by Max Fauth, Bryan Fier, Jamie Jeans, Mathieu Roy, Mike Schneidel, Mike Surbrook

Seated in front of the television, Raven flipped from channel to channel. Four hundred channels and nothing was on. She wasn't really watching the TV anyway, more of treating it as simple background noise while she thought.

Karin's plan still worried her. The ex-assassin's chances of success were infinitesimal. She wasn't getting a hold of a major corporation's most valuable data without an entire op team, a concerted plan, reams of intelligence, clockwork execution, and a lot more brute force than Karin could muster on her own. But Karin was dead-set that she could get it all by her lonesome, and with her limited means. And people thought Raven was naive.

Her chances of survival weren't much better; she'd be going against the corp's most expensive hardware and best people. Not the least of which were Ishiyama's three replicants. Well, two if Lilith's control over her power was really lost. Who knows if the others would end up with the same troubles? Now that would be ironic, in a tragic kind of way—Karin throwing away her life for a process that might be fatally flawed.

Short of tying Karin down or reporting her, however, Raven couldn't think of a way to dissuade her from her mad plan to spread the world's most dangerous knowledge around. Raven had gotten a shock when she'd considered the implications of Karin's improbable success, but she'd got over it pretty quickly, mostly because Karin was NOT going to succeed. She didn't dwell on the certainty that someone would, eventually.

A sudden presence of a powerful, and familiar PK signature snapped Raven out of her fugue, causing the black-haired woman to glance quickly around her empty apartment.

"Shion?" she asked.

A light tapping at her window was her answer. Shion hovered on the other side, some forty stories up, looking as calm and relaxed as if she was walking in the park.

A rush of displaced air later and Raven joined the tall woman, trying to adopt the same relaxed attitude as her one-time mentor. "Yes?"

"Come with me." It was not a question, and before she could even blink, Raven found her wrist in Shion's tight grip and they were *gone*...

... to appear with a boom over a wide swimming pool. Raven got only a quickly glimpse of the dimly lit chamber before Shion had her by the shoulders, her expression more serious than Raven had ever seen before.

"What," the Empress's tone was deliberate and cold, "is Karin Nys planning?"

Startled, Raven nixed a rushing rise in her power, then, seeing Shion's expression, she bit back her angry retort. She took a steadying breath and asked, "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me where we are?"

"Somewhere safe. No one, and I do mean *no one* will overhear what you have to say." Shion floated back a few feet, her hair and coat swirling slightly as the surface of the water below dimpled and rippled.

"Well." Raven brushed her hair back, hovering above the water. In truth, she wasn't too concerned about where she was—since going back home was never going to be a problem for her. Just a fresh reminder that as a PK the rules were different for her than for the rest of the world. "Judging by your reaction, I'd say you already know quite a lot."

"Perhaps. Perhaps all I want is confirmation." Shion expression had gone blank, her face was emotionless, arms crossed over her chest as she waited, expectantly.

Raven clasped her hands behind her back. "So, what is it that you're trying to confirm?" she asked, thinking Shion wasn't thinking too highly of her if she thought to draw her out with so thin a ploy. Life in the Zone taught you a little more cunning than that.

"Karin Nys," she made the name sound almost distasteful, "is planning to conduct a datasteal on Ishiyama, correct?"

Raven tried to gauge how much Shion already knew, how much she could safely say. In any case Karin's plan had just gotten even more dangerous. "What if she is?" She asked at length. "Have you been hired by Ishiyama to protect their assets?"

"Certainly not," Shion sniffed. The tall woman seemed to relax, her posture becoming less formal, and her face softened just slightly. "I certainly hope you are not planning to become involved in this."

"Didn't even consider it," Raven replied.

Shion regarded the other woman with an appraising look. "Why don't I accept that answer?"

"I don't know." Raven shrugged. "I even tried to dissuade her."

"So... Karin Nys is going to try a datasteal on Ishiyama." Shion thought for a moment, "What if something goes wrong... she seems to be your friend, will you try and rescue her?"

"Good question," Raven said, shrugging. "She specifically asked me not to get involved, and if she gets into trouble I might not even know. Maybe if I can do it without being noticed, but... I have other responsibilities." *And not to Shiroko-Tsuhi, either. Just what they hold over my head.*

"You do realize that Ishiyama's two other esper agents will be there, don't you?"

"Plus Lilith. Plus their cyberdroids, their elite commandos, and every security goon they can stuff in armor." Raven threw her hands up in the air in frustration. "Dammit Shion! I know all this! I've been repeating this to Karin hundreds of times and she STILL hasn't given up on her mad scheme!" She sighed. "I don't know what to do."

"Save her from her own foolishness." Shion's voice was low but clear.

Raven looked down at the water. The light from the skylights gave it an eerie, murky green coloration. "I'm worried that if I do that, Ishiyama'll think S-T's attacking them—it'll get me into trouble and may even spark a corp war." She looked up at Shion and tilted her head thoughtfully. "I would have thought you would think so as well."

"Then don't go as Raven. You and I are not the only two espers around, you know."

Raven smiled wolfishly. "That thought did cross my mind. I got me an opaque-visor helmet for just that purpose."

"I see," Shion allowed herself a sly smile.

Raven shrugged. "Just keeping my options open. It should be enough to 'port in, get Karin, and 'port out without being recognized." She sighed. "More than that, of course, and the risk increases dramatically."

"Oh?" Shion asked. "How will you teleport to somewhere you have never seen?"

"I can't." Again Raven shrugged. "Which makes the whole thing risky no matter what, because I have to somehow get in. All I can hope for, if I do try to rescue Karin, is that they don't investigate my flimsy disguise too carefully."

"Which doesn't answer the question of how you intend to get inside... or even find Karin once she gets into trouble..." Shion paused, before adding, "And she will, you know, I have read up on her typical operations."

"I told her that already. But do you think she listened?" Raven gave a long-suffering sigh. "Of course she didn't. Bottom line is, I have no idea how to find Karin if she gets into trouble, and short of blowing a hole in the wall, I don't know how I'd get in, either." Although... She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. I suppose I could try to find out about Karin's plan to figure out where she should be when the drek hits the fan, and how she's sneaking in...

Shion smiled slightly, watching Raven's expression. Everything was going just as she had hoped.

As an executive director of the Shiroko-Tsuhi corporation, Sanato had a life he could only call... perfect. He had money, a position of power, and the resources of the entire corporation at his command. His personal life was pleasant as well, for at home he had his wife, Diane, and his two children, Keiko and John. With such status, Sanato had little to fear in anything or anyone.

Well, almost anyone.

Sanato had dealt with espers before. He was even directly responsible for the welfare of one of Shiroko-Tsuhi's espers, a woman by the name of Raven Clark. He had seen some of them in action, and had made a study of their reputations and capabilities. Sanato had been charged with S-T's crash program to recruit esper talent, and had taken pains to understand who was who in the field.

It was this latter fact that forced Sanato to call upon every ounce of professional experience he had to not flinch, blink or even breathe. For on the other side of his desk sat the "Empress," a woman he had hired at one point to train Raven. He had selected her based on her reputation, which credited her with the capability to single-handedly destroy corporate security squads with little to no apparent trouble. Had she been available during the kidnap of the cyborg, Lora, weeks before, she could have rescued the victim from her yakuza captors effortlessly. If the Empress wished to kill Sanato, right here and now, he was positive that his struggle would be as meaningless as would an fly's resistance to his swatting it.

But, he chided himself, recovering his nerve, he had assets too. Even the Empress would not cross a major corporation without good reason, and he would have known if she had a grievance. And if she did so, after he had welcomed her into his office, requests for her services would become far scarcer. She might lose some of the lucrative offers which supported her sybaritic lifestyle, and the Empress would never accept even the slightest risk to her financial security. No, Sanato could not trifle with Shion Nys, but he was safe from at least her most casual whims.

Still he was mystified by her presence. He had no idea why this woman would choose to meet with him, and her carefully formal greeting had given no hint of her intention. Clearly, the Empress felt it beneath her dignity to be direct, even in the carefully circuitous dialect of corporate protocol.

It made no difference to Sanato, and he made the standard opening. "It is a pleasure to see you again, Empress," he said, keeping his voice courteously bland. "I hope you are well."

"Quite well," she answered coolly, idly brushing back a strand of her long white hair. "And you?"

"I am well," answered the executive. "Though as ever, my duties to my employers keep me preoccupied."

It was a polite request to place items of business on the table, and Shion took it as such. "Your duties must be onerous indeed," she commiserated disinterestedly. "Recent events have lent a considerable urgency to certain items of your employers' agenda."

Shion was referring to Ishiyama's production of esper replicants, which had prompted Shiroko-Tsuhi's crash esper recruitment program. The Board had charged Sanato with the project, and it would make or break his career. Had the Empress come to him for information about S-T's program? Or perhaps intelligence on Ishiyama's? In truth, Sanato had strong reason to believe Ishiyama was not the only corporation to have developed esper replicants, and the past few years had seen a careful shifting of alliances within the business world to prepare for the day when those holding this unimaginable power chose to show their hand. How much of this Shion knew—or would be willing to discuss—was anyone's guess.

"Indeed," answered Sanato, non-committaly. "It is quite a complicated situation for all concerned."

The last was intended to remind Shion that she, too, had a great deal at stake in these developments. Whether a replicant esper could ever be as powerful as Shion was almost a moot point; esper talent was a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand, and replicants could be mass produced.

"And perhaps fated to become more complicated," the Empress observed.

Ah, the executive concluded. She has something to sell. "Oh?" he inquired.

Now that the negotiation was underway, a more conventional negotiator might have adjusted her posture in a way which suggested comfort, implying further disinterest. Not so the Empress, who retained the same regal bearing as she had when the entered the room. "That is simply a function of the market," she said, as if explaining the matter. "Once available for sale, any potentially valuable anomaly is subject to extraordinary scrutiny. Eventually, such scrutiny leads to imitation, and the object ceases to be an anomaly."

"Our business is indeed competitive."

"Indeed. Sometimes it is amazing the lengths to which competitors will go."

Sanato nodded sagely. Someone was planning to steal, or had stolen, information from Ishiyama. The executive had long since discarded the prospect of direct espionage against Ishiyama, as it could destabilize the delicate network of alliances Shiroko-Tsuhi had woven to defend itself against aggressive action by a esperally-empowered corporate army. But if someone else were responsible...

"A perceptive observation indeed," replied the executive. "Certainly, there are a great many such attentive people in the world today."

She surprised him by answering the implied question. "Indeed. And one of them is a mutual friend."

Though he was too much the businessman to give any outward sign, Sanato suddenly felt his blood run cold. Raven! Shion had to mean Raven! This was potentially catastrophic. If he lost Raven, he lost his only useful esper asset after two years of searching. Already, members of the board were losing patience, and the loss of S-T's most powerful esper weapon would end Sanato's career.

But why in God's name would this politically ignorant refugee from the Zero Zone involve herself in this? Sanato prided himself on his ability to read people, and while Raven was not so naive as many believed her, guile of this magnitude was uncharacteristic.

"Indeed?" Asked Sanato blandly. "I must confess, this is something of a surprise."

The executive was relieved that Shion chose to enlighten him. "She has some unusual acquaintances. People perhaps more worldly than herself."

Sanato wanted to pound the table in frustration. The girl with the bounty, who was staying with Raven. Karin Nys! It was infuriating Raven took personal obligations seriously, and pressuring her to evict the chaotic would-be assassin risked alienating the esper. Add to this Sanato's uncertainty about Raven's sexual interest in the blue-haired teen, and it was impossible to simply throw the girl out. How much did Nys—the younger one, not the one in his office—know about Sanato's machinations? Was this part of some larger political game?

"That is most unfortunate," observed Sanato. "Our friend is a pure soul, and I had hoped she could remain such."

"Perhaps I could speak to her," the Empress offered.


Now there was a hint of a smile. "It is still early in the process, and our friend has not committed herself. I have a close relationship with her, and might be able to keep her from harm."

Sanato pondered this. The Empress obviously understood that the executive had a sizable stake in the situation, and wanted cash. "I am uncertain," he replied. "She can be quite strong-willed."

"Oh, I don't believe I can alter her actions entirely," the Empress replied. "I do not have the influence for that. But I believe I can keep her from harm."

"You can be her shepherd."

Shion Nys allowed herself a slight smile at this. "Well put."

"Of course, you would have to allow me the privilege of returning your generosity in kind."

"If you insist, of course. But I would also need a few trivial items to insure everything runs smoothly."

Sanato pondered the offer. The Empress wanted cash, and some sort of equipment. Knowing her usual rates, he had the sense that he could afford the service, but it would cost the majority of his current black bag budget. That might undercut his activities in the Zone.

Still, with Shion Nys involved, the equation changed. Provided there were no proof she was working for Shiroko-Tsuhi, no one would track it back to him. And this would get him the information on Ishiyama's replicants, which would be invaluable. He could pass that to Shiroko-Tsuhi's genetic engineering group, and they would owe him. Enough that they would have to go to bat for him if the Board began to pressure him. Enough to buy him the time he so desperately needed to accomplish his objectives in the Zone.

But he needed a guarantee first...

"Your offer is reassuring, but I must know one thing. Our friend is a stubborn girl, and would not take it well should my involvement be known. Can you guarantee me some degree of anonymity?"

"Of course," Shion reassured him.

"And I should like to know the details of what transpires."

"I shall provide them after events have run their course."

The executive nodded. Shion would take responsibility for keeping S-T's name out of events, and get him access to the data. That was enough.

They made the ritual farewells, with the esper rising to leave as regally as if there were a retinue of servants in attendance to her. Her departure left Sanato leaning back in his chair, pondering events.

Who's the manipulator here? he wondered. Was this Karin Nys using Raven deliberately, or had the altruistic girl gotten involved to protect her "friend?" And to whom was Karin planning to sell the data? And was it possible the Empress was using them both, and Sanato as well, to provide firepower and financial support for an operation in which she had her own agenda?

Staring too long into the tangled web of corporate life could drive one mad, Sanato reminded himself. Focus on the deal. For the money he would be giving Shion, he would protect a valuable asset—Raven—maintain corporate anonymity, and potentially gain access to information which could protect himself from the Board of directors. The fact that the situation might have been engineered by one of the players to extract money from him was irrelevant; this was a cost-effective solution.

Still, he decided, Karin Nys' days as Raven Clark's roommate were numbered. This could not continue. Sanato lacked the resources to protect his esper from the erstwhile assassin's penchant for chaos, and once this affair was over, it would be time to find a permanent solution.

Falcon tapped her fingers on the handgrips of her motorcycle, waiting. She was getting desperate for anything to distract her from slipping back into her memories. Melancholy would not be a good thing right now. She flipped her helmet up for the third time in the last ten minutes to make sure there weren't any tear tracks down her face.

Finally there was a soft beep inside her helmet from the bike's proximity sensors; somebody was approaching. This was followed almost immediately by a tapping on the side of the forward faring of the bike, which startled her. Someone had managed to get right up to the bike without triggering the alarm? Someone had been damn quiet.

The tapping matched the pattern she'd agreed to with Karin, so she popped the faring open. Sure enough, there was Karin, though she looked somewhat different. Falcon turned her head to look at her left wrist briefly, in an obvious (if unsaid) comment.

Karin just glared at her. "Deal with it. I'm not in the mood." Before Falcon could make any reply, Karin slipped right into professional mode. "Here's the emergency beacon," she said, handling Falcon a small black box. "If you get one beep from it, I'm coming out with someone on my heels. Two beeps, I'm coming out through the alternate route. Either case, be ready to move fast."

Falcon nodded and put the box on the bike's 'dashboard', where it stuck to the smooth surface. "Ready when you are."

Karin actually smiled a little; now that was an expression Falcon wasn't used to seeing on her. "See you soon. Oh, and nice paint job." She turned to move away, and almost immediately disappeared into the darkness of the alley.

Falcon shook her head. The 'paint job' was actually mostly an acrylic sheet, so it could be removed afterward. It hid the lines of the bike enough that it could pass for a normal Jinsei No-dachi unless someone tried using millimeter radar on it. It also changed the color of the bike from its usual brown to a dark asphalt gray on top, fading into a slightly reddish brick color on the sides. Aside from making the bike unrecognizable as the Falcon, it would make the bike very difficult to spot from a distance. At least, that was the theory. She hoped she wouldn't have to put it to practice, but with her and Karin's luck combined, she wasn't betting on it.

Waving hello to the guards as she passed by them, Kim, dressed in a blouse, slacks, and carrying a briefcase, approached the main doors and inserted her passcard into the control console. It beeped, the LED asking for a password, which she quickly punched it, before releasing her card and unlocking the doors. Smiling and waving at her fellow employees as she entered, Kim walked through the reception area towards the elevators.

Stopping in front of them, she placed her passcard in the control console beside it and punched in a different password. Patiently she waited a few moments as the lights blinked and flashed. Finally, it flashed green and gave her back her card, the elevator doors opening before her. Stepping inside, she pressed the button for the labs and waited.

Abruptly, the elevator came to a stop and Dr. Tokamura walked in, dressed as usual in a blouse and skirt with a lab coat over it. She gave Kim a cursory glance before pressing the button for the labs.

"Forget something, Kim?" the doctor sighed.

Kim nodded briskly. "Yeah, just some notes, nothing major."

Dr. Tokamura frowned and gave her plump assistant a closer look. She was quiet tonight, very quiet in fact, which was very strange considering that most of the time, Kim would be talking her ear off about anything and everything, and mostly about her bible stories.

"Is something the matter, doctor?" Kim asked, the elevator coming to a stop and opening up to reveal the expanse of the Synthetic Psychokinetic Lab. She stepped briskly out into the lab and then turned to look at her. Her expression was curious... and slightly worried?

Dr. Tokamura walked out of the elevator behind Kim, giving her lab a casual lookover. The complex up the entire level, and was an extensive expanse of bright steel counters, all of which were covered in glassware, chemicals, analyzing and testing equipment, and numerous computers. Along a far wall were the birthing tubes, where Dr. Tokamura's earlier successes had been grown.

She noted that Kim was walking towards the central computer workstation, which was odd, as Kim's workstation was a sticker-bedecked nightmare on the other side of the room. Her assistant then set her briefcase down next to the computer, but did not open it, and seemed far more interested in her own presence.

"You're fairly quiet tonight, Kim. Is something the matter?" Dr. Tokamura asked as she approached her.

"Oh, no I'm fine, Dr. Tokamura. But thank you for the concern," Kim replied, giving her a wide bright smile.

"Alright, who are you and what have you done with my-" Dr. Tokamura's question was cut off as Kim expertly aimed a flat palmed strike to her chin, snapping her head back and grinding her teeth together. Blood erupted from her mouth and she blinked at Kim, whose expression was no longer anything but friendly.

"Oww!!!" Tokamura cried, in both pain and alarm.

"Damn..." Kim said as she punched the doctor in the stomach, bending her over. Jumping up a bit, Kim brought her elbow down and cracked it against the back of Dr. Tokamura's skull, sending her to the metal floor unconscious.

Kim reached up with a hand and pulled at an almost invisible line on her neck, yanking off a mask of latex and hair that she dumped on the floor beside Dr. Tokamura. Karin Nys sighed and ran a hand through her hair before shedding her clothes and the remainder of her disguise.

Now clad in knee length shorts and a sports bra, a large bowie knife strapped to her back and her Duen in it's arm holster strapped to her arm and her Kuan-Ti strapped to her thigh, Karin kicked the large pile of latex. "Wish I could have gotten more use out of this," she muttered as she walked back towards the computer. "But at least now they'll know Kim didn't pull this off."

Quickly opening up the briefcase, Karin pulled out a small cyberdeck and an interface cable. Plugging the cable into an access port in the workstation, she launched a network entry program, using Kim's passwords to make her way into the data storage servers. Selecting anything and everything she could find, Karin dragged the mass of icons over to the transfer window. "All here, just as the good assistant said it would be." Breathing a sigh of relief, Karin watched the transfer bar slowly fill up.

It would be done within a matter of seconds, and after that she would have her bargaining chip. From there, it would be a matter of simplicity to sell the information and have S-T break the bounty on her. Then she would be free of her father, free of his reach and influence and free to live her own life any which way she wanted. It was all there... her freedom, slowly filling up megabyte by megabyte...

Mack wandered into the security room, a mug of steaming coffee in hand. One of the monitor guards looked up, noting his arrival. "Morning chief," the guard called, then went back to his screens. Mack walked up behind him and placed his coffee on the man's desk.

"Wish you wouldn't do that, chief," the guard said without looking back. "Leaves stains on the desk."

Mack snorted with amusement. "When you get my job, you can leave as many stains as you like." He nodded towards the monitors. "Quiet night?"

"Yeah, nothing unusual," the guard replied. He leaned back and yawned, then turned to Mack. "Although Kim popped back in just now."

"Yeah?" Mack's brow furrowed. "What did she want?"

"Just left something behind I think," the guard replied.

Mack stroked his short beard in thought. "Hmm... Run a camera by the labs, okay?"

"You sure? You know how much the professor hates being watched."

"Don't worry, I'll take the blame," Mack replied, smiling.

The guard flicked over one of the monitors to a view of Yuki's lab. Inside, they saw the professor unconscious, sprawled on the floor, and an unknown armed woman messing with the computers. Mack immediately sprung into action, barking orders over his communicator.

"Quiet night, huh?" he said wryly to the monitor guard, then was gone. The guard shrugged, then took a sip of the coffee.

Raven's emotionless face as she sat in the chair floated to the front of her mind, limply holding the beer bottle in hand and starring at the ceiling as though nothing else mattered. For her there would be no future, no freedom, she would be a tool to be used and broken and then replaced...

Her life would be nothing...

"And it'll all be because of me," Karin whispered softly. "I'm just as daddy wanted me... doing what he wanted for his advantage..."

Karin cursed as a beep from the mini-computer indicated that it was done copying the files, the files that were to be the crucial playing card for her ticket to freedom from her father and the bounty on her head.

"God dammit..." Karin quickly unplugged the mini-computer and started typing furiously once more. After a few seconds, she stabbed her finger at the RETURN button.

The click of the button was soft in the silence that followed, a silence that was shattered by the *bing* of the elevator. Even as the door was opening up, Karin was moving, scooping up the cyberdeck in one arm. She launched herself over the computer, snatching two grenades from the briefcase as a squad of Ishiyama Security Guards burst into the lab, guns up and ready to fire.

"Hold your fire," shouted the guard in the lead. "We hit any of this stuff and it'll be our heads on a stake." He spotted Dr. Tokamura laying on the floor and waved for his men to spread out.

From behind the main computer console came a single grenade, the pin and handle missing...

"GRENADE!" shouted one of the guards. Quickly they dove for cover, the leader throwing himself on the doctor's prone body.

Instead of an explosion, the grenade hit the steel floor, bounced, then released a quickly blossoming cloud of red gas. Reacting quickly, the men immediately pulled on their gas masks, the leader flipping Dr. Tokamura over and placing a spare one on her own face.

"Fan out and get her! If she gets away with that information we're dead!" the leader shouted.

Immediately the guards spread out over the lab, through the red smoke, which had expanded to fill the entire lab. The automatic environmental system had begun working as soon as the smoke had been detected, and was sucking the smoke out at a quick pace. However, it was a minute or two before the smoke was finally cleared out.

"Well, did you find her?" the Guard Leader barked out as some of his men came back to him.

"No sir, she escaped through the ventilation shaft," answered one burly guard, pointing at the grate to a ventilation shift that was slashed open and hanging by one bolt.

Needless to say, the Guard Leader began to curse.

Lilith sat dejectedly in the observation room, looking down and trying not to think about her future. The professor had just left; being called away from a check-up by some supposedly urgent business. In her short existence to date, she had already learned to hate this room; it was cold and sterile, and nothing good ever happened to her here.

The door swung open, and the dark-haired Ray quietly walked into the room, his golden gaze fixed on her. She glanced up at him, then looked down again, asking "What do you want?'

Ray walked over and sat on the cold floor in front of Lilith, looking up at her. "I want to speak with you." Lilith looked at him, meeting his curious gaze. The two sat in silence for a while simply regarding each other.

Lilith finally spoke up. "Do you know what's going to happen?"

"I do not understand to what you are referring to," Ray replied.

Lilith paused. "What the professor's going to do to me. Or to you, for that matter."

"Professor Yuki is..." Ray paused, choosing his words carefully. "Mad at your desire for freedom. She wishes you to be reprogrammed to act properly. She does not show any such wishes towards myself or Matthew."

"You're lucky then," Lilith forlornly replied.

"Lucky...?" Ray asked.

"You can still be useful, as you are." Lilith paused, then quietly added, "I feel like I'm worthless now."


She shrugged. "She's made you two, and she can easily make more. I was just for testing, but it seems that phase is over."

Ray blinked, and stared at Lilith. "You are the first of us," he said. "It is illogical to get rid of the first."

"No, I'm not the first. Not nearly."

"Yes, you are the first. Lilith, Synthetic Psychokinetic Model 1A, the first stable synthetic esper," Ray replied, reciting from memory. "The failures are not the first for they did not survive as you did."

Lilith shook her head. "They're still alive as we speak."

"I was not told," Ray said.

"I wasn't meant to know either."

"Then why are they not here with us?"

Lilith took a deep breath, then continued, clearly afraid. "They're in cold storage. she... locked them away in stasis or something like that."

"She... Professor Yuki. She does not want the failures to meet with the successes," Ray replied slowly. "You are afraid you will meet their fate."

Lilith nodded. "I found them by accident. That's when I knew I had to be more useful to them, or they'd..." She broke off, shuddering with fear. Ray took hold of one of Lilith's hands, watching her as she shook with fear. "I don't want to be locked up like that!" she blurted out, almost crying.

Ray closed his hands over Lilith's then released it, watching it shake. "Fear does this to you... what is fear?"

Lilith looked surprised for a second, then replied. "It's... It's knowing something terrible will happen to you. Something you can't stop."

"And it makes you shake," Ray said, unsure.

"It's worse than just that. You feel cold all over, and nervous, and..."

"Then stop feeling afraid. If it bothers you so..." He said, matter-of-factly.

"But I can't. It's... not something you control, but..." She trailed off soundlessly. "I can't describe it."

"It is... emotion. Like joy, happiness, sorrow, curiosity...?" He asked.

"Kind of. You can't control it, it just hits you."

"Then how does one handle it?" Ray asked, seemingly worried.

Lilith shrugged, and smiled slightly. "You'll know when you feel it."

"'You'll know when you feel it.'" Ray repeated. He looked thoughtful, mumbling the words to himself over and over. "Lilith..."

She took hold of Ray's hand, smiling. "I guess I used to be like you."

Ray tilted his head, looking at her curiously. "You were like me?"

"Naive, unsure... I've changed so much," she said, almost surprised.

"Naive..." Ray thought for a second. "Yes, I am this. But I... wish to learn more. I am... curious about the world, about human interaction, about you."

"Well how do I seem to you?" Lilith asked.

"An enigma," he replied. "As much an enigma as Raven Clark, or Shion Nys, or Ran. You are emotional, powerful, and you do not move as most would expect you to. I wish to know why. I am curious."

Lilith slowly shook her head. "Not powerful anymore."


She leaned in close, whispering top Ray, almost afraid to hear the words herself. "I can't control my powers any more."

Ray looked around before leaning in, whispering. "Uncontrolled power? Or simply unable to use it?"

"When I try, I don't know what will happen. It's erratic and unstable," Lilith said.

"Then it is best to wait until a time when it is not erratic and unstable. Lilith..."

She shook her head. "I don't know what will happen next. Am I going to regain control, or lose it even more?"

Ray nodded and leaned back, still holding Lilith's hand in his. "And does this make you fear as well?"

Lilith nodded. "Very."

"Fear is a daily emotion for you," Ray observed.

"Not while I was gone," she replied. "It felt so wonderful to be out there, to be, well, free."

"Free..." Ray paused in thought. "We are not free? As we are now?"

"No," she replied. "We're just tools, items to them."

"Without freedom, we are just items to them. But with freedom, we are people?" Ray asked.

Lilith paused for a few seconds, lost in thought. She thought of her time in observation and testing, of being studied and used. Then she thought of her time with Raven and Shion, of enjoying herself and being treated as an equal. Then she simply replied "Yes."

"Then it is simple," Ray said. "Leave, and you will be free, you will be a person. Otherwise, existence is meaningless."

"But the Professor, the whole project... They're the reason I even exist."

"And thus, gives them the right to own you, to give you no more meaning then an item of use to them," Ray stated.

"That's the law," Lilith replied.

"It is the law to make people items, to devoid them of freedom. This is law. This is... right?"

Lilith looked long and hard at Ray. It was clear in his eyes that he didn't understand. It had made so much sense to her when the professor explained it all to her, but now? "No," she quietly said. "No it's not." She immediately stood, and Ray stood in front of her.

"Then what is not right must be changed," Ray stated.

"We can't change the law, but we can change things here. Can I count on you?" Lilith asked.

Ray was silent for a moment. "The law makes you an item, a person without freedom. The law is wrong," he muttered to himself, then looked directly at Lilith. "Yes."

"We have to find the professor," She said, headed for the door.

"Professor Yuki was headed towards the labs," Ray said, following her. As they left, the security alarms went wild.

Standing in the air, high over the Ishiyama complex, Shion gave her equipment one last check. Her mission was of the utmost importance, and she could not allow herself any margin for error. She was here to rescue Raven from her own foolishness, and if any of Ishiyama's synthetic espers happened to get in her way... oh well.

Realizing the need for movement took precedence over style, Shion had abandoned her long double-layered cloak. In its place she had strapped on armored shin and forearm guards. She kept her pistol and sword, but had slung a SPAS-22 autoshotgun over one shoulder, while her left hand held the pistol grip of a 23mm auto-assault cannon. It was a heavy gun, normally usable only by cyborgs, but she was strong enough to handle its recoil easily. A belt of APFSDS rounds ran from the long weapon to the backpack she wore. Armed with this she could put all of her telekinetic power into defense shields and movement abilities, virtually ensuring her survival. And if push came to shove, the ammunition she was using would ventilate even the toughest of cyberdroids.

Satisfied all was in readiness, Shion spared the Ishiyama building another glance. The roof of the tall building was brightly light in the darkness, as it served as a landing place for helicopters and vector-thrust cars. The landing pad had been marked with a large red X, which blinked off and on in the night. It was, Shion thought, convenient of Ishiyama to provide her with such an excellent aiming point.

Raising her right hand high above her head, Shion summoned her power, slowly building it into a ball of Power. The sphere of esper energy hummed and surged, creating a an unmistakable signature that announced her presence to all that dared to look.

Finally, satisfied that she couldn't pump and more energy into the forceball, Shion snapped her arm down, hurling the ball towards the roof of the Ishiyama building. Inwardly she smiled, it was time for the Empress to go to war.

Virtually invisible to the naked eye, the ball of telekinetic force dropped towards the Earth, a slight distortion in the air the only evidence of its passing. But looks could be deceiving, as the virtually invisible sphere of energy was capable of shattering a modern main battle tank, and it slammed like the Hammer of God into the center of the X marking the helicopter landing pad.

Concrete powdered instantly, with steel reinforced bars bending and twisting as the ball of Power tore its way deeper into the building. Great sheets of roofing collapsed onto the floor below, which then gave way, cascading a fall of debris further into the corporate facility. The surface of the roof itself rippled outward, fracturing the outer walls, and bouncing a corporate helicopter over the edge, to drop 30 stories to the plaza below. The shockwave reduced windows to clouds of glass, while pipes and conduits snapped, sending water and sparks spraying in all directions. Alarms sounded, lights failed, and the screams of the unlucky were suddenly cut by the roar of floor caving in.

Adjusting her goggles, which contained IR filters, and her rebreather mask, Shion rocketed towards the gaping crater in Ishiyama's roof, unleashing one more forcebolt as she went. The second blast tore through the already ruined underfloors, widening the shattered tunnel, and sending yet more wreckage crashing down into Ishiyama's heart.

The already overloaded Ishiyama security forces responded as best they could. The problem was one of getting to the point of assault. The initial attack had so thoroughly demolished the top floors that most of the elevators were useless, while severed power cables meant that many of the automated weapons systems were no longer working. Still, they were determined to do the best they could.

Mack dashed along the corridors behind his team, still setting up his helmet and comms gear. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a pair of figures in a side passage. He sent his team on ahead, and held back to talk to them. He called out to the two, who he recognized as the prototypes.

"What's going on?" Lilith asked him.

"We've got a break in. Target is a short, blue-haired woman who got away with vital computer files."

"Blue-haired girl..." Lilith quietly repeated to herself.

"Where is professor Yuki?" Ray calmly asked.

"She's under guard in the med bay," Mack replied. "You two had better get after the girl."

"Karin!" Lilith suddenly called out. The other two looked at her. "Mack, I need to use your comms gear."

"Sorry, security -" Mack started, but was cut off when Ray stuck him in the neck. He staggered for a second, then his eyes rolled back and he collapsed.

Lilith glanced at Ray, then started checking through Mack's equipment. Soon enough, she found a cell phone.

"What is this about?" Ray asked.

"Karin is a friend of Raven's. I need to tell Raven she's in trouble." Lilith hurriedly punched in the numbers for Raven's mobile.

As soon as Raven answered her phone, Lilith blurted out "Raven, it's your friend Karin, she's in trouble at the tower!"

"Lilith?" Raven said on the other end.

"Raven?" Lilith asked. "She's trapped down here in the labs!"

"I'm going."

"Please, hurry!" Lilith pleaded.

Both she and Ray stopped short when they sensed something. A tremendous amount of psychic power nearby was quickly built up and released. Even down here, they could feel the building shake from the impact.

"Who could possibly..." Ray trailed off.

"It must be Shion," Lilith said, her voice uncertain. She could feel some kind of reaction in her, a slight pressure building up in the back of her mind. She shook her head to dispel the feeling.

"Really," Ray said, apparently interested.

"Come on, let's keep moving," Lilith said, and the pair set off again.

A few streets over from the Ishiyama building, in a shadowed alley between a sportswear store (basketball player shooting a three pointer; "Action. Reaction. NuAction.") and a fast-food restaurant (cartoony chicken with a cowboy hat, boots, and a big revolver; "Fastest chicken in the East!"), Raven scanned the Ishiyama building, hoping to detect some sign that Karin was inside, and in trouble. She didn't expect her eyes to give her the clues she needed, but she strained with her other sense, that odd feel espers had for the Power, trying to sense if Ishiyama's replicants were active. She figured that if any trouble came anywhere near the PK labs, they'd be dispatched there and she could feel them.

No sign. Raven frowned and stepped back in the alley as a police car drove by. She didn't want to be seen wearing heavy body armor that bulked out her figure, barely concealed by her coat; that might attract too many questions, especially so close to a corporate building. Hopefully it would help conceal her identity. She had a helmet in her hand; its mirrored faceplate would hide her face from sight, and with her hair cut short, it'd be difficult to recognize her. Thank goodness for follicle accelerant—she was more attached to her long hair than she was willing to admit.

The danger passed and Raven peeked out, grabbing an eyeful of the chicken restaurant's mascot as it stepped out of the restaurant. The same anthropomorphic chicken with the revolver, cowboy boots, and hat. Raven thought of Paula and allowed herself a chuckle before returning to the Ishiyama building. A glint of light and a twinge of PK activity high up in the air caught her attention. *Who the hell...* She strained her PK sense to identify the flying PK. *Isn't that... Shion?*

If felt just like putting an ear to a bomb just as it went off would sound. The pressure from Shion's entry took her completely by surprise and overloaded her sensitive esper sense. She took a shuffling step back, leaning against the wall behind her, shutting her eyes against the pain. When she opened them again, smoke was drifting from the building's roof, and Shion was nowhere to be found.

*What is SHE doing here? She's certainly not rescuing Karin. Unless...* Her eyes narrowed and she smirked mischievously. *Unless she is going to rip out Ishiyama's PK program and she was using us as a diversion." She tsked. "Shion, Shion, you *could* have asked..."

Just then, her cell phone—a disposable model with ten minutes of air time, picked up from a dealer in Bartertown who'd no doubt gotten it from some mugger—vibrated, responding to a call forwarded from her home. Hoping it'd be Karin, Raven brought the cheap plastic phone to her ear. "Hello?"

Falcon's head whipped up at the explosion from above, catching just a glimpse of what looked like someone flying in to the top of the building. Even at the highest magnification, she couldn't see anything more detailed than that. "Looks like some PK decided to take out the competition. Can't be too many that powerful... and I think we'd all know by now if Ran had left the Zone."

Shaking her head, Falcon made sure the sensors were turned up to full, and just watched while she waited for Karin's signal. This was not turning out to be the quiet job that Karin had obviously been hoping for. She just hoped that Karin could escape in all the confusion that was obviously going on. She really didn't want to fail on her first real job since Fantoma... and it looked like Karin would probably _need_ a fast getaway.


Yuki painfully opened her eyes. She blanched at the all-too-bright light right in front of her, which was quickly obscured by some kind of pink blur.

"It's alright, she's coming round."

The pink blur resolved itself into the concerned face of a security guard, leaning over her. Yuki slowly sat up, and took stock of her surroundings. She was in the ruthlessly clean sickbay, lying on an uncomfortable bed, being attended by a fretting guard. Around her, a trio of guards readied their weapons.

"What happened?" she asked quietly.

"We recovered you from the lab. The intruder knocked you out and fled. She's still at large in the building," the guard informed her. "We brought you here to protect you."

"Not necessary, I can handle myself."

"Er, with respect ma'am-" the guard began, but was cut off.

"With respect, this whole building revolves around me and my work. You do what I say, understand?"

The guard looked around nervously. He wasn't used to this sort of situation. Training told him people would be glad to be rescued from impending doom. "Er... yes ma'am."

"Good." Yuki stood, and looked him in the eyes. "Now you listen to me. That intruder could very well be making off with sensitive data." Yuki leaned forwards, bearing down on the guard's nervous face. "If we loose her because you were too busy playing nursemaid, I will have your head on a silver platter. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am!" The guard shuffled back, then snapped to attention. He quickly turned to the other guards waiting nearby. "You heard her, let's go!"

As the guards quickly fled the scene, Yuki sat down on the bed again, rubbing her forehead.

Matthew kicked at a garbage can, sending it spinning and cursing some very choice words as the alarms blared all around him. "Dammit! There's major action going on upstairs and I'm stuck on guard duty down here for some little brat!"

"Yeah, doesn't that suck..."

"Huh...?" Matthew turned around, barely catching a glimpse of Karin holding something black and cylindrical in her hands before his world turned white. He coughed instantly as he inhaled some of the CO2 charge and doubled over in an attempt to expel it. He never saw Karin raise the fire extinguisher up and slam it into the back of his head, knocking him out cold.

Without giving him a second glance, Karin dropped the extinguisher and began to bolt for the exit when a sudden rumbling shockwave sent her tumbling to the ground with a crash. Rising slowly, and coughing at the dust, she waved her hands, trying to sweep the thick cloud away so she could get in a decent breath of air. A abrupt tapping on her shoulder made her freeze for all of a second, before she turned in a blur, her Kuan-Ti cracking out one shot dead-center into the silhouette standing behind her.

Blinking at the dust, Karin felt her heart sink. The person behind her hadn't been an Ishiyama security thug out to make the capture of his career, but instead had been the one person she despised more than anyone else in the world: Shion Nys. Shion, for her part, looked to be faintly amused and totally unharmed, and was currently pointing what Karin thought to be the biggest gun she'd even seen in her life at Karin's head.

"..." Karin said intelligently.

"Greetings, Ms. *Nys.*" Shion managed to make the name sound like an insult.

"I don't suppose Raven sent you?" Karin asked, her voice dead.

"Not at all." Shion lowered the cannon just a bit, so that it pointed at a spot just between Karin's breasts. "I was right, you know."

"You were...?"

"Yes, I should have killed you much earlier." Shion gave Karin a smirk that was eerily reminiscent of her own, just before pulling the cannon's trigger.

The resulting *click* echoed loudly in the wreckage-strewn room. Karin started, and then desperately hoped that sudden sensation of warmth she felt was adrenaline, and not her bladder letting go.

"GODDAMMIT!" Her face contorted in anger, Shion swung the apparently-empty cannon in a short arc, catching Karin unprepared and hurling her across the floor. Karin hit the floor with a short cry, as a white-hot lance of pain arched up her arm and through her ribs. She tumbled and tried to rise, but her right arm wouldn't work, and any pressure on the limb brought a red haze across her vision. Dimly, through a rush of agony, she could see Shion discard the long-barreled weapon, and reach over her shoulder for a fresh piece of ordnance - a SPAS-22 autoshotgun.

"There," whispered the Empress as she worked the action and pumped a round into the chamber, "I know *this* won't jam." Raising the shotgun to her shoulder, she took careful aim. "Goodbye Ms. Nys. It's nothing personal, but I can't have you soiling my reputation."

Unable to look, Karin let her face fall to the floor, her eyes blurry with tears of pain, which cut clean tracks through her dust-smeared cheeks. "Raven..." she murmured, awaiting the final roar.

The noise that greeted her was unexpected. A hollow thump rang across the room, matching a huge blast that staggered Shion, yet left her standing. Glancing up, Karin noticed the blond replicant she had ambushed earlier striding into the room. A second titanic blast smashed against Shion's armour, sending her sprawling.

Karin thanked her luck and her impromptu savior, and ran from the room.

Ray and Lilith dashed down the corridors of the underground complex, headed for the medical room. Lilith abruptly stopped, glancing around. Ray halted a few steps later, then turned to his companion. Both had felt a new presence enter the fray above, powerful and familiar.

"Who is it?" Ray quietly asked her.

"Raven... she's here," Lilith said, her voice brightening with hope. Then realization dawned - a surge of power from above indicated Matt responding to her arrival.

"She's in danger," Ray stated matter-of-factly.

Lilith nodded, swallowing. "I have to help her. You get the professor."

"I understand," Ray stated, and quickly departed.

Lilith concentrated, reaching deep for what power she could still harness. Narrow cracks snaked across the floor beneath her feet, and the lights sparked and shatter as she concentrated with increasing effort. Finally, in a quick inrush of air, she vanished.


Yuki stood from the bed again. If security had been compromised, there was so much to do. She had to secure the data, ensure nothing was lost or damaged... This was quickly turning into a nightmare. Her thoughts were interrupted when a newcomer entered the room - her dark-haired creation, Ray.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I was sent to find you," he quietly replied.

"I don't need help right now," Yuki shot back at him. "I need to get to the lab."

"I don't recommend it," Ray replied.

Yuki paused and looked back at him, startled. Had he... it told her what to do? Surely it wasn't starting to think like the first one of them. No, it must be a mistake on her part. Surely these two were meant to be better programmed.

She dismissed such thoughts with an uncertain wave of her hand. "There's been a security breach down there, and I need to sort it out. Do as you will!"

"Then I shall accompany you," he said.

"Fine," she huffed, headed for the door. "Just don't get in my way."

Decked out in heavy body armour and carrying a sub-machine gun, Raven strode purposefully towards the Ishiyama building. She pulled up her cell phone, still connected to the one Lilith had 'acquired,' and quickly asked, "Where are those labs?"

"Down in the basement levels," Lilith nervously replied.

"Thanks." Raven concentrated and sent her Power in a broad wave, the glass walls of the ground floor to bits. Raven strode purposely across the lobby, sending bursts from her heavy submachine gun to convince security to stay put while her shields kept their return fire from her body. She went to the nearest elevator and pulled the doors out, then leaped in the shaft.

Feeling the distinct signature of a PK battle, she figured Shion had to have encountered one of the replicants and decided it was as good a beacon as any. She stopped her fall when she was level with the signature and hurled her Power ahead again, blasting the doors outwards.

Raven hit the overloaded security guards like a hurricane, tossing them left and right with broad lashes of power, not really hurting them but getting them out of her way. Any door in her path received the same treatment as the elevator doors.


"Don't tell me the famed Empress is this weak!" Matthew said as he prepared to complete the kill. The doors flew apart, torn asunder by Raven's Power. Her face still shielded by the helmet, her shape bulked out by her heavy armor, she stepped into the room. Spotting Matt, she didn't lose a second, blasting the replicant with all the strength she could muster.

Taken by surprise, Matt was flung across the room, but dug his feet into the ground. He came to rest upright and strengthened his shield. "Who the hell are you?" Matt hollered, and unleashed a powerful, spiraling blast at Raven.

Raven brought up her crossed arms in front of her, forming a shield to deflect Matt's bolt, and didn't reply. Her next telekinetic spike drew a long furrow in floor and ceiling alike, shoving debris to each side, hurtling towards the Ishiyama PK. Matthew was struck, his barrier absorbing the force but the impact sending him back to smash into a computer console. Monitor shards and sparks flew.

Matthew rolled to a crouch, then leaped at Raven, his fists, encased in a glowing esper field, leading. Raven braced herself, her shield lifting chunks of floor between them just as he struck. Matthew slammed through the shield with enough force to hit her armor hard, knocking her back into the wall. She yelped from the shock and pain.

"Hah!" Matthew gloated, as he manifested another bolt and aimed it at his opponent. Raven vanished a split-second before it reached her. Matthew felt the sudden surge of PK power behind him and he spun to blast Raven, but she caught his arm in her left hand before it reached her. Matthew's blast fired

Around the room a small maelstrom erupted; debris, monitor shards, and loose lab paraphernalia rose into the air before shooting towards Matthew. The first glass shard cut a gash over his eye, a piece of wall slammed into his belly, forcing him to take a step back. He lifted a kinetic barrier of his own, easily keeping the rest of the impromptu projectiles at bay. "Is that the best you can do?" he taunted.

In a blast of out-rushing air, Lilith appeared between Matthew and Raven, panting in exhaustion from her teleport. Raven stepped back, taken aback by the sudden appearance.

Matthew barked out "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to help you, Raven," Lilith said, turning to her friend. Raven could only cringe inwardly as Lilith revealed her identity.

"Raven Clark?" Matt said with interest. "About time we finished our fight from before." Raven remained silent, glaring at him from behind the opaque faceplate, her hands clenched at her sides. The corners of Matthew's mouth twitched up into a smirk as he faced down the other two espers. "Lost your nerve?" Raven kept still, glaring at Matt, while Lilith waited to see who would act first.

Matt took the opportunity, unleashing a broad wave of energy at Raven. She brought up her shield to withstand the blast, then leapt forwards towards Matt, seizing him and hurling him back into the wall.

With a yell, Lilith launched herself forwards, driving her shoulder into his chest and pressing him against the wall. Matt let out a brief bark of pain, and concentrated on his force field. For agonizing moments, he tried to repel Lilith. Raven leapt in as well, leading with her fist, glowing with barely-contained esper force. She drove it deep into Matthew's abdomen.

Unexpectedly, Lilith's field cut out. Matt surged in strength, tossing the two across the room. Raven's flight abruptly stopped and she righted herself, floating a foot above the ground. Lilith landed across the room in a crumpled heap.

Raven prepared her counterattack, but was interrupted. From nowhere, Shion grabbed Raven by the arm, and the two quickly vanished.

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories