By Max Fauth and The Vainglory

Note: This takes place after Falling Down

For what seemed the millionth time today, Aoi cursed her stupidity. Again, a simple extraction mission had gone wrong, and now she found herself standing before the impenetrable tower that was an old department store building in the Zone. Underarmed and without a plan, she had rushed straight in the front, and had barely managed to escape intact.

They were too well set up, their base too well defended for her to take on her own. Again she cursed inwardly, and shook her head. It was all her fault, she knew. She was still angry from her fight with Kami, still angry at her own stubbornness. And that had nearly cost her the mission and her life.

She needed backup. There was no way to avoid the conclusion. There wasn't enough time to before her due extraction to get anyone flown in from the city proper, and she wouldn't know where to look around here for some useful support. That only left one option. Call in an old favour.

Problem was, it was too old. A favour from Rachel's days, running with the Yaks. They wouldn't have heard from her in years, couldn't know that Rachel was—for all real purposes—dead. Unfortunately, only Rachel could call in the backup.

Closing her eyes, crouching down in a hollow in the old street plaza, she pulled out her mobile and prepared to throw away her new life.

Shin Yodama sat back in one of the many open rooms of the old Family hotel. A Mafia institution, it served as a rally point for those fighting Jinsei in this area. A wet towel lay across his forehead, cooling him down despite the winter's chill outside. These days there was always work to do, always places to run. These brief moments of rest were becoming precious to him.

A tone sounded in his ear, signaling a call on his internal cell phone. With a thought, he received it, and the voice rang loud and clear through his head.

"Shin..." it said in a sultry, husky tone.

There could be no mistaking that voice. He sat bolt upright, the towel dropping unheeded into his lap. "Rachel?" he asked out loud, startling a few others nearby. He chided himself, switching to subvocalisation which carried loud and clear across his line. "It's been a while," he said coldly.

"Don't be like that," the voice, replied, with a warm chuckle. "I missed you."

Shin shuddered as he remembered the nights spent with the American girl on the other end. They were full of fire and passion, but even to a trained assassin, Rachel was to be treated with caution, if not fear. "What do you want?" he asked.

She let out a theatrical sigh. Shin shuddered, imagining the feel of her breath on his ear once more. "I need a favour."

"You already owe me," he replied sternly.

"Aww..." Her tone invoked a scolded child, her 'naughty girl' routine. He could never resist that. "But this one's not for me."

Shin sighed, and rolled his eyes. "What do you need?"

"I've got a... 'pet,' out in the zone." Shin could imagine her playful smile as she subtly degraded whoever this 'pet' was. "She's got herself in over her head, trying to take on the mountain tribe."

"And he needs backup?" Shin asked quietly. Whoever she was calling a 'pet' would be more than a casual acquaintance for her.

"She," Rachel replied pointedly.

Shin started, his brow furrowed in surprise. "I didn't know you..."

"I'll show you sometime," she said in a husky whisper. "Make it soon, okay? I don't want to lose her."

Shin loosened the collar on his shirt, trying hard to concentrate on the facts of the matter. If Rachel was back in business, she could be a useful ally. At least, he knew she was still around. She was many things, but in her own way Rachel was honest, and she would repay this debt. "I'll see what I can manage," he said at length.

"I know you will," the voice replied, and the line went dead. Shin stood, and made his way upstairs. He knew just who to turn to.

Across the town, hidden from view, Aoi curled up on herself and cried.

The sun hung low in the sky over the Zone and cast long shadows. A long figure in grey stood in one of those shadows and waited patiently. Theresa Morraine was hunting.

She pressed herself against the wall just inside the doorway of a gutted building. It was, she'd decided, just far enough off the beaten path to make the wait a bit more worthwhile. Anticipation was half the fun of hunting, after all. Sooner or later, someone would pass by, and then... Theresa stifled a snicker.

It was the better part of an hour before she heard anyone coming. She closed her eyes and strained to listen. Just one. Still a ways off. Theresa's hearing had been drastically enhanced, but to target-to-be was just barely on the edge of her perception. Step. Drag. Step. Drag. Pause... Someone with a bad leg? Theresa heard the slosh of liquid in a half-empty bottle and a self-satisfied grin spread across her face. Just a drunk; those were always fun.

As she listened to him approach, Jill the Ripper slowly slid her knife from its resting place on her hip. Closer now; just a little farther. Theresa's muscles began to coil like a cat getting ready to pounce.

Then Theresa's phone rang.

"Bloody hell!" Theresa heard her entertainment for the evening begin to shuffle off in the opposite direction. She mentally debated chasing after him, but the mood was broken anyway. She heaved a sigh, flipped her phone open and stabbed the talk button, "What, goddammit?"

"Theresa," Hoshi's voice was terse, "I require you immediately. The new location."

Now that was enough to get her attention in a hurry; he'd used her first name. And he'd said immediately. Normally, Hoshi got around to things when he damn well pleased. For that matter, now that she thought of it... so did she, "Wings cost."

"You'll get it," he assured her, "just get here in short order."

How intriguing.

Theresa stepped out through the doorway and looked around for several seconds to take in her bearings. Finally, "Ten minutes." She snapped her phone shut and walked back inside where she slipped off her longcoat, folded it neatly and put it in the corner. On top of it, she placed the wide-brimmed hat. She doubted it would still be there when she got back, but it couldn't really be helped. Theresa never wore her play clothes when she was working.

She checked her face in the mirrored top of her pillbox. Makeup was still fresh. Peachy. Theresa lit a cigarette, fussed with her tie a bit, and then took off in a dead run.

Slightly out of breath, Theresa flung open the door of Hiroshi's room at the Family Hotel to find the yakuza sitting in his chair, facing the doorway expectantly. Theresa took the last drag from the cigarette, dropped the butt on the floor just outside the doorway and ground it out as she stepped in. "Okay, I'm here. What's the crisis? I half-expected this place to be burning down."

"Not just yet, but I thank you for your haste. This is a pressing matter." He motioned toward the other chair, "Would you care to sit down?"

Theresa shook her head vigorously and smiled brightly with all her teeth, "Too excited. Just out with it."

"Of course." He offered her a slip of paper, which she slid into her jacket pocket without looking at it. "The situation is as follows: An acquaintance of ours has resurfaced. Apparently, she is engaged in an operation at the moment and has encountered considerably more resistance than was expected. She has just contacted us with a request for immediate assistance. Unfortunately, given the renewed push of Jinsei activity in the area, our manpower resources are stretched very thin right now. On this short notice, we are unable to spare any of our more competent regulars; however, I believe this matter worthy of our attention and am inclined to honor her request. Therefore, I would like you to depart immediately and assist her in whatever manner she deems necessary."

Theresa nodded, "I can do that. First thing's first, though. Who's paying me for this? You or her?"

"We are. And sending you on our behalf."

"Right. Next thing: What exactly's the job? What are the mission parameters?"

"I just gave them to you. Go to her location and assist her in whatever manner she deems necessary. The nature of the mission she was on is not known to us at this time."

"Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight." Theresa snorted. "So, just to make sure I've got a handle on this," she deadpanned, "You want me to leave right this instant and meet up with someone I don't know. At an unknown location. Face an unknown opposition. Of unknown number. And complete an unknown task."

"That is essentially correct; with the exception of the location. She is currently holed up in the basement of a ruined shopping center located near the edge of the wastes. The address is in your front pocket."

Theresa grinned again. "Well that's just dandy. Considering what this is going to cost you, I sure hope she's getting you something nice for Christmas."

"If I did not believe the effort to be a worthwhile investment, I would not have contacted you. Depending on the veracity of recent reports, she may have other means of compensating us."

"Oh really?" Theresa slid the address and a cigarette out from her pocket, "That's interesting." She paused, "No, no it isn't. I'm not even remotely curious about whatever power play you've got going on right now. Tonight, I'm just the trigger-girl and I've got some lost time to make up for. I'm leaving for this right now, right?" She struck a match on her thumbnail.

"Indeed. The matter is somewhat urgent."

Theresa lit up and shook out the match, "Right-o. Anything else while I'm still here?"

"When you are finished, please report and inform us of the specifics of her operation."

"Snitching costs too, y'know." Theresa said absently.

"I'll add it to your tab." Hiroshi wheeled his chair around and reached into the same desk drawer he had before and pulled out two neatly wrapped stacks of cash. Theresa found herself curious if his desk was simply full of money or if he put it in there right before she came... the way grandparents stocked a cookie jar... sorta.

"Your retainer. And the remainder of the sum owed you from last time." He noticed that Theresa's eyes had visibly glazed over, "Ms. Morraine?"

"Hm? What? Oh!" Theresa shook her head briefly and glanced down at the money, "Nah. You'd better hold onto it. I don't have time to go home first and I don't want to carry a wad of cash into a gunfight. And there's probably gonna be a gunfight."

"As you like." He set the bills aside. "Then that is all. You are aware of how to reach me."

"I'm gone."

As Theresa approached the shopping center, she slowed to a walk. The place was bigger than she was expecting. She cautiously began to circle around to the back parking lot. Before she could devote too much effort to wondering exactly what sort of business anyone had here, she spied a window just above ground level. It looked like it had been boarded up relatively recently. New occupants.

"Basement, huh?" Theresa crouched and promptly kicked in the window.

This could be a rather elaborate trap for all you know.

"Killjoy. I'm still getting my fun for the evening, either way," Theresa answered herself out loud.

Doing her best to avoid the splinters, Theresa slid in on her back and dropped into the opening... And landed facing a Japanese girl. Theresa's augmented eyes rapidly compensated in the dim light. A cute one. Dressed in black. Short, but leggy by proportion. Youngish. Long, straight black hair, tied back out of her way. Green eyes... really green eyes; artificial?

And she's pointing a gun at you.

Theresa grinned in slightly predatory fashion. "Hullo Pretty. What's a little girl doing out by herself at this hour?"

Aoi visibly flinched. "Little?"

"Sorry." Theresa shrugged halfheartedly, "My contact, I presume?"

"That depends; who are you?"

"Morraine. Theresa Morraine. I'll be your killer for the evening." She hesitated, looking confused, "No... wait; that's not right. I'm not going to be your killer - that makes no sense, y'know? I'm going to be... um... a killer in your employ. Yeah! That's it!" Theresa beamed.

Aoi had not lowered her gun.

"You don't look very happy to see me," Theresa mock pouted, "Hoshi-san told me you were in a bad way and needed some help."

Now Aoi relaxed, "You're with the Yaks?" She gave a small sigh of relief, "Great. Where's everybody else? Still outside?"

"Oh, it's just me," Theresa replied offhandedly, "I guess the rest of his boys have prior engagements or something, so Hoshi-san asked me to come instead."

"Just... you?" Aoi looked at her incredulously, "The 'best he could get' is one lousy second-stringer?"

"Lousy? Lousy?" Theresa sniffed, "I'll have you know I'm very good at what I do."

"You're a sam?" Aoi asked incredulously. Aoi knew she was a far less imposing figure than this Theresa, but at least she was serious about her job. So far, her 'backup' gave the impression she was on a summer holiday.

"Killer what?"

"A Killer. You know. A hit man. A topper. 'Assassin' if you're feeling especially pretentious. I am a professional snuffer-outer of the spark of life. Murder is my vocation." Theresa made vague stabbing motions as she prattled.

Aoi sighed and carefully lowered her gun, trying to suppress a cold shudder that ran up her spine. The woman sounded all too familiar in tone to her.

Theresa lit a cigarette. "Who needs to get to the business of dying?"

Finally, she's being serious, Aoi thought. "Okay, basic run is that we've got an ex corporate agent with important files who's gotten in good with a nasty booster gang." Aoi glanced up at the ceiling, seemingly regarding the cavernous building above them. "They call themselves the mountain tribe. They've been here quite a while, and know the layout..." She glanced down to see Theresa wandering off, intently inspecting her nails. "Are you even listening?" Aoi snapped at her.

"Hm? Right, right. I got it." There was something she was supposed to find out, wasn't there? "Soooo... what's in the case?"

Aoi sighed. "It's not a case. He's got it wired into his headware." She tapped the side of her head, indicating the internal computer that controlled her cybernetics.

"How many?"

You didn't hear a word I said, did you? Aoi thought. She shook her head and pressed on regardless. "Two dozen, give or take. All cybered, and probably well trained since our target joined them."

"Not good. I'm a little light in the firepower department right now." Theresa reached into her frock coat and pulled out a single pistol and a long, wicked-looking knife, "It's pretty much all I'm packing at the moment."

Aoi could only watch her, internally cursing herself for being similarly underarmed.

"It's not really my fault," Theresa continued unperturbed, "'Storming a fortified location' wasn't very high on my list of things to do today."

You'd have more if you didn't insist on bringing so little when you go out to play that stupid game of yours.

"Shut up," Theresa muttered quietly. She looked quickly at the other girl, "Not you."

An awkward silence hung in the air for a moment.

"So what have you got?" Theresa tried to ignore her gaffe.

Aoi sighed. "Not much better." She pulled out her own pistol, which Theresa recognized as a Beretta 93R, although it had clearly been customized. Aoi only shrugged, indicating she had no more.

"And your pimp stick," Theresa supplied helpfully. Reminded, she stopped and stared at Aoi's cane for a second or two. "You can walk, can't you?" Aoi didn't grace her with a reply.

Without warning, Theresa shifted gears again, "Are you any good?" She grinned.

Aoi gave her another nasty look. Like all the others, it withered against the shield of the woman's sunny disposition. The tone was earnest enough and she probably didn't mean to be insulting, but still... Finally, "I can take care of myself just fine, alright."

"Cool." Theresa lit another cigarette off the end of the first and let the subject go. Mostly because she had just become entranced with sight of the smoke curling off the end of her cigarette and disappearing. Her eyes took on that peculiar look.

Aoi watched her carefully. It was frightening, how just a couple of years ago, she would have behaved just the same as Theresa. Conflicting emotions welled up in her. Part of her was revolted by the woman's casual attitude to such serious business, and she expected Theresa would quite enjoy the coming fight. Another part wondered at just what had happened to make the girl so much like she had been, and she felt a twang of pity towards her newfound partner.

Admit it, you like her, said the guilty voice inside.

Aoi shook her head and drew back to the matter at hand. "So how can we tackle them?"

With great reluctance, Theresa's brain returned to the main issue of dealing with their infestation problem, "Lessee... Charging in the front way, it won't matter that there's two of us. They'd still just gun us down. What about from up top? Can we get in from there?"

Aoi reflected on this, "Now there's an idea. The layout is kinda like a video game. Mooks on the lower floors, sub boss halfway up and the Final Boss at the top. We can bypass the lot and just get what we came for."

"Hmm. But if we both go in that way, we'll still be close enough to count as one target. They could still concentrate all their fire on us without too much trouble. It would be better if we went separately, so they'd have to divide their attention."

"What did you have in mind?"

"I've got a plan. Sort of." Theresa reached into her jacket again and pulled out a small silver case about the size of a pack of cigarettes and an inch deep, "I'll go in first to distract them, through the front. You go outside. I'll chat them up a bit with my winning personality. When you think you've got an opportune moment, come in from the roof. I'll play with the boys downstairs for a while, while you sweep the top floor and grab the whatzit. After they're thinned out a bit, I'll come up to meet you. Then we run like hell."

"You're serious, aren't you?"

"Well... yeah," Theresa flipped open her pillbox like a compact and withdrew a small vial, "I suppose I am. It's a good plan, isn't it?"

"What makes you think they won't just shoot you once you stick your head in the door?"

"Oh, that," Theresa emptied a line of fine white powder onto the back of her thumb. She raised it to her nose and inhaled deeply, before letting out a contented sigh, "Well, they'll probably want to rape me first..."

Aoi was staring at her. Of course; she was being rude. "Meth?" Theresa offered the vial to the other woman politely and smiled at full wattage.

Aoi swatted the vial out of her hand, a snarl on her face. "Get serious!" She shouted as it clattered on the floor. "This is a dangerous job and you're... you..." She snarled in impotent fury at Theresa.

The glass landed with a tiny crunch. "Oh dear," Theresa sighed, "that was expensive." She wondered where she was going to get more. As the invasion dragged on, her seemingly limitless supply of pharmaceuticals had been dwindling away rapidly.

She shook her head again and refocused her attention on Aoi, "I am serious," she replied, sounding more than a bit puzzled. "I told you before, this is the sort of thing that I do. Of course it's dangerous; that's why I'm here instead of some Jenny Razorgirl off the street."

"Then act it, at least," Aoi said in a muted tone. Messing around had killed Rachel, after all.

Theresa looked very carefully at the seething woman. "Maybe you should stay here and let me get your thingie for you," she said as gently as she could. "I'll think of something else. You're going to get yourself killed if you charge in there like that."

And Hoshi-san is not going to be happy with us if you get killed.

Aoi closed her eyes, visibly calming herself. "I'm fine. Sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that." She let out a loud sigh. "Let's just get going," she said quietly.

Theresa brightened again like someone had thrown a switch, "No worries."

Tiny worries. You're out of speed until we get home.

"It can't be helped, can it?" Theresa said in a lower tone of voice. She slid a third cigarette out of her pocket and struck another match. "I'll leave now. In twenty minutes, I'm walking in the front door. Can you be ready by then?"

Aoi only nodded solemnly, as if lost in thought.

One last thought came to her, "I didn't catch your name, by the way."

"I didn't give it to you."

The woman would simply not stop smiling, "Suit yourself, but if I have to make something up, you're probably not going to like it."

"Aoi. Aoi Hara."

"Ah-oy. Ah-oh-ee," Theresa repeated herself a few times to get the feel of it, "It's a nice name. It just sort of rolls, y'know?" Theresa turned back to the broken window, "Well, if you'll excuse me, Miss Aoi, I have life expectancies to shorten."

Aoi shook her head as she watched Theresa go. She should hate the woman, and yet... Theresa was just too familiar, too like she had been before. If nothing else, she deserved the benefit of a doubt.

Theresa briefly questioned the wisdom of her brilliant plan as she tossed her pistol and dagger through the glassless front doors of the shopping center. She heard them clatter along the floor and come to a stop. It wasn't even like she knew this girl, after all. "I would really appreciate it if you wouldn't shoot me full of fucking holes once I walk in," she called in after them, "I'd just like a word with you, that's all." Oh well, in for a penny...

Theresa listened. Voices of varying urgency. Several guns being racked. "Okay, so I've got their attention," Theresa hooked her thumbs into her pockets and stepped through the holes in both the outer and inner doors. As she crossed into the threshold, she stopped as she felt the barrel of a gun being pressed against her temple.

"Izzer somethin' we can help you with?" The voice was halfway between a growl and an unpleasant wheezing noise. Keeping very still, Theresa looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Yep. Big, ugly, unwashed fellow. Horrible dental hygiene. In dire need of a shave. What she wasn't expecting was for him to be wearing a stylishly cut olive green suit. The effect was somewhat diminished by the fact that he'd torn off the sleeves to accommodate his massive metal cyberarms.

You keep neglecting to notice the guns people are pointing at you.

"I'm getting to it, alright?" Theresa answered both voices at the same time. She quickly scanned the situation. It looked like it had been a fairly nice shopping center back who knows when. Six floors, large lobby, lots of shops and a remarkably intact skylight. She noticed quite few members of the booster gang who, according to Aoi, called themselves the "mountain tribe" were working their way down to the ground floor to get a better look at her. Most of them had guns. All of them were dressed to the nines. Theresa found the effect positively surreal. She slowly raised her hands, "Nice threads," she commented quietly.

"I asked what the hell you wanted," the ganger replied, nudging her with the gun.

"No trouble. No trouble at all. I just want a word with whoever's in charge, that's all."

One of the gangers coming down the stairway grunted, "The boss is busy right now. Maybe he'll have time for you later," he looked at her appraisingly. "When we're done with you."

Nothing if not predictable, I suppose.

"Told you." Theresa spoke through tightly grinning teeth and took a few more steps forward.

"Don't move." The gang members formed a half circle around her. The one who had spoken pushed the man next to him, "Find out what else she's got on her first." While Theresa was still thoroughly covered by half a dozen guns, he began to frisk her. He took his time about it. When he reached the top of one leg, Theresa let out a little exhalation of breath and shifted slightly. She lifted her hands even higher and delicately crossed her wrists, arching her back and pushing her breasts out ever so slightly. The circle surrounding her began to converge.

Aren't you embarrassed? Everyone's staring.

As he made his way up her other leg, she carefully threaded her middle finger through the pullring on her left wrist. When the ganger reached her breasts, he took the expected healthy grope. Theresa instantly let out a tiny noise of distress. Every eye in the building was currently riveted on her.

And that was when Aoi crashed through the skylight.

As the gangers' heads whipped around to register the commotion, there was a high pitched 'zip' noise as Theresa yanked the ring in her hand. It was connected to a spool of garrote wire she kept on her wrist for 'special occasions.' The one who had been frisking her barely noticed as the wire loop fell through his field of vision and landed around his neck. Theresa yanked. Hard. He went down with a strangled "Urk."

Theresa dived headfirst through the newly made gap. One, getting his bearings faster than the others, got off a shot which caught the man on the other side of where she had been standing quite by surprise. Theresa rolled as she hit the ground, her hand closing on the handle of her discarded knife. She landing in a one knee crouch and tensing a moment, launched herself back into their confused midst, her dagger flashing out.

Above her, chaos reigned. Aoi had dropped down square on top of one ganger in a brightly coloured Hawaiian shirt, driving him to the ground. A quick flick of her foot kept him down, before she rolled off his chest, drawing her gun and coming up in a crouch. She was on an upper floor, on a walkway overlooking Theresa's spectacular entrance. Unfortunately, the closest escalators were half-way across the mall.

Silently cursing the shopping center's design, she broke into a run. A small rest area lay ahead, once a respite for shoppers tired of the enormity of this center. But now it seemed to be a rally point for the gangers. Three of them came into view, one hefting a shotgun while a second ran straight for her.

Aoi barely avoided the charging man's fire, then with a short hop, she sprang off an overturned garbage can, twisting in mid-air to kick the man square on his double-breasted jacket. She fired as she landed, toppling the staggering ganger, and springing towards the other two.

The one with the shotgun snarled and lowered his weapon, pumping it theatrically. Aoi dived forwards as he fired, taking cover behind a plastic pot-plant which was shredded by pellets. She popped up and fired, missing the man as he desperately surged back, losing his footing.

A whipping noise drew her attention, and she spun to have her gun arm caught with a thin metallic cable. Looking down its length, she could see it springing from a silver hand sported by the third ganger; this one sporting the ever-popular 'government man' look, complete with dark glasses. The metal cable around her wrist became crushingly tight, causing her to gasp in pain as the pistol slipped from her fingers. The g-man smiled and hauled back on the cable, internal motors whining as Aoi fought to avoid his pull.

Desperately, she looked around for a weapon. She was in the middle of the rest area, surrounded by sliding chairs, plastic plants and long-faded ads. To top it off, the shotgun man was rapidly closing, his shotgun leveled at her. Spotting the chairs, Aoi kicked out with her foot. A solid-backed, fake wooden bench slid across the floor, ramming into her approaching assailant and bowling him off his feet. She spun and jumped, landing on a second chair.

The resistance gone, g-man's cable reeled in at an alarming pace. Aoi slid towards him, chrouched on the chair as his own weapon provided her momentum. At the last moment she sprung forwards, driving her knee into his face and shattering his cheap sunglasses with a satisfying crunch. As they both fell, she reached into his jacket, drawing out a plain pistol. Gotta look the part, she thought of her fallen adversary. She fired the man's gun, once to keep him down and the second to take out his sprawling companion. Discarding the gun, she scooped up her own pistol and slid down the nearby escalators.

One down, five to go, she thought.

Aoi glanced down to see how Theresa was handling herself. Very well by the look of it. She kept herself firmly in the middle of the crowd to discourage them from all shooting at her at once. She bobbed, ducked, weaved and whirled, narrowly missing bullets and blows from all sides. Theresa spun and slashed and stabbed and shot, always looking just on the edge of being overwhelmed; and judging by the expression on her face, having the time of her life.

Theresa lunged forward as one raised his Uzi and slid inside his range, his gun arm extending over her shoulder. She slammed the blade between his ribs and twisted it nastily. Theresa reached behind her and relieved him of the gun as she planted a foot in his chest and shoved him away. Turning with the gun outstretched in her off hand, she sprayed a wide arc with bullets to clear herself a bit of breathing room.

"You see," she murmured, "We're having fun, aren't we?"

Shut up! Shut up! Just concentrate on what you doing!

Theresa charged up the stairs, haphazardly firing behind her to discourage pursuit. The gun jammed and she discarded it with a fling. Looking ahead she saw another thug standing at the top of the stairwell, blocking her way. She met him shoulder-first and the two of them rolled together until Theresa ended up on top. She clamped a hand on his neck, holding him down. Lifting her knife above her head, she snarled and violently stabbed him in the chest. Seven times.

Gangers flooded from both upper and lower floors now. The circle of them converged on Theresa again. She reached out in a blur and grabbed one in a painful hammerlock and pulled him into the path of several shots from one ganger that was smart enough to hang back from the crush of bodies. His gun found itself in her hand as she hurled the body through a glass storefront. She promptly emptied the clip at the one who had shot at her.

Theresa feet traced tight circles as the waves of gangers undulated inward to try to bring her down and outward as she beat them back. Guns seemed to gravitate toward her hands as she needed them and she tossed them away as they emptied. The rhythm of it all was comforting, in a way. Theresa's mind began to wander and her eyes dimmed.

"It's like what's-his-name said," she thought to herself as she ducked a swipe from a katana by a man who actually looked pretty good in that Armani.

Sword. There's always at least one idiot who brings a sword.

Theresa's hand flashed out and snared the man by his silk tie, "Unless two or more people have been trained to properly coordinate themselves as they fight, they tend to interfere with each other more than they realize," she mentally continued. Still holding on, Theresa leaned way back to avoid a gunshot passing through the place she'd just vacated. "With every additional attacker beyond the first, the amount of available 'real estate' on you for each one to hit decreases." She leaned forward violently, avoiding another bullet as it passed behind her and smashing her reinforced skull into the other man's unreinforced nose. As he staggered back fountaining blood, Theresa whipped her knife across the room where it buried itself in the gunman's forehead. "The more people you are fighting, the less each individual one of them can fight as his full capacity."

Where on earth did you hear that?

"Heinlein," Theresa dropped low to the ground and her leg scythed out in a wide sweep, sending three more tumbling.

What that one of your teachers?

"Science-fiction writer," From the crouch, Theresa sprang back onto the palms of her hands and pushed herself up. Her foot lashed upward, catching the next attacker neatly in the chin as Theresa held herself momentarily vertical. "Anyway, by contrast, when completely surrounded, anyplace you swing is bound to hit something." She let her legs fall backward and executed a gymnastic walkover to regain her feet. Theresa caught an incoming kick, grabbed the ankle and slammed her elbow into the knee, earning her a satisfying cry of pain.

Call me crazy, but I really don't buy any of that.

"We are crazy; the nice man said so. Remember?" Theresa toe kicked the ganger in the groin before letting go of his leg. "Look, I'll prove it," without looking, she slashed behind her with an elbow and was rewarded with a crunch as the man's neck turned farther than nature had intended it to.

Several seconds later, when no one else had attacked her, Theresa shook her head hard to collect her thoughts. Her eyes cleared and as she looked around, she noticed that she was surrounded by bodies. "Cool," she grinned, "I wonder if she got what's-his-name yet." Theresa spared a glance at the upper floors just in time see Aoi catch an incoming punch in her hand, then twist and break the ganger's arm before flinging him over the railing. Theresa watched admiringly as the screaming man fell five floors and hit the lobby with a nice, definitive, thump. She nearly purred with delight before dashing up the stairs preparing to join her, pausing only to retrieve her knife with a wet, popping sound.

As she crossed through the third floor, she stopped. In front of her was a miraculously, undamaged storefront window. Inside was exactly one miraculously undamaged mannequin wearing a miraculously unmolested dress. It was a deep blue evening gown with low cut neckline, slit up the side and sequined. The style was also years out of date. Theresa stood stone still, very nearly transfixed. "Pretty," she breathed. "It's blue. We like blue, don't we?"

Yes, you simpleton. We do like blue.

"I want it," she announced. "When we're through here, I'm coming ba-," Theresa was cut off as the bullet punched through her back and exited just above her hip. An enterprising ganger on the top floor had been ignoring Aoi and carefully preparing a high powered rifle to deal with what he considered the greater threat. Theresa stumbled forward from the physical impact of the shot and hit the wall hard. She struggled to maintain her footing. "It's okay! It's okay!" she said frantically. "It only hurts when I laugh. Or move. Or stay perfectly still... fuck," she gasped and slid down the wall, leaving a bright red trail.

"Bastard!" Aoi yelled out. The gunman spun around, all thoughts of finishing Theresa lost when he saw Aoi running at him, weaving between displays. In desperation he fired, clipping the girl's shoulder as she vaulted over a long-empty CD rack. She bore down on him foot first, battered his chest with a blur of punches, then leapt up, fracturing his jaw with a powerful blow from her knee. The man slumped against the railing, blood foaming at his mouth, eyes glazed over.

Aoi leaned over the railing to try and find Theresa. The other woman had slumped out of sight. Lost in desperation, Aoi barely heard the feral growl from behind her. She turned around, raising her arms at the sight, but not fast enough. A hand lashed out, catching her by the throat and shaking her like a rag doll. Through a haze of pain, Aoi recongised her target. Larry Claremont, a former Mitsumi agent. Squat, muscular and packed to the brim with cyberware.

She saw him pop his claws on his free hand, extending a trio of thin, curved blades from between his knuckles. Taking action, Aoi lashed out with her foot, breaking from his grip and flipping over in mid-air, to land gracefully on the floor mere feet in front of him.

Claremont let out a feral growl as an identical set of claws extended from his other arm. His eyes widened, pupils dilated as he fixed Aoi with a stare that spoke of chemically induced insanity. He ran his claws across his body, shredding the shirt he wore and bearing his hairy, well-toned chest, leaving it red with thin lines of blood. Crouching down in a low pose, he watched her with his crazed stare, focusing on nothing but his adversary.

Before Aoi could make a plan, he charged, slashing left and right with his claws. She dodged back, every swipe punctuated with a howl of rage and frustration. As he swiped high, she dropped to the ground, lashing up with her foot and striking across his chest. Seemingly unfazed, he tore into the ground where she had been a split second before. He glanced over to see her on her feet, drawing her pistol. A desperate swipe made her leap back, the gun firing wildly far from its mark.

This is insane, Aoi thought. They were matched for speed, and her blows had just about no effect on him. She tried to break, to get enough distance to draw a bead, but found such impossible between the leftover columns and display racks from the store's glory days. She dived behind a rack which he sliced to pieces, filling the air with shredded paper. Aoi rolled forwards and lashed out, sending a small stock trolley careening at him. He broke it to pieces, tearing into it long enough to let Aoi snap off a short burst at him. He surged away at the last second. Great. Now he can dodge bullets, Aoi thought.

Larry pounced on her, swiping high with his claws. She flattened herself to the ground, rolling aside and found herself up against a glass and steel rail. Glancing to her side, she saw the open cavern of the escalators stretching out below her. Another feral yell alerted her as Claremont loomed above her. She grabbed hold of the rail and kicked up, catching his gut with both feet. She pushed up, lifting herself over the rail and flipping him down onto the long-inactive elevators below. She twisted in mid-air, landing on the railing and drawing a bead on her target. He was already on her feet, and charging up the inert escalator.

Larry lunged and swiped at Aoi's feet. Nowhere else to go, she leapt, springing over his head. He watched as she landed on the escalator rail, barely keeping her balance. Aoi turned as her feet slid down the rail, pistol drawing a bead on Larry's torso. Already he was on the move, chasing her down. She fired, pumping round after round into his chest. He staggered, then crashed to the floor as they both reached the end of the staircase.

Aoi collapsed to the floor letting out a long sigh. The body in front of her was limp, blood pooling from the gunshots and foam dribbling from his mouth. She shook her head and looked him over. There was no sign of a datachip or the like in his headware, just the standard interface plug. That meant that the info was all locked inside his cranial computer, with no easy way to extract it. She let out a loud groan as she realised just what that meant—to get her payment, she'd have to lug the body all the way back to her extraction.

Her head spinning, Theresa fumbled for her pillbox. Scooping out a small handful of tablets, she tossed them back and crunched them loudly. She winced at the taste and spread them around on her tongue so they'd dissolve faster. Half a minute later, her eyes a little too clear now, she pushed herself off the wall and regained her feet.

You've got five minutes. Tops. We're going to have to wrap this little party up.

Theresa pressed her hand against her side and flicked out her knife. Running up the last sets of stairs as fast as she could manage, she was disappointed to find that the party was already over. Aoi was standing over the prone body of who she presumed was the original target, her hands under his arms and dragging him towards the stairwell. She looked like she had acquitted herself quite well indeed; a fair share of bodies lay around the top floor as well. "I guess you are pretty good," Theresa called out.

Glancing up at the sound of her voice, Aoi let Claremont's body drop. "You alright?" She asked with clear concern in her voice.

"Peachy keen," Theresa waved a dismissive hand, "Flesh wound and all that rot. I see you got short, dark and hairy. What's with the stiff? Just grab the file doodad, and let's blow this joint."

"I told you, it's in his headware!" Aoi shot back, a flash of anger returning.

Theresa sighed like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. "Can I see that?" she gestured towards Aoi's cane.

"What are you doing?" Aoi quietly asked.

Theresa slid the blade free from the sheath and held it out for a few seconds. She took a few swipes and turned back to Aoi, "Nice sword; good weight. I like a shorter blade myself, but it's a personal thing."

Theresa walked over to the Claremont's body. She grinned as the blade flashed out and neatly separated his head from his body with a spray of blood. Aoi wrinkled her nose slightly.

With little ceremony, Theresa produced a small bag, deposited the head inside and presented it to Aoi like a Christmas gift. "There ya go," she said brightly. "Problem solved."

Aoi gingerly took the proffered head. A thought occurred to her, "Do you mind if I ask why you carry this around?" she indicated the bag.

Theresa was looking around with a spacey expression. "Ears," she replied absently. Aoi let the answer pass without comment.

Noticing something, Theresa bent down and picked up a gun from one of the fallen gangers. She turned it over in her hands a few times. "I don't think I have one of these yet," she noted, depositing the gun in her now empty shoulder holster. She turned back to Aoi and opened her mouth to say something else, but stopped. She staggered and swayed dangerously.

Time's up.

Aoi noticed the bright red stain on Theresa's white shirt. It was slowly creeping out from under her long jacket that had kept it obscured. "Hey... Hey!"

Theresa pressed her hand to her side again. When she pulled it back, it was red with blood. "Oh yeah," she swallowed, "that." She swayed again briefly before her eyes rolled into the top of her head. Theresa pitched forward like a dead weight and landed solidly on top of Aoi, who scrambled to catch her.

She gently laid Theresa on the floor, checking on the other woman's signs. She was fading fast, and Aoi knew she couldn't help her here. Only one thing for it, she thought, swallowing hard as she drew out her mobile. She punched in the number for her employer's contact, and hoped he wouldn't mind a few changes to the extraction flight.

Theresa's eyes fluttered briefly, then opened. "How peculiar," she muttered at the ceiling, "it appears as though I am still alive."

Aoi leaned over Theresa, her face an unreadable mask, "You collapsed on me, so I pulled you out of there."

In her current state, Theresa's usual predatory smile was a ghost of itself. She tried it anyway, "Now why, would you go and do a thing like that?" She closed her eyes again.

Aoi softly laid a hand on Theresa's shoulder. "Everyone deserves a second chance," she said, her voice the slightest whisper.

Theresa ground her teeth a little. The wound hurt more now than when she'd received it. "I should do something nice for you. I'll talk to Hiroshi about waiving my fee for this job; the Yaks won't send you a bill."

"You did save my life and all. It's good to encourage that sort of thing. Besides, I haven't had that much fun in weeks. And it's not like any of that ammo I burned was mine, or anything." Theresa shifted again, eliciting another hiss of pain, "I can't remember the last time I've been shot." She considered this for a moment, "It hurts."

"Sure does," Aoi replied. "I'm amazed you stayed standing."

"Pills for my ills, dear heart," Theresa snickered faintly. She blinked hard several times and with considerable difficulty, produced her silver pillbox from her jacket again. As she struggled to open it, she fumbled with the clasp and let it fall to the floor with a clatter. Theresa panted with exertion and let her hand drop. After a moment, she sighed. "If you please, Miss Aoi," she said quietly.

Aoi reluctantly lifted the box and popped it open. Inside the case was a dizzying array of pharmaceuticals, both legal and extralegal, some she recognized, but most she didn't. Pills, powders, disposable hollow needles, capsules and several things she couldn't even identify were neatly grouped and compartmentalized by color. Before offering it to Theresa, she asked, "What are they?"

"Second layer," Theresa murmured, "Lift the tray. Blue tablets, the round ones in the center. Two. Just a little something for the pain."

Aoi slowly nodded and fished out the tablets for Theresa. "You'll be okay," she said as she carefully resealed the case. "I'm taking you to Doc Lydia."

Theresa gingerly accepted the pills and Aoi watched as she crunched them loudly before swallowing. A few quiet minutes later, Theresa let out a long, relaxed breath. "Aaaaahh. Much better," her voice had taken on a dreamy tone. She regarded Aoi, who was still holding the case. "Open it again for a second."

"What do you want?" Aoi asked softly, but with clear concern in her voice.

"Behind the mirror in the lid, there's a card. Take it."

Aoi gently opened the case and carefully extracted the card. It was an ordinary sized business card, chalk white with only the name, "Theresa A. Morraine," on it in neat calligraphy above a phone number. Next to the name was printed a childish drawing of a little cat in a pink dress with stubby arms and legs, a large head and no mouth.

"Amazing," was all Aoi said as she carefully folded the lid closed. She looked down at Theresa, "No card. Sorry. I'll pass on my number later."

Theresa accepted the silver case back and returned it to the pocket of her frock coat. She closed her eyes again and folded her hands over her stomach. "I wanted to let you know I appreciate it, y'know?" Theresa's voice seemed to be drifting off; she yawned, "You can call me if you ever need anyone offed." Her grin was still faint, but unmistakable, "I'll give you my special 'saved my ass' discount."

Aoi could only smile as Theresa drifted off to sleep.

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories