[An excerpt from the personal journal of Vivian Lau]
December 31, 2038
Boy, how pathetic! I just reread yesterday's entry and now I feel like a complete splat. New resolution: no more whiney, self-pitying crap! Tomorrow I'm outta here, and that's that!
Yes, I'm still sad to be leaving home. And yes, I'm going to miss Auntie Lydia and Elisa very much. And no, I'm not at all sure Ill be able to make a living as an esper-for-hire, like Raven does. But you know what? None of that makes any difference. I have to go anyway. I gotta get out there and try. It's for my own good. (So, did that sound trite enough to bore a dead cockroach or what?).
Point is, I've spent the last five years hiding here and I'm finally figuring out that if I stay much longer, I'll probably end up staying for the rest of my life. Oh, maybe not right here in Alice Springs, but certainly hiding in some obscure little place, keeping my head down, trying not to be noticed by the rest of the world.
So I'm off to Hong Kong, and I'm gonna go and get myself noticed, even if I am scared of how things might turn out as a result. No matter what reasonable-sounding excuses I was making the other day for staying here, the truth is I was just plain afraid to leave. I remember how I felt after what happened back in the Zone. I felt weak and helpless, like an up-ended sheep that doesnt know if it's about to be sheared or slaughtered.
See, the way I figure it, if I start doing the whole esper-for-hire thing, it's almost inevitable that I'll end up in a bad jam at some point. And when I do, I'm afraid that in spite of all Raven's training and me no longer being a little kid (okay, an argument could be made against that last bit), I'll discover that I still cant hack it, that I'm still too weak and helpless to protect myself and probably always will be. That by nature, I'm prey rather than predator. A sheep instead of a wolf.
It would be a whole lot easier to not chance that happening, to just stay right here where I'm warm and safe and comfortable. But if I stay, I'll be proving that I'm weak and helpless. So I'm taking a chance and going, so that I can maybe I can prove the opposite. I dont know if I will or not, but I gotta find out. So look out Hong Kong, 'cause here I—aw jeez, I cant believe I almost wrote that. More trite crap. What's with me today, anyway?
From a thousand feet in the air, the Zone looked much like it always had. A broad expanse of abandoned and ruined buildings stretching for miles. Scattered through the gray was thick masses of green, the sign of former parkland and open space. Bright spots marked solar panels, while plumes of smoke indicated cooking and heating fires. The wind caught most of the sound and all of the smell, giving the Zone an almost peaceful quality.
At five hundred feet buildings became more distinct and streets more obvious. Various Zone vehicles, as jury-rigged and haphazard as ever, navigated the crumbling roads, delivering people and goods from place to place. Flags (mostly openmouthed carp banners) snapped in the breeze while windmills whirred and pumped.
At two hundred feet one started to pass the tops of the tallest buildings, mostly office towers and scattered apartment high-rises. Many had a shattered, cratered look to them as of someone had tapped them repeatedly with a large hammer. Almost none of the buildings retained glass in their windows, even as high up as here, mute evidence of Jinsei strafing runs.
At fifty feet one was now in the thick of the Zone, surrounded by tenements, offices, and apartments on all sides. Virtually all the upper stories beyond the third were empty, given over to rats, bats, birds, and anyone willing and/or desperate to live there. Lines of laundry were strung from wall to wall, windows were boarded over more often than not, and plastic sheeting seemed to take the place of many walls.
At ground level the effect of Jinsei's aborted invasion became much more obvious. Shell holes, bullet scars, and the rusted wrecks of former security vehicles. The fighting had been especially thick in and around Bartertown and nearby Zone City. Even worse off was Darkside, which had been nearly flattened by the concentrated firepower of just one Jinsei Nightsky Dragon.
Speaking of which...
Shion adjusted her cloak and glanced about her as she stood in the middle of the street. Deserted. Excellent. Turning with a swirl of cloth and hair, she made her way north, looking neither left nor right, eating up the ground with a purposeful stride.
Five years ago almost to the day, Jinsei had launched an invasion of the Neo York Zero Zone, apparently as part of a deal with the city and state of New York to pacify and then rebuild the lawless stretch of city. It had started well enough, with Jinsei's security forces making great gains, both in territory and casualties inflicted. But Jinsei, with an arrogance typical of such a huge company, had overstepped themselves. First they made the mistake of holding prisoner anyone they found with a SIN card, meaning anyone who happened to live in Neo York and was in the Zone on either business or pleasure. Then came the rounding up of children with esper potential, followed by an escalation of military forces—specifically the monstrous airships known as Nightsky Dragons.
As United North America looked on in growing horror, what was supposed to be simple "police action" turned into full-scale war. Other companies, more than happy to see Jinsei taken down a notch of two, began to smuggle in supplies to the resistance. They also sent in covert operatives, using the Zone as a testing ground for men and machines designed to bleed Jinsei dry.
And bleed Jinsei did. Although they had plenty of firepower, they had too few men, and not even the legions of cyberdroids could make up for a foe that knew the lay of the land inside and out and was an expert of setting ambushes and traps.
Stopping at the outskirts of a large high-rise housing development, Shion took a moment to study the cluster of towers. It was here that Jinsei's back was broken. Here was where she, along with several other espers of similar ability, struck a blow Jinsei was unable to answer.
Someone, perhaps several someone's, it didn't matter who, had come up with a daring plan. Hire the world's most powerful esper operatives to take a Nightsky Dragon down. And considering the amount of money being offered, Shion had been only to glad to accept.
She had armed and armored herself well that night, in full defensive harness, carrying a rapid-fire autocannon. Even so, the mission had nearly ended before it had started, as the Dragon had detected them sooner then expected, opening fire with laser and ion cannon, catching Oniko by surprise and blasting her out of the air. Shion and Alan had responded with their own assault, rocking the Dragon and giving Raven a chance to get in close. But even the three of them couldn't quite destroy such an immense vehicle as fast as they'd have liked. They battered its six hundred foot length, peeling open the armored hide to tear at the tender and vulnerable innards, where the airship's defensive systems couldn't reach. Finally, its back broken, the Dragon fell to to Earth in a mass of smoke and flame, revealing a red-cloaked figure floating in the air with them.
Only a fool would have denied feeling a rush of fear at the sight, but Ran simply hung there, arms open and nodded to them all. "Now there will be peace," he said, apparently in one of his sane moments, before vanishing in a rush of air. Shion, no fool herself, followed suit, as did the others.
The loss of the Dragon had done it. Jinsei started to tear at itself, as different divisions began to fight among themselves, assigning blame for the mess. The bloodletting was brief, but brutal. The security and combat forces were called back, ostensibly to protect Jinsei assets, but everyone knew better—Jinsei had lost. A number of executives were offered early retirement --some had been asked to step down, while others had a more permanent decision made for them. Several Jinsei facilities suffered "industrial sabotage" of a highly destructive nature, and the board of directors quickly shuffled seats around.
As for the Zone, there was a short-lived rush of assistance, as various other corporations moved in, offering help and aid—usually in exchange for captured and recovered Jinsei gear. The Zone residents themselves did their best to rebuild and go on with their lives, with at least one notable difference—the gangs were less territorial then before, and more willing to work together. The Entertainment District had even reopened, although 93 Underground was no more. A shame really, Shion had liked the Underground. Now people flocked to The Living End or the appropriately named Armageddon Clock.
Having made her way amid the tall apartment blocks, Shion stood silent, staring at the immense wreckage of a stripped and gutted Nightsky Dragon. Even after four years of salvage hunters, large portions of it were still intact, the armored hide resisting rain and hammer equally.
Ducking under a twisted support strut, the tall esper made her way into the Dragon's twisted entrails, the white glare from a hand lamp lighting her way. The going was easier now than she'd expected; almost all the lose wreckage had been removed along with any intact doors. Shion finally stopped at a doorway opening onto a chamber located deep inside the Dragon's armored belly. Taking a deep breath, she flashed the light inside, the circular beam illuminating a thin scattering of bones. This of itself was no big deal, the Nightsky had gone down with all hands, which in this case had meant a good thirty of so crew. But these skeletons weren't the bones of full-grown men and women in Jinsei security uniforms, they were smaller, thinner, lighter. They were the bones of children, teens and preteens gathered up by Jinsei for one reason—to become a new generation of esper weapons.
So, the rumors were true. Shion had only learned about the hidden cargo a few weeks ago. Someone had leaked the intel, and it had gotten back to her. She let the beam of her flashlight play slowly over the scattered skeletons, the bones poking out of the ragged remains of clothing. There was little to no odor, other than the general mustiness of the wreckage. There wasn't even a great deal of dust, actually, since the room was still fairly protected from the outside.
Crouching down, Shion reached out with a gloved hand to trace a fingertip down the curve of a rib. How many had been in here? A dozen? More? How many had Jinsei managed to spirit away when all was said and done? And where were they now? Scattered among Jinsei's installations, being turned into esper weapons? (Of course they were.) Being dissected to see what made them tick? Pumped full of drugs in an effort to increase their potential? Dying due reactions to the drugs and tests, their bodies promptly send down to the lab for further examination?
Shion sighed, her breath a faint white cloud. Raven had spoken once of organizing the espers... something Shion had long felt couldn't be done. There were too many espers, with too many opinions, agendas, and plans. But... was it that impossible a dream? Could something be done to make Jinsei and the other corporations realize espers were people and not just corporate assets?
Crouched there in the dimness, Shion considered the questions she'd asked herself, the skeletons littered before her, and the world outside. It was some time before she rose and left, the chamber as still and quiet as she had found it.
Dawn sat on the edge of the stage, absently tuning her guitar. As it was still early in the afternoon, the Armageddon Clock was practically empty, with only a few patrons taking advantage of the buildings warmth to escape the January cold.
When Jinsei had invaded, one of the first places they'd hit was 93 Underground. Duke had been the first to die, gunned down in the doorway he was supposed to guard. Phoebe the weapon-check girl had been next, and once inside, the Wolf Brigade shot at least one Puma simply for being a Puma. Dawn hadn't been there at the time—in fact she'd been at the trailer she called home, but she's heard about it. Apparently, the trooper next tried to hassle the Empress (an grave mistake to make, if there ever was one), with predictable results. Supposedly she killed something like twenty troopers, which Dawn had found hard to believe, an opinion confirmed later when Gordon had told her the number was a far more realistic three.
Not that it mattered much. 93 Underground was gone, burned and bombarded into ruin as part of Jinsei's "scorched Earth" policy to pacifying the Zone. Dawn had spent a good portion of the invasion running and hiding with what was left of the Bell's Motors gang. Bell herself (who Dawn figured had to be an ex-operative), André, Ayane, and CK. Eventually she's managed to find the rest of the band, and they'd even been able to do a few impromptu concerts, blasting out tunes to raise the moral of the Zone's resistance fighters and to annoy Jinsei troopers.
But it hadn't lasted. Jinsei, apparently fed up with the Zone have the nerve to fight back, had sent in their big black triangles, and a fire mission from one of those monsters was more than enough to vaporize a city block and then some. The Zone was doomed and everyone had know it, even with the supplies smuggled in from various corporations who wanted nothing more than to give Jinsei a black eye (or two). Only a spate of corporate infighting and bloodletting in the Jinsei boardroom had saved them.
Of course... "saved" was a relative term. Dawn was lucky, her bandmates still lived. But Bell had lost Ken in the first hours of the invasion, while André had ended up burying Ayane towards the end of the whole mess. And then there was 93 Underground, blasted to ruins, as was The Edge of Night, the Vat... hell, even the Puma Sisters were no more. It wasn't the same old Zone... and never would be.
The blonde-haired woman looked up from her guitar to see one of the co-owners of the Armageddon Clock standing before her. Aileen Muldowney, former corporate drone from Neo York, now a nearly full-body cyborg. She'd never said what had happened to cause her to need a prosthetic body, and Dawn was wise enough to not ask.
"You okay? You looked a bit... lost."
"Oh..." Sitting up, Dawn ran a hand through her hair and gave Aileen a wan smile. "Just thinking."
Coming up beside her, Alieen leaned against the stage. "About what?"
Death... Dawn didn't say. Besides, she'd seen enough of that. The Zone had changed, things were different, and in some small ways, things were getting better. The 'Clock was proof of that. They'd finally gotten it rigged up they way they'd wanted; there was heat and lights, and even a sound system. And the stage... she dropped on hand to the wood surface of the stage and tapped it with a finger razor. It needed a proper breaking in.
"About getting the band back together," Dawn answered with a grin.
It was strange how some things turn out in life, such as the genuine peace that Korey felt from gazing up at the stars. Five years ago, caught up in the buzz of the Jinsei Invasion and all the jobs that came of it for people such as herself, Korey had hardly taken the time, even while at home, not to go star gazing.
Then again, there were jobs to be undertaken and money to be made. Lots of money. Invading the Zero Zone had been a huge mistake, not to mention a historical one. Just like Russia, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq before it, the invaders had oversimplified matters, thinking it to be a simple matter and underestimating both the local populace and those that would use the entire affair for their own interests.
Reflecting back on the time, Korey knew that she had been one of those interests, working for Spycorp many a time. It had been plenty of money, and there were some good times to be remembered, and some not so good times, such as escaping a collapsing building with Aoi and nearly getting taken out by a Jinsei Assault squad.
Of course, Korey was no serious astronomer, unlike some of the other people here in the park. Nope, she much preferred a nice cool beer and a blanket to stretch out on the side of a gently slopping hill. The hill, and the park the hill was in, was located in London, a large city that was as different from Neo York as a large city could be.
Korey had found herself, if not enamored, than very much intrigued by the capital of Britain, mainly in how it had managed to keep a style all its own in the face of industrialization. For example, there weren't as many sky scrappers here as there were in Neo York, Mega Tokyo, or Hong Kong, there were many a small time bars and pubs that still served semi-fresh food and better beer, and there were even some small parks, here and there, a testament for the urge NOT to build wherever there was some free space.
Moving out of Neo York had been, in Korey's opinion, one of the best moves she had ever done, and not just as a change of pace. The whole of the European Union had offered her jobs with her skills in mind while presenting her with challenges that differed from the ones she had taken in North America and Hong Kong. Maybe it was the culture of the countries that made up the EU, but working within them had provided her with insights into different kinds of security systems she otherwise would not have experienced working elsewhere.
It had proved to be both a challenge and a valuable learning experience, and five years of plying skills she had been trained as an agent of espionage had earned her a comfortable living in London with plenty of money for retirement should she choose to do so.
It was almost strange to consider, that last bit, considering that she was still in her late 20s, but there it was. Looking up at the clear night sky, the result of many a technology and dollars sunk into clean air management, Korey knew that he life hadn't been easy, but it hadn't been a drag down dirty fight every single day either, although a few certainly had been. She could stay right here in London, and spend night after night taking in the beautiful night sky and the stars overhead.
Ah, who was she kidding? This was nice, to be sure, but no way could she give up the excitement and danger. She just needed the time off every now and again, to give her mind and body some much needed quality time.
And besides, the stars would always be here, waiting for her, but Raven would not.
And Korey really did want to see her again, to explain to her how much she missed her, how she hated faking her own death in order to assume a new identity...
Dammit, she really wished there had been another way around it, but in the end, there hadn't, and so Karin Nys had to die, and Korey Winters had to be born.
Of course, the stars wouldn't care about ay of this. By the time they died, Korey and Raven would have been dead for many millions of years, which made things seem rather insignificant in the broad view of things.
Of course, Korey wasn't thinking that broad, so finding Raven, apologizing profusely, and picking up their friendship from where they had left it held immediate appeal.
A decision was made, and Korey stood, retrieving her cans of beer and draining the rest of the one she had opened. There was a job in Hong Kong she had been thinking of taking, offered by a casino owner named Rinn-Fa, and it would make for a good change of pace to get out of Europe.
Besides, it'd been awhile since she had some good Chinese food, and the take out shops here just didn't live up to the real deal.
"I saw a monster in the woods yesterday."
"What?" Shawn turned around to stare at Qawi. "Yer shittin' me."
"No lie." Qawi run one hand along the smooth dark skin of his scalp and gave his fellow clubhouse ("gang" was too harsh a word) members a grin. "I saw it. It was huge, and green, and in the wood over by the creek. Wanna see?"
"Oh, hell yeah!" Shawn jumped to his feet, slapping Ed on the shoulder. "Let's go!"
Adel glanced around the clubhouse (really an abandoned room in the apartment complex), "Shouldn't like, get weapons and stuff? Just in case?"
"Yeah," Ed nodded, "We can't go hunt a monster with just sticks and stuff."
And so it happened that the fearless monsters hunters (all four of them, and not one of them older than 12 or taller than 4'11"), marched off into the woods, armed with such weapons as a group of preteens could gather together from the ruins of an apartment complex: lengths of pipe with the ends cut away and sharpened, a club with nails in the head, and some small knives.
As was typical, Shawn led, armed with a sharpened length of pipe and the bravado of the very young. Qawi came next, since he'd seen the "monster," with Ed close behind and Adel bringing up the rear. Leaving the apartment complex where they'd set up their "clubhouse" (complete with a "No Girls Alowed" sign) they crossed the ruined street (with a long-stripped APC still sitting in the center) and entered the woods.
Since it was January, the woods was mostly leafless tree trunks, thick masses of brown vines, and the occasional dark green bristly mass of a pine tree. Most of the leaves were long gone, rotted away in the December rains, while the stream still flowed amid the low humps of rocks. The boys picked they way amid tangles fallen branches and toppled trees, skirting the crater, where half-a-decade ago a 150mm howitzer shell had fallen from the sky to blast a hole in the ground.
"Is it far?" Adel asked.
Qawi gestured deeper into forest. "Not really. It's down by the pond."
"Right," Shawn nodded. "We see it, we don't give it a chance to get us. Right?"
"Right!" came the response in a ragged chorus., although Ed looked a little dubious at the prospect of meeting a monster.
The pond sat at the bottom of a shallow slope surrounded by thick stands of reeds and the puffs of long-exploded cattails. A thin film of ice covered the water, while the shore was mostly frozen mud. Ed claimed there was fish in the pond, although no one had ever caught any. Frogs, snakes, leeches, and mosquitos were to be had aplenty in summer though.
The four boys came to a halt at the edge of the pond, as Qawi pointed to the far shore. "There."
"Right." Shawn motioned with his spear. "C'mon, we're gonna get it."
Slowly, carefully, they made their way along the edge of the pond. "Be careful," Qawi whispered, "It's big." Shawn simply shrugged and raised his spear a little higher. "I can handle it."
"You sure?" Ed asked.
Finally they stopped at the edge of a small stand of trees. "In there?" Adel asked. Qawi simply nodded, causing Shawn to step forward, spear raised. He vanished into trees and all was quiet for a moment. Then came an excited, "Guys! Get in here!" The other three, who'd expected the screams of someone being eaten alive (or something like that) scrambled forwards to confront the monster.
It stood twice the height of the tallest of them, with broad armored-plated shoulders, and huge arms. It's back bulged with fins, vanes, and pipes, while long, thin barrels pointed skyward from near the neck. The front hung open, showing a pale interior. The long they looked, the more details became apparent. The streaks of rust, the scars from battle, the chipped paint and faded designation numbers. It wasn't a monster it was....
"That's a Landmate!" Ed shouted. "A battlemover!"
"It is?" Qawi replied as the other turned to look at him. Ed nodded, obviously relieved to see the monster turn out to be a far more mundane object. A one, the four of them looked back the silent carcass of the now-dead combat machine. "Coooool...."
(Unless otherwise noted, all conversation is in Mandarin Chinese.)
Gang sat at the back of the Chengbao Security board room, taking notes. He'd been attending these meetings long enough that his presence had gone from 'unusual' to 'normal' to 'invisible'. He was finding the last condition to be most useful.
"Our participation in the fiasco that was the Neo York Zero Zone project has caused serious damage to both our bottom line and our potential future stability."
He was finding his position to be much like that of a naturalist, studying creatures in their native habitat.
"On the contrary, our demonstrations of our capabilities have already borne fruit; we have had three new offers in the last week alone."
These meetings were always such fascinating exercises in applied psychology.
"None of which will be of any use if Kagura realizes we, rather than Jinsei, were involved in sabotaging one of their demonstrations to steal a contract from them."
At times, it was a verbal form of the game 'chicken', where the point was to see who would lose their temper first.
"Why would they think that? After all, it was Jinsei that sabotaged them. The fact that we leaked Kagura's location to Jinsei and suggested they were planning an attack isn't enough to make Kagura think we were involved."
Staying calm was not only a required defense, it could be a useful offensive tactic as well. It was difficult to maintain a facade of cool when one's opponent appeared to be smirking at you.
"Kagura may not know, but Jinsei does. What if Jinsei realizes they were tricked and decides to take it out on us instead? Kagura would only buy out the company and fire the management. Jinsei would destroy us utterly to make an example."
Of course, staying calm could backfire if it looked as if you were not taking the current situation seriously enough.
"If even half the stories about the purges going in within Jinsei are true, it is highly likely that the one contact who might be able to trace the tip back to us is no longer working there... or anywhere."
Ah, the uncomfortable reminder of mortality, always a useful tactic to distract your opponents.
"I still say we cannot simply act as if this never happened. What do you think, Gang?"
Gang was too well-versed in this to let out a sigh, much as he might have wanted to throttle his father for making him exist in this board room again rather than being able to watch while ignored. He paused for a moment, considering his words. Of course, he could still hurt his father for this...
"I find I must agree with the honourable Mr. Zheng, though for different reasons than stated. Under the current circumstances, precipitous actions when there is as yet no reason to suspect our involvement will simply give others reason to suspect our involvement. Until we have evidence of either Kagura or Jinsei having plans against us, we dare not act in a manner which may be considered suspicious." Gang paused for a moment, then added with a calculated smile, "More suspicious than expected for a company in our line of business, at least."
There were a few polite chuckles from around the table, though notably not from his father's position. Gang kept his smile as he looked at his father's face, at the frown which was not entirely hidden. For a man who had taught him much of what he knew about verbal and emotional sparring, the old man seemed to be forgetting his own lessons. He had no doubt that he would be hearing about this at length under more private conditions.
It was over an hour later when the confrontation happened. There were few places in the Chengbao building which offered even the illusion of privacy, after all.
Gang simply stood there, waiting for his father to make the first move. It didn't take long. "You disagreed with me this morning."
Gang just shrugged. "I did so because you were mistaken. As I stated in the meeting, acting out would be more likely to cause unneeded problems than solve problems which might not even exist."
Sun Qi glared at his son. "You embarrassed me in front of the board."
"If you did not wish my opinion to be made public you should not have asked me in front of the rest of the board."
Sun Qi continued to glare, then his expression relaxed. "You're doing a good job of keeping me off-balance. You've learned your lessons well."
Gang simply nodded at that. When it became apparent to his father that nothing more was going to be said, he continued himself, "Head home. I have some other work I need to do here."
Gang nodded again, then turned to leave the room as his father busied himself with other tasks. At the door, he paused and said, "Indeed, I have learned many lessons from you, father. Some of them were even the ones you meant to teach."
By the time Sun Qi got to the door to ask what that was supposed to mean, Gang was no longer in the hallway.
Dinner was a quiet affair, just Gang and the housekeeper; Sun Qi was working late, as usual. Gang nodded to the housekeeper, gave her the expected thanks for the food, then told her not to wait up for him and left the house.
His path was a slow, somewhat random walk around his part of Hong Kong. Once he was fairly certain he'd bored to tears anybody who might have been trying to follow him, he casually stepped around a store and disappeared down the alley and around the back. A 'borrowed' key and a hacked security code got him inside the old rusted lock box that hadn't been used since the store in question changed ownership; the new owners didn't need the box enough to want to pay to have it cut open.
Inside was a veritable treasure trove of equipment he'd collected. A Corp-Sec grade armour suit that he slipped on and sealed around him, followed by a matte black stealth suit that covered it and made him look like a muscular shadow. A gun that had been 'liberated' previously from another Corp-Sec goon who had lost it, and which would nicely create confusion if it were to be left behind or identified.
In Corporate Security, after all, the question wasn't whether or not you were paranoid, it was whether you were paranoid enough.
Once he was suited up, he closed up the box, leaned a board back against it, then slipped deeper into the back alleys.
Yo Ling was stalking the streets tonight, and someone who thought their building was secure was going to get a rude awakening in the morning.
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