9-Tails Towing consisted of a steam--powered flatbed truck and two people: a human male by the name of André, and a female synthetic named Ayane. André had grown up in the Zone, and had inherited the truck from its original owner, a man he said was named "Jake." Jake had built the truck from an old diesel-powered twin-axle long nose. The entire front of the truck had been stripped away, and the engine sat fully-exposed to the elements. Fortunately for André and Ayane, the cab was still enclosed, even if it was a bit cluttered with junk.
Originally, way back when Jake had first started, the truck had been used for hauling salvage out of the depths of the Zone. Canned food, intact windows, heavy fire doors, the occasional car, the truck had carried it all. André and Ayane still did a little of that from time to time, but after twenty years, there was little worth salvaging, aside from such raw materials as copper wire and scrap metal. Instead, the two made their living by delivering goods from one side of the Zone to another. The gangers sometimes asked them to take a collection of broken up bikes to a local garage to be stripped and rebuilt, or a still might want a shipment of alcohol taken to Entertainment row, or the nightclubs themselves might want a pickup of goods made at the checkpoint. It was hard work, but it kept them fed, and the gangs found their services too useful to hassle them—much.
No matter who you were, the Zone was a hazardous place. About the only person who could walk around the Zone with impunity was Ran, and everyone was very, very glad that he stayed far away to the south, where virtually no one ever went. Even if 9-Tails Towing's bright-yellow truck was well known to a number of gangs, they still ran the risk of someone being desperate enough to try and take it from them—which is why Ayane was cradling a shotgun.
Sitting on tail-end of the truck bed, Ayane had hooked her boot heels into the rear light bracket and was currently enjoying the sun. The metal bed was fairly warm, and helped counteract the cool air. She had spread her tails out in a wide fan behind her, the black fur also soaking up the sun's rays. Built on a Lynx frame, Ayane shared all the same characteristics of that series of synthetic except one, she didn't posses tapering cat's ears. Instead, she had nine bushy fox tails, the result of a former owner who wanted a fox-spirit, not a cat.
Currently, Ayane was clad in a simple jumpsuit, a pair of high boots, and gloves. The boots and gloves were dusty black, while the jumpsuit had been dark green—once. Slung over one shoulder was a pump-action shotgun, the metal glistening with freshly applied oil. Ayane let one hand rest on the pistol grip, while the other was braced against the truck bed, the better to support her weight.
Sitting in the warm sun, Ayane resisted the temptation to doze. Although the truck was parked in a fairly safe area—a highly relative term when one considered the Zone—it wasn't a good idea to sleep out in the open like this. Besides, there was sufficient road traffic to keep her awake and alert.
Awake, if not alert, Shoko decided to give up on getting any more sleep, since the light shining in over the half-walls of the garage told her the sun was well up. It was the quiet that was to blame for her lack of sleep. Over the last two years, she'd grown accustomed to the white-noise murmur of the city and its incessant traffic. Here in the Zone, that comforting haze of background noise was mostly missing, letting every little sound disturb her. The scrabble of rodent's claws, the 'plunk' of condensed water droplets falling to the floor, the occasional creak and groan from the building as it cooled in the night; all these sorts of tiny sounds had conspired to keep her from sleep for most of her first night in the Zone.
Of course, trying to sleep in a car seat hadn't helped any. It belonged to an old Ford Astra that had been mostly stripped. The only reason the seat had been left, apparently, was that it was broken, stuck forever in full recline. Still, it was much more comfortable than the cold hard floor. The car, or what was left of it, was located on the fifth and top floor of an abandoned parking garage. It wasn't a very homey place to stay, but it did offer some sense of security to a nervous synthetic; she figured most people wouldn't bother climbing up to the top floor without a reason, and if they did, it was a long walk from either the stairs or the car ramp to the stall where the car she was in was parked. With her acute senses, it was unlikely anyone would manage to sneak up on her, even while she slept.
Stretching her stiffened muscles, she threw off the paper-thin thermal blanket that she'd been wrapped in and got out of the car. One look at the rumpled metallic sheet and she knew she could never fold it back up properly, so instead she just mashed the thing into a tiny ball which she stuffed in it's little plastic pouch. The pouch went into her hiking backpack, along with the rest of her survival gear.
She sniffed the clothing she'd slept in and she decided to change into a fresh T-shirt, one of the new ones she'd cut short to bare her midriff. She kept the same worn, brown armorcloth pants she already had on; she could get by wearing them for a few more days, and she didn't feel safe enough yet to risk wearing her unarmored faux-denim jeans. She had no choice about the rest of her clothes—she didn't wear underwear, had no clean socks left to change into, and her heavy boots and armorcloth--lined synthleather jacket were the only ones she had. Grabbing her spare holster and speedloaders, she attached them to her belt, holster on the right and speedloaders on the left. In the holster sat her Stormbreaker—a massive stainless-steel revolver. An integral part of her ensemble, she guessed, now that she was in the Zone. Its heft on her right hip was reassuring, but a little strange. In Sydney, she'd almost never worn the thing—mostly because she hadn't really needed it in that peaceful city, but also because she hadn't had the necessary license. Even if she did, she'd have had to carry it concealed, an almost impossible feat with a gun so large and powerful that only a combat synthetic or a cyborg could reasonably be expected to wield one.
Running her brush through her hair and tail a few times to take the snags out, she hoped her appearance was up to snuff for her planned job searching today. Abruptly, she stuck her head back into the Astra, and flipped the passenger visor down. Sure enough... It took only a moment to snap the small vanity mirror from the back of the visor. Looking herself over in it, she was reassured that she was still reasonably presentable. But she knew that every day in the Zone without bath or laundry would leave her looking-and smelling-worse and worse, and her odds of landing a job less and less. Finding work as soon as possible had to be her first priority.
Abruptly, her stomach growled loudly, reminding her how hungry and thirsty she was. A quick draw on the dregs of water in her canteen momentarily assuaged her thirst, but only served to sharpen the hunger pangs. Change of plans, she thought. Finding food and water will be first priority, and looking for a job will come second. She dropped the mirror into her pack, and slung it onto her back.
"I miss my bike," she muttered plaintively, as she headed down toward the street.
With a yawn, Ayane snapped awake, glancing about quickly to see if anyone had noticed her napping. She shifted the shotgun just in case, waving it around in a manner that made it obvious she was armed without her looking overly threatening. Idly scratching at her ribs, she wondered when André would get back with breakfast. Supposedly he was also bartering a deal to bring in some supplies in from the checkpoint, so food might take a while. Resting an elbow on one thigh, she propped up her chin with her hand, and glanced around the street again.
As one of the Zone's resident synthetics, Ayane felt she knew most of the other synths by sight, if not by name. Pumas and Lynxes were easy to pick out, a Puma's height, and the cat ears common to both made then stand out in any crowd. Pleasure synths were tougher, as most were human-sized, but their graceful builds and exquisite good looks were a dead giveaway. Combat models were usually just plain ugly, especially in the case of someone like Crusher, whose constant fights didn't help his looks any. About the only synths Ayane wasn't familiar with were those the pleasure houses considered to valuable to let out alone, and most of those weren't worth being around.
Thus, the sight of a towering red-haired synthetic attracted her immediate interest. Ayane was sure she'd never seen this one before—the Zone wasn't exactly filled with bronze-bodied, flame-haired Pumas with long bushy tails. Especially ones that were as big and buxom as this one.
Shifting the barrel of her shotgun just slightly, Ayane watched the tall female replicant approach, noting the way the Puma walked, glancing from side to side as if checking everything out for the first time. Apparently, this one was new in town.
Shoko sighed as another person nonchalantly turned and crossed to the other side of the street to avoid passing her too closely. It was something she'd seen too many times today to take for a coincidence, anymore. People, at least in this part of the Zone, were definitely avoiding her. Why do I scare them, she wondered. Is it because I'm a Puma, or because I'm a stranger? Probably both, she decided. A strange Puma with a big gun should scare any nat with half his wits left.
Not that she was the only person toting a gun. She was surprised at how many of the locals were armed, considering how poor these people were supposed to be. A few had weapons that put her Stormbreaker to shame—like the cute black-haired girl sitting on the tail of her overheated truck, guarding it with a prominently displayed shotgun.
As she approached, the girl looked her over briefly, so Shoko returned the assessment. That's when she saw the fan of black tails behind her—she was synth too, obviously a custom job. She discreetly tried to count the girl's tails—eight or nine, she thought. Nine was confirmed by the name hand-painted on the side of the truck, "9-Tail's Towing". Not hard to guess where that name came from.
She considered asking the girl where one might find some food and water around here, hoping a fellow synthetic might show her more goodwill than the other locals, but decided not to chance it. If her truck had just broken down, she might not be in too good a mood, and she still had that shotgun.
As she started to walk past, she glanced toward the plum of steam coming from the exposed engine of the truck and abruptly stopped, astounded. She didn't know much about engines, but she knew this metallic monstrosity couldn't be what the truck had originally come with. It looked like all sorts of mismatched pieces of piping and other assorted mechanical gear had been kludged together. Well, no kludged wasn't the right word. In fact, the whole thing had obviously been carefully handcrafted to its present form. It was quite elegant on a certain level.
It slowly sank in that the plume of rising steam wasn't coming from an overheated radiator, but was deliberately being vented from a boiler of some sort. Realization struck.
"It's steam powered!" she blurted. The many-tailed girl turned to look at her, and she flushed as she realized how stupid she'd just sounded.
"Pardon?" the girl asked, the shotgun carefully not exactly pointed at anyone in particular.
"Uh... your truck," answered Shoko sheepishly. "I just figured out it's steam powered. I've never seen anything like it. Or you, for that matter."
The girl shrugged. "I could say the same for you." The shotgun wandered into a far more neutral position. "Not many synths with a tail around here, and none as big as you. You're a Puma, right?"
She hated to start off a conversation with a lie, but... "I sure am. With a few factory options added, including the tail. Although right now I'm feeling a little under-endowed in the tail department. I'd ask why you have nine of them, but I think I can guess. You're supposed to be a Kitsune, right?"
"Yeah..." the girl replied, looking surprised. "Wow... no one ever knows that around here." Shifting the shotgun over her shoulder, she held out one gloved hand. "I'm Ayane."
"Shoko," she said, taking the proffered hand. "Yeah, I read up on foxes once. Personal interest—I understand that my own tail and large ears were supposed to be 'fox-like' in appearance, and I got curious. That, and my head was stuffed with Japanese when I was in the vat, and you always pick up some cultural baggage along with a language." She looked Ayane over once more. "So, if I can ask, what kind of synthetic you are beneath all those tails?"
Running one hand over the tails in question, Ayane shrugged. "Lynx, I guess, at least that's what the Doc said. I figure it's true, I'm the right height and build and all." She glanced around the street and then slapped her hand against the truckbed. "C'mon up, I'm not going anywhere until André gets back."
"Thanks," said Shoko, hopping onto the back of the truck. "Nice to get off my feet a while. Lynx, huh? I'd have never guessed. You build is right, but you don't have the ears. I didn't think Mitsumi would make a Lynx or Puma without the trademark ears. Shows what I know, I guess." She pulled off her backpack, clasped her hands over her head and stretched until joints audibly popped. "Oh, that felt good. So, who's... André, was it?"
"He's my..." Ayane paused, obviously searching for the right word, "boyfriend. And the other half of 9-Tails Towing. I'm watching the truck while he gets us breakfast and some work."
"Oh, speaking of which... can you give me any advice on where to find either? Breakfast and some work, that is." Shoko looked a little sheepish. "In case you hadn't noticed, I just blew in and, well, I don't quite know my way around yet."
"Hmmm..." Ayane gave Shoko a long look. "Well... do you mind lifting stuff?"
"No, not really. What did you have in mind?"
"Once André gets back we're probably going to pick up a shipment of stuff over at the checkpoint. Y'know, booze, food, clothing, medical supplies, stuff like that." Ayane paused and thought, "We can probably spring for breakfast and lunch, and cut you in for some of our payment. Whaddya say?"
"Are you kidding?" exclaimed Shoko excitedly. "I'd say it's a done deal. Truthfully, I'm so hungry right now I'd have probably done it for the food alone." She paused a few seconds, then added, "So, how long do you think 'till André gets back?"
"Uhm... about now," Ayane said while pointing down the street.
André turned out to be nearly Ayane's height, with a thin, muscular build, and long brown hair. Dressed in worn jeans, and a battered armored jacket, he looked fairly typical for a Zone resident, and not exactly the person Shoko would have expected to be the lover of a nine-tailed Lynx. On the other hand, Shoko wasn't sure who she should have expected.
Upon reaching the truck, André set down a large plastic tub and looked Shoko over carefully. "Heya, Ayane," he said cheerfully, "who's your friend?"
"André, Shoko. Shoko, André." Ayane made introductions, and then followed up with: "She's gonna help us today in exchange for some breakfast."
André looked Shoko's tall frame up and down once again. "Good thing I got extra."
Breakfast turned out to be prepackaged energy bars and sealed juice containers with a side of hot and fresh scrambled eggs. Most of the food looked like what one would expect to find in military ration kits and survival packs, which Shoko figured was exactly the case. She also felt it was the best tasting meal she'd had in quite some time.
She hungrily wolfed the energy bars, but slowed to savor the eggs. "Mmmmm." she moaned through a mouthful before swallowing. "Real eggs! I can't remember when I last had real eggs. Where did you—oh, right. I saw chickens around yesterday. I guess where there are chickens, there'll be eggs. Maybe there are some advantages to living in the Zone after all."
"Yup," André nodded. "I hear over there everything's processed soy stuff. No taste at all."
They ate silently for about a minute before Shoko spoke up again. "Ayane, can I ask you something? What did you mean earlier when you said your doctor told you that you're a Lynx? Why didn't you already know? I've always know what I was."
"Errr..." Ayane looked at a loss for words and glanced at André.
"Ayane doesn't remember much about where she's from," André said helpfully. "Although we're pretty sure she's from Neo York. My guess is that she was dumped here instead of getting recycled. Dunno why."
"Wow. That's... very mysterious. I don't think I'd want to have a blank in my memories like that." Noticing that Ayane didn't look entirely comfortable, Shoko decided to change the subject.
"So, when do we have to go load up these supplies?" she asked. "I was hoping to ask you guys some questions, maybe get some advice on how to get along around here. Do we have time for that, or should I wait 'til lunchtime?"
"We can talk while I drive," André said with a shrug. "We don't have to make pickup for another hour or so."
Finishing her juice, Ayane tossed it back into the tub. "What did you want to know?"
Shoko shrugged. "Well, everything, I guess. I mean, I've never been in a Zero Zone before, and I just don't know my way around." She hesitated a few moments, tiredly rubbing her eyes. "I've got so many questions flying around in my head, I don't know where to start. Give me a moment to think... okay, first question: is cash any good here, or is the Zone on a barter system?"
"Cash is fine," André replied, "as long as it is cash. Credsticks don't always work, but everyone takes straight money."
"But barter works as well," Ayane added. "Especially if you grow your own food. People will do a lot for fresh vegtables, eggs, or a fresh chicken or two."
"Or a pig."
"Yeah... or dog if you're desperate."
"Dog?" Shoko asked.
"Dog." Ayane stated flatly as Andre nodded. "People have to eat and there are wild packs all over."
André glanced down the street and then pointed to a nearby storm drain. "I've heard that there are people living down there that eat all sort of stuff... y'know... dogs, rats, and other people..."
Ayane flicked her tails and shuddered. "I've never seen any, but there are stories..."
"Ewww." Shoko wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Okay, note to self: skip touring the scenic sewers of Neo York."
"Good idea," commented Ayane dryly.
"So, back to money for a moment," Shoko said firmly. "I know you said you're going to cut me in for some of your payment today, which will really help me out, but unless I want to shortly start hunting dogs and rats myself, I figure I'm going to need all the cash I can get my hands on to tide me over until I can land a steady job of some sort."
She stalled a moment, then sighed heavily. "The problem is, I, um... this is kind of embarrassing, really. I grabbed some cash before I came here, and I still have a little of it left, but, well, I stupidly didn't think to convert it to UNA dollars."
"Oops," muttered André.
"Yeah. So, I know this is a real longshot, but do you guys by any chance know of anyone around here who can convert my foreign currency?" she asked. "Preferably someone who won't want some like a 50% cut, not that I won't take it if it's all I can get."
"Hmmm..." André and Ayane looked at each other and then down the street. "CK?" Ayane asked. "CK," her paramour confirmed with a grin.
"Don't worry, Shoko," André said with a confident smile "CK may not look like much, but he's people that knows people."
"Well then, sounds like the kind of people I want to know."
"So," André tossed an empty wrapper into the tub. "We ready to go?"
"Sure thing," said Shoko, tossing her trash into the tub with theirs. "Ready when you are."
She followed Ayane around to the front of the truck and into the passenger side of the cab, ducking her head to fit. To her surprise, the large cab of the truck had sufficient headroom even for her, if only just. The bench seat fit the three of them just fine, although leg room was a bit cramped due to the presence of several levers and an access hatch to the fire box.
Ayane dumped a bag of charcoal into the firebox, while André increased the pressure to the boiler. A few moments later he engaged the drive shaft.
Shoko stared out the windshield at the home-built assemblage of pipes that passed for the truck's engine. With the pressure run up and a full head of steam, it shook and crashed loud enough to wake the dead. Not even flattening her ears tight against her head helped. André and Ayane, she noted, had donned ear-protection. She should be so lucky.
"Is it always this loud!?!" she asked.
"WHAT?" Ayane replied. Shoko wasn't sure if her fellow synthetic was making a joke or not.
Although the steam-powered truck wasn't very fast, it certainly had sufficient power. André clung to the wheel with a look of intense concentration, while Ayane watched the pressure gauge. Shoko simply held on as the truck rattled its way over the cracked streets.
The checkpoint was a tangled mess of concrete Jersey walls and coils of razor wire. A pair of access ramps snaked their way up to the bridge which crossed the East River and allowed access to Neo York proper. The bridge itself was a virtual fortress, set with various emplaced weapons that commanded a clear field of fire into the Zone.
The surrounding area gave mute evidence to the violence that occasionally occurred at the checkpoint. The walls were pocked by bullets, while the concrete dividers and the access ramp were crated with shellfire. A few burned-out wrecks lay amid all the other debris.
André guided the truck up the on ramp and onto the bridge itself, finally bringing the truck to a halt next to a much more modern and far more sleeker industrial cargo hauler. With a hiss of escaping steam he shut down the engine, mercifully ending the almost deafening noise.
Pulling off his ear-protectors, André looked over at Shoko. "Ready?"
"Ready," she confirmed. Hastily stepping out of the cab, she left her backpack on the seat. She certainly wasn't going to try to wear it while working.
She eyed the cargo hauler dubiously as they walked around to the back, where the driver was waiting for them. It had a greater capacity than the 9-Tail's truck, and she wondered if they were picking up a partial or full load. If they had to move a full load from the cargo hauler, it would mean making at least two trips in Ayane's truck, something she wasn't looking forward to without hearing protection. On the other hand, being a rather strong Lynx herself, she doubted Ayane would have wanted her help if they only had one truckload to move.
The driver of the cargo hauler yanked at a lever on the back of his truck, disengaging the lock, and then folded the doors back, revealing a whole host of goods. Shoko quickly realized why Ayane had asked for help, the shipment included cases of liquor and kegs of beer, neither of which were all that light. There were also packing crates full of processed foods, medical supplies, clothing, and who knew what-all. Fortunately, everything was in bulk shipping crates, which stacked easily.
Despite the slight chill, Shoko found the work quickly rose a sweat. She and Ayane did most of the lifting, while André directed where things were to go and strapped down each pile of goods. The driver simply watched silently, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee out of a thermos. Over on the other side of the gate a number of Neo York's finest had gathered to watch, muttering comments and pointing. Shoko was fairly certainly it was her that they were looking at, since her altered T-shirt did little to conceal her proportions. A few distant comments confirmed this.
When André started directing them to double stack the containers, Shoko realized that they wouldn't have to make multiple trips after all. She wouldn't have thought the truck could handle the weight, but perhaps the suspension had been beefed up.
As she started lifting the second layer of crates into place, she noticed a burst of exclamations from the gathered men. For a moment, she thought they were admiring her pose as she stretched to lift the container into position, then realized that raising her arms was making her midriff-baring T-shirt ride up, exposing the undersides of her breasts. She briefly considered getting her jacket from the cab of the truck, but decided that giving the guys a free show was preferable to working hard while wearing heavy armorcloth, and simply continued lifting the crates into place.
When they finally finished the bed was almost filled with goods. Ayane stood at the rear of the truck, all nine tails flicking back and forth hypnotically as she double checked the straps. André spoke with the driver of the other truck, signing a few papers (surely just for show Shoko thought) and laughing over some comment the other man made. Most of the police drifted away, except for one or two who were watching either her or Ayane's rear. Shoko wasn't sure which.
Shoko walked over to where Ayane was finishing with the last of the straps. "Looks like we might have some new admirers," she commented, nodding her head toward the remaining policemen. "I think they're interested in our tails."
It took Ayane a moment to catch the entendre, then with a mischievous smile she asked "And just what sense of the word 'tail' were you using there?".
Shoko chuckled in reply. "I think you already guessed."
Ayane glanced back at the gate. "Well, you can have those guys. I've already got the only admirer I want."
Shoko followed her glance. "Nah, I don't want 'em either. No class."
Finished with the other driver, André walked over and joined them. "Everything secure?" he asked, eyeing the straps.
"Right 'n tight," answered Ayane, snapping one of the straps loudly against a container. She looked at Shoko a moment, then turned to André. "You know, this is the biggest load we've carried in awhile. Maybe Shoko should ride in back, just in case?"
"Works for me," said André. "She better have the shotgun, though. I'll go get it."
"Are we expecting trouble?" Shoko asked Ayane apprehensively.
"No, not really," Ayane assured her. "Nobody else in the Zone can haul loads as big as we can. The gangs know our services benefit them too, so they mostly leave us alone. Still, some of these guys are desperate, and others aren't too stable, so you can never be sure. This is the biggest load we've hauled in a long time, and it might tempt someone. Mostly, you're there to discourage them, make it clear we have some extra firepower to defend ourselves."
"I understand." Shoko paused, then asked "So where are we going, anyway?"
"The Entertainment district," answered Ayane, twitching her tails eagerly. "This stuff goes to a bunch of different businesses up there."
André came back with the shotgun, and handed it to Shoko, who quickly checked that it was loaded and the safety on. In one smooth move, she crouched and made a prodigious leap atop the sturdy, double-stacked containers, and sat down at the rear edge.
"If you don't mind, I'll sit here. Better field of view...and fire, if it comes to that. Besides, I'll be more visible up here."
Ayane shrugged. "S'okay by me. Just don't fall off."
André and her moved to the front of the truck, and climbed into the cab. A minute or so later, the firebox stoked, the 9-Tails truck moved out in a racket and a cloud of steam.
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