by Michael Surbrook and Mathieu Roy

Raven showed up to an empty dojo the next day at 10 AM. Remembering Marta's flexibility exercises, she decided to get a head start by beginning them right way. After a while, the door opened behind her. She turned to see Ling Ling, dressed like Marta had been, in a kung fu outfit, only a neutral light gray.

"Hello Ms. Clark, how are you today?"

"I'm fine, Ms. Li. And you? Recovered from your, um, trip?"

The Chinese woman grimaced. "I'd rather not think about it. When I finally woke up I ended up being sick for about an hour."

"I'm sorry," Raven said feelingly. "I understand you're going to be my teacher now?"

"Well," Ling Ling paused. "For a few days, yes. I'm supposed to give you some basic instruction, which you will need to expand on at a later date."

"Okay." Raven did one last stretch and announced, "I'm ready when you are."

"Then let's get started." Ling Ling walked to the center of the room and began a series of warm-up excerises. "What have you covered so far?"

"Stretching, and we've started on falling." Raven sighed. "I must warn you, I'm an extreme beginner. Has Shion told you about my spine problems?"

"Shion is... ah... indisposed, right now. I didn't hear much from her. Why don't we talk while we get warmed up."

Indisposed? How come? Too angry? Raven began on a new series of stretching exercises. "Well, I was born with spinal deformities that virtually prevented me from standing upright or walking. I was cured only three months ago, so I'm still not too familiar with a fully-functioning body."

"Cured? How? Spinal replacement?"

"Nah, that would wreck my PK." She looked at Ling Ling. "You did know I was a PK, right?"

Ling Ling shook her head. "No, that hasn't been covered yet."

"Well, I am." Raven paused to perform a particularly demanding stretch. "That's why I'm here, really."

"The doctors called it phenotype correction. They stuffed me into a vat and fixed my body up so it'd match my genetic code. Or so they say. I suspect they might have thrown in a few adjustments," she waved downwards along her body to indicate her figure, "as a signing bonus."

Grinning, Ling Ling nodded. "I see. When I was younger my parents had me entered in a genetic upgrade program." Passing her hands down her torso, she indicated her own well-endowed figure. "As you can see, it worked."

"Impressive," Raven agreed. "Again, altering my genes might wreck my PK so it's something I can't do." She hesitated. "Um... and the ears?"

"Old boyfriend."

"Ah. Sorry."

"No need, they are an asset in my line of work."

"Really? How come?"

Ling Ling gave Raven another sly grin, "They make me even more mysterious and inscrutable."

"Aaah." Raven grinned back. "I see. And what line of work are you in?"

"Being mysterious and inscrutable."

Raven laughed. "That's certainly a mysterious and inscrutable answer." She sat on the mat and watched Ling Ling finish her stretching. "I think I'm ready when you are."

Raven hesitated a moment. She'd need to take off her clothes to get in the shower, but she wasn't sure she wanted to do that in front of Ling Ling. She was Marta's lover, after all, which meant she was attracted to women; Raven didn't think she wanted to travel that road so soon after yesterday. On the other hand, Ling Ling's polite attitude had given no real sign that she was viewing the PK as anything but a pupil. Screw that. I'm not walking to my apartment all sweaty and I'd look stupid if I did.

Peeling off the gi proved a lot more painful than she anticipated. "Ouch," she said out loud. "I don't think I've ever had so many bruises." She started pulling down her pants gently, trying to avoid the sensitive spots.

Unbuttoning her jacket, Ling Ling managed a shrug. "You'll get used to it. Besides, you're still learning to fall properly, which is where most of those bruises came from. And if you keep up your training you won't notice them after a while anyway."

Laying the jacket aside, she then removed her bra before continuing. "Since you've only been walking for a short while, I recommend that you also look into basic acrobatics and tumbling classes as well as simple dance instruction."

My, she is busty. I'm not sure I like it, though—it kinda throws the balance of her figure. She looked up. "Um, you're right, sounds like a good idea." Sheesh, Raven! Looking at other women's breasts in the shower? What am I coming to? Am I just being competitive, or did Marta throw me out of whack that much? And what is she going to think? To cover her confusion she worked on reaching behind her to undo her own bra. Cripes, can't get at the clasp, she thought, fumbling.

Pausing in the middle of pulling of her trousers, Ling Ling gave Raven a questioning glance. "Do you need help?"

Raven reached out telekinetically to undo the clasp. "I'll be all right." The bra floated lightly to her locker. "Everyone talks about how destructive the Power is, but they never realize just how useful it is." She started to step out of her panties.

"I see..." Ling Ling said quietly. Placing her own clothing in a locker, she pulled a towel around herself and walked to the showers.

Raven closed her own locker door, picked up her towel, and followed Ling Ling to the shower area. Showers—another nicety not found often in the Zone. There one washed oneself from a small pot, using a linen, so as to use as little relatively-clean water as possible, and certainly no more than once a week. She hooked her towel, picked one of the waterheads, set the dial to warm-hot, and stood under the spray.

The warm water ran over her skin, soothing her many bruises. She turned her face into the spray and relaxed. One of her favorite aspects of her condition was the sheer comfort of a properly constructed body. Before she'd learned to live with and ignore several small strains and aches, caused by her malformed joints. She'd ignored them so well that she'd forgotten about them, until they were suddenly gone. It might well be the most liberating aspect of her cure, even before being free from the wheelchair. It felt so good now to just stand under the water, drops of it finding and filling every nook and cranny of her skin like a thousand feathered caresses, and forget about Sanato, about Blade, about Marta, about her worries, about things she'd figure out in due time and not before.

When Raven called Shion, she sounded just like she'd been woken up: groggy, and, well a little sick.

Oops, Raven thought. That isn't very imperial. "Oh, sorry to wake you up, Shion. Will you be okay?"

Shion's response was slightly slurred, mumbled and very quiet. Raven realized that she was really, really hung over.

Ouch. Guess I'm not the only one Marta riled up yesterday. "Sorry to bother you, Shion. I wanted to see if you could make it for lunch, but nevermind."

Shion mumbled something unintelligible in response, and Raven hung up.

"I hope you like spicy," Raven said as they entered the Indian restaurant she'd picked. The place was decorated in dark woods; light music filled the room. It was buffet day, and a long table covered with pots had been set up. The dishes offered seemed to be mostly mixed meat and vegetables in rich sauces, along with typical white rice. "Indian food tends to be hot, and very filling. And you haven't lived until you've had the butter chicken."

Ling Ling gave the other woman a smile, "It can't be any hotter than Szechuan."

Raven spotted a good table near a window and they sat down. Ling Ling was dresed in black tunic and trousers, with a blue cheong-sang with gold trim over that. Her first act on sitting down was lighting a cigarette. Raven had stuck to a more occidental combination of white blouse and black skirt and stockings. The waiter did a fairly good job of not staring at either as he took their order for drinks. Raven picked an Indian beer while Ling Ling asked for hot tea.

Casting for a subject of conversation, Raven picked one that intrigued her still. "Ms. Li, tell me about Shion."

A slow exhalation of smoke was her only answer for a moment. "What do you want to know? Information about Shion Nys does not normally come free."

"That's exactly what I mean. Nobody wants to tell me anything about her—except for Johnny, a bit, and he's plainly terrified of her. I don't want to know anything mysterious and inscrutable. I just want to find out what everyone except me seems to know, what the big deal is." She shrugged. "All I know, really, is that she's a powerful freelance PK."

There was a moments silence while Ling Ling to a long draw on her cigarette. "She is more than that. She is the world's most powerful and stable PK. She will allow no one corp to lay claim to her, and tries to keep all of them at arm's length. She will do exactly what you pay her to do, and has no memory of past jobs."

The world's most powerful stable PK... Powerful enough, at any rate, to keep the corps at arms length. Raven sat back thoughtfully. That little tidbit certainly put some things, like Shion's teleporting around, her psychic signature, and their little duel in the training room, into perspective. She'd thought she was swimming in a pool of sharks, but now she realized she'd had no notion of how big the sharks really were.

Ling Ling paused, exhaled smoke, and then continued, "If someone sent her against your company tomorrow, she'd destroy you without a second thought."

Raven knew she shouldn't be disappointed, this was they way it worked in this business, but she was, a bit. Despite Shion's imperial airs, she rather liked the older woman, and the thought of fighting her to the death—likely Raven's, given what Ling Ling said—wasn't one that pleased her. She sighed. There was nothing to be done about it but wait and see.

Another question nagged at her mind. She looked speculatively at Ling Ling, then decided that whether or not she could trust this even-tempered, inscrutable Oriental woman, she would not be asking any question that hadn't occured to her before. Likely, she would not get an answer, but perhaps it was worth trying.

"Shion's fees must be very expensive," she noted. "I just wonder why Shiroko-Tsuhi would hire the world's most powerful stable PK for something as mundane as training me. Surely there are other, less expensive freelance PKs around."

"Certainly," Ling Ling said with a shrug, "but few have her reputation, and fewer still have her business sense."

"Thanks." Raven didn't know if she should feel reassured, flattered, or unnerved that S-T would be willing to pay vast sums of money to provide her with the very best. Being considered valuable was definitely a mixed blessing in her eyes.

"We should get some food," Raven said. She stood and moved to the buffet, picking up some food from each pot, with a generous helping of butter chicken. Ling Ling followed, selecting mosty tandoori dishes, bread and vegtables.

"What's Hong Kong like, compared to Neo York?" Raven asked, once they had sat back down.

"Crowded." Ling Ling made sketching motions on a napkin, "Hong Kong is mostly island, and has little flat ground. The streets are narrow, and the buildings are very tall. Granted, it's larger than it used to be, since it gained self-rule, but it didn't make that big of a difference."

"What about the culture?" Raven asked. "Do the people act very different than here?"

"What do you mean by different?"

"For example, what's important to them?"

Ling Ling thought for a moment, "As an open city, Hong Kong is highly concerned with business and trade. I would say that people are more profit-minded there."

"More than here? That must be one greedy city." Raven paused. "You're right though, it does seem a lot of Americans like costly power games. Maybe it comes from having once been a big military power." She shrugged.

"Whereas Hong Kong has no natural resources, so everything must be brought in from the outside. The city's economy is driven purely by business."

"Makes sense. Say, you don't sound Chinese... You have an interesting accent but I can't place it."

"It's Australian," Ling Ling smiled.

"Australian?" Raven's eyebrows shot up. "You're Australian?"

"Sort of." Ling Ling took a sip ofher tea and lit a fresh cigarette. "My parents left Hong Kong right before the Communists took it over in '97. They moved to Australia, where I grew up."

Raven smiled. She ate a bite of her food, then asked, "And how is Australia? It must be a world of difference with Hong Kong, adapting must have been hard."

"I left Australia fifteen years ago... I..." Ling Ling stopped and took a sip of tea. "I remember Australia as a place of laughter, but... I think of Hong Kong as my home. It is where I belong."

"It's good to know where you belong," said Raven. She seemed about to say something else, then gave up, sighed, and returned to her meal. It must be good. I don't know if I belong anywhere.

"How about you, Ms. Clark? What is your story?"

"There isn't much to it. I grew up in the Zero Zone, got hooked up with a gang because of my PK, then Shiroko-Tsuhi found out about me and offered to cure my deformities in exchange for signing up."

"And then?"

Raven chuckled. "And then I spent a couple months unconscious in a vat while the doctors worked on me. I woke up three months ago, and spent most of that in retraining."

"I see..." A cloud of smoke followed the statement. "And then?"

"Then Shiroko-Tsuhi hired Shion to train me."

Ling Ling sat silently, drinking her tea. "And what will you do once the training is done?"

"Honestly, I'm not sure." Raven shrugged, then sighed. "That's really up to my bosses, although I expect to be doing Solo-type work, security, that kind of thing. Typical corp PK stuff, I guess, if there is such a thing."

"Yes, there is." Ling Ling said quietly. "Usually it involves keeping another corp's PK away."

"Sort of like nukes in the eighties, then." Raven chuckled. "That's the story of my life: from crippled street girl to corporate strategic weapon. Guess that's what they call moving up in the world."

"Yes... a esper cold war... I don't think I had ever thought of it that way." Ling Ling glanced out the window, smoking her cigarette. "Somehow I don't find that very comforting."

"Me neither. But it's certainly better than having all the esper weapons in the hands of a single corp. Besides, they didn't use their nukes in the eighties. Maybe the world's luck will hold."

Raven looked outside the window, watched people walk by for a moment. "And if it doesn't... may God have mercy on our folly."

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