The two creatures crouched like metallic insects against the steel beam, sunlight gleaming harshly off their burnished skins. Around them spread an enormous network of girders, interspersed with enclosures and construction platforms. Beyond the unfinished structure, the blue and white ball of Earth drifted lazily past, painfully bright against the starlit sky behind it.

One of the creatures moved. It was four-legged, gripping the beam with splayed, five-fingered claws as it pulled itself along the surface. The legs moved oddly, rotating in universal joints where each of them met the torso, which was long and narrow. It wore a harness built from some kind of plastic cabling, bedecked with an array of what could only be tools. One end of the torso sported a strange, elongated sphere which it took a moment to realize might indeed be a head. A pair of small, protruding spheres sat where eyes should have been, and two stubby antenna bundles stood in mockery of ears. A handful of other grooves and ridges graced the smooth surface, but nothing to spark recognition in an untrained observer.

The head swiveled to bear on something, and the eye was drawn to a large, bullet-shaped object just taking shape in the distance. It was perhaps a meter across, and moving on a trajectory which would take it within a few hundred meters of the platform. The creature waited motionless for some time, then gathered its feed under itself and launched itself into space. Its legs spread wide from the body and flared with light as thrusters built into the flats of its hand-feet activated. The light flickered continuously for several seconds before cutting off abruptly, leaving the flier on a path seemingly unrelated to that of the newcomer.

The two seemed destined to pass within perhaps fifty meters of each other when the insect-like glider moved its legs again. This time, the legs swung upward through the plane of its body and onto the other side, while the head rotated 180 degrees in its socket. The creature's symmetry was suddenly obvious; it was now identical to its initial form, but its top and bottom had been switched.

Now the thrusters flared again, this time asymmetrically, so that the body's trajectory shifted to exactly match that of its target. Once the two were perfectly matched, a final brief gust from the thrusters boosted the creature into the speeding object, and it brought its legs back through its body in a maneuver which was somewhere between grabbing and landing on the bullet.

Once in place, the insect-thing maneuvered still further around its surface. The two bodies were of roughly equal size, and both moved significantly in response to the creature's actions. At last, it seemed to decide it was satisfied with its position, and carefully brought two legs into contact with its harness. Two tethers were removed and clamped into sockets on the bullet, then carefully tightened until the newly-joined objects could maneuver as one body.

The creature tried to maneuver its heavy burden back to the platform, its thrusters glowing brightly as it fed more fuel to them. It took several minutes of painstaking adjustments, but at last the pair of bodies slipped onto a course for the unfinished space station. The bodies moved slowly, until seconds before impact the thrusters flared once more. The creature touched down effortlessly on the girder, but wasted no time reveling in its success. It crawled along the superstructure until it reached one of the enclosured areas, and pulled open a door. Then, carefully maintaining a grip on the superstructure with two feet, it used its other two limbs to unclamp its prize and place it inside. It closed the door and crawled back to the position it had held before the cargo's arrival.

Now the second creature came forward. It was similar to the first, but some differences were clear. Its limbs were narrower, but flared into larger clawed foot-hands. The head was joined to the body by a longer neck, which craned about expressively as the creature scanned the sky, and coiled against its back was a whiplike tail.

Its eye fell on another bullet-object, flying exactly the same course as the first, and as its companion before it it leapt into the sky. Once there, the tail uncoiled, and swung side to side to shift the creature's orientation as needed. The additional limb made it somehow more graceful as it repeated the same ballet, gently mating with the prize before pulling it back to the station. When it finished, it, too, returned to its position.

Now the first creature came forward again, and another bullet came into view. It launched itself into space yet again.

The pair repeated their bizarre ritual, time a meaningless concept as they launched, retrieved, and returned to their positions. Again and again they brought the bullet-objects to the enclosure, always working at the same stoic pace. Always their cargoes came in pairs, one for each of them on the same trajectory. Sometimes one would miss the cargo on the first pass and have to chase after it; other times, one would hit to hard, and ding itself or the prize. The Earth hung unchanging as thousands of the cargoes were retrieved.

Then, in response to the fulfillment of a condition in an algorithm that created the universe, the creatures and their reality vanished.

In his chair at the 93 Underground, Paolo shifted the display behind his eyes, returning his attention from the exterior world of the band to the virtual reality lent him through his datajack. The results of his simulations were in, and they were everything he had hoped for. The new design did indeed reduce cargo-handling errors for the railgun pallet, and the fuel inefficiencies were not as dramatic as he had feared. The addition of the tail meant less energy had to be spent aligning the cyborgs' rotation, saving substantial effort. Of course, the tail would complicate the neural map necessary to control the inhumanoid form, but the technology for implementing such maps had improved dramatically in the decade since he had first designed the Pisces.

He smiled in satisfaction, somehow drawing pleasure in the smoky air of the nightclub. It had seemed a radical idea to him to bring his work here, but why not? The programs were all contained on the high-performance portable he had purchased through Asagiri, and he had physically torn out all wireless networking hardware to maintain security. Theft was a risk, of course, but it was probably safer here with Duke and his people than anywhere else he could have left it. And sitting here, with the datacable running into his battered leather bag, who could know he was hooked up to anything more valuable than a PlayStation 200? He could sit here, sip vodka (in moderation, he was working) and listen to the band while he tinkered with the design.

More important than the practical benefits, though, was the emotional high. He had trained in an environment where his every move was watched, especially when he was working. He could not have taken a page of notes to the cafeteria for coffee, let alone left the building with his computer! But now he was a free man. The computer was his. The data was his. And the success - that sweet, beautiful high of an idea realized—was his alone. He could work where he damn well pleased.

But no more tonight, he decided, unjacking the cable and tucking it back in the bag. The frame was performing well, ready to be stolen and delivered to Mitsumi two weeks from now, right on schedule. Tomorrow he would turn his attention to the details of lifesystems and sensory suites, and after that the on-board electronics and finally the neural map. All deep, challenging problems he could look forward to. But he was well ahead of schedule, and ready to take the rest of the night off.

He threw Sylvie a smile as he waved to her for another drink, and settled back to listen while tonight's performers—Radioactive Dawn - launched into its rendition of "Silicon Rust."

Lora's eyes adjusted automatically as she walked into the main part of club from the guncheck where she had checked her ordinance. Her current assignment and some unwanted news on another front had her in a bad mood, and she wanted to take a break and chill out.

As she wandered over to the bar to get a drink, the pounding backbeat and growling bass line of the music washed over her. It made her feet want to move. Lora decided she liked this band. 93 Underground always seemed to get the best live acts in the Zone. Lora had heard of a recent dustup that had partially wrecked some of the club. But it was obviously cleaned up now and there didn't seem to be any lack of clientele. Probably just enhanced the reputation of the place, she thought with wry amusement.

She ordered a beer and leaned with her back to the bar to drink and watch the crowd. She noticed a few looks people close by gave her. She knew she must smell like a corper to them. Her clothes were too new and she looked too clean. But she was also alone. And corpers never seemed to come to the Zone, let alone 93 Underground, by themselves. Either they came in groups for a sense of safety in numbers, or they brought a bodyguard. Usually a Puma or a Lynx. In that sense, Lora was an anomaly.

She had only come here a couple of times when she had been living by herself in the Zone, and it had been a few years since then. So no one knows me here. And I didn't spend enough time here to be a natural Zoner anyway. I'm an outsider.

Lora's mood, which hadn't been happy-happy, joy-joy to begin with, took a nosedive. All of a sudden, she felt an acute sense of isolation from the people around her.

Alone in the crowd, she reflected, as she stared into her beer, It's sort of like that in the arcology, too. I haven't been playing the corporate game long enough to be part of that world either. I don't fit in. Not here, and not at "home".

Shit. She downed the half of her beer that she hadn't already drunk in three swallows and told her toxin filters to open up a little and let her get a buzz.

Turning back around, she ordered another beer from the bartender.

"Excuse me madam? Might one inquire as to the nature of this unlikeliest intersection of such an extraordinary example of feminine exquisiteness in an establishment, which, though it has own charms to one of a discriminating nature, nonetheless has a disreputable reputation. One that would normally daunt such a delicate individual such as yourself from crossing its threshold?"

"Excuse me?" Lora looked to her left. A gaunt thin, grungy, singularly unattractive looking man with a spiked orange hairdo and too many body piercings was apparently the source of the overly wordy statement. It took her a moment, but when she had parsed the language, she realized that she had been the recipient of a new permutation of one of the oldest come-on lines on the planet.

Lora's eyes narrowed. "No."


"Whatever it is. Whatever you want. No. Nein. Nada. Nyet. Iie. I'm not available, I'm not looking. I'm NOT interested."

"Ah. Well. I shall excuse myself from your most charming company then. Good evening." He wandered off.

Lora shook her head, "Weirdo."

Paolo's physician's eye noted Spratt's wounded dignity as he made his way back to the table where his partner was sitting. Curious, the doctor looked over to the bar and saw his point of origin, then smiled.

Sylvie stopped by the table to pick up his empty glass. "Another, Doc?" she asked.

"I think I'll move up to the bar, thanks," said the doctor. "Would you mind dropping this at the gun check?" he asked, offering the bag with his computer in it.

The waitress accepted with a nod, then shook her head as he noticed the object of Paolo's attention. "Hitting on another corper babe?" she asked. "Why do you do this, Doc? You know you don't have a chance in Hell."

The doctor grinned. "Well," he explained, "Normally it's a passive-aggressive assault on the social immunity our heirarchical society confers upon the elite, but this time I'm just razzing a friend."

"Oh," said Sylvie, as if that explained anything. She moved off to the next table while Paolo made his way over to the bar.

Lora was slumped on her stool, eyes focussed on the top of the bar. The doctor swung dramatically into place beside her, throwing back his head and arching his back in an overdone "hip come-on" pose. "Hey, Baby," he said, in a lounge lizard voice borrowed from a bad 3D movie, "Heaven must be missing an anvil, because you hit me like a 16 ton weight."

What followed next took on a slightly surreal quality because the lighting system had taken that moment to dim the main lights and cycle in the strobes on the dance floor. Lora seemed to go instantly from slumped at the bar to facing him with an angry expression on her face, "LEAVE ME ALO-..." recognition settled in, and she said in a surprised, but much lower tone of voice, "...Doc!! I'm sorry! What are you doing here?"

"Getting what I deserve, I guess," he joked weakly, settling back onto the barstool he had reflexively vacated. "Sorry, Lora, I was just kidding."

"No, I'm sorry. I'm just not in a good mood. I shouldn't have taken it out on you, though." She shook her head, "Anvil, huh? That's actually pretty funny, really, but you just caught me at the wrong time for that."

The doctor smiled. "No problem. Believe me, I've been there," he assured her.

"So, how are things?" asked Lora.

"Going pretty well, actually," Paolo replied. "I've...started a new project lately, and it's turning into something good." He hesitated a moment, unsure how to ask, and added, "It's good to see you again. Are you doing alright?"

"I suppose. Depends on how you define it, I guess." She sighed. "It's a little too noisy here, let's get a booth."

"Sure thing Lora," He said. It's very bad news, he concluded. She doesn't want to talk in front of people.

They picked up their drinks and moved over to another table by the wall, away from the bar and the dance floor towards the far side of the club from the main entrance.

Now that they were standing, Paolo noticed how out of place her clothing appeared. She wore a dark blue jacket which might have been fashionable except that it hung in a way suggesting ceramic armored plates across the torso. Her pants were black armorcloth, and the way they followed the graceful curve of her thigh suggested there might be a ballistic cloth skinsuit under them as well. Even her boots looked sturdy enough to be armored, and Paolo noted the large, empty pistol holster at her belt. The oversized pockets at her hips were full of some kind of gear as well.

What's going on? wondered the doctor. That's more armor than she was wearing the night she showed up at the clinic, and she was on bodyguard duty then. What the Hell is she expecting now?

After they had sat down again, Lora sipped at her beer. She was silent for a long moment, then said, "You were right about the contract, you know. I tried to ask nicely about it and got the polite run around. They were trying to discourage me from thinking about it. I imagine if I had pressed the issue, they would have outright denied me access and started questioning my loyalty."

She snorted contemptuously, "I may not have been raised as a corper, but I'm not completely na”ve. I stopped asking directly and started netdiving. I'm no Asagiri or WinterRose, but I got trained on security systems by some of the best in-house sysops and I ought to damn well know the _home_ system, y' know?" She took another drought of her beer, "So I grab the files, print 'em up, dump all the caches and traces and start reading. Know what I found?"

She paused, but the doctor took it as a rhetorical question and simply waited. She continued. "It's hard to sort through the legalese. But it's all pretty clear once you do. They hold all rights to what's done with my body, up to and including disposal should I die while under contract. No outside maintenance or medical assistance outside of basic first aid and emergency life support. Complete control of my training, maintenance and upgrade schedule, with rates for service determined by 'fair market value'—you were right about that, right down to the phrasing of the contract. Oh, and that's the same phrase they use to establish my pay rate. And no outside contracts, and no gifts or gratuities without company approval." She clenched her fists in frustration. "They own me, dammit." The words were spoken softly, but with an intense bitterness which was deeply familiar to the doctor.

A bitter and ugly memory tried to surface in the back of the doctor's mind, a feature of his contract which had destroyed the only thing of real value Paolo had ever owned. Part of him wanted to open up to Lora and warn her, but he resisted the urge. This was not the time. She was hurting, and there were other things she needed to hear.

"I'm sorry," he offered, knowing how pathetically inadequate the words sounded. "I wish I'd been wrong."

Lora shook her head slowly, eyes obscured by her bangs as she looked down at the table, "No Doc, you have nothing to be sorry for. As bitter as it is, I'd rather know the truth for sure rather than stick my head in the sand. You can't do anything if you don't know the real picture. I guess that's part of what's depressing me so much. I'm mad at myself for being so complacent about it all and just assuming everything would work out based on the situation at face value."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," Paolo offered. "It's a hard thing to face, and they kept things moving in ways designed to keep you from understanding. It's hard to find the walls when they keep moving them."

"The Gilded Cage, eh? I suppose you could call it that."

She looked up and out over the sea of faces in the club, not looking at anything in particular, "If I'm going to be totally honest with myself, I have to admit I enjoy some of the perks and priveleges that working in the corporation gives me. I'm worth quite a bit to them, so I can ask for stuff and get it, within reason, like the car." Paulo knew she was referring to the midnite Blue Jinsei Kage that she had driven him back to the Zone in, the last time he had seen her. She continued, "But I know that the same stuff can be taken away if I don't do what they say. And sooner or later they're going to give me an assignment that I don't agree with."

"One of the biggest problems I have is that cybernetics is _not_ cheap. I'm not sure how I'd live and maintain myself if I didn't have access to the corporation's resources. And that goes for any corp, not just S-T/ Daitokuji."

Paolo looked at her reflectively. "There are cyborgs who work as independent contractors," he observed. "I know a number who are very successful at it. The key is to find a niche, something a lot of corporations want badly enough to pay you well for it, but not badly enough to enhance their own people to do it." He took another sip of vodka, and added. "As far as maintenance goes, you'd always have my help, of course. But even if I could guarantee I'd always be available to you, parts are always the most expensive part of ongoing maintenance."

"True enough, I suppose. But there's one little problem. I'd have to find some way to get out from under my contract first."

She looked morosely at him. His dark eyes seemed like bottomless pits in the dim and changing light of the bar. "Alright. I'm scared."

"Of what?" He looked puzzled.

"I could do all the things you say. but that leaves me not knowing what my future holds. As much as I hate the idea of being indentured, right now, it' s 'the devil I know'." She looked down at the table. "I just can't know for sure if trying to break away to gain my freedom from the corporation now is even worth it. Face an uncertain future for my freedom? Or stay with what I know because it's _comfortable_." She said the last word with a contempt the Doctor knew was directed at herself. "I'm sorry if that makes me seem weak, but. " She gestured helplessly.

Her companion blinked, obviously thrown by this observation. He was silent a long time, face unreadable. "I don't think that's weak," he responded finally. "You've had a lot of changes in your life lately, and you haven't had a chance to get your bearings. It must be hard for you to picture yourself as a free woman now, or to understand what you would have to do to survive. I think with time, though, you'll be able to see a role for yourself outside the corp, and things will look different to you."

She was silent for a bit, thinking, then said quietly, "Maybe. I hope you're right."

The doctor smiled. "Well, whatever demons you're fighting with, you're certainly well enough armed for them," he joked, gesturing to the empty holster.

Lora gestured to herself, "Bit obvious, eh? I'm on assignment here in the Zone for the time being." She sighed a bit, "I don't exactly like working here, and that's an understatement. But Sanato's got me looking for something. Something that could be really dangerous. So he wanted someone who could be relatively discreet, but could handle things if they got really nasty. You've heard of the latest "Zone Slayer" serial murders, right?"

"Yes," answered Paolo, sobering. "He's got you looking for it?"

She nodded, "Yes. He thinks that it could be a 'product test' based on what little information he's put together on it. Could be Jinsei. Or maybe Gunkoku."

The doctor considered. "That would make sense," he commented. "It's picked some strange victims, and its weapons don't seem to make much sense."

Lora looked at him intently. "You know something about its weapons?"

The doctor nodded. "A little," he said. "A bounty hunter hired me to check out one of the victims." He reflected a moment, then added, "And she never said it was an exclusive deal, so I could pass the information on to you...if the price were right."

The cyborg eyed the doctor. "How much?"

"Not much. It's yours for a song," he replied, grinning. Then he rose and extended his hand, "This one."

Lora looked at his hand, then smiled and took it, getting up from the table and following him out onto the dance floor.

The volume under the amps was jarring, and the strobing lights gave the dancers on the floor a "low frame-rate" appearance. With a broad smile Snakeye released Lora's hand and spun into motion, wheeling out and back in a surprisingly fluid motion for the normally stiff, middle-aged man. He winked at the cyborg and danced on, exuberant.

Lora was a little hesitant at first, but soon let the music wash over her and the driving beat move her body. In the heart of the dance, she let her problems fall away from her and simply moved. Anyone watching her found her dancing at once aggressive and graceful.

"Where'd you learn to dance like that?" asked Paolo, raising his voice over the music as he continued to gyrate with uncharacteristic smoothness.

"What do you mean, 'learn'?" Lora smiled as she threw her arms back and swiveled her hips, "I'm just making this up as I go along!"

The doctor laughed and danced on.

"We found the body here," indicated Paolo, gesturing to a spot in the mud. There was still an indentation where it had lain, but the area was now overrun by footprints and the body had long since vanished. "It looked like the killer walked or ran forward while he was standing over there, firing an SMG. The killer struck him or grabbed him, then cut off his leg with a high precision laser. The cut looked like a surgical laser, but they left the leg where it was." The doctor looked at the cyborg, trying to judge her reaction, then continued. "After that, the killer disemboweled him with a multi-bladed weapon—a cyberclaw, I think—and he crawled over here. Based on the killer's footprints, it was a heavy biped, probably in your weight class," he concluded.

Lora bent down. Cycling through her Infra-red and U-V filters, she scrutinized the ground in front of her. The dirt and mud yielded nothing in the way of clues, but then, she hadn't really expected much. The site had been trampled and picked clean. But the blood still stained the mud and concrete, clearly showing signs of the struggle the doctor was describing. She straightened up and looked around at their immediate surroundings. This was Darkside, and it never hurt to be overly paranoid. The scavengers around here sometimes became predators if they thought they could get away with it.

Building a picture in her head of the confrontation, based on the doctor's comments and the scene before her, she asked, "Doctor? What direction did the killer come from? Could you tell?"

"The main set of footprints, the heavy ones, that is, went off in that direction." He replied, pointing in the direction a dilapidated storefront across the street from the park.

Lora looked in the direction the Doctor indicated, magnifying the area and enlarging it in her field of vision. With the zoom on, it seemed almost like she was standing right in front of the store looking in through the ruined doorway.

Nothing seemed amiss, except there just for a moment she thought she saw a scan line or two in her vision. She shook her head. *Great, my eyes would take this time to start going weird on me.* She started to zoom the magnification back to normal, and that's when she saw it. It wasn't a scan line. Something was hanging from the ruined doorway. A few thin strands of... white hair? As the breeze fluttered it and caused it to sway, she saw her mistake.

"Hello. " She said softly.

The doctor glanced at her. "Found something?"

"Maybe. Come over here and take a look at something with me." They walked across the street, and Lora drew her flashlight out of one of her thigh pockets, shining it at the doorway of the long abandoned shop.

Sure enough, a few strands of white hair, or something that looked an awful lot like it, were caught on one of the rough edges of the doorframe, at about head height. Lora plucked them out and stretched them out to look at them in the beam. Lora suddenly had a sneaking suspicion, and held the strands up for the doctor to see.

"Doc, take a close look at these and compare them." Bringing a bit of her own hair forward, she matched them up.

Now the doctor's vision came into focus, the blackness of his eyes contracting to two small pupils floating in the dull gray that normally only rimmed the sockets. "Yes," he confirmed, letting his eyes return to normal as he returned his attention to Lora. "Coolant filaments, suitable for cosmetic implantation." He nodded to the cyborg, and added, "Good work spotting those."

Lora nodded absently at the compliment, looking at the filaments - the hair - in her hand. "Most cyberdroids or cyborgs don't need supplemental cooling systems like this. Internal cooling systems can handle the load just fine - usually. Either this thing runs hotter than normal in short bursts or it uses something that can create a lot of heat. Or both."

"There is the laser," the doctor noted, "that could do it if it were mounted internally. But most lasers are mounted in the forearms or hands of such models. And if it required an auxiliary cooling system then you'd want it mounted close to the source of the heat."

"I've heard of some cyberdroids that use mouth mounted weapons." Lora said.

"Yes, and that would rule out a cybergrafted individual, because the heat would harm the brain that close to the weapon," Snakeye was thinking aloud, eyeing the hairs in Lora's hand.

"Could be a Cyberdroid, then." Lora nodded, "But all the ones I've heard of were hard shelled with no cosmetic covering. This could be a new, covert model. Could be hard to find."

She sighed, "Or then again, it could be a high speed, high performance model cybergraft, like me, just carrying around a laser."

"That might be," the doctor commented. "Certainly if you were designing an intrinsic weapons suite for a cyberdroid, you'd expect some ranged weapons—which this thing either didn't have or couldn't use. But it didn't pick up the gun, either—it was lying there when we got here." He looked back at the muddy park. "When you design a cyberdroid or train a cyborg, you have a mission in mind. So what was this thing's mission? It's not using ranged weapons, and not picking them up. It's got a precision laser, but it's not harvesting organs. It's attacking seemingly random victims in the Zone, at least some of whom are no challenge to it whatsoever. If this is a test, what are they trying to figure out? And if this is some sort of psychotic cyborg, what was it supposed to be?"

He frowned, an idea tickling the back of his brain. "Lora, the cosmetic heat sink and the cyberclaws suggest some kind of stealth mission, and the surgical laser suggests it's supposed to harvest its kills. But basic organlegging doesn't pay for expensive weaponry like this, and the claws would tear up valuable tissue. Maybe it's supposed to harvest cyberware?" The last was spoken with uncharacteristic hesitation, as if the doctor doubted his own logic.

Lora looked quizzically at the doctor, "I don't know... Much of the same logic applies, I think. Whoever has the resources to make this thing is ahead of the curve technologically and monetarily already. I don't think they'd need the cybernetics either. I mean, these fibers," she indicated the strands she held in her hand, "...aren't usually used in the commercial market. They're still too expensive to make, which means they're used more for military grade special operations cybergrafts." She looked pointedly at the doctor, "And certain corporate operatives, who shall remain nameless."

Snakeye looked amused at the last observation, but nodded. "You're right, it doesn't make much sense. But I think it's clear—whatever this thing was designed to go after, it's not going to find it here. Either this is a test, or something's gone wrong with whatever kind of brain is controlling it."

Lora stepped out into the street, looking back at the door, then over towards the bit of bloodstained mud that had been the scene of the recent violence, then she turned to him and said, "The fact that it didn't pick up the gun... that's a pretty crucial point. Think about it. This is the Zone. In fact, this is supposed to be one of the most dangerous parts of the Zone. You'd have to be an idiot not to pick up a gun if it were there for the taking. I think even someone with a built-in cybergun or laser wouldn't pass up the chance to have some extra firepower. Unless it was meaningless for you to pick up the gun. And you'd have to have a pretty unusual set of priorities if that were the case. A set of non-human priorities."

"Mmm." The doctor seemed to consider that, then shrugged. "Well, I don't think we're going to figure anything out for certain tonight. There's not enough data from this one attack." He looked back at the park, then back at Lora. "Do you want me to put you in touch with that bounty hunter? She might know more about the other attacks, and she'd probably sell her information. As long as you're not planning to claim the bounty yourself," he added.

She shook her head, "I can't collect, anyway. It'd just go to the company. But I do want to talk to her. And I can pay for any information she has. Know where to find her?"

"I have a phone number," the doctor answered. "But...she's the kind of person who might not want that given out. I'll call her and see if she's interested, and if she is I'll give her your cell number. Sound alright?"

"Yeah, sounds good. And let's get out of here while we're at it. I think we're pressing out luck as it is."

The doctor nodded, and gestured with flamboyant courtesy for her to lead. "After you," he said dramatically.

"That's the most polite request to take point I've ever received," noted Lora sardonically.

Snakeye grinned. "I'm a genteel coward," he observed. The two began their walk back to the entertainment district.

Sanato sat behind his desk, motionless as if he were carved from wood. The window which let onto his private garden had been faded to opaque gray behind him, so that his image—relayed to a similar but more expansive office in Los Angeles—was the only recognizable shape in the display. He had activated the concealed flatscreen against the far wall of his office at its full size, giving the appearance that his visitors were seated in an annex to his office space. Albeit an equally gray and featureless one.

Most of the executive's attention was focused on Petra Ambunatova, a tall, severe woman who regarded him impassively from behind her mahogany desk. Her gray hair and the beginnings of wrinkles about her eyes might have been taken for the weakness of old age, except that something about her bearing suggested that would be a mistake. Sanato realized abruptly that the woman reminded him of the Empress, a comparison he was sure the esper would not appreciate. Ambunatova was not so physically imposing as the Empress, nor did her gaunt frame approach Nys' well-honed perfection. But there was something regal about Ambunatova, some air of authority which was all the more compelling for its lack of definition. There was a difference in flavor, however; where the Empress assumed her power, Ambunatova gave no hint to its existence.

But she was powerful indeed. Ambunatova was the vice-president in charge of Shiroko-Tsuhi's biomedical division, its fastest growing subsidiary. She had risen to that position against all odds, having joined Shiroko-Tsuhi after beginning her career at Shinkuu, and wielded substantial influence within the corporation even beyond her own division. The conventional wisdom was that she would never become CEO, as the Board of Directors would never allow an outsider to hold the reins. Sanato had followed her career with interest, however, and watched how she outmaneuvered her rivals—himself included!—to achieve her current position. He was not ready to discount any ambition of hers.

His respect for her, however, left him all the more irritated by the presence of her subordinate, Dr. Leitinger. The good doctor was the current leader of Shiroko-Tsuhi's Integrated Cybernetic Systems group, a recent promotion he seemed unsuited for. A faint sheen of sweat covered his bald head, and his gray suit fit poorly around his corpulent build. He fidgeted and looked uncomfortable as he sat at the table, and he was obviously eager to involve himself in a conversation he was unqualified to attend.

"It is a pleasure to speak with you as always, Ms. Ambunatova," Sanato said, making the ritual greeting. "And, of course, I am happy to meet you Dr. Leitinger."

"A pleasure to meet you as well," responded the doctor warmly. "I hope we will have the chance to meet in person some time." A polite thank you was all that had been called for; Sanato found himself irritated by the man's excessive show.

"I trust your projects are proceeding well," said Ambunatova, ignoring Leitinger.

She, of course, knew Sanato's situation. He had discovered exactly one esper of any significant strength, and the Board was becoming concerned by the shortage of esper power at their disposal. The destruction of Ishiyama had reduced the urgency of their concerns, and the chaos surrounding those events had made Sanato's specialized intelligence network all the more valuable in the short-term. But it remained to be seen whether Sanato would find the Board the resources they demanded before their patience ran out.

"Well enough," answered the executive. "And yours?"

"Adequately," answered Ambunatova, stone-faced.

"Actually, we have a bit of a problem," interjected Leitinger. A completely unnecessary comment, as Ambunatova had just told Sanato the same thing.

"I am sorry to hear that," offered Sanato. "Do you believe I may be of assistance to you?"

"Yes, you see—" began Leitinger.

"Perhaps," answered Ambunatova. "I know that you are quite a resourceful man."

Ah, decided Sanato. She wants something specific from me. He had wondered whether she might be planning some bid for power, and had hoped to enlist him as an ally for political purposes.

"Thank you," he responded. "My resources, of course, can be made available to you."

Leitinger seemed relieved by the comment, which was utterly ridiculous, since Sanato hadn't actually said anything. Ambunatova continued, "Dr. Leitinger will explain the situation."

The little man drew himself up self-importantly. "Yes, you see," he began awkwardly, "In the past, Shinkuu corporation has contracted with us for the cybernetic prostheses used in orbital construction. The contract is up for renewal, and we have been designing a new shell. But, you see," he broke off, and continued haltingly. "This is rather complicated. Our agents in Mitsumi corporation have told us that they, too, are developing a new design, and are planning to submit their own design. Our agents have stolen documents indicating the design is based on materials stolen from us. But the designs weren't stolen from us, they just look like they were. So we don't have those designs."

As Leitinger spoke, Sanato's hand moved imperceptibly on the datapad on the arm of his chair. Information on the doctor's career with Shiroko-Tsuhi flashed across the display, indicating a technical man of moderate skill but no distinguishing marks of administrative or political ability. The executive had hoped to find some explanation for the doctor's presence, but instead was more baffled than he had been before.

At the conclusion of the doctor's exposition, Sanato paused, registering his displeasure at the rambling foolishness with a superfluous silence. Ambunatova's head rose fractionally in acknowledgement, but the doctor seemed oblivious. "It seems someone is selling false information to Mitsumi," the Neo York executive observed finally, stating the obvious. "I fail to see the problem."

Leitinger swallowed. "That's just it," he objected. "The design is better than ours. And we only have pieces of it—if we can't get the whole thing, we'll lose the bid to Mitsumi!"

"How significant is this contract, Dr. Leitinger?" asked Sanato.

"Two billion over 12 years," answered Leitinger. "But it goes deeper than that. Shiroko-Tsuhi holds a sizable fraction of the HE-market—excuse me, the market for cybernetics designed for hostile environments—with our space group being the centerpiece. But the HE-market is getting more competitive, and losing the Shinkuu contract would cost us face. And maybe business," he added.

That was far more information than he should have provided, and both the other executives knew it. Indeed, Sanato had addressed the question specifically to the doctor in hopes he might babble. Knowledge of the deal's true value strengthened Sanato's bargaining position, a fact Ambunatova was certainly aware of. And it might prompt her to exclude the noisome doctor from future conversations with Sanato, which was sweeter still.

It also explained why Leitinger held his current title. Ambunatova expected to take some losses in the division, and wanted someone expendable in position to take the blame.

Leitinger was sitting patiently now, apparently believing he had said everything that was relevant. So Sanato was forced to ask, "I am afraid I fail to see how I can be of use to you."

"Well, you see—" began the doctor, but this time Ambunatova cut him off.

"We recovered both the encrypted and decrypted forms of some documents," she explained. "Our intelligence group's deconstruction of the algorithm indicates there is a 74% chance it was based on atmospheric radio noise recorded in Neo York's Zero Zone. It is possible those involved in the fabrication of this data are connected to this area in some way."

Sanato was impressed. "A fascinating technology," he commented. "Would it be possible to learn more about how such work is done?"

"I don't think—" began Leitinger.

"A demonstration can, of course, be arranged at your convenience," interrupted Ambunatova.

Translated, it meant he could use the system for similar purposes. That could be valuable, the Neo York executive thought. Of course, the ex-Shinkuu executive's good will could offer him far more. Many of those who had allied with him in the past had distanced themselves from him now that his future appeared less certain, and this gesture from Ambunatova might lead to further cooperation.

And there was no doubt in Sanato's mind he could deliver what she wanted.

But he had to maintain the illusion of ignorance, lest the Russian become suspicious. "I see," he said. "Of course, I can make inquiries on your behalf. Do you have any other information on the perpetrators?"

"It would have to be a group of cyberneticists," Leitinger explained. "No individual could have integrated all of the necessary—"

"No such information is available to us," clarified Ambunatova. There was a hint of anger to her words, and it was obvious the doctor had been a source of continuing frustration to her for days or weeks. Doubtless she had resolved that her next sacrificial lamb would have his tongue cut out to stop its bleating. She regained her composure and continued, "I would be grateful if you could acquire the data directly, rather than involving our own personnel."

A shrewd move, judged her counterpart. If word of this fraud leaked to the rest of the company, it could embarrass her. Sanato's network was far less visible, and harder to connect to the Russian. "I foresee some difficulties," he observed. "It is risky to seize data by force or stealth; it can be destroyed or dispersed far too easily."

Leitinger looked puzzled, but Ambunatova simply nodded. "Appropriate resources will be made available to you." Account information flashed across Sanato's screen as she spoke, granting him access to a sizable pool of corporate funds. The amounts were trivial to a division as well-funded as cybernetics, but they would replenish his own resources after their depletion by his dealings with Shion Nys.

If Sanato needed to purchase the information, this would be more than adequate. But there was a good chance he had a shortcut, one which would leave the bulk of the funds for use by his department.

"I will attempt to be of use to you," he said.

They made the ritual good-byes, and the executive rotated his chair and cleared the window, allowing him a view of the garden. He leaned back, contemplating the situation.

His hand drifted absently to the arm of his chair, activating a voice-link. "Catherine," he said. "I need you to make a purchase for me."

The phone rang. In the dim light of the mid-morning sun that filtered through the curtains, Paolo fumbled for his backpack. Finding it, he rummaged in a side pocket until he emerged with his handset. He flipped it on. "Snakeye."

"Doc," rumbled Louie's raspy voice. "Somebody wants to talk to you."

The doctor had had much too late a night for this. "Not now," he replied irritably.

"It's a corper. Some guy named Sanato," replied Louie, seeming not to notice.

Paolo was suddenly fully awake, and swearing. "What did he want?"

"Wants to meet you," repeated Louie. "Today at 1. My place. I'm giving you the back room."

"Don't do me any favors," muttered the doctor darkly.

"I'm not. Bye." The line went dead.

It could be anything, thought Paolo. He might want information, or some kind of specialized medical work. But the doctor's instinctual paranoia refused to be mollified.

I need a contingency plan, he decided. What am I more afraid of? Getting screwed by Asagiri, or getting caught off-guard by Sanato. It wasn't a hard question. He fished in his pack again, this time pulling out a datacard. He slipped the encryption routine into the phone, and dialed another number.

He held the handset up to his ear, listening to the line click and buzz as the connection shifted through dozens of different circuits. Asagiri had obviously prepared some special surprises for anyone attempting to track the call. When the sounds stopped, Paolo spoke into the phone.

"The hip strut is connected to the thigh bracket," he said.

"The thigh bracket is connected to the posterior spinal terminus," the female voice came back. "This had better be good, doctor. I told you never to use this number unless it was an emergency."

"It may be," answered Paolo. "A Mr. Sanato of Shiroko-Tsuhi enterprises wants to see me in—" he checked his watch. "Three hours."

"So?" answered Asagiri irritably. "Wasn't he the guy whose cyborg showed up in your clinic just before the Yak blew it up?"

"You know about that?"

"Of course I do," snapped the hacker. "I checked you out. And I know he's S-T's esper guy. So what makes you think this has anything to do with our little project?"

Paolo hesitated, then bit the bullet. "He knows who I am."

"Dammit," answered Asagiri angrily. "You should have told me that."

"I didn't think it was relevant. And it still probably isn't," he added. "Look, I don't know what this is all about, but I want to take some precautions."

"Like what?"

"I'm going to give you the design. I finished it three days ago," answered Paolo.

There was silence on the other end of the line as Asagiri digested that. She had received only a fraction of the necessary data, and the doctor had refused to hasten their schedule. "You're a careful man, doctor," she said at last. "Very well. Drop the data at the usual site, fully encrypted, in one hour."

"I want you at the meeting as well," the doctor replied.

"Use this link. Voice only, and my name is Vega for the interview," she specified.

"Good enough. I'll be in touch," answered the doctor.

I wonder if she'll answer for the interview, thought the doctor. It would be an ideal way to set me up and leave me to the wolves. He had been so careful not to leave her that option, and now he'd dropped her the perfect opportunity.

The doctor put those thoughts aside as he pulled out his computer. He had preparations to make.

Sanato nodded to Catherine, indicating he was ready to leave. "Prepare tea," he instructed. The replicant bowed slightly and left the room, politely waiting until she was outside the door before pulling out her comm link to order his limousine.

There was just one more preparation to make: Security. Outside of the usual dangers of the Zone, it was impossible to predict the reaction his negotiating ploy would evoke. The man called Dr. Snakeye had no real history of violence, but he had lived in the Zero Zone almost two years. Caution was in order.

"Call Raven Clark," he commanded the empty room. "No video."

The ringing on the other end of the phone was indicated only by the blinking of a concealed light behind his desk, and Sanato paid it no notice as he knelt and placed his hand on a concealed plate. Image recognition software instantly identified all five of his fingerprints, and the sensor plate recorded his movements as he tapped out a code. The security drawer of his desk slid out.

"Hello?" The esper's voice echoed from the concealed stereo speakers.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Clark," he replied. "I trust you are well?"

"Just fine, Mr. Sanato," she replied. "And you?"

The executive pulled out a gray plastic box of the kind used for archival hard-copy document storage. It was almost seven centimeters thick, and heavy.

"Quite well, thank you," he replied, setting the box in his briefcase. "I wanted to ask a small favor of you."


"I would like to borrow Adam for a few hours, if you don't need him," Sanato explained, closing his briefcase and standing up. "I need some security, and wanted to save the trouble of going through channels."

There was a pause on the other end of the phone, and the executive wondered what the girl made of his request. She was not as naive as some believed—she certainly knew he was afraid to use conventional S-T security because he did not want his dealings known to anyone else inside the company. But she had no obvious reason to question his request. A moment later she replied.

"It's fine," answered the esper. "He wants to know how to dress for the occasion."

It dawned on the executive that the girl had asked Adam's permission. It continually frustrated Sanato that now matter how carefully he studied the Zone and its occupants, little things like that still surprised him. Cultural oversights undercut one in negotiations, and that sort of minor slip in his conduct was infuriating.

"Dress is casual, with moderate armaments," he answered. "Please have him meet me at the entrance to garage B-8. And thank you."

"You're welcome," the telekinetic replied.

"Ja na."

"Ja ne, Sanato-san."

The executive gestured, and the phone cut out.

He picked up his briefcase and strode out the door. Catherine was waiting with his coat and a synthleather bag he knew would contain a thermos of tea. She fell wordlessly in step behind him as he made his way to the garage.

Sanato was surprised to find himself reviewing the situation in his mind as he rode the elevator down. Normally he only did that before an important negotiating session, and this one should be straightforward. But he found himself uneasy. If it went badly he would not be able to deliver for Ambunatova. That would be a valuable opportunity lost.

Adam was waiting at the garage entrance, sporting a striking black faux leather riding gear, a popular variation on standard armorcloth. The capacious jacket left plenty of space for the weapons which would certainly be present. "Plase bring the car, Catherine," the executive said. Catherine handed Adam the satchel and made her way into the lot.

The two men waited in silence until the car pulled up, then Adam held the door for Sanato. A moment later they were both seated in the back, and driving out of the ramp.

Sanato waited impassively until they had cleared the arcology's outer gate. Unprompted, Catherine's voice came over the speaker. "Counter-surveillance sweep complete," she reported neutrally.

The executive nodded, and looked at Adam. "We will switch cars uptown, and then you and I will proceed to the Zero Zone. I have an appointment at Louie's Bar."

The synthetic nodded, knowing this meant Catherine would continue to drive the limousine as a distraction. "What will I do there?" he asked.

The new synthetics were quite good, Sanato noted absently. Older models such as Catherine had to be trained not to express their pleasure at serving him, but Adam had realized immediately that his current master wanted no extraneous communication at all. "You will provide security for me during a business meeting."

"Will your counterparts be dangerous?"

"I am meeting a man of your acquaintance," the executive responded. "Dr. Snakeye."

The synthetic seemed unperturbed by this. "You believe him to be dangerous?" he asked.

"No," answered Sanato. "Unpredictable."

The car drove on.

Snakeye walked into Louie's, and nodded to the bartender. The wiry little man returned his nod and disappeared into the back room, leaving the doctor sullenly contemplating the upcoming interview. It could be nothing, he reminded hiself. I don't know what he wants. But he could not shake the vague sense of foreboding that had dogged him since the phone call that morning. The bartender returned a moment later with the beefy proprietor in tow.

"Hello, Doc," Louie grunted. "He's here."

Paolo nodded. "You want my piece?" he asked.

"No," rumbled the owner. "He's got security. Go on in." He gestured to the door.

Paolo stepped inside. The room was spartan, an old wooden conference table and battered collection of chairs the only thing to break up the monotony of the threadbare carpet and cracked plaster walls. In the midst of this dust and squalor sat Sanato, looking eminently poised in his preternaturally crisp grey suit. Behind him stood a synthetic, either Adam or one of the same sequence, wearing black armorcloth and obviously toting weapons. A briefcase sat by Sanato, and a satchel rested on the floor near the replicant.

"Good afternoon, doctor," said Sanato. "Won't you please be seated."

Paolo nodded, and sat down opposite the executive.

"Will you join me in a cup of tea?" asked Shiroko-Tsuhi's man. He did not even gesture, but Adam—something in the way he moved made the doctor sure it was the same man—opened the satchel and produced a thermos and two delicate china cups and saucers. He set them on the table, awaiting the doctor's response.

The tea was tempting, of course. It would be high quality, and free from the heavy metals and other pollutants that permeated everything in the Zone. A creak in the floorboards told Paolo that the bartender had followed him in, and he capitalized on the situation.

"I would like a cup of coffee, please," Paolo said, eyes never leaving Sanato's.

"OK," came the voice. "Anything else?"

"No, thank you," answered Sanato. One of the cups disappeared, and Adam filled the other and handed it to his master.

"I have a partner I would like to join us in conference," Paolo said. It was clear he meant electronically.

"Of course," answered Sanato. "I hope this will be a friendly and informal gathering."

Paolo produced his phone and keyed in the appropriate numbers while the bartender delivered a chipped and dirty mug of coffee-colored sludge. The doctor took a sip, forcing his face not to betray his disgust at the stuff.

"Vega," the voice answered.

"Vega, I am here with Mr. Sanato, as we discussed," Paolo explained. "Mr. Sanato, Vega is a partner of mine in certain business ventures."

"A pleasure to meet you. Is it a close partnership?" asked the businessman casually.

"I'll keep this meeting confidential," came Vega's answer. Clearly, she understood the subleties of corporate communication, and had no patience with them.

Sanato seemed unruffled. "Very well. I am delighted that you will be able to join us," he answered. "I hope, Vega, that you are in a position to appreciate the good doctor's unmatched skills as a cyberneticist. His recent efforts are, I understand, unmatched by the finest craftsmen of any major firm, my own included."

Paolo's blood chilled. The executive had gone straight for the throat.

"Yes they are," answered Asagiri flatly. "And you can't have them."

"I had hoped we could reach some arrangement," the executive responded. "I have considerable resources at my disposal, which could alter both your lives."

The wording was deliberately ambiguous, a carrot and stick manifest in the same phrase. "Not unless you're prepared to match Mitsumi's price," the hacker declared. "I have the entire design, and if you make a move against either of us, I'll dump it in Mitsumi's lap, gratis."

"A fine solution for you," answered Sanato. "I suspect that the doctor's perspective on the situation might be somewhat different."

The doctor sighed inwardly. He had expected the executive to try and divide them, and would threaten Paolo physically. He had taken the only precaution possible. "I have already entrusted my fate to my associate's good judgment," he observed. "I am unable to disagree with her."

He waited tensely, wondering if Asagiri would simply hang up the phone now that she knew he had destroyed his copies of the data. He could re-create them, of course, but even working under Shiroko-Tsuhi's interrogators that would take time. The hacker held all the cards.

But the line remained connected. Sanato absorbed the comment, and for a moment his lips gave a barely perceptible twitch of...what? Amusement? Pleasure? Something about the situation must have struck the executive as intensely interesting.

"It seems we have reached an impasse," he said with uncharacteristic bluntness. He reached slowly for his briefcase and opened it, then pulled out a thick gray archival storage box. He opened it, sliding a stack of documents onto the table. He pulled a stapled set of papers off of the top, and slid them over to the doctor. "I had hoped this would interest you."

Paolo looked down at the form. It was a contract, headed, "EDUCATIONAL RESOURCE AGREEMENT." He briefly scanned the document, at first unable to parse it --

And suddenly it hit him as hard as a kick in the stomach. He could not breathe, and fought simply to rein in the nauseating hollowness that threatened to engulf him. He held in his hand a copy of his own indenture. Sanato had bought his indenture.

"It was part of a package of salvage items," the executive explained, reading Paolo's thoughts. "After their acquisition of Avatar, Mitsumi bundled together assets which could not be proven worthless, and set them out for sale in lots. Speculators sometimes buy such things, but the lot containing these materials went unsold until I purchased it three days ago."

The doctor wanted to scream. It wasn't fair! He'd been so close—so incredibly close! He'd known this could happen, had discreetly confirmed his indenture had not been sold a few months ago. But he hadn't dared set a watch point on the indenture. If anyone had noticed it, it would have given everything away. This was so catastrophically unfair.

Something must have shown on the doctor's face, because Adam stepped forward, perhaps expecting violence. Vega's voice came over the phone. "What is it?"

"My indenture," answered Paolo, recovering his composure. He turned coolly to the executive. "You are mistaken if you believe I will work for you. I do have the ability to prevent that."

He found himself wondering if it were true. Adam was fast, but the doctor's own neurowires might just be fast enough to draw and fire before the replicant could stop him. But he would not have the luxury of a shot at Sanato. The replicant's retaliation might not be fatal. No, he would have exactly one shot. He feared that he would not have the resolve to take it. He feared that he would.

"Doctor, I never intended to invoke this document," he answered. "I came here to offer it to you for sale."

Corporate protocol had broken down completely now, and all parties were speaking bluntly. Vega responded, "Any deal is going to have to involve cash for my share of the design."

"That is out of the question," Sanato replied. "I propose a straight exchange. The indenture for the exclusive rights to the design. Exclusive," he repeated.

Paolo saw the hardness in Sanato's eyes. This was business. If he didn't get what he wanted, he would leave, and sell the indenture to someone else. It was worth something, now that its owner knew the doctor was alive.

"I won't—" the hacker began.

"Vega, I'll buy your share in cash," the doctor interrupted suddenly. "I'll pay it off over the next ten years."

It was a tall order, certainly beyond his means in the Zone. But having his indenture meant Paolo could advertise more widely, bring in cash from other sources. His designs would be worth more—he could meet that price. He hoped.

"Five years, in monthly installments, starting next month" answered Asagiri firmly. "10% interest annually. And if you cheat me, I'll destroy you."

Five years. Paolo started to do a rough calculation in his head, then realized it didn't matter. He had no idea how lucrative his new life would be. But if he could pay it, he was a free man. And if he failed...Asagiri could hound him, strip him of everything he owned, have him beaten, crippled or killed. But she would never claim to own him.

"Agreed." Answered the doctor.

"You may deposit the information in my secure channel at Shiroko-Tsuhi," said Sanato, rattling off a string of alphanumerics. Then he produced his datapad and began manipulating it, obviously connecting to his computer.

There was a pause of several minutes, before Asagiri stated, "The data is in place." Sanato performed several more manipulations. The doctor wondered how the man could confirm the data was real, but he supposed it would be irrational for Asagiri to dump false data on him when she could have cheated the doctor so much more easily. She was immune, and Sanato could kill him.

But the executive seemed to satisfy himself, and produced a fountain pen. "Doctor, I will transfer ownership of the indenture to you. He produced a separate form and signed his name, then passed it to Paolo.

The doctor wondered if an old-fashioned legal document of this type were still binding, without fingerprint or DNA confirmation, but Sanato seemed to have anticipated that. "Vega," he said. "On this occasion, I have transferred full control of Paolo Zanabria's indenture to himself. Please witness this fact."

"Witnessed and recorded," answered the hacker. Given the dubious legality of the indenture to begin with, Paolo decided this would do.

"Well, doctor," said Sanato, rising and sliding the box and the sheaf of papers across the table. "I believe this is yours. I've included a 30 day corporate courtesy visa to save you trouble with immigration services. You'll have to make your own arrangements if you intend to stay in the UNA more permanently."

It hadn't even occurred to Paolo that he could leave, but of course now he could. He sat flabbergasted, still sorting out the implications of the deal.

"Have a pleasant day, doctor," said the executive, rising and closing his briefcase. The replicant dumped the remaining tea back into the thermos and put away the tea service, then the two of them departed, leaving the doctor still contemplating the pile of documents in stunned silence.

Sanato sat in the front seat of the SUV for the drive back to the arcology. The session had not gone exactly as he had planned, but in the end, he had gotten the design at the price he had wanted. He resisted the temptation to pick up his phone or computer and check on the status of other projects, choosing instead to indulge in a moment of pleasure at his success.

"The doctor was quite resourceful," he observed, nominally speaking to Adam but in fact merely thinking aloud. "A bold move, destroying his copies of the data. Any other preparations I could have made would have been valueless in the face of such a ploy."

The replicant did not respond, sensing that no response was desired, and simply kept his eyes alertly on the road and their surroundings. Sanato continued, "Had I failed at the negotiating table, of course, I would have simply given his indenture and whereabouts to the cybernetics group and let them get whatever they could from him. But that would have been a waste of effort on their part—the doctor is too much the contrarian to be of value to them."

This time, Adam spoke. "He has always seemed a decent man to me," the replicant observed.

The executive looked over at his driver. "I think Ms. Clark has begun to rub off on you," he observed with amusement. But even as he said it he wondered if it were true. These new replicants were very sophisticated, adept at sensing the desires of their companion and responding appropriately. And, Sanato realized belatedly, he had wanted such a response as a foil to his own observations. That spoke of powerful empathy, and the executive wondered if a replicant with such a keen emotional awareness could be usefully employed in negotiations. Catherine was only five years into her seven year operational life, but perhaps it would be worth investing in a replacement for her.

Regardless, Sanato chose to respond. "The doctor is a decent man," he observed. "But he became so not in spite of the corporate world, but to spite it. His whole life since adolescence has been one of calculated resistance to control—he has defined himself by his opposition to..." He hesitated, amused at the thought. "People like me. That much was clear from his file. And now that he has tasted freedom, he would fight enslavement all the more viscously. No," he concluded. "The doctor is useless in the corporate world."

He wondered how many executives would understand that. They understood control and subservience, because it was so essential to their own natures. They understood political maneuvering to remove control, but always within the existing power structure. They rarely understood rebellion for its own sake, and that was the doctor's nature. Ambunatova might have understood that, but that would not in itself have made the doctor useful.

"It is a pity no one has yet created a replicant with the doctor's talents," observed Sanato. He wondered distantly if there were some connection between the man's genius and anarchy, but brushed that idea aside to continue his other train of thought. "But one has to take such talents where one finds them, and it is better to leave the doctor where he is. He is no threat to me, and if I want something from him, I will find a way to make use of him."

They drove on towards the looming towers of the arcology.

It was only mid-afternoon, and traffic across the Williamsburg bridge was light. Sargeant Callahan lounged in a chair by the checkpoint, enjoying the lull before the flux of merchants and entertainers began around rush hour. A handful of individuals were occupied at the other tables, but there were no lines as yet.

A man came to his own station, and the sargeant stood. He carried a shoulder bag and wore a black armorcloth trenchcoat, battered and stained, but walked differently from most Zoners. His face was different, too—unscarred and unlined, hair too neatly cut. But his eyes were an obviously cybernetic jet-black and banded in grey, eerie against his swarthy complexion.

The sargeant could not have cared less about the incongruity of the man, and dropped instantly into his routine. "Hold still for scan," he demanded. He glanced over at the post on the side of the bridge to make sure the snipers there had him covered. At a nod from one of the hardsuited guards, he picked up the hand unit and circled the stranger, playing it along his body. Radar and IR images showed no weapons of any kind, and no obviously dangerous cybernetics.

He stepped back to his table and set down the scanner. "Identahcard," demanded Callahan, unconcerned by the seeming incongruity of the man.

The man opened his bag and reached in, rifling around until he found what he was looking for, then passed the card over.

It was an old card, dated eight years ago, but still valid. It was also in mint condition, which might have struck another observer as odd, but the Sargeant simply noted it was issued by the Mexican government.

"Visa," he said tiredly.

There was more fishing in the bag before the appropriate document was produced. This one was a corporate temporary visa, issued by Shiroko-Tsuhi, but it scanned as valid. Callahan scanned the card next, slipping it into the slot of the unit at his belt.

The information that popped up on his hand unit showed no history of warrants or, indeed, a criminal record of any kind. The individual was listed as dead by the Jamaican government, but somehow the Mexican government had never officially changed his status. That kind of international snafu was outside of Callahan's concerns; he was a Mexican citizen in the UNA legally, whatever his metaphysical status in the Caribbean.

"State ya name for voice identifahcation," he said.

"Paolo Zanabria," was the response.

The green light went off on the data unit.

"Go on," muttered Callahan, handing back his papers and waving him through.

The man took them back, seeming at a loss, and staggered forward a few stunned steps. The sargeant watched as the man turned to look back over his shoulder at the Zone, then turned to face the towering Neo York skyline. "I'm Paolo Zanabria," he murmurred, just above earshot to the sargeant. Then, suddenly, he threw his arms up and seemed to shout at the city, "I'm Paolo Zanabria!"

The heads of a few of Callahan's co-workers turned to look at the noise, but the sound evoked no response from the jagged wall of buildings beyond the bridge. The stranger looked around once more, then walked on. He seemed lost, his stride less purposeful as it had been when he had approached the bridge.

The sargeant lost interest, and settled back into his chair to wait for the rush.

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