By Jamie Jeans and Jeff Skagen

This takes place a week after Hong Kong Nights

First, Ray pulled on the bulletproof vest, spending a few moments making sure all of the straps were on and tightened before pulling on his shoulder holster. Into it he slipped the .50 Desert Eagle into his shoulder holster, along with a few spare clips into the opposite holster before snapping the clasp over both of them. He pulled on an extra large coat, and into it he stuffed several kinds of grenades; smoke, noise, tear gas. After that was completed, he walked downstairs, to where Shoko was sitting, watching the TV.


"Yeah?" she answered casually, then sat up, ears twitching, as she noticed how he was dressed. "Whoa, there. What are you all armored up for?"

"Lets go to the Zone, and look for your family."

Shoko stared at him in surprise, mouth open. "Really?" she finally gasped, and then quickly jumped up. "I mean...yes, okay! Uh...I just need to run upstairs and gear up first. I'll be right back."

She ran out the room, but then reappeared in the doorway a moment later. "Oh, and Ray? ...Thank you." Then, before he could answer, she was gone again.

He could hear her footsteps as she rushed around upstairs, punctuated by the occasional bang of a slammed drawer or dropped item. After a few minutes Shoko returned, now clad in her ballistic armor suit. Previous firefights had left a collection of chips, scars, and scorches on the ceramic polymer armor plating, but if it wasn't pretty anymore, it still did its job. Slung on a strap at her side was her M-100 Pulse Rifle, a high-powered assault rifle and 20mm grenade launcher rolled into one. Her backup gun, a 15mm Stormbreaker revolver, sat in a holster on her right hip, and clips of spare ammo were held around her waist, along with more grenades for the M-100.

"Okay, I think I'm ready now," she said, glancing over her gear one last time. "So, um...what's the plan? Or should I ask, do we even have a plan?"

"The best course of action would be to start from where me and Korey first found you," said Ray as he walked upstairs, Shoko following closely behind. "There were tire tracks where we found you leading off somewhere, but we had hardly the time to properly investigate. The trail will be older now, naturally, but it is still a good starting point."

Shoko looked doubtful. "Well...I doubt there will be a viable trail after this long. Still, I can't think of any better place to start, so lets give it a shot."

As soon as they were outside, Ray wrapped his arms about Shoko in a friendly hug. "This will be a tad disorienting, I'm afraid," he said, his eyes apologetic.

"Yeah, I remember," said Shoko, putting her arms around Ray in turn. "But last time I had a concussion and I wasn't expecting it. I don't think I'll throw up this time."

With a nod, Ray closed his eyes halfway and concentrated. A few seconds later and, in the blink of an eye, they were gone.

While Ray poked through the collapsed wreckage of the garage, Shoko walked over the cairn they'd built for Ken to pay her respects. She wasn't quite sure how to do that—in the movies, it mostly seemed to involve either crying and leaving flowers, or else talking to the person as if they were present—but she had liked and respected Ken, and she wanted do or say something.

As she drew close, she was puzzled to see that someone had made an addition. At the head of the cairn, a cross was now stuck in the ground, with Ken's name scratched into the crosspiece. At first glance she thought it was made of wood, but then realized it was strips of wood-grained plastic, probably salvaged from the surrounding wreckage.

She paused a moment, as implications ran wild inside her head. Then she took a deep breath to calm herself, and called out. "Ray! Come here and look at this! I found something!"

He jogged over, gun in hand. With Jinsei still attempting to put down the Zone, it never hurt to keep the gun out and at the ready. "What is it?"

Shoko pointed. "The cross! We didn't put that there, someone added it later. I dunno...I was thinking it must have been Ayane and the others, that they'd come back to the garage once it was safe." She sighed and shook her head, ears drooping. "But now that I think about it, anyone could have done this. Ken had lots of friends around the Zone. I guess this doesn't prove a damn thing after all."

He patted her on the shoulder. "However, we have no proof that it was not Ayane and the others, so it would not be a bad thing to treat this as a sign that they are still alive." He pointed over past the wreckage of the garage, where a few posts of the fence still stood, a noticeable gap in-between two of them where two lay on the ground. "This may seem a stretch, but perhaps they came back the way they left?"

Shoko looked from where he pointed to the front gates, smashed open by Jinsei Ashigaru at the start of the assault, and shrugged. "Possibly...if only because the back way in would be more discrete in case anyone was watching. Let's take a look."

They were circling around the outside edge of the rubble that had been the garage, when Shoko abruptly stopped, looking around. "Where-? It's gone! Ray, the truck is gone! Someone took it!"

Ray looked quizzically at Shoko. "I thought you said they escaped in the truck."

Shoko shook her head sharply. "No, not that truck! The truck they got away in was Ken's little utility pickup. But the truck that I'm talking about now is the Nine-Tails Tow Truck. It was this bright-yellow, steam-powered, noisier-than-hell monstrosity of a truck. It could carry or pull more than probably any other vehicle in the Zone, and it was parked right here!"

"I see. I didn't realize there was more than one here," said Ray. "But I don't understand why they left in the smaller truck. Wouldn't the larger have served them better?"

"Nope. Too slow," answered Shoko. "It's geared for power, not speed. The acceleration sucks, and its top speed is only around 70 or 75 kph, I'd guess. Way too slow if your being chased by Jinsei Ashigaru. Also, the engine is totally exposed and steam boilers have a nasty tendency to explode when you shoot holes in them."

Ray nodded his head slowly. "Well then, I think we should see the trucks absence as another reason to believe they are still alive."

"Yeah," said Shoko, ears twitching slightly upward. "Especially since the truck wasn't all that easy to operate. It's not just anyone who could have walked in and taken it."

Ray looked at the ground where the truck had been parked, then said, "It looks like they drove it out the front gate."

"They would have had to," said Shoko. "The gap we cut in the rear fence wouldn't have been big enough. But we know there's nothing helpful out front, so lets continue around back."

Ray nodded silently, and together they began picking their way around the perimeter of the rubble.

"Did Ayane and the others ever mention whither they would go in case the garage was overrun?" Ray asked after a few minutes of walking in silence.

Shoko shook her head. "No, not as such. I'd told them they should head deeper into Southside or the Wastes, away from Jinsei, but I don't know if that's what they actually did." She stopped abruptly, head cocked. "Huh. Actually... both André and CK were injured after the fight, and we couldn't cram much in the way of food or medical supplies into that little truck. So, wherever they went, they would've had to seek out food and medical help before too long, right? We should be asking Zone docs about them! Uh, that is, if any are still around to ask..."

"Do you know many Zone doctors? The only one whose name I can recall is Doctor Lydia, on Clark Street, and that is only through reputation," said Ray. "It is closer to the front lines, but may be worth checking out."

"Well, there are others doctors in the Zone—Doc Hogarth and Ludwig the Mad come to mind—but Lydia's the best, and certainly the one they'd have wanted to go to if they had a choice." Shoko paced about uncertainly as she talked. "But like you say, her clinic is pretty much in hostile territory. If Jinsei found the garage here worth coming after, I doubt they left her place alone. I suppose we could go look, just to be sure, but...I don't know. I'm a combat synth, not a detective, darn it. What do you think we should do next, Ray?"

At that he paused with a hand placed to his chin thoughtfully. "It is said that when all solutions are exhausted, whatever is left, however impossible, is possible." At the look Shoko gave him, he continued on. "So we exhaust all options before taking on the more highly improbable ones, starting with clinics, and starting with Dr. Lydia." He gave her a reassuring smile. "And then from there we head out into all corners of the Zero Zone, if need be."

Shoko nodded slowly. "Okay then. That's what we'll do, once we're done here." She paused to look carefully at the ground behind the garage and around the broken section of fence, then shook her head. "I don't think were gonna find many clues back here. This dirt is too well packed to leave much in the way of tire tracks. You see anything?"

Ray jogged over and knelt down to give the ground a closer look. "No, nothing. Time and weather appears to have erased the only clue we might have had in where they went." He stood back up. "So let us first head to Dr. Lydia's and check in there. We may even be able to compile a list from Dr. Lydia about more of the Zone's doctors." He walked back over.

If she's even still alive, thought Shoko, wishing she could share Ray's optimistic outlook. When did I become a pessimist, anyway? Oh yeah. It was right after the world screwed me over for the zillionth time...

"Okay, that sounds like a plan," she said, a bit tiredly. "Dr. Lydia's it is. But first, I want to leave a message here, in case they come back." She picked up a chunk of concrete from the surrounding rubble, and walking over to where part of the garage's wall had not entirely collapsed. "Gonna have to be something simple, like 'Shoko was here' and today's date." Using the chunk of concrete, she began to scrape large letters onto the wall. "This is gonna take awhile. Next time we'll bring along some spray paint."

Reaching out towards another section of concrete, Ray concentrated, small bits of dirt and debris swirling about him as he lifted the piece up and placed it down on the opposite side. "I shall do the same, but on the other side, just in case." He floated over to it and began to write.

"Searching for you" was gradually written onto the concrete through the use of his powers, along with the date.

A few minutes later, finished with her message, Shoko walked around to join Ray. She glanced at what he'd written with satisfaction. "That looks great. Thanks, Ray. I just hope they come back to see it, though I don't suppose there's much reason for them to." She slowly blew out a long breath. "Oh well. We need to get moving. You ready? Then let's get going."

With a nod, Ray stepped alongside Shoko and slid an arm about her waist, the dirt about them whipping out in a wave of invisible power as he lifted them up into the air and flew off towards Doc Lydia's clinic.

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