Jamie Jeans, Mark Kobrak & David Kuijit

Paolo lay sprawled on the futon, enjoying the afternoon sunlight that beamed through the room's large glass window. He ignored the noise of the carpenters downstairs, his attention focused on the stream of medical journal data that coursed through the datajack from his PDA. He wished his job hunting had turned up something worth pursuing, but the kind of people who wanted cybernetic design done outside a corporate setting preferred to find surgeons by word of mouth. He could do nothing but wait, and try to get caught up on current cybertechnology. It was hard to stay up to date when he was so isolated as he was from mainstream research, but he was determined to stay up to date. Particularly now that he had both the freedom and the urgent need to make his practice profitable.

Outside, there was the deep-throated rumble of a heavy electric engine, audible even above the hammering from the workshop. There was a squeak of brakes just outside, and the rumbling came to a halt. Curious, Paolo rose, absently flipping through the New England Journal of Cybernetics as he stepped over to the window.

Someone had parked a large City of Neo York garbage truck in the parking lot. Paolo blinked, wondering who would have stolen a truck from the city, driven it through the Williamsburg checkpoint, and chosen to park it here. The door opened on the driver's side, and a familiar feminine, blue-haired form made its way around the vehicle toward the doorway below him.

Oh, thought the doctor. That explains everything.

He unjacked and put the unit away, waiting for the knock at the door. "Come in," he responded.

The physician was struck by an odd sense of deja vu as the tired figure of Karin Nys strolled in, carrying a large steel briefcase in one hand. "I got the gear," she said without preamble. "It's in the truck. And I've got the cash for your bill." She staggered into the room and dropped down into a chair, seemingly exhausted.

The doctor looked the assassin over, but found no sign of injury beyond the obvious fatigue. "You look like Hell," he observed, "But better than I'd have expected for a woman APNN declared dead yesterday."

At that, Karin smirked. "Yeah... I am a damn good looking corpse, aren't I?" She chuckled and rose again. "We should get the stuff in from the truck... I didn't go through all that trouble for someone to steal it."

She pushed herself up. "I'll get it," the doctor replied, motioning for her to sit back down. "You need some rest."

"No," insisted Karin. "I'm fine—I just want you to get this stuff together so we can get on with this." The look in her eye made it clear there was no point in arguing, and the pair made their way out.

The carpenters barely looked up as the two strode through, shuffling through the thick layer of sawdust and wood turnings. They made their way out into the lot and up to the cab of the truck, where the assassin diligently attacked the locked door with a pick.

The doctor took a moment to look across the lot to the pile of rubble that marked the remains of his old clinic. The Patrol had not been pleased to see Snakeye coming in again, but when he explained he would only be staying a few days they had allowed it—provided his carpenter hosts assumed responsibility for him. He'd earned his keep for a comfortable four days treating an outbreak of venereal disease, and evidently his whereabouts had become common knowledge. The assassin had not bothered to call before her arrival.

The door came open, and the vehicle's current owner passed Snakeye a large duffel bag before picking up the second one herself. The physician staggered under the weight, but managed to get the strap over his shoulder as Nys strolled determinedly past him and into the workshop. He followed her back to the upstairs room.

"Alright," she said, setting the heavy bag on the table. "Let's get started."

The doctor realized it was pointless to argue with the exhausted woman. "Alright," he said, unzipping one of the bags. "Let's see what we've got here."

He pulled out a small black box first and looked it over, opening different compartments to view their contents. "Severex-9 endocrinology kit," he observed. "Good for brain chemistry, even if the diagnostic tools are a little slow. We can use this to balance Crusher's chemistry again once we've got him down."

"It's just what you asked for," answered Nys tiredly. "Get on with it."

He reached in and pulled out another box, this one cardboard, and containing several bottles and cartridges. "Anaesthetine nine, and aerosol components," he announced. "I'm fairly sure that's what we need." He noticed a small box in a corner of the current on and opened it to find a small, triangular chip bearing the label, "Synthetic Biochemistry." He examined it a moment, then inserted it in the slot behind his ear. "Yes, that's right," he said, looking at the bottles again. "In fact, we don't even want those," he added, putting several smaller bottles aside. "We can circumvent the solubility issues using a micellar dispersion. No need for that last derivitization at all."

There was more chemistry equipment in the first bag, and the doctor rattled it off systematically before moving on to the second duffel. He immediately produced a small ammunition case. "Yes, this is just what we need," he said, opening it to reveal the row of tear gas grenades. "We dump the tear gas and replace it with the Anaesthetine nine cocktail. We can take the antidote in advance, and then pump as much gas into Crusher's system as we can. It'll be slow to take him down, but it will suppress the autonomic neural responses that activate his trauma regulator. That done, he'll be much more vulnerable."

He reached into the bag and pulled out the last item, a large weapons case. Opening it revealed a matching set of four heavy tasers. "Perfect," he said. "I'll modify these to match the frequency on Crusher's neural interface." He smiled in satisfaction. "Normally I wouldn't know what that was, but I checked the Maim TV equipment guidelines. Taser weapons are allowed in certain matches, but are forbidden to have certain frequencies. Not much of a crowd pleaser if the gladiator goes down too quickly." He looked over at Nys. "The key is that the wet/wire interface is sum-frequency modulated to prevent neuron burnout—"

He broke off, seeing the woman's eyes were shut and she was already snoring soundly in her chair. "That worked well," he commented to no one in particular. "If only we could get Crusher to sit still for tedious exposition."

Yawning deeply, Karin slowly came awake, blinking her eyes rapidly to clear them of blurriness. Looking around, she came instantly awake and sat up, spotting Snakeye working on a rather large taser. Behind him, she spotted something that smelled faintly of something she couldn't identify boiling over an alcohol burner.

She glanced at the watch and grunted. "I thought I asked to be woke up after four hours," she croaked, throat dry.

The doctor looked over at her. "Hm hmm, you did," he confirmed absently. "There's water and some soybake bars in the cupboard over there," he gestured. "Help yourself."

The thought of food and drink made her empty stomach growl loudly and Karin did exactly that, helping herself of generous amounts of both. Amazing, the soybake bars weren't half bad, an accomplishment in the Zone, and she wolfed down a few extra more before walking over to the doctor. "So..." She swallowed another glass of water. "... how do you want to do this?"

"Safely," answered the doctor, still tinkering with the weapon. "I'll handle gas grenades. Once I've tagged him with one of those, it'll take about three or four shots to take him down. That will be your department." He looked up at her. "You may want to dig up some help for that. I don't think you want to go one on one with Crusher."

"I don't, but I can't afford to hire anyone else. I'm a dead woman, remember? And corpses don't go asking for help."

"I've got a couple of friends with a truck who can help," Paolo continued. "They own a garage, which will be a good place to run the procedure. So once Crusher's down, we load him into the truck and get him to the garage."

"How long will the procedure take?" asked the assassin.

"Eight to twelve hours," answered the doctor. "If his chemistry's not stable by then, it never will be."

Karin nodded. "Good enough... and if you can't save him, then put him out, peacefully. He deserves that much at least." She stared down at the doctor, eyes cold and unreadable.

He returned her gaze, also unwavering. "You should think about this," he suggested. "The odds aren't all that good even once we get him to the table. And going hand to hand with a Gladiator class replicant..." He let that sink in.

"Hey doc..." she started, voice oddly soft and warm. "I know what you're thinking and the concern is appreciated... but I can't afford any more time letting him run around out there. Sooner or later, some gang is going to take him out, or he'll have a chance meeting with Ran, or something inside him will break and then he'll be dead." She shook her head, and when she spoke, her voice was steel. "I had to give up some special people when I faked my death, and I'll be damned if I lose any more." The look in her eyes was determined, albeit haunted... there would be no turning her from her course of action.

The doctor only nodded in reply. He closed the housing on the taser unit, then brought it down in an arc to jab a cobbled together arrangement of electronics at the end of the bench. There was a loud crack and the sharp smell of ozone as the weapon connected, and somewhere in the assemblage a green light came on. The doctor inspected the weapon once more, then set it down next to two others.

"I don't suppose you've given any thought to how we're going to find Crusher?" he prompted.

Karin smirked as she hefted up one of the taser units, testing its weight in her arms. "Simple... we look for the freshest trail of destruction and follow it."


The Wastelands were an ugly place. Most of the Neo York Zero Zone was dangerous, but living in the Waste was asking to die. Inhabitants of the Waste were generally those too violent, anti- social or insane for Bartertown or even Darkside, or too desperate to care. Go-gangs cruised the shattered streets; Megacorps used it for live-ammo combat training of high-end corporate warfare equipment; packs of wild dogs prowled and snarled and attacked anything that looked weak or vulnerable or edible.

One such pack was strewn in the blind alley like broken dolls. They had found something they thought was prey—one alone, smelling of filth and injury. They had approached warily, ready to run at the report of a gun, but their prey had none, and he had been trapped. Now the survivors of the pack had long since fled yelping, leaving a dozen of their number shattered and slaughtered by a predator far more fierce and strong than they. A killer.

The alley had the coppery, sickly-sweet smell of old blood and death. The dog corpses lay where they had fallen days earlier, except where the killer had ripped them apart to eat them. Dark shadows filled the doorways of the alley. There was no sign of the killer.

The truck rolled silently up to the alley, electric motor humming smoothly. Seated in the back, Paolo fingered Karin's grenade launcher tensely, regretting that there were four rounds of gas grenades to be discharged before the first lethal round could be chambered. His left hand slipped to the pole-mounted taser he had built for himself against the chance Crusher charged him. The assurances he had given Karin about the weapon's effectiveness no longer reassured him.

In the cab of the truck, Ken looked back, seeking instructions. Paolo nodded to him and asked Karin, "What do you think?"

Frowning, Karin slid out of the truck silently, a pole mounted taser held firmly in her hands. With a flick of her finger, it snapped on with a low hum of power. "One hell of a mess." She grabbed a flashlight out of her jacket and turned it on, playing the beam of light over the slaughtered dogs. "Some look eaten, and pretty recently too, so look sharp." She took a few steps into the alley and stopped, glancing back over her shoulder at Snakeye.

He slid resignedly over the side of the truck, moving awkwardly to avoid setting down either the grenade launcher or the taser. He looked over at Ken, who rolled down the window.

"Move on ahead," he told him. "We'll call you when this is over."

"Hope so," answered Ken, looking warily at the bodies. He drove off. The doctor wondered if he should have kept his surgical backpack, but decided it was better off out of harm's way. He had the endocrine kit in a pouch at his belt, and all the necessary drugs to counter a bad reaction to the anesthetic gas. If anything else went wrong, he'd just have to hope Ken could get back in time.

Seeing the uselessness of carrying both weapons at the ready, the doctor slipped his taser over his shoulder, letting it hand in its strap as he placed both hands on the grenade launcher. He nodded to Karin to proceed.

The assassin played her flashlight along the walls as she made her way down the alley, warily keeping her taser ready at the other hand. But the doctor ignored the light of the beam, letting his preternatural vision roam up and down the alley. He might still be capable of planning an ambush, the doctor thought. He's aggressive and not prone to abstract thought, but he's survived. That speaks of cunning.

Paolo's fear was rewarded by the sight of a pair of beady red eyes glaring balefully out of a gap in the boards sealing a window. There was just a wisp of heat to confirm the presence of a living body just inside the window, but he could see no details.

Do I take the shot? Wondered the doctor, trying not to make any obvious show of recognition. He and Karin had both had the antidote, and if that were Crusher, he'd certainly get a dose of the gas through the boards. But the doctor had only four shots. He hesitated.

And the wall exploded. Crusher leaped from ambush like a berserk tiger, through the wood boards as if they were tissue paper, and through the brick wall as if it was thin bamboo. He roared as he leaped, a sound of bestial fury.

The doctor fired, augmented nervous system steadying his hands as they launched the grenade into the enormous replicant even before his feet touched the ground. The acrid chemical smell filled the alley, but the behemoth noticed neither the impact nor the scent as he bore down on Karin Nys like a force of nature. The assassin spun, moving with the speed of one trained to not only survive in battle, but to excel. She stabbed her pole-mounted taser directly into Crusher's chest. The enhanced taser released its charge with a blinding blue-white flash and crackle of ozone. Crusher's roar turned into a bellow of fury and pain, but an electric charge that would have hospitalized a normal human merely staggered him.

Karin backpedaled quickly, the smell of burnt flesh and ozone mixing with the gas from Paolo's grenade. A grazing swipe of Crusher's arms knocked her flying, but she tucked and rolled, coming up a bit wobbly on her legs, one arm wrapped about her side.

She lifted the taser for another shot then looked at the broken-off stub of the pole she held, converted from a monster-stopping taser into a three foot stick that would be about as useful against Crusher as a rolled-up newspaper.

She growled and held it up as a club. "Crap..."

A second grenade slammed into Crusher, catching him between the shoulder blades. He gave an outraged choke as the gas entered his lungs, then turned to bare his teeth at the doctor. But Paolo held his ground, expression frozen in clinical calculation.

Crying out with a fierce battle cry, Karin darted in and swung the impromptu club several times at Crusher's back, the blows harming him as much as a fly could harm an elephant.

Crusher spun like a cat. The last blow smacked across his snarling face. "Shoot him again, doc!" she yelled, backing away from the enraged replicant.

Before Paolo could act Crusher's huge hand flicked out, and this time it hit more than Karin's taser. The fist connected with her ribs like a two-handed swing from a twenty-pound sledgehammer, and the snap of ribs was audible. The impact flung Karin through the air like a cloth doll, sending her to crash limply in a pile of trash, fighting for consciousness.

Crusher staggered, then staggered again. His harsh breathing echoed in the alley. He started to step towards where Karin lay twitching feebly, then fell to one knee. Snarling, he got up, staggered a few steps, and fell again.

Paolo darted forward, dropping the grenade launcher and readying his own taser. The giant was snarling impotently at the fallen assassin as he crawled forward on quivering limbs, and the doctor stabbed downward with his polearm to catch the replicant in the thigh.

Crusher stiffened at the taser's discharge, but the impact seemed to heighten his rage. Paolo stared in horrified fascination as the replicant brought himself erect by force of pain and madness, and turned to face him. His enemy now towered above him, a figure of awesome power teetering on two nerveless legs. One arm came back awkwardly, clumsily readying a strike, and the doctor lunged, striking the ex-gladiator in the solar plexus.

He backpedaled awkwardly as three-quarters of a ton of flesh and cybernetics crashed to the ground and measured its length in the refuse-strewn alley.

The doctor stood panting, leaning on his now useless taser while the ice cold fear he had hardly felt drained from his body. He looked over at the fallen assassin and took a step in her direction, then stopped himself. Her health meant nothing if Crusher recovered. He dropped the taser and fumbled through his pocket for the endocrine kit, then kneeled cautiously beside the replicant.

He reached out to touch the giant, hesitating a moment before letting his fingers move along the dirty skin of Crusher's throat. He found the knob that he knew indicated a septum in the dermal plate, and slid the needle-shaped probe from his kit into place. The readout showed the inordinate levels of pain and combat hormones the doctor had feared, but also indicated there had been no bad reaction to the anesthetic. Crusher was sleeping comfortably.

Paolo adjusted the controls to increase the level of anesthetic in the blood, and left the probe in place as he stood. He stepped over to check the fallen assassin, and found her eyes open, watching him, panting in pain.

"How's the big guy, Doc?" she gasped as she struggled to sit up, her face lined with intense pain.

"Resting," answered the doctor, pulling out his cell phone to call Ken. "You should do the same."

"Yeah, sure... after he's been loaded onto the truck,"she replied as she got to her feet, albeit shakily. "Damn... ribs busted again. Seems all your hard work is going to waste on me, doc." She gave him her trademark smirk before stumbling forward, grunting in pain.

The doctor simply shook his head and called for the truck.

For the first time in months, Crusher awoke as a rational creature. He could smell disinfectant and soap, and was surprised to find that he could not pick up his own odor. The room was warm, and silent, and he was aware that he was lying on his back on a slab of cool metal.

He opened his eyes. Above him were rafters and a wooden roof, dusty and lined with cobwebs. He noticed a light in the corner of his eye and tried to turn his head, but couldn't. He was paralyzed, utterly unable to move.

The thought did not disturb Crusher as much as it should have. He was relaxed. Certainly, he wondered at the cause of his paralysis, but couldn't seem to focus on it enough to let it upset him.

He heard a noise near where the light was, the sound of a chair sliding on a wooden floor. Then footsteps made their way over to him, and a man came in to view. He was dark-skinned, with short hair, and nearly black cybernetic eyes. He wore a stained t-shirt, and carried himself in a way that told the ex-Bouncer he was very tired indeed. But his expression was one of bland pleasure as he nodded to Crusher.

"Good, you're awake," he said, standing nearby. From his height, Crusher judged he was on a table. "Do you remember me?"

The question helped the replicant to focus his thoughts. "Snakeye," he said, speaking awkwardly as he found his lips slightly numb. "You're Dr. Snakeye."

The man nodded. "That's right," he said. "It's good to see you again, Crusher. How do you feel?"

The big man tried to formulate a response to that. "I can't move," he offered.

Again, the doctor nodded. "That's a side effect of the therapy I've worked out for you," he said. "You've been very sick—your endocrine system went out of kilter. But I've mostly got it back together. But I had to give you a paralytic drug as part of this last stage of the therapy. It will wear off in a few hours."


The doctor bent, and there was again the sound of a chair being pulled along the floor. Then he sat down, dropping out of Crusher's line of vision.

"Do you remember what happened?" asked the voice.

The replicant considered. "Angry." He was still having trouble making sentences. "Always angry; red haze," he said, stumbling through the words. "Can't remember much." There was a long pause as he tried to remember more. "Blue was there. I hit her—is she OK?" His concern seemed removed, somehow; distant.

"She's OK," said Snakeye. "She's sleeping off an injury, but she'll be fine."

The big man rummaged around in his brain again, trying to formulate the question. "Where am I?"

"Bell's Motors," came the answer. "Ken and Bell are a couple of friends of mine who are letting us use the space. But we're in their shed—they're in another building." There was a sound like the doctor was shifting in his chair. "You need to think about what you're going to do when you're back on your feet, Crusher. Have you thought about going back to being a bouncer at 93 U?"

Crusher tried to shrug, but still couldn't move. "Dunno. Duke's pissed at me."

"But he might understand, once he finds out you've been sick," the doctor replied. "Do you like being a bouncer, Crusher?"

Crusher mulled over the question idly. "Guess so. Good at it, anyway."

"Well, it seems different from being a gladiator," Snakeye commented blandly. "What didn't you like about being a gladiator, Crusher? Why did you leave it?"

"Didn't leave. Escaped. I ain't property." Crusher said. Even through the mellow haze he was in, his voice was bitter and intense.

There was a long pause, and the replicant heard the doctor shift in his chair again. But when he spoke, it was with casual neutrality. "But if you could go back into the ring as your own man, would you do it?"

"Heh. Maybe. Fighting's fun. Ain't often I can really fight all-out, except in the ring. Being a bouncer ain't the same—a good bouncer doesn't get to fight much. Only people ever fought me when I was a bouncer were hopped up or drunk, and wouldn't have been much challenge sober. More like playin' whack-a-mole than like fightin'."

"I see." There was a faint rustle of paper, as if the doctor had pulled something out of his pocket. "Sandra Blackmore came by looking for you today," he said. "Said she wanted to settle a score with you. Do you want to see her when you're feeling better?"

"Sandra? She owe me money, now?" Crusher chuckled drowsily. "Sure, send her in. She sure has bad luck. Hard on herself, though."

This time Snakeye was obviously puzzled. "Didn't she shoot you a few months ago?"

Crusher chuckled again. "Yup. And I was damn glad she didn't miss, either! That would have hurt. She owes me for the clothing, though. I sure am hard on shirts. Some things aren't meant to be, Duke says, and me in a white silk shirt is one of them."

"OK," replied the doctor uncertainly. There was another pause before he spoke again. "There's a wasp on your arm. Do you want me to kill it?"

"Wasp? Naw. Don't kill it." Crusher's eyes brow furrowed. "Why bother? It can't hurt me. That's a strange question, Doc." Crusher's eyes narrowed. "There ain't no wasp, is there?"

"No, there isn't," came Snakeye's voice, with a hint of resignation. "As you've surmised, it's a question used in personality profiling. You've been through intense psychological trauma, and I need to assess your stability."

"I don't like labcoats like you, Doc." Crusher's thought stream seemed to convert itself into words without his bidding, even though his natural instinct was to clam up. "I don't care if you want to play God; I just don't feel like playing insect." In spite of his drugged state, Crusher's words were surprisingly intense.

"I don't like playing God," answered the doctor evenly. "But it comes with my job. If you're not in control, you'll kill someone. Maybe 'Blue.'"

Crusher's face contorted and his body twitched. "Kill me." His voice was hoarse. Tears sprang from his eyes and ran down his roughhewn cheeks.

"You're very afraid of losing control, aren't you, Crusher?" The doctor asked. "What scares you most about it?"

"Control? You don't get it," Crusher whispered. His sudden tears had disappeared as quickly as they came, and his voice went back to being hazy, slightly slurred. "You haven't seen what I've seen. Done what I've done... You labcoats see everything as control, neh? If I lose control, I might kill someone. But if you think a replicant might lose control, you will kill someone. Me. Funny, don't you think?

"...makes me wonder, ya know, if anyone ever runs these tests on you nats? Standing over a drugged nat, asking questions? Wasp on your arm, Doctor? Should I kill it? Standing with a big red button, trying to decide if this nat is dangerous, if he should live or die? After all, it might get angry, lose control—a nat losing control might be dangerous! He might be flying an aircraft, might get drunk, hurt his wife and kids, might be a bus driver, might have a personal firearm, might be driving too fast..."

Crusher's intensity returned, pushing him beyond the reach of the drugs, and his voice was bitter and angry. "Anyone ever stand over you with the button, asking questions, Doc? Anyone ever flip a coin over you, give you the thumbs up or down --"

Suddenly Snakeye was standing over the replicant. "Do you think I want to play God!?" He demanded, face contorted in rage. "Do you think I wanted the decision to push the button? I took this job because I was the only chance you had—there isn't another doctor on the planet who could do the job and would bother to try. You were an animal, Crusher! I tried to make you human again. And if I failed and I let you loose, the blood of every innocent you break is on my hands." He was shaking with rage as he turned away, stepping out of the replicant's view.

There was a long pause, and Crusher could hear the doctor's breathing. "Don't think I wouldn't kill a Nat, Crusher," he said finally, voice steadying. "I have. I have to play God, because He's not doing his job."

It was a moment before Crusher responded, and his voice was dreamy again under the influence of the drugs.

"Ain't no God, Doc. Devil, maybe, but he's a Nat. But you're right, I was an animal. If I come out of this, I owe ya." Crusher's voice was fading now, as if his earlier intensity had tired him out. "... an' if ya push the button, I don' mind. I still owe ya. 'Course, I'd stiff ya on the owing thing," Crusher giggled briefly, "... seeing as I'd be dead... "

Another thought struck Crusher and was blurted out. "So watcha gonna do if I don't pass?"

"Administer treatment."

The words were delivered flatly, and there was no doubt what the doctor meant. But in his dissociated state, Crusher had trouble responding to it, as if it weren't all that important.

There was a long lull, which the doctor broke. "You seem in good health," he said. "But I need to understand how things went wrong for you. What was it that pushed you too far? Finally made you walk away from things?"

"Had to get away." Crusher's voice was faint and strained. "Fury had me, I couldn't beat it. If I stayed near anyone I ... friends, you know... If they were near when I snapped I'd kill them. And anyone near them. Couldn't let that happen. Had to run..."

The doctor looked over and found the giant had closed his eyes. Paolo returned to his side and glanced at his patient's vitals, confirming that the replicant was in a normal, healthy sleep state. He didn't bother to check the endocrine log, and erased his tape of the conversation with the press of a button.

"You're no more screwed up than the rest of us," he told the sleeping figure. He carefully disconnected the endocrine line, sliding the needle out of the replicant's skin.

He looked up and discovered Karin Nys in the doorway. "How long have you been there?" He asked.

"Long enough," answered the assassin flatly. "You'd have killed him."

"Yes." There was no hesitation. "Would you have stopped me?"

"Yes... but only to do the job myself. He deserves that much he does."

The doctor shrugged. "You ought to be resting," he observed.

Karin smirked. "There's allot of things I 'ought to be' doing, doc..." The smirk left and she grew somber. "I want to get started."

Paolo sighed tiredly. "Alright," he said resignedly. "I need to draw some tissue samples for cultures. I'll get those started, then grab a couple of hours' sleep before the procedure."

"Got it."

He gestured to the chair he had been using and she sat down. The doctor rummaged through the bag of supplies Nys had purchased until he found the kit he was looking for, then set it on the smaller table where he had placed his implements. Crusher slumbered on, oblivious to events.

The doctor began to swab a patch of skin on her face. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked. "Some of what you've asked for will be irreversible."

Karin closed her eyes. "Honestly? No. But if I don't make the most of my death, then it'd be for naught." Subtlety, her entire demeanor changed, and her voice took on a soft, cultured tone. "And I was never one raised to squander that which was either given to me or that which I earned through hard work and dedication."

Paolo looked at the woman, and then back at the prostrate replicant. "You two are quite a pair," he observed, laying out a series of plates on the table.

"Why thank you, good doctor."

Crusher's eyes blinked open. He was on his back, looking up into the rafters of a one-room wooden building, something like a two-car garage. The surface under him was some sort of heavy bench. He shifted his head. To his right was a small rolling table with some medical equipment and a few metal folding chairs. The floor was concrete; there were shelves of a variety of strange- shaped miscellaneous metal auto parts, and one corner was piled with scrap metal.

Hearing a gentle movement, Crusher shifted his head to the other side. A woman was sitting there, a stranger. She had been reading; as he moved she folded the newspaper (the Bartertown Rag, he realized) and looked up at him. A pretty woman, athletic but not too thin; shoulder-length white hair with a streak of blue running through the middle. Green eyes.

"Ah, good morning to you, Mr. Crusher," she started, her voice soft and cultured sounding. "You were asleep for quite a while there."

Crusher looked around again, suspiciously, but there was nobody else here and the attractive woman didn't seem threatening. He sat up carefully, working his fingers, fists, wrists, elbows; making the post-surgery functionality checks that had been part of his life for so long that he couldn't remember a time without them. All his parts seemed to be in working order. He was hungry and thirsty, but that, too, was a constant part of his life. Someone had left a pile of paramilitary ration bars and a couple of gallons of water on the small table next to him. He ripped open one and swallowed it in two large bites, washing it down with a half-gallon of water. His eyes stayed on the woman.

"Who are you?"

"I am Korey Winters, a friend." She smiled. "A good friend." And this time she smirked in a very familiar fashion.

"I've never seen you before," Crusher stated, but he frowned as if he wasn't quite sure. "An' I ain't got a lot of friends."

She continued to smirk. "Well, neither do I. We have to stick close to what little friends we have in this world." She fingered the blue streak in her hair. "Especially those who are no more lost items to be regained after running away."

Crusher ate another concentrated ration bar in two big bites. "Dunno what you're talking about, lady." He tried standing up, swayed a bit, but stayed upright.

Korey laid a steadying hand on his shoulder and chuckled. "Guess it was too good an act," she said, her voice assuming a familiar tone. "It's me... Karin."

"Shidh!" Crusher's jerk nearly toppled his uncertain balance. "Blue?" He looked at her for a moment, then nodded, but his look stayed perplexed. "Wadja get a facejob for? Dodging?"

"Yeah, that's the gist of it. I... I'm dead, now... so I can't be me anymore and... well..." She looked up at Crusher and then hugged him hard, reaching her arms around him as far as she could reach. "Cripes, Crusher... I thought I almost lost you too. I had to leave one friend and... dammit..."

Crusher's precarious balance nearly went entirely, which might have left Karin under a half-ton of replicant, but he caught himself on the sturdy table in spite of his surprise. His huge arms enclosed Karin gingerly.

"Nobody's ever done something like that for me, Blue. I don't remember much, and some of that I wish I could forget. But you came for me, and I ain't gonna forget that."

"I hope not!" she nearly shouted with a forced smile on her face and the beginnings of tears on her face. She wiped them away vigorously. "I... I lost one friend and I didn't want to lose another. It's purely selfish and self centered, but dammit, I don't care." She sniffled a little, a surprising act for the assassin. "Sorry..."

After a moment Crusher lifted Karin in the air, holding her at arms length with her feet swinging two feet above the ground. "Don't get mushy on me now, Blue. Us replicants don't get combat training in mush," he stated matter-of-factly. He shook her gently (gently for him, but Karin's teeth rattled) then put her down. "So where's the Doc? I owe him one, too."

As if on cue, the door opened. Doctor Snakeye entered, looking cleaner and better composed but still worn out. "Oh, hello Crusher," he said, as if nothing were out of place. "How do you feel?"

"Alive," Crusher said thoughtfully. "Sane, too, I guess," he frowned at the doctor.

Paolo nodded. "Glad to hear it," he said. He walked over to the table and busied himself pouring a glass of water while the tension hung in the air. "Sorry if the treatment left a bad taste in your mouth. There really wasn't any other way to do things."

Crusher shrugged reluctantly. "I guess. It ain't the dyin' that would bother me. It's havin' you make the choice for me." He shook his head. "Forget it, Doc. I owe you, almost as much as I owe Blue here."

The doctor shook his head. "She paid," he observed, taking a sip from the water glass. "Your slate's clean. But we should talk at some point about your maintenance schedule, because this sort of thing can happen again."

"Or you could request a loan from me," Karin suggested, resuming her cultured tone. "After all, I did receive a rather nice sum from my own death." She smirked.

"I don't wanna owe you money as well as my life," Crusher frowned, "but I guess I ain't got a lot of choice right now."

"We could work something out," the doctor reassured him. "Doesn't have to be cash. I'm sure we could be useful to each other."

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories