(Date Unknown, sometime in the Fall of 2033)
Phil Connor crouched at the edge of the forest, using the cover of bushes to keep himself from prying eyes. "K, boss ladies, here it is," he said, waving towards the field.
Two hundred yards from the edge of the forest stood an old wooden barn, at least sixty years old and showing nearly every day. Useless in this age of automated harvester drones and genetically-engineered crops, the barn was perhaps a testament to the side effects of corporate efficiency; the land it stood on having been deemed more work than it was worth to exploit (yet), it had never been torn down and yet had never been maintained... Save, perhaps, by the hands of those who had made this their own away from home. A large sign—more an old panel from the barn really, with the words "Kids Only, Keep Out!" spelled out in red paint, still leaned next to the door. Darkly Connor thought that few on this day were about to respect that prescription. The setting sun bathed the scene in an idyllic glow, one that actually unsettled the hardened freelancer. He could well suspect what was to come next.
"I saw a flash up there where a board's missing," Phil pointed out helpfully, "and another through the door. Maybe binoculars, but I'm thinking rifle scopes. Probably hunting guns, ya know, it's a rural area, they have this stuff for the animals that ain't been killed by the corporate wardens yet." He shrugged. "So, boss ladies, we've got a scared kid holed up with his parents' and who knows who else in a kids' clubhouse, and they're armed. Not that they'll hurt ya, but still." He paused and shrugged. "So whaddawedo?"
"Gas them," Katsura stated flatly. "Even the most powerful espers have to breathe."
"We've got gas...?" Phil began, before Raven interrupted.
"Sure they have to breathe, but if they know about the gas, it's not hard to push it away. It takes a bit of control, so I dunno if Garson could do it or not."
"We can at least start with the gas and see how it works," Aasha replied. "If we catch him by surprise, he may not be able to react fast enough." And he's certainly not trained like you are, she added with a nervous glance at Raven.
"Of course," Katsura continued as if one else had spoken. "We don't have any with us, do we?"
Raven couldn't help but roll her eyes.
Connor hesitated for a second and said, "Ah, don't think so, boss lady. We're sorta traveling light."
"And there's no time to go out and obtain some," Raven put in. "How about a plan that we can actually do, Katsura?" she added, half-kiddingly.
Aasha rolled her eyes. "Just kick down the door? I doubt they've got anything Raven can't stop in there."
"Actually..." Katsura glanced at the barn, "That's not a bad idea. Why not just rip the whole roof off of the barn. Given them no cover at all."
"Rip the..." mouthed Phil. Then he noticed that the women did not appear to register the enormity of the suggestion. "Freakin' hell..." As if he needed any additional confirmation that he was in totally over his head...
"I can do that," Raven replied thoughtfully. "You guys better move over a bit though. He'll know where it came from and he'll strike back, and I can protect myself better if I don't have to shield all of you as well."
Aasha let out a low whistle and nodded. "Where do you want us?" She asked, looking over the barn. "We should be ready to move in quickly. The surprise won't last long."
"Maybe I can strike from above," suggested the black-haired Esper. "It'll be a lot easier for me to hit at the roof from there, and any return blasts that miss me are going to head up in the sky and not hit any of you."
"Right." Katsura pointed past the barn. "Aasha take the rear, I'll take the side facing the woods, Phil stays here. Raven, take to the air and get to work."
Aasha nodded and skirted around the back of the barn, keeping low to avoid detection.
Raven waited until they were all in position, gathering the Power to herself, then made her move. She shot upwards quickly, rising above the treetops, and hurled her Power at the barn.
Starting from her left, the roofing started to disintegrate in loose boards that were carried away by telekinetics aftereffects as the esper methodically tore the roof off the barn. Before long a gaping hole was opened in the roof and Raven rose a bit more for a better shot. She spotted a frightened form on the second floor, toting a rifle, and raised her left hand to attack...
Frag, Raven thought. A kid. Can't be any older than twelve. The child gaped at her, certain that his doom was coming; when the world failed to explode around him, he leaped down to the safety of a haystack below.
Raven shook her head—what are we supposed to do now? Then she felt Garson gathering up his power, and brought up her shield, levitating down to face him. Garson's first blast, stronger than she expected, broke on her potent kinetic barrier, but knocked her back several yards. As she straightened herself in midair, she knew the young esper was taxing his strength out of desperation.
If she stood and fought, she was sure to win—but she was worried. What would her minders do when opposed by children?
Aasha glanced up and noted her charge hovering above the barn, seemingly frozen in place. Something had gone wrong here, but what? "Raven! What's going on up there?" she shouted out, mindless of exposing herself.
Raven looked down even as Garson hurled another blast. The telekinetic impact went into her shield and was diverted, wind striking wind, blowing her hair in a billowing cloud behind her. "I'm good!" she yelled. "Don't shoot, they're kids!" With that she swooped down, needing to close the range with Garson so she could try to subdue him; from up here all she could do was blast him and she was unconvinced his defenses were up to that.
Crouched in the scant cover offered by the trees, Katsura kept her shotgun aimed at the barn's shadow depths. Children or not, she was going to make sure they retrieved the designated target.
Raven swooped downwards into the barn, startling a handful of children and three adults, all of them holding hunting rifles, as she flew past them. None of them mustered the wits to fire. The black-haired esper streaked past them, following her telekinetic sense, right towards Garson. The terrified kid hurled a telekinetic blast at her, unfocused and weak in his hurry. With a downward motion of her hands, Raven forced it into the ground, lifting great clumps of brown earth that she flew through without pause. She grabbed Garson by his shirt and hoisted him up. She carried him bodily up and outside the barn, her shield clipping the top of the barn wall, right where she'd torn the roof off.
She looked into the kid's terrified eyes, her expression a grim mask. She had him at his mercy, pretty much, but wasn't sure what she was supposed to do next... or even if she really wanted to do whatever that was. Okay... now what?
She looked behind her and down, where several of Garson's friends, recovered from their hesitancy, were training guns at her—but not shooting, lest they hurt their friend. Of course, they weren't going to hurt any of them with mere hunting rifles, but that was besides the point. A couple of the children spotted Aasha and Katsura, swung their weapons towards them, and opened fire.
Blinking as a single round punched into a nearby tree with a spray of splinters, Katsura ducked back for a second behind the trunk of a tree. Mentally counting to three, she then leaned out from a different side of the tree, and rapid fired three shots into the barn's wrecked insides. As she was simply trying to provide cover for Raven's escape, aiming was secondary, but if one of the rounds hit home, so much the better.
"Aasha!" she commanded over the internal link. "Give Raven some cover fire!"
"Right," She replied quietly, almost to herself. Kids. The were all kids, and now she had to shoot at them. Ducking below the window, she tried to clear the thought from her mind, to simply keep her head down and do her job here. She stood up and sighted in through the window. There they were, plain as day; children with hunting rifles, scared and firing at her.
I'll be damned if I shoot at kids, she thought. She raised her rifle and fired a quick burst above their heads. "Stay down!" she yelled, then brought the rifle to bear on them.
Raven looked in Garson's terrified eyes, the kid regarding her with the expression of a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. He knew full well he was totally overmatched. She had him at her mercy.
Then she heard the shotgun boom. "What the hell..." Raven muttered in midair. Still carrying Garson at arm's length, she yelled, "Frag, I said they were kids! Stop..."
Suddenly Garson struck her full force with an unfocused telekinetic punch. Her shield took the blast, but the kinetic impact behind it would not be denied. His clothes came apart in her hands, and the two were separated, Garson plummeting to the ground, Raven hurled away several dozen feet.
Just like I expected, Raven thought with a grim half-smile as the ground rushed to meet her.
Garson, too, fell, recovering wobbly in midair just before he struck the canopy of trees.
Aasha glanced between the kids in front of her and Raven's fallen form. The kids had dropped their rifles, but it would be easy enough for them to stat firing again. What the hell was she meant to do? And where the hell had Garson gone? "Forget this," she muttered to herself, and took off towards Raven. Behind her, she could hear the kids yelling, probably after their guns. She just hoped her cyborg body was strong enough.
She flung herself the last few meters, landing in front of Raven as the kids started firing. She rolled over, back to them, placing an arm over the ESPer's prone form. She was breathing at least, and didn't seem too badly hurt from the fall. She winced slightly as a few rounds pinged off her back. Looks like I guessed right, she thought ruefully.
Ducking back behind a tree, Katsura turned the shotgun over, glancing at the LED readout. Four rounds. Wonderful. A round slapped into the tree over her head, throwing splinters. Kids or not, they certainly know how to shoot.
Raising the shotgun, she aimed into the shadows of the broken barn. Pausing to let her eyes adjust, she fired once, shifted her aim and then fired a second time. A young boy, certainly no older than his late teens, was virtually vaporized from the eyes up, blood and brains spraying the equally youthful girl next to him. As she opened her mouth to scream, the second round took her dead in the chest, hurling her body back into the gloom.
There, that should be that.
Raven screamed and roughly shoved Aasha off her, with surprising strength. She marched towards Katsura, hair and clothes swirling about her menacingly, her face a rictus of fury. "You murderous bitch," she spat as she approached the Asian cyborg. "Are you fragging insane? I told you not to shoot, that they were kids!"
Still crouched behind the tree, Katsura calmly loaded fresh rounds into her shotgun. "With guns," she replied. "No different than the company men who shot at us earlier."
Raven glared, clenching her fists as she approached. "No, they weren't. They were trying to defend their friend from getting kidnapped, that's what they were doing."
"Angola. 2029." Katsura continued to load shells without looking up. "Nine-year old children with assault rifles. They were defending their friends too."
"So?" Raven stepped forward, right into Katsura's line of fire. "I've fought kids with guns before. Street gang kids who were not defending their friends." She glanced back. "These aren't child soldiers or anything of the sort! We're trying to kidnap a kid for crissakes!" She glared in Katsura's eyes. "Kidnap him to shove him into a doghouse with a collar."
Having finished loading the shotgun, Katsura worked the action, jacking a new round into the chamber. "That's not for me to decide."
"No, I guess you wouldn't ever dare make any sort of decision, would you? You're just a good soldier and do what you're told. Moral decisions, ethical considerations—waaay too complicated for your tiny little mind." Raven snorted. "Tell you what—since you can't decide anything, I'll do it for you." Her right foot suddenly shot out, connecting with Katsura's chest with the force of a speeding truck.
Katsura was flung across the clearing by Raven's kick, landing with a crash amongst the trees. Before Raven could press the assault, Aasha stood before her. Her expression was hard to read—she was clearly angry although it wasn't focused on her charge, yet at the same time Raven saw a trace of delight in her eyes. "Raven!" She yelled out. "Pick her up. We're going."
"Right, seethed Raven, looking down at the cyborg she'd just kicked. "Let's go away. Good idea." She effortlessly picked up the full-shell cyborg and threw her over her shoulder like a sack and started running, following Aasha's lead.
Phil Connor came out from the brushes, holding his tranquilizer pistol, following the pair. "What the heck's happ'nin'? You just went and kicked her! Ya nuts?" He suddenly remembered he was insulting a world-class esper weapon and paled visibly.
"I'm nuts. And the next one who shoots at a kid," Raven replied chillingly without missing a beat or a step, "I'll rip their damned head off."
Aasha shook her head. There was going to be hell for this, no doubt. But at the same time, she somehow knew that they'd done the right thing.
"Uh, wasn't that why we've got them tranq guns?" queried Phil, a little worried as he'd fired on some of those kids, too.
"Katsura didn't use that," Raven spat back.
Raven looked at herself in the mirror. The leather pants were tight and getting a little worn, but that was fine. The T-Shirt was a cheap promotional thing she had gotten at a concert for a heavy rock band that had disbanded last year, but that was fine. The purple streaks in her hair, dyed with a can smuggled in by Lora, clashed with Lilith's white braid, but that was fine.
She looked like a girl just picked off a Zero Zone street. But that was fine. It was the point.
Raven pushed her purple-and-black hair back over her shoulders and smiled. She was proud of herself despite willfully foiling her assigned mission—or rather, because of it. Before then she'd followed the instructions of her corporate captors with resignation and not the slightest hint of defiance, but it was high time for things to change.
She hadn't suddenly grown a spine. She'd just remebered she had one. If she'd dressed herself as a street kid, it was to remind herself she was one—hardened by a harsh life. Lydia's clinic was as pleasant a place you could find in the Zero Zone, but it wasn't idyllic. She'd killed her first man when she was a teenager, because she'd caught him in the middle of a rape. She'd fought gangers, mafia goons, madmen, kids with guns. She'd been a kid with a gun. She'd scrounged food and water.
She'd thought the luxury of corporate life had softened her, but it was an utterly stupid thing to think. Her existence as a company employee was harsh, but in a different way; if there was anything she knew now about company life, that was it. Why'd she forget how hard she was? Why'd she let them forget?
Harsh thinking on the way back from the Midwest had brought the answer. It was because it was breaking a childhood fairy tale of a good, pleasant life of luxury and adventure. She'd let herself think that this was only temporary. But things couldn't go back to the way they were. The company couldn't afford to give her more freedom after what they'd did to her. They knew she'd resent them. They were right.
It was time to be hard again. Time to be a canny, tough, hardened street kid again. Against the corporate might of Shiroko-Tsuhi, it was her best weapon. And it was going to be enough. She knew it.
For some reason, she remembered a scene back from her childhood. It was not a scene where she'd had to be hard. She was only seven then, her powers only beginning to manifest, usually in violent and uncontrolled ways. One such incident had toppled a stack of old-style jigsaw puzzles and hurled the various pieces all around the room. Including Raven's favorite, one that depicted a raven perched atop a high tree, defined against a gleaming white full moon. She had often asked her Auntie to make this one for her, because it had two thousand pieces, a number so huge that it was beyond comprehension for the seven-year-old.
Once she had brought her outburst under control, the child esper had cried helplessly, thinking all the pretty puzzles ruined forever. But Auntie Lydia had reassured her with words that she remembered vividly. "Now, now, Raven. None of the pieces are missing. It's just a matter of finding those that are yours. Sometimes it will take time and effort." She'd looked at the neat pile of jigsaw pieces that a desperate Raven had gathered, and had sifted through them, picking five pieces she recognized as being part of the white moon and putting them together? "See? All we need to do is find all the pieces that fit. Then you'll have your raven."
And Raven had carefully sifted through the pieces during her free time, carefully picking out parts with her clumsy left hand and trying them out, laughing when they fit and throwing them out if they didn't; at first she wasn't very good at figuring out which pieces belonged, and she almost gave up. But when she did, the next day Lydia would always ask her how the puzzle was going, and it was always enough to put Raven back to the task. After some time, she was getting rather good at selecting pieces, even as they became harder to discern. It took months, but she had a moment of complete elation when finally found the last bit of foliage that completed the raven's perch, the puzzle complete. Not only had she recovered all the right pieces—it was the first time she'd done the complex puzzle herself. She was insufferably proud of herself for a week after that.
Raven smiled. Lydia had put together the first few pieces of the puzzle, and she'd sifted through the pile and picked a few more that belonged without even realizing what she was doing. Now, she'd just picked another; she fancied she was getting better at it.
The door chimed as it slid open. Raven didn't turn from the mirror. In the reflection she saw Rhonda Davies storming in, looking positively incensed. Raven's "boss" slapped her papers onto the table and jerked a chair back so she could sit on it. She looked up at Raven and glared.
The esper smirked and turned around. She pulled a chair opposite Davies, and sat, making Davies even more angry. The executive probably expected Raven to stand as she was being chewed out. Raven smirked more and leaned her seat back, bringing her knees to the table's edge to support herself on two chair legs.
Davies seemed about to make a comment but thought the better of it. There were more important matters to be addressed. She shook her head. "I don't know what to say," she said, harshly. "I could say we are unhappy with your performance, but that would be an understatement. You not only attacked your own minder, an unqualifiable gesture already, but you also virtually sabotaged the entire operation." She looked up at the esper and glared, hard. "That is inexcusable."
Raven's smirk never left her face. "Oh, come on," she said. "DFS didn't get the kid either. You still have esper weapons and they don't—you still have the big end of the stick. That was the important thing, wasn't it?"
Davies shook her head angrily, but Raven knew she'd touched a nerve. It was the primary goal of the operation—preserve S-T's esper edge over DFS and their other rivals. Of course, Davies couldn't let that slide. "Raven, you are not to question the motivations behind the objectives assigned to you, and you are especially not to disregard them to further your own personal whims! We have armies of intelligence analysis and extended security personnel who carefully craft those objectives according to the company's best interests. You do what you're told. You haven't, and I guarantee you there will be severe consequences for you."
"Ooooh," Raven said derisively, "and what are you going to do, fire me?"
As she expected, liquid fire propagated from her neck into her body, her entire spine feeling as if it was exposed to a thousand needles. Despite herself Raven screamed; and she pitched back, tumbling to the ground. Davies maintaned the taser for a few more agonizing seconds, watching the esper twitch and squirm on the ground, before she relented. "You'd better adjust your attitude, Raven. I don't much care for it."
Raven slowly stood up, trembling only a little from the aftereffects of the taser, and she pushed her haid back behind her shoulders again. She glared hard in Davies' eyes, and let drop a single word—"Tough."
Davies tensed as if to fire the taser again, but paused. Raven's face was serious now, telling her that this was not a teenage rebellion tantrum. "Raven, I'm warning you..."
"Warn me all you want," Raven said, sternly this time. There was no smirk on her. She looked stone-cold. "All you can do is whip me with the collar, and it's not going to work. Not if I don't let it, and I won't."
"Don't do something Johnny might regret," Davies said coldly, trying another tack.
"Ah yes, Johnny. Nice poker face. If I didn't know you were bluffing, I might have fallen for it." Raven pulled a chair and sat, again, in front of a perplexed Davies. "He's a very strong card. Unfortunately, there's only one of him, so you only get to play the card once. You need to keep him in your hand in case I do something like, oh, I dunno, teleport to my buddies over in Hong Kong so they take the collar off." She smirked again. "The collar was a nice bluff too. Well, it had a sting to it. It cost a lot to call. But it was still a bluff—see, I just called it, and there's still only one card in your hand." She stroked the collar with her fingers as if it were jewelry. "In the end the gravitational constants between me and the company haven't changed. I'm still a triple-A esper—one in a hundred million. Rarer than that. Completely irreplaceable. You can't afford to lose me. You can't afford to hurt me, not now when DFS's poised to attack you when you're weakest. You can't afford to piss me off too much, just in case I decide to 'sabotage my objectives' at a moment where the consequences will be worse than just not having another collared attack dog in your kennel." Her grin broadened. "Heck, if I decided to throw a tantrum and tear someone up before the collar brought me down, you still couldn't afford to really do much. The numbers wouldn't match up anyway. After all, the company's got only one like me. They've got hundreds of security cyborgs and heck, thousands of ambitious executives always ready to fill in an opening." She grinned like a friendly shark. "When I asked you what you were gonna do... I was being serious."
Deliberately, Raven leaned her chair back again. Then she watched Davies. The executive's jaw was trembling in complete, powerless rage, but her eyes betrayed a hint of fear. She knew Raven's words were true. Maybe she hadn't even brought this line of reasoning as far as Raven had. "Now," Raven continued, "you can't do diddly squat to me, but I can't do diddly squat to you, either. You've still got the Johnny trump card, after all, and I don't particularly like being shocked either. So it's a matter of knowing each other's limits. As long as you don't ask me to do something I'm violently objecting to—like shoot at children, or get someone else collared—we should get along fine," she said, "and you can get pretty much all the use you want out of me. But don't try to push too hard, else I'll push back. And here's a bit of friendly advice—don't sweat the details. Nobody cares if my hair's purple."
Davies seemed on the verge of an explosion of rage, but with a visible effort of will, she kept it under control. In seconds, her executive poker-face was back. Raven was impressed. She'd really shoved her boss in the ropes, but Davies had been quick to recover. "Very well. But do not expect any outings or much free time for a long while. My superiors are extremely disappointed in your performance, and so am I. Perhaps an intensive training regimen will help you on your next mission.
"Fine by me," Raven shrugged. "I'm always up to expanding my salable skills."
She grinned at Davies, who merely glared coldly. The executive stood and gathered her papers. If she was flustered by the way the interview had gone, she gave no sign; indeed, an onlooker walking into the room at that point might think that Davies had carefully planned and controlled every element of the interview. Raven knew better. She had her bosses on the back foot.
"I'll have the experts determine a suitable regimen and let you know of your assignations. I shall make sure it will occupy nearly every moment of your time from now on," Davies announced. "I hope we will not have to have this conversation again."
Raven actually giggled at that, unable to restrain herself. "Yeah, I bet you do."
Unperturbed, Davies continued, "This will go in your permanent file. Good day." And with that she turned on her heel and left out the door.
Raven sat back and laughed. She managed to resist the urge to stand up and dance for a full thirty seconds before she stood and twirled happily before letting herself fall to the couch, still giggling with glee. Another piece of the puzzle had been set in place. She didn't feel so helpless anymore. In fact, she felt insufferably proud of herself.
Lora came in at her usual time, relieving Katsura. After the usual curt briefing, she went to make herself a coke in the kitchen as she called out a greeting to Raven across the room. Raven acknowledged with a wave from where she was watching the TV.
As Lora came back into the room, Raven stood up and Lora got her first good look at her. She nearly snarfed her drink.
"Well? What do you think?" Raven said.
"Wow... Not quite what I was expecting. But it's definitely you." Lora said, grinning. "Makes me wonder what I'd look like with.... oh... pink hair?"
Raven laughed and stretched. "Go ahead, Lora... It's the season for changes."
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