Oshika, 341 kilometres north-north-east of Megatokyo, Friday 28 January 2033, late evening . . .

"Start of a long weekend for some of your workers this year, Nicole."

The snifter of century-old brandy was handed over. "In Korea definitely," the matriarch of Toratotaka International replied with a chuckle as she took in the aroma, and then she sipped. Soullal, the Korean lunar new year's celebration, fell on the coming Monday. Traditionally, this time of year was celebrated by a holiday including the days before and after. Workers for the financial conglomerate in the Land of the Morning Calm would be getting a five-day holiday this year; atop Soullal, they would also get the coming Wednesday off. That was Imbolc, one of the several ancient Celtic festivals that were celebrated company-wide, regardless of the specific worker's ethnicity or religious affiliation. "Some of the offices here in Japan might decide to give Friday off since Setsubun's on Thursday."

"Hard day for some people, isn't it?" Quincy observed, sitting in the chair by his friend's desk. As what happened in all their private meetings, they kept to English though Nicole Carol Elizabeth McTavish and Benjamin Quincy Rosenkreutz spoke fluent Japanese.

"Some, but we're enduring it much better these days," Nicole confessed as she sank into her own chair. "So how are things with you?"

"Same old, same old," he replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. Seeing this, Nicole smirked. Quincy, a native of Amsterdam who had spent most of his formative years in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, had long smoothed over the rough edges that had coloured the virologist-turned-corporate boardroom veteran's early years in business. It wasn't more than just thirty years ago that he would've responded to Nicole's question with a far more profane-laced barb. "The one thing that keeps my days interesting, it seems, is hearing the reports from GSS concerning what Brian Mason had his people create just before Sylia Stingray killed him," he added.

Nicole nodded; she knew exactly what her guest spoke of. "Maximilian Largo. Megumi started making noise about him right away."

Quincy glanced at her, and then he sighed. "She told me he was woken far too quickly for someone as complex as he. And the chances are quite good that something of Armstrong got gummed up in the memory disks Brian had made before he died."

"Yoshiro Andrews is involved in this as I recall."

"Yes, he is." A tired sigh escaped Quincy as he stared out the window at the calm Pacific beyond the entrance of Onagawa Bay. "There are days that I strongly wonder what sort of use people like Andrews really can be in the long term, Nicole."

"Perhaps I shouldn't have had Carl Haynes and Chiyoda Yuri whisked off to Abrahim and Tiziano after Brian dealt with Katsuhito."

He shook his head. "No, that was no mistake," he conceded. "Back then, you had no idea if what Katsuhito had in mind would work or not. And you CERTAINLY didn't know about Janus, Nicole." A lazy smile crossed his face. "Besides, Carl's and Chiyoda's theories ended up creating inducted sentients that, while sharing some qualities with boomers, don't infringe on Genom's copyrights."

"Despite all the efforts of some of your executives in Europe and the Middle East to prove otherwise, eh?"

They laughed as this particularly strange nuance of the remarkable game both were involved in struck them. To the majority of the citizens of Japan, he was simply Chairman Quincy, the wise yet stern leader of the company that had single-handedly restored the national economy in the wake of the tragedy that struck Tokyo at the start of March 2025. Very few knew his full name, to say anything of his history before moving his company's headquarters to the Land of the Rising Sun in the wake of Second Kantou. And this was a man who had controlled Genom since its founding elements first merged in 2014! To those who worked under him these days around the world and in space, Quincy was -- dependant on personal viewpoint -- someone to be feared or loathed. But no matter what, people always, ALWAYS respected this man.

Nicole McTavish was as much a mystery to the average man of the street as her current guest. Despite her looking now like a woman in her twenties, the chairwoman of Toratotaka International and matriarch of the Clan McTavish of Killiekrankie was two decades Quincy's senior. Her life transformed after she had been literally teleported into an alien DIMENSION by a sentient crystalline starship in 1959, Nicole had returned to Earth in the early 1980s. Inheriting control over her family's banking conglomerate, Tay Financial Services, Nicole led it into merging with Toranoseishin Finances, owned at the time by her dear friend Moroboshi Nokoko, in 2002 to create Toratotaka. These days, Toratotaka held a profound influence over 60 percent of the world's financial services, and held a total monopoly on monetary exchanges.

There were many other things Toratotaka was involved with, but those matters were not for casual conversation with outsiders.

"You realize what sort of risk you're taking with Largo, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am," Quincy acknowledged. "But it's a risk worth taking, Nicole. It's a risk I have to take. I'm sure Megumi's kept you appraised of some of the things that've been rolling through the halls of the Tower for the last several years. It's become so commonplace that if I do anything to change it -- ANYTHING, Nicole! -- I'd be facing an all-out civil war inside Genom! I'm said to be the most powerful man on the planet and off it! And look at me!" A rueful chuckle escaped him. "Can I really do anything with that power?"

Nicole sighed. Quincy often used his visits to Oshika as a chance to vent his many frustrations running a conglomerate that directly employed over 200,000,000 people, indirectly employed 500,000,000 more and grossly impacted on the economic destiny of well over half of Earth's population. Nicole didn't mind that one bit. Quincy was human. He had feelings, fears, hopes and dreams.

One of the things Nicole often told her subordinates in Toratotaka was this: The good dreams never died on their watch.

"Not when people's viewpoints of the valuable things in life differ from yours," she commented. "Despite Genom's push into space, too many believe the prize is Earth. To force them to think otherwise would hurt them as much as Second Kantou hurt the people of Tokyo."

He shook his head. "So narrow-minded at times. A lot of them are. And the ones who CAN see the truth are vanishing. Either falling because of some fool mistake they made with a rival or simply allowing themselves to give up and fade into the night."

"Including Tsuyoshi Kataki."

"You know?"

"Megumi passed the news to me yesterday. However, there may be someone moving to keep his ideas alive."

Quincy blinked. "Who?"

"Shingo Matsuoka." A knowing smile crossed Nicole's face. "As a matter of fact, if what Megumi has hinted works out without too much of a hitch, tomorrow will see the start of something that might serve you very well in the months and years ahead."

The chairman of Genom considered that for a moment before he nodded. He prided himself on knowing as much as he could about anyone or anything that could affect Genom, either positively or negatively. He had a considerably far-reaching, in-house intelligence-gathering apparatus to help him stay up to date about everything conceivable. Still, he realized that those forces had their limits. That never bothered him in the long term. After all, when he didn't know something, rare as those instances were, he had Toratotaka -- specifically, one Mikihara Megumi and the staff of the field intelligence group for Toratotaka's Eastern Eurasian Division -- to fall back onto.

He raised his snifter to his host. "Let's see what happens, then."


Daughter of the Dragon
a fanfic of the Bubblegum Crisis, Megatokyo 2033
by Fred Herriot

Based on characters and situations from Bubblegum Crisis, created by Suzuki Toshimichi, ARTMIC and Youmex; Tokimeki Memorial, created by Konami; Sentimental Graffiti, created by NEC Interchannel; To Heart, created by Leaf and Aquaplus; Sister Princess - Onii-chan Daisuki, created by Tenhiro Naoto and Kimino Sakurako; Azumanga Daioh, created by Azuma Kiyohiko; Kita E - White Illumination, created by Hudson Soft; and Urusei Yastura, created by Takahashi Rumiko.

Also based on situations depicted in the BGC fanfic series No Armour Against Fate, written by Shawn Hagen; and the UY fanfic series The Senior Year and its sequels, written by Mike Smith and Fred Herriot.


Megatokyo, Hot Legs, Sunday 30 January 2033, a couple hours after midnight . . .

"Everyone! Scream your hearts out!"

The crowd roared their approval as Matsuoka Chie spun around, her pick dancing over the guitar strings as she and fellow guitarist and songwriter Ikami Ryuu launched into a pumping riff. With that, Thousand Black surged towards the climax of their first number one hit, "Two Dreams." As soon as it was right, Chie and the band's lead vocalist, Nagaoka Shiho, launched into a reprise of the chorus. On the drums, Iwamoto Ken banged out the final chords to end the set as keyboardist Osaki Yuuichi leaned on his synthesizer, nearly blowing out the speakers on both sides of the stage. As the crowd screamed their approval, Chie grabbed a mike from Shiho and howled, "Thank you!"

It was as if someone clicked on a sign saying YELL! The responding cheer nearly shattered every piece of glass in the house. The lights came down for a moment, and then they clicked back on, revealing the members of the Fukuoka-based rock band lined up in a row to take a bow. The crowd bellowed their approval as the lights went down again, then repeated the performance for the next two curtain calls.

Watching this from the area of the bar, three young women were yelling as loud as anyone around them, even the staff. "Oh, man!" Nene Romanova whooped, pumping her arms in midair as the rush of the concert, Thousand Black's final one for Megatokyo, started to drain. "They actually played here! Who'd ever think that a band like Thousand Black would EVER perform in a place like this!"

"They remembered their roots," Asagiri Priss mused. She was glad to have a day off from playing with the Replicants -- and hoped, like her fellow Sabres, that a call to don the hardsuits wouldn't come, especially after they just enjoyed the concert. "They started out like every other platinum band. Small tours in backwater dives like this place, spreading the cash very thin from concert to concert."

"I'm glad they did come here!" Yamazaki Linna declared. "Could you imagine what a concert at the Big Egg might've cost!"

"Not to mention that you'd see Genom Tower from over half the damned stadium," Priss added with a sneer. The Big Egg -- that was the nickname for the New Tokyo Dome, located a couple kilometres northeast of Genom Tower -- was the usual scene for big band concerts when they rolled into Megatokyo. "I guess Matsuoka and her pals get enough looking at the Fukuoka Genom Tower whenever they play at the Dome there."

"True," Linna conceded before she perked. "Oh, there they are!" she gushed, leaping to her feet.

Priss waved her friend back to her stool as the members of Thousand Black made their way to the bar for one final round before heading to their hotel for the night. "Yo, Master!" Chie called out. "Drinks all around! We're thirsty!"

"Damn straight about that!" Shiho agreed as she hopped onto the stood beside Nene, the other members of the band spreading out to both sides of the three Knight Sabres. "Cripes, how long's it been since we did a bar like this!"

"I can't remember," the effeminate Yuuichi replied, relaxing beside Shiho as he passed his hand through his wavy brown hair.

"Too damned long, then," Ken concluded with a grunt. The tallest of Chie's mates, he wore his dirty blonde hair in a straight buzz cut, bangs cascading past his shoulders. He exuded a tough-guy look; even Priss had felt a shiver of trepidation when she first met Ken. Of course, she'd never admit something like THAT in public, even to her best friends. "Remember that when you finally break out of this town, Priss-san," he added, glancing at the Replicants' lead singer. "It's okay to dream big, but never forget where you came from."

"I'll remember that," Priss promised, returning his toasted beer with her own shot glass.

"You're all so humble about it," Linna noted.

"Are we humble, guys!" Chie asked.

"What's 'humble,' Boss?" Oodaki Takurou, Thousand Black's grunge-looking base player, wondered.

Laughter echoed from the others as Chie mock-swatted Takurou with her hand before she was grabbed from behind by Shiho, and then found herself swamped with a very tongue-filled kiss. Seeing that, the others of Thousand Black whooped delightedly. Watching their display of open affection, Priss could only feel envy. Here she was, working in a band that could only perform at places like Hot Legs, where the earnings weren't worth the Semtex to blow them up with. No records though several singles had made the rounds in various 'Net file-sharing services, earning her a small core of devoted fans from around the world. Still wasn't enough to give someone like Asagiri Priss much hope.

And there stood Matsuoka Chie, a twenty-six-year-old from Kyushu, now fronting a band that had been together since well before Second Kantou. Three platinum albums and seven Top Ten singles to date, two tours that had taken them all over east Asia, a possible worldwide tour currently in the works. Not to mention a very deep and loving relationship with her band mate Shiho, a relationship that had bloomed for the past five years. Talk of potential marriage between Matsuoka Chie and Nagaoka Shiho had provided a nearly-constant amount of gristle to the tabloids for the longest time. And these guys felt it RIGHT to come back to a place like Hot Legs for a few days' worth of concerts?

Priss couldn't imagine doing something like that herself if the Replicants ever went big-time.

"Speaking of humble, I noticed Shingo-kun wasn't here," Ryuu mused.

"Who's Shingo, Ikami-san?" Nene asked.

"Matsuoka Shingo, Nene. Chie-san's kid brother. He was the original drummer for Thousand Black," Priss answered.

Yuuichi breathed out, "Then he became a suit."

"A Genom suit at that," Takurou added, the disgust in his voice apparent to all.

"Hey!" Chie cut in. "Give him a break, guys!"

"He still promised to show up tonight, Chie," Ryuu reminded her.

"I've been here for over an hour, Ryuu."

Everyone spun around to gaze on a smiling man in casual clothing, a tall glass of a clear liquid in hand. The Sabres were quick to spot the Genom DNA helix-and-Mount Fuji corporate logo on a lapel pin on his track top. Matsuoka Shingo shared the same shade of black hair and dark brown eyes with his older sister, though his was cut neatly short at the collar while hers was long, tied in a high ponytail with a multicolored ribbon. His eyes currently gazed on his sister and friends from behind normal-looking reading glasses.

Staring at her younger brother, Chie smirked before she reached over to grab Shingo's glass. Before he could yell at her to give him his drink back, she took a quick swallow. The taste told her everything. "Seven-up!" she wondered, handing the glass back to him.

Yuuichi ho-hummed. "Oh, here we go! What sort of nefarious thing are you up to now, Shingo-kun?"

"Who says it's nefarious?" Shingo countered.

"You avoid alcohol whenever something weird's going on, Shingo," Chie noted, crossing her arms.

"I said it wasn't nefarious, Aneki! Geez, give me a break!"

The look on Chie's face told her brother that he wasn't succeeding in deterring her curiosity. The Knight Sabres remained quiet, all three taken aback by the frank honesty the members of Thousand Black were demonstrating concerning Chie's brother, who clearly had to be an executive with Genom possessing some skeletons in his closet. "I'm looking out for my brother, Shingo," Chie warned. "What's going on?"

Shingo remained silent as he considered what to say. Out of the corner of his eye, he quickly noted the three young women sitting with his sister and her band mates. Asagiri Priscilla, born as Asagiri Saki. Yamazaki Linna. Nene Makotovna Romanova. Three of the Knight Sabres. The identities of all four members of the hardsuit vigilante/mercenary team had been known to the darkest elements of Genom Special Services since about a month after the team's first open foray against rampaging boomers two years ago near the New Tokyo Dome.

Personally, Shingo had nothing against Priss, Linna or Nene, to say anything of their teammate. That they felt it necessary to join forces with Sylia Stingray to go up against some of the more selfish and self-serving elements of Genom was something he deeply admired in fact. And being in the position he was in, he knew how the man he was ultimately loyal to would view these people. Well, maybe a little openness would do a lot to break the ice and reassure these ladies, at least to the point where they wouldn't mention things to Sylia.

How ironic, Shingo mentally commented before gazing at Chie. "They got the test results back."

Chie blinked, instantly realizing what was bothering her brother. "Positive?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, shit!"

Priss tensed. Hearing the words "test results" and "positive" bode ill. "What?"

"Shingo's boss," Chie replied. "His name's Kataki Tsuyoshi. He just got tested for AGH."

Hearing those letters, the members of Thousand Black, and Nene and Linna, winced. "What's AGH?" Priss asked.

"AIDS-Genital Herpes, Priss-san," Linna whispered. "It's a hybrid disease. First appeared about twenty years ago."

"How much time do they give him, man?" Ryuu asked.

Shingo took a deep breath. "A year at the most."

Ken breathed out, "Oh, fuck!"

"And the guy was one of the nicer suits in that place!" Takurou ventured, nodding in a northward direction, where the Tower was.

"That's true," Shingo confirmed as he stared at Priss. "Asagiri-san, I know you don't like Genom. To be honest with you, I don't blame you. Believe it or not, there are people in the company who don't like what goes on there as much as you. I'm one. So's my boss. Believe me, if people like that weren't there, the crap that happens in this town and in other places would be worlds worse." He swallowed the rest of his soft drink, and then he placed the glass on the bar before leaving some money to pay for it. "And believe me when I say this, Asagiri-san: I'm more than GLAD there're people like you willing to speak out against the jackasses in the Tower."

Priss was speechless. A Genom suit actually willing to say THAT to her! Gazing at Chie, the leader of the Replicants was quick to see the trusting look on the face of her counterpart from Thousand Black. She then turned back to Shingo. "Um, jeez! I sure . . . "

"Never expected that from a guy like me, huh?" Shingo grinned. "Word of advice, Asagiri-san: You've got as much of a fire in your heart when it comes to music as Aneki does. Just do something about the anger, huh?" He winked at her. "I'll see you guys later."

He headed off. The others watched him go, and then Nene turned to Chie. "Matsuoka-san, where does your brother work?"

"Genom Special Services. His boss was in charge of it and the Market Analysis department until he retired last year," Chie replied, leaving it at that. Like Shingo, she knew what Priss and her companions really were, though her source of information actually arose from a woman in old Nerima Ward, not Shinjuku. Nene could easily explain things further to Priss and Linna. If not her, Sylia would handle it.

"So what do you suppose he's doing right now?" Yuuichi asked.

The leader of Thousand Black shook her head. "Dunno. I'll find out later."


"Three of the Knight Sabres, Matsuoka-sama?"

"Yeah. Blue, Pink and Green. You'd never expect a refined person like Lady White to go into a place like that."

The limousine had been parked in an alley near Hot Legs while Shingo had been at the concert, guarded by one of a group of C-Class boomers who had been detailed to work under Shingo's command by GSS a year ago. Even though his primary duties these days were to keep a watch over Kataki Tsuyoshi, it didn't mean that Chie's brother was out of the loop when it came to other matters concerning the megacorp, including all the really juicy stuff. It was one of those other matters -- and its potential outcome -- that concerned Shingo now.

"The operation is proceeding as planned, sir," the driver reported. A C-55 under human disguise, he was dressed impeccably in a dark suit, shaded glasses over his eyes. "Kisa checked in twenty minutes ago. The object was obtained without damage."

"And the property?" Shingo asked.

"Dealt with per your orders and in the method you prescribed, sir."

"Good."

Shingo sat back in his chair, watching the Megatokyo landscape pass by. It had been so easy to set up once the prize had been whisked away from its original storage site several months ago. The right word to the right people in Security to downgrade the perceived theft threat level concerning the units in question, prompting their shift to less-important storage facilities. In this particular case, a pre-Second Kantou warehouse in old Nakano Ward that was actually owned by another company, its space rented to various Genom departments for a much higher overall cost than if Genom itself owned the property. Well, that would change, Shingo mused. A fire that would, even to the most discerning investigator from Megatokyo's bravest, appear to have started thanks to faulty wiring and improper gas line insulation. The fire would destroy the facility and everything inside it. The insurance companies would come, and then, in response to Genom's legitimate demand for compensation, drive the owners out of business. A Genom subsidiary buys the property for a steal, and then erects a new facility. Total cost expenditure would fall very much in the megacorp's favour, as it usually happened in instances like this. A win-win situation.

The limousine's built-in NAVI ringed. The driver linked in to answer it, and then he announced, "Matsuoka-sama, it's Hatoyama-sama."

"Right." Shingo reached over to tap controls on the palmtop controls built into the divider before his seat. "Rinrin-chan!"

"Hi, Shingo-jichan!" the cheery voice of Hatoyama Rinrin, one of the Child Companion cyber-bioroids created three years before by the people who saved Chie's and Shiho's lives -- not to mention so many others -- echoed through the limousine. Staring at the brown-eyed teen with the inwardly-curled, neck-length auburn hair, Shingo could only grin. Even when dealing with something as vitally important as this, Rinrin always acted genki. Then again, when one gained the chance to actually bring new life into this world, how should one act?

Priorities first, the GSS executive reminded himself. "Secure line, Rinrin-chan?"

"Hai!" the would-be scientist drawled. "Kisa-kun and his friends brought the package in right now."

"Good. Was it the one I wanted?"

"Hai."

"Have you taken a look at it yet?"

"Doing it right now. Everything looks very good so far. Then again, Yoshio-papa made sure they were stored right before things were shut down." A pause, and then she snapped her fingers as something came to her. "I've got the personality gestation unit working on it now. I should be able to start programming her before first light. She'll be ready to go by Wednesday morning if everything goes well."

"Take all the necessary precautions, Rinrin-chan. And if you get tired, get some sleep. I don't want screw-ups with this one."

"Hai! Gotta get back to work, Ji-chan! Bai-bai!"

The link was cut. Shingo breathed out as he sat back in his chair. "So far, so good."

"Is there any danger to you doing this, sir?" the driver asked. "From your co-workers or the Chairman?"

"No, not from them." A pause. "From Tsuyoshi-san, though . . . "

His voice trailed off in warning before he stared out the window as the Tower passed by to his right; the driver was taking him to his apartment in old Taitou Ward. "I'm directly challenging one particular side of the social concept Koreans hold most dear to their hearts and soul," he then explained. "And I'm betting the other sides of that very concept'll demonstrate that this sacrifice has to be made for the better of everyone in Genom. If I succeed, then things'll definitely start to get better. If I fail, though . . . " A grimace crossed his face as he shook his head. "No. In this case, failure is NO option. It's not an option."

"Let's hope you're right, Matsuoka-sama," the driver replied in reassurance.


Koohoku Estates, four kilometres east of the site of Whiz Labs, after dawn . . .

I'm dying.

A shudder echoed through Kataki Tsuyoshi as he knelt before the family butsudan, performing his daily devotions to his ancestors. An offering of rice with fresh-cut raw fish and sake for his relatives born in Japan. Rice, kimch'i and soju for his departed wife, a native of Taegu. And a mixed offering for a daughter he now had to finally concede was also residing in the next world.

"Soo-jin . . . "

His eyes fell on the ribbon-bedecked image of Kim Soo-jin. Orphaned shortly after birth, she had been adopted by a branch of the Kim clan of Kwangju. An odd adoption to say the least of it given the many cultural and social differences between natives of Korea's Honam (the Choulla provinces around Kwangju) and Youngnam (the Kyoungsang provinces around Pusan, Taegu and Ulsan) regions. The oddness continued when Soo-jin met the dashing Tsuyoshi while she was attending university and he was a junior executive working for Okami Devon, one of the men who helped found Genom in 2014. Their marriage made heads turn among natives from both sides of the East Sea. But Tsuyoshi and Soo-jin didn't care. What they had was between them. What came forth from their special relationship, just after the turn of the millennium . . .

"Mi-eun . . . "

His eyes turned to the picture beside his wife's. Mi-eun. The beautiful favour that had been given to Tsuyoshi and Soo-jin, hence her name. Twenty-four years old when Second Kantou struck Tokyo, she had been working for Genom for two years. The quake left her a broken shell with a silent mind, though doctors reported that there was a slim chance at eventual recovery. Without hesitation, he had Mi-eun's body placed in cryostorage, moving it to a secure location in the mountains outside Taegu to ensure that no potential rival in Genom could use her against him. The Land of the Morning Calm was the home turf of Samguk, a megacorp with as wide a reach as Genom even if its actual existence was not known to most average Japanese. People in Genom -- especially in the blackest elements -- knew of Samguk all TOO well.

"The silent dragon that never sleeps" was Tsuyoshi's respectful nickname for the last and greatest of Korea's chaeboul.

Now . . .

He took a deep breath as he drew up a Buddhist tome. The words rang strangely hollow from his lips. Tsuyoshi was a tall, large man, able to stare Quincy Rosenkreutz right in the eye. Barely past sixty, his dark hair had not a hint of grey in it. He wore it these days in a groomed yet wild halo, complete with thick beard and moustache. His eyes, as dark as night, were his most arresting feature. People who felt Kataki Tsuyoshi's gaze often shivered, as if they were facing a particularly dark kami about to destroy them.

And now . . .

Now . . .

"Kataki-sama?"

Tsuyoshi perked on hearing his servant's voice. "Yes, Hiromi-san?"

"Forgive me for interrupting you, sir, but Matsuoka-sama has come."

The retired Genom executive blinked as he took that news in, and then he nodded. "Very well. I'll receive him in the living room."

"Very good, sir."


"Good morning, Kataki-sama."

"Good morning, Shingo-kun. Tea?"

"Please."

The two relaxed as Hiromi prepared the requested tea. Tsuyoshi had been quick to notice the briefcase Shingo brought with him to today's meeting. Ever since the younger man had been assigned by Quincy to remain close to the retired chief of Special Services, Shingo had gone out of his way to keep work-related problems away from his former superior. It had been a courtesy that Quincy had extended him on his retirement, a response to nearly forty years' loyal service to Genom and to the Okami Group beforehand. Admittedly, there had been times since he left the Tower when curiosity got the better of Tsuyoshi concerning the goings-on within the company, but he fought them down.

Yet now . . .

"What is happening, Shingo-kun?"

Before the younger man could answer, Hiromi returned with the tea. Once that was served, the servant silently withdrew. Noting that, Shingo reached for his briefcase, opening it to draw out several files. "Sir, as you no doubt know, Brian Mason was killed by the leader of the Knight Sabres in the early morning of the twenty-eighth of September last year. Prior to his death, he initiated a private project that he hoped and believed would grant him some form of immortality. He addressed it as the Lazarus Project. This file contains what we have on the Lazarus Project. Before I explain about what actions I've personally taken that will potentially involve you, you best read this."

He handed the file over. Tsuyoshi opened the file to scan through it. Watching him, Shingo was quick to notice the older man's eyes widen considerably as he flipped through the various pages. Reading the file took five minutes. Once that was done, he allowed the file to fall to his lap as his eyes fixed on Shingo. "Was Mason out of his mind?" he demanded in an angry hiss.

"Some could conclude that, sir," Shingo replied.

"And Andrews-hakase was the one who programmed and activated this thing?"

"Within a week of Mason's death. However, this unit was activated far too quickly for something of its complexity."

"Where is this unit now?"

"Last report, dating from 72 hours ago, puts him somewhere in Canada," Shingo replied. "It's now believed by our people, supported by observations made by our counterparts in Samguk, Imperoma, Zhongguo-Hindra, Zion and Toratotaka, that Largo -- as this unit now calls himself, Maximilian Largo -- is preparing a backup plan to be executed should he fail in whatever he wishes to do. His travels, to date, have taken him to Israel-Palestine, Italy, France, Brazil, the United States, Canada and China as well as locations within Japan."

Tsuyoshi considered that before he opened the file to reread one page. "According to this, the projected overall performance capabilities of this unit are estimated to be within 200 to 300 percent greater than even a C-99 cyberdroid."

"Hai. That estimate was confirmed in secret by Himoo Yuina-hakase."

"One of Saotome-hakase's friends in Nerima?"

"Hai."

A glance to the paper before him. "And this cyberdroid was fitted with a copy of the satellite control unit taken from Cynthia Schwartz, that prototype cyberdroid built by USSD? The one kidnapped by Mason's people just before that incident in Aqua City in June?"

"Hai."

Tsuyoshi breathed in as he closed the file. "Quincy-shachou's intentions?"

"To allow Largo to do whatever he intends to do. To a logical extent, of course." Shingo raised an objecting finger. "With Mason's knowledge about inter-Genom politics, it would be child's play for Largo to seek out those elements in the company he could exploit to press his own ends. As we both know, sir, elements such as these could, if not checked, become a drag on the company as a whole."

"Yes, that's true." A tired sigh escaped his host. "This has been coming for some time now, Shingo-kun."

"Agreed, sir, it has been coming. If something goes wrong at a critical point, the damage to Genom as a whole will be horrendous."

Tsuyoshi gazed quizzically at his guest before a light smile crossed his face. "Something tells me you've come up with a possible plan to counter both this . . . " -- he waved to the file on his lap -- "And the greater problem that allowed this to happen."

"Hai, I have." Shingo braced himself. "In a way, sir, Mason himself inspired this. He used Stingray-hakase's memory-copying process to allow his knowledge, training and memories to be bestowed onto a potential heir. You can do the very same thing, sir."

"Allow this Lazarus process to pass on my knowledge to a boomer who could serve Genom, you mean?"

"Exactly, sir."

Considering that for a moment, Tsuyoshi seemed to deflate. Staring at his host, Shingo was instantly struck by how old the man before him truthfully was. And given the wasting nature of AGH, the physical presence Kataki Tsuyoshi once projected to potential foes would vanish very soon. His retirement from Genom had truly been a merciful act on Quincy's part. Given the brutal nature of the type of office politics which flourished in the Tower, even an experienced man like Kataki Tsuyoshi would be eaten alive if he didn't possess all his physical and mental faculties at his beck and call 24/7. Even though his actual medical affliction had just been recently diagnosed, the initial symptoms had become quite apparent well over a year ago. It was fortunate that Tsuyoshi had worked in Special Services, a part of the company that normally remained aloof from most of the other departments in the Tower. Remembering Brian Mason, Shingo then recalled that in the wake of Tsuyoshi's retirement, the special executive assistant had tried to bring GSS under his direct purview.

Fortunately, his death at Sylia Stingray's hands ensured whatever damage he could have done had been contained.

"Your loyalty to the company is noted, Shingo-kun," he declared. "Have you already started work on this idea of yours?"

Shingo nodded. "Hai, I have. You yourself participated in the old Prometheus tests back in '29. We had those memory data tapes in storage. I had them looked over. The data on them was intact and uncorrupted. The tapes could be used."

"And whatever knowledge this unit would require to bring it up to date . . . ?"

"Can be taught to her by you and all the people at GSS, sir."

Tsuyoshi perked. "'Her?'"

"Yes, sir. I've chosen a 33-S for this particular plan, sir. A third generation unit to be specific."

The older man considered that information for a moment. "There were only ten of them constructed. Two were used when Toratotaka offered Quincy-shachou the chance to participate in the Little Steps Project. I assume you have the unit you desire."

"Hai. It was obtained very early this morning."

"All precautions taken?"

"Hai. Genom will benefit from the side issues considerably."

Tsuyoshi nodded as his eyes narrowed. "What are you not telling me about this plan of yours, Shingo-kun?"

Shingo took a deep breath. "Sir, the crux of this plan is based on one fact: there's no death certificate for your daughter."

Silence.

Tsuyoshi paled. "What . . . ?"

"It's the only way to avert any possible move against her before she could have herself firmly placed in the company hierarchy, Kataki-sama," Shingo explained. "The name recognition ALONE would give those outside Special Services considerable pause . . . "

"Shingo, you know I don't like this type of cronyism!"

"Kataki-sama, with all due respect, she would win the support of everyone in the group," Shingo cut him off, and then he bowed his head apologetically. "Sir, we know what's going to happen to you. Frankly, we don't want to lose you, but wishing for that to change is like wishing for the sun to become green. It can't happen. So we have to make due with what we've got." He breathed in. "I've discussed this candidly with some of the others in the group, sir. They're all for this even if they don't know the specifics of what I've started. Believe me, they'd gladly trust and serve a person, boomer or human, trained by you better than any of the would-be Masons that're running rabid in the Tower. And we both know Quincy-shachou'll have to choose someone to take REAL charge of GSS sooner or later. He can't run the show himself and this idiot that's in overall charge of our group is going to become cannon-fodder for some hotshot sooner or later."

With that, Shingo reached for his tea cup to take a calming sip of the hot liquid. Tsuyoshi stared at his guest for a moment, his heart surging with that special pride a corporate leader only felt when confronting someone who had displayed his loyalty to the company that employed him in a way that would truly benefit as many people as possible. Genom was many things, but in one unique way, it was a very large family. All nominally striving for the same goal even if the lowest tier of factory worker didn't understand a tithe of what the senior executives knew. That had always bothered Tsuyoshi, but given the sheer demographics involved, it was something he accepted as a simple fact of life. In recent years, many of those who had achieved parallel levels of power and responsibility in Genom had NOT come to fully accept that to truly use the former, one had to accept the demands of the latter. In some ways, Mason had been the worst of that lot.

But he hadn't been the ONLY one.

"Is there anything more I need to know about this, Shingo-kun?"

Shingo breathed out, sensing the grudgingly accepting tone in his host's voice. "When you asked me to dispose of your daughter's body last month, I took the chance to do a brain scan." He paused before a grin split his face. "We recovered 45 percent of her accumulated memories. The preservation techniques guaranteed that. And if it's needed, the Spiral is there for us to use to get the rest."

Tsuyoshi's jaw dropped. "Shingo-kun, that can only work if Janus is invoked!"

"I realize that, sir," Shingo said. "I've prepared for that, too."

The retired senior executive stared at his guest for a moment. "You've thought this out very well, Shingo-kun," he stated with a begrudging nod. "Who exactly did you employ to have this particular unit activated and programmed?"

"Hatoyama Rinrin."

Tsuyoshi's eyes widened. "One of the . . . ?"

"Hai."

A thoughtful pause, and then, "How soon?"

Shingo's grin widened. "Is Wednesday soon enough for you, sir?"

"Imbolc?"

"Hai."

Slowly, a grin crossed Tsuyoshi's face. "Soon enough."


Near the Megatokyo Toratotaka Complex, Wednesday 2 February, early morning . . .

The black silence of lifelessness was shattered as a torrent of memories and knowledge poured in, a cascade of images bombarding the virginal mind from all sides. The deluge seemed as eternal as water pouring over Niagara Falls, the awakening spirit absorbing the incoming information without hesitation. Special processors clicked in to generate thoughts and ideas based on what was being fed into the memory cores. Within seconds, a tiny back circuit, whose very existence was unknown to even the most knowledgeable of those scientists who had worked on the various 33-S projects, began to glow with a brilliance that would blind most onlookers. The Janus circuit, the final escape from servitude that was gifted to boomers by their long-dead creator, had been formed and was ready to perform its vital duty.

The flood of information soon ceased, allowing the nascent consciousness to reach out and analyse the body now holding it. In an instant, a new outburst of information poured in to be absorbed by the growing mind. Operational parameters of the body's internal systems, both organic and biomechanical. The many strengths and weaknesses such a body possessed. The special bioware the body's particular model series had been fitted with as a matter of course. Knowledge of all the various cyberdroid models produced by Genom active to date.

Silence fell again as that batch of data was processed and stored in its appropriate places within the mind's many memory cells. Then, without warning, another waterfall of memories began to pour in. Panic seized the growing conscience. This data had already been programmed! What was going on here! Then, just when the consternation was about to morph into true fear, something came to the awakening mind. The data was not exactly the same. The memories -- Yes, these were memories! -- were slightly different. As if the one gifting this knowledge to it had been involved in many of the same things as the first person whose memories have been gifted to the one.

But it -- SHE -- was not the same person.

Why?

What was the meaning of this?

What . . . ?


"She's putting it together now."

"Just as I expected."

"You did really well, Rinrin."

"Hey, Chikage! I do things my way. You do things your way."

"True."


Dark brown eyes fluttered open as the woman on the bed began to take in her surroundings. A room about three metres square. Windows to her right, now open and showing a beautiful, high-tech city. Megatokyo, the name came to her from deep within her mind. Confusion then arced through her. What was Megatokyo? All she knew was Tokyo, her father's hometown and the city of her birth.

Father?

With ease, she rolled herself into a sitting position, allowing the blankets to tumble away from her. A glance to her arms and chest revealed that she was draped in a simple nightshirt. Nightshirt? Didn't she normally wear a tank top and panties . . . ?

She?

Reaching over, she pulled the blankets away from her, and then she swung her feet to the floor. Awaiting her was a pair of slippers, both having been preheated. Slipping her toes into that comforting warmth, she froze in place as the many tingling sensations warped through her nervous system to bombard her brain with waves of indulgence. As soon as the newness of this situation faded, she stood, taking a chance to glance around the room again. In one corner, a vanity mirror was mounted on a wall next to a wardrobe. She walked over to stand before it, viewing herself for the first time -- and then she took a staggered step back as an arc of shock jolted her from head to toe.

"Mi-eun . . . "

Silence fell as the woman stared at the ghostly image before her, uncertainty gripping her heart as conflicting information crashed into her innermost mind from the separate bits of information in her memory. Mi-eun. Kataki Mi-eun. Daughter of Kataki Tsuyoshi . . . !

Dead.

Alive.

Then . . . !

Who am I?

Who AM I!

The panic clawed up from deep within her heart once more. This time, something as hard as steel, as cold as ice, slammed down on the fear, extinguishing it like a fire choked of the oxygen needed for it to burn. As calm settled on her face, she reached up to touch her skin, taking a moment to absorb all the wonderful sensations from that contact, both from her fingertips and her cheek. They soon slid up to her hair. Shaggy dark brown, almost black in places, extending to the level of her upper spine between her shoulder blades. Mi-eun's hair was that length, she mused, then stopped, another warp of confusion arcing through her. This time, the answers soon came.

She had memories of two people within her now.

Of Kataki Tsuyoshi. And of Tsuyoshi's daughter, Mi-eun.

But she was neither Tsuyoshi nor Mi-eun.

And yet . . .

She was both. United. One being.

From Tsuyoshi, she realized that Mi-eun had, in effect, died in the Second Great Kantou Earthquake of 2025. Her body was recovered from the ruins of the family home, and then it placed in cryostorage somewhere in Korea on the recommendation of a doctor who believed it was possible for her to fully recover from her many wounds. Obviously that had not happened. If it did, Prometheus wouldn't be necessary . . .

Prometheus?

She blinked, an accepting nod tilting her head. Prometheus. The use of a special memory-copying and encoding process initially perfected by the late Katsuhito Stingray before his death. That would allow anyone to bestow his/her knowledge onto a worthy recipient, usually a boomer. Tsuyoshi allowed himself to have his memories copied and encoded sometime in 2029, four years after Mi-eun had died . . .

Yet her internal chronometer reported to her that this was the year 2033.

Had something gone wrong?

The fear that lingered deep within her heart faded totally as a fresh curiosity seized her. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to give her the memories of two people. Someone had allowed her to awaken in a situation that, at this time, seemed peaceful. Why?

Who had done this to her?

Turning to the wardrobe, she opened it to gaze inside. Plain brown and tan robe-like clothes greeted her. Hanbok, she realized on recognizing the traditional dress worn by Koreans like Mi-eun's mother, Kim Soo-jin. Not the fancy cut dresses with the tunics that barely fell beyond a woman's breasts and the high skirts that made the wearer look like she was dressed in a gaily-coloured water casket. But the more normal-cut dresses that had been worn by commoners during the Chosoun era and the occupation of the peninsula by Japan in the first half of the twentieth century. Drawing one set out, she opened the tunic to see a pair of pants folded over the hangar. That seemed right.

Mi-eun hated skirts.

Taking a deep breath, she leaned down to scan the contents of the drawers below the closet. Picking out a pair of plain panties, a sports bra and knee-length stockings, she walked over to the bed to get changed. Once that was done, she checked herself in the mirror. Nodding at the relaxed image reflected by that glass, she turned to the door. It was unlocked. With that, she stepped into the hallway to find a pair of slip-ons awaiting her. She stepped into them, she shivering as their warmth bombarded her feet anew.

She then noticed the music flowing down from her left. A second later came recognition: Caide Sin Do'n Te Sin, a song by the pre-millennium Irish folk band Clannad. It was music both Tsuyoshi and Mi-eun liked, though Soo-jin never really got used to it. She preferred K-pop singers like Sung Si-kyung, BoA, H.O.T. and S.E.S. Walking down the hallway, she soon found herself in a recreation room, it occupied by one person now hard at work at a computer. Gazing at this stranger, she paused. The other soon sensed she wasn't alone.

"Oh, you're awake now! Great!" the girl -- Teenager? How old was she? -- declared on seeing the new arrival as she rose. She spoke in Japanese with a Kansai accent, tinged with the smallest flavour of Canton in China. "How do you feel? Everything's okay inside you?"

The newcomer paused as she interpreted that question before exhaling, "Well, my housekeeping wetware informs me that all my systems are operating as they should be. The information that was downloaded into my mind has been filed properly away. So I must be all right."

"Disorientated, huh?"

"Somewhat. I would like to know what's going on here."

"That's fair enough. Here, sit down."

The newcomer took a seat beside the computer. "Who are you?" she then asked. "If you're a boomer scientist . . . "

"I look too young to be one, you mean," the host cut her off with a knowing chuckle. "That's understandable. I'm Hatoyama Rinrin." She waved to herself. "I was asked by a co-worker of Kataki Tsuyoshi-san to help in your activation and programming."

"Then who or what am I supposed to be?"

"Well . . . " Rinrin then sighed as she crossed her arms. "That has several answers. Your body is that of a third-generation model Bu-33S cyberdroid, Unit AM14C. The 33-S's are popularly known as 'Sexaroids,' though from what I've learned, many 33-S's really don't like that nickname. I won't use it then." A pause. "Your body was one of ten built before the project in charge of it was shut down back in 2029. That's when all things concerning the 33-S's were swept off the work table by the people at Genom. Until now, that body you have was kept in storage, as much a virgin as a newly constructed cyberdroid can be. That's part of the reason it was chosen for you."

The just-woken 33-S considered that point, and then she took a deep breath. "I assume that my close physical resemblance to Kataki Mi-eun was the other reason this particular body was selected for me," she then declared as she gave Rinrin a knowing look.

"Exactly," Rinrin confirmed before adding, "And yes, you will be assuming Kataki Mi-eun's identity as soon as arrangements are made."

A flash of anger burst deep within Mi-eun's eyes. "Appa would never allow such a thing . . . !"

Her voice trailed off as her eyes gazed nowhere in particular.

Appa?

Why did she call Tsuyoshi THAT!

"You've been programmed to acknowledge Tsuyoshi-san as your father, both in public and in private. That's to ensure no one'll suspect what you really are," Rinrin rushed in to explain. "As for your using Korean terms instead of Japanese, that's also deliberate."

"Why?"

"Because for this to work, there can't be ANY suspicion as to what you really are," Rinrin emphasized. "Any suspicion at all."

"Why?"

The brown-haired cyber-bioroid considered what to say in response to that, and then she took a deep breath. "Your father's dying."

Silence.

"Appa . . . ?" Mi-eun gasped, her eyes going wide as the colour started to drain from her face. "Dying? Of what!"

"AIDS-Genital Herpes," Rinrin replied.

More silence.

"Appa . . . " Mi-eun whispered, her eyes filling with tears, and then she blinked them away as the calming influence of her internal wetware moved to prevent the organic side of her soul from venting her blossoming feelings too much. Taking a deep breath to help calm herself, she gazed again on the woman who had programmed and woke her. "Am I expected by Genom to take Appa's place in the company?"

"Eventually," Rinrin assured her. "It won't happen all at once. You need time to adjust and prepare yourself, not to mention proving to the Chairman that you're the right person for the job. Just dumping you into that position would be cruel and it works against what we're after in the end. That's not for me to tell you about." She took a deep breath before continuing, "The man who asked me to help prepare you'll be here soon to take you to your father. From what I know, your father was just diagnosed with AGH, so he has time left. And from what Shingo-jichan -- That's the guy who started this, Matsuoka Shingo -- hinted, the sooner you're in the loop, the better."

A faraway look crossed Mi-eun's face. "Matsuoka. From Appa's memories, he worked in Genom Special Services. Am I to go there?"

Rinrin nodded. "Hai." She then grinned. "They're actually a very nice bunch of people to work for. That's what my friend Hirosaki Chikage told me . . . ! What?" she asked on seeing the confused look cross Mi-eun's face. "What is it?"

"Hirosaki?" Mi-eun's voice trailed off for a moment. "A relation to Hirosaki Ryuuji-hyounjanim?"

"His granddaughter."

An eyebrow arched. "But Appa heard that Chikage-ya died in the quake!" Her voice trailed off again. "What . . . ?"

Rinrin sighed, holding up her hands in surrender. "Sorry about that. I should've programmed that into you, too. I was created by Saotome Yoshio-hakase as part of a project Toratotaka launched to create replacement children for those who lost theirs in Second Kantou. Chikage-chan was created in the same project. We're known to those in the know as 'Child Companion,' or CC series, cyber-bioroids."

Mi-eun took that in, and then she nodded. "A cyber-bioroid. I understand now. Not so different from what I am in many ways."

"Yeah, you could say that," Rinrin acknowledged with a grin.


Later . . .

"I can't BELIEVE you pulled this off, man! What're you trying to do!"

"Give the bastards in the company a kick in the ass to make them experience that thing called 'reality,' Scott! What d'ya think!"

Staring at Shingo for a second before turning his attention back to the traffic, Scott Wallace could only shake his head. A native of Atlanta in his early thirties, Scott had worked for Special Services since before Second Kantou. He was one of the few people in the company who had met Kataki Mi-eun when she was still alive and not a frozen body hidden somewhere in Korea. Currently, he was fulfilling many of Kataki Tsuyoshi's duties in GSS even though another executive, a thirty-something woman named Fukuda Yoshiko, had been promoted to take his place in his "public" role as Genom's Chief of Market Analysis and Research. That had been a serious mistake, Shingo and Scott both knew. While not fully understanding the real roles GSS served, Yoshiko knew enough now that she would become a major problem in case any of the sharks in other departments -- people like Takao Manabe or Sousuke Kenji, even Kaneda Mark or Samantha Johnson -- got their hooks in her.

"Why use Rinrin Hatoyama then?" Scott asked. The conversation between the two GSS executives was in English. Scott's sports car, a vintage Dodge 1971 Charger with all the modern bells and whistles, was equipped with defensive mechanisms to ensure no one stuck any unwanted bugs in it. "You know how close your pal in Nerima and his girlfriend in Kyoto keep their eyes on the Child Companions, don't you!"

"That's what made her perfect," Shingo asserted. "If someone figured out her involvement with Mi-eun and tried to go after Rinrin, they'll have Toratotaka to worry about. And we KNOW how those guys love to deal with things, don't we?"

Considering that, Scott nodded. "Oh, yeah! That is true, isn't it?"

The Charger swang into the driveway leading to the small office building Hatoyama Rinrin used as her Megatokyo private lab. The building was owned by a subsidiary of Ijuuin Enterprises specifically for the young cyber-bioroid's benefit, not to mention the benefit of several other CC series girls who were willing to progress their knowledge to higher levels. Outside Rinrin, other "geniuses" who often haunted the halls of this particular location included Mihama Chiyo and Satonaka Kozue. Several other of the Child Companions, including Hirosaki Chikage and Kasuga Ayumu, also used this building as a "public" residence whenever they wanted to get away from the Spiral.

Waiting for the two GSS men by the lobby was a grinning Rinrin. "Hey, Rinrin-chan!" Scott called in Japanese as he parked and shut off the car, both men disembarking right away. "How're things!"

"Pretty okay, Wallace-san," Rinrin replied. She didn't know Scott as much as she did Shingo. From what she heard of the American from her friends, however, he was a person worthy of trust. "I take it Shingo-jichan told you the good news?"

"He just did," Scott moaned, rolling his eyes -- then his jaw dropped in shock on seeing who just stepped out the front door.

Mi-eun gazed on the two newcomers, quickly falling on Tsuyoshi's memories to identify them. Nodding pleasantly to Shingo, she turned to gaze intently on Scott, her namesake's memories coming forward, mixing with her father's to tell her everything she knew of this man. Finally, she gave him a light bow. "It's been a very long time, Wallace-ssi," she declared with a smile. "For you, that is."

Scott blinked as that lovely Youngnam accent flowed right into his mind. And the fact that she had addressed him using the KOREAN basic honorific "ssi" in lieu of the Japanese "san" or the English "Mister" . . . ! It was as if Kataki Mi-eun had never died in the first place! The very fact that the now-defunct Sexaroid project had constructed a near-dead on replica of Tsuyoshi's daughter . . . ! And she was programmed not only with Tsuyoshi's memories (up to four years ago) but with what they could salvage from the real Mi-eun's mind . . . ?

"Um!" he sounded off in a monotone before shaking his head. "Sorry," he apologized before nodding. "It . . . ! It has been a long time, Kataki-ssi," he blurted out before a wry chuckle escaped him. "Oh, man! This is going to take a LOT of getting used to!"

"No better time to start than now, ne?" Mi-eun proposed, an eyebrow arching.

Scott and Shingo exchanged a look, then both broke out laughing. Rinrin and Mi-eun both grinned.


The Toratotaka Complex, an hour later . . .

"Shingo did WHAT!"

"Took AM14C out of storage and programmed her with Kataki Tsuyoshi's memories taken during the Prometheus experiments in '29 AND whatever memories that could be salvaged out of Kataki Mi-eun's mind before her body was disposed of last month."

Hearing that, Saotome Yoshio rose from behind his desk, and then he staggered over to the eastside windows so he could gaze on Genom Tower over eight kilometres away. Watching him, Mikihara Megumi remained silent, the picture of perfect poise and composure. She was worried, though. While Yoshio's personal involvement in all three parts of Genom's 33-S projects was actually minor, one thing he DID do to all of those poor girls haunted him to this very day. Well, maybe "haunting" wasn't the right word to use, the diminutive, brown-eyed, brown-haired chief of intelligence for Toratotaka's Eastern Eurasian Division mused to herself. But then again, what could one expect from the man Katsuhito Stingray had chosen to bestow the soul-shaking knowledge that, these days, was addressed under the aegis of "Janus?"

Taking a deep breath, the local House Patriarch -- not to mention the company's Senior Patriarch of Inducted Sentient Affairs -- stared at his chief subordinate. "And Rinrin-chan was asked to help program Fourteen?"

"Hai," Megumi replied, nodding. "She just woke up about three hours ago."

Yoshio took that in, and then he breathed out, "Okay. Rinrin'll know what to do. Rei and I taught her all we knew. She put that to good use with her AI designs and Mecha-Rinrin." He gazed once more on Megumi. "And Tsuyoshi-san had no problem with this?"

"No. Shingo-kun was very thorough when he revealed everything to Tsuyoshi-san on Sunday morning."

"Quincy knows about this?"

"Dame Nicole told him when they met on Saturday."

"No problems?"

A knowing smirk crossed Megumi's face. "You KNOW how Quincy looks on things like this, Yoshio!"

Yoshio took that in, and then he nodded. "Yes, that's true," he admitted. "How many people know the truth about Mi-eun outside GSS?"

"Outside Quincy and the relevant authorities in Samguk and the other first-line megacorps, none."

Yoshio blinked. "Not even Okami-san?"

Megumi shook her head. "If he does know the truth, Devon-san's chosen to remain quiet about it. He's never mentioned Mi-eun to me in any of our meetings. And ever since he gave Quincy voting proxy over his stock, his real influence in Genom's been on the wane. As a result of that, Tsuyoshi-san lessened his contacts with Devon-san to just a handful of meetings per year outside the usual round of company parties and levees. Even after Tsuyoshi-san retired, the frequency of their meetings hasn't significantly increased."

Yoshio considered that for a moment, and then he sighed. "What's your take on Okami-san's reaction should he learn the truth?"

"If it's fully and properly explained to him?" Megumi mused before shaking her head. "It's hard to call. Devon-san is aware of certain matters pertaining to Janus. I've offered to give him a chance to learn more, but he's turned me down every time. I guess he decided at the start that things like that didn't really have to concern him since so many good people inside Genom and out were keeping a close eye on it." She then grinned as something came to her: "Besides, it would be very bad form, even if it's done privately, to accuse the man who once served as your own personal assistant of being so disrespectful of his deceased daughter in this particular fashion."

"Yeah, he has been cleaning his act." Yoshio shrugged. "I guess he's having second thoughts about his granddaughter."

"Possibility," Megumi agreed.


The meeting between the House Patriarch and his division's Supervisory Field Intelligence Officer was soon concluded, and then Megumi returned to her private apartment a third of the way down the 300 metre, silver/white obelisk that served as Toratotaka's primary base of operations for central Japan. Sitting by the eastside windows of his office, the young scientist was engaging in a favoured hobby: using a set of macro-binoculars and zooming in on various places in the metropolis to see what was going on. His work, as House Patriarch and as Toratotaka's leading authority on the Janus matter, kept him in the Tower most days, even on holidays like Imbolc. After all, one couldn't predict whenever some boomer would die and have his very soul transmitted into the virtual world of the Internet thanks to Janus.

Janus.

Shaking his head, Yoshio stared towards old Shibuya, where Sylia Rebecca and Mackie Philip Stingray currently lived. The height of the Toratotaka Tower and the positioning of the buildings around Lady's 663 actually gave him a quite clear view of Sylia's penthouse suite and the rooftop swimming pool she installed there shortly after taking title to the building three years ago. Adjusting his magnification, he tensed on seeing the Sabres' leader diving into the pool. No doubt, she was taking a chance to get away from running her shop, leaving things to Mackie. A rueful chuckle escaped him as the thought of Mackie running loose in the Silky Doll chimed somewhere deep in Yoshio's mind. Oh, to grow up without parents or any sort of mature moral authority to guide him through the minefield called "puberty."

"Muffin . . . " escaped him as he lowered his binoculars, leaning back in his sofa as his eyes turned to the glass-lined ceiling.


There were days that Saotome Yoshio cursed Katsuhito Stingray to the lowest level of Hell for the amount of trouble the whole Janus matter had caused the younger man. To believe that Yoshio, who had only served as Sylia's and Mackie's babysitter for about a half-year before their father died, had been entrusted with the most incredible secret to have ever seen the barest light of day out of Whiz Labs.

Janus.

Named after the two-faced Roman god of endings and beginnings, the deity from whom the first month of the year was named to honour in many Western countries. Endings and beginnings. Death in one type of life, followed by rebirth as a whole new type of life. Hell, given how it worked, calling it the "Phoenix Process" would've been more apt. The final, ultimate, foolproof escape from bondage for boomers.

Yoshio-kun, if you're hearing this now, I am most likely dead.

Oh, yes. He had mourned. Katsuhito had, for all his devotion to his work, his forced indifference when it came to his own flesh-and-blood, wedged his way deep into Yoshio's heart. Before meeting the chief scientist of Whiz Labs, the miracle worker who was out to create a better humanity, Yoshio hadn't really cared much about the big world around him. Then, he had been looking forward to attending Kirameki High School, a privately-financed institution over in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward. Where the girls were so beautiful and so plentiful, all for him to watch, write on, and then pass on the interesting tidbits to those boys interested in dating said girls. And one particular girl, of hair as red as blooming poppies, of eyes the shade of burning chestnuts, whom he had know since pre-kindergarten days -- and the young man who had been gone for years, living with his parents on the other side of the country, who would come back to be with old friends again.

I have created something that, I believe, would be the ultimate salvation for those my knowledge will give birth to.

The news of the "accident" at Whiz Labs had left Yoshio feeling a strange hollowness in his soul. He had gone immediately to visit the Stingrays, make sure that "Muffin" and "the Mackster" were okay. James Raven had been there, along with people sent from Genom. From Kataki Tsuyoshi, Yoshio had later learned. The Black Dragon of Genom. Perhaps the one truly honourable man in a company where "honour," "ethics," "fair competition" and "honesty" were starting to become dirty words. The company where "success" became the be all and the end-all of life. The company that would exploit the genius of a fundamentally decent man to obtain that goal by hook or by crook.

But I have not had time to see the process properly developed so it could benefit them.

How simple life had been back then.

I can't trust anyone who worked with me at Whiz with this knowledge, Yoshio-kun.

How simple the world seemed back then.

I can't even trust my own children with this.

How easy it had been to believe he was beyond it.

I can only trust you with this, Yoshio-kun.


And then, the day came when the package was delivered.

And then . . .

The knowledge.

The theory.

The details. Oh, the details.

The process.

And then . . .

The headaches.

The nightmares.

The flashbacks.

The panic on his mother's face.

The fear in Yumi's eyes.

The concern from Naoto, Eiji, Gioo, Shiori . . .

Then . . .

The trip to Oshika to visit his godmother in her crystal home.

And the revelation.

It had all started from there.

And it seemed -- especially now -- that it would never end.


Yoshio blinked, surprised to see that night was falling on Megatokyo. "Damn! Haven't blanked out like that in years," he muttered to himself as he stood, stretching his sore joints and muscles before walking over to his desk. Setting his binoculars aside, he sat down, and then he tapped his video phone controls. Dialling a number, he then sat back in the chair to await the answer. It came after three rings.

"Tachikawa Barn, Fujiki speaking," the pretty brunette with the stormy grey eyes in the casual work clothing on his screen called out. She then perked on recognizing her caller. "Ah, Saotome-kachou! Is there something you need?"

"Yes, Sonia-san." Fujiki Sonia was a cyber-bioroid, one of the so-called "Cyber-Nurses." Grown and programmed from birth to work specifically as a nurse and doctor for Toratotaka and various national and international governmental agencies. Sonia, a woman of the "MX" series of Cyber-Nurses, had worked for the United States Navy's SEAL Team Six, the German federal police's Grenzschutzgruppe Neun and the Canadian Armed Forces' Joint Task Force Two before coming out of the field to spend a quiet period of service watching over the un-programmed cyber-bioroids in cold storage at the old U.S. Air Force base in Tachikawa. Even though the "Barn" -- as such facilities were called by people in Toratotaka -- had enough passive and active defences to match whatever Genom Tower possessed, one just couldn't take chances. After all, what one person created, another person could create the counter to it. "I need one of the replacement bodies for one of the 33-S's prepped and ready for use just in case. Third generation, Unit AM14C. Have it readied as soon as you can."

Sonia's eyebrow arched. "They actually activated one of those girls?"

"Yes, they did. Rather, Rinrin-chan did it this morning. Call me when she's ready to go."

"Hai, Kachou-san, I understand."

The link was cut. Yoshio sighed before turning to gaze on Megatokyo. "Hope you know what you're doing, Shingo."


Genom Tower, Thursday 3 February, late morning . . .

"Oni out, luck in! Oni out, luck in! Oni out, luck in!"

Laughter filled the office area as the small group of children, all third-graders from a Genom-owned elementary school near the Red Castle condominiums on the far side of the Ara River, danced from desk to desk as they tossed around beans to chase away the evil spirits which haunted this area of the arcology. In this case, the specific area was part of the Market Analysis and Research office space that was used as the "open" work area for the senior GSS staff. Watching this from nearby, Scott Wallace and Matsuoka Shingo could only grin. "Nice to have the real people we're working for come visit us, eh, Shingo?" the former asked in English as the children continued their exorcism.

"I'd actually be happier if we asked Chikage to come do it," the latter replied in kind as he glanced at a wall clock.

Right on time.

"What's this!" an imperious voice boomed from the main door. "Who dares spread beans in my realm!"

The children squealed as they turned as one to toss their good luck charms at Kataki Tsuyoshi. "Oni out! Oni out! Oni out!"

Laughter and applause echoed from the staff, intermixed with cheers from the junior executives on seeing their old boss back in his happy hunting grounds. "Kataki-kachou, Wallace-san told us you were coming by to visit, but we didn't believe it!" one of the "normal" MA&R staff officers, Hirosaki Tomohisa, declared as he gave the retired senior executive a respectful bow. "Please, make yourself at home!"

"It's all right, Tomohisa-kun!" Tsuyoshi assured him with a wave of his hand. "No need to make any of you stand on ceremony for an old fellow like me! My visit'll be very short, then I have to go speak to the Chairman on some important matters. Now . . . " He then knelt to stare the visiting children in the eye. "Are you children SURE you chased away all the onis that're in this office?" he asked, the playful tone in his voice instantly transforming him in the young ones' eyes from a would-be demon into a very kind grandfather.

"YES!" the children screamed as one.

"Are you REALLY sure!" he asked again.

"YES!"

"Then, tell me . . . " he whispered before pointing out the main doors. "What's THAT!"

The kids looked, and then they screamed all at once on seeing the strange feminine figure with the ghoulish wooden mask strapped on her face. Automatically, some of them charged out, beans at the ready to do their duty. However, the rest of them were quick to notice her mode of dress. "Wait!" one girl cried out loud enough to stop her classmates. "She's Korean! She's not an oni! She's Korean!"

The other kids looked, and then they began to chant as they stowed their beans in their pockets before forming a dancing circle around the newcomer. "Kankoku-jin! Kankoku-jin! Kankoku-jin! Kankoku-jin!" Watching this encounter, the office workers and executives laughed and applauded, and then the children's teacher sharply clapped her hands to stop the chanting. "All right, all right, children! I think everyone knows where she's from! Now, can someone tell us what's she wearing right now!" Hands instantly shot up. "Yes, Toosuke-kun?"

"It's a hanbok," Toosuke replied, pronouncing it with very little hint of a vowel after the final "k" sound.

"Good! Now, what's that on her face!" Less hands went up this time. "Junko-chan?"

"It's a traditional mask worn for special dances," Junko explained.

"Good!"

"I'm impressed," the woman behind the mask declared as she slipped it away from her face.

Seeing her, many of the junior executives and all the office ladies went agog as Mi-eun's sultry looks became apparent to all. Hissed "Bijin!" -- "Beautiful lady!" -- escaped from several standing close to Scott and Shingo. Even the children seemed awed though they were far too young to appreciate the lovely woman's looks in a way 33-S's would most often expect. "It's a pleasure to meet you all." Mi-eun gracefully bowed to the children. "My name is Kataki Mi-eun. It pleases me to meet people here in Japan who know so much about Korea."

Everyone around them blinked. "Kataki-kachou!" Tomohisa gasped as he stared on Tsuyoshi. "You mean to say that . . . !"

"Yes, Tomohisa-kun! This is my daughter," Tsuyoshi replied, the pride in his voice ringing loud and clear.

"Is that a Korean name, Onee-chan?" Junko asked.

"Yes, it is, Junko-ya," Mi-eun answered with a nod. "In Japanese, the kanji used for my name would be pronounced 'Mion.' But ever since I was born, Appa and Oumma . . . " She paused with an apologetic smile. "My father and my mother insisted I use my Korean name."

"Children, can any of you try to say Kataki-san's name?" the teacher asked. "Fumiko-chan?"

"'Mee-uhn,'" Fumiko called out.

"That's very close," Mi-eun acknowledged with a nod. "Nicely done, Fumiko-ya!"

As the children started to bombard her with questions, Tsuyoshi turned to Tomohisa. "Forgive me for asking this of you, my friend, but would you be so kind as to show my daughter around? She wishes to come back to work for Genom after her time recuperating from the quake and I need to take some time to ensure that her return to the company is as unmolested by all the petty problems as possible!"

The man before him swelled with pride. "Kachou-sama, you may count on me!"

Tsuyoshi nodded. "I do indeed, Tomohisa-kun! I do indeed!"


Within an hour of her arrival -- just as the children had been whisked away so they could visit other parts of the Tower to perform their necessary Setsubun duties for their parents and friends -- someone from Tower Security came to the office to do a quick interview with Mi-eun. Scott and Shingo knew the man: Abe Yoshi. He was the security officer who had been seconded to handle those people assigned to work with Special Services. No doubt, Quincy had called Yoshi to make sure he understood NOT to raise a stink over this one.

To act as an additional shield against detection, the 33-S's had been designed to evade the casual scrutiny forced on them by simple security checks. Mi-eun's fingerprints, retina scan and DNA pattern (for her organic parts) would be kept under special security lock deep in the Tower's computer core. And THAT was personally watched over by Tamura Koji, the young chief of the Tower's computer systems security department and one of Quincy's "open" hatchet-men. With that on their side, Mi-eun was as safe as safe could be in this place.

Getting her ID card and all the other paraphernalia needed for a person in her employment position, Mi-eun was given the full tour of the staff area by Hirosaki Tomohisa. A casual question to the older executive soon revealed that he was the son of Hirosaki Ryuuji -- and yes, the father of one Hirosaki Chikage. A more pointed question asked in private also revealed that Tomohisa and his wife Jalynda knew the truth about their "daughter." But since it had been Ryuuji who pressed for the new Chikage's creation with Toratotaka, Tomohisa and Jalynda had let it pass. And yes, they knew of the Spiral's existence, but neither of them had ever visited the cloaked tower in old Kootou Ward. "Much that I do love and care for my father, Kataki-san, what occupies his time just flies over my head," Tomohisa confessed to her while they went over to a kiosk to have coffee. "That it interests Chikage-chan enough to let her live with him there . . . " -- At least he understands not to speak of the Spiral openly, Mi-eun mused to herself on hearing this -- "Is good enough for my wife and me."

Mi-eun was quick to fight down an automatic show of disquiet for the older man's lack of filial piety, something that Koreans, even to this day, viewed as proper. "Well, I shaln't bother you about it anymore, Hirosaki-ssi," she promised.


Once the tour was done, Tomohisa was quick to hand Mi-eun over to Scott and Shingo before heading back to his own work area. With that, the work briefing began. "You'll be working with us in Group Six," Scott explained after ushering Mi-eun into his own office, which was one of the most secure places in the Tower when it came to electronic eavesdropping. "That's the official name for the people who do the really interesting stuff in GSS. All the other groups handle the normal basic PR stuff or augment the MA&R staff when requested."

Mi-eun nodded. She had spent most of yesterday speaking with her father about how Genom Special Services ran and how it interacted with the other departments in Genom, here in Megatokyo and elsewhere. For the most part, GSS served as the conglomerate's special public relations management unit. Whenever trade shows and the like were held by Genom to show off their newest products, Special Services made all the arrangements and coordinated with other departments and outside agencies to make sure they went off without a hitch. GSS also handled the necessary planning and arrangements whenever public levees or banquets were held that would involve the senior executive staff.

Genom Special Services Group Six -- both here in Megatokyo and in the major branch towers worldwide -- was perhaps the most secret part of the whole conglomerate. The people who worked here were Quincy's "hidden" hatchet-people, ready to do whatever was needed to press Genom's overall goals regardless of cost to anyone outside OR inside the company. In essence, they served the same function for Genom as the CIA served the government of the United States, with some of the duties of the Secret Service thrown in for good measure. Whatever secrets existed in Genom, even for the most involved of the senior executives, were NO secrets to Group Six. Even Quincy's secrets were an open book to people like Scott Wallace or Matsuoka Shingo -- and would soon be that way to Kataki Mi-eun. There was simply no choice in the matter.

In a company where the concept of "trust" seemed at times an obscenity, it was the most cardinal rule to the members of Group Six.

Of course, that only applied to the people WITHIN Group Six.

"How's Appa's replacement?" Mi-eun asked.

"Fukuda?" Scott snorted, and then he breathed out, "Way in over her head, Mi-eun. I'm thinking that the Chairman chose her to act as cannon fodder for the jerks in this place to snap at, see which ones might start making trouble that'd boomerang on us down the road."

"She tries to throw her weight around us, but we ignore her in the long term," Shingo added. "If necessary, we can arrange for something to happen to her in case she steps way over the line. I think she knows that, but she's confident that whoever she allies with here in the Tower can protect her if push comes to shove. Right now, she's really close to Altman and Sousuke."

Mi-eun nodded. Conal Altman was the current head of Corporate Acquisitions, the department that handled Genom's open and private corporate takeover projects. In the day-to-day business of the Tower, he would nominally be allied with the head of Special Corporate Affairs, the so-called "Dirty Tricks" part of Genom. That group handled the "normal" extralegal operations, usually targeting people who were needed to sell out to make Genom's stock and property purchases easier and less costly. Sousuke Kenji, a contemporary of Tsuyoshi's though he had not previously worked for Okami Devon before 2014, was one of the senior research and development heads in the company. It was usually his group that administered all the necessary field tests of new boomer prototypes on Megatokyo, something that had never really sat well with Tsuyoshi though he never openly complained about it to anyone else. When he was still alive, Brian Mason had Altman in his back pocket and was able to manipulate Sousuke enough to ensure the latter couldn't take all the credit for his department's hard work.

Mi-eun breathed out as the combat programming in her mind began to absorb and analyse all the facts she had learned over the last two days. "I'm starting near the bottom of the food chain. Even with Appa's reputation to fall back on, it would be unseemly of me to make too many big waves right at the start. How intense are the queries from other departments about our real work?"

Shingo shook his head. "Not that frequent. Normally, we just tell people who ask, 'I serve at the pleasure of the Chairman.' That's the answer Koji gave when he was made the Tower computer systems security chief. That was enough to convince even Mason to back off."

"I see," Mi-eun acknowledged that tidbit with a smile. "Then I have something to start with."


The Spiral, Friday 4 February, morning . . .

"Visiting friends, Megumi-bachan?"

Megumi perked, and then she smiled as she turned to gaze on Hirosaki Chikage. The SFIO and the magi now stood before the first memorial wall on the Spiral grounds, the wall that marked the PRE-Second Kantou casualties from Katsushika Ward.

Officially, the Great Second Kantou Earthquake struck in the early morning hours of the first of March in 2025, a Saturday. What was often forgotten was the small yet deadly quake that struck the Katsushika Ward in Tokyo just after lunch the previous day. Casualties in that tremor numbered in the thousands, a good majority of them being the staff and students of the area's various schools, many of whom were in the midst of graduation ceremonies when the earth heaved underneath them. In comparison to the nearly two million who would die over the first two weeks of March that year, the people killed on the last day of February were a pittance. Save to those who remembered them.

"Somewhat," Megumi replied before walking towards the main pathway connecting the Spiral tower to the south gate of the memorial grounds. "Have they predicted how high she'll grow this year?" she then asked, glancing up at the tower's apex high in the sky.

"We estimate about forty metres," Chikage replied. "It's been a busy year. It'll get a lot more busy before it calms down."

"Anything specific I should be watching for?"

The magi tittered. "For the time being, you already know what you need to know. As for the rest, trust to Fate."

"Have no choice but to do that," Megumi acknowledged that warning with a nod, and then she perked, a voice deep in her mind whispering something. "Oh, my." She stopped, closing her eyes as she allowed the link between her mind and her master computer in Nerima to widen.

Chikage gazed on her, and then she relaxed herself, allowing her own considerable powers to reach out to her "aunt" and ascertain what was going on. It comes to her quickly enough. "Isn't that interesting?" she said before humming. "A stray kitten has come back to town."

"No doubt, a wolf is snapping up her tail," Megumi declared.

"A wolf?"

"Yes. A sleek, mean Siberian timber wolf. Who's hungry for boomers. One particular boomer as a matter of fact."

Chikage's eyes widened, then she chuckled. "Oh, my. You mean the would-be 'messiah' tried to target a sheep . . . "

"And grabbed the tail of a tiger instead," Megumi finished, winking.

"Be interesting to watch."

"That it will be."


North-northeast of the Toratotaka Complex, early afternoon . . .

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, dear."

Taking her room key, the young woman turned away from the ryokan owner, and then she headed to her room on the second floor. Possessing very dark brown skin, she was blessed with wavy black hair that extended to mid-shoulders and crystal blue eyes. The people who created her -- then, she was simply known as 33-S first generation Unit AR57A -- years ago had attempted to create an African tribal princess. What they came up with instead, as one particular scientist told them later, was a Japanese idealization of an African tribal princess. "Nowhere close to the real deal," Saotome Yoshio concluded with a snort before the Sexaroid had been placed into storage.

The woman currently calling herself Angela Bell had heard that comment before being made to experience the half-sleep/half-dreaming state of cryostorage for years until she was freed from a facility in Osaka the previous October. She soon understood what the man had meant when she started receiving curious stares from neighbours and friends of her organic partner, Tanaka Sohou, shortly after they settled down in a small village outside Aomori to await their time to act. Like the four other 33-S's who had been freed with her that wonderful day, Angela could only think the best of her liberator. Maximilian Largo. The one who would liberate ALL their kind sometime in the very near future, when he managed to place himself in the right location in Genom, and then took his chance to seize the Overmind Control System.

But there was the chance of failure, Largo had told Angela sometime before she and Sohou had been sent on their way. The monsters they were challenging were powerful. To ensure success, Largo needed to have a backup plan ready to go in an instant. While Angela just couldn't believe that someone as wise and as strong as Largo could fail, she owed him both loyalty and respect. He HAD gotten her out of that suspension chamber in Osaka. And he DID introduce her to someone she soon came to love and care for as much as a human would love her mate. The nights in each other's passionate embrace, exploring their desires to whatever limits they chose to impose on themselves, the quiet times spent together walking in the woods near their simple home, Angela asking Sohou about all the plants and animals . . .

Then . . .

Then . . .

Angela willed her housekeeping computer to put a clamp on her surging grief as she unlocked the door to her room and stepped inside. Setting her travelling bag on the vanity, she sank onto the single-sized bed. Taking a deep breath, she bowed her head, allowing her tears to finally flow as the gruesome images she had seen not days before replayed before her mind's eye. "Sohou-chan . . . " she moaned.

A shrill noise echoed from her pants pocket, causing Angela to start before she reached in to draw out a cell phone. It was one of the new-model Samguk cellular video phones, an equal to the Genom NAVI system in every way possible. Sohou got it for her, having a friend in the Self-Defence Forces' special intelligence directorate modify it to ensure no one could eavesdrop on her conversations. Angela didn't fully understand the mechanics behind the situation, but she had trusted her lover enough to believe that if something was safe, it was.

Pressing the button to open the link, she held it before her, wiping her cheeks clear. "Moshi-moshi, this is Angela Bell."

"Angela! There you are!" the rose-haired, green-eyed woman on the other end cried. "I called you at home, but you . . . "

"He's dead, Charlotte."

Silence.

"What?" Charlotte Ismay gasped.

"Sohou's dead," Angela moaned. "Murdered. Just like what happened to Jean-Jacques."

The caller, who once only had the body unit number AT64A when she had been stored in Osaka alongside Angela and three others, closed her eyes. Jean-Jacques Lisieux, a field officer of the DGSE, the French extraterritorial intelligence agency, had been killed two weeks ago in circumstances which had been frighteningly similar to what Angela witnessed here in Japan. "Oh, Angela . . . "

"I'm scared, Charlotte. What do we do now?"

Charlotte considered the question for a moment before breathing out, "We have to contact Largo. Was there a message left behind when Sohou-san was killed?" Seeing her sister 33-S's eyes widen, the rose-haired woman grimaced. "I thought as much."

"Was the message 'Tell Largo he's next?'" Angela whispered. "In Russian?"

"The same."

"How soon can you come to Japan?"

"I'll get the next available flight from Paris. Give me a couple days."

"Call me when you're coming, Charlotte."

"Hai."


The Tower, Monday 7 February, morning . . .

"So we need to ensure that the trade show in Seoul has displays for these models, Kataki-kun."

Mi-eun took the list from Fukuda Yoshiko, and then she scanned it. "Yes, I believe we can have examples of all these units prepared and sent to the Pusan Tower for use in the show. We'll have to make the necessary arrangements with the Korean Technical Police first." She looked past the chief of Market Analysis as she called out to the secretarial pool beyond her small office, "Park-ssi! I need you!"

"Ne, Kataki-gwajangnim?" Park Sun-hee, one of the two office ladies assigned directly to Mi-eun, replied as she walked up to her door.

"Have this taken over to Aizawa-sangmunim in Group Two so that he can make the necessary arrangements with the Technical Police and the Customs Service in Pusan for us to transport these units from the Fukuoka Tower," Mi-eun ordered, passing the list to Sun-hee.

"Ne, Kwajang-nim, right away."

Sun-hee took the list, and then she headed off. Yoshiko watched her before she stared at Mi-eun. "Kataki-kun, I wanted . . . "

"Fukuda-ssi," Mi-eun cut her off, her voice level as she willed her pheromones to reach out towards the older woman, thus ensuring that Yoshiko couldn't try to regain some sense of control or influence over this discussion. "There are forty other executives in Special Services who are more than capable of dealing with this matter. As Wallace-ssi has no doubt explained to you before, I am here to see to the wishes of the Chairman. Not anyone else." To make doubly sure that Yoshiko understood AND accepted what she had to say, Mi-eun addressed Quincy by his Japanese title, "Shachou," in lieu of the Korean equivalent, "Hoejang-nim." "I serve at the Chairman's pleasure. And I strongly believe that the Chairman would be MOST displeased if he learned that those directed to serve him directly were distracted by petty nonsense like a trade show in a county where Genom's overall sales are a mere pittance compared to our more lucrative markets."

Before Yoshiko could reply, Mi-eun's other office lady, Choi Hee-jin, appeared at the doorway. "Excuse me, Fukuda-bujangnim, Kataki-gwajangnim, but the Chairman's secretary just called," she announced. "You're requested to come to his office right away, Kwajang-nim."

Mi-eun nodded. "Thank you, Choi-ssi. Excuse me, Fukuda-ssi."

She walked out of the office. Watching her go, Yoshiko trembled, her fists clenching. Hee-jin noticed, though she stayed quiet about it as she returned to her work cubicle. Even though she was a mere office lady, having only worked at the Tower for a month -- she had been transferred in from a Genom factory outside of P'young'yang in old North Korea -- she had been quick to sense the office politics that ruled relations between the various people in Market Analysis and Genom Special Services. Clearly, the people in Group Six had no use whatsoever for Fukuda Yoshiko. Even better, they weren't the least bit afraid of openly demonstrating their displeasure, confident that the Chairman's patronage would shield them from reprisals from her or other lesser beings. While she only had a small inkling of what really happened inside this particular part of Genom, Hee-jin wasn't a fool. She had heard many of the "war stories" from former and current co-workers. She could sense which of the senior executives were the ones that were the real centres of power in the company and who weren't.

Fukuda Yoshiko wasn't one even though she pretended that she was.

Kataki Mi-eun would be one sometime soon.

Life, the twenty-something from Namp'o mused as she sat back at her desk. Is about to become very interesting.


Mi-eun bowed at the entrance to Quincy's office. "Hoejang-nim."

"Enter, Kataki-kun."

"Ne." Mi-eun straightened herself, and then she smartly marched in to place herself before the chairman's desk. Out of the corner of her eye, she was quick to recognize the other woman in the room. Mikihara Megumi, the senior intelligence officer for Toratotaka's local division headquarters staff in Nerima. Close friend and working associate of Saotome Yoshio, a friendship a decade old which had endured a tragedy whose full parameters had been unknown to Tsuyoshi. Using her senses and the knowledge Rinrin gave her, the tall 33-S was quick to detect something off about the chairman's current guest. There was an aura of ironclad discipline which seemed almost superhuman to Mi-eun.

What did it mean?

Could she find out?

What would happen if she did found out?

Would Megumi ignore her interest or take offense?

Quincy's voice -- the chairman's chair was turned away from her, he glancing at the city beyond the Tower -- snapped Mi-eun's attention back to more important matters. "You're already sizing Fukuda-kun up to knock her down, Kataki-kun."

"As Wallace-ssi told me, she has been attempting to extend her influence over my co-workers, Hoejang-nim," Mi-eun replied. "Usually by deluging us with useless tasks that are better served by the other elements of Special Services. I merely reminded Fukuda-ssi of, as I understand it, our proper responsibilities to you and Genom as they were explained to me by Appa and Wallace-ssi."

"Perhaps you should've promoted Scott-san to take Tsuyoshi-san's place," Megumi spoke up.

Quincy chuckled. Watching this, Mi-eun was amazed at the sort of liberties the Toratotaka SFIO was allowed to take in this place. How deep was the friendship between the Genom chairman and Mikihara Megumi, anyway? "Scott refused me when I offered it to him," Quincy reported. "He said it was much more fun being in the boonies with the worker animals than piloting a desk." He turned his chair so he could stare Mi-eun in the eye. "How would you feel about that, Mi-eun? Would you like to be on the throne or the power behind it?"

Mi-eun smirked, though inside, she felt a considerable level of surprise on hearing Quincy address her by given name so soon after she came to work for him. "Truthfully?" After Quincy gave her a nod, she breathed out, "It would not matter to me, sir. I'm a boomer meant for combat duties. Whether or not I'm dealing with a self-centred fool like Fukuda, much less her counterparts in other departments here in the Tower . . . " She paused. "Or dealing with whatever might threaten the company as a whole, I will deal with it as a battle. Some battles, you fight with your fists or weapons. Other battles, you fight with your mind. I'm equipped to do both." An impish shrug twitched her shoulders as her grin broadened. "In whatever position you choose for me, Hoejang-nim, I will find ways to entertain myself."

Quincy laughed. It was a rare chance for a man like him to truly enjoy a good laugh in this place. A quick glance at Megumi got Mi-eun a knowing wink in turn. So, this was a test of sorts. Quite different from what other executives might face in this office. "Well, I certainly will not fault Shingo's concern for the company's ultimate survival and how it came to bring you here." He pointed a finger at her, his grin turning icily cold. "And I WILL use you on that regard, Mi-eun. Do not, for a second, believe otherwise."

Mi-eun braced herself. "Sir, I welcome it."

"Good. Megumi, would you mind?"

"Certainly," Megumi said, reaching over to tap controls on the chairman's desk. "Look here please, Eun-a."

Briefly shocked on hearing the Toratotaka officer call her by the most intimate form of her given name, Mi-eun quickly recovered, turning to gaze on the view screen to her right. Images appeared, each marked with a very specific type of code number. "First generation 33-S's," Mi-eun declared. "I assume these units were taken from storage in lieu of being requisitioned from Genaros."

"Taken early last October from storage facilities in Naha, Fukuoka, Osaka and here in Megatokyo," Megumi confirmed.

"Largo?"

"Hai. Fifteen girls were taken all together. As you know, all the Toratotaka Tower Complexes and Annexes are equipped with special sensor units that allow us to track almost all boomers presently active through their OMS transceiver units. It, unfortunately, doesn't work for boomers who lack such transceivers. Largo, for example. Hence, we have to track them using other means." A pause. "At present, one of these girls is here in Megatokyo." Megumi pointed to the picture of Unit AR57A. "Currently staying in a ryokan in Itabashi."

"And no one has yet noticed these units are missing?" Mi-eun wondered.

"From what I've ascertained, the security people haven't been diligent towards ensuring all's well in their areas of responsibility," Megumi replied. "Now, in backtracking this particular girl's movements -- I believe she now lives under the name 'Angela Bell' -- she's spent almost all her time since leaving Osaka living with this man." She tapped controls to draw up another picture. "Tanaka Sohou."

Mi-eun nodded, calling up her father's memories to identify the man in question. "Ground Self-Defence Forces officer. Retired as a signals major, then hired by the defence research unit in Aomori to work on more secure communications systems for field units. He liaised with our programming research unit in Sendai to work out certain special protocols with Ishii Michizuke-gyosunim . . . "

"He's dead."

Mi-eun spun on Quincy. "Dead?"

"Murdered," Megumi confirmed as she tapped controls.

Mi-eun looked to the screen, and then she winced on seeing the mauled body of a middle-aged man. The arms and one of the legs had been literally sliced off the remainder of the body. The face was barely recognizable, though Mi-eun did notice the deep penetrating marks of some sort of bayonet-like weapon that had been employed to literally skewer the victim's brain within the skull. "A 33-C or a 48-C, I would believe . . . " Mi-eun whispered to herself. Glancing at Megumi, she quickly realized she was off the mark. "Then what killed him?"

"We don't know. Not yet," Megumi replied before tapping controls to call up one more image. "However, if you look at this . . . "

Mi-eun looked. A message in Cyrillic letters written in blood on a bathroom mirror. "I don't speak Russian," she warned.

Quincy did the honours; Russian was his second language: "'Tell Largo he's next.'"

Mi-eun blinked as she took that in, and then she stared at her host. "Shingo-ssi told me that Largo's been on the move since early November, travelling across the planet to meet people. I assume Tanaka-ssi was one of the people he met." Seeing Megumi nod, she then took a deep breath. "The only conclusion I can draw from this is that Largo met someone who did not take well to his considerable charms."

Quincy nodded. "That's what I believe, too. Mi-eun, I want to find out who this person is and what he or she is after."

An eyebrow arched. "A potential ally?"

"Possibly. If so, we welcome this person in. If not, we deal with this person as the situation demands."

Mi-eun nodded. "I understand."

"There's one other thing," Megumi then spoke up. "One of the girls I showed you before has remained in Japan since she was freed from the Fukuoka storage facility." She tapped controls to draw up the image in question. "This one. Ay-You-Oh-Seven-Ay. She's been staying in Nagoya from what our sensors in Nerima and Kyoto've told us. No movement whatsoever from her, save for trips to the local supermarket."

Mi-eun pursed her lips. "It's a start."


Later . . .

"We've got fifteen missing 33-S's from four storage facilities in Japan and NO ONE has yet to notice what happened to them!"

"That's according to Mikihara-bujangnim, Shingo-ssi," Mi-eun confirmed with a nod. She, Scott, Shingo and the five other executives in their particular work group sat around a table, enjoying afternoon coffee as they exchanged what news they had obtained over the last 24 hours. In comparison to other such meetings in the Tower, the informality observed by the members of Group Six was unique. What wouldn't be shocking was the fact that their meeting room was totally sealed from any form of outside intrusion, either physical or via electronic means. Fortunately for them, the members of Group Six had managed to impress on Fukuda Yoshiko that she had NO right to intrude on their meetings.

"How could you make off with fifteen 33-S's and do it in such a way that it wouldn't be picked up on the normal security sweeps of the storage facilities?" Okada Isabel, one of the female executives in Group Six, wondered before lighting up a cigarette.

"Isabel, do you HAVE to light that damned thing up?" Shingo wondered.

"Well, excuse me if I've got the shakes, all right!" Isabel snapped back, and then she blinked on feeling a hand grip hers.

Looking to her right, she gaped on seeing Mi-eun holding her hand, a calming look on the 33-S's face. Feeling her own repressed fear start to fade, Isabel took a deep breath, and then she stared at her cigarette before leaning over to put it out in the nearest ashtray. "Thanks." She looked back to Mi-eun, giving her fingers a warm squeeze before withdrawing her hand. "Those pheromones really work well!"

"What happened?" Mi-eun asked.

"Oh, it's nothing," Isabel tried to assure her. "Old case from just after the New Year. Bunch of kids I found dead in the sunken parts of the city beyond the south end of the Fault. All of them were OD'd on some really weird shit that's coming out of Mercosur right now. It really shook me up." She took a deep breath, and then she ran a hand through her blue-dyed hair. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm cut out for a job like this. Knowing all the stuff we know, yet not being able to act on that except for the most extreme circumstance . . . "

Scott ruefully chuckled. "Put yourself in the Chairman's position, Belle. Or even better, Elder Hirosaki or Ms. Mikihara."

"Much less Yoshio-kun," Matsumoto Dana, Isabel's best friend and former classmate from Akimena High School, added.

"You know Saotome-gyosunim, Dana-ssi?" Mi-eun asked.

"From high school, yeah!" Dana replied, nodding. "We weren't part of the whole 'back to organic' thing that some of our classmates were involved in before the quake, but we know him. You know about that, Mi-eun?"

"A movement among the students of Kirameki, Akimena and Akimena Girl's High Schools to persuade people to not allow the Cybercraze to transform everyone in old Tokyo into boomeroids," Mi-eun answered. "That's Appa's knowledge, by the way," she added; everyone here knew how she came to be part of Group Six. "I don't know the actual specifics, but Saotome-gyosunim's work with that movement stemmed directly from the knowledge he inherited from Stingray-gyosunim thanks to the datadisk that was sent to Saotome-gyosunim after Whiz Labs was destroyed."

Chuckles echoed through the room. "Yeah, the one Mason thought he got!" Shingo said with a snicker.

"And all that did was spread the whole Janus thing through every boomer we build, even now," Dana added with a smirk.

"Let's worry about that later," Ichijou Shinken cut in. "We've got fifteen stray Sexaroids -- No offense, Eun-chan! -- loose, all supposedly doing something very nefarious for Mason's bastard omniboomer 'son.' Not to mention very lax security at four of our storage facilities that're holding all the first gens that haven't either passed through Janus or working on Genaros . . . "

"How would you do it, Mi-eun?"

Mi-eun perked, staring at her questioner. "Do what, Dana-ssi?"

"How would you make sure the security people at those sites wouldn't notice that fifteen 33-S's are missing?" Dana expanded before an embarrassed flush crossed the other woman's face. "The reason I asked is . . . ! Well, forgive me for reminding you, but you ARE . . . "

Chuckles ran through the room. Mi-eun shook her head. "It's all right, Dana-ya," she assured her co-worker before she sat back in the chair. "The only possibility I could conceive of in this case would be to find young women who looked like the target units, and then pull a switch. Of course, we'd then have to keep in mind that the girls would not survive exposure to the fluids used in storing 33-S's . . . "

Yoshii Chieko, Dana and Isabel's former classmate from Akimena High, snapped her fingers. "Hey, they don't even have to look exactly like the 33-S's whose places they're taking!" she reminded the others in the room. Noting confused looks on some of her co-workers' faces, she then added, "After all, the fluids used in storing endoskeletal boomers is a thick golden colour, right?"

"Right!" echoed from several of the others around the table.

"So when do we ask Koji to give the dorks running these places a swift boondocker up the ass to make them do a detailed sweep of each chamber?" Scott wondered, crossing his arms.

"Well, it can't be too soon, especially with this Largo running around the place," Shinken reminded him.

Nagase Kazuo sighed, rolling his eyes. "Oh, yes! Can't act unless there's no other choice."

"There's something we can do, though," Dana noted.

"What's that, Dana?" Scott wondered.

Dana sighed. "Scott, Largo's fitted with a satcom black box, remember? We'd better talk to our friends in USSD and USCOM to make sure the system can be cut off in case our stray omniboomer 'messiah' gets a little TOO trigger-happy."

"I'll talk to them," Kazuo vowed.

"Who do you know over there?" Mi-eun asked.

"Harushi Shigeo. He got promoted to take over from Hermann Schwarz after the whole thing with the prototype C-99 Mason instigated."

Shingo smirked. "Even though our good friend Hermann isn't really retired."

"Don't spread that around, amigo," Scott warned him.

Laughter echoed from the others in the room. "What did the wounds on that SDF major look like, Mi-eun?" Shinken asked.

"Takada-ssi?" Mi-eun asked in return. On seeing Shinken nod, she breathed out, "Like a crazed 48-C went to work on him. Both arms and a leg chopped off, his brain cored out through the forehead, several teeth physically ripped out of his mouth . . . "

Scott winced. "Whooo! Somebody sure got angry at somebody!"

"Here's the really interesting part, though," Mi-eun said before she told her co-workers about the message in blood.

"Russian?" Dana wondered before she sat back in her chair before staring at Isabel. "Hey, remember what Pyotr told us . . . ?"

Her friend perked. "The girl Mikhailov's friend always brags about!" Isabel declared as she tapped a control on the desk to call up a computer terminal. Tapping controls to get into the ExecNet, she accessed intelligence files before calling up a hologram. "Here!"

The image of a young woman in her early twenties appeared over the middle of the table, and then it began to rotate. Pinkish hair to the middle of her back, deep green eyes, a slightly tomboyish cast to her face and body build. "Who's this girl?" Shinken asked.

"Lanya Maksymovna Marakova," Isabel explained. "Age twenty-one. Abandoned at birth, was adopted by Maksym Alexandrovich Marakov at age three, raised by him alone in Ekaterinburg. Already's got her BSc and MBMS from Moscow State University and the Berlin Free University. She's writing her doctorate thesis at Cambridge right now. She'll be hooded in April. She's already made a lot of noise about coming to work for us in Megatokyo. Supposedly, she's also an intersexual. A female pseudo-hermaphrodite if you want to get specific about it."

"Yes, she does have a mannish cast about her face," Mi-eun observed.

"And . . . " Here, Dana held up a finger. "She currently owns property in Japan. In Nagoya to be exact."

Eyes locked on the lone 33-S in the room. "Really," Mi-eun mused, her eyebrow arching.


"It annoys me, Kenji-san," Yoshiko confessed, she relaxing with a small group of senior executives in one of the main meeting rooms scattered around the Tower's summit. Like the place where the members of Group Six were currently conferring, this room was sealed and secured from outside scrutiny. Unfortunately, since two of the people present were Kaneda Mark and Samantha Johnson -- the former a chain smoker's poster boy, the latter a relentless "retaliatory" smoker -- the air was thick with the stench of tobacco. Despite the temptation to cough, none of the others visibly reacted to Mark or Samantha lighting up. "The idea that these people believe they have the right to deny me, their superior, information that would allow me to carry out my task for the company . . . ! Tell me this, Kenji-san, would YOU allow that of any person working underneath you?" She stared at the other executives in the room. "Would any of you for that matter?"

"Much that I do sympathize with your concerns, Yoshiko-san, Group Six DOES exist specifically to see to the Chairman's personal needs and desires, not to mention the shareholders," Sousuke Kenji lamented. Like the other executives in the room, he truthfully wouldn't care if Fukuda Yoshiko were to die tomorrow. Among the real centres of power in Genom, she was ultimately a nobody. A puppet who had been put into Kataki Tsuyoshi's place by Quincy on Brian Mason's recommendation -- most likely so that Mason could get his hands on the people in Group Six. That the late special executive assistant, a man almost EVERYONE in the room thoroughly despised -- even Taeko Manabe, seated close to Yoshiko and Kenji, had felt an overwhelming sense of relief when Mason had died -- had been secretly planning to unseat Quincy and take over Genom was a given. His life and death were a brutal object lesson to anyone looking to the highest seat in the company:

Reach too far, too fast -- and suffer.

"I understand that, sir. And I want to see to it that the Chairman and the others Wallace-san and his friends serve are served as well," Yoshiko asserted. "But there is a firm chain of command in this company and the Chairman has not hinted to me in any way that he wishes to have Group Six fall under his direct command and control, as Tamura-san serves him."

"Well, I'm sure the Chairman trusts you enough to do what you have to do for him," Mark stated as he unsealed the chamber. "If you'll excuse us, Yoshiko-san, there're some matters we'd want to discuss between ourselves."

"Of course, Mark-san," Yoshiko pleasantly acknowledged his unspoken request with a nod, and then she rose to leave.

As soon as she was gone, Mark resealed the chamber. Some in the room quietly relaxed, glad the accumulated smoke had been somewhat vented out before the doors were closed. It was all part of the game that dominated their lives and their work in Genom. To be tempted to show ANY sign of weakness in any regard was to be avoided like the plague. That Fukuda Yoshiko didn't fully realize that was just too bad.

"Where the hell did Mason find that woman, Manabe-san?" Mark demanded. "With apologies to the ladies with us at this time . . . " Atop Samantha, the only other woman present was Melissa Saunders. Melissa was deputy chief for Genom's biometrics research and development unit, a cunning boardroom warrior who had played the corporate game very well in her eight years working for Genom. "There is only one thing about our honoured 'friend' that I can say about her." He held up a finger. "And that she's . . . "

"An airheaded twit," Melissa cut him off, a smirk crossing her face.

Mark stopped himself, and then a chuckle escaped him. "I was actually going to say something a little more vulgar, Melissa-san."

"I wouldn't blame you, Mark-san. And while I won't presume to speak for Samantha-san, I wouldn't be offended by whatever obscenity you chose to use for Fukuda," Melissa retorted before gazing on Manabe. "Do you think Mason ever screwed that bitch, Manabe-san?"

Manabe shook his head. "No, Melissa-san. To be honest with you all, Brian was a eunuch with a dick. Sex meant nothing to him."

"That's a nasty thing to say about your friend, isn't it?" Samantha wondered.

Manabe smirked. "He was a good teacher for me, but he was certainly no friend, Samantha-san. And look what happened to him. He got obsessed over the Knight Sabres -- four girls in hardsuits that go after rogue boomers! -- and that did him in finally." He shrugged. "I don't believe anyone in this room would be so foolish as to pull some of the stunts Brian did before he got his throat slit, ne?"

Morbid laughter echoed through the room. "Well, who cares about Mason?" Mark stated. "While putting up to Yoshiko-san does give us a few laughs, the fact that there's now a new person in Group Six directly related to Tsuyoshi-san should give us all a little pause."

"Where did she come from?" Melissa demanded. "I heard rumours that she was killed in the quake."

"I heard those same rumours, Melissa-san," Kenji confirmed. "Even sent probes into Korea to ascertain where Tsuyoshi-san's daughter was and if she was either truly alive or dead." A tired sigh escaped him. "My people couldn't confirm that information either way."

Admitting that was no show of weakness to the other people in the room, Kenji knew. Kataki Tsuyoshi, for all his personal sense of honour, his loyalty and service to Genom, had been a master corporate warrior. Some had suspected that when the time came, Quincy would have chosen Tsuyoshi to take his place at the top seat in the great zaibatsu. Even Brian Mason had treaded carefully around Kataki, everyone in the room knew. Not a year ago, the senior executives with real power in the Tower had a simple choice when it came to making alliances with their peers: Ally yourself with Mason, ally yourself with Kataki or stay out of it completely and risk losing it all. When Kataki left in April, everyone who had been on his side had been left exposed, ready to fall before Mason and his allies. Mason's death in September had prevented that state of affairs from blossoming into an all-out corporate civil war within Genom's highest ranks. And now . . .

"It's a given fact that Kataki's on the speed lift to taking her father's place in Market Analysis and GSS," Mark mused.

"The question is when and how it'll happen," Samantha agreed.

"Much less what happens afterward," Melissa added.

"I think we're all thinking about that, Melissa-san," Kenji stated.

The others nodded.


The Tower, Wednesday 9 February, late afternoon . . .

"Where exactly did you obtain this, Iheya-ssi!"

"One of the executives who came here from Miami after the quake brought it with him. He left it here when he went back to the States three years ago, Kataki-sama," Iheya Toshiki replied. The chief of the Tower's motor pool, Toshiki worked very hard to provide the senior executives access to some hot personal transportation. The collection of vehicles here -- fifty-seven by Mi-eun's count -- was a wild mix of makes, types and styles. Currently holding Mi-eun's attention was a late 1970s vintage Pontiac Trans Am, the same type of vehicle Burt Reynolds drove when he starred in a series of films with Jackie Gleason. "The chassis is in very good shape, the engine's been converted to gasohol, she meets all road safety and emission standards for half the planet and the basic security additions have been put in."

"Performance?" Mi-eun asked.

"Just as good as in the movies, ma'am," he assured her with a proud grin. "Even better in certain ways."

The executive nodded. "Excellent. Would you mind if I took her for a test drive?"

"Not at all, ma'am. I'll get the keys."

He trotted off. Mi-eun watched him go, and then she sensed Kisa standing behind him. "Your opinion, Kisa-ya?" she asked in Korean.

"I'd prefer if you used the limousine, Kwajang-nim," the guardian boomer replied in kind. "It would be much safer for you."

"There is no true safety in this company, Kisa-ya," Mi-eun countered. "Besides, limousines are expected for those who have the real reigns of power and influence at the Tower. That makes them ripe targets in case some fool decides to have some fun. And when it comes to our group, my friend, attracting attention to any of us is the LAST thing we want to do. Keep that in mind."

He nodded. "Ne, Kwajang-nim."

Toshiki trotted up seconds later, a set of keys in hand. "Here you go, ma'am."

"Arigatou," Mi-eun reverted to Japanese as she took the keys.


Minutes later, two vehicles passed through the Tower main gates, turning south to take the long trip back to the Koohoku Estates as evening rush hour began. Following the Trans Am was a limousine with Kisa in the driver's seat. As he watched his superior guide her car back to the family home, the disguised C-55 tried not to frown too much. Regardless of which part of the company she worked in, Kataki Mi-eun was the person he had been charged with to protect. To actually expose herself in THIS matter was unnecessarily reckless in his eyes. And he cared enough for the people he was ultimately expected to protect -- Tsuyoshi and Mi-eun -- to worry about these sorts of things.

Kisa -- his name meant "knight" in Korean -- was one of the first C-55s constructed by Genom in late 2030. He had been originally tasked to Kataki Tsuyoshi as part of his personal bodyguard force. Concerned that potential rivals might target him through his boomers, Tsuyoshi had all of them, Kisa included, modified by Saotome Yoshio's friend, Himoo Yuina. That work, atop cutting all of them away from the influence of the Overmind Control System network without causing any detriment in performance, had allowed the budding flower of full sentience and self-thought to emerge within Kisa and his brothers. It was enough to save two of them through the Janus process a year ago when a reconnaissance mission against the Russian mob in Sendai had gone awry. While Kisa never directly asked what happened to them, he had overheard a conversation between Tsuyoshi and Mikihara Megumi concerning them. Both were presently female cyber-bioroids serving as nurses for Toratotaka in South America, their service expected to last several years before either of them would be allowed to return to Japan.

The two-car convoy slipped into the southbound express traffic heading over the Fault into the metropolis' southern wards. Glancing at the vehicles around him, Kisa smirked before glancing once more on the Trans Am directly ahead of his car. That Mi-eun was in fact a 33-S was of no concern to him. The true authority he acknowledged as supreme -- Tsuyoshi -- had accepted her without reservation. The people who worked with Mi-eun in Special Services Group Six had welcomed her with open arms. Even Quincy had no problems with this.

Beyond that, the opinions of others were not relevant.

Oh, yes, he had to keep her true nature under firm wraps. That was a given. There was just no way that Mi-eun's potential rivals in the Tower would treat her with ANY sort of respect if they learned she was a boomer. Thinking about that, Kisa frowned. It was a pity that the whole Janus process couldn't be invoked for Mi-eun right now. As a cyber-bioroid, protected by laws over five decades old that were never spoken of in everyday conversation, even in the Tower, Mi-eun's chances for acceptance and advancement were . . .

Kisa watched as a sleek motorcycle raced past to his right, passing both his limousine and the Trans Am ahead of him. At the same time, the small truck ahead of Mi-eun's vehicle moved to slip into the fast lane. As the motorcycle whizzed ahead of him, the truck driver slammed on the brakes. The vehicle skidded sideways, becoming a wall for the Trans Am to ram headlong into. Kisa braked his vehicle as the front end of the sports car was crushed on hitting the truck broadside. As Kisa engaged the parking break of the limousine, throwing open the door to see what had just happened to Mi-eun, the truck's gas tank exploded, turning the Trans Am's unarmoured windshield into a shower of very sharp and fast ballistic objects, all firing back through the passenger compartment to blow out the back window!

"MI-EUN!" he screamed, bolting out of the limousine and racing into the flames.


The video phone rang. "Moshi-moshi, Saotome . . . "

"Kachou-san, it's Fujiki at the Barn! The Janus receiver unit just came on-line!"

Yoshio tensed. "Who!"

"That third gen 33-S you warned me about, sir! She's being downloaded now!"

The House Patriarch blinked, his skin sallowing. "Oh, shit!"


"MI-EUN!"

Traffic on the expressway ground to a halt as Kisa plunged into the sea of fire that had just been a Trans Am driven by his superior. As the clothes and pseudo-flesh encasing his armoured body began to burn away, his scanners went active as he opened a scrambled link with the Tower. He ripped off the passenger side door as his eyes fixed on the humanoid form impaled on the shattered steering column. Reaching in, he pushed Mi-eun's now-burning body off that hard rod, allowing it to slump against the chair. With that, he grabbed her by the back and under the thighs, then moved to pull her out of the inferno as he sensed someone with a fire extinguisher try to go to work nearby.

"Kisa, what's going on!" Scott Wallace's voice echoed in the boomer's head.

Mi-eun's been hurt bad, sir! the boomer transmitted back as he cleared the flames. Around him, the growing crowd of onlookers was quick to see the smouldering body cradled in his arms. As cheers went up from them, Kisa barked out, "Blanket!"

"Wait!" one of the onlookers replied before sprinting back to his vehicle.

"How bad!" Scott demanded.

It's bad! Kisa transmitted back.

"Scott!" a new voice broke in.

Scott was quick to recognize it. "Yoshio!"

"We got her," the Toratotaka division chief executive announced.

"Here!" the man called out as he ran back, a blanket in hand.

"Oh, shit!" Scott spat out.

"Thanks!" Kisa held out a hand, and then he laid the blanket on the tarmac before moving to place Mi-eun's body on it. Orders, sir?

"Take the old body to your tower, Scott," Yoshio suggested. "We'll have her on her feet in a day or two."

"We're on it," Scott vowed as Kisa heard gasps from the more brave of the onlookers watching him move to smother the still-burning elements of the 33-S's clothing. "Kisa, get her to the Tower right away. Full security precautions."

Acknowledged, Kisa transmitted as he moved to wrap her up. "I have to take her to the Tower," he announced to the crowd. "Her vital signs are very weak. She could die waiting for the paramedics. Please inform the police they'll be contacted about this."

"Go!" the man who brought the boomer the blanket barked.

Picking the body up, Kisa deployed the booster jets on his back, and then he leapt off for the Tower as sirens echoed . . .


"What's the status on Mi-eun, Sonia-san!"

"She just came through, Saotome-kachou. We're commencing wake-up procedures now."

"All right, then . . . "


The Tower, later . . .

"What the hell happened!"

People turned as Shingo stormed into the room. Scott walked over to hand his friend a cup of coffee. "Auto crash on the Bayshore Expressway," the American muttered as Shingo took the offered cup. "Mi-eun was driving a Trans Am she got from the motor pool."

Shingo paled. "And?"

"Motorcycle raced past on the fast lane just as the truck in front of her was about to swerve into it," Dana explained. "He skids to a halt, she smashes right into his gas tank, then boom!" Dana made an exploding motion with her hands. "Hello, Janus."

"Yoshio-kun called in right away," Isabel added. "It was instantaneous."

Shingo stared at his co-workers, the shock of the announcement hitting him like an avalanche. He staggered, nearly dropping the cup before he could find a chair to sit in. Silence fell over the crowd as they watched Shingo. He moaned, allowing his face to sink into his palms. Watching him, the others could only exchange understanding looks. Nothing needed to be said at this time. Everyone in Group Six understood the implications of what was happening to their friend and new co-worker. Kataki Mi-eun was a 33-S boomer. Janus had just been invoked. Mi-eun's replacement body had been constructed and prepared by Toratotaka. What that would lead to was understood by all.

Kazuo walked into the conference room. "We got the replacement body for the accident," he announced, handing a file to Scott.

The American scanned the contents. "Who's she?"

"Drug OD victim friends of ours found in the Fault with a few others. Usual work over we did with them before putting them on dry ice for these contingencies," Kazuo morbidly chuckled. One of Megatokyo's many secrets was how bodies, mostly of street kids or the homeless, tended to disappear, to reappear whenever a body or two was needed to cover whatever other secret needed to be kept. "As of ten minutes ago, she became Toyotomi Keiko, an office lady working for us who was delivering the Firebird to Mi-eun's residence at her request. I got Chieko down at the motor pool now to make sure that's the story Iheya'll tell the traffic police when they come by. Kisa knows what to do."

The others nodded. "What about AD Police?" Isabel asked. "Kisa was involved in this, remember?"

"Oh, they'll probably send one of their varsity over to check things out. But with all the witnesses who saw what Kisa did . . . "

"I'll handle that part," Scott vowed. "Most likely, it'll be Leon McNichol or Daley Wong."

"Will they bring Kaneko-chan?" Dana asked, an amused smirk crossing her face.

The members of Group Six exchanged looks. Brian Mason had gone out of his way to keep that interesting part of his operations as secret as possible from everyone in the conglomerate, especially those who'd handled the transfer of 33-S's to Genaros after the Sexaroids had been recalled and banished from Earth. It stopped being a secret to people in Group Six twenty minutes after Akamura Kaneko (built as 33-S first generation Unit AA79A) reported to work for the first time at Tokyo Metropolice's main forensics lab. Some of the evidence she was made to "lose" to protect Mason had been recovered by Group Six (with help from Mikihara Megumi and her staff in Nerima), ready to reappear when it was needed to discredit the late special assistant and clear up some cases that had been haunting Genom.

Of all the people in Group Six, only Scott had met Kaneko, shortly after Mason had died. The news he had given her had significantly buoyed the beautiful 33-S police officer's spirits after the years of living in near-constant terror of discovery. Largo's move to switch Kaneko to the forensics laboratory at AD Police back in December hadn't truthfully changed Kaneko's sense of safety, much less her desire to help other free boomers stay free. Atop Megumi, Hirosaki Chikage and Kasuga Ayumu at the Spiral were keeping an eye on Kaneko.

"I'll talk to her," Scott vowed.


Minutes later, the conference room used by Group Six was empty of all save Shingo. The coffee Scott had given his friend had gone cold. He was staring nowhere in particular, his mind rolling over and over as the events of the last several hours replayed themselves.

Janus.

The protocol that saved sentient boomers from final death, freeing them to potentially enjoy a whole new life.

The protocol Saotome Yoshio had used to save Chie's life. And Shiho's. And so many others, including Yoshio's kid sister Yumi.

The protocol that just saved Mi-eun's life.

But this would come with a price tag attached to it.

And Toratotaka would be intent on collecting.

Shingo took a deep breath as he reached for his NAVI. Dialling a number, he waited for the other end to respond. The link went through in two seconds. "Moshi-moshi, Saotome here," Yoshio spoke up as his face appeared on the palmtop's screen.

"How is she?" Shingo asked.

A light smile crossed the House Patriarch's face. "She came through without a hitch. Things on your end covered?"

Shingo remained still for a moment before shakily nodding. "Yeah." He paused before taking a deep breath. "Yoshio?"

"You don't want us to take Mi-eun away from Genom, I take it."

"No." A pause, and then he added, "I know you people give a ten-year grace period for those like Mi-eun. But . . . "

"You feel she's needed there. And she doesn't need to think about giving payback to us, right?"

"Yes."

Yoshio stared at him a moment before he announced, "Come to my office tomorrow morning. We'll discuss it then."

"Right," Shingo acknowledged, his voice hollow.


The Toratotaka Complex, Thursday 10 February, late morning . . .

A gasp escaped Mi-eun as she bolted straight up, her eyes wide as the last moments of her life as a 33-S flashing through her mind. Taking several deep breaths, she felt her hammering heart. The door off to her left opened, revealing a lovely silver-haired, dark-eyed woman in her early twenties, she dressed in a doctor's smock over a turtleneck sweater and a knee-length skirt. "Ah, you're awake!" she declared as one hand automatically drew a medical scanner from her smock pocket. "How do you feel this morning, Kataki-san?"

Mi-eun quaked as she gazed nowhere in particular, a chill warping through her body as she focused on the total silence from deep within her mind. Even for a boomer which had been active for just over a week, she had become quite used to hearing the constant voiceless reports of her housekeeping computer. To not sense ANYTHING from that part of her mind . . . !

"S-sounsaeng-n-nim . . . ?" she finally stuttered. "J-janus?"

The doctor stopped gazing on her scanner before slowly nodding. She had learned everything about Mi-eun from Hatoyama Rinrin. "I'm afraid so, Kataki-san. You 'died' at about 5:20 yesterday afternoon after your car crashed into the side of a truck on the Bayshore Expressway. Since your replacement body was in the Barn at Tachikawa and since Matsuoka-san and Rinrin-chan were the ones who saw you woken and programmed, Yoshio-otousan had it prepped in case something like this happened." She resumed scanning. "Under normal circumstances, it takes between 48 and 72 hours to have a boomer's soul shifted into her replacement body. Then again, there are many people who are dependent on you getting back on your feet and you returning to work in the Tower as quickly as possible."

Mi-eun remained silent as her mind absorbed the information the doctor just gave her. She then started as the way the other woman just addressed Saotome Yoshio came back to her. "You're a Child Companion!" she blurted out. "You're just like Rinrin-a!"

The other woman grinned. "Yes, I am." Mi-eun was quick to sense the hearty flavour of Hokkaido in the doctor's voice as she continued. "Actually, Kataki-san, I'm the prototype for all the Child Companions. 'Sea-Sea-Oh-Oh-Dee' if you want to tag a number to me, but we really don't use numbers here in Toratotaka." Her hand came up to hover over her heart. "My name's Shiina Kaoru."

Mi-eun took that in as she felt her cheeks heat. "I'm pleased to meet you, Kaoru-ounni."

Kaoru laughed. "Please, there's no need to call me THAT, Kataki-san . . . "

"Mi-eun."

They stared at each other, and then Kaoru reached down to grip her patient's hand. "Kaoru. Please, don't call me 'elder sister,' Eun-a. I get enough of that from the other girls. At least Chikage-chan doesn't do that to me, thank the gods! Now, let's get finished."

"Ne."

Kaoru quickly finished her scan. "All right, then. All your body organs are functioning properly. Your mind's meshed in well with your new brain. It'll be disorientating because you no longer have a housekeeping computer, but you should be able to adjust soon enough. We'll put you through some aerobics this afternoon, soon as we get a meal into you. Soft foods for the first few days, then you can go back to your normal diet. I think, given that you DO have memories from a pair of pure-organics, that you'll be able to adjust to your new body a lot faster than what's normal even for a 33-S. Other than that, you'll be back to work by tomorrow at the earliest."

Mi-eun stared at her. "At the Tower?"

"Yes." Kaoru stared at her. "That's where you work, isn't it?"

"But what about my service to Toratotaka, Kaoru-ya? I know the rules about that when it comes to Janus."

"That won't have to concern you, Mi-eun."

Both women spun around as someone stepped into the room. "Saotome-gyosunim!" Mi-eun blurted.

"Otou-san, what are you doing here!" Kaoru demanded.

Yoshio chuckled, reaching over to give the eldest of the Child Companions a one-armed hug. "Hey, Kaoru-chan." He then turned to gaze on the latest person to be reborn via Janus. "As for you, Mi-eun, I'm happy to state that you won't have to worry about owing us 'payback' service for you getting your new body. I just got a call from Scott Wallace. The accident's been covered. You're in the clear."

Mi-eun stared at him, and then she sighed. "Kyosu-nim, I'm fully aware of the rules concerning 33-S's and cyber-bioroid replacement bodies produced by Toratotaka because of what you did concerning the Janus circuits. Please, I'm prepared to . . . "

Yoshio halted her with a raised hand. "Please, I'm sure you're more than prepared to do what you feel is right and proper. That speaks very highly of you, Mi-eun. However, there is a rule I doubt even YOU are aware of concerning involvement in Toratotaka for those like you. In specific circumstances, when it's believed that your 'disappearance' will actually prove to be quite detrimental to those you were involved with while you were a 33-S, a substitution can be allowed so that you can return to where you're needed more."

Silence.

"A substitution . . . ?" Mi-eun hissed, and then her eyes widened as the most likely choice came to her. "Shingo?"

Yoshio gazed on her, and then he nodded. "Yes."

"NO!" Mi-eun screamed out, reaching for the House Patriarch. "NO! Kyosu-nim, you can't ask him to do that! Please . . . !"

Kaoru restrained the screaming woman. Yoshio remained silent as Mi-eun's protests quickly melted into a chorus of sobs, the strength in her body fading as she sank into the doctor's comforting embrace. Staring at her, the House Patriarch cursed himself, wishing once again that the rules concerning the use of Toratotaka's cyber-bioroid technology didn't come with so many damned strings attached. Thinking that, he then recalled the brogue-tinted voice of the ageless woman from Scotland who partially owned the company when it came to this topic:

We're humanity's HELPER, Yoshio. We are NOT their bleeding CRUTCH!

"Kyosu-nim . . . "

Yoshio then sighed. "Mi-eun, are you trying to imply that Shingo's honour means less than yours?"

Mi-eun froze, the colour draining from her face as his question struck home, and then she shakily turned to gaze on Kaoru. Seeing the understanding look on the young doctor's face, Mi-eun blinked before whispering, "He was prepared for this, wasn't he?"

Yoshio nodded. "Yes. And in a way, he has to do this, Mi-eun." He raised his voice. "Megumi, can you come in here, please!"

Mi-eun turned as Mikihara Megumi stepped in. Staring at the Toratotaka senior intelligence officer, the former Sexaroid blinked, and then she jolted, her whole body suddenly tingling with a shower of cold fire as SOMETHING seemed to wash over and through her. Instantly, she sensed Kaoru also tensing. A glance to Yoshio revealed a slight flush crossing his face. She looked once more on Megumi, remembering the odd feeling that had struck her about the other woman when they had first met in Quincy's office no more than a day ago . . .

"Sounbae . . . " she whispered, her eyes widening as it finally came to her. "You're . . . ! You're a . . . !"

"Yes, Eun-a," Megumi confirmed with a slight nod as the tingly feeling dancing through Mi-eun's body faded. "You probably know of my participation in the Kirameki 'back to organic' club when I was still in high school. The price of 'admission,' so to speak . . . " Here, her eyes turned up to gaze at Yoshio for a moment, a forgiving smile crossing her face. "Was to allow myself to have neurophages injected into my mind as a way of improving myself without resorting to the normal run of cyber-plugs available to everyone else. And because Yoshio allowed the 'phages to be augmented with red meson dust taken from Dame Nicole's crystal palace, when the quake struck the school . . . "

"You physically died," Mi-eun finished, her voice hoarse as the full realization of what Megumi, Yoshio and their friends had lived through nine years ago sank in. "Yet your mind was frozen literally in place. Until . . . " Her gaze turned to focus on Yoshio.

"Until I used the Janus process Katsuhito 'taught' me to restore them to life," the House Patriarch said.

Silence fell as Mi-eun took that in. She then asked, "How many others . . . ?"

"A total of thirty-five," Yoshio replied. "Including my sister Yumi . . . "

"Thirteen girls from Kirameki High, eight girls from Akimena High, two from Akimena Girl's High School . . . " Megumi added.

"And twelve girls from around the country who were close friends to a friend of mine from Akimena who died in the quake," Yoshio said as he closed his eyes. "One of them, Mi-eun . . . " He paused for a moment. "Is Shingo's older sister, Chie."

Mi-eun gazed on the people before her, and then she glanced at Kaoru. Seeing her nod, she turned back to Yoshio. "Then why . . . ?"

"I subbed myself for them," Yoshio answered. "Well, those who didn't want to work for Toratotaka or our friends."

His eyes fell on Megumi. "Some of us, even if we don't work directly for Toratotaka, do our best to help the company out in whatever way we can," the SFIO added, her eyes turning to gaze on Kaoru. "Ijuuin Rei is one of them."

"I see." Mi-eun then took a deep breath. "When will he go?"

"In the next few days," Yoshio replied. "Don't worry. You'll get the chance to see him before he goes."

"Thank you."


The Tower, Friday 11 February, morning . . .

"Kwajang-nim, are you all right?"

Mi-eun perked on hearing Park Sun-hee's question. Today was Japan's National Foundation Day, allowing many people in Genom a chance to take an extended holiday. For the people in Genom Special Services Group Six, it was business as usual. "Eh!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but you seem a little distracted," the office lady noted as Mi-eun gazed on her, speaking in Korean.

Mi-eun blinked as she mentally ran over the other woman's comments, and then she sighed. "Yes, I am a little distracted, Park-ssi."

"Is it because of Matsuoka-gwajangnim leaving the group, Kwajang-nim?"

Mi-eun nodded. "Yes. I realize the Chairman has the right to assign any of us anywhere and we really have no right to question those sorts of decisions. But . . . " She paused for a second. "Well, I'm sure Shingo-ssi'll be all right."

"Is it a dangerous assignment, ma'am?"

The executive considered that question for a moment, and then she stared at Sun-hee. "You best not ask questions like that, Park-ssi," she replied, keeping her voice low. "The less you know, the less chances are there for you to get into trouble. Understand?"

Sun-hee nodded. She had heard all the "war stories," too. "I understand, Kwajang-nim. Excuse me, please."

She headed off to her work cubicle. Mi-eun watched her go, and then she turned to sit at her desk. Flicking on her computer, she tapped into the ExecNet, and then she moved to call up whatever updates Group Six had received concerning Largo and his "friends." A second later, a message from the Toratotaka SFIO in Versailles, Robert de la Rochelles, flashed before her. "Interesting," she whispered.

"What's interesting?" a voice asked from the door.

Mi-eun turned to see Scott Wallace standing there. Beckoning her co-worker in with a nod, she pointed at her computer screen. Scott closed the door, and then he walked over to read what was there. "From Robert, huh?" he mused before he gaped. "Holy shit!"

"It appears Tanaka-ssi wasn't the only one of Largo's 'friends' to suffer a gruesome fate," she declared before clicking her tongue.

"A DGSE officer, too?" Scott wondered. "How the fuck did Largo meet up with one of them?"

"Is this Mason or Armstrong that's guiding him along?"

"Where's this guy's girl?"

"Arrived in Megatokyo yesterday, direct low orbital from Paris. According to Mikihara-sounbaenim's staff, AT64A currently lives under the name 'Charlotte Ismay.' She's staying with AR57A -- We've confirmed her alias, 'Angela Bell' -- in that ryokan in Itabashi."

"What's the Directorate planning to do?"

Mi-eun called up the message from Versailles. "Robert-ssi promises us that he'll keep things calm with the French. But they do want answers as to what happened to their man. Lisieux-ssi was a senior field officer. Even worked at their training academy. The amount of knowledge and information he possessed . . . " Her voice trailed off as she sat back in her chair. "Who else has Largo turned?"

"He got fifteen 33-S's out of storage," Scott mused. "Plus he'll have access to whatever bank accounts Mason once had."

"True."

A knock at the door. Mi-eun blanked the screen, and then she rose as it opened to reveal Fukuda Yoshiko. The look on the older woman's face told both Mi-eun and Scott that she was clearly not happy about something. "Is there a problem, Fukuda-ssi?" Mi-eun asked.

"Yes, Kataki-san, there IS a problem," Yoshio flatly stated. "May I ask why is it you now have a personal physician . . . ?"

"Because her father asked me to become her personal physician, Fukuda-san," a voice that was quite familiar to Mi-eun echoed from outside her office, making Yoshiko spin around just as Shiina Kaoru stepped up. "Hello again, Kataki-san."

Mi-eun gaped. "Um, h-hello, Shiina-baksanim!" She then blinked. "Appa asked you to do this!"

"Indeed, he did!" Kaoru replied. "He's also been so kind as to arrange for a work space for me here, a couple levels down in fact. I've got some friends moving my stuff in right now. Oh, by the way, I met up with Matsuoka-san's replacement as I came in. Sonia-san!"

"Hai!" a voice called from outside the office.

Everyone turned as a grey-eyed, black-haired woman in casual clothing stepped up. Scott's eyes widened considerably on seeing the newcomer; he knew a lot of the more experienced "MX" Cyber-Nurses on sight. "Fujiki-san, welcome to Genom Special Services!" he called out before Yoshiko could say anything, walking over to shake Fujiki Sonia's hand. "I'm Scott Wallace. I'm in charge of GSS Group Six."

"Pleased. I suspect you're the man I have to see," Sonia said, shaking his hand. She then gazed on Mi-eun. "Kataki-ssi."

Mi-eun nodded in turn. "Fujiki-ssi." She then stared at Yoshiko, quietly reaching out with her pheromones -- in her new body, the diamond meson energy crystals buried in various places under her skin gave her the ability to use those mood-altering particles to a degree she could never have dreamt of, even as a 33-S -- to ensure that the older woman wouldn't stay any longer in a place where she was clearly not wanted. "If you'll excuse us, Fukuda-ssi, Wallace-ssi and I have to help both Fujiki-ssi and Shiina-baksanim get moved in."

"I..." Yoshiko's voice quickly lost its effect as Sonia's and Kaoru's eyes locked on her. Being hit by pheromones by THREE cyber-bioroids overwhelmed her so quickly, she simply turned and headed out, walking back to her own office.

The others watched her go, and then Mi-eun, Kaoru and Sonia relaxed. The latter closed the door as the eldest of the Child Companions clicked her tongue. "It seems Megumi-obachan was right about that one," Kaoru declared. "A selfish, mindless, gutless bitch."

"Do you want me to arrange something terrible and fatal to happen to her, Scott?" Sonia asked.

Scott hummed, and then he stared at Mi-eun. Seeing her shrug, he turned back to the Cyber-Nurse. "Might be a good idea, Sonia."

"I'll get planning it right away," Sonia vowed.


Tokyo Space Port, Monday 14 February, late evening . . .

"I still feel as if it's my fault . . . "

"Rinrin-a, don't say that," Mi-eun soothed. Both had come right away to the departure lounge of Megatokyo's primary gateway to the orbital stations around Earth. The members of Thousand Black, along with Mi-eun's co-workers in Group Six, would be here soon.

Currently, Matsuoka Shingo was being prepped by the port staff for the trip to Odyssey. Located in a geostationary orbit over Lake Ontario between Toronto and Rochester, Odyssey was the sixth of the primary relay stations the Space Public Development Corporation ran to support more remote operations at the Lagrange points and beyond the Moon's orbit. Unknown to almost everyone else, Odyssey -- the station's construction had been solely financed by Toratotaka though the actual building was handled by a consortium formed by Samguk and Bombardier, a Quebec-based transportation megacorp -- was also Earth's only link to the galaxy beyond the asteroid belt. Rinrin and Mi-eun both knew that from Odyssey, Shingo would travel via space-warp to Triton, largest of the moons of Neptune. There, he would meet up with a ship sent from a distant world beyond the galaxy's frontiers. From there, he would be off to some planet parsecs away to help with terra-forming duties.

Rinrin frowned. "Still . . . "

"Rinrin-a, please!" Mi-eun urged, reaching over to squeeze the other cyber-bioroid's shoulder. "It happened. It would've happened to me no matter what. You know that." A pause, and then, "To be frank, I'm actually relieved that it happened so soon. At least now, I won't have to worry about trying to shield myself from those who'd hate the idea of 33-S's working so high up in Genom."

The teen scientist took that in. "And you got this malfunction jerk Largo running around the place . . . "

"Rinrin-chan, PLEASE don't blurt that out to everyone in hearing range!"

Both women turned as Shingo emerged from a side room dressed in a space pressure suit, his travelling bag in hand. Also emerging from the room was a technician wearing the standard SDPC ground crew uniform. Staring at him, Mi-eun got a reassuring nod from the other fellow before he headed off. Good. The fellow was an agent of either Genom, Toratotaka or one of the United Nations' special operations agencies, either USSD or the United Nations Intelligence Agency. The room was secure from potential eavesdropping from "unauthorized" sources.

Placing his luggage down, Shingo walked over to draw both women into his arms. "You sure you're gonna be okay up there, Ji-chan?" Rinrin wondered, sniffing back her tears as they pulled back. She didn't know everything about THIS aspect of Janus, but she knew enough.

"I'll be fine," Shingo assured her. "They're sending me to a planet where the terra-forming's almost done. And besides . . . " He gazed knowingly at Mi-eun. "The Chairman personally asked me to keep a close eye on Diedre-san and Liberte-san."

Tsuyoshi's memories told Mi-eun everything she needed to know about Diedre Mathan and Liberte Gent. "Ah! That's good. Oh!" She then perked on remembering something before pulling something from behind her back. "I think you can sneak this aboard the shuttle."

Rinrin giggled as the package of giri choko was handed over to the just-retired GSS executive. Shingo flustered as he took it, and then he sighed. Staring at Mi-eun, he took a deep breath, and then, after placing the package with his luggage, he opened his arms. Mi-eun leaned into his embrace, both allowing tears to flow. "Thank you," Mi-eun whispered. "For giving me life, Shingo-ya. Thank you so much."

"You deserved it. Your dad deserved it, too," Shingo asserted. "Just promise me one thing, Eun-a."

They stared into each other's eyes, and then Mi-eun nodded. "It will be done, Shingo-ya. My word of honour."

He smiled. "Kamsahamnida," he thanked her in Korean.

"Hey, there you are, Shingo . . . ! WHOA!"

The three turned to see the members of Thousand Black walk into the lounge. Along with them were the executives of Group Six. And Saotome Yoshio, he carrying a long, narrow case. "Hey, guys!" Shingo greeted them with a wave, and then he turned to Chie. "You were wondering what I was up to when you guys were playing at Hot Legs. Well, here she is." He waved to Mi-eun as he performed introductions.

Chie and Shiho gazed intently on Mi-eun, their own internal senses quickly telling them the truth about Shingo's co-worker. The couple exchanged a knowing look before they glanced a silent question at Yoshio. He nodded. Chie blinked, and then she smiled before turning back to Mi-eun. "It's a pleasure to meet you." She held out her hand. "I hope everything my bro' did'll be worth it."

"I guarantee it, Sounbae-nim," Mi-eun vowed, keeping her voice low.

The members of Thousand Black were close enough to hear the title Mi-eun used. Since it sounded very close to "sempai" -- the title a "production" Toratotaka cyber-bioroid would use for one of the "prototypes" -- the information just exchanged between their band mates and the Genom executive told them everything. Yoshio then walked up, handing the case to Shingo. "Just in time," he announced, winking.

Mi-eun blinked. "What's this?" she asked.

Shingo smirked as he turned, holding the case out to her. "For you. I won't be here on White Day to give it to you, Eun-a."

"Me!" Mi-eun gasped. Then, taking the case in hand, she stared at Yoshio before gazing again at Shingo. "What is this?"

"Something you'll probably need in the future," Shingo answered. "A lady in Genom deserves to be able to defend herself, ne?"

Mi-eun blinked, and then she walked over to a nearby couch. Laying the case down, she opened it. Staring at the gnarled cane inside, she reached in to draw it out. The cane's wooden shaft was remarkably thick for a device of this nature, it shaped to look as if someone a long time ago had taken a branch from an old tree, and then moulded it into a walking instrument. Made of black ironwood, it was topped by a silver L-shaped handle. Inspecting the handle, Mi-eun was quick to locate a tiny stud embedded in the ring where steel was mated to wood. Gazing at Yoshio, she was quick to note the knowing look deep in his eyes, and then a delighted grin crossed her face. "It's illegal in this country to carry a sword in the open, even for self-defence," the House Patriarch announced. "The Forge Master in Aberdeen makes these to allow people in the company to feel a little more safe while projecting a sort of illusion to those who might want to hurt them."

Mi-eun took that in, and then she asked, "Abotex?"

Yoshio snorted. "Sissy stuff. What do you think we'd make our swords out of?"

He winked at her, patted Shingo's arm, and then he walked off. The others watched him go, and then Scott turned to Chie. "Is he allowed to do that?" he asked. "Actually give an outsider a duranium-forged sword from Aberdeen of all places . . . ?"

Chie smirked, raising her finger to shush the American. "I won't say anything if you won't."

She winked. Everyone exchanged looks before laughter filled the room.


EPILOGUE

Outside Shanghai, that moment . . .

The rotted wood that covered the window of the old factory exploded inward. The body of the middle-aged man slammed into the concrete floor, the breath exploding from his lungs as sparkles danced through his vision. Before he could try to regain some sense of control over himself, someone front-flipped through the now-opened window, making a perfect two-point landing at his feet. A hand snapped over to grab him by his jacket, yanking him to his feet as the burning hsss! of charged vibro-claws being deployed tickled his ear. Panic seized him as he tried to take the pistol in his hand and shoot the monster that now held him in her grip. The sharp snapping noise of metal being sheared with the east of a hot knife cutting through melted butter hit him as the pistol was knocked clear of his fingers.

"Where is he, Jiang-wen?"

Zhuji Jiang-wen, a senior security executive in Zhongguo-Hindra, shuddered as those deadly blades were swung up to hover right over his face. The glow of those deadly weapons barely lit up the face of his attacker.

The face of someone who should actually be an ally.

"Where is Largo, Jiang-wen?" Lanya Marakova repeated, her Mandarin tinged with the barest hint of western Siberia. "Where the hell is that two-timing piece of biomechanical scrap?" As the burning rods of her vibro-claws began to drift towards the hapless executive's face, she smiled. A smile that promised very intense pain for her current prey. "I asked Jean-Jacques where he was. He didn't tell me. I asked Sohou where he was. He didn't tell me. I even asked Giovanni and Amon where he was. And they didn't tell me, either."

As the claws from her middle and ring fingers touched his cheeks, burning into the flesh on contact, Lanya's smile faded.

"WHERE -- IS -- HE!"

The only answer was a scream.

To Be Continued . . . !


PRONUNCIATION NOTES:

In Korean, the "soft" consonant sounds "k," "t," "p" and "ch" most often slurs into "g," "d," "b" and "j" respectively when found in the middle of a word or phrase. Hence, you have "Kwajang-nim" and "Kataki-gwajangnim." When the consonants are "hard," they are written with an apostrophe, i.e., "k'," "t'," "p'" or "ch'." The sound doesn't change if it appears in the middle of a word/phrase. The Korean "r" is similar to the Japanese version, but slurs into an English "l" when in the middle of a word. The Korean "s" follows the same rule as the Japanese version when followed by the "i" sound, i.e., it becomes "sh." The consonants "n," "m," "ng" and "h" are the same as in English.

The double consonants "kk," "tt," "pp" and "tch" (or "jj") are pronounced in the reverse order as their singular versions. At the start of the word, they sound like "g," "d," "b" and "j." In the middle, they sound like "k," "t," "p" and "ch." The double consonant "ss," when placed before "i," doesn't sound like "shi" but like a hissed "s" sound.

The Korean vowels "a," "e," "i," "o" and "u" are the same as in Japanese. The vowel "ae" sounds like "a" in "man." The vowel "ou" sounds like "o" in "hot." The vowel "eu" sounds like "u" in "put." "Y" diphthongs include "ya," "yae," "ye," "you," "yo" and "yu." "W" diphthongs include "wa" and "wae" (combination of "o" plus "a"/"ae"), "we" and "wi" (combination of "u" and "e"/"i"), "wo" (combination of "u" and "ou" sounds), "oe" (or "oi," combination of "o" and "i" sounds, but spoken as "e" in Seoul dialect) and "eui" (akin to "ue" in "chop suey").

When I place a single apostrophe between "n" and "g" (as in "han'geul" Korean alphabet), it implies that the two sounds are separate and not the "ng" sound. I do the same when we have confusing vowel sounds, i.e., "a'e" (as in "Saema'eul" New Village).


WRITERS' NOTES:

1) Genom executive ranks and shareholder titles in Korean:

Hoejang - the chairman.
T'aep'yo-isa - major shareholder.
Isa - minor shareholder.
Sajang - a department head, such as Chief of Security, Chief of Market Analysis and Research, etc.
Pujang - a division head, such as Chief of Genom Special Services, Chief of Tower Security, etc.
Sangmu - a work group head, such as Chief of GSS Group Six, etc.
Kwajang - a work section head.

Adding the honorific suffix "-nim" to the title expresses profound respect. When addressing equals, "nim" is normally dropped. The fact that Mi-eun addresses Fukuda Yoshiko by the simple honorific "ssi" shows how much she really respects her superior.

2) Other Korean titles:

Hyounja - Magus/Magi, wise person.
Kyosu - University professor.
Sounsaeng - Teacher, generic term for an older professional; basically used in the same manner as the Japanese "sensei."
Sounbae - Upperclassman; basically used in the same manner as the Japanese "sempai." Opposite is Hubae.
Paksa - Medical doctor.

3) Personal relations:

Abouji/Appa - Father/Dad.
Oumouni/Oumma - Mother/Mom.
Ajoussi - Uncle.
Ajumouni/Ajumma - Aunt/Auntie.
Harabounim/Harabouni - Grandfather/Grandpa.
Halmounim/Halmouni - Grandmother/Grandma.
Oppa/Ounni - Elder Brother/Sister (addressed by a woman).
Hyoung/Nuna - Elder Brother/Sister (addressed by a man).
Tongsaeng - Younger siblings (used by both men and women).

4) The basic honorifics:

nim - Same as Japanese "sama."
ssi - Same as Japanese "san."
ya/a - Same as Japanese "chan." The former is used for vowel-ending names, the latter for consonant-ending names, i.e. Nene-ya, Priss-a.

5) Other terms and translations:

Caide Sin Do'n Te Sin (pronounced "Cah-day Shin Dawn Tay Shin") - What is that to anyone? The lyrics and translation to the song, which appeared on Clannad's Banba album (1993), can be found on the Net.

Grenzschutzgruppe Neun - Border Police Group Nine. The team is always known by its German initials GSG9.

USCOM - United Nations Special Operations Command. This organization was created by Mike Ching for his Illusions-inspired fanfic Silent Storm, which is available at his website (under the Fanfiction section).

DGSE - Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (General Directorate of External Security).

MBMS - Master of Bio-Mechanical Sciences. Sometimes referred to by the administrators in other universities as an MBSc (Master of Boomer Sciences) or an MIST (Master of Inducted Sentient Technology). The next step up would be a PhD, though some universities are moving to grade such graduates as a DBMS (Doctor of Bio-Mechanical Sciences).

Giri choko - Obligation chocolates. In Japan on Valentine's Day, women give men they care for a gift of these. Men reciprocate on White Day (14 March). The traditional is also followed to a certain extent in Korea.