by Corey Goset

An old man sat quietly in his seat. The crew of the cargo plane hadn't heard a word out of him since he'd got onboard. It was normal for passengers to occasionally use the Graves company planes for transport. This time however it was empty except for this man. Stranger still he wasn't the normal suit type; he was some sort of VIP.

Doc had dozed fitfully throughout the flight and tried to actually sleep but without success. Every time he got close dreams of the war came to him. He felt that was a bad sign. Doc hadn't had many dreams about the hot nasty jungles of Vietnam in the last half century. He didn't dream about 'Nam unless he was afraid or had good reason to be. Unfortunately precognition wasn't his bag.

He chuckled to himself for the first time in while. No fortune telling, but lord knew he'd tried nearly every other stupid human trick at one time or another. Still he pondered the meaning of it and came up empty. Still it wasn't as bad as it could be.

Doc recalled the last time the dreams of the war had gotten so bad he lost sleep for a week. That was just before the end of SHOP. The US's only research facility into the mysteries of espers was leveled and Doc's family passed away. A few hours of lost sleep on a plane weren't even close but it might not be over yet.

"How much longer till we get to New.. err, Neo York?" Doc's question came loud and clear over the intercom from his seat.

"Twenty minutes Mr. Floyd" The navigator replied, relived a little that the old man at least asked the usual question at some point.

* * *

Much to Doc's disappointment it wasn't raining. He's have rather had a bit of cover from prying eyes as he left the airport. He got over his funk quickly enough and hailed a cab.

"Where to old..." the cabbie paused for a moment looking at Doc, "" I wasn't the first cripple he'd ever seen of course. However he hadn't seen very many men who could afford to fly who couldn't or wouldn't get a replacement.

Doc gestured to the west. "Take me to the border," at the quizzical look the cabbie gave him he added, "the Zero Zone." The cabbie seemed disbelieving. "Look I'm paying you just drive."

The cabbie grunted and shrugged. As soon as Doc got himself and his two bags in the cab sped away from the airport.

Of course getting into a Zero Zone was simple. All he would have to do is go up to the door and ask to be let in. Getting out would be a whole other story, unless he just teleported out. Showing his ID would be safer and quieter.

While it was dark still it would be morning very soon. Doc approached the guard shack at the base of the wall. The guards didn't look too worried and simply raised an eyebrow at his stepping up to the door.

"Good morning gents," Doc waved with his singular hand. He smelled coffee and spied some doughnuts. 'Some things never change,' he thought.

"Whatcha' need?" The lead officer seemed to be a bit wary. In spite of this he didn't let lose of the glazed thing in his hand.

"I need to go inside," Doc gestured towards the massive gate. He looked at their faces for a moment and spoke again. "But not just now, I'll wait for the dawn. In the meantime, can you boys spare a little coffee?"

The guards looked at each other for a moment and then at their boss. He spoke with a small smile. " Okay. If you want to go in of course we're gonna let you. But the coffee is another thing, you have anything for us?" He wore a small smirk waiting to see what this suicidal old man had to say.

Doc looked around for a second and saw a vid player on the desk. He rummaged in his bag for a couple of objects. He selected a recently released action adventure movie and handed it over to the nearest guard.

"How about that?"

"This is Star Saber 13. I haven't seen it yet, you boss?" The man handed the disk to his superior who looked it over and grunted.

"Okay, have some mud." He sat down with the disk and put their new movie into the player.

One of the other men offered him a cup but Doc waved him off. He reached into his backpack and pulled out an odd mug. Doc hefted the mug over and gestured for some coffee. As soon as the coffee finished flowing in the mug's display lit up and blinked for a few seconds and finally made a happy noise.

"What is that?" The man who had pored Doc's coffee asked. A few other guards looked up from the movie as well.

Doc smiled and proceeded to explain how Graves Electronics got into the business of making camping gear. Through a small deal with a clothing firm they started expanding into the limited but lucrative market of survival gear. The mug he explained was a toxin screener. Needless to say it had proved popular with many survival minded folks. Everyone from Zoners to paranoid Corpers liked it. Knowing what was and wasn't safe to drink easily justified the rather steep price that this mug commanded.

Leaving the guards to watch their movie, Doc wandered out and sat down on the curb. It was slowly getting lighter in the sky. Sipping his coffee he pondered the days behind him. He was far older than those men back there thought.

He was, ostensibly here to help people. Sure enough when he was a boy he wanted to be a veterinarian and his father wanted him to be a farmer. However time and circumstance had changed all that. Well before he had finished high school the war in Vietnam started and when he was out he volunteered. His choice of classes and intelligence led them to place him right where he wanted to be, medic training.

A patently normal tour ended violently when his unit came under fire and the wounded needed him. Combat medics were taught to be careful like anyone else, fat lot of good it did. He leaned heavily on his right arm and that was all he remembered. Later he was told a landmine nearly took his life. In all honesty it should have.

Ever since Doc had been a child he could move little things with his mind. Ever since that moment he was sure that this trick had saved his life. Somehow he had kept the shrapnel from doing more than destroying his arm and scarring his body. Of course by now he had more than half a century of practice he could do that trick on reflex.

His coffee finished now and dawn in full break he stood up and gathered his bag and backpack. With one on his back and the other's strap slung across his chest he felt a little burdened but comfortable. He waved at the men at the top of the gate. They obliged by opening the gate. Doc slowly walked forward.

* * *

It had been some time since he'd been in the Zero Zone. Not much had changed really. New York was his favorite city for some reason that he couldn't explain. It was in a way more alive than most of the towns he'd lived in. Officially he resided in Detroit, but he might spend two weeks of days there in any given year. New York, no matter what the name was now, was like a very old lady. It was dying slowly, sick and tired, but was tough, smart and willing to bite you if you crossed her. A beautiful thing indeed, thought Doc.

Art was a beautiful thing as well, but what got his attention now wasn't. Doc had been wandering down an empty street for several blocks of quiet. This was after all the hour that most Zoners got their sleep. What stopped him was a spray painted mural.

It depicted a huge three-headed beast, red eyes and venomous fangs practically jumped out off the wall at the viewer. It was standing in a flaming ruin and loomed large over a much smaller human figure. The man was dressed in the traditional garb of a wizard. Something about the whole mural disturbed Doc in a way he had no explanation for.

He told himself it was just a bit of indigestion, but like Scrooge he was lying to himself. Instead of going into full denial however he changed the subject on himself. Deciding to get out of the street he broke stride and lit into an alley. Again like that Dickens character, a ghost haunted him. This was no well meaning Jacob Marley, but it was only a memory even if it was more hostile.

At least the last time he saw Crysta she was hostile. When they first met it was not anything like that. She was a young woman with esper potential. Doc was the head physician at a secret US research lab on the subject. Later the lab was destroyed by something; perhaps Doc's own actions, perhaps not. He thought everyone else dead and the research destroyed. One winter night on a lonely road he found out otherwise.

Doc was never sure why Crysta blamed him for the whole of it. Either way she'd lived but only by a sliver. Crysta had put her battered body back together and come looking for him. When it was all over she was dead. He read her mind at that last dying moment and learned a little but not all of what went wrong. Whether her power, or the events of that night had drove her mad he couldn't tell.

He had always known that one fearful problem with espers was the mental instability it often brought. He felt he had it under control, but as the end day of the lab had proven, it was only waiting to get loose. His pondering was broken abruptly when he heard and then saw a young man step out into the alley.

"Damnit," Doc hissed to himself. He was getting sloppy in his old age. He stopped and stood straight, looking around as well as he could without taking his eyes off the man. He counted three more.

"Hey you," the punk pointed at Doc. "What do you think your doing here?" Doc was slightly amused by this. What did he think he was doing trying to take over their turf alone?

"Me?" Doc asked and then without pause continued. "I'm a doctor on my way to Zone City." He wasn't about to draw his gun while out numbered like this.

"A doc huh?" A female voice came from behind him. "How good a doctor are you with one arm?" The others burst out in a laugh. It was all the break he needed. He had his gun out quickly and quietly but the time they noticed it was out and pointed at the man in front of him.

"Hey, you can't get all of us," the unwashed punk snarled, "put you gun down!" He gestured with his own and his companions started towards Doc.

"Look kids," he waved the gun at the man," I'll kill one of you at least and we don't want that." His emphasis on kill made the group pause for a moment. He wasn't an impressive man but they could tell he wasn't afraid.

"Yea, well what do you want? This is our turf and you can't just walk through like you own it." The punk had gotten the point out now and wasn't all that afraid either.

"Ok," Doc conceded that this was going to cost him one way or the other. "Tell you what I pay you a use fee for the path and we'll both be happy." It was more a statement of fact than anything else.

"Yea? If we kill you we get all your money!" This was a different voice, male and something was wrong with him.

"Shut it Boson." The kid in charge knew the score, they'd get all his gear but at what cost? Lose one, maybe two people in an already small gang and their rivals'd wipe them out. " The old man wants to pay us and leave, sounds good to me."

Doc lowered his gun and so did the gang. "Okay, lets all holster our guns and come over here where we can all see each other please." The leader motioned his gang over to him since the old man seemed to be in no shape to run.

As soon as everyone put his or her guns up Doc spoke. "Okay kids what do you like? I have a vid or two," when they seemed uninterested he held up a finger. "Wait, How about this?"

He reached into his bag and fished out a roughed up device with two tubes flopping out of it. It was small and light but worth far more than it might appear.

"A water purifier!?" The rough voiced one said. Now that Doc had a better look at him he knew what was wrong with him. He was a replicant with a built in burnout time. His time was almost up.

"Yes indeed" He tossed it over to the dying artificial. "Here, now can I go?" Suddenly he wanted to be far away from here. He looked at the poor bastard for a moment and walked away. The gang never said another word to him. They were too excited at the prospect of having and being able to sell clean water.

* * *

That sort of thing was what kept him on the run these days. When the first rumors and hints that artificial humans weren't just possible they were inevitable he was horrified. Many other responsible people in the medical profession were too. Doc was one of the few to dare speak out in protest. For several fruitless years he helped protest groups and only gotten run out of Japan for his trouble. Since than he felt nothing but pity for the poor mistreated creatures, no, not creatures, they were human that was certain. That was the whole point to him. It was nothing more than the ancient slave trade all over again.

Never being one to give up he'd often helped any artificial he'd come across. Most of them, if they escaped, had no idea how to survive on their own or evade recapture. Worse still he'd helped and even planed sabotage attacks on artificial production plants. Of course he'd not been caught or he wouldn't be here, but that didn't mean he wasn't being sought.

Fortunately his musings went uninterrupted this time. Soon enough he stepped into a more orderly area that seemed, invisibly, to mark the beginning of Zone City.

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