by David Kuijt

Genser's mouth tasted like old shoes. I drink too much, he thought.

He hated waking up. Even when he managed to sleep to the crack of noon, like today. He hated it still more when someone woke him up earlier, but this was a quiet street in the Zone, well away from the Entertainment District. It had been quieter since last month, when some early-rising punks had woken him up at the crack of dawn with loud music in the street. He'd been badly hung over, which meant he didn't bother aiming, just poked his SPAS15 out the window, slid the selector to full auto, and held the trigger down. Hell on the barrel, but the quiet since then had been worth it.

Genser rolled over gingerly and swung his feet to the floor. His dirty bare feet knocked over a bottle of JD, but it was mostly empty. He leaned over to snag it. Bad plan—the world spun crazily for a moment. The taste of lukewarm whiskey cut the foulness of his mouth, though, and started in on his hangover.

Staggering slightly, Genser made it to the fridge. He pulled out a 32oz plastic bottle of Gatorade and made himself drink the whole thing. He could tell his electrolytes had been way out of whack, because it didn't taste that bad. The bottle wasn't that cold—not surprising, as the smog really cut the efficiency of his solar cells, and it had been warm yesterday.

"I drink too much," he muttered to himself. But his headache was coming under control, so he brought his computer up and downloaded his mail. "Drek; drek; drek;" he muttered as he went quickly through the notes. Then he connected to work, to see what jobs were available.

"Hmmm..." something reasonable quickly caught his eye. Corp suit killed three days ago; two Puma bodyguards. One killed, one missing, presumed fled. 1000 credits for repo and return.

1000 credits wasn't enough for the real hotshots, Slash or Repoman. They were risk takers, getting off on the adrenaline and violence; they only took the repo jobs that really paid well.

But a Puma, especially bodyguard-trained, was dangerous enough to drive off the careful guys. They mostly worked the "companion" side of the business. More footwork, and lower pay, but much safer. With a Puma you couldn't really be sure; a berserk Puma could be bad news.

For Genser, however, the job looked good. He had enough experience with Pumas to have an angle, and 1000 credits was a good chunk on his lifestyle.

He sent a "claim" back on the Puma job and downloaded what data was there. The claim was a risk, of course—it wasn't binding, and the suits wouldn't care who brought thier Puma back, or whether they had put a claim down on it. On the lower end of the repo market nobody even bothered registering claims. The higher end jobs tended to respect claims, at least a little. Partly because a deliberate claimjumper might find himself dead rather suddenly.

The data on the job was sparse, as usual. No mention of how the sarariman had found himself dead, or why he had been slumming in the Zone, or anything. A good image of the Puma. Bright green hair, this one had. Typical Puma build—half a foot taller than Genser's six foot frame; fast, trained with weapons, deadly. Beautiful, if you liked bouncy amazons with huge fox ears and big hair. Genser had made it with Pumas a couple of times, long ago. They didn't do it for him any more, though. They were just vatjobs to be repo'd.

This datadump was a little more complete than most, however. It described the armaments lost. That was useful.

Bartertown was fairly active in the middle afternoon, and Gunstreet had dozens of people on it. Some cybered, some punked, all armed, and looking to improve their armament. Genser found what he was looking for at the third booth he tried. A Beretta 200ST, well polished, nearly new. He'd memorized the last three digits of the serial numbers of the two weapons, and one matched. No surprise that it hadn't sold yet—they were a bit high-end for the market, and tended to be ammo hogs. Ten credits later he had the info he needed.

It took him only an hour to find the scavenger. The sarariman had been kakked in the alley behind the Pink Nipple before dawn. The scavenger would have had to be the first one to reach the scene, which meant either he did it, or he was nearby when it happened. Doing wetwork and selling weapons were an odd combination, so Genser figured the scag wasn't the hitman. Not many people walking far from home just before dawn, so odds were he lived nearby, and Genser didn't usually bet against the odds.

Genser found the scag living on the second floor of the building overlooking the alley. The initial negotiation was quick. Once it was clear that Genser didn't care about what he had taken from the body, and that Genser would blow his leg off if he didn't talk, the scag talked readily enough. Evidently the scag was braver than most, because he'd looked out soon after the gunfire.

"Da Puma kneel dere, lookin' 'round. Whoever done it was gone, so she checked da suit. He shot up good—blood all over. Deader. She look at de udder Puma, but she kakked too. She stan' up an' look 'round again, but it quiet. Den she take off her Corpie jacket, drop it on da groun', an' look at it a moment. Den she start off runnin'. I get down dere real fast, 'cause dat kinda hardware be wort' good creds!"

It took Genser two days to find the Puma. She was holed up in a five-story brownstone, on the top floor. Pumas seemed to like the top story of buildings, for some reason. Must be something in their implanted training, he supposed. As he expected, the building was in a direct line away from the city. Nine out of ten Pumas needing repo seemed to run directly away from Neo York; all the repo-men knew that. There were some funny jokes connected to that information, but Genser had heard them all years ago.

Looking through scopes at the building, Genser frowned. This one was smarter than most, or more experienced, or better trained. She was treating it like a combat mission, and she wasn't confused. That was bad. As tough as Genser was, he wasn't stupid enough to attack a Puma when she was ready and expecting it. Time for plan B. He waited for dawn.

When dawn came Genser shaved carefully and checked himself in the mirror. Clean enough from a distance. His nondescript face was an advantage in this business. He strapped down his body armour, in case things got bad, then covered it with a duster. Checking himself again, he nodded. Neat enough; hopefully it would do.

Genser walked out into the street in front of the building, moving slowly. He carried a riot stunner in plain sight, but pointed down. He looked outwardly confident and calm. The calm was a facade, however—he knew his body armour was good against the Beretta she carried, but he wore no helmet. One shot to the head and he was kakked, and he knew it.

Genser stopped in the street, in plain sight of the building. Still moving slowly, he put the riot stunner on the ground beside him and held his hands out, open, at his sides. Then he just stood there.

The skin on his head prickled, but he remained facing the building, hands open, arms out. Casual. No threat. He knew a lot about Puma training, and he had done this before, but every time was different, and every time was hard. He was clean, clean shaven, short hair; clearly not a street thug, but not obviously a Corpie either.

"What do you want?" A girlish voice, almost—some Puma had deep, throaty voices, and some girlish, giggling ones; Genser thought that was an option chosen at purchase time, like hair colour. The challenge was startling, after nearly five minutes of waiting, but Genser didn't jump. Moving fast right now would probably mean catching a bullet. Even if the Puma didn't hit his head, she might have found a bigger weapon than the Beretta 200; he wasn't taking any chances.

"Do you have a plan, Senzee?" Senzee was the Puma's name. Starting the talking was the most dangerous part, and Genser liked to start out by asking a question. Some repo men gave orders, but that was risky—it worked on a confused Puma, but some ran because they were angry. And in that case, giving orders might start the firefight he was trying to avoid.

"Who are you?"

"My name is Genser. Are you hungry, Senzee?" That was the big question. Most replicants were terribly hungry by now, five days after escape. They rarely had any experience with finding food or improvising—Pumas were designed as creatures of habit, and they ate in communal messhalls; they were rarely permitted to eat on duty. They never went shopping, and most of them started out as helpless to find food as a four year old. But if they had already overcome that barrier, and found food, the additional confidence made Genser's job much more difficult.

Senzee didn't respond, and inwardly Genser relaxed a bit. He had good leverage now. "You haven't eaten in days, have you, Senzee? Freedom isn't all its cracked up to be." Genser's voice was calm, reasonable, educated—everything she had been trained to respect, listen to, and obey. "I'm here to bring you back, Senzee."

It took another fifteen minutes to talk himself into the building (without the riotgun), and thirty minutes more to convince her. Every time was different. Senzee didn't have the edge of fury that had nearly killed Genser once, with a purple-haired Puma. Senzee was smarter than many; the really stupid or inexperienced ones rarely made a run for it, and were easy to convince to return. But Genser was good, and his arguments were hard for a Puma to refute. Where will you live? How will you eat? What will you do? Followed by the promises. It was only five days; you can still come back. If you come back by yourself, they will forget. And so on.

The promises didn't work on the bitter ones, but Senzee hadn't been badly mistreated. Genser knew they were lies—once you ran away, no corp would put you on bodyguard duty; they'd never forget. Senzee would never be that trusted again. She'd get dirty or dangerous group combat missions, or sold to worse. She'd probably have to wear a splat collar; so named because that's the sound your head made when it hit the ground if the collar was triggered remotely and a microthin wire decapitated you. Still, the truth about her situation didn't require exaggeration. Genser had seen replicants starved to death, bloated with malnutrition, gang-raped by a thrillgang, tortured. Freedom for a replicant was like dropping a tiny kitten from an airplane. They just didn't have the ability to cope with life in the Zone. Even if external forces didn't kill them, many of them committed suicide from depression and isolation.

Two hours later, Genser led Senzee onto the Brooklyn Bridge, to the border post with Neo York. He'd called ahead, and a Corpie pickup vehicle was there. Senzee's eyes were wide and green, brighter than her hair. Genser had had to reassure her several times the last mile. She seemed to trust him. It made him squirm a little, inside—she wasn't going to be returning to the life she left; as a runner she'd be much more likely to be mistreated. But it was better than starving in the Zone, at least.

The transfer went smoothly. In more familiar surroundings, Senzee stood at attention and was obedient as the pickup crew put her in the back. The driver came over to get Genser's print on the credit transfer.

"Waste of time, if you ask me," the driver said as Genser imprinted the transfer.

"Huhn?" Genser looked up.

The driver shook his head over at the back of the pickup vehicle, now closed. "You're lucky you got paid. Somebody changed their mind about this one."

"What do you mean?" Genser asked the retreating figure.

The driver got in the vehicle. "New policy. Reclamation, not rehab. Ashes to ashes, runaway vatjobs into the vat." He chuckled coarsely as he closed the door.

Genser watched the vehicle drive off. Reclamation meant rendering the replicant for raw materials. His face showed no expression. Genser's mouth tasted like old shoes. I need a drink, he thought. It would take a lot of alcohol to blur the memory of beautiful green eyes.

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories