Dr. Snakeye's Journal

by Mark Kobrak

(translated from the Spanish)

September 1, 2029

I made it. Forty-eight hours ago, I was in Jamaica, a fugitive from Avatar Designs on the run from Mitsumi Industries. It was doubtful I'd ever leave the island, let alone make it to a Zero Zone. But here I am, holed up in a room in the Neo York Zero Zone with a soyburger and a bottle of moonshine.

I can't really put my escape on paper—I took a confidential job to pay for it, and it would be unprofessional to make a record of that. Suffice to say, I found myself out in the Wastes in the dead of night, watching two corporate militaries duke it out in the streets. I was standing on top of an old schoolbuilding, hoping no stray shells or patrolling assault teams came my way.

The corporate forces wound up in a running battle that left a sizable section of the wastes littered with blasted vehicles and bodies. It was an awesome spectacle, explosions everywhere, bright lights and thunder in a cold, rainy autumn night. But just as frightening were the scavengers, packs of cyclists—Go Gangs, they call them here—roaring out of the night to claim the broken equipment for salvage. The first ones had arrived even before the corporate fighting was over, and immediately set to picking apart anything which might be valuable, looking for weapons and ammunition. But they steered clear of live combatants—mostly, I think, out of fear of corporate retribution.

I realized then how unsafe it was for me to stay there—eventually, the scavengers would come to my hiding place. I ran back down to the science lab where I and my employers had left some equipment the night before. And some dead bodies, some friend, some foe. I pulled things together as quickly as I could—I repacked the surgical field kit I had used the night before, and collected weapons and ammunition from the fallen. None of the armor looked as though it would fit me, so I abandoned it. I did find the keys to the van I had arrived in the night before, and was relieved, naively believing they would be useful. I left wearing the medical kit in its backpack form, and carrying a rifle and several pistols.

The sound of gunfire had been getting louder, but it wasn't until I reached a hallway and checked a long-since broken window before I found just how close the action was. The van I had been hoping to reach was parked out of sight of the street, next to two cycles, but they had been found. By two groups of scavengers, no less. Rival gangs of dirty men—and women—were shooting at each other from positions along the side of the building. They were a wide range of ages and ethnic types, following none of the sterotypes for gangs in law-enforced areas, and they were obviously playing for keeps. The vehicles, I noticed, were still intact; however violent and disorganized they might look, they were very focused on taking their goal intact.

I left as soon as it was clear to me the fight was reasonably localized, and found a ground-floor window on the other side of the building. I think I was lucky—if just one group had found the van, they would have searched the building immediately. I ran from the building, rifle at the ready, trying to get away from the open area around the school and into the neighborhood beyond it. I made it without incident, and began winding my way through the sidestreets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where most of the fighting was taking place. I wasn't terribly worried about moving in any particular direction, I mostly just wanted to get away from the scavengers.

Someone shot at me as I moved from one abandoned yard to the other, and I threw myself into someone's window well. Kneeling there in the mud, I fired off a single grenade round in the direction where I had seen the muzzle flash. I doubt I hit him—even in the IR, I hadn't been able to make out the shooter—but the grenade launcher probably convinced him I wasn't worth the risk. I took off around the house and made it away.

Eventually I decided I was far enough from the fighting to try and find some landmarks which would help me find my way to Zone City proper. My skillsoft mapware was good enough that I was able to get my bearings from a couple of major streets, and I started my long walk.

I think most nights I might not have made it, but at the time everybody who was anyone was looting the bodies. I stayed on the side streets and avoided lights and heat, and made it to the morning without incident.

I was flagged down by a group of half a dozen men. I could have tried to run, I suppose, but by then I was exhausted and I'd never have gotten away from them on their own turf. Their leader, a young Hispanic with a scraggly beard and the hollow eyes of an addict, welcomed me to Venom turf, and explained that it was customary to pay a gratuity when crossing their domain.

It was pretty obvious they made their living by taking a cut of whatever was salvaged from the Wastes, and were expecting to get paid in goods. They were eyeing my backpack, and I was worried they would just kill me and take it, but they agreed to accept two of my pistols. I gave them the Cz95 and one of the Desert Eagles, and kept the other for my own use. I think it never occurred to them I would have cash, and if they'd known I had part of my pay-off they would certainly have killed me for it. I think it also helped that they knew immediately I was one of the corporate fighters, that I didn't fit in the Zone. They didn't know if I had corporate backing, or heavy-duty cyberware, or some other defense—they just knew I wasn't normal, and could be dangerous.

I must remember that. I will never blend in here, and trying and failing implies weakness. And people in the Zone seem used to intimidation, and respond to it with conflict. Show them courtesy, look comfortable, and you're an anomaly. And like people in every culture, they fear the unknown. If I don't try to intimidate them, they can walk away without losing face.

They gave me a safe-conduct pass—just a piece of wood with the gang colors stained into it—and I made it to Zone City without any other incidents. Actually, I now know I was really in the Entertainment District rather than Zone City proper. I don't know if my Fodor's chip was outdated or just wrong, but it didn't matter. I was into a populated area, and people were going about their early morning business. It seemed very normal—the people were mostly unwashed, except the restaurant and entertainment workers who were coming off shift and headed home. There were a few drunks and bums passed out in alleyways, and once or twice I saw a well-dressed corporate security guard standing watch over a parked vehicle. Evidently some of the corporate execs who come to the Zone opted to spend the night. I was a little disturbed by that—nothing was illegal here, and I had met more than my share of deviant executives. True, sexual crimes were rarely prosecuted in a corporate arcology, unless someone was trying to use them for political leverage—but at least someone could stop them. Here, they would be unrestrained.

As would everyone else. I stopped feeling so relaxed—just because it was well-lit and populated did not mean it was safe.

Still, I decided to find out where the corpers were staying. It wasn't hard—there were a few hotels advertising "Family Security," which sounded oddly out of place in the district. But I saw a wealthy- looking corper and his Puma come out of one of them, looking relaxed as the car pulled up to carry him off, so I decided to go in and check it out.

The lobby was a cross between a luxury hotel lounge and bank vault. Several guards—protected by bullet-proof glass—stood courteously at attention as I entered, and the woman behind the counter greeted me with the kind of mechanically warm smile I expected from an airline stewardess. I asked about rooms, and she quoted me rates—extortionist, but I had the money in my pocket and was ready for sleep at any price—then explained that the amenities included electricity, water and heat. When I asked what was meant by "Family Security," she explained in a friendly, reassuring way that the hotel was run by the Mafia. She seemed to feel this was a key selling point, and when I looked hesitant, she added that not only did the family prevent unauthorized persons from entering the rooms, but they also "bonded" the hotel workers. I didn't ask for details. The place obviously catered to people with more to lose than I had, and this was the closest thing I would find to safety.

She seemed surprised when I insisted I would be checking in alone, and the room would be single-occupancy all night, but complied. I asked about food, but the rates she quoted made me decide to go back to one of the street vendors. After clearing up the details, she gave me a pass—there were no locks on the doors, and she insisted none were necessary—and I made my way upstairs. The building was actually a converted apartment complex, so I had quite a spacious living space, which was comfortably furnished and decorated. The furnishings all looked hand-made, and I supposed had probably been built or adapted from items found in the Zone. There must be a great many craftsmen here, I realized. Zone City was essentially a processing plant for converting material from the Wastes into objects which could be sold here or in the City proper.

I dropped off my backpack and rifle and went back out onto the street. I bought breakfast from a vendor, some kind of fried dough balls and potato hash. I hadn't realized until then how hungry I was, which was fortunate—the hotel clerk had given me change in small bills. If I had tried to pay with the large ones from my payoff, they could not have changed it and I would have revealed how much I was carrying.

I went back to the room and went to sleep. I kept both guns in arm's reach, and my money in my pocket.

When I woke, it was dark, and I worried I would be late for an appointment. But my watch told me it was only 9 PM, and I grabbed a quick shower, reveling in what I realized would likely be my last chance to enjoy hot water and clean towels for a long time. Then I made my way downstairs and got directions to 93 Underground.

The streets were really alive now—hookers, drug dealers, fences, all hawking their wares to the corpers who had come here to slum it. I was surprised to notice a number of more middle-class types as well, clerical workers from the city here to sample the delights of the Zone. They didn't have bodyguards, and travelled in packs, usually with weapons. Here and there were sounds of gunfire, but the instances I saw were just revelers firing drunken shots into the night. The Zone natives watched them warily, obviously ready to respond if their exuberance found a human target.

The bouncer at the door of 93 Underground was a big combat replicant, the kind that's used in entertainment because it's too expensive for the military. He very courteously checked my gun and waved me through. I think he thought it was odd for a corper like me to be walking in alone, instead of in the company of a Puma or a Lynx, but didn't seem terribly concerned about it. It was his job to make sure no one died here, and it wasn't his problem if I got shot after I stepped out the door.

I ordered a drink and watched the show. I've never really been into strippers, I think because of the "loyalty shows" the company offered us at the Mexico City arcology. It was so damned transparent of them, giving porn to teenagers to as a reward for doing what they were told. And I resented it all the more because it worked on so many of the other indentures. So, as beautiful as the dancers were—and they were hot, really hot—I just couldn't get into it. I kicked back and watched the clientele, and listened to the band. They were good, too. "Burning Tires," I think they were called. I've got to see if they've got "Soylent Blues" digitized somewhere.

I don't know how I missed my contact, but she walked right up to the table without my noticing. "Dr. Snakeye?" she asked. She was a Lynx, with that usual perfect feline beauty, but streamlined in a way that suggested the buyer had requested combat optimization rather than aesthetics. I nodded, and she sat down.

"Your employer was pleased with your work," she said, and handed an envelope to me under the table.

"Thank you," I answered. "I hope he is well."

She said nothing, and I realized that technically it wasn't a question. But I chose not to inquire further. "Well, thank you," I repeated lamely.

The Lynx nodded. "Your employer asked whether you would be available for future contracts with him."

"Tell him I will consider any offers," I replied. Given my current status, I certainly wasn't going to rule anything out.

"How can he find you?"

I chewed my lip. "I haven't arranged permanent accomodations yet," I explained. "But I will be staying here in the Zone for the time being.

She nodded, obviously feeling that sufficed, and rose to leave. "Good- bye," she said.

"Good-bye," I answered. She left. I hung around to enjoy the music a little longer, then left. I got a bottle of vodka—not so much "Absolut" as "Approximat"—and a soy burger, and made my way back to the hotel. I felt restless, but didn't really want to go out, so after checking over the medical kit I decided to start this journal in the pages of the medical log. It probably makes sense to keep it handwritten in hardcopy, since it costs electricity to do it any other way, and that's expensive here.

God, where do I go from here? I've got to find an apartment, and set up a practice. Money won't be a problem in my immediate future, but my payoff isn't going to carry me forever. And for a practice I'm going to need a lot more equipment than just this kit. I'm also going to need reliable water and power. And some kind of security. How does business get done here? And how do people live?

I'd better not drink too much of that vodka. I'm going to need my wits about me tomorrow.

September 2, 2029

Found an apartment today, and a place I can set up my practice. Got up early and checked out of the Family business. I asked the clerk, the same nice woman who had checked me in, where I could find a good, safe permanent home in the Zone, and she insisted the hotel was the best place. When I explained I did not have the money for that, she insisted this was the best place. When I asked where she lived, she declined to answer, and looked very uncomfortable. I realized from the way she was looking uncomfortably at the door guards that that this was a loyalty issue, and answering my questions would amount to recomending the hotel's competition. I thought that was stretching a point, but I suspected the Family holds its employees to a high standard of loyalty. I didn't press the issue.

I stepped onto the street and bought more of those weird dough balls and a cup of the worst synthcoffee I've ever tasted. How to proceed? Anyone I asked might have loyalty issues similar to those of the clerk, or might be setting me up. But the foot traffic seemed mostly to be heading north, so I walked along with it. My guess was that the entertainment workers were among the Zone's more wealthy citizens, and their homes would be in whatever passed for a good neighborhood here.

I passed through one of the better districts—Church Row, it's called—but the area seemed densely populated and I couldn't find anything that looked like it might have a vacancy. Every window showed some sign of occupancy, and every empty lot showed signs of cultivation. Things seemed to thin out to the east, so I began moving in that direction, skirting the edge of Zone Central. There, I found what looked like some empty apartments, but I wasn't sure how to get a space. Could I simply walk in and take one?

As I was standing in the street, looking at the buildings, two men with rifles walked up to me and demanded to know what I was doing. They were both middle-aged, and didn't seem particularly aggressive, but they carried themselves with the wary toughness which seems common in the Zone. When I explained that I was looking for a place to stay, they told me they were the neighborhood watch for this area, and there were no openings here. I pointed to some empty storefronts, and they told me those were not defensible, so the watch did not allow them to be occupied.

Seeing that I was genuinely ignorant, and not a threat, one of the men explained the system. The neighborhood watch was really a militia, made up of the residents and designed to keep the gangs under control. The better neighborhood in the Zone apparently worked this way—the real marker of prosperity was not a luxurious space, but the weapons to defend it. In the case of crimes against individual inhabitants, the watch would make forays into the rest of the Zone to find and punish the perpetrators, when they were known. The real risk was a looting spree by a Go Gang, and then the militia mustered to drive them off in a coordinated fashion.

The other man was pressuring my informant to resume their patrol, but before they left, they suggested I see if Fort Dixie had any openings. They gave me directions, and I walked on.

Fort Dixie lies on the east end of Zone Central, one of the last organized neighborhoods before one emerges into the Wastes. Like a number of neighborhoods in this area, it is protected by an organization which more closely resembles a private police force than a gang. The Dixie Patrol was founded by a group of Confederate soldiers during the Second Civil War, who escaped from a POW camp in upstate New York and opted to flee to the Zone rather than try and make their way back to Confederate States. The NYPD refused to go after them, and the war was over before the army got around to it. The veterans still run the complex, and form the backbone of its defenses. The ones I've met are all heavily cybered, and I'm prepared to believe the rumors that they were part of a CSA special ops unit.

The neighborhood itself earned the name "Fort" from the Patrol's defensive strategy. When the CSA soldiers first reached the Zone, frequent raids by Go Gangs convinced them they needed more than just good armaments to keep their neighborhood secure. In a raid which has since become a legend they crossed into Neo York by boat and stole two bulldozers and some construction explosives. They ferried it all back to the Zone, then proceeded to redesign the district. First, they evicted people from indefensible buildings, then demolished them. Then they used the bulldozers to move the debris all over their territory, turning the streets into obstacle courses which could not be navigated by vehicles moving at more than a snail's pace. Finally, they fortified elevated positions to allow them to shoot at the cyclists as they made their way through the maze of debris, and carefully arranged their defenses to permit easy withdrawals inward. The result, while hardly impregnable, forces invaders to fight a slow, house-to-house struggle rather than the quick hit-and-run raid which is the go gang trademark elsewhere within the Zone.

I gained this information when I stopped inside Fort Dixie and bought lunch from a vendor named Amin, a sprightly old Arab who operates an import business. He and two of his sons operate a battered old electric pick-up truck, and drive it into the Zone every day loaded down with fresh water, charged batteries, food, and any other necessities he thinks he can unload. He mostly barters it away for furniture or other goods made from materials salvaged in the Zone, which he can sell in the factory districts back in Neo York proper. He does a lot of barter on that side of the river too, getting corporate workers to charge batteries or give him food and water in return for goods, because their contracts often forbid them from spending money outside the company store. He gave me this little lesson in applied economics while we both sat in some folding chairs he had just acquired, eating felafel on soygrain pitas. I wound up talking to him for a couple of hours, even though all I'd wanted to do was buy a sandwich, but he couldn't seem to shut up. What made the whole thing so funny was that I'd told him I was looking for a place to stay, and he didn't realize I knew he was going to try to sell me some furniture as soon as I'd found one. I may buy from him, but it's almost insulting when someone plays you that obviously. I'm corporate, not stupid.

Regardless, he eventually pointed me in the direction of the bunker, near the center of Fort Dixie. The building had once been a bank, and was solidly constructed not for the sake of security, but to provide that image of security that marketers feel a bank needs. I savored the irony of finding such a structure here. "'I am Ozymandias, King of Kings.'"

I was met at the door by a guard, and after I expressed an interest in moving in, was brought in to meet the Colonel. He was a black man of moderate build and showing signs of age, but heavily cybered and with the kind of bearing that suggested the years had given him a mean streak. He looked me over—backpack, rifle, and all, and offered me a seat at his desk. We talked. He didn't ask anything specific about my past, but spoke in generalities. Like all residents, I would be required to join the neighborhood militia. Did I have any training? Any combat experience? How was I going to pay the rent for my space? When I told him I was a doctor, he suddenly looked very interested and sent for the "medic." The gentleman in question was a heavyset, red-faced man named Simms, who was instructed to ask me some questions to see if I was a real doctor. I put up with that for a while, but after a particularly idiotic question—including the mispronunciation of a common drug—I dressed him down. Without batting an eye, the medic told the Colonel I was a doctor, and an asshole.

He was dismissed, and we began talking terms. The rent was named. High, I think, by the standards of the Zone, but thanks to my payoff it was within my means for the immediate future. I would be required to attend militia training 3 mornings a week—two for general weapons and drilling, one for specialist training within the medical corps. That put me under Simms' command. I was informed that I was expected to provide my own weapons and ammunition, and advised of the penalties if I were unprepared. He gave me the names of people I could see in Bartertown for ammunition for my rifle. He offered me six months' rent in exchange for the grenade launcher, and I accepted the deal. It was useful out in the Wastes, but I wasn't planning on going back there and I wasn't comfortable using it in more populated areas. Besides, I wasn't sure I'd be able to find a reliable source of ammo.

He took me out to a place which, he assured me, would meet my requirements. It turned out to be part of a strip mall; my space was in an isolated island in the parking lot, away from the carpenters' shop which took up much of the mall proper. It had once been an ice cream shop. It had seen more recent occupation, however, as inside the display freezers had been torn out and the area was open and reasonably clean. The back room had also been cleaned out, though there were still shelves on the walls, and someone had added a crude, sheet-metal chimney and fireplace against the back wall.

The fireplace was set directly beside a large, walk-in freezer, which seemed to have been used as a bedroom by the last tenant. The gaskets had been removed, so there was no danger of suffocation. It occurred to me that with some cleaning and some remodeling, it would be the closest thing to a sterile operating room I was likely to find in the Zone. It had power, and I could contract through the Patrol for computer connections as I saw fit. I told the Colonel I was satisfied, and we shook hands on the deal.

I went and bought a bedroll from Amin, and some other essentials: A jerrycan of fresh water (I would need the can for future visits), food, firewood, paper for tinder, flint and steel (he showed me how to use them), a hatchet, and some tools. My first priority was to reinforce the deadbolts on the doors, which I had noticed didn't seem that strong. But the iron window shutters had seemed sturdy, and I felt as secure as I was likely to be in my new surroundings. Amin and his boys helped me carry the goods home. I worry that they might take advantage of the fact that they know the layout of the place, but that's unlikely. They recognize a pigeon when they have one, and they can wait for me to give them money.

I've accomplished all that, and am now banking the fire for the night. I guess I'll spend the next few days acclimating, and getting together the essentials before I start trying to put my practice together.

September 5, 2029

I hadn't really planned on opening for business today, but a couple of kids from the complex came knocking on the door. One of them had a really nasty knife wound on his arm, and wanted me to patch him up. I don't know how they knew I was a doctor, but I'm finding everyone seems aware of that. Doctors are scarce here, I guess, and news travels very efficiently even without much media service.

Fortunately, all the kid needed was a few stitches. I cleaned it up, sutured him, and gave him some antibiotics just in case. I should have held off on the drugs, because God knows where I'll be able to get more, but I hated the thought of the kid getting gangrene because I was too stingy.

When I was finished, the kids asked me what they owed me. I started to name a cash fee, but stopped, knowing they wouldn't have it. I told them to get me three bushes of firewood and some tinder. They actually brought it by that evening—apparently, they knew it made sense to honor the debt in case they got hurt again. I hope they just stripped it out of an abandoned house somewhere, and didn't steal it.

I picked up the morning's water supply from Amin, and talked over my needs with him. He looked over my supplies list, and told me he could get some of the more mundane items together—soap, sheets, syringes and the like—but the drugs I needed were out of his league. Amin quoted me a good price on the things he could deliver, though. There's not much mark-up for his kind of import/export market, because anyone with a rickshaw can compete with him. And consensus among the people I've met in Fort Dixie is that Amin's pretty honest, which is good to know.

Amin sent me to a bar called Louie's, where he thought Louie might be able to help with this. Kind of an unremarkable place. When I asked for Louie, the bartender told me to sit in a booth and wait for him. The owner was a beefy, tired-looking man, like a "Good Fella" from an old flatscreen movie. He sat down and seemed to want me to get right to the point, and I did. He looked over my list, asked a few questions about quantities and dosages, and quoted me a price. I was floored. I realized then that I should absolutely, positively, not have given that kid any antibiotics for firewood. Still, ultimately I was going to need the drugs, so I haggled a bit, and gave him half in advance.

As I walked home, I realized I was going to have to find cheaper alternatives to most of the therapies I knew. Quite simply, there probably wasn't enough cash in the Zone to support the kind of practice I was used to running. It was a hard realization. Back on Shinkuu Orbital Platform, I euthenized cyborgs who could have been saved at a top-notch facility, but were beyond repair at the orbital clinic. I could accept that, because it wasn't in my power to save them, but this was different. Here, I might have the drug, and still not be able to administer it if the client couldn't pay. And there would be more ambiguous cases—how many doses of antibiotics did the patient actually need?

I got back to my building and found half a dozen people waiting for me. They were prospective patients—apparently, the two kids had been talking, and word had gotten out that I gave out medicines on barter. I treated an assortment of illnesses an injuries, from pneumonia to a dislocated shoulder. I tried to ration my supplies, but wound up giving out too much anyway. But the group seemed eager to barter. I got a carpenter to agree to build a cistern for my roof, a good supply of food from a woman who operated a greenhouse, a jug of ethanol (usable as antiseptic, fuel, or anaesthetic), and assorted other useful items. But overall, if I keep using money to buy drugs and bartering them away on goods I am not going to be able to maintain my practice.

I'm going to have to find alternative therapies. I used to read a lot of medical history, and I remember some useful treatments. I need to bone up on herbology, maybe re-discover biotherapy and some other nineteenth century techniques. I'll ask Amin to get me some books and datachips.

October 8, 2029

Andrew, the street punk with pneumonia from two days ago, came back today, asking for more antibiotics. I'd given him a week's supply, and told him as much; he replied that he was out. I told him that if he wanted to sell of his prescription, that was fine by me, but he couldn't expect me to give him more. Especially not when he hadn't paid me the cash he promised on his first visit.

At that point, he stood up, and told me he was taking the drugs. I drew on him and held the gun right in his face. Once I had his attention, I reminded him I had a videolink running to the Dixie Patrol HQ, and if he pulled anything they'd hunt him down like a dog, if I didn't kill him first. I also reminded him that if he came after me, word would get around the Zone and no doctor would treat him again, ever. I told him he could see Louie about antibiotics, but not to come to me again. He left with the kind of pained expression these gang types get when they've decided to listen to reason.

After that, I treated a few barter-patients with the usual run of ailments. During a lull, a group of clean, well-dressed men came in. They courteously deposited their weapons—an impressive assortment of them—in the bin before I buzzed them into my exam room. Their leader introduced himself as Mr. D'Angelo, and explained that he had come to inquire about an operation for a friend of his. Said friend was a woman who wanted some cosmetic modifications. I answered that I could do a variety of surgeries, but conditions here made it expensive.

He smiled and showed me some pictures. The woman, as she appeared now, was attractive in a well-rounded, smooth-featured way. Then he showed me some photo-morphs of the same woman with the modifications they hoped to make. They seemed geared at making her into a sort of a mermaid—green skin and hair, webbed hands and feet, and gill slits lining her neck. Also, some sort of fins along the outside of her legs, little frills about a quarter of an inch which flared out to several inches at the ankle.

It was a little weird, but I've seen freakier mods. I did the operation in my head: permanent skin dye, repliskin grafts for the fingers, and some artificial cartilege for the fins. Some risk of post-operative complications given the equipment I don't have, but nothing serious. Especially if these guys were willing to spring for good medicines and therapeutics.

They were. We haggled a bit, and they agreed to pay me a hefty price and supply the materials I needed themselves. Looks like a good deal—it'll be nice to not have to worry about how I'm going to pay for my next barter-patient's antibiotics, at least for a while.

October 12, 2029

I AM THE STUPIDEST MAN IN THE ZONE!!! That fancy Moscow sheepskin—now buried under several tons of rubble—should read Major Dumbass/ Pus-headed Dope. I just condemned a woman to the kind of living Hell I spent a lifetime trying to escape. But her suffering will be worse. Much worse.

To explain: D'Angelo came by yesterday with the woman for the biomods, equipment in hand and half-payment up front, just as we'd agreed. I tried to take her history, but she didn't speak any languages I knew. I think she was Turkish, or from one of the Central Asian Muslim states. One of D'Angelo's men translated while I took her history, and checked her over to make sure she was OK. I found indications she might have suffered from malnutrition as a child, and had had a miscarriage at some point in her life, but she was in good health now. I handed her a paper gown—I spared no expense for this, nothing but the best—and let her into the curtain area to change in private. That gallant little gesture meant nothing, as D'Angelo's translator followed her in, but I tried.

She looked very nervous when she came out, especially when I started to lead her toward the operating room. She hesitated when she saw the table, and I realized I should have put my instruments away. She gave me this pleading look, and I thought she was just concerned about having this kind of surgery in sub-optimal surroundings. So I gave her my warmest, most reassuring smile, and said, "Don't worry, I'm going to take good care of you." She didn't understand the words, of course, but she relaxed enough to lie down. I talked to her softly about how it was going to be fine as I put the anaesthetic patch on and she drifted off. I wish I hadn't done that. I wish I hadn't been so godawful, colossally stupid.

The operation went perfectly, of course. Her skin took up the dye smoothly and evenly, the skin and cartilege mods went fine. I brought Mr. D'Angelo in before I declared it finished, and he approved the work. I plastered up her wounds with rapid closure therapeutics and boosted her healing rate with the drugs I'd had D'Angelo bring. I was a little worried about boosting her immune system, but it was safer against infection that way and in any case there were no complications from tissue rejection. It's amazing what you can get away with with the new synthetic tissues.

I wheeled her into the curtain area. I put a fresh gown on her and told D'Angelo's man to come get me if she showed any signs of distress. She'd wake up in a few hours, I reassured them, and she'd have to take it easy for a week or so. But if she seemed alright when she woke up, I would release her then. D'Angelo nodded, and said they would wait.

I went back and cleaned up the operating room, then cleaned up myself. D'Angelo and his people were making themselves comfortable in the front room, except the translator, who was sitting beside the patient listening to music on a headset. I went back into my living area and had lunch.

I was halfway through my sandwich when I heard a clattering in the other room, followed by yelling. I ran out to find the patient standing up and staring at her reflection in the steel wash basin, screaming in hysterical terror. The translator was talking roughly to her, obviously not sympathetic. It dawned on me then that so far as I knew she had never seen those photos, that they hadn't TOLD her what was going to happen. She had just gone to sleep and woken up as someone's bizarre fantasy, a living doll. No wonder she was screaming! I felt sick to my stomach.

D'Angelo and the rest of the crew came in, and D'Angelo grabbed her by the arms and looked her right in the face, and said, "This was your contract." The forceful gesture brought her around enough to look at the translator as he parsed it for her, then she dropped the basin and collapsed on the bench, sobbing.

"Check her," D'Angelo told me. He had to repeat it before I paid enough attention to obey, but I did, numbly checking her vitals. I asked her about pain, and the usual complications, and she managed to shake her head no in response to the translator's questions. Then, still stunned, I said, "Don't be afraid. If you come back to me someday, I'll undo this."

"Don't translate that," D'Angelo snapped immediately. Of course, her ignorance gave him power. If she thought she could never be normal again, what were the chances she would run? She was to be a slave—not D'Angelo's, I was fairly sure, as I doubted his tastes ran in this direction—and her condition kept her loyalty.

"She can go," I told them. I handed D'Angelo some drugs and instructions for how to administer them, and told him what to watch for in the way of complications. He paid attention, obviously a slave-trader who was concerned about quality control. Then his men half-carried the still-sobbing woman to the car. As D'Angelo left, I told him I would not be doing any more cosmetic work in the future. He gave me a hard look, but I stared back at him just as hard, and he gave me my money and left.

I didn't know. In hindsight, I should have, but it never occurred to me this could be against her will. That's freedom—no one but you to blame for your mistakes. And this is as sick as any corporate-ordered atrocity I've ever been part of, including my own servitude. Christ, I remember waking up with my new eyes and datajack. That was so shocking, so dehumanizing, though at the time it was just another knife-twist after everything that happened with Kelly. What I did today was worse, so much worse. In a way, I made her a prisoner to her own body, and I can't imagine anything more horrible.

You have to watch your back in the Zone if you want to survive. But you have to be twice as careful if you want to wake up and not hate yourself.

I'm going out to get drunk tonight. I'm going to get completely plastered and forget I'm an idiot.

October 13, 2029

I suppose I got what I wanted, which is to say drunk and abused. I started my little bender at 93 Underground, to the strains of "Concrete Rainforest" by a band I don't remember. I hooked up with some girl—Abby? Tabby?—who suggested we go to the Gold Spike, up the street. I wasn't really drunk yet, but I was high enough to forget my gun, which was just as well.

We got to the Gold Spike, which turned out to be a night club/casino. I don't really remember too much of what happened there—I know I won a few hands at the blackjack table, but I think my companion lost it for me at the roulette wheel. Then we headed back to her place.

That's where things went sour. I don't remember most of it, except her screaming in my face that she wanted drugs, dammit, and why the Hell was I holding out on her!? I must have mentioned early on that I was a doctor. Fortunately, I'd left my medical kit back at Fort Dixie, and didn't have anything with me. She kicked me out of her apartment—apparently, no drugs, no sex—and I collapsed in an alley somewhere on the way home. I was lucky to wake up alive. There was no cash in my pockets, and my shoes were gone, but I still had my watch. Odd. I stopped by 93 Underground and picked up my gun, then headed home.

My head hurts like Hell, and I'm due at militia practice in half an hour.

November 21, 2029

The nights are getting colder, but I've laid in a good supply of firewood so I stay pretty comfortable. I've called in my debts with barter patients who owed me some manual labor, and started re-building the interior with real walls instead of curtains. I've also gotten a steel grille mounted on the chimney top, putting some of my security concerns to rest. And I finally got around to installing those steel security doors I got from the scavengers last week. Those are really nice.

The herbs I planted in the pots in are starting to sprout, too. Here's hoping they perform the way the books said they would. There are also two old, paper copies of Life magazine out in the waiting area. One of the scavengers gave them to me as a joke—found them and thought that no doctor's waiting room should be without them. I expect one of those sticky-fingered gang-types will be walking off with them any day now, to use for tinder.

Now that the weather's colder, the power's gotten less reliable. I've got a good store of batteries, but I think it might be time to build myself a steam engine and a dynamo, just in case we hit a long stretch without power. Maybe that will be my next project for the scavengers. A lot of them coming in with pneumonia these days, trying to squirrel away enough money to make it through the winter without having to hike through the snow.

February 3, 2030

I got an ethanol fuel cell! My electricity troubles are over. One of the gangs—the Sharks, from northeast of Zone central—came through on their debts, for once. After the last batch came through, I reminded them that the gang's total bill was over $2000 in cash, and if they wanted me to patch any of them up again, they were going to have to pony up. I figured I'd never see them again, but they must have decided it was worth it. I think they've been in some kind of a fight with another gang, so they know they're going to need medical help. In any case, they delivered to me a small ethanol fuel cell today, which I accepted in full payment of the debt. It obviously came out of one of the late-model hybrid electric cars, but few enough of those have made it into the Zone that they're hard to get. $2000 would have been a fair price for one.

If I can get more of my barter patients to pay with alcohol, then I can stop paying cash for electricity. I'll keep the dynamo and steam engine on-hand, though, just in case there's a problem with the fuel cell.

March 28, 2030

I met a woman named Hiroko O'Hara today. She wanted me to fix a problem with her smartgun interface, and paid cash. I did it pretty easily, of course, and then told her that problem—and the host of others I knew she'd had—was caused by the interference of all her different cybernetic systems. Her central nervous system was overloaded, her optical nerves were overworked, and all that cheap cyberware was stressing her metabolism. What she really needed, I explained, was a central processor with an ultrafast neural bus to balance all that gear. I felt a little silly suggesting an advanced system like that to interface all the crap she's wired up with, but it didn't matter. She didn't have the money, and wasn't interested in anything that didn't make her faster or stronger in any obvious way.

She paid and left, apparently satisfied, but miffed that I'd tried to sell her on an expensive system. I find myself a little disturbed, or maybe frustrated by her visit. There was nothing unusual about her, she was exactly the kind of second-rate hack job which is so common in the Zone. And she had the usual kind of wire-addiction I've come to expect from the sams here—anyone willing to go under the knife in these conditions does not have a terribly rational approach to cybernetics. She was a thoroughly unappealing person, a cold-blooded killer who would secede from the human race if she could. Why can't I stop thinking about her?

March 29, 2030

I've figured out what bothers me about O'Hara. It was that I couldn't fix her. Not that I wanted to see her fixed, walking around all the deadlier for my work. That's one of those aspects of my practice I try to live with, not enjoy. No, what I wanted was to be the one to fix her, to actually stand over her and operate until those problems were solved. I wanted to CREATE that solution, build a more perfect body. I wanted to sit down with a cup of coffee, scribble out a procedure—just like at Avatar—then get up and make it work.

I want to be a cybersurgeon again. I have a good practice here, one of the best in the Zone, but it's not enough. There's isn't enough money in the Zone for real cybersurgery, just better hack jobs than the next guy. I want corporate-sponsored clients, the kind who will pay for precision equipment and top-notch materials. I want a staff who will back me up. And I want a real reputation, one which will bring in respectable clients instead of borderline psychopaths who mortgaged a kidney to pay for the job. But I can't even leave the Zone.

An incredible thought just struck me. Could I buy my own indenture!? If I did that, I could walk out of the Zone a free man, set up my own practice, bring in venture capital on the strength of my rep from my Avatar days...Could that happen? Could I really set up a real practice and be my own man?

My indenture must be up for sale—someone has to own it. They must be willing to sell, too, because God knows I'm doing them no good. How much would that cost? More than I could ever make in the Zone, that's for sure. I'm barely making enough cash to keep my practice going—I'm wealthy by the standards of the Zone, but that doesn't translate into currency.

I need cash jobs. I'll talk to Louie, see what he can line up. It won't be easy—it would take dozens of the kinds of jobs I did for Wrobleski to pay for it—but maybe with time, it could happen. Maybe there are other ways, too. There's a lot of experimental cyberware in the Zone; if I could crack some of it open and learn somebody's trade secrets, that could be worth big bucks. Really big. Maybe there are other avenues, too.

Suddenly I feel much better about my life. That's what was missing—a goal, something to strive for, a way to complete myself.


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