Part 3

By Max Fauth and Michael Surbrook

Suburban hell. That was the only way to describe it. Their trip through the sewers had taken then from an urban wasteland of empty shops, abandoned cars, and deserted homes, to a seemingly endless expanse of cookie-cutter homes, which lined the streets in mute testimony to the power of corporate urban renewal. It was as if someone had simply erased whatever had been here before the War and started over. Which, Aoi decided, might not be far from the truth.

Now that evening was coming, the streets and homes were coming to life—sort of. A constant stream of cars passed—many hybrid or fully-electric runabouts—each one pulling into a short drive way at the base of each house. They seemed to have entered the land of middle management, where people had just enough money to buy their own house (or in some cases, one of a long line of connected townhomes), a car, and various small luxuries. They were one step up from the common workers, who usually ended up crammed in towering apartment complexes, but were no where near the near the level of upper management and corporate executives—who perversely enough, often lived in the same building where they worked, trading the luxury of a home of their own for the status and security of dwelling inside a corporate arcology.

Sneaking a glance to one side, Aoi grabbed a quick look at her employer. Shion seemed to be doing fine, although she kept dabbing at her nose with a wad of tissue she'd taken from the home they'd raided. Aoi tried to ignore the bright scarlet stains that marked the white paper. One of the side effects of the gas had been a frighteningly messy bloody nose for the esper. Aoi'd done her best to clean it up as best she could, but it wasn't something that would just clear up in an hour or two.


Aoi stopped suddenly and looked to where Shion was pointing. On the right the homes had given way to a strip mall, and there, on the corner was a restaurant. She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it. Yes they were lost and alone in an unknown part of Jersey, hunted by unknown corporate elements, but they also needed to eat.

The name on the outside was "Silver Diner," inside it was all chrome and stainless steel. There were booths all along three walls, while the fourth was dominated by an automated kitchen. Apparently having food sullied by human hands was for the lower classes. Here you entered your choices in a touch screen, swiped a card, and were done. Your food would appear on a tray, you picked it up, and went to your seat. All clean and sterile. In a million years Aoi would have never imagined Shion thinking of even setting foot in such a place.

"Ramen," Shion said offhandedly, as if she was thinking out loud. "Yes, that would be best."

Glancing at the display screen, Aoi found herself agreeing. Soup would help warm Shion up (not that the shower hadn't), and might help a gas-scared throat. That, and odds were everything on the menu was made from either algae, soy, or yeast products (with a little chicken or fish if you were lucky), and tasted like it. Ramen, normally made from a fish and soy broth to begin with, wouldn't taste any different from "the real thing." Or so she hoped.

As Shion busied herself with the touch screen, Aoi took a quick glance around the diner. The booths looked to be empty, with one exception. Two men, who looked to be in their very young twenties, sat in a corner booth, staring at her. No, correction. Staring at Shion. They had looks of rapt attention on their faces and Aoi doubted her mere existence had yet to register.

Aoi sighed inwardly. Even with a long coat and hat her employer attracted attention. Well, at least these two were more infatuated with her looks than who she was (Aoi doubted they had the slightest idea of who they were ogling). Just as long as Shion didn't notice, and wipe them from the face of the earth is a fit of spite, everything would be fine.

Gathering up her tray, Shion went over to her own booth, discarding both coat and hat after setting her meal down on the table. The reaction from the corner was audible as the pair were now allowed to see what was under the coat. Shion's clothes fit well enough, but hadn't been tailored for her. The pants were tight across her hips and rear, while the shirt made it obvious she wasn't wearing a bra.

Tapping her selection into the screen (Aoi opted for something called a "Buddha Bowl"), she tried to ignore the exchange occurring in the corner. The two were young, probably just out of high school, or in their first years of college. They both looked to be tall, well-built, and handsome enough—just the sort who had gained entrance on a sports scholarship rather than academic ability, she was more than willing to bet. Ergo, they were young, dumb, and full of cum. Hopefully this wouldn't lead to the ill-advised harassment of the world's most powerful (albeit stable) esper weapon on the planet. On a good day (a very good day) Aoi suspected Shion might find a dalliance with the pair an amusing way to put an end to her boredom, although she tended to rent really expensive sexriods for that. On a bad day (like today), it would simply end with two steaming corpses decorating the interior of the diner.

Picking up her selection, Aoi made her way over to where Shion was sitting. She found the esper staring with rapt attention at the salt shaker, apparently having lost interest in her dinner. Sitting down, Aoi unwrapped her chopsticks. picked them up by the tips and then carefully pulled them apart. With a *snap* they broke perfectly. Glancing up with a smile she noticed Shion was still staring at the salt shaker.

A questioning "Boss..." was cut off by an imperious wave of an arm. With sweat beading on her brow, Shion continued to stare at the small salt shaker. A moment later a tremor ran through the table, causing a ripple to cross the surface of the ramen bowls. With a slight *clink* the salt shaker anticlimactically fell over.

Aoi remained silent for some time, not sure what to say. Shion gave the fallen salt shaker a long look then started to eat her ramen. Pulling her bowl over, Aoi did the same, finally looking up to ask "Well?"

"Well what?" Not waiting for an answer, Shion picked up her bowl and drank off some of the broth.

"That can't be good, can it?" Aoi wasn't sure if that had been the best thing to say, but beating around the bush wasn't going to help matters.

With a slight sigh, Shion put her bowl back down. "No. No it's not. However, it's more than I could do a while ago."

"Then maybe the gas is wearing off?"

"I'd like to think so."

The soup, for what it was, wasn't bad at all. Aoi found she didn't mind the taste, even if everything in it was made from either soy or algae. It was hot and reasonably filling. Picking up the bowl herself, Aoi decided Shion had the right idea—simply drinking from the was the best way to eat. Glancing over the rim, she noticed Shion seemed to have relaxed a bit, and had even gone so far as to set the salt shaker back right-side up. Flicking her eyes to the right, she noticed it had become somewhat darker outside and there was a man standing outside the resturant looking in the window at the two of them.

As witness to how tired she was, it took a moment for that to register. Setting her bowl down, she looked again from under the brim of her cap. Yes, there was a man there, dressed perversely enough, much like Shion in a long coat and hat. Except he was wearing sunglasses and was holding one finger up to his ear. Had they been spotted?

Wondering if she'd live to see the next few seconds, Aoi reached out with one foot and carefully kicked Shion in the calf. The expected retort died as Aoi bobbed her head to her right, "Friend of your's, boss?"

Keeping her expression blank, Aoi let Shion look out the window, instead opting for a quick swallow of water. No sooner had the paper cup left the table top then Shion had grabbed it in her hands and with a wrench of her shoulders, stood up.

The table tore from its pedestal in spray of plastic splinters and twisted bolts. Their food went everywhere as the window starred and shattered under the hammering assualt of a weapon on full automatic.

Her wire kicking on, Aoi rolled out of her seat and hit the floor. Coming up in a low crouch she reached for her Beretta 93R, thumbing the safety off and pushing the switch over to automatic. The table hit the glass and the whole window went out, shots still tearing holes through the formed plastic as it fell outside. Shion herself was now down beside the wall, gun in hand.

Glancing around, she could see the two college boys still at their table, cringing and staring in shock. Standing slightly, she yelled "Get down!" at them. They stared blankly for a second, responding at last to another burst of automatic gunfire. Aoi could almost feel the bullets passing over her shoulder as she dove forwards, taking brief refuge beneath a second table. She watched in horror as rounds sliced through her marginal protection, the new holes giving her a clear view of the college boys ducking behind a bolted-down row of chairs. From the corner of her eye, she saw Shion raise her pistol over the edge of the window and fire blindly. The automatic fire cut out, and Aoi took the chance to spring back against the wall next to her employer.

There was an odd look in the Esper's eyes, a cross between wonder and disappointment. Aoi could almost hear the question waiting behind them: Why risk yourself for them. But as another burst of gunfire briefly deafened them, she knew the answer would have to wait.

Between the shots, they could both hear the man outside muttering. Although they could barely understand the words, both recognised the meaning. He had them pinned. Backup was coming. They were trapped. The conclusion was unavoidable; move fast or die. Both scanned the floor, looking for an edge to deliver them from this bleak situation. Shion's eyes fell on their ramen bowls, both upturned and empty and one shot half to pieces.

Aoi felt her employer's elbow jabbing into her ribs and turned to face her. She followed her gaze to the intact bowl, then loooked back up at her. "That way," Shion whispered, nodding to the far end of the long window. Aoi swallowed hard, the plan forming in her mind. She reached out carefully, took the bowl in hand, and scurried across the floor. At the same time, Shion edged her way to the door. They both looked back, and nodded to each other.

With wired speed, Aoi flicked the edge of the ramen bowl up past the window sill. The effect was immediate, drawing a burst of gunfire. Trying not to flinch, she pulled it down as quickly as she had raised it. Shion had used the distraction well, glancing out the door to draw a bead on the agent's location. Both glanced back at each other.

They waited for agonising seconds, each guessing the reactions of their attacker. If they were right, he was watching Aoi's end for movement. If they were wrong, Shion's next move would be her last. But both knew there was nothing for it. Shion nodded.

Aoi flicked the bowl up again, once more drawing the spray of gunfire. She held still, cringing as the bowl was torn to shreds. At the same time, Shion surged around the doorway, pistol out and ready. Aoi heard several quick reports and then their was nothing but silence. She dropped the remains of the bowl, letting it clatter to the ground, and finally peeked over the edge of the window.

The agent was sprawled on the ground, his hat fallen over his face and a stream of blood flowing from underneath it. Shion was on her feet, gently nudging the body with a toe, ignoring the PN-90 that lay nearby. She turned to Aoi and simply said "Let's go."

Aoi glanced back at the diner. The place was a mess. There was barely an inch of it that wasn't scarred by gunfire, scattered with debris or similarly marked by the brief, yet intense firefight. She spotted the two college boys in the back, cowering under a table, looking up at her and Shion and shaking in terror. Aoi glared at them, muttered, "You're welcome," and followed Shion outside.

"We need to move," Shion commanded ."Anywhere is fine as long as it's away from here."

"Gotcha." Aoi replied and then nodded her head to one side. "Let's go west. It might throw them off a bit."

"West a few blocks, then we cut south." Shion headed off as she spoke, long legs quickly putting distance between her and the recent gunfight. "If possible we should try and get another vehicle. Perhaps a taxi."

Aoi gave that some thought. "Do we have enough cash to hire one?"

"I still have my credit cards and worse comes to worse, we can simply take one."

"Right..." Aoi gave that one some thought. Odds were Shion wasn't joking. On the other hand, things were desperate enough that stealing a taxi might just be something they'd have to do if they expected to get out of New Jersey anytime soon. Aoi was just having a little trouble imagining Shion as a carjacker, that was all.

"The hell?"

Aoi glanced up to see Shion looking rather perplexed. Following the taller woman's gaze she found herself feeling a tad confused as well. Hooker, was her first impression, quickly follwed by Synthetic Sex Toy. Then the figure, undoubtedly a woman's, or at least, modeled to look like one, broke into a run, headed straight for them.

Cyborg? Aoi thought as the female form flashed past her. She doubted it was a synthetic, no one would be stupid enough to send a single synth against the Empress. Hell, four cyberdroids hadn't been enough to take her down, and she doubted this new attacker was one of those—who'd dress up a cyberdroid in synthetic skin and what looked like white fetish gear?

Turning and drawing her gun, Aoi felt remarkably slow, augmented reflexes or no. The cyborg (it had to be a cyborg), was moving quickly, and in fact had already launched herself into a spinning kick at Shion, who was in a wide-legged stance Aoi recognized from some of their practice sessions.

With scarcely a grunt of effort, Shion deflected the incoming leg with an open hand. Undeterred, the female 'borg continued past Shion, launching a quick backhand as she landed. A circling step and another openhanded slap blocked that as well, at which point Shion grabbed the incoming limb at the wrist, pivoted, and slammed her opponent into the concrete sidewalk with a picture-perfect hipthrow.

For a moment Aoi stared openmouthed. Okay, she knew Shion was strong. She knew Shion was a world-class esper who just a few hours ago had made a small crater out of a portion of some abandoned and crumbling warehouse district. But.... It was one thing to know Shion could fight most cyberdroids and cyborgs, hand-to-hand, on equal terms, it was another thing to actually see it.

The blue-haired cyborg rolled back and flipped to her feet, allowing Aoi to get a closer look at her. She wasn't quite Shion's height (few women were), but she had that same long-legged perfect figure common to cyborgs the world over (who'd opt for an ugly artificial body?). Her waist-length hair was a pale icy-blue, much like Temple's back in Mega-Tokyo, framing an attractive face. Her clothing was mostly white, either vinyl or synthleather, consisting of thigh-high boots, long fingerless gloves (with black hands), and a one-piece bodysuit that covered just her torso—and based on it ribbing, looked to be lined with armored inserts. Right. Aoi had to shake her head, her boss was now going head-to-head with a corporate operative dressed in something one-step up from women's underwear.

Glancing back Aoi became painfully aware she'd missed something. The two had been circling around each other, but in the instant she'd closed her eyes, the 'borg had moved. Shion now sported what looked like a bloody lip and an extremely annoyed expression. Reaching under her coat, she produced the long-bladed knife (sword really) Aoi had rescued from the trunk of Shion's car.

Raising her Beretta 93R, Aoi took a bead on the cyborg just as it closed again with Shion. A backhand chop was blocked by Shion's blade, which then twisted in her hand and slashed along the cyborg's arm. Glancing between them, looking for a clear shot, Aoi could see the synth skin on the cyborg's arm cut away, revealing its metal form below. She stepped back, then rolled aside as the two surged back, Shion barely avoiding a rapid knee thrust from the 'borg. They were just too damn close to take a shot, Aoi thought as she regained her feet and backed away from the pair. She couldn't risk hitting Shion, yet as the blade skidded off the cyborg's ribbed bodysuit, it was becoming clear that Shion couldn't stop it alone.

The 'borg's hand blurred down to her waist and came up holding a shockbaton. A blue spark popped at the tip as it clipped Shion's blade then a sudden lunge sent it right at the esper's torso. Shion deflected the shot with her forearm, catching her opponent's wrist and pushing the 'baton down and away. At the same time she whipped her sword over her head, cutting down at an angle but doing little other than sending a few blue hairs floating to the ground.

Rising from her crouch, the 'borg spun around, her legsweeping catching Shion and hurling away to tumble along the ground. Now! Aoi thought as the cyborg stood up, stunbaton at the ready.

She squeezed the trigger. Rounds tore into the cyborg's face and neck, gouging out part of her cheek. Staggering back, the cyborg whirled in time to see Aoi tracking her with the pistol. The cyborg sprang aside, crouching low as Aoi fired again, tearing apart the top of the fountain. It started spraying water all over the park, hiding the blue-haired cyborg from Aoi's view.

Before she could find it, a chunk of concrete came spinning through the spray at lethal speed. Aoi ducked, surging aside to avoid the projectile. The cyborg followed, leaping through the spray straight at her, driving a knee into Aoi's gut. A pair of rapid punches followed which Aoi barely sidestepped, amazed at how fast the cyborg was in close. She stepped back and fired her pistol once more, sending a volley of rounds into its shoulder. The attacker twisted around, ignoring the shots and cutting across Aoi's face with a powerful backhand that sent her sprawling to the ground.

And suddenly Shion was there. She grabbed the cyborg's still spinning arm and turned with its motion, twisting and tripping as she wrenched her opponent bodily forwards. Her movement was graceful, seemingly effortless, leaving the cyborg hurtling through the air. She impacted hard with one of the trees on the corner, shattering the trunk. Twisting in mid-air, the 'borg hit the ground and rolled, coming to her feet and starting on a series of rapid backflips all in one fluid motion.

Aoi fired again, but the female cyborg was moving too fast, and the shots just cratered the concrete. As for the 'borg, she twisted in the air again, hit the ground feet first, and took off running.

Letting her pistol drop to her waist, Aoi turned to see how Shion was doing. The tall esper was barely breathing hard, one hand still gripping the hilt of her sword, the other brushing long strands of hair out of her face. 'They'll be back," she announced in a dead tone of voice.

"Then we need to be gone," Aoi replied.

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