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Hyperfibre : Polarized polycarbonate superlong mono-molecular fiber derived from a gene-engineered flax plant invented by Tylan Biotechnicals. Developed in 2042, it revolutionized textiles, weapons, engineering and construction technology. It was cheap, easy to produce, and almost unbelievable tensile strength. Not only did it make the construction of the Beanstalk Industries Space Elevator possible, and completely replace fiberglass and carbon fiber for construction, it also made radical changes in weapon technology. It was over 100 times more effective than Kevlar in stopping firearms projectiles. A single layer of Hyperfibre will stop almost any caliber small arms projectile. Practically overnight, the Age of the Gun ended, and the Second Age of the Sword began. National armies began to issue tungsten-chromium alloy swords to individual soldiers back in 2057. Hyperfibre couldn't be penetrated by most conventional firearms, but could be cut with a sufficiently sharp edge. Standard projectile weapons used by the armies of most countries, security forces and criminal elements consists of the bowcaster. This was a large shoulder arm consisting of a rotary magazine, loaded with razor tipped quarrels, powered by compressed gasses or combustable propellent.


Encylopedia Britannica; 2148 edition.


"Three minutes, Jessie!" called out Aerie from the cockpit.


"Thanks!" replied Jessie Gorionova as she was carefully checking out her equipment. She made sure that all her equipment were secured, and Minsc, who was the Jumpmaster, gave her a final visual inspection, and a thumbs up.


"Ready to go boss! And watch that first step!" Jessie rolled her eyes, and a small grin escaped her face.


"Opening Cargo Doors!" Said Aerie as the big clamshell hatch at the back of the Rocky slowly began to unfold. The hold rapidly depressurized, and Jessie walked to the entrance of the cargo hold.


"Over target area, in twenty, nineteen,..." Jessie heard Aerie's voice over her comlink as they approached the dropzone.


"One!" As Aerie's countdown ended, Jessie jumped out of the tiltrotor aircraft at fifty thousand feet. The blast of upward air was like a physical blow, as she instinctively tucked her body into the wind. The wide strip of mylar fastened between her right arm and leg, and left arm and leg allowed her to guide her descent as she fell tword the ground. Jessie had assumed the classic skydiver's position, arms tucked parallel to her body, and according to the heads up display in her helmet, she was coming down five by five. She quicky reached terminal velocity of 240 miles per hour, and her winglets gave her the illusion she was flying. Adjusting the way that the furious updraft caught on those vestigial wings gave her some control over her flight. Moving them allowed her to move forward, backward, turn, bank, even spin like a pinwheel. She loved the freedom, the wild exhilaration and above all else the incredible freedom of skydiving.


As she dropped to five thousand feet, she activated her friction brake. A simple squeeze of the bulb in her left hand activated the brakepads mounted on the furiously spinning reel of hyperfibre forty five thousand feet above her in the tiltroter aircraft. Aerie was now circling around the target, and as the tether hooked up to the harness began to exert its drag on her body, she began to slow. She could no longer maintain the position of an airfoil shape as the monofilament-thin line attached to the aircraft above her began to support more and more of her weight, and she now hung from the nearly invisible cable reaching up to the sky. She was no longer body-surfing the wind, she was simply a prisoner of gravity. She decended like the weight at the end of a pendulum.


She was very pleased to see that her flight plan was very nearly perfect. By carefully adjusting her course through that all too brief, utterly intoxicating jump, she was directly over the target. The wide, lazy circles Aerie was making in the Rocky above her meant that she was coming down straight, exactly over the rooftop as planned.


Jessie touched the controls mounted on the integral bracelet on her left wrist, and triggered the stealth functions of her chameleon suit. The skin-tight one piece garment was coated with a layer of light emmitting micro-diodes. The slim built-in backpack contained a highly advanced optical computer that was linked to fibre-optic cameras embedded all throughout the fabric, providing the processor with a panoramic 360 degree view of the wearer's surroundings. The device generated images on the surface of the wearer that matched the surroundings, corrected for parallax, adjusted the light intensity, and in essence made the user almost invisible. Naturally, there were limits to the technology. The chameleon effect worked best when the wearer moved very slowly, giving the unit time to recompute and correct any visual distortion. Even though Jessie was still moving at fairly high speed, the simplicity of the background above her worked in her favor. The simple images of a static background, the clouds and blue sky barely taxed the processing power of the system, and the illusion projected tword the guards was very nearly perfect.


As the friction brake slowed her 280 pounds of girl, suit and gear to a survivable 20 miles per hour, she approached within a few hundred yards of the roof and the alert sentries. She activated her Power. As Jessie's mind pushed outward, her Power reached out like invisible fingers touching the awareness of each sentry. Their senses dulled, as if they had just eaten a filling meal, and slept for a few hours. Their steps became lax, as their attention wandered. They could no longer focus on the job at hand, and even if they had known intellectually that something was wrong, the lassitude in their minds prevented them from acting effectively on that thought. The decreased alertness of each sentry, coupled with the stealth capabilities of the latest in state-of-the-art chameleon suit that Jessie was wearing, allowed her to reach the roof completely undetected.


Jessie landed on the balls of her feet, her knees flexing slightly as she absorbed the impact. She unclipped the carabiner attached to the cable from the harness on her back, and as the load was reduced by over two hundred pounds, the cable bounced up back into the sky, and Minsc in the Rocky reeled it back in by using the small but powerful winch mounted on the reel. As Minsc shut down the customized tether system, and turned off the special coolant device that kept the brakes from burning up due to friction, Aerie closed the cargo hold. She finally let out the breath she'd been holding for the last minute or so, and with a wild grin at the sheer chutzpa of her friend, aimed the tiltrotor aircraft tword Kyoto airport.


Ducking behind some air intake structures, she carefully shed her cable harness, her transparent winglets and the oxygen mask she had needed in the rarified atmosphere of fifty thousand feet. A slow careful scan of her surroundings revealed her position on the map she'd memorized. The silly gits hadn't bothered to mount extensive human security on the roof, which had suggested the plan for this insertion to her sister, Imoen. Jessie slowly edged out her katana from its chameleon sheath. Two of the sentries were relatively close together, sipping caff, while the third one was further apart, smoking a cigarette. Jessie slowly low-crawled tword the two sentries close together, pushing with her Power and dulling their senses. Her crawl was precisely timed to the capabilities of her chameleon suit, providing the best speed consistant with total invisibility.


"Control, this is Gamma One, everything looks fine."


"Control, this is Gamma Two, its all normal here."


"Control, this is Gamma Three, A-ok."


As she got to within 20 yards of the first two, still oblivious to her presence, she took a slow, deep breath, and MOVED. In a blur of speed and power, it seemed to the two guards that a piece of the slate gray roof took on human form, and leapt at them with terrifying rush. As Jessie was moving far too fast for the chameleon suit to work, it retained the last image it was projecting, that of the asphalt roofing material she had been crawling on. The anthropomorphic featureless demon slashed three times with its sword, landing crashing blows on the arm, sternum and knees. As they went down, she ripped out of an arm sheath a plastic shuriken, and with a whiplash motion of her entire body, threw it at the third guard.


She now had about 14-13 minutes until the guards failed to check-in, and control sounded the alarm. She ran to the railing surrounding the rooftop, and jumped over it.


The clothesline thin climbing rope hooked to the railing allowed her to hang right outside one of the windows on the 12th floor. Quickly disarming the simple pressure sensor alarms on the window, Jessie pulled out the power screwdriver out of the suit's backpack, and undid the fastening to one of the armorglas windows. Carefully lowering the window inside into the office, she entered. She was ahead of schedule, so she took a couple of seconds to catch her breath. She wasn't an adrenaline junkie, no matter what Imoen said, but she never quite felt so alive, so aware of her surroundings than when she was in a mission. Or riding one of her jet motorcross bikes, or skydiving, or free climbing mountains. Ok, maybe Imoen had a point. (Aside from the one on the top of her head.)


"Back to business, girl." Keeping a close eye on the timepiece mounted inside her helmet's head's up display, she quickly located the wall she was looking for. She pulled out of her backpack the small, powerful diamond-bladed circular saw, and cut a square out of the hardwood laminated sheetrock wall. Inside was the security juncture box the plans had shown to be there. Stupid design, she thought to herself. All major security juncture boxes should be behind armor, with redundant backup units. Each box controlled a particular sector of the building's security, monitoring the motion sensors, door alarms, even controlling the hunting waldo's in that part of the building. Putting it behind the wall in an office with a window facing outside was criminally negligent. Using a pickbox she quickly opened the electronic lock, and she pulled the "Invisible Thug Transmitter" out of her backpack.


Jan sure had some funny names for his little inventions, but they usually worked very well. The "Invisible Thug Transmitter" recorded all the telemetry that the security juncture box received from its slaved sensors and alarms, then played it back on a continuous loop. Of course, the low tech approach of sticking her sword into the mini-computer heart of the box and stirring vigourously would work just as well, but as long as the subversive little device was working, no alarm would be sent to the central security control mainframe. For all intents and purposes she was an invisible thug prowling through the section of the building under the juncture's control, able to move around at will.


The flat square box had the picture of an evil looking clown on the front. She carefully clipped in the optical cables coming out of its sides to the juncture security box, and pressed the bright red rubber nose. The eyes rotated for about thirty seconds, then the face gave an evil grin, and stuck its tongue out as it started working. Jan's devices always worked reliably on the field, but sometimes the packaging was a little peculiar.


Giving the box a warm little pat, Jessie opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. She froze as she saw a hunting waldo quiescent in its recharging station a bare 10 feet away from her in the hall. She loathed those things. Jessie was no longer terrified of them as she was when younger, but it was hard not to shudder at the nightmarish hybrid of insect and robot, all encased in gleaming silver alloy. When the perimeter of the Creche was breached, and it was obvious that the invaders were too numerous for the Creche guards to win, someone had turned on all the hunting waldos in indiscriminate autohunt mode. The gleaming insectoid forms attacked friend and foe alike, moving with hyperkinetic frenzy. When Jessie saw a Child, one her brothers being slowly disembowled by three of those horrors, she grabbed Imoen's hand tightly, and ran for their lives.


A hunting waldo never gave up, never quit, and anything it closed with would be torn to pieces, by the great, gleaming serrated alloy claws. Even a year after she and Imoen were safely in the Society owned Candlekeep enclave, Imoen would often crawl into her bed at night shaking, after a dream where she heard the chittering and scurrying of metallic legs on the ceramicrete floor as the remorseless machine hunted them. As the two girls ran through the twisting, antiseptic white corridors of the Creche, the sounds of the machine coming closer and closer, Jessie knew they were dead. Then one of the armed and armored invader appeared in front of them. The armored trooper ignored the two cringing girls, and it raised its portable recoiless cannon, and with a burst of 40mm shells, shattered the hunting waldo into scrap. It lay down its weapon, and moving slowly as to not alarm the two girls, who had known that all adults were to be feared, it slowly removed the combat helmet that had rendered it featureless and anonymous. The face revealed was of an old man, older than any of the adults that they knew, and utterly unlike the Teachers. The face had a full head of silver hair, beard and moustache. His face was creased, which they later learned were laugh lines.


"My name is Gorion. What's your's?" Jessie still remembered that gentle smile. No adult had ever smiled like that to them ever before. A smile on the face of a Teacher had always meant something quite different. She had since then destroyed many of hunting waldos herself, usually using her sword, or bowcaster, once even bashing its titanium chassis apart with a huge chunk of ceramicrete. This one was safe and inert, and even if it was active, its claws were deactivated and wired shut. She gave it a stomp on its delicate and fragile optical sensor cluster for Immy's sake, and quickly moved to the service stairway.


The mission timer showed that she was right on schedule, and she quickly ran down to the first basement level. She fixed the dazzle charge to the doorlock, after carefully disarming the door's sensors. She was now just outside of the core security sector, seperated from the server room and central vault by a simple corridor. Inside the vault was a quick reaction force of heavily armed security goons. Time to get into position.


She pressed another control on her left bracelet, and the bottoms of her feet in their tabi-like thinsole booties, and the palms of her suit gloves turned smooth and rubbery-slick. The memory plastic of her suit in those areas had changed from being permeable, and roughened for gripping things, to impermeable and smooth like suction pads. She jumped up, and as her palms landed on the slick plastic ceiling, she cupped her hands. The suction created easily supported her weight. She did an acrobatic swing, and as her feet touched the ceiling, she arched the soles. Jessie hung like a giant spider from the ceiling, her chameleon suit blending her in perfectly, making her invisible in her inverted position. Time to wait.


"Welcome to my parlor, said the spider to the fly..." Jessie whispered to herself.


As the intruder alert sounded, she could hear with her enhanced hearing the reaction force running through the corridor, headed for the service stairs, and to her. She triggered the Taint, and the drug released into her bloodstream from gene-engineered glands in her body.


She could almost feel the cold icy fire as the chemical burned its way through her body. Strength filled her to almost bursting, her mind cleared to diamond, and all of her senses screamed at her, where they once whispered. The world slowed down to glacial, frozen precision, and she could hear her own heartbeat slow from a frantic race to a measured, pronounced individually seperated thuds. From the furious clatter of many booted feet running tword her, she could now distinctly hear each individual composition boot heel strike the ceramicrete flooring, each pant of labored breath, and the rattle of equipment inadequately secured in a harness. Twenty troopers, Jessie thought to herself, two of them women, with their lower center of gravity changing the timbre of their footsteps. Her Power expanded and chafed and bit at the heel as she held it in check for the moment.


The doors crashed open as the reaction force burst through the door she had booby trapped. The dazzle charge fell to the floor, and the booby was well and truly trapped. Jessie closed her eyes as the 20 thousand candles of light exploded, stunning and paralyzing those foolish enough to have forgotten to wear their combat goggles, and blinding those who had worn them, as the overload sensors tripped to protect fragile optic nerves. She unleashed her full Taint enhanced Power, and the reaction force turned from a hard trained and dedicated security team into a shambolic mob. Her Power was dangerously effective against ordinary people, but horrifically vicious against combat trained or martial arts trained personnel. Martial arts and combat training emphasized concentration and precise focus in action. Their minds skittered like high speed groundcars hitting ice patches on the roadways, and she blurred into motion, crawling on the ceiling tword the rear of the mass of disoriented and tangled soldiers. She was like some kind of gigantic, invisible spider, as she moved above their heads. Beneath her passed bowcaster quarrels that the more trigger-happy members of the reaction force had sprayed wildly in their confusion and surprise.


She struck with blurring speed, disdaining her sword in such close quarters, swinging off the ceiling and attacking from the rear with shocking surprise. Her unnaturally dense musculature and superstrong bones made her a lot stronger than any unmodified human. Under the Taint, she was up to five times stronger, and her reaction time tripled. They moved so slowly, as if they were underwater, as she attacked.


One...she took out the two troopers in the back with single strikes to their lightly protected back torso. She changed her aim at the last second to strike at the lower part of their ribs, instead of a killing blow to the kidneys. She pulled her strikes, using the heel of the hand, and instead of shattering their rib cage left them gasping for breath, clutching their sides. They would certainly feel the huge bruises tomorrow.


Two...she moved in closer, to the main body of the reaction force. She took out one of them with a foot sweep, striking with carefully gaged force against the back of the knee of one trooper, careful not to shatter the kneecap or popping the joint. In a fluid continuation of the same motion, her prehensile left toes in their tabi-like covering grasped the weapons harness of another soldier, and Jessie tossed him into the wall with enough force to chatter his teeth. As her body spun in midair, her right hand flailed away at the hip of yet another guard, the knuckles deliberately missing the groin, and slamming with painful force at the thigh.


Three...recovering with catlike three point landing, she lashed out with her free right foot, slamming with tremendous force against the hard front breastplate armor of a guard. The blow tossed him straight at three more troopers who were trying to line up their bowcasters for a shot. The soft gel padding underlining of the armor prevented his ribcage from collapsing in on itself, instantly killing him. They all collapsed in an untidy heap, the first luckless trooper with several cracked ribs.


Four...by this time the rest of the reaction force had recovered a bit from the dazzle bomb, and the shock of being attacked from behind. Even though Jessie's power made accurate shooting extremely difficult for them, the front ranks were trying to raise their weapons, hoping to hit her with unaimed automatic fire. Jessie leapt foward, executing a front summersault in midair, and utterly shocked them as she executed an acrobatic maneuver their minds were incapable of assimilating. She used the spindizzy device implanted in her left hip to change her center of gravity from her hips to her shoulders. As the inertial dampening device changed the center of rotation for her revolving body, her feet touched down on the ceiling, instead of missing them as she should have, and Jessie kicked out. She flew straight tword the center of the group, and the few bolts which the guards fired were tracked to the trajectory that her body SHOULD have followed, before she repelled the laws of inertia and radically jinked in midleap.


Five...she landed in the middle of the remaining guards, inverted in a handstand, her elbows flexing as they took the shock. She then spun around like some sort of giant top, her legs spread by centripetal force, flinging the soldiers outward. A flick, and she was now seated on the floor, her left leg tucked underneath the knee.


Six...the last three guards gaped at her in total shock. The speed, ferocity and the patently impossible maneuvers she had just executed made their minds gibber, and it was worse because they were very highly trained in sword fighting and hand to hand combat. They were also getting the full blast of Jessie's Power, unable to focus or concentrate their minds. She moved tword the remaining three, slapped their weapons away, and just stood there, with her arms crossed. They just sat down, and whimpered. She grabbed one of the last guards, handling her like a rag doll. She ignored her desperate attempts to pull away, and clamping a claw hold on the cluster of nerves on her right arm, frog-marched her tword the other end of the corridor. They walked past untidy, groaning heaps of her fellows, and the luckless soldier stopped struggling against the steel clamps holding her arm.


"Not bad for six seconds." Jessie thought to herself, as she neared the closed door leading to the central vaults and the last part of this little drama. She stopped a few paces away from the entrance, and she pulled out of her pack a brightly decorated and giftwrapped box. She clipped it to the back of the still utterly shellshocked soldier she had in her grip, and grasped the large pink and purple polka-dotted bow with her right hand. She marched her victim right up to the door.


"Open it!" She commanded to the soldier. She obeyed, and as she opened the security door to the mainframe and the vaults, Jessie saw the dozens of alert guards, each with a bowcaster pointed right at her. She shoved the hapless trooper into the middle of the room, while pulling the arming tab on the "Fiendish Thingie" which she had prudently clipped to her hostage's web belt. As the trooper fell among the marksmen, Jessie dropped to the floor. The combination flashbang clusters, dazzlebomb clusters, and stringbomb designed by Jan went off. Several flashbangs and dazzlers popped out of the giftwrapped package, landing right among the soldiers and went off in one gigantic ripple of sound, light and concussive fury. Then the stringbomb went off, and a burst of brightly colored party streamers and confetti filled the room. The party streamers were made of hyperfibre, coated with molecular adhesive, and the superstrong strands entangled the reaction force hopelessly. To add insult to injury, the confetti was coated with synthetic urushiol oil, the active ingredient in poison ivy plants. Grinning to herself at the sight of the struggling and cursing guards, wrapped in brightly colored ribbons and showered with glittering pieces of paper, she ran out of the room at high speed. It was now up to Imoen.


Jessie eluded pursuit for several minutes, as she led the remaining security guards in a merry chase, eluding bowcaster fire, and tossing her remaing stock of flashbangs, and dazzle grenades to cause as much confusion as possible. As soon as she heard her sister's cheery voice say "Mission accomplished!" over her com, Jessie turned off her suit, and let herself be trapped in a dead end corridor.


Jessie held up her hands, after putting down the plastic practice katana she had been using up to now. The frozen tableau held for several seconds, as the battered, very pissed, and exhausted security guards of Nippon Electric faced her with weapons ready and fingers tight on triggers. Jessie removed her facemask and combat helmet, and stared at them right back. She stopped the flow of the Taint into her bloodstream, and sank down to her knees in exhaustion and fatigue. She could barely control her trembling muscles, and she was utterly knackered out as the white coated trio of judges shouldered aside the security force.


"I see Miss Gorionova, that your mission was a failure. You've failed to retrieve the target, and I'm afraid that we're going to have to advise the board of directors to not hire Jessie and Imoen Gorionova, Troubleshooters Extraordinare. Pity, it was truely most impressive and quite humbling to our own men and women, who pride themselves for their skill and ability. I hope that the board evaluates this excercise as a partial success, despite the fact we cannot declare you winner, and sees fit to hire your company anyway." said Mr. Tanaka, who was the head judge.


"Thank you Tanaka-san, but that won't be necessary." replied Jessie wearily.


"TA-DAAAAAAAAAAA!!!" One of the security guards in the group pulled off her facemask and helmet, revealing a smiling freckled face, with shocking pink hair. Imoen pulled out a bright orange box out of her combat overalls, and displayed it with a flourish and a twirl to the shocked gaze of the security guards and the senior management of Nippon Electric. At that point, several of the still shellshocked guards sat down, with their heads on their hands.


Imoen had sneaked into the facility hours before, and after knocking out one of the guards with a anesthetic spray, had changed into the guard's uniform. She had been using her Power to remain undetected by the other guards, and when Jessie had caused all the ruckus, it had been child's play for her to grab the objective box after the badly taunted and enraged security guards had managed to spray themselves with molecular glue solvent and ran after their fleeing quarry. She tossed the dayglow orange box to one of the judges, and ran over to help her sister standup, as Jessie was still trembling from the after affects of the Taint.


"I see that my assessment was quite premature. I will advise the board of directors that we should hire you immediately! Well done, well done, Miss Jessica Gorionova!" He and the rest of the judges bowed.


"Please, Tanaka-san, its just Jessie. And it will be our greatest pleasure to help you upgrade the security installation for the Kyoto Research Campus." replied Jessie.


It had always been Jessie, not Jessica. Since that first day when they had met their foster father, who had taught them how to be human. Gorion had even given them their names.


"I'm JZ3-N5Y76, and this is my friend, M0N-U83E2Q." Jessie had replied for both of them when she had met Gorion for the first time.


"Well, those aren't real names, how about Jessie, instead of jay-zee? And for you, how about Imoen? We just say oh instead of zero and you become em-oh-en." He gave another one of his gentle smiles.


Even after all these years, the thing they most often missed was one of his smiles.

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Society of Neo-Luddites : Founded By Joshua Harper in 2076, the Society did not believe in the mindless destruction and hatred of technology that the historical Luddites did. Instead the Society believed in ethical and moral use of technology. Significant numbers of scientists are members, and this provides them with political and economic significance far above what one might expect for such a small group. Like many ideological entities, there is a small and quite violent splinter faction, calling themselves the Harpers in tribute to their founder. Their most violent acts have been against the genetic slavery rings, which is still legal in certain parts of Asia and South Americas. Their most infamous act was their spectacular raid against the Bhaal Corporation Creche located on Spider-Monkey Island which resulted in approx. 200 fatalities within the ranks of the now defunct Bhaal Corporation, International.


Encylopedia Britannica; 2148 edition.


It had been a very good 3 weeks. Lots of hard work for the entire company, and a huge wad of neo-euros stuffed into their account. After a careful cost analysis and trial studies, Nippon Electric, subsidiary of Nippon Products International, had chosen the upgrades to the security system proposed by Jessie and company for their Kyoto Research Complex. As usual, the bean counters had jumped in and nixed some of the suggestions. But despite that, everyone was happy, and Ito Tanaka had invited the entire company to a special celebratory dinner at the Sakura, the exclusive and special restaurant at the very top of the Nippon Products Archology. This restaurant, normally exclusively used by the upper management of Nippon Products Zaibatsu, was at the very top of the 300 story Nippon Products Pyramid, where over a hundred thousand employees and support staff lived.


Jessie and Imoen were scarfing food down like there was no tomorrow. Sushi, Sashimi, and other expensive dishes were being constantly ordered and consumed. Not to be undone, Jan and Minsc were making their dents. As usual, Aerie was picking at her food, mostly nibbling vegetarian dishes, and some of the cooked fish. Everyone knew that Imoen's and Jessie's metabolism ran much higher than normal, since with high performance bodies and brains, you had to stoke it heavily. Many little bottles of hot sake had already been consumed and everyone was in a good mood for a job well done.


Tanaka-san's credit within the company was high in recruiting, hiring, and managing the best security consulting company in the world, and sucessfully completing a very difficult assignment. The constant, low level simmer between various MegaCorporations in the world, and/or Nation-States rarely boiled over into open conflict. It usually was a war of agents, industrial sabotage, industrial espionage occasionally spiced by small, limited, very violent and very quiet conflicts. Nippon Electric was developing what was hopefully a easier and cheaper method of manufacturing room temperature superconductive material. Since current fabrication methods weighed in at about 2000 neo-euros an ounce, other MegaCorps, and quite a few countries were literally salivating at the thought of making a raid into the research databases at the Kyoto research facility. This had made security upgrades a matter of immediate concern, and Tanaka had delivered the bacon on time, and under budget. And he spared no expenses in expressing his gratitude.


Anyhu, the party was in high swing, with Jan trading dirty jokes with Tanaka-san, while Jessie was laughing out loud. Minsc was doing shadow puppets with his hands to entertain Aerie and Imoen, recounting the adventures of Sir Boo. Geisha girls were in constant attendence, providing sake and food in abundance. Then someone crashed the party.


"LET ME PASS!!! I HAVE TO SPEAK TO JESSIE GORIONOVA!" shouted a rough, older voice, as a couple of waiters were barring a man from entering the dining area. Jessie palmed a plastic shuriken and a four-shot dart throwing derringer out of the sleeves of her expensive old fashioned black silk business suit. The other members of the party were also pulling out their own favorite variety of heat. Aerie pulled a small taser out of a compartment in her wheelchair, and tucked it under her napkin. Minsc took out an enormous .80 calibre stunner out of his shoulder holster and laid it out of sight, on his knees under the tablecloth. Jan pulled a rubber chicken out of a capacious pocket. Imoen ostentatiously pulled out a small automatic bowcaster pistol, and Kelsey looked like he was ready to dive under the table. Tanaka-san looked apprehensive at all the hardware on display. Especially the rubber chicken, as Minsc and Kelsey edged away very carefully away from the latex fowl.


The burly figure pushed past the waiters, headed for their table. He was quite old, and scarred, with the fine white lines of old sword cuts. He hovered protectively over a girl, obviously in her late teens. She was dressed quietly in a simple blue dress, and her rounded, cute face looked like it normally smiled a lot. But right now, she looked desperately unhappy, and she was clinging desperately to her escort.


"I'm Jessie. And you are?" asked Jessie. The strangers could see her weapons, a plastic shuriken, consisting of a simple 4 inch plastic disk, roughened for gripping, that when thrown sprung out six 3-inch ultra sharp blades made of titanium glass alloy. Both the shuriken blades and the razor tipped darts of the derringer were tipped with millipede venom, which typically wasn't fatal but the crippling amounts of pain disabled people rather effectively. The older man actually relaxed when he saw that the person he wanted to talk to was armed, and quite prepared for trouble.


"I'm Agent Keldorn Firecam of the F.B.I. I hope that you remember me?" said the older man.


"Yes, I do. You visited my father back at the Candlekeep enclave. You visited with Randolf De'Arnise, if I recall. My father called you two of his best friends." Keldorn Firecam relaxed even further. It was pretty obvious he'd been under a lot of stress for some time.


"Can we speak in private?" asked Keldorn.


Jessie led the two of them to an empty table. Imoen put away her bowcaster pistol, and followed them to the table. The rest of the crew put away their assorted weapondry, Jan looking a little disappointed in not having the opportunity to use his rubber chicken.


"This is Nalia De'Arnise, Randolf's only daughter. Randolf needs a place for her to stay for a few weeks, because..." began Keldorn.


"Because Federal District Attorney De'Arnise has begun to persecute Isaea Roenal and Farthington Roenal of the Roenal Drug Cartel for trafficking, murder, extortion, bribery, and a whole bunch of other charges, right?" quipped Imoen brightly. Nalia looked askance at this young girl, obviously younger than Jessie, who just popped into what she had expected to be a private conversation.


"Heya, I'm Imoen Gorionova. I'm the brains in this outfit, Jessie's just the brawn." Imoen said brightly. Nalia was taken back a little at Imoen's cheery and breezy manner. This was Jessie and Imoen Gorionova, who her father described as the finest operatives in Europe? Imoen was dressed in a bright pink and white mini-skirt, a mauve tubetop that left her midriff bare, and a peach jacket, from where she had produced her bowcaster pistol. That and the bright pink anime style hair, she looked just like the hundreds of vapid, fashionable young girls she knew back in college, who only cared about boys and clothes. Now Jessie on the other hand...


"The job is to protect Nalia for six weeks, until the trial is over. It should be over one way or another at that point. They've already tried to kidnap Nalia once, and Randolf is the key to the prosecution." said Keldorn, who seemed to accept Imoen's statements at face value.


"They sent a snatch squad out for you?" asked Jessie seriously.


"Yes, they nearly got us at New York Suborbital station. We just barely got out of it intact, they nearly got Nalia before the doors closed. The pay is ten million neo-euros..." began Keldorn Firecam.


"There's a price out on Nalia's Head?" interrupted Imoen.


"Yes, twenty five million New Dollars." replied Keldorn seriously.


"Yeah, the Union Corse would make a serious effort for that, so will the Old Ones, and the European Triads. We need to talk for a bit." replied Jessie. She and Imoen stepped away from the table, out of earshot of the two fugitives.


"Truth?" asked Jessie.


"Yep. They're running scared, and he's desperate."


"Why hasn't he used the F.B.I to protect her?" asked Jessie.


"Well, the Cartel got Anarg, the F.B.I's star witness despite being deep in the Witness Protection Program. I'd guess that the only people he really trusts is his own task force, and really sis, with that kind of a price on her head, he's gotta be scared shitless of someone selling out. He can't fully trust his own people, or the F.B.I. So he's gotta go outside, someone with a good rep, and most importantly, he was friends with dad." replied Imoen seriously.


"Your call, sis. I vote to accept her." said Jessie.


"Me too. Its really for daddy, you know? He'd offer him his help if he was alive today, so its really up to us now." replied Imoen.


"Oh yeah, by the way, Nalia's got a crush on you. You old heartbreaker." Imoen leaned over and whispered in Jessie's ear.


"Stop that. You know I don't ever mess around with clients!" Jessie glanced over at the table where Nalia and Keldorn were sitting. She caught Nalia looking at her out of the corner of her eye.


Nalia was in a mess. It all started two months ago, when the government announced that Isaea Roenal and Farthington Roenal were to be subpoena'd for murder, drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping, jury tampering, and about two dozen lesser charges. This wasn't the first time that the U.S. government had tried to break the Roenal Cartel, the last time ended up with about two dozen federal prosecutors and witnesses in body bags. This time, there was round the clock F.B.I. protection, and Randolf De'Arnise had even hired his own security force. Then the star witness for the prosecution, Anarg Reilly had turned up dead in an F.B.I. safehouse in Montana, his throat cut and his mouth stuffed with new dollar bills. That was the way the Cartel liked to deal with informants. Anarg's testimony was already taped and recorded under oath, so despite the handicap of losing their star witness, her father decided to go ahead and try the case anyway. That's when the fear started. Nalia had seen her entire life her father taking on these powerful and dangerous criminals, and everytime her father had prevailed. While she worried, she had faith that her father's friends in the F.B.I would keep him safe, like they did before. But this time it was different. This time, she was the target.


Special Agent in Charge Keldorn Firecam found out from an informant that the desperate Roenal Cartel had actually put a price on her head of twenty five million new dollars for her kidnapping. Her father had freaked, and had sent her out of the country, with Agent Firecam, literally two steps in front of a snatch team. With that kind of money being thrown around, Agent Firecam couldn't even trust his own people. If Randolf's only daughter was taken by the Roenals, there was no way that he could successfully prosecute Isaea and Farthington Roenal. Agent Firecam had left with Nalia in tow, three days ago, to find Jessie and Imoen.


Instead of taking the direct suborbital from San Francisco to Tokyo, he had headed for New York. Since the suborbital capsules travelled in a airtight vacuum tunnel running with laser straight precision for thousands of miles, propelled by magnetic levitation, in tubes running parallel with the earth's curvature, they had a top cruising speed of about four miles a second. It took only twenty minutes to get to New York. From then on, Agent Firecam resurrected an old trick he had learned in his rookie days. Random hops and destinations. They simply boarded what ever capsules were available at a suborbital station, riding the network in a completely stochastic manner, often choosing between them by flipping a new dollar coin. The world wide suborbital network was extensive enough that they must have circumnavigated the earth several times over in the last three days, by the time they had reached the Kyoto station. And it had looked like they had succeeded, and finally they had reached the people, her father had told her, could best protect her in all the world.


A freckled face beneath a shock of pink hair, about her age. A wizened little man, who seemed to be busy fondling a rubber chicken? A huge bald man, with Maori tribal markings on his scalp, attentively listening to the lovely blonde girl in the wheelchair. The only normal person at the table seemed to be an extremely handsome young man, who was looking at the little man doing something with the rubber chicken with extreme terror.


"JAN! Stop scaring Kelsey with that chicken!" The girl with pink hair shouted at the little man. At this point, Ito Tanaka gracefully stood up, and approached the two sisters still in conference.


"Ah, Miss Gorionova, is anything the matter?" It was pretty obvious that he was a little puzzled by the situation.


"I'm extremely sorry, Tanaka-san. Quite simply, this is a matter of family obligation. This young woman is the daughter of our father's best friend, and she needs our help. I know this is extremely rude, Tanaka-san, but its best to take her to our home immediately." replied Imoen.


"Then this matter must take precedence. I shall at this point take my leave. Domo-arigato, Miss Jessie Gorionova, and Miss Imoen Gorionova." The sisters exchanged bows with the executive, and he simply left. Imoen had pressed the precisely the right buttons to get him to leave without giving offense, citing "family obligation". Tanaka-san was rather old fashioned when it came to things like family.


"Ok, Agent Firecam, we accept. Nalia, welcome aboard. Agent Firecam, what's the likelyhood that you were followed to the Nippon Products Pyramid?" Nalia studied Jessie Gorionova. She seemed at times to be the leader of this rather eccentric group, but other times, Imoen seemed to be in charge. She certainly didn't look like the head of a security consulting firm. She looked like a model, with an almost haunting beauty. She had raven black hair, deep violet eyes, and was very tall, about 5 foot 11 inches. Her skin was literally flawless, with an incredible creamy golden hue that made her fingers itch to stroke it...stop it!!! Pull yourself together! Nalia had just fled the United States, with a huge price on her head, chased by a bunch of murderous thugs with only one purpose in mind, to kidnap her so that they could force her father throw the case against more murderous thugs so they could get back to killing innocent people, and sell them cocaine, heroine, nervefire, and other horrible substances, addicting thousands of people, turning them into junkies, and those people were so ruthless, such killers that her father had freaked out so badly he had sent her away, with Agent Firecam, and she was so desperately afraid for her father, who was now alone, and her father had told her the case wasn't that strong, so that these, EVIL MONSTERS might still get away, to come after her father and HURT HIM, and here she was thinking about the most beautiful woman she had ever met in her entire life...WHEW!


Nalia had no idea that if you thought too long and too fast, you had to take a mental breath, just like if you talked too long and too fast. Besides, Jessie was obviously out of her league. Nalia, back at M.I.T. had pretended like a lot of fashionable young women that she was bisexual, but the truth of it was that she was only interested in women. She mentally shook herself. God, a beautiful face and she couldn't focus on anything! Nalia didn't realize that the three days of constant travelling, snatching a few minutes of sleep at a time, eating vending machine food on the run had taken their toll. Nalia's brain was wandering, unable to focus.


"Im, can you hack into the Kyoto city traffic-cams? If they jump us on the way to the Rocky, its going to be on the streets." Jessie nodded at the Kyoto Products security personnel who had appeared about a minute after Agent Firecam had caused the initial ruckus. The Kyoto Products pyramid had a quite able security force, who would deal with any foolishness within the confines of the arcology. Nalia's mind finally cleared up, at the prospect of finally doing something she experience in, rather than being dragged around like a sack of flour.


"I can help with that." Nalia spoke up shyly.


"Whoa, so you're not mute, eh?" teased Imoen.


"Well, its a lot better than being a chatterbox all the time, like certain people I know." said Jessica, as Imoen and Nalia pulled out their glasses. Imoen stuck her tongue out at Jessie. Imoen and Nalia began to pull out their webdancing gear.

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There have been some staggering changes in computer technology in the last one hundred and fifty years. Computers are now made with moleculartronics for impossibly dense information storage ability, and optical processors for speed, using logic gates built of holograms to decrease processor cycle time to nano-seconds. However, the direct neural interface promised by Cyberpunk authors in the end of the twentieth century failed to happen. Bad, bad nasty things happened when you hook up brains to computers. Unless you were gene-engineered into it, like the Gibsons back only a few years ago, it burned out their brains. And it turned the Gibsons insane. As they reached puberty nearly five hundred young kids became homicidally mad, killing parents, friends and police until each of them were put down. Genies were always treated with discrimination, but after the Gibsons incident, the prejudice increased a hundredfold. Known surviving Gibsons who didn't go crazy were all murdered, many in protective police custody. Its not known if any Gibsons remain alive today...


Gene-engineering has always remained quasi-attractive and heavily discriminated against. Most Genies remain quiet about their biological differences. At various times in the past they've lost legal franchise, lost right to own property, and many have been sterilized against their will. But its hard for some parents to not give to their kids that little extra edge, despite the almost certain chance of getting lynched or murdered if people found out. Of course a few genies never hid their genetic background, including those Bhaalspawn, born out of the vats of Bhaal Corporation International. They're powerful enough to protect themselves, no one ever messes around with them. Most people don't believe the Corporation's claims of using alien technology in crafting their cyborg devices, like implanted weapondry and combat enhancements. Or the alien sciences supposedly in their genetic engineering programs. But it is undeniable that a Bhaalspawn is tremendously more powerful than a Heian Clan Techno-ninja warrior, also a product of both genetic design and integrated bionic devices..,


The Last Five Years; by Dr. Charles Volo, Elvis University, Tennessee.


Nalia laid out a fairly conservative set of webdancing equipment on the surface of the dining table. Her virtual reality gear looked like old fashioned gold-rimmed glasses, where the hologram images of the Matrix were projected to the back of the lenses. During use, the screensaver, which really wasn't needed, scrolled across front of the lenses. Nalia, who was only a year away from finishing a double doc in Quantum Math and Neuronet-engineering, liked having golden logic diagrams and equations scroll across her eyes. She, like most infogeeks, were wearing her rings. The rings tracked every single movement of her hands and fingers using the virtual enviroment reality of the Matrix. Her rings were silver, one the classical apple with bite taken out of it, and the other a flying windows design. Her throat mike, was an old fashioned cameo choker. It picked up subvocal speech, allowing her to talk without a sound to anyone next to her. Audio was supplied by two earbuds, which came in the same case as the glasses.


Imoen pulled out pink sunglasses, with (wait for it) pink lenses. A cute little teddy bear, pink of course, decorated the front of her scarf, which she tied around her neck. Her rings were tiny gold Anime figurines for bezels. Her screensaver had a cute little Hello Kitty playing with a little green Cthulhu, wearing colored ribbons.


"Urm, Imoen, have you ever thought about another favorite color?" asked Nalia rather shyly.


"Nah, Its me, really." said Imoen breezily. She loved bright colors. The Creche was all sterile white, or antiseptic green. Only when you were training outside, under Teacher supervision did you ever see anything else. One of her very first memories was seeing a huge orchid, that ran from dark red border to a beautiful pale rose. While her talents didn't require as much physical training as Jessie's, she still got to go outside sometimes. Even though each visit was typically for an endurance run, with painstiks used on those who ranked last, Imoen loved to spend time looking at bright colors. She particularly liked pink since Jessie liked to nag her about just how visible it was at night. One does not neglect an opportunity to get nagged about anything, was her philosophy on family dynamics.


"Im, back to business here. I'm going to go change." said Jessie. She pulled out a large pack out from beneath the table. She walked to the lavatory to put on her combat outfit. Most restaurants didn't permit weapons at their table, and even though they had their armor with them, the sword-check girl had their main weapons. They only got their hideout weapons past the weapon detectors at the door, and security had already confiscated them. They were waiting at the front desk.


Jessie and Minsc went into bathrooms to put on their heavy armor. Minsc's was fairly simple solid plate, partly like that worn by a Com-ball player. Like most combat armor, armor manufacturers tested designs on Combat Football, before full release. Jessie's armor was the highly advanced chameleon suit, the same one in fact used to penetrate Nippon Products research lab. Both of them put on dark non-descriptive cloaks to cover their armor, and pulled the hood foward to hide helmets. There was only one suit, since a typical state of the art chameleon suits were so hideously expensive, if you had to ask how much, you couldn't afford it. Especially after Jan got his itching little hands on it for several months. He removed the robot bee launcher, reluctantly, but Jessie decided to keep the flamethrower.


When they came out, Hello Kitty chased a tiny cute Cthulhu with a chainsaw, while complex math equations scrolled across the lenses of Nalia's glasses. They had entered the Matrix, and were wearing their Images. Nobody really knew if the name for the Infonet, which succeeded the Internet came out of some antique movie. But every single interfacer or webdancer started up by saying "There is no spoon." to their gear the first time they use it, fresh out of the box from the manufacturer.


Nalia entered her Image, and began to dance. Since each and every brain was different, it was impossible to make gear or implants that would interface directly with the virtual world of the Matrix. Only the experimental genies like Gibsons ever tried to hook up minds directly to computers, and they went mad. The official explaination was that the data input for the interface was several times more information dense than the human eye, the max information rate for a human brain, and that it drove them schitzo. So people still interfaced the old fashioned way, with virtual reality glasses, and sensor rings. Webdancers simply took it further. They literally spent years working on their Images, customizing, tweeking and recoding. The visual representation of their virtual selves functioned as servant, assistant, and an interface to access all the tools and appications a webdancer picked up during his/her life. Nalia's looked like an armored Valkyrie, her armor woven of thousands of lines of shimmering golden equations, her glowing white wings lines of code, and her silvered sword contained literally hundreds of I.C.E (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronic) breakers, spoofers, and disrupters, all the tools in trade of a Webdancer. She danced above the infinite black plane, looking down at the myriad of distant lights and the glory of a major node only a mile distance away. The Nippon General Products Archology infocenter was a crystal palace, lit from within with all the stars in the night sky.


Suddenly, right next to Nalia, a girl popped into being. She had the look of being hand drawn that the typical anime Image had. She was dressed like some magical girl, with huge violet eyes, incredibly long and silky eyelashes, and a head so big for her thin neck it looked like it was going to snap off from its own weight. Being a huge closet anime freak, Nalia recognized her very pink armor being a hybrid of Sailor Gundam, and Cyborg Deathmachine My Little Pony. Naturally she had long pink hair, and a huge giant-laser-gun-battle-cannon-deathray slung over her back. With a saucey toss of her hair, that must have taken her hundreds of hours programming into her Image, Imoen spoke up.


"Ok, Nalia, here, take this file, and go to the Rocky, our private tiltrotor. Docking number 1987G in Kyoto Airport. The file contains the password to enter the mini-frame, go ahead and put the chopper on full security, and have the plane's min###### run the preflight prep. Urm, you know how to do that?" asked Imoen.


"Of course. But I can help you hack into the Kyoto Metropolitan Community Firewalls..." said Nalia.


"Nah, I've already hacked into them. Whenever we enter a new country, I always take the time to break into municipal services, and a few other quite useful places." another saucey toss of her violently pink hair, and her custom "Bye" animation played as her Image uploaded to the Kyoto Metropol Firewall. It was the simple and often used "Warp Speed" animation, but as was customary among the better webdancers, Imoen had added her own touch. Her body seemed to transform into the Robotech Teletubbie Super Space Battleship "Barbie" and triggered warp drives. Hard as it was to believe, Imoen really seemed to be the brains of the outfit. As much as Nalia adored the big strong silent types of women, like the ones she saw on the Harlequin HD channel, she got along so well with the brainey types. But the way she had fluttered all over Kelsey had shown she was into guys. Too bad. Nalia couldn't stop her internal chatter. Its finally began to sink in. She was still very much afraid for her life, but that little fantasy that most bored, rich, college girls have kicked into her brain, much like the drizzle of peanut sauce over thai rama chicken. See? Her thoughts wandered to food, and her Image, reading the micro changes in her body temperature, pulse and heartbeat monitored by the body sensors, correctly guessed that she was hungry, and popped her view to the food courts selection of Nippon General Products Pyramid. Nalia sternly schooled herself, and extended her fingers. Her image correctly interpreted the changes in her muscles, as relayed by her sensor rings, indicated "activate interface". The rings functioned like the very crude virtual reality gloves developed back in the days when the technology was in its infancy.


Nalia transferred into Kyoto Airport, and had quickly set up the programs Imoen had wanted. As the sensors in her rings allowed her to use the virtual controls set up in the Matrix, her fingers flicked among the icons in the 3D interface of the tiltrotor aircraft's mini-frame. She had joined a Corporate Mercenary outfit, and like the girls of the late twentieth century who all wanted to marry rockstars, or those of the late twenty first century who wanted an Outer Rim Planetary Explorer for a husband or wife, the girls of Nalia's generation all fantasized of a Corp-Merc outfit. The natural excitement of being in an adventure, for the first time in her rather boring life, combined with hunger and a deep persistant worry over her father combined to make Nalia more than a bit squirrely, as the Marvelous, Magical Space Prince Boo would say. Nalia had a really silly thought, one of Jessie's friends rather looked like...nah. Couldn't be, wot?


Nalia pulled off her glasses with a sigh of relief, and tucked them to her forehead, she finally looked at the rest of the table. Keldorn was tucking away a plate of hamburger and fries, and a waiting smiling waitress was actually waiting for her order. Nalia just pointed.


"Nalia De'Arnise, this is Jan Jansen, Aerie, Kelsey, and of course Minsc. Guys, this is Nalia De'Arnise, our new client." Jessie had her facemask peeled away, her helmet looking like a simple leather cap on her head.


"What? Minsc? As in Squire Minsc of the Magic Space Prince Boo? And Jan Jansen? The International Man of Mystery himself?" Nalia curled up on her forearms, and looked up at her new protectors. For some reason, the big bald man with Maori tribal tatoos and scars over his head, and presumably over the rest of his body actually blushed. She loved the Boo the Mighty Magic Space Prince stories when she was growing up, and she had always had a special love of Squire Minsc, the hapless protector of the headstrong and rather reckless gallant space hamster. She loved "Boo, the Mighty Magic Space Hamster and the Chamber of Hazelnuts" where the dastardly UserUnfriendly, the evil wizard of gremlins and other technical glitches threw the poor squire into a teaching position at Hogwarts, filled to the brim with silly fan girls. And while Jan looked a bit like the older version of the actor, she couldn't remember, of the movies, the resemblence was superficial. Besides, the movies were made almost sixty or so years ago anyway. Aerie looked concerned, and reached over to Nalia's arm, attaching sensor pads to her forehead and neck. The diagnostic thimble on her thumb gave a reading for her pulse and heart-rate, and Aerie breathed a sigh of relief as Nalia checked out as just being very tired.


"Aerie, we need her moving and able to think." said Jessie.


Aerie nodded and shook a dozing Nalia and slipped a Gyro into her mouth. The mild ######s and stimulants woke her up fine, and she perked up after a few minutes to quietly look at the people surrounding her, and now bound by the very tight constraints of the Mercenary Code to do everything possible short of throwing their lives away to protect her. Kelsey was nervously clicking away at a handheld terminal, Jessie and Minsc were checking out their battle armor, while Jan was rumaging away at a large duffle bag, pulling out various toys and arcane weapons. Aerie was waiting quietly, sipping at a large cup of tea. Imoen was still in virtual space, Hello Kitty being chased now by a green Cthulhu with a big box of chocholates.


"Are you ok? Its the last few days catching up with you." said Aerie quietly. The older and quite frail looking woman looked at her sympathetically, while Nalia blushed. Instead of looking back at the medic on her wheelchair, she looked at Imoen's screensaver. Just now, Cthulhu had caught up with Hello Kitty, and was kissing her rapidly, with one arm up her...apparel.


"That means that Imoen is inside the firewall." interrupted Jessie as Nalia was watching in helpless facination as Imoen's screensaver projected some rather...interesting situations with the two cute crudely animated figures. Nalia couldn't bear to look at Jessie, instead locking eyes with a grinning Aerie, and they both began to giggle helplessly.


Aerie was technically a non-combatant, unlike Jessie, Imoen, Jan and Minsc, and her wheelchair made it clear to everyone. Unlike most of humanity, Aerie's body rejected artificial nerve grafts, and after losing her legs to some forgotten brush conflict, where Doctors Without Borders had sent her to, she was confined to her wheelchair. She had since then learned to fly, tiltrotor aircraft, and even commercial zepplins, as a way of confronting the restrictions imposed in her life. After she had witnessed an assassination by the Linvale Mob in Mexico, she had desperately fled to France where her old friend Dr. Ambrose Rashomon was staying. Jessie and Imoen had protected her during her testimony, and thankfully they could use a medic and pilot. Even hurt badly by the indictment of the head of the mob on 30 accounts of murder, 23 accounts of kidnapping, arson and Infonet spamming, the remains of the mob were still after Evaine Lindberg. Evaine changed her name to Aerie, like Dr. Rashomon had changed his to Minsc, and Aerie was born.


Her wheelchair made her technically a non-combatant according to the strict Mercenary Code, but it didn't mean she was invulnerable to bowcaster fire. Her wheelchair concealed a number of surprises. It looked like the standard flycycle wheelchair consisting of four small wheels on a platform, mounted on a cylindrical stand, sorta like a stool mounted on wheels. Standard cycles consisted of a pair of heavy weights counter-rotating inside the cylinders, keeping the vehicle up despite any sort of knock by the gyroscopic force of the flywheels. Flycycles are used for both wheelchairs for the disabled and as short distance commuter transportation. You hooked up into a wall outlet for the night, and the weights spun up. The next day, when you went somewhere at a stately 30 miles per hour, the flywheels provided both stability, and power via a small generator tapping the spinning masses for energy. Aerie's machine had been tinkered on by Jan, after he had been extensively threatened with physical violence against putting any "experimental" options on Aerie's ride. It was now powered by a superconductive ring that packed more wattage than a small electro-groundcar, and Aerie could wheel away at over 70 miles per hour in case of trouble.


Evaine was born 35 years ago, as a Nadia. Her series was named for Nadia Comaneci, the famous gymnist. Her parents had been crazy about gymnastics, and so was she when she was young. An absolutely brilliant gymnast, she had been shattered when her parents had told her at age 15 that she was a genie. Her genetic modifications prevented her from competing professionally, which was all she had wanted to do her entire life. Turning tword medicine, she walked away from gymnastics, and never looked back. It was ironic that during med school she discovered the high tendency of the Nadia series to reject artificial nerve grafts, necessary for attaching artificial limbs to amputees. Years later, it would come back to haunt her, after she had lost her legs.


As the images on Imoen's glasses changed to Hello Kitty and Cthulhu lying back and smoking a cigarette, Imoen pushed back her webdancing gear, and she spoke up.


"Ok, we're totally fucked. I count over 40 groups of thugs, several of which are already fighting each other. Its like some frikking shooting gallery out there! They're even using autocannons and flamethrowers! There's like three firefights with each other and S.W.A.T only a block away. We'd be cut to pieces as soon as we step outside." said Imoen grimly. Keldorn dropped his second burger, and groaned softly. Nalia began to shiver. Maybe this haven wasn't going to be the refuge she and Agent Keldorn had been hoping for...


"Im, do you think Nalia's bugged?" asked Jessie seriously. The free-firezone outside meant that the original plan of sneaking away quietly, taking an inconspicuous taxi to Kyoto Airport, and flying off was out the airlock.


"Right here, your worship!" quipped Jan brightly. He pulled out a stick with a jester's head mounted on the end, and waved it over the hungry Nalia, who really didn't know what was going on, waiting for her first cooked meal in 3 days. The scruffy little man waved the stick over Nalia's body, while she drew back a bit nervously. The eyes flashed bright green and the tongue of the clown wearing the jester's cap stuck out, and it exclaimed "Eureka!" as Jan ran the sensor over Nalia's chest.


"Nally, it looks like someone managed to bug some of your clothing. Are you wearing a bra?" asked Imoen.


Nalia nodded, and did that girl-thing pulling her arms into her sleeve, and wriggling around under her dress, and in seconds held out her brassier. The amazing thing was she managed to do this while still eating her burger and fries.


"Jan, roof." said Jessie, holding out Nalia's bra to Jan.


"Right, your worship. One decoy using a robot swallow coming up!" said the funny little man as he scampered off holding Nalia's undergarment with one hand and a small remote controlled recon vehicle, typically called a "Swallow" in the other. It was obvious in hindsight that someone had planted a very sophisticated tracker into Nalia's garments, which only activated if it received a signal, making it invisible to the scanner Keldorn had used when they had started their exodus. It was just one more proof that the 25 million bounty was working, since it was most likely a De'Arnise servant who had bugged Nalia's clothes.


"Do you think that sending up the decoy will actually draw off some of the hunters?" asked Imoen pointedly. Jan had trundled off to the roof of the Kyoto Archology, to attach the brassier to the robot swallow, which would fly away, mimicking the flight pattern of someone aboard a tiltrotor or helicopter, hopefully drawing off some of the goons outside.


"Urm...nope. That reminds me..." said Imoen answering her own question.


"Hey Jan, what's the flying speed of a brassier laiden robot swallow?" said Imoen to her wrist com. As usual Imoen was making bad jokes in the middle of an emergency, and everyone rolled their eyes at her. Surprisingly, Nalia gave a little giggle, and Jessie didn't mind so much that everything had just dumped into the crapper.


"Urm...Dynatech or General Electric?" asked Jan over the com.


"I don't know. Just make sure you program the swallow to compensate for the drag by the brassier so that the flight path resembles a real tiltrotor or helicopter." said Imoen with a wicked little grin.


"Well, I guess its a good thing that Nalia isn't that top heavy, so the drag coefficient won't be that bad. For example, if she were wearing D-cup, the air resistance is going to be fairly significant..." quipped Aerie. She was rewarded by Nalia blushing to the roots of her pale blonde hair, as Aerie leaned over to Nalia, and spoke softly to her ear.


"There is no way in hell that we're going to abandon you to those animals outside. Neither Jessie or Imoen are that type of people. And don't worry, we've been in tougher spots before, and Imoen has always either outwitted the bastards, or Jessie mopped the floor with them. You're going to be fine." whispered Aerie and Nalia stopped shaking inside.


"Don't worry little girl, because you have the Mighty Minsc, Jessie and Imoen on your side! As the Mighty Space Prince Boo would say, we will fight with the strength of hundred because right is on our side, or we'll just trick them and leave them feeling like they've been Kancho'd by someone wearing an oven mitt made of sandpaper!" declaimed Minsc. Nalia grinned because that really would be exactly what Space Prince Boo would say. Of course she was a bit silly earier, in somehow thinking that Minsc looked rather like Dr. Ambrose Rashomon, the world celebrated author of the Mighty Magical Space Prince Boo books. He had died two years ago, leaving behind dozens of wonderful books, books that she had cherished in her childhood.

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Techno-Ninja or Cyber Shinobi (As of; or part of one of the eight Techno-Ninja clans: For example the Heian or Edo clan) Techno-Ninjas appeared fairly soon after the end of the Twenty First Century. They were and are the benchmark for the effectiveness of a covert operative. As “smooth as an Edo Techno-Ninja†or “as violent as a Heian Cyber-Shinobi†would be examples of describing a corp merc’s technique or personality. All members are born into the clan, very few examples exist of outsiders joining.


All Techno-Ninjas follow the guiding principles of their philosophy. “Mother Nature can always be improved.†All Techno-Ninjas study martial arts starting out from childhood, and at the age of 17, they are tested to see if they would be permitted to undergo the “Rite of Enhancement.†They receive their first artificial augmentation, typically implanted claws extending and retracting by will from the fingertips. As each ninja or shinobi completes another successful mission for their Oyabun, or Head of their clan, they are allowed a new implanted weapon, or cybernetic battle enhancement, like strength enhancement modules or stealth devices. Most adult ninja’s typically have anywhere from 30-70% of their bodies replaced with bionic modifications to their physiology, making them by far the most heavily enhanced and effective natural human mercenaries in the world today.


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Everyone reacted instinctively to the bright lights. Minsc yanked out a huge 40-millimeter recoilless infantry auto-cannon out of his rucksack. The monster belched out shells the size of a soda pop bottle; the propellant gasses directed backwards balancing the savage recoil, allowing a human being to withstand the shock of firing a weapon that was normally vehicle mounted. Jan pulled out a strangely shaped pistol out of his evil bag, with a diminutive handle and a ridiculously large bell-mouthed muzzle. Kelsey looked grim, and despite his obvious fright, pulled out a small automatic bowcaster pistol out of his vest pocket. He was normally a non-combatant, but even he understood that this was not a good situation. Aerie also knew that their backs were against the wall, and she triggered the modifications to her wheelchair that Jan had installed just a year ago. She had been with Troubleshooters Extraordinaire long enough to realize that her own insistence on never carrying or using personal weapons not only endangered herself, but her friends as well, so finally gave permission to Jan to do his worst. Four muzzles poked out of the body of her wheelchair. Two of the muzzles connected to the fully automatic infantry bowcasters built into the chair, firing 8-millimeter laser guided smart bolts. The third muzzle was for the flamethrower, and the last muzzle was for the rapid-fire grenade launcher, loaded with flash bangs and dazzle grenades. She gripped the joystick that popped out of her armrest grimly; she won’t let her friends be hurt!


Nalia was stunned when Jessie grabbed her, covered her mouth and put a knife to her throat. Keldorn was shocked when it seemed as if Jessie and Imoen had turned against him and his young charge. He reflexively grabbed for the .80 caliber stunner he had tucked away into his coat pocket, but froze as he looked down the barrel of the small automatic pistol Imoen aimed at his face. His face worked as his instinct to draw and protect his principle warred with the recognition that Imoen was ready to put a 4 mm slug into his brain. Then he realized why Imoen pointed a gun at him, to keep him from doing something stupid while his tactical brain worked it out. Now he knew why Jessie and Imoen were world-class operatives. They had reached the correct, logical and inevitable conclusion for this situation, and were reacting precisely the right way to maximize their chances of survival. If they were caught in an ambush by a superior force, the only card they had to play at all would be to threaten to kill Nalia, to rob them of the payoff. Imoen had drawn a pistol to give him the few seconds for his mind to work rather than instinctively reacting to a threat to Nalia. He nodded, then fully drew his stunner, and like the rest of the team faced outward toward the lights that had them surrounded, ready to add his fire in their final defense. Imoen turned around to face the lights, her pistol at the ready. Now it was all up to her.


“Vaelag. So now you kidnap girls for ransom? You make me sick. So much for the vaulted honor of the Heian Techno-Ninja clan!†Imoen’s voice rang with scorn and dripped vitriol as she shouted at the as yet invisible Vaelag Hashimoto. Imoen was playing for time and she was playing to Vaelag’s Ninjas, who might be scum, but still believed in the old traditions. As soon as Imoen had detected the presence of many people in the parking garage with her Power, she had sent Jessie a warning. She couldn’t scan their minds until they got closer, but as soon as she had recognized the voice, her brain started frantically to improvise. Now she released her own version of the Taint into her bloodstream, and her mind, clear of fear, doubt and uncertainty, raced like a supercomputer, coming up with contingency plans, and analyzing possible moves like a grandmaster chess player. Her Taint enhanced Power pinpointed the location of all the people within a hundred yard radius, and to her dismay, she realized they were well and truly mouse trapped.


The Oyabun of the Heian Techno-Ninja clan stepped forward into the light. He held up a finger, and shaking it as if chiding a wayward child, he glared in turn at Jessie, Imoen, and Jan.


“I hear the fear in your voice, Imoen. And what have we got here? My property, yes? Turn over my slave and young Nalia here, and the rest of you may go free. Resist and, well, let’s not talk about unpleasant things, shall we?†He clapped his hands once, and over 60 men and women stepped out into the pool of light, out of the covering blackness, dressed in the traditional black soft battle armor and face masks of a Techno-Ninja warrior.


“Jan is not your slave, and you’re not getting Nalia! We’ll kill her first, rather than see her mindwiped!†Replied Imoen angrily. At that word, Nalia stopped struggling against the steel cables of Jessie Gorionova’s arms and stood stock-still. She was going to be mindwiped? Why? The drug erased several months of the victim’s most recent long-term memory. It had originally been developed as a medical tool to research amnesia and memory dysfunction in the brain, but as researchers found out, it produced irreversible and permanent cognitive damage. A few weeks after being administered, the drug performed a mental lobotomy on the subject.


With a shock, Nalia also remembered the drug being used in several kidnapping cases her father had worked on in the past. While extremely expensive and hard to procure, in several high stakes kidnapping cases, the hostage was injected with the drug, so that he/she could provide no information to the authorities, and released after the ransom was paid. Since kidnapping was still a capital crime in the states, the extra mandatory death penalty imposed on criminals who used mindwipe wasn’t a matter of concern to someone who was already going into a lethal chamber if they got caught. This was why Jessie had held a knife to her throat. She would much rather be dead than mindwiped, and Nalia felt only gratitude for the woman who stood ready to give her escape from a fate literally worse than death. To become a drooling, vacant eyed walking corpse, with the mind erased, or even more horribly, aware and trapped inside her own body was the stuff of nightmares.


“Now be reasonable, Imoen. You’re clearly outnumbered, and we’ve got a lot more firepower than your pathetic little group has got. And despite my slave upgrading your weapons, there is no chance you’re going to survive any sort of unpleasantness. Now you’re about to threaten to make sure I get it first. Aren’t you?†Vaelag’s face held a most unpleasant smirk.


Imoen’s face froze, because that was exactly what she was about to say. What was Vaelag planning? She found out immediately as Vaelag’s form wavered for a fraction of a second, as if his body was a heat mirage. A hologram projector! He wasn’t here in person at all! They couldn’t even threaten him!


“Now you listen to me, you stupid bitch! I want Nalia De’Arnise, and my slave right now! Or my Ninjas will kill all of you! NOW!†Vaelag’s face contorted with rage as he finally revealed his hatred for the people who had humiliated him three years ago, by escaping with Jan Jansen.


*Jes! What do we do?* Sent Imoen into Jessie’s mind.


*We fight. There is no way Vaelag is going to let us walk out of here even if we give up Jan and Nalia. I love you, sis.* Replied Jessie to her sister’s telepathic voice.


“We’re going to fight. Guys, I love you all.†Jessie spoke in a whisper to all her friends. Jan gripped his exotic pistol grimly. Minsc put his index finger inside the trigger guard for his monster cannon, and flicked the safety to full auto. Aerie flipped open the cover of the triggers for the weapons built into her wheelchair. She and Minsc exchanged one wordless glance, full of love and understanding, without regrets for the lives that led them to this moment. Kelsey looked at Imoen, and with a wince recognized that Imoen’s only concern at this moment was for her sister. He just gripped his bowcaster pistol, determined not to let his friends down. Keldorn looked at Nalia, remembering all the years that he and Maria had treated her as if she was one of their own daughters, after Lorianne De’Arnise had died. Nalia closed her eyes. Jessie looked at her sister, wordlessly communicating all her love. Imoen’s brain was still working faster than ever before in her life, desperately trying to figure out some way out of this situation.


“Well? What’s your answer?†shouted the hologram of Vaelag Hashimoto impatiently.


“You know, that’s the problem with you, Vaelag. You’re always rushing things, assuming that you’ve already won, when any prudent person would take the time to make sure of his position before jumping to conclusions.†The voice literally froze everyone, friend and foe alike. A tall, lean black man in a gray trench coat walked into view, on his shoulder the biggest missile launcher any of them had ever seen. It was aimed past the Ninjas at the large brown van mounting the floodlights that had them illuminated.


“This here is a Hellfire 80 anti-bunker missile, and as you know the warhead for one of these babies is over 50 pounds of Deuodetonic D. Now, I’ve got it aimed right at your van, Vaelag. Of course the blast is just as likely to kill Jessie and her friends. Sorry Jessie.†Said Valygar Corthala.


“That’s ok, Val. Just make damned sure that you get Vaelag!†replied Jessie Gorionova. Their situation wasn’t as grim as it was just a few seconds ago, but they weren’t out of the crapper just yet. Now it was up to her sister to figure out a way out of this predicament.


“Corthala! What the hell are you doing here?†Vaelag didn’t react well to surprises, and his reaction to having his moment of revenge against the Gorionova sisters interrupted rattled his composure.


“Just repaying a favor. Besides, I really enjoy watching scum like you squirm.†Replied Valygar with calculated insouciance.


“That’s it, you bastard! I’ll gut you slowly…†Vaelag reacted badly when people stood up to him. He was so used to being feared and obeyed that when someone stood up to his heavy handed bullying, he usually lost it, ranting and shouting, working himself up to a real frenzy.


“Val, you got a good lock on that van? Got a good tone on the warhead, and is the rocket armed?†Imoen lazily asked in a loud voice.


“Oh yeah.†Replied Valygar taking a better grip on his monster weapon.


The ranting from Vaelag’s van stopped abruptly. Like a lot of bullies he was a total coward. The personal threat to his own skin was like a bucket of ice water, dousing his rage. Now she had to shape the situation to her needs…


“Vaelag, if you think your Ninjas can take us, bring it on. We’ll make absolutely sure we get you first, and you won’t ever enjoy any of those 25 million New Dollars. What do you say, Vaelag, I’m all up for some ‘Unpleasantness’!†She had to make Vaelag think that she was totally willing to start this mutual suicide pact. She had to make him start thinking of an alternate solution.


“Vaelag, let it be the Octagon. Bring out your best, to face me in the field of honor, in the traditional way. Or are you a coward?†Jessie knew even without Imoen’s telepathic prompting that their only chance to survive was to let him believe he could still have it all, Nalia and Jan Jansen. If he believed he could take all the chips, he’d be willing to risk it, and once he accepts the terms for the Octagon, his own Ninjas would enforce the decision, and the result of the Octagon if she won. After all, she had done it before three years ago. Since she was the warrior, she called out the formal challenge.


Jan had been Vaelag’s slave, his genetic slave, sold to him by Genom Corporation. Jan is a Tesla, tweaked in the unstable 23rd XY22.4 recombinant sequence. Like previous attempts to reproduce geniuses from history, most Teslas were failures, either exhibiting extreme mental disorders or utterly normal. Jan was one of the few successes, capable of taking off the shelf components, and using his wicked imagination, and years of training by Genom instructors to create unique, and extremely effective weaponry. Vaelag had paid millions for his slave, and when Lissa Hashimoto had fallen in love with him, and paid Troubleshooters Extraordinaire to smuggle him out of Japan to freedom, he nearly killed his own half sister. At that time, Jessie had faced eight of the Heian Techno-Ninja clan warriors in single combat, and easily defeated them all. They had to leave Lissa behind, which nearly broke Jan’s heart.


“Octagon, OCTAGON! OCTAGON!†the chant was begun by some of the Ninjas, starting with those ones who remembered Troubleshooters Extraordinaire’s last encounter with their clan, three years ago. They still remembered Jessie humiliating them in the Octagon last time, and they wanted to see her brought down.


“Done!†shouted Vaelag. He’d see if the fabled Jessie Gorionova could withstand his “Special†Ninjas.


“Then these are the terms. You win, you get Jan, and Nalia. If Jessie wins, we walk out of here, and we get Lissa Hashimoto!†Jan’s eyes lit up with unexpected hope as Imoen finished declaring her bid. Imoen looked down at the little man, and gave him a crooked smile. Their failure to get Lissa out three years ago had bothered them all, and suddenly and unexpectedly there was a chance to fix it. Jan was family after all, and to her assessment, there was little extra risk demanding Lissa as part of the stakes. Besides, Vaelag’s response would give them a better idea of how confident he felt about his treachery. Because she absolutely knew Vaelag would try something to give himself an edge.


“Fine, Fine. You can have the little slut, and the baby girl too!†At those words, Jan’s eyes blazed. He looked at Jessie with mute appeal, unable to even speak. Jessie smiled back confidently, and gripped his shoulder.


Imoen gestured, and everyone gathered around in a huddle. Even Valygar drew in closer.


“Ok, we’re going to get out of this. We finally got a paddle, even though we’re still up the creek. We’ve gotten Vaelag to agree to the Octagon, and even though we absolutely know he’s going to cheat, it’s a lot better odds than a shootout would be. Everyone keep your weapons trained on the van, and you too Val. Thank god you made it in time when Minsc called you! Jan, help Jessie get all geared up. Keep a close eye on things, Vaelag will try something, and the more warning we get, the better our odds for walking out of here alive.â€Â


“Urm…Uncle Keldorn, what is the Octagon?†asked Nalia quietly.


“It’s how all the Techno-Ninja clans keep from killing each other in the streets. They’ve got this tradition in place where if you have a dispute, you choose up to eight warriors, and they fight it out, one on one. Except in this case, it’s going to be Jessie against all eight, cause none of us even have a snowflake’s chance in hell of beating a fully upgraded Techno-Ninja. Don’t worry Nals, she’s done this before, and sent them all crying home to mommy.†Replied Imoen confidently.


“Why is it called the Octagon though?†asked Nalia very quietly.


“No one knows. It’s just something to call it, I guess. Jan, help her load up. Agent Firecam, if you could take Nals, Jessie needs to get ready.†Said Imoen.


Jan began to quickly yank out more devices from his black bag. Jessie discarded most of the weapons that she was currently equipped with, the disabling combat devices, like the shuriken tipped with tranquilizers. She then replaced them with much more lethal and deadly versions from Jan’s capacious bag. The weapon packs were also larger, for example she attached a bulky flame gun to her right wrist and a zapper to her left . There was absolutely no reason to hold back from using the really dangerous stuff in Jan’s bag, which she had only a few minutes ago warned him from using for fear of collateral damage to civilians. To Nalia, it looked unspeakably grim, watching a warrior preparing for the fight of her life.


“Imoen, if Jessie loses, give me up to them. I’ll figure out someway to kill myself. I won’t let anyone die for my sake.†Said Nalia calmly, even though her hands shook badly.


“No, Nals, Jessie won’t lose. She’s never lost a fight in her life, and she’s not about to start now. Don’t worry, in a few minutes, we’re going to get out of here, with Jan’s girlfriend and daughter.†Imoen liked Nalia’s sangfroid. Maybe this one was good enough for her sister? But now was definitely not the time to think about that. What really had her worried was the confidence she heard in Vaelag’s voice when he even tossed in Lissa’s child in the table stakes. What the hell did he have to make him feel like he had the Octagon wrapped up? He wasn’t close enough for her to scan his mind, and the Ninja’s closest to her didn’t know anything.


Jessie finally strapped on all her weaponry. She looked like some sort of warrior from those online adventure games Nalia loved to play in her free time at the university. The esoteric weapons packs strapped to her wrists, biceps, thighs, legs, and waist looked sleek, lethal and dangerous. The form fitting battle armor covered the rest of her body. Snugly. She could see her muscles ripple with every movement. As Nalia watched, she finally pulled out her sword from the duffle bag, and Minsc helped her attach the sheath to the slim backpack that contained the brains of the stealth suit. She shook herself, to make sure that all her equipment was firmly attached and strapped in, and then she took off her soft leather cap, and her facemask.


“Ok, guys, watch out for any tricks, and just sit back and watch the show.†With those words, Nalia simply lost it. Here was this perfect stranger they had met a few hours ago, about to face EIGHT Techno-Ninjas for her sake, and the sake of her friends. She was about to fight to the death, and here she was cracking jokes. She darted from behind Keldorn, and jumped into her arms. She kissed Jessie Gorionova as hard as she could. She didn’t really mean to, but somehow toward the end of the kiss, it became open mouthed.


“For luck!†her face coloring furiously, she went back behind Agent Keldorn’s back, where she was protected from stray shots.


“Hey, does that mean you’re our sister, Princess Nalia?†said Imoen with a perfectly straight face as Minsc, Valygar and Jan whistled in appreciation. Still blushing furiously, she shook her head quickly. Sisterly was NOT the feeling she had for Jessie Gorionova.


Jessie gave a crooked half grin, and put her facemask back on. With the flick of a switch, the simple soft leather cap she had been wearing triggered the memory materials built into the sophisticated armor fabric. It transformed into a sleek and deadly looking combat helmet, the memory composites “remembering†their hard, rigid shapes under pulses of microwave energy injected into the previously soft material. She slipped the helmet on her head, her eyes now entirely covered by the integral visor. She pulled her collapsium-plated blade out of the sheath strapped to her back, and walked to the center of the area between the two parties. She just stood there, the long, katana shaped silver weapon point down, the black, synth-leather grip held by both hands.


The hologram of Vaelag Hashimoto clapped his hands, and a huge Ninja stepped out from the ranks of waiting Techno-Ninjas. He was built like a sumo wrestler, about as wide as he was tall, holding two powered war hammers in his hands.


“Me crush you, crush you to GOO!!!†he roared as he brandished the explosive powered weapons, which normally were used to attack hover tanks.


*Jes! He’s a cyberzombie!!!* The warning in Jessie’s mind carried terror and desperation, Imoen now close enough to the gigantic Techno-Ninja to scan his mind. Jessie didn’t bother with replying. There really wasn’t much anyone else could do anymore. She locked her mind into the stark black and white mental landscape of battle. She would win. Or she would die. And there was no way in hell she was going to let her sister and her extended family and friends down. Ever.


“Nals! Vaelag has turned that Techno-Ninja into a cyberzombie! You’re a Gibson, help her! Please, I’m begging you!†Imoen desperately whispered to Nalia. The young De’Arnise heiress stood stock still as she realized that Jessie was facing a cyberzombie in a duel to the death.

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What are Cyberzombies? You can’t hook up a brain to a computer; they’ve all ended up in failure, with the subject’s mind hopelessly insane and brain damaged. Only the Gibsons, with the gene-engineered extra organs in the brain, the so-called “cybernetic third eye†had the ability to safely integrate the mind with machine. But they’re all dead now, they all went homicidally insane with the onset of puberty. The lesson is simple. Don’t hook up human brains to computers. But what if you didn’t care what happened with the poor victim? You’ve got a cyberzombie. The technology is blacklisted and proscribed, but if you have the money, you could get it.


Hook up the subject’s mind with a computer. Let the computer scan the mind; assimilate the person’s martial arts and weapons abilities. Now the computer can fight like a human, only much, much faster because optical processors work faster than neurons. A secondary nervous system, of optical cables controlling the muscles directly, bypassing the original much slower organic system will significantly improve the cyberzombie’s speed. The mind goes insane, of course. But with some fairly decent off the shelf artificial intelligence programs to mimic human behavior, you could hide the fact that the personality that used to inhabit the body is gone. In its place lives a cold, glittering golem, with the preternatural speed of a machine, and the combat skills of a human’s lifetime of experience and training.


The Cyber-Bestiary: by Dr. Charles Volo, Elvis University, Tennessee.


Jessie Gorionova released the Taint within her body, not in the small, controlled doses she had used all her life, tamed and fettered by her mind, but in a savage flood that swept away all traces of her humanity. The dark, sinuous serpent uncoiled from the tree that hung Odin, ancient, hungry and evil. As the cold reptilian shadow took over her mind, it was no longer Jessie who controlled the Taint, but the Taint that controlled Jessie. Unholy power filled her body like the blessing of a fallen angel, and she knew no mercy, no compassion, and she became what she was designed to be, an inhuman killing machine. This was how it was meant to be, this was right, this was as it should be! Death poised behind her shoulders, whispering and feeding her inner darkness. The bloodlust was so sweet, so very sweet. She exulted in her terrible might, and her mind sharpened into crystalline clarity, each thought dropping like a pitiless snowflake in an artic land without shelter. The world froze as she fully accepted the Taint into her soul, the dark joy filling her as she poised to reach out and slay. The perfect predator that was Jessie Gorionova prepared to feast.


The huge cyberzombie roared his challenge again, his twin powered war hammers raised high in a display of his titanic strength. Each war hammer weighed over two hundred pounds, inlaid with collapsium, the immense sledge-like head containing compressed Deuodetonic D at both ends. At the striking end of the hammer was a shaped charge, lined with depleted uranium, that when detonated produced an explosive powered jet of uranium particles capable of punching through no less than 100mm of Chobham 5 armor. At the other end of the hammerhead was a pellet of Deuodetonic in a venturi that produced enough thrust to precisely counterbalance the massive recoil as the primary detonated. The awesomely heavy weapon was used by assault troops in powered exoskeleton battle armor to attack hover tanks and other vehicles in close combat. The huge bulk and muscles made it abundantly clear that this Techno-Ninja was designed for pure strength and massive armor implants in his body. The cyberzombie process gave him the reflexes and speed to match Jessie’s own.


Even though the battle computer implanted into the cyberzombie’s body made him inhumanly fast and quick, at the basic level, he still remained the mind of a human, imprinted into a machine. He wasn’t paying attention to what he should be doing, instead reveling in atavistic chest thumping. The serpent watched from behind Jessie’s eyes as the Techno-Ninja lifted his war hammers, moving under the Taint with glacial slowness. She had all the time in the world, as she appeared to merely shift her grip on her sword, in an innocuous movement ignored by her opponent. She bent her ring finger in a movement not possible in a normal human, and the sensors in her battle gloves triggered the flame gun mounted above her right wrist.


The flame gun was a simple chamber, lined with collapsium, made strong enough to endure the explosive forces to be released in the confined space. Four ounces of magnesium and phosphorous metal was squirted out of the small aperture at the muzzle of the incendiary weapon by a pellet of compressed Deuodetonic D exploding with thirty times the power of an identical mass of TNT. The metal flowed like a liquid out the tiny hole, compressed by the force of the explosion, at twice the speed of sound. The jet of molten metal ignited in mid-flight, and the thin stream capable of cutting through inches of steel struck the neck, the armor bared by the raising of the twin war hammers. His head exploded in a fiery blast, the brain and cranial spaces exploding from superheated steam as the magnesium and phosphorous burned at over 4000 degrees. It sprayed burning metal all over the place, liquid fire gushing from the eye sockets and the mouth, from the orifices in the armored skull. The cyberzombie died, not even the computer implanted within his brain immune to being flash fried instantly.


“Watch your head.†Said Jessie coldly, as Vaelag Hashimoto looked in utter astonishment at the cyberzombie burned away merrily, the body’s liquids sizzling and releasing great gouts of steam from the fleshless skull, the face burnt off completely. His face twisted in frustrated hatred, his first champion defeated within three seconds of entering the Octagon. A serpent can’t smile, but the terrible gleam in Jessie’s eyes showed her inner amusement at the macabre jest.


“Nakajima!†snarled Vaelag. A short, compactly built Techno-Ninja stepped forward, unsheathing a long katana from his back. Parts of the Katana gleamed like perfect mirrors, showing that it was inlaid with collapsium. Nakajima triggered the fusion blade, and he blurred into motion, leaping at Jessie with his sword poised to slash. Light filled the dim parking garage, as hydrogen atoms were smashed together inside the haft of the plasma sword, and the resultant ultra hot matter, incandescent with its own artificially produced sunlight, vented along the length of the sword. Magnetic fields of terra gauss strength confined the million plus temperature plasma along a thin tube parallel to the material blade of the weapon, and collapsium inserts kept the foamed composite alloys from melting from the heat of the sword’s true cutting edge.


Nakajima’s leap turned into a frenzied flèche, and Jessie only managed to avoid the vicious thrust by throwing her body to the side and rolling her body out of the way. Rather than following through on the judo roll, and ending up standing at the end of the classic evasion move, she leapt up using her right arm and right leg in the middle of the maneuver. This was well, because she was out of the way of the thrown shuriken that Nakajima had tossed in anticipation of her trajectory. As she spun in the air, her body unable to shed the torque imparted by her earlier roll, she threw a concussion bomb at the Techno-Ninja. The pellet of Deuodetonic D exploded on contact with the ground, the overpressure of the explosion throwing off Nakajima’s next step. Jessie landed awkwardly, her left shoulder taking the brunt of the impact.


She ignored the pain, and in a move that would have left the onlookers shaking their heads in disbelief, had they been able to see the incredibly fast movements clearly, her left leg bent backwards, and her prehensile toes grabbed a shuriken out of a holder on the back of her waist. In a move that the Techno-Ninja just couldn’t conceive of, thus the electronic hag riding on his back couldn’t either, Jessie whipped her left leg in a flat kick that also propelled the shuriken as accurately as her arms. The small six-pointed star whirred through the air, the centripetal force popping out the molecular edge that was normally retracted within the body of the shuriken, allowing it to be handled safely. The throwing star struck the Ninja over the stomach, the composite monomolecular fibers of his armor capable of shrugging off high-speed projectiles, but vulnerable to a low speed edged weapons. The shuriken ripped through the folds of Nakajima’s soft armor suit, and delivered the deadly payload hidden within the star’s bulbous center. Pure fluorine gas jetted into the diaphragm, and the luckless wight’s sternum bulged obscenely due to the immense internal pressures. Nakajima stopped dead, most of his internal organs boiling and foaming like a violently shaken bottle of beer by the utterly corrosive gas. For the first time, Jessie used her sword. She disdained from using the full power of her Hatori Hanzo Antimatter katana, and pressing the trigger on the haft, exuded the impossibly sharp collapsium edge from the blade of the sword. With one lazy, contemptuous slash, she sliced him in two at the waist.


As both parts Nakajima’s body fell into separate twitching halves, both halves disgorging obscenely red foam and liquidified organs, Jessie finally smiled. This was almost certainly the last freebie. So far she had killed the first two cyberzombies without a single scratch to herself. Now the rest of the cyberzombies controlled by Vaelag had good data on how her body performed in combat, enough to fine tune their own combat algorithms. Her deadliest power, the ability to psychically disrupt the concentration of any human minds within range was useless against the mechanical puppets facing her.


She still had quite a few tricks left up her sleeve, but it was going to be a lot harder. With every opponent she faced, the remaining zombies were going to learn more and more about her abilities. This situation was almost certainly going to kill her, and her only hope was a mutual kill for the last opponent. Had she not been under the Taint, she would simply have sadly accepted that as the price for Imoen’s and the rest of her friends’ lives. Now, she merely felt a vague disappointment that she wouldn’t be able to kill Vaelag personally, but the rest of her mind reveled in the slaughter, and she smiled behind her facemask at her next opponent.


Twenty seconds ago:


Nalia stood stock still as Imoen’s desperate whisper sliced into her brain like an icicle. A cyberzombie here? And how did Imoen know she was a Gibson, quite probably the only one left alive in the world? Nalia pushed that question to the back of her head, and listened to Imoen.


“Here’s my proteus, and I’m hooking up the main bus so you can access all the Icebreakers I have, and use the processor to augment your own proteus. The password is ‘3atme’. Now the IP address of Vaelag’s estate is Break into his computers, there has to be a master shutoff code for all his cyberzombies!†Imoen whispered frantically, as her flying fingers wired her min###### computer to Nalia’s own.


Nalia closed her eyes behind the combat glasses that Keldorn had fitted over her eyes as the Octagon began. Because modern combat weapons were sometimes energy based, one of the most important pieces of equipment anyone carried into combat were combat goggles, the smart plastic lenses reacting instantly to light strong enough to scorch the retina. Nalia took a deep breath, and LEAPT into the Matrix.


Nalia shed her normal Valkyrie Image, and became her true self. Her inner eye, the so-called “Cybernetic Third Eye†of populist literature took complete control of her vision centers. The visual cortex in her brain no longer received input from the two warm hazel brown eyes that nature had equipped her. Instead, the half organic, half mechanical device allowed her to see, touch and manipulate data directly, simply by thinking. There was no virtual reality environment for her swim in. She saw the world as shifting patterns of computer code, and mathematical representations. It took a lifetime of training and a genius level mind to really use the direct connection Nalia had with computers, but she had the mind, and she had been training herself since 13, when she reached puberty.


Unlike the hundreds of her sisters and brother Gibsons who had gone mad, Nalia had remained stable and sane. The best geneticists her father could hire had determined that the sheer volume of data fed into the brains of her poor genetic siblings had overwhelmed their ability to process the information, triggering some kind of hardwired berserker death wish. The consensus was that this was a flaw in the original design, despite a dissenting voice by Dr. Lain Iwakura, who believed that it was a poison pill, a deliberate flaw in the genetic blueprint. No one would ever really know, since Dr. Thomas Wintermute had killed himself shortly after the mass homicide/suicides began. Nalia was a genius. Despite the highly advanced Eugenics sciences of the twenty second century, it was still impossible to create geniuses with absolute certainty. You could use genetic material from past geniuses, but the ability still eluded being pinned down, it still remained luck of the draw. Her ability to think, process information, her very thought processes were superior to almost all normal and most genetically enhanced humans. This was how she was able to handle the information overload that killed the other Gibsons.


Nalia’s Image resided in her proteus, an image she used to conceal her true abilities as a Gibson. She now discarded that disguise, and leapt into the Matrix, her mind directly controlling the Matrix interfacing gear built into the compact, extremely powerful min###### computer. To any observers watching her in the Matrix, she was an endlessly shape shifting chimera, a glittering chrome butterfly, a mountain of ice, a dragon sleeping inside amber, a thousand shapes mutating from one form into another.


She ruthlessly dove into Imoen’s proteus, seizing hundreds of glittering black instruments, each one an ICE-breaker of a quality that Nalia had never before seen. Imoen had amassed her ICE-breakers for years, using her telepathic ability to sneak into cutting edge hacker sites wherever her travels had taken her. Passwords were not safe from Imoen’s ability if she could just get within a few yards of a person with access.


Nalia almost negligently hacked into the Nippon Products Archology; she was going to need all the computational power she could hijack, and Imoen’s password database contained the backdoor access into the Nippon Products pyramid. She jumped into the Hashimoto estates firewall, and completely ignoring stealth, brute-forced her way into the security mainframe, relying on speed to keep from triggering the system alarms. She was past the first barrier almost instantly, using a quantum number cruncher powered by all the unused processors in the Nippon Products Archology that she had taken over for her own use. Slapping the alarm programs with a kill-worm, she got down to work. Vaelag was incredibly paranoid, and had the security system built almost as secure as some high level government installations.


“Double-U Tee Eff!†exclaimed one system administrator for the Nippon Products Data-net. He had been napping just a few seconds ago, as he customarily did in the very long late evening shift. Suddenly, all his system alarms pegged off the scale as he lost control of most of the idle computational power of the immense computer system that ran the gigantic pyramid.


“What?†asked another startled sys-admin.


“We just lost control of mainframes 12 through 24!†replied the first.


“Wide-eye! And you just won the national lottery! Lol! That’s impossible, Kenji! Rotflmao! Stop kidding around, and tell me what’s really going on.†The startled admin replied.


“No shit, someone hijacked half our mainframes!†said Kenji.


“Oh Em Gee! You’re right! Send out the webangels! I’m jumping in!†the second admin had just seen his own displays flash red across the board as his own terminal reported the break in. He pulled on his own webdancing gear, as Kenji activated the automated anti-intrusion software. He jacked into the Matrix, and followed the polygon shapes of the webangels toward the intruder. He arrived at the same time as the software guardians did, just to see something that literally seemed to mutate from second to second before his disbelieving eyes shredded the Intrusion Countermeasures Electronic software programs. The incredibly beautiful and alien Image saw him, and the giant spider made of origami raised one leg, and sent a streak of blue light at the admin.


The admin ripped off his webdancing glasses, and threw them at his console hard enough to shatter the tough smart lenses. He covered his eyes with his hands, and violent shivers shook his entire body.


“Double-U Tee Eff! What happened! Koji! Talk to me!†exclaimed a startled Kenji.


“I just got zapped by an optical overload by something that I’ve never seen before!†replied Koji in a shaking voice.


“That’s impossible, we’ve got overload filters hardwired into our access nodes!†Replied Kenji.


“And I’m telling you, something I have never seen before in 30 years of webdancing zapped me with some kind of optic overload! Right after it shredded the webangels like they were nothing! The finest intruder bots in existence, and that…that thing zapped them like they were flies!†said Koji, profoundly disturbed by the experience.


“What do we do?†asked Kenji desperately.


“We pull the connection!†Koji’s fingers raced on the touched controlled hologram displays as he prepared to kill the bundles of optical data feeds that were being used by the intruder.


“Oh shit! They’re locked! My overrides don’t work! This S.O.B has got superuser access!†snarled Koji as his controls refused to even acknowledge the commands he entered.


All of a sudden, both Koji’s and Kenji’s displays went back to their friendly, comforting green. Exactly 12.34 seconds after the first alarm, the server room became absolutely normal.


A few hours later, after Koji and Kenji tried to access the system log so they could report to the entire incident to their superiors, they found to their complete disbelief that all the records, even the security camera in the server room had been erased without a single trace. The two sysadmins looked at each other, and shaking their heads in unison, blew a month’s salary after the end of their shift getting stinking drunk on expensive scotch.


It took just under twelve seconds for the millions of terra-flops per second processors Nalia hijacked to run the quantum mathematics based ICE-breaker to brute force guess the password to the firewall. The demonic motorcycle tucked into its saddlebags the glittering black battle-axe that represented the ICE-breaker in the Matrix, and she roared inside Vaelag’s mainframe. Nalia cloned herself into thousands of Chibi-Nalia forms, and each one began to search a part of Vaelag’s database.


“Got it!†shouted Chibi-Nalia number 78654. It was a sequence of words and numbers. Nalia leaped out of the Matrix, and back into her own body, and opened her eyes, to look into a scene from hell.

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An unenhanced human turned into a cyberzombie is limited by the human physiology. Normal bones can’t take continued stresses of muscles performing at 100% of their true strength. The cyberzombie implant can tell the muscles to perform at their maximum output, something that natural humans can only do under life or death situations. Those stories of people lifting ground cars off their loved ones trapped underneath, or walking for miles with broken legs are simply the brain under enormous stress overriding the built-in governors of the human muscular system, which limit performance to around 20-40%.


But a Techno-Ninja was completely different. Most Techno-Ninjas by the second year of their change already have composite laminate inlaid into their bones, rendering them dozens of times stronger than their natural counterparts. They just don’t break. Also by then significant amounts of their muscle tissue have already been replaced with synthetic analogs, with vastly more efficient oxygen and glycogen transfer systems, rendering them much stronger ounce per ounce in comparison. Finally, add in the fiber optic secondary nervous system, and you’ve got something that looks and acts human, but with the battle performance envelope of a Troll Mark IV combat robot. They were also much deadlier than the Troll, since their reflexes and hand-to-hand skills are those of a martial artist who had been training for years, not a collection of canned software.


All this made the thought of turning a Cyber-Ninja into a cyberzombie enormously attractive to many people who were willing to pay for the ultimate in soldiers. A Techno-Ninja who had been turned into a cyberzombie was an unstoppable juggernaut. Now naturally the Techno-Ninjas in question have a certain aversion to having their brains scooped out with an ice cream spoon, and having a computer stuffed in its place. Techno-Ninjas have a tendency to react violently at the thought of the idea.


The Cyber-Bestiary: by Dr. Charles Volo, Elvis University, Tennessee.


When Nalia De’Arnise opened her eyes, she looked on a scene right out of hell. There were body parts scattered all over the duel ground, charred and burned almost beyond recognition. Most horribly of all, one Techno-Ninja was flopping around violently, with sickening force and speed, the force of his gyrations throwing the headless body several feet into the air. This was the sixth opponent Jessie had faced, and she had used her Zapper against him. The Zapper was an evil combination of a low powered maser and a super-conductive coil holding enough electrical energy to power a small town. The coherent beam of microwaves emitted by the maser was specifically tuned to the molecular resonance frequency for nitrogen. It created a straight path of ionization from the device to the target. Along that path of ionized gas molecules, the super-conductive coil discharged enough electricity to make a thunderbolt pale in comparison. The man-made lightning bolt had vaporized the cyberzombie’s head, and the residual electrical charge was taking several minutes to work itself out of the headless ninja’s corpse, making his artificial muscles twitch and work spasmodically.


What really scared Nalia was that Jessie was clutching her left side with her right arm, gripping her sword with her left. She was obviously hurt badly, and even though she still stood on her feet, facing the last ninja with her katana ready, Nalia ached inside at the sight of her. From the corner of her eye, she could see the rest of Troubleshooters Extraordinaire holding their weapons with grim expressions, getting ready to rescue Jessie, no matter the cost. She closed her eyes, and jumped into the Matrix once again, this time taking over the idiot simple computer controlling the loudspeaker system in the parking garage. Naturally, someone as paranoid as Vaelag Hashimoto had set up the shutdown trigger locked to his own voice pattern.


“Five-nine-forty-Seven-dash-climbmountNiitaka!†The loudspeaker bellowed out the shutdown code in Vaelag’s voice. The result was spectacular. Jessie’s last opponent and twenty of the original sixty Techno-Ninjas simply…fell over. When the controlling computer of a cyberzombie was shutdown, the original organic brain took over. Jessie’s opponent sat down, and began to scream in an atonal voice, yanking out his dagger, and stabbing himself in the legs over and over, screaming all the while. Another ninja began to ravenously eat his own hands, his teeth tearing savagely at the artificial nerves and natural flesh of his fingers. Most began to twitch and shudder, moaning and groaning piteously. Their minds had gone completely and utterly insane a long time ago, the ego completely shattered by the cyberzombie process. What was left was a wounded animal, beyond hope, beyond sanity.


Motoko Kusanagi was the Obachan, the old woman, and the most senior of the Heian Techno-Ninja clan’s warriors. She could barely contain her rage when she saw Jessie take down members of her clan, one by one. She desperately hoped to be called forth by Hashimoto-sama, the Oyabun, to face Jessie in combat, even though simply by looking at her, Motoko knew Jessie Gorionova was a far deadlier warrior than she could ever hope be. But as each Cyber-Shinobi fell before Jessie’s sword, alarm bells began to sound in her mind. Togusa Matsumoto, there was no way he had EVER moved that fast, using his plasma arc mace and battle shield that effortlessly, that smoothly. Togusa had never scored a touch on her in all their practice bouts, so how was he able to strike Jessie with his mace when Jessie was better than Motoko? All of Jessie’s opponents were fighting far better than they had ever before in their lives. They were reacting way too fast; they were moving like they had been taking Nervefire, their reaction speed enhanced by the highly illegal and addictive drug. Motoko knew that none of her people ever took Nervefire; she simply didn’t allow her people to take any drugs. Besides, their speed, and ability was even better than someone hopped up to the gills on Nervefire. What the hell was going on?


As a full third of the Heian Techno-Ninjas collapsed and went violently crazy, the rest of the clan stood stock-still in shock. They had no idea what the hell happened to their fellows. Even though Imoen desperately need to run up to Jessie and help her, she stayed where she was and spoke out, knowing that they had this one chance to make the Techno-Ninjas understand.


“What is the greatest sin for an Oyabun of a Ninja Clan?†she shouted the words out in a clear strong voice. She looked at Motoko Kusanagi’s eyes, knowing from the flavor of her mind that she was the most senior of the Heian clan, short of the Oyabun, Vaelag.


“The greatest sin is to sell members of his own clan to be made into PUPPETS.†Replied Motoko automatically. The word “puppet†covered many different varieties of coercion and control. Since the beginning of the Techno-Ninja clans, a hundred years ago, various attempts had been made to “ensure†the loyalty of a mercenary ninja to their employer. Chemical conditioning, brainwashing techniques, and simply taking members of a ninja’s personal family hostage had all been tried and failed. The would-be puppet master found himself facing the might of an entire clan, all-hunting for his or her life’s blood. Motoko’s suspicions crystallized into certainty as she realized exactly what Vaelag must have done to her fellow clan members. She looked into the eyes of her remaining warriors and saw the beginnings of sick comprehension, mirroring her own.


“PUPPET MASTER!!!†Motoko pointed at the van holding her Oyabun, and screamed out the terrifying, accusing words. All the assembled members of the Heian clan snarled, and as the terrified Vaelag Hashimoto cringed inside his van, desperately hoping that its walls would somehow protect him from the fury of forty Techno-Ninjas, a horde of black clad cyborgs ran to the vehicle containing their former leader. They literally ripped off and peeled back the metal walls of the van, and they dragged out the shrieking Oyabun of the Heian clan. What happened next was indescribable as they vented their fury at his stark betrayal of them all.


Imoen paid no attention to the remaining Techno-Ninjas. As soon as she knew that the Heian clan warriors knew the truth, she ran forward to her sister. She tossed aside her pistol, showing her empty hands to her sister, knowing that the demon inside her beloved Jessie’s mind would react automatically to any possible threat.


“Jessie, it’s me, Immy! Jessie, please! Come back, just let the Taint go! I love you, Jes! Please!†Imoen Gorionova was terrified, but she ran forward to place her own body between Jessie any of their friends. She knew what the Taint could do to her sister, and she believed in her sister enough to risk her own life. Jessie Gorionova had been afraid of the Taint most of her life. She had good reason to be afraid.


The Taint was not like a simple psychotropic drug that fooled the brain into thinking you were stronger, or felt better, or more alert. The Taint was a hellish cocktail of Para-###### analogs, neo-endorphins and quite a few chemicals completely unknown to medical science. They boosted Jessie’s oxygen absorption, broke down any lactic acid accumulation in her muscles instantly, increased her neurotransmitter production and decreased the electrical conductivity in her synapses. The adrenaline analogs alone changed the biological structure of her synthetic muscle tissue, compacting her muscle fibers, making them that much stronger and resilient. The result was very much like adding a turbocharger, supercharger and a nitrous oxide booster to an old-fashioned internal combustion engine. The Taint actually MADE you stronger, faster, tougher and smarter. The euphoria, and the pure power that it offered were quite real and not a fake.


The Taint also had a psychological component. Each version of the Taint was tailored to fit the exacting specifications of the genetic modification series that would use it. The M0N series had a version that improved cognition, reasoning, logic and creative thinking. Imoen thought better and faster when she used her version of the Taint. Jessie, or the JZ series got a version of the same Taint that the other warrior series got. It was an artificial psychotic. It totally suppressed the “human†emotions, like empathy, compassion and hesitation. A warrior Bhaalspawn riding the Taint could cut down his or her best friend, or sibling without any remorse or regret. And if they did, the Bhaalspawn was hooked on the Taint forever. Their own sense of horror at their actions would force them into using it to hide from themselves, to keep using it to suppress their emotions or suffer the nightmares of their own memories. The scientists of the Bhaal Corporation had designed the perfect drug that would turn the most gentle of people into murderous monsters.


Prolonged and continued use of the Taint had turned her brothers and sisters, like the late Saravok Anchev into amoral monsters. No matter the original personality, the Taint eroded basic human emotions like love, pity, and compassion, and over time had turned them into psychopathic killers. Many of the most powerful of the Bhaalspawn were completely addicted to the power trip that the drug gave them. That had always been Jessie’s greatest fear, and even though she used the Taint to boost her performance in missions and when in danger, she used small controlled doses, just enough to get by, and no more. She was able to maintain control over herself at those levels of the drug. This was only the second time in her life that she had released the chemical into her body without restraint, her fears for Imoen and the others greater than her fears for herself.


Jessie looked into the eyes of the insignificant insect in front of her, the little bitch who always told her what to do, who held her back from the sweet, sweet killing. She could feel her thin scrawny neck between her fingers, and hear the death rattle coming out of throat. Or she could simply rip open her rib cage with her bare hands, and show the pink haired whore her own heart before she feasted. She could…hurt the only person she had ever loved with all her heart? The only person left to her in the entire world now that their father was dead? The only person who truly understood her, the only person who would forgive any sin, stay with her always, and would always be there for her? The blood red haze drained from her vision, and Jessie Gorionova’s eyes changed back from the demonic crimson of the Taint, and returned to their warm violet. As she finally let the Taint go, the pain hit her like a freight train, and her eyeballs rolled up into her sockets as she let herself fall into Imoen’s waiting arms.


“Imoen, attach these sensors!†Aerie handed to Imoen several diagnostic pads, shaped like small plastic poker chips. Imoen attached them to various parts of Jessie’s body, opening up her combat armor to expose her skin. Aerie paled as she saw the hideous burns over her torso, the soft tank top scorched and charred. Aerie looked at the screen and her face was fearful as she looked into the pleading eyes of Imoen Gorionova.


“Her liver’s gone, and her spleen and her left kidney. Most of her lower intestines are cooked, and the necrotic tissue is pumping toxins into her bloodstream. She’s bleeding internally, but her body’s pinched off the arteries, so that’s under control. Her redundant circulatory system is keeping her heart and lungs going. Her backup liver is only working at 50% efficiency! Only the Taint was keeping her functional. She needs a transfusion of nanites, and she needs to go into Reverie. Right now!†Togusa Matsumoto’s plasma mace used electrical arcs to ionize pure nitrogen and vented the 7000-degree plume of superheated gas when the mace struck a solid object. He had managed to score a solid hit on Jessie’s right side, and only the superbly engineered heat reflective layer of her battle armor had prevented the seventh opponent from killing her instantly. As it was, Jessie’s wounds would have been instantly fatal on any normal human, and they would kill her within minutes at most.


Imoen nodded, and she closed her eyes for a few seconds, ordering her entire body’s supply of nanites to move to the tip of her right index finger. She pulled out a stiletto, and popped the blade out. She cut the tip of her digit, and a silver drop of liquid welled out, the drop containing millions of nano-tech machines that she placed in her sister’s left eye. Jessie shuddered as the transfusion of microscopic robots entered her body, traveling through the tear ducts straight into her bloodstream. As the millions of additional cell sized artificial mechs supplemented Jessie’s own stock of overworked nannies, they began to filter her blood of toxins, cushioning her body from shock, and began to regenerate her burnt out organs. Jessie’s muscles began to relax, and she went into Reverie, the healing trance that all Bhaalspawn are capable of, in which her body’s regenerative powers were maximized.


Imoen cradled her hideously hurt sister like a baby as tears began to drop from her eyes. She cried not only for herself, but also for her sister who never let herself cry. Jessie never cried, because she was Imoen’s protector, her defender. Jessie would do anything to protect her little Immy. She always followed Imoen’s orders and suggestions because Imoen was really the brains of the family, but in the end, when Imoen’s cunning and tricks failed, Jessie had to step up to place her body between danger and her sister. Sometimes that meant that she got hurt, and she’s always accepted that as the price she had to pay. But those were the times when Imoen really lost it, watching Jessie risk herself for her sake. Even as Imoen gave herself up to the luxury of tears, she bowed her head down, careful not to let anyone see her weakness. That was one habit she couldn’t break, a legacy of the Crèche, never let anyone see your weakness. She covertly wiped her eyes with her sleeve, and raised her head, ready to deal with the situation at hand.


Motoko Kusanagi walked slowly to Imoen Gorionova, her hands dripping blood. She stopped in front of Imoen, and slowly bowed her head. Imoen bowed back, and Motoko finally straightened her own.


“Imoen-sama, we are shamed and dishonored that our former Oyabun used foul treachery in the Octagon. We also owe you a great debt for exposing Vaelag’s betrayal of his own clan.â€Â


“Right now, we just need a van so we can get to the airport. And I want Lissa Hashimoto and her child waiting for us at the airport.†Replied Imoen quickly. She just wanted to get out of here, she wanted to go home, but most of all she needed to get Jessie out of this fucking place.


Motoko Kusanagi’s eye’s hardened. She was ashamed at what she had to say next, since she and all the remaining members of the Heian clan owed them a life debt that they could never repay, first for revealing Vaelag’s treachery, and second for ending the torment of the twenty seven Techno-Ninja’s that had been cyberzombied. Behind her, members of her clan were walking up to each stricken warrior, and after a short prayer, administering the coup-de-grace. There was no way reverse the effects of the abomination that Vaelag Hashimoto had inflicted on their fellow clan members, death was a mercy in their condition.


“I regret most dearly, Imoen-sama, but Lissa-sama is now Oyabun. She must stay here as the head of the Heian Techno-Ninja clan. That is her true duty as the last remaining member of the Hashimoto family.†Said Motoko firmly.


“She must first be ratified by all the members of the clan, including those who are over-seas on contracts, hai? And she must be willing to become the next Oyabun, correct? All I really want for Lissa and her child is the choice. She deserves the right to choose her own destiny, and if she is to be Oyabun, let it be her own decision. Just tell her that I will free Jan Jansen from my employment so that he can join her here in Japan. Or that she will always have a place in my own home. The last time we were in Japan, she risked her own life, to free Jan from his servitude so that he can make his own life, without the collar of a slave. She deserves the same.†Imoen looked directly at Motoko’s eyes.


“That is true, Imoen-sama. I will carry your messages to Lissa-sama, without fail. My life on it.†Motoko gave a deep bow, and after handing to her an electronic ground car key, walked to one of the still screaming cyberzombies. She had her own duties to her best friend, Batou. She pulled out her dagger, and with a curse that Vaelag Hashimoto would burn forever in whatever hell his soul found itself in, she ended his suffering. Jessie’s last opponent found the only peace that was left to him in this life, and Motoko finally managed to collapse and hold the body of her greatest friend, rocking the corpse gently as she moaned softy from the hurt.


Nalia De’Arnise wanted to crawl into some deep hole and die. She whimpered from anguish as she saw the human costs of her flight. She was responsible for all these deaths, and for Jessie’s injuries. It was all her fault, it was all because of her, and she deserved to die. Because of her, Jessie was going to die because she fought for Nalia’s safety. She was a monster, she was to blame, and it would have been so much better if she had killed herself from the very beginning of this nightmare. She just stood there in stark shock, unable to even look away from the remaining Heian Techno-Ninja clan members killing the remaining cyberzombies.


“Nalia, are you all right?†Asked Aerie concernedly, as Minsc drove up the van Motoko Kusanagi had given them. Nalia just stood there, unable to even watch Jessie as Imoen tenderly lifted her into the back. She knew that Jessie was dead for her sake, and she couldn’t bear to have Imoen look at her face, the face of her sister’s killer. She had heard Aerie describe Jessie’s injuries, and there was no way any human could survive them. She had killed the woman who had fought for her life against impossible odds, the beautiful woman she had just met a few hours ago, just as surely as if she had held a bowcaster to her head and pulled the trigger. She was a murderer.




Nalia was shocked when Imoen had left Jessie to Aerie’s ministrations, walked up to Nalia and slapped her hard across the face. Keldorn was stunned, and was about to move to interpose himself between the two of them, when Minsc gently gripped his shoulders and shook his head. Agent Firecam looked at the face of the girl he considered as another daughter, and looked away, shaken to the core by the self-loathing and pain he saw.


“Nalia, you’re a selfish bitch!†Imoen’s accusation cut Nalia like a knife through the heart, and she finally began to sob.


“How dare you feel guilty! Do you know just how bad I feel? I got us into this situation when I accepted Lissa Hashimoto’s job two years ago. And today, I just stood there wringing my hands while Jessie fought for all of us, and I COULD’T do a fucking thing while YOU were saving her, and all of us! Jessie’s going to live because you hacked into the Hashimoto estate’s database, and we’re all going to go home because you just pulled off a frikking miracle! You did it!†Imoen’s voice didn’t make any sense to Nalia for a second. Jessie was going to live? How could that be? No human could possibly survive having half her internal organs fried by an energy based melee weapon. That just wasn’t possible.


Imoen dragged Nalia into the van, her head desperately shaking her refusal to look at Jessie’s corpse. What Nalia saw stunned her. She could actually see pink, healthy skin underneath the horrifying burns covering her abdomen, and Jessie was in some kind of a trance, but she could see her chest rising and falling rhythmically, and Aerie was smiling at her, while she was hooking up an I.V. full of some clear liquid to her arm. All that the elder Gorionova sister needed was an infusion of glucose and electrolytes, to provide the nanites with the basic building blocks needed to regenerate her cells. In less than twenty-four hours, Jessie was going to sit up and eat enough food for four people.


“She’s going to be all right?†Nalia looked into Imoen’s eyes, pleading desperately.


“She’s going to be FINE! You did good girl, you did abso-fucking-lutely perfect! I still can’t believe you hacked into a Cerberus-35 firewall in under a minute! I love you, Nalia!†Imoen hugged the newest client of Troubleshooters Extraordinaire in pure gratitude. It had been a desperate gamble, one last throw of the dice before being dragged up to the gallows for Imoen to risk everything on Nalia’s abilities. She was still shaking inside from the surprise of finding herself alive after this debacle.


“Actually, it was a Cerberus-43 firewall.†Replied Nalia shyly. She still couldn’t believe her eyes, Jessie was going to live! She leaned in closer, needing the comforting reassurance of hugging Imoen Gorionova. She couldn’t believe she hacked into a Cerberus-43 firewall in one minute and seven seconds either.


“WHAT!!! A Cerberus-43! Those things have a two to the GOOGLE power prime number encryption key! There is absolutely no way to hack into them at all!†Imoen had followed Nalia’s run with her Power, but it was necessary to try to keep Nalia from guessing her true abilities. The fact that Imoen was a telepath was a secret known to only two living people, the elder and younger Gorionova sisters. The knowledge was something that Jessie had killed before to preserve, and would kill for again.


“Well, I did spend last summer vacation working with Cerberus Corporation, they hired me as a consultant. I just slapped on that multi-vector disrupter you gave me, to disable the password iteration counter, and using hijacked processor power from the Nippon Products Pyramid, I ran that incredibly sophisticated social engineering twonky password guesser. Where on earth did you get your hands on something that sophisticated? I mean the only thing I’ve ever seen close to that was a guesser I saw on the Legion of Doom website back home in…†began Nalia.


“Urm, ladies, I really hate to break up a female bonding moment and some really intense shop talk, but can we leave?†Began Jan plaintively.


“Right! Valygar, you coming with us? OK! As the Mighty Magical Space Prince Boo would say, what did one shepherd say to another shepherd?†Valygar nodded and climbed up into the van with the rest of the Troubleshooters.


“Let’s get the flock out of here!†Everyone except Valygar, Nalia and Keldorn grinned as they finished the joke in a chorus. Imoen stood up at the back of the van, and bowed to the remaining ninjas. They all bowed back, a final salute to the true warrior lying on one of the benches, with Aerie hovering over her. At a nod from Imoen, Valygar tossed his rocket launcher into the corner of the van, and closed the big rear hatch.


“Urm, Agent Corthala, should you be tossing around rocket launchers like that?†Agent Keldorn was beyond emotion at this point, but it would truly suck to get blown up by their own equipment just as they were about to leave.


“I’m no longer Agent Corthala, as you know, Senior Special Agent Firecam. And not all is as it seems.†Valygar gave a big grin, as he picked up the Hellfire 80 launcher. He pointed it at Keldorn, and pressed the trigger. Under normal situations, Keldorn’s heart would most likely have skipped a beat, but as he was he was too tired to do more than smile with the rest of them as a big black and yellow flag popped out of the rocket launcher with the word “BANG!†written on it in bold letters. Jan had left Valygar one of his little toys after they had dropping him off in Japan.


Everyone finally leaned back on the benches, as Minsc started the electric van and headed to the parking garage exit. He finally relaxed after hitting the main streets of Kyoto, and the van entered Traffic Com automated control. As Minsc leaned back into his seat, the van drove itself toward the airport.


“Boss, we got problems!†Imoen headed for the front of the Van as Minsc called out.


“What is it now?†Imoen was dead tired, from all the emotion and the metabolic penalty her body paid for her use of the Taint. She really was in no mood to screw around, and while Minsc sounded more amused than worried, she headed up to the passenger seat as fast as she could.


“We got a ground car following us, under manual control. And while they don’t look like much, do we really want them to follow us to the airport?†Imoen saw the vehicle, which looked like it was stuffed with a bunch of mono-brow thugs. Obviously not all the goons who Poncy had contacted followed his directions. Either that or those gits were too stupid to operate a vidphone. Either way, they were annoying the crap out of Imoen.


“Jan! Get up here! You wanted to test that rubber chicken on the field, right?†Kelsey shuddered as the short little man bounded up to the front of the van with a maniac grin on his face.


Jan looked at the car full of losers coming up to them on the passenger side of the van, overhauling rapidly despite the dilapidated condition of their ground car. He opened up the passenger side window, twisted the chicken’s neck so that it squawked, and tossed the armed latex fowl neatly into the vehicle following them.

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It’s quite hard for those of us in the modern world to conceive of the importance of the Gun before the invention of Hyperfibre. For hundreds of years, the Gun was literally the great equalizer. The most trained and capable soldier could be killed as easily as a raw recruit by a single bullet. But Hyperfibre changed all that, making defense against the ubiquitous Gun easy and affordable. Modern battle armor continues that trend. The most common projectile weapon used today is the standard infantry bowcaster. The weapon fires a low speed, high mass (in comparison with a standard bullet) projectile with a razor tip. Where a standard combat soft suit will stop bullets cold, a sharp low velocity object will slice through the layers of mono-molecular fabric easily.


However, high end soft suits, and standard battle armor reinforced by ceramic alloy plate inserts still provide a high degree of protection from bowcaster fire. This means that projectile weapons are no longer a dominant force in both small and large scale conflict. After an ineffective exchange of projectile fire, most battles come down to sword-to-sword. After hundreds of years where the one who shot accurately first is the winner, most fights now are decided by the superior swordsmanship of an individual soldier.


Training and skill is more marketable than ever in the modern world. It takes literally a lifetime of practice before you can become a reasonably competent swordsman, or swordswoman. This has several implications for those of us who seek a career in the military or law enforcement. You need to begin early in life, train every day for years, and spend huge sums of money for the best teachers. Law enforcement and the military simply doesn’t pay the kind of returns commiserate with this kind of personal and financial investment for most people. That’s why the best of those who pursuit a martial career usually end up in the elite forces of the national armies, like the Green Berets, or in a Corporate Mercenary company. Only they can afford the kind of salary demanded by a top warrior, and provide the support and maintenance contracts that they require. Most of the best martial artists have picked up cybernetic augmentation, ranging from simple composite inlays in their skeleton, to strengthen their bones, all the way up to Techno-Ninjas, who are literally more machine than human. The financial burden of maintaining and upgrading periodically a cyborg’s on-board systems can be very expensive indeed.


Finally, there are the gene-engineered. Whether they escaped from the slave labor camps inside Malaysia, parts of the Chinese Hegemony, or some of the South American countries, many of the physical enhancement models tend to go into the military or among the Mercenary companies. Those born free, who have rejected the Masquerade for various personal reasons, also tend to make the same choices. Not every genie, even if they had been born to parents who had made the choice to augment them before birth, can accept the Masquerade, pretending to be Naturals, to avoid the inevitable persecution and prejudice among the majority of unaltered humanity.


The top Corp-Merc companies have the best pay-scale in the world today. That’s why competition is so fierce for any openings in a top outfit. Only the absolute best need apply, don’t call us, we’ll call you. The very best in the world is Troubleshooters Extraordinaire, a very small company that specializes in what can only be called “impossible†missions. Breaking into the computer archives inside the C.I.A., rescuing a scientist out of deep inside the Chinese Hegemony, catching the Knights of the Invisible Empire terrorists who destroyed the Montreal-to-London sub-orbital line, they have an unbroken record of succeeding where any other outfit would fail. Of course some of the rumors about their missions are obviously complete fabrications, like for example the reports of Jessie Gorionova fighting eight Techno-Ninjas who had been cyberzombied, and winning. But their well-documented and unbroken string of successes more than justifies their multi-million dollar fees.


The Corp-Merc Today, a Retrospective Look: by Michael Hoare, Soldier of Fortune Magazine.




The rubber chicken flew through the air, squawking and clucking. It landed on the lap of the thug driving the ground car following Troubleshooters Extraordinaire, and detonated. Jan had designed the rubber chicken as a device for blocking a corridor, or a passage, to discourage pursuit. It consisted of a deflated 10 feet diameter hyperfiber weather balloon, with a cylinder of inert argon gas pressurized to over 2000 psi. The outer skin of the balloon was covered in microcapsules of molecular glue, which activated as soon as the incredibly strong adhesive came in contact with oxygen. Luckily for the goons, as the huge white balloon inflated inside the vehicle, the driver’s frantic motions disconnected the illegal bypass box that had allowed them to approach the van under manual control. So instead of the ground car careening out of control, the vehicle smoothly glided to the side of the curb, as soon as the onboard computer detected that the driver’s hands were no longer on the steering wheel.


At this point, the cursing and royally ticked off thugs made their second mistake. The first mistake was, of course, coming after anyone under the protection of Troubleshooters Extraordinaire. One of them managed to pull out a knife, and managed to puncture the tough skin of the balloon that had them effectively trapped inside the vehicle. Jan’s evil little flourish to this invention was a small vial full of certain artificial compounds in a liquid ester suspension, sprayed into the argon inflating the incredibly nasty device. It was made of the same chemicals as found in skunk spray, only a hundred times more potent. All four of the would-be-kidnappers got a huge blast of this incredibly foul stench right in their faces as the balloon popped. Or as Jan insisted, “fowl†stench.


Poor Kelsey Colbane was still shuddering as Imoen with a truly evil grin tossed the rubber chicken at their pursuers. Both Jan and Imoen were gleefully looking back at the results of their little bio-warfare bomb, and Kelsey couldn’t help but feel sorry for those poor saps. He had the unfortunate experience of getting a face full of the horrible stuff when he made the mistake of visiting Jan’s little workshop built well away of the main mansion where Troubleshooters Extraordinaire made their home. He had forgotten that Imoen had told him to never enter the little shed where Jan worked on his toys without using the intercom to announce himself. He spent the next several hours throwing up his toenails, and it was a good thing that the chemical scent was designed to oxidize within a few minutes, or he would never have been allowed back into the main house. As it was, he couldn’t keep anything down but crackers and water for almost a week after.


“Say Jan, how long does that stuff last for anyway?†asked Imoen, laughter bubbling out with every word.


“Why, your worship, it should only last for a few minutes, unless the poor saps make the mistake of trying to wash it away with soap and water. The emulsifiers in soap will bind it to their epidermal layer, and it will take weeks for the ‘fragrance’ to wear away.†The reply by Jan literally made both of them double over laughing.


“Jan, you know that the first thing the police will do when they haul in those jokers is to make them wash, right?†said Imoen, still giggling.


“I was counting on that, Imoen, and the really funny part is just how little their cellmates and the officers will appreciate their new ‘cologne’.†Replied a faintly satanic looking Jan Jansen.


A few miles back, a superintendent of the Kyoto Metropolitan Police was waving in a fire truck loaded with fire retardant foam, to the scene of the accident. He was wearing a gas mask, and he looked with disgust at the ground car full of assorted scum still vainly trying to extricate themselves from the tangled remains of the weather balloon, the molecular glue adhering it to their bodies. He was forcing himself by pure willpower to keep from throwing up, and he’d be damned if he was going to contaminate his nice police station with this…open sewer.


The van made it all the way to Kyoto airport without further incident, and they drove directly into private hanger 1987G where the Rocky awaited them. Everyone was alert and armed. It had been human nature to relax a bit as soon as the van had left the duel grounds, after the emotional stresses of watching one of their own fight for all their lives and win. The little fracas with the goons and the ground car had revived their alertness, and reminded them that they were still not out of the sharp end quite yet. Fortunately for them, and even more fortunately for anyone foolish enough to have tried to follow them, they met no opposition for the rest of the ride.


Minsc had engaged manual control as soon as they left the city’s streets, and pulled up the van next to the parked C-3087 hybrid VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) transport. Everyone scrambled out, still alertly maintaining perimeter watch, as Minsc and Imoen tenderly lifted Jessie into the Rocky, and strapped her in. Everyone got in, Valygar still keeping a watch at the door, until it was time to take off.


“Kelsey! Get us out of here!†called out Aerie. Kelsey was the backup pilot for the Rocky, since he had been flying light private aircraft since his teens. He didn’t have Aerie’s incredible flair, since she had flown everything from Honda Aero-Tech flying cars, to converted semi-ballistic low orbital scramjets, all over the world. Doctors Without Borders was perpetually low on funds, and high on talented, creative people who could rebuild any craft donated to them into reliable transport. And Aerie had flown them from the huge slums in Saudi Arabia, to the subzero permafrost of Amundson city in Antarctica. But her place was still at Jessie’s bedside, watching her vitals and reconnecting her I.V. tubes. Jessie wasn’t totally out of the woods yet, and Aerie was still worried about how much damage she took, despite her encouragement to the nearly hysterical Nalia.


Kelsey warmed up the Rolls-Royce electro turbo-jet engines, and after filing a flight plan with air traffic control, the Rocky smoothly took off from Kyoto International. The Rocky didn’t need jet fuel, like old-fashioned aircraft back in the twentieth and twenty first century. It ran solely on electrical power, a necessity since the world ran out of petrochemicals back toward the middle of the twenty first century. But the electronic-turbine system produced plenty of power, and unlike standard civilian craft it had a small fusion reactor onboard. The fusion bottle and large hydrogen tanks allowed the transport almost unlimited range, and they would be able to see the coast of France within a few hours.


The Rocky reached the cruising altitude of 60,000 feet, and Kelsey switched over to pure airplane mode, retracting the vectored thrust nozzles, which permitted the hybrid craft to take off vertically. He then engaged the cruise mode control. The airplane changed shape, reconfiguring the wing surfaces, retracting various parts of the fuselage, which made it aerodynamically cleaner. Kelsey then increased power until the powerful aircraft reached the cruising speed of mach 2 and switched on the intercom.


“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain, Kelsey. We have reached optimal cruising altitude and are now headed for France at 16560 miles per hour. We should be seeing Calais within six hours, and we should be home soon after that. Our in-flight movie today is “FUCK ME, we made it!!!†starring Jessie she-who-makes-ninjas-run-home-crying-for-their-mommy Gorionova. This film also features Imoen super-sexy-leader-and-silver-tongued-negotiator Gorionova. With special guest appearances by Valygar the-rocket-man Corthala and of course our favorite special effects coordinator and maker-of-big-explosions Jan Jansen. Finally in her film debut, we have uber-computer-chick-and-good-kisser Nalia De’Arnise.â€Â


Everyone cheered, and finally weapons were lowered and secured in various racks. Everyone relaxed, and naturally attention turned toward the elder Gorionova sister. She was still in Reverie, and while Minsc could detect that tiny furrow on Aerie’s forehead indicating her concern, she managed to smile at them all. Aerie and Imoen had stripped off Jessie’s battle armor, and covered her with blankets. Imoen kept applying cold compresses to Jessie’s forehead, while Aerie checked her diagnostic readouts. Nalia unstrapped herself from her seat, and knelt at Jessie’s bedside.


“How is she doing?†asked Nalia with concern. She still couldn’t believe that Jessie had survived those horrifying wounds.


“She’s going to be doing fine. She’s still in Reverie, but as long as I keep pumping her full of glucose, and electrolytes, her nanites should be able to repair her body. Everything looks good.†Reassured Aerie.


“NANITES!!! What the…what are you talking about, nanites? Nano-technology isn’t anywhere nearly developed enough to actually use nanites on humans! And what is ‘Reverie’?†Nano-technology in the mid twenty second century was still in its infancy, used mainly in mining. The microscopic machines gathered all the usable metals out of raw ore, leaving behind the dross with minimal environmental impact. They just weren’t sophisticated enough with current designs to do more, or to be allowed anywhere near a human. Several grisly accidents had occurred in the early stages of development of mining nannies where humans were accidentally exposed to the microscopic machines and their bodies were scavenged for minerals.


“Jessie is a Child of Bhaal, like I am. Our bodies have a highly sophisticated version of nannies that can almost regenerate our entire bodies. It doesn’t mean we’re unkillable, just that unless we’ve taken really severe damage, or dead, we can survive a lot more than most humans. Reverie is a special trance that we can enter, which supercharges our autoimmune systems and provides the nannies with extra energy and building blocks for cellular reconstruction and repair.†Replied Imoen.


“Urm…what’s a Child of Bhaal? That level of technology is impossible, you know. Urm…and Imoen, how did you know I was a Gibson? And how was Jessie able to fight Techno-Ninjas turned into cyberzombies? I don’t know much about combat and stuff like that, but even I know that a cyberzombied cyborg is impossible for any ordinary human to even think about fighting. Wha…I mean who are you?†Asked Nalia.


“You mean ‘What’, Nalia.†Nalia flushed as Imoen corrected her attempt to cover the verbal slip.


“It’s ok, honey. We’ve been called worse. Let’s get some drinks for everyone, and I’ll give you the history lesson, ok?†Jan and Minsc scurried around, brewing coffee and unpacking bottles of soft drinks from the small fridge inside the Rocky. Both Keldorn and Valygar changed seats to move in closer to listen in. Imoen began to softly stroke her sister’s hair, and began.


“Nals, have you ever heard of the Brotherhood of Bhaal? What about the Knights Templar, and the Freemasons? And what do you know about the history of the Order of Neo-Luddites? “ Asked Imoen, as she accepted a glass full of dark black tea from Jan.


“Urm…not a whole lot. I mean I recognize most of the names, but I don’t know much about any of them.†Replied Nalia.


“Ok, it all really started eight thousand years ago, in Iraq, near the village that would become the city of Babylon.†Began Imoen.


“That was where the Bhaal spacecraft crash landed near some people who were the ancestors to the ancient Sumerians.†Nalia’s eyes opened wider and wider as Imoen began the extraordinary narrative.

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Sorry it took so long.... :)


â€ÂLadies and Gentlemen, welcome to Celebrity Electric Jeopardy! Tonight, our guests include pop singer Frances Spears, heiress and fashion model London Hilton, and former professional boxer, Steve Tyson! I am of course, your host, Robert Barker.†Began the host of the very popular HD game show, as the live audience began to clap loudly.


“HI!†chirped the heiress and professional model.


“HI!!!†waved the very blonde and famous pop singer.


“Wazzup.†Grunted the former cyborg heavyweight-boxing champion of the world.


“Ok, without any further ado, let’s begin the game. The categories are ‘Quantum Physics’, ‘Mathematics’, ‘Greek Philosophers’, ‘Ancient Sumerian History’, ‘Cryptography’, and ‘Medieval Poets.’ Now since Frances won the coin toss, she gets to pick first. Frances?â€Â


“I’ll pick Mathematics for 100 volts, Robert.â€Â


“Ok, the answer is what is the 8th digit for the value of Pi after the decimal point?â€Â




“Correct! Please pick again, Frances.†The audience went wild as a celebrity actually got the answer correct.


“Math for 200, Robert!â€Â


“Name the two inventors of calculus.â€Â


“Um…Sigfried and Roy?â€Â


“Sorry, wrong answer.†Robert pressed the big red button on his podium, and 200 volts of electricity shot through Miss Frances Spears. She squeaked and jumped up.


“Steve or London? Ok, the correct answer is Liebnitz and Sir Isaac Newton. Ok, Frances, pick again.â€Â


“Do I have to?â€Â


“Yes, you do!â€Â


“Ok, Math for 400 volts.â€Â


“OK! Our first Daily Double! How much do you want to wager, Miss Spears? You must wager at least one thousand volts.â€Â


“Ok, I’ll wager a thousand volts.†Frances began to sniffle.


“This letter stands for the imaginary number that is the square root of negative one.â€Â




â€ÂSorry Frances.†One thousand volts of electricity shoot through Frances Spears. She is twitching and hopping up and down, and finally falls over. A well-rehearsed stretcher team loads her up, and takes her back stage.


“Ok, I guess that it is your turn, London…â€Â


Excerpt from “Celebrity Electric Jeopardy April 12, 2087â€Â


“Well, of course the questions are harder in Celebrity Electric Jeopardy! The audience loves to see celebrities get shocked! D’uh!â€Â


Robert Barker, host of Electric Jeopardy.


Aerie looked on with bemusement as Imoen began to lecture on the origins of the Children of Bhaal. Imoen was so good at reading people, and figuring out exactly what to say to put them at ease. Poor Nalia had looked more than a little shell-shocked a few minutes ago. Aerie was a little surprised when Imoen adopted a professor-giving-a-lecture stance and began to recite facts and figures, but the rather unorthodox style seemed to work. Nalia, her hands seemingly moving of their own volition, grabbed a stylus from her front pocket, and tucked it behind her right ear. She assumed a more comfortable posture, settling back on the balls of her feet and actually began to relax. The trick to putting people at ease, in tense situations, was to make the environment resemble a familiar one. The place that Nalia felt the most at ease was at her university, sitting down in a lecture hall, and preparing to take notes. Aerie slipped the mild sedative she had palmed back into the small pharmacy built into her wheelchair. Aerie was one of the two Troubleshooters, besides Imoen and Jessie; obviously, who knew Imoen was an empath. Her gift allowed her to read the emotional states of others, to do the exactly right things, to say exactly the right words to put people at ease, or to “encourage†them toward acting the way that Imoen wanted. At times, to Aerie, it almost seemed that Imoen was telepathic!


Only Aerie and Minsc knew about Imoen’s empathic abilities. Any government, any corporation in the world would kill to get their hands on Imoen if they knew. Even if Jessie slaughtered their agents by the hundreds, they would never give up, never stop coming after her. An empath would be the ultimate security and counterintelligence agent. Such a person would be an infallible lie detector, literally able to smell fear and home in like a bloodhound. It was the most closely guarded secret of Troubleshooters Extraordinaire, and the reason why they had such an incredible record of success in fulfilling security contracts. Not even Aerie or Minsc would have known if it weren’t for Minsc’s analytical brain. His suspicions after a particularly high profile case, voiced to Imoen and Jessie, had brought the two of them into the secret.


Aerie took Jessie’s temperature. She was holding stable at her normal body temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit and Aerie breathed a sigh of relief. She was at stage two Reverie, and things were looking better. She changed the I.V. container hooked up to Jessie, this time to a pale brownish liquid. The new fluid being pumped into Jessie’s veins contained enough heavy metals, like thallium, osmium, chromium and selenium to poison hundreds of normal people. Her nannies required the infusion of metallic compounds to rebuild the cyborg components of her body, now that most of her organic functions have been restored. After using the metals they needed, her body would store away any unused portions to be used later, in the organ they had in their abdomen analogous to the appendix. Both Jessie and Imoen normally took dietary supplements in pill form to keep healthy. They still remembered the expression on Gorion’s face when their art teacher called their parent frantically the first time they raided Mr. Goodwin’s studio. The girls simply knew that the odor of the ground up minerals and oxides in their art teacher’s studio smelled delicious and yummy, so they snuck in and by the time Gorion found them, they were both liberally smeared in bright colors and licking their fingers. Gorion figured out the truth of their dietary needs, and from then on, provided the correct supplements to the two siblings until their brother murdered him. Even after Aerie joined Troubleshooters Extraordinaire, the sisters occasionally went back to sucking on tubes of paint, which to them was rather like pancakes, or some other comfort food for normal humans. They’d still occasionally sneak off and had a roast beef sandwich spread with a small dab of cadmium white oil paint, or bought a tube of cobalt blue and a bag of potato chips. A few sprinkles of arsenic, potassium cyanide, and other metallic salts, and yum!


Aerie leaned over Jessie’s bed, so that her body would block view of the elder Gorionova’s face. She peeled back one of Jessie’s eyes to look at her pupil. She could see the orb moving around, as if she was in R.E.M. sleep under her inner eyelid. Jessie had two eyelids, the outer normal one, and an inner one, designed to protect her vision from high intensity light sources. The space-black nictitating membrane was necessary to protect her incredibly delicate and sensitive eyes, which were capable of seeing deeply into both the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum. Her visual acuity could range from rivaling a microscope for close up detail, to putting an eagle to shame for seeing at a distance. Her night vision was actually superior to an owl’s, even though they weren’t as large as a night predator’s orbs.


The combination of cybernetic and organic miracles that made up Jessie’s eyes were incredibly delicate, and while her nanites could repair them, her secondary eyelids protected them in combat. However when she closed her inner eyelids, either voluntarily or involuntarily under the Taint, they made her look…demonic. She resembled something alien, something horrifying, a thing out of the deepest hells. Under the full Taint, Jessie Gorionova’s whole face, not just the eyes changed. Under her battle helmet, Jessie’s features in combat transformed into something literally…terrifying. Aerie and Minsc had several times talked about the utter contradictions that made up Jessie Gorionova. Here was someone who was almost transcendentally beautiful, and at the same time inhumanly hideous. She was simultaneously one of the gentlest people either had ever known, yet possessed an almost unlimited capacity for violence and ruthlessness. She was incredibly easy to love as a friend, yet only a miracle would ever allow anyone to truly fall in love with her. Aerie shook herself out of her woolgathering, and after a grin to Imoen to let her know things were fine, settled down to listen to her narrative. There wasn’t much she could do now besides waiting. She hated the waiting. Most medications, all her hard won medical knowledge simply didn’t work on Jessie Gorionova. Her body was simply too different, too sophisticated and alien for her to actually help Jessie with anything other than simple supportive medication. But it was hard to watch a friend struggling for her life, and know that as a physician she could do nothing at all.


“But why did they come here? Why would they deliberately come to such a primitive world?â€Â


“Well, Daddy didn’t really know. The Bhaal aliens seem to have been fleeing from their home worlds. Some of the records that Daddy had suggests either they’re the refugees of a failed revolution or coup of some sort, or survivors of a cataclysm that destroyed their home planet. We do know they came to colonize our world, as conquerors. They came deliberately to a low-tech primitive world like ours eight thousand years ago because we possessed a population ready to be turned into their…slaves. It seems inconceivable that an advanced interstellar civilization has need for slaves, but their science seems to be mostly biological in nature. They were incredibly adept at shaping living organisms to their purposes. Some writings Dad had even suggest their high level of physical and mechanical sciences were actually the accomplishments of another slave race that they had previously conquered. It was lucky for us that their interstellar mothership was destroyed by collision with Sedna. The destruction of their interstellar craft not only produced the Kuiper Belt, and altered Pluto’s orbit, it also destroyed their ability to conquer us outright.†Said Imoen.


“Wait a sec, Imoen. How could anything survive a collision with a planet?â€Â


“Gravity drive. It used a hypermass at the bow, for propulsion, and it was the hypermass that actually struck Sedna, causing the generator to catastrophically implode. And since the hypermass was several times bigger than the earth, the collision messed up the local area something awful…â€Âbegan Imoen.


“So that’s why Pluto’s orbit doesn’t follow the ecliptic! You know, people have been wondering for a long time since the discovery of Sedna why it was not spherical, but irregular. So the collision partially shattered Sedna? And fragments from the collision became the belt between Neptune and the Oort cloud? And the surviving Bhaal aliens were forced to evacuate their mothership?†Nalia interrupted, the words almost stumbling over each other in her eagerness to confirm her conclusions.


“Correct! I guess I don’t have to shock you, Nals! Ok, the Bhaal Aliens landed with as much advanced equipment as they could load before evacuating their mothership. They got stranded in an incredibly low-tech world, without the personnel to colonize it properly. There were in fact only eight of them. So they decided to make the best of it, and made their remaining lives as comfortable as possible, using their technology to control the Bronze Age locals,†said Imoen.


“So how did they do that?†asked Nalia intently, caught up in the narrative.


“ Well, they faced quite a number of problems in the beginning. First of all, they couldn’t speak the local language, and while they could make themselves understood for simple things with sign language, anything more was going to require learning the language, or translators. Another problem was that their vocal cords, or equivalent organs couldn’t even begin to duplicate human languages, and of course human vocal cords couldn’t begin to make the buzzes, clicks and pops that made up the Bhaal language. I suppose they could have made some mechanism to translate between one to the other, but that didn’t make sense according to their mentality. They took a bunch of human babies, and ran them through their bioshaper machines. Their mastery of the biological sciences was amazing, and worked better the younger the subject. They enhanced the brain extensively and made major alterations to their vocal chords. They created a bunch of slaves that not only incredibly smart, they learned languages faster than any natural human, and had the vocal apparatus to mimic the languages of their masters.†Said Imoen matter-of-factly.


â€ÂWait just a cotton picking minute here!!! Imoen, its just crazy talk to say that a completely alien race, without a long time studying humans, could make biological modifications that complex and elaborate no matter how sophisticated the technology! I’m an information technology geek, but even I know enough biology and genetics to know that!â€Â


“Yep, totally right. But as it turned out, they did study human genetics and biology for centuries before mounting their invasion. Their scout ships had already taken a survey and samples from Earth centuries before the invasion was even planned. Apparently, they had two modes of travel between the stars. Both involved gravity drives, but the ultra-high velocity version used in their unmanned exploration craft, capable of traveling fairly close to the speed of light, had a secondary side effect of being lethal to their form of life. Probably some form of radiation. Their manned motherships couldn’t travel faster than 10% of the velocity of light. So the mothership would send out flocks of automated probes programmed to take samples of a planet’s dominant form of life, and zip back to the mothership. The crew would research the samples, while the ship slowly progressed to the target selected by their researchers, arriving armed with a high degree of understanding of the biology of the planet they came to conquer.†Said Imoen.


“Damn. They had it down to a science, didn’t they? Well, I guess they had a lot of practice. Oh yeah, Doppler shift! Electromagnetic radiation when you inhabit a craft traveling at a high percentage of the speed of light would punch through shifted up to energetic x-rays or gamma rays. The Bhaal aliens were probably sensitive to high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Its odd though that they didn’t think of protecting their ships with ultra-high gradient shaped gravity fields, like they’re planning for the ‘Darwin’.†Said Nalia thoughtfully, referring to the first interstellar exploration craft under construction in near earth orbit.


“Remember, Nals, that the Bhaal aliens STOLE or appropriated technology from their slave races, so their understanding of physics might not have been all that strong. Anyhu, by the time they got to Earth, they already had a very high knowledge of human genetics, especially since biological sciences was their specialty, and calibrated their equipment to make changes in humans. So it was fairly simple for them to create their servants, in fact, they might even have planned from the very beginning to create their own interpreters from native humans.†Said Imoen.


“So these humans became the servants for these aliens? Their interpreters?†asked Nalia.


“Not just their interpreters. The people considered the Bhaal aliens as gods or demons, with unspeakable powers, like energy weapons. So the first batch of humans enslaved by the Bhaal became the Priesthood of Bhaal.â€Â


“The first batch?†asked Nalia.


“Yeah, the lifespan of a Bhaal alien was around a few thousand years. That’s how they traveled, in generation ships with the majority of the passengers in hibernation, and a crew that stayed on duty for centuries. So the first batch of the Priests of Bhaal died out in the blink of an eye from their viewpoint. The Bhaal aliens created multiple generations of the Priests, each time adding more and more enhancements to make the Priests more and more useful to their masters. In fact, in the last generation, the Priests had been boosted up enough to make them a serious threat to their masters. And that’s how the Bhaal died out. It was a palace revolt. They gave the Priests the capability to use the Bhaal alien’s own equipment against them. Daddy had a theory too. By the time the Bhaal were disposed by their own slaves, only three of the aliens were left anyway. Because some essential supplies or equipment was lost with the mothership, the Bhaal couldn’t reproduce on Earth. So Daddy had always suspected that the Bhaal let themselves be slaughtered, rather than die of old age. Which by accounts was slow, messy and incredibly painful. According to the few bits of literature left behind by the Bhaal, it was common practice for each of them to arrange for their own murder, by a trusted relative, rather than suffer the agony of dying of old age. Anyhu, this left the Priests of the Bhaal in charge with all this alien gear, the know-how to use them, and legions of slave warriors created by the Bhaal. And like some slave revolts in history, what the ex-servants wanted the most was to usurp the position occupied by their former masters.â€Â


“So the Priests wanted to become the Gods?†asked Nalia.


“Yep, they had advanced weapons, the bioshaper engines to create new slave warriors, legions of war slaves bred to obey them, and a huge territory already conquered as a logistical base. So naturally, all the Priests had to do to conquer all the rest of the known world, to rule as the new Gods, was to cooperate together to crush the rest of humanity, who had been terrified of them for centuries. The only reason the Bhaal hadn’t bothered to run over all their neighboring countries was the bother and work of administering a territory that huge. But now, each Priest could rule their own country, or territory, after divvying up the world amongst themselves. They just had to cooperate for a while, since each Priest controlled their own personal legions of beast-men. There were lion-men, wolf-men, owl-men, tiger-men, and scorpion-men. And probably others not recorded. They were all incredibly strong, equipped with natural armor, and were tougher and deadlier than any human soldier. They had everything they needed to make themselves the new Gods to replace the Bhaal. The most powerful of the Priests had already begun to usurp the names of their former masters, like Marduk and Tiamat. If only they had just cooperated for just a little while.†Said Imoen with a nasty grin.


“Of course, naturally they turned against each other, the stronger attacking the weaker Priests to steal their share of the Bhaal equipment, and to prevent them from becoming strong enough to be a threat. God, I just love human nature!†said Keldorn Firecam beatifically. Gorion, their mentor had passed on to Randolph and Keldorn much of the early history about the Priests of Bhaal, and how the War of the Gods had actually saved all of humanity from eternal enslavement to the Priests. Gorion had also talked frankly about his own sins during the War, as well as afterwards. Gorion was tired to the bone with his long life, and both Randolph and Keldorn had known their mentor was going to end it with his own hands soon. Of course it was at that point that the fates spun the wheel once more, and Gorion left the stinking, bloody battlefield of Spidermonkey Island with two young girls. One girl was serious, quiet, and utterly brave, and quite willing to do anything to protect her beloved little sister. The other was incredibly intelligent and cynical, who hid that frightening intellect behind a mask of frippery and giggly humor, just as devoted to her older sibling. He couldn’t let either of them down, after a lifetime of leaving the people he cared about twisting in the wind.


“Why Agent Firecam, how cynical of you! Of course they didn’t! They managed to resolve all their differences in a group hug, followed by frolicking and dancing on a sunny meadow, rejoicing in the wonderful, glorious and joyous feeling of being alive, and tipsy drunk on the milk of human kindness!â€Â


“You’re a bad, bad girl, Imoen!†said Minsc with a huge grin, as the others laughed out loud. Nalia giggled at the image, and Aerie was rolling her eyes at her lover.


“Well, it comes with being a cynical, money grubbing, greedy, mercenary bitch.†Began Imoen.


“You’re not a bitch, Imoen,†interrupted Aerie, with her tongue firmly in her cheek.


“Well, anyhow as I was saying before the comment from the peanut gallery, somehow I think that being in the F.B.I tends to make you just a touch pessimistic on humanity in general. Yeah, there was a war. Most of the world’s mythologies mention a war between gods, or between gods and demons. Both sides used titanic and terrible weapons of mass destruction, which we remember as cataclysms in our collective mythology. For example, one of the Priests used submerged antimatter warheads to initiate tidal waves against his enemies. Most of the world’s religions have flood myths that originate from Marduk’s use of tsunami’s against Tiamat. The armies of each Priest were slaughtered, and out of the thirty original Priests, only fourteen survived. Much of their equipment lost, their military power reduced to almost nothing, they went into hiding and began a covert war that only ended only sixteen years ago.â€Â


“Um, excuse me, Imoen, but it almost sounds like the same Priests who originally served the Bhaal are still alive?†asked Nalia quietly.


“Yep, they just won’t die. Damn them!â€Â


“EXCUSE ME??? They’re still alive after eight thousand years?â€Â


“Ow, Nals, I can hear pretty well, you know. Actually seven thousand years, but Daddy didn’t look a day over three thousand.†Grinned Imoen.


“DADDY! Your adoptive father was a Priest of Bhaal?â€Â


â€ÂYeah, he was the only decent one of the lot. Gorion Ivanovich Suvarov, member of the Order of Marduk, which eventually became the Society of Neo-Luddites. It wasn’t the name he was born with, but that’s the name he died with. And the name that your Dad, and of course Agent Keldorn knew him as. Our adoptive father.â€Â


“Gorion Ivanovich Suvarov!!! Your father was the billionaire philanthropist? Urm…I thought your last name was Gorionova?†asked Nalia in puzzlement.


“It’s called a patronymic. It means son or daughter of. Gorionova if you’re a girl, Gorionovich if you’re a man. Even though Gorion Ivanovich Suvarov was merely one of the hundreds of aliases he’s assumed over the centuries, we loved him, and that’s how we honor him.†Said Imoen.


“He was our mentor, and our sponsor in the Society. Randy and I first met him while we attended Princeton, where he was teaching philosophy. He had a certain way of talking about famous philosophers, which really made them feel alive and made his students see them as not just icons, but real people facing the same questions that we were facing. I still remember his story about Descartes tripping over a stool late at night while pandering to his addiction to pickled beets. That story may well have been absolute truth. I mean he was old enough to have known and met Descartes…†began Keldorn.


“Or he may have just been attempting to pull your leg in the hope that it will come off. Daddy loved his practical jokes and making up stories. You should have heard his stories about Alexander, or Julius Caesar, or Newton, and Churchill.†Said Imoen with a smile.


“But for SEVEN THOUSAND YEARS???†asked Nalia in shock.


“The Priests were immortal, Nals. Like Jes, and me they have the immortality gene turned on. And I suspect you’ve got the immortality gene too, Nalia.†Stated Imoen shrewdly.


Nalia’s simple nod confirmed Imoen’s statement. Human medical technology had improved beyond the recognition of any doctor in the early twenty first century. Incredible advances in artificial organs, prosthetics, and the selective cloning of body parts from a donor’s D.N.A. sample allowed anyone with enough cash to extend their lifespan to over two centuries, simply replacing organs that failed. But beyond that point, time was still the master of all. Natural humans, despite expensive rejuvenation treatments, shut down after about two hundred years. The cells in a human body have a biological expiration date, after which the warranty fails. But genetic engineers only two decades ago found the set of genes that tells our cells to of die of old age. By treating the aging process as a repairable genetic disease, they were able to extend the lifespan of a genie ad-infinitum. Gibsons, along with a few other genie models, could with medical support theoretically live forever. They were spared the cellular-death that all natural humans faced beyond two hundred years, as their body simply stopped working.


While people didn’t really talk about it, this simple little fact explained much of the intense hatred and violence faced by any genie that refused the Masquerade. Envy drove many natural humans to lethal violence against the genetically enhanced. Of course this wasn’t the entire reason for all the prejudice against trans-humans, but it certainly was one of the biggest. And in one final bit of irony that Nalia could particularly appreciate, the scion of the wealthy, the ones most likely to be given the immortality option by their parents, didn’t look any different from normal humans allowing them to easily hide themselves among the naturals. But the mass-produced specialized genies, the majority of artificial humanity, looked very different from natural humans, making it easy for the mobs when the knives came out. And those models were highly unlikely to have the immortality gene, because why spend extra money for modifications you didn’t need for a worker, a sex toy, or soldier?


“But their bodies! How could the bodies last SEVEN MILLENIUM?†Nalia’s disbelief was quite natural. There were immense problems in maintaining the human body for that long.


“They regenerate just like Jessie and I do. They have the same nanites as we do; in fact, those parts of our bodies are completely patterned after our creators. The original system of organic regeneration boosted by nanites for emergency repair is actually brilliant. In over seven thousand years of research and development, the Brotherhood of Bhaal still couldn’t make significant improvements over the way that their bodies could heal themselves of just about any injury short of death. Of course they did come up with dozens of physical and mental enhancement bio-modifications that they plugged into Deathstalkers and Deathbringers.†Began Imoen.


“WHOA! The Brotherhood of Bhaal? And what’s a Deathstalker, or Deathbringer? You’re jumping over a lot of intermediate steps, here, Imoen!†protested Nalia.


“Sorry, Nals. Let’s go back to the War of the Gods. Essentially two factions fought the War of the Gods. The Brotherhood of Bhaal, and the Order of Marduk. And just to confuse the issue, the Brotherhood included two women, but then Ishtar and Tiamat were two utterly soulless bitches, just as evil and homicidal as the men. The main difference was on methodology, not the goals. Both sides planned to enslave the rest of mankind, make us into their property, to serve them forever. They just had different ideas on how to do that. The Brotherhood believed in keeping humanity just a few steps above the beasts, smashing any signs of civilization that humanity developed on its own, keeping us in barbarism and ignorance forever. The Brotherhood wanted to be worshipped by dirt grubbing savages, as their feared, bloodthirsty idols, who needed to be placated with sacrifices.â€Â


â€ÂNice.†Shivered Nalia.


“Yeah, the Brotherhood of Bhaal were such fun people. Not that the Order of Marduk was much better. They believed that the more advanced humanity was, the better slaves we would be. So their idea was to set up theocracies, to create civilizations that were so rigid and stratified that each person was locked into a role assigned to him or her by birth, strangling any possible change. Then members of the Order would either place themselves at the top as God-Kings, or control the rulers. Let society do all the work of enslaving its members, and then control the ruling caste.â€Â


“Wait just a minute, here. You mentioned before that the Order of Marduk eventually became the Society of Neo-Luddites? I mean everyone knows that the Society of Neo-Luddites spends millions a year on anti-slavery efforts. They led the international fundraising effort to build the ‘Darwin’, and not only are most of the Nobel Prize winners for the last decade or so members of the Society, but their current head, Elwood Leroy Minster was a former Presidential Science Advisor! I’ve never heard of anything but good things about the Society from my professors, or read anything bad about them.†Stated Nalia emphatically.


“Nalia, Elwood Leroy Minster invented the modification to the cadA gene that keeps artificial humans from metabolizing lysine. Without the ‘Shackle’ drug, which reactivates the production of the lysine decarboxylase enzyme, a genetic slave can’t survive for more than a few days. And since each genetically enhanced slave is fed the drug with his or her daily food, within a few days of escaping his or her owners, a gnome worker, or elven sex slave is going to fall into a coma and die. If a slave manages to run away from his owners, he’s going to need a supply of ‘Shackle’ within a few days or he’s dead. E. L. Minster is directly responsible for making it almost impossible for a genie slave to escape to freedom without outside aid. That bastard Marduk!â€Â


Nalia’s mouth assumed a huge “O†as she digested the bit of news about the head of the Society of Neo-Luddites. She had known several children of escaped slaves back in high school and at M. I. T. She was friendly with one gnomish girl, Juliette J. Brown (Her full name was Juliette John Brown.) whose parents escaped out of deep inside Russia. Like many escaped slaves, they had chosen a new name for themselves, and they deeply admired the writings of the ancient abolitionist. She had once caught her swallowing a pill during lunch with a grimace. Asking her about it, Nalia had been shown the large case of pills she carried around with her everywhere. Each pill had a tiny picture of a fist holding broken chains aloft. Escaped slaves called the drug “Freedomâ€Â.


Jan quietly touched the small but capacious pillbox he carried in his breast pocket, right above the scar on his chest. He still remembered Imoen giving him his first pill, and Aerie performing the surgery to remove the radio-detonated explosive device implanted in his body inside a jury-rigged Faraday cage. Vaelag Hashimoto had always been a paranoid son-of-a-bitch, and he had wanted extra insurance.


“So what happened after the War of the Gods?†asked Nalia.


“Well, with both sides crippled, it got nasty. Of the fourteen surviving Priests, six of the Brotherhood survived, and eight of the Order. Each surviving Priest had a small bodyguard, and some equipment. Because the equipment they had was no good without combining it with the equipment of other Priests, they were forced to work together. For example, having a bioshaper isn’t going to do you a bunch of good without computer support. A bioshaper allowed you to make genetic changes both before and after conception. Similar to the smart viral D.N.A sequencers and R.N.A molecular scanners geneticists use today, just much more sophisticated. But it won’t do you a lot of good to be able to make just about any genetic change on a living organism without computer support, to be able to model changes, and access to a research database. Also, only some of the Priests had the kind of minds suitable for research and experimentation. All the Priests had some understanding of genetic engineering and had studied the science of the Bhaal, since they understood that knowledge was the basis of the power of the Bhaal aliens. And living for thousands of years gives you a lot of time to study. So members of the Order and the Brotherhood had to stay together, to work together, to keep their power. Must have driven them insane, because they despised each other. Imagine knowing someone for thousands of years, knowing each foible, each mannerism, knowing what they’ll say for any given situation. Must have driven them absolutely insanely homicidal!†gloated Imoen.


“So how did they keep from killing each other?†asked Nalia.


“They didn’t. Within a few hundred years after the War of the Gods, only five members of the Brotherhood were alive, and six members of the Order. They called themselves the Five, and the Council of Six. And each Priest had figured out ways to either booby trap their equipment, or lock down their computers with security encryptions so that their personal share of the Bhaal technology could only be used by themselves, and if their fellows assassinated them, that portion of the Bhaal technology would be useless to the survivors. So they started to develop this complex barter system. Priest A would ask Priest B for help with developing an incredibly virulent strain of enterobacteria, and Priest B would want the specs to give to a human a set of psychobiological traits that manifest itself as almost irresistible charisma. And we get the Black Death, and Genghis Khan.â€Â


“What?†said Nalia in disbelief.


“Remember their philosophy? The Brotherhood liked to release virulent plagues, or by modifying an already charismatic individual’s brain to make them into incredibly successful warlords. The objective was always maximum chaos; disruption or destruction of whatever civilization had managed to build up in a region of the world. The Order on the other hand came up with such delightful things like the Holy Inquisition, the Caste system in India, and the concept of the divine right of kings in medieval Europe. All designed to lock down human creativity and make the population into nicely tamed beasts of burden. Now that’s not to say that every warlord or civilization in history was the result of the Order or the Brotherhood. In fact, considering how each Priest was either experimenting to come up with some powerful weapon, plotting against his fellows, or indulging some personal vice, it was really a wonder anything got done. It was all rather hit or miss. And as they found out, trying to tip over some domino to create a ripple effect that will change the lives of thousands of people was incredibly hard. Most of the warlords created in their labs, by making them physically and mentally superior, simply disappeared into history. Most of the diseases created in their labs mutated fairly quickly into something benign as they left the test tubes. The Brotherhood of Bhaal is responsible for athlete’s foot, which was originally designed to be much more nasty. And the Order’s idea of interbreeding the members of ruling dynasties together to keep them insular and distrustful of change had some rather interesting side effects. The Egyptian custom of intermarrying siblings led to all sorts of nasty congenital defects. Not to mention those fun Hapsburgs with their tendency to bleed out at the slightest excuse. As Dad said, trying to shape human behavior is rather similar to herding cats. All sorts of strange byproducts, and many, many more failures than successes.†Smirked Imoen.


“It’s disappointing. All those wonderfully wild and outrageous theories about all powerful secret societies influencing human history is so much more prosaic when you know the truth.†Remarked Aerie.


“Imoen, it almost seems like the Brotherhood was better equipped than the Order?†asked Nalia tentatively.


“Yep, they had three bioshaper engines compared to the single one belonging to the Order, and their libraries were much more comprehensive, especially in the biosciences. The Order basically had only few advantages. Their physical sciences libraries were superior, and they had better researchers and scientific minds. So the equipment, or the lack of equipment dictated the way they fought their secret war. The Order would try to burrow into an empire, to divert the resources and wealth into their own coffers, and make the rulers of that empire dependent on their advanced medicine, or addict them to some drug supplied by the Order. Another fun trick was to implant a tiny radio into the mastoid bone of a ruler, and whisper suggestions, which the poor guy would interpret as messages from the gods. They’d pass themselves off as astrologers, soothsayers and prophets, using tricks like communicators to predict natural disasters long before any messengers could arrive with the news. Yeah, the Order was full of tricks.â€Â


“But there were only six of them! And wouldn’t people get suspicious if members of the Order failed to age?†asked Nalia.


“Both sides used agents. For example, when it looked like the capable and stable Octavius family would rule the Roman Empire, the Brotherhood sent an agent to Livia, wife of Augustus Caesar to teach her poisons. So after the death of Augustus, the Claudians, who were adopted into the imperial family ruled Rome. And the Claudians had a history of…eccentricity. Like Caligula, or Nero both of who were total whack jobs. Anyhu, both the Order and the Brotherhood had never lacked people who were willing to work for them. They could offer all sorts of inducements, like curing the fatal disease of a loved one, longevity, and of course, money. And if you failed to deliver on your promises, that agent would drop by some night, and leave behind a corpse. Or if either the Brotherhood or the Order were really pissed, they’ll kill off your entire family.†Said Imoen.


“But couldn’t people hire extra security, or just run away? I mean this was like hundreds or thousands of years ago, they didn’t have the Infonet, or genetic testing, all the ways we have now to track people, right?†asked Nalia.


“I was designed to be a Deathstalker agent, Nals. I can hunt down almost anyone, and I’m far stronger than any natural human. I have almost the same ability to regenerate like Jes, so I’m extremely hard to kill, even with today’s modern weapons. I was born to be one of their hounds. And once a Deathstalker has the scent, he or she will hunt the quarry for years if necessary.†Said Imoen flatly.


Nalia’s eyes opened wide as she digested that particular bit of information. At times during Imoen’s narration, she could sense the inexhaustible well of rage that Imoen had against the Brotherhood of Bhaal and the Order of Marduk. Now she knew why.


“Urm…you also mentioned Deathbringers?†asked Nalia quietly, trying to change the subject.


“Jes here is a Deathbringer. And as you’ve seen, she makes me look like an 80-pound weakling compared against the cyborg heavyweight-boxing champion of the world. She’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!†said Imoen with a huge grin.


“Oh yeah, totally. Urm…Imoen, is she really more powerful than a locomotive?†asked Nalia with a small grin of her own. Jessie Gorionova was just…amazing. There was the natural liking she would have for the person who foiled her kidnapping, and of course the looks, but the really impressive part about the elder Gorionova sibling was her almost superhuman abilities. Strike that, she IS superhuman. Nalia was going to be so disappointed if she didn’t have a cape somewhere.


“Probably. If they still make locomotives anymore. Anyhu, the Brotherhood of Bhaal has Deathstalkers and Deathbringers. Most of their agents throughout history have been Deathstalkers. The Deathbringers, including Jes, were created only a few decades ago. For seven thousand years, whenever one of the Five came up with a new bio- or cyber augmentation, they’d give it to a Deathstalker, and send him or her out on the field. If the enhancement tested out to confer significant improvements in combat, or intelligence work, they’d save it, and it became part of the abilities planned for the Deathbringers. In another words, a Deathbringer has quite a few abilities, each one tested and proven to be effective. So yeah, Nals, Jes can probably beat up an old fashioned electric locomotive. We don’t know, ‘cause we’ve never needed Jessie to lay the smack down on a train.†Said Imoen seriously with a suspicious twitch of her lips. Actually Deathbringers had been created once before, three thousand years ago. Only Imoen and Gorion had known the true purpose for the creation of Deathbringers, and Imoen intended to keep it that way. Her sister had enough nightmares of her own.


“Wow. Ok, so what did the Order of Marduk have?†Nalia was impressed, despite the ugly fact about Imoen and Jessie’s origins. They had been designed to be living weapons, born to be the slaves of immortal, amoral monsters who have tried to become the rulers of the human race for millenniums.


“Well, they had a big edge on the physical sciences, so they chose to build cyborgs. They had the Paladins and the Druids. Right, Agent Keldorn?†asked Nalia.


“Huh?†asked Nalia in puzzlement.


“Yes. I’m a Paladin. Gorion told you about Randolph and me?†asked Keldorn Firecam.


Nalia’s eyes and mouth popped wide open. Her father and Uncle Keldorn were agents of the Order of Marduk? She had been able to keep an emotional distance from Imoen’s narrative by busily analyzing the facts she learned, and formulating questions to be asked later. She had been able to keep focused, as if she was learning a bunch of new facts and figures rapidly, to be studied from her mental notes later at her leisure. But with that one sentence, Imoen had shattered her detachment.


“Uncle Keldorn, what do you…†began Nalia.


Of course it was at this point that a horrible, rattling sound came out of the still unconscious Jessie Gorionova, and she sat up awake, with her face completely blank, and she vomited horrifying black ooze, made up of bits of burned meat and boiled blood.

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