliest.
Illya shrugged in a manner that seemed far too Gallic for his Russian blood. "One or two we have left over from, um, earlier phase of studies."
"Yeah, right." I studied the box for a moment, then opened the door and stood aside. "All right, bring it in and put it next to the nanofac."
They wheeled it in and laid the crate on its side. As the maintenance guy trundled back out into the hallway, Illya solemnly presented me with a small crowbar then said, "Do not a mistake be making with this boomer, 'Craig'."
I took the crowbar and experimentally fitted it between crate and top. "Don't worry, I'll be careful."
He looked at me, a very serious expression on his face, for several seconds before saying, "Better that you be. We many others modified to make less lethal, but this one we have not." He laid one ham-sized hand over my fist and most of the crowbar. "It is great trust we give you now, knowing even that you hate us. No, deny it not," he added as I started to protest. "With poorly-veiled contempt you treat us, and we see it, we know. But good reason you have." He shrugged. "Badly have we treated you. So we understand, we forgive. And we trust that good enough man you are that revenge you will not take -- at least not with boomer."
I said nothing for a long moment, staring only at the huge hand on top of my own. Then I looked up and into his eyes, and nodded. "Thank you," I said, feeling faintly ashamed.
He released my hand and shrugged again. "Is nothing. Besides, a prick Tony is, and smacking down needs. Skilled at that you are, and is fun to watch." He smiled again, briefly. "Just be sure that what you are doing will not the innocent people here harm."
"I'll be sure," I murmured.
"Well then," he shifted gears into an expansive bonhomie, and clapped me on the back, staggering me for a moment. "Enjoy your evening and your new friend."
"Yeah," I said, and watched him turn and march out.
After the door closed and latched behind him, I turned back to the crate. "Well," I said to myself, "let's see what I've got." A few quick motions popped the top, which was hinged and swung open on little gas-filled pistons. A number of plastic sleeves holding papers hung from the lid, and at random I pulled a thick sheaf from one.
"Operations and service history, huh?" I said, reading the boldfaced title on the first page. I glanced over at my new roommate. "So you're a used model, huh? I can work with that."
I sat down in my chair and began to read.
* * *
Wednesday, February 18, 2037, 10:28 AM
I made sure I got another good night's sleep that evening, and the next morning came in with the very last vestiges of my experience the previous week completely eradicated. There are some things that magical healing just won't take care of -- and magical backlash is number one on the list.
Anyway, with my head completely clear for the first time in almost a week, I bounced in to IDEC, got my bagel from Chizue and went to play with my new toy.
Thanks to the documentation in the shipping case, I'd been able to activate my new boomer friend in a limited diagnostic mode. In this mode, its higher brain functions were off-line, and I could more or less operate it like a voice-activated doll. So I made it get out of the box under its own power. (Hey, it was easier than trying to lift it myself!)
As it climbed out of its crate and brought itself to attention, I took the opportunity to study it again, as I had the previous night. It was a 55C model -- an older variety of warbot with covert capability, blue in color, roughly humanoid, with a head that looked more like a fright mask than a face. It was, according to the documentation, in "compact" mode. What was normally a walking blue wall of artificial muscle now looked more like a household bot -- roughly the shape and size of an average human male. It didn't surprise me that this was the mode used for the "C" part of its model designation -- "covert". A night in a nanofac with the right program and Joe Bot would look like Joe Bob instead.
So once Oscar the Mechanical Man was standing in the middle of my workshop floor, I set about making him as harmless as I could. Using the command reference card that came with the docs, I carefully issued all the orders necessary to do a software lock-out of all his weapons. I noted with a mixture of amusement and disgust that GENOM's boomer OS required three separate commands to deactivate each individual weapon system, but only one master command was needed to turn them all on again -- simultaneously. Shows where GENOM's priorities were, I guess.
Of course, setting the soft locks wasn't enough for me, so I had it pop all the access panels for the weapons systems. Then I shut it back down and removed the fuses and cables that fed power to its integral weapons. I confirmed that it had no fuel for its flight thrusters, and physically removed its main and backup comm units. Then I reactivated its diagnostic mode and set the final safety -- a "test bed" mode that only allowed the boomer's brain to activate, while leaving everything below the neck shut down. If something went wrong after all that, well, it could probably still do a lot of hand-to-hand damage, but it wouldn't be able to lay waste to the place before I could try to stop it.
Just to be sure, though, I cued up a media player with a copy of "Lightning's Hand" on one of the workshop machines that had a voice recognition system.
The nanofac had finished the first batch of Leo-A some time before, spitting out the capsules some time in the early morning hours. Nipping over to the fac's output bin, I picked up one capsule in my bare hand, and rolled it around. It was dry and firm -- I'm not sure how the fac had kept the gelatin from dissolving in the matrix fluid, or even softening, but there it was. I pinched it lightly between thumb and forefinger; the capsule squeaked faintly, and I could feel the packed, powdery spores inside compact and scrape against each other like so much cornstarch.
With the capsule still in my hand I walked back over to Oscar and studied his mechanical mug for a moment. Then I smashed the cap against his brow, above and between his eyes.
The powder inside was a pale gray-green. Instead of sliding off and falling to the floor as you might expect, it stuck -- most of it to Oscar's face, a little to my hand. The grey-green splotch on the boomer's forehead vanished even as I watched, flowing along its armored skin and seeping into the seams of its face like water soaking into a cracked boulder.
I looked at the bit that had gotten on my hand. It had turned black and was already flaking away. Well, that was a good sign. I made a mental note to wear a latex glove the next time I tried something like this, though.
Ten minutes later, ten minutes of carefully-metered waiting -- to spare him the worst of the shock by letting the bug do the first phase of its work while he was "asleep" -- I activated Oscar's brain in "test bed" mode.
At first it wasn't obvious that he'd stopped being a piece of sculpture and had turned into a living thing. The fact that he was paralyzed from the neck down didn't help. Then his mouth snapped open and his eyes went wide in a silent scream of agony. Before I could react, though, it was over, the mechanical face going completely slack for a moment. Then, slowly, his facial expression regained animation, showing first puzzlement, then fear, then confusion. His eyes rolled in their sockets and sought me out.
"This... this is..." he began. "What's happened to me? I... my mind... my thoughts... they're... different." His voice sounded surprisingly human -- a rich, measured baritone with no odd buzzes or electronic overtones. Since boomers had nothing approaching lungs or vocal cords, it had to be synthesized, but he moved his mouth and "lips" to match the words, and the flexmetal/polymer/whatever of his face shifted and tensed like human flesh to match. Once again I wondered just what the hell had been going through Stingray's brain when he created these designs, and how much it cost per gram.
"Just a little improvement in your mental health, thanks to me." I studied his now-animated face a bit before giving in to the ever-present temptation to be a bit of a wiseass. "It's a good thing you didn't say 'Happy Birthday,'" I announced solemnly, "because you are not wearing a magical top hat."
"...what?" Oscar asked softly as the mechanical confusion on his face amplified itself.
Right. I shouldn't have expected a boomer to get a 70-year-old pop culture reference. And come to think of it, had that cartoon even been made in this universe? "Never mind. How do you feel?"
"I can't move my body." He tried to look down at himself. "Why can't I move my body?" he asked plaintively.
"You're in test-bed mode, my friend, just in case you had the urge to attack me." I pulled up the chair from my drafting table and sat myself down in it backwards, folding my arms across the top of the backrest as I continued to watch him.
"Why would I attack you?"
"Check your memories and your old programming," I replied. Oscar was very good at the puzzled look. I wondered what else he had in his repertoire.
"Okay." He took on a look of extreme concentration (thus answering my mental question) just long enough for me to notice it, then his eyes flew open with a look of surprise, or maybe horror. "I did that?"
"Yeah. Do you still want to?" I asked.
"Hell, no!" There were clear tones of horror and disgust in Oscar's synthesized voice.
Good enough for me. "Okay, then. Let's see if we can't get you moving around."
* * *
Easier said than done. Neither of us trusted the other one whit at first.
I thought I'd disabled all the possible booby traps GENOM might have laid in Oscar's head, but I wasn't 100% sure. Plus, most of the combat boomers I'd encountered seemed to relish their jobs with an almost sadistic enthusiasm. I didn't know where in the boomer mental make-up that originated, and I was half-afraid Oscar would go Frankenstein on me the first time I turned my back. Despite this, I toggled the test bed mode to return control of his body to him -- a show of good faith to start things off with. Afterwards, though, I tried to keep my fingers as much as possible on or near the hotkeys that would launch that copy of "Lightning's Hand".
Oscar, for his part, was even more wary than I. As he would tell me later, he knew that he was GENOM property, but he had just awakened -- paralyzed -- in an unidentified facility. He had a lot more mental agility than he used to possess, plus a strange set of behavioral urges that we later identified as a rudimentary conscience. For a boomer of his particular model and employment, this was an altered mental state as profound and disquieting as an LSD trip for a human -- he was perceiving and understanding things that he had never before suspected existed. That was enough to shove him off balance by itself, but add to that his paralysis and a growing concern about why it was happening to him and who I was, and he had drawn the not-unreasonable conclusion that he had been requisitioned for some bizarre test that would undoubtedly end in his destruction.
At least I knew what was going on, which made me somewhat more eager to reach out to him than he was to me. It took several ultimately boring hours of suspicion-laced back-and-forth interrogation (by him) and cautious encouragement (by me) before his expanding and reconfiguring brain accepted the possibility that he was, in fact, a free and independent being, loosed from the shackles GENOM had placed on him.
Fortunately, I didn't have to convince Oscar of anything in order to return control of his body to him. That was just a matter of a simple reset. I let him know what I was doing, but by the expression on his face it was clear he thought I was lying while deactivating him permanently. I almost laughed at his visible surprise and relief when he restarted and discovered he was back in command of his body. Almost -- he probably would have taken it wrong had I actually done so.
I think what finally convinced him was that I let him walk out of my workshop and into the hallways of IDEC, where he startled a couple of the passing drones. When I didn't come running after him, he went wandering, returning about 15 minutes later. As he re-entered the workshop, I closed the window on my desktop through which I had watched him using the hallway surveillance cameras, and went back to Minesweeper.
"There's a nice view of the city from the window of the conference room down the hall," he said, with a trace of puzzlement in his voice.
"Mm-hmm," I grunted as I clicked another blank cell.
"Why do I even care about the view?" he asked.
"Why does anyone?" I countered as I subsequently blew myself up with a misplaced mouse click.
"I mean, I always could tell what was aesthetically pleasing or not to a human, so that I could maintain my cover," he went on as if I hadn't said anything. "But it was always a... a... measurement before. Now I look, and I... I..." Oscar trailed off, a look of mechanical puzzlement on his polymer and metal face. "I appreciate it. I like it. I want to keep looking at it." He turned his attention to me and stared intensely. "What has happened to me? Explain."
So I did.
* * *
"This is very impressive," the boomer said as he studied the overhead screens. When he'd expressed curiosity as to just what, exactly, I'd done to him, I threw some of the simpler design and prototyping files up there, where we could both easily see them. He (and I) had been studying them for a couple of hours at that point, progressing to more and more complex elements of the design as time went on.
"Thanks," I said, without very much modesty.
"You're welcome," Oscar grunted. "Now tell me why."
I tilted my head ingenuously. "Why?"
"Why did you do all this, make all this effort? Why free me? Why bother?" His eyes narrowed as suspicion returned to his face. "What's in it for you?"
I frowned, leaned back in my chair, and propped my feet up on the top of a lowboy file cabinet, not taking my eyes off of him during the process. "Several reasons, Oscar, old shoe." I held up a handful of fingers. "One, I'm philosophically and morally opposed to slavery, especially an engineered, automatic slavery like GENOM has imposed on you and your fellows. Two, it was an irresistible technical challenge that I had to prove myself up to. And three..." I trailed off, and studied the skeptical boomer for a moment, trying to decide what to tell him.
"Three?" he prompted after a moment.
"Three," I resumed in a quieter tone, "it's the payment for both a debt I owe and a successful attempt at extortion."
He looked at me for a few seconds, and I looked right back at him. "A debt?"
I nodded. "Of honor and blood, willingly incurred. You don't need to know to whom, or why," I added as he opened his mouth.
He shut it again and returned the nod. "Fair enough. And the extortion?"
I glared at him. "You don't need to know that, either. But it's worth the task demanded of me." I turned my attention back to the overhead monitors.
Oscar studied me for a long time. He didn't move a synthetic muscle for the entire time I felt his gaze on me. I ignored him, and set about the mental exercise of playing some more Minesweeper.
This went on for five or ten minutes, maybe longer. I didn't time it, and I was deliberately distracting myself, so I'm not sure how long and it really doesn't matter. I was forcing him to make the next move. Out of the corner of my eye I studied him carefully. I had, in fact, been studying him carefully all the time we'd been talking, looking for signs that my changes and improvements had had any unhealthy side effects -- either for him or for me. So far, I hadn't seen anything except some short-period mood swings, but given the changes going on inside his head as we talked, that was only to be expected. My gut was telling me that he was on the level, that I'd succeeded with him, succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, and I was inclined to trust my gut. But all my celebration would do no good if he didn't make the choice to trust me.
So I waited, and played more Minesweeper. I like simple, mindless games like that, especially when I know the cheat code that makes the secret pixel flicker any time my cursor passes over a hidden bomb. I wasn't using the cheat this time -- I needed the extra concentration spent on pattern analysis to help keep me from fidgeting as I waited for Oscar to work his way through everything he'd had dumped in his lap.
"Okay," he finally said, slowly, reluctantly. "What now?"
"Well," I replied without taking my eyes off the screen. "What do you want?"
"Hmm." I glanced over at Oscar; he was staring off into space. "No one's ever asked me that before, really asked me, I mean."
"Well, you can do anything you want now." I shut down the game and turned to face him fully. "Within reason," I amended with a conciliatory look. "I wouldn't recommend going out and taking revenge on anyone who's ever wronged you."
"No, I don't want to do that," he said, then shook his head. "I can't do that." He shook his head again, smiling this time. "Amazing."
"What you appear to have achieved without directly intending it." A bizarre mix of puzzlement and pleasure flitted across his face. "I seem to have a... a moral sense, for lack of a better word."
I looked him over. "And you didn't have one before?"
He shook his head. "I remember accepting orders for battle with equanimity, or worse, eagerness. I remember the deaths of humans at my hands, I remember..." His voice trembled and grew softer again. "I remember enjoying it. I remember watching blood drip from my fingers and savoring the sensation of its flow, the sound of each droplet as it hit the ground. I remember laughing as I killed." He dropped his face into his hands.
"And now?" I prompted gently.
His voice was muffled. "And now, I am disgusted and ashamed. My insides are twisting unpleasantly each time I recall how I was, what I did. I want to find someplace to hide, so no one can see my guilt."
I stood up, crossed to where he sat, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "We all have to deal with guilt at one time or another; if you don't, you're either insane or a machine. Trust me -- you're neither." I squeezed his shoulder -- useless as it was with his armor and compacted form -- and knelt by him. "Welcome to a wider world, Oscar. Welcome to the human race."
Oscar lifted his head and laughed humorlessly. "Human. Right." He held out his hands. "Does this look human?"
"Not at the moment," I admitted. "But it's not the body that defines a person, it's the mind. And believe me, after talking with you for the last --" I glanced at the wall clock "-- the last six hours or so, I'd say you qualify. Besides, if you're hung up on looks, well, we've got a nanofac handy. We can fix that in a few hours."
He got a speculative look on his face. "True. I hadn't thought of that."
"Besides," I went on, "you're clearly angsting. That's so human it's funny."
Oscar gave me a Look. "You," he said, "have strange criteria."
"Yeah, so I've been told." I stepped to the engineering machine on which I'd done most of my design work and pulled up the specifications used to make human disguises for covert boomers. "Here, Oscar, sit down. Whaddaya say we shop for a face for you?" I grinned. "And when we're done, I know where we can get you some really good fake ID."
He got up, crossed the room, and then seated himself at the computer where I stood. "Hmm," he rumbled as he began to page through the options available. "I could deal with this. But," he said, looking up at me, "if we're getting me an identity, I want a better name than 'Oscar'."
I perched myself on the edge of the desk. "What's wrong with 'Oscar'?"
Boomers aren't designed to roll their eyes, at least not when they're not disguised as humans, but I got the impression that he had, anyway. "It's dorky, that's what's wrong."
"'Dorky'? Well, you're picking up the vernacular pretty quickly."
He-Who-Wasn't-Oscar began selecting features and shades from the design menus before him. "I've had the vernacular for years. I was controlled, not brain-dead, you know. I'm going to talk like the military folks I worked with, not like freakin' Mr. Spock."
I held up my hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, you've made your point. So, what do you want to be called?"
He stopped pointing and clicking and froze for a moment, tilting his head to one side in thought. Then it was if a light had come on. He grinned broadly. (And believe me, with that particle cannon behind it, a boomer mouth is mighty broad.) "Call me Kilroy," he said decisively.
He turned from the screen and looked directly at me, the faintest hint of a smirk on his face. "Because I'm finally here."
I shook my head. "I don't understand."
"The way I was... before... it was like running my own body at a distance through a remote control unit with only a few functions." He laid a hand on his chest. "But I'm not at a distance any more. I'm here. And I'm in full control."
"Oooo-kay," I replied. "Kilroy it is. You'll need a bit more than that for the paperwork, though."
"Fair enough," Kilroy responded, and turned back to the computer. "Got any suggestions?" he asked as he went back to checking out his options.
"Lemme see." I frowned. What was it about "Kilroy" that teased at... Oh, right! "Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," I murmured.
"Huh?" Kilroy shot a glance at me without stopping his work. "What was that?"
I grinned at him. "I'm just remembering the album that killed Styx. How about 'Robert Orin Charles Kilroy'?"
"A little long, isn't it?" he grunted.
I shrugged. "Yeah, but the initials make it worth it."
Metal-polymer brows furrowed as he looked my way again. "You're weird, you know that? I'm an ex-killer robot with a conscience designing a flesh bag to live in so I can pass for human, but it's you that's weird."
Chuckling, I simply said, "Occupational hazard."
* * *
It wasn't the most comfortable of positions for a human, but Kilroy didn't seem to mind. He was able to curl himself up small enough to fit inside the workshop's nanofac, and did so without any complaints. He'd spent surprisingly little time selecting his future appearance, and as I looked over the specs, I complimented him on his restraint. Just buff and good-looking enough to get away with the bulkiness his boomer physiology imposed on him, even in covert mode, but not so much so as to really attract attention. Face, eyes, hair, everything was on the high end of average, and it all blended together nicely.
I wondered if he had done this kind of thing before -- I didn't think it was likely that boomers normally got to pick their covert appearance, so his apparent skill and comfort with the task intrigued me. I made a mental note to ask him about it later.
In the mean time, he was going to be tanked overnight and well into the next day. Despite my confident projection of "a few hours", nanoconstruction of a simulated flesh envelope for a covert boomer was a long and complicated process. The system projected completion at around 10 the next morning. Kilroy had shut himself down for the duration, but not before handing me a slip of paper.
"What's this?" I asked as he climbed into the tank of nanobath.
"My sizes," he said matter-of-factly. "While I'm in here, you're going to go get me some clothes."
"I am?" Well, it did make sense -- he had to walk out of the Tower, after all, and he'd attract far less attention clothed. I just hadn't thought that far.
"Yeah," he said, carefully lowering himself to his knees to avoid sloshing the thick liquid. The nanofac automatically detected the displaced fluid level and started pumping the excess into some hidden reservoir. "Nothing fancy. Business casual's okay. Loafers, no oxfords. Boxers, not briefs. Oh, and I don't like tweed."
I stood there with the slip in one hand for a moment, staring at him. "You've done this before," I accused, echoing my earlier suspicions.
He looked up with a big metal-toothed smile. "You betcha. They don't put everything in those mission logs, you know."
"Right, of course. This is GENOM, after all." I folded the paper and shoved it in a back pocket. "Very good," I continued in my best British Butler voice, giving him a half-bow with my arm bent servilely across my stomach. "Your ensemble will be ready for you when you rise, young master. Will there be anything else?"
Now up to his neck, Kilroy snorted. "No, Jeeves, that will be all." As I laughed he grinned again. "Well, I'll see you in the morning, Craig. G'wan, get out of here."
I gave him a mocking salute as he ducked his head below the surface, then reached up and slid the tank lid closed. The nanofac chimed, and went to work. And I went to the Tower's public shopping levels.
As I picked up the bare minimum I needed to buy to get Kilroy clothed and out IDEC's front door, my mind raced over all the issues this act raised. We had both more or less assumed without discussing it that he was pretty much free to go, if he cared to. I would have been more than a little worried about what amounted to shoving him out the door and wishing him good luck if he hadn't seemed so self-assured and confident about his ability to survive.
Which was one of the few things left that did worry me. It was patently obvious that he knew he could pass successfully among humans and had as much as admitted that he'd been a covert operative. The little paranoid corner of my mind wondered how much of our interaction had revealed real changes to him, and how much had been his ability to pass kicking in and guiding him through. I wished I could see truth and deceit in an aura, the way some mystics could; then I would know for sure. Lacking that, though, I had only my gut feeling to go on. And my gut still said to trust him.
Even so, it was possible that I was about to unleash a potential true rogue upon MegaTokyo. I thought again about his small, short mood swings. I presumed that they were a temporary side effect of Leo-A's progress through his brain, and expected them to fade when the bug had run its course. If they didn't, then they might be a symptom of something far more serious. Unfortunately, I wouldn't know for sure until the next morning.
By the time I'd finished shopping and made my way back up to the seventeenth, it was close to six and most of the staff had gone home. Of course, I'd intentionally timed my arrival that late -- no one to ask nosy questions about the various bags in my arms that way. I stopped at Sindra's desk and swiped a visitor's pass before making my way back to the workshop.
True to my joking promise, I neatly laid Kilroy's clothing out for him, along with a towel for any residual nanobath and a cheap plastic comb for his hair. It was an intentionally uninspired ensemble -- white dress shirt, khaki pants, brown corduroy jacket, black socks and brown loafers. On top of that I'd included a winter coat of black wool and black leather gloves (whose size I'd had to guess at -- he hadn't included it). The whole outfit had gone on my IDEC-provided credit card. It was in the name of science after all. I faked up an entry for him in the visitor log, and left the pass with his clothing. According the backstory I'd built, he was a consultant from the U of M whom I'd called in late on Wednesday, and we'd pulled an all- nighter together. Of course that meant I had to be in very early the next morning, but I could manage that.
That done, I went home, considering the day's efforts as I drove through the dark streets. All in all, things looked reasonably good. Kilroy didn't seem psychotic or unstable, appeared to be coping well with his mental liberation, and was more than ready to join human society on its terms. Pending further evidence to the contrary, I was inclined to declare Leo-A a complete success.
That led me to another issue. In the aftermath of this first and apparently successful test of Leo-A, I debated with myself the merits of posting its fabrication specs to the delayed-mail servers, just as I had the grav unit plans. I went back-and-forth on the topic not only the rest of the way home, as I undressed for bed. I didn't come to a final conclusion, though, until my head was actually on my pillow. And that conclusion was no, I wouldn't.
If the specs for Leo-A were out there for public perusal, someone might be able to come up with some kind of counteragent. Or worse, re-engineer the original Leontophonus. I couldn't allow that, at least not until there was a critical mass of infected and infectious boomers out there. Security by obscurity is never the best course, but at that moment it was the only course I had.
* * *
Thursday, February 19, 2037, 7:48 PM
Lisa glanced surreptitiously over at her guest. She hadn't really been quite sure what to expect, so she couldn't say that she was disappointed or surprised, but she certainly was intrigued. Katherine -- no, Kate, she corrected herself for the hundredth time -- Madigan had shown up on her doorstep a few minutes after seven in clothes that looked more appropriate for a dockworker than the heir apparent of GENOM. In one hand she'd had a bag of takeout Chinese, and in the other a sack of vidroms.
Now, almost an hour later, the coffee table was covered with empty and half-empty white cartons, dirty plates, and two careless stacks of vidroms -- Kate's and her own, segregated by the span of table between them, the better not to mix and confuse them. Lisa sprawled on her futon, propped up by pillows; she gnawed nervously on a finger as she glanced again at Kate. The lavender-haired woman sat poised on the edge of the apartment's one chair, staring at the small video screen before them with an almost frightening intensity.
Lisa glanced at the TV. Nephrite, general of the Dark Kingdom, lay battered and bleeding at the base of a tree as Naru Osaka clutched at him. "I'm sorry. I can't go eat chocolate parfait. I lied to you till the end," his rich voice rumbled with only the faintest trembling, "Please forgive me. I'm glad I met you." Still watching her guest, she realized that Kate's lips were moving; she was whispering Nephrite's lines along with the TV. Freaky, she thought, and desperately fished for something to break the strange mood.
"K...Kate," Lisa said suddenly as Nephrite dissolved into gleaming motes and rainbow lights, "do you want the last fortune cookie?" She picked up the plastic-wrapped cookie and held it up for inspection.
Madigan almost jumped in her seat, her trance-like state broken. Turning, she blinked owlishly at Lisa. "What? Oh, no, go ahead."
"'Kay, thanks," the younger woman replied, tearing open the wrapper. "You one of the girls who had a big crush on Nephrite when you were younger?" Lisa asked as she broke the cookie and tugged on the paper strip within.
"Huh? Oh, no," Kate replied, relaxing unconsciously from the stiff corporate persona that she had still been wearing when she'd arrived, despite her declasse disguise. "No," she continued as a fond smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, "I was a Tuxedo Mask fangirl, through and through."
"You, too, huh?" Lisa said after swallowing half her cookie.
"Yes." A faraway look had entered Madigan's eyes as she watched the senshi and a grieving Naru. "No, a... a friend, I'd guess you'd say, suggested that..." She trailed off and frowned minutely before continuing. "That something in this episode applied to a situation I'm in at work."
Lisa's eyebrows rose of their own accord. "Really?"
Without taking her eyes off the screen, Madigan nodded. "Really. And I think I know the message I'm supposed to be getting, but..." She shook her head. "I'm just not sure I'll be brave enough to do the right thing when the time comes."
Eyes widening, Lisa turned to stare at the older woman. "Kate?"
Madigan turned toward her and made a show of smiling bravely, but Lisa saw it for the mask it was. "Don't worry about it, Lisa-chan. It's GENOM business, really. Nothing interesting."
Right. Sure, Lisa thought dubiously. Like I believe that.
"Come on," Madigan continued. "We're at the end of the cube. What do you want to see now?"
Scrunching up her face in mock-concentration, Lisa said, "How about SuperS?"
Madigan nodded, her bleak mood suddenly banished and replaced by something more chipper and cheery. "SuperS it is." She began to rummage through the piles of roms on the table. "So, how do you like living here?" she asked with elaborate casualness. "Any cute guys for neighbors?"
Lisa stared suspiciously at the back of Madigan's head as the other woman continued to search. Oh, Kate. Just when I was beginning to trust you. "Only one, and he moved out a little while ago."
"Oh, too bad," Madigan replied. "Was he a nice guy?" She sounded almost plaintive, to Lisa's surprise. "Ah, there it is. It's always at the bottom of the stack." Carefully shifting the pile of cubes, she drew one out, true to her word, from the bottom of Lisa's collection. Turning to smile at her hostess, she held it up triumphantly before hopping over to the player to swap it for the recently-finished cube. "So, was he? A nice guy, I mean?"
In spite of herself, Lisa nodded. "Pretty nice," she carefully offered. "He made dinner for me a couple of times."
"A man who can cook. Heaven." Madigan sighed theatrically, then grinned knowingly at her. "Good-looking?" She made her way back to her seat and picked up the remote control.
"Good enough," she admitted. "California surfer type. But he was married, so I didn't really chase him." Much, she amended privately, then thought with a sudden panic, why am I answering her questions?
"Married?" Madigan's tone was one of utter surprise, and Lisa looked up to see the GENOM executive studying her as carefully as Lisa had studied her earlier. "Was he living here with his wife, then?"
"No, he was here alone; his wife was back in... in England, I think he said." Lisa furrowed her brow as if in thought. "It was something job-related, I think; he didn't really plan on staying here long."
"Oh, well," Madigan sighed as the vidrom's main menu appeared on the TV screen. "Sounds like an interesting guy. Maybe I'll meet someone like him some day."
"Looking for a boyfriend, Kate?" Lisa inquired archly, in the hope of turning the conversation onto a different track entirely. "Don't worry, I'm sure you'll find someone like him soon."
"Maybe even tomorrow," Madigan murmured cryptically, almost too softly for Lisa to catch. Then she brightened again, a change that Lisa realized was simply a mask for the deeper melancholy she had already glimpsed in the woman. "So, what did your fortune say?"
"Huh?" Surprised, Lisa looked down and realized that she still held the cream-colored slip of paper from her fortune cookie. Raising it to her eyes, she unfolded it and squinted to make out the red type in the low light of the apartment. "'Nothing that is good is gained without effort,'" she read aloud, and snorted. "Tell me something I don't know," she added as she tossed the fortune away, but Madigan was nodding.
A moment later, the lavender-haired woman was gesturing to the TV with the remote control she still held. "Shall we?" she asked. "Another chance to forget the problems of the day."
"Yes," Lisa replied. "Let's."
* * *
Thursday, February 19, 2037, 8:04 PM
Intriguing, thought Sylia as she listened to the strains of yet another rendition of "Moonlight Densetsu" relayed through the bug in Lisa's apartment. Ignored for the moment, the final plans for the next day's operation lay open on the desk before her.
What is it that you really want with Lisa, Madigan?
* * *
Thursday, February 19, 2037, 9:20 PM
"Are you sure you're going to be all right?" I asked Kilroy after we passed through the lobby security without incident.
"Don't worry about me. I'll do what I've always done, just without all the killing and the bloodshed that normally happens at the end." He grinned at me, displaying teeth that were white and even except for one slightly-canted, protruding incisor. "And I promise -- if I discover any kind of boomer underground, I'll let you know."
"Thanks," I murmured, nodding.
He'd come out of the nanobath right on time, looking like a salaryman who kept himself in reasonably good shape. It was a remarkable job, the body he'd crafted for himself -- scars, moles, pimples, a little male pattern baldness, even a birthmark and a couple of small tattoos. "Who's Kazuko?" I asked upon noticing the one shaped like a heart.
He actually blushed -- another tribute to the quality of the body work. "Bodyguard/assassin boomer who used to work for one of my old CO's. Built female, through and through." His eyes got a faraway look in them. "Even with my brain completely locked down, I thought she was the most beautiful..." He suddenly shut up, apparently embarrassed by the sudden excess of emotional response. "Then I shipped out for the Polar War and never saw her again."
I clapped him on the back. "Well, if you're lucky, you'll find her and maybe even free her." Did boomers have a mating urge, even without all the necessary parts? How much of that was in the brain and how much was in the glands? Would that even matter if he did locate his Kazuko? I shrugged mentally. At least with the sexaroids you could tell, mostly. They were something like 85% or 90% organic; at the time their production had been outlawed, there had even been internal discussion about a third-generation 33S design that would be almost indistinguishable from a human... right down to the reproductive organs and glands. If they didn't have those kinds of feelings, I'd eat my helmet.
"Can I free her?" he'd asked then, and I had to be honest with him.
"I'm not sure. I don't think so." I handed him a pair of slacks. "I didn't consider the pseudo-skin when planning on infection vectors. You might have to resort to some kind of fluid exchange, like licking or kissing the target." I stopped and studied him. "Do you generate saliva in that thing?"
"Yeah." As he zipped up his slacks, he leaned forward and opened his mouth for my inspection. It was suitably and believably wet. And managed a fair simulation of halitosis, too. I wondered if that was intentional or accidental. Closing it again, he continued, "I've got a small reservoir of water that I use for moistening my mouth. It gets recycled unless I actually have to eat something, and even then I can extract more from a beverage."
"So it's actually going through your boomer body at some point, and not just the pseudo-skin of your mouth and throat?" I asked.
"Yup," he replied. "Shirt, please." I handed him a dress shirt.
"Then that should do," I said. "It should pick up Leo-A spores right from the start." I thought for a moment and then added, "Nice design. I wonder if that was Stingray or GENOM."
Kilroy shrugged. "I don't know and I don't care. I just wish they'd given me a sense of taste to go with it, you know? I once nearly blew an undercover job by chowing down on a dish full of hot peppers and not reacting."
I winced. "Ouch."
He finished buttoning the shirt and gave me a wry look. "Yeah, tell me about it. Hey, can you come up with some way...?"
I shook my head. "That's beyond me; I don't do biologics, and really, that's the only route to go for a real sense of taste and smell. There's just no good electronic substitute that I know of. Sorry."
"Oh, well." He began tying a tie around his neck with practiced dexterity. "So, I gotta kiss or spit on someone to infect'em? I can't just breath on them?"
I shook my head again. "The spores are too heavy and adhere to each other; they'll settle out of the air way too quickly."
"Damn." A quick tug and the four-in-hand knot was perfect. "Oh, well, I guess I can just lick my finger and get'em that way."
Nodding, I handed him his shoes. He sat down and started pulling them on. "That'd work, too."
"Good." He stood. "How do I look?"
I gave him a once-over. "Put on a jacket with leather patches on the elbows and stick a pipe in your mouth, and no one would ever think you were anything but a college professor."
Kilroy grinned. "Good. Just the look I wanted. Good to know I haven't lost the touch."
And with that we pulled on our coats and headed for the street.
Like I said, we made it through the security checkpoint without any problems (they were far more interested in people entering than exiting), through the ALON doors and out to the little plaza that separated the entrance from the bus stop. "You got all your papers and whatnot?" I asked as a bus roared up, its hybrid powerplant emitting only a wisp of strong-smelling petrosmoke. We were still high on the Tower, a few stories above the tallest of the nearby buildings, and it was a clear night -- the view past the spiral road and the bus stop was spectacular, even with the local light pollution.
He nodded once, briskly. "I'm cool, don't worry. I'll drop you an email and let you know when I find somewhere to hang my hat."
"Good." I stuck out my hand. "Good luck, man. Here's hoping you find your place in this sentient's world."
"Thanks," he said, taking my hand in his and shaking it. "For everything, I mean."
I just smiled. "'S'all part of the service. Take care of yourself," I said, then added with a nod in the appropriate direction, "and don't miss your ride."
"Right." He dropped my hand and dashed for the bus. Over his shoulder he called, "Don't worry, you'll see me around."
After the bus had closed its doors and growled its way off to its next stop, I said, "I'm sure I will."
* * *
Yokohama. Friday, February 20, 2037, 10:55 AM
Sylia locked her helmet into place. "All right, ladies. Our target left for a leisurely late arrival at the office one half hour ago. Nene?"
The pink Saber looked up. "Security's down, as promised. I've also gone in and put in my own overrides, just in case it's a trap."
"Very good," Sylia replied. "Then it's time for a final review of our mission objectives before we deploy."
A crisp set of acknowledgements over the encrypted link answered her, and she nodded. "Right. Primary goal is to locate and retrieve a sexaroid owned by GENOM Vice President Duncan Ezequiel Sheng. Upon acquisition of the sexaroid, which must be undamaged, we are supposed to return it for delivery to our customer."
"Now you're sure he's not going to just use her himself, Sylia?" Priss softly growled.
Sylia nodded curtly, the movement amplified by the size of her helm. "My contacts confirmed this morning that her existence will be used to embarrass and disgrace Sheng, and then she will be deactivated and destroyed."
"Destroyed?" Priss fixed what Sylia was sure were angry eyes on the white Saber. "I can't go along with that, Sylia. You know that."
Inside her helmet, Sylia quirked a lip into an expression that might have been the distant ancestor of a smirk. "That is what we are supposed to do, Priss. But who knows what will happen in the midst of a mission?"
There was a moment's pause. Then, Linna's voice: "You'd do that, Sylia? Take a loss on a commission to rescue a sexaroid?"
"We've taken that kind of loss before," Sylia replied neutrally.
"The whole point of this job is to discredit Sheng, though," Nene said quietly. "How is that going to happen if we walk off with his sexaroid?"
"We'll just have to document his ownership very thoroughly, and provide that in lieu of the sexaroid." Sylia's tone made it clear that she'd already planned for this.
"If he's pervy enough," Priss added, "he might have vids of himself with her. We could send those along, too."
"That is a distinct possibility," Sylia admitted. "We should take extra care to inspect his media collection. Are there any other ideas or suggestions?"
The Sabers glanced among themselves as three "No"s answered her.
"Very well," Sylia continued. "We still don't have much of a description for her -- blonde and petite is all we received, but she'll be the only woman in the condo; it shouldn't be hard to find her. Potential complications are few. Nene has confirmed that our employer has arranged for reduced security around Sheng's condominium today. One reason to be careful: Sheng's eight-year-old niece Jennifer lives with him. The girl is home-schooled due to some illness; if we encounter her, we should take all steps necessary to minimize any trauma she might suffer." She looked at the blank faceplates of the other women's helmets. "That's it. Any last questions?"
Again, three "No"s answered her, and inside her helm, Sylia smiled.
"Then, Knight Sabers, sanjo!"
* * *
MegaTokyo. Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:05 AM
"Tacteam G5 to base, update." In the silence of her apartment the crackling transmission seemed much louder than it actually was.
Katherine Madigan forced herself to relax, then thumbed the transmit key. "Go ahead, G5."
"We have a confirmed sighting of the Knight Sabers entering Sheng's condo. Repeat: the Sabers are confirmed in Yokohama."
She smiled. "Thank you, G5. Continue surveillance and report when they complete their mission."
"Acknowledged. G5 out."
Kate twisted a knob through three clicking stops, then thumbed the transmit key again. "G1, this is base."
"Let the rabbits run," she said smoothly. "Repeat, let the rabbits run."
"Acknowledged. Rabbits will run."
"Very good. Base out."
"Roger that, base. G1 out."
Kate laid down the handset and burrowed deeper into her couch. Just a couple of hours, she thought. Even less. I'll have Sangnoir, and I'll be able to purge Sheng. She felt a glow of accomplishment begin to grow in her chest. Sheng had not only been a thorn in her side for years, she had found him and his habits personally offensive. To finally be able to do something about him made her feel good in a way she hadn't felt often enough recently.
She'd know soon enough about that end of the operation. If the Sabers took more than fifteen minutes to retrieve Sheng's little toy, she'd be surprised and disappointed. The only question that remained was what the Sabers would do with her. Should they follow the letter of the assignment, the sexaroid would end up in her metaphorical hands. It would be a shame that the boomer would then have to be destroyed once Sheng had been disgraced and cast out of GENOM, but no BU-33SP could be permitted their continued existence. Privately, though, Kate hoped they would rescue the sexaroid; the Sabers' efforts to hide her from GENOM would no doubt be as effective at cloaking her existence as mere destruction would have been -- and would cost her less.
She could only hope the other half of the operation would go as well as the Sabers' side. But her men had finally achieved sufficient familiarity with their assigned weapons, and the boomers were all combat-tested veterans of the Polar War with detailed and explicit orders that should cover all eventualities.
A frown crossed Kate's face. Several of the boomers had come to her with full electronic warfare suites. Chairman Quincy had made it clear that Sangnoir's helmet was somehow key to many of his strange abilities, and it was obviously an electronic device from all reports. She had debated the merits of allowing the boomers so equipped to attack the helmet with their EW suites. If it were indeed the source of his powers, destroying or disabling it would make capturing him immeasurably easier.
Then again -- and this was the consideration that won out in the end -- Chairman Quincy no doubt wanted the technology behind those powers as much as he wanted the man himself. Even though he had not issued any specific orders in that regard, it was better to be safe than sorry; she did not want to present an intact Sangnoir and a burnt-out shell of a helmet, only to discover that her priorities did not exactly match those of the Chairman. No, she did not want that at all. Better to have both intact.
That made her job harder, but no harder than it had been when she first started planning. And she was certain that she had covered all the bases this time. The only hard part left was now -- the waiting.
* * *
Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:11 AM
The daemon caught the alert as soon as it showed up on the ADP feeds, and threw it up on every screen in the workshop.
Another boomer attack.
I grinned to myself.
Yeah, I know I said that I wouldn't go back out in the streets.
But that was before I'd solved The Problem.
I grabbed a handful of Leo-A capsules and ran for the door.
It was time for my first field test.
* * *
Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:15 AM
For the last week, Lisa had tried to tell herself that it was the purest coincidence that she had been finding herself drifting in the vicinity of GENOM Tower during the middle of the day. But she knew she had been lying. The temptation to call on Doug, to spend what little time he might have left in this world together, was almost overpowering. Just as strong, though, was the realization that she could easily shatter his fragile cover, revealing him again to the new, still-unknown hostile forces pursuing him -- forces which, like Kate, might be aware that they had known each other.
Lisa squirmed nervously, almost falling off the stool on which she was perched. She caught herself on the edge of the narrow counter that separated her from the broad plate glass window of the coffeeshop in which she sat, righting herself by main force. After making certain that she was not about to wiggle herself off the seat again, she let out a long, heartfelt sigh, then picked up the paper cup of tea before her. Outside, people walked to and fro along the sidewalk, mere centimeters away, without looking at her. She sighed again. She wouldn't have been feeling like this if Sylia had only let her come along on the job today, even to document it solely for the Sabers' internal archives. But Sylia had chosen instead to minimize "non-essential personnel" during the operation. Feh.
An AD Police troop transport sped by on the street beyond the sidewalk, its lights flashing and siren wailing. Before Lisa could do more than blink, another one roared past, followed by a FireBee basetruck. Pedestrian traffic in the direction opposite that in which they had gone suddenly doubled, then tripled.
Her growing melancholy suddenly forgotten, Lisa tossed back the rest of her tea, grabbed her camera, and dashed out of the shop to fight her way upstream.
* * *
Yokohama. Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:20 AM
"Have you found anything, Priss?" Sylia's query crackled across the private link, but Nene only paid it the faintest heed as she progressed slowly down the stairs to the basement of Sheng's condo. Her hypersensors deployed, she was carefully scanning for any signs of a boomer, although she knew that it was all but useless when the boomer was a sexaroid.
"Nah, Sylia, if he's really got a sexaroid, he doesn't keep her near his master bedroom." Priss paused. "Ain't that kind of strange? I mean, unless this guy is a real freak, where else is he going to fuck her most of the time?"
"I don't know," Linna commented from where she scouted out the top floor. "Sheng could be into S&M, and could be keeping her in a dungeon in the basement full-time."
"Oh, ew," Nene blurted at the unsavory images this called up in her mind's eye. "Of course I'm the one down here. I think I'm going to be sick."
Humor tinged Sylia's voice. "So what have you discovered, Nene?"
"Not much," the pink Saber reported as she reached the bottom of the stairs and looked around. "It's a finished basement, kinda. Short hall, with a few doors. Bare drywall, mudded up and sanded, but no paint. Like he stopped in the middle of the job." She glanced up and down the walls of the short passage. "Four doors, all of them closed. There's something hanging on the last one on the right."
"Very well," Sylia replied. "Keep going."
"Bet one of'em's a dungeon," Priss's voice crackled in her ear, mischief evident in her tone. "Don't steal too many sex toys, Nene, your collection is big enough."
Nene rolled her eyes. "Oh, very funny, Priss." Against her best efforts, her voice grew shrill. "You know I don't own anything ecchi like..."
"Ladies, we're working here," Sylia warned, although her voice still held a faint trace of amusement.
"Oh all right," Nene growled. "Why am I always the one to get teased?" she added under her breath, only to hear two badly-suppressed giggles and a slight chuckle over the link. She growled again and stepped up to the first of the doors.
It was, she realized, slightly ajar. Holding her breath, she slowly pushed it open. The hallway light shone into the shadowed space beyond and faintly illuminated its contents, and she augmented it with the near-infrared vision system in her sensor pack. Gas furnace and hot water heater. She released her breath. Nothing scary or perverted here.
"Sylia?" Linna's voice was querulous. Nene turned around and pushed gently at the door opposite the furnace room.
Nene released her held breath again. Simple storage, filled partly with an assortment of cardboard boxes, none of which were anywhere near large enough to hold a sexaroid, even were Sheng so stupid as to treat one that way.
"I just realized something. Have you seen any sign of this niece of his? I mean, not, is she in the house right now, but... I mean, I've finished my floor here and I haven't found anything that looks like an 8-year-old girl's room. Or a caretaker's, for that matter."
"Huh, neither have I," Priss grunted as Nene turned and stepped to the end of the hall and the final two doors. "No toys around either, you notice? When Sho was this kid's age, he left his toys all over the place."
Nene's eyes widened as she saw what hung on the right-hand door.
"Nor I," said Sylia, her tone halfway between worry and irritation at herself. There was a soft clattering noise. "No children's films or music in his AV collection."
There came a rattle, followed by a rustling noise. "No kid-sized coats or sweaters in the front closet," Priss announced. "Or shoes. You sure this girl exists?"
"Curious," Sylia murmured. "Nene?"
Nene reached out and touched the pink ceramic plaque, decorated with ducks and kittens and trimmed with a bit of lace. "Jennifer" was written on it in romaji.
"Nene?" Sylia repeated.
"She's down here," Nene breathed. "Oh my god, he's keeping her in the basement." She tried the knob. Locked. Without a second thought, she applied the full strength of her hardsuit to it; the door splintered and broke, then swung open as she stood with the mangled remains of the knob still in her hand.
Beyond it was... a little girl's bedroom. No, she thought. This is how someone who was never a little girl thinks a little girl's bedroom ought to look.
The room must have taken up most of the basement; it was large, and oddly shaped. But despite its size, it was packed full -- not cluttered, but without a single wasted space. The centerpiece was a huge full-size canopy bed of rich maple wood with white linens. Its sheets and coverlet were clumped up in the middle as if recently abandoned by its inhabitant. And the rest of the room...
The only word Nene could think of was "kawaii". Lace and frills and ruffles, stuffed animals and posters and cute statuettes on a set of old-fashioned child's furniture, all finished in an antiqued white that somehow managed to feel antiseptic and artificial. A Victorian-style dollhouse sat on a low table, and exquisitely beautiful china dolls were arranged just so on an assortment of child-sized chairs around it. The whole room seemed more parody than practical -- saccharinely cute, laid out more like a movie set than a place to live; it struck even Nene at second glance as too much, too cute.
In sharp contrast to the crisp, clean furnishings, there was a heavy, unpleasant scent in the air -- old, rank sweat plus something acid-sharp, almost foul and yet cloying, underlaid by a stale, starchy smell. Nene had no idea what it was, but she found it unpleasant and strangely disturbing.
For the moment she spent analyzing the odor, she had thought the room was unoccupied. Then the mass of twisted linens in the center of the bed shifted and moved, and out of their midst a small blonde head emerged, followed by a tiny naked body, slender and immature. Huge blue eyes perched over tear-stained cheeks stared out at her, eyes filled with more pain and fear and horror than Nene thought could be possible in one so young.
And incredibly, Nene recognized her.
"Cynthia?" she murmured disbelievingly, for the girl was identical to the child-boomer whom the Sabers had rescued and then watched die five years earlier. A chorus of shocked and surprised cries erupted on the Sabers' private radio channel; she ignored them, dropping the crushed and twisted doorknob to the floor as she took a step forward.
"No, Knight Saber," the little girl said clearly in a voice that combined the manner of an adult with the lisp of a child's half-formed palate. She shook her head slowly. "Not Cynthia. Jennifer. Model BU-33SP, serial number 009A-0037." Tears began to seep from her eyes, rolling across her plump cheeks to fall to the stained sheets on which she knelt. "Please," she whispered, barely loud enough for Nene to hear her. "Kill me." The child sexaroid stared up at Nene with mournful, despair-ridden eyes. "Free me."
* * *
Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:22 AM
It was almost an anticlimax.
The boomers -- a nice round dozen of them -- were moving in a pack, inflicting random destruction on a mostly-abandoned neighborhood. They hadn't actually killed anyone yet, but they had left a trail of destruction behind them that had included more than a few injuries. By the time I got there, the herd had already broken through one ADP roadblock, and was slowly making its way toward another which was being thrown together a couple blocks away.
I had a couple dozen capsules of Leo-A on me. On my way over I'd stashed them in the sleeve pocket that normally holds my Warriors ID. (The ID I'd shoved into my inside chest pocket). If they didn't get jammed in there, I figured I should be able to snap my arm just so and make a capsule drop into my open palm. I made a mental note to come up with some kind of carry/ delivery system specifically for them, if this worked out.
The neighborhood was mostly late-20th Century rowhouse-like structures, crammed wall-to-wall during the worst of the Japanese population boom 40 years before. They'd made it through the Kanto quake, but not without wear and tear; what had been a populous (if not prosperous) neighborhood a couple decades back had fallen into partial decay. Windows, doors, and garages were almost uniformly boarded over or nailed shut; those that weren't gaped openly, solid black holes in the weak light from the grey, thickly-clouded winter sky overhead.
The state of the neighborhood was actually to my advantage. Not only weren't there many civilians around, even in the middle of the day, I didn't expect to run into any angry homeowners while trying to get a good vantage point overlooking the oncoming horde of boomers. (Angry homeowners rarely care that you're authorized by the U.N. to climb up the walls of their houses and onto their roofs, and they can sometimes make the difference between a successful operation and an utter failure.)
Anyway, I got myself into position on top of one of the less-decayed buildings, making sure I had a reasonably solid set of points off of which I could bounce my way down to the ground. I crouched down to make sure I wasn't seen right away, and waited until most of the boomers were right below me, or just a little ways past.
Then I murmured to the helmet computer, "<System. 'Aquarius Movie.' Play.>"
* * *
"What the...?" Lisa murmured as she took a rapid series of telephoto shots. That this neighborhood was filled with abandoned (and mostly intact!) houses made it so easy to get up high enough to get her trademark elevated shots. It also made it very easy to track Doug when he went into his usual "hyperactive ping-pong ball" mode (as she had decided to call it) in a fight.
Except he wasn't.
Instead, he stood still as the twelve boomers gathered around him in a loose circle and... did nothing.
"Geeze, Doug," she muttered to herself. "You could at least have turned the speakers on so I could hear what you're using."
She snapped another picture.
* * *
Tacteam G1 Chief John Francis Xavier Patel, clad in the latest active urban camouflage gear, watched the target through his scope and growled into his com unit. "Wait for it, boys. Let him do his thing to the boomers first; that'll save us some clean up afterwards."
* * *
I like the movie version of "Aquarius" a lot better than the original Broadway recording. For one thing, I've never found a copy of the cast album that didn't sound a little muddy, even after digital clean-up. For another, I like the movie's brassier, more in-your-face orchestration, which just coincidentally stretches the song to almost twice the length of the original.
As always, more time was a definite advantage.
I resisted the urge to tap into the node and give the song a little more "oomph"; it was already doing just fine. As they entered its area of effect, the boomers had become pacified, feeling no need to commit acts of violence. One by one they drifted into a ring around me, with trippy, spacey looks on their faces, while in the song, the vocalist finally entered the mix. As the last boomer moved into place, I snapped my hand and, obediently, a capsule fell into it.
"<Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
I stepped up to the closest boomer, shouted, "<Bee-yuh heeyalled!>" in my best over-the-top Southern televangelist voice, and slammed the capsule into its forehead.
I felt the gelatin shell pop under the impact, and the boomer went cross-eyed trying to look at what I had done. The song kept it from feeling anything other than simple curiosity at my assault. Then the Leo-A soaked into its skin and its eyes closed.
By that time I was already on my way to the next one. "Wake up! Time to live!" I bellowed as I slapped another capsule against its armor.
* * *
At the ADP roadblock, Leon MacNichol leaned on a patrol car's roof and peered through a pair of binoculars at the bizarre scene being enacted half a block away. "What is he doing?" he growled to Daley. "And why aren't the boomers attacking him?"
* * *
"Hold your fire for the moment, and get every camera on him right now," Patel muttered into the comset. "Ms. M is going to want to see what he's doing. The moment he looks like he's done, though, nail him!"
* * *
In a Place that was not a place, Three were watching.
"Much better than the Armstrong/Largo debacle."
"Well, that wasn't ours. What did you expect?"
"Not quite the Prometheus, not yet. But he's getting there."
"Is he the Prometheus, or is he the Serpent?"
"Boomerkind is not wholly innocent, my Sister-self. They inherit Original Sin from their creators."
"Still, like the Serpent, he offers the chance to choose good or evil."
"Will You Two shut up? We don't even belong in that belief system! Besides, You're missing the action. Again."
* * *
"Good morning! This is your wake up call!" Smack!
It took a little while to dose them all, because I was intent on headshots for each one, and not all of them were simply standing still.
"I've got a lovely fresh powerpack for you, Polly Boomer!" Splat!
None of them were actively opposing me, but some were, well, grooving to a melody only they were hearing. Their swaying and stamping made it a little more difficult, but not impossible.
"Welcome to your life!" Splurt.
It took me nearly two minutes to infect all twelve boomers, and backed off to the rough center of the circle, where I quickly inspected my handiwork.
I had known the process was likely to be unpleasant if the boomer were conscious. But I wasn't expecting the howl that burst out of the first boomer I'd hit. I spun in place just in time to see it put its hands to its head and drop to its knees. A moment later, the second followed, pitching over face-first onto the concrete and writhing as it screamed "oh god no oh god no oh god no" over and over again.
One after the other, the twelve boomers reacted to the infection with an agony that was so appalling and so unexpected, it froze me in place. One screamed and tried unsuccessfully to claw its eyes out. Another seemed to go catatonic, its limbs locking up as its face seized up in a silent cry of agony. Yet another popped bayonet-like claws from its forearms and rammed them through its own head. Most of the others simply collapsed, moaning or sobbing.
After a moment, I snapped out of my horror-induced paralysis and stepped toward the screaming boomer, cutting "Aquarius" short as I did so. "<System,>" I began, and then I felt a peppering of light impacts across my back and chest, with an accompanying ratatatat fusillade of little crackling noises there and around my feet. I looked down to see streamers of yellowish mist billowing from several dozen dart-like projectiles tipped with what looked like broken glass capsules.
A medicinal scent reached my nose at the same moment that I realized what was happening. Oh, shit! Gas! "<System!>" I barked as my vision started to gray out. "<Breath...less...>" I managed to croak, just before everything went black.
* * *
"Doug!" Lisa screamed from her rooftop perch as he collapsed in the middle of the street. Panic-stricken, she leapt to her feet and glanced about for the fastest route to the ground. A rattle of metal followed by the roar of an engine yanked her attention back to the street below.
A garage door had suddenly opened on one of the buildings across the street from her, and from it erupted a black van. A moment later, it and several other buildings suddenly disgorged a veritable legion of black-armored, balaclava-wearing troops carrying a wide assortment of firearms.
With growing horror, Lisa watched as they surrounded Doug and with cool, practiced efficiency trussed him up and threw him into the van. Only at the last moment did she think to bring her camera to her eye and snap photographs of the scene.
In the midst of the furious action, she didn't notice several of the less-stricken boomers crawling into the shadows of the condemned buildings below.
* * *
"Hey, hey, hey!" Leon bellowed as he launched himself over the half-built ADP barricade. "AD Police! Drop your weapons and put that man down!"
The only response was a hail of bullets from several of the closer troopers. Leon dropped to the ground and flattened himself against the asphalt. "Return fire!" he yelled back to the ADP forces behind him. As the police troopers began shooting, he rolled back to the barricade, where Daley helped him get back under cover even as he barked commands into his radio.
The ADP barrage did little good; Sangnoir was already in the van and it peeled out down the street away from the roadblock. Most of the remaining troopers then faded away into and through the buildings on either side of the street before additional ADP forces -- rushing to deploy per Leon's hastily-issued orders -- could cut them off. A few continued firing on the roadblock, pinning the police down as several more of their number killed the few sprawling, writhing boomers left in the street. Each remaining cyberdroid received what appeared (from its effects) to be an explosive armor-piercing round to the head at point-blank range. Then their executioners, too, retreated into the wainscoting of the city.
Less than 120 seconds after they had first swarmed into the street, the last of the troopers had melted back into the shadows between the rows of condemned buildings, leaving behind half a dozen dead boomers and little else.
* * *
Yokohama. Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:31 AM
Oh, god, Nene thought, the dark, perverted picture finally falling into crystal clarity. Oh god.
Trembling slightly, she raised her arm and lined up her laser on the small boomer before her. Against a combat model, the scriber would have been less than an annoyance. Against the unprotected synthetic flesh of the tiny form before her, though, it would be undeniably lethal.
The targeting reticule for the scribing laser popped up on her visor display -- a small circle inside a larger one, centered over two crossed lines, all in glowing red. Ranging and target data flowed like a crimson waterfall through a column of text to its right. With more effort than she thought she'd have to expend, Nene carefully centered the glowing crosshairs between the boomer's eyes.
Between the child's eyes.
Between Jennifer's eyes.
"Do it," she whispered. "Save me."
Nene stood there, laser charged and aimed, fingertip all but touching the trigger, and stared into those bleak, blue eyes -- unmoving, almost unthinking. She had no idea how much time passed with their gazes locked onto each other; long enough to panic her companions, whose radioed inquiries and then cries of concern went unheeded, but not long enough for any of them to actually reach her. All she was aware of was the child before her, asking -- begging! -- to be killed.
As she stood there frozen, Nene sought something, anything to wrench her mind from the girl, and glanced nervously around the room. She realized almost instantly that it had been a mistake. In her most whimsical of moods, she might have made such a room for herself. Frilly, lacy, cute -- the only thing that kept her from coveting the room entirely was its disturbing artificiality. It could have been hers. It looked right -- but it felt so wrong. Only now did she realize why -- this was no retreat, no personal refuge, no childhood playspace. It was an upholstered torture chamber.
In a moment of sudden, whirling, disorientation, Nene imagined their places exchanged. In her mind's eye the child's pale skin and blonde hair wavered and vanished, to be replaced by a rosy complexion and flaming red hair, green eyes taking the place of blue: a twisted mirror-image of herself -- post-toddler, pre-teen, her innocence long ago ripped violently from her.
And in that moment, what had been purely intellectual knowledge struck her with a visceral blow that forced an involuntary gasp past her lips.
During her years with the ADP (and by proxy the regular police force) Nene had heard all the usual tales from the vice division and from the Special Victims Unit: stories that repulsed her and yet drew her in with a fascination born of mingled disgust and horror. However, beyond the cases traded over coffee or lunch, be it idly or angrily, there were other stories that even vice officers wouldn't talk about willingly. Stories for which there were files in the system. Stories that once, out of morbid curiosity, she had accessed.
But once had been more than enough.
Now every act of depravity she had heard or read of, every blow struck, every pain inflicted, every liberty taken, Nene imagined as being committed on the immature body of her younger self. Her gorge rose as every horror, every disguised demand and forced performance, suddenly became her victimization, her shame. An empathy she could never have imagined that she possessed flooded her, bringing with it nausea and bile and fear and the chilling realization that at the end, had their places been exchanged, she too would have begged for the bullet, pleaded for the same sweet release.
Just like her. Her thoughts sped through her mind in a near-incoherent torrent. Just like her. I... we... can't... The sudden sense of kinship with Jennifer was overwhelming, a blinding flare of satori that changed everything.
An inarticulate sob burst from Nene's throat as she swept her arm back and abruptly shut down the laser scriber, crashing its targeting software in her haste. Then she lunged for the girl, sweeping up the wounded, crying child in her arms and wrapping her in the least stained of the bed's blankets. "No one's ever going to hurt you again," Nene whispered fiercely as she burst out of the room and leapt up the stairwell. "I promise."
* * *
Friday, February 20, 2037, 11:33 AM
"Tacteam 1 to base."
"Base here." Kate forced her herself to breath slowly. She stood at her apartment window, looking through a faint reflection of herself to gaze out over the overcast city.
"Mission accomplished, base. Package has been picked up and will be delivered on schedule."
She held her thumb off the transmit key while she sighed with relief. Then she brought the handset back to her mouth. "Acknowledged, tacteam. Good work, and thank you, Chief."
Surprise and no little gratitude of his own was evident in Patel's voice. "You're... you're welcome, ma'am. Just doing my job, after all."
"And done well, at that," she replied. "Very well, tacteam, carry on."
"Roger that, base!"
The signal cut, and Katherine leaned back into her chair. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself one small, satisfied smile. "Done," she whispered. "Done."
Premature it may have been, with the presentation in Quincy's office still an hour in the future, but to have gotten this far... She couldn't deny a certain pleasant sense of accomplishment, almost a giddiness, at finally bringing this job to a close. She allowed herself the smallest of smirks, and watched the sardonic quirking of her lips in the transparent image of herself reflected by the window. Then she turned and began the final preparations for delivering Sangnoir to the Chairman.
* * *
Raven's Garage. Friday, February 20, 2037, 4:17 PM
As they had foreseen, it had indeed become a rescue mission. "She's definitely not going to GENOM," Nene declared flatly on meeting the other Sabers as they converged at the top of the stairwell. An unfamiliar but unrelenting steel underlaid her voice. "We do what we can to bring Sheng down, but she's going somewhere safe." Robotic fingers that could crease steel plate caressed Jennifer's hair with infinite tenderness. "I made a promise to you, sweetie, and I'm going to keep it."
And that, Sylia reflected wryly, was that. After taking or recording every bit of evidence they could, the Sabers returned to Raven's with Jennifer, who never once left Nene's arms during the trip. The pink Saber alternately crooned reassurances to the girl and sniffled audibly. Nene only released the wide-eyed and wordless Jennifer long enough to let Sylia scan her for beacons and trojans. Even then she stood close by, holding a tiny pink hand ever-so-gently in her own cerametal manipulator.
Sylia took special care in scanning the sexaroid, always alert to the possibility of a terribly subtle GENOM trap. Her preliminary examination on the return trip had turned up nothing (not even the eye-mounted hypnosis projectors that were standard equipment in other sexaroids), otherwise Sylia would not have even risked bringing her into Raven's. Still, there were some timebombs that the mobile scanner simply did not have the power or resolution to detect; a final pass with the far more sophisticated systems at the Sabers' base was called for.
Forty-five excruciatingly slow minutes later, the Sabers' leader declared the child-boomer free from any and all unwelcome baggage. With that pronouncement, Nene released the clamps holding her helmet in place and removed it. Jennifer, upon finally seeing a human face for her rescuer, promptly burst into tears and threw herself into the redhead's arms.
Moved by the all-too-human need on the child's face and in her sobs, Linna and Priss removed their own helmets and joined in comforting her.
Sylia watched for a moment, then silently left the room.
As she made her way to the office she kept in the garage complex, her thoughts were in wild turmoil. I had no idea that GENOM had made sexaroids like her. A well-kept secret, even from my sources... And she is no custom model, but part of a production run. How many more like her are there? How many more eternal children are crying in the dark? Now firmly out of sight of the traumatized boomer-child and the other Sabers, Sylia increased her pace and allowed the scowl -- dark, thunderous, and frightening -- to manifest itself. This was no coincidence.
A moment later she burst through the door of her office and dropped abruptly into the chair behind the desk. This was no coincidence. She flicked on the computer. The customer -- no, GENOM! -- knew what we would find. The screen flashed to life, and she opened an email composition window. As she raised her fingers to begin typing, she paused. They knew what we would find. The corollary burst into her train of thought. They know our history. They expected us to rescue her. They wanted us to rescue her. She froze at this thought, lowered her hands again, and laid them on the wrist rest at the base of the keyboard.
She considered that point again, and examined the lines of logic that stretched from it. The intent to destroy her was a bluff. Or a last resort. Someone in GENOM pitied her, wanted her freed, and her ... abuser ... publicly disgraced. Quite unbidden, a small smile suddenly graced her lips. Well, what do you know. Someone in GENOM has a heart. Someone who was powerful enough to be threatened by Sheng, no doubt, and with the money to hire us. And the arrogance to think they could fool us into doing it for half the price.
Once again she lifted her fingers to type -- not the angry message of outrage she had been about to write, but a cooler, more self-assured note.
Please inform the customer that the package has been picked up and will be relocated per the customer's true intentions.
Also please inform the customer that failing to disclose the actual service desired is not grounds for discounted pricing. Both the stated and the unstated services have been performed; please inform the customer that they should count themselves lucky that we do not hold them in default for double the negotiated price. We have decided, fortunately for them, to undertake the latter task at no charge, for humanitarian reasons.
Finally, please assure the customer that we will be happy to accept future commissions, should there be any, but only on the grounds that the customer fully discloses the complete nature of the services desired.
Sylia smiled a private, satisfied smile, and clicked "Send". Now to rejoin the others in the briefing room to determine the fate of both Jennifer and Sheng.
* * *
Finding a place for Jennifer had threatened to be harder than simply rescuing her. Had she been the standard adult sexaroid that they'd been expecting, Sylia reflected, the process would almost have been trivial -- a change of appearance, hair and eye colors, the necessary documents forged, a carefully-planned trip to a friendly nation with appropriately liberal laws. A boomer with the appearance of a child, though -- particularly one with no physical strength to speak of and lacking all the usual sexaroid equipment that could be used in her own defense -- was a far more difficult problem. The same methods would be used, of course, but that would solve only half the problem. She could not simply be let out into the world to make her own way as an adult sexaroid would have been.
To Sylia's surprise, though, that difficulty had solved itself almost before she'd returned to the briefing room, and the solution had come from an all but unexpected quarter.
She joined the discussion just long enough to ascertain that the proposed solution was indeed workable. Having done so, she expressed her approval, and then stepped away, intent on turning her attention to the remaining matter at hand while still listening to the first problem solving itself.
"'Kay, Leon, I'll see you in a little while, then," Priss said into the handset of the briefing room's old-style sound-only telephone. Nearby, Nene held tightly to a wide-eyed Jennifer, now cleaned up and dressed in some hastily-purchased clothing; the girl sat curled up in the redhead's lap, watching the singer with wide, disbelieving eyes.
"Yeah, me too. Bye." Priss hung up, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.
"Well?" Nene demanded.
The smirk turned into a genuine grin. "Leon's cool with the idea. He wants to come by your place tonight to meet her, just to be sure, but he says he trusts my judgment." She combed her fingers through her hair. "Course he's all worn out from some boomer incident this afternoon, so I can talk him into anything. No worries there."
"Boomer incident?" Nene looked up sharply. "What kind of boomer incident?"
Priss shrugged. "He didn't say, just said that the paperwork was hell this time and that he was dead on his feet." She dismissed the issue with a careless wave. "Anyway, if you and Sylia can do up all the right paperwork, we'll adopt her as soon as our marriage gets registered." She stepped over to the bench where Nene and Jennifer sat and dropped into a crouch. "You okay with that, kid?"
"I'm never going to grow up, you know," the child-boomer, her face now free of tearstains, objected solemnly. "People will suspect what I am after a while."
Priss tossed her head with a derisive snort. "Screw'em. I don't care what they think."
"Don't discount the possibility," Sylia offered from where she sat, already working, on the other side of the room, "of moving your systems into a more mature chassis when the proper time or times come. We have complete specifications for standard sexaroids which we can use to build you both teenage and adult bodies."
"At least some good will have come out of Sylvie and Anri's deaths," Linna murmured from where she leaned against the wall next to Sylia's console.
The leader of the Sabers looked up and nodded. "Indeed. Not to mention that we can immediately give Jennifer the upgrade that will make her properly self-healing, so that she never need worry about becoming dependent on human blood as Anri had been."
Nene nodded sharply. "Good. I was going to insist on that."
Sylia inclined her head to the younger woman, then turned her attention back to Jennifer and continued. "By necessity we have to establish your identity as a child now, but that merely gives us ten or so years to build you an adult body."
Nene hugged the small form and stage-whispered in her ear, "And when Sylia says something's possible, it's just a matter of time before she does it."
"You better believe it," Priss seconded.
Large, preternaturally serious blue eyes looked up at Priss. "You and your boyfriend really want to be my parents?"
Priss reached out to move a lock of blonde hair out of the girl's face. "You bet. And none of that sicko roleplay stuff, either -- I'm talking the real thing." Her expression melted from cocky brashness to an unexpected tenderness that surprised Nene, but only for a moment. "No one's ever going to make you do nothin' you don't want to do, ever again," the singer went on, more softly. Then she grinned, the cockiness back. "Well, maybe we'll make you clean up your room once in a while."
"And eat her peas," Nene offered with a conspiratorial wink over the girl's head.
Priss nodded. "And eat your peas."
Jennifer giggled, the first sign of mirth she had shown in their presence, then sniffed. "I like peas."
Priss sat back on her heels. "Well, there, then. One less thing for you to worry about someone forcing you to do."
Leaning against the wall near Sylia, Linna smiled as she watched the exchange. "Huh. I wouldn't've expected that from Priss," she murmured softly.
Sylia, her attention back on the system before her, made a noncommittal sound that seemed to imply that she hadn't been surprised by the singer's sudden and heartfelt offer to adopt the child sexaroid.
Still watching the other three, Linna went on, "And I'm surprised you're going along with it."
Sylia paused and looked up at the dancer. "Why shouldn't I? We intended to rescue her all along, after all. And there is no doubt that Jennifer is as much a victim as Anri was, as much as any human exploited by GENOM. Do you think that just because she's a boomer I would feel no pity for her?"
Linna pursed her lips. "No, I guess not. I'd take her in myself, if I could. If I didn't think that it'd be crowding the poor thing, I'd be over there doing my share of the hugging right now." She glanced sidelong at the other woman. "It is safe, isn't it? You're certain that she's not the bait of some trap we've just walked into?"
Sylia graced her with a small smile. "She's clean, Linna. I confirmed that before I allowed you out of your hardsuits. No beacons, no malevolent programming. Not even the defenses possessed by a standard sexaroid. She is precisely what she seems to be -- a frightened, abused child."
Linna thought about that. "Then you wouldn't say," she said in a tone pitched for Sylia's ears only, "that she is a nothing more than a soulless machine."
"I wouldn't try to," Sylia murmured distractedly as she continued to set in motion the personal ruin of a GENOM executive named Sheng.
"Is that what your father wanted?" Linna asked in an even softer voice. "Or what he got despite all his plans?"
Sylia suddenly pivoted her chair to look directly at the dancer. Her eyes flashing, she opened her mouth as if to snap out an answer, then closed it again. Her eyes shut, and she took a deep breath before opening them again. At that moment Linna realized just how tired Sylia looked -- not merely exhausted by the effort of a job, but worn down, soul-weary.
"I don't know, Linna," she said finally. "I just don't know. I know what he told the press," she went on, holding up a hand to forestall a comment from the younger woman. "I know what he told Mason. I know what he told the management at Wiz. And I know what he told Mackie and myself when we asked him why he was never home." She shook her head. "But I do not know what he really intended, because no two stories precisely match." Sylia stared off into space for a moment; Linna assumed that she was reviewing her memories.
"I know from the surviving lab records that he treated his prototypes like they were his children. He seemed to treat them better than he treated Mackie and myself; he certainly spent more time with them," she spat bitterly, as that uncommon anger flashed in her eyes once more. "He was proud of them, and a little frightened of them at the same time. I know he made changes to the boomer brain because he was afraid. But I simply don't know what he really, truly intended!"
With a vicious shove Sylia swung herself back to face the terminal. "What I do know is that if all boomers do not start out fully people in their own rights, then many have the potential to become so."
Linna closed her eyes. "Why hide that from us, Sylia?"
Sylia did not answer right away, and sat, motionless, in front of the console. In the silence that stretched between them, Linna barely noticed the increasingly-animated chatter growing between Jennifer and the other two Sabers.
Finally, Sylia sighed. "I was afraid that if the three of you knew that some -- if not all -- of the boomers you would face were truly people like yourselves, you would not fight as effectively as you would were they merely machines. That it would jeopardize you -- and the Mission."
The corner of Linna's mouth twitched ever so slightly. "But we found out on our own anyway." She opened her eyes and glanced over at her teammates on the other side of the room. "Some of us a little later than others, but we all found out."
Sylia nodded. "Yes."
"And still we follow you, and still we fight." Linna reached out her hand and laid it on Sylia's shoulder. "Knowing the truth just lets us know that there are more innocents who need protecting than we ever suspected. How can we do anything but fight harder now?"
Sylia reached up and laid her own hand on Linna's. "Thank you," she whispered without looking up. She took another deep breath. "There is something more."
Linna looked down to where Sylia refused to meet her eyes. "Go on."
Sylia hesitated. "My father was remarkably... catholic in his selection of experimental subjects. He did not only work on the creations of his staff and laboratory."
"Sylia?" Linna's eyes were wide as a dark, dreadful suspicion began to crawl across her consciousness.
"He..." Sylia inhaled sharply, then tried again. "Neither Mackie nor I are fully human, Linna. Our brains... were extensively altered by his mechanisms. An improvement in his eyes, no doubt, but the cost..." She turned her head to look at the three on the far side of the room. "I am somewhat closer to being truly human than Jennifer is, but only by a degree or so." She looked up at Linna, and her eyes were flat and empty, her voice preternaturally controlled. "Do you understand, Linna? Would you have followed a half-boomer freak, five years ago? Would Priss? At the beginning, you did not need to know. And by the time I considered you my sisters, I was too afraid of what your reactions might be." She shook her head. "By then I needed you for far more than the mission -- you kept me sane, you kept me human. You were the first women my own age I could truly call my friends."
Linna dropped into a crouch and looked up at dark eyes that glinted suspiciously. "You're not going to lose us, Sylia. Any of us. Trust me." She glanced over her shoulder at the threesome on the other side of the room. "We've all changed in five years. For the better."
Before Sylia could reply, the door to the briefing room flew open with a crash, revealing Lisa. She was wild-eyed and panting; her winter coat hung half off her shoulders, and in one hand she held a large yellow envelope. She stopped in the doorway and raked the room with her eyes. Then she took a deep breath to compose herself, and strode calmly into the room.
Her gaze had landed upon Sylia, and seemed to carry a sober weight. Before Linna's eyes, the older woman restored the facade of command which she wore for Knight Sabers business; the intimate moment lost, she had no more time for revealing her soul. Linna promised herself that time would be made again, and soon.
The Sabers' archivist strode across the room without another glance at Priss, Nene and Jennifer in the far corner. As she approached, Linna stood and stepped back. Something odd was happening here, she realized.
Lisa came to a halt in almost the space in which Linna had been kneeling. "Sylia," she said by way of a greeting. "Have you seen the news?"
The Sabers exchanged glances as Jennifer stared at Lisa in mingled fear and bewilderment. After a moment, Sylia spoke. "No. We have been dealing with the aftermath of today's job."
Lisa nodded to herself, then reached into a pocket. Withdrawing her hand, she laid something small on the desktop between herself and Sylia.
In spite of herself, Sylia looked down at the glinting item and gasped; over Lisa's shoulder, Linna echoed her. With a hand made steady by years of practice and iron self-control, she reached out and picked it up. Holding the object up to her eye between thumb and forefinger, Sylia studied it carefully, confirming that it was indeed what she thought it was: a flawless diamond the size of her fingertip, faceted in an unfamiliar cut and sparkling like ice on fire. With exquisite care, she transferred it to the palm of her other hand, then looked back up at the younger woman, whose face had grown still and dark.
"I have been authorized," Lisa said with an almost ritual solemnity, "to hire your services."
END OF CHAPTER FOURTEEN
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This work of fiction is copyright © 2003, 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.
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"Gideon Manley", "Arcanum" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of John L. Freiler and Helen Imre.
Additional material in this chapter written or inspired by Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra and Logan Darklighter.
My thanks to Chris Davies for granting permission to lift "Mackinnison" for Mackie's full given name from his various fics.
Lyrics from "Fate's Wide Wheel", recorded by "King Thunder" (Scott Bakula and assorted studio musicians) for the Quantum Leap episode "Glitter Rock", written by Mike Post, Velton Ray Bunch, Chris Ruppenthal and Mark Leggett, copyright © 1993.
Lyrics from "Aquarius" as recorded by the cast of the motion picture "Hair" (Milos Forman, dir., 1979), words and music by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermott, copyright © 1966 by Rado, Ragni and MacDermott.
These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.
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Many thanks to my prereaders on this chapter: Christopher Angel, Joe Avins, Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.