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Illusions (vignette) - A Child's Valentine: Prologue [ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]
Anime/Manga: Tokimeki Memorial / Bubblegum Crisis / Sister Princess
Genre(s): Romance / Drama / Action | Type: Crossover
Author: Frederick_Herrio
Uploaded On: December 03, 2001 21:33 EST
Pages: 18 | Words: 34308 | Size: 201 KB | Visits: 3608 | Status: Completed
Summary:
   Set two years after "Fragments" (eight weeks after the third BGC OVA), this is the story that introduces the CC (Child Companion) series 33-S Sexaroids. Boomer teenagers, living memorials to the lost youth of the Second Kantou Earthquake, the CCs are perhaps the truest reflection of the dream Yoshio Saotome tried to make real with those like Sylvie and Anri.

Among these girls include the first-ever boomer to become a full-fledged sorceress/magi, Chikage Hirosaki; Rinrin Hatoyama, a teen genius exploring the very process that made her life possible; Marie Susumu, information retrieval specialist in the making; Yotsuba Dunn, one who wants to walk the famous path of Sherlock Holmes; and Sakuya Sukeyama, matchmaker extrordinaire!

In this story, these girls join forces with the Knight Sabres to deal with a silent yet deadly plague unleashed by the head of a major food producer in hopes of stopping overpopulation and saving what meager resources the Earth has left.

Will he succeed? How much will it cost to those he targets? Read on and see!
 

A field hospital outside of Virac, Catanduantes Island, the Philippines, 8 February 2033, evening...

"I'm sorry. There was no chance."

Hearing this, the sobbing farmer shakes as his strength goes, then collapses into Maria Davao's comforting arms. The MB series 33-M doctor had been dispatched to investigate a rampant version of vCJD (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) that had ravaged Filipino villages over the last year. She had been sent due to her being a specialist in biological and chemical warfare. The outburst of vCJD, a disease still incurable in spite of recent strides in neurological medicine, had become so alarming, the government requested Toratotaka send several SIATs (special intelligence action teams) to assist indigenous forces in determining the cause.

The farmer's son had been Maria's fourteenth case.

A priest leads the farmer away. Maria watches him go, then sighs, turning to the cot where his son lay. She considers the case while her nurses prepare the body for cremation. Had this been a normal case, the victim would've shown initial symptoms sixteen months ago. In this case, as with others SIAT-47B (the "B" indicated the team specialized in bio-war matters though 47-B could serve as a normal medical and SpecWar [special warfare] team) examined, the first signs struck six months ago.

"Brain cell samples, Sounsaengnim (Doctor)?" one nurse asks.

"Ne (Yes)," Maria nods.

"Right away."

The boy is carried out. Maria exhales, then picks up the bag containing his personal belongings. Walking out of the "terminal" ward, she steps into the trailer where the team's operations matriarch worked. "Yukshibilboun hwanjaneun sakjehaera (Strike off Patient 61)," she calls out; Han'gug-ou (Korean) was the operational language of 33-Ms in SIATs.

The O/M, a fifth gen MX named Caroline Singaraja, looks up, then holds out her hand for the bag of personal effects. Given the fatality rate from this outbreak of vCJD, the members of 47-B elected to address patients by number. It made the feelings of helplessness for the members of 47-B, even Caroline, easier to deal with.

"When will you do the autopsy, Maria-ya?" she wonders.

"After midnight," Maria sits, then watches as Caroline scans the contents. For SIATs, the operations matriarch was always an experienced MX who served time with Canada's FSDC INTDIV (Force Special Defence Command Intelligence Division). The others in 47-B had no idea what Caroline found out concerning what might have provoked their current assignment. Yet.

"Heungmiropgun (Interesting)..."

"Keugemwoya (What is it)?" Maria wonders.

Caroline pulls up a small brightly decorated box with a young woman's picture. "This is the fifth box of this stuff I've seen since we came here," she hands it to Maria.

The doctor blinks. Sunshine Nutri-Snacks, a vitamin supplement produced by Pharmaplus Nutrifoods, an independent drug and natural food distributor, based in Japan. Shaking it to confirm it is empty, Maria hums, then gazes at the picture before her.

"I saw this girl back in Japan..." she points to it.

"Aria Kimino," Caroline provides. "The 'daughter,' so to speak, of one of Pharmaplus' senior product researchers, Professor Shion Kimino. She's actually a custom-built and programmed Bu-42 nanny boomer. I think the real Aria was one of Second Kantou's too-many victims. Lot of kids back in Japan and elsewhere like her since she always does television commercials for Pharmaplus."

"That's right!" Maria nods. "I saw her once when I was on leave; she was helping out at a trade fair in Sendai." She hands the box back to Caroline, then blinks. "Did you say this was the fifth one you've found since we came here, Caroline-ya?"

"Ne..." the O/M nods, then blinks.

Both stare at each other, eyes widening as it clicks in. "Chamkkan kidaryou (Wait a minute)..." they wonder together, then look once more at the box and Aria's smiling picture...

* * *

Illusions Vignette - A Child's Valentine
a fanfic of the Bubblegum Crisis - Megatokyo 2033
by Fred Herriot
fherriot@yahoo.com
**** **** ****
Edited by E.B. Kushnir. C&C by Shawn Hagen <hagen@brant.net>, Jeanne Hedge <jhedge@enteract.com>, Robert Geiger <robertgeiger@prodigy.net> and Mike Ching <cybertrooper@edsamail.com.ph>
**** **** ****
Based on situations from Bubblegum Crisis, created by ARTMIC and Youmex; Urusei Yatsura, created by Rumiko Takahashi and Kitty Films; Tokimeki Memorial, created by Konami; and Sister Princess: Onii-chan Daisuki, created by Mediaworks
**** **** ****
This story is also based on my UY fanfic series The Senior Year (co-created by Mike Smith) and The Ishinomaki Years, as well as the BGC fanfic series No Armour Against Fate by Shawn Hagen
**** **** ****

NOTE: The writer's notes to this story, due to their length and complexity, are located at the end of the story text.

**** **** ****

Somewhere in Megatokyo, 8 February 2033, late evening...

"Honestly!" the young woman with royal blue eyes and shaggy purple hair flowing past her shoulders sighs. Rising from seiza, she gazes outside, through the windows of her bedroom. "Can't a woman get a peaceful, QUIET night to meditate in this town?!"

Gazing upon the vast city around the Spiral, Chikage Hirosaki frowns on seeing the pitched battle being fought in Meguro, then shakes her head, walking to her kitchen to prepare tea. Looks like it'll be a normal night in Megatokyo, Chikage muses. People dying violently in cart-load lots.

Yay.

Sitting down at a bench, she stares at the city she had helped spiritually protect for two years. The tenth of the CC series BuTT-33S's shakes her head. Shouldn't most of this madness ended when Sylia Stingray sent a vibro-knife into Brian Mason...? What? Eight weeks ago? Much of the trouble created by insane boomers in Megatokyo over the last few years had the late Genom special assistant's fingers in it; one way or another.

She knew most senior Genom executives were a pretty nice bunch when one stripped away the masks they wore to present an aura of invincibility to potential work rivals. When she visited her parents (Tomohisa and Jalynda Hirosaki were market analysis specialists), she often had a chance to interact with many of them. None, especially those image-conscious types like Katharine Madigan, would condone...

Wait!

Chikage closes her eyes. Yes, combat boomers, a few C-55s with many older ones, C-16s and Sea-Sixty-nines. Her eyes open, both orbs wide with surprise. Genom never used the 16s and 69s in extra-legal operations anymore; their programming wasn't as good as the Fifty-fives'. A Yakuza feud, then? She closes her eyes and concentrates once more, her ability to sense another's mana reaching out. She relaxes. No, not Yakuza boomers...

A pained garble echoes around her. Chikage pauses, her mind instantly translating that white noise. She then looks up. "You wish me to deal with this matter?" she asks, eyebrow arching.

Short affirmative. "Doshite (Why)?"

Quick squeaks, then a garble. "You sensed THAT all the way from the Philippines? And this incident has something to do with it?"

Harsh affirmative. "Alright, as you wish."

Chikage slips off her yukata as she draws up her "normal" street clothes. White shirt, red tie with Gothic cross, tartan vest, ankle-length skirt and black blazer, topped with a white hooded cape. Staring at the crystal walls and ceiling of her bedroom, she smiles. "I'll return soon."

A blurt of luck echoes back as the magi teleports away...

* * *

Meguro, Yakumo district...

"Oi, Three, how many of the damned fuckers are we dealing with NOW?!!" Priss demands as a bolt from her railgun slams into the side of the C-16 infantry boomer. The boomer had been strafing civilians fleeing a nearby pre-Second Kantou residential complex.

Nene stands a half-block away, scanners working overtime to pick out targets. "Well over forty, Two," she sighs, noting that Sylia and Linna were busy duelling with two of the C-55 boomers.

"FORTY?!?!?!" Priss drops the C-16 with a blow from her powerarm, then she runs after his wingman, charging up her railgun along the way. "Shit, what the fuck's Genom doing THIS time?!!"

"This IS...what the heck...?!"

Priss jolts, ready to react as the air around her surges in a strange whirlwind. Glancing around, she pauses on hearing a woman's contralto bark, "SPIRITUS SOLARIS FULMEN!!!!"

The C-16 is cleaved in half by a bolt of energy. As it collapses, a teen in dark clothes and white cape lands near Priss. Watching her, Priss sees the newcomer's head turn towards one of the C-69s targeting fleeing civilians nearby. "Honestly! A girl can't do ANYTHING in this town without some baka boomer making a ruckus!! VENTUS DRACONIS!!!!"

Snake-like tendrils of energy lance from her hands, forming the snarling heads of dragons as they converge on the C-69, hitting the flight pack. The Dragon Wind shreds the combat soldier, carrying the parts aloft at a C-16, it having just noticed who joined the fight. The fragments of the destroyed boomer slice apart the C-16 before it could bring its chain-gun to bear on the 33-S magi, then the Dragon Wind dissipates.

Seeing this, Priss is impressed, though also confused and a tad worried. Who WAS this girl, anyway?! How the hell did she DO that?! Why the fuck was she fighting boomers, anyway?! "Shit, you did that nice, you know!!" she quips to relieve the tension.

Chikage spares the singer a confident glance, then turns to a condemned warehouse now being fired on by scattered troops of ADP field officers. Her eyes narrow as she confirms that a half-dozen combat boomers were all that was inside, then she cocks one hand, thumb, index and little finger extended with the middle and ring fingers folded on the palm.

"OSCULUM PAPILIONIS!!!!"

A wave of rolling air lashes out to slam into the building. The structure collapses, crushing the boomers within. Rifle fire dies as the ADP officers look around, wondering what just came to help. Watching Chikage from nearby, Nene blinks, then cues in the scrambled link. "Four, this is Two. Someone just joined us..."

"Let me guess," Sylia sounds amused. "A teenage girl with purple hair, dressed in black and a white cape with red crosses?"

"Ah...! Um, yes! That's her," Nene nods, surprised that the Sabres' leader knew exactly who the newcomer was.

"Stay out of her way, Two. Ditto with you, Three. That woman could kill you without blinking twice if you got in her way."

"Oi, no fuckin' problem, Four!!" Priss shudders. Energy bolts that could take boomers down were one thing, but an near-invisible shockwave of air that could total a whole BUILDING...?

"Is she a Kuromoroboshi?!" Linna pipes in.

Priss gnashes her teeth. Oh, fuck, not THEM again!! she mentally roils, remembering a particularly embarrassing incident in 2031 in the Fault, then blinks as her mind reviews what just happened. "Nah, One, she don't act anythin' like those boomer-lovin' dorks!"

Nene hums, then bio-scans the newcomer, remembering the time when her suit's sensors were knocked out of whack by the touch of a finger. Hmm. Human, forty-five percent biomechanical parts concentrated in her chest, abdomen and head. The energy nexuses she spotted two years ago on several of the Kuromoroboshi were there too, power levels pegging ALL her metres.

Who or what WAS this girl, anyway?

Chikage scans the battle scene, then smiles on seeing the other boomers massed within a nearby apartment block, one empty of innocent bystanders, slated for demolition. Almost empty! she amends on sensing a pure-organic in the basement. No doubt, the boomers were meant to mask the organic's actions, whatever they were. No problem. Summoning her mana to charge another Butterfly Kiss, the magi pauses before levitating, then dropping beside a group of ADP officers led by Leon McNichol. "Konban wa, Uncle Leon!" she smiles, then calmly walks to the building in question.

The inspector is startled. "Chi-...?!! CHIKAGE?!?! What the HELL are YOU doing...?!! Oh, SHIT!!!!" he draws his Earth Shaker on seeing a C-55 dive down at the calmly walking magi.

"AEGEDIS SPECULI PUGNUM!!!!"

C-55 becomes instant boomer okonomiyaki.

As it flips away from Chikage, landing beside a nearby APC, Linna, watching from a distance, looks towards Sylia, who herself had shifted closer to Priss and Nene. "Um, Four, shouldn't martial arts moves be said in Japanese?!" she wonders, inwardly shaking.

"What WAS that, anyway?!!" Nene wonders.

"I'll explain later," Sylia calmly replies. As soon as I try to understand WHY Chikage came out tonight! she mentally adds.

The magi unfastens her cape, twirling it dramatically off as she forges a levitation spell and then infuses her cape with "hot" chi. With a flick of her finger, Chikage sends the cape to her right, then races left, concentrating to cool her body's aura to below freezing. As cape and magi spin around the structure, now blurs to the many onlookers, a whirlwind begins to form. "Oh, CRAP!!!" Leon pales, realizing what Chikage intended, then barks into his headset, "FALL BACK!!! FALL BACK NOW!!!!"

Above, the Sabres are agog. "Oh, fuck me...!" Priss breathes.

"Linna, what IS that she's doing?!!" Nene stammers, gazing toward the Sabres' in-house martial arts expert, her awe on seeing Chikage in action making the ADP communications officer forego any communications security.

"Oh, gods...!" the green Sabre shudders.

"The Rising Dragon Ascension?" Sylia asks.

"Ah...! H-hai...! OI, how did YOU know?!!" Linna demands.

"Never mind!! Take cover!!!" Sylia barks.

The Sabres duck behind a wall as Chikage's voice rings out...

"ORTUS DRACONIS ASCENDENTIS!!!!"

Wind roars as the clash of cold and hot chi creates a vortex to implode the building! As onlookers gape, a dragon's head seems to appear at the vortex's apex, rasping up as debris is crushed into fine powder. When the winds cease, the dust settles down, causing people to cough, many covering their eyes. Chikage retrieves her cape, then glances into the exposed basement. Lying there is a middle-aged woman, dressed in casual clothes, now curled into a fetal ball, shivering fearfully. No doubt, she saw everything around her crushed by Chikage's attack, then moved to make herself invisible from whatever was after her. Clicking her tongue, the magi levitates into the chasm, then landing beside the woman, waves her cape to teleport them away before anyone else came up to investigate...

* * *

The Sabres emerge from cover. Linna has finally rejoined her companions. "Any sign of the target boomers, Three?" Sylia asks.

Nene moves to scan. "Um...! Chotto (wait)..." she blinks, then jolts as a flash catches the others' attention. "OI!!!"

The Sabres spin around to see Chikage standing nearby, her prisoner curled up at the magi's feet. "What on...?" Sylia jolts, then advances on Chikage. "Hirosaki-san, I hope..."

A hand rises to shush her, then Chikage concentrates, energy coalescing around her other hand. "ANIMAE GLADIUM!!!!"

A chi-forged longsword appears, causing Linna to stagger back in horror. Gods, was that a real SOULSWORD?!!

"What the FUCK...?!!" Priss swings her railgun to bear on the magi.

Suddenly, an UMBRELLA taps the gun, causing Priss to spin around. "Who...?!!" Her question dies in her throat.

Now standing before her is a kawaii, purple-eyed girl with blonde hair in twin pigtails. "Priscilla-oneetama, Chikage doesn't like it when people try to shoot her in the back," she draws her umbrella back as her smile evolves from Super Cute to That's SO Cute, It's Damned CRIMINAL!

Seeing THAT, Priss shudders, taking a hesitant step back. "How does she know who we are?" Linna whispers to Nene.

Nene shrugs. "Oh, Hinako, what are you doing here?" Chikage calmly glances over, one eyebrow arched amusedly.

"Oh, Hina was coming down to visit Rina when she heard all this bad-bad noise over here," Hinako Saeru shrugs, then holds up her umbrella. "Um, Chikage, do you want some privacy?"

"It would be appreciated."

"Hai!!" Hinako opens her umbrella, then lets it fly.

The Sabres look up as the orange device suddenly stops four metres right over Hinako's head. Beams of light descend from it to form a tent around them. Nene jolts as her suit's sensor suite goes haywire, then she looks at Sylia. "Sylia, she's...!!"

"Created a special ECM field that now is blocking out all your scans," Sylia finishes, chuckling amusedly.

"Hai, that...!! HOW DID YOU KNOW?!?!" Nene shrieks.

"Sylia-obatama wa atama ga ii yo (Auntie Sylia is so smart)!!" Hinako gushes as she skips over to hug one of Sylia's arms.

The Sabres' leader burns flush-red, now quite thankful that her armour was masking her embarrassment. "Hinako-chan..." Sylia whispers. "Will you PLEASE stop calling me 'Aunt'...!"

"Unh...?"

Eyes lock on the woman by Chikage's feet, hesitantly moving to sit up, then she gags on seeing the magi's soulsword tip thirty centimetres from her nose. "You've decided to come back and join us, I see," Chikage mirthlessly smiles. "Now, madame, will you please be SO kind to tell us WHY you unleashed a platoon's worth of combat boomers tonight on the city?"

"I..." the woman shudders, then her eyes widen before loosing their lucidity. She scrambles back from Chikage.

"Oi!!" Priss snaps as the stranger leaps to her feet, then springs for the edge of the roof. "Where're you...?!"

"Kasa-tama (Mister Umbrella)!!!" Hinako holds up a hand.

The umbrella drops into her hand, then after collapsing it, Hinako sends it flying at the fleeing woman. It snares her shirt, then a riip! heralds it being torn as she stumbles off the roof. Outraged cries echo from the Sabres as Chikage runs to the edge, then looks. On seeing the woman's crumpled form ten metres down, the magi curses, then disperses her soulsword. Sylia moves up to join her, then seeing the gristly scene below, shakes her head. "What provoked that...?"

"Yo, what happened?!" Priss demands.

Sniffles distract the Sabres, eyes turning to a teary-eyed Hinako, now tightly gripping Mister Umbrella. Chikage blinks, then moves to comfort as Hinako burbles an apology. "There, there, it's alright," the magi strokes Hinako's hair. "You did your best..."

"D-d-doshite...?" Hinako stammers.

"That, we will investigate," Chikage assures her, then turns to the Sabres. "I highly suggest, minna, you withdraw before you are associated with that woman's death," she cants her head as the shouts of determined ADP officers echo from many floors below. "We will meet to discuss this affair at another time."

"A teleportation spell might be needed," Sylia states.

"Hai," the magi takes her cape, then waves it...

* * *

Not a minute later, the door leading from the stairwell to the roof is smashed down, revealing Leon McNichol, backed by a dozen troopers. The captain scans around, then blinks on seeing NO ONE there. Not even a laser-scripted KNIGHT SABRES appears on the roof. Lowering his Earth Shaker, he sighs, then slips the pistol into its holster.

"Gonna be one of those nights..."

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, 9 February, before dawn...

"That was INCREDIBLE!!"

Sylia stares at Priss as everyone relaxes in the penthouse living room. That was the FIFTH time the singer said that concerning Chikage's and Hinako's abilities. "Yes, the Child Companions are a very interesting group," the Sabres' leader calmly sips her tea.

"Why are they called 'Child Companions,' Sylia-san?" Linna asks. "Don't tell me they're actually used for...?!"

"Oh, good heavens, no!" Sylia shakes her head, laughing though Linna's question didn't surprise her. Everyone she met seemed to make THAT assumption on being introduced to the Child Companion concept. "All of them are, in effect, 'replacement' daughters for those elderly couples who lost ALL of their immediate families in Second Kantou. Most CC parents are retired Toratotaka workers, but on the odd occasion, a retired government official or senior Genom executive who fit the criteria may receive a CC to become his/her child. In most ways, the CCs are essentially no different than MK series Cyber-Nurses, but they don't work in daycare centres. Other than the fact that they're all built in Ijuuin-hakase's laboratory in Kyoto, they're your normal junior high school students."

"'Normal?!!'" Linna exclaims. "Chikage-chan is a sorceress and Hinako-chan has a flying umbrella she uses to get around from place to place!! You call that 'normal,' Sylia-san?!"

"Alright, there are the several exceptions," Sylia flusters, then sighs. "Chikage's and Hinako's origins should not worry us. What concerns me is why that woman killed herself after she was cornered. Nene-san, how soon can you learn some things from ADP about last night?"

"The initial reports probably won't be complete and in the computers until tomorrow night, Sylia-san. Fortunately, I'll be on the night shift for the next week," Nene replies.

"Fair enough. Get what information you can when you go in. I'll speak to Fargo about this," Sylia nods.

"What happens if we bump into those girls again?" Priss asks.

"You can be assured that our secret will be diligently kept by Chikage and Hinako, not to mention their sisters. Since you are my associates, they'll treat you with respect. However, Priss...?"

"What?"

"NO bad words about FABS, Directive Five OR the Cyber-Nurses in front of them," Sylia wags her finger in warning.

The singer nods, then sighs. "Ooooookay!" she drawls.

"Ye gods, the Ape-woman CAN learn!" Nene snickers.

Priss spins on her. "OI!!!!"

Linna laughs. Sylia rolls her eyes...

* * *

Genom Tower, after dawn...

"What happened in Meguro last night?"

Megumi Mikihara sips her tea as she and Quincy relax beside the chess board. The SFIO had foregone breakfast as soon as reports about the Meguro affair began to pour into Nerima. "That caught us TOTALLY by surprise. As much as it caught you, no doubt. I'm currently having my staff backtrack the full origins of those boomers that survived Chikage's Hiryuu Shooten-ha, but there were very few of them, unfortunately," she gazes at her cup.

"That was Chikage last night?!" Quincy's eyes widen. He had been in a late-night meeting with Steve Barret, Genom's new chief of accounting, when the southwestern sky was lit up by the magi.

"Yes. She nearly settled the whole matter on her own. Right now, she's resting; she expended a lot of chi to deal with those boomers. Fortunately, collateral damage was concentrated on empty and condemned structures. And, of course, no innocent lives were lost after Chikage came on the scene. I asked Leon McNichol to keep quiet about the incident to the press. He was more than willing to go along with it even though he pleaded to me to 'keep Chikage under a firm leash next time.'" As Quincy laughs, the SFIO adds, "A word through Mio, to the various newsnets, will ensure this incident is soon forgotten by the public at large."

"Good," Quincy nods. Genom Construction had been preparing to commence a total makeover of that sector of the city. The costs incurred from demolishing old structures would be reduced somewhat by what happened last night. Of course, since Chikage had, in a way, "helped" with the planned demolition, Quincy would make sure no legal action of any sort would be taken against the 33-S magi. He then hums, rubbing the curve of his chin. "Still, it's surprising that someone got her hands on forty combat boomers and was willing to send them out like she did last night. Any ideas as to the perpetrator's identity, where she comes from?"

"Her name is Lana Mueller. Originally from Dresden. She works for the Zone Corporation as a recycling specialist."

"Zone...?!" Quincy's eyebrow arches.

Zonecorp (as the company was commonly called by the general public) was a firm dedicated to providing customized programming upgrades for boomers. The brazenness scientists in Zonecorp showed in operating in Genom's very home turf had surprisingly won them many fans in the Tower, especially among the Board of Executives. An attempt by Brian Mason to have Zonecorp destroyed was derailed by his death. Quincy wanted to ensure the company would remain viable until the right time came to absorb it.

"Are you having them investigated?"

"Saki will speak to them about this, but I believe Ms. Mueller acted on her own. We'll confirm that soon enough," Megumi sips her tea.

The chairman nods. "Fair enough..."

* * *

AD Police headquarters, that moment...

"Chikage Hirosaki was involved?!"

"Yeah. Thanks to her, we managed to get away from that with three dead and nine wounded," Leon sighs, standing before Ellis Toodou in the latter's office. "Pity we couldn't persuade Ijuuin-hakase and Chikage's parents to let us make her an auxiliary to the force!"

"McNichol, do you have ANY idea how much crap's coming down on my head because of that?!" Toodou snarls, knowing barking at the tactical squad commander would do nothing in the long term save let the chief blow off some steam. "I got calls from three dietmen from the Internal Security Committee wondering how we allowed an apartment block to get WRECKED...?"

"Said apartment block was condemned and empty when I destroyed it, Toodou-kachou. If they are incapable of understanding what REALLY happened last night, I'd advise you to ignore what they say to you."

That voice causes both to spin about to see a familiar woman standing by the door, arms crossed. "GEEZ, Chikage!!!" Leon gasps. He knew, thanks to Daley Wong and Megumi Mikihara, the 33-S magi was powerful, but seeing her appear out of NOWHERE took the cake.

"Now, just a minute here, young lady...!" Toodou rises.

Chikage gazes at him, causing Toodou's protest to fade in his throat. Despite the lack of expression on her face, the ADP chief senses the magi didn't mean to be rude. Those who knew Chikage Hirosaki understood that typical teenage mannerisms were alien from her. "Toodou-kachou, I'm quite aware what I did last night is something some would find intolerable, but when I can't get a QUIET night so I can meditate, I DO something about it! Furthermore, I understand the amount of suffering your force endures doing your jobs. Unlike some in this city, who DON'T care for lives lost yet seem to ONLY care for meaningless, replaceable things like apartment blocks and warehouses, ESPECIALLY those scheduled for demolition! Now, if you're having problems with your superiors, please tell me who called to harass you and I'll see to it something is done about THAT."

Toodou blinks, then quickly rattles off three names Leon knew were not potential Genom sell-outs. "Arigatou," Chikage nods.

Leon blinks, then gasps. First she's there, then she's GONE! How the hell does she DO that?! "Kachou?" he stares at Toodou.

"Never mind..." the chief mutters...

* * *

Kimitsu, south-east of Megatokyo...

"What the hell happened last night?!"

Naoto Tenhiro stares at the man across from him. "What does THAT damned question mean, Oogata-kun?"

"I mean, Kachou (Chief), what the FUCK was Mueller up to with the combat boomers we got from the JGSDF?!" Sanshiro Oogata hotly demands. He was one of the senior program specialists in Zonecorp. The man across from him was the founder and chief researcher. "It ain't going to take people long to figure out those boomers belong to us and we're going to have police up the damned wazoo...!"

"Never mind, Oogata-kun," Naoto cuts in, then sighs, sitting back in his chair. "They'll discover what she had, then conclude she was delusional. That's how vCJD works, remember?!"

Sanshiro pauses, then nods. "Alright, fair enough, but we're gonna take some crap over this, Kachou. Why the hell are we still supporting that maniac over in Pharmaplus, anyway? It isn't going to be long before someone discovers what's going on..."

"And how will they do that, much less WHO'LL do that?!" Naoto sighs. "Look, let's not panic. Sooner or later, we'll break free from Pharmaplus and put this madness behind us. We're not responsible for what happens to boomers when they leave our control. We've got plausible deniability, just like Genom does all the time. Let's keep our heads, huh?!"

Sanshiro takes that in, then nods. He was one of Zonecorp's "plank owners" -- naval slang used for those who were there when the company was founded. That made the research company like a child to him. To Naoto, too. Those who worked in Zonecorp believed in the dream Katsuhito Stingray brought to this world. They would sacrifice a lot to make it happen.

A glance to one side reveals a large poster of Zonecorp's most famous product. Aria Kimino. A precision-engineered Bu-42 FS/CD (Family Services/Child Daycare) boomer with a well-programmed, new Mark 11-SP brain. The poster child for Pharmaplus Nutrifoods and an adopted "daughter" to one of the company's research specialists.

Built two years ago, Aria was skilfully used by Pharmaplus as its premiere media spokesperson. Not a day passed that someone in Japan didn't see Aria Kimino on television, hear her over the radio or read her words as they were transmitted in advertising "cookies" over the Internet. Always, she espoused children to watch their health, do what their parents told them, play nice, never hurt anyone else, honour their families and other seniors. And even in an age when many were turned off by the traditional family values Aria represented, she still had quite a following.

Sanshiro and Naoto had worked on Aria. She was as much Zonecorp's poster girl as Pharmaplus'. That resulted in a beneficial commercial relationship between them. Clerks, daycare workers, lab assistants, even "special employees" (the in-house euphemism for extra-legal agents, usually 33-Cs, 55-Cs and the odd 48-SDCI) -- all of Pharmaplus' boomers passed through Zonecorp on their way to work. With that, Zonecorp's growing reputation as a first-class special programming facility was assured.

And now...

"If you say so, Kachou," Sanshiro sighs. "Ah, hell, I just wish this was all over with."

"You're not the only one," Naoto smiles knowingly at him...

* * *

The Spiral, before lunch...

"Feeling a little better now, Chikage?"

Chikage moans, then opens her eyes to see a raven-haired teen gazing fondly at her through round-frame reading spectacles. Her blue eyes now twinkle with barely-contained amusement. "Oh, Marie, what are you doing down here?" the magi grunts, sitting up with Marie Susumu's help, then she glances around her bedroom.

"Hakodate was a bit boring, so I decided to come down and see what last night's ruckus was all about," Marie replies. "Even if the authorities are keeping last night's fun quiet, the news is buzzing like a hornet's nest over the LoopNet chat lines."

Chikage groans. "Why isn't there a Special Project Director for LoopNet Rumour Control working under Yoshio-papa, anyway?"

"The truth shall make you free," Marie quotes.

"The truth, sister, is a pain in the ass at times," the magi stands up, then engages in tai chi to get her blood moving.

"May I ask what provoked it?" Marie asks. "I mean it's really not like you to be so public when you display your powers."

Chikage glances at the ceiling. "They asked me to do it," she quietly intones, then sighs.

Marie's eyebrow cocks. "Surprising."

"Indeed. Furthermore, there is a possible connection to some matters in the Philippines which may shed some light on this."

Marie hums. Quite curious, even for a 33-S, the raven-haired teen often spent her spare time examining pieces of data from the LoopNet, then postulating what it meant. Marie is quick to realize Chikage needed that ability now. "The only thing I can conclude is it might have something to do with an outbreak of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease on the islands."

"Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?"

"A prion disease, similar to the 'mad cow' disease which broke out in Europe at the turn of the millennium. It leads to the slow disintegration of the brain. No one has been able to understand how it transmits from its primary source host or what its source host IS, but once you have it, there's very little hope of you being cured by it. It's normally fatal."

"Soo desu ka," Chikage's voice trails off, then she stares at her guest, wryly musing. "Marie, how soon can you get a full report of what has been happening in the Philippines?"

"As soon as I'm back at my computer..."

* * *

Near AD Police Headquarters, after lunch...

"Nene-san, konnichi wa!!"

Nene looks up, then beams. "Konnichi wa, Naoko-san," she waves Naoko Ikusawa up, then takes another bite of her lunch. "Let's hope it'll be a quiet night when we're on duty tomorrow, ne?" she clicks her tongue as her co-worker sits across from her, both in a second-floor bistro overlooking the Sumida-gawa (Sumida River) near the crosstown expressway.

"Hai, I hope so, too," Naoko sits down, then after the waiter comes up to get her order, then heads to the counter, leans over. "Or at least if there IS a boomer rampage, that someone'd come along and wipe them out like this strange girl Emily-chan told me about last night."

"What strange girl?" Nene feigns innocence.

"According to what I heard McNichol-kichou tell Wong-kichou, this girl was none other than one of the CC series boomers that Ijuuin-hakase creates in Kyoto!" Naoko shivers.

Nene gapes. "Sugoi (Wow)!!" she exclaims. "Ijuuin-hakase's just as famous as Saotome-hakase! So how did she do it?!"

"Oh, who knows when it comes to T'n'T boomers...! Eh?!"

"Nani?!" Nene blinks, then glances over her shoulder before her jaw drops in shock. "Masaka! That can't be...!!"

"Ohmigosh, it IS Aria-chan!!! Kawaii!!" Naoto gushes.

Walking into the bistro is a platinum-haired girl with purple eyes, dressed in a frilly Victorian-era gown, dark blue with white trimming. Part of her hair is tied in small buns around the back of her skull, the mass capped with a frilly headband. In her hands rests a black-and-white rabbit, nibbling on a carrot. Escorting her is a taller girl with black hair in a ponytail and blue eyes, in the uniform of a posh private school. The way she stayed close to Aria obviously indicated to the ADP officers she was a friend. "I'm surprised there's no mob behind her!" Nene notes.

"Yeah! Oi, c'mon, let's get her autograph!!" Naoko stands.

"Naoko-san!" Nene gapes as her friend draws out a small autograph book, then heads towards Aria.

Noting the oncoming person, Aria's companion tenses, then moves to stand between her and Naoko. Seeing this, Naoko stops. "Is there a problem, Anegimi-sama?" the raven-haired woman asks.

Naoko jolts, then flusters. Even if she was some years older than Aria's protector, she did deserve respect. "Um...! S-sumimasen, but I was hoping I could...! Um, get Aria-chan's...?"

"Oh, she's a fan."

The velvet-soft voice causes both to gaze on Aria. The boomer nanny beams as she hands her rabbit to her companion, then taking Naoko's offered pen and autograph book, opens it to the front to see who owns the book, then turns to a blank page before writing a quick note and signature, then hands it over. "Here you go, Naoko-neeya," she smiles sweetly.

"I...! Ah!" Naoko stammers, then flusters. "Domo arigatou gozaimasu, Aria-chan!" she bows as Nene comes up, then blushes. "I see your commercials all the time!! It's an honour to meet you!"

"Yeah, I bet it is."

"Haruka-neeya!" Aria gasps surprisedly, her eyes wide with shock on hearing the ice in her companion's voice.

Haruka sighs, then gently grasps the boomer's hand, gazing lethal daggers at Nene and Naoko. "Don't let their looks fool you, Aria. These two girls work at AD Police! Knowing both of them, they're probably measuring you up for the scrapheap!!"

Nene and Naoko wince, backing off as if Haruka slapped them both. "Now, hold on here!" Nene snaps. "We're not..."

"Feh!" Haruka cuts her off. "C'mon, Aria. They're not the right sort of people you'd like to associate with."

She moves to guide the shorter woman away, but Aria remains rock-still. Haruka jolts, then gazes at her. "Aria!!"

Aria stares at her, causing Haruka to duck, then she turns to Nene and Naoko, bowing. "Sumimasen," she smiles apologetically. "Haruka-neeya is very overprotective of Aria. She's been with Aria since Aria was born. Shitsurei shimashita (Please excuse me)."

She turns, following Haruka out of the diner. The warning look the taller teen gives the ADP officers sends chills down both their backs. As soon as they're gone, Naoko sighs, then turns to Nene. "Boy, you'd think this was Toronto, the way she talked!"

"That was..." Nene sighs, shaking her head. "Surprising."

* * *

AD Police Headquarters, later...

"Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease?!"

"Hai," Tayami Kayama sadly shakes her head, gazing at Lana Mueller's cadaver, Leon McNichol and Daley Wong standing across from her. Most times when she did autopsies on organics, the forensics chief (who doubled as ADP's coroner) often dealt with co-workers who died in the line of duty. It was rare for her to deal with civilians. Rarer still to deal with a perpetrator of boomer crime. "Nasty bugger. It's not surprising she was behind last night. Victims of vCJD get pretty delusional at the end."

"So we have nothing to nail on Zonecorp, right?" Daley asks.

"Hai, Daley-kun, that's what I'd conclude. No sense plugging a company like Zonecorp for last night. Oh, you can tell the chief I'll have the report on the boomers we salvaged tomorrow morning."

"Another all-nighter?" Leon asks.

"No, I'll take my time. No sense burning my brains out if we've got the perp here, too," Tayami takes a sheet and shrouds Lana's corpse.

"Fair enough," the commander of Tac Squad One nods as he and his friend step out of the morgue, heading for the elevator.

Daley is quick to sense Leon's mood. "Relax, man," he pats his usual work partner's shoulder. "Not everything that happens in this town is always cooked up by some idiot inside Genom, y'know."

"Yeah, you're right about that," Leon breathes out, then gazes knowingly at Daley. "Still, you best get our newest co-worker to send something to our other friends in Nerima," he winks.

"I'll take care of it right away," Daley winks back...

* * *

On the west bank of the Sumida-gawa...

"That was rude, Nee-ya! Just because they work at AD Police doesn't mean that Naoko-neeya and her friend're simophobic!"

Haruka Tenhiro jolts, then her shoulders slump. She hated it when Aria reprimanded her. "Oh, gomen, Aria..." she sighs, holding the nanny's hand. Aria's other hand was holding Usagi-san (Mister Bunny). "It's just that my blood boils every time I'm made to think of those monsters."

"They protect those who can't protect themselves, Nee-ya. They're really no different than normal Police officers."

"Aria..."

"There are good boomers and bad boomers, just like there are good people and bad people," Aria stares intently into Haruka's dark eyes. "We need Police to ensure bad people AND bad boomers don't hurt good people AND good boomers. What's so wrong with that, Nee-ya? Would Nee-ya actually WANT to live in a society where there was no law?! Aria wouldn't!"

Haruka turns Aria towards her, drawing her close as they stand under a sakura tree. "No, I wouldn't either," she sighs, returning Aria's stare. Even if she hated it every time Aria scolded her, she wouldn't demean her friend by not looking her in the eye. "But I've heard many times about when ADP officers've just wrecked a malfunctioning boomer when all they had to do was subdue it, find out what was wrong, then fix it up. People in the Society..." by this, she means the Paellas Athena Society, a radical pro-boomer rights organization, foes of the Anti-Boomer Lobbyists' Society and Prometheus Bound, "...have always told me about how many businesses have gone under because a boomer wrecked the place and they couldn't recoup the losses of a waiter...! It just makes me mad, Aria!" A pause, then she cups the nanny's chin. "You know what my fantasy is, Aria? To take you to Canada where we could live our lives in peace, without any fear."

"Nee-ya tells Aria that every day!" Aria grins.

"Yeah. And one day, we're gonna do it, Aria..." Haruka sighs, then tenses as a buzzing noise echoes from her blazer pocket. She pulls out her NAVI, tapping controls. "Hai! Oh, Shion-ojisan!!" she beams on seeing Aria's "father." "Is there a problem?!" she tilts the screen so she and Aria would be visible to Shion Kimino.

"No, Haruka-chan, I'm just making sure that my little girl is having a good day," Shion, a white-haired bear of a man in his late fifties (he reminded Haruka of the creator of the lead character in Key The Metal Idol) chuckles amusedly. "How are you, Aria?"

"Aria is fine, Papa," Aria smiles warmly, then gazes at Haruka. "Haruka-neeya is always staying with Aria."

"That's good," Shion nods delightedly, then wags his finger. "You make sure you come back home before supper, Aria. The people from 16 Tokyo Daytimes will want to talk to you."

"Hai, Papa, Aria'll be there."

"Ja!"

"Bai-bai!"

The link is cut, then Haruka puts the NAVI away. "C'mon, let's go find a nicer place to have something to eat," she looks at Aria. "You need it just as much as I do," she reminds her.

"Hai!" Aria nods as they step away from the tree, heading for the nearest tram station so they can go to Shinjuku...

* * *

Okayama, east of Hiroshima, after lunch...

"Gomen nasai, Karen-san. She's gone."

Karen Tanenobu's eyes fill with tears as she gazes on the unmoving form before her. "Mashiro-chan..." she whispers, then screams out as she reaches for Mashiro Tachibana's face.

"No, Karen, don't!!" the attending 33-M nurse, Kasumi Shindou, reaches over to restrain the weeping Sexaroid teen.

"Mashiro!!!" Karen wails, then collapses in Kasumi's arms, not resisting as the nurse walks her out of the room.

Sitting the teen down in a nearby visitor's room, Kasumi keeps her close, whispering soothing words as she strokes Karen's hair. Mashiro Tachibana was one of Karen's classmates in a private girl's school frequented by the daughters of the economic gentry. From what Kasumi understood, Karen and Mashiro had been quite close; the latter was one of the first at their school to accept the CC 33-S as just one of the girls. To lose such a valuable friendship...

"Mashiro-chan..." Karen burbles, then blinks on sensing the warm pulse of a Mark 97 reserve memory crystal close by.

Kasumi sees a smiling girl with bowl-cut brown hair and blue eyes -- and a red bulb on a stick protruding from her forehead -- staring at her, velvet bag in hand. The nexus of that odd feeling Karen just detected came from the bag; she knew Mecha-Rinrin had yet to be herself fitted with a Mark 97 CBWS. "Mecha-chan, what did you...?!" Karen gasps.

Mecha-Rinrin mechanically blinks, then smiles. "Me.cha . came . when . A.ne.ki . heard . that . Ma.shi.ro-a.ne.ki . was . sick," she replies, her voice the metered stammer one might associate with a robot in a sci-fi story in Fritz Lang's day. "Ka.ren-a.ne.ki . is . not . the . on.ly . friend . Ma.shi.ro-a.ne.ki . has."

Karen and Kasumi gasp in shock, then the latter takes the bag from Mecha-Rinrin, opening it to confirm its contents. One Mark 97 reserve memory crystal charged with someone's soul, only needing a 33-S or 33-M body for it to inhabit. "Well..." the nurse sighs. "This does change things a lot, doesn't...?"

"Oi, Mecha, where are you?!!" a voice calls out.

Karen bolts up. "Over here, Rinrin!"

"Karen?!" Rinrin Hatoyama runs up, then embraces Karen. Save for eye colour (Rinrin's were brown) and the absence of the red bulb over her head, there was no difference between the CC series 33-S and her homemade boomer doppelganger; Rinrin and Mecha-Rinrin even dressed alike today! "Were...?" she sees the bag, then breathes out in relief. "Saved the day again!!"

"You mean to say this ISN'T the first time you've pulled an unauthorized soul-snatch, Rinrin-san?" Kasumi's eyebrow cocks.

"Nah, believe it or not, this actually IS my first time, but what the hell?! Someone's gotta look out for all the certifiable geniuses out there, ya know!" Rinrin winks conspiratorially.

Karen laughs, wiping her eyes. When it came to intelligence, Mashiro Tachibana and Rinrin Hatoyama were near-equals. "Arigatou, Rinrin," she leans over to kiss her sister's cheek, then giggling, leans over to kiss Mecha-Rinrin's. "You too, Mecha-chan."

"Do.u . i.ta.shi.ma.shi.ta (You're . wel.come)."

"Well, I best go obtain an MK series body for Mashiro-san, then dispose of her real one," Kasumi sighs, heading off.

"When'll you do the autopsy?" Rinrin asks.

The nurse stops. "Soon enough. Doshite?"

"I dunno," the Sexaroid teen genius from Osaka scratches the back of her head. "I mean, Mashiro and her parents were as healthy as horses not five months ago, then THIS happens?!"

"Hai, true," Kasumi nods. "Shitsurei shimasu (Excuse me)."

She heads off. Karen blinks, then stares quizzically at Rinrin. "Do you think something's wrong, Rinrin?"

"Search me," Rinrin draws out lollipops, handing one each to Karen and Mecha-Rinrin. "I know Mashiro's family as well as you." Like Rinrin's mother, Mashiro's parents (they had died a month ago) were retired Genom workers, both knowledgable when it came to boomer science and programming. In fact, it was because the Tachibanas taught their daughter about boomer technology that Mashiro and Rinrin had met and become friends. "Always watched their diet and that, never let Mashiro indulge or anything...! It's just weird. People don't just up and die for nothing, you know."

"That's not exactly true," Karen shakes her head.

"Yeah, if you believe someone like Chikage. Oh, hear about what she was involved in last night?"

"Eh?!" Karen jolts, then shakes her head. "Oh, gomen nasai, I haven't had the chance to log into the LoopNet at all today," she sighs. "I've been so worried about Mashiro-chan..."

"Well, you won't have to worry anymore, soon as she's back on her feet," Rinrin heads into the room holding Mashiro's now-soulless body. Glancing at the medical chart at the foot of the bed, Rinrin scoops it up, then flips through the pages. "Let's see here...! What the...?"

"Rinrin, you really shouldn't..." Karen warns.

"'Signs of delusional paranoia?'" Rinrin reads.

"...read th-...! Nani?! Delusional paranoia?! Mashiro?!!"

Rinrin scans the notes (while she wasn't as expert in medical procedures as a Cyber-Nurse, she could pick up on details and draw some conclusions from them), then puts the chart back. "That's odd," she sighs. "C'mon, Karen, let's boogie to Megatokyo."

"Eh?!" Karen jolts as Mecha-Rinrin falls in behind them.

They step out of the room. "I need to talk to Marie for a sec'. She's down visiting Chikage at the Spiral," Rinrin explains as they board an elevator, Mecha-Rinrin pressing the button for the ground floor.

"Why don't you just call her?" Karen wonders.

"'Cause Marie don't leave Hakodate unless she's got one of her 'odd' feelings. When she gets one of those, I get nervous," Rinrin crosses her arms. "And when Chikage wrecks a whole slew of boomers just to get some peace so she can meditate, I get VERY nervous. Something weird's going on and I got a hunch that what happened to Mashiro might be part of it."

Karen's eyes swirl as they arrive at the ground floor, then head out through the main lobby. She wasn't anywhere close to Rinrin's or Marie's league when it came to factual knowledge. When it came to the realms of study Chikage was an expert in, she was totally lost at sea. But Karen knew enough that when the three smartest of the CCs started acting odd, trouble was brewing somewhere. And Karen detested all forms of trouble.

"OI, LOUIE!!!!" Rinrin barks.

A turbine whine echoes from the parking lot as Rinrin's roadster, the Shironamiki Special Mark Six, stops before them. The Mark 6 resembled a Formula One from thirty years ago (complete with a "6" on both sides and the Toratotaka corporate sigil on the hood and airbrake fins), though the cabin was big enough for a driver and three passengers. "You bonged, Miss Rinrin?" the on-board AI control unit, "Louie," wonders amusedly.

"The Spiral, Louie, and don't stop for nothin'!!" Rinrin takes the driver's seat, then taps controls as the others buckle in.

"Oh, goodie, I get to break rules!"

"Not all of them, Lou!"

If an AI could pout, Louie would. "Miss Rinrin, you are NO FUN!" he sighs as the turbine turns over, the Mark 6 surging out of the parking lot, heading for the San'yo Koosokudooro (San'yo Expressway) interchange for the trip to Megatokyo.

"Don't be stupid, Louie! There're kids about!!"

"Always am careful around them, Miss Rinrin."

Karen giggles. "Thank the gods we don't have speed limits on the rural expressways anymore, ne, Rinrin?" she muses.

"Sure got that right, Karen-chan! Always knew the Doitsujin (Germans) and Itariajin (Italians) were smart," Rinrin sits back in her chair. "Oi, Louie, when you're on the expressway...?"

"Hai, Miss Rinrin?"

"Break two hundred."

"NOW you're talking!"

Laughter haunts the Mark 6 as it races east...

* * *

The Spiral, nightfall...

"So there is a link?" Chikage concludes.

"Were I one of Aunt Megumi's staff, I wouldn't've seen this and made the connection," Marie sighs. They are seated in Chikage's meditation room, two datapadds between them and a minicomp in Marie's lap. "There have been several hundred cases of vCJD in the Philippines over the last four months, but since SIATs are answerable only to the Board, someone in Oshika would have to make the link with what Kayama-keibuho (Lieutenant Kayama) discovered, then pass it on to Nerima via Kaneko-aneuesama."

"Well, we've made the connection, so we have a place to start our investigation," Chikage purses her lips.

"It's not a solid connection, Chikage."

"Oh, really? So what exactly is needed?"

"Well, we have to learn how Mueller-san got her disease in the first place," Marie warns, a finger raised. "According to Team 47-B's operations matriarch, there's a possible connection with Pharmaplus. There were boxes of Sunshine Nutri-Snacks found with five of the fatalities. They've passed it on to the other SIATs to see if the same has been detected elsewhere."

Chikage blinks. "Sunshine Nutri-Snacks...?"

Marie draws out a box from her pocket. Chikage takes it, then peers at it, her mind's ability to read the chi and mana of inanimate objects slicing it down. "Typical health food..." she opens the pack, then allows some of the flower-shaped snacks to come out. "Is it good?"

"It has all the recommended vitamins and minerals for maturing children, plus some widely accepted herbal supplements. It's quite popular with both children and adults," Marie reports.

"You can get that by just eating properly," Chikage slips the snacks into the box, then hands it back to Marie.

"Hai, true. Some of my friends back at school like it a lot. They always ask me why I don't eat it," Marie sighs.

Chikage's eyebrow arches. "What do you tell them?"

"I tell them my taste buds are wired a little differently, so I really can't enjoy them as much," Marie winks conspiratorially. "If I told them that I just don't have to really bother eating vitamin or mineral supplements, it doesn't sound as 'cool.'"

"The curse of being built and programmed correctly, Marie."

"Hai, true..."

"Oi, Chikage, Marie, where the hell are you two?!"

Chikage and Marie turn as footsteps herald the arrival of Rinrin and Karen, Mecha-Rinrin following. "So what brings you three around to my humble abode?" the magi asks.

"Wondering what's going down with both of you, of course," Rinrin retorts. "No matter how weird things get in this town, you rarely if EVER intervene, Chikage. And not enough to drag Marie down from chilly ol' Hokkaido," she thumbs Marie.

"So much like Mycroft Holmes, ne?" Karen winks.

Marie clears her throat politely. "Well, I'll leave the actual detective footwork to our newest sister, Karen," she winks back. "She's more the Sherlock Holmes type, after all."

"Shows what you get for reading too much Conan Doyle," Rinrin winks knowingly at Chikage. "So what DID happen last night?"

"Make yourself at home and I'll tell you," the magi sighs...

* * *

Wakkanai, northern Hokkaido, 10 February, morning...

"By the looks of it, Tanya, we've a mystery on our hands."

Tanya Lipinsky blinks, then sardonically smiles, glaring at her guest. "Gee, Yotsuba, you mind telling me something I don't already know?" the adopted Russian mutters.

Yotsuba Dunn winces, then turns to the sample dish. She and Tanya relax in the Lipinsky home east of Wakkanai's city centre. The brown-haired, auburn-eyed daughter to the retired chief of Sapporo's Police force and her English-born husband was the latest of the CC series, born at the start of the year. Following in the stead of her relatives, who served as law enforcement officials in a half-dozen nations, Yotsuba had taken interest in detective work. It was Yotsuba's dream to one day be the first CC series 33-S to work as a Police officer. Helping investigate odd matters concerning her sisters was good practice towards that end.

Yotsuba draws up her spy glass, passing that over the sample Tanya got from her mother, a volunteer nurse in Wakkanai General Hospital. "This is a brain sample, right?" Yotsuba asks.

"Da (Yes). From one of my classmates at school," Tanya nods. "She fell into a coma last week. They're talking about taking her off life-support and..." her voice breaks, she understandably not wanting to say aloud her friend's possible fate.

"Soo ka," Yotsuba's eyes narrow as she uses the datajacks in her fingers to link with the processors in her spy glass. While the device seemed normal to most onlookers, it was specially-built for Yotsuba's use. Fitted with molecular viewing lenses in the glass itself, it, on command, can gave Yotsuba a magnification factor up to five hundred thousand times.

To normal people, using such a device was impossible. Even with her housekeeping computer helping keep her arm steady, Yotsuba found examining things with her spy glass' special functions difficult. That made it challenging. Yotsuba thrived on those sorts of things. It tested her many abilities to their limits. Right now, her eyes were focused on a squiggly loop that should be a normal protein cell. It wasn't.

"So what's there?" Tanya asks.

"A prion."

"A what?"

"Prion," Yotsuba explains. "See the red-brown gunk here?" she points to the sample. "That's what happens when someone gets hit with a prion infestation in their grey matter, Tanya. Prions are what cause TSEs. Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies."

"Mind putting that in plain language, please," Tanya sighs.

"TSEs muck around with the transmission of messages in healthy brain tissue. Symptoms range from dementia to loss of muscle control, anxiety attacks, phobias and all that. Believe it or not, Ebola is benign compared to this. With Ebola (unless it's Ebola-G you've got), the chances of survival are about one-in-five. With TSEs, the chances are zero."

"Bozhe moi (God help us)!"

"Yeah. Look, Tanya, if you want your friend saved, you better hope there's someone in the 33-M Project who might be willing to help or else she won't make it," Yotsuba warns, then blinks. "By the way, are there any 33-Ms working at your hospital?"

"Nyet (No). No one on the board of directors has considered asking the Project to provide 33-Ms to help out. Funny considering that Lady Nagaiwakai used to live on Rishiri-tou across the way."

Yotsuba hums. "Yeah, that's true," she lowers her spy glass.

Despite the overall success of the Cyber-Nurse Project, less than one-third of hospitals in Japan had obtained 33-Ms to augment their staff. Toratotaka didn't push those hospitals reluctant to take on 33-Ms, though. In the wake of so many boomer rampages, it would seem as if the financial conglomerate was forcing people to accept Directive Five and FABS, policies still decidedly unpopular with many. At the same time, Yotsuba realizes, lack of 33-M Project support meant that if a dangerous plague was breaking out, the news of it might not get out fast enough to save more lives in the long term. NO ONE on the Home Islands, not even Genom, could yet beat Toratotaka when it came to transmitting vital information in emergencies (with the Crystal Palace's help, information could be directly beamed into everyone's minds instantaneously).

"What do you think?" Tanya wonders.

"Hard to say. How many cases like this are being treated now at your mom's hospital?" Yotsuba gazes at her host.

"Three. All grade-level students from my school."

"Soo ka. Well, if we're dealing with a TSE outbreak, it's got to come from food they've consumed, especially anything that's rich in proteins," Yotsuba's forehead creases.

"Beef and other meat products, plus soy, right?"

"Right. But I think most food distributors would be on the watch out for prion infestations. Lessons from thirty years ago were pretty stark."

"What do you mean?"

"There was a type of animal TSE called BSE. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy. 'Mad cow disease' as it was nicknamed back then. It almost wiped out cattle stocks in Britain back in the 1980s and 1990s AND it could be spread to other animals AND humans, appearing as what your friend has now: variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease."

Tanya blinks, then crosses her arms. "How bad?"

"Pretty bad," Yotsuba sighs. "The frequency of vCJD cases picked up around the turn of the millennium, eventually petering out at the start of the Equatorial Bio-War, but they were small in overall numbers. Eventually, everyone got their act together when it came to ensuring meat stayed clean and that was that."

"And there's been no change in those standards?"

"Of course not. Why risk such a good thing...!" Yotsuba pauses, then hums. She'd have to check things out through the LoopNet, but if there had been no relaxation of import standards when it came to meat and all that, then where exactly did the vCJD cases Tanya's mother had seen sprung from? Was there some other method by which faulty TSE-causing prions could be moved from an animal host to infect humans? If so, how did it happen? "You said all cases at Wakkanai General were schoolmates?" she asks.

"Da, I did," Tanya nods, then blinks, her eyes widening. "Yotsuba, you can't possibly mean...!"

"I dunno. And I hope it ISN'T that, but we better get the word out on this right away," Yotsuba rises...

* * *

Megatokyo, the Fault, after lunch...

"Konnichi wa, Fargo. Interesting place to meet."

"You wanted privacy in these meetings, Sylia. Remember?"

"Hai, true," Sylia sighs, glancing around. Both were in Rosie's Playpen, a popular sim cabaret on the south side of the Fault. The Sabres' leader was quick to note the presence of two Bu-29C hookers standing near the door into their private booth. Did the team's fixer arrange to have those units modified to ensure no eavesdroppers? Sighing, she gazes at him as he sips his tea, slowly relaxing her own guard.

"So what have you got about Meguro?" she asks.

"A single person infected with vCJD, which, surprisingly, has made a profound appearance in the Philippines," Fargo provides.

Sylia blinks. "Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob?" Given the knowledge she gained from Katsuhito, she could easily write an encyclopaedia on all the deadly plagues and other diseases that had haunted mankind since before the Dark Ages. "How is that possible? Was the victim a frequent traveller there? Why hasn't news of such an outbreak made it to the newsnets?"

"No, Mueller-san -- that was her name, Lana Mueller -- hadn't left Japan since she migrated here from Germany," Fargo sighs. "No 'secret' trips from what my sources have been able to discover, either. As to why the Philippines hasn't said what's going on...? Well, you'd understand better than I. You know what the 'mad cow' scares were like."

Sylia blinks, then nods. "Hai. And with what happened in the Equatorial Bio-War just after that, people have become quite sensitive towards possible plague-like outbreaks of ANY sort."

"Right," he nods. "Toratotaka's sent down six special bio-war and chem-war trained SIATs, on the sly. They're there to stem the tide of this, plus find the source-point. So far, no success."

"SIX?!!" she gasps, knowing what Fargo meant, then she sits back in her chair. "ALL B- and C-type teams?!"

"All of them," Fargo nods.

Sylia considers that. She often wished at times like this that she didn't have the knowledge her father forced into her mind eleven years ago. Sometimes, when she overheard information like this, it was SO easy for her to draw the necessary conclusions and come up with a nightmare.

Fighting boomers and keeping Genom somewhat in check was one thing. How did one fight a potential plague, especially a stealthy killer like vCJD and its derivatives? Surviving Ebola or hepatitis depended on luck, some safety precautions and generational degradation of the virus as it reproduced when it moved from host to host. Fortunately, a TSE-type virus was impossible to transmit unless it was through the transfer of infected brain tissue in dura-matter grafting. It wasn't anywhere like AIDS or AGH.

But when vCJD struck, it killed.

"What about here in Japan? Any other cases?" she asks.

"Hard to predict. I can find out if you want," he offers.

"Please do. I'll see to it you're paid right away."

"Appreciated," Fargo nods, then grins. "Would you care to join me in sampling some of our fine hosts?"

"No thank you," Sylia rises, heading out.

Fargo watches her go, then sighs, shaking his head. "Sylia, you have GOT to learn to lighten up a bit," he whispers...

* * *

"So Tanya told Yotsuba about three cases in Wakkanai," Marie taps into her minicomp. She relaxes with the others in Chikage's meditation room. Mecha-Rinrin was busy preparing an afternoon snack in the kitchenette. "Add the case of Karen's friend and her parents and Mueller-san...! It's small right now. But something like this striking many places at once has me thinking of one thing."

"Bio-war," Rinrin provides.

"Exactly," Marie nods, shivering even though it was not cold. "Atop that, given the early symptoms of this disease, which can be confused for other less-threatening ailments..."

"So the best way to counter this is by getting the word out right away," Karen cuts in, holding up a finger.

"Hai, Karen, it would be, but would some in authority accept that?" Marie asks. "Given the experience of the Bio-War, to put out a whisper of a plague which inflicts a hundred-percent fatality rate among its victims could theoretically create widespread panic."

"It could stop a lot of people from eating meat or meat by-products," Karen helpfully adds.

"So if this is deliberate (and I still find that pretty hard to believe), how is it this bug gets around?" Rinrin asks.

"There is one possibility."

Eyes lock on Chikage. "Those Nutri-Snack packs?" Karen asks.

"Hai. Karen, Rinrin, do you remember if Mashiro-san and her parents ever partook of these or anything else from Pharmaplus?"

Karen and Rinrin exchange looks, then close their eyes as they concentrate. Images pass before their mind's eyes as they recall the many times either of them visited the Tachibanas. "Wait..." Rinrin opens her eyes. "Mashiro had boxes of that stuff in her work lab when I visited back in November. She loved munching on them. In fact she told me that she liked the idea of having a company make good food that also TASTES good."

"I don't remember anything like that," Karen shrugs.

"Fair enough. Marie, contact Tanya and ask her if any of her friends ever partook in Pharmaplus products," Chikage sighs. "Warn her to be very discrete, though. If this is deliberate..."

"You can't maintain security on something like this forever, Chikage," Rinrin warns. "Something like this, soon as it attracts attention, draws detectives to it like bees to honey."

"True, but the person or persons responsible for this might hope that potential investigations would be derailed by a possible infection of some of the investigating agents," Marie counters.

"That's scary, Marie!" Karen shudders.

"Hai, it is, but given the mentality of whoever started this madness (IF this was deliberate, by the way!), he or she might be inclined to do anything to delay such an investigation to ensure maximum casualties," Marie sighs. "I don't like this either, Karen. Also, we and the 33-Ms are invulnerable to this in the long term since the regen enzymes in our bodies would simply take any prion and reforge it into normal protein strands."

"And this creep might know that, too," Rinrin shudders.

"Exactly. If we are to continue this investigation, sisters, we must be very, VERY cautious," Marie finishes.

Grim, determined nods all around, then Rinrin smirks. "Oi, let's not knock it down, minna-chan," she chuckles. "Life's gotta get interesting for us one of these days, you know."

"You're sick, Rinrin," Karen scolds...

* * *

The Shinjuku International Bazaar, later...

"Here you go, minna-chan!"

Children cheer as Aria passes out sample boxes of Sunshine Nutri-Snacks. Every day, at varying times depending on her schedule, she came to help out in the Pharmaplus public relations kiosk near the north end. Also there are several other young women dressed like her, helping with the distribution. It surprised many that a series of Aria replicas hadn't been built, much less put into use by Pharmaplus. When asked, Aria's creators humbly shrugged and reply, "There can only be ONE Aria Kimino."

Haruka stands nearby, sipping cola. It warmed her to see Aria interact with children. No matter how much re-programming was done when she was built, Aria's personality would always resonate best with the young. Part of the reason Haruka dreamt of the chance to take Aria to Canada was that there it was possible for boomers to adopt organic children (that was the most hotly-debated part of the Free Artificial-Born Sentient Amendment). Haruka knew, learning from scientists in Zonecorp, it was theoretically possible to outfit Aria with an organic reproductive system.

The idea of seeing Aria pregnant...!

DOWN, girl!! Haruka scolds herself. Finishing her cola, she moves to toss the empty paper cup away when her head slams into someone's side. "Itte (Ouch)!!" she yelps, collapsing to her knees as she rubs her forehead, then glances up. "Oh, gomen..."

Her cheeks flush as her eyes lock on the purple orbs of the woman with the rusty-brown hair in twin stringy ponytails. She wears a T-shirt, skirt, fake-fur winter jacket, cowboy boots and black cowboy hat, shopping bag in one hand. "Oh, genki ne (it's okay)," she offers her hand to help Haruka up, then glances at Aria. "I assume you're with her."

Haruka jolts, then flusters. "Um...! Well...! How did you guess?"

"You gave her a lover's look," the other smirks, winking. "There's no shame in admitting it, of course. If she's sentient, Aria-chan's safe. Sumimasen," she smiles. "Watashi wa Sukeyama Sakuya desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu (I'm Sakuya Sukeyama. Pleased to meet you)."

"Hai, Tenhiro Haruka desu. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu," Haruka bows her head, giving Sakuya's hand a squeeze. Something about the other woman's hand felt a little odd. As if there was something buried on the back of the palm. "Er...?" she runs a thumb over that spot.

Sakuya chuckles, concentrating as her wrist linkpoint emerges. "I'm a CC series BuTT-33S cyber-bioroid," she explains.

Haruka stops, her jaw dropping in shock, then she points at Sakuya. "Y-you...?" she stammers, shaking her head in disbelief, then she blurts out, "You're a Child Companion Sexaroid?!!"

Sakuya smirks, drawing her hand back. "Oi, no need to shout it out to the whole damned world, ya know!" she winks again. "So how is it you learned of us? Not surfing the Net, I hope. There's this one ecchi site from Kanagawadai (Kanagawa University)..."

"Ah, iie. My father's the chief scientist and president of Zonecorp. Ijuuin-hakase and Saotome-hakase came by last year to help with programming problems with some of Tou-san's projects..."

"I didn't know that. Then again, I don't really pay too much attention when it comes to Yoshio-papa and Rei-mama going off to help others with their work," Sakuya shrugs, then sighs, noticing that Aria was gazing curiously in their direction. "Would you be offended if I was introduced to your future life-mate?!"

"Un..." Haruka nods, then gags as the last part of Sakuya's question hits home, cheeks flushing. "Sakuya-saaaaaaaan!!"

Sakuya titters delightedly, then blinks on hearing a familiar turbine roar. She sees the Shironamiki Special park in a nearby space, the canopy peeling open to allow Rinrin, Chikage, Marie and Karen out. Rinrin slips some money into the parking metre before racing to catch up to her sisters.

"Minna, oi!!" Sakuya waves as the others see her.

The others come up, then introductions are made. Haruka's eyes swirl as she realizes she is among a GROUP of Rei Ijuuin's creations. Seeing her friend was now with other people, Aria parts from her co-workers, then heads over to join them. "Haruka-neeya, who are these people?" she asks.

The CCs gaze at her, then Rinrin hums, her eye for details giving Aria an approving once-over. "So this is Pharmaplus' poster kid, eh?" she muses, then glances at Sakuya, now holding Haruka's hand. "Oi, Sakuya, I think you're kinda poachin' on Aria's girl there!" she winks.

Haruka yelps, yanking back her hand as her cheeks burn. Laughter escapes Karen, Rinrin, Marie and Sakuya; even Chikage has trouble keeping a straight face. Aria blinks, then turns to Rinrin. "Nee-ya is mistaken. Haruka-neeya isn't Aria's girl. Aria doesn't own anyone. It's not right."

"Aria-chan, it's pretty obvious to me that Haruka-san is VERY much in love with you. As much as you are in return even with whatever programming blocks're in your mind," Rinrin counters. "There's no shame in admitting it, you know. Would you want Haruka-san to get hurt, say by some dork from Prometheus Bound, because she's a part of the Paellas Athena Society?"

Haruka gags. "How did you know THAT?!?!"

"Deductive reasoning, Haruka-san," Marie titters. "You're wearing a Society ring on your left ring finger right now. With how it glitters in the sunlight and the visual erosion from it rubbing against air and skin, I would say you've been a member in good standing for three years. And your feelings for Aria-chan are obvious to those such as ourselves, Haruka-san. Reading the facial and body expressions of pure-organics like you is second nature to Sexaroids and Cyber-Nurses. Wouldn't you agree with me, Rinrin?"

"Got that right, Marie. How about you, Chikage?"

The magi gazes at Haruka, then lightly smiles. "You would die for Aria, Haruka. Wouldn't you?" she states.

Haruka blinks, shivering at Chikage's piercing gaze, then nods with determination. "Hai, Chikage-san, I would."

Aria's eyes widen. "Nee-ya..." she gasps, her voice hushed.

"It's only right," Haruka stares at her, her hand reaching for the nanny's. "How many times have boomers, especially sentient ones, given up their lives to protect those organics they love? Isn't it only right that the reverse happens too, Aria?"

Aria blushes. "Nee-ya..." she looks away embarrassingly.

A person nearby then clears her throat. "Aria?"

Aria turns to see one of the other people from the Pharmaplus booth standing nearby. A very well-programmed 33-C, the several Sexaroid teens nearby quickly sense. "Hai, Koyuki-san?"

"You are needed back at the booth," Koyuki warns.

"Ah..." Aria jolts, then flusters. "Sumimasen!" she turns to the others, then bows. "Shitsurei shimashita."

She follows Koyuki back to the booth. "So why is it they've got a 33-C protecting her?" Rinrin stares at Haruka.

"I..." Haruka jolts (she hadn't known the truth about Koyuki), then sighs. "I guess it ensures jerks from the ABLS or Prometheus Bound don't hurt her," she then shrugs. "I mean, you'd be amazed at how many crank calls we get from people threatening to kill her and all that, ALL because people like her, care for her..."

"Love her, too," Sakuya adds knowingly.

"Sakuya, stop forcing that down her throat!" Karen snaps.

"Oh, genki ne, Karen-san," Haruka chuckles, then sighs, her eyes turning towards Aria. "I guess I've been a little shy when it comes to admitting my feelings for her. But at the same time, I'm afraid that if I did admit them, especially in front of my father or Aria's, I might be kept separated from her."

"Why?" Rinrin asks. "If she gets more positive experiences with pure-organics (and love's as positive an experience as you can get), it'll do her worlds of good in the long term."

"Not everyone thinks as we do, Rinrin," Marie reminds her.

"Ah...! Yah, right...! What the...?!" Rinrin tenses.

The other Sexaroid teens glance around. "What is it?" Haruka wonders, then notice them glancing towards the back of the queue leading to the Pharmaplus kiosk. "What's wrong?!"

"Speaking of the ABLS..." Rinrin shakes her head.

"Nani?!" Haruka gasps.

"The black-haired woman with the French braid, wearing T-shirt and jeans," Sakuya warns. "She's got a Saturday-night Special."

"NANI?!?!" Haruka pales.

"Shall we do something about this, minna?" Marie asks.

Rinrin snarls. "Damn right we should..."

<<Oi, minna!!!>>

Save for Haruka, everyone jolts on hearing that over the OMS-2 (Omniversal Mind-transmission System Mark Two) link all Toratotaka cyberdroids and cyber-bioroids shared. "Mamoru?!!" Sakuya gapes, everyone's eyes scanning around for their sister.

<<Whatcha all doin' in the bazaar...? Oi, who's the jerk with the mini-railgun near ya?!>> Mamoru Itou demands.

<<Where are you, Mamoru?!>> Karen demands.

<<Testin' Wipeout right now, Karen...! Oh, fuck!!>>

<<What's wrong?!!>> Sakuya tenses.

<<Oi, Chikage, WHERE ARE THE DAMNED BRAKES ON THIS THING?!!>>

Eyes lock on a point in the sky flying towards them. Haruka, confused as to what was distracting her new friends, turns to look, then gapes as the dot becomes a young woman in a yellow ski-suit, she standing on a snowboard. A flying snowboard! Her jaw drops in shock as she fails to spot anything which could be keeping Mamoru Itou and Wipeout airborne. "What in the name of the gods...?!"

Chikage forms a triangle with her hands, whispering a spell. A bolt of energy leaps out, soaring at Wipeout. It impacts the flying snowboard, wrapping Wipeout in a cloak of energy. Mamoru wails as Wipeout dives for the ground, soaring at the back of the queue that had attracted her sisters' attention. "OI, OI, OI!!! CHIKAGE NO BAKA!!! LOOK OUT BELOOOOOOOOOOW!!!!" Mamoru screams.

Eyes squeeze shut as the hapless shooter looks up, then gasps as her stomach is rudely introduced to Wipeout's prow. She doubles over, then her face is mashed as thirty-eight kilograms of flying Sexaroid slam into her. She is sent crashing into the tarmac as Mamoru rolls off her face, then somersaults back to her feet before collapsing into Rinrin's arms. "Oh, fuck, someone get the number of that mountain I just hit...?" Mamoru's eyes whirl before she passes out, slumping in her sister's embrace.

"Nice moves, Miss Hot Dog!" Rinrin grunts.

The crowd gapes, stunned by something that was wild EVEN for a city like Megatokyo. Chikage walks up, then noting the woman was only passed out despite the collision, rolls her onto her side, then draws a Magnum Industries MRG-28 from her backpack. "Someone summon the authorities, please," the magi instructs. "I believe this is an illegal weapon."

Seeing THAT, people gasp. Several draw out NAVIs to put in calls to TMD and ADP. By then, some of the more adventuresome children, ignoring protesting parents, have approached Wipeout, now floating over the downed ABLS shooter. "Cool!!" one gasps.

"It really flies!" another whistles.

"Kaa-san, can I get one?!"

"Who makes it?!!"

"Who cares?!"

Marie sighs, stepping up to stand beside Chikage. "Don't you think that was being a little too open, Chikage?" she wonders.

"I can't help it if Mamoru is a show-off, Marie."

"Um...! Ah, right!" Marie shakes her head.

"Uuugh..."

Eyes turn as the would-be shooter gags, rolling on her back, then a stream of vomit spews from her mouth. By then, Mamoru had just recovered, feeling her back and side as Rinrin hovers close. Seeing Wipeout's gold surface smeared with half-digested lunch, Mamoru jolts, then her brown eyes blaze. "You...?!" she snarls, her linkpoints emerging as a red battle aura appears around her. "You disrespectful bastard, you PUKED on MY stick!!!"

"Calm down, Mamoru!!" Rinrin panics.

Mamoru doesn't hear her; her eyes had just spotted the MRG in Chikage's hand, she making the right conclusions. "Fuck, you're ABLS, too?!! Fine!! That gives me a damned excuse!!!"

Before a chi bolt can be summoned, a hard elbow smashes into Mamoru's head. "ITTE!!!" she yelps, then spins up to see Sakuya glaring at her. "What the hell was THAT for, Sakuya?!!"

"She's DOWN, baka!!" Sakuya growls, glaring intently into the other's eyes. "You don't blast someone, even some ABLS punk, with a Mouko Takaibisha (Righteous Tiger's Fury) after she's down!! THINK, you fool!!! We're supposed to be BETTER than that!!"

"I..." Mamoru catches herself, then she deflates, her battle aura instantly dissipating. "S-s-sorry 'bout th-that, Sakuya!" she bows her head apologetically, then glances over at the downed woman. Seeing the mess on Wipeout, Mamoru walks over, then she moves to wipe away some of the gunk. "Oh, man, I spent SIX HOURS polishing him up!! SIX HOURS!!! Goddamned simophobic bitch!!" she curses.

"Mamoru-sama...?"

Mamoru jolts, then turns to see Aria staring at her, an awestruck look on the nanny's face. Instantly shuddering at that admiring look, Mamoru scoops up Wipeout and holds it between her and Aria. "Wh-what is it?!" she stammers. "Look, lady...!"

"ARIA NO HIIROO (MY HERO)!!!!"

Mamoru auks as Aria leaps at her, knocking Wipeout aside as she swamps the sienna-haired Sexaroid with a glomp worthy of a Chinese Amazon! The crowd, paralysed moments ago by the sight of Mamoru Itou's battle aura, cannot ignore what the nanny just said.

"That's right! She saved Aria-chan!!" one boy gushes.

"She IS a hero!!" a girl whoops.

"Just like the Knight Sabres!!" another boy declares.

A crowd of young children, all clearly Aria's fans, circles around Mamoru as someone calls, "Three cheers for Mamoru-sama!!!"

"BANZAI!!!!"

"BANZAI!!!!!"

"BANZAI!!!!!!"

The crowd chants the call as Mamoru scratches the back of her head, laughing embarrassingly. Nearby, her sisters exchange looks, then fall on their butts howling. Chikage isn't one, though her mouth twitches as she desperately tries not to indulge...

* * *

Later...

"You almost zapped her with a Mouko Takaibisha just because she puked all over your snowboard?!!"

"What'd you expect me to do, Uncle Daley?!" Mamoru flusters. Only a small group of ADP and TMD officers had come to deal with the suspected ABLS shooter, now in hospital recovering from her collision with Wipeout. By that time, the crowd had parted to do other things, though some children were STILL wondering where they could get a snowboard like Wipeout.

Daley sighs, more than grateful that Sakuya had stepped in to keep the hot-tempered Mamoru from flying totally out of control.

If things HAD gone out of control...!

Under normal circumstances, a case like THAT would unleash a bureaucratic circus no one would ultimately want to deal with. In Mamoru's favour was that the shooter is suspected to be a member of the Anti-Boomer Lobbyists' Society, a group on ADP's "most-wanted" list. Further, the crowd knew the ABLS shooter was after Aria, a person (even if she was a boomer) of considerable fame, so they would be inclined to support Mamoru when they gave statements to interviewing officers. Also, Mamoru had Canadian citizenship (even if she was emotionally a teen, she was entitled to FABS protection) so if some prosecutor tried to drag her into court, they could only force either jail time, a fine or deportation.

"Well, much that we appreciate you stopping that creep from shooting up Aria-chan, don't go hog-wild on the next one, okay?!" the commander of Tactical Squad Two sighs, crossing his arms.

"Hai, hai, wakata (gotcha)!" Mamoru nods.

"Is this her, Aria-chan?!"

Eyes spin right to see Aria standing nearby, Shion Kimino standing protectively beside his boomer daughter. "Hai, Papa, this is Mamoru-neeya, Aria's hero!" Aria gushes, walking over to gently hug one of Mamoru's arms, staring starry-eyed at the Nara native.

"Oh, shucks, sir, wasn't nothin' at all!" Mamoru chuckles. "If I didn't do it, Chikage or Rinrin might've done something."

"Well, it's nice to know that there are others in this world willing to build such remarkable boomers as yourself, Mamoru-san," Shion gently squeezes Mamoru's hand. "Besides, if that monster HAD hurt my little girl, I...! Well, I wouldn't know what I might've done. Boomer she may be, but Aria means a lot to me."

"It's alright. My parents're the same way since I took the place of the daughter they lost in the quake," Mamoru shrugs. "I hear Aria's the same as us that way. If you want, I can ask Rei-mama to have Aria here converted to a 33-S body. It'll be a lot better for her in the long run."

"I..." Shion flusters. "Well..."

Aria stares wide-eyed at Mamoru. "Mamoru-neeya...! Aria could become just like Mamoru-neeya...?" she whispers, awestruck.

"Sure, why not?!" Mamoru chuckles. "You're a D-5 boomer ta me, Aria-chan! Even if ya still work for your dad's company and all that, you deserve all the lucky breaks ya can get, y'know!"

"Mamoru-neeya..."

"'Sides..." Mamoru leans over to whisper to Aria, "...if you become a cyber-bioroid, you can one day be fully organic. If you do that, you and Haruka there..." she nods towards Haruka, now chatting with Sakuya, "...can have all the kids you'd ever want."

Aria gapes. "Hontou desu ka (You really mean it)?"

"Hai, hontou yo (Yep, I really mean it)!"

"A-..." Aria flusters, then turns to Shion. "Papa...?!"

"I..." the older scientist, rocked by the subject Mamoru just broached, stammers. "I...! Um, does it cost much...?!"

"Oh, shoot, sir, not at all!" Mamoru laughs. "All we need is ta get a sample of your late daughter's DNA and I can take it down to Kyoto and we'd have her new body whipped up in two days flat!"

"Still..."

"Mamoru, stop heaping this all over the guy!" Rinrin scolds as she, Chikage and Marie walk up. "He nearly just LOST his daughter AGAIN today!! You don't wanna overload him all at once!"

"Oh, th-that's alright, Rinrin-san," Shion stammers, then reaches into his shirt to draw up a beautiful necklace, an ovoid jewel encasing a small locket of platinum hair. "Here," he hands it to Rinrin. "That's...! All that's left of the real Aria."

Rinrin draws out a tricorder, then runs it over the locket. "This is perfect, Kimino-hakase! Look, I gotta run back to Osaka today, so I'll drop this off with Rei-mama, then we'll contact you on the twelfth to arrange the mind-transfer."

"Fair enough! I...! Thank you again, ladies!" Shion bows, then turns to Aria. "We best go home, Aria."

"Hai, Papa," Aria beams, then waves to Mamoru and her sisters as they head towards the professor's limousine. "Bai-bai!"

Everyone relaxes as Daley heads off to rejoin his co-workers, then Mamoru glances at the others. "What's going on?"

"You best come to the Spiral to hear this," Chikage sighs...

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, 11 February, late morning...

"You're sayin' one of Chikage's sisters saved some stupid boomer nanny in the bazaar yesterday?!" Priss' eyebrow arches.

Nene growls; even if the Knight Sabres did seem a gentler version of the ABLS when it came to boomers, the singer's hatred of those like Aria really grated. "Aria-chan ISN'T a 'stupid' boomer, Ape-woman!" she crosses her arms, sneering. "She's one of the most popular idol stars in the country. AND she does a lot to make sure kids behave, you know!!"

"Oi...!" Priss tenses, fists clenching.

"That's enough, Priss," Sylia moves to cut off the oncoming argument, then turns to Nene. "So what did you discover concerning Lanna Mueller and what she perpetrated on the ninth?"

"Here," Nene hands her a datadisk.

Sylia takes that, then loads it into her personal computer, scanning the information. "So it's confirmed," she whispers.

"What is, Sylia-san?" Linna wonders.

"A potential outbreak of a VERY fatal disease that, as we speak, is making its rounds in the Philippines and elsewhere," Sylia faces her comrades, then explains further.

The other Sabres pale as the implications sink in. "You mean that BSE's coming back?!" Linna gulps, feeling her throat.

"You know about this shit?!" Priss stares at her.

"Hai, Priss, Tou-san and Kaa-san told me about it before the quake," Linna nods. "It's an awful disease. And that's not because you always die from it. The chaos mad cow caused in Europe was unreal!!"

"Agreed," Sylia sighs. "With the investigation Toratotaka is running in the Philippines about this, we can hope that this will be contained before it becomes a potential calamity or induces widespread panic. I think, given what happened on the ninth, we should direct our operations towards detecting where this..."

A buzzer sounds. "Nee-san?" echoes over the intercom.

"What is it, Mackie?" Sylia presses the controls; her brother was now manning the front counter of the Silky Doll.

"Um...! Someone's here to see you and the others," Mackie seems to gulp, the tremor in his voice causing the others to tense as they exchange looks. "It's Chikage Hirosaki."

Sylia grimaces, then sighs. "Soo ka..."

* * *

Minutes later...

"You believe Pharmaplus is involved in this?!"

"Our investigations in this have led us to that conclusion. We cannot say with conviction that Pharmaplus is the actual source point of the prions which threaten the lives of Tanya's friends, killed the parents of Karen's friend, Mueller-san and who knows how many in the Philippines," Chikage sits by Sylia's desk, sipping a cup of sencha. Priss, Nene and Linna sit across from the magi, raptly paying attention.

"Wouldn't it be better to allow Mikihara-juuyaku's (Director Mikihara's) staff in Nerima to deal with this?" Sylia wonders.

"How can we be sure that whoever is organizing this has potentially anticipated that?" Chikage returns. "Granted, as soon as we have proof of the source of the tainted food, we will pass on the news to the relevant authorities, including Aunt Megumi, but the fact that we do not possess an 'open' affiliation with Toratotaka gives us an advantage few can use."

"She's got a point there," Priss muses.

"Chikage-san, why have you come to tell us this?" Linna asks.

"Isn't it obvious, Linna-anekun?" the magi clicks her tongue, then reaches into her blazer to draw out four bankbooks. "I wish to place your team on retainer for a possible search-and-destroy mission to deal with this matter as soon as our investigations have borne the necessary fruit. I believe eight hundred thousand nuyen will be more than sufficient to cover expenses. Ne?"

The Sabres gape. "EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND?!!"

"Exactly. Two hundred now if you agree," Chikage hands one book to Sylia. "If you aren't required, that will be all. If you ARE required, six hundred thousand more will be paid to you on completion of mission," she holds up the other books before slipping them inside her jersey.

"What exactly might you want us to do?" Nene wonders.

"Help expose the complicity of those who started this madness, of course," Chikage smiles. "Keeping matters secret while things are still uncertain is understandable. Applaudable even. But once they are dealt with and the threat is removed..." she shrugs.

"She's right about that," Linna nods. "I'm in."

Priss and Nene also nod. "Alright, you have us on retainer," Sylia opens the book to confirm the amount, then sets it aside.

"Very well," Chikage nods. "I won't presume to tell you how to deal with matters if you become engaged. I will do my best to ensure you have up-to-date intelligence of whatever target you may be asked to destroy. I don't believe you deserve to be sent into a combat situation blind. Further, Nene-anekun," she draws out a diskette, handing it to the ADP communications officer. "This is a code link that will allow you to link your home computer to Rinrin Hatoyama's access portal into the LoopNet."

"The LoopNet?!" Nene rasps. For most hackers, to get a chance, no matter how slim, to access Toratotaka's information/communications system network was akin to engaging in the quest for the Holy Grail!

"I suggest you don't drool TOO much, Ane-kun," Chikage sighs, sipping her tea. "The codes you'll actually use to link into the LoopNet belong to Rei-mama. They are frequently changed and I do strongly advise you do nothing to give yourself any sort of advantage in the future. You WILL be caught and it will be nasty for both you and Rinrin if you are. Using Rei-mama's codes to access the LoopNet is a privilege we do not wish to loose."

Nene sighs. "That's understandable, I guess," she slips the diskette into her pocket.

"How soon can you hope to find out what's going on inside Pharmaplus, Chikage-san?" Linna wonders.

"That depends, Linna-anekun. We are endeavouring to place an agent -- a newly-woken CC series girl -- into Pharmaplus to act as our 'inside' eyes. The person we're targeting, in fact, is none other than Aria Kimino herself. Like my sisters and I, she is a replica, a living monument, to one of Second Kantou's dead. Since the Child Companion Project is founded on the premise that those who did loose their offspring in 2025 deserve a chance to maintain and guarantee their families' futures, Aria is as much a candidate to be 'brought back to life,' so to speak, as was my template."

"And people LIKE that?!" Priss demands.

"Priss..." Sylia's voice rises in warning.

Chikage sighs. "For those who have partaken in the Child Companion Project or who have adopted Cyber-Nurses as their offspring, Ane-kun, they do...and I must say, they are not as narrow-minded as other people I've met," she rises. "In the meantime, I bid you all a very pleasant day."

"Now, wait just a goddamned...!! HUH?!! WHERE'D SHE GO?!?!"

Priss bolts up, then scans around the room in disbelief on noting that Chikage had just teleported away. "Oh, fuck...!"

"Priss!" Sylia sighs as Linna and Nene roll their eyes. "This isn't a fight with combat boomers, for heaven's sake! Can't you for ONCE keep that temper of yours under control?!"

Priss blinks, then sinks to her knees. "How the fuck does she DO that sorta thing?" she feebly demands...

* * *

Kimitsu, the Tenhiro home, later that morning...

"Converting Aria to a CC series Thirty-three-Es?!"

"Hai!" Haruka shudders as she and Naoto enjoy a meal. The former was dressed in a pink-and-grey hakama, what she wore for martial arts practice. Haruka Tenhiro was dan-ranked in judo, as well as an expert in the use of the naginata, the Zen bow, the bo (quarterstaff) and the gunsen (war fan). It had been her passion since her mother Ayame died after Second Kantou, Haruka's mother having been raped and beaten by a roving street gang.

"Do you think Toratotaka'll approve of it?" Naoto wonders.

"With the other CCs backing it up, Tou-san?! Of COURSE they will!" Haruka shudders, then sighs. "Oh, this is so wonderful..."

"Haruka..."

"Tou-san, Aria deserves the chance, doesn't she?!"

"Of COURSE she does, sweetie, but..." Naoto catches himself, then he crosses his arms. "Look, I...! I just hope that the people in Toratotaka will stay quiet over this. Aria's abilities and all that have been a boost to us as much as they've been to her father's company. If..." he pauses, then sighs. "Some people might think if Aria becomes a Sexaroid, Haruka, it means we don't put out a first-class product. We could suffer for it."

"Tou-chan, you started Zonecorp because you liked working with boomers. I thought you and the others didn't care for profits!"

"Oi, those profits go into keeping this home and you fed!!" Naoto reminds her, then sighs. "I know, I know. Maybe I'm just being a little paranoid, that's all. Heaven knows, some people can make the strangest conclusions when it comes to certain things."

"Hai, that's true," Haruka nods...

* * *

Uji, south of Kyoto, the Kyoto Toratotaka Annex, lunchtime...

"So who's this gonna be, Onee-chan?"

Rei Ijuuin looks up from the programming unit. "Replacement body for our first mental transference case who isn't a Mark Two, Mei," she turns to her notes as her sister Mei, the Annex CMCO (Chief Medical/Cyber-Medical Officer), gazes at one of the gestation chambers, the fluid contained within transforming the biomech/organic mass into a complete Sexaroid. "Aria Kimino to be exact. Rinrin's pressing to have her become a CC."

"The FS boomer nanny from Pharmaplus?" Mei blinks, adjusting the reading glasses over her brown eyes. Like Rei, Mei is also a blonde, though many centimetres shorter than the elder Ijuuin. In fact, Mei could easily look Multi Hinayama in the eye. "Did the security check on her family and all that?" she purses her lips.

"Being done right now," Rei sighs.

"What if it doesn't check out?"

"I wouldn't consider that a major problem."

"Doshite?" Mei stares at her older sister.

"Sometimes, Mei, we have to trust the judgement of the beings we help bring into this world," Rei returns her look, then gazes at the gestation chamber. "If we don't, then everything we've done concerning Directive Five's meaningless. After all Yoshio's sacrificed on my behalf, not to mention everyone else's, don't you think I'd not agree with him on that?"

Mei turns away. "You don't need to remind me of that."

With that, she steps out of her sister's laboratory, pausing at the windows to gaze on the distant imperial capital city north of the Annex. As she leans her head against the Plexiglas, Mei shudders as dark images, fresh even now, surge through her mind...

Unlike Rei, Mei was a student at Hibikino Kookou (Hibikino High School), located some distance from Kirameki. As luck would have it (since she is a year younger than Rei), Mei was away from Tokyo when Second Kantou struck. Returning as soon as she could, Mei found herself one of nearly countless orphans. Her parents had been killed in the quake, while Rei herself was paralyzed below the neck after being trapped in the wreckage of the gymnasium for over a day before a rescue crew extracted her.

With their parents gone and given Rei's infirmary, the Ijuuin sisters were persuaded by a family friend, Devon Okami, to allow Toratotaka to take temporary administrative control of the Ijuuin Group until Mei turned twenty in 2028, when she could take over the family conglomerate herself. Along the way, Yoshio Saotome plunged headlong into the research that would eventually see Rei and so many others restored to life and health. At first, Mei found Yoshio a little hard to stomach; she was a child of the modern economic aristocracy while he was of middle-class extraction.

But the day Rei's soul was transferred into Unit XA00...!

Mei sighs. Her post-2025 experience humbled Rei like nothing else in the world. Along the way, something happened no one from Kirameki Kookou could EVER predict: Yoshio Saotome and Rei Ijuuin had become lovers. The restoration of her beloved sister to full mobility won Mei over to Yoshio, so much so that in early 2029, Mei allowed HERSELF to become a boomeroid first generation MT series Cyber-Nurse (Mei was one of the few first gen 33-Ms outside the MXs who were not born as Aijin boomers). With that, Mei went off to university, eventually obtaining both her MD and DC (Doctorate of Chiropractic medicine) before coming to work under her sister.

Working in Kyoto, especially alongside Rei and Sayuri Katayama (the XX series 33-S who now served as the Annex SFIO), gave Mei a chance to help with the Child Companion Project. Seeing those darling girls emerge from gestation, seeing the looks on adopted parents' faces when they first beheld their newborn children...! That warmed Mei like nothing else in the world. Even their calling her "Auntie Mei" didn't bother the CMCO; hearing "Auntie Mei" from those like Sayuri (someone who seemed in her twenties at first glance) always sent goose bumps surging up Mei's spine.

"Ijuuin-sensei?"

Mei looks right as one of the FIOs come up. "What is it?"

"Dee-Two alert message from SIAT-47B, ma'am," he hands her a printout. "It concerns that outbreak of vCJD in the Philippines."

"Arigatou," Mei glances at the message, then gapes. "Oh, shit...!" she whispers, eyes widening:

FM O/M SIAT-47B
TO SIATGEN
PALACE
MATRIARCH ONE
R/C OSHIKA NGR
MEGATOKYO COMCEN (FOR SM-SI, SP-SIFO, SP-IA)
H/M SINGAPORE (ALSO FOR SFIO, CMCO)
H/P MEGATOKYO (ALSO FOR SFIO, CMCO)
H/M VANCOUVER (ALSO FOR SFIO, CMCO)
H/P ST PETERSBURG (ALSO FOR SFIO, CMCO)
H/P CALCUTTA (ALSO FOR SFIO, CMCO)
IN OCEANIAGEN (FOR A/M, SFIO, CMCO)
EASTEURGEN (FOR A/M, SFIO, CMCO)
WESTNORAMGEN (FOR A/M, SFIO, CMCO)
NOREURGEN (FOR A/M, SFIO, CMCO)
SOUASIAGEN (FOR A/M, SFIO, CMCO)
RE D-2 ALERT//BIO//VCJD
1. CONCERNING VCJD OUTBREAK IN SIAT-38B, 47B, 71B, 11C, 28C AND 56C'S PRESOPSAREA, INVESTIGATIONS REQ BY ROP GOV AUTH UNDER D-1 MANDATE HAS INDICATED A POSSIBLE MANMADE SOURCE OF DISEASE.
2. RECOMMEND TO ALL CONCERNED PARTIES THAT ALL PROTEIN-AUGMENTED PRODUCTS ORIGINATING FROM PHARMAPLUS NUTRIFOODS (HQ MEGATOKYO JP) BE CAREFULLY INSPECTED FOR VCJD-ORIGINATING PRIONS.
3. FURTHER RECOMMEND THAT PHARMAPLUS COMMERCIAL OPS BE PLACED UNDER STRICTEST SCRUTINY, WITH APPROPRIATE ACTION TO STEM THE FURTHER PRODUCTION OF PRION-INFESTED PRODUCTS TO BE CARRIED OUT UNDER H/P MEGATOKYO'S OVERALL SUPERVISION.
4. ALL SIATS IN ROP NATL TERR, WITH CO-OP FROM AFRP, WILL COMMENCE S-AND-D OPS TO STEM THE CURRENT OUTBREAK.

"Damn!!" Mei hisses, then nodding thanks to the FIO, heads into the lab. "Onee-chan, you better see this!"

She hands Rei the message. The Annex Matriarch scans the words, then glances at the gestation chamber busy creating Aria Kimino's new body. "So that's what the girls're investigating."

"Nani?!" Mei gapes confusedly.

Rei sighs. "You better sit down for this one, Mei..."

* * *

Megatokyo, Genom Tower, early afternoon...

"God, I thought I'd NEVER hear about THAT disease again!"

"I must confess, that is surprising," Megumi sips her tea.

"Any idea as to how this can be happening?" Quincy wonders, the look in his eyes echoing the seriousness of the situation. Genom had a small stake in Pharmaplus Nutrifoods. It wasn't enough to force any serious changes in management since Pharmaplus, until now, had always seemed a "clean" company to its many shareholders.

That, the chairman grimaces, had now changed.

"I can't say at this time, but I am moving to correct it," the SFIO replies. "Given the way such products are manufactured, there are dozens of ways this could be happening. I directed my staff to take a penetrating look at Pharmaplus' factories here in the city, but initial reports from THAT won't come in until tonight at the earliest. Yukari told me you need a lab dedicated to producing the type of prions needed to create such a plague, but as to where it might be..." she shakes her head, shrugging.

"We must find it as soon as possible, then destroy it."

"Agreed," Megumi jolts, startled by the unexpected rings from her CVP. Drawing that from her jacket, she taps controls. "Hai, Megumi desu (this is Megumi). Is there a problem, Hatsuko?"

"Gomen nasai, Megumi-san," Hatsuko Rino replies. The 48-SDCI intelligence officer, now Megumi's operations chief, was the only person in the Nerima Tower outside Yoshio Saotome who had the right to contact the SFIO when she was in a meeting with Quincy or anyone else. "Just received a message from Marie Susumu. It seems a gaggle of CCs are poking into that delightful time-bomb SIAT-47B just sent us."

"Marie-chan?!" Megumi's eyebrow arches. "Why her...?!"

"Supposedly, this also has to do with that incident on the ninth Chikage Hirosaki was involved in. They're interconnected."

"Soo ka. Alright, access my private link to Quincy-shachou's personal server, then send what you have over here ASAP, Hatsuko!"

"Hai!!"

Both rise, heading to Quincy's desk. The intercom buzzes. "Yes, what is it, Koji-kun?" the chairman taps controls.

"Just got a big package from Nerima, Mr. Q," Koji Tamura replies; he would know who was presently visiting Quincy. "Geez, what the hell's Hatsuko sending over anyway, Megumi?!"

"Something very important, Koji-kun. Gomen," Megumi smiles.

"Get me all we've got on Pharmaplus Nutrifoods, then send it up here right away, son," Quincy orders.

"Right away, Mr. Q!" Koji replies.

The intercom clicks off as Quincy taps controls. The large screen to his left flashes on, information from Nerima scrolling down. Megumi and Quincy gaze at it. "Six hundred and sixteen dead in the Philippines from vCJD, potentially associated with the intake of Pharmaplus foods...?" he gapes, then shakes his head. "Megumi, what monster would do THAT?!"

"Whoever it is, we'll find him," Megumi grimly nods.

Quincy nods in return, then taps controls on his desk. A second later, his major domo replies. "Hai, Shachou-san?!"

"Have Madigan come up here right away," the chairman orders.

"Right away, sir!"

* * *

Kimitsu, near the Tenhiro home...

"Alright, break! Let's relax!!"

"Hai, Tenhiro-sempai!" the five naginata students rise to attention, then bow to Haruka before heading out of the dojo.

Using a towel to wipe her face down, Haruka restores her own practice weapon to a nearby rack, then drops into seiza, breathing deepening. Someone's clapping makes her eyes snap open, then she looks to see a new friend standing at the door. "Sakuya-san!!"

"Konnichi wa, Haruka-san. Hope I'm not interrupting," Sakuya Sukeyama slips off her shoes, then bowing to the dojo's spirit, walks over to kneel beside Haruka. Taking a glance around, she nods approvingly. "This is a nice place you have."

"Um...! H-hai, it is!" Haruka flusters, then stares quizzically at her new friend. "How'd you find me?"

"It's called 'looking in the videophone directory.' I called your father, then asked where you were. Are you busy now?"

"Um...well, I was just finishing classes..."

"It's important, Haruka-san."

Haruka stops, staring quizzically at Sakuya, then she tenses on seeing the determined look on Sakuya's face. "Wh-what's wrong, Sakuya-san?" she hesitantly inquires, ducking the Sexaroid's stare.

Sakuya glances around, her hearing picking up faint words from the girls' changeroom. "Not here. Is there someplace private we can talk?"

"Um...! H-hai," Haruka nods, then rises. "Chotto (Wait)..."

She heads into the changeroom. A second later, very relieved shouts burst from the doorway. Haruka comes back, smiling. "Wait until they're gone," she whispers to Sakuya.

Sakuya nods. Haruka's students soon stream out of the dojo, many waving as they go. Sakuya watches them leave, then sighs as the door closes. "Okay, what's wrong?" Haruka walks over to secure the door, then returns to kneel before her guest.

Sakuya sighs. "Haruka-san, how much do you know about what your dad's company does for Pharmaplus Nutrifoods?"

"Pharmaplus?!" Haruka blinks, then crosses her arms. "What makes you think I'd know things about that...?"

An eyebrow arches. "With you hanging around Aria-chan?"

The martial artist balks, then flusters. "Well..."

Sakuya chuckles, then her face turns serious. "Haruka-san, this isn't a joke..." she gently grasps the other woman's hand, then begins to explain. It takes fifteen minutes.

Hearing that, Haruka pales, her eyes lowering as implications hit home. "Are you saying...?" she gags, then coughs. "SOMEONE in Pharmaplus is DELIBERATELY poisoning people...?!"

"It's looking like that, though we don't have exact proof. For that, we REALLY need your help," Sakuya gazes at her host. "Please. Karen and Rinrin almost lost a good friend to this gunk. That person's parents have been dead for a month. Three of Tanya's friends are dying as we speak, THEN you add what Chikage dealt with?! Could you imagine what'll happen if someone comes after Zonecorp, thinking THEY'RE involved in this?!"

Haruka shudders, then shakes her head. "No...!" she squeezes her fists into the sides of her temples. "Tou-chan wouldn't...!!" she grits her teeth. "He wouldn't do that sort of thing...!"

"How can you be sure?" Sakuya gently probes.

Haruka glares intently at the other woman, then her head dips again in a sluggish nod. "Sakuya-san..."

"Haruka, have you ever eaten any of the stuff Pharmaplus puts out?" Sakuya then probes. "Have you...?!"

"I..." the other woman's body starts to quake, then a jerky nod. "Y-y-...! Yes..." she hisses, tears flowing down her cheeks, then she gazes at Sakuya. "I...! Oh, gods, Sakuya-san, wh-what...?"

Haruka is drawn in, Sakuya's words soothing her as frightened sobs escape her lips. Sakuya closes her eyes as she keeps Haruka close. She didn't WANT to believe Haruka's father would be party to poisoning her, but if what happened to Karen's and Tanya's friends indicated anything, the chance was there. One ignored something like THIS at his peril.

Sakuya's CVP rings. Haruka pulls away as the other woman answers it. "Hai, Sukeyama desu...! Rinrin?! What's wrong?!"

"Better come to the Spiral right away. Bring Haruka there with you, Sakuya," Rinrin warns. "You are NOT gonna believe what we just discovered about how Pharmaplus runs its operations."

"What?!"

"Would you believe they use BOOMERS in food production?!"

"WHAT?!?!" Sakuya stares at Haruka. "Is this true?!"

"Of course!" Haruka wipes her cheeks, then shrugs. "Why are you so surprised, Sakuya-san? Boomers are used in all elements of food manufacturing these days. The ones there're special-built and programmed GS-R boomers. It makes the manufacturing process a lot more efficient and safe...! B-but..." her voice then falters.

"Never mind," Sakuya rises. "We're on our way, Rinrin!"

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, that moment...

"Boomers used in food production?!"

"Hai, Sylia-san!" Nene fretfully nods, staring at Sylia over the videophone link from her apartment.

"Any illegalities?!" Sylia wonders.

"None. Pharmaplus has a proper license to operate GS-Rs in this fashion," the ADP communications officer replies. "It's not so different than farmers around the world using boomer field hands to help out at that end of the line. The Health Ministry checks...! Is SUPPOSED to check Pharmaplus every month to make sure the boomers are doing their jobs."

"When was the last inspection?"

"On the record books, it was three weeks ago."

"Results?"

"Everything checked out perfectly."

"Soo ka," Sylia sighs. "Find out the names of the people who were involved in those inspections, then send them through Rinrin to Ijuuin-kachou (Matriarch Ijuuin) in Kyoto."

"Sylia-san, if boomers are involved in this whole mess, this HAS to be reported to ADP, you know!!" Nene objects.

"I'm sure Toratotaka has the means to deal with this matter quietly," Sylia sighs. "Nene-san, if word of this got out to the wrong people, we could have a disaster in the making."

"I don't..."

"Do it!" Sylia orders. Who knew HOW many Genom sell-outs were around who might decide to take advantage of this, even IF Quincy would NEVER allow bioweapons to be unleashed in Japan. "Then alert Priss and Linna. We may have to go in soon to deal with this."

"Ah..." Nene's voice catches, then she nods. "Hai!"

The link is cut. Sylia sighs, then turns to gaze out on the city. "Damn..." she hisses...

* * *

On the road to Megatokyo...

"Gods, this is some car Rinrin-san has!"

"Thank you very much, Miss Haruka," Louie chuckles as the Mark Six heads up the Tateyama Expressway to the Kisarazu junction. From there, it would be a quick drive across the Tokyo Bay Aqualine (which uses the Babylon Project Tokyo Bay Control Dam to connect the cities in Chiba with Kawasaki), then up the Bayshore Expressway to Toshima and the Spiral. "I rather like it myself, given how much effort Miss Rinrin put into it."

Haruka blushes. "L-louie-san..." she stammers, then stares at Sakuya, now in the driver's seat. "Are you sure it's okay for you to drive a car like this, Sakuya-san?! I mean..."

"Well, Louie does the actual driving when you get down to it," Sakuya laughs, then blinks as she glances through the rear view mirror. "What the heck...?!" she looks behind her.

Haruka looks. "What?!"

"Louie, the white Sentra three cars back on the curb-side lane. How long's he been there?!" Sakuya demands.

"Just a minute," Louie hums. A pause, then, "He's been following us since we left Kimitsu, Miss Sakuya."

Sakuya blinks, then curses. "Oh, shit!! Bio-scan!"

"Wait one." A pause, then, "Two 55-Cs and one 33-C, Miss Sakuya. All three appear to be Zonecorp-programmed."

"WHAT?!?!" Haruka exclaims.

"Oh, fuck!!" Sakuya turns to the console, then stabs buttons.

Marie's face appears on the viewscreen to Sakuya's left, she now in Chikage's meditation room. "Sakuya, what's the matter?!"

"I got two fire-mouths and a razordoll on my and Haruka's backsides. And I don't think they're friendly," Sakuya sighs as the Mark Six makes the turn off onto Highway 409, heading for the Tokyo-wan Aqualine. "Just made the Kisarazu junction now, Marie. Can someone come over here to help?"

"I'll tell Chikage," Marie nods.

The link is cut. Haruka looks behind them, noting that the Sentra was now two vehicles back. "They're closing in on us, Sakuya-san," she turns forward just as they pass over the Kururi rail line. "How do we avoid these creeps?!"

"Wait until we get onto the bridge," Sakuya bites her lip.

Haruka hesitantly nods as the Shironamiki Special races past the Sodegaura interchange, heading onto the flat approach to the Aqualine. By now, the traffic is starting to thin out; in the wake of Second Kantou, the Aqualine was expanded to eight lanes in both directions. "Okay, Louie, floor it. But watch out!" Sakuya barks.

"Right on, Miss Sakuya!" Louie replies.

The Mark Six's turbine roars as it surges forth from behind a transport, then picks up speed as it closes the Kisarazu-Kaneda interchange. Behind it, the Sentra picks up speed as the boomers struggle to keep up. Both cars race past a speed-trap set up by THP (Tokyo Highway Police), alerting the crews of two patrol cars. "Looks like we'll be busy today!" one of the officers laughs as he guns his Road Chaser, then races off after the speeding vehicles.

At the head of the chain, Haruka looks back, then gulps. "We've got two Police cars now!" she warns.

"I see 'em," Sakuya grits her teeth. "Faster, Louie!!"

"In THIS traffic?!" Louie protests.

"Louie no baka! Use your imagination!!"

"Okay, okay!"

As the Mark Six hits the approach ramp for the Aqualine, it breaks, slipping into a slower lane. The Sentra overshoots, then parallels Rinrin's race car as a window lowers, revealing a bulky man in a business suit with glowing eyes and a mouth distending to reveal a C-55's ion cannon. As the energy port glows, Louie sends the turbine into overdrive, sending the Mark Six racing off. The boomer's shot misses the car by several metres, but it might as well have been a red flag to the Police officers behind. "Damn, that's a boomer!!" one declares. "Get on the horn and get ADP on the line! We need a gunship over here as soon as we can!!"

"You got it!" the other picks up his mike.

Up ahead, Sakuya and Haruka laugh gleefully as the Mark Six weaves through traffic, putting some distance between it and the pursuing boomers. "Suckers!!" the former whoops.

"They fall for that trick ALL the time!" Louie hoots, then hums. "Ah-hah!! Miss Super Magician just arrived!"

Sakuya tenses on sensing Chikage's reserve memory crystal, then beams. "Alright!! Let's rumble!!!"

Several cars behind, the THP officers watch as a girl wearing a white cape appears out of NOWHERE to float behind the racing Sentra, standing as if she was riding a moving sidewalk! Chikage smiles as she summons a chi ball, then barks "TACTUS PROMETHEI!!!!" as it slams into the trunk.

The car instantly catches fire as Chikage floats away, moving to parallel them from a safe distance. Watching from ahead, Sakuya and Haruka watch as the boomers seem to ignore what is happening. Wisely, others slow down, putting distance between themselves and the Sentra. The THP vehicles weave through the traffic jam, then burst clear, themselves keeping distance between them and the Sentra. Sakuya sighs. "Dumb or what?!"

"Why aren't they sensing what's happening?" Haruka wonders, then tenses on hearing a helicopter. "Who...?!"

An ADP Hornet soars down, chain-guns swivelling to bear on the Sentra. As the pilot picks a place to ensure they'd survive, the gunner sees Chikage floating nearby. "Damn, why couldn't we get Toratotaka to build someone like her for US, huh?!" he mutters.

"Got that right!" the pilot laughs. "Don't miss!!"

"Easy as pie!" the gunner locks on target, then thumbs the trigger, sending a storm of lead at the Sentra.

The bullets shatter the rear window, slicing apart the 33-C in the back seat. One bullet punctures the gas tank, creating sparks to ignite the fuel. The Sentra erupts, sending both 55-Cs flying through the windshield to roll on the pavement as the car's intact forward section careens into Tokyo Bay. Immediately, both combat boomers are on their feet, ion cannons extending as they move to shoot the Hornet down.

"Get them!!" the pilot moves to evade.

Chikage slips under the Hornet to place herself on the attack chopper's port side, hand raised. "OSCULUM PAPILIONIS!!!!"

The rolling wave of air marking the Butterfly Kiss slams into one of the 55s, crushing it. The other 55 swings to hose the magi with its cannon, ignoring what was racing up from behind. "No, you don't!" Louie barks as the Mark Six's front end shears off the boomer's legs, sending it flying into the concrete divider.

The Mark Six skids to a halt beside the flaming wreckage of the Sentra's aft end. "Nice one, Louie!!" Sakuya yips as the cockpit hatch springs open, allowing her and Haruka out.

Chikage floats down as the Hornet moves to a covering position. The THP vehicles stop behind the Mark Six, doors opening as the four officers take covering positions, guns aimed towards the downed combat boomers. "Alright, girls, step away from that car and get over here!!" one barks.

"Hey, I can protect them!" Louie protests.

Sakuya and Haruka exchange looks, then the former nods, beckoning her friend with her. As they head back, Chikage lands, then scans the downed boomers. "I believe we should..."

The legless 55-C turns its head, locking in on Haruka's back. Its jaw lowers, a half-power bolt lashing out. As it slams into Haruka's back, the Hornet's pilot screams, "Hose that thing!!"

"Got it!!!" the gunner aims and fires.

As a stunned Haruka collapses to her knees, a shower of blood bursting from her nose and mouth, the Hornet's chain-guns chop the last boomer into scrap. "HARUKA!!!" Chikage teleports herself beside the falling teenager, then with a wave of her cape, teleports again in the direction of the Kyoto Annex.

The four THP officers gape, pistols lowering, then one approaches Sakuya. "Um...! Miss, do you know...?!" he asks.

Sakuya sighs, then turning to the officer, sadly smiles. "She'll be okay, Junsa-san (Officer)..." her eyes then turn back to the site where Haruka Tenhiro had been shot. "I hope..."

* * *

Ninety minutes later...

"So she'll be okay?"

"Yeah," Rinrin sighs, examining the exposed brain of the C-55 hosed down by the Hornet. She, Leon and Daley sit in the back of an ADP mobile laboratory, along with the new forensics sergeant of Tactical Squad Two, Kaneko Akamura, just assigned to ADP from TMD's main forensics laboratory four days ago. Thanks to luck and the marksmanship of the Hornet's gunner, the C-55's brain survived unscathed. "Rei-mama wanted a chance to test a 'one-day' gestation process Auntie Mei came up with, so she'll try it out with Haruka," she shakes her head. "Shit, who'd want to target her?"

"Someone in Zonecorp, maybe?" Daley proposes.

"Maybe," Rinrin grimaces, then slips a cable into her personal minicomp. Tapping controls, she watches as the boomer's basic programs play out before her, then she hums. "Odd..."

"What is it, Rinrin-chan?" Kaneko probes.

"All the basic programs haven't been tampered with, Aneki..." Rinrin blinks, then taps controls. "Oh, here's the problem..."

"What?!" Leon urges.

"Seems this guy was given a basic program that would ensure he'd never bring harm to any Zonecorp worker or relative of same," Rinrin reports. "But something overrode that...! What the hell?!" she squints, then her eyebrow arches. "From the OMS...?!"

"What about that?!" Kaneko tenses.

"I think someone hacked into this boy's brain using his OMS link," Rinrin grimaces. "But I don't think anyone in Zonecorp knows anything about the OMS...which could mean..."

"Someone in Genom's behind this," Leon concludes.

"I'm not sure about that, Uncle Leon. From what I do know of the OMS working on Mecha, the system isn't built to allow someone to tamper with a boomer's programming through it." Seeing the baffled looks on Leon's and Daley's faces, she adds, "The OMS is a 'restraining bolt' system. It's only meant to ensure the boomer breaks down if the link is cut off."

"That sounds so simple!" Leon crosses his arms.

"Yeah, but it's effective none the less. Look, when I built Mecha-Rinrin, I used a normal Mark 9 brain, but I had to take out the program AI chips and replace them with ones shielded from the OMS, like what was put into my head when I was first built," Rinrin points to the side of her head. "In this case, the basic AI chips were unchanged. But someone out there discovered the OMS control frequencies and used them to alter its operational programming."

"Someone inside Genom," Daley concludes.

Rinrin shakes her head. "I don't think so. From what Auntie Megumi's reported over the LoopNet, no one in Genom's ever taken time to augment the OMS hardware with that sort of capability."

"Which means someone on the outside's discovered some of the OMS' secrets," Kaneko grimaces.

"This Largo character Mason wanted activated sometime ago?" Daley asks, staring at the just-transferred sergeant.

Kaneko shakes her head. "No, Daley-kun, I doubt it'd be him."

"Wonderful," Leon crosses his arms. Eliminating Genom spelt one thing: some new crazy out there wanting to stir up trouble.

A knock on the mobile lab's door. Leon opens it to reveal Tayami Kayama. "What's up, Tayami-san?" Leon smiles.

"Just finished salvaging what's left of those two other boomers Rinrin-san's sister wrecked," the chief forensics officer reports, glancing at Rinrin. "They're in my unit now."

"Ah, a mad genius' work is NEVER done!" Rinrin unhooks her minicomp from the dead C-55, then rises. "Lead on, MacDuff!!"

The two step out of the mobile lab, heading over to the lab used by Tayami and her staff. By then, a limousine pulls up into the Umihotaru roadstop midway across Tokyo Bay from Kisarasu (ADP vehicles had shifted all the evidence to this location to clear up the traffic jam on the Aqualine). The door opens, revealing someone Daley knew well, even if the woman presently dyed her hair a pink-magenta shade in lieu of keeping it flaming red. "Konnichi wa, Madigan-san," he waves to his former classmate, wryly grinning. "What brings you out to this side of the city today?"

"Curious about what caused the ruckus here, Wong-kichou (Captain Wong)," Katharine Madigan nods, a pair of mirror shades over her dark eyes. "It concerns Genom when boomers, especially special security models, are destroyed in this matter."

"You're not thinking of trying to charge Hirosaki-san with anything, are you?" Daley's eyebrow arches amusedly.

"Of course not!" Kate scoffs. "She saved two friends, one of which, sadly, is at death's door under Ijuuin-hakase's care. But you must admit that given that the victim is the daughter of the current president of the Zone Corporation, the attack on her could actually be blamed on Genom by some stupid reporter or newscaster."

"Ah, true, true," Daley nods. "Well, you're in luck, believe it or not. Rinrin Hatoyama's made some interesting discoveries about one of these units, something she might confirm with the other two. Here, she's over here if you want to talk to her."

Kate follows the ADP captain to Tayami Kayama's mobile lab. Glancing inside, Genom's chief of security watches Rinrin pick her way through the burned wreck of a dead 33-C boomer, Tayami standing by to help her. "Shit, it's the same thing...! Oh, hi, Aunt Kate!" Rinrin smiles at the executive. "What are you doing over here?"

"Came to see what was going on," Kate slips into the unit, then sits beside Rinrin. "What have you found?"

Tayami gazes at Daley, then getting a wink in return, relaxes. Given her recent divorce, instigated by rumours originating from someone inside Genom, the chief forensics officer had little cause to trust anyone working in the Tower. "See for yourself," Rinrin shows Kate the minicomp, then points to a window on the screen.

Kate scans the information, then her eyes widen. "This is impossible!" she hisses, then gazes at Rinrin. "Are you sure?!"

Rinrin nods. Kate sighs, then shakes her head. "Is there something wrong, Madigan-kachou (Chief Madigan)?" Tayami asks.

"Very," Kate sits back. "Ever since I came to work for Genom, I've been involved in stopping FORTY illegal attempts by outside agents to analyse and decode the basic boomer AI programming, the so-called 'black box' stuff. The reason for that is...much more than just us protecting our copyrights, I should note. Most of those attempts were by...malcontents whose ideas could've led to the creation of monsters you couldn't begin to imagine in your worst nightmares, Kayama-keibuho (Lieutenant Kayama)." A pause, then, "If what Hatoyama-san here just discovered is true, I'm now going to be involved in shutting down case number forty-one."

"I never thought Zonecorp would attempt to do something like that," Tayami crosses her arms.

"No, I never thought that, either. The chances are, this might all lead to one guy wanting to play Victor von Frankenstein with boomers. We'll do our best to protect those workers who are innocent of this matter, but the shielding of the basic boomer programming copyrights is of greater importance to me." She moves to leave. "If you will excuse me, minna-san, I have to get back to the Tower and report this to the Chairman."

Daley steps aside as Kate steps out, she staring at him. "Meet me at the Tree tonight," she whispers.

The ADP captain nods as the Genom executive heads off...

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, suppertime...

"The daughter of the head of Zonecorp?"

"Hai," Nene nods, staring at Sylia over the videophone line. "Three Zonecorp boomers, two 55s and a 33-C, were sent out to kill Haruka-san when she was with Sakuya Sukeyama."

"How bad?!"

"Chikage-san took Haruka-san to Kyoto to let Ijuuin-hakase look her over," Nene sighs, then lowers her head. "Sylia-san..."

"What else?" Sylia prompts.

"When CPMD (Chiba Prefectural Metropolice Department) sent people over to Haruka-san's home to have her father brought in for questioning, they..." Nene pauses, then sighs. "They found the place destroyed and Tenhiro-hakase...! He..." her voice falters.

Sylia blinks, then shakes her head. "Oh, damn..."

"What do we do, Sylia-san?!" Nene wonders.

The intercom buzzes before Sylia can reply. "Yes, Mackie?" she taps controls to bring up a new window before her.

"Sorry to bother you, Nee-san, but one of Chikage-san's sisters is here," Mackie reports. "Yotsuba Dunn."

Sylia blinks surprisingly. "I don't know her. Send her up here, Mackie," she instructs, then turns back to Nene. "Contact me if you get more information about this, Nene-san."

"Hai, Sylia-san, right away," Nene nods, then the link is cut.

The elevator dings three seconds later, the doors opening to reveal the newest of the CC series 33-S's (that is, until Haruka Tenhiro and Aria Kimino join their ranks). To Sylia's amusement, Yotsuba wears a deerskin cap and a cape done up in McTavish Clan tartan colours, that presently over a red-trimmed blue-and-grey Toratotaka field combat jumpsuit. "Konnichi wa, Oba-chama!" she announces as she bounds up to Sylia's desk, then draws a bankbook from her cape and places that before the Sabres' leader.

Seeing that, Sylia hums, then returns her stare. "I assume you've need of us tonight," her eyebrow arches.

"For safety's sake, in case what happened to poor Haruka-san might be tried on some of us," Yotsuba announces. "Some of the girls and I're gonna go down to the place where Mueller-san died to discover what she was so intent on doing. I think before we shut down whoever started this mess, we better cover all our bases, ne?"

Sylia blinks, then nods. "Agreed..."

* * *

Meguro, Yakumo district, nightfall...

"Do you actually expect to find anything using THAT?!"

"Oh, ye of so little faith, Linna-anechama!" Yotsuba winks as she gazes through her spy glass at the bare concrete floor of the apartment block Lana Mueller had occupied when Chikage found her. Joining the Sapporo native and three of the Sabres are Hinako Saeru (whose umbrella now floats over the pit, blocking out security scans), Marie Susumu (doing her own examination with a spare spy glass Yotsuba loaned) and Karen Tanenobu (who, with Hinako, was helping in the search using tricorders).

"What exactly are you guys trying to find?" Priss wonders.

"If we're lucky, prions or prion fragments," Marie reports. "Since we couldn't do a brain-scan of Mueller-san even after she died, we have no real idea as to why she was here..."

Priss balks. "You can scan someone's mind AFTER they died?!!"

"'Fraid so, but you wouldn't get much," Yotsuba shakes her head. "Technology sure is wonderful, isn't it...wait!!"

Eyes lock on her. "What did you find?" Sylia walks over.

"A trap door," Yotsuba stands, then keying a control in her spy glass, sends a bolt of light into the concrete. A dark rectangle appears in the dusty surface. "And voila!!"

"Let's crack it!" Priss beckons the others over.

Sylia wedges her vibro-knife into the crack, then as she slides the block partway out of its slot, Karen poises herself beside the Sabres' leader, scanner out. "It's safe," Karen nods, then stands back as Priss and Linna help Sylia lift the block out.

A terrible odour then waifs from the pit within. "Peeeewww!!" Hinako pinches her nose as the others back away. "Hidoi yo (That's awful)!! What IS that, anyway?!" she waves her hand before her.

"Rotting meat. All of it beef," Yotsuba waves her hand before her face. "Let's get a sample, then call Shirayuki and have her take a look at this to see which part of the cow this came from!"

"Why's that so important?" Priss asks.

"If this is brain or spinal tissue, it'll be chock-full of prions," Yotsuba explains as Marie draws up a long-armed scoop and a sample bag from a tool kit, then kneels by the trap door to get the sample. "We better call someone from the Tower, too, to get some BCW-qualified Cyber-Nurses over here to secure this site down before whatever's here leaks out into the water supply or God knows what else. Need help there, Marie?"

"No, I'm okay. Once you ignore the stench! Gods, this is just awful!" Marie grimaces, then draws out a tangly mass of reddish-grey meat. "Anyone for brain-burgers?"

"Please, don't gross us out more than you have to, Marie!" Karen feels her stomach turn as Yotsuba helps bag the sample.

Once the sample is taken, the pit is sealed up, then Karen calls the Nerima Tower to report what was found. Hinako calls Mister Umbrella down, the security screen fading as everyone steps out of the pit. "Two, this is Three," Sylia calls Mackie in the Silky Doll van, parked some blocks away. "We've got what we wanted and are heading to the extraction point now."

"Right, Three," Mackie replies. "No sign of hostiles. Um, there're three of Lady Mycroft's sisters here with me now."

"Who exactly?" Sylia wonders.

"Miss Hot Dog, Petite Chef and Baton Dancer."

"Roger," Sylia cuts the link, then turns to Marie. "It seems three of your sisters just came to join us, Marie-chan." She then rattles off the call-signs Mackie transmitted to her.

"Oh, that's Mamoru, Shirayuki and Kaho," Marie beams. "I hope Shirayuki brought one of her picnics with her. I'm starved!"

"How the hell can you think of food after what you just did, Marie?!" Priss demands, crossing her arms.

"Trust me, Priscilla-aneuesama, when you get a sample of Shirayuki's cooking, you'd forget any nausea very quickly, too!" Marie winks at her as the Silky Doll van drives up...

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, 12 February, after midnight...

"Priss, that's your FIFTH helping, you know!!"

"Oi, Linna, I can't help it!" Priss laughs as she cuts into one of the homemade pizzas Shirayuki Osamu had brought up with her from Nagoya. "Damn, this is really good stuff!"

"Well, I'm sure Shirayuki'll appreciate it when she sees the plates cleaned out," Kaho Eigo smirks, sitting beside Linna.

The petite, sandy-haired, golden-eyed teen, much to Priss' and Linna's surprise, has a cheerleader's baton in hand. It seemed so out of place given the dark field uniform she and the others put on for tonight. "You mind my asking a question, Kaho?" Priss asks.

"What's that, Onee-chama?" Kaho perks up.

"What's with that?" Priss points to the baton.

"Oh, this," Kaho stands, then holds the baton parallel to the floor. Concentrating, a faint glow warps around the Sexaroid teen, then blazing chi blades, each as long as Chikage's soulsword, extend from both ends. Priss and Linna take a step back as Kaho assumes an en-garde stance. "I've always been a big Star Wars fan, so Chikage got this for my birthday!" Kaho winks, then relaxes as the blades vanish, the glow dissipating.

"Sugoi!" Linna whistles as Kaho sits, then she hums. "Ne, Kaho-chan, tell me. Do you know the Kuromoroboshi?!"

Priss winces. "The Kuromoroboshi?" Kaho perks up, then beams. "Sure, I know all of them! How do you know about them?!"

"Don't -- tell -- her!" Priss glares at Linna.

"Oh, Priss, you've only got yourself to blame for that!" Linna scolds, then turns to Kaho. "We met several of them in the Fault when Mikihara-juuyaku asked us to rescue someone from there!"

"Oh!!" Kaho nods, then blinks on hearing the living room door open, revealing a downcast Mamoru Itou. "Mamoru, what's wrong?!"

Setting Wipeout aside, Mamoru walks over to cut herself a slice of pizza, then slumps into an armchair. Her eyes brim with tears she wouldn't shed. "One of Tanya's friends just died," she then whispers.

Priss and Linna gaze at Mamoru, then the former walks over to kneel beside the shaking teen, drawing Mamoru into her arms. That is enough to break the firm grip on Mamoru's grief. She and Tanya Lipinsky are very close friends. As sobs escapes her, Priss gently strokes Mamoru's hair, whispering "It's gonna be okay." Linna wanly smiles, then gazes at Kaho. The latter is wiping her own eyes. She wasn't close to Tanya but the fact that a sister was suffering hurt. Linna moves to comfort. "Daijoubu, Kaho-chan, daijoubu," she kisses her forehead. "Sometimes it happens."

"H-hai, I know," Kaho sniffs back her tears, then wipes her eyes. "I...! Why can't people like life, Onee-chama? Why do people always think death's more important? Why...?!"

"It's the way the world is, I guess," Linna rubs Kaho's hair, then allows the latter to snuggle closer to her.

The door opens, revealing Sylia. "Oh, I see you heard the news of Tanya-san's friend," the Sabres' leader sighs as everyone gazes on her. "Well, there's some news about what we just found."

"Let's go down," Priss helps Mamoru up.

Everyone descends into one of the labs, where Shirayuki now sits at a table, Yotsuba and Marie beside her. "So what did you guys find?" Linna wonders as everyone gathers around them.

Marie sighs. "It appears the tank under the basement of that apartment was specially built to act as a cold storage unit for cloned cattle brain and cerebra-spinal tissue infected with prions," she points to the sample dish under the microscope beside Shirayuki. "We found signs of freezer burn, plus traces of the same type of gestation fluid which is used when one of us or a Cyber-Nurse is constructed in any of the Towers."

"Are you sayin' that someone in T'n'T might be involved in this?!" Priss tenses, her fists clenching.

"No, the gestation fluid used by T'n'T to build one of us is the very same type Genom uses to create organic parts for humanoid boomers," Yotsuba shakes her head. "Since it isn't considered a restricted item even if its ability to help clone organic tissue is well known, there's no realistic way of tracing down where the fluid used here was purchased from or sold to for that matter. The chances're there that whoever wanted this stuff used a whole slew of middle-men to try to ensure they couldn't be traced."

"What we could do now is trace down who owned that apartment block," Marie proposes. "I'm willing to wager that someone with a connection to either Pharmaplus or Zonecorp is involved."

"I'll have Nene look in on that," Sylia promises.

"Do we let this go public, Sylia-san?" Linna asks.

"I..." A videophone rings. Sylia walks over to answer it. "Moshi-moshi...! Oh, Nene-san, it's you!" she smiles.

"What are you guys still doing up?!" Nene wonders, now sitting in the cafeteria at AD Police headquarters.

"We were a little busy tonight, Nene-san," Sylia waves behind her to indicate the Child Companions now with the Sabres.

"Soo ka," Nene takes them in, then sighs. "Anyhow, I think you'd want to know this, Sylia-san. Daley-san got the word from someone about what Chikage-san hired us about, then asked me to find out more about those buildings where we found Mueller."

"And?" Sylia tenses.

"Get this! The owner of that whole block is none other than Professor Shion Kimino himself!!" Nene snaps.

Mamoru jumps with surprise. "Whoa!" she moves to stare at Nene's image. "You mean Aria's dad, Nene-anee?!"

"The same!" Nene nods.

Mamoru takes that in, humming, then her eyes sparkle. "Wait a sec'..." a grin crosses her face, then she turns to Sylia, quick to note a like smile on the older woman's face. "Ne...?!"

"Marie-san, how quick can Rinrin-san whip up a fake AI program to be inserted into Aria Kimino's body?" Sylia turns to Marie.

"You'd be amazed how fast she can do that," Marie rises. "I suggest we contact Chikage for her assistance..."

"Did someone mention my name?"

Screams escape Linna and Priss -- even Sylia is startled! -- on seeing Chikage calmly standing by a nearby work table. "GODDAMN you, lady, DON'T DO THAT!!!" Priss snaps, glaring at the magi.

The Child Companions laugh. "Oh, don't worry about things like that, Priscilla-neesama," Shirayuki's mauve-shaded eyes twinkle. "Chikage grows on you eventually," she winks.

"I'll bet...!" the singer growls.

Chikage shakes her head. "Hopeless. Utterly hopeless..." she crosses her arms, then turns to Shirayuki. "I haven't had much to eat given my other duties today. I trust there's something left to eat from whatever picnic you made for everyone tonight?"

"Yeah, there's stuff up there, but you better hurry before Priscilla-oneechama eats it all!" Kaho winks.

"Yaro...!" Priss growls.

More laughter fills the laboratory...

* * *

Kimitsu, after dawn...

"Nee-ya...?"

Aria looks around, eyes wide as she takes in the destruction before her. Every morning, she travelled from the Kiminos' apartment in Ichikawa via the Uchibou Line around Tokyo Bay to visit Haruka at her home. Now, there was NO home, just a burned hole in the ground to mark the basement and small black wood fragments. Shuddering as she holds Mister Bunny close to her, Aria scans around. "Nee-ya, where are you...?!" she whispers.

A car drives up. Aria turns, her eyes widening on seeing a familiar vehicle as its canopy opening to reveal, much to her relief, an equally familiar face. "Rinrin-neeya!" Aria steps over as Rinrin leaps out, followed by Chikage. "Oh, Chikage-neeya, there you are! Have either of you seen Haruka-neeya?!"

"Relax, relax, Aria-chan!" Rinrin smiles as she embraces the nanny, then taking Mister Bunny and handing her to Chikage, sighs as she examines the devastation. "Oh, fuck me...!"

"Nee-ya, don't swear!!" Aria gasps, indignantly shuddering, then she looks away. "Has Nee-ya seen Haruka?" she repeats.

"Oh, Haruka," Rinrin chuckles. "Relax, Aria, she's down in Kyoto right now keeping a watch on your new body. It's almost done, believe it or not. So, you ready to become one of us?"

Aria gazes at Rinrin. "It's ready?!"

"Hai! All we gotta do is zap your soul into one of these," she holds up an ovoid crystal three centimetres long, it a mixture of diamond silver and ruby red, before the nanny's eyes, "...and you're on your way to a whole new world, Aria-chan!" she winks.

Aria blinks, then reaching over to touch the crystal, shudders as a gentle jolt of warmth surges through her neural net. "Oh..." she nearly faints in Chikage's arms, then rubs her forehead. "Oh, g-gomen nasai, Nee-ya...! Aria feels so strange..." she moans.

Setting Mister Bunny on the ground, Chikage poises her hands over Aria's head, the linkpoints on the back of the magi's hands out and glowing. Rinrin poises the reserve memory unit on Aria's forehead as Chikage whispers a spell. Aria sways, then her body locks up, the crystal in Rinrin's hand now glowing bright-white.

"Yoshi (Alright)!" Rinrin nods as Chikage draws her hands back, then hands the RMU to the magi as she pulls out her minicomp. Taking a cable, she plugs that into the back of the stilled nanny's neck, then loads a disk before tapping controls. "Better get the animorph there, Chikage."

"Hai," Chikage scoops up Mister Bunny, carrying him to the Mark Six before reaching in to draw up ANOTHER Mister Bunny, this one not as active as the real McCoy. Returning, Chikage waits for Rinrin to program the new AI, then when she unplugs her minicomp, nods. The replacement Mister Bunny is set down at Aria's feet, then Rinrin and Chikage back off from them.

Aria sits up, then rubs her forehead, disregarding the 33-S's nearby. "Oh, Aria passed out," she says, then scooping up Mister Bunny, heads for the tram stop to take her to the train station for the ride back to Ichikawa. The nanny takes no notice of Rinrin or Chikage. As soon as she is out of hearing range, Rinrin winks as she and Chikage return to the Mark Six, the magi scooping up the real Mister Bunny as she teleports to Kyoto. Rinrin boards her car, then guides it back to Megatokyo...

* * *

The Kyoto Annex, three hours later...

"Ooooh...! Where am I...?"

Haruka's eyes flutter open as her vision focuses on the two smiling faces gazing down at her. "Welcome back, Haruka," Sakuya sighs and bends over to kiss the martial artist's cheek.

"Sakuya-san...?" Haruka moans, then freezes as something deep within her mind begins to whisper to her. "N-n-nan de...?!" she stammers, then her eyes widen in stunned shock before she blurts, "I'm one of you now?!!" she stares wide-eyed at Sakuya.

"There was no choice, Haruka. Gomen nasai," Marie lowers her eyes. "The damage to your body could've only been corrected with a LOT of intensive surgery. Even with that, you would've been most likely barred from practising martial arts ever again. The only way to give you a chance to get back on your feet right away was to...! Well, simply put, give you a brand-new body."

Haruka blinks, then sighs. "Soo ka..."

"How do you feel?" Sakuya gently probes.

Haruka hums, then lightly smiles. "Oh, my..."

"Haruka?" Marie probes.

"Gomen nasai, Marie-san," Haruka's cheeks start to redden. "But m-my housekeeping wetware -- is that what you call it? -- it sounds so much like Kaa-chan. It's like she never died..."

"As long as you remember her, she'll never truly die, Haruka," Sakuya squeezes Haruka's shoulder, then sighs. "Haruka...?"

"Nani?" Haruka hums, slowly sitting up.

"I've some bad news," Sakuya bows her eyes.

Haruka tenses as Sakuya tells her what happened, then shakes her head, tears spilling down her cheeks. "No...! No...! No, why?!!" she moans, then screams, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!"

She collapses into Sakuya's embrace, sobbing. Sakuya and Marie immediately move to comfort her...

* * *

Minutes later, Haruka is walked out of her guest bedroom by Sakuya and Marie, then escorted to an elevator for Rei Ijuuin's private lab below her office. Gazing out a corner window at the countryside around the Annex, with Kyoto to the north, Osaka and Kobe to the south-west and Nara due south, the martial artist sighs. "I've never been down here before..."

"Not even for school trips to Kyoto or Nara?" Sakuya asks.

"Iie," Haruka nods, then blinks as the car stops, the doors opening to reveal a tall blonde with brown eyes, now in a T-shirt and jeans. "Eh?! I-ijuuin-hakase...!!" she stammers, then bows before the non-voice in her head tells her something she'd NEVER would have believed. "Y-you...?!" she jolts up, her finger shakily rising as she points at Rei. "You're a...?"

"Boomeroid 33-S, just like you now," Rei nods (she had long ago come to grips with the many factors ruling her new life) then she waves Haruka off the car into the lab. "Don't be surprised, Haruka-chan. Yoshio-kun designed these bodies for boomeroid cases like you or I. In the meantime, there's someone who wants to see you," she indicates to her right, smiling.

Haruka blinks, then looks before a platinum-haired typhoon slams into her, knocking her over. "HARUKA!!!!"

The breath is knocked out of the poor woman as she shakes her head, then stares wide-eyed at who tackled her. "I..." her jaw drops in shock, then a delighted grin crosses her face. "Aria..." she whispers, then screams out "ARIA!!!!" as she swamps the reborn Aria Kimino with a tight hug. "Oh, gods, you're okay!!"

"S-so are you!" Aria sniffs back tears, then kisses Haruka's cheek. "I'm so glad you're alright, Haruka..."

Haruka blushes, then jolts. "Chotto matte (Wait a moment)!" she stares intently at Aria. "You always talk..."

"In third person," Aria winks. "Not anymore. Believe it or not, Haruka, I always hated talking like that!"

"I..." Haruka bows her head. "Gomen nasai..."

"Oi, it's not your fault!" Aria scolds, then claps her cheeks. "Oh, this is liberation for me!! I..." her voice trails off, then glancing around the laboratory, sighs. "Rinrin was right. This IS a brand new world for me! Gods, I...! Oh, arigatou, Rei-mama!!" she turns to embrace Rei. "Arigatou! Arigatou gozaimasu...!!"

"There, there, it's alright," Rei gently pats Aria's head, then turns to Sakuya. "Well, I'll leave the 'birds-and-bees' problem to you and Hinako-chan when she comes in, Sakuya-chan. There're hot reports on my desk itching for my signature."

The Child Companions groan. "VERY bad pun, Rei-mama!" Marie makes a face as the Annex Matriarch steps out of the room.

"What does that mean?!" Haruka stares quizzically at Sakuya.

"The one detriment (if you like to look at it THAT way) of these bodies we have, Haruka," Sakuya places a sympathetic hand on Haruka's shoulder. "Within the next twelve hours, the oestrogen levels in your body are going to go NUTS, which means that you're gonna be wanting to do the ecchi with someone. Hopefully her, of course," she indicates Aria.

Haruka jolts, then her cheeks flame. "C-can it...?"

"Be stopped? Nope," Rinrin shakes her head. "Yoshio-papa, Rei-mama, Auntie Yuina and some of the others've knocked themselves silly trying to fix it so we don't have to do the passion dance all the time, but it seems the only sure way to fix it is for all of us to be made a hundred percent organic. And for most of us, that just won't happen for some time yet."

"Besides, if you keep a positive attitude about it, it's not as embarrassing as you might think," Marie adds.

"Yeah, you should talk!" Rinrin sneers. "There're two dozen MKs up in Hakodate at that one orphanage for you to date. Don't you think ya oughtta settle down there some, Marie?!"

"My sex life, Rinrin, is NONE of your business," Marie glares at her, crossing her arms. "Then again, I wonder sometimes if you and Mecha-chan don't get it on every once in a while!"

Rinrin's eyes flash. "SAY WHAT?!?!"

"Minna, that's enough!!" Sakuya breaks in before a fight could start, then blinks as the lab doors open to reveal Hinako Saeru. "Oh, Hina, there you are! About time you came in!!"

"Ohayou, minna-chan," Hinako smiles, then seeing Aria, her eyes sparkle. "Oh, suuugoooi!" she skips over to slide an arm around the just-converted nanny's arm. "Hina's so glad that Aria's now like Hina! C'mon, c'mon, Aria's gotta have something to eat before Baka Yokkyuu-tama (Stupid Mister Itch) comes!! C'mon!"

"Aaah, Hinako...!!" Aria gasps as Hinako drags her out of the lab. "Haruka, help! She's a monster!! Save me!!!"

Haruka remains frozen as the doors close behind the pleading Aria, then her body shudders as a chi aura burning with pure love and equally pure jealousy appears around her. She races off after Aria, muttering something about people trying to poach her girl. Seeing this, Sakuya shakes her head, clicking her tongue amusedly as she moves to follow.

"This should be just innnnnnnnnteresting," she slurs, winking at her sisters. "Ja nai, minna."

"Have fun," Rinrin winks back...

* * *

Megatokyo, Lady's 663 Building, lunchtime...

"Oh, man, what smells so good...?"

"Konnichi wa, Priscilla-neesama!"

Priss looks around the kitchen in Sylia's penthouse, watching as Shirayuki Osamu draws out a tray full of piping hot cookies from the oven. Walking up, she takes in that wonderful aroma, then sighs. "Man, you really know how to cook, don'tcha?" she sits down as Shirayuki places the tray on a nearby cloth so it can cool off.

"I've been doing it since I was born, practically," Shirayuki smiles at her, then drawing off one of the heart-shaped treats, places that on a plate before putting that before Priss. Seconds later, a glass of orange juice appears beside it.

"Oi, I don't need this...!" the singer protests.

"If you want a beer or something silly like that, all you're putting into you are empty calories with little nutritional value," Shirayuki warns, wagging a motherly finger. "Cookies have sugar and carbohydrates, but I put fruit in them too, so you can try to get vitamins into you. You need them, Nee-sama, especially if you want to keep working at your career and helping Sylia-basama, too!"

Priss resignedly sighs as she pulls up the cookie and takes a nibble. She blinks again, then smiles. "Man, this is good!"

"Arigatou," Shirayuki beams.

Eating the cookies, Priss gulps down the juice as Shirayuki turns on the small radio by the window, adjusting the frequency to an AM station. A second later, a cultured man's voice rings out in English. "Ah, yokatta!! Reception's perfect," Shirayuki grins, then turns back to transferring cookies from baking tray to a larger plate so everyone can snack on them.

By then, Linna has come up from her guest room, nose twitching excitedly. "If what you made last night didn't convince me that you're as much a magician in the kitchen as Chikage-san is elsewhere, Shirayuki-chan, this would!" she snaps up one of the morsels, then gulps it down before her ears perk on hearing what was blaring from the radio. "Eh?! You listen to A Prairie Home Companion too?!" she stares at Shirayuki.

"My computer back at home records each episode straight off the LoopNet," Shirayuki blushes, then perks as the narrator reports on a farmer living near Lake Wobegon who this week is attempting to track down a runaway boomer farmhand. "That guy is SUCH a jerk!!" Shirayuki sighs. "He always keeps hurting and hassling Dennis-san because he's got a crush on that waitress at Sidetrack Tap!"

"Poor guy," Linna sighs. "I hope he makes it to Canada this time! Pity Suzette-san can't try to get away and live with him!"

"What is this, anyway?!" Priss protests, her mind swirling as she tries to keep up with the banter. "Some weird soap opera?!"

"Oh, it's a radio drama from IPR (International Public Radio), Priss," Linna explains. "Started up years ago by a radio announcer from Minnesota named Garrison Keillor. It talks about life in the American countryside and all that. I try to never miss a show."

The singer's eyebrow arches. "I've never even heard of IPR. What the hell is that anyway?" she hums.

"It's an expanded version of the NPR (National Public Radio) concept from the United States mixed with ideas that streamed out of multi-ethnic television/radio stations from Canada," Shirayuki explains, nibbling on a cookie. "It's co-sponsored by the United Nations and Toratotaka. It's a way of allowing people from around the world to learn about other people and cultures without the propaganda and commercial slant you might get from television or places on the Net. I've always liked this show."

Priss hums, then shakes her head, rising to leave. "Sure ain't my cup of tea," she sighs, walking out of the room.

Linna and Shirayuki watch her go, then sigh. "Your friend really has a lot of problems, Nee-sama," the latter muses.

"You can say THAT again," the former shakes her head...

* * *

Misato, north of Megatokyo, that moment...

"Are you SURE that was necessary, Sensei?!"

Shion Kimino looks up sharply, then sighs. Standing across from him is one of his laboratory assistants, Seigo Nagao. "Hai, it was more than necessary," the older scientist sighs, his fingers twitching as he turns to gaze out the window at Pharmaplus' primary food processing and distribution facility; Shion's private office was located in a separate building. "As soon as those idiots in Zonecorp discovered what happened to Mueller, we had to act to protect ourselves and what we're trying to do here."

"I can understand, sir, but there's been no sign whatsoever of Tenhiro-hakase's daughter since she was wounded yesterday," Seigo warns. "All our agents have reported nothing."

"Even from the police?" Shion demands.

"We don't have agents there, much less the Interior Ministry," Seigo shakes his head. "Right now, they're so damned tight-lipped about what goes on in ADP, it isn't funny! Then again, given the crap Genom's been heaping on them over the last few years, it's not so surprising."

"When she is found, deal with her. And make damn sure of it this time!" Shion instructs. "Off with you."

"Hai," Seigo nods, then heads out.

The older scientist watches him go, then shakes his head as he turns to his computer, calling up a small file. Staring at the information there, Shion shakes his head. "They wouldn't really understand why," he whispers, closing his eyes. "Not at all."

If people learned what happened, terms like "mass murderer" and the like could be used for Shion Kimino. He didn't care. What he was doing was important -- no, NECESSARY! -- for the human race's survival, not to mention Earth's future as a life-sustaining world.

Now, if statistics were accurate, the world's population stood at over eight billion people, showing an annual growth rate of under two percent. In Asia, five billion people (sixty percent of that in China and India ALONE!) lived. Africa, scene of the Equatorial Bio-war where five hundred MILLION people died, was even worse off. From a 2012 population of 1.3 billion, it dipped to below a billion by 2018, then recovered so quickly that as of now, over two billion souls crowded that continent.

Advances in food production and medical knowledge didn't help things. In fact, in places, it made matters worse! Life expectancy in the poorest nations in Africa had slipped over 50 years in the Bio-war's wake. And with a sharp drop of infant mortality rates, demands on the global food supply were rapidly increasing by the hour. Even more so, with the coming of combat boomers, warfare's brutal routine attrition of overall population had almost all but vanished from the world's hot spots.

Thinking like this didn't make Shion Kimino an evil man, not in his eyes. Were there more humane ways of doing this, he would gladly go find them. But the situation was becoming critical, screaming for drastic action. Space colonies at the most could take up a scant few THOUSAND per unit. With commercial interests fighting each other out of an insane thirst for money, construction of colonies like USSD's Alpha Two moved at a snail's pace. And terraforming worlds like Mars would take DECADES before migration could finally take the pressure off Earth's resources.

By then, what?

What had happened in the Philippines over was a very hopeful sign, a first step towards bringing mortality rates to move well past birth rates. Thanks to moronic socio-religious codes too many people elsewhere followed even subconsciously, the use of contraceptives was seriously verboten. How do you fight against years of social custom? Simple, logical explanations didn't work. And demonstrating the true horrors of recent history just made people too numb, left them yearning for simpler times.

So what then?

Shion's solution, put into motion a year ago with the help of hidden allies worldwide, was elegant. It preyed on the vanity of those selfish multitudes who wanted easy solutions to their health problems. This plague didn't have Ebola's brutal swiftness. It wouldn't bring forth a numbing cultural earthquake a worldwide AGH epidemic might unleash. But it would kill everyone it touched. If you caught vCJD, you died from it, especially the hyper-charged version Pharmaplus' chemists devised. Even more, it was a disease in which research towards a cure was still only in its infancy.

The Philippines was only an experiment, the first tentative step on the road to worldwide salvation, Shion sighs. Pharmaplus was in the midst of acquiring several food producers around the globe. From there, the experiment would spread, flowering like a mushroom infestation to erode the useless flesh slowly starving humanity out. Once the chemical "fungi" he unleashed was finally done, there would be room to replenish the soil and seas, breathe new life into a planet that had been made to give up so much.

And if history judged against him? That didn't matter, Shion Kimino concluded long ago. He didn't care for history and what it said. He cared for the future, giving humanity a future it deserved despite its collective short-sightedness. Let them denounce him to their hearts' content. When people didn't have to live in fear of food shortages, when a planet wasn't on the brink of resource exhaustion, he would be ultimately vindicated...

* * *

"Aria-san, what are you doing here?"

"Gomen nasai," Aria gently smiles. "Aria came down to visit her papa's friends and see how they're doing."

Hearing that, Seigo Nagao grins as he exchanges a look with his co-worker, then turns back to his monitor. "Alright. And yes, Aria-san, we're doing fine. Where's your friend?"

"Haruka-neeya is busy right now down in Kyoto visiting some of her new friends," Aria smiles. "She called Aria and told Aria that she might come back tonight so she and Aria can go see a movie."

"Oh, that's nice," Seigo nods, making a mental note.

In the nanny's arms, Mister Bunny twitches, then hops to the ground, bounding off. "Aaah, Usagi-san, doko iku no (where are you going)?" Aria cries out as she moves to pursue.

Unseen by her, much less anyone else in the factory, Mister Bunny ducks under a table, then remains still. "Usagi-san?!" Aria calls out as she passes the table in question, looking around. The nearly-silent sound of rabbit's feet patting on the linoleum makes her turn right as Mister Rabbit bounds away. "Usagi-san!!"

She races off. Emerging from the other side of the table is a small black rat, no bigger than the palm of a child's hand. It scrambles into the monitoring room, where it ducks behind a computer, then stops before a modem cable. Part of the rat then seems to MELT as it cuts through the plastic to make contact with the copper and fibre-optic wires within...

* * *

The Kyoto Annex...

"We're in!!" Rinrin whoops, staring at the readout before her. Linking into Toratotaka's vast network of animorph spies was very much child's play (no pun intended) for the teen genius from Osaka. "Okay, let's do a stealth back-track and see what these guys are up to..." she taps controls to get the animorph presently linking into Pharmaplus' mainframe unit to spill all the company's secrets...

* * *

Lady's 663 Building...

"Sylia-san, look! We're linking into Pharmaplus right now!!"

Sylia walks over to stand behind Nene, both now relaxing in the main computer room. "How?!"

"Rinrin-san's somehow linked into Pharmaplus' main computer frame," Nene points to the screen. "She's mass-downloading things now into her computer. It's passing a copy here automatically."

"Wonderful!" Sylia grins. "When the download's complete, tell me, then we'll get everyone together and start looking it over."

"Yoshi!!"

* * *

That evening...

"Here you go, Nene-neeya."

"A-a-Aria-chan...!" Nene stammers, then takes her autograph book back, her cheeks flaming. "Arigatou..."

"Dou itashimashite (You're welcome)," Aria beams, then glances at a flustered Haruka, eyebrow arching. "Haruka?"

"I..." the martial artist stutters, then sighs, bowing her head. "Gomen nasai, Nene-anegimisama. I..."

"Forget it," Nene pats Haruka's shoulder. "In all effect, you were defending the person you love, Haruka-chan. And given that Aria-chan IS -- er, pardon me, WAS -- a boomer...!" she shrugs.

"Haaai," Haruka drawls, grinning.

"Aria?"

They turn to see Rinrin standing at the doorway of Nene's guest room. "What is it, Rinrin?" Aria asks.

"You better come in here. ALL of you," Rinrin's expression is very grim. "Auntie Sylia, Marie, Chikage and I're done looking over that stuff we got from Pharmaplus' computers."

The others follow Rinrin into Sylia's living room. With the other Sabres and Mackie are the other girls of Rinrin's clique, sitting in a circle. Chikage and Marie flank Sylia. "You wanted to see us, Sylia-baya?" Aria wonders as they sit.

Sylia sighs as Marie passes a minicomp over to Aria. "All that has happened in the Philippines and in Japan occurred because your father, Aria, sometime ago appointed himself humanity's 'saviour' by unleashing a vCJD plague in the most densely populated areas of the planet."

Aria gasps. "Nani?!!" her eyes widen as she pales.

"In other words, he's got it into his head that the only way to make sure people can have food to eat in the future is to kill off a couple billion of 'em," Priss growls.

"In layman's terms, he's loony!" Yotsuba rolls her eyes.

"Agreed," Marie rolls her eyes disgustedly. "If he wanted to unleash some sort of effective population control, infertility drugs or an influenza pandemic would work much better!"

Aria blinks, then stares at the minicomp. Nene leans over her shoulder as the nanny scrolls through the information. "Buying natural food manufacturers supplying to parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America...!" Nene pales, then gulps as the implications sink in. "All of these are producers of protein-rich foods..."

"Aria's father has yet to execute his full plan," Chikage announces. "What is now happening is a trial run of sorts. The results of that will clearly indicate how best to introduce a prion plague on other targets."

"If it is not stopped now, I expect that Pharmaplus will be ready to execute its full plan within a year's time," Marie adds.

"Ambitious fuckers, aren't they?!" Mamoru snarls.

"But I don't understand," Karen hums. "They can't possibly believe that they'd ultimately get away with it. I mean..."

"Maybe, Karen, they might not really care," Sylia cuts in, then stares at Aria. "I may not be sure about this. But I believe your father may himself be a victim of TSE poisoning."

Aria gazes at the Sabres' leader. "Papa's never struck me as ever being sick, Sylia-baya," she protests.

"In your original body, you might've been programmed to not notice the small shifts of behaviour that would herald the early onset of this disease," Sylia replies. "However, in the body you possess now, with the anti-tamper guards which are quite standard for your model, you won't fall for the same trick twice."

"Okay, so we know what's going on," Mamoru crosses her arms, a dangerous smile crossing her face. "I'm for going there as soon as possible and blowing the place straight to kingdom come!"

"You're not the only one, Mamoru," Priss snarls.

"We will have to wait a while, Mamoru," Chikage takes a deep breath, crossing her arms. "With the information we obtained from Pharmaplus, we know the locations of every storage basin like the one found this morning. Our first priority is to have those sites effectively neutralized so that Kimino-hakase cannot take people hostage to force us to back away."

"That's being done as we speak," Marie adds. "With the approval of the Interior Ministry, special teams of BCW-trained Cyber-Nurses, plus a Kuromoroboshi and two Guardsmen teams, augmented with troops of D-27 Castle Knight cyberdroids, have been deployed to deal with the target areas. I've spoken to Auntie Megumi about this. She'll call us when we're needed."

"What we need to do now is ascertain what the defences are like at the Misato works," Rinrin adds. "The AI I put into Aria's old body, in conjunction with the animorph spy I used to replace Usagi-san, is programmed to scan around the place, pick out the weak areas so that we ourselves could break in and take it down."

"ALL of you?!" Linna gapes, wide-eyed.

"All of us," Rinrin nods.

"But not all of you are...!!"

"So?!" Mamoru demands.

Sylia sighs. "Relax, Linna-san. Our guests come equipped with a very special ability which, if there are combat boomers awaiting us in Misato, would decidedly work in our favour."

"And what's that?!" Priss snorts.

"The Kawaii-kooka."

"The 'Kawaii Effect?!'" Nene's eyebrow arches.

The Child Companions laugh. "Yeah!!" Mamoru whoops. "As we like to say it, we'll 'kill 'em with cuteness!'"

Priss' eyebrow arches, then she shakes her head. "Oh, yeah, right, pull the other one!" she looks away, snorting.

"We have a doubting Thomas here," Chikage clicks her tongue. "Excuse me, I mean a doubting Tracy. A demonstration is clearly called for. Excuse me for a moment," she rises, then vanishes.

The Sabres are agog. "How does she DO that?!!" Priss demands.

"We stopped asking that a LONG time ago!" Kaho rolls her eyes.

Chikage reappears as soon as Kaho's voice dies off, but she is not alone. With her is a familiar face to some of the CCs, especially Aria and Haruka. "Koyuki-san?!!" both exclaim.

Koyuki bolts up, then glances around, her fingertip vibro-claws splaying as she tries to understand what just happened to her. "Where am I?!!" she spins, eyes flipping to infra-red as she tries to interpret who was who, then she locks on Aria. "Aria, what are you...?!" she jolts on seeing the woman beside Aria. "Haruka-san?!" she tenses, then surges at the martial artist, right arm rising as she moves to skewer Haruka's heart.

Priss' hand snaps for her Member Two, but is slapped down by Mamoru. Haruka bounds back as Aria places herself between her and Koyuki. The 33-C pauses as she moves to dodge around, then jolts as a pillow slams into her head. She spins to see a smiling Hinako there, one of the couch cushions in hand. Koyuki tenses as her mind runs through the tactical data, then she spins on Haruka. The pillow slams into her head again, then a foot trips her up, sending her to the floor. Koyuki gets back to her feet, turning on Hinako, then she jolts as the latter blows her a raspberry.

Growling, the 33-C raises her right hand, vibro-knives now locked on target. "HINAKO, LOOK OUT!!!" Priss yanks her hand clear of Mamoru's, then she snaps out her Member Two.

"WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!" < p>Everyone winces on hearing Hinako's wail. Koyuki stops, staring intently at the weeping Sexaroid. The intensive look on the 33-C's face then fades, replaced by confusion, then sadness. The vibro-claws withdraw back into Koyuki's arm as she kneels before Hinako, drawing the crying girl into a warm embrace. By then, Priss has aimed her pistol at the 33-C's head, but then it's knocked toward the ceiling by Mackie. "Wait!" the younger Stingray barks, then points to Koyuki, now comforting Hinako.

The singer looks. Where there had stood an emotionless razordoll no different than the blonde boomer bitch who killed Linna's friend Irene Chang, there now was a sweet young woman doing her best to bring comfort to a weeping girl. "What the fuck...?!"

"OI!!!" Koyuki glares daggers at her. "There ARE children present, you know!! Watch your language!!!"

"That's MY line, Koyuki-san!" Aria giggles.

Laughter fills the room, then Koyuki yelps as Hinako pinches her nose. "Koyuki-oneetama no baaaaka!" the latter laughs.

Koyuki jolts, then glares with mock-righteous anger at Hinako. "Hidoi yo (You're cruel), Hinako-san!"

Priss blinks, then lowers her weapon. "What the hell just happened?!" she turns on Sylia.

"Quite simple, Priss," the Sabres' leader smiles. "Each of the Child Companions comes equipped with the ability to project a specially-designed biomechanical pheromone that carries a benign yet unstoppable computer virus. The Kawaii Effect. When Koyuki was struck by the pheromones Hinako-chan projected, they wormed right into her brain and erased any thoughts or programs she might had which could drive her to bring harm to Hinako-chan. Or any other CC for that matter, much less anyone else who could be close to her," her eyes fall knowingly on Haruka.

Priss stares at her, then looks at Koyuki. The 33-C has a sheepish look on her face, then her cheeks redden as Hinako takes her hand. Seeing this, Priss sighs, then holsters her Member Two. "This is just TOO damned weird!" she mutters under her breath.

"Relax, Onee-chama," Kaho pats Priss' shoulder. "After all, it's a dangerous world! A girl's got a right to defend herself!!"

The singer stares at her, then nods. "Yeah, guess so..."

Rinrin's CVP then rings. "Hai, Rinrin desu. Oh, Auntie Megumi, it's you!" she beams on recognizing her caller.

"Hai, Rinrin-chan," the Megatokyo SFIO nods. "Our teams have secured all the hidden caches of prion-infested beef in Japan, plus we're rounding up all of Pharmaplus' informers. If you girls and Sylia's team wish to deal with Aria-chan's father, now's the best time. We've no idea when he'll realize the game's up."

"Yokatta!!" Rinrin cuts the link, then stares at the others. "Minna-chan, shall we par-TAY?!" her eyebrows arch.

"Let's rumble!" Mamoru grins...

* * *

Approaching Misato, 13 February, after midnight...

"So far, so good," Mackie stares at the controls as the Sky Carrier soars towards the Pharmaplus works, located to the west of the Jooban Expressway. "No radar's up, Nee-san."

"There wouldn't be any sort of aircraft detection radar here, Mackie-sama," Koyuki notes from the co-pilot's chair. Sylia stood behind the 33-C, glad that someone who was knowledgeable about Pharmaplus' inner security was with them. "The people in charge of security never anticipated the Knight Sabres, of all people, coming down to raid them. Clearly, Sylia-sama, given what you told me about what Kimino-hakase and his co-workers are planning, their self-confidence has blinded them to many things."

"We'll take advantage of that," Sylia nods, patting Koyuki's shoulder. "Pity we couldn't've converted you to an MX 33-M to help out on the ground. Anything you consider important as we head in, you tell Mackie right away. Wakaru (Understood)?"

"Hai, Sylia-sama, wakarimashita (I understand)."

"Yokatta," Sylia nods, then heads aft.

In the main compartment, the Sabres are suited up and checking weapons. With them are twelve Child Companion Sexaroids, presently preparing themselves in their own way. "Lucky thing we can use these things on field jobs," Mamoru hums as she draws the bolt lever on her Sambogong SBG-29 assault rifle, chambering a 15 millimetre armour-piercing round into the firing bed.

"I hate guns," Hinako mutters from beside Nene, tightly holding Mister Umbrella close. She was unarmed, as was Shirayuki; they would work together as a "distraction team" to draw off some of the perimeter guard boomers. Nene and Marie would stay close to them (both had SBG-29s) to help out in case things got hairy.

"Personally, I hate them myself, but they are pretty effective none the less," Nene sighs, staring enviously at the Korean-built anti-boomer/anti-armour rifle in her hands.

The SBG-29 was a loaner from an "emergency" cache Rinrin accessed in the Toratotaka Tower. This was Nene's first encounter with such a weapon. AD Police had, for as long as Nene had served, pressed the government to have Sambogong (Samguk-boan'gongsa [Three Kingdoms Security Services]) give them the necessary weapons to help them better deal with boomer crime. Such requests were ALWAYS turned down on the excuse that Japanese companies could make better weapons than their neighbours across the East Sea.

In fact, the import of Sambogong weapons was outlawed in Japan, though Toratotaka had ways of getting around that given the fact that many of the CCs with the Sabres tonight had SBG-29s. No doubt, Nene heard from Leon McNichol once, that was because the Kongoupgyoungch'algwan (Technical Police Force) in Korea was so successful in putting rogue boomers down, even in the northern provinces where Genom had as much influence as Samguk, the parent megacorp of Sambogong and seventh-largest megacorp on Earth.

"I bet a lot of guys on the force would be jealous that an 'office lady' like you got a chance to play with one of those beauties," Priss clicks her tongue, sitting across from Nene.

"Yeah, they would be, especially this one corporal in Daley's squad, Arwen Sakaki," Nene laughs, checking to ensure the safety was on. The tungsten-jacketed, steel-and-depleted uranium buckshot bullets the SBG-29 fired could tear through the Sabres' hardsuit armour easily, not to mention blowing a hole in the side of the Sky Carrier. "She's the most gung-ho fighter on the force."

Mackie's voice echoes over the intercom. "We're over the target now, minna!" he calls out. "Ganbatte (Good luck)!"

"We'll need it," Sylia nods as Chikage heads to the door.

The door is opened as the Sky Carrier assumes hover mode right over the Pharmaplus plant. Chikage glances out, then steps off, levitating to a point a hundred metres below the Sabres' craft. Casting a spell, she creates a fog bank that shields the Carrier from view. Sylia nods, then stares at those behind her. "Minna, let's go!!" she waves them out.

Sylia and Linna jet clear, dropping down to hover beside Chikage. Priss and Nene, whose hardsuits are only equipped with jets to control a long-range jump, make use of collapsible "hovercopters" Rinrin brought along just for the occasion, as do those CCs who don't have their own mode of transportation like Mamoru or Hinako. Everyone gathers around Sylia and Chikage as the magi forges a "crystal ball" spell to examine what awaits them. "Seems quiet..." Chikage hums, then turns to Sylia. "I suggest we move in now to take our places."

"Agreed," Sylia nods, then links up to the Carrier. "Five?"

"Hai, Two?" Mackie replies.

"Take cover position to the west side of the target zone."

"Wakata."

The link is cut, then Sylia faces the others. "Iko (Let's go)!" she waves them down to the target area.

With that, Nene, Marie, Hinako and Shirayuki jet off to land in the bushes to the east of the factory area. Karen, Sakuya and Yotsuba go to the south side, accompanying Sylia. Linna teams up with Haruka, Aria and Kaho, going to the north side, closest to where Shion Kimino kept his private offices; it was only natural for Aria to want a chance to confront her father about what was happening. Priss would team with Rinrin and Mamoru and come in from the west. Chikage remains free to deal with any sudden problems that might emerge as the attack moved on.

As they soar down, Rinrin draws up her CVP, then taps controls. "Time to start the fireworks!" she grins...

* * *

"Oh, dear...!" Aria (the AI now using Aria Kimino's original body) perks as Rinrin's signal comes in. "Aria must go."

Rising, she heads out of her private room, heading down the hallway and out of the recreation hall. She makes her way to the factory's power plant. Like most enterprises in Japan, Pharmaplus had its own privatized energy source to ensure that if there was a blackout in the public energy grid, nothing would be interrupted when it came to production.

Stepping inside, she smiles pleasantly at the lone technician watching over the status board. "Ohayou."

"Aria-chan?!" he stares quizzically at her -- everyone at Pharmaplus had met Aria at one time or another! -- then he smiles. "What are you doing here, anyway?! Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"Aria is not sleepy now," she smiles, then placing herself behind the technician, reaches up to rub his shoulders.

"Oi..." he gasps surprisedly, then, as a pulse of energy is fired right into his nervous system, passes out.

"Aria is sorry," she apologizes as she shifts the technician aside, then taps controls to make the generator within overload.

Once that is done, she turns, picking up the dazed technician, then she carries him to the door of the power plant building, a safe enough distance from the generator room. There was no need to see innocent people dead. Once the technician is safely secured, Aria sits down beside him to await Rinrin's next message...

* * *

"How long, Rinrin?"

"Almost...! NOW!!!"

A muffled explosion echoes through the air as most of the lights in the Pharmaplus works go out. Hiding now behind a small grove of trees, Rinrin smirks as surprised, angry shouts echo from nearby laboratories, then she stares at Mamoru and Priss. "We're in," she waves them on with her. "Let's par-tay!"

"You got it!" Mamoru hops on Wipeout as they head in...

* * *

"What is happening?!!" Shion Kimino demands, looking around his office, which was now only lit by emergency beacons.

"Explosion at the power plant I think, Kimino-hakase," his personal secretary looks up from her now-dead computer.

The scientist takes that in, then blinks as realization dawns. If someone had somehow stumbled onto what he was doing, it was only logical to target the factory power plant before launching an attack. "Alert the chief of security!!" he barks, moving to head out. "Get the security boomers out and ready just in case!"

"I..." she jolts as he runs out, then nods. "H-hai!!"

She turns to draw up her NAVI, then gasps as fingers tap her head, causing her to pass out. "Gomen ne, but I'm afraid I can't let you do that," Chikage chuckles as she lowers the secretary into her chair, then taking the NAVI in hand, links into it with her datajacks. Seeing the machine was clean of questionable data, she disables the transmit function, then places the NAVI on the desk before teleporting away...

* * *

"Blackout?!!"

Seigo Nagao looks up from his desk, then rises, running to the window to see people in the courtyard glancing about, some shouting questions about what to do now. Cursing himself, he moves out of his office, glancing up and down dark hallways. Other workers were coming out of their offices, demanding to know what was going on. "Calm down, people!!" he barks, then moves to head outside.

Stepping into fresh air, he sighs, then jumps as something drops down in front of his eyes, crackling with energy. Blinking, he gasps at the sight of a woman in a green hardsuit now standing on a ledge overhanging the door he just stepped through. "I'm afraid, Nagao-san, you're coming with me," Linna's modulated voice announces as she bounds to the ground, snaring Seigo in a headlock as her thruster pack boosts them into the air.

Seigo screams as Linna lands on the roof of the building, dropping the scientist to the concrete as she draws back the monomolecular cutting ribbons. Before Seigo could scramble back to his feet and try to escape, slender hands grab one of his, then he is flipped face-first into an air vent. Groaning as he collapses to the concrete again, he looks over, then gasps on seeing who now stood there. "H-haruka...?" he stammers, then gags, petrified as the sharp tip of a gleaming naginata touches his head.

"Ohayou, Nagao-hakase," Haruka mercilessly smiles. "I have a question for you. Was it you that ordered my father's death?"

Seigo stammers an incoherent answer. Taking in his reaction, Haruka's eyes flash as she draws out a silver gunsen from behind her, flipping it open to let him see the sharp edges of each fan leaf. Footsteps draw his eyes away from Haruka to stare into Aria Kimino's eyes. "A-aria, m-make her st-stop...! OUCH!!!" he yelps as Haruka's naginata makes a cut into the side of his cheek.

"No, I'm NOT going to make her stop," Aria crosses her arms as Seigo then notices the dark jumpsuit she now wore. "As a matter of fact, I'd like that question answered myself, Nagao-hakase." She leans into his face. "Why was Naoto-ojisan killed yesterday?!"

Seigo leans back, shuddering as he feels something wash over him. "I...! I...!" he gargles, then tenses on hear a snap-hisssss! from his left. Turning, he pales on seeing another girl, looking the same age as Aria, with a BATON in hand, both ends tipped with a glowing energy blade a metre long. "N-no..."

"Nagao-hakase. You're not answering our question," Kaho sweetly smiles as she tilts one chi blade toward his face.

Seigo looks one way. Haruka with naginata. Another way. Aria with one of the Knight Sabres now beside her. Yet another way. Another girl with something straight out of Star Wars.

"M-mother..." he burbles...

* * *

The east side...

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's man!
Make me a cake as fast as you can!
Pat it and prick it and mark it with 'B!'
Put in the oven for Baby and me!

Security boomer JS-17 turns its head, its processors immediately identifying it as two young women speaking. Activating its thrusters, the C-55 flies to investigate, signalling its wingmen, JS-04 and JS-12, of its intent. Peripheral sensors quickly mark Four's and Twelve's positions as Seventeen drops down beyond the fence marking Pharmaplus' property. The chanting noise was coming from beyond a grove of sakura trees.

Turning a corner, the boomer stops on seeing two girls in dark combat suits trimmed in red, kneeling facing each other. As they chant the song, they clap their hands, then clap each other's right hands, then each other's left hands, then their own...

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's man!
Make me a cake as fast as you can...

Seventeen, were it under organic disguise, would likely frown on seeing this. What were these two girls, both junior high school students despite the clothing, doing out here in the bushes alone?

Were they playing some silly organic game?

Someone dared them to compete in a strange survivor exercise?

Perhaps they were sexually intimate and the strange chant was some sort of emotional foreplay?

What...?

Pat it and prick it and mark it with 'B!'
Put in the oven for Baby and me!

They seem so happy! wafts through Seventeen's mind as it hunches down, not wanting to frighten the girls. The combat boomer knew well how most organics feared its kind. How they would panic, fearing for their lives, then run away. Not that Seventeen would attack someone outside the bounds of Pharmaplus' property; it just wasn't right since they technically weren't trespassing...

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I've been to London to look at the Queen!
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair!

Oh, a new chant! Seventeen powers down its weapons systems as it senses Four and Twelve crouch down beside it, their systems also powering down so they could listen more closely...

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I've been to London to look at the Queen...

"They're very pretty," Four muses.

Twelve shushes the other boomer...

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair!

"Would you care to join us?"

The three C-55s turn to see another girl likewise dressed as the two chanters standing to their right, smiling. Without another word, the girl offers her hand to Seventeen. The boomer shudders as that tender grip tugs at its hand, then it follows her into the clearing. Not wanting to be left out, Four and Twelve move to follow, sending a signal to the other security boomers for them to converge at this place so they can hear the chant...

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey!
Along came a spider who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away!

* * *

"Status report, One?"

Nene crouches in the bushes to the south of where Shirayuki and Hinako sat, her SBG-29 rifle at the ready. Marie's rifle laying beside her just in case the boomers gathering around Marie, Shirayuki and Hinako got ornery. Watching as three C-55s kneel before the three CCs, then start chanting Little Miss Muffet, Nene shakes her head. In all her years dealing with boomers, she had NEVER, EVER seen something quite like THIS!

"One, this is Two. Are you alright?"

Nene shakes her head, keying her link. "Oh, gomen nasai, Two. I...! Um, all's okay here. The diversion's..."

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey...!

"...um...! Well..." Nene stammers.

Along came a spider who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away!

"By the sounds of it, things are going well," Sylia muses.

Nene lowers her rifle. "H-hai, you can..." she feels her voice fade off as a new chant begins...

Hey, diddle, diddle! The cat and the fiddle!
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon!

"That makes no sense!" one of the C-55s exclaims.

"It's not supposed to," Hinako chuckles. "Try again!"

Hey, diddle, diddle! The cat and the fiddle!
The cow jumped over the moon...

"Two?" Nene sighs.

"Yes, One?" Sylia replies.

The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon!

"Don't you wish all kids were like them?"

"All the time," Sylia quietly chuckles...

* * *

The west side...

An explosion rips through a wall of the Special Research lab, exposing tanks full of fluid to Priss, Rinrin and Mamoru. Those tanks are presently monitored by a platoon's worth of plain-looking men and women in lab coats and jumpsuits. General Service-Retail boomers, Priss is quick to recognize them. You saw the things every day in corner grocery stores, restaurants, bars, nightclubs and dozens of other places. Growling, she charges up her railgun, her suit's targeting sensors picking out the ones she'd shoot first. Goddamned turkey shoot, the singer icily grins.

"Anee, don't!!" Mamoru's voice cuts through her concentration.

Priss stops, then watches as those weird diamond crystals she once saw on the Kuromoroboshi appear on Mamoru's and Rinrin's arms and faces. The boomers before her jolt as something washes over them. Lucky for the CCs, even with the ragged hole in the wall, the lab was an environmentally cordoned-off space. The laboratory assistants' facial expressions soften. Exchanging a knowing look, Mamoru and Rinrin walk over, allowing themselves to be gently swarmed by the laboratory assistants, many cooing "Kawaii so, ne (Aren't they cute)?!" as they moved to touch them, hold their hands, even -- if they were really lucky! -- hug them.

Priss stands nearby, totally taken aback by what she was seeing, then she tenses on hearing someone walk up behind her. "Ah, I see our friends are getting acquainted with the hired help," Sylia clicks her tongue amusedly as she stands beside Priss.

In Sylia's wake, Karen and Sakuya step inside, then walk up to help Mamoru and Rinrin keep the laboratory assistants within the Kawaii Effect's thrall. Yotsuba heads to the tanks to begin examining their contents with her spy glass and a tricorder. Priss gazes at her friend, then the boomer love-in before her, then shakes her head. "Sylia, this is just TOO weird!"

"You get used to it after a while," Sylia sighs, then keys in her comm-link. "One, this is Two. What's your status now?"

Pause, then, "Um...! They're on Georgie, Porgie right now, Two," Nene helpfully notes, then chuckles.

Sylia tries not to laugh. You were always guaranteed an amusing situation around the Child Companions. "How many security boomers are with Lady Mycroft, Mary Poppins and Petite Chef now?"

"Um...! About twenty...! Chotto (wait)! Twenty-six!!"

"Soo ka," Sylia hums. "Five?"

"Hai, Two," Mackie calls down from the Sky Carrier.

"Lady Mycroft's team have twenty-six security boomers with them now. Does our new friend believe that'll be all?"

"Wait one," Mackie cuts the link to talk to Koyuki, then comes back on. "We can see another ten C-55s heading her way now, Two. We've done a scan of the security hardpoints. They're all unoccupied. Oh, ADP's been alerted. They're on their way. ETA the main gate about ten minutes."

"No doubt, Regina Prime had something to do with that," Sylia sighs. "Thank you, Five. Three, what's your status?"

"Lady Lancer and Mademoiselle Fleur are interviewing our prisoner now, Two," Linna replies. Lady Lancer and Mademoiselle Fleur are Haruko's and Aria's callsigns. "According to him, he has no idea if Fleur's father has been struck with vCJD."

"Soo ka. Where's Baton Dancer?"

"She's gone off to meet up with Black Maiden. They're going to look for Fleur's father now."

"Wakata."

Yotsuba walks up. "Find somethin'?" Priss asks.

"Minna-chama, we've just hit the motherlode!" Yotsuba pulls up a small packet of datadisks. "The chemical analysis and all the trial tests with the prions they cooked up for what went down in the Philippines. Enough evidence here to put almost half the scientists in this company away for a long, LONG time!"

"Fuckin' A!!" Priss whoops.

"Um...! Yotsuba-san?"

They turn as a female GS-R walks up, her eyes bowed low. "Hai?" Yotsuba gazes intently at her.

"Um...! Rinrin-san, Mamoru-san, Karen-san and Sakuya-san told us about...! What the contents of these tanks contain and what they're meant for," the laboratory tech flusters. "I...! W-we had no choice but to do as they told us," she stammers before the reassuring squeeze of Yotsuba's hand calms her. "What would you want us to do with what is here?"

"Secure everything. And make DAMN sure no pure-organic gets in here to muck up the evidence before ADP arrive," Yotsuba tells her, then looks at Sylia. "How soon'll they be here?"

"About eight minutes," the Sabres' leader replies.

"Yokatta!" Yotsuba nods, then turns back to the GS-R lab assistant. "Don't worry about you guys or the security boys out by the east side. You'll all be taken care of."

"Hai, Yotsuba-san, wakarimashita," she bows, then heads back to join her other friends.

Yotsuba clicks her tongue, then gazes at Sylia and Priss. "Simple case, simply solved. Except for Aria's dad, that is."

Sylia nods in agreement. "I believe Chikage and Kaho are going out to deal with Kimino-hakase as we speak..."

* * *

Shion Kimino shudders, backing away from the glowing energy blade aimed at his throat. He had been trying to make his way to the executive parking garage to escape when one of Rei Ijuuin's child Sexaroids, K. EIGO written in Romanji on her nametag, appeared out of nowhere to stop him. He tried to bully his way past, but seeing her produce a cheerleader's baton which actually was a two-bladed LIGHTSABRE stopped him dead in his tracks.

"How could you do that, Kimino-hakase?" Kaho demands. "Kill hundreds of people, threaten to kill MILLIONS more, all just to put some sort of control on population growth?! How?!!"

Shion shudders, trying to muster an answer, then he jolts as a bone-chilling blast of icy air slices through him from behind. He slowly turns, then gags on seeing Chikage Hirosaki standing there with arms crossed, the lack of emotion on the magi's face adding more to the cold feeling in his heart. "You deemed yourself a judge of humanity's future, Shion Kimino," Chikage announces as she shifts her cape from her shoulders, it billowing as if it was caught over a street vent. "You decided, uncaring of those who were and would have been your victims, that their deaths were necessary to serve a 'greater good.' Mother Nature already does much to keep the ecological and spiritual balance among all Her Creations, Professor. She does not need you to interfere."

Shion gags, then vainly tries to firm himself. "Who gives you the right to say that to me?! You're just a boomer!!!"

"Maybe," Chikage lifts her cloak. "But you have no right to judge me, just like you've no right to judge those who died thanks to you. Now learn what it is like to be judged yourself!"

The cape flips over Shion as Kaho draws her lightsabre away, then he is teleported off. As the link with the Spiral fades, Kaho winces on hearing an unholy shriek of terror from Shion Kimino, he now confronting the massed souls of Megatokyo's dead. Chikage pays it no mind...

* * *

Minutes later...

"What are you girls doing here?!!"

"Oi, Uncle Leon, you guys made good time!" Mamoru whoops as a storm of ADP troopers marches into the laboratory. Sylia and Priss had left for the Sky Carrier just as the first ADP vehicle drove in. "We got the motherlode for ya tonight!! Right, girls?!" she stares at her sisters.

"Right!!!" Karen, Sakuya, Rinrin and Yotsuba chant.

"What's this all about?!" Daley Wong inquires. "Megumi-san gave us a call and told us to get up here as fast as we could drive. What were the Sabres doing here anyway?"

"Oh, sumimasen!" Karen blushes. "We hired them to help us on this case. But I think Aria'd best explain it to you."

She glances over her shoulder as Aria and Haruka enter, lugging a hog-tied Seigo Nagao, he peaceful thanks to Haruka's naginata blade at his throat. "Ah, the Police!!" Aria beams. "Sumimasen, McNichol-kichou (Captain McNichol), but I would like to report a serious crime."

Leon tenses. A look at Aria's jumpsuit marked her as the latest to become a CC series 33-S. "How serious, Kimino-san?"

"Concerning weapons of mass destruction."

Hearing that, the ADP officers gag. "Shit...!" Leon groans, stunned, then he turns to his communications sergeant. "Get on the phone to the Ministry!! Get Ozawa-san here NOW!!!!"

"Hai!!" the younger officer salutes, then races off.

"Where's your father, Aria-san?" Daley wonders.

Aria's eyes widen as a thump! of a body hitting the floor echoes from beside her. She looks down to see her father in a fetal position, his skin pale after several minutes' exposure to the Spiral's very core. Standing over him is a grim-faced Chikage Hirosaki. "You were asking for this person, Uncle Daley?"

Leon stares at the babbling scientist, then Chikage. "What the hell did you just do to him, Chikage?" he crosses his arms.

"Something to ensure he tells of what he intended for many people around the world," Chikage turns to leave, her eyes narrow. "When he does recover, Uncle Leon, be so kind as to warn him that if he does NOT reveal what he knows -- or if he attempts to escape punishment through whatever tricks his lawyer could unleash -- I will be VERY happy to grant him a special repeat performance."

She vanishes in a flourish of her cape. The others shudder, then Rinrin whistles. "I've NEVER seen Chikage THAT pissed!!"

"Neither have I," Daley sighs.

"Yo, Daley!!"

The commander of Tac Two focuses on Arwen Sakaki, a green-eyed strawberry blonde tomboy. "What is it, Arwen?"

"Pal, you GOTTA come out and see this!" she waves her with him, her eyes rolling with annoyed amusement.

Daley and the others head outside, then stop on seeing over thirty C-55 boomers now on their knees, sitting in a circle around Marie Susumu, Shirayuki Osamu and Hinako Saeru (now joined by Kaho Eigo), all clapping as they repeat a familiar children's chant:

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's man!
Make me a cake as fast as you can!
Pat it and prick it and mark it with 'B!'
Put in the oven for Baby and me!

Seeing this, everyone falls over laughing...

* * *

Lady's 663 Building, 14 February, morning...

"I believe these rightfully belong to you now."

Sylia smiles contently as she takes the two bankbooks marking the rest of the payment owed to the Sabres for the previous day's job from Chikage, then confirming their amounts, sets them aside. "Thank you very kindly, Chikage. So how is everyone?"

The magi takes a seat. "Well, all the laboratory assistants and the security boomers from Pharmaplus will be turned over to the Cyber-Nurse Project later today. All of them, along with Koyuki-san, will be converted into 33-Ms, then dispersed wherever they're needed. Turns out that all the C-55s who dealt with Marie, Shirayuki and Hinako all want to become MK series daycare nurses." Chikage's eyes roll. "They just can't WAIT to start teaching kids all those songs the girls sang."

Sylia tries not to laugh, then sits back in her chair. "What about Haruka and Aria? What'll happen to them now?"

"From what Auntie Megumi told me last night, Genom, Siamalay and Toratotaka will take over joint-stewardship of Pharmaplus as things are cleaned out, then the company will be allowed to go its own way," Chikage sighs. "As for Zonecorp, Haruka automatically inherited all of her father's stocks. Yoshio-papa and Rei-mama'll serve as Haruka's legal guardians until she comes of age, then she'll get full control over her father's stocks. There will be a clean-out of those who helped Aria's father from Zonecorp, though."

"Genom might one day want to buy the company out," Sylia warns. "I don't think Haruka would want that to happen."

"I doubt it will happen. At least, not for some time yet," Chikage muses. "One of my abilities is a limited precognitive skill. From what I've been able to divine, Genom is about to undergo a serious shakeup in the next several months, the repercussions of which will be far-reaching."

Sylia tenses. "Dangerous?"

Chikage shakes her head. "I cannot say much further at this time, Aunt Sylia," she rises. "Predicting the future is difficult even for those whose sole paranormal ability IS precognition, let alone a multi-powered sentient such as myself. In the meantime, we're all getting together for a picnic sometime this afternoon, so I have to go. Oh, sumimasen, I forgot," she reaches into her cape, then draws out a wrapped box, placing it before Sylia. "Giri choko (Obligation Chocolates). Shirayuki prepared them for all of you. Happy Valentine's Day, Aunt Sylia. Ja nai."

Before Sylia could reply, Chikage disappears. The Sabres' leader blinks, then sighs. "I really wish those girls would stop call me 'aunt,'" she sinks into her chair...

* * *

Shinjuku, the Shinjuku-gyoen (Shinjuku Gardens), later...

"So they're keeping it all hush-hush, huh?"

Twelve CC series 33-S's sit around one picnic table, enjoying some sweets and a picnic lunch Shirayuki prepared for them. "Hai," Rinrin nods. "Instant Aria said, 'Weapons of mass destruction,' and Uncle Takumi was called into it, they had the Army's local NBCD team there so fast, it made everyone's heads spin."

Eyes fall on the newest of the CC series 33-S's, now sitting beside her girlfriend, they holding hands. "At least more people won't die from what Papa tried to create," Aria shakes her head, then turns to Marie. "Did they find out if he has that disease?"

"No, he tested clean. But I think they'll do a confirmation test in a few days just to make sure," Marie closes her eyes.

"No doubt, he won't repent for what he did even after Chikage sheep-dipped him into the Spiral," Mamoru makes a face. "Shit, no offense, Aria, but where do people like that come from, anyway?!"

"It's one of the less-desirable stories when it comes to humanity's growth and expansion," Chikage sips her tea. "Complex problems such as overpopulation and food supply require complex solutions, something few are willing to devote all their time into resolving. I suspect that as long as there are people out there who don't get enough to eat (and if such famines make it to the six o'clock news), people like Aria's father will come forth and offer 'clean' solutions to erase such images from the TV screen."

"Sick," Sakuya snorts, then blinks before smiling, standing up and waving. "Oi, Linna-oneesama, Nene-oneesama!! Chotto!!!"

Eyes turn as Linna and Nene spin around from a nearby ice cream kiosk, then grin as they walk up, soft cones in hand. "Oi, what are you guys doing out here today?!" Linna chuckles as people shift around to make room for her and Nene.

"Oh, just a little victory celebration for what we had to go deal with," Marie winks. "Chikage delivered the rest of the money to Sylia-obasama earlier on, so you'll all get paid soon."

"Where's Priss-anee?" Mamoru asks.

"Probably sleeping off from last night's work at Hot Legs," Nene shakes her head. "First chance in a while that she got to do some ordinary work and she totally exhausted herself."

"She needs to put herself on a good diet," Shirayuki sighs. "If she keeps drinking nothing but beer and skips meals, she'll be of no use to the rest of you before long. Oh, chotto, I forgot," she leans over to draw out two wrapped boxes from a plastic bag, then hands them over. "Giri choko."

The two Sabres take the gifts in hand, their cheeks reddening. "Girls, you don't have to...!" Linna flusters.

"Don't you have boyfriends at least?!" Nene wonders.

The CCs laugh. "We're all functionally bisexual, Nene-aneki," Rinrin smirks. "Besides, we prefer to give gift chocolates to our friends. And you two are that, not to mention Priscilla-aneki."

"Even if she's a simophobe at heart," Yotsuba makes a face.

"Best not say that in front of her, Yotsuba-chan," Nene warns. "Priss HATES that word like nothing else in the world! It implies that she's scared of boomers. She's not. She just hates them."

"Hatred and fear are two elements of the same coin, Ane-kun," Chikage warns. "But don't worry. I teleported a box of giri choko over to her trailer after I spoke with Aunt Sylia."

"Big question: will she touch it?" Mamoru smirks.

Hearing that, everyone laughs, then Sakuya gazes at Haruka and Aria. "Speaking of giri choko, when are we going to see you two lovebirds finally exchange your gifts?" she muses, eyebrow arched.

Hearing that Haruka and Aria are intimate, Nene and Linna exchange surprised looks. Aria blinks, then gasps as a wrapped box is thrust before her. "Doozo, Aria," Haruka sweetly smiles.

"Haruka..." the ex-nanny blushes, then takes the box, opening it to see a chocolate heart, a hand-written "H" and "A" etched into it, then pulling it out, she notices a small card laying there. "Eh?! What's this?" she picks it up, then opens it: "I give my heart -- my soul -- my body -- all of me, of my free will, to you and only you, Haruka Tenhiro -- now and for the rest of our lives."

Staring at the note, Aria doesn't notice the look of delighted surprise flowing across Haruka's face, much less the dropped jaws on over half the CCs around the. "This I swear by all I believe in the name of all our sisters. What does...?!"

She pauses as it hits her, then stares wide-eyed at Haruka before the latter's flushed, passionate look freezes her in place. "Ah...! Oh, my! Oh, dear...!" Aria stammers.

Before Aria could react any further to her giving Haruka the promise oath, the latter snares her in a tight hug, then drowns her with a VERY passionate kiss. Aria burbles as she tries to catch her breath, then melts in her now-fiancee's arms. Watching this, the others grin at the situation Aria now finds herself in. "Could that be considered a 'freely-given' promise oath?" Mamoru asks.

"Search me!" Rinrin shrugs.

"Oh, don't fret about it at all, Mamoru-sama..."

Eyes turn as Aria pulls away from Haruka, then leans across the table to kiss Mamoru on the cheek. "Mamoru-sama wa itsu mo Aria no hiiroo de yo (Mamoru-sama will always be Aria's hero)."

"Aw, Aria...!" Mamoru flushes, then hums, eyebrow arching. "Well, if I'm to be that, would you or your fiancee mind if I gave you away when you two finally handfast?" her eyebrow arches.

THUD!!

THUD!!

"Nene-oneetama, Linna-oneetama, daijoubu?!" Hinako cries out as the others see Nene and Linna flat on their backs.

"'F-f-f-fiancee?!' 'H-h-h-handfast?!'" the two Sabres moan.

Everyone laughs...

* * *

Later...

"You know, it's kinda funny, isn't it?"

The CCs head toward the west gate of Shinjuku-gyoen, where the Yoyogi JR station is located. Nene and Linna had left sometime earlier to head in for work. "What is, Rinrin?" Karen asks.

"That we addressed Priscilla-aneki, Nene-aneki and Linna-aneki as if they were 33-S's like us," Rinrin scratches the back of her head. "I mean, soon as I thought about it, I did an MFS scan of them and Aunt Sylia just to make sure. Except for the neurophages in Aunt Sylia's head, they all checked out clean. How come...?"

"How many of you are aware of OPLAN Jericho?"

Eyes turn to Chikage. "What does that mean, Chikage?" Hinako asks, drawing Mister Umbrella closer to her.

"Well, how many of you know of it?" the magi repeats.

"That's the fall-back plan Obaa-sama and the Board of Elders devised with Negako-jousama's help to destroy Genom should things ever evolve in that direction," Marie replies. "Why?"

"Given their desire to stand against Genom, the Sabres were earmarked in a very special way to help out should OPLAN Jericho be initiated to its full extent," Chikage reports, then closes her eyes as she mentally transmits a picture to her sisters.

They pale as the implications hit. "No way...!!" Mamoru hoarsely gasps, vocalizing the others' feelings.

"It's true," Chikage calmly nods. "Besides, we know how much Yoshio-papa cares for Aunt Sylia and her friends. Did you really expect him to do anything less than THAT?!"

The others exchange looks, then shudder as the images of 33-S replacement bodies for the Knight Sabres stored in cryostasis in a secret lab in the Nerima Tower flash anew in their minds...

The End

**** **** ****

WRITER'S NOTES:

1) This vignette is set two months after the third OVA. It concentrates on the CC series 33-S's, specifically those named after characters from Sister Princess (shortformed "Sispri"). Tanya is named after a character from the Hudson Soft Dreamcast game Kita-e. White Illumination. This story is also inspired by An Icon's Life by Adrian Tymes. Kudos to him!

2) Note that in Sispri, the characters do not have family names. All the ones indicated above are chosen by myself.

3) In Sispri, the characters use variations of the term for "big brother" to address the player. When the words are written on the screen, a mix of kanji, hiragana and katakana is used depending on the person in question. Thus, as it applies in Illusions, the exact forms of address these CCs would use concerning those they'd see as "big sisters" varies:

Karen Tanenobu...Onee-chan (hiragana, "nee" in kanji)
Kaho Eigo...Onee-chama (hiragana, "nee" in kanji)
Mamoru Itou...Anee (hiragana)
Sakuya Sukeyama...Onee-sama (kanji, "o" in hiragana)
Hinako Saeru...Onee-tama (hiragana)
Marie Susumu...Aneue-sama (kanji)
Shirayuki Osamu...Nee-sama (hiragana)
Rinrin Hatoyama...Aneki (katakana)
Chikage Hirosaki...Ane-kun (hiragana, "ane" in kanji)
Haruka Tenhiro...Anegimi-sama (hiragana "anegimi" in kanji)
Yotsuba Dunn...Ane-chama (katakana, "ane" in kanji)
Aria Kimino...Nee-ya (hiragana, "nee" in kanji)

Prototype 33-S's are addressed as "Aunt (given name)." The CCs do not adopt one of the prototypes as a personal "onee-san." Yoshio Saotome and Rei Ijuuin are called "Yoshio-papa" and "Rei-mama."

4) The special martial art forms used by MX series 33-Ms (and later taught to Chikage Hirosaki) are addressed by Latin terms instead of the typical Japanese terms. They are as follows:

Butterfly Kiss...Osculum Papilionis
Dragon Wind...Ventus Draconis
Prometheus' Touch...Tactus Promethei
Rising Dragon Ascension...Ortus Draconis Ascendentis
Aegis Mirror Fist...Aegedis Speculi Pugnum
Spirit Sun Bolt...Spiritus Solaris Fulmen
Soulsword...Animae Gladium

Some of these moves are derived from Eric Hallstrom's excellent story Ranma and Akane - A Love Story which, IMHO, is a definite MUST read for altfic Ranma 1/2 fans! ^_-

5) Mei Ijuuin IS Rei's younger sister, though she is a character from Tokimeki Memorial 2. The Tokimemo 2 characters won't make as much of an impact on this series as the characters from the original Tokimemo.

6) A dissertation on the shortforms and acronyms used in the message from SIAT-47B that Mei read:

FM...From.
O/M...Operations Matriarch.
SIATGEN..."SIAT General." An all-call headed indicating that this message is to go to ALL special intelligence action teams.
PALACE...Nicole McTavish's callsign.
MATRIARCH ONE...Nokoko Moroboshi's callsign.
R/C OSHIKA NGR..."Ride Commander, Oshika Nightingale Ride" (the base support organization for all of Toratotaka's SIATs).
MEGATOKYO COMCEN..."Megatokyo Tower Communications Centre." The nexus that handles all communications for personnel not in the Eastern Eurasian Division's chain of command, such as SM-SI (Senior Matriarch of Special Investigations), SP-SIFO (Senior Patriarch of Special and Independent Field Operations) and the SP-IA (Senior Patriarch of Intelligence Analysis).
H/M...House Matriarch.
H/P...House Patriarch.
SFIO...Supervisory Field Intelligence Officer.
CMCO...Chief Medical/Cyber-medical Officer.
IN..."For the Information of..." A variation of the "Forward to" command on most e-mail programs.
OCEANIAGEN..."Oceania Division General." This is an all-call header for all Annexes in the Oceania Division.
EASTEURGEN..."Eastern Eurasia Division General."
WESTNORAMGEN..."Western North America Division General."
NOREURGEN..."Northern Eurasia Division General."
SOUASIAGEN..."South Asia Division General."
A/M...Annex Matriarch.
RE..."In Reference to..." The subject header of the message.
PRESOPSAREA...Present Operations Area.
REQ...Request/Requested.
ROP...Republic of the Philippines.
GOV AUTH...Government Authority.
OPS...Operations.
NATL TERR...National Territory.
CO-OP...Cooperation.
AFRP...Armed Forces of the Republic of the Philippines.
S-AND-D...Search and Destroy.

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