DRY RUN

By Logan Darklighter And Mathieu Roy

Note: This story takes place after "Trust" and before "Shiroko-Tsuhi Event"

Raven shifted on the seat, unused to the weight of the black clamshell suit. It looked menacing in a cool sort of way, and it was probably excellent protection, but it still creeped her out a bit. She'd been ordered to put it on before the security team had escorted her and Lora out of the apartment, through the elevator and into a garage where a black windowless van waited. Now she sat in the back section along with the cyborg, the four security guards, and an official-looking man whose military training belied his crisp business suit. She was pretty sure the van had left the arcology and was going somewhere in the city, but with no windows in the van's armor-plated walls and barely a whisper of sound coming through, she had no idea where she was going. She could just imagine the big, black van she was being shunted off, escorted by a couple big, black cars, driving through the streets of Neo York towards some unknown destination. Just like precious cargo.

"So, Lora... Know where we're going?" Getting uneasier by the minute, Raven resolved to take her mind off the trip by chatting with her friend.

"Training session," Lora said. She wore her own version of combat gear - combat boots over a neck to toe set of flexible combat armor. Over this was a webbing holding various bits of gear, like extra ammo clips and holsters. Over this she wore a heavy armored jacket with lots of pockets. She had been putting together a monstrous looking pistol whose parts she'd been extracting from a carrying case. She checked each piece as it was fitted, then double checked the action before loading the clip and flicking the safety on. "I just got the quick briefing at the beginning of the shift as I came on. I'm supposed to be training with you as well. Could be a teamwork exercise." She laid the large pistol to the side and started drawing more parts out of the case for what looked to be an even larger gun, this one a revolver by the looks of it.

"Okay," said Raven, rubbing her gloved hands over her armored thighs nervously. She looked around the van again. None of the security guards seemed to be paying her any attention as they talked among themselves, and the man in the suit was examining something on his datapad, ignoring her completely. Well, it's my first time out of the arcology since Araki took over, she realized ruefully. Stuck in a dark van with no idea where I'm going. It's not exactly what I had in mind for my first outing. Not that I was going to have much of a choice in the matter. She sighed. It's not like I've got any say on how my life is run. She looked to Lora. "So whereabouts are they taking us?"

"Some converted warehouse over in Jersey." Lora replied as she loaded three bullets into the huge break action revolver, "I don't know where it is exactly." She closed the revolver with a snap of her wrist and spun the cartridge once before putting the safety on.

Just what I need—Lora being all business. She's not one of those security guards, dammit, she's my friend. Raven sighed again. "Is something wrong?" she gently asked Lora.

"Huh? No. Nothing at all, why do you ask?" Lora said, a bit puzzled, looking directly at Raven for the first time since they had boarded the van, her eyes and voice took on more overt life.

"Well, it's just that you were being a bit... standoffish, I guess," Raven said uncertainly.

"I was?" Lora thought a moment. "Maybe I was." Then a smile tugged at a corner of her mouth, and she lowered her voice. "Sorry about that. Habit I've developed around unfamiliar fellow employees and middle management types." She motioned with a hand unobtrusively towards the other occupants of the van. "It's my 'Professional' persona. Didn't mean to direct it at you."

Raven frowned. "Better not try to tell me any secrets, unless you want to share them with your boss and the rest of the department," she said sadly, tapping her management collar. Then, again in a lower voice so that the people in the van, at least, couldn't hear, "But I understand what you mean. Sounds like a good way to keep your sanity." She noted the suited man had looked up briefly to look at them when Lora had lowered her voice, but now he was back to indifferently reading his datapad.

The cyborg girl shrugged, "Like they don't do the same thing? I'm not saying anything they don't already know. Everyone has a 'company face' they put on. Don't worry about it."

Lora took up both guns off the bench next to her, holstered them in the web under her jacket and leaned back against the wall of the van looking up at the ceiling, her eyes seeming to focus on nothing. After a moment, she said, "Worry about the things you can do something about. And let the rest take care of itself until you can do something about it."

"That's sound advice," Raven concurred lightly, belying the depth of her understanding of Lora's words. Her bland expression conveyed none of the appreciation she felt for her friend's moral support in her predicament. "I'll be sure to heed it."

"As little advice as I have to give anybody, it'd be a shame to waste any of it!" Lora said with an ironic grin.

Then the van slowed down and made a sharp turn to the right. It continued on for a few more moments at low speed, then stopped.

"I think we're there," Lora said.

"Yes, we are." The suit shut down his datapad and opened the back doors of the van.

Stepping outside with their escort of security guards, Lora and Raven saw that they were inside an enormous, refurbished warehouse. A huge roll-up vehicle access door was just clattering closed behind the van. The entrance looked wide and tall enough to admit three 18-wheel trailers in at once with room to spare. Inside the warehouse, the top of the open space was about three stories overhead. There were a few modular office structures against the outside walls to their left and right next to the huge vehicle doors. In front of them, there was a huge armored wall with a thick one-way mirror, through which they could see the rest of the warehouse floor. Most of the view on this level though was blocked by what looked like a maze of partitions.

Raven, Lora and the rest of the security guards followed the suit up a flight of metal stairs to a second level of the modular offices. They filed though a short passageway into a meeting room with several chairs, tables and a coffee machine. One entire wall matched up with another bulletproof window in the armored barrier beyond. This gave a better view of the warehouse floor and partitions. The pattern to the partitions was definitely maze-like, but not incomprehensible. In some places there were wide "avenues" and in others it got crowded into tight little "alleyways". Several solid blocks existed. As well as a few places where there were secondary levels connected with the floor and each other with stairways, ramps and catwalks.

Another door at the other end of the meeting room opened and a trio of lab-coated technicians came to meet the new arrivals.

"Okay, we're just about ready to begin," the suited officer announced. "This is going to be a live-fire combat exercise for the esper and her cyborg minder. One round in ten is going to be live, and it's going to be a low-velocity round that's unable to cause serious injury - the rest will be paint tracers. The two of you should be able to withstand any such hits." He looked at Lora and Raven as he continued. "The first few exercises will have a simple objective—travel from one end of the training area to the other. Opposition will be composed of remote-controlled and autonomous cyberdroids, no gun emplacements yet. The first run will be Ms. Doubet alone. The second run will be for Ms. Clark only, and the third one will be joint. This will give the technicians some data from where they can devise further exercises for the day. Any questions?"

Lora said, "Any time limitations?"

"No, but you will be scored on how fast you can go through the other side. Ah, and there are checkpoints to go through along the way, in case Ms. Clark decides to try being clever and just fly or teleport from one end to the other."

"Can we knock down walls to go through them or otherwise damage the scenery?" Raven asked.

"Yes, but many of the walls are reinforced armor plate, and will be difficult to go through."

"As long as we're not going to get into trouble for doing damage." Lora said.

"That's why we're out here, instead of back in the arcology." The man replied. "There's nothing in this warehouse that we're afraid of getting broken. Go ahead and cut loose if you like. Just so long as the walls are still standing when we're done."

A ghost of a smile touched Lora's face, "Cool."

Raven, for her part, gave a wolfish half-smile... she had a lot of frustrations to vent. It would be good to have a chance to do so.

"Excuse me, Miss Doubet," one of the technicians chimed in, "but that reminds me... Would you be willing to try out a new piece of equipment while you're running your tests?"

Lora said, "Well, that depends, I guess. What've you got?"

The man reached over to the table beside him, picked a gun off of it and handed it to her. "This is the Seburo Avenger .50, a new prototype. This is one of ten sent out for testing."

Lora looked it over. It was a nice piece, if a little curious looking. It was comparable in size to her Desert Eagle .50 and looked like it was chambered for the same size round, but that's where the similarity ended. Beneath the barrel and slide, the frame of the gun had a structure that almost resembled an I-beam with deep grooves from the front end back to the trigger guard. A wide disc mounted above the handle rested snug alongside the slide on the left side of the weapon. She checked the clip and confirmed it was holding .50 caliber rounds. Nine rounds, just like the DE. She saw that it also had a smartgun adapter.

"So what's so special about it?" Lora asked.

"It's designed with an integral magnetic accelerator system that boosts the speed of the bullet as it's fired. You still use normal ammunition, but with the accelerator on, it effectively becomes a high velocity round without affecting recoil. That disc on the side is a high density capacitor. There's enough power stored in it for nine shots, or one full clip. After that's used up, you can still use it like a normal gun if you don't have spare capacitors handy."

"That sounds pretty good, but how durable is this thing?" Lora looked dubious, "Will it work if I drop it or bang it around?"

"That's why we'd like you to try it. It's held up pretty well under lab conditions, but we'd like to give it a field test."

Lora hefted the gun. It seemed solid enough. "I guess I can try it."

"Great. Thanks for your cooperation."

"Very well then, Ms. Doubet," the suit pointed to the wall opposite the observation windows with a remote control. A large flatscreen deployed from the ceiling and a map showing the test area was displayed. Four highlights appeared in various areas indicated by green triangles. "These are the four checkpoints you need to hit on your way across the testing area. This is what they look like," he said. Another picture superimposed itself over the map, showing a sturdy looking steel pylon painted in green, with a push button glowing red on the top.

"All you have to do is push down on the button and it will register as cleared." An animation showed the button changing to green. "You don't have to hit them in any particular order, but you must clear them all before reaching the end zone." Another picture came up, showing a part of the testing maze bordered in alternating yellow and black, then the picture changed back to show the testing maze again, in simplified 3-D with the starting point, end zone, and checkpoints superimposed and highlighted.

He turned around and said, "Is all of this clear?"

Lora nodded, "Crystal."

"Good." He handed her a data plug, "Load this into your system, it's a real time map that'll help you keep track of where you are in the testing area. Head down to the starting point and get ready to begin the exercise. Ms. Clark, you will remain here and observe her tactics, you two will be paired up soon."

Down on the ground level, a guard showed her the entrance, and Lora stepped through into the maze. There was a 10-foot square area around the door delineated by an alternating yellow and black hazard stripe. Beyond, the barriers and small buildings of the testing area stretched out to the far wall off in the distance. The heavy door closed behind her with a hydraulic hiss-thump. She checked her equipment one more time and cinched her holster web a little tighter. Then she drew her new gun and smart linked to it. Pointing it around and checking the targeting reticule in her line of sight. It checked out okay.

She activated her comm system with a thought, /Okay. I'm ready to start./

/You may begin at any time. The test becomes active when you leave the starting block./

Alright. No need to be nervous, it's just a testing exercise. Just don't screw up, she thought. /Alright. I'm starting now./

Activating the HUD in her cybernetic vision she checked the map. The closest checkpoint was to her right and ahead about 54 yards away. She decided on a route and dismissed the HUD, then stepped out of the starting block and into a small "alleyway".

Surrounded by a watchful squad of security guards, Raven peered down at Lora through the one-way mirror. As the cyborg entered the maze, Raven saw its defenses come to life under the command of the technicians in the lab coats. Most immediately threatening to Lora was a trio of short, squat manlike robots, gunmetal gray, which turned a corner and advanced in a wedge formation. They lifted their 'arms' to bring to bear the small-caliber weapons that replaced their right hands; their left arms ended with mace-like metal balls. They bore down quickly on Lora's position, bringing up their gun arms to fire.

Lora darted forward and dodged to her right as the guns chattered, the rounds hitting the wall behind her. The occasional bullet hole punctuated the paint marks. Spreading out, the three cyberdroids kept their guns trained, stopping their advance now that they were in range.

She continued her run next to the wall toward the drone at the end of the line in a blindingly fast movement, paint pellets splattering in her wake. Taking one last leaping step she planted her boot against the wall itself and vaulted herself up and over in a cart wheeling flip over and behind the bot, coming down with her feet planted wide. Her gun was trained on the lightly armored junction between the robot's "head" and torso. The shot punched through and shredded sensitive electronics.

Deprived of its sensory apparatus, the cyberdroid shut itself down as a safety measure. Undaunted by the loss of their comrade, the other two cyberdroids turned to face her, their still-firing guns sending a few stray bullets to ricochet off the immobile unit, and charged in, guns blazing and preparing their mace-like weapons.

For a moment, the hulk of the cyberdroid in front of her protected Lora, but then the other two changed positions and a couple rounds whizzed by her head and plucked at her jacket sleeve.

"Shit!" She exclaimed and launched herself high in the air, somersaulting over the robots' heads and landing next to a barrier that was between her and the two drones. The robots spun, trying to track her, but finding their target out of their line of sight, paused to reassess the situation.

Lora wasn't going to wait for them, her HUD flickered with her current position in regards to the first checkpoint. She bolted off in that direction turning left, right, straight through an intersection...

From her right, another droid swooped into the corridor. This one was a heavily armored, knee-high, tracked cyberdroid with a large-caliber gun in a turret. It turned to pursue her. Lora detoured as the gun tracked her, firing every second. As she ducked behind a corner, a round went through the long streaming banner of her hair. The turreted bot motored forward around the corner, it's optics scanning for it's target, and not immediately finding it.

Then a bullet punched down through the top of the turret. The impact drove the bot down on it's treads as the shot went straight through the turret, and down into the body of the robot, where it hit the main CPU. Now it was just so much inert junk.

Lora released her grip on the upper edge of the armored barrier she had been hanging from. Her first thought had been to bring out her Earthshaker, but that would've been awkward with one hand and she hadn't had the time. Then she had remembered the accelerator on the Avenger and flipped it on before firing. Landing next to the inert bot, she looked admiringly at the gun in her hand, saying, "I like it!"


From the observation deck Raven watched quietly, silently cheering Lora on. So far she doesn't seem to be having a lot of trouble, she thought, but I bet those techs have more stuff up their sleeves.


Lora heard the metallic tread of the two entrance droids pursuing her. From somewhere on her right, another droid was walking, much slower—but much, much heavier. She checked her HUD as she turned back around the corner and made her way toward her goal. There were walls around three sides, making a sort of courtyard for the checkpoint and from where she was now she would have to make a couple of turns past it to get to the entrance. She flipped her vision into thermographic mode as she passed by one barrier section that bordered the area. Sure enough, there was a very large heat source in there and it was moving around right next to the checkpoint. "Well, this just gets better and better..." Lora muttered to herself.

As she jogged down the passageway, she ran through her options and thought about how to take on whatever was guarding the checkpoint. She also might have to worry about the two bots she hadn't already taken out behind her. And this is only the first checkpoint, she thought to herself. Well, it's supposed to be a challenge, after all.

Then the floor went out from under her.

"CRAP!"

Lora didn't fall far, comparatively speaking, only 3 meters or so, but she hadn't been expecting it and she landed hard and tumbled, coming to rest against the far wall of the drop pit.

"Somebody's being a real wise ass about this!" She grumbled.

She got to her feet, then muttered, "The hell with it..." Looking up, she checked her map, then checked the distance from the bottom of the pit to the top of the partitions. Then she crouched down all the way and sprung upward in a leap no one but a full-body cyborg could have accomplished. Flying up out of the pit and completely over the wall around the checkpoint courtyard.

As she cleared the wall, Lora could see what was beyond, and had a split second to think to herself, Oh bloody hell...

Staring up at her as she sailed over the wall was the blank, hammerhead visage of a BU-12B Combat cyberdroid - a battlefield anti-infantry weapon. It didn't matter that it's weaponry was replaced with mostly paint ammo. It was still scary to think of going against it.

Twisting in mid-air, Lora came down facing the machine, the floor beneath her feet cracking ever so slightly. She immediately threw herself to the side as the autocannon along the side of the droid's right arm opened up. She managed to avoid most of the burst, but a paint round and a live bullet caught her in the left shoulder and upper arm. The one she hardly noticed, but the other got her attention as pain spiked for a moment. It was a low velocity round, as the man had said, but it still hurt. She managed to get off a shot of her own that did little more than nick the paint off of the top of the robot's head as it deflected off the angled surface. Swearing, she drew her Earthshaker, flipped the selector on the Avenger to HV mode and got off a shot with each gun before having to move to avoid another burst from the bot's autocannon. Paint splatters bloomed on the walls behind her as she ran, but nothing touched her this time. Her bullets, meanwhile, had merely bounced off the heavily armored torso of the battledroid. Meanwhile, the bot was doing an excellent job of keeping itself between her and the checkpoint pylon.

Lora realized the idea of actually doing enough damage to the bot to take it down with her pistols was almost laughable. She'd have to somehow get a shot into the head or a joint or some other chink in the armor, and it wasn't going to just let her do that. And even if she got lucky, it was tough and had enough system redundancy to keep going. She could tell she actually had the edge in speed and agility and might even have the raw strength to take on the machine in close combat. But it was an armored monster, tough to damage, and there just wasn't enough time before reinforcements arrived.

Then she remembered, Wait a minute, my goal is the checkpoint, not the bot! I don't have to destroy it to win, I just have to get rid of it!

She holstered her guns and as the autocannon opened up again, leaped into the air toward the bot, tucking and rolling in midair. As she came down she uncoiled into a downward stomping kick, both feet held together, right in the bot's "face", actually staggering it back a couple of steps as she rebounded in a somersault and came down right in front of it.

As the cyberdroid tried to recover its balance, Lora ducked under the massive vambrace that made up the right arm weapons pod and found handholds on its back and under its legs. Heaving it up off its feet and above her head, it took everything she had to keep the struggling bot from overbalancing her and toppling them both over. With a yell of determination, Lora strained her artificial muscles to the limit and launched the battledroid over the wall and out into the maze, where she heard it crash down a few moments later. Dusting off her hands, she walked calmly over to the checkpoint pylon and slapped the button on top of it down with a satisfying *click*.

One simply must pay attention to one's priorities, Lora thought. Then she left the little courtyard after checking her HUD to see what direction she should go next.


"Good show, Lora!" Raven cheered. Grinning, She took careful note of the 'toss-them-away' maneuver and filed it for future use.

And so it went. Raven watched as Lora continued through the maze. It was obvious that she always kept the goal of the exercise in mind and never allowed herself to get distracted by firefights. She destroyed or disabled cyberdroids and drones as needed and bypassed concentrations of firepower altogether if possible. She picked up a few more paint rounds and at least two live shots along the way, but the monitors of the exercise ruled that none of the hits would have incapacitated her.

From the sidelines Raven watched and quietly encouraging Lora on as her progress was displayed on the overhead monitors. She cheered loudly when she made short work of a heavily armed, quick combat cyberdroid by leaping across a hallway and landing squarely on top of it, crushing it with velocity and the weight of her artificial body. She's really good at this, Raven realized. She's fighting smart and using all her abilities to full advantage. Even things that might appear to be limitations. She's so well adapted. She took careful note of what the technicians were throwing at Lora and how the cyborg dealt with them, feeling that knowledge might prove useful very soon.


Lora had to admit she was actually feeling pretty satisfied with her performance and perhaps... okay... I'll admit it, this is actually fun! Seven and a half minutes into the test and the final checkpoint was just up ahead. She still had a full clip and most of another for her automatic. She still had three rounds ready in chamber of the Earthshaker and a speedloader ready for it. She had a few bullet holes in her jacket and some paint spatters on her, but she was still ruled "undamaged" by the technicians running the show. Not bad, not bad at all, she thought. Just this last checkpoint and then I get to clean up and watch Raven.

She sprinted across a second level catwalk and jumped to the ground level of the maze while shooting a small airborne drone out of the air with her Seburo. Hitting the ground running, she wound her way through the last turns of the course and skidding to a halt at the entrance to the last checkpoint area at the edge of the maze...

...and ducked quickly out of the way as a hail of gunfire tore through the space where she had been standing.

Lora looked at the wall opposite her position by the entrance. It was riddled with bullet holes, with not a paint splotch to be seen.

"Merde..." She paused for a moment, then risked another quick peek around the edge of the partition. Standing there in the large open space beyond the sea of partition walls was a heavy combat cyberdroid, the largest she'd ever seen. It must have stood at least 9 feet tall if not taller, its autocannon pointing in Lora's general direction. The still spinning barrels immediately swung into line and Lora retreated behind the wall and back a couple of feet just as the chainsaw rip of the gun chewed a bite out of the wall.

"Oh... you have GOT to be kidding me..." she muttered. Activating her commlink, she called the training supervisor.

/Excuse me, but just what is going on here!? I thought there were only going to be a few live rounds in this test? That thing damn sure isn't shooting paint rounds!!/

Lora could swear she heard a note of amusement in the voice on the other end. /We gave you incomplete information, Miss Doubet. Part of the nature of the test is to assess adaptability to changing circumstances.../

Lora snarled aloud, "C'est dur de croire que tu aies battu un million d'autres spermatozoides."

/Excuse me? What did you just say?/

/Oh, I just said you're one in a million./

All I have to do is hit the checkpoint. She thought to herself. That's all. Once I do that, the test is over. I don't have to take that thing on head to head. Just get in and out, quick! Right!

Turning and vaulting over the wall, she was in motion as soon as her feet touched the ground. The bot brought its forearm gun to bear on her.

Autocannon rounds filled the air where Lora had been a split second before, then stitched a ragged line across the partition as the bot tried to track the incredibly fast cyborg. She ran around to her right and continued past the hulking monstrosity as it turned ponderously to track her and bring her back in line for a targeting solution.

Checkpoint... Just hit the checkpoint...

Um...

Where was the checkpoint pylon?!

She looked around and didn't see anything that looked like it. The combat droid swung its weapon toward her and she ducked and rolled between its legs, coming up on her feet and backpedaling back toward the entrance and around the corner back into the maze.

/HEY!/ Lora yelled over her Commlink, /Where the hell is the checkpoint? It's supposed to be there but I don't see it!/

/...the checkpoint button is installed on the back of that combat cyberdroid under an armored plate. You'll have to find some way to get to it."/

"Aw... NUTS!!"

The sound of thrusters was all the warning that Lora had as the wall behind her exploded and the cyberdroid came through, the impact bowling Lora over and knocking her aside. As she got up, the droid reached out and backhanded her, the force of the impact blowing her through three partitions before coming to rest against a fourth.


Raven yelped as she saw Lora thrown back through three walls. "Lora!" She turned towards the technician and took a step towards him. One of the ever-vigilant guards put his hand up in front of her to stop her. Raven stopped and yelled at the tech, "You have to stop this before she gets hurt! She can't take a cyberdroid that big!"

"Ms. Clark, you are to quietly observe your minder's training," said the white-coated man flatly, not even looking up from his console.

Raven took a few more steps towards him, shouldering past the security guard. "Observe her getting trashed, you mean. What are you trying to prove here, she can't..."

The tech looked up from his console and lifted a hand.

Electricity coursed through Raven's body. With a surprised hiccup, she fell to her knees and clutched at her collar. But the shock left her as quickly as it had come, a painful warning, no more. She closed her eyes, sighed to steady herself.

"Ms. Clark," said the tech in the same clinical tone, "you will be silent, you will do as you are told, and you have been told to observe the proceedings. Determining how to test your minder's capabilities is my duty, not yours, and you are not to interfere in any way." Without even waiting for an acknowledgement, the tech returned to his console.

Right. Down, Rover. Sit and watch. Maybe you'll learn new tricks. Sighing, Raven got up and returned to her spot in the midst of the four guards. That's all I am to them, an attack dog. Through the canopy she watched as Lora got back to her feet. Come on, Lora, nail him! She frowned and glared at the cyberdroid. Let's see if you can take him, Lora, but I swear I won't let that jerk hurt you, even if he puts the Hoover Dam through that fragging collar, I'm not going to let him.


Lora shook her head and looked up from her prone position amid the debris. Back through the path of broken partitions, she could see the nightmare visage of the massive combat cyberdroid with its mouth open, looking at her. It almost looked surprised. Then she realized what that particular posture meant and scrambled out of the way as the mouth laser cannon fired, burning a hole in the wall behind her, the heat igniting some of the rubble into flame.

She didn't bother with the commlink this time. It was pointless. There would be no help from that quarter. It was obvious that they either had it in for her or they just didn't care what happened. Test to the breaking point - that's what this was all about. See if she would break.

For a moment, just a moment, she felt like acceding defeat and just ending the test. It would be easier by far. It was just a test, right? They didn't actually want to kill or injure her for real, right? They'd end it if she admitted she couldn't succeed.

No.

Lora's eyes narrowed in fury as she regarded the enormous droid. The techs, the corporation, the whole fucking world wanted her to admit defeat. Accept what we say because you have no choice, we make the rules, and you can't fight against us. If you try, we'll break you. You're nothing more than a tool to be used, just like Raven. And that's the way it will always be, nothing more, nothing less.

The HELL with THAT!!

All her frustration and anger, everything she had been holding tightly within her for so long boiled over, looking for a target, and there was a nice, big convenient one right in front of her.

"FINE!! You bastards want to see what I can really do??? LET'S FUCKING DANCE!!!"

She leapt forward at the machine, a human shaped blur. The mouth cannon fired again, but she sidestepped the blast by inches without slowing down. Reaching the cyberdroid, she leaped for the cannon arm on the right, grabbing it one handed and swinging upward and around to plant her feet right on the arm of the bot itself, bracing her left hand against its shoulder, her Earthshaker already drawn in her right, pointed right into the face of the machine.

BOOM!!
BOOM!!
BOOM!!

The first shot went right into the still open mouth and smashed the components of the laser. The second shot went right between the "eyes" of the droid, shattering most of the optics. The third shot ricocheted off the top of the armored skull, denting it slightly.

The nearly blinded droid reached to try and grab her off of its gun arm with the hand on its left but she leapt clear and to the side of the maddened machine. As she landed, the droid pivoted in her general direction and let loose with everything it had, tearing up the ground with its autocannon. But it could no longer aim properly, and Lora avoided the fire easily.

She jumped back into the air and when she reached the level of the droid's head, she uncoiled herself and lashed a leg out with everything she had behind it into the already damaged face of the bot. The jaw came completely off its hinges and the massive droid was knocked off of its feet and back through another barrier. The autocannon firing wildly into the air and stitching bullet holes in the ceiling of the warehouse roof far overhead.

As the bot struggled to rise, Lora leapt high above it, then came down with a screaming battle-cry, bringing her fist down into the damaged jaw and neck area. Smashing completely through the remains of the weaponry components and hydraulics, she closed her fingers around the main data trunk—the spine of the machine—and ripped it free of the body, completely severing the head in a shower of sparks and fluids. The rest of the bot twitched a few times as electricity arced in random patterns then went quiet.

Panting heavily, steam rising from her completely whitened hair, Lora discarded the head and spine of the Doberman. Reaching down to the remains of the droid she flipped it over. There was an armor patch there next to the spine that obviously didn't match the rest of the machines armor. With an effort, she pried it loose and punched the button that lay under it and it turned green.

She glared back in the direction of the observation booth. Letting her victory speak for itself. Daring them to throw anything else at her.


All was quiet in the main booth for a long moment. The head supervisor had one eyebrow arched highly. The other technicians stared at their monitors in disbelief, some with their jaws open. One of them murmured, "I think we actually pissed her off..."

Raven cheered and whooped, "Way to go, Lora!" she yelled, heedless of the supervisor's angry glare. "That's how you show them!"

Another of the techs said, "That was incredible... I never thought she'd just take that cyberdroid head on like that!"

"Uhm... You know, technically, that shouldn't have been possible..."

"Do you want to explain that to her?"

"... No."


After making her way back through the testing maze and back up to the observation area, Lora was greeted by Raven, who laughed and ran out of the circle of security guards to leap and hug her. "You were magnificent!"

Lora returned the hug warmly, chuckling a little, seeming almost embarrassed, "Thanks. I was kind of surprised, myself."

The security guards moved to surround them as the technicians approached. Raven ignored them all. "It was beautiful, Lora. The way you leaped right onto his arm to unload right in his face—that was really brave."

"Well, it worked, but I wasn't thinking, really. I just got really mad."

"Perhaps even a little reckless," the supervisor put in.

Lora just looked at him coldly and shrugged, "Get yourself knocked around enough and see how well your judgment holds together. Then we'll talk."

"Let's just hope that getting knocked around does not impair your judgment so much when your charge is in danger," he responded.

"I guess we'll see." Lora's eyes were devoid of any emotion. Which was perhaps as unnerving to the techs as her near blind rage out in the testing arena. Like it was something she could turn on and off at will.

If the supervisor was impressed he showed no sign. "Speaking of your charge, it will be her turn in the training room while you observe. The people downstairs should be quickly done in re-setting the maze." He turned to one of the technicians, "You have the visor?"

One of the techs, a handsome black fellow in his twenties, brought over a headband with a headphone/mic combination and a narrow curved band of smoky gray plastic attached to the earpieces; obviously meant to go over the eyes. He looked a little nervously at Lora, than addressed Raven, "This is a tactical HUD and communications set. You don't have the implanted cybernetics that Miss Doubet has, so you'll need to wear this so you can keep in contact with us and you can see where you are in the maze with relation to the checkpoints.

Raven took the visor from him. "Okay," she said, a tad nervously. She put the visor over her head and fiddled with the fit and the position of the microphone until she was comfortable.

While the tech helped Raven figure out how the AV visor functioned and what to do with it, out in the testing area, Lora could see other personnel removing trashed cyberdroids, repairing others, replacing partitions and generally getting the "maze" back in order.

"Okay, see that?" The tech was telling Raven, "The Map is always oriented in the direction you're facing. So if you turn, the map turns too. Up is always forward and down is always back relative to the way you face. So you don't have to think in terms of North, South, East and West. You just have to look at where you want to go and think in terms of left-turn and right-turn. Simple, right?"

"Right," said Raven, turning around a bit and taking a few experimental steps forward and back. "It works a lot like the overall map on those action videogames," she noted.

"Heh... What do you think I modeled it on, after all?" The tech grinned.

"Mr. Perry..." The supervisor warned.

"Right. Sorry sir."

Raven shared a private grin with Perry. "Okay, I think I can manage this. What else?"

Perry explained how to turn the map on and off so it wouldn't get in her way when she didn't need it. And how to use the mic and adjust the volume on the headphones.

"And I guess that about covers that." He said.

"Okay then. I guess I'm ready," Raven said with trepidation

"Right, then." The supervisor said. The objective is the same. The checkpoint locations have been altered. Make it to the opposite side of the maze. I don't have to tell you that there may be other surprises. The security officer will escort you down to the entrance. Let's get started."

Lora took Raven's hand, "Good luck, Raven. Of course," She said with a grin. "If I can make it through that, then you should have no problems at all! Go get 'em!"

"Thanks, Lora." She winked. "I've got a few surprises of my own."


Moments later Raven was standing on the training area's start pad, watching the security officer walk away. The hatch shut with a hissing thump and the supervisor's voice came over the radio. "All right, Ms. Clark. The exercise begins as soon as you leave the plate."

"Okay," Raven said. She took a deep breath, formed a strong esper shield that whipped at her hair , then slowly floated off the plate and ahead, looking to either side as she made her way down the first corridor.

As she went down a short passageway, the partitions on either side retracted into the floor almost instantly with a loud clacking sound. Beyond, to her right and left were Gatling cannons in immobile emplacements that opened up on her with a blinding hail of paint and shell rounds.

Raven hurled herself backward behind the cover of the corners, avoiding the worst of the fusillade. A few rounds did slap against her shield, sending lead and droplets of paint flying away.

"Gun emplacements," she muttered. "Lora didn't have those." She formed her Power into a sharp spike of rending force then, with this weapon prepared, she elevated herself above the side of the partition, and attacking the guns from an angle they might not be prepared to deal with.

Raven snickered as she saw that the guns were on a purely horizontal swivel—unable to aim upwards at her position. She hurled the psychic spike she had formed, almost feeling the air rip up as it passed before it impacted the gun emplacement, twisting the barrel out of shape and sending parts of the firing mechanism flying.

Grinning wickedly, Raven swooped up to the other side and hurled a second rending bolt of telekinetic power in mid-flight. This time the gun was hit at its base, tearing the thing off the ground and sending it into the wall. That peril averted, Raven resumed her careful levitation down the hallway, shield at full strength, on the lookout for any attack.

From up ahead, a small tracked droid rolled into view, opening up on her with a light machine gun. Ignoring the bullets whizzing around her like so many annoying gnats, she hurled a bolt at it without breaking her pace. Her Power drew a wide furrow along the partition wall before it reached the drone. The bold itself missed, but the rippling after-effects still tore a deep gouge into the lightweight drone, severing its power train and bringing it shuddering to a halt.

Raven swooped out the corridor, smugly confident after her last victory. To her right, merely inches away, a panel suddenly slid into the floor, and a droid noisily stepped out of the alcove. Startled, Raven barely managed to turn before the cyberdroid opened up with its rifle, spraying her with bullets at point-blank range. From ahead and to the left, another droid fired as well, having stepped out from a similar alcove. The shield she had thoughtfully kept up at high-power held, but the floating Raven was knocked backward several feet.


Lora winced, ouch, good job with the shields though. Raven was just far enough away that her power signature only gave Lora a mild itch rather than any level of discomfort. Better think about getting out of there, though. That's not a good place to be right now.


"I guess I deserved to get ambushed," Raven muttered between gritted teeth, kicking herself for her inattention. She was still getting sprayed by a seemingly endless spray of bullets, tracer rounds making the continuous fire look like a death ray, paint splattering on her barrier before being whipped away in droplets against the wall. Unable to get up from the fusillade, Raven frowned in concentration, shifting what little energy she had left after her kinetic barrier into a new pattern and willed herself to move.

She reappeared ten feet behind the droids, a short hop, but a sufficient one: suddenly deprived of their target, the robots appeared confused for a moment while their systems readjusted for Raven's abrupt change in position. The telekinetic lost no time in getting up and preparing for the next salvo she knew was coming, forming her power in a tool more suited for the situation.

The droids turned, locking on to her. Raven fancied she could see the targeting reticule in their silvered eye-sensors. In response, she extended her arms towards the robots, palms facing them, her eyes fixed in an intent stare of concentration. The droids fired, staccato death rays once again lancing towards Raven. This time, however, instead of being stopped by a solid barrier, the bullets paint rounds deviated from Raven, the tracers drawing weird spirals that shot away from her in random directions as each bullet was nudged off course by the tiniest amount of kinetic energy.

The robots fired at Raven for a full ten seconds before they stopped, standing dumbly with weapons trained on her, their primitive combat programs realizing that to keep firing was to waste ammunition, but unable to reconcile the impact points of their shots with the expected trajectories. Raven allowed herself to smirk, staying in position and awaiting her next move. Finally, perhaps nudged by the technicians, perhaps merely having plowed through the data and decided to revert to an emergency procedure, the drones charged, long loping strides of their metallic legs carrying them swiftly towards the slight armored girl. She reacted, clenching her fists and bringing them to her side. A halo of distortion surrounded her hands, as if the light refracted when it came near them.

A few moments before the droids reached her, Raven vanished, teleporting herself behind one of the drones. She lashed out with her hands, fingers curled into a claw, the disruptive field of kinetic energy shearing through metal. Her strike sheared a deep gouge in the back of the droid, sending it tumbling forward. The other droid reacted much quicker than Raven had anticipated given its previous lack of adaptability, turning on its heel and swinging its rifle arm, catching Raven in the chest. The impact struck Raven's kinetic barrier, sending the telekinetic staggering back.

The droid pressed its advantage, stepping inside and swinging again. Raven ducked quickly under the swipe, then straightened and slashed her telekinetic claw at the passing arm. She caught it at the join, severing the limb cleanly. The shorn rifle arm tumbled down the corridor. The unbalanced drone stumbled, and Raven capitalized by kicking out, knocking the robot to the ground. Pleased that she was now sufficiently used to having legs to pull the complex motion without stumbling, she spun in place, knowing that the second droid would be up by now.

Indeed it was, and bearing down quickly towards her. Raven teleported again, this time right in the path of the droid, and barely had time to brace herself, hands in front of her, fingers curled, before the metallic humanoid barreled into her. Its momentum and the force of Raven's telekinetic claws tore into its chest; the telekinetic slid back on her feet before she stumbled, dragging the robot down with her. With her hands embedded in the robot's chest, it was a simple matter for Raven to slash left and right, shredding the machine's internals. The robot lost power abruptly and went rigid on top of Raven. She shoved the droid aside and, not taking the time to figure out where its active companion was, teleported herself down the corridor the way she had come.

She pulled herself up and looked at the combat cyberdroid, sparks flying from its severed arm, turn away from the eviscerated carcass of its fallen twin. Realizing that her foe was now deprived of a ranged weapon, Raven twisted her power into yet another shape—a dull headache reminding her to be careful about it—and started hurling telekinetic bolts at the defenseless robot.

The first hit struck the droid and knocked it back several feet. The second one missed as the droid began charging in a zigzagging motion, but the third tore off one of the legs, abruptly halting its advance. The fourth bolt, hurled in quick succession, blew a hole into its side, sending it rolling to a rest along the wall. Panting, Raven paused a few seconds to rest and catch her breath. Then, for safety, she hurled a final spike of telekinetic energy at the immobile droid, causing a geyser of sparks to spring from its ruptured power plant.

Nodding in grim satisfaction, Raven resumed her stride down the hall, careful this time to look in all directions lest she be taken by surprise again. According to the map in her HUD display, she was only a couple of turns away from her first checkpoint. Eyes narrowed in concentration, Raven carefully made her way towards the blinking dot on the map, eyes sharp to avoid any ambushes.


Yes! Lora pumped a fist in adulation, Well done! Looking on via monitor, she thought, Just keep going like that and you'll do just fine, girl.


As she approached, Raven heard the sounds of footsteps and the hiss of hydraulics over the wall that separated her from the checkpoint. As she paused to listen, it sounded to her like there was more than one sentry at the checkpoint.

Edging along the wall right up to the passageway opening, Raven peeked around the corner and got a look at her adversaries. Sure enough there were two of them and they looked almost identical to the bot that Lora faced at her first checkpoint. Except the weapons that made up their right arms looked bulkier and more streamlined.

"Okay. So I get two of 'em, hmm?" Bringing up a kinetic shield, Raven stepped around the corner, lining up a shot on the first 'bot while increasing the range for the second as she backed up.

As soon as she did so, the two bots noticed her and lined up their weapons. They fired bright lances of red laser light at her shield. With a yelp, Raven threw herself flat, the deadly blasts narrowly missing her. "Energy weapons. Great."

Raven shifted her shield to produce an energy refracting effect as well as a kinetic block. This left her with precious little power for offense, but she needed to recoup and think up a strategy before she could defeat this pair.


Lora turned to the corporate suit—the tech supervisor—and said, "Excuse me? Isn't that pretty extreme? What if she didn't have her shield up? Or low powered? Those lasers would..."

"Your concern is laudable but misplaced, Agent Doubet." The man said with an irritable sigh. "The lasers are not as high powered as they appear. Raven would only be lightly burned by a hit from them. And her armor should prevent even that in most cases."

"Oh."

They don't want to risk hurting her for real. But I'm more expendable. That's why they felt they could kick me around more. She thought, disgruntled.

Then she had to resist the urge to slap herself in the forehead. Duh! Of course they kicked me around more! It made Raven think the stakes were higher than they really were! To get her best effort! Scheiže... And I played right into it...


Raven propped herself up to a standing position, the cyberdroid's blasters putting constant pressure on her shield and forcing her to keep devoting a large amount of power on it—she wouldn't be able to keep this up for long. To gain some time, she jogged sideways, trying to get the closest droid in the second's line of fire. Expertly programmed, the robots recognized her stratagem and moved away from each other even as she started moving.

Raven hadn't really expected her ploy to work, but she had hoped that the droids would lose some accuracy when moving. No such luck—the advanced targeting systems were not going to miss a target at this distance. Suddenly, the telekinetic grinned. She had little power left, but how much did these droids weigh in the first place, anyway?

Shifting her leftover energy in pure telekinesis, she elected to find out. She stopped and extended a hand towards the closest droid. It shifted in position slightly as the wavy aftereffects of Raven's Power took hold of it, but its fire was uninterrupted. Then she elevated her hand, and the droid slowly followed, levitating a foot above the ground.

The barrage hadn't abated, but Raven wasn't done yet. First, she twirled her hand, and in response the droid flipped around in mid-air. It attempted to bring its weapons to bear, but its articulations were too much like a human's and it couldn't easily point its weapons straight behind it. All it managed was an occasional, ineffectual shot. Denied any leverage afforded by contact with the ground, it also could do nothing to right itself. Grinning wickedly, Raven spun to face the furthest robot—and her Power obediently swung the droid to follow.

The cyberdroid on the ground stopped shooting, its targeting circuits denying the projected trajectory through its "comrade". It tried to shift position sideways to compensate, but Raven swung her robot-shield to follow, denying it a shot. As she did she shifted some power out of her relieved kinetic barrier and into the grasp she had on the robot, slowly starting to bend the thing's armor-plates.

The still-mobile droid's tactical program suddenly devised a solution—or maybe one of the techs had done it for it—and suddenly rushed forward at full speed, intent of getting past the shield. Raven didn't let it; she hurled her prisoner at the oncoming cyberdroid.

The robot's combat program was very quick; it leaped aside to dodge the hurtling cyberdroid, which went crashing into the wall behind it. Raven didn't waste time. She used the distraction to sprint forward, towards the checkpoint pylon. The robot fired from the ground, but this time its targeting systems were not up to the task and the blasts kept trailing behind Raven. She had taken no chance and had her shield up.

The teek slammed the button and spun around, shield growing in intensity. The first robot was standing up, still blasting away at her; the second was in the process of doing so, but it was obvious that it was hampered by its no-longer-quite-straight structure. The robot stood in the doorway, intent on blocking her path to the exit the room. Raven grinned wickedly again. From behind the protection of her shield she shifted her telekinesis into a different form, taking her time to avoid brainburn, seeing as the second bot was still not quite back in the fight yet.

Once the bot was up, Raven casually waved at the two robots—and vanished.


Back in the command center, Lora looked wide eyed at the monitor for a moment with the rest of the men in the room, then she barked out a laugh and said, "Oh of course! Way to go!"

The supervisor nodded, saying, "Yes. We'll need to compensate for that. Somehow..." He turned from the monitor and conferred quietly with one of the techs out of earshot of Lora.

Lora thought a bit wistfully to herself, Makes me wish I still had the power.


Out in the testing area, Raven materialized with a small rush of air in the middle of the corridor that led to the checkpoint room at the last intersection she had passed. Checking her headset HUD, she began to make her way towards the next checkpoint.

"This is almost too easy," she muttered.

When she crossed into the quadrant of the maze that held the next checkpoint, she heard the whine of rotors cutting the air from several sources beyond her line of sight. A few moments later, a dozen aerial drones soared over the walls of the corridor she found herself in. They were disc shaped with ducted fans in their center and wing surfaces at four points around the circumference of the body that helped stabilize them. The barrels of stubby weapons pods were slung underneath them and the lenses and antennae of their sensor arrays clustered around their front ends. They looked vaguely wasp-like. Half the swarm broke off from the rest as they swung around and strafed her from both ends of the corridor. Lasers alternated with gatling rounds.

Raven felt the impacts against her kinetic barrier like as many hail balls against a wall. Levitating off the ground, she floated upwards in the midst of the drones. The swirling maelstrom that was her shield whirled faster and faster in response to her will, then it began to expand outwards, engulfing the drones. Battered this way and that, the light rotorcraft struggled to maintain their position, their wild gyrations throwing off their aim. Two of them collided in mid-air, knocking both to the ground.

Floating in the middle, Raven began to pick them off with short-ranged, directed kinetic bolts, confident that her shield and the hurricane she'd conjured to distort their paths was sufficient protection against the machines' weapons.

One of the drones smashed into a barrier and it's fuel supply exploded, the flame momentarily sucked into part of Raven's shield and whipped around in streamers until it went out. Another overcompensated against the invisible force of Raven's telekinesis and pitched up and over until it's thrusters were pointing in the wrong direction to keep it in the air. It powered into the floor, smashing itself to bits. Others met similar fates until shortly there were none left.

Raven relaxed her hold on the power and floated down to stand in the center of the destruction.

"Heh," Raven said. "That wasn't too hard now wasn't it."

Then a set of gas vents in the floor opened up and began venting their contents into the area. The first wisps of the stuff reached her before she could react. Her eyes watered and she started coughing. The smell made her nauseous.

Choking, Raven fell to her knees, her eyes filling up with water. Her throat burned and her eyes burned from the irritating gas, and in her mouth she could taste blood. Pushing through the haze of pain as she'd done before with brainburn (but it had never been this bad, had it?), she used the same pattern that she used with the drones, but radiating outward.

The gas swirled away from her, but the vents were pumping more in. And it was difficult to concentrate on the clouds of gas as they thinned out and mixed with the atmosphere in general. She had to get out of here!

Levitating off the ground, Raven telekinetically hurled herself down the corridor, away from the gas-splurging vents. She flew through the air and came to a painful, rolling landing that stopped abruptly when she hit the wall at the other end of the corridor. She lay there, choking and gasping, her stomach roiling, threatening to lose her last meal. She couldn't see through the tears in her eyes.

"Oooh.... that was low...." She clenched her fists. "Now I'm PISSED!"

When her eyes finally cleared up and her stomach stopped rebelling against her, she flipped her visor down to check the map. She wasn't that far from the next checkpoint. Just a little less than 20 meters off to her right in a straight line. But there wasn't any straight-line path between here and there, naturally.

Raven wobbily got to her feet, and glared at the wall for a moment. "Fuck this," she said quite distinctly, and hurled Power, in its rawest form, at the wall, lifting dust. The cement between her and the wall cracked loudly before the steel tore itself in an horrible grinding noise. When the dust settled, a panting, slightly drained Raven was staring through a gaping hole in the maze's metal wall.

"Hah," she said in satisfaction, stepping through the twisted opening, taking care to avoid the sharp edges of the torn metal.


Lora's eyes widened as she watched Raven's power spear through the layers of metal partition. "Wow." Then she glanced over at the supervisor, and caught a slightly uncomfortable look on his face.

He's afraid of her. He'd never admit it. But she actually scares him. She caught a couple of looks from the other techs. I guess I can understand why, in a way. She realized that she could almost understand what might drive normal people to try and collar someone like Raven. But she irritably pushed that reasoning from her. It didn't justify what they'd done to her in any case, no matter what.

In a way, she felt like she wanted Raven to scare them a little more. But at the same time, she realized that might be dangerous in the long run.

Bad idea to get people with power over you frightened of you.


With Raven in a pissy mood, it became a very bad day to be a cyberdroid. Raven eschewed subtlety—every problem she encountered from then on was promptly blasted with as strong a kinetic bolt as Raven could muster. Droids that survived this initial assault simply got an extra dose, until they or their electronics finally gave up. There was only one time, when Raven tried to go over the walls rather than through them, that the telekinetic found herself in need of quick reactions. With her up in the air, almost everything in the maze could suddenly draw a line of fire to her, and indulged in filling the air with automatic fire. Raven promptly landed and decided to stick with making big holes.


Lora watched Raven's progress on the monitors with an increasing sense of awe. She'd known that Raven was powerful. But she'd never really seen Raven go all out before. The only other time she had seen her in action was during that brief fight in Dr. Zanabria's clinic in the Zone. As she blasted her way through to the next checkpoint and cleared it, and then the one after that, she realized how someone could become truly frightened by that level of power and that all that really held it back was the mind and morals of the person using it.

And when all a person values is the acquisition of power, and the will to use it... Lora thought, then I guess you would assume that someone with as much power as Raven has would want to use it for her own ends as well. And there's no guarantee she wouldn't use it against you. She shook her head at those thoughts. But they made too much sense. She was Raven's friend, and even she could feel a little of that fear, watching her like this. How much more paranoid would a corporate executive feel about Raven? Or Shion?

As she watched Raven make her way toward the final checkpoint, she wondered if anyone felt the same way about cyborgs like herself. She shuddered internally at the implications.


Raven came up to the final checkpoint and boldly strode across the corner, shields blaring. In front of her was a heavy combat drone of the sort that Lora had face, one of its arm a heavy machine gun, the other a blaster weapon. No big surprises there, thought Raven. As soon as she became visible, the robot swung to face her and opened fire with both weapons. Again no big surprises, Raven thought with a wry smile as bullets and energy blasts alike bounced against her shields.

Struggling to advance under the onslaught, Raven formed a powerful blast of kinetic force, centering it in her outstretched hand. With a grunt of effort she released it, and it furrowed the thick carpet on the ground—carpet?—before slamming into the cyberdroid, denting its armor. Another step, another blast, and the robot's aim was knocked out of alignment. It stopped firing, readjusted its aim...

And then all was pitch black.

"What the...?" Raven cried out an instant before an unseen, large object swooped past her at high speed, striking her in the chest with some sort of appendage as it went. The force of the blow knocked her back a few steps. Another object passed, hitting her in the back this time; again the blow did not penetrate her shield let alone her armor, but it did send her sprawling on the ground, where the carpet muffled the sound of her fall. She'd barely landed when the main cyberdroid fired short bursts of its main weapons, illuminating the huge cyberdroid in disco-light fashion but falling silent when they again bounced off her shields.

Raven started to push herself up, but another of those fast-moving pounders struck her as she did, sending her rolling back to the ground. Damn them, Raven thought, I can't see them and with the carpet I can't hear them. Desperate to gain time, she quickly teleported back at the entrance of the room, giving herself a mild headache for the rapid shift in the form of her Power.

The big robot's targeting systems must've been very high quality for Raven had barely gotten to her feet when it started spraying her with gunfire again. Thankfully her shield was still proving up to the task, and the robot, after some long, sustained bursts, gave up again.

Suddenly realizing the significance of the combat droid's pauses in gunfire, Raven jumped up, using the Power to hurl herself into the air and keep herself suspended there. Sure enough, she felt the air displacement as one of the "swoopers" careened past under her, swinging ineffectually with its mace-arm. Remembering what had happened last time she'd tried flying, Raven hurriedly swooped down to what she figured was close to a wall. She extended a hand to touch the wall and confirm this, then quickly reshaped her power into a new form...

Her world exploded in pain and she fell to her knees with a shrill cry. Too much shifting too fast. Blinking to clear the spots in her eyes—Well, at least now I can see something—she threw herself to the ground and narrowly avoiding another swooping pass. As she had expected, the attack was parallel to the wall—any other direction was impossible without the droid, or whatever it was, crashing right into
steel several inches thick.

Under a new barrage of fire that splattered harmlessly off her shield, but continued to force her to expend valuable energy maintaining the energy barrier, Raven stood up, forming the power in the shape she needed, more slowly and carefully this time. When the gunfire ceased she braced herself and brought up a kinetic wall in front of her, perpendicular to the wall.

Predictably one of the unseen, swift-moving robots swooped past her, taking a swing at her—but all force was stolen from the blow when at about the same time its weapon connected with Raven's shield, the robot itself slammed into her force wall. Sparks blinked briefly in the teek's view, confirming that her ploy had hurt the robot considerably. Now knowing where her elusive foe was—right against her kinetic wall—she formed the wall into a curved scoop and spun around, the sheet of force following her movement and slamming the damaged droid into the wall. More sparks; Raven yanked the robot back and dashed it against the wall again, and a final time, when it drew no sparks, its power supply shut down.

Immediately the large combat droid resumed its fire. Raven didn't dare move away from the wall, suspecting that there was at least another droid like the one she'd destroyed, but figuring it'd learn from its companion's mistake and not repeat the same error.

Raven concentrated on the big combat droid, looking at the flashes of light originating from its blaster arm. Forming a kinetic blast with her Power, she hurled it at the weapon. Her aim was true, thanks to her sacrificing some power to get a thicker bolt, and the barrel of the blaster twisted noisily from the pure force exerted at it. Raven smiled—now she could probably loosen on her energy shield...

The machinegun ceased firing and Raven, who'd purposely decided to leave the weapon alone, knew what it meant. She braced her back against the wall, and wasn't disappointed when the other swooping droid came at her, stopping right in front of her. It swung at her once, twice, each blow bouncing off Raven's kinetic barrier but pressing her painfully into the wall. Raven clenched her teeth and fired her kinetic bolt at point-blank range, this time going for full power and penetration. The robot was hurled back out of the way, its slide on the ground audible even despite the plush carpeting that had so aided its stealth.

Gunfire erupted again, the combat droid spraying her with machinegun fire. Raven stood with shield blazing, waiting for the fast droid's next attack—but none came. Either she had disabled it, or it was waiting for her to make a move to pull a surprise on her. Dearly hoping it was the former, Raven broke into a run, rushing the gunfire robot and forming the Power into bladelike shapes around her hand.

The cyberdroid took a step back to try to spray her with more fire as she came, but it was to no avail. Using the gun's staccato light to guide herself, Raven punched her left hand forward, her fingers, sheathed in disruptive kinetic force, slicing into the armor. Once she was sure she had a good grip, she swiped with her right, tearing a great chunk of plating off that arm.

The gun fell silent. Raven grunted as her shield absorbed a heavy blow from the arm that had once held the blaster, but she ignored the growing exertion all this expenditure of energy was causing her, and plunged her right hand in the robot's chest, a couple feet over her left, the target too big to miss at this range even with no sight. Heaving, she lifted the massive contraption over her head.

The huge mass was a sore test of the esper power she was using to increase her physical strength, but she did not keep the thing aloft for long, instead throwing it facefirst on the ground with a massive clatter that the carpet was unable to muffle. Without giving the droid any time to move away, she leaped astride the thing's back, planting her left hand, still wreathed in a esper claw, into the thing's armor. The robot stood, her feather-light weight no impediment to its hydraulics, and tried to swing at her, but the joints made the motion awkward and the blows that struck Raven's invisible barrier had little force behind them. Using a bit of telekinesis to keep herself in place as the cyberdroid bucked, Raven clenched her fist into a ball and slammed it repeatedly up and down where she thought the cyberdroid's head to be. Her guess was true, and her esperally-enhanced blows quickly smashed its control systems to smithereens.

The giant fell, carrying the esper with her to its noisy fall. With a grim smile of triumph, Raven slid her hands against its back until she found the edges of the panel, right where Lora had found it on her own bot. Her esper claws were still ready, and made short work of the armor plate. Raven smiled and nonchalantly reached into the cavity, her fingers finding the checkpoint button and pressing it.


Not having a direct line of sight on Raven due to her being on the other side of the maze, Lora had watched Raven's victory on the monitors as the battle was recorded by low light and infrared cameras. Computer enhancement of the graphics in real time had allowed her to watch as if the scene had been fully lit. And now she smacked her fist into her other hand and enthusiastically said, "Yes! Way to go, girl!"

To Lora's mild surprise, the supervisor took it with aplomb. He seemed to have gotten over the moment of uncertainty that Lora had seen and merely nodded thoughtfully, saying, almost to himself as an afterthought, "Good. Very good. I was afraid she wouldn't be able to adapt to darkness. Many esper weapons depend too much on what they can see. Innovation and adaptability. Good assets to have."

He turned to her and said, "Get your gear ready. When she gets back I'll brief both of you on the final test of the day."


Flanked by two security guards, Raven entered the room, a little bruised and sweaty, but with a smug smile on her face. She gave the supervisor a somewhat superior look that didn't draw any sort of a reaction, then looked at Lora and winked. "So, what did you all think?"

Lora made a short laugh, saying, "That was incredible! I just wish I could have seen the last part a little better!"

Raven giggled. "Well, that wasn't my fault, was it?"

"You two are to get ready for the next exercise," the supervisor interrupted. "The objectives are similar, but the checkpoint may only be flipped if Raven is within 10 feet of it. Either of you can do it—but Raven must be nearby." He paused to let that sink in. "Ms. Doubet, you are, of course, in command. Your primary objective is to defend Raven. To stress that, any actual damage on Raven will count triple against your score. Raven, your objective is to complete the mission regardless of Ms. Doubet's status. Your performance in your appointed roles will be evaluated independently of your actual score."

Lora looked a little bit worried as she took all of that in, just as Raven was. This last test was going to be very tough. She was silent for a moment afterwards before saying to the supervisor, "I don't suppose I could get a bigger gun for this?"


Lora and Raven both stood at the starting point in the maze again.

Raven stood easily next to Lora, fists clenched in readiness. "So, what's the plan, boss lady?" she said good-naturedly. "I get the feeling our first sessions will look like cakewalks next to this one."

Smiling grimly, Lora cinched the shoulder strap on her gun slightly tighter. It was an enormous autocannon, longer than Lora was tall by half. It was so large it had it's own bipod attachment and Raven, despite the fact that she knew Lora's strength wasn't even being taxed by firing it, still thought Lora looked like she shouldn't be able to even heft it. It seemed ludicrous, but Lora appeared to not even notice the weight. The cyborg girl said, "You said it, I think they'll throw everything at us this time. Can you extend a shield around both of us?"

Raven didn't say a word, but Lora felt the familiar tingle, and the dull pressure in her head, of Raven's titanic power being exerted—outwards, in a broad fan around the two of them. For a moment the sensation flared as the Power coalesced into a curved sheet of force, then it returned to its muted state.

"Don't try to shoot out," Raven reminded Lora.

"Crap. So much for that idea. Well, if things get really dicey, maybe you can do that for me. Give me some breathing room. But I think you'd better go ahead and just protect yourself. Let's see... I should
probably take point. You stay behind me by a few meters. You're better at range and I'm better close in anyway, right?"

"Sounds good," Raven said as she drew her power back to herself, her hair starting that snaking dance it did whenever she brought up a shield. "Lead the way, Lora—and let the best women win." She smiled at that.

"You said it," Lora replied. Then she shifted the rifle in her grip and chose one of the entrances to the maze. "Okay, right. Let's go!" She ran out past the yellow and black caution marker as Raven levitated up and followed her.

Grinning, the two fell into the maze like a firestorm.


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