Ahhh... Taking a sip of sake, Arikawa Shina paused for another puff on her kiseru. If there was anything more relaxing than a hot bath with all the trimmings—meaning hot sake and a pipe-full of tobacco—she didn't know what it might be. Sighing with contentment, she settled herself deeper in the steaming water, eyes closed, pushing the floating platter of sake away with one hand as the other kept the thin form of the kiseru just clear of the water. Boss Yuzo would see her in due time, but right now she wanted to relax.

"Is that her?" Yukito whispered as he knelt down to peer at the gap between the bathhouse doors.

Kiyohiko glanced over with a look of disgust. "How many female ronin are in this town anyway?" he asked with a sneer. "Yes, that's her." He leaned forward to look through another gap in the building's walls. "She killed three of our men the other day, and Boss Akira wants her dead before Yuzo gets any big ideas over who runs this place."

Hiroaki nodded and hefted his tachi. "Don't hold back once we attack. She's dangerous."

Yukito's eyes widened as the ronin's form rose up out of the water for a moment. "Sure is stacked though. Look at that rack! Can't we just sell her to a geisha house?"

A sudden slap made Yukito's head bounce off of the wooden planks. "Idiot!" Kiyohiko hissed. "The order was to kill her!"

"I dunno, man," Yoshihisa muttered as he took his turn at the gap. "If we rush her we might be able to take her alive. Have some fun with her before we take her head off."

"Yeah, yeah," Yukito nodded furiously. "Tie her down and fuck her silly. It's not like there's any women who look like that here in town you know."

"Well...." Kiyohiko considered the thought. Yukito had a point. The ronin was tall, long legged, and well-endowed. A virtually unheard of combination. Stretch her out between four posts, tied securely at wrist and ankle, stripped naked... Yeah, he could go for that. "If we can get her alive...."

"But don't do anything stupid," Hirokai warned. "We tackle her in the bath we might be able to do it. She gets a sword and we'll have to kill her. Got it?"

The dozen-odd men crouched in the dusty alley outside of the bath house nodded in agreement.

Kiyohiko stood, drawing his katana. "Then lets do it."

The doors slammed aside as the small mob of gangsters, gamblers, and general thugs rushed the bath house. They were greeted by a thunderous crash and a cloud of acrid smoke. Yoshiyuki pitched forward, his yari falling from suddenly nerveless fingers, to tumble into the warm waters of the bath. Mohiro fared little better, as a second flash of fire and smoke marked his crashing into the wall, a gaping red hole marring his stomach.

Thumbing back the hammer on her Colt Walker revolver, Shina kept the heavy gun at arm's length as she reached for her swords. The pistol had been a gift from a man by the name of Mark, who had come on the Black Ships from the land of America to visit Nippon. She'd been taken by the tall, blond-haired foreigner, while he'd found her to be an exotic beauty. Serving as a bodyguard and guide to Mark and his fellow soldiers, she spent her days learning English, while teaching them Japanese and taking them about Edo. Nights had been spent in passionate sessions of lovemaking. When he'd finally had to leave, he'd left the pistol behind as a gift and memento, taking with him her wakizashi.

A pull of the trigger produced another flash of flame and an acrid cloud of dark smoke. The recoil kicked the gun up and sent a shockwave down her arm. Shina gritted her teeth and grinned. Three down. Her attackers were now tangled up in the doorway, an undisciplined mass of bodies with no sense of direction. Not even bothering to sight down the barrel, she pulled the hammer back with her thumb, squeezed the trigger, and felt another comfortable impact as the gun kicked. Then she fired again. And again.

All thoughts of tying the ronin down for an extended session of forced sex had vanished almost with the first gunshot. Now all Kiyohiko wanted to do was get close enough to gut her open with his sword. Then he'd cut her head off. Just to make sure. She'd fired that huge gaijin gun five or six times already, and now he was down at least five men. Yoshiyuki was turning the bathwater red, Mohiro was leaving a thick red mess on the wall, and what little brains that idiot Yukito had were now splattered all over the place.

Raising his sword over his head, Kiyohiko leapt forward, bellowing out a cry designed to both bolster his own courage and startle his opponent into inactivity. A second later it ended in a wet gurgle as the shape of a wakizashi buried itself in his chest.

Pausing for just a second, Shina ducked as the screaming gangster's body fell past her, bathwater splashing in all directions. She stood waist deep in the now-bloody pool, her empty pistol in her right hand and her katana on the decking behind. She'd cut her attacker's numbers in half, five with the pistol (that last shot had simply punched a gaping hole in the pine wall planking), and now one with a well-hurled sword. That left a good six or seven, including one with a spear.

Rolling to her left, Shina pulled herself up onto the cedar planking that surrounded the bath and grasped the hilt of her long sword. With the exception of a brief fundoshi, she was naked, which was no problem for her—she'd fought that way before, but it might distract her opponents just enough to give her an advantage.

Grasping the saya in her left, Shina drew her sword, catching an incoming blade with a clang. The man behind the blade glared at her, pressing her blade down as his companion came forward, sword held high, obviously intending to cut her in half.

Tossing the saya aside, Shina took the hilt in both hands, twisted it to one side and dropped to one knee, cutting both foes across the stomach. "Dragon Sweeps His Tail!" she announced loudly.

"Dammit!" Kohota snarled as Reiji and Sora fell to either side of the ronin. He dashed forward, stepping around the corpses of his fellows, bringing his sword around. A moment later the blade cut empty space as the woman rolled forward. "Dragon Cavorts Among The Clouds!" she grinned up at him, blocking his following strike with what seemed to be contemptuous ease. A twist of her wrists later and his sword splashed into the bath. Glancing down at his empty hands, Kohota took a stumbling step backwards as the ronin stood up.

"Dragon," she said calmly, as she followed him, "Brandishes His Claws."

Hirokai stared as the ronin executed a blinding flurry of strikes. He'd never seen someone move so fast. She'd completed her third cut before Kohota had time to react to the first one. As he slowly crumpled she shoved him aside and stalked forward. Glancing to his left, he spotted Yashuhiro simply standing there, his spear pointing a the floor. "Kill her!" he bellowed.

Three left. Shina grinned, unmindful of the blood splattered across her bare skin. This would be easy. After all, there was no way the last living master of Hiryuu-ryu Kenjutsu was going to die at the hands of a bunch of incompetent punks like this bunch. The one with the yari lunged forward and she deflected the sharply-pointed head with the tip of her blade. Then came the Dragon Ascends To Heaven technique in which she dashed down the length of the spear shaft, her blade never leaving contact with the yari. At the last moment she made a quick downward cut... and there were only two left.

With a cry of fright Makoto turned and ran, hurling his sword away. The ronin watched him go, a smile playing on her lips. Hirokai snarled a curse and charged, hoping the distraction would be enough. His sword flashed, the ronin stepped to one side, and there was a sudden flare of pain in his gut. She stared at him cooly from under long strands of reddish-black hair, a thin trickle of blood forming along one cheek.

"How?" Hirokai gasped.

"Fury Of The Dragon," Shina announced calmly before pulling her sword free with a twist and a wrench. Stepping aside from the collapsing corpse, she whipped the sword down, sending a fine spray of blood across the room. Looks like she'd be seeing Boss Yuzo sooner than she thought. Then she'd pay a visit to Boss Akira.


There was something disquieting about visiting K's office, something that Sandra could never get used to. It wasn't that K's face was always hidden, and it wasn't that she spoke with abroad Australian accent similar to Sandra's. No, it was the fact that she'd only ever seen K's hands, and they appeared to be blue.

There were two others in the office with her. The first was a young Chinese man, apparently in his early twenties. Of average height, he looked rather fit and, Sandra couldn't help but notice, quite handsome as well.

She instantly recognised the other one, however. A short, blonde woman with bright yellowy-green eyes. Victoria Hagen, the best shot in the British army, her partner in several operations and all-around madwoman. But she got results.

"Commander." Sandra began.

"Blackmore, I have a new assignment for you." K replied. "You are aware of the impending invasion of Normandy?"

Sandra nodded. "I presume that this has something to do with that."

"Indeed." She continued. "The Germans have completed construction on a new weapon, a sophisticated heat beam or 'Death Laser'. They have concealed this weapon inside a Ch‰teau in Normandy that overlooks the landing site. With it, they'd be able to devastate the fleet before any of our men could reach the shore."

"So you want us to take it out." Sandra finished.

"Correct." She continued. "This is David Lam", she continued, indicating to the Chinese man. "He's an expert in the field of... this stuff." She waved her (blue) hand generally in the air. "We want him to take a look at the Death Ray before you blow it up."

"Excuse me, commander." She replied. "I don't see why I should be dragging along some civilian into this operation. I'm having a hard enough time preventing my own date form being shot off, let alone someone else's."

"It's a date date." Victoria added, and sniggered.

Sandra glared at her. "My point stands."

"Blackmore, this weapon could win the war, for them or for us. We want to see what it is capable of, preferably without having it used on our troops. He goes with you"

"Yes, commander." She replied, sulkily.


The three of them filed out the door. "Sorry about that." David began. "David Lam. Its an honor to be working with you." He offered his hand.

She ignored it for the moment. "Right. Just follow what I say and keep your head down. You let me do my frelling job and I'll let you do yours."

He swallowed. "Um, can I ask one thing?" He began. "About your eye..."

She paused. Everyone always asked that question. Except Hagen, for some reason. And she always provided the same answer. "It happened while I was looking out for someone else who didn't do what I told them to." She replied. "Think about it."

Getting into France was easy. Getting out was always the hard part.

The three of them snuck through the countryside under the cover of darkness, trying to remain unnoticed. To Sandra's surprise, the patrols were relatively light and sparse. This worried her. Why is something this important so lightly guarded, she wondered. Are they trying to remain inconspicuous or is it a trap?

They had traveled through the woods parallel to the Route Anouf (which Hagen had called "Rooting Adolph" and sniggered a bit more) until they had reached the Ch‰teau itself. A large, imposing structure, it had been tastefully redecorated in Nazi paraphernalia, suitable to is role as a regional command center and a good way to cover its somewhat run-down exterior. The grounds were overgrown and unkempt which to her seemed like an invitation for someone to sneak in. Sandra cautiously eyed the high tower on the far east side. K's information said that the Death Ray was in there, but she could see no immediate sign of it.

The three of them snuck around its back, managing to evade the patrols for the moment. Save for Hagen muttering something about the back door. So far, so good. A pair of sentries stood guard outside. Leaving David behind, she snuck closer to the entrance.

The two sentries weren't watching the forest as closely as the could. Good, she thought. Stupid, overconfident tools. Just the type she liked.

She puled out one of her Colt .45 pistols. So far all was looking good. If she was lucky, she could take one out before either spotted anything. Then it'd just be a matter of getting number two without making too much noise.

<It is cold tonight, Hans> One of them began.

<Ja.> His companion, presumably Hans, replied.

<I hope the war will be over soon.> He continued. Sandra was trying to figure what these two were up to.

<Ja. I wish to see my lovely wife and two small children again.>

<Let us hope that no Allied swine try to break in here, destroy the death ray and kill us both.>

<What are the chances of that happening? No Allied pig could get in here!> He laughed.

Hans too began laughing, but then suddenly tipped over forwards.

<Hans?> His companion kneeled next to him.

Sandra knew an opportunity when she saw one. Holstering her pistol, she charged out from her hiding spot in amongst the trees. She grabbed the guard, slamming him into the Chateau wall. Before he could recover, she grabbed his weapon arm in her right hand, the left knocking off his helmet before slamming his face into the wall a second time for good measure.

Confident that he was out of action, she walked over to Hans and checked him. There was a neat hole in his forehead. Looking over to the forest, she could see Hagen waving, probably grinning like a maniac too. Typical.

She'd wondered why a marksman like her had been bought on a mission like this where if there was any fighting, it'd be done at close range. But then, she'd also learned that with Hagen you don't ask too many questions.

She and David slipped inside the Chateau, quietly stepping over the bodies of the guards. So far it was quiet. Good, she thought. Maybe we can be in and out of here without too much fuss.

The Chateau itself was surprisingly quiet. Sandra and David passed a single patrol before reaching the top tower, and even then they effortlessly evaded them. They really weren't prepared for us getting in, were they, Sandra thought to herself. Either that or...

A single soldier guarded the entrance to the top room of the tower. He looked somewhat bored and, more to the point, half asleep. Keeping close to the wall, Sandra crept up the poorly-lit stairwell until she was almost on top of the man. Confident that he hadn't seen her, she pulled out a stout wooden stick that she'd picked up and charged up at him.

Before he could do or say anything, she swung, hitting him in the gut. The man doubled over in pain, allowing Sandra to knee him in the face. Swinging the stick down, she bashed the gun out of his hands, then bashed him into the wall. As he slumped, his helmet came lose.

Tool! A metal helmet bouncing down the stairs was the last thing she wanted. Grabbing the man with one hand, she frantically reached for the escaping helmet. Unfortunately it was just out of her reach. She watched in horror as the helmet fell to the floor...

...only to be caught at the last second by David.

"Nice." She whispered.

"Thanks." He nervously replied. "I saw it come loose and I thought..."

Sandra nodded. "Let's go." She opened the door and cautiously stepped in, pistol in one hand, the soldier firmly held in the other. The room inside was dark. So far, so good. She dragged the soldier in, then signaled for David to enter. As soon as he was in, she shut the door, propping it shut with the dazed soldier.

Feeling around in the dark, she found a light switch. The lights came on, flickering and buzzing as they lit up the room. Looking around, two things caught Sandra's attention.

The first was what she assumed was the Death Ray itself. Mounted on a retractable rail and pointed at a hatch on one wall, it was unlike any weapon she had seen before. The barrel consisted of four long metal struts around a series of what she assumed were some sort of mirror or lenses, like on a telescope. The body of the weapon was hooked up to a huge mess of power cables that fed into the wall. A large skull and crossbones accompanying a huge "ATCHUNG!" painted on the side left her with no illusions as to its purpose.

The second was a huge box-like device that seemed to Sandra to be nothing more then a mess of lights, tubes and vents. Whatever it was, however, it seemed to be eating up a lot of power, as it was being fed by almost as many cables as the Death Ray.

"Okay, David." She began. "Go to work. There's the Death Ray and... some... tooly Nazi thingamabob." She had no idea at the huge box was for, but figured that David might. Of course, so far, her concerns about bringing him along had proved to be groundless. The opposition here had been far less then she'd expected.

"It's a Schpringwerken-Schanppen-Blinkenlites Type I Computator." David replied as he examined the huge box. "Amazing. I didn't think there were more then the two they have in Berlin. I wonder what it's doing out here."

"A what?" Sandra replied. She'd been studying the Death Ray, trying to figure the best way to completely destroy it. For once she wished she had that hyperactive monkey Stuart Finaly with her. He was good with breaking things.

"Think of it as an electronic brain." David replied. "Its an incredibly sophisticated form of electronic adding machine, that can perform incredibly complicated calculations."

"Right." Sandra replied. "So how would I break it?"

"You wouldn't." A voice came from behind. Spinning around, she could see a tall, mustachioed white-haired man in a white generals uniform standing in the doorway. There was another man next to him who had a sharp, angular face and wore a black uniform. Around them, the walls were lined with troopers wearing red uniforms.

"Baron Kessels" Sandra replied, angrily. "And major Schwartz. I should have expected you two tools."

"We meet again, Agent Blackmore." The Baron replied. "I knew that a prize like this would be too much for you to pass up."

"Who is this guy?" David asked.

"Baron Kessels, commander of the fanatical Red Shadow Battalion." Sandra explained. "He's a tool. A genius, but a tool nonetheless. He and I... well, we've met before."

"And the man in black?"

"Major Schwartz, his second in command. He's the real brains of the outfit. Its that tool who does all the work."

"Silence!" Kessels shouted. "You have provided me with many hours of aggravation, Blackmore. However, today you will die for al the grief you have given me."

Schwartz raised his pistol. "Auf Veiders-"

Kassels slapped him aside. <You fool!>

<But Baron!> Schwartz replied. <It would be prudent to kill them now before->

<Silence! I will be the one to decide how my third-greatest enemy dies!> He gestured to a group of soldiers. <Take them... to the dungeon.>

Sandra had been expecting the traditional dank stone room with chains, rats and the odd skeleton. This... this was unexpected.

She and David had been taken to a massive subterranean chamber underneath the Chateau. The chamber was packed out with... well, she wasn't sure what it was. There was an enormous amount of electrical equipment, which to her suggested some sort of power station, but not like one she'd ever seen, or blown up before.

"Impressive, isn't it?" Kessler began. "I think that a complex of this magnificence would be a suitable place for you to meet your fate, Blackmore." A pair of goons were securing her and David to a crane, albeit upside down.

"Okay, I'll admit that I'm impressed, you big tool." Sandra replied. "That is to say, would be if I had any idea what I was doing and what in the name of frelling hell you were planning to do with it."

The Baron laughed. "Ah, Ms Blackmore, ever the rapier wit. This..." He gestured around the chamber. "Is an atomic reactor. It harnesses the very power of the sun itself in order to generate an unlimited supply of energy!"

"You have an atomic reactor?" David asked. "I'm amazed. Can I ask what you need it for?"

A Japanese man stepped out form behind the Baron. He wore a red uniform like everyone else, as well as a pair of goggles. "This is Dr Taro Watanabe of the Tokyo University." He began. "Dr Watanabe, explain to our guests what we need the reactor for."

"Hai, Baron-Sama." Taro replied, before turning to the pair of them. "You see, I have perfected the Death Ray weapon, a device so powerful that it will render all modern weaponry obsolete. The Death Ray's destructive power is linked to the amount of energy it can feed off. With this Atomic Reactor, there will be nothing that it cannot defeat!"

"Taro has constructed a series of special mirrors that will allow us to reflect the Death Ray's beams to any target that we wish. With the power of the sun behind it, the Death Ray will be used to destroy the cities of the English and force them into submission." The baron explained further.

"Hai." Taro finished. 'But it needs a sophisticated computator to work out the calculations for the reflections. Thus the merging of Japanese and German science was needed to create this devastating weapon!"

"And tomorrow morning, we will demonstrate our weapon... by destroying London!" The pair of them burst out into a round of maniacal laugher. Only the Major remained quiet.

<Baron, I am going to go and check our escape aircraft... in case... something happens.> He quietly added.

<Nothing can stop us now!> The Baron replied.

<I just wish to be certain that al is functioning normally.> Schwartz continued.

<Very well then.> The Baron sighed as Shcwartz left the room. He turned back to Sandra and David. "Unfortunately, you will not be able to witness our triumph."

"I'm devastated." Sandra replied, dryly. "So what is it this time, Sharks? Crocodiles? Penguins, maybe?"

"The Atomic reactor generates incredible amounts of heat when it operates." The Baron continued, ignoring her for the moment. "The vat below you is one of its coolant units. The water in there is boiling hot, enough to sear the skin off your bones in seconds. I think that it would be amusing that you, who has given me such grief, will die in sheer agony."

"Wheee." Sandra replied.

The Baron pressed a button that activated the crane arm. The pair of them began to decent towards the pit at an incredibly slow rate. "Fare well, Blackmore. I have a world to conquer!" He turned and marched off, Taro and all but one of the soldiers leaving with him.

What are we going to do?" David asked.

He'd been calm so far, but Sandra could tell that he was on the verge of panic. Still, she had to give him credit for lasting this long. He's tougher then he looks, she thought. Now to get to work. She began wriggling around in the chains, but nothing gave. "The tool!" She began.

"What's wrong?" David asked.

"Well, so far the tool has been going to standard." Sandra began. "Explain his plan to me, then leave me to die in some convoluted way."

"So what do you do?"

"Escape and then show him up and wreck whatever he's planning. He usually has the nerve to be surprised when I turn out to be alive. And the funny thing is that every time Schwartz suggests that he should just kill me straight away." She wriggled some more. "Smart tool, that guy. Once had to fight him to the death."

"But now we can't escape?"

"Damn tool's used better quality chains then normal. Frell it, you rely on a person to be inept and what do they do? They become halfway competent while you're not looking." She wriggled some more. "Sorry."

"Something up?" David asked. "I mean, besides the current 'plunging to our doom' situation."

Sandra laughed. "Nice one." She replied. "Look, I'm sorry I got so tooly with you earlier. You've been... well, remarkably calm and professional throughout. I guess I misjudged you."

"Its okay." David replied. "But its not the best end to my first field operation."

Sandra smirked, then laughed. "Nice. Remind me to buy you a drink if we get out of this."

"So you like him then." A voice began from above them. "What next? Gonna polish his weapon?"

There was a rush of air as the Red Shadow guard fell past them, falling into the pool. A second later, Hagen's face appeared in the air in front of hers. She was hanging upside down form something and, true to form, grinning like an idiot.

"Hi!" she began. "Are we having fun yet?"

"Hagen!" She snapped. 'Where have you been?"

"Busy." Hagen replied, then rolled her eyes. "Doing stuff. Messing around. Experimenting with Darwinism in the field."

"What's she saying?" David asked.

"I have no idea. Which is pretty normal for her." Sandra replied. "Hagen, quit messing around and get us out of here!"

"Hmmm... maybe."

"God damn it, just do it!" Sandra snapped back. "Or else, so help me Gord, I will figure out a way to come back form beyond the grave and nag you for the rest of your days!"

"Awww..." Hagen looked like she was considering the options. "Okay." She swung up and pressed a button, then flopped back down. Sandra saw that they were heading upwards; apparently Hagen had been hanging off the controls for the crane. "Oh, and I got your guns." She happily continued. "The guy who was looking after them had a little accident."

The three of them cautiously snuck through the depths of the reactor complex. Sandra had decided that the whole thing was to dangerous to leave lying around and in the Nazis' hands, especially given that they could theoretically rebuild the Death Ray. So instead they were going to blow it all up.

David had admitted that while he knew a bit about Atomic Reactors, he had no idea how to stop one. Vic had suggested making it go bang, which worked for Sandra. So now they were after some way to blow it up.

So far it had been quiet. To Sandra, that meant that Kessels had pulled his usual trick of assuming that she was dead, even though he hadn't seen her die or a body or the like. He was a dumbarse, but at least he did his utmost to keep her alive.


Pity the same couldn't be said about his goons.

A pair of Red Shadow soldiers standing by some important-looking doorway had spotted them and, to her annoyance, one of them had gotten the chance to shout a warning. Great So much for the quiet until everything blows up approach.

"Down!" She shouted as the soldiers opened fire, spraying fire at the three of them. Bullets bounced off the guardrail and the walkway, or tore into the concrete wall behind them. She pulled out her two .45 pistols and charged forwards, waiting for a chance to pop up and open fire. The two Shadow soldiers collapsed.

For a moment they were clear. Then, much to Sandra's annoyance, a door swung open near another walkway, a squadron of soldiers charging out of it. "Tool!" Sandra swore as she ran. Someone had spotted her and had opened fire, several other troopers joining him. Looking ahead, she could see a junction where the two walkways connected.

Time to do something silly. It was one of her traits. She leaped up, launching herself off the railing and into the empty air, firing as she went. The Shadow Soldiers, completely unprepared for this, didn't know where to shoot. Sandra, on the other hand, knew exactly what she was doing. Two or three soldiers went down before she crashed to the ground on the same walkway as them, rolling and trying to regain her footing.

A Singe soldier charged forwards, shouting in German at her. Before either he or her could do anything, however, there was a single shot that sent him reeling backwards. Looking over to where she had come form, Sandra saw Hagen smiling and waving.

"David!" She called out. "With me! We're going to try and figure out a way to blow this place."

"Right!" He called out as he scampered over to her. As soon as he arrived, Sandra threw him a submachine gun taken from a downed soldier. "You might need this."

"What about Hagen?" He asked.

"She'll cover us."

"Will she be all right here on her own?"

"Trust me, she'll be fine."

The pair of them ran through the doorway into what Sandra figured to be some sort of control center. The room was filled with various dials and gauges, presumably for the atomic reactor. Looking around, Sandra could see a large section of wall filled with various switches labeled in German, including one which had lots of red text and an accompanying Big Red Light.

"Hey, David." She began. "What do you think would happen if I flicked this switch here?" She asked.

"Probably nothing good." He replied as he studied the displays. "However, I think we may be able to power it down and then find some way to disable it once it's off. Making it explode might be a very, very bad idea."

"Step away from that controller."

Sandra turned around, and found herself facing Baron Kessels and a few Red Shadows. "Ah, tool." She began. "It's always you."

"Yes, it is." He replied. "And you, Miss Blackmore, have an annoying habit of surviving the impossible. One would almost think that the gods themselves favored you." He pulled out a rather exotic looking heavy pistol. "Well no longer-"

Before he could finish, a door slammed open, Major Schwartz entering. "Baron, the jets are ready and-"

"Not now, you fool" The baron replied, turning away from Sandra for a moment. Which, for her, was long enough.

She charged straight at him, trying to keep him between herself and the Red Shadows. Before he, or anyone else could react, she charged straight into him, her shoulder slamming him in the chest. The pair of them staggered backwards, crashing into the wall.

"Drop... the... frelling gun..." She snarled as she grabbed his weapon arm and slammed the hand into a table. The Baron cried out, then tried to grab her with his free hand. Grunting, Sandra slammed his arm into the table again. There was a thunderous retort as the pistol fired once before he dropped it.

"Now I've got you, you tool." Sandra snarled as she grabbed his other arm. "Nobody move or else he-"

Before she should finish her sentence, the wail of an alarm cut her off, accompanied by several flashing red lights. "Um, Sandra?" David began as he indicated to the control panel. There was a rather large bullet hole next to the switch with the big red light. Tool.

Taro rushed into the room <Baron-Sama!> He shouted out. <The Reactor, it's->

The Baron elbowed Sandra, shoving her into the wall. Managing to get free of her grasp he called out. <To the jets! Now! Hurry, hurry!>. Schwartz charged out of the room, followed by Taro. Several Shadows tried to follow them, the Baron charging through the group, completely forgetting about Sandra and David.

"What do we do now?" he asked.

"In my experience," Sandra began. "All the best plans end with the same five words ... 'and then, run like hell'."

"So you weren't able to recover too much information on the Death Ray." K began.

"No, Commander." David replied. "We were captured before we could get a good look at it."

"And you're confident that they can't build another one?"

"Yes commander." David replied. "I suspect that the materials in the Death Ray would be very hard to replace. The Computator and the Atomic Reactor, however, would be nearly impossible to replace or rebuild within a year. And they certainly can't use the same site."

"Certainly not." K replied as she passed a photo to them. Taken form a spy plane, it showed a huge crater with dense black smoke billowing out form it. "The countryside for several miles around the chateau was devastated by the explosion. I doubt anyone will be using it for anything for a long time to come."

"Big explosion." Hagen added. "Pretty too"

"I must hand it to you, Sandra," K continued. "I ordered you to destroy the Death Ray. You did a very thorough job."

Sandra shrugged. "What can I say?" She began. "I just, uh, followed my orders to the best of my ability."

There was a pause. "Blackmore, a lot of your missions seem to end in large explosions. Is there a reason for this?"

"Luck, I suppose," she replied. "Just luck."



Shion woke up slowly, stretching her arms over her head, hearing the faint pop of joints in her shoulders. Throwing the covers back, she slid her legs over the edge of the bed, enjoying the warm light coming through the window. It looked to be a beautiful day outside, with a bright sky and nary a trace of clouds.

Rising she allowed herself a yawn and another stretch. Time once had been where rising from a night's sleep had been an easier matter without all the noise and bother. Standing now, she stripped off her nightgown and dropped it on the rumpled bed. Running fingers through her hair she pushed the long tresses out of her face and took a moment to study her reflection in the mirror. It showed a woman, tall of frame and wide of shoulder and hip, with a full-breasted and flat-stomached build that belied her years. All 132 of them.

She looked like a woman half her age. No, a quarter. Oh, age had left its mark, her body wasn't nearly as toned as it once was, her breasts sagged a bit with the weight of years, and there were new lines on her face. But she still stood tall and strong, her back straight, her strength as great as it had ever been.

Leaving the mirror to reflect an empty room, Shion entered the bath, and set the shower to be good and hot. Soaping herself down she felt pleased that her skin was still fairly smooth and unblemished. How many years did she have left? It was a question she asked Ling Ling from time to time. Ling Ling, who was closing in on 140 herself, wasn't sure, although the best estimates said seventy to eighty.

No one could have predicted it then, but one of the unexpected side benefits of man's initial forays into genetic tinkering had been to slow the aging process. Genetic upgrades, like Ling Ling, seemed to age at half the normal rate, and there were now thousands of people well into their second century. Of course, Shion wasn't an upgrade, which worried some, leading the to fear she might be nigh-on immortal. Absurd, of course, as Shion could feel her age creeping up on her, slowly but surely. Still, she wasn't the only one. There were a few other seemingly ageless espers like herself, such as Azumi Kiribayashi, who still tended her shrine in Mega-Tokyo Province.

Leaving the shower, Shion toweled herself off and then set to brushing out her hair. No longer did it fall to her knees and beyond. She'd had it trimmed to a far more manageable length, so it now only came to mid-back. Truth be told, it was a relief to have the weight of all that hair gone. Besides, times had changed. She didn't need her old "Empress" persona any more.

The outer door opened as she dressed. Shion didn't bother to look up, but continued to button up her coat. "And how is her Excellency this morning?"

"Good morning to you to, Ling Ling." Shion allowed herself a slight smile. "Ready for breakfast?"

"Of course."

Like herself Ling Ling didn't look half her age. She had managed to keep her well-endowed figure, but had cut her now-white hair to shoulder length, adopting more of a pageboy cut. And she still wore traditional Chinese fashions and glasses. Her marriage to Marta had lasted for ten wonderful years, until Marta had succumbed to the fate of many a street samurai and had died defending her wife and lover from a Triad hit squad. Her death had allowed Ling Ling to escape said squad, and any thoughts the Triad had about a second try had ended in a whirlwind of esper destruction once Shion had located them. United in their loss, the two had grown closer together, with Ling Ling eventually becoming Shion's administrative assistant. Now, aging gracefully together, the two had become inseperatable, and if the screamsheets were to be believed, lovers. Shion, for her part, refused to even comment on such matters.

A bit of soup, croissants, fruit. Breakfast was a light affair. but then, today was to be a busy day.

"So, what's on the schedule?"

"As if you didn't know."

"Humor me."

Ling Ling gazed across the table, clearly amused. "And just how long have you been waiting for this day?"

"Years. Decades," Shion replied, sipping at her soup. "Since the whole project started."

They sat in silence for a while, simply enjoying their meal. Yet Ling Ling knew something was bothering her companion, even if slightly. Slowly she rested her spoon at the side of her bowl and just watched Shion, until the esper became aware of her gaze. "You had something to ask me?" Ling Ling said eventually.

Shion was silent for a moment and then nodded. "Does it ever bother you? Living up here, being the odd one out. Being the only one..." She trailed off as she saw comprehension in Ling Ling's face.

"Not really." Ling Ling gestured at the window, "And I'm not the 'only' one. There are others; wives, husbands, lovers, children, friends. Besides, it's interesting to see such a grand project from a different perspective. And useful for you too, I imagine."

Shion watched her carefully. "It's more than just a project."

"It will be this afternoon," Ling Ling replied. "But to make that happen--"

Shion nodded. "We need to go."

They stepped outside into the cool breeze, Shion letting it ruffle her hair as she gazed down, up and around her new world. The house itself was situated well up the sloping hill at the far end of the massive Genesis Colony cylinder, giving them both a clear view of the city spread out around them. Glancing up, she saw the service shaft that ran through the center of the colony, and beyond that the massive windows that ran the length of the miles-long cylinder, showing the reflective mirrors that gave them sunlight, the brilliant panes in stark contrast against the blackness of space. Here trees grew, flowers bloomed, lakes rippled, and her people lived.

Her people... Ling Ling smiled, watching as Shion closed her eyes and relaxed, letting her mind spread its senses out over the colony. Shion could feel them all around her. Tiny, faint beacons dotting the terrain. Here and there was the brighter light of a more developed or powerful esper, but many of them were lost in the crowds around them. Hundreds, thousands of esper signatures spread out before her. She felt the minds of nigh-on everyone who lived here, except for the woman standing at her side and a scattered few others.

"People are waiting for the news from Earth," Ling Ling said, bringing her back to the ground. "They want to make this day a holiday." Her smile continued unabated, looking down on the view. "They probably won't stop celebrating until tomorrow."

"They have every right to," Shion replied. She turned and strode up the path to the waiting car. "We're keeping the United Nations waiting."

Ling Ling placed the back of one hand against her forehead and feigned a look of horror. "Ah... not even officially President and already you're a tyrant." She sobered at Shion's dark look and then smiled. "Coming, your Excellency."

"What am I going to do with you?" Shion wondered out loud as the entered the car.

"Funny, I used to say that to Marta all the time."


It was a bright and sunny day, a picture perfect day. The girl smiled, tempted to skip along in delight at the weather. The news would love the setting, she thought, and she loved to see her work on the news. A wide street, open to the noonday sun; a rather classically decorated office building with a long row of steps down to the footpath; a waiting limousine and a good amount of onlookers as an audience; this was how she loved to work.

She increased her pace slightly, almost imperceptibly, smiling with anticipation at the job to be done. A slight breeze ruffled the hem of her skirt, another part of the set piece. She looked a touch out of place; a Japanese girl wearing an uncommon black version of the classic 'sailor suit' strolling along a Neo York street. Yet she did draw a few glances; some for the long black braid trailing down her back or her unusually toned legs; some for the long, slim package she held in both hands, its loose cloth wrapping hinting at a slight curve; and more still for her intense green eyes, that seemed to flash with hidden mischief.

She stepped up to the edge of the stairs, looking up at the entrance to the foyer. There she could see the man she had studied from afar, in pictures and stolen glimpses. Slightly overweight, balding, rugged up in a long coat and scarf against the slight chill, and flanked by a quartet of suited thugs. The quintet were descending to their waiting car, a brief moment of exposure that was all she needed.

Smiling, clutching her package, she stepped faster towards the edge of the stairway. The balding man glanced up and saw her approach, yet paid no heed. She was nothing but a harmless schoolgirl, obviously. As if reading his mind, she smiled. Yes, that's what they all assumed; what she wanted them to. It letter her get ever closer until the time was right. She suddenly surged forwards, whipping away the wrapping at flinging it in the face of one of the guards. With a single motion, she drew and slashed.

He was dead with the first stroke. The blade in her hand had cut through flesh and bone in its upward arc, leaving a fine spray of blood to hang in the air. It flicked in her hand and she brought it down across his chest, then back again the other way, each time cutting deeper and deeper. By the time the guards had drawn on her, the body was toppling backwards, almost unrecognisable for the blood. She waded in then, a broad smile on her face. She knew their training, knew they couldn't match her. She could escape, sure, but that would be far less the spectacle. One by one they fell as she darted between them; keeping low, keeping moving to avoid their clumsy fire; until she was the only one standing.

A glance back down the stairway told her all she needed to know. People watched on in horror at the bloodbath while still more ran in terror. She could hear running in the distance, the unmistakable sound of arms from inside the building. Time to go, she thought. Sheathing the blade, grabbing the cloth, she set of into the crowd.


"You are so bad."

"Don't I know it?"

She giggled and took a sip from her champagne flute as the evening news played. Her work was the top story, splashed across all the channels. She relaxed on the soft couch, glancing next to her at her collaborator. Oh sure, Ricky hadn't done the killing, but he was useful for the patient research and observation that simply bored her to tears. Besides, she thought, eyes crossing his broad chest and toned arms, he was good for plenty else.

"You're lucky no-one got you on vid, y'know?" he said. She only nodded, barely listening to him. They'd called her work 'horrendous.' She was giggling.

Ricky sighed and laid a hand on her shoulder. "I'm serious. You keep showing off like this, and you'll get caught for sure."

She sighed. Ricky was usually more fun than this. "I'm going to check for more bounties," she said, suddenly cold. Before he could respond, she stood and strode away from the couch.

Ricky sighed and put down his own glass. The news was giving an eyewitness description of the attacker, which was rather worryingly accurate. Sighing, he shut it off and stood. There was just no talking to her in this sort of mood. "I'm taking a shower," he said over his shoulder. Hearing no response, he shook his head and left for the bathroom.

She dropped herself into the computer chair and stared at the screen. How dare he ruin her moment like that? Did he think she couldn't handle herself? Who had lead out and ambushed an entire black ops team? Who had killed half of them before they even knew they were under attack? Sure, she had hired help with her, but they were nothing more than distractions and cannon fodder. She had dealt the killing blow. And, she added smiling, glancing at her prized blade, taken the prize.

But maybe he was right in a way. She frowned, looking down at herself. She was too well known, and had to go back to her old disguise. Well, at least this time she got to keep her ample chest. This elicited a laugh, and she returned to the computer.

Jobs, jobs. She had enough money for a break, but she'd told Ricky she was doing it, and she hated to let him win anything. Not that she didn't like him. It was just her way. She scanned the listing, until her eyes came across an interesting name.

Ricardo Caselli, 28, wanted for smuggling, dealing. The list went on and on. There was a picture too, showing the subject's broad chest and toned arms. And the bounty.

"No more arguments, dear," she purred. Rachel seized the sword she had pulled from her sister's corpse and slowly sauntered to the bathroom.

6TH JUNE 3133

Sandra thumbed the trigger on her Thor's primary weapons, the twin laser cannons in each arm sending four beams of brilliant green energy stabbing into the damaged Agromech's arm. The beams tore through the weak improvised armor, then slashed away at the mech's vulnerable skeleton.

One of the beams must have hit the converted Agromech's autocannon ammunition, as the arm suddenly exploded in a brilliant ball of fire, gutting the mech's torso and sending it reeling. The battered mech collapsed against a building, little more then a wreck.

"Kazei five to command." She spoke into to her helmet mike. "One Raider agromech down in Vandenburg square."

"Roger that, five." Captian Ferrari replied from her mobile headquarters. "The Schmitt and Marksman tanks have the raider armor pinned down in block S9, and our infantry are holding-"

"This is Kazei three!" Aoi Hari's voice cut into the line. "We have a single assault class mech breaking through at block S13. He's already taken out one of the Bellonas. I can hold him off, but-"

"Show me dealing." Sandra shouted back as she opened up the Thor's throttle. An assault mech was the single biggest threat on a battlefield. Hari's lightweight Valliant and the hovertanks with her wouldn't be able to handle it. Hopefully, her heavy Thor would.

The Raiders, a group of pirates apparently working for Bannsion Universal, one of the republic's biggest companies, had hit Ander's Moon two days ago and headed straight for Neo York. While they did have the advantage of numbers, their troops were far less capable and their equipment somewhat weaker. Still, they'd managed to chew through the Ander's Moon Millitia with ease. She just hadn't expected an assault mech.

A squadron of Infiltrator Battlearmor suits emerged from seemingly nowhere, opening fire on the Thor as it went past, their shots doing little more then lightly scoring the armor on the Mech's legs. Ignoring them, Sandra fired the jump jets, leaping up and over the armors and coming down on top of a nearby building.

Looking around Neo York, Sandra could see a lot of smoke and a lot of damage, as well as the signs of the various battles in progress. Checking her map, she located block S13. It was south of her current position, at the edge of the territory they controlled.

Perfect place for a break through, she thought. Let's see about that.

The crimson and gray Thor leaped form the roof, landing on the street and breaking into a run towards the fighting. She only hoped that Aoi had been able to hold on against the larger mech. If she concentrates on running and hiding, then that should work, she thought as she ran. Now where is that tool?

A volley of cannon fire from a cross street answered her question. A burst of fire tore along the Thor's leg, shredding the armor there. A second volley narrowly missed her, tearing up the building behind her in a cloud of concrete dust and shattered glass. Glancing down, the street, she sighted her enemy.

The Thor's targeting computer identified it as a Legacy, an assault mech that had hadn't been seen in decades, and supposedly was no longer in use. Obviously nobody told that tool, she thought. The Legacy was larger and slower then her, but packed an awful lot more firepower. Just what she needed.

The Thor broke into a run, twisting its torso as it went, while Sandra sprayed it with fire from her lasers and missiles. The shots hit the enemy mech, boiling armor from its chest and flanks, while the missiles narrowly missed, instead tearing up more of the real estate. The Legacy returned fire, spraying her with more rounds form its twin heavy autocannons. A burst hit her mech in the shoulder, rocking it with the force of the impact.

Tool this for a lark. She knew she couldn't keep trading fire with the Legacy, as the battle would eventually favor its greater firepower. Instead, the reversed the direction's of the Thor's run, zigzagging back while ducking for another side-street. Again she opened fire, the shots doing little more then apparently scarring the armor.

The Legacy's return fire was more accurate and effective, the pilot spraying another pair of long bursts from the autocannons. One of the shots tore up the side of a building, only a meter or so from the Thor's head, spraying the reinforced canopy with concrete dust and debris. A second volley was more effective, however, smashing into the Thor's already damaged leg.

Numerous red lights came on across the mech's' control panel as it stumbled out of the line of fire, Sandra fighting to keep the heavy mech upright. "Tool!" She swore. "Tool, tool, tool!" The Legacy had shattered several of the actuators in the Thor's leg, reducing its mobility and costing her the sole advantage she had over it. Any more damage, and she would have lost the whole leg.

"Sandra, is that you?" A voice came over the comlink. "It's Aoi here."

"Yeah, it's me." She replied. "Who else would be stumbling around in a Thor while swearing loudly at nobody in particular. Where the frelling hell are you?"

"I'm a block or two back form the Legacy." She replied. "You?"

"More or less right in front of him." She replied, hearing the sound of the Legacy slowly approaching. "Spud's leg is almost busted and he's coming after me."

"Could you distract him?"

"I could blow up and hope I made a mess of him, if that's what you wanted." Sandra replied. "No, stuff that, I have an idea. What do you want?"

"If you can occupy his attention, I'll try to surprise him."

"Sounds like a plan. Let's go."

The Thor broke into a limping run, heading back towards the approaching Legacy. At the last possible moment, Sandra twisted the mech's Torso hard to the left, then fired the jump jets as her mech left the alley.

Unprepared, the Legacy opened fire, its two autocannons spraying fire where the pilot had expected her to be, rather then where it was. The shots went underneath her, tearing into an unsuspecting office block at the end of the street and sending chunks of steel and concrete flying. Sandra fired back with the Thor's weapons, the lasers and missiles tearing into the heavier mech's torso.

The Thor stumbled as it landed, crashing into the front of a glass-walled office complex. Sandra fought with the controls, struggling to keep the mech upright to no avail. The Thor fell forwards in a shower of glass, crashing into the office block's large lobby area. As she went through the front, Sandra noted with some irony that it was the local branch office of Bannison Universal.


She looked back at the Legacy as she fell, and spotted the slender shape of Aoi's Valiant dashing out form behind cover. The smaller mech sprayed the Legacy's back with laser fire, before embedding its massive hatchet into its rear. The huge mech staggered forwards, crippled but remaining upright.

Ah, tool. She thought. This had not worked out.

The Legacy managed to shake Aoi's mech loose, then stomped over to her prone Thor. Sandra was still fighting with the controls, trying to get the damaged mech upright. Either the leg was more badly damaged then she thought, or she'd landed badly on it or she was caught in some debris. In any case, the Raider mech loomed over her, its two heavy cannons pointed at the Thor.

There was a hollow clicking noise.

The stupid tool, she thought. He'd been firing the cannons at double the normal rate of fire, and had emptied out the ammunition too quickly. Before it could react, Sandra opened fire with the Thor's arm-mounted cannons, tearing armor from the Legacy's front, sending it staggering back.

Aoi's Valiant struck again from behind, a sweep of its hatchet carving out a huge chunk of the torso, sending a trail of parts flying out from its body. She followed up with the lasers, melting armor away and digging into the exposed structure of the mech's torso. Sandra finished it off with the final volley of missiles form the Thor's launcher. The missiles slammed into the torso, sending clouds of flame and smoke billowing out from the damaged mech.

The Legacy staggered, and then collapsed flat on its back, its chest little more then a smoking ruin. Sandra sighed, then keyed her helmet mike. "Kazei five to command. Legacy is down, repeat, Legacy is down."

"Affirmative, Kazei five" Captain Ferrari replied. "Join up with Kazei three and support the tanks."

"Roger that command." Sandra finished. "Out."

Aoi's Valliant stepped forwards and took one of the Thor's weapon arms in its free hand. Between the two of them, they were able to get the Thor upright. "Thanks for the help there." Sandra began.

"Thanks for coming to support me." Aoi replied.

"Well that's fair." Sandra finished. "We'd better get going... oh, and tell me if you see any Infiltrators. I'm gonna kick one."


There was rain coming. Aoi could feel it in the air, and she didn't mind. She knew the garden needed it, and normally she'd be happy. But not today. She squatted down by one of her multitude of bushes and checked it over. It could do with a touch of pruning, just to straighten things up. Yet as she raised the clippers, she sighed and shook her head. She just couldn't concentrate.

"Something's bothering you?" Evelyn said from behind.

Aoi stood and turned, facing her wife as she relaxed in a soft chair under the shade of the porch, skimming through a magazine. Once more, Aoi remarked at just how little Evelyn had aged since they had met, almost three decades ago. More that she had matured; blossomed into a woman if anything, more beautiful than before. Although well over forty, she looked only half that age.

Aoi brushed a strand of hair out of her face and frowned. Another gray spot. Although Evelyn was an upgrade, and had the largely unforeseen side effect of retarded aging, Aoi knew she was getting on in years. Her hair, now neatly bunched up but usually hanging free to her shoulders, was shot with gray. She seemed to be discovering new wrinkles each day, despite Evelyn constantly ignoring them. But it was all external. Her cyberware had held up through frequent maintenance, and thus had kept her as quick and healthy as when she had it first installed.

"You can tell me," Evelyn added, laying down the magazine.

Aoi shook her head, brought back to the present. She nodded slightly and simply said "It's Ruby."

Evelyn sighed and returned to her magazine. "Thought so. What's your daughter done now?"

Aoi loudly cleared her throat and replied "*Our* daughter."

"Well, you always did want to take more responsibility for her," Evelyn replied casually. She left unsaid the long months of Aoi's pregnancy, and her insistence on handling the girl's feeding, changing and such.

Aoi sighed and sank back down to the ground. "You're right, of course."

"So what is it then?" Evelyn asked.

"I heard it around... Those friends of hers? Seems like they're some kind of gang. And I'm worried they're getting into trouble."

Evelyn carefully bit her lip and raised her magazine to block Aoi's view. But she was too slow; Aoi had seen the flash of worry cross her face. Aoi stood fully and folded her arms across her chest. "You know something about this, don't you?"

Evelyn gently nodded and laid down the magazine. She held off her reply until she could stand and look Aoi in the eye. "She made me promise not to tell you."

"What?" Aoi burst out.

"Calm down," Evelyn stated simply. She watched as Aoi stared at her, then continued. "She told me some of what they were doing; riding mostly, harmless stuff. But she knew you'd get concerned, and made me promise not to tell you."

"Riding? She doesn't even have her own bike..." Aoi trailed off, looking up to the sky. She should have seen this before. The sudden purchase of a leather riding suit. 'Just to look good, mum,' she'd said. "I suppose she's storing it elsewhere?"

Evelyn nodded. "If you must know, they've done a bit of bounty work. Small stuff, all easy prey."

"WHAT?" Aoi screamed out. "But they can't—They're not even properly trained!"

"Was anyone?" Evelyn replied. 'We were,' would be the obvious answer, but she continued anyway. "They're all your students, and they're all the same sort of upgrade as her."

For many people, this would be enough. Although they were set up to retire long ago, Aoi had insisted on opening a martial arts school and teaching who she could. And today's upgrades—A shiver went down her spine at the thought.

Aoi covered her face. "I need to talk to her."

Evelyn shook her head. "She has to want to talk to you first."

Aoi shook her head and strode inside. It was a spacious and comfortable house, old, wooden and a nightmare to heat in winter. It was still in good condition, despite innumerable renovations over the years. With two stories on a wide lot, it gave everyone a lot of room, including giving her daughter a lot of room to hide things from her.

Aoi rushed up the stairs. Her daughter was out; she'd left this morning. She had no idea where Ruby would be by now, but knew how to find out. She had long ago dealt with the ethical worries of searching her daughter's room. If her current fears were right, this time what she found could save her life.

It was cluttered and messy, but Aoi had an almost instinctive feel for the place. The bed was in the middle; built-in wardrobe to its right and bedstead to the left. The floor was strewn with papers, books and screwed up drawings. The walls were hung with sketches, some of Ruby's proudest works. A vague series of lines hung over the bed and dominated the room. It evoked, rather than depicted the form of a gun-wielding rider on a motorbike.

Shaking her head, Aoi surveyed the room. There were a few obvious hiding spots, but she knew her daughter was smarter than to use those. Instead she reached for the one she had found last summer. Sliding open the second drawer in the bedstead, she reached underneath and found a sheaf of papers taped there. She unfolded them, examined the diagrams, and gasped in horror.

Within a minute, she was running down the stairs to find Evelyn in the living room. "They're going to hit a corp!" Aoi gasped out.

"And she's not answering her phone," Evelyn replied, laying down the receiver. "So they're doing it soon."

Or they're already in trouble, Aoi thought. Instead she stepped up to her wife, simply saying "We have to stop her."

"You know where they're headed?" Aoi nodded the affirmative. "Head them off. I'll see who I can contact on this end."

Evelyn took up the receiver again and made to dial, yet stopped when she saw Aoi. The shorter woman was simply standing in the living room, head hung, staring at nothing. "She'll be fine," Evelyn said softly. "She can look after herself."

"Just... Where did I go wrong?" Aoi asked.

Evelyn laid down the receiver and took Aoi in her arms. "It's not your fault. She takes after us, really. Just the wrong parts of us."

Aoi could only nod her reply.

New upgrades, that's what they were. A new breed, more like it. Ruby could almost laugh. They were rare enough, and still only teenagers, but they were so far ahead of baseline humans; so far ahead of even the previous generations of upgrades that it was almost unbelievable. They had tested themselves last week, bringing in a cyber junkie. Both his arms were artificial, along with his entire musculature. Of course, under that he was still a baseline. She'd broken him in little over a minute.

And now they were set for their biggest score yet. The Primals trailed behind her, heading for their ultimate objective. This was the stuff of the 30's, the great corporate raids that had made so many street samurai into underground legends. And even in this day and age, there were still new discoveries to steal. Ellis, riding behind her and to the right, knew someone who knew a guy in Spycorp, and so they had their mission.

And nothing could stop them, because they were the best mankind had achieved.

There were seven of them in all. Their skills were rough, they all knew that. But they were more than talented enough to make up for it. She couldn't help but smile as she thought of her mother's reaction to how her training was being put to use. But this job was all theirs. Donald was the computer whiz; he'd gotten them the blueprints they needed. Planning the job was simplicity itself; the entry was obvious, and close to the lab to boot.

They slowed down as their target loomed out of the darkness ahead of them. Not an arcology, but an oversized office block. A quick lap of the block confirmed what they new, and they turned off, twisting through a couple of alleys to find their destination.

An old and well-used loading bay stood ahead of them, still in sight of the office block. They pulled up at the gate, and Donald worked his magic with the coded lock. They rode in, and drew to a halt outside the largest garage doors. Their headlights shone across the pavement, illuminating a waiting figure.

"Who the hell's that?" Ellis asked from beside her.

Ruby studied the form. It was remarkably familiar. Dressed in the same sort of riding leathers as the gang and still wearing a helmet, yet definitely a woman. Short, slim, and almost childlike in shape. "Get out of here, girl," she said. Sniggers from behind accompanied her.

"Loading dock across the street," the figure said in a voice that made Ruby frown in displeasure. "Take advantage of the sprawling underground section to sneak in where nobody will see you. It's the first thing anyone would think of." She stepped forwards, the helmet blocking her face, yet each member of the gang could feel the heat of her gaze. "Especially their security director, don't you think?"

There was a long silence as the gang considered her words. It did seem almost too easy, many thought. Could the corp have set some sort of trap? Would it be ready, even if they didn't know anyone was coming? Ruby pointed a gloved finger and simply said "Get her."

The response was instant. The gang knew full well what they liked in a plan, and this was their favorite part. Each one stepped off his bike, advancing on the figure. They could see she was unarmed, and had adopted a relaxed, neutral stance. They spread out, forming a circle as Ruby watched. Then, as if responding to an unheard signal, they struck.

The response was dazzling. The first had leapt forwards in a fast, lethal flying kick. A flick of raised hands had changed his momentum and sent him sprawling to the concrete. The figure ducked from that motion, lashing out to the left even as a second charged, knocking his feet out from beneath him. A third lunged from behind, yet his arm was seized and twisted painfully. He was dragged forwards then shoved across the pavement, colliding with a fourth member and sending both into a pile of crates.

Ellis attacked after the others, lunging in from the side with a lightning fast punch. That and his second were barely dodged as the figure retreated, hands out to the side. Seeing the new distance, Ellis spun in with a huge roundhouse kick aimed at her head. The hands came from nowhere, seized his foot and twisted. He spun seemingly in midair and crashed face-first into the concrete.

Ruby stood stock-still, staring in shock. Her gang was limping away, except for Donald who had already fled. "Go," the figure said, spurring on their retreat. Soon only Ruby remained, staring down the approaching figure. Then simultaneously, both drew off their helmets.

Aoi gazed on her daughter's face, twisted in anger. It was so much like her own, the features a touch softer and the eyes and odd shape, a blending of eastern and western features. Green eyes met red, a legacy of the girl's upgrade. Aoi also noted a new touch, red streaks dyed into her long, lustrous hair.

"How dare you," Ruby spat. "This was our chance, mum!"

"You think I'm bad?" Aoi replied. "I retired. Most of those other sams you've heard about went to work for places like this. Where you were going, everyone's trained as well as I am. Think on that." When Ruby flinched, she pressed on. "Sure, you're young. You're fast and you're strong, but so what? These raids, they've been going on since I was a child. And they've had decades to plan. They study angles of attack and devise countermeasures. Just think what would be inside."

And as she stared at her daughter, Aoi knew the message was getting across. For all else, Ruby was a quick thinker, and it became clear on her face that she was reaching the same conclusion. Eventually, she only said "I can take them."

But the confidence was missing in her voice. Resisting the urge to smile, Aoi pressed on. "Everyone in there is as bad as me. You still think you can do it?"

"You never let me do anything!" Ruby suddenly burst out. Aoi stepped back, shocked by her cry. "You're always leaning over me, holding me back!"

"And you never talk to me!" Aoi shouted back. Ruby was taken aback, and she pressed on. "Oh sure, you can confide in Eve, but not me. Why do you think I know all this? I've been here, I've done it myself. I've got the experience, and I want you to learn from it. I didn't want to come here and stop you." She stepped forwards, calming herself and her voice. "But since you hid it from me, I had no choice."

"You'd have helped me?" Ruby replied, amazed.

"No," Aoi said. "But I could have tried to talk you out. And failing that, given you some pointers."

Ruby shook her head, seemingly unable to believe her ears. "I... I can still take them, you know."

Aoi relaxed, sinking slightly into her fighting stance. "Want to try?"

It had become a rainy night, but standing on the porch, jacket draped over her shoulders, Evelyn didn't much care. She hadn't heard a thing since Aoi had set out that afternoon, which was both good and bad. But now she could here the sounds of laughter, faint but approaching down the street. She knew, somehow, it was them.

The gate swung open and she was taken aback by the sight. Her wife and daughter, each leaning on the other, both soaked, battered and worse for wear, laughing together. "What happened?" She said, stepping down the path to them.

Ruby and Aoi glanced at each other, then both burst out laughing once more. Ruby stopped sharply, clutching her side, and glanced up. There was a smile on her face, a genuine show of joy that Kami had not seen in her for a while.

"We met halfway."

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