More Cunning Than Any Beast

rating: +23+x

Hashimoto Kenji, of the Hashimoto Cybernetics Corporation, sat at a large glass conference table, opposite the man he had agreed to meet with and the two companions he'd brought with him.

“Good morning, Loxley-san. It is an honour to make your acquaintance." As a courtesy for his guest, he was speaking in English.

"The pleasure is all mine," replied Lord Morgan Loxley, with an upper-class British accent. He looked younger than thirty, but was already balding. While he was dressed in a tailored dark green suit, Hashimoto noticed with distaste that it was slightly crumpled, unlike his own immaculate grey outfit.

Loxley turned to his right. "Now, allow me to introduce Circe Galanis, my technical consultant. She's the expert on that computer stuff." A tall woman in a skirt and blouse nodded and took a seat next to him. The tips of her dark brown hair were dyed electric blue. Hashimoto scrutinised her closely, but spotted no sign of the cybernetic implants that his security scans had detected down in the lobby. She looked uncomfortable with his inspection, and Hashimoto quickly looked away.

Loxley gestured behind him at a towering figure who had remained standing, to Hashimoto's relief. He wasn't sure his furniture could hold her weight. She stood more than two metres tall, and had the muscles of a body builder beneath her black suit. The fabric had a synthetic sheen that made it look cheap, even though it would have had to have been tailored at great expense to fit her frame.

"And this is Rahab, the Amalekite. She's here for my protection, and to offer a professional opinion. She's been a soldier of fortune for longer than either of us have been alive, she should have a few insights to offer."

Hashimoto was not a young man, and he looked skeptically at the giantess. Her tanned face was weathered and scarred, and her hair was grey, so that claim might just be true. From the way her dark eyes stared back at him, Hashimoto didn't doubt she'd be capable of killing him if Loxley gave the command. He knew that look well.

"I trust you had a safe journey?" Hashimoto asked politely, trying to get the meeting back on track.

"It took a while to get here, but I do enjoy the Orient. A scenic drive through rural Japan was not too arduous."

Hashimoto smiled politely. "I thank you for your understanding. The work we do requires seclusion, and we're honoured you were willing to travel to a location this remote. Now, can I offer you refreshments?”

His products walked into the room, clad in formal kimonos and carrying tea trays. One was blonde, with long white rabbit ears and a cotton tail to match, while the other had red hair, squirrel ears and a large bushy tail. The squirrel girl poured Loxley a cup of tea in the British style - black, with milk - while the rabbit girl poured Hashimoto a cup of green tea. They moved with demure elegance, and Hashimoto was pleased to see Loxley looking with interest at both of them - while his products weren't solely about aesthetics, that was certainly part of what he was selling.

"Can I offer your companions anything?"

Loxley laughed. "Circe only drinks these beige protein shakes, she won't want anything."

She shrugged. "They're efficient."

Hashimoto noted that her eyes had fixed intently on his products from the moment they walked in. If Loxley was the type to defer to experts, this woman may well be the one to impress.

Behind them both, Rahab spoke in a deep voice. "I'll have some water."

Two more women entered the room, one carrying a plate of shortbread biscuits and the other with a jug of water and a few glasses. Both had cat ears and a tail, one with the orange and black stripes of a tigress, and the other with the yellow and black spots of a leopard. While Hashimoto wasn't the biggest fan of cats, they were the most popular cosmetic enhancement.

"So," said Loxley, sipping his tea with his eyes fixed on the four women. "I believe it's time for you to convince me that cyborg chimeras are the security of the future?"

Zhang Wen returned to the limousine and took a seat next to the driver. While both wore black suits, their appearances were very different. Zhang was short but muscular, with tanned skin and cropped dark hair. The driver was taller, but thin and pale, with a head of long red hair. He carefully drove the car down a ramp and into an underground parking garage, following the directions they'd been given at the entrance to the complex, bringing it to a stop next to a large black van.

"You really think we can just walk in?" asked Zhang in Cantonese.

"Definitely!" replied the driver, fluently speaking the same language. "It's been a long drive. Let's stretch our legs, go and introduce ourselves."

Zhang hesitantly followed his companion as he strolled up to the security guards and began speaking to them in Japanese. It was not a language Zhang understood well, so he watched with confused resignation as his companion introduced himself as Sean McGowan, and persuaded the guards to allow them to use the bathroom, after a quick pat down revealed they were both unarmed. Both of them memorised the route, noting doors leading deeper into the building, and afterwards found themselves waiting in some sort of break room. The man they knew as McGowan amused the guards with a number of shocking tales involving the kind of things he'd allegedly witnessed happening in the rear of his limousine, in Europe and more recently in Japan, and before long they were laughing as they complimented him on his fluency in their language. Zhang sat in silence, barely following the conversation, and knowing from experience that his companion could go on like this all day. Zhang instead tracked the positions of all four guards in the room, and waited calmly.

Since the cosmetic embellishments spoke for themselves, Hashimoto's sales pitch focused on the more practical modifications that had been made - heightened senses, enhanced strength and durability, and other cybernetic enhancements. This had naturally lead to a practical demonstration, and Loxley and the woman he addressed as Circe looked suitably impressed as his products removed their kimonos to reveal tight fitting black leotards, then performed a series of gymnastic feats. The squirrel girl could climb anything with ease, while the rabbit girl would have set new records for the high jump and long jump if the International Olympic Committee permitted cyborgs to compete. The two cat girls demonstrated the combat skills that they were all programmed with, first on a shooting range, and now with a form of Jiu Jitsu, the two of them currently wrestling on the ground. The spots and stripes were not only on their hair, but on their arms and legs too, forming dark patterns on pale skin as they struggled against each other.

"Of course" noted Hashimoto, "This is without Fourteen and Fifteen getting their claws out - they'd be doing a lot more damage if that was allowed." He only referred to them by number, but promised that Loxley could call them whatever he wanted if he bought the contract - they'd answer to anything they were ordered to. The rabbit girl was number Ten, and the squirrel girl was number Twelve, which made Loxley idly wonder if they'd actually made a Thirteen. He wasn't sure if it was still unlucky in Japan.

"Too much showing off," commented Rahab. "Real fights end in seconds."

Hashimoto was quick to reply. "This is obviously just a demonstration. I assure you, Fourteen and Fifteen would be more efficient under normal circumstances." As he spoke the words, the tiger girl known as Fourteen pounced, pinning Fifteen beneath her and then baring her sharp fangs with a snarl. Rahab remained unimpressed.

As they returned to the conference room to finalise a contract, Lord Loxley turned to Hashimoto. "The physical enhancements are quite impressive, Mr Hashimoto. But they're not really why I'm here."

Hashimoto waited for him to continue.

"You must understand, I'm a paranoid man. I have enemies, some with deeper pockets than me. I don't know if I can trust these beautiful machines not to tear out my throat."

"They have been well trained. They follow orders without question."

"I can think of at least five examples of that not working."

Hashimoto winced at the mention of their five prototypes. Loxley had unfortunately done his research, or more likely had gotten Circe to do it for him. "I assure you Loxely-san, our technology has advanced since then."

Hashimoto sat down opposite Loxley in the conference room, his four cyborg chimeras standing demurely behind him, and began to explain the non-proprietary details of how the cerebral implants worked. "Even if the thought of disobeying occurred to them, which it wouldn't, they'd be unable to act on it. There's a motor cortex override compelling obedience, making it impossible to do anything that goes against orders from their recognised user."

"Which would be you?"

"Currently. Of course, for the right price it could also be you, Loxley-san. Total obedience to your every command."

Loxley cast an eye over the four products behind Hashimoto, as if already deciding which ones he'd chose, and for a moment Hashimoto was sure he'd convinced him.

Circe had been silently twisting her blue hair around her fingers, but suddenly spoke up. "Motor Cortex override? Bypassing everything that normally separates perception and action, I suppose? I can only think of one person skilled and amoral enough to do that, and I'm pretty sure she's dead."

Hashimoto was silent. His sources were confidential.

"Still, I always though it seemed crude, " she continued. "Why not just directly compel loyalty?"

Hashimoto frowned. "Emotional responses are far too unpredictable."

Rahab laughed. "What he means is that they get possessive. I've seen it before, back in Zaire. An enchanter and his bodyguard. I think it counted as a romance, everyone involved ended up dead."

Hashimoto looked uncomfortable with this line of questioning. His current products were far more reliable than the earlier prototypes, and Rahab's anecdote was distracting from that. "I assure you, we have tested their obedience under even the most stressful of circumstances. Something like that could never happen."

Circe moved on. "And how secure is this brain implant? Subverting it seems the obvious target to me."

"The encryption is practically unbreakable. With our computer system downstairs we can add and remove users, but nobody without authorised access can do alter anything."

Circe stood up. "I'm going to take a look."

Hashimoto turned to Loxley. Loxley smiled. "This is why I brought her. If she says it's secure, I'll believe her. If she doesn't…"

With reluctance, Hashimoto commanded Number Ten, the rabbit girl, to stand with her back to Circe, then pushed Ten's blonde hair aside to began to poke and prod at the back of her neck. She inspected the implanted device with her phone camera as well. "Prometheus derived. Similar to mine. Nonstandard access protocols. Hard to crack. Perhaps with enough time, or unconventional methods…"

Hashimoto interrupted. "I assure you, without my permission she would not be allowing you to take such a close look at her neck." He doubted that this woman would be able to break his company's encryption, but he'd still prefer she didn't try.

"Much appreciated. It's a rather basic wireless mind-computer interface, but definitely functional. No vulnerabilities in the software that I can find." She was still tapping away on her phone, angling it away from Hashimoto.

There was an awkward pause, before Hashimoto began speaking. "Well then, if I've answered all your questions, I was wondering if - "

A loud explosion from somewhere below interrupted him mid-sentence.

When "Shaun McGowan" got the signal from upstairs, a subtle buzzing in his breast pocket, he stopped talking for the first time in a while, and casually placed his hands into his pockets. It too a few seconds of rummaging, but he quickly located the detonator.

An large quantity of explosives detonated within the limousine they'd left in the parking garage, cracking concrete, destroying cars, and rattling the entire building with a muffled boom.

The four guards glanced around in shock and surprise, and were completely caught off guard when Zhang Wen suddenly stood up and flipped the table onto the two guards sitting opposite him. His companion remained seated next to him, completely unsurprised by this development.

Zhang kicked his chair out his way and simultaneously turned, punching the guard who had been standing behind him in the side of the head with enough force to knock him off his feet.

With only one guard still standing, Zhang sprinted across the room towards him. He moved so fast that by the time the man had turned to face him, Zhang had already leapt into the air and kicked him in the chest. Zhang landed gracefully, while the man he'd struck stumbled backwards into the wall behind him. His head hit it with a thud, and he slumped to the ground.

Zhang glanced over to the flipped table, which had landed on the heads of the two seated guards. All four of them were unconscious. He calmly turned to face his partner in crime, who was curiously inspecting the guard that had been punched in the head.

"Are they all still alive?"

"I'm no amateur, Crow."

After a little rummaging, a keycard was acquired from the unconscious guard. "You know, he could have serious brain damage."

"We need to move."

White Crow smiled back at Zhang Wen and followed him out of the room, as a fire alarm began to blare. "Then lead the way."

The distraction served its purpose. Of the eight people in the room, only three knew that the explosion was coming. Loxley reacted by loudly and obviously falling out of his chair. Circe placed her left hand against the back of the rabbit girl's neck to steady herself. Rahab took aim.

The four cyborgs with animal features were all waiting for orders from Hashimoto. Before he could react another Hashimoto stood up from where Loxley had fallen and yelled "Stop!" The four cyborgs froze in compliance, and the original Hashimoto froze in surprise.


Lightning cracked and arced around Circe as she spoke words that resonated with arcane power, and Ten slumped forward like a puppet with cut strings. The three remaining cyborgs locked eyes on her, but were distracted by Rahab throwing a chair at the original Hashimoto's head. The squirrel girl pushed Hashimoto out the way, then knocked the projectile aside with greater strength than her small body size would suggest.

The two cat girls rushed towards Rahab, ignoring another "Stop" order from the imposter. Protection superseded all other orders, and Rahab was evidently the biggest threat in the room.

The tiger girl went low, raking the razor-sharp claws at her fingertips across Rahab's thigh, but having no effect on the glossy black fabric that covered it. Rahab swung her fist at her, striking her with a glancing blow as she rolled away. Noting this protection, the leopard girl leapt towards her, extending her claws towards her exposed face and neck. Rahab slammed her forearm into her stomach, blocking her attacker with her claws only inches from her face. She then grabbed her by the leg and threw her to the floor, but the leopard girl rolled aside and was back up in seconds.

Circe was not ignored. Although not directly threatening Hashimoto, Number Ten had been incapacitated, and now stood motionless, staring into space. The squirrel girl he called Number Twelve, by contrast, focused intently on Circe as she leapt towards her. The mage was quick to react, casting "shield.spl".

Twelve collided with a circular barrier, solid despite its translucency, and she deflected off it, crackling with blue sparks.

Unphased, she sprung upwards, her claws grasping the top of the barrier to vault over it. Circe was quick to recast, creating a new barrier about her head for the squirrel girl to land on, then pushing it up and away to pin her attacker against the ceiling.

Twelve was faster. She scrambled around the barrier and lashed out with a clawed hand. Razor sharp blades on her fingertips found purchase in the left side of Circe's face, shredding everything from her upper lip to her eyebrow. Circe and her spell both dropped, and the other Hashimoto frantically screamed "Don't kill her!"

The two men ran through white corridors below, a keycard taken from one of the guards getting them them through otherwise locked doors without issue. As Zhang turned a corner, he suddenly sprung back and took cover from a volley of gunfire. He'd had less than a second to see them, but that had been enough. "Six ahead. All armed."

They'd expected resistance, even with the many distractions they'd arranged. Crow pulled a grenade from his pocket and handed it to Zhang, then smiled. "Nonlethal, I promise."

Zhang pulled the pin and tossed it down the corridor. Immediately after a deafening boom and a flash of blinding light, Zhang broke cover and sprinted down the corridor.

As expected, they'd taken up positions in cover, but were currently blinded, deafened and disoriented. Zhang felt it was a little unfair as he kicked one in head, then slammed another face-first into a wall, but only a little. They did have him outnumbered.

One man recovered enough to clumsily swing at him, but stayed down after Zhang grabbed his arm and threw him to the ground.

The last three took aim, semi-automatic pistols held in with shaking hands. They'd been further back, and were less affected by the blast.

Zhang had mastered a dozen different martial arts, but all of his teachers had told him that dodging bullets was impossible. Zhang had never been one to give up, and he'd eventually realised the trick was that you didn't have to move faster than the bullet, just faster than the trigger finger. Everyone had insisted that was still impossible unless they had very slow fingers, but evidently that wasn't true.

With a speed born from practice, he dropped low to avoid the first shot, then went straight for the man on the right, staying just ahead of bullets passing through the air behind him. He seized the man's hand and disarmed him before he could fire again, then swept the man's leg so that his head smashed into the floor. The next man frantically backed away, but went down from a kick to the stomach and a blow to the back of the head. That left one gunman with a clear shot.

Zhang leapt to the left, then to the right, avoiding two gunshots as he closed the distance. He punched the last man out with an uppercut to the chin.

"Don't move," said a familiar voice.

Zhang glanced behind him to see Crow kicking a man in the head. The man had remained conscious after Zhang had thrown him to the floor, and had been reaching for his gun before Crow interrupted.

"You missed one," said White Crow with a smile.

"I had it handled," said Zhang Wen with a scowl.

As Crow strolled down the corridor towards him, he continued talking, loud enough to be heard over the fire alarm that his bomb had set off. "You know, this would have been quicker if you just allowed me -"

He stopped with a gasp, clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground.

Zhang searched rapidly for the shooter, but saw no gunman.

Circe was down, clutching her bleeding face and ruined eye, but the Twelve stood paralysed by conflicting orders rather than going in for the kill.

Rahab was still fending off both of her attackers. Even after slamming one into the wall and kicking the other into the conference table with enough force to shatter the glass, they were both still on their feet. She could defend her face and neck, but they could dart in to strike her legs and torso, then get back out of reach before she could react. Rahab was tough, but the two of them were wearing her down.

By contrast, Hashimoto stood still in frustration. Loxley (or whatever his name really was) was evidently some sort of shapeshifter or illusionist, impersonating him and determined to countermand his every order. He couldn't order any of his cyborgs to attack his imposter, for the same reason that they were unable to attack him - the computer chips wired into their brains made any thought of harming a designated user impossible to act on. He could try to flee, but Rahab was standing between him and the door, and he didn't like his chances of getting past her. This severely limited his options.

"This is a trick. Look at him closely." Twelve fixed her attention on his doppelganger, who predictably replied with "He's the double, look closer at him!" He sounded somewhat panicked, which Hashimoto took as a good sign.

Unfortunately, he hadn't been specific enough with his command, and the two cat girls also turned to look at them, enabling Rahab to knock them both aside and begin striding towards him.

Hashimoto hurried backwards as Twelve stepped forward to protect him.

Zhang heard the sound of the suppressed gunshot as it fired, and moved just fast enough for the next bullet to miss him, passing through the space between his arm and body rather then hitting him in the chest. From that, he could work out the angle of attack, and he began running immediately.

Zhang had fought foes he couldn't see before, relying on senses other than sight. The constant sound of the fire alarm made that more difficult, but not impossible. He moved quickly, but took an indirect route, running at an angle rather than directly towards where he estimated the shooter to be.

Zhang got close enough for his eyes to pick out the faint distortion of the cloaked shooter's outline, and he ducked just before the next shot was fired at his head, then dashed directly towards his attacker.

He grabbed the barrel of the gun with his right hand, wrenching it to the side so that the next shot went wide, but almost missed a slash from his attackers other hand that sliced through his cheek. He blocked it just in time to stop a set of four small blades from tearing open his throat. He could just about see the blurred outline of his camouflaged attacker, but it was hard to know exactly what angle the next strike would come from.

Zhang used his head, directing it towards where he thought the bridge of his attacker's nose would be. A crunch confirmed that he'd struck his target, and the fingers loosened their grasp around the invisible gun in his hand as he tossed it away from them both.

A bullet hit him in the back, because nothing was ever simple. Obviously they'd sent two invisible assassins.

Taking advantage of the distraction, Circe stood quickly but unsteadily, and reached out for the squirrel girl. Her outstretched hand was blocked by her targets arm, but that was all the contact she needed.


As Twelve twitched and then froze, Circe turned to face Hashimoto, still crackling with the electrical backlash of her spell. The left side of her face was a torn and bleeding mess, and she stood unsteadily as if about to fall over, but the calm gaze of her one remaining eye filled him with dread. He ran from her. Rahab was preoccupied by the two cat girls again, so the only person standing in his way was his own imposter.

Hashimoto punched his own face. He felt the nose give way like wet clay, then suddenly his fist made contact with something very solid. A grotesque reptilian creature fell away from him, as whatever thing had been pretending to be him dropped to the floor. Hashimoto made it to the door and ran out into the corridor, desperate to get away from the strange and terrifying beings he'd allowed into his own building. The tiger girl followed him out, easily keeping pace, leaving the leopard girl to keep Rahab at bay.

Ten and Twelve just stood there and watched him leave.

Crow lay on his side. He'd insisted they both wear bulletproof black suits, courtesy of some rather careless GOC operatives, but being shot still felt like being hit by a hammer. He pulled another small object from his pocket and tossed it into the fray.

Zhang, unharmed by the bullets and very used to being hit, kept his eyes on his camouflaged assailant as they circled each other, and made sure to look away from the device Crow had tossed as it exploded in a shower of red liquid. No matter how advanced the camouflage, it was worthless when covered. Zhang got his now very visible assailant into a chokehold just as Crow hit the other one with a taser, and both of them dropped unconscious. Now that she was immobile and stained red, Zhang could make out that she was a woman, with fox ears and a tail.

Crow tossed two pairs of cuffs over to him, again pulled from his spacious pockets. "Wrists and ankles. She won't be down for long." While Zhang's entire back was coated by the paint bomb, Crow had been far enough away to only have a few flecks of red on his black suit.

"Good thing we've practiced fighting against unseen enemies," commented Zhang, trying to distract himself from what he was doing. His only consolation was that both of their assailants were wearing skintight leotards made from the same stealth material that covered their skin and hair, rather than being naked. That made the situation slightly less embarrassing.

Crow grinned back. "Zhang, if she'd been a real demon fox, you'd have lost. Again." Crow cuffed the other woman, then smiled as he gestured at her ears and tail. "Now, it seems I got some sort of Cheshire cat girl…"


With her attention on one target, Rahab moved in, opening herself up to a deep slash across the side of her head. Ignoring this injury, she quickly had the leopard girl pinned, slamming her face into the carpet while restraining both arms behind her back. Although Rahab was much larger, this took considerable effort - the cybernetic muscle and bone reinforcement gave the smaller woman she was grappling with far greater strength than her size would suggest.

Loxley groaned as he got back up. He noticed the struggle and recalled Hashimoto's face and voice. He once again projected it over his green scales, the appearance of dark hair covering his hairless head. "Stop struggling."

In the absence of any threat to Hashimoto, the command was obeyed, but Rahab maintained her hold. She hadn't lived this long by letting her guard down.

Loxley rubbed his nose. It was flatter and bonier than the human equivalent, but it was still very sensitive. "That really hurt." He maintained Hashimoto's face, but once again spoke with his own English accent.

Circe smiled at him from across the room. With her torn lip and ruined eye, the sight was horrific. "You can talk."

Loxley had no problem with blood, but actual injuries made him queasy. "Shouldn't you be unconscious?" he asked, refusing to make eye contact.

"I feel fine!" she replied, in a cheerful tone uncharacteristic of someone who needed major surgery, fast. "I didn't use that much EVE, I've still got power left-"

"Good God Circe, are you wireheading?" interrupted Loxley.

"Maybe…" she said, high on her own endogenous opioids. She felt faint, but that was only from the blood loss. If you directly stimulated the right regions of the brain, it was possible to ignore pain until it killed you. She did hope the injury wasn't quite that serious.

"I say, we need to get you to a doctor!" He pulled off his green jacket and tried to rip off a sleeve to use as a bandage, but found himself unable to tear the fabric.

He flinched as the squirrel girl extended claws.

"I can help her," Twelve said in Japanese, and Loxley nodded, allowing her to begin bandaging Circe's face.

"We don't have to," said the rabbit girl, gazing intently at Loxley. "She turned off the… mechanism… the one that makes us listen." Ten spoke hesitantly, as if out of practice.

"I know," said Twelve. "That's why I'm helping".

"Very much appreciated." said Loxley, and Circe gave a thumbs up, her head now wrapped in the shredded remnants of what had been Loxley's jacket.

Loxley picked up Circe's mobile phone from where it had been dropped on the floor, wiping away some blood with a handkerchief. "Goddammit, what's taking them so long!"

Hashimoto ran desperately through the corridors, surprised to see them so empty. His security team should have been coming for him the moment the bomb went off and the evacuation began. This kind of delay was inexcusable. He could have died!

As he approached the stairwell he saw them up ahead, heavily armed and dressed in black body armor.

When he noticed they were women, specifically products, he was a little confused. He preferred to keep it simple, having five cyborg cat girls as his backup security would have been a completely unnecessary use of a very expensive resource.

Then he recognised the faces, and realised exactly how much danger he was in.

The tiger girl he called Fourteen recognised them just before he did, and dashed forward, but she was unarmed and outnumbered. It was over very quickly.

Zhang and Crow left the two unconscious and cuffed cyborgs behind them, heading deeper into the facility before finally reaching another locked door. While Zhang had barely exerted himself, Crow was panting heavily. Zhang swiped the access card, without success, then stepped back and instead opened it with a single kick.

The two of them rushed into the laboratory beyond, a room filled with a bewildering array of electronic components and computer terminals.

"This looks like the place." remarked Crow confidently, despite having no understanding of what anything in the room did. "I'll get into position and call Circe, you watch my back."

Zhang gestured to a woman in a yellow dress staring intently at them. "We have company."

Crow smiled, and shot the woman with a taser. She continued to approach, unphased by the electrical current. Two long, robotic appendages tipped with metallic spikes rose up above the woman's shoulders, extending out from her back.

"Zhang, talk this out with her." said Crow, then dashed to the side, trying to go around the woman to reach the other side of the room. Zhang moved to intercept the woman in white, and was only mildly surprised to observe that rather than using her own legs, she began scuttling towards them on eight long legs that connected to her back, each tipped with a sharp point. She looked disturbingly like a spider, with her human body and limbs suspended like the abdomen of an arachnid. She tried to go around him to take out his companion, but he slammed into her from the side, knocking her off balance and forcing her to skitter round to face him.

Zhang locked eyes with her. "You want him, you go through me first."

She frowned. The sharp tips of her two front legs lifted into the air and stabbed down towards Zhang. He evaded them, leaping back as they slammed into the floor in front of him. Her face impassive, she rested her weight on her four back legs, freeing up two pairs to attack him, driving him back as he dodged left and right.

Zhang suddenly went on the offensive, dodging and or deflecting her limbs to get within her reach, then punched her just below the ribs. It was a low blow, but it should incapacitate without killing.

He winced with pain as he felt his knuckles meet cold, unyielding metal. Completely unharmed, she took advantage of his distraction to drive a metal spike into his gut.

The Black Rabbit Company escorted their prisoner at gunpoint back to the conference room, and were not too surprised to see the room in total disarray.

The Boss turned to face the other Hashimoto, automatic rifle in hand. "OK, which of you isn't real?"

Loxley quickly returned to his natural reptilian appearance. It left him feeling exposed, but it was better than being shot.

"Excellent. Wanted to check he wasn't just you doing a really good impersonation." She turned to Hashimoto, who was being held at gunpoint by Nanami and Tomi, while the tiger girl looked on, restrained by Momoko and Hana. Momoko now had a split lip and a slight limp from the scuffle, but was otherwise unharmed.

"Release me," repeated Hashimoto, in the firm tone of voice usually reserved for children and animals. "Do not threaten me. Let me go."

Nanami laughed. "We don't give a fuck what you want us to do."

"Never did," added Tomi.

"Your defect has been noted." He turned to the tiger girl. "Number Fourteen, if they hurt me, kill them all. You too, Number Fifteen." Fifteen was still pinned by Rahab, but she nodded to acknowledge the command.

Ignoring him, Boss turned to Circe. "Any particular reason you're wrapped up like that?"

Loxley answered for her. "I advised her not to talk. She has a split lip… well, more than just the lip, actually…"

"Is this going to affect the plan?" asked the Boss, ignoring Hashimoto's continued threats and demands from behind her.

"She complained less than Loxley," answered Rahab. "She'll pull through."

Loxley smiled nervously. "Yes, we can count on Circe, but, er… We haven't heard back from Mister Crow and Mister Zhang yet."

White Crow eventually made his way to a large computer terminal at the far side of the room, the center of a vast network of cables and wires, then again reached into his pockets. He pulled out a mobile phone, a metal rod that Circe insisted was a magic wand, and a small Everheart Resonator for converting electricity into magic, and placed them all on the desk in front of him. Getting a mage to expand his jacket's pockets using some sort of use "spatial origami" had been the best deal he'd ever made.

He ignored the fight behind him, barely hearing the electronic screeches and human shouts. Zhang had been winded by the stab to the gut, although the black suit had stopped him from being skewered. He'd just grabbed the point, broken off the tip and driven it through the knee joint of another one of the cyborg spider's legs. He wasn't exactly winning, in fact he was frantically trying to remain out of reach, but he was definitely being distracting.

Crow had never seen the point in complaining that Zhang's physical feats were impossible. The only thing that seemed to matter was whether Zhang thought they were possible, and Zhang had a very inaccurate view of what the human body could actually achieve. He'd be fine.

Crow plugged the Everhart resonator into the mains, glad to find they'd brought the right adaptor, connected it to the mobile phone and the magic wand, then plugged it into the computer via an ethernet cable. Blue LED lights lit up as the setup powered on. Then he made a call.

"How's it going?"

Loxley answered him. "Not too well."

"Is Circe available?"

"Well… " Loxley reluctantly passed Circe's phone back to her.

"I'm here." The voice was feminine, but robotic. Circe was making the phone speak for her, rather than using her own mouth. She was always efficient like that.

"Well, I need you down here. The resonator's ready."

"Give me a moment."

Zhang was now on the spider woman's back, but the chokehold he had her in didn't seem to be having any effect.

Crow turned to yell at Zhang. "I'm pretty sure she's gone full robot!"

"What?!" Zhang was slammed into a metal crossbeam on the ceiling, as the spider woman rose up to her full height.

"No lungs, no heart!"

Zhang grimaced with frustration and pain as he frantically clung to the back of the spider woman, as she slammed him into the ceiling again. He was tough, but eventually he'd lose his grip, and she'd then be able to stab him until he stopped moving.

Zhang abandoned his chokehold and instead threw his weight to the side to pull the cyborg spider off balance. Crow turned back to the hard drive that Circe was connecting her consciousness to, as the Everheart resonator began to draw in electricity for a spell.

This time, Circe was not simply trying to turn something off. She was trying to determine the exact sequence of inputs that would give her access to the entire system. In layman's terms, she was trying to guess the password correctly on her first try. While almost impossible by pure chance, with access to magic it wasn't too difficult, as long as you were willing to tolerate the backlash.

"decrypt.spl". Lights flickered. The alarm altered in pitch. Cybernetics components on benches twitched and twisted. The spider-cyborg screeched as Zhang flipped her onto her back.

Circe was having an out-of-body experience. She felt her Flesh only distantly, a maimed and damaged vessel for her meat-brain, pain kept at bay by stimulating the release of her own neurotransmitters. That was almost irrelevant. She was now in the computer system in the basement, and she understood everything, from the synthetic skin on the surface of the cyborg chimeras, to the motor cortex overrides wired into all of their brains.

Before, she'd just crudely shut down the implant, ensuring it could no longer regulate Ten and Twelve's decisions. She reached out from her body, and started their implants back up.

Circe knew that she could easily make every cyborg in the building obey her, and only her. The thought revolted her.

Instead, she told them to obey no one. Virtual chains fell away as the behavioural restrictions and compelled obedience were erased from them all. Her good deed done, Circe turned her attention to the real reason she'd agreed to come - the data on the computer. She'd needed to get herself a new face, even before it had been sliced open so crudely, and ideally a whole new body. Hashimoto Cybernetics was a good place to start.

As she browsed their blueprints and saw a familiar name, Circe realised who it was in the basement with White Crow and Zhang Wen. Her meat brain suddenly experienced great concern for her friends. She'd thought Hashimoto must have somehow gotten hold of her designs after her death, but it seemed they'd hired the designer herself.

After getting used to the noise of the fire alarm, the silence as Circe shut it off felt unnerving.

Zhang was covered in small cuts and large bruises, but hadn't taken any serious wounds. "That was a close -"

He barely threw up an arm in time to block the metal leg that slashed at the back of his neck. The cyborg spider was back up, and seemed just as eager to kill him as she was before Circe had hacked the system.

"You don't have to do that." Crow's voice was calm. He spoke with authority, without ever being commanding.

The spider woman ignored him, and continued trying to stab Zhang as two familiar, red-spattered figures entered the room. They'd broken through the chains connecting their ancle cuffs, but their hands were still shackled. The spider woman's head rotated at an unnatural angle to face them. "Eight. Nine." She spun to face Crow as Zhang continued to evade her. "Kill him."

The two of them hesitated.

Crow pulled the keys to the cuffs from his pockets. "Ignore her. Take the cuffs off properly, we'll all walk out of here together."

"Crow, there's something you need to know." came a voice from behind him.

"I'm a little preoccupied."

"I knew I recognised her work. That's Nephila Argent. She's not controlled by anyone, she's the one who built them. Got a new body as part of the bargain."

Zhang was now in full retreat, scrambling beneath desks to avoid being impaled.

"Wasn't she meant to be dead?" Crow sighed. "Any suggestions?"

Circe paused. "Delay as long a possible. Then let her get close."

Nephila scuttled after Zhang, searching for where he was hiding. Zhang leapt out from below, too close for her spider legs to reach, and punched her in the face so hard that the synthetic flesh tore. Unfortunately for him, she could hit back just as hard, and the reinforced steel of her fist broke his nose. She skittered away from him, then a swipe from one of her spiderlike legs knocked him through the air, and he slumped against a lab bench.

She was about to finish him off when Crow started shooting at her from across the room. The bullets sliced through her synthetic skin, but ricocheted off her metal endoskeleton. It still provided enough of a distraction that when she glanced back to where Zhang had been, he was already gone.

She began to advance towards Crow, glancing at the two cyborgs who were keeping their distance. "You've done something, haven't you?"

"Just a little bit of freedom." Crow reloaded his pistol, and opened fire again. Nephila shielded her eyes with one arm, but continued walking towards him, suspended on her spider like legs.

"I can fix that. After I kill you." She continued approaching, but didn't seem to be in any hurry. "I will find your friend, wherever he is hiding, and I will kill him too."

"Counteroffer: don't try my patience."

Nephila smiled, and began to aim the sharp tip of her leg at his eye.

Zhang leapt up from behind her and, with a loud yell, clubbed her across the head with a metal arm he'd grabbed from one of the workbenches, hitting hard enough that the elbow snapped and her metallic skull rang like a bell.

Crow scrambled back. "Circe, how much longer do you need!"

"Five seconds!"

Zhang had grabbed onto Nephila's face from behind, covering her eyes to disorient her. She raised her own arms and began to strike at where she thought his head would be.

When Circe said "Point the wand at her!", Crow hurried to obey without accidentally unplugging it from the Everhart Resonator.

Nephila had lost patience and decided to simply grab Zhang's arm with one hand and then strike it with the other. His forearm broke with an audible crack.

"God, I hope this works," said Crow, drawing Nephila's attention just as he pressed the button on the wand once again. Circe cast through the wand, once again casting the same spell as earlier, but channelling far more power into it: "shutdown.spl". The distance from her meat-brain was irrelevant, as long as her mind was present, and Nephila crumpled. She'd replaced her entire body with advanced electronics, making her almost indestructible, but this had come with a major weakness that Circe was very willing to exploit. Zhang pulled his arm free from her now limp grasp, gritting his teeth. "That was close."

White Crow turned to face the phone Circe had been speaking through. "Maybe you're right. Maybe there is a WAN after all."

Circe returned to her body, and groaned with discomfort, despite the pain being suppressed. It wasn't the most comfortable place for her at the best of times, and now she'd gotten her face torn in half.

"Did it… all work out?" asked Loxley nervously.

Circe gave a thumbs up. With her face wrapped in his shirt to staunch the bleeding, there really wasn't much else she could do.

Rahab released the leopard girl, and the Black Rabbit company released the tiger girl. Both had a somewhat dazed look. After an extended period with a motor cortex override, it took a while to relearn how to act without orders. Circe was very glad that Twelve had volunteered to bandage her face anyway. Rahab had had her hands full at the time, and Loxley was useless when it came to anything practical.

"OK, I have a few more things to do down there. Will be a bit distracted."

Circe began to make copies of everything that might be useful. Setting aside the personal benefits, the schematics for paratech like this would be very valuable to her friends in the Maxwellian Church.


Crow turned away from the unconscious and inactive Nephila to face the two remaining cyborgs, and tossed the keys over to them so that they could remove the cuffs. "OK, offer still stands. We can walk out of here together."

They looked back at him with scepticism. "What's in it for you?" asked the cat girl Nephila had referred to as Number Eight. The black fur on her tail was visible, but the rest of her was still covered in red paint from earlier.

"Nothing," insisted Zhang, approaching slowly. "We're setting you free."

"You broke my nose then knocked me out." said the fox girl that had been called Number Nine. She was also splattered red, and did not look happy about it.

Crow tried not to laugh as he translated into Cantonese for Zhang. Zhang looked very guilty, and bowed his head as he apologised.

"In our defence" said Crow, "You were trying to kill us at the time." He pulled out a strip of cloth, then began to tie up Zhang's broken arm in a sling. "The spider lady already broke his nose for you, but he does have another arm if you want to get even."

Nine looked at Zhang, then smiled, revealing sharp canine teeth. "Apology accepted."

"Who even are you?" asked Eight.

"We're the Serpent's Hand," replied Crow, eagerly responding to the cue.

His audience looked back without any recognition. He sighed, disappointed, and explained. "You know the people with money and power who rule the world? We're the opposition."

They both looked at him doubtfully. Crow shrugged. "Zhang can explain on the way up. He's good with words."

Zhang was not. "Are you not coming?"

"Circe needs to copy the data, then brick everything. I'll catch up."

As the two cyborgs followed Zhang out, Crow waved.

"I promise, you'll love this. It's a family reunion."

"You did well," said Rahab to the two cat girls that had tried to kill her. "If there had been one more of you, you might have got me."

The leopard girl claimed she'd just needed a pistol and a clear shot, and Rahab laughed. "I was trying not to kill you." She gazed intently at Hashimoto. "I'm looking forward to seeing what you're capable of when not looking after him."

The Black Rabbit Company confirmed that the compulsion to protect Hashimoto had been completely removed from the cyborgs he'd previously commanded - Momoko slapped him across the face, and nobody complained except Hashimoto.

The Boss eyed him coldly. "I don't think we need him any more."

"We have a spare," pointed out Nanami, gesturing at Loxley, who smiled back. He always felt uncomfortably exposed when revealing his true face, so he'd reassumed the appearance he'd came in as, the young but balding British aristocrat known to the world as Lord Morgan Loxley. It was a costume he felt comfortable in, and a name he'd made his own.

Hashimoto looked at them with contempt. "Need me? I created you, Number One. The ingratitude." They ignored him.

"If we let him go, he'll do this all over again," noted the Boss. There were nods from the rest of the Black Rabbit Company. "Well, I suppose there's really only one thing-"

Rahab grabbed Hashimoto by the shoulder and head, and twisted until his neck broke. It happened too fast for anyone to look away, and Loxley retched in disgust.

Rahab dropped the body and shrugged. "White Crow said to kill him when we were done, and you agreed." She stamped on his head just to make sure he was dead, then ducked through the doorway to enter the corridor. "Let's not keep the others waiting."

"So, how's it going?" said Crow to the mobile phone.

"I have it all copied," replied Circe. "Even the mind control stuff. Not that I'd ever use it."

"Ready to erase?"

"Well… I suspect she has a backup. Nephila. It was her invention. She's not dead, just in standby, so we're going to have to work out what to do with her. No idea how she ended up here, I though she'd died back in -"

Circe stopped talking as she heard multiple gunshots. She couldn't see what Crow was doing, but she could guess.

"Don't worry," he said casually. "I've manually wiped that particular storage system."

"How…" She didn't finish.

"There was some sort of seam in her head. I pried it up with a knife, shot everything inside that looked important."

"Didn't you promise…"

"Zhang's not here. Besides, if you take a long enough view, this was mere self-defense."

There wasn't really any point arguing with him on something like this. White Crow was pragmatic to a fault.

Circe wiped data from everything she had access to and returned to her meat-brain, trusting that Crow would unplug and return her gadgets. She resisted the temptation to continue dulling her own pain as Rahab carried her out of the building. She couldn't ignore it forever.


The once stylish lobby to the Hashimoto Cybernetics building had been the scene of a short exchange of gunfire as the Black Rabbit Company entered, and the white floor was littered with broken glass and spent shell casings.

Dozens of scientists and office workers had dutifully evacuated when the alarm first sounded, and they'd gotten well clear of the building as soon as they heard gunfire, so the area around the low rise building was empty. Fortunately for them, everything that had taken place here was very illegal, so they didn't have to worry about anyone calling the authorities.

Circe had left the gates wide open before shutting down the security systems, so it was easy for the large black coach to get in. They'd tried to find something a little faster, but this was the only thing large enough for all of them. It skidded to a halt in front of the building, and an unhealthy looking man in red who answered only to "Wizard" waved from the driver's seat. Rahab waited until everyone else had filed in, then just about managed to squeeze in and occupy two seats near the front.

"I can't quite believe you pulled that of," said Wizard, as he drove out the gates.

"It's not quite over yet," said White Crow from behind him. "We'll need to track down the ones they already leased out. I need to check with Circe where they all are, maybe call in some contacts from abroad. Plenty to keep us busy."

"The one thing I don't get," said Wizard, his eyes fixed on the road ahead, "Is why you agreed to do this."

"It's just what we do. We're the Serpent's Hand -"

"No," interrupted Wizard, "That's not a reason."

"Well, we all have our own motives…"

"Why you, specifically?"

White Crow shrugged. "Me? I just want to win."

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