Drake wished he was back home. The place he had found to take shelter in was the third of a string of abandoned houses he'd tried. The first was too wet and occupied by a swarm of rats. The second was home to a whiz gang who were none to happy about coming home to find an interloper bedding down in their attic. Drake had to beat an embarrassing and hasty retreat from that one.

Switching on his encrypted communications link to Mr. Hobbs, Drake was relieved to hear the older man's reassuring voice.

"Good morning, sir. I take it you are ready for the weekly status reports?"

"Yes, Hobbs. What's going on out there?" Drake couldn't hide the exhaustion in his voice and he hoped he didn't sound too anxious. Although the link was not likely to be decoded, the call could potentially still be detected or traced and Drake very much preferred his corporate enemies to not know his current location in the Zone.

"Well, sir, after a slight stumble earlier this week your technology stocks seem to have leveled out. Also, the real estate investments north of Mega Tokyo have seen some substantial increase in value as a rumor of certain mega corporation having interest in buying land has begun circulating."

"I trust no one has gotten to the bottom of that particular rumor, have they?"

"No sir." Hobbs paused a moment. "I calculate the odds of that to be rather remote and likely beneath the attention of most of the parties that would be interested."

Hobbs continued, "The rest of the family fortunes are business as usual."

"And SynTech?"

"It seems rather quiet at the moment, sir. Sales are good, but not outstanding. Your price cuts have inhibited making some profits, but the Neo York Corporate Times paper have published a rather favorable article on page three. Apparently, there is some debate among analysts as to whether your new directives will allow the company to grow as well as it could. However, the author applauded your courage in bringing affordable health care and quality cybernetic hardware to the public. Based on public reaction to the article, I foresee a 2.7% increase in cybernetics equipment sales and a 5% increase in the number of standard patient clientele."

"Only 5% increase for patient clientele? That sounds a bit low and our capacity could handle up to 20% increase in occupancy over what it was last month."

"Sweeping changes such as you made to SynTech take time, sir."

"Have the vice presidents all reported?"

"There were some late reports, but I expect them to be in by the end of the day. On the whole it seems things are going smoothly with only minor glitches."

Drake sighed. Thomas Jacobson, who was in charge of research was usually the minor glitch. Drake felt he had often spent far too much time dealing with the man's petty, mean-spirited way of doing business and had often considered firing him. However, personal differences aside, Jacobson was very good at what he did and managed to win the respect of some of SynTech most brilliant research doctors. Drake's main problem with the man was that he just seemed to see technological progress to be more important than the welfare of their human research volunteers.

"Thank you, Mr. Hobbs. If something important comes up in the VP reports, I'm sure you'll keep me informed."

"Of course, sir."

"And how has Mitsumi Corporation reacted to my offer?"

"Still no word one way or the other, sir. They have requested more time to consider the proposal."

"Pfaw!" Drake spat. "They made their decision the moment they set eyes on it."

"If you say so-"

"I do say so. I want you to double security personnel, and rotate the passkeys. Invoke increased ICE in the mainframes and allow the programs up to 20% of the CPU. There's going to be a slowdown for a while, but the the researchers are just going to have to deal with it. Next, download the data I have tagged sensitive from the mainframes at SynTech headquarters and remove the physical mass storage cubes on which it resides. They can't unerase data that never existed on the current hardware."

Drake paused a moment as he gathered his thoughts. "Next you will transfer non-vital information plus all information I have not tagged 'critical' to the remaining mainframe storage cubes. I want you to take care of this personally. No one else needs to know, Hobbs. Inform Jacobson that the staff involved in Project Forge are to be transferred to other projects immediately."

"Sir, that would surely alert Mitsumi to the fact we are prepared for a break in attempt."

"Exactly. And we want them to."

Hobbs was silent, waiting for his boss to explain.

"We want to show we are making every effort of trying to keep our critical patents secret, but I do not doubt they will break in anyway. Therefore, we must let them see only what we wish them to see. Once they have broken in and discovered for themselves that the proposal is real, we will soon have sealed the deal. When the deal is signed, Project Forge will be reinstated and you will be allowed to return the data and the storage cubes to the mainframes."

"This deal is going to guarantee the continued existence of SynTech, and I will have nothing interfere with that."

"Yes, sir. I understand," Hobbs stated reassuringly.

After a few more personal pleasantries, the link was closed. Drake couldn't help letting slip a slight ironic smile as he considered the his situation. Here he was, sitting in some dank, burned-out room deep inside the Zone making decisions for his company and holdings that could affect the lives of thousands of employees and people in cities around the globe. Yet not only hadn't he found a clean set of clothes to wear in days, but he hadn't found enough spare filtered water to do much more than shave and wash his face. With his much reduced access, whatever wealth and power he wielded in the outside world meant nothing in the Zero Zone.

Even in the ready room, located under the arena, the roar of the crowd was audible. To Lora Doubet, it was a dull rumble that vibrated down through the walls, and was felt more than actually heard. She wondered how the room's two other occupants dealt with it, since she found the effect slightly unnerving. I suppose they just get used to it over time. Tune it out.

Apparently, Rudolf was oblivious to the sensation, as he was currently glued to the monitor on the far side of the room. At the moment, the screen showed two women engaged in a furious exchange of blows, as naginata met yari in one ringing crash after another. Lora recognized the one with the naginata as the Silver Fox, a Lynx who dressed in modified Japanese court dress, and was a fan favorite. The black haired woman with the spear, on the other hand, was a total stranger.

Rudolf himself was dressed in a worn Daitokuji Financial Group "Beiko" warm-up jacket, with an equally threadbare "Lace and Steel" baseball cap perched atop his head. He followed the fight with his eyes, his hands never leaving their pockets. Lora found it interesting that he didn't speak either, but muttered quietly in response to a particularly good block or strike. Lora, in turn, found herself becoming fascinated with the fight. The movements were almost dancelike, and beautiful in a their own brutal fashion. She could feel a sympathetic phantom adrenaline rush as first one, then the other of the fighters seemed to gain the upper hand. The cheers of the crowd from the speakers of the moniter counterpointed the dull roar transmitted down to the locker room from above. She caught a glimpse of the luxery box level in the moniter. The corporate and government elite, so outwardly civilized, loved these fights as well as anyone else. Although many would never deign to show it in such raucous fashion as those in the bleachers below. Perhaps they sat there, outwardly calm, and vented their pent up excitement in the bedroom later. She sneered at the thought of them, not willing to risk themselves, but perfectly willing to watch another's blood spilled for their entertainment.

Still, Lora caught herself wondering what it might be like to be in the arena herself, testing her fighting art against another equally skilled opponent, pushing each other to their limits, both physical and mental, the crowd cheering them on.

Or cheering for their blood.

On the screen, the Silver Fox blocked, turned her naginata, trapped the other woman's yari and sent it flying. For half a second, her opponent stoof there, uncomprehending, then she snarled and stepped forward, batting aside the naginata with a gloved hand and punching at the Fox...

...who wasn't there anymore, having somersaulted over her opponent's head to land on her feet behind her. Silver Fox twirled her naginata and thrust backwards, impaling the other woman through the upper arm, then withdrew her weapon as the other girl screamed in pain, collapsing to her knees, clutching the wound. Silver Fox spun on one foot in a graceful arc and lashed out with the blunt end of her weapon, catching the girl across the temple and knocking her out completely.

Lora turned from the screen as the Silver Fox bowed to the roaring crowd, wondering at their reactions, and her own. As she did so, she silently observed the room's other occupant.

At 5'10," Beiko was just a bit taller than Lora, with pale skin, and long black hair that had been given a light lavender frosting. Her armor was a glossy black, and gleamed under the fluorescent lights. It covered most of her body, with the exception of her head and her thighs. A tinted face shield - flipped back out of the way at the moment - normally protected her face, while league rules forbid any form of thigh protection. Apparently someone had decided that it made participants look "sexy."

Currently Beiko sat in her chair, eyes closed and face almost serene, apparently resting. Lora couldn't imagine how she could be so calm, considering the fight she had scheduled for tonight. She didn't dare ask either, as it seemed any such question would only disturb Beiko's meditations.


Lora blinked, startled slightly at the sound of Beiko's voice in the otherwise quiet room. "Yes, Miss Beiko?"

"I'd like a cup of water."

"Yes, of course."

When she'd returned, Lora found Beiko standing, Rudolf by her side. "Now, relax, and remember, you have the advantage of range. Don't let that sword get to you, keep a clear head and you've got this fight won."

Beiko, for her part, simply nodded and then accepted the offered cup of water. Tossing back a several pain killers, she drained the cup in a single swallow.


"Yes, Miss Beiko?"

"Wish me luck?"

Lora, surprised a bit at that, nodded and said, "Good luck."

Flipping her face shield down, Beiko stood still as Rudolf went over her armor for one last inspection. The most important element was the long-barreled phased charged-particle projector that had been mounted on the left forearm. Rudolf examined the power cable, which was strung along the arm until it finally looped around into the power supply set on the armor's backplate, right above the winged flight pack.

"Enh..." Rudolf muttered. "You watch this cable; that Mian, she can cut it clean through in on swing."

"I know, I know. Let's get it over with."

Giving her one final pat on the shoulder - Lora almost expected him to slap Beiko's fairly exposed buttocks - Rudolf opened the door. "Good luck."

= = = = =

The Lace and Steel arena measured a full 50 meters by 25, with 12 meter walls. The floor was off a light gray material that was slightly spongy to walk on. The walls were padded, if thinly, and a tight mesh covered the open top. As Beiko stepped out of her entrance, she could see a scattering of dark stains near the center of the floor. One of the night's previous fights had ended messily and already the word was that the woman was certainly going to loose her leg, if not her life.


Walking out into the area, Beiko was nearly deafened by the rising roar of the attending throng. In response, she raised her arms over her head and clasped them together, smiling for the crowd and cameras. She was a four-year veteran of Lace and Steel, and in that time had risen to become the league's most popular fighter. If there was one she had learned, it was to never ignore her fans.

Finally reaching the faded "X" that marked her starting point, Beiko tried to relax, tried to block out the cheering, shrieking fans, the flashing lights, and the deafening speaker system. She needed to be in top form top night, because she was due to face...


Opening her eyes, Beiko watched the tall, red-haired and red-tailed synthetic make her way across the arena floor. The female replicant was her closest competitor and heir-apparent. Clad in tall boots, a white armor cloth jacket and a gray breastplate, Mian cut a fine figure, and was highly skilled with the four and a half feet of blade she carried. Coming to a halt on her X, Mian brought her sword around and assumed a casual stance.

Beiko flicked her eyes to the left, where a video monitor had begun to count down.

5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1

With a rising howl and an explosion of fireworks, the bell went off, signaling the start of the fight.

Beiko bent at the knees and kicked back, her flight pack giving her sufficient boost so that she nearly brushed the mesh overhead. Sighting down the barrel, her faceplate came alive with HUD firing solutions. A moment later the weapon spat forth a brilliant bolt of energy.

Mian leapt to one side as the shot sizzled past. The floor burst into flame, spraying melted plastic in a wide circle. Mian ignored the painful spattering, and lowered her swordpoint, readying herself for a long leap.

Dropping back to the floor, all Beiko saw of Mian was a flash of steel and a blur. Reacting instantly, she twisted at the waist and brought her arm up, hearing the sword scrape against the armor. Pivoting on one foot, she kicked out, trying to catch Mian unawares. Her foot impacted only with air, as did Mian's return slash, which Beiko ducked under.

A few quick foot shuffles and the two turned to face each other again. Mian raised her sword over her head in a classic kenjutsu stance, while Beiko slid one foot back, her left arm held down, the gun barrel pointing somewhere near the floor. For a moment, neither moved.

A second later, Mian tumbled along the floor, her breast plate smoking, while Beiko flipped her shattered faceplate away, trying to ignore the blood that ran down from her scalp.

"bitch..." Beiko muttered as Mian stood, albeit slowly.

Not wanting Mian to regain her balance, Beiko fired again, but the untargeted bolt went wide. Backpedalling, she tired to block Mian's slash, but only managed to loose the end of her blaster barrel. Desperate, Beiko stepped forward and punched Mian as hard as she could, catching the taller woman in the shoulder and sending her spinning. A quick circle kick and sword went tumbling along the ground.

"There," Beiko rasped, "Now we are even."

Mian simply shrugged. "Maybe."

= = = = =

Back in the locker room watching the moniters, Lora muttered under her breath, "Careful, careful...

Rudolf was also talking as if Beiko could hear him, "Dammit, Beiko, Don't let her get you angry...."

= = = = =

Inwardly Beiko cursed. She hadn't used her superior range to her advantage, and was now missing her most important asset. On the other hand, Mian was no longer armed with her sword, and Beiko knew she was better in a hand-to-hand fight then the replicant.

The next few minutes were filled with a blurred series of punches, kicks and throws, as the two fighters simply poured all they had into each other. Beiko went for a rapid series of kicks and legsweeps, while Mian countered with several throws and follow-up palm strikes. Finally, Mian managed to grab the remaining length of barrel still attached to Beiko's armor and swung her opponent away. Beiko tumbled backwards and then rolled to her feet, igniting her flight pack and virtually tackling Mian.

The two tumbled along the ground and finally ended up in a tangle of limbs. Beiko's right cross met Mian's forearm, while the synthetic's elbow smash only encountered the floor. Flipping to her feet, Beiko spun into a kick, which caught the side of Mian's face and sent her sprawling. Pausing only to hit the quick release and drop her now-useless blaster, Beiko then cleared the distance between the two with a short leap. Reaching down she grabbed Mian's thick mane of hair and pulled her upright, wrapping her other arm around the synth's throat.

"Yield!" she hissed.

Mian struggled for a moment and then relaxed. "Never."

A moment later, Beiko staggered back, one hand covering her now bleeding nose. Somehow, Mian had managed to swing her leg straight up and back, catching Beiko in the face. Bright red blood flowed freely across her upper lip and chin, dripping onto the floor. The crowd, which had been yelling non-stop since the start of the fight, seemingly re-doubled their shrieks of appreciation.

Blinking back tears, Beiko spotted Mian dashing across the are floor heading towards her...

"No!" Beiko gasped, leaping to intercept. Mian in turn dove forward and rolled, twisting around just in time to bring her sword up.

For a moment all was quiet. Beiko wondered if she had suddenly gone deaf, or if crowd had all inexplicably vanished. She took a breath, hearing it rasp in her ears, and looked down.

The broad blade of Mian's sword protruded from the plates in her armor, its brilliantly polished surface starting to become stained with blood. Mian knelt before her, gripping the hilt, and stared at Beiko's face intently, heedless of her own bleeding nose and slashed cheek. Beiko coughed, spattering more blood on the blade and slowly settled to the floor of the arena. Mian tightened her grip and abruptly yanked, pulling the blade free. Wordlessly she watched her opponent sink to the ground, ignoring the cheers of the crowd.

= = = = =

Back in the locker room, Lora and Rudolf stared at the screen.


"Oh my god!"

"Lora!! Get up there and... Lora?"

= = = = =

The entrance to the arena on Beiko's side was ripped off it's tracks before it could finish sliding open and Lora Doubet skidded to a stop beside the prone form of Beiko, she felt for a pulse, found it, then put her hand next to Beiko's mouth and nose to feel for breath, since she couldn't hear anything over the crowd noise. Still with us. Good, Lora thought.

She popped the tabs on Beiko's torso armor to move it aside and winced at the spreading bloodstain in the bodysuit underneath. The sword wound went front to back, going between the ribs just a couple of inches to the right of the sternum and looked to have missed the spine in the back. Lora decided to take the risk of moving Beiko and picked her up as gently as she could, then ran for the exit, thinking dark thoughts about the cheering of the crowd.

She met the Daitokuji Financial Group EMTs halfway and placed Beuko on the stretcher they provided, then followed alongside them as they hurried to their emergency facilites onsite.

Beiko woke up briefly, coughed, and spit blood, her eyes found Lora's face. Her face was ashen. She somehow managed a rueful smile, "Damn. I fucked up."

Lora took her hand, "Beiko, stay quiet and rest. They'll take care of you."

Beiko took a rattling breath, tears forming at the sides of her eyes, "oooh god, this hurts... " real fear showed in her eyes for the first time Lora could remember, "am I going to die...?"

Squeezing her hand gently, Lora tried to sound reassuring, "Don't worry, Beiko, you're not going to die, they can fix it..."

Beiko nodded slightly, closing her eyes as they passed through the doors of the operating theater, where Lora had to stay outside.

She stood there outside the doors, looking at her own hand, smeared with blood. Then she clenched it into a fist slowly, then sighed sadly.

"...they can fix anything."

"The price for your defiance is death beyond death"
-Sorceress Ultemacheia, Final Fantasy VIII

Tired, angry and slightly singed, Sandra Blackmore stomped into her apartment. She shrugged off her coat (letting it fall on the floor) and walked over to the bed. Sighing, she fell down face-forwards onto it. "My life bites" she muttered.

Her inner reflection was interrupted by the sound of someone knocking on her door. Now who could that be? She thought. No one would want to visit me, so it must be...

"SANDRA!" came the screeching woman's voice from the other side of the door.

Crap. Mrs Smegma, diabolical landlady from hell. She'd once called her a "More powerful enemy with extensive influence" as a joke. Now, with no rent money, it wasn't a joke. She could hear the sound of keys being used in the door. Sandra's defensive reflexes and police combat training kicked in as she took the best defensive option available. She rolled off the bed and hid under it.

The door opened, and Mrs Smegma entered. She was not a pleasant sight, being short, middle-aged and wearing a shabby dressing gown. Even less pleasant was the sight of her two enormous sons, Barny and Otto standing right behind her. Barney and Otto looked like small mountains, with dandruff for snow. Between them they had the brainpower of guacamole dip. But they could do things to non-payers that didn't bear thinking about.

"She's not here," Otto (or was it Barney? They always looked the same to her) slowly stated.

"Sandra!" Ms Smegma shouted. "I know you're in here somewhere! You have half an hour to pay that rent or else you are out of here. You understand me?" Sandra chose not to respond, rather staying under the bed and prayed to god (and anyone else who might be up there) for a miracle.

Fortunately one arrived. One of the other residents was slinking his way up the stairs, trying to evade detection. However, a squeaky floorboard gave him away. Ms Smegma turned around to face him.

"Gareth Gisbourne! Where is that rent money you promised me?"

"I, um, that is to say, er..."

Sandra took the interrogation of poor Gareth as the opportunity she needed. Dashing out from under the bed, she did the only rational thing one would do. She leapt out the window and onto the rusty fire escape outside.

"What was that?" Mrs Smegma screeched.

"I don't know, mum" Barney (or Otto) replied.

Sandra pressed herself against the wall. She knew that Mrs Smegma would not rest until she got that money or Sandra had been reduced to a greasy stain and anything she owned that was worth anything had been forcibly extracted. I need that money and bad. She thought. But how?

And then a diabolical idea formed in the back of her head.

She gingerly crawled over to the window of the next apartment across, and climbed in. Gracefully, she ended up flat on her face on the floor. "Sorry bout that" she muttered to her surprised neighbors. Cecil and Gavin looked back at her in surprise from their bed, trying to cover themselves up. Sandra always thought that Cecil was Australian. After all, he spent much of his time down under.

"No problems" Gavin stammered out, looking at her like scarred street samurai didn't come climbing in through his window every day of the week.

She walked over to the doorway, and pressed herself against the frame. She opened the door slowly, and looked out the hallway. Ms Smegma and her boys were rummaging through her apartment. There was a partially open door just across from her, and a squeaky floorboard in the middle.

Only one way to do this, she thought. "Thanks for the company, boys. I'll see you later" she added as she slowly opened the door, trying to avoid any squeak.

Looking furtively left and right, she backed up from the door. Then she broke into a run, and leapt through the doorway, twisting in the air, barging through the open door on the other side.

Muriel Jones sat in her favorite chair, watching mindlessness on the TV and smoking. Her henpecked boyfriend, Zack Smith was slaving away over the kitchen sink, trying to transform filthy plates into not-quite-so-filthy ones. The two of them couldn't have looked too much more different if they wanted to. Muriel was short, fat, dumpy and of almost indeterminate gender. Zack on the other hand was tall, muscular, bald and black.

"Muriel, are you in there?" Came a screeching voice from the door.

"Zack, could you get that?"

"Right" Zack responded, and trudged over to the door. He cut an impressive figure in his sleeveless top and cammo pants. Too bad about the pink apron. Zack opened the door, and was greeted by the horrid sight of Mrs Smegma. "Hey... um... Hi, Mrs S. What can I do for ya?"

"Have you seen Sandra?" Mrs Smegma snapped .

"Er... no"

"Well, if you do see her, tell her that she has twenty minutes to pay me or else" Mrs Smegma snarled, then slammed the door shut.

Thirty seconds later, Sandra peepred up from behind Muriel's chair. "Thanks for that"

"It's not a problem" Muriel replied.

"So what do I owe you?"

"Ahh... just a single pack of cigs will do me" Muriel replied.

What about me? Zack thought. I don't smoke, and I had to face down the beast myself?

"No probs. Next time I have cash, they're yours" She looked around. "Mind if I use your window?"

The apartment next to Muriel's was unoccupied, and for good reason. One of the previous occupants had decided to leave a substantial hole in one of the walls. On any other building, this would be considered a structural deficiency, requiring repairs to the whole building. With Mrs Smegma in charge, it meant that the place was merely less likely to get an occupant.

"I'll give the goddamned PKs this much" Sandra muttered. "Every now and then, a hole in the wall can come in handy. Looking outside, she looked up at the floor above, and down at the street below. Then she looked to the right at the leaky drainpipe that clung to the wall. Hypothetically it would hold her weight. Hypothetically.

"Only one way to find out" She said to herself. "If this works, I'm fine. If it doesn't, either I hit the ground and die, or hit the ground, live, get found by Mrs Smegma without rent money and am pretty dead anyway." She paused. "Cool"

Sandra firmly grabbed the pipe and transferred her weight to it. Remarkably, the pipe held. Slowly, she clambered her way up the pipe, heading for the top floor of the building. After a brief struggle, she had pulled herself up to be level with a window on that floor. It was closed.

"Tool" Sandra swore. "Tool tool tool tool tool tool tool." She added for emphasis. "Okay, I can do this. Just think outside the squared circle..." She tried to think back to her communications classes from high school. What did she get out of all those classes on lateral thinking? Talked at by a rather effeminate teacher. OK, that didn't help.

Looking over at the window again, it appeared not to be locked. Unfortunately, some ham-fisted paining and a lack of maintenance meant that the bottom of the window was firmly glued to the frame by thickly-applied paint and miscellaneous scunge. Okay, I can handle this. She carefully stretched her right arm out and reached for the windowsill. With a quiet "sknit" she extended her cyber-razors. Slowly and carefully, she began to scrape away the grime. I don't want to know what I'm doing to my razors... Hey, is anyone watching this? She paused with the horrifying thought that someone on the ground was watching all of it and getting a chuckle out of it. Or taping it.

Can't be helped. Having cleared out as much as she could reach, Sandra retracted her claws. She gently transferred some of her weight onto the crumbling stone ledge on the side of the building. Mercifully it held. Then the pipe suddenly shifted.

Fornicate. Sandra swore to herself as she tried to transfer as much of her weight to the ledge as possible. Then she put one hand on the ledge, followed by another one. Then she proceeded to do a mad scramble as the pipe came loose. The end result left Sandra clinging to the sill, her feet on the ledge, and a goodly amount of piping hanging loose.

Well that worked. She pulled herself up and pushed on the window frame. Mercifully, it opened. Sandra clambered through the window, and into what seemed to be hell.

Well, not hell. Just a bedroom. But it was one of the most off-putting places she had ever seen. A gaudy, tacky make-up table with several empty light sockets was pushed up against one wall, various photos of its owner adorning sides of the mirror. A disgustingly unwashed dressing gown hung on the wall. Next to it on the door was a cracked full-length mirror. Tattered, faded posters of inexplicably popular hairless boy bands from the 1990s adored most of the walls. There was another mirror on the ceiling above the bed. A pair of over-sized teddy bears and a box of shotgun shells lay on the bed.

Sandra didn't have time to think about the dˇcor. She had to act fast. By her guess, she had about ten minutes left to live. Looking around, she spied the object of her quest; a bedside table. Darting over to it, she pulled open the drawer. Ahah. Just as I thought. Socks. Using search techniques from her police days, she began squeezing each sock, looking for anything out of the normal. Near the bottom of the draw, she found it. A sock which made papery rustling noises as she handled it. Sandra unrolled the end and dipped her hand in, pulling out a large wad of notes.

Holy slapnuts. There must be thousands here. She had seen stolen cash before. Usually, she'd been bagging it up and making sure that cops like Davies didn't get near it. But this...

No, Sandra. Take only what you really, really need. She took a few choice notes, and then placed the cash back in the sock and the sock in the drawer. Sandra turned towards the window to leave, when she remembered something. No pipe. I guess I'll have to leave by the... door... Her thoughts trailed off as she head a door outside the room open then shut, and the sounds of footsteps. She quickly closed the window, then pressed herself up against the wall.

The bedroom door opened, almost pressing Sandra to the wall. Mrs Smegma entered, swearing to herself. Without noticing Sandra, she went over to the large wardrobe, and began rummaging through it. Now what could she be after? Sandra's question was answered when Mrs Smegma pulled out a very large, double-barreled shotgun, then walked over to the bed. Sandra took the opportunity to duck out into the living room.

Once there, she dove behind a couch as Otto (or Barney) entered. Fortunately, he immediately headed for the kitchen. Now is when I make my escape. She was about to leap out from behind the couch, when Mrs Smegma entered, shotgun in her hand.

"Barney!" She screeched. "Get out of the kitchen and come help your poor sweet mother with her tenants"

"But mum..." Barney whined as he returned to the room, a slice of cold pizza in his hand.

"But nothing!" Msr Smegma left the room, Barney sulkily following her and slamming the door shut.

Time for me to move. Sandra leapt up and opened the nearest window. Mercifully, there was a fire escape outside that looked to be in passable condition. She climbed out onto it, then proceeded to sprint down to ground level. Once there, she breathlessly ran around to the other side of the building, then climbed up the fire escape on her side, praying to anyone who would listen. Just as she reached her apartment, she ducked, and cautiously looked in the window.

Otto (or Barney) was in there. This complicated things.

Why is my life never easy? Sandra asked as she clambered over to a smaller window to the left of the escape. Sliding the reluctant window open, she clambered inside, to her bathroom. Just as she was picking herself up, the door was kicked in. She turned around, to be confronted with the hideous visage of Mrs Smegma with a shotgun.

"Can't I get a minute's privacy around here?" Sandra shouted.

"Where's my damned rent?" Mrs Smegma shrilly replied.

"It's funny that you asked me, because I happen to have it on me" Sandra replied, reaching into her pocket and producing several crumpled notes. "I think you'll find it all there."

Mrs Smegma snatched up the notes, looked angrily at Sandra, and then left, slamming the door shut as she went.

Sandra wandered out into her room and fell back on the bed. Who'd have thought that childhood hide and seek games could come in so much use in later life? She smiled to herself. Life is never dull.

Lounging on the couch, Ling Ling watched as Marta plugged an assortment of cables into the VR game box. "So, what did you get this time? Another adventure of the 'Beautiful Tenshi'?"

"Uhm?" Marta shrugged and snapped a DNI cable into place. "No, this is new."

"And?" Ling Ling didn't really feel like playing guessing games. VR sims were more Marta's idea of fun than hers, although she did like the virtual museum and history discs that were occasionally brought home.

Opening up a brightly-colored case, Marta removed the disc residing in side and slid it into the top of the game box. "Swords of Barsoom," she announced. Picking up the case, Marta flipped it over and read off of the back. "Experience adventure and intrigue under the twin moons of Mars."

Ling Ling's eyes widened. "Really? And exactly who are we supposed to be?"

"Marta Carter, a fighting woman of Mars, and her Princess, Ling Ling Thoris of Helium."

"You're making that up!"

"I am not!" Marta laughed and set the case aside. "Ready?"

"Yes... I guess so."

"Show a little enthusiasm, please?" Sliding one of the cables into her datajack, Marta lay on the floor, eyes closed. Ling Ling did likewise, settling herself along the couch.

After a few seconds of vague disorientation, Ling Ling found herself standing on a low hill. A thick yellow grass-like plant covered the ground in all directions, with only a few scattered trees providing any contrast. The sky was a bright blue, with thin, fleecy clouds. For some reason, Ling Ling felt a slight chill.

"Marta? What happened to the opening sequence?"

"Oh, I bypassed that. I can run it later if you want."

Turning around to look at her lover, Ling Ling stopped, eyes wide with shock.

Marta stood near the crest of the hill, one foot up on a weathered stone, her hands resting on her hips, chest proudly thrust forward. She was dressed in a pair of tall leather boots, and... well... As near as Ling Ling could tell, Marta's only real garment was a complex set of leather straps, buckles and metal plates that served only to support a long, thin-bladed sword, a shorter knife-like weapon and pistol. Other than a headband keeping her hair out of her eyes, she was nude.

"Marta," Ling Ling asked quietly.

"Yes, my Princess?"

"Why are you dressed like that?"

"What do you mean?"

"You're naked."

"Yeah, and? No one wears any clothing on Barsoom."

Ling Ling blinked and looked down.


The 'tick-tock' of the replica Grandfather clock on the wall was a soothing background noise to Karin Nys as she sat at the main data terminal in the living room of Raven's apartment. Behind her was a couch and love seat facing the data terminal, with a coffee table inn the middle adorned with a beautiful sculpture of a raven in flight.

Dressed in her normal attire of jeans and a white t-shirt, Karin idly tapped away with one finger as she scrawled through the horde of information before her. It was a position and an activity she had been preoccupied with for the past several hours and, it looked, for several more to come.

A loud yawn escaped her lips and she leaned back in the office chair, stretching her arms over her head. Behind her, the door opened and Raven Clark, dressed in a black skirt and blue shirt entered. She gave Karin a critical look and sighed.

"Are you still at that?"

Karin smirked at her and nodded. "Uh-huh... no way am I going to go about this half cocked."

"Go about what? What is it you're planning anyway?"

Karin leaned back up in her chair and spun around to face the esper. "Oh... just going about getting my bargaining chip for your boss ready."

"Bargaining chip? What kind of bargaining chip?" Raven frowned, wondering if Karin realized that Sanato or some other ST executive just might be willing to turn her over for brownie points with another corporation.

"I'm gonna break into Ishiyama and find out how they make those esper replicants of theirs," Karin replied casually.

Raven did a double-take. "Are you nuts?!" *At least she doesn't think small. That would get Sanato's attention.*

"No, I'm perfectly serious... I need a big enough bargaining chip to get what I want from your boss." Karin stood and stretched.

"So you're going to try to steal a megacorporation's most valuable secret?"

"Pretty much yeah... say, what do you know about these PK's? Word is you've meet them at the Jinsei Expo."

"You're nuts!"

"No, I'm looking for an end to playing hide and seek whenever I have to go take a job." Karin walked up to Raven and placed her hands on her shoulders. "Raven, I mean no offense but your reputation will only protect me for so long. I need resolution..."

"Oh, I agree. But going after a Ishiyama's procedure is going to bring you resolution all right. In an obituary."

Karin sighed. "Look... all you gotta do is answer my question or not... that's all there is to it."

"I dunno if I want to help you throw your life away. Karin, wake up! It's take an army to do this."

"I am not throwing my life away... I was trained for this, *specifically* for this line of work! And besides..." Karin gave Raven her trade mark smirk. "I'm not about to die yet."

"Sure, try to sleaze your way in. But if you're discovered, you're dead meat." Raven rolled her eyes. "Karin, they'll be using maximum security protocols. You can't sleaze your way past that."

"Cripes... you're going to make me explain everything, aren't you?"

Raven folded her arms across her chest. "At least how you explain to get out of there alive, let alone with the pay data."

"I don't know quite yet, I'm still doing my research, part of which involves your answers on the PK replicants you meet at the Expo."

"There was only one. Lilith, by name. Pretty powerful and very good control."

Karin backed up a step and rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Even moreso then the Empress?"

"The Empress has good control, but it's not all that great, you know. And mine's better, and much more flexible." Raven shrugged. "Doesn't count for allot faced with overwhelming power."

"Yeah... even the world's most powerful esper, Shion, would fall to a couple dozen mail order PK replicants."

"Well, she isn't the world's most powerful, but it's really worrisome, especially for people like me."

The first bit caught Karin's attention and she arched an eyebrow. "Whoa... Shion *isn't* the most powerful PK out there?"

Raven shook her head, suppressing a shudder at the thought of Ran's last rampage. "Oh, not by a long shot. That would be Ran."

"Who? Never heard of him."

"He lives in the Zero Zone. Word on the street is that he's pretty much insane. He lays low for years on end, then he comes out on a rampage and levels a few buildings. And it gives me splitting headaches when he does."

Karin blinked and then laughed, short and sharp. "Cripes, was *I* ever lucky! I had to do a job and had to get through South Side to get it done and I never ran into him once!"

"You got lucky, Karin. He's pretty unpredictable. Of course, Lilith can kill you just as dead."

Karin chuckles came to a slow stop and she turned to Raven. "Say... uh... what did this Ran guy look like?"

"Well, from what I hear he's medium height, kinda slight, has black hair, and usually wears a cloak and construction boots."

Karin paled. "Oh gods that was him... it had to be him."

"You met him?"

"I... I think so... he was just mumbling to himself and we chatted for a bit and then I left. When I turned around he wasn't there... I never heard him move and he wasn't there..."

"Like this?" Raven smirked and vanished.

"Yeah! Like that!" Karin's eyes went wide as the implications fully sank in.

"BOO!" Raven suddenly yelled from behind her.

"GAHHH!!!" Karin literally jumped off the floor with fright as she spun around and nearly fell onto her butt. "Raven!!!"

Raven giggles. "My, my, aren't we jumpy? And you think you can infiltrate a corporate headquarters?"

Karin looked at her as she gradually got bother her heart and her breathing under control. "Huh... don't think you don't have your weaknesses, birdy." She smirked and suddenly reached forward to tickle Raven on the sides.

"Hey!" Raven quickly stepped back, shielding her sides with her arms.

"Ah-hah! I knew you! Raven Clark, the great esper is ticklish!" Smiling triumphantly, Karin moved in close and began tickling her on the stomach with her right hand and then on the neck with her other hand.

"Stop it!" Raven giggled and tried to tickle Karin on the sides, but the assassin was too quick and slipped behind her, still tickling her hands.

"Man, I should sell this info... I'd make a good buck selling the weakness on ST's number one esper." Karin smirked, tickling Raven across her stomach and sides.

"We'll see about that!" Retreating and buying herself a moment, Raven concentrated and pushed Karin away before she began to tickle her with her mind.

Karin closed her mouth on the giggle as the sensation of numerous fingers appeared all over her body, tickling her furiously and without letting up. And for a few seconds she was able to fight it off until she finally broke down into a fit of giggles and laughs. Awkwardly, she stumbled towards Raven and hugged her firmly around the middle, her hands once more tickling her.

"No fair using your powers, Raven!"

"Hey, they're why I'm the great esper, remember?" Raven suddenly rushes her and tickles her with abandon.

Karin laughs and fights back, tickling just as hard and stumbling back towards the couch. Turning around, the two fell atop the couch with Karin pinning Raven, their faces only inches apart.

"Give up?" Karin smirks at her, still tickling her sides.

"Not a chance!"

The door opened, admitting Adam. He stopped and blinked with mild surprise at the scene laid out before him, then quirked an eyebrow. "Can I get you ladies anything?" he asked pleasantly.

Both women turned to stare at them, a red blush heating their cheeks at the same time as they realized the position they were in.

"Uh... no thanks... we were just tickling each other..." came Karin's deadpan response.

"Uh... um... yeah..." Raven eloquently agreed.

Adam's blonde brow stayed where it was for a moment longer, then lowered. "All right then," he said. "Have fun." At that point he discretely withdrew, firmly closing the door behind him.

Karin sighed and slumped against Raven. "That was sufficiently embarrassing," she muttered.

"At least Adam won't gossip," Raven replied.

"Yeah..." Karin smirked as she looked down at Raven.

"So, um..."

"Gotcha!" Karin shouted as she proceeded to tickle Raven furiously.

"Hey!" Raven laughed and did her best to return the favor.

The wiry forward feinted and dodged left, maneuvering past the defender for a clear shot at the goal. The goalie stepped forward, raising his hands, but was too late as the ball sped unerringly past his hip and into the net.

"Goal!" Paolo signaled. There was cheering from a gaggle of Hispanic on-lookers at one end of the field. That put the shirts—a team comprised mostly of workers at a restaurant in the Entertainment District—up 5 to 1 against the skins, comprised mostly of a group of Russian carpenters and their drinking partners. Soccer matches in the Zone could get vicious, but while a few bitter looks were exchanged among the Slavic contingent, but most seemed to bear the humiliation with good grace.

Paolo sweated in the afternoon sun as he trotted back to the center of the field for the next play. He was glad the game was winding down—he'd been running up and down the field trying to stay close to the action, and the speed of the Cuban team had made that exhausting indeed. Still, it felt good to get outside on a beautiful summer day, and even the crumbled asphalt of the abandoned parking lot seemed pleasant. He had been cooped up indoors to long, and was glad for the release.

"I was fouled," muttered one of the Russian players to a comrade, evidently forgetting Paolo understood him.

"He beat you clean," the other jovially reassured him. "Face it—he's too fast."

"I was fouled," the other repeated more forcefully. "The ref saw it and didn't call it. We can't trust him—he looks like a Cuban."

"Yes, but he drinks like a Russian!" The player laughed, throwing Paolo a grin and slapping him on the back.

There was general laughter, and confusion among the Cubans as a few skins politely tried to translate the joke. Paolo was reminded of the times the Shinkuu space-capable cyborgs tried to play 3-dimensional soccer, and generally wound up arguing rules in at least three different languages.

I was the referee then, too, he recalled, remembering the chaos. And for the same reason—I was an outsider. He frowned, pondering his situation. I'll never blend in here, any more than I did the hard shell cyborg work crews. Even if I pull my stake together and buy my indenture, what then? I'm never going back to corporate work, and I can't do the kind of work I want to here—so, where?

Solve the part of the problem you know how to solve, he reminded himself. But do it later—right now, you have a massacre to officiate.

He smiled and raised his hand, then threw the ball back into play.

Walking slowly through the depths of a mega-mall located on the outskirts of Sydney, Shion contemplated the events of the past few weeks. She had been presented with almost irrefutable evidence that the Ishiyama Corporation was currently in the process of producing - for all intents and purposes - artificial espers. Apparently, Ishiyama had procured DNA samples from a number of active espers and had spliced the genetic material together, producing a number of unviable "clones" and the woman known as Lilith.

Pausing, Shion leaned against the rail and glanced down to the floor below. She could almost feel the eyes of assorted onlookers upon her; eyes that belonged to any number of corporate operatives, security agents, shopkeepers and common passersby. Must were probably just curious. Between her height and her long hair, which was worn free and loose today, Shion turned many a head, even among the jaded. The rest looked at her with a mixture of desire, lust, envy, apprehension, and, for those who recognized her for who she was, fear.

Down below people milled, going about whatever corporate-sponsored lives they led. They, like most people in this world, were blind to events around them. It was the game everyone played, the game of trying to live a normal life, of trying to pretend you had some control over your future, when - in fact - the average person's future was dominated from the moment of birth to their dying breath by whatever corporate structure they belonged to.

Turning away from the rail, Shion wondered about Lilith. The woman wanted to be made stronger, which in Lilith's case seemed to translate to having a better idea of the extent of her fairly impressive telekinetic powers. Raven Clark, who Shion thought was far too kind-hearted for her own good, seemed to have taken on Lilith as her personal reclamation project, trying to bring the replicant/clone/whatever-she-was out of her shell and into the real world. Shion figured the plan was doomed to failure. Odds were, Lilith would be disassembled soon, as Ishiyama broke her down into her component parts for study and made preparations for the next generation of espers.

Pausing once again in an effort to get her bearings, Shion found herself in front of a store window. The display inside was of an assortment of children's dolls and "action figures," while a video screen to one side showed scenes from an episode of "Magical Empress Sonnet." Despite her normal haughty disdain for such low-brow entertainment, Shion found that she had to stop and watch. The main character of "Magical Empress Sonnet" was a tall, white-haired woman with long legs and an excellent figure, who went about smiting evil with her plot-driven magical powers. In fact, she looked a lot like an animated version of Shion herself, if one discounted the white-feathered wings.

Shaking her head, Shion gave a slight sigh. "Sonnet" was the third animated character that she knew of that bore some resemblance to her. Of the other two, one was a powerful monster-fighting sorceress who dressed in scanty outfits that seemed to tear apart under the slightest stress, while the second was the captain of a massive star-going battleship, plundering ships and worlds of their treasure. Although she would never admit it, especially not to her sister, Shion actually liked the idea of the last character.

A tug on her jacket snapped Shion back to the here-and-now. Glancing about, she spotted a small boy standing next to her, a look of adoration on his face. He looked to be maybe six years old, with silvery hair and bright blue eyes. In his hand he was gripping a "Magical Princess Sonnet" notebook, which looked like it has just been purchased.

Blinking in surprise, Shion regarded the boy for a moment before speaking. "Yes?"

"Are you really the Empress?" the boy asked, apparently in awe.

Smiling slightly, Shion nodded, "Why, yes. Yes, I am." Sometimes, just sometimes, the extent of her fame surprised her.

"Oh, goody!" the boy cried. "Please Empress Sonnet, will you sign my book?"

Shion's smile vanished in an eyeblink. Of course, she should have known. The boy thought she was the living embodiment of a cartoon character - he probably had no idea who he was really talking to. Sighing, Shion closed her eyes and shook her head. If companies like Ishiyama weren't trying to reproduce her - or someone like her - in the flesh; a bunch of nameless hacks were borrowing her image in order to sell some tri-vid show.

Looking back down at the child, Shion actually found herself at a loss for words. One part of her wanted to tell the kid to get lost, but another part, albeit a small part, remembered when she was only six, and how at the time, she had totally and utterly adored the "Supreme Senshi Starfighters." She'd even gone out that Halloween dressed as Senshi Starfighter Andromeda. The costume had been a smashing success, partially due to the fact that she and Andromeda both had snowy-white hair.

For a long momnet Shion did not move, while the boy figited nervously. Finally her resolve broke. He child's adoration was fairly obvious, and Shion's ego was such that she couldn't ignore even such misplaced idolization as his. Glancing quickly about, almost as to reassure herself that no one of importance would see what was about to happen, Shion knelt down. Lowering herself slowly down to the boy's level, Shion looked him straight in the eye. "The Empress is very busy fighting evil... but what sort of an Empress would I be if I did not take time to acknowledge my most loyal subjects?"

"Uhmm..." the boy responded, confused.

Chuckling slightly, Shion pulled the notebook from his grasp. The cover showed Empress Sonnet in all her glory, dressed in a brightly colored and decorated variation of Shion's own combat gear. A long spear/glaive was held in her hands, and magical sparkles threatened to overwhelm the page and drip onto the floor. Shion decided that is she ever had to wear something as tacky as that she'd die of embarrassment. About the only decent element was Sonnet's hair, which was even longer than Shion's and spread out in a great fan. If, if wearing such an outfit meant she'd be able to get her hair looking like that, Shion felt she'd have a difficult decision to make. Perhaps she'd just opt for the space pirate's uniform instead.

"Your name is?"

"Oh, Alex!" Alex almost jumped up and down as he realized the great Empress Sonnet was actually talking to him.

Producing a pen, Shion carefully wrote "to my most loyal subject, Alexander, from Magical Empress Sonnet." Unable to resist, she then added "Shion Nys" in katakana across the bottom. Anyone able to read that would be seriously confused. Handing the book back, she gave Alex a soft and sad smile. "Here, you had better go. It is not always safe to be seen with me."

"Okay!" Alex bobbed his head up and down and then ran off down the walkway.

Rising, Shion watched him leave, wondering, not for the first time, if she was one of the players of the game, or one of the pieces. Glancing back inside the window, she noticed a cluster of dolls standing together. For some reason, she was not surprised to see the trio was comprised of Empress Sonnet, the sorceress, and the space pirate. A man stood next to the display, staring at her with open-mouthed astonishment. Returning his gaze with a regal smile, as befitting one of her rank, Shion decided it was time she left the playing board for the moment and vanished with a *whooomph* of in-rushing air.

Falcon sighed as she looked over her pride and joy. Several months of riding into fires on this bike hadn't done as much damage as one day of supposedly 'safe' bounty hunting. Karin Nys seemed to cause a fair bit of destruction in her wake.

While the Falcon motorcycle didn't take any serious damage, the grenade explosion and all of the heating oil fire and explosion that had triggered off had combined to do a lot of other damage. The paint job on that side of the bike was nearly a write-off; while it was supposed to be able to handle being in the middle of a fire, that didn't apply when burning oil hung on it like napalm. Fragments of metal flung out like scattershot had dented the armour. One of the tires had a half-molten spot on it; it was a miracle the tire had lasted long enough to get back across the Zero Zone. Several spokes of the rear wheel were bent. And so on.

It had not been a good day.

Fixing all the damage the bike had sustained was going to be an expensive job no matter how she looked at it. Finding a mechanic who was capable of doing the work properly and not tempted to sell her out to anybody looking for information raised the price considerably. She'd just blown all of her discretionary funds with the repairs, and was going to need some extra cash soon if she wanted to restock her supplies. And she couldn't rely on the conversation with Raven and Adam to grant her a new job. Even if that went through, who knows how long it might take.

Which meant, unfortunately, that it might be time to deal with less savory methods of getting money. Courier duty was fine, but anybody willing to hire a relative unknown on short notice was probably going to be doing something either illegal or sufficiently illicit that they wouldn't want to leave a paper trail. Or worse still, only want a getaway driver. However, she needed the money soon, and putting out fires wasn't going to pay for new equipment.

She never really wanted to go the 'street samurai' route, but barring anything else showing up, she might have to.


A few hints dropped at the mechanic's had paid off; she had a job. It wasn't much of a job, but it was a job. And so she was ferrying some minor corp exec to some gambling den in the Zone.

She'd never ridden with someone else on the bike before; with the enclosed faring, it was a little more cozy than she really liked. At least a firm glare early on had prevented him from trying anything. He gave her directions to where they were going, getting more excited as they got closer. Fortunately, they got to their destination before she felt it necessary to shove him back down into his seat for leaning over to point out the right directions.

The man nearly jumped out of his seat when the faring opened up enough for him to get out, handed something to the big brute at the door, and dashed inside before Falcon had even stepped off the bike herself. She shook her head. At least the man had paid her most of the money in advance. Now she just had to wait until it was time to drive him back.

The doorman refused to let her in, and didn't say anything about it. Presumably she had to be vouched for, and her client hadn't done that. She shrugged, walked back to her bike, then turned up the auditory amplifiers in the helmet and listened in on as much as she could.

A few minutes later, she turned that off, feeling vaguely ill. Whatever was going on in there didn't sound too healthy. Sounded like they had a pair of dogs in there tearing each other apart, with people betting on the outcome. Well, it could be worse, they might be having people tear each other apart and betting on the outcome.

Then the thought crossed her mind about what the 'main event' might be, and she decided to keep the hearing assistance off and wait around the block, out of sight. There were some things she just did not want to know.

Eventually the crowd let out, and Falcon went back around to pick up her passenger. Who was stumbling around as if drunk, which he most likely was. Falcon just shook her head, hauled the guy into the cycle, and started the trip back.

"I have got to check out my clients better."


"Never mind. Just don't throw up on the suit."

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