by Logan Darklighter and Mark Kobrak

"OK, squeeze my hand," Paolo instructed, placing his fingers in his patient's grip.

The resultant pressure was painfully hard, coming as it did from a hand nearly twice the size of the doctor's. The woman who delivered it was only 5'6," but she was almost supernaturally broad-shouldered and well muscled. Paolo might have suspected some sort of genetic upgrade, but those huge square hands and lantern jaw would not have been produced in any protocol he knew. She was not ugly, but could not be called pretty, even allowing for the dirt and scars, which lined her square face. Trog was a tunnel rat, and made her living hauling loads through the abandoned subway tunnels connecting Neo York with the Zone. She possessed the strength not merely to carry her load, but to defend it from the scavengers and gangers who occasionally raided the subterranean caravans. Her eyes were dark and shone with the toughness common to most Zone tradesmen. Here was someone with pride, who did hard labor in dangerous conditions and could command respect from even the toughest denizens of the Zone.

But she seemed to have a curious soft spot for Doc Snakeye. "You seeing anyone, doc? I gotta friend I think you'd like."

Paolo sighed inwardly. "Sorry," he said, pulling his ultrasound unit off of the shelf. "I try not to mix business and pleasure."

"Aw, c'mon, this isn't even a patient," objected Trog, extending her arm as he attached the unit to check her wrist. More quietly, she added, "Y'know, it's not a big deal here if you're gay. I got another friend you might like."

"It's nice of you to offer," the doctor said absently, "Maybe sometime when my work load's a little lighter." checking the read-out. It was that damned Item 1 on the "Payment Policies" he had posted on his wall, he thought. 'Sexual services are not acceptable remittance.' Everyone who read it seemed to conclude he was gay, or had some other sexual problem. The truth was the risks in such currency—angry parents, bloodthirsty pimps, jealous boyfriends or girlfriends meant it wasn't good for business or pleasure. And he was most often offered those services by working girls who were there to see him about a shot of Virexanol for their latest venereal disease. This was something of a turn-off for Paolo.

Then again, he thought. Maybe it's the fact that I haven't hooked up with anyone in my off-hours either...

He returned his mind to business. "It's a wrist fracture," he told Trog. "You're going to have to lay off it for a while."

"God dammit," muttered the tunnel rat. "This is a peak time, too. I'm gonna be out a big wad for this."

"I'm sorry, but that's the way it is," answered the doctor. He hesitated, as he always did before parting with an expensive drug, then decided to go ahead with it. "But I'll give you a shot of skelegen if you'll hold off the work for three days."

Trog looked at him in surprise. "Doc, I can't afford that," she objected.

"It's OK, you can owe me a favor," Paolo replied. "I trust you. But you have to promise me you won't work the full three days. Otherwise, you'll break the wrist again and I'm just wasting this stuff."

"OK, doc," the woman nodded. "Thanks."

"Sure thing," answered Paolo, retrieving the drug. It was true that Trog was in a position to help the doctor with supply problems, but it was more than that. He respected the tunnel rat, and was glad to be able to help her. This was important to him, when so much of his clientele was made up of people he regretted putting back on the street.

He administered the drug by syringe, tossing the dirty needle into a jar to wash and re-use later. Hypodermic needles seemed antiquated in this age, but they were cheap and recyclable, something Paolo needed very badly in his cash-poor practice.

"Lay off the brawling for a while," he advised, splinting the tunnel rat's wrist.

"Wish I could," she said. He left it at that, knowing better than to pursue a potentially sensitive subject.

As he finished splinting the woman's wrist, he looked up. The external camera showed two dark blue utility vehicles pulling into the parking lot outside his clinic. The tinted windows and obvious armor plating spoke of power, and the carefully anonymous dark-suited men who emerged and surrounded the car indicated a large organization with well-established security protocols. The guards were all Asian, Paolo noted.

"Who are the mooks?" asked Trog, following the doctor's gaze to the monitor.

"I don't know," he replied, mulling the situation over with distaste. He looked back to his patient. "You're all set. Why don't you go ahead out?"

"You sure you don't want me to, y'know, hang around?" the woman asked in concern.

Paolo frowned. Part of him wanted her there, but he knew that if the newcomers wanted trouble, she would not be able to help him. Better to face them alone, seemingly secure in his own strength. "No, thanks," he answered. "It'll be fine."

"OK," answered the patient. "You ever need anything, look for me at Dockmaster's. Bye."

"Thanks," the doctor said. "Bye."

She left, and he watched on the monitor as several more people emerged now that the perimeter was established. The first was a tall, well-groomed man with Asian features. He wore a dark suit, similar to the guards', but somehow still more impeccably tailored. The second man out of the car was a gray-haired, frail looking man, also Asian and wearing a white doctor's coat.

Curiouser and curiouser, thought Paolo, who comes looking for a doctor in the Zone when they already have one?

The final man out of the car was a short, wiry red-haired Caucasian with pale skin and the jeans-and-t-shirt uniform of the independent hacker. This impression was confirmed by the backpack and goggle arrangement the man wore. There were wires trailing between the pack, goggles, and heavy-duty datajack behind the man's ear, and Paolo noted he wore heavy VR gloves for interfacing with the computer as well. Here was a man who liked to be able to process massive amounts of data quickly.

The odd collection looked over as Trog emerged from the doctor's waiting room, and made her way around the assemblage and through the parking lot. The group paid her no further attention as the first member of the trio said something to his followers and they opened the back of one of the utility vehicles. Two of the guards pulled a large trunk out of the back, and a third reached in and produced a large canvas tote bag. Three of the remaining four guards fell in step with the group as they walked up to Doctor Snakeye's waiting room doorway.

Inside, Paolo shrugged, and decided to make some preparations. He reached into his desk drawer for his case of skillsofts, choosing to slot his Japanese language module. He wished he had Chinese or Vietnamese to cover his bases, but the Japanese moddie was the only one he had had when he left Avatar and he had not wanted to spend cash to obtain more. He looked down into a steel basin to check his appearance, and was relieved to find it was no worse than usual. His own hand had carefully trimmed his hair, still short, and his white lab coat was as clean as he could realistically expect it to be. He had the haggard, slightly haunted look which had dogged him since his arrival in the Zone, and he forced himself to relax and take on the calculated composure he had used when dealing with clients in his corporate days. His best defense had always been to look out of place, to be something other than what was expected of him. Weakness was expected of him, it was in his interest to make the people around him question their expectations.

All of this took only a moment, and the doctor was ready before the buzzer rang. He counted to eight before answering. "May I help you?" he asked in carefully cultured English.

"Good afternoon," came an equally cultured voice. "We require the assistance of Dr. Snakeye."

"Please come in," he answered, buzzing the door and letting the group into the waiting area. Paolo watched the cameras with one hand on the panel that concealed his automatic rifle. If they showed a willingness to make trouble, he could spray the entire room through the murder hole in the steel door, which separated the examination room from the waiting area. Or he could simply take off running out the back door.

"All those who will be entering the examination room, please deposit your weapons in the slot beside the door," he instructed. The room was crowded with the nine men and the oversize trunk, and there was considerable shuffling about as, at a nod from the leader, the guards began dropping ordnance into the slot Paolo indicated. On the other side of the door, the doctor winced as he realized the assortment of submachineguns and oversized pistols would not fit in the locked steel bin. He thumbed the print-lock and opened the lid, then carried an armload of guns back into his living area, slipping them under the bed. He knew, realistically, that he could not possibly have collected all of the weapons from the entire crew, but decided not to press the issue. If all nine of these people were coming into the back room, they could overwhelm him by shear force of numbers if it came to it.

But the hacker seemed to be making himself comfortable in the waiting area, and two of the guards took up stations by the door and windows. It made no difference to Paolo, who knew the back area would be crowded enough with six guests and their luggage. He hoped they had noticed the sign, indicating his clinic was under video surveillance by the Dixie Patrol. This crew was unusual, and the Colonel's people would be watching these goings on with considerable interest.

When the group had finished disarming itself, Paolo opened the security door and let them into his examination room. He stood politely until all six men were inside, then closed the door behind them. "Good afternoon. I am Doctor Snakeye," he introduced himself.

"It is a pleasure, Snakeye-san. I am Suhiro," the leader introduced himself. It was odd that the man did not give his first name, but Paolo did not press the issue. "This is Doctor Koizumi, a physician in our organization. These others are associates of ours."

I am supposed to believe these men are Yakuza, the host decided. Most likely it is true, and so far it is irrelevant. "I am honored to have you in my offices," answered Paolo, with a polite nod. "How may I be of service?"

"You are reputed to be a very fine cyberneticist, Snakeye-san," Suhiro responded. "We have a patient in need of your services."

The doctor blinked, noting that none of the security men appeared to be sporting any kind of cybernetics. That was not unusual in the upper echelons of corporate or criminal—culture, where these self-styled aristocrats viewed such things as gauche. Paolo's confusion resolved itself as his eyes fell on the oversized chest.

"I see," he replied. "Well, my services are negotiable. Perhaps we could discuss the specifics of the case?"

"Here is your payment for the afternoon's work," Suhiro nodded to the guard carrying the canvas bag, who produced a wad of bills from his pocket. It was a bank-sealed bundle, pre-counted and wrapped in watermarked plastic so that the amount could not be tampered with. It was used primarily for large-scale criminal deals, intended to save both parties the trouble of counting bills. It was worth $5000.

The doctor began to sweat. Suhiro had not negotiated before handing over the money, and by formal business protocol, that made this an ultimatum, not an offer. Paolo was not averse to earning such a large sum, but decided it would be best to counter the move with one of his own.

"Are the details of this meeting to be kept private?" asked the doctor courteously. "Because if so, I will have to make arrangements with my security forces. They are engaged in remote monitoring."

"Thank you," Suhiro responded. "But I took the liberty of relieving you of some of your obligations as a host. My associate Klaas—" he gestured to the waiting area, "—has already seen to it we are speaking privately."

Paolo did not let his sudden surge of fear show in his face. He had always known that net-connection for the cameras was his Achilles heel, but had always assumed anyone capable of beating it would be powerful enough not to bother with a Zone doctor. He had to stop making such assumptions.

But for now, he resigned himself to his fate. "And exactly what service am I to perform?"

Suhiro nodded to Koizumi, who in turn gestured to the two men holding the chest. They placed the trunk on the exam table and unlocked it. Rather than opening the lid, however, they lifted the top and all four sides off of the bottom, revealing the contents.

It was a woman. She was small and frail looking, with gray-hair and wrinkled Asian features. She was covered in blood and bandages, naked except for red-stained bandages and what looked to be a desperately improvised arrangement of intravenous patches delivering drugs to her system. Her chest was partially concealed by the gray metal box of an external cardiopulmonary unit, indicating her heart and lungs had ceased to function. Paolo picked out several modules designed to supplement endocrine and regulatory functions. While much of her physique was concealed, the old woman seemed to be suffering from at least five bullet wounds to her chest and abdomen. Doctor Koizumi proceeded without introduction.

"The patient has suffered massive trauma," he said clinically. "Her heart and lungs are irreparable, and anoxia has caused widespread endocrine and excretory failure. I have maintained oxygen flow to the brain via subcutaneous oxo-globin injections immediately following trauma and maintained flow via an external cardiopulmonary unit. The patient is currently machine-integral-stable."

Wordlessly, Paolo moved to the table to examine the instrument read-outs. He was impressed. Koizumi had done a good job on the patient—this kind of trauma required extremely rapid response to even maintain nominal brain activity. And while the EKG unit indicated that some brain damage may have occurred, it was within normal range, and the patient might make a full recovery.

Paolo found himself concerned that Koizumi's analysis had downplayed the possibility of brain damage. If this woman was important enough to rate this kind of attention from a Yakuza cohort, there might be consequences for any hint of malpractice. "There appears to be some possibility of brain damage," he noted, hoping to protect himself.

It was Suhiro who answered. "You will proceed," he instructed. "Should the patient fail to recover her faculties, I will make no effort to identify wrongdoing on either of your parts."

Paolo looked at Koizumi, who broke his professional demeanor long enough to give a desperate look. But his host had already taken the hint. Both doctors were unlikely to outlive the patient, or survive should she show evidence of disability.

Snakeye considered the situation impartially, trying to forget his now-intimate involvement. "The patient needs a full cybernetic prosthesis," he observed.

"Yes," Koizumi confirmed. He gestured to the man with the canvas bag, who opened it and produced a meter-long, cigar-shaped white metal tube. Paolo recognized it as an old-model Central Nervous System chassis, designed to maintain life support for a brain and spinal column during transplantation. The patient's organs were grafted into the unit, moved to the cyborg unit, and then grafted into the permanent host body.

"Can you do it?" Koizumi asked.

The cybersurgeon had hoped Koizumi had some alternative plan, but now was forced to consider what he believed to be the patient's only option. "My equipment here is very limited," he objected.

"You will have to improvise," Suhiro interjected. "Our resources are limited by some temporary complications of a political nature."

Paolo winced. The details of the operation—grafting arteries to the new system, stabilizing the neurons for transport, controlling a dozen subtle variables might be within his grasp here. But it was incredibly chancy, and he had no faith that the woman's already traumatized system would survive what would have to be a crude procedure.

But, since he had no choice, the doctor asked one further question. "Where is the body?"

Suhiro looked on expressionlessly. "It is being arranged."

Lora Doubet looked out on the lights of the early evening skyline. She sighed, commenting offhandedly, "Y'know, I really wish I was back in San Francisco."

It was a typical evening for the Terrace, one of the most exclusive restaurants in Manhattan, located about halfway up the southeast tower of the ShirokuTsuhji arcology right off of one of the "mall" areas, and had a good view south and east. The restaurant itself was a light airy, open affair, with high ceilings, fluted columns, and large, arched windows to the outside. The look was classic 20th century art deco. Below them, the massive buildings and arcologies of lower Manhattan rose up to the night sky. The city glow lit the night and made the stars impossible to see even on a clear night, but the panoply of lights from the various buildings and arcologies more than made up for them.

Kazuko Doihara, her dinner companion, friend and martial arts instructor looked up at Lora. She wore a dark green suit with string tie around the collar of her pale green blouse. Her hair was straight, cut off level with her jawline, in a modified pageboy haircut. She asked, "Why is that?"

Lora was wearing a cream colored knee length dress with a matching bolero styled jacket. The effect highlighted her light skin tone and pale blonde hair, drawn back and bound behind her neck. She thought about it for a moment, shrugged, and said, "Call me crazy, but sometimes I get the distinct impression this city has it in for me."

Kazuko shook her head, "Oh sure, Lora. The city doesn't like you, that makes a lot of sense."

"Hey, I didn't say it made a lot of sense, it's just how I feel." She sighed. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Or maybe it's because I keep getting reminded of things I'd rather not think about."


"I think you can guess, Kazuko."

"Lora, don't tell me you still let... that... bother you?

"No, not anymore. Well, at least not much. It has more to do with regrets. What might've been. Every time I come to Neo York I get to thinking about things I should've done, would've done, if... what happened... hadn't happened."

"That's not healthy, you know. Dwelling so much in the past." Kazuko looked at Lora concerned.

"I know. I can't help it. I usually don't do it. But being here, in this city, well... And then, there's the fact that he's still out there."

Kazuko didn't know to whom Lora referred to. Then she realized that Lora was staring out the window in the direction where "he" most likely was.


"You know I can still sense him? I can feel him out there. It doesn't take much. It's like... watching a thunderstorm on the horizon. With a wind blowing towards you and you can just barely make out the sound of thunder."

"He's never come into Neo York, Lora. He stays in the South Zone. You don't have to be afraid of him."

"I know, Kazuko. But being here just sets my nerves on edge at least a little bit."

Kazuko let Lora have her space for a moment more, then cleared her throat noisily. Lora looked back over at her with a questioning expression, at which point Kazuko said, "I hereby call for a change of subject. I refuse to let you get angsty on me, Lora."

Lora brightened, "I knew there was a good reason for wanting to see you, Ka-chan."

Kazuko grinned, saying, "So, want to guess what I have?"

Lora rested her chin on her hands and assumed a thoughtful expression, "Uhmmm, Let's see... No?"

Kazuko pouted, "You're no fun. Alright, we've got tickets to see that revival of Rent tomorrow night."

Lora's eyes went wide, grinning, she said, "Really? Wow! I've never seen a Broadway show before! Heck, it never even occurred to me!"

"Never even thought about it? You need to broaden your horizons, Lora. All work and no play, Lora... tsk, tsk."

Lora said, "Hey! I'll have you know I go out plenty on my own. You should see the music scene in San Francisco, it's great!"

"Well I guess you can return the favor when I visit out that way, then, ne?"

"Sure thing. Speaking of work, Doihara-sama, terrorizing any new students lately?"

"Why whatever do you mean, Lora-chan?" Doihara sniffed in a most proper accent. "I have the utmost respect for the scions of the upper management and only wish for them to be able to defend themselves properly."

They stared at each other for a good 3 seconds before Lora broke and laughed. Then Kazuko grinned and chuckled.

Lora finished laughing and said, "You know as well as I do that you love kicking their little butts. Don't deny it!"

"What? Moi? Show some respect, student, before I give you a 'boot to the head' myself."

Lora returned with, "And one more for Jenny and the Wimp!" Kazuko finally gave in and laughed out loud. They both giggled loudly enough for the other patrons to look curiously their way.

When they finished laughing, Lora got a refill of tea from their waiter while Kazuko finished off the last of her food.

After a moment, Lora looked over to her friend and said, "Seriously, Ka-chan, you're one of the only good things about this town. I'm glad I was able to see you this time out, sensei."

Kazuko smiled back, "Thank you, Lora. That means a lot to me."

They sat and relaxed, talking about everyday things, how things were with each other's lives, the weather, and other items of small talk. Kazuko talked about her latest classes and Lora sympathized with the students more than she thought she would. Kazuko could be a serious taskmistress at times. But she had no doubt the S-T executives were getting their moneys worth, despite the complaints of her students. Lora remembered Kazuko's patient yet hard hand with her years before. Kazuko asked about how Lora was doing and Lora described the San Francisco bay area and how she had fallen in love with it. The weather was still as beautiful as it had ever been, if a few degrees warmer than the average of 50 years ago due to global warming. Kazuko asked about her music and Lora assured her that she was still practicing her flute and keyboards. Truth was that she played the keyboards more these days. But she didn't want to give up the flute either. It meant too much to her to drop it.

A quiet beeping noise caught Lora's attention, and she excused herself and pulled out her cell-link from her purse.



"Yes, okay."


"Alright, I'll be there as soon as possible."


"Yes sir. Goodbye."

Kazuko asked the question with her eyebrows.

Lora sighed and said, "Well, duty calls. That was my current assignment. He's about to take off and wants me there."

Kazuko nodded and then waved the waiter over to get their check.

As they were leaving the restaurant, they gave each other a hug and Kazuko said, "Take care of yourself Lora-chan, and be careful."

"I'm always careful, Ka-chan. You take care of yourself too."

Lora looked around 93 Underground once again. She had been sitting here for over an hour, and the contact had yet to show. To her immediate left in the booth, her charge, Mr. Barret sat nursing a beer and looking at his watch impatiently every thirty seconds. It looked like this had been a wasted trip.

With nothing better to do, Lora scrutinized the man she was guarding. As middle-management types went, Barret didn't seem to be too bad. He'd engaged in just enough small talk with Lora to avoid painful boredom for either of them, but didn't seem interested in talking to hear himself talk. He was blandly handsome in a way that served corporate businessmen and news anchors equally well. His loosened tie and slightly rumpled gray suit suggested a corporate salaryman looking for a little excitement, which was a common enough scene in the Zone's entertainment district. The armored vest he wore underneath his shirt was only noticeable if you knew what to look for.

Lora was dressed in an ensemble consisting of low-heeled boots, dark leggings, a mid-thigh length leather mini skirt, wide ribbed dark brown turtleneck, and a dark red colored cropped leather jacket. Topping it off was a set of mirrorshades and finger-less leather biker gloves. The look was somewhere between "dressed to kill" and "corporate chic".

She sighed to herself. At least the bar was stocked with some decent drinks, and the music was good. If they were wasting their time, at least they were wasting it well. Lora had been keeping herself occupied with people watching.

After looking at his watch again and cursing, Barret said to Lora, "He's not coming. This was a waste of time. Let's go ahead and get out of here."

Lora nodded, "Alright, let's go."

They tipped and paid for their drinks and retrieved their personal arms form the huge combat replicant at the front of the club. As they walked out onto the street, Mr. Barret reached into his overcoat and brought out his digital phone, "Come and pick us up in front of the club. We're waiting now." After hearing affirmation, he folded his phone up and pocketed it.

"Well, that was a bust. Sorry to waste your time, Lora." He actually sounded apologetic.

"No problem, Mr. Barret. Just curious, but what were you going to meet with the guy about?"

Barret shrugged, "Doesn't look like it matters much now. He said he had some hot inside info on one of Jinsei's new combat droids. Sounded convincing at the time. I've worked with him before. Helps to have Yak connections sometimes."

"Yakuza? No wonder we were meeting in the zone..."

"Yeah, said he just happened to get some juicy specs from one of Jinsei's middle execs. I bet the Yak blackmailed the poor bastard. Happens all the time."

Lora wisely didn't comment further. If Barret had Yakuza connections, then that meant they could always blackmail him too. The information pipeline worked both ways. Barret probably had some information to trade in return instead of money.

She thought of something, "Isn't it unusual for a Yakuza rep not to show up at a designated rendezvous? They're usually pretty dependable, from what I hear."

"It's not my problem anymore. We waited. They didn't show. Deal's off." Barret said, missing Lora's meaning.

At that moment, the whine of turbines from above cut off any further conversation, their ride was here. A black Mollar Skycar 600 descended on its vector thrust engines to land in the middle of the street, kicking up small bits of debris. The skycar gathered appreciative looks from passersby. Lora and Barret quickly got in and shut the doors. Their pilot immediately lifted off, smoothly rising above the Zero Zone and angling toward Manhatten.

Just as Lora was beginning to relax and enjoy the view of the Neo York skyline, the skycar was rocked by an enormous impact. Everyone was thrown to the side, their restraints digging into them.

"Ugh! What the hell?" Exclaimed Barret.

"Something hit us!!" Lora said, looking around for the source of impact and then noticing the plume of smoke coming form the back of the vehicle. Oh shit....

The pilot struggled to regain control, sparing a quick look at his systems, and noting that one of the engines in the right rear pod wasn't responding and the other had lost oil and coolant and was about to seize up.

"We've almost lost one whole engine pod! I'm gonna have to try and set her down!"

As Lora and Barret braced themselves, the pilot angled them down toward the streets as the computer automatically adjusted the engine power to compensate for the lost engine and the failing one.

It was a valiant effort, and the pilot could've almost made a soft landing if the abused engine hadn't given out completely beforehand. The fly by wire computer noted the failure of the engine and the catastrophic loss of thrust balance, and automatically cut power to all engines and deployed the emergency parachute.

Unfortunately, the skycar was only about 10 meters above the roof of an abandoned office building at the time. The chute didn't have time to completely deploy before the skycar plowed into the top of the building.

The sounds of the crash echoed off the surrounding buildings for several long seconds. Several chunks of debris fell into the street below the building, startling a few Zone denizens. A small cloud of dust and rising smoke obscured the top of the building.

A figure dressed in black lowered the portable missile launcher off his shoulder and keyed his radio. "The target is down. Move in."

--to be continued

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