Shion, Raven noted, was a mess. Her hair fell in tangles over her shoulders, while her armor was cracked and flaking. A tattered weapon's harness was strapped about her body, and over one shoulder Raven could see the hilt of Shion's sword. In her right hand,. the Empress held a heavy, almost organic-looking shotgun.
"There," Shion rasped, "I've rescued you."
Raven's face shifted from anger to surprise. "Rescued me? From what?"
"That," Shion gestured over Raven's shoulder to the dark bulk of the Ishiyama building. "I've fulfilled my contract to Sanato."
"What? How does he know I'm here? What kind of danger was I in? Heck, for all I saw, YOU were in trouble when I got there..."
Working the action of her shotgun, Shion didn't bother to answer. "If you feel the need to go back, then go. I won't stand in your way."
Raven muttered. Then her eyes narrowed. "So why did you blast your way in before I went in?"
"Who said I did?" Shion raised her weapon and casually leaned it over one shoulder. There are more espers here than just you and I."
"Maybe, but none of them would take the roof off the Arcology."
Shion looked up at the tall Ishiyama tower. "I'm not so sure about that," she replied, more to herself than Raven.
"And I recognized you," Raven added.
"So if you came in to rescue me," Raven grinned, "Why did you come in BEFORE me?"
"You aren't my only target," Shion answered with an aristocratic smirk.
At that, a pursuit mech painted in the colors of Ishiyama swooped by overhead. One of its legs was devoid of paint, and the heavy machine gun it was toting was still smoking from earlier fire. It vanished behind the buildings, jets screaming.
"Karin," Raven mouthed.
Shion impassively watched the airborne vehicle go by. "If you go, you go alone. I will not follow this time."
Reduced to a mere formality, Raven shook her head in disbelief, though her eyes flashed with anger. Then she turned away from Shion and looked at where the mecha had left. Lilith was still inside, though hopefully with her powers she could defend herself against Matthew, or escape him... at least long enough for Raven to rescue another friend. Growling in frustration, she bent her thoughts to a point atop a tall skyscraper in front of her and willed herself there.
Lilith ducked one of Matthew's wild swings, and shuffled back a few steps. The sweat was already beading on her brow, and she was wincing from a couple of his blows that had landed. Matthew broke stance briefly to look down at her, and snorted with derision.
"The great prototype, huh? I thought you'd be better than this," he said. Matt swung around and brought the back of his clenched fist whipping across her face. Still spinning, he turned his back and brought his boot straight into her chin, sending her sprawling on the ground.
"Come on, get up!" he yelled. As she crawled to her knees, he brought his foot straight up, then down in a straight swing. Lilith just rolled out of the way in time, and quickly sprung to her feet. Matthew lunged forwards and swung his right arm upwards in a huge uppercut. At the last instant Lilith dropped, lashing out with her feet and catching Matthew around the ankles. She rolled over, twisting and brought him down to the ground. She reached over to secure her hold on him, but with a single sweeping motion he kicked his legs out of her grasp.
The two quickly regained their feet, but Lilith backed off, trying to buy some time. "Why are you doing this?" she pleaded with him.
"I kept hearing how 'wonderful' and 'marvelous' you were," Matthew said, spitting the words. "Surely I, made later, am better than an imperfect whelp like you."
"But the professor - she wouldn't want us to fight like this."
Matthew paused, then shrugged, a broad grin spreading on his face. "She'll thank me later."
He immediately lunged forwards, taking her by surprise and driving a powerful fist straight into her abdomen. Lilith staggered back, coming up against a wall. Matthew surged forwards, grabbing her around the throat with both hands and shoving her head against the wall. He lifted her up, scraping her against the wall, then drew one hand back and rammed it into her abdomen.
Lilith's face stung with tears as she concentrated, reaching inside for the power beyond her control. She concentrated on the one place she knew better than anywhere else and, in a rush of air, vanished from his hands.
Yuki worked feverishly in her small office by the main lab, scouring through the computer and her hard copies, searching for damaged or stolen data, She occasionally glanced up, noting Ray's unflinching stare locked on her. Each time, those intense eyes regarding her...
Finally she'd had enough. She looked up and snapped, yelling "Look, just go away!" at him.
Ray was slightly taken aback at the professor's sudden outburst, and raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"I don't need help here," Yuki said, turning back to her work. "You bothering me, staring at me like that." Like the prototype does, she thought to herself. "Go help security, or something."
"Security?" he quietly asked.
"Well, find out what the hell's going on up above! Just get out of here!"
Ray gave the professor one last inquisitive glance, and vanished from the room.
Shion watched Raven depart after Karin, and slowly shook her head. Oh, well. So much more to do here. She checked over her equipment, and frowned in frustration when she realized Matthew's blast had wrecked her goggles. She quickly tore them off and discarded them in the rubble around the ground floor.
An unexpected voice interrupted her reverie. She spun around, coming face to face with a slender young man. "Who are you?" she demanded, raising the shotgun in her hands at him.
He stepped back and gave a sweeping bow. "Psychokinetic replicant model 11a, designate Ray. At your service," he looked up, straight into her eyes. "Miss Nys."
A short "Hmph," was her only immediate reply. Inwardly, she was chastising herself for not noticing his esper signature. She pumped the shotgun and fired, but was caught by surprised as he immediately and effortlessly vanished before her.
"I merely wanted-" came his voice behind her, and she spun and fired again on pure reflexes. Once again, he departed without so much as a scratch. "To find out-" he continued behind her once more, and departed before another hail of pellets. "Why you were here," he concluded. Shion whirled around to catch him vanish, then lashed backwards with the shotgun, waving it as an impromptu club. She was rewarded with the sound of impact, and Ray's quick exhalation.
Shion spun to face him and unleashed a massive force bolt that split the ground in front of her. Ray took off into the air, almost faster than could be seen, and soon hung far above her, looking as calm as could be. "I had hoped to be more civilized," he said, vanished briefly as another bolt of force passed through the air where he had been, "But it seems the you don't want to talk."
Still silent, Shion took to the air, charging at Ray with a blade of force formed around her fist. She struck out, only to pass through thin air. Spinning around, she still didn't find her target. She glanced around, and upwards, finding Ray hovering silently above him. She fired another force bolt, only to once again have him vanish before her.
"Over here," Ray said. Shion spun around once more, to find the replicant hovering by one of the lower floors of the Ishiyama tower. Shion took off in pursuit, chasing him as he fled upwards, skimming by the side of the building. As she drew closer, she loosed a weak blast at Ray. As she expected, he vanished once more, but a quick glance at the glass windows beside her revealed his presence to her left. She changed direction, darting upwards, then fired down at him with a broadened blast, catching him by surprise, the impact knocking him about in mid-air.
A smile glanced across her face as she darted down towards Ray. As he stabilized, she seized him by one arm and his collar. She spun in mid-air, releasing him and sending him hurtling towards the building. As he tried to halt his impromptu flight, she quickly charged and fired a devastating blast of force. It caught him square in the chest, drilling through his invisible shields and forcing him into the side of the building. Glass shattered, concrete crumbled and steel twisted as his impact left a crater-like dent in its side, kicking up smoke and dust form the impact.
Shion headed into the debris, only to find no sign of her adversary.
A loud noise, almost like an explosion caught Yuki's attention and she glanced up from her work. Beyond the window to the lab, she could see Lilith, crouching and panting for breath in the middle of a circular dent in the lab's steel floor. The professor stormed out to confront her.
"Number eleven? What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"Professor..." Lilith got to her feet. "You've got to stop-"
Lilith was cut off by the sudden arrival of Matthew at the other end of the lab. "Pay no attention to her, professor." Matthew strode forwards, his gaze locked on Lilith. "She's gone rogue."
"Rogue?" Yuki repeated, turning towards Matthew.
"Stand aside, professor," Matthew said, brushing Yuki out of the way. Lilith lunged forward, her hand glowing and projecting a searing white blast that tore up the ground around it as it streaked towards Matthew. He hunched back, crossing his arms and erecting a force field in front of him. The blast tore into his field, scattering in front of him. Waves of energy lashed around the room, hitting the walls, floor and some of the many wires and pipe in the roof.
The two replicants faced each other in silence, the only sound being water running freely from a broken pipe. Matthew finally broke the silence, saying, "So there's some fight left in you."
Lilith sprung into action, launching herself across the lab at Matthew. She flew in and took a wild swing, which he easily batted away. Lilith regained control of her flight and spun around, sending another searing white blast at her foe. Matthew easily dodged, and unleashed a blast of his one, unseen save for tearing through the fountain of water flowing from the broken pipe. Lilith was caught in the chest by the blast, and crashed to the ground, yet quickly leapt to her feet.
"The whole project was a mistake," she said leaping at Matthew again. She feinted high, then ducked under his guard and drove a fist at his abdomen, but met only his force field. Matthew lashed out, driving his hand into her face. Lilith blocked a second punch, then struck back with an uppercut that staggered Matthew.
"All it made was monsters," she continued, firing another searing white blast into Matthew at point blank. He caught it in the chest and was sent sprawling on the ground; face down in the pooling water. "And I've got to stop it from happening again," Lilith said, slowly striding over to Matthew.
He glanced upwards, catching her by surprise. A huge burst of water around Matthew signaled his blast which shot upwards and caught Lilith in the chest. She flew upwards and backwards, landing hard on the ground. As Matthew stood up, she coughed up blood, tainting the clear water on the lab floor. "Are you finished yet?" Matthew dragged Lilith up by her throat, clutching her around the neck with both hands. He tightened his grip, cutting off her breathing. "I've had enough of your whining and simpering, and enough of giving you chances. If this is the best you've got, you deserve to die now." He squeezed harder, his face showing his pleasure.
"Stop it Matthew! That's enough," the professor shouted out. Matthew glanced to her, surprised. Lilith struggled up and raised her feet, kicking out at his chest. He staggered back, and she arced backwards, flipping over to land uncertainly. As she regained her footing, she was struck by another blast from Matthew that hurled her across the lab. Lilith let out a howl of pain as she crashed into the far wall.
Matthew strode forwards, ready to finish Lilith off, but was held back. He turned to see Professor Tokamura holding his arm, regarding him with a piercing stare. "I said that's enough, Matthew. She's still useful," she said, fearlessly staring at her creation towering over her.
Matthew regarded her for a second, then looked away. "You know something occurs to me." He turned back, and casually shoved the professor away from him. "Even though you made me." He gave a sweeping gesture, encompassing the entire lab. "Even though you're responsible for all this," he continued, bearing down on the professor, who stepped back and stumbled in the ankle-deep water. "You're still just a worthless little normal. I know which one of us should be giving orders." He shoved her with one hand, sending her to the floor.
Matthew immediately swung around, sensing Lilith, who tore in at him from behind. He ducked her clumsy swing, then struck her with a sweeping forearm that sent her to the floor. Behind him, he heard the professor yell "How dare you!" She leapt to her feet, clumsily holding a broken length of pipe. He smirked, dodging a couple of amateurish swings, until she finally bore down on him with an overhead swipe.
In one smooth motion, Matthew grabbed her arm and twisted it around. As she dropped the pipe, he stepped behind her, wrapping his free arm around her neck. He yelled out as he shoved her forwards, driving her head-first through one of the two clone tanks, shattering its glass cylinder, then tossed her bloodied form to the floor.
Lilith let out a cry of anger at the same time as the professor's howl of pain. She fired a desperate bolt that caught Matthew in the collarbone and tossed him backwards, sending him through the remaining clone tank to lie sprawling stunned on the floor. Lilith quickly ran to the professor, to find her lying in the water. She knelt beside her creator, tears forming at her eyes.
"I never wanted this to happen..." she said, cradling the professor's broken form in her arms.
"What have I done... I'm so sorry..." Yuki gasped out. "I never could say... how proud of you I was." Lilith fought back her tears, as she nodded quietly. "Do you think the earlier ones can forgive me?"
"Yes, I'm sure they will," Lilith replied quietly. A faint smile crept across Yuki's face as she closed her eyes. Lilith slowly placed her limp body on the floor and stood. Already Matthew was regaining his feet.
"How dare you," he snarled at her.
"It's time I finished this," Lilith replied. For a moment, there was silence. Then the water began to swirl around both of them. For a long time they just stared at each other, as all around them the lab began to tear itself apart with their growing power.
For agonizing seconds, Lilith and Matthew stared at each other from within the swirling maelstrom of their own powers. With a roar of fury, Lilith leapt forwards, trailing a white after image as she pounced on Matthew. He fired a devastating blast that past over her fields, and failed to stop her form ramming into his chest shoulder-first. She followed up by swinging around and driving her foot into his face, then coming around with a blazing white blast that sent him staggering back.
She flew forwards to follow up the blast, but Matt barely avoided her forward flight. She hastily halted and turned, only to be caught in the face by a wild forearm swing. Matt hauled his right leg straight up, and swiftly brought it down on Lilith's shoulder, driving her to her knees. He unleashed a spiraling blast that only succeeded in tearing up the ground as she sprung into the air. She held position above him for a second, then dove down onto him in a ball of white light that flung him across the room to impact into one wall.
Even as she flew forwards to follow up, Matt sprung from the wall and engaged his own field. The two clashed against each other, the air sizzling in front of them with the unleashed power.
Where did it all come from? Lilith wondered as she tried to overcome Matt's force field. Matt focused his anger and lashed out, driving her back briefly. He fired a force bolt that caught her in the chest and sent her skidding backwards, sending up a fine spray of water as she did so. She halted in mid air, just in time to deflect another blast from Matthew that dug a deep furrow into the wall.
"Stay still!" Matt hollered and flew at her. This time she waited, and dodged his charge at the last minute. She let off a burst of power into his side that flung him away, smashing through the glass into the smaller office section of the lab. She stepped forwards to investigate, but was caught by a sudden blast from within.
Lilith staggered back as Matthew strode out of the wrecked office, firing as he went. Lilith strengthened her force field, trying desperately to hold off his renewed onslaught. Unexpectedly, her field faltered, then vanished altogether, leaving her open to yet another blast which struck low, and took her legs out from beneath her.
Matthew dashed forwards and swept up with his foot, catching her in the side and sending her sprawling. "What's wrong with you?" he yelled, driving his foot into her ribs again. "Get up!" He swung in for another kick, but Lilith reacted faster, catching his leg and rolling, dragging him to the ground. She tried to twist his leg into a painful lock, by he easily forced his way out of her grasp. Matt rolled to his feet, only to be met by Lilith's foot driving into his abdomen.
She sprung up, taking advantage of her surprised foe and flipped over his shoulder, spinning as she went to grab him around the neck with both arm. She began to apply pressure, but he reached behind and grabbed her head, whipping her over his shoulder once more. She sprung to her feet and swung around, bringing her fist to his face. He caught her hand and dragged her down by the arm. Stepping, over, he placed her arm between her legs and yanked sharply upwards. A sickening crack was accompanied by a piercing yell of pain from Lilith as her arm was broken.
Out of desperation, Lilith managed a surge of power. She fired upwards with her free hand, striking Matthew in the back. He staggered, releasing his grip, and turning to face her once more. Lilith readied a second blast, yet it failed to appear. She stepped back, shocked by her powers' failure.
Matt could only laugh. "So much for this great prototype," he said. Angered, Lilith charged forwards swinging with her good arm. He blocked the block, and jabbed her in the stomach with his elbow. When she doubled over from the blow, Matthew grabbed her and began driving his knee repeatedly into her chest. "You're weak," he said, punctuating each remark with another blow, "inferior, and deserve to be put out of your misery."
Drawing on her last reserve of strength, Lilith managed to surge from his grasp. She stood up, stepping back slightly, and fired a narrow white bolt at him. Caught by surprise, Matt was struck in the face, the blast gouging just above his right eye.
Matt let out a roar of pain, and surged forwards. Yelling "DIE!" he placed his hand up to Lilith's abdomen. A sharp blast of power sprouted from his palm, punching through her body and sprawling her on the floor before him. Blood flowed from her prone form, tainting the cold water she lay in, with Matthew standing above her.
As Matthew loomed over Lilith, a new figure appeared in the lab. Surveying the scene, Raven spotted Lilith's form and Matt's sneer of delight. She focused her anger and fired, catching Matthew in the face. He let out a blood-curdling howl of pain, clutching the right side of his face. Blood flowed out from between his fingers. He glanced up at Raven with a scornful look, then teleported from the scene.
Discarding her helmet, Raven ran to Lilith's side and crouched by her. "I'm taking you to a doctor," she said urgently.
Lilith opened her eyes, and looked up at Raven. "You know I won't survive. Worse than a cracked rib."
"Bullshit. They can fix just about anything," Raven said.
Lilith slowly shook her head. "Not enough time. I'm not finished here."
"What do you mean?" Raven asked.
"I've got to destroy the place," Lilith croaked out. "Stop them from ever starting again."
Raven couldn't believe her ears. "Are you insane?"
Once again, Lilith slowly shook her head. "I think I understand what happened in Sydney. My valued control didn't help my powers - it just restricted them." Raven nodded uncertainly. Lilith concentrated, and focused her remaining energy. The room seemed to ripple as motes of white light slowly floated into her hand.
"What are you doing?" Raven asked.
"I've got to destroy the building."
"You're nuts." Raven stated simply. "Besides, you're coming with me." She took Lilith's hand. "We're going to see a doctor."
"I wont even survive the trip. And I've made up my mind. I can't allow them to make more monsters like Matthew, or Ray... Or me," she quietly finished.
"Shut up. You're no monster," Raven reassured her
"I would have been, if not for you." A white field formed around Raven, lifting her away and holding her at bay.
"What the heck are you doing?" Raven shifted her thoughts, trying to interfere with Lilith's power, but felt an immense force coming from her. Could there be that much power lurking in her?
"I'm sorry, I can't let you stay. Goodbye..."
A whirling hurricane of light emerged from Lilith's hand, quickly engulfing the room. Caught on the edge, Raven was lifted, and sent through the structure of the building. A hastily erected force field and her heavy armor protected her to the apex of her impromptu flight, leaving her outside the tower, watching the vortex spring from below. Within seconds, it erupted to cover the whole building, tearing it to pieces from within, while containing the debris. Almost as soon as it had erupted, the vortex collapsed, sending the debris sprawling across the ground below. Raven could feel that her friend was no longer there.
Falcon had been spending her time waiting by playing games with trying to read the security radios from inside Ishiyama. They were encrypted and spread-spectrum, of course, which made getting the details impossible, but the sudden increase in radio activity when the roof exploded certainly gave her the impression of a hornet's nest boiling over. Which was probably not far off.
After what seemed like hours, Karin's beacon went off. Twice. Falcon cursed under her breath; that meant the alternate pickup point. Not that Falcon was all that surprised after the chaos she'd seen going in. Kicking the bike into gear quickly, she took off out of the alleyway she was in, and leaned into the turn as she headed around to the north side of the Ishiyama complex.
Karin was running towards the pickup point just as Falcon got there; Falcon popped open the faring so the other woman could climb on. Karin was obviously in considerable pain, holding one arm carefully; Falcon reached out to grab one of her hands and help lift her onto the 'back seat' of the bike.
Falcon snapped the bike's main faring back down. As Karin wrapped her one good arm around Falcon's chest, Falcon looked down at it. "You mind holding on to me a little lower down? That could get distracting."
Karin bit off a curse. "Just shut up and drive."
Falcon did so. The bike roared off at a good clip, making a few quick turns to find traffic to get lost in. Even for the 'city that never sleeps', though, traffic was pretty quiet this time of the night. Glaring at the rear-view display, Falcon said, "I take it you didn't ask for the high-powered assault?"
Karin growled. "No. Only good thing about it is that their security's gonna be too disorganized to really do anything."
"I wouldn't rely on that too much. We've got two cycles tailing us."
"What are you jawing for, then? Lose 'em!"
"Just figured you'd want to know why I was dodging. Hang on." Falcon leaned into a hard left turn, earning her a blare of horns from the car she cut off in the middle of the intersection.
Karin started using swear words Falcon wasn't familiar with, even after two years in the Zone. Falcon eventually interrupted her tirade. "Damn. They're wired."
"The two bikers tailing us. They've got wired reflexes." Falcon quickly leaned to one side again, pulling the bike out of the way as one of the tails started firing at her with a pistol. "My bike's better than theirs are," she continued, following a jagged course through the relatively light early-morning traffic, "but they've got better reaction times."
Karin kept cursing as each bump jarred her arm, and turned around to try and glare out the back at their pursuers. "You could at least have some way for me to shoot at them."
"Sorry, I don't have guns mounted on the bike. And if I pop the faring open so you can use your gun, that will let them fire in as well. Not to mention ruining the aerodynamics."
There was an audible 'ptang' as a bullet glanced off the side of the bike. "Yeah, bullet holes won't help the fancy aerodynamics either. So shake them!"
Falcon growled, and looked down at the map display. A slow smirk spread across her face as she recalled something she'd seen at a construction site earlier, and she turned down a side street, gunning the engine to pick up speed on the straight road where their reaction times wouldn't be as much of a factor. A few seconds later, she sped past the site, and smiled at what she saw there to work with. Slowing down for the turn, she muttered, "I hope this works."
"That's not what I want to hear!"
"Just hang on tightly."
Karin gritted her teeth as Falcon pulled a quick spin and headed over an already-broken section of wall into the construction site, dodging past some of the support structure that was waiting to be filled in. There was a 'thunk' from behind the bike as it passed a parked truck, and Karin looked back just in time to watch a line shoot out from behind the bike, hit the huge stack of rebar sitting on the truck, then snag one of the straps holding it all on.
The bike jerked sharply as the hook at the end of the line bit into the strap, wheels squealing as they lost traction on the ground. With a loud snap, the Falcon bike lurched forward, leaving a large pile of rebar behind it with nowhere to go but down... right on top of the other two bikes behind her. Wired reflexes or no, they weren't prepared for that; one got hit directly, and the other skidded into a support column while trying to avoid the fall.
Falcon made another set of quick turns to get out of their sight, then zipped back onto the main roads. "Well, that's those dealt with."
The signature rattle of a machine gun shocked both of them, especially as the road just in front of them seemed to explode in a thin wall. Falcon made a quick dodge towards where the bullets had come from to get out of the direction they were tracking in.
Managing to sound sardonic even through the pain, Karin said, "And people say _I_ tempt fate by commenting on jobs done."
Looking up, Falcon said, "Shit, a vectored-thrust gun platform. We've just been upgraded to threat. At least these things are slow; should be able to lose it."
Karin looked up through the translucent cover, noting another flash up higher than the gun platform. "Don't count on it. We've got a copter above us, too."
Falcon spared a quick look up to check on that, and bit back a curse.
Another burst of fire ripped out at the bike from the platform as it fell behind, this time a couple of shots audibly banging into the back of the bike. The sound of the wind rushing by got abruptly louder, signifying a puncture in the faring. Falcon snarled, and thumbed a control that resulted in a soft 'foomf' sound from the back of the bike, followed by a loud explosion barely a second later, which sent the flying platform tilting until it hit the road, skidding along into a couple of parked cars.
"What the hell was that?"
"Concussion grenade. Sure there's no gun on this, but you don't think I'd be completely unarmed, do you?"
"You're just full of surprises, aren't you?"
"Ack!!" Instead of replying, Falcon wheeled around quickly, pulling a sharp turn at the intersection that almost took them both into a street light. "I'm not the only one."
Karin heard a very large gun going off, and whipped her head around to peer out behind them, wincing as she twisted her shoulder. "Aw, hell, now we've got a pursuit mech after us."
"Damn." Falcon dodged another shot. "NYPD'd be less likely to shoot to kill. And those things have real armor. I've got grenades, not anti-tank shells."
"Think you can hit the copter up there with one of your grenades? That would at least let us lose them."
"He's too high. If he's got good cameras, he doesn't have to come anywhere near my range."
Behind them, the mech activated its flight pack and started flying after them; it was capable of keeping up, at least as long as Falcon had to worry about dodging bullets. Which were currently making holes in the road around them. "Ishiyama's going to have a P.R. nightmare with the amount of damage they're doing."
Karin said, "They weren't much worried about that before."
"Before they didn't have a mech with their markings on it making new potholes in the street. And I doubt spin control is the first thing on their mind with that much damage."
Another shot hit right beside the rear wheel, causing the bike to nearly jump to the other side. Karin growled out, "How you going to lose that guy?"
Falcon dodged again, trying to line things up for a grenade. "I can't do any real damage to him. I'd have to be really lucky to even stun the pilot. Best I can do is delay him enough to take a couple of turns out of sight."
"That's not going to help if the copter above us can keep watch."
"I know, I know! We need something to hide under. Something long enough that we can stay hidden from the air for a while. Too bad they never finished rebuilding the old elevated train lines." Falcon dodged again, grumbling, then finally decided now was the time. She flicked a switch, causing another soft 'foomf' noise of a grenade being launched.
Karin turned back to look. "What good is that going to..." She stopped as the grenade seemed to explode into a ball of fluff that engulfed one foot of the flying mech and also one of the street lights it had come too close to. The pilot performed a rather graceless face-plant as that foot stuck fast to the lamp post, and the jets spun the whole mech around the low pivot, slamming the arms and head into the pavement.
"High-grade epoxy foam." Falcon's voice held a definite smirk as she turned another corner, the mech disappearing from sight. "Won't hold him for long, but should be long enough." She spun the bike off into an alley with tall buildings on either side, headed down most of a block, then made a quick turn into a parking garage.
After going up a couple of levels, Falcon added, "And that should hide us from the copter, at least for a few minutes until they get someone into the garage to look for us."
"That won't take long."
"They can't have all _that_ much available to throw at us after the damage they took."
"Maybe, but they saw us driving away from the complex in a hurry; even if they can't be sure anything was taken yet, they'll be after us just in case. Not to mention that after that much damage, they're all jumpy. The first couple of bikes were just there to keep track of us long enough to get the copter in the air. They're going to hit us with everything they've got to make sure we can't hand anything off."
Falcon shook her head. "Thanks for cheering me up."
Karin just glared at Falcon. She was about to make a comment when Falcon held her hand up. "Footsteps. Loud ones. Probably the pursuit mech." Falcon rested her hand on her helmet as Karin started to hear the still-quiet thuds, then smirked. While it couldn't be seen under her helmet, it was obvious in her voice. "Same mech, too; it's got a bit of a limp from the foam still stuck to it."
Karin whispered, "Now what." Her inability to actually _do_ anything was getting to her, and the tension was obvious in her voice.
Falcon gunned the engine, bringing the mech around the turn faster, just in time for a grenade to bounce down in front of him. The mech ducked back against the wall just as the grenade went off, spewing smoke in a huge cloud around the mech.
Falcon quickly pulled the bike around, and dashed through the smoke cloud and around the corner at the end, passing almost right past the mech. With another quick spin, she pulled onto the garage's exit ramp, heading upward.
"What the Hell are you doing?!"
"I figure he heard us go past him, so he probably thinks we went back down. Buys us a minute or two while they check the exit."
Falcon coasted up the last part of the exit loop, keeping the engine quiet as she drove out onto the third parking level, adding "And we're still out of sight of the copter."
There was a burst of noise just to their side, and a second gun platform lifted straight up into their view, looking in over the garage's guard rail. After a split-second of surprise on both sides, Falcon yelled, "Shit!" and spun the bike around to face directly away from the platform. As she opened the throttle to move away, she also launched another grenade behind her.
The pilot of the platform, better prepared than his predecessor, slammed his own throttle forward, taking off straight up to get the best armor between him and the oncoming grenade. The armor was still shredded by the blast, this time from a fragmentation grenade. By the time he dropped back down to the parking level, all he could do was spray a few bullets off in the direction of the rapidly departing motorcycle.
Karin was still cursing a blue streak as they nearly went out of control pulling down the exit ramp at higher than its rated speed. The pursuit mech was just barely too late trying to block their path at the bottom as the bike tore past it, smashed the wooden barrier at the tollbooth, and sped back out onto the street.
"So much for THAT brilliant idea," Karin groused.
"It bought us time, didn't it?"
"Yeah, time for them to get more organized, too."
The pursuit mech quickly showed up behind them, and fired off another round of shots to keep them dodging. The few people out and about ran off at the sound of gunshots. A car that had been coming in the other direction got its tires shot out, and skidded across the road, just barely missing the bike. The mech just flew over the car and kept going.
"Can't you lose him?"
"On a straight run, sure. That thing can only hit about seventy, tops. But not if I have to worry about dodging cars and people, much less bullets."
Suddenly, another spray of bullets came from around a corner as the damaged gun platform peeked just enough past the building to get off a quick shot. One bullet managed to hit straight on, and punched through the armor of the bike, glancing off of Falcon's helmet and leaving a spiderweb of cracks on the surface. "Ow!"
Falcon slammed the bike into a hard right turn and flipped off another grenade. The pilot spun to present a side that still had some intact armor towards the blast. The grenade went off low, sending shrapnel up into the turbine blades that kept it aloft, dropping the platform onto the street with a crash. Falcon pulled the bike through another turn, getting off that street just before another series of shots slammed into the pavement behind her.
"I've been better, but I'll live. The bike's armor at least slowed it down."
They drove in silence for a short time until the Ishiyama pursuit mech came into view behind them again. Falcon groaned. "Did I piss off someone in a past life to deserve this?"
"You're asking me?"
The mech was a good distance back, but kept trying to pick off shots at them occasionally, causing Falcon to keep a weaving path to make herself difficult to target.
A loud bang heralded the appearance of a black-clothed figure a mere hundred feet in front of the speeding bike. Falcon gasped and slammed on the brakes, lowering the bike in an attempt to veer away from the sudden obstacle. The helmeted figure abruptly flew left, and bike and woman narrowly missed each other. Falcon regained control of the bike while Karin turned to look behind.
Raven cursed herself—she'd flubbed her timing but at least no harm was done. She turned again to the onrushing mecha, hands raise, lifting a kinetic barrier across the street just as the mecha was opening fire. Pavement tore apart, a fire hydrant was ripped from the street, hurling water in the air. The mecha's bullets struck the barrier scant moments before the mecha itself, unable to slow down in time, slammed into it. Metal shrieked for a second as the barrier strained against this massive projectile, then collapsed. Raven threw herself to the side as the mecha hit ground and slid down the road past her, drawing sparks.
Raven flew over to the fallen mecha and swooped down, her left hand formed into a claw that glowed with telekinetic force. Like talons, her fingers bit into the mecha's back armor, slowly drawing long gashes in the armor. A swinging metal arm rudely interrupted her, the impact throwing against a building across the street, three stories above the ground.
Raven flew off from the crater she'd created in the wall, shaking her head. Her shield and armor had taken the brunt of the impact but she was still shaken. She saw the mecha's machine gun come up to train on her. She let herself fall abruptly, the machine gun shredding the wall above her. Afraid that she couldn't keep from falling, she halted her fall before she hit the ground and hurled her Power in a thin, pointed bolt, ignoring the sharp twinge of pain that accompanied the sudden shift. The attack struck the mecha in the chest, deeply denting the armor there. Raven braced herself for more pain and moved, avoiding the mecha's predictable return fire.
She reappeared floating between the mecha's legs, and wasted no time in shooting another bolt, this time at the mecha's knee. Metal screamed as it twisted from the Power's onslaught, and the mecha toppled forward, catching itself on its arm to avoid falling. Raven teleported once again, this time above the mecha, and pointed her fists down. Her groan of effort belied the energy she put in her next attack. It hit the gashed armor in the Mecha's back, punching through. Smoke began to exude from the hole. The mecha struggled to regain its fists, but Raven attacked it again, another strong blast that tore through the mecha's internals. Automated failsafes ejected the crippled vehicle's fuel before it burst in a fiery explosion; Raven grinned, shielded her face from the light and heat, and teleported away before Ishiyama or NYPD could send any more pursuit.
By then Karin and Falcon were nowhere to be seen.
Watching the pieces of the pursuit mech dropping to the street, Falcon kicked the motorcycle into a higher gear; she didn't have to worry about dodging gunfire anymore, at least. A few quick turns got her out of sight of the fight behind her, and hopefully any pursuit. She moved into a short alley, then cut the engine and coasted to a halt.
"All right," Falcon said to Karin's questioning gaze, "I'm pretty sure we're no longer being followed."
"Only 'pretty sure'?"
"I can't be completely sure, but they lost their eye in the sky, and they can't see us here." She pointed up to an overhanging awning stretched between the two buildings that blocked off any view of the sky. "And I want to have a look at those ribs before we go any further."
"You were badly hurt before you got in here, and our eventful trip wouldn't have helped. You look like death warmed over."
Karin just glared at Falcon. "I'm fine."
"Look, I do have paramedic training. I'm not planning on doing anything major, just making sure you don't get any worse before we get where we're going."
"Fine..." As Falcon popped the faring, Karin gingerly climbed out, a hand held to one side, her other arm handing limply. Her face was terribly pale from the intense pain and it was a wonder that she hadn't passed out yet. One strange fact, Falcon noted as she stepped out and took out the small medical kit, was that she had a cyber deck stuffed behind the strap of her sports bra.
Falcon frowned as she got a good look at Karin for the first time that night. She popped open the small 'trunk' space in back, and pulled out a first aid kit. "Those ribs look bad; your breathing sounds good, so you don't have a punctured lung, at least." She opened up the kit, and pulled out a dermal patch. "Basic painkiller. Got any allergies I should know about?"
Karin simply shook her head.
Falcon placed the patch high on Karin's arm, then pulled a pair of splints out of the kit. "The arm, I can splint. The ribs are going to be harder to deal with." She ran her fingers carefully down Karin's arm, feeling it out as well as looking at it. "Good news, it's a fairly clean break. Even looks like it's set back in the right place already." She set the splints up on either side of the arm, then started wrapping a bandage around it.
A loud 'pop' heralded the arrival of the black-armored, helmeted figure who'd saved them both from the mecha. The telekinetic looked over at Karin's wounds and Falcon's handling of them. Apparently satisfied, she said, "Be quick about it, you shouldn't be staying here," she said, the voice barely recognizably Raven's under the helmet.
Karin frowned at the figure, her Kuan-Ti appearing in her hand, the laser appearing on the front of the helmet. "Just who the hell are you?"
Falcon frowned as well, not that it was obvious under the face of her helmet. There was something familiar about that voice, not that she knew many espers... "Karin, if she wanted to harm us, she could have done so already."
The PK folded her arms. One could imagine her raising an eyebrow at the pistol from under her helmet. "Or, I can let you deal with the next mecha they send after you. Maybe you'd like that, Ms. Nys."
Karin sighed and holstered her pistol. "What the hell are you doing here, Raven? I thought I told you not to get involved."
Raven sighed and rolled her eyes. "We can argue about how I would rather not be named right now and how you would be dead right now without me later. Right now, you need to make yourself scarce in a hurry."
"You know, I thought that voice sounded rather familiar," said Falcon. "Small world, isn't it? I didn't realize you two knew each other."
"You two know each... great... someone else to come over and argue with about how crazy I am," Karin grumbled.
"Sure, but later. I need to go back. You two get out of sight and lay low."
Falcon muttered under her breath about laying low being what she had been trying to do anyway.
Raven somehow heard the grumbling, and she nodded apologetically to Falcon.
"Fine... I'll see you back at the tower. Think you could drop me off near the S-T arch?" Karin asked Falcon.
Falcon nodded. "Sure." She reached down around the front of the bike, and started peeling back the plastic sheet that was covering it. "Just let me get the 'disguise' off here first; they've lost track of us now, might as well make it more difficult for them to find us again." The sheet peeled back without too much trouble, aside from the couple of spots in the back where bullets had crushed the sheet into the paint job.
Karin climbed in shortly after Falcon did, ignoring the pain in her ribs. She turned to give Raven one last comment, only to find that she had disappeared.
"She's gone... and we'd better do the same. Hang on tight..." With that, Falcon gunned the engine, and with a pace sedate only by comparison to the previous chase, set off down the road.
Karin staggered into the office, forcing herself to walk despite the pain of her injuries. The gel-lined smart cast around her ribs chafed uncomfortably, and every moment was a battle not to scratch the itch induced by the four different medi-patches stuck to her arm. She could have ended her discomfort by accepting a renewal of the fifth patch—a painkiller—but she needed her wits about her. It was time to talk to the man himself.
Sanato sat behind his desk, unblinking, as Karin made her way painfully inside. The office was oppressive; the air was stuffy and a tad too hot, and the lighting painfully artificial. The assassin recalled Raven mentioning this office had a window onto its owner's private garden, but it took Karin a moment to find it. Some mechanism had rendered it an opaque gray, a shade exactly matching the wall.
The young woman tried to push aside her discomfort and put on the bland corporate mask of impassivity. The configuration of the office had obviously been adjusted by the executive to make clear this would not be a pleasant meeting. At a gesture from Sanato, Karin made her way to one of the chairs in front of his desk. The Lynx who had accompanied her stepped up and stood behind the assassin, within arm's reach. The replicant was nominally there to offer medical aid, but it was obvious to the ex-corporate brat that this was not a low-end menial model. This was a full-fledged security replicant, and given her injuries and unarmed status, Karin was powerless against it.
Still... Karin couldn't help but smirk a little at the thought the Lynx implied. She? Dangerous? With a broken rib and arms?
Of course she was.
"I understand your business venture was not as successful as you had hoped," Sanato began without preamble.
Almost immediately Karin felt herself drop into corporate mode, the set of feelings and perceptions, or in this case lack of feelings, that she had long ago been trained to take under such circumstances. The world seemed to fall away, leaving only her and Sanato in the office.
"You understand correctly." Calm, clipped, her words carried no emotions and little warmth.
"I hope you understand that your actions have had widespread ramifications," Sanato observed.
That was an understatement. Ishiyama was under assault on a global scale, its unprotected assets being seized on little or no pretext by anyone who could claim to be its creditor. Ishiyama's personnel were evacuating Neo York under the thin protection of its corporate military, and rumors of kidnappings and assaults on major players spread like wildfire. Elsewhere, Ishiyama's arcologies were on full alert, restricting travel and literally barricading the entrances. And with its corporate security forces so heavily overburdened, its computer networks were overloaded with hackers unconcerned tantalized by the smell of weakness and unconcerned by the possibility of discovery. Ishiyama would probably survive, but the disappearance of its unlimited esper potential had clearly altered its role in the corporate world.
"The situation may have been inevitable," Karin pointed out.
"Perhaps." The executive used the corporate dialect very effectively. Almost without inflection, he managed in that one word to both doubt the accuracy of Karin's statement, and dismiss the entire situation as irrelevant. He continued, "I am curious to know your intentions from here."
Karin parsed her words carefully, wondering just what she'd have to do to keep her freedom this time. "I had not planned past my recuperation." She shrugged, an unconventional gesture in the context of such a meeting, but her face retained its carefully bland set.
The executive nodded, as if Karin had said something significant. "Of course, it is difficult for someone in your position to make long term plans," he observed. "Given your outstanding concerns."
An oblique reference to her father, and the price on her head. Now Sanato seemed to be getting to the point. "Do you intend to involve yourself in those concerns?" asked the assassin, wondering if the man behind the desk was pushing toward blackmail.
"No, I don't believe that would be productive," answered Sanato. "Though I do have a certain amount of influence in such affairs. I might be able to help you extricate yourself from the situation."
"An intriguing suggestion..." Inwardly though, Karin knew what he wanted and what her answer would be. However, she decided it would be best to play along, to hear him out, knowing full well that to outright refuse his offer would be considered rude in the field of corporate politics and would place her in a more precarious position then before. "What do you propose?"
Sanato settled back into his chair. "You have befriended an acquaintance of mine," he observed. "I have no desire to intervene in her affairs, but I think if you consider the situation objectively, you will realize the risks any close companion of yours assumes. I believe it would be in everyone's best interests if you could distance yourself from her. I am certain this would insure your safety as well as hers."
It hardly took a shred of the training she possessed to see the disguised threat in his words, a threat that Karin knew was coming. After all, her time in Neo York thus far had not been without its share of troubles, most of them explosively violent and quite noticeable. "Indeed it would. As you no doubt know, we both have... acquaintances who have proven themselves to be quite dangerous to our lives. However, what do you suggest to distance us both?"
The executive seemed to ponder the question as if it were genuinely novel. "Of course, I have always believed one should not mix business and pleasure. A business venture embarked upon by two friends is not often seen with the same clarity as one constructed by less familiar individuals. Likewise, a friendship is most stable when it is not colored to the vagaries of commerce. In my own affairs, I always endeavor to keep a clear line demarking my public and private affairs, and it is a practice I would recommend to all those around me."
"Of course," he continued, "In this case, the nature of your work—and our friend's—demands an extra level of care. I think you will agree that it is difficult for both of you to simply leave your public affairs at the office. While occasional visits between friends hardly constitute a threat to either party, I believe that a routine mixing of each other's personal affairs might spark undesirable interest among your respective adversaries." He steepled his fingers meditatively. "I respect your abilities, Ms. Nys, and bear you no ill will. Should you take those steps necessary to insure your affairs never place our mutual friend at risk, I would respect that gesture. And I would take steps to make your own situation far more comfortable."
"You are a generous man, Mr. Sanato," Karin observed. She allowed a hint of suspicion to enter her eyes, knowing he would see it, and continued, "I am impressed that you would do so much for someone you hardly know."
She wanted the other shoe to drop, and find out the true price for the offer, but the executive surprised her. "I am doing it for our mutual friend, in whose well-being I have a vital interest," he replied. "All that is required from you is to show your concern for her safety by distancing yourself from her in ways which promote it."
Simple and straightforward, a definite surprise, but one she would have to work with nonetheless. Karin knew she had value, her successful penetration into Ishiyama had proven that, but unlike her father, who wanted her back, Sanato would have no qualms about killing her to protect her from Raven. However, there was the danger he wanted something beyond the immediately obvious, and Karin wanted to make sure he had been forthcoming.
"Your concern is touching," Karin began. "And I am not averse to respecting your wishes. But I have to wonder whether you expect our relationship to become more complicated in the future?"
"By no means," the executive replied. "I see this arrangement as a very stable one."
Karin considered the deal. It made sense for Sanato, certainly—her involvement really was a risk for Raven, and really could embarrass Shiroko-Tsuhi if people began to wonder at the connection between herself and the corporation. And Karin had no way of knowing how much it would cost the executive to eliminate the bounty; if Shiroko-Tsuhi were in some form of partnership with her father's firm, the whole affair could be swept under the rug as a good-will gesture.
Inwardly she sighed, her control showing no outward signs of it. From this man the deal was as good as she was going to get, and quite fortunate despite all circumstances to the contrary. After all, there was a number of other options that Sanato could take now, none of them beneficial to her in either the short OR long term.
Besides which, it wasn't HER idea to involve Raven. That had been the dark haired esper's decision.
"You are a very insightful man, Mr. Sanato," Karin informed him. "I believe I will benefit from your advice."
"I am pleased to be of service, of course," the executive responded. "I hope your recovery is swift and full."
"Thank you, Sanato-san," the assassin replied, rising to leave. She hobbled painfully to the door, the nameless Lynx still courteously dogging her heels. She was stopped by a question from the executive.
"Ms. Nys," he began. "Of course you have my condolences on the failure of your recent venture. But, if it is not too direct a question, what motivated you to undertake it?"
Karin was silent for a few seconds before she replied. After all, she could see no harm in telling now. "I did it because a balance had to be struck, and I was the only one capable of achieving it. Had not other parties intervened, you would have been privy to the secrets of synthetic espers right about now."
The executive's face remained entirely unreadable. He simply nodded in reply, waiting for the assassin to leave.
When she finally reached her apartment, Raven's heart was heavy, but her eyes were dry. Her crying was over; she'd done it sitting on that deserted beach Shion had shown her in Australia, watching the waves crash on the surf under the slowly rising sun. Raven and death were old acquaintances; the Grim Reaper was the only resident of the Zero Zone that consistently made a brisk business. Lilith wasn't the first of Raven's all-too-rare friends she'd lost, and the young PK feared she'd not be the last.
At least, Raven mused, Lilith had made her death count for something she wanted—taking down the entire Ishiyama complex with her, keeping anyone else from enduring the torture she had. But Raven couldn't help but feel that it hadn't been necessary, that Lilith's life could have been saved... had she wanted to be saved...
Shaking her head, Raven pressed her thumb to the door lock, and it obediently clicked open. She still felt like being alone. If she was very lucky, Karin wouldn't be back yet, and Adam wouldn't have returned from his medical appointment yet. If she was merely lucky, he wouldn't wonder where she'd been. Not that it mattered; Sanato had learned about her plans with Ishiyama, probably from Shion, who'd then convinced him to hire her to retrieve her. A great chance for the Empress to make some money while wiping out replicant competition, no doubt.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside. Adam and Karin were nowhere to be seen; his appointment must be taking longer than expected, and she must be laying low. At least it gave their host time to change. She'd ditched most of her equipment in the Zero Zone, but her T-Shirt and sweat pants were dirty and filled with sand. She sighed, closed the door behind her, and headed towards her room.
Something on the coffee table caught her eye; a note of some sort, held down by one of her smaller statuettes, next to a standard computer datadisc. Raven lifted the bronze raven and slid the note out. She recognized Karin's writing, so the young spy had managed to get back to her place, but left again. She quickly scanned the note.
No doubt by the time you've read this, I'll be long gone. Despite what you think, I'm not mad at you for coming to rescue me, no matter how dumb that particular move was. Heck, that only made me realize just how damned much you care about me, which is allot more then some other people I could name. No, I'm leaving because frankly it's getting too dangerous for me to even stay with you. Ishiyama will no doubt survive and once they have their bearings intact, they'll be gunning after me. One corp after my ass is fine, since the NFC doesn't have the balls to actually risk an inter-corporate war, but not Ishiyama. Soon as they find out I'm staying with you, they'll try something and frankly, PK or not, I'm not going to risk you getting involved and hurt.
So don't worry about me, okay? I'll be staying in the Zone, keeping myself out sight and out of mind. In the mean time, check out the little present I left for you. It's a memento of my raid into Ishiyama and if there's anyone I can trust it with, it's you.
You gave me allot in the short while I stayed with you, I just hope there comes a point in time when I can return it with interest.
Raven stared at the letter for a few moments, unsure what to think, before stuffing it in her pocket. Karin was so damned protective, acting as if she somehow was better able to watch after Raven than Raven herself, as if the teek was some child who was unaware of the dangers of the world around her—and let's not mention who took down that mecha outside of Ishiyama, and who was running from it.
Nonetheless, she guessed it was a good thing that Karin had decided to lay low and leave her apartment; she knew Sanato wasn't going to let her stay around even without today's fiasco. She hoped she had a good place to stay in the Zone, though—that bounty was still extant, and if she wasn't careful her landlord or one of her neighbors would try to collect for sure.
This left the 'memento' from Karin's operation. Raven frowned and picked it up, wondering what it could be. Raven remembered that Karin's target on the mission was...
"Oh frag. She wouldn't." She hoped that Karin wouldn't leave valuable data like Ishiyama's PK replicant program just lying around, especially in a corporate arcology, where Adam might get it. Frag, she hoped nobody had made a copy and placed the disc back to mislead her... No use worrying about that. She needed to check what was on the disc; Adam would just have to worry. Holding it close, she ran to her room and quickly changed into a pair of tight jeans and a clean turtleneck.
Thirty seconds later she was back in Australia.
From out of one of the rooms stepped Karin, a relieved yet weary look on her face. She walked towards the front door and paused only long enough to give the apartment one last look over.
Then, after adjusting a blue baseball cap to her head, she walked out...
"Oh, frag... frag, frag, frag..."
Sitting at a table in an Australian mall's food court, as far away from anyone else as she could manage, Raven was reading Karin's disk off a brand-new pocket computer, a cheap one that didn't even have 'Net hookup; she'd had to dig low in the low-end to find that, but she was being really paranoid, and felt safer with a reader she could chuck and wouldn't squeal on her no matter what she did.
Chuck the whole thing, with the disk in it, was what she was tempted to do right now; she'd MUCH rather this kind of data didn't find its way into anyone's hands. But it was Karin who'd given it to her and asked her to keep it safe (and considering the text of the message, Raven figured it was her only copy), and besides, should someone else come up with PK replicants, it might become necessary to sprinkle knowledge around to even out the odds... But she needed to make sure this wasn't discovered in the meantime.
She needed to safeguard the thing then. But how? She thought about it for several minutes and remembered something she'd read in an old cyberpunk novel. Something about a really simple, but uncrackable encryption system... No, she remembered now. All computer data was expressed as a series of bytes. If a random number was added to each byte, rolling over if the result was over the maximum... Or something like that, anyway... You'd end up with two files full of gobbledygook, that were worthless on their own but could easily be combined to retrieve the original data.
Raven shut down the computer, stuffed it in her pocket, and went to a bookstore. In nervous haste she went for the computer section, frantically thumbing through the tables of contents of every encryption book she could find... There! "XOR separation of files," she remembered that term from that novel. It even had a demonstration program on CD, with source code. She hoped it had no bugs, but she couldn't think of anything better right now and the two programs, for encoding and decoding, seemed really short, twenty lines each. There wasn't too much room for error in that.
Raven bought the book, earning an odd look from the cashier, and dashed back to the food court. She loaded up the program and ran it through the data, then used the decoding program to merge the two files together and used the built-in compare command to make sure it matched the original. Then she realized she had nothing to save the two output files on and quickly rushed back to the bookstore. It'd carried datadiscs...
"Is something wrong, miss?" said the cashier as she tossed the datadiscs onto the counter. He was a young man about Raven's age, tallish and thin, with shaggy brown hair and rather nondescript except for his heavy Australian accent—which, Raven figured, wasn't exactly a big distinctive trait in Australia.
She took a moment to control her breathing. "No, nothing's wrong..."
The cashier seemed to hesitate, slowly rang the sale, then said, "You know, if you need help..."
Raven had to stop herself from laughing out loud. "Trust me, there's nothing you can do."
"Well if you change your mind, I'll be here, and my shift ends in an hour," said the cashier.
"I'll keep it in mind," Raven said, picking up her discs and leaving more calmly, so as to not worry the guy any more. He seemed to be pretty decent, even if he was mostly interested in flirting, but she really didn't have time to get distracted by anything.
Somehow, though, the clerk's concern had managed to calm Raven's frayed nerves and helped her approach the problem less frantically. After all, she now had two data discs each containing part of Karin's data; the trick was now to make sure they stayed apart until she wanted them to be together. Now where to store them...
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