by David Kuijt and Mark Kobrak

Life is good, the executive thought, surveying the establishment. 93 Underground was everything it was reported to be—loud, proud and exotic, with none of the polish of an arcology nightclub would have. He was here to celebrate his big promotion, the one that had put him over the top, and he had gotten that by being loud and proud himself. Not some timid or paranoid little mouse, like so many of his peers. No, he was a man who liked to throw the dice, take chances. And chances had paid off! Chances were he was richer than everyone here. Chances were, he could buy everyone here.

That calculation brought him still more pleasure, as he looked over at his tall, sleek companion. He *had* bought her, bought her outright from a Mitsumi dealership, a top of the line security replicant. She sported all the latest and greatest augmentations, the dealer had told him. Top-notch combat training, ingrained loyalty and subservience. She was as decked out as his chauffered limousine, and like the groundcar, she was a symbol of his status and power.

His replicant was certainly tougher than anyone else here, he thought. And that made him tougher. He was dimly aware that there might be something wrong with that calculation, that this was supposed to be a dangerous place, but he shrugged it off with another drink.

It was just marketing, he sneered. The Entertainment District of the Zero Zone markets itself as a dangerous place to add to the thrill. If you were powerful, you could do anything—ANYTHING—here, and no one could stop you. After a while, that kind of total freedom would pall, so the denizens pretended to be dangerous. The truth was they were just indigent refugees, and could never pose a threat to someone with real power. Like him.

The waitress—a pleasure replicant, a joy buzzer—was headed for his table with another drink. Something about this one was different from the sex droids back at the arcology, though, something that would only be familiar to someone with his intimate familiarity with such replicants. Her face was near-perfect, but just a little lined. Her body showed signs of wear, just a hint of flaw to an otherwise perfect creature.

It must be life away from the arcology's medical technology, he decided. No one to correct those little flaws. He found the thought intensely exciting. How else was she different? He wondered. Would she resist him? Not with the mock-fear the corporate models supplied when he asked for it, but with genuine fear?

She set the drink down with a friendly smile, and started to leave. He decided to explore his question, and grabbed her arm. "Hey," he said, impressing himself with the smooth approach.

The replicant smiled, and playfully tried to detach his fingers. "I'm working right now," she said, as if that mattered to someone with his kind of power.

"I know," he said. "You're workin' for me. And let me tell you, it's workin'."

Her smile became forced. "I've got other tables," she said, no longer playful as she tried to remove his arm. She was surprisingly strong, and he had to tighten his grip and pull her arm closer to avoid losing his balance in the chair.

Her tray of drinks went crashing to the floor, shattering into glass shards and liquid. "Cut that shidh out!" she demanded, now wrenching his arm with her full strength. He liked the way she fought, the revulsion in her eyes. It was so honest, and out of place in a creature like her. He would enjoy bringing her to heel.

His Puma suddenly stood up. He was about to tell her not to interfere, when he noticed the Puma was not responding to the waitress, but to the huge, scarred mound of flesh making its way to his table.

The executive gaped for a moment. The being coming through the crowd was enormous. It had a brutal, axe-like face covered with scars; brush-cut coarse hair and cauliflower ears. It moved like a humanoid tank, sticking head and shoulders above the crowd, at least a foot taller than his Puma. And it was glaring at him. A path cleared in front of this ogre as if by magic; a similar space had cleared in front of the executive's Puma. She was already half-crouched, focussed on the troll-like being that now moved into the space in the crowded floor. He saw that her large, fox-like ears had gone half flat—a clear indication that she recognized the threat to her owner.

"Maybe you should let her go," the troll rumbled. The executive saw its eyes flick to his Puma and then over the crowd before coming back to him. Even through the blur of alcohol, he could see that the immense replicant was giving his Puma space. The executive blinked for a moment. The large replicant was wearing a white silk shirt. It was a bouncer!

A bouncer was ordering him around! Telling him to let go of the pleasure replicant, as if... as if he was some drunk. He flushed in anger. If he had been in a civilized place the floor manager would already be sacking the bouncer and abasing himself for disturbing the fun of someone as powerful as himself.

"Do you know who I am?" he sneered, his hand tightening on the arm of the boy toy.

"If you don't let Sylvie's arm go," the ogre growled, "your friends are gonna be callin' you Mr. Broken. If you're lucky. Let her go, and nobody needs to get hurt."

"Hurt?" The exec snorted. "You make any move that isn't back into the hole you crawled out of, and my associate," he gestured imperiously to the Puma, "—is going to gut you like sushi! She's top of the line, 9700 series with the full combat suite, and that's more than enough meat to tear out your ribs and count them for you!" He was rather pleased with that little speech, especially after the couple of drinks he'd had. But he'd always been able to hold his alcohol, everyone told him that.

The huge replicant's jaw set at a dangerous angle, but before it could respond, another voice intervened.

"Your pardon, Sir."

There was no tone to the words—no assertion of authority, no hint of submission, and not a trace of the speaker's thoughts. It was the dialect in which corporate business was done, and it was so freakishly out of place here—now—that the executive had to look.

The speaker was sitting alone at the next table over. He was dark-skinned in a shade suggesting Hispanic or Indian descent, with neatly trimmed short hair and a carefully clean-shaven face. He wore a trenchcoat—clean, but well-worn—and a pair of wraparound sunglasses that completely concealed his eyes. But his posture was set at the rigidly relaxed angle demanded by business etiquette under conditions of nominal informality, and what showed of his face gave exactly the right air casual interest.

"Yes?" asked the executive, before he could stop himself.

"Your Puma, the 9700 series," he said, still speaking with perfect blandness. "You opted for the HGX Sub-Cortical Reflex Boost? And the cranial-implant trauma regulation?"

The owner blinked, and looked back at the bouncer. The huge replicant's eyebrows had shot up in surprise and it was now splitting his attention between the Puma, the executive, and the newcomer. It seemed nonplussed, somehow. The Puma was still focussed on the bouncer, naturally.

"Yes," he answered. "Why?"

"Just curious," answered the man. This time the executive caught a trace of a Spanish accent in the words. "I try to keep track of how various security replicants perform. My guess is this one will go down in under 10 seconds with this gentleman," he gestured to Crusher.

The executive blinked, then scoffed. "He can't possibly beat her!" He snapped disdainfully. "She's top of the line! That's—" he paused, looking back at the bouncer, then continued, "That's nothing!"

"You're mistaken, Sir," the other man corrected. He might as well have been commenting on the weather. "He's a custom-designed combat replicant, probably built on the Goliath-7 template, with substantial pre-decantation cybernetic augmentation and ontogenological combat indoctrination." Seeing the last point had confused the executive, he clarified, "They built the rest of his brain around his combat skills. He's got full-cover ceramic dermal plate, ballistic fiber ligaments, and high tensile flexomer musculature. It would take your Puma hours of work just to bruise him, even if he were standing still the whole time."

The words were delivered with a calm air of professional authority, and that somehow lent them credence. But the executive was not yet ready to surrender. "Maybe," he sneered, "But my Puma's got the speed edge on him. And a few surprises of her own," he added smugly.

"You're mistaken, Sir," his companion repeated. "He has to be sporting at least a Tsuhi-S9 autonomous response processor, and a high bandwidth semi-synthetic spinal column to support it. A Puma cannot be built to exceed those speeds by any significant margin."

"What!" Objected the executive, now starting to become concerned. Part of him knew he shouldn't be so concerned, except...the man was so damned *casual* about this discussion. He didn't care, wasn't involved, and had no reason to lie! "But they told me at the dealership this Puma would be faster than any other replicant!"

"Well, Sir, I can't be held accountable for what they told you," the man pointed out apologetically. "But I suspect if you read the details of the owner's manual, you'll find that comparison only concerns known models of security-replicants. A custom combat-replicant such as this gentleman," he gestured again. "Is not covered by that comparison. And, with all due respect, if the 'surprise' you alluded to earlier is an adrenal-boost, I recommend you not count on it to alter the situation in any measurable way."

The executive found himself sweating—a cold sweat—as he looked back at the bouncer. His heart was pounding, and his hand was shaking as he slowly lifted the drink to his lips, then looked back at this seemingly well-informed stranger.

"Has he got any weaknesses?" he asked. With a sharp stab of fear, he realized he had spoken too loudly, and the bouncer had no doubt heard him.

The other patron seemed not to notice. "Well, he works for the management, and probably isn't supposed to wreck the bar," the man explained casually. "So my guess is, if you pay your bill and leave now, he's probably going to have to let you go." With that, he leaned back in his chair and returned his attention to the stage, signaling—in the careful protocol of corporate leisure—he had no further interest in small talk.

The huge replicant bouncer focussed back on the executive. "He's right. I've got several weaknesses, chummer," it snarled. "Biggest one is this—if you get your meathook off Sylvie, I have to let you live."

The executive's hand released the waitress as if she had suddenly become red hot.

"Two more weaknesses, you pustulent maggot," the bouncer growled. "First, if you leave now without causing trouble, I don't get to break any bones. I really, really hate that one. Last weakness—I've got a really bad temper, and I'd really like you to try something. Anything. Give me an excuse, so Duke won't dock my pay afterwards." The bouncer's vicious smile nearly made the executive lose bladder control.

The Puma's ears were totally flat on its head now. The executive's jaw worked a couple of times, but words didn't come out. He slid out of the booth with more haste than agility, and he was half-way to the door before he even started to worry about how this might look.

Duke was leaning against the door, arms crossed. When the executive glanced back and saw that the bouncer hadn't followed him, he considered making some speech of objection and outrage to Duke. One glance at the narrow-eyed disdain in Duke's face choked the words in his throat.

"Ever try that here again," Duke said in a quiet voice that didn't carry past the executive, "on Sylvie or any of our staff, and your body parts will be priced for individual sale in Darkside before morning."

The executive was out the door so fast his Puma could barely keep up.

Crusher watched the executive leave, almost running. Duke had turned his throat-mike off, but he had clearly said something that accelerated the shalkujin's departure. Across the crowded room Duke nodded to Crusher, turning his throat-mike back on. *** Good job, Crusher ***.

Sylvie had collected the tray and spilled drinks, and she touched Crusher briefly on the arm. "Thanks, Crusher." Crusher flushed, but she had already moved gracefully to the next booth.

"Thanks, Doc," she said to the stranger who had spoken up. She smiled sweetly at him and moved off through the crowd.

"A pleasure to be of service," answered the customer, with a friendly nod of his head. She smiled sweetly at him and moved off through the crowd.

Crusher's eyes followed Sylvie for a moment, then he shook his head and glanced around the room. Things had settled back down, and the band had just finished a set. Crusher stepped over to the stranger's booth.

"Your next drink is on the house," Crusher said. "Duke's rules."

"Thank you, that's very kind," he said. His manner was more genuinely casual now that the stranger had departed, but there was still something formal about his bearing. It wasn't corporate in the way that executives in the Zone adopted—there was no hint of fear or disdain—but it was refined, and it showed in the way he extended his hand. "Doctor Snakeye," he introduced himself. "My friends call me 'Doc.'"

Crusher's huge hand engulfed the one he was offered, but his handshake was restrained.

"Cyberdoc, then?" Crusher seemed slightly wary. "This side of the river, or the other one?"

"This side," reassured the doctor, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a slip of paper and passed it to the replicant. The bouncer was surprised to discover it was an old-fashioned, hard-copy business card, and read:

         Snakeye, M.D.
Cyberneticist          Oakwood Plaza
General Practitioner      Fort Dixie

"Keep me in mind if you need some work done," Snakeye suggested casually.

Crusher nodded, putting the card in his shirt pocket. "You bet." His cautious tone belied the words, but Snakeye could see he had relaxed somewhat when he heard that the doctor wasn't from the City. He gestured to the floor. "I have to get back to work," he explained.

"Of course. Have a good night," the doctor replied.

"You too," answered the replicant as he waded off through the crowd.

The doctor smiled to himself, looking at the space where the executive had been sitting. Perhaps he was thinking of the man's almost comical terror in the face of the bouncer. Or perhaps he was contemplating the ephemeral nature of power.

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