After a short walk in strained silence, they arrived at the end of a row house, where Nami seemed to almost meld into the shadows. Lora reflexively turned on her IR filters and saw the Lynx turn down a short flight of stairs that she would have missed completely had she been just walking down the dilapidated street. She hurried to catch up, really beginning to wonder if she might be better off turning around and leaving.

Stopping at the door, which was a battered metal fire door, Nami rapped loudly with her right hand. A moment later it creaked open and the Lynx gestured to Lora. "C'mon. It's okay, you're with me."

Shifting her vision to normal mode, Lora followed the Lynx inside into a short atrium. Beyond, she could see into much of the main room itself. The lighting was low-key, mainly coming from candles at the various tables and from neon signs flickering behind the bar and small stage. The walls were painted a vague greenish color. And what artificial lighting there was indirect and reflected off the walls to tint everything just slightly greenish blue, as if one were inside a giant tank. A riotous mix of synthetics populated the room, talking and laughing at the occasional bit of humor, or just sitting quietly drinking. Up on the stage a matched pair of scantily clad Pumas danced in perfect sync to the music coming from the sound system. It wasnít as loud overall as 93 Underground. The Vat was more like a private local pub, albeit a rough one. Unmatched furniture, broken ceiling tiles, and other signs showed that this wasn't a high-end bar. No pools of sticky fluid on the floor, though, and it was cleaner than Lora might have expected for a bar this far from Bartertown. Lora paused in the atrium, looking around. After a moment, she realized she was looking for a non-existent guncheck. It had become such a routine part of the way business was run in the neutral bars of the Zone that she had come to expect it automatically. I guess they figure the regular clientele can trust each other. That or they think they can handle anything that comes through that door. Which, if half of what Iíve heard about this place is true, could very well be the case.

The door closed behind her. Lora glanced back and saw a tall, white haired, well-muscled synthetic bolting the door. He was of indeterminate age. He looked like he could be anywhere between 25 and 45. Of course that meant little with replicants. He turned to look at her and she saw suspicion in his eyes. He looked her fully up and down, but there was nothing in his gaze that indicated anything of a sexual interest; it was the evaluation of a trained killer—a soldier. She saw his eyes flicker and pause, then move on, noting her combat attire, her weapons, the way she stood, everything evaluated in how much it would take to bring her down and end her life if it came to it, all in a single glance. His eyes met hers, and he nodded once, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, youíre tough, but I can take you. Lora felt like she had just met the "Alpha Wolf" of this pack. Heís a combat replicant. She stared back, defiantly, but still felt at a disadvantage. This was his home turf, and she was the intruder.

He turned slightly to address the female synthetic without taking his eyes off of her, "Nami, who is she? What is she? Sheís not a 'Nat, but sheís not one of us, either. Unless sheís some new model I havenít heard of."

Lora, thinking that honesty might be best, interjected, "I donít mean to mislead you. Iím not a synthetic. Iím a cyborg."

Royís eyes narrowed, "Yeah... Yeah, I should have seen it. A modified Genesis GXX or BM-7H 'Russian Dollí. I fought a few of you up on Genaros. I think you should leave. Now." Lora heard the room behind her go quiet. Apparently their conversation had been overheard. This could be bad. Strike two for honesty tonight. Crap.

"She saved my life, Roy," Nami suddenly seemed unsure of herself and what she had done. "She didnít have to."

Roy shook his head slightly and said, "Iím glad of that, but you didnít find out everything before you brought her here. You know better than that, or you should."

"Iím sorry Roy, but..."

Whatever Nami had been about to say faded off at a heavy tread behind Lora. Nami's eyes flicked up, not over Lora's shoulder, but way up, above her head.

"Problem, Roy?" The voice was cavernously deep.

"Not yet, Crusher."

Roy had looked large, strong, fast, dangerous, but he could pass for a big human on the street. The newcomer was enormous; taller than Roy by a foot with shoulders unnaturally large in proportion, almost making him look squat. His face was gaunt, with sunken cheeks under dermal plating. It gave his battered, ugly face the look of a starving animal. Lora was taken aback further when she realized she had seen him before, at 93 Underground. He was one of the Bouncers, she thought. But he didnít look like this then! What happened to him?

Crusher nodded, then his eyebrows dropped in a frown as he saw Roy working the door. "What are you doing on door duty anyway, Roy? Where's Troll?" Crusher's voice sounded like he already knew what the answer would be.

Roy looked Crusher into the eyes, voice flat. "Gone. His heart finally couldn't take it. I found him at his place after he didn't show for work yesterday. I think he died in his sleep. A shame—I think he wouldíve liked to go out fighting."

Crusher grimaced, and his fist clenched. He glared at Lora, as if to blame her. Before Lora could decide what she would do if the enormous replicant swung at her, Nami put her hand on Lora's shoulder.

"We all knew it was coming, Crusher," Nami said.

Crusher nodded once, abruptly. "So I shouldn't blame your nat friend, is that it?" His voice was harsh. Nami was silent, but after a moment Crusher grimaced and shook his head. "All right, Nami, fair enough." His voice was still harsh, but he unclenched his fists.

Lora said, "Iím sorry for the loss of your friend..." She trailed off. What more could she say? Nothing really.

Crusher looked at her a moment, anger and pain in his eyes. After a long moment he spoke again. "It's nothing to do with you." His tone made it sound as if he did blame her, and every nat, for the death of the replicant she had never met. As Lora looked around the room, she saw the same hostility in many of the eyes of the patrons.

Crusher shook his head again, and some of the anger seemed to drain from him. He glanced over to Roy. "I'll stand for this friend of Nami's, if you're still unsure about letting her in. For tonight, anyway."

Roy looked at Lora, then at Crusher, clearly making up his mind. "OK, Crusher. If you and Nami stay with her."

Crusher looked at Nami, who nodded, "Yah, Iíll do it." He responded.

Roy looked at Lora, "Youíre safe here for tonight, but donít make coming here a habit."

"I wasnít planning on it." Lora replied.

Roy made a non-committal sound and headed back to the bar. The other patrons slowly went back to their regular business. Only occasionally looking over in Loraís direction.

Crusher lumbered over to an oversized booth. It was obviously made specifically for larger synthetics. Crusher slid his enormous frame carefully in behind the table and moved over to stretch his legs out under the table. Nami followed, and Lora got in on the other side, her toes barely touching the floor.

Crusher frowned at the cyborg, "Well? This isnít a social call, thatís for sure. You have a lot of nerve even walking in here. What are you after, corper?"

Lora thought - Right. Get to the point and get out of here as quickly as possible. "I assume youíve heard of the latest Zone Slayer. Iím looking for it and I want to stop it..."

[ About 15 minutes later—]

Lora walked along the pitch-black street hurriedly, putting as much distance between herself and The Vat as quickly as possible. She was surprised she had made it out without having to fight her way out. The implication was clear, though, if she ever showed up there again, she would probably not be as lucky. The only thing that had saved her was her rescue of Nami the Lynx and the whim of that massive replicant.

As far as getting anything useful out of the trip—well, that depended how one looked at it. Crusher had heard of a thrill-gang nearby that had lost a couple of members to the Zone Slayer, one of whom had been the gang leaderís lover. They were mad as all hell about it. It wasnít clear what, if anything, they were going to do about it, though. Crusher had also heard from a couple of other replicants that had seen the aftermath of other attacks. But that was it.

Not much for all the trouble. But she had somewhere new to look, at least. She headed in the direction of the Warriors turf.

[ 38 minutes after that --]

I donít think Iíve ever used my night optics so much before. Iím going to be dreaming in monochrome green next time I go to sleep. Lora mused to herself.

Crouched motionlessly on the roof of a row house next to where a huge oak had grown up next to it, Lora was screened on most sides by the branches of the tree but could see out pretty well. She was in the neighborhood that Crusher had indicated was home turf to the Warriors. Sheíd been there watching the activity for almost an hour now and no one had noticed her.

One of the many physical advantages of her cyborg frame was that she could leap really amazing distances. It made staying off street level when she wanted to stay unnoticed a breeze. You just had to watch out for weak rooftops. Sheíd fallen through a couple of times while she had been on her search, and felt fortunate no one had seen her do so. It was embarrassing. Not tonight, though. Tonight sheíd been lucky and managed to stay away from bad spots. Sheíd learned that walking near the edges of the roofs or on the tops of the outer walls seemed to help. If a roof was weak, it was more often more likely to be near the center where water had collected and not drained away.

And thatís how you get inside gang territory without them noticing you. Lora mused. If theyíre watching anything, itís the streets. But come in over the top... heh. Not bad.

Now, if only something would actually happen to make this worthwhile. She frowned inwardly. Sheíd found what looked like the current home of the Warriors, an old High School. It looked like they were camping in the old gymnasium. The gang had hacked out some of the undergrowth that had sprung up in the old athletic fields and had lookouts in some of the trees. The smell of food and other things wafted out from the campfire in front of the building. Several men were clustered around a drum fire outside talking, smoking and passing around a bottle of what was probably homemade alcohol.

After watching them for over an hour, Lora repositioned herself so that she was laying on her side on the roof, propping her head up to look out at the Warriors and their antics. And hereís the truism about investigative work. 99% of it is sheer boredom. Crap.

[ 1 hour and 48 minutes later—]

Well, something had finally happened. A few gang members had come running into the Warriors encampment. A couple of them had carried another of their number between them, his leg missing below the knee. Lora had zoomed in with her optics and seen that the wound had been cauterized. A few minutes of shouts and screams and orders between the gang members and almost a dozen of them ran off into the night back in the direction the first group had come from. Unfortunately, they had run off directly opposite Loraís position relative to the main encampment. After debating for a moment, Lora had decided to work her way around the perimeter as quickly as she could while remaining unseen and catch up to them rather than expose herself to the rest of the gang. She was confident she could catch up to the hunting party.

[ 5 minutes later --]

Lora ran towards the source of the shouts and gunfire in the distance, her feet pounding hard, covering meters with each stride. It was hard to keep her footing on the uneven, broken pavement at top speed as the darkened buildings raced by her, doorways and long broken out windows blurring together, forming strange patterns in her peripheral vision. Another round of gunfire and cries of pain and terror... closer now... she dug in and came to an abrupt stop, trying to home in on the sound. She switched over to her internal O2 supply to charge her blood and stilled her breathing reflex in order to listen.


A strange sound—that she would later decide sounded a lot like a piece of chicken being torn up—and a final gurgling scream, made Lora turn her head to zero in. It sounded close. Dreading what she would find, she ran around the corner through a short alleyway and leaped over a stone wall into what once had been a small courtyard between two apartment blocks.

It was difficult at first to make out what she was seeing. In the green monochrome of her low light vision, Lora saw nothing that made any sense at first. Then she saw a hand, the arm it was attached to, then several feet away, a leg... One half of a severed head lay in a pool of glistening blood, bisected down the middle. Bizarrely looking as if it was half submerged in concrete. Another corpse was mostly intact, but simply torn in half, the lower portion connected to the upper only by a bloody smear of entrails. The coppery smell of blood and fear assailed her.

God, oh my god... Her hand went to cover her mouth, but the phantom reflex that would have made her lose her last meal wouldn't translate properly to her artificial digestive system, saving her from that indignity. She staggered back, and nearly lost her footing on something slippery. She did not look down to see what it was.

Thought I was ready for this... heard what it did to the other victims, but I never saw... oh god oh god... even they didnít deserve ... DAMN IT! GET IT TOGETHER LORA! She suddenly mentally screamed at herself. Itís STILL HERE somewhere!! She shifted her feet slightly, centering herself. Looking around, she tried to guess where the killer had gone.


There was a broken out glass entryway into the building in front of her. A set of bloody footprints went through into the area beyond, a large room that might have been an atrium or lobby of some sort. Now it was just an anonymous open space with no features or furniture to indicate what function it may have served. The majority of it was in pitch-black shadow, without even starlight or city glow illuminating it. With her night vision, Lora followed the footprints back into the building.

Then she saw it, just standing there motionless against the back wall, expressionless, a pale doll with eyes that glowed in the darkness. It was looking straight at her.

**[ ] RETREAT**

Lora barely had time to register the image of the killer before it sprang toward her, something held in its right hand that it thrust at her head. Without thought she batted it aside. Her left forearm came up hard against the thingís wrist and she felt something in her arm give—only later would she find out that one of the plates in her subdermal armor had cracked. She realized it had been holding a sharpened length of steel pipe and that if her wired nervous system hadnít already been combat-hyped, it wouldíve thrust it straight through her forehead and brain, armor or no armor.

In the split second of arrested motion that followed, Lora got her first clear view of the killer, and it was definitely a cyberdroid. Close up it looked even more like a doll. The face was an unmoving mask with no expression at all in the mechanical eyes. Its mouth was a straight line and curiously, there were seams running down to the chin from each corner, as if it was on a puppetís hinge. Two large antennae poked through the bone white hair where ears would be on a human, and the rest of the androgynously shaped body was covered neck to wrist to ankle in what may have been some form of combat fatigues now tattered with bullet holes and spattered with blood.

All of this registered in a heartbeat, while her left arm was still carrying through the motion of blocking the botís improvised polearm out to the side. Her right hand was already up and held back in a guard position and she punched, trying to catch the droid in the face. But it dodged back out of the way and she caught nothing but air. Damn that thing is fast! Lora thought. Her own nervous system was boosted to such an extent that she could effectively move and react two to three times as fast as a normal person but this bot matched her easily in terms of raw speed.

She saw the glow in its left eye flash brighter and she had a moment of prescience... oh shit... ducking downward just as a laser lanced through the air where her head had been and slicing through the wall behind her. Thank god Snakeye warned me about the laser, she thought, otherwise that would have caught me completely off guard.

Then the bot jumped back toward her and tried to pound her with the pipe. Lora blocked the strike a little more cleanly this time, deflecting it with a circular motion. To hell with this, she thought. Reaching down, she ripped the Earthshaker pistol free of her thigh holster, brought it up and fired, hitting the bot cleanly in the forehead. But the huge bullet merely ricocheted off the armor. The droid rocked back a step from the blast, losing its grip on the pipe, but seemed otherwise unaffected. Lora stared wide-eyed, unbelieving. Oh man, I definitely shouldíve brought the heavy equipment with me... She thought, wishing fervently that she had the Otomo Laser Rifle here with her right now instead of stashed in the top of that abandoned parking garage.

Taking advantage of Loraís momentary hesitation, the bot dropped down and brought both hands forward in a double palm strike to Loraís stomach, knocking her back several meters. Loraís ears rang with the impact as she momentarily did a good impression of a wounded bird flopping through the air. If she had been a normal human, that kind of impact would have folded her in two and snapped her spine in half. As it was, all the air was forced from her lungs, and she counted herself fortunate that she had already been drawing her air from her reserves. She landed on her back and instantly gained control of her fall, flipping backwards and up on one hand while managing to hold onto her gun with the other. The actinic flash of the laser once again streaked across her sight as it hit the ground almost right in front of her eyes just as she catapulted up onto her feet.

Bringing her Earthshaker to bear once more, Lora fired at the cyberdroid. The shot whanged off the armor once more and the bot hardly even rocked back on its feet. But the timing turned out to be perfect as the shot hit in the shoulder and threw off the aim of the eye laser as the bot fired it again, causing the beam to arc high above Lora. She realized a couple of things right then. First, that her luck couldnít possibly remain that good forever, and that the bot had just fired a high-powered laser three times in quick succession and was still moving. She had to keep the fight up close and personal where it would have difficulty in aiming at her. At least she hoped it would have trouble...

Eschewing the use of the gun, she leaped forward and lashed out with a spin kick that connected solidly. THIS time Lora heard a crack and felt something give as her heel hit home on the outer knee joint of the left leg. As the bot shifted stance to keep its balance, Lora wondered if she could see it favoring that leg just a little bit. A hissing noise was coming from the machine now and she hoped she hadnít just found a way to make it angry. Wait a minute... She realized as she double-checked the infrared spectrum that the whole robot was now an infrared bright spot. The hissing sound was coming from vents in the robotís carapace and she could see the tattered fatigues fluttering as steam billowed from under them. She thought incredulously, It made a tactical error! It used its laser too much and itís overheating! Canít let it get a chance to cool down again! Keep the pressure up!

The bot slashed at her with its claws, but Lora turned and batted the attack away with her gun hand. Stepping aside from the attempted blow she snapped off a backhand. But the bot seemed to have learned and blocked her strike with an open palm, then spun in place to bring its other hand around again to strike. Lora wasnít quite fast enough this time. The claw tipped fingers hit her upper left arm and ripped through her jacket and body armor, tearing away a huge swath of synthflesh and scoring on the armor underneath. The force of the blow flung her back out of the lobby and into the outer yard where all the bodies were. Lora slid across the blood soaked pavement. Her mind screamed with pain for a moment as damage signals threatened to overwhelm her. The arm was not actually functionally damaged, but having a large section of nerve-laden synthflesh forcibly removed still hurt like hell.

Shaking her head, Lora kippuped back on her feet and ran at full speed back toward the bot, trying to clothesline it to the ground and gain some advantage before it could cool down enough to use its laser. But it stepped out of the way and swiped at her again, hitting her in the arm again, shredding more armor and synthflesh and redirecting her momentum, slamming her back into one of the cinderblock and plaster walls. She didnít quite go through, but the wall cratered around her, cracks radiating outward from the impact. Synthflesh and strips of armorcloth hung from her left arm now, the subdermal armor exposed from biceps to wrist.

Lora pulled herself out of the wall and leaped back toward the bot, punching it solidly and sending it crashing into the opposite wall. Her aim was slightly off though. She had been aiming for the head but instead hit it in the upper arm. The hissing of the cooling vents on the bot had gotten very loud by this point.

**INTERNAL DIAGNOSTIC 10--25--50--75--95--96--97--98--99--100%**

She was in the process of moving forward to deal another blow when the bot slid down from the crater it had made in the wall, falling to its knees on the ground. Its head hung down, the puppet mouth wide open and steam visibly wafted out and up from all the vents as well as the mouth. It remained motionless as Lora moved in on it cautiously. In the infrared spectrum the bot was almost painful to look at, it was so hot.


It overheated? I donít believe my luck! Lora thought with huge relief. Better take care of this thing while I have the chance! She walked up to the bot and grabbed it by the hair to yank the head up, putting her Earthshaker pistol right up to the laser eye.

"I bet youíre not armored here!" Lora said.

The report of the gun echoed loudly off the courtyard walls and the immediate neighborhood as the bullet went straight through the eye-port, smashing through the delicate laser components and the biochip processors of the CPU beyond. The overpressure cracked the armored skull open and sent coolant fluid spraying in an eerie mimicry of a human death scene as the bullet exited out the back of the head.

**INTERNAL DIAGNOSTIC 01--02--03--04--05--10--25--50--TERMINATED**
**[ ] RETREAT**


Lora stepped back and exhaled in a sigh of relief. Boy, am I glad thatís over with!

Then there was a CLICK, and Lora started to bring her hands up defensively...

...As the bot detonated. The explosion sending thousands of rifle darts embedded in the armor flying outwards—The courtyard disappeared in a flaming dust cloud...

Lora groaned as she came to again. Note to self: Some cyberdroids explode when you kill them...

Looking around, she saw that she had landed across the courtyard from the bot—the endo-skeleton of which was still intact, but little else. The dust was still hanging in the air, so she couldnít have been out for too long. Sitting up, she assessed the damage to herself while running a systems check which gave her objective information displayed in a HUD display across her vision.

She looked terrible, with her clothes torn to pieces and large sections of synthflesh missing. Her bodysuit was in tatters and her jacket was pretty much gone, especially over the left arm, where everything had been stripped down to the bare armor from shoulder to fingertips. In fact, since she had just started to turn away from the bot at the moment of the explosion, most of the synthflesh that was missing was from her left side. Including several large patches along her leg and the flank of her torso. Even her face had not come away unscathed, even though she had instinctively put up a hand to cover it. There was a chunk of synthflesh missing in a narrow strip that widened from a point just below her left eye to a couple of inches wide at her jawline and neck, exposing her back teeth, jawbone, and much of the artificial musculature therein. And there were innumerable smaller cuts and pinpricks all along her body. Some were almost invisible, but others were very obvious.

But after completing her systems check, she was surprised to find herself more or less totally intact, cosmetics notwithstanding. Aside from some severing of the artificial nerves that ran into the sections of synthflesh that had been torn away and a cracked armor plate in her arm that would have to be replaced, her body was in acceptable condition. Sheíd have to go into "the tank" and have all the remaining synthflesh stripped and a whole new covering re-applied, and that wouldnít be fun. But all things considered, it could be far, far worse indeed. At least she could get back to the arcology again and out of the Zone now that the job was done. That was a plus. She dreaded having to go back to the hiding place where she had stored the rest of her now redundant gear. Right now she just wanted to call for a pickup and... and... where was her phone?

Lora looked down where she had been grasping without thinking about it and saw that there was no phone there anymore. In fact, there was no pocket there anymore. She cursed as she realized that it was either broken or lost. So was much of her gear that she had kept on her person in pouches and other pockets. She couldnít call for pickup. Sheíd have to walk to the Williamsburg Bridge to get out of the Zone. Great. Just futzing great... After a quick check of her surroundings she found some of her ammo clips, her guns—which seemed to still be working just fine—and some miscellaneous items of gear that she mostly discarded as too damaged to be of any use. Except for some synthskin patches that she applied to some areas where getting dust and grime in might cause problems—like over that rend in her cheek.

She sighed—realizing the cost to get her body resurfaced would be applied as an extra expense to her contract by DFG. Well, there was nothing she could do about that, so there wasnít any point in worrying about it now, she told herself.

In fact, Lora reflected that it felt very strange to have portions of her outer covering missing. There was no longer any pain but the places devoid of artificial skin were also devoid of any nerves, which made those areas feel rather numb. She could still move her left arm just fine, but she could hardly feel anything from it at all with no nerve endings on the outside of it. And with the sound dampening qualities of the synthflesh removed it made it possible to actually hear faint mechanical sounds as the joints moved. Yet Lora was a bit surprised that her arm looked... surprisingly elegant. The blue-gray armor sheathing followed the contours of the artificial muscles underneath, the seams and lines forming along graceful curves instead of hard angles. Not nearly as frightening looking as she had thought it would be.

Loraís gaze fell on the remains of the cyberdroid. There was another problem. She realized that she needed to take some of it with her. But how to carry it? After pondering that for a minute or two looking around at the various corpses that were the botís last victims, she came to a most unwelcome conclusion...

TJ sighed. He wished Memphis hadnít insisted on spending some of their hard earned credit with the garage and chop shop they had been running errands for at the bar. Memphis was not what youíd call a happy drunk at the best of times. And recent events had made him downright surly. Closing time had come TJ had had to almost forcibly maneuver him out to the street. And worst of all, Memphis just wouldnít shut up.

"TJ," Memphis Cage announced to his sometime sidekick, "life's a bitch."

"Yes, Cage," TJ muttered.

"I mean... I mean... six weeks ago I thought I had it all. I'd jacked a fraggin' car worth a cool half a million, and in 24 hours... 24 hours! The car was so much scrap. And now, here we are, two sophisticated and cultured gentlemen stuck in that ratpit cesspool known as the Zero Zone."

"Yes, Cage."

"And we are never going to get out!"

"Yes, Cage."

"Oh, shut up."

"You shut up, Cage." TJ stated in a flat tone of voice. This discussion had gotten old three weeks ago, and TJ felt he was quite sick of it. It was obvious they were never getting back over into Neo York, so they might as well make the best of it.

"We're stuck here!" Cage was yelling now, and TJ hunched down, expecting another twenty minute sermon on how they were doomed to wander the Zero Zone for the rest of their days. "We are doomed to wander these blighted streets for the rest of our days! And we... we... uh..."

TJ looked up as Cage's voice trailed off. His supposed "boss" was staring open mouthed at the figure walking down the street. TJ glanced over, and quickly found himself staring as well.

Sheíd have been quite attractive—hell, if you ignored the dull gray cyberarm she was still a babe—but other visual cues said this was no one to mess with. TJ decided it wasnít the missing sections of synthflesh that indicated she was a full-body 'borg. It wasnít the shredded clothing (which under certain other circumstances could be a plus). It wasnít the makeshift sling made out of old clothing over her shoulder holding what looked like the remains of a cyberdroid (or something like it. The skeletal hand hanging out of the bag glinted with a silvery color in the light of the drum fire in the street.) It wasnít even the huge gun she carried. (Fraggin Hell! An Earthshaker!)

Oh no. It wasnít all that. It was the blood. Her clothes and bone white hair were streaked with it. The sling carrying the cyber parts was drenched in it. As she passed by them, you could actually smell it.

And it was the look in her eyes. A hard stare that said, "You make my night even one bit more inconvenient than it already is and youíll regret it."

TJ and Memphis both wisely kept their mouths shut until she was out of sight. When Memphis finally spoke again, he was much quieter than before. "TJ, I think someone has actually been having a rougher night than me."

"Yes, Cage."

Morning and Sergeant Callahan were not good friends. At least not without at least two cups of coffee heavily creamed and sugared. He had acquired the coffee habit late in life and still couldnít stand taking it black. Especially not the sludge they had at the Checkpoint Guard Station. It was sufficient to get him awake though. That and the sugar high. He needed that to start his shift at the Williamsburg Bridge checkpoint.

The sun had just come up but was quickly hidden again behind some low clouds on the horizon. That was just fine with Callahan, since it made it easier to see things at this time of the morning without the sun getting in your eyes.

Like the young woman walking up the road carrying the bloody bag over her shoulder and the huge gun. She looked like sheíd been standing too close to a Claymore when it went off. Holy Fuck.

He wasnít about to take any chances with this one. He picked up a bullhorn on the table next to him and called out, "Stand where you are! Do not approach any closer! Put your hands up and drop your weapon!" He felt a little better as she immediately complied and dropped the shoulder bag, laying the large gun on the ground in front of her and taking another one out of her shoulder holster by the barrel and laying it down as well. She raised her hands, the left one glinting metallic in the morning light. He glanced up at the post on the side of the bridge to make sure the snipers there had her covered. The hardsuit helmet inclined toward him in a slight nod.

She stood quietly about twenty meters away. Callahan approached her cautiously with the hand held scanner equipment. He whistled low under his breath as he took in the information it gave him. She wasnít carrying any other weapons, concealed or otherwise. But she was a full body cyborg and a high quality one at that.

She cleared her throat and calmly and clearly said, "Officer, I assure you I am not going to cause any trouble for you. I have my SINCard card with me but—"

Callahan said, "Good. Hand it over. Slowly."

The cyborg complied, reaching into a pocket in the bloody shirt she wore over her torn bodysuit and drawing out a card to hand over.

Callahan looked dubiously at it, the card wasnít going to be readable. It had a couple of holes torn through the magnetic strip and it was otherwise as abused as the girl who had handed it over. He raised an eyebrow at her.

She shrugged, "I was going to say, it wonít do much good. But Iíve got the number memorized if you want to enter it manually. Iím an employee of S-T Corporation. They can vouch for me. Iíll wait."

He nodded, somehow her reasonable manner had him convinced already that she was legit. "Sure. Iíll call them. So, if I might ask, how did you..."

She sighed, "You donít want to know... Believe me, Iíve had a rotten night."

It took a few minutes for the car sent by Shiroko-Tsuhi to arrive to pick Lora up. When it did, the policemen at the checkpoint whistled. The sleek, small, low-slung metallic-blue car had the side scoops that betrayed a mid-engine configuration, but try as she might, Lora could not identify the car. The door opened gull-wing style, and Raven stepped outside, causing one of the officers to whistle again. Dressed in jeans and a dark jacket, the telekinetic approached the checkpoint, hands in her pockets; she raised a hand to Lora in greeting as she reached her.

"Hey, Lora." She looked the cyborg's condition over. "Ouch," was all she said.

"Don't remind me," Lora said. She shook her bag, causing the skeletal hand in it to rattle. "At least I got it."

"Good show, Lora!" Raven shook her head. "But you were supposed to call me before you went at it."

"Well, I'd have called, but it insisted on shooting me with its laser, you see. It'd have been rude of me to let it cut me apart all by itself while I was calling my friends, don't you think?"

Raven chuckled at that. "Right. Glad you made it back in one piece." She led Lora to the car and lifted the door for her.

The stiff suspension still gave a wobble when Lora sat in the low-slung machine. Raven went around and took the driver's seat. She shut the door on her side and twisted the key, bringing the engine to life. With a grin, Raven gunned the engine, the cylinders howling like an octet of banshees, and dropped the clutch, pressing them both in their seats as the car surged forward.

"Careful, Raven!" Lora said with a wince. "God, what are you doing driving, anyway?"

"I followed courses," Raven explained. "

"And what kind of car is this?"

"It's a Daitokuji Motors Lucifer. It's brand new, just came out two months ago as their new flagship. They're trying to compete with the Jinsei Kage. Twin-turbo mid-mounted boxer-8, four-wheel-drive, pretty impressive spec sheet. They had this one sent to me last week, they wanted me to have it. They say it's a marketing thing." She grew sober. "I don't think so, though."

"You don't?"

"Weird things are happening back at the arc, Lora." Raven took her eyes off the road long enough to catch Lora's eye. "Sanato's under a lot of stress. There's a bunch of people who have been in their offices, all from DFS or ST and... Well, Sanato's being very careful to make sure the Daitokuji and Shiroko-Tsuhi people never come across each other in his office. He wasn't too happy about me getting the car from DFS, either. I think trouble's brewing."

Lora was pensive for a moment. "You know... Ever since the merger, and I got transferred over to Daitokuji, I've gotten the feeling the executives from both sides haven't liked each other much. It's like they couldn't decide who was top dog, and they'd argue all the time over attributions and budgets."

Raven nodded. "It's only gotten worse. I don't like where this is going." She sighed. "Sorry. We should be celebrating your success rather than talking about trouble again. I'd suggest a restaurant but..."

"Medic bay first," Lora said firmly. "I want skin on my bones before I go anywhere."

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories