Part 4

By Max Fauth and Michael Surbrook

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.

Shion nodded. She felt tired, even if she didn't look it, and her head ached dully. She wanted a long hot shower (or a bath), and an even longer time asleep in a warm and comfortable bed. A sudden sneeze interrupted her train of thought, followed by a second.

"Boss?" Aoi gave her a worried look and tapped at her nose.

Shion glanced at the brilliant scarlet on her finger tips. Wonderful, her nose was bleeding. Just what she needed. Resheathing her sword, Shion gave a low sigh. "Let's get going."

Aoi nodded, and fell into step alongside Shion, leading her quickly from the scene. All around them was chaos, the fight having cleared out most of the bystanders. People were rushing from the scene, on foot and in cars. In the distance, she could hear the faint wail of police sirens.

"We need to get clear of here. C'mon, run!"

Taking Shion's hand, Aoi half lead, half dragged her employer through the streets. Again, she had no idea of their course or destination; as it had been all day, 'away' was the main concern. She cut across streets, ran them through an alleyway, pushed through crowds at an intersection and finally came to a clear patch. Ahead, the street had been closed for road work, with large barriers blocking off their path.

"In here," she said, slipping between the barriers. The effect was immediate. Beyond, the street was deserted. Shop fronts were closed up and the far side of the street, sidewalk and all, had been torn up from the ground. Aoi led Shion away from the barriers, and the pair of them leaned against a shop window, catching their breath.

Aoi looked out at the scene as Shion dabbed away at her nose. The concrete was torn up in jagged lines, looking as if it had been wrenched from the ground by a massive hand and flung aside. Close to the barrier, she saw a circular indentation of shattered pavement. A chill went down her spine, and suddenly Shion was behind her, surveying the scene.

The tall woman regarded the destroyed landscape for a few moments, before simply stating "Esper battle."

"Two of them?" Aoi asked.

Shion shook her head. She raised a hand, pointing at the far end of the street, then at the area around the indentation. "No sign of the second Esper's powers, although the target was definitely there. And there's damage from firearms at this end." She lowered her arm, but not before Aoi noted the blood stains at the end of the sleeve.

"Conventional forces against an Esper?" Aoi asked. She stepped out into the street, examining the cracked circle before her.

"From the destruction he wrought, he would have been fairly powerful," she said quietly. "And I don't see signs of heavy weapons fire."

Aoi turned back to her. "So they didn't stand a chance, right?"

Shion paused as she regarded the scene. Something wasn't right. The damage spoke for itself, and the battle played out in her mind. The target had been identified and quickly fired upon. He erected a shield and returned a blast of his own. There would have been casualties from the attackers, then....

Did they retreat without their objective? Judging from the degree of damage, most small arms couldn't have penetrated such a shield. Yet their attack was methodical, and purposeful. From all she could tell, the battle had just... stopped.

"Something's wrong here," She said. "Aoi, scan the area."

Aoi blinked in surprise, then nodded in comprehension. She flicked her cybereyes to their UV filter and glanced at the area. Here and there, she could see tiny specks of shining light, glowing in a way identical to the powder that had covered her and Shion. "The powder..." She said.

"It's an ambush site!" Shion shouted. Her eyes flicked up to the skyline. The buildings were too low for comfort, perfect for support fire. They had hit him from above with the same gas they used on her. And she knew they wouldn't ignore the site.

"RUN!" Aoi shouted and sprang into action. Turning, she started towards Shion. But with a scream of pain, she collapsed. Shion saw a spray of blood hit the pavement by Aoi, and her assistant was clutching her thigh in agony.

"Aoi!" Shion called out. They were cornered and defenseless against an unseen, unheard sniper. She whirled her head left and right, seeking an escape. There! She could slip between the barriers and escape into the crowd beyond. She turned back to Aoi, gaping at her injury.

"Forget me, RUN!" Aoi yelled back. Shion knew she had no choice. She turned from Aoi and sprinted for the barrier. It seemed so far away now, an impossibly eternity from her which she could never reach.

A shot from the sky tore into her leg, speeding through her calf. She let out a howl of pain and stumbled, her leg caving away beneath her and leaving her sprawled on the ground. Her hat flew off and her white hair spilled out, trailing all around her. She reached out with one hand, staring at the barrier that kept her from escape, willing herself to stand. But the searing pain shot through her mind, scorching away her thoughts.

It was almost in a haze that she saw the barrier be pushed away. She barely saw the black, unmarked APCs that rolled in at the end of the street, once more blocking her way. She knew, more than she heard, that others had come down the far end of the street, barring their path. The pain scored into her as soldiers disembarked, mixing with her despair and frustration that had been burning throughout the day. Anger burned into her as the troops approached, weapons leveled and she knew she could do nothing at all.

Aoi watched in horror as Shion fell, dropped by the same unseen sniper as herself. Even before the APCs arrived and disgorged their troops, she knew it was over. Their enemy was too well prepared, had hounded them relentlessly, boxed them in and sealed the trap. "Shion..." She muttered as she saw them approach the wounded Esper.

Tears streamed down her face as she curled up and closed her eyes, clutching her leg and willing the pain to go away. She could not imagine what fate would await her employer—execution, experimentation, or worse—but she knew that she would be little more than collateral. They would have no use for her, whatever their plan. She would die, here and now, and there was nothing she could do about it.

She heard the booted footsteps of soldiers approaching behind her, heard the sounds of their weapons being cocked and raised. Her imagination supplied the details of them surrounding her, rifles trained and ready to fire.

Then everything changed.

The world was filled with noise and pressure, an unrelenting cacophony of human screams and tearing metal, accompanied by a storm of wind and debris. She felt her back pelted with fragments, then a large, soft, wet object landed on her with a thud. All around her she heard the buildings and pavement shatter and tear apart. The force of the gale nearly picked her off the ground, but she remained huddled, waiting for the end.

And just as soon as it started, it was over. The wind had died, the pressure vanished, and the noise replaced with a single human voice. Aoi untucked her head and opened her eyes, fearful of the sight that would await her.

All around was devastation. Soldiers had been hurled left and right, blasted away and even impacted into the buildings hard enough to leave craters. She saw signs of the brief battle before her, where more of the pavement had been torn loose and pieces of all size and shape were now scattered up and down the street. At the far end she saw the wreckage of two APCs, apparently crushed together so as to be almost indistinguishable from each other.

As she rolled over she discovered what had landed on her. The dismembered torso of one of the soldiers lay on the ground behind her, seemingly torn from the rest of his body by sheer strength. In his hands was a high-powered sniper rifle—no doubt he had been plucked from the rooftops. Around her, the devastation intensified, leading to a ring of jutting concrete that rose from the ground like a menacing crown. And floating above it, over the burning wreckage of two more APCs, her body outlined in a glowing nimbus of white light, was Shion.

Aoi watched as a soldier was lifted from the ground by an invisible force and drawn up to Shion's level. "Who was it? WHERE ARE THEY?" she yelled at the terrified soldier.

"I don't know! I swear it!" he blurted out. Shion simply flung him aside, and he hit the broken pavement hard. Gathering up the sniper rifle and her own cane, Aoi managed to stand and, balanced between them and her good leg, stagger towards Shion.

The esper raised a second soldier from the ground and repeated her questions. Before he could even answer, he was flung wildly into the air. Shion's body spasmed as she was wracked with pain, and she quickly dropped to the ground.

"Boss!" Aoi called out and was quickly by her side. Shion was a mess, almost worse than when she had first been ambushed. Blood streamed down her pale face, which contorted in agony. "We've gotta get you to a hospital."

"No," she gasped between clenched teeth. A hand shot up and seized Aoi's arm. Shion dragged herself to her feet, gasping in pain as she went. "I have to finish it now."

"You're in no shape," Aoi replied. She released the rifle to take a hold of Shion's arm and support her.

"I can't let them get away with this," she snarled and took a step. She immediately gasped in pain and wavered, collapsing back into Aoi's arms. Aoi pitched back, and the pair collapsed to the pavement, Aoi supporting Shion off the ground.

"You can't do anything now. You need to get to a hospital." Aoi held her firmly, and could feel her shaking. The woman's strength was draining quickly.

"I can't let them..." Shion trailed off. With a massive sigh, her body relaxed into Aoi's arms. Aoi quickly checked her—breathing, but unconscious.

She struggled to her feet, half dragging Shion up, and supporting her over one shoulder. Beyond the ruined barrier, she could see an abandoned car, no doubt hastily left when the APCs arrived. Staggering, stumbling and half dragging herself and her employer, Aoi set out for their new route to safety.

Shion awoke to clean sheets and a bed that wasn't quite soft enough. A thin pillow under her head and a single blanket for warmth. The ceiling was off-white and simple flower-print curtains blocked off the view outside. Turning her head she found Aoi sitting beside her, head resting in one hand, asleep. Reaching out, she tapped the woman's knee. "Hey... wake up."

Aoi blinked and then looked down at her with an expression that quickly went from concerned to happy. "Good morning, Empress."

Shaking her head, Shion glanced around the room. "I take it we made it to the hospital?"

"Yeah, although your doctor just about had a fit when we arrived."

A shrug was Shion's response, "He knows who I am and what I do, he should expect this sort of thing." Looking back at Aoi, the esper gave her a tired smile. "You know, this is getting to be a habit. We go out on a mission, and I wake up in a hospital bed with your watching over me. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were bad luck."

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