by Alex Fauth, David Kuijt amd Rob Rutherford

It was Friday, December 6, 2030 AD.

It had been cold recently, although in lower Manhattan it wasn't really noticeable (arcologies make wonderful heat sinks). In the Zone on the other hand, people were once again patching up their homes, setting up solar panels and windmills and gathering wood for the winter. Those who have power were guarding it, while those who pirate power were hoping they wouldn't get caught.

In Neo York Christmas decorations were starting to appear. Here in the Zone it was getting colder, and most people were burning trees instead of putting them up and decorating them.

Still, the Entertainment District was the brightest part of the Zone, and wasn't fazed much by the cold. The bars took in lots of U2C money from slumming Cits, and so they actually had niceties like plumbing, heating, and electricity.

93 Underground was one of the bigger and more successful bars in the Zone. Friday night was usually a good night there, but it wasn't yet 5pm, with the long shadows of the Arcologies in Neo York turning into full dusk. The bar was open, but traffic was still very light, and only a few regulars were in the bar ignoring the musicians, and techs that were setting up for the evening entertainment.

Some of the regular dancers were socializing and talking on the front of the stage, taking their ease in the pre-show mellow period before the press of people arrived, while the techs set up and the musicians were tuning. A few smoked or finished off some food from the kitchen.

One of the regular dancers, Silver, stood out. She wasn't wearing much of a top, a wisp of a skirt that was way too short, and stockings that were several inches from her hemline. With her waist-length platinum blonde hair and amber eyes she was easily the most beautiful girl there. She was milling around and chatting with some of the other girls, occasionally dancing a few steps with one of the other girls, talking shop.

The main entrance door was open, letting in the cool air of dusk. Normally Tommy worked the gun-check room, but with the light traffic Duke was handling that and his normal duties as chief bouncer and door warden at the same time. Duke was wearing his working clothing of black slacks, white ruffled longsleeve shirt, black string tie. His shirt and slacks hid the fact that he had an Iron Angel—fully cybernetic arms and legs. He was a big, broad-shouldered bearded blond guy with a barrel chest. At six and a half feet tall, he was a very big man.

Now, however, he was talking to someone that made him look petite. Crusher was a foot taller than Duke, and proportionally broader. His bare arms were heavily muscled, sticking out of a long duster that had had the sleeves crudely cut off. With nobody coming in, Crusher and Duke were talking comfortably.

Duke shook his head. "...Naw, not here. We're full up right now; with winter coming on every bruiser with standup credentials and no longterm contract has been by looking for a bouncer position. If one of them tanks on us, I'll mention your name to Gordon, though."

Crusher nodded. "Same story everywhere." He shook his head. "Any solo jobs around?"

Duke frowned. "You'd be great as a standup, but bodyguard positions are even more a matter of rep than most. Without a rep for reliability and discretion it ain't easy to get something. Thug jobs are easier, but most of them aren't going to be to your taste, big guy."

Crusher nodded. "Breaking somebody's kneecaps for a loanshark isn't me. But hunger is making me less picky."

Duke nodded sympathetically. "I'll keep my ears open, anyway..."

At that point the ground shook slightly. One of the bottles fell off the back of the bar and shattered, setting the barkeep cursing. The suspended lights swung slightly. The musicians halted their noodling, and conversations paused, and then a spate of questions arose.

"What the hell was that?" Duke asked what half the people in the bar were thinking.

Crusher and Duke both looked outside, then back in. There didn't seem to be any cause. "Earthquake?" Crusher sounded dubious.

"In Neo York?" Duke didn't think so.

Thunder rumbled distantly.

The two men looked at each other. "Explosion," they said in unison.

They both stepped out the door and climbed the steps into the street.

Silver and several of the other girls went to the front door. The sunken entrance shielded them from the chilly breeze, but Silver still shivered. With the feet of the two large men right at eye level in front of her, she noticed that Crusher was barefoot. Or at least, nearly so—he was wearing a pair of crude sandals made of tire rubber and heavy-duty cord. They looked awkward and ill-made; uncomfortable, too.

Silver moved over to one side of the stairs where she could just barely peer over the edge and get somewhat of a better view, away from the huge feet in front of her, and hoping to stay a little out of the wind. Not that it did her much good. The wind in the stairwell casually flipped her skirt. Without even bothering to try and hold it down, she muttered under her breath, "Damn, I wasn't planning on wearing this outfit outside until summer when it was warm."

Outside, in the street, nothing seemed out of the normal. Then another ground rumble, followed half a minute later by another roll of thunder.

Crusher and Duke looked south, where the sound had come from. The street ran nearly north-south here, giving them a view farther than normal. Far in the distance they saw a plume of dust or smoke.

"Miles away," Duke said. "Nearly directly south."

Crusher looked at the cloud for a moment, thinking, then his brows suddenly furrowed. "Isn't that where Ran lives?"

Silver looked up at Crusher. "Sure, but that doesn't mean anything. Since nobody sane goes there, the Corps. can do anything they want there then blame everything on Ran. Or they may have actually done something to set him off, perhaps deliberately."

Crusher looked down at Silver with a frown. Although clearly distracted, he couldn't help noticing her stunning looks. "True enough," he admitted. "I hope nobody did anything that stupid."

Duke nodded. "The last time Ran went on a ramage was a few years ago. He pushed over a 15-story apartment tower onto a Corpie milsec team that was in Southside on a live-fire exercise. They slapped a couple of 120mm AT shells at him. That really pissed him off, I hear. When the Corp came for their security team, what they could find of the whole team fit nicely in a single bucket. Afterwards the Corp was all over the Zone, making life a pain for us as they tried to track down all the heavy paramil equipment the team had been testing.

Duke shook his head, looking at the distant plume of smoke or dust. "If Ran's gone off again, we're going to just have to button up tight and pray. All the cyber in the world ain't gonna help you if a building falls on you."

A squeal of tires got their attention. A motorbike had been zooming down the street in their general direction; now it slid out of control and started to tumble, dumping a young man in red leathers. The fallen bike tumbled towards them, half a ton of spinning metal.

Silver pressed herself close to the wall she was peering over and let out a small Eeep! as the bike came barreling towards them.

Crusher stepped forward between the bike and Silver. His knees were bent, one leg back and braced, arms splayed. The bouncing bike slammed into his chest, swaying him back and knocking a grunt out of him, but didn't knock him over. His long arms caught the bike. With its momentum absorbed, Crusher put the heavy motorbike down to the side as easily as Silver might have put down a bicycle, and strode over to where Duke was already with the rider. The young man was bleeding freely from the nose and seemed to be in a lot of pain.

Silver joined the guys by the prone cyclist, looking over the situation but giving the men plenty of room to move.

"It's Ryder," Duke said grimly. "No bones broke, no visible holes." Ryder was a PK and anti-ganger biker; a regular at 93 Underground. Ryder was in pain, and looked really ill; as if he was about to throw up on Crusher's shoes. Which wouldn't have been easy, as Crusher didn't have any.

"OK, Crusher," Duke said, "you got a job. Watch the door. I gotta tell Gordon right away. Silver, you bring Ryder in." Without more than a glance at the other two, Duke trundled down the stairs into the building. His cyberlegs were built for strength, not speed, and a rolling trot was about the best he could do. Crusher had never seen him try to run before.

"Congratulations," Silver said to Crusher. She looked at Ryder's nauseous form with trepidation, hoping he wouldn't bleed or vomit on her and wondering how heavy he was. Ryder wasn't too tall, but he was six inches taller than she.

"Here, let me," Crusher rumbled, noticing her hesitation. He picked up Ryder carefully, but as easily as a doll and carried him in, laying him on the gun-check counter inside the door. Then he backed off to let Silver and the two other girls look at Ryder.

Silver looked over the lean PK, still not quite sure what to do with him. The nosebleed and nausea were obviously not caused by his accident. She glanced at the other two girls and said "Get me something to clean him up with and a bucket just in case he does get sick." The two girls left quickly, knowing that if they weren't prompt Silver's next request would be for a mop.

Crusher swung one of the double doors shut to block the breeze, then stood in the other one so he could look out and also keep an eye on Ryder. His huge frame nearly blocked the door, cutting the wind even more.

Ryder was above average height, slim-hipped and athletic. He wore a dark red biker's jacket and pants. His pistol was still in his hip holster.

Silver gazed down at Rider. She patted him on his cheek and asked gently, "Rider, can you hear me?"

She thought back to the last time Ran went beserk. She had been with Angel then. Somehow Angel knew exactly what was going on, the corps started a war they couldn't win, and the residents of the Zone would pay for it. She said that all the PKs in Neo York could feel the backlash of Ran's anger. Silver asked her if she was a PK and if that was how she knew. Angel responded no, she wasn't a PK, if she were a PK she would be suffering from a PK backlash right now with things like nosebleeds, breaking small objects, and pain. Then Angel had said that it was going to be a long night.

Silver snapped back to the present when the girls came back with a bucket and some rags from behind the bar. She began wiping Ryder's face, and said "Wake up damn it." She looked around wondering where Gordon was. She noticed Crusher watching her; somber eyes in a homely, battered face.

Silver spoke to the girls, "If he doesn't get better in a couple of minutes we're going to take him in back." She went on, "I think it's going to be a long night."

Crusher nodded, "Ya." He glanced out the open door, where it was getting dark. Multiple sirens could be clearly heard across the river from Neo York.

Later, Crusher stood at the door, looking out into the night. It was full dark now, but things were clearly not normal. On a Friday evening in the Entertainment District lights would be on, people would be arriving for the evening shows, aircars from Neo York and rickshaws and a few beat-up taxis from the Zone would be dropping off U2Cs and partygoers. Neon signs would be alight, the noise of crowds and music would be in the air.

Tonight most of the lighting was reflected off the low-hanging clouds from Neo York. Neon signs were unlit, to avoid the risk that Ran might be attracted by them; streetlights likewise were dark. The ground shook every once in a while. Gunshots and loud bikes were a feature of the night in the Zone, but tonight they came much more frequently than usual. Ran's movement had flushed many of the southern Zone residents from their haunts, including a number of go-gangs. Packs of gangers sped through now and again, spreading chaos and destruction; a spatter of shooting broke out whenever they came upon a knot of resistance, until they passed it by or overcame it.

In the main room of the bar, behind Crusher, everyone was clustered around a Vid receiver. Gordon had brought out his personal Vidcom and linked it to the Neo York news channels, who were tracking Ran's movement. The coverage was very spotty, as it was difficult to discern the position of a single person in the urban waste of the southern Zone. Every once in a while a shattered building gave some evidence of his passage, but even there the evidence was indirect. He had moved up Flatbush, north-east; now he was moving nearly directly north, towards Bartertown. His movement was erratic. Sometimes slow, as a man might walk; sometimes fast, several miles in a minute; sometimes, as now, he stopped. The newsies were trying to figure his location using satellite images now, a frustrating process.

No videographers tried to get vid of Ran without long-distance lenses. The ostensible reason was that Ran often crushed flying vehicles like tin cans. Worse still, flying vehicles often attracted his attention, and so NYPDInc. had permission to shoot down any vehicles in NY airspace that seemed likely to attract Ran to Neo York. In this sort of case they interpreted "NY airspace" as including all the Zone.

Frustrated with the erratic coverage and lack of information, Silver came over to where Crusher stood at the door. An initial rush of local people had turned into a trickle as the residents found their boltholes to wait out the coming storm. Gordon had told Crusher to hold the door and only let injured people or obvious refugees in, while he and Duke battened down and closed up. Crusher had had to turn away a few heavily-armed street warriors, but none of them had been willing to make an issue of it, and nobody had made the basement stairwell in fifteen minutes.

Crusher looked up as Silver approached. "Hoi." His voice was as deep as you would expect from someone that huge, but surprisingly gentle.

"Kon ban wa" Silver's voice was warm and friendly. As she walked over she moved with an elegant flowing grace, her movements flowing with her perfect curves. Crusher had seen her many times before, but it was always on stage, or in the middle of the crowd, never walking straight to him with no distractions or obstructions. At times she could easily be mistaken for a sexaroid.

"We haven't met, eh? I'm Crusher."

"Hmm? I don't believe we have, I'm Silver, pleased you meet you."

Crusher extended his hand after an almost imperceptible hesitation. Silver's small hand was briefly engulfed in Crusher's huge one, but emerged without damage. "Nice to meet you, too. I've seen you dance. You're very good."

"Thanks, It's nice to be appreciated for something you enjoy doing." Silver looked up with a smile. The size difference between Silver and Crusher was immense. Crusher was at least two feet taller than Silver, and looked at least four times her mass. Looks were deceiving, of course—Crusher's cyberware, titanium bonelacing, dermal plating, and myriad other modifications and enhancements made him much heavier than he looked, and he massed nearly 400kg.

The thunder of an approaching go-gang echoed loud down the street, drawing their attention. Crusher lifted a heavy-guage combat shotgun from where it had been obscured by his side and pumped the action one-handed. Silver recognized it as a Remington 880P, the same weapon NYPDInc. used. The folding shoulder stock had been removed, and Crusher held it like a pistol in one huge hand.

Silver took note of the gun, "I hope you're not going to need that."

Crusher nodded. "Me too. Ammo is expensive, and I don't have any reloads."

"It's not so much that, but the only good fights never happen."

Crusher cocked an eyebrow at her skeptically. "Gunfights, perhaps."

Moving carefully out into the stairwell, Crusher carefully poked his head over the side. His eyes gleamed redly in the dim light.

"Shidh," he muttered. "Awful lot of those scags." He glanced at Silver. "Maybe we should close the armoured door until they pass?"

"We'll wait a little longer, I really don't want to lock anybody out there with them."

Crusher nodded.

The first bikes passed, then a sudden scream cut through the sound of revving engines. Crusher popped his head up again and cursed intensely. "It's Sylvie!"

Sylvie was one of the waitresses at 93 Underground, and had worked there for years. She was the most beautiful woman there, although it wasn't really fair to compare normal human beauty with hers—she was a 3-3-S replicant, genetically designed for stunning beauty, and given the additional advantages of bioengineered pheromones and anything else the designers could think up that would make them a perfect sexual partner. Almost all 3-3-S models in the Zone worked in the brothels; Sylvie was the exception.

Sylvie worked the later shift, and hadn't arrived at the bar yet. She had obviously been making her way there when the river of bikers came through. A minute earlier, or five later, and she would have escaped notice, but now they had spotted her. She was framed in headlights like a deer against a wall. Nowhere to run. The gangers crowed in exultation.

"Cover me," Crusher said urgently, and he tossed his shotgun to Silver. Then he was up the stairs and out on the street, running hunched-over to where Sylvie was trapped.

"Damn!" Silver cursed under her breath as she caught the gun easily by the pistol grip, almost drawing it from the air. Silver's expression changed from nervous anxiety to a cold rage, but Crusher was into the street and couldn't see it. She yelled back inside, "April! get me the pistol from the gun check! Amber! get Duke and Gordon! NOW!"

Silver moved outside and peeked over the edge where she could get a good view of the gang without being obvious. There were dozens of the bikers. A half-dozen had stopped their bikes, surrounding Sylvie; more streamed by constantly, ignoring the distraction, heading north. Some were firing weapons into the air, or at windows. All were armed.

One of the dancers, slightly younger than Silver, immediately stopped wiping the blood from Ryder's face, and bolted over to the gun check. Another went running through a door behind the bar.

Sandra Blackmore had been heading to 93 Underground. She had hoped to pick up a job, or at the very least take in a bit of drink. The Christmas season with its inherent cheer and cheesiness seemed to always bring out the worst in her. Her plans had been somewhat interupted by the large explosion, and the chaos that followed it. She'd taken in the situation. >From her knowledge, the blast had come from where Ran hung out, "the king of the freaks" as she called him. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he was on a rampage. Other subtle signs gave that away, such as the bikers riding past, screaming things about "Ran is coming! We're all going to die!"

Swearing to herself, she continued on her way to 93 Underground with a bit more speed. She was closer to there than to her pitifully small apartment, and the bar had to be better protected against such disasters than her place. A slow walk broke into a run, as she sprinted to the bar, an old song caught in her head.

"Its Christmas at ground zero..."

Once she reached 93 underground, the song was driven from her head by the scene she saw. A bunch of go-gangers were going through the area, trashing anything they came across. Maybe out of rage, maybe for the fun of it. Who could tell with these guys? What got her attention, however, wasn't the gang, but their target; an attractive young woman with grey hair who had her back to the wall. A dozen or so gangers had dismounted, and were heading towards her, their intent obvious.

"Bloody hell" Sandra swore to herself. She silently pulled out the Jensii Hoshoku Zeta pistol she kept at her side and ran towards the scene. It looked like her night was going to be even more interesting than she thought.

Crusher moved lightly for such a huge man. He dove into the flow of gangers, dodging between moving bikes. A passing biker swiped at him with a steel pipe, but he ducked underneath the blow and the ganger was past. Then he was through to the other side.

Deafened by the roar of passing bikes and focussed on Sylvie, the ring of gangers had no warning. A ganger screamed as Crusher's fist splintered his knee joint; another turned to see two hands reaching for his head. One wrench of huge hands and a sickening crunch and he fell, head turned backwards. With a roar Crusher picked up one of the bikes as if it were made of balsawood and threw it, scattering the rest like bowling pins as they dived for cover and scrabbled for weapons.

As one of the bikers headed straight for Sylvie and Crusher, Silver fired her first shot. Part of the ganger's head exploded, and the bike suddenly swerved to one side, dumping both bike and remains of the rider into a slide along the street. Without changing her stance Silver pumped the shotgun and fired another round at one of the circling bikers. A large red smear splattered from his chest as he was knocked off his bike and went tumbling to the ground.

Running down the street, Sandra had been surprised by the appearance of the big guy. He was ugly, apparently indestructable, and seemingly fearless in his defence of the girl. Even though she had been running down to the circle of gangers, the big guy had gotten there first. He was now surrounded, but it didn't seem to deter him as he ripped through the gangers. Sandra noticed he wasn't alone, though—someone was providing fire support from the stairwell of 93 Underground. That wasn't going to be enough, though—a nearby ganger pulled out a shotgun, trying to get a bead on the man. Before he could fire, Sandra opened up on him with her pistol. The ganger collapsed. Dead or alive, it didn't matter to her. Just so long as he wasn't a threat.

Crusher scooped up Sylvie, spinning to put his body between her and the ganger's fire.

Silver dropped to one knee, using the stairwell as cover as best she could. She measured her opponents and planted a round squarely in the side of one who was preparing to fire a pistol at Crusher and Sylvie. The gun and ganger immediately fell to the pavement. One of the gangers realized that the gunshots weren't being fired by the giant in the middle of them and looked around only to have his face removed by another one of Silver's quickly placed shots. Other gangers started firing; some at Silver in the stairwell, most at Crusher. A few noticed Sandra running toward them down the street; a pair gunned their bikes towards her, firing as they came.

Crusher tucked Sylvie into his armourcloth duster, keeping his massive torso between her and the gangers' fire. His rush back towards the protection of the stairwell wasn't as quick or graceful as his rush out, constrained by his burden and trying to shield her body with his. A beefy biker jumped forward with a chain, slashing it at Crusher. The chain hit his raised arm, wrapping tightly around it, and Crusher yanked the biker forward, spinning him smoothly into a one-arm lock and using him as a shield against the shooting of his ganger buddies. The biker's mouth opened to scream something, but his body spasmed as he took a handful of hits, and only blood came out.

Two of the bikers had taken note of Sandra, much to her dismay. A pair of them zoomed down the street at 50 kph, murder on their minds, guns blazing. While their accuracy was pretty poor, Sandra was unarmoured and had no intention of beeing glooped by some no-name kid with a lucky shot. She lept to one side, activating her boosted reflexes as she went. Rounds sailed past her as she opened up on one of them, knocking him back off his bike and sending it skidding further down the road.

The second ganger had already passed her, and now had to come back around before firing again. Sandra had no intention of letting that happen, and put a couple of rounds into the poor sap's back, knocking him down. "Great... two down." Shs muttered as she reached for a new clip.

Back in the stairwell, April yelled "Silver, catch!" as she tossed Silver her huge pistol. The Desert Eagle looked far too large for the small dancer. Silver caught the gun with her left hand and tucked it into her skirt with a fluid motion, although it's weight nearly pulled her skirt off. She fired the shotgun again at one of the bikers headed towards Crusher and Sylvie, forcibly removing him from his bike. Gangers were returning fire now. A few shots bounced off the concrete stairwell, one hitting the armored door. April squeeked "Eeek!" and ducked back behind the heavy door. Silver fired another into the gang of bikers between her and Crusher, hitting one high on the chest and flipping him off his bike.

A brief smile came over Silver's face as she noted someone else shooting at the gangers from a little ways down the street. The newcomer was a tall woman. Silver muttered to herself, "Heh, these scrags are pretty popular targets tonight. She better get over here fast if she want's to survive 'till Christmas."

Crusher leaped into the stream of traffic again, then staggered as several shots slapped his duster, punching through the armorcloth and into his back. His hesitation was only momentary, and he came on again. A pair of bikers came sweeping towards him, clearly aiming for a collision. Silver fired the last shell from the shotgun, blowing one off his bike. Crusher lowered his shoulder to meet the other bike as it careened towards him, bracing on one knee and tucking his head down. The impact flipped the bike end-over-end, throwing the driver into a wall, where he slid down bonelessly leaving a smear of blood. Crusher leaped up and carried Sylvie the last few steps and down into the stairwell, face grimacing in pain.

For the umpteenth time today, Sandra cursed herself. She'd jumped into the situation without thinking about the fact that she was unarmoured, only carrying a pistol, and seriously outnumbered. Staying out here was probably going to get her shot, run over and raped, presumably in that order. Presumably.

The big guy had just vanished down the stairwell to 93 Underground, so that looked like a logical thing to do. Putting her faith in her cyberware, Sandra broke cover and dashed madly for the stairs, firing off rounds at any targets her smartgun link picked out. She wasn't going for "Shoot to kill," more of "Shoot to keep them from shooting back". The strategem largely worked. One heroic leap later she found herself rather unceremoniously piled up on the floor in the stairwell.

"Er... I'm, OK" She told no-one in particular as she scrambled to her feet, more embarrased than hurt.

Silver ducked down into the cover of the stairwell with the others, drawing her Desert Eagle and chambering a round. From it's size most people would have thought that could only barely get her hand around the grip, but she had perfect control of the gun. It was almost like an extension of her arm. "Crusher! Sylvie! are you OK?"

"Peachy," Crusher coughed. Bright blood flecked his lips. "The door!" Sylvie's response was muffled by Crusher's coat.

Even the most dim gangers were now firing at the stairwell, and the sunken refuge was going to become a deathtrap in a few moments. Ricochets and masonry fragments spattered from the wall behind them.

"Crap" Sandra added as she fired back, nailing another guy. Only a couple of zillion left to go. She began slowly backing down the stairs. "I think the big guy has the best plan here, guys" She shouted out. "So forgive me if I decide to leg it!" she added as she squeezed off another round.

Silver glanced over at her new ally and stated matter-of-factly, "I'm outta here." She began to move, still firing rounds from her pistol. Even though she didn't start with the snap of a wired Street Sam, she accelerated through the open doorway with lightning speed being careful to avoid Crusher.

A new blast of firing from the door almost deafened them. Duke was firing a Remington Earthshaker as fast as he could pull the trigger, his cyberlimbs easily absorbing the stunning recoil. Holger and Tommy, two more of the regular bouncers, were spraying assault rifles at full automatic, holding the weapons high to avoid hitting their friends and firing blind over the lip of the stairwell into the street.

Crusher dove after the others into the door, rolling smoothly under the covering fire. Smoothly, that is, until he pitched up against the wall of the hallway. The wall creaked but survived as he hit it with his back, protecting Sylvie from the impact. The bench in front of it was shattered into a dozen pieces, caught between Crusher and the wall.

Duke slammed the door shut, then slid a bar in place. The thud of shells hitting the armoured door sounded distant in comparison with the cacophony of a moment before.

"What the fuck was that about?!?" Duke asked as he turned around, then stopped open-mouthed as he saw Sylvie emerging from Crusher's coat as the huge replicant gingerly opened his arms.

Sylvie could make scrapes, bruises, and mussed hair look stunningly beautiful. She blinked twice in the sudden quiet. She turned slightly in Crusher's arms and looked him in the eyes. "Thank you," she said quietly. Then she kissed him on the lips.

Crusher blushed crimson. Sylvie shifted in his arms, then said matter-of-factly, "I think my leg is broken," and fainted.

Duke turned to the guncheck counter, where Ryder lay on a makeshift stretcher watching the proceedings. "'Scuze me," Duke said, and tipped Ryder off the stretcher onto the floor in the guncheck room beyond.

"Hey!" Ryder squawked in surprise and hit the floor with a thump. "Ouch!!"

"You'll live," Duke said in response, then ignored the irate teek and started shifting Sylvie carefully to the stretcher. His eyes caught Crusher's. "I owe you a big one, big guy. A very big one." He looked beyond Crusher to Silver and Sandra. "You too. All of you."

Silver already standing, looking rather flushed, glanced first at Crusher then at Sandra "Yeah, thanks." She then walked to Sylvie, leaned over and brushed the hair out of her eyes. "What's really important is that she's gonna be ok." She then turned back to Crusher and Sandra, "I owe you too..."

"Hey... it's ok" Sandra replied, picking herself up off the floor where she had been lying, trying to get her breath back. "Just kind of doing my job. Well, not really. Ah hell..." She paused. "Just tell me that not all Christmases are this exciting around here"

"Huhn." Crusher smiled, then coughed up some more blood.

Silver walked over to Crusher and handed him his empty shotgun. "Let's see if we can get you fixed up. You too," she said to Sandra. Silver motioned for them to come on into the club.

Duke looked up from Sylvie's prostrate form. "That's right, Silver. Tommy, Holger," he looked over at the two other men, "you guys pop up to the storeroom above and watch the gangers through the firing slits up there. With any luck they'll just move on, with Ran coming and all, but if they bring up heavy hardware and try to blow the door, I want to know in advance; drop a couple of grenades in the stairwell and start shooting them up if you have to."

Duke carried Sylvie into the club and briefed Gordon while Mitch the barkeep splinted her leg. Crusher, Silver, and Sandra were momentarily left alone at the bar.

Crusher put his empty shotgun on the bar and started to take off his coat rather gingerly. "Silver, you're a good shot," he said as he grimaced with pain. "I owe you one." Then he held a hand out to Sandra. "You too. More, maybe—it wasn't your fight. If you need help sometime, I'm Crusher."

Sandra took his hand and shook it. "Sandra Blackmore" she replied. "Look, I'm just glad that I could help out. I couldn't have just walked past what was happening out there. But thanks for the offer. I'll keep it in mind" Crusher nodded with a brief smile.

Silver ducked behind the bar. She looked up at Crusher, "The girls are my responsibility too. I couldn't just let you go at it alone. And there's no way I was just gonna leave Sylvie out there." She paused briefly and glanced around, "'sides what did you expect? Of course I'm a good shot, I've lived in the zone for three years, and I'm not in a gang. Want anything?"

"Vodka," Crusher said. "I didn't know you were working protection as well as dancing, Silver. No offense meant."

Silver smirked, "No offense taken." She turned around to grab a bottle of Vodka. "I wouldn't call it 'working protection.' But since I do help run this place, taking care of the girls is at partly my responsibility." She set a bottle out on the bar, "Enjoy."

"Thanks." Crusher finished taking off his jacket and held the long sleeveless duster up to the light. Although it was armourcloth, three or four holes showed clearly, and one large hole punched by a shotgun shell. "Dammit," the large man said, "this was nearly new." The two women could see that his shirt under the duster was splashed with blood.

"Whoa" Sandra muttered. "You... uh... you OK there, Crusher?"

Crusher grunted. "Nothing serious. One lung hit, by the blood," he coughed up more blood, then wiped his lips with the back of his hand and took the Vodka bottle from the bar. He swigged about a quarter of it, then poured some into a bulletwound in his arm.

Passing the bottle to Sandra, he said "Can you give me some help, Sandra?" He peeled off his bloody T shirt and turned away, bending over and exposing his back. "Could you slosh some of that into the bigger holes?"

Crusher's back was huge, broad and corded with muscle, bulging even under the pattern of panels and plates that Sandra immediately recognized as dermal plating. His back was criss-crossed with scars, from the three parallel lines left by knucklespurs like Sandra's, to a huge scar in his lower torso that wrapped for nearly a half meter around his torso. All the wounds were old and healed; the new gunshots were marked by oozing blood..

Sandra gulped. She'd seen beat up bodies before, but not that bad on a living person. Crusher seemed to have taken enough rounds to kill a guy several times over. And some of his other scars looked like they should have killed him.

"Er.. sure thing, Crusher" she said as she took the bottle. Sandra started pouring the bottle's contents on the wounds, taking note of their size and extent. There were two holes in his dermal plating that seemed to be bleeding, and another big one in the chest bubbling blood.

"Look... I'm no expert here, but some of that looks serious. You might... uh... might want to get someone to take a look at those."

Crusher grunted. "You know any cyberdocs who do charity work? I ain't got the money." He turned around and took the remnants of the bottle, chugging back another large gulp of vodka. His chest was, if anything, more scarred than his back. "I heal fast, anyway. Don't worry about it."

Silver simply gawked at Crusher's wounds and scars, "Damn Crusher, if you say so. But Mitch is at least going to have a look at it, he knows a hell of a lot more first-aid than I do." Silver's voice took on a hint of anger as she looked back at the entrance to the street, "Besides, I'm not going to let those cretins hurt a close friend of mine, let alone one that I just met." She leaned forward and long hair fell partly over her eyes, but her earlier calm was gone, and she was seething.

Crusher nodded, clearly thinking, eyes on Silver. "Forget the gangers, Silver. Fight's over; let it go."

"The fight may be over, but I don't like scrags who attack my friends or my home."

Crusher nodded. "Yup. But they're dead, wounded, or pissed off, and we're having a drink. Justice prevails again," he said half-jokingly. "And if Mitch's got a pair of needlenose pliers around, I'd be happy for him to dig out the bullets. He'll need a carapace cracker to get the lunger, though." He took another swig from the Vodka, finishing it off; he glanced at Sandra then back to Silver. "Dunno if I've had any friends who were girls before. Nat girls, anyway. But I'm willing to try anything once," he smiled.

"And I've never known a seven foot plus cyborg, but I'll give it a try." Sandra replied. "I must say that you're one decent guy." she smiled and extended her hand.

Crusher smiled and shook it, raising the empty vodka bottle in salute.

Silver smiled too. "It doesn't matter who or what your friends are, just so long as you have some to cover each other's back." She paused thoughtfully for a moment and continued, "A close friend of mine told me that shortly after I arrived in the Zone."

Later, with Crusher face-down on the bar (because he was too heavy for most of the tables), Mitch managed to dig out two of the bullets with long pliers. The lung hit was too deep, but it had already stopped bleeding by the time Mitch looked at it.

By the time Mitch finished with the wounded, even including Sandra's skinned knee from diving into the concrete stairwell, the NewsVids had announced that Ran had disappeared from their screens. He hadn't used his powers or moved for an hour; they declared the crisis over. Gordon clicked off as the Vids shifted to footage of NYPDInc K12s standing down, the bridge to the Zone opening again, and the usual commentary from the "man on the street". The atmosphere in the bar turned from somber to relief, and Mitch made hot rum toddies for everyone. The gangers were long gone, so Gordon opened up for business, but traffic from the City was light, and for the rest of the evening it was more of a block party among friends than the usual hard-edged frenzy.

Silver helped start the revelry by hopping on one of the tables in the middle of the room, and yelled at the lounging DJ "Oi! If we're open for business, why hasn't the music started!" People chuckled as the guy went scrambling for the soundbooth (being very careful to get there without spilling his drink) while Silver stood on the table glaring at him, arms crossed, tapping her toe. As the music started Silver jumped off the table and grabbed April by one arm and dragged her out onto the massive dance floor. She seemed to not have a care in the world, let alone be bothered that she had shot half a dozen gangers earlier this evening.

Sandra sat at a table, eyeing her drink. She hadn't touched it in a while, having been too busy with thinking. It still amazed her that there were people in the Zone who weren't just looking out for themselves. She wasn't sure why. Maybe she was just to bitter and cycnical to consider it. "Ah well," She muttered and finished the drink.

Gordon was talking with Crusher over by the door. "... so anyway, thanks. And another thing. Duke said you're looking for a job? We've got a full set of bouncers right now, as he told you. But if you're still interested, I could use you part-time, Friday and Saturday nights. It ain't much, but if you work out and Duke approves, you can have the first full-time slot that comes open. What do you say?"

Crusher nodded. "I'll take it. And thanks."

Gordon nodded back, looking up at the huge man. "Good. If you're willing to put it on the line for the bar the way you did for Sylvie, we'll be very glad to have you. Duke'll tell you the rules. Nothing complicated." He looked at Crusher's current disarray of clothing and shook his head ruefully. "I'll advance you some salary so you can meet the dress code—nothing complicated, but we need to be professional. Clean white shirt, dark slacks. He can tell you about it."

Crusher smiled as Gordon went back to spell Mitch at the bar. A real job. Even if only two nights a week, that was a major step up. His stomach growled at him hungrily. "Shaddup," he told it, "I've got a job now. You'll get yours soon enough." Maybe Gordon's advance would be enough to cover some food, too. And he ought to try and mooch some replacement ammo for his shotgun. Crusher moved towards the bar.

wind and gunfire
crimson on asphalt
christmas in the zone

Nearly three weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Crusher got the best surprise of all. When he finished his shift Sylvie limped up to him, graceful in spite of the cast on her leg. Silver was with her, and the focussed attention of the two most beautiful women in the bar made Crusher suspicious (and disconcerted).

Before he could ask what was up, they gave him a huge box. When he opened it, he found the nicest present he could have imagined: a pair of black top-of-the-line all-weather combat boots, size 33 triple-E. His roar of joy nearly deafened the two women, and he gathered them into a hug that nearly cracked their ribs. Mitch nearly busted a gut laughing at the sight of the two girls squirming and gasping, one in each huge arm.

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