by Dustin Evermore

Something was wrong. Drake stirred in his bed and looked around groggily. At first the place looked strange; it was not his bedroom and he was not at home. In a moment, however, the memory of where he was and what he was doing came back to him. He was lying in a broken old bed in the apartment he'd rented in the Zone. Walls were cracked and the whole place was just plain run down, the apartment was tiny, and most importantly he had no servants or computers anywhere within miles of here.

Drake had been in the Zone for a week now, but he just wasn't comfortable with it. He wasn't used to scrounging for food or buying it from vendors and having to cook the food himself with ancient cans of Sterno. He didn't like not having a nine foot wide, two and half foot deep jacuzzi. He hated the fact he had no constant influx of memos telling him what was going on. He missed the plain but reassuring face of his secretary, Janice. And dammit, he wanted a frickin' cigar.

He had even purchased a portable phone to use. After talking with Sandra the other night, he had realized that it would be difficult for any new contacts he might make in the Zone to get in contact with him without one, so he had made a trip into Neo York to pick one up. This was pretty much the only convenience he had in the Zone, however. Anything else would just make him stick out more than he did already.

And there it was again. The boom rattled the loose panes of glass in his window and caused his third floor apartment/slum to vibrate momentarily. It really didn't sound all that far away.

That was another thing that was wrong with this place. Had he not been in the Zero Law Enforcement Zone, the man known as Jason Stone would have heard a chorus of sirens howling and screaming their way to the disturbance by now. The window was too filthy and grungy to actually see out so Drake cranked it open and stuck his head out into the cool, wet morning air and took a look around.

Arthur Hobbs squinted as he tried to read the small print in the copy of the contract he held. With a sigh, he gave up and brought his glasses to his face and finished reading the material. "I am getting too old," he said to himself. Looking up across his small, windowed office, the silver-haired older man in the perfectly pressed, tailored grey suit stared thoughtfully at his antique Italian globe wine case. He absently watched the writhing form of a great sea serpent hand inked into a space labeled Atlantic Ocean and framed with the similarly drawn continents of the Americas, Europe and Africa as he considered the implications of the deal that awaited Jason Stone's signature.

Arthur had always considered Jason not only his boss but almost like a son he never had. His own wife, Belle had died very young and well before they had a chance to have a family of their own. It had broken Arthur's heart and he never had been able to love another woman as he loved her. Although he had only memories of her now, he loved her still. He entered the employment of the Stone family soon after, although he had often wondered why Jason's father had hired him. Even in those days, the Stone family was extremely wealthy. They had a wide variety of excellent investments, especially in defense contract-holding companies and probably had enough to last generations if properly managed. On top of that, the elder Stone, Gerald, had by reputation been a fairly frugal man. He lived alone with three young children, their mother having been killed in a Confederate bombing run back in the War. The Stones had made a lot of money in those days producing arms for the war effort. It almost seemed like retribution, as if the Confederates knew the Stones had built thousands of the bombs dropped on the southern ex-states. Gerald had hired Arthur as a personal assistant back then. It was hard for Gerald at first, who had always been a hands-on kind of man, but eventually there grew a mutual bond of trust and respect and Gerald turned over more and more responsibilities to Arthur's capable hands. Gerald had even included Arthur in family matters. Arthur always had a place to go during holidays and birthdays and his closeness to the Stone family made Gerald's offer of moving him into the guest cottage a natural step. He'd be able to work more closely with the senior Stone, and for Arthur it felt like he really was part of the Stone family.

Through the hardest times during Gerald's hospitalization and eventual death, Arthur had been there to help. He took care of the business matters and offered a comforting shoulder when the elder Stone's children gave in to the sorrow of loss. Jason especially had taken a liking to him. Although he was the eldest of Stone's children and had been making a life for himself by then, Arthur had remained in close contact with him throughout the ordeal. Helen, the second eldest, was a strong young woman full of ambition and intelligence and had also been making her own way in the world when the tragedy struck. Beginning a promising career working for the UNA government, her start had been given a nice boost by the Stone family's help and reputation during the Second Civil War. Athena, however, had been emotionally the closest to their father. Little did her siblings, or Arthur for that matter, realize how badly she took her father's death.

Turning his attention back to the matter at hand, Arthur Hobbs considered the implications of Mitsumi's reaction to the offer. It had been Jason's idea, and it was a pretty bold move to try, especially considering the thorny details that could bring it all down. But Jason wanted to show the board of directors that he was here to stay, and so would be the company. After an initial stumble, the company's stocks have been steadily rising as shareholder's confidence in the young executive's tactics increased, and the profitability of better, cheaper care was proven with increased clientele. Jason intended to make this trend continue and a deal with a respected mega-corporation like Mitsumi was likely to do it.

So Mitsumi had provisionally accepted the proposal. Hobbs sat back and thought. Mitsumi stated here that they would be willing to invest in a trial run so long as SynTech put up 60% of the cash. That was in line with Stone's proposal and would leave SynTech with controlling interest. However, they made it clear that should the project fail, they would immediately withdraw their support. If any embarrassments occurred, they would expect SynTech to cover it. That's the part that worried Hobbs a little. There were always some problems when creating a new product, little details that had to be ironed. This project was likely to have more than its fair share of mistakes, too. But it would be cushioned by the huge amount of money both companies stand to gain by producing a successful line.

Even more worrying was the fact that Mitsumi did not hack SynTech's mainframes to get the kind of information Jason expected them to. Project Forge's secrets were safe because Arthur had followed Jason's instructions on its removal from the mainframes. Jason had expected Mitsumi to move in and grab information relating to Project Forge and the technology supporting his joint production ideas with Mitsumi Corporation. He had wanted them to get the information, but not easily. It could only help their ability to make a deal with Mitsumi if they discovered for themselves that SynTech did in fact have the technology to make the proposal a reality. But Mitsumi did not go after this information. In fact, the hackers pulled information completely unrelated to the guarded tech secrets. Worse, SynTech's own hackers, or rather 'information security specialists' as Stone titled them, were only able to determine the general type of information. At least they were sure the Mitsumi hackers hadn't left anything behind.

Hobbs leaned back in his chair and opened a desk drawer. Withdrawing a pipe and associated paraphernalia, Hobbs dipped it into a pouch of tobacco, absently tamped it down, and lit it with practiced ease. He needed to call Stone and inform him the deal went through. The question was did he want to let Jason know that Mitsumi was up to something before he knew exactly what it was. /Well,/ he thought, /It isn't really about what I want, is it?/

From the sound of it, the blasts were a good way off but it still made him curious. Drake walked to the shower where he'd hung his underclothes and body armor to dry after giving them their nightly cleaning and slid them on. Form fitting body armor was comfortable to work in all day but even stuff carefully measured and fitted specifically for him such as his had been was uncomfortable to sleep in, especially after sweating in it all day.

There was a quiet beeping inside his head. It was his secure communication link implanted in this skull so no one else could hear it. A new advance at SynTech had provided an aural interface allowing the device direct interaction with the listening and speech centers of his brain, giving him great control with the device. With a thought, he turned the device on.

"Go ahead, Hobbs."

"Sorry to disturb you outside the scheduled times, sir. I thought you would want to know as soon as the Mitsumi deal went through."

"I hope you have good news for me."

"Yes sir. Mitsumi has responded favorably. They have accepted participation in a trial run for now, with full partnership guaranteed after they have seen some success and proof of profitability." Hobbs went on to explain the details of the agreement, but paused at the end of his brief monologue.

"Is there something else, Hobbs?" Stone was pleased with the news, but the distant pounding of explosions were now accompanied by erratic gunfire. It was bothering him quite a bit because it seemed like it might be coming closer. Drake checked his guns. They'd been cleaned the night before and their polished, freshly oiled surfaces gleamed. He slid the Desert Eagles into his under-arm holsters and snapped the securing straps in place. He'd almost missed what Hobbs was saying.

"--and the fact that it was your personal data he was rifling through makes me wonder what exactly they want."

Jason Stone felt extremely uncomfortable about a mega-corporation rifling through his personal affairs. "What? You said they attacked my personal stores instead of corporate files on the mainframe?"

"That is what I'm saying."

"Are you sure our security specialists didn't make a mistake?"

"Sir, you know as well as I they are among the most respected in the business. A cybernetics firm can afford no less."

Jason tried to think back on which personal files he kept on the servers. He was paranoid enough to keep most vital numbers and journals off line. Medical information was there, however. He needed to keep it in a place his doctor's cybernetics specialists could get to due to his repeated and extensive cybernetics upgrades. Also in there was basic medical information on his sisters as well. It was a standard precaution to have compatible possible blood and organ donors on file should something go wrong when installing the cyberware. Those would be the biggest concern. His email and online calendar was also there. Those, too, could be considered sensitive, but needed to remain online. Corporate documents, employment contracts, and performance reviews were there but Stone regarded them as rather low priority items.

"I need to know exactly what they were looking at, Hobbs."

"I know, sir. I informed the hack--, I mean security specialists, of that. But they insisted gleaning that level of information now would be impossible."

"Then tell them to keep looking. Mitsumi could have made a mistake."

"Yes, sir." The inflection in his tone showed that Hobbs rather doubted it. And Jason had to admit he was probably right.

"We'll need to proceed with Project Forge. Reload the mainframes and move the personnel back to the project. Tell them it's a go and to start making preparations for the move. Tell the contractors to begin construction on the new facility immediately." Moving Project Forge to its own building with start-to-finish manufacturing capability would be a smart move. That was actually Jacobson's idea. For all the irritation he gave Jason since he took over, Jason still had to respect the man's intelligence. Which reminded Jason.

"Oh, and inform Jacobson to appoint a new manager who will be reporting to both he and I. I want him to consider putting Dr. Ogura in charge, but the final decision will be up to him."

Jason slid on his armored long coat and sheathed his katana and wakizashi. He needed to find out what was going on outside. If this kept up he might be forced to find a new place to stay, and he wasn't in a mood to move yet.

"You're not moving him to the new facility? Jacobson is going to be upset."

"I know he has been expecting to go out there, get away from me. But I just can't trust him out of my sight. Putting him in charge of that facility would be like giving a five year old a loaded gun and telling him to go have fun. No, I want him where I can see him. If he plays along like a good trooper, I'll make sure the company adds the use of the corporate Hughes Skyrunner to his contract."

"You always were a sweet talker, Jason."

"Yeah, well that only works if I'm there. I'll see about making it in to the office some time next week depending on how things are going here. Stone out." Jason mentally killed the communication link. It was time to find out what was going on around here.

Drake stepped onto the street outside his apartment building and looked down the street to the east. A light wind blowing in from the sea stirred up a loose sheet of newspaper and set it into a drunken flight across Drake's path. He decided that the sounds had been close enough he wouldn't need his motorcycle, and besides he was low on ethanol because he'd been going to check on Aaron over on Clark Street every morning this week. He made a mental note to try to find Lydia later today to talk to her more about Aaron's abilities.

The sound of explosions had died away, but he could still here the crack of gunfire. Drake picked it up into a jog as he made his way down the street, but tried to keep out of obvious view. For about five blocks he moved this way and was beginning to get comfortable in his morning jog when he collided with her.

The girl had been running all out as she whipped around the corner. On top of that, she was looking behind her when she bounced off Drake's tall and deceptively lean frame like a ping pong ball off a paddle and skidded wildly away. For his part, Drake wasn't even moved by the sudden impact as his mass was probably at least 50 kilograms greater than hers. The girl definitely received some nasty scrapes in the fall, however, and Drake uttered a surprised, "Whoa! Are you okay?"

"Nice going jerk," she she yelled. As tough as she tried to sound, desperation and fear made her sound shrill.

Feeling guilty but not knowing why, he said, "Here, let me help." He reached down to give help her to her feet. She was a small and perhaps thirteen years old. She looked dirty, her clothes torn, but there was still a spirited fire in her brown eyes that reminded him of someone he spent a very enjoyable night with recently.

"Help by getting out of my way," she cried as she scrambled to her feet and threw a frightened look behind her. Drake followed her gaze and spotted two men and a woman running down the street, obviously in pursuit of the girl. One of them was a compact-looking looking man with a crew cut, another guy had a spiky red mohawk, and the woman had colored her hair purple and wore it in dreadlocks. They were also armed. The woman had extended slashing claws from her right hand, Crewcut had an automatic pistol, and Mohawk had what looked like a samurai sword. And they were coming fast.

Reacting automatically, Drake whispered hoarsely to the girl, "Get behind me or hide, girl. I'll hold them off." As he spoke he wondered at his own foolish lack of sense and supposed he was suffering from some kind of hero complex. Whether good or ill, that concern wouldn't be a problem in just a very short time. In a flash, Drake had his cybernetic reflex and muscle enhancement systems at full power and his swords in his hands.

"Take him. Wretch will want him mostly alive," said Crewcut in an eerie monotone. He then cut loose with a burst of automatic fire at Drake. Leaping out of the way of the hot lead, he soon found himself face to face with both Mohawk and Claws. Claws open with a vicious slash at Drake's midsection but didn't connect. Mohawk brought his sword down in an arc that was caught by the smaller wakizashi blade Drake held in his left hand. Responding in turn, Drake slashed with his katana in a horizontal half circle about him, causing his opponents to jump back to avoid getting cut. At this point, he discovered he was much faster than the two, thanks to his Reflex Augmentation. Fortunately, his Nito style Kenjutsu specialized in fighting multiple opponents. He guessed his odds to be about even.

Drake saw Crewcut attempt to charge past him after the girl. He stabbed at him with his wakizashi and felt hit tip bite into his lower rips, slicing an inch into his lungs. The guy grunted and jerked as the blade ripped free and sprayed a trail of his blood in the air. No killing blow, but Drake saw the hit would slow him down and maybe partly fill a lung with blood.

His effort left an opening for his two attackers, though and they did not hesitate to pursue it. The next few seconds of battle passed with Dreadlocks using kicking and claw combinations and Mohawk displaying some skill in sword use with some tricky feign and attacks. Drake was able to hold off most of the attacks while buying one kick to the chest. Drake heard gunfire behind him, but couldn't spare the time to turn and look.

Eventually, Drake was able to find an advantage and moved to the offensive with a lightning strike kenjutsu maneuver on Mohawk. The devastating attack punctured the man's shoulder, reducing it to a bleeding mess and Mohawk staggered and collapsed from the shock. Even as Mohawk's blood pooled in the gutter, Dreadlocks frantically pressed her attack, determined to drop Drake and kill him, orders or no. She dropped low under Drake's guard and unexpectedly swept a leg to trip him. Drake was caught by the sweep and went down hard, cursing as he went. Even as Drake curled into a ball and sprung to his feet, she was in motion with a leap through the air and caught his neck in a vice-grip between her thighs. Blinking and gasping for air, Drake was toppled and fell hard on his back.

The shorter blade of the wakizashi slithered under her ribs and punctured her heart even as she clamped harder on Drake's neck and tried to break it with a twisting motion. With a burbling wail, the woman's strength began to fail her as her life flooded Drake's hand with warm blood. She slumped sideways and her body slid off Drake as he rolled away.

Shots fired again, and the executive-come-samurai climbed to his feet and took off at a run, sheathing his swords as he went. Drake hadn't meant to kill his opponents; he had just wanted to get them to stop chasing the girl. Hell, he didn't even know why he gave a damn. Maybe it was something about the kid's eyes, or the fact that she may have gotten away had Drake not been in the way.

Half a block away, Drake found the alley the girl had run to in trying to hide from the crewcut gunman. Crewcut was standing over her. "Bitch, look what you made me do. You're so fucked up, useless." He spat at her and turned to leave.

Time seemed to slow as Drake reached inside his coat with a snarling rictus of a grimace stretching his face. It seemed to take a year to pull the twin pistols out and for Crewcut to raise his machinegun. The shots fired, Drake was knocked into the air and Crewcut was doing a dance as bullet after bullet produced little red geysers as they impacted his chest and midsection.

Then it was over. Crewcut folded and dropped, blood leaving his body like a punctured milk bottle with a half dozen and more holes in it. Drake wasn't sure how bad he'd been hit, but he wasn't thinking about that at the moment. Picking himself up, he moved to where the girl lay. His left leg felt numb and he nearly fell when he tried to walk on it. He was certain that it was going to hurt like hell in a minute.

The girl's condition was bad and getting worse. Anyone could see that. Kneeling close to her, he put his face next to the girl's mouth and nose. He felt only a very faint breath, and checking her pulse showed that it too was faint and slow. Looking at her wounds, the street samurai could see she'd been shot in the chest just below her heart, once in the stomach, and it looked like the bone in her right arm just above her elbow had been blown apart. There was absolutely no way he was going to be able to carry her to some back alley street doc in time to save her life, even if it could be done now. "Sweet Jesus," swore Drake. "Those damned monsters!" Barely able to control his fury, Drake put in a call to Hobbs. It was the only thing he could do for her.

As always, Hobbs was there. He had to be, because Hobbs' link was built in to his head, just like Jason's. It was still a relief to know Hobbs was there. "Hobbs?"

"Yes, sir?"

"I need an emergency evac Skyrunner right away!"

"I'm getting coordinates from your transceiver now, sir. Hang on. Is it bad?"

Drake looked down at the girl. "It's not me. I have a... maybe thirteen year old girl. She's been shot and I think she's dying!"

Arthur thought about this a moment. He hated to say it, but it needed to be said. He dropped all formality. "Jason, you know the board will disapprove of using corporate resources for some kind of personal reason."

Drake was irate. Bugger the selfish, damned Board! "This one is mine. It'll be out of my own pocket. I don't care what you have to do to get that Skyrunner here, just make it happen."

Miles away, Hobbs turned away from the window in his office and walked to his desk. Punching at a few keys on a computer keyboard he completed the request for medical evac service. In a few moments he'd spoken with the pilot and given him an address and description of the client. "It's done sir. They claim ETA will be in five minutes or less.

"I'll see you shortly, then."

"No. I need to find out what's going on. The girl goes back with me."

"Jason... Listen, Jason be careful. I don't know what's going on, but if..."

"What? I need to go, Hobbs. I'll see you later. Stone out."

Drake paused, looking at the girl. He'd placed his hand over her chest to check for the heartbeat and the bullet wound beneath it had already let blood seep around his fingers. He stood and backed away from the dying child so upset he could no longer speak. His heel bumped Crewcut's corpse and with an enraged roar he grabbed the body and hurled it across the alley into the side of dumpster. With a *bump* followed by a *crunch* the corpse ended its journey upside down and half flopped over.

The pain in his leg reminded him of his situation, however, and he stopped to check the damage. It was painful, but not lethal. A bullet had managed to go through his armored jacket and his body armor to embed itself in his thigh. He'd move a little slower, and he knew he'd have to stop and take care of it, but for now he had to move. There were murderers on the streets killing children and god knew what else. Who else would give a damn? No one. With one last look at the girl still struggling for breath, a fire flared in his eye and he ran down the street with revenge in his heart.

Drake didn't have far to go. He ran four blocks up and saw the remains of a battle zone. Bodies lay strewn about the gutters and streets. With a kind of detached perception, Drake saw that for the amount of general destruction, there were relatively few bodies. It seemed odd. There was a recently destroyed building and new pockmarks from bullets all over the ruined bricks. Yet only one body lay there, sprawled among the broken debris. It looked like that of a scavenger, caught by circumstance and killed by happenstance. He was in the wrong place in the wrong time; maybe he fought too hard when he could have run and lived. Drake didn't know. He wondered if this man might have been the parent of the child he hoped to save.

In the distance, he could hear the approach of the heavily armed and armored Hughes Skyrunner as it approach the location he had given, and the reminder of the the girl gunned down in the alley made him stop staring at the body and look further around the street. There was blood here and there. A lot of blood. An arm lay over there, cushioned by crumpled newspapers, having long since lost the red fluid it contained, and its owner long since gone. Drake strode through the ruin half enraged, half in shock at the ruthless destruction. Drake was no stranger to death. He had killed before, but always in self defense. What happened here was something different, something evil.

Drake reloaded his guns. Clips emptied from the encounter with Crewcut, he pulled additional clips from his coat and readied his .44s, one in each hand. It felt strange, kind of like a lone sheriff walking through an old west town that was filled with invisible bandits with a score gun barrels aimed from every alley and empty, gaping window. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he stifled an involuntary shiver.

In the distance, he could hear the Skyrunner already leaving. They did move fast. Maybe the girl had a chance.

A flash of light, a glint from the end of a muzzle caught his eye. Drake was still jazzed, all his nerves tingling and alive, and maybe that's what saved him. Before even the sound of the shot bounced around the street, he was running and dodging left and right, his guns blazing their own firey death. A gasp preceded the torso that collapsed over a window sill as Drake's bullets perforated the body. Gunfire poured in from seemingly every direction, or perhaps only two. It didn't matter. Drake twisted and turned, tumbled and cartwheeled, but he could not hope to avoid all the shots. Enough lead filled the air that soon the bullets knocked him to the ground, stinging and biting his coat, armor, and body. Thanks to his armor, the damage was mostly prevented. Mostly. Had Drake's senses not been so flooded with adrenalin and endorphins, the armor would have only seemed to transform certain death into a slow torture.

While the struggle remained a gunfight, it seemed cold and impersonal. A woman fell out of an alley and a man hiding behind a doorway collapsed in a smokey death. A volley of submachine gun fire traced a deadly route across the cement sidewalks and planted its deadly seed in Drake's shoulder twirling him in the air like a ballerina. Another shot burned across the side of his head starting at his temple and unzipping a crimson streak which immediately flooded his ear and caused a deafening ringing to blossom in his left ear. A faint glint of silvery metal deep within the wound caught the light as Drake twisted the other way.

Cover. Blessed cover appeared before Drake's crimson vision and he dove over the remnants of a stripped car to make it. He dropped two more empty clips out of his guns and replaced them with his last loaded ones. He wasn't sure how many of them were still out there. He thought less about how to survive than he did about how he was going to kill them. He supposed he'd just have to run each and every one of them down with his swords once he was out of bullets. No way was he going to let them out of here alive. It didn't occur to Drake to consider who was the hunter and who was the hunted.

Movement on his flank caught his eye, and he immediately turned and put two slugs into whoever it was that was trying to sneak up on him. /Time to go,/ he thought, leaping out of his position to head into a building from which submachine gun fire had come. Flitting from shadow to shadow, Drake made his way up to the staircase, and then was soon leaping up the stairs two and three at a time. The machine gunner heard his approach and was ready for him. Spraying the doorway Drake needed to get into the room with fire, the gunman learned too late his panicky attempt to stop Drake was premature and he had wasted his ammunition. Drake appeared through the doorway the instant the shooting stopped and charged the man with blazing pistols as the man hastily tried to load a new clip into the machine gun. Six shots and the man was lying twitching on the ground and his life juices oozed through the floorboards.

Nudging the body with his toe, Drake noted that all the ones he'd encountered so far were in no way professionals. Nor did any of them seem to have afforded themselves any kind of armor. All they had going for them was a lot of artillery. As a matter of fact, the guy he'd just put down looked familiar. Could it be this was one of the people he'd noticed just a week ago and asked Sandra about? She said they were just scavengers trying to eke out a living by salvaging whatever they could find in the Wastes. He wasn't armed like this and out for blood then. What the hell was going on here? Drake didn't get it.

Drake was soon back on the street again, wondering where the next shots would come from, but he didn't have long to wait. There, at the end of the street, were a number of armed people. Five trotted forward as they caught sight of Drake pacing forward. One walked almost leisurely behind as the others ran ahead. Raising his pistols, he took aim at the nearest and kept blowing holes in him until he stopped moving. He had enough time to try the same tactic on another who seemed to be wielding a pair of axes, and as the guns emptied the axe man dropped, too.

Putting his spent pistols back into their holsters, Drake reached behind his shoulders and drew his katana and wakizashi. From here on out, things were going to be a lot more personal. Drake paced forward to meet the charging three. One was armed with a pair of knives. Drake knew his armor should be proof against them unless he managed to stick Drake in the neck or head. The other two had one sword a piece, but wore some kind of sewn body armor. Drake recognized it as Chinese in style but it was made from modern plastics and maybe a couple aluminum plates with thick cords holding it all together. The swordsmen appeared to be a man and woman team. They both had long hair that protruded from beneath porcelain face masks and steel helmets. The cut of the armor is all that gave away the fact one was a woman. The swordsmen flanked Drake as the red haired man with the knives closed directly.

Drake stood ready in position to meet the aggressors. The attacks came in a blur and Drake responded, blocked, and countered automatically as his training took over. The two swordsmen struck with simultaneous attacks from either direction, which Drake blocked with his swords. He was faster than the knifeman and Drake delivered a muscle-enhanced kick in the guy's chest that sent him staggering backward and gasping for breath. The swordsmen simultaneously moved into an attack combination which strained Drake's ability to fend both of them off. Drake broke and ran toward the stripped car and leapt on top of the hood, trying to gain a tactical advantage on the swordsmen.

The woman was the faster of the two and ran up the car's hood after Drake. The other ran to the side of the car and attempted to slice Drake's legs out from under him. Leaping over the man's swing, Drake came down early with one foot and slammed the man's sword into the car hood. With his other foot, Drake viciously kicked the swordsman's hands free of the weapon. Drake hopped off the blade and then kicked it at the woman who easily dodged it. The knifeman had meanwhile recovered and charged Drake's position from the other side of the car. The woman pressed an Drake with another combination feign and attack. Her attack failed, but she was able to force Drake's katana to the ground in a weapon bind. Drake whipped his wakizashi around in a full-strength slash to her midsection which would have opened anybody up from stem to stern, but her armor took all of the attack. The force of the strike at least knocked her off the top of the car.

The knifeman had his chance, however, and slammed his dagger into and through Drake's booted foot. Screaming in pain, Drake reversed his grip on the wakizashi and slammed it down through the top of the knifeman's head. Drake yanked his blade free of the dead man's skull and let the body fall. Drake saw the two swordsmen stop their new advance and back up. The sixth man was here. Had his ear not been ringing so badly from the glancing shot to the side of his head earlier, he'd have heard them responding to some command given in Chinese.

Drake crouched down and yanked the knife out of his foot. Just his luck, it was the same leg he'd been shot before. His scream echoed it's lonely way down the alley, unanswered. Panting, Drake looked up at the three and whatever hope he'd maintained for getting out of this alive evaporated. The last man was that maniac kung fu fanatic Drake had encountered almost a week ago. Favoring his wounded foot and leg, Drake crouched then slid down off the roof of the car. /Great,/ he thought. /My leg's fragged up, I got it in the shoulder, and I can't even hear out of my left ear. This is it. This is the VERY last time. I swear God, if you let me live through this I'm NEVER gonna stick my nose into other people's business again./ The problem was, he wasn't sure this wasn't his business. On the bright side, none of his wounds were lethal. At least he had the foresight to have the best skull reinforcement money could buy installed or he would have had a bigger problem than not hearing too well right now. On the down side, at this rate he was going to bleed to death. Soon.

Drake could barely put any weight on his injured leg at all and hopped unstably for a moment as the kung fu fanatic paced forward and dropped into a low crouch, knuckle spurs extended and ready. Drake slowly raised his swords. He had to keep this guy at a distance or this fight would be a short one. The Fanatic smiled and spoke, but Drake could not hear and simply shook his head in reply. Understanding, the Fanatic said more loudly, "Come with us. Come into the light of reason and end this foolish struggle."

Drake stared at the man, surprised. At the moment it sounded terribly tempting. Drake, still panting, bent over with hands on his knees and spat on the ground as he tried to catch his wind over the haze of fatigue and pain. Strange, he hadn't felt so tired until just then and now it felt like he could barely lift his swords. He forced himself back upright. "Your people are nothing but murderers."

"That's interesting, coming from you. All we ask is that you listen to him." The martial artist gestured with his head toward a man cloaked in grey standing in the dark doorway of another ruined building. Just outside the doorway and turned with her profile to him was a tall woman with long hair. Drake wasn't able to make out any other features from this distance. Both were watching him and his antagonists on the street.

Drake looked back at the martial artist. It didn't look good to him. If things didn't change fast, he wouldn't have any choice and they'd be able to whatever they wanted to him. "No," he replied and began backing away, half hopping, half walking.

"As you wish. Take him down." The two swordsmen started forward, and Drake also caught the grey cloaked man also begin to approach out of the corner of his eye.

With a practiced motion, Drake sheathed his weapons and readied himself. Time to change tactics. The woman was more aggressive than the man and moved to stab Drake in his leg. With a swift movement, he turned to the side and allowed the blade to slice past him. Reaching with one hand, he caught the base of the sword and with the other slammed her elbow with enough force to easily knock the weapon from of her hand. She turned away with surprise, holding her elbow.

The man whirled his sword in an elaborate flourish and came at Drake. A hasty block barely stopped him from planting a steel blade in Drake's ribcage. Suddenly the man surged forward, eyes wide, and landed past Drake as he skidded on his armor.

"I said take him down, not kill him." With a *snick* the kung fu fanatic moved in and settled into a low, crouching stance.

Drake turned sideways, similar to the fencer's style, to give himself maximum reach over his opponent. A blur of steel flashed in the light as spurs and blade swept and nipped at each other like frenzied hounds. It was hard, grueling work and the superior warrior began to force Drake back. A sudden twist had his weapon bound between the short, four inch spurs and pulled to the side while the martial artist delivered a painful kick to Drake's injured shoulder. Drake yelled in pain as the force of the kick knocked him over backwards and he lost his grip on the sword.

Drake scrambled to his feet far more slowly than he should have. Kung Fu seemed to be moving at his leisure and now the two swordsmen were armed and standing at the ready again. Lightning movements suddenly shredded Drake's armored long coat and scratches raked his body armor. The force of the blows continued to push Drake back until he thumped the side of an ancient newspaper vending machine. Drake spun and put it between himself and his assailents.

He couldn't win this one today. He ran, or at least Drake tried to run. Normally very quick on his feet, his wounds were now slowing him down. Without his implanted reflex boosting 'ware, he would never have had a chance running at all. With it, he was able to keep at least the non-cybered pursuers somewhat at bay. The Kung Fu artist he could not shake at all. He tried to loose them with sudden turns. Sweat soaked his hair and ran down his face as he tried to make his escape and he wasn't sure how much time passed as he ran. Maybe it was only a minute or two. Daring to glance behind him, he saw Kung Fu, the swordsmen, and the grey cloaked man. Further behind jogged the mysterious woman.

Finally he realized he had inadvertently ended up near his apartment, so he turned to make his last stand. The tofu dog vendor saw him and his pursuers and took off running the other way, abandoning his food cart. The place seemed suddenly very empty. Swords drawn, he faced Kung Fu once more. For his part, the martial artist seemed almost sad, or perhaps disappointed. Maybe he had been looking for a better fight.

Drake tried a couple weak, slow swipes and was rewarded by having the wakizashi kicked from his grasp and katana dropped as his unarmored hand was raked by knucklespurs. Drake staggered back and bumped into something. His legs gave out from under him and dropped him to the ground where he sat slumped, waiting for his doom. A cold, raspy voice said, "Finish him girl. He's useless now. Wasted himself in a fruitless attempt to resist."

There seemed to be a pause. Drake squinted up, trying to see his would-be killer, surprised it would not be Kung Fu. But the sun hovered over her shoulder and he failed to make out any features. He heard the click of a hammer as the gun was cocked.

"Do it, girl." Again there was a pause. Then another sound, a flash of light and it felt like his head was blowing apart.

He wondered for an indeterminate amount of time if he was alive or dead. He couldn't see at first, but he was able to move his hands and he felt carefully, slowly around his head. Deep inside his mind's eye subdued lights flashed around a human male image. It was his damage control. It was more annoying than helpful, but it was designed to inform the user when cyberware was suffering failures. From the glowing yellow markers, it appeared his reflex augmentation were completely offline and so was the coded transmitter. There was something wrong with several of the muscle enhancement systems too. This meant what was left of his natural musculature would be forced to bear the full weight of himself and all his cyberware. That was a bad thing.

There it was on his temple; a sticky, painful wound that seemed to be pouring blood. That at least explained why he couldn't activate his coded transmitter. It felt like it took the bulk of the damage that got past his reinforced skull when the girl shot him. He tried to call for help, but it sounded barely above a whisper. He felt along the ground and found the thing he had bumped into earlier. It was about three feet wide he discovered, and tall. There was a door which was folded and pushed to the side.

Drake crawled inside and paused a moment to rub his eyes and try to focus. He wasn't sure what he was looking for, but he thought that if he stopped moving he'd go to sleep and never wake up. He groped and found a dead end only a couple feet in. "A phone booth!" Drake whispered. He felt the air, trying to find something to pull himself up. His legs didn't seem to be working right, but he was able crawl up the booth using his arms for leverage. It was a miracle the phone was even working. In his pocket he found a credit stick and a crumpled piece of paper.

He couldn't focus his mind any more than he could focus his eyes. He felt for the credit hole on the phone and stuck in his credit stick. He stared at the crumpled piece of paper and in his foggy mind decided it was a good idea to try the number written there.

He held the receiver to his ear and punched the numbers. Nothing. /Idiot!/, he thought. /Stupid to assume there'd be a working phone in the Zone./ The thing had probably been stripped of it's innards years ago. He was just lucky no one had thought to put in a credit reader or he'd be out a lot of money now. He slid down the side of the booth hopelessly for a moment. He sat on a lump in his pants and discovered the cell phone he'd picked up. /I'm loosing it,/ he thought fuzzily. He slowly pulled out the phone and pushed the buttons.


"Heh... Help." Drake struggled to put words together, and darkness began to gather at the edges of his vision.

"Who is this?"

"Sandra... Help me..."


He was still clutching the phone as his world went black.

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