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

The Jinsei soldiers leaped aside at the last moment, narrowly avoiding Raven's last projectile, who screamed bloody murder before smashing into the side of one of the prefab barracks, leaving a deep dent. Raven grinned weakly through the blood and sweat that covered her face. She'd telekinetically hurled all the leftover bits of building from the collapsed warehouse, so she'd started picking up Jinsei troops and using *them* as ammunition instead. The psychological effect was much greater

Raven dropped prone behind a pair of dead Jinsei goons, finding cover where she could. She forced air through her burning lungs. She was running out of energy, defending the children in open ground from Jinsei soldiers coming from all directions. Her rage, however, wasn't spent; she almost felt that the psi-signatures of the children around her driving it ever onwards. Were they reminding her, even subconsciously of what was at stake? Were they feeding her own Power more directly, in ways she did not understand?

It didn't matter. Raven unhooked her battle rifle and flicked the safety. Throwing bits of building and Jinsei troopers around was all well and good but she just didn't have the energy to keep it up. She needed a breather of some sort.

She rose again like a vengeful angel returned from the dead and ran to one side, pulling the trigger as fast as she could aim, steadying the weapon as much as she could with her telekinesis—though with her fatigue and her frame of mind, that wasn't much. Still, a few of the heavy-caliber rounds did hit their mark, punching through the trooper's flexible armor as if it were thin cardboard and blowing large holes into them. Raven gritted her teeth against the backlash of return fire pattering against her shield until she reached the wall of the nearest barrack and set her back against him. She shook her head and ejected the empty clip.

"Dammit, where's that evac?" she said in her radio as she reloaded. "I've got twenty really precious children to evac here and..."

Something—a whoosh of air, a premonition—made her look up. From the ceiling of the building right above her, a dark shape leaped down, light glinting off the blade of its spearlike weapon. Instinctively, Raven lifted her weapon and fired once, twice, earning nothing but two sharp cracks. She barely had time to swing her rifle to knock his blade away before the leaper bowled over her in a loud tumble, his ceramic armor pounding against her own.

Deftly, he twisted his weapon—a long rifle with a bayonet—and sent Raven's gun flying free. She yelled and shoved with all her strength, sending her attacker flying against the wall she'd just vacated. There was a loud clanging sound, but the man kept his feet. He was dressed in the light powered armor of the Wolf Brigade. Raven cursed, but she had to give him credit for effort—getting on the roof in that had to have been difficult. He stepped forward menacingly, bayonet at the ready.

Well, at least his friends had given up on shooting her while he was so close. Raven drew her sword. She lifted it to point at him in challenge, forming the shearing force field she'd taken to calling the "Masamune effect" around it. Then she slashed it down to a low ready position.

The Wolf Brigade trooper charged, bayonet leading. Raven sidestepped and flicked the sword sideways, blade leading, exactly how Kazuko had painstakingly taught her NOT to parry. Of course, Kazuko had never had Raven's Masamune to use, a sword whose blade could catch the rifle's barrel right under the bayonet's fixture and shear it right off.

The stunned Wolf Brigade trooper stumbled back, and Raven advanced, taking her sword high and two-handed. A downward cut into his shoulder sliced three inches through the armor before the strong ceramic material stopped it. Blood spurted from the gash, and the Wolf trooper screamed from the shock. Holding her sword hilt firmly, Raven kicked the man in the chest, sending him tumbling off her sword.

Raven turned away, glad that the Wolf trooper had given her the breather she so desperately needed. Then she realized that if the Jinsei troopers hadn't shot her, it hadn't been for fear of hitting their comrade. It had been because of the heavy combat cyberdroid moving into position to shoot her. The huge boomer swiveled slightly to perfect its aim, autocannon and ion gun ready. Raven lowered her sword and took a deep breath, preparing to "turtle up."

Then there was the deafening thunder of AV jets fired at full strength, and the sleek shape of the Scorpion leaped up from behind the prefabs, light from spotlights and distant neons reflecting on its shiny black surface. Smoothly circling, the AV brought the cyberdroid into its sights.

"Top'o'the mornin', boomer-lad!" yelled O'Leary. The weapon pod under the aerodyne fired, hurling 54mm kinetic rockets at supersonic speeds straight towards the cyberdroid. Subjected to firepower designed to defeat light tanks, the cyberdroid was literally smashed apart, one of its minigun arms crashing to the ground before what was left of it, two legs and part of the torso, toppled in a heap. Wary of return fire from other sources, O'Leary fired the jets again and zoomed off. "I'll be right with you, lassies!"

Shoko watched as the aerodyne shredded the cyberdroid, then quickly turned her attention back to the enemies in front of her. She raised her head just long enough to fire another burst and then quickly ducked down again as a pair of the Wolf Brigade troopers, in a profligate waste of ammo, fired back at her in full auto mode. Of course, they had ammo to burn, while she was on her last magazine and had - she briefly glanced at the small number displayed on the side of her pulse rifle - only 45 rounds left. Damn.

"Hurry up, O'Leary," she muttered under her breath. Although Aoi had done an admirable job of keeping most of the cyberdroids off their backs, and the Jinsei troops advancement had been temporarily stymied by the arrival of the Schattenjäger and Raven's telekinetic assault, Shoko knew their small team just didn't have the resources to support a prolonged fight; they needed to end this thing quickly.

A "thump" behind her and a metallic clatter nearby caused her to spin around to see the figure of a Jinsei trooper crouched at the far end of the alley, aiming a large weapon at her. She tried to leap away, but the weight of the massive Anti-Mecha Cannon slung over her back slowed her down. The mini-grenade he'd launched detonated only a dozen feet away, flinging her jarringly against the far wall of the alley as shrapnel ricocheted harmlessly off her armor.

Although still dizzy, she quickly rolled flat to minimize her profile as she recognized the bark of a pulse rifle from the far end of the alley. Unfortunately, she'd dropped her own when the grenade tossed her across the alley. At least it had also thrown up enough smoke and dust that she couldn't see the trooper at the other end, which meant that he probably couldn't see her either - for a few more seconds, anyway.

As he fired another random burst down the alley, she realized that although she couldn't see him, she could see the muzzle flare from his pulse rifle. She quickly slung the Jinsei ACH-30 off her back - it seemed a ludicrous degree of overkill to turn a 30mm autocannon against an infantryman, but it was all she had that would do the job - and pointed it at the far end of the alley. A few seconds later, he fired another blind burst down the alley...and died a moment later as Shoko's hypervelocity dart blew a hole through the edge of the building he was using for cover and continued through his chest.

Shoko held her position several more seconds as the smoke cleared, making sure he was really down and didn't have any companions. She then quickly belly-crawled over to retrieve her pulse rifle and resume her firing position.

The Schattenjäger continued to pour a hail of brilliant blue plasma bolts down the street, a wide killing field of suppression fire that made it a hazardous proposition for any of the Jinsei troopers to pop their heads up. Not that none of them did, being loyal corporate soldiers, and most of them did manage to get off a hurried return shot safely—but the couple that managed to catch a plasma bolt, one right in the faceplate, weren't so willing to try for another shot.

And, in the end, it wasn't the plasma fire directly that gave them the most trouble. The barrage of deadly blue bolts continued slant across the street and pound on the abandoned apartment building that happened to be the terminus of the line of cover fire, vaporizing pounds of steel and concrete every second. In under a minute, fatal damage had been dealt to too many of the building's supports.

The Jäger's computer suddenly marked the building as a moving target, indicating that it could not make a positive identification from profile. It only took Hans a moment to realize what was happening, and he broke off his suppression fire and lowered the Jäger's profile even further.

"Vatch for falling rocks," he reported over the strike force's radio link. "The building is coming down." And come down it did, the 'forward' corner crumpling and collapsing, those supports having taken the most punishment, leaving the rest of the weakened structure to lean further forward as it came crashing ponderously down into the street, burying everything beneath it in the rubble of shattered brick and twisted metal—burnt-out car hulks, the skeletal remains of a dead tree planted in the sidewalk, and the remains of the Jinsei team.

A huge cloud of dust and debris swept up and down the street, pouring out down side streets and alleyways and completely obscuring normal vision more than a hand from one's face. Reduced to thermographics and radar readings, Hans was a bit startled by the sheer destruction. He had dealt out such before, but it was vastly different doing so down on the deck as opposed to a flyby at several hundred kilometers per hour.

"You have some cover, Raven, lift those kids out of here," he suggested, hoping that the esper could do just that—likely she couldn't see either, but 'up' was a fairly simple direction to determine, even under these conditions.

Wolf Brigade troopers were renowned in the corporate and paramilitary culture as disciplined and tough. Their armor and weapons first rate, and their morale one of the best in the business. They came from the best of the best—SWAT teams, professional soldiers and mercenaries who wanted a more reliable living and benefits, and of course, some were recruited straight from within the Jinsei labor pool. You had to pass rigorous tests, mental and physical. There were cross training exercises with other units around the world, such as the British SAS, the UNA Army Rangers, the CSA Green Berets, and others. They were trained to integrate their tactics to take advantage of cyberdroid support. A few squads had cyberdroids as standard back-up. Whenever Jinsei sent them into battle, they were expecting top of the line firepower and tactical expertise, and they got it in spades.

Thus it might be seen as somewhat galling to have an entire company of them incapacitated or killed by just five people. But to be fair, they were used to dealing with either small, armored personnel units like themselves, or weaker, more easily cowed individual threats. A certain arrogance had developed over time. After all, if it wasn't another squad of powered armor troopers with cyberdroid back-up like themselves, how dangerous could they be?

That fatal arrogance was quickly being dispelled.

In the coming weeks and months, some higher powers within Jinsei would look back on this episode as a useful event—a clearing out of some of the deadwood, so to speak. New tactics and training procedures would be developed, equipment modified, the ability to assess and adapt to these kinds of threats improved. Military Darwinism at its finest.

For now, of course, the soldiers getting their collective asses handed to them weren't so sanguine about it...

Too many of them had been cut down by either plasma fire or high caliber rounds that seemed to come in from nowhere. Their heavy cyberdroid support kept getting shot apart by someone using a railgun to snipe with. There was an esper weapon tearing apart anyone who approached the detention block. And several troopers kept yammering about some invisible mecha that seemed to be providing heavy fire support. A fragmentary report from one of their cyberdroids had indicated that it might have gotten a kill on a combat cyborg before it got cut off in mid-report. This was urban warfare in the cybered 21st century at its most chaotic and deadly.

But one particular Jinsei squad was confident they might get the first kill on their side in this fight. Right after the old apartment block came down, the Puma synth who had been alternating machine-gun and grenade fire at them had been backed into an alley, and while she had taken a few of them out, she was pinned with nowhere to go. And with no more plasma fire coming at them anymore for the moment, the eight remaining troopers were taking the opportunity to hose down her position—behind a set of concrete steps leading up to the back of one of the buildings that lined the alleyway. It was the last bit of cover in the immediate area that hadn't been blown to pieces in the firefight. Thundering gunfire blew chunks away and dust from pulverized sections hung heavy in the air around it. Sooner or later, she'd either move and die or her cover would simply evaporate.

One of the troopers let out his frustration at the whole situation, "AAAHHHH!!!! GOD-DAMN YOU BITCH! JUST DIE ALREADY!!! AARRGgrgrrrhhkkkkk..." He cut off in mid-imprecation as he stared uncomprehending down at a dark shape that jutted from his throat.

"Shut up and die yourself, bastard. The 'bitch' is one of mine." Lora snarled as she yanked her mono-edged combat knife out of the back of his neck. But he was past hearing anymore. As his comrades turned to see him slump forward, already dead, Lora turned her stolen M-100 on them and fired one-handed on full auto. She walked the burst across four of the seven remaining troopers. They recoiled and fell back as the armor piercing slugs bit through their armor at close range, cries of pain and shock mingling with the gunfire.

She sprung back away, twisting acrobatically to dodge the return fire from the other angry troopers and landing halfway down the street in a crouch, with not a single round from the troopers guns striking her. Then she leaped high and came back down into the midst of them on the move, sweeping the M-100 in a semi-circle, machine gun fire jackhammering the troopers she hadn't yet hit at point blank range.

Except for the first trooper she had killed, they were all still alive, in various states of pain, but at least some of them were still game for the fight, adrenaline overcoming their injuries. But the cyborg girl was just too fast. She abandoned the M-100 as it jammed, throwing a backhanded punch that caved in one trooper's faceplate, then twisted to extend a kick just under the chest plate of another and send him flailing back into a wall. Leaning back 'limbo style' to avoid fire from another trooper, she went into a backwards handstand and kicked upwards into the jaw of another to send him into unconsciousness. Then flipped back onto her feet to deliver a palm strike that cracked another's chest plate and the ribs underneath it, sending him to the ground several meters away. It was almost like a dance.

Then there were only three troopers still standing. They were stunned into near disbelief at the way Lora had taken their comrades apart. Time seemed to slow down and as they turned to try and get a line of fire on her, Lora ripped her Earthshaker from its holster and fired three times, hitting the first trooper right between the red lenses of his helmet. The second shot went right through the cracked chest-plate armor of the second and pulverized his heart. And the third shot found the shoulder joint of the third and blew his arm clean away from the rest of him. He fell to the street mercifully unconscious and in shock.

Lora called out to Shoko, "Time to get ourselves out of here!"

Then something very much like a burning truck hit her between the shoulder blades and knocked her into the ground, stunned.

"Shitfuck!" cursed Shoko as her M-100 finally ran dry. With the Wolf Brigade troopers carrying M-100's just like hers, it seemed terribly unfair that none of them had had the courtesy to die close enough for her to loot their bodies for spare ammo. She considered trying to move under cover of the dust and debris raised by the collapsed building, but the cloud wasn't that thick in this far corner of the plaza. She could still see her enemy and so they presumably could still see her as well. Instead, she swapped her pulse rifle for the much larger Anti-Mecha Cannon on her back. It only had seven rounds left, but at least she'd scare the piss out of the Jinsei troopers when she opened up on them with it. For a few seconds, anyway. She took aim...

...and suddenly Lora was in the midst of the enemy. Shoko quickly jerked the cannon aside to avoid shooting her teammate, and then watched—as best as she could see through the haze—as the cyborg carved the Jinsei warriors to pieces in a ballet of mixed gunfire and martial slaughter. It was over in mere seconds. "Time to get ourselves out of here!" Lora called to her as the last trooper fell.

Then a brilliant beam of ion energy struck her in the back, flinging her through the air to land crumpled on the broken pavement.

"Lora!" screamed Shoko, and whipped the Anti-Mecha Cannon around at the cyberdroid as it emerged from the billowing cloud of smoke and dust. The 'droid noticed the movement and snapped it head around to aim at her, but had too little time to lock onto her before she fired. Her shot took it in the right thigh, damaging much of that legs function and nearly knocking it off its feet. It recovered, but not fast enough.

Flipping the selector switch to full auto, Shoko stood and opened fire on the 'droid. The ACH-30 had originally been designed as a vehicle-mounted weapon, and the ferocious recoil made the weapon difficult to control even for someone of Shoko's enhanced strength. As a result, her last two rounds went sailing harmlessly over the cyberdroids head. Or rather, they would have had it still had a head. However, her first four rounds had torn through the robot as they stitched their way up its body, crippling it before the last one blew its head entirely apart.

Aoi pulled back from her sights as she saw the dust and smoke billowing out of her firing zone. "Great work," she said into the communicator, almost overcome with relief. Her position was still solid, but her rifle only had a single round left. She sighed, glad that the worst of it was over. Firing into the cloud would be pointless; rather it would be more dangerous to her side if Raven was meant to be airlifting the children out.

She relaxed her posture, leaning up and relaxing her grip on the rifle. She'd managed to keep a good number of troops and cyberdroids out of the battle with her covering fire, and hoped the other had managed as well. But now, it seemed, she could finally relax. She stood with the rifle, barely able to heft its considerable weight, and stood back from the edge.

A whine of thrusters was all the warning she had as a cyberdroid emerged over the edge of the roof, appearing suddenly with its deadly mouth-laser deployed. Aoi sprung to the side as it fired, a searing white beam tearing across the roof where she had been a split second before. She landed on her back, rifle across her body as the cyberdroid landed on the roof before it. Its shoulder had been torn through, the arm long gone and removing its hand-carried armaments. A flash of recognition hit Aoi - she remembered delivering that blow to the cyberdroid and dismissing it as harmless. How she regretted that now.

It sprang forwards, its remaining fist driving down at Aoi on the roof. She struggled to bring the railgun up, firing blindly at it with her last round. The slug connected pointblank with its fist, tearing through the arm as the cyberdroid's blow smashed the top half of the railgun apart. Aoi rolled back, freeing herself from the wreckage as the powerpack sparked off. An explosion followed, a bright flash briefly blinding the cyberdroid. Aoi resumed her feet and reached around to her back, grasping her pistol in one hand. It was all she had, and it could never take down a metal monster like this. Unless...

The machine stepped forwards uncertainly, its balance shot. The eye-shields were in place, obscuring its blinded visual sensors. Small feelers extended to either side; motion sensors, from what Aoi recalled. She kept her position, staying perfectly still, even holding her breath as it approached. The mouth opened wide once more, readying the laser to fire.

It can't see me yet, but its sensors will recover soon, Aoi thought. The moment I move, it'll fire, so I have to be fast. I can see it's weak point, but I have to move to hit it. She nodded to herself. It's all or nothing now.

Aoi sprang forwards, drawing her pistol as she leapt across the roof. A flash of light and a burst of searing heat across her back told her of its discharge, the laser beam missing her by millimeters. She had less than a second before it would react, and her window was gone. Landing in a roll, she emerged between its legs and already on its move. A handhold on its hip swung her up, then her legs scissored its neck from behind. Swinging herself across its back, she came up sitting on its shoulders, its head cradled against her belly. Already it was moving, twisting from side to side, trying to dislodge her. Fast as lightning, she drew her pistol from its holster, bent it around the front of the monster's head and fired into the laser lens.

Sparks flew from its mechanical body, and Aoi knew she had scored a kill. Hands and feet pushed her away, back flipping off of it and arcing through the air to land in a crouch at the edge of the roof. She glanced up to watch its head burst like a mechanical balloon, and to see the body topple forwards with a thunderous crash, breaking through the roof and into the floors below.

"Aoi to all points," she said, barely able to catch her breath, not really caring who heard her. "Fire support's gone. We're outta here."

Shoko ran over to where Lora lay facedown, unmoving. A large, charred area on her back still smoldered. She turned the cyborg over, slightly surprised by the weight of her mechanical body. "Lora? Are you okay, girl?"

"Yeah..." Came the muttered reply as Lora levered herself up. She accepted a hand up from Shoko. "I hope Spycorp can cover some repair bills... Ouch... "

"Ouch indeed," said Shoko, eyeing the cyborg's battered appearance. In addition to the broad burn across her back, several bullets appeared to have penetrated her combat armor and the synthflesh across her front, stomach and right side. She'd also taken hits along the outside of her right forearm, and the synthflesh over the ball at the top of her shoulder had been torn away. Her right cheek was laid open to the titanium "bone" underneath, and there was another crease in the synthflesh going from her right temple over her ear. All in all, she looked a mess.

Lora caught the look from Shoko and grinned crookedly, shaking her head, "It looks much worse than it really is. Trust me."

"For your sake I sure hope so," said Shoko, grateful for the superior armor her CBA provided. Had *she* taken that kind of damage, she'd surely be dead now. Slinging the empty cannon over her shoulder, she pulled out her Stormbreaker, the only weapon she still had any ammo for. "Now let's get moving before we miss our ride outta here."

"Indeed," Lora nodded. Releasing the catch on her own break-action Earthshaker, she let the spent casings fall out of the cylinder with a practiced flip of her wrist as she extracted a speedloader from a pocket inside her jacket.

As Lora reloaded her weapon on the trot, Shoko could hear the cyborg's synthesized voice over her headset, /I need everyone to center on the plaza. O'Leary, we've got a window open for you, but it won't last long./

/Ready to storm the barn, lassie/, came the Irishman's voice. /And not a moment too soon, I might add. It's gettin' warmer around here./

Lora acknowledged his reply, then said, /Raven, Aoi's going to need pickup - you available?/

"I'm ready and waiting," Aoi replied into her communicator. "Let's make it fast."

"I'll be right there", Raven replied, "once those kids are safe."

/Are you going to need a hand getting those kids on the aerodyne?/

"I can lift them up", Raven offered, "but someone will have to cover me."

/Right. We've got your back./ Lora turned her attention to their mecha fire support. /Adler? What's your sitrep? Can you provide us cover? Once we're secure in the air, I think we can give you some cover of your own if you need it to get to an extraction point./

Hans was in the process of running through a quick systems diagnostic, and it was a moment before he had an answer for her.

/I am damaged but still functional,/ he replied. /I vill provide cover for you, concern yourselves with removing the children. The Jäger still possesses its stealth capabilities, I vill be able to vithdraw overland./ Hopefully he would be able to restrain his covering fire to a few well placed shots of the maser, to avoid giving away his position again. The Jinsei 'hand' weapons were distressingly effective against the Jäger's armor, and he idly wondered for a moment just where he would acquire replacement parts.

Above the action, a safe distance away from Aoi, a lone figure in black ghosted on the metal roofing. The most public face of the Wolf Brigade was the power-suited, machine-gun toting groundpounders, but that was merely the shock troops of the elite unit. Its main component, certainly, but no elite troop worked well without appropriate support, and the man in black had a supporting role. He grinned wickedly at that. He might not be the lead actor, but that meant he got to shoot people with impunity and rarely get shot back at. Here, against these rebels, he would get to be the star of the show. There were so few of them, and yet all those crude troops and his not-much-better Brigade colleagues could think of was saturation fire. An appropriate reflection of their level of skill, he thought, that all they could manage against so small a group was spray and pray. He, on the other hand, knew well that one bullet would be enough to deal a crippling blow to a small unit.

He glanced over at where the insurgent's sniper had taken her position. Counter-sniper fire might be effective, but his counterpart slowed his shots considerably lately. Either lacking in targets or ammunition—in either case, while the Jinsei sniper respected the effectiveness of a well-placed bullet, he figured the enemy sharpshooter was much less of a threat now than at the beginning of this little fracas. Therefore he set up in cover of a second story, hanging to the building thanks to his magnetized boots, loaded one of his special rounds, and sighted down his rifle. He had a lot of respect for snipers, but his bosses weren't so knowledgeable and he knew full well what sort of trophy they would be most impressed with.

Raven's sweep of her hand sent four Jinsei goons flying, more hastening their retreat than doing any real damage. They were far more hesitant now, taking cover where they could, ... awaiting reinforcements, Raven thought. The unmistakable rumble of armored personnel carriers

Then, Lora and Shoko were there beside her. Lora looked a mess, but Raven had seen her look worse, and she appeared to be having no trouble moving, so she'd worry for her friend later. Without a word, the other two took up positions behind her to either side, facing outward. Each of them formed the points of a triangle, the bodies of the unconscious children between them.

With a roar of jets engines pressed to their limits, the Scorpion came to a hovering halt above her head, opening its crew bay doors. /Here I be, lassie. Be quick, it's going to be unhealthy to be flyin' around here in a hurry./

"Words for the wise", Raven said. Quickly, she lifted her arms, taking the children up by twos and threes up into the aircraft. As she figured they would, several of the Jinsei troopers charged, realizing they could no longer afford to wait for help before their prize slipped from their grasp. She turned and raised a hand to send them stumbling back... Lora and Shoko both readied their guns...

Before she could loosen her Power, there was a deafening rumble above their heads, drowning even the Scorpion's jets. The Jinsei troops went down like wheat before the scythe, rivulets of blood spurting from fist-sized holes punched into their tortured bodies. Accurate fire from the invisible Jäger mecha picked off any who was "lucky" enough to avoid the hyperkinetic carnage dealt by the aircraft.

Raven looked up to see the Scorpion's smoking miniguns slowly ease out of their rotation. /Hurry up, lassie!/ said O'Leary. /I have'em covered!/

The esper gritted her teeth and returned to the task of lifting up her newfound charges. She wasn't terribly gentle; haste mattered more than care, now.

As each group were grabbed and taken aboard by the Scorpion's flight engineer, Lora did a quick estimation, coming to a conclusion she didn't like, and hoping she was wrong. Sure enough, though, O'Leary's voice came over the comm, /I hate to say this, lass, but we're gettin' too close to our weight limit. We 'kin lift with the rest o' yon on board... barely. But I don' know if we 'kin maneuver. E'en wi' the Jäger doin' coverin' fire, we may be a sittin' duck. But we 'kin still try... Orders?/ She could hear the reluctance in his voice. His natural instinct as a pilot to prove his skill and get his passengers to safety warring with hard nosed pragmatism and knowledge of his and his craft's limitations.

Lora and Raven looked at each other for a moment. Then Lora nodded and replied, /Bug out, O'Leary. Get those kids someplace safe. We'll make our own exit. Don't worry, we've got a back up./

Finally the last batch was up. /Saint Michael guide yuir way, and I'll see you at base!/ the pilot called into the radio, and O'Leary barely gave the bay doors time to close up before he gunned his engines and soared off with his precious cargo.

Raven watched him go for a second before going to her own radio. "All right, the bags are packed off. Aoi, I'll be right ov..."

There was a loud crack. With unerring aim, the turbo-penetrator round soared through the air, faster than a man could blink, and struck superhardened air. The armor piercing point shed its sabot as it was designed to do and soared on through, going through clamshell, then flesh underneath.

Raven cried out in pain and stumbled forward, clutching at her hip. Tears welled in her eyes, as her hands filled with warm blood. *Gods, it went right through*, she thought. The bullet had gone through her shield, two layers of clamshell, and her body in between—and God only knew what sort of damage it had done along the way.

*Move, move, MOVE!* she yelled to herself across the haze of pain, but she stumbled, her legs no longer carrying her. She had to get out of here before she got shot again!

The sniper swore. He'd definitely seen the flash when the turbo-penetrator shattered its sabot against the esper's shield right behind her head, but she was clutching her hip. A deflection! Turbo-penetrators were designed to go through armor or the shields of most esper weapons and send their sabot going—but the risk always was that the sub-caliber would ricochet off course, and it clearly had.

Doctrine said he should move before he fired again, lest the enemy spot him, but sometimes SOP had to be broken, and he'd hardly have as good a chance as this one. He sighted his rifle against the kneeling esper, started to slowly press the trigger... but then she vanished.

Crap. Well, at least he got some bragging rights—he'd probably done more damage to the attackers than the entire division combined. That ought to be able to save his ass despite this fiasco. Let them leave with the little kids; he was calling it a night. Nimbly, he leaped off his roof and ghosted away from the area.

Raven popped back in between two buildings some distance away from the battle—the point where she'd initially flown Gem on. There, she took a moment to lean against the wall and whimper, clutching at the still-bleeding wound. She was used to pain, the roaring scream in her brain that came down to a dull throbbing but this—this was different.

She could manage, though. She was strong enough. She was a child of the Zero Zone, she told herself. It was just a bullet wound. They had hundreds of them every day where she lived.

She bit her lip and forced herself to look at the injury clinically. It bled profusely, but that was unlikely to be life-threatening for a while. Her hip bone wasn't shattered if she could still stand, but it might easily have been chipped—or, considering what it'd done to the clamshell, just punched right through.

It needed medical attention, badly, but she still had some time. If she didn't faint from the pain. She gritted her teeth and fought off the wooziness. She knew she could endure this. She'd had worse.

Aoi. She still had to pick her up. Shoko, Lora, and Adler might be able to leave on their own power, perhaps to hook up with Beta team, but Aoi was cut off.

She reformed her Power, musing ruefully at how often she'd had to do that through blinding pain. At least, since she was teleporting again, it was much easier for her than if she had to form another pattern. An effort of will that somehow sent a throb of pain through her entire right leg, and she popped up...

To appear, disheveled and bleeding, behind Aoi. She promptly lost her balance on the rickety roof and collapsed with a groan of pain.

The smaller woman spun at the sound. Her eyes widened as she saw the state the Esper was in, and she immediately surged forwards. She knelt down, taking Raven by the shoulders and shook her gently.

"Raven? Speak to me! Can you still hear me? Answer!" The panic was rising in her voice, and she begun to shake the other woman harder.

Lora's voice came over the comm, /What happened? Raven? Where are you? Are you hurt?/

"Owie..." moaned Raven. "Please don't shake me..." She worked to sit up and looked at Aoi. "I'll be all right", she said, with more confidence than she felt, both for Lora and for Aoi.

"Is it done? Are we outta here?" Aoi asked, softer than she had intended.

Raven nodded. "Help me out. I think we've pushed our luck to the breaking point, time to call it a n... aaah!" She winced and clutched her hip. "Sorry. Hang on to me tight."

Aoi nodded and drew in close, raising Raven off the ground and holding her close. "You sure you're okay to do this?"

Raven nodded. "I've done it through worse... besides... got the pattern ready... that's the hard part..."

Aoi nodded, swallowed hard, and waited. Raven concentrated hard, fixing on the spot, and moved.

Hans wasn't entirely certain what had just happened. His readouts showed Raven stumbling, then disappearing, and some unclear chatter was coming over the comm now.

/Does anyone require assistance?/ he inquired, deftly piloting the Jäger down a narrow side street to pick up a new sightline on the Scorpion—the aerodyne was distressingly impervious to radar, and the Jäger wasn't as adept at maintaining a tracking lock with visual sensors. He ignored the arrays that had more orange and red lights on them than he was comfortable with—there was nothing he could do for them now, and worrying over them would distract him from more important issues.

With the zone starting to clear, it was becoming easier to sort and track hostile icons. The maser struck without warning several times, the searing invisible rays doing as an effective job of keeping the remaining troops from sticking their heads up as the plasma barrage had done—there was no way of telling where it was focused until it was too late.

Lora was about to call Raven again when her voice came over the comm, explaining that she was hurt, but that she'd be alright.

"Okay, gotcha... Stay where you are... No wait... Port to Lydia's and have her take care of you."

"Wouldn't they have better med facilities at the Spycorp staging area?" interjected Shoko, grabbing a clip of pulse rifle ammo off the body of a soldier who no longer had a use for it. The pickings were good - she'd only been at this since Raven had been hit, and already she had almost as much ammo as she'd started the mission with.

"Yeah, but Lydia's good, and it's a familiar location, so Raven doesn't have to concentrate as hard." Lora replied as she grabbed another Jinsei M-100 off the ground. She checked the action, and while the gun was severely scuffed, it was functional.

Raven objected, /What about you, though? How are you going to make it out? O'Leary is already gone. Don't you need me to port you as well?/

"Don't worry, we'll make it. We've still got the Jäger providing cover for us. Speaking of which... Hans, that mech has hands. Can you actually pick us up and carry us? Or at least Shoko?"

Shoko's head turned sharply toward Lora at this. "Forget that, Lora! Either he can take both of us or we'll find another way out of here together. I'm not leaving you behind."

The cyborg grinned at her, "Who said anything about me being left behind? I'd have to worry about you keeping up with _me_! Speaking of which... Adler?"

/Yes,/ Hans replied, /The Jäger can indeed carry both of you easily enough, although since the cloak vill not cover you as vell, you vill be visible and therefore a target. I should, however, be able to keep the Jäger interposed between yourselves and any return fire long enough to clear the area./

"That's good enough for me." Lora replied.

Searing into flame the dry trunk of a dead tree sprouting out of the sidewalk a block further down the street, Hans began cautiously piloting the Jäger down the street, the mech automatically tracking the sporadic weapons fire from the remaining troopers and returning fire as appropriate.

/Rendezvous at the burning bush,/ he instructed the pair over the radio. /I vill pick you up there./

Lora and Shoko made their way over, moving up the block in a modified SWAT maneuver that neither of them had consciously planned - one moving to the next bit of cover while the other did overwatch. Both of them were more cautious after seeing what happened to Raven, and didn't want to make themselves any more obvious a target than they already were. Shortly they were next to the burning tree.

For a moment, Lora had the unnerving sensation that Adler had taken off and left them there. *Y'know, I'd feel really stupid if Jinsei surrounded us here while we were waiting for non-existent pick-up.* She thought to herself.

Then she heard and felt the shudder of heavy footsteps. Looking around, she saw depressions in the pavement form in front of them, and if she looked closely, she could just make out a distortion in the air like a heat shimmer.

He had said nothing to the women who were counting on his support, but the fact that the Jäger's flight systems were down concerned Hans significantly. Its land speed was greater than an unaugmented human's true, but it was still relatively slow, topping out at forty miles an hour. And it was anything but quiet within reasonable earshot.

Still, he was their best bet for a relatively unscathed extraction at the moment. /I am here/, he announced, although apparently unnecessarily as the women turned at his approach. /It would probably be best if--/

An internal alarm shrilled, breaking into the radio broadcast as the Jäger's combat computer alerted him to the appearance of a squad of Jinsei security emerging from a cross street down the block behind him. The HUD was painted with orange 'hostile' triangles as the computer marked ten different targets, analyzing their hardware and making relevant notations upon the screens. Not their elite security, thankfully, but bad enough—especially for those not protected behind several layers of reinforced armor.

Limb actuators squealed in protest as Hans wrenched the Jäger about, sweeping an arm about both woman and jamming them uncomfortably face to face as he placed the mech's back between them and the squad. Just in time, too, as a hail of rounds from the squad's M-60 pulse rifles pelted audibly against the Jäger's back and whistled past on either side. That was likely to confuse and frustrate the security forces who thought they had caught two of the invaders out in the open and without cover.

Now that it was being used for cover, it became painfully apparent just how small the Jäger was. It certainly seemed big enough from its earlier actions, but it was barely any larger than the cyberdroids it had been engaging, if somewhat wider. Lifting Lora and Shoko off the ground, their feet dangled barely eighteen inches from the surface and he could see their less-than-thrilled expressions at close range of the sensor pod. Time for apologies later, and he hoped that their body armor would withstand the rough treatment they'd likely incur.

"Acquire and destroy infantry, suppression," Hans snapped to the combat computer. The weapon pod on the mech's shoulder rotated to bear as the computer defined a firing zone and began unleashing a barrage of deadly blue plasma bolts into the ranks of the security squad. Even as it did so, Hans manipulated joysticks and foot pedals to send the Jäger lurching into rapid retreat away from the corporate goons, keeping the armored body interposed between the returned fire and his 'passengers'. The Jäger swiftly outdistanced their broken pursuit, but he knew that wouldn't hold true of any vehicles that might be mustered to pursue.

"Atlas, 'Zero Zone'," Adler instructed the computer, bringing up another program. They needed to find a place to either lose pursuit or move beyond their reach. /Any suggestions as to vere to head?/ he inquired hopefully.

"Well, that depends," answered Shoko, "If we're going to try to get out on our own, then unless this thing can float, the Williamsburg Bridge is the only real choice. But Jinsei's gonna have it pretty well defended. Or, I suppose we could try to withdraw and hope that O'Leary can come back for us later. I can suggest a few possible places to go in that case."

An alarm sounded again as an airborne target crossed the Jäger's radar, and Hans tagged it as hostile when he spotted the Jinsei logo on the side. It was a heavy helicopter, and according to the computer's analysis heavily armored and mounted with a minigun. Wonderful.

/We've got company/, he informed the other two as he began evasive maneuvers, handing the computer the problem of bringing down the pursuing bird. Fully cloaked he could lose them, he was certain, but with exterior passengers they were certainly aware that something was moving swiftly down here.

Smoke began to stream from the pursuing helicopter as the maser started to carve into its systems. The computer's analysis selected the main rotor assembly as its primary target, but before it could be completely disabled a sheeting rain of minigun slugs pounded the Jäger, the combined impacts driving the mech from its feet.

*Scheiße.* Drawing the mech's legs up and bracing the arms, Hans could only hold on as he was tossed about in his pilot cradle. The mech's body and limbs formed a protective cage about Lora and Shoko as it toppled and slid with a cascade of sparks into the side of a building, the back of the mech knocking a hole in the old brick facing.

The first thing that Hans noticed when they stopped moving was a solid bank of red in a location he did not ever want to see. Something must have happened to the weapons control module, for everything was offline.

/My weapons are down/, he reported, hoping that the other two had weathered the fall relatively unscathed. "Stability recovery," he said, calling up another program, and actuators whined as the mech strove to match its proper gyroscopic readings. The Jäger released its grip upon Shoko and Lora in order to use its arms and hands and in moments acquired its feet while he confirmed that the weapons were indeed out of commission.

*Bumsen*. Tapping a few commands, he shut down the cloak. The mech shimmered into view, its blue-gray photovoltaic plating shimmering oddly in the poor light.

/I vill lead it away/, Hans informed them. The helicopter was clearly damaged, but still in fighting shape and likely to cause a great deal of damage if not dealt with. Once attention had been drawn away from the women, he could reengage the cloak and evade pursuit. And then, somehow, he would have to effect repairs....

"Right," said Shoko. "Thank you, Hans. And good luck!"

"I'll see you later, and don't get yourself killed!" Lora called out as the mech turned and began to run. Then she pulled Shoko under cover of the hole left in the side of the building.

They watched as the mecha moved off, a nice big target to keep the helicopter pilots attention. Then Shoko turned to Lora. "Well, we better get moving too. We'll never fight our way across the Williamsburg Bridge without the Jäger, but I was thinking that we might get out through some of the old subway tunnels. Smugglers supposedly reopened a few of them a few years back. I think it's worth a shot, anyway. You game?"

"Certainly. Know of any entrance nearby?" She checked her GPS and reoriented herself. "If I can't get across the river, I want to at least get to the Clark Street area."

Shoko nodded. "Yeah, I know where several of the subway entrances are—some closer than others. But I'm not sure which ones we need to get across the river, so we may have a few false starts." She shrugged and added, "And if that doesn't pan out, then I guess we head for Clark Street. Um...why the Clark Street area?"

"Because that's where Raven's going to be, at least for now. That's her home, and her Aunt Lydia is a doctor. She'll help get Raven patched up. I sent her there because she was hurt, and it's not as easy to concentrate when you're in pain. I didn't want to take a chance that she'd mess up while teleporting, especially while she was carrying someone with her. It's a little safer there than any other place I can think of in the Zone."

They made their way through the ruined, half grown over streets of the Zone. Ducking from building to building, they kept as low a profile as they could manage. Off in the distance, they could hear some muffled gunfire and the muffled thump of explosions. The Jäger had managed to draw off the Jinsei fire, and they seemed to have completely lost their pursuers. As they continued, the distant sounds of combat grew more erratic, then stopped completely.

Lora risked a call on the comm, /Hans? Did you lose them?/

/For the moment,/ Hans' voice came back over the radio frequency. /And yourself, and the little one?/ he inquired.

Lora raised an eyebrow at Shoko, who snickered. *Little one? She's half a head taller than me at least!* She thought, shaking her head before answering back, /We're both fine for now. Nobody seems to be following us. We're about to go underground though, so we'll be out of radio contact soon./

"There," said Shoko, pointing. "That's the nearest subway entrance just up there. If we're lucky, we may find a map of the subway system somewhere in there that's still legible." She paused a moment and sighed. "Well, you ready?"

Lora nodded, and together they descended into the darkness.

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