February 2068

Japantown, Westbrook

Taylor's Clinic, Megabuilding H8

The power went out suddenly, a couple of seconds before I heard a muffled boom through the walls of the building. My clinic was facing the exterior of the Megabuilding, and I could hear my windows in the next room rattling very slightly, too.

This wasn't a very convenient time for a power outage as I was in the middle of brain surgery. Long ago, I acquiesced to the inevitable and did minor Ripperdoc work for the Tyger Claws. I was not too fond of their gang. It was terrible, really, and full of terrible people. However, it was only really slightly more terrible than the police department and city government itself, so I had managed to rationalise them as the "pseudo-government of Japantown."

It seemed as though I had grown a psychological predilection for order compared to chaos to some degree, and so long as I thought about it that way, then I didn't mind performing services for them too much. This was a lot different from my perspective years ago, where I would be reflexively and violently hostile to any authority at all due to how they had all failed me.

I would have even considered a gang indistinguishable from organised bullies—even more so than regular government authorities like Principal Blackwell. I still blacklisted the very worst of their enforcers and dealt mainly with the public-facing, more civilised-acting Tyger Claws, but I didn't really get much of the bad apple variety coming into my door requesting service anyway. I thought their bosses probably kept them away from me in order to keep my relationship a positive one.

Since I had already taken this step months ago, it wasn't surprising that I was willing to work on the dolls of Clouds more than I used to, too. In this case, I was installing a brand new operating system and doll chip for a new employee, but I also did things like checkups and even pre-employment physicals for potential dolls.

Swapping out an OS and installing a doll chip was pretty serious brain surgery, so the interruption of power... wasn't good. Still, I only made a quiet "Tsk" sound before I increased the pace of the operation. I could have it completed before power supplies became an obstacle— all of my uninterrupted power supplies ticked on as they were designed to do, after all.

The life support systems and mechanical ventilators would be powered for two to four hours, but I would only have half an hour or so for the full robotic surgical assistant and some monitors, which were on separate circuits.

As I mentally decided to continue the operation, I stopped trolling the net, disconnected from the site I was viewing and shifted to view the real-time video from my orbiting surveillance drones in Pacifica. This was my crystal-self, and for the most part, I lived in the net continuously as this part of me.

It wasn't really correct to think of it as "parts" of me, as it was all me, all the time. The entire purpose of my network topology was to have a singular mind and not separate or even have separable partitions. However, it was my usual practice for each of my "threads of awareness" to mostly look after their own bodies, so that made the crystal-me different.

I didn't have any real body to give attention to, as I didn't drive the Dragoon all the time. In fact, I very rarely did so as a percentage of each day, so this part of my mind lived a lot like what I suspected an AI might live.

Actually, that was my ego and what I saw on entertainment talking, so it was probably so much bullshit. In actuality, it was probably closer to how a really serious netrunner lived, just traipsing about the net in full-VR mode all of the time.

"Hn," I said aloud as I observed the plumes of several explosions within the city. About half my drones in Pacifica have been delivered so far, and this finally included the main battle management computer system and high-gain phased array radar emplacement on the roof of the building. I pulled up the real-time radar data and then went backwards in time to view the recorded data and zeroed in on several anomalies.

It could have been a flock of birds or a reflection of ground clutter downtown from one of the skyscrapers, as my building in Pacifica wasn't that high, but in retrospect, it was obviously several dozen low-observable cruise missiles entering the city and then performing terminal, supersonic dive-bomb manoeuvres.

The visible targets were electrical substations, but I bet there would be more that I just couldn't see from my vantage point in the southern part of town. The encrypted police band was already being flooded with messages, and unlike my position in Los Angeles, I didn't have access to it here.

Dr Hasumi was a well-behaved Corpo entrepreneur and had a working relationship with LA's cops. Here, I specifically didn't protect police vehicles, so they were often shot at as soon as they tried to enter Pacifica, sometimes long-distance shots from gangs more to the south of me. It was almost the only target that dissatisfied people wanting some of the little ultraviolence could partake in in my little area of heaven. Anything else, and my increasing number of drones or Kiwis mercs would come down on them like Mjolnir.

I would have lost all credibility with the rest of the warlords in the area if I had let the NCPD have free reign or even reclaimed a toehold, so it was just something I couldn't do. Already, a lot of people thought I was some sort of corporate plant, agent provocateur, or catspaw.

I mean, I was a catspaw. But the cat who owned the paw was also myself, too. I was both the cat and paw simultaneously, so it also suited my interests to keep the coppers out, but I had no idea how this strategy would persist in open warfare. Generally speaking, malcontents and troublemakers—and that included everyone running a gang in Pacifica, as far as I could tell—were rounded up and "pacified" during martial law, either by the new occupiers or the former, depending on who won.

At about the same time as lights returned to my clinic, both Kiwi and Gloria called me simultaneously. The lights coming back on must mean that someone started the building's emergency generators.

I had seen the bank of a dozen large generators in the basement, but I had no idea what they were powered by. If they were fueled by natural gas, then they might stay on for a long time—however long the pressurised methane was in the pipes. However, I thought they might be CHOOH2-powered like most small internal combustion engine motors, and if so, they wouldn't last forever without being refuelled.

I continued working quickly on the surgery but slowed a little bit now that power was restored. At the same time, I answered both calls and spoke simultaneously. Kiwi's call was brief, and she just wanted some direction. I told her to follow the pre-planned contingency for a NUSA invasion: a halt to all patrols for the moment, as well as to keep grounded any obviously armed drones.

Regardless of what happened, if the NUSA invaded or if some Night City forces counter-attacked, it would come through Pacifica, and my plan was to not get in anyone's way. I had also hired Herr Shadow to investigate and see what the NUSA forces in the southernmost part of Pacifica were up to on a contingency basis in the event of an invasion. If I flew drones too near them or even too high over my own territory, they generally shot them down, and I was tired of wasting money that way.

It was dark on Gloria's side of the vidcall, and she said, with an urgency to her voice, "Taylor! Crazy shit is going on. The Norte Americanos are invading or something. Corporate had thought it would be a couple of days away, and they're recalling all employees to the Trauma Team tower. Can you look after David? I may be sequestered and working back to back for days."

I frowned, "They're not offering to intern dependents too?" That didn't sound right. If they were going to this extreme, they'd have basic accommodation for families, as well.

She frowned and said, "They said they would if things got any worse, but not right now. Plus, I'd rather see if you'd be willing to watch him, anyway."

I nodded, "That wouldn't be a problem. I always like the little gremlin. How are you going to get to Japantown? For that matter, how are you going to get to work? With any widespread loss of electricity, things are going to get more Mad Max than not out there."

She rubbed her chin, "Mad Max?" I frowned. I didn't know if that film actually existed in this world before opening my mouth. A quick net search confirmed that it did not; it didn't even exist in Earth Bet, only Earth Aleph. Still, she got what I was saying from context and said, "That's a good point."

I waved a hand and said, "I'll see if I can charter an aircar. It looks like your building management is a bit less on the ball than the Tyger Claws, but do you think you can make it to one of the AV pads?"

She nodded, "Yeah. I'm going to bring my street sweeper for the trip, though."

All of my chests swelled with pride. From someone who was borderline afraid of guns when I first met her to someone who was grievously injured by one, it wouldn't be shocking if she retreated into a phobia. Instead, she used her super-human Borg strength to practice firing fully automatic shotguns one-handed and talked about getting the Borg version of a SmartLink system integrated into her hands.

I just put her on hold while I called several different charter companies. The first three didn't have availability, or they were in a temporary stand-down, afraid of being shot out of the sky, but I found Combat Cab willing to fly one of their AV-4s for about three times the usual price. I paid a deposit quickly.

While I was spending a lot of money lately, I still had access to almost all of the wealth I generated in LA before I got recruited by Arasaka. Even after I paid fairly nice severance packages to all my employees, which amounted to a month's salary and implied permission to loot the factory to the ground, I had over seventeen million. These days, that was down to about fourteen, but I still wasn't questioning a few thousand here or there.

I had to keep enough to capitalise my business in space, too, as I was getting known well enough that spacers would be willing to do business with me. That would be the point where I could have a little bit more privacy up there and possibly smuggle some equipment and keep it secret so that I could, theoretically, clone myself replacement bodies. As it was now, if things went to utter shit on the planet Earth, I wouldn't be able to create replacements in space for quite a long time.

I wasn't really making much money, more surviving off the money I had already made, although my digital currency tumbling service was still making fairly good profits every month. Running one of those systems necessitated a rather large amount of liquid funds, though. Money was a weird thing. Once you reached a certain point of critical mass, it seemed to accumulate faster than one person could spend it.

I was surprised that people still used it, as it was pretty well understood that it was Dr Hasumi's tumbler in Los Angeles, and everybody knew I was working for new management now.

I pulled Gloria's vidcall back up in time to hear a single gunshot blast and hear her yell, "Stay the fuck back!"

Woah, she must have started moving before I actually confirmed the AV was coming. Also, she was using warning shots, which I didn't approve of. Unless, of course, her warning shot was shooting one of the nar-do-wells as an objective lesson to the surviving pack, in which case I did approve of it. I expected her to be highly dangerous if she was trailing little David with her.

Historically, she was the type to try to de-escalate things, even if doing so was taking risks upon herself. However, she would have gone wild to protect David even before she was "born again hard."

I settled back and decided not to bump her shoulder unless she asked me for help.

Gloria's Apartment, Megabuilding H4

Santo Domingo, Night City

"So, how was school today?" Gloria asked pleasantly, momentarily pausing in the kitchen while she was finishing up some stir-fry in a large wok. It was a recipe that Taylor taught her in Los Angeles. At first, she was shocked at the idea of making your own food, as she had always lived in government assistance housing where the only things resembling a kitchen were a microwave and refrigerator.

While it was more expensive than buying an XXL Burrito, it definitely tasted better and was better for you—especially recently, when actual vegetables were getting cheaper, including the red bell peppers she was cooking right now.

The news had been talking about how this was likely as a large percentage of arable farmland that had until recently been dedicated to producing CHOOH2 was now shifted to produce food. Not surprisingly, the Corps have adjusted things so that the total amount of eddies you spent every day on food didn't really change, or possibly even increase in her situation, but at least the quality was improving.

"Fine," the boy said, but then elaborated, "We're starting to learn about cells in science, animal and plant cells, and how they differ."

Gloria raised her eyebrows. She hadn't started learning about cells and their characteristics until she was almost in high school, but then again, she was a product of the public school system. Little David was only in the fifth grade, but he was in a fancy Corpo school that she couldn't afford in any way to send him to without Taylor's help.

Normally, she wouldn't accept help like that because she was wise to the ways of the world, and nobody did anything for free. However, if it was something to help David then she might have done so anyway, but she had long ago realised that Taylor just cared for them both—oh, and possibly still felt a little guilty for indirectly getting her shot and then dragging her to Los Angeles.

Really, her getting shot wasn't her fault at all, it was Gloria's, but the younger woman didn't seem to accept that no matter how many times Gloria told her.

"I did really well in all of those types of classes," Gloria said smugly, "In fact, it was what allowed me to enrol in a technical high school and graduate with a basic EMT certificate."

Little David just stared up at her, and finally, she pouted, "What I'm saying is that if you need help—"

Suddenly, the lights went out. She barely had time to blink before her low-light vision mode switched over and rendered the kitchen in grayscale.

At the same time, she lost connectivity with the net using her standard civilian-level cellular sim card, but she remained connected to the Trauma Team intranet and through that VPN, the net, through a separate company-provided card that she had installed in her head, right next to her normal one. Already, text messages were beginning to arrive from the corp.

"Uhhh... mom? What's going on?" David asked, sounding unsure and glancing around in the dark.

She sat the wok down on the cool side of the stove, walked over, and grabbed a set of large battery-powered flashlights from on top of the refrigerator. A few years ago, she wouldn't have had this type of precaution, but it was amazing how getting shot, dying and being raised from the dead would do to a girl to get her to consider contingencies.

She turned one of the lights on and handed it to David, "Stay still. I'm not sure what is going on, but it's not good." She looked up at the ceiling. There hadn't been a power outage in the building since she was a child, and she remembered that things got pretty bad when that happened.

It was pretty common knowledge that a Megabuilding would rapidly descend into ultraviolent rioting if the net connection had a malfunction lasting longer than four hours. This was so well-known that multi-homed network connectivity was considered a safety-critical utility, kind of like gaseous oxygen in a hospital.

The fact that not only the building had net access but also the electricity itself was off was not a good sign. There were supposed to be emergency generators, but they didn't seem to be turning on.

"Go get your go-bag," she ordered, and then she sat in the kitchen in the dark while reading the messages sent by the Trauma Team. The Corp had been anticipating an NUSA attack on the city in the next week or so, but they had believed it would just amount to a mechanised division or two rolling in from SoCal to invest in the city, then negotiating with the Night City leaders.

She tapped her foot rapidly after finishing reading and decided to try to call Taylor. She answered on the first ring, and Gloria said, feeling a bit anxious, "Taylor! Crazy shit is going on. The Norte Americanos are invading or something..."

After finishing her conversation with Taylor, David was back with a bag of clothes and essentials. After almost dying, she had become more worried about things. However, instead of wallowing in on the unsafety of just everything, she decided to take some reasonable precautions for her and David.

"Okay, wait here. I'm going to get my bag, and then we have to get upstairs. There will be an aircar meeting us and taking us to Aunt Taylor's building, David. Not only is the power still on there, but it will be safer for you as I have to go in to work," she explained, getting a serious nod from her little son that made her want to just pinch his cheeks.

She grabbed a bag that she had set aside for herself as well. It contained a change of clothes, a couple of MREs for David, a portable charger for her body, as well as a few other sundries. After a moment of indecision, she grabbed David's gun, too. It was a small, suppressed nine-millimetre carbine specifically designed for the size of kids his age, and David was a crack shot with it.

She pulled on her own set of body armour and helped David do the same. She was a lot more worried about David than herself. She was already bullet-resistant, but David was what she would call a "squish" at work. He had the best genetic upgrades that Taylor's money could buy, but that just made him a little stronger, a little quicker and a little smarter, as well as increased his lifespan. They didn't stop a bullet.

After securing his vest, she handed his carbine to him and said seriously, "Do not use this unless we get separated, and then only to save your life. It's just in case." His eyes widened a bit, which hurt her heart. She'd like to spare him the possibility of anything happening to either of them, but that wasn't really something she could do anymore. He nodded rapidly and did a quick function test of the weapon, checking to make sure that it was both loaded and presently set on "safe." She took the time to do the same with her own main weapon, a heavy automatic twelve-gauge shotgun. It was of the street sweeper variety, with a large drum magazine, and she was strong enough to fire it on fully automatic one-handed like it was a pistol.

Finally, she told him their destination and made him repeat it to her twice. If something did happen to her, she didn't like his odds, but they would be a lot better if he actually knew which landing pad to go to.

"Alright, keep your flashlight off. I can see in the dark, and I don't want to draw attention to us," Gloria ordered, and he nodded, turning his flashlight off and stowing it in his bag. She grabbed his hand and led him out of their apartment and through the hallways. There were other people outside milling about, but she ignored them and continued walking with a purpose to the centre of the floor, where both the main elevators and stairs were.

Unfortunately, a group of the most obvious of Santo Domingo's thugs were already loitering around, shining everyone who got near with a seriously bright flashlight. They were high school-aged toughs armed with an assortment of things like bats and knives, and they pointed their flashlights at her and David as they approached the door to the stairwell.

"Yo, chica! Hand over those guns if you know what's good for you. And anything else you might have," leered the one closest to her. The flashlights they had were every bit as bright as the two that she and David had, and they were bright enough to blind or dazzle normal people at short range. They were almost a self-defence tool themselves, but her eyes just shifted to compensate for them, and she could see his grabby hand reaching for the barrel of her shotgun.

They were being stupid, as the simplest solution would be to just shoot at each of the lights. That's what she would have had to do if she couldn't see them. Instead, she pulled the barrel of her weapon out of reach and casually stepped towards him, delivering a quick muzzle strike with the shotgun to his throat, which caused him to immediately fall to the ground, gurgling. She spared him a glance and felt that he would survive.

Now, to stop the rest, who started yelling invectives and taking steps towards her. At the same time, Taylor called her back again. She answered the vidcall, aimed, and fired a shotgun blast into the ceiling above the miscreant's heads. The walls were close to bare cement, so she was worried about ricochets if she fired a "warning shot" anywhere else, but the drop ceiling absorbed the buckshot fairly easily, although it probably fucked up the now dark lighting fixture.

She yelled in her best imitation of the "command voice" that the Drill Sergeants used while she was in basic, "Stay the fuck back!" Surprisingly, they did, opening a hole through to the stairwell. She kept them at gunpoint until she and David could make it through, backing up through the stairs.

After they were in the stairwell, she glanced up briefly before continuing to stare at the door just in case that group of idiots followed them. She said, "Sorry, Tay. Things are a little heated right now. I hope you didn't call me to tell me that you couldn't find someone to pick us up because we're already heading upstairs."

"No, I got Combat Cab to accept a contract. They'll be on the westside AV pad on the fortieth floor in five minutes," Taylor replied calmly while simultaneously sending her a digital file which included the reservation information and code words. This made Gloria sigh in relief. She would have really regretted trying to take David up the stairs if there wasn't going to be anything waiting for them.

They met a few people who were going downwards, who gave her a wide berth. The fact that she was waving an eight-kilo automatic shotgun in one hand, and easily, was a pretty good indication that she wasn't entirely 'ganic, and that made smart people wary all on its own.

The fortieth floor had another group of toughs out loitering in front of the elevators, but this group was busy trying to open the elevator doors. It seemed that one of the elevators was halfway trapped in between floors with some of their friends on it. That was fine with her, as they were better armed than the ones on her floor, and she didn't want to be stopped by them.

The AV was waiting for them, with a crew member in the back aiming a machine gun sort of in the direction of where they stepped out, which caused her to pause. He wasn't pointing the light machinegun at them, but it would take less than a second to traverse it on its pintle mount so that he was. She stopped a fair bit away from the aerodyne and yelled out the verification code that Taylor had sent her, "Green-Green-Fife-Seven-Niner-Tree-One-One!"

The door gunner paused for a moment, then motioned to her and David to board, and she hurried to get aboard. This was an older aerodyne, and it didn't have the automatic child restraint system that Little David really needed, but she tried to get him seated and secured as best she could before she buckled her own belt.

It was flown single pilot too, which was a little unusual from her experience but it was true that the second pilot in Trauma Team's aircrafts generally worked the weapons systems and electronic warfare suite, which this aircar obviously didn't have. The door gunner nodded and asked, "We got a double drop off here. One pax at the Megabuilding in Japantown, and another at Trauma Team tower?"

She hesitated and then nodded. She had assumed that she would have to make her way to the Trauma Team from Japantown herself, perhaps calling for a pickup, but this was a lot simpler. The only reason she hesitated was because she didn't like the idea of parting with little David so soon.

The AV lifted off the roof and climbed to an altitude about five hundred metres above the city. It was a relatively quick flight to Japantown, and she looked out both the window and missing door, where the machine gun was mounted, and sucked her teeth a bit. More than a third of the lights down below were out, and there were fires everywhere. The door gunner noticed her looking and said over the intercom, "It's going to be a blood bath."

"Why would the NUSA do this?" Gloria asked, more rhetorically than anything.

The door gunner snorted and shrugged, "My guess is something surprised them, and if the city's forces are stuck dealing with keeping the peace, then they won't be able to do anything else, but hell if I actually know, ma'am."

They were silent the rest of the flight, and Gloria spent the time arranging for a clearance to land on one of the public pads at Trauma Team Tower without them being shot down. She was surprised not to see Taylor waiting for them. Instead, it was the peculiar Tyger Claw that probably saved her son's life and "avenged" her, Johnny.

David really liked the guy, and she saw his eyes light up when he saw him. Johnny ducked his head close enough to speak and said, "Doc Hebert was in the middle of a surgery when the recent unpleasantness started, so she asked me to take care of escortin' young David upstairs to her apartment."

Gloria nodded but still quickly verified that with Taylor through text messages. She helped David out of the aerodyne and said, "Stay safe. I'll be able to talk to you online, and I'll be back as soon as I can."

David nodded seriously, and then both he and Johnny backed up so that the aircar could power up and lift off the pad again. She sighed and stared out the window on the quick flight downtown.


I finished up the surgery about the time David arrived and only had a few things to clean up with. I didn't have the benefit of two surgical nurses here as I did at work, so I had to perform all of the tasks myself. Still, I would be done pretty quickly, and after I was sure my patient was safe in Clouds, I would head upstairs to check in with David.

I would have to go to work myself tomorrow, so I had already talked to Evelyn, who had agreed to babysit. I think David would like this very much. He wasn't old enough to be interested in girls, and especially not women, in a sexual or romantic way, but he was right at the correct age where he liked being doted on by beautiful women, and he probably had crushes on a number of the dolls. That was pretty normal for boys, psychologically.

Johnny, the Samurai Gunman, had said that they had planned to stretch out their supply of fuel to run the building's generators, so she should expect load shedding and rolling blackouts that would last no more than thirty minutes at a time, although they would make sure that the internet and wireless connections stayed powered even during the blackouts. People wouldn't mind sitting in the dark if they knew it was temporary and they could still get on the net during that period. It was pretty smart.

They needed to stretch the fuel supplies because they didn't know precisely when the city could have power restored. The Tyger Claws had already surveyed the damage, and the damage was pretty total to a number of transformers in multiple electrical substations. This wasn't really expensive to repair, but nobody knew how many spare transformers the city had, nor did they expect them to be enough. It might take days to get more in from the Free States, or perhaps longer if the NUSA military was going to invest the city in the meantime.

I shook my head, a little worried, as I carefully used nanomed gel on the doll's surgical site wound and bandaged it closed. This would begin a rapid healing of the bone in the girl's skull that I had to temporarily remove for the surgery.

Herr Shadow had already performed reconnaissance and relayed that the NUSA presence in the southern part of Pacifica wasn't expanding, which surprised me. I had expected that they would use the cover of this chaos to begin attacking or at least send sappers into the city to attack the NCPD or city government.

Instead, they had turtled up even more than they already had, which I couldn't understand. Of course, I wasn't really a military-minded person. It was one thing to see a weakness and ruthlessly exploit it, and I thought I had that kind of temperament, but it was another to understand how an actual organised military force of thousands of individuals thought or planned.

I began waking the doll up. Sadly, she would have to wait a little while to regrow her hair, which wasn't part of the surgical plan. Unfortunately, the nanovat used a lot of power, and it wasn't the sort of thing that handled interruptions in power too well. It was a bit of a shame, as she had beautiful blonde hair and a body to match, kind of reminding me of that vulpine-grinning woman that I worked with briefly in Los Angeles.

"How are you feeling, Miss Anderson?" I asked, congenially as she fully regained consciousness.

Aoyama, Tokyo

Hasumi Sakura's Apartment

At about the same time that normal order was breaking down in Night City, I was returning from a long day's work at the office.

It was already in the middle of the night, and I already had a reputation for keeping unusual hours, so I wasn't too surprised when Yuki came into the living room where I was lounging and said, "Hasumi-sama, you have a visitor from Arasaka Intelligence who would like to ask you a few questions. It's a matter of some urgency. Do you wish to see him?"

I had entertained a few people from Arasaka at my apartment, so it wasn't out of the ordinary, but this was the first time a spook had knocked at my door. Finally, I nodded and said, "It would be fine; you can show him or her in, Yuki-san. If you'd please make some tea for me and our guest, as well."

Yuki nodded, seemingly brightened that I hadn't told the unannounced visitor to take a hike. Shortly thereafter, Yuki escorted a non-descript man into the living room. Yuki introduced him as "Mr Tanaka," which caused me to raise an eyebrow. The man looked incredibly ordinary. He was dressed in a cheap, but not too cheap, suit and had a face you would immediately forget, and he was named Tanaka. Tanaka was like the Japanese equivalent of Mr Smith, an incredibly ordinary surname.

"Tanaka-san, hmm?" my voice expressed my disbelief, but he just smiled and nodded. Internally, I shrugged, and said, "How can I be of assistance? And would you care for some tea?"

He took a seat opposite of me and said, "That would be nice, thank you. Something occurred recently, and we're getting the opinions from most of our geneticists this evening as it has the potential to be a serious issue."

"I'm not really educated as a geneticist," I temporised, but I was only being polite. My last project for Arasaka involved the modifications to a novel bacterium. It was a successful one, and they were already constructing the first pilot plant to see the effectiveness of the bacteria in recycling metals. In my opinion, it wasn't going to be a wildly successful project, not like the sleep inducers, but it still was going to reduce the costs associated with some metal recycling by over fifteen per cent, perhaps more, if they built a lot of the plants and got up into economies of scale. Still, when you consider that many industries were highly mature, a reduction of some costs by fifteen percent was considered a great boon.

He smiled and said, "Of course. We're not really interested in credentialism here. You've obviously educated yourself on the subject significantly. Are you aware of the team that is attempting to understand the fuel-algae?"

I nodded, "I am. It wasn't really something that interested meperhaps when they figured out how the genome was encrypted. Until then, it is probably more of interest to our bio-cryptologists." That there actually was a field of study called bio-cryptology was amusing to me.

"Ah, of course," he said, and then paused as Yuki brought out the tea service. After Yuki left, he continued, "Something unusual happened today, worldwide, with the algae, and I was hoping I could have your first impressions." I was pretty sure I knew what had happened, but I inclined my head and he sent me a fairly large packet of data.

It was just as I expected, but I let the man explain, "All of a sudden, the genome of the algae harvested started to radically change worldwide, starting sometime yesterday or today."

I hummed and said, "From first impressions, the genome is smaller by fifteen per cent. That isn't natural, so this has to be a genetic switch that has been tripped, causing it to shed some functionality."

He nodded, "That is what the team working on it said as well. Can you speculate as to the reason?"

I could do a lot more than that, but I decided to pretend as though I was speculating, "Yes, let me take a look at the scans of the before and after of the actual organism. Looking at the genome is pointless, it's better to look at the organism itself under microscope, like this is the nineteenth century again."

I spent several minutes pretending to inspect the algae, occasionally saying something like "Hmm" or "Interesting." Finally, I brought the spook into a shared AR workspace and threw up an image of the algae before and after, right next to each other. I zoomed in and highlighted a very small area, "This organelle is now missing in the algae."

"Do you know what function this organelle has, Hasumi-sensei?" he asked, now quite interested.

I shrugged, "It's somewhat similar if, obviously miniaturised, to a photoreceptor cell. That is all I know for sure; the following is my speculation, yes?"

He nodded, and I continued, "Releasing a self-replicating cyanobacteria that is designed to outcompete nearly everything and spread worldwide is a dangerous activity. What if something happened? I suspect that this is part of a kill-switch. Specifically, I suspect that some specially encoded burst of light would trigger the production of some enzyme that would act as a signal to start apoptosis. The same enzyme would then escape the cell when the cell membrane was destroyed and signal the same behaviour to nearby cells, causing a chain reaction. I suspect that this shedding of parts of the genome is removing this feature so that nobody can use it now that the creator knows that it is safe."

The spook was quiet for a moment and then nodded, "That makes some sense. Hopefully, that is the case. We have shifted our economy to heavily take advantage of the fuel provided by the algae, and if it disappeared suddenly, then we would be in quite the pickle."

He took a sip of his tea and asked, "How would the algae know when to shed this functionality? Did it receive a signal?"

I frowned and shrugged, "It's possible, but I doubt it. The simplest way is a timer, by way of a counter that each generation would iterate as it went through mitotic division. It wouldn't be perfectly accurate, but you could time things to the precision of a few days or a week this way. I'm sure we have some early samples of the algae on ice; you can easily check this by thawing them in a controlled environment next to the new algae and see if any changes occur. If it's a signal, then the new algae would likely convert the old one."

I finished my tea and said, "I don't believe I have anything further to add, though. Was there anything else you needed?"

The nondescript man shook his head and smiled, "No, ma'am. Thank you for the assistance."

He started to stand up, and I raised a hand to stop him and asked, "Can you give me some details on what is happening in the NUSA? Some people are suggesting it's the start of the next Corporate War, and I'm a little concerned."

He frowned and said, "Ma'am, while you have the highest clearance level... you don't really have a need to know—"

I interrupted him again, "You misunderstand; I'm not interested in any secrets. Just information that is publicly available to anyone that could observe it. Say, just what Militech or even the world press might know."

He softened his expression and said, "Ah, I see. I can tell you a few things, then. Close to a week ago, the carrier battle group Amaterasu pulled anchor and began steaming directly towards the west coast of the continental United States. The NUSA Pacific Fleet left the anchorage at Hawaii and attempted to intercept them short of their mainland. There was an exchange of anti-ship guided missiles on each side, causing damage to both sides."

He took the last sip of his tea and said, "However, a task group of Arasaka and JDF submersibles, including the submersible aircraft carrier Ryujin were seen to surface near Pearl Harbour and launched attacks against a couple of NUSA Coast Guard and Navy Air Stations that housed ASW aircraft, destroying many on the ground. Still, some sortied and did significant damage to one of the submersible cruisers. At this point, the escalation stopped. It isn't known publicly what happened, but the majority of the NUSA Pacific Fleet turned around and started returning to Hawaii, and the Ryujin left as well, leaving the Amaterasu and her escorts to continue to the west coast."

He nodded and said, "That's pretty much all that is publicly known, although I think we probably have escaped an escalation that might precipitate conflict or danger here in Tokyo, at least for now. I can't really say anything else."

I stood up, along with him, and internally considered what he had said. It sounded like open warfare for a bit there, except one or both sides had pulled back from the brink there at the end. Were the attacks on Night City just ... revenge, then?

July, 2011

Taylor Hebert's Secret Bond Villain Base, Brockton Bay

Earth Bet

Taylor was conflicted. She was finally trusted enough to perform medical procedures on one of the Triumvirate, and it turned out that the only parts she used even a modicum of artistry on were mainly cosmetic.

Also, she had been the one who had to convince him to accept the cosmetic treatments. Personally, she would have made the appointment earlier. Eidolon wasn't... quite... ugly, but he wasn't aesthetically pleasing, either. He looked like an average middle-aged man who didn't get quite enough exercise, balding and developing a second chin and a slight ponch.

He wasn't as narcissistic as she had thought from her first interactions with him earlier. She paused and corrected that because he was every bit as narcissistic as she thought, but he didn't particularly care about his civilian identity. He didn't allow her to turn him into something very artistic, either. Ultimately, he only agreed for her to take some pounds off and help him build some muscles the quick way, as well as minor adjustments such as fixing his balding.

While he was in the tank, she would take care of routine maintenance as well, like the slightly occluded arteries and pre-hypertension, and even correct the first signs of brain damage that were indicative of incipient dementia.

He was shocked when Taylor told him, but he wouldn't have noticed symptoms for decades as long as the progression remained steady. Still, it was better to nip it in the bud now.

She had to sell him on the other cosmetic aspects, such as fixing his male patterned baldness and removing a few wrinkles and crow-feet.

In other words, he was a man who had almost entirely discarded his civilian identity. Being Eidolon was his life.

She thought the main reason he was here was because he was hopeful she could help him with The Problem That Cannot Be Mentioned. No, not ED, but PD. Power disfunction. Specifically, the fact that his power was slowly getting weaker. She had been sworn to secrecy... well, even more secrecy... before he told her about it, and the only reason he had was that they were both in the Illuminati together, even if he was peers with her boss's boss, and she was merely a minion.

Speaking of, Taylor's boss's boss, Dr Mother, had long ago found a stop-gap solution wherein Eidolon could consume some power vials, which seemed to recharge him for lack of a better word, but it wasn't something that did his body a lot of good. He could only do it perhaps once or twice a year without suffering significant sequelae, and it just wasn't quite enough to stem the tide of slow degradation.

"Okay, you can go ahead and consume the vial," she told him after triple-checking that all of her sensors were on and focused on the cape. He was optimistic that she would have some kind of solution for him, but she was much less so. She dealt with biology and science, and this alchemy was something that her power absolutely refused to assist her with.

Still, she was one of the foremost experts on the way powers interacted with the brain. Not only has she done dozens of pathological examinations post-mortem on capes that were provided by her boss, but she routinely had to do brain surgery on Case 53s, as well. Sometimes they had powers that could not be controlled, and she had found ways to adjust the anomalous brain regions to provide relief—most of the time.

While every parahuman's "coronas" were unique in some ways, there were a lot of similarities, too.

Eidolon, here purely in a civilian outfit, nodded and quickly swallowed the vial while Taylor watched readouts of his vitals and real-time medical images of his brain and organs. The process wasn't pleasant for Eidolon. He was too proud to cry out, but she could see the pain and distress in his readouts and made a thoughtful, "Hmmm."

After things plateaued and she decided she would learn no more, she nodded and tapped a couple of keys on her computer, which caused an infusion to begin running into the IV on Eidolon's arm. Within a few seconds, he looked much more at ease and asked, "Did you give me a painkiller? I don't need it."

She clucked her tongue, her disbelief plainly evident. But she waffled her hand, "Not a traditional painkiller, no. But I have begun running an anti-inflammatory infusion, along with nanomachines, which will stop you from continuing to suffer brain damage. It's the anti-inflammatories that are causing the analgesic effect, as your brain was literally swelling and becoming inflamed."

"Brain damage?!" he choked.

Taylor nodded, "Indeed. I thought you were a bit too young for dementia. I think we've discovered the cause of the brain injuries I saw and repaired." She tapped her fingers on her desk and nodded, "After this, we'll just have to use the medical nanomachines to remove the heavy metals and other toxins that these vials contain. They're a cumulative hazard, and every time you ingest one, it does a number on your liverlike you're swallowing a bottle of acetaminophen."

Taylor sighed and looked a little depressed, which he noticed and asked, "What's the problem?"

"It's not really a solution to your problem. It's just a band-aid, but you should be able to drink a vial every few weeks or more often so long as you follow the pre and post-vial directions and take the medicine I'll make up for you," she said while moping. It upset her sense of elegance as a doctor. It was like someone coming in with a complaint of chronic knee pain, and a doctor just prescribed ibuprofen for the pain. A solution, possibly, but not one that actually solved the patient's complaint, merely covered it up.

Eidolon looked amazed, hopeful and invigorated, "What do you mean that's not a solution? That's amazing!"

She sighed and said, "I suppose. I still don't know what process causes your power to degrade, and I suspect it isn't anything biological, so I can't really be expected to solve it."

Taylor helped him to a comfortable chair and sat with him while a second IV that contained nanomachines programmed to find heavy metals and remove them from his body, which she had dissolved in a half litre of saline.

"How is the monster cape?" he asked, seemingly a lot more sociable and affable than when he arrived. Normally, he was all business and never bothered to offer even a little small talk with her at all.

Taylor nodded, "She's in a tank on the floor below us, regrowing everything below her belly button. I followed the boss's directions to the letter, and one of the last steps was bisecting her using Armsmaster's nano-thorns. I administered the second vial to her myself, as well. She survived that, too. I believe her power has changed considerably. At least, I hope so. I don't want to see how she would generate and spawn clones with a normal female body, anyway."

Eidolon shuddered at the thought, "Any idea what her power is? Contessa seemed very interested."

"I've asked Ms Alcott, who has remained here with me. I had to ask her a number of ways over the course of a week, but I'm pretty sure she is going to be a power copier," Taylor said. She then paused and continued, "I'm going to have her test with one of the Travellers first. Normally, I would let her copy my power as it is useless without build-up, but her clone of me had all or most of my memories. It would be very problematic if she got my memories, too, in addition to my power."

He raised an eyebrow, "That would be bad. You're keeping the girl? She has a very powerful Thinker power, I hear."

Taylor let out a breath and said, "Her parents disappeared when Leviathan attacked. I'd prefer to return her to them, but she doesn't want to go into Protectorate custody... so we're at a bit of an impasse."

Privately, she thought that Coil might have been behind her parent's disappearance. She shrugged and said, "Her power is both very powerful and very problematic, as many strong powers are. I've begun teaching her meditation techniques in the hope that she will gain mastery over them. In the worst case, I'll conduct brain surgery and adjust her Gemma to provide more conscious control over when her power is active. I've done this for a half dozen of our guests, which otherwise would have prevented us from releasing them."

Taylor clucked her tongue, "Otherwise, she'd forever be at the mercy of anyone who could incapacitate her by the simple expedient of asking her questions until she faints."

Eidolon rubbed the top of his head, which used to be a bald spot and hedged unsurely, "Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if her power really is as strong as you've reported."

Taylor clucked her tongue, "We all have to get our hands dirty, sir, but that is no reason to go out of our way to do so." Honestly, Taylor didn't have much of a problem with her organisation's activities, as she had learned more of them.

Selling powers in a vial was akin to selling arms in her mind, and she grew up a child of the Militech family, so she didn't have any problem with that. Case 53's were all either volunteers or were so injured that the concept of implied consent would apply to experimental medical procedures. Keeping them captive wasn't a good thing, but she was working through the backlog to release as many as she could. They would never be able to release all of them, but she didn't let the perfect get in the way of the good.

As far as the vast conspiracy business, well, that's just the way the world had always been run.

Eidolon regarded her with steely eyes for a moment before finally nodding, "Perhaps you're right. Besides, I sometimes forget that you get more flies with honey." Wow, he really must be feeling better if he was willing to admit to a fault, even a minor one. Taylor thought it helped a lot that he wasn't in costume right now, as he could play it off as not being Eidolon right now.

He looked at the empty IV bag and asked, "Am I good to go?"

Taylor nodded, "Yes, sir. I'll have supplies and directions made up for you to take pre and post-vial, but for now, I'd recommend no more than one a month. Your brain does get really active after you drink it, and I'd like to see more instances before we make it a regular occurrence."

He laughed, sounding genuinely happy, pulling out the IV's and not even bothering with a bandaid, "I don't think there is any way we'd need to use it more than that. Even if I assume the degradation continues, it would be over ninety-three years before I'd need to drink them weekly." Clearly, he had temporarily used a thinker power there, she felt.

Taylor hummed noncomittally and nodded. Suddenly, his costume was back on. Taylor didn't know if he used a power to construct a costume on the fly or if he had some sort of RPG-like inventory hammerspace power to keep it in, but he stood much straighter than before. He nodded once more at her and said, "Door, my office in Houston."

Taylor waited several seconds after the doorway closed before gathering all the consumable supplies she used and tossing them into the trash. Anything that might have Eidolon's blood or trace DNA samples, like the needles, swabs and IV tubing, though, she incinerated.

After leaving her private office, she found Dinah Alcott walking around aimlessly. She pretty much gave the young girl the run of the base, except for the Traveler's private area.

She had recovered fairly well from the detoxification, but it would still be months more work before Taylor considered her psychological addiction cured. There were treatments that lessened the impact of memories, and she was using them liberally on the girl, who had been inconsolable at the loss of her parents for a week after waking up. Still, she was very resilient.

However, the girl was dressed oddly. She was wearing a costume that kind of resembled an old-style nursing uniform, the kind with the pinafore skirt and nursing cap. She had a domino mask on, as well. Taylor stared at her and asked, "Why are you wearing that? And how?"

The girl grinned at her and said, "Miss Genesis helped me make it. Apparently, she used to be big into cosplay. I want to go out with you today! Where are you going?"

Taylor raised her eyebrows. She didn't bother asking why, as with this girl, it could be as simple as she was bored to as esoteric as she had to, or Taylor might get hit by a bus. Generally speaking, Taylor acquiesced to all of her requests if they were reasonable once she was sure the little girl wasn't working against her interests. She sighed, "I have the final calibration for Armmaster's prosthesis—"

"He's Defiant, now!" the girl complained. Taylor smirked. It would be hard to keep calling yourself Arm-master after the video of Leviathan ripping off your arms and beating you about the head and neck with them went viral. Some people would be totally destroyed psychologically by everything that happened, but it seemed to be a tempering that might make the heroic Tinker even more potent, from what she could guess. Privately, she thought he was fucking Dragon, too, although how either of them found the time, she didn't know.

"—after that, I have an OB consult with Miss Othala," Taylor finished. She didn't expect much out of that. There probably wasn't anything wrong, but she wasn't going to refuse business to do a checkup and tell the woman so.

With the Empire 88 gone, Othala and Victor fell into Purity's sway and were theoretically trying to portray themselves as a heroic team, now. Granted, they seemed to prioritise criminals of certain ethnic backgrounds highly, so Taylor wasn't sure how much they had actually changed. Still, Othala and Victor treated her well even when they were in the Empire, so she would continue to reciprocate, and assuring them both that their future child was likely healthy was a simple matter that could be concluded in an hour or less.

Dinah also had a carefully wrapped box in her hands that looked like a present, complete with red bow. Taylor switched her eyes into non-ionising penetrative scanner mode and frowned as she saw the contents. She asked, "Why do you have one of my sleep inducers in a gift box?"

"It's Defiant's birthday. It's important that he gets this present!" She said, holding her finger against her nose in the British way of signalling the two of them were in on a shared secret. That meant that it was important for either her or my safety, as that was the only thing that Dinah asked her power regularly.

Taylor didn't know how she could know how to give him this thing, but it basically amounted to a game of twenty questions, and the little girl was incredibly good at it. It was why Taylor didn't bother to really ask her that many questions herself.

Taylor sighed and started walking to what had once been Coil's motor pool, which was mostly empty now. The girl followed next to her, and Taylor asked, "Are you sure you don't want to go live with your relatives? He's still the mayor."

She winced and shook her head, "It would be best if I stayed with you for now."

"Fine," Taylor groused and then said, "But if someone recognises you, I'm not letting them think I kidnapped you."

"Don't worry, that won't happen!" the girl chirped, seemingly pleased as they both walked to the white-panelled van that she used when she made house calls.