Part 5

By Max Fauth, and Michael Surbrook

(December 2033)

"Magical Empress Sonnet?" Aoi stared openmouthed at the display case.

"Wow! She looks like Shion!" Moira helpfully added. "If Shion had wings, that is."

Aoi shook her head. She and Moira had gone into Mega-Tokyo to do a little shopping and sightseeing before starting on the next leg of the mission. They'd ended up in a sprawling mega-mall located near the Ginza strip, a mega-mall that seemed to have virtually everything—including a display window filled with toys that looked suspiciously like they were modeled after a certain world-class esper weapon.

"I'm sure it's just coincidence," she replied, seemingly unable to convince herself.

Moira nodded. "Oh yeah, I bet there are alot of people who look like that." Aoi wasn't sure if she was serious or not.

"C'mon Moira. I mean, she's not that famous. Really..." Aoi's brow furrowed in concern. Was she? Was her boss really so famous that some Japanese designer had copied her image for a cartoon and had an action figure made of it? "No..." she muttered to herself.

"Hey," Moira tugged on her sleeve. "Look."

Aoi followed the young girl's pointed finger and felt her stomach sour. In the same display as "Magical Empress Sonnet" was Yokai Hunter Shirotori, who was tall, shapely, with long white-hair, and wore a skintight Chinese dress.

"Who's that?" Moira asked.

"Yokai Hunter Shirotori," Aoi read in a flat voice. "It's not even original..."

"Hunh? What do you mean?"

"I mean, it's just the same design as that other one, basically." Which is not my boss, she added mentally, although unable to believe her eyes.

"Then what about that one?"

"What's that one?" she asked, almost dreading the response.

"Um..." Moira paused. "I don't read Japanese. Looks like she has on some sort uniform, though."

"Sion Sahalin..." Aoi read off the card. "From 'ESPer High School.'"

Moira giggled. "I can't imagine Shion wearing that."

Aoi stood in stunned silence.

"I mean, that skirt's really short."

"I noticed," she snapped.

Moira cocked her head. "She sure doesn't look like she's in high school."

"Definitely not. Can we go?"

"Oh, sure. Hey, can we get lunch? I'm hungry."

"Anywhere else," she muttered.

Aoi had spent the rest of the afternoon in a foul mood. She wanted to yell at Shion, to blame her for the action figures, for being so famous. But when they returned to the hotel room, she couldn't believe her eyes. Shion was sleeping softly in a chair by the window, the sun's soft rays falling gently on her.

"She looks so peaceful like that..." Aoi muttered to herself. Shion was like a cat, she thought; after destroying something, she simply curled up and acted cute.

"I really want to be pissed off at her..." Aoi grumbled, then sighed. "But I just can't."

"Hey! Gem, didja know you can get those action figures online? I got the whole set! Even one we didn't see in the window!"

Aoi whirled around to see Moira sitting at the computer. As she watched, the girl turned the screen to show her an array of figures on the screen.

"She's sleeping! Quiet!" Aoi hissed back. Moira winced at her response, and shied away from the computer. "Moira, back up quietly and hopefully we won't wake her up."

The two of them quietly crept towards the door. Aoi froze when she heard a low groan from behind her. She slowly turned to see Shion stretching and standing from her nap.

"Now you've blown it," Moira whispered.

"Um... Hi boss... We, uh, didn't mean to wake you."

"I've been awake," Shion replied simply, glancing over at the pair.

Aoi sighed and shook her head. So much for being cute. "We just got back from shopping."

"Wait 'till you see what I found!" Moira piped in.

Shion gave Moira a bemused glance. "Should I even ask?"

"No," Aoi quickly replied before Moira got a chance.

"I see." Shion busied herself for a moment adjusting her robe and brushing her hair back over her shoulders. "Are we ready to leave? I think its time we dealt with the last element of our contract."

"But I've got to show you these first!" Moira blurted out, holding up the three figures. Aoi winced in embarrassment.

Much to Aoi's surprise, Shion's reaction was to only stare impassively. "Dolls?"

"Yeah! They're all of you!" Moira pushed forwards, holding out the packages to Shion.

"Maybe not now..." Aoi began, but her words went unheeded.

Shion looked down and tapped one of the figures with a finger. "I don't have wings," she replied.

"I know that," Moira said, as if talking to a child. "But they're all clearly based on you."

"Maybe," Shion said in a neutral tone, "But anyone can look like this these days. All it takes is a body sculpt."

"Moira, I'm sure it's just coincidence," Aoi said, placing a firm hand on the young cyborg's shoulder. "Okay?"

"But I wouldn't be surprised if they are based off of me in some way," Shion continued, "I do stand out in crowd."

"Like she said, anyone could look like that," Aoi told Moira.

Moira looked up at Aoi. "Unhunh. Just how dumb do you think I am?"

Aoi leaned in to Moira, her face only inches from the girl's. "Smart enough to know when to drop it," She hissed under her breath.

"Well," Moira chirped, "I've got to go pack if were going to get to Neo York on time!" With that she strolled casually off to her room.

Aoi sighed and looked up at Shion. "Sorry about that."

Shion shrugged, "Someday I'll show you Supreme Senshi Starfigher Andromeda."

Aoi shook her head. "Frankly, I don't want to know."

Shion smiled, "When I was six I adored her, since she had long white hair, just like me."

"I said--!" Aoi shouted, but stopped. She shook her head and added "Forget it."

There was a short pause, before Shion announced "I'm going to get dressed," and turned to leave. "Nabiki said she'd send a car around at two."

Aoi sighed. "I'm sorry," she said to Shion's retreating back. "I shouldn't have snapped at you."

Shion shrugged. "We've all been under a lot of stress." Aoi said nothing, but drummed her fingers on the coffee table.

"Alright, listen up. Here's the plan."

Moira stood before Aoi and Shion in Shion's apartment. The girl had spent the entire flight back from Tokyo working on her laptop, sorting through her latest information and preparing for this presentation. Now Shion and Aoi sat on the couch, watching the girl standing by a screen she'd rented for the night.

"No doubt spurred on by out attacks, Syntech has stepped Project Forge up to the next stage. What I've been able to put together says that their third prototype is complete." The screen changed to show a monstrous cyberdroid resting in the scaffolding of its factory bay.

"More importantly, they're moving to make a sale." The screen changed again, showing a Jinsei office building in Neo York. "They've called on their partners to host the sale, which will be held at 9 PM tomorrow night. They're arranging for a brief demonstration of its capabilities before the sale commences."

"So it's going to be live?" Aoi asked.

Moira nodded. "They're looking to arrange a service contract with one or more buyers. Their information package doesn't' give the full details, especially not about the human brain controlling the thing."

"No doubt they don't want to upset any potential buyers," Shion commented.

"Right! So we've got a chance to stop anyone from restarting the whole thing."

"What do you mean?" Aoi asked, clearly confused.

"Really," Moira said shaking her head. "We blow their cover, and let everyone know about it. The sale is the perfect opportunity, as we can reach all the interested parties at once."

"Clearly I'll be destroying the prototype," Shion said in a flat tone of voice. "What will you two be doing?"

Aoi spared her a glance, then turned back to Moira. "Well?"

"Alright. As soon as Shion arrives, the cyberdroid will sense her and attack. However, the security is too tight for Aoi and I to make it in first. So the best plan as I see it, is to teleport in together, so Shion can... Well, distract the security." Moira looked sheepishly at Shion.

Shion cocked an eyebrow and looked at Moira over steepled fingers. "Do you mean that I am to act as a diversion while you do all the real work?"

Moira faltered. "Um... It's not like that. It's just I doubt that even Aoi could handle the initial rush of security guards that are likely to be there when we appear, but you could take them all out so easily, and anyway you're doing the really important job of killing the cyberdroid itself, and all Aoi and I have got to deal with is the building's own security so it's basically that you're just helping us out a little at the start where we can't handle things, really..."

"Stop." Shion help up a hand. "One thing at a time." She paused herself and took a sip of water and then resettled herself in her seat. Aoi figured she was just doing it to make Moira sweat, but said nothing. "Let's start at the top. I bring us into the facility... where exactly?"

Moira looked embarassed, and would have blushed if her body were capable of it. "Weeell, the best open space for you to 'port in would be the foyer, here." The screen changed to a map of the building's ground floor. "The sale is taking place in a conference hall nearby, so the third prototype will be stationed there. That lets you break in and attack it quickly, hopefully before it's prepared to counterattack." She swallowed, and added "The problem is, the foyer's where the security forces will be concentrated."

"Then I suggest we bring something in with us to disorient the security." Shion held up on hand and ticked off suggestions on her fingers. "Standard SWAT flash-bangs. Smoke grenades. Tear gas. Fragmentation grenades." She paused and glanced at Aoi. "Anything else?"

Aoi shook her head. "I'll go with flash-bangs myself. Minimal chance of colateral."

Moira sighed and continued. "I'll be breaking into the building's security systems, to broadcast the facts about their product."

"And I'll be guarding you, right?" Aoi asked.

"Nope. You've got another job." The screen changed once more, showing a middle-aged balding man. "This is the head of Project Forge, the man responsible for this whole mess. He'll be holding on to the entire project's files. I've destroyed all other copies, but can't get to his."

"And that's my job is it?" Aoi asked.

Moira nodded. "They'll be either on disk, or on his laptop. Secure and destroy them."

"So what do I do with him?"

Moira shrugged.

"Perhaps he can suffer a fatal accident?" Shion suggested.

Aoi nodded silently in response.

"Such as shooting himself in the back of the head. Two or three times."

Moira blanched at the comment, but Aoi knew that Shion wasn't making a joke. Such "accidents," although rare, did happen. Executive giving the company trouble and can't be convinced to quit, retire, or transfer? Then he might just suffer a fatal "accident." Like falling on a kitchen knife. Twenty times.

Aoi chuckled to herself. "I remember someone who accidentally shot himself in the chest and plunged off a twenty story building onto a train track," she replied with a smile. "Something like that?"

"If you wish," Shion replied with a shrug.

Aoi nodded contently to herself.

The lobby of the Hotel Thebes was an expansive and elaborate affair, more resembling an old manor than a hotel. The floor was white marble, with white stone pillars lining the sides. Up the back, at the entrance to the valued conference room was a pair of curving staircases, leading to a short landing and a pair of huge wooden doors. The effect was marginally ruined by the numerous elevator doors lining the hall, but all in all it was...

"Boring," Rosalie said for the thirteenth time as she paced across the hallway. "Boring, boring, and boring." She stopped on one side of the hall, flicked her short blonde hair back over her shoulder and checked her pistol for the third time that evening. "This job is just so incredibly, overwhelmingly, mind-deadeningly--"

"Boring?" Her partner Zed chimed in, impassively. He glanced up at the roof and sighed, well used to the shorter woman's fits of impatience. Like her, he was wearing a simple black suit without a tie, and had his pistol tucked away in his jacket. Around them were all manner of other bodyguards, security personnel, and some that he suspected were little more than cheap thugs. Looking over their armaments, he couldn't help but feel a little inadequate with his security-issue pistol.

"Right!" Rosalie shot back, resuming her rounds of the hall. "I mean, here we are stuck out here with nothing to do. Heck, I could even go for a book to read!"

Zed glanced amongst the other personnel nervously. They seem to have taken quite an interest in her partner's performance. He sighed briefly, and turned back to Rosalie. "But we're meant to be on watch. You wouldn't be doing your job if you were reading." He knew it was futile; once bored, Rosalie was impossible to mollify.

Rosalie virtually growled at him. "Zed, nothing's going to happen! Bennet's going to sit in there for hours, make small talk, eat some tasty little treats that we don't get out here and go home. Meanwhile, we get stuck in this hall with these riffraff and nothing to do! It's so boring that it's... it's--"

Before she could finish, a blast of air from the back of the hall washed over them, nearly blowing her off her feet. She turned to see the Empress, Shion Nys, standing at the end of the hall in combat gear—black bodysuit, clamshell vest, and cloak. Behind her was a Japanese woman in a black armored vest and pants. A blonde girl in similar armored attire was cowering behind the pair.

"Happy?" Zed asked as he drew his pistol.

Rosalie may have been bored, but obviously others were not. The command of "Get them!" crackled over Zed's earpiece almost instantly. Which really made Zed have to wonder for a moment. How exactly was he supposed to "get" someone who was reputed to stop tank shells just by looking at them with a simple 9mm pistol? Better to put a round in the pretty head of the Nipponese street sam standing to one side. Considering the assault rifle she was carrying, he doubted she could stop bullets.

Taking aim, Zed opened fire, along with just about everyone else in the lobby. The rapid pop-pop-pop of pistol fire was joined by the chattering of submachineguns. The far end of the lobby became of storm of lead slugs, exploding glass, and sprays of marble chips. Pulling the trigger until the clip was empty, Zed hit the release switch, dropping the empty magazine to the floor. Pausing to slide a fresh one home he spared a glance for Rosalie.

"All out?" he yelled over upon noticing she had stopped firing as well.

His partner's reply was simply to point down the hall.

Looking back Zed's eyes went wide at the sight of the Empress standing out in front of the other two women, one hand held palm-out in front of her. All around them the walls were marked with the impact craters of errant bullets—except for a semicircular patch right in front of the trio. There, glittering silver points marked innumerable fired rounds, all hanging in the air mere inches from Shion's hand.

"Aww... hell..." Rosalie stated flatly.

Making a fist, Shion sent the spent bullets raining to the floor. There was a brief moment of silence as Zed, and perhaps the rest of the room, considered a new course of action. A fire fight with the Empress was not exactly a long term survival prospect. Not without heavy weaponry. Like maybe an orbital laser.

An instant of indecision over what to do next became a moot point as Shion whipped her right arm up from under her cloak, revealing a large drum-fed grenade launcher. A hollow *thunk* marked the first discharge, at which point Zed dropped down and rolled behind a pillar. Scant seconds later a sharp whip-snap *CRACK* along with a brilliant flash (which Zed could see even through closed eyelids) announced the grenade's detonation. More explosions followed, filling the lobby with deafening reports and blinding flares of light. Huddled behind his pillar, Zed kept his eyes screwed shut and his arms over his ears, hoping the rest of them had the common sense to do the same. Even if he wasn't going to fight the Empress, he's rather not be so blind and deaf that he couldn't run away from her.

Blinking spots from his eyes, Zed took a quick peek around the end of the pillar. Shion had tossed the grenade launcher aside and now stood alone in the lobby. Of her former companions there was no sign.

Rosalie lay curled up next to him, blood leaking from her nose, and a thin trickle of drool from her mouth. She might not have been bored any more, but nether was she going anywhere. Zed shook his head and gritted his teeth against the sudden wave of nausea. The last he needed was to get sick here. Glancing around he noticed that a lot of the security troopers were down, and those that weren't looked to be in worse shape than himself. If anyone was going to be stopping the Empress, it wasn't going to be this bunch.

The slamming of doors announced the arrival of fresh troops. A half-dozen men in full combat armor were up at the top of the balcony, having just come through the double wooden doors. Each carried the bulky-shape of a man portable laser—they obviously had been expecting something like this might happen.

Zed did his best ot make himself smaller as the squad all dropped to one knee and took aim. Shion, meanwhile, now stood near where the staircases met the floor, watching the proceedings with what looked like amused disinterest.

With the searing *snap* of a laser discharge the squad fired as one, the brilliant yellowish-orange beams converging at a point about a foot in front of the Empress—and then curving over and around her body, to strike the column behind her. Zed blinked, his mouth hanging open. He'd heard the stories about how really powerful esper weapons could deflect even laser beams, but had never thought it possible. Oh, it was possible all right, and make no mistake, it made for a real impressive trick when done live!

There was a moment's pause while the men up on the landing adjusted their weapons. Shion seemed to be almost waiting for their next move In fact, she seemed to have closed her eyes. Was she that bored?

Zed's musing about her mental state came to a sudden end as the marble floor cracked and pitched wildly, sections dipping down as other parts pushed upwards. The flooring at Shion's feet shattered into a cloud of chips and dust, the debris shooting upwards towards the ceiling. Another barrage of laser beams was a effective as the first, possible less so as some simply stopped dead on the invisible shields. Reaching out to grab Rosalie's jacket, Zed pulled her clear of the destruction. "You had to be bored, didn't you?" he asked her unconscious form.

There was a giddy moment where Zed felt like he was in a bad tri-vid—one where things kept getting worse and worse, not matter what the hero did to try and stop them. He almost wanted to asked "Now what?" but knew better, since there was no doubt his question would be answered.

A sudden deafening roar seemed to prove his decision. Then the double doors fairly exploded into a cloud of splinters. Glancing up, Zed noticed a huge blue-black shape, but no squad. Either they'd been in the way of the blast, or they'd made good their escape. Zed didn't care really—he just wanted to get out of there. Bringing Rosalie along was a nice option, but at the moment was looking more and more like a luxury.

And then he got a clear look at what was up on the landing. It was a cyberdroid. A cyberdroid that had opened up to look like some sort of weird bio-technical flower.

"We're gonna die."

The sudden flash almost blinded him again, while the wave of heat raised prickles on his skin. He wasn't sure what happened to the Empress, but he could smell something burning and could hear a loud cracking noise. Pulling Rosalie further along, he stepped over a groaning body and tried to make his way to the only safe place he could think of: outside the damn hotel.

A hissing, snapping, and popping marked the after effects of the 'droid's heat weapon. The Empress stood in the middle of a wide circular depression, surrounded by cracked marble and burning bits of debris. Zed wasn't sure but it look almost as if some of the marble had actually melted, which wasn't something he really wanted to think about. It also looked like a few disabled security agents had been in the blast zone, which probably explained the burning smell.

Shion herself didn't look much better. Both her hair and cloak seemed to be smoking, while she looked both upset and in pain. Zed was impressed—finally something had managed to actually hit the Empress through all those esper shields. On the other hand, all it seemed to have done was make her mad. Oh well, better the cyberdroid then him.

Slinging Rosalie over one shoulder, Zed abandoned sidling along the wall to make a break for the now-shattered front doors. The last place he wanted to be was at ground zero of any place where the Empress had decided to throw down.

He'd just reached the doors when a sudden tremor made him fall to his knees, Rosalie almost bouncing off of the flooring. Pausing to regain his balance, Zed promptly ducked as Shion went smashing through what was left of the glass fronting the lobby, quickly followed by the one-armed form of the cyberdroid. Well, at least she was getting her licks in.

"C'mon Rosalie, we're getting out of her." Hefting her still-breathing form back over his shoulder, Zed staggered towards what was left of the front. Sure Shion and the 'droid were out there, but out there was a lot bigger than in here. Speaking of which, where was her imperialness and her armored-plated dance partner? Zed glanced around worriedly. He wanted to know which way to run, and right now he had no idea where the fight had gotten to—and with his luck tonight, he'd end up back in the middle of those two instead as far away from them as possible.

A loud whistling noise made him drop the concrete, this time making sure to cover Rosalie's body with his own. Then a large shape dropped out of the night sky to slam into the courtyard fountain out in front of the Thebes, spraying water, ferrocrete, and bits of metal in all directions. Shion then dropped on top of the mechanical monster, slamming one blurry arm into it's chest with a wet crunching sound. She then leapt back up into the air, following up her strike with a telekinetic pulse that shattered what little glass was left in the lobby, but also blew the 'droid to bits.

"Damn..." Zed whispered to no one.

When she landed again, Zed could see the Empress was in bad shape. He wasn't sure what had happened up in the sky, but it had been nasty. Her cloak was in rags, the clamshell vest looked to be cracked, and her bodysuit was torn. Landing in the fountain, she fell to her knees, coughing and virtually retching before cupping water in her hands and splashing her face and upper body.

Morgan ran. Ran from the confusion, from the destruction and chaos that had broken out. Tonight had been his night, the night where years of hard work, painstaking design and engineering and some outright dirty dealing had come to fruition. Tonight was the night that Project Forge made its sale, where the millions invested would have all paid off. But it was not to be.

The first he had known was when the cyberdroid activated on the stage. He was making the presentation right next to the thing that he had created. All it needed to do was stand still and look impressive. But instead it had switched on, brushed him aside and stormed off the stage—right through the audience of potential buyers. They had scattered while he'd tried to keep order, and then the madwoman had shown up.

A short Japanese girl had appeared from one side of the stage. Without hesitation she had shot his four guards, and was striding purposefully towards him. There and then, Morgan had turned and run. Now he was hurtling down the corridors of the Hotel Thebes, looking for a place to hide or someone to help him.

He rounded a corner and ran headlong into a pair of suited guards. Behind them he could see another running to catch up. The three had gotten a hold of some heavy weapons, as one was carrying an assault rifle, and the other two had submachineguns ready. "What's going on?" the first demanded of Morgan, shaking him roughly.

"I don't know!" Morgan replied, the panic clear in his voice. "The 'droid's gone crazy and someone's attacking us..." He trailed off, hearing an unfamiliar voice over the hotel's speakers. It sounded like a young girl, but she was making some sort of announcement.

The four stopped to listen as the voice became louder. "...but of course you haven't been told about the project's dirty little secret. Each of the forge cyberdroids contains the brain of a latent ESPer. That's how they can sniff out other PKs and hunt them down."

The guards looked down at Morgan, horrified looks on their faces. "What the..." The first one said.

"What do you care?" Morgan snapped back. His voice wavered, and the colour had drained from his face. "Just do your damn jobs!"

"There's real people in those things?" Another of the guards asked.

Morgan glanced between them, horrified. They were going to turn on him; he could tell. He could imagine the reactions from the buyers still in the auditorium. Project Forge was ruined. He shook with terror and anger. The only place the announcement could be coming from was the AV control room overlooking the auditorium.

Before he could respond however, he sighted the woman from before, rounding a corner behind the guards. Morgan blurted out a warning and broke into a run, heading for the fire stairs. Behind him he could hear the guards' shouting and gunfire, but dared not look back.

He wrenched open the fire stair door, ignoring the ensuing alarm, and surged up the stairs. He stopped at the top, gasping for breath. Nothing had prepared him for this. But at least he was close to the AV room, and the sound of gunfire had stopped. Hoping the guards had prevailed, he strode purposefully forwards his destination.

"Time for my payback," Morgan said to himself and pulled open the door. The small AV room was empty, with each of the monitors displaying a grinning smiley face with a pointed hat. "What the hell?" he yelled, stepping up to the windows. From here, he could see the entire auditorium.

The place was in chaos. His guards lay dead on the stage, and seats were crushed and overturned in a path leading straight to a massive hole in the far wall. The screen over the stage displayed the same ersatz smiley face, and the message continued unabated, detailing the casualties of Project Forge's first prototype.

A noise behind him drew his attention. Morgan turned to see the Japanese woman from before standing in the doorway. She was dressed in a black bodysuit of the sort preferred by street samurai, and had a menacingly large pistol leveled at him.

"You filth," she spat, approaching him. "Give me the Forge data disk."

"Alright!" Morgan stammered, stumbling back against the console. He reached into his coat pocket and drew out a plain disk. "Here!" he tossed it clumsily across the room to her. The woman caught it in her free hand and crushed it.

Morgan stared down the barrel of the pistol, fearing for his life. "I'll give you anything! Money, a contract, stocks, you name it! Just spare me!"

A look of disappointment crossed the woman's face. "You are pathetic," she said coldly. "At least try to be a man."

Morgan stared at her in disbelief. He was at her mercy, yet she didn't fire. What was she waiting for? He spied a chair next to him. If I can surprise her, he thought, I may yet escape.

He sprang forwards, seizing the chair and swinging wildly at her. She stepped back, her face cold as if expecting his move. Her elbow shot out and caught him in the face. Morgan dropped the chair and clutched his broken nose, staggering back in pain.

He didn't see her level the gun and pull the trigger. He heard the pistol's report, felt the bullet burst through his chest. He pitched backwards, over the console and through the window. Morgan's world vanished before he landed in the auditorium below, amongst the dead guards.

"You look great," Aoi said calmly as she stepped through the chaos outside the lobby to reach Shion.

Shion looked at Aoi with an expression that mixed equal parts of disbelief and annoyance. And maybe a little humor. Reaching down for a handful of water, she rubbed at her face before replying. "Next time you get to fight the cyberdroid then."

Aoi raised a hand in mock surrender. "Oh, no fear. You're the professional here." She smiled in spite of herself.

Shaking her head, Shion gave Aoi a wry grin. "Did we win?"

"We won." Aoi glanced back at the hotel. "Moira made her own way out around the back. She'll be circling around to your apartment eventually."

"Ahhh... good." Reaching out, Shion extended an open hand to Aoi. "Help me out of this, will you? I've decided I don't like microwave weapons."

"You don't like microwave weapons?" Aoi shook her head as she helped Shion stand. "How do you think I feel? My body's packed with cyberware. Can you imagine what would happen?"

Shion shrugged, "Pretty fireworks?"

"More of an amusing jig. It's the reflexes." She threw Shion's arm over her shoulder and helped her stand.

"I need a vacation."

Aoi looked her up and down, taking in the smoking cloak and the blasted armor. "You've earned it," she said.

"This one was faster. And smarter I think. And I didn't have any heavy weapons." Shion shook her head. "My mistake."

Aoi nodded. "The upside is that you'll never have to go through that again."

"What makes you think that?" Shion shook her head. "We can't be sure we got everything. Or that someone else won't try the same stunt."

"I was trying to be positive," Aoi replied. "Silly me."

"Ah... so I shouldn't dim our moment in the sun then?"

"Well, it is late at night and all..." Aoi trailed off, chuckling to herself.

There was a few moments of silence as Aoi helped Shion limp painfully away from the scene of battle. Finally, the tall esper looked around. "Where to?"


"Right. Hold on tight."

Aoi looked over Shion's condition one more time. "Let's take a cab," she said hesitantly.

After so much running around, so much fighting, so many arguments, it was good to get back to the basics, Shion thought. She lay back on her inflatable bed as it drifted slowly across her pool with a tall can of Asahi beer in its side pocket. A white swimsuit, consisting of little more than a few stretched strips of material, maintained her modesty; for this time, unlike when she was last relaxing in her pool, she had company.

Aoi lay face down on a borrowed towel at the side of the pool. She was wearing a simple black bikini that she had hurriedly picked up in Tokyo after their visit to the hot springs. Moira sat on a deck chair by the door, also too heavy to swim, tapping away at her laptop and finishing up their final report for Spycorp.

"You know what I like the most about my apartment?" Shion said suddenly over the sound of Moira's typing.

"Hmm?" Aoi muttered, only half listening.

"Privacy," Shion replied out loud. Moira's typing stopped, and she slowly folded her laptop shut.

Aoi chuckled to herself. "You'll be rid of us tomorrow. I'm sure you can put up with the unbearable agony of our company for another night."

Shion stared over at Aoi, uncertain quite how to take that remark. "Are you two going to fight?" Moira chimed in.

"No," Shion said, leaning back again.

"We may. But you couldn't call it a fight," Aoi replied. She glanced over to Shion, then turned to look at Moira, a smile on her face. "More of a squash."

Moira shook her head and stood up. "You're so immature," she shot back.

"Yes, she is," Shion said dryly.

Moira turned and left, while Aoi gave Shion a curious glance. "Remind me, how much is 'Witchcraft' getting paid?" she eventually asked.

"You hired her," Shion stated noncommittally.

"Me?" Aoi propped herself up on her elbows. "You're the one who's in charge of this thing! You're meant to be sorting out her pay."

"Oh, really? I contracted for you, you subcontracted her. Perhaps she's doing this simply for the thrill of it? More money for the two of us."

Aoi couldn't tell if Shion was amused or annoyed at this point. She rolled over on her side to face Shion directly. "Oh, no. No, way. You are not dumping this on me. Jason specified that you were to reimburse anyone else as you see fit."

Taking a sip of her beer, Shion considered her answer. "Then draw up a contract for services rendered and I'll look it over."

Aoi glared at her, then rolled over onto her back, looking up at the ceiling. "Did I ever tell you I hate you?" she said, smiling broadly.

Taking another sip of beer, Shion idly gazed at the ceiling. "Several times, if I recall correctly."

"As long as we both know," Aoi replied. Shion could swear the girl was laughing to herself. "Stuff it. I'll sort out her pay."

"Suit yourself. But I did say I'd pay her."

Aoi strode purposefully through the warehouse, Moira trailing nervously behind her. Even in the few days since she had been here, Spycorp's headquarters had improved drastically. Whereas the place was still half-finished, the open and functional offices were far more complete and professional looking.

She stepped up to the secretary's desk and nodded to the woman waiting there. "Aoi dear, go straight in. He's been expecting you."

"Thank you," Aoi replied, nodding curtly. She handed the woman a disk, adding "Here's the account information," then stepped through into Jason's office with Moira following closely behind her.

The office looked far more pleasant and well-used. The formerly clean desk was cluttered with all manner of material, and a few decorations had made their way into the office. Aoi noticed in particular a picture of Jason and Moira on the desk.

Jason stood to greet them as they entered. "Aoi, good to see you again," he said formally. He spotted Moira next to her and greeted her warmly. "Moira! So good to see you're back. How was the school trip?"

Aoi watched Moira out of the corner of her eye. "Fine," the girl muttered quietly, keeping her gaze fixed intently on the carpet.

Jason glanced at her oddly, then shrugged. "Please, sit. And tell me how the mission went."

They took their seats. Aoi took a deep breath and began. "Using the available information, we tracked the first two targets to a Jinsei facility in Japan. There, we were able to destroy the prototypes as well as all files and material relating to their development on the internal systems. Witchcraft, the hacker recommended by Spycorp was vital in this part of the operation."

Jason nodded, smiling warmly. "I hear nothing but good news about this 'Witchcraft.'"

A smile grew on Aoi's face. "It was a good recommendation. Although clearly unused to field operations, Witchcraft adapted very quickly, and performed her duties admirably."

"Be sure to pass on my congratulations to her," Jason replied.

Aoi suppressed her smirk as she continued. "After that, we returned to Neo York to track down the final target. Witchcraft acquired the details of the upcoming demonstration and sale, and we decided that was the best time to strike."

"We know the rest," Jason said, smiling as he recalled the public spectacle the sale had become. "Not only did you kill the project, but you killed all future interest in it."

Aoi nodded. "We have, to the best of our ability, fulfilled our end of the contract."

Jason smiled back. "Say no more." He pressed an intercom button and simply said "Proceed with the transfer."

Aoi and Moira looked at each other. Moira's face was a portrait of nervousness, but Aoi gave her a reassuring nod.

"All complete," Jason said. He stood and reached a hand towards Aoi. "Please pass on my thanks to both Shion and Witchcraft."

Aoi stood and shook his hand firmly and chuckled to herself. "You can thank Witchcraft yourself."

Jason raised an eyebrow curiously. "I take it then that you've already set up a meeting with her?" Aoi only nodded her response. "When would that be?"

"Right now," Aoi replied, breaking into a broad grin.

Jason froze in place, looking at her oddly. "Now, I doubt you'd recommend yourself under an alias, rather than listing those skills on your own profile. And you're certainly not taking double pay for this job. So the only option is..."

He trailed off as his eyes fell on Moira. The girl seemed to be shrinking into her chair. Jason blinked twice, and carefully returned to his seat. He then nodded quietly, and broke into a smile. "Of course. Your 'school trip' starts the day you get the job. And you return they day they complete the job."

Aoi smiled to Moira, then turned back to Jason. "I'm sure you two have a lot to discuss," she said, and departed.

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories