30 May 2013
"You're sure that they're linking up?"
"Positive, sir. Monsieur Schrödinger specifically asked where he could find Monsieur Scott."
The man in the shadows cursed in Italian for a few seconds. "They must have heard about this thing of ours, and thought we're as bad as de Leon's boys were over on Crystal Osaka. What in the name of all that's holy is wrong with those Colombians? Have they forgotten the joys of the drive-by? Or of simple extortion?"
"Don't interrupt me when I've started a good rant." He glared at his impertinent underling, then sighed. "Signor Schrödinger and signor Scott -- Great Justice's 'Dirty Pair.'"
"Don't you listen to the people out here? Perhaps I chose the wrong person to be my assistant." The underling paled slightly. "It's a reference to a Japanese cartoon. The important thing is that when Schrödinger and Scott work together, our people die." After a moment, he continued. "We have no choice. We have to hit them before they hit us. Make it happen; I'll tell La Mariposa."
"Katz? What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you. We need to talk, in private."
"Not in public. You're the one who wants this kept hush-hush."
Noah sighed. "Yoriko told you." Katz nodded. "Fine. Ms. Vanette, Ms. Ravenhair, Ms. vel'deVarn, would you join us, please? Yayoi, Kohran, Ms. Swansen, would you mind keeping our other new friends company while they go shopping?"
A few minutes later, the now-smaller group was alone in one of the Sammies' meeting rooms.
"... and that's how they showed up," continued Noah while gesturing toward the visitors. "We both know that, if word gets out about how they got here, the boskonians would stop at nothing to learn how to duplicate the feat."
Dee raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't say anything. She didn't know this world very well; that might be how things worked here.
"Are any of these 'boskonians' mages?" asked Lisa.
"I don't know. I hope not. Even if they can't learn how you do what you do, they won't stop trying to duplicate it, then keep it for themselves if they succeed. It's too big an advantage."
"Do you want to know the spell to travel between worlds, Mr. Scott?"
"No, thank you, Ms. Vanette. One universe is big enough for me."
"He couldn't use it anyway," muttered Skuld.
"Noah," interrupted Katz, "that's beside the point. There's no possible way that you can keep this a secret."
"I know you've read the stories they're in; I've seen the name on the credit card you use when you travel incognito. I did some research and discovered who wrote those stories."
"Who lives aboard Grover's Corners?"
"Where did that come fro... oh. And they were on TV this morning. There's no possible way that I can keep this a secret."
Three people, all dressed in black and carrying attaché cases, walked into Crystal Paris' Sailor Militia base.
Only one person saw the group. She buzzed them in, then left.
There was a clatter as Skuld stood up fast enough to knock over her chair. She spun in place to look straight at the only door to the room.
"Skuld?" Lisa ignored Noah and Katz to concentrate on her friend. "What's wrong?"
"Someone's coming," Skuld whispered. Then she tipped the diamondoid conference table over and pushed Sora behind it, grabbing her hammer with her other hand.
"Take cover!" Dee yelled as she ducked, just before the door burst open.
Everyone in the room hit the floor behind the table before the three intruders were through the door. Those three braced their attaché cases on their stomachs ... and opened fire.
"Shit! That's live ammo!"
Skuld looked at Noah in surprise. "What did you think someone would attack us with?"
"Something like this," answered Katz as he tossed a grenade into the air. The grenade went off with a phrase of melody and the Japanese lyric ｢It's only Monday! Already in a bad mood? What to do?｣, and suddenly there was a slowly-falling cloud of large balls of metallic-gold streamers between the two groups.
The gunmen weren't fazed.
"Nice pompom round," Noah commented from below the hail of lead, "but that's better against beams than bullets."
Skuld hit the butt of her hammer against the deck, and suddenly she was wearing red-and-white scale.
Lisa chanted something under her breath; when she was finished, there was a golden glow around her.
Skuld and Lisa nodded to each other.
The last pompom hit the deck.
They jumped over the table.
Lisa dodged left, Skuld veered right, bullets bouncing off both of them. They landed on either side of the gunmen.
"Heart Breaker!" Lisa hit two of the gunmen's cases at once, which turned to dust.
Skuld's hammer came down on the third man's head.
Sora shrieked from behind cover as blood splattered on the tabletop in fromt of her.
The surviving attackers pulled knives from their belts.
Skuld's hammer went through another one's head. "Don't force us to kill you," she told the last man standing.
He dropped his knife, then bit down on his jaw so hard something broke.
Katz heard that and swore. "Open his mouth!" But it was too late; the man was already dead.
"What could kill someone that quickly?" wondered Dee.
Katz looked grim. "A massive thionite overdose. I've seen it too many times in the last year. Some boskonians would rather die than be captured, especially if they've been brainwashed that way by their leaders."
While Noah wiped the blood off of Sora's face, he added, "Which they probably were, since they didn't stop fighting when they started losing."
Lisa let her defensive spell lapse and picked up the remaining attaché case. "This looks like something GENOM would have made in the bad old days. What the hell is it?"
"Heckler and Koch MP5K short 9×19mm Parabellum submachine gun, in the optional attaché case with a trigger built into the handle."
Everyone turned to look at Sora. "It is, but how in the worlds did you know that?" asked Noah.
She blushed. "I was going to buy you one for your birthday. But they cost over $5,000 with the custom case."
"They had one each," Katz pointed out. "Whoever wants one or more of us dead has some serious money behind them."
Dee cleared her throat. "Is that door soundproof?" Katz looked at Noah, who shrugged. She continued, "If it isn't, why hasn't somebody come to find out what all the noise was about?"
"Good question," replied Noah. "Let's go find out, Sora." And they stepped out of the room.
There was a moment of silence, which Katz used to examine the body of the man who had suicided. Finally, Lisa broke the silence. "You know, if you tried to not-stare at us any harder, you'd likely end up blindfolding yourself."
Katz quirked an eyebrow, then chuckled. "That obvious, was it?"
"If you know what to look for, yes," said Lisa. "Why are you so nervous around us in particular?"
"Would you believe -- philosophical uncertainty?" The man stood up from where he'd been crouched. "Existential angst?"
"... nice try, but no," Skuld cut in, frowning slightly.
"Ah, well, it was worth a try," he mumbled. "It's more yourself and Ms. Vanette than Ms ... vel'deVarn? Did I get that right?"
Katz took a deep breath before he faced the two in question, then bowed.
Lisa looked at Skuld. Skuld looked at Lisa. Their expression were both puzzled.
"You're welcome, I guess? Um ... what for?" the goddess asked after Katz straightened again, looking vaguely embarassed about the whole thing.
"Bubblegum Crisis is what got me into anime fandom in the first place, and Oh My Goddess was one of the chief reasons I stayed," the man said with slight smile. "In a way, if it wasn't for the both of you, I wouldn't be here right now, or be the person I am."
"That would possibly mean more if you had bothered to actually introduce yourself," commented Delandra.
Katz's puzzlement was replaced by realization a moment later, whereupon he facepalmed. "Oy. Sorry, I forget that a lot. Katz Schrödinger."
"Ow," deadpanned Skuld.
"Noah?" Sora's voice was unsteady.
"I don't know where they are either, Sora." He took another look around the Sammie office, hoping to see at least one other person.
"It isn't that. You need to see this."
He walked around the duty officer's desk and read the message that was still on the display. "Oh, Hell. We are so screwed."
Sora nodded. "There's an electronics workshop just down the hall, second door on the left."
"So? Oh, right. I'm glad one of us is thinking straight." And he walked back into the meeting room.
Katz turned to look at Noah. "what's wrong?"
"Not yet. Ms. Ravenhair, please come with me for a moment."
Skuld did so, and read the computer screen he pointed out. "That's not good. Where's ...?"
"Down here." Sora already had the door open.
"Thanks. If you help, it'll be ready faster."
"What's going on?" asked Lisa from the meeting room's doorway as Skuld and Sora closed the workshop door behind them.
She did, followed by Katz and Dee. "That isn't good. But ..."
"Dee." Lisa shook her head, and mimed zipping her mouth shut. Dee looked puzzled, but stopped talking.
Skuld came out of the workshop a few minutes later, carrying a small box. A single LED on the box's top was lit. "Here. It works too well -- Sora can't see or hear anything, either. I'm going to build her A/V systems a quick workaround; the rest of you do what you need to." As she returned to the workshop, she pulled a pair of glasses out of her pocket.
"Thanks," Lisa said to Skuld's back as the technologist returned to her work. She waved everyone closer to the anti-surveillance device. "Dee, that message wasn't addressed to anyone in particular."
"Are you saying the entire Sammie team is part of this?"
"No, Ms. vel'deVarn," replied Katz. "If all the Sammies were in on this, the assassin team wouldn't have cared if they were seen. Whoever sent the message knew that only their agent -- or one of their agents -- would read it, and that agent would be able to get everyone else out of here."
"Which means they knew who was at that desk. And that means they can tap into the local security system," added Lisa, glancing at the ceiling camera pointed at the reception desk. "If it wasn't for this bug squelcher, they'd probably be watching and listening to us right now."
"Thank the gods for the Goddess of Technology," muttered Noah. "We could use a few of those in the Space Patrol we're putting together."
"I have the plans," replied Sora from behind her employer.
He turned to see she was wearing Skuld's glasses instead of her own; a second glance revealed the new eyewear was plugged into the USB port usually concealed under Sora's headband. "That was fast. Squelch-proof cameras and microphones?"
"Effectively, yes," Skuld replied from behind the android. "They're also polarized and filtered to give protection against anything short of a phosphorus grenade at point-blank range, amongst other things. Who's trying to kill us, and have you called anyone in to arrest them?"
"We don't know yet, and no," said Katz. "Can you hack that system and find out who received that message?" Skuld looked at him flatly. "Right. Would you hack that system and find out who received that message, please?"
As Skuld moved to the duty officer's computer, Dee asked, "Why haven't you called the local authorities yet?"
"We have to assume the communication system is compromised. We also have to assume anybody we contact may be working for the zwilnicks."
"'Zwilnicks'? And isn't that being too paranoid, Mr. Schrödinger?"
"Zwilnicks are drug-runner boskonians, Ms. Vanette. And when it comes to our lives, there's no such thing as 'too paranoid.' Right, Noah?"
"Right, Katz. But we don't have time to wait for backup we can trust. We're going to have to find them ourselves, get into their base, and deal with them personally."
"We're probably badly outnumbered."
"Can't be helped," Noah sighed. Then he turned to Dee, Skuld, and Lisa. "Unless your group would be willing to help us? I'm pretty sure we can trust you."
"I can't speak for the others, but I'm willing to lend a hand," Lisa replied. "There were too many people like that back in Mega-Tokyo before Doug showed up and started the chain of events that got rid of most of them. Maybe I can return the favour here."
"If Lisa's in, I'm in," added Dee. "Besides, any chance to practice fighting alongside a comrade-in-arms is worth taking."
"Thank you." Noah moved his hand to his belt, then remembered he wasn't currently armed. "Sora, get me the MP5K that survived and all the ammo that's left, then head back to the Blade where you'll be safe."
"What do you think?" Luna stepped out of the changing booth and pirouetted.
Yayoi smiled. "It looks good on you. I didn't know this boutique sold a Senshi uniform in Ravenclaw colours, let alone one with ..." Just then, her cellphone buzzed. "Hang on ... Hello?"
"Yayoi, it's Noah. Where are you?"
"We're at Crystal 109. You suggested I take our friends shopping, remember?"
"That's right, I did. Take your time and have fun, then. Hugs and kisses!"
"Hugs and kisses, Noah." She put her cellphone away quickly.
"What's wrong?" asked Luna, sotto voice. "You almost look like you just saw a nargle."
"Our friends are in trouble, Noah wants us back right away, and we can't trust that the phone circuits aren't being tapped. We need to get everybody together. Now." Yayoi took a deep breath and released it slowly. Then she turned to the clerk, credit card in hand, and smiled. "She'll take that. Would you wrap her old clothes, please?"
"'Hugs and kisses'?" Skuld asked as Noah pocketed his cellphone.
"It's amazing how many people think we're a romantic couple, despite all the evidence. That's our code phrase for 'ignore what I've said and do the opposite.'"
Skuld grinned. "'The hugs and kisses of a chaste couple'. That's very much like a Norse kenning."
"Is that good?" asked Noah, wondering just what a 'kenning' was.
Two women were enjoying a quiet moment in a quiet corner of a quiet cafe. Then another woman showed up, whispered in an ear, and left quickly.
Once she was gone, Makoto turned to Leda. "Luna says Ms. Fujisawa says Mr. Scott wants us back now. She didn't say why."
"Noah doesn't change plans for no reason. We'd better head back." They paid for their coffees and headed back to the Sammie base.
As they walked past some of the local Senshi, one of them squealed and said, "Ohmigod! They look just like Lita!"
Makoto turned to Leda. "Do I really look that much like you?"
"She said 'Lita,' not 'Leda.' She thinks we look like you."
"That isn't my name."
"It was in the English dub. And, yes, you look like me, except for skin colour. And around the bustline."
Makoto noticed the undertone in Leda's voice when she said that last sentence. "Are you really jealous of a simple physical attribute?"
Leda thought for a moment. "Yes. Yes, damn it, I am jealous, Makoto-sensei."
"Yours are almost as big."
"Almost. N- men like women with large breasts."
"No, teenaged boys like women with large breasts. Some adults, too, I'll admit, but not all of them. It took me centuries to learn that some men are attracted to what's inside a potential partner's head instead of what's part of her or his body. Not many, I'll grant, but from what little I've seen of 'N-men,'" -- Makoto smiled briefly -- "I think he's one of them. Look at Nikaido-san and Li-ér for proof."
Leda thought about Makoto's comment for the rest of their walk.
The last of the girls -- Kohran and Kaolla -- rejoined the group a few minutes after the others. Both of them were covered in soot.
"Should I ask what you've been doing?" asked Noah with a hint of trepidation in his voice.
｢Do you...｣ Kohran stopped, then switched from Japanese to English. "Do you want to sleep well tonight?"
Kaolla grinned. "It was great! The dock crew actually asked us to use up the chlorine trifluoride ..."
Lisa cleared her throat. ｢Not now, Suu-san.｣
"Sorry, I'll shut up."
Kohran leaned over to Kaolla. ｢What's up?｣ she whispered.
｢Leese isn't formal with me unless it's important. And those two look upset.｣ Kaolla gestured toward Noah and Katz, both of whom were glaring at the two girls. ｢We'd better pay attention.｣
Kohran scowled, then jumped as Skuld tapped her shoulder. ｢Put these on, and plug them in to yourself.｣ She handed the android a pair of glasses, indistinguishable from the pair Kohran currently had on except for the USB cable. After she did so, she noticed Yayoi was also wearing new glasses.
Noah switched on Skuld's bug squelcher, surprising Yayoi and Kohran when their eyes and ears stopped working. They quickly switched over to the glasses' senses.
"As a few of you have already noticed from the crime scene," Noah gestured toward the briefing room, "we were ambushed while you were away. Katz Schrödinger has already volunteered to help me track down and deal with the people responsible."
Katz nodded grimly. "They attacked me, but didn't kill me. That was their biggest mistake."
Noah shook his head. "No, their biggest mistake was attacking Sora."
"We don't have time to argue. Their two biggest mistakes were attacking Sora and me."
Skuld scowled. "Their three biggest mistakes were attacking Sora, Katz, and us."
Dee cleared her throat. "Their four biggest mistakes were ... er, we'll just step out and come back in again."
Noah frowned. "Fine. Whatever. As of now, the mission to clean out this organized criminal cell in Crystal Paris is code-named 'Operation Spanish Inquisition'."
"I wasn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition," commented Rei, completely deadpan.
The other visiting women looked at their hosts expectantly.
Finally, Noah sighed and said, "No-one expected a Spanish Inquisition reference from you, Ms. Ayanami." He shook his head, as if to clear the shock from it. "Enough joking; we're on the clock. As I said earlier, Katz has agreed to be part of the ... part of Operation Spanish Inquisition. The objective is to locate whoever ordered the attack on us, and neutralize them and their operations here. They have at least one agent in the civil organization -- the one who let those killers into this base. There may be more. That means we can't risk asking for backup. Evidence indicates they have access to the security cameras in this room. We have to assume the mere existance of Skuld's anti-surveillance gear has tipped them off that we know they've been watching us. In short, we're probably outnumbered, definitely on the enemy's home territory, likely have lost the element of surprise, and have nothing but our immediate resources to rely on -- we don't even have time to go get the weapons on my ship. Katz and I are going in anyway, because we're stupid that way."
"And we don't want to give them a chance to go to ground."
"What he said. If anyone else wants to be a part of this, raise your hand."
Every hand in the room went up.
Katz smiled. "Thank you. Ms. Vanette, you know your friends' abilities better than we do."
"Right." Lisa turned to Skuld. "You were hacking the computer system earlier; what did you find out?"
"It's bad. This is the person who was on duty when the order to evacuate the Sammie base came in. She told everyone else to leave, let the assassins in, then left the office herself." Skuld switched on the computer monitor.
Yayoi went white. "Oh, no ... Naoko, why?"
"You recognize her?" asked Katz.
"We all recognize her," Kaolla answered. "She was one of the judges at the contest this morning."
"She's ... oh, no. She's the base commander. No wonder everyone followed her orders."
Yayoi looked into Noah's eyes. "Please, let me handle this," she pleaded.
He didn't hesitate. "All right; you are a reserve Sammie. Yayoi, take care of Commander Sato. Ms. Vanette, I apologize for interrupting you."
"You're used to taking charge; I understand. Just don't do it again, okay?" Lisa turned to Rei as Yayoi left the room. "I don't want anyone going off alone." The albino nodded and followed Yayoi out the door. Lisa then turned to the people at the computer console. "Skuld, did you find any sign that Sato has any accomplices in the Sammies?"
"I didn't have time to look."
"We need you on the front lines. Rin-Rin, go through their computer systems and report anything you learn to Rei and Ms. Fujisawa. Get her phone number from Mr. Scott." Lisa turned to Noah. "What sort of criminals are these people likely to be?"
"Cold-blooded ... Sorry. They're probably harvesting the bacteria that's refined to produce thionite. That's what most boskonians do around Venus."
"If we had a sample of that bacteria," interrupted Luna, "we could do a divination to find more of it."
Noah turned to Leda. "Too bad you don't have the sample you took from Crystal Osaka."
"Actually ..." Leda pulled a sealed metal vial from her purse, checked the seal, and handed the vial to Luna. "Here you go."
"Why do you have that with you?" Katz demanded.
"Sentimental reasons. I've been carrying it since Crystal Osaka was destroyed."
"Destroyed?" When Noah nodded, Lisa asked, "Any deaths?"
"Thank you," replied Katz. "Now you know why we hate zwilnicks."
Lisa turned to Luna. "There's no time to waste; let's do that divination. Dee?"
Delandra nodded. "Right, I'm in charge now. Who has a map of this place?" Noah switched on his PDA, tapped its screen a few times, and handed it to Dee. "Thank you. ... This map is incomplete."
"It's intended for tourists," apologized Noah. "I expect the Sammies have better maps in their computer system."
"Already on it, Dee!" Rin-Rin typed furiously, and after a moment, Noah's PDA beeped. "There you go!"
Dee looked at the handheld's screen. "Yes, this is much better."
Sora locked the Epsilon Blade's airlock doors behind her, walked up the stairs to the ship's lounge, sat down, and quietly went to pieces.
Every memory she had, both the hard-coded ones from before she first woke up in 2008 and the recent ones from actual experience, told her that Skuld was a nice person. A good person. But ... but ...
But she'd cold-bloodedly killed two people.
No, that wasn't fair. She'd killed two people in the heat of battle.
But she'd killed two people. And she didn't seem to have any regrets afterward, the way Noah always did.
That wasn't the Skuld that Sora remembered.
If she couldn't trust her own memories, what could she believe?
She thought back to 2008, and something that Doug Sangnoir had told her when he was visiting Stellvia. "Sora, you remind me a lot of the best people the Warriors work for back home. I hope you can stay like them for a long, long time -- every world needs more people like you."
But what kind of person was that?
Sora remembered the last time she had felt so afraid, and who had helped her get through that time. She hoped for the same help now as she placed a call through the ship's InterWave system.
"Hello? Mr. Mayor? It's Sora calling, from Stellvia. Could I speak with Kat, please?"
｢Dee says I'm to help you with the computers.｣
Rin-Rin looked up at Kaolla. ｢Thanks, I could use the help. I'm still backtracking that message; can you do something about the firewalls in the way?｣
｢Sure!｣ She sat down at the next console over and started typing.
"Thanks, Mr. Schroeck," replied Captain Corcoran. "But I'm sure you didn't come all the way to Venus just to complement the Pinafore."
"That's true. I'm looking for some of the people who participated in the Iron Inventor match that you judged this morning -- do you know where they are, by any chance?"
"Can't say that I do, but I've got time to help you look for them."
"We've got them!"
Noah turned to Rin-Rin and Kaolla as Dee turned to Lisa and Luna. "Where are they?"
Dee glared at Noah. "Sorry," he said after a monent. "Your show. Go ahead."
The blonde pointed. "That way, 570 meters."
"They're in the atmosphere processing plant."
Dee looked at the map on Noah's PDA. "They match. Let's go."
"No, Ms. vel'deVarn. You are not taking part in this."
Dee glared at Noah again. "You said this was my show. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't lead the attack."
"Because Ms. Vanette, Ms. Ravenhair, and Ms. Lovegood are taking part."
"I said a good reason."
"That is a good reason. If all four of you die, who's left to open a portal?"
She didn't have an answer for that.
"Besides, we need somebody to co-ordinate the support group staying here, Yayoi and Ms. Ayanami off wherever they are, the assault team, and the people running interference for the front-line fighters. Is anyone else as good a logistician as you are?"
"Fine, I'll sit this one out." She walked over to the desk that Kaolla was using. "But under protest. You're in charge."
"Thank you, Ms. vel'deVarn. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry." He turned his attention to the spellcasters, who were discussing their next action.
"We could use Finite Technologium to stop the equipment they're using, then go in while they're distracted."
Lisa shook her head. "Neither of us fully understand that spell yet, Luna. If we flub it, it might stop the drug purification equipment, but it could also stop Bibi, Fujisawa-san, Li-san, Hasegawa-san, the city's life-support systems, and every ship in port as well."
"I think we should take the chance."
This wasn't the Luna Lovegood that Noah remembered from the novels. He decided it was time to step in. "Luna, could we get you to run interference outside of the battle area?"
"I'd rather take part on the front lines."
"Is that a genuine Senshi uniform, with the armour?" Luna nodded, and Noah frowned. "Some of those have attitude-warping side effects. You'd better not fight until you're used to what if anything it does to your personality." Not that it isn't obvious what it's doing to your personality, he thought. "Can I count on you, Leda, and Kohran to keep any innocent civilians from getting caught in the crossfire?"
"Since you put it that way, all right."
Lisa looked up. "As long as you're keeping everyone safe, would you mind looking after Luna?"
Noah looked puzzled. "Aren't you Luna?"
"She's talking about the other Luna, her cat." Luna turned to Lisa. "Certainly, I'll keep my namesake safe."
As Noah walked over to Katz, he wondered how he had missed noticing that Lisa had a pet. Maybe A.C. is right, and I do need a vacation. What else have I not noticed lately?
"I'm sorry, Ms. Fujisawa, but I'm not allowed to disclose someone's personal information to a stranger."
Yayoi smiled at the hangar's desk clerk. "I understand. You don't want to lose you job."
"Thank you for ..."
Yayoi stopped smiling. "But that's what's going to happen if you don't co-operate. I'm not asking as a reserve Armed Militia officer or a highly-placed executive in an allied faction. I'm asking as a Rank OF-7 Operation Great Justice Troubleshooter. So get me that information right now or be ready to be up on charges, mister."
Rei stepped forward so that she was directly behind Yayoi. ｢Was that legal?｣ she whispered in Japanese.
Yayoi matched Rei's volume. ｢Not completely, but we're in a hurry. Sato would be long gone before we could find her ship if I went through channels.｣
｢I see. Your actions remind me of how Gendo Ikari used to behave.｣
Yayoi winced. ｢Oh. I'll go back to following the rules.｣
The desk clerk cleared his throat. "Ma'am, here's Super Senshi Sato's vehicle registration information." He offered a computer memory stick to Yayoi. "She's in hangar 117. And, ma'am ..."
"She's just asked for permission to launch."
"Stall her. That's an order."
"She's the Sammie commander, ma'am -- she has the right to launch on a moment's notice. I don't know how long I can keep her here."
Yayoi glared at the clerk. "Do it!" Then she took off at a run.
As Rei and Yayoi ran to hangar 117, the visitor commented, ｢I'm surprised that your credentials are valid here.｣
｢The Senshi are very strongly behind Great Justice. Because I work directly for an OF-08 Troubleshooter, they told me that I could promote myself from OF-03 to OF-07 if I really needed to. And I needed to, because Sato is OF-06.｣
｢That isn't how most armed forces operate.｣
｢Most of us are making things up as we go along out here.｣
｢Ah. Is this a permanent promotion?｣
｢I hope not. I'd rather continue working on Stellvia.｣
The first few fighters faced a door hidden deep in the life-support systems' caverns.
"Of course it's sealed," Noah sighed after trying his Great Justice ID in the card slot.
Katz nodded. "What else? They'd hardly want somebody who's supposed to be down here wandering in. Let's try creating a loud commotion out here, and if they unbolt the door, we'll jump them. Ms. Kino, can you make a thunderclap or something to draw people's attention?"
She grinned. "Thunder's just a noise, boys, lightning does the work."
Katz and Noah looked at each other. "Mark Twain?"
"Chad Brock. Don't forget who trained her."
She frowned at the two men. "If you're finished...?" They shut up. "Thank you. Supreme Thunder!"
A blast of lightning shot from her hands, and the door exploded.
Katz blinked. "Okay, we're in." They headed inside.
The room was filled with somewhat-disquieting, oddly-suggestive conduits and beakers, all made from brightly-coloured transparent carbon. Noah took one look and whispered, "It's like a cross between H.R. Giger and H.R. Pufnstuf in here."
"Who and who?"
"Later, Ms. Vanette. We don't know when we'll be attacked."
Skuld pulled Noah to one side just before a machine pistol started firing. "They attack now. Please stay behind Mirai."
"Because, Mr. Schrödinger, she's bulletproof when she's in Moldiver form." Indeed, the bullets were bouncing off the short skirt and blouse that Mirai was wearing.
"Right. Important safety tip." Noah turned to Katz. "Whose turn is it to give the official warning?"
"Be my guest."
"Thanks." Noah raised his PDA to his lips, switching on the 'bullhorn' program. "This is an official Operation Great Justice raid! Surrender immediately!"
Gunfire was the only answer.
"Try to take at least one of them alive, ladies," Noah asked. "We need to know who they're working for."
Lisa nodded. "Peggy, guard the locals." She gestured toward Noah and Katz. "Bibi, Mirai, Skuld, out in front. Makoto and I'll back you up with artillery."
"We're not ..." Noah started.
Katz put his hand over Noah's mouth. "... in your league," he finished for his friend. "Go."
Katz waited for a moment, then took his hand away from Noah's mouth. "Are you going to insist on being a hero and joining in, getting in the way of five people who are used to fighting alongside each other and not used to working with us?"
"I can handle myself in a firefight."
"What about Sora? Or Yoriko? If you get shot, how are they going to take it?"
Noah stopped complaining. "When did you become the sane one in this partnership?"
An explosion in the distance drowned out the beginning of Katz's reply. "... and I shouldn't be the sane one. You need a vacation." Katz moved to the closest computer terminal. "Now that that's settled, let's see what we can see around here. I may not be as good as Trigon, but even I can spot some clues on a network." He typed for a few minutes, with only the receeding firefight making any noise. "But not on this network. We need a hacker."
"We have two." Noah switched on his commwatch. "Kohran, could you bring Kaolla and Rin-Rin down here, please?"
"Skuld already told us to head down. We're on our way," she answered.
"Thanks. Noah out."
Peggy looked at the commwatch. "Is that encrypted?"
"Then we had secure communications."
Katz shook his head. "The endpoints weren't secure."
She'd made it this far ... but, against all protocol, she was being denied launch clearance. That wasn't supposed to happen. "Crystal Paris ATC, why am I being held on the launch pad?"
"We're sorry, Commander Sato, but there's a large ship coming in right across your launch vector. You'll have to wait until the lane is clear."
"Roger, Crystal Paris ATC," she replied while triple-checking her Corolla's space drive. That's bullshit, she thought. No traffic is allowed to come in across this landing pad. Then there was a knocking on the car's door.
｢Sato! Open up!｣
It was Fujisawa Yayoi, the reservist from Stellvia. One of the Ayanami-Rei clones that infested Fenspace was standing behind her; it was probably the Ayanami that came to Crystal Paris along with the Stellvians. Fujisawa looked extremely upset. The Ayanami was expressionless, but she was fidgeting with her bracelet. Naoko was surprised she was showing that much emotion.
｢Open up now, Sato!｣
It was obvious to Naoko that she'd been found out. It was likely Fujisawa was here for revenge for her employer's death. Naoko couldn't even pretend she didn't understand what Fujisawa was saying, because she was speaking Japanese. Sato rolled the window down partway and tried to talk her way into an escape. ｢What do you want, Fujisawa-san? I'm in a hurry.｣
｢You're under arrest for abetting in drug-running and conspiracy to commit murder. Shut your car off and come out with your hands up.｣
｢That's ridiculous, Fujisawa-san. There's no way I could have done anything of the sort.｣
｢We have computer records and video streams that prove you did. Last chance, Sato -- step out of the car.｣
She had one chance -- assuming Fujisawa wasn't actually touching her Corolla. Even if the wilder rumours were true and Fujisawa was a killbot, a slim chance to get away from her was better than no chance at all. ｢All right. I don't want anyone to take my car while you process me at the station, so I'll just close the window first ...｣ Sato reached down, rolled the window up, put the Corolla into gear, and floored it.
Once she was past the forcefield separating the city's atmosphere from the planet's, Naoko let the breath she was holding out in a half-sigh. She wasn't being followed or attacked from the launch pad. No choice now, she thought as she crossed the empty air that the nonexistant "large ship" supposedly was blocking. Evasive maneuvers, then make for La Mariposa's safehouse on Nehalennia.
As the echoes of the squeal of Sato's tires faded, Yayoi turned to Rei. ｢Damn. My first independent action, and I messed it up.｣
｢You did catch up with her before she launched,｣ Rei commented. ｢I didn't expect to confront her.｣
｢True, but I didn't actually catch her.｣ She punched the wall beside the landing pad's access door. "What do I tell Noah?" she wondered aloud in English.
"I believe telling him the truth would be best."
"I think that's all of them," Lisa announced as she tossed an unconscious zwilnick onto the pile in front of Noah. "Did we get enough prisoners for you?"
Katz stared. "Did you take all of them alive?"
Lisa nodded. "That is what you wanted, isn't it?"
"True." Noah switched his commwatch back on. "Kohran, could you ask Dee to call in the outriders, please?"
"You can ask me yourself," Dee answered from behind him. He turned to see the people he thought he'd left out of the fight, save for Sora, Yayoi, and Rei. "Sana-chan brought us here, one by one."
"And I'm plum tuckered out. Any o'all'y'all got some cola?"
Lisa looked at Skuld. "First chance you get, please do something about the localization glitch in her translator. Was that even a real accent?"
"That doesn't matter right now," Noah interrupted. "We have a computer network here than needs to be cracked. Ladies?"
As Rin-Rin and Skuld moved to the computers, Kohran and Leda started examinig the thionite processing equipment. "This is quite the setup, Noah," announced Leda. "I'd estimate they can turn out five hundred doses an hour."
Noah walked over to look at the drug processors. "Then we've broken one of the big rings. Good work, everyone."
Meanwhile, Katz was busy with the prisoners. "Anybody got any handcuffs? We're going to need to secure all seven of these zwilnicks before they wake up."
"Seven?" Skuld asked in alarm. "There's supposed to be eight of them!"
A shot rang out.
Peggy turned, drew, and fired in one motion. The zwilnick in the shadows fell over.
So did Noah.
Leda moved to catch him before he hit the floor.
Kohran looked, and said, "Oh, shit," as she saw shards of diamondoid still falling from the hole the bullet left in the drug processing equipment.
Leda looked up and paled. "No ..." she whispered. Then she ripped Noah's shirt open and started performing what first aid she could. "I'm not going to lose you."
"... but I'm fine. The bullet bounced off my kevlar vest ..." he muttered in reply.
The visitors looked at Noah's still-bleeding shoulder wound, then turned to Katz.
"He's been dosed?" Katz nodded in response to Lisa's question. "What's this drug do to a person?"
Leda didn't look away from Noah as she answered. "It incapacitates the user while causing him to hallucinate. The hallucinations are always visions of the person's desires. Overdoses are fatal."
"... kill all the Turnerites -- it's the only way to be sure ..." muttered Noah.
"What sort of desires?"
"All of the person's desires, Ms. Kino," replied Katz. "Even the ones they don't admit to themselves. Even the ones that cause them emotional pain."
At that, Noah muttered, "... Meg, you're still alive ..."
Kohran turned away from the patch she'd put over the hole in the thionite processing equipment. "Megan was Noah's twin sister. He told me about her once; she died in a traffic accident nearly two decades ago. Did he just react to your comment, Katz?"
"He might have," replied Leda. "Noah, the president's on the phone."
"... Mr. President? Yes, I'll become NASA's next administrator ..."
"It looks like he did," commented Bibi. "He knows a lot about us. We could find out a lot of his secrets, depending on what we say to him. It's only fair."
Leda frowned. "I'd rather not get him to say anything that would make him distrust me later."
"... yeah, I ripped her tongue out and fed it to her. That'll teach her to call us insolent peons. Now hurry up and get her the hell off my station ..."
Kohran shivered. "Do you really hate the SOS-dan that much, Noah?"
"... I don't hate you, Mikuru. Now be a good little girl and get into my bed ..."
Leda blinked in surprise. "Maybe those doujin artists were right after all."
"... hack artists, make me look fat. Kill them all -- now ..."
"You sound like a boskonian there, Mr. Scott," commented Rin-Rin from the computer console.
"... no, Rin-Rin, I'm your new master. Strip and get in there with Yoriko and Leda ..."
Leda and Rin-Rin both gasped. The young-teenaged visitor continued, "Ew. I did not need to hear that."
"... don't tell me the details -- that's what I hired you to ha..."
When she realized he wasn't going to continue talking, Leda held a finger up to Noah's neck for a moment, then started performing CPR.
"Oh, no ..." Kohran turned to Skuld. "Is he going to be all right?"
The goddess stared straight into the android's eyes. "If I look into his future, we may not be able to change it. Do you really want to know?"
Kohran quickly turned to Lisa and Luna. "You're magicians -- can you cast a healing spell on Noah?"
"I can cleanse his system," Luna answered. "What colour is thionite?"
"What difference does that make? He's dying!"
"I need to know for the magic. What colour is it?"
"Oh. It's purple."
Luna took a deep breath, pointed her wand at Noah, and shouted, "Imbutum Purpureum Abrogare!"
"Luna! 'Infectum'! Not 'Imbutum'!" cried Skuld. But Noah's brown hair was already changing colour, as if it was printed on a poster and purple inks were leaching away.
When the colour change ended and there was a purple puddle around Noah's body, Makoto kneeled beside him, opposite Leda. "You don't have enough power to do this. Clear!" Leda stopped her CPR, and Makoto summoned up her own lightning to shock Noah's heart. Then she shocked him again.
Noah's pulse and breathing slowly returned to normal. Leda sighed, only partly in relief. "He's going to be pissed off when he wakes up." He started snoring, and she added, "But at least he's going to wake up, thank God. We have to have a good, long talk about him wanting women other than Yoriko."
Kohran wasn't sure how to interpert that remark.
As the Sammie stretcher team took Noah to the infirmary, Katz turned to Skuld. "What did you find in the computers?"
She smiled, a predatory grin. "Ganymede. Two kilometers north of Little Jakarta. A dome controlled by somebody only referred to as 'La Mariposa'."
"I've heard rumours about La Mariposa. This is the first solid lead we've found to her operation. Thanks."
"What do you mean, 'thanks'? We're going, too. They did try to kill us, remember?" Then Skuld looked past Katz. "Actually, we're going and you aren't. A ... Trigon is about to call you."
"Trigon's the AI that's currently on my ship. If he's going to call, it's something important. Any idea what it's about?"
"Yes. But I'm not going to say, except that you're going to want to go back to Stellvia as soon as possible."
"If you say so. I may as well take Noah back home while you do our dirty work for us."
Lisa stepped beside Skuld as they watched Katz leave. ｢We could have used his help. He does know the local conditions, after all.｣
Skuld shook her head. ｢Even for the people here, there's something... off about Katz Schrödinger. I can't put my finger on why, though, but it might be better if he didn't join us on this trip. Besides, we owe it to Dee to practice how to work together; he and Scott-san would just be in the way.｣
While the others were busy preparing the Epsilon Blade for the trip to Ganymede, Bibi motioned Rin-Rin aside.
｢What's wrong?｣ she asked in Japanese.
Bibi hoped Rin-Rin couldn't read her body language. ｢Well ... I'm a bit jealous that Mr. Scott fantasized about taking you to his dream bed, instead of me.｣
｢I thought you weren't a... what was the word Leese used? Oh, yes... a 'sexaroid' any more.｣
｢I still have the equipment and the desire. Not with him, though.｣
｢Then why are you jealous?｣
｢I don't know -- lust is irrational that way. But what about you? Do you have any desire to share Mr. Scott's bed?｣
Rin-Rin shook her head. ｢He's way too old for me. And he wanted me to... well...｣
Bibi wasn't sure whether Rin-Rin's face was reddening in embarassment or supressed anger. She decided to risk continuing anyway. ｢He's rich. He'd give you all the financial backing you could ever want.｣
｢There's a name for people who have sex for money. I'm not that kind of girl. And I'm too young for that sort of thing. And I don't want to be a... a...｣
Bibi grinned suddenly. ｢Good! On all three points. And the term you're looking for is 'concubine', I hope.｣
｢Never mind. I think you should go with them instead of with us. If he remembers what he said, the two of you are going to need to come to an understanding.｣
Rin-Rin thought about her companion's words. ｢You have a point there.｣
"Ms. Banzai, I can walk to the Uncertainty on my own. Really." Noah took two steps and fell forward.
Peggy caught him before he hit the deck. "No, you can't. Let us help you to your friend's ship."
Noah sighed. "Fine, you win." As she took his arm, he muttered, "Some days, you just can't get rid of a blonde."
Peggy scowled. Leda giggled. "You've still got that cheezy sense of humour. I'm glad; it shows you're still you."
Just then, Rin-Rin ran around the corner and stopped in front of Peggy. ｢I'll help Mr. Scott to the Uncertainty. You need to help pack the Epsilon Blade.｣
｢I thought you were doing that.｣
｢I was, but I have to go back to Stellvia with Mr. Scott and Ms. Swansen.｣
Noah looked like he was a cornered mouse. "I wish I understood more Japanese. Does this have anything to do with what I said during my thionite dream?"
Rin-Rin switched to English. "Yes. But not the way you think. I hope."
Further explanation was interrupted by the arrival of two men. "Ladies, I trust you remember me from this morning," Captain Corcoran said. "This is Bob Schroeck; he's very interested in meeting all of you."
"We're rather busy right now ..." Peggy began.
Noah put a hand on her arm. "Captain, I recall that the Pinafore is much larger and roomier than the Epsilon Blade. Are you interested in a charter run out to ... where are we going, again?"
Leda looked Noah squarely in the eye. "You and I are going back to Stellvia. Yayoi, Sora, Kohran, and our visitors are headed to Ganymede."
"The Jovian subsystem? Sure, it'll be a pleasant change from hospital ship duty."
"Mind if I come along?" asked Bob. "I'd really like to meet the Girls."
"I don't mind paying for one more passenger," replied Noah, "but don't get your hopes up too high. Two of the Girls are back on my station ..."
30 May 2013
She'd been running for a quarter hour.
She knew she was in trouble when she heard a massive feedback squeal from the bug she'd planted in Stellvia's main operations room. She didn't stick around to let the Great Justice people track the radio signal to her desk; she abandoned it in place and walked out onto the Main Concourse.
But there were two people walking her way on the Concourse: a dark-haired woman and a pointed-eared blonde girl. Two of the Visitors. Nancy and Chalotte, assuming the Stellvians had the names right. She didn't know who Nancy was -- there wasn't any Nancy in any of the Drunkard's Walk stories she knew about -- but she had read the fanfics because she'd read the Borribles books when she was a teenager, and she knew she really didn't want to be on the business end of Chalotte's rumble-stick. She had an aversion to having holes poked in her body. And Chalotte looked annoyed.
So she smiled, nodded, and walked past Nancy.
As soon as the two had walked into the office module she'd just left, she started running.
She'd made it to her special module almost halfway around the Main Concourse before the Visitors spotted her. She ducked inside and dogged the airlock closed, then lowered the pressure in the module -- not enough to be dangerous, but it would stop the airlock doors from opening.
She saw that the Visitors had caught up to the airlock just as she turned away. She moved to the controls beside the airlock and prepared to hit the emergency disconnect. In any other module, that would have been suicide. But this module had a spacedrive of its own; she could get away.
She looked up to gloat at the Visitors through the airlock's window, then stopped in surprise. The older one was walking through the closed airlock door.
"Hi," the Visitor drawled sexily while somehow reaching past her skin and into her chest. "If you keep trying to run, I'll rip your heart out, and that would be a shame. You're such a pretty girl. Want to give up?"
She nodded in fear. "What are you?" she whispered.
"I-jin," answered Nancy.
30 May 2013
"Damn it, Yoriko, I don't need a stretcher," complained Noah.
She looked as if she was about to cry. "But you were shot!"
"And dosed with thionite," added Katz.
"He was WHAT?" Yoriko almost-screamed.
"I got better," Noah started.
"Only because of the Girls," interrupted Katz. "You really should save your strength. Let Rhiannon help you off my ship."
He gestured to the nurse, who brought the stretcher in closer. "What's this about him being dosed with thionite? I'll need to know exactly what happened."
"My other passenger will tell you everything I could, Ms. MacKenzie," Katz replied as Rin-Rin stepped off the Uncertainty, keeping her distance from Noah. He turned to Nancy. "What's this about a spy in my ranks, Makuhari-san?"
"We caught her listening in to station operations from an office in the Above and Beyond drydock," Nancy replied, all business. "She had bugs in a half-dozen other rooms, including the Operation Great Justice boardroom, and an illicit transmitter."
"Not my doing, I assure you."
From the stretcher, Noah grabbed Katz's hand. "I trust you. But even your group can miss a boskonian spy. You're only human."
Katz frowned at Noah's comment. "We can't afford to be 'only human' while the war's on. Where's this spy?"
"In the station's brig," replied Nancy. "Would you go get her, please? She's afraid of me for some reason."
"I'll take her off your hands." As Noah started to protest, Katz continued, "I insist. You aren't the only group that takes care of its own."