By Michael Surbrook

Shion tended to avoid the Wastes; that desolate region of the Zone that stretched from the edge of the inhabited areas (what most people optimistically called "Zone City") to the walls that divided the Zone from the rest of Long Island. This was where the lowest of the low lived. The people even Darkside wouldn't take. The unwashed (literally) masses who weren't smart enough, strong enough, or capable enough to live anywhere else. It was out here the truly insane dwelled, many of them having reverted to a bestial lifestyle in which such concepts as language and clothing came in a distant second to food and shelter.

Gangers sometimes went into the Wastes. There was a lot of unclaimed property out there, property any determined (and reasonably well-armed) individual could hold and claim for his own. Gangers liked create to safehouses out here, or out-and-out headquarters, stripping everything around them to create the ultimate hangout. Bikers would roar through from time to time, often hunting the more feral humans. Great sport, if you were into that sort of thing. But one couldn't get too cocky about it, sometimes the bikers didn't come back...

The Pit was out here as well. It sat on the dividing line (such as it was) between the more respectable parts of the Zone and the Wastes. It was, unsurprisingly enough, a violent place, where fights were to be expected, nay, required, and a morning without a corpse in front of the place was an aberration. All things considered, Shion thought it to be a minor miracle the place hadn't burned to the ground yet—although not for lack of trying.

But there was even worse things out here than potentially life-threatening nightclubs and cannibalistic savages. There was Helmar Valsek. Valsek was what the papers called a "crime lord." Smart locals simply called him "boss." He was obscenely fat and bloated, and would have made an excellent stand-in for Baron Harkonnen in the Zone version of Dune, although he, unlike the good Baron, could stand up under his own power, albeit barely.

That he was fat, in the Zone of all places, was proof enough of his power. Most everyone in the Zone had the same build—lean. The typical diet—low in sugars and fats, high in vegetables and fiber, coupled with the typical lifestyle—physical labor, meant that overweight individuals were at a premium. In order to get as fat, and stay as fat was he was, Valsek required a lot of food and a minimum need for physical effort. Apparently he had both.

What made Valsek so special was his mind. He was far more intelligent than he looked, or let on, and an amazingly shrewd judge of character. He had an uncanny sense for knowing when he was being lied to and an almost precognitive way of getting out of a bad situation before it even had a chance to develop. This had allowed him to build quite a criminal empire, mainly by brokering deals between other gangs, or between corporations who wished to covertly flex their muscles. So now he sat, mostly immobile, in his fortress-cum-palace, waited on by a small army of followers, and—if the rumors were true—slaking his lusts on prepubescent boys.

Hopefully, if all went well, Shion would never have to even see Valsek. She was here to rescue one Corey Emerson, reporter for Rolling Stone videozine, who had the misfortune to have been captured by Valsek soon after the attack by Jinsei's Nightsky Dragons. Rolling Stone, for their part, had been unwilling, or unable, to pay the asked for ransom (no surprise considering Jinsei's stepped-up military efforts), so they'd done the next best thing—they'd advertised for a rescue team.

Initially, Shion had ignored the request, until the reward money had reached an amount even she would notice. The invasion had left her with more than enough to do, and rescue missions such as this one had been easy enough to come by. It was amazing what some companies were willing to pay in order to free a valued employee, although Shion doubted said employee was going to be all that "free" once returned home. Not that it mattered to her. She'd done her job.

So now she sat atop a crumbling rooftop overlooking the Wastes. Well, not exactly. More like a portion of the Wastes. Valsek's portion. She knew his compound was up the street a bit. Built into the shell of an underground nightclub, it was as secure as anything could be in the Zone.

Of course, nothing was secure where Shion was concerned. She'd collapsed more than one building in her time. A place like Valsek's wouldn't present much of a challenge, except... somewhere inside that pile of masonry was Corey. Her target. It would do neither Rolling Stone nor her reputation (not to mention Corey's chances for survival) any good to go in full force, shattering walls and floors with equal abandon. Odds were, she'd end up reducing Corey to little more than a smear—something that never looked good on a resume. So she was going to need stealth.

Bending over at the waist, Shion tightened a strap holding one of her armored greaves in place. She'd left the cloak behind for this mission, instead opting for greaves of composite plate that stretched from ankle to knee, as well as forearm-covering vambraces of a similar material. Gloves with reinforced knuckles and backs protected her hands. She might be able to punch through the side of a car, but that didn't mean she wouldn't feel it. Early on in her career she'd discovered using her bare hands to simply smash through things was a good way to end up with cuts and bruises the next day. In this case, the thick plate over her knuckles would both protect her hands and give her that much power if she decided to simply belt someone.

It may have seemed a bit odd for a world-class esper weapon to wear so much protection, but Shion had her reasons. For starters, being a world-class esper meant she had a world-class signature. If Valsek had anyone, anyone with even a trace of esper talent, they'd almost certainly pick up her approach and warn the crime lord. Teleport or fly in, and they'd pick her up that much sooner, giving her even less of a chance of catching anyone unawares.

That was the Catch 22 of espers. The more powerful you were, the less you could control your power. People like herself, Alan, Ran, and a few others, were detectable by virtually anyone, even more so if they actually did something. Couple that with the destructive side effects virtually any esper generated using their powers, and stealth tended to be out of the question.

It was strange in a way. The weakest espers in the world, the ones who could move a paperclip (on a good day), could also serve as a sort of distant early warning system to defend against people like herself. But then again, when dealing with people like herself, said warnings were often of limited use.

Standing, Shion let her hair flow free in the chill breeze. She could have tied it back, but vanity had won out in the end. Besides, she kept telling herself the knee-length fall would help disguise her outline in the dark. Or something like that.

Moving to the edge of the building, Shion pulled on a pair of goggles, setting the strap amid her thick mane of hair. Combining low-light receptors and thermographic filters, they goggles should allow her to see in all but the darkest corners of the Zone, which, it seemed, was exactly where she was headed.

Stepping off into empty space, the tall esper dropped between two buildings, knees bending slightly as she made a perfect three-point landing. Remaining crouched, her free hand went to her waist and unsnapped the strap over the H&K P29 holstered on her right hip. The weapon was caseless, which meant you didn't have to collect spent casings after an op, and silenced, which meant others were less likely to hear you use it. The integral laser sight was simply an added bonus.

Rising, Shion let the fingers of her left hand brush the butt of a 12.5 mm Assault Pistol. Set for a cross-draw, the gun was loaded with flechette rounds. Armor, good armor, was at a premium in the Zone, even for someone like Valsek, and at close range, the AP would reduce an unarmored man to so much raw meat. The P29, on the other hand, was loaded with AP rounds, just the thing to punch through armorcloth jackets and vests. They even worked fairly well against lightly armored cyborgs, although if it came to that, she'd simply tear them apart with her bare hands.

Peering around the edge of the building, she took a long look at the street. Empty, open, and deserted. Or so Valsek would like you to think. There was a distinct lack of abandoned and wrecked cars, not to mention piles of rubble. Valsek it seemed, tried to keep his part of the Waste clean.

Leaning back and switching the filters, she took a second look. Infrared showed little, other than scattered heat traces too faint to really establish much with. If there were guards, and she was sure there was, they were keeping hidden. Well, be that as it may, she couldn't spend forever considering the what ifs and maybes. She had a mission to perform and it was time to get started. Since trying to sneak across the open street would probably attract more attention than simply walking across, she'd do the latter. Besides, she was too tall for any attempt at a crouching run, teleporting would send a wake-up call to any espers, and a distraction would only make everyone else edgy. By walking across the street like she owned it, like she belonged, then odds were anyone seeing her would assume just that.

Crossing the street was ridiculously simple. A rapid series of long-legged strides and she was there, standing in the cover of another narrow alley way, with no alarms or gunshots to infer she'd been spotted. Of course, true professionals would never do such a thing; they'd stay in tight-beam radio contact and sneak up on her. Which was a good reason for moving on.

Since staying off the street seemed to be a very good idea, she decided to work her way deeper into the alley, hoping to find a cross street that would allow her to get closer to Valsek's compound. Her index finger resting alongside the trigger guard of her P29, Shion set off down the alley, taking care to step around the debris scattered across her path.

So far so good. She'd found another alley running at right angles to the one she'd used to get away from the street and was closing in on the outer edge of Valsek's compund. As far as she knew, she hadn't been spotted, but she wasn't taking any chances. Shion crouched in the shadows, not moving a muscle, scarcely breathing, listening to the sounds of the Zone. For once it was mostly quiet, with only the distant rumble of thunder marking Jinsei's presence. Based on the sound it was some sort of ground assault—a Nightsky Dragon's attack would be deafening, not to mention it would light up the night sky in a display as beautiful as it was lethal. Idly, Shion wondered if she could take one down on her own. She felt fairly certain she could, the only trick would be to get close enough.

A sudden sound made her snap back to the situation at hand. There was a figure moving at the far end of the alley. Human-sized and shaped, with highlights glowing a bright green in the view offered by the low-light goggles. She caught a glimpse of an armored face and long locks of black hair. A cyborg of sorts. Built to be strong and tough, capable of carrying heavy weapons, an asset in the Zone, where decent armor was at premium.

For a brief moment all was still. Then Shion brought her pistol up, the laser sight producing a white dot in the middle of the cyborg's chest. In the few seconds it took for the man to register her presence, and more importantly to decide what to do about it, she pulled the trigger once, twice, a third time.

She barely felt the recoil of the H&K as three rounds left the barrel. The armor-piercing rounds punched through the 'borg's thin defensive plating with ease, wrecking havoc on his far more organic insides. Staggering back, he managed to swing his arm up, at which point Shion fired three more times, the rounds slamming home to form a tight group dead center in his torso.

Stepping over the body, Shion toed the dead man's rifle away from it. An internal debate about taking it with her was resolved when she spotted the short cable running from the pistol grip to the wrist. A chipped single-user gun. Impressive. Valsek certainly was living up to his reputation. A second debate was resolved by simply rolling the corpse over into a tangle of weeds and shrubs pushing up between the broken asphalt and the brick wall of a nearby building. She couldn't hide him well enough to totally prevent discovery, but she didn't want to simply leave him out in the open.

Leaving the body behind, Shion immediately put him out of her mind. She never really thought much about the people she dealt with in the course of an op. She was in a dangerous and violent line of business, but then so were all the security guards and cyborgs and synthetics she dealt with on a regular basis. They knew the risks, as did she. It wasn't quite "kill of be killed" but it came close. Besides, Valsek's men were some of the worst the Zone had to offer, violent, brutal predators and scavengers, preying on the people least able to fend them off. Killing them was more of a public service than a crime. Thus, the morality of her actions was a non-issue.

She was closer now. Closer to the ring of buildings that marked the compound. There would be more patrols, better armed and armored. She'd need to keep her wits about her—her eyes and ears open.

Pausing in the act of stepping over the broken chunk of building, Shion cocked her head. Someone was coming. Someone heavy. Leaping into the air, Shion landed high up on the side of a nearby building wall, clinging to the vertical surface in a manner that deified the laws of gravity, which, truth be told, espers tended to consider no more than guidelines anyway. Freezing in place, she waited patiently for her target as the faint sound of footsteps came closer.

Below her, the expected cyborg and his more flesh and blood companion made their rounds, sweeping the alley with passes of their rifles. Like her, both of them were wearing low-light goggles and if the first guard had been any indication, were using chipped (and possibly smartlinked) weapons.

Waiting until they passed, Shion dropped silently, her power allowing her to hover just off the surface of the pavement. Distant esper warnings be damned, she needed to take these two out as quickly and with as little fuss as possible.

A rapid series of faint "thup-thup-thup" sounds marked the P29 being fired. She'd aimed for right between the shoulder blades, and all three shots hit home. The guard's body jerked under the impacts as he stumbled forward, nerveless hands opening to drop his rifle.

His companion turned as the guard fell, raising his rifle as he asked "What the fuck?" of no one on particular. There was a brief moment where he caught a glimpse of a tall, white-haired form, before Shion drove a razor-sharp blade of pure esper force though his body.

Three down.

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