Birds of a Feather
Part One

by Bryan Feir, Mathieu Roy and Mike Schiedel

It had taken a while and a lot of watching, but finally the black-haired telekinetic was alone, sitting in the food court. Shion had left her a few minutes earlier, going on some errand Falcon didn't really want to know about. And now the synthetic that was tailing her like a shadow had finally gone off to get food. There was a fair bit of a lineup so Falcon was confident she'd have a few minutes at least. She approached.

Raven looked up as the woman approached. She didn't know the woman, clad in dark brown motorcycle leathers with feather motifs up the side, who stood nervously in front of her, trying to work up her nerve. Raven smiled warmly to help her along.

"I'd like to talk with you for a bit... sort of a business arrangement."

"A business arrangement?" Raven frowned quizzically. "What do you need?"

"I have a motorcycle that was set up to do firefighting work; unfortunately, the company who built it no longer exists, and with them went my ability to restock the bike. And refills for a halon fire extinguisher don't come cheap. I'm willing to do some courier and other contract work to help pay for the things I need."

"Sit down," said Raven, indicating the chair in front of her. Falcon did so, and Raven asked, "What's your name?"


"Well Falcon, what makes you think I can help you? You probably saw I'm a PK, I don't hire couriers or sell hardware."

"I've been watching people around here. You definitely have some backing, but you don't have the same sort of attitude most of the corporate types have. Even if you can't help me directly, you looked like someone I could talk to and possibly get help through."

Raven sighed. "I can try to put you in contact with my boss, who's the kind of person who might be able to help you, trade work for hardware. Problem is, I'm not sure he'll do it with no strings attached."

Falcon nodded. "The old problem; how to make a deal with the devil without losing your soul in the process." She leaned back against her chair a bit. "Well, might be worth a chance anyway. I can't keep going like I am forever, and I am _NOT_ going back to the Zone if I can avoid it."

"You're from the Zero Zone?"

"Well, I spent a couple of years there after my parents died. Easy to get in, not so easy to get out. Was asked to help test out the motorcycle after I accidentally ended up in the middle of the company building it recovering it from one of their own execs who was trying to sell them out."

A ripple among the people in the food court caught both women's attention then. Adam was returning to the tables, garnering brief looks from most people, not so brief from others.

He paused an instant when he saw that Raven was no longer alone, but continued on smoothly.

"Raven," he said smiling at the dark-haired PK as he set the trays down on the table. "Introduce me to your friend." He turned his warm smile on Falcon then, with a faint quizzical look about his eyes.

"Adam, this is Falcon, a freelance rescue specialist," said Raven, quite pleased with the job description she'd just coined for Falcon. "Falcon, meet Adam, he's my do-it-all man."

Falcon nodded back to Adam as Raven described her job, smiling just a little. She then quirked an eyebrow at the description of Adam. Deciding not to comment on the implications, she settled for a simple "Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise," he said, nodding slightly before taking his seat beside Raven. "Freelance rescue specialist?" he said curiously as he placed his owner's food before her. "That sounds...exciting."

Falcon smirked. "Sometimes more so than necessary. Jumping out of the second story window of a burning building is not everybody's idea of fun. But there are times when something like that is needed. There's a reason the suit is armored."

Turning back to Raven, Falcon's face settled into something of a frown. "I just realized one important question I forgot. If you don't mind my asking, who do you work for?"

Raven smiled faintly. "Shiroko-Tsuhi Corporation." She waved towards the floor. "The booth's over there. See all about the latest smart appliances and designer medicines," she said in a mocking tone.

Falcon smirked a little. "Neither of which are things I'm particularly interested in at the moment. Nowhere to really put the appliances, and as for the medicines, I'm not sick. Nor interested in the side effects of some of the others." She shook her head. "I may not be in the Zone anymore, but that doesn't exactly mean I'm rich." Waving her hand around the expo, she added, "And in the middle of this temple to conspicuous consumption, too."

"Well, even world-spanning megacorporate conglomerates need marketing I guess." Raven shrugged, then grinned. "Besides, I got to see some pretty neat stuff. Those new games they're putting out are pretty cool." Then she frowned. "Of course, the esper replicant is a scary development."

Adam shuddered as well. "I have to agree. There are simply some things my kind is not meant to do. She's..." he trailed off. "Creepy," he concluded with a shrug. "Give me the real thing any time," he said, turning an appreciative smile on Raven.

Falcon blinked. "A esper rep... now that you mention it, I did see her, just wasn't really hit by the implications until now. Being able to make PKs to order has been something a lot of companies have worked towards. If somebody's actually got it, they'd better have pretty good security after this little demo." She hmms to herself. "Wonder how stable she is..."

Raven shrugged. "Hard to tell. Shion seemed to think it was impossible she could be, but she seemed okay. I wonder how hard they are to make, too. If the best they can do is a couple every decade then we don't need to worry too much. But," she sighed, "I don't think we'll be so lucky."

Adam patted her hand. "Afraid of becoming obsolete, dear?" he said, amused.

"That, and the kind of destruction that an army of mass-produced PKs can loose on the world," Raven added.

"Good point," he conceded. "I'd still take you over any two synthetics any day though." He smiled at her again, but he seemed somehow... distracted.

Falcon shakes her head. "More to the point: an army of mass-produced PKs with psychological conditioning to follow their orders regardless of their result. Not a concept I like to think about."

"It would be very messy. I hope that if they're selling them, it means they can't make enough to upset the balance and take over the world, or something, and they're trying to make what profit they can, but that might just be wishful thinking." She paused thoughtfully. "I'd really like to find out more about this process."

Falcon nods again. "That, or they've got some sort of override built in... or they know there are problems, and are trying to make as much profit as they can before the problems show up." She shrugs. "You're unlikely to be the only person who wants to know more."

"It's going to be secured like it was Fort Knox," Raven said. "But that's the kind of thing any corp would be willing to send a lot of assets on."

"Of course." Falcon shook her head. "But that's enough of that conversation, I think. If I may ask, what are you at the convention for? Just seeing the sights?"

"See and be seen," Raven said. "Deterrents don't work if nobody knows about them."

"There is certainly that." Falcon sighed a bit. "Anyhow, if you're willing to help set up an appointment... I guess the next question is, how do we get in touch about it? Given some recent events, I'm a little leery about giving out my home address, so perhaps we could arrange somewhere else to meet?"

"93 Underground?" Raven suggested.

Falcon tapped her chin with a finger. "I suppose it's a possibility. To be honest, I haven't been back to the Zone in months. I just hope there isn't a problem with my SIN card after all this time. So what night?"

Raven was apparently preoccupied with some private thought, because she was staring off in the distance when Falcon spoke. She snapped back to attention. "Huh? Oh, what's good for you? Or maybe I should just give you my number."

Falcon nodded. "Sounds all right. I take it something came up with you anyway."

"Oh, I'm just thinking about that PK replicant."

Falcon shook her head as she stood up. "If anything, this was a rather _quiet_ way of showing off they had such a thing." She picks up the card with Raven's number on it, and pushes her chair back in. "In any case, it's been nice talking with you, and I'll likely see you again in a few days."

Adam stood as well, and offered his hand across the table. "It was nice to meet you, Ms. Falcon. Perhaps we will meet again in the days to come."

Falcon smiled back. "Quite possibly."

Raven stood as well. "I'll put out a few feelers for you, Falcon. See what I can come up with."

Falcon nodded. "Thanks. Hopefully something will work out." Then, picking up her helmet, she headed away from the table, and was soon lost in the crowds of the convention center.

Adam sent a frown in Falcon's direction as soon as her back was turned, and it didn't disappear once she vanished from sight.

"Interesting, her approaching you like that. Perhaps it's nothing. Perhaps." He looked surprisingly serious, not a common expression for him.

"Okay, Adam, what do you suspect?" said Raven, sitting back down to eat.

Adam turned back to face Raven, wiping the frown off his face and replacing it with a smile. "Why, when it comes to your safety, I suspect everything," he said lightly.

Raven chuckled. "You're paranoid. I think she is just a little desperate, and I'm just more approachable than the average company executive."

Adam merely gazed at Raven for a moment, his eyes serious. "When my mistress is S-T's newest Esper weapon, and is training with the Empress herself, I don't believe there is such a thing as paranoid. One way or another, they *are* out to get you, Raven, hoping to narrow the playing field before you become too dangerous. And I think you need to realize that." His voice had remained quiet throughout, only loud enough to be heard, but intense, and his eyes never left hers.

Raven nodded slowly . "You think she was part of some sort of plot?"

Adam shook his head. "I have no idea. That doesn't mean I'm going to assume she's not." He smiled at Raven suddenly, reaching out to brush an errant strand of hair out of her face. "I take your safety seriously, Raven. I'll let you know if I feel there's any concrete danger."

"Thanks. Then I can deal with it." She winked at him. "I think I might be just a little bit too trusting for this job. But I'm not sure I want to change."

Kristen pulled up to a pay phone a few minutes' distance from the mission that she was staying at. A week after the Expo, and she hadn't seen anybody following her since, but no sense making it easy for anybody to find her by making phone calls from there.

Money, of course, was still a problem. Living at the mission and helping out there made her rent and food nearly free, which took out the largest part of her living expenses, but not all of them. And the living area and food weren't exactly top quality, though she'd had worse. The Expo had taken out a significant chunk of her budget, without any real payback yet.

One other nice thing about the mission was the information you could pick up there. A lot of desperate people showed up there, looking for money any way they could, and a lot of them brought papers or computer printouts of things. There was a big bounty on some girl who was being targeted for deserting the company she worked for, taking some of the company secrets with her. Falcon wasn't sure she liked thinking of herself as a bounty hunter, but with the equipment she had, it was certainly a possible profession. And one that, unlike freelance fire and rescue work, one that could make money. Something to look into, at least.

Picking up the phone, she called the number on the business card Raven had left her at the Expo. "Hello, could I speak to Raven, please?"

"May I ask who's calling," said the voice on the other end of the line, from the sound of it it was probably that synth she had been toting around.

"Yes, this is Falcon here. I spoke with Raven at the Expo?"

"One moment please, I'll see if she's available." The line went silent, but it was the quiet of a muted call, not the dead silence of a disconnection.

Adam looked thoughtfully at the receiver for a moment. "Raven," he called finally. "Telephone for you. It's that freelance rescue specialist, Falcon."

"Oh, yeah. I'm supposed to figure out if she's trustworthy and if she can be useful to Sanato. Would you help me with it? You're so much better with this stuff than I am."

"Not a problem. Pick up an extension, I'll listen in here." He kept his finger on the mute button, knowing that this would allow him to listen to the conversation without being heard himself.

Raven stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, Adam. You're a peach." She put the receiver to her ear. "Hello, Raven speaking."

"Yes, this is Falcon here. I was wondering if you'd come up with anything after our conversation at the Expo?"

"There's some interest," Raven said. "Can I meet with you, figure out what exactly you could do for us? Sanato'd like some credentials, too."

"Sure, I don't have any problem with meeting somewhere. Your choice? As for credentials, that might be a little difficult: as far as I know, all of the people I was working with at Fantoma Vehicles are dead now. And the few people from the Zone that would know me aren't likely to be all that complimentary in their references. One possibility is to check the news archives from about two months back; I made the news a couple of times during the field tests for the bike."

That, Adam could do. Catching Raven's attention to alert her as to what he was doing, he retrieved the DNI cable from the computer and jacked himself in. As well as searching the news archives for the mentioned events, he decided to looking into what he could find on Fantoma Vehicles as well.

Raven nodded thoughtfully. "Noted. Okay, where do you want to meet, and when? I'll need to bring Adam, if you don't mind."

Falcon said, "That's fine. You were suggesting 93 Underground the other night, that might work. As for when, your schedule's probably more open than mine is. I'm free pretty much any evening after about seven."

"Tomorrow evening, maybe?" Raven suggested.

Falcon hmmmed for a moment. "Should be fine with me, yes."

"Great. Talk to you then."

It was almost ten past seven when a woman in a somewhat dusty bodysuit slipped into the 93 Underground. The bouncer took a longer look over her than was absolutely necessary; she wasn't likely to be hiding anything in this outfit. She was allowed in soon enough.

The lighting inside was dim, and Kristen was glad for the enhancers built into the helmet she was wearing. It didn't take too long to scan over the crowd for the people she was looking for: one young woman, and a male synthetic. A quick flip into the infrared confirmed that; the synthetic had a slightly different body temperature.

Kristen made her way towards them as directly as she could, stopping at the table and flipping her faceplate up for them to register her presence before she sat down. "Sorry I'm late; ran into a little trouble on the way over here. Nothing too serious."

Raven smiled when Kristen approached and waved her to a seat. The young esper wore a black bodysuit, most likely armored, and a flowing, dull gray coat. The beautiful esper looked almost dangerous in these clothes; almost, because her warm smile and mellow demeanor made her look friendly instead. "It happens in the Zone," she says. "Good evening."

"Indeed it does," Adam said, his eyes making a swift survey of the room to see if anyone was paying a little too much attention to their guest. The synth was dressed this evening in black leather pants and long coat, although the not-quite perfect tone of the leather and the heavy way the coat moved showed that they were in fact armored cloth. Dressed as such, Adam actually managed to look a little dangerous—he made an incredible looking bad boy.

"Tell me about it. Got caught between a bounty hunter and her target. Times like this I'm glad the suit is armored." She sits back a little in the chair, getting more comfortable, and does a check of her own to make sure nobody's likely to be listening in. "Anyhow, we wanted to talk about what sort of work I could do for your people? Courier jobs and the like..."

"Yes, well..." Raven hesitated, then went on, "I hate to say this, but I was told in no uncertain terms that trustworthiness was a big deal with this kind of work. So, Falcon, um... Is there anyone who might vouch for you? References, you know."

Falcon sighs, leaning back. "That's going to be difficult. My family is dead; I don't know of anybody else who survived the bombing of Fantoma Vehicles; and I doubt very much that the leader of the Tenth Street go-gang would count as much of a reference, assuming he didn't spit in the face of anybody who asked about me. We didn't exactly part on the best of terms.

Falcon nervously taps her chin with a finger as she thinks. "There are the various people I've saved while doing fire-fighting work, but we're getting down to people that your boss likely wouldn't trust for references anyway. You could get most of those off the news reports." Suddenly her finger stops moving. "There is one possibility, a priest... I'd have to ask him before I gave his name out as a reference, though."

Raven nodded. "That might be good." She looked down, a little embarrassed by her own request. She personally wanted references, but she was a little worried about what Sanato would do with them. A frown came to her face and she asked, "Tell me, Falcon. If you were on a courier job, and you came across a fire in progress, what would you do?"

"Well, it depends." Falcon looked Raven over, noting her odd reaction as well. "If the fire could be dealt with quickly before it spreads out of hand, and I have enough time on the job, and what I'm carrying isn't too fragile, I'd see what could be done about the fire. In other words, only if it won't affect the job. Priorities have to be set."

"Of course." *It's easier said then done though*, Raven thought. She paused, then asked, "What's your connection with the Tenth Street go-gang?"

Falcon frowned at this, and stayed quiet for a few seconds before responding. "Not long after I entered the Zone, they ran into me. Almost literally. I managed to fight a couple of them off, but was eventually pinned down. The leader of the gang decided that obviously I had 'spirit' and that I would be his girl. He kept me around for a few months, locked up most of the time, showing me off like a prize possession." She shudders. "That was not a time I like to remember.

"He'd been trying to expand his own territory for some time, and had been staging raids on the neighboring 'Mad Rollers' to grab some of their bikes and spare parts out of the garage, weakening them and boosting his own power. He had a double-agent in their group, so he always knew when they were out on raids of their own, and could plan his.

"One day, the leader came home with another trophy woman. Obviously he'd grown bored with me, and I had a fair idea what was coming next. Fortunately, he got himself so drunk that night he forgot to lock me up. I knew if I just left, he'd eventually try to track me down again, so I gave him something else to think about." Falcon shrugged, a hard edge in her expression. "There was no love lost between the two of us anyway. I knew there was a raid scheduled for the next night, so I left and dropped off a warning to one of the Mad Rollers saying what was likely to happen, and that there was a mole in the organization.

"Needless to say, I stayed well away from the resulting fight. I heard it was quite spectacular, though."

"Impressive," Adam murmured, obviously paying attention even though giving the impression not to. He gives the biker a reappraising look before turning his attention—or the majority of it at least—back to the rest of the room.

Raven's left fist, on the table, was clenched so hard the joints were white and it was trembling. "Good riddance," she said harshly, her pretty face contorted in an uncharacteristic mask of anger. "Did they all get killed?"

On the table, the glasses started shaking, sloshing some of Raven's beer on the simili-wood.

Falcon reaches a hand over, grabbing the glass, deciding that Adam might react poorly to trying to grab Raven's hand. "Calm down. This was over a long while back." Sitting back a little, Falcon continues, "As for all of them getting killed, no, they didn't, at least not then. What was left of the group tried to buy a prototype motorcycle from some crooked corp exec a few weeks later, nearly running into me again in the process. When the corp sent in a security team, the firefight set off some gang's ammo dump and destroyed most of a block. I managed to rescue some poor kid who'd been pawing through the garbage piles just before it went off.

"I don't know how many of them survived that; I haven't exactly been back to check up on them. In part, I have them to thank for getting me out of the Zone." She smirks. "The corp decided if I could pull off a move like I did with grabbing that kid on a cheap bike like I had, I could probably do well with a better one. Which is how I got started with Fantoma Vehicles."

"A truly uncomfortable thing to remember, Ms. Falcon," Adam said in a sympathetic tone. "Certainly no wonder you prefer not to speak of it." There was nothing but sympathy in his voice, but his eyes held a hit of... warning?

Falcon simply nodded to Adam, understanding some of the implications; she definitely hadn't expected Raven to react that strongly, and would rather not trigger off an explosion.

It took a moment for Raven to calm down before the beer glass quit vibrating under Falcon's hand, and the young PK spoke. "I've done a bit of research on them. They were a small startup in emergency vehicle design, they were looking at unconventional vehicles—like a motorcycle, I think, as a "first on scene" type response. They shut down when their headquarters were bombed, right? Sounds like they caught the eye of a big corp and didn't want to be bought out." She looked at Falcon and said, "Sorry if I'm digging up more unpleasant memories.

Falcon relaxed, letting go of the glass. "That's them, yes." She sighed. "And it wasn't so much that they shut down; almost everybody was on site for the celebration when the attack hit. I was off on assignment when my radio cut out, and got back later to find everybody already dead, bombs set in the garage, and a black van with no plates speeding off. Wasn't a lot I could do about it at that point, and any real evidence was destroyed in the explosion."

"Corp war, then. I'll bet they were taken out by a bigger competitor." Raven sighed, then asked, "Would you mind if we put you to a little test later this week? Just to observe your tactics and such."

Falcon nodded along with the 'Corp war' assessment, then paused to think about the offer of a test. "I don't see why not. I'd be more surprised if you didn't ask for a test, really. What day would you be looking at?"

Adam turned his attention back to the table. "You have a number of hours free on Thursday afternoon, Ms. Clark," he inserted helpfully.

Raven smiled at the synthetic. "Thanks, Adam." She turned to Falcon. "Is that good for you?"

Falcon thought for a moment, then nodded. "I think so, yes. Nothing that day that I can't get out of easily enough given a bit of warning."

"Very well. Let's meet at the Edge of Night, right inside the Zone, next Thursday. I'll let you know what we'll do then."

Falcon nodded. "Sounds good to me." She checked her watch briefly. "Well, I don't have anything to do right away, so might as well stay and enjoy the show before I go."

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