By Dustin Evermore, Alex Fauth, and Mike Surbrook

Jason knocked on Hobbs' door at his guest house. As expected, he was still at the office, so Jason pulled out his spare keys and held the door open for the Moira and the two women. He watched behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses as they silently went inside.

In other circumstances, he'd consider himself a lucky man. Here he was, flying around the globe in the presence of two beautiful women, never mind the fact that flirting was out of the question. One had to respect the finely sculpted curves of the vivacious Marta Nys. And as a man, he could not help but be a little amused by the jealous glances Sandra would fire at Marta any time she thought the attractive street sam might be looking at Jason. But heaven forbid he should let that amusement show on his face. No, he'd be risking his life much sooner than planned if he allowed that to slip.

The first priority after they had arrived in Neo York was to secure a place for Moira while the rest of them took care of the day's business. That meant Hobbs' rooms in Jason's guest house was probably the safest place, if there was one.

The scrambled link direct to Hobbs' implant switched on.

"Hobbs? You busy?"

"Jason! You gave me a bit of a start. But no, you know I always have time for you, sir."

"Thanks. Listen, I'm dropping Moira off at your place for a while. I'll pick her up after I finish my business."

The older man sighed. He disapproved of Jason's move to attack the gang in the Zone. In his opinion, it was wiser to simply hire a team of mercs to go in and sterilize the damn gang in their turf; only way to be sure, really.

"Of course sir. I will return from the office immediately. I'll make her favorite supper. It's still spaghetti and meatballs, isn't it?"

"What? Oh. Yeah, she says noodles make her laugh, although I have never actually seen that. Say Hobbs—Arthur—can you be sure to stay near a phone this afternoon? [If anything] Anything happens to ..." He was going to say Sandra and Marta, but worried that Hobbs would not he omitted himself. "To us. If I need an extraction--"

"Of course, sir. I have two teams ready to go at any time." Hobbs always was much smarter than Jason realized most of the time. Perhaps it was his unassuming manner that seemed misleading.

"Thank you--"

"Not at all, sir. It's my job. Good luck, sir."

"See you later."

Hobbs pushed a button at his desk in SynTech corporate headquarters. "Call the limo, will you? And book a flight to London. Two tickets, please." He paused for a moment before continuing. "And put that on my account, will you dear?"

"Yes sir," came the crisp reply.

Jason Stone wasted no time securing transportation. Motorcycles, which are much more maneuverable than cars, were the first choice, and Jason didn't have a problem springing for new bikes. As expected, the trio's choice of bikes was as different as their personalities.

Jason selected a BMW 1600RS, slightly used. He intended to survive this battle and actually be able to use the bike later, but he didn't want to have to waste time worrying about breaking in a new bike. The BMW bike had some miles on it already, but it ran smooth and had excellent pick up. He chose to wear a black body suit with a single red stripe running up one side from ankle to shoulder. On top of this, he tossed on a charcoal colored armored long coat. His only head gear was a pair of sunglasses that would soon be tossed aside when the sun set. Armed with his twin Desert Eagles, a half dozen extra clips and his paired wakizashi and katana, he seemed ready as he would ever be.

Sandra had chosen a slightly used Honda XFC6000, mainly for its speed and agility. She figured that if the bike survived whatever happened today, she could get some additional use out of it. She was wearing a gray combat suit, similar to the one that she'd worn when she rescued Drake, as well as an armored longcoat. She carried a pair of Hoshoku Zetas, as well as a Uzi II and a few spare clips. She'd figured that there would be plenty of spare guns on dead gangers if she needed any new ones.

Given the choice of virtually any bike she wanted, Marta had selected the Yamaha XT2000, a bike known for its handling. In the Zone speed wouldn't be of the essence, it was maneuverability that counted. Besides, it was not like she expected the bike to last more than one night.

In preparation for the night's work, Marta had donned her typical mode of dress for an evening out. Fully covering formfitting body armor, black bodysuit, and an ankle-length black coat. The latter seemed to be some sort of aesthetic affection, until one realized that when mixed with her black hair, gloves, boots, and bodysuit, Marta virtually vanished into the coat, making drawing a bead on her that much more difficult. Under the coat, Marta had strapped on a virtual arsenal of guns, with paired Jinsei Hoshoku Zetas riding low on her firm hips, a pair of SIG-Sauer P240s in a double shoulder rig, and a pair of Skorpion vz75s hidden behind her back. The final touch was her katana, which had been slung over her shoulder for easy access.

Freshly outfitted for war, the deadly trio flew down the street of Neo York like riders of the apocalypse, without a word spoken. A lot of people had been marked to die tonight. There was little more to say.

Patrolling the borders of the Zero Zone was one of the most and least liked duties for an NYPD Inc. officer. Most, because the opportunities for quick cash were plentiful. If somebody needed to get into the Zone with no questions asked, they would often wave large wads of cash at officers. The same went for people who were wanting to get out; they simply produced some money and they could be out of there in a flash.

Of course, the duty did have its drawbacks. Every now and then, there would be some mass effort at breaking out of the zone. This resulted in waves of kamikazes throwing themselves at the checkpoints. After the inevitable brief-but-messy gunfight, the officers on duty were left with the arduous task of cleaning up, and then filling out the paperwork.

Alan Davies particularly hated this job. He loved the cash, but he hated having to be there to collect it himself. He hated the cold, the weather, the people and, most of all, having to deal with his fellow officers face to face. It didn't help that one of the others on duty, Karen McMillain, was one of his least favorite people in the universe. Karen was short, overweight, annoyingly clean-cut and had a tendency to pedantically quote regulations. He'd been working on various ways to get her out of the way so he could collect money, but to no avail.

His quiet contemplation of his hatred of the universe was interrupted by the sound of high-performance motorcycle engines. Three figures were riding towards the checkpoint from the city end. Great. He sighed, and resigned himself to accepting only a small donation before Karen noticed and started bleating to him again. He eyed the three as they rode up. There were two women, and a man. The man was young and handsome looking, and probably popular with the ladies. Alan hated his type. One of the two women was, in his opinion, mind-blowingly beautiful. Long black hair, a body he couldn't believe, skintight black leather outfit. The lot. The other was... oh shit.

"Morning, Alan," the second woman said as she pulled up, removing her sunglasses to reveal an all-to familiar scarred face. "How's things going on peon patrol?"

Damn. He might have been able to pull this off, had Sandra not decided to talk to him. Now, it was going to hurt. "Look, just move along. Go back to the city." He was trying to keep it straight.

"What?" Sandra replied in clearly mock anger. "We finally get to see each other after god knows how long and that's all you have to say to your old friend?" She looked angry. "I'm insulted."

"What's going on here?" Karen asked as she came over. The heavy body armor and helmet only served to make her look somewhat comical, especially when she moved.

"Oh, hi there Karen" Sandra said. "I haven't seen you in ages!"

"Sandra?" Karen asked, a little surprised looking. "Wow! I haven't seen you since... well... ages!" She burbled on happily. "How have you been? I mean... what have you been doing with yourself for two years?"

"You mean Alan didn't tell you?" Sandra replied. "He's been talking to me pretty regularly."

Karen turned to Alan, clearly angry. "You mean to tell me you've been talking to Sandra all this time and you haven't told me?"

"Yes." Alan replied, strangely intimidated by this rotund terror.

"Hey, Karen" Sandra piped up. "You couldn't do us a favor and let us through, could you?" She looked back at Drake and Marta. "My friends and I have an appointment to keep."

"You're not up to anything illegal, are you?" Karen asked. "Because, if you were, then I couldn't"

"Naw, we're just going for drinks." Sandra replied.

"With guns. Lots of guns," Marta added, after the fact.

"Well, I can understand that." Karen replied. "After all, the Zone's a pretty terrible place, what with all the gangs, and the cyber-monsters, and the cannibals, and the rogue Pumas, and the mass-murdering serial puppy-kickers and the like." She trailed off. Marta simply stared at Karen, her expression a mixture of disbelief and amusement.

"Can we just get through?" Drake finally said, sounding impatient.

"Oh sure!" Karen replied. "Alan, could you open the gates for them?"

"Sure," Alan muttered, mumbling obscenities as he went.

"I wonder why he's so angry all of a sudden?" Karen asked as he went.

"No idea, Karen," Sandra replied. "No idea whatsoever."

The three dark riders rolled to a stop near the edges of the Waste. This part of the Zone was traditionally no-man's land, but had recently been taken by the gang of brown armband wearing cutthroats and their mysterious leader.

"There," Drake gestured at a cluster of scruffy looking individuals who were gathered about a rusty 55-gallon drum emitting a thin stream of smoke.

"That's the target?" Marta asked, obviously unable to conceive how such lowlives as these constituted a threat to Drake.

"Don't be fooled," Drake replied. "Those are just everyday street fodder, the really dangerous ones keep hidden."

Sandra looked the gangers over with a critical eye, noting that several of the more alert members had noticed the trio and their bikes. "What ever you want us to do, make it fast, these guys are starting to get a clue."

"Simple," Drake said in a flat tone of voice. "Leave two alive and able to run."

"Wha..." Out of the corner of her eye Sandra saw Marta's hand's drop.

Time seemed to slow as Sandra's reflex boost came on line. She went for her own gun, just in case. Her hand brushed the hard rubber of the grip as...

... Marta's hands came back up, each holding a sleek SIG-Sauer P240...

...Sandra's hand curled around the butt of the gun as...

...Marta rapid-fired her guns, the reports occurring so fast to create a single extended popping sound. Spent casings arced through the air, to rattle on the cracked asphalt beneath their booted feet.

Sandra started to draw her gun as...

...Marta shifted and turned, her guns looking to jump from target to target. She fired continuously, her expression blank, as gangers spun and fell. As near as Sandra could tell, Marta was only putting one round into each of her victims.

Sandra brought her gun up as Marta's pistols fell silent. A faint ringing echoed as the last of the brass casings clattered across the street. Of the dozen or so gangers that had been gathered near the barrel fire, there were now only two, and both of those were clutching at their bleeding arms. The rest were splayed about on the ground, several twitching spasmodically as their nervous systems finally realized they were, in fact, dead.

"..." was Sandra's response.

Drake simply shrugged. "You should save the ammo, we'll need it later."

Marta shrugged back and returned her pistols back to their holsters. "I've got more."

The two wounded gangers scrambled away, realizing that they were alive only because Marta had chosen to keep them that way. If she had so desired, they would be dead now.

Sandra turned to Drake as Marta calmly holstered her pistols. "Why do it this way?" she asked him in a low voice. "We could quietly enter the place, sneak past the mooks and take out the big guns that way. We don't need to kill them all."

Drake wanted to say yes. Yes, every last one of them. They shot Moira and they killed his sister Helen. He wanted revenge and closure. He wanted to know they wouldn't live to murder another living soul. Yet he couldn't say that. What if some or even just one of them was an innocent victim? What if they didn't choose this path, but were somehow coerced? Wouldn't that be murder, too? But Drake had already faced this demon and he recalled his decision then.

"I hope we don't have to kill all of them Sandra. But we have to get their attention, we have to make them attack. All who resist us must be put down. Those who do not shall live. Resisting or not, their leadership is responsible for the death of Helen, for shooting Moira down twice, and for attempting to murder me. The cops won't help, so we are here to show them our own justice. Doing this will attract the attention of the leadership. Because we are only three, they will not fear us. They will attack and we will kill them; every last one that opposes us."

"Fine," Sandra replied curtly. She pulled out her Uzi II and checked it. "I guess we should be ready for the mooks now."

Putting their bikes into gear, Sandra, Marta and Drake rolled into the Wastes, proceeding slowly to watch for ambush. The sun had finally set and the awkwardness of twilight set in.

Drake stopped his bike and kicked down the stand as the two women followed suit. "Better get off the street now," he stated calmly.

In his mind, he was already in battle, but it was with his own memories and fears. This was about where it had happened last time. This was where his tomb would be if it hadn't been for Sandra. He swung off his bike and watched her move out the corner of his eye.

"Sandra," he said, getting her attention. She turned to look at him and her profile against the darkened blue sky made his stomach flutter.

"Yeah?" she replied and looked surprised as he suddenly wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her up off the ground. "Too-!"

Drake cut off the last of her exclamation with his tongue as he enveloped her with a deep kiss and passionate embrace. It was filled with all the passion and fire that had been leeched away in recent days by Drake's preoccupation with this grim event. He kissed her like it could be their last.

"I love you." It was a simple statement of fact. One he wished he had mentioned before tonight. He tried to move on. "We..." He paused, unable to tear his eyes away from Sandra's for a moment, "We have to get off the street now. Stick near the buildings to avoid getting sniped. Come on."

Marta had been more interested in watching what was going on around them, but professionally remained silent as she observed the two lovers out of the corner of her eye. Something felt wrong. Something told her there was a hell of a lot more people out there than anyone thought. Reaching behind her back she produced the two Skorpions and yanked back the cocking bolts. She was ready, whether her companions were or not remained to be seen.

The three made their way to the shadowy west side of the street. Blackness settled upon them like cloaks, while the moonlight vainly tried to bring light to this place.

The gang's response was as swift as it was predictable. Six men and women suddenly streamed out of a half-collapsed business building and ran across the street directly toward Drake and Marta. The sound of sliding chains and the high rev of a two-stroke street bike got Sandra's attention as she whirled to face the rear attackers while the two in front opened fire at the closing gang members.

In the blink of an eye, Drake had his twin .44s out, but Marta had already opened fire. Her attack was as furious as she appeared calm, her weapons an outlet for an unrevealed joy of battle. She fired the Skorpions in short bursts, using the rapid streams of lead to cut four of the approaching gangers nearly in half.

Drake was more methodical, his mind slipped into an emotionless combat mode, taking in data as it came. This time, his flanks were not exposed and he was not blinded by anger. Chest-head, chest-head. Four bullets and the last two gangers drank a hot lead sundae. The six enemies hadn't even gotten within thirty feet.

Looking every bit the gunslinger, Sandra faced down her two opponents as the hurtled towards her on their fast-moving bike. The man riding on the back of the bike stood, whirling in deadly arcs a sharpened hook on the end of a long chain, while the driver bore down on Sandra. Sighting down the barrel of her pistol, Sandra pulled the trigger.

The front tire of the bike immediately shredded, and the rim dug into the pavement. A moment later the two screaming riders flew by to collide with the broken remains of a lamppost. The man ended up impaled on a sharp chunk of metal, while driver tumbled to a stop in the ground, her glassy stare and the awkward angle of her head indicating a broken neck. The man, seemingly calm with shock, yanked himself off the post. Staggering back amid a spray of blood he tripped over his companion's corpse and collapsed to the ground. "Christ," he stated. Then he passed out.

Sandra looked around at the suddenly silent street. "That wasn't so bad."

"That's not all of them," Drake replied.


Resistance had been far too light. "They're up to something," Drake warned. Suddenly, he whirled around involuntarily and bumped up against the wall of the nearby brick building. It was followed a fraction of a second later by the loud retort of a hunting or sniping rifle. Sandra ducked and glanced quickly at Drake who was already checking for a bullet hole from his now-prone position.

"Good news," he said with an optimistic lilt. "They aren't using .50 cals. Didn't penetrate. Bad news. They're good shots."

Marta took the initiative to throw herself through a half-broken window, breaking the remaining glass as she sought the cover offered by the building. The pavement around Drake and Sandra began to erupt in showers of deadly shards of rock and lead announced by the sharp retorts of semi and full automatic gunfire. Drake powered up his 'ware and followed Sandra as she dove into the building after Marta.

This building had been a small department store at one time, which left an unfortunate amount of glass in the front windows and very little ledge to use as cover. The three would be pinned down if they remained here.

"We have to get to the roof!" shouted Drake over the din. "Move fast, keep your head down and don't run in straight lines!" he yelled unnecessarily. More and more, he was beginning to wish he had thought of some way to keep Sandra from coming on this hellish mission. He knew she was here because she was his friend, not because he paid her to do it, and he didn't have friends to spare in this world.

The three leaped up and charged with heads down toward the rear of the store where there was a jumble of furniture and half-ruined counters. If there was inside access to the flat roof of the building, it would be in the back.

Marta, leading the run, nearly jerked in surprise when she almost collided with five gangers who'd just popped up from behind a couple rotting couches. More jumped screaming from behind broken counters and opened fire with shotguns and pistols.

They had been waiting.

Marta brought her arms up, her hands tight on the grips of her Skorpions. She'd requested smartlinked weapons, and Drake had come through. Twin crosshairs danced in her field of vision, and a bright 24 floated in the lower corner of both eyes.

She fired.


Numbers flashed by as the twin submachine guns bucked in her hands. The Skorpion fired a light round and normally Marta considered it a worthless weapon. But here in the Zone armor was at a premium, and she doubted that the brown-band gang had much of it—at least among the lowest ranking members. Besides, the Skorpion was capable of full autofire and had a large capacity, perfect for quickly chewing her way though the initial hordes.


Bodies spun and pitched to either side as Marta fired bursts from first one Skorpion and then the other. She twisted and dodged as she went, her long coat swirling in her wake. Few could draw a bead on her, and those that did usually hit nothing but coat.


The crosshairs bounced as her eyes flicked from one target to another. The action-reaction system in her arms then swung her guns in response, bringing them to bear on each new target. A slight squeeze of the trigger and...


Another foe went down in a spray of blood and spent brass shell casings.


The red numbers went bright yellow as she reached five rounds remaining. Then there was nothing but a flashing 00. Pausing, Marta went to hurl the now empty guns away just as something hit her from behind...

Sandra ran. She knew a bad situation when she saw one, and she was looking at one now. They were outnumbered and outgunned. The three of them were good, but that many goons would, sooner or later, get a lucky shot. And Sandra didn't feel like relying on luck, it tended to desert her at the worst moments.

So she ran for cover. The wreckage of the department store's interior provided her with ample opportunities to protect herself. Old counters, benches, leftover furniture. you name it. Unfortunately, it also meant that her enemies had lots of places to hide.

She also knew she had cut herself off from Marta and Drake. As much as she hated to leave Drake alone, she realized that it could be advantageous. If the three of them split up, the baddies had to split their forces to chase each of them. That meant they couldn't concentrate their fire on one area and instead had to go after three fast-moving targets. And individuals were harder to track than groups.

Unfortunately, they are also more vulnerable. Sandra realized this as several shots whizzed past her location, tearing into an old counter, further scarring the already decrepit switch to surface. Sandra turned to the source, a man standing in the doorway. Her augmented reflexes and smartgun system kicked in, allowing her to bring up her gun and fire before the guy could fire again. Three quick, tightly-packed, shots to the chest dropped him hard and dead he knew what was happening.

Before she could check his corpse, a row of bullets ripped into the floor. Two more were coming for her from an escalator. One was charging down, while another waited at the top with a SMG. She sprinted around the side of the escalator, keeping low while firing. Despite her efforts, a stray round grazed her shoulder. Body armor and dermal plating absorbed the impact, but it still stung like hell. She ducked behind the escalator's side. Soon enough, the first mook rounded the corner, only to be hit dead center with a single round. Without pausing, she vaulted onto the escalator, charging up the stairs. The man at the top wasn't expecting this. Before he could react, Sandra was onto him. Cyber-razors slashed across his throat, killing him instantly. Blood splashed across Sandra's sleeve and hand.

"Damn!" she swore. This was all wrong. If Drake hadn't done his big scene to start with, they wouldn't be in this mess. The Brown-Bands wouldn't have had the time to organize this and...

Her thoughts were cut off by the crunching of glass. There was somebody here. She dropped behind the rail of the escalator, scanning the floor below. In between several dismembered dummies there were a trio of gangers. Two had guns, one was brandishing a metal pipe. He was big and ugly enough to make it serious. Desperately looking around, she noted a chunk of ceiling lying near her. Grabbing it, she took a wild throw at the dummies. The chunk hit—better than she'd expected. One of the dummies fell forward, crashing into another. The two gunners immediately opened fire, pumping bullets into the dummies, ripping apart their plastic bodies. Sandra grabbed her Uzi, opening fire on the three. The two gunners fell, their guns bursting into the ceiling sending plaster chunks raining down. The pipe man also fell, taking rounds in the arm.

Crunching sounds reached her ears. There were more of them somewhere on this floor. She was willing to bet that there were still more below coming up to greet her. It looked like from here, there would only be the one way out.

The roof.

Sandra had spent a lot of her life as a street sam getting into and out of places through upper-story windows, her own apartment included. She was hoping that the baddies wouldn't think to follow her up there, or at the very least wouldn't have the speed and balls to do what she was going to.

Ignoring the moans of pain coming from behind the dummy, she charged up the next escalator, ducking as a stream of automatic gunfire tore over her when she reached the next floor. She rounded the bend to the next level, casually emptying the last rounds from her Uzi clip in the general direction of her assailant. Charging up the next escalator, she was met with a gunman charging down it at her. Without pausing, she leapt over him, planting a boot in his back as she went, sending him crashing down the escalator.

Top floor. Sandra eyed what she was after in the far corner of the room, and that was an entranceway to the fire stairs. Crouching, she ran as fast as she could across the room, mindful of the sounds of footsteps on the escalator behind her. A quick boot opened the door, slamming it into the face of a goon on the other side. Before she could recover (Wow... female goons are pretty rare, Sandra thought), Sandra grabbed her and roughly threw her down the stairs. Hopefully she'd serve as a distraction, or at least obstacle, for anyone chasing after her.

Heading up the stairs, Sandra burst out onto the roof. There wasn't anyone up here yet, which is what she'd been counting on. Ahead was another building, with a notable gap between it and this one. It wasn't anywhere near as much as Sandra wanted, but it was enough.

Unfortunately, at that point, the sounds of boots on stairs reached her ears. Sandra turned to the next roof and ran as the goons came pouring out of the door, a very angry woman at their lead. She leapt onto the roof of the next building, dropping behind the ledge as shots whizzed overhead. Crouching, she ran towards the rooftop door that was, mercifully, on the other side. Ducking behind it, she cautiously opened the door. A brief check of the stairwell showed it to be empty. The sounds of crunching feet on the other side of the roof encouraged her to move on. Apparently the baddies had gotten up the courage to chase her. No matter. She stormed down the fire stairs, knowing that any second there would be an army of goons after her.

Unfortunately, something else caught her ear. It was the sound of boots charging up the stairs. Tool. Mooks above, mooks below. And if she cut and ran onto one of the floors, she would have a larger force behind her.


Concrete pebbles littered the floor, a memory of past troubles this building had suffered through. She picked up one and hefted it in her hand. Her throwing arm had been getting a lot of practice today. Leaping down to the next landing, she paused for only a second to pitch the chunk down the stairs. It hit the next wall and then continued to clatter satisfyingly. She listened for a moment, measuring the sound of the boots in the stairs, then leapt through the door and into the first hallway, hitting the ground running. She was halfway down the hall when the gunfire started then abruptly stopped and then the shouting began.

Then the door opened, and the shouting began anew. Sandra ran down the stairs at the far end of the hall, hoping that these weren't so well guarded. Instead, she ran into a single thug charging up at her. She was quick, and he was dead, three cyber-razors imbedded in his stomach. Messy. Blood all over her. This was not her day.

Her Uzi was still empty. She hadn't gotten a chance to reload. Unfortunately, the group now after her wouldn't give her the chance. So she ran, this time going back down the stairs, jumping off at the next floor. It was her hope that they'd split their force and thus reduce the amount after her. Or, at the very least, it would buy her some time.

Instead she got neither as a shotgun blast ripped apart the door behind her. Sandra ducked off into a side room as the rest of the door was kicked off its hinges, thugs entering. "Check every room!" a rather bruised-looking woman shouted, the same one that Sandra had hurled down the stairs. So she'd managed to piss off a field commander or something. Cool.

At that point the wall exploded, sending shards and splinters flying over Sandra. Tool. The guy with the shotgun. Grabbing one of her Zetas, she wheeled around, bringing up the pistol, firing off three quick rounds, hitting him in the arm. He jerked back, firing again, ripping up a chunk of scenery, scattered shot tearing into Sandra's coat and sleeve. That hurt.

"Why don't you tools..." Sandra shouted as she blasted the guy again, finally dropping him to the floor in a bloody mess. "...ever give up?" Crap. Crap-crap-crap. Her arm was hurting now. She clamped her left hand to it, and felt something moist. Crap. Picking up the shotgun and slinging it over her good shoulder, she prepared for the worst.

Unfortunately, that little outburst (and the shooting) had drawn some attention. More feet were coming down the hallway towards her. Putting the pain aside, she leveled the Zeta at the door, waiting for the first thug to come along. Sure enough, one blundered into sight, clearly not thinking hard enough and ended up in a bullet in the head for his stupidity. A second mug literally crashed into the first, becoming entangled in his dead companion long enough for Sandra to plug him.

"Look, I'm having a bad day, okay?" she said as she scooped up a machine pistol that one of the thugs had dropped and stepped out into the hallway. A trio of gangers turned around to face the source of the noise. "We could have done this nice and quiet like," Sandra began as she sprayed the hallway with bullets, killing two of them and sending the third one running for cover. "But no. He goes off and says 'I don't want to kill them all', when it's obvious that he does!" She finished as she pumped several more rounds into the third ganger as he tried for a shot.

She ran down the hallway, discarding the now empty pistol for her spare Zeta. A thug wielding a fire ax leapt out at her, only to be gunned down before he could make it any further. "He's treating this like some insane holy cause for great justice." Noting the empty clip, she stashed the Zeta and pulled out the shotgun.

Another pair of thugs entered standing around a door at the end of the hall. "He doesn't love me!" she shouted as she pumped and fired, splattering one of them across the wall. The other one panicked, not sure what was going on. Was she crazy or something? Sandra answered the question for him by shouting out "He never tells me anything!" and then firing, literally ripping him apart. "He uses his damned daughter as a gun caddy!" she shouted at a thug who stepped out of a doorway, only to be filled with lead.

Harry ducked behind a table in one of the spare rooms. This had been one of their regular hangouts, a place to go when Wretch didn't need them for anything. It used to be a nice place to go for a little booze between fights or recruitment drives. Now, it was going to hell, even by Zone standards. Some crazy woman was walking around, randomly blowing away members of the gang, whining about her boyfriend all the way.

A bottle rolled past him. He picked it up, hoping that some booze had survived at the bottom. Sadly it was empty. He sighed and put it down.

There was the sound of some scuffling, then two others, Dick and Tom leapt behind the table.

"She still out there?" Harry asked.

"Yep. She's still lipping off about this guy of hers." Dick replied.

"Who the hell is she?" Tom asked, fear in his voice.

"I don't know" Harry answered. "But I think I liked it better when she was shooting at us."

Sandra tossed aside the empty shotgun, having expended its last shell on some hapless thug. "And the worst bit is that I thought he was a nice guy."

"Good for you." Came an angry voice from behind her. Sandra wheeled around to see a blonde woman with a bruised face and a Skorpion in each hand, the barrels leveled at Sandra.

She began to move just as the two guns fired, leaping to one side, bullets shredding what was left of her favorite longcoat. The woman continued to fire, badly tracking Sandra's moves. Unlike Marta, who was an expert with twin-gun fighting, this was just an angry girl with a gun in each hand. She wasn't practiced and lacked the sort of training and cyberware needed to make it worth her while. Still, a bullet was a bullet.

Sandra used this to her advantage, ducking behind everything that she came along as bullets chewed up the scenery behind her, trying desperately to stay ahead of the girl's efforts to correct her aim. Then came the sound Sandra wanted to hear, a pair of hollow clicks as the guns both emptied at the same time. The girl looked at her guns in surprise.

Sandra didn't give her a chance, and leaped out at her, claws extended. The first swipe raked across her right arm, spraying blood and causing her to drop the gun on that side. The second slashed across her face, causing her to scream in pain and drop the remaining gun.

Sandra grabbed the girl and shoved her roughly against the wall. "You don't know what I've been through. So shut the hell up and stay out of my life, got it?" She let the girl drop, before simply walking off.

Drake twisted and swerved trying to make himself as difficult a target as possible, and succeeded to a large extend. He hurtled, full speed and with guns out and firing as he ran amongst the gangers, dropping one after another with fatal shots to the head and chest. His muscles contracted and expanded with unearthly power as his cyber-enhanced systems propelled him toward a counter protecting four men armed with shotguns and pistols. His long coat collected a few hits that were sure to flower nasty bruises, but Drake didn't slow.

Head, chest. Miss, chest. Head, miss. Head, head. Drake took in the damage he was doing as calmly as he counted his rounds. 17, 18. 'That's it,' thought Drake. Already, the two of them had cleared half the room but Drake didn't want to waste time loading in new clips when he was still in point blank range. In a smooth motion, he slipped his guns back into their shoulder holsters and whipped his swords free.

The battle had changed flavor. Any time melee weapons were used instead of firearms, things got a lot more bloody, slippery, and ugly, and this time was no exception. Sword work was a brutal affair with much maiming and disabling, but Drake struck with a force only top of the line cybernetics could provide as he separated limbs and hacked bodies apart. Shock and fast blood loss were the gangers' only angels of mercy.

Something bumped into his back and Drake whirled and struck, but a gun barrel just managed to interpose itself between Drake's blade and his would-be target. A pretty, smoke-grimed face looked up at him with a grin as they locked eyes for a moment.

"Excuse me," Drake told Marta as he pulled his sword away. The moment was gone and the two hurtled back into the fray.

Soon the battle continued from building to building as the two rejoined and pursued their diminishing enemies. The gang members continued to attempt ambushes and put up the stiff, uncompromising resistance only fanatics can wield. Marta appeared high on adrenaline, but otherwise unharmed; Drake wasn't sure if he'd taken any serious hits. There would be time for that kind of consideration later.

A hooded man and five other forms stood atop a building observing the battle's progress through night vision scopes. The hooded man lowered his scope and turned to the menacing form and hate-filled eyes of the Chinese man standing beside him. Four people, two men and two women, stood nearby dressed in armor fashioned after an ancient Chinese style but made in with modern ceramics. The new-looking armor was a red and midnight black.

"You have seen what you needed to see, Ting?"

The silent Chinese nodded. "I know their weaknesses now. They will die. HE will die." He held his fist in the air, prepared to give the order to his Acolytes.

"No, Ting. I want that girl. The fast one. Have your Acolytes single her out for me and I will deal with her personally. Kill Mr. Stone and whatever bitch he's got with him."

"Yes, Master."

"Take Athena with you. I think she will want to be there when her brother dies."

Ting gave silent orders with a gesture to three of the Acolytes. The last put on her helmet, and leapt after the fast-moving form of Ting.

There was shouting. A few gang members still able to move began pulling away, and it was clear Marta wanted to pursue and finish them. They were retreating to what looked like an old warehouse and she seemed convinced this was wrap-up time.

"Marta, wait!" Drake bellowed. She didn't. "Goddammit!! They've been holding back. There's someone else you doesn't know about, someone I fought before. Stop! You'll get killed!" Drake tore after her.

Marta crashed through the door in a swirl of long hair and longer coat. She came up with a Hoshoku Zeta in each hand, firing rapidly into a mob of brown armband wearing thugs. A few went down under her initial onslaught, but these were tougher, better armed, armored, and just a bit faster than the peons she'd encountered earlier. Undaunted, they returned her fire.

Drake joined the fire-fight inside the warehouse near a girder column beside Marta. Drake reloaded his pistols and waited. It lasted all of another twelve seconds before Marta's Hoshokus clicked empty and Drake stepped around her to absorb bullets and dish out death while the woman reloaded. Some lucky son of a bitch managed to score a hit through Drake's left arm and he grunted in surprise just before he returned fire into the guy's face.

"Incoming," noted Marta from behind. There were five newcomers. Four were dressed in some kind of fancy, antique-looking armor and the fifth appeared dressed in loose-fitting black garb. Marta hadn't finished reloading so she dropped the Hoshokus, pulled out the SIG-Sauer 9mms and fired at them. Drake half-turned to keep one gun firing at the gang members and one at the incoming threat. They were fast; much faster than the foes the team met so far. Drake and Marta only scored a couple glancing shots when the new enemies engaged them.

None of these newcomers seemed to be equipped with firearms. Two wielded katana, another had one some sort of spiked glove which crackled with electricity when he made a fist, while the last bore a Chinese ghi, a long weapon with two inverted-crescent blades that looked like a cross between a European halberd and a spear."

The fifth of the newcomers came in last, yet arrived first. His movements were a blur to the naked eye but he paused for a moment and descended into a wide kung-fu stance. He appeared unarmed until he clenched his fist and long spurs ripped forth from his hand. He stared with deadly determination at Drake as he raised both hands and made a chopping motion. His Acolytes obeyed and closed the last of the distance.

The one with the ghi sliced between the two warriors. Drake and Marta leaped to either side to avoid the deadly sweep that succeeded in separating the cyber-warriors. Drake noted the one with the ghi moved nearly as fast as Marta and the kung fu master who was closing on himself.

The three remaining Acolytes focused their attention upon Marta. Tossing her now empty guns aside, she drew her katana and sliced at their rightmost member as they closed.

Their strategy was well rehearsed and effective. One would distract and avoid, while two more would attack. This pattern rotated, seemingly at random or when Marta picked a new target. Whoever was under attack would dodge and avoid, while the other two would strike at Marta. Yet, most of their attacks seemed meant to pin her down and not disable or kill her.

The black-clad kung fu master paused. "You have proven a most resilient adversary, Mr. Stone," the dark warrior observed. "You refused our invitation once, and get no more chances. Now our lord Master Wretch has ordered your death. Before you die, I want you to know who it was that killed you; I am Master Ting. I am the one who will bring you into the Light."

I can't believe bad guys actually talk like this, thought Drake. Maybe Master Ting is from Hong Kong.

Drake stood his ground proudly. "I am like good steel, Master Ting. I will bend, but I will not break. No one, not you or any other, will stop me today." Drake knitted his brows in consternation over his own response. Great, now I'M doing it.

Ting closed fast with Drake and soon they were engaged in a storm of steel lightning. Ting was clearly the faster of the two, seemingly as fast as Marta, but used only his own body and the knuckle spurs as his weapon. That gave Drake an edge since his reach with his weapons was greater and he could use each hand perfectly independently. This just allowed him to keep up with Ting's hail of blows. Drake was forced to give ground when Ting's non-spiked fist exploded into his chest.

It hurt and winded Drake. He staggered backwards, off-balance. The one with the ghi was watching, waiting for an easy opening and taking shots of opportunity at her leisure. The she swept it down and over in a hook pattern meant to take his head off, but Drake just managed to see it coming. He barely blocked it with his wakizashi and felt his arm shudder painfully with the impact. The one with the ghi is strong! he thought to himself. Probably upgraded with 'ware...

Drake could ill afford the distraction and Ting's next strike planted a spiked fist low on Drake's chest. Drake wheezed with the impact and blood was immediately brought to his lips as he staggered again. He looked at Ting and his student with surprise and fear.

Drake had to do something fast. At this rate, fighting two on one, he'd be dead in a minute. He was certain of that. "Sandra!" he yelled. He wondered what had happened to her and if she was still alive. He desperately needed her here. This was like the nightmare he had barely survived last time.

With a roar he leaped in a surprise move, whirling his blades in a sweeping pattern to drive Ting away and to shorten the distance the mysterious woman with the ghi had on him. As he landed, she backpedaled while desperately trying to wrench the haft of her weapon into a blocking position. She failed, and he closed the space to within inches of her body as he slammed the hilts of his swords into the sides of her helmet with all his enhanced strength. With a sharp CRACK! the helmet split and shattered. Her head snapped backwards as she staggered away.

The face underneath was not harmed. The woman calmly lowered her chin back down and wiped a trickle of blood from her nose. She stared with green eyes back into Drake's, and gave a no, no, no shake of her finger. Drake stared at the newly revealed face with recognition and horror.

"Athena?" he asked, startled, as the moment hung frozen in time. She winked at him, a mimic of a childhood habit of his. When they were kids growing up together, Athena had always been his accomplice and secret ally. When he used to look innocent and somehow got away with a bit of mischief yet again, he would always let little Athena in on his joke with that secret, quick wink. It always made her smile and laugh. Her mockery made him feel sick.

Ting was not a sentimental man. He pressed his recent success with a combination punch and a kick that sent Drake skidding twenty feet across the warehouse floor. Ting began closing for the coup de grace while Athena resumed her attack using graceful, flowing moves that looked much slower than they actually were. Drake was forced to flip to his feet and then backpedal and dodge as fast as he could. He turned and ran another score of feet and turned to watch the other two close at their leisure. He needed a moment to breathe.

Drake shook his head and looked down. He lifted his hands where they had unconsciously moved to cover the two wounds on his chest during the moment's respite. The wounds were bleeding, but they appeared shallow. He didn't think his lungs were filling with blood... yet. He caught a vision of the frantic battle Marta was waging and shook his head. It looked like a stalemate unless something happened soon. It won't be a stalemate anymore if I keep worrying about Athena and let this prick kill me.

With renewed determination, he settled into a defensive posture as Ting rushed in.

To Marta, it seemed like her fight had turned into a dance. She spun and twisted between her three opponents, never settling in one space for long, her katana forming a blur of steel about her body. Her foes seemed content to wear her down, to tire her out, to let her make the first mistake. Marta, naturally, desired the same of her enemies.

There was a ringing crash as two swords met, rebounded and met again. Then Marta was spinning away to lash out at the one with the spiked glove, taking his feet out from under him with a quick sweep and sending him tumbling across the floor. Then the other one with a sword cut at her back, the blade slashing through her hair, the synth-leather coat, and her bodysuit before dragging across the resin-bonded armor cloth underneath. Marta snapped off a Chinese curse that Ling Ling would be surprised to hear her utter, and then rolled across the floor to come up on the far side of the trio.

Taking their time, the three regained their feet, adjusted their stances and calmly stalked forward, confidence apparent in every step.

One she could have handled with ease. In fact, one she would have disposed off minutes ago. Two would have taken a little longer, probably requiring her to rush the stronger of the two first and then finishing the weaker at her leisure. Three, however, was a total pain in the ass. They fought well as a team, and were highly coordinated. That, coupled with archaic armor that looked like something out of one of Ling Ling's HK fantasy vid's made them hard to put down easily. But the worst part, in Marta's opinion, was that all three had helmets on. She couldn't see their eyes, and thus, couldn't get a lead on what they intended to do next.

Gripping her sword in both hands, Marta took a deep breath and raised the blade over her head. With her feet a little more than shoulder-width apart, she bent her knees, centering her weight and balance evenly. Tracking the approaching trio with just her eyes, she tried to clear her head, concentrating only on her next strike.

One of the swordsmen made the first move, leaping in with the obvious intent of driving her towards the other blade-wielder. Marta feinted away then slammed her shoulder into the man's breastplate, forcing him back into his companion with the spiked glove. The two went down in a tangle of limbs as Marta spun in a tight circle down close to the floor, only rising at the last minute to arc her sword under her foe's blade and bury the tip in the gap between helmet and breastplate. Twisting the hilt, she then pushed forward, feeling the edge grind against bone and ceramic plate.

With a spray of blood that was almost as red as his armor, Marta's victim crumpled backwards. Leaping over his body, Marta kicked his sword away into the shadowy recesses of the warehouse and then turned to deal with the remaining two. Now it was going to be almost too easy...

Seeing their companion dead, the remaining pair went on the defensive. The one with the katana feinted and slashed, trying to connect with her sword in an effort to trap it with his own. His companion danced just out of range, the spiked glove that covered his fist cracking and hissing.

Trying to keep an equal amount of distance between her two foes, Marta parried each tentative sword strike. The tips of their swords flashed and rang as each blow was deflected. Marta stepped to the side with each blow, circling around slowly in an effort to tie her opponents up.

When her moment came Marta didn't give it a second thought. She lunged forward at the man with the gauntlet, her sword flashing to grate against graphite ceramic plate. Her snarled curse turned into a sharp cry of pain as the one with the sword managed to cut through her armor, the blade biting into flesh and muscle before being stopped by steel-laced bone.

With blood seeping from her leg, Marta leapt away, blindingly cutting behind her. She felt the sword catch, but never saw on what as her world dissolved into a confused roar of dust and debris.

"Collapse the building," Wretch told his devoted followers. One man crouched, the long tube of a portable rocket launcher in his shoulder as another loaded a finned missile into the weapon. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure everyone was clear of the backblast, he then tapped the kneeling man on the head.


The rocket roared and streaked from the launch tube, heading directly toward the upper middle section of the warehouse. A second later, an explosion ripped half the roof off the warehouse and collapsed the other half. The thundering noise shook the block...

"Reload that and await my orders." Wretch pulled out a polished, long-barreled revolver and checked it as he calmly strode toward the warehouse ruin. Hopefully, his armored henchmen had survived. If not, he could always make more.

A quick glance showed that the collapsed ceiling had cut Drake off from Marta, and for all he knew she had been buried alive. First Sandra had abandoned him, then Marta had been taken away, and now he was forced to fight Ting and his own sister alone. Drake shook himself, preparing for the fight of his life. He hoped it would also prove to be his best.

Master Ting and Athena had been momentarily distracted by the collapse of the ceiling behind them. Ting merely glanced at it, then focused back on Drake. Athena paused for a moment to look from Ting, to the rubble where her comrades once stood, and back to Ting again as she wondered at her master's unconcern.

Drake angled his body toward Ting and dove at the evil martial artist with both blades slicing. Drake threw himself into an all-out offense which forced Ting to take a defensive stand. The dark martial artist stood his ground with his single spiked fist turning aside Drake's heated attack. Now positioned between his enemies, Drake kicked Athena in her midsection, and she stumbled away.

Ting stepped toward Drake with a sudden shout. He caught Drake's defending wakizashi in the tines of his knuckle spurs and twisted his hand to lock Drake's sword. In a blur, Ting brought his free hand down sharply on Drake's wrist. Drake lost his grip on the small sword and with a flick of Ting's spiked hand, the weapon was flung away.

The blow to his wrist was painful, but Drake didn't pause. Dropping to the floor, he swept a leg at the back of Ting's knee. Ting, looking surprised, fell backwards as Drake leapt up and dove after his wakizashi. In a moment, Drake had it in hand and he was rolling to his feet, still carried forward by sheer momentum.

Seeking an advantage, Drake dashed out the back door of the warehouse and ran headlong into a back alley. He jumped to the top of a pile of old wood pallets and turned to face his pursuing opponents.

Athena's long legs took her to her brother's position before her master Ting. She swung her ghi at Drake, but he dodged aside and jumped as her blade reduced the pallets to splinters. Drake crashed heavily into Athena, slamming her into the ground. Athena was winded while Drake recovered his feet and Ting arrived.

Drake dodged away just as Ting closed and swept an armed fist at him. Drake continued down the street, dodging and leaping across piles of debris and a couple junked cars. He struck at Ting at any opportunity he was able to put his weapons' greater length to use.

Sandra had just finished reloading her Uzi, and stood in the empty doorway of the building she had finally cleared of gang members. She pressed her back to the doorframe as she checked the street. She was surprised to see Drake in a deadly duel with some kind of lightly armed martial artist dressed in black pajamas. It actually looked more like something that she and Drake saw at the movies not too long ago, than a real-life battle. The two martial artists attacked, dodged, and blocked like a couple of murderous acrobats. It was a serious fight that she wasn't sure she wanted to have any part of; at least, not up close.

Sandra looked down the street and caught sight of a woman in some kind of fancy red and black armor striding toward the two combatants. Sandra was pretty sure that wasn't a friend, yet her face was oddly familiar. At the opposite end of the street a set of ruffians from the gang had rallied and seemed to be trying to ready their weapons. Drake wouldn't see them coming.

Sandra was still ticked at Drake, but she wasn't going to let some tool-smoking murdering gangland scum shoot him in the back before she had a chance to tell him off. Her Uzi II didn't have great effective range, so to be sure she had them, Sandra ran outside and made for cover. Unfortunately, the best cover on her side of the street consisted of a street lamp.

"Tool." Sandra was sticking her neck out for Drake again, and she really wasn't in the mood. While most of the gang members where focused on Drake's fight, the nearest one had noticed Sandra and hurriedly went for his gun. He was too late, as Sandra opened up on him and then sprayed the rest of the group with deadly lead. They barely got a couple rounds off before they fell in a bloody jumble of wounded or dying men.

"Next time, ready your weapons BEFORE you get into a fight!" she told the writhing forms. "Tool-heads."

Sandra suddenly felt a rush of wind and instinctively ducked. She caught the glint of steel as it flashed over her head and cut a nick out of the lamppost nearby. The finger on the trigger of her Uzi twitched, but the gun clicked empty. Her full-auto attack had cost her the ammo she needed. Cursing, she rolled away as her attacker swung again.

It looked like hand-to-hand was the only route left. Sandra snapped free her blades and looked at her attacker. She'd had seen that face before. It was from the picture Drake had showed her the first night they met. "Athena? Athena Stone?"

She stopped her attack for a moment. With a sour note of annoyance, she replied, "What, am I suddenly famous?"

Sandra wasn't letting go so easily. "You're Jason Stone's sister, right? What are you doing here?" She had a lot more questions, but now didn't seem like a good time to ask them.

"What am I doing here? What am I doing here? You come in here with that fool of a brother of mine and start killing my people and you have the nerve to ask me what I'M doing here?" Athena looked and sounded angry. Yet, somehow there was an emptiness to her eyes and a hollowness to her voice that was obvious to Sandra's trained senses. "I'm here to make sure Jason doesn't live out the hour! There is room for only one Stone in this world! This is the command of our Savior! And girl, you are in the way." Athena stepped forward and readied with her ghi as Sandra raised her claws.

A part of Sandra wanted to scream out loud about the injustice of it all. She'd found the girl that was the very reason that she'd met Drake in the first place. The very reason that she'd decided to work with him. The very thing that had, in its own way, drawn them together and into the first real relationship she'd had in a very long time. And now this girl was trying to kill Drake, and trying to kill her. But she couldn't. Right now she needed all her wits about her.

Why did this always seem to happen?

Sandra evaluated the situation. She looked at Athena's weapon. It appeared to be about six feet long, or maybe or longer, with two curved blades and a nasty spear-point on the end. She looked at her own cyber-claws. Riiiiight.

"Tool," she stated, before turning and running towards Drake. If there was any justice in this world, he'd have a loaded gun he could toss her.

When the explosion hit, everything had turned black as the air filled with falling debris and thick brick dust. Something dark and heavy struck Marta across the chest and knocked her to the ground. Then the next few moments were lost.

When Marta opened her eyes, it was to see a hooded face swirling in and out of a gray mist. The face spoke to her, told her to do things. At first, she didn't want to do as the face asked, but the words were powerful, irresistible, unable to be ignored. The more she resisted, it seemed the more of his calm, quiet words wormed their way through his defenses. Soon the sparkling gleam of two bright green eyes within the shadowy recesses of the hood were all that held her attention.

A few minutes passed as Wretch completed Marta's conditioning. Some other members of Marta's new master, Wretch, worked to remove the I-beam that had pinned her when the roof collapsed. A girl with a dirty strip of gauze and some medical tape tied a makeshift bandage around Marta's wounded leg.

"Can you stand?" asked Wretch.

Marta nodded mutely and got to her feet.

"Are you injured?"

Marta looked herself over. There was a terrible pain in her chest and it hurt to breathe, but she'd had worse. "No," she told him.

Wretch pushed aside his gray cloak as he bent amid the rubble and pried the hilt of a katana from the dead, crushed fingers of an Acolyte. He examined the weapon's condition and once satisfied, handed it to Marta. "Good. I wish for you to do something for me."

Marta's body shuddered with a short internal struggle. Wretch frowned. His eyes glowed with a faint green color as he stared at Marta and spoke. "Yessss. Your will is strong. But have no fear; when you complete your task, I shall set you free."

"You will find Jason Stone and kill him. You may be the only one among my people that can, now. When you finish this task, you shall achieve freedom and ascend to the Light by falling upon the point of this blade. Do not fail me."

Marta's inner self was broken free of her mind and caged within. She watched, horrified, as her body turned to execute Wretch's order. She wanted to scream, but her body would give her no voice. She wanted to pound the walls of her mental jail, but her body would not listen. Her body's only response to her desperate plea was in the tears that silently slipped from her eyes.

Sandra was unsurprised to find Drake's guns were empty. That just seemed to be the way the day was going. She barely had time to think about how she and Drake would with the battle with Athena and Master Ting, when Marta burst onto the street at a run.

"Here comes the cavalry!" shouted Sandra. Marta was making directly for Drake at a dead run.

Master Ting and Athena broke off their attack to guard against Marta's assault, but she bypassed them entirely.

"What the devil!?" exclaimed Drake as Marta slashed at him. Drake barely blocked the opening attack and he was quickly driven back as Marta followed up with multiple strikes at full speed.

Athena looked at Master Ting. "Master?" she asked, obviously confused by the turn of events.

"Do not concern yourself. She has seen the light, now. Remain here, Athena," he ordered. "I will return to Master Wretch. Allow her," he indicated Marta, "to finish the job, but if she fails you will destroy them yourself."

Athena indicated her obedience with a nod and moved out of range of the ongoing close combat.

Drake was bewildered at the sudden change in Marta. It seemed extremely unlikely Marta would "sell out" to another party while still under contract. The damage to her reputation alone would discourage it. Drake rapidly pieced it together. First, there was the rapid expansion of this gang. Second, a reputable SynTech employee with no apparent reason to dislike him tried to murder him with a knife. Then, he discovered Athena had turned against him. Now, Marta seemed to be under the same spell.

That was it! Whoever was leading this gang was capable of rapidly brainwashing or mind-controlling people. This meant that he must find a way to stop Marta without killing her, and then stop Athena, too. He concluded it was possible the two women were not aware of what they were doing.

Damn, she's fast, thought Drake. He was rapidly tiring and was so occupied with stopping Marta from cutting him to pieces that he had no opportunity for counter attack.

Meanwhile, Sandra saw Master Ting leave and Athena withdraw. It was plain to see that however good Drake was with those swords, he didn't have the raw speed to get the upper hand, yet at the same time Marta wasn't strong enough to simply batter down his defenses. A blood-soaked bandage revealed that Marta was weakened in one leg and her ragged breathing meant she might have some internal injuries. Drake was breathing hard as well and had suffered multiple puncture wounds to his chest at the hands of Master Ting. It was a matter of time before one of them would tire and fail.

A blur of blades was the result of Marta closing on Drake. She began with a series of strikes aimed at one side of Drake's body in an attempt to draw off his guard. Drake responded with a stiff block that leveraged his greater strength in an attempt to shock the katana from Marta's grasp. In spite of the hammer-like blow to her sword, Marta let out not a sound.

Drake stepped in suddenly to take advantage of what he expected to be an opening. He stabbed his katana past Marta's ear, forcing her to duck slightly and then whipped it back to land a shocking blow to her ear with the flat of his sword. Such a painful and stunning injury should have taken the fight out of most combatants.

Yet Marta ignored the blow in spite of an immediately red ear and a trickle of blood. Drake noticed for the first time there was a stray tear making it's way down Marta's face, yet her glassy eyes betrayed no pain or sorrow.

Drake disengaged immediately as the realization hit him that Marta was not defending herself. She was concentrated entirely upon killing him, with no thought whatsoever of self-preservation. Drake's stomach twisted. Sooner or later Marta would kill him if he didn't find a way out of this. He certainly didn't want to hurt her, but she was resisting even the most painful non-lethal attack he knew.

Marta threw herself at him with new vigor. She practically ignored his intervening blades as she tore into him with blow after ringing blow. This time, she was cutting through his defenses. A drawing slash ripped opened body armor protecting the inside of his thigh, the cut stopping just short of a major vein. A thrust that wasn't quite blocked slid a cold steel sword tip into the muscled bicep of his left arm.

Time to change the playing field. Jason shifted his defense to avoiding her slashing cuts rather than blocking them. This left both weapons free for a more offensive stance, and Drake made his move before Marta would change her mode of attack. He threw his wakizashi full force at her head. It was a dangerous move, but Marta dodged the weapon with a turn of her head. Drake was already in motion with his other sword, slamming it down upon her katana in effort to pin it.

Marta reacted by removing one hand from her sword and gripping Drake's wrist. Drake countered by grabbing her sword hilt with his free left hand. Using a master Muto Kenjutsu move, Drake hyper-extended her arm and knocked her weapon free. Marta reacted with a punch to Drake's sternum. He staggered back, dropping his sword and Marta pressed with a rapid series of punches to his midsection, followed by a kick in the chest. Taken by surprise, Drake was knocked back into a wall. Marta's punches had been aimed right at the wounds inflicted by Ting and it was clear Drake was feeling the pain.

"Drake, run!" yelled Sandra. She wasn't about to see her boyfriend get pummeled by some mattress-munching turncoat. She ran full tilt into Marta from behind as Drake coughed tried to shake off the pain. Having knocked Marta to the ground, Sandra grabbed her around the waist and pressed her head to the asphalt with a forearm against the back of Marta's neck. Drake saw Marta wouldn't be held long.

Drake spotted a fire escape part way down dark alley and dashed for it. With a leap, he caught the end of the stairs and pulled them down. He turned and saw Marta twist from under Sandra's hold. Marta backhanded her opponent, winning time to continue pursuit of Drake.

Drake continued up the fire escape, taking two and three steps at a time. Reaching the top of the five story apartment building, he paused again to see Marta leaping up the fire escape. Her empty eyes seemed fixed upon him deadly purpose, single-mindedly ignoring all else. Drake needed time.

He sprinted across the top of the building and soon found the edge. Across the small back alley was another apartment building, with part of a wall facing him crumbling and falling apart. Drake decided to take a chance and charged across the rooftop in a desperate leap. He barely caught the lip of the next building's roof and then pulled himself up.

Marta never hesitated and leapt the gap without stopping, nearly landing on Drake in the process. She hit the edge of the building as he rolled clear, and Drake decided that luck was with him at the moment as the aged masonry crumbled, sending Marta and a cascade of rotten bricks to crash through an apartment balcony below before ending up on one even further down. Glancing over the edge, Drake spotted her black-clad form through clouds of dust. She was dazed, but already recovering.

Drake flicked on his coded transceiver with a thought. "Hobbs. Hobbs, answer!"

Arthur Hobbs, still aboard a jetliner destined for Gatwick Airport near London, groggily awoke to the sound of Jason attempting to contact him through his implanted link. "Hm? Yes, sir?"

"I have a situation here," Drake sent as he paced across the top of the old apartment building toward the stairway door.

"Shall I send in the evac units?"

"No, not yet. Sandra and I are okay, but there's a problem. They have a fucking esper! They've got a damn esper and they've somehow got to Marta. She's suicidal, trying to kill me. You've got to contact Ling Ling, tell her to get a hold of Marta's sister. Marta needs help, and I don't know how long I can hold her off!"

"My god, Jason!" Hobbs ran the numbers through his skull comp. It would be four in the afternoon in Hong Kong right now. He should be able to reach Ling Ling without too much trouble. "I have Ling Ling's number on file. I'm relaying the message now."

"Gotta go, Hobbs."

"Good luck, sir."

Drake let the link go dead. Now it was a matter of time.

The rooftop access door exploded in a shower of fragments as Marta kicked her way through it. Bits of rotted wood crunched under her boots as she slowly walked out onto the water-warped roof. Her expression dead, she stopped and then removed the slashed and torn remains of her long coat. The garment fluttered in the breeze for a moment, revealing a scattering of holes and cuts, before being dropped.

Never taking her eyes off of Drake's face, Marta raised her hands, the fingers of each spread out in a slight fan. The tips sprouted glittering points as she unsheathed her razors, the blades razor-sharp and shiny.

"Oh, damn," the unarmed Drake commented.

Dropping into a fighting stance Drake tried to remember everything he'd even been shown about unarmed combat. He'd been trained in self-defense, but his true love had been the sword, but nether of his were currently with him. He suspected that Marta was far better at unarmed fighting than he was.

Wasting no time, Marta glided in launching into a high arcing spin kick that was clearly designed to separate Drake's head from his shoulders. He ducked the blow and came up into an almost identical spin kick of his own, which Marta avoid by lowering her head. As he landed, Drake paused for only a brief moment to brace himself and then kicked again at Marta's exposed side. Unfortunately for him, she'd just done the same thing. There was the sound of leather slapping flesh and a grunt of exertion as each of the combatants caught the other's strike on their opened hands. Marta didn't so much as blink at the impact, while Drake winced and flexed his fingers, wondering if he'd broken any stopping the incredibly powerful blow.

Facing her one-on-one, Drake realized several things instantly. One was that Marta was very good. Her strikes had power, precision, and speed. Two was that she was wired to be even faster than he was. She was moving from strike to strike at a rate he could barely match. The sword fight had been a blur of blades, but it was something Drake was familiar with, it was what he had studied and trained for... but now, now he was in Marta's element, and she was relentless, showing him no mercy.

There was also the fact that this short, well-defined, highly attractive woman was cybered as heavily as they come. Drake could tell. Smartgunlink, razors, enhanced strength, reflex boost... she was loaded.

Withdrawing her kicking leg, Marta dropped back into stance and then snapped off a pair of blindingly fast strikes at his side. Drake managed to slap both aside, and ignoring the pain burning in his hands, planted the point of his boot in her ribs.

Marta took a few quick steps back, and the two paused for a moment to catch their breath. Drake could see her face was flushed and apparently wet with tears. He felt it slightly chilling that she also seemed to be smiling at the same time.

Then moment ended when they both stepped forward. Marta immediately went on the offensive, kicking low from the knee. Drake tired to match her attack, and their legs met, shin to shin, between them. It was at this point that Drake realized why Marta's strikes were so painful to block; her skeleton was almost certainly reinforced. No wonder his blade strikes hadn't worked well.

Deciding that for the moment the best defense was a good offense, Drake spun and kicked, catching Marta off-guard and sending stumbling back. He'd caught her right in the stomach, but hadn't been able to put all his strength behind it, and she looked more annoyed than anything.

About the only saving him in this fight was that Marta's thinking was muddled. She was going all-out on offense, but even her apparent mind-controlled state couldn't overcome deeply ingrained defensive measures. So she tended to stagger between continuous attacks and half-aborted blocks and dodges.

As Marta stepped forward and whipped off two more kicks, one at his side and one at his head, Drake also had to thank whomever that Marta was also damn predictable fighting in her current state. He wasn't sure what style she was using, but she'd yet to show any hand techniques, and her kicks, as fast as they were, still took time to release. He slapped each kick aside, one with each hand, and hissed at the sting. Drake then stepped inside a third kick, trapped it under one arm, and then slapped the flat of his palm against her chest as he hooked one booted foot behind her ankle.

Marta went down with a crash of tarpaper and then rolled to one side. Drake stepped back as she swirled to her feet in a single smooth motion, looking as if she'd just been poured from a glass. He added in enhanced articulation to the impressive list of Marta's cybermods, and briefly wondered at what she was like in bed before expediency put the thought out of his mind.

As she came up, Marta launched herself into a high spinning jump kick, which forced Drake to duck and move back as she landed. He in turn turned his dodge into his own kick, and slammed the heel of his boot into Marta's head, or would have, if she hadn't swatted it aside with almost contemptuous ease. Bring up his hands, Drake then found himself exchanging a rapid series of hand strikes with the short street samurai, their arms a blur as each punch seemed to block the other's blow.

Crouching down behind a section of shattered wall, Sandra ejected an empty magazine and reached for a fresh one. Her hand went to her belt, and then started slapping air as she found only space where her spares had been. Was she out already? Shoving her pistol back into its holster she muttered a faint "tool" and went looking for another gun.


Somehow, with everything else that was happening, Sandra wasn't surprised to hear her cell phone go off. It was probably ferret face wanting to see what she was up to and if she had any footage of Marta nude.

Snatching the phone off of her belt, Sandra flipped the lid open. "Fuck off, Davies, she's not your type!"

"Excuse me?"

Oh great, it wasn't Alan looking for a piece of ass, it was the damn mattress-munching mercenary's tool fairy of a girlfriend. Sandra decided now was not the time to be polite. "What do you want?!?"

"I thought you'd want to know that the Empress is on her way."


Not only had Drake gotten her in over their heads in a fight with a horde of psychotic cultists, but he had managed to get Marta turned into a raving loony who was currently doing her cybernetically-augmented best to reduce her would-be meal ticket into so many leather-garbed cutlets. And now said raving loony's equally out-to-lunch sister was on her way to rain telekinetic doom down on them all.


Just peachy.

Realizing that she still held the phone up to her ear, Sandra decided to acknowledge the message. "Oh, thanks, I'll be sure and see that Drake gets your message. Now if you excuse me, I have a gunfight to survive!" Hanging up never felt so good.

"DrrrrRAKE!!!" Sandra charged toward the old apartment building across the street from the one Drake originally ran up. Athena calmly shadowed her.

When she had been little she'd loved to fly. It has been the greatest thing in the world. She go up onto the roof of their narrow rowhouse, push-off with her mind, and be gone. She'd chased birds across the sky, skimmed the surface of Lake Superior, and discovered that light and fluffy clouds were really cold and wet. She'd even landed on the top of the Sears Tower once... and promptly made the mistake of looking down. She'd stayed up there for an hour before getting up the courage to try pushing off again. Naturally she didn't fall. Hovering there in the air, some 140 stories up, she shouted with joy and then zipped her way between the skyscrapers, panicking pigeons and distracting office workers.

Now she was far older, far wiser, and quite capable of standing on top of even the tallest arcologies without a hint of fear. But she still enjoyed flying.

Shion blasted her way down the street, heading towards the Zero Zone. Normally, if she was in a hurry she'd teleport, but in this case she had no idea where she was going, and thus no real idea where to teleport to. She also didn't want to alert anyone to her arrival, and teleportation tended to generate an esper signature at the point of arrival before anyone arrived. So she flew.

Below her people glanced up as she swept past, their faces pale circles against the dark streets. Bits of litter trailed behind her, and cracks appeared in windows in the wake of her passage. Even a lamppost twisted with a groan as the Empress made her way to the Zone.

She was following the streets because she didn't want to become disorientated by flying at a higher altitude. Beyond a certain point Neo York become one continuous sea of gray structures and only the largest of landmarks stood out. But she was looking for something much smaller, the Zero Zone access bridge.

Banking left, Shion was now on a straight-away that led dead into the Zone and beyond. She willed herself to go faster, the ground a blur below as the wind whipped through her hair.

With her legs out straight behind her, feet pressed tightly together, and her arms held a short distance out from her sides, hands gripping the edges of her rippling cloak, Shion looked every bit the modern superhero, except she was as aerodynamic as a thrown brick. Of course, as she was flying via force of will, that didn't matter in the slightest.

Alan stared through the heavy mesh that marked the Zero Zone checkpoint gate. The Zone was a bleak and dull as ever, and to make matters worse, Karen was nattering on about how he hadn't told her about Sandra still among the living. Stupid cow. So he watched the bleak landscape of the Zone and reminded himself things could be worse... he could be Sandra and actually live out there.

Turning around to try and figure out a polite way to tell Karen to shut up, Alan caught a blur out of the corner of his eye. Acting on sheer instinct, he dropped to his knees, his arms over his head. A moment later a gray-white form rocketed overhead, followed by blast of wind and a spray of grit and paper bits. The gate rattled as the form passed and Karen was tossed into the rigid wire mesh with a squawk. Under the protective cover of his arms, Alan had to smile.

"C'mon!" Jackie yelled as she tugged on Gil's arm. Behind them buildings were burning and the air echoed with the pop of small arms fire and the screams of the wounded and dying. Jackie and Gil, however, had had enough. They were getting while the getting was good.

Tugging again on Gil's arm, Jackie tried to drag her wounded partner to safety. Gil had caught a round in his side and in his other arm a while back and was currently having a tough time staying on his feet. Jackie had patched him up as best she could (which wasn't all that well) and was desperately trying to find her way out of what had turned into a full-scale war.

Glancing up and down the dark street, Jackie was relieved to see that it was empty. "Okay, Gil," she hissed, "We get across this street and down that alley and we're home free. I'll take you down to the District, get you taken care of, okay?"

She hoped Gil's muttered response was an affirmative.

"Right. On three. One, two, three!" Wrapping Gil's good arm over her shoulders, Jackie half-dragged half-carried the wounded man across the street. She kept her gaze steady on the opening for the alley, trying to ignore anything else that was happening.

Halfway across the street, Jackie felt her boot land in something soft and wet, and gave a sharp cry of pain as her foot slid to one side, twisting her ankle. Falling to her knees, she managed to not drop Gil, ending up sprawled in the middle of a dark sticky smear that smelled coppery.

Looking down, Jackie wrinkled her nose in disgust. She was kneeling in the middle of a large spray of blood intermixed with wet unidentifiable chunks. She gagged at the smell and then scrambled to her feet, pulling on Gil's arm. He seemed immobile for a moment, and then to Jackie's horror, simply fell apart, leaving just his left arm held in her hands.

Her attempt at a scream died in a soundless gurgle as a hand fastened itself on her throat. Struggling weakly, Jackie felt herself lifted into the air until she was eye level with a white-haired woman whose unparalleled beauty was marred by an expression of total rage.

"Where is my sister?" the woman hissed.

Grappling uselessly at the fingers that encircled her throat, Jackie writhed in pain. The woman's grip seemed to be made of steel and with her feet swinging freely she couldn't even begin to try and free herself. Unable to speak, Jackie simply settled for waving vaguely across the street to where bright flames licked up through the night.

Turning around, the woman gazed at the scene before her and then nodded. Holding Jackie in the air at arm's length she placed her free hand on Jackie's chest, a swirl of dust, debris, and dark drops of liquid forming around them both as she did. Still trying to pry the woman's fingers from her neck, Jackie was only dimly aware of the sound of asphalt cracking as a wind blew up from her feet, tossing the woman's long white hair about.

A moment later Shion unleashed a pulse of telekinetic energy that tore Jackie from her grip and hurled her across the street. Flailing helplessly, the woman slammed into the side of a building with bone-shattering force, the wall collapsing in a spray of splintered brick, concrete, and drywall. Having made an entrance, Shion then strode on through, ignoring Jackie's limp remains underfoot.

She was mad... angry... no, furious. Everything of the past few months came bubbling back up again, fueling her rage. The fight at Ishiyama, Karin Nys escaping, her car being destroyed, a night spent at Raven's in a drunken stupor... The only good thing to come out of that mess had been the revelation that she wasn't as alone in the world as she thought. Raven, possibly her only real friend, understood the world she lived in, and that her sister wanted a closer relationship than occasional nasty phone calls.

And now someone had dared to try and take her sister away.

As she stalked into the smoky ruin of the warehouse, Shion wrapped layer after layer of her Power around her, forming into a thick shield that frighteningly enough, managed to create a visible distortion in the air. Excess Power dripped off of her, and each step of her booted feet made the aged and rotting concrete shatter and fragment, the chips swirling in her wake like dead leaves.

A dust-covered figure stumbled out of the gloom. It was too tall, the hair too short, and most importantly, male. Shion reached out, slapped her hands on to either side of the figure's head, and with a howl of anger used her phenomenal physical strength to wrench the head almost full circle. The was a wet popping sound as the spine gave way, and then the body dropped bonelessly to the floor.

Another figure opened fire with a shotgun, the blasts almost deafening in the confined space. The range was such that Shion's shields could be seen to bend and twist, before the dark mass of shot was scattered to the floor. An almost absent-minded flick of the wrist sent a fountain of telekinetic force to rip its way across the floor before hurling the screaming figure back the way they'd come.

With a second wave of her hand, the wall of debris in front of her blew up and out, to rain down in bits and pieces amid the wreckage of the blasted warehouse. Scattered bits of junk scurried out of her path to bounce along the floor before being sucked up by her Power and hurled the way she'd come. Her hair and cloak fluttered in an nonexistent wind as she narrowed her eyes against the airborne grit.

A third figure, this one wearing dust-coated red and black armor lunged for her, his fist crackling with electricity. Shion slapped the punch aside with one hand, ignoring the brilliant blue-white worms of energy that crawled harmlessly over her arm. Forming her other hand into a flat blade shape, she stepped forward and punched, concentrated Power reducing the plates of graphite ceramic to fine powder as her arm slammed through the man's body.

Pausing to wrench her arm free, Shion hurled the corpse to the floor, the man's life blood running off of her shields like water. She then turned and looked deeper into the warehouse. She could feel Power being using in there and she meant to find it.

Master Ting silently approached the partially collapsed warehouse near which he knew his master to be. He paused to listen when a rumble and screams emanated from the place. Master Ting narrowed his eyes and melted into the shadows.

Pausing, Shion stared into the gloom and smoke. She could smell rot and gunpowder, human waste and blood. But it wasn't the smell she cared about... it was the feeling, the presence in her mind, the pressure in her forehead that was drawing her deeper and deeper into the shattered building. There was an esper here, an esper that had attacked her sister and taken her way. Shion meant to find this person. Find them and destroy them.

A sudden roar made her whirl around, to look out the way she'd come. At the speed of thought she raised her Power, to form a wall before her, a wall that was defined by the force of her will. A moment later the rocket detonated in a storm of fire. The blast slammed into her shield and washed to either side in a roiling cloud. Behind the wall, Shion stood unharmed, her cloak and hair billowing in the sudden wind. With a groan of tortured metal the rest of the roof collapsed, sending a cloud of smoke, fire, and dust mushrooming into the air. For several long seconds the only sound was that of falling debris crashing down amid the ruin of the surrounding buildings.

"Well..." Wretch gazed at the burning wreckage with a slight smile, "So much for that."

With no warning, no time to prepare, no chance to raise his own Power into a defensive shield, Wretch found him driven to his knees by an overwhelming force. He tired to resist, to push back, but to no avail, and he crumpled to the ground, helpless before the onslaught.

Pressed to the ground Wretch could do little but roll his eyes. But he didn't need to see to sense the approach of his attacker. He could feel it, in his mind, a throbbing point of pressure that made it hard to think, to concentrate, to bring his own esper talents to bear.

Debris skittered in random circles as his attacker closed. He could hear the crunch of gravel under booted feet, the swish of the long cloak, the even, measured breathing. There was a creak of leather as the figure bent, a fall of long white hair reaching the ground as the face came into view.

She was beautiful. She was powerful. She was everything Wretch could ask for in a disciple. He tried to lash out with his power, to take her, to make her his own, but she slapped him down without even acknowledging his attempt.

Reaching down, Shion curled her fingers in Wretch's cloak and smiled. "You," she whispered. "You're the one I want." Standing, she lifted the other man with ease. "Time to die."

There was a sudden rush of wind and a swirl of smoke and grit as Shion vanished.

Drake's arms ached. He was fast enough to block Marta's punches, but her steel-laced skeleton made her strikes more damaging than normal, and that much work to deflect.

They had traded blows for several moments, their arms and hands a blur, when an explosion had made them both jump back. Fire and smoke billowed up from the warehouse they had assaulted. Apparently something big had detonated with impressive violence.

Drake ducked as something small whizzed by to imbed itself in the rooftop. Marta went into a crouch and started to make her way over to him, closing the distance step-by-step.

Halfway over Marta stopped and blinked, before rising out of her stance. She looked, Drake thought, as if she were confused and uncertain. Deciding he'd rather be safe than sorry, Drake stepped forward, his fist clenched.

A second explosion, this one of wind, dust, grit, and ragged tarpaper, sent him staggering. He quickly blinked his eyes clear and found himself staring at Marta's sister, Shion. She stood between him and Marta, her cloak rippling about her body. Snow and ice glittered in her hair, and more snow was caked on her boots and the hem of her cloak, while frost was layered across her shoulders and body armor. Despite the circumstances, Drake found himself wondering where she'd come from and where she'd been.

With an almost imperious swirl of her cloak, Shion strode over to Marta, who looked dazed and unsure of herself. The tall esper bent and picked her sister up, holding the street samurai in her arms as if she were a mere child. A moment later Drake was alone on the rooftop, a dull pop announcing Shion's departure.

A whooshing sound accompanied the arrival of someone else. Drake turned to look in the direction of crunching gravel and saw the recognizable face of his sister Athena. She looked around her unsteadily and then approached Jason.

Footsteps echoed from the stairwell and Sandra appeared some few yards behind Athena, running.

"Jason?" asked Athena. She looked confused and stepped closer.

Sandra raised a pistol she had finally reloaded. "Jason, look out!" she cried. Shots rang out.

Athena staggered, slumped, and fell against Jason. He caught her and stared in shock as a hole in Athena's neck leaked bloody streams. The light in her eyes faded and died in seconds.

"No," said Jason. "No. No, no no NO!!!" Jason collapsed to his knees, still holding Athena. "You killed her!" he yelled accusingly at Sandra. "She didn't have to die!"

Sandra stared. "Jason--"

"Get away from me," Jason said quietly. He sat now, cradling Athena's head. "Go away. I don't want to see you again."

Sandra turned away, unable to look at Drake's face. She slowly walked away, not looking back, trying to remain calm, trying not to let it get to her. Small pebbles of crushed concrete crunched under her feet. She had gotten only a few yards, when she stopped.

She turned around, unable to take it any more. "Fine. I'll go. You'll never see me again!" She was shouting now, too angry to do anything else. "We didn't have to do it this way! I wanted... I wanted to do this, but not like the way you did it!" The anger was rising, but her voice was sounding uncertain. "You just had to make it your damned holy war and your damned make a statement and everything!" There were tears in her one good eye. "I loved you, damn you! I did it to save your damned life!"

Sandra turned around. She threw the empty pistol away, not caring where it landed. "I'm going," she added, not sure if Drake heard her or even cared.

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