Lora didn't look nervous, standing in the security queue. Not in any outward sense. Her cyborg shell didn't sweat. And she was easily able to school her expression into bored detachment. But behind her sunglasses, her eyes darted back and forth. Waiting for something to happen. She should be safe. The timing of her departure from S-T had been carefully timed. And even her "exit interview" e-mail would only be sent once she was in the air on the Neo York to Hong Kong Sub-Orbital. But still, right about now, things had to be happening pretty fast back at the arcology. She hoped that the extraction of Johnny "The Wrench" Carstairs and Raven's own escape had gone off as well as her own departure. By necessity, Raven's exit would be far more dramatic than her own. But still, something could go wrong here. You never knew.

Maybe altering her appearance and ID was going overboard in the paranoia department. After all, the higher-ups at Shiroko-Tsuhi didn't even know she was leaving yet. But Lora didn't feel like leaving it to chance, even if it wouldn't keep S-T from figuring out where she had gone forever. If nothing else, the changes and subterfuge should definitely delay them until it no longer mattered. Instead of white-blonde hair worn free down to her hips, Lora had dyed it black and pulled it into a classic bun high on the back of her head, with a tail hanging down in back and sprigs of hair escaping from around her face. Even her eyebrows were dyed black, and her skin had been darkened to the point where she looked like a classic Latin beauty rather then her normal Nordic appearance. Rather than try and dress inconspicuously, Lora had dressed in a style that would catch the eye of any male within sight of her. A dress with a plunging neckline and an open jacket that framed her assets nicely would distract many from her face. She didn't normally wear much jewelry, so naturally, several bracelets jangled musically at her wrists, a pair of teardrop chrome earrings nearly brushed her shoulders and a gold chain almost disappeared into her dˇcolletage. In fact, she could tell that the guard up ahead kept trying to steal glimpses of her in between looking at people's luggage. Hide in plain sight. Classic trick. You were looking for a blonde with blue eyes and pale skin? Sorry, don't remember seeing her. But oh my, that Spanish beauty!

It was Lora's turn to go through the scanners. This was where things might get dicey, if they did. She held out her ID to the guard, who noted that Lora—or to use the name on the ID, Connie Martinez—was registered in the UNA TSA database as a cyborg. And Jinsei corporation had paid for her medical bills. Sanato had assured her that the fake ID he had acquired through Asagiri would hold up to scrutiny, even if they ran a check through the net.

"Okay, I have to ask you this as a formality, but all this is correct and up to date, right, Miss Martinez?"

"That is correct," Lora said in a voice that she pitched slightly lower than she was used to speaking and with a pronounced Spanish accent.

"No weapons or anything hidden internally?"

'Connie' smiled demurely at him, "No. I'm not fond of violence." Lora amused herself with the knowledge that he was only doing this so that he could get her to stick around a few moments longer.

"Okay," He said, handing her back her ID from the machine that goes ping. "Have a nice flight, then."

"I'm sure I will," she said, taking her small carry-on duffle from the other security guard who handed it to her, having gone through it and found nothing.

30 minutes later, Lora Doubet, former cyborg asset of Shiroko-Tsuhi, was out over the Atlantic on a ballistic arc away from her former employers and toward a new stage of her life.

Dressed in casual, but practical sweatshirt and jeans, Raven lay back on her bed, doing her best not to let her nervousness show. It was the big day, and there were so many things that could go wrong... foremost among them Raven herself goofing and tipping her watchers that something was up. Her part in this entire thing was small, really, but like all the cogs, it was vital, and her move had to be timed precisely.

What do I do now? I can't just sit here. It'll arouse suspicion. Sculpting? With my frame of mind I'll just mess up. TV maybe? Too boring. One last time with Duncan? Oh please. She sighed. Cripes. I can't think of anything. Not that there's much fun to be had around here at the best of times anyway. She looked around the room, at the books and raven sculptures on the shelves. She'd given the stuff she cared for most to Lora two weeks ago, ostensibly to decorate her apartment but really for safekeeping, but still... I'm going to miss this stuff.

"Raven?" said Marcus, Raven's latest corporate minder, who'd replaced Aasha in the rotation. Raven hadn't been told why Aasha was no longer around, and she hoped the disappearance of the UNA secret agent wasn't due to her discovery. As for Marcus, he had the appearance of a big Germanic man and a curt, no-nonsense demeanor, and didn't seem impressed by his charge at all. "Get up and get ready. You've got firearm training in five minutes."

Davies to the rescue, Raven thought. Lately the head of Neo York's Psychokinetic Management division had filled the esper's schedule with training activities, most of which were sprung on her at the last moment, perhaps to keep her off-balance. Raven welcomed the surprise now; it got her away from the cameras, and gave her something to do that wouldn't give away her plans.

Opticam was wonderful stuff, especially if you wanted to remain hidden. Totally hidden. It didn't so much as bend light, but in fact, refracted it, so what ever was behind you was now in front of you, and from a distance of more than four meters or so, it made you practically invisible. However, it had one major flaw, as Shion as now rather acutely aware—it had no insulative capabilities what-so-ever.

Sitting on a rocky outcropping in the middle of Iceland was not Shion's idea of an enjoyable time. Worse yet, she had been sitting there for hours on end, several days in a row, crouched behind a set of macronoculars, staring at what had to be the most desolate Shiroko-Tsuhi installation she'd ever seen. All to locate a single mechanic who's major claim to fame was being one of Raven Clark's oldest and closest friends. At least she had some hot tea to keep her warm.

But it has all been worth it. She'd learned that Johnny Carstairs, a.k.a. "Johnny the Wrench," lived off-post, in a rather bland apartment building. Which wasn't nearly as well-guarded as the S-T facility. Which would make extracting him so much easier.

So now she was waiting for Johnny to leave for home. It was a Friday, and she really doubted he intended to stay late. He wasn't exactly punctual, but she also knew he wasn't all that happy with being stuck out here in Iceland. She checked her watch. It was a little after 6:00 PM and still bright out. The sun wouldn't be setting for some time. Months in fact. No "cover of darkness" op for her. She'd have to move fast and give S-T little-to-no time to react. Speed was going to be of the essence.

There. His car was now leaving the compound. And, there was the following security car. The security vehicle meant there might be some attempt to stop her, but still, this was going to be her best chance to extract Mr. Carstairs.

Stepping outside of her opticam tent, Shion adjusted the fall of her optical cloak. The full-length garment covered most of her body, while the integrated headset allowed her to actually see. Hopefully, she'd be on top of the security team before they even knew she was there.

With a loud bang of displaced air, Shion teleported almost on top of the trailing S-T security car. A moment later the vehicle was sent spinning end-over-end as she swept it off the road with an almost dismissive flick of her wrist. Not even bothering to watch it fall, Shion turned reached out with her Power, lifting Johnny's car off of the road and holding it steady. Appearing next to it with another bang, she simply tore the door off and reached inside.

Inside, a short, slightly portly man with close-cropped beard and hair was frantically trying to unbuckle his seat belt, but the trembling of his hands made it impossible. Seeing Shion, he screamed in terror and tried to inch away from her in the seat.

Shion debated slapping him into unconsciousness, but then thought better of it. Raven wouldn't be too happy to have a broken and bleeding Johnny dumped at her feet. So she'd have to do this the hard way.

"Hey!" she snapped, "Do you want to see Raven again or not?"

"What... what are you talking about?" stuttered the man.

"Raven sent me." Shion replied. "And I'm here to get you out. So you're coming with me. Now."

"What? I talked to her just yesterday! HELP!"

Well... that answered that. Ripping the seat belt out with one hand, she grabbed a fistful of stained overalls with the other. Pushing away from the car, she held Carstairs firmly, letting his car fall back to the road. And now...

"Let me go!" Johnny the Wrench punched ineffectually at the Empress' clamshell breastplate, trying to get her to let go, too terrified to realize that it would mean a thirty foot drop onto asphalt.

She thought of a place she knew in Hong Kong. A place isolated enough to deal with the side effects of a long-distance teleport. She pictured it in her mind's eye. Fixed it firmly, and then moved there, vanishing from Iceland with a hollow pop as air rushed to fill the space she'd just occupied.

Holding the M-24 assault carbine close, Raven sighted the weapon downrange and fired, pulverizing an evil cardboard target that had been rushing her threateningly. She snapped the weapon to aim at another onrushing target and fired once more, filling its chests with holes until her weapon clicked empty.

"Raven Clark, pay attention, damn it!" yelled the instructor from behind her. He handed her another clip with a frown on his face. "What happened to controlled bursts? Shit, you knew as much even before you got assigned to me, what the hell is making you forget?"

Raven's first instinct was a nervous 'sorry', but she suppressed it. She hadn't been meek in months now, and if she started now it'd be suspicious. She quirked an eyebrow. "I'm just feeling extra destructive today."

"Extra.... RAVEN CLARK! You're here to learn proper weapons handling, and I'm going to MAKE you learn!" he snarled. He pointed downrange. "Now, you'd better apply yourself, or else I'm going to hit the taser every time you mess up, got me?"

"Whatever," Raven said, sighting the weapon downrange. She suppressed an urge to swat the man, and instead concentrated on downing the man-shaped cardboard with precise bursts. It was destructive enough and besides, getting shocked unconscious would put a crimp in her evening plans, after all...

Thirty more seconds Raven thought, as she glanced at her watch. Thirty more seconds—twenty-five now—and she'd blow this joint for good. She hoped. She would. This wasn't a time to be defeatist. Twenty seconds.

"Looking at your watch AGAIN?" The instructor grabbed Raven by the shoulder and roughly spun her around. Fifteen. "You still have one more hour to go, miss, and since you don't seem to be paying attention, I'm tempted to extend your session for another hour."

Ten. "Whatever." Raven shoved the empty gun into the instructor's chest, who grabbed it dumbly.

Five. "What the fuck are you doing?" yelled the instructor. "Did I tell you you were done with the M-24?"

Zero. "Guess what, Sherlock—I don't give a fuck anymore," Raven replied, a moment before she moved.

She ripped through non-existence in a way she hadn't in weeks, teleporting across hundreds of miles in one nanosecond. For one, glorious moment she was under the bright sun of Nevada, sand under her sneakers, blue sky over her head, and delicious heat over her skin.

Then agony lanced into her from her spine, setting each of her nerves on fire, driving her to her knees with a loud, anguished scream that seemed it would never stop. But it did, as blackness took her.

Robin Faldo stood watching the empty ground in front of him, as motionless as a statue, a skill developed by long experience in the sniper role, and enhanced by his artificial constitution. He appeared to be a Caucasian in his mid-twenties, medium-height but with an athletic frame, and a short brown ponytail. Appearances deceived; Faldo was in his 47th year and his third cyborg body, all courtesy of the old Canuck counter-terror unit JTF2, and the unified UNA Delta Force unit it had been merged into. All that made him one of the best freelance mercenaries in the business; not only was he a military full-body conversion (although, by now, an old model), he had the sort of calm decisiveness that only came with decades of experience, and made him an extraordinary unit leader.

Suddenly, there was a loud WHOOMP of displaced air, and sand was thrown all about, some of it striking Faldo's face directly. The experienced cyborg didn't even blink; self-cleaning optics came into play, ejecting the foreign material efficiently. Faldo's vision cleared in time to see a long-legged, black-haired woman topple forward facefirst in the sand, with a ragged scream of pain.

"The bird is on schedule," said Faldo. "Let's go, Nick."

Nick Dawson was a tall, heavyset black man in his early thirties, with not a gram of fat on his handsome, muscular physique. Unlike Faldo, he was what he appeared, mostly; muscle augmentation, reflex boosts, and other combat cyberware were not immediately visible, but most of his body was natural. Dawson was also one of the best combat freelancers in the country, with several years of combat experience among an elite Special Forces unit—as a combat medic. He was a fully licensed medical doctor to boot, a skill that made him far more valuable than his physical abilities alone might otherwise suggest.

The doctor knelt next to Raven, and took her pulse quickly at her wrist, avoiding the collar. "Strong and fast, but slowing down. The bastards didn't sedate her, they shocked her 'till she went down. I almost wish they'd show up so I can shoot their sorry asses."

"Careful what you wish for, Nick. You just might get it."

Working quickly, Nick had a small toolkit open and was fiddling with Raven's collar; Sanato's intel included how the thing worked and how it could be removed. First he slid a sheet of plastic between the collar and the smooth, creamy skin of Raven's neck; if the sedative was triggered now, the needle would not be able to deliver its payload. Then he located the hidden closing mechanism. He slid another sheet of plastic to protect Raven's neck, then he selected a small rotary saw and got to work.

Faldo looked away, scanning the horizon for any incoming Shiroko-Tsuhi personnel or other onlookers, shutting out the sound of the rotary saw grinding against the collar's metal automatically. He'd heard far worse in his long military career, many of it with an accompaniment of screams. Dawson worked quickly and expertly; it took him a little over a minute before he called out to Faldo that he was done.

The collar was gone.

Sanato had warned of a backup sedative system, so Dawson checked the young woman's pulse, making sure she wasn't harmed by the release of the drug. Meanwhile, Faldo picked up the band of metal and hurled it away, as hard as his actuators would let him—which was very hard. He watched the thing fly and land in the sand, then he turned to Nick. "Strip her."

Nodding, the doctor cut open Raven's clothes with a scalpel and pulled them off the esper's body. An extreme precaution, perhaps, but neither Dawson nor Faldo had lived so long by being careless, and neglecting the possibility of a tracking device hidden in Raven's clothing certainly was careless.

Almost despite himself, Faldo's eyes roamed over the flesh of Raven's full figure, long legs, and gentle face. He whistled. "Sanato wasn't kidding when he said she was pretty." He threw a blanket over the young woman, then he picked her up. "Let's move. Cover me."

The two freelancers bore Raven over a hundred yards to their SUV. Faldo took the wheel and put the van in gear quickly, barely giving Dawson enough time to buckle the esper up. Sanato had warned them that Shiroko-Tsuhi could quickly track the location of Raven's collar, and that they'd need to move fast to elude the search parties that were soon to come. Thankfully, there were no major Shiroko-Tsuhi facilities near Las Vegas—but with an asset of such value, the corporation was sure to spend whatever was needed to get a recovery party there quickly.

Looking absently at her screens, Kimiko Harinawa munched on a Twinkie. She was in charge of handling Psychokinetic Management's communications from Central Control; it was a small department but one of the busiest when things heated up. 'Central Control' was how the nexus of all of Shiroko-Tsuhi's communications, located in Japan, was nicknamed by just about everyone who dealt with it. Signals from all over the world, originating in surveillance cameras, spy satellites, tracking devices, and electronics of all sorts transited through here, either to be routed to their appointed destinations or kept in record in one of Shiroko-Tsuhi's massive mainframe databases. Every bit of data was also sent out to two alternate destinations for backup, including, it was rumored, an alternate Central Control in a remote location ready to take over if the original was disabled or compromised. Kimiko did not have the clearance to know if it was true, or even where the backups were.

"Oh my God!" came a voice on the radio. It was Terry, one of the surveillance techs from the Neo York department. One of those assigned to watching Raven Clark, the corp's strongest esper, a job he enjoyed far too much. But the man's lazy drawl and atrociously accented Japanese had turned into a panicked, high-pitched squeal that was no less atrociously accented.

"This is Central Control, Neo York, what's going on?" asked Kimiko professionally.

"The esper—Raven—she's gone."

"Gone?" Thinking fast, Kimiko sent the mental impulse through her datajack that brought up the tracker map, even as she asked the tech for details. "What do you mean, gone?"

"She just went off the camera and the tracker," replied the tech. "Teleportation, maybe?"

"Bozo," mumbled Kimiko under her breath, as she found the ping that represented the tracer on Raven Clark's collar on the map. UNA, Nevada, Las Vegas, she noted as the map zoomed in. "Hey, Vasquez!" she called out. "Do you have any eyes pointing anywhere near the coordinates I'm sending you?"

The Spanish man who handled the spy satellites funneled the data through his own datajack before replying, "It's your lucky day, Harinawa. Line sixty-four."

If there was an esper escape or extraction in progress, it wouldn't be anybody's lucky day—but as the screen came up, Kimiko realized that she just might be in line for a promotion that might let her find out if all this talk of the backup Central Control were true. The spy satellite revealed only empty desert save for discarded clothes, footsteps in the sands, and a dark red SUV that was just leaving the camera's sight. "Vasquez, track that SUV and don't lose it if you value your job," called Kimiko. Mentally she dialed up Araki's office, tagging the call with the most urgent markings the system had. "That's the most important thing you'll ever do in your life."

"Be quiet." Shion said crossly.

Johnny swallowed and nodded, staying silent.

Shion sighed. This she really didn't need. Normally she was able to hand over an extraction upon arrival, but that hadn't been possible in this case. Instead she was stuck with hauling Johnny Carstairs across half of Hong Kong to the meeting point Ling Ling had arraigned. Which wouldn't have been so bad—if Mr. Carstairs hadn't nearly vomited on her shoes upon arrival. He'd also screamed bloody murder, nearly punched her, or tried to, and had gone into a panicked frenzy when she'd searched him for the inevitable tracker paranoid corps placed on valuable personnel. Actually, in that respect, Carstairs was lucky. Sometimes they implanted it.

Holding tightly to Johnny's upper arm, she steered him to their destination—a rather bland-looking apartment building near the harbor. it didn't look like much, but it was one of the more secure independent buildings in all of Hong Kong. A room for the night cost quite a bit—but you could be sure virtually no one would find you while you slept. The perfect place to stash Mr. Carstairs while waiting for Raven to arrive.

Approaching the rather drab structure, she wasn't surprised to see a shadow detach itself from one wall and step out to meet them. The figure was dressed in tight-fitting black synth-leather from neck to toe, face obscured by nightvision goggles and a rebreather, the slender form of a SIG 2000 cradled in one arm.

"It's about time."

Shion settled for giving her sister a shrug. "As much as I hate to admit it, the average corporation does not set their schedules according to my needs."

Marta snickered and gave Johnny a quick glance. "We've got a room inside." she said with a jerk of her thumb. "Let's get him off the street."

Johnny kept quiet as the figure vanished back into the shadows. Shion tugged on his arm again—making him wince, she was far stronger than she looked, and then led him to a side door. Inside were two more people, one was a tall, long-haired, Chinese man dressed in an overcoat, while the other was an Asian woman with a thick mop of fiery orange hair wearing a suit of partial combat armor. While the man had his hands in his pockets, the woman cradled some organic-looking weapon Johnny didn't recognize.

Nether said a word as Shion entered, instead the man opened another door, and stepped back. Johnny followed the Empress further into the building, finally stopping outside what he presumed to be an apartment door. A short knock later, and the was door opened by what had to be the most beautiful Chinese woman Johnny'd ever seen.

"Miss Nys, Mr. Carstairs." The woman nodded to the two of them and gestured to the couch. "Please, make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything?"

Johnny tried to find his voice. He heard the Empress request tea and did his best not to stare at the woman's tapering ears... or her obvious bust line. Her archaic clothing, which was belted tight at the waist, wasn't helping. So... "Beer?" he finally managed.

A moment later he had been handed a dark green bottle with the words "Tsing Tao" on the label. It was smooth enough, although a bit watery, but it was cold and helped calm his nerves. In fact, it was so good he had another... and then another, all the while carefully not listening to the Empress and the woman (whose name was apparently "Ling Ling") talk quietly back and forth. Even the rapid knocking at the door felt like a welcome distraction from his present situation.

"How is she?" asked Robin as the doctor approached him, interrupting the cyborg's silent vigil at the window of the old, disaffected warehouse where the pair had set up their temporary base of operation.

"Sleeping," replied Dawson, leaning against the wall next to Faldo, "but she's fine. I took a blood test and there shouldn't be more than a couple hours left on the sedative."

"Good," Faldo said, not turning from his watch. Then he frowned. "Shit."

"What is it?"

"That man across the street" said Faldo, stepping away from the window. "I've seen him before. It's the third time he passes in front of this place."

"Think we've been made?"

The cyborg nodded. "Wake her up," he ordered.

"It's a risk," Dawson objected. "She's sensitive, we don't know how she'd react to an adrenaline shot."

"It'll beat whatever the corp has in mind for her if she falls back into their loving arms," Faldo replied, going to the dark red SUV to rummage into the trunk. He came out bearing a heavy assault rifle, with an underslung, single-shot 20mm assault cannon. "We need her to bail us out if she can, or at least alert enough to run off. Do what you can."

He tossed the rifle to Dawson, who quickly caught it and nodded. The doctor went back to the makeshift bed they had laid Raven, clothed in a ballistic jumpsuit and sleeping peacefully, heedless of the danger she was in. The black man took the heavy adrenaline syringe from his black bag and filled it, dosing carefully. Then he held the needle up and, in a smooth, powerful movement borne of long medical and martial practice, he plunged it into Raven's heart.

Raven's awakening was an abrupt, instant thing, bringing with it intense, aching pain in all of her limbs. But the esper and pain were old acquaintances, and Raven shoved it aside by sheer force of will, sitting up in the bed. Her vision slowly focused on a big, black-skinned man hovering over her concernedly. Memory of the recent past struck her, and quickly her hands went up to her neck... and found the plasticky texture of the ballistic cloth. Hands trembling in excitement and the aftereffects of adrenaline, she unzipped the top of the jumpsuit and ran her hand along her neck, encountering only smooth skin.

She laughed. She wanted to stand up and dance, but trying to move made her head spin, so she contented herself with falling back into the bed giggling. I'm free! She laughed, like she had back in the days of the Zone after looking for one of her puzzle pieces for days and finding it only after thoroughly emptying the room of all its furniture. I'm really free!

"Miss Clark—I'm afraid we're not out of the woods yet," said the black man politely, but urgently.

Over his shoulder, she saw an athletic white man, holding a rifle so massive it seemed almost comical in his hand, approach them. "Miss Clark. I'm Robin Faldo, this is Nick Dawson. We were sent by Sanato to retrieve you, but it seems Shiroko-Tsuhi has located us earlier than we had hoped. Can you teleport us out?"

Raven nodded, then frowned and concentrated, trying to gather her Power. It came, slowly, sluggishly, like viscous molasses where it would normally be liquid quicksilver. She tried to shape it in the required form, but as she tried to form one part the other slid away from her grasp, and she was unable to bring it all to bear on the task. Her eyes snapped open in alarm. "I can't. I can't control my power right."

Dawson nodded. "Must be the sedative or the adrenaline. I was afraid of that."

Faldo swore. "How far do you think you can do?"

Raven expertly evaluated how much Power she could control at once, and shook her head impotently. "Forty, fifty yards—and not with either of you. That's not gonna get us far."

"No kidding," Faldo objected. "Guess it's the old fashioned solution. Nick, get the car. Miss Clark—" He tossed Raven a thick vest; the esper identified it as a bulletproof Spectra shield. She sat up and slid it on. Faldo handed her a Sig 763—a quality, easily controllable assault rifle with integrated laser sighting and scope. "Think you can handle this?"

Raven nodded and cocked the weapon, a fierce gleam in her eyes. I'll be damned if I let Shiroko-Tsuhi capture me other than over my cold, dead body, she thought. She stood.

She stumbled woozily, and Faldo shot out a hand to stabilize her. "Careful there, Miss Clark. Hurry." He hustled her inside the SUV, the engine already roaring to life.

Suddenly the three doors and several windows of the warehouse crashed open simultaneously as black-armored riflemen stormed in, weapons trained on the SUV, but not opening fire. Dawson swore. "They must've been monitoring us on a laser mike. Rob, I think we sucked a bit there."

"Let them suck on this," Faldo said, aiming a large-bored weapon out of the back of the trunk, towards the smashed garage doors where a large knot of corporate stormtroopers were running in. The launcher let out three soft 'whoomp' sounds as grenades arced to land in the soldiers' midst. Their timers precisely set through Faldo's smartgun link, the concussion grenades detonated all within the same half-second and threw corporate soldiers to and fro. Dawson lost no time in putting the SUV into gear and turning it around, forcing Faldo to hang on for dear life to keep from being ejected forcibly.

The SUV rolled across the area of sprawled guards. A sickening crunch heralded the truck's passage right over one soldier's limb. Dawson cursed again as he weaved between two heavy APCs maneuvering to block the garage doors, grazing one and drawing sparks as armored plate struck armored plate. Hitting the gas, the doctor sped away; behind the SUV, three sleek Shiroko-Tsuhi interceptor cars gave chase. Hidden panels in the lead car's front slid open, and the barrels of twin heavy machine guns perked out.

"Damn it!" Faldo cursed, slamming for the trunk doors closed. Even the armored SUV's paneling would strain against this heavy firepower, but no shots came. Apparently, the Shiroko-Tsuhi men were on a recovery mission for now, and were unwilling to risk damaging their precious esper asset.

"Robin, they've blocked the road," Dawson said, spotting two APCs parked across the street ahead, blocking them off completely, with riflemen lined behind. He slammed the brakes, took a sharp turn right, and ran straight through a chain-link fence and onto a warehouse's parking lot, the interceptor cars in hot pursuit, the lighter vehicles quickly catching up.

Faldo cursed, rummaged through his sports bag, and came up with a Steyr anti-vehicular cannon. As he looked up, his eyes met Raven's grim gaze. He gave her a devil-may-care grin—which she returned—and turned back. He popped an opening in the armored rear window just large enough to let the gun through.

The interceptor cars were fast and maneuverable, but in order to achieve this agility they had had to make a sacrifice—armor. Faldo's first shot with the Steyr ripped through the front car's engine block; the second went right through the front windshield. The car swerved wildly, dropping out, and Faldo didn't try to figure out if it had lost its engine or its driver—instead he aimed for the second car.

The loud staccato of heavy machinegun fire prompted Faldo to jump away from the trunk. Several rounds slammed into the trunk door, three of them penetrating to fly into the back seat. Alarmed, Faldo turned to make sure Raven was all right—just in time to see the beautiful black-haired woman extend a hand towards the back of the SUV with a frown of concentration. The sound of impacts on the trunk ceased, though the gunfire continued. Peeking back towards the rear of the SUV, Faldo smiled as he saw the car's bullets draw sparks against an invisible barrier scant inches before they struck the SUV.

"Way to go, Miss Clark!" whooped Faldo, turning to look at the esper—and he was taken aback by the fierce, determined, but pained stare in Raven's eyes and the trickle of blood sliding down from her nose to her lips. Faldo frowned and rummaged through his bag again. "Nick, we need to ditch those cars now! I don't think Miss Clark can hold off that firepower for too long."

The doctor swerved to avoid a Shiroko-Tsuhi Humvee moving into position to block the street and shook his head. "I think we're in a lot more trouble than that!" As if to confirm this grim pronouncement, the distinctive roar of a vectored-thrust aircraft flying overhead rattled the SUV's paneling.

"Fuck," muttered the Canadian cyborg, peeking into his bag of weapons for something he could use on a combat aircraft. "Clusterfuck," he swore again as he came up dry. He glanced up, slid the sunroof's shade paneling, and looked at the menacing aerodyne flying above the truck, bringing gatling weapons to bear. "Jinsei F-81 dual-role assault and squad transport aerodyne—latest model. Double clusterfuck." Dawson swerved wildly and turned at the last moment; the aircraft swooped by, raking the road right besides the truck with its failed strafing run.

Another burst of gunfire rang out. Raven moaned, feeling drained, but determined to keep the barrier up despite the pounding the machineguns were giving it. Her power was slowly but steadily returning to normal, which buoyed her spirits a little. She looked up, wondering if the shield might be better used up there—and whether she could control enough power to deflect a minigun. Faldo caught her glance and shook his head, pointing towards the back. The esper nodded. The cyborg turned back towards the driver. "Nick, where are we?"

"We should go over the I-898 overpass in a minute or so," he announced.

"Overpass?" Raven grinned mischievously—the sort of mischievous grin Loki, the evil Norse god, might have. "We'll ditch the cars there," she announced, winking at Faldo with a ferocious gleam in her eye.

Faldo blinked, then his eyes widened as he figured out what she intended to do. "Oh crap. Dawson—hold on tight, and turn hard right on Miss Clark's signal—wall or not, just do it!" Joining action to words, Faldo took hold of a crossbar welded solidly to the SUV's frame.

"You guys are nuts," Dawson complained, but he braced himself and tightened his grip on the wheel.

With the interceptors a mere ten feet away and the aerodyne veering for another pass, the SUV finally reached the overpass. Raven glanced out the side window and, figuring they were above the highway, yelled, "Now!"

Dawson braked and veered hard to the right, the SUV skidding as it changed its heading straight towards the wall. Raven forced her still-viscous Power into the familiar form or pure telekinesis, the quickness of the change drawing a pained scream from her as she clung to her tenuous grasp on her control. If she messed up, they were going to plow into the sidewall at 100mph...

At the last moment the Power coalesced into the right form and Raven used it to yank the SUV upwards, the front runflat tires scraping against the wall and smashing some concrete off the top. Concentrating hard, Raven kept the SUV upright and stable as it soared down the overpass and onto the Highway. The vehicle touched down hard with a loud squeal of tires, and Raven forced it to head straight until Dawson could bring the wheels under control again. Then she let go and settled back in her seat, exhausted, her head throbbing painfully. She wiped at the flow of blood from her nose.

Faldo glanced through the truck's window to see the S-T interceptor cars stop and the occupants disembark to glare impotently at the speeding truck, thirty feet down and a hundred yards away already. He indulged in an amused smirk before the screech of the oncoming aerodyne wiped it off his face. "Shit."

Raven shook her head. "What are we gonna do?"

"You did fine, Miss Clark," Faldo said. "Nick..." He was interrupted as Nick swerved the truck hard, narrowly dodging another strafing run of minigun fire. The aerodyne swooped past them, and Raven shook her head to clear it out. "Nick—how long 'til the next overpass?"

Dawson consulted the onboard computer. "At this speed, three minutes—you're not thinking of leaping out at 120 MPH, are you? And then trying to elude an aerodyne and any number of corpie ground cars—on foot?"

Faldo shook his head. "We might have to. There's no way we can hide in the SUV, but if we're on foot we might be able to hide and..."

"No," Raven cut him fiercely. "We'd never make it. I'm sick and tired of just running and getting shot at. I have a better idea."

As the SUV sped past the overpass, the Shiroko-Tsuhi aerodyne swooped around to strafe at it once more, minigun whirring in readiness. This time the pilot slowed down to match its speed with that of his suddenly zigzagging target, unwilling to risk another miss on a strafing run.

Without warning, Raven suddenly popped into existence a hundred yards ahead of it, the winds of her telekinetic flight beating at her hair. She lifted the Steyr cannon towards the nose of the oncoming aerodyne. The telekinetic screamed her rage and fired the heavy weapon once, then again, bracing herself against the punishing recoil.

Even the armored glass of the aerodyne's canopy could not withstand the impact of the anti-vehicular shells. Star-shaped cracks appeared in the weakened Plexiglas, and the pilot jinked the aircraft in surprise, throwing off his gunner's aim. Raven spun in mid-air and formed a kinetic shield in front of her shoulder, as strong as her weakened power could make it. The Power obliged her this once, for which she was deeply grateful when the aerodyne slammed right into her.

The weakened canopy shattered as it impacted the braced, shielded telekinetic, shards of ballistic glass raining onto the pilot and gunner while the telekinetic flew past them and into the crew transport area. Raven threw herself downward to skid to a jarring and bruising but ultimately harmless impact in the back of the aerodyne. The assault cannon skidded out of her grasp to smack against one of the sides, its barrel uselessly twisted by the collision. The aerodyne lurched as the pilot brought it under control and slowed it to a more manageable speed. Raven used her self-telekinesis to kip up quickly, landing right in the middle of eight very surprised Shiroko-Tsuhi troopers. Seven, Raven corrected—one had been the unfortunate victim of her initial attack with the assault cannon. The rest made for their rifles.

She grinned as they realized what she already knew—that the close confines, the delicate equipment, the risk of ricochets, and the presence of so many squad mates made the use of rifles completely impractical—and even if they went to knives or stun batons, what would they do against someone who'd just plowed through an armored aerodyne? In these close quarters where they could not use their advantage of numbers to its fullest? She unzipped her jacket pocket with a self-satisfied smirk, ready to implement the second part of her plan.

One of the men was quicker on the uptake than she'd banked on and rushed forward, swinging his rifle butt-first towards Raven's head. The telekinetic ducked under the rifle's swipe, and grasped the man's belt and collar. Heaving the man over her head, the esper threw him into one of his squad mates, who sidestepped out of the way, which at least broke his charge. But now his teammates were rushing forward, denying Raven the time she needed.

A rifle stock slammed into her shield behind her head, jarring her into a stumbling step forward. She spun with both arms raised, catching the weapon on its predictable return swing. She yanked on the gun but the stubborn Shiroko-Tsuhi trooper refused to let go. He tried to knee her in the stomach, but the blow bounced ineffectually on her kinetic barrier.

Out of the corner of her eye Raven saw two more troopers charge in—not with rifles, but with stun batons. A blow from those would hurt, not just bounce off her shield and shove her back. She pointed one hand towards them, fingers splayed, and willed the power out, its syrupiness resisting her mind... Nonetheless, the wave of force did leave her hand, throwing the two men back, merely bruised, but out of the fight for a few precious seconds.

The man she was grappling with snarled in triumph and sharply yanked the weapon out of her one-handed grip. He immediately swung it the other way, catching Raven in the forehead with the barrel. Raven rolled with the blow, away from the squad, hoping to buy the few seconds she needed.

With a bit of telekinesis to help herself along, she rolled to her feet. The man who'd struck her had followed right behind her—but he obviously hadn't expected to come to her feet so quickly. She wasted no time throwing an awkward, but powerful kick into his gut that sent him sprawling backwards. Unengaged at last, the esper's again went into her pocket, already reforming the part of her power that wasn't used by her shield into the new shape she was going need, slowly enough that she wasn't taxed; if she brainburned now, she probably wouldn't live.

She looked up to see three men charging with stun batons active, blue lightning coruscating on the tips. Her hand came out of the pocket holding a grenade with the characteristic markings of a fragmentation payload, her thumb already unhooking the pin. "Chunky salsa, anyone?" said Raven with a grim, savage smile, throwing the grenade at the leading soldier. He instinctively dodged the projectile, for all the good that it would do to him. With desperate haste, Raven forced her sluggish power to move, two stun batons sailing towards her head and the fuse of the grenade running out... Please, work, WORK or I'm dead....

She vanished with the loud pop of air filling the newly vacated space she'd been in. For the first time, Raven actually stayed in that non-space she crossed when she teleported for a fraction of a second, long enough to be aware of the nothingness around her, of her own nothingness while her still-anesthetized power worked her back to the material universe.

Raven fell to her knees in the sand as soon as she popped into existence, and smiled grimly as she heard the muffled boom of the grenade above her a second later. As she watched, the aerodyne lurched in mid-air and went down, crashing a hundred yards away. She looked away to see the red SUV turn around to pick her up, Faldo leaning out of the side window to give her a thumbs up, confirming that no other Shiroko-Tsuhi units had been spotted by the pair was she was off fighting the aerodyne.

Helplessly, she laughed while the SUV parked next to her. She gratefully let Faldo drag her inside, her exhausted body barely up to the task. It had taken a lot of help, but she'd yanked her chains off and swatted the corporation's claw away as it tried to snatch her back.

At last, the Raven had flown free.

Like every city, Las Vegas had its seamy underbelly; and despite all the neon lights, it had its dark alleys. Far from the casinos and the high-class glitz, the other half of the city could be found, the dilapidated areas of the poor who eked out a living without the stability of a corporate job and under the watchful of the Family. In this place devoid of tourists, such luxuries as street sweeping and repair were deemed secondary by city officials; the facades of the cheap apartment buildings lining the street suffered from the same lack of maintenance, as none of the landlords actually lived in this dismal place. The revenue from even those cheap buildings was enough to allow their owners to live in a more habitable area, leaving only the dregs to occupy their property.

In this slum, an old clunker of a Ford sedan, dark red almost as much from rust as the paint, drove down the street, jarring the occupants with every hole in the road. The car's appearance fit right in the area, which was the point. Of course, only the body was ancient; the car's frame and engine were from a recent version of the same Ford, with a twin turbocharger thrown in for that extra bit of oomph in a chase. Thankfully, there had been no need to try out the soup-up. With their aerodyne lost, Shiroko-Tsuhi had been unable to find the trace their fugitive esper and her able rescuers, especially once they had switched vehicles. The car rolled quietly down the dirty alley.

"This is your stop, Ms. Clark," said Faldo, killing the engine.

"Guys, I have no idea how I can ever repay you," Raven said.

Faldo and Dawson looked at each other, then back at the esper on the back seat. "Well, Ms. Clark," said the medic, "as you might remember, we've already been paid. Half up front, the rest on your safe arrival."

"We're just in it for the money and the benefits package," added Faldo with a grin.

"Benefits?" Raven asked with a chuckle.

"Scenery, for one," Faldo said, faking a leer at Raven. "Now run along—we only get our money once you get wherever it is you're going."

"Right," Raven said with a broad smile, opening the door with a bit of surprise that it didn't simply fall off. Stepping away from the car, she concentrated, trying to gather the Power to her. Like quicksilver, it took shape in her mental grasp. She concentrated hard, shifting it slowly, making sure that she had full control of it; but the Power reacted obediently to her every bidding, the effects of the sedative and adrenaline shot finally worn off. Smiling, Raven waved at the two freelancers, and moved...

She instantly found herself in another dark alley, half a world away, greeted by the sound of cracking asphalt and a rat scurrying away as she heralded her arrival with a loud bang. She walked out of the alley, unable to keep a joyous saunter out of her step. She was free! No more trackers, no more cameras watching her every move, no collar to punish her flights of fancy. She laughed as she came across a Chinese couple, making the pair look at her oddly, but she paid them no more heed than it took to give them an ecstatic smile before ducking in the entranceway of an apartment building.

She sauntered inside the building through a side door, and smiled happily at the tall, long-haired Chinese man in the overcoat, and his Asian companion with the gun and the combat armor. They didn't give any reaction, save for the man pulling another door. Raven jogged inside, eager to meet her friends, and knocked on a certain apartment door.

Hearing the knocking at the door, Ling Ling glanced up from her conversation with Shion. Briefly she considered getting the Desert Eagle .50 out, but then thought better of it. If Marta, Andy, and Kei hadn't been able to stop an intruder, what was she going to be able to do? Besides, she had the Empress at her back. Any intruder would be in for a rude surprise once she opened the door. On top of that, no alarms had gone off. Marta, at the very least, would have said something.

"Excuse me," Ling Ling nodded to Shion and went to the door. Careful to keep her expression neutral, she it opened it and took a step back.

"Mr. Carstairs? You have a visitor."

Johnny came into view and barely had time to look surprised before Raven swept right past Ling Ling, took him up in a bear hug, and lifted him clean off the ground for a spinning dance. "So good to see you again, grease monkey!" she laughed.

"Ra... Raven?" said a bewildered Johnny the Wrench. "So... so what they said... Oh my God..."

Raven carefully set him down where he stumbled to a sitting position. She turned towards Shion and, figuring the Empress wouldn't much like a hug, she bowed with deep respect. "Thank you. I owe you one."

"Perhaps," Shion said after a sip of tea. "Now that you're free, what is your next move?"

"Dinner," Raven said with a grin. "You, me, Lora, Johnny, Ling Ling, Marta. On me. I owe you at least this much and we have to celebrate." She grew more serious. "And then, I want to go back to Clark Street. See my friends and my Auntie again, make sure S-T doesn't try to avenge themselves on them, help out with the invasion."

There was a moment of silence while Shion digested this information. "It is almost certain they will never stop looking for you. Unless S-T can acquire another esper weapon of similar power, and even then, they may pursue you in the interests of elimination not recovery." Sipping at her tea, Shion sighed, "I'd recommend against going back to the Zone, but that is up to you."

"Why not?" Raven queried. "My family lives there, and right now, it's just about out of reach of Shiroko-Tsuhi's grasp. Jinsei won't let them send in an assault force."

"But you will be hiding from one corporation right in the middle of another's war zone," Shion pointed out. "Not exactly the safest place to be."

"That's the point, Shion," said Raven. She clenched her fists in anger, though this was not directed at the Empress. "My Auntie isn't safe. In a way, Jinsei's attacking my homeland. They're gonna be attacking my friends and my family, soon. I can't just let them. If that makes me not-safe, tough. I've had enough of enforced safety."

"Do as you wish." Shion shrugged, "I trained you well enough, you should be able to handle yourself. Just don't try to do too much at once. Know when to run away."

Raven smiled faintly. "That's what I just did."

"Perhaps," Ling Ling asked softly, "I should see about making arraignments for dinner?"

"Pick someplace nice. Money no object—Lora should've gotten the money S-T gave me for being their attack dog." Raven waved a hand. "Whatever you guys like is fine. Um. Although I'm probably going to need clothes."

"As am I," Shion added. I don't intend to go to dinner dressed like this." She stood and spread her cloak with both arms. "Perhaps Raven and I could go together."

"Shopping clothes with the Empress. I'm certainly moving up in the world, am I?" Raven laughed delightedly and twirled a bit. "You coming, grease monkey?"

"Uh... look, Raven... I'm not sure this is ..."

"Tut tut. You're going to eat well at least once in your life." She looked him up and down and grinned. "And you're gonna need a suit."

Shion nodded in agreement. "Yes, it would not due to be see with us dressed as you are."

Ling Ling produced a cell phone. "Should I call ahead to anywhere?"

Raven shrugged. "I don't know any of the good classy stores in Hong Kong..."

"So you will be staying in Hong Kong for the moment?" Ling Ling asked rhetorically as she pressed buttons on the phone. "Would Neiman Marcus be sufficient?"

"For a few days, at least, until things calm down and I can make arrangements to go." She turned to Johnny and smiled; he timidly smiled back. "Have to make sure Grease Monkey has a place to live too. I don't think you're too keen on going back to the Zone, are ya?"

"Not if I can avoid it," replied the mechanic.

"Figures." She turned back to Ling Ling and arched an eyebrow. "Neiman Marcus will do, if it's _really_ all you can offer..."

"Two rooms at the Hong Kong Imperial Hilton Hotel and several hours at Neiman Marcus to look for new clothing," Ling Ling recited. "Miss Clark, I'll have a car ready in a few minutes."

"Three rooms," corrected Raven. "Lora's arriving in a few hours." She smiled. "Thanks. As efficient as ever, Ling Ling."

Lora walked briskly up to the Imperial Hilton Hotel where Raven was supposedly waiting. Hong Kong was a truly exciting city, and she had enjoyed her trip there from the port, brushing up on her Mandarin along the way. She had changed out of her dress and other accouterments in a restroom and into something a little more casual and comfortable. She liked dressing up as much as the next girl, but now she wanted to be a little less conspicuous, and high top converse sneakers, jeans, black t-shirt and soft leather jacket were closer to her natural style. After checking the reservation at the front desk, she took the elevator up to the proper floor and counted the numbers until she found the right door. She knocked with a jaunty "shave and a haircut, two bits" pattern and waited for an answer.

After a moment, the door cracked open and Raven's face peeked through the opening. The esper was looking well, although there were a couple of small cuts on her beautiful face that would probably heal with no scarring. She looked at Lora for a second before recognition lit up her face, and she swung the door fully open.

Lora stepped past the doorway and set her bag down as it closed behind her. "Hey!! We DID it!" she grinned, before taking Raven into a hug.

Raven laughed wildly and lifted Lora to spin her around. "Woohoo! We did it! We're really free!"

Lora laughed, "Whoa there! Watch where you put me down! Heh. Don't want to damage anything!"

Raven twirled them both to a couch and the pair fell on it, the esper laughing madly. Her cyborg friend giggling as well.

"Whoo!" Lora said, kicking her shoes off, "Well, I imagine that Davies is probably having that stroke she was working towards by now! I couldn't resist leaving some nice, pithy comments in my 'exit interview'. I really reamed them a new one for everything they've done. Probably not the wisest thing I could've done, but fuck it. I couldn't resist!"

Raven shrugged. "Bah, don't worry. They're going to come after us no matter what we do, so we're gonna have to dispense some ass-kicking regardless." She looked Lora up and down. "Latina, huh?" She licked her lips, eyes twinkling in mischief. "Yum."

"Down, girl," Lora snickered. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. Here..." She zipped open the duffel and pulled out the red dress she'd worn through the airport and on the flight for Raven to see. "Not my usual style, I admit, but I had a fun time with it. I wish I had a record function on my eyes so you could see the expression of some of the security to me!"

"Oh my." Raven stood up and put the dress over her body, trying to estimate how much dˇcolletage it would show. "I can imagine what they'd look like. Although I'd bet you'd see mostly the top of their heads, 'cause they sure wouldn't be looking at your eyes..."

"Nope," She agreed, still snickering, "I don't think many guys remembered my face all that well. But that was the point, really." She explained the 'hide in plain sight' tactic she'd come up with. "Fire red dress, black hair, and assets on display, who's gonna think of checking what my eye color is or anything else? Probably thought I was a minor sim-sense star or something. They may figure it out on camera, later, but now it's too late for them to do anything about it." She settled back into the couch and laced her fingers behind her head, "The hair dye will fade soon. Particularly if I exert myself. And the skin coloring will wash off with a special enzyme soap. But I've always been curious what I'd look like with different coloring like this." She shifted into a mock British accent, "Oi! Striking bird, the Spanish brunette, eh? Lovely plumage!"

"Oooooh, we have got to try the exotic coloring thing someday," Raven said. Then for no apparent reason she stood and twirled again in a dance, laughing.

"So, how did your run go? Any problems?"

Raven sighed and plopped down into the couch again. "Just a few S-T armored cars, around thirty goons, and an aerodyne." She shuddered. "Not fun."

"Yikes! Well, you're here now, so obviously it all worked out."

"Yeah, it did." She laughed again, wildly. "We're free!"

Grinning, Lora said, "So, what now? Celebrate tonight? Know any good restaurants? I think I remember a couple, but it's been a few years since I've been here, so I don't know if they're still in the same place or not."

"I'll ask Ling Ling. I'm taking everyone out for dinner on my tab. Assuming I have any money." She laughed.

"Oh you do, you do," Lora said reassuringly. "You won't believe how much Sanato managed to snag as part of my 'severance pay'. Part of that is yours, of course. Right now, we're not hurting at all."

"Cool. That'll give us some time to get our feet on the ground."

"Indeed. So..." The cyborg girl looked around, "...where's Mr. Carstairs?"

"Johnny's in the next room. He wanted to be alone a bit. I think he's kicking himself for being lied to."

Lora nodded, "When I checked on him and saw that he wasn't being held prisoner or anything, I figured he didn't know what had happened to you. And it had been long enough that he would have tried to find out. So what did they do to fool him? Have someone talk to him image masked as you on video or something?"

"Pretty much, yeah." She sighed. "It was pretty cruel, in a way."

"Let me guess—he spilled his guts once or twice on something that should have been private between the two of you to someone he thought was you—and it wasn't."

"Yeah... And they made him think I was all right, and he was there because he was a good mechanic when—well, you know."

"Is he a good mechanic?"

"He's great at making cars work. What he isn't is a good corporate mechanic."

"Ah... Well, maybe we should get him to come along with us. We need to let him know it wasn't his fault. There wasn't anything he could've done and no one thinks any less of him for it."

"Yah, well," came the mechanic's gruff voice from the door, "that's wrong, 'cause there's someone who thinks less of me." Wearing clean clothes and deprived of oil stains, Johnny "the Wrench" Carstairs was almost unrecognizable to Raven. He stepped forward towards the couch where the girls sat. "Sorry to drop on like that. Kinda heard all the laughing and the throwing around."

Lora stood up and extended a hand as Raven said, "Lora, this is Johnny. Johnny, Lora."

"Nice to meet you, Johnny."

"Pleasure's all mine, Ms. Doubet. Raven told me many good things 'bout you, before I got transferred."

"You know, I did mean what I said." Lora said, reassuringly, "Anybody could have been fooled. You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."


"She's right, grease monkey," Raven interjected. "They know their stuff well. It's my fault—I shoulda told you from the start what was up."

"I don't know if even that would've helped. There was a shakeup in the administration and the whole business with the damn collar came out of practically nowhere." Lora opined. "I got caught by surprise as well."

"I just can't believe they'd try to pull that shit," said Johnny. "It sounds unreal."

"That was the point—shock value," Raven explained. "The idea was to scare me into submission. Even worked."

"For awhile, at least." Lora agreed. Then she grinned and said. "Then she got wise and started with a nice attitude readjustment of her own right back."

Raven couldn't help but snicker at that, while Johnny just looked at the two women with a dumbfounded expression. "Huh?" he said eloquently.

Lora gestured them to sit down, saying, "That's Raven's story to tell. There's one part where you'll laugh your ass off!"

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