Bubblegum Crisis: Mind Strike

Adieus High School, Thornlow Ridge District, Mega-Tokyo

Friday 13th June 2042

English lessons were boring.

Raphael Mackenzie had never found them to be otherwise in all of the years that he had been at school. Not that he was bad at it; he daydreamed constantly, rarely paid attention to the teacher, but was the top scored student in the class. Even daydreaming he managed to pick up on mistakes that the teacher made in grammar and pronunciation.

This lesson was only different in what he was doing instead of paying proper attention to the class; his maths homework had taken him longer than he had hoped after he had skipped doing it last night when his parents were both out. He was easily going to get it finished, but the teacher of course knew what he was doing and kept asking him questions.

He was trying to put together one final set of equations, while debating pointing out the mistake that the teacher had just made, when the principle entered the classroom.

"Mr Mackenzie," she said sternly after excusing herself to the teacher. "Your mother is in reception, waiting to take you to the doctor's appointment. In future you will please make sure that you are in reception in time to be picked up for such things rather than wasting our time chasing you like this."

Raph blinked in surprise at that. He didn't have a doctor's appointment that he knew of, but it was unlikely that anyone would have made a mistake like this about whether it was him or not that they meant; two kidnappings five years ago had seen to the introduction of a subtle but thorough barrage of checks against anyone turning up claiming to be a parent.

"I'm sorry," he replied, stammering slightly. Someone at the back of the class giggled at his nervous tone of voice and the unpleasant attention he was receiving and he felt himself starting to blush in response. As a couple more people joined in, not quite loud enough to be picked out of the class, his embarrassment intensified. As he gathered his books and swept them off the desk into his bag the projector overhead flickered for a second. Raph gritted his teeth, forcing himself to calm down; some of the stuff that he had learnt from his mother about centring came back to him and he took a deep breath, forcing his pulse to slow down.

He followed the principle back to the reception area. His mother was indeed waiting, looking impatient. "There you are," she scolded. "Next time you'd better remember to come in time; we're going to be late as it is now."

Raph waited until everyone else was out of hearing range before answering softly. "I don't have an appointment. You didn't tell me about one anyway..."

"I know," his mother replied, startling him somewhat as she slipped from anger into a calm and professional tone without any apparent effort; he hadn't realised that she could act like that. "But I needed some way of getting you out of there. All I know is that it's some kind of emergency. Apparently you'll get a genuine doctor's note out of it though, so you won't be in trouble for it."

Raph frowned as they both climbed into his mother's car. It was a pale green Lotus Sunfire, less than two years old and kept in very good condition thanks to the attentions of one of his mother's friends. Raph didn't get on with Mackie as well as his mother did; the older man was more interested in machines than Raph was, tinkering with cars and motorbikes every chance he got. He kept the Sunfire in top condition though, which Raph appreciated.

"How are you going to get a doctor's note for me if I don't have an appointment? They check those sorts of things at school; they'll work out it's a fake."

"Not if it's from your regular doctor, and he confirms that you were there being examined," his mother pointed out with a grin before turning professional again. "I wish I knew why we were doing this though..."

Raph paused, looking at his mother in the way that his first father had taught him. The set of her eyes and lips, the tensions in the muscles in her face and arms, the slightly sloppy way that her headband was on which suggested a quicker change from her working leotards into her own clothes than normal. She was worried, even a bit scared. But she was serious about not knowing what was going on.

Sitting back, Raph watched the city go by as they rushed through it, heading for... He tried to guess based on his knowledge of the city. It was hard; somewhere as big as Mega-Tokyo, you needed to work out likely routes between places rather than just base the guess on a direction. Going by this route, at this time of day... The busy parts of the city that they were heading into held too many possibilities for him to make a reasonable guess, but as his mother went past or around various corners he began to narrow things down somewhat.

When they pulled up in the garage of one particular building after nearly half an hour of driving, Raph was both satisfied that he had worked it out correctly, and extremely confused as to why they were there. His mother didn't help matters much in this regard by smiling faintly at his expression and heading for the door to the stairs that would take them up to the apartment at the top of the building.

Just as they reached the door there was a screech of motorbike tyres and Raph turned in time to see one of his mother's friends slide her motorbike into the garage and park it alongside the scooter that was already in there.

"Linna," the driver said, removing her helmet and shaking brown hair out as she did. "You brought the kid along I see."

"Yeah; Sylia told me that Raph needed to be here. I don't know any more than that."

"Well, as long as I get a good explanation for why I was pulled out of a rehearsal like that," Priss grumbled as she locked down the motorbike. "We've got a big show coming up this weekend and the guys need the practise."

"Hey, I just pulled Raph out of school to get him here," his mother pointed out, holding the door open for Priss and Raph and then following them into the building. "So it had better be urgent."

Raph kept quiet; Priss had never seemed to like him for some reason, and he'd learnt early on not to antagonise her. She scowled at him over her shoulder before starting up the stairs three at a time. "Should I wait..."

"No," his mother said with a sigh. "Sylia wants you there, so Priss will have to put up with you for a while." Her expression changed as if something had occurred to her. "Oh... That would..." She cast a decidedly nervous look at Raph before gesturing for him to lead the way.

More confused than ever, Raph headed up the stairs to the apartment.

Sylia's apartment was of a fair size, taking up the whole of the top floor of the building; she owned the entire building that Raph knew for certain, which was impressive enough in such a high rent area without taking into account the five or six neighbouring buildings that he merely suspected that she owned. The place still had a new feel to it from the recent repairs following the Sky-Hopper attacks on the area two months ago; Raph still wasn't sure that he liked the new look, though Sylia was clearly very happy with it.

As Raph entered he found that Priss wasn't the only other person to be invited; Nene and Mackie were already there, along with his father. Nene and Mackie were sitting together on a sofa; normally they would have been snuggling a bit, but both of them seemed a bit nervous about something at present. His father on the other hand looked worried, but less specifically so.

"Dad? What's going on?"

"I'm hoping that Sylia will be telling us shortly," his father replied with a shrug. "She said that she was going to be getting some of the data to show us."

"And I've got it," Sylia said as she entered. "Linna, Priss, Raphael," she said, nodding to each person in an abrupt and formal greeting as she said their name. "I'm glad you could all make it. Please sit down and I'll explain why you're here."

Raph had never got on with Sylia; in fact out of this strange group that had assembled here Nene was the only one he got on with aside from his parents. Sylia was too intense, Priss couldn't stand him for some reason, Mackie was just too interested in messing with cars and bikes... The entire group had an oddly focused edge to them, so disparate and yet held together somehow by a common cause, and unless you knew that cause you could never understand why they didn't end up killing each other sooner or later.

"In view of what happened last night I think that we all need to hear about what I have found out. I've asked Linna to bring Raphael into this because this concerns him a great deal. I think that it might be time for some home truths to be brought out," she added with a significant look at his parents.

Raph felt his mother's hands reach out and clasp his own as his father put an arm around his shoulders. "Sylia," his mother said, almost pleading, "you promised us-"

"I promised that you could tell him in your own time, or not at all, as you saw fit, provided that it didn't conflict with the safety of the team. I believe that, as of last night, our safety might well be threatened by this remaining a secret; decisions might need to be made quickly and Raph will need to be properly informed in order to make them. I can allow you to tell him in your own way if you prefer, or I can tell him for you, but he does need to know now."

Raph looked between his parents; his mother was looking decidedly unhappy about this, his father stoic, but still worried. Both of them looked undecided about whatever they were talking about, and Raph felt compelled to put his bit in.

"Look, I know that I'm adopted," he pointed out. "That's what people normally get excited about like this; we went over that about six years ago. I was fine with it."

Sylia smiled faintly. "Yes. And in that time you've shown a great deal of restraint about where you came from; you've never asked who your biological parents were."

"I remember that I had a weird upbringing," Raph admitted. "I was being taught stuff a lot... I know it was damned odd."

"It was more than odd," Sylia pointed out. "We need to tell you where you really come from." She glanced at his mother and father for a second before sighing. "This may appear somewhat indirect to begin with, however I assure you that it is all relevant. Do you know where your mother was last night?"

"Uh... Shouldn't you be asking if she knows where I was?" Raph asked cautiously.

"Normally," Sylia admitted. "But you weren't out in the middle of a boomer rampage."

For a moment there was silence in the room as Raph took that in. One reason that he and Sylia didn't get on was the way that she could so easily hide herself from him; his usual techniques for reading people were somewhat at a loss when faced with someone with Sylia's level of self-control. In this case though, despite obviously restraining herself a great deal, she was obviously being serious.

"Uh... Mum?"

"We were," his mother admitted with a faint smile. "All four of us."


"Priss, Nene and I were out there as well," Sylia explained. "Mackie was driving the van for us. Your father was covering a story on behalf of the Tinsel Town Observer, but he was able to put in a good word for us in the end."

Everyone paused, watching his reactions. Raph thought quickly, wondering what they were telling him. Four women, in the middle of a boomer rampage, with another guy on backup in a van and his father giving them a positive spin for the news reports...

"Are you trying to tell me that you're the Knight Sabres?" Raph asked sceptically. "That's a bit... I dunno..."

"Well you keep commenting that I have a lot of combat experience for a dance instructor," his mother pointed out with a nervous smile. "And you've been pointing out for years that I shouldn't be coming home with odd injuries like that from an evening out."

Raph looked around the group. They were watching him expectantly, but clearly not with the expectation of springing a joke on him. Priss was the easiest to read since she rarely bothered to hide her feelings about him; had this been some kind of joke she would have had a cruel smile or a smirk, but instead she was scowling, clearly upset about a secret being revealed like this.

"Okay... So... Why are you telling me this? I mean, I don't believe it," he added hastily, "but you all seem to so I'll play along a while."

Sylia treated him to a smile. "When in doubt, fish for more details," she said approvingly. "It's true; we are the Knight Sabres. We're a group of mercenaries who use the funding from our paid operations to allow us to take on boomer rampages and the illegal activities of mega-corporations like GENOM. We like to think that we're making the world a better place by our actions, though we all have our reasons for doing this so it isn't entirely altruistic.

"We haven't told you this before because, frankly, we didn't know if you could keep it a secret. If our identities get out then we face arrest, blackmail, possibly even death, and trusting that secret to you wasn't something that we were happy about. Now though...

"As I said, circumstances have changed, as of last night."

"What changed Sylia?" Priss asked grumpily. "I didn't see anything that had anything to do with the kid."

"There was," his mother said quietly. "Last night, some of those boomers..."

"I think," Sylia interjected, "that Raphael needs some explanation of where he comes from in order to make sense of last night..."

Lady 633 Building, Mega-Tokyo

Tuesday 20th December 2033

"We have a new job," Sylia explained to the assembled Knight Sabres. "I know that we're still recovering from the attack on the ADP building, but this looks like it should be relatively easy."

There were no murmurs of dissent from the team, so Sylia continued. "The job is a raid on a GENOM storage facility. What makes this unusual is that it is a GENOM subsidiary that has hired us for the job."

"Well that's a load of bull for a start," Priss said with a snort. "Do they honestly expect us to fall for that?"

"Nene and I have both checked this out," Sylia assured her. "There is no indication of a trap; the facility has been in the hands of a rival subsidiary for several years and officially unused for most of that time. They have determined however that there is some kind of unofficial research going on there and they want to get hold of it for themselves.

"Normally a company like Toran Processing would work through the management for something like this. In this case however they seem to believe that the management doesn't know about this or wouldn't allow them access to it if they did. Their next option would be to send in their own people to lay claim to it. This won't work though as Toran Processing handles production of biomechanical nerve fibres and related constructs. This means that they don't actually have anything to use to send on a mission like this aside from mercenaries like us.

"They have identified areas of the facility that are in use and have provided a list of data and materials that they believe can be found in there. They have already agreed to pay five million for us to simply investigate, with another five million on completion and various bonuses depending on the exact materials we can retrieve. Such items include electronic research data, hard copies, and materials such as equipment and samples. Total payment available appears to be twenty million, maybe higher."

Linna whistled softly, looking impressed. "That's good money."

"What kind of defences would there be?" Priss asked. "Sounds like there should be some at least."

"They will be some," Sylia agreed. "Unfortunately a facility like this, apparently being run as a rogue operation, is impossible to keep track of properly; as Doctor Yoshida proved, several dozen boomers going missing is simply a rounding error in GENOM's daily totals. How big a rounding error we will encounter this time is anyone's guess, but we believe that it will be limited; a handful of boomers, probably of a standard design.

"We'll take the motoroids along for the added speed when we leave; we may also need them for transporting things. Nene, you'll need your hacking equipment and large data storage units. Mackie will stand by with the utility suit in case he needs to become involved. The rest of us will handle physical equipment and other similar items. Any questions?"

The facility was in darkness when they arrived; recon passes during the day had confirmed that there were no obvious defences, patrols, or other signs of occupation. Checks had indicated that there was power present in the building, but only minimal amounts. Water was found to be in a similar state.

Sylia approached the main fence through a gap between two piles of rubble. Ahead of her Nene was making heavy going of it, but still moving forwards; after this long her concern was more for keeping her hardsuit clean than a need for stealth, but despite that it was hard going. Nene had to lead the way though; her ELINT hardware was the best of the team's and Sylia needed her up front in case there were any sensors to pick up.

Behind her came Linna and Priss. Neither of them had any trouble with keeping up or keeping quiet, though Priss had objected to going in quietly like this; the singer had wanted to bust in through a possible accessway in the roof, but Sylia had overruled her. Going in like this would mean that they had a better chance of getting in without being spotted until it was too late to stop them.

They made it to the wall with no trouble and Nene set to work hacking the lock on the door; on the outside it looked easy, even purely mechanical.

"There's two separate layers of electronics below that though," she explained as she worked. "You trip the first by just opening the door manually. But the second is guarding the first one in case anyone tampers with that. I've got to bypass both layers at once in order to avoid setting off any alarms."

"How long Red?" Sylia asked. Even using the encrypted channels at this point would be risky, especially given the level of sophistication that was being displayed by the defences. Actual voices, with distortion built in by the helmet speakers and code-names was the only secure way of communicating.

"Another minute," Nene replied absently, tightly focused on her HUD and the data flowing back and forth between that and the two locking systems.

It was less than a minute, though it was clear from Priss' stance that she wouldn't agree, before the door opened, allowing the four of them to get in.

"I'll have to close and relock it behind us," Nene warned. "I'll be able to get us out in seconds on the way back, but it'll trip and alarm sooner or later if we leave it open."

"We can just blow it open on the way back," Priss commented.

"Only if it can't be helped," Sylia instructed. "Let's get moving." Her HUD brought up a map of the building, the guido in her Hardsuit keeping it oriented and throwing up waypoints to indicate the route that she had previously marked out to follow.

The place was dusty and mucky around this area, but from the level of sophistication in the power lines and so forth that were laid out, Sylia guessed that this was just under use rather than natural decay. Certainly once they passed the first set of doors the whole place became much cleaner and neater; the walls and floor were more than just tidy, they were almost spotless.

"It's almost like being in a hospital or something," Linna commented, her tone somewhat awed. "Why would they keep it so clean?"

"Keep it quiet Green," Sylia warned. "Red, anything?"

"Nothing so far," Nene replied. "There are sensors around, but nothing is actually responding to us; I can't even pick up any electrical activity in response to us speaking, so I don't think there are even microphones around here."

"Interesting," Sylia said softly. This wasn't exactly what she had expected. "Notify me if you pick anything up. For now, we keep moving, and keep quiet."

Silence served them well, seemingly. The four of them worked their way slowly through the building, Sylia and Nene alert, Linna cautious, Priss getting steadily more irritated by the minute.

Eventually, after another ten minutes, they found one of the things that they were looking for.

Nene brought them up short just before a corner, seeming to concentrate. Sylia paused as well, then bumped up the gain on her helmet's external microphones. Audio discrimination and mapping software kicked into action, taking the plan of the building and overlaying the sounds on it, plotting probable sources.

Even as the image resolved on her HUD, Nene turned and flashed a couple of hand signs. Obligingly the HUD provided a translation, despite Sylia being able to read the screen and understand what was being said anyway.

"Two targets. Non-hostile?"

Sylia considered the question. Nene hadn't indicated the targets to be friendly, which was smart. But Sylia could hear the two of them as well as Nene could; they sounded like children, and young children at that. She couldn't honestly work out what they would be doing somewhere like this though. Most likely they had found their way in somehow and were just playing around. But their presence could spoil everything.

Gesturing for Nene to step back, Sylia crept up to the corner, clenching her fist and extending a nano-fibre wire around the corner. The wire flexed and bent at her command, clinging tightly to the wall as she directed it around the corner and pulled up the resulting image on her HUD.

Two children. They were playing all right, but under the care of two boomers; they were an odd model, one that Sylia didn't recognise except vaguely. They were, she guessed, nanny boomers, a relatively new idea that GENOM had developed. These didn't look like the designs that she had seen though; they looked slightly cruder, as if someone had taken the beta version and put that into production before the final aesthetics had been applied to the production model.

She considered for a moment, and then one of the children, the boy, turned away from her. Both of the children were wearing some kind of one-piece black, full length jumpsuit of a fairly exotic looking material; she couldn't place it, but it was clearly designed to be grown into, and possibly resized along with that. It was the logo on the back of the boy's jumpsuit that caught her attention; she'd only been able to see the smaller version on the front before and the fibre-optic wire didn't give good visuals on something that small.

The logo was picked out in silver and showed three pairs of stylised wings coming off a central figure. Below the image was a name: Metatron. She drew in a sharp breath at the sight of it, and focused her gaze onto the girl that the boy was playing alongside.

Sure enough, when the back of the girl's jumpsuit became visible, Sylia recognised the name that was written there: Uriel.

"Damn it," she muttered, withdrawing the fibre-wire and gesturing for Nene to link them all up. Wires extended from the red Hardsuit, allowing each of them to communicate over the wire without being overheard.

"This makes things awkward," Sylia declared. "There is a boy and girl around the corner, playing with what appear to be nanny boomers. The problem is that the jumpsuits that they are wearing... We were given the name of three pieces of research material specifically to get out. The boy has Metatron written on his jumpsuit, and the girl is apparently Uriel. Both of those are names of the research materials..."

The other three tried to exchange looks, something that was almost comical to see when everyone still had their helmets down. Non-verbal cues were easy to pick up on though, and Sylia held up a hand to quash Priss' reaction before it could develop too far. "This changes things. I don't know what these children are doing here, but I didn't sign up for kidnapping. Red, I need you to get into whatever records we can find ASAP and find out what is going on."

"We've got to find somewhere for me to access information from first," Nene pointed out. "Can we get past them?"

"If we're careful," Sylia said slowly. "There's an alternate route around if we go back down this corridor. We can head around and back into what I'm hoping is a central area; I was hoping to approach it this way, but apparently we don't have a choice."

The alternate route proved to be just as clean and well lit as the original one. This one though, ended in a control room of sorts; Sylia wasn't sure but it looked like a security-office and medical centre combined together. The effect was odd with medical equipment and high-tech security systems, apparently using the same set of monitors.

"This looks promising," Nene declared, heading for the main console and moving as if to sit down in the office chair that was in front of the main screen before remembering herself. She squatted somewhat and then locked the joints in her Hardsuit's lower half, giving herself some support rather than having to hold herself in that position by brute force. "Definitely promising," she declared after a few seconds. "Minimal security as well; I guess we were never meant to get this far."

"No, you weren't," declared a voice sharply from one of the other corridors. Sylia turned sharply, her cannon coming up sharply to point at the source of it.

Low-light filters kicked in automatically in response to the darkness in the corridor. Automatic sensor routines pulled up scans for anomalous infra-red or magnetic signatures, comparing everything to known weapon profiles. A limited hard-object scanner came online, mapping out anything with a density greater than normal Human flesh.

Only once the scans returned negative for immediate threats (Sylia took a fraction of a second to highlight the 9mm pistol in the jacket pocket and mark it as not of immediate danger), did Sylia allow herself to focus on what the figure looked like.

He was Japanese, about her height. Black hair had been cut neatly, and his clothes were arranged tidily, reasonably fresh and clean. His face was perhaps a shade more angular, maybe a bit taller, than Sylia might have considered normal for pure Japanese heritage, but it wasn't out of the ordinary. His age, she pegged roughly at mid-fifties, maybe early sixties allowing for his apparent wealth and the rejuvenant treatments available to those with suitable money.

Her assessment took barely a second, after which she spoke calmly. "Red, carry on. Blue, Green, watch the exits and make sure nothing sneaks up on us." She straightened, keeping her cannon charged but not bothering to aim it; against an un-armoured, non-augmuented Human like this man, even a near-miss against the wall would be fairly devastating at this range. "You own this... Facility?"

"In so much as anyone owns it," the man replied sharply, his gaze flickering in irritation to Nene's back as she worked on the computer. "I hardly expected any visitors..."

"We're not exactly visiting," Sylia replied. "We're being paid quite a lot to obtain research data from this facility." She paused. "We're also being paid to obtain research materials... Though having seen that two of those materials appear to be children, I'm reconsidering that part of the deal."

The man gave a grunt of something that might have been amusement, or might have been annoyance. "Well, at least that much is right about the stories about the Knight Sabres," he said, moving to one side and settling down against a chest of drawers. "If you were working for GENOM then I'd have been genuinely worried."

"We don't work for GENOM," Sylia assured him. "You?"

"I'm on their payroll," he replied with a faint smile. "But they're far more use to me than I am to them, even allowing for the three major patents that they have from my work. May I ask who you are working for, if not GENOM?"

"A subsidiary," Sylia replied. "They seem to think that your research will be useful to them somehow. I'm intrigued to know though, what kind of research you are engaged in that requires young children."

"I'm making a new future," he replied with a genuine smile. "I'm happy to share the research notes of course; since it's you and I don't think I can do much to stop you, I won't bother trying. I hope that they get some creative use out of my notes, though I don't think that it will happen. As long as you leave the notes intact on that machine and leave the children alone, I don't care what you do with it."

Sylia was going to comment on that suspiciously generous offer; it sounded too good to be true, even for a man facing down four suits of powered armour. The abrupt flicker in the lights cut her off though an instant before the sound of an explosion echoed through the building.

"What the!" Priss turned sharply, her rail-spike launcher springing to life. "Someone just broke in."

"Can you tell who?" the man asked sharply, looking up at the screens which had previously shown diagnostics and a couple of images from randomly placed cameras, but which were now showing a steadily increasing wall of snow.

Nene held a hand up next to the side of her helmet. "I've got audio discrimination working on it... Jump-jets, lasers and low-yield beam weapons... 85% probability it's C-55s, probably with at least one or two BU-13s along for the ride," she declared.

"GENOM," the man cursed sharply. "Who else? I must get the children out of here," he declared, heading for one of the consoles.

"Agreed," Sylia said. "Red, keep working on that data. Blue, stay here. Green, I need you to scout around a bit; don't engage but see what's going on."

"Gotcha," Linna said as she bounded off.

"I've got contact with the nanny boomers," the man suddenly declared. "They're all heading for the back door. If you can offer me some protection, you're welcome to use it as well."

"You're awfully free about making an alliance like this," Sylia remarked casually.

"Fortune or fate has landed me with greater defences than I ever expected to produce myself at my moment of greatest need. I won't lie; I need help right now. But I can pay if it helps at all; I'm not without resources, as the presence of this base should attest."

Sylia nodded. "Lead the way. Green, we're leaving. Head back to us or head out some other way; make sure we're not followed."

"I'm on it," Linna replied after a couple of seconds. "I'm going to have to head out on my own; I think a C-55 spotted me back there."

"Understood. Be safe."

Sylia, Nene and Priss followed as the man led them through the corridors for a moment. The sounds in the building were distorted, echoes coming to them oddly, making it hard to judge how close the invading boomers really were.

Eventually they came around a corner, finding themselves in a long corridor. To the left was a very solid looking doorway, while to the right was the longer expanse of the corridor, stretching a good thirty metres. Windows on one side overlooked what had to have once been the factory floor before the apparent renovation, while the other appeared to have offices.

At the far end of the corridor two children, Metatron and Uriel, both appeared, guided by their nanny boomers. They were crying, clearly scared of what was going on. When they saw the man though they both started running forwards to him, crying out for their father; to Sylia there was something very powerful about that image, watching the two small children putting so much faith in their father. She wished that she had known her own father long enough to have known such feelings...

The glass wall leading onto the factory floor exploded as three C-55s boosted up from the floor below, smashing through the wall and into the corridor. Two of them turned, picking the Knight Sabres as viable opponents while the other turned and fired down the corridor at the nanny boomers.

"NO!" the man cried out, trying to rush forwards to his children and being rewarded with a very short, sharp blast to the chest from a laser.

Sylia and Priss both returned fire immediately, taking out the boomer's AI core and head in a small barrage of shots. The second one, partly shielded by its companion in the narrow corridor, grabbed the now-dead hulk and hurled it at them, following the attack up with a couple of shots of its own.

Sylia ducked under the remains, hearing Priss and Nene curse as it caught them; this wasn't a new tactic unfortunately, but it was one that it was hard to prepare for.

Not willing to allow the boomer time to think, Sylia rolled to her feet, firing her cannon at point-blank range into its chest. The AI core hidden away within was shattered instantly, all of its redundancies being lost.

Pushing the remains of the boomer away from her, Sylia took aim at the third boomer, firing before she was entirely ready. She winged it, but nothing more, before the entirely corridor was shaken by a trio of rockets launched from below; the BU-13s had decided to join in. Debris began to fall, bouncing off Sylia's armour as the cloud of dust fought against her HUD's clear-view filters. Unsteadily, unable to even detect the far end of the corridor properly through the ECM sub-munitions that the rockets had unleashed, Sylia turned and grabbed the other two; the man was dead, beyond recovery or even a decent burial.

The three of them ran for the exit, praying that they weren't doing the wrong thing.

Friday 13th June 2042

"The three of us got out," Sylia concluded. "The escape route was well planning, coming out almost a kilometre away. The boomers didn't bother following us; we guessed that they must have been more concerned with what was going on inside the facility."

Raph waited as she paused. The story had been interesting, delivered somewhat clinically perhaps for what should have been a spy-thriller adventure. Sylia's style of storytelling was... She didn't so much tell a story as dictate it. Pure facts, without any emotion except what you read into it yourself.

For facts though, she was good. Exact details were important, and Raph had had plenty of them. But there were some missing. "What happened to the kids?"

"We don't know," Sylia admitted. "That was the last we saw of Uriel and Metatron. They may have been killed; it's doubtful that the boomers would have spared them. I did some investigating, but nothing turned up. We've operated on the assumption that they are dead."

"What about the third one?" Raph asked after a moment more thought. "You said three lots of research materials... Uriel and Metatron were two of them..."

"Ah," Sylia said, sounding slightly embarrassed. "The third... Linna ran into the third on her way out. A boy, the same age as the other two children. He and his nanny boomer were taking a different route out. They were found by a pair of C-55s, just as Linna turned up. She took out the boomers, but the nanny boomer was destroyed as well. Lacking any other course of action, Linna brought the child out to us when she escaped." Sylia paused for a moment. "That child was called Raphael."

Raph clenched his hands together, knowing that his grip on his mother's hands must be painful. He knew that he had been adopted, that his parents weren't his real parents, so to speak. Overhead, one of the lights stuttered a bit, and Priss growled as she glared up at it, then back down at him. Raph steadied himself, then looked up at Sylia.

"Why are you telling me this now?"

"That's, unfortunately, only half of the story," Sylia admitted. "This is combat recorder footage from last night's boomer rampage," she declared, turning to the TV on the wall and using the remote control to load something up. It was a video file, one that Raph guessed to be from one of the Knight Sabre's hardsuits, showing what amounted to a first person view, overlaid with a HUD showing some kind of tactical indicators.

The video kicked off, leaping into battle against what looked to Raph like a normal C-56 boomer, the standard type produced by GENOM for bodyguard work and the like for the last five years. Also, the most common type seen in boomer rampages.

Something was odd about this boomer though. Raph knew as much as anyone in Mega-Tokyo did about combat boomers; you had to pick things up with the number of rampages that occurred, and sooner or later even the biggest technophobe could tell the common types apart just from watching the news occasionally.

This boomer moved differently. It was subtle; Raph's older training, from his first father, showed him where the boomer was moving when it shouldn't. There was an odd way that it prioritised its attacks differently from a regular C-56, even allowing for the advanced tactical software packages that the C-56 possessed compared to the older C-55s.

Then it happened, and Raph knew why he was being shown this.

"I think that we need to see that once more," Sylia remarked, rewinding the video and playing it again. At the critical second she paused it, leaving a still image on the screen.

The scene was a road bridge over a junction; cars were piled up in the background, with signs of destruction suggesting that the boomer had been fairly vicious in dealing with the cars. In the background an ADP helicopter was just about visible, swinging around over another part of the battle.

The White Hardsuit, showing signs of damage to the armour, was caught in the act of falling back. An arm was raised to point at the boomer, and the muzzle-flare around the wrist suggested that a weapon had been fired.

The boomer took centre stage. Whatever shot had been fired at it by the White Hardsuit had impacted a wall of lightning around the torso, while similar lightning, flaring white with a blue corona, surrounded the right hand and forearm, lashing out to envelope a section of railing which hung, apparently unsupported in the air.

Raph looked down at his own hands, feeling the power flowing through them and spilling over onto his skin as corposant lightning. Above him the lights flickered again, and Priss growled once more, more seriously this time.

"Priss," Sylia said warningly. She turned her attention back to Raph. "I need you to understand this Raphael; Professor Kohima, the man who ran that facility, was a rogue scientist, but he was a genius. A polymath of the highest order. He had revolutionised some aspects of boomer biotechnology single-handedly. He was working, legitimately, on bio-neural networks. He had perfected the technology for downloading knowledge into a Human mind to a far greater degree than anything that I had managed; I've adapted some of his designs and the effectiveness of the process is something like two hundred perfect over what I had achieved previously.

"He was also working on, outside of his office hours, techniques of cloning and genetic engineering of Humans."

Sylia paused again, watching Raph closely. For his part he kept still, thinking it over. "You're saying that..." He trailed off, not sure whether he wanted to even voice his thoughts.

"I'm saying that you, Metatron and Uriel are clones," Sylia replied, not unkindly. "The three of you were flash-grown in exowombs to the age of four. That process took about two months. After that your basic learning and education was basically by downloading information into your brain. Thus, you were fluent in four different languages within a month of being born.

"His goal, as far as I can tell, was to create a new evolution of Humanity. The three of you were meant to be that next step; the abilities that you possess were just the first stage. He gave you all the ability to read people, to pick up body language, to understand people in a way that couldn't otherwise be achieved without some kind of actual mind-reading ability. He gave you a knowledge of languages so that you would be able to communicate.

"On top of those though he modified your DNA. Your ability to read and analyse body language was emphasised by boosting the efficiency of the relevant parts of your brain. Your body handles inactivity without your muscles atrophying better than a normal Human. Similarly, your basic health was improved, your immune system boosted... He gave you the best start that he could.

"The oddest advantage that he decided to give you," Sylia continued, "was the telekinetic abilities. The lightning and EMP activity is just a side-effect of your ability to move things with your mind; Linna and Geoffrey have both told me about this, and kept me informed about your progress, and ensured that you kept quiet about your abilities. Yesterday was the day that I was hoping, that we were all hoping, wouldn't come.

"GENOM has caught up with Professor Kohima. They've managed to produce combat boomers with the same telekinetic abilities that you possess. They might have used his notes, or only found a partial copy like we have. It's taken them nine years to achieve it, but achieve it they have done.

"This means that they know, and have probably known for a while now, what to look for with regards to these abilities. Using your telekinesis in public, or letting people know about it at all, could mean GENOM finding you. And you've been around us, even without knowing who we are in our spare time, to know that this would be a bad thing for you."

Raph nodded slowly. Bits and pieces had started to fit together which hadn't fitted before; things that his mother had said about being careful, about keeping in shape, about not letting people know how well he could read them. Even the drastic change of hair style and colour that had been forced onto him just after his adoption... He tried to smile as that vague blur in his life where people in strange armour had taken him away from his home and then given him to his new mother resolved itself into new clarity.

It was hard to smile though.

"There's another reason that I've told you this," Sylia said after a suitable pause. "One that is only optional; if you don't want to agree to it then I can't force the issue. But I need you to think about it seriously."

Raph felt his parents tense up on either side of him. He looked up at them both, not understanding their sudden concern for a moment, before he began to suspect what it might be.

"I want to offer you a place in the Knight Sabres," Sylia continued, somewhat bluntly.

"Sylia," his mother cried, her tone alone carrying her thoughts on the idea; clearly she wasn't impressed by the idea.

"I'm not asking lightly Linna," Sylia replied, her tone still professional, but with a distinct hint of authority that Raph had rarely heard in it before. "You saw how well our weapons worked against that boomer last night; whatever kind of shield it possessed reduced anything other than a point-blank shot to almost negligible damage. We couldn't have faced two or three like that. We need an edge of our own to counter theirs. And Raphael's telekinetic abilities, combined with those of Priss and Nene-"

"What!" Priss sat upright very sharply at the mention of her name, and Nene looked a bit stunned at being mentioned as well. "I'm not some kind of damned boomeroid like him Sylia," Priss continued before being sharply cut off by Sylia's reply.

"That's enough Priss! Professor Kohima didn't simply conjure these abilities out of thin air; they exist naturally in all Human beings. Some of the tests that I did six months ago confirmed each of our respective strengths in that regard. Linna, Geoffrey and I possess negligible telekinetic strength. You, Nene and Mackie possess a reasonable level of strength. However those abilities are dormant, unlike in Raphael's case. Geoffrey and Mackie have been working on, and have tested, equipment that could be built into a Hardsuit which would allow you access to that talent."

There was a stunned silence from Priss and Nene, and Raph got the feeling that this was the first time that they were hearing about this.

"This is why I can give Raphael the option of joining; his own talent is the most powerful of all of ours, even before using similar equipment in a Hardsuit to boost his potential. But with you and Nene we would at least have a fighting chance against this new technology."

"Couldn't you fit it into your Hardsuit as well Sylia?" Nene asked apprehensively. "I mean... I don't get into the big fights that often..."

"We could fit the equipment into the Hardsuits," Sylia replied, her tone softening somewhat. "But it needs the correct type of person to make it work. You, Priss and Mackie are the right type of people. Linna and I are not."

She turned back to Raph. "I don't need an answer immediately. But I will need one in the near future."

"You're asking me," he said slowly, thinking hard about it as he did, "to join up with a mercenary team that occasionally goes out and gets shot at by combat boomers effectively for the hell of it..."

Sylia cocked her head slightly onto one side, a faint smile touching her lips. "Something like that. The idea of defending the public and trying to take down something as evil as GENOM is, I consider, one of the major bonuses to the job, aside from the money involved."

"Sylia," his mother said, her tone somewhat urgent. "We need to talk."

"I suspected that you would want to talk," Sylia replied. "Would you prefer that Raphael left the room, or that we did?"

His mother paused, and Raph glanced up at her, seeing the tightness in her expression. "I'll say it here and now; you're talking about sending my son into fights that might get him killed. What kind of parent do you think I am? That we are?" she added, gesturing at his father, who nodded in agreement.

"It wouldn't be straight away," Sylia replied, her tone even with maybe an almost subliminal hint of sympathy in it. "It would take at least a month or two in order to get a Hardsuit put together and to modify Priss and Nene's Hardsuits. In that time he would have training for combat, practise alongside each of us-"

"Like hell he would," Priss objected, coming to her feet. "Sylia, you can't be serious about letting him join the Knight Sabres."

"Why not Priss? You, Linna and Nene were only a couple of years older than Raphael when you each joined up, and he already has more combat training, admittedly for sports and the like, than any of you did. I'm offering to ensure that he is as fully trained as possible-"

"It's not his damned training that I'm worried about," Priss protested loudly. "I don't care if he has some weird powers that make him special. He's not even Hum-"

"Enough!" Sylia's voice overrode Priss's very sharply, her expression stern. "You of all of us should know not to judge people's Humanity based solely on what they are made from."

Priss' expression went blank for a moment, then became suffused with rage. "You dare bring her up!"

"Only because you are being unreasonable," Sylia replied, standing so that she was level with Priss once more. "I've tolerated your attitude towards Raphael for this long, and so have Linna and Geoffrey, but you have no right to judge him based on where he came from. I can't imagine that asking you to apologise will get any results, so I'll simply ask you to leave this meeting if you can't bring yourself to be civil about him."

Priss glared at Sylia for a moment longer, then turned and stormed out of the room, somehow contriving to slam the fire door behind her as she did.

"I'm sorry about that," Sylia said to the room in general. "I thought that she would be over it by now..." Turning back to Raph, she sighed. "As I said, I can't force the issue. If you don't want to join then I can't make you. And if your parents aren't willing to have you join then I can't let you; I'm not enough of a monster to completely override their opinions on this matter. But I do need to make the offer, because we will need the help sooner or later."