by David Kuijt

Darkside was in many ways the nastiest part of the Zone.

This night was like many, with the smarter denizens hiding or fortified behind concrete-reinforced doors while the gangers and worse things walked the streets. Even the sams were walking careful tonight, as the Chromeheads were on a rampage. They had come out ahead in a rumble with the Ancients, and the victory party had spilled out into the streets, looking for trouble.

One group of the Chromes had found it. Some sharp-eyed Chrome spotted a lone figure in the street, and a pack of them had set off in pursuit. For a few minutes it looked like they weren't going to catch him, as he maneuvered easily in the pitch dark even without the torches the Chromes were using, and he was faster than he looked.

But he turned into a blind alley, and the dozen or so Chromes weren't to be denied. When they hit the alley at first they thought their prey had got away, but they soon spotted him, trying to hide in a garbage pile. Like baying dogs they surrounded him.

Only then did they find out how big their prey actually was. He towered over them by a foot or more. Still, they were drunk, they were armed, and they outnumbered him a dozen to one. The Chromeheads closed in like a terrier pack around a bear.

Two of them managed to escape. When they brought back more Chromeheads the carnage was incredible. Shattered skulls. Arms ripped off bodies. Bubba, the strongest man in the group, lay like a broken doll. Every rib snapped like a twig, chest caved in and spine shattered. Several Chromes had their heads on backwards.

Before they could fully express their outrage, the shooting started from above. Their victim had stolen the guns of his attackers, and his shots were well aimed. The Chromes were mostly firing blindly up into the darkness.

By the time the main part of the gang arrived, their enemy had slipped away into the darkness. All in all, it was a bad night for the Chromeheads.

Some time later, deeper in the Zone, a street lay quiet. The dank night sky was dimly lit by the amber lights of Neo York, across the river. No streetlights worked here, though--this was the Zero Zone. Zero law enforcement, zero expectations, zero hope. Many people lived in the zone, some of them even having jobs, income, a home. Those were the ones in the "better" sections, near the river. This far from the river only the gangs and derilects were found in the ruins of what had once been Brooklyn.

Nobody moved in this street of burned-out buildings and rubble. Deep in the shadows of a broken doorway stood a man. The man was very tall. His shoulders were so broad they would have made him look short had he not been crouching to look under the lintel of the doorway to look out into the street; it made the door look slightly out of scale. He was wearing a long coat and wore no shoes. He had been waiting, crouched in the doorway, for some time. He was called Crusher.

Finally Crusher shifted, ducked under the lintel, and stood straight outside the door. If anyone from that gang had followed him, they were more patient than he was. He took a last glance around and moved quickly into the street, as alert as a cat.

Crusher walked directly towards the hulk of a destroyed delivery truck. He crouched down beside it and again glanced all around the street. Nothing moved. Finally satisfied, he casually lifted the end of the truck with a single hand. An open manhole was revealed under the truck. Holding the end of the truck up as a normal human might heft a slab of plywood, the man slid into the manhole and lowered the truck back to its position covering the manhole. The street was quiet again.

The smell that greeted Crusher's nostrils as he climbed down the hole into the sewers was of dank stone, mud, and little else. Sewer maintenance had abandoned this area a generation ago, and nature had done its work on the organic matter remaining. With no constant resupply of waste the sewers had nothing but rainwater to contend with.

In the darkness he moved with agility belying his large frame. His cybereyes had been installed to reduce his vulnerability to certain combat maneuvers, and they were enhanced-spectrum infrared to increase his effectiveness in televised wars, where night combat was fairly common. His designers hadn't realized how useful the eyes they installed would be moving through the sewers of the Zone.

Crusher stepped out into the sewer, bare feet sinking deep into the mud. He walked for some distance. Eventually he came to a huge metal door. No sign of its original purpose remained--its designers never intended it to be underground, in the sewers. It weighed several tons. It was braced up against a wall, not attached. Crusher looked around once more as he stood in front of it, but he saw nothing but quiet sewer. He grabbed the massive door with his huge hands and slid it to one side. An opening was revealed; once a wooden door had blocked the way. Crusher entered and slid the door back with a grunt of effort.

Inside was a short passage ending in a plastic sheet. Crusher moved the sheeting aside and carefully replaced it behind him. He was in a large room, perhaps once used for storage, or the basement of a ruined building above. It was crudely furnished--scavenged carpets lined the floors and walls, a large bed lay in one corner, a single table cluttered with junk. A single wood stove supplied the room with warmth, and a large pile of wood lay beside it.

Crusher took a heavy-bore shotgun from under his long jacket. He checked the action, cleaned it, and reloaded it, then placed it on a crude wall rack with several other weapons. Shrugging off his long jacket, he looked ruefully at the two new holes in it. It was armourcloth, made to protect the user against small-arms fire, taken from a dead ganger who hadn't needed the protection any more. Crusher looked at his shoulder in a mirror. two entry wounds, one exit. He snarled.

"One still in there. It isn't going to get any easier," he muttered to himself.

Crusher shook his head and went over to the table. The stump of an old tree served him as a stool. He had crushed too many chairs and stools to rely on something less sturdy. He picked a sharpened spike from the clutter on the table and looked again at his arm wound.

Sitting down on the stump he took the spike and slowly thrust it into the wound, grimacing at the pain. Then, with the hole widened enough, he took another spike with a small spoon-end beaten into it and poked it into the hole. After a few minutes of sweat and grunts he managed to scrape out the bullet. The wound bled copiously, but the flow of blood slowed, and soon shut off.

The ganger who fired that bullet would have been surprised at its lack of penetration, had he still been alive to be surprised at anything. Dermal plating on Crusher's body acted as efficiently as the armourcloth jacket he wore. It wasn't as good as proper body armour, and didn't give him immunity to the larger caliber weapons, but he wasn't much concerned with small stuff.

He flexed his huge shoulder. Nats had to wait for their bodies to heal up slowly, but Crusher was a vatjob, and he had been designed to survive major wounds and recover quickly. His design allowed him to take terrible damage and survive, and be ready to fight again in a week or two. He didn't get infections, either.

"Not so bad, being a Monster," Crusher muttered bitterly.

The wound, and the adrenaline from the fight, made it difficult for him to calm down. Soon he gave up and went back out into the night.

In the Zone, bars were all different, and all rough. The Vat was one of the most different, and the most rough. It was in the bottom of an old rowhouse, sitting on the largely unpopulated border line where the Entertainment District ended, and Darkside began. It had no sign, no lights, and it never advertised. In fact, if you asked most of its clientele where it was, they wouldn't tell you. Not unless you were a skinjob, a vatjob, a replicant. Because the Vat was the only skinjob bar in the Zone.

The Vat had had to move pretty regularly, when it first started up. It was trashed by go-gangs, bombed more than once, and even burned down by an angry mob. For some years it had shifted location every few months, and done its best to keep its location secret.

Over the last half-dozen years it had been stable, though, and stayed in the same place. Although the replicants who frequented it still didn't tell strangers, its location wasn't really a secret. The last go-gang that tried to go "freakin' the skinjobs" there had taken a beating, as they had talked too much before hand, and word had gotten out.

There wasn't much that could threaten a go-gang with thousands of members, but they weren't equipped to deal with the sort of firepower that defended the Vat that day. After a firefight three days long, the go-gang bugged out. The casualties had been heavy enough that it was wiped out and absorbed by a rival gang within a year, and there hadn't been a major attack against the Vat since.

Crusher knocked on the basement door that was the normal entrance. The door looked strong enough to stop a tank. A slot slid open in the door, high up. A pair of eyes glanced at Crusher once, then around to see he was alone. The slot slid shut, and then the door slowly opened.

Crusher had met people larger than himself, and stronger, in the arena. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen anyone larger than the one who had opened the door, though. Troll was his name. Like Crusher, Troll was a type-3 Replicant. Troll had been designed to work in some underground mines somewhere. How he escaped and made his way here, nobody seemed to know. He was nearly 9 feet tall, and probably stronger than a small combat cyberdroid. He was also dying. Crusher had seen the signs often enough—old replicants were common sword-fodder in the mass televised wars. Troll probably had only a year or so more before his huge heart collapsed or some other part of his biosystem failed. His skin already had the yellow tinge of jaundice from ongoing liver failure.

Crusher and Troll nodded at each other, and Troll shut the door after Crusher. Troll rarely spoke, although he understood speech well enough.

Half a dozen pairs of eyes flicked to Crusher as he entered the bar. Some of them recognized him; the rest saw his huge size and knew him immediately as a replicant, so they went back to their quiet drinks or conversations without pause. Non-replicants weren't very welcome here. Some few visited with replicant friends or associates; very few "nats" ever came here alone. One of the cruel jokes that bartertown residents sometimes played on naive slumming cits was to send them to the Vat, telling them it was the Plastic Palace, a well-known synthetic brothel in the Entertainment District. If the cit was very lucky, Troll didn't let them in the door. If they were just a little lucky, they got out alive.

Crusher went to the bar and slapped wrists with the bartender, Roy. Roy was a big man; he could have passed for a normal, even with his perfect complexion and white-blond hair. But he was a Tyrrell Corp Nexus 5, strong as hell, and he used to be a combat model. Crusher had never heard Roy's story. Roy was getting old, now; some replicants were made with planned obsolescence in mind. He wasn't very fast any more, but he seemed to have some years left in him. He was happy enough to tend his bar and take it easy.

"Hoi, Roy."

"Hoi, Crusher. Gonna ask Troll for a rematch?" Roy smiled.

"Naw. I'm takin' the tie," Crusher smiled in return. Last week an impromptu arm-wrestling contest had broken out. Betting had been fierce, aided by the Puma Sisters who had just gotten a contract to wreck something for somebody, and were spreading their money around.

Anapuma had gotten farther than she should, beating two stronger opponents; one by giving him a well-timed kiss, and the second when Anapuma's very tight haltertop had broken at a very convenient time. Although nobody believed Ana and Uni's protestations of innocence, a win was a win, and even the defeated man didn't mind losing too much. But even with strength enough to throw a large man through a wall, the Puma Sisters were out of their league against Roy, Crusher, and Troll. The finals had been Crusher against Troll, and the reinforced metal table had buckled. Since it was the strongest table the Vat had, Roy had called it a tie.

Crusher sat in one of the booths, where the seats were reinforced. He gradually relaxed as he sipped his beer. Good enough beer, he had no idea where Roy got it. Good beer wasn't easy to find in the Zone.

Crusher looked around the room. As always, the Vat was a contrast of strangeness, ugliness, and stunning beauty. Crusher had seen Sylvie here a couple of times. She worked over at 93 Underground, one of the most popular bars in the Entertainment District; she was a 33S, a top-of-the-line escort synthetic. Two of the staff here were also escort models, although not as expensive as Sylvie. The other was Nami, wiping a table near Crusher.

Nami was a Lynx. She was quite pretty, with purple hair. She didn't talk much, although she always had a smile. Her left ear was torn up, and she was missing her left arm from about the elbow. She was always cleaning tables or sweeping up, pushing a broom with her remaining arm.

Crusher rarely felt relaxed, but the Vat was home in a way that no place had ever been for him. Here, and only here, did he not feel out of place. He'd had a long day, and a hard fight. Within fifteen minutes he was asleep.

Nami came over and cleaned his table, then with a great amount of effort slid him down to a lying position on the bench. Roy watched from the bar, amused, as she struggled to slide Crusher's enormous frame into a sleeping position. One arm kept sliding off the bench. Finally Nami gave up. Sweeping the floor clean under booth, she rolled Crusher onto the floor with a thud. He didn't wake up, so she arranged his limbs and then went into a back room. The simple pillow she brought back went under his head, but Roy smiled to see her flip the piece of cloth over the table to make a crude tablecloth, hiding Crusher's sleeping form.

The only evidence of Crusher's presence was the pair of enormous bare feet sticking out from under the tablecloth, and the deep snoring coming faintly from under the table.

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories