DANCE OF ARMOR

by Innpchan

Book 2


As he stood at the entrance of Phoebe's Phitness Utopia, Seito Sakai was in awe of the circumstances that had brought him to this moment. First, and so long ago, his delayed rescue by the European Relief Agency after four days under the rubble of his own building and another bulldozed over it after the original rescuers had apparently given up on finding anyone alive.

Then his transfer to Europe with a group of other severely injured children, where the medical division of Lippischwerke, A.G. got a lot of PR out of fitting him with a set of their latest-generation cybernetic legs. His own had been crushed beyond repair and left under the building with the bodies of all his family and neighbors. He'd remained the subject of considerable experimentation in advanced prosthetics and had been written up in several medical journals.

Lippischwerke had essentially raised him through his adolescence, and, in what he supposed was some sort of gratitude, he'd gone to work for them as soon as he was old enough. He'd been brought under the wing of a number of influential types at the company, and they'd seen fit to send him to law school, which was where he'd be right now if it hadn't been for those files...

* * *

While studying law, he worked as an analyst in Lippischwerke's legal department. His mentor decided one day that taking a look at a typical nuisance lawsuit filed by a deceased employee's family would be a good experience for him.

"We're getting as bad as the Americans," his boss complained. "Look at this one. We acquired Stern magazine for our publishing arm a few years back. BEFORE we did it, one of their reporters got himself killed while on assignment in Japan. One of those crazy robot things they get. Now this guy's family files a wrongful death suit against us. Why?"

Seito knew the expected answer. "Because we've got the deep pockets."

"Right! So your job is to go through this guy's papers and see if there's anything we can use to show the court that we're not liabile. Get me a brief by Thursday." Seito was left staring at a set of three files put into storage after investigative reporter Ernst Hartmann's accidental death in a 2028 boomer rampage.

Sighing, Seito dug in and broke the files' seal. The first file contained information on nuclear materials smuggled out of Eastern Europe in the years following the collapse of the old Soviet Union. Although the remaining governments had made honest efforts to see no materials or, God forbid, weapons were stolen, the sheer size of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and the complete lack of resources to guard it made the disappearence of some items inevitable.

The bulk of the file was made up of highlighted sections photocopied from numerous dry, academic studies on nuclear proliferation and possible resting places of missing Soviet materiel. Seito could see it wasn't likely to provide any help in the brief he was to prepare.

At the very front of the file, however, there was a manila envelope marked "F-Go." Seito opened it to discover long lists of companies doing business with the Ukraine, Byelorus and Kazakhstan in 1994-95, as well as a scrap of paper with a phone number. Seito checked and found it had a MegaTokyo area code. There was also a blurry photograph of three military officers walking toward a trailer with a tall, long-haired young man in a business suit. His face was obscured by the shoulder of one of the officers. Someone, presumably Hartmann, had written names on the photo in black marker with corresponding arrows pointing toward each of the three officers. A red arrow bearing the legend "Q?!?!?" pointed toward the civilian. Seito turned the photograph over. On it was listed the date of death for each of the three officers. None had lived past 1997.

Seito opened the next file. It contained seismic reports on nuclear testing dating back to the 1995 French and Chinese blasts. Of course, it also contained seismic data on the "second holocaust" at Tel Aviv that had killed 400,000 people along with whatever hopes of peace in the Middle East were left at the turn of the century. Seito was no geologist, and the reports quickly turned unintelligible once he was past the title pages.

The last, thickest file seemed quite a change of pace. Real estate plat books, stock transactions, futures and forwards contracts, corporate manifests, all from the years 2024-2025. At last, HERE was something he could get his teeth into! He still didn't see what use these would be for the legal brief, but it was the last of the files he'd been given, so...

Two days later, a coherent picture had begun to take shape. Forward contracts under various entities' names and spread around every conceivable market on the globe. The contracts promised to deliver various commodities-- yen, corporate stocks, whatever --at a set price on some future date. There were also options to PURCHASE other commodities, mostly steel and other building materials, at a set price on a certain future date. Seito had been a little startled to note that ALL the future delivery dates contracted were within six weeks after that of the Second Great Kanto Earthquake.

Then he shook it off. Millions of forward contracts were booked every day. Hartmann was obviously investigating someone who had gotten lucky and made a killing when the quake had decimated the values of most Japanese corporations and, of course, the yen. Still, Hartmann seemed to have been looking for a connection beyond the good fortune some had received when Seito's own life had been destroyed nine years earlier. Seito couldn't imagine what. Futures and options wouldn't have done anyone any particular good unless they had known when the quake was coming...

Seismic reports?

Seito grabbed the other file. But, no! These were all reports on atomic blasts, not earthquakes! Besides, if seismologists could have predicted the quake, EVERYONE would have known about it and there wouldn't have been any advantage to holding the contracts. A concentration like this was still no good unless only YOU knew when...

A chill like nothing he'd felt since that awful night when his world had disappeared settled over Seito as he reached for the first file, ignored for days now. Missing nuclear weapons. Seismic reports. Futures contracts. Bloody hell.

Seito walked through the rows of cubicles to his boss' office. "Mr. Barkhorn? I think I've got something."

"Write up a brief and give it to me tomorrow. It's time to go home."

"Sir, I think this is a lot bigger than the lawsuit..."

Three hours later, Seito had laid out the transactions. "...and all the companies involved are subsidiaries of or shadows for these three: United Products, GPCC, and Northwest Mutual. But I can't trace them any further,"

"Jesus," said Barkhorn, "GPCC is part of Genom now."

"Now? What about back then?"

"Dunno. Say, any of these companies on that list in the first file?"

Seito reached for the folder. "Let's take a look."

On the fortieth page of the 1990s companies doing business in the old Soviet states, they found a familiar name:

"GENOM- manufacture and distribution of heavy equipment for the construction and mining industries"

Neither spoke as they stared at the name, highlighted by a dead man's hand. Finally, Seito broke the silence. "Could-- could a bomb really start..."

"We have people who would know. I guess I don't have to tell you to keep this under your hat."

"No sir."

"Good. You go home and get some sleep now. Be ready to lay all this out again at nine tomorrow morning. Right now, I've got to make some calls."

The next morning, Seito presented his findings to Lippischwerke's Executive Committee. They asked a few clarifying questions, then thanked and politely dismissed him.

After the door closed, the Chairman asked "Barkhorn, are you aware of the recent discussions?"

"I've heard talk, sir, but over the years I've learned that talk is usually just that."

"Yes, well, in this case, it's also correct. How far can young Mr. Sakai be trusted?"

"As you know, sir, Lippischwerke is the only family he has. I think he can be trusted absolutely."

"Very well. I'll set up a briefing for the both of you, then we'll send him to Texas to meet with Mr. McGuire of the mining division." He looked around the table. "I think we're all agreed that this matter cannot be trusted to any phone line, no matter how well scrambled. From there he'll go on to MegaTokyo and follow up on the late Mr. Hartmann's contacts. Whatever the outcome, this matter has to be closed within a week. The discussions are at a critical stage. Make sure he has plenty of 'grease' for the wheels, Mr. Barkhorn. There's far more at stake now than a headline."

* * *

"How is she?" Mackie asked as he entered the Sabers' now emptied briefing room near dawn.

Sylia sipped at her coffee before replying. "She seems alright. The medscan didn't pick up any concussion or internal injuries and Priss is driving her home. How are the repairs coming along?"

Mackie held up Linna's helmet, the dome cratered and cracked in an eggshell pattern. "Couple of millimeters deeper and she'd have had a skull to match. She'll have to use her old helmet until I can fabricate a replacement. This is trashed," he said, dropping it on the table. "Your armor, on the other hand, will be ready tomorrow. I need to replace the midsection and the left hip joints. Sis," she looked up at him, "you've gotta be more careful. If it hadn't hit at such a shallow angle..."

"Fortune doesn't smile on the timid, Mackie. I can hardly hold back and let the others do all the fighting." A flicker of irritation crossed her face. "I am more disturbed about Linna's behavior tonight. I expect overconfidence and showboat moves from Priss, but not Linna. Not in combat."

"Nene said she was excited about some new boyfriend."

"That's a steady state with Linna. It's never affected her performance before."

"Um, I guess I should correct myself. It's actually an OLD boyfriend, or something. Nene said she wasn't being real clear." Mackie changed the subject. "Speaking of Nene, did she come up with any more on that boomer?"

"She's going to examine her recordings of the fight and see if there's anything useful. We're meeting tonight to go over her findings, but I'm not optimistic. My displays showed nothing, and none of the others detected the boomer either. Aside from our direct visual contact, that-" Sylia indicated Linna's splintered helmet, "was the only indication we had of an attacker in the area." She sipped at her coffee and tapped at her cigarette pack. "It's extremely troubling. Until we've determined just what happened last night, we may have to stand down for a while."

"That sucks."

"If you have any better ideas, Mackie--" Sylia snapped, then continued in a calmer voice, "I'm... open to suggestion."

Mackie was uncomfortably silent. "Well, maybe Nene will come up with something."

Sylia lit a cigarette and looked back at him, but said nothing.

* * *

Seito was already feeling overwhelmed by the shift his life had taken. Then, on the flight to Houston, the second soul-shocking milestone in two days occurred. He'd been surreptitiously looking around the plane for his bodyguard, who was to be following him discreetly throughout his travels. His protector, a rather plain-looking man he'd met in Lippischwerke's security office, wasn't evident anywhere in the first-class section.

"Looking for someone?" This was from an attractive blonde woman in the window seat next to him.

"Uhh, no," Seito lied rather poorly, or so he thought upon reflection.

If she noticed his clumsiness, she gave no sign of it. "Well, we'll be spending the next couple of hours together, anyway. My name is Kathy Gabreski." She offered her hand.

He shook it gently but firmly. "Seito Sakai."

"Are you stopping in Houston, Mr. Sakai? Or going on to Buenos Aires?"

"I have some business in Houston, then I'm going to MegaTokyo." Seito winced as soon as he'd said it. If he was going to last at this cloak-and-dagger stuff, he'd have to learn not to be so open about his movements.

The woman smiled. "Oh! I'm going to MegaTokyo in a couple of months. I have a close friend there I haven't seen in far too long." She cocked an eyebrow. "She's about your age. Are you single?"

Seito laughed. "Yes, I am. But I don't think she'd be--"

"Oh, I'm just kidding! Linna doesn't need any help getting dates, anyway. She usually has about the busiest social calender I know!" She opened her bag and flipped through a small holo-folder. "Here, look."

Seito had felt a tug of sadness at her mention of the girl's name, and the image she held out to him only made it worse. The girl in the holo had a smile that was too close to that of his lost childhood friend. Then, as he continued looking at the picture, he noticed that more than just the smile was similar. In fact, the more he looked...

Kathy saw the young man was breathing strangely, and that his face had begun to take on an ashen hue. "Is anything wrong?"

"I'm sorry, she... she just looks very much like someone I knew a long time ago."

"Well, her name is Linna Yamazaki. I met her--"

"YAMAZAKI?" Seito asked incredulously, "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure!" she replied with a small laugh. "I met her about seven years ago. She was orphaned in the quake and I sort of 'adopted' her for a while."

Seito took a deep breath, tried to collect his thoughts, and finally said, "Miss Gabreski, would you please tell me about her?"

* * *

"So," Priss said, leaning against Linna's kitchen wall, "you're REALLY okay?"

"I'm fine, Priss, really. If you're so concerned, help me clean this up before my morning class starts," replied Linna from the floor, where she was sopping up the remains of groceries forgotten from the day before.

Priss shrugged, "I thought it looked like good practice for you. I mean, you're getting so domestic on me all of a sudden."

"What do you mean?" Linna asked indignantly, looking up and pausing.

"This guy. I looked over at you when you were talking in the car. Your eyes were full of a country house and two-point-five rugrats."

"That's silly! I mean, yes, I'll be happy to see him again after so long, but..." She paused, smiled, and Priss saw her eyes leave the room again. "I guess I am excited. I just have such a feeling about this. And who knows? Maybe he IS..."

When she looked up at Priss to share her excitement, she was surprised to see an indifferent, stony gaze.

Priss shrugged again before turning for the door. "Whatever. If that's what you want."

* * *

After his arrival at MegaTokyo International this morning, he'd checked into his hotel and immediately called the number from Hartmann's file. He'd thought a long time about what to say if there was an answer. So when a grizzled, weary voice finally said "Hello?" at the other end of the line, he was ready.

"F-Go," Seito said. Short and concise.

"Interesting," came the reply, the voice noticeably brighter. "Do you think you can last until tomorrow evening, Mister...?"

"My name isn't important."

"Oh, come now! Mr. Hartmann wasn't so anti-social."

"Mr. Hartmann didn't make his meeting."

A chuckle. "True enough. Very well, man of mystery. Be at the Nishizawa Shipyard tomorrow night at ten. Dock four. A single bodyguard is acceptable. The price is one-point-five billion new yen. One chip. Tinsel City Bank. No tracers, either way. No talking. No socializing. I get the money, you get the data. We go our separate ways and walk off into the moonlight."

"That's a lot of money. Is it that good?"

"It's what you're looking for. We've talked enough, I think." The line went dead.

Seito hung up the phone and looked at his watch. Five hours until Mr. Barkhorn would arrive at the office in Oldenburg. Plenty of time to start tracking down Linna.

* * *

Seito strode to the entrance of Phoebe's. It occurred to him that if he'd still had his own knees, they'd probably be shaking. He pushed open the door and was almost immediately challenged by a receptionist. "Good Morning. May I help you?"

"I'm looking for Linna Yamaz-" His reply trailed off as he caught sight of her through the glass wall behind the desk. She was moving with an incredibly smooth, almost unearthly grace. Her every motion was driving symphonies through his soul and most of all she was really, tangibly, gloriously alive!

"As you can see, she's busy with her class right now." The receptionist was used to this. Most men who came to Phoebe's to see Linna were the ones who didn't get their calls returned. One more loser. "Perhaps you should try her at home."

Seito walked past her to the glass, ignoring her protests. Linna had him under a spell. His eyes couldn't turn away. She glanced in his direction, but he seemed beneath her notice. She looked again, this time with a flicker of irritation. And then again, with the irritation shifting to confusion, and amazement, and then she was running toward him. She stopped at the wall, her hands pressed to the glass less than a centimeter from his own. Her eyes and smile seemed to drink him in. She ran around to the door and then toward him with her arms outstretched, remembering herself at the last instant and taking only his hand.

"Seito! Kathy called me! I just can't believe you're here! Ohmigod, this is just..."

He watched her eyes well up with tears she did her best to ignore as she kept talking. Just like before, he found himself unable to say a word.

* * *

"So what do we know?" Priss asked, pacing around the table in the briefing room under Raven's.

Nene looked worried, and more than a little embarassed. "Not much, I'm afraid. The data from last night shows even less than what we saw. The boomer apparently had some sort of system that blocks our various sensors. In other words, it wasn't invisible to us, but it was to our suits."

Sylia summarized the situation. "In effect, a Stealth boomer."

Nene nodded. "You could say that, but it did more than just passively shunt away radar or jam systems. It seemed to override our tracking systems to show exactly what would be present if it were absent; which is to say, nothing."

"That would take a lot of advanced gear..." Sylia observed.

"But he was no bigger than a standard BU-12!" Priss interjected, completing Sylia's thought. "So what did he give up in order to load the extra electronics?" She bit her lip for a moment, then snapped her fingers. "GUNS! It must carry a light weapons load. That's why it backhanded Linna rather than just taking her out with a missile or cannon shot! It was conserving ammo!"

"Being stealthy, and therefore harder to hit, it may also be less heavily armored," Sylia added. "These are fine observations, but they do us little good unless we can target the next one we encounter. Nene, what countermeasures can we take?"

"I could only come up with one. A direct projection of the real-time visible light spectrum on our targeting screens."

Priss leaned in. "You mean, ' video'?"

"Yes," Nene answered sheepishly.

"Oh, GREAT! We're up against Genom's latest and greatest, and the tech-wench wants to glue her mom's camcorder to my hardsuit!"

Nene did her best to ignore Priss' sarcasm, but it was hitting pretty close to the mark. "Our suits have always had the capability, so there's no need for hardware mods. Mackie is reconfiguring the visors to have... video available as a secondary display option. However, none of the hardsuits' weapons systems is set up for video-based acquisition. Target-locking weapons would essentially be useless. We'll have to target directed fire weapons like the railguns and beam cannons by manually tracking the target in the reticle projected on the visor."

"I suppose next you'll have us holding for windage..." Priss said. Sylia looked less than pleased.

* * *

Linna arrived at the Grille of the Crafters just after seven wearing a long-sleeved mid-length black dress. It was very plain and demure, and therefore capable of riveting the attention of every male in the area that much more --when Linna was wearing it. The small plaza in front of the restaurant was filled with people listening to a concert by percussionists whose style seemed to shift randomly from Native American to African to Tibetan.

Seito had to leave after only a short time at Phoebe's, but they'd decided to meet for dinner. He'd left a message for her later in the day with the location.

The Maitre d' guided her through the reproduction 19th century Arts & Crafts Movement decor ("Mostly Wright, of course," she sniffed. Dillettantes. But, she admitted, the marquetried wall panels at least acknowledged Ellis.) to a table on the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza. Seito rose as they approached. Her heart threatened to burst at the sight of him. The Maitre d' held her chair while Seito took her hand and guided her into it. Linna hardly noticed the attention. She was still fascinated by every detail of Seito's face. The little boy she remembered was still there, but the eyes of the young man before her held the promise of fierce determination and an unstoppable will. Their eyes met as Seito returned to his seat, and she knew she was about to become the object of that will.

Linna was thankful for the high-back chairs forcing an upright posture, as she realized she was coming close to what the shoujonet stories described as a "swoon." She turned her head away toward the plaza and broke the silence. "What a lovely view you've found us."

"The ladies in your class told me you were used to the best. I hope this meets with your approval," he replied.

"It's wonderful," she smiled. "I came here with a date a couple of months ago and I'm afraid his self-esteem suffered just a bit when our Maitre d' rejected his bribe for a table and we were turned away." She knew it had suffered afterward from her request to be taken home immediately and her subsequent refusal of his calls. He had demonstrated a lack of preparedness and ability, and wasn't worthy of further consideration.

"He was clearly undeserving," Seito said, unknowingly mirroring her thoughts in his best sophisticated corporate spy persona. "I met with more success. Although I must admit to some disappointment in our host. I considered him a man of elegant taste," he indicated their surroundings, "but turning away beauty such as yours is an act of one... uncultured."

A line like this would usually have earned its author a shy smile and a batting of Those Eyes. Linna had learned these simple actions could turn a corporate shark into a flopping polliwog. Tonight, however, it was her turn to be entranced. She began to reach her hand across the table in an unforgiveably forward manner when a sharp jolt in her head and neck pulled it back. "Oww!"

"What's wrong?" Seito asked, already rising and taking her hand.

"Oh, I'm sorry, it's nothing," Linna said. Last night's boomer had apparently rung her bell more than she'd realized. "Just a little injury from my... exercise."

Seito looked at the plaza. "There's a chemist's across the way. Let me get you something." He had released her hand and was across the balcony toward the stairs before she could protest.

"This is, undeniably, IT, Linna," she whispered to herself, and suddenly comprehended the very real probability that she might never again have dinner with another man. That this night was the first with the person she could very well be spending the rest of her life with.

Adoringly, she watched him cross the plaza, weaving his way through the percussionists' swaying audience. Then a stillness to one side of the crowd caught her eye. Her subconscious knew that curious lack of motion and was screaming for her attention.

There! An older man in a clergyman's collar was standing in a slight crouch, legs apart. His only motion was a slow, deliberate, machine-like turning of the head as though tracking...

Her eyes snapped in the direction of his stare, and she knew as she stood that it could have only one target.

"SEITO!" she screamed as he neared the edge of the crowd. He couldn't hear her over the throbbing drums. The boomer (Her subconscious had already typed it a BU-55B, possibly a C.) would have a clear shot in a second or two. Before she had even consciously decided on a course of action she was kicking off her heels and starting her run. From the floor to a chair to the table and then leaping off the balcony, aiming toward a streetlight nearly halfway to Seito.

Airborne. Her arms compressed on the cantilivered pole supporting the lamp, then thrust her feet-first into a high arc ten meters across the plaza, arms snapping out to her sides. "SEITO!" she yelled again. He heard her this time, and had begun to turn around when her right arm caught him across the shoulder and she pulled him with her to the ground.

Linna hadn't had a chance to determine whether she'd been injured by her hard impact on the pavement when a white-hot knife of pain cut across her right forearm. Her own scream was lost in that of the crowd as it scattered in all directions in reaction to the laser blast. She regained control long enough to look at Seito and say "Run! It's after you!"

He looked at her in dumbfounded amazement. "But you're hurt--"

"GO!" she screamed, pushing him with her good arm as she heard the roar of a high-caliber pistol behind her. She turned to see the boomer stagger. Someone was buying them time. The boomer looked in the direction of the shot, its jaw stretching unnaturally to reveal the reflector disc of its main battery. She tried to get up and push Seito away, but her leg collapsed beneath her, useless. A second shot rang out and the boomer's jaw exploded, leaving the disc hanging from a few wires under its nose.

Linna felt Seito's arms lift her and he began running toward the corner. She screamed in pain again as they collided with the crowd and her arm was wrenched to one side. She heard the boomer's arm cannon bark twice, and no more pistol shots came. By this time they were around the corner and moving faster than Linna would have thought possible. She lifted her left arm and pointed toward the parking lot. "Take my car. The green Expo. He'll be tracking yours." She was shocked at her presence of mind.

As they reached the car, Linna thumbed the lock. Seito deposited her gently but quickly in the passenger's seat and slid behind the wheel. "Linna here! Start up!" she cried. The car's voice-recognition circuits reacted immediately and Seito punched the accelerator. The little Expo crashed through the exit gate and onto the street. Seito started working the SatNav unit. "We've got to get you a doctor!"

Linna turned to look at her arm and almost retched. The fabric of her sleeve was melted indistinguishably with her flesh. There was very little blood, but a couple of white spots on her forearm looked like... bone?

Her forehead broke out in a sweat as she felt herself going into shock. With the last of her strength she punched the address of Raven's into the SatNav box. "No hospital," she moaned, going under, "Take me here."

* * *

"I am not pleased. How could you have just 'lost' him?" The anger in the speaker's voice and eyes lost nothing over the video link.

Kate Madigan was ready for this, however, and a reckoning on several matters was long overdue. "Chairman Quincy, my initial action plan on this project projected a seventy percent increase in the likelihood of failure if I was not given access to the satellite tracking systems. My request for this vital component of the plan was refused. The point unit's sensors were damaged in the course of the action with Sakai's bodyguard and it was unable to continue tracking. The backup unit waiting near his automobile never even sighted the subject. Had I been allocated the necessary resources-"

"These excuses do not become you, Ms. Madigan. This was a simple sanction. Mason would have--"

"With all due respect sir, Mr. Mason would have gone outside his authority on the matter in order to build prestige and a power base that we both know would eventually have been implemented against you." Quincy's initial anger at the interruption was cut off by her statement of this simple fact. Such an incredible breach of corporate etiquette was shocking and, in a way he found curiously pleasant, refreshing.

She continued, "I have no wish that you begin suspecting the same behavior of me, and that is why it is imperative that you give me, freely and above board, sufficient resources to carry out my assignments. I have no hidden agendas or ambitions, Mr. Chairman. When I was made Chief of Corporate Security Genom received my complete loyalty and discretion. In every meaningful sense, sir, you ARE Genom. If you cannot believe my talents are entirely under your command, then perhaps I should seek alternative employment."

Quincy remained silent for a very long four minutes. Madigan stood her ground alone before the conference screen. Any lack of resolution now would doom her, professionally if not otherwise.

"Very well, Madigan, we shall play it your way," he finally stated. "Tell me what you need and I shall assume those resources will be used only for authorized purposes. Inform me immediately once Sakai is relocated."

"It would assist me greatly, sir, if you could tell me why he is here in the first place, and why we are sanctioning a mere legal analyst from a company that can barely be considered a competitor, much less a rival."

"You would not find our additional data of any use. Good day," Quincy cut off the link before she could protest further. Personal loyalty in a subordinate, eh? That would be a new experience. Perhaps she was even being entirely truthful, but even if she weren't, he had plenty of time to find out. He smiled. Plenty.

The other matter was more disturbing, but probably manageable even if Sakai were able to find what he was looking for. Quincy simply couldn't believe that a lapse of caution forty years in the past could threaten the global empire he'd built since.

* * *

Mackie was the first to see Linna's car pull in with a strange man at the wheel. He hit the silent alarm to alert Sylia as he and Priss jogged over in response to the Expo's blaring horn.

The man stepped out of the driver's side. "Is there a doctor here?"

Mackie saw Linna in the passenger's seat. It was obvious she wasn't in good shape. "Sylia!" he called, knowing she'd be monitoring the bugs in the garage area. "I think you better call Doc! Linna's hurt!" He pulled open the door, grimaced as he saw her arm, then lifted her eyelids. "She's in shock!"

"What happened to her?" demanded Priss, shoving Seito against the car.

"Goddamn it, Priss! I'm trying to work here! Take it over to the tool boxes!" Mackie yelled, probing worriedly at the severe burn running from just below Linna's elbow to the back of her hand.

Priss held Seito down with her left forearm across his throat, and the other arm cocked back into a fist. She glanced over toward the tool chest against the wall, and he could tell she was considering the kid's suggestion. He looked up at her with the best steely gaze he could manage under the circumstances and said "Right now all I care about is Linna. How about you?"

She looked back at him for a moment, then pulled him off the car, giving his arm a nasty twist at the same time. She shoved him away with a curt warning and a pointed finger. "I'll be watching you."

Seito ignored the threat and walked around to Linna. She was still unconscious. Probably a good thing.

"So what happened?" the kid asked while holding a medical sensor to her ear. Any response Seito could have made was cut off by the arrival of a dark-haired woman with an older man in tow.

"What have we got, Mackie?" the older man asked, elbowing Seito out of the way.

"Laser burn on the right forearm, BP too low to register, respiration rapid and shallow, pupils dilated and non-responsive."

"AND a broken right leg!" the old man observed, pointing out an ugly blackening patch above Linna's ankle. He gave Mackie a backhanded rap on the head. "Never stop at the first major injury you see!" He turned toward Seito. "Is she liable to have a back injury?"

Seito nodded. "Could be. She fell quite a way. Or jumped, or something..."

"Mackie, get me the backboard."

Mackie got up, still rubbing his head. "Hey, I can't catch everything. I'm an engineer, not an M.D."

Doc Raven was getting a pulse from her neck while he rechecked her eyes. Mackie returned with the board. He and the old man reached in to remove her.

Seito stepped forward and tapped him on the shoulder. "Doctor? Why don't you let me help?" In response to the raised eyebrow he received, he said "I pretty much grew up in a hospital. I know how to do this."

The old man stepped aside. In a moment, Linna was strapped to the board, but as he and Mackie started to lift, the dark-haired woman said "Priss, fill in for our guest." As the other woman moved to take his place, the dark-haired one caught his eye. "Would you come with me please?"

He followed her to a small, windowless office off the floor of the garage. The woman shut the door behind them, folded her arms, and said "I've got quite a few questions for you, Mister..."

"Sakai, Seito Sakai."

One level down, Nene fed the name into her standard database search routine. At the same time, she watched Linna and the others on another monitor. She keyed the intercom. "Guys, keep me up to date on how she is."

"You just keep an eye on Sylia and that... him!" snapped Priss, who had suddenly realized she was the only one in the building with nothing to do. The role didn't sit well with her. She was torn between staying at Linna's side and being nearby in case Sylia needed her. Finally, she put her hand on Raven's shoulder. "Just take care of her." Then she left for the garage area.

Back upstairs, the dark-haired woman, who still hadn't offered her name, asked "So why would this boomer shoot at you and Linna?"

"I think I was probably the target. At the moment I'm engaged in some work that would make certain persons very uncomfortable. I believe it was my bodyguard who shot back at the boomer. I tried to contact him on the way over here and got no response."

"How did you know to come here?"

"Linna fed the address into the SatNav unit just before she lost consciousness." Seito stood from the chair she'd offered him. "Look, can't I go see her? We can talk about all this later."

"I'm afraid not. There are various security issues involved here--"

"What security issues? She's just a dancer for God's sake! I'm the one they took a shot at! She wouldn't even be involved if I hadn't--"

Seito cursed himself. What an idiot! A couple of days after he stumbles onto what is arguably the biggest secret on Earth he JUST HAPPENS to sit next to a woman who claims to have "adopted" the first girl he ever loved. Could he even be SURE that was really Linna he'd been with tonight? He'd heard about some of Genom's more expensive "S"-types. They said the only way you could tell they weren't real was that no real woman was that good. He felt like an unbelievable fool. And now here he was. His only ally was probably dead, and he was a virtual captive of... who? He felt cold. Very large events he couldn't even see were in control of him now.

"Look, I don't think I'm at liberty to talk any more right now."

"That's not an acceptable attitude, Mr. Sakai. You may have been followed here, which would compromise my operation. You are also apparently the cause of injury to one of my key personnel. I think you owe me an explanation."

"I've given you one-- They shot at me and Linna got in the way trying to save me... which she did!"

The woman sat down and studied her hands for a few moments. "How do you know Linna?"

Seito looked at the question cautiously. How could knowing the answer benefit this woman? Was she just trying to loosen him up for more probing qustions later? He decided to answer. "I've known her since we were kids. We lived in the same building."

The woman's eyes snapped up to meet his with a questioning look-- and just a hint of confusion. He'd startled her, and it felt like a small victory. "Linna doesn't have any childhood friends," she stated flatly.

"I thought she'd died in the quake, and I guess she thought the same about me. We only found out about each other through a casual acquaintance a couple of days ago."

This seemed to satisfy a curiousity in the woman, but she followed up on his statement immediately. "So you came to MegaTokyo to find her."

Seito hesitated. She was working toward his assignment again. "Partly," he conceded calmly. Let her chew on that.

She looked directly into his eyes. He held his own the best he could, but it was like staring down a glacier. There was no longer any emotion there. He felt she saw him as a bug, or a worm, but he knew neither of those were right. Then he caught it. A pawn. A gamepiece on a board. And right now she was trying to decide just how to move him to her advantage, or perhaps take him out of play.

She got up from the table. "Excuse me, Mr. Sakai." She turned and walked out the door before he could say anything.

* * *

Sylia walked down the stairs to Nene's console. "What have you got on him?"

"Quite a bit, actually," Nene said. Her face scrunched in confusion. "There's a BUNCH of articles in medical journals-- Look, there's a whole sub-tree over here," she pointed at the screen. "But he's not a doctor. He's a student from Oldenburg, Germany. Seito Sakai, 22 years old. Lives at 163 Opitz Strasse and has been employed by Lippischwerke, A.G. since he was 15, currently a legal analyst. Now studying at Dittmar Juristische Fakultaet. Newer school, not very prestigious," she sniffed. "I was about to start checking the medical articles."

"Good work, Nene. I'll stop back after I've checked on Linna."

"They're still working, but Doc doesn't sound too terribly worried anymore."

Sylia strode into the minimal infirmary of the training room. Linna lay on a table, still unconscious and now hooked to a respirator. There were splints and bandages around both her legs and Doc Raven had put an IV of some sort into her left arm. He and Mackie, both masked, were busily cleaning the burn on her right forearm. A nearby tray held the cut away sleeve of her dress and numerous small, bloody bits of black cloth and flesh melted together.

"We'll be done here soon, Sylia," Doc said, not looking up from his work. "I'd recommend Sugita General for the regeneration. Mackie and I'll take her over as soon as--"

"I don't think that's wise, Doctor. Whoever shot her will be looking for someone with precisely that sort of injury and I'm sure they have the hospitals under surveillance."

This caused Raven to look up at her. "But she needs regenerative therapy! This is a bad burn, and--"

"Doctor, I'm sure I can get you the necessary equipment--"

"That just WON'T DO IT, Sylia!" he said, throwing his forceps on the tray. "She needs good, experienced people to run that equipment! You know I was just in biomech interface research. I haven't had an actual human patient since my residency! Sure, I can handle the occasional shrapnel wound or broken limb, but if we don't get her to a proper facility, and fast, she could easily lose that arm!"

Sylia looked at a bit of a loss. She'd counted on Doc being able to handle this. "Bringing her to a public or even a private facility will just make her a target." Her brow furrowed in thought and a hand rose to her forehead. "I'll need to make other arrangements. How long can you give me?"

Doc sighed deeply. "I'll do what I can Sylia, but there are no guarantees. As it stands, she could lose that arm right now, and every hour we delay is just cuts her chances further." He gestured toward her legs. "Otherwise, she's got comminuted fractures of the right tibia and fibula and hairline breaks all over her left leg. The cartilage in both knees is pretty messed up --that'll need regenerating too-- but there don't appear to be any spinal injuries. We've got her heart rate and BP back toward normal, but it's the arm, Sylia. If we don't get her to a hospital soon..." He shook his head. "...I can't make any promises."

Sylia and Priss were leaning against the wall outside the office where Seito waited when Nene called them a half hour later. They were each about halfway through a cigarette and looked for all the world like two fuming schoolgirls sneaking a smoke behind the gym.

"Sylia?" the disembodied voice inquired. "Linna's awake and she's asking for you."

"So, you gonna let me soften him up some?" Priss inquired as they ground the cigarettes under their heels.

"Please, Priss! I'm having enough trouble without your ludicrous interjections!" Sylia struck her with a steely gaze, then turned and strode away toward the infirmary.

"Not that it isn't tempting..." Priss could have sworn she heard Sylia mutter under her breath as she followed.

They arrived at the infirmary to find Linna trying to sit up over Doc's objections.

"Sylia!" she cried in a weak but urgent voice. "Where is Seito? Is he all right? Where is he?"

'"He's fine, Linna. I have him upstairs. But bringing him here was very dangerous! It exposes him and it exposes us."

"I know. I'm sorry, Sylia, but it was all I could think of! If I'd let him take me to a hospital they'd have found him and..." her voice dropped away, "...I can't lose him again, Sylia!"

Linna swallowed and got her voice under control. "Please let me see him."

"Ridiculous!" Sylia recoiled in surprise. "There's too much sensitive material down here! He simply can't--"

"Please, Sylia?" Linna asked once more, her eyes pleading.

Sylia met those eyes for a long moment, and then shocked all those present by saying "Priss, blindfold him and bring him down."

Priss looked startled for a second, then left the room. Sylia directed Mackie to close all the doors to the room and throw the remaining medical blankets over the more sensitive equipment.

"Thank you," Linna said, reaching up to grasp her hand.

Doc was wrapping bandages around her right arm. "I've got this packed with burn gel, Sylia, and I've got her loaded up with every antibiotic I can think of, but unless you've got a stasis field handy, that's all I can do," he said.

"Thank you, Doctor," Sylia replied as she turned toward the sound of the door opening.

Priss entered, pushing a blindfolded Seito ahead of her. Sylia signaled the others to leave the room with her and indicated to Priss she should stay behind.

Once the door closed, Priss removed Seito's blindfold. He looked around for a moment, but once he saw Linna, his eyes couldn't leave her face. He strode toward her and took her good hand in his.

"Hi," she said softly. She seemed to glow...

"Hi," he replied, barely a whisper.

She continued looking into his eyes. "Would you leave us alone, Priss?"

"Like hell," Priss snorted. Then, reluctantly, "Oh, I'll just go over by the door." She'd wanted to make sure Seito saw the butt of the pistol in her belt, but the likelihood of his looking in her direction seemed pretty remote.

"Are you okay?" Linna asked Seito.

"I'm just fine, thanks to you," he replied. "But how are you doing?"

Linna looked down at her bandaged arm and cast-covered leg. "Not so good, I guess," she replied with a small laugh. Then her eyes became concerned. "Why did it try to kill you, Seito? Who would want to kill you?"

Seito drew back. He was becoming good at this, even if he wished he weren't. She looked so real, so beautiful ("JUST LIKE YOU WANT HER TO!" his analytical mind screamed.).

"Linna, I can't really talk about..." He hesitated, then changed the subject to something he'd thought of upstairs. "Can I ask you a question? A question only you would know the answer to?"

Linna reacted as though he'd struck her. "Wait--, you don't think... I'm ME?" she asked incredulously. "You think I'm just trying to get some kind of information from--"

"Please, Linna," he pleaded. "Just one. I have to KNOW."

Seito could see the wall building behind her eyes as she said carefully "Alright."

Seito held her hand tighter. Oh, please... "What did I say to you the first time we kissed? After I brought you the flowers?"

She looked away from him and, despite herself, the memory warmed the very core of her being. "It was just like today," she said, meeting his eyes once more. "You were too scared to say anything."

"Oh, Linna!" he moaned, putting his arms around her.

Linna held him as tightly as she could, tears streaming down her face as she said over and over in a choked voice, "Seito. Seito."

Priss turned away angrily and stared at the door. She had no idea why.

* * *

Linna fell into a more restful sleep a few minutes later. Priss tapped Seito on the back.

"Time to go back upstairs, lover."

Seito slowly rose and submitted to the blindfold. "I really do love her, you know."

It was the wrong thing to say. "That's what they all say, dickhead," Priss replied as she gave him a hard shove out the door. Once in the hallway with the door closed behind them, she kicked at the back of his knee.

Seito fell to the floor and then felt a hard, cold metal under his chin. "So far you've been very lucky, and I really think you should appreciate what we're doing for you. Do you?" the metal, which he now realized was the front sight on a pistol barrel, dug at his throat in rhythm with her last two words.

"Huh?" she asked, digging the sight in again.

"Yes, I certainly do," he said as convincingly as he could.

It must have been good enough, because she jerked him back to his feet and pushed him further down the hallway toward the stairs.

She took off his blindfold and he found himself back in the small, windowless office across from the dark-haired woman. The one who'd dragged him upstairs left and closed the door behind her. Seito swallowed his rage. He had to be smart about this. He decided to try to control this encounter from the start.

"If you're Sylia, then Linna says I can trust you, and that you can help me."

The woman lit a cigarette and, after a long drag, said "What would you like to trust me with, Mr. Sakai?"

Seito hesitated. No. Linna had proven who she was. It was his turn to reveal a little. "I've come to MegaTokyo to buy some information. Certain parties have attempted to stop me. I still plan to make my purchase, but I will need additional security. Can you help with that?"

She looked back at him, almost with a touch of amusement. "I have been known to provide security in the past, but I have serious doubts about your ability to afford the services of my firm."

"Don't be too quick to judge. My people have placed a high priority on this venture."

"Your people would be Lippischwerke?"

Seito felt his stomach knot. So much for controlling the situation.

She went on. "Yes, Lippischwerke is a fine company. Perhaps you can afford my services. But I can hardly accept a contract without knowing who I'll be up against..."

She had Seito, and they both knew it. She already knew his bodyguard was dead, and he couldn't even leave this office without her consent. The only way out was the truth.

"Genom," he said. "I think they know what I'm after and they are likely to put considerable effort into stopping me."

"And just what are you after, Mr. Sakai?"

"I'd like for that to remain confidential."

"Very well. How long would you require my services?"

Seito looked at his watch and saw midnight was long past. "Until tomorrow morning. I am to make my purchase tonight at ten accompanied by a single bodyguard. The next morning I will deliver the information to a courier who will return it to Germany. I will make my way back separately."

The woman looked thoughtful. "Fourteen million," she said simply.

Seito was astounded at the figure. "That's quite a lot for a little over twenty-four hours' work,"

"For that I guarantee your life and, more importantly, the successful conclusion of your business-- even with Genom opposing you. Your people should consider it a bargain, especially since, your late bodyguard's bravery notwithstanding, their own security measures proved woefully inadeqate."

And so Seito hired the Knight Sabers. It was very likely the only time they accepted a contract from a man who had never even heard of them.

* * *

"Open Executive Action file on 15 April 2035 sanction. Subject: Seito Sakai."

Madigan's terminal buzzed momentarily as it called up the proper file. "Video telemetry from point unit." The screen filled with a view of the busy plaza in front of Grille of the Crafters. "Forward to subject pick-up." The image froze, then showed an image of Sakai walking through the crowd into the restaurant. The boomer that had sent this footage had been unable to obtain a clear shot during the initial contact. It was instructed to wait until Sakai left the building again. Madigan was about to advance to the next contact point when she spotted something on the restaurant's balcony. "Enhance quadrant two." The upper right area of the image grew to fill the screen.

She let out a groan. Typical 55-Series logic. The boomer, having been ordered to wait for Sakai's exit, had not even bothered to scan the balcony of the restaurant. There he was, in plain sight. No obstructions. An easy kill. Damn Quincy and his insistence on using boomer assassins! The cheapest Ginza kneebreaker would have spotted Sakai AND completed the sanction then and there! She should have learned her lesson during the Largo affair and just pulled the trigger herself. She sighed. No use crying over it. On the screen, Sakai rose to guide an attractive young woman to her chair. Madigan frowned. Was she the same one who pulled him down later?

"Restore full-screen view. Forward to next contact." The screen jumped to Sakai's exit from the restaurant. The boomer's field of view zoomed in and projected targeting data. Sakai finally cleared the main body of the crowd and the sighting reticle locked on his left ear. Just then, a blur from the upper part of the screen hit Sakai and knocked him out of the picture toward the ground. The view shifted downward and the laser's charge status indicator shifted from green to red as it re-acquired Sakai momentarily. But the shot hadn't hit him. Instead, it struck the girl.

Where had she come from? Madigan hadn't seen her follow Sakai out. She backed the telemetry up. No, the girl was still sitting on the balcony as Sakai started to cross the plaza. And she had seemed to fall on Sakai, so... she JUMPED? Madigan's jaw fell. Could she be a boomer? Maybe a 33-C? She studied the tape as it continued. The girl was obviously in pain after being shot, but that could still fit the 33-Series profile if it weren't a C-type. She was obviously a physically enhanced human at the very least, but who was she?

Madigan backsearched the telemetry for a clear facial shot. There! "Enhance grid five." The girl's face filled the screen. Madigan grimaced. She was certainly pretty enough for a 33-Series. But there was something else, something tickling at the back of her memory...

Had she seen this face before? Its presence on the screen seemed very familiar. Maybe some other surveillance tape or-- No! It had been another telemetry download!

"Access Executive Action file, Subject: Irene Can, aka Irene Chang. Point unit pre-sanction surveillance telemetry." The screen flickered into a picture of two young women talking in a small diner. The boomer was sitting in a car outside, looking through the restaurant's front window. There was the subject, Irene Can --actually Irene Chang, a daughter of the Hu Bang "Tiger Clan" consortium. But the other girl looked like she could be the one who'd saved Sakai. The observing boomer zoomed in on her face. "Freeze. Display side-by-side with last image from Sakai file."

No doubt about it. This was the same girl, right down to the headband. "Replay dialogue from Chang telemetry."

The terminal buzzed for a moment, then flashed "Data Deleted" under the image. Madigan slammed her fist on the console. Another of Mason's damn games! HE had probably known who she was! Hell, she might have even been working for him!

Then another thought occured to her. "Extrapolate dialogue from subject lip movements." Her terminal buzzed for a few moments as the footage was analyzed. The transcript it produced was spotty at best, and seemed to mostly concern shopping and some old boyfriend, but one fragment of a line from the Chang girl caused Madigan to sit bolt upright in her chair.

"...contract the Knight Sabers to avenge me."

Good Lord. Could she really be this lucky? God knew she deserved it after the seemingly unbroken run of misfortune she'd had since taking over as Chief of Security. Could this girl BE a Knight Saber? And if she was, did that mean Sakai was hiring them? Or, she considered, maybe even working for them? That would explain his carrying the girl from the scene, as such an action seemed inconsistent if she were just a bodyguard.

She reached for the phone. No one got very far in Madigan's business without a good hacker in their pocket, and Ivar was one of the best. She'd brought him with her to Genom and he'd kept busy ever since rebuilding the safeguards on what he considered a disgustingly wide-open DP system.

"Ivar? How'd you like to take a break from all that ice sculpture and do some good old-fashioned digging?"

* * *

Seito spent most of the next day at Linna's side, except for a short run to Tinsel City Bank to pick up the credit chip for that night's transaction. The funds it represented had been transferred from Lippischwerke after Seito's request the afternoon before. He was accompanied by Sylia, who assured him they were perfectly safe and under the watchful eye of her people, although Seito couldn't see anything. Spotting tails was apparently not one of his talents. In any event, no problems arose.

That afternoon, after Linna awoke from one of the short naps she was prone to take, he took one last chance with her trust. As she lay asleep, he had decided someone should know, and that she deserved to more than any other.

"Linna," he said, gently twining his fingers in hers, "I think I should tell you why I came here, in case something happens tonight."

Her hand tightened convulsively on his. Her eyes were suddenly filled with fear and concern. "Don't say that, Seito! You know I can't lose you again! I'll--"

"Shh, shh," he stroked her hair reassuringly. "Everything will be fine, I know that. But I'd still like to tell you, alright?"

She was noticeably calmer as she nodded.

"A few days ago I was reviewing some documents in a wrongful death suit filed by the family of a reporter from my company's publishing arm. It seems he'd found some evidence to suggest..." It was going to be hard to say this delicately, "...that maybe the quake...the 2025 quake...wasn't entirely a natural event."

Her eyes widened. "What do you mean, 'not natural'?"

"I mean it may have been deliberately triggered by setting off atomic devices deep underground, near the fault lines. I'm here to find more evidence, and that's why they tried to kill me."

"Who did?"

He took a deep breath. Here goes... "Genom. It looks like the higher-ups planned it for years, but I don't have any definite names of individuals. Maybe that's the information I'll get tonight, I don't know. But the last guy died trying to buy it."

"Oh, Seito..." Linna said, her voice cracking as she awkwardly pulled him to her.

"So you understand why I--"

"Just hold me for a while," she said, shivering in his arms.

Two floors above them, Sylia killed the feed from the remote microphones. She ran a hand through her hair slowly and then began checking the latest stock prices on the London exchange.



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Dance of Armor, Book 2, 3 November 1996