Owww... Raven slowly awoke to a thick fuzziness in her head and a headache of epic proportions. Her tongue felt like a dry sponge in her mouth. Her eyes were shut closed, but she didn't open them. What's happening? Did I brainburn? She dug into her fuzzy memory, which made the hammer in her head pound louder. Last thing I remember... I was going to bed. It was... a long day, I had done a lot of swimming... No brainburn and no hangover then.

She became aware of the unfamiliar feeling of hard metal against her back, underneath her, and around her neck, pressed against her skin. The cool draft against her exposed skin informed her that she wasn't wearing the nightrobe she'd gone to bed in, or the comfortable, warm blankets she'd wrapped herself in. No, she was laying on her back on some metal object, wearing nothing but a thin, brief garment that loosely covered her from shoulder to thigh. She didn't even have any underwear on. On the other hand, there was not a whisper of sound.

Hospital? The thought came into her confused and fuzzy mind but she quickly discarded it, reasoning that even a stretcher would be softer than this. Where am I? Carefully she opened her eyes—bright light lanced into them painfully—and slowly sat up, shaking her head in a vain attempt to clear out the cobwebs. Ouch... What happened to me? She slowly looked around, noticing that she was in a featureless room walled in dull steel. Looking down, she saw that she was wearing a hospital gown made of paper-thin cloth.

There was still that feeling of metal around her neck, where she could not see. Whatever it was, it was tight, and a bit uncomfortable, but it didn't seem to be choking her. What is that? She brought her hands up to touch it and her probing fingers met cold, featureless metal. She slid her fingers along the length. She was wearing some sort of thick, broad metal collar that was entirely featureless—most notably there didn't seem to be a hinge or a clasp to remove it. How did that get on me? Why am I wearing this?

<I am glad to see that you are awake, Ms. Clark> a cultured male voice spoke in perfect Japanese, breaking the sepulchral silence. Raven let out a sharp cry and jumped in startlement at the sound, less because of its suddenness than because the voice had come from the collar she was wearing. Her balance went and she rolled to the ground, coming to a painful stop on the floor. It, too, was dull, featureless steel, and painfully hard.

"What the heck...?" she whispered, trembling in fear and shock.

<Allow me to introduce myself. I am Kunitake Araki, the new Director of Psychokinetic Management at Shiroko-Tsuhi>, said the Japanese voice. <I am your new hierarchical superior.>

Raven marshaled her incomplete language of the Japanese language. <Where am I?> she asked, her voice soft and quavering. <What happened?>

<You are in Vault number Six, inside the Shiroko-Tsuhi Neo York Arcology>, the voice flatly informed her. It paused for a moment, letting that sink in, then continued. <You have been brought here because of the changes I have implemented in departmental policy after becoming its director. Your former superior, Mr. Sanato, was far too lax in ensuring the safety, loyalty and proper behavior of esper assets. This attitude led to his removal and transfer to other projects. I intend to correct the situation he left behind immediately.>

Leaning on the steel table that was the room's only furniture, Raven slowly pushed herself to a standing position. She buried her face in her hand and shook her head slowly, still trying to clear it up. <What... what happened to me? Why am I here?>

<We placed you under anesthetic in order to bring you here for installation of the management collar>, said Araki, his voice still as flat as before. <Relocation personnel are also moving your belongings to your new quarters, which are far more secure.>

<Management collar? New quarters?> Raven sat on the table, breathing quickly in mounting fear. She unconsciously gathered the Power. Her hair started snaking in the air slightly, but the involuntary bleed-off of esper energy did not affect the bare metal room. <Why? What's all this about?>

<Ms. Clark, as an esper asset you represent a considerable investment from this company>, Araki explained. <I intend to see this investment suitably protected. This means that your safety and proper behavior are to be ensured at all times. The new quarters, rules of operation, and the management collar will ensure that you constantly remain under our direct control, allowing us to ensure that these goals are achieved.>

Raven hugged herself, shaking, and clutched at the collar around her neck. "This is insane..." she whispered, panic rising within her.

<Your contract's clauses are quite clear on the company's right to take any means it deems necessary to ensure your safety>, Araki noted. <Do not attempt to remove the management collar>, he cautioned her, again in that infuriating, flat tone.

Gritting her teeth, Raven looked up. "What?" she screamed. She focused her Power to pull the damned thing off. "I'm not going to let you collar me like some sort of..."

Her only answer was a sudden burst of liquid fire traveling down her spine to reach, it seemed, the end of each of her nerves. Her head was turned from a dull pounding to a raging inferno. Raven cried out in agony, twisting off the table to a jarring landing on the hard metal floor. Suddenly loosened by her lapse in control, her Power lashed out blindly, putting a shallow dent in the wall opposite her. The pain that consumed Raven was so complete that she noticed none of these things. The agony lasted only a few seconds, the pain subsided to a stinging ache in all her limbs. For the next few minutes it was all she could do to twitch violently on the ground, blinking out the spots in her eyes, tears streaking down her cheeks.

At last Araki's voice came from the collar again. <The collar has a remote-operated taser function. with the shock point directly above your spine for optimal effect. There will be no need to activate it again if your behavior is proper.> He waited for a reply from Raven, but none was forthcoming. The esper was crying, her whole body shaking uncontrollably from shock and fear. <The management collar will also operate as a locator device and, as you certainly deduced, as a bi-directional radio. It has other functions as well, but there is no need to make this information available to you at this time.>

Another pause, to give her a chance to reply. But the black-haired telekinetic was curled in a ball, sniffling and crying weakly, trembling like a leaf and shaking her head in futile denial. After a few moments, Araki spoke again. <Once your quarters are ready, you will be taken to them. From now on you are not to leave them without permission for any reason. You are not to use your abilities unless directed to do so. You will be assigned permanent watchers and bodyguards; you are to carefully and immediately follow all their instructions in all circumstances..> Another pause. <If you behave well, exceptions may be made on some of these restrictions. If you do not behave well, there will be consequences. Oh, one more thing. I am pleased to announce to you that your friend Johnny Carstairs has been promoted and transferred out of Neo York.>

Raven looked up in confusion at this announcement—until its true intent dawned on her, and her composure disintegrated, sending her into incontrollable sobs again.

<You will be fetched when your quarters are ready>, said Araki's flat, emotionless voice, and then he was silent, leaving Raven alone in the cold metal room, wound into a ball, tears streaming from her eyes, the metal collar pressing harder against her throat every time she swallowed.

There was no painful awakening as from a deep sleep when the bright light was shined into her eyes. Rather, it was more like there was darkness, and then suddenly she could see crystal clear and bright as day. However, whether it was really day or night or something in between, Helen couldn't say. She looked at the bright halogen light for a moment longer and the sat.

The view shifted as smoothly as would be expected from a movie camera shifting the viewing angle in a Hollywood film. It was not the slow, adjusting motion of a woman who hadn't moved a muscle for over twelve hours. Yet her body responded smoothly and effortlessly.

Apparently, her hearing was slightly less perfect, however. As the tiny embedded microphones warmed up, a feedback tone enveloped her aural senses. As it faded, she could hear a conversion going on behind her.

"...creepy. Like she's a zombie or something." There was a heavy sigh. "Can she hear us now?"

"The zombie hears just fine," replied Helen. There was an embarrassed silence. Then a man in a white lab coat walked around from behind her and came into view. He had a shaven head and his face was shadowy. Some men could shave twice a day, but still have a five o'clock shadow.

"Sorry about that. It's just that you should try to blink more often. Your cyborg eyes might not need remoistening, but it helps to make you seem more human."

"Sorry. I'm new at this you know."

"Of course."

More footsteps, and then another person in a lab coat appeared. She had her blonde hair done up and tied back. She also wore a cute little hat. She had to be the nurse. "I just have some basic questions for you, to make sure everything went all right, okay?"

Helen wondered if she was supposed to answer that. She waited for the nurse to continue.

After an uncomfortable pause, the nurse said, "Well, um. Can you tell us your name?"

That's when it came back to her. She was Helen Stone, under deep cover. These people were Shiroko-Tsuhi medical personnel. She had just been substituted for the cyborg S-T thought they were getting.

"Aasha," Helen responded. "Aasha Tempki." If she remembered the dossier correctly, Aasha was a woman who was all business and wasn't interested in wasting time. She'd just been transferred in from Southeast Asia about a month ago. Helen wondered briefly what the agency did with the human brain that was all that remained of the real Aasha. She decided she didn't really want to know. "Listen, you gave me this cyborg body for reason. I have a job to do. I see fine, I feel fine, and I hear fine. I'll let you know if there are problems."

The male doctor, chuckled, "Same old Aasha. I'd say she's fine, nurse Hamilton. I'll sign the release." He took a clipboard from the nurse and scribbled something on it. He handed it back and the nurse took it with her out of the small hospital room.

When he was sure she was gone, the doctor turned back to his patient. "This cyborg body has had some significant upgrades over your previous one. Do you remember what they are, or do you need a refresher?"

"I got it. Dermal armor, coded transceiver. Enhanced reflex augmentation, and an upgrade to the hydraulic jacks. You molded the body, sized it down, and made it match the body I was born with." Helen lifted her right hand and bent her hand down. A long, wicked looking blade nearly silently whispered out from the hidden forearm sheath and gleamed sharply in the cold, white light. "And a new silent weapon system designed to make permanent solutions for what Shiroko-Tsuhi determines to be terminal problems."

The doctor flinched and took a reflexive step back. "Uh, yes. And according to the computer, they should be working."

"Off switch?"


"Do I have an off switch, Doctor Hans?"

The doctor hesitated, "No..."

The woman masquerading as Aasha retracted the cyber blade. "What is it,?"

"Your recharge adapter requires a nonstandard ac current in order to recharge. The frequency is a secret, of course, and the ports you must use to recharge are located only in your private quarters and the labs. But you shouldn't need to recharge very often."

"I'm battery powered." She said it with obvious distaste.

"Technically, all cyborgs are, more or less. Your power plant simply must be recharged a little more often than the average. But its peak output is greater than most, too."

Sure it is, thought Helen with irritation. I wonder if the shop knew about this little surprise? To top it off, she began to feel like the nerves in her fingers and toes were beginning to burn. That was how it always started.

"Anything else, doctor?"

"No. You have a meeting in 706 in a half hour. They'll brief you on your next assignment there."


Helen left the room and walked down the hall. Stopping at an elevator, she found a chart of the major areas of the S-T arcology and identified the closest restroom.

Well, she thought. I'm in now. I may as well begin thinking of myself as Aasha.

She entered the women's restroom and with some relief, she noticed it was currently unoccupied. She closed the door behind her and looked down at hands just beginning to quiver. They hurt like hell now and the pain was crawling up her arms like a horde of African soldier ants slowly devouring her from the inside out.

"Fuck!" she exclaimed. It had been 12 hours since her last dose of PK-5. Too long. She fled to a bathroom stall. With shaking hands, she hiked up the skirt of her white business suit and felt along her left thigh. She found the secret fold of skin and pulled it back to reveal two small vials with crystal blue liquid inside them. They had a nozzle attachment meant to allow her to press the vial into a receptacle inside the hidden compartment. This released a measured amount of the drug. She took one out and applied it. Cool blue haze settled across her vision for a moment and evaporated the burning pain threatening to overpower her. It felt so good.

She remembered she had to make a report, that her partner was waiting and hoping that the insertion went they way they had planned. She activated her internal coded transceiver and set it to the code the shop had given her.

<<Tamara?>> she sent. Because it was built in, she didn't even need to sub-vocalize. All she had to do was use it instead of using her usual voice and it went to the right place. Wasn't technology great?

<<I'm here. We've been waiting to hear from you, Helen.>> The voice was female and familiar.

<<Call me Aasha. Helps me stay in persona. Anyway, I'm in.>>

<<How are you feeling?>>

<<Oh, I feel real good, girl.>>

<<You take a hit already?>>

<<Yeah. I had to. Christ, I must have been under for over 12 hours. You don't know what it feels like, going that long.>>

<<You know what the Bald Man said. Go as long as you can before you take another hit of PK-5.>>

<<Yeah, yeah,>> replied Aasha. <<I know. This one's a pretty good batch by the way. My compliments to the chef.>>

Tamara didn't bother to reply to that. <<Okay --Aasha--, make sure you report to me at least every forty eight hours. More if you find something useful. Or if you need something.>>

<<You got it, babe,>> Aasha replied in a liquid voice.

<<You know I hate it when you do this.>> There was irritation in Tamara's voice now. <<Get a hold of yourself and get moving.>>

Aasha sighed. She knew the drug loosened her inhibitions. She tried to straighten up. She rolled the little vial of PK-5 in her fingers for a moment and then put it away and pulled her skirt back down. <<Sorry. Catch ya later, partner.>>

Aasha left the stall and moved to the sinks and mirror. A petite woman of with the dark brown eyes, black hair, and the dark skin that were the usual trademark features of the people of eastern India looked back at her. She leaned in to look more closely. Perfect nose, strong jaw, well-shaped eyebrows. Looks like they gave me a very attractive body. She ran fingers through her hair. It was that new high-quality stuff that also helped act as a radiator. She wondered if it would bleach out under stress like most fiber coolant systems. At only 5'3," Aasha was a good four inches smaller than she used to be.

She smiled at the image in the mirror, feeling good and in control. Then she turned and strode out of the restroom, refreshed and having an accompanying bounce in her step. PK-5 tended to have that effect.

Aasha found the meeting room without difficulty and even managed to be a little early. Her immediate superior was really just an errand boy for the upper management, but he gave her the details she needed.

"Why now, Hikagi? Why are they clipping her wings now? Has she done something to embarrass the company?"

"No, Miss Tempki. It's a long standing sore spot with someone in upper management. Mr. Sanato has left the position and this is just the policy of the new exec in charge."

"All right. So what's my role?"

"Watch her every step. If she gets out of line, fix it."

"Fix it?"

"You got that radio upgrade right?"


"That code we gave you links up with the collar Raven wears. You can--"

"You put a collar on the girl." She couldn't keep the derision from her voice. She also didn't miss the fact that Hikagi called Raven by her first name, as if he was somehow familiar with her, or just didn't respect her.

"Policy, Miss Tempki." Aasha sighed loudly, but Hikagi continued nonetheless. "The collar has a radio in it, but it is also a disciplinary device. It will send a significant shock right through her spinal cord if triggered. It can be triggered remotely by you and some of our people. Oh, and if she decides to try to remove the collar a toxin is released in her blood stream that will knock her cold hopefully long enough for you to retrieve her."

"Is this a twenty four seven gig?"

"More or less. In the times where extra support is required, or when you need time for debriefings, reports, and recharge, we'll have someone else cover it."


"Lora Doubet and Katsura Honda , not that it should matter to you, Miss Tempki."


"Okay," he continued, ignoring the interruption, "aside from your primary mission, you will also be acting as a bodyguard, whenever necessary. Finally, we would strongly prefer that you attempt to make friends with Raven. If you present yourself as her minder, you'll always be the bad guy to her. We feel it would be better to control her, if she came to trust you."


"You have a problem with this, Miss Tempki?" There was a veiled threat in the tone of his voice.

"No," she said quickly.

"Raven's previous bodyguard has been reassigned. He was on intimate terms with Raven. We want you to understand that although we've had to restrain Raven from undesirable activities, her physical and mental welfare is still important. She is a weapon, and we still want her to be capable of acting at her best when necessary." Aasha digested that while Hikagi continued.

"There has also been a few rumors of a same-sex interlude she had not long ago. If she wants that kind of friendship, then you are not to deny her that."

They've got to be kidding, Aasha thought. If it was for my country, if it was something the shop wanted me to do, I'd do it. But for a bunch of low-life corporate scum like these? She shifted in her chair and noticed that her engineers made sure she was capable. Perverts.

Hikago was still prattling. "If she wants to have French cuisine, you go get it and bring it to her. If she wants to eat a bucket of ice cream, you'll help her do it. You understand?"

"Yeah. Do what it takes if it will make her happy."

"Right. However she will not leave S-T property without authorization. She won't leave this arcology, unless she has been given orders."

The meeting ended shortly after that. She was given a key and number to her own residence, but she wasn't to go there. Right now, she had a young esper to go see.

The dark-haired, petite woman strode confidently through the halls of Shiroko-Tsuhi's Neo York arcology. She came to a stop in front of an elevator door, pressed a button and soon entered the waiting lift. The elevator cubicle sunk perceptibly under the weight of the young woman, betraying the nature of her cyborg body. No matter how light she might seem to step, she could not defeat physics.

She was dressed in a conservative, white business suit with skirt and matching jacket. It fit her precisely, and since her size could not change, it always would.

The elevator slid open and Aasha stepped out onto the 113th floor. She observed two men in dark suits standing before a security metal detector. They were armed with sensor wands in their hands and the woman did not miss the bulge under one arm which indicated the presence of a gun.

She walked out of the elevator directly to the two men.

"ID?" asked one of the men.

She pulled a laminated identity card from beneath her shirt and showed him. It said, in clear blue letters:


They passed a sensor wand over the card, it showed green, and they sent her through. As she approached the door to Raven's suite, Aasha couldn't help but think about what they did to Raven. Damned corporate scum. They treat their best people, the ones that sacrifice the most for them, like slaves just because they signed some stupid document. There was a time once, when it was supposed to be impossible to sign away your rights like that. Maybe times change. Maybe times will change again. She wanted corrupt companies like Shiroko-Tsuhi to fail so bad she could taste it. But for now, she would do her part.

Aasha found Raven in her bedroom, lying facedown on her pillow. Soft sobbing revealed that she was awake, but if she'd noticed the cyborg's arrival she gave no sign. Right now she looked more like a terrified girl than a deadly esper weapon.

Aasha felt like a real bitch. Here she was sneaking up on the poor girl on what must have been the worst day of her life, and now she was going to deceive her and spy on her for multiple parties. They wanted her to make friends with Raven. Well, maybe would. But not for the reasons her bosses wanted.

The soft carpet had masked the sound of her heels, but Aasha took off her heels and quietly left them in a corner. On tip-toes she snuck back into the kitchen while keeping an eye on Raven's sobbing form. She quietly poured a glass of milk and turned to bring it to Raven.

Walking quietly back to the bedroom, Aasha stopped at the doorway and quietly knocked on the frame. "Hey there."

Raven looked up from the bed and turned her reddened eyes towards Aasha. There's my new watcher. Slowly she sat on the corner of the bed, her glaring eyes never leaving the cyborg. A small woman. Well it's another surprise.

"When I'm feeling blue, my tummy gets pretty unhappy, which just makes me feel worse. Would you like?" Aasha offered Raven the glass.

Feeling BLUE? Shit, she doesn't have the half of it. Raven absently took the glass from Aasha's hands, still glaring. So she's going to try to play nice, is she. "So are you my new watcher?" she demanded, hostility marring her voice.

"I'm what you decide to make of me." Aasha knelt by the bed. "Look, you have every right to be very angry right now. And frankly you could probably break me like a twig if you really wanted to." Her voice was soft but firm. "But think about it. They don't really need me to watch you, do they?" Aasha leaned in close to Raven, close enough to block out most of the room behind her, while Raven blocked out the rest. Aasha carefully pointed the tip of her finger at her eye and then, hands tight to her chest, pointed through Raven toward the bedroom mirror, 'smoke alarm', and vent. She knew those were the most likely places they'd put in surveillance cameras, and there were probably more. She hoped Raven understood what she was trying to show her.

Raven snorted and leaned back away from Aasha to laugh bitterly. "Yeah, I guess that makes sense. I sorta figured they had a few in my old place, too. Well, maybe not, if they needed to move me."

"I can tell you for sure that I will be your bodyguard, and that I will do everything I can to help make your life at least little bit better than it is now." Aasha stood back up. "Come on. Give me a chance." She put her hand out. "My name's Aasha."

Raven looked up at her, and hesitated, unsure about what to do. On the one hand, she didn't feel like playing nice to a sugarcoated minder. On the other hand, there wasn't much she could gain by being difficult just for the sake of it, and she didn't want to start on her watcher's bad side in case she decided to make her life even more miserable. And there was the off chance Aasha was sincere, although she wasn't naive enough to believe it.

"I'm Raven," she said gruffly, taking Aasha's hand. "But you knew that."

The smaller woman smiled briefly. "If you want to vent, I'll listen. I know you don't know me yet. But maybe that's just as well. Sometimes that makes it easier. You had a lot of crappy things happen to you today, Raven."

Raven folded her hands into her lap and looked down. "I'm not in the mood to talk," she muttered glumly. And especially not to you, she added mentally, or on the goons listening in.

"Yeah, that's okay. They tell me sometimes I talk too much anyway." Aasha looked down for a moment, and then at Raven's poorly clad figure. "Maybe you should hit the shower, huh? Find something a little less, uh, breezy to wear?"

"You're right," Raven said. She drank down the glass of milk, then added, "I feel dirty." She got up, set the glass on the nightstand, and left the bedroom, barely looking at Aasha.

It took a few tries opening boxes in the gym-workshop before she found enough clothes. She selected a white shirt and a pair of blue jeans; they happened to be on top of the piles, and she really didn't feel like wearing anything complicated. They were longer than the weather called for, but she somehow didn't think she'd be out of a climate-controlled environment anytime soon. She brought them in the bathroom and tossed them on the counter. Then she locked the bathroom door behind her and leaned against it. Did they have to get my minder to ingratiate herself like that? Did they think I'd fall for it? Sheesh. She wasn't sure what they were trying to accomplish with the good cop/bad cop routine she'd been going through. After all, she had a constant reminder of which side of the good/bad equation they were really on.

Raven began a quick exploration of the cupboards, revealing more surprises: thick, freshly-washed towels and an array of scented soaps. That made a stark contrast with the drabness of the decor. Deciding that she couldn't figure out the weirdness of her apartment, she selected a fragrance she liked and put the soap and towel next to the bath. It actually took her a moment to figure out the bath's keypad; the bath was capable of a large variety of functions, but all she wanted was to soak and think. Finally she managed to get some steaming water out of the faucet.

Marcus had to admit, he'd landed into one hell of a cushy job. He'd volunteered for a transfer to the Teek Brigade, officially known as Psychokinetic Management, when they'd started looking out for surveillance techs. The Davies woman who'd interviewed her had tried to scare him off, warning him that the subject of the surveillance was extremely dangerous. All that meant to Marcus was a fat hazardous duty bonus on his paycheck. Hell, even if it'd turned out that the "subject" was S-T's big bad esper weapons, she was a hundred stories below and at the other end of the arc from him.

Plus this job had some pretty nice side benefits. Like, the chick was a total babe, and his job was to never take his eyes off her! Man, that was just too sweet. And the rig he had to play with was just awesome. Right now he had it in automatic mode. The computer would use the signal from that tracker she was wearing, and it would figure out by itself which cameras had the best views to her and display them on his screen. All he had to do was to sit back and watch, and that was why he'd gotten into this line of work to begin with; he liked watching. He especially liked watching gorgeous babes, and the esper sure met his standards. That little thing she was wearing was showing every inch of her legs, and they were just awesome, long and sleek and taut... For a moment Marcus fantasized about those legs rubbing against his...

It was really too bad that they had to lock her up and tie up that collar thing on her. The Davies woman had told her all the nasty things it could do, and when he was supposed to use that control panel on his left to make them happen. It was a sick piece of work. But he figured they didn't have much of a choice. Davies had been really convincing when she'd explained that they couldn't have someone who could bring the arc down if she set her mind to it running around unsupervised. Plus there would be lots of people from other corps who'd try to get her out of the way, and they wouldn't be nice about it. No, everyone was safer with the esper safely locked up sixty feet underground and under Marcus's watchful eye...

The camera view switched, and Marcus snapped his attention back to the screen. The Raven babe was moving. She hadn't moved from the bed in over an hour, even when that minder had come to talk to her. Aasha, her name was. Another babe, almost as nice as the other one. "Brian, she's leaving the bedroom," he announced to his partner, who was behind him on coffee break. The sop answered with a grunt and he flipped a page of his newspaper. Marcus watched the girl walk to the gym—she had a nice, graceful walk, as if she'd been carefully schooled to do it, rather than learned naturally. Marcus thought it really suited those legs. Then she started to rummage through her boxes. "Hey, she's picking clothes!" he realized.

That got Brian's attention. He came over to look over Marcus's shoulder. "Whoa, think she's gonna change?" On the screen, Raven moved to another box, bending to open it and rummage through, sending her long black hair tumbling to the side of her face and giving the camera a perfect view of her derriere. "Oooh maaaaan, can you believe that ass?! Whatta babe." The chick was moving again. "She's going to the bathroom!"

They watched in anticipation as Raven looked in the bathroom cupboards, picking out the soaps. They grinned in unison when she started pouring herself a bath. Then the on-screen Raven took a deep breath and pulled the hospital gown over her head.

"Whoa, take a load of those!" exclaimed Marcus, drinking in the sight of the naked babe from three different angles. The chick's breasts were nicely-sized, well-rounded and firm, with pert nipples. They beat those in magazines Marcus got every month. Maybe he could cancel a few subscriptions now. "Too sweet man. And we're getting paid to do this." Both stayed glued to her screen as the on-screen Raven put one of those interminable legs over the bath edge to test the water. Apparently satisfied, she climbed in and let herself slip under the frothing water.

"Aww, shucks," Brian said as the chick vanished to her neck in the bubble bath.

Marcus played with the camera controls for a while but even the one place right above the bath didn't give him a good view. "Oh well. She has to get out sometime, and it's only the first day after all."

Brian looked at the screen, still looking a bit disappointed. "Saaaay... we record everything that happens in there, don't we?"

"Yup," Marcus confirmed with a toothy grin. "Company policy."

"Man," said Brian, echoing Marcus's thoughts, "I love this job."

Soaking in the bubbly, rose-scented bath Raven finally managed to relax somewhat, leaning back to let her hair soak and releasing her tension with a long sigh. With her eyes closed and her body enfolded in warm water it was easy to forget for a second that she was nothing more than valuable company property, carefully watched and safely kept under lock and key. But only for a second. The collar around her neck, so close to the skin that water barely seeped in, made sure she couldn't forget any longer.

Raven took a bathglove and spread some of the scented soap on it, then began scrubbing at her legs. Three years ago they had seemed like a pretty good deal. New legs, new look, new home, new job... new life. All for a little work for Shiroko-Tsuhi. She'd remembered how good it'd felt just to walk more than three steps before pain forced her to stop. She remembered how elated she'd been at finding out just how good she looked, how amazed at how men would fall over themselves to find some way to help her when before they'd be as likely to kick her as to look at her. Sanato had proved to be good to his word; he not only treated her as a valued employee, he'd never sent her into anything that she might object to. She wondered for a moment if that was going to change. After all, she was now a weapon, and weapons aren't supposed to have moral quandaries when they kill.

Now the other shoe had fallen. Raven realized she was precious to the company and had been surprised at the amount of freedom she'd been granted. She expected her movements to be curtailed, or at least watched, but after an adaptation period they'd left her pretty much on her own. When she'd gotten a watcher, it had been Adam. Sanato had no doubt figured that he'd get best results if she felt good about working for him, and she'd never disappointed. She guessed that even Sanato had lately come to rethink this position, or been made to rethink it, as security men had started showing up wherever she went. But that abrupt change...

Now she was confined to an underground apartment with a sugarcoated minder to watch over her and a collar to shock her if she went out of line. She'd become a slave. There, the word had finally come out, and it was true. Maybe she was going to be a pampered, carefully tended slave, but she was still a slave and she'd get whipped if she stepped out of line. Oh, she hadn't been so naive when she'd signed up to think she wasn't giving up some freedom. Dimly, she might have even realized something this extreme could happen. But she was pretty sure she wouldn't have wanted the new body if she'd known about how she'd feel today.

Raven sighed and moved to her arms. It wasn't like she'd had had a lot of choice in the first place. She was in a corporate medical ward with a bullet in the gut that would've been fatal if they hadn't picked her up; her ability to knit her own wounds had never manifested before she was changed. Sanato had never spoken a word about what would happen if Raven didn't accept his offer, but she'd realized then as now that Shiroko-Tsuhi couldn't just let an esper of her power slip back to the street where another corp might pick her up. She didn't know whether she would have ended up dead, then, or a prisoner as she was now.

Now what? Now there really wasn't much she could do. Araki had been pretty thorough in figuring out ways of ensuring that. Escape didn't seem possible; even if she could teleport from here to anywhere she wanted, across the world if she pleased, it simply wouldn't be enough. The blasted collar would just shock her unconscious and then they'd use it to track her down. Then she'd get punished—or maybe Johnny would be. And she'd be right back where she started. Or maybe not. Maybe they'd move her to some "more secure," and less appealing, residence.

Scrubbing her body, Raven cursed inwardly. There was nothing she could do except pass time until her masters told her what they wanted her to do. Meanwhile she'd be stuck with Aasha. The petite Indian woman was pretty good at sugarcoating her act, except that she didn't quite manage to completely mask her contempt and ended up treating Raven like a child. Still, Raven had no illusions. Aasha was supposed to regulate her life, and while she was probably supposed to try being nice to Raven to get her to go along willingly, she was the one who'd be the first to whip her if she did anything wrong.

Well, at least she was alive. Didn't seem like much, but like Auntie Lydia said once, "Where there's life, there's hope." That made her chuckle. Even Lydia sometimes resorted to common sayings. Yes, Raven was alive, so at least there was hope that the situation might change someday. Maybe Sanato would manage to get his job back and things would get back to normal. She stood out of the bed and took the towel, toweling herself off.

Then she remembered that Lydia wasn't much for common sayings. What she'd said was, "Where there's hope, there's life." She couldn't remember exactly when and why Auntie had come up with that line, but she thought it fit her situation pretty well. If she didn't keep her spirits up, at least a little, then she wasn't going to even want to improve her lot. Her situation was grim, true, but she was clean, well-fed, and lived in a fully-furnished home. There were people in the Zone who'd trade her deal for theirs in a second. It was a bit ironic that she'd gladly trade back, too, but she still resolved to not let this ordeal bring her down.

She saw herself in the mirror again and her resolve died. Her wet hair was pulled back and plastered to her back, small drops of water glistened on the skin of her face and breasts, but most striking was the collar, shining from the thin film of water still stuck to it. Of all that it could do to her, maybe the worst was that she couldn't look at it without being reminded that she was property now. She wondered what other people would think if she saw her with it.

Belatedly she realized that the mirror was a perfect place to put a camera and that she was giving it a perfect view of her bare breasts. She made to turn away then stopped. Araki, efficient as ever, would certainly have ensured that there wasn't a corner of the apartment where she could hide from his eyes. She shuddered in realization. She'd just undressed and taken a bath while being closely watched by people she'd likely never see. They were probably be listening in, too, through the collar's microphones. And the worst part was that she'd have to do it again and again, every time she washed herself, for the rest of her life if they could help it.

"Well," Raven said bitterly, for the benefit of her watchers. "At least, I hope that you've enjoyed the show."

"Report to Ms. Rhonda Davies' office, room number 1273, at 9:00 AM to receive your new assignment. And welcome to Psychokinetic Management!" That was the last sentence on the transfer papers that brought Lora back to Sanato's department. Oddly the paper was electronically signed by someone called "Kunitake Araki," but whoever it was, he had Sanato's job title. Lora had just gotten back to her apartment after a routine maintenance cycle that had gone a little long to find the papers waiting for her on her printout tray.

Lora's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline when she saw that. She got a sinking feeling. This did not bode well at all.

And why was she being re-assigned to the PK department? It was well established by now that the only moderately useful talent that remained of Lora's esper potential was her ability to sense other espers. They hadn't found a way yet to change that yet... had they?

Why then did they need her? Maybe they just needed a new security operative. Someone had moved on or been promoted and she was being headhunted for a new position. Her thoughts returned to Sanato. If he was gone... maybe the whole department had been reorganized? That might explain a lot.

She looked up. Room 1273, and it was close to nine. She went in and introduced herself to the vaguely attractive male in crisp shirt and pants behind the reception desk. "Ah yes. Ms. Doubet? Ms. Davies is awaiting you." He had a bland, pleasant, but forgettable voice; Lora pegged him for a mid-range secretary/receptionist replicant. She followed him to the door of Ms. Davies' office proper.

Rhonda Davies sat behind her desk, watching her arrival. As Lora approached she stood and extended her hand. She was a tall woman in her late forties, with a hawkish face and shoulder-length, sandy-blonde hair. "Ms. Doubet? I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Rhonda Davies. I'm Assistant Director of Psychokinetic Management, I'm in charge of the American branch of the department."

Lora took the proffered hand and smiled a perfunctory smile, "I'm pleased to meet you."

Nothing more needed to be said, the next move was Ms. Davies. Lora was now fully into her "corporate persona" mask. It wasn't as perfect as Sanato's, but she had become reasonably good at playing the game at a basic level. She knew she still came off as somewhat blunt and direct to upper management, but not as naive as she once had been. She exuded an air of calm professionalism.

"Ms. Doubet, I know you have been transferred out of Psychokinetic Management before. I'm sure you're curious as to the reasons of your transfer back."

"The thought had occurred to me."

"It's really quite simple, Ms. Doubet: in short, we have need of you. Let me explain." Davies politely indicated that Lora should sit before taking her own place behind the desk. Lora noted that this was one office where the chairs had been designed with the possibility of cyborg visitors in mind. "As you probably know, the previous Director of this department, Mr. Sanato, was a bit lax in his duties. He let his valuable charges run about without any sort of direction or supervision. He tried to improve things in the last few months, but upper management felt that, given the extreme value of the assets he was responsible for, that was too little to late. As of two days ago, Mr. Sanato has been moved to other duties, and this department is under the direction of Mr. Kunitake Araki, from the Japan branch of the company."

Although she hid it well, Lora was dumbfounded. She would never have characterized Sanato as "lax". When he assigned someone a job, they got it done to the best of their ability or they were reprimanded, punished, or even fired, but he left people to themselves when they were not on duty. 'Tough but fair' was a clichˇ phrase, but it suited Sanato perfectly. Now he was gone, and whoever had replaced him thought he was too "lax"? This was not good.

"I take it there has been a reorganization?"

"A rather profound one," Davies confirmed. "Mr. Araki has introduced new personnel and he has implemented some sweeping, but much-needed policy changes." She paused and let that hang. "I'm told that you are good friends with our top esper, Raven Clark."

Had Raven done something to get herself in trouble? Lora and Raven hadn't bothered to keep their budding friendship secret. Now the worry for herself that had been growing in the pit of her stomach had a new focus.

"Yes, that's true. Is she alright?"

"She is in perfect health," Davies said with a smile. "And a large part of our job is to keep her that way. Mr. Araki has ordered a significant increase of the security measures that protect our valuable espers from themselves and the outside world," she went on. "One element of that increased protection is supervision on a constant basis by cyborg operatives." Davies's smile broadened. "We believe our esper would prefer to have someone she already trusted in that role."

"I see." Lora said. She was beginning to realize what was going on here, but didn't quite want to believe it. "Constant supervision? How constant?"

"Constant," Davies repeated. "We want her to have at least one operative nearby at all times. After all, we cannot predict when they will be needed. Of course, you would get some free time. We have other operatives who will take over when you're off."

Lora was beginning to get angry. This is insane!, she thought. But never more so than now, she felt the need to clamp down on her emotions. This was not Sanato, and there was something in this woman's eyes that told her that she would be endangering herself if she said what she really thought.

Instead, the only indication of her state of mind was the stiff set of her jaw as she asked, "What about free time for..." I'll be damned if I'll refer to her as 'the esper'!, "...Raven herself?"

"Raven," and Lora couldn't help but note how Ms. Davies had emphasized the word, "will be free to use her time away from her duties as she pleases. After all, from a business standpoint, it would not do to have our top esper weapon at less than her peak because she's unnecessarily unhappy, now, would it? However you must understand that we cannot allow her... fun to take priority over her security and loyalty, so we are forced to severely limit her movements. At present, the esper is restricted to her new apartment. It is a secure location where she has all the amenities she requires. We will arrange for any outings when the situation warrants."

Lora took a moment to take all of that in, and all it implied. She's under house arrest, basically. Dammit! She's been totally loyal so far as I've ever heard. What made them think differently to make them afraid of her? She sighed internally. Outwardly, there was little sign of turmoil.

Instead, she replied, "How is Raven taking this?"

"She's... distressed. But that's understandable, as all of this was rather sudden." Davies gave that honeyed smile again. "I'm sure that your presence will greatly comfort her."

"Perhaps." Lora allowed. Not willing to make commit herself by agreeing unconditionally. It might indeed help Raven to have a familiar friendly face. Still, she didn't know how much Ravens presence would have comforted her if the situation were reversed. She supposed it couldn't hurt.

"Shall I run you through a description of your duties?"

"Yes. Of course."

"The first of your duties is protective. You are to serve as the esper's bodyguard, which is a job I believe you are quite familiar with. You are authorized to use any amount of force to preserve our asset. And if you have to take a hit to protect Raven, we expect you to take it. Quite honestly, we can fix you much more easily than we can fix her."

Lora nodded, vaguely annoyed at the tone of the woman, but familiar enough with the concept that she didn't take it personally. The ability to survive massive damage with little or no trauma was one of the main advantages combat cyborgs of all types had. It only made sense to put that ability to use once in awhile.

"I understand," she said.

"Your second role," Davies went on, "is to help ensure the physical and mental welfare of our esper. The business case here is that she will be most effective as a weapon if she is in good physical shape, and her spirits are relatively high. Therefore one of your roles is to make sure her needs and requests are fulfilled, as long as they don't conflict with other restrictions, of course. It's simple, really. She wants Chinese cuisine—you go and order it. She wants to dance—fire up some music and dance with her. She wants a pillow fight—grab one and join in, but be careful not to hurt her."

"And if she wants to get out of her apartment because she's going stir crazy?" Lora knew she was pushing it a bit, but she had to know what the limits were, not just for Raven, but for herself. She had to see what reaction to just a hint of attitude would be.

"This leads us to your third duty," Ms. Davies continued, unperturbed. "You also have a disciplinary role regarding the esper. It is vitally important, both for us and for Raven, that she complies with our directives, and everyone involved with her must understand that. To this end, we have fitted Raven with what we call a 'management collar'. It has tracker and two-way radio functions, and they allow us to monitor her on a constant basis. During your last maintenance cycle yesterday you were fitted with a radio that hooks up to this system, so you can make use of the tracker, microphone, or speakers of the collar at any time."

Lora felt a cold pit of horror open up underneath her. The thought of a collar on someone else was bad enough, and particularly on a friend, but to be told that she was to be one of the keepers... And they had modified her body and not even told her... What else might they have done?

"The collar also has more direct control mechanism," Davies added matter-of-factly, as if describing the features of a new computer. "It is equipped with a variable-strength taser, that delivers its shock into her spine. This is the preferred method of behavior correction. It also has also an anesthetic injector. The needle puts its dose straight into the carotid artery, ensuring a two-second takedown. This is necessary should the esper become belligerent and need to be neutralized immediately. Your radio will also be able to command both those functions. Part of your duty is to ensure that the esper is appropriately corrected for diverging from directives."

That, finally broke Lora's mask of impassivity. She stared in shock for a moment, then said, in a voice that sounded entirely too calm to her own ears, "You... can't mean for me to actually use this, can you? I'm her friend! I can't! You're treating her like an animal!"

Rhonda Davies paused for a moment before answering. "I expected something like that, to be honest. I'm glad you feel that way, but let me explain a few things to you that might give you a new perspective." She stood and walked to the window, looking out. "Ms. Doubet, you're quite fond of Raven, no doubt, but you've only known her for a short time. You haven't yet experienced the one personality trait that's common to all espers: they are all extremely volatile. The Power is tightly coupled to strong emotion, according to all the research we've seen. And you can imagine how destructive an esper who cannot control herself can be. The Empress has killed people for merely insulting her. Paula Laurs has been known to lash out even at company representatives, the last time so recent as last week. Another freelance esper weapon, Eric Rollins, commonly known as Rollins the Wraith, has killed three lovers, with uncontrolled esper manifestation during sex."

What really gave Lora pause was that she knew at least some of what Davies was telling her was true. Shion's temper was legendary, and shed been on the receiving end of Paula's hair trigger a few times personally. But Raven?

"Surely Raven isn't like that?" Lora said, "I know her. She's not a violent person."

"Raven..." Ms. Davies turned to face Lora. "She probably never told you of a certain episode in the Zero Zone. She found herself in the Zone with the bare minimum of protection—her replicant bodyguard and a single, untried freelancer. As luck would have it, they were attacked by a go-gang and Raven was separated from the others and seized by the gangers. We might have lost her then and there, but we were lucky and they took her back to their headquarters."

"When Raven awoke, Ms. Doubet, she slaughtered every last one of them. Some of them were ripped apart. Some of them were crushed when she collapsed the building. Some of them were burned alive by a gasoline fire. Some were hurled into walls at bone-breaking speeds as they attempted to flee. Raven lost control of herself, and she destroyed an entire building and she wiped out an entire gang."

If it were possible, Lora's blood would have drained from her face. No, that can't be... Raven wouldn't do that... would she?

"You understand, Ms. Doubet, that nobody in this arcology, and especially not Raven, can afford an episode like that occurring here. That is why Raven needs to be tightly controlled: because she cannot control herself. If you are her friend, you must understand that. Tell her that you hate this situation. Tell her that you abhor having to punish her. Tell her that she has to follow instructions or else she will hurt the both of you. I hope that you will convince her to cooperate, but if she does not, then you must enforce our directives. If you do not, either someone else will have to do it for you later, or they will need to apply more discipline. Or Raven might lose control, and then everyone loses."

Lora considered this. Raven turning violent? She couldn't believe it. And yet... Every other esper she'd ever heard of was off half cocked in one way or another. She was living proof (barely) of one example of that volatility and violence.

She didn't want to believe it, but she could almost see it happening. She loathed herself for it. But she couldn't quite get the image out of her mind of Raven...

...with Ran's mad eyes...

She shuddered, as utterly wrong as what they were doing to Raven was, she could almost see the sense in it. If nothing else, Ms. Davies had at least one point. The decision had already been made. If not her, than someone who didn't care for Raven would be put in her place. Someone with far less discretion than Lora. Maybe something could be done to mitigate the situation from within. Maybe she could lobby for restrictions to be eased somehow. What else could she do? She was being put on the spot and had to make a decision and pray that it was the right one.

Lora raised her eyes to meet Rhonda Davies gaze, "All right. Ill do it." God help me.

"Thank you, Miss Doubet. And welcome aboard." Rhonda extended her hand.

Lora performed the handshake as quickly as it was possible to do politely. She reined in the urge to wipe her hand furiously on her pant leg.

"Just a few final things." Davies handed Lora a datachip. "You will find the detail of the security procedures here. You will note that they are quite extensive—there are many rival companies who would gladly extract or eliminate our espers. Make sure everyone, most of all Raven abides by them. There is a room set aside for your use, and that of your colleagues, Katsura Honda and Aasha Tempki, off of the esper's apartment. It is keyed to your print. Raven herself should not be allowed in there. Oh, and do not hesitate to contact the control center if you need anything to do your job better. The details are on the chip."

"One last thing. Mr. Araki will be giving an all-hands meeting later, it should be on your agenda. You can go to the esper's quarters from there and meet her there."

Lora nodded, corporate mask back in place, "I'll be there." Then she walked out of the office wondering for a brief, mad moment if she had left her soul behind.

Raven stood back and looked at her handiwork. The bookcase was still hopelessly drab and functional, but now that it was filled with her dog-eared books and sculpted ravens, at least it looked like it had a purpose in life. The same applied to the rest of the apartment. With Raven's sculptures serving as decoration the place looked a lot more lived-in, but she couldn't shake the feeling that her lifelike work was completely out of place with the cold furniture. the opened boxes still strewn all over the place might have something to do with that, though.

Raven turned to look at Aasha, who was busy sorting clothes and putting them in the dresser. The cyborg had been unfailingly friendly, even when she'd politely reminded Raven that she was forbidden to use her powers. No matter that it was for something as trivial as moving a bookcase to her room. The directive allowed no exceptions. Aasha had made up for it by moving the furniture herself, her cybernetic strength making the task seem easy. Raven had to admit that she preferred the sugary warden schtick to the stone-faced man-in-black attitude.

Aasha put the last of a small pile of work-out shirts in a drawer and closed it up. "I think that's the last of the clothes, Raven." She checked the clock and turned back around to Raven, noticing she had been watching. She didn't appear to be bothered by it, however. "That big meeting is in about twenty minutes. Maybe you might want to think about some questions you want to ask." Aasha felt Raven was still angry about it. "Or if you don't feel like talking to them, I'd be happy to ask instead."

"Oh, I have one question, all right," Raven said through clenched teeth. "What the fuck makes you think you have the right to do this to me? But something tells me they won't be answering that one."

Aasha looked at Raven. "That depends on how it's put. Want me to give it shot?"

"That might be best. Somehow I don't think I could put it politely. So what else do you think I might ask?" Raven said.

"Well, for instance they told me that they don't want you to leave the apartment without authorization and escort. But maybe we could get a clearer picture of the boundaries. What are the requirements before they might let you go shopping within the arc if you want, go out to eat, have visitors, things like that. I'm thinking they aren't going to be very open to those ideas, but it might be handy to know what exactly they are expecting."

Aasha looked around with some distaste. She did not appear to be one to keep her opinions to herself. "Maybe we can even get you some different furniture. Something more to your taste. After all, if they want their numero uno esper to do her best, then they should at least make some effort to make things more comfortable for you." Aasha looked at Raven thoughtfully for a few moments. Aasha knew that if she was going to win Raven's trust, she was going to have to take a few risks and it was going to have to start at the meeting. The trick was knowing how hard she could push without getting into serious trouble with her ST bosses, win Raven's friendship, but still not foul up the mission for the shop. It was a tightrope that got narrower the more time went on. The game was a balancing act that Aasha, no Helen, knew well. Yet, there was always the first time she could take that fall. Usually, there were no second times.

"New furniture..." Raven looked resignedly around her new home. "I guess that would help liven up the place a little. There's only so much you can do with all that stuff, it looks like it was made for a cubicle farm."

Aasha smiled. "Yeah it's definitely drab. Comfortable, but drab."

"They could have sprung for an interior decorator," Raven said. "Although they're on this weird pattern of caring and not caring for what I might think of things," she added, rubbing her collar with one finger.

Aasha looked at the collar and then looked at the floor, as if hiding her expression. Raven saw it, but it was hard to tell if that was because Aasha wanted her to see it but was trying to hide it from security cameras, or if Aasha really was showing an emotion she didn't want to have seen by anyone. Was that strange look shame? Pity? Anger? None of them quite fit. It looked more like a combination of sympathy and one of the above.

Aasha looked back at Raven. It was obvious now that interaction between Raven and management could get ugly real fast. That would hurt Raven. And if Raven was restricted, so was Aasha. That meant bad things for her mission for the shop. Unacceptable. "I'm your bodyguard," Aasha said suddenly. "I'm going to shield you from any kind of harm I can. If that means I gotta run interference between management and this room in order to make sure you're happy, then I will. I'll take the risks, okay?"

"Speaking of which," Aasha continued, "we should change into something a little more formal for that meeting."

Raven blinked, surprised that Aasha would say something like that when it was obvious said management would hear. It was a bit much—she wondered if it was a ploy to try to gain her trust. No, it definitely was an attempt to gain her trust—the question was figuring out whether Aasha was doing this on the instructions of management or not. "Uh, okay. I'll see what I've got."

Aasha had almost finished changing back into her white business suit. She heard Raven's door open and close already, and new she was ready. The damn pull-over was still giving her trouble, but this time she had remembered to close the door. With some satisfaction, she noticed she was getting more coordinated in handling the fine stuff as time went on.

She checked the clock on the computer. Five minutes. They had to get moving or they'd be late for the meeting. Yet, there was another problem. The meeting could go long, and she was getting dangerously near the 12 hour mark. That meant she was going to need another hit of PK-5 soon, or have to endure the pain again. If she started taking doses too early, though, she'd build up a tolerance to it fast. That meant serious addiction time, too soon. The shop monitored those batches closely, too. She pulled the skirt up high on her thigh, reaching for the hidden compartment. Aasha squeezed her eyes shut. She could hear Raven impatiently pacing outside.

No. She was a big girl, now. She could take it. She had to. She pulled her skirt back down and swallowed hard. "Be right with ya, Raven," she said with forced cheerfulness. She slid her suit coat on, turned the lights out and went to meet Raven in the living room.

After some thought about whether to try to rebel by wearing something entirely inappropriate, or to wear black as a sign of mourning, Raven had decided to bide her time and put on a dark blue dress with stockings and low heels. It was a simple outfit, but it flattered her figure and legs quite nicely. It had also not been her first choice—but she wasn't surprised that all her turtleneck shirts had mysteriously disappeared from her wardrobe. Apparently she was not allowed to hide her status as company property.

She noted that Aasha seemed stressed out about something. Maybe it was fear that her earlier declaration would get her in trouble, or perhaps the fear that Raven might somehow disrupt the meeting or try to bolt when she was outside her quarters. The latter was a bit ridiculous, anyhow—bolting was a matter of a moment's thought, and maddeningly she could not afford to do so. On the other hand... she couldn't promise Aasha she wasn't going to make a scene. She felt nervous and furious and scared all at once at the thought of meeting the one who'd put her in this situation.

"Well," she said, "I guess it's time to go."

Aasha looked up at the taller woman in her heels and dress. God I feel short, she thought. Raven had those American legs every male seemed to fantasize about. "Good choice. That outfit looks really nice on you." Aasha turned and opened the door. She didn_t seem to expect a reaction to her comment.

Lora came into the room a few minutes before the meeting was to start and picked one of the seats off to the side right on the outside aisle near the back. Sitting down, she tugged down on the bottom of her uniform jacket, seeking to straighten it slightly. She didn't normally wear the blue and gray security uniform of Shiroko-Tsuhi. Since she almost always worked alone on special assignments that needed a more covert touch, there was rarely the need. But since this was an official function, she was required to dress in the uniform of her division.

Looking around, she realized there was nobody here that she recognized. She thought that she might have bumped into someone she knew from years ago, when she had briefly been a potential esper weapon herself, but apparently turnover in the department had brought in all new faces since then. There were a few curious glances her way, but no one near her decided to strike up a conversation. That was just as well, as Lora really wasn't in the mood for one.

She shook her head slightly, I still can't believe this is happening. I can't imagine what Raven is going through right now.

Raven, Aasha, and the four armored security guards who had served as their escort for the long and arduous journey from the esper's quarters entered the meeting room. The room was filled with employees of all stripes, executives and lawyers in suits, technicians and security guards in company uniforms, secretaries and clerks in bland, corporate-casual clothes. Everyone turned to look at the small group when they entered; so many eyes on her... Raven blushed fiercely, humiliated at being paraded in public while collared like an animal. Oh God, they're all staring at that collar... they all know I'm property now. How can these people have any respect for me after today?

They were led to a section on the side of the stage, where the company pet would sit on display for all eyes to see. Great. She picked a chair and sat, fiddling with the white lock in her hair and biting at the points. She looked across the stage at the woman and two men sitting at the table there, wondering if either of them was Araki.

From where she was sitting, Raven looked depressed and angry to Lora's eyes, but seemed to be doing her best to hold herself together under the strain. Her own heart felt crushed in sympathy for the young telekinetic. Lora noted the collar Raven wore. It almost looked like a choker, but it was glossy and just a bit too thick if you looked closely.

Abruptly, an update in her peripheral HUD display blinked to get her attention. Curiously, she opened the window on her field of vision and checked. It was the new coded transmitter she had been fitted with, opening up a menu of options on the collar that Raven wore, now that it was in proximity. She noted the list included the taser shock that Davies had mentioned in her briefing. Angrily, she shut down the window and closed it, returning her gaze to the stage.

For Aasha, being in the limelight was the one place she liked least. She looked around at the guards now taking up position near the edge of the stage and the large number of employees in the chamber. She was as nervous as a virgin in the middle of a Viking raid. She hoped it didn't show.

She couldn't help looking at her watch. Please God, let this be a short meeting. She looked out at the growing crowd of employees again. It wasn't looking like it would be a short meeting. Aasha's coded transmitter came to life with a short burst of static. <<Ms. Tempki, can you hear me? This is Rhonda Davies.>> Looking at the stage, Aasha spotted her at the table, speaking into her cell phone.

Rhonda Davies, thought Aasha. Oh, crap. She's my immediate boss, under Araki. Aasha used the transmitter with a mental switch. <<Yes, ma'am.>> The answer went out but was completely internalized. No one else would hear the response.

<<Ms. Tempki, this is a very important meeting and I need you to ensure that the esper does not disrupt it. She is unstable emotionally at this time and we would not have included her if it had been logistically possible. In fact if you could get her to sit quietly and not speak, that would be ideal.>>

<<Yes ma'am,>> responded Aasha. <<I have asked Raven to go through me to have questions asked. That way I can censor them. She had already given me what she would like to know or understand before we came. If she tries to speak up during the meeting, I know what to do.>> Ugh. That was the ugly part. If she had to discipline Raven right in front of everyone in the meeting, likely the humiliation even more than the actual pain would hurt deeply. And it would totally undermine the rapport Aasha was trying to build with Raven.

<<Excellent, Ms. Tempki. I'll leave you now, Mr. Araki is almost ready to begin.>>

Aasha looked up at Raven, who was sitting next to her. It was hard to get used to being so short. She even had to look up a little when everyone was seated. Aasha mentally shook her head, then she touched Raven's wrist.

Raven gave a start, then calmed down and looked at Aasha.

Aasha leaned close so Raven would hear. "Raven," she whispered, "I have to ask you to remain quiet at this meeting. I've been given orders..." She didn't want to have to finish that sentence, and she hoped Raven wouldn't make her. "But I will still do what was agreed, okay?"

Anger, then resignation flashed in Raven's eyes. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised. Okay, then, I'll try to be good." She sighed sadly.

Aasha couldn't help but feel relieved. Trying was the best she could expect given the circumstances. She looked around the stage and into the audience looking for any familiar faces. She didn't find any, but then she expected that.

Being up on stage with Raven, yet set aside like a pair of window manikins was certainly an experience she could do without, too. Aasha took a pair of deep breaths to settle her nerves, then settled back in her chair and crossed her legs, trying to look relaxed.

Rhonda Davies stood up. "We're ready to begin," she announced, her voice carried by the speakers in the auditorium. "We'll have Mr. Araki address us from Mega-Tokyo, then we'll split the conference up and I'll say a few words and then I'll open the floor to questions." She sat and made a gesture to the technician on the side of the stage. On cue, the lights dimmed, and the screen behind sprang up to life. It was blue for an instant, then a stately Japanese man of middle years appeared, standing on a stage that appeared to be an exact duplicate of the one in Neo York.

<Greetings, everyone>, said the man on the screen, speaking in Japanese. <Some of you may have already dealt with me in the last few days. I recognize a few faces here in Mega-Tokyo and I know there are more in the other offices, particularly Neo York, that would be familiar as well. Most of you, however, have yet to make my acquaintance. I am Araki Kunitake, the new Director of Psychokinetic Management here at Shiroko-Tsuhi. My appointment dates back only the last few days, but most of you should already be aware of sweeping changes in the department. I will not deny that I am here because the executive leadership team was dissatisfied with the department's direction, and the changes I have since implemented were indeed emergency measures.>

When she saw Araki, heard the voice that had hounded her in Vault 6, Raven tensed visibly, trembling slightly. She had promised herself she'd be strong—but seeing the man who had ordered her locked up and collared like an unruly dog, she could not help but feel rage rise within her. Rage that was tinged with an edge of fear. She clenched her teeth uncontrollably and clutched her own hands in her lap tightly, until her knuckles were white. Unbidden the Power swelled within her, giving Lora, sitting several meters away in the audience a pounding headache. Sitting next to her, Aasha noticed that her clothes and hair were rustling slightly.

Aasha looked away from Araki to watch Raven. The intent look on Aasha's face said, 'Don't. Just don't.' but she dared not speak aloud for fear that words above a whisper might carry too far.

Raven's eyes bore into Aasha's with a painful depth of mixed emotions - fear, anger, and humiliation. Aasha's gaze reminded her of the consequences of an outburst. She took a deep breath and held it, struggling to get her feelings under control. Her body trembled from the strain.

Aasha's gaze softened with sympathy, yet she could not yield or tell Raven that it was okay. It was not okay.

In the audience, Lora grimaced at the mental feedback and thought, Cmon, Raven, keep it under control, if you lose it here, you just prove everything they say about you is true!

Finally Raven's emotions overwhelmed her and she burst into tears, sobbing quietly with her face in her hands. In the back of her mind the thought that she might get punished for being an embarrassment came, but she shoved it away and kept crying softly. Lora felt Raven's Power subside until it fell to a near-boil simmer and she felt like crying herself. She wished she could take Raven in her arms and comfort her. Hold her safe away from all of this.

Tough secret agent that she was, it almost broke Aasha's heart to see Raven cry. Distressed, she searched her suit for a stray tissue. Alas, fashion dictated an unfortunate lack of pockets in women's clothes. Fearful her employers would disapprove of Raven's minder showing too much sympathy for her charge, and thus demonstrate a potential problem with disciplining Raven later, Aasha was left feeling helpless.

Onscreen, Araki went on. <In short, this department has suffered from a severe lack of focus. The fault lies not in of any of you, but in the policy and culture of this department. For the last few years the department's focus was on expanding our pool of esper assets. This, in itself, was laudable, as there was a mandate from the executive leadership team to acquire such assets. Unfortunately, far too much of the department's activities were focused on this one aspect of their mission, and too little on ensuring that the company could then rely on secure, healthy, and dutiful esper assets. If you will excuse the metaphor, too much time was spent beating the bushes for new birds, while the birds already in hand were suffering from neglect.>

<To demonstrate, here are a few of the numbers that disturbed the leadership team when they were brought to their attention. Our esper assets have an Occupational Risk Index of 543—that is fully twenty points above the average of our combat operatives.> On the screen behind Araki, a bar graph gave the numbers a visual impact, comparing the espers' numbers, represented by a red bar, with other corporate occupations. <Much more telling, their Non-Occupational Risk Index was 422—thanks to their entirely unregulated activities, these assets were more at risk during their free time than our security guards at high-risk sites!> The screen changed to an even more lopsided bar graph. A few shaded bars representing some of the more hazardous occupations from the previous display demonstrated that the red bar was higher even than these. <And worst of all, their Extraction Risk Index was an unprecedented 842—and given the extreme value and rarity of these assets, the financial loss to the company should an extraction risk materialize would be immense.> The screen switched to another graph; where the red bar dwarfed all the others. <We are incredibly lucky that none of those risks ever manifested, but there were several very close calls.>

Looking at the bar graphs, Raven tried to figure out if they'd taken into account the espers' capacity for self-defense in their calculations. With Araki's penchant for efficiency, surely that hadn't been overlooked. But if the peril was so great, why had nothing really happened to her? Nothing... not since that time in the Zone with Adam and Falcon. Her throat tightened at that memory, and she tried to shove it away by summoning up more anger. That proved all too easy.

Aasha sensed Raven was getting angrier by the moment. She wished the other minders, Lora Doubet and Katsura Honda, were here right now.

<These numbers are appalling for a department of such critical importance to the safety and the future of the company, but even they do not reflect some of the more egregious problems. We have collected some more...anecdotal data as well.> The screen behind Araki went blank. <For some of our esper assets, we found that insubordination was a severe and frequent problem. I do not need to remind any of you of the dangers and potential consequences of insubordination in delicate extended security operations, and it is a serious embarrassment to the company in all circumstances. Others took advantage of the lax oversight to indulge in unsupervised long-distance travels, seemingly designed to make them difficult to track. I need not explain how this behavior helped drive the Extraction Risk Index so high. There is a real and immediate need to increase the level of discipline among our esper assets.>

<This is the situation I intend to correct. This department's focus is now squarely on its current pool of esper assets; we must consolidate our gains before we begin to look outwards again. For the time being, the mission of this department is to ensure the security and behavior of our espers. With my circle of close advisors—Ms. Davies, Mr. Nakagi, and others—I have already implemented a large number of measures to achieve these goals, and more are to come. I have requested, and obtained, additional budget to implement these measures.>

<All of you are going to have a role to play in this new mission. Some are already playing it. As you go about your duties, I want your thoughts to remain focused on the espers. Remember that this company needs secure, dutiful, and healthy esper assets to succeed. Remember that our espers are extremely valuable, but also extremely volatile and dangerous commodities, and must be carefully watched, protected, and guided to be of use to Shiroko-Tsuhi. Watching, protecting and guiding them will be your duty.>

"I'll show you dangerous," Raven growled under her breath, glaring hard at the screen.

Aasha risked a whisper. "Raven, please calm down. There are a lot of innocent people here." Aasha figured she was fast, but she had no desire to find out if she was fast enough to prevent the serious injury of a lot of people here that would be the result if Raven finally lost what remained of her cool. Don't make me choose between letting innocent people get hurt, and hurting you, Aasha thought. She wouldn't even have to think about that decision.

Raven looked at her, puzzled by her comment. She thinks I'm going to blow the place up, she realized. She shook her head. I'm not going to do anything... am I? She looked away. She must be able to tell how I feel... Can't blame her for not being sure I can keep my cool... I'm not even sure I can.

<But do not forget that emotional and mental welfare are a large factor in our esper assets' effectiveness. A significant portion of our budget has been set apart for this purpose. Always remain courteous to our precious espers, and be aware at all times of their needs and desires. Remember that those must not interfere with our primary goals, but they should be accommodated if at all feasible.>

Raven looked away from the screen and at the assistants. A few of them were staring squarely at her, maybe because they couldn't understand Japanese. Many more were sending furtive glances at her. Raven saw fear on many faces, contempt on a few. One or two were regarding her with undisguised lust. She wondered if the watchers who'd seen her bathe were among them. The thought that these people would now watch and regulate every moment of her life suddenly struck her. She felt angry and fearful and ashamed all at once and she squirmed on her chair, sitting back as if the varnished wood could swallow her and hide them from their gazes.

<Make sure you fully understand the specifics of your role and the nature of the security measures that apply both to you and the espers. Do not hesitate to ask for clarifications from your managers; never make any assumptions as they may be unsafe. Do not relax your vigilance for an instant. And never lose sight of the ultimate goal.>

In the audience, Lora thought cynically, And what ultimate goal is that? Bottom line for the shareholders? Dominance over other corporations? Up until today, I thought the espers working for S-T were simply deterrents against other company espers. That's the way Sanato always seemed to use them. Lora wondered what would have happened if her own powers hadn't been all but destroyed. Would she be up there with a collar? No, she thought with a shudder, my whole body would be the collar...

<Our task will require vigilance, and we will be vigilant. Our task will require caution, and we will be cautious. Our task will require strictness, and we will be strict. Our task will require dedication, and we will be dedicated. We can do no less. The company is placing its utmost trust in us. We shall not fail it.>

<That is all I had to say. My assistants in the various branch offices will take over now. Thank you for your attention.>

<Thank you Mr. Araki>, said Rhonda Davies, standing up. Behind her, Araki's face vanished from the screen, replaced by Ms. Davies', who was walking to center stage. "I'll be brief, since Mr. Araki has been thorough in his address, as always," she announced, reverting to English. "Mr. Araki has placed a great deal of confidence in this branch, entrusting it with its most valuable—and therefore most vulnerable—esper asset, Raven Clark." She nodded to Raven, and almost everyone briefly turned to regard her. To make matters worse, the camera panned to her, putting her face and collared neck on giant screen. She crawled back in her chair, red-faced, from the attention.

"Given that the problems that he described often had their roots in this city, I consider this to be very high praise for us. I intend to honor this confidence." The camera panned back to Davies. "All of you need to remember that Raven is the primary focus of our group. Our efforts must go towards making her safe, healthy, effective, happy, and attentive to her duties." Despite the distance, her eyes seemed to bore into Raven. Meanwhile she kept talking about her as if she was not in the room. "To that end all of you must be very strict and very careful. We must all abide by the rules, and so must she. But you must remember to otherwise treat her with the utmost courtesy, and that within the restrictions that we have imposed for her safety and good behavior, we must make efforts to ensure that Raven's mental and emotional welfare is taken into account."

Lora seethed, And putting a collar on her and parading her around like an animal is supposed to make her HAPPY?? I can feel her across the room! Hell, I could probably feel her outside the damn building! You wanted to calm her down? This is doing the exact opposite! Christ!

"The success benchmark for this branch is to bring Raven's ORI, NORI and ERI numbers down to under a hundred. That's a very ambitious goal. Our esper is a triple-A class esper—in other words, she is in the top hundred of espers, and she is towards the high end of that. That means she has immense value, driving up the risk coefficient. That also means her powers can pose a danger in and of themselves, and we must be careful to always keep this in mind."

Raven looked down in her lap, her anger momentarily overwhelmed by despair. She's talking like I'm not in the room. She doesn't care, she thinks I'm a piece of furniture. Or maybe a pet. She'll throw things at me to make me happy, but only if it will make me do tricks.

"We'll now enter the question period," Davies said. "Feel free to approach any one of the microphones, but please remember that classified information will need to be discussed in private."

The first person that came to the microphone was a low-ranking executive in a cheap suit with his arm in a sling. "Ms. Davies," he said, "I'd like to say that I approve of the strengthened focus on discipline of our esper assets. But I have a question regarding the other espers that were stationed in Neo York until recently. You haven't mentioned them at all, am I correct in assuming they have been reassigned?"

Davies nodded. "Mr. Araki has prudently set a policy limiting the number of espers in a given geographical region to one. This prevents a rival from crippling all of our esper assets with a single strike." Shrewdly guessing the man's true question, she added, "Paula Laurs, who was assigned to Neo York, has been moved to Mega-Tokyo as a result of this policy."

Lora thought of the arrogant young woman with a chip on her shoulder who had caused her such hell in training and elsewhere. Surprisingly, she felt no joy at the thought of Paula wearing a collar of her own. It might be even worse for her than it was for Raven. With Paula's temper, they must have had to use the taser on her more than once already. Raven was strong. And she had so much control, both over herself and her powers. Lora remembered the carved pendent that Raven had shown her recently. It hadn't been carved with any physical tool, just her own power. Raven could control herself. Raven could survive having this done to her. Paula? The collar might just break her completely. As much as she hated the woman, she didn't wish something like this. No, not even for her.

The man nodded and returned to his seat. The next person that came to the microphone was a woman dressed in the company uniform. "Ms. Davies, will the reorganization affect any of the scheduled vacations? And how will it affect work shifts?"

Rhonda Davies smiled. "We're in the process of reviewing all the schedules, with an eye towards keeping people into what they were used to before the reorg. We should be done with that by the end of the week. It won't be perfect, but we've added quite a lot of personnel to the group as part of the reorganization, so we do have a lot to work with and we should be able to keep everyone's schedule more or less the same."

Except for my schedule, I guess. Raven thought bitterly. Do any of them have any sympathy for me, that they're hiding to keep their jobs? She thought a few might, but looking at the audience she saw that many clearly didn't.

"What about the performance evaluation process that was going on?," the uniformed woman asked as a follow-up.

"That's also being reviewed," said Davies. "Some groups, such as security and surveillance, have vastly different goals now, and so their performance evaluation data will need to be redone. Other groups, like administration, are not nearly as impacted and their data will be allowed to stand." She smiled. "Salary raises will proceed on schedule."

The woman smiled back, then sat and across the room a security guard with officer's stripes took another microphone. "Ms. Davies, is it safe to keep her in the arcology, where there many other valuable assets to lose if there's an attack on her? Wouldn't it be a lot safer to keep her in a secure location offsite?"

"We could do that, and it would be safer, yes," Davies said, "but don't forget that our espers are themselves security assets. We need her to be available for a quick response should a threat arise within the arcology. This is why we keep her on-site." She spread her hands and added, "Her quarters are extremely secure, among the most well-defended areas of the arcology. She is that valuable."

Aasha, having no microphone, slowly stood up. She kept her head bowed until Ms. Davies noticed her.

Davies noticed a number of people in crowd shift their attention to Raven's position on the stage. Taking a look for herself, Davies noticed Aasha Tempki standing and waiting for her turn. "Ms. Tempki. No, do not leave her side... here, bring her a microphone."

Aasha looked up and, feeling self-conscious, took the microphone that one of the technicians handed her. "My question is regarding Raven's movements within the arcology. Under what conditions will she be allowed access to corporate stores, entertainment or internal social engagements?"

"A very good question, Ms. Tempki." Davies said. "Such outings can be risky both for the esper and for the inhabitants of the arcology, and therefore require large amounts of security and planning. Of necessity they will have to be infrequent and must be requested in advance. Then the management of security can establish an itinerary and a date." She paused. "Of course, certain factors, such as a record for compliance from the esper, will reduce certain kinds of risk and make organizing these outings easier."

That was aimed at me, Raven realized. She didn't stop looking at Aasha the whole time, but she was really telling me: 'Be a good girl, do what you're told, and maybe we'll give you things.'

Davies noticed Aasha hadn't moved after she'd provided the answer. "Do you have another question, Ms. Tempki?"

"Just one ma'am." Aasha took a breath. "In the event that an employee here is questioned by an outside party, be it government or other, as to the legalities of the measures taken to ensure Raven's safety what is the company's answer?" In other words, Aasha thought, just how do you think you bastards are going to get away with this crap? She kept her eyes lowered in faux humility. According to the dossier Helen had read, it was Aasha's cultural habit to never make eye contact with a superior you do not intend to challenge unless it was required by etiquette. And Aasha did not challenge her superiors.

Davies smiled, looking for all the world as if she expected the question. She motioned to one of the men seated near her. "Mr. Fawcett?"

The man stood. He was a tall but gangly man who barely fit his expensive suit. His graying hair was starting to thin, but he had a pleasant face nonetheless. "Ah, yes. If you get asked such a rude question, Ms. Tempki, please do not attempt to answer the question yourself and direct them immediately to us, over in Legal." He looked at Davies, who motioned for him to continue. He cleared her throat and went on, "Ms. Clark's contract falls under the Critical Employee Act of 2021, and furthermore she is classified under Section 3 of the Act, which is reserved for the most difficult-to-replace human resources of a corporation. Coincidentally, that is also the same section as top executives and research scientists. This allows the corporation a considerable amount of freedom in selecting measures to ensure the employee's loyalty and safety. There is a remuneration requirement attached to this section but all our espers fall well into the acceptable."

He chuckled. "Admittedly not all of the specific measures used here have been validated in court, although there are very similar precedents, and we have no doubt we could justify these measures to any court. At any rate, Ms. Clark is a Japanese citizen and her contract falls under the laws of Japan, therefore the jurisdiction questions will make this a complex and expensive case to litigate." He did not sound as if he thought this was a bad thing.

The lawyer sat down. "Any more questions, Ms. Tempki?"

"No. Thank you," replied Aasha, head still humbly bowed and eyes averted, she took her seat. She was not so afraid to look into the crowd, however, and so she sought the employees' reactions as she resumed her formal posture.

She did not see much in the way of attitude changes. Most seemed seriously worried about their own jobs being threatened by this reorganization, and looked like they were not giving the ethics of the thing a single thought. Fear or contempt on many more faces told Aasha that Raven could expect little sympathy there as well. These employees had been carefully selected so that their attitudes were not a detriment to their work.

Another low-ranking executive was next on the microphone. "Is this reorganization a permanent change?"

Rhonda Davies nodded. "It is, although of course there will be adjustments as things go on."

"What is Mr. Araki's background, Ms. Davies?" the executive requested.

"Mr. Araki has a MBA from the University of Tokyo and a few other degrees. He has held a number of positions in security management within Shiroko-Tsuhi, most notably his last where the department he headed in Paraguay went from an efficiency rating of 27% to 93% in the year he was there." She smiled. "He has quite the reputation as a turnaround expert at Head Office. If you wish, a more complete biography is available from the company network."

"And when can we welcome him in our walls?" he asked obsequiously.

"It may be a while," she admitted. "The Mega-Tokyo branch keeps him quite busy, and he has every confidence in the team here. But if the situation warrants he will be thrilled to visit, I'm sure."

The executive nodded at that and sat down. Rhonda waited in silence for a minute or two, then she asked, "Any more questions?" Another, equally silent pause. "Excellent then. For security reasons I'll ask you to wait until the esper leaves the room before leaving your seats."

Sighing, Raven stood and prepared for another humiliating parade in front of the assembled employees. As Aasha and the four guards led her down the aisle, she kept her gaze straight ahead, trying to avoid looking at the staring faces of the audience in an effort to keep them out of her mind. She spotted a familiar platinum-blonde head, however, and surprise made her look that way.

Raven's eyes met Lora's across the hall, and Raven saw pain there, and a sympathy the rest of the room seemed not to share. Lora nodded once to her in acknowledgement.

Oh, no. Please. Raven felt her face flush red-hot, and she retreated instinctively, almost tripping over her legs and losing her balance. No! I don't want Lora to see me like this... I don't want my friends to know what happened... No.... She started sobbing in humiliation again, but somehow managed to nod her thanks to Lora.

Aasha had been watching Raven and noticed her sudden reaction, although she wasn't sure why it had happened. Aasha reached for Raven's hand and firmly placed it upon her shoulder for support. The contact stung and burned in her hand and her shoulder as hypersensitive nerves howled their complaint at Aasha's unnatural physical state. She knew this had been coming, knew the pain would be returning now. She muttered, "Shit," under her breath, but stoically remained facing forward as Raven and all her escorts left the auditorium and headed to the elevators.

The security guards moved with them in a protective ring the entire way back to the Raven's apartment. In the close proximity they maintained, it felt most like they were being marched. Aasha appeared to not be in the mood to talk, in contrast to her earlier level of chattiness.

Finally arriving at the apartment, the guards opened the door for the two women. Aasha let Raven by first and then followed just as a guard turned to follow Raven with his gaze. The end of the guard's rifle touched Aasha, who wheeled with a sharp intake of breath hissing between her teeth. The angry glare she skewered the guard with surprised him so much he took a step back before he realized he had moved. "Keep your fucking eyes to yourself and watch what you're running into, grunt!"

The guard muttered an apologetic, "Sorry," as Aasha just as quickly turned and stalked into the apartment. One of the guards commented, "Geez, what crawled up her panties?" as the door slid shut. Aasha leaned against the door for a moment, but then flinched away from it suddenly. She walked farther in and noticed Raven staring at her, a little dumbfounded.

What got into her? Raven mused. Problems with her graft? The last thing I need right now is a manic-depressive minder. "Something wrong, Aasha?" she asked, picking a tissue from the coffee table to dab at her puffy eyes with.

"I'm sorry. I guess I'm a little grouchy." Aasha knew that wasn't nearly the whole truth. "I didn't like the way he was eyeballing you." Her voice was tight. "I don't want these guys thinking they can abuse their position." And that wasn't it at all. Her pain was rapidly accelerating now and it was all she could do to keep from howling each time she took a step.

Or just PMSing? Is that even possible for a cyborg? Raven snorted. "Guys eyeball me all the time, Aasha. You probably get your share too. You're in for some work if you want them all to stop." She shrugged. "I'm used to it now. Sometimes it's even fun. I've gotten worse before anyway."

"Been a long day, huh?" Aasha asked. "I know I could use some refreshment." Crap, she thought. How am I supposed to get a shot without looking suspicious? "Want anything?" The small woman moved in the direction of the kitchen.

"I guess I could use a Coke," Raven said, plopping down on the couch. She rubbed her forehead. "I'm sorry for freaking out at the meeting," she added. "I just heard him again and couldn't help myself."

Raven heard some rummaging about, some ice cubes hitting glass, and the fizzy sound of pouring soda. A moment later, Aasha returned, gingerly holding two glass of cool, dark liquid.

She flicked a half smile, which stayed only an instant. "I know the stats, but don't know my own strength yet." She disliked all the lying she was doing, but it came with the territory. She was used to it. In any case, the cool glass seemed to sooth her burning hands and she held it like a fragile.

Aasha realized she hadn't replied to Raven's apology and still needed to find out if the esper really was all right. "What happened on the way out?" she asked. "Did someone say something to you?" She kept her words few, but Raven would understand that Aasha was talking about the crying as they left the meeting.

"I saw someone I know... A good friend," she said. She looked down, hesitating. Do I want to open up to her, and everyone listening in, or not? She sighed. Ah, what the heck... I don't think it can hurt... "Being paraded around in this collar like that, and talking about me like I wasn't there, was bad enough, but to have my friends see all that..." She blushed and looked up apologetically. "I knew she sympathized, but I just couldn't take it after all that's happened..." She took the glass from Aasha's hands and took a long, steadying gulp. "I felt like I was a pet or something." I hope I won't be getting Lora into trouble...

Aasha nodded and sipped her soda thoughtfully.

After Raven was marched away from the meeting room, the other employees started to pour out of the auditorium as well. Rhonda Davies, however, spotting Lora in the audience, waved at her to stay for a while.

Lora wished she hadn't been looking in that direction at that particular moment when she left her seat. If she hadn't been, she could have simply walked on out and had an excuse to do so. Now she was trapped. Great... just great...

Davies walked down the aisle to where Lora was standing. "Well, Ms. Doubet, what did you think of the meeting?"

Lora did not say, It was a thoroughly disgusting show of inhumanity, you pustulous disease ridden maggot wench. May you and your boss choke on your own bile. But only out of a monumental act of will.

Instead she said, with a perfectly neutral expression, "It thoroughly exceeded every expectation I had."

"I see," Davies said, as if she'd guessed at Lora's internal turmoil. "I understand that what you've seen done to Raven might seem very unpleasant at first glance, but it is necessary to establish strong control over her, as we've already discussed. In time, she will become used to it and the psychological impact on her will be lessened."

"I understand. Am I to go and start my duties immediately?"

"You steal the words from my very mouth." Davies smiled. It looked sincere but it creeped Lora out. "I'm sure she'll be overjoyed to see you."

"Yes, I'm sure she will be." Lora said, "If you'll excuse me?"

Davies, still smiling, said, "Of course. We're counting on you, Ms. Doubet."

Lora nodded, then turned and walked out of the hall.

As she went to one of the elevators, Lora thought to herself, What do I say to Raven? What can I do? I've got to think of something. Can't just let this go. Maybe I can talk to Matthew about this later. Maybe he'll have some ideas. God, at least I can still see him. At least I can unload on him. Maybe that's all I can do for Raven right now. Her thoughts continued in that dark tight spiral all the way to Raven's new "quarters".

The four security guards in the room turned in unison when Lora stepped inside. She walked across the steel-wall security antechamber, the gazes of the guards following her every step. Finally, she reached the desk.

"ID," said the man there. Lora was slightly taken aback for a moment, but recovered before anyone noticed, flipping her ID card out of it's protective holder on the wrist of her uniform and handing it over with a barely audible sigh of frustration. Normally, once one was in the residential sections of the arcology, the overt security measures were out of the way, as one was out of the "sensitive" areas where it was necessary for ID to be worn in plain view. Just one more reminder that Raven wasn't being treated as an employee, but as a "resource".

The man swiped the ID in the machine. "Ah, so you're the other minder. Pass your hand on the reader please."

Lora complied, putting her palm on the flat surface. The reader buzzed loudly and red lights flashed along its length. The security guard nodded and pressed a button, silencing the alarm. "Confirmed as cyborg. Go ahead, Ms... Doubet." He pressed another button, and the door to Raven's quarters slowly slid open.

Inside she could see a drably-furnished room in white and brown. Further away she saw Raven, sitting on a couch, and the petite Indian woman that had been with her on the stage standing next to her. The two turned when she arrived; Raven froze, an expression of utter surprise on her face, when she saw Lora.

Lora just... stopped. Inexplicably, she couldn't get her throat muscles to unlock to allow her to speak. She felt frozen in place as time stretched the moment out interminably. Then the door whooshed closed behind her, startling her. She blinked, and said. "Raven... I... "

Snapping out of her shock, Raven's first reaction was to self-consciously scrunch her neck, a vain effort to avoid showing Lora her collar. Then she gave up on that, and slowly stood up and walked to Lora. "Lora... Are you..." She swallowed. For a fraction of a second Raven felt betrayed. She remembered Lora putting her to bed earlier, though, and the moment quickly passed. She smiled, a little self-consciously. "I'm glad to see you."

"Same here," Lora nodded, then looked down at the floor, "Oh, Raven..."

Raven threw her arms around Lora, hugging her tightly in a close embrace. "I'm so glad to see you..." she said softly, holding her friend close. "Lora, I think I'm going insane... I'm so glad you're here..." Lora returned the embrace, finally letting go of the tears she had been holding back. She did not sob openly, but her tears dampened Ravens hair as she wept silently.

Aasha watched the exchange as she sipped her Coke. Obviously, this was the Lora Doubet she had been told she would be working with. She sent a transmission via radio to the fellow cyborg.

Lora made eye contact with Aasha as the carrier signal was acknowledged.

<<Miss Doubet, I'll let you two alone for a little while. I'd like to change clothes, anyway.>> Aasha carefully set down her glass and turned away, looking down at her hands.

The other cyborg nodded almost imperceptibly and then ignored her, other concerns more important.

Aasha silently left and retreated to the minders' room. Pain had begun to fill her body, causing every nerve to scream in protest against their unnatural fusion of flesh, plastic and metal. She wanted to scream but fear held her in check for the moment. As soon as she had the door closed and locked behind her, she clawed at pulling her skirt up over her thigh and groped for the hidden compartment there. The weak material nearly tore in her desperate grasp. After furtively checking to make sure the cameras were still taped over, she finally pulled open the compartment. Moments later she had applied the injection and slumped down into the desk chair. PK-5 did its magic. Like a knight in shining armor, the drug chased away the evil dragons of fiery pain. Cool relief spread through Aasha's body and she indulged in a long, breathy sigh.

Back in the other room, Lora and Raven stood quietly, holding each other and taking comfort in each others presence, barely even moving. Eventually though, the tableau had to change. Lora whispered, "I'm so sorry for everything that's happened. I wish... I wish I could make it better somehow. Maybe I'll be able to do something in time... But for now... Oh hell, Raven..."

"What's wrong, Lora?"

Releasing Raven enough to step back a half pace, "They've made me one of your minders."

"What? But.... how... how could you..." She stopped, took a deep breath. "They didn't give you a choice." It was not a question. Raven stepped unsteadily back and sunk into a chair. "So... now you have to watch for my safety and good behavior? Like Araki says?" She spat the name like a snake spits venom.

Lora flinched, "Yes. I'm afraid so. I didn't want this. They implanted the transceiver without even informing me beforehand. I didn't even know they had done it until my briefing. But... I'd rather it be me than someone else who doesn't care about what happens to you."

Raven looked up to regard her with her big, soulful brown eyes that shone a little too much. She smiled wanly. "You're right," she said. "I... I actually feel safe knowing you'll be around. I'm so glad you're here..."

"Thank you. That means a lot to me." Lora said softly.

Raven dropped her face into her hand. "Today has been insane..."

"Tell me about it..." Lora sighed heavily, sitting on the couch. "Everything's changed."

Raven looked up, at the simulated view on the giant screen in front of her. She shook her head slightly. "What do I do now?"

"I don't really know." Lora replied. "I guess try to avoid breaking the new rules for now. I can try and lobby for some changes. Maybe I can get something done."

"Thanks," Raven said. She closed her eyes. "God, why are they doing this? I wasn't going to jump ship or anything..."

Lora thought back to her briefing with Rhonda Davies for a moment before answering, "I don't think it's just you. I think Paula did something that scared them as well. She apparently attacked one of the middle execs or something. And she's done it more than once. There may have been a few other things here and there that you took for granted that they saw as dangerous because they don't understand. I think the power scares a particular faction of the higher ups. And whoever they were, they finally got a voting block and made their changes. I think this has been building for awhile now. Maybe Sanato was trying to hold it off. Maybe he wasn't. I don't know."

Raven nodded. "I guess you're right. We're big and scary." She signed. "It's not fair..." she said plaintively. Then she stood. "Want something to drink? I'm afraid I don't have any beer, but I could get you a Coke."

Her voice was casual, but Lora saw that she was merely putting a brave face. She smiled reassuringly, "Sure, Raven. Thanks." She thought about the one other thing she wanted to ask Raven but didn't know how. She was still thinking about it when Raven returned with her Coke.

"Here," Raven handed the cyborg her soft drink and opened her own. "The fridge is stocked full. Guess they knew I liked it." She sipped and said, "It's weird. they give me the worst shit, then turn around and give me nice things." She waved at the giant screen-window for emphasis. "They're being a little schizoid, trying to whip me while trying to make me like them."

Lora sipped at her Coke, looking around. "I know. You realize why they chose me to be one of your minders?"

Raven thought on it a moment. "They know I trust you. They hope it'll keep me from blowing up," she said. She looked at Lora. "They probably figure I'll toe the line to keep you out of trouble."

"There's that. There's also the fact that I can sense when you are using your powers."

Raven nodded. "And I'm not allowed to use them unless they say so." She sighed at that. "I'm not even going to be able to sculpt."

"Damn. That part I hadn't heard about yet." Lora replied, angry. That would be like telling her she couldn't practice her music. "I have to ask Can you sculpt without using your powers? I can lobby for that restriction to be lifted if you can't."

Raven caught the hidden meaning. If she said she could, then Lora wouldn't have much of an argument. But she couldn't say that out loud. It wasn't like Raven was going to have to lie, anyway. She shook her head. "I don't even know what tools to use, let alone how to use them. I wouldn't know where to start."

Lora nodded, relief in her voice, "Then that's an argument I can make on your behalf. I'll see what I can do to get that restriction lifted.

Raven actually smiled. "Thank you, Lora. It means a lot to me."

Lora returned her smile. Then a shadow crossed her face and she said, "You don't have any trouble controlling your powers, do you?"

Raven seemed taken aback by the question. "It depends. The small stuff—no problem at all. Stronger stuff tends to cause side-effects. And if I use too much power, though, or try to switch from one thing to the other too quick, I might brainburn."

"There's a reason I'm asking this." Lora explained. "Davies told me some things, trying to convince me that this was all reasonable and that they had no choice. That it was in you're best interest, mine, the company's, yadda yadda, that kind of thing... She said one thing though that I couldn't dismiss as completely paranoid. I know it because I've been on the receiving end of it."

Lora paused for a long moment. Long enough that Raven wondered if she was going to continue. Then she said, "You might say it's the whole reason I became what I am."

In spite of herself, Raven shivered. "What did she say?"

"You know that the power is linked to emotion, right?"

Raven nodded silently.

"Well..." Lora said, Hating herself for continuing, but forging ahead, "What does Shion do to people who make her mad? What do you think she's capable of? What about Paula?"

Raven looked at Lora, blinking, waiting to see where she was going.

"Raven, I think I know you. I know you're not in any way a violent person by nature. But... have you ever lost control?" Don't let this be true. Please let Davies have been lying. Lora pleaded silently.

Raven stared at Lora, trembling. Oh god. No. She's going to hate me now. She let herself fall into the couch. "Lora... oh, Lora... why is everything collapsing on me today..."

"Raven..." Lora began, but didn't know how to continue.

"I lost control, the way you describe, once.... I was in the Zone with Adam and a freelance courier, Falcon.... and I got... separated..." She paused, swallowed hard. "When I woke up.... there was this guy on top of me... he was... he was cutting up my clothes.... and his friends all around.... they were watching and they were laughing..."

Lora knew what was next, but didn't want to. But what Raven was telling her put things in a new light. She instinctively put a hand over Ravens, trying to comfort her.

Raven looked up at her, tears in her eyes. "I killed them, Lora... all of them. I just went and killed them all...." She sniffled. "All of them..."

Lora couldn't stand it anymore, she put her arms around Raven and held her in an embrace as close as the one earlier, "God, Raven, I'm so sorry."

Raven wrapped her arms around Lora gratefully, crying into her shoulder. The moment lasted a few breaths, then Raven said, unsteadily, "I... I'm so glad you don't hate me for it."

Lora shook her head, "How could I hate you for that? You didn't break until you had every reason to, and that's the difference between you and Shion. Between you and Paula, or... Ran. Reason, and regret. You didn't lose it until you were pushed over the edge. When you were, it was for the best of reasons. Survival, plain and simple. And you regret it and you don't want to do it again."

She turned and whispered so softly into Ravens ear that even the pickup in the collar couldn't have picked it up, >They tried to make me believe you could be a berserker like Ran. I knew you couldn't be, but I had to know. And I'm sorry.<

Raven pulled away and gave Lora a relieved smile that lit up her eyes through the tears. "Thank you, Lora. I... I'm glad you asked.... I don't have that story hanging over our heads anymore."

Lora nodded. "That's good. Now... In all fairness... You told me about that. I should tell you why that could have worried me."

"You don't need to tell me if you don't want to," Raven said kindly.

"No, I want to... I think it might help." Lora said.

Aasha didn't know how long she had been relaxing and she wanted to kick herself for losing track of time like that. She shook her head to clear it; she was still feeling the light-headed effects of the drug. Deciding she needed to get moving, the petite spy found the casual clothes she had on earlier and changed into them.

The Coke had gone warm. How long has it been?, Aasha wondered. Twenty minutes? A half hour? She left the room and went to join the other two women in the living room. After stepping outside the door, she noticed Raven still speaking earnestly with Lora.

She paused for a moment, leaning against the locked door behind her, watching the two. It was obvious to her that the two had been friends before all this happened. That meant whatever they were talking about was most likely just talk between friends, nothing more. It's not as if they could air important company secrets in front of the security cameras. With an easy smile which still floated upon a happy blue haze of PK-5, Aasha pushed off the door and decided to make her way to the kitchen. The Coke needed refreshing, and perhaps she might find something to nibble on there.

"I lived in the Zone a few years ago, just like you," Lora told Raven. "Usual runaway story, you know? I lived wherever I could crash. I had friends who would let me share floor space or whatever. I busked flute for a living. Sometimes did random little jobs for extra money."

I wonder what your life was like, if it made you flee into the Zone, Raven thought, but she kept silent, waiting for the rest of the story. Too many teenagers fled into the Zero Zone with only television as their guide; they had no knowledge of the real grit and grime of the Zone.

"I guess I always had the power, but I didn't realize it. It was always weird stuff that I could ignore or pass off as just lucky breaks. I needed a trash can to fall over and trip a ganger chasing me, it happened. I needed to jump up and grab a fire escape that I couldn't reach; I managed to do it - never anything really reliable. I look back on that time now and I realize there was a lot of that stuff going on, but I didn't believe it was me. Now I know better."

Raven nodded knowingly. She'd never experienced this kind of subconscious use of the Power directly, but she'd heard about examples.

"Maybe it was living in proximity to Ran or one of the other espers in the Zone, (Maybe even you!) but I eventually came into my power for real. That's when... it happened."

"I was practicing some tunes before going out to Zone Central one day. I got into a really good groove and kind of... went into a trance, I guess... And then something... opened up inside me... there was a whirlwind... a lot of stuff flying through the air. I think I remember a light post close by bending all crazy... I stopped playing, but I didn't know how to stop what was going on around me."

"I know how that feels," Raven said softly, remembering back to her own awakening. It had been destructive, to say the least.

Lora had gone unnaturally still as she spoke. Except for her mouth and her eyes, she could have been a statue. Her gaze wasn't seeing anything in the room, "That's when Ran just... appeared... he was screaming... I don't know what I was doing, but he didn't like it at all. The sensitives in the S-T esper division told me later they could feel me across the river. Maybe he just didn't like the mental noise... Who knows how he thinks?"

Raven remained silent, waiting for Lora to continue. She had a fleeting thought to Ran's last rampage, some three years ago, and the headache it had given her from across the city. The thought of facing him terrified her—she was shocked to know that Lora had faced him and survived, more or less.

Lora continued in an almost monotone voice, as if discussing something offhandedly, "I don't remember too much about what happened next. Sometimes... I get nightmares about it still... Apparently there was just enough left of me for the recovery team to stabilize, and only just that."

She let out a long breath, and then continued. "The next thing I knew, I was in a virtual environment talking to Sanato, and he was giving me the chance to live as a cyborg and work for S-T. My other choice... well, it wasn't really a choice at all."

Raven nodded quietly and stepped forward to enfold Lora in a comforting hug. "It's in the past," she said. "I'm glad you chose to live."

Lora hugged Raven back, "Yeah. I am too."

After a moment, she pulled back and said, "It hasn't been all bad. I didn't have the power long enough to really miss it, so that's not an issue. And the physical things I can do now are... well... pretty exhilarating, to tell you the truth! There was a time when I was really afraid about feeling like a machine. Especially in the first few months when I was still getting used to how everything worked and the bio-feedback wasn't as good as it is now. But I've got a really first class neural net and it's been adjusted so perfectly that I can barely tell the difference between the way I am now and my old body."

Lora grinned just a bit. "I worried about that too for a long while. Wondering if I was forgetting what it was like to be fully human. I think Matthew really helped a lot in that regard. He made me more sure that what I was feeling was right."

Raven gave Lora a warm, friendly smile. "I'm glad you're happy, even after all that's happened to you. You deserve it."

The sound of a blender echoed from the kitchen, accompanied by the sound of someone humming a happy tune. Curiously, Raven motioned for Lora to follow and walked towards the kitchen, wondering what Aasha was up to.

Aasha, dressed in blue jeans and a loose-fitting sweatshirt padded barefoot in the kitchen as she raided one cupboard for chocolate syrup and added it to the cold, creamy mixture she had going in the blender and pressed a button for a few more seconds. She stuck a spoon in the blended chocolate shake and then tasted it. "Aha!"

"Milkshakes?" Raven said incredulously, as she stepped inside the kitchen.

"Yup!" said Aasha. "It's chocolate."

"Well, they sure look yummy," the esper commented.

"Can I pour you two a glass?" Aasha asked with a smile. She already had three glasses out, and the mixer looked pretty full.

"Sure thing." Said Lora. She looked on for a moment, then said, "I guess introductions are in order, my name is Lora."

Aasha poured the milkshakes and handed them around. "Hi, Lora. I'm Aasha. I understand you've had your conversion for some time, huh? I've only had a conversion myself a few months ago, and was just fitted with this one this morning. I was hoping you might let me ask you some general questions about this stuff some time?" It was a statement but she made it sound like a question.

Nodding, Lora said, "Certainly, if it would help. Are all of us going to be cyborgs?"

"You mean the minders? Yeah, I think so." Aasha looked at Raven. "I guess it's not that you really need someone tough to just to hang around and watch you. We are also supposed to protect you." She turned her attention back to Lora. "A cyborg takes a bullet better than most regular people and we're almost as expendable as a replicant." Harsh, but true. Still, Aasha didn't seem to have a problem with the notion of her own 'expendability'.

"I feel so precious now," Raven muttered darkly, in a low voice. She sipped at the milkshake. "Hmm...yummy."

Katsura Honda strode confidently down the hallway. She was dressed in a manner appropriate to her station, which in her case meant knee-length skirt, suit coat, blouse, and tie. She was one of Shiroko-Tsuhi's internal security officers, brought over from Japan to assist in cleaning up the esper-weapon mess that was casting such a stain on the company's reputation. She would not tolerate any nonsense in this regard, and the severe cut of her black suit underscored that fact.

To the casual observer, Katsura looked to be the model of feminine perfection. She was athletically slender, standing 5'8" with glossy black hair that bounced against her shoulders and back with each step. Her brown eyes were constantly in motion, taking in everything there was to see and filing it away for future consideration. She filled out her blouse and jacket nicely and the legs that extended below her skirt were perfectly shaped.

Of course, anyone who paid attention to how Katsura moved and acted would soon realize exactly what she was. For starters, she never seemed to sweat, be out of breath, or tire. She never wore any sort of high-heel, and those who saw her in the changing rooms could confidently report she never bothered with a bra. Chairs tended to creak when she sat in then, and she never had a problem walking through a crowded Mega-Tokyo subway. Tipping the scales at a little over 300 pounds, Katsura was a full-conversion cyborg. Her brain and spinal column had been implanted in an artificial body, provided by Shiroko-Tsuhi, with the full understanding that she'd use her new form to serve the company that had made possible her rebirth. So far, she hadn't failed them.

Behind Katsura walked a handsome young man who went by the name of Duncan. Like Katsura, he appeared the model of perfection, although in his case it was masculine. He was a few inches taller than Katsura, with long blond hair, blue eyes, perfect teeth, and perfectly tanned and perfectly muscled body. He was dressed in a simple set of trousers, dress shirt, and jacket. He smiled and nodded at everyone he passed, and seemed oblivious to the admiring glances that followed him. But then, he also seemed oblivious to the obvious charms of the woman he was following as well. Of course, since Duncan was a domestic-model escort synthetic, his attitude was easier to understand. He'd been told to pay attention to one Raven Clark, not Katsura Honda—or anyone else he passed.

Entering the guard room, Katsura produced her ID before the man at the desk had a chance to even ask. He swiped the card and stated, "Please place your hand on the reader."

A loud buzz and a few flashes later the guard uttered "Confirmed as cyborg. Go ahead, Ms. Honda." The door to Raven's quarters opened and Katsura entered, followed by Duncan.

Raven heard the door open and turned. "Who's that?" she asked. Stepping out.

Aasha put down her shake and moved around Raven to stand between her and the door. She had not been expecting anyone, so she let her body relax in a loose, ready position just in case there was trouble.

Lora looked at the new arrivals. She had never seen the woman, but something about the woman's stance spoke of paramilitary training. The male was just too idealized to be anything but a synthetic.

She spoke up, "Hello? May we help you with something?"

"Katsura Honda." The name was accompanied by an ID card. "I am the third esper-talent observer. This is Duncan, Raven's new housekeeper."

Lora looked over the card for a moment, then handed it back, "I see. I'm Lora Doubet. Pleased to meet you."

Aasha felt a slight twinge of disappointment when she took in Katsura's 5'8" height. Man, I feel short. Why did the original Aasha choose such a short body? she wondered with a little disgust. She shook her head and smiled. "Aasha Tempki. I hadn't been expected you, Ms. Honda. Has the company decided to move us into some kind of rotation?" And if so, Aasha thought, I hope they have planned to provide me with additional quarters. Four women and one man spells trou- Hey... He's cute... "Hello, Duncan." She gave him her best smile.

Duncan blinked and smiled in return. "Hello."

"Duncan," Katsura commanded, "Why don't you see to whatever it is that Miss Clark needs. Aasha, Lora, we can discuss matters in the observers room."

Aasha gestured in the direction of the room and followed Katsura in.

Lora shrugged to Raven, "Back in a few...", and then went along herself.

Raven watched the three cyborgs disappear behind the door that was forbidden to her. Sighing, she turned to Duncan. She couldn't help but smile at him—he really was extremely handsome, puppy eyes or not. "Well. Hello, Duncan."

"Hello, Miss Clark. How can I help you?"

"Uh, I dunno, Duncan." Raven sat on the couch and motioned for Duncan to sit as well. "What is it that you're here to do, anyhow?"

Taking his place next to Raven, Duncan replied, "What do you want to have done?"

The close proximity of him gave Raven an immediate idea of what she wanted to have done. The thought made her smile broader. That's probably exactly why he's here... I just have to ask and he'll be entirely too willing... But then she remembered the cameras. And what kind of little pervert's at the other end? Urgh. Raven looked away from him and down at her knees. "Well... I don't know."

"I can clean, cook, do the laundry," Duncan listed, "Or, if you want, I could draw a bath, give you a massage, or help you relax in some way." The offer would probably have been far more enticing if Duncan hadn't been so matter-of-fact about it. It reminded Raven of talking to Temple.

"Cook. Yes." Raven realized she'd gone several hours without eating.Dinnertime was near. "Uh, I don't know if the others will be staying. Can you cook for everyone? I can help."

"Yes, Miss Clark."

"Well, uh, let's get started, then," Raven said.

As Lora closed the door behind her, Katsura turned to face them. "I have recently met with Miss Rhonda Davis. She has briefed me on how the esper-talent is to be kept under observation. We are to rotate in three day shifts, with one of us here at all times. Duncan will remain here fulltime, to see to the talent's needs."

"I see," stated Aasha. "Who's up first?" She made a mental note to ask Davies where her alternate quarters would be.

"That would be you, Aasha," Katsura replied.

"Then am I second shift?" Lora asked.

"If you wish." Katsura produced a PDA and made a note on the screen. "Has the esper-talent been settled in?"

"I helped get Raven unpacked and the furniture moved to her tastes before the meeting today," Aasha replied. The 'esper-talent'? She's going to be tough on Raven, thought Aasha.

"Then I recommend we spend the day familiarizing ourselves with the talent's needs and her new quarters. We should also introduce ourselves if we haven't done so. Any further questions?"

Lora said, "Does anyone mind if I'm here beyond the limits of my shift? Raven and I are friends, after all."

Katsura shrugged. "Our off-hours are our own. If it keeps her happy and calm, I don't see how it can be a problem." She paused and then looked around the room. "Speaking of such things, I have been led to understand that Raven has developed a friendship with a certain independent esper-talent. This esper-talent has been known to drop in unannounced. This is *not* a desirable situation. Does anyone have any suggestions as how we can deal with such an event?"

Lora snorted, "May as well call her by her proper name, since we all know who it is anyway. If Shion Nys decides to 'drop in', as you say, then I say—just stay out of her way. That's the smart thing to do. If you really want to stop her, be prepared to do some heavy remodeling to this section of the Arcology."

She sat down at the console chair and swiveled to face them, "In fact, don't even think in terms of trying to stop her. Re-direct her. Give her the bureaucratic run-a-round. Tell her Raven's been transferred to a different facility or is on an important mission. She'll understand that sort of thing. Just don't expect that to work indefinitely. Shion isn't a fool. She'll eventually catch on after awhile that something is up."

Aasha shook her head. The Empress. That would be very bad. "If Shion drops in unannounced, that means she drops in here."

Lora held up a finger, "Actually no. Shion won't teleport in here. She doesn't know where Raven is now. The next time she comes looking for her, she'll go to the old apartment. Teleportation has to be either line of sight or to someplace you've been to before. If she doesn't find her where she's expecting her, Shion will probably - at least at first - go through regular channels to find out where Raven is. That's what I mean by giving her the run-a-round bureaucratically. She won't know to come here, at least the first time. But she may figure it out. And espers can sense each other, too. She may figure out Raven's general location if she concentrates hard enough. But she won't teleport straight here. That's one thing she can't do."

"I see. Well, if Ms. Nys does get down here somehow and sees Raven with the collar, I expect her to go ballistic." Aasha was careful not to look at Lora. "If they are real friends, Nys would want to take Raven out of here," she said to Katsura. "If she comes in here prepared for trouble, then there is little we can do but attempt to insist that where ever Raven goes, one of us must accompany her."

Katsura looked uncomfortable. "I see. So, in essence, you are saying we are powerless, correct?"

/Hm,/ thought Aasha. /Better rephrase that./ "I guess I'm saying that I know *I* would be powerless, but I don't know yours and Lora's specs enough to really know if you would be. But like I said, in the amazingly remote chance that Shion might show up down here and be surprised, then she can be killed like any other human." Aasha shook her head. "Most likely, I'd guess that negotiation with the world's most powerful mercenary esper would be far more productive than attack."

An idea occurred to Aasha. "Lora, you and Raven have been friends for some time, now. Have you met the Empress? Could you negotiate with her if it came to that?"

Lora shook her head, "I've never met the Empress personally. I just know what she can do. I've felt her psi-signature. I've seen the news faxes and company reports. I suppose I could try to talk to her if it came to it. I'd certainly like to try that first before anything else."

"By the way, it's not true that we're powerless." Lora added. "Far from it. But simple force against force probably won't work against her. There are ways to fight espers without having an esper of your own to fight them. But you have to know what you're doing."

Katsura took a seat in a free chair. "Like what? I've never had to deal with an esper-talent before... well, not of the rating Miss Clark and Miss Nys possess."

Lora wondered if maybe she shouldn't be talking about how to fight espers, seeing as how she was talking about the potential of fighting, or maybe even killing a potential ally. Not to mention that this could apply to Raven as well. But her superiors knew she had familiarity with this sort of thing, so pleading ignorance wouldn't do any good. Besides, what she knew was what anyone could figure out if they did the research.

"I haven't dealt head to head with any esper of Raven's caliber either." Lora said. "But I did fight Paula Laurs to a standstill once during a full combat test. I figured out a few things very quickly. The most important thing in the world - and the simplest - is line of sight. Esper vs. Esper duels often make them seem omnipotent because they almost always know where their opponent is. Use of the power can't be hidden easily from another esper. So when they're throwing around as much power as they are during a fight, there's just no hiding from each other. But most espers don't have any special way to sense the normal world around them other than the usual five senses. An esper weapon can't hit a specific target if they can't see it, and normals can stay hidden."

"Well," replied Aasha, "we already knew that hitting them from surprise can kill an esper. Got anything else?"

Lora shook her head, "You're not getting it. I don't mean surprise, although that's always good if you can arrange it. I mean denying the ability to see. Turn off the lights. Fill the room with opaque gas or mist. If you're outdoors, fill the air with dust if you can. Use thermographics or low light scopes so that you can see. I've got IR and UV built in with my vision augmentation. If you don't, you can always get some equipment of that type to wear."

"That's how I fought Paula. I got her to knock over a grain tower nearby. All that grain dust in the air made it impossible to see, and nearly to breathe as well. But I could see just fine. And I had my internal Oxygen supply. I might have actually won, too, if she hadn't hit something that caused a spark..." Lora chuckled ruefully. "Like I said, all that grain dust in the air... We were both in the hospital for awhile after that."

"I see what you're saying," nodded Aasha. "How about those force fields? Is there anything anybody knows of that will get past them?" she inquired. She figured that was a long shot, but it didn't hurt to ask.

"Energy weapons." Katsura glanced at Aasha and Lora. "Broad beam ones, like ion cannons and charged-particle rifles. The kinetic energy transfer is usually great enough to affect an esper talent through their defensive shields. Lasers work well too, but..." she paused for effect, "I've heard that certain esper-talents can deflect such weapons."

After a moment spent considering the implications of a power that could bend light, Lora coughed and said, "Well, I think that covers our options - unless anybody has any other ideas?"

"No, I think that's it for me." Aasha smiled. "Raven must be starving by now. She hasn't eaten all day. Why don't we do dinner?"

Raven laid the last plate, and sat sullenly at the dining table, looking absently at the door to the minder's room. I wonder what they're discussing in there, she thought. Katsura doesn't seem to have been told to be friendly. I guess she's supposed to be the bad cop, the corp's watchful eye. I hope she won't get Lora in trouble. She looked at the table she'd just set. Well, I found something to do. Damn, that was embarrassing, just standing there watching him work with no idea what to do, and he sure wasn't going to tell me to do anything. I guess he won't be using his plate, either, but it'd be rude not to put one for him. She chuckled ruefully. Not that he'd notice. He's weird that way, not like Adam at all. He reminds me of Shion-Hime. But boy, isn't he cute...

She looked around the room. What am I going to do all day? Sit down and watch TV? Bleargh. To think I was already starting to get bored. Raven sighed. Well, I'm pretty sure they have plans to keep me occupied and keep me from going bonkers. She frowned. That's pretty much the least of my worries right now. The big question is going to be, what am I going to do now? She thought long and hard, factoring in Johnny the Wrench, that hateful collar, Lora's position as her minder, and her confinement... If there was an escape route, she wasn't seeing it. Heck, what can I do? Except wait to see what happens next?

The door to the minder's room slid open, and the three cyborgs filed out. Raven looked up and managed a thin smile. "Welcome back," she said.

Lora returned Raven's smile wanly as the three of them came over to table, "Sorry, business and all that. We were discussing schedules, among other things. So... what have we got here?" She looked at the table setup.

"Duncan's preparing some spaghetti," Raven announced, "or at least, I think it's spaghetti. Definitely pasta of some sort, with sides of salad."

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