by Mark Kobrak and Rob Rutherford

As Kami approached her door she just had to stop and think for a moment, "Am I'm a cold blooded bitch or what"?

She remembered looking into the man's eyes as she sunk her blade into his stomach. All she saw was shock and terror. But he wasn't what caused her to stop. She thought is was odd that she wasn't bothered by it. Most people either enjoyed killing, or reluctant to kill; your heart races, or your stomach turns. But she really didn't feel anything, just the satisfaction of a job well done when she let his lifeless corpse drop. She wondered what Crusher and Sandra thought about the wake of bodies they left that night. She wondered why killing never seemed to bother her, perhaps that's why Angel trained her.

She the then opened the door to her room, saw April and thought, "Maybe I'm not such a cold hearted bitch after all".

Paolo stepped forward into the darkened concrete tunnel, letting the oversized steel door slide shut behind him. He stood in total darkness, but could see the IR profile of the weapons muzzles trained on him, and just make out some of the body heat visible through the narrow slits from which the guns projected. He waited impatiently in front of the second steel door, as the now-familiar ritual played out.

"Your name?"

"Dr. Snakeye," he replied.

"Please place all firearms in the slot."

The doctor obediently stepped up to the door and passed his handgun through to the waiting pair of hands on the other side. A claim check for the weapon was passed back to him.

"Welcome to our place of business. Please enjoy your stay."

Ordinarily, Paolo might have been amused by the excessive courtesy of his Yakuza hosts, but today was different. There was a patient with a failing heart sitting in his office, waiting, and Paolo needed synthetic cardiomuscular material to save him. Heart surgery was a dodgy prospect in his makeshift clinic, but he was sure he could do it, if he could find what he needed and get started in time. So the doctor waited with mounting frustration as the huge steel door rolled slowly back, revealing the inside of the parking garage. He nodded politely to the heavily armored guards standing inside, and strode down the ramp into the Tomb.

It wasn't really an appropriate name, he reflected as he made his way down the ramp. A tomb implied that the body would remain undefiled, and in fact this place performed the opposite function. The Tomb was a mercantile center administered by the Yakuza, and served as home to the largest concentration of cybernetics dealers in the Zone. Bodies brought to the Tomb were stripped of their inorganic components before being returned to the earth or carted off to the organleggers for more biological recycling. Man had learned to extend his physiology through artifice, and in so doing had created a need for something to consume artificial carrion. This place represented the completion of the synthetic ecology, a primoridial ooze from which valuable elements could be isolated and integrated into a new organic whole.

Paolo forced himself out of his reverie, reminding himself that his business was urgent. He was always tempted to wax philosophical here—perhaps it was the dimness and dirty concrete, juxtaposed against the stalls sporting racks of artificial limbs and jars of synthetic organs. But the moody atmosphere was purely practical. Many of the components were sensitive to heat and light; the abandoned underground garage offered little of either.

The vendors certainly did not seem affected by their somber surroundings. They hawked their wares loudly and haggled like streetwalkers with the handful of clients perusing their stalls. The buyers seemed more reserved, not because they were less comfortable but because they always seemed deeply engrossed in examining the wares under the small desktop lights which decorated most of the stalls. They were wise to be careful, as there was not a dealer in the Tomb who offered any guarantee of their goods.

"DS!" Someone yelled. It was Nguyen, the gangly teenage girl who bought and sold neural interfaces and (nominally) implantation-model CPUs. "DS" was Paolo's name in the Tomb; everyone here was "Doctor," and for some reason no one wanted to call him Snakeye.

Paolo threw the dealer a polite nod but hurried on, ignoring similar attempts to attract his attention. DS was known to pay cash, and the dealers' role in the cybernetic ecology depended on their ability to metabolize cybernetics into currency. During his weekly trips here, Paolo rarely bought goods, but spent a fair amount of time carefully looking over dealers' wares and mentally noting those he thought might be useful. Then, if the demand arose, he could return. It was that practice which led him unerringly to Miguel's stall.

But to the surgeon's exasperation, Miguel was busy. Two men were conversing with the elderly shopkeeper, casually discussing a naked body lying on Miguel's table. Paolo swallowed his impatience and merely nodded to the businessman, indicating his interest. The elderly, gray-haired Hispanic nodded slightly in reply, indicating he understood, and would be with him shortly. The surgeon settled down to wait on the pile of cinderblocks which marked the boundary between Miguel's stall and his neighbor's. He noted with both relief and heightened frustration that the cardiac muscle he had hoped to obtain was still sitting on a shelf behind the counter.

"Come now, Sir," the taller of the two patrons told Miguel. He was tall indeed, well over six feet, but thin as a rail. Even his battered duster didn't seem to fill out his frame, and the long, sallow face gave the impression that he tapered to a point. "Your tenacious and vigorous display of financial acumen would be laudable were it not ludicrous! Your proposed renumeration for the artificial augmentations of this most excellent specimen falls well short of the bounds of reason, let alone fair market value!"

Paolo noted with amusement that Miguel seemed willing to accept five-dollar words, but was frugal with them himself. "My offer stands," the old man said tiredly, gesturing to the body's artificial arm. "You nicked the actuator here, and there's a bruise in his shoulder, near the nerve-link. You want top dollar, you don't bring me damaged goods."

"My dear man, your eyes surely betray you if you find evidence of functional impairment in such superficial abrasions!" The smaller of the two men, stocky and round, seemed to have a disposition similar to his companion's. "This magnificient prosthesis remains a perfect expression of the artistry of the finest craftsmen of Mitsumi Industries!"

Paolo had to admit the arm was indeed of good quality. A Mitsumi Hercules series, he judged. Assuming the bruising hadn't damaged the nerve-link, the interface was probably still in good shape, because the body was still warm and the nerves wouldn't have had time to degrade and spoil the leads. Then the doctor noticed something that drew him over to the table.

"Pardon me, gentlemen," he said. All three heads turned to him in surprise. "Are you aware that this man is still alive?"

"Surely you are mistaken, sir," objected the taller man. "Observe the quiescence of the carotid and the jugular. His circulatory system has ceased to function, and this must affirm his demise to your satisfaction!"

Paolo resisted the temptation to sigh, feeling that in a single sentence the man had already made the conversation run longer than the doctor had wanted it to go. "That's because he has an armored circulatory system," he explained, gesturing to the neck. "You see that knob there, under the skin? That's part of the anchor for it."

"An armored circulatory system?" asked Miguel in surprise. Evidently this was new to the cybernetics dealer as well.

"You strip out vulnerable veins and arteries—usually in the neck—and replace them with ballistic tubing," the doctor explained. "They're pretty rare. Mitsumi introduced the trick about eight years ago, but it never caught on. Never really worked well," he added. There was an awkward pause as the four men examined the corpse.

"I don't take live materials," Miguel said emphatically.

"Tut, tut, my dear sir, this is simply a careless oversight, and easily remedied," said the shorter man, reaching under his jacket.

"Wait a moment, my good Mr. Muttley," his companion objected. "I think you will agree that the production of a weapon in the present circumstances seems ill-advised. Our hosts, while gracious in all other regards, are rather strict with respect to implements of a lethal persuasion."

"Of course, Mr. Spratt," the other man explained. "My intent was simply to employ a bladed tool, capable of ending this unfortunate soul's miserable suffering, not wielding some contraband firearm."

"Yet the use of such an implement may be complicated by the presence of this gentleman's unusual cardiovascular attributes," the other pointed out. "If my understanding of the good doctor's exposition is correct, many of this subject's most vulnerable points may be resistant to perforation."

"I don't want you making a bloody mess in my stall, regardless," Miguel growled. "I work hard to keep it clean."

"Of course, we respect your strenuous efforts at hygiene," the short man reassured him. Turning to his companion, he asked, "What then? It hardly seems efficient to remove this pathetic creature from the premises solely to facilitate his execution. Perhaps we can obtain some toxin from another of these proprietors?"

"We would have to choose carefully, lest the presence of noxious chemicals decrease still further the value of our prostrate companion's prosthetic equipment."

Paolo checked his watch again. I do not have time for this, he thought in frustration. "Perhaps I may be of some assistance?" he suggested.

The two men nodded eagerly. "Yes, please, by all means, your expertise would be of invaluable service in the resolution of this unfortunate set of circumstances."

The doctor nodded. He bent down, picked up one of the cinderblocks from the pile, and brought it down on the patient's head with all his strength. The skull cracked audibly, drawing attention from the surrounding booths, but drew no comment.

Paolo checked the man's pulse under the knee, where he knew it would be measurable, and nodded to show it was over. He produced a rag from his pocket and wiped a few drops of blood from the table and the block, then returned the latter to its place. Miguel was looking at the doctor in surprise, while the two men inspected their prize for any signs of unintended damage.

"Could you wrap this up?" the surgeon suggested. "I really have a busy day ahead of me."

Miguel nodded, returning to business, though he was obviously still slightly surprised by the doctor's off-hand attitude. It's not like he's any more compassionate than I am, Paolo reflected, stepping back to wait while the others resumed haggling. He just doesn't expect it from a corper, but that's because he's never seen it from the other side.

Thugs in the Zone kill for money when they get the chance, but they rarely have the power to help anyone. Corporations have the resources to work miracles, rebuild a human being virtually from from scratch, but they never exercise it unless there's something in it for them. To be an effective predator in the Zone, some level of empathy with the target is necessary, some connection. But to simply let a fellow member homo sapiens die because there's no obvious incentive to save him, that reduces the transition from life to death to something no more significant than a change in the weather. I never liked being part of that, I always fought it, but in the end that's part of who I am.

Paolo looked back at the corpse, noting his handiwork without any real regret. It wasn't in my power to save him, the doctor reflected. So I ended it. It's odd, though—I've never killed a man with a face before. Just the hard shell cyborgs back when I was working for Shinkuu.

The insight surprised him, because he found it made no difference. Cybernetics was his life, and the cyborgs had been just as human to him as the luckless figure on the table. More so, because he had known them as people. But metal or meat, it was all flesh, and in the end it was only a loan to the individual from the greater ecology.

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