By Jamie Jeans & Jeff Skagen

(January 13th, 2034)

With a crack of displaced air and space, Korey Winters, sporting a new Kevlar lined black jacket, jeans, and hiking boots, and Ray, dressed in a plain pair of jeans and a black sweater, appeared in midair, floating over what had once been Ken And Bell's Towing Service. And the sight did not appeal to either of them.

The garage looked as though it had been the site of a last stands that, although small in size when compared to the other battles raging throughout the Zero Zeon, was no less fierce. A row of tires built up to chest height had been scattered and blown apart, no doubt by explosives, while the main building itself had been destroyed. It lay in a collapsed heap, while two Ashigarus sat parked some distance away. They were ringed with dead Jinsei troops, one filled with holes while another continued to burn merrily away.

And, sadly enough, a human body, its clothes identifying it as a citizen of the Zero Zone.

Korey and Ray descended from the sky quickly, landing beside the body. She dropped to her knees and turned it over, and sighed in just a little relief that it wasn't Shoko.

"Who is this?" asked Ray.

"I don't know," replied Korey, who passed her hand over the man's face, closing his eyes. He'd been shot in the chest a number of times with a high powered assault rifle, a sight the two had become sadly familiar with in the course of the past few hours they'd spent searching for Ken and Bell's Towing. It made the normally thick-skinned Korey sick to her stomach, all of the needless destruction, but she sucked it up and stood up.

"What shall we do now?" asked Ray.

"We search for clues," she replied, starting over towards the collapsed garage. "We must not assume the worst yet when there is no evidence to collaborate it."

He followed her as she began to pick her way amongst the rubble, lifting aside hunks of sheet metal. Sadly enough, he noted, Korey did not call out Shoko's name, and was one of the signs with which he had been able to read her feelings. She had many of them, all of which would disappear the moment she began to talk business, but around him, they would come out as she relaxed. For Ray, whose life had been short, and his companions fewer then his years on Earth, it was a strange and yet comforting thing to experience, and one that he secretly treasured.

He took a step forward, and almost tripped over an armoured clad hand, half buried beneath the rubble. "Korey, I've found... someone," he called out to her as he knelt down and began to clear away the rubble. He focused, his power coming to him more easily and with more control now then it did when she had first found him here, starving to death, and easily removed heavy beams of wood, sheet metal roofing, and other bits of debris to reveal a rather tall and strongly built person dressed in battered but still intact combat ballistic armour. He wrestled a bit with the larger pieces, but soon, they too joined the rest of the rubble on the street.

Instantly, Korey had her gun out and at the ready, keeping it aimed at the person's head. "Could be Jinsei's special forces," she speculated. She could see the figure was still alive, the chest expanding and contracting in the slow rate of someone who's asleep, or knocked unconscious.

Ray lifted and turned the figure over in midair, and it was fairly evident from the way the chest was shaped that it was no mere human within in. Holstering her gun, Korey unhooked the connectors keeping the helmet on, and breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled it off, revealing a still slumbering Shoko.

"Shoko," Ray said simply, running a hand through her hair and feeling the ears, idly scratching them.

"Indeed, but she looks to be injured," said Korey, kneeling down to inspect the Puma. "Hmmm, the helmet saved her life, but she still took one heck of a bump." She indicated the swollen, purplish bruise over Shoko's left temple beneath the mane of bright red hair."

"A concussion?" asked Ray.

"Oh, definitely." Korey glanced about, and her eyes alighted on the water trough for the animal pen. "Bring her, but be very gentle," she advised Ray, who brought her floating over to the trough. Although stray bullets had hit it, the water had only drained to the level of the lowest bullet hole. She reached in with both hands, scooped up as much as she could, and let it drop on Shoko's face.

The effect was almost immediate, as Shoko came awake and began to violently and repeatedly sneeze out the liquid that had gone into her nose.

"My apologies," said Korey, taking out a cloth to wipe the water from Shoko's face with all the gentleness of a mother.

"Wha--?" Shoko blinked at her in confusion, ears nearly flat to her skull. "Who in the-- Korey, is that you? Oh, my head! What happened? And, um...why am I floating in the air?"

"That would be because I am levitating you in midair," explained Ray.

Shoko tried to look over the man who'd spoken, but her vision kept wavering and she finally had to close her eyes. "And you are?" she finally managed to ask.

Ray floated her to her feet, and Korey was there to support her, although the effort was obvious as she sunk down a few inches. "This is Ray, a esper whom works for me," she explained. "And we are here to get your out of here before any more trouble finds you... or us."

"Uh...Hi, Ray. Trouble?" asked Shoko, shaking her head to clear it. "I don't - oh! I do remember! Those Jinsei jackboots came after us! And when we fought back they sent in cyberdroids!"

Still leaning on Korey, she began to look around, taking in the destruction. "Bloody buggering hell...they took down the whole garage! I remember looking up and seeing the roof dropping on me, but I didn't realize the whole place collapsed. No wonder they didn't finish me, they probably couldn't find me."

Korey nodded, the effort to keep Shoko on her feet a mighty one indeed for the agent of espionage. "Then it would be best if we left right this instant. Ray?"

He stepped forward, as though to encompass them both in a hug, when a seething blue wreck burst out of the rubble. It was a cyberdroids, its blue colouring scratched and damaged, one arm missing, and a chunk taken out of its head. This didn't stop it, however, from standing up and turning its open mouth laser on them. Korey scrambled back with Shoko, trying to get her clear when the machine jerked to a stop. The two women turned to see Ray standing there, his face a mask of determination, hands outstretched to the cyberdroids and turning.

But the stopped in its tracks cyberdroids only persisted, the simple commands in its computer pushing it to its limits. The mouth cannon charged, and fired, and splashed in a brilliant splash of blue and white against an invisible shield. The shift from trying to aim the cyberdroids away and then to creating a shield brought a cry of pain from Ray, but he kept his focus, and as soon as the shot had died down, the ground around them smoking and burning, he shifted his attention to the rubble.

Further into it he sent his power, concentrating, bringing together a mass of rubble that swept up like a wave and struck the cyberdroids dead on. It tumbled away, and Korey was quick to shuffle away with Shoko, to give the esper more room to fight. In no time was the cyberdroids back up on its feet, and the strength of his full power brought forward sent cracks through the pavement about Ray and tossed smaller pieces of rubble and dirt into the air. The cyberdroids fired again, but this time Ray was ready, and he deflected the shot away with some effort.

From the pile of rubble Ray reached out and tore several large beams of wood, thick and strong, the pillars that had been part of the foundation of the former garage, and hurtled them towards the cyberdroid. Evasion programs came into effect, and it dodged left, right, and to the left again as it began to advance on Ray. A thick beam came down, smashing into the knee joints and sending it crashing to the ground. Before it could get up, Ray, suppressing a grunt, brought the five thick beams of wood down, pummeling them into the metal skin and head.

Damaged and sparking, the cyberdroid rolled over in an attempt to get away, it's wide- open mouth a vulnerable target for the beam of wood that smashed into it, splintering on impact as it punched through and into the pavement and ground below. There was a small explosion as the delicate circuitry within shorted out and smoked, and Ray gave a sigh of relief as the cyberdroid shuddered and finally lay still. He turned back to the two women and gave them a thumb up.

"Ah, been watching the classics, yes?" asked Korey.

He nodded. "Heyyyy..."

Shoko stared at the wrecked cyberdroid a moment, sighed, and then calmly holstered the massive revolver she hadn't had a chance to fire. "Okay, that was...impressive," she said. "That being said, can we please find my pulse rifle and get out of here? Um...after giving Ken a decent burial, that is."

"Ray?" said Korey, and he nodded and walkover over to the rubble. "I will help you bury your friend," she added as the shifting of rubble started up behind them. "I am sorry for your lose."

"Thank you, Korey. He Or at least the closest thing a synth like me can imagine to family, anyway." She paused to wipe a tear from her cheek. "I only hope the rest of them are safe wherever they fled to."

"If the look of the ground near the collapsed fence is any indication, I would say they most definitely made it away from here, safe and sound," said Korey as she helped Shoko over to the dead body of her friend. "Shoko, did you wonder exactly why I came and helped you?"

"Well...yes," answered Shoko as she started to position some of the concrete chunks Ray was delivering around Ken's body. "But I didn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, as they say. I suppose you're here about that job offer you had for me to pose as your bodyguard Puma. No offense, but this isn't really the best time..."

"Yes, but it is not about taking up the role of a bodyguard. That offer died a long time ago," said Korey as she struggled to gently roll a much smaller hunk of concrete onto Ken's body. "I was hired to rescue you by Spycorp, who may have a job you would no doubt appreciate after..." And she paused to sweep an arm over the demolished garage. "... All of this."

Shoko placed another chunk of concrete in position, and then briefly paused in her labor. "Spycorp? How would Spycorp have ever heard of me? Did you tell them - wait, a job? What job?"

"There is a reason why they're called Spycorp," said Korey, half jokingly. "And it's a job you would appreciate: an assault on the Jinsei encampment."

Shoko's ears pricked up sharply. "Hit Jinsei? Are you serious? You're right - I'm interested. Very interested."

"Yes. You see, Jinsei has taken up a number of guests from the Zero Zone, most of whom are various corporate members, and are allowing them to go free after their mother corporation has paid a babysitting service." Korey rolled over another small concrete chunk, laying it on top of the pile of the burial. "However, this fee is very expensive, which has made a good number of corporations enraged at Jinsei's arrogance."

Shoko sighed and shook her head. "So that's what Jinsei thought would make an assault on the Zone profitable. I kept wondering, but I just couldn't figure it out."

"Part of it, although I suspect it was also a plan to take control of a place to set up some production facilities, ones which could be ran where other corporations were more cautious to send spies." Korey stood up and looked down at the fresh gravesite, and then up at Shoko. "But it has already cost so much, has it not?"

Shoko placed another chunk of rubble in position, and then turned to face Korey, ears flat. "Yeah, it's cost us a lot, but it's gonna cost Jinsei a whole lot more if I have anything to say about it."

Korey nodded with a grim smile, and then glanced over Shoko's story at a beaming, smiling Ray, walking back from the remains of the garage with Shoko's weapon in hand. It was dented here and there, and dirty in a few areas, but had otherwise survived the destruction of the garage intact.

"My pulse rifle! You found it!" cried Shoko when she saw him approaching. "I'll enjoy turning one of Jinsei's own weapons against them again. Thank you, Ray," she said as he handed it back to her.

"Almost glad to be of help," said Ray, smiling.

Shoko nodded, then turned and picked up another hunk of concrete, placing in on the growing cairn over Ken's body. "So...what's the details on this job? How's the thing being arranged?"

This time, Ray lent his help to the creation of Ken's cairn, lifting several large chunks of concrete and gently placed them down gently. "So far as I know," started Korey. "There will be a gathering of skilled mercenaries and a planned meeting. Of course, considering the scale of this assault, you can be assured that some well known people will be hired. Perhaps even the Empress herself."

Shoko snorted as she jockeyed another piece into position. "The Empress? Well then, what would Spycorp need with the rest of us?" Suddenly her tail stilled as a thought struck her. "Hired, you said. Korey, what does this job pay?"

"Because even the high and mighty Empress cannot handle squad after squad of Wolf Brigade troops and cyberdroids," said Korey with just a little hint of contempt. "And her being hired is merely a rumor. Plus, I suspect that those who are will be paid top dollar."

"So, instead of a cash payment, could Spycorp do a job for me instead? Is that something you think they might agree to?"

"Perhaps," shrugged Korey. "What would you have Spycorp do for you?"

Shoko's tail twitched eagerly. "Find and rescue the others who were here at the garage, wherever they fled to in the Zone. They need help as soon as possible; some of them are wounded pretty badly. And the Zone's a big place; I doubt I could find them myself."

Positioning the last piece of rubble, she stepped back and examined their handiwork. "Done. It's not the pyre she wanted, but...I think Bell would be pleased. He is with his garage, the way she wanted. Wish we could make a headstone." She paused and bowed her head, ears and tail dropping. "I feel like I should say something, but I don't know what. I'll miss you, Ken."

Korey and Ray both followed suit, bowing their heads for a moment of silence. It seemed to descent upon them all, the loss of this one life amidst the destruction, with only the spattering of distant gunfire off in the distance to break the silence. Finally, Ray glanced up, and his mouth opened to offer what few words of comfort he could, from one synthetic to another, when something caught his eye.

"Trouble," he said, that single word getting both of Korey and Shoko's attention. Korey followed his gaze down the road, and frowned at the sight.

"Indeed," agreed Korey.

An Ashigaru, an APC, with the Jinsei logo plainly emblazed on its sides and a heavy machine gun mounted on the top, was roaring down the road towards them. Korey didn't have to see the troops to know that they were concealed inside, no doubt armed for bear and more then willing to lay down the gunfire if they offered up so much as an iota of resistance.

"Goddamn them. Why can't they just LEAVE US ALONE!" screamed Shoko furiously, bringing her M-100 to her shoulder and opening fire. The Ashigaru's engine died in an explosion of steam and sprayed fluids as the stream of 10mm explosive-tipped rounds ripped through the lightly armored front grill and then up into the front compartment.

Driverless, the vehicle swerved to one side and plowed to a stop against the remains of the tire barricade. The gunner began to return fire with the roof-mounted .50 cal machine gun as a half-dozen troops started to rapidly spill out the back of the vehicle, seeking cover.

The sudden explosion of violence from the puma and the blast from her weapon had stunned Korey into a shocked silence, used as she was to Shoko's calmer demeanor. It hade almost cost her her life, but Ray was quick to react, and threw up a shield about them, deflecting the blast of 50 caliber bullet.

Shaking off the shock, Korey grabbed Shoko by the shoulder. "Shoko, we have to leave now, before reinforcements arrive!" she yelled. It was a dangerous move, grabbing a seething mad puma by the shoulder, but it was one she felt justified in making. More bullets ripped towards them, bouncing off of Ray's ever-present shield and sending the bullets bouncing over Ken's cairn.

Shoko glanced at Korey for a moment, and then shrugged off her grasp. "We can leave after we take these guys down." She cycled the pump-action grenade launcher and aimed at the Ashigaru again. Just before she fired, however, she hesitated and turned back to Korey. "Uh...Shit. Is Ray's shield thing one way? Can I safely fire out?"

Korey all but grabbed the barrel of the grenade launcher and shoved it down as best she could. "We are not staying to fight, Shoko! I did not come here to fight, but to rescue you!" She glanced at Ray, and he began to step around in front of the front, placing himself directly in front of them.

"Yeah, rescue me so that I could fight guys like this! Korey, it'll only take a minute for me to mop these creeps up. Only that machine gun even has a real chance of hurting me in my CBA. Just let me out of this darn force bubble thing!"

Standing closer to them, Ray reinforced his shield as the surviving troops spread out amongst them, firing from different angles. The pavement about them cracked out as Ray's forehead furrowed in concentration.

"This is not up for discussion, Shoko!" yelled Korey, seemingly fearless of the puma. "Ray! Get us out now!"

And before Shoko could protest, Ray had his arms around them both, closed his eyes, and teleported.

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