Part 2

By Michael Surbrook

No more wasting time with underlings. She was close, very close, to Valsek's compound. It was over there, down the street, in what had once been a nightclub. Most of the club had been below ground, making it easily defensible in this day and age. Corey was somewhere near by, either in the club itself or an adjacent building, her intel wasn't clear.

Pausing in alley's mouth, Shion removed the clip from her pistol and slid a fresh one home. She'd used six rounds, leaving four, too few for what was coming next. Sliding the H&K back into her holster, she stepped out into the street. Time for the direct approach.

The twinge came about halfway to entrance. It registered in the back of her mind, a point of pressure that tapped on the back of her brain as if it was requesting her attention. Recognizing the feeling, Shion stopped dead in the street, virtually freezing in place. Valsek had an esper in his employ. Somehow, she wasn't surprised.

Eyes closed, Shion turned the buzzing signal around in her mind, evaluating it, testing its measure, its feel. The esper was close and getting closer, in fact she was....

Shion turned around, opening her eyes.

There she was. Shion could see the other esper at the far end of the street. She looked tall enough, with long thigh-high black boots and an equally short black skirt. A dark top hung loose on her torso, the open neck exposing most of one shoulder and the upper curves of her breasts. Her short greenish hair fluttered in a wind that pushed upwards from her feet.

The ground cracked and buckled as the girl lifted a hand over her head and brought it slashing down. A trench erupted in the street as the esper's force bolt arced her way. Shion casually raised one arm and didn't even bother to blink as the bolt slammed home, dust and debris crashing over her in a wave. A moment later the air cleared, the ground shattered along a neat arc right in front of her.

Stepping forward, Shion summoned her own power, fully intent on teaching the young upstart a potentially lethal lesson. Then a sudden twinge on the edge of her mind made her look up. There, above her, frozen for just a moment in space, was a second figure hurtling her way, fist cocked.

Leaping backwards, Shion pushed away from the ground and took the the air herself, just as the spot where she'd been standing exploded. Shrapnel, in the form of broken bits of concrete and asphalt, rebounded from her shields. Pointing her fist, Shion sent a surge of power blasting into the midst of all the dust and smoke, the clouds roiling in tight corkscrews around the path of her strike.

Without pausing Shion vanished in a swirl of dust and debris, reappearing high in the air. She could feel both of them down there, just like she expected them to know where she was. The only question was: could they do anything about it? Deciding to make any answer a moot point, Shion pointed her fist down, sending a surge of Power smashing into the street. She let the pulse of energy sweep its way across an arc of ground, shattering already cracked and broken asphalt, small fragments spraying in all directions.

The signals scattered, each going in a separate direction. Their tactic was obvious, capture Shion in a crossfire, force her either to go on the defensive, or hit her from behind when she struck at one of her opponents. There was no way she could fight two foes, coming from two different directions, at the same time. Or could she?

That she was faster then her foes she was willing to accept as a given. But the was she fast enough? These were espers, not corporate security, each and every one an unknown quantity, at least in the opening stages of battle. Still, their signatures weren't overpowering and hopefully hers had them more than a little bit nervous. Perhaps she could use that to her advantage.

Out of the dust and smoke below came two figures. A quick glance showed one to be male, the other female. The male was in the lead, dressed in tan trousers tucked into black boots, and a tan vest over a black shirt. Typical Zone chic.

She felt the force bolts before they actually manifested. They tore through the air, intersecting just in front of her floating form. She'd been expecting something like that, in fact. If the pair had been a bit faster, or if she'd been a bit slower, it might even had worked.

Dropping through the air she unleashed a bolt of her own, the ram of sheer force slamming into the black-haired male of the duo and sending him off into the darkness. Turning she felt the woman's attack smash into her shields, and she arced to the ground after the man. Gritting her teeth, Shion pushed out with her own esper energies. She needed to time this just right.

Landing in a cloud of dust, Shion glanced to the right and left. No sign of the man, but the woman was still coming down at her. Perhaps she thought the Empress was down and victory was at hand. Well, she'd but that notion to rest.

Summing her Power, Shion raised one hand and let the energy flow out of her once, twice, a third time. The woman tried to dodge at the last second but the three esper pulses slammed home in rapid succession. High in the air, unable to brace or resist, she vanished into the dark sky.

The bolt that came tearing out of the night hit her square in the back. She'd felt the pulse before it had arrived, but dealing with one target had left her no time to react to another. Between her shields and armor, she felt little of the impact, but it still sent her tumbling along the ground. Coming to a rest in the cracked and shattered asphalt, Shion could see her opponent as a bright green-white figure arcing through the air. Power shimmered about his body, visible both to the mind and the eye. Her face smeared with dust, Shion grinned.

Moments before the telekinetic air strike arrived, Shion flipped to her feet, sidestepping the man and taking his outstretched arm between her hands. A simple pivot of her hips and he smashed into the ground with a spray of gravel and grit. Continuing to wheel around, Shion brought one booted foot down into a T-shirted midsection with sufficient force to cave in the side of a car. The esper simply folded up around her leg and went limp.

Five down.

Corey Emerson sat in the small room that had been her home for the last few weeks. She'd debated putting hash marks on the wall to track the duration of her stay, but since the virtual clock floating in the lower right of her field of vision did it well enough for her, she decided against the admittedly dramatic, put useless exercise. Of course, there had been precious little to occupy her time at any rate, as Valsek had taken her vid unit, audio recorder, and VR rig. Sure she still had the optical cameras in her carefully styled Shiroko-Tsuhi eyes, as well as Syn-Tech pickups in her ears, but she couldn't dump the data and play it back, so it didn't do her much good, now did it? Fortunately, Valsek had been nice enough to give her a GE tri-vid unit, so she had something to occupy her time with, at the very least.

What annoyed her the most was the fact that with all the people Valsek could be trying to squeeze, he had to pick her. Sure Rolling Stone had money, but they didn't have that kind of money. And it wasn't like she wasn't some mainstream talking head or gossip maven, she was a investigative reporter, known for doing her own thing. Rolling Stone had given her a column all to herself and she'd filled it with whatever she'd pleased, which lately had been coverage of Jinsei's invasion of the Zone.

Unwilling to sit idly by, Corey had gone in on her own, interviewing people on both sides and sending back the footage to the RS studios. She'd even gotten some combat shots, not to mention images of a Nightsky Dragon in action—an experience she was fairly sure she didn't want to repeat any time soon.

She'd considered leaving once the giant gunships had arrived and started reducing entire city blocks to so much rubble. The fighting had become far too intense to even try and pretend she could travel about as a "noncombatant," hoping her journalist's ID would protect her from either side. But she found she couldn't leave. Something, the human side of the Zone, perhaps, kept her. She couldn't just turn her back and go—she wanted people to know what was happening here, that not everyone in the Zone was the faceless, mindless, and thoughtless criminals they loved to present on the other news shows. Real people lived in the Zone, people with lives, jobs, loved ones, and dreams. Most of which Jinsei had destroyed in a storm of shrapnel and ion cannons.

It was while working the far edge of Zone City she'd been grabbed. She'd gone off on her own, an admittedly dumb thing to do, and had been filming some of the Zone's less-then-reputable residents stripping a wrecked Jinsei gunship. As she got up to leave a hand had settled on her shoulder, and a pretty green-haired face had grinned at her. "Mr. Valsek want's an exclusive."

The exclusive had turned into a multi-week stay in a run-down, duty, and dingy room that smelled of stale urine and mildew. At least the bed was clean and some kind soul had set up a space heater running off of a hydrogen fuel cell. There were lights as well, presumably connected to solar panels and windmills on the roof of the place. Fairly normal for the Zone, really, and no different than many other Zone establishments.

So here she sat, doing nothing, watching the mindless pap the networks spewed out and called "news" when a subtle tremor ran through the room. Nothing special, to be honest, but certainly not an everyday occurrence. Corey wondered if Jinsei was starting a bombardment somewhere nearby when a second tremor made itself felt, along with a faint fall of dust from the ceiling. Then came a faint booming sound and a shudder so strong the tri-vid flickered for a second. Standing, Corey glanced at the door. She could hear running feet and shouting. Something was up at Valsek house, and it didn't sound at all good.

Two tremors later and all speculation came to an end as the door was yanked open and an out-of-breath mook waved a weapon at her. "You," he panted, "get out."

Snatching up her jacket (carbon fiber coats don't cheap), Corey nodded in return. "Something up? Did Rolling Stone come through?"

A snarled "Shut up," was the reply, along with a shove on one shoulder that almost made her trip and fall. If there was one good thing to be said about her captivity, it was Valsek's decree that no one was to lay a hand on her. So she hadn't been beaten or raped (yet) by some of his less-than-brillant goons he called guards. Valsek himself was a pedophile—she'd seen some of the young boys, kept healthy and scrupulously clean for his "use"—and he'd had no interest in her. He also didn't want anyone else to either.

As they traveled along the dimly lit hallway, Corey noticed the seismic shudders becoming more intense. The ground actually shook once, and an aged concrete wall cracked in a cloud of dust and fragments. Asking "What's going on out there?" almost got her a rifle butt for her troubles, until the guard caught himself, took a wary look around and leaned forward. "Esper," he whispered, as if that one word explained everything. And to be honest, it did. Corey had seen espers in action, had even reported on a few, and knew what a sufficiently powerful esper could do—especially one with a mad on. A few years ago a couple of espers had gotten into one hell of a fight and an entire office tower had suffered for it—and rumor had it that Ran had wiped a Jinsei research complex off of the map in a fit of rage.

Now she was joined by a few other guards, all armed, and all looking somewhat nervous. One kept talking into a miked headset, asking for people to report in—it seemed he was getting far fewer responses than he liked. That made Corey wonder or a moment, was someone coming for her? Had RS come through after all? Keeping her face calm (not a problem for an experience reporter like herself), Corey watched and listened.

Stopping for a moment in a large room lined with plastic shipping crates and rotting cardboard boxes, the entire group came to a halt. There was a lot of milling about, a lot of talk, and a lot of guys checking weapons and trying to look cool. Corey noticed some of Valsek's "support" people as well, such as one of his techs, a woman she knew did the cooking, and a even a few of his "boys." The guards, she noticed, had a lot more wire than was normal for the Zone, and a lot of them had on goggles cabled to their weapons. Cheap smartgun rigs, she figured, as well as low-light filters. Pushed to one side and told to stay there, she did, zipping up her jacket just in case. Apparently someone had found several of Valsek's men dead out there, while Amano and Megumi, his two esper bodyguards were trying to put the hurt on... Corey blinked and decided that yes, she had heard that correctly. Amano and Megumi were slugging it out with the Empress. Shion Nys herself was out there, somewhere, and if not coming for her, was certainly gunning for Helmar Valsek.

And just like that Valsek appears, his massive bulk lurching into the room, people parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses. Corey notices how he doesn't walk like normal, thinner people, do, but has a ponderous side-to-side waddle. His breath comes as a raspy in-out, and Corey, who tries to eat right and uses a cycle-trainer regularly, feels almost sickened by the sound. To make matters worse Valsek is too large to bathe properly, a matter made worse out here in the Zone, and the smell of his body hits her far before he hove into view. Gritting her teeth she tries to avoid catching his eye, letting the morbidly obese crime boss direct his underlings about. Of course, if the Empress really is out there, Corey has her doubts on Valsek's instructions meaning much, but such realities never really seem to register on some people.

Within a few moments everyone is lined up, with the heaviest armed men up front, and Corey in the back. She realizes the tremors have stopped, and wonders what it had looked like outside when whatever the espers had been up to went down. Footage of epser-on-esper fights usually seemed to involve two people bouncing about the ground and air, while the very Earth itself tore apart in sprays of dirt, rock, concrete, and asphalt. The energies they used didn't exactly show up on film, but sure made a mess of the landscape.

A shouted "Move it!" gets the whole group in motion, although problems arise almost instantly as the troopers in the front outdistance Valsek, who seems to have one speed—ponderously slow. She keeps behind him, just in case. Pushing past wouldn't be allowed by the guard, and besides, his thick bulk might stop anything bad that could happen up ahead.

Then the sound of gunfire cuts through everything. Someone in the advance group is laying down fire with extreme prejudice. One of the guards is shouting into his pickup, and everyone goes through the ritual of checking their weapons and snapping arming bolts back. The shooting stops suddenly, and the repeated cry of "Report!" seems to go unheard. They hallway they are standing feels a lot more confining than it had a moment ago while the dust and smoke billowing out from the exit to the garage doesn't bode well for those who went on ahead.

"You," Valsek points at one of his guards. "Go up there and see what's happened." To his credit, the guard does open his mouth, closes it, and then start to walk up the hall. Corey wonders what, exactly inspires such loyalty to such a loathsome individual. Probably the fact they get more working for him (far more, actually), then they would out on the streets. Not to mention refusing might just result in Valsek ordering someone else, someone eager to prove his loyalty, to shoot you.

Once the guard gets out of earshot, Velsek then gestures back down the hall. "If he doesn't come back we're going out the front. No cars, no fancy escapes, we go carefully and quietly. Got it?" Everyone nods while Corey keeps a careful eye on the end of the hall. Was that a thump she'd heard? She couldn't be sure and the audio pickups in her ears seemed to be having trouble with the echos in the place.

After what seems like far too long Valsek takes a slow step forward, his head swinging around like an aged bull elephant getting ready for one last fight. He's not armed, Corey notices, but she suspects a single opened-handed slap from his hand would be more than enough to rattle her brain. But then, he's not that fast, and would have to connect first.

Two of his guards take point, go a few steps, and then stop, weapons half raised. Valsek makes a sort of grunting noise, part surprise, part irritation, and Corey, who can't see over his shoulder is almost bowled over by a one guard turning and fleeing back down the hall. Pressing herself against the wall, she watches the rest of his underlings run as well, leaving just herself, Valsek, and a handful of guards whose loyalty seems to have outweighed common sense. Of course, as an investigative reporter, she wanted, no needed, to know what was going on, and managed to lean around one curving side of Valsek to see what was causing all the fuss.



Having been around a lot of people labeled "famous" and "celebrities," many of them in the music business, Corey found she wasn't as impressed by much anymore. A least when it came to dealing with people. But there was something about seeing a six foot tall woman, with white hair that seemed to go to the floor, dressed in ballistic armor, standing there as if she owned the place (and looking at Valsek as if he'd just interrupted something important to ask her the most useless of questions), that made Corey pause.

So it was true, the Empress had arrived. Now the only question was—was she going to make it out of this alive, or would Valsek do something to incite Shion and make even DNA testing unable to figure out which part was her body?

Then Shion resolved the whole matter by clenching her fist in front of her and causing the a section of hallway to bulge outwards, large cracks appearing in the plaster and cinderblock. The two advance guards gave a sort of squawking noise and then crumpled, debris from the walls, floor, and ceiling raining down on them. Stepping forward, Shion brought her other hand up, the one holding a very large handgun, and started firing.

No fool, Corey had ducked down and shoulder rolled away from Valsek at about the same time the first round was fired, avoiding without ever knowing it Valsek's groping hand. The gun sounds oddly hollow, even in such confines as this, but the noises that come right after a rather wet and sticky. There is the obligatory burst of return fire from his remaining guards and then the sound of walls cracking as dust and chunks of plaster falls from the ceiling. Peaking out from under her arms, Corey sees Shion stride out from another cloud of dust and smoke, tossing away a presumably now-empty magazine and loading another. Pointing the pistol at the bulky shape of what must be Valsek's body, she fires two more rounds, and puts one into his guards for good measure. Her expression, Corey notices, never seems to waver from one of irritation, as if she's annoyed at Valsek for making her go through all of this.

Soon a second magazine joins the first, and the Empress, six feet one inch of Class A esper weapon, is standing over her. Up close, Corey can see that she's coated with dust, there's mud and grime on her boots, and the clamshell armor on her torso looks to have a few cracks in it. The pistol is returned to its holster as Shion bends down and extends one hand. "Corey Emerson? I'm here to take you home."

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