By Alex Fauth and Michael Surbrook

She'd blown it.

Well, maybe "blown it" was too harsh an assessment, since, as far as she could tell, she'd been the only person in the op who'd had a clue and a brain to use it with. On the other hand, the rest of the team was now dead, and even if she hadn't liked them anyway, it didn't do your rep any good to be the only survivor of a failed op. Perhaps if she'd personally taken out the individual who'd killed the rest of her team, she'd feel differently.

That may have been the worst part about the whole mess. It wasn't like the team she'd been part of had been taken out by another team. No, it has been one person—a woman in fact—with unkempt hair and a face full of scars. And she'd taken everyone down with incredible ease. It was embarrassing is what it was. Kaelyn was more than willing to believe that Sandra Blackmore, author of Escape from Neo York, had never had days like that. Based on her book, she was too smart, too skilled, and too with it, to ever end up in a disastrous op gone wrong.

Pausing in her aimless ramble down the sidewalks of Hong Kong, Kaelyn turned to glance into a display window, not quite looking at the fashions on display. Her reflection showed greenish hair and the tips of her pointed ears. Her one unique trait in a city that seemed crammed with gunfighters, solos, and samurai. She sighed and managed a wry smile. At least she still had that to claim.

And then a well-endowed Chinese woman with ears just as long and pointed as hers walked by, chatting with a much shorter black-haired woman in a long duster.

"Wait a minute, Ling Ling," the woman said, putting an arm out to point. "Now that is a nice coat Whaddya think? Would it look good on me?"

Still staring at the window, watching all of this in mirrored reflection, Kaelyn gave 'Ling Ling' a careful once over. She seemed to be Kaelyn's equal in height, with a slender waist that only made her bust look that much bigger. Her hair was long and a rich black, framing an attractive face and wire-framed glasses. The woman next to her was shorter by several inches, with lightly tanned skin and equally long black hair. Unlike her companion, who was wearing traditionally styled Chinese clothes, this woman was dressed all in black, from her body-suit to her long coat.

For a moment Kaelyn thought "poseur" and "overdressed Goth grrrl" until she spent a moment to watch the shorter woman. There was something about the way she carried herself. Something in her manner, stance, and movement that made her think, "no, this is the read deal." Like herself, the shorter woman was a street sam, and unlike Brock, Kage, Tommy, and Tiffi, she didn't need to carry around absurd-sized swords or ponderous heavy weapons (and dress in ludicrous outfits) as proof. In fact, Kaelyn had a gut feeling the woman didn't need to 'prove' anything. She knew what she was and that was good enough.

"Hmm... I think so." The Chinese's woman's accent sounded vaguely Australian, and very much at odds with the English spoken by your average Chinese native of Hong Kong, practically all of whom sounded like they'd learned if from someone from London. It came with being a British colony for well over a century.

"Want to go in?" The shorter woman took at step towards the store's double doors, her gaze passing over Kaelyn. Kaelyn caught a glimpse of gloves with the fingertips removed, low-heeled boots, as well as a cleverly cut coat capable of hiding multiple side-arms. Razors she was willing to bet, as well as hand-to-hand training. Bodyguard most likely, to her pointed-eared companion, whom Kaelyn guessed to be some sort of corporate executive.

"Sure," the companion in question replied, "but remember Marta, our meeting's at three."

Marta? The name made Kaelyn start slightly. She'd heard it before... but where? Why did she know that name? Marta was...

"You're Marta Nys," Kaelyn said, turning to look at the short street sam. Which, she realized as soon as she uttered the sentence, may not have been the wisest thing to say.

The reaction wasn't one of sudden violence, which put Marta several steps above Brock and Tiffi, but just the opposite—she virtually froze in place, only her head turning to look at Kaelyn, eyes narrow and shadowed by her long fall of hair. There was a moment where Kaelyn was sure she was being judged, where Marta was deciding if she was a threat, and if so, how much of one, and what would be the best choice of action if she was.

"I've heard of you," she finished lamely, suddenly feeling a trifle foolish.

The moment stretched out, threatening to become an uncomfortable silence. "And you are?" Marta asked, quirking one eyebrow.

For a moment, she was at a loss for words, realizing that she hadn't thought through this encounter at all. She'd just opened up and blurted off the first thing that had come to her mind. Of course, it seemed like a mistake now, but she had no option but to commit herself.

"Uh... my name's Kaelyn." she managed to blurt out. "I'm, um, a gunfighter. Yeah. I kind of heard of you through local circles, that's all. What with your being one of the best gunfighters in Hong Kong and all." Nice save.

What she wasn't going to say was that she had first heard of Marta through Sandra's book, which was far from flattering in its description of the street samurai. And while she hadn't explicitly named Marta, it was pretty easy to put all the dots together, especially when running around Hong Kong's gunfighter scene.

All of a sudden, she felt rather self-conscious about her ears. "Ling Ling" was sporting the same design as her and, more to the point, looked a lot better doing it. It made her feel like a sudden poser, somebody who'd had the surgery done simply because she'd seen somebody else with it and wanted to be like them. And of course, when that somebody was connected to Hong Kong's top gunfighter (a position that Kaelyn aspired to) it seemed even worse.

"So, yeah. That's... who I am."

"Kaelyn," Marta repeated, looking at her than at Ling Ling. There was a moment of silence where Kaelyn could swear she could hear the gears clicking in the two women's heads. "Chinachem Group," Ling Ling stated as Marta nodded.

Oh great. It hadn't been three days and word of her disastrous op was apparently all over the street sam scene. Just bloody wonderful.

Marta stepped away from the doors, putting herself just between Kaelyn and Ling Ling. "Word is your whole team bought it—'cept you. Who did the hiring for that run?"

"Some suit from the company," Kaelyn stated, matter-of-factly. "Honestly, I think he just grabbed whoever was available at the time, regardless of how they looked." She shrugged, "I think they just wanted numbers or something like that."

Which was more or less the truth. She didn't even know she'd be working with the others until she'd gotten on site. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she became convinced that the people in charge of the op had any idea what they were doing. But then, it was also pretty apparent that none of her former teammates had any idea what they were doing either. Not that she'd admit that. Or, for that matter, that her whole team had been bumped off by a single person.

"Well, I guess I was just better then the rest of them," she stated. "Clearly the attackers had a good idea of the site and its layout. I just used what I knew to my advantage, that's all." And I'm really not going to say that I surrendered when I was given the chance.

"You see the guy who took everyone down?" Marta asked.

"Only... briefly," she replied, a bit apprehensively. "They were... fast. Elusive. And good at hiding. Whoever they were, they seemed to know what they were doing."

"Hmm..." Marta looked at Ling Ling again, who leaned over and whispered something to the short street sam. Kaelyn started to fill a touch uncomfortable, as if they knew something she didn't. Some she really should know, like there was a contract out on her head or something.

Marta was now smiling slightly, which Kaelyn found even more disquieting. "Who do you use to find jobs?"

"I've got a guy," she replied rather dismissively. "Just a fixer, your regular monkey in a cheap suit who seems to know a guy who knows a guy. He's nothing too special but, for the most part, he's good." There was a shrug. "He pointed me out to the Chinachem guys, but I think he had very little idea of their intentions either."

She was trying to figure where this was leading, and why exactly Marta was smiling. For some reason, I just don't like this.

"A guy. In a cheap suit." Marta made it sound like a crime. She shook her head and then looked Kaelyn dead on. "How'd you like something better? A fixer who knows more than just 'a guy,' who can get you prime jobs at prime rates?"

Kaelyn considered the matter. He's been good to me in past but... she could begin to see the wisdom of what the other Sam was saying. And somebody didn't live as long in this job as Marta had, nor get the reputation that she had without knowing what they were doing. And, after all, it was just a single book who's author may have had some bias. ...she probably knows exactly what she's talking about, which is more then I can say for myself, really. All of a sudden, her lack of experience loomed up rather large in her mind.

So she made a decision. "Sounds good." She began. "Tell me, what did you have in mind?" And now I'm committed.

Ling Ling extended one hand. "My card."

Kaelyn took the card and examined it. Ling Ling Li, she thought to herself. Now where do I know that name...? It sounded familiar, and took her a moment to place it. That Ling Ling Li! She realized that she was not only looking at one of Hong Kong's best sams, but her companion was one of Hong Kong's best fixers. Well that changes everything.

"It's a pleasure and an honor to meet you," she began. "And thank you very much for the offer. I think I like what I'm seeing here." It was about the best she could blurt out without sounding like a complete and total prat... and she had the feeling that she was about to squeal in delight like a small girl.

"Then perhaps we could talk business," Ling Ling said with a nod to Marta. "Over lunch. Interested?"

Now that sounds good. Never, ever pass up a free lunch and a good opportunity. "Certainly." She replied with a smile. "It'd be a pleasure." And a great little boost for me.

Lunch was... interesting. The life of a Hong Kong street sam (known as a wuxia on the streets) didn't normally allow for meals at fancy restaurants. Most of the time Kaelyn settled for freeze-dried fluff and things that became food once you added hot water. At times it seemed only one step above the classic gunfighter's diet of beer and cigarettes and nowhere near as exciting.

So she found herself sitting in a class of place a touch or two above her typical hangout—which meant a distinct lack of reconstituted algae and yeast byproducts. She had a feeling Ling Ling could have afforded far better—which was a subtle hint as to her financial status and a far cry from her regular fixer's habit of contacting her in smoke (and drunk) -filled bars tucked into narrow back-alleys. The only thing she was having trouble with was the sneaking suspicion Marta and Ling Ling had far more than an a business relationship. Not that she suspected them of stripping down and making out right there on the spot, but, well... you know how it is.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just wasn't her thing. (Now if they'd been a pair of handsome young men who decided to strip off and make out in public, that'd be fine.)

Dragging herself back to reality, she returned to matters at hand. "Thank you very much for this wonderful lunch," Kaelyn began. "This is a lot better then the usual fare I subsist on." She smiled at the fixer. "Now, if you don't mind my being so... forward, you mentioned an opportunity. I think it is fair to say that I'd be interested in most anything you have to offer."

Ling Ling set her chopsticks down and took a drink of tea. "Yes. It's a very simple operation, but should be sufficient for Marta to get a good idea of your skills and suitability."

"It's a recovery op," Marta broke in. "Some bottom-rung Yak swiped one of the Big-Brother's ride and we're going to get it back."

Kaelyn nodded, then smiled. "Sounds simple enough to me. Shouldn't be a problem at all. I'll need to know as much as possible about the whos and wheres, but I don't think that it should be too much of a pain."

She looked over the two women, then continued. "Thank you for this opportunity, both of you. I'd like to think that I'm worthy of the attention you're giving me." Which was the truth; she was still surprised at all this. But she saw an opportunity, and she certainly was going to take it.

Marta leaned back and gave her a wry grin. "The attention we're giving you? You don't know the half of it."

Kaelyn blinked at that. "Oh?"

"What Marta means is that they'll be two of you on the op, with Marta and another associate of ours as back-up. As I said, this is an evaluation operation." Ling Ling blew out a cloud of smoke and gave Kaelyn one of those inscrutable looks the Chinese seemed to have perfected ages ago. "You don't have a problem working with others do you?"

An Evaluation, she thought. Most interesting. Kaelyn smiled and nodded again. "Not at all. Working with a partner is always better then working alone; having someone to back you up and cover your arse makes more sense then going it alone. As long as they're not a total twonk, it should be fine."

"So, if you don't mind my asking, who is it that I'll be working with?"

"Me," Marta replied, "and Andy Lau. Know him?"

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