As was her wont, Tetsutenshi, better known to some as "Iron Angel," awoke late in the afternoon. She typically rose around this hour, not due to any inherent laziness, but more due to the fact that she usually was up for most of the night.

Pushing aside the thin blanket, which she used more out of habit than any real need, the diminutive bounty hunter stood and stretched, working any possible stiffness out of her joints. She slept, as also was her wont, nude; a fact that meant little since Tetsutenshi was a full-body cyborg, and at present was displaying not a wealth of delicately-shaped feminine flesh, but the hard lines of armor plate and synthetic muscle. Her joints didn't creak either, but whirred and clicked faintly in the quiet of her room.

Tetsutenshi lived in a large apartment building to the south of Zone City. It was mostly empty, which suited her perfectly, and fairly isolated, as most of her surroundings had long since been picked clean. Solar panels and a wind turbine on the roof provided power for her meager assortment of electronics - which included a small heater, video panel, stove, and refrigerator. The rest of the apartment had been stripped of anything the cyborg had felt was useless, such as an overhead fan and a few light fixtures. She had also removed all the doors between rooms, since they only got in her way, and would only get destroyed if anyone assaulted her here.

Living as she did six floors up from the street, Tetsutenshi felt secure from the average street predator. Most people didn't care to walk more than three to four floors up into a building, much less haul anything that distance. With her cybernetic body, however, six flights of stairs was virtually effortless. Thus, she figured that few people would just casually wander into her rooms, which was fine by her, as she spent most of her time out of them. That said, Tetsutenshi still made sure the window was covered over before dressing - old habits die hard.

For her, clothing was something akin to a tool. It kept dust and grime out of her joints, and helped mask her metal body to some extent. The bodysuit, boots, and gloves where very simple and utilitarian, as Tetsutenshi prized function over form. Her long duster, however, was her one nod to fashion. It lent her a certain look, a certain style, much like the lines of warpaint drawn under each eye.

Clothing donned, the cyborg glided out into the kitchen, the floor creaking slightly. The building she lived in was solidly built, even if it did date from the turn of the century, but she did weigh over 300 pounds.

Breakfast was light, consisting of water taken from the rooftop cistern and run through a filter, and some fresh vegetables. Although nearly ninety percent mechanical, Tetsutenshi still needed a semi-regular intake of food to keep her remaining organic systems happy. Fortunately, her digestive system worked at nearly one hundered percent efficiency, which meant virtually no waste by-products.

Rinsing off the scarcely dirty dishes, Tetsutenshi leaned on the windowsill and contemplated her options. She had several hours of daylight left, which meant several hours to do domestic chores before night fell and her real work began. In her case, domestic chores meant: gardening.

An open lot behind the apartment had been converted into a garden by first removing all the weeds, then all the rocks, then all the broken glass, then... well, one gets the idea. A simple wooden fence had gone up next, with some razor wire strung along the top to deter the casual trespasser. Inside were carefully cultivated beds of vegetables, interspersed with wide strips of flowers. Although it looked to be a chaotic jumble, the entire area had been meticulously laid out to provide the maximum output for such a limited area.

Tetsutenshi knelt in the middle of the garden, pulling weeds, snipping off dead or diseased limbs and leaves, and picking anything that had ripened in the last week. Her garden served several uses. The most obvious was as a source of food. The second was a source of beauty, as the flowers were coming along nicely, or did, when the weather was warmer. Finally, it was a source of peace.

In her garden Tetsutenshi felt content. She wasn't chasing, fighting, or killing anyone. She was making things grow, bringing life into the world. It was a bit of a change from her old life, her *original* life. Oh she still killed people, one could not act as a bounty hunter in the zone and keep their hands free of blood, but here it served a purpose. As a bounty hunter, she served to keep certain things in check, such as the activities of gangs and organized crime soldiers. It wasn't perfect, but it would do.

Sitting back, Tetsutenshi picked a green bell pepper and tossed it into her basket. Originally, years ago and half a world away, she'd operated on the Pacific Rim as part of a Black Ops team. She'd gone into China multiple times, helping to keep the region near Hong Kong unstable enough that no one warlord could marshal sufficient forces to threaten the city-state. She'd seen enough death and destruction to last a lifetime... or so she thought.

In truth, she found that she still craved combat. If not the actual fight itself, then the chase. It made her feel alive, especially here in the Zone, where she operated solo, and couldn't always be sure of the nature of her opponent. It was a risk, but a risk that made her feel like one of the living, and not just another machine.

So, she'd left. Her term up, she'd slipped away, and gone somewhere far away from the killing fields of China. She could never mix with "normal" society, she lived on the outside of the walls of civilization, and had done so the moment she'd begun her life as a combat cybergraft. Here, in the Zone, in a place where one's background was of no importance, only one's actions, she tried to live again.

Tetsutenshi blinked at the feeling of of water on her face. Tears? She opened her eyes and looked up. The sky had clouded over, and a light rain was falling. Gathering up her tools and her basket of freshly picked produce, she headed for the entrance to her apartment building. It was time to put her things away and get ready for the evening's activities. She'd have more harvesting to do once night fell.

(version I)

The Cave was, to say the least, an unusual place, even by the Zone's standards. It was crowded, poorly lit, noisy, crowded, unsanitary and in an out of the way place. Who ever was in charge of choosing the décor and music had decided to go on a retro-seventies theme for no discernible reason. Sandra had only heard of it recently. She'd also heard to avoid it at all costs. Now she was walking in amongst its patrons.

The patrons themselves were something to be seen. Besides the usual range of Zone inhabitants, there was a variety of other eclectic beings. Several Lynxes and a variety of other replicants were amongst the crowd, apparently of their own will and not being dragged around by some master. And then there was the man dancing on the stage....

He was covered in blue body paint, a long beard, and nothing else. And he could have stood to loose some weight and was in dire need of a wash.

"Wow," Sandra said to herself. "We've got several species of small furry animals gathered together in a cave and grooving with a Pict." She paused. "I cannot believe I just said that." Putting such thoughts out of her head, she tried to go into her self-described "business" mode. From the information she'd gathered, her man would be in here all night.

He was supposed to be the clubs number one DJ. He also dealt in illegal substances and things that went bang. Apparently, he'd sold the wrong thing that went bang to the wrong person, and now someone wanted him. And that's where Sandra had come in. A long series of painful inquiries had lead her to this place. This rat and raver infested hellhole in one of the worst parts of the worst part of town. Still, it was cash. Cash was good.

Sandra scanned the crowd. Brightly-coloured big hair, cat ears, rats running amongst the rafters and a very naked blue man. Nothing. Then she spotted him, lurking behind a table full of shoddy-looking equipment. A huge afro. A huge mustache. Big glasses. A bright orange deep-v shirt with a medallion. He looked just like the description she'd been given. At least, she hoped it was him. She'd be disturbed if there was someone else who looked like that.

She barged her way through the crowd and up to his stand. "Tiger Jackson?" she asked, smiling sweetly.

"What's it to you?" He responded.

"Can we talk outside? I've, ah, heard about your other line of work," she smiled. "I was hoping to pick something up."

"Right." He gave a quick thumbs-up to a man across the club, then turned back to her. "But make it quick. I've got a club to look after."

And a naked man, she added in her head. The two of them slipped out a back door, and into a particularly grimy alley.

"So what you after, babe?" He asked, cautiously eyeing her.

"You, babe," She replied.

"Thanks, babe, but you're a little too rough for my tastes." He grinned.

"Everyone says that," she replied, and pulled out her pistol.

To give him credit, Tiger Jackson never even flinched. Nor did Sandra see it coming when his legs suddenly vanished into a flash. Sandra's feet went out from underneath her, sending her sprawling to the ground. Tiger dropped down, supporting himself on his hands, and spun around, delivering a pair of incredibly quick kicks to her and sending her gun flying.

Sandra rolled to grab the gun, which was probably what he'd planned for her to do. While she was grabbing the gun, he literally vaulted over her and back into the club.

Damn. Why do I pick fights with the Kung-Fu maniacs? She grabbed her gun and chased him into the club. She wanted to catch him alive, but he didn't know it. The gun was there for the intimidation factor. Sandra scurried back into the club after him.

Tiger was only just ahead of her. She made a lunge for him, only to miss as he leapt headfirst onto the mixer table. As she struggled to her feet, he surprised her by landing in a perfect handstand, and then spinning around, his legs whirring through the air in a deadly arc.

Sandra ducked, and then kicked out at the mixer table. One of the supports went, sending equipment, and Tiger himself, sprawling onto the dance floor.

Perfect. She thought. The dance floor's way too packed for him to do any of his swirly thing of doom moved. I've got him. As he regained his feet, Sandra leapt after him. Amazingly, Tiger grabbed her and threw her across the room. Cybered reflexes allowed Sandra to land on her feet, and facing him.

"Time for the last dance, creep," she snarled at him. Gods, did I really say that? Tiger responded by backflipping onto the shoulders of a very surprised patron, and landing on the stage right next to the oblivious naked man. He landed gracefully, and flipped Sandra off.

That does it. She ran at the crowd, and leapt up onto the stage to join him.

"Let's groove" He began, his right foot scything through the air, barely missing Sandra's head.

"I've been waiting ages to do this," she replied, unsheathing her cyber-razors and lunging at him.

For several minutes, the two of them danced back and forth around the naked man, making attacks at each other. Tiger sweeping with his feet, Sandra slicing with her claws, each one ducking and weaving their way through their opponent's attacks, neither one making any headway, Tiger's longer legs being offset by Sandra's boosted reflexes.

Then, strangely enough, luck struck. Sandra sliced upwards, mostly missing Tiger. However, her claws gouged out a good sized amount of his pants, as well as his belt. Tiger launched into a spectacular series of swinging kicks, which resulted in his pants sliding down to his ankles. His legs were caught, unable to move to the degree that he needed. He came crashing down, reaching for anything to stabilize him. And all he got was a naked man.

Both Pict and Disco Demon crashed to the stage, the former coming down on top of the latter, and pinning him into place. Sandra waltzed on over to him, pulled out her gun, and pointed it at his considerable hairstyle. She smiled.

Five minutes later, she was outside the club, handing Mr. Jackson over to her employer, and accepting a goodly amount of cash for her effort. Three minutes after that, she was standing outside the club, watching as Mr. Jackson (and friends) were vanishing over the horizon.

"And I thought I could never have so much fun hanging with several species of small furry animals gathered together in a cave and grooving with a Pict" She muttered. "Damn, that guy needs to loose some weight."


Deep amid the concrete canyons of Hong Kong there existed an ages-old institution. Its origins were lost in the dim mists of time, and based on the current state of affairs, it looked as if it would not be ending at any point in the near future. Nestled amid side streets and back alleys, this establishment served a great purpose: that of providing innumerable minor goods to the people of Hong Kong. This was no multi-national corporate store, but the Hong Kong street-level open market, where anything could be found for sale.

Ling Ling Li visited the open-air market from time-to-time. It wasn't that she needed to, she made enough money that such bargin-hunting wasn't a necessity, but because it was enjoyable. You never knew what you'd find. She'd seen antique ceramic tea sets (she'd bought one of those), knockoff copies of popular brands of mirrorshades, bootleg copies of recent simsense thrillers and VR games, computer parts, discount cyberwear, silk dresses, synthetic animals... there were even discount while-you-wait doctors in some of the back corners who would be willing to implant a new purchase, or a little cosmetic surgery. Ling Ling wisely avoided going anywhere near those stalls.

As Ling Ling flitted from stall to stall, Marta Nys walked several paces behind her employer/lover. As Ling Ling's bodyguard, she'd found the best place to watch over the other woman was by being behind her. That way she could hopefully see anyone coming towards them, while anyone coming up from behind would need to get past her first. So she stalked along, looking very much like Ling Ling's shadow, dressed in a long black coat that fell to her ankles. Impractical for hand-to-hand fighting yes, but it had plenty of room to hide a pistol... or two... or three.

Conversely, Ling Ling was dressed in brighter colors, which in this case meant white jacket and trousers. Her clothing tended to act as a counterpoint to Marta's normal blacks and grays, and at times could be quite colorful indeed - a case in point being some of her red and gold silk dresses that fit far more snugly than Marta thought was possible - or legal for that matter.

When Ling Ling felt Marta's faint tug on her sleeve, she froze immediately, trying to look in all directions for a possible attacker. She hadn't heard or seen anything that seemed like a threat, but then again, that was Marta's job, not hers. Taking a step back, she turned and glanced at her bodyguard, only to find the woman staring at a table of... dolls?

"Ling Ling," Marta asked, "we have to get one of these."

"We do?"

"Yes, we do."


"That's not important. Look, ask the guy how much that one is."

"That one" turned out to be a tall green box with a large clear window displaying what looked a white-haired girl in a white tunic and silver armor. "Supreme Senshi Starfighter Andromeda? Marta, aren't you a bit old to be playing with dolls?"

"It's not for me!" Marta's reply seemed more embarrassed than angry.

"Well, I don't want it."

"It's not for you!" Ling Ling wasn't sure, but she thought Marta was blushing.

Deciding it was time she collected her thoughts, Ling Ling produced a cigarette, lit it and inhaled a calming breath of nicotine. "Your sister?" she asked suddenly.

"Uhm, yeah." Now Marta did blush, a reaction Ling Ling thought physically impossible for the other woman. Nothing, no matter how outrageous or risqué seemed to phase her.

"Okay... why?"

"Ahh..." Marta sighed and looked at her boots. "It's a long story, but, well, its a reminder of when we were together... and happy."

Ling Ling didn't respond with "Aren't you happy now?" She knew Marta was perfectly happy with her present lifestyle; she also knew, to an extent, what Marta meant. There were times when she missed her early years, growing up in Sydney, when she was young and innocent and naive.

<Hey,> she called to the vendor. <I'll take that one.>

(version II)

Asuka was bored.

Really bored.

Really, really bored.

Normally, this wasn't as bad as it sounded, as normally she'd be in her quarters, where she'd find something, anything to alleviate her boredom. Watching the vid-screen, cleaning her side arm, hassling Shinji...

But she as not in her quarters, she was in the infirmary, where Mei had said she needed to stay until her various minor wounds, gained in a fight in a Zone bar called 93 Underground, healed. She tried to argue the point, but then Kommandant Shirow told her to stay in the bed, so she stayed. That wouldn't have been so bad either, except she had nothing to do, and Mei wouldn't let her field strip her rifle in the infirmary, citing health reasons and the fact she'd get grease and gun oil all over everything.

So she was bored.

"Asuka?" Mei's voice was, as usual, quiet.

"Enh?" the red-haired Puma didn't bother to look up, her mood evident in the way her ears lay flat on her skull.

"Someone is here to see you."


"Hey, Asuka! Don't look so glum, Mei says you'll be out in a few days!"

"Kommandant?" Asuka looked up, incredulous, to see not only her commander, but the rest of her squad - Misato, Rei, and Shinji - in the room.

Dropping down into the chair next to her bed, Kommandant Shirow reached into a voluminous plastic bag. "Mei said you were bored, so I figured I'd get you something to help you pass the time." Pulling his arm out, he handed her a large gun made from transparent plastic. "There, you can field-strip that while you wait."

Asuka stared at the fairly large plastic rifle with wide eyes. What was she supposed to do with this? It wasn't even a real gun, but fired hollow plastic balls instead. What good was that?

"Asuka," Shinji said solemnly, "if you don't know how it works, I can show you."

Picking up the light-weight toy, Asuka snapped the arming lever back and pulled the trigger. A loud CLACK later, and a plastic ball bounced neatly off of Shinji's forehead. A-Ha! That was what it was good for!

"Baka-Shinji," Asuka smiled.

"Woohooo!" Misato cried. "Party!" She then grabbed Shinji in a headlock and rubbed his hair between the ears, eliciting a lot of hand-waving and complaints.

Grinning broadly, Asuka sat back in her bed. Maybe this wouldn't be so boring after all.

Duty Officer Lee stomped along the empty hallways of the Puma barracks fuming to himself. Duty Officer Shirow was nowhere to be found. He'd tried the man's office, his personal quarters, even the messhall. Nothing. The few Pumas he'd run into all gave him blank looks and same idiotic "umm..." reaction when he'd asked them where their slacker Commander had gone to. It was like the entire squad had all gone stupid at the same time. It was times like this that Lee realized skinjobs were only good for two things: fighting and fucking.

Cutting through as side passage, Lee stopped at the sound of laughter and music. A party? Here? Intrigued, he turned the corner, stopping at the infirmary door. The music was definitely coming from in here, and... yes, that was Shirow's voice he'd just heard. A grim smile on his face, Lee reached for the door handle.

Only to be intercepted by a large hand, which closed around his wrist and firmly took his hand away from the door.

"I'm sorry, but Commander Shirow is not to be disturbed."

Non-plussed, Lee turned around to regard two Pumas standing right behind him. One had to be the tallest Puma he'd ever seen, a male with long white hair, broad shoulders, more muscles than a Greek god, and a grin to match. Who the hell wanted a male Puma? The female wasn't much shorter, with typical Puma curves, tanned skin and brilliant reddish-orange hair.

Great, he thought, bet her temperament matches her hair color. "Look," he replied out loud, using the same tone that worked so well when he was ordering his Lynx squads around, "I need to see Duty Officer Shirow. Understand? Duty Officer Shirow? Your commander?"

"Perfectly," the white-haired one responded, his grin still in place.

"But as we said," the red-head continued, "Commander Shirow is not to be disturbed."

Lee stared at the pair with a sudden sinking sensation. He had never, ever, had his Lynxes act this way. They were all "yessir," "nosir," and jumped when he said jump. They didn't grin at him like he was some mindless suit they were sizing up for a beating, and they certainly didn't dare lay their hands on him. Perhaps it would be best if he just got the hell out of Dodge.

"Right," Lee stood up straight and did his best to pretend he wasn't currently worried he'd never make it to the entrance to the Puma barracks alive. "When he is free tell him that Duty Officer Lee would like to speak to him. Do you understand."

"Perfectly." That came from white-hair. "Of course." Red hair.

"What are your two names, anyway?" When he finally cornered Shirow, Lee was going to make sure someone got it for this run-around.

"Darshu." answered white-hair, while the red head gave him "Shayla."

"Unhunh." Keep his spine straight, Lee turned on his heel and strode towards the exit. He tried to keep a strong, official pace, without making it look like he was running with his tail tucked between his legs. Once he got back to his barracks, he was going to whistle up Lang-Lang and Ling-Ling to make a night of it. That would certainly make him feel more relaxed.

And come Hell or high-water, Shirow was going to get his.


No ifs, or buts about it, I'm beat, Doc thought to himself. It'd been a long day and now he desperately needed someplace to stay for the night. Actually, if my luck is good I've got something better. He looked over at a likely soul and asked directions.

Not only did the place still exist it was well know enough that he'd only had to ask directions twice. The last time he'd been there was a few years ago. She'd talked of moving to a new location then and had. Running what had been an illegal enterprise before the establishment of the zone had required movement to evade the law. Now it was simply to secure safer housing.

Soon enough he had arrived at the foot of the stoop. He looked up at the oft-renovated sign that had appeared after the law left. While hiding was no longer necessary style was still a requirement. Thus the sign merely told of the humorous lie that was told about the establishment.

MATILDA'S Home for Wayward Women

Doc stepped up to the door and knocked. A voice out of a hidden speaker asked him to enter slowly and read all the rules, if he couldn't read the rules they would be explained for him. He entered a long metal plated chamber. Several posters explained rules and charges. He was politely told to put his personal effects including weapons into locker. After selecting an empty locker and depositing his bags and gun he waited. For a long moment he eyed the armored camera and the gun ports in the walls. Finally he was let inside.

Doc didn't get to good a look at the pleasant waiting room before he was rushed. A young woman grabbed him in a hug so roughly he nearly fell over. Startled, it took him a second to look at her and was shocked at what he saw.

"Guru!" Before he could speak she'd shouted at him and kissed his cheek. "God it's good to see you again!" She looked as beautiful as always but weathered her apparent youth damaged by the elements.

"Nassau?!" he held her back from him and looked ate her. She seemed very well for a would be corpse. " I, I didn't expect to see you again." He was honest but obviously glad to be wrong.

"Yea, I'm a tough one." She brushed her hair out of her face. Her hands looked as weather beaten as her face and even her hair had strands of gray in it. "We all knew the deadline was fucked up in my series."

"You beat the odds." It was a statement of fact that carried with it astonishment and a question. R. Scott had discontinued the Succubus series for just this reason. The normal inbuilt death timer was faulty. An unacceptable number of them outlived their planned obsolescence. Nassau had passed her deadline a long time ago.

"I'd hoped to," She smiled, "But it would have been worth it if I hadn't" Doc had helped her and several others attempt escape. She was the only survivor. She had known that she'd likely be free for a slim year or so. Her death sentence should have come over a year ago.

"Ahem!" A new voice got the two's attention and they turned to see who it was. It was a broad shouldered woman in her fifties who wore a tent like dress.

"Doc, still in one piece eh?" She sauntered over to the older man and playfully punched him in the arm.

"Yes Mother," he called her the only name she ever answered to. "I see you've taken good care of my little last lamb here." He gestured at Nassau who rolled her eyes.

"Lamb? Heh, wolf in sheep's clothing more like it. So you going to come into the lounge or are we gonna stand here all day?" She waved her hand about and led the way into the bar. "By the way what brings you to my house?"

"I need a place to stay Mother." He stepped after her. "I'm going to be in town for a while. I can always do my usual services in return."

"That might upset our usual doctor," Nassau said.

"Family is family, that girl on Clark street will forgive us." Mother rumbled. "Doc you could stay here for free, but you know me."

"Mother is kind but she do nothing for free!" Doc and Nassau belted out as one.

Mother laughed.


The tall, tan colored doe nibbled at a tender tuft of grass as she glanced warily about. She wasn't well. She didn't know she was sick, but she knew that she was sweating badly and needed a drink of water. Lifting her smooth, muscular neck, she gazed across the asphalt expanse which separated her from a steep ditch. She could smell the water there, the scent brought to her by the cool morning breeze. Cautiously, she began walking toward it.

Her children were with her. Scared, they had noticed fast moving creatures which roared when they swept by. Their domain was one of bright lights had hard surfaces with no sweet-smelling grass at all. Instead, the vaporous wake they left as they moved down their well-defined paths stung the youngster's noses and made them huddle close to their mother. They knew something was wrong with their mother, too. They sensed her distress and desperation to get to water but didn't understand why. The two five month old fawns only knew that their mother had always kept them safe from harm and had always been there to lead them to food and the safety of the woods.

The doe looked up toward the top of the hill and down it's long sloping side. She didn't see any of the fast, stinky creatures prowling up or down their hardened path. Her twins close beside her, they crept to the edge of the road and looked around.

Then came the roaring sound! Panicked, the fawn leapt ahead over and across the road, nimbly soaring through the air. The doe was caught between protecting her fawns and retreating and the momentary pause cost her a precious second. In her fear and desperation, she chose to follow her panicked fawns to the other side and leapt after them.

Jason and Helen were in a hurry. They had taken their time this morning and now were going to be late for their early morning music practice, so after gulping down a quick breakfast, the siblings had gathered their things together and run to Jason's car. It was new to Jason; the first car he ever had, it was a gift from his father. It was a Japanese import, but certainly no sport model. The elder Stone wisely chose a less expensive car for his son, expecting the usual dings and minor accidents a teen usually acquires as he gains experience driving.

They had been having a conversation, talking about school and their various activities when they saw the deer.

"Look out!" yelled Helen.

It was already too late. They had just come over the hill and saw the deer in the road. The littles ones leapt high and away, escaping the moving doom. Their mother, however was further behind—her jump was not far enough. She landed right in front of the car, simultaneously hitting the ground and the grill.

Jason reversed the engines and quickly brought the car to a stop and shutdown the engines. "Oh my god!" muttered Helen. Jason had yet to say a word. His face held the stricken look of a man who had accidentally just killed his best friend.

They climbed out of the car and walked to the front. From the crumpled grill and and shattered forward stabilizers, it was obvious the machine wouldn't be going anywhere for a long time. Jason couldn't seem to stop staring at the damage to the car.

Helen turned on Jason. "You killed it! Is it dead? It might not be dead. We have to DO something! Why didn't you stop? Where is it--"

Jason stared as his sister went on about the plight of the deer until suddenly, he couldn't take it. He slapped her hard. Jason and Helen had argued before; they were very intelligent but competitive teenagers and verbal arguments were common. But never had Jason ever touched Helen in anger. The moment seemed frozen in time as Helen's accusing cries were cut off and silence spread across scene across long seconds.

Helen stared at Jason. The look he had given her made him appear like a different person. "You're hysterical, Helen. Just shut your damn mouth for a moment, will you?" The slap didn't hurt near as much the look and the words did, but the cause was simple and clear to Helen. Jason was upset about the car and didn't care about the deer or its young. He was already thinking of how to get help, not about what had happened to that poor animal or if it was suffering.

She didn't know what to think. She had never seen this side of Jason before, and she didn't like it. Helen began to cry.


It was dark and cold in the small room Nassau called home. The concrete walls of the basement sucked warmth like an open grave. That's how she'd always seen it. She was up like this for most nights sleep was an uncommon visitor. As an artificial many normal rules of human life were different for her, sleeping just didn't work right.

Not that it hurt her any. Sleep something she wanted because it felt right not because she needed it much. Nassau had been designed to be a bodyguard and physical companion. In that life sleep had been an annoying interruption of her duties. Now it was an affirmation of her humanity. Not that she was getting any tonight.

Nassau got up and turned on the light in the ceiling with a short sharp clap. A few steps brought her to the other side of the room and her dresser. He watch told her that morning was not far off. She looked into the mirror and addressed her face.

"Looking good so far," she whispered. She had been made beautiful in form and face. Now it seemed like she had spent her youth hard and fast. Weathering and even a gray hair fringe had appeared. She was only a few years old but for all the world looked an early forty. The price for living past her designed life span had been steep.

"Morning gang," she spoke to a small collection of pictures stuffed into the mirrors frame. One by one she touched the rough photos and thought their names. She was the only one who had gotten out alive.

She mumbled little things about the past day to her pictures as she cleaned up and put make up on. Now finished, she turned to them one at a time and smiled.

"Okay, Aspen, yesterday was yours," She smiled, "Yes I know it was kind of dull, but I'll get you another soon." She lived her days in her friends names so they might in some way live again. "Rio, today is for you." She reached up and blew a kiss to the picture of a small woman with a solemn smile. "You'll be happy, because today, is one of those days I think. No sleep you know."

She had plenty of time before she'd be on guard duty upstairs. This morning she had to make a trip. Some times she questioned the reasons. But she knew without sleep it was hard to go on with out it. Nassau picked up a small photo recorder and thumbed through the recorded images.

The pictures were often poorly lit but the subjects were always clear enough. Men and women in various places but all were the same, dead. Gunshot wounds and even the occasional blunt trauma, violent deaths for each of them.

Looking at them made Nassau feel more alive. With these she had clear proof of what she was not, and therefore what she was, alive. After awhile they lost there meaning. The fresh hue of pain and loss was no longer there. When they lost their power to make her come back to life she lost interest in them.

Now it was time to make a new one.


It was one of those nice, quiet nights; even the traffic seemed quieter than usual. The rare stars still visible through the maze of lights were out, it was late enough that most sane people had gone to bed, and life was slowly returning to what passed for normal. Even the warehouse district was quiet, with almost everything shut down. All in all, a very nice night.

When the explosion occurred and Falcon found herself nearly hit by a steel door that had been blown off its hinges, she just knew it had been too good to last.

She then was nearly run into by a man in a long lab-coat fleeing the burning building, running as if his life depended on it. Who was then followed by someone wearing glasses and furiously patting out the parts of his hair that seemed to be on fire.

Falcon was about to ask what was going on when lab-coat grabbed glasses and said, "Where's Harry?"

Glasses looked back in. "He was right behind me. He tried to grab the acetylene tank and carry it out."

Falcon flipped open the bike and leaned out. "How big a tank?"

Lab-coat blinked, as if noticing someone else was there for the first time. "About eighty pounds."

"You have any idea of the explosion we'll have if that tank ruptures in the middle of a chemical fire?!"

"Why do you think I was running?"

"It would take out at least three other buildings here!"

"As I said!"

Falcon turned to glasses and asked, "What direction are Harry and the tank in?"

"You're not thinking of going in there, are you?"

"Trust me, I've done this before. Where are they?"

"Straight in, just a little off to the left. There aren't any walls in there."

"Thanks." Falcon made sure her helmet was sealed and the air filter in place, then drove into the building as quickly as she could safely. As the bike cleared the open door frame, the fire extinguishers kicked in and blasted clear a path for her.

The place was a furnace; burning oil was slowly spreading out from some location off to the side, and the warehouse's metal walls reflected the heat back in. There were enough leaks in the building to guarantee a steady supply of fresh oxygen to keep things going, as well. The thought of a large tank of explosive gas in here wasn't pleasant: one crack and the whole thing would go up.

Harry wasn't difficult to find, fortunately; he had passed out from the smoke and was lying there, arms still wrapped around a large tank. He was obviously on the far side of forty, seriously overweight, and had seen far better days. Fortunately he didn't seem to be on fire himself; most of the burning oil was closer to the door, with a clearing here near the back.

Falcon noticed a flaw in her original plan once she got off the bike to pick Harry up. Both Harry and the tank were larger than expected. There was no way to fit everything under the faring of the bike. Even the tank alone wouldn't fit because of its length. Muttering a curse, Falcon did a very quick check that Harry was still breathing and didn't appear to have any fractures, then hefted him up onto the seat of the bike. A quick mental command through the radio link closed the faring to close off the worst of the smoke, then she hefted the tank over her shoulders and held it with both arms.

Another command started the bike running; the on-board computer wasn't great, but it was at least good enough to drive the bike forward along a simple path. Falcon started jogging along behind the bike as the blast from the extinguishers re-created a path back towards the door.

The return trip was nerve-wracking; carrying this much weight made it difficult to move quickly, and the longer she held it, the more likely it was to slip. The burning oil was spreading further, and the path she was making was filling in again as she watched. Not to mention she was carrying what amounted to a time bomb.

By the time Falcon made it back out to the open air, both glasses and lab-coat were long gone. Certainly the sane thing to do, if all you cared about was your own life. Falcon sighed, and put the tank out far enough from the warehouse that it could cool down slowly, before going back to the bike to check on Harry.

Harry was still breathing, and would probably be all right in time as far as Falcon could tell. A quick check on the radio showed the fire trucks were already on their way. Even if these guys weren't 'insured', most of the other people around here probably were. Nobody wanted a fire spreading down here. Falcon phoned in a report anyway to make sure an ambulance and chemical disposal team would be here, then took off her helmet and started lifting Harry back down to the ground.

Harry woke up to see a young woman holding onto him and peering at him with some concern. "Ah, truly an angel sent from Heaven to carry me up."

Falcon chuckled as she set Harry down. "No, I'm afraid you're still in Neo York. The tank you were carrying is just over there out of the way, and I'm not sure where your friends ran off to."

"Pity. You'd make a good angel." He tried to sit up, coughed a few times, then lay back down.

"You've inhaled a fair bit of smoke; you shouldn't exert yourself. The fire trucks are already on their way, and the ambulance should be here shortly to pick you up."

"There anything I can do to repay you?"

Falcon was about to say no, then thought about it. "Perhaps there is... you know where I can get some refills for the fire extinguisher cheap?"

Harry chuckled briefly before that was cut off by wracking coughs, then handed Falcon a business card. "Call me in a week or so. I'll see what I can do. Not that I can afford much; if I could I wouldn't be working out here."

"I know how that is." Falcon pocketed the card, then stood up as the sirens grew louder. "I've already called your condition in to the medics, so they should be ready for you. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"See you, angel."

"Call me Falcon."

"You are still an angel to me."

Falcon chuckled quietly as she slipped her helmet back on and started off, leaving the rest of the battle to the experts. Harry seemed nice enough, at least. No matter how lousy she considered her life to be, she couldn't help feeling a little happier from just a few flattering comments.


Paolo hefted the last box up the stairs and into his new room. The windowless attic above Ken's garage was spartan, with a cot and little else, but it offered him a place for items which were too bulky to take with him. He secured the door with his thumbprint padlock and made his way back downstairs.

His host was lounging at what passed for the kitchen table, nursing his back. The doctor felt a twinge of guilt at this; the mechanic had done much of the work in excavating the ruined clinic, and then carting the doctor's salvaged equipment back to his home, loading it onto his electric truck. He had even helped Paolo carry it up the stairs to the vacant room.

Ken had first insisted that the doctor would not be allowed to pay for the use of the room, let alone offer any sort of reward for his hard work, but had finally relented and accepted a small leasing fee, salvage rights to some of Paolo's broken equipment (including the remains of his dynamo), and a mild painkiller for his sore muscles. But that fee was hardly adequate for the security offered. Ken's garage included a still which provided fuel alcohol for several of the Zone's Go Gangs, and they treated it as a truce area. The same gangs would surely respond viciously to any theft or violence committed in the garage, so the doctor's gear was quite safe.

"All set," he said. "Thanks for your help."

"It's no problem," Ken reassured him. "Glad to help you out."

"Well, I owe you a great deal," Paolo replied.

That was, of course, much of the reason Ken had been so helpful. The doctor's reputation was well-established, and his goodwill was as much of a health plan as any denizen of the Zone could hope for.

The mechanic adjusted his tool belt and leaned back, grease-stained gray jumpsuit wrinkling as he did so. "Why don't you just set up shop here?" he proposed. "There's space, and I can set you up with power and water. And I could use a hand with some of the electronics that come through—we could work out a good deal."

The doctor shook his head. "Thanks," he offered, "But most of my patients are back in Zone City. A lot of them would have trouble getting out here." Not just with the walk, both men knew, but passing through the gang territories which bordered the garage. Paolo had already purchased passes to walk through the ones marking the best route to Zone City, but others might have trouble coming up with funds or resolving old grudges.

"So where will you go?"

"I...think I'll move around a bit," Paolo answered. "A lot of people owe me favors, so I can get crash space pretty easily. And most of what I do, I can do with my field kit. If I need any of my other equipment, I can come out and get it."

"Sounds hard," came another voice. The doctor turned to find the mechanic's girlfriend had entered. Bell was about 5'4," a bit taller than Ken, with long brown hair down to her waist and a clothing ensemble that called historical videos of "hippies" to Paolo's mind. The polka-dot vest, flowing white blouse, and bell-bottoms were well-worn, but seemed "vintage" rather than simply old.

The doctor smiled. "Well, I'm not sure how long I'll do business this way," he replied. "I just have some thinking to do. I need to come up with a new business model."

"Yeah, the old one had some problems," laughed Ken.

"You're setting yourself up, you know," warned Bell. "This might make it harder for guys like the Yak to use you, but you're out there where any small-time hood can take a shot at you."

Paolo had already suspected Bell was the real brains behind the garage's operations, and this confirmed it for him. Ken was a mechanical wizard, and savvy enough in the workings of the Zone, but he lacked the vision to understand the motives of people around him. Bell had much greater insight, and Paolo wondered privately if she had been raised in a corporate environment which nurtured that kind of deep, intricate paranoia.

"I bought an insurance policy with a Triad," he said, holding up a plastic cord around his neck. The small beadwork structure dangling from the end was recognizable to most Zone denizens. "Anyone kills me, they hunt him down."

"Which only really keeps you safe if there are witnesses around and if you're dealing with a rational sort," Bell reminded him. "Come on, you know this is risky. What are you hoping to accomplish?"

"If I stay in one place and build again, it'll only get destroyed," the doctor replied. "This way, I don't have to rebuild until I can find a way to do it safely." The doctor had already explained his plan to purchase a phone account through an intermediary, and modify the radio from his militia headset to access it. Provided he kept conversations short, he could make it untraceable.

Bell frowned at this, but said nothing. She obviously sensed Paolo was afraid of someone powerful, but didn't understand who. Perhaps she thought this was a reaction to the Yakuza, but in truth, Paolo was more worried about Sanato and Shiroko-Tsuhi. The lack of a fixed abode made him less readily accessible to the executive, and possibly less useful. Perhaps that would buy him some small breathing space.

"You're going to stay for breakfast tomorrow, right?" asked Ken, obviously concerned by the conversation and trying to lighten the mood.

"Wouldn't miss it," grinned Paolo. "Bell is an artist, and who am I to turn down great art?"

There were smiles all around as the conversation drifted to lighter topics. But in the back of his mind the doctor wondered once again if he was simply indulging in a new delusion. The freedom he had believed his clinic had given him had been illusory, allowed to exist only until his path crossed with a man who knew the truth. Now, Paolo wanted to believe he could regain some of that freedom by being inconvenient to the same man, limiting his usefulness. But in the final analysis, he had no tangible weapons against the executive, nothing which could match the resources available to Sanato.

I have to find a way to buy my indenture, he thought later as he settled down on the lumpy cot to sleep. I can play games, but I don't have any real freedom until I have that piece of paper in my hands.


The interior of the library held an interesting balance between the post-modern art deco look of its architecture and the rows of shelving containing records and books that almost seemed to smell of well-kept age. It was an interesting contrast between old and new that made for a comfortable environment in which to work. The bookshelves lining the walls stretched nearly to the ceiling, where daylight streamed in lazily from the windows set high in the walls. The large semi-circular room was quiet, but there was plenty of activity as people went to and fro doing research and seeking what they needed from the records contained within.

The clerk at the main desk paused in his duties as an attractive young woman approached his station. "Hello, miss. May I help you?" He noted that she was dressed in the security uniform of the company. Her pale blonde hair contrasted with the dark black and gray outfit.

"Yes. I need to check some personnel records, please." Her demeanor was polite, but firm.

"Alright, Ill need to see your security pass, please. And I need to know which records you're looking for. Formalities, you know."

"Certainly." She told him which records she was looking for. It was the only thing she really had to lie about.

The young woman pulled out her security card from her pocket and handed it over. The clerk looked it over and then put it in the machine, which dinged politely before releasing it back to him. He handed it back to her along with a key on a chain and pointed off to an anteroom. "Second set of file cabinets on the left side there. Cant miss it. This key will let you into the file cabinet you need. Sign here, please."

"Okay," she said, putting her signature on the authorization record. "Thanks," she said, pocketing her card and taking the key.

Inside the anteroom she scanned down the file cabinets and quickly found what she was looking for. Out of sight of the clerk she inserted the key into the lock and concentrated. She allowed her grip on the here and now of the world to slip sideways so that she could see beyond to the underlying structure of things as they really were. Nodding to herself as she felt the key turn, she unlocked not the records she was authorized for but the set of files she was really after. Changing big things on the fly was dangerous in a high security area and could draw too much attention. Tiny changes though—like shifting the key so that instead of opening the files of one Larry Douglas, they opened the set of personnel records a couple of places over—that was relatively easy and would go unnoticed. She opened the drawer to access the files.

My files... thought Lora Doubet. And here's where I get a look at the contract that I signed into when I became a cyborg. Maybe I can get some idea of what Sanato really intends for me. After talking with Dr. Snakeye a few days previously, she had been thinking about her place as an asset in the corporate holdings of Shiroko-Tsuhi and their owners, the Daitokuji Financial Group. If all they want me to do are simple security duties like bodyguard work and maybe the occasional strike mission, then they sure took a big loss when they created my body. Granted, they expected I'd be a PK talent as well, but since that didn't pan out, there has to be something else they're interested in now. It probably wont be spelled out as such in here. But some of the performance reviews might have some hint.

She took the records in their binder to the copier and within a few moments she copied them and slipped the originals back in place within the file drawer. Then she morphed the key back to its original state and returned it up at the main desk. She politely thanked the clerk and strode towards the exit.

Lora opened her eyes and sat up from her couch. Reaching over, she closed the connection between her personal deck and the company Intranet. Unplugging the DNI cable from the interface socket in the back of her neck, she looked over at her printer, which was spitting out copies of her personnel files. When it was done, she erased the files from her computer deck.

She muttered quietly to herself, "Gotta love that baroque system node architecture. That bot at the desk is a little too trusting, but I can't complain."

Lora picked up the hardcopy and began to read...

(version III)

The New York subway was famous throughout the world as one of the most extensive and one of the most scenic of the world. Each station under Manhattan had its own achitectural style, especially the new corporate arcology ones—Shiroko-Tsuhi Arcology Station had multi-textured tilings, Jinsei Tower had a high-tech theme, and every wall was covered with computer screens playing news, popular programs, and a sampling of Jinsei promotional material. Each station had underground shops, restaurants, hotels, even a clinic, and it was often said that one could live his entire life in the New York Subway without ever seeing the light of day.

As long as one was interested in living, essentially, in a cave, Raven thought. That impression was nowhere as strong as the East Bridge station. It was the closest to the Zero Zone, and some wit of an architect had decided to render the cavernous feel of the underground station as much as possible. The corridors were covered in rock-shaped gray plaster, just close enough to give a hint of enclosed feeling without making the visitor feel claustrophobic. Lights were embedded in the walls at uneven intervals, colored orange and artificially flickering to give that torchlit feeling.

That flight of artistic fancy, so unusual for the city administration, had been marred by more practical considerations. Raven could imagine the meeting where the high crime rate in the station had been discussed, and that a compromise solution had been selected over a more complete overhaul to save money. She passed in front of a carefully barred alcove in the pseudo-stone that had served to hide a number of muggers. Lights lined the floor in the center of the corridor, providing constant bluish illumination, keeping people from using darkness as a cover for nefarious deeds. Oddly, the bluish light, reflecting on the rough surface of the fake stone gave the walls an eerie appearance that only enhanced the cavernous aura. Bureaucracy improves on art, Raven thought, smiling faintly. What a concept.

Occasionally she'd come across another person, or a couple; corporate office workers or other employee dressed in carefully selected clothes, brand new but looking old, trying to get the Zone look, but sticking out like a sore thumb to a native like her. Coming back from slumming in the Zone, but she was sure most of these people kept to those clubs nearest to the border, like the Edge of Night, heavily policed by bouncers and frequented by people trying to experience the thrill of the Zero Zone without the risks. Just a small extension to the city for those who wanted to go past the checkpoint, spend the night in a Zone Nightclub, and head back to tell their friends they'd done it.

She heard the faint notes of a lively jazz melody in the distance, echoing throught the tunnels from up ahead. Curious, Raven headed in that direction. People avoided her; it seems she'd succeeded in looking intimidating in spite of her looks. With the pressed black coat, the black sunglasses, and the thin, ironic smile she had from thinking of the bureaucrats, she was an oddity amongst all the faux toughs. She'd have to remember the Woman in Black look.

Finally she reached the musician. He was an old, fat man with a short grey beard and a wizened face creased by wrinkles. His plain brown coat was worn, but he played on a latest-model synthethizer, the kind that could even do saxophones and other wind instruments convincingly. He looked at her with discolored eyes that once were blue, and nodded silently in greeting, not missing a beat from his playing. The traditional hat was laid on the ground in front of the synth's tripod, and next to it was... the oddest show Raven had ever seen anywhere.

A hamster, a guinea pig, and a gerbil were standing on a wide white blanket, and they were dancing in tune to the music. At least, Raven figured it was dancing—that was the only thing you could call three quardruped rodents standing on their hind paws and twisting to the tune of a jazz song. Raven slowly took off her sunglasses and crouched to look at the animals. Noticing her interest, the musician seamlessly switched from his jazzy theme to an acid rock melody Raven recognized as having been composed by Dawn—and in response the three rodents began wildly gyrating. Raven, unsure what to think, watched quietly.

"You like, young lady?" asked the man with a thick Scottish accent. Raven nodded, and she tossed a few subway tokens in the man's hat. Redeemable for money at any subway automated teller, they were the closest thing to coins you could commonly find in the age of digital money. The man nodded and brought his music back to jazz, slowing his little dancers into a more sustainable thanks. "Domo argiato, miss," said the man; the Japanese sounded odd in his patois.

"How is this possible?" Raven said. "That must've taken years of training."

"Oh no, young miss." The man grinned and bent forward, whispering conspirationally, "It's all cyber, ye see. Microchips with harmonic algorithms hooked to motor centers of the brain, with a neural cutoff to keep'em asleep while the show's going on."

Raven shivered at the thought. "Nothing's sacred anymore."

"Ain't that the truth." The man stopped playing, causing the trio of rodents to slowly get back on their four feet. He picked up one of them—the hamster—and started petting him affectionately. "They were from a circus that went under. Children these days, they all wanna play their video games, they don't wanna see real clowns and real elephants and lions... Well, they clone'em now, but they're still flesh and blood." He sighed. "No, nothin's sacred anymore."

Raven sat crosslegged on the floor and—with an approving nod from the musician—she took the gerbil and laid it in her lap. Slowly petting the tiny critter, she asked, "So why do have them dance, then?"

"I've been performin' all my life, miss... What's your name?"

"Raven Clark."

"Raven?" the man asked.

"I'm from the Zone," Raven explained. "I've never really had a first name, so I ended up with a nickname."

The man nodded sagely as if he understood. "Well miss Clark, name's Brude McSwiggan."


"My mom used to swear she was descended from some old king or other that lived in Scotland before the Scots even came. Named me after him." He shrugged apologetically, and continued his explanation. "I used to play the Central Park station fifty years ago. Scraped together a living, even if I wasn't getting fat off it."


"Then I met Clarisse, and one thing led to another, and we were married with a child on the way. I had to get better money than I got from my music, so I took a fast-track certification in marketing, and I became a company man. It was a good job, and I got to make the music for the commercials we shot. I was at it for forty years, even if Clarisse divorced me after ten and took the kid with her. She moved in with an exec."

"I'm sorry."

He shrugged. "Ancient history now. I gathered me a good nest's egg, and retired early. I spent a year or two doin' nothing, then three months ago this circus was having this fire sale. I saw these critters and they told me they'd put'em to sleep if nobody bought'em, so I did." He smiled at the hamster in his lap. "You know there's a Netsite that's all dancin' hamsters? It got started before I was born, and kept getting bigger, with more an' more dancin' hamsters, passing from hand to hand so that it's still up to this day." He chuckled. "Sorry, miss. I'm an old man, we like to ramble on."

"That's fine," said Raven. "But you still haven't told me why you keep at this show, since you've got that retirement fund."

"'Cause I can't help being the man I am," said Brude. "I've never been happier than when I was playin' in the tunnels, except that short time with Clarisse before we started arguin'." He looked wistfully at the synthethyser, and put the hamster down. "And you need to be doin' somethin' with your life, or you go mad. So I'm playin' and my little ones are groovin'." His hands went to the keyboard, and the accents of the jazz melody filled the tunnel again. "And you, miss, what're you doin' in this tunnel?"

He hadn't really answered her question... but Raven found she didn't care. She put the gerbil down besides the other two dancers, thinking about why she was here. She couldn't really tell him that she was here to meet an old contact of the Boss's, a guy who sold things, sometimes weapons, a guy who might help her on her quixotic attempt to save Karin from the trap she was throwing herself into. Nothing more rational than playing for three dancing rodents. So she just said, "Guess I'm being the woman I am," and she turned to leave.

"That's good." his playing shifted to a sad, bluesy tune, and the hamster, the guinea pig and the gerbil sat on the blanket, watching him play. "Don't ever stop, young lady. Else you'll regret it all your life."

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