Part 3

By Dustin Devermore, Max Fauth, and Michael Surbrook
(December 2033)

Aoi figured that some day... one day... Shion's instincts would prove her wrong. And she hoped she was there to see it. She then thought a moment, considered the circles that Shion tended to travel in and the missions she took, and decided she'd rather read about it in the paper.

Dressed as she was, the tall esper had attracted plenty of attention. But as she shadowed Moira's every move, Aoi noticed a lot of people glanced from Shion to the short cyborg and back, probably wondering who Moira was and why she rated such an obvious bodyguard. As much as she hated to admit it, Shion's plan did make a certain amount of sense. People looked at Shion, figured her to be a bodyguard for Moira, saw Moira's age and expression, and chalked it up to a corporate kid with an inflated sense of self worth. As for herself, she might as well have been invisible.

As before, Katherine Ramis drove them to the designated location. It was a rather long trip, taking them out of the glitter and neon of Mega-Tokyo proper and into the calmer and more sedate suburbs. They eventually ended up in front of a nondescript apartment building that formed a row of similar structures.

Entering, the trio was met by a tall, blue-haired Lynx. "Hello," she said with a bow. "My name is Temple. I will be your host and will make sure you are comfortable during your stay. Please follow me and I will show you to your room."

"Pleased to meet you, Ms. Temple," responded Moira with as much formality as she could muster.

While following Temple, she couldn't resist a comment to Aoi. "Gee," she whispered, "she's so pretty. Some day, maybe I can get blue hair, too!" She watched the Lynx's silky blue hair with unabashed envy, innocently oblivious that her own hair was about as natural as a polyester wig and certainly not difficult to change.

"I think Jason would have a fit first," she replied quietly. She remembered that Moira was here without Jason's approval or even knowledge, and mentally added; Well, another fit.

"Hm." Moira considered his reaction in her mind. "Well," she whispered, "I bet Midori would let me."

"I'm afraid she would," Aoi muttered softly. She nudged Moira, indicating ahead as they arrived at their room.

Inside they found a rather sedate conference room, similar to anyone number of corporate meeting rooms, albeit a rather bland one. There was a long table, tall, comfortable chairs, a data jack module in the center of the table, and sealed packing cases along the walls. Aoi paid these latter items a small measure of her attention, as their size and shape seemed to indicate contents of a lethal nature.

Removing her hat and faux-glasses, Shion settled herself into a chair, her face expressionless.

Aoi nodded to Moira and quietly took a seat to Shion's left. She made no effort to conceal her dislike of the setup, but remained quiet nonetheless.

A moment later, Temple entered the room, carrying a tray. She set it down on the table and then bowed. "I have brought tea. Please, help yourself." With that she left.

Aoi helped herself to a cup without thinking, but paused with it half way to her lips. She glanced at Shion to read her reaction, nervous that she had made some kind of mistake. Apparently she needn't have bothered, as Shion was already sipping at a steaming cup of green tea.

After a short wait, the door opened again, this time for a short Japanese woman with a trim build. Her hair was cropped clean at the shoulders, framing an attractive brown-eyed face. She was dressed in an almost immaculate skirt and jacket combination, and looked totally at ease, even considering her clientele.

Closing the door, she glanced at Shion, Aoi, and Moira in turn, almost as if she was assessing everyone's net worth and usefulness. She then sketched a short bow, announcing; "I am sorry to have kept you waiting. I am Nabiki Tendo, how may I be of service?"

At first, Aoi wasn't sure what to make of the woman. In all honestly, she could have been anyone off what little they'd seen of Megatokyo's streets. Neither her appearance or her manner stood out. But it slowly dawned on her how much of an advantage that would be for someone in her line of business. She also wondered what talents she possessed that had Shion traveling across the world to do business for her. But for now, she sat quietly and listened in.

For her part, Shion gave a slight smile, inclining her head to Nabiki. "You can start by showing us the hardware I requested."

"Of course." Nabiki walked over to one of the cases set along the wall. "If one of you could assist me," she asked, "I'd like to set this on the table before opening it."

Aoi looked at Shion quizzically, then shrugged. Obviously, this was her job. She joined Nabiki at the far end of the room. "So um... What is this, anyway?" she asked quietly.

"Something that shouldn't be dropped." Nabiki pointed at a long, narrow case. "Please place that on the table."

"I can take the hint," she muttered to herself and hefted it to the table. Even with her boosted strength, it was an effort to lift and she imagined that she must look awkward to Shion and Moira. She set it down, wiped her brow and watched the case as if it was going to move by itself.

Unsnapping the catches, Nabiki flipped the top of the case open, stepping back to gesture at the exposed contents with one hand. "The Haloconnen. Woo-Chang Arms 30 millimeter semiautomatic cannon. Fires a variety of rounds, including high-explosive, high-explosive antitank, armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot, and high impact depleted uranium rounds. Five round magazine."

Shion stood, smiling, and glanced down into the case. "Excellent. Range?"

"Upwards of 2000 meters."


"Specifications state it can penetrate fifteen to eighteen centimeters of armor plate at 1000 meters. It should be capable of penetrating any known form of combat cyborg or combat cyberdroid armor."

Reaching into the case, Shion removed the cannon's pistol-gripped body. Even missing the barrel and the stock, the sheer size of the weapon was staggering.

"I must warn you," Nabiki said evenly. "The Haloconnen is longer than you are tall when fully assembled."

Shion nodded, almost distractedly. "Weight?"

"With full kit? Around 30 to 32 kilos."

That elicited a shrug. "I can handle it."

Once again Aoi had to wonder exactly how strong her employer really was.

"Now," Nabiki continued, "For the two of you."

Moira blinked in amazement, looking back and forth from the cannon, to Aoi and to Shion again. When Nabiki addressed her, she immediately piped up, asking "Are we gonna get one of those?"

"Even with your cybergraft shell, I doubt you could lift such a weapon," Nabiki explained. "So no. Besides, I could only get one at such short notice." She gestured at the rest of the cases lining the room. "What's in these are for you two."

Aoi looked curiously at Shion. She wasn't sure quite what to think. Aoi had assured her that she was fine using her pistol, but had Shion ordered her some new weapons anyway? Somehow it seemed just like Shion to go over her head like that. Sighing, she hefted the two cases onto the table and popped them open.

"Handguns." Nabiki gestured at the case's contents. "Automatics and revolvers." She pulled one pistol free from the foam and set it on the table top. "Ruger P97." Then a second. "Steyer GB-100." Then one after another. "Sig-Saur P240, Jinsei Hoshoku, Jinsei Hoshoku Zeta, Colt Mark 6, Smith and Wesson 2019..." There was a pause and then she produced a massive stainless steel revolver. "Smith and Wesson 50 caliber revolver. Only five shots, but I assure you, each one will count."

"All smartlinked, I assume?" She waited for Nabiki's nod, then turned to the second case.

"This case has heavier weapons." Nabiki continued. Her tone made Aoi feel like she was shopping for a car, not looking at firearms. "Smith and Wesson Assault Pistol. Heckler and Koch MP2030. Fabrique Nationale PN-90. And my personal favorite, the Seburo C-25A." She set down an organic looking weapon that looked like a weird metal torus than anything else. "See anything you like?"

Aoi passed her hand over the Seburo, touching it gently. "What exactly is this?" She asked slowly.

Picking up the weapon in question, Nabiki turned it over in her hands. "The Seburo C-25A fires a 5 millimeter round. The magazine is here, on the bottom, and like the PN-90 uses a helical feed. Standard load is 50 rounds. It's standard issue for Self-Defense Forces special operations squads."

Aoi took the weapon from her and ran her hands over it. "I've never seen anything like it," she said to herself, and gently replaced it on the table.

"It is becoming very popular. I think it will replace the MP2030 in the next few years." Nabiki then gestured to a second set of cases. "I have also brought a selection of protective gear."

Aoi glanced at Shion, trying to read her expression, and then paused to gape for a second. When Nabiki had said the Haloconnen was longer than Shion was tall, she hadn't been kidding. Shion had assembled the weapon and had it braced against one shoulder, sighting down the barrel's impressive length. The imagery was a bit jarring.

Shaking her head, Aoi turned back to the issue at hand. She'd told her employer that she wouldn't need all this, yet here they were. Obviously Shion knew better than her, she thought bitterly. Might as well do what she says. "I'll look over them in a minute," she said to Nabiki.

"Certainly." Nabiki turned to Moira. "Will you be needing anything?"

"Wow, gee... It's just like my birthday," Moira said. She rushed to Aoi's side, looking down at the weapons spread across the table. Aoi watched her as she picked up the Smith and Wesson and waved it around like a toy. She shook her head and took hold of the pistol.

"Moira, you've never even fired a gun before. We'll just get you some armor."

"Well I don't need to shoot it," she replied. "Just look scary with it." She pointed the pistol straight at Aoi with an eager grin. "See?"

"Miss Craft," Nabiki said in her even tones, "Although none of these weapons are loaded, common practice is to treat any gun as if it was. At this range, one slip of your finger, and armored jacket or not, Miss Aoi would be quite dead."

Moira's eyes widened. Arms shaking, she gently laid the pistol back on the table. She took a few steps back and covered her mouth, muttering an apology.

Nabiki opened two more cases. "I have a selection of armorcloth clothing here, including vests, jackets, and trenchcoats. I also have a sample clamshell vest of the style used by a certain esper weapon. If you wish to try any of it on, feel free."

A vision flittered through Aoi's head of Moira twirling around and carrying on, dressed as a miniature version of Shion. Amusing though it was, she doubted her employer would approve of her assistants stealing her look. Then she glanced at Moira's eager expression, and knew just what the girl was thinking. "We'll pass on the clamshell, thank you."

"As you wish. I was asked to bring a standard kit for your perusal, if you desire anything heaver or more exotic, I will make the proper arraignments."

"Standard kit..." Aoi muttered to herself, and shook her head. "I think this is more than enough already.," She said.

"As you wish." Nabiki produced a PDA and a stylus. "Which items did you desire?"

"I think in the end we'll just take some better protection—armored vests, jackets and pants for both of us." Aoi nodded to herself. Shion wouldn't approve, but she was comfortable with her Baretta. And the thought of Moira with firearms was a bit much for her.


"Umm..." Aoi bit her lip.

"Really Gem, you should be better prepared," Moira said. She whipped a disk out of her pocket and handed it to Nabiki.

"How..." Aoi began, but trailed off.

"I just went through your luggage," she replied with a smile. "After all, if we're going for equipment, it makes sense. You really should think of these things."

Aoi wordlessly turned back to Shion for support.

The Empress, apparently, had finished looking the immense Haloconnen over. She held it now, cradled in her arms, the barrel stretching across the room. "Did you see anything you liked?" she asked.

You didn't even pay attention, Aoi thought, shaking her head slightly. "Nothing major," she replied. "Are you done?"

Shion glanced at the cannon and then back at Aoi. "Yes and no. I have some further business to discuss with Nabiki, and will meet you back at the hotel."

Aoi nodded. "If that's all, then..." she said, and turned to Nabiki. "Thanks for everything here."

"Thank you," the fixer replied. Aoi could almost hear the woman totaling up the cost of whatever they'd bought in her head.

Leaving Shion to repack the Haloconnen, Aoi left the conference room, trailed by Moira. Outside stood Temple, hands behind her back, and a friendly smile on her face. Aoi nodded at her and kept moving, wanting to get back to the hotel. Between giant autocannons, blue hair, and Moira riffling through her luggage she felt in dire need of a hot bath and some rest.

Then a sight made her miss a step. Seated in a chair outside the conference room was a tall, dark-haired man. He was dressed in a suit and a long coat, his eyes hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. Gloved hands clasped together, legs crossed, he projected the image of a man very much at ease.

Against her better judgment, she had to take another look. There was no doubting that he was incredibly handsome and well built. He seemed to be waiting, but Aoi couldn't imagine who for. She finally walked back to Temple and gently asked "Temple? Who's that?"

Giving the man in question a quick glance, Temple leaned over to speak to Aoi. "That is Mr. Crispen. I think he is here to speak with Miss Nys."

"Speak with her?" Aoi looked back and forward between Crispen and Temple. "Some how I doubt that's it. Really, what's he here for?"

Temple shrugged. "I cannot say Miss Aoi, other than he was brought her on Miss Tendo's orders. Is something wrong? Do you need assistance?"

She shook her head. "No, it's just bothering me..." She looked back at Crispen and screwed up her eyes. "Oh, I get it."

"Oh," Temple smiled. "Then is everything okay?"

Moira blinked and looked at Aoi. "Just what is it then?" she asked. When Aoi kept quiet, she shrugged and walked up to Mr. Crispen. "Excuse me, are you a friend of Shion?"

Inclining his head slightly, Mr. Crispen nodded at Moira. "Good afternoon, young lady," he replied in a rich baritone. "I am afraid I do not know anyone named Shion. I was brought here to see Miss Nabiki Tendo."

"What for?" Moira asked. "What do you do for her?"

Aoi firmly grasped Moira's shoulder. "I think it's best to leave him alone," she said. "I've pretty much figured it out."

"Oh?" Moira blinked at her.

"Yeah... I'll explain later." She glanced at the closed door behind them, narrowing her eyes. She shook her head, imagining Shion beyond, then returned her attention to Moira. "C'mon, let's go."

A moment later the pair was one the street, waiting for Katherine to return with the car.

"Miss Aoi?"

Aoi turned to find Nabiki standing behind them, looking as unruffled as ever.

"Yes?" she replied.

"I was wondering if you could do me a favor."

A favor. A favor? Aoi almost gaped at the fixer. What, exactly, could she want from Aoi and Moira she couldn't get herself? "A favor," she finally uttered in a neutral tone.

"Yes." Nabiki hefted a chrome colored case and showed it to the pair. "I need this delivered and all my regular couriers are a bit tied up right now. If you would deliver this for me, I won't charge anything for the protective gear you have ordered."

"Sounds like a good deal," she replied. "So what's the catch?"

"No catch, Miss Aoi. Just think of it as a chance to see more of the city."

As much as she thought she was getting used to it, Aoi had to admit that Mega-Tokyo still managed to impress her. She and Moira had hailed a cab a few blocks from the safe house, and enjoyed a smooth ride to the dock district. The pair of them had spent most of the ride with their faces pressed to the windows, gaping at the sights of the city. It was taller and even more packed than Neo York had been. As night fell, the lights had come on, making the city even brighter than in the daylight hours. Moira had kept pointing out signs for Aoi to translate. That had left the pair of them stupefied at the sheer variety of stores and services available. This truly was a city that never slept.

From there, the pair had made their way through the docks on foot. The change was drastic between the bright, bustling city and the dark, empty waterfront. Many of the businesses were still operating, but their particular destination had long since closed down. Eventually they found themselves waiting outside an old warehouse building, looking out over the water of Tokyo Bay at the bright lights of the main city.

The pair stood in silent thought for long minutes before Moira finally piped up. "Gem?" she said quietly.

"Hmm?" Aoi replied, turning to face the younger woman. She placed the case on the ground. It was a bulky, heavy suitcase with a metallic shell. She couldn't help but wonder just what was inside, but had decided that it wasn't really her business.

"About what happened before..." Moira said quietly. Aoi furrowed her brow, confused by Moira's uncharacteristic seriousness. "Um, with the gun," the girl added.

"Oh, that!" Aoi replied. She waved her hand and said "Don't worry about it. She wouldn't have loaded any of those guns for the display."

Moira breathed a sigh of relief and her cheery smile returned immediately. "So it's all good then?" She asked.

Aoi nodded. "Just don't scare me like that again, okay?"

Moira nodded enthusiastically. "Got it!" she called out, the sound breaking the silence of the dark docks.

Aoi couldn't help but smile at her. She reached over and scruffed up Moira's hair, saying "You'll be fine."

"Lay off!" Moira replied with a smile, playfully batting Aoi's hand aside.

"We're not interrupting, are we?"

Aoi and Moira turned to see the speaker, a generously proportioned woman with scruffy red hair, held out of her eyes by a thin black headband. Aoi blinked as she saw the machine-gun in her hand, casually resting on her shoulder with the words "Kei's Power Tool" scrawled along the side. Behind her was a similarly well-built woman with long dark hair that looked to have a bluish tint. She didn't have any obvious weapons, although Aoi couldn't help but notice the cord in her neck-mounted smartgun link. They were both dressed in plain jumpsuits—one red, one blue, matching their hair—although Aoi couldn't help but notice they were cut to emphasize their already well-endowed figures.

"The uh... the Lovely Angels, I believe?" she said, barely regaining their composure. Behind her, she heard a soft "wow" from Moira.

The redhead stepped forwards, speaking a bit too loudly for Aoi's comfort. "The unmistakable, unforgettable Kei Stewart at your service." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at her partner, adding, "and that's Yuri," in a bored tone.

The dark-haired woman frowned and stepped forward, clearing her throat loudly. She spared the redhead a filthy look, then turned and bowed slightly to Aoi. "I presume that you are Miss Nabiki's couriers?"

Aoi nodded. "I have the case here. I was told payment has been handled already."

"You got it," Kei replied loudly. "Give it here," she said, holding out her hand.

Aoi reached down for the suitcase. Suddenly a voice called out "Hold it!" Lights came on at the other end of the wharf, illuminating a group of men in seemingly identical black suits and sunglasses. They were all armed, the weapons ranging from pistols to assault rifles, with one man at the back cradling a light machine-gun. Then one of them stepped forwards and cried, "Hand over the case!"

"I don't believe it," Aoi muttered to herself. Moira slowly edged behind her. She looked back to the Lovely Angels. While Yuri seemed to be worriedly glancing between the case and their assailants, Kei had an eager smile on her face.

"Hey Yuri," the redhead said.

"Yes?" her companion replied.

"What say we teach these guys some respect?"

Yuri turned back to Aoi and Moira. "It might be best if you hid for a second," she recommended, and turned back to the newcomers. Aoi backed away from them slowly, pushing Moira behind her with one hand.

"What are we gonna do?" Moira asked her quietly.

Aoi glanced to the corner of the warehouse, then back to Moira. "When I give the signal, run for the corner." Moira nodded silently.

"Hurry up!" The leader said stepping forwards again.

Kei and Yuri nodded to each other. Without warning, Kei swung her machine-gun down and opened fire. At the same time, Yuri dived to the side, flipping an Ares Folding Machine Gun out from behind her back. Moira immediately broke into a run, leaving Aoi behind. Aoi glanced at the suited thugs; several were already down and probably dead, some were firing back, and a few smart ones had either dived or run for cover. Turning away, she snatched up the case and ran for the corner.

Aoi heard a scream ahead of her. She rounded the corner to find another man in a suit, standing in front of Moira, aiming a pistol at her. Without thinking, Aoi sprang forwards, swinging the case at him. It caught him in the jaw, spinning his head around. To her right she spotted another thug drawing a pistol from his suit. She swung around, flinging the case at him. He caught it instinctively, and she jumped forwards, spinning in midair and kicking him in the face, sending him sprawling.

She reached down to recover the case, but looked up when she heard a grunt of pain. In front of her, Moira had kicked the first thug in the shin. He was bent double, clutching his leg when Moira followed up with a ringing slap that sent him sprawling. The girl looked around to see Aoi's approving smile.

"See? Told you I had skills!" she said cheerily. An instant later her face contorted into a scream and she pointed behind Aoi. Reacting on instinct, Aoi sprang forwards, catching Moira and bearing her to the ground as a spray of bullets passed over them. She spun around, drawing her pistol from her coat and firing. The second thug staggered, glanced down at the neat trio of holes in his shirt, then collapsed backwards.

Aoi turned back to Moira who was huddled up, crying. "Hey... You alright?" The girl quietly nodded. Aoi sighed and sat next to her, trying to ignore the sounds of gunfire coming from around the corner. "It's alright, Moira. This kind of job takes a lot of getting used to. But I think you've got what it takes."

The blonde girl looked up at her. It was eerie to see a crying girl with a dry face and clear eyes. "You think so?"

Aoi nodded. "I think we made the right choice for our hacker."

Moira sniffed out "Thanks," Then caught Aoi in a hug. Aoi wrapped her arms around Moira, holding her close while she cried to herself.

"We're not interrupting, are we?"

Aoi and Moira both looked up to see the Lovely Angels standing before them. Yuri's hair had been messed up, and Kei's jumpsuit was splattered with...

"You're hurt!" Aoi blurted out and abruptly stood up.

"Huh?" Kei looked down at the smear of crimson on her chest. "Nah, it's just a splash."

"We're sorry for the interruption," Yuri said.

"Happens all the time," Kei added, smiling.

Aoi rolled her eyes. She helped Moira to her feet, who stood looking down at the man she'd knocked out earlier. Aoi picked up the case and delicately handed it to Yuri, who bowed. "It was nice doing business with you," the dark-haired woman said.

"Yeah... See you again!" Kei shouted as the pair departed.

"No chance," Aoi said. She put her hand on Moira's shoulder and asked "You okay?" The girl nodded to her. "C'mon, let's go." Moira nodded again, and the pair turned and walked away. "I'll get you a drink," Aoi said.

As if by magic, Moira's cheer suddenly returned. "Can I get a beer?" She asked Aoi.


"A cocktail?"


"Pleeease? I won't tell daddy," she said. She looked at Aoi, who just smiled and shook her head.

As the pair walked off into the distance, Moira asked "Hey Aoi? Do you know what was in that case?"

"Can't remember," she replied as they disappeared into the night.

It was a clear, perfectly still night. The factory grounds were damp with a fresh layer of dew, and the air was crisp and cold. A high concrete fence surrounded the monolithic factory, an aged construction that seemed to sprout pipes from all manner of unlikely places. The only way inside the compound was through the solid steel gates, beyond which was a manned checkpoint leading to the front doors of the factory proper.

A slight swirl of dust was all the warning the security staff had. There was a sudden burst of noise, like a bomb detonating, and a shockwave blasted out from the center of the checkpoint, tearing up the pavement and scattering the guards. In the center stood the Empress Shion, hair billowing out behind her. She was dressed in her full combat gear, although she'd left the ankle-length cloak behind, and had the giant Haloconnen slung over one shoulder via a wide strap. Aoi and Moira stood by her, decked out in their gray armorjackets. Aoi had her hair tied into a tight bun and held her pistol at the ready, while Moira carried her laptop close to her chest.

Aoi held on to Moira as Shion concentrated for a brief second. Her eyes glowed white as she sent out a huge blast of force. It tore up the pavement as it went, streaking towards the factory doors, which were blown inwards and sent scattering like leaves in the wind. The backblast washed over the pair, who turned towards the empty doorway.

"Move," Shion commanded.

Aoi nodded and bolted for the doorway, Moira close behind. The guards had finally regrouped from their initial shock and began firing. Behind her, she could hear shots bouncing off Shion's force field, followed by an explosion marking the end of the guards.

Inside, the factory was like a massive cave. The floor was littered with all manner of work vehicles and machinery. Aoi could see masses of pipes stretching up the walls and across the ceiling, trailing away into the inky darkness of the factory beyond.

She pulled Moira away from the door into a small alcove created by a stack of boxes. "Which way?" she asked.

Moira glanced around in confusion and awe for a second, before regaining her bearings. She had memorized the floorplans prior to their attack, focusing on the shortest route to the mainframe. "That way," she said, pointing to a glass doorway ahead of them.

Aoi nodded and broke into a run again, Moira falling in behind. Ahead of them, the door slid open and a pair of armed guards stepped out. Aoi pushed Moira away and ran on, firing her Baretta as she went. One of the guards dropped immediately, the second spun and fired his rifle at her. The shot barely whizzed past her cheek. Aoi leapt into the air, flicking her legs up one after the other and catching him across the chest, dropping him to the ground.

"You alright?" She called to Moira as the girl caught up with her. Moira nodded quietly, and the two pressed on into the office section.

Aoi and Moira having scattered to find the proper point to hack into the computer systems, Shion unslung the immense Haloconnen and strode forward into the building's depths.

All the masses of exposed pipes, carrying water, steam, and who knew what-all, along with the thick bundles of multicolored power and lighting cables, gave the inside of the factory a faint organic feel, as if one had just walked into the gut of a giant beast. In addition, there were stacks of crates and shipping cases, pallets of unidentifiable supplies, and tall shelving units packed with raw materials, all of which was capable of providing cover for any number foes. On top of that there were the warehouse vehicles, such as forklifts and powered cargo carts, parked here and there, and doing a wonderful job of blocking Shion's line of sight.

All of this managed to give the spacious factory a cluttered feel. She knew it to be a heavy equipment manufacturing center, and a motorized assembly-line ran down the structure's center, surrounded on either side by various automated robots. Elsewhere was the cyberdroid construction center, away from the noise and mess of the factory proper.

Her finger aside the cannon's trigger, the long barrel of the Haloconnen probing ahead for danger, Shion advanced, a swirl of dust and debris marking her defensive shields. Moira's data had shown the building to be guarded by a mixture of human and cybernetic security. She'd already encountered some of the organic agents, and was waiting for the expected run-in with mechanical forces. According to Moira's intel, it wasn't anything serious for her to worry about—several BU-55C combat models and Ebisu-class security 'droids. Stuff she could wreck with her bare hands if she really wanted or needed to. And she probably would, as the Haloconnen was meant for the anti-esper hunter-killers.

The problem was the design of the place. It had multiple levels, and mobiles cranes, catwalks, and gantries crisscrossed the space over her head. She couldn't look everywhere at once, and the diminished lighting created great shadowy areas just perfect for lurking cyberdroids to hide in.

Then she heard it. The oily hiss of hydraulics and the metallic scrape of armor plate on concrete. The sound of something heavy moving out there in the gloom. She froze, raising the Haloconnen to her shoulder and sighting down its length. Somewhere out there was a cyberdroid, a big one, and Shion decided it would be the perfect subject for testing the Haloconnen's stopping power.

A sudden roar and a blue-white flare announced the ignition of the BU-55's flight jets and a moment later the gorilla-like bulk blasted out of the shadows. Shion caught a brief glimpse of gleaming armor plate, red eyes, and a skill virtually split in two to reveal the bristling array of the mouth cannon. Diving to one side, she pulled the trigger on the Haloconnen, the weapon's recoil actually spinning her to one side and sending her sliding back. And then the droid's ion cannon hit home...

For a moment all Shion could see was white spots. Then she blinked her eyes and shook her head, finding herself amid a tangle of smashed crates and equipment carts, with the BU-55C bearing right down on her, it's mouth cannon audibly warming up for a second shot.

Raising the Haloconnen, Shion braced the weapon firmly, tracking the 'droid with the barrel. A moment later she pulled the trigger.

The depleted uranium round virtually vaporized the cyberdroid's chest, sending the shattered machine flying backwards to land sprawling and sparking amid the wreckage of automated equipment. Well, Shion thought to herself. That was certainly impressive. Standing up and stepping over the still-smoking spent shell, Shion shook her head and went in search of her true target.

The door burst open and smacked into the wall, then swung back to the frame. Aoi caught it and pushed it open again, then stepped into the room beyond. It was a long office room with a number of glass-walled cubicles creating a corridor down the middle. Directly ahead of them was a thick transparent door. As they approached it, they could see it had a card reader and keypad.

"Damn," Aoi muttered. She leveled her pistol at the pad before Moira shouted for her to stop.

"Really, you should know better by now," the girl said. Aoi blinked in surprise at being chastened by her. She watched as Moira pulled out her laptop and plugged it into the card reader. She turned back to watch the closed office door, but saw no movement beyond.

"And done!" Moira announced. The door slid open with a quiet hiss. Beyond was a short corridor, and a door with a second card reader at the end. "Really," the girl muttered and shook her head. "You'd think security would be better than this." She sighed and wandered down to the other door.

Aoi shook her head and turned back to the entrance. Ahead of her, the door was slightly ajar. "You'll be okay down there?" Aoi asked over her shoulder, keeping her eyes on the door.

"Of course I will. Even a kid could do this," Moira replied.

"Good. I'll hold this room," Aoi said, keeping her eyes fixed on the door. She raised her pistol at it and slowly stepped forwards.

Without warning one of the glass cubicles beside her shattered and a figure leapt out. Its foot struck her in the chest, staggering her and sending her pistol scattering across the floor. The figure sprung up with an uppercut that she managed to block, and followed it with a thrusting punch that slipped past her head. Aoi flipped backwards off her hands and landed in a low stance to take stock of her assailant.

It was unmistakably a male Lynx, wearing a light blue security uniform, with long, straight reddish-orange hair. It charged down the hall at her. She took the opportunity and swept low, tripping the Lynx as it approached. It fell forwards, sprang off its hands and flipped forwards, landing behind Aoi. They both rose and spun around, the Lynx striking with a backhand. Aoi slipped under the blow and backhanded the synthetic three times, leaving it staggering back. She quickly leapt into the air and kicked it in the chest. The Lynx stumbled back, and resumed its stance, but didn't move.

Aoi watched it carefully as she stepped forwards slowly. It fixed its eyes on her, but briefly darted them to her right. Acting on instinct, she flung herself back a split second before another cubicle window shattered. A second Lynx flew through, barely missing her and landing in the aisle. This one was female and dressed identically, but had long, scruffy black hair.

Both Lynxes immediately sprang forwards, the female punching at her face as its partner closed in. Aoi blocked the attacks, backing up as she did. The two Lynxes stood side by side and struck out at her together. She deftly avoided the male's backhand, but was struck by a kick from the female. They pressed forwards and the female punched at her. She dodged her head to the side, but was hit by a roundhouse kick from the male. She staggered backwards, focusing on the male. He thrust at her with an uppercut which she dodged, but was struck by an overhead punch from the female. Finally the female swept at her head with a crescent kick. Once more she dodged the first attack, only to be tripped by a sweep kick from her partner. She managed to roll back before they could press the attack, but found her back against the door.

"They've been programmed to fight together," she muttered to herself. This wasn't going to be easy.

The Haloconnen boomed as Shion fired at the dim shape of a distant cyberdroid. An echoing explosion ripped through the confines of the now-crowded factory floor, spraying wreckage. Alarms sounded, only adding to the dim, and emergency lights started to cycle, giving a surreal, strobe effect to her surroundings. Bright flashes marked weapon's fire as the Ebisu security 'droids opened up from positions high overhead. Bullets impacted on her esper shields in a constant barrage, hammering her almost to her knees as she worked to action, ejecting the now-empty shell and loading a fresh one into the chamber. Finally she fell back, ducking behind some unknown—and now bullet-ridden—pile of machinery.

Cursing under her breath, Shion made sure the spare magazine was still in its carrying pouch. She'd started with 10 HEAT rounds and had already used three just on general security forces. She needed to even the odds a bit and she needed to do it now. And without using up any more precious cannon rounds—she'd need those later when she finally found the anti-esper hunter-killers.

The concrete under her boots cracked and split, small bits of debris floating into the air as Shion raised her arm. Summoning her vast reserves of esper energy into a tight knot, she focused her Power on the open palm of her hand. A moment later, the already shattered concrete depressed several inches in a wide circle around her, she unleashed her Power up into the factory's heights, the concentrated esper energy ripping through the catwalks with frightening ease.

The entire building seemed to shake with the force of her attack, as bits of wreckage collapsed all around her amid showers of sparks and sprays of steam. Inwardly, Shion swore. The sprinkler system had just kicked in, and now a steady spray of water only added to the mess. And she still hadn't found her target...

Shifting her power around, Shion pushed off from the ground and rose into the air, letting herself drift forward. Had Moira's intel been wrong? Was this just another cyberdroid research and design facility?

The blue-white flash of a laser answered her question.

For a moment all was in stark relief. The struts and pipes of the factory. The dangling cables and overhead gantries. Clouds of steam and smoke. And the massive shape of a tall and twisted-looking cyberdroid. It was a wet red color, with exposed artificial muscles and wiring, visible due to the total lack of armor plating. Shion dropped as soon as she saw it, her eyes blinking away afterimages from the near-miss of the laser.

And there, in the back of her mind, she could feel it. The subtle yet insistent buzz of the cyberdroid's esper brain. It was there, active, and emphatic—and if she could feel it, then it certainly could feel her...

Raising the Haloconnen, she took aim, just as a great weight slammed into her back.

"How you doing out there?" Moira's voice came drifting out of the mainframe's room.

"Fine!" Aoi shouted back. "Just peachy!"

The words had barely escaped her mouth when she found herself under attack again. The Lynxes, now on either side of her struck together. She blocked a backhand while suffering a kick to her gut, then managed to avoid both the body thrust and accompanying roundhouse kick from the pair. Aoi knew that the main disadvantage of synths in hand-to-hand was their limited number of moves available to them and a lack of imagination. By now they had gone through all their attack patterns, but Aoi was still unable to effectively fight back. She could feel herself weakening. By now, it was just a matter of time.

They pressed in, both striking with front kicks that struck Aoi and pushed her back through a cubicle window. She landed groaning on a desk. The female Lynx stepped through the door and thrust down with a punch to her chest. She caught its fist and swung her foot up, catching it in the side of the head. Pressing her sudden advantage, she dragged it forwards by its hand and kneed it in the chest. The Lynx pressed back away from her, giving her the chance to spring up on the desk and sweep at its head. The Lynx barely dodged the blow and backed cautiously out of the cubicle.

"I get it," Aoi muttered as she watched the pair in the corridor carefully. Together they can beat me, but not if I can take them on separately. The male Lynx stepped into the cubicle, giving her the chance she needed. She jumped out the shattered window, kicking the female in the chest on the way down. As she landed she delivered three swift side kicks to its chest. She broke off the attack, ducking back as the male surged out of the cubicle with a strong punch. He rounded the corner and struck again, keeping Aoi in place as his partner took his side.

Not this time, she thought. The female punched at her and she deftly sidestepped. She blocked the incoming roundhouse and struck back, shattering the male's nose with a blindingly fast backhand. As it clutched its face she swept low, ducking the female's overhead punch and knocking her down with a sweep kick. It sprang to its feet as the male turned its attention to her, once again catching her between them.

She saw the attacks before they were launched. The male swept high with a crescent kick as the female went low with a legsweep. She sprung forwards, under the male's leg, and sprung up, kicking it twice in the chest. She flicked her head back to the female and swept her leg up and over, catching it with her foot as it stood. She pressed forwards, lashing out with a trio of backhands that left it staggering and defenseless. She jumped forwards, grabbing its head and swinging around, dropping them both to the ground. She quickly flipped to her feet, but the female remained motionless.

The male let out a savage hiss and charged forwards. It attacked her with a rapid series of blows, catching her off-guard as she turned to face it. Aoi collapsed to the floor, trying to focus through the pain. She saw it swing around and drop to the ground, bringing its foot down at her. She barely managed to roll out of the way, and both fighters regained their footing.

Aoi breathed heavily as she faced the Lynx down the corridor. Its face was a bloodied mess and its uniform was torn open. Aoi didn't need to look to realize that she was in a similar state. She nodded slowly to the Lynx and it stepped forward, seeming to understand the need to finish the fight, one way or another.

It lashed out with a punch which she blocked, the blocked her own return. It struck back, kicking at her midsection. Aoi barely dodged the blow and sent a side kick at its chest. The Lynx caught her foot and she sprung, twisting in its hands and sweeping her free leg around to strike its face. It surged forwards and swept high with a roundhouse kick. She crouched low then sprang up, flipping backwards and sweeping her legs upwards to catch it under the chin. The Lynx was sent flying and landed flat on its back. As she watched, it struggled to regain its feet, but collapsed in a heap.

Aoi finally relaxed and collapsed against a cubicle wall. She slid down to the ground and sat in silence, looking over the carnage in the room. A few seconds later Moira reappeared from the mainframe room. "All done!" she called out cheerfully before noticing the mess. She let out a gasp of shock and ran forwards to crouch by Aoi's side.

"Gem, are you okay? What happened here? You won? You're not hurt, are you?" The girl blurted out her questions and concerns, but Aoi simply nodded her head.

"I'm fine, Moira. Just don't ask me how." The girl nodded, a nervous smile breaking across her face. "C'mon," Aoi said. "Shion's probably done by now." She reached down for her pistol and struggled to her feet.

As if on cue, a shudder traveled through the building and dust fell from the ceiling. Distant alarms started to wail, and an emergency light began flashing.

"Here," Moira replied, helping Aoi up. "You know, you really should be more careful," she said as she placed Aoi's arm around her shoulder.

Aoi looked at her friend for the first time as a young woman, not simply as her employer's daughter. She nodded, a smile breaking out on her face. "I'll try to."

"Well you'd better," Moira replied, pouting. Aoi gave a quiet chuckle. Together, the two made their way out of the office.

Picking herself up out of the wrecking she was currently entangled in, Shion shook her head, stands of hair falling across her face. This is why she so often used heavy weapons on assaults like this. So she could wrap herself in protective shields and not have to worry about dividing her Power between attack and defense. And it looked like her shields had just saved her from meeting the same fate as Anne Hardy's ill-fated coworkers.

"Autocannons and physical weapons" Stone had said. Like hell.

She could see two of them now, their exposed muscle systems the color of fresh blood, the wiring black and bright yellow. They stood tall and erect, nightmarish mockeries of the human form, with brains torn from a fellow esper and given one purpose: kill people like herself. And that made them much more dangerous than any mere cyberdroid. They didn't have simple logic-tree "yes/no/then" computer systems, but living human brains inside those shells. They weren't cyberdroids, but a form of full-body, full-conversion cyborg.

She'd have to both outthink and outfight them.

So she vanished.

If the two esper-killers could track her esper signature, then they knew exactly where she was—teleportation wasn't the most subtle way to travel. But it would give her time. Time to locate her enemy... take aim... and fire.

The one problem with the Haloconnen, Shion decided, was the recoil. She just didn't weigh enough to absorb it. Granted it blew gaping holes in things, but it also sent her skidding back a few feet every time she pulled the trigger. And she had no idea if she'd actually hit one of the esper-killers or not. Working the bolt action, Shion glanced about the cluttered confines of the factory, trying to catch any hint of her opponents.

The searing crack of a laser answered her question. At least one of the pair was still active.

Then came the chattering of an autocannon, rounds punching though machinery and supports all around her. Swearing under her breath, Shion vanished again, reappearing up near the ceiling and quickly firing at the bright flash of the 'borg's cannon.

There was a satisfying explosion, then quiet. Shion dropped back down, ejecting the spent magazine, and reaching for a new one. Had she destroyed it? Was it still active? And where was the other one? Setting the fresh magazine in place, she slapped it home, eyes and ears open for any hint of movement.


She turned, raising the cannon, to see one of the cyborgs standing in an open aisle, it's body having opened up like some sort of strange bio-mechanical flower. Then everything went red.


Her head hurt, her vision consisted of drifting spots, there was a ringing in her ears, and all she could smell was something burning. The cannon seemed lighter somehow, while something heavy lay across her legs. Coughing, Shion tried to rise, the concrete hot under her gloves hands.

What had she been hit with? A wave of her hand sent whatever-it-was trapping her legs flying, while a second motion pushed superheated debris away from her face. Some sort of heat weapon was all she could figure. Something an esper, no matter how powerful they were, might not be able to deflect. Blinking to try and get rid of the spots, Shion could see smoldering bits of factory all around her. Whatever it was, it covered a wide area when used.

Getting to her feet hurt, but not as much as the impact of the hunter-killer's mouth laser. She went tumbling again, losing her grip on the cannon, finally fetching up against a sold-steel support beam.

Coughing at the smoke in her lungs, her eyes watering from the aftereffects of the heat weapon, Shion gritted her teeth, using the support column to help her stand. The thick beam groaned and bent to one side as she wrapped lay upon layer of her Power around herself, the floor under her feet cracking from the concentration of esper energy.

"Outfight and outthink," eh? So far she'd done nether. The 'borgs were as fast as she was, and were equipped with some highly effective anti-esper weaponry to boot. She needed to get close, stop playing range games with a pair of machines equipped with advanced targeting systems and multi-spectrum optical sensors.

Finally able to see—the flash from the heat weapon had done an excellent job of blinding her for a few moments, Shion glanced around the seeming empty warehouse. Now where had they gone? With all the smoke, steam, and sprinkler water, her ability to see much of anything was pretty much nonexistent.

See anything? Wait a minute...

Swearing softly, Shion stood up straight and took a deep breath. She didn't need to see her opponents to find them. She just needed to sense them.

Closing her eyes, Shion opened up her esper senses, looking for the sharp buzzing that marked the cyborg's transplanted esper brains. And there they were. Both of them. Both equally strong and active. And one was over there... and another was right here.

She appeared almost on top of her foe, catching a glimpse of a one-legged figured crawling along the factory floor. Forming her Power around her fist, she slammed her arm straight down through the torso, then drew back and punched again, eliciting a howl of pain and anger from the 'borg, along with a thick spray of noxious fluids. Kicking off, Shion then took to the air, wasting no time in pointing her open hand at her foe and unleashing a powerful blast of telekinetic force that slammed the crippled machine into the floor. One last mournful cry and it fell silent.

Breathing heavily, Shion floated quietly over the corpse of the anti-esper weapon. Apparently she'd hit this one the Haloconnen,which meant the other one was totally unharmed—and still active. Dropping to a nearby catwalk, she once again closed her eyes, searching for the signature that marked the other hunter-killer unit.

It was... right below her?

Without even pausing, Shion vanished as the 'borg's heat weapon virtually vaporized the catwalk on which she'd been standing. She reappeared right next to the glistening red machine, wrapped in defensive shields, her kick connecting with the cyborg's right shoulder. It was staggered, but seemed otherwise unhurt, responding with a backhanded swing with one arm—an arm that now sported a trio of long blades. Ducking the shot, Shion unleashed a powerful blow to the thing's middle, her hand punching deep into synthetic muscle. It groaned loudly and shuddered at the impact, seemingly stunned from the force of her attack. Not bothering to wait, Shion pushed deeper, summoning all of her energy and Power into a single surge which blasted the towering cybernetic terror into shreds.

She hurt all over. Her head ached, she was covered with sweat, grime, smoke, and gore. Her eyes watered, her nose itched, and her mouth was dry. She could practically feel the bruises forming on her legs and elsewhere. But she'd won. At least this round anyway.

Taking a moment to get her breath back Shion slowly staggered off to where she'd left Aoi and Moira. It was time to go home.

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