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.

"So, where are you living these days?" asked the cyborg, wondering where they were going.

The doctor shrugged. "Here and there," he answered vaguely. "I'm not ready to settle in again now."

Lora looked at him intently. "Are you OK?" she asked. "I can get you a place—"

"No, no, I'm fine," Snakeye answered, raising his hands to calm her. "The Yakuza came through on their compensation. And for that matter, I got my lockbox out of the rubble from the clinic." He shook his head. "I just...don't want to build anything right now. I do OK," he added. "There are lots of people who owe me favors, so their doors are open."

His companion considered that. "Must make it hard to earn a living," she observed. "How do your patients find you?"

"I've cut back on my patients," he answered. "I've started a new project."

"Oh?" asked Lora. There was an awkward pause as the cyborg realized she might have implied a question he wanted to avoid. "Listen," she said, "You don't have to tell me—"

"It's alright," he reassured her. "It's—I can't give you the details. But it's something really good, something I'm really happy to be doing." He smiled. "In a way, I'm almost glad the clinic was destroyed. It made me stop and think about who I really am and what I should be doing."

This time, the comment seemed to invite a question. "How so?" the cyborg hazarded.

The doctor struggled to put it into words. "Lora, I'm not a doctor. At least not in the way most people think about them. I like helping people, and I take my job seriously. I do it right—I don't squeeze anyone who can't afford it, and I've never turned away from a trauma case. I care very deeply about my patients when they're on my table. But healing people...isn't really where my focus is," he said, then broke off. "I guess that sounds very callous, doesn't it?"

The cyborg considered that. "I don't think so," she said. "Lots of people aren't healers. And most doctors wouldn't have done half of what you did for me," the cyborg added emphatically. "You're a really good man."

"Thank you," said Snakeye, surprised and touched.

There was an awkward pause, then Lora asked. "So where is your focus?"

He smiled. "I'm a cyberneticist," he said. "And my specialty is design. That's what I'm working on now—a design so good it's going to buy my way back into the real world."

His companion blinked. "You're designing cybernetics? Just like that?"


"Don't you need lots of equipment? Tools, technicians, computers..."

"I've got a good computer. And I'm selling a design that's not complete," answered the doctor. "It will be the buyer's responsibility to build and test the equipment. But the basic design is sound," he added.

"Wow," she said. "I guess that would bring in a lot more money than treating patients."

"It does," answered the doctor. "That's why I started it. But now—Lora, it just feels so good," he shook his head, as if trying to explain something beyond words. "Cybernetics is the ultimate blend of art and science. It's the greatest expression of human mastery over the universe, the final stage of evolution in which the organism declares it will decide not only its actions, but its very form. This is the dawn of a new era, and a hundred years from now the human race will be unrecognizable to us. We will—" he broke off and looked at his companion, abruptly realizing she might have a different view of the situation.

Lora was forcing a smile, somewhere between amused and disturbed. "You're very passionate about this," she observed.

Paolo nodded. "I am. I think we're on the brink of a revolution unlike anything the world has ever seen before, and I don't see anyone preparing for it. That worries me."

I guess it worries me, too," answered the cyborg. "But maybe the other way. It's scary to think the human race could be that different a hundred years from now." She looked at him seriously. "Is this a game we should be playing?"

"Well, we have to evolve," he answered. "The environment is changing faster than ever before—and we're changing it. The kind of catastrophic pollution and climate change we're bringing on ourselves is normally associated with things like massive volcanic eruptions or asteroid strikes. Things that lead to mass extinctions. The only possible way to guarantee the human race will survive is to rebuild ourselves."

The young woman seemed stunned by these observations. "Maybe even that's too limited. Maybe we should be looking for ways to survive in space," she observed.

Paolo's face froze for a moment, but Lora was not returning his gaze. It took him only a moment to decide that had not been designed to hint that she knew more than she had said.

"That's certainly possible," he answered. "There are already cyborgs designed to live and work in space."

She looked away a moment, though whether to scan the area or consider the issue was anyone's guess. "I guess what disturbs me most is that this new human race is going to come out of the corps." Lora said. "I don't like to think about what they would build into a human being."

"They may have less control than you think," answered the doctor.

His companion looked surprised. "But it takes a lot of money to build cybernetics," she replied. "The corporations are the only ones who can."

"They'll get cheaper," answered the doctor. "So will genetic engineering. And megacorporations like this may not last a hundred years. They couldn't exist a hundred years ago, because the technology wasn't there to support them," the doctor pointed out.

"But how likely is that?" she asked, once again startled by the line of the conversation. "Hasn't the trend always been to bigger and bigger corporations? More centralized power?"

"Possibly," Paolo replied. "But not completely. Governments and corporations lost their control of information long ago—the media corporations still make big money, but if you want to know something they don't want to tell you, you can find it. Information is easy to generate and store. Manufacturing is getting harder to control, too," he added, tapping the slot behind his ear. "Have you thought about what a skilljack means to the corps? Any idiot with the right chip and a parts list from Web Hut can put together a computer as good as the ones you buy from Aztechnology."

"But they still control the parts suppliers—"

"Of course," answered Paolo. "Which is why nothing has really changed yet. But all it would take are new technologies to empower individuals and small groups. If that happens, the corps will wither and die."

"Do you really think they'd release control over those kinds of technologies?" asked Lora.

"If they have vision—and some do—then no," replied the doctor. "But the real question is how long they can retain control of them."

Lora sighed and looked around. "This is a strange conversation to be having here," she said, surveying the abandoned buildings.

Paolo nodded, feeling the same. There was an oppressive air of despair to the wasteland, one he had gotten so used to breathing he hardly noticed it. But this place was the product of megacorporate neglect, and its existence seemed to mock the idea of an end to commercial feudalism.

There was a long silence, which the doctor broke. "I get philosophical at times," he confessed. "It's my favorite vice. Next to drinking, I mean," he added.

The cyborg grinned. "The two mix well," she observed.

"They do," answered Paolo. He yawned. "But I've had enough of both for one night."

"Me too."

They wandered onward toward the lights of the Entertainment district.

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