Logan Darklighter, Mark Kobrak, and Mathieu Roy

The Skycar had slid across the top of the building and come to rest against one of the retaining walls of the roof, it's front end crumpled against it. The useless parachute billowed over the side of the building.

One of the gull-wing doors of the Skycar exploded outwards, propelled by a deceptively slim booted foot. Lora leapt out of the car, turned around and looked back at her client. He was moving, but still dazed, blood flowing from a gash above his eyes. He can wait just a second, check the pilot.

She couldn't see him clearly through the spiderweb cracks in the window, so she unceremoniously tore the door off its hinges. The door flew back and impacted against the small building on the roof housing the elevator equipment with a metallic bang. She looked in and immediately backed away, then steeled herself and reached back to close the staring eyes of the pilot. Some piece of debris that she couldn't identify had speared through the front window and impaled the man through the upper chest.

Lora went to get Barret out of the back seat. Gotta move quickly, whoever did this have to be close by. She hauled Barret out of the back of the Mollar. He was starting to come to his senses.

"Wha... where are we?" Barret coughed. Choking as a gust of wind blew acrid smoke in his face.

"On top of a building, about 15 stories up, and maybe exposed to enemy fire once this smoke clears, how well can you move? Anything broken?" Lora asked.

"Wrist feels sprained, and my back is killing me, but I can walk, maybe run if I have to."

"Good, cause you'll have to. C'mon, let's go. Stairwell is over that way."

"Whoever that son of a bitch is, he's going to pay dearly for this." Barret growled as he allowed Lora to lead him to the stairwell.

"How about we save on the recriminations until we get out of this mess, Sir..." Lora said tersely. The man still didn't seem to quite understand the danger they were in.

As they made for the cover of the stairwell structure, Lora ran a quick system check and confirmed that she had suffered no damage. At the stairwell entrance, she reached for the door handle.

The roof shuddered under several impacts behind them. Lora didn't bother to look, just finished her movement, ripping the door open, grabbing Barret and shoving him in, yelling, "Run!" He didn't argue. Before she turned to face her opposition, she saw him taking the stairs two at a time.

Just who the hell did Barret piss off anyway?!

Five battlesuits stood before her. Four small sleek customized hardsuit types and the distinctive bulky rounded features of a Guges landmate. Matte black and dark gray in color, they stood a few meters away from her in a loose formation.

Lora looked at them. This is not good.

Celia glanced once more at the data on her helmet screen. Her own sensor array was more than sufficient to show her what was underneath the synthflesh covering the female cyborg in front of her. However, the more detailed scan being relayed to the Black Company's HUD displays from Nene's advanced sensor package showed that their task was going to be more difficult than planned.

Hmmm, I'll have to talk to Suhiro about a bonus for tonight's action. His information on our assigned target was rather less than complete...

Priss, to her left, was much more vocal about her misgivings, her voice growled loudly over the private tactical channel, "Goddamn that Suhiro! That's a military grade cybergraft he's got us trying to capture!!"

The problem lay in their orders. Permanent damage to the target was prohibited. Why that should be so important, Celia neither knew nor particularly cared, and neither did the rest of the team. A job is a job after all, and a simple "extraction" of a cybergrafted individual seemed simple enough. However, a fight against a combat cybergraft when you're not allowed to hurt it was considerably more difficult.

Linna answered Priss, "Should've known, I guess. You knew it couldn't be that easy, or why hire us? Hey, it's not like we can't take her."

"Mackie," Celia ordered, "EMP rounds, now, please." Perhaps they could still complete their mission the easy way.

Mackie, in his Guges landmate, brought up the stubby grenade launcher held in his right manipulator. In it were six anti-cyborg EMP rounds. "On it, Celia."

For Lora, time seemed to slow to a crawl. Her nervous system was battle-hyped, running at 3 times the speed of a normal human being. Taking in the scene before her, she realized that her battlesuited opponents weren't immediately doing anything. They must be sizing her up. But that would change in a moment. Fight or run? Running seemed like a good idea at the moment, with five to one odds against her. The Guges alone might have her outmatched and she had no idea what the capabilities of the hardsuits were. All of this flashed through her mind in a heartbeat.

Then she saw the Guges begin to raise its arm toward her to point a stubby looking pistol launcher at her.

Oh... shit!

Lora realized she didn't have time get into the stairwell behind her for cover, and if she took the chance on running away in the open, she'd open herself up to a shot in the back.

She leapt forward, her feet digging into the ancient asphalt and gravel rooftop with each stride. The barrel of the grenade launcher loomed large in her vision. Reaching the Guges, she ducked under the massive right arm and shoved upwards just as the pilot, reacting a moment behind, reflexively pulled the trigger, sending the round harmlessly skywards, sailing over the roof and falling behind the building to explode on top of an adjacent building beyond.

"Goddamn!!" Exclaimed Priss, reacting to the unexpected speed of the female cyborg. Before she could bring her railgun to bear on the speeding figure, she saw the cyborg grab Mackie. Linna also brought her forearm blaster to bear.

"ACK! What the hell? She's right on top of me!" Mackie exclaimed.

"DON'T SHOOT! You'll hit Mackie!" Nene cried, seeing Priss and Linna aiming.

Lora had only gained a momentary respite, and knew it, but was determined to make the most of it. She shifted her grip on the wrist of the large slave arm of the mecha and grabbed the smaller master arm on the same side with her other hand, then planted her feet and pivoted with all her strength. Where artificial muscles were insufficient, linear motors took up the rest of the slack. Lifting the suddenly unbalanced Guges, she swung it around in a massive arc, letting go at the last moment before she herself could be pulled off balance. The disparity in size between Lora and the eight-foot tall mecha made the maneuver look almost ludicrously impossible. Her cyborg body was far stronger than it looked however. The mecha plowed, arms flailing, into the hardsuited figure closest to it, and both crashed through the retaining wall of the roof to fall into the canyon of buildings beyond.

Two down, and the odds looked a little better.

Priss and Linna stared in disbelief. The shouts of alarm from Nene and Mackie rang over the tactical net as they fell over the side of the building.

"Linna, see about Nene and Mackie," Celia commanded.

"Right, Celia." Linna acknowledged as she fired her jump jets and took off. Maybe Nene and Mackie wouldn't be street pizza if they got themselves turned around in time to use their jets.

Priss' vision narrowed on the figure before her, "You goddamn BITCH!" She growled. She jumped forward in a jet-assisted leap.

As Lora brought herself around to face her other opponents, she noticed she could only see one remaining, What the... where?

Then, instinctively, she looked up just in time to see another black and gray armored figure arcing down on her from above. Surprised, she threw herself back and to the side, and the roof shuddered with the impact of a missed punch, dust and debris flying up from the point of impact. Before she could react to that, another hardsuit, this one with wings, flew out of the dust and landed a punch to her gut that knocked her sprawling across the roof. Lora found herself rolling frantically to the side to avoid the first hardsuit as it tried to hit her again. She continued the roll and backflipped back up on her feet just in time to avoid another strike from the winged hardsuit. Number one hardsuit sailed in and finally landed a roundhouse kick to the side of her head that flipped her through the air and nearly stunned her. She managed to barely get back on her feet in time to avoid a blow from the winged hardsuit as it came down on her from above.

By this point in the fight, Lora and her opponents had worked their way to the opposite side of the roof away from where they had started. The hardsuit with the aggressive fighting style was in front of her, the one with the wings was angling toward her back.

No good, in the open they have the advantage, and they'll wear me down eventually. Let's change that.

Lora crouched, then leapt forward over the head of her opponent high in the air, angling down toward the far end of the roof, almost 50 meters away.

Priss found herself looking at the spot where her opponent had been standing just a moment before. Then she spun around to look in the direction she had gone and her targeting computer locked on and highlighted her opponent in midair, headed away from her. She almost couldn't believe the amount of distance the cyborg was covering. She instinctively brought her railgun to bear, lining up the crosshairs...

"Priss, NO!!" Celia shouted, "Do not fire! That is an order. Remember the mission objective!"

"Goddamn it, Celia! We can't do this half-ass! Not with a combat cybergraft! We're not gonna be able to capture that bitch without doing damage to her! You know it as well as I do!"

Celia did not reply, instead, she activated her flight jets to take up the pursuit, Priss following behind skimming across the roof, cursing under her breath.

Celia went over the tactical situation. Oddly enough, they might actually be at a tactical disadvantage. Their hardsuit weaponry was more than capable of destroying their target, but was ill suited to capturing her intact. It was definitely throwing the Black Company off their stride. Their usual missions involved seek and destroy and corporate sabotage, not extractions, and certainly not extractions of this nature.

If she had understood the true nature of their target, she might not have taken the job; but then again, the amount of money they had been offered on such short notice was hard to pass up under any circumstances. Linna at least, certainly would have agreed with that assessment. In Celia's opinion, the Yak were acting desperate. And a desperate client was easier to get more money out of.

In any case, the EMP grenades Mackie was carrying could have done the job nicely, if he had been able to get off a good shot at the start. That opportunity had slipped by them though. Now they would have to improvise. But it was likely that Mackie and Nene had survived intact. If so, they could pull off this contract properly with a slight change of plans.

As Celia touched down at the far edge of the roof, she saw the door to the stairwell was just swinging closed. And her audio sensors could pick up the sounds of the cyborg making her way down the stairs. Nodding to herself, she keyed the commlink.

"Linna! Report please."

"Everyone's okay, Celia, just shaken up. Mackie soft landed with thrusters. Nene may have a cracked rib or two, though."

Nene's voice came through, sounding pained, "I'll be alright. That was damned embarrassing, though."

"Good. Now here's what I want you to do..."

Lora landed on the other side of the mechanical plant of the building by a few feet. That put the bulk of the structure housing the old air conditioning plant, elevators and stairwell between her and her opponents for a moment. The roof bent severely under the weight of impact, but held; though Lora found her foot slightly stuck. She spent a moment wrenching it loose, then leapt for the stairwell door, which was on the side facing her, hitting it with her shoulder and forcing it open, then diving through. She didn't bother with the stairs, but simply hopped the railing, hit the next landing down, then hopped over the railing again. The stairwell was nearly pitch-black, so she turned on her thermographic filters in order to see better.

As she continued to make her way down the stairs in this fashion, she went over what just happened. Now that she had a spare moment to realize it she noted that her attackers were behaving strangely. They were fighting her, but hadn't used any weapons other than that initial attempt with the grenade launcher. She knew she had seen what had to be integral weapons in the arms of the hardsuits, why hadn't they been used? Something stank here.

As she reached the sixth flight of stairs down from the roof, she heard the roof doorway slam open. Then the sounds of booted feet echoed loudly through the stairwell. Lora noticed that the next doorway down was ajar, and used the noise of her pursuers to cover her opening and quietly shutting the door behind her. She moved as quickly and as quietly as she could down the hallway to another doorway. There was no door in the frame and she could see an old office area stripped of furniture in the faint lights from the streets and cityglow off the clouds through the open windows. She could feel the slight movement of the air through broken windowpanes.

Hearing the sounds of her pursuers getting closer on the stairwell, she moved quickly. There was another stairwell at the other end of the hallway. She ducked into it and started making her way much more slowly and quietly down it. The steps were made of concrete instead of metal, fortunately, and thus the sound of her steps did not echo.

So far, the building seemed truly abandoned. The faint sound of her measured breathing sounded loud in her ears as she strained to hear sounds of pursuit. She felt the bulge in her jacket that corresponded to the Desert Eagle .50 holstered there. She didn't think it would do a lot of good unless she got a really good shot, but she drew it anyway, its bulk somehow comforting in her hands.

Walking down several more flights of stairs, she exited the stairwell at the ninth floor, making her way through the remains of more old office space. The building had been thoroughly gutted by scavengers up to this level and only the bare metal and concrete construction of the basic frame was left in many areas. The musty smell of collected rainwater and mildew permeated the air.

A loud beeping noise nearly made her jump out of her skin in fright and she clamped down hard on the urge to cry out before she identified the noise as coming from her forgotten cell link. It was actually not that loud at all, but in the quiet of the cavernous building's remains, and right next to her, it seemed as loud as a siren.

She jerked the phone from her jacket pocket and, suppressing the urge to crush the offending object into splinters, instead jabbed the answer button. She had a feeling she knew who was calling her.

"Lora?" The voice on the other end of the line spoke in a hushed whisper, "Is that you?"

"No, Barret," she whispered sarcastically, abandoning any pretense of politeness, "it's Shion Nys the Empress. Who do you think it is? Where are you?"

"Not exactly sure, I lost track. I think I'm on about the sixth floor."

"You're still in the building?"


"As your bodyguard, I feel it prudent to remind you that you could be giving your position and mine away even now by calling."


"5 seconds, Mr. Barret, then I hang up. Anything important to tell me?"

Silence for a moment. Guess what, Mr. Barret? You're no longer in the arcology, the corporate limo is wrecked, you're hiding in the zone, and the hired help is getting pissy because you're being an idiot. Welcome to the real world, asshole.

"Um... I can see the people who are chasing us from where I am."

Lora blinked. "Where did you say you were?"

"I'm in an old corner office about six stories up."

"Where are they?"

"They're standing down there in the street facing the building. One's a hardsuit, the other's a landmate type," Barret said. Lora nodded to herself. The ones I threw off the roof. Barret continued, "They're just standing there watching the building. There was another one with them just a minute ago that went around the other side of the building."

Blocking us in? Why do I feel like I'm the one being hunted here? Lora thought to herself. Then the cold realization hit her.

I am being hunted!

"Wait... the Guges is taking off!"

Barret watched as the figure lifted off on jump jets, then panicked as he realized it was coming toward him. Before he could back away and find cover, a spotlight from the hovering Guges landmate lit him up. Sure as shit he thought he was dead. Then the light moved off of him and the sound of thrusters intensified before dying away as the landmate rose past his position, ignoring him.

"Wha... What? He saw me... He saw me and didn't do anything..." He remembered the cell link he was still holding to his ear.

"Lora? Did you hear that? Lora? Hello? Hello...?"

Several floors above, a small explosion lit up the night, a cloud of conductive dust spread through the air, glowing and sparking. As soon as the air cleared and the EMP pulse faded, Mackie flew the Guges through an old bay window long broken and touched down, looking around. Nothing showed up on his IR or UV sensors.

"I can't confirm the target, Celia. I don't see anything yet. Nene, got anything for me?"

Nene responded, "The EMP cut off the transmission, so you got something. Look around some more. Keep sharp."

Mackie nodded, even though she couldn't see him, "She's not going to catch me again like that."

He turned the Guges head slowly from side to side, scanning. The soft hiss of actuators and hydraulics echoed off bare concrete as he moved the landmate forward. Then he heard and felt an odd crunching as the foot of his machine came down on something. He backed up and looked down.

Sighing, Mackie observed, "Well, I found the cell link she was using." The phone had been crushed beneath the rubberized tread of the landmate's foot. "But she's gone."

"Damn. She left the phone there for us to find," Nene opined. "Gotta hand it to her. She's good."

"Uh huh." Mackie replied as he walked his Guges forward, looking all around him. Then he saw the open elevator shaft.


Lora clung to the ladder in the darkness. She didn't know exactly how far she had slid. She felt like she should be near the bottom of the elevator shaft. The noise of her breathing reflected up from somewhere just below her seemed to confirm the idea. She could see almost nothing in this darkness even with her IR filters. It had been dark and cold in here for a long time. The faint outline of doorways above her was the only visual clue she had.

Sliding down the ladder along the elevator shaft wall, she had avoided the effects of the EMP grenade. Though it had been a near thing. She could feel her body twitch ever so slightly in response to the intense electromagnetic fields of the device.

I have to find a way out of here, she thought to herself. I've been lucky so far, but I'm not going to fool myself. Luck is all it's been so far. They're not after Barret. They're after me. For whatever reason. And I can't keep avoiding them forever in this building. I've got to get out into the zone. Make my way back to 93 Underground or some other place and get help.

She climbed upward toward the doors. Reaching them, she got her fingers into the gap and forced one of them open just enough to squeeze through.

Just as she was negotiating the gap in the doorway, she heard a faint sound from above, the faint thump of compressed gas. Before she could react properly, the EMP grenade hit the bottom of the Elevator shaft and went off.

The violent expansion of atmosphere within the confines of the elevator shaft coupled with her own desperation forced her through the doors onto the floor beyond. The doors slid back closed and most of the explosion was channeled upwards. But the EMP effect was too close to Lora this time for her to avoid completely.

Lora shakily got to her feet. Her artificial muscles and nervous system weren't responding properly. She felt clumsy and weak. And her muscles gave odd twitches whenever she moved, and sometimes when she didn't. Her vision had degraded. Scan lines crossed her field of vision. Her IR filters were useless. She was practically blind.

C'mon, c'mon... move... MOVE! Damn you! She thought at her sluggish body. She staggered down the hallway, feeling her way along with her hands. Got to find a place to hide for a minute or two. She found she could barely feel the wall, even her sense of touch had gone slightly numb. She stumbled blindly down the hallway, bumped into another wall, and followed it.

But the more she moved the better it was getting. Her systems were recovering. She had only caught the edge of the EMP wave it seemed. Within less than a minute, the scan lines started to disappear. Her IR filters started coming back, and her muscles stopped spasming for the most part.

But now she was lost. Looking around in the darkness, she couldn't quite make out where she had wound up. The hallway she was in had no doorways except for a double door at the end. She made her way toward it.

Wait, what was that sound? Sounded like someone running. Lora looked wildly around for the source before her thermographic vision caught a glimpse of a heat source behind the hallway wall, almost too late to react.

The ancient wall beside her exploded as an armored figure came through, knocking Lora through the opposite side of the corridor and into the space beyond, which turned out to be the lobby of the old building. A small flock of night birds nesting in the area fluttered up from the ground out of the holes in the front of the building, momentarily obscuring the opponents from each other.

Priss sneered as she began to stalk through the hole the cyborg had made. "Tough luck, little Miss Cybergraft. No getting out of this one." Then she saw her opponent roll to her feet and run back toward her instead of trying to run away!

Lora did a cartwheel toward the hardsuited figure to gain momentum, then, with a loud "Kiai!" put her elbow into the woman's chest with all her strength, sending the black and gray figure flying back and making another hole in the abused wall behind her.

HAH! Take THAT! Lora thought as she flowed into a neutral stance, ready for attack or defense. I was getting damn tired of being knocked around by this bitch!

The light coming through the ruined facade of the building behind her was just enough for Lora to see the flicker of a shadow moving to block the light. She dropped to one knee in a tuck and roll just in time to avoid the attack of another hardsuited figure. The sleek black and gray lines of this suit were different from the first two suits she had fought, and the occupant obviously had a more accomplished fighting style than either of them. She flowed through an aerial version of a spin kick and when she missed, she followed through and came down using her thrusters and no small amount of balance to land lightly on her metal shod feet after what almost seemed like a short pirouette. The streamers attached to the figure's helmet framing the movement perfectly.

Okay, Lora thought, I'm impressed.

Then she was on the defensive again, avoiding a snap kick, batting aside a punch at the last moment, then taking a short kick to her midsection that did little more than move her about a meter to the side. She retaliated with a crescent kick that sliced through the air a bare centimeter in front of the Hardsuited figure's visor. Then she instantly planted her kicking foot and immediately shifted stance to follow through with a spinning back kick that connected and sent the mercenary careening out the front of the building.

Lora was just starting to feel satisfied with herself when a spotlight lit her up.

OH SHIT!! I forgot all about the...

Three EMP grenades impacted at her feet.

If being caught at the edge of an EMP blast was numbing, then being caught in a direct hit was blindingly painful. A surge of electromagnetic energy ripped through her body. There was the smell of ozone and it felt as if her whole body was on fire. Lora could feel herself on the edge of blacking out. Through the haze of pain, she felt the numbness take over her senses. Desperately, she tried to fight back, to will her unresponsive limbs into motion, to move, to do anything.

Blackness. Her vision had completely cut out. She couldn't feel anything. From far away, she could hear a dull thud. Her body hitting the ground. Then voices. Someone was talking about a cutoff jack.

No. No, damnit! Please! She wanted to plead for them not to do what she thought they were going to do, but she couldn't make her vocal chords work, couldn't move her jaw.

She heard the rustle of hair being brushed aside, then the soft click of something being inserted into her cranial jack. Then all sensation cut out, even hearing. She was enveloped completely in the non-blackness of total sensory deprivation.


Nene stood up after inserting the plug into the cyborg's cranial jack. "Whew! Damn that was a tough one! Good shooting Mackie!" She gave him a thumbs up.

Mackie replied, "Almost got away from us. Sometimes I wish I had a faster suit."

Priss walked up. "Damn. That cyborg bitch hits hard. Is she dead?"

Linna came forward, favoring her side. "I don't know and I don't care. I want a fraggin bonus big time for this one. Owww..."

Celia said, "I concur. I'll see what I can do. Let's go."

There was a certain satisfaction in having worked a miracle.

Paolo leaned forward in his chair, rubbing his temples with hands that still smelled of medispex gloves. The last five hours had been some of the most grueling surgery of his life, and Dr. Koizumi had been no help at all. Before beginning, they had had to synthesize a nutrient bath, practically emptying Paolo's meager pharmacy into a mix of the doctor's supply of plasma and the blood collected from the two Yakuza guards whose type had matched closely enough for the purpose. They had sent one of the guards out for ice to chill the mix.

That part Paolo had been reasonably sure he could do, having improvised similar baths in his orbital clinic. But the next step—removing the old woman's brain and spine and transplanting it to the chassis—that should have been impossible outside of a clean room staffed by a full cybernetics team. He had stripped away her flesh by hand as it hung suspended in that mix, fingers going numb in the cold fluid as he painstakingly pursued a protocol designed for use with high-precision laser scalpels. Koizumi had been so obviously disturbed by the sight that he had been unable to do more than wipe the sweat off the surgeon's brow as he worked. He had even missed a drop of that, letting it splash into the nutrient bath, and it had been all Paolo could do to keep from screaming at his carelessness. But Suhiro had stood in the operating room the entire time, and the surgeon had no desire to point out the crudity of the procedure in his presence.

But the green and yellow indicators on the chassis indicated that, impossibly, the doctor had succeeded. That nervous system was hardly healthy, but was functioning and showed reasonable odds of recovering. And given the chance, it probably would. Paolo had no illusions that his skill alone could have saved her, and knew that whoever she was, she possessed the strength of will to survive impossible trauma. Koizumi had said there had been time to brief her on sensory-deprivation protocols before she lost consciousness, and Paolo was certain that the woman was doing all the exercises to keep her analytic facilities active—working chess problems, doing mathematics, and trying to recall every detail of her life. Or perhaps she was thinking of clan politics, and plotting revenge.

Well, he hoped she recovered, because his life depended on it. There was little more for him to do at this point. The chassis was designed to hook up to a standard cyberprosthesis, and it would be a trivially easy to transfer the biological components to the new host frame. It would only be a matter of minutes. There was just one ingredient missing, and Paolo wished they would get the damned thing here. The longer they waited, the greater the risk of complications such as sensory shock or graft trauma. And the surgeon, hungry and tired as he was, just wanted the whole thing over.

He took a pull from the glass of water he had poured, eyeing Suhiro as the other man spoke quietly into a voice-link. Certainly he would make good on his threat if the operation failed, but if it succeeded...They would not kill him then. These Yakuza seemed to be in a bad way, obviously losing a war, and that was no time to execute useful medical staff. Probably they would do as they said and leave, for now. A rebellious servant was a distraction to a group fighting for their survival, but if they won, they would come back. They would have to rebuild their organization, and his skills made him valuable as a resource and a revenue stream. And if they lost—well, perhaps no one would bother with Paolo, then. Or perhaps the enemy would decide he was a sympathizer, and tie up the loose end.

The surgeon sighed. Whatever the outcome, his days as an independent operator were numbered. Rationally, he knew working for these Yakuza might be a step up, and improve his lifestyle. But the part of Paolo Zanabria that had always hated his enslavement, who since childhood had never surrendered his will to his corporate masters, railed at the idea. If faced with servitude, he would run, and if cornered...He wondered, not for the first time, if he had the courage to take the final action of a free man.

Suhiro had finished speaking, and turned to the chair where the doctors were sitting. "The body is en route," he reported. "If you'll come with me?"

He gestured to the waiting room door, and the trio proceeded through it. By habit, Paolo checked for his pistol as he started to pass through the door. But the Yak had taken that when they re-armed themselves, and the doctor was weaponless.

He stood in the lot, waiting. The two Yakuza guards beside the SUV were armed, but seemingly intent merely on guarding the vehicle. The group had been careful to maintain the facade that this was a friendly visit, lest the Dixie Patrol take an interest, and no weapons bore on either doctor as they stepped outside the clinic. But Paolo was certain he would die instantly if he called for help, and in any case, it was the middle of the night and no one would be watching.

An oversized, windowless van pulled into the lot, pulling into a stop in front of the waiting Yakuza leader. The side door opened, and two sleek, black hardsuits stepped out. The suits had been designed to a female contour, indicating the occupants probably were women, and the suits were heavily customized. High-priced mercenaries, Paolo concluded. So these Yak have funds after all. They must have come to me thinking their enemies would never look here.

"Good evening," Suhiro said, in English. "A pleasure to see you as always, Ms. Celia."

"Good evening," responded the woman coldly. "We need to discuss the contract. Your information was faulty." Paolo sensed she was furious, but understood it was best to present a cool facade to the Yakuza.

Such nuances were lost on her companion, however. "Damned right it was!" she spat angrily. "That bitch damned near—"

"Priss!" interrupted Celia sharply. Then she continued more slowly, "You told us to expect a security cyborg, and the target is a full-grade military unit."

Suhiro's flawless demeanor cracked a moment. "Indeed?" he asked, showing pleasant surprise. Then his composure reasserted itself. "Were you able to take the unit intact?"

"Yes," answered the hardsuited mercenary. "We had to take her down with an EMP round, but there is no sign of permanent damage."

"If you'll allow the good doctor to inspect it," Suhiro said. The woman gestured to the back of the van and the group made its way to the rear door. Priss keyed the door, and pulled it open.

Paolo's view of the van's interior was blocked by the enormous bulk of a Guges landmate, squatting awkwardly to fit into the space. And at its feet, a deceptively delicate, feminine figure lay sprawled across the floor of the van.

Another man might have found her fine-boned beauty and gorgeous long, white hair sensual, and while part of Paolo was aware of these things, it was subordinate to his knowledge of the artifice behind the artistry. He brushed the hair back to reveal the black socket of a datajack set in the smooth alabaster skin.

The configuration was familiar. The doctor twisted the socket, and the housing slid out a few centimeters to reveal an LED array. He nodded, finding the fear, which had been gnawing at him, confirmed.

"The body is operational," he explained. "And the current graft is unharmed."

This earned Celia a quizzical look from Suhiro. "We had no specific instructions for the graft," she explained.

Suhiro seemed to accept that. "Very well. In recognition of your good work, I am prepared to go 5% over our negotiated price."

"Cheap bastard," Paolo heard Priss mutter. She was ignored.

"Ten percent, if you ever want us to do business again," Celia countered.

"Eight," said Suhiro flatly. The hardsuited leader, seemed to consider that, and then nodded. "If you'll carry the material inside?"

At a gesture from her leader, Priss picked up the prostrate cybergraft and carried it into the clinic. The suit's servos whined slightly as the woman in the suit shifted her posture under the weight of the artistically feminine form.

"What kind of dump is this?" she asked rhetorically, eyeing her surroundings with distaste. Paolo resented the comment, and noticed her gaze fall on the steel basin of bloody fluid.

"It's a party," he explained. "We're bobbing for apples."

One of the Yakuza guards choked, but the mercenary only glared at the doctor. "Where do you want this?" she asked, hefting the cyborg.

"There," said Paolo, indicating his exam table. He had reinforced it with steel purchased from scavengers, of course, in the hopes that some day he would once again have a combat replicant or a cyborg in his office. But this operation wasn't what he'd had in mind.

They're going to make me kill her, he realized. I need a second CNS chassis to remove her safely, and I don't have one. I'm just supposed to strip her out to open up the graft.

"Pleasure doing business with you all," Priss said sulkily, making her way out. Paolo waited, considering the situation, hoping there was some way to avoid murdering this woman.

But nothing came to mind before Suhiro returned. "You may proceed, doctor," he said, striding into the room. His tone suggested annoyance that the two doctors had not already done so.

Paolo eyed the guards. There was, quite literally, a gun to his head. And even if he refused to perform the operation, Koizumi could probably bungle his way through it if he had access to the cyborg's on board manuals. Well, he thought. When you don't know what you're doing, do the part of the problem you know how to do. First step in cybernetics: Interface with the on-board systems.

He walked over to the cabinet where he kept his limited supply of electronics, and pulled out a small black box with several datacords attached. The router was old, but its simplicity made it ideal for interfacing with the usual jury-rigged cybernetics systems the doctor normally encountered. It was also invulnerable to some of the more recent electronic countermeasures installed in military systems, a fact which Paolo was very grateful for right now.

He walked back to the patient, slipping one of the cords into his own jack and brushing back the hair around the cyborg's jack. He hesitated a moment, hand poised beside the woman's skull, praying some flash of inspiration would offer him an alternative. None did, and the dangerous look in Suhiro's eyes convinced the doctor to proceed with this step at least. He made the connection.

The result was a virtual menu, with most of the options unreadable gibberish. The doctor carefully kept the relief out of his voice as he explained, "The interface is encrypted. I can't get into her systems."

"Decrypt them," the Yakuza leader instructed irritably.

"I can't," Paolo answered. It was probably true. "This is a military grade cyborg—the security is going to be first class."

Suhiro's gaze went to Koizumi, who only shrugged. The man was clearly a good trauma surgeon and general practitioner, but he knew nothing about cybernetics. "Get Klaas," Suhiro instructed one of the guards. He returned a moment later with the red-haired hacker in tow.

"Ja?" asked the hacker. His accent was thick even on the single syllable.

"That cyborg has a secure system," he explained. "Crack it."

"Ja," the German repeated. He picked up one of the router cables and slotted it into one of the three datajacks on his skull.

In the virtual connection, Paolo became aware of the German's presence. "Vat do you need?" asked the newcomer.

"Full access to all systems," answered the doctor, gesturing through virtual space as he spoke aloud. "Right now, all I've got are the basic diagnostics. They left those unencrypted so if she were incapacitated in the field, they could get a diagnosis off-site."

"Ja," he hacker confirmed. He began manipulating the datastream in a way Paolo was prevented from seeing. After a few minutes, he observed, "This vill take some time."

"Then get started," Suhiro snarled, civilized veneer dropping away as his patience wore thin.

"Ja." The hacker proceeded.

He'll do it, Paolo reflected. He's good, sooner or later he'll crack that program the way he tore through my damned security. If only I'd been able to protect those cameras...Suddenly it hit him. The router was connected to his net link! He had a connection—he could get a message out! The trick with the cameras hadn't been a total cut, he was sure, so he could bypass it, call in the Dixie Patrol, and --

They would come in, guns blazing, and kill everyone. The Colonel had a strict "no negotiations" policy—he did not have the resources for a prolonged standoff, and had decided the best way to defend his people was simply to brutally murder all attackers. Hostages were irrelevant to his tactics. No, calling in the Dixie Patrol was a last resort, a way for Paolo to take Suhiro and his cronies with him when he died.

So who can I call? He wanted to scream. He had a net link! He could call anyone from New York to Mars, and it didn't do him a damned bit of good! Who in the world had an interest in a doctor, or the hapless cyborg he wanted to save --

Well, that was the right question. Perhaps he should ask.

Lora floated in sensory-deprivation. She had been coached on the exercises to use, how to focus her mind as a shield against the myriad forms of psycho-physical trauma machine people like herself could experience. And she tried to pursue them, but icewater fear kept leaking into her consciousness, threatening to drown her.

What do they want with me? Why didn't they just kill me? God they could be doing anything with me, taking me anywhere! Why me? What did I ever do to deserve any of this? This is so unfair. She knew on some level that she was feeling self-pity and hated herself for it. But she couldn't help it. At least it wasn't as bad as the very first time she had experienced this. She had some idea of how to handle it this time. But the worry and the fear wouldn't let her be. She wasn't in a safe hospital with people who were looking out for her. She had been defeated in battle, and who knew what her captors wanted?

She finally realized that her thoughts were going in circles. There weren't going to be any answers until she was brought out of this state. If she ever was. In any case there wasn't any point in worrying about it. At least that was what she kept trying to tell herself. It joined a litany of mantras in her mind. After an indeterminate amount of time, she found herself as relaxed as she could get under the circumstances. The worry still nagged her. But she had managed to banish it to a cul-de-sac in a remote neighborhood in a suburb of her mind. She remembered Doihara. What would she do in a situation like this? Try and meditate? It was worth a try. This was about as detached as you could get. It ought to be easy...


The words were not heard and not read, but simply appeared in her mind. They would have seemed a hallucination if they had been associated with any sensory stimuli, but the absence of any affiliated sensation somehow made them real.

What? Lora wondered in bewilderment.


Lora grabbed on like a drowning swimmer, Where am I? What's going on?! Who are you?!

MY FRIENDS CALL ME, "DOC," the explanation appeared. YOU ARE IN MY CLINIC. There was a long pause, as if the voice were trying to figure out what to say next. WE ARE BOTH PRISONERS OF THE YAKUZA. WE ARE BOTH IN A LOT OF TROUBLE.

Lora took a moment to appreciate something to focus on, no matter how tenuous, then "Doc's" words finally began to sink in. Yakuza? Prisoners? Why am I here? What kind of trouble? She realized she was babbling, caught herself, then continued. I think I need the whole datadump straight, "Doc".

There was another pause. OK. BUT YOU CAN'T PANIC. IF YOU PANIC, WE'RE BOTH DEAD. It was frustrating to Lora that there was no inflection on the words. They were simply information, of no more than face value. THE YAKUZA WANT YOU BECAUSE THEY NEED YOUR BODY FOR ONE OF THEIR LEADERS. THEY WANT ME TO REMOVE YOU FROM THIS BODY AND PUT THEIR LEADER IN. YOU WILL DIE IF I OPERATE. There was another break. I WON'T OPERATE. THAT WON'T STOP THEM.

Right. Don't panic. Sure Doc. Oh god, this is not good. Thank you. Thank you for not doing this. But what can we possibly do?


Hope flared. Lora thought. Shiroko Tsuhi? Sanato? Would that work? Lora subvocalized, Doc, there's an executive who works for Shiroko Tsuji corporation. His name is Sanato. If you get in contact with him, he may be able to send somebody to rescue us. Here's his net address. She rattled off the series of alphanumerics to him. Twice to make sure. I admit it's a long shot. But it's all I know of. I usually don't work in Neo York. That's my main point of contact here.


Lora thought about that. She subvocalized again. Yes, I think so. In fact, he rescued me a few years ago when my original body was destroyed. True, an esper talent had been involved in finding her, but that was hardly an issue now if "Doc" had a net contact. I never really considered the possibility before, but Sanato probably has agents in the Zone. It's the only thing that makes sense. I don't see how else he was able to react so fast back then. Maybe it'll be enough. It's a start, anyway.


A code word? That's right, the message is coming from someone he doesn't know. Damn. What would get his attention? She racked her brain for a moment. Something straightforward, unambiguous, but could only have come from her. Something Sanato knew about her that most people wouldn't. Then it came to her, the most obvious thing.

Doc, tell him "Lora can still sense Ran. But she hasn't awoken yet." And oh, that's my name. Lora Doubet.



Now all she could do was wait.

Johnny the Wrench muttered darkly as he slid under the car. Raven was a little taken aback by the reaction; she hadn't visited her old friend in a while but she didn't expect the usually jovial mechanic to snub her.

"What's wrong, grease-monkey?" she asked.

"Oh, Raven! Hey! Long time no talk!" Johnny replied, quickly rolling right out from the Ford's underbelly, his jolly smile returned.

"Good to see you again, Johnny. So why so glum, if you're not ticked at me?"

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Ticked at you, Raven? You know I can't be. It's my boss I'm ticked at. I don't think he likes me."

Raven was glad that Johnny was under the car and couldn't see her frown. Good ol' grease monkey might not know it, but he had perfect job security no matter how much his supervisor disliked him. Shiroko-Tsuhi hadn't hired him for his mechanical skills—technical school graduates with more amenable dispositions were dime a dozen. No, the real reason he got his job was to anchor Raven to the company—both positively, by giving her oldest friend a nice life... and by using him as leverage should she be tempted to leave.

Johnny wasn't the shrewdest of her acquaintances, however, and his figuring out what was going on would do more harm than good, so she played along. "What's he doing to you?"

"Oh, you can figure it out, Raven. He's all sniffing and turnin' his nose at me 'cause he's never put his nose in an engine and I've never set foot in a school, and he's even tryin' to teach me my job. Told me I should be doin' more 'preventative maintenance'. If it ain't broke, I ain't fixin' it no matter how much he wants to charge the other departments, dammit! But God forbid I put a new part in one of our own hogs until I've proven that Einstein couldn't put it back together. No, I gotta reduce costs to our department."

Raven couldn't suppress a smirk. "Professional conscience against corporate politics. The eternal struggle."

"Well, I ain't messin' up my work because of some pansy suit-boy who has an issue with good work."

Again, Raven couldn't really point out that this attitude was likely what had caused him to lose his first corporate job, back before he came to the Zero Zone, because it might lead to Johnny. Besides, she had to admit the thought of the supervisor having to deal with this unruly underling he could not discipline was amusing.

A loud chime relieved her of the need to respond. She grabbed her PDA, muttering about the interruption, and quickly read the page displayed. The word 'URGENT' in bold red letters immediately got her attention. She quickly scanned the rest of the text. "Boy, this looks serious."

"What is it, Raven?" Johnny asked, sliding back under the car.

"Emergency extraction. I gotta be in Sanato's office in combat gear within the minute." She returned her PDA to its holster. "I'll catch ya later."

"See ya, Raven," Johnny replied, scant seconds before Raven teleported away.

Dressed in her armored bodysuit and a dark blue jacket she liked to think was stylish, Raven teleported right in front of Sanato's office door. The door was open and Sanato's secretary, some sort of mid-range synthetic, waved her through with a pressing gesture. Puzzled as to what might warrant this haste, Raven walked in.

Sanato was there, surrounded by a trio of assistants in business suits. They were examining the surface of Sanato's desk, pointing and making notes. Raven approached and looked at it, then whistled appreciatively. The entire surface of Sanato's desktop was in fact a computer screen, and it currently displayed a 3-D representation of a beat-up building that looked to have once been part of a strip mall. Somewhere in the Zero Zone, she decided.

Sanato looked up at her approach. "Ah, Raven. Quickly, time is of the essence." He took up a remote control and tapped a few keys; immediately the surface of the desk changed to display text, an e-mail message of some sort. Raven looked to read.


Authentication code: "Lora can still sense Ran. But she hasn't awoken yet."

Mr. Sanato,

I am writing to inform you of a situation which demands your immediate attention. Lora Doubet, a cyborg of your acquaintance, has been kidnapped by members of a Yakuza clan under the leadership of a man named Suhiro. They intend to kill the graft, and install a graft of their own in the prosthesis. The operation is already underway. Ms. Doubet will be dead in a matter of minutes, and I am powerless to prevent it.

She is currently in my clinic in Oakwood Plaza, in the Fort Dixie area of the Neo York Zero Zone. The Yakuza have 11 operatives here, including one hacker and one medical doctor. At this moment, two guards are positioned outside the clinic, three are just inside the front entrance, and the remainder are positioned around the interior. Ms. Doubet herself is in my examination room, directly accessible from the building's exterior by the back door.

I am in the room with Ms. Doubet. I am a Hispanic male in my late thirties with short hair and cybernetic eyes, currently wearing green surgical scrubs. I regret that I am unarmed and not trusted by the Yakuza, and so will likely be of limited assistance to you during the raid. However, I respectfully request that you brief your strike team as to my appearance.

I apologize that I cannot give you further details at this time, but access to my net link is limited. Please do not attempt to respond electronically, as my system is compromised.

Best wishes in your endeavor.


Snakeye, M.D.

Raven looked up at Sanato interrogatively. The executive tapped the remote again, bringing back the satellite picture. "This is the clinic in question. As you can imagine, time is of the essence and we need you to go there at once and try to rescue Ms. Doubet, using any level of force necessary."

"Attack the Yakuza? Is it.." Wise, she had meant to say, but she stopped, with the realization that the question was one that a street girl who could move things with her mind might ask. On the street, it was common for independent operators to simply go along with what the Yaks said, and agree to give them a piece of the action, rather than risk their wrath. She knew people who paid taxes to several clans rather than risk angering one of them, even though they weren't on their turf.

But what did that mean to a world-class esper backed by a major corporation with a legitimate grievance? She smiled inwardly in amusement. She still had quite a bit to learn. "Never mind," she said, waving for Sanato to continue.

The door opened again, and Adam slipped inside. Sent off with orders to 'amuse himself elsewhere' while Raven met up with an old friend, he also must have received a page. He smiled at Raven, nodded at Sanato, and gestured for them not to let him interrupt them.

"Reinforcements will be sent in as soon as we are able, but you should not count too much on them. The main reason you are being sent is that you can teleport nearby and get there much more rapidly than any team we can assemble." The picture of the building zoomed out slowly, showing the neighborhood. "Can you two get there rapidly?"

Raven nodded. "I think so."

"And can you deal with eleven Yakuza soldiers?"

Raven exchanged a glance with Adam, who quirked an eyebrow but nodded slightly. "If all they have is small arms, then probably," she said.

"Good." Sanato flicked a button again, and the desk-screen displayed a picture of a beautiful woman with an athletic build and long blonde hair. The girl had the most unblemished complexion Raven had ever seen, and her eyes seemed to sparkle like gemstones... or glass beads. Raven faintly remembered meeting her at the Jinsei World Expo. "This is Lora Doubet," Sanato said. "Your primary objective is to rescue her. She is disabled, but her body is a military-grade cybergraft so she should be able to sustain some trauma without significant damage."

The screen flicked again. This time the picture was of a Hispanic man of about forty. He had the build and complexion of one who exercises for fun and fitness rather than survival. His eyes seemed entirely black in the picture, but they were shadowed and might just have been very dark. "This is a picture of Dr. Snakeye taken by our people in the Zero Zone. We noticed Dr. Snakeye early, since freelance doctors in the Zero Zone are a rare commodity, especially if they can do cybernetics." He nodded to one of his assistants, and added, "We must be grateful to him for bringing this situation to his attention, at great personal risk. Ensuring his survival is one of your secondary objectives."

From Sanato's voice Raven got the impression that this objective was very secondary. After all, rescuing Lora—an expensive asset—was paramount. Dr. Snakeye was not a stakeholder in Shiroko-Tsuhi, and while the corporation would like the kind of honesty Dr. Snakeye had shown to be rewarded—it might encourage others to do the same—the company was not about to risk a multi-million nuyen asset for him. Raven wasn't too bothered in this case—ultimately, the doctor's life would be in her hands and she didn't intend to sacrifice him.

"And last but not least. We believe this Mr. Suhiro to be the son of a prominent Yakuza leader. We would like him to survive this encounter. We are also very interested in the subject of this operation."

Raven was a little taken aback, not because Sanato wanted to talk to the Yak boss—a potentially valuable source of information—but by the tone of his voice when he said this. Raven got the impression that this last bit, thrown with affected nonchalance, was at least as important as recovering Lora Doubet. The nervous nods from the executive assistants only made her wonder more. "I understand," she said, her tone indicating she'd understood the subtext as well.

"Very well. Good luck, Ms. Clark. Keep her safe, Adam."

"Yes sir," Adam replied grimly. Pulling a pair of stun gloves out of an inner pocket of his thigh-length armored faux-leather coat, he quickly donned them before drawing his steel-gray Jinsei Sliver gun from its shoulder holster.

Raven quietly stepped back, her mind still full of questions about what her priorities should be—then she cleared it for the coming battle, knowing that in the end it wouldn't matter and her own choice of priorities was set. Placing one hand on Adam's shoulder, she frowned in concentration, ready for the long-ranged teleport, and moved away, wrenching them away from one space to another in that manner she still did not quite understand.

Klaas' lips moved as he worked, thin red lines tracing patterns between the sickly white of his skin and the yellow of his teeth. Occasionally he would ask Paolo a question about cybernetics operating systems, but mostly he said nothing, ticking away like a machine while Paolo stood by and Suhiro paced steadily around the room. That suited the doctor fine, as he was not in the mood for conversation. Indeed, his head was spinning with the revelations of the last ten minutes, and he desperately tried to organize his thoughts.

Have I made a mistake? He wondered. I called in a corporate strike force. I have no control over them—even if I survive the raid, they may not let me walk away from this. Dammit, what's Shiroko-Tsuhi going to do with me? Assuming they get here in time to save the cyborg—Lora—they owe me a favor. But there are security questions...they won't be too happy that somebody knows they have a esper cyborg, or tried to make one.

He resisted the temptation to shake his head in wonder, not wanting to give away his amazement at the situation. What an audacious experiment, he mused. I'd love to know how they did it. He rubbed his jaw, watching Suhiro pace, a manic glint now apparent in what had been dispassionate eyes. He doesn't seem to know about the girl's little secret. Would it change anything if I told him? This is a powerful bargaining chip with S-T, and they could get an alternate body...no, he's past the point of rational argument. I can't reason with him, so my only hope is the corporate strike force.

Which brings me back to the question: What will they do with me? S-T won't want to see me go to Mitsumi knowing about their psychokinesis program. That's a little piece of intelligence they won't want bandied about, particularly when they can't be sure how much I know. But they aren't going to want to leave me here in the Zone, either, for the same reason. So...what? Off to their cybernetics design group, and spend the rest of my life trying to make useful systems out of the dimwitted creations of some hack sarariman/cyberneticist whose cousins married each other and both sit on the board? Dammit...Yakuza slave, Shiroko-Tsuhi zombie, bullet-riddled corpse. I don't see any way I can just walk away from this. At least Lora might --

His thoughts were interrupted by a victorious cry from the German hacker. "Got it!" He yelled exuberantly. "I am invincible!"

On the table, the cyborg's chest cavity expanded a few centimeters, then caught as her red turtleneck went taut. Paolo winced as the hacker drew a pocketknife and clumsily cut open the shirt and bra beneath it. >From a point below the sternum up to the neck the synthflesh came apart with a slight rubbery noise. It did not tear, but separated cleanly along a formerly invisible seam. In proper medical procedure, of course, he should have applied antiseptic before exposing the interior, but it didn't much matter at this point. The carapace opened along the centerline of her chest, the armored "ribcage" parting like a clamshell. With the chest cavity open, the cranium followed. Just behind the ears the skull parted in a complex motion that left the back third of the skull laying on the table with the interior braincase exposed. The rest of the head automatically angled forward on internal sliding hinges. With Lora's upper torso and head opened, all of the cyborg's biological and essential life support components within were revealed.

Suhiro strode over immediately, an expression of desperate urgency playing across his features. "Proceed with the operation immediately, doctor," he said.

Paolo peered inside the cranial cavity, enhanced vision making careful note of the interface hardware. A careful look at the membrane separating the biological components from the life system confirmed a hunch which had been gnawing at him since Lora had first spoken of Ran, and Awakening. A high density neural net, he observed. Custom make. Probably they went with the military grade body because it could handle all that bandwidth—the combat capabilities were just a bonus.

He turned his attention to the higher-level diagnostics Klaas had made available to his neural link. As I thought, he observed, checking the log. They immobilized her with an EMP round, then blew the calibration on her neural link with a Tesla probe in the datajack. Classic procedure—they were real pros.

"What are you waiting for, doctor?" demanded Suhiro.

"This is a highly nonstandard configuration," answered Paolo carefully, gesturing to the interior. "This is not conventional—"

"That is a cyborg body, and you are a cyberneticist!" The Yakuza leader spat back. "I don't care what you have to do—make the transplant!"

The doctor looked up, and found his captor red-faced, nearly frothing at the mouth with barely controlled rage. He was obviously desperate, and all the terror and tension of the day had caught up with him. There would be no reasoning with him, and he would brook no delays.

I am out of time, the doctor concluded. Do I kill this woman? I've killed cyborgs before, and ones I knew better. But then, I couldn't save them. Shinkuu wouldn't give me parts, wouldn't budget me the pieces I needed, and I couldn't improvise them.

But Lora doesn't have to die. There's nothing wrong with her. But even if I refuse, the operation is simple from here. Koizumi can do it, now that he has access to the on-board manuals. They'll practically walk him through it.

"Proceed, doctor!" Suhiro was shouting.

But it will take him time. Minutes, perhaps an hour if he's too cautious. This Mr. Sanato could be here by then, could save her. I have no way out, nothing I want to live to see. Am I willing to take the bullet now, for Lora? If I can save her, the way I couldn't save Mikhail, or Jose, or Louisa --

"Doctor!" Paolo was abruptly aware of the pistol pointed at his face.

The doctor reached slowly forward, placing two fingers on the carapace, and gently closed it. The pressure automatically closed both the chest and cranial cavities, returning the female figure on the table her human appearance. "I won't," he said simply.

The room was utterly silent except for the forced hiss of air as Suhiro inhaled, then released his breath. With an almost palpable effort of will, the crimelord forced his features to order, and stood before Paolo with a dangerous composure.

"Dr. Snakeye," he said, staring down the barrel of the pistol. "My patience is at an end."

"I will not operate," the doctor repeated calmly. He was amazed at his own tranquility, finding himself comfortable with his decision. He stared back at Suhiro unblinking, and waited for the gunshot that would end his life.
But the sound that filled his ears was instead the rhythmic crashing of heavy machinery, and it grew louder in the unnerving silence. Suhiro frowned, and jerked his voice link to his lips. "What is that noise?" he demanded.
He paused, obviously listening to a response through his earpiece. "Are they armed?" Another pause. "Find out what they want." The Yakuza leader gestured peremptorily to one of the guards, and pointed to the clinic's back door. The man obediently took up a position.

"You have visitors, doctor," Suhiro reported.

"At this hour?" asked Paolo rhetorically. He felt almost giddy, and found himself weak in the knees, flooded with relief at the brief respite the distraction had earned him. More than that, Suhiro's anger seemed more under control. Perhaps now he would negotiate.

But burning rage fueled the light of rationality in the crimelord's eyes, and there was something dangerous in the way he responded to an inaudible report from his earpiece. "Bring them in," he instructed. "Beta team, put guns to their back as soon as they enter the exam room."

He turned to the other guards, and gestured to the exam room door. "Train your weapons there, and stand at the ready," he instructed. Paolo sweated, realizing that Andre and Ayane—the owners of the noisiest truck in Neo York—were about to step into an ambush. And the doctor thought he knew where this standoff was headed.

"You're sentimental, doctor," commented Suhiro blandly, returning his attention to Paolo. "It affects your business sense. I can understand that, as sentimentality is a vice of my own. Does that surprise you?"

"No vice of yours would ever surprise me, Suhiro-san," answered the doctor, deadpan.

Paolo knew his response was poorly considered the moment he said it, and Suhiro's features went to ice as the doorway opened. In walked the wiry figure of Andre and the more statuesque form of Ayane, both carrying several plastic jugs. "Ethanol delivery, doc—" Andre began. He broke off, finding a trio of assault rifles leveled at him. He looked frantically over his shoulder but froze, finding himself covered from behind as well. Ayane, the modified Lynx, went into a crouch, but the nearest of the Yakuza guards simply shook his head in negation. Trapped in the doorway, arms full of fuel jugs, there was nothing she could do.

"What's going on, Doc?" asked Andre nervously. "Who are the suits?"

"They're from the alumni association at my alma mater," explained Paolo. "It's pledge week." The doctor wondered whom he was trying to reassure with this banter.

"Please put down the jugs and step over to the wall," instructed Suhiro, ignoring the by-play. The two newcomers complied, wordlessly eyeing the guns that followed their movement.

"Now, Doctor Snakeye," the crimelord observed, staring coldly at the surgeon. "The situation should be obvious. There is only one course of action for a man such as yourself. A *sentimental* man." The last was spoken in tones of contempt.

Paolo looked away, turning to the two scavengers. Already, Andre was giving Ayane a reassuring smile and nod, as if trying to tell her he understood the situation and it would be alright. And for them, he supposed it would be.

The surgeon said nothing, but simply willed the carapace to open again through the link. He stared down at the mortal core of the machine a moment and then, in motions heavy with defeat, reached into the carapace. Just off-center of the patient's chest lay a small, rounded box; he slid the coverplate back to reveal a bank of color-coded switches.

Do it in the hardware, he thought hollowly, remembering his past experiences with cyber-euthanasia. The operating system will ask you over and over again if that's really what you want to do, when all you want is to get it over with. The software doesn't understand choices like this. It has no soul to taint.

He touched the appropriate switch, and it clicked obediently in to place. "It's over," Paolo said tonelessly. I'm sorry, Lora, whoever you were, he added mentally.

Suhiro nodded in satisfaction, but the surgeon ignored him. "Dr. Koizumi," he said, turning to the corner where the elderly doctor was sitting. "Please bring me the CNS chassis—"

He was cut off by the sound of his roof exploding.

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