Logan Darklighter, Mark Kobrak, and Mathieu Roy

Raven concentrated, gathering space into a knot around the unlikely group, and moved. She felt space re-form around her, condensing into the shape of the garden courtyard outside of Mr. Sanato's office. The crack of displaced air and accompanying shockwave blew the plants about and rattled the windows surrounding the small Japanese garden. One of the lights set up in the trees close by shattered.

A sharp intake of breath and a groan of pain caught everyone's attention. Lora fell to her knees with her head in her hands. "Aah!! Shite! Oh... god that hurts! ...forgot how much... I hate being teleported... "

Raven caught Lora before she could topple completely over, holding her up, which didn't seem like much until you remembered that Lora weighed several hundred pounds. "Lora, are you all right?"

Lora shook her head slowly and levered herself shakily to her feet, "Aside from the little dwarf doing the soft-shoe in Doc Martins all over the inside of my skull I'm just fine... "

"You can feel... Do you want me to take you to the infirmary?" Raven asked.

"No, I'll be all right. Just give me a minute here. Just... please don't do that again?" This last said plaintively to Raven.

"I'll try to be more careful, Lora. You must be very sensitive though."

The doctor said nothing, wondering if the two really understood the significance of their exchange. What was Lora capable of? And who else knew of her abilities? Paolo found himself torn between scientific curiosity and a deep-seated fear of knowing more than was safe for him.

Two female replicant assistants appeared at the glass doors separating the garden from the interior of the office area. They opened the doors and stood to either side, waiting. The group filed inside.

"Thank you, Ms. Clark," came her superior's voice. Raven saw him take in the group before him. Measuring them. Then his expression changed in a way she didn't recognize as his gaze fell on Dr. Snakeye next to her. She turned to look at him and standing before her...

...Was a different person. The change was so dramatic - it took her a moment to realize that it was Dr. Snakeye. He was still dressed in the same blood-and-sweat-stained green surgical scrubs; his hair still mixed with plaster dust. But where moments before his bearing had seemed unremarkable, some shift of his posture had made him almost inhuman. There was no trace of emotion in him, no hint of what moments before had been obvious fatigue. He stood not with attention or disinterest, but with an almost palpable disconnection from reality, as if he simply co-existed with the universe rather than being a part of it. The sudden disappearance of the doctor's humanity was chilling, as if his soul had somehow been sucked into the jet black of his eyes.

But Raven was startled to find Suhiro had undergone a similar transformation, the undertone of arrogant belligerence having vanished and left behind an unreadable shadow. Even Adam seemed more reserved somehow, adopting the same implacably submissive posture as the two female replicant assistants flanking the door leading out of Sanato's office. Protocol, Raven thought. She looked to Lora, relieved to find that though she stood in respectful silence, she at least appeared unchanged.

"I am pleased to see you looking so well, Ms. Doubet," Sanato's voice continued. "I trust you are alright?"

"I'm just fine, sir. No problems."

"I am relieved you are safe," the executive said tonelessly.

Raven looked over to Sanato's desk, unsurprised to find him seated in his high-backed leather chair. The same soulless demon that had possessed the others seemed to have taken him as well.

"You must all be tired after your ordeal," the sarariman continued. "I am sorry that we must discuss these matters now, but some simply will not wait. Please, be seated."

His two replicant assistants stepped forward, one wordlessly leading Raven, Lora and Adam to a pair of chairs against the wall; one was obviously heavier than the others, intended to support Lora's weight.

The other replicant placed two more chairs in the center of the room and looked meaningfully at Suhiro and the doctor. The two strangers stepped forward, still moving as if disconnected from events, and nodded to their host as they approached their seats.

I get it. They're posturing, Raven thought, finding herself, oddly enough, in familiar territory. Looking indifferent was one of the Boss's favorite ploys on Clark Street, though he didn't bring the act quite to this level. She wished she could share with Lora how much the high-and-mighty Yakuza Oyabun and corporate sarariman could act like Zero Zone gang lords at times. She glanced at the chairs at the side—obviously Lora and Raven were meant to have a secondary role. Adam, of course, was expected to stand. Typical. Raven walked towards her chair, basing her attitude off Sanato's... but then she remembered her time with Shion, and with her back turned to the three at the desk, allowed herself a mischievous smile. She glanced sideways at Lora, and winked at her. She had a better idea...

Raven sat casually in her chair, hands folded in her lap, a vaguely amused smirk on her lips, and watched the conversation dispassionately, looking somewhat bored. From time to time she would lazily look away from the desk and at Adam, looking over the handsome replicant before returning her attention to the desk.

Suhiro set the CNS chassis gently on the ground beside him, before sitting himself in his chair and gazing implacably back at his host. The doctor followed suit, but pulled the chair noisily up behind himself as he sat down, adopting a similar posture to the other two men.

Something flickered across the Oyabun's face at this, and his eyes flicked to Snakeye in hatred, but Sanato gave no sign that he had noticed.

"Well, Suhiro-san," he said formally, seemingly ignoring the doctor's presence. "It seems we are in disagreement." There was no emotion behind the words, no dramatic undertone to suggest this was more meaningful than a comment on the weather. But somehow, the air of tension in the room was suddenly more palpable.

"Indeed so," answered the Yakuza leader tonelessly.

"There are those who, I think, would be disappointed to find us in our current situation," the executive continued. "I believe we owe them a gesture of respect."

"I agree," concurred Suhiro.

"Catherine will escort you to our cybernetics facilities," said the man behind the desk. It was clear he was speaking of one of the replicants, but he gave no motion that might give away which one he meant. "I have made certain arrangements of which I think you will approve."

"You honor me with your hospitality," the Oyabun replied. But neither man made any motion. After a long pause, Suhiro continued, "You understand, I must insist on certain privileges."

"I hope I can grant you whatever opportunity you require to do so."

The Oyabun settled back in his chair slightly, sighing as he did so. "I must call again on Barret-san this evening," he observed casually. "I failed to conclude my business with him."

"He is a forgiving man," the executive replied. "Providing one respects protocol."

There was another pregnant pause, this time broken by the executive. "Are you a man who is respectful of protocol, Suhiro-san?"

Now there was a hint of discomfort in the Oyabun's posture. "I follow the forms carefully," he replied.

"So much better to follow them naturally," replied Sanato.

The Yakuza inhaled deeply, and then released his breath. "You are correct. I must re-commit myself to the details."

"A fine resolution," the other commended him. "One we should make part of ourselves all the days of our lives."

"You are a man of wisdom, Sanato-san," the Oyabun offered. "It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

"And yours," answered Sanato.

The Oyabun rose, carefully picked up the chassis, and walked to the door. One of the replicant women fell in step before him, graciously holding the door to allow the leader to exit.


Lora had been looking on apprehensively through the entire conversation. The tension hung in the air like a veil. She had never seen corporate politics like this before. It was both confusing and enlightening. Confusing because there was obviously an implied subtext to the language that she just wasn't quite getting. Enlightening because of how the language worked and what it said about the people who employed it. And yes, it is a language all it's own, even though it may use another language as its base.

She had a natural talent with languages, and fitting together the rules of how this one worked was fascinating to her on one level. Yet it was strangely repugnant on another. Ideas were conveyed as much by omission and the length of pauses as they were by what was actually said. Concepts may be conveyed, but actual clear information was not. It was up to the person on the receiving end to piece together the implied meaning between the lines, because the speaker wasn't going to volunteer it willingly. It was the distilled linguistic equivalent to the concept of Caveat Emptor - let the buyer beware.

This was the way of speaking for people who did not trust, either in each other or their surroundings. Truth truly was in the eye of the beholder. If there was a listening device in the room, no one on the other end would be able to make out the subtext because the connotations were dependent on non-verbal context that would be dependent on the relationship between the speakers.

Lora mentally shook her head. If this is what it means to truly be corporate... I hope I never have to learn this language.

But something in the back of her mind told her she just might, whether she wanted to or not.


With Suhiro out of the room Raven dropped her bored and slightly petulant facade and sat back in her chair rubbing her chin. There was no need to insult the doctor, and she needed the concentration to see if she could piece together the meanings hidden behind the words. Suhiro had seen none too happy by the results, but that didn't surprise her; Sanato truly held all the cards. She wondered how Snakeye would fare against him.


Sanato looked after his Yakuza counterpart a moment, then directed his attention to Dr. Snakeye. The latter had been sitting motionless throughout the conversation, dark eyes never leaving Sanato as the executive parleyed with Suhiro.

"Dr. Snakeye," he began. "You have acted with great integrity. I am in your debt."

"I acted according to the obligations of my profession," answered the doctor. "There is no need to speak of debts."

Sanato merely nodded at this, seeming to approve of the observation. "Lydia, the doctor appears shaken. Please serve him a glass of vodka."

Hearing the name, Raven looked sharply at the replicant—but the beautiful stewardess replicant looked nothing like her wizened Auntie. She shrugged and returned her attention to the conversation.

As the replicant moved to obey, the executive continued. "Your escape was impressive. You have proven yourself to be quite a resourceful man."

Lydia appeared beside the visitor's chair with a small shot glass. The doctor accepted it, nodding his thanks, without ever taking his eyes off his host.

"Thank you," answered the doctor. "But I owe my success to an oversight on my captor's part. He believed his mastery of the situation more complete than it was."

"Indeed," Sanato answered. "Power can cloud one's judgment, and one may find important details have slipped beneath one's notice." The executive paused, seeming to reflect on this observation. "The careful man makes certain his subordinates are in a position to correct his oversights."

"You have certainly surrounded yourself with exceptionally gifted subordinates," the doctor observed. "You must have chosen them with great care."

"Of course," answered Sanato. "But I have also been fortunate. Opportunities to engage the services of such talented people are rare, and I am grateful fate has delivered such chances into my hands." He settled back into his chair. "My resources are finite, of course, but I have always believed one should make certain that excellence in one's employees should be rewarded."


The word was spoken softly, and casually, but somehow, it hung dangerously above the lull in the conversation. Neither man moved for several moments, before the executive spoke.

"I really must say again how impressed I am with your ability to practice medicine under the conditions you do," Sanato said. "Not many men would have the courage to try, and fewer still the cunning to succeed. I hope that, should the opportunity present itself, you will permit me to express my gratitude in the form of a suitably remunerative transaction between us."

Dr. Snakeye paused just a moment before replying. "You are gracious indeed. When that day arrives, I only hope I am worthy of the opportunity." The vodka, which a moment before had rested seemingly forgotten in the doctor's hand, flashed abruptly to his lips. He tossed the liquor back in a single swallow, and brought the glass down upside down on the arm of his chair. A tiny droplet of liquid slid down the side of the glass to wet the rim against the synthgrain wood.

"Lydia," Sanato said, seeming not to notice any odd behavior. "Please see to it that the doctor is fed, and allowed to rest. Afterward, please arrange transportation to his home."

Lydia stepped forward. "Thank you, Sanato-san," said the doctor, rising. "I look forward to our next meeting."

Lora cleared her throat, "Sanato-san? I've got nothing better to do for now. And I'd like to help out the doctor in appreciation for what he's done for me. If it's all right with you, I'll take care of the arrangements for the doctor's needs."

Sanato regarded Lora for a moment, then nodded almost imperceptibly, "Yes. That will do. But along the way, perhaps you should see to your own needs as well?"

Lora eyes flicked down to herself as she took in her ragged attire. When she looked back, she had the ghost of a rueful smile on her face, "Yes sir. I'll be sure to take care of things."

Raven stood, wondering if Lora knew, or intended, any hidden meanings behind her own words. She elected to wait until they were out before she spoke to the doctor; acting otherwise might be construed by the pair as a formal show of support for the doctor against Sanato, rather than a friendly exchange of words. There was a certain thrill to the dance of words that Suhiro, Sanato, and Snakeye had employed, but the stakes were a bit high to her liking. Outside the office the stakes might not be as high, normal rules of conversation would return, and she might be able to use a little honesty.

But she'd marked the lesson well, though now more than ever she was sure that the corporate were more like gangs than they cared to admit. Maybe masking the difference was the first goal of their word-game?

Lora turned to Dr. Snakeye, "Doctor? If you'll come with me?"

"I would be delighted," the surgeon replied. He nodded again to Sanato as the group made its way out of the office.

Adam, looking a bit pale due to continued blood loss despite the attentions of the Dixie medic, was delighted to be going as well. He hadn't really had too much of his mind on the conversation at hand; he had been more concerned with not falling over and embarrassing the corporation. He'd sort it out later when he had the leisure.

"Adam and I'll go with you, if you don't mind," Raven said. "He's been hurt pretty badly."

"Of course," answered the executive. "I'll see to it he is given a high priority at the infirmary."

Adam blinked with surprise, but managed to otherwise control his expression. He did slide Raven an amazed glance before allowing himself to be assisted out.

"Thanks," Raven said noncommittally. There was an implication in this—replicants didn't get high priority medical treatment—but she wasn't sure what it was. A reward for her, or for Adam, maybe? She put Adam's arm around her shoulder, supporting him as they left.

Snakeye said nothing as he stepped into the waiting area, but a barely audible sigh escaped him and he shook his head slightly, as if regretting some act of folly.

"That was an interesting performance," Raven said as soon as they were out of sight of Sanato's door.

The doctor smiled wanly, but there was a heaviness to him, something more than fatigue. "I don't suppose I should have been surprised by any of that," he observed. "He's exactly what I should have expected him to be."

As Lora pressed the button for the elevator, she looked over her shoulder and asked, "How so?" Her curiosity was piqued.

The doctor looked up in surprise, as if he hadn't realized he had spoken out loud. He hesitated before responding, then answered, "He knew what he wanted before the conversation started, and made sure everything was in place to get it. Then, when we showed up, he went after it." The doctor shrugged. "No gloating, no unnecessary threats, and no false gratitude. At least none I was supposed to take seriously," he added.

Lora thought about it as the elevator approached, "He's going to give the Yakuza matriarch a cyborg body. That much I got. And I expect Suhiro, owes him a rather large debt for that. I understand that much as well. But what does he want from you?"

"He didn't say," the doctor replied. "My guess is, he'll wait a while before he asks for anything. He'll let me re-establish myself in the Zone, give me something to lose, and then come to me when he wants something. And it will be something small enough that I won't be willing to throw everything away to spite him, and I'll rationalize it to myself, and then do it." He sighed. "The real question is what he wants from the Zone."

"Me," Raven put in. "And more people like me." Her terse response matched her thoughtful frame of mind.

The doctor looked at the dark-haired beauty meditatively, but didn't press her to expand on that. The elevator arrived at that moment, and they all boarded it, with Raven helping Adam on. The elevator was a Plexiglas tube all the way around except for the doors and the control panels on either side of it. The elevator obviously afforded a magnificent view at some point.

As the doors closed in front of them, Lora pressed the button for the floor they needed then leaned back against the railing as the elevator moved downwards and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she said, "One thing I'm curious about, doctor, if it's not prying too much? What was that little stunt with the vodka? That was a bit of an odd gesture."

Snakeye simply shrugged in reply. "Just an expression of displeasure," he answered. Then he looked over at Adam, who stood on the other side of the elevator, still leaning on the esper. "Thank you for your help at the clinic," he said, offering his hand. "Adam, isn't it?"

The escort synth offered his bloody and grimy hand. "Sorry," he apologized obliquely, inclining his blonde head. "You are correct, Doctor," he replied, his grip firm but not crushing. "There is no need to thank me, however. I was simply acting out my Mistress' wishes," he added, glancing at Raven.

"Please don't call me Mistress," Raven requested. "It gives me the creeps."

Adam bowed his head briefly. "My apologies, ma'am. I'm...not at my best at the moment."

"Well, I owe all of you a great deal," the doctor said, choosing not to respond to the by-play. "Thank you."

Deciding that discussing naming with Adam in front of the Doctor and Lora would be rude, Raven instead replied, "Just doing my job. And I gotta say, it was fun kicking the Yaks' asses for once."

Snakeye couldn't help smiling at the girl's enthusiasm. Power like that must be an incredible rush, he reflected. It must be easy to believe no one owns you when you can level buildings. But she's still not too comfortable with corporate life, and she's obviously has some concerns about working for Sanato, too.

Thoughts of the esper's power reminded him of their teleport, and he looked over at the cyborg. "Feeling better, Lora?" he asked.

She nodded, saying, "I'm all right, really. It doesn't take too long to recover from something like that. Most of the time when I'm around an active PK, it can get uncomfortable. But I can usually focus past it and forget about it. But teleportation... "

"I'm sorry. I didn't know you were sensitive to PK—especially not this much." Raven said it like a gentle question.

Lora waved a hand dismissively, "Oh, don't worry about it! How could you have known? It's just an annoyance, really."

"Does the presence of other PKs affect your own abilities?" asked the doctor, unable to rein in his curiosity.

Lora looked completely non-plussed for a moment, then understanding dawned on her face as she started laughing. As she saw the serious, yet confused expressions on the other's faces, she laughed even harder.

Raven looked at her oddly, the very picture of confusion. Was that a belated shock reaction? It was way too late for that. "Um, Lora, what's so funny?"

Lora stopped laughing, although she still had a grin on her face. "Tell me Raven, do you think I have any PK talent? You should be able to, if I do, right?"

Raven looked at her, and then closed her eyes. Her face relaxed, then her brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to use that sixth sense, that 'feel' for esper auras. After a few moments her eyes popped open in surprise. "I feel it. It's the faintest I've ever met, but I feel it. And it's... warped, somehow." She shivered. "It feels like it's been hurt..." Again, a shiver ran down her spine—this was like looking at a gaping wound, an open fracture maybe, but while she'd long gotten used to physical injuries this was... different.

Snakeye leaned back against the elevator wall, looking closely at the esper. He'd never realized how much PKs could sense about each other, or that their abilities could be hurt. To Paolo, cybernetics were an ordered, controllable extension of the human body and esper power had always seemed a stormy and chaotic cousin, outside of his interest as a scientist. But now, standing next to two powerful examples of each, he wondered if there could be more to the connection.

As he was pondering this, the elevator dropped into a huge open area that looked out on the rest of the arcology complex. The other towers of the arcology dominated the view, with the Neo York skyline beyond. Below was a garden or mall area comprising a quarter of their tower's width, with the floors of the tower cut back along a wedge at least fifteen stories tall at it's highest point. It was this space that the elevator descended through inside its transparent Plexiglas tube. The trees of the garden rushed up towards them and then they were rushing through the dark again.

The lush green seemed freakishly out of place to Paolo, crystallizing a thought that had been nagging him since his arrival. It's beautiful here, he thought. I thought arcologies were like Shinkuu's—just functional. But that might just be corporate culture. Here, they've tried to introduce some beauty into it. But it's still a cage. Everyone here is owned.

The others seemed to not notice. They were probably used to the view. Lora was answering Raven, "Right. Well, that's generally what happens to PKs when a person has cybernetics implanted, or becomes a full cyborg like me. They lose their powers or they get suppressed or altered. That is, if they don't reject the cybernetics. No one really has a good idea why."

She looked back at the doctor. "Don't tell me, let me guess. The code phrase I gave you to give to Sanato and my reaction to the teleport made you assume that I was a teek like Raven, right?

"Well, yes," answered the doctor. "But I don't really know much about that field. Are you a esper?"

Lora shook her head. "No, I'm not. Not really. I can sense PKs and their power when it's used. In fact I can sense it too well sometimes. But that's the only thing I can do. The cybernetics weren't supposed to interfere with my talent. At least that's what S-T hoped. But my powers disappeared anyway when I went through the cybergraft operation. I can't lift a grain of sand."

Snakeye frowned, considering this statement. "I'm sorry. That must be a very hard thing to lose."

Lora shrugged, "Well I didn't really lose anything. My powers awoke right before the... accident. Bang! Next thing I know I'm waking up in the cybernetics ward and the really big change in my life hasn't got anything at all to do with whether I can mentally bend spoons!"

"That's a very hard thing to accept, I know," the doctor replied. "But Lora, I hope you realize you have to be very careful to whom you reveal all of that. An experiment—even a negative result—is worth what it would cost to repeat. A lot of people would go to great lengths to get all the details."

She frowned and made a slicing motion with her hand, "Listen to me. It doesn't work. It was a long shot and probably a bad idea to begin with anyway."

Snakeye was about to respond, but chose to let it go. This is a sensitive subject for her, he decided. And she's not afraid to show that. A corper in her position would be listening, trying to understand the value of the procedure that created her. She doesn't care, and she doesn't care who knows it. The thought intrigued him, because it seemed to him a form of innocence.

The doors opened onto the medical wing and the group disembarked. They found themselves in a clean, white-painted lobby, a handful of chairs and a potted plant lining the way to the reception desk. Behind it sat a tired-looking man in a security uniform, who glanced up with disinterest as the unlikely visitors approached.

"Your business?" he asked.

Before anyone could respond, a white-coated man with perfect features slipped through a side door. "They are with me," he told the guard, who promptly returned to his state of dazed disinterest. "I am pleased to meet you," the man said. "I am Albert. Mr. Sanato told me to expect you."

A replicant. Dr. Snakeye's personal watcher, I'll bet. "Good day, Albert," Raven said, noncommittally. She didn't bother to introduce herself; no doubt he already knew full well who they all were.

"If you'll follow me, then," he said, indicating the door through which he had entered. He led the visitors down the hall and through several turns, arriving finally at a pair of double doors labeled, "Biologicals Maintenance Area." The group stepped through.

They found themselves in a large room lined with beds. Rather than the complex assemblage of a modern hospital bed, these were far simpler, and lacked the omnipresent network of equipment that ordinarily sprouted on any ground labeled medical. A number of them were occupied by patients of various types—clearly replicants—while a handful of medical staff circulated through the room.

One of the staff stepped forward, a young Asian woman in a white uniform. "I am Dr. Taiken," she introduced herself. "Is this Adam?"

"Yes, it is. Adam?" Raven said, waving the replicant forward, when he dutifully stood silent and waited for her assent.

Adam stepped forward—haltingly—as ordered. "It doesn't appear to be serious," he said to the doctor, "but everyone insists I have it looked at." He smiled lopsidedly at her. "I place myself into your capable hands, doctor. Is someone going to be looking after the others then?" he added, making it sound like a foregone conclusion.

"I will attend to all your needs, of course," answered Albert.

"This should not take long, regardless," commented Taiken casually. "You're welcome to stay and observe."

Lora nodded her own affirmation, "If I could borrow your office for a few minutes, Doctor? There are a few arrangements I need to make for our guest."

Dr. Taiken said, "Certainly. The terminal's on open system mode, just use your own password key."

"Thanks." Lora turned to Dr. Snakeye, "Go ahead, I'll be with you in a few minutes."

"Thank you," said the doctor. "But please don't go to any trouble. A ride back to my clinic is really all I need right now."

"Don't worry about it, that's what I'm doing." Lora said, walking over to the doctor's office and sitting down at the desk in front of the system terminal.

The rest of the group made its way to one of the tables, where the Asian doctor gestured for Adam to lie down. She then began gently removing his bandages to inspect his wounds. After a few moments, she pulled out a handheld computer. "What is your ID code?" she asked.

Adam provided his long alphanumeric ID code, and Dr. Taiken entered it into her database. A moment later she frowned and gave Adam a quizzical look.

"You are an Escort, right?" she asked wryly. "An Epsilon 8?"

Adam shifted uncomfortably, glancing at Raven. "Epsilon 8X," he said. "Modified for special duty." He sounded...trapped, somehow.

"Ah," the Asian said, clearly not finding this to be a fully clarifying answer, but she seemed willing to accept it for the moment. "I won't even ask why a synthetic has restricted access to parts of his file," she muttered before going back to work on his injuries. They were mostly minor cuts and abrasions, but the bullet wound in his left thigh was a bit more serious. Not a complicated repair, since the bullet had passed clear through the large muscle, but there had been a fair amount of blood loss plus significant bruising around the entry wound, typical of ruptured armor injuries.

Doctor Snakeye watched, noting that Taiken asked Adam very few questions and made no casual conversation with the replicant. She doesn't view him as human, he noted. She's young enough that she might be a product of one of the "replicant medicine" programs a lot of veterinary schools have started offering. But the cyberneticist found nothing to complain about in the treatment Adam received. Taiken did not use any expensive medicines or advanced equipment, but none were demanded by the injuries.

Lora returned as the doctor was administering a shot of plasmagen to the replicant. "All set," Taiken reported. "Come back tomorrow afternoon so I can check your status," she instructed the patient.

"Yes, Ma'am, I'll be certain to do that," Adam responded politely.

Taiken nodded to the group and turned away, checking her datapad as she made her way to another patient.

"Ready to go?" Paolo asked Lora. That was abrupt, the doctor reflected. I hadn't realized how this place makes my skin crawl, how badly I want to get out. Be polite.

Lora didn't appear to notice any rudeness on his part however, "Sure. I've got a car waiting downstairs. C'mon." She led the group towards the elevators. As she passed a clock on the wall, Lora glanced over, and then did a double take at the time. "Ouch. Didn't realize it was that late...er... early. You want to pick up some breakfast along the way?"

The doctor hesitated, revulsion for the corporate environment warring with abrupt hunger pangs. Paolo realized abruptly he hadn't eaten in over 12 hours, and while he wasn't expecting haute cuisine, the thought of drinking water that didn't taste of heavy metals had a strong appeal. "That would be very nice. Thank you," he said.

"We'll take our leave then," Raven said, extending a hand to the doctor. "I hope we'll see each other again, Doctor."

Snakeye shook her hand. "I hope so as well," he said with a hint of a smile. "Though I would prefer a more social occasion."

"Yes, that would be good." Raven turned to the cyborg. "Lora, would you like to meet up sometime, maybe over lunch or something? We could talk about the PK program and stuff," she said with a friendly smile.

Lora returned the smile, "Sure, why not? Or just talk about anything. Drop me a line and I'll do the same, okay?"

"Absolutely." They exchanged addresses and said their goodbyes, and then Raven and Adam stepped into an upward bound elevator. Lora called another elevator and as they were getting on, she asked the doctor, "Got any preference for breakfast?

"Somewhere with good coffee," Paolo requested, wondering if the cyborg had enough stature to arrange that.

"Sure thing. I know just the place." She pushed a button for one of the lower floors.

The ride was much shorter this time. Only about 5 levels passed and then the elevator pinged and the doors opened. He followed Lora down a short corridor. His exhaustion must have caught up with him, because he didn't notice until they were there that Lora had brought them to a gymnasium area. And they were standing in front of the men's locker room.

The doctor blinked in confusion, but before he could say anything, Lora held up a hand, forestalling his protest, and with a no-nonsense tone to her voice, she said, "Doctor, you're tired, you're dirty, and you probably feel like hell. Step in and take a shower. I insist. You'll feel loads better. Enjoy it and don't skimp on the water. I lived in the zone myself for a couple of years. I know what it's like. Yes it is a luxury. And this is my idea. And don't argue with me." He could see the firm yet mischievous glint in her eyes.

In spite of himself, the doctor chuckled. "Are you really in security?" he asked. "Or do you work for S-T's marketing department?"

"Marketing or security, either way, we're not known for taking 'no' for an answer." She grinned.

"Well, thank you," he said. "A shower sounds wonderful."

"Enjoy it," the cyborg urged. "Just don't fall asleep in there."

The locker room was empty, except for a package sitting on one bench. Paolo looked over in surprise, and found it labeled simply "D.S." She called this in from the clinic? wondered the doctor, opening the package. Inside, he found a complete change of clothes, including a lab coat and a pair of shoes. Wow, he thought, pleased. That was really good of her. He stripped off his scrubs, relieved at the thought that he would not have to get back into them. Lora's a nice girl, he reflected. She's what? he wondered, trying to remember her medical log. Twenty, with two years since her graft? She said she lived in the Zone before that—she did say earlier that Sanato had recovered her body after an accident in the Zone. He shook his head. And now, she's an indenture. God, she's too sweet a girl for that.

He pushed those thoughts aside, knowing it would do no good to dwell on it. A stack of towels stood beside a hamper at one end of the locker, and Paolo helped himself to one as he walked back to the showers. They were individual stalls with doors, and the doctor thought for a moment that this must be a very high priority area of the arcology to allow such luxuries. Then he caught himself. This was not Shinkuu, with its trademark Spartan furnishings and ascetic lifestyle. Shiroko-Tsuhi might work very differently, allowing greater luxury to its mid-ranking operatives as a way to boost their morale. For all the cyborgs and cybernetically enhanced operatives he had met in his tenure at Avatar, Paolo knew little about how they were treated in their homes.

He pushed those thoughts aside as he hung up his towel and stepped into the stall. He turned on the water, letting the cold blast shoot into him by habit before he realized the water was unmetered, and he could have waited for it to warm up. But the heat and steam that followed was all the sweeter for that first shock, and he reveled in the simple flow of hot water. Hours of tension at last began to ease, and he simply stood in the stream, reveling in the sensation of hot, flowing water.

It was several minutes before he thought to draw soap and shampoo from the dispenser and clean himself up. When was the last time I had a real shower? he wondered. That Mafia hotel, my first night in the Zone. He smiled at the thought. That was over a year ago, and I'm still alive. He rinsed off and stood a few moments longer in the stream. I've survived the worst the Zone had to throw at me, and I'm alive. I crossed the Yak, and I'm walking away from it.

The high from that thought hung with him as he turned off the water and dried off, tying the towel off at his waist as he stepped back into the main room. But his mood evaporated abruptly as he glanced at the wall mirror. His reflection seemed perfectly normal, but the mirror's surface was marred in the infrared.

A space behind the mirror, he noticed, glancing at one corner. One-way glass, with a camera behind it. The usual arcology BS. He shook his head. Stop feeling so good about this, Paolo, he told himself. You didn't beat the Yak, you traded them for Shiroko-Tsuhi. And you might live to regret that still.

Still, he did feel much better as he put on his first set of really clean clothes in months. He stepped out of the locker room, and looked around the hallway.

Lora was waiting on a bench, with a reader held in front of her. She noticed the doctor, flipped the off switch and put the reader in a pocket inside her jacket. She also had changed clothes. The expensive, yet battered and torn clothing she had been wearing had been replaced with far more comfortable looking attire. Simple jeans and a blue shirt with a denim jacket and high top running shoes. The stark white of her hair provided a strange counterpoint, giving her an otherwise slightly exotic look that was at odds with her casual dress. She stood up to meet him, "Feeling better, Doc?"

"Much," answered the doctor with a smile. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. C'mon, let's hit the donut shop."

"Donut shop?" asked Paolo in surprise.

"Sure! Where else are you gonna find coffee this time of morning? We security types always know where the donut shops are!" She grinned in a self-deprecating manner. The surgeon laughed, and followed the cyborg through the maze of the arcology.

Shortly, they were at the donut shop. Paulo got a large mug of coffee and a pair of sausage kolachis, while Lora opted for chocolate milk and a single cheese Danish. They carried their food outside.

Which was literally outside. Paolo found himself standing under Neo York's smoggy sky, lights of the city spread out in all directions and the five huge, floodlit towers of the Shiroko-Tsuhi arcology looming over him. A small waterfall nearby masked the sounds of the metropolis beyond. The park where he stood was much larger than the small, private garden he had seen from the elevator; you could get lost here, the doctor realized. Though there were landmarks, in the form of a few smaller structures poking up above the treeline. Past them, Paolo saw the faint red of impending dawn beginning to war with the cityglow.

Lora led him to a scattering of tables not far from the door, and the pair sat down. Paolo sipped his coffee, still distracted by the view, while his host ate a few bites of her Danish. Then, Lora asked, "So. Why did you do it? Help me, that is."

The doctor looked startled. "You don't beat around the bush, do you?"

Lora looked a little startled herself, like she had belatedly realized how blunt the question was, "Well, uh, that is, you're a doctor and all and supposed to help people. But you, ah, were surrounded by Yak guys who were gonna kill you and you didn't know me... It would have been easier..."

"It's alright," he reassured her. Then he took another pull of his coffee, collecting his thoughts. Where to begin? "I used to work with a lot of cyborgs," he began. "They were assigned a very hazardous duty, in a dangerous, isolated environment. They were often injured, and I was the only one there who could take care of them. And I lived with them, worked closely with them—knew all their names, knew where they were from, and knew about the families some of them had left behind. So there was no way I could keep any distance from them, no professional removal. When one of them came in injured, I was fighting to save someone I knew, someone whose life mattered to me.

"Except, of course, we were all working for a major corporation," he continued, wondering if he was saying more than he had intended. "Who didn't care about them except as tools. So, if I needed parts for repairs, or one of my patients was looking at a lengthy convalescence, the case was deferred to the accounting department. And somewhere, some bean-counter I never met crunched numbers, and decided if it was cost-effective to save the patient.

"And, over and over again, they didn't." The doctor's hands left his coffee mug and clenched into fists, unbidden. "Over and over again, I had to go to the table and end it, because I couldn't save the patient. And I fought, screamed at administrators, stole or improvised parts, cobbled whole systems to try and rebuild a home for that gray matter. And sometimes it worked. But sometimes, there just wasn't a way, and I had to be the one to end it." He thought of the sick outrage which had driven him insane at times, floating in his crowded workshop, screaming imprecations at the corporate gods. He looked Lora straight in the eye. "Sometimes, I could talk to the patients first, and I had to tell them the cause of death was an unsigned requisition form. Other times, when the patients couldn't hear me, I just had to do it. And then call their family." He sighed, unsure how to continue, so he just asked, "Have I answered your question?"

"Yes." Lora had been quietly looking at him, her eyes reflecting horror and sympathy in reaction to his story. There was a long moment that passed between them with only the distant sounds of the small waterfall nearby cutting the silence. Then she reached over and took one of his hands and held it between both of her own. Bending her head over it, she gave his hand a quick, chaste kiss. When she spoke again, her voice was thick with emotion, "Ho to Ni Domo Arigato Gozaimashita..."

Paolo smiled, somewhere between embarrassment and gratitude. "You're welcome," he responded. I never told anyone about that before, he realized. It must just be exhaustion catching up with me, and seeing Lora like that did hit awfully close to home. "Are you OK? I know that kind of sensory deprivation can be traumatic."

She released his hand and sat back, "Yes, I've had a little bit of experience with it before, but never for so long. But I'm all right now. It's scary to think about, though." She paused and looked away up at the buildings, "I hope I don't dream about it when I go to sleep."

The doctor only nodded sympathetically, knowing there was nothing he could offer her. After an awkward pause, he asked, "So, do you live here, in the arcology?"

"Yeah, when I'm in Neo York. I've got an apartment in the Northwest Tower. But there's not much there. I've been working out of the San Francisco office for a little over a year now. So most of my stuff's out there. I'm beginning to wonder when they're going to send me back out there. Or whether I should get my most of my belongings shipped here." She sighed. "I wish I just had the choice to stay where I want, but that's not the way it works, I guess."

Paolo's eyes narrowed at this, but he hesitated a moment. Then he said, "They've given you a lot of short-term assignments, haven't they? Kept you moving around?"

"Yes," answered Lora, startled at the sudden change of subject. "Why?"

"And they've been assignments which eat up most of your spare time?"

"Yes, come to think of it," answered the cyborg. "A lot of bodyguard duty, things like that..."

"And a lot of training at odd times? Things they could have scheduled in advance, but always sprung on you at the last minute?"

"How do you know about—"

"And you haven't had a chance to see any old friends or your family?"

"Leave my family out of this!" Lora spat.

"Sorry," Paolo apologized quickly. Idiot! he cursed himself. She was in the Zone—of course she was a runaway! He sat silence, wondering if he dared continue. But Lora's distrustful glare gradually faded to guarded curiosity.

"How did you know all that?" she asked.

The doctor thought carefully before responding. "Lora, I know because it's exactly the wrong way to socialize a cyborg. Rehabilitation after any kind of extensive cybernetic implantation comes down to one word: Stability. You let the patients build themselves into a comfortable rut, get them used to doing every day things with their new body, and gradually broaden their scope. Usually," he paused, eyeing the cyborg. "Usually, you start bringing them into contact with old friends, and try to get them used to their new body. Shiroko-Tsuhi is trying to keep you off-balance. They don't want you to adapt."

Lora looked at him in confusion, "Adapt to what? I mean, I'm used to the way I am, now. What makes you think I haven't adapted?"

The doctor nodded. "You may have. Certainly, you're comfortable with your body—it's a smooth graft, and you've obviously gotten excellent training. But are you comfortable thinking about the future? Have you ever sat down and thought about what you want in the long-run?"

"Oh...that..." Lora started, looking down at her hands on the table, "...not really, no, at least not recently. I've got some ideas... But... I've sort of put them on hold for right now. I'm indebted to Shiroko-Tsuji. I've got some pretty huge medical bills. Cybernetics don't come cheap, after all. Especially not full body conversions. But you'd know better than most people what that's like, right?"

"Yes," answered Paolo. Better than you think, he added mentally. "But that's what I'm trying to get at. Lora, how carefully have you read your contract with S-T? When you figured out how many years you had to go, did you include your maintenance schedule?"

"Um... No," the cyborg responded, now growing concerned.

"You need to check that. The standard dodge here is to contractually require you to get maintenance from S-T—and depending on the rates they quoted you for maintenance, they can keep you in debt forever. Or they may have been even less subtle, and quoted the maintenance bills as 'fair market value,' which is whatever they feel like charging." The doctor looked pained, as if he hated relaying the news. "I'd like to be wrong, but if I'm not...Lora, they own you."

The young woman stared expressionlessly into the distance. She was utterly still. But for the slight breeze moving her hair, she could have been a statue. When she finally spoke again, it was almost in a monotone, "It... could be true. Due to the circumstances of my... accident... there wasn't any way to look over a formal agreement ahead of time. I could either accept the cybergraft operation... and all that it entailed... or they could allow me to pass on painlessly. That was literally my only choice. In effect I entered a binding verbal contract with the corporation. I've never seen a hardcopy of the whole agreement..."

"I'm sorry," Paolo offered, shaking his head. "You were in an impossible situation, and you had no choice." His voice spoke of real sympathy, and his expression seemed genuinely caring. But it was hard for Lora to find comfort in those dark, soulless eyes.

"But... I wanted to make sure you knew," he continued. Now there was a bitter edge to his words, as if he spoke of something very personal. "I think it's better to know. It's important to... keep something for yourself. Keep your dignity. And you can't do that if you don't know the truth."

"Strange, " Lora said quietly, almost to herself. "I haven't felt like I was in a trap before. I have a nice place to live, good clothes and food, the best medical and maintenance available, and I get to travel a lot to places I never would have otherwise.

She shook her head, "No, my life hasn't been my own. I knew that. I follow orders. They tell me what to do, and I do it. I get an expense account, not a salary. I don't get a choice as to where I live or whom I have to work with or for.

"On the other hand, I knew about at least that much going in. No illusions right? I just always thought, until now, that it was going to be okay. Hey, it's just par for the course. That's life in the corporation. It wasn't permanent. I'd buy my way out of my contract eventually, trade in the combat cybergraft for an ordinary one and be able to make my own way.

"But... If what you say is true, then... I don't know about any of that anymore."

Paolo sat, watching the cyborg, uncertain how to respond. Had he been wrong to tell her? True or not, was this the time? He'd grown up an indenture, his future obvious to him from the time he was 12. And, loath as he was to admit it, he'd been a corporate animal by then. His whole worldview had been defined by his role at Shinkuu. Lora was an adult and an alien in the environment where she was now a slave. Had he broken the truth to her for her benefit, or had it been some manifestation of his own demons? "Your experience is much different from—from anything I've ever seen. But we don't have to guess about these things. If you can get a copy of your contract, I can go over it with you and we can sort out the fine print. Find out what's really going on." He hesitated, then decided on as much honesty as he could offer. "I tend to be very emotional about these things. It was wrong for me to scare you that way without knowing the whole truth."

Lora slowly shook her head, "No, you were right. Better to know the truth than not." She sighed inwardly, Talk about being in serious denial, I've never even asked to see a hardcopy of my contract. Well, we'll see about that, now.

Suddenly, the lights around them flicked off, revealing that the sky had grown much lighter. It wasn't daylight yet, but the photocells in the lighting system were turning off the lights automatically, casting the park area into pre-dawn light.

Lora took the last bite of her Danish and washed it down with the rest of the milk in her carton, then she turned to the Doctor, "Well, ready to go, doctor?"

"Certainly," Paolo replied, swallowing his last swig of coffee. He took one more look around the ordered garden amid the chaos of the city, then followed the cyborg back inside.

After leaving the donut shop, they took another elevator down to one of the garage levels near the base of the arcology. On the way, Lora was quiet, but it seemed to Paulo that she was in a thoughtful rather than an angry mood. Either way, he didn't feel much like talking either. The exhaustion, temporarily banished by the hot shower and the coffee, was creeping up on him again. He tried to remember the last time he had slept. Yesterday? I got up around 8:00AM and thought it was just going to be another day. I can't believe all that's happened.

When they entered the garage Lora pulled out a set of keys. She pressed the call button and a horn beeped briefly and a set of headlights turned on near by, guiding them to the car, a sleek, low slung model in midnight blue that the doctor recognized as a Jinsei Kage.

Paolo blinked, then smiled. Well, I suppose it would look pretty strange to have a multimillion-dollar cyborg driving around in an economy model, he thought. The doctor had never had much use for cars—he didn't even drive—but he appreciated style. Lora noticed his look and almost sheepishly grinned, saying, "Well, why not? It's on the company tab, after all. If they're going to offer me a car to make me happy, I may as well take them for all they're willing to pay for, eh?"

"Very sensible," he reassured her. Then, searching his memory for a phrase popular among the Zone's adolescents, he added, poker-faced, "Radiant cool."

The cyborg grinned and moved to the driver's side. As they got in, Lora took off her jacket to toss it in the back and Paolo noticed several temporary patches over the synthflesh on her left arm. She hadn't gotten out of the
fight at the clinic quite unscathed after all. The doctor fought down the urge to offer to check her. Her own crew will check her out later, he thought, and I'm too tired to go through everything that happened at the clinic again.

And since she was cracked open in someone else's lab, he reflected, they'll check her thoroughly. God knows, I would. They'll know from her log that I shut down her life support in the end. Will they tell her? Should I? He hesitated. Let it go, he decided. It's late, and I just want to get back to my pile of debris. He resisted the urge to sigh. The Shens across they way owe me a favor—I can crash at their workshop. He settled into the comfortable synthleather seat, and was unnerved to find no simple seat-belt, but a complex crash-harness. He buckled it, eyeing the driver warily.

Having finished buckling her own harness, Lora turned the key and the car's engine rumbled to life behind the passenger compartment. The mirrors, steering wheel, and seat automatically calibrated themselves to her line of sight and preferences. She decided against using the DNI interface, preferring to drive manually this time out. She reached down, put the car in gear and eased it out of it's space and wound her way carefully between the rows of parked vehicles to the garage exit. Passing her ID card against the reader, she drove down the ramp past the security checkpoint and out into early morning traffic. The manmade canyons of buildings allowed occasional slivers of morning sunlight to pass between them, but it was still dark enough down at street level for most cars to have their lights on.

The doctor managed to relax after a bit. Lora didn't seem tempted to do jackrabbit starts or stops and she didn't crowd or tailgate other cars. She did have a tendency to drive noticeably above the speed limit, but not outrageously so. Understandable, really, given what she was driving. But other than that the ride was pretty smooth. The traffic was just starting to do the normal morning slow down, but they were going against the regular flow of traffic, so once they hit the expressway, it cleared up and they could speed up again. Paulo was starting to nod off when Lora spoke up

"So... If it's not being too personal... I guess one reason you 'tend to get very emotional' about the corporate world is because of previous experience with trying to give good care for your patients when higher ups didn't think it was 'cost-effective'."

"Yes," answered the doctor. "Human life shouldn't be a commodity."

"But there's also the situation with my contract. And, if you don't mind my saying so, you, well... You seemed to be really concerned with that too. So... I've been thinking... This must be something you have personal experience with, as well, right? And it burns you up?"

Paolo looked at the driver. I shouldn't give much of an answer to that, he thought. Shouldn't give too much away. But somehow the words came out of his mouth, "I was indentured at six years old. The Zone's the only freedom I can remember."

Lora glanced over at him, startled, then fixed her eyes back on the road. "Six? SIX? Where could that happen?!"

"Mexico," Paolo replied. God, I am so tired. Why the Hell am I talking like this? She's a nice kid, but I should not be giving all this away.

"Oh. I see. Of course." She shook her head. "No child worker laws down there. I'm sorry. I sometimes forget we get our news somewhat filtered here in the UNA. That wouldn't really fly here. But actually, come to think of it, if the company considers me indentured, then it's not 'official', at least not here in North America. But I guess they just hide it legally, like you said."

It's not quite like you think, he wanted to object. It wasn't much labor, it was education. Accumulation of human capital, in the days before you could grow it in vats. But this time he managed to resist the urge to spell out the situation in detail. "Exactly," he answered. "The details don't matter—the bottom line is control."

"You know... I think I will scare up a copy of that contract for you to look at."

"I'd be happy to," the doctor replied. He thought a moment. "I guess I'd better give you a call when I know where I'll be," he said. "But if you need to find me, I'm usually in 93 Underground on Thursday nights. If I'm not around, the head bouncer—Duke—will probably know where to look."

Lora nodded, "I'll keep that in mind. I know who Duke is."

They were on the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge and the Kage was almost completely alone at this hour of the morning. Only a single battered old electric pick-up truck loaded down with clear plastic fresh water jugs shared the road with them, and the Kage passed it quickly as they moved up onto the bridge proper. About midway across Lora had to start slowing down because of the zig zagging barriers and defensive positions that had been erected as a stopgap should any go gangers ever actually breach the main gate on the bridge. So far, it had never happened.

Lora pulled up to a stop next to the main guardpost. The gate itself wasn't open yet, and they had to stop for a security check in any case. A few of the NYPDInc officers at the gate and on the wall turned to look at them as they got out of the vehicle, and a couple of them talked to each other out of earshot and shot appreciative glances at both the girl and her car.

The Sergeant on Duty stepped over to them, looking at the Kage, then at Lora, "I suppose you're headed into the Zone?" By his tone, he made it understood that he knew that it was a rhetorical question but that he had to ask anyway. When Lora indicated that was the case, the officer said, "Okay, I haven't seen either of you two before, so if I could see some I.D. please?"

Lora had her SINcard, but the doctor had no physical I.D. This turned out not to be that much of a problem. The sergeant took a minute to run the Doctor's name and prints through the UNA database. Paulo wasn't too concerned. There would be no warrants for his arrest, and in fact, should the sergeant have decided to run a more thorough check, the most he might have found was that Paulo was a Mexican citizen declared dead in Jamaica. But once the sergeant was satisfied that there were no outstanding warrants for either of the two of them, he cleared them to pass through.

Just when they were about to get back in the car, the little electric truck they had passed earlier rolled up and the driver stuck his head out and called out, "Hey DOC!!"

When Paulo turned to look, he saw that it he recognized the man. It was a vendor named Amin, a sprightly old Arab who operated an import and barter business between the Zone and Manhattan. One of his sons was in the passenger side with him.

"Morning, Amin," said Paolo, smiling at the sight of a familiar face. "Good to see you."

Amin grinned widely and waggled his eyebrows, "So, Doc—looks like you had a pretty good night! I keep telling you, the ladies'll love you if you just loosen up a bit!"

The doctor blinked, fatigue blurring the meaning behind the obvious innuendo. Then he looked at Lora, then back at the car, then back at Lora. Then the stress of the evening caught up with him and he threw back his head and laughed heartily, if a touch hysterically.

Lora, who had caught the meaning, was torn between being amused and embarrassed, and the Doc's laughter was turning the moment surreal. My irony meter is officially pegged, Lora thought.

Paolo leaned back against the hood of the Kage, trying to catch his breath. "Oh, yeah—we had a blast!" he informed the puzzled Arab. "She's a knockout!" He winked at Lora, the light-hearted gesture a tad eerie given the composition of his eyes.

Lora simply rolled her eyes at the comment and groaned.

"Hey, Amin," asked the doctor. "Could I get a ride with you?"

The importer shrugged. "Sure."

"He's a friend of mine—goes right to Fort Dixie," Paolo explained. "It could save you the trip. God knows, I'd think twice about bringing a car like that into the Zone," he added.

"I was thinking the same thing, but I didn't just want to drop you off at the border either. I guess this is better."

"Well..." the doctor said awkwardly. "Lora, I can't thank you enough. I didn't... I didn't think things were going to end well for me tonight. Thanks for taking care of me."

"Doc, don't," she said, holding up a hand. "It was the least I could do. I owe you everything—literally everything. Not many people would have done what you did for me, and someday I'm going to find a way to pay you back."

Uncertain how to say more, Paulo simply nodded good-bye and climbed up into the bed of the truck next to the water jugs, moving a couple of them just a bit so he could sit and stretch out his legs reasonably comfortably. Just as he was getting comfortable and the truck started to move, he heard Lora call out to Amin to hold up for a moment. He was turned the wrong way to see her and so craned his neck just in time to see her toss something into the bed of the truck at his feet.

A surgical and cybernetics field kit. Much like the one he had entered the Zone with the first time.

Lora had a look of... Paulo could only call it 'calculated innocence'...

"Someone left this in my car." She said with just the slightest grin. "Must be yours 'cause I'm no surgeon. I wouldn't know what to do with it all."

The doctor stared in disbelief, a thousand worries he hadn't known he had suddenly easing. It was all right—he could conquer the world with gear like this. He'd already proven that. But --

Lora cut him off before he could speak, using a lower voice meant only for his ears. "You don't owe the corporation for this. This is out of my expense account. If you like, call it... enlightened self interest."

Paolo smiled and nodded. "Thank you," he said again. "Good luck to you. With everything."

She nodded, then motioned to Amin and stepped away from the truck as it pulled away.

He leaned back against the cab of the truck, arms resting on water jugs. The cab's rear window cracked open. "So who is she?" asked the Arab, weaving his way through the roadblocks.

Behind them, Lora returned to the car and slipped inside, making a 3-point turn before driving away from the checkpoint. "She's one in a million," answered the doctor. "Someone who's getting a raw deal, but still cares."

"About what?"


They drove on a little further. "I don't want to tell you how to run your life, Doc," said the old Arab, breaking the silence. "But she's a corper—gotta be. Corpers is hard people to live with, you know what I mean? Always something hanging over them. Always something making things complicated. And complicated's not good. Right? Right?"

There was no answer from the bed. Amin's son looked back. "I think he's asleep, Dad," the youth reported in Arabic.

"Let him sleep," answered the importer in the same language. Then, after a beat, added, "And keep your hands out of his pockets. He's useful!"

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