Lora sat in the Puma cafeteria and watched the squad prepare dinner. Certainly not the most exciting thing in the world to be doing, but then, she had a bit of time to kill while Matthew got ready. He'd left her here after bringing her in, explaining he needed a shower, a shave, and a change of clothing before going out to dinner with her.
So she took a seat at an out of the way table in the cafeteria and watched the Pumas get dinner. Apparently, Pumas were fed some form of MRE, which came in a covered tray and was slipped into a microwave to be heated. Based on the smell, there were several varieties, although the actual contents of each tray looked suspiciously familiar. Sort of a thick paste-type substance. Lora was fairly sure it was something she'd be more than happy to not try eating. It reminded her of the nutrient pastes she'd been fed soon after her conversion.
The Pumas, however, seemed to enjoy their food, and dug in without hesitation. It was almost funny... in something as inconsequential as eating, the Pumas seemed ever more human than ever. They talked and laughed much like any other group of people winding down after a long day. The only difference was that the average group of corporate salarimen didn't stand six-foot three with cat's ears.
It was the cat's ears that helped Lora feel more relaxed. They were all up and forward, which she'd learned indicated a happy Puma. The Pumas all knew her, and as far as she knew liked her, but the visual confirmation helped her peace of mind immensely.
One of the more enthusiastic Pumas, Asuka, sat down right across from her, smiling, "Gutenabend! Matthew nimmt Sie heraus ist heute abend nicht er? "
Lora smiled back, Asuka had apparently originally been intended to be sent to Germany, and often forgot that she was supposed to be speaking English. That was okay with Lora, as she got to brush up on her own German whenever Asuka was around.
"Ja f|hrt er mich zum Abendessen aus. Wir sind zurick spdt. " Lora replied. Asuka had quickly warmed to Lora when she discovered that the cyborg girl could converse with her in her language of choice. Not even Matthew would do that.
"Sie sicher kann ich nicht ihn fir eine Probefahrt eine dieser Tage nehmen? Ich verspreche, da-ich mit ihm leicht bin. " Asuka asked with an impish grin.
Lora sputtered, "Nein! Uh..., Ich bedeute, das bin..., da-ist, damit Matthew entscheidet. Haben nicht Sie diese Diskussion mit ihm vorher gehabt? "
Asuka laughed out loud, "Sorgen Sie sich nicht! Ich necke nur. Er ist nichts."
Lora shook her head. "Ach..., Sie haben einen schmutzigen kleinen Verstand. Scare mich nicht wie das. "
"Good evening, Lora" With the slight clatter of her tray, Mei sat down. She was one of Matthew's favorites, a soft-spoken Puma who acted as one of the team medics. She also had been one of the first of Matthew's charges that Lora had met, and always seemed to be gentle and level-headed.
"Hi Mei." Lora greeted the medic. "What's going on?"
"Not much," Mei replied, "I just thought I'd save you from Asuka."
"Was?" Asuka snapped. "Was sichern Sie Mittel sie von mir?Ê Was ich do?"
Mei calmly waggled her finger in front of Asuka's face. "Now, now, temper, temper. And remember, use English."
Asuka stuck out her tongue, "Pbbbtt!! I was talking to Lora, who understands a cultured and precise language better than anyone else here!"
Lora sat there with a grin on her too innocent looking face.
Mei's response was to eat a spoonful of her dinner, her ears twitching back and forth. Asuka fumed for a moment and then decided that she wasn't going to be outdone by any mere medic, and scooped up her own mouthful of paste.
"So, Ms Lora," Mei asked. "Where are you and Commander Matthew going tonight?"
Lora answered back, "Well, we're going to grab something to eat first, nothing fancy - we'll probably decide on the way. After that we're going to go see the Echelon Blue concert. After that, we're not sure what we're going to do."
Mei's ears twitched. "Will you need anyone to wait up for you?"
"Was!" Asuka laughed and elbowed her more demure companion. "The Kommandent will be fine!"
Lora said, "He should be here any minute now."
True to her world, Matthew arrived a few minutes later, looking freshly scrubbed and dressed. Asuka and Mei had finished their meals and greeted their commander warmly, ears up and forward. Lora decided that perhaps they should leave while they could, before, say, Asuka offered to chaperone.
The concert had been a blast, to say the least. Echelon Blue was a local band on the way up and had been playing in a club in lower Manhattan. They were a large band with two lead guitarists, a bass, a drummer (with both traditional and electronic drumsets) and a keyboardist who was also their main vocalist. They did some very intricate instrumental work interspersed with some bring down the house dance tunes. If Lora was capable of feeling muscle fatigue, she'd be completely worn out by now. As it was, she felt pretty keyed up with residual excitement. Matthew looked a little wrung out, but was grinning wildly as they talked about the night they'd had on the way home.
"How do you do it, Lora?"
"Keep going like that? Do you ever get really tired?"
Lora thought about it for a moment, then said, "Not really. I don't get muscle fatigue. I can overstress myself, but that just causes pain, not fatigue. That's one thing I guess I like about being what I am."
"There is that." Matthew grinned. "I envy the Pumas sometimes. They go and go for what seems like forever, and then finally crash. Let me tell you, a sound asleep Puma weighs a ton!"
Lora lifted a sardonic eyebrow, "Oh? And you would know this because...?" The slight uplift of her mouth told him she was just teasing him and he wasn't in any real danger, but he realized the vague double-entendre he had stumbled into.
His ears turning red, Matthew looked out the window. "Ahhh..." He then laughed. "Anything I'd say would just dig me deeper, wouldn't it?"
Lora chuckled, and then said, "Maybe... But no, not really."
"How about if I said it was Asuka?"
"I guess that would depend on the circumstances, wouldn't it?"
"Forget it, you're gettin' nothing from me!" Matthew broke into an easy laugh.
Lora grinned and then sobered slightly. "Now, with Mei, I'd have to be blind not to see how she feels about you. But it's the strangest thing: I really don't feel threatened by her at all, or by what you two may have shared. If she was human, maybe I'd feel different, but Pumas have different standards."
Matthew was silent for a moment. "Well, we haven't 'shared' anything. I don't treat them that way. I'm not Lee."
Lora looked at him in surprise, "Wh...what?" Then, realizing the hole she had stepped into, she said, "Uhm... Oh, damn!! Oh Matthew, I'm sorry. I just assumed you..."
"Yeah... that's the problem. Everyone assumes. Damn it, everyone thinks that. But I can't see them as anything but children, no matter what they look like. And no way am I kinked that way. I thought you knew me better than that." He fell silent and stared out the window.
Lora kept driving on autopilot for a few more moments in silence, thinking, He hasn't... but I thought... and I just... oh no... oh no, no, no... then abruptly pulled over onto a side street and parked hurriedly. Then put her head against the wheel.
Matthew could hear the catch in her voice, "I'm so sorry, Matthew. I just... I just wanted to reassure you. Show you that... that I had an open mind... that I was happy to be with you no matter what... Even if..."
"Lora..." Matthew said, confused, "It's not that big of a deal, you couldn't have known... "
"But that's the point!! I went and accused you of something like that when I had no reason to at all... I'm really sorry... " From under the veil of her hair, he could see a tear hitting the hub of the steering wheel.
Matthew stared at Lora for a long moment before placing a hand on her shoulder. "Don't cry." The hand slid around her shoulders and he pulled himself close. "Don't cry," he repeated, stroking her back.
Lora relaxed a bit under his touch, "I insulted you terribly. And I didn't mean to..."
Matthew smiled into Lora's hair. "Hey, it's okay. C'mon, stop crying... I shouldn't have popped off like that myself."
She turned and hugged him as well as she could in the awkward confines of the car, burying her face in his shoulder. "Matthew... You're really what you seem to be, aren't you? I know that for real now. I know it may sound like a strange thing to say... But..."
Lora sighed deeply, her breath warming his neck, "Okay... I've... learned the corporate social game enough to get by. But I'm still uncomfortable with it. I guess... people who choose the corporation or grow up in it... to them, life is all about the job. And to management types, their life is a giant chess game. Everyone's a pawn to them. You know what I'm talking about, of course. You've seen it yourself."
Matthew nodded as Lora continued. "But you also get to be around the Pumas, who don't do that. So you get to socialize with people who don't usually have ulterior motives for everything they do or say. Me, I have to deal with it all the time."
Lora stopped for a moment, then said, "Well, there's one exception, but she's a special case. She came from the Zone, like me. But anyway..."
She continued, "The point, I guess, is there are so many people in the company who only see others in terms of... cost return, or stepping stones to power. It gets to the point that you wonder if they see others as real people at all. People like that guy who had that Shion Puma made for him... William Case... He's not the only one in the company that thinks that way either. Not by a long shot. I don't ever want to think the way they do. And sometimes I get scared that I just might someday, just to survive. And then you come along, and you're so different. You treat everyone, even the Pumas, as real people. And you're just... you. There's no pretense - nothing hidden. But I guess I kept expecting that in the back of my mind... And I wanted to accept even that, if it meant not losing you, but you didn't... "
"I am what I am Lora." He held her close resting his head on hears. "That's why I like my job. I don't have to play corporate parlor games. The Pumas don't hide anything from me... and I don't hide anything from them..." He paused, "Except maybe my chocolate bars."
Lora gave a surprised and amused little snort, shaking her head, before relaxing and sighing contentedly against him. "See, that's another thing I love about you... your sense of humor."
She pulled back to look into his eyes, her nose almost touching his, "I don't have to hide anything from you either. Not what I am or who I am. That's more precious to me than I can say. You see, I've lost a lot of things in my life. But if I got it all back and lost you, I wouldn't want any of it. Maybe I overreacted, but I guess I've been really scared of doing something stupid that would drive you away from me."
Matthew ran his hand through her hair, cupping his hand behind her neck, "Please don't worry about that, Lora. We're bound to step on each others toes from time to time, but I'm here to stay."
She brought up a hand to caress his cheek, "I love you, Matthew." Her eyes closed and she kissed him with a soft, aching sound. And he returned the kiss with enthusiasm.
After getting the car parked, and passing through the Mitsumi security checkpoints, Lora and Matthew walked down the long corridor to the Lynx and Puma barracks block. As they walked out of sight of the guards, Matthew put his arm around Lora's waist and she leaned into him in return, smiling.
"Happy?" Matthew asked.
Lora nodded, "Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Very happy." She put an arm around him in return.
"Lora," Matthew paused. "Have I told you I love you?"
Her heart soared, but she mischievously said, "I don't think you've actually said those exact words before..."
Matthew said "I'll have to fix that."
Lora ducked her head slightly, hiding her grin, "Well, why don't you?"
"I love you, Lora."
She looked up at him, "I know you do, but a girl likes to actually hear the words..." She reached up to pull his head closer to hers, "Let me show you my appreciation..."
With a clatter of gear, six Lynxes turned the corner and spread across the intersection. They were dressed in combat gear, with clamshell armor over their uniforms and weapons in their hands.
"Wha...?" Matthew started as the Lynxes raised black rifles and took aim.
"Get down!" Lora pushed her lover to the floor, hoping her internal armor would be able to withstand the fusillade of shots long enough for her to get Matthew to safety.
Instead of the rapid pop of weapons fire, the guns went off with a loud SNAP. The lights flickered and a blue-white flash filled the hallway. There was the smell of ozone and...
...and after a moment of excruciating pain, Lora could hear herself hitting the floor heavily. But she couldn't see and she couldn't feel anything. She'd been hit by an EMP discharge that shut down nearly all her systems. NO! Oh no, not now!! Not again! Matthew!
She could hear the booted feet of the Lynxes as they rushed forward. A female voice said, "The cyborg is down and the target is secured, sir."
A vaguely familiar voice said, "Bind them both. Heavy synthetic restraints on her. C'mon, get them out of the hallway. We've only got 26 seconds left before the loop runs out."
Lora listened as the sounds of strained grunts and booted feet came back to her. They must be moving both her and Matthew somewhere else. She kept waiting for full sensory deprivation to kick in at any moment, but it didn't. Unlike the Black Company, this rogue Lynx group didn't seem to have a neural cut off plug for her DNI interface port. That meant in at least a few minutes she would be back online again.
But minutes can be hours in a situation like this, Lora thought frantically. What's going on here? Who would do this? What happened to Matthew?
A short time later, feeling started coming back to Lora's limbs and her vision started trying to come back online as her systems struggled to come out of the snow crash the EMP had inflicted on them. She didn't have much muscle control back yet and decided not to move and give away anything yet until she did.
As her cybernetic systems recovered, she listened to the sounds around her. There was a lot of shuffling around and a few subtle metallic clinking noises that Lora took to be weapons in holsters or on slings. There was a man apparently talking on the phone in the background. By the sound of things, he was having a massive disagreement with the person on the other end of the line. I know that voice, Lora thought. I've heard it before somewhere.
She had almost completely recovered by now. Her sense of touch had completely returned and felt she could move with little difficulty, though she remained still. She could feel the binders around her wrists. But should she pull free of them or not? About then, her vision came completely back online, but her eyelids were still closed, so she opened them.
Looking down at her angrily was Lee, the commander of the Mitsumi Lynx squad.
"Stay right there, you've caused enough trouble as it is." Lee's face was flushed, and sweat glistened on his brow. Lora simply glared in response, inwardly glad of the obvious fear in his eyes.
Standing up, Lee looked at the two Lynxes flanking her prone body. "If she moves, shoot her." The Lynxes nodded in response, shifting their Jinsei M-60 pulse rifles so that the muzzles aimed just past her face.
Although she kept her face calm, inwardly Lora scowled. Her arms were fastened behind her back in a pair of Mitsumi synthetic-grade binders. Made from three sets of cuffs linked on a central bar, the binders were strong enough to hold a Puma, and just strong enough to give the two Lynxes plenty of time to try and riddle her with slugs if she tried to free herself. Armored as her cybernetic upgrade was, Lora was fairly sure she wouldn't survive such a close-range barrage.
Hoping the Lynxes wouldn't take Lee literally; Lora turned her head, to where Matthew lay sprawled across the floor. Another Lynx stood over his prone form, the barrel of her pulse rifle pointed at his chest. Lee stood next to the expressionless synthetic, frowning down at his fellow Duty Officer. "This is your fault y'know. If you'd only died like you were supposed to, none of this would have happened!"
Lee, Lora decided, had finally gone over the edge, which didn't make him any less dangerous. By himself he was no big threat, a simple cybernetically-powered slap would take care of him, but Lee had 36 Lynxes at his beck and call, and each of those 36 were well-armed and conditioned to obey their commander's orders without question. It was a bloodbath in the making.
A booted foot planting itself scant inches from Lora's nose snapped her out of her reverie. A slender black-haired Lynx snapped off a quick salute to her commander. "Sir, we think Puma units are going to try and force the door."
"What? Where? Here?" Lee glanced around in a panic, his expression in sharp contrast to the stoic synthetics that surrounded him. Taking a deep breath, and fortunately missing Lora's smirk, he then pointed to the door at the end of the hallway. "Well, don't just stand there, repel them!"
"Yessir!" the word was echoed by a good dozen voices, all of whom snapped off quick salutes before readying their rifles and trotting down the hall. Craning her neck to follow the Lynx's passage, Lora was struck by a sudden sense of deja vu. The Lynxes had all taken positions on the sides of the corridor, their rifles all pointed at the entrance at the far end of the hall. Tense and ready, their ears twitching slightly, and dressed in Mitsumi's two-tone blue uniforms with clamshell armor, the Lynxes looked like something out an ancient 2-D film Lora had seen years ago.
All at once it was like the entire hall had decided to hold its breath. The dozen or so synthetics who lined the far hall leading to the barracks's entrance were all still, frozen into position, awaiting the first sign of the enemy. The two that flanked Lora herself were immobile as well, their bodies as tight as a wound spring, their guns wavering not the slightest. Behind her, Lora could hear Lee's ragged breaths, but the rest of his squad could have been statues for all the noise they made.
Staring at the far door, Lora tired to will herself to see through it, to know what was going to happen, so that she would be able to respond properly. Cycling her eyes to their greatest degree of magnification, Lora then dropped the IR and UV filters into place. The door was too thick, however, and the IR traces too faint to be resolved into recognizable shapes.
As one, all the Lynxes twitched their ears forward. Lora suppressed a start, and strained to listen, but even her cyberears were no match for the augmented hearing of the synthetics. Lora couldn't help but wonder what the Pumas were up to. She doubted they'd charge in guns blazing, Captains' Kiyone and Misato were too... smart? Experienced? Trained? It was hard to say with the Pumas—to do that.
The gathered Lynxes shifted slightly, bringing weapons to bear on the door, flicking safeties off, and lightly touching triggers. A sea of red dots appeared on the barracks's door, each one an M-60 laser sight. Lora felt a sudden surge of fear and pity for whoever had taken point; which knowing the Pumas would be Asuka.
A dull thump echoed from the door, causing everyone, Lora included staring intently at the still portal, waiting for whatever would happen next. The tension was so thick that Lora could feel her stomach knotting, and she had to make a conscious effort to breathe.
The tearing explosion that blew open the door took everyone by surprise. It sent smoke sparks and fragments flying down the hall, to skitter off of the walls and the clamshell armor worn by the Lynxes. A deafening bang and a blinding flash of light followed, which left Lora bit dazed and seeing spots, even with her flare filters.
"AGH! SHOOT GODDAMMIT, SHOOT!!! KILL THEM!!" Lee's voice cracked as he fairly shrieked out his orders. A second bang and flash punctuated his commands.
The corridor devolved into instant chaos. Shouts and screams were muffled under the continuous thundering roar of M-60s on full auto, a noise quickly joined by the buzzsaw rip of M-100 returning fire. Lora blinked the spots away and found the view obscured by a haze of smoke, through which brilliant yellow flashes could be seen. Shadowy figures stood in conjunction with each flash, bobbing and weaving as they virtually hosed down the rent entranceway.
Through it all cut the voice of Kiyone: "Short bursts! Short bursts!" as well as "Hergekommen!, Sie wônschen einiges! Hier ich etwas fôr Sie Recht in dem erhielt! OH-, wônschen Sie einiges auch? hier haben Sie einiges! Das ist es Mann, Spiel rôber!" which could only be Asuka on the rampage. Somehow, Lora felt comforted by the idea.
A sudden thunk attracted Lora's attention as a thick cylinder bounced to a halt near her. She barely had time to think, much less yell, GRENADE! when it whomped into a thick cloud of acrid white smoke. Switching to her internal air supply, Lora braced herself, making ready to try and pull the binders apart as soon as her captors were sufficiently distracted.
As the white cloud slowly enveloped her, Lora saw the perfect moment. Both of her captors were staring into the fog, ears twitching, rifles snapped up into position, laser sights now visible as solid beams through the smoke. The one on the left fired, the muzzle flash dangerously brilliant, and far too close to her face than Lora would have liked. A scant second later, the Lynx's clamshell armor cratered under a series of impacts, the ceramic plates powdering as 10mm slugs punched home. Staggering back, the top of the woman's skull vanished in a reddish-black spray, the concussion throwing the green-haired synth back, her gun continuing to fire, although all it did was shred the drop ceiling and blowout a light fixture with a spray of sparks.
Gritting her teeth, Lora heaved at the binders, feeling them tear at the synthflesh around her wrists, feeling the servos whine and finding herself exceptionally pleased at the sound of popping metal. The second Lynx looked down just in time to receive a cybergraft-boosted foot in the hip, which fractured most elegantly from the impact. The blow spun the unlucky woman in almost a full circle, before sending her tumbling to the dark gray carpet.
"Matthew..." the thought crossed Lora's mind in a flash. She might be able to survive a few impacts in this insane mess, Matthew, however, could not. She shouldered aside the Lynx who was moaning in pain and moved to Matthew's side, once again trying to interpose herself between him and incoming fire. She looked around wildly, trying to anticipate where the most danger was coming from.
A towering figure loomed out of the smoke and haze, resolving into the recognizable figure of Mei, one of the Puma medtechs. Lora's cry of greeting died in her throat as the normally demure synthetic snarled in rage and fired the stubby shape of her sub-machine gun point-blank into the writhing shape of the Lynx Lora had kicked. Spent shells poured from the Seburo C-25 like rain, to bounce along the carpeted floor, rolling to a smoking stop in splattered pools of warm blood. The Lynx, clamshell vest or no, twitched and choked as the hail of bullets hammered into her body.
Looking up, Mei stepped past Lora's prone form to club Matthew's former guard across the side of the head with her gun. She then spun in place, kicking the unfortunate synthetic into the wall. Dropping her apparently empty weapon—Lora was in no mood to find out otherwise—Mei drew a long fighting knife and leapt at the smaller synth, slamming the bade into any place that the thick armored vest wasn't.
Lora, both fascinated and sickened, looked away, only to come face-to-face with the sightless eyes of another dead Lynx. It seemed strangely surreal to encounter such calm beauty amid the carnage, and Lora closed her eyes for a moment and held Matthew's unconscious form close to her.
She looked up and into the eyes of a concerned Puma. It was Kiyone, possibly the most calm and levelheaded Puma in the group. A few minutes ago, she would have thought Mei to be the same or even calmer. Now she wasn't so sure.
Captain Kiyone knelt down on the floor, her M-100 pointed safely at the ceiling. The normally stoic Puma was covered in sweat, grime, and blood, the latter apparently someone else's. "Ms. Lora? Are you okay? Have you been hit?"
Lora reflexively did a quick system check, but the only damage she had suffered in the fight had come from the binders when she had popped them and that only to the synthflesh on her wrists. "No, I'm alright. I'm fine."
She checked Matthew, but he seemed to be fine. He hadn't been hit. But he was still out cold. She automatically looked back down the hall towards the ruined entrance. The smoke had cleared to reveal a large hole in the door that must have been blown by a shaped charge. The whole place looked completely different now then when she had last seen it. The walls were riddled with bullet holes, along with anywhere the false ceiling wasn't already shredded completely or hanging down in ragged sheets. A couple of lights flickered crazily, only adding to the surreal atmosphere.
There were also corpses strewn thickly about. Lora estimated that an entire squad of Lynxes had been wiped out, with close to twenty bodies littering the floor amongst the spent casings of flash-bang and smoke grenades. The smell of blood was sharp and strong. It didn't look like the Pumas had come away unscathed either. Lora could recognize Rei lying on the floor, her eyes staring calmly, it almost looked like her normal expression, but her lower torso was a mass of red. One of the male Pumas, Darshu it seemed, was slumped by the door, long hair hanging over his face, with a line of bullet holes across the shattered remains of his breastplate. A third Puma with dark skin and burgundy hair lay mid-way between Lora and the door. Lora couldn't remember her name. Other Pumas were wounded, such as Asuka, who looked like a wreck, but was cursing loudly enough in German that it seemed obvious she would recover. According to the sounds, the rest of the Pumas were pursuing the remaining Lynxes. And their erstwhile captor nowhere to be seen.
"Merde..." Lora said feelingly. She hadn't known them well, but Matthew's Puma's were... (yes, dammit!) ...they were people! Lora asked Kiyone, "Where is Lee? I don't see the bastard anywhere."
The turquoise-haired Puma commander shifted her rifle to one side and pointed down the hall into the Lynx barracks. "He's retreated with the rest of his troops back towards his office. We'll have him in a few moments."
Lora wrestled with her emotions, she wanted to stay with Matthew, but... she came to a decision and lay him gently on the floor, then stood up and said to Kiyone, "I want to be there."
Kiyone's response was to shrug. "Don't get in our way." Lora knew that Kiyone meant no insult. No stranger to combat herself, she understood that she was a random element to the squad. Random elements couldn't be completely trusted, no matter how friendly they were. Still, Lee had been ready to kill not just her lover, but Lora as well. She felt she had more than enough personal stake in this to justify coming along and seeing to it that Lee got what was coming to him.
Lora looked Kiyone in the eye and nodded, saying, "I'll do my best." She turned and spoke to the blonde puma next to Matthew, "Mei?"
The medic looked up from where she knelt next to Matthew's still form. She was spattered with blood, all of it apparently from the Lynx she had knifed to death. Her ears were down, and her expression was one of concern mixed with fury. "Yes, Lora?"
"I'm sure Matthew will be safe with you. Please take care of him?"
"No one will harm him."
Lora drew back a bit at the intensity of Mei's look, but then she squared her expression and nodded, "Just... look out for yourself as well. Matthew's already lost enough friends today. I'd hate to try to explain to him why his favorite medic is among them."
She turned back to Kiyone before she could see Mei's reaction, "C'mon, let's go. I'm following you."
With a nod, Kiyone turned and made her way down the hall with Lora following behind after picking up a M-60 that one of the dead Lynxes wasn't going to need anymore. Carrying her own rifle at the ready, Kiyone carefully stepped over the bodies in her path. A few Pumas followed, ears down, guns up. Lora could feel the tension in the air, as well as an eagerness to once again come to grips with the enemy. The Pumas weren't quite finished with the Lynx squad...
Outside the Lynx quarters, mute testimony of the running gunfight and siege that had passed through only a few moments before was evident. Bullet holes scarred the walls, floor and ceiling. The floor was littered with discarded weapons and empty magazines. Another body lay crumpled in the middle of the "T" intersection ahead. The Pumas paid no attention to the corpse, turning right and making their way down the hall with a light-footed tread that belied their size as they stayed close to the walls.
Voices indicated the presence of the other group of Pumas in the hall ahead. They were clustered at the next intersection, pressed up against the walls, as Misato, another of the squad leaders, peered around the corner with the aid of a small mirror.
Although the Pumas had killed quite a few Lynxes in the initial assault, there were still a good dozen or so holed up down the next hallway. If the layouts of the barracks were identical, then Lee's office was at the end of the hall, and was an obvious point for the Duty Commander to retreat to. The problem was going to be getting him out. The hall was straight and clear of any cover.
Looking around, Lora asked, "So, what's the plan?"
"I'm thinking," Misato answered in a distracted tone of voice.
A Puma with short blonde hair pushed her way to the corner. She hefted her auto-cannon and announced, "Hah! I'll get him out with this!"
Kiyone shook her head. "No, no, no, Maki. We want him alive." Maki muttered to herself disappointedly but subsided.
Eyes narrowed, Lora looked over Misato's shoulder and scrutinized the end of the passageway in the mirror. "How tough is that door anyway?"
"It's the Duty Officer's door," Misato replied, "so it's reinforced. I know Darshu couldn't punch through it." She handed Lora the mirror and stood up.
"Do we have any more smoke?" Kiyone asked abruptly.
Misato shook her head. "Yeah... but that won't take them out."
Lora had to admire the almost conversational way the matter was discussed between the two commanders. Almost like they were deciding what to have for dinner. She briefly wondered if Matthew's influence had anything to do with it before turning back to the mirror.
Looking thoughtful, Lora mused, "I could probably take the door down."
Misato and Kiyone both turned to look at Lora, Misato's ears flicking back and forth. "Really?" she asked.
Kiyone gave Lora a doubtful look, "They'll gun you down before you get halfway up the hall."
"We could give her some covering fire," Shinji piped up.
Lora nodded, "Lee has to be watching via the security system. Probably looking at us right now, in fact. If we all start trooping down there, the Lynxes will open up that door and cut us down just like you said. If it's just me. well, let's just say I can get down there fast. Some covering fire might be all I need."
"What if they fire while you're going down the hall?" Misato pointed out.
"That's what the covering fire is for."
Kiyone looked at her again, noting the torn synthflesh at her wrists, "How well armored is your body?"
"Well enough. Don't worry, I don't actually intend to make it easy for them to hit me. If you give me some smoke grenades, I can make it difficult to see anyone coming down the hall."
Maki nudged Shinji, "Told 'ya. Let's hear it for firepower." Shinji sighed in response.
Kiyone still looked a bit doubtful, "What's the rest of your plan?"
Lora shrugged, "Wreck the door and make sure they can't close it. Fade back while everyone else comes forward. There isn't actually any other way in or out other than that door is there?"
"I don't think so." Misato replied.
"Not that I know of, "Kiyone added.
"Captain?" Shinji asked, "Maybe we could fire some flash-bangs as Ms Lora runs up the hall? To confuse them?"
Lora shook her head, "Flash bangs would be more of a problem for me then them. Smoke would be better. Roll a few down the corridor, obscure the area in front of the door first before I make my run. I can see through it just fine, I think."
Misato held out her hand. "Smoke!" she commanded.
The Pumas worked the action on their guns, ejecting grenades and handed an even half dozen to Misato, who then passed them over to Lora. It was far more than she needed, really, but Lora wasn't going to quibble. Kiyone reached over and held one up, "You need to knock the cap off for them to work. Here." She demonstrated how it was done.
"Maki," Misato barked, "Give Ms Lora some covering fire."
"Right!" Maki pulled the cocking lever on the side of her auto cannon and then lay down on the floor. "Gimme some cover!" she whooped as she jockeyed the bulky weapon into position.
Misato cocked her SMG, stepped over Maki's body, and stuck it around the corner without looking. With a bored expression on her face she nonchalantly emptied it downrange. Lora watched with amazement before shaking her head. These guys are nuts!
Lora kneeled down next to the corner of the hall and arranged the smoke grenades the Pumas had given her in a row on the floor next to the wall. Then, peeking around the corner and, gauging the distances, she picked up the first one, activated the timer for the standard 3 seconds, and tossed it to down the hallway. The shiny cylinder rolled to a halt next to the doorway at the end of the hall where it promptly detonated, discharging a nice cloud of obscuring smoke. Knocking the cap off of another grenade, Lora quickly sent its two companions sailing down the hall. By the time she was through, a solid wall of smoke was beginning to extend towards the intersection where she and the Pumas waited.
Cycling her optics into the infrared, the smoke seemed almost to disappear to Lora's sight, bringing the hallway into monochrome clarity. The door at the end was now closed firmly against the smoke outside getting in. Good enough. She nodded to Maki, "Let's do it."
"YEAH!" The enthusiastic Puma poked her assault cannon around the corner and began firing down the hallway. The boom of the large caliber weapon was almost deafening as the sound echoed off the corridor walls. Lora let her keep that up for a few seconds. She could see the armored door actually being dented slightly under the hammering fire, the points of impact glowing in infrared. But it was highly unlikely that any of the rounds would punch through. That was fine. It was just covering fire, after all. Keep them from opening that door and looking out to see what was about to happen.
Kiyone watched as Lora got up from her crouch to move to the middle of the corridor intersection behind Maki's position. Then she flowed into an extreme runner's stance and shot down the hallway into the smoke wall.
Later, Kiyone found herself surprised that she had been able to process what she had seen. And even then, she wasn't sure what she had seen until she had run it back in her memory. Lora didn't just run down the hall, she disappeared. It was like when Kiyone flicked paperclips with rubber bands across the room in the barracks - one moment, the paperclip was there in her fingers, the next, it was across the room. You couldn't hold your eyes on it, you just had to track your eyes to the expected trajectory and try and see it again. It was like that with Lora, one moment, she was seemingly falling too far forward in her running stance, and then she brought one leg forward, planted it, and leaped forward. For a moment, there was a discreet hole in the smoke before the wind of her passage pulled it in behind her.
Lora took one last leaping step and twisted in midair. She got her shoulder turned to hit the door at the last moment, taking the impact all along the back of her upper arm to spread the force of the collision and bringing her elbow forward for more leverage. She had expected the armored door to give, perhaps to bend inward enough to provide sufficiently good access to the Puma squad outside.
She hadn't expected the tracks for the sliding door to completely explode through the other side of the wall and the door to come completely free. It proceeded her into the room. Unbalanced from the unexpected lack of resistance, Lora stumbled.
At sixty plus miles-per-hour, stumbling is not recommended and, in fact, is generally regarded as a Very Bad Thing.
Lora wound up in the back wall of Lee's office in a pile of debris that included the former door of the office as well as the remains of a shattered desk. A couple of battered Lynxes lay on the floor between Lora and the door as clouds of debris and smoke filled the room. They moaned in pain from broken limbs or ribs. Lee screamed orders at the rest of the Lynxes amid the sounds of the Pumas coming up the hall. Then there was gunfire as a Lynx panic fired down said hall. Pandemonium erupted.
All right, that could have gone better. Lora thought as she picked herself out of the debris at the back of the room.
Lee noticed her and pointed, waving his gun, trying to get one of his Lynxes to shoot at her. The Lynxes who hadn't been knocked out or injured by flying debris were too occupied with the Pumas charging down the hall to pay attention just yet though. She narrowed her eyes at him and between one heartbeat and another she was in his face knocking his gun away from him. Later, she would find that it had never been fired and that the safety was actually still on. Lee apparently used it more as a prop than as a weapon.
Coughing from the smoke that was wafting into the room Lee cried out, "AGH! Stop her! Help me!
Lora grabbed Lee's arm and twisted it up behind his back painfully. She was so mad at him she really couldn't think of anything classically glib to say. Oh well, real life was so rarely like the movies that way. So she just rapped his head politely (all things considered) against the desk and told him to be quiet.
Meanwhile, there was smoke and confusion, gunfire and screams and some wet noises and then it got quiet.
Lora shouted, "Okay! Anybody left alive better surrender right now!!"
*plink* *thump* *crash* *bang*
The smell of smoke, blood, and cordite filled the air. From somewhere amid the confusion, Kiyone called out, "All of you! Get down on the floor!" The Lynxes, ears flat, got down on their knees, hands on their heads.
Lee was still protesting, cursing, "Goddammit! I was supposed to win!! I was going to command the Pumas! Me!"
Lora lifted him up and slammed him up against the wall so hard his teeth rattled.
"Will you PLEASE..."
Lee shut up and shut down. Lora let him drop in a boneless heap to the floor.
Lora looked around. There had been maybe a dozen Lynxes in here, and not six were left unharmed. A few were dead and some were wounded. The Pumas all looked okay, although there was a motionless body out in the hall. Maki was strutting around with her auto cannon nestled in the crook of her arm and grinning. "Let's hear it for firepower!" she shouted to the room.
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