The cell phone rang. Paolo rolled over, reaching one hand onto the floor where he had left his pack and fumbling through the side pouch which held his headset. He pulled it out, groggily slipping it into place.
"Hello?" he mumbled, barely coherent.
It was Louie's voice. "Can you fix a cyborg?"
"Huh?" mumbled the doctor.
"Can you fix a cyborg?" the fixer repeated, obviously irritated. "I got you a cash patient. Go to the Army Surplus on Maple, just north of Darkside. My cut is 10%."
The doctor forced himself awake. "This is legit?"
"Yeah. It's cash, and the patient's reliable. You going?" Louie seemed to want to wrap this up before it became a conversation.
"Good." The phone went dead. The doctor reached for his clothes.
As Paolo turned onto Maple Street, he was disturbed to find a light on in the abandoned Army Surplus store. A visible sign of occupancy spoke of carelessness in this district, where no local gang or militia patrolled. Open windows lined the storefront, any glass or plywood which had once lined them had long since been removed by scavengers. For a moment, Paolo considered simply walking away and going back to the safe, comfortable night's sleep he had earned at the bordello by treating its staff for assorted veneral diseases earlier in the evening. But the doctor choked down his concerns. Louie had vouched for this patient, and the bartender was too protective of his reputation to back anyone unreliable.
The doctor stepped up to the entryway, and found that the door, too, had fallen prey to some scavenger's avarice. Through it, he could now see that the flickering light came from a fire which had been built under a broken skylight, and three men huddled around it. Their close proximity to the heat and light of the fire made it hard for Paolo to pick out any details of the figures, but they appeared to be young males of the sort one treated warily in the Zone.
They had set no look-out, and no one accosted the doctor. More bad news. But Paolo was trying to save as much as possible of the compensation the Yakuza had made for the destruction of his clinic, and the doctor needed a steady flow of currency to maintain his practice. If they were willing to pay, he had to go ahead with it. Paolo cleared his throat. "Gentlemen," he said quietly.
The three men jerked awkwardly, only one of them having the presence of mind to raise a weapon. It was a machine pistol, which had apparently been holstered at his side. The others simply stood unsteadily up, staring at him.
"You called for a doctor?" Paolo prompted.
The youth holding the gun—a tall, scruffy sort—snorted at this. "Don't think so," he sneered.
The doctor wanted to kick himself. No wonder nothing had fit—these weren't Louie's clients! Best to get out of this as quickly as possible. "It seems I am misinformed," he said. "If you'll excuse me—"
"Nope," the gun-toting gang member answered. "We won't." He staggered forward, coming toward Paolo with the shaky gait of one under heavy narcotics. His friends fell in step with him, stumbling similarly. "We're having a bad night, and maybe looking to change our luck."
The doctor wondered if they were planning sexual assault, but suspected the ganger was simply referring to cutting him up for parts in Darkside. "My name is Doctor Snakeye," he told them confidently, "And I have an insurance policy with Union Triad." He lifted the multicolored tag he wore around his neck.
This seemed to strike all three of them funny. "Oh, good," muttered one of the other men.
The leader nodded. "We're kinda pissed at them right now," he said. "And you know something funny about them?"
"No," answered Paolo.
"They're not here right now."
There was more sniggering. The doctor confidently stared down the three youths, knowing it would be over if they caught any whiff of the sickening panic trying to crawl its way out of his stomach. Now that they were closer, Paolo could see that the leader's face had a recent gash, and one of his sidekicks had a hand full of badly-splinted fingers. Clearly, they had been on the losing end of a fight and had come here to get high and lick their wounds. And what better way to regain their self-esteem than killing a stranger?
There seemed only one way out of this. "I have drugs with me," the doctor told him. "I'll trade them for the right to walk away."
There was more sniggering at this. The inebriated gangers didn't give Paolo much credit—they genuinely believed he thought he could buy his way out of this with something they could just as easily get from his corpse. But the leader seemed to enjoy the thought of playing along.
"OK," he said. "Let's see what you've got."
The doctor reached into his overcoat, and slowly withdrew a tightly wrapped brown paper bundle. "Here," he said, tossing it to the leader. The man caught it deftly and looked at it with his glazed eyes.
Paolo's slug caught him in the chest and sent him reeling backwards.
The doctor panted as he sprinted around the corner, grateful neither of the other gangers had had the sense to draw their own guns. But he'd looked weak to them, and they'd been careless. And stoned. So Paolo had gotten the opening he needed to draw, using the move he had so carefully programmed into his enhanced nervous system the day before he entered the Zone. And marksmanship had been one of the few combat skills the surgeon had truly mastered.
That won't be enough to stop them, he thought, running frantically down the alley. Behind him he could hear the threesome shouting. The leader's jacket had been armored, and his inebriated state meant he had probably not even felt Paolo's slug. The three of them would be tearing out after him now, outraged that someone so weak could humiliate them.
I can outrun them, the doctor thought. They're stoned, and I'm fast. But my surgical pack is slowing me down, and banging around and making noise to boot. Do I need to ditch it?
His thoughts were interrupted by a piercing scream, followed by a stream of gunshots. Sounds like those were from that machine pistol, the doctor concluded, not slowing down. Did they run into someone else? He did not seriously consider returning. He had no reason to believe anyone else he met tonight would be better disposed to him than the gangers had been.
A few more gunshots rang out, then there was silence. Paolo wound through two more alleys before stopping to rest in a recessed doorway. It's probably safe, he decided. Those three couldn't have seen me those last two turns, and I haven't heard a thing since those gunshots. I'll rest a minute, then walk back --
"Dr. Snakeye," a voice whispered, just a few feet behind him.
He did not start. Instead, he turned slowly, hands in view, wondering what fate had delivered him this time.
It was a woman. She stood a petite 5'1," and a wore tan duster over a black bodysuit. Her Eurasian features spoke of cold resolution, dark eyes watching the doctor impassively, and she carried a long sword. Not a sword, the doctor corrected himself, eyeing the meter-long handle under the equally long blade. A nagimaki.
But Paolo was too much the cyberneticist to be distracted by the pole-arm. His clinical gaze quickly took in the woman's frame, analyzing both the heat signature and the telltale abnormalities of the visible spectrum to conclude that this woman was almost a full-body cyborg. Muscle and skeletal enhancements were obvious, and the asymmetry in the infrared spectrum of one hand suggested an internally mounted weapon. The carefully uniform internal temperature of her torso suggested she retained some organic components, but these were well protected by what was obviously military grade gear. Only her head appeared largely unaltered; he could not tell if the cranium was natural or not, but her eyes were definitely human.
"You are my patient?" asked the doctor. He noted a slight deformation in one leg, suggesting injury.
She nodded. "I am Tetsutenshi," she reported. "Iron Angel," Paolo's skillchip translated helpfully. "I apologize for missing you at our rendezvous."
The name rang a bell with Paolo. She was a bounty hunter, with a reputation for efficiency and square dealing. "What happened?" he asked.
"The three idiots showed up after I'd arranged the meeting," she explained. "I'd hoped they would leave before you arrived, and save me unnecessary bloodshed." The cyborg looked embarrassed. "I was moving into position to deal with them when you made your move. They won't bother you any more," she added, tossing him the brown paper bundle he had thrown to the gang leader.
Well, that explains the screaming, Paolo decided. He put the package away, pleased to have it back. It was the last of the homemade soybake bars Bell had given him, and he'd been saving it for breakfast.
"You wanted some work done?" he asked, glancing at her leg.
"Yes," answered Tetsutenshi. "Can you fix it?"
"I'll have to look," answered the doctor. And, irritated by the night's events, he added, "And I'd like to see some cash up front."
The cyborg seemed unperturbed by the demand, and casually reached into her pocked and tossed him a roll of bills. He thumbed through them quickly; the bills all seemed battered, but the denominations were high. "Alright," he said. This was likely to cover any but the most expensive parts, and she would not have been walking at those been damaged. "I need a safe place to make my examination," he said.
She nodded. "I have a safehouse near here. It's where I was planning to take you after the rendezvous."
Tetsutenshi's safe house turned out to be a long-abandoned automobile service station, the kind which had offered 20 minute oil-changes in the days when people could afford gasoline. The place seemed to have been thoroughly stripped when the cyborg led Paolo in, but then she lifted a huge steel plate in the floor of the garage to reveal a work area. Once, mechanical jacks had lifted cars above this space, and mechanics had stood recessed beneath them to work on the undercarriage. Now, however, all of that equipment had been cleared out, and Tetsutenshi had adopted the oil-stained space.
It was cramped, packed as it was with the bounty hunter's spare gear. Boxes of food, water and batteries were packed against one wall, while spare weapons and various forms of armored clothing hung elsewhere. Once the pair were inside, the cyborg carefully replaced the steel plate above them before switching on a small hand-held flashlight. She rummaged through her supplies a moment before finding a larger lamp, which she turned to provide light in the oil-stained concrete space.
"Nice place," commented the doctor. "Prime real estate."
"I don't spend much time here," she answered, folding up a bedroll to make space on the floor.
As she knelt, the doctor noticed her coat was torn in the back. "You have a back injury?" he asked.
"Some plate damage," she replied. "The leg is the priority."
He nodded. "Let's have a look at it then," the doctor said. She pulled off her boot and rolled back the leg of the bodysuit while the surgeon pulled off his pack and set it in easy reach.
When he looked down at the leg, he was surprised to find no synthskin or other cosmetic covering for the metal and polymer cyberlimb. Whoever had prepared this woman had obviously decided to forego the added expense of making her appear human. Well, some of my best friends looked inhuman, he reminded himself, moving on with the inspection.
The damage was more extensive than he had believed. The layer of ballistic cloth which normally protected combat-grade cyberlimbs had been ripped from its anchor points, and the synthetic muscle beneath it was twisted and partially torn, barely enough of it intact to work the leg. Paolo was surprised the woman had been walking. There was damage to the lubricant fluid circulatory system as well, and for a moment the surgeon feared she might have permanently damaged the leg by working it after the fluid had leaked out. But then he saw that she had folded the tubing over itself and wired it shut to form a seal. Clearly, she knew at least the rudiments of emergency maintenance.
But before setting to work, Paolo wanted to make sure he understood the full extent of the trauma. So he asked a question he always hated to ask of the Zone's more violent denizens. "How did this happen?"
He always worded it carefully, so that the patient was obliged only to reveal the details of the injury rather than the situation. But the cyborg seemed unperturbed. "I was following up a lead in Darkside when the building I was in collapsed," she answered. "My leg got caught under an I-beam. Took some doing to get out from under."
The surgeon examined the injury. Well, that explained it, he thought. The crushing damage was minimal—she'd probably done most of the tearing trying to free herself. "You twisted it, didn't you?" he asked, unable to keep the irritated tone out of his voice. He hated to see good equipment abused. "You should always try just to pull it free straight—the tensile strength of the musculature is much stronger than the shear."
"I was in kind of a hurry," explained Tetsutenshi patiently. "The noise drew some scavengers, one with an axe. That's how I got the back injury. Can you fix it?"
"Of course," answered Paolo, not realizing she had doubted his skills. He pulled cleaning solvents out of his kit, and set to work irrigating the wound. I've got some spare actuator in this grade, he thought, planning the procedure has he went. And that wad of bills will more than cover it. So I'll tear out the whole lot and replace it. Then just heat graft the ballistic cloth back on...he looked more closely.
"I need to replace the anchor bolts," he said. "I have some titanium ones with me, if you'd like to use those. The manufacturer recommends Hercuplex, but I'd have to order those and they need to be replaced yearly. That's why these gave," he added, holding up the remains of one of the parts.
"How much strength do I give up with titanium?" she asked.
"Not much," replied the surgeon. "And to be honest, if something's going to give, it's better if it's the bolts. Ballistic cloth's pricey."
The cyborg nodded. "Titanium, then," she instructed.
The operation proceeded smoothly from there, as Paolo grafted in the new musculature and re-fit the armor. He pulled out his small blowtorch and hesitated, eyeing the poor ventilation, but decided it was safe to heat seal the exterior layer back together.
It took only a few passes. "All set," he reported. The woman flexed the newly repaired limb.
"Feels good," she reported. She stood up and reached to touch the ceiling plate, then flexed her ankles a few times, slowly lifting it up and down. "It works," she concluded.
Paolo nodded. "Let's have a look at your back," he suggested. She stripped off her bodysuit entirely now, revealing the full extent of her cybernetic body. Armor plates, ballistic cloth and actuator formed what some might have been viewed as a mockery of the human form, but to Paolo's eye it appeared a simple and efficient machine. The overall frame's a Hong Kong model, he noted. And the armor pattern is a model popular on the Pacific rim about ten or fifteen years ago. This was relevant to him only in that the configuration was familiar, and unlikely to contain any surprises. He unfolded her bedroll again and gestured for her to lie down.
"It doesn't look bad," he noted, eyeing the wound. Indeed, the cyborg's self-diagnosis had been correct. The axe had dislodged two of her dermal backplates from their mountings, but none of the damage seemed to have been carried inward. He pulled the plates back to reveal the musculature beneath them, and examined the actuator material under the extreme magnification his eyes provided. Nothing but some superficial wear, he concluded. This won't take long.
He set to work again, carefully cleaning musculature before epoxying the plates back into position. The cyborg lay patiently motionless as he painted new synthskin over the gash. As he finished, his eyes returned to a small gash on the back of her shoulder, where the muscle actuator was torn. "Looks like you've got an older tear in the muscle," he said. "Not serious, but it could fray. Want me to patch it up?"
"Sure," she said casually. "Must have been that esper last week," she added, apparently thinking out loud.
"As your doctor," he joked, feeling expansive now that the real work was finished. "I should tell you that the surgeon general has determined that dealing with espers can be bad for your health."
"Who?" asked the cyborg in confusion.
She didn't grow up in North America, the doctor realized. She's old enough to remember those warnings, back when anyone listened to the national governments. "Never mind," he said. "Old joke." He began applying the rubbery gel which would blend with the muscle and harden to protect it.
"Sounds like the esper I met," Tetsutenshi responded, amused by the thought. "Joke was on me. An old, one-armed guy with a big bounty on his head. It looked too easy—I should have known he was an esper."
"It happens," observed Paolo. Then, hoping to gain a little useful intelligence, he asked, "Who does he work for?"
"No one, as far as I know," she replied. "I don't even think he's for hire. He said he was a psychologist."
An old, one-armed esper psychologist? Wondered the doctor. Something from his youth crept back into his mind. "His name wasn't Richard Floyd, was it?" he asked, trying to conceal his surprise.
"Yeah, it was," said the woman, turning over just enough to look at the doctor. "You know him?"
"Just of him," the doctor reassured her, brushing on the last bit of actuator gel. "That'll do it. Give it a minute to dry before you put your clothes back on."
She nodded. "So, who is he?" she asked, sitting up.
"He's...an activist," said the doctor, wondering if the cyborg would really understand what that had meant in the days when governments could rein in corporations. "He works for replicant rights." If he's still active, added Paolo mentally. Christ, he was old fifteen years ago—I didn't know he was still alive.
"Oh," answered the cyborg, seemingly uninterested. She was clearly ready to dismiss the man as a crazy.
For a moment, Paolo was tempted to try to make her understand. Floyd had been a leader in the replicant rights movement, one of the host of voices calling for their recognition as humans. It had been in the wake of the Second Civil War, when America's divisions were still new and raw. There had been hope then. The fighting had been over and the world-wide recession seemed to be easing. There had been a chance that the new governments could reassert their strength, and force the corporations back into line. That somehow they could mandate some small kernel of respect for the human soul. The enslavement of replicants had been the most visible and obvious form of man's degradation, and had that fight been won it might have turned the tide. But...
But the recession had eased, not vanished, and the debt-ridden governments of the former United States had been unable to face down the nearly unlimited power of corporate wealth. Floyd and his comrades had made a noble stand, and the movement had gained some popularity, but in the end it made no difference.
Paolo shook his head sadly, realizing he didn't have the heart to lecture the woman. The replicant rights movement in North America had been loud and highly visible, but it had sunk like a stone in Japan and the far east. Of course this Asian woman would not be impressed by Floyd's involvement. Australia had been the movement's only real victory, and these days the Aussies were derided as kooks by the rest of the world. He thought of asking where to find Floyd, then chided himself. If the bounty hunter knew, she would have collected the bounty. "Go ahead and get dressed," he said. She looked over, perhaps sensing a bit of melancholy in his voice, but simply pulled on her jumpsuit.
Time to go home, he decided, and get some of that sleep I earned. "Well, it's a pleasure doing business with you," he said, handing her a paper business card. "My cellular number's on that, so you can call me directly in future. Please do not give that number out," he added. It was his new modus operandi—people could find him if they really wanted him, but he wanted Louie to screen new patients to prevent him from walking into traps.
A brilliant strategy, the doctor told himself sardonically. But the cyborg did not seem finished with him.
"Actually, doctor," she said, as if uncertain she wanted to involve the doctor in her next project. "I'd like you to come look at something, if you have time."
"What?" asked Paolo, curious.
"A body." She pushed the plate out of the way and climbed up the ladder. "I'll pay you extra," she added.
The doctor followed her up. "OK," he said.
She carefully reset the plate. "Well, we'd better get going," she observed. "It's a long walk."
The two walked off into the autumn darkness.
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