Saturday 14th June 2042

Apartment 437, Damascan Tower, Zhandou District

Linna had been standing by the window, staring out at the city without seeing it, when Geoffrey left to do some shopping. She was still there, in the same position, still not seeing, when he came back half an hour later.

He sighed, silently. Part of him was amazed; Linna was a creature of beauty and grace, athletic and mobile. Normally she didn't stop moving for anything, but he had learnt that when she wanted to be still she could do it, keeping perfectly still for hours at a time if the mood took her.

Putting the shopping away, Geoffrey came to stand behind her, not touching her or saying anything, but simply standing there, waiting for her to be aware of him.

After a couple of minutes she seemed to come out of it, shaking herself a bit and turning to look at Geoffrey. He noted the marks on her cheeks where tears had been and the redness in her eyes that spoke of the possibility of more.

"You've been thinking about Sylia's offer," he said, prompting rather than asking.

She nodded mutely, reaching out and drawing him closer to her. "I keep thinking..." She paused, biting back a sob. "I keep thinking about how badly things could go. I kept dreaming of Raph being killed by a boomer, by Largo, by the Norvian, by one of the Aswind, by..." She broke off again, not bothering to hide the sob.

"Sylia wouldn't let that happen to him," Geoffrey assured her. "I know how well she looks after all of you."

"That's the problem," Linna objected. "I've nearly died three times in the last year alone. All of the training I've had, all of the equipment, and I nearly died, and I can't bear the thought of Raph being put into those circumstances..." She trailed off, sobbing.

"If you're that worried, then Sylia won't force the issue," Geoffrey reminded her gently. "She assured us of that."

"I know," Linna replied. "But... I know Sylia. She wouldn't have asked Raph if she didn't think it was necessary. She's really worried about these new boomers, a lot more than she was showing."

"Then she'll take it seriously," Geoffrey insisted once more. "If she can't risk ignoring something like this..."

"Even if she does something will come along... Something that we can't handle. It's happened before and we've escaped because we've been lucky, or someone else got involved, or something happened to go our way. We can't rely on that forever and... I can't let Raph go into that..."

Geoffrey clasped her to him as she started to cry again. Gently he held her, letting her get it out of her system. All the time she was crying he tried to keep his own feelings at bay, not daring to let them out yet, lest it make things worse.

After a few minutes, Linna had calmed enough that Geoffrey felt it safe to mount a counter-argument.

"Look, even if this was an option, it'll be at least a month from what Sylia was saying until a Hardsuit could be ready. That's a month for things to change, for GENOM to decide that the technology isn't going to be worth the effort. Maybe Sylia will find someone else to take his place and recruit someone new to join the team; I know that she's been looking for potential members for the last couple of years." He kept quiet about when precisely that had started; there had, at one point, been talk of Geoffrey himself taking up a Hardsuit, and of two or three people joining the team when Priss had been laid up for five weeks. "Besides," he added, "you can't be sure that Raph will even accept the offer."

Linna gave a bitter laugh. "I can. He's good at reading people, but not as great at hiding his own thoughts. The way that he avoided talking about last night... The way that he was watching me think about it... He wants this. He might not know it yet, but he wants it."

Temporarily stuck for an argument to use, Geoffrey simply resorted to hugging Linna to him for a few moments more, until she seemed to recover something of her self-control and pulled away a bit. She straightened herself out, determinedly putting the matter under wraps. It was only as she was turning to go that she paused, seeming to think of something.

"You know... It's just occurred to me that this was damned selfish of me," she said without turning around. "I mean... I'm getting all worried about Raph being out there and me not being able to protect him... And here's you always getting stuck at home for the last nine years while I went off to get myself killed and you couldn't do a thing about it."

Geoffrey smiled at Linna's back. "The thought had occurred to me over the years," he replied, forcing enough of a jovial tone into his voice to tell her that he forgave her.

Once she had gone he sat down on the sofa, putting his head into his hands and trying to keep his own tears quiet enough that Linna wouldn't hear them and come back.

Zhandou Green Zone

Raph had left the apartment early in the day, needing time to think. He'd left his phone on, but hadn't answered it the few times that it had rung. His parents hadn't called, but he hadn't expected them to. They would give him room to think.

His friends wouldn't though; he'd had to turn off his phone's sky-eye so that they couldn't track the GPS signal from it to find him. They still tried calling him though.

He didn't know quite what he felt about the previous day's revelations. The news that he was different wasn't a surprise. He'd known that all of his life. How exactly he was different was something of a surprise though.

He couldn't quite get his head around it. On one level it was perfectly normal; it was what he was and there wasn't much point in getting excited about it. On the other hand...

One of the park's various holoscreens lit up as he approached, preparatory to providing some kind of tourist information or a news channel. The POST image showed the GENOM logo in amongst the images that it brought up, a not too subtle reminder of their presence.

He'd never understood until yesterday why his mother hated GENOM so much. Now, knowing that they had raided his first home... That them even finding out who he was could bring them down on his family... His mother hadn't even been able to buy things with GENOM logos on them out of protective camouflage, and now he realised that it was because they reminded her of how easily he could be taken from her.

The holoscreen flickered for a second, and Raph hastily put a stop to those thoughts; he couldn't afford to lose control in public, particularly somewhere that he might easily be singled out. If GENOM knew about the EMP aspect of his telekinesis then they would be on the lookout for such disruptions. Of course, Mega-Tokyo was a massive place, and it had been nine and a half years...

Then again... His mother had described Quincy as being old a decade ago. And yet he seemed unchanged since the early days of the Knight Sabres. How long would someone who didn't seem to age be willing to keep looking for something that might not exist any more? Especially if old enemies like the Knight Sabres were involved.

That brought up the next question. He had known, even without what his mother and father had said yesterday that they were against him joining the Knight Sabres. And he had to admit that the idea of going out and fighting rogue boomers, occasional terrorists and the like wasn't something that he especially wanted to do.

The other Knight Sabres, he knew, had their reasons for join what they did; his mother had explained that after Priss had left and they had all gone home. Sylia and Mackie's father, Priss' boyfriend, Nene's colleagues at the ADP... His mother had eventually admitted her own reason – the money had been the initial reason, before the death of a friend at the hands of GENOM's assassin boomer – while his father had eventually provided his own reason as loyalty to his mother.

Raph though... He had the same reason his father did, but his father didn't go out in a Hardsuit and fight boomers. While GENOM might have destroyed the life he was born with – he considered whether "incepted" was a more appropriate term than "conceived" – he would actually be putting himself in even greater danger by going out in a Hardsuit; they would know that he was still out there and would start looking for him.

Even so, the idea of his mother and her friends going out while he sat back and did nothing... That didn't sit well with him.

He had resolved, after some thought, to pursue his father's path with the Knight Sabres, doing what he could without getting into the fights, when he heard someone calling him.

Attention to detail was important. And because his attention had wavered he had allowed himself to walk down familiar paths without thinking about it; this section of the park was one that his friends would have expected to find him in, which they apparently had done.

Troy and Lin were arguably his best friends at school. Certainly his circle of friends included few he hung out with as often as this pair of near-misfits.

Claiming descent from some kind of South African ruler during the mid-twentieth century, Troy insisted that his parents had been kicked out of the country following a coup. Raph hadn't bothered trying to look up details to disprove it; Troy believed it seriously enough that it would have been almost criminal to shatter any illusions, if illusions there were. His lineage gave him rough, naturally tanned skin with black hair. His accent was, to his parent's distress, solidly Japanese, despite their efforts.

Lin had come over to Mega-Tokyo only a couple of years ago when her parents got a promotion that required them to move to the city. She had settled into the Japanese lifestyle well, her Chinese ancestry meaning that she blended into the native populace somewhat better than Troy did. She still carried more of a Chinese accent however, and stumbled occasionally on her Japanese.

"We've been trying to call you for hours," Troy complained as the pair of them jogged to a stop beside Raph. "We were meant to be going down to the Rat Race, remember?"

Raph nodded slowly, summoning a smile. "I needed some time to myself," he admitted. "I found out some stuff yesterday... About my... Parents."

"Oh come on, what could be that-" Troy began, before Lin jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

"He's adopted," she hissed at Troy. "He means his birth parents." She turned a smile on Raph as Troy managed to look enlightened. "So... Was it good news?"

"Not good, but not bad. As such," Raph replied vaguely. "It's going to take some thinking about. I don't want to talk about it," he added quickly, lest they get ideas. He didn't feel up to dodging questions right now. "The Rat Race will still be open won't it? What will they have on by the time we get there?"

"From what we saw when we were down there earlier it's going to be Dace Lura all day," Lin replied, somewhat dismissively. "Which is fine if you're into his style, but he just comes across as showy to me."

"That's part of his magic," Troy insisted, and Raph tuned the conversation out somewhat as the three of them headed down to the Rat Race; their differing choices of styles in the games was probably the most serious point of contention – mostly good natured – between the three of them.

The Rat Race was one place that his mother probably wouldn't approve of him going. Not that GENOM had any influence down there, but rather because of the sort of things that went on down there.

The somewhat dingy entrance to the Rat Race was four levels down from the park; one of the reasons that the park was a favourite place of his. It was one of several entrances to the tunnels and caverns that had acquired the name of the Rat Race over the years.

Originally the place had apparently been some kind of survival shelter, though Raph didn't believe that; there were five more levels below it at least before you got into the Underhive, and any survival shelter would have been built into something more solid than the remains of a supermarket carpark (Raph had found the signs indicating different floors, not to mention a still functional parking meter on one of his trips).

Now, it had a kind of decayed civility to it, a sense of tidy evil. Drug dealers and the like hung out there, but regular ADP patrols and the patrols by Sentinels kept things safe enough that a trio of teenagers could visit without seeing anything worse than was regularly reported on the news and without any actual danger to themselves.

The three of them headed past the Sentinel on duty at the entrance, not even fazed by the black armoured form which swept a merciless gaze over them. They wound their way past a market before they headed into what Raph always thought of as being the Rat Race (the rest of it being more or less background noise to him).

The centre took up about a quarter of the Rat Race in all, but had managed to claim some of the larger areas, or widen them out as it did. Three large circular areas made up the main arenas, with smaller arenas set off around the outside of the three main ones. The largest, set in the middle of the centre, was surrounded by tiers of stadium seats while each of the other arenas, even the smaller ones, had it's own ring of seats or observation platforms. One major rule: there were no private matches.

Raph stepped into the dimly lit interior, passing the main booth without incident; the arfid in his phone marked him as a regular with a valid subscription to the centre. Troy's phone bleeped at him, the subtle tone that indicated that he had been charged for entry. Lin grinned at him as he went red; he'd been saying that he was going to top up his membership fees for over a month now.

Without hesitation Raph led the way to the main arena, eschewing the packed front rows and climbing the stairs to the top level of the seating and settling himself into an empty seat where he had a reasonably good view of the arena itself.

The arena was laid out in a circular form, fifteen metres across. Around the inside edge twelve circles, each two a half metres wide, had been marked out; at present only two on opposite sides of the arena were lit up. Within those two circles stood the challengers. Dace Lura was on Raph's left, while it took a few seconds to recognise Isabel Carmine on the opposite side.

Dace was Caucasian, well tanned, with long brown hair tied back in a queue which came down to his shoulder blades. His interface suit fitted perfectly; a custom job that was prominently devoid of any kind of brand marking aside from the manufacturer's logo on the wrists. A stunning black basecoat with gold panelling and red highlights around the edges made it distinctive from the usual two colour designs with their basic colour patterns that rented suits had.

Isabel meanwhile was an oriental beauty; she had been a favourite for a while an equal to Dace with her own custom interface suit in green and yellow with a red serpent's tail starting on her left wrist and winding its way up and around her back before the head of the snake settled itself just below her breasts. The logo of the Cobra Industrial Group was emblazoned on her back and down the outside of both legs. Her black hair had been cut short, giving her a tomboy appearance until your attention when down to the snake's head and then got distracted on its way back up.

Between the two of them a veritable fog of holographic colours was swimming around. Sharp lines and curves delineated the mist, but it was the colours that really mattered; even at a glance Raph could tell that it was a close match.

He flicked on his phone, the screen lighting up already connected to the local datafeed from the arena. He whistled in appreciation; the match had been going on for nearly twenty minutes already, and neither challenger looked like backing down soon.

"Excuse me, is this seat taken?"

Raph looked up sharply at the intrusion, taking in the man standing over him at a glance. He was Japanese, Raph guessed, and pushing sixty. He dressed in everyday clothes that had an almost gi-like simplicity to them. His hair was mostly grey, and limited to a fringe around the back of his head and a goatee.

There was something about the way that the man looked at him though; Raph knew at a glance that this wasn't a chance meeting, that the man recognised him. But, he perceived, there was no immediate sign of hostility. Not that he didn't have to force himself to relax when he saw the calm and measured stance of the man.

"No, help yourself," Raph said, relaxing more realistically now, allowing the tension to drain from his muscles.

"Thank you," the man replied in a somewhat reedy voice that was barely audible over the cheering from the crowd. "This seems quite a popular sport," the man said as Raph tried to turn back to the match. "Could you explain it for me?"

Raph hesitated for a vital fraction of a second, trying to read the man and work out whether he was joking or not; this was hardly a random place to visit, given the entry fee that you needed to pay to get in. But maybe the guy had just wandered in out of ennui or something.

And so taking the question at face value, Raph began to explain his favourite sport.

Kousentou. There were a dozen levels that the game was played on, and a hundred variants on the rules to accommodate different types of players and their levels of skill.

At its most basic level, the players were required to stay in their circle. The game's sensors, including those built into the interface suit, interpreted and translated movements into the patterns of colours and symbols and the movements within the cloud.

"The idea is to dominate the cloud," Raph explained. "But because two people can use the same colour, you have to be careful how you play and keep watching them; you can get your half of the cloud just right and then they throw in a move that changes their colour and suddenly they've claimed your half.

"The game recognises most forms of martial arts," Raph continued as Dace executed a pair of well-placed karate kicks in the air, "and it can recognise counters, blocks, stuff like that." Isabel had caught both kicks, deflecting them both with an Aikido counter before responding with a sweep of her own that Dace leapt over. "It can even recognise throws and stuff, and if you don't counter them that can lose you lots of points."

"It seems rather complicated just for some martial arts," the man replied.

"It's not just the martial arts," Raph assured him. "It's any style of martial arts, including some rules about the use of weapons. Plus the difficulty can be adjusted so that it uses anything from a cloud with a full spectrum which responds in real-time down to a flat surface in monochrome that is keyed to give beginners a decent time to think. There's even a league set up just for people who do kata or dance moves. There are people who don't even watch the players but just appreciate the art in the cloud, others who just come to see the styles of fighting..."

Dace chose that moment to execute a flying upper-cut which Isabel was totally unprepared for. The screen on Raph's phone showed a silhouette of the two figures as if they had actually made contact rather than being over ten metres apart, and most of the cloud abruptly changed to Dace's red.

Isabel tried to recover, but there wasn't much that she could do about it all; with that kind of damage it took Dace less than a minute to push Isabel back, warding off the few attempts that she made to recover.

Raph cheered along with the rest of the crowd as the cloud flashed and froze in place, the four-faced polygonal head of the Ringmaster AI appearing over the cloud and trying to announce Dace's victory over the noise.

"He seems quite good," the man commented once the noise died down.

"He's very good," Raph enthused, still fighting off the edge of wariness about this man. He held up his phone, bringing up Dace's stats on the screen. "He's easily world champion material. Fifth in the rankings in Mega-Tokyo. He even plays pure-Human grade because he's only got a couple of bits of cyberware."

"Do you play this game?" the man asked, his tone casual. Raph was immediately on edge at the subtle undertones that went with that question though.

"I'm not too bad. I'm a ranked player in the Junior League, in the top hundred. Another few years and I'll be challenging Dace for a position."

The man didn't look particularly impressed, or even react that much to this news. He sat considering the arena where Dace and Isabel were bowing to each other in the middle before heading out into the changing rooms on either side of the arena. "I suppose that you wouldn't indulge an old man and try a game or two," he said eventually, still watching the arena.

Raph considered for a moment. That was no simple request to make; setting up a game could require booking one of the arenas hours or days in advance sometimes. Unless this man had booked that far in advance...

There was also the way that he said it...

"You've booked already?" he asked, forcing his tone to be light and casual.

"I could probably find us an arena," the man replied, his tone equally casual, but with a layer to it that Raph didn't like. "If you're willing."

Raph considered for perhaps half a second, then nodded. "You're on."

The man cracked a faint smile, looking at Raph as he did. "You'll give an old man a chance to get a head start," he said as he stood and moved arthritically towards the stairs.

"Raph, did you just challenge some OAP to a match?" Lin asked suspiciously. "That's a bit... vicious, isn't it?"

"He's not just some OAP," Raph assured her, standing and holding up his phone, lining up the screen on the back of the man's head. As he turned on the stairs Raph managed to catch his profile in a snapshot and loaded the photo into the centre's database. With his standing as a regular contender he had access to the player records and could use a photo to search those records for his opponents.

The search took a few seconds before it came back with half a dozen matches. Raph dismissed all but one of them immediately.

"Here we are," Raph declared, holding up the phone so that Troy and Lin could see the screen. "Shinji Zhu. Started playing just after I did. His career average is lower than mine, but for the games that he's played he's good; he just doesn't play tournaments that often."

"So how come you didn't recognise him?" Troy asked. "I mean, if he's that good..."

"His stats are good," Raph admitted. "But I tend to challenge people who I've seen play. He's never used one of the main arenas, and he's kept quite quiet about it all. He's damned good though."

"Better than you?" Lin asked.

"About equal to judge from these scores," Raph replied, checking the player stats again. "But he probably hasn't challenged anyone of my level before now." He flipped his phone shut and smiled. "Easy-easy," he declared. "Let's go and see what he's set up."

As he headed down the stairs Raph let the smile slip a bit. He had read the stats right, and knew what they meant. He hadn't lied about what they showed either, since Lin at least could read them as well as he could. But he hadn't told them everything. He was worried by the prospect of this match.

Shinji was waiting for them next to one of the counters, a faint smile on his lips. "We're booked into the Inari arena," he announced, indicating the signs bearing the stylised image of a fox. "We've got twenty minutes to warm up. I hope that you don't mind the rush."

"I'll try to keep up with you," Raph assured him, forcing a smile as he did.

Lady 633 Building

Mackie looked around his sister's apartment, trying to gauge her mood from what had been left around. It was a skill that he had picked up from living with her for so long without parents to keep an eye on them. There was a kind of code to it.

In this case she was drinking tea, but had finished it and left the cup and saucer out. Her choice of reading material was magazines, specifically relating to fashion other than what she sold (she always kept a few of them downstairs in the shop and recycled the old copies after checking them herself). Rental details about the neighbouring buildings had been left on the coffee table next to the cup and magazines. The television, when he glanced at it, was showing that it was tuned for a news channel; Sylia had been watching global politics.

All of this told Mackie that Sylia was in a pensive mood, possibly trying to distract herself, and that she hadn't managed to shake the mood. He could even guess the source of the mood, though that wasn't too much trouble at present.

"Sylia?" he called out.

"In here Mackie," came her reply from the office adjoining the living room.

Mackie's gaze swept over the office as he entered, and he kept from smiling at his correct deductions of his sister's mood with ease; he didn't want to be upsetting her at this point, and appearing to take the situation less than seriously might do it. This was a side to his sister that the other Knight Sabres never saw; the pensive one that had started to turn up in the last few years, as age and injury started to tell on the Knight Sabre's performance.

She was looking over some of the combat recorder footage from the boomer rampage again, with notes laid out on the tabletop in front of her about different boomer types, about the new designs. There were GENOM documents and blueprints that Mackie had no idea how Sylia had obtained, but which she evidently had done.

"We need a new edge," Sylia announced, not taking her eyes off the screen. "Even with Priss and Nene using the new telekinetic enhancements we won't be able to fight against boomers like that on anywhere near the same level that we can against conventional boomers."

"You could set me up with a Hardsuit as well," Mackie offered. "I mean, I've got the same rating as Nene, just about." That was just about true, but it involved fiddling with the numbers a bit to make it so. In any event both he and Nene were a couple of levels behind Priss; Sylia hadn't mentioned it the day before, but Priss' rating was estimated at nearly twice that of Mackie's, assuming that she was willing to make it happen.

"You would be more use in the utility suit," Sylia said dismissively. "We need you as pilot, mechanic, specialist... We can't afford to lose those roles in the field."

"So what about new recruits? I mean, Linna and Geoff might not like the idea of Raph getting involved but there must be people out there who aren't going to be tied down like that."

"I've considered people," Sylia admitted. "But every time I run up against the same problems: their background, their willingness to help, the chances of them keeping a secret... I got lucky with the other three; Nene had no one else to go to, and Linna and Priss had just the right level of strength, skill and reason to join without the chances of handing the rest of us over to GENOM or the ADP. Nowadays, everyone I can track down is involved in something, sponsored by someone... I need specific people, the right kind of people, and... We can't afford to take chances, because that could be as bad as just letting GENOM know who we are."

Mackie considered. He knew about some of the issues regarding finding people to join the Knight Sabres; those reasons were why there had been no additions to the team over the last twelve years. But there had been people who knew about the Knight Sabres. "What about Leon? Priss says that he's been asking about us again, particularly after Priss came home with a broken arm a couple of months back. I mean, after this long he has to be safe from a security standpoint."

"Oh, he's safe there," Sylia admitted. "But it's bad enough with Nene having to vanish from work periodically and rewrite her schedule to cover it. Two ADP officers, particularly if one of them is front-line like officer McNichol, would be too many."

"Well that covers most of Nene's friends then," Mackie admitted. "I can think of a couple of people I know-"

"It's not just that though," Sylia cut him off softly. "This new telekinetic ability that GENOM can equip boomers with means that they have an undeniable advantage over us. Even with you, Priss and Nene all working together, we wouldn't be a match for three or four of these new boomers; the shields that they can generate are simply too powerful for conventional weapons to handle. We need people with this talent, and you can't test for it without specialised equipment."

"So... You can only find out if people are suitable if they join the Knight Sabres." Mackie paused, considering this. "Isn't there some way that it could be worked in as part of a regular test somehow?"

"It's more than just a regular test," Sylia replied, sounding resigned suddenly. "Even for the other Knight Sabres – and let's face it we all go through a rather detailed physical examination every couple of months if I can help it – this was something unusual. It involves not just a blood test but a detailed check of the activity in certain parts of the brain and the strength of certain neural links throughout the body. Now most people are not going to go through a test like that without good reason. The technique is actually adapted from certain kinds of test for neural conditions, but most of those conditions are degenerative and no one going through one of those tests will be a suitable candidate."

Mackie considered this as well. The test, which he hadn't understood the purpose of initially, was very definitely something that required a bit of explanation. Slipping that past most people, which you could do with things like the standard physicals, wasn't going to be possible without a lot of complications.

"It wouldn't be so bad if I had seen this coming," Sylia continued, not actually speaking to Mackie now, but rather vocalising her feelings and thoughts at a useful recipient. "We've known about this for eight years, seen how Raph was progressing, known that GENOM was interested in this technology and probably possessed a working model of it from the computer records at least. And then nothing. We haven't seen anything for eight years, and then when we do we, who had an advantage right from the start, are caught off-guard."

That was, Mackie realised, what was particularly eating his sister at this point. Most of the time she could get ahead of enemies: predicting where the Sky Hoppers would strike next and lying in wait; working out Largo's plan in advance and thwarting his efforts to capture the Silver Urchin and capturing it herself; putting an end to the Norvian (though Mackie had a feeling that the celebrations there may have been premature).

Overall, Sylia had grown used to being one step ahead of everyone, a trait that she had forced herself to develop following the disastrous first encounter with Largo. She had forced herself to push the development of the Hardsuits further and faster after that, pushing the Knight Sabre's intelligence assets so that she knew more and more of what was going on... Somehow, this had slipped past her.

Mackie was about to try to console her further when there was a bleep from her computer and Sylia looked at it sharply. She tapped at the trackpad and the screen lit up showing what appeared to be an RSS bulletin.

"What is it?" Mackie asked, curious as to what could have got Sylia this interested.

"It's from the kousentou centre in the Rat Race," Sylia replied absentmindedly. "This is... Interesting," she added. Without looking she reached over and dialled a number into the phone, apparently from memory, flicking it onto speaker as she did.

There were three rings before the call was answered. "Yeah? What is it?" The voice was familiar to Mackie, and the distortion on it suggested a very enclosed space to Mackie, such as a motorcycle helmet.

"Good afternoon to you too Priss," Sylia replied somewhat coolly. "Can you talk for a moment?"

"Sure," Priss replied, her tone not exactly happy about the prospect. "What do you want?"

"I just wanted to know whether you had spoken to anyone about Raphael since yesterday," Sylia said, her tone far from casual.

"No," came the emphatic response. "Why would I?"

"That's what I want to know," Sylia replied.

"Look, what even makes you think that I did?" Priss asked, the roar of her motorbike's engine managing to find its way past the scrubbing on her helmet's Bluetooth as she revved it.

"The fact that Raphael was just challenged to a match at kousentou by a certain Shinji Zhu. Perhaps you know the name," she added after Priss didn't immediately respond.

"Okay, so I talked to Shinji last night. I didn't mention the kid though."

"But he came up anyway," Sylia guessed. Mackie remembered the one time that he had met Shinji Zhu; the old man had been remarkably perceptive, with quiet impressive deductive skills. "You probably denied it, and now..."

"Look, the kid isn't in any danger," Priss interjected. "Kousentou isn't even physical combat."

"Nonetheless, I am concerned by his interest in Raphael." She sighed. "I suppose it can't hurt," she announced, not sounding convinced.

Kousentou Centre, The Rat Race

Raph stretched, feeling the way that the interface suit slid over his skin, revelling in the sense of freedom that went with it.

The first time he had worn one of these he had expected it to be something like the wetsuit that he had worn when his parents had taken him diving during his first couple of years with them. The restricted feeling that had gone with that had been almost painful to Raph.

The interface suit on the other hand slid across the skin; it was a constant tension rather than bunching up and separating as the wetsuit had a habit of doing. The sensors built into it were unobtrusive, the only major sign of them being a layer of slightly thicker padding down the back (for the ostensive purpose of padding against impacts) where the processors and wireless where located.

Standing upright, Raph checked himself out in the changing room's mirror, before stepping out into the arena.

This was one of the smaller arenas; it only came out at ten metres across (experiments with smaller ones had led to more issues than they solved), with a ring of six circles for contestants to stand in around the outside. Two of the rings were lit up already, on opposite sides of the arena.

Raph stepped into the nearest one, watching as Shinji stepped out of the changing room opposite and into his own circle.

The older man was dressed in an interface suit as well, but his own was a custom one rather than borrowed like the one that Raph was using. It was blue for the most part, with red highlights; not much of a custom job, but definitely not rented.

They bowed formally, and Raph used the movement to focus his awareness, filtering out everything that didn't matter to the match. It had startled him how hard it was for other people to do this without practise, and he'd been warned by his mother to keep it quiet very early on. Now that Sylia had explained where he came from... That extra ability to focus made sense now.

When they both came up his world extended as far as the edge of the arena, centring on the man on the far side of it and the grey cloud that had shimmered into existence across the floor between them. He threw the first punch, taking a half step forwards with his right leg as his right fist drew back at his hip and then came up and forwards, spinning to face downwards and carrying his entire upper body into the move for added force.

The move was blocked, but gave him a good starting advantage: a wedge of brilliant red stabbing into the air in front of him which was neutralised just short of the wall of blue sprinkled with green icons that the block had brought up.

It was an obvious move; he had ensured that Shinji was on the defensive, beginning with a solid wall in front of him. That wall could be reinforced, but pushing it further forward would mean sacrificing its strength or building the whole thing up. Either of those worked for Raph.

Apparently Shinji was happy to allow his defences to be potentially compromised, as he threw a sharp left-block-right-block-punch combo which Raph countered with a couple of kicks and a block of his own. The combo reinforced the defences on either side of Shinji, forcing Raph to attack down the centre; in some people that wouldn't have been a smart move, but Raph guessed that this was deliberate as it forced attacks to come by the shortest possible, and most obvious, route.

Determined not to be outdone there, Raph threw in a couple of attacks, pushing hard to expand his initial attack vector while also throwing an attack off to the side; indirect attacks were something that only the pros would normally use, but Raph had pulled them off a couple of times before. If nothing else it cost him little and would provide something else that Shinji needed to defend against.

Apartment 437, Damascan Tower, Zhandou District

The phone had been ringing for a good thirty seconds by the time Linna reached it. Whoever it was had managed to bypass the normal voicemail timeout, which meant that it was from a limited number of people right from the start. When she saw Sylia's number she nearly hesitated, but answered anyway.

"Linna," Sylia said in greeting, somewhat businesslike to Linna's ears. "Are you free to talk?" The video image showed Sylia at her desk in the office that she kept next to her living room; Linna had only been in there a couple of times in her career in the Knight Sabres, but recognised it despite this.

"There's just the two of us here," Linna assured Sylia. "What's up?"

"I'm sending you a link," Sylia replied, somewhat obliquely. "Take a look at it will you?"

A web link icon appeared in the bottom corner of the screen and Linna tapped at it with a frown. She didn't recognise the address, but it was fairly complicated; not just a link to a page but to a very specific page several layers down a hierarchy.

The page that came up was a quite impressive piece of work, and it took Linna a few seconds to understand it properly. The centre image was a video feed of a kousentou match; she had seen those often enough and even participated in one or two so that she knew what she was talking about when coaching people at the gym. The two sides of the page were taken up with player statistics, including quite a lot of data which was being pulled from the interface suit and a list of moves that had been performed.

Only once she had consciously processed all of this did Linna finally work out who the person on the left was.


"Yes, Raphael," Sylia agreed from the view-within-view that she had been relegated to. "I take it that you weren't aware of how good he is at kousentou?"

"He mentioned that he played sometimes... I didn't think..." She watched as on the screen her son threw a series of attacks and counters. "I didn't realise that he was that good," she admitted.

"At the bottom of the screen there's a tab for overall stats," Sylia indicated. "Bring that up and see what it says."

Linna touched the tab and watched the stats change from game moves to physical stats. Reflex speed, overall strength, perception rating, endurance... "Those are the statistics you use for our training," she said slowly.

"Similar to them. The ones that I use are more complete because they test things that kousentou cannot effectively test such as actual arm and leg strength or providing an accurate idea of perceptual rating. But these are similar enough to get an idea from," she admitted. "What do you notice?"

Suspecting where this was going, Linna looked over the stats, then turned as Geoffrey came into the room. "Raph's down in the Rat Race," she said, indicating the screen. "In a kousentou match."

Geoffrey came over and looked at the screen. "These numbers..."

"They're good," Linna admitted. "They're above the level that Nene used to operate at when we took on Largo..."

"He's actually fighting as if he was at level six or seven right now," Sylia chimed in. "Hello Geoffrey."

"Sylia," he responded, tight-lipped. "Did you set this up?"

"No, I didn't," Sylia replied. "I had considered it, but dismissed the idea as antagonistic. Someone else appears to have taken the initiative though; Shinji Zhu is Priss' maternal uncle. She denies having mentioned Raph to him recently, but I know Shinji well enough to guess that he worked out what she was angry about because of the direction of her silence. Not knowing the full situation, he's decided to investigate for himself. Ultimately he's not doing any real harm; he's just trying to work out what his niece is angry about."

"Will he..."

"There's nothing for him to find out in a kousentou match," Sylia assured the pair of them. "Raphael is a mature young man with excellent self-control." She looked off to the side as something on both ends of the conversation bleeped expectantly. "As you are about to see..."

On the screen Linna saw that both players were about evenly matched in the cloud; Raph had built up a stronger offensive, but Shinji's defences were very solid. The older man was keeping up his defensive very effectively, and she didn't see what Raph was going to be able to do to beat it.

When he stopped attacking and went into a ready stance, she was confused; standing there like that was simply asking for trouble as Shinji would be able to attack with impunity. His stance shifted slowly though, his hands positioned as if holding a ball between them as they came down to his hip. He stood in hidari hanmi, his left foot forwards and back foot behind and perpendicular to it. As his hands came down to his right hip his side of the cloud began to glow faintly, acquiring a shimmering that Linna didn't recognise from any of her experience with the game.

Abruptly, with a sharp kiai, Raph brought his hands up in front of him, arms straight out towards Shinji, his palms pointing at his opponent and his fingers held as if ready to claw something. At his kiai the cloud in front of him flashed, a brilliant beam of light blasting towards Shinji and shattering his defences in a single blow. Almost the entire arena flared to Raph's colour and icons in that single instant, and he spun out of his finished stance, delivering a sharp kick in the direction of each of the offending areas.

"What just happened?" Linna asked. "Did he just-"

"There was no telekinesis involved," Sylia assured her. "The computer running the game can recognise a variety of moves, and one of the ones that was added early on was the hadouken. Basically the computer uses the interface suit to work out how centred someone is; if they make the right actions and have centred themselves properly, they can perform a hadouken." She paused significantly. "There are professionals who have never managed to throw a hadouken in their entire career despite hours of practise. Raphael did it on his second go and is still the youngest person in the world to have thrown one."

Linna and Geoffrey exchanged a long look as the screen began to show replays of different moments within the game. Neither of them wanted to think about what they had seen, but they knew that it would be hard to deny.

Fighting was in their son's blood.