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

Raven screamed stumbled forward, losing her grasp on the Power. It lashed out forwards, furrowing the pavement deeply in front of her before sending a squad of Jinsei troopers to scatter this way and that. She grabbed her temples and pulled back on her tenuous control of the Power, bringing it back in, denying it the destruction it so dearly wanted by sheer force of will.

She'd been mildly aware of something much like psychic white noise as she fought the Jinsei, as if she was using the Power through molasses rather than air, or swinging a baseball bat with a bunch of weights tied to it. And suddenly, suddenly someone had cut all the cords and thrown all the weights at her head, while she kept swinging uncontrollably from her suddenly lightened momentum...

And now she felt something like psychic white noise, or more like she was playing a trash metal song and suddenly had acquired a choir of background vocals. Only the vocals were droning, no tone, no inflections, no...

Shoko's voice came over on the 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."

Kids. Esper kids held in a kennel by Jinsei, to be turned into trained attack dogs later on. And with all the Power she'd thrown about she'd just poked their dormant telekinesis awake.

Raven clenched her fists, her teeth.

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

Raven moved. It wasn't hard to figure out where the kids were. Their collective Power, weak and undirected, was like a bank of fog in a clear sky. She teleported right in the middle, hovering a few feet above the ground. Sprawled all around her were children of various ages, from eleven to nineteen perhaps, dressed in the dirty rags of Zone inhabitants. Their Talent grazed the edge of Raven's perception, and she almost felt that they were hungry, seeking to feed more on her own mighty Power.

Four Jinsei troopers stooped when they saw her, lifted weapons. Raven snarled and swung her arm backhanded. She was twenty yards away. It didn't matter.

The telekinetic force lashed out, a broad, arc-shaped beam. The low psychic hum of the new espers around herself rippled when her Power passed between the unconscious children, to settle again when the teke bolt struck the troops, sending three sprawling exactly as if they'd been backhanded—by a Mac truck.

The last Jinsei trooper looked up at Raven, face pale. He recognized that snarl. He'd seen it on TV, on that Animal World channel, on the Alligator Allie show. Allie was observing a few bear cubs when the mother had returned and snarled, exactly like Raven. Allie had backed off carefully, whispering to the camera, "Well, mama bear's back for her cubs and what she's saying is, someone's in for a mauling."

Someone was in for a mauling. The soldier decided not to be that someone, turned tail, and ran.

Raven paid him no heed. She keyed the radio. "Scorpion, this is Raven. I need an immediate hostage evac."

O'Leary's voice chipped in. "Lassie, this ain't part of the plan and..."

"Fuck the goddamned plan!" Raven all but screamed in the radio. "Hasn't survived contact with the enemy. We've got twenty kids to evac right fucking now and you're going to come here and evac them or I'll go over there and yank your aerodyne here myself!"

"Okay, lassie, I'll be there. Sheesh, you..."

Raven tuned out the tirade and turned to face the oncoming Jinsei onslaught—the heavily armored Wolf Brigade troops, pointing light machine guns and heavier weapons her way as they ran towards her, alarmed commanders yelling orders. Raven clenched her fists again and levitated to meet the onslaught. She'd be *damned* if she left twenty esper kids much like she used to be in the not-so-loving hands of Jinsei.

"Damn," muttered Shoko under her breath as she listen to Raven's call for hostage evac. After her impressive thrashing of the first group of Jinsei troops, Shoko had hoped the esper's powers might extend to simply 'porting all the kids to safety, but that apparently was not the case. Of course, for all she knew, such a feat might be impossible even for the Empress herself. Well then, they'd just have to protect the kids until the aerodyne arrived. She just hoped it would show up before the cyberdroids that Aoi had reported closing in on them...

But in the meantime, they had a more immediate problem to deal with. Shoko keyed her mike. "Okay, Lora. Let's help Raven thin these guys out a little. I'll take the ones on the left flank, you can have the right."

She didn't bother to wait for Lora's acknowledgment before she jacked her M-100's grenade launcher and let fly. The 20mm high-yield concussive grenade denoted in the midst of the incoming troops, knocking several of them down. But where the regular line troops would have broken up and scattered for cover, the more disciplined Wolf Brigade held together and continued to advance, even as they started to return her fire.

Splitting up from Shoko, Lora ran over to a path between another set of Jinsei buildings. Her head still a bit fuzzy from the psionic backlash, she concentrated on one thing at a time. Get around to the other side. Catch the troopers in a crossfire. Right around the corner and up the path between these two buildings right here ought to do it...

Bolting around the corner, she brought herself up short as she almost ran right into four Wolf Brigade troopers coming the other way. For a split second, both the lead trooper and Lora stared at each other from two feet away. Then both of them yelled out in surprise. Lora recovered first, twisting her hips and putting what force she could in her somewhat off-balance state—still considerable—behind a single-handed palm strike with her left hand into the center of the trooper's chest. With a pained grunt of escaping wind, he slammed back into the two men directly behind him, sending them all sprawling. Bringing up the Seburo submachine gun in her right hand, she fired a burst at the men in front of her. One round found a soft spot in the neck armor of one man, who died instantly, but the rest bounced away. The impacts still hurt of course, and cries of pain and shock rang from them as the gunfire impacted their armor.

The fourth man—the last one still standing up—stood his ground as a couple of rounds panged off his armor, and almost simultaneously aimed his M-100, firing half dozen rounds back at Lora. At near point blank range, it was almost impossible to miss. He walked the burst from her left upper thigh up across her torso as the gun kicked upwards and to his left.

She staggered back three steps as the bullets bit through her combat armor and shredded synthflesh underneath before being stopped by her subdermal armor. One round tore across her right cheek and laid it open to the titanium "bone" underneath. She screamed in momentary pain before her nerves were shut down in the effected areas. The scream turned into a low growl of outrage as she felt at her face with her free hand. "Son of a BITCH!!"

She dropped the Seburo and popped the release catch on the harness holding her autocannon. Freed from the unbalancing weight, she leaped up and to her left to avoid the next burst of fire from the Jinsei man. Kicking off the side of the metal building with a loud bang, she cartwheeled through the air almost directly above the armored trooper. Startled, he tried to fire at her again, but her unexpected changes in direction left him cleaving the air just behind her all the way. She fell against the wall of the building on the opposite side of the alleyway, cushioning her impact with her legs and allowing herself to fall through one tumble on her way down to the ground. She ripped a couple of flash-bang grenades from her combat harness and dropped them to the ground as she popped back to her feet. She came up almost directly behind the man and grabbed him around the neck with an elbow lock, pivoting them both around...

The flash-bangs went off.

The two troopers still alive had managed to extricate themselves from their dead friend and get themselves in order. Tracking her as she moved they had just started to get a good aim on Lora as she came to a relative stop next to their friend, but the flash-bangs overloaded their protective lenses just as they began firing on full auto. She felt the impacts of the jack hammering machine guns on the man in front of her and had no pity for him.

His armor actually held up amazingly well, all things considered. He was far from dead, but certainly in a lot of pain. As the other troopers' flash protection faded, they recoiled in alarm, realizing what had happened. "Ah shit..." one of them said. Lora capitalized on the moment, picking up their semi-conscious friend, and throwing him at them. They both leaped out of the way to either side and he landed several yards behind them, his armor clattering on the ground, the noise almost lost in the general tumult of the compound.

Then she was right there between them—she moved so damn *fast*!! With Lora standing between them, if they shot at her, they might hit each other. Their armor would probably take it, but even though the troopers knew this intellectually, they still had to get over their natural hesitation to shoot. That moment cost them dearly, as the cyborg girl jumped up, twisted in mid air, and with a split kick, blew both of them through the relatively thin metal walls on either side of the alley.

After a moment, when it became obvious none of the troopers were getting back up again, she moved. Abandoning her almost spent Seburo sub-machinegun, Lora grabbed one of the Jinsei M-100 battle rifles that the troopers had been carrying and slung the strap over one shoulder. Ninety-six rounds left. Good. Then she grabbed her Autocannon from the ground and unfolded it to it full length, almost as long as she was tall. She made sure that everything fit properly and was locked in place. First full clip ready to go and one in the pipe, locked and loaded. Time for some serious rock and roll.

She listened for a moment to Raven screaming at the Aerodyne operator as she ran down almost to the end of the alleyway between the temporary buildings. She agreed with Raven's priorities, but they had to open up some space first. No sense in getting their ride out shot up.

She switched to a separate single channel to the pilot and said, <Scorpion, this is Doubet. I'm modifying Raven's evac order. Get her to provide cover for you if you think you've got an opening, but don't risk the aerodyne with anything fancy. Don't drop in if you think you'll get shot up doing it.>

O'Leary chimed in, <Definitely a Roger on that. Don't worry Lassie, I wasna' even thinkin' about doin it any other way.>

<Excellent, Doubet out.>

She leaped up top of the roof near the end of the alley and into a shadowed area next to an AC unit. From the sounds of fighting on the other side, she could tell she had flanked the Jinsei troops that had been in front of her and Shoko earlier. Probably lucky I went down that alley, Lora thought, I think they had the same idea in mind for me and I prevented them from flanking us.

As she scooted across the roof, Shoko's call came over her commlink, "Lora, you in position yet?"

"Almost," she replied.

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

Right, Lora thought, as she got to the edge of the roof, she put herself right beside and slightly behind one of the remaining flood lamps. The contrast between the intense light and the shadow right next to it should keep her from being seen for a few crucial seconds. She had a commanding view of the situation as she brought the auto cannon to her shoulder and sighted in on a Wolf Brigade trooper for what would be a quick first kill. An anti-mecha cannon against an armored trooper was perhaps going for a little overkill, but Lora was in no mood to fool around.

The same could be said for whoever opened up on her with the mini-gun.

The roof around her exploded in gunfire and she was hit several times both with bullets and with shrapnel. "Aaaah!!... God DAMNIT! Scheie!" She howled in pain and surprise as she leaped back trying to find some cover. She ducked behind the AC unit she had passed on the way. Bullets peppered the roof, dogging her footsteps and shredding a corner of the unit before the gun stopped.

Lora took a moment to assess the damage and recover from the shock as her system shut down pain responses. She had four solid hits, two along the outside of her right forearm and one right on the ball at the top of her shoulder, and another one in her stomach. She also had another crease in the synthflesh going from her right temple over her ear, and a couple more slashes along her side, under where the ribs would be on a normal human. Oh, and one more hit on the back of her thigh. Nothing critical—yet. But her diagnostics showed a good possibility of stress fractures in the stomach armor. That was the same place she'd been hit in a previous gunfight and she hadn't had the opportunity to get that looked at yet.

"Damn it, damn it DAMN it," Lora muttered to herself. This was getting way too serious. On some rational level she berated herself both for her carelessness and for getting angry over what was, after all, mostly only cosmetic damage. Both here and earlier when the trooper had opened up her cheek. But she couldn't help it. That layer of synthetic flesh was what helped her look and feel human. She sighed. No time for that now...

She flipped her vision to IR night vision and peeked around the opposite corner of the air-conditioning unit. The gun opened up again, but she was able to get a good look before she had to duck back. The bullets lit up like tracers, showing where the fire was coming from. There was a cyberdroid on a rooftop across the way. The building was one story higher than the one she was on. And yup, that was a minigun it was holding. And it had her locked on for sure. Damn.

Lora turned around behind the cover of the AC unit and positioned herself for a quick pop-up with the auto-cannon. She'd only get one good shot before she had to get back under cover, so she had to make it count. She went to her internal air supply and steadied herself, then got the position of the cyberdroid fixed in her mind's eye. One... two... three...

She stood behind the boxy AC unit and got a bead on the cyberdroid even as it started bringing the gun in line with her. Zoomed in with her eyes once, twice, and again, until it almost seemed she was looking into its blood red optics from 3 feet away. Heard the rip of the mini gun as it started firing, felt the impacts through the roof and the soles of her feet as the cyberdroid corrected its aim.

A 20mm round blew out the back of the cyberdroid's head, and it dropped backwards stiffly out of sight.

Damn, thought Lora, And we're not even close to being done yet. Nothing to do but keep on going. She went back to go help out Shoko.

Hans cursed silently to himself in his native tongue as the damage display on the HUD stubbornly refused to moderate itself to something less yellow and orange. Oh, he was in good enough shape, and the cyberdroid icons had all fallen dark—the last was now a smoking heap of expensive rubble on the ground—but the Jger had come through far from unscathed. There was a crack in the limb actuator assembly that was too extensive for the automatic sealant to totally repair, resulting in at least a 50% reduction in manipulative power to the limbs until he could get in there to do a full repair. The flight system had also taken a few hits, reducing the safe velocity he could push the mech to without overheating the remaining jets. Not profound damage, all told—if he was back at the lab with full funding and his support team. Out here, lacking resources and facilities....

Shoko's call for fire support wasn't something that could be ignored, however, and the battle was far from over. And it was indeed turning into more of a pitched battle than he'd be lead to believe—well, he would have to have words about that later. Assuming there was a later. At least the cloak was still functioning properly, and that was no small advantage.

"I vill be there shortly," he reported. Leaving the Jger's onboard computer to maintain tracking and labeling new targets as they would come into sensor range, Hans maneuvered the mech above the building tops as he searched for a pocket of combat that would indicate the location of one of his team mates. Even as the HUD drew his attention as it marked a visual key that might have been an explosion of some sort, a loud and aggravated cry came over the coms, part of it in his own tongue. Despite the gravity of the situation, Hans had to smile.

"Durchaus die lippe auf das mdchen," he replied over the comm, then returned his attention to business as he aligned the Jger over a mostly rubble-free street that was currently occupied with far too many Jinsei troops for the comfort of whomever was down there with them. The HUD started becoming peppered first with blue circles, then orange triangles over the enemy formation, the sensors tracking their movements as they took cover from renewed fire somewhere below and behind him. He designated a higher target further down the road as an ally when he recognized Raven, the esper becoming tagged with a green square—not a target. He hated to think what she might do to him if she ended up having to defend herself from friendly fire. Thanks, but no thanks.

:Navigate, hold position,: he ordered the Jger's computer, while he himself maneuvered his hands delicately in the weapons control gauntlets. Defining a firing zone with the thumb trackball in his left gauntlet that encompassed the main body of troops, he depressed the firing stud for the plasma canon and held it down as he played the point of aim back and forth across that firing zone, peppering the soldiers with cobalt blue bolts of plasma. Asphalt, armour, or weapon, each bolt terminated as it made contact with solid matter and converted a fist-sized portion of it into liquid and gas with a flash of heat. Asphalt bubbled and steamed, weapons interior workings fuzed, and armour was breached to sear the flesh beneath with third degree burns. No formation could stand up long under that sort of punishing fire, he was certain.

Unfortunately, while ultimately effective, the plasma barrage wasn't immediately debilitating, and while the Jger itself was currently cloaked from conventional detection, the bright blue plasma bolts made it all too clear where the attack was coming from. A few of the uninjured soldiers with still-working weapons turned their fire upon him, and he winced as decidedly heavy impacts for supposedly man-portable weapons spalled against the mech's armoured surface. The flight system status flicked over into orange at one impact, then alarmingly went red as a pair of additional shots dealt some sort of fatal damage to the already weakened flight system, sending it offline. Hans couldn't be entirely certain just what was wrong at the moment, since he was too busy abandoning fire control to deal with the fact that he was abruptly twelve metres in the air without any flight support.

"Scheie," Hans echoed as he flexed the mech's legs, hoping that the weakened actuators would be up to the strain of impact. For a stomach-turning moment he was in free-fall, then he was slammed painfully down into his seat as a ton of machinery met with unyielding earth with a thunderous impact. At least, he hoped it would be unyielding as he slammed one of the Jger's mechanical hands into the street to absorb some of the impact—he didn't particularly want to get a tour of Neo York's old sewer system by breaking through into it.

Fortunately, although the pavement about the point of impact was decidedly crazed with cracks from the abrupt application of force, it seemed up to supporting the mech's sudden arrival. Lifting the Jger's feet out of the impact-impressions, Hans highlighted a vehicle overturned on the sidewalk—one of the old SUVs of the early part of the century—and instructed the Jger's computer to walk itself over behind that scant cover while he reworked his firing solution. At that angle he likely wouldn't end up throwing fire into the midst of these unanticipated children, but he could with luck still keep the Jinsei troops pinned down long enough for the others to deal with them.

Defining his firing area again, he started raining a hail of plasma bolts down the street at an angle, the end of his line of fire being one of the decaying buildings that was quickly getting a several meter wide path carved into its side. And shortly, into its interior. He hoped that there wouldn't be anyone friendly too close when it came down after having its supports blown away. In any case, it was now a dangerous prospect for any of the remaining troopers to stick their heads up—even at a relatively low rate of 400 bursts per minute, the penetrating nature of a plasma barrage was deadly.

It's all gone wrong, Aoi thought. She pulled back from the massive railgun, taking time to eject the case and load up another clip of shells. Although they were little more than lumps of metal, the shape and mass of the shells was of extreme importance. The very weight that provided their penetration and stopping power also made it hard for Aoi to carry them. Sure, she was meant to be static for most of the battle, but it had restricted how many she could bring. But with the fight draggin on longer than expected, and with more targets than anticipated, the lack of slugs was beginning to be a real problem.

Pausing to check over her ammunition, Aoi cursed silently. Of her two remaining ten-slug boxes, one had clearly been damaged by fire earlier on. She thought back to Hans' distraction of the cyberdroids, allowing her to escape and reposition. By the time she had set up to fire again, the situation had changed, and all hell had broken loose. She slapped her last intact ammo box into the base of the cannon and resumed her prone position, taking sight on the battlefield.

The fighting in and around the prison camp was too tight for her liking. It was hard enough to get a clear shot into the mess of buildings without her allies inside. But above... She had heard the orders, and knew the evac would be there soon. She had also spotted Lora's high position, and new that the cyborg was the best chance they had for making that LZ. And like the one that Lora had already taken down, more cyberdroids were making their way into position.

Sighting on a pair, Aoi fired sending one of her precious few slugs through the air at hypersonic speed. It punctured through the side of one, taking it out of action immediately and letting its wreckage drop to the pavement below. The second immediately veered off, scanning the surroundings to find her position. Aoi sighted again and fired. Her second slug tore through its shoulder, tearing its arm off, along with the heavy autcannon cradled in its oversized hand. The machine sputtered, half its thrusters torn out along its back, and crashed to the ground below.

"Just so you guys know, I've only got eight rounds left. Lora, Shoko, I'll keep the air clear for you. Just keep those kids safe." She sent another shot tearing through the air, puncturing the hip of an older ground-pounder model of cyberdroid. It toppled over comically, its leg spiralling into the air while it flipped over forwards and collapsed on its back. Aoi could see it still moving, but doubted it would be a threat any more. Besides...

"Seven left," she reported through gritted teeth. And she'd need all of them to make it through the night.

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