"Okay," Raven said, "Are you ready?"
Lora checked her equipment harness yet again, and looked at the three large packs sitting on the floor next to them with a critical eye.
Raven's friend sighed slightly, then said, "No. I'm not ready. I hate teleporting. But let's do this anyway. Get it over with."
"Are you sure you want to do this?" the telekinetic asked with concern. We can always try flying over the river somewhere if you prefer."
Lora nodded, her eyes closed, "Do it."
Gathering her power, Raven took Lora's hands. She closed her eyes in concentration and frowned deeply, and *moved*...
--the teleport began. A darkness deeper than blindness enveloped Lora as she grew faster than thought till she curled fetally on the edge of infinity while simultaneously she shrank below the quantum scale and entered the worlds of charm and color and magic--
--and for one instant not of time because it was all of time, she was the entire universe and yet none of it--
--and as always, the contradiction rent her. She screamed into forever as the sensation pulled and tugged at the broken ends of her psi talent, causing pain brighter than the greatest supernovae. Half of her stretched to unimaginable sizes and at the same time the process compacted her, reaching inside to squeeze out the spaces between the atoms of her being. It was like dying, only worse, because it did not end, ever, for where Lora was, time was not--
--and since time was not, it ended instantly.
As they popped into existence, Lora collapsed onto the street. She never remembered the experience of teleportation consciously, but the shock always bled through and caused her nerve endings to resonate with sympathetic pain and disorientation. It was all she could do to support herself on her hands and knees, as her vision blanked and then slowly cleared.
Only Raven bore witness to the Devils' shock—and the quickness of their reaction. Weapons clicked as they were brought to bear on the pair. A dozen of the gangers were in the street, quickly moving to surround the pair, pointing various sundry firearms in their direction. Raven ignored them, instead crouching next to Lora to comfort her. "You all right?"
Lora groaned, "No... but gimme a minute..."
"Crap, Eliza, what the frag are you doing?" Rammer's voice, angry as usual but tinged with fear. Raven looked up. One of the people—actually a tall, muscular Puma with short white hair—had raised her weapon and was grabbing the gun of the Devil next to her. That happened to be Rammer's shotgun, and the ganger was now struggling against the synthetic for the weapon.
Struggling to her feet, Lora looked around warily at the gangers. Raven had warned her about their possible reaction, but assured her that she could deal with them. They were her family after all, after a fashion. They were mainly interested in protecting themselves and their turf, and Lora could well understand their reaction to the two of them popping in unannounced. It helped that Raven could throw a shield over them if anything happened. Still, the sight of the Devils made Lora's hand twitch with the need to reach for her gun.
"Damn fools—get those damned guns pointed somewhere useful!" came the Boss's voice, laden with authority. The shocked gangers immediately lifted their weapon, Rammer finally yanking the shotgun away from the Puma with a glare, only to stalk off fuming. The tall ganger with the red-dyed hair waved the other Devils back to their tasks—they went back to sweeping the streets with patrols—and approached Raven and Lora, smoking a cigarette casually, though Raven actually saw him stamp his foot nervously. He looked at the pair silently for a few moments, Raven quietly helping Lora back to her feet.
Lora looked the man over. Despite his gang clothing and "colors", there was something about him that she thought seemed... almost corporate. He had the look of a man used to having people do what he wanted them to do. But his attitude seemed less macho bravado and more a quiet sort of confidence. She waited politely for Raven to do the talking.
She didn't. Raven just watched as the ganger began flipping his lighter up and catching it on the way down. This went on for a minute or two, then the Boss threw the lighter up—and it didn't come down.
The Boss and Raven lightly chuckled in unison, and the ganger plucked the lighter out of the air. "I don't think I need to tell you how fragging *happy* I am that you're here."
"No, you don't." Raven smiled fiercely. "And not a corpie anymore, either."
"So I heard."
"This is my friend Lora—Lora Doubet. We're more or less partners-in-crime nowadays."
The Boss looked Lora in the eye, sizing her up, a visible twinge of lust heating up his cool, collected stare. "It's an honor, Miss Doubet," he greeted her, nodding politely.
Lora smiled, appreciating the attention, and appreciating that he kept it mostly to himself. "Thanks, same here," she held out a hand, "Mr....?"
"Just call me the Boss," said the ganger, shaking Lora's hand. Unsurprisingly, he had a firm grip.
Raven smirked. "He doesn't like Jebediah Smith too much." The Boss glared at her, which only made her mischievous smile wider.
Lora said, "What's wrong with Jebediah? Nice classical name there. I don't see a problem." Only the barest twinkle in her eye clued Raven in that she was anything other than serious.
"He doesn't think it's a proper name for a ganglord, see," Raven said, a mischievous twinge to her tone. "Not nearly mean enough. I mean, it sounds like—'would you pass me the tea, Jebediah dear?'"
The Boss shook his head in exasperation. "Very funny," he said tonelessly.
"Anyway," Lora said, "Now that the introductions are out of the way, I guess we can talk about why we're here. We need to stay away from Shiroko-Tsuhi for awhile. The Zone is the best place to do that, right now. Besides, Raven wanted to come home and protect Clark St. I'm more than willing to help. If I can stay here as well."
The Boss quietly considered this for a long moment, taking a long draught on his cigarette.
"Oh for frag's sake, Jeb, can the theatrics, will ya?" Raven snapped. The Boss glared but the telekinetic went on undaunted. "You aren't in any position to say no to us, and this is the best thing that's happened to you in a month anyway. I'll just grab my old digs above Johnny's shop if they're available."
The Boss snorted and looked at Lora. "So, no offense, but what *can* you do to help? You can fight? You a teek, too?"
Lora shook her head, "I'm not a teek. But I'll be useful. I may not look like it, but I'm a full body cybergraft. Strength and reflex augmentation... the works."
"Full body? Really?" She looked Lora up and down, glanced at Raven who simply nodded, then looked at Lora again. "Frag, holy cow. Bet you could bounce bullets and twist the lot of us into pretzels. It sure doesn't show—how did they pull something like that off?" He smiled mischievously, looking Lora in the eye. "I don't supposed you'd be free later today, huh?" Raven just rolled her eyes.
"Don't press your luck... Boss." Lora smiled indulgently. Returning the jibe with good humor.
She continued, "I also have some heavy weapons training." She patted the Earthshaker on her hip, "This isn't just for show. I can actually fire stuff like this. I brought along a couple of extra weapons, plus some ammo..." She gestured at the boxes next to them, "...plus we may be able to get more, if we need it. No guarantees on that, though. Particularly on short notice."
"Anything you can get, any time, will be great. We're seriously under gunned." He glanced at Raven, went back to Lora, and allowed himself a smile. "Not so much anymore, though! I'm leading the defense around here but I figure you two will want to do your own thing, right?"
"You bet," Raven said. "But don't worry, we'll be around, helping out. We'll have to leave and come back at times, though. Too much stuff happening out of the Zone." Lora nodded in agreement.
The Boss nodded. "Well, then, I won't keep you. Bet you're dying to see the Doc, and the Devils are probably bungling something somewhere. Too many new recruits at the wrong time—it messes things up. I'll see you around, ladies." He made as if to tip his nonexistent hat to the two women, then left.
"Well, let's go inside the clinic. Lydia'll be waiting for us... she's always waiting." She made as if to pick up her case, but as she extended her hand the Puma who'd wrestled for Rammer's shotgun picked it up. Raven tensed, but the synthetic didn't make any move to make off with the case, instead she just stood looking at her with submissive eyes and a small, almost but not quite eager smile...
"Shion-hime?" Raven guessed incredulously, for the Puma, once a carbon copy of Shion, now looked nothing like her model except for the color of her hair.
Lora started a bit at the name. "'Princess' Shion? Wait a minute... " She suddenly remembered the Puma that an S-T exec had ordered, and her first meeting with Matthew. The transformation was remarkable.
The Puma nodded submissively, which was quite a feat since she towered over Raven by several inches. "Mrs. Lydia told me my name was Eliza now, Miss Clark," she said. "Is that all right?"
Raven blinked away the shock. "Um, yes, that's fine... Eliza." The Puma smiled slightly at the telekinetic's approval.
Lora shook her head slightly, "Well, better this than the original look and name. If Shion Nys had ever seen her before... well that wouldn't have been good at all." She moved to pick up her own case and bag.
"Not at all." Raven agreed. She looked at Eliza's holding the case and waiting for Raven to move. "You... you still think I own you, don't you?"
The Puma looked at her curiously and nodded. "I thought I was on loan to Ms. Lydia."
Raven looked at the Puma uncomfortably, then said, "I want you to be free."
Eliza nodded, but her eyes registered only uncomprehending puzzlement. "Yes, Ms. Clark. Where did you want me to put this?"
Raven looked to Lora for help. Her friend shrugged helplessly, a little bewildered herself
"I don't know how to deal with this sort of thing either Raven, I think you'd need Matthew or a Puma psych to work it out."
"Puma psych? Is there something like that?" Raven asked curiously. Eliza stood by, waiting.
"I honestly don't know. I'm just guessing. I don't keep up with that field."
Raven sighed and looked at Eliza. "I guess talking to Matthew can't hurt. In the meantime, give me that case, Eliza." Obediently, the Puma handed the telekinetic the heavy case, who hefted it with the same ease as the six-foot-four replicant had. She stood back, waiting. Raven gave Lora a powerless look and a shrug.
Lydia was waiting for them when they entered the clinic. Raven swept forward and took her adoptive mother into a warm embrace, laying her hand on the old lady's shoulder, her closed eyes streaming tears. Lydia returned the hug gently, stroking Raven's black hair.
Lora patiently waited for Raven and Lydia to finish their reunion. It was bittersweet to watch. She was honestly happy for her friend, but the scene brought back pangs of regret over her own past. She hadn't had any parents in such a long time. And her other relatives... No. No need to think on that any further. After a few moments she decided to look elsewhere.
Eliza walked to stand by near Raven while Lora entered the clinic. The entrance was a smallish, open area. There were several makeshift beds in place, clearly hastily set up in this usually clear area. Each had a sleeping patient upon it, street gangers in black leather and scavenger in rag-and-grime chic, with gunshot wounds much in evidence. The room's usual furniture—table, chairs, and the like—were carefully gathered in a corner.
The clinic was overflowing, Lora realized. This was only the entryway! How many people was Raven's Aunt Lydia handling? How was she getting the supplies to deal with this many people? She headed up the stairs. The wood creaking under her feet. She looked down for a moment, mindful of her weight. But the wood seemed more than solid enough. As she got to the top of the stairs to look around, she saw more makeshift cots in the hallway. One of the younger street kids was helping dress a man's arm wound. Another had just ducked into a doorway carrying a couple of water jugs. A moan caught her ear and she turned to look down the other end of the hallway. A young girl with short cropped reddish hair was lying down on a cot and her right lower leg was missing. The bandaged stump was twitching as she lay there gritting her teeth in pain.
After a long hug, Raven broke off to look at Lydia with tears on her cheeks. The old woman smiled warmly back at her, looking genuinely pleased to see her again and—proud? With that mysterious smile, Auntie Lydia took Raven's hands and led her gently up the stairs towards her old room.
Lora was standing at the top of the stairs, her back to them, looking down the short hallway. Raven said, "Lora? I'd like you to meet my Aunt Lydia."
The blonde haired girl shook herself slightly, turning toward them. "Hello." She said politely.
Lydia was a wizened old lady that stood a couple inches shorter than Raven. Yet she stood with barely a crook in her back, and her eyes shone with intelligence and understanding. Her white hair was carefully combed back in a bun, and she wore a white doctor's coat. She looked at Lora and nodded her head. "I am honored to meet you, Lora," she said, "Raven's closest friend." She smiled, and glanced at Raven, who didn't seem surprised by the label. "You'll have to excuse the mess. We're not usually this busy around here." She spoke this with casual calm.
"Yes, I can tell. I didn't realize things were so bad. No... I did know... I just couldn't picture it." Lora glanced again down the hall as another faint moan was heard, "Dammit...," She said, as if to herself, then she turned back to Lydia and said, "Are you running low on pain suppressant or endorphins? Maybe that's something we can help with?"
"Oh, I always seem to manage to find everything I need," Lydia said, motioning them onwards towards Raven's room. "I'll accept all the help you can give, but do not worry too much about me."
Lora followed them into Raven's room. It was a small, cozy little area with little furniture—just a pair of beds, a single dresser, and a table in a corner. The beds were carefully made, but it was obvious this area wasn't lived in. Raven walked nostalgically into her old room, the one she'd grown up in before leaving it four years ago for a bigger place over Johnny's clinic.
"There's a girl who's got to be barely 15 out there with her leg blown off! This clinic is stuffed to the gills! Forgive me my doubt. But you're only one person. How can you possibly handle all of this on your own?"
"Lora," Lydia said patiently, "does it really matter if I can handle it all on my own or not? I do what I can. So does everyone. In the end, what more can we do?" She turned with a faint smile. "If you know a doctor, or a nurse, or anyone who can help and is willing, they are welcome here. Otherwise, I shall do what I can, as have I."
Lora sighed, "I'm sorry. I'm not angry with you. I'm angry with the bastards that did this. I'm wondering what can be done to stop it and I'm coming up blank. I'm wondering how to help..." She gestured to indicate the clinic as a whole, "...all of this. And I'm still coming up mostly blank. I'm frustrated." She ran her fingers through her hair in an exasperated gesture, "And I'm not making a very good first impression. Sorry."
"Don't worry, Lora. Your heart is in the right place, but all storms pass, and this one will, too. We simply need to help it along a little. And things will be much better, now that you are here, you and my girl." There was a surprised intake of breath from Raven as she reached the table in the corner, and Lydia smiled. "My girl, who is all grown up, now. I'm so proud." She extended a hand to give something to Lora.
Lora reached out to take the small, flat object, and Lydia nodded and walked out of the room. The cyborg girl looked down in her hands and saw a small puzzle piece, entirely black except for a golden bird's eye in the center. She looked up to see Raven trembling a little, looking down on something laid on the table.
"What does it mean?" Lora asked bemusedly. She turned to the door, but the old doctor was gone. Only Eliza was there, standing patiently by the door. Then she looked back to the table. A puzzle with a picture of a raven was there. One piece was missing. The eye, which Lora held.
"Oh, I see," She handed the puzzle piece to Raven, "I think this belongs to you, actually."
Raven took it, a bit shocked, and gently nudged the place into its proper place. "This has always been my favorite puzzle," Raven said softly. "When I was little, I scattered the pieces once and spent months putting it back together."
"Well, it looks complete now." Lora said.
"It is..." Raven said, looking down at it. "I've been thinking of this puzzle lately, and how I've been putting my life together like I put this puzzle together... and now it's complete."
"Ah...," Lora said, understanding the metaphor now. She laid a hand on Raven's shoulder gently.
Raven turned to look at her friend, and smiled. "Guess Lydia's right. I'm all grown up, now. I can do what I want with my life."
"Good for you, then." Lora smiled.
Raven looked silently at the puzzle. She could do what she wanted with her life, but what DID she want to do?
"Well," Lora said, turning to look out the window at the street beyond, "I think we'll need to see about what we can do to help around here. Maybe I can see if Ling Ling or Nabiki can get some supplies arranged for the clinic. You could teleport them in and that would help a whole lot of problems. In the meantime, I guess we'll see what our services can do toward shoring up the protections around here."
Raven shook her head. "We may want to limit the teleporting. Too much of it will alert Ran, and if Jinsei has esper weapons—and they will—it might alert them, too. We'll need a real smuggling route."
"Good point," Lora agreed. "We'll have to see if there's any way to get things across the river. We'll have to ask around. Surely someone knows something. Maybe there's an old subway tunnel we can use."
"There's a few existing smuggling routes," Raven said, "but Jinsei would know about them and would have sealed them off already." She thought about it. "Sea routes are slow and run the risk of Jinsei patrols. Plus we'd need ships. We need something else. Ideally something mobile."
"Something that could avoid the Jinsei patrols either by speed or by stealth."
"Yes." Raven shrugged and sighed. "Teleporting would work, but only on a small scale."
"Do you have a weight or volume limit?"
"Weight. The more weight I carry the shorter I can go." She sighed. "The problem is that I can't teleport around too often. It's very noisy, especially when a lot of power is used."
"Yeah, there is that." Lora moved toward the bed, turned to Raven and said, "Oh, may I?"
"Hmm? Of course."
Lora flopped back on the bed, interlaced her fingers behind her head and stared at the ceiling in silence for a couple of minutes before speaking again.
"I wonder... Maybe there's a fixer who can get us in touch with a Rigger who has some kind of aerodyne."
"Probably," said Raven, sitting on the bed, "but that would be really expensive. Aerodynes don't fly cheap."
"Mmmm..." Lora murmured in agreement. After thinking about the problem for a couple more minutes, she came to the conclusion that the issue would have to go on the back burner for now. They'd come up with something in due time. For now, though, there were more immediate concerns.
She turned her head slightly to regard Raven, saying, "Well, how about living arrangements while we're here? You're going to be staying here in your room, I take it?" At Raven's nodded agreement, Lora said, "I'd thought there would be space here at the clinic for me. But I don't know if that's the case now. I'd like to see if there might be someplace I can bed down on a more semi-permanent basis. But I can sleep on the floor for now, no problem."
"On the floor? Oh, c'mon, Lora." Raven sat on the bed next to Lora's legs and patted the covers. "You haven't been in the Zone longed enough. There're never enough beds to go around, so you share. This one's plenty big enough for two."
"Okay, thanks. That's nice to know." Lora grinned, chuckling, "Fair warning though. I steal covers. Or so Matthew tells me. And good luck wrestling them back if they get tangled around me. Matthew gave up trying to get them back once he realized how heavy I was."
"Matthew can't lift you off the bed without touching you, either."
"Point." Lora conceded.
Lora was wandering down a little side street called Gunpowder Alley. It owed its name to its frequent use as an ambush point by the Devils when there used to be a rival gang in the next neighborhood over that kept trying to move in on their turf. This was before Raven came along with her power, of course. Now that gang was no more. It's remnants assimilated into the Devils long ago. There were few people in this area; a patrol formed of a pair of Devils leading three or four other Zoners, all of them armed with pistols and various improvised melee weapons, a young couple huddled together in a dark recess, kissing. But most of the Street's residents, permanent or refugee, stayed around Clark Street itself where most of the amenities were.
The cyborg girl had decided to walk around and try to get a feel for the neighborhood this day. Raven had given her a short tour of some parts of her old neighborhood, but in the early days, she hadn't been very mobile, so she actually hadn't visited as much of her old neighborhood as she might otherwise have. Oh, she knew where everything was, of course. But mainly she knew the area right along the main drag and closer to Lydia's clinic. And Lora figured that knowing the area better for herself couldn't hurt.
Incongruously, the sounds of an acoustic guitar made themselves heard towards the end of the alley, almost drowned by the hubbub of people back in Clark Street. Two of the armed Zoners paused to listen, but were roughly brought back to attention by the bark of one of the gangers leading the patrol. Curious, Lora followed the sounds of the guitar, wondering who was playing.
To her surprise, the source was Rammer, the largest and most intimidating of the Clark Street Devils, sitting on the edge of a caved-in second floor. His hydraulic ram of a cyberarm held a weathered, but clean and fine-sounding guitar as the big man's flesh fingers plucked the strings adroitly. He seemed to not have noticed Lora, continuing to play a rock air as much as the acoustic guitar allowed.
Lora stood there and listened silently, looking up at the big man, realizing that she was still in the shadow of the building and that he couldn't see her unless he were to look straight at her. A slight smile crept onto her face as she listened to him play. The few times she'd seen him so far, he hadn't shown any moods but anger and frustration, and it was fascinating to see his face with an air of concentration and peace at the same time. It was strangely at odds with the tune he was belting out, which was a variation on "Johnny B. Goode". He didn't so much finish the song before segueing into another melody. This one she couldn't quite identify, though she thought she should know it. He hit a couple of off-notes, though. And scowled at the metal fingers of his cyberarm on the fret as if they had betrayed him. He noodled around, experimenting with a couple of different fingerings until he found the notes he wanted, then practiced the bar a couple of times until he was satisfied with it.
Before he got started again, Lora called up to him, "Say? What was that last tune? I didn't recognize it!"
"'s called "Battle of the Line", by Selling Venus." He frowned a bit. "Y'know, most people 'round here get told not to disturb me when I'm practicing, sweetheart."
"Sorry, didn't know. Nice sound though."
"Thanks," he replied, curtly.
She hopped up on the steps to an entrance to the building opposite Rammer and sat down. Her breath fogged in the chilly air, but the sun was on her and it felt nice. Rammer noted her, grunted in a non-committal fashion, then went back to practicing. Lora listened for a few more songs, noting that he was pretty good.
At length Rammer stopped, stilled the cords with his hand, and looked silently at Lora. She opened her eyes and looked back up at him calmly, cocking her head. "Not disturbing you, am I?"
"I don't liked being watched when I practice." he replied, somewhat gruffly. "Even by someone as cute as you, sweetheart."
Lora shrugged, "Okay. No problem." Getting up from the steps and dusting the seat of her pants off, she said, "Do you ever play in public at all, though?"
"Sometimes. Not often."
"Shame, really. I play myself, y'know, and you're not bad at all."
"You do?" Rammer suddenly seemed interested. "You brought your axe?"
She nodded, "Back at the clinic, yeah. It's a left-handed Ibanez JS2000. Got an amp to go with it so I could practice if there was power."
"Well, there's some at the clinic but the Doc won't like it if you jack up the amps."
"Yeah, I didn't want to disturb any of the patients there anyway. Most of them want it quiet. Any place around here that's good for that sort of thing?"
"Well, I think Fiore's bar has some speakers," said Rammer. "And I think they still have power, though they might be saving it."
"Thanks, I'll remember that. Well, I'll leave you to it. Ja ne!"
"See ya." As Lora was leaving, Rammer returned to playing his guitar quietly, all by himself.
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