Shoko awoke, immediately alert, and glanced left. The clock on the nightstand shined 1:09 a.m., its bioluminescent display excessively bright to her dark-adapted eyes. She held her breath briefly and listened, the cat-like ears atop her head twitching. Curled against her side, Dr. Nagate Onizawa slept, his breathing the slow and regular rhythm of a man in deep slumber. Overhead, the ceiling fan whirred softly as it wafted a gentle breeze down on them, and from the kitchen the faint hum of the refrigerator's compressor could just be heard. Finally, through the cracked window she could hear the perpetual murmur of the city outside, muted but not silent, even at this hour. Otherwise, everything seemed --


The sound came from just outside the bedroom window. She slid the sheet off her body, freeing herself to move quickly if she had to. In the cooler air of the night, the breeze from the ceiling fan raised goose bumps on her bare skin, but she wasn't about to let her guard down long enough to try to fumble her robe on. She reached for her massive Remington Stormbreaker, dangling in its holster from a hook on the wall beside the bed, and silently extracted it. Probably just a thief, but better safe than sorry. With her free hand, she tugged her tail out from under Nagate's thigh, completing her preparations.

Leaving the telltale laser sight off, she target the window, where she now saw that one of the shadows occasionally moved in ways it shouldn't. She'd be lucky to hit anything if she fired; a shadow on a window makes a poor target at best. She contemplated calling out a warning; if it were just a thief, he'd probably flee upon knowing he'd been detected. That would be far preferable to shooting him, which was something the Sydney Police would likely take a dim view of, especially if he were still outside when shot.

"Alpha to Beta, we are in position. Ready on your signal," whispered a voice quietly. If the bedroom window hadn't been cracked slightly open, she would never have made out the words. From behind the bedroom door to her right, a second voice replied, to muffled to make the words out.

They're in the house too, the silent bastards! How'd they get into the house without me hearing them? That meant there were at least two groups coming in after them, from different directions. This was a professional raid, and Shoko suspected she knew who was behind it. She contemplated waking Nagate, telling him to hide under the bed, but he tended to loudly protest when awakened suddenly. Best not to risk losing the element of surprise, as it seemed the only advantage they had left.

The shadow at the window moved sharply, and she instinctively fired as she leapt off the bed. Nagate yelped in fear as the thunderous bark of her Stormbreaker shattered the night, blowing the window to splinters and sending a half-glimpsed figure falling back. Behind her, panicked and disoriented, Nagate thrashed against the bed sheets, succeeding only in entangling himself.

The bedroom door flew open with a crash as two men ran in. Shoko glimpsed gray body armor as the man in front pointed a—hairdryer?—at her. Behind him, the second man held a baton cocked and ready to swing. They hesitated, perhaps surprised by her nudity, but more likely put off by the size of the near-canon she held easily in her hand.

Abruptly the night outside the window exploded in blinding flashes and sharp, ear-splitting detonations. Shoko momentarily cringed, ear flat against her head, as the sensory assault rolled over her. She faintly hear panicked shouts out the window, and realized the man she had shot had dropped his stun grenade in the middle of his own team.

Recovering her senses, she aimed at the man with the hairdryer-like gun. With speed suggesting wired reflexes, he snapped his shot off first, but it was hurried and the darts missed, hitting the wall behind her. Their sizzling discharge adding a tang of ozone to the air. A taser, she realized. Her return shot clipped him in the right shoulder, spinning him around and dropping him to the ground, his shoulder a mangled ruin.

On the other side of the bed, Nagate was half-free of the sheets, and starting to struggle upright, perilously close to the baton wielder. Shoko recognized the nightvision goggles her opponents were wearing, and realized that Nagate was the only person in this fight who couldn't see in the darkness.

"Nagate, stay down!" she screamed as leapt over the bed. She landed between him and the baton wielder, pushing him back. "Shoko, what's happening?" cried Nagate in fear. "Help me!"

Her opponent swung his baton at her, and she blocked with her right arm, intending to follow with a jab from the left. But as the rod struck, electric pain shot down her arm, causing her hand to spasm and drop her gun. She hissed in pain. Her assailant was raising his arm for another swing, so she lashed out with a quick snap kick that staggered him back into the wall.

"Fuck this!" he cried, dropping the stun-stick. He pointed his right arm at her, palm up. Oh shit! As she saw the iris-like port in the palm of his hand open, she rolled to the left, back over the bed. The blast from the shotgun concealed in his cyberarm just missed her. She rolled over the width of the bed, and dropped behind it for cover, as his second shot ripped part of the mattress to shreds.

Shoving her right hand under the nightstand, she flipped it over the bed at her attacker, spraying its contents across the room and knocking him top the ground. She jumped up and ran around the end of the bed. He was struggling to regain his feet when she reached him, but a quick jab to his diaphragm took most of the fight out of him, and the roundhouse that followed left him unconscious on the floor with a shattered jaw.

She glanced out the window, but saw no movement, heard no yells. A quick look at her opponents revealed they had small radios clipped to their belts, with throat mikes and earpieces for hands-off use. She grabbed an earpiece. It was designed for a human ear, not the cat-like ones atop her head, but she crammed it in anyway. What she could make through the ringing in her ears suggested the remaining members of the team were retreating in confusion. Good thing. Way my ears are ringing, anyone could sneak up on me right now. Time to move out before they get their act together.

"Nagate, mate, we've got to get our—Oh God! Nagate!!!"

She knew the moment she saw him that it was too late. He was lying between the bed and the wall, his legs still wrapped in the bed sheet. His ruined nightshirt was soaked with blood, and his staring eyes gave him an expression of utter surprise. Surprise, because he was sure I'd protect him. The last thing he ever asked of me was to help him, and I didn't. That damned shotgun! I forgot Nagate was behind me and I leapt OUT OF THE WAY!!! Oh please no. It's all my fault. I could've saved him if I'd stayed still, but I didn't even think, I didn't even remember him!!! Oh Nagate, I'm sorry.

She fell to her knees beside him, sobbing and hugging his corpse, heedless of the blood she was smearing all over her bare skin.

I'm so sorry...

Two hours later, Shoko was sitting at one of the rear booths of The Kingfisher Bar, miserably nursing a Victoria Bitter while waiting for Hogan to arrive. The pub had little to recommend it; old and dingy, with too few pool tables and too many noisy poker machines, bathrooms that were filthy, and surly waitresses. The only things it had going for it were a fair selection of beers, and that it was where Hogan inexplicably preferred to conduct business. Of course, at this hour of the morning, she'd had to call him from the pub's public comm - she no longer trusted her cell phone to be secure—and asked him to come down. He hadn't been thrilled at being awakened at after two in the morning, but had agreed to come anyway. She looked up as he sat himself at her table.

Hogan was a fellow solo, and the one friend who she felt she could trust at her back. Like her, he was also a synthetic, a Nexus 6 combat model. He was on the short side for a Nexus, standing an even six feet tall, with the expected muscular build and a lean, craggy face. He kept his black hair in a starkly functional buzz-cut, but his soft blue eyes and easy smile eased the severity of his appearance. He was dressed in his usual ensemble of a black armorcloth duster over casual western-style clothing. He sat himself down at her booth without a word, and waited until the waitress brought him his usual Dogbolter.

"You been crying, girl? What's wrong, you have fight with Nagate?"

"He's dead," she replied in a near whisper.

"What, Nagate? Christ. What happened?"

She took another swallow of her beer. "We were attacked a few hours ago, while we slept. Goons armed with tasers, stuns sticks, that sorta shit. I think they were after me."

Hogan digested this. "Okay, I can imagine why they failed to get you, but if they were armed with capture gear, how did know."

Shoko's eyes teared up a bit. "One of them...was cybered. Had a cyberarm...with a shotgun inside. When he found himself the last one still up, he panicked and opened up with it. Nagate's dead because...because I dodged. Nagate was right behind me...when the other guy pointed his arm at me...I didn't even think, I just...moved."

"Shit, girl. I'm sorry. I'd say something like stupid 'Don't blame yourself, you couldn't help it', but you wouldn't listen anyway. Can I do anything to help?"

"Buy my next round and help me get drunk, maybe."

"Sure thing. So, um, do you know who they were?" he asked.

Shoko hesitated, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. "Well, not that I could prove. I mean, I can make a damn good guess, but it's not like they had any incriminating corporate ID cards on them, or anything. But I'm pretty damn sure they were Mitsumi. They can't legally take me from Australia, so I think they tried a snatch-'n-grab."

Hogan took another swallow of his Dogbolter, and considered this a moment. "Gotta to be more to the story than that, girl. No runaway Puma's worth that sort of effort. You got something special on them? Or maybe it was him they were after?"

Shoko paused, then sighed heavily. "I can't tell you the whole story, Hogan. For your own protection. People know we're friends; Mitsumi might eventually come after you. If so, the less you know the better, for both of us. Lets just say my tail isn't the only thing a little different about me. Mitsumi would love to get me into their labs to poke and prod."

Hogan looked Shoko over with an appraising eye. Her height and build were typical for a Puma, almost six and a half feet tall, buxom and broad-shouldered, with the usual well-defined musculature fp0r her class of synthetic. Her skin was a deeply tanned shade, a dark cafˇ-au-lait color, darker than most Pumas he'd seen. Her shoulder-length hair was a bright artificial red, nearly a blood red, and her eyes were a fiery yellow-orange color. But her most unusual aspects were her ears and her tail. Her ears were slightly oversized for a Puma and her fox-tail, which a stock Puma would not have, was the same brilliant red as her hair. The way she unconsciously twitched it back and forth was almost as revealing of her emotions as her ears were. He wondered what other 'little differences' she might be talking about; she didn't appear to have any special cyber- or bioware installed.

"--know what, Hogan? Life's a tool. Hey, you listening to me, or lookin' at my tits, for chrissake?"

"Yeah, I listening, girl. 'Life's a tool.' Learned that a long time ago."

Noticing that they were both dry, Hogan signaled the waitress for a second round, and they waited in silence until it arrived, and they were alone again.

"So, what can I do to help? You need a place to crash a while, or what?" he asked.

"Actually, I need you to get me out of Australia. Without a paper trail," she emphasized. Her eyes watched him challengingly.

"Out? Girl, if you go anywhere else in the world, your just loose property. No laws are gonna protect you then," he exclaimed. "Maybe you should rethink this?"

"Nope. I already got it figured out. Mitsumi gonna think the same way you just did, that I don't dare leave Australia. But the reality is, Australia's laws don't protect me unless the other guy respects 'em. Mitsumi doesn't. No, it's time to leave. Besides, the Sydney police can't be too happy with me. I fled the scene of a major crime tonight. They're gonna have questions for me."

"Yeah, but the evidence is going to make it pretty clear that those guys attacked you. They may question why you ran after the attack, but it won't be hard to clear you of wrongdoing," said Hogan.

"Harder than you think. After I realized Nagate was dead, I kind of, well, lost it for a while. The guy who shot Nagate was still alive when the fight ended. But, uh, he wasn't after I used the last shot in my gun."

Hogan let out a slow breath. "Oh bugger."

"Yeah, sorry," she said, looking at the table uncomfortably. "Anyway, after that, I rinsed the blood off in the shower real quick, grabbed what I could carry, and ran like hell. Somehow I don't think the police are going to be real friendly to me, right now. In any event, I can't afford to sit around in police custody while they sort things out. By then, Mitsumi will be on my tail again."

Hogan looked unhappy. "Okay then, where'd you plan on going?"

"A Zero Zone," she replied, "and don't ask which one. You know why I can't tell you. Besides, I don't know which one yet."

Hogan opened his mouth as if to protest, then closed it again. He fidgeted uncomfortably for several seconds, than finally said "Okay, a Zero Zone. I guess can see that. But I sure hope you know what you're getting into. So, how am I to help you get there?"

"That fixer you sometimes work for, Liam Tonkin. He could arrange it, if you asked him to. I'm not even sure how to make contact with him, but you do."

"Yeah..." agreed Hogan reluctantly, "But it's not like we're mates or anything. I mean, he won't give you a discount for knowing me or nothing. It would still cost more than I think you have. Please tell me you have more than I think you have."

"Um...well, that might be a bit of a problem," admitted Shoko.

"I knew it," Hogan groaned. "Whadda got?"

She hefted the worn backpack at her side onto the table. "Well, I have the contents of this backpack, which consists of a few things around the house that I grabbed, and the weapons I snagged off my attackers earlier this evening."

Hogan rummaged quickly through the sack, finding two pairs of thermographic goggles, three NICO grenades, a flashpak, two taser guns, Shoko's giant revolver, a datapad, an audiobox, a knuckknife, a cell phone, and a few pieces of inexpensive-looking jewelry.

"I also have a stun stick tucked into my belt, and I parked my Yamaha XT2000 down the street," Shoko continued. "I won't need it anymore. I'm keeping the Stormbreaker, though. In addition, I snagged Nagate's and my credit chits, and stopped at an ATM long enough to clean out as much of our accounts as it would let me have. Plus what little cash we had on hand. Total of about...oh, I'm not sure. Around 5,000 I think, maybe a little more. We'll have to count it later."

Hogan looked unimpressed. "I'm not sure that's gonna cut it, girl. But, we gotta try, huh? C'mon, let's get outta here. You can stay at my place for now. I'll call Tonkin and leave a message, but he won't be awake at this hour; it'll take him a while to get back to us. Just follow me on your bike, you know where I live."

"Sure," said Shoko, rising from her seat. "I'm way to keyed up to go back to sleep, though. I'd rather get drunk right now, anyway. You got any beer?"

"Yeah, I got some Dogbolter at home. You want something else, we'll have to stop for it."

"Nah. It ain't the flavor I want right now. Let's go."

Hogan watched with a bit of concern as Shoko polished off the last of the six-pack; to the best of his knowledge, she wasn't equipped with an alcohol filter. At least she hadn't chugged this one. He took a sip from the one bottle he had managed to liberate for himself. They were sitting side-by-side on the comfortable, though somewhat worn, black synthleather sofa in his living room. Against the opposite wall, his Hitachi Wallscreen was showing updates on the morning commute, the audio was muted.

"Got anymore?" she asked, waggling her empty bottle at him.

"Sorry, that was the last," he replied.

"Anything else?"

"Nope," he said, forbearing to mention the several bottles of liquor he kept in a kitchen cabinet. He rather feared she might try chugging one of those, as well.

"Well crap."

"You know, it's not like you can drink your problems away," he said.

"I'm not trying to drink my problems away," she replied, a little heatedly. "I'm trying to forget how I failed Nagate."

"Shoko, you couldn't have--"

"Yes I could've, damn it!" she interjected. "I should have stayed put! If I hadn't dodged, he'd be alive. A good bodyguard is supposed get in the way," she finished softly.

"But you weren't his bodyguard," Hogan pointed out.

"He couldn't defend himself! I should've done it for him. Instead, I was busy saving my own ass."

"Are you saying that you think you should have died for him?" he asked.

"I probably would've made it. I'm built tough," she muttered sullenly.

"But your not sure of that," he said, shaking his head. "Shoko, what I'm trying to ask you is - why do you talk like his life was more important than yours?"

"It's not that, it's...I would have risked my life for him. I guess, because he brought me to Australia, where I could be free. I guess I sorta loved him for that." Shoko drew her knees up, and wrapped her arms around herself in misery.

Hogan took a swallow of his drink. "You wanna know what I think? I think you never really loved him."

"What?!?" cried Shoko. "How dare you --"

"Just shut up and listen a minute!" Hogan interrupted. "I said you didn't love him, and I meant it. You didn't love him—you were loyal to him. Big difference. You only thought of it as love. Take it from a replicant who learned that lesson the hard way."

"Bullshit!" Shoko folded her arms across her chest, and tipped her head back to stare angrily at the ceiling.

"He treated you like property, you know," he continued. "That's part of why I never liked him all that much. Sure, he never beat you or degraded you like some corpers would, but he always assumed you would do whatever he said. And you always did."

He looked at her, but she continued to glare at the ceiling. "I not so sure why you were loyal to him, though. Was he your owner before you two came to Australia? Wait, did he steal from Mitsumi?"

"Heck no! He was one of my-- hell, if he'd stolen me from Mitsumi, I wouldn't be loyal to him, would I?"

"Ah!" Hogan almost pounced, "So you admit you were loyal to him?"

Still staring at the ceiling, she replied "I...of course I was loyal to him. How can you love someone and not be loyal to them?"

Hogan placed his hand gently on her shoulder. "Do you think he loved you?"

"Well, yeah, I guess..." Shoko reluctantly answered, lowering her gaze. "I mean, in his own way. He did things for me. He took me out dancing, and taught me how to cook, and he even paid for me to attend massage courses, and--"

"Christ, girl, just listen to yourself! You think he loved you because he taught you to cook and be his masseuse? Did he ever learn to give you a massage? Or cook you a meal?"

He watched her impatiently, awaiting her answer. After several seconds she turned her head to look at him, eyes lidded.

"I'm don't want to discuss this anymore. I'm gonna use your shower. I don't think I got all the blood off last time," she said, and quickly stood up. She padded through the bedroom and into the bathroom, firmly closing the door behind her.

Hogan slowly walked over to the bathroom door, then paused and listened. The sound of the running shower wasn't quite enough to drown out Shoko's sobs. He debated with himself briefly, and was just reaching to open the door when the phone chirped for his attention.

Hogan was sitting in front of his blank vidphone when Shoko emerged from the bedroom, wrapped a faded green bath towel was a bit too short for her tall frame. Her fiery hair and tail were still damp, but that couldn't be helped; Hogan kept his own hair too short to bother with owning a hairdryer.

Shoko walked over to him. "Um...I was thinking about what you said, and I--"

"Shhhh." said Hogan, placing his finger over her lips. "Look, it doesn't matter if you think I'm right or wrong. It's just my opinion anyway. I only want to know one thing, Shoko. Will you forgive me for upsetting you like that?"

She smiled a weak smile and said, "Consider yourself forgiven, Hogan. But lets not talk about it anymore, please."

"Sure thing, girl," said Hogan, and hugged her close for a moment before pulling away. "But at the risk of spoiling this tender moment, I'm afraid I must bring up business. Mr. Tonkin called while you were in the shower."

"What? Why didn't you call me? What did he say?"

Hogan moved over to the couch, and gestured for Shoko to sit beside him. "He told me he's found someone who'll do the job. Tonkin's going to take your bike, and the armaments in your backpack as his fee for supervising the negotiations. He trusts me to deliver it to him within the next two days. Anyway, we meet Tonkin and the guy who's going to get you out at 8 o'clock tonight, at Chumlie's Grill. I gather that if we strike a bargain, you'll be leaving with him immediately."

"Nope," said Shoko "I'll meet this guy tonight. Alone. Like I keep harping, for your and my protection it's better if you never find out who he is, how he's getting me out, or where he's taking me. It's bad enough that Mr. Tonkin knows, but I guess there no help for that."

Hogan looked mulish for a few seconds, then sighed. "Damn. Your right. I don't like it, but I know your right. Oh, and just in case I didn't make it clear—and this is for the record—I don't like it."

"Okay, you don't like it. Understood." said Shoko gratefully. "But since we're doing it my way, anyway, how do I recognize Tonkin?"

"Don't worry about that. The reservations are under his name. Besides, he can recognize you. He'll be looking for a red-tailed Puma."

Shoko considered this a moment. "Great. Um, can you think of anything else?"

"No, I think—wait, yes I can!" exclaimed Hogan. "Why am I just sitting around here? I should be off buying you some camping and survival supplies, to help you out in the zone. And forget that dinky little backpack you came in with, I'll get you a proper backpack to store this gear. That'll be my goodbye gift to you; a survival gear shopping spree, at my expense. Well, within my budget, anyway."

Shoko's eyes teared up, and she grabbed Hogan in a bear hug. "Thanks, mate. I'm seriously gonna miss you. You're the only real friend I have left."

The container ship Victoria Star was not a vessel to inspire great confidence, but Shoko followed the corpulent Captain Hollister up the steps to board her anyway. She suspected the ships red color was primarily chosen to attempt to hide the rust stains dripping down the hull. Still, it had been afloat, according to the Captain, for over 50 years and so she figured her odds that it would make at least one more safe passage across the seas were favorable. Even at this hour, the dockside cranes were loading container after colorful container onto the deck of the ship, and various dockside workers and ship crew bustled about looking busy. Shoko wanted to duck away and hide herself from the sight, but Captain Hollister didn't seem to care who saw her come aboard. Hopefully he knew what he was doing; for the price she'd agreed to, she thought he ought provide her with a cloak-and-dagger show even if it wasn't necessary. As they reached the top of the gangway, he stopped and turned to look back out over the shipping terminal. Actually, she suspected that he just needed an excuse to catch his breath after hauling his obese bulk up the steep stairway. She took the opportunity to set her heavy backpack, now stuffed mostly with the gear and supplies that Hogan had bought her, on the ground.

She was appalled at how easily she'd been smuggled into the Botany Bay Shipping Terminal and aboard this ship. When the taxi had let them off outside terminal, she'd been sure that Hollister didn't know what he was doing. He'd just taken her in tow, and walked right up to the customs booth.

"Excuse me, Captain Hollister? I was wondering--" she began, when he interrupted.

"Please, call me Dennis. We're going to be together for over a month, after all," he added with a bit of a leer.

Shoko smiled weakly. "Okay...Dennis. I was wondering why the customs agents didn't even question me being with you when we entered the terminal."

Hollister smirked in self-satisfaction, "I had a 20-spot folded under my passcard when I handed it too him."

Shoko leaned back against the rail. "That's it? They can be bribed for that little to let you smuggle me out of the country?"

"Oh, of course not! They don't think I'm smuggling you away. Some of the boys are always bringing shareware back with 'em. Slip the guards a twenty, and they don't even notice you. They thought you're a prostitute is all."

"Well," she muttered under her breath, "considering the deal I made to get passage on this rusty tub, they were apparently right."

Captain Hollister had explained to her that the first city with a Zero Zone he would be stopping at was Neo York. His course took him through the Panama Canal, and up the eastern seaboards of the CSA and UNA, as far north as Halifax, before heading back south again. Assuming they kept to schedule, they would arrive at Neo York some 34 days after they departed Sydney Harbor. 34 days of letting that fat yobbo paw and poke me at will. Yuck. Oh well, it's a small enough price to pay if it really gets me out under Mitsumi's nose.

For a while, quietly negotiating her passage with Captain Hollister and Mr. Tonkin over soysteaks, it had seemed the whole effort had been for naught. The minimum price she had beaten Hollister down to was still above the maximum amount she had available. Then she realized the glances the captain kept shooting her way could be used to her advantage. She'd explained, truthfully, that she was a trained masseuse and offered her 'personal services' to Captain Hollister for the duration of the voyage. In the end, this enticement got Hollister to drop his price to something she could afford. In fact, she would actually have a little cash left over when she arrived in Neo York.

"C'mon," said Hollister, "I'll show you to your berth. Don't expect nothin' fancy, though."

"Yeah," said Shoko. She grabbed her pack and followed. "Fine. Whatever."

Get ready, Neo York. Here I come.

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