That fact that Sylvie was a replicant—a synthetic human—was obvious to everyone, not that she tried to hide it. When you are blessed with a virtually perfect face and figure, there really isn't much point in a disguise. Besides, as head waitress of 93 Underground, her artificial origins were more of an asset than a hindrance. In fact, replicants in the Zone often found it helpful to, if not advertise, at least not hide what they were. There was a certain mystique to synthetics—one built on the knowledge that the average synthetic was almost certainly stronger, faster, tougher, and meaner than the average human.

So Sylvie didn't try to hide her lab-designed physique. She didn't flaunt it either—there was no sense in being cruel—but she did try to dress well. To her credit, it wasn't her fault she looked as she did; as the saying went "she's not bad, she was just grown that way." Which was the truth—Sylvie was an Ishtar-class Escort Synthetic (a fine product of the R. Scott Foundation). Made for the government of United North America, she'd spent a lot of time (on her back, mostly) up north, in Toronto, working as an escort/bodyguard/bedmate for various political figures and personages. She'd slept with a number of men, although a few women had taken advantage of her obvious assets, and in additon had endured a wide assortment of humiliations, usually involving being bound in some fashion or another. Fortunately, she was designed to take such treatment. Although she didn't look it, Sylvie was far stronger than the typical political hack, with a reinforced skeleton, and highly flexible joints. The designers at R. Scott weren't stupid, they knew the kind of abuse their products often had to endure.

Unlike the rest of her crèche mates, all of whom were still up in Toronto behaving like happy corporate playtoys, Sylvie had managed to escape. She wasn't sure why herself, but it probably had to do with the way pleasure and escort synths were made. They had a higher degree of emotional response than most replicants, which occasionally resulted in a greater sense of "self" and a willingness to question their place in society. Which is what had happened to Sylvie. Coming to realize exactly what her role was in the governmental process, she'd fled, and unlike a few others that had tried the same stunt, she'd actually made it. She'd headed south, towards Neo York, to loose herself in the crush of 10 million people. It hadn't been as easy as she'd thought—replicants weren't issued SINs, and her registration would list her as "escaped." But Neo York was home to a Zero Zone, and even the most dimmest of replicants quickly realized that if you wanted to be free, you headed to the place where the law didn't go.

Of course, once in the Zone, Sylvie had another problem. She was free, but if she wished to remain so she'd need to find some sort of employment, and the Zone wasn't exactly rife with job opportunities. Oh sure, if she wanted to make money laying on her back (or front, or... well, one gets the idea), she'd be more than welcome at any of the brothels. Pleasure synthetics were always accepted, but she'd had her fill (so to speak) of sex for the time being.

So, she'd wandered around a bit until finally ending up in a placed called 93 Underground. It was crowded and loud, but warm and dry. She'd asked the man behind the bar (whose name was Gordon) about a job, and he'd virtually hired her on the spot. She worked the tables, delivering drinks and food, and quickly ended up with the position of head waitress, which meant she managed the rest of the staff. She also assisted Gordon in managing the Underground, no mean feat in the unpredictable economy of the Zone.

As for her personal life, Sylvie kept mostly to herself. Oh, she'd been romantically involved with Gordon for a short while, mostly as a way of saying thanks, but other than that one fling, she remained celibate. On the other hand, she did get involved in the world around her—just not on a sexual level. She'd help found The Vat, for example. She'd gotten the idea after seeing a few corporate execs (out in the Zone to experience a few cheap thrills) hassle one of the staff who had the misfortune to have been designed with pale blue skin and black and white striped hair. The fact that they taunted, humiliated, and abused their two Lynx escorts didn't help much either. Duke had handled the problem with the staff by asking the execs to leave, but nothing could be done for the two Lynxes... they were property, and killing a couple of execs over that point would cause far more trouble than 93 Underground, and the whole Zone, ever wanted to experience. So she'd talked to Gordon, who asked around, and eventually The Vat came into being. Times had been hard at first (put that many synths together and people tended to get uneasy), but now, after a few fights, a few fires (and a few firefights), things had settled down.

These days, Sylvie was content to wait tables. She didn't aspire to anything greater, she was free, or as free as she could get anyway, and that really, was all that mattered.

Gem knelt by a tomato vine, tending to the ripe tomatoes. She occasionally glanced up and around, taking in the darkening sky and the small rooftop garden. Try as she might, she couldn't concentrate on the task at hand. She couldn't help but think of the betrayal, not so long ago...

Of her team, not the best people, but loyal to her and S-T. Of the textbook raid, in and out in minutes to steal some data from the mainframe. And of the opposition's team, ready and waiting for them as if...She shook her head, trying to concentrate on her gardening.

In retrospect, it all made sense. Her sister, Nicole, had chosen half the team, in particular those she favoured. Gem - no, she was called Rachel back then - had headed to the objective, and into the enemy's waiting arms. Even now, she could see herself, crouched behind a desk, two of her men down by her, pleading for Nicole's help. What chilled her the most was the silence on the other end, before Nicole finally answered.

"Did you want to live forever?"

Her hands shook as the words rang through her head. She realised immediately what was going on. Her team had the demolition gear, and Nicole had a remote detonator... She had bolted for the exit, hoping Nicole wouldn't be fast enough...

A squelching sound snapped her back to the present. In her shaking hand, she held one of the ripe tomatoes, squashed into a pulp. She chided herself for not paying attention, and losing her temper. She plucked the remnants of the tomato from the vine and deposited it in a small mulch heap, shaking her head in annoyance. She couldn't concentrate, and was getting angry again.

"What I need is a good drink," she said to no-one in particular.

She picked a couple of tomatoes and headed downstairs. Old Man Gen's place was roomy, but bare. Three worn mattresses at the far end of its sole room accounted for the only furnishing. A variety of equipment, including gardening utensils, a small portable stove, various tins and plates and her own jacket and gun were lined up against one wall. She selected a can from a nearby stack and went to work.

What hurt the most was having to lie to the Old Man. For as long as she could remember, he had raised her and Nicole in his small home in the Zone, until an S-T agent had recruited them. After her sister's betrayal, Gem had returned here, seeking shelter once more. But of course, she couldn't claim to be Rachel anymore. She'd undergone extensive cosmetic surgery in an underground clinic, and now looked nothing like the young woman who had left the old man so long ago.

Her work done, Gem took the can of tomato juice with her. It had been so long since she'd been to 93 Underground. She couldn't help but wonder how it had changed...

At six feet six inches, Shion-hime towered over almost everyone in the Shiroko-Tsuhi corporate tower, an effect further enhanced by her long tapering ears. At the moment, however, her extreme height was not readily apparent, as she knelt before her owner, her hands on his thighs and her face positioned perfectly above his groin. The up-and-down motion of her head was carefully controlled by the man's hand, which was knotted into her thick mane of floor-length hair right between the cat-like ears.

The man's name was William Case, better known to his employees at Shiroko-Tsuhi as William "Hard" Case. He was a tough man to work for because he led by example, pushing himself with a rigorous schedule, and fully expecting his underlings to follow. A high-ranking Shiroko-Tsuhi executive, he, like Shion-hime—who was currently perfectly demure and submissive, in almost direct contradiction to her namesake—towered over most people as well. He stood a good six four, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a physique that resulted from lengthy hours spent in the executive fitness center; lifting weights, running long miles, and playing cut-throat games of handball.

The term "cut-throat" not only applied to how William approached his recreation, but also his job. As a project manager for Shiroko-Tsuhi, William knew that the old adage "time is money" meant more now that it ever did. To him, wasting time equaled a waste of money, and a waste of money was a crime more serious than any other he could think of. Those who wasted time (and thus, money), were not deserving of employment, at least if he had a say in the matter. William was known for having the most efficient project teams in the entire company, as well as the ones with the highest turnover.

The main reason for William's obsession with time, money, and the proper use thereof, was simple: he was a control freak. For him, the ability to control something, or better yet, someone, was the ultimate in power. If he had full control over something (or someone) then he could ensure that things would be done the right way, which basically was the same as saying "his way." As William was won't to declare, and he spouted such clichés constantly, there were four ways to do anything; the right way, the wrong way, the Shiroko-Tsuhi way, and his way.

William's love life, if you could call it that, was approached in much the same way as he did his work. He was in charge. Sex occurred when he wanted it, how he wanted it, and why he wanted it. It continued until he was satisfied, and then it was over. If his partner his partner didn't feel the same way, tough. If she wasn't satisfied, it must have been something she did wrong, as William knew he wasn't at fault. This was one reason why he preferred synthetics, they never complained, or talked back, or cried when it all was over. They were always enthusiastic and ready to go, which, when he thought about it, proved to be just a bit boring. So, if he got bored, he'd go elsewhere. He might find one of his employees looking for a promotion and make her an offer she couldn't (if she was smart) refuse, or drop by a Neo York brothel, or, if he was really feeling randy and in need to a total release, he'd head across the bridge, and visit a Neo York whorehouse, where he could do whatever he wanted. Provided he handed over sufficient cash in advance, and in the Zone that sort of entertainment came cheap, the management wouldn't even care.

Seated in his high-backed leather chair, one hand atop Shion-hime's head, the other resting on one arm, William vocally expressed his appreciation of the modified Puma's oral talents. He'd acquired the female synth for the same reason he acquired anything else, to prove he could. Ever since he'd first seen Shiroko-Tsuhi's newest esper-weapon, Raven Clark, and her aristocratic and arrogant instructor, Shion Nys, he knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted the Empress. He wanted her to kneel before him, to be his to command, to do as he pleased, and to please him when, and where, and how, he wished. Of course, William was no fool, and knew that there was no way he could ever get the high-and-mighty Empress into that sort of arraignment. So, he did the next best thing. He bought himself an Empress of his very own. He was due for a new escort anyway.

With a grunt and a shuddering of his hips, William gave the inevitable response to Shion-hime's attentions. Pulling her lips free with a slight "pop" the Puma sat back, looking up at her master expectantly.

"Stand up," the Shiroko-Tsuhi executive directed, noting the way her long legs flexed as she followed his command. Shion-hime was dressed in her normal office "uniform," which consisted of a white blouse, a thin black tie, a deep blue jacket, and a similarly-colored skirt that was so short, the hem barely covered the curve of her buttocks when she stood fully upright.

"The desk."

Knowing exactly what was required of her, Shion-hime bent at the waist and lay face-down over the desk, resting her weight on her arms, with her long fall of hair pushed to one side. Standing behind her, William yanked her panties down, massaging the flawless perfection of her lab-made rear, before grabbing her firmly by the hips and thrusting himself deep inside her. Now it was Shion-hime's turn to vocally appreciate William's talents, to pant, moan, and groan, as each strong (and almost savage) penetration made her body quiver. William, for his own part, virtually ignored the shuddering Puma, but instead found himself staring out his window at the lights of Neo York. He was, he realized, bored, and fucking an almost perfect duplicate of the world's most powerful esper weapon overtop his office desk just wasn't interesting anymore. Not that he was going to stop anytime soon. As the man said, he wasn't planning on pulling out anytime soon—No sir! He'd leave it in there, get the job done! But still, he wanted something more... exciting, more thrilling.

Looking to the right, towards the eastern side of Neo York, William found his gaze settling on dark, shadowy region known as the Neo York Zero Law Enforcement Zone.

Yes, that was what he needed. A walk on the wild side.

Continuing to work his hips, William grinned, slapping Shion-hime's pert rear in satisfaction. He was going to have fun tonight!

Sitting in her customary booth in the far corner of 93 Underground, Shion Nys was doing her best to feel sorry for herself. The only problem was, she was failing miserably. Shion wasn't used to feeling sorry for anyone, much less herself. Even the unfortunate security troops who occasionally tried to oppose her in the middle of an op only elicited scorn, not pity. And no one in their right mind would ever think to pity Shion. She had it all, or so everyone assumed. She lived a lifestyle that few could even imagine, much less attain, was quite wealthy, fantastically beautiful, and possessed esper powers unrivaled by any—save one (and he didn't count, he was crazy).

Still, she sat in her booth, drinking down a bottle of Gordon's best (and considering that the bottle she was working from was distilled in 1997, it had better be his best), and staring at the twisted and grimy license plate sitting on the table. The plate read "Empress" and had once adorned her car. Thinking about her car made her feel even worse, so she took another drink of fine scotch. The liquid felt warm going down her throat, which didn't stop a slight shudder of her shoulders.

Her car. Someone had stolen her car. To make matters worse, someone had stolen her car, driven it into the Zone, and burned it! And then, to top it off, a NYPD Inc. log showed the car going through the Zone checkpoint, and not being stopped. She knew why the car was never officially listed as stolen... a clerical error supposedly. Shion wasn't fooled, she knew it for the lame excuse it was. Someone at Nypdink had wanted to claim the reward for recovering her car, and had tried to stack the deck in their favor. She suspected Alan Davies, as he was known to be fairly sleazy. Still, it was only par for the course. The police were a per-profit company, and corruption ran rampant through the ranks.

So here she sat, drinking her liquor and getting more and more depressed. The fact that she was going to be getting a new car in about a week didn't cheer her up either. The Mercedes Motor Car Corporation had been horrified to learn that her car had been stolen. For starters, it meant that someone had cracked the codes to the door locks, and second... well...

When Shion had intended to buy her first 2028s, she'd gone to Germany, intending to speak to the manufacturer directly. The Mercedes people were only too happy to talk to her, and helped her to select the most optimum configuration of luxury components. Then, one young exec, who displayed an amazing amount of courage, had come to her with a most interesting offer. Mercedes would simply give her the car, if, if... she'd agree to allowing Mercedes to use her likeness in their advertising campaign. Since saying "yes" meant saving well over five hundred thousand dollars, it wasn't really that hard of a decision to make.

Having informed Mercedes, Shion had little to do but wait. The automaker was practically falling over itself trying to get her a new car, but it didn't help... much. It wasn't that her car was stolen, but what galled her most is that she had no idea who did it. It would almost have been worth having her car stolen if only... only she could have gotten her hands on the ones responsible. Then she would have been happy.

Taking another drink, Shion sighed and resigned herself to her fate. She had nothing to do but wait, and then all would be as it was before. She would have her car back, good as new, and all would be right with her world. Well, not quite. If only she could ensure that Karin Nys was really dead, then life would be perfect. Supposedly she'd been captured by bounty hunters and had died while in Northern Forestry Corporation custody, but Shion knew that to be a lie. It was too pat of an answer, too easy a way out for it to be believable. Karin Nys was out there, somewhere, alive, and laughing behind Shion's back, and that was an act she could not forgive.

The sudden rattling the package resting on her table snapped Shion's attention back to the present. Taking a deep breath, she calmed herself, dampening her Power and getting it back under control before she did something unwise, like wrecking all of 93 Underground.

Feeling slightly more relaxed (the scotch was helping), Shion turned her attention to the package. It was from her sister, Marta, and had been shipped from Hong Kong, an expensive procedure. Shion suspected it to be some sort of gift, which knowing her sister, couldn't be a good sign. Marta's last present had been a so-called "business suit" consisting of a brief skirt that was slit up the thighs, a midriff baring blouse, and a dressy, long-tailed black coat with gold trim and epaulets. The end result looked like something a chorus line dancer would wear. Shion had tried it on... once, in the safety of her own bedroom, then stashed it into the depths of her clothes closet and promptly forget about it. It only reaffired her opinion that living in Hong Kong had totally and completely rotted her sister's brains. It was probably something in the water.

Still... a gift from her sister, even if it was totally useless, couldn't be that bad. Besides, it might be something amusing, something that might help to lift her spirits... Then again, this was Marta she was talking about.

Peeling the tape away, Shion carefully unfolded the heavy wrapping paper and pulled the sheet of bubblewrap away, a musical assortment of pops accompanying her motions. Eventually, a long, narrow box lay revealed amid the wrinkled sheets of paper. It was dark green, with a large clear plastic window that displayed the figure of a white haired girl dressed in a white tunic and silver armor.

"Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda," Shion whispered, picking the box up slowly and staring into the doll's unwinking eyes. She hadn't seen one of these for over twenty years...

Standing in front of the full-length mirror, Shion carefully adjusted the fit of the thin plastic tiara that was tucked into her thick mane of silky-smooth hair. Finally satisfied, she stopped her primping and took a few skipping steps back, admiring her appearance.

This Halloween, she was going out dressed as her all-time favorite heroine, the Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda, a name she couldn't always get out without stumbling over a syllable or two. Her mother had bought her the costume just yesterday, and she'd spent the entire morning getting it to fit right. She'd adjusted the boots and the armbands, made sure the breastplate was strapped properly, tried on the tunic (and double checked for any stains or tears), and had brushed out her long fall of hair until it had shone. Now, with the addition of a few extras, she looked like a miniature Senshi Starfighter, all dressed and ready for battle. Feeling very pleased with herself, Shion curtsied to the mirror, giggling as her reflection copied her motions. She then spun in a circle, the hem of her tunic swirling around her, and lifted into the air, a small whirl of dust forming under her feet.

"I'm tellin' mom!"

With a start, Shion fell to the floor, ending up in a tangled heap. The thump of her hitting the floor wasn't all that loud, which hopefully meant her mother hadn't heard it. Which would be good thing, Shion's mother had been anything but thrilled to learn that her oldest daughter was a developing esper.

"Marty!" Shion cried in a panic, scrambling to her feet and tugging her tunic back into place.

"Marty" was Shion's younger sister, Marta. She was two years younger than Shion, and (in Shion's opinion) a brat. An adorable brat, to be sure, but still a brat. Currently she was standing near the door, grinning broadly, her long black hair hanging into her eyes and down past her shoulders, making her look like a lovable little moppet, and not the grand annoyance of Shion's existence (such as it was). Worse yet, she was dressed as Grand Admiral Cygnus X-1, Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda's arch-nemesis. Her green trousers, gray tunic, and dark green cape were topped by a silver plastic helmet that kept sliding down over her eyes, usually resulting in Grand Admiral Cygnus X-1 tripping over a crack in the sidewalk.

With a giggle, Marta skipped over to where her sister was once again readjusting her costume. "Sowwy."

"No you're not," Shion replied crossly.

"Yes I am, Shee. I won' tell mom, neither." Marta made sure her voice was a sincere as possible. She didn't really want to see her sister get in trouble for flying in the house... if that happened she might not do it any more, and that wouldn't be any fun.

"You almost made me tear my costume." Shion tried to be stern, but her sister's expression was too pathetic to allow her to stay angry. Worse yet, if she started crying, her mother might want to know what was wrong, and then neither of them might be allowed out for trick-or-treating.

"Awww... I'm sowwy. Honest." Picking up a brush, Marta did her best to straighten out her sister's flowing hair. Mollified, Shion stood still, her only motion to make virtually microscopic adjustments to her outfit. After a few minutes, Marta stepped back. "There, aw done."

Turning to look back in the mirror, Shion smiled. Perfect. "Thank you."

"You welcome." Marta peeked around her sister for a moment, her helmet sliding down over her eyes. "You look pretty."

"Of course I do, Marty, I'm Surpreme Shenshe Starfighter Andromemeda!"

"Don't call me "Marty"!" Marta complained. "Besides, I'm Gwand Ad'mal Sydney X-1!"

Shion sighed. "That's Signus, Marty."

"I don't care!" Marta snapped, and then giggled. "Bet I get more candy than you!"

"Do not!"

"Do too!"

"And you did too..." Shion whispered. Apparently, being cute and clumsy scored massive points with those responsible for handing out candy. Of course, it hadn't mattered in the end. The two of them had returned home and stuffed themselves with sweets. Oh she had gotten so sick. Not her sister, of course, all that suger had only served to turn her from a lovable little moppet, into a hyper-kinetic loveable little moppet, who had bounced around their bedroom all night. Meanwhile, Shion had laid in bed and groaned. Mother had been no help either, all she had to say was "See, I told you not to eat so much."

Slowly opening the box, Shion carefully pulled the doll free. Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda looked to be in pristine shape, and had probably never been used. Letting the doll float over the palm of her hand, Shion sent Andromeda spinning slowly, unaware of the tears slowly tracking their way across her cheeks.

Korey Winters, formerly known to only a very select people as Karin Nys, sat at the bar of the 93 Underground, dressed in light gray slacks, a soft blue blouse, sneakers, and a jean jacket that hid perfectly the twin shoulder holsters she wore. Both holsters were empty, Korey having given them to the check-in desk upon entering, and she sighed as she wished for the comforting weight of her Desert Eagle. She sipped her brandy, which oddly tasted good, causing her to briefly wonder where Duke had gotten a hold of it, and ran a hand through her blue hair...

Scratch that—white hair, with a shock of blue in the middle now.

Again she sighed and looked into the mirror that was set against the wall behind the rows of bottles of assorted types of alcohol only to see a different person staring back at her.

She was no longer Karin Nys, former assassin and one-time-only espionage expert, but Korey Winters now, with mis-colored eyes, the left a dark green and the other light, long white hair that reached past her shoulders, with a shock of blue that ran right down the middle. Her chest was bigger then before, at least a B-cup now, and she had a very faint scar that ran diagonally across her right cheek. THAT hadn't been from surgery, but was a lasting remainder of what she had to do in order to become truly free. Her left eye was a contrast to her right eye, another remainder, but this of where she had come from and what she had gone through.

Starring into the mirror, she took another sip of her brandy, and wondered if it was all worth it.

The image of Crusher's thankful smile before they parted ways drifted up out of her memories and she smiled softly. Of course it was worth it, she had saved a friend's life, not just from death, but from an inhuman animal rage that had almost eaten him alive. Snakeye had said that there would be lasting effects, but it was certainly better then having left Crusher as a wandering monster.

"Raven would be proud of me," she thought idly, taking another sip of brandy. The happy thought quickly died as she realized that as far as the world, and her friend, was concerned, Karin Nys was dead. She had died while in the custody of the NFC, and her body was currently being carried back to the NFC's main headquarters in Vancouver. What had the friendly, dark-haired esper thought upon hearing the news of her friend's death? Was she saddened?

Had she... cried...?

A tear rolled down her cheek and she quickly wiped it away. The thought of having hurt her friend in such a way wasn't pleasant, but then again, neither was the idea of getting her involved in any more of her operations. From what Raven had told her the night of the Ishiyama raid, Raven had been lucky to have made it out alive.

So what if Raven had cried on hearing her death? It was better then the alternative, that she might have been killed, killed like Lilith had been.

That thought didn't make it any better for Korey to accept, and she directed her thoughts elsewhere.

Looking out over the other assorted patrons of the 93 Underground brought up the memories of when she had first arrived in Neo York. She, like many others, had quickly made her way into the Zero Zone to escape any law enforcement officers that might have brought her in for the reward. And, upon entering the Zero Zone, she had made her way to the 93 Underground to get a job and figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She had gotten her first assignment here, the assassination of a high ranking businessman, and it should have been a simple, quiet hit, not the large explosion it had turned out to be.

Korey chuckled softly to herself. She had been arrogant to think she could make a name for herself working as she had, and all to distinguish herself from the infamous Nys sisters.

Of course, meeting the more famous of the two had changed all that, changed her outlook as much as seeing Raven so lifeless and dull the night before her raid on Ishiyama. Two large blows to her ego that had deflated it to a point where she no longer cared about making a name for herself, and forced her to rethink some personal issues. No, making a name for herself didn't matter, protecting her friends, that's what mattered now.

As she finished her sweep of the club, her gaze came upon a figure seated in a booth on the far wall. Shion Nys, the Empress, looking less than regal as she forlornly examined a brilliant green and silver box she held in her hands.

A shiver ran through Korey, and her side and arm ached with the remembered pain of her last meeting with the Empress... The shiver of fear faded away and Korey directed her gaze elsewhere. She was fairly positive that Shion had heard of her demise but did not expect her to believe it. It would take more then a simple report to convince the Empress otherwise. Raven, on the other hand...

Korey sighed. It was time to leave.

Finishing her brandy, Korey set the glass down along with a couple dollar bills and stood up. She still had preparations to make before her next move: people to recruit, a place to find and make into her new home, contacts to meet, a network to develop.

Of course, that still wouldn't stop her from coming in for a beer to two with Crusher later on. After all, everyone needed a drinking buddy.

The Jinsei Taka was one of the most luxurious and opulent vector-thrust vehicles made, which was why William Case had to own one. It was large, powerful, richly appointed, and took him where he wanted to go with a minimum of wasted time, which were major plusses in William's book.

Seated in the back of the Taka, William finished his vodka and lemon, and gestured to Shion-hime for another. She was still dressed much as she had been an hour before, except her suit was black, the blouse was deep red, and she wore a pair of skin-tight black tights under the skirt. William found no sense in letting others have some form of free show at his expense. Deep red boots and fingerless gloves finished off the costume. William had gone for a simple black and gray suit, it was subtle, refined, and fitted him well, complementing his physique without looking pretentious. Besides, with Shion-hime at his side, no one would pay him much attention.

Some may have questioned the wisdom of taking a synthetic such as Shion-hime into the Zone, but not William. Shion-hime was his to command, he wanted to go into the Zone, he needed an escort, and she was there, it was as simple as that. Never once did it cross his mind that someone of her appearence might not be welcome in and around 93 Underground, or that the person had served as the basis for the synthetic's features would violently object to Shion-hime's mere existance.

So here he sat, in a plush bucket seat, a chilled vodka and lemon in his hand, watching as Shion-hime arrainged herself in the seat opposite him. Tilting his wrist, he glanced at the watch implanted into the fabric of his sleeve.

"We land in fifteen minutes." William kept his sentences short and too the point, anything else would have been a waste of time. "You are to remain by my side, and are not to look, touch, or talk to anyone, do you understand?"

"Yes, sir." Shion-hime's voice was soft and slightly husky, a sharp constrast to William's deep growl.

"Perfect. I will not tolerate any mistakes or devations." That said, William sat back, finishing his drink, and calmly waiting for the end of the trip.

Standing in the center of the employee's lounge, Sylvie motioned for her wait staff to come to attention. She had a half-dozen people under her command, and tried to give each one an equal amount of attention and instruction. Still, all the training in the world wouldn't help if the trainee didn't listen. Of course, in that case, the solution was simple; Sylvie talked to Gordon, and the uncooperative employee was now an ex-employee.

"Listen up people," Sylvie gave a quick scan of the room before continuing. "Tonight's an Empress night. Shion is due in at any time, and we all know what that means, right?"

"A big tip?" That was from April, who tended to supplement her income as a waitress by dancing up on the stage from time to time. A flirt and a tease, she'd even gone so far as to try and seduce Sylvie, until replicant had explained that she didn't do that anymore. Not because she didn't enjoy it, but because it reminded her of when she was a virtual slave of the government. April, naturally, figured it was because Sylvie was already spoken for.

"Yes, April, that usually means a big tip." Shion tended to be generous with her tips, which were then shared amongst the wait staff. As the aristocratic esper was known to be of a volatile nature, Sylvie tended to wait her table personally, to minimize any chance of a mistake. "It also means that tension will be high tonight, and tempers might flare. So watch yourselves, each other, and the customers. We don't need a repeat of that Puma party a few months back."

The staff nodded and murmured among themselves. That had been a disaster to be sure. Six Pumas, one crowded bar, and an obnoxious cyborg had added up to a total catastrophe. They'd spent the entire weekend cleaning the Underground up after that fiasco.

"Bloody Mary, thanks."

Gordon glanced at the new customer, an Asian girl who could be anywhere in her twenties. She was leaning on the bar with a blank expression. He turned to her and shrugged. "I'd love to, but can't. Can't get fresh tomato juice around here."

As if expecting this response, she produced a tin can with a plastic lid from under the bar. "Here."

He popped the lid and glanced inside, then looked up at her. "Seems pretty fresh."

"Grew 'em myself. How about I trade you the can for my drink?"

"It's a deal," Gordon replied, smiling. He turned away to prepare the drink.

Gem took the opportunity to look around the bar. 93U hadn't changed much since she was last here, but no-one would recognize her anymore. She took her drink and sipped on it. She was set up by now, having moved back in with Old Man Gen, but there was still the question of what she would do next. How to strike back at S-T first?

The answer seemed to present itself. Even in a different department, she'd heard of "Hard" Case, and here he was, walking right into her life with his Puma accompanying him. Gem smiled slightly. This was an opportunity she wouldn't waste.

Approaching the exit, with her thoughts only on retrieving her weapons and on building her future, Korey at first did not notice the entrance of the two people. But once the former assassin saw them, she knew that there would be trouble. The large, muscular corpie in the expensive suit exuded a confidence that she knew was solid and unwavering. Even the way he walked seem to indicate that not only was he trouble, but that he was looking for trouble.

Cursing softly, Korey made an about face and silently seated herself in a quiet booth. It looked as though she would have to wait till later to leave.

And then, walking into the club behind the corpie, was what guaranteed there would be trouble this night.

A Puma. A Puma that looked exactly like the infamous Shion Nys in every way possible. Even the cat-ears on top of her head failed to take away from the Empress's unique look. Except...

Korey blinked and looked closer at the body-conforming outfit the Puma was wearing and knew without a doubt just what other services such a Puma performed. Quickly, she gave a side glance over to the real deal was still seated in her booth, and knew that so were several others.

Crap... once she sees her, things are going to go all to hell, I just know it, she thought, hand moving towards the empty holster within her jacket. She cursed again and waved for one of the waitresses' attention. If things were going to go to hell tonight, then she might as well have another beer and watch the action.

William Case liked 93 Underground. As the best known of all the Zone night clubs, it tended to cater to a wide range of tastes, which made the Underground one of the better places to meet people. It was also the best place to be seen, and with Shion-hime at his side, he was sure to be the center of attention. Granted, he couldn't indulge in certain tastes here, but those clubs could wait until later.

The Taka settled down in the mostly-empty lot next to the nightclub with a hiss and a blast of dust, the engines cycling down with a whine. A moment later Shion-hime popped the hatch and stepped out, glancing carefully about to ensure her master's safety. William followed a moment later, pausing only to adjust his coat and tell the pilot to stay where he was. The pilot could seek entertainment on his own time.

The walk to 93 Underground's enteric was short journey through a random tangle of Zone vehicles, most of which looked to have been patched together from multiple sources, and the more neatly arraigned lines of corporate transports from Neo York. These, as a rule, were fully armored, sealed against smoke and gas, and usually tricked out for full night operations. A night in the Zone was a risky proposition, and smart visitors planned accordingly.

The crowd at the door parted before Shion-hime like water before the prow of the a ship, their mutterings and murmurings vanishing as soon the tall Puma glanced their way. William followed in her wake, his attention wandering from the play of her buttocks under her skirt to the usual collection of riff-raff that floated around the entrance to the Underground like so much surface scum. It was times like this that he was glad he spent time in the company firing range.

The doorman was Shion-hime's height, with a broad, muscular build. Dressed in formal clothing, his blond hair and beard neatly trimmed, he didn't so much as blink when William passed. The gun-check girl however, stared open-mouthed at William's escort, and accepted his SIG-Sauer P240 without seeming to realize it was there.

Inside William paused, and let his eyes adjust to the Underground's dimly-lit and smoky interior. It was crowded tonight, which meant an excellent selection to pick from. Of course, that also made it hard to get a seat, until William had Shion-hime glare some unwashed stiff out of his booth. The Puma slid in first, as William paused to scan the room for possible candidates.

The gray-haired waitress was one. She slinked from table to table in a manner that few could match, unless she was a synth, which William suspected to be the case. He had seen a white-haired wench at the bar as they came in but she was gone now. In her place were a scattering of Zone whores and Corporate salary-girls out looking for a dash of thrills and excitement to liven up their dull existence.

When his gaze reached the far side of the club, to the line of booths that ran along the wall opposite his, William stopped. He almost, almost swallowed nervously. He didn't sweat either. He simply stared.

There, in the booth closest to the bar sat Shion Nys, the Empress herself. He hadn't seen her car out front, and would have never susected she'd frequent a place like this. William smiled, this just made his trip that much more exciting.

Sylvie approached the booth with no small amount of trepidation. The obvious corporate exec looked much like any other company big-wig, with his tailored suit, and healthy physique. His companion, however, was not. A towering Puma, she looked almost identical to the Empress, who was currently sitting on the far side of the Underground drinking herself into apparent oblivion. Sylvie thanked whoever listened to such prayers for the small favor, and braced herself for whatever was to follow.

"Good evening, sir, madam, and welcome to 93 Underground. May I take your order?"

The Puma glanced at her master, who nodded in return. "You," she said in a husky purr.

Sylvie blinked. "Excuse me?"

The Puma leaned forward, allowing Sylvie a glance down the woman's carefully undone blouse, and the impressive cleavage there in. "How much do you cost? To have sex with?"

Taking a slight step back, Sylvie felt a touch flustered. She was used to propositions, but never one that was uttered in such a calm and clinical tone of voice. There was no seductive tone to the synthetic's voice, just questions asked plainly in an almost casual manner.

"I am not a prostitute," she responded firmly, "I am not available for sex."

"Even with me?" The Puma sounded surprised, as if she had difficulty understanding how someone could not want to sleep with her.

"Especially with you," Sylive's emotional state had swung from nervousness to anger, and her voice proved it.

"Too bad," the man rumbled with a grin, "I could have made it worth your while."

Sylvie surpressed a shudder at the look in the man's eyes.

"Hard Case," Gem muttered to herself and returned to her drink. She didn't know whether to be happy or not. Even from a different department, she'd heard of him, and his ruthless reputation. If something happened to him, there would be corp security swarming all over the Zone to find him. But still, this was the perfect opportunity, the perfect place, for her to start.

His replicant was wandering throughout 93 underground, moving from customer to customer. Gem couldn't hear what she was saying, but she had a few suspicions. Yeah, she'd heard other stories about William Case. The terms "twisted" and "perverted" immediately sprang to mind. Right now more than anything, she'd love to stroll over to him and --

"Excuse me." The voice interrupted her thoughts. She around dumbly for a second, then realized who was talking. The Puma stood before her, her stretched outfit barely able to contain the ample cleavage beneath. In fact, Gem couldn't help but notice the strategically unbuttoned top. She could guess immediately what William used her for, a thought that made her even angrier. A rattling sound distracted her, and she quickly realized her hand was shaking, swirling the ice around in her glass. She set it down on the table.

"Do you like what you see?" the Puma asked. Only then did Gem realize she'd been staring at the synthetic, but for entirely different reasons to those it thought.

"Sorry," Gem said, shaking her head.

"How much then?" the Puma asked her.

"What? How much..." Gem glanced from the Puma before her to William, seated smugly on the other side of the bar. She turned back to the Puma, and looked up inquiringly. "Are you offering yourself to me?"

"No, I meant how much to hire you?" it replied.

Gem stared dumbfounded at the Synthetic. "For what?"

"For sex. I want to hire you to have sex with me," the Puma explained clearly, simply, and a bit too loudly. The duo were attracting stares from nearby, and a man sitting by Gem had developed a lecherous grin at the prospect.

Gem glanced over to William again, seeing the very same grin smeared across his face. She paused for a second in disbelief, which quickly turned to disgust. "Is this for your owner?"

The Puma looked over in William's direction, then back to Gem, smiling pleasantly. "Yes. He wants to watch us."

And you'd love it wouldn't you? Gem thought. Her disgust quickly turned to anger, boiling inside her. Without thinking, she snapped out "Well you tell him --" but caught herself in time. This was the perfect opportunity to extract some revenge. "Tell him," she said, her voice calming, "that I'll be waiting outside."

"And the price?" the Puma asked.

Gem dismissed the argument with a wave of her hand. "We'll discuss it later."

The Puma bowed in agreement, saying a quick "Thank you," and returned to her master's table. Gem stood and departed, all the time feeling William's lustful stare on her back.

After nearly dropping the floating doll, Shion decided it would be best if she put it back in its box. Her efforts were hampered by the fact that her vision kept blurring, and that all her fingers had apparently turned to thumbs. Shaking her head in an effort to clear her sight didn't help, all it did was bring on a wave nausea that made her feel a trifle sick.

With a certain degree of myopic care, Shion carefully repacked Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda in her case. Once that onerous task was done, she had a drink to celebrate, finishing off the last of the bottle. It was with some surprise that Shion realized there were several empty bottle on the table in front of her, she could only really remember ordering one or two.

Standing up as another test, accomplished mainly due to her great strength to hold her steady. Carefully, and with meticulousness attention to her dignity, Shion pulled her cloak around her body and tossed several crisp new UNA bills on the table top. She was, despite all appearances, not drunk, absolutely not, and would deny any such charge vehemently.

Tucking that tall green box that served as a home for Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda securely under one arm, Shion slowly made her way to 93 Underground's exit. Perhaps... just perhaps, she would visit her sister in Hong Kong, to thank her for the gift and reminisce about when they were young.

Draining the rest of her beer, Korey watched with not a little relief as Shion gathered her things and stumbled her way out of the bar. A few minutes earlier, she had observed the exec leave not only with his Puma, but with some Japanese woman as well. Arching an eyebrow, she dropped a few bills onto the table and stood, walking through the throng of people to retrieve her weapons from the weapons clerk.

Now what sort of egomaniac, who already has a Puma modeled after the Empress herself, would come down here for some off-the-street hooker? she thought idly. Then again, what kind of egomaniac would get bored with a Puma that looks exactly like Shion?

William and Shion-Hime emerged from 93 Underground. The replicant led the way as William rubbed his hands in anticipation. Oh sure, the Japanese girl wasn't the best prize in the bar, but from Shion-Hime's reports she'd seemed perfectly eager. And maybe just a bit naíve too; all the more fun.

"So where did she say she'd be?" he demanded of Shion-Hime.

"All she said was that she'd be waiting out here for us," the Puma responded.

"Here I am," Gem's voice came from the shadows. William turned, only to be greeted by the unmistakable sound of a gun being readied. Gem stepped from the shadows, her eyes narrowed with hatred, the autopistol in her right hand pointed directly at his head. "And I'm sick of you already," she added.

William stepped back, feeling somewhat desperate. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Shion-Hime poised, ready to strike. With a wave of his hand, he motioned her back—she'd only get him killed if she pounced. A slight noise to the other side told him the Jinsei Taka was starting up; the driver would have seen what was happening, and would be moving it closer.

"What do you want from me?" William asked, stalling for time.

"What I want is to rid the world of sick fucks like you. Tell the skinjob to back off," Gem said, nodding to Shion-Hime who was trying to creep around.

William smiled and adjusted his jacket, attempting to regain control of the situation. Gem immediately stepped forwards, swinging the pistol closer to his head. William was close to panicking, but would never give the girl the satisfaction of seeing him in such a state. All he needed now was a distraction... "Get her!" he barked out.

Shion-Hime leapt at Gem, who reacted in a flash. As the Puma pounced forwards, she flung herself to the left, swinging her pistol around. As Shion-Hime landed and turned, Gem's gun let out a brief burst of fire. The bullets sprayed across her chest, stopping her dead and leaving her staggering on her feet. Gem cursed under her breath and sprang forwards, striking out with a side kick that caught the Puma in the face and toppled her.

The whine of a VT turbine caught her attention. Gem spun around, but realized the limo had already departed. She sprang out onto the road after it, but a screech of tires caused her to spin around yet again, bringing her face-to-face with a biker who had just pulled to a halt.

"I need your bike!" she yelled at the confused man.

"What?" he yelled back. Unable to wait, Gem lashed out with her fist, knocking the man clean off his bike. She vaulted into the seat and sped off into the night. Only seconds later, she heard the Taka's engines again. Glancing up, she saw it rising above the buildings, headed back over the river.

Gem pulled her stolen bike to a halt. "Bastard," she muttered, watching the retreating car. She drove away, looking for something to vent her anger on.

Coming out of 93 Underground, Shion almost tripped over a body sprawled near the door. A body that twitched and moaned in pain, even as it coughed up bloody spittle.

Taking a step back, Shion carefully cocked on foot, fully intending on kicking whoever had the gall to die on 93 Underground's doorstep out of the way. Glancing down, she took note of the expensive, form-fitting business suit, the long, long white hair, and the attractive gray-eyed face.


She knew that face. It wasn't the face of some luckless bum or corporate drone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was a visage she knew all to well, one she saw everyday.

It was her's.

With a wordless cry, Shion stumbled back from the bloody soon-to-be corpse, barely avoiding the trembling fingers of one questing hand. That was her body down there! She was lying dead in the street! Her, Shion Nys, the Empress!

"marta..." the name escaped her lips in a rough whisper. She needed to talk to her sister Marta, she'd know what to do in a situation like this. She'd have Ling Ling get in touch with Nabiki who'd get her settled in a proper hospital.

Right. Hong Kong. Time to go.

Heedless of Shion-hime's painful attempts to crawl up 93 Underground's main entrance, Shion looked up into the sky, vanishing with an in-rush of dust and debris.

"The hell..."

Korey stared at the bleeding bloody form of Shion-hime as she painfully crawled towards the 93 Underground's entrance. Surprise was quickly replaced with instinct as she took out her Desert Eagle and approached the body, scanning the immediate area for the Puma's attackers. Seeing none, she holstered her gun and gingerly turned the Puma over, looking over the multiple gunshot wounds in the chest.

"Cripes..." She shrugged off her jean jacket and pressed it against Shion-hime's chest. "Now just lay still, you're going to be fine." Inwardly she cursed. Her training had covered medical attention for herself, but never for something so serious. The only reason why Shion-hime was even still alive was because of the durability granted her by way of being a Puma.

Shion-hime coughed, blood trickling down from the corners of her mouth and murmured something that Korey couldn't make out. Korey could feel the blood seeping into the jacket and through her fingers and knew that the Puma's life would be forfeit if she did not receive medical help immediately.

Footsteps sounded behind them and Korey whirled, the Desert Eagle appearing in her hand as though by magic, sighted unerringly on a young woman's head.

"What do you want?" she asked, taking in the woman's appearance: long curly blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and a curvaceous body mostly hidden by a trench coat.

Zenshou hesitated for a moment. No, it can't be, she thought. But she needs help. Damn... She approached the two women carefully. "Do you need some help?"

"Duh, what a question." Korey grimaced. "What do you think?" She holstered her gun yet again and pressed her bloody hand back down on the shivering Puma.

Zenshou moved forward and knelt down next to the Puma. With a quick look, she saw that the synthetic didn't have much time, so she went to work.

A few moments later, Zenshou gave a sigh of relief. "There. I think I've stabilized her, but she needs a doctor and quick! Maybe there's someone in there who might be able to help," she continued, pointing at 93 Underground.

"I'm not so sure, however I know of a doctor and a clinic who can treat her," Korey said, using the sleeve of her shirt to wipe the blood from Shion-hime's face. "It's risky to move her, but not so big a risk as waiting to search for a doctor here."

"Hmm... I could move her without jostling her," Zenshou replied. "How far is that clinic? Is it a ripperdoc or a chopshop?"

"Hardly... Dr. Lydia is one of the few good doctors around here," Korey replied, glancing around. "And her office isn't far from here, we just need something to keep her steady while we carry her."

"Stand a bit back from her, okay," Zenshou says as her eyes focus on the fallen synthetic. The air began to swirl, causing the Puma's hair to dance and weave, and slowly the Puma began to float up from the ground.

Korey fought the urge to sigh. Is every other person I meet a esper, or do I just draw them like flies to honey? she thought. "Okay then, I'll direct, you fly us..."

Zenshou frowned. "I'd rather not," she replied. "But she could die any moment." Zenshou took a deep, calming breath. "Hold still and don't thrash around too much." Slowly, Korey and Zenshou lifted into the air. "Where to?"

Suppressing a shiver at the feel of power lifting her off the ground, Korey pointed towards Dr. Lydia's clinic. "That way."

Zenshou nodded and followed Korey's directions, keeping Shion-Hime's movement as smooth as possible.

"Down there," Korey said, pointing down at Dr. Lydia's clinic.

Clark Street was shaped like a half-moon, with battered shops and tenements lining its sides. On each door, the grinning-devil logo of the local gang was spray-painted. Lydia's clinic was at the very top of the half-moon, a larger, cleaner building than the others, with a large rainwater reservoir on top and actual, intact glass windows.

As they swooped in, they saw a bunch of gangers running about, scrambling for weapons, at their approach. One elderly woman stood in front of the clinic door, looking up as if she expected their arrival. She was making calming gestures at a tall man with red hair and a huge revolver, trying to get him to stand down. Reluctantly, the man barked some orders, and the gangers lowered their weapons.

Zenshou's long curly blonde hair stirred a bit in the small vortices of air caused by the group's landing as her eyes quickly surveyed the gangers and the elderly woman. One side of her trench coat flipped back to reveal a slender body that was nicely curved in all the right places, and clothed in ragged pants and a well worn shirt. There's just something about her that drew the eye; an aura of authority and someone used to wielding power.

"We're here because this Puma needs help," she said, her piercing blue eyes looking directly at the elderly woman. "Are you Dr. Lydia?"

The older woman nodded calmly at Zenshou, seemingly impressed neither by her appearance nor by the fact that she just landed in front of her from the sky. "I am, young lady. Please bring her inside, I'll take care of her immediately." She glanced at Korey meaningfully, but said nothing, instead turning around and entering the clinic, holding the door for Zenshou and the patient.

Korey frowned ever so slightly and followed her in, a sense of worry building up within her.

Zenshou followed the woman into the clinic, carefully maneuvering the synthetic through the doorway.

"Where would you like me to set her down?" she asked.

Lydia tapped one of the wheeled beds in the clinic, the sheets cleaned blindingly white. "Please hurry," she said. Various operating tools had been spread over a nearby gurney, covered by another white cloth. The doctor reached over the gurney and took a pair of clear rubber gloves, quickly putting them on. Next was an operating mask.

Zenshou moved the Puma over to the gurney and set her down quickly but carefully, then took a few steps back to get out of the doctor's way.

"If you don't need me, I'll be going..."

Watching her leave, Korey turned back to watch Dr. Lydia work on the unconscious Puma. "I had no idea you were so proficient in working on synthetics, Dr. Lydia," she spoke in a crisp, well-mannered voice. "From what I've heard of your reputation, in fact, you work mainly on human clients."

Lydia had retrieved some cotton pads and was busy stanching the flow of blood from the Puma's chest. "There's not much of a difference, you know," she said. "I had a Lynx in when you were in last."

Korey smiled and shook her head. "I am afraid you have me confused with someone else, Dr. Lydia. This is the first time I've been in here."

"Maybe I do," Lydia said quietly, standing in satisfaction. The flow of blood was stanched, and she started to prepare Shion-Hime for the operating room. "Maybe I have you confused with someone else who is you."

"Perhaps..." She paused a moment before speaking again. "I shall be waiting outside. Please alert me once you are done, Dr. Lydia." And with that, Korey left, taking a seat in the waiting room.

It took Lydia three long, stressful hours to remove the bullets from Shion-Hime's body and properly dress all her wounds. She finally left the operating room pushing Shion-Hime's stretcher, her operating smock splattered with a few drops of blood and the mask around her neck. She parked the peacefully-sleeping Puma along a wall, nodded, and went to Korey.

Looking up as she approached, Korey yawned into her hand. "How did the operation fare, Dr. Lydia?"

"She'll be fine, Miss. I extracted all the bullets and put some accelerant on the wounds. She'll have to stay under observation for a few days, but she is out of danger."

Korey nodded. "Very good, I thank you." She stood and reached inside her jacket. "How much do I owe you for your services?"

Lydia quoted a price, more than fair. "A special deal for "first-time" customers," she added, the quotes almost audible in her tone.

Subtlety scanning the clinic, Korey handed Dr. Lydia her money. "You're very kind, doctor," she said, speaking softly and locking eyes with her. "Kind enough to not speak of anything to her relatives."

Lydia shrugged. "It is up to you to decide how to treat your friends, dear."

Korey was silent for a few moments, and spared a glance towards the sleeping Puma. "Take care of her. When she is ready to move, give me a call here and I will pick her up." She pulled out a business card and handed it to Lydia. "Raven... would not like it if I simply abandoned left her to her own devices, especially here in the Zero Zone."

"It's very kind of you to care for her," Lydia simply said. "I'll call you."

"Your... daughter has a way of teaching people how to care. And thank you." She turned and started to walk off. "Take care. Dr. Lydia."

"Take care of yourself, dear. And don't wait too long before talking to Raven."

Korey paused at the doorway at the sound of her words before continuing on, leaving as silently as any shadow.

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