Logan Darklighter, Mark Kobrak, and Mathieu Roy

Raven and Adam popped back into existence on a roof a few dozen meters from Oakwood Plaza, in the heart of Fort Dixie. Adam stepped quickly in front of Raven, gun at the ready, looking around for any sign of trouble. Raven grinned at his overprotectiveness; Adam always acted as if her safety was his purpose in life. And in a way it was, though he was pushing it a bit far sometimes. After all, she was generally capable of taking much more punishment than he was, and she hoped he realized that. She also hoped he'd be willing to assess the danger to her realistically today, because she certainly was going to get shot at a lot.

"We haven't time for a complex plan," Raven said. "I think we should break in by..." She was interrupted by the sound of a noisy vehicle. Both leaned over the ledge to watch the noisiest truck either had ever heard, come puttering in the Fort and park in front of Dr. Snakeye's clinic. Raven squinted to see and made out two figures, a male and a female, entering the clinic. "Now what?"

"Someone's in for a bad evening," Adam commented grimly. "On the plus side, it's likely to provide a distraction for us. Hopefully not fatally for them, though," he added, glancing at Raven. From here in, it was her show.

"Okay, here's my plan. Let's keep it simple. I'll crack a hole in the roof and fly down with shields blazing and smack a few of them around. There's probably going to be a lot of lead going my way once I do this, so you can sneak in through the hole and see if you can rescue Lora and Snakeye." It was a simple plan that hinged on her shield's resistance. Of course, no Yak in his right mind would pay too much attention to a guy skulking around when a full-force PK was rampaging.

"That's one way of going about it, I suppose," Adam said slowly, then sighed. "And I can't think of a better one offhand, so I guess it works." He frowned slightly, almost marring his good looks. "Once I've got the graft and the doc, what then? If you make the hole with enough clearance, I can probably get them back out again on my own. Or would you be able to take us all out of there during a firefight?"

"Take them outside," Raven replied. "I'll leave on my own, if at all. If it's going my way, I'll try to occupy them until Sanato's team arrives. See if you can get the people who own the truck as well, they just might have given us a getaway car."

Adam nodded. "That works. What about Suhiro? I can't evac three—or five—people at once. Although I suppose I could come back down if you needed me to," he said speculatively.

"Suhiro... I might prove enough of a distraction for you to get away with the 'hostages', but I don't think they'll let you make off with their leader. That'll have to wait until we've disabled his goons."

"All right. But what if there are more than just goons with guns down there? What's our absolute priority? When do we get out?"

"We need to take Lora out, that's number one. Snakeye should follow, if only because Lora might be hurt." She neglected to mention she was unwilling to leave the doctor to die at the hands of the Yakuza, especially after he'd helped them out. "Suhiro seemed to be important to Sanato, but getting him will be harder I think. He won't come willingly." She shrugged. "We get out if we're overwhelmed, I guess."

Adam sighed. "All right. I don't have to like it though." He gave her a frankly direct look. "You take care of yourself in there. I can't get the others out if I have to rescue you first, got it?" His tone was light, but there seemed to be signs of tension around his eyes.

Raven took hold of Adam's shoulder again, and peered towards Fort Dixie, picking a spot on the clinic's roof, forcing her mind into the required pattern. She paused for a second. She was no great lover of combat, and she knew from experience that she hated to kill. Yet she had, and she certainly knew how. She knew a lot of people at the arcology took her for a total innocent, but she knew better. There were few people in the Zone lived to adulthood without close contact with death. She pictured Lora, the blonde cyborg she'd met at the Expo, lying helpless, injured, and surrounded by the Yakuza, and felt anger rise within her, and with it came a rush of this Power, that seemed to flow with her emotions. She welcomed the anger, it would make her do what must be done without hesitation. Whatever that might be.

Then she moved. Again the wrenching sensation, as if she ceased to exist somehow on another plane of existence for a fraction of a second, and the pair appeared on top of Snakeye's roof, with a bang of compressed air and a scattering of broken cement. Worried that the sound of their arrival might have been heard down below, she lost no time in shifting her power again, the speed of her action bringing a dull ache to her head. From her clenched, trembling fists a kinetic bolt fired, tearing into the roof a few meters away with an ominous rumble and a geyser of concrete dust. A short run, and Raven was falling down the hole.

Adam covered the distance in a flash, hardly seeming to travel the distance between the two points. Pistol held rock-steady in his hand, he waited with tightly coiled intensity for the right moment to enter the fracas.

Raven's fall abruptly stopped, her feet six inches above the floor, dust swirling around her and small debris floating madly around her, caught by the hurricane of her shield. She glared at all present, turning slowly around to survey the room, and stopped as she saw her objective. Lora was lying on a table barely ten feet away. Her chest was open, and her head was resting forward at a strange angle, with the back part of her skull opened up. Beside her, a man with dark cybernetic eyes stared back at Raven, obviously alarmed as he leaned over the body protectively.

Lora hoped she could keep from going crazy. Sensory deprivation could do that, she'd heard. And this was the longest she had ever had to endure it. There had been a couple of other times that she had experienced this state. But those had been the brief interludes between an induced sleep state and the reactivation of her body after major bouts of maintenance. This was worse, much worse. She knew it had been a long time, but exactly how long was hard to tell. No, it was impossible to tell. Was it minutes? Hours? No, it couldn't be hours. The operation could only be minutes away.

She had tried doing math problems, remembering things about her past, how things looked, sounded, smelled, even tasted. It was surprising how much you could actually remember in this state. To Lora, her memories became more sharply defined as she tried focussing on details to make the images come into sharper focus.

As she allowed her mind to drift, her memories started to flow in strange patterns of free association, and she clamped down on that, hard, knowing that she was slipping into a dreamstate. Damnit! I have to focus! I can't afford to go to sleep! I don't know what I would be waking up to! I have to stay awake, no matter how maddening it is! The doc said he'd contact Sanato. I've got a chance. I will not give up. I will not quit! If there is a rescue, I have to be ready to move.

Thinking about possible escape was comforting. But Lora couldn't keep the fear completely at bay. What if all I'm waiting for is death? Lora felt a trickle of despair. Then her resolve hardened. Well, I'll face that if it comes... I've been through too much to run away from anything anymore.

Then, Lora felt something. It was felt, and it was heard, and it was seen. It was none of those things and all of them at once. All of the sensations were running together in Lora's mind and she couldn't sort the "sound" aspect from the "light" or "pressure". It all seemed like one thing to her now. It was confusing and disorientating yet almost strangely hypnotic. Finally she realized what it was she was sensing. Another esper is nearby!

The ability to sense the power of another esper was common among espers. And it was the last vestige of Lora's own PK talent. But it had never felt like this before. But maybe it made sense. Her PK sense didn't depend on her cybernetic sensorium to work. Maybe this is what any esper would see if they had no other senses to work with. Maybe whatever she had felt before all this time was an attempt by her subconscious to translate the sensation into something she was familiar with.

The glow/hum turned into lightning/thunder, then it *moved* almost right on top of her, flashing/screaming incandescent. It almost hurt her, and then it faded a little, but still powerfully brilliant/loud.

What now?

Time was suspended as the beautiful, dark-haired woman hovered above the floor, expression stern and dangerous as dust and debris swirled in intricate patterns at her feet. The tableau was abruptly broken by a shout from Suhiro.

"Waste her!" he yelled, and the Yak opened up.

Paolo dropped to the ground behind the exam table as gunfire erupted across the room. From his hiding place, he caught a glimpse of Ayane delivering a sharp kick to one of the guards as she dragged Andre through the door into the doctor's living area. Good luck, he wished them. I wish this woman had gotten here thirty seconds ago --

Thirty seconds!? Paolo abruptly pulled himself onto his knees and reached over the table and into the cyborg's innards. There's still a chance... His fingers found the switch, and he pressed it, resetting the hardware. As he removed his hand, he willed the command down the link and the chest carapace and cranium resealed again. He checked Lora's vital signs through his datajack.

Oxygen levels are still tolerable, he noted. Damn close, but she might be OK. And with the armor closed, those bullets aren't going to hurt her. He changed to another menu, and began frantically changing settings in virtual space as he dropped back to the floor.

The crackle of gunfire was deafeningly loud as Adam dropped silently through the hole in the roof to land easily in a crouch on the floor. He took in the scene swiftly, carefully noting the positions of the Yakuza gunmen as they sprayed death at the glorious banshee-form of Raven. At the center of the maelstrom, she floated in a cradle of her own mind, and holding off violent death-by-projectile through sheer force of will. The replicant rolled to one side of the giant metal freezer unit—inactive, he noted—which took up almost a quarter of the space in the room.

The cyborg, his objective, was lying on a heavy steel table not four meters away from him. Adam could just make out two bodies behind the table, concealed from the action by the network of heavy steel struts. But a group of Yakuza was firing across the intervening space at Raven, and Adam knew he could never reach the cyborg without drawing their fire to him.

Part of his indoctrination urged him to do it, to prevent those shots from reaching Raven at any cost. But his tactical sense and analytical nature outweighed that part. Raven could not be protected from herself until their objectives were met, and any failure on his part endangered his charge.

He crouched, muscles tensed and pistol at the ready, and waited for an opening.

Raven flinched instinctively. One of the Yaks was a wicked good shot and he'd put a bullet right in her eye—or would have, except that her shield had stopped the .45-caliber round two inches from its target. The aftereffects of the kinetic shield whipped it away amidst the clatter of more lead stopped by the shield, some of the bullets ricocheting off flying debris and striking the walls and ceiling.

Raven slowly, carefully reduced the power of her kinetic shield until she had enough slack to work with, curling it until its force threatened to burst out of her head, the overpressure causing a dull ache in her skull. She clenched a fist and extended it towards a group of three Yakuza then she let loose.

The bolt dug a broad furrow in the concrete floor before it slammed into the trio, scattering them this way and that. One of them slammed into a table covered in surgery instruments and slid over it, slicing himself over quite a bit of surgical steel in the process. The others rolled to the floor and painfully started picking themselves up.

The esper steeled herself for another attack. The Yak were loyal, and tough. It was clear this fight would not end soon.

The feeling of the other psychic's power in her mind was Lora's only sensation, and it came apart in pieces as she focused on it. She felt/saw/heard the esper power twist and swirl and shoot out spikes of itself, form a wall against which something seemed to impact. Many small somethings.

Lora realized what it had to mean. That's a powerful esper fighting someone! That's the rescue! Sanato sent a PK talent in to rescue me!

Then static lines appeared, her vision started to sort itself into something recognizable. Feeling rushed back to her body. The sounds of gunfire echoed in her ears and the smell of cordite filled her nose. And Lora's PK sense returned to normal as a familiar "buzz" in her brain and a dull, throbbing headache. But she welcomed it all, even the slight pain. Better than the alternative, anyway. She thought to herself, reveling in any sensation at all.

The doctor sweated, forcing himself to concentrate on the electronic connection to his patient even as bullets rang against the steel bars of his hiding place.

"Vat are you doing?" demanded Klaas, kneeling two feet away. The hacker had noticed his activity, "Stop now!" Paolo rose to his knees and leveled an awkward punch at the German, sending him rocking backwards. But the wiry netrunner drew his pocketknife and slashed at Paolo, forcing him sideways, away from the table.

The doctor's hand brushed something heavy and metal, and without thinking he grabbed it and swung at the hacker. It connected with a satisfying thud, and the German slid to the ground against the exam table. Paolo hit him again, then looked at his hands.

He was holding the CNS chassis. How did that get -- he started to wonder, but broke off as he saw the figure of Dr. Koizumi lying just a few feet away from him, bleeding from two gunshot wounds to the head. He must have been trying to get the chassis to safety, thought Paolo, checking the life signs out of habit. The nervous system inside the unit seemed undamaged, and the doctor crawled beside the exam table and returned his attention to the cyborg's virtual systems. Keep trying, Lora, we're almost there...

Raven shook her head to clear it, then spun around, picking another target. She smirked as she noticed the Yaks didn't just mindlessly shoot anymore; they ducked and weaved and even leapt aside as she turned to face them, still ripping away with short burst of their submachine guns. From the looks of it one or two had some heavy reflex boosts. She picked one of those wired-up sams as her target and hurled another bolt, slashing the ground open again. The Yak's eyes widened in fast-forward, and he jumped away, a black blur among the dust lifted by the kinetic bolt. Raven's attack tore a hole in the back wall, letting a draft of cold night air in.

A bloodcurdling cry made Raven spin in the air just in time to see one of the Yak soldiers leap at her, one hand grabbing, the other slashing with a katana. She flew back sharply and grabbed him instead, lifting a hand and telekinetically holding him aloft at her level. The sudden change in her powers gave her a sharp jolt of pain that made her wince, reminding her to pace herself. She spun around sharply, the hapless swordsman following her hand as she did, and let go abruptly, throwing him into another of his friends. She winced when she heard bones crack under the impact.

One of the Yakuza who had taken cover behind a nearby shelf stepped back from the pair, as if afraid one of the bodies would fly at him next. His wary expression shifted to panic as he found himself grabbed from behind. Raven caught a glimpse of a woman—one of the newcomers from the truck—dragging the gunman into a doorway as her wiry male partner hit him across the face with an ethanol bottle. But a renewed barrage of gunfire drew Raven's attention back to her own problems, and she reinforced her shields as she turned to face her attackers.

Crouching down behind the scant cover of the doorframe, Ayane brushed a few errant strands of hair out of her face and looked over at Andre. "On the count of three." Her lover nodded and hefted a heavy plastic bottle of ethanol.




With a lunge, Ayane reached for an unsuspecting Yakuza gunman, her black hair and tails flying. Grabbing him by the shoulders, she yanked him back into the doorway, her augmented Lynx body more than a match for the man's muscles. His squawk of surprise was abruptly cut off as Andre hammered him in the face with the container of fuel. The tough plastic didn't so much as crack, which couldn't be said for the gunman's features.

Grinning, Andre set the bloody bottle aside and snatched up the man's dropped weapon. "Now I've gotta gun too," he unknowingly mis-quoted.

Adam hesitated as the steady stream of bullets that had been flying across his path suddenly disappeared. He could not see the gunman, and waited several seconds to be sure he had indeed been silenced. Then he uncoiled from his crouch, dove across the room and rolled behind the examination table.

He had to move carefully to avoid a body in his path, a thin, redheaded man, face half-concealed with electronics gear. Beside him sat the doctor, back pressed tightly against the protection of the table, obviously focused on the virtual world coming to him through the cable behind his ear. He looked up at Adam's approach, obviously stunned to see the replicant.

"Doctor," Adam said politely, inclining his head. He reached up just high enough to slide his arms under the patient's immobile form. The weight would have pinned a normal human's hands, but the replicant managed to slide the cyborg's immobile form off the table and into his grasp without injury. "I'm taking her out there," he turned and jerked his head toward the gaping hole in the ceiling. "You want out, grab on tight," he continued, glancing back at his shoulder. "Either way, we're leaving now."

Paolo found himself flabbergasted by the appearance of the escort synthetic, the replicant's perfectly groomed blond hair and chic leather jacket seeming almost surreal in the chaos and blood. But though the doctor had never considered himself a fighter, he was no stranger to crisis.

"Wait!" he objected, frantically reaching into the replicant's arms to touch the back of the cyborg's neck. "The dataline!" He unjacked the cable and then removed his own, letting both drop to the floor beside the unconscious hacker.

His rescuer nodded and crouched, readying his leap. Paolo hesitated, eyeing the CNS chassis Dr. Koizumi had died trying to protect, but elected to leave it. It would only encourage pursuit, and might be safer where it was regardless.

The doctor put his arms around the replicant's shoulders and gripped tight, feeling the heavy frame of the cyborg body shift against his forearm as the unlikely assemblage launched into space. The surgeon caught a brief glimpse of the exam room below him, the esper woman floating at the center of a whirlwind of debris as muzzle flashes erupted on all sides of her, then they were through the hole and onto the roof.

Paolo lost his grip on impact, the impossible jolt sending him sprawling across the tar-lined roof to come to rest against the wooden side of his cistern. He looked back, to find the replicant standing unharmed as he gently set the cyborg on the roof.

"What is her condition, doctor?" he asked.

The doctor crawled awkwardly to his feet, and limped over. "She's halfway through the boot sequence," he said, kneeling to check the cyborg's datajack. "She should be back on-line as soon as the auto-calibration kicks in."

"Can she—" He was interrupted by a woman's scream beneath his feet, and for a moment, Paolo thought he saw fear in the replicant's eyes.

Raven spun again, her hair trailing even as it snaked in her shield, and picked another Yakuza thug as her target. She felt the power gather under her will, curl together and the pressure build in her skull... and flash away in a moment of horrible, burning agony. Red then black filling her vision, Raven screamed and spun away helplessly in the air, clutching at her temples. There was a lull in the fighting as the Yakuza tried to sort through Raven's suddenly erratic flying, then they fired again in long bursts, hoping to take advantage of the esper's momentary weakness. Raven blinked back tears and slowly righted herself, somehow keeping the shield up and the bullets away from her body... for now.

It was eerie. One moment Adam had been on the rooftop with the doctor and the cybergraft, the next he was plunging back through the hole again. Amazing how strong a hold programming could have over someone.

The escort synthetic landed on his feet again, absorbing the force with far too much ease for a body apparently bred for pleasure. There were about four or five of the Yak goons still standing in his line of sight. He immediately bounded across the room in a single leap better suited to a Lynx-class synth than one of his kind. He rolled to one knee in front of one of the startled goons, who started to bring his weapon to bear on him. Adam lashed out with one fist in a snap punch again reminiscent of a Lynx's actions. His fist landed heavily, and with a crackling snap of electricity from the stun glove he wore the Yak went cannoning back into the wall with a sickening crunch.

Catching the man's SMG as it flew from the man's suddenly flaccid grip, Adam whirled on the remaining Yak gunmen, only to find they hadn't been idle while he dispatched their companion. Three of them were still attempting to bring down Raven, but the fourth had swiveled to cut loose with a burst at Adam as well.

Throwing himself to the side, Adam felt first an impact then a blossoming pain in his thigh as at least one of the fired rounds found purchase in him. His leap carried him over the operating table and he landed heavily, smearing a trail of blood across the floor as he slid with a crash into the overturned table of surgical instruments.

Paolo heard the staccato gunfire pause, then redouble in intensity. All expression left his companion's face as the replicant escort flowed to his feet and sprinted to the hole and dropped back down into the fight.

Dammit, the doctor thought. What now? I can't even move Lora on my own, and I can't check boot sequence without the router. And if that esper and her pretty boy sidekick lose this fight, I'm in for a world of pain. How do I get out of this?

He started to check the cyborg's datajack readout again, but as he reached for it, the cyborg's head turned. Clear blue eyes opened and looked up at the doctor, as this woman he had never met regarded him for the first time.

"I heard everything, Doc," she explained, expression serious. "She's in trouble, isn't she?"

"Well, it doesn't look good," admitted the doctor. He closed up the datajack readout, knowing he had a better source of information now. "Don't try to move yet—your equilibrium will be the last thing to come back."

Lora shook her head, then began flexing and moving her arm quickly, but somewhat jerkily, in a fashion the doctor recognized as a diagnostic exercise as she said, "She brain burned herself over-exerting doc, I could feel it. She's barely hanging on to her shield. She needs a bit of help herself, now. How many are down there?"

"You're not in any shape for this!" objected Paolo. "Your whole OS could crash again." The look in her eyes made him realize the futility of this line of discussion. "There were nine of them there when the fight started," he said. "Small arms were all I saw."

The motion of her arm was much less jerky than it was only a moment ago. Lora closed her eyes and clenched and unclenched her hands rapidly in quick succession. Nodding to herself, she rolled over onto her hands and knees and got her feet under herself. Standing up, she wavered for just a moment, then shifted her stance and got her balance.

She does look better, he reflected. It's a smooth graft, and she's obviously got a handle on it.

Lora turned toward the hole in the roof, but looked back at Paulo with a smile, "Thanks for the help, Doc, more than I can say, I don't know how else to put it. Sorry for being so rude about this, but I gotta go repay a debt."

"You might want to check your...armor, before you go in there," the surgeon explained tactfully.

"What?" asked Lora, looking at him in confusion. "But I'm not—Eek!" she exclaimed, looking down and discovering her bare breasts. She turned away from the doctor as she began buttoning her jacket.

That is medically impossible, thought Paolo clinically. That woman could not possibly have blushed.

Pressing the muzzle of his newly acquired submachine gun against an unwitting gangster's armored back, Andre held the trigger down, squinting as the bullets ripped through the man's lightly armored clothing. Blood sprayed everywhere, falling to the floor to join the carpet of spent shell casings and ceiling debris. A moment later, the thin human was pulled back, his vision obscured by a thick curtain of black fur.

"Andre!" Ayane shouted, pointing up into the air. "We can get out!"

"Right!" he yelled in agreement. "Let's get the hell out of here."

Gathering her lover in her arms, Ayane crouched low, her artificial muscles barely registering the strain.

On the roof, the cyborg and cybersurgeon had their attention jerked back to the hole in the roof as Ayane's fox-tailed figure arced through the space to land gracefully on the roof beside it. Andre did not even wait for his partner to release him before twisting in her arms and emptying his stolen gun back the way he'd come.

"And your mother too!" he shouted.

"What?" asked Lora in confusion.

"Oh, hello," offered Ayane, turning to the doctor.

"I believe some introductions are in order," Dr. Snakeye announced. Somehow, he thought, I always resort to sarcasm in situations like this. "Ayane, Andre, meet Lora Doubet, victim of an attempted body-theft by the Yakuza. Lora, meet Ayane and Andre, two of my patients being held hostage against my good behavior." He looked around the roof. "Have I missed anything?" he asked rhetorically.

"Ah... no.. I don't think so." Lora said, a slight lopsided grin on her features. "Hang on, I'll be back in a minute or two."

The cyborg leapt back into the clinic, disappearing from view.

"What now?" asked Andre.

Before the doctor could respond, Ayane took a ragged breath, and the two men turned to her. "What's wrong?" asked Paolo, as Andre carefully put an arm under her shoulder to support her.

"I'm alright," Ayane started to say, but her legs seemed rubbery and Andre was already setting her gently on the rooftop.

The doctor bent to examine her, pulling up her shirt to view her lower abdomen. "You've pulled your stitches," he said. And maybe torn something internally, he added mentally. "Don't try to move—you don't want to aggravate it."

The replicant seemed like she might object, but Andre put his hand on her mouth. "It's alright," he reassured her. "Don't push it." She nodded.

The doctor frowned, considering the situation. "Is there any way off the roof?" asked Andre.

"Yes," answered the doctor. "But it goes back inside."

"Oh," the scavenger seemed non-plussed at this. "So what do we do?"

Paolo looked at the weapon in Andre's hand. "You emptied the clip on that gun, right?"

"Er, yeah," responded Andre sheepishly.

The doctor nodded, settling onto his knees to give Ayane a more thorough inspection. "So what do we do?" repeated Andre.

"Wait, I guess," answered Paolo. "We can't leave, and we can't do any good down there. Ayane's fine for now," he added. "I'll check her out later, when I've got my kit back."

His patient and her paramour seemed to accept that, and Andre settled onto the roof to wait. Something seemed to occur to him, and he asked, "Doc?"

"Yes?" replied Paolo.

"What's an 'alma mater?'"

Blinded by pain, Raven's erratic flying was part desperate dodge, and part lack of control. Unable to keep her levitation stable, she jerked wildly about every time one of the Yak thugs hit her shield with a burst. With an effort of will, she shoved the pain aside, and opened her eyes. Spots swam in her field of vision, but she could at least see something. She looked up...

... just in time to yelp in surprise when she saw the wall she was headed straight into. She rammed it facefirst, her shields taking the brunt of the punishing impact, and bounced off. She righted herself in the air, shaken but unhurt. That couldn't be said of the concrete wall... her dodging had been very desperate.

She spun about in mid-air to glare at the Yak thugs, teeth clenched. The pain in her head felt like a hammer striking with every heartbeat, and her vision was still blurry, but when she saw Adam slumped against a table, bleeding, it didn't seem to matter. An invisible hand crushed her brain when she forced her mind into a new pattern, and she cried out in pain and rage. She flung her arm in a wide, sweeping motion, hurling several small PK bolts in its wake.

A desperate leap to the side allowed one of the thugs to avoid the bolt meant for him. He tucked in a roll to the ground. His comrades weren't so fortunate. One took Raven's PK spike in the head, sending him spinning to the ground. Another, struck in the chest, took an unwilling step backwards. Spitting Japanese curses so foul that Raven had never heard them, he reached under his coat.

"NO! NO GRENADES!" Suhiro's command came a second too late. The mook lobbed the explosive towards Raven. The timing of the fuse was perfect, and the thing exploded in mid-air right in front of her. The shrapnel failed to penetrate telekinetic shield, but the concussion sent her back slamming into the wall. Swearing in English no prettier than the Yak's Japanese, she pulled herself from the deeply dented concrete and took stock of the situation. The Yakuza were battered, but several were still standing and—Raven added a few choice words for their kind of fanatic loyalty—still full of fight.

With Adam down for the count (why hadn't he stuck to the original plan?) leaving wasn't an option... so Raven gritted her teeth and formed another attack.

Lora landed with a thud on top of the reinforced examination table she had occupied not more than a minute ago. Crouching there she quickly looked around.

The fight had completely destroyed the barrier between the operating room and the waiting area. The outer walls of the clinic were beginning to look like so much Swiss cheese. She could see a couple of bodies next to the operating table, but the fight had moved out into the larger waiting room area.

Just then an explosion went off in the other room. Lora instinctively ducked and covered her face. The next thing she saw was a beautiful young girl with midnight black hair emerging from the explosion, tendrils of debris and smoke swirling around her invisible shield, an angry expression on her face. Apparently unharmed, she gestured with her hand. An invisible wave knocked the Yakuza gunmen back into the opposite walls. A couple of the Yak bounced back quickly and sprayed more machinegun fire at the powerful PK talent. The bullets were flung away from her intense shield to cause more damage to the walls around her. It was hard to tell if more damage was being done by gunfire or by the secondary effects of the woman's esper field.

Lora grimaced slightly at the pounding in her head caused by the proximity to the other female PK.

Damn, she's powerful, she thought to herself.

Then she considered the Yakuza thugs the woman was fighting. They had almost managed to end Lora's life. In fact, they had probably thought of her as nothing - her body merely a tool and her life an inconvenience.

The thought caused a rising tide of rage. Bastards!!

Lora jumped off the table into a tuck and roll that brought her up next to the Yak soldier closest to her. He saw the motion out of the corner of his eye and with a yelp tried to turn and fire at her, but he was too late.

She grabbed the man's gun arm at the wrist and slammed her left hand like a piledriver into the back of the elbow, causing a scream of pain from the man as the joint shredded and his arm bent backwards at an impossible angle. Right hand firmly clamped onto his shattered arm, she pulled him down and across sharply while bringing her left arm back up into a forearm strike to the face that landed with a sickening crunch. He sank to his knees, unconscious, his wrist still in Lora's grip as the gun clattered to the floor.

The other Yakuza had noticed this new threat. One of the ones with the reflex boosters brought his gun up in a blur. The machine pistol thundered as he fired at Lora and the mook with the shredded arm. A line of bloody geysers stitched up the front of the unfortunate man. Lora turned slightly and reflexively brought up her left arm to cover her face. Several bullets impacted across her arm and side, tearing holes in her jacket, but had no other visible effect except to knock her back a pace or two.

She released her grip on the dead man's arm and sidestepped out of the immediate line of fire, bringing herself within striking distance of the next closer mook. Spinning on one foot, she brought her other leg high above her head, then smashed her heel down on the shoulder of the man, who was trying to move unsuccessfully out of the way. The sound of his collarbone and scapula cracking into multiple pieces was audible above the din of the battle. He fell screaming to the floor trying to push his upper arm bone back into a socket that no longer existed.

Lora paused for a moment, balefully glaring at the remaining Yakuza. When she spoke, it was in a quiet, flat tone that carried more than any scream could have.

"I've had a really bad day."

Somehow, the words echoed into a lull in the fight. Lora looked up to find all three surviving gunmen had moved into a defensive position by the door, suddenly aware that they were overmatched by the combined threat of the two young women. Behind them stood another man who Lora knew instinctively had to be the leader. He held a pistol in one hand and a long metal cylinder cradled in his other arm. Lora, who understood Japanese, heard him speak calmly in his native tongue --

<I will not forget this affront.>

To his men he said, <Now you may use the explosives.>

In unison, all three of the Yakuza soldiers reached into their jackets and produced grenades. Not the gunmetal anti-personnel type, Lora noted, but the safety yellow that denoted anti-vehicular weaponry. Three tiny red activation lights came on, and each traced an arc across the smoky interior of the clinic to land in different corners of the room.

Then the bombers disappeared, leaving the two women alone in a room cluttered with bodies and debris. They glanced at each other in alarm.

Lora said in a rush, "The others are on the roof!"

"I'll get them! You grab him!" Raven said, pointing at Adam.

"Right!" Lora replied as Raven soared through the hole in the roof and she rushed over to pick up the replicant, who was struggling to get to his feet, one leg refusing to respond to his attempts.

Scooping him up despite an exclamation of protest, she tossed the man over one shoulder in a fireman's carry and, taking the path of least resistance, exited the building through what was left of the front windows. Sprinting a few meters, she turned around to look at the clinic...

...just in time to get knocked to the ground by the shockwave of the explosions. The roof of the clinic seemed to rise high into the air all in one piece then fell back down into the remains of the building as the outer walls, already weakened by countless bullets and esper warping, disintegrated, scattering burning debris.

Sitting on the ground, Adam sprawled behind her, she looked back at the burning wreck. Lora didn't immediately see anyone else.

"Oh no..."

The oily click of a large caliber handgun being cocked sounded loud in her ear, and she turned to see the large bore of an Earthshaker pistol pointing at her face.

Lora was fairly confident in the ability of her body to withstand a lot of punishment, but she knew that that weapon - discharged at point blank range - would spread her brains across the ground as easily as anyone else's. She froze with her eyes wide, and out of the corner of her eye spotted the replicant tensing slightly as if to make a move on the gun wielder, then subside. She hoped he realized there was precious little he could do, since the gun was less than two inches from her head.

The Yakuza leader stepped into view from behind the man holding the huge pistol, looking coldly at her, "If mother cannot benefit from your shell, then I see no reason for you to either."

She saw the CNS chassis he was holding. Mother? That was his mother?

"Kill her."

The boom of a gunshot sounded loud in Lora's ears...

...and she looked on in wonder as the man in front of her screamed and tried to staunch the flow of blood from the torn stump of his wrist.


Lora looked around and saw several men on rooftops and poking weapons over piles of rubble, aiming at the Yakuza. They looked rather ragtag at first glance, but their weapons were clean, and they appeared well disciplined.

The Dixie Patrol had arrived.

The Yakuza lord and his men, realizing the futility of the situation resignedly raised their hands in the air.

Just then, Lora heard a loud shifting of rubble, and turned to look back at the clinic. The remains of the roof lifted upward and fell back away, revealing more swirling debris outlining an invisible barrier. Then the debris slowly settled as the bubble dissipated, revealing Andre, who was carrying Ayane, and Dr. Snakeye, who was supporting Raven. The telekinetic looked ashen, a trickle of blood coming from her nose. But when she looked toward Lora and their eyes met, she gave a weak smile and a thumbs up.

The last few minutes had been disorienting for the doctor. One moment, it had been very quiet inside the clinic, and the next the esper had flown through the hole in the roof and commanded them to stay close to her. Paolo had obliged, but before he could ask for an explanation, there had been a huge explosion.

His eyes had blanked out, as they tended to do when exposed to intense flashes of light, and he had only been able to hear the roar of the explosion and feel the swirling telekinetic energies around him. He heard a woman gasp—the esper?—and a body fell into his arms. Female, and too light to be Ayane. But Paolo could still feel his skin prickling with that inexplicable mind-energy, so if it was the esper he was holding, she was still conscious.

He felt himself moving again, rising into the air. There was creaking and groaning around him, as if their motion was somehow disturbing some huge large structure, and then the pair settled to the ground. The esper's power, at least at the level where Paolo could feel it, subsided, but he felt her arm move, as if making some signal.

"You OK, Doc?" the voice was Andre's, but subdued, as if the situation were very dangerous.

"Yes," answered Paolo, with quiet calmness. He fought down the panic his blindness tried to force on him, knowing that the worst thing he could do now would be to show weakness. "Is Ayane alright?"

"Um, yeah," whispered the scavenger.

Paolo belatedly reached up to the neck of the woman he was holding, trying to take her pulse, but his hand was pushed away. "I'm fine," came her unfamiliar voice. The doctor doubted it, but offered no objection as she pushed herself unsteadily onto her own feet.

He mentally cursed the grayness of his world once again as he heard the steady tread of boots across the parking lot's asphalt. "What's going on, Doctor?" asked a gruff voice.

It was the Colonel. Paolo turned to face him, not wanting to give his condition away, but Suhiro's cultured voice interrupted him.

"The doctor reneged on an agreement—"

"You don't talk!" barked the Colonel. "You're breathing Fort Dixie air, and you don't do that unless I say you do!"

There was a pause, and Paolo imagined the two of them staring each other down. Then the Colonel spoke again. "Well, Doc?"

The world was starting to resolve itself into fuzzy gray bits, and the surgeon could just make out the helmeted silhouette of the rough-hewn soldier. The distinctive outline of a tactical helmet capped the figure, and a large round barrel of some kind protruded from one side. "This gentleman," he gestured in the direction where he had heard Suhiro before, "Hijacked a cyborg body and wanted me to put one of their own in it. I refused, and they held me at gunpoint."

"I see," the Colonel mused. "And why'd you turn him down?"

"The graft in the stolen body was still alive," answered Paolo.

The leader of the Dixie Patrol grunted, sounding neither approving nor disapproving. "And where is the body now?"

Paolo hesitated before answering, but before he could respond, Lora's voice interrupted. "That would be me."

"Is all of this true?" he asked. The blinded surgeon could just make out the turn of the soldier's head in Lora's direction.

She nodded, "As far as I'm concerned, the Doc there saved my life when he didn't have to." she answered. Then, as if hesitating, added, "My friend here is hurt. Could you let the Doc look at him?"

"I'm not finished with the Doc," the Colonel said gruffly. "Simms, check the skinjob. And the Yak," he added, gesturing in the direction where Suhiro had been.

Was Suhiro hurt? wondered Paolo. But Colonel continued. "Now, do you have anything to add?"

Apparently this was directed to Suhiro, as the latter responded. "The doctor accepted payment for the service."

At last Paolo could see well enough to make out the eyes behind the clear visor as they turned to look at him. "Under duress," he said.

"Mm hmm," the Colonel grunted again. "Who trashed the building?"

This time, Paolo could only look helplessly around in genuine ignorance. And he cursed his luck as Suhiro responded first. "My men did so, under my instructions," he said. "It was necessary to defend ourselves against the esper. We will compensate you for the damage, of course."

"Yes, you will," said the Colonel. "What's your stake in this?"

This to the esper woman. There was a long, pregnant pause before she answered. "I work for Shiroko-Tsuhi," she explained with studied indifference. "I was sent to rescue Lora."

The doctor's vision at last calibrated itself, and the world was once again a vivid range of light and heat. The Colonel looked around the scene again, obviously mulling the information over as he decided on the next step.

Paolo looked around as well, taking in the scene. There were Lora and the replicant, the latter being bandaged up by the red-faced Simms. Suhiro and his goons—one bleeding badly from the stump of his arm—were standing off to one side, their guns on the ground and the posture respectful of the gunmen surrounding them. For their part, Ayane, Andre and the esper seemed battered but unhurt, and using the moment's respite to catch their breath.

The doctor looked over to where his clinic should have been, and gaped. It was a pile of debris, with just a few sections of wall left standing. He could just make out the white of the freezer unit against a still-standing section of wall, both half-buried in the remains of the roof.

That was one Hell of an explosion, thought Paolo in wonder. The esper got all three of us through that!?! It occurred to him that he had lost everything, but somehow, the thought held no power over him. Perhaps he was just numb from the night's events, but for the moment at least, he felt nothing but good fortune at being alive.

"Doc," the Colonel said, drawing Paolo's attention back to his immediate problems. His landlord's tone was not friendly. "You realize all of this violates the stupidity clause on your lease?"

"Yes," answered Paolo resignedly. That clause meant that the Dixie Patrol wasn't expected to handle things only an idiot would get involved in. Like Yakuza wars, cyborgs, and espers.

"Your friends here," he gestured to Lora and the esper, "Are going to behave now, right?" It was not a question.

"Yeah," answered Paolo. I sure as Hell hope so, he added mentally. He was not reassured when he glanced at the esper. Despite her obvious weariness she was standing straight, her arms folded, and looking at the Colonel with annoyance plain on her face.

Lora's expression was less readable. She simply stood there at ease, taking the situation in, seemingly being very patient. Though when she glanced at the Yakuza goons, her expression darkened considerably.

As if invoked by Murphy's Law, one of the Dixie Patrol suddenly shouted, "Chopper!"

Paolo looked up and saw the heat signature of a helicopter skimming along the rooftops, perhaps a hundred meters away. It was utterly silent. "Omega team, re-deploy. Everyone else, hold your fuckin' position. That means alla' you!" He added, jabbing his finger at the bystanders.

No one visible to Paolo moved. The group waited as the helicopter approached, the Colonel not batting an eye. "This is Shiroko-Tsuhi Security Force A! You will release all S-T personnel you are holding immediately, or suffer the consequences!"

"I think we're fucked," Andre said in a flat tone. Ayane wrapped her arms around the lean scavenger's body and buried her face in his chest. "Don't let them take me," she whispered.

"And here comes the cavalry, too late this time," Raven said. "I guess I'd best call off the hounds," she added nonchalantly, fishing a commlink from the pockets of her jacket.

"Yes, that would be for the best." Lora replied, irony evident in her voice. She looked over at Ayane and Andre and her expression changed to one of concern.

"Yes, this is Raven... We've got the situation under control.... Yes, all objectives achieved, but there was quite a bit of prope-... They're the local militia.... I'm sure they'll let you come down, let me ask."

Raven put a hand on the commlink and looked at the Colonel. The military man was eyeing the helicopter balefully, moving his lips soundlessly, subvocalizing orders to his troopers. Raven hadn't been impressed with the man's abrasive, authoritarian manner earlier. His way of barking orders to people who'd just walked out of a razed building after dealing with a horde of Yakuza men (a building that the Colonel was supposed to protect). His treating people he did not know as if they were privates under his command (and not particularly bright ones at that), and his mention of the "stupidity clause" (like any of this was Paolo's fault)... Seemed like the Colonel wasn't very good at giving people respect or seeing things beyond his immediate concerns. Maybe he'd picked those bad habits in the military.

Or maybe he was just stressed out by the situation. Raven certainly was, if the Colonel's attitude got under her skin so much. He wasn't any worse than Shion, she reasoned. She approached him, resolved to at least deal with him in a professional manner. Still, she couldn't keep a hint of snideness out of her tone when she asked. "Colonel, they're requesting permission to disembark."

The Colonel glared at the helicopter for a few more seconds before nodding imperiously. Of course he couldn't refuse, Raven knew. The Dixie Fort militia was a powerful force in the Zero Zone, more than a match for, say, the Clark Street Devils, or maybe a smaller Yakuza gang. But if they angered Shiroko-Tsuhi, all they could hope was that the conflict wouldn't be taken seriously enough by the executives to spend resources on it... And the odds didn't look good, with a military cyborg, a major esper, and an helicopter strike team already involved. But no one in the Zone could possibly tangle with a major corporation and escape unscathed. Well, maybe RanÖ

Raven stopped cold at the thought for a second, wondering if her display in the clinic had attracted Ran's attention. Then she relaxed somewhat, figuring far worse had been done before without rousing the sleeping giant. She brought the commlink back to her mouth. "You can come down." She brought it down again, and turned to the Colonel. "You realize they'll want to take the Yakuza in custody. At least Suhiro." Again, the Colonel gave a reluctant nod, but his lips tightened and he said nothing.

She watched the helicopter slowly come to a stop a few dozen feet above the ground, then cables drop from the sides and Shiroko-Tsuhi troopers, in gray-urban camo scheme armor and toting heavy carbines, start sliding down to the ground. As the troopers fanned out she left the Colonel's side and turned her attention on Adam.

The replicant, with his wound dressed by the Dixie Fort combat medic, was already hovering protectively behind her. He somehow managed to look as gorgeous as ever, despite the tiredness and the injuries. Raven wet her lips, then started to ask why he'd come in after her. She stopped with the thought half-formed—she already knew. She was in danger, and coming to her rescue was a reflexive action to him, not something he had a choice about. She chucked her question and asked instead, "How are you doing?"

"I'll live." The replicant didn't seem to be discounting his wounds so much as putting them off for the moment. "More importantly, how are you doing?" he asked in reply, reaching out with one grimy hand to brush a wayward strand of hair out of her face.

"Tired and roughed up, but I'm not really hurt." She glanced at the scene next to them. The S-T troopers and the Dixie militiamen were glaring at each other, almost daring the other to start something. "I just hope nothing starts. No love lost between corp security and military..."

That statement obviously not requiring a response, Adam merely smiled at Raven and squeezed her arm reassuringly.

Raven smiled warmly at him and nodded, then went to see Lora. The cyborg seemed none the worse for wear, with hardly a mark on her statue-perfect skin. The only odd thing was her hair—once a beautiful shade of blonde, it had become a weird, translucent white. Her clothes were ragged, and she held her ruined jacket close about her. Oddly, that kind of modesty made Lora seem all the more human to Raven. The cyborg thought of her body as... well, her body, not some sort of cyber attachment she was stuck with. And she'd come to her aid even though she'd been pulled out of a terrible ordeal. She stopped behind the cyborg and quietly tapped her on the shoulder. "How are you feeling?" she asked.

Lora favored her with a smile, "I'm just fine, thanks. No real harm done." She continued in a serious tone. "Thank you for bailing me out of there. If it weren't for you and the Doc, I'd be dead. I owe you both a lot more than I can say."

"Hey, I was just doing my job, but I'm happy this is what I got to do." Raven smiled. "Say, um... What's with the hair?"


"It's white. I thought you were blonde from the picture I saw."

"Oh that!" Lora looked a little embarrassed. "That's the real color. The coloring I use for it burns off if it gets too hot."

"Oh. It looks interesting though. Maybe you could do something with that color." Raven suddenly realized Lora might not be overly fond of her cyborg condition and wouldn't want a constant reminder of it. "I mean... It does look sorta nice."

"Thanks." Lora shrugged, "But I like having a regular hair color."

The loud bark of orders being shouted made Lora and Raven turn back to watch the S-T Security Force. The Officer in charge was directing the men under his command to stand at the ready but not take any action. Raven gaped at the sight of one of them, a heavy hard shell combat cyborg with directional A-V sensors on small booms attached to his head that gave him the almost comical appearance of having bunny ears. But the ten-foot long railgun he carried was no laughing matter. The huge cyborg gripped the vehicle-sized gun like a rifle. Currently it was pointed at the ground, in a non-threatening manner, but Raven had little doubt he could bring it to bear in an instant.

Lora commented, "They sure brought the big guns, didn't they? Wow. I guess we should be flattered, eh?"

"Yeah, well..." Raven hesitated, then said, "Sanato seemed as interested in Suhiro as he was in you, actually. I think he wants to offer some sort of deal." She spat on what was left of the sidewalk. "I don't really like it."

The other girl just stood there stock still for a long moment, then her eyes went wide as she seemed to figure something out. She said, disbelievingly, "That bastard! I can't believe he'd do something like that!" Then Lora paused, laughed bitterly, and muttered quietly to herself, "Non, je suis un imbÈcile. So ka. Verdammen Sie ihn zur Hàlle!"

Raven, startled, asked, "What? What are you talking about?"

Lora pointed at the Oyabun and said, "What do you want to bet that Sanato is going to bargain with Suhiro there for what he values most? I'm not sure what he'll get in return, but it's likely to be something pretty big... after all, if Sanato saves his mother and gives her a new body, what kind of debt do you think a Yakuza lord would owe Sanato? Hmm?"

"His mother? I won't take that bet—not when what I was thinking was so close," Raven said. "Great business opportunity here, and it landed right on his lap." She had a thin, wry smile. "I guess the big guns aren't just for you after all."

Lora nodded, looking angry.

The S-T Security Officer walked briskly toward the Dixie Patrol Colonel. He offered his hand and the Colonel shook it in a perfunctory manner. Then the two of them began to speak quietly as they separated themselves from the rest of the group at large.

Raven left Lora's side to check on the doctor. She didn't know what to make of Paolo. She'd gotten a glimpse of his clinic before it was thoroughly messed up, and she felt that had given her a glimpse of the man. She'd grown up in a clinic all her life, but Paolo and Lydia's were probably as dissimilar as two rooms with the same function could be. Lydia's clinic had hand-made curtains, and decorations, and even plants, despite the fact that using precious water on them was a luxury she could ill-afford. The clinic was clean, but it had the vague bit of disorder that gave it a lived-in look. It felt as much home as workplace and Raven had never been uncomfortable just sitting in one of the reconditioned easy chairs that littered the place, reading for long hours as Lydia and her patients bustled around her.

Paolo's place, on the other hand, had been devoted to its singular purpose. It was meticulously clean and not a single object had been out of place—at least, not until the battle had started. Paolo's clinic was calculated so everything would be where most needed. It exuded professional efficiency rather than friendliness. This was a place where you didn't stay once you were healed, but you were sure that the doctor knew what he was doing. The disparate clinics, Raven thought, were a good illustration of the two kinds of medicine she'd been exposed to: Paolo's, who believed in fixing problems with the body, like a technician; and Lydia's, who thought it best to help the body heal itself, like a caretaker. One school had given the world cybernetics, the other vaccines.

She caught the doctor's attention. He was a rather handsome sort, she thought, with his carefully groomed hair and well-toned frame, but his eyes were really off-putting. They were odd, almost entirely black, and she couldn't help but feel they looked a little evil. Small wonder he'd gotten nicknamed for them. "I'm sorry about your clinic," she said, rather lamely. She bit her lip.

This seemed to strike the doctor as funny, and he smiled, tension seeming to leak away from his body. "I'm sorry," he said, obviously worried she might be offended by his mirth. "You don't need to apologize, Miss—" he hesitated.

"Raven. Raven Clark," she answered.

"You don't need to apologize, Miss Clark," he repeated. "I'm just glad you got here in time. Thank you for your help." He offered his hand.

Raven took it firmly and shook. "You're welcome... Just doing my job. I'm sure you realize Mr. Sanato will want to talk to you... He's my employer."

The doctor nodded, seemingly unsurprised. "Of course," he answered. "I would be happy to do so." He looked back that the debris. "Your abilities are very impressive," he observed. "If you don't mind my asking, are you a permanent employee of Shiroko-Tsuhi? Or a freelancer?"

"I'm a permanent employee," Raven replied. Keep that in mind, Doctor. I don't want to be sent to retrieve you. She paused. "The couple with the truck seemed a little concerned about S-T's troopers coming in."

The doctor looked over at the pair, then back to Raven. "Well, no one is here because they were too happy living on the other side of the bridge," he observed mildly. "Do you think you could convince the force commander," he gestured to the S-T team leader, "To let them go at this point? They only arrived a few minutes before you did, so they're not really good witnesses."

"I think it can be done. To be blunt, I don't think he's going to worry about a Zone couple when he's dealing with Yakuza and PKs and cyborgs. What about the Colonel?

"I can convince the Colonel to let them leave," Snakeye assured her. "The lease is my responsibility, so if I don't hold them accountable neither will he."

"Is this going to get you into trouble with him?" Raven asked, waving at the razed building.

The doctor looked over at the wreckage. "If Suhiro makes good on his promise, probably not," he answered. "I won't get another lease in Fort Dixie, of course, but that's the least of my problems right now."

"He looks like a... hard man," Raven noted.

Snakeye shrugged at this observation. "He's a businessman," he responded cryptically.

Before Raven could answer, her phone rang. The digital read-out showed it was from Mr. Sanato's office. She picked up the phone and put it to her ear, walking away from Dr. Snakeye to spare him a one-sided conversation. "Hello, Raven here."

"Ms. Clark," came Sanato's voice. "The commander tells me everything is in order?"

"Lora and the doctor are fine, and Suhiro's..." She looked around and spotted the Oyabun, standing proudly between two Shiroko-Tsuhi armored troopers as if they were his bodyguards and he not their prisoner. "Suhiro is in our custody, Mr. Sanato."

"Excellent work, Ms. Clark. Please bring Ms. Doubet, Dr. Snakeye and Mr. Suhiro to my office with no delay. Do not wait for the helicopter, they'll have some matters to deal with on the field."

"Very well, Mr. Sanato. See you in a few minutes."

"Would you come with me, Doctor? Mr. Sanato wants to talk to all of us." Raven asked politely.

Paolo looked at the esper. She did not seem guarded or at all threatening as she asked the question, and he wondered if she had any idea what this encounter could mean to him.

"Certainly," the doctor responded courteously. He followed her over to the bare patch of ground where the Colonel and the S-T Commander stood in conference. This Sanato is a powerful man, he mulled. S-T never used to have an esper program, and now they have this woman and conduct cyborg experiments. It's a crash program, and its leader is bound to be competent.

But what does he want? If I have nothing he wants, I'm safe. But Lora said he watches the Zone. What is he looking for? Espers? The thought disturbed Paolo. The doctor had carefully cultivated a network of patients who owed him favors. If Sanato wanted something from the Zone, there was the danger the doctor would be useful to them. And being useful to a man of such power meant he would lose the freedom he had fought so hard to gain.

The doctor looked on dispassionately as Raven explained the situation to the two military leaders. The S-T Commander seemed non-plussed by the news, but did not object. Ah, thought Paolo. He doesn't report to Sanato. Someone else in the company wants to know what's going on, but whoever they are, they're willing to help Sanato at least this far. So, they're not really an enemy.

The Colonel's temper seemed about to flare at the news, however, but he had the wisdom to keep it in check. Paolo's former landlord looked over at him. "I'll be back, Colonel, and we'll settle up then," the doctor reassured him. The Colonel nodded, satisfied at least that the doctor would return if he could.

But if S-T wants to keep me, Paolo added mentally, there's nothing either of us could do. The doctor followed Raven as she collected Lora and Adam onto a small section of unbroken asphalt near the ruins of the clinic.

I knew what I was doing, the doctor reminded himself. I rolled the dice, and now it's time to see where they've landed.

Raven said, "Everyone ready?"

Paulo nodded assent, as did Lora and Adam, and even Suhiro, who spared the Doctor a poisonous glance.

"All right, then." Raven's eyes narrowed in concentration.

Ayane lay resting on the ground as the Dixie Patrol medic checked her over.

"Don't worry so much, there, boya." The medic said to Andre, who was hovering over them. "She's gonna be just fine. I'll just need to reset some of these stitches."

Andre looked back to Ayane, who regarded him with a loving, yet exasperated expression. He relaxed just slightly. He looked up and noticed Dr. Snakeye, the escort Synthetic, Suhiro, and the cyborg girl all standing close to Raven.

"Huh? What's going on there, d'ya suppose?"

Ayane turned her head to look. "Dunno."

Then dust and debris began to swirl around the group and rose into the air. Somewhere nearby, the sound of concrete cracking could be heard...

...and then they were gone. Air rushing into the space they had occupied with a whoosh.

Andre and Ayane stared at the spot for a moment, then at each other. Andre spoke first.


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