written by Michael Surbrook and David Kuijt

Deep within the bowels of the Mega-Toyko Genom tower, a man sat alone. Well, not quite alone. He was surrounded by numerous monitor screens, and thick cables connected his brain to the glittering expanse of the Net. He was only alone as he wanted to be, and right now he was surrounded by more information than most people could comprehend.

The man felt that he was possibly the world's greatest assassin, even though he had never actually killed anyone himself. He didn't need to. From his vantage point high atop the computer world, he could locate any target, any foe... and with a few keystrokes, eliminate them. He had been fairly busy this last week, carrying out the requests of Genom's chairman, but such things did not matter to him. He had undergone so many cybernetic upgrades that he was scarcely human, and such trivialities as food and sleep were a thing of the past.

Right now he busied himself with a satellite tracking system, slowly scanning the thickly clustered towers of downtown Mega-Tokyo for one particular target. Once he had found what he was looking for, he'd type a few keystrokes, and another quarry - eliminated.

Sitting in front of her computer, rubbing absently at the bandage that was still wrapped around her head, Noriko scowled at the screen. It had been a week since she'd had her Jinsei Kami shot out from under her, and in the intervening time she'd started to look deeper into Genom, Shion and the UNA team called 'Kazei 5'. Noriko found the pickings slim at first, but she had the entire contents of the ESWAT databases at her command, and it was only a matter of time before the desired results appeared.

Shion and Takeda were suspected of assaulting the Genom tower in June of last year. Genom had blamed industrial sabotage, ESWAT had decided upon inner-corporate fighting and the street had hoped for a lucrative trade war.

An almost exact duplicate of Shion had been reported in the Neo York Zero Zone in mid-September. This duplicate - listed as 'Sonnet' - vanished soon after.

Shion had been captured by Genom almost immediately afterwards - taken from her sister's home in San Francisco. Marta herself had vanished within a week, lost in Australia and the Pacific Rim. She had left behind a hospitalized lover - a woman by the name of Chiffon. A woman who had died several days ago when her car had exploded.

Armed with this knowledge, Noriko began to pry deeper. Almost unexpectedly she found a report that Ryan McKee, former ESWAT officer, had lost his parents in a car accident a week ago during an intense downpour. The report said that the hydraulic brake lines on a cargo hauler had ruptured unexpectedly, resulting in a fatal wreck at the next intersection.

A shuttle had exploded after lift-off from Poseidon Station. Noriko wasn't certain if this had anything to do with Genom, but to her it seemed too much of a coincidence to let it pass.

Absorbed as she was in her data and her musings, Noriko never saw the brilliant flash of an ion cannon outside her rain-streaked window. A moment later the glass - impact and shatter proof, but certainly not plasma proof - vaporized, sending a wall of incandescent gas through the tiny bedroom. Two more ion blasts followed, blasting gaping holes in the walls and furniture. The bed blew apart into a cloud of flaming debris, sending lethal splinters racing through the confined space. Composite building materials melted and burned as the beams punched through them, creating clouds of noxious fumes to taint the air.

There was a moment's silence, and then a second barrage smashed into the apartment building. This burst of fire seemed lest well-aimed; the shots tore into Noriko's bedroom, balcony and living room, leaving behind blackened holes to mark their passage. A faint chattering roar could be heard over the thunderous crack of the energy weapons, as the shattered building front was raked with a continuous stream of 20mm cannon rounds.

Seconds later, all was quiet. Smoke poured from the side of the towering residential complex, while fragments of wall and window fell into the brilliant sea of lights at the building's base. Within the former residence of Noriko Kobayashi, ESWAT, nothing moved.

Sitting in her room, staring at the monitor, Shion did her best to remain calm. Robert was dead. His shuttle had exploded yesterday, supposedly due to a fuel pump failure, and all aboard had been killed. Shion knew better. There had been no accident. No fuel pump failure. Genom had decided to strike back, except this time their target hadn't been either Takeda or herself.

Blinking at the tears slowly forming in her eyes, Shion reached for the phone.

Takeda was trying to decide what roadie T-shirt to wear to the Replicants show at 93 Underground tonight. Outside it was dusk, with sunset a pink tinge on the low clouds that would become orange later as the lights of Neo York took over.

He was startled when the phone started ringing.

Takeda picked up. "Hello? This is Takeda."


"Shion? Is that you?" Takeda had never heard her so upset.


"Who? Who was killed?"


"Take a deep breath, Shion. Please, calm down. Who was killed?"


"Robert?" Takeda didn't know any Robert. Then he remembered—Robert DeVille had been connected with Shion's name in some vidzine he read; DeVille was mentioned as her lover. He was a spacer, a pilot or something. Takeda's brows shot up. "Robert DeVille?"


Takeda's mind raced. He'd seen the news—a shuttle from Poseidon station had exploded during ascent earlier this week. "That shuttle accident—Robert DeVille was the pilot?"


The young telekinetic's blood went cold. "Somebody blew up a shuttle just to kill Robert DeVille? But who? Why?" Even as he spoke, he knew.

"Genom," he said in a dead voice.

"Yes." He tried to gentle his voice, although his eyes stared into the distance and his face was grim. "Yes, I'll come. I'll come right out."


Takeda's eyes focused again, and he frowned as a thought struck him. "Shion, be careful. If Genom did this, they might do more. Warn Marta, too."


Takeda hung up the phone, still frowning. He clicked another number. Within a few seconds he had another connection.

"Yes, Takeda?" Avatar's voice was a flat and emotionless, obviously computer generated.

"Avatar, this is Takeda. I've just talked to Shion. She believes that Genom was behind the destruction of the Poseidon Station shuttle, and that they did it to kill Robert DeVille."

"I... I see." Avatar paused, thinking, "Takeda, this does not bode well. Ryan McKee's parents were killed three days ago in a vehicular accident. The official police report stated that excessive rain was to blame, but in light of this news I am not so sure."

Takeda paled. He still didn't know Ryan very well, but this had to be a devastating blow to him. And for it to be deliberate, rather than an accident...

"Is there anything else, anything that could be considered an attack against our people through others?"

"Allow me a moment to access files..." The line went silent.

"Takeda? I have run a status request on all known associates of team members. It shows an armed assault upon Katherine Ramis at her apartment. This event occurred approximately one week ago."

"Is Kitten OK?"

"Yes. Police reports show that she was shot in the leg, but suffered only minor injuries. Of her three assailants, one was shot to death by Officer Katsumi Liqueur, while the other two were hospitalized by Ms. Ramis herself."

Takeda's worried face relaxed a little at the news, then turned grim. "That's it, then. Three incidents can't be coincidence. It's got to be Genom. What about direct attacks? Have none of us been attacked directly? Genom is vicious, but I'd have thought they'd try direct attacks first."

There was a pause on the line; when Avatar spoke again, his tone was slow and deliberate.

"I fear that Genom may have decided to try a different tactic. Direct assaults have failed them in their previous attempts. Now, it seems that they are trying to inflict pain and anguish by striking out at those around us... friends, lovers and relatives that may not know or even understand the nature of this conflict. Genom is striking out partially from spite, but to also injure us in ways far beyond that of mere physical danger and confrontation."

Takeda's eyes flashed in anger. "We've got to warn all our people immediately—we are very vulnerable to this type of attack."

"My thoughts exactly. I will contact all agents personally and inform them of the situation."

Takeda nodded. "Some of us have no families, no `hostages' that they can exploit. But others... We need to assess our vulnerability to this sort of attack immediately."

"Agreed," Avatar paused for a moment. "I'll have Oscar and Sudo look into this immediately."

"Good." Takeda started to hang up, then paused for a long moment. "This is terrorism, Avatar. We cannot allow them to succeed."

"No, we cannot." Avatar almost seemed to sigh over the phone, "This is exactly why Kazei 5 was created."

The morning air was bright and clean as Takeda walked the last mile to Shion's house on the beach. He had always been careful not to use his powers too much here to avoid drawing the attention of any telekinetics that might be in the area. Now, with Genom's demonstrated ire towards them all, he was doubly careful. After landing in Auckland he had teleported soon after passing through customs with his fake ID—leaving earlier would draw unnecessary attention.

The teleport had ensured that no non-telekinetic agent could possibly pursue him. Further, there were probably only a dozen people in the world with enough range to follow him, and they could not do so without using as much power as he had, and drawing his attention. He waited for a couple of hours to be sure, but nobody had appeared.

Finally Takeda walked into the town a kilometer away and rented a car to take him the last hundred kilometers or so, using a different identity from the one he had flown into New Zealand with.

Now he stood in front of the familiar beach house.

After a few moments the door opened, revealing a rather tired-looking Ling Ling. Dressed in a wrinkled robe, and with her hair hanging in long tangles about her face, Takeda decided that she hadn't gotten much sleep lately.

"Hello, Mr. Johnson," she said with a slight nod. "I hope you are feeling better than anyone here is."

Takeda frowned. "I came as soon as I could."

"I see..." Ling Ling gestured towards the far side of the house. "Shion is out there, on the beach. I don't think disturbing her right now is a good idea."

Takeda shook his head, politely dismissing Ling Ling's opinion. "She asked me to come; she needs me."

"If you say so." Ling Ling glanced over her shoulder and then looked back at Takeda. "You don't need me to show you the way do you?"

"No, that's fine. Can I put this somewhere convenient?" he gestured with his small duffel.

"Hmmm? Oh, sure. Come in." Ling Ling said in a distracted tone as she held the door open. Takeda noticed that the interior of the house was very disorganized, with clothing scattered across the floor, dirty dishes stacked in the sink and numerous empty food cartons residing on tabletops.

He put his bag in a corner and went through to the deck.

Shion was sitting on the beach staring out at the crashing surf. She was dressed in a long robe of thin white cotton, belted loosely at the waist. The wind made clear that Shion was wearing no other garments. Beside her was an empty bottle. She looked very sad and depressed.

Takeda walked across the sand and sat down beside her. Gently, without saying a word, he put his arm around Shion's shoulders.

Shion shuddered and jumped slightly before turning and embracing Takeda in her arms. "Oh, Takeda," she cried, "you came."

Takeda held her by the surf for a long time in silence.

Takeda held her for a long time in silence, her sobs drowned by the crashing surf.

Even after she cried herself out he held her, and unspeaking they watched the gray sea merge into sky as dusk gradually fell. As the sun slipped below the horizon, Shion finally spoke. "They're killing everyone you know. Robert, Chiffon... possibly even Nabiki."

Takeda's eyes grew wider. "Chiffon? Chiffon's dead?" He hadn't known her well, but he had met Marta's previous roommate as part of his search when Shion was missing.

"Yes..." Shion stared out at the dark water. "Someone blew her car up... with her inside it."

"You think Nabiki is in danger too?" Takeda's voice was concerned.

"I... I don't know. Marta went to call her soon after I told her about Robert... she couldn't get through." Shion wiped at her eyes, pushing long tresses of white hair out of her face. "All phone numbers were disconnected and no one responded to any mail drops."

Takeda nodded, thinking hard. "I'd bet that Genom would find it very hard to surprise Nabiki. If the phones are disconnected it sounds like she is lying low—if Genom had got her, captured or ... dead, the phones wouldn't be disconnected."

Shion nodded, "Yes... I should have thought of that... but I'm not thinking too well right now..."

Takeda's voice was calm again. "Genom will not get away with this."

"Are you sure, Takeda?" Shion spoke quietly, idly drawing random patterns in the sand. "How can we fight them, just you and I?"

Takeda took her chin and gently turned her face toward him. "I don't know yet. But I will know. I've put a lot of thought into this in the last few days. Quincy is a slippery bastard. But he doesn't understand what he's done.

Takeda's voice grew grim. "His anger got the better of him—he wanted to punish us. And he did. But where is his leverage now? Where are his hostages?

"The leader of my team agrees with me—Genom can't be allowed to get away with this. I don't know what we're going to do about it, not yet. But something will be done. I'll make Quincy sorry he ever took this step," Takeda said with cold certainty in his voice, "if I have to tear Genom Tower from its roots."

Shion stared into Takeda's eyes for a long time before she finally spoke again. "Takeda, I... I want to be part of this. I want to see Quincy suffer for this. I want to make him pay for all that he has done to me. Do you understand?"

Takeda nodded, looking at her assessingly. "I'll talk to Avatar about it. You are part of this regardless, whether you want or not; Avatar should see that."

"I was part of this from the moment I decided to help you free Kiyoko." Shion looked out over the sea, resting her chin in her hand. "I was denied Sonnet, I will not be denied Quincy."

"You were part of it from the moment Quincy stole your genetic material," Takeda responded quietly, "you would have found out about Kiyoko or Sonnet eventually. And this isn't about scoring. Quincy must be punished, whoever does it."

"Last time, you told me that you were willing to have me work with your team. Yet it was obvious when Sonnet appeared that I was the last person anyone wanted there. And I think, if given the chance, your team would have tried to put me down the same way they dropped Sonnet." Shion gave Takeda a sharp look. "Will that be the result this time? Or will your Avatar see fit to allow me a full part in what is to come?"

Takeda let Shion go and shifted so they could face each other. "That depends upon you, not me." His voice was quiet but firm. "You are responsible for your own actions. My team saw you as a threat. Think about it, Shion—what evidence have you given them that you can work as part of a team? When Ran showed up you left as quickly as you could.

Takeda's voice got faintly cold and he looked away. "And you killed several innocent people in 93 Underground within ten minutes."

Rising to her feet, Shion stared down at Takeda for a moment before turning and walking into the rolling ocean surf. Heedless of the water crashing about her thighs - soaking her cotton robe to virtual transparency - Shion stood and stared at the dim horizon line. "You're right, Takeda." she said to the gathering dark, "I did kill a couple of people at 93 Underground... but then, I've killed a lot of people. And yes I fled when Ran arrived... I fought him once and I know how powerful he is..."

Wiping at her face with the hem of her robe, Shion continued. "Do you really think you could have stopped Ran if he had decided to destroy you and your team? I don't think so. I was barely able to hold him off long enough to escape, and I still ended up with a broken arm and a chunk of pipe sticking out of my side."

Turning around, she pointed one hand at Takeda. "And who are you to talk about killing?" she said accusingly, her voice cracking slightly. "You, who killed three hundred people in an airliner! I don't even remember what I did in the Underground that night; all I have to go off is what you and Marta tell me!"

Falling to her knees amid the swirling water and rolling foam, Shion began to sob, holding her face in her hands. "Do... do you think I like living this way? Do you? Having to play the part of the Empress all the time? I don't dare relax my guard for fear that someone will think I've become weak and try to have me eliminated."

Looking up, Shion futilely wiped at her tear streaked face before continuing. "Takeda, I've had to fight for everything I have... nothing has ever come easy for me or my sister... and I'm be damned if anyone is going to take what is mine away from me! Don't you understand?"

Takeda walked into the surf. "I understand very well," he said gently. "If I didn't understand, I would not have come when you asked. If I didn't understand, I would not have ... fallen in love with you." Takeda turned his head away immediately after this admission, staring at the house.

Shion blinked in surprise, before rising to her feet, ignoring the fact that her water-soaked robe now concealed very little of her body. "Do... do you mean that, Takeda? Do you?" she asked in a soft and husky voice.

Takeda nodded once, still facing away. Then he turned back. "I'm sorry, Shion. My timing is ... atrocious. You don't need more complications in your life right now. Forget I said anything. I'm here to be a friend, a shoulder to lean on, nothing more."

Shion reached out with one hand and gently caressed the side of Takeda's face. "A friend?" she whispered. "I think I would like that. I never really had a friend." Bringing her other arm around, Shion held Takeda's head between her hands. Leaning forwardly slowly, hesitantly, she lightly pressed her lips to his.

Takeda's arms crept up to encircle Shion, slowly, carefully, gently.

Dropping her hands from his face, Shion pulled Takeda close, pressing his body against hers. She broke contact for just a moment before starting a second, more passionate kiss, one hand tangling itself in Takeda's shoulder-length hair, the other sliding slowly up and down his back.

"If this is the way you treat your friends, Shion," gasped Takeda when he came up for air, "I'm really surprised there aren't more applicants for the position!"

Shion gave a throaty laugh as she pulled her robe free of her body with one hand. Tossing it into the waves, she took Takeda in her arms again as they sank into the surf.

Some time later they lay cuddled in the sand. Passion, fear, grief, and exhaustion had taken their toll, and Shion slept wrapped in Takeda's arms.

Using a trickle of his telekinetic power to cradle her gently, Takeda lifted Shion into the air. Standing up, he considered the reaction if he walked into the house like this, both naked. He smiled but dismissed the idea. Marta might be up.

Threads of telekinetic power snaked out to grab Shion's robe and Takeda's pants. His shirt was gone, probably taken by the tide. Telekinesis made it much easier to put on his pants, he considered wryly, as he levitated a foot into the air holding Shion and his pants slid up his legs apparently of their own volition. More telekinesis wrung out Shion's robe. He considered for a moment, then concentrated on the robe. Invisible pressure mounted as a swirl of wind whipped sand around him, then died. When Takeda released the field the robe was almost dry. He draped it over Shion.

Carrying her easily, Takeda walked to the house. He touched his lips for silence as he carried her past Ling Ling who was slowly stacking dishes to dishwasher. She looked up for a moment, before silently shaking her head and returning to her cleaning.

In the morning when Shion awoke she was on her bed, still clasped in Takeda's arms.

"Hello Takeda..." she whispered.

"Good morning," Takeda smiled, although his eyes were still shadowed with concern. "Can I make you breakfast?"

Shion smiled, her face softening as she visibly relaxed. "Yes, I would like that."

"Coming right up." Takeda unentangled himself gently from Shion and stood up, stretching to get the kinks out of his legs. He gave her an assessing look. "You might want to take a shower while I'm cooking—you've got sand between your toes and your perfume seems to be `Eau du Seaweed'," he smiled.

Shion managed a slight smile, "I could say the same about you."

Takeda laughed and went down towards the kitchen.

Marta was awakened by the clatter of pans. When she made her way bleary-eyed down to the kitchen, she was astonished.

Takeda stood in front of the stove, humming. A cookbook floated in midair in front of him. Around him floated eggs, butter, flour, and an array of small spice jars, all bouncing slightly in midair as if on rubber strings. As she watched drawers opened and closed, disgorging measuring utensils. A spoon wafted up, met with a small bottle of vanilla, the top unscrewed and a dollop poured into the spoon, the spoon went floating over to a floating bowl to dump its contents, and finally arced over to the sink, all without being touched by a human hand.

Eyes narrowing, her look of surprise was replaced by one of anger. "When the hell did you get here?" she asked crossly.

Takeda looked up, frowning slightly. "Good morning, Marta. I got here last evening." His voice was reserved. "Would you like breakfast?"

"From you?" Marta seemed shocked by the question. "No."

"I don't know what sort of hold you have on my sister, but it won't work on me. You got that?"

Takeda's eyebrows shot up, and after a moment he started to laugh. "What sort of hold I have on your sister? It certainly isn't my *cooking*, Marta, I can assure you my breakfast is entirely without mind-control agents!"

Marta scowled darkly before turning and striding from the room. Pausing at the far entrance to the kitchen, she looked back over her shoulder. "Hey... Takeda... who you planning to have killed today?" she asked in an icy tone before stepping out of the room.

A hovering egg smashed on the counter as Takeda momentarily lost control; Marta felt herself enveloped in an invisible cocoon of force. Her enormous agility and enhanced strength were powerless against it as it turned her and brought her back to the door to face Takeda.

Takeda's eyes burned into Marta's as he answered her in a dead voice, all humor fled. "Quincy."

Marta's initial terror was quickly replaced by seething anger. She'd been on the receiving end of her sister's telekinetic powers before, and found that Takeda's display didn't scare her as bad as she'd thought. That and she was angry enough not to care if he decided collapse his telekinetic field with her still inside.

"Takeda," she hissed between gritted teeth, "put me the fuck down."

Takeda glanced up the stairs towards Shion's bedroom. Behind him, all the paraphernalia of breakfast floated down to the counter and table.

"Stop acting like a spoiled brat, Marta." He put her down and released her.

"Spoiled? You dare to call me spoiled? Who the hell do you think you are Takeda?" Marta leaned against the side of the entrance, wiping her hair out of her face with one hand. "You're going to go off and try and whack old man Quincy, and you're going to bring my sister along again, aren't you!!?"

"Do you ever think before you speak, Marta? Do you really think I could make Shion do anything she didn't want to do?" Takeda's voice was quiet and reasonable, in marked contrast to Marta's fury.

"I don't know, dammit!" Marta snapped. "You seem to be able to talk Shion into doing the stupidest things! Why can't you just fuckin' leave well enough alone!"

Takeda crossed his arms, his voice still quiet. "You are angry because you feel helpless. Are you really suggesting doing nothing? Hiding? Apologizing to Quincy? Pretending nothing happened? Pretending Quincy hasn't had Robert deVille, Chiffon, and half a dozen others killed, just because they were close to any of us?"

"I just want you to leave me and Ling Ling out of your little war!" Marta cried, "I'm sick of seeing my sister ending up hurt every time you come by! Don't you understand?"

Takeda nodded. "You're scared," he said compassionately. "But hiding or pretending won't help. Quincy killed Chiffon to hurt you. He'd kill Ling Ling to hurt you. He'd kill you in an instant to hurt Shion, the same way he killed Robert deVille and the thirty people on that shuttle. And if he ever gets his hands on Shion, she's back in the tube for experiments—if she's 'lucky'!

"So how," Takeda said gently, "do you suggest I leave you and Ling Ling out of it?"

Marta stared at Takeda for a long moment, a mixture of emotions flowing across her face. "I... I don't know..." she said in a strained voice, before turning to punch the wall next to her. "I - don't - fucking - know!" Each word was punctuated by the crunch of plaster and paneling as Marta drove her fist in the wall again and again. Shaking with anger, Marta then turned and pointed a finger at Takeda. "But I do know that I never want to see you again!" With that she turned and virtually ran out of the the room, her footsteps echoing hollowly off of the stairs.

Takeda had been holding a small telekinetic field blocking the stairwell to keep the sound of their argument from waking Shion or Ling Ling. He released it with a sigh before Marta reached it, and she passed through where it had stood without noticing.

Takeda sighed. Then he sniffed, and turned back to the stove. Shaking his head ruefully, he inspected the burnt pancakes. "It sure isn't my cooking," he said to himself as he began to clean up the mess and start over.

Sitting at the dining room table, Shion picked slowly at the remains of her breakfast. Pancakes, eggs and sausage... she glanced across the table, Takeda had gone all out this time. Although she did have to wonder at the burnt smell that wafted from the kitchen, especially since none of the food had been overcooked. Not that it had mattered, breakfast had been hot and filling, and probably the first real meal she'd eaten in several days. Now she sipped at her glass of juice and tried to figure out how to broach what promised to be an uncomfortable subject.

"Takeda?" she asked slowly. "I need to ask you an important question."

"Hmm?" Takeda swallowed the mouthful of pancake he'd been chewing.

"How is Kiyoko doing?"

"She's fine."

"I see." Shion paused and looked out at the blue expanse of the South Pacific. "Do you think it would be possible for her to stay here for a few days? I think it's important for me to meet with her, all things considered."

"I don't see why not. Why would you like to meet with her?"

Shion took a slow breath before responding. "Because I cannot deny who she is and what she is... and because she needs to know what she is and what she will become in the next few years. I think... I think I'd rather have her as an ally... a friend... than an enemy."

Takeda nodded slowly, considering, looking into Shion's eyes. "That's good, I think. At least in part, I agree." He held up his hands to forestall a response.

"I'd be very happy for you and Kiyoko to develop a more friendly relationship, and I'll be glad to work towards that. And I agree, you are perhaps the person who is physically best suited to training her in her abilities, if you form a good teaching relationship with her.

"But I'm trying to tread a thin line with Kiyoko. She isn't going to have a normal childhood, but I want to save her any pain I can. And you and I are both poison right now. Genom will happily destroy anyone we know to cause us pain. And it is going to get worse, not better—some way, some how, we're going to right the scales; make Quincy pay for what he's done. That isn't going to be easy, and it isn't going to be quick."

Shion gave a slight nod. "Which is exactly why I want to meet with her. To make her aware of what Genom has done and will do. The sooner we can train her to use her abilities properly, the safer from Genom she will be."

Takeda looked around the room that had been his apartment at K5 base. It had never been very well furnished, but taking down the Priss poster and the couple of pictures and packing up his few clothes made it seem very empty now.

Sighing, Takeda sat at the vidphone and made a connection.

A moment later the screen blinked and the familiar figure of Avatar appeared, dressed as always in his dark red suit.

"Avatar, I'm packed up now. I'll be leaving in an hour or so, after I say goodbye to everyone."

"I understand," the computer icon spoke slowly, as if uncertain how to respond. "I would like to thank you for all you have done during your stay here."

Takeda shrugged and grimaced, trying to dismiss the comment. "Little enough for what you gave me."

Avatar paused, seemingly confused by Takeda's words. "And what did I give you?" he asked quietly.

Takeda looked away for a moment, then back. "Many things, Avatar. But most of all, I suppose, a place to find myself. I am much changed from when we first met."

"I see." Avatar almost sounded relieved. "Thank you Takeda."

"Before I leave, I wanted to have a talk with you."

The bronze skinned icon nodded. "Go on."

"At the meeting yesterday I said that I had to resign from K5; that I brought too much conflict with me, and that Genom's enmity would prevent K5 from its primary mission of helping those who couldn't help themselves."

Avatar nodded again. "I remember."

"That is still true. Genom is willing to engage in terrorism against anyone who allies themselves with me, or more precisely, against anyone who resists them.

"But they must be resisted. They cannot be permitted to kill and destroy as casually as they have. There must be some chance of justice, of retribution, even against Quincy and Genom."

"Yes," agreed Avatar. "And, I think, it is this fact that created so much dissension within the team. Opposing the corporations is looked on as suicide by all but one or two others." Avatar shook his head, "Yet, I see that you are right. Allowing the corporations to run unchecked will only bring doom to us all."

Takeda nodded. "It seems sort of futile to stop a bully and ignore a mass murderer."


"So I'm not giving up. But I cannot involve anyone else. At least, I cannot involve anyone who has any connections to the world that Genom can destroy—parents, lovers, friends. But I will continue. If it means my life, I will not let Genom get away with this.

"This isn't personal, at least I don't think so. If Ares had done what Genom has done, I'd feel the same. The important thing is that nobody is beyond justice, not even the Megacorps."

Avatar gave a slight nod. "My feelings as well. Does this mean you longer intend to resign, Takeda, or that you have a plan of your own?"

Takeda frowned. "I have a plan, yes. As for whether I resigned, that depends on you, I guess, Avatar. I'm telling you this because I'd like your help. If there is any chance of success, I'll need access to facilities and information and safe houses and funding that I cannot find myself. "

Takeda warmed up to a speech he had obviously put a lot of thought into. "Genom is going to expect me to strike back. If I sever all ties with K5 and resign, that is the best way I can protect K5 and its mission," he continued earnestly. "But there will still be times when you have a mission that needs an agent with my powers. And I'll still need the background support that you can give.

"I still believe in K5 and its mission. You do too, and you also share my belief that powers like Genom must still be answerable for their crimes. But K5 is too public to be able to take that sort of mission without ... terrible consequences to the loved-ones of our agents," Takeda said grim-faced.

"What I propose is a small, secret group, secret even from K5 agents. A group with no public connection to K5, and a group that you can totally disavow if we are captured. A group of powerful, ... expendable people. A weapon that has no trace to you, but that will carry justice to the untouchable criminals.

Takeda frowned, staring into the bronze eyes of the icon he knew only as Avatar. "Believe in me, Avatar! I will lead that group. I will lead it whether you support me or not. Alone, if I must. But with your support we have a better chance of succeeding."

"Takeda, I believe that you will do what you believe is right even if all the world's corporations were arrayed against you. But even with the power you command, you cannot do everything. Your request has merit. I cannot promise anything right now, but I think arrangements can be made."

Takeda smiled, greatly relieved. "That's all I can ask, Avatar. And one more thing, that I didn't want to say in the meeting. I think I have another recruit for this fool's crusade."

"And who would that be?"


"Shion?" Avatar looked and sounded shocked. "Are you sure?"

"She approached me about the idea. I am sure."

"She approached you?" Avatar stared at Takeda for a moment. "What do suppose is the cause behind this?"

Takeda looked away, then back. "Two causes, I believe. One is me. The other is Quincy."

"This... is unexpected, Takeda." Avatar sounded slightly dumbfounded at the news. "To have Shion working for us, instead of against us, is more than I could have ever hoped for. Do you believe she will follow any sort of rules and regulations I may create?"

Takeda shrugged, frowning. "I believe she will follow my lead more than Jagger ever has. She is her own person, but so are we all. She is a powerful telekinetic, very experienced in many ways we will need. I do not know if she will like orders from a person she has never met, and may never meet. But if she gives her word she will keep it, and I would trust her with my life, if necessary."

"I see. I will trust your judgment on this Takeda, as you obviously know Shion better than I."

"One more thing, Avatar." Takeda frowned, then looked the computer icon in its unblinking eye. "I'm going to go around saying goodbye to the others in a few moments."

"Of course."

"I want to protect them from repercussions when we start moving against Genom. Both as individuals and as a group. The only way I can do that is for it to be very clear that they have no connection with me any more."

"A must if your plan is to have any hope of success."

"Exactly." Takeda paused for a long moment, clearly thinking about how to phrase what he wanted to say next.

"I suspect that an opportunity will arise for me to lose my temper, perhaps when I'm talking with Jagger. If that happens, or if I can make it happen without making it obvious to him, I will blow up."

Avatar gave Takeda a hard stare. "You are not planning on causing anyone physical harm, are you?"

Takeda stared back. "Yes, in fact. Nothing permanent. No damage to Jagger's biological parts. But remember, I can rip a BU-35 apart. It would smell a little fishy if I were to resign from K5 and have a fight with Jagger, and nothing was damaged."

"Thus proving your instability..." Avatar said quietly.

"Yes," Takeda smiled ruefully. "I would like to suggest that you publicly order me to leave the base. I have resigned; I'll cause some property damage in my interaction with Jagger if I can. You'll have good reason to do order me off.

Takeda smiled wryly. "I'll leave ... dramatically. It should be fairly easy to leak word of what happened in the Zone, especially with Jagger leaving the group. Quincy will hear of it eventually."

Avatar nodded. "Thus creating a reasonable scenario for you to vanish from the site and sever all connections to this organization. Yes... this might work." He paused and then continued, "Although I will request that you do not force the issue. We do not need this base reduced to ruin just to provide a good cover story."

Takeda nodded and frowned. "I have a backup plan. If Jagger doesn't provide the lead-in to a rumble, I won't force it. In that case, I'm going straight from here to the Genom shipping facility in Jersey. Throwing a few ships around should be dramatic. And, since I'll be there with no help from the group, no equipment, and far too soon after the meeting for it to be a planned operation, the obvious conclusion will be that I've gone rogue. Connected with my resignation, and perhaps a few words from you to the other operatives and personnel about my behavior, and that should give the same impression to Genom—that I've cut all ties to you and K5."

Avatar nodded. "Some how I don't think it will take much to convince anyone that you've gone out on your own."

Takeda nodded. "That's my hope.

Takeda paused before signing off. "Can you download Jagger's med file to this terminal? I don't want there to be any trace of the access later, if someone investigates, but I don't want to be breaking any parts he might need, either. Also, can you tell Sudo to set up the firing range with one of Jagger's spare cannons, and keep everyone out of there for ten minutes? I'd like to get a little practice against that gun before facing it—it would be awkward for my plans if the gun penetrated my shields and killed me while I was faking a fight with him."

"I don't believe we have any spare models of Jagger's precious 'Hammer of God', Takeda; but I think Sudo will be able to find something suitable."

Takeda nodded and the golden computer icon he knew as Avatar disappeared. There was something final about it, and Takeda sighed. A moment later his terminal started extruding sheets of details on Jagger's med file.

Takeda popped his head around the corner, and found Blade sitting at the kitchen table, looking at him over Yoshi's shoulders. She looked drawn and teary eyed. Yoshi did not look up.

"I'm sorry, Blade, Yoshi; I didn't mean to interrupt."

She nodded, slightly, to acknowledge his presence. "Takeda."

Yoshi didn't respond, but continued to stare at the far wall. He idly played with a

"Yoshi, I'm leaving soon. I just wanted to say goodbye, and that ... that I'm sorry."

"For what..." Yoshi uttered in a flat tone of voice, "Letting Temple get killed?"

Takeda's eyes remained steady upon Yoshi. "I'm sorry she died, Yoshi. I'd give up my own life to bring her back, if I could."

In turn, Blade's eyes stayed fixed on his own face. "It doesn't work that way, Takeda," she said softly. "Not even for you."

Takeda grimaced at Blade's comment. "Yoshi, I want to tell you something. It won't bring her back. But it is something that would have been very, very important to her.

"The one thing that was the most important to her was that she was a person. That she made her own decisions; that she was in charge of her own life, Lynx or not.

"I wish I could change it, and bring her back. But you should know that she choose her mission, knowing the danger. Knowing it better than any of us. She came to me with her plan. And it was her plan, not mine, not Avatar's, not Jagger's. I approved it, and I wish I hadn't.

"But I think it would have been very important to her, to Temple, that she didn't die because someone else ordered her to do something. She died because she chose a dangerous task, and she went into it eyes open. A free person."

Yoshi looked over at Takeda, his eyes wet with tears. "I loved her, Takeda... I really did. And I think she loved me. And it wasn't because she was a Lynx... it came from the heart... on both sides."

"I know," Blade's eyes were drawn back to Yoshi, and her hand reached towards his without quite touching it.

Takeda looked away and swallowed. Blinking, he looked back. "I'm leaving soon, Yoshi, Blade. I ... I don't know if I'll ever see you again. I wish things had turned out differently, but I'm glad I've known you both."

Blade quickly squeezed and released Yoshi's hand, and mouthed something at him that looked like "couple minutes?"...

Yoshi nodded morosely, still staring at the ring on the table before him.

Blade stood up and walked over to Takeda at the doorway. "I think Yoshi needs some time alone," she said quietly.

Takeda closed the door quietly. He looked at the closed door for a long moment before turning to Blade.

There was a moment of awkwardness, which Takeda finally broke by speaking first.

"Goodbye, Blade."

"Goodbye, Takeda."

"Thank you for ... everything." Takeda seemed to be finding it hard to say what he wanted to. "We're going different ways, now," he continued. "I don't think we'll meet again."

"I don't think so, either..." Blade said, with the same difficulty.

Takeda leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek, as gentle as the brush of a butterfly's wing, then turned quickly and walked away.

Blade stared after him for a time, looking confused and slightly dreamy eyed. Her hand reached involuntarily towards her cheek, then clenched convulsively. "What the fuck was that?" she called after him.

After another minute of glaring in the general direction he left in, she growled. "oooohhh! He did it to me again!" and stormed back into the kitchen where she'd left Yoshi.

Takeda had already disappeared around a corner. If he heard her, there was no sign of it.

There was a curt knock on the door.

Mojo quickly glanced over at his gun. *Don' need dat in dis compound* he thought. "Yes?"

Takeda came in. "Mojo." His eyes looked older, worn, even though his face was unchanged.

"Long day, neh?" Mojo said as he looked over Takeda. "To what do I owe dis honah?"

Takeda put out his hand. "I'd just like to say goodbye, Mojo. I'm sorry it didn't work out."

"Are you, Takeda?" Mojo just stared at him without returning the gesture, that cajun smile still on his lips.

Takeda frowned and withdrew his hand.

"I hope I don't offend you, Takeda, but do you or Avatar know what went wrong? Do you have any idea where *you* went wrong?"

"I have some idea, I believe," Takeda said. "But I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter." In spite of his words, Takeda's voice was reserved.

"No, I tink you missin' de point" Mojo said slowly, the tone in his voice as if he were speaking to a child. "I want to know if you know. I want to know if either of you has a clue. So *you* tell *me*, what went wrong?"

Takeda looked at Mojo for a long moment, clearly thinking and concerned. For a brief instant it looked to Mojo like Takeda was concerned for him, although that seemed strange in the light of the question he had asked Takeda. The expression was gone as soon as it appeared, and Takeda smiled and shook his head.

"Some other time, perhaps, Mojo. Will you not shake my hand goodbye, in friendship?" He offered his hand again, open.

"You two bigges' problems shown in one gesture Takeda" Mojo replied as he shook his head. "The first bein' your unwillingness to let you teammates know what's goin' in wit you."

Takeda dropped his hand slowly, brows meeting in a frown, as Mojo continued.

"And de second is dat you tink we all friends. We were jus buisness associates, boy, notin more."

Mojo turned his back to Takeda and went back to packing.

There was a long pause.

Mojo had no warning as a telekinetic fist grabbed him, spun and threw him into the wall, pinning him there helplessly. The wall half-buckled under the pressure. Mojo's lungs strained for breath, but there wasn't any to be had—another forcefield over his face cut off all air. He could not speak.

Takeda stood almost unchanged, save that his hair flew around madly in a breeze now. The hand he had held out in friendship was extended towards Mojo, fingers outstretched.

"Business associates? Not at all, Mojo." Takeda's voice was cold. "I wouldn't do this to a business associate."

Straining to speak, to breathe, Mojo's vision turned grey, and then black.

A few moments later Takeda stood looking down on Mojo's inert form. His eyes glanced up to see the bent metal braces and bundled wiring revealed where he had crushed Mojo into the wall. With a rending tear the braces and wires and cords snaked down sinuously, wrapping Mojo's body tightly. More braces pulled themselves out of the walls at Takeda's telekinetic command and did likewise, until Mojo was securely bound.

"Business associates don't trust each other, Mojo, and don't care for each other's welfare after the job is done," Takeda said quietly. Whether or not we meet later on in friendship, I am acting now as your friend."

Mojo's unconscious form did not answer him.

It was two hours after the meeting, and the dissolution of Force Five. Carlos Jagger was in his room, going through his stuff, separating his personal possessions from what he considered the base's equipment.

Suddenly a muffled explosion outside his door made him turn, his hand poised but not reaching for his weapon. The reinforced door rang dully, but did not open.

A moment later there was a sharp rap, a knocking on his door.

Jagger moved and opened the door, wary, standing to one side so as not to fill the doorway.

Takeda stood in the open door, hair swirling in an unseen breeze, hands down at his sides.

"Hello, Jagger." The young telekinetic's voice was totally neutral.

Jagger nodded a terse welcome. "Yeah?"

Takeda's eyes flicked into the room. "Packing up?"

A flicker of annoyance flashes through the cyborg's face. "Looks like it."

"What will you do now?" Honest curiosity was clear under Takeda's neutral tone. The young man made no move to enter the room.

Jagger raised his eyebrow a fraction and studied the young telekinetic for a second. "Take care of business in the Zone."

Takeda nodded, the neutral expression closing over his face again like a mask. "Didn't turn out as you'd hoped, did it?"

Jagger studied Takeda again, undisguised puzzlement now on his face. Before answering, he motioned Takeda inside with a curt nod then moved back to put a couple more things in a box.

It had been more than two years since Takeda had visited him in his rooms. The fight that had resulted had trashed Jagger's room and led to a rift in the group; few had believed Jagger's version of the story. Soon afterwards he had installed a circuit that would activate the room's security cameras and send an alert to the base security computer.

Putting down the box and using his body as a cover, Jagger surreptitiously pressed the stud on the desktop remote, then turned to lean casually against the desk, his arms crossed. "And what did you think I was hoping would happen, Takeda?"

Takeda stepped the room and shrugged. "Not this, certainly," he waved to include the packing boxes.

Jagger glanced around him. "You mean moving out? And what makes you think I wasn't planning to leave in the first place?"

Takeda shook his head. "I don't believe you really care what I think, Jagger. Not for some time, some long time."

Jagger shrugged, dismissing the statement. "Everyone's got a right to their opinion. But you didn't come here for a social call, Takeda. What do you want?"

Takeda glanced behind him, and the door closed without him touching it. When his eyes flicked back to Jagger they were dark and unreadable. "I had a question for you, Jagger," he said in a totally neutral voice.

"Shoot," Jagger's tone matched Takeda's.

"We're not colleagues any more, Jagger. So I want to know something. When Genom comes calling, asking you for information about me, what are you going to tell them?"

Jagger's eyes narrowed fractionally. In a studiously casual fashion, he replied, "What's to tell? You've single-handedly disassembled the group, you're heading off to ghod-knows-where to do fuck-knows-what, and, frankly, they're welcome to look you up if they're in the mood to get their butts handed back to them. Me, I don't give a rat's ass what they, or you, decide to do."

Takeda's lips quirked briefly into a wry smile. "Now that's speaking from the heart. But I didn't ask whether you cared. I asked whether you were going to help them. It's a reasonable question—after all, you blame me for the destruction of the group. If I had never been a part of Kazei 5, it might still exist." His voice was entirely calm.

Jagger straightened and faced Takeda, his arms loose at his sides. "And what would you do if I said yes, kid? Kill me? Use your wizzer power to twist my head off like a bottle cap, then claim it was in self-defense?" There was no hint of humor or any other emotion in his voice.

Takeda looked a little nonplused, then frowned. "Self-defense? You've never attacked me with anything but words, Jagger. Overcome your dislike for me a moment and answer the question."

"Really? If memory serves right, words was all it took you to go postal last time we had a 'little chat'."

Jagger took a step closer, his voice lowering. "You really want to know whether I'd rat on you if Genom came sniffing around? Tough. We'll both find out if and when it happens. Before then, you'll just have to sweat it out."

With a curt shake of his head, the ex-cop indicated the door to the room. "Don't let it smack you in the ass on the way out." He then turned back to the desk and the boxes piled on it.

Takeda shook his head ruefully. His response was quiet, as if speaking to himself more than Jagger. "You'd be hard-assed to Genom too, I bet." He took a couple of steps to the door and then paused, his voice even more introspective. "Why is this so difficult?" he asked himself, so quietly that Jagger almost missed it.

Then boxes and furniture shattered in the wake of a tremendous force-bolt that threw Jagger into the wall.

In one smooth motion, the cyborg rolled into a stand, drew his sidearm and fired... above Takeda's head. The bullet exploded against one of the fire alarm sensors, causing it to activate. The room was immediately plunged into smothering, choking whiteness as the halon projectors spewed their contents and filled the space.

Amid the roar of the projectors and the clatter of debris blown wildly by the spray, Takeda heard the sound of breaking glass.

The choking white wall didn't quite reach Takeda's skin. He gestured, and a bubble of clear space expanded, swiftly pushing the choking mist back, and incidentally sweeping papers, ashtrays, broken glass, and debris with it.

The room revealed was a terrible mess, but it was empty; the shattered window revealed where Jagger had gone.

Face grim, Takeda flew out the window. He didn't bother to crouch, shattering the lintel and pieces of the wall without even noticing.

The courtyard was clear and quiet. Takeda barely had time to see it was empty before he was body-slammed from above—Jagger had not jumped out the window, but rather used the windowsill to jump to the roof.

The two crashed into the concrete below, Jagger on top, teeth clenched in a feral grimace. Holding the young telekinetic in one powerful cybernetic hand, his other hand blasted away with his Hammer of God at point-blank range.

Takeda's telekinetic forcefield absorbed the terrible force of the powerful handgun, but not entirely—his shoulder and upraised arm splattered blood and his grimace of concentration became one of pain. He gestured at Jagger's handgun and the weapon shattered as if it was made of glass.

Jagger's eyes widened in fury as his precious HOG disintegrated; he pulled back his arm and smashed at his foe with his cyber arm. A blow, then another one—either might have dented the engine-block of a truck. The concrete underneath Takeda was cracked by the force of the blows, but Takeda seemed totally unaffected, protected by his forcefield.

Takeda punched his palm at his enemy's chest, concentration and pain intense on his face. The choppy blow broke Jagger's grip like a child's and threw him back through the air twenty meters to slam into the wall of the building and fall in a cloud of debris and shattered concrete to the ground.

Desperately gasping for air, Jagger fought himself upright, braced on the wall. Across the plaza Takeda also raised himself vertical to face Jagger, left arm hanging bloody by his side, face a grimace of pain. Small blocks of debris and broken concrete caught in the eddies of his power danced spastically in midair around him.


The voice was deafening and the word echoed from the buildings that made up the complex. For a moment all was quiet, and then the base PA system crackled and popped.

"I think you have done enough, Mr. Johnson." Avatar's voice echoed. "Or do you intend on killing everyone of your ex-teammates who does not give you the answers you wish to hear?"

"Only the ones that need it," Takeda snarled. "This is no longer your concern, Avatar." His eyes were intent upon Jagger.

Chance burst through the courtyard doorway, his head throbbing with every change in the telekinetic force issuing from Takeda. Raising his arm he leveled his sliver-gun at Takeda's forcefield, intently trying to judge where it's weakest point might be.

"Please, don't make me kill you...." Chance said sternly, trying his best to hide his uncertainty.

Takeda's glare flicked to Chance. His forcefield bulged with additional force, cracking the concrete in a circle around him, thrusting debris out of the way. "Et tu, Chance? Kill me?" He laughed, just once, and his voice throbbed with menace. "What makes you think you can?"

Takeda glanced down deliberately at his left arm where it hung limp and bleeding from Jagger's bullets. As Jagger and Chance looked on Takeda's shirt ripped like tissue, exposing the wounds in shoulder and forearm. Wounds that visibly bulged, and closed, and healed.

Chance, resolved to his course of action now, tightened his jaw. "What I think is unimportant... the true question is 'Are you ready to find out?'"

The silence stretched as the two former members of the team squared off, then was broken by a voice from a forgotten corner.

"So, what's it going to be, boy?" Jagger's voice was steady, with only a touch of strain to indicate the flood of anger which filled him. "You gonna kill him, too? And Doc? Mojo?" He paused. "Blade?"

The cyborg moved slowly, placing himself at the apex of a triangle with Takeda and Chance as its other points. "It's over for you here, Takeda. They know now how much of a psychotic shit you really are. Leave. Get the hell off this base. And don't ever come back."

Takeda flexed his arm. The tension left his shoulders and they sagged slightly. As the pain and anger left his face for an instant he seemed almost sad, before his expression became cold again. "I won't be returning." He looked at Chance, and almost spoke, then dust sucked into the vacant hole as he disappeared. Concrete debris pattered to the ground, released from the eddies of power that had held them.

"It would seem," Avatar said quietly, his voice echoing slightly in the courtyard, "That Mr. Johnson has decided to take matters into his own hands. Until I am able to review this matter further, Mr. Johnson is no longer allowed on this facility."

Jagger's head turned slowly as if rolling on gears to face the building. "Avatar," he said, his words betraying the bitter weariness he felt, "shut the fuck up."

Lowering his weapon Chance just stared over at Jagger in disgust. "Please tell me you had no involvement in provoking this."

Jagger returned the stare with equal measure. "Fuck you, too, Chance. Watch the damn tape and shut your bloody hole."

The sky was bright and sunny, clear of any clouds, and the gentle sea breezes were comfortably warm. Dressed in a skimpy string bikini, Marta lay back on the soft expanse of beach towel, enjoying the warm sun. Ling Ling knelt next to her, her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, her white swimsuit in sharp contrast to her sun-darkened skin. Marta spared a quick glance to Ling Ling's back, pleased to note that it looked to have healed perfectly. The lash marks that had once crisscrossed her body from neck to knee were now little more than faint white lines, visibly only if one knew what to look for. But, it wasn't the exterior scars that worried Marta.

"Niihao," Ling Ling stated quietly, staring out over the sea with a slight smile tugging at her lips.

Marta blinked and laced her hands behind her head, looking up into the deep blue sky.


"Correct," Ling Ling nodded.

"Shai shen."

"Goodbye. That was easy."

Ling Ling shrugged, casually lighting a cigarette. "You say it," she replied, breathing out a cloud of smoke.

Oops... Marta had enough trouble with Japanese, much less the more tonally inflected language of Cantonese. It was at times like this she really despised her sister, who spoke French, German and Japanese with amazing fluency. To make matters worse she had learned them all in a disgustingly short period of time.

"Zee Ayejayee an..."

"Heh," Ling Ling chuckled, "not bad."

"Thanks..." Marta muttered.

Taking a deep drag on her cigarette, Ling Ling jetted forth a another cloud of smoke. She stared out at the rolling waves and distant horizon quietly, lost in her own thoughts. Finally, she took one last puff on her cigarette before grinding it out in the sand. Turning at the waist, Ling Ling leaned slightly over Marta, her long hair falling off her shoulders to form a ripping wall of glossy black between her and the ground.

"Shei shei," she whispered, smiling faintly, tracing the curve of Marta's jaw with one finger.

Marta swallowed, and felt her pulse quicken. "What does that mean?" she asked, her voice faint.

"Shei shei, wuoda airen Marta." Marta's skin prickled as Ling Ling's fingernail traced its way down her neck into the broad valley between her breasts.

"Ling Ling?" Marta swallowed again, her heart pounding against her ribs. She was pretty sure the impromptu language session was over, and a much more enjoyable session of a different sort was about to begin.

Yanking slightly at Marta's bikini top, Ling Ling slid the offending material off of Marta's breasts. Marta gasped slightly and arched her back as Ling Ling bent her head and gently kissed each rapidly stiffening nipple.

Her mouth dry, Marta reached up and slowly removed Ling Ling's sunglasses, setting them somewhere behind her. The Chinese woman's soft brown eyes were wet with slowly developing tears, although Ling Ling still had a faint, seductive smile tugging at her lips.

"Say that again," Marta whispered, gently wiping a tear way from her lover's face.

"Shei shei, wuoda airen Marta..."

Ling Ling was now leaning overtop of Marta, her hair now forming a dark tent on either side of Marta's face. Reaching up again, Marta undid the swimsuit clasp at the back of Ling Ling's neck, allowing her large, luscious breasts to spill free of the confining fabric. "What does that..." Marta's question was cut off as Ling Ling kissed her softly.

"Wuo ai ni, Marta," she murmured in Marta's ear before Marta's next kiss render any further conversation impossible.

The Atlantic City Zero Zone was very different from Neo York's Zero Zone. Quieter, for one thing. In the Nero York Zone there was always the faint sounds of someone's jury-rigged car of some go-gang's bikes in the background, not to mention the low hum of traffic over in Manhattan. Here, however, the silence was complete, broken only by the occasional 'whup-whup' of a chopper lifting off from a casino over beyond the Wall.

The air was cleaner as well. Neo York's Zone ran off of wood, coal, oil and alcohol, and the smell of smoke was almost everywhere. Here in Atlantic City, such fires were few and far between. One reason was the weather. The waste heat produced by the bustling resorts beyond the Wall made fires for warmth less necessary. Then there was the fact that the Atlantic City Zone had far fewer people, and those that were here didn't have anywhere near the sort of 'luxuries' that were so common in the Neo York Zone.

Takeda stood in the street, looking at one of the few buildings in the Zone that wasn't a gutted, burned-out ruin. It was the Atlantic City Mission, a recovery effort funded (Takeda suspected) by Avatar. Blade was here, helping 'Father Mike' to try and bring back some sense of order and civilization to a true urban wasteland.

Kiyoko was here as well, quietly tucked away in a place that was neither remote nor well-guarded. It was, however, an unlikely hiding place for a 12 year-old girl. The best hiding place, Takeda reflected, is the place where nobody would look.

Even out here in the street, Takeda could feel Kiyoko's power. She must be practicing, he thought, although he had never felt energy levels like this during his training sessions with her. Kiyoko must have changed a lot in the last six months. Not surprising.

Takeda was wearing a ratty jean-jacket and dirty pants. Normal enough clothing for most people in the Neo York Zone; here such clothing was typical of the more well-off denizens of the Atlantic City Zone. Still, nothing exceptional around the Mission, where supplies of used clothing were often available for free.

Takeda's hair was matted on one side of his head, as if he had slept in a puddle of his own blood. Which, in fact, he had. It would be poor thanks to bring Genom down on the Atlantic City Mission, and Takeda was willing to take steps to avoid it.

Of course, Genom might already know. That was why Takeda was watching now, as he had been for hours. If Genom knew of Kiyoko's presence, they might have an ambush waiting.

Takeda had used all the training Sudo had given him. He had been in the Zone for days, wandering around, huddling around the small fires, keeping silent, testing the water. He didn't approach the Mission at all in that time. If there was an ambush, it was pretty well hidden—any intrusion of corporate security into the Zone was going to be spotted by its denizens pretty quickly without elaborate precautions.

It was time to test it. It was mid-morning, and relatively few people were moving around. More people would have been better for avoiding notice, but if a firefight erupted, Takeda wanted to avoid collateral damage.

Takeda got up from where he had been sitting in the sunlight and made his way over to the mission. His shoulders were slumped, his walk was a little hesitant. He had changed the length of his stride. It was the little things that mattered, Sudo said. A walk can be more distinctive than a face.

His eyes wandered, glancing to the sides, suspicious. The wary eyes of a hunted animal. Perfectly in character, here in the Zone, but Takeda didn't have to fake that part at all.

The morning was quiet. The building was sitting on a large lot, surrounded by a chain link fence. The gate was wide open, and there were no signs of any security or guards, and no-one questioned him as he walked in. A couple of locals were sitting in the sun outside the mission door; they simply glanced at Takeda as he pushed through the gate and went inside.

Inside the gate was a strip of open ground, where a few blades of grass struggled to grow. A few hungry looking men stood in the middle of the yard, talking to each other quietly. Takeda got a few surreptitious looks, but none of them approached him.

Takeda looked around hesitantly, as if unsure what to do, and then approached the main building and went in.

The foyer was rough, with old paint peeling and many signs of age and hard use, but it was relatively clean. A short hallway led away into a larger room of some sort; Takeda could hear some clatter and faint sound of conversation coming down the hall. As he walked down the hall Takeda noted a couple of classrooms on either side; currently empty. The hallway opened upon into a large communal room; a multi-purpose room. It clearly served as cafeteria; an open door at the other side showed the stainless steel counters of a kitchen, and the clatter of pans and conversation came through the door.

Stairs led up and down to his left and right as Takeda stood looking into the multipurpose room. Takeda could feel Kiyoko's psi signature below him, so he took the stair down.

At the bottom of the stairs was a heavy door, with a small window in it and a hand-written sign saying "Keep Out - In Use!!!" He could hear women's voices and laughter on the other side.

Looking through the window he saw a Puma with cybernetic legs and a cyber-arm. The Puma seemed to be dancing or wrestling with a crate - it seemed to be bucking her. From the power signature it had to be Kiyoko who was 'wrestling' the box.

Takeda watched for a moment. In the quiet hall the voices were clear enough—Blade was giving Kiyoko directions. It was some sort of strength and control exercise, where Kiyoko was trying to use the minimum force necessary to get the equipment away from the Puma, whose name appeared to be Millie.

Takeda smiled. Kiyoko seemed to think the whole process was funny for some reason. Millie's attitude was one of dutiful compliance, and Blade was mixed between laughing with Kiyoko and trying to get Millie more 'into' the exercise.

Takeda opened the door. The room beyond was large, but mostly empty. Opening the door brought Kiyoko into his line of sight. Blade, or Patty, as she was calling herself these days, was standing next to her.

Kiyoko had grown up a bit. She'd shot up several inches, starting to show signs of how tall she will be. Her hair was shorter as well. And she was starting to show the first signs of curves in the right places, too.

In the time it took for Takeda to open the door and realize what he was seeing, Blade's attitude underwent a startling change. She went from being relaxed and happy to tense and battle ready, then to cautiously acknowledging his presence. Kiyoko, on the other hand, seemed oblivious to his presence until Blade spoke.

"Hoi," she said coolly. "Long time no see."

Takeda nodded to Blade, eyes slightly sad. "I won't be long, Blade." His eyes moved on to Kiyoko. "Heyo, Kiyoko."

"Ohiyao, Takeda-san!" Kiyoko called with a grin and a wave. "What brings you here?"

"It's time to go, Kiyoko. Unless you've changed your mind."

Kiyoko's smile vanished instantly. "Oh..." she said quietly, "I see."

Blade blinked in surprise. Her hand went to the girl's shoulder. "Don't rush yourself," she said gently, "and don't let him rush you, either." Then she turned back to Takeda. "You never change, do you?" she asked him.

Takeda made a sound halfway between a grunt and a laugh. "I have done little else _but_ change, Blade, since first I met you." He glanced over at the Puma. "Millie, I apologize for interrupting," he said politely. "Can you give Kiyoko, Bl-... Patty, and I a few minutes in private?"

Dropping the crate with a grunt, the Puma stared at Takeda for a long moment. Turning back to Blade, she looked at the shorter woman for a moment, her only expression an occasional twitch of the ears.

Blade grimaced at the off hand way Takeda had 'dismissed' her friend, then said, "Millie, whyn't you take a break for a few minutes. Maybe get yourself a cuppa, and tell Father Mike that Mr. Johnson has stopped by for a visit."

As soon as Millie was out of the door both Blade and Kiyoko felt a small surge of power from Takeda, surrounding the three of them in a low-level force wall. Blade could tell that the wall was quite thin and fragile.

Takeda turned to Blade intensely. "Why don't you tell everyone in the Mission? Genom will kill your friends to find me, Blade."

"If you don't trust Father Mike, you should never have come here. If you distrust Millie you should have waited until we were finished before you announced yourself," Blade replied with equal intensity. "Give me some credit, Takeda. I know who my friends are, Millie will tell Father Mike and no-one else."

Takeda shook his head. "This isn't about trust, Blade, this is about exposure. If you trust your friends, I'd trust them. But if you love them, don't put them at risk unnecessarily."

Looking back and forth between the two, Kiyoko remained quiet, her expression ome of sadness.

After a long moment of silence, Blade asked, quietly, "Then why did you come, Takeda?"

Takeda held Blade's eyes for a long moment, then looked at Kiyoko. His look matched Kiyoko's, and his voice was quiet and slightly sad.

"Because it is time. Time for Kiyoko to leave. Things are ready now, Kiyoko. I'm sorry." The apology was clearly to Kiyoko, not to Blade.

There was a silence as Kiyoko sat quietly, thinking over Takeda's words. "Do I have to leave, Takeda-san?" she asked finally. "I like it here."

"You don't have to leave, Kiyoko," Takeda said in a voice touched with compassion and sorrow. "I cannot see the future. It is possible that Genom would never find you here, that you could live a normal life. If that is what you decide, I will support you in your decision. Even though it means I will never be able to visit you for fear of drawing Genom's attention to you.

Takeda's eyes locked on Blade's, although he continued speaking to Kiyoko. "But if they find out you are here, they will come for you. If you are lucky, they will just snatch you or kill you, and few of the people here will be hurt. If you are unlucky, they will smash anyone in their way, and hurt or kill your friends. And if you are very unlucky, they will kill everyone and destroy the mission.

"Or perhaps you will fight them off once. Ryan McKee's parents were killed because we succeeded against Genom. If Genom knows these are your friends here, they might kill Father Mike, Millie, Blade. Just to hurt you. Like they killed Ryan's parents."

Blade met Takeda's gaze without blinking, but her arm went around Kiyoko's shoulders, and she looked at the girl when she spoke to her. "And, if you do go with Takeda, they will hunt you doubly hard, both because they want you, and because they want to hurt him. And you will always be afraid of getting close to anyone, because any friends you make could be used as weapons against you. You don't have any easy choices here, Kiy."

Takeda shook his head. "They will hunt you as hard either way, Kiyoko, because of who you are. But Blade is right—if you go with me you will be taking the hard road. You know that already.

He turned away. "You've had six months of peace, Kiyoko. If you go with me you may never have that sort of peace again. You will be hunted like an animal, as I am," he said quietly.

He turned back, voice gaining intensity. "But if you stay here, Genom will find you. Not today, maybe not tomorrow. You might have a month; two months, six, or a year, or even five years. But you are beautiful, and young, and your powers are strong. How long can you hide?" He gestured around him at the beat-up Mission surrounding them, eyes full of darkness. "When they hear, they will come, and they will destroy all this to get you."

Takeda turned back, quiet again. "Nothing has changed from when we talked six months ago, Kiyoko. But you still have a choice, the same choice as then. Be a hunted animal with me, or take what happiness you can and pray, knowing the price that your friends will pay when Genom comes."

Kiyoko stared at Takeda for some time, silently mulling over his words. Finally, she cocked her head and gave him a questioning glance. "Takeda-san, why is there blood in your hair?"

Takeda smiled and shrugged. "In case. If this place was watched by Genom," he waved a hand to indicate his old, dirty clothing and dirty hair, "I didn't want to draw attention." His face got more serious, "and if Genom comes here in a month, one more street person is less likely to be remembered than a dark-haired young stranger in jeans and a Priss & the Replicants T-shirt."

Unhunh..." Kiyoko muttered. Once again she fell silent, digesting his newest bit of information. "Takeda-san, do you remember the time you took me to dinner to see Ms. Shion?"

Takeda nodded. Blade blanched slightly at the mention of Shion's name, but said nothing.

"Do you remember what I told you? How I felt about Ms. Shion?"

"She scared you, Kiyoko."

"Well... now, I feel that way about you. You... you've changed Takeda-san. You talk like Ms. Shion does now, and... and I don't like it. I liked the old Takeda better, the one who smiled. I don't think I want to stay with this new Takeda."

Her words went through him like a knife. He closed his eyes for a long moment, then he nodded. When he opened them again Blade and Kiyoko could clearly see the agony in his eyes, but he did not turn away.

"I understand." He stepped up to her, and touched her cheek, a caress so gentle it almost wasn't there at all. "I'm ..., I'm so sorry, Kiyoko.

He took her hand and pressed a small datacrystal into it. "If you ever need me, for anything, this will get a message to me. Call me, and I will come. No matter what."

Takeda looked over at Blade, though he still held Kiyoko's hand. "I won't bother you again here, Blade. I've endangered your people enough with this one visit." He turned back and kissed Kiyoko lightly on the brow, as a brother might. "I wish you happiness and joy, Kiy-chan," Takeda whispered in a voice of loss and pain. "And I hope I will see you again, in a happier time."

Takeda turned and left the gym.

Blade watched him go silently. She stood perfectly still, with her arm still around Kiyoko's shoulders, as tears moistened her eyes.

That night, at sunset, a dark-haired young man sat on the shore of the East River. He sat, watching the last golden glow disappear from the tip of the tallest building in Neo York, Genom Arcology, and wept for the loss of innocence, and for the boy he would never be again.

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