by David Kuijt

Crusher looked at the bar's entrance. The Half Tanked wasn't as fancy or as well known as 93 Underground, but it wasn't bad. Good enough to have a weapon check at the door, anyway. Crusher wasn't in a good mood, and he wanted a fight. He was wise enough to know that was a bad idea, though. He knew he shouldn't be angry. After all, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. It didn't matter how strong you were, or how good you were, sometimes you lose.

Crusher had spent the afternoon at the dojo. A fancy name for an abandoned warehouse with no electricity, but for serious combat it was the only place to go. Dossoyev, who ran the place, cared for nothing but combat. He was one of the best cyber-warrior combat trainers anywhere. And the dojo was the only place Crusher could go where the only thing that mattered was fighting, and the only respect was for ability.

Even at the dojo, it was rare that there was anyone who could give Crusher a good fight. He had been an Omega-class contender when he escaped a year ago, and was in nearly as good condition now. Sparring partners able to take the abuse and stretch him a little were rare.

One of the few was Duke, chief bouncer at 93 Underground. He'd been good, very good, nearly two decades ago. Ranked in the top tier of Smash TV, the predecessor to Maim TV. He could take punishment and give it out even now. But Crusher was better, and they both knew it. Crusher won four out of five of their sparring bouts, sometimes more. But not this last one. Duke had caught him coming in, and nearly broken Crusher's jaw, even with the titanium bonelacing and the dermal plating. The bruise was still clear, and his neck still hurt in spite of his tremendous healing rate. Crusher's pain editor hadn't been able to handle the load, and his world had gone grey. Dossoyev had called the fight.

It was the fastest win Duke had ever had on him, and the most convincing. Dossoyev had been matter-of-fact about it. "It do not matter how strong you be, sometime you win, and sometime you lose." Crusher knew it was true, but he still found it hard to stomach. And the fact that it was the last fight of the day made it worse; everyone else had been sitting around watching, and most of them liked Duke much better than they liked him.

Crusher tried to shake off his bad mood and entered the bar. The bouncer at guncheck was cybered, like most bouncers. Armour plating; partial chromedome. His eyes watched Crusher coldly, one big dog recognizing another. Crusher checked in his shotgun and heavy pistol without comment. The bouncer glanced up and down Crusher's huge frame, experienced eyes looking for the bulge of additional firepower, but then his eyes stopped when he reached Crusher's feet, and he blinked. Crusher's feet were bare. The MaimTV combat boots he'd worn when he had escaped had been badly torn in the initial escape, and destroyed in the muck of storm drains and hard living soon after. Without a job or income, and with enormous feet to match the rest of his frame, Crusher hadn't had any sort of shoes all summer.

Crusher leaned forward, making the guncheck counter creak. "Any problem?" He stopped short of putting the implied threat in his voice, but it was clear enough to the bouncer. The armoured man looked at Crusher for a moment, but he wasn't paid to push it, or didn't feel ready, so just waved him inside.

The bar was packed. It was prime time for the Entertainment District; hours past dusk, but still a long way from dawn. As with most bars this close to the city, many of the paying customers were Cits, citizens of Neo York who came to the Zone for their rougher entertainment. Half Tanked was respectable enough—most Cits came for an edge of danger, but didn't really want to get shot.

Some Cits liked to pick fights; sufficient alcohol, some friends egging them on, and a bit of martial training and they thought they were tough. It wasn't a problem Crusher worried about much, though—even when they were picking fights, they rarely tried him out. Even in the packed bar, Crusher stood out. He was a head taller than the tallest Nats. He didn't like drawing stares, so he would sit down if he could. But on a full night, finding booth space was impossible.

A long reach got him a cheap beer at the bar; all he could afford until he found some paying job. He took it back and leaned against a bare I-beam overlooking the dance floor. Crusher had never danced, but he liked watching it. One woman in particular caught his eye. She moved like a cat, graceful and supple.

A cat in truth, Crusher realized as the lights flashed on her large, foxlike ears. She was a Puma; a security synthetic. She was beautiful, as they all were. Puma hair came in a very wide variety of shades; hers was peach coloured. Her outfit was expensive and stylish; leather pants and halter tailored to show off her assets and give free movement at the same time. As the music ended and the lights came up he saw that she was dancing with a Cit. The man was tall, well-built, the same height as she was, over six feet. He led the way to the bar near Crusher.

As she followed her eyes swept the crowd systematically. Bodyguard, Crusher thought. She noticed him immediately, as tall as he was. Nobody with any experience would mistake him for anything but a combat cybergraft, which to a bodyguard meant threat. Her eyes locked with Crusher's.

Crusher lifted his hands, empty, and shook his head with a tiny smile to tell her that he wasn't a threat. The corner of her mouth twitched into a quick return smile as she understood immediately, and her gaze moved on. She was clearly an experienced bodyguard, though; at the bar she put her body between the Cit and Crusher, and her roving glance continued to check on him as it swept the room.

The Cit got a large drink and glanced around the room arrogantly. His clothing was very expensive. He couldn't avoid seeing Crusher nearby, and he sneered as he looked the larger man up and down. Then he laughed and poked his bodyguard in the ribs.

"Look, Denyi." He pointed at Crusher's bare feet. The Puma, Denyi, glanced at Crusher's feet, then her eyes flicked up to meet Crusher's. Although her clear gaze wasn't judgemental, Crusher flushed in embarrassment. His feet were huge, and shoes his size weren't available on the rack, nor scavenged from anyone else. His MaimTV combat boots had been badly damaged in his initial escape, and hadn't survived the mud, water, and sewers as he fled. Crusher had been barefoot for nearly a year.

"Isn't there some city code here, no brains, no shoes, no service?" The Cit sneered at Crusher.

Crusher's embarrassment flashed into fury. His gaze switched from the Puma to the Cit. "Frick off, shalkujin," he rumbled. His hands clenched, and he started to take a step towards the Cit. The man's eyes widened with surprise as he realized how big Crusher really was. Crusher reached his huge hands towards the focus of his anger.

And his hands were slapped away, strongly. The Puma, Denyi, sprang in front of the shalkujin to face Crusher. As tall and strong as she was, she looked like a wolf in front of a bear, but she was ready. Crusher's eyes locked on hers. If she had tried to strike then, as most Pumas would, Crusher would have taken her out without a second thought. But she didn't, just looking up at him; almost in each other's arms.

In her eyes Crusher saw understanding. Understanding his anger, and sharing his shame, without altering her readiness to fight. And she wasn't stupid, either—she recognized him as a combat model, and Crusher could see that she didn't like this situation one bit. A Puma was one of the best bodyguards money could buy, but they weren't built for the sort of abuse Crusher could dish out.

Crusher's eyes stared into the Puma's for a long moment, then his frown cleared. "Ah, it ain't worth it." He started to turn away.

"He's scared of you, Denyi," the forgotten shalkujin sneered in relief, his fear turned to anger as the threat seemed over. "Motherless skinjob freak. Stinking vatjob."

Denyi was good, very good. She managed to block Crusher's strike at her owner, knocking it aside. Splinters flew as the bar took the brunt of the blow. Squeaking in fear, the shalkujin dove for cover.

"Don't do this," Denyi spoke for the first time, to Crusher. Her voice was soft, in stark contrast to the braying, arrogant tones of the shalkujin. She stood crouched, ready.

Crusher shook his head. "Get out of the way." He too was crouched in combat stance. The crowd had pulled back in sudden fear, leaving them a small arena.

Denyi spoke again, soft enough that only Crusher could hear. "I can't do that." She leaped into a snap kick.

Crusher's iron-hard forearm blocked the blow, and Denyi barely avoided his huge fist in response. Crusher smiled savagely. He loved a good fight. He had faced Pumas before, in combat sports, and they were tough. Denyi was better than most, but there was only so much you could do with pure flesh, and Crusher was cybered for combat. As huge as he was, he was still much heavier than he looked. His whole skeleton was titanium reinforced, and his musculature was enhanced enough that he would have torn ligaments and tendons of mere flesh just walking and breathing; his connective tissue was nothing like normal.

Even in speed Denyi had no advantage; Crusher moved like a cat and was as fast as she. She got the first strike in; an elbow strike into his abdomen. A blow that would have broken the ribs of a normal, but Crusher barely noticed, and his arms closed on her.

Pumas were adept martial artists. The hardwired skills came at the price of predictability, to those who fought them regularly, but were very useful nonetheless. Although they fought with strikes rather than holds, they were trained in several escape techniques for this sort of situation. With their training and strength, holding a Puma was a very difficult proposition.

Denyi squirmed in his grip, trying to find the weak point. But Crusher's name was well-earned; it took far more than a Puma's strength to break his grip. He squeezed. The breath shot out of her, and her struggles weakened, but she would not give up. Crusher squeezed again, and her eyes rolled up.

Crusher put her down almost gently, then turned to the Cit. The man's eyes bugged out as he saw his expensive bodyguard laid on the floor like so much meat, and he started to scrabble backwards and gabble incomprehensibly. Then his eyes lit as he glanced over Crusher's shoulder.

Crusher half-turned, warned, but not in time. A tremendous blow struck him and knocked him to the ground. The armoured bouncer looked in astonishment at the iron pipe he held, now bent badly where it had hit Crusher's head. A blow that would have killed anyone else in the bar.

Crusher's world had gone grey for a moment, stunned by the massive blow, but his damage-control system had been built for this, and his instincts were good even now. The bouncer's second blow smashed into Crusher's raised arm; his third was also blocked.

Crusher's legs scissored and the bodyguard fell, legs swept out from under him. Grappling together on the ground, all the advantages were Crusher's. In a moment he had a grip, and he applied the maneuver that had given him his MaimTV name. The bouncer gasped in agony, but his attempts to escape were less systematic than Denyi's had been, and more futile. His armour creaked and buckled; ribs cracked.

Staggering, Crusher stood up. His eyes swept the room for his tormentor. There he was, up against the bar, eyes bugging out in fear.

But Denyi was up again, protecting her owner. She held a combat knife now, low, blade up and towards Crusher. She was panting, favoring one arm, but her eyes were still calm and focused. "Don't make me hurt you," she said, as if Crusher and she were alone in the room.

"You can't stop me," Crusher growled. "You can't win."

"I will," she responded.

Crusher came on. Denyi slashed at him, backhand strikes, defensive. Dodging his blows because she knew she couldn't afford to get hit again. Blood flew, but Crusher's dermal plating kept the cuts mostly superficial, and his pain editor allowed him to ignore the damage.

Bone splintered in a gasp of pain. Exhausted, Denyi had overextended, and Crusher had snapped her arm at the elbow. The knife dropped out of her limp hand as she gritted her teeth in agony.

But she still stood in front of her cringing owner. One arm limp, she tried a snap kick as Crusher came in again. Crusher blocked it easily; his return Pankration strike dislocated her knee and she went down.

Crusher looked at her a long moment before turning to the shalkujin. He was scrabbling away in fear, too terrified to stand up. Crusher's hand closed on his fashionable shirt and lifted him off the ground. The other hand went back to strike. "Say goodbye, suit," he growled.

Pain stabbed his calf. Crusher looked down, astonished. With one arm broken and a dislocated knee, Denyi had found her combat knife and crawled to stab him in the only part she could reach.

The cit had fainted. Crusher dropped him and kneeled beside Denyi. She tried to stab him again, but he grabbed her wrist gently. "What are you doing," Crusher asked.

"Can't quit," Denyi gritted through pain-locked teeth. "Won't let you hurt him."

"Why? He isn't worth this. He's drek."

Denyi's eyes locked on Crusher's, as if force of will alone could make him understand. Pain made her short of breath. "He's drek. But I'm not. Protect him. My duty." She took a short breath. Her body relaxed and the knife clattered from her grip, but her eyes remained locked on Crusher's, trying to make him understand.

"My honour," she said, so quietly he could barely hear it. Then she passed out.

Crusher looked at her for a moment that seemed an eternity.

He put the knife back in her hand and gently closed the fingers, then he stood up. Two more of the bar's bouncers had reached the fight now, but they paused, unsure what to do as silence reigned. Crusher's gaze flicked over the cit whose remarks had started this, then ignored him.

"I'm leaving," Crusher said to them. "But you didn't stop me, she did." He glanced at the tableau of prone bouncer, fainted shalkujin, and Denyi, then turned for the door.

In darkness, from a roof nearby, Crusher watched the aircar settle to the ground in front of the bar. He watched as the shalkujin tottered out the door, leaning on Denyi's shoulder. Someone had put her arm in a sling and splinted her leg. She was clearly in pain, far more badly injured than her owner, but hiding it. He could hear the man's nattering, irritated voice, berating his bodyguard, although Crusher was far enough away that the words were distinct. Denyi opened the door for the shalkujin and helped him in. Before she got in she looked around, as if knowing Crusher would be watching. Crusher stayed hidden.

The aircar lifted off smoothly, and Crusher watched it sail off into the lights of Neo York. Sometimes you win, he thought. And sometimes you lose. And the stronger fighter doesn't always win.

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