By Max Fauth, William "Logan" Jordan, Mathieu Roy, Jeff Skagen, Mike Schiedel

A burst of static preceded Captain O'Leary's Irish brogue over the intercom. "Lassies, this is your captain", he said in an imitation of an airline pilot. "We're now cruising over the picturesque Neo York Zero Zone at an altitude of two hundred feet. Your navigator estimates that we're four minutes from deployment. Therefore it is imperative that we not be detected and given the chance of sonic sensors, we would like you to please shut the fuck up." The Irishman laughed at that, since the passengers had heretofore been mostly quiet. "Or at least keep your voices low. Thank you for flying Air Scorpion."

Raven closed her eyes, concentrating on keeping her Power under wraps to conceal her signature—another sensor that might give away the approaching aerodyne. Her calm exterior belied her interior excitement; she was primed, armed, and eager to kick Jinsei ass and take names. She felt like she was dressed for the Apocalypse; black, lightweight hybrid mesh/shell armor, Konachi battle rifle, long monosword at her back, the tech-looking visor/headset combo that would serve as low-light goggle, relay mission data and, not incidentally, interface with the battle rifle's smartlink. Before long the Scorpion, Captain O'Leary's stealth aerodyne, would drop their little hit squad, out of sight of the Jinsei HQ but within walking distance. Hans was ahead, already scouting the landing area; as soon as he gave the all-clear, it would be party time.

Next to her, Aoi glanced around, taking in the other operatives. She had opted for a lighter, more comfortable armoured bodysuit than Raven's, as she intended to spend the whole battle lying behind her gunsight. For what had to be the millionth time on the flight, she flicked open the long case that held the disassembled weapon. She had practiced unpacking and assembling the monstrous gun over and over before the flight, and was confident in her times. She looked at the door right next to her. If all went to plan, she would be the first one outside. She would take cover, set up her gun, and provide fire support. As her eyes lingered on Lora, Raven and Shoko, she hoped she wouldn't be needed for anything more. Next to them, she felt out of her league.

Across from Aoi, Shoko smiled reassuringly at her friend and then flipped her helmet visor down. In response, her CBA suit automatically began a self-test and status check. Safely ensconced in her ceramic-polymer armored shell, she actually felt more relaxed than she had all day, despite the fact that she was mere minutes from a combat drop. Keeping one eye on the data scrolling across her HUD, she began one last check of her weapons and ammo. For taking out cyberdroids and vehicles, she had a Jinsei-made 30mm Anti-Mecha Cannon. It was an immensely powerful weapon, but even for her it was rather heavy and unwieldy. Also, she'd found no spare clips for it, so she only had the 15 rounds of APFSDS ammo she'd loaded it with. Probably enough, if she didn't start using it's burst-fire mode. For close in work, she had her M-100 Pulse Rifle, also made by Jinsei. She'd found plenty of spare ammo and extra grenades for that, at least. Finally, as a backup gun, she had her Remington Stormbreaker. It sat at her hip in its old synthleather holster, dangling from a worn brown belt tied incongruously over her smooth, neutral-gray CBA. As her suit completed its self-diagnostic, informing her that all was well with it, she leaned back in her seat and tried to patiently await the go signal.

Lora was all business at this point. And she hoped that Raven understood why she may have seemed a little cool right then—she was the nominal leader of this mission and she felt she had to project a certain image. One last time she checked of all her equipment and tugged on a couple of points on her harness just to confirm it was set the way she wanted it. Like Shoko, she carried a large autocannon slung low across her back and carried a sub machinegun on a shoulder strap. Her usual pair of pistols were in the integral thigh holsters of her K-12 Gasium combat armor, and a mono edge combat blade was in a sheath along the back of her forearm. The muscle assist in the suit was turned off—it would've just slowed her down. Her hair was gathered at the back of her neck in a simple tail to keep it from getting in her way.

She focused her attention inward along the inner pathways of her Cybersystems and activated her scrambled commlink for a quick query to Hans in the Jaeger. <In position, Mr. Adler? We're about to drop.>

The SchattenjŠger was advancing cautiously and invisibly in a ground insertion towards the strike zone. Staying within the silhouette of the surrounding buildings prevented detection by radar, and the JŠger's stealth suite would deflect thermal or motion sensors, as well as more conventional cameras. The biggest concern was sonic sensors or live guards with augmented hearing, but there was little that could be done about that.

Fortunately, there didn't seem to be anything of the sort in the area as Hans swept the designated landing zone with the JŠger's sensor suite. He wouldn't swear that there was no one in the vicinity, but he was fairly certain that if there was, they were squatters who would likely be just as glad to see Jinsei go as not. Regardless, it seemed to be as secure as it would get.

The comm light lit, and Ms. Doubet's voice piped into his ear. <In position, Mr. Adler? We're about to drop.>

Keying the scrambled outgoing channel, Hans replied. <Affirmatif, Ms. Doubet. ElZed is clear, I vill cover your landing.> Weapon systems were live, the HUD had overlain the surrounding terrain with targeting grids and range designators, and the motolines jacked into his piloting suit were still reading at 100% efficiency. Hans was always well aware that for all of its successful performance so far, the JŠger was still a prototype, and he had yet to acquire any significant data on performance under live fire and while suffering substantial combat damage. And for all the usefulness of such data, he hoped he would not acquire much of it today.

"Roger that, Mr. Adler. Lassies, Alpha Team is clear for insertion." The aerodyne took a sudden lurch downwards. "We are on location and we'll be dropping in five, four, three..."

The bottom hatch of the aerodyne slid open, exposing the four women of Alpha team to the night air. Peering through it, the dirty pavement of an anonymous Zero Zone street was visible, some thirty feet below; detritus and bits of wood were blown away by the Scorpion's turbines. A rappel cable fell from the hatch to scrape the ground.

Aoi was the first to move. Case in one hand, she grasped the cable and practically leapt from the back door. She swung out, battered away from the aerodyne in the wind, before relaxing her grip and sliding quietly to the ground. She landed in a crouch and scurried away from the cable, pressing herself against the wall to watch the next one descend.

Lora grabbed the line in one hand as she stepped out into the night air. Holding it only lightly to guide her fall, she plummeted down to the street amidst the downwash. She let the line slide almost frictionlessly through her fingers until the last moment, tightening her grip just enough to slow her down. She struck the pavement with a muffled thud, and the hydraulics in her legs cushioned her, but the pavement didn't crack as it usually did with such falls. Instantly she rolled out of the way and came up with her Seburo ready, sweeping her eyes across the street back and forth.

As soon as Lora was clear, Shoko stepped out the hatch. Needing both hands to carry her autocannon at the ready, she ignored the cable and simply dropped to the ground. She landed in a crouch as her leg muscles, designed for enhanced leaping ability, absorbed the impact and quickly moved to one side, looking up and down the street for possible threats.

Raven slid down the cable last, still muting her signature—which greatly curtailed her offensive abilities until she chose to reveal herself. As soon as she'd let go of the cable, the aerodyne broke and flew off, leaving the four in the street.

"All right, fearless leader", said Raven, "shall we move it?"

Lora nodded, "Indeed." She reached over and flipped open the palm sized flex-screen of the GPS unit in its holster on the underside of her left wrist, checking for their location in relation to the Jinsei compound. She rotated the line-graphic view and zoomed it till she had aligned the way she wanted it. Orienting it to get her bearings.

So far, so good. They were starting on a street that was closer then she had really planned on, but Jinsei didn't seem to have noticed the drop anyway, which spoke for the expert flying of the aerodyne pilot. She'd have to compliment him later, if she had the chance. Visible a few blocks away to the southeast was the building with the old cedar water tower on top that they had noted in planning. The Jinsei compound was just a couple of streets over from that, and they had razed most of the surrounding buildings in an attempt to give themselves clear fields of fire. That works the opposite way as well, if you can exploit it to your advantage, Lora thought to herself. The building was 12 stories tall and the water tower would be a perfect sniper's nest, with a commanding view of the Jinsei compound.

"Okay then. Raven? Stay here and wait for Shoko and I to get into position. I'll signal you when we're ready to start. Teleport Aoi up to the tower then and if there's any Jinsei up there, deal with 'em quickly. We need that high ground for her sniper nest. As soon as she's in position, you 'port to our position and we start the noise for real."

"Right. Gotcha."

Aoi nodded in agreement. She looked nervously over to Raven. It was the first time they'd met in a long time, and the first time ever that they hadn't come to blows. Could she trust Raven? Was it just too easy, getting Aoi away from the rest of the group? No, she told herself, dispersing her fears. This was a team operation, and she could expect Raven to do her part properly. Aoi couldn't help but wonder just how long it had been since she last worked as a team.

Lora keyed her commlink, but spoke aloud so the others would hear as well. <"Adler. I assume you can see us?">

A flicker of movement off to the side drew attention—although as it turned out, it wasn't motion after all, but the SchattenjŠger briefly decloaking before vanishing again.

<"Right, get into attack position and wait for Raven's signal. As soon as you get it, open up on any heavy stuff you see. And keep an ear open for us, we'll probably need fire support at some point.">

<"Affirmative. The JŠger is highly mobile, so I vill likely be firing from multiple positions. I vill, however, stay clear of Ms. Aoi's line of fire.">

"Okay Shoko, let's get going."

"I'll be right behind you," came the Puma's soft answer.

Splitting off with nods of assent and wishes of good luck, the four women jogged off into the night.

"Careful", Raven whispered as she designated a sentry that Aoi, covering the other side, had missed. The two friends backed off and hid behind a building corner. Raven glanced at her watch—they didn't have much time left. "See any good sniping posts yet?" she asked.

"Only up top," Aoi replied. "But we spotted another sentry up there..." She cursed under her breath and gazed up at the roof. "As soon as we show up, he'll know it."

"That's a moot point", Raven said. "As soon as I teleport, their sensitives will go gonzo and they'll raise the alarm. We could just wait until Lora and Shoko are in position and pop up there—it'll give us the first shots."

Aoi nodded. "Best plan, then." She turned to glance out at the Jinsei encampment, waiting for the signal from her leader.

Per mission guidelines, unit Bu-65C-7723-Beta-24 maintained a sentry post 100 meters from the Jinsei compound perimeter at the edge of the cleared buffer zone. Unit 7801 stood nearby, also in sentry mode. They scanned the surrounding rubble and the streets beyond, their heads turning slowly back and forth like baroque turrets. Backlit by the powerful floodlights of the compound, they appeared as dark silhouettes rimmed in blue chrome highlights, the red of their optic sensors looking balefully out into the darkness.

7723 went still for a moment, then swiveled its head back to focus on a particular section of the street beyond the perimeter, querying it's internal diagnostics to confirm if its auditory sensors had picked up something out of the ordinary background noise. There was a flickering motion in infrared out there that corresponded to the last position of the noise, but it was indistinct. If Unit 7723 had had any form of intuition or imagination the hesitation could have been because it was uneasy. But really all that was happening was that it was going through its decision tree several hundred times every few seconds and trying to correlate what its sensors were picking up with matches in its database. In a moment, it would either decide that the anomaly warranted no further attention (several false alarms had occurred from cyberdroids shooting at rats until they were programmed to recognize the difference) or alert its compatriot unit to the disturbance and try to triangulate.

A chunk of depleted uranium moving faster than sound plowing through the right eye socket and destroying unit 7723's central processor interrupted the process. Any warning it gave would have been a moot point. Things were about to get overly loud anyway.

"NOW!!" Lora called out aloud and over her comm, as she and Shoko burst from cover, her aim with her autocannon shifting from the destroyed cyberdroid to the other one a few feet away. "Raven and Aoi, GO!"

Unit 7801, tracking back the round that had terminated its partner, had just locked Lora up in its sights when Shoko took her shot. She grunted in pain and staggered back two steps as the recoil of the massive autocannon she wielded punched into her shoulder. She knew she'd sport quite a bruise there in the morning, despite her armor, but the results were well worth it. Incandescent spall momentarily flashed out of blown seals as the hyper-velocity dart punched low into the 'droids mid-section and ripped into it's high-density batteries. Powerless, the cyberdroid tumbled back and collapsed in a smoldering heap.

"That's our cue", Raven said, reaching out for Aoi. Right hand to grasp her friend, left hand her sword-hilt, and her mind forming into the teleportation pattern—nowadays it was the ease of such coordination that amazed the esper. Relief coursed through her body as she unleashed her Power, hiding no more, burning like a gas torch to any Jinsei sensitives. Then for a moment she was an inferno as she *moved*, off and above, to the rooftop Aoi had identified earlier... a few yards behind a pair of Jinsei troopers.

Raven's monosword cleared of its scabbard a fraction of a second after they were fully materialized. She stepped forward in a crouch and arced her blade in a wide cut at torso level. The monofilament edge sliced through the first man's armor and into his chest as if they were thin air, and the man stumbled backwards to sprawl near the edge of the roof. Her second target, to her left, managed to step back enough that Raven's blood-trailing sword only went through his skin, inflicting a painful, but ultimately shallow, cut.

He spun to face the duo, raising his rifle to gun them down. Desperate, her head still foggy from the teleportation, Aoi swung the first thing she had at hand - the case of her massive railgun. The huge case caught him clean in the chest, sending him sprawling across the ground in front of them, his rifle skittering over the edge of the roof. Aoi barely managed to bring herself to a stop as the weight of the case threatened to pull her off her feet, then turned back to look over the increasingly chaotic battlefield.

Raven automatically flicked the blood off her sword as she'd been drilled to do, before she realized she was doing it. She looked at the sword in her hand a little oddly, then returned it to its sheath. "Gem—are you going to be able to set up?" asked Raven, looking down at the battle.

Aoi glanced up, nodding. Her case was already on the ground, parts of the massive rifle in her hand.

"Good... I've gotta go." And with that Raven was gone. One moment she was here, and the next...

The next she was over *there*, in the street right in the middle of the storm, striding purposefully towards the riverbank, where a heavy combat cyberdroid spun its limbs into an accelerated boot-up sequence. Raven lifted a hand, frowning, gathering her Power.

A shout erupted as a Jinsei trooper spotted the lone figure, and Raven turned just in time to see an APC bearing down on her, engine roaring. Yelling into his headset, the gunner swivelled the turret to fire at her. She put up a barrier at once, getting a lancing pain in her forebrain for her trouble. But when the twin machine guns fired, the bullets were diverted away from her to draw two dotted lines on the abused pavement on either side of her.

Raven snarled in anger, and lifted her two hands towards the APC, her hands forming into claws. She sent the Power she'd intended for the Cyberdroid. The APC's metal crumpled slightly under the telekinetic force and the engine strained for a moment against Raven's mental strength, before roaring like a lion on speed when the wheels lifted off the ground. Raven groaned and spun, the APC following her outstretched hand, circling to follow its motion.

The armored vehicle nicked into the cyberdroid, knocking the bipedal robot out of alignment. The droid reacted instantly, bringing its weapons to bear again on the black-clad esper. The loud staccato from the autocannon drowned out the APC's wildly revving engine, counterpointed by the rounds slamming into Raven's straining kinetic shield. Raven's stare of concentration never wavered when she swung her hands before her again, the APC following. The sudden reverse of momentum finally tossed the gunner from his position to a rolling landing on the ground.

This was fortunate for him; autocannon shells spattered against the APC and tore into the turret before the cyberdroid registered that its line of fire was blocked. Not giving the machine the time to react, Raven made a shoving motion, and in response the APC hurtled towards the cyberdroid. The two machines slammed into each other, the vehicle dragging the robot along under Raven's implacable strength.

And then the robot reached the bank of the Hudson and toppled over, the APC tumbling after it to a watery grave.

Raven bent forward, panting, and took stock of the situation. This impressive display had cost her reserves of strength deeply, and now soldiers were running towards her, weapons brandished—and some of the figures she recognized as black-armored figures of the elite Wolf Brigade, much warned about in Spycorp's intelligence prŽcis. Raven opted for discretion and *moved* away, to a spot she'd picked earlier for precisely that purpose, leaving confused Jinsei goons milling about in place.

<We're under attack!> Came the call from outside the Jinsei command bunker. The operators and personnel inside could here the sounds of battle; of gunfire and explosions starting up suddenly. The operators glanced around nervously, unsure of what to do, while the two Wolf Brigade soldiers by the door stood their posts with stern indifference.

<Seal the door,> came the order from within. Shun Maeda, the stern-faced, shaved-headed general of Jinsei's Zone forces stepped into the main command room. The operators turned back to their consoles, hands flying over their keyboards. <Report on the enemy's forces.>

<Sir, we've confirmed a small number of heavily armed attackers, including at least one class B or A esper,> Reported an operator by the door.

Shun furrowed his brows in concentration. A small force couldn't hope to dislodge their position, and would soon be overwhelmed by returning troops. They must have some other objective in mind.

<Recall divisions two, eight and thirteen,> he barked out, glancing up at the board. <Have them report to the main compound to reinforce our troops. Activate all reserve cyberdroids, and send half to the shelters.>

<The shelters, sir?> One operator asked. The workers' temporary housing was yet to be attacked.

Shun nodded. <This is a diversion, I'm sure of it. Alert the Wolf Brigade, and have them report to the shelters as well. Protect block 28 at all costs.>

Shun stepped back to the middle of the floor and watched the operators at work. His mind was on their special guests, the eighteen children housed in block 28. If the attackers rescued them... He shook his head, confident in his own men to see the day through.

From her vantage point, Aoi could see over the entire Jinsei compound. The huge concrete bunker dominated the view, with troops scurrying around it, moving in on her allies as they opened fire. Securing the last piece of her massive rifle, she set it down at the edge of the roof and sighted down the barrel. In a quick motion she wired the its smartgun link to her own head-mounted adapter. Information flowed through her, bringing her into touch with the very essence of the weapon cradled against her shoulder.

Already she could see Jinsei's forces kicking into action, organizing themselves into firing lines, and taking cover where available. She took aim at a section of crates, noting the quartet of soldiers firing from behind their cover, and fired.

There was no recoil from her massive railgun, only a loud crack as the slug burst from the muzzle at supersonic speed. The crates were smashed into matchsticks, the troops scattering to the four winds as their cover vanished. Aoi let out an appreciative whistle. This thing was just *too* powerful to use on regular troops, so she needed a harder target.

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a pair of APCs. They roared onto the battlefield, one approaching the bunker while the second made its way around and headed for the prison camp. "Oh no you don't," Aoi said and took careful aim down the length of her new toy. She fired, blasting a slug through the machine's engine block. The front section of the APC burst apart from the shot, and then erupted into a brilliant explosion a second later. Still in motion, the APC skidded to one side and slammed into an old house, collapsing the wall and half-burying itself under the rubble. She could see Jinsei troops bailing out of the back. She sighted on them briefly, but turned away. The thought of this rifle's effect on soft people was too much for her to bear.

Movement in the distance caught her attention, and she swung her rifle back around to her right. Beyond the bunker, she could see an array of large metal crates, the first of which was opening. The sleek, armored form of a Jinsei cyberdroid emerged from a gout of coolant gas, its sensor eyes glowing in the night. Next to it a second, then a third and fourth container opened.

"Aoi to all points. They're activating more 'droids." She fired on the first one that had sprung into life. It was gone from her sights a fraction of a second before the slug impacted, tearing apart its storage unit. She cursed under her breath and swung the rifle down and to her left, drawing a bead on the machine. It stared up at her, straight down the barrel, as its mouth blossomed open to reveal a high power laser lens. Her eyes widened in shock and she rolled to the right, yanking the massive gun from its tripod. A second later, a searing beam of light shot through the building, tearing across the rooftop where she had been lying.

She shook her head to clear the afterimages of the laser attack, barely able to see anything for the bright line scored across her vision. Locked onto the cyberdroid, her smart link reported it was in flight, making for her position. She closed her eyes and concentrated, focusing her mind on the information from the gun. She could almost see the machine's bulging armored chest as her hands twitched the gun into place by itself. She pulled the trigger, the gun sounded, and the cyberdroid dropped from the sky, inert.

"They know where I am," she said to herself as much as to her team. "This just got dangerous."

Inside the cockpit of the JŠger, Hans sat in the piloting cradle as he had numerous times in the past. This was just one more live-fire exercise. Optic cables were jacked into his piloting suit, leading from weapons control, hydraulics, flight control, targeting systems, and a host of other mech systems. The HUD glowed green apparently before his face, projected three-dimensionally onto his retinas by the data impellers that would stay locked onto his eye positions despite combat maneuvers. The piloting suit and projectors were just one of the many triumphs of engineering that composed the SchattenjŠger; no cybernetic interfacing whatsoever was required, enabling any pilot with sufficient skill to operate the mech without intrusive cybernetic implants.

But the HUD was glowing green, which meant all systems were operating at peak efficiency. Any deviations would show up in yellows, oranges, or reds, with additional data providing the specifics of the dysfunction. Weapon suite, hull integrity, life support, power plant, hydraulics, sensors, flight jets, cloak—everything was good for combat. 'Locked and loaded', he believed these Americans said.

Then the go signal came, and there was no more time for system checks or second and third thoughts as the compound came alive with scurrying soldiers and war machines. A pair of APCs roared onto the battlefield, one approaching the bunker while the second made its way around his side and headed for the prison camp. The JŠger's sensor suite picked up each moving signature and marked it with a blue 'potential' circle that flipped over to a orange 'hostile' triangle after two seconds when he didn't designate it as a friendly.

:Track and Analyze Hostile 2,: he instructed the JŠger's combat computer, speaking in the native German that the system had been programmed in. The triangle marking the second APC turned red, and the combat computer quickly scanned the image and highlighted the engine cover. :Lock,: Hans confirmed, and the targeting icon swept to center over the highlighted portion, modifying the aim point as the APC jounced across the rough ground.

The first APC's icon winked out as something tore into it with crushing force; Hans suspected Aoi and her railgun had something to do with it. Hands in the weapons control gauntlets, Hans triggered a sustained beam from the maser. The invisible beam of focused radiation lanced out to splash against the cover for a moment before punching through to the engine beneath. The APC swerved and slowed, a few seconds later grinding to an abrupt halt as the engine fused into a useless block of steel. Smoke streamed up through the two-inch hole as Hans disengaged the maser, and apparently some was funneling into the interior as the hatch was thrown open to release a diffuse cloud of its own.

Additional potential icons lit and turned orange as Aoi's call confirmed that more cyberdroids were being decanted to deal with them. One of the crates was summarily destroyed as more railgun fire streaked across his HUD, and Hans had the JŠger lock onto one of the emerging droids and was satisfied to see its sensor systems burnt out by a sustained six-second beam from the maser. The droid wasn't out of commission, but it was effectively incapacitated and as much danger to its fellows as it was to any of the strike team.

He was lining up his next target when Aoi's notification of her compromised position came in. Great. :Navigate, here-now to Friendly 1,: Hans instructed the JŠger's computer, having already marked Aoi's partially visible icon with the green square of allied troops.

The JŠger's jets, already running hot, flared into life as the mech lifted from the ground, headed in a direct course to Aoi's position as Hans concentrated his full attention on the rising cyberdroids. Careful sniping wouldn't do, now, and he switched the weapons suite over to the plasma canon. Instructing the computer to target the three still-functional droids—he amended that total to two as one was ripped apart by fire from the rooftop—he triggered a long burst from the plasma canon, short bolts of incandescent blue energy peppering the walls, ground, and droids impartially, blowing a fist-sized chunk out of each impact. One droid slowed noticeably, the other took a bolt to the face that destroyed its just-revealed laser canon.

Approaching the rooftop, Hans assumed manual control of the flight systems from the computer and instructed it to maintain firing upon the droids. Maneuvering the still-invisible JŠger between the droids, he opened a channel to Aoi.

"I vill handle these, little one," he said cheerfully—by God, he was enjoying this, wasn't he?—"you destroy more property vith your boomstick." Having engaged the all too visible plasma canon now compromised his own position, but it couldn't be helped—the JŠger was unarguably better suited to take fire than the petite Aoi was.

Lora and Shoko were in the thick of it when Aoi's call came in. After they had taken out the two sentry droids, Lora shot out all of the spotlights pointed in their direction and a good bit of the regular lighting on the tops of the buildings besides with several chattering bursts of fire from her submachine gun. At Lora's prompting, Shoko sprinted at top speed across the momentarily darkened fire zone to the relative cover of one of the buildings as the cyborg girl covered her.

A moment after she made it to the end of one of the barracks buildings, Lora was at the side of the next building over. She broke a door inward with her heel, splintering the lock and the frame, and tossed in a couple of fragmentation grenades before ducking and rolling back over to where Shoko crouched next.

"Fire in the Hole..." She warned, but Shoko already had her mouth open and her ears clamped shut. The KRUMPH of the explosion barely preceded the windows of the building being blown out.

"Well, that should soften them up a bit," muttered Shoko. "Hey Lora, how many more-"

"Lora! Shoko! Look out!" Aoi's cry over the radio came just as an actinic ion beam blew the wall beside them apart in an explosion of debris. Shoko threw herself to the ground and tried to spot the 'droid that had shot at them, hoping the cloud of dust was doing as much to obscure its sensors as it was her vision.

Movement and a metallic glint caught her eye, and she fired at just about the same instant Lora did. Debris sprayed, but an instant later the cyberdroid was charging forward to attack. Wreckage dangled where it's right arm had been, but neither of them had scored a kill shot she saw. Damn. Its 'mouth' opened to reveal the port of its ion cannon as it lined up for another shot and--the top half of its body exploded. For an instant, Shoko thought Lora had somehow gotten off an impossibly fast second shot, and then she realized. "Thanks Aoi," she said as she got back to feet. "Every guardian angel should have a railgun."

When the pain in her head subsided, Raven rose from her hiding place behind an air vent on the roof of one of Jinsei's prefabricated buildings. Near the edge of the roof, three fidgety Jinsei soldiers trained their weapons here and there, looking for signs of the attacking force. Raven grinned wickedly and lifted a hand, sending an expanding blast of pure telekinetic force just behind them. The Power shoved more than it punched, but it was enough to send the three careening off the roof and hurtling to the ground.

Raven strode over to the edge to take stock of the situation, feeding her shields with most of her Power, so that they would deflect attacks without spending precious energy on concentration. The bleed-off from the additional, uncontrolled telekinetic force grated loudly, threatening to pull the ribbed metallic plates off the roof. Bullets fired half-heartedly at her from excessive ranges pattered against her shield and deviated off in the intense telekinetic churn.

She didn't dare spend more than a few moments looking over the street in case some Wolf Brigade trooper might turn a railgun or worse towards her, but between that glance and the chatter on the team's radio she got a fair idea of the situation—more droids, chaos, and troopers running around. Raven's eyes narrowed at that last; the Wolf Brigade were running as units with definite purpose, and from what she could see, the purpose of most was not to stop her team... In fact...

They were headed for the shelters. Not good. She leaped off the roof and swooped downward, her Power carrying her towards two of the heavily armored soldiers. The pair easily spotted her and brought their machineguns to bear, the smartlink crosshairs on their helmet HUDs easily following Raven's vaguely evasive flight plans.

Accuracy was easy. Penetration would elude them.

The guns barked like a roused kennel, sending enough hot lead to empty a small mine towards Raven. Her shields took the brunt of the impact, and she groaned at the force of the impacts, winced when one bullet penetrated her shield to ricochet off her armor and get lost harmlessly in her shield's after-effects. The esper counterattacked with a sudden yell, hurling the same shoving ball she had used on the roof. It did little more than knock the heavily-armored soldiers over, but it was enough to throw their aim off.

Before they could recover, Raven was upon them, hoping that the close proximity would dissuade other Jinsei troops from taking her as a target. She refocused her mind, changing the fat ball of power she'd hurled into a tiny arrow of force that held the same force, and hurled it at the Wolf trooper trying to get up, on her left. The narrow dart penetrated the armor with a short crack and entered the unfortunate man's body, tearing flesh and bone as it went.

The other trooper was up and had forsaken the machinegun for a stun wand, its macelike head surrounded by a corona of blue-white electrical arcs. Raven bit her lip and backpedaled rapidly, narrowly dodging the man's first swing. A flick of the wrist, faster than Raven expected, redirected the attack towards her legs; she leaped in the air, her Power carrying her, and somersaulted backwards over the weapon.

She got to her feet just as the trooper was redirecting his strike a third time; strength was not needed with this weapon, the slightest touch of the head would jolt her. Raven surprised him, however, by stepping inside the bigger man's reach and extending her left arm to parry his blow at the wrist. Her right hand slammed into his chest, lifting him off the ground. He groaned, more in surprise than in pain, his armor having taken the brunt of her telekinetic strength.

Raven forced more Power into her arm and punched him in the chest again, remembering Kazuko's admonishment to use her palm rather than her knuckle. She hit with the impact of a freight train; the armor buckled, shattered ceramics flying, and the man was thrown back to land in a heap thirty feet away. The stun wand flew from his grasp, going dead as soon as his finger left the trigger. Raven clenched her fist, ready to finish the man off with another attack, but he showed no sign of moving.

Then she took off and to the safety of an alley between two of the prefabs, before the Jinsei troopers recovered enough to turn concerted firepower on her.

Shelter twenty-eight reverberated with the sound of another explosion. Inside, the children huddled together, fearful of the battle outside. Hime huddled up against the youngest, eleven year-old Eliza, and tried to calm the crying girl. She glanced up at Casper and Artemisia, the blond brother and sister pair who were doing their best to calm some of the other children. She watched as Casper wiped his brow, sweat beading despite the cold night's chill.

Glancing down at Eliza, she realised the girl had lapsed into quiet sobs. Just like Casper, sweat was beading on Eliza's brow. Hime wiped the blonde girl's brow and smiled weakly.

"You okay?" She asked gently. Eliza only nodded slowly, although her brow furrowed as if in pain. Hime nodded back. She could feel it too, some sort of pressure building up in the back of her head. It had grown since the noise outside had started, and was becoming more and more intense.

A shout came up from the children in the center of the room. Hime doubled over in response, clutching her head as she felt a sharp spike of pain shoot through it. Straining to open her eyes, she could see the other children responding in kind.

"It's close," she heard someone say. Looking up, Johan Scirocco and Haman Kell, the oldest of the group apart from herself, were standing by the door. The dark-haired Scirocco stood tall, hand braced against the door frame, with his brow furrowed in concentration. Next too him, Haman's eyes were shut tight as she clung onto part of the building's frame.

"I can feel it too," the red-haired Haman replied. Her breathing was laboured as she opened her eyes. They blazed white, pupilless as she looked up over the assorted children. "An Esper," she said in a deathly calm voice. "Almost reaching out to us."

The children fell oddly silent, as one, staring up at Haman. Hime knew, somehow, that she was right. She could feel it now, a powerful presence in her head that was fighting outside these walls. And looking between the children, she knew they all felt it too.

"Now I know why they chose us," Scirocco said. He closed his eyes and concentrated.

Block twenty-eight was little more than a pre-fabricated metal shed, bolted into the ground. As a cell, it could hold in all but the strongest people with a secure lock on the door. It wasn't designed to stand up to the firefight outside, even less to the pressures suddenly coming from within. The shed suddenly bulged outwards, searing at the corners and sending rivets shooting against its neighbours. A Jinsei trooper turned at the creaking noise just in time to see it explode outwards with a deafening bang.

The walls flew apart, tearing across the pavement and pancaking a few hapless troopers into the neighbouring sheds. The roof, another simple sheet of metal, hurtled off into the air, spiraling out of sight. The remaining troopers bore witness to an uncanny sight; of their eighteen most valued prisoners hanging in mid-air in deathly silence.

The squad leader was first to recover. He fumbled with his radio, and stammered, "Commander... Block 28... I don't know what's happened!"

Hearing his voice, Scirocco turned. The world seemed awfully clear to him now. He could feel the minds of his cell mates next to him. They were slipping away, losing conciousness from the tremendous shock of their rebirth, but they would live on. Beside him, Haman and Casper stood tall, floating mere inches off the ground, while Hime knelt on the ground, looking up in shock. He could feel the mind that had beckoned to them nearby. It shone out like a beacon; the Esper clearly in the midst of battle. Two more stood out, however faintly - one he knew would be safely tucked away in the bunker, the other moving about, no doubt fighting as well.

And in front of them was a soldier. One of their jailers, babbling into his radio. Scirocco raised his hand, already feeling the drain of their awakening sapping the newfound power from his body. But he knew what he had to do first. He could see the shock on Hime's face, the concern on Casper's. But hearteningly, he saw Hamen raise her hand with his. Both reached deep and pushed in sync, seizing the soldier with their minds and ramming him against another building, the corner crashing against his spine. He could hear Haman and Casper drop next to him, but he hung on. The soldier's eyes glazed over and he rolled forwards, collapsing into a heap on the ground.

There, Scirocco thought, suddenly more tired than he had ever been before. I've started it.

Darkness engulfed him.

For the last few minutes, Lora had felt something like a growing pressure. A... resonance... for lack of a better word. At first, she didn"t notice it, as she was already ignoring the bright ringing tone of Raven"s power. But finally, during a lull in the fighting, as she was about to reload her machine gun, she realized that it wasn"t only Raven"s power signature she was feeling. Seemingly in answer to it was another tone, or several, rising in intensity.

Imagine, if you will, being at a rock concert. Perhaps you like the band, but don"t normally care for your music that loud, but you can put up with the volume and intensity because you"ve steeled yourself for it and you know what to expect. And then all of a sudden, someone shoves your head into the speaker just as the lead singer stumbles, jams his mike into the lead guitarist"s amp and with the help of a feedback loop, they find THE LOST CHORD.

Lora gasped as a spike of pain lanced through her head, and the shed exploded outward.

She stood there, stunned for a moment, as pieces of shrapnel sailed past her. Shoko reached up and pulled her behind the old concrete planter they'd been using as cover. Peeking back over the planter a few moments later, they saw that where the cell had been a score or so of children now stood. No, not stood...floated.

For a moment, Shoko thought it must be Raven using her telekinesis to lift the children to safety. Then they started dropping unconscious to the ground. She watched as the boy in front throw the nearest trooper aside with a gesture, before he too collapsed like the others.

Espers, she realized. And they'd just exhausted themselves.

"That"s the reason for this..." Lora muttered, half to herself. "That"s why Jinsei is here..." She shook her head, as if to clear it. Then looked at Shoko. "We gotta help those kids,"

"Looks like it," said Shoko. "Why don't you circle behind this building to the next alley over, so we can catch these guys in a bit of a crossfire. I'll alert everyone else."

Shoko watched as Lora nodded, and moved out as quickly as she could while staying in a low crouch. Once Lora was out of sight, she keyed her radio. "Hey guys, heads up! We got twenty or so unconscious kids here need rescuing. Espers, maybe. Lora and I can keep the bad guys busy for awhile, but unless someone has a better idea, Raven's gonna have to evac the kids out."

Turning her attention back to the holding area, she saw that the troopers, who'd mostly scattered or dove for cover when the shed exploded, were quickly getting reorganized. In a few moments, they'd start to gather up the children what? Put them in other cells? Kill them?

"Lora, you in position yet?" she whispered in her mike.

"Almost," came Lora's slightly breathless reply.

"Well I can't wait any longer. Join in as soon as you can."

Although she wasn't familiar with Jinsei rank insignia, it was pretty obvious who was giving the orders. She raised her pulse rifle, sighted him in, and fired a quick three-round burst. The rest of the troopers scattered for cover as her shots rang out. But the discipline of the Wolf Brigade lived up to their reputation, and despite the loss of their commander, return fire quickly began to pepper the area around her. She fired another burst in their direction, hampered by the need to not shoot up the prisoner sheds.

A small, dark object flew over her head and hit the ground, clattering as it bounced away down the alley. She threw herself flat. Stray bits of shrapnel and pulverized concrete bounced off her armor as the grenade exploded some distance behind her.

She keyed her mike again. "By the way, if anyone wants to give us some fire support here, I wouldn't say 'no thanks'."

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