by Mathieu Roy and Michael Surbrook

Tired to the bone, Raven let herself fall facedown on the bed, still fully clothed in the dirtied jumpsuit she'd worn in the Outback. Some of her long hair fell into her face, but she didn't wipe it away; she didn't have the energy to spare. She'd have slept instantly, except that her exhaustion was both mental and physical, and she'd gotten a real mother of an headache from all the psychic strain she'd been through.

Shion's endurance exercises were getting harder and harder. When she'd seen Raven had most individual tasks down pat, she'd started on combinations. Stay fifty feet above the ground, hold this huge chunk of metal at eye level, and destroy the scrapped cars I fling upwards at irregular intervals. The combined tasks required of Raven more power than she could easily use and she'd gotten brainburn (ASDS, she corrected herself) several times.

On the other hand, she was slowly realizing how powerful she really was. No, that wasn't right. On some level, she'd always been aware of the extent her abilities, although Shion's training was broadly expanding this perception. What she was really starting to learn was the implications of her abilities. After all, she'd never really had anything to compare to. In a world of street toughs, anyone with any real PK power was a force to be reckoned with. Tearing cars in half, teleporting several miles at a time, and smashing building walls... impressive, but no more than what the PKs in the vids could do.

But now... Groaning from the effort, Raven flipped and lay on her back, as if a view of patches of ceiling would help her think more than a view of the wall. At least some of her sweaty hair had fallen off her face.

Now she was starting to figure out why Sanato was putting so much effort into her. Why Shion had been hired to train her. Quite simply, there was a good chance no one else would have been up to the task. From what she'd gathered from Shion's data, and from measuring herself against the Empress... Simply put, Raven was a world-class telekinetic.

She wasn't as powerful as Shion, of course, but she played in a league with no more than a double-handful known players. She operated in a world of world-spanning megacorporations and globe-trotting telekinetic solos—and she was still a force to be reckoned with.

That did little to reassure her. Of course, as Raven's value as an asset increased, the likelihood that Shiroko-Tsuhi would risk losing her decreased. But at the same time, the lengths at which they would go to keep her increased. Tradeoffs... everything was a tradeoff. The balance wasn't changing. It was just that the stakes kept growing higher and higher. And, as Patty... as Blade had so clearly explained, the stakes didn't involve just Raven anymore. They never had.

It's too much! Raven wanted to scream it at the top of her lungs; perhaps it would break the chains she felt clamping on her. The stakes, all the changes, physical and otherwise, it was all too overwhelming, it was simply more than a twenty-year-old girl could handle in three short months. But she was trapped, there was no hiding and no escaping. She'd have to deal with it, however ill-prepared she was.

Maybe she'd come up on top, wherever that was, but the going would be rough and in the meantime... in the meantime, mentally and physically tired beyond belief, Raven went to sleep in the golden cage she'd locked herself in.

Being known as "The Empress" certainly had its advantages. The bath was one of them. A pleasant mixture of Western and Japanese styles, it featured a spacious tub, the true size of which was lost in the steam-shrouded distance.

Raising one leg clear of the warm water, Shion ran a thick sponge down it's length, musing over the day's schedule. Raven's training was coming along quite well. She was inexperienced yes, but she was not stupid. An apt pupil and a fast learner, the immense flexibility of her powers more than made up for her lack of skill.

Perhaps it was time to run the girl through another combat simulation.

Dropping the sponge with a splash, Shion sighed and slid back down into the warm water. It didn't take a genius to see why S-T was willing to pay so much for Raven's training. The young esper was quite capable of standing against many corporate esper weapons, even considering her youth and inexperience.

It was the latter that concerned Shion. She was more powerful than Raven, far more powerful, but her esper skills were limited, while Raven seemed to be one of those rare talents that could do anything they could imagine. That sort of flexibility made Shion uneasy since it made an esper unpredictable. Of course, all the flexibility in the world didn't help much in the face of overwhelming power, which was Shion's main advantage in a situation like this. That and her years of experience.

Pushing out into the center of the tub, Shion floated on her back, her hair slowly fanning out to form a thick mat on the surface. The bath was quiet, the only real sound being the waterfall in the corner.

Could she fight Raven? Definitely. Could she kill Raven? Probably. If it came down to it, she wouldn't hold back. Raven on the other hand... Shion had to wonder if she knew what S-T expected of her, of what kind of circles she was now running in. Genetically engineered bodies like the one Raven had been gifted with didn't come cheap, and it was likely that Raven was going to be contracted for life.

Shaking her head, Shion sighed again. She didn't need to be thinking such gloomy thoughts this early in the morning. At the moment all she wanted to do was soak. Another day of training really didn't excite her, even if she was getting paid handsomely for it. She'd had enough of sand, dust, and the dry heat of the Outback. She needed a break.

Wait... a break?

Smiling, Shion stood, water cascading from her body and thick mane of hair, and gestured for a towel. Snatching the length of cloth from the air, she actually laughed out loud.

Sitting cross-legged on her bed, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt, Raven was reading Hubbard's Battlefield Earth—a really good book, one she was glad she'd managed to get her hands on. The crisp pages, printed off the arcology suite's printer, were much easier to read than her well-worn, decades-old books.

Reading relaxed her, a close second to sculpting, but she didn't have any materials here—maybe she should try to track some down. With all the trials the Empress was putting her through, she needed to do a lot of relaxing. Raven wondered what the older woman would come up with next.

The door to Raven's room opened suddenly, as Shion entered without preamble. Tossing a corporate duffel bag onto the bed, the tall telekinetic nodded. "Get your things together, we're going away for a while."

Raven looked up from her book, eyes wide. "Away?" She closed the tome and tossed it in the bag. "More globe-trotting? Where are we going?"

"The beach."

"The... beach?" Raven seemed puzzled. "Why?"

"I need a vacation."

Raven stared at Shion, dumbfounded, then she laughed out loud. "Sounds like fun!" She lifted the duffel bag from the bed and started packing the few things she'd brought with her. "I knew I should have packed a swimsuit," she said.

"We'll buy some, I don't have one either."

Nervously, Raven flipped so she was lying facedown on the towel. As a way to deflect attention, the gesture failed miserably. From her new position she saw the short, wiry man ten feet away, who'd languorously watched her and Shion apply sun lotion on their bodies, rake his gaze all over the newly exposed parts of her. Again. His eyes slid on her, toe to thigh, thigh to hip, hip to breast, breast to head, until he made eye contact with her. Raven promptly looked away.

Raven's first-ever day at the beach was turning less relaxing than she'd wished. Back at the arcology, the thought of wearing a swimsuit and lying under Australia's warm summer sun had been enticing. What she'd totally forgotten about was that she wouldn't be alone on the beach.

Raven was starting to get used to appreciative looks and the occasional wolf-whistle, since she could barely make a step in public without getting several. But here on the beach, virtually naked and surrounded by people... The number and intensity of the stares were far out of her comfort zone. It didn't help that she'd come here with Shion—the two of them together was simply too much to ignore.

Adding to her confusion, on some level she liked the reaction she was causing on the men around her. To someone who'd been viewed with disgust all her life, this sudden outpouring of appreciation and lust was something that could be savored, and she managed a smile at the thought. It was the implications, the path down which each of these men would lead her given half a chance, that made Raven uneasy. That and the sheer newness of it all. Raven simply hadn't considered she might cause a reaction of this magnitude. Her smile faded.

At first she'd tried to duplicate Shion's calm, composed attitude. It seemed the Empress was pretty much alone on the beach, and perhaps in her mind the beach was empty of people—people that mattered, at least. But of course, Shion was used to her looks, had grown up with them. All this was old hat to her, and she probably didn't notice the stares anymore. Raven tried to shut them out, but even with her eyes closed she could feel them.

"What's wrong?" Shion's voice floated over to her.

"Nothing," lied Raven self-consciously. Then she sighed, shrugged, and admitted, "All those guys staring are getting under my skin."

There was a moment of silence before Shion spoke again. "Would you rather be more alone? Somewhere more... private?"

"I... I don't know." She looked around at the people on the beach. "I guess I need to get used to this eventually, but... how do you do it, anyway?"

Pulling her sunglasses down with one hand, Shion turned her head and looked over at Raven. "Do what?"

"Live with that." She gestured discreetly to the wiry lecher.

"It is very simple, Raven. To me, they don't exist unless I want them to. They are not part of my world, and they are no longer part of yours."

Raven thought on these words for a moment. "What do you mean?"

Sitting up, Shion removed her sunglasses and dropped them onto the towel. She then leaned on one arm of the low-slung beach chair, and combed several thick tresses of brilliant white hair out of her face before continuing. A faint 'whoa' reached Raven's ears, a reaction that she figured was brought on by the current view; Shion's 'swimsuit' did little to hide the shape of her fairly perfect breasts.

"When you lived in the Zone, these people didn't really matter, because they weren't part of your world. Now, you are like me, a corporate esper weapon, to be used as the corporations see fit. The only difference is that no one corporation owns me, while you are in service to Shiroko-Tsuhi."

"Okay." I think I know where this is going...

"Now you live in a world totally separate from the people around us. Your world consists of corporate officials and other esper weapons. No one else matters."

Raven looked straight ahead, thinking on this. The thought of being part of a tiny elite, striding in circles far above the common man, was rather thrilling. No wonder the Empress was so arrogant. She wasn't trying to demean anyone; it was just that to her most people were simply not worth the time of noticing.

"Isn't that a bit of tunnel vision, though? I mean, for all we know any of these people could be corporate officials or esper weapons like us."

Shion's gray eyes flicked about, glancing at several of the passersby. "I think I'd know if they were the latter."

"We don't all telekinetically glow in the dark, you know." From her prone position Raven looked up and sideways at Shion, clearing the hair from her face with a jerk of her head that was almost, but not quite, unconscious now. "And even if we don't care about them—they're still lying on the same beach we are. I'll trip if I bump into one. And they're staring at us."

"So? Does it bother you that much?"

That's helpful, Shion. "It shouldn't but... it does. This is all so new to me." Raven flipped so she lay on her back again, her black hair fanned around her body. "Why am I freaking out at all, anyway?," she thought aloud. "This sure isn't any worse than getting stared at because I'm deformed, or all the catcalls I used to get. Just different. And probably better, too." It was silly, but likening her situation to one she had been in before, and so often, actually helped her ignore the people around her and relax.

Picking up her sunglasses, Shion settled back down into her chair. "If it bothers you, I can take us somewhere else. I known an excellent and very isolated beach on the west coast." She paused and stretched her arms out, "And if you don't feel like leaving, I am going to do nothing for a while and like every minute of it."

Raven nodded. "Let's stay here for a while. I think I'd better get used to this right now." Maybe with a little help... "What are you drinking?" she asked.

"Long Island Iced Tea. Why?"

"Where did you get it? I think I'd like some."

With a languid wave of her arm, Shion indicated the boardwalk fronting the beach. "Any number of bars. Give them your corporate ID and have it put on our tab."

"Great. Thanks." Raven stood and stretched her arms, not realizing the strain this would do to her top. Predictably, someone on her right let out a low whistle at the sight. Raven rolled her eyes.

Perhaps she should have bought something a little less skimpy than the blue two-piece suit she was wearing. Of course, when she'd first looked at the darn thing all she could think was that it'd look good on her—which was, of course, precisely her problem. She cursed her own stupidity in forgetting she wasn't the only one who'd see it. Well, at least it wasn't a monokini... Raven had seen those at the shop and her first question had been, "where's the other piece?" She was still embarrassed at her ignorance—but much, much less so than she'd be right now if she'd gotten one of those...

"I'll be right back." She gingerly picked her way around the shoppers and made her way to the boardwalk, entering the first bar that struck her fancy.

The bar she picked looked like a fairly typical beachside place. The customers were a mixture of tourists of varied origins nursing drinks and Australian beachmen holding beers and loudly cheering a football game on TV. Aussie rules, of course. One of them did manage to tear his eyes from the game long enough to turn watch Raven enter. He elbowed his neighbor and pointed at her. Doing her best to ignore them, Raven approached the counter.

The bartender was pretty, well-endowed, and her waitress's outfit somehow managed to look skimpier than Raven's swimsuit. She was placing a drink in front of the only other customer at the counter, a tall, turquoise-haired woman with cat's ears—a Lynx replicant. She was wearing a summer police uniform, shorts, shirt, and Sam Brown belt, and eating lunch. "You've got customers," the Lynx pointed out to the bartender, quite uselessly, as the bartender was already turning to Raven.

"Hello, how may I help you?" She flashed Raven a vacuous smile and looked at her with equally empty eyes. She just stood there, unmoving, awaiting Raven's reply.

"Uh, my friend got a Long Island Iced Tea. What's in that?"

"A Long Island Iced Tea contains gin, rum, tequila and triple-sec, with a dash of coke for color." Her voice was perky and smooth, but it had an artificial quality that made Raven think of talking to a vending machine. Which perhaps wasn't too far from the truth.

She's not human, Raven figured. Probably just a 'droid. "That sounds strong," she noted.

"It is very strong," confirmed the bartender-droid.

Yikes. And me who can't hold alcohol. "Could you make me one with less liquor, say half? No, make that a third."

"Certainly, I will reduce the liquor and increase the soda. Is that what you want?"

"Sounds great."

The bartender-droid left her to pick up a glass and start mixing. The Lynx ate quietly for a few moments, then began talking like a machinegun. "So this Ponce starts screaming he's been bitten by a shark and goes absolutely effin' crazy. After I haul him out of the two feet of water he was thrashing around in, I found a crab with a death-grip on his big toe..."

Raven watched the Lynx talk to the cyberdroid, and the 'droid ignoring the words—out of a lack of programming more than any lack of social graces. The teek knew that replicants were considered people in Australia, unlike the UNA where the Lynx would be on a par with the mindless cyberdroid. Perhaps they had it better here, or perhaps not—the Lynx had to feel real lonely to talk like that to a machine who didn't care, couldn't care.

The bartender-droid returned with her drink. Raven handed her her corporate ID. "Put it on the tab," she said. The bartender nodded perkily and went to swipe the card. Meanwhile Raven gave her drink an experimental sip. Gosh, this is strong! She thought of Shion, who had gotten a full-strength one, and cringed.

"Work faster," chided the Lynx. Again, the comment was rather useless, as the 'droid was already handing Raven back her card.

"Thanks for coming," said the bartender-droid in what was probably meant to be a cheery voice. Raven didn't bother to respond and turned to leave.

"Stupid machine," muttered the Lynx from behind her back.

Raven returned to their spot on the beach and sat in her own chair, sipping her own drink. Shion stood a few moments after she arrived, going straight for the bar. She returned with another LIIT. Raven mentally shuddered. Her own diluted drink was quite strong and she was starting to feel a bit heady already.

She looked out to sea and spotted a young brown-haired man about her age who kept turning and peeking at her. His expression was best described as "shy, dazed, and drooling". She was about to self-consciously turn away when a thought struck her. Why should I be embarrassed? I'm just sitting here. He's the one who's making an idiot of himself. The alcohol helping, she just looked back straight into his eyes. As if transfixed, the man just stared—until his girlfriend noticed and slapped him upside the head. A muffled argument ensued. Raven tried really hard, but she couldn't stifle a giggle.

This little episode boosted her confidence, and Raven found herself becoming more and more comfortable. Of course, her tipsy state probably helped. By the time she was halfway through her drink, Shion was well into her fifth. If the Empress was getting drunk, she was showing no sign of it.

Deciding she really should get an even tan, Raven stood from her chair and lay facedown on her towel again. She closed her eyes and managed to shut the outside world so well that she barely stirred the few times Shion got up for another drink. After a few hours, Shion leaned over and asked, "What's next?"

Raven's eyes popped open, and she looked up at Shion without moving her head. "You're asking me?" She let out a giggle. "Want to go swim a little?"

"You're swimming already... and you only had one of those." Standing up, Shion stretched and looked out at the surf. Raven thought she heard the sound of a collision behind her. She didn't doubt that currently Shion was the center of attention. Her height, her hair, her body, and her swimsuit - which was mainly lengths of string connecting small triangles of cloth - made her stand out to even the most jaded of palates.

Looking back down at Raven's supine form, Shion grinned, "I know a better place to swim."

A few moments later they were standing on Australia's West Coast. There had been quite a few disappointed people when the two beautiful women had started picking up their things to leave. Raven would have loved to see their faces when Shion later teleported them right off the beach.

Now they stood on another beach, a nice, smooth strip of white sand with nary a footprint. On their right side cylindrical stromolite formations grew wide and clustered, dominating the ocean there. A large bay spread in front of them, the light of the sun—it was several hours earlier than on the East coast—reflecting into its clear, shallow waters.

Shion tossed her towel, chair and bag aside and walked down to the surf. "Coming?"

"Sure." Raven tossed her own stuff next to Shion's and walked after her.

Stopping at the edge of the beach, Shion looked out over the water. A moment later she vanished in a swirl of sand, reappearing some distance out in a spray of water.

Raven watched where the other woman had landed and teleported there herself. She held her breath as she fell in the water and started on the motions they'd taught her in physiotherapy to stay afloat. "Hmm, nice and warm. Why didn't you just walk out?" she asked Shion.

Shaking the water from her hair, and combing several errant strands from her face, Shion shrugged. "Easier this way."

"Lazy." She watched for the next wave and threw herself facefirst into it, letting it carry her twenty feet back towards the shore. She emerged laughing, swimming back to Shion. "Now this is fun. Why is this place so deserted, anyway?"


Raven paled. "Sharks? Isn't that dangerous? I mean," she waved with her hand, "of course we can always fly out, but what if we don't see them coming?"

Swimming slowly towards shore, Shion came to a halt and stood up, wading along in knee-deep surf. "I was joking, Raven. The sharks are further south, where the seals are. And most of them are gone, so we have nothing to fear right now. This beach is pretty far from anything, that's why it is empty."

Raven laughed. "You got me, fair and square." Well, well, she has a sense of humor after all... Instead of swimming to Shion, she waited and let the next wave carry her to where the Empress stood. She ended up laying in the sand and water at Shion's feet, the receding wave sliding back against her bare skin. She stood up, dripping. "I've got to remember this place..."

"I rather like it, myself."

For some time they swam, Shion relaxing and taking it easy, Raven throwing herself at every wave that came and getting blown back with a pearly laugh. At this rate Raven got tired much earlier than Shion, and she returned to their things first, setting up her chair and sitting in, letting the sun dry her off.

Some time later, Shion walked back to where she sat. She set up her chair and laid down her towel. Then, as Raven watched open mouthed, she stripped off her swimsuit. Raven blinked in surprise, but Shion paid her no attention whatsoever, just laid down and basked in the sun.

Well. She sure won't be having any tan lines. She sat deeper in her chair. I wonder what it feels like to lie down naked on a beach, Raven wondered. She glanced at Shion. She sure looks relaxed. Maybe I should try. I might not get a chance like this in a while, I might as well indulge while I have the occasion.

Her hands moved to her top, then she hesitated. What's wrong with me anyhow? I've rarely been naked in front of people, except Auntie of course, but it's not like I have anything to be ashamed of now. And there's no one around. She undid her top and let it fall besides the chair. There, that wasn't too hard, was it?

She sat quietly a moment, getting used to the feeling of the sun falling on her bare breasts, growing more and more comfortable. Hmm. This feels nice. I don't think I'd have done this if I was sober though. How long ago did I have that drink? I can't remember. Does alcohol affect me longer as well as stronger? Then she giggled uncontrollably at the accidental double entendre she had inflicted on herself. Shion just peered at her over the tops of her sunglasses.

"Are you all right?"

"Never been better," Raven replied cheerfully. She stood and walked out of her bikini bottom. Then she lay on her towel. Boy, I feel naked, she thought, and she giggled again. Wonder why that is? She closed her eyes and relaxed. Well, I think this is the first time I've gone nude outdoors. This feels great actually. I feel less constrained. She basked at the warmth of the sun on her naked skin, listened to the soothing sound of the waves. Hmmmmm... Raven relaxed further, letting the tension slide out of her muscles.

Raven blinked and sat up. "Shion?" The towel was empty. Her sunglasses, swimsuit, chair... everything was there... except for Shion. Standing and looking around, Raven could see no sign of the other woman. The beach was deserted, and the only things visible in the water was the rounded tops of stromatolites off to her right.

Wherever she is, she's naked. Which means she certainly isn't far. She folded her arms to think. On the other hand, if she'd teleported I should have felt it. I didn't hear her walk away. Did I doze off? And where did she go?

The abrupt spike of psi energy lanced through her brain, driving Raven to her knees. The signature hammered at her, causing her to gasp for breath and wince at the sensation. She hadn't felt anything like this since Ran's rampage in Neo York.

An explosion of dust and sand announced Shion's arrival as she crested a nearby dune. A moment later, the ground around Raven erupted as she was plucked up into the air and hurled out to sea.

Raven manifested her own full strength, straining to break out of Shion's telekinetic grasp. But they were closely matched and this time she got the bottom of it, and found herself flying over the sea before hitting the water with a huge lifting of spray. She surfaced for air, spitting water and hissing in pain at her graceless landing. What's your idea, Shion? We're both naked and I thought this was a vacation! Taking flight, she pulled herself out of the water and raised a kinetic shield. Hair and droplets of saltwater swirled around her nude body; the golden rays of the sun caught in the waterdrops, and she seemed swathed in shooting stars.

It'd been a long trip. Shion was back there near the shore, close to 200 feet away, floating over the beach. She was wearing a short kimono-like white beach robe Raven had seen her with earlier, but nothing else. Well, she's got the advantage here. But focused on the battle, adrenaline pumping, Raven found she didn't care at all about her own state of undress.

Not that she had much time to devote to it anyway. The rapidly-approaching Shion hurled a force bolt her way, parting the water like a speedboat. It missed, however, and passed to Raven's left, spraying her shield with water.

Her advantage is overwhelming power. My advantage is that I can do a lot of things she can't. Let's see if I can use my advantage to negate hers. Or... better yet, turn it against her... She brought her mental patterns into a reflection shield she'd developed to use against gangers, a life ago it seemed, then refined until it could push back telekinetic bolts. She waited for Shion's attack...

There. Much closer now, Shion hurled another bolt her way, a well-aimed attack headed straight for Raven. Which was to her advantage. She manifested the shield, placed it in the path of the bolt. The blast smashed into the circle of energy Raven was holding up, then shot back out... The furrow in the water sped way too far on Shion's right. Damn. At least she'd foiled this attack, and perhaps she'd given Shion something to think about.

Raven couldn't tell, because at this distance she couldn't make out Shion's expression. She did stare at Raven for a moment, then vanished, popping up right next to her before she aimed a punch at Raven's chest. The black-haired telekinetic tried to move out of the way, but wasn't fast enough. Shion's fist slammed into Raven's shield, causing her to spin in the air but creating more noise than harm. She then floated back and waited, standing in mid-air in her fighting stance.

Raven righted herself in the air. I have to hit her hard now. Else she'll clobber me. She tried to manifest the strongest bolt she could, while maintaining her hover and shield. The amount of energy was staggering, much more than she could handle safely, and she struggled to force it in the form she wanted. It's a gamble, but I'm going to have to take risks if I ever want to... She screamed in pain, clutched at her forehead, and fell in the shallow water. Owwwww....*

Shion dropped down next to her, and water splashed Raven in the face. "Are you alright?"

"Not really," said Raven. She went through a dry heave, then another. Guess I shouldn't try this after I've had a drink. Oww.... She blinked to clear the spots in front of her eyes. "I'll live. I think I tried too hard here." She looked up at Shion. "Is this your idea of catching someone with their pants down?" She managed a weak grin.

"Yes, actually. You were asleep, inebriated and undressed. The perfect time to test your reactions."

"Well, it startled me all right. I thought we were on vacation. Guess it only makes it more appropriate."

Pushing back from the coughing young woman, Shion settled until she stood on top of the water's surface. Spray swirled around her and the ocean dimpled beneath her feet. "You did better last time... I think you tried to push yourself too hard. You need to be more conservative." She thought for a moment and then continued, "What was it you did the first time I struck at you?"

"Conservative. Right. Retreat and regroup." Raven nodded, then started her explanation. "That was a reflecting shield. I'm not fully sure how it works it seems to reverse the momentum of whatever strikes it. If I orient it right I can send whatever hits it right where it comes from, but I didn't do too well this time." She shrugged. "I was thinking that since your bolts are more powerful than mine, I could try using them to my advantage."

"An excellent tactic. You're improving, Raven." Shion glanced back at the beach. "I think you should rest before we return, we'll stay here for a few more hours."

"Good idea," Raven agreed, still rubbing her temples. She levitated back to where their things lay. "We'll need to find all our stuff, too."

Their things had been scattered by the effects of Shion's initial attack, but telekinesis proved very useful in gathering them all. Shion replaced her towel and lay down as if nothing had happened. Raven just sat back in her chair, trying to relax, to clear her head of the lingering pain.

The headache lasted a bit longer than she was used to, but as usual it finally went away completely. Raven opened her eyes and glanced at the beach. Shion was again paying her no attention, the sea was clear and blue, and the stromatolite formations still loomed to her right. Curious, Raven stood and waded to them.

At first she'd thought they were some sort of rock, but as she ran her hand over it, she realized that it was actually a living thing—or, more accurately, a bunch of algae growing on top of one another, much like the coral formations she'd read about, only the stromatolites were still alive. On a whim, she took flight and rose high in the air to see how it looked from a panoramic view. She immediately regretted not having a camera; the blue-green living rocks jutting out of the clear sea, sunlight glinting off the water and slick algae, was worthy of a postcard. Sighing, Raven settled back down near their spot and lay down on her towel to enjoy the sun for a few last hours.

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