by Mark Kobrak

Paolo jerked awake as the plane hit the ground, once again banging his head on the livestock container's low ceiling. Sighing, he rubbed the bruise, reflecting that the pig carrier had somehow managed to be ideally suited to tormenting him.

It wasn't just the cramped dimensions. He had worked in Shinkuu's orbital facilities, where his coffin-sized room had been just as constricting as his present circumstances. But the box had special features designed to persecute him. When he had wanted a sip of water from the wall-mounted bottle, he had been unable to get the rubber nipple to squirt more than a few drops into his hands. He had finally given up and twisted underneath it, forcing himself to bite down on the foul-tasting (and obviously well-chewed) nipple, only to gag on the acrid liquid which masqueraded as water. He had spat it out, realizing abruptly that it was certainly shot through with antibiotics, hormones, and God knew what else. Morbid curiousity had prompted him to squirt a few drops of the black sludge from the food nipple, and smell it. The cloying scent of those few repulsive drops had been enough to cover the ganja on his own clothes for hours after the experiment.

His worst mistake, however, had been to give in and answer a call of nature. The bottom of the crate had a slight slope to it—another source of discomfort—leading into a small drain. Obviously, Agronomics Unlimited wanted to make sure the genetically-engineered prototype pigs who normally frequented this container would not be lying in their own filth, where they could contract diseases. Paolo had again twisted awkwardly around and knelt so that he could urinate directly into the open drain. For several minutes after he had finished, nothing had happened, and the doctor had allowed himself to believe that at least this aspect of the container had functioned correctly. Then, as he was adjusting his position to lie as comfortably as possible, a spray of cold blue liquid had jetted across the the container at floor level, soaking his pants and the blankets he had been given.

That had been an hour ago, and Paolo was now cold, damp, and still reeked of antiseptic. The blankets were a soggy bundle at one end of the container, while he sat at the other, occasionally dozing off, only to awaken and find himself still trapped.

The landing gave him new hope, however, and he checked his watch. It had been five hours since he had parted company with Colin and Lucky. With luck, the plane had just landed in Neo York, and release might be only minutes away.

Unless he were left in the airport overnight, or held up in customs, or just plain lost or stolen. He sighed, knowing that whatever fortune had gotten him out of Jamaica intact could turn on him at any moment. But Paolo had to give Lucky credit; the fixer had judged, correctly, that Mitsumi's expeditionary force had already pushed its luck and would not tamper with the Agronomics shipment. It was one thing to trample on the rights of a territorial nation such as Jamaica, but it was another to anger a major corporation. And Agronomics was one of the largest employers in Jamaica; while its plantations and fisheries were small by corporate standards, they made the food company a key player in island politics. Mitsumi had spent a great deal of money getting the Jamaican government to authorize their operation, and if they wanted to stay in Jamaica and make that investment pay, they needed to stay on good terms with other firms.

Paolo shifted uncomfortably and waited as the plane taxied to a halt, grateful that at least the wetsuit jacket was warm. He felt himself being offloaded and moved by truck across the airport, then set somewhere. Twenty minutes later, he heard voices and the roar of a motor, and his carrier moved again. Paolo was relieved to find himself in what felt like prolonged, continuous motion. He was on the highway, hopefully being delivered to the correct address.

Are they sending me to Agronomics? he wondered. What if the wrong person opens the box? The ad did call for discretion—I need a good lie, just in case.

I'm traveling in a pig carrier from Jamaica, I'm carrying a gun, I stink like a fire at a marijuana plantation, and I'm wearing a wetsuit jacket. This is going to be a challenge.

By the time the van rolled to a halt, he'd concocted a detailed account of recent events involving a malfunctioning SCUBA tank, a Columbian drug cartel, a speedboat chase, two Rastafarian pig farmers, and twelve bottles of five star Haitian rum. He was fairly sure that if he had to use it, someone would shoot him halfway through. Still, reviewing the details kept him occupied while he felt himself being unloaded. There were voices outside the container as he moved along what he believed was a bumpy sidewalk, then some machine-like noises as the carrier lurched onto a smoother stretch. He passed through what he judged to be an elevator ride, and a long hallway before coming to a halt. More voices, more motion, more voices, then silence. The side of the cubicle dropped away, and Paolo crawled carefully out, stiff and sore from his journey.

Despite the brightness, Paolo didn't blink, knowing his cybereyes would adapt to the light more quickly if he left them open. He was standing in an expensively-furnished living room, its cream-colored walls and carefully non-threatening artwork suggesting a hotel room of some kind. There was a conference/dining table at one end, and several sofas and chairs were arranged at the other.

There were also three men standing around him in a triangle. The two to Paolo's right and left were both tall and dark-haired caucasians, and they had silenced pistols leveled at him. But it was the man in front of Paolo who held his attention.

He was a short, bull-necked Caucasian man, with rounded Slavic features and hair that was beginning to gray. His eyes were dark and intense, looking over every inch of Paolo, and his severe expression suggested he was unhappy with the situation. Despite the fact that he carried no weapon, Paolo felt that this was the man who posed the real threat to him.

"Good morning," said Paolo, hesitating for a desperate moment before he remembered his alias. "I am Doctor Snakeye."

The man to Paolo's right snickered, perhaps finding something incongruous in the damp, marijuana-stained SCUBA diver who had stepped out of the livestock crate and introduced himself so formally. But the Slavic man's expression never wavered.

"I am Mr. Wrobleski," the shorter man introduced himself, speaking with what Paolo judged to be a Polish accent. "Please hand me your pistol."

The doctor carefully unzipped the jacket, and handed the pistol over with two fingers. Wrobleski took it, and placed it in the drawer of a nearby desk. "Are you a good cyberneticist?" he asked.

"Excellent," Paolo assured him confidently.

"We shall see," Wrobleski replied, gesturing to the table across the room. "Have a seat."

Paolo walked to the chair and sat down, the gunmen still flanking him. Wrobleski opened a closet and pulled out a small black box with a datajack coming out of it, and set it on the table in front of the doctor.

"Connect to the datajack and answer all questions," indicated Wrobleski. "You will have two hours." Paolo abruptly recognized the box as a National Services testing unit, the kind used for qualifying exams. He picked up the datacable, then hesitated before slotting it in.

"May I use your bathroom first?" asked Paolo. Wrobleski gestured him irritably to the door.

The test proved to be a cybernetics certification exam, with a specialization in neurophysical interfacing. Paolo had taken more than his share of such exams in school, and while interfacing was not his specialty, he found the questions well within his experience. He breezed through the multiple choice theory questions without much hesitation, and moved on to the virtual reality practicum.

The procedures were more complex, but his experience designing and installing custom cybernetics with Avatar had given him a broad background. Moving through the simulated environment, he calibrated a replicant's malfunctioning endocrine system, replaced a damaged optic/nervous interface, and handled a trauma case involving a torn cardio-actuator array. The last, Paolo noted wryly, was a Cardiax 900 series which had never worked right in real life either. He finished half an hour early and sat back in his chair, smiling in satisfaction.

The two gunmen seemed to have left, but Wrobeleski was sitting across the room, reviewing data on a handpad. "Done," Paolo reported, disconnecting the datacable and tossing it onto the box.

The dour man looked over, and wordlessly approached the table. He produced a small display screen—the exam's encrypted interface—and attached it to the datacable. He eyed the results.

"A perfect score on the practicum," Wrobleski noted. "But you missed question six on the theory."

"The question is dated," snapped Paolo. "Aztechnology came out with a second-generation hypo-immunoresponsive pineal gland six months ago, and it doesn't require invasive maintenance."

Wrobleski cocked an eyebrow, and the doctor realized he had spoken a good deal more abruptly than he had intended. I'm going to have to get out of the habit of biting off the heads of people who criticize my work, he thought. It was a lot of fun to do that to my co-workers at Avatar—those arrogant bastards—but they didn't have guns. "You can look it up," he said half apologetic, half defensive.

"Never mind," answered Wrobleski. "I am satisfied with your skills. You will be performing an operation tonight. Until then, you are not to leave this hotel suite. That room is yours to use—you may sleep, or shower," there was a hint of emphasis on the last word, though the man's face showed not a glimmer of his thoughts, "As you see fit. If you want to eat, knock on that door and ask Hans to take the delivery for you." He gestured back to another room. "Do you have any questions?"

He was about to answer in the negative, but stopped himself. "May I have my gun back?"

The other man considered, then shook his head. "We will replace it for you tonight," he said. "I must make certain none of your equipment is traceable."

The doctor hesitated. "May I borrow it until then?" he asked.

No trace of the Pole's thoughts was visible as he gestured for Paolo to take the gun out of the drawer. The doctor nodded, and holstered it as he retreated into the bedroom. I wonder if he knew why I wanted it, he thought, standing in front of the mirror.

Behind his eyes, the doctor modified the settings of his neurowires, then reached slowly for the holster. He drew the gun with exaggerated care, moving in slow-motion, but not wasting a single action. When the pistol was leveled in front of him, he blinked, and set it casually back in the holster. Then, at his instructions, his muscles repeated the same exact motion at the same slow speed, and he watched with a surgeon's eye. Satisfied with the form of the movement, he modified the settings again, and blinked.

The gun appeared in his hand as if by magic, already leveled at his shape in the mirror. He tried it again, this time watching a stream of output within the system itself. Satisfied, he put the gun away and took off the holster, setting both on the nightstand.

It's not much protection, he decided, but it will have to do.

Paolo was suddenly aware of his own exhaustion. He staggered to the bathroom, intent on a shower and sleep which did not involve banging his head on the side of a crate.

This is luxury, the doctor reflected, savoring every bite as he worked his way through the plate of stuffed pheasant. This is the kind of thing the corporate types got after working at their way up the ladder for years. Me, I'm a freelancer for 24 hours, and bang! The thought was intensely satisfying. I outlived all you bastards, he told his Avatar masters. And I'm doing great!

He was sitting at the table in the main room of the suite, wearing a bathrobe because after his nap he hadn't been able to convince himself to put Lucky's dirty clothes back on. Wrobleski had told him he would receive new clothing for the job, and offered to dispose of the old ones, and Paolo had accepted the offer. Wrobleski had also checked all Paolo's other belongings, and agreed they could not be traced. So, while he waited, he had ordered dinner and eaten it while watching the sun set over the Neo York skyline.

They still hadn't told him what he was going to be doing, and the doctor had decided it would be unprofessional to ask. Besides, Wrobleski had seemed busy, constantly in conversation with Hans or reviewing data. Hans and Wrobleski had been out of the suite several times as well, probably to meet with some other group in a different part of the hotel. That had left Paolo alone with the third man, Gregor, an "adjutant" class replicant. He was a security replicant designed to have a perfect memory and phenomenal organizational skills, making him the ideal assistant for a security or military leader.

Hans entered the suite, carrying several bundles and accompanied by a squat, gray-haired Asian woman in a gray trenchcoat, black turtleneck and gray slacks. He led the woman over to Paolo. "Dr. Snakeye," Hans introduced, "This is your assistant for the evening, Eve."

"A pleasure," said the doctor, rising and offering his hand. "You are a nurse?"

The woman nodded. "Twenty-two years' experience in trauma medicine."

"Please don't talk to each other about your pasts," Hans instructed. He handed Paolo the packages he had been carrying. "These are yours. Please put them on, and get ready to go."

The doctor nodded. "Excuse me," he said politely, and retreated to the other room.

The packages proved to contain a brown trenchcoat, a black turtleneck sweater and gray slacks, and all fit him tolerably well. Everyone Paolo had seen in the suite was wearing similar but not identical clothing; the doctor suspected it had been chosen to make it difficult for observers to distinguish members of the group, but still distinctive enough that Wrobleski could identify them at a distance. The tags on all the clothes had been cut out, and Paolo noted with satisfaction that the overcoat was armored.

He returned to the main room to find Wrobleski and Gregor gone, and Hans and Eve waiting by the door. Hans opened a briefcase he was carrying, and produced a pair of wraparound sunglasses. "Mr. Wrobleski wanted you to wear these, at least until we are out of the hotel," he explained. Paolo shrugged and put them on, but couldn't resist a look at his reflection in the mirror.

"Very stylish," Eve reassured him with a sly grin.

"Well, we're all dressed to kill," he answered.

Hans nodded to the pair. "If you're ready," he said.

"Mr. Wrobleski said I would have a gun," Paolo pointed out.

Hans nodded at the reminder, and produced a holstered automatic pistol. A Cz95, noted the doctor. Perfectly good pistol, but I hope we're not facing anything too heavily armored. He slipped on the shoulder-holster and adjusted his coat over it. Eve watched without comment.

When the doctor was finished, Hans led them out the door and down the hall, stopping to wait for the elevator. When they were aboard, he pressed the button for the parking garage, and the elevator descended. Paolo realized they had been on the 13th floor of a fifty story hotel. The doors opened, and the group stepped into the gray cement parking structure.

Still without speaking, their leader took the the two medics over to a black van with tinted windows. Two tall, non-descript men in trenchcoats were standing beside it, obviously waiting for Hans. At his nod, they opened the van door and the three moved inside. The other two men took up the driver and shotgun seats, and they were off, pulling into the rainy, neon-lit Neo York night.

Once out of the garage, the van took a circuitous route through the crowded streets, seeming to loop around endlessly in the canyons formed by the towering skyscrapers. The horizon to the south was dominated by strings of lights lining the sides of the Jinsei and Gunkoku arcologies, mountainous structures which dwarfed even the nearby World Trade Center. Their path eventually took them to the Williamsburg bridge, and Paolo's Guide to Neo York skillsoft reminded him this was the entrance to the Zero Zone. He couldn't decide whether he should be pleased when the guards waved them through and the van rolled into no-man's land.

The area near the bridge struck Paolo as surprisingly normal. Much less well-lit than the rest of the city—no streetlights, very few neon signs—but the buildings were much the same. There were fewer cars, the road needed repair, and the crowds swarming along the sidewalks were not as clean or well-dressed as they had been on the other side of the bridge. More homeless, and some very rough-looking types, but the place reminded Paolo strongly of what he remembered of Mexico City. They live as well off Neo York's waste as my parents ever did, he reflected. Even today, there is unbelievable wealth in this city.

They drove south and east, the crowds abruptly thinning and the lights seeming to vanish almost instantly, as if they had crossed some invisible line. They were out into what his cybernetically implanted guide indicated were the Wastes, areas even the dregs of society who lived in the Zone had abandoned. Most of the buildings had been stripped of their fittings, windows and other useful materials picked up by scavengers. The van drove on.

Eventually they came to a complex Paolo recognized must once have been a high school. A few segments of chain link fence lay scattered around an overgrown athletic field and broken asphalt parking lot, next to a sprawling block-like building. The van drove across the lot and onto the sidewalk, concealing itself from the street in a joint in the building. Paolo noticed two motorcycles also parked in the alley, similarly hidden.

A wiry red-haired figure became visible on the rooftop, and tossed a line down to ground level. As it descended, it became clear to Paolo that it was a woman, and the motion of the joints suggested she was heavily cybered. She approached the van as Hans and the two guards stepped out.

"All clear," she reported.

"You checked out the chemistry lab?" Hans clarified.

"Yeah. Nobody's been there since we scouted it three days ago," the woman confirmed.

"Alright. Resume your position," Hans ordered. She nodded and returned to the rope as, at a nod from their leader, the two men opened the rear doors of the van.

"Time to get your gear," Hans ordered the two medical personnel, still in the van. He gestured them to the rear of the van, where his guards had already unloaded several cases of equipment. They were putting on armored helmets, and equipping themselves with assault rifles. Paolo was impressed by the grenade launcher under the barrel.

These guys are here on business, he thought. I hope this goes smoothly.

Hans gestured to several other boxes, labelled with the traditional red cross symbol. Paolo pulled out a backpack, and was startled to find a familiar, compartmentalized design on the face which had been hidden. A surgical field kit, he thought, looking it over. He checked the other boxes. Cybernetics supplements to the main kit, he concluded. This is good stuff—pretty much the same collection of equipment I used when I was maintaining Shinkuu's orbital cyborg fleet. They must have some serious surgery in mind.

Paolo shouldered the pack, while Eve picked up the two smaller bags. "OK," he said. "Ready when you are."

Hans had donned his own tactical helmet, and shouldered his rifle. "This way," he indicated, pointing to the door. One of the guards took point, and the other took the rear as the group made its way inside. They wound through several corners and up a flight of stairs before entering a room lined with formica counters.

"This will be your operating theater," Hans explained. "Make the necessary preparations."

"What operation will we be performing tonight?" asked Paolo, eyeing the dirty, disused space.

"A patient will be arriving in no less than one hour, but no more than two," the leader explained. "He may have recent injuries, which you will attend to. Your primary objective, however, will be to remove a cortex bomb from his cranium."

Paolo blinked and looked at Eve, who looked similarly disturbed. Brain surgery of any sort would be risky under such dirty conditions, and cortex bombs were designed to be difficult to remove. Indeed, their whole reason for existence was to deny the wearer his freedom; they could be radio detonated at a distance, but were also designed to go off automatically in case of tampering.

"This would be the 'substantial risk' they mentioned," he told Eve.

"Wrobleski told me, 'potentially dangerous,'" the nurse replied. "He's a man of his word."

"Over there?" suggested Paolo, pointing to a smaller table off to the side.

"Sounds good."

The pair began making ready, laying down a sterile cloth and unpacking the equipment around their makeshift surgical table. "Have you done this kind of operation before?" Eve asked.

"Removed a cortex bomb? No," he answered, laying out several drills and bone saws in a convenient stand. "You?"

"I haven't assisted in surgery in a very long time," she replied. "But you do know something about how to do this, right?"

"Certainly," answered Paolo, slightly miffed at the question. Actually, most of his knowledge came from anecdotes passed among his surgical colleagues when he was studying in Moscow—dozens of deadly little tricks designed to kill the patient in case of tampering. Light sensitive triggers, ultrasonic sensors which armed the bomb if the skull was broken, poisonous shrapnel cores—capable of killing a surgeon with his hands in the wrong place—were just a few of the rumored booby traps designed into these ultimate expressions of corporate ownership. In truth, Paolo had always suspected most of these were simply ghost stories, designed to frighten new doctors. Corporations would encourage such myths, of course, as they made the weapons more effective. But these bombs were generally only found in top executives, where the company needed to guarantee they could be stopped instantly if they showed a willingness to reveal corporate secrets. Even the most ruthless corporations would never risk valuable gray matter on overcomplicated designs. Most bombs, Paolo had always believed, would be as simple and foolproof as possible to avoid accidents.

He found himself less secure in that supposition than he had been.

They laid out the equipment. They arranged the lights. They reviewed procedures that might be relevant. They speculated about complications that might apply. Paolo reviewed the name and use of every tool in the kit with the trauma nurse, making sure she understood its purpose. And, in they end, they sat down in two ancient wooden chairs, and waited.

Eve took out a cigarette, but Paolo shook his head. "Not in my operating room," he said firmly.

The woman shrugged, eyeing the less than ideal conditions, but complied. "So, why are you doing this?" she asked.

The doctor blinked. "Why do you ask?"

"Just curious," the nurse replied innocently.

Paolo looked over at Hans, but found the other man preoccupied with data on his visor display. The guards were posted at the doors, and standing just outside the room. "I'm starting a new life," he explained.

"What was wrong with the old one?"

A grin flickered across Paolo's face. "There wasn't an old one."

Eve looked at him carefully for a moment, then leaned back again. "Well, I'm putting my daughter through college," she explained. "This'll cover her last two semesters, with enough left over that I can take a trip. So what do you think: Barbados or Jamaica?"

Hans was still not paying attention, so Paolo replied. "Barbados."

"You think?"

"Trust me."

Hans suddenly stood up. "Get ready," he told them. The quiet of the night was broken by the sound of an approaching helicopter, which, from the noise level, landed on the roof. The group waited breathlessly until the sound of footsteps in the hallway, and four men suddenly entered the room at a rapid clip. The first two were Gregor and Wrobleski, both dressed in clamshell body armor, while the third was a tall black man carrying an assault rifle so heavy its bearer had to have had extensive muscle augmentation. His eyes were pure mirrored silver, combat grade, and his hands featured an internal smartgun link.

The fourth was a short, pudgy, balding white male who seemed bizarrely out of place. He wore a heavy combat vest over an expensive suit, both sweat-stained, but his expression suggested this was through terror rather than exertion. He looked around the room, appalled.

"This is your operating room!?" he demanded of Wrobleski.

"No, it's mine," said Paolo authoritatively. No one objected, and the continued, "Lie down on this table, sir, and we will proceed."

"Is he a real doctor?" asked the man, still speaking to Wrobleski.

"It's a little late for you to check my credentials, Sir, because that cortex bomb is about to puree your cerebellum," Paolo found he had acquired the man's attention. "Now lie down on the table."

The executive complied. Wrobleski watched with interest as Paolo began to check the patient's scalp and neck for surgical scars, and attached transducers to obtain an ultrasound. Eve took the opportunity to get a patient history.

"Are you taking any medications?" She asked blandly. Her tone would have been more in place in an overcrowded emergency room.

The man looked at Wrobleski, who nodded his acquiescence. "Answer medical questions," he instructed.

"No," the man told the nurse.

"Do you have any allergies?"


"Other than the cortex bomb, have you ever received cybernetic implants or synthetic organs of any kind."


Paolo found what he was looking for at the back of the patient's skull. A thin triangle of scar tissue, virtually invisible save beyond the scalp's receded hair line. "Hold on for a moment, nurse," he ordered, activating the ultrasound. "And please hold still, sir."

He plugged the unit's datacable in behind his ear and examined the image in his cybernetic readout. A dense structure, perhaps a half an inch across, was anchored just below the cranium at the back of the patient's skull, metallic wires visible around a plastic structure. But what captured Paolo's attention was a spiderweb of fine lines radiating out for several inches from the device.

"What is that?" asked Eve, pointing at the tabletop readout. "Some kind of tripwire?"

"Doubtful," answered the doctor. "It's all around the device, but doesn't actually come between it and the skull." He considered a moment, and zeroed in the resolution. "Here's where the mesh is joined to the device. Notice that it's on the underside, so that you can't get at it from the outside."

"What does that mean?" asked the patient nervously.

Paolo made no response, but picked up the inductance/inference array from the table. It was a sophisticated device designed to obtain detailed information about current flow in electronic devices. Normally it required a great deal of delicacy to tease out the necessary information, but this time Paolo saw what he needed almost immediately.

"What does it mean?" the patient repeated.

"I don't have time to explain to you. I'll brief the nurse while you're taking anaesthetic," Paolo explained. He gently placed the dermal patch on the patient's throat, leaving it in place to assure a smooth flow of anaesthetic into the bloodstream. The man's eyes closed almost immediately, though it would be several minutes before the levels stabilized enough to allow safe surgery.

"Shave his scalp," the doctor instructed, arranging tools.

"Yes, doctor," Eve said without resentment. But as it worked, she asked, "What does that arrangement mean?"

"It's an inductive mesh," the doctor explained. "It's sensitive to electrical currents within the brain, but based on the I/I data, it's also responding to currents put through it though those leads. There's a feedback loop—a processor in the bomb itself stimulates the brain by putting current through the mesh, then reads the brain's response via induction in the mesh. If the mesh is broken or removed, the feedback stops working and the bomb goes off."

The nurse blinked. "So you can't break the mesh, and you can't disconnect the mesh from the bomb, and you can't remove the whole shebang from the skull."

"Correct," said Paolo, adjusting the ultrasound image behind his eyes for a higher resolution view of the skull.

"So what are you going to do?"

"Bypass it," the surgeon explained. The nurse had finished the minimum shaving required for this particular skull, and was sanitizing the area. "Is the aneasthetic level stable?"

The nurse stuck a small monitor on the patient's arm, its tiny needles sampling the patient's bloodstream. "He's ready doctor."

Paolo picked up a scalpel, and froze at the sound of a distant explosion. It was followed by a crackle of gunfire—some disturbingly close—and muffled shouts. The medics did not move, looking to Wrobleski.

The Pole paid them no attention. "Report," he ordered Hans.

"There has been an encounter at the perimeter," his lieutenant explained. "I would like to send Gauge and Gerhardt to reinforce the south post."

"Go," Wrobleski instructed the street samurai.

"Take him," Hans told one of the men, and the pair departed.

"Mr. Wrobleski," Paolo asked. "How much time do I have for this operation?"

"Perhaps none," the Pole answered tonelessly.

The doctor sighed. "Can you arrange to give him quality medical attention after the operation?"

"Yes," Wrobleski confirmed immediately. "He'll be in a private intenstive care unit within ten minutes of leaving this facility. But you cannot go there with him."

"Alright," Paolo confirmed. "I can have the bomb out his skull in fifteen minutes, but he will require immediate, round the clock attention and is facing a long recovery."

"Acceptable," Wrobleski said. "Please proceed."

The doctor did not need any inducement to haste beyond the brutal stoccatto of automatic weaponry. His hands did not shake—indeed, his cybernetically-enhanced nervous system was no longer capable of such chaotic behavior—but it took a great effort of will to find the powerful, focussed concentration that had always come so easily to him in the operating room. But he found it, and pushed himself to his task with a feverish intensity.

The manpower and equipment limitations of orbital facilities had long since introduced Paolo to a wide range of shortcuts most surgeons would have been embarrassed to consider. Indeed, Eve winced visibly at the way he cut away the scalp and began to drill aggressively through the cranium. But she offered no objection, and obligingly squirted water to cool the drill as Paolo sent bone dust streaming onto the table. He stopped at exactly the moment he penetrated the skull, exposing the thin space of flesh between the bomb proper and the surrounding mesh. He pulled a length of wire from the kit and joined it to the mesh with conductive surgical epoxy, essentially soldering the wires together without heat. He repeated the process, joining a new wire to the mesh at a second point.

"You still have no way to reach the leads, doctor," Eve reminded him.

"That's because I haven't made one yet," snapped Paolo. "This will serve as the mesh terminus when we do connect to the leads, so we can cut out the bomb without breaking the circuit. Now, prepare for a second hole there," he gestured, indicating a point near the top of the patient's head, several inches beyond the edge of the mesh.

The nurse shrugged and obliged, as Paolo carefully measured his planned angle of entry against the ultrasound data. Then Eve saw what he was doing. "You're going to put a needle through four inches of his brain?" she asked, appalled.

"We're in a hurry," he said, once again using a scalpel to peel away the scalp.

"Doctor, this man must not suffer brain damage," Wrobleski objected from across the room.

"I'd assumed as much," the doctor spat back, losing what little patience he had with this badgering. "Better than eighty percent of the brain is unused in conscious thought. I've chosen the angle carefully, and the damage will be minimal. This surgery is far less invasive than the procedure necessary to install that mesh," he added. "Now, do I have your authorization to proceed, or shall we wait for some underpaid corporate security chief to activate this gentleman's retirement package?"

"Proceed," answered the Pole without humor.

Paolo absorbed himself in his work, preparing the hole and then carefully aligning the needle. For this part he relied almost entirely on the ultrasound image, nearly closing his eyes as he slipped the needle in and gave precise instructions to the electronically enhanced nervous system which guided his hands. He stopped with the needle just a millimeter from the first contact, but did not move his hands.

"Give me a gamma-gauge smartwire with an active tip," he instructed.

The nurse passed him the tiny spool, and with the utmost care Paolo threaded the line through the needle. He pushed the fine line through the last millimeter of flesh, until it was just touching the lead.

"Activate the tip," he instructed. The nurse compressed a button on the spool, and inside the patient a microscopic thermite charge went off, connecting the wire to the surface of the lead. Paolo winced, regretting that surgical epoxy could not be used on the dirty lead, and checked the EKG. But the charge had been designed to cause virtually no damage to the surrounding tissue, and the surgeon's instruments showed the patient's brain merrily ticking away.

Ever so gently, Paolo tugged, confirming it was a good hold. He checked the spool output as well, confirming the electrical contact with the mesh. The technology was reliable, indeed, it was a routine method in many cybermuscular procedures, but the occasional failure had made the doctor cautious over the years.

"Alright," he said, "Give me another needle."

He repeated the process, this time connecting the wire to the second lead. "Well done, doctor," Eve applauded. Paolo looked over in surprise, realizing for the first time she might have doubted he could do what he said.

"Thank you," he said absently, turning his attention to the final step. He joined the wires from the leads to his earlier connections to the neural mesh, the circuit was now complete, and they were ready for the final stage.

"Bone saw," the surgeon held out his hand.

Eve watched expectantly as he began to cut the skull around the bomb itself, clearly afraid there would be an exposion the instant he cut the leads. Paolo found he resented her lack of faith, and did not hesitate as he reached the first connection. He cut it, and the patient's vitals remained unchanged. He moved on to the second, again with no observable problem.

The nurse sighed with relief, but Paolo was almost casual as he made the final cuts to detach the bomb from the cranium. "Lubricate the wires," he instructed. Eve jetted surgical oil into the needles which guided the wires to the leads. The oil was designed to degrade harmlessly within the system, and would minimize the damage friction might cause to the brain or wires.

Paolo inserted a pair of flat, wedge-like tools and began to slowly pull the piece of bone—and the bomb behind it—onto the table. His concentration was broken by sudden motion from across the room, and the surgeon realized Hans and Wrobleski had been speaking in hushed tones for several minutes.

"Their strategy makes no sense," Wrobleski insisted. "We're not seeing something."

"They just don't have a good approach for another attack," Hans objected. "They've already tripped one of our AP mines."

"No. They're playing for time—something is going on." He spoke with an air of perfect conviction, as if confirming a change in the weather by catching a raindrop in his hand. "Units—sound off," he said into his microphone.

The answer was inaudible in the leader's earpiece, and Paolo returned his attention to the operation. The patient's vitals were stable, he noted, and all that remained was to place temporary dressings over the wounds to protect them during transport. The real headache—dealing with the risk of infection and other complications of his hasty surgery—would be someone else's problem. But the bomb was lying only 18 inches from the patient's head, and while that was probably a safe distance for the tiny explosive, there was no sense in taking chances. He looked around the room, and noticed an old clay brick on one of the tables. "Nurse, please place that brick between the patient and the explosive," he instructed.

Eve seemed nonplussed at the notion of putting her own hand near the bomb, but could not object. As she stepped away to pick up the object, the sound of gunfire abruptly escalated. Wrobleski stopped listening to his earpiece, and looked at the door. "Max, I don't care if I can see you or not. When I tell you to check in, you check in."

The guard did not respond to the reprimand. "We've probably just shut out their—" Hans began, ignoring the exchange.

Wrobleski cut him off. "Max," he said, turning to the door again.

"Don't move."

The newcomer was wearing form-fitting body armor and carrying a heavy automatic weapon. He was framed in the doorway, covering the entire room with his rifle, eyes invisible behind a full-face mirrored visor. But he seemed an unreal figure to Paolo, until the surgeon realized why. Max was standing inches away from the rifleman, frozen in the same posture he had assumed hours before.

No one in the room challenged the intruder as he stepped inside and put his back against the wall. He was joined by a second figure, this one a woman, similarly dressed and carrying a pistol. This one threw Max onto the floor of the room before entering, obviously intent on keeping the guard in sight. But Max landed face down on the floor without responding, and lay still. His eyes were open but his pupils were unresponsive, and the doctor was reminded of catatonics he had seen.

Genom, Paolo realized when he caught sight of the shoulder patch on his enemies' armor. The symbol was a Genom logo surrounded by a spiked collar—with the spikes on the inside. A Genom loyalty team, Paolo concluded. What a funny little logo. What a wonderfully deranged sense of humor these guys must have. The doctor found himself terrified past the point of actual fear, and unable to process the emotion he was able to watch dispassionately. I've been operating on a Genom executive, he thought. I should have just put a scalpel through his brain and saved him the debriefing he's about to get.

I wonder what they did to Max, he mused, looking at the prone guard. But I guess it's not surprising a Genom strike team would have a few tricks up its sleeve, some funky toy that's maybe a little too finicky for the mass market, but useful in-house...

Someone has spoken, the doctor realized. It was the guard making a report. "Yes," the woman said, speaking into a throat-mike. "We have the target, and the leader. Send in the big guns to clean up the opposition."

Paolo looked over at Wrobleski, but the Pole and his staff had no weapons drawn. They'll disarm them, now that they've reported, the doctor realized. Then they'll kill us as soon as the patient is secure --

The thought jumped into his mind, unbidden. Before he could even process it, he asked, "Do you want this man to live?"

The woman looked at him, but her partner's eyes never wavered from the command staff. "What was that?" she asked.

"He is at risk," Paolo said, trying to keep his voice steady. "If I do not take steps to stabilize him, he may hemorrhage and die."

Her face was invisible behind the visor, but she nodded. "Proceed," she instructed. "But you will suffer if he dies."

The doctor nodded, wondering if the face under that visor could be his employer's long-lost twin. Wrobleski's a man who sweats the details, thought Paolo. Hopefully he knows what's coming.

The doctor picked up the scalpel and cut the wires to the bomb. The device detonated instantly, and Paolo dove for the ground, his pre-programmed action putting his pistol in his hand before he reached the floor. But as bullets sprayed the room, he felt no inclination to poke his head up from behind the makeshift operating table.

Silence seemed to wait an eternity before returning, but in fact it could only have been seconds. Paolo stood carefully up, pistol at the ready.

Wrobleski was kneeling next to Gregor's prone form across the room, tending his adjutant's wounds. No, Paolo corrected himself, retrieving a communications link. Gregor was dead. Hans was lying nearby, his helmet sporting a large, red hole. But whatever ammunition the Pole's extraction team had been using, it had cut through the Genom armor and left the two intruders in a heap on the floor.

Paolo looked over, and was brought up short by the sight of Eve's prone form. He ran to check her, but could see the three exit wounds in her back and knew immediately he would be too late. He rolled her over, and looked for a moment into her sightless eyes.

I'm sorry, Eve, he thought, closing her eyes. Barbados would have been wonderful. He stood, and looked over at Wrobleski.

"...How many?" he was asking of his comm link. "No, let's not waste any more time on subtlety—if things have gone this sour, Genom's going to figure out who we're working for. Deploy the hardsuits. Yes, the corporate armaments. Doctor, make him ready to move."

It took Paolo a moment to realize Wrobleski was speaking to him, but he moved to comply, placing temporary bandages over the holes he had drilled in the patient's skull and removing the still-protruding needles. He placed a fresh anaesthetic patch on the man's neck, knowing it might be longer than expected before he received further treatment.

Several guards appeared at the door, including Gauge, the street samurai. "There's not much time," he told Wrobleski. "The hardsuits are holding them off, but there are more choppers coming in. Look like attack helicopters," she clarified.

"Move him," he instructed.

Paolo helpfully began assembling the stretcher from the medical kit, and supervised the patient's transfer. "Ready," the samurai reported.

"Take point," Wrobleski instructed. "You others carry him. And take Max as well," he added, gesturing to the still-prone German. Paolo was embarrassed to find he had forgotten the catatonic guard. "Warm up the chopper," Wrobleski spoke into his microphone. The bearers began moving the stretcher as Gauge checked the hall. "Are you coming, doctor?"

Paolo fell in step with the procession, following them down the hall and up the stairs to the roof. He scarcely noticed the gray cinderblock walls or the old rusty doorway, but the cold rainy black of the night drew him back to full awareness. The night was as black as any he had ever seen, the lack of streetlights accentuating the flashes of gunfire on the grounds below them as the team loaded the stretcher into the helicopter. Paolo checked the patient again, and nodded to Wrobleski. "He'll make it ten or twenty minutes, no problem," the surgeon explained. "Just make sure he gets to a qualified neurologist ASAP."

"What about Max?" the Pole asked. He might as well have been asking about the weather.

"He appears catatonic," Paolo answered, after only a cursory examination. "I can't give you a prognosis."

Wrobleski nodded, then addressed the team, speaking loudy over the din of the engine and its whirring blade. "We're one seat short on the chopper," he said, holding up an envelope. "The original evac plan called for a group of five to withdraw in the van and the cycles, but with the losses we've taken, someone will have to leave alone. I have a $5000 bonus to anyone who will give up their seat, and make his own way out."

"I'll stay," Paolo volunteered. There was no point in his leaving, as he would only have to return to the Zone. And he wasn't sure if his odds were better against attack helicopters, regardless. True, the veterans around him seemed to feel differently, but they might not have noticed the Genom patches on the dead loyalty team. Paolo expected the company might have a few more tricks up its sleeve, and he wanted nothing more to do with that quirky corporate sense of humor.

Wrobleski considered the offer. "If he dies in transit, you forfeit the balance of your fee," the Pole warned.


An emotion flickered across the man's face as he passed over the envelope. It might have been respect. "I will have an agent at 93 Underground for three nights, starting tomorrow night," he said. "He will have what you are owed."

Paolo nodded, then turned and jogged away from the helicopter. He watched from the doorway as the helicopter rose from the gravel rooftop and streaked off into the night. On the ground below him, the firefly flickers of gunfire intensified, as Genom's forces fought to gain a clear shot at the retreating chopper, then died away as the vehicle disappeared into the night. Paolo watched in fascination as the flashes began to distance themselves into separate groups, drifting in different directions. He could hear the distant groan of ground car and helicopter engines going into motion, as the extraction team began its withdrawal and Genom began its pursuit.

Doctor Paolo Zanabria—Snakeye now—stood in the open doorway, just out of reach of the wind and rain, and watched the delicate tactical ballet. Best not to try to leave, he decided. They know their target is gone, and they'll be pursuing him, not searching for stragglers. A little patience, and I can just walk away.

Perhaps he was wrong, and there would be no one to help him if he were. But it was his decision. And that was freedom.

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