Aoi watched out the window as her taxi circled the apartment building, steadying itself for the inevitable set-down. All through the flight, she'd been watching Neo York from a whole new perspective. The city looked so much cleaner from the roof down, as if it was in a separate world from the streets she usually lived in. "Maybe that's why they all live so high up," she muttered.

The cabbie paused from his seemingly endless chatter just long enough to glance quizzically back at her, then shrugged. "You know, I figured you weren't from up here. I mean, you dress pretty swanky, but there's something about you that just doesn't fit right for these top-dwellers."

"Top dwellers?" She asked. He looked over his shoulder at her and shouted something she couldn't understand back over the increasing roar of the vectored thrust engines. Aoi gestured frantically at the rooftop, approaching at an odd angle rather faster than she expected. The cabbie turned back, adjusted his sunglasses, squinted through the tinted windscreen and brought them down to a rather shaky landing.

As the engines softened to a low hum, he leaned back over the seat and asked "Now what did you say?"

"I asked what you meant by top dwellers," she said, noticing that the meter was still running.

"Rich folk," he replied, blatantly tapping a generous tip onto her fare. "All the rich people in the city buy themselves high-rise apartments over the common muck. So I call 'em top dwellers. Neat, huh?"

"Yeah..." Aoi replied. She considered raising the issue of the fare, but then again she had an expense account for this job. As far as she was concerned, this was between 'top dwellers,' and she was just a messenger.

She left the cab mere moments before it careened off into the night at an odd angle. Shaking her head, she made her way over to the entrance. As she had expected it was locked with a magnetic key system, not unlike ones she'd seen way back at S-T. She drew what looked to be a simple PDA from her satchel and connected it to the DNI plugs at the back of her neck. She held it up to the lock and concentrated for a second. The device quickly ran through thousands of magnetic signals, projecting each one briefly at the door until a quiet hum signaled its success. She swung the door open and stepped inside.

The roof foyer was a relatively simple, if expensively decorated arrangement of elevators with an unobtrusive diagram indicating which went to each floor. Scanning the diagram, she found that the Empress had a private elevator that only went to her floor and the ground... but not to the rooftop level. "Why do they have to make it so difficult?" she muttered as she called an elevator up.

Even for an express elevator, it was a long, slow ride down ninety floors. Worse still, there was no view other than the mirrored walls, and the muzak was slowly driving her insane. It was with no small relief that she finally stepped out on the ground floor, crossed the hall into an identical elevator and shot straight back up again.

The doors finally slid open and she stepped out, once again ninety stories off the ground. Ahead of her was Shion's door, a towering, featureless black slab with a bright chrome handle. She yanked out her PDA and stepped up to the lock, waiting for it to do it's magic again. As the seconds ticked by she began to grow irritated with the wait, then glanced down at the lock. "Oh, hell..." she muttered. Instead of the simple key system used throughout the building, this lock consisted of a keypad and a strip card reader. Now what?

She dumped her satchel on the floor and rummaged around in it, before pulling out another handheld device. Compared to the sleek and compact PDA, this was an ugly collection of cables and a small LED numerical display. She ran her fingers through the cables, finally pulling one with a thin, wide head from the mess. She carefully slid the head into the top of the card reader, and slowly ran it down until the device gave a quiet beep. Numbers began whirring by on the display, slowly locking in, digit by digit, until she had the code. Whispering "Please let this work," she tapped the code into the keypad and waited. It was just like Jason, she thought. It's not enough that they have money...

The door swung open into a spacious apartment that rivaled Midori's whole home for sheer size. Doors to her immediate left, then a kitchen with an dining room barely beyond it. Ahead of her was a spiral staircase up to the second floor, then a sunken living room, and to her right was a closed set of sliding doors, leading to who-knows-what.

"But they have to show it off," she muttered as she stepped inside and then paused. Aoi sniffed carefully and turned to the closed door to her right. Chlorine? Water? Was that a swimming pool beyond there?

In Shion's opinion, one of the best things about living nearly one thousand feet up was the privacy. Few buildings were as tall as this one, and most of those where arcologies to the south. In any case, the windows were all polarized, so no one could see in, although Shion knew that there were a whole assortment of monitoring devices mounted on the surrounding structures all pointed at her penthouse and all trying, in some fashion or another, to listen in on her life.

At the moment, however, Shion could care less about who might be listening and watching. She lay in an inflatable chair, drifting slowly across the surface of her pool, dozing peacefully. A long white robe lay over the back of one of the deck chairs, while she herself was completely nude—no big deal if you lived alone, while a tall can of Asahi beer sat in an arm pocket of the chair. Soft music played and she was content.

The sound of a door sliding open broke through Shion's peaceful slumber, bringing her to the edge of waking. She was supposed to be alone in her own penthouse. Opening her eyes, she turned her head in the direction of the noise that had so rudely awakened her. What she was was a short Japanese woman, dressed in a well-tailored black pantsuit and white blouse. She had black hair tied into a rough bun and held in place with a single red hairpin, and deep, bright green eyes. She glanced around as she entered, whistling appreciatively until her eyes fixed on Shion.

"Oh, hell..."

The water in the pool dimpled visibly as Shion lifted up out of her chair, apparently unconcerned about her state of undress. While the chair skittered across the surface of the pool, the water twisted and thrashed, forming a shallow bowl-shaped depression located under the esper's feet as she floated over the pool, her hair billowing about her.

"Wait!"Aoi yelled, stepping back from the pool's edge and holding her hands out in panic. "It's me, Aoi!"

Shion raised her hand and Aoi felt herself caught and lifted by an invisible fist. "I don't know anyone by that name," Shion stated darkly.

"We met in the zone... with your sister!" Aoi yelled as her legs flailed in midair.


"I'm just here to give you a message!"

With a twitch of her hand Shion brought Aoi out over the surface of the pool. Hanging there, Aoi did her best to look Shion in the face, trying not to think about what would happen if the tall esper clenched her fist. There was a moment of silence, in which Shion seemed to be examining Aoi's face and features, while Aoi found herself watching beads of water slowly crawl their way over the telekinetic shield Shion had apparently wrapped around herself. It was a sight both beautiful and surreal, even considering the desperate state she found herself in.

Trying her best to remain calm, she swallowed hard, took a deep breath and continued. "It's from Jason Stone," Aoi said, her voice only wavering slightly.

Still hanging in the air, Shion crossed her arms over her bare breasts, giving Aoi a look of contempt . "Really? And why didn't he contact me himself? Why send you?"

Aoi sighed loudly and, with an odd grin, replied "Because he wanted to impress you."

"He's not doing a very good job of it." Shion fell silent for a moment, then Aoi felt the pressure on her body release and with a loud squawk fell into the pool.

She thrashed in the water, desperately reaching out for a handhold before seizing Shion's inflatable chair. Aoi tried to pull herself onto it, but only succeeded in capsizing the chair and dragging it under the water, sending the can of beer spinning to the bottom in an amber cloud.

After a few panicked moments, Aoi almost felt relief at the sensation of being caught in the grip of Shion's telekinetic field. Dripping, she was pulled out of the water and turned around to face the tall,white-haired esper—who had now donned a long white robe. That, at least, was a step in the right direction.

"Look, this ain't my fault," she said as she wrestled with the strap of her satchel. She finally managed to untangle it, and the satchel plunged into Shion's pool and sank straight to the bottom.

"I figured as much. But Stone's not here is he?" The pleasant, almost conversation tone of Shion's voice sent a chill up Aoi's back.

"What this is," Aoi said in an tired tone of voice, "is Jason Stone telling you that he's got a huge knob." Aoi shook her head, unable to believe she's just said that, and continued, "and he wants to meet with you to discuss how huge his knob is."

There was a very long moment where Aoi had to wonder if that was the exactly wrong thing to say. Either that or she'd managed to totally fluster the normally unflappable Shion. Or perhaps both.

"Really?" Shion finally replied in a dry tone of voice. "I thought he already had someone he could... show his huge knob to." Aoi had a sneaking suspicion Shion was doing her best not to laugh.

She scratched the back of her head, a grin breaking out on her face. "Well, you know... These people have to have an audience."

"Stay here," Shion commanded as she turned and went out by a second set of sliding doors.

Aoi sighed, and leant her head back. It wasn't that bad, just floating, now that she was getting used to it. All in all, it had gone better than she'd expected. The Empress was amused at least, and she was only drenched.

After what seemed to be an eternity suspended over Shion's pool, the sound of the sliding door announced the woman's return. Aoi glanced over to see that the white robe was gone, replaced by a far more formal outfit consisting of low black boots, dark blue pants, and an ankle-length coat of the same shade. Around her neck Shion had wrapped a white silken scarf, while under the coat she wore a pale blue blouse belted high on her waist.

"You can't swim can you?"

Aoi shook her head suddenly, snapping out of her reverie. "Nope. It's my cybernetics—I'm too heavy," she said.

"And I suppose Mr. Stone wants you back." Aoi wasn't sure if it was a question or Shion was debating something with herself.

She shrugged and replied "Well, eventually."


"I'd prefer it that way."

Glancing at a chair, Shion had it flit its way over to where she was standing. Settling herself down, she crossed her legs and assumed a regal air. "So... Tell me again why Jason Stone put you up to this?"

"Um... Can I be put down, or something?" Aoi asked nervously.


"That's fair. He's starting up a new company, called Spycorp. It's more like a contact and assignment system than anything else, where agents can take particular jobs for the company and are paid on a mission-per-mission basis. He sent me in with..." She glanced down at her satchel, resting peacefully at the bottom of the pool, before looking back up to Shion. "Well, with a gift and a membership offer, but that's all... wet."

Shion followed Aoi's glance to the bottom of her pool. "I see. And this stunt was supposed to do what, exactly?"

"It's supposed to make you want to join his company. The plan was that you weren't home when I did this."

"So far I'm not impressed with his methods. What was the gift?"

She shrugged. "Don't know. It was all in a package."

Standing, Shion stepped to the edge of the pool and looked down. While the water bubbled, the satchel shifted slightly and then rose up to hang in the air, dripping profusely. Shion then turned her head and sent it over to Aoi. "Here, you open it."

Aoi carefully reached into the satchel, and slowly pulled out a simple bottle of white wine. "This looks like it," she said.

The bottle arced from her grasp to end up floating in from Shion. It hung there slowly rotating, while the esper quietly read the label. "Well... he has excellent taste."

Feeling somewhat bolder, Aoi spoke up. "I am sorry about this... It's just a job, you know?"

"Oh, yes, I know. And I'm sure the various corporations I've acted against feel the same way."

Aoi sighed. "Look... I could make it up to you, somehow."

"Really? How?"

Aoi was at a lost. She'd expected yet another flat rejection, but now she had to come up with some way to pay the Empress back. But how could she? What did she have to offer, that the Empress couldn't acquire herself?

"Well... However you like. It's fair."


Aoi blinked in surprise. Sushi? That was it? "Um... Sure."

"Or one of those ten-thousand-dollar-a-night sexroids. Or, perhaps, new clothes to meet Mr. Stone in. Or a long vacation..." Shion glanced up at Aoi. "Get the idea?"

"Then how?" She scanned the ceiling, trying to think. "I can say sorry a thousand times, but you won't accept it and I can't do anything to impress you. So what does that leave me?"

"Perhaps I should ask Mr. Stone. Hmmm?"

"Isn't there any way I can fix this myself?"

Setting the bottle of wine on the deck, Shion stepped off the edge of the pool. Much to Aoi's amazement, she kept going, walking out across the surface of the water to end up standing near where she floated in the air. "I don't know. Can you? What can you do that Jason Stone can't simply hire another expendable body for? I think that eliminating you would send an excellent message to Mr. Stone that I am not to be trifled with. Don't you agree?"

Aoi looked her in the eye and realized, once again, that she was completely and utterly unafraid. "Not really. You see, he takes things personally. So next guy in here might have a more malicious intent. Of course, you'd wipe him out too with no trouble." She took a shaky breath and continued. "But that won't be the end of it. He'll try and ruin you. No--" She held up one shaky hand, as if to silence Shion "Not that he'll succeed, but it'll make your life, and his life miserable until one of you is gone." She swallowed hard and continued, a stern expression on her face despite her body shivering. "And in all that, the real losers will be the little people like me who always, always wind up suffering for what top dwellers like you do."

"Top dwellers?"

Gem screwed up her face, unable to believe what she'd just said. "Rich people. Important people. People who buy big swanky homes at the top of big towers." She opened her eyes and looked straight at Shion again. "You know, like you and him."

There was a long moment of silence as Aoi and Shion stared at each other. Aoi could only think of her confrontation with Raven, and how worryingly calm she was. Finally, Shion lifted her head slightly. "Didn't you tell me you're now a friend of Raven's?"

"Sort of..." Aoi replied, glancing around. "She slapped some sense into me."

"Raven has told me I need more friends..." Shion said in a calm tone. "And I'd rather not kill any of hers."

Aoi took a couple of deep breaths, both relieved and surprised at Shion's statement. "Well..." she said, before swallowing, "I'll volunteer for that job."

"Being my friend? I didn't say there was any openings." Shion shrugged, "However, I'd rather not have to clean out the pool, so I think you'll live for a while longer." She turned and walked back across the water to her deck chair. "So, what happens next?"

"Um..." Aoi couldn't help it. She was shaking all over, and her teeth were chattering. "Can I please get changed? I'm freezing out here."

For what had to be the millionth time, Aoi marveled at her surroundings. She was sitting in Shion's living room, on a ridiculously comfortable couch, in front of a finely crafted glass-topped table, surrounded by expertly arranged potted plants, wrapped in an outrageously soft bathrobe looking out over the exquisite view of Neo York that was a part of the Empress' daily routine. The room itself was elegantly decorated in cool colors, with a thick rug and Asian wall hangings. A few book cases stood against the walls, which looked to be full of large art and photography books. Without a doubt, it was the most comfortable and elegant and beautiful place she had ever been.

She hated it.

Shion had let her take a shower and left the bathrobe out for her, telling her to "Wait," and nothing more. Her clothes were in the dryer—a treatment they'd show for a long time, but at least it meant she could wear them home. The Empress herself was elsewhere, most likely on the upper floor of her penthouse, considering what to do. That left her to sit in the living room and ponder Shion's living arrangements.

How could one live like this?, Aoi thought. All of this was clearly for show—she suspected that the potted plants were fake; that the hangings had been chosen by a decorator; that the books had never been opened. All of it was just one big brag, designed to show off just how much richer and better she was than the visitor.

"I can't stand it," she muttered to herself.

"Stand what?" Shion's voice came from behind her, to close for her comfort. How long had she been standing there? Aoi suddenly turned around, to find Shion standing behind her in the entrance to the foyer. She had changed her clothes again, and was now in a rather severe gray skirt and vest, with a white blouse underneath.

"Um... Nothing." She muttered, and turned back to the table, more than a touch embarrassed.

Shion walked down the steps to the living room without saying a word. She set a tray on the coffee table and took a seat in the far couch. "Help yourself," she said, gesturing to the tray.

Aoi stared at the tray, as if it was the last thing in the world she expected. She looked up at Shion, dumbfounded for a second, before nodding and simply saying "Thank you."

"Don't thank me too soon." She leaned forward and picked up a cracker, a slice of cheese, and a slice of salami. "We still need to see Mr. Stone."

"I thought it was out of my hands by now," Aoi replied, taking a cracker.

"Maybe." Shion sipped at her drink. "But you are going to take me to see him."

Aoi shrugged. "I thought you two would just settle it between you," she replied

"We will... but you will bring me to see him. I'm not going to waste my time looking for him."

"I suppose I should have expected that," Aoi replied.

Shion shrugged. "I'm in no hurry." She glanced out the window, "It is a bit late after all."

Aoi sighed in relief, and joined her host in gazing out the window.

There was a long moment of silence, only broken by the sound of crackers being eaten. Finally Shion drank a swallow of water and turned back to Aoi. "Why does Stone want me to work for him?"

"Isn't it obvious?" she replied, turning back to Shion. "You're about the best free agent there is."

"Can he afford my rates?"

"Yeah," she said, smiling. "Oh, yeah."

Shion raised an eyebrow at Aoi's smile but said nothing. Finally she placed her glass back on the table. "I have a guest room you can use. We'll see Mr. Stone in the morning."

"You're sure?" she asked, furrowing her brow in confusion. "I just didn't expect..." she trailed off, seemingly at a loss for words.

"Expect what? For me to not kill you?" Shion leaned forward and set her hands on the table. "For your information, I don't kill everyone I meet."

"No, not that! I just didn't expect you to be..." Aoi sighed. "Well, to be so nice to me."

Shion then sat back her eyes narrow. "A few years go? You'd have been dead. Very dead. I'd have let you drown. But recently I've been trying to think differently... I'm going through a... transitional period perhaps... trying to see if Raven was right."

"What did she say?" Aoi asked cautiously.

Shion was quiet for a moment. "I should try to have friends. To open up and not be so cold. To let loose once and a while." Aoi couldn't help but giggle a little. "What's so funny?"

"Uh, sorry..." She blushed as she cringed back into the couch. "It's just that someone said that to me too, very recently."


She shook her head. "No, someone else. But I think if she'd known me better, Raven would have."

"Well..." Shion paused, "Next time you see her, tell her she's why you're still alive."

"Believe me, I plan to."

"Are you hungry?"

Aoi hadn't thought about it up until then. She had expected to be in and out quickly, then dash home and grab something quick to eat. But she'd been in Shion's apartment for over an hour now, and she suddenly realized just how long it had been since lunch.

"Yeah..." she replied nervously.

"Let's go check the dryer then."

She quickly stood up, saying "I'll take care of it," and made her way from the room. After a few seconds she returned and asked "Where's the dryer?"

Aoi had thought that nothing she could see would surpass Shion's apartment for sheer glamour and expense. And while it was true that Shion's car didn't surpass it, it matched the apartment perfectly. From the inside, the ride was as smooth as could be imagined, and the engine could barely be heard. Music played through the car in what had to be the automotive equivalent of a home theater system, and the seats were as soft and comfortable as possible.

She glanced down at her own suit. While it had survived the pool and the dryer intact, it was still in far from pristine condition. She felt almost embarrassed to look so ruffled and inelegant in her presence.

"Well?" Shion asked. "Where would you like to go for dinner?"

"I'm not sure what I can afford," Aoi replied, scratching her head.

"I didn't ask that."

Aoi blinked, then quietly replied "Oh, I see. Well, you mentioned sushi earlier."

"Sushi?" Shion glanced at the map on the car's computer screen. "Sushi it is."

It had been a quick drive to an elegant and well-decorated sushi restaurant not far from Shion's building. The two of them were seated on cushions in a back room. Aoi was half-convinced Shion had chosen to hide her companion's disheveled condition, rather than show off her own outfit in the main restaurant.

As their waiter brought in a new tray, Aoi asked "Do you always eat out like this?"

Pausing to sip her soup (straight from the bowl Aoi noticed), Shion glanced around at the enclosed room. "And if I said yes?"

She took a sip from her own bowl, then said "I guess I'd ask if you do it alone."

"Maybe..." Shion shrugged and dipped a slice of tuna into a bowl of soy sauce. "Depends on how I feel. Tonight I don't feel like dealing with most people."

"I suppose that means I'm not most people," Aoi replied.

"Not right now. Tonight you're someone who broke into my apartment. That certainly is not 'most people'." She glanced at the tray of food and picked up a section of eel with her chopsticks. "In fact, that makes you a singular individual. No one else has ever done such a thing."

Aoi finally picked up her chopsticks. "I'm not sure if I should feel honored," she said with a smile, before selecting her own morsel.

"You should feel relieved you're still alive."

"Then I promise not to make a habit of it."

Shion chewed thoughtfully before replying. "Perhaps Mr. Stone should do the same. We will see him tomorrow morning. I presume you know where I can find him?"

"Find him?" Aoi paused to take a bite, before adding "I live with him."

That made Shion pause. "As what?" she finally asked.

Aoi winced and shook her head. "Not like that," she said. "You see... I work for Midori Harihatu as her bodyguard, right? And she gave me a place to live—with her. I mean-" she held up her hands as if to ward off a question, "-just so I could be on call. Now you see she and Stone are now all foolly cooly, so he moved into the place." She slid a piece of eel into her mouth before adding "With his daughter."

"How nice." Aoi felt more than heard the sarcasm. "And what does he want me for again?"

She sighed, and replied rather slowly "He wants you to work for his new espionage company, Spycorp, as a freelancer."

"And he's serious about this?" Shion paused and took a drink of her beer. "Of course he is. He sent you to break into my place. Unless he secretly doesn't like you."

Aoi shook her head, and replied "He posted the job, and I volunteered for it."

"So you said." Shion put he glass down and sighed slightly. "So, what would be a good time to se him tomorrow?"

"Nine, I expect. He's working most everything out of their home now, so they should both be there."

"Nine." She glanced at her watch. "We've got a few hours them. Eat up."

Aoi sat in silence for a while, working on her dinner. Shion couldn't help but notice that her table manners were very rough, but she was trying to be polite nonetheless. She finally said "Relax."

Aoi started a bit, looking up at Shion, then sighed. "I'm sorry. I just feel so..." She gestured around at the fine decorations and the exquisite food, searching for words.

"Out of place?"

She nodded. "Exactly. I'm just not used to this kind of lifestyle."

"If you plan to continue acting as Midori Harihatu's bodyguard, you had better."

"I realize that." Aoi sighed, and added "It doesn't help that you're rather intimidating to be with."

Shion smiled slightly. "I should hope so."

Aoi couldn't help but smile as she replied "Well it doesn't help at dinners like this."

"Next time I'll take you to the Naked Agent."

"No need for that," Aoi replied, blushing rather heavily.

Shion sipped her soup instead of answering, watching Aoi over the rim of the bowl. "So," she asked as she set the bowl back down, "How should I dress when I met with Mr. Stone to discuss how big his knob is?"

She couldn't help but giggle at Shion's comment. Shion raised and eyebrow but said nothing. "Well, I'm no fashion plate," Aoi finally answered, "But since he wants you for missions, I'd say go in your combat gear."

Shion gave almost a distracted nod. "You don't like Jason Stone much, do you?" she asked abruptly.

Aoi paused clearly surprised with a piece of fish halfway in her mouth. She swallowed it quickly, and took a deep breath. "Do you want me to be really honest?"

Shion shrugged, "If you wish."

Aoi put down her chopsticks and pushed herself slightly away from the table. She then looked Shion in the eye and said "I don't like his money and the way he shows it off."

"And I presume you don't like me either, do you?"

She thought for a second, then said "Only for the same reasons."

Shion considered that for a moment. "And how do I show off?" she asked at last.

"Do you read any of those books on your living room shelves? Do you really have to have a private elevator? You can teleport anywhere—do you really need a car, let alone such an obviously expensive one?" She gestured at the food in front of her. "Do you ever eat simply? Do you walk anywhere? Do you always drink imported beer?" She sighed. "What I'm trying to say is—do you really, genuinely need to live like this?"

"And if I say 'Yes'?" Shion sat back and looked at Aoi critically. "What then? Does that make me another Jason Stone? Another person to be despised because I now have money and choose to use it?"

"I don't despise him," Aoi said. "He's a good man, and he tries to do good things, but he never thinks things through. It's just all so... empty."

"Interesting. My sister seems to have the same opinion about him."

Aoi nodded and continued. "But it's like your penthouse. It all seems too much for just one person."

"I like my penthouse." Shion took a drink of her beer. "I like my imported beer. I like good food. And I like my car. I'll tell you a secret, Aoi. Once I was like you, and now that I'm not, I'm never going to go back."

She rested her chin on her hand and looked Shion in the eye. "I'd never have guessed. The way you live, I thought you were always rich."

"Then I must be doing it right."

Aoi drummed her fingers on the table, lost in thought. Shion, seemingly ignoring her for the moment returned to her food. She finally stopped tapping the table, and asked "So what else were you going to do tonight?"

"I'm not sure, why?"

"Just don't think I'm hungry any more."

"Then I'll take us home."

"You finished too?" she asked, sighing.

Shion was quiet for a moment. "What do you mean by that?"

"I've probably bored the hell out of you by now."

"How do you know?"

"All I do is ask rude questions. Not a lot of fun."

Shion thought for a moment. "There is that."

"Well what would you rather do, then?" she asked, smiling a touch.

"Right now? Finish my beer." Shion picked up her glass. "Then go home and get some rest. We have busy day tomorrow."

"Guess that's it, then."

"I presume you want to do something else? Go somewhere?"

She sighed once more. "I still feel like I owe you. Like I should make it up to you." She scratched her head, trying to work out her feelings. "I don't like to leave debts unpaid. I owe more than enough already."

"I see." Shion sat back and drank her beer, looking at Aoi over the rim of the glass. "Perhaps we should just wait on that, until after we've seen Mr. Stone."

"I really don't like the sound of that," she said with a warm smile.

Putting her now-empty glass down, Shion gave a slight shrug. "Tough," she replied with a smile of her own.

"Guess I've got to live with it," she said, leaning back and stretching.

"We all do."

Shion nude had been breathtaking. Shion angry had been frightening. Shion at dinner had been a touch intimidating. Shion in full combat dress was... well... almost regal in a strange way. She stood in the foyer of her penthouse, not moving a muscle, waiting patiently for Aoi to finish getting her boots on. She seemed different this morning. Colder, more remote, more of... the Empress.

Shion, Aoi realized, had put on her "game face." Now she was the Empress, going to converse with a corporate CEO on matters of business. Now she was the woman who might kill an intruder without a second thought. Now she was the most powerful freelance esper-weapon in the world. Last night's almost-friendly banter was a good eight hours and a whole world away.

"Well?" It was not quite a question and almost a command.

"Coming," Aoi replied as she finished buckling her boots.

Shion simply turned with a swirl of her floor-length cloaks (Aoi mentally shook her head at the image—double layers?) and walked towards the door. Aoi simply followed feeling much like an afterthought.

The meeting was set to take place in a nondescript warehouse. It looked slightly rundown on the outside, with nothing about it to indicate it was where Aoi, and agents like her, went to get their current job postings.

Inside was a different story. While much of the building was still coated with a layer of dust, there was also the tang of new plastic and the faint smell of machine oil. Even the dingy windows had been carefully blackened on the inside, a fact that was only obvious after Aoi led Shion into the building and through a few ordinary locked doors.

At last the two found a panel near the back, Aoi tapped a code, and then held her eyes open while it was scanned by a reader. The hidden door slipped back and allowed entry. Inside was a brightly lit and very new office. A young woman with bobbed hair and dressed in a blouse and short skirt leaned on a desk, chatting with an older woman with glasses sitting behind it. The spectacled lady appeared to be doing the actual work, since it was immediately clear the younger woman was not helping much. Both looked up when Aoi and Shion walked in.

The younger woman, who must have been no more than 26 or 27, utterly failed to hide her surprise. It was immediately apparent to Shion the young woman had a very slight amount of power and no idea how to use it. On the other hand, the woman could detect Shion's power signature and had enough sense to be terrified by it. Wisely, she kept her mouth shut, and simply looked around like a scared rabbit.

The older woman, who looked to be in her fifties, managed to keep her cool, showing no more reaction than she might have for any other visitor. In fact, it was rather clear she knew quite well who was calling, and didn't seem to be ruffled in the slightest. "I have informed Mr. Stone you have arrived. Please go right in Ms. Nys." She looked significantly at the Empress's escort. "And you, too, dear."

Shion said not a word but walked imperiously to door, making a slight motion with one gloved hand for Aoi to open it for her.

The office beyond was plain. The fact that decoration was sparse, there were no smudges or chips on the furniture or walls, and that there was still the scent of carpet glue in the air indicated the newness of the place.

Behind a glass-topped metal desk sat the dark-haired man in a business suit that Shion recognized immediately as Jason Stone. He rose to greet the two women. "Good to see you both again."

Aoi nodded to him, her expression carefully neutral. "As requested, I contacted Miss Nys for you, and gave her the details of your offer. The mission went..." She paused briefly, glancing at Shion, before continuing. "Smoothly, with only one minor hiccup."

Jason looked at Aoi curiously, waiting for her to explain.

"Nothing to worry about, I assure you."

"Good morning, Mr. Stone." Shion said in soft, cultured tones, totally ignoring Aoi's words "I would like to hear more about this offer you have extended, and what it will entail."

"Thank you." Jason offered them a seat and then began. "SpyCorp is dedicated to helping free agents find jobs and get the equipment they need. Our engineers can custom design nearly any gadget an agent might find they need in the field. In addition, we hold contracts with factory-direct outlets, allowing us to offer weapons at lower rates than can normally be found through legal channels or the streets. In addition, we guarantee every piece of equipment we sell and warranty them all ourselves. Service is also offered in the field with established caches.

"More interesting to you, I think, is that SpyCorp can act as a middleman between interested employers and agents. When employers go through us to find suitable agents, they know that we will find a person absolutely qualified for the job. This is a guarantee a Johnson doesn't have when he has to manage these things himself or through a street fixer.

"In addition, the employers feel safer working through an established corporation since many of the top agents have reputations that can sometimes make employers put the agent at unnecessary risk. SpyCorp stands by its agents and is willing to take action on their behalf should any employer cause harm to an agent due to negligence or purposeful withholding of information.

"I'd also like to mention that SpyCorp charges nothing for membership. Agents offered membership have the right to choose or decline any mission offered them. And since SpyCorp charges the employer a finder fee directly, each agent receives the full portion of the offered amount—something that most fixers can't offer. Truthfully, SpyCorp makes most of its income through the goods we provide to our agents, none of which is a required purchase."

Sitting in her chair, Shion looked at Stone over the tips of her steepled fingers. "And this concerns me how, Mr. Stone? I fail to see how accepting membership in your enterprise will garner me anything that I cannot already get on my own."

"Maybe you don't need the work that we would provide. It's your call and the way you do business is your own prerogative. But if you are tired of dealing with terrified employers stumbling over themselves to offer you a mission, maybe you'll think about us." Jason seemed ready to call the meeting to a close, but then paused.

"Oh, there is one matter you may be interested in. It would seem someone wants to see all espers dead and has developed a program to hunt them down and kill them. I have an employer willing to pay to see this program is brought to a sudden and violent end." He watched Shion's face for a sign of interest.

There was a moments silence. "What evidence do you have to support this claim?" Shion asked, still looking to be completely at ease. "Most corporations are desperate to employ esper weapons, not to mention the sheer number of espers worldwide makes such a program seem impossible."

"Espers are rare enough that not every corporation who wants one, can get one. And even if they do, very powerful espers are extremely rare. However, this program takes those with even just a touch of talent, removes their brain, and installs them into a hunter-killer cyborg body. They then wire the cyborgs brain to feel pleasure for only two things in their tortured existence: Obeying their owners and killing anyone they sense has psychic power." Jason tapped something on the glass surface of the desk. "Anne? Will you come in here please?"

A moment later, the younger woman Shion and Aoi had seen outside walked in. She still looked nervous, but her eyes warmed when she looked at Jason.

"Anne Hardy, please meet Shion Nys. Anne, I believe you already know Aoi?"

"Yes Jason, of course. I'm pleased to meet you, Ms. Nys." She extended a hand and looked at Shion with large eyes. Shion could sense power in Anne, unhidden and raw. Yet it was very weak. No doubt, Anne was able to sense power in others quite well, but she'd hardly be able to do much else with it.

Shion took her hand for a brief moment, releasing it right at the point business etiquette required her to.

"Anne, we were discussing the Forge case," Jason told her. "I'd like you to tell Ms. Nys what you felt when the attack occurred."

The young woman paled. She knew he would ask her to do this, but reliving the experience still sent shock-waves of remembered terror through her mind. She swallowed. "You know what happened, Jason."

"They need to know what you felt, Anne."

She nodded and after a moment, began to speak. "I was on the board of directors for SynTech. They and Mistumi had joined forces to produce a new kind of cyborg, something new that everyone would want. What they did was... horrible. It went through its paces, everything was fine. It looked like exactly what it was; a cutting-edge military prototype. Then I went down on the show floor and the moment it saw me, it just went berserk. It killed everything that moved to get to me. People I knew..."

She blinked fast and swallowed, trying to get her emotions under control. "It-it was like a buzzing. A buzzing so loud it was a scream, all in my head. It would look at me and then it was just like I couldn't think straight. There was this huge deafening fuzziness. I could hardly think to move. If it wasn't for the sacrifice of all those security people and Jason being there..."

Jason prompted her for more. "It had just been through an armed demonstration and it soon ran out of ammo. What then?"

"It wouldn't stop. The thing wouldn't stop. I... I think it stabbed me with its gun arm. They finally stopped it because the engineers came in with some kind of fail-safe code. God, it must have killed forty people."

Shion's expression was blank. "Didn't you used to be the CEO of SynTech, Mr. Stone?"

"Yes. But this is purely business Ms. Nys. A number of parties interested in the termination of this project have put up the funds to see this through. I think I see where you're going with this, Ms. Nys, but I am not an employer or funder of this mission. Given my past affiliation with SynTech, it could too easily become personal for me. However, I am not above providing any information I personally hold to an agent who accepts this mission. I signed no NDA during my tenure as CEO.

"SpyCorp is not the only group who will take action, but we do believe that if we act quickly we have the best chance of completing the job first. Within SpyCorp, I have one agent who has volunteered for the job, but he or she is a hacker. In spite of their view of their own skills, data erasure is good but not enough.

"The mission demands not only that the prototypes be destroyed, but all research data and backups must also be wiped out. If you are interested in the job, I can give you the details."

Now Shion seemed to come alive and drop her facade of disinterest. She sat up slightly and lifted on gloved hand to her chin. "How many prototypes? How are they armed, and how well armored are they?""

"There was only one when I left the company. But if they stayed on schedule, they should have three completed now. They are slow to build because of the strict requirements they have for donor brains. But one of the three may have been removed to a secondary location for security. At your discretion, you may wish to employ a hacker to find such locations as well as locations they may use for secondary data storage."

"You didn't answer my question, Mr. Stone." Shion leaned forward slightly. "How are they armed? How did you stop the one that went berserk?"

"Thank you for reminding me. They are armed with autocannons and physical weapons. Each can be outfitted with a variety depending on the natural affinities of the donor brains." He reached into a drawer behind his desk and pulled out a hardcopy file. "These documents contain pictures, weapon information, a background bio of the first donor brain, security details, and the location of the Neo York Forge Production Facility." He handed the fat folder to the fair-haired esper.

"And what is the compensation for my time?" Aoi found the choice of words intriguing. As if by saying "compensation" Shion was doing Jason Stone a favor and not acting as his employee.

"The partners interested in putting a stop to this have agreed to put up a sizable sum given the extreme risk, high level of security in place at the Forge Production Plant, and odds of a single agent of normal ability levels succeeding is exceedingly low. At least, that is my assessment. The total payout is to be 34.2 million dollars to be transferred by wire. Ten percent of that can be made available up front. If you take this job, then you may compensate anyone you decide you need anyway you please.

"One last request." Shion turned her head and motioned with one arm to where Aoi sat. "I wish to have Aoi assigned to me as a personal assistant."

"That," Jason smiled with relief, "is strictly up to her. We only present agents with jobs. We don't tell them what to do."

"Consider it a rider to my contract."

Jason looked at Aoi, and smiled. "Then I'll just have to convince her. What do you say Aoi?"

Aoi looked between the two of them, seemingly speechless. She finally shook her head slightly, as if to clear it, and nodded. "I'll do it for you," she said to Shion. "I did say I owe you."

"Good." Shion turned back to Jason. "I wish to have the initial ten percent deposited into my account, and ten percent of that deposited into Aoi's. Is that acceptable?"

Jason nodded happily. "As good as done. My secretary has the appropriate account numbers and she'll have the money transferred as soon as you let her know into what accounts you'd like it deposited. Aoi, if you don't have one or don't want to use one, I'm sure she'll either help you set one up, or get it converted to something portable."

One percent? It didn't sound like much. But one percent of thirty-four million... "That's quite a generous sum," she said to Shion. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yes." Shion gave Aoi a cool glance. "Quite sure."

Aoi nodded. "I can hardly refuse."

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