By Max Fauth, Mathieu Roy and Michael Surbrook
(January 1, 2034)

Standing atop a tall apartment complex, Shion stared down into the shadowed depths of the Zone. Bright points of light marked Jinsei armored vehicles, while brief flashes indicated gunfire, usually that Jinsei soldiers gunning down yet more luckless Zone inhabitants. A single brilliant arc of light illuminated an entire street as a cyberdroid fired its ion cannon—probably to reduce a building or two.

So... they have finally done it. Shion thought to herself as she glanced from the view below to the bright towers of Neo York. Someone has finally decided to "clean up" the Zone.

She needed to get moving. An event this big wouldn't go unnoticed in the corporate circles. In fact, her services might just be in demands right now, as she was sure there were plenty of corporate suits now trapped in the Zone. Suits who their parent companies would pay plenty to see rescued.

But first...

Staring at the towers of Neo York, Shion located the spires of Shiroko-Tsuhi. before she did anything she'd drop in on Raven. As one of her few friends, she deserved to know what was happening. Besides, if they were to cross paths, it would be best if they both knew what the other was up to.

A moment later the rooftop was empty.

Within mere moments, Shion was standing in Raven's living room. For the most part is was as she remembered it, although their were substantial changes in decoration. Gone were Raven's many statues and sculptures. Instead the walls were lined with photographs and art prints, all on the one subject - young girls. As she watched, a girl stepped out of the master bedroom. She couldn't have been more than fourteen years old, and was dressed in what looked like a mockery of a business suit complete with short tie and pleated skirt. Her hair was spiky and dyed both pink and purple. She froze still in the doorway, then cocked her head to one side and asked "What are you doing here?" in a voice Shion could only describe as 'disgustingly cute.'

Ignoring the girl's request, Shion took three long strides and stopped before her, looking down imperiously, using every inch of her height to maximum effect. "Where," she demanded, "is Raven Clark?"

She put a finger to her lips and furrowed her brow in thought. "Gee, I dunno who that is," she replied at length.

Looking past the girl, Shion slapped her open hand against the bedroom door, slamming it open. Inside was a brown haired man in his late twenties. He started up at the noise, and fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table. Once he had them on, he looked back up at Shion. He immediately pressed himself against the head of his bed, the sheets slipping down his naked body, seemingly petrified in fear.

The girl grabbed hold of Shion's arm, yelling "You can't go in there!"

Shoving the girl away, Shion pointed at the bed's occupant. "Who are you, and what happened to Raven!?!"

"Please don't hurt me!" He screeched in a voice that seemed more apt for a schoolboy. "I didn't do anything! They just gave me this apartment! I swear I don't know anything at all!"

Taking a deep breath, Shion closed her eyes. Raven was no longer here. The present occupant seemed to no nothing. Had the black-haired esper weapon been promoted? If she had, she hadn't told Shion about it. In fact... Shion hadn't heard anything from Raven in some time... And the rumor mill had said nothing about S-T loosing one of their esper weapons. So, if she was till alive, was she even in the building? Shion opened her mind to any esper signature she could sense, no matter how small. If Raven was in this building, she would find her.

For a long moment Shion was lost to the outside world. She was oblivious to the sniffling of the girl she'd shoved away, or to the wide-eyed whimpering of the bedroom's occupant. She also didn't see him fumble for his phone and start to dial security.

The building slowly became alive to Shion's mind. She could "see" a scattering of esper signatures. Most were faint, very faint, indicative of a slight degree of potential, but no real power. One was a bight beacon, but it wasn't Raven. That one probably belonged to Paula, who had sufficient power to impress the suits, but had no where near the potential of either Raven of herself. Now... there... there it was.

The signature was very faint, fainter than Shion would have expected. Most likely Raven was asleep, but still... in addition, the signal seemed to indicate she was far away, down deep in the depths of the building. No matter, she'd find her soon enough.

Ignoring at the apartment's occupants, Shion went to the door and simply forced it open, not even bothering to check if it was locked or not. She stepped out into the hallway and went looking for the elevator.

About ten steps later, Shion stopped dead in her tracks. She glanced around the hallway, and then back at the open door to the apartment. What the hell am I doing? she asked herself. I can't just wander the halls of Shiroko-Tsuhi freely. What was I thinking? A moment later the hallway was empty.

Floating outside the Shiroko-Tsuhi arcology, Shion relocated Raven's signature and dropped, racing towards the ground. This did not bode well. There was no reason a powerful esper weapon like Raven should be housed in the lower floors of the S-T building unless something was seriously wrong. She should be heading up, not down, to find the woman who was probably her closest friend.

Inside her room, Raven's eyes shot open. She looked around to find what could have possibly woken her up, but the room was empty and quiet, save for the regular breathing of Duncan, sleeping peacefully in the bed besides her. Whatever it was, then, it hadn't been enough to wake the replicant.

Suddenly she felt another twinge, an exercise of potent psychic power—a teleport. She looked up, extending her perception through the arcology above her... feeling for the source... and finding a familiar signature.

Shion. It was only a matter of time until her friend paid her a visit. No doubt she'd been surprised at her sudden "move". Well, maybe Raven could let Shion know where she was. She gathered her power, then concentrated on the blanket, trying to crush it with all the force she could muster. Of course, the cloth was mostly unaffected by this treatment—but the amount of exerted power generated a great deal of esper noise, noise that Shion would be able to perceive.

Raven's movements and the shift in the blankets had woken Duncan up, and now he was half-sitting in the bed, looking at her with an expression of complete puzzlement. Raven smiled reassuringly at the handsome replicant and patted his shoulder to invite him to go back to sleep. Then she teeked her robe to herself, wrapped it around her naked body, and waited for her friend to drop by.

There. Shion grinned wolfishly. Raven's signature had flared up briefly, almost as if she was announcing her presence. Shion concentrated on the psychic disturbance and then shifted herself to that exact spot.

She landed in an explosion of sheets and blankets as the bed below her jumped a few feet to one side. She caught a glimpse of a wide-eyed face—male—and of a robed Raven, who looked rather calm.

Pushing off of the ground with her power, Shion hovered in the air of the tangled expanse of Raven's bed. She glanced quickly around the room before focusing on the sable-haired esper.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Oh boy. Where to begin." Raven said, then shrugged. There was no good way to announce this. "Suffice it to say that Shiroko-Tsuhi's Psychokinetics Assets Division is under new management, and said new management has decided that they needed to apply more stringent security protocols. I think my new boss is an Orwell fan." She chuckled disarmingly to hopefully defuse some of the tension. She'd fantasized often about what she'd do if she didn't have the collar, and Shion wasn't wearing one. If she decided to take offense at Raven's situation... well, Raven's fantasies were usually very destructive, and she was generally a heck of a lot mellower than the Empress.

Reaching down, Shion pushed some of Raven's hair to one side. "What's this?" she demanded.

"Management collar," Raven spat. "Taser, tracker, microphone—might want to watch what you say around me." She shrugged.

"Hold still," Shion said, reaching for the collar.

Raven recoiled from her hand. "If I wanted to, Shion, I'd have done that myself by now," she said.

"Then why haven't you?"

Raven sighed. "Shion, it's not really the collar holding me here. That thing is more psychological than anything these days anyway. They're holding one of my friends."

"And if I take you out of here, something happens to that person. Is that it?"

Raven smiled thinly. "That's the picture. Why do you think I'm still here?"

Shion glanced around the room. "What do you want me to do? They must know I'm here, and the moment I leave is the moment they move in."

Raven shrugged. "Move in to do what?"

Shion shrugged in return. "I have no idea. Move you somewhere else, at the very least." She paused and looked back at Raven. "Like I said; What do you want me to do? Take you out of here? I can't wait here long for your answer... Jinsei has invaded the Zero Zone."

"They WHAT?"

Shion's face was grave. "Jinsei has invaded the Zone. I don't know why, but I suspect they struck a deal with the city to pacify the region. They are rounding up anyone they find, and killing anyone who resists."

Raven shook her head in disbelief. "This is nuts! They can't do that!"

"Can't? Don't tell me can't, they've already done it."

"But... they can't possibly think they can hold on to the Zone that way!" Raven stood and stormed off, pacing around the room, holding her robe closed. "There are things in there. Things that are harder than Jinsei strike teams. They will run into them. They have to know they will."

Lowering herself to stand on the floor, Shion watched Raven pace. "They already did. Me."

Raven couldn't help but snicker at that. "That's one. There's a bunch, Shion. Wizgangs. Hardassed freelance cyborgs. Mafia and Yakuza. Boostergangs. Heck, what do they think will happen if they wake Ran up?"

A knocking on the door forestalled any answers from Shion. "Raven?" a female voice asked. "Is everything all right?"

Raven managed a grin. "Everything's all right and you know it, Katsura. Are the surveillance techs freaking much?"

Silence greeted her question. Raven guessed Katsura was talking to her superiors via an internal comlink. Shion, meanwhile, lazily raised on hand and pointed it at the door.

Raven sighed. "Okay, Shion, what are you doing?"

"Getting rid of an annoyance."

Raven shook her head. "Don't."

Shion stared at Raven for a moment and then slowly lowered her hand.

"Raven?" came Katsura's voice through the door. "You need to think about what you are doing. Do you understand me?"

"I'm always thinking about what I am doing, Katsura." She smirked and winked at Shion. "Right now I'm thinking I'm pretty much the only thing keeping Ms. Nys here from disposing of a bunch of annoyances. I should also warn you that she annoys easily." She paused for a second. "You should talk to Ms. Davies. We had a chat about when it's worth making an issue of things, and when it's not."

Again there was silence. Raven sat back on her bed, uncaring that her robe had opened up a bit, though she could just picture a very stressed tech's eyes bulging out. "So, where were we?"

Shion watched the entire display without saying a word. Her face was shadowed by long tresses of snowy-white hair, but Raven could still see a slight smile. "Discussing what happens when Jinsei wakes up Ran." The smile vanished as quickly as it had come. "Look, Raven. Jinsei is serious. They have armor support, air support, cyberdroids, and a large number of heavily armed and armored stormtroopers. The Zero Zone is now a war zone."

"So what else is new." Raven tossed her hair. "You know as well as I do how messy urban war zones get. Jinsei will make some headway, sure. They've got the firepower. But people will get pissed. And they can get their mitts on some big-ass guns too. And if nothing else—they're territorial. They'll be pissed. Heck, I'm pissed. I'm itching to go there and kick their asses"—she paused, and added loudly, looking up, "but I'm not gonna!"—then returned to Shion and continued—"Whatever happens, Jinsei will get really bloody. This'll be ridiculously expensive, too. What the fuck do they want that might be worth the casualties, the lost assets, heck, just the hassle?"

"The land."

Raven snorted. "The land? What would they do with it? Prime land, low cost, small guerilla and terrorist issues. May require some demolition. But the locals might also do it for you."

Raven felt a sudden surge of power from the tall esper. "Raven," she said slowly. "I don't care how you deal with your keepers, but I think I deserve a little more respect. I am here because I wanted you to know what I had seen and because I was worried about you. But since you seem to be doing fine, and obviously don't need my help, I will be leaving."

Raven sighed. She should've known Shion couldn't take a joke. Not that it was an entirely appropriate moment... "I'm sorry, Shion. Please stay a little. I shouldn't be taking my frustrations on you."

For a moment Shion was still, then she visibly relaxed. "Get out of here," she commanded of Duncan, as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "I cannot stay long, I suspect my services will be in demand."

Duncan actually glanced interrogatively at Raven until she nodded him away. Apparently that model came without self-preservation programmed in.

"They wouldn't like it if you hung around too long anyway," Raven said once Duncan had left the room. She clenched her fists. "Sorry, I am just so pissed off right now..."

"I know, I can feel it." Shion leaned over, close enough to kiss Raven if she'd been so inclined.

And then she did.

Pulling the younger woman close, Shion hugged her tight, breaking the kiss once her fall of hair—combined with Raven's own long tresses, served to hide their faces from the camera. "What?" she repeated in a faint whisper into Raven's ear, "do you need from me?"

"Johnathan Carstairs. Get him out," she replied in the same tone, a little bewildered. Her face was flushed red-hot from the kiss, even though she knew it was fake. That was perhaps the last thing she'd expected. Then she quite deliberately put her hands on Shion's shoulders and pushed her away. "Sorry," she said aloud. "we can't keep this up. They'd just shock me."

Standing, Shion pushed back her hair and straightened her cloak. "Then I'll be leaving. I do have work to do."

Raven touched her lips, still looking a bit bewildered—and still flushed. "Thanks for coming," she said, feelingly. "I'd say 'keep me posted', but that'd just freak them out. Just please try to follow the proper channels for your next visit, okay? It'll save everyone a bundle of trouble."

"Yes, of course." Shion said with a touch of her usual arrogance. "I'll just call you from the front desk next time."

Raven smirked. "If they don't faint, it might just work."

Shion nodded once, and then vanished.

Raven chuckled and shook her head. "You can come in, now Katsura," she said, shifting so she was sitting on the bed leaning on its head.

Johnathan Carstairs. Someone who was important to Raven. Shion stared at the Shiroko-Tsuhi building from her vantage point atop a nearby office tower. He needed to be extracted before Raven would consider leaving. Fine. She'd extracted corporate employees before. The trick was figuring out who he was and where he was to be found. She'd need to have someone access Shiroko-Tsuhi's records to locate him. Someone S-T wouldn't expect. Someone who wasn't local.

In the shadowed darkness of the tower, Shion smiled. "Ling Ling."

Hong Kong was cloudy and wet. Typical weather for winter. It was also the middle of the day, roughly 1:30 P.M. to be exact, as opposed to Neo York, where it had been around 1:30 A.M. It was also January 2nd in the small city-state. Instantaneous movement played hell with one's internal clock.

Still dressed in her armor and cloak, Shion floated amid a swirl of spray above the harbor, scanning the tall spires of the Hong Kong skyline. Ling Ling's apartment was in Kowloon, over there.

She vanished and then reappeared instantly, now over a portion of Kowloon proper. Sighting in on her objective, she teleported again, then again.

Hanging in the air outside her sister's apartment tower, Shion flew upwards, counting floors. Normally she'd have taken a taxi, but she was in a hurry, and had no desire to waste time on Hong Kong's crowded streets. Finally she came to a stop and stared at the windows before. A quick glimpse of the shadowed insides confirmed what she'd thought—this was the right apartment. Her hand dropping to her gunbelt, Shion searched amid the pouches for a moment, and then swore. She'd gone into the Zone almost on lark, wanting to get away from the hectic mess that was Neo York. Thus, she hadn't taken her full kit, just her pistol (now lost) and her ID and credit cards. No sword, no cellphone, no passport, no keys. Oh well, it wasn't like a closed and locked door was that much of a problem anyway.

One quick jump and she was in the living room, standing amid Ling Ling's collection of pottery and ceramics. The apartment was quiet, except...

Shion shook her head. She recognized those sounds. And in the middle of the afternoon, of all things. Obviously, someone was still celebrating the new year. Her sister was a nymphomaniac, that's all there was to it.

Heading for the bedroom, Shion decided the urgency of the current situation overrode any sense or need of privacy. She threw open the door with a cry of "Ling--!"

Normally, Shion wasn't one to be at a loss for words. She was very self-assured and extremely self-confident. It took quite a bit to phase her, and even then she usually recovered quickly. Then again, she was dealing with her sister.

Shion blinked. "Uhm..." she uttered intelligently

Marta and Ling Ling both gave her a look that mixed exhaustion with ecstasy and embarrassment. Marta, in fact, looked a tad dazed, which Shion chalked up multiple orgasms. Ling Ling opened her mouth to same something but seemed to equally be at a loss for words.

"Perhaps I can come back in a few moments?" Shion stated with straight-faced aplomb. "I apologize for the interruption, but I have some important news that cannot wait." Stepping back and closing the door, Shion decided it was time to raid the apartment's kitchen for something to drink—like a beer, or three.

"Y'know, if you knocked once and a while, things like this wouldn't happen."

Shion glared at her sister. "I was in a hurry. Besides, it's two in the afternoon. Most people aren't having sex at two in the afternoon."

"We'd had a late night," Ling Ling said in an apologetic tone.

Shion finished her beer and set the can down next to two other empties. Running her hands through her hair she took a deep breath. "Okay, look, I'm sorry. I was in a hurry, and didn't have my cell phone. Next time I'll call first."

Marta blinked at that and glanced at Ling Ling. "Something must be up."

Gritting her teeth, Shion took a second calming breath. "Ling Ling I need to hire your services."

Ling Ling's demeanor changed instantly, from one of almost casual amusement to sober businesswoman. "What is it you need?"

"Information." Shion reached for a pad of paper and a pen. "A Shiroko-Tsuhi employee by the name of Johnathan Carstairs. He's a friend of Raven's and located somewhere in and around Neo York." She started writing as she spoke. "I need to know where he is, where he lives, what he does, and if he's being watched. Needless to say time is critical."

Ling Ling merely nodded and looked thoughtful, while Marta gave her older sister an incredulous look. "You interrupted us for that?!?" she cried.

For a moment Shion merely gave her younger sister an uncomprehending look. Finally she shook her head, as if reminding herself of why she was here and what she had done upon arrival, and looked back at Ling Ling. "Jinsei has launched a full-scale invasion of the Neo York Zero Zone. I suspect it is the result of some sort of security arrangement with the Neo York Police Department and the city government."

Dead silence greeted this announcement.

"Oh," Marta replied anti-climatically. "I see..."

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