By Alex Fauth and Mike Surbrook

"Damn, this ceiling is dull."

Sandra was lying on her bed, staring up at the ceiling of the bedroom. Despite her best efforts, she had been lying awake for hours, unable to sleep for the various thoughts tossing, and turning across her consciousness. This was all because of one chance encounter earlier that day.

Jason Stone. Drake. Whatever he name was. Sandra's ex-employee, former lover, and one of the most important people in her recent life. She'd bumped into him in a lift, purely by accident, along with his adopted daughter, Moira., and with him was another woman, who he'd introduced as his fiancée.

Fiancée. He, and Sandra had broken up badly. Well, badly was an understatement. Sandra had shot, and killed his sister. True, there were extenuating circumstances, but the point stood. Jason had shouted at her, she'd shouted back, she'd run all the way to Hong Kong to get away from him., and that was the last she'd heard of him until, earlier that day. He'd turned up with this woman, apparently here on business.

All this time, she'd been waiting to hear something from him. She'd stopped herself short of calling him several times; afraid of what he might say to her., and all this time he'd been seeing someone else, engaged in an apparent whirlwind romance. In the months they'd known each other they'd become lovers, but never more than that. Never anything... definite. Concrete. Solid. Permanent., and then this woman appears, and in a far, far shorter span of time, had become his fiancée. Why? Jason had told her it was over. It was what she'd been expecting. True, it wasn't what she really wanted to hear, but it was what she knew was coming. She just hadn't expected there to be someone else, especially not so suddenly or permanently.

She rolled over onto her side, hoping for a bit of relief. Her eyes fixed on the second pillow on the double bed. The pillow that Jason had slept on when he lived here with her.

"I've got to get out of here," she muttered.

Some hours (and a small amount of sleep) later, Sandra was sitting in her kitchen, nursing a cup of coffee while planning what to do next. Ever since she'd come here, there had been a nagging feeling that she'd left something incomplete. So what was it? She sighed. Where to go? A holiday to some exotic destination was out of the question. She had enough money to travel, but not enough to make a big deal of it. Any trip to an idyllic tropical paradise would have to feature sleeping rough, and scrounging for food.

Of course, that's how she'd done it in the old days in the zone...

The Zone.

That was it. That's what had been nagging her. For a long time, she'd been trying to figure out what had happened after that day. She'd pretty much run from the scene, not thinking about what had happened. She'd guessed that between the damage she, Marta, and Jason had done, and Shion's little rampage, there couldn't have been much of the Brown Armbands left.

Damn it, she thought. I have to know.

Going back would, in its own way, give her a sense of closure, a sort of finality to the whole mess. She'd be able to go back there, say "this is what happened," accept it, and get on with her life. And maybe while she was there, she could look up a few friends, see some old sights... maybe even make a little bit of cash. Heck, her rep as the world's worst Street Sam was probably suffering in her absence.

Heck, I could try seeing my family. Not that they'd want to see me. She rubbed the scars under her eye again, thinking. Then something occurred to her.

Guns. That was going to be an issue if she was going back into the Zone. She'd lost her Uzi during the fight with the brown armband gang, and had never had the chance to retrieve it. Likewise, she'd dropped her Hokashu after she'd killed Athena, and likewise had never gone back. She'd made do in the interim with a pair of pistols, but they'd never been a satisfactory replacement.

Of course now she had more money than she'd had when she first armed herself, and a lot more hands-on experience with urban gunfights. She'd never once fired her gun in action when she was with NYPD inc. Most people tended to agree with police officers with guns.

She rubbed the scars under her right eye, thinking. She wanted good quality, top of the line stuff. Of course, that wouldn't be easy to come by. HK's underworld included its deal of arms smugglers, and black market weapons, but Sandra had no real desire to deal with them. No, she'd prefer the hands-off approach. She'd need a fixer to get her what she wanted, preferably a good one. A good fixer...

A name came to her mind. Her first trip to HK had been with Jason to secure the services of a Street Samurai, Marta Nys. They'd met with her fixer, a woman called Ling Ling Li, who Sandra could have best described as "pneumatic." Still, she had an excellent reputation for being able to get someone whatever they needed.

The office, Sandra noted, was fairly nondescript, lacking anything so basic a window. It was furnished with only a table, on which sat the CPU box, and four reclinable chairs. Ling Ling sat in one, a bundle of wires in her hand. Sandra took another.

"Do you have a datajack?" the Asian woman asked.

"Yeah," Sandra replied without much enthusiasm. "Why?"

"We're going to go shopping for firearms." Ling Ling ground her cigarette out in the provided ashtray. "Here, catch."

Snatching the tangle of cables out of the air, Sandra quickly sorted out a pair of goggles, feedback gloves, and a DNI cable. Typical gear for the average netdive. Pulling on the gloves, and the fixing the goggles over her eyes, Sandra took a deep breath, and then snapped the datacable home.

The VR world was a simple stark white, void of such landmarks as a sky, ground, or horizon. Ling Ling stood a few feet away, dressed in formal Mandarin robes, that showed nether wrinkle or hint of dirt. The colors were crisp, and brilliant, and the dragon that coiled on the woman's ample bosom seemed to be made up of an infinite repeating pattern.

Sandra gave an internal sniff. Ling Ling's icon was obviously tailored for a certain sort of clientele, as in the real world the woman's breasts were affected a great deal more by the pull of gravity, and her hair wasn't a single liquid-like mass that never suffered an out-of-place strand. Her own icon was the typical net default—a sexless, hairless, humanoid figure with virtually nothing to make it differ from the countless other drones that worked the net. "Tool," she muttered. But it couldn't be helped, it wasn't like she had a net icon anyway.

While she had mused, the "sky" had become a dark gray, while the "ground" was a far lighter shade. A series of white lines had formed on the ground, while the sky, or, more accurately, the ceiling, was marked by a series of blue stripes. Everything went dark for a moment, and then brightened, as the blue strips came to life with a bright glow.


Hearing a faint sound, Sandra glanced to the far horizon, where a blurred distortion was developing. Apparently a program was loading, but it must have been one hell of a program to be taking this long.


As the distortion came closer, Sandra realized what she was looking at—a series of racks were sliding up out of the ground in long rows. The racks stretched as far as the eye could see, and were approaching at a rapid pace. Without saying a word, Ling Ling reached out, and took Sandra's wrist, pulling her forward a step as --


"Tool!" Sandra didn't care if the programmer had stolen the idea from a thirty year-old flatscreen film, that trick was real impressive seen live.

Now that she could see the racks close up, it immediately became obvious what she was looking at. This was a VR firearms database, much like the ones the NYPD used, except that NYPDink's was usually accessed via a flatscreen, and not up and in person like this. The racks held guns, lots and lots of guns. There was at least one of each type of firearm currently manufactured in the world, as well as any special items offered for sale by collectors or dealers. Thus, there were thousands, if not millions, of weapons in this database.

Currently, Sandra was standing on front of a rack of pistols, revolvers to be exact, although Sandra was sure she'd never seen such a dodgy collection of guns anywhere outside of a museum or piss-poor low-grade trivid thrillers. Reaching out, she selected on clunky-looking pistol, marveling at the weapon's crude lines and unwieldy bulk. Immediately a window popped open.

"Smith and Wesson Schofield Model 1873. Break-action loading design. Caliber: .45 inch Smith and Wesson. Six shots. Said to be the model used by famous outlaw Jesse James." Sandra announced, and then paused. "Damn gun's a 160 years old!"

Ling Ling raised an eyebrow, "Somehow I think we can find a better choice more suited for your needs." Back amid more familiar surroundings, she was all business.

"Ya' think?" Sandra put the gun back on its peg. She did not need a 160 year-old gun, no matter who had once used it once before. Especially a 160 year-old gun that was priced at over one hundred thousand nuyen. "C'mon, let's go shopping for some toys."

"Of course. But one question."


"Who is Jesse James?"

I'm lying in my tub soaking in the cool water. The reason for this is simple: it's July in Hong Kong. When summer hits, it hits hard here, and the humidity gets unbearable. I had the misfortune to oversee the unloading of a variety of supplies for the Tower, so I spent most of the afternoon out back at the loading dock. Dressed as I was in a long-sleeved white shirt and black trousers, I ended up soaked to the skin, and blue skin under a white shirt equals quite a view for anyone who cares to look. And as near as I could guess the delivery driver looked as much as he thought he could get away with

After making sure none of the cyberdroids had broken anything (like each other), I signed off on the packing list, and retreated into air-conditioned comfort. This cooled me off all right, but it also left me feeling sticky and miserable. So, being a sensible person, I did the only sensible thing possible. I filled up the tub with plenty of water, found myself a cold beer, and crawled in.

Right now I an feeling quite content. As I am the manager of the Mandarin Towers, I have a luxury apartment, which means I get music in the bath. It's a mix of Canto-pop, J-pop, and Australian rock, but that's fine, it beats static any day. Besides, if I want to change stations, the remote is built into the wall right next to me.

Lying back I let the water wash over my body, and give a long sigh of contentment. I then take a careful swallow of beer. I'm careful around alcohol you see. I drink it only sparingly. Not because I'm a cheap drunk, but because soon after I first arrived I went out, and practically destroyed myself drinking it up at several local establishments. I woke up back here, at my apartment, but couldn't remember how I'd gotten here, or what I'd done before I'd returned home. This, I will admit in all honestly, frightened me to no end.

You see, it's like this. I have memories, some are mine, and some belong to someone else. I am pretty sure that my first real memories date from when I was attending college in Australia. That was me, the real me. I mean, some one gave me the nickname of "La Blue Girl." Somehow I doubt that would have happened to anyone else. My earliest memories, however, date from around the time I was sixteen or so. I clearly recall living in Perth, and traveling up the coast to visit Shark Bay. I lost my virginity around then (well... someone did, and I have her memories of it). I had a boyfriend at the time who apparently wasn't put off by blue skin, and hair, and we made love on the beach one night.

The problem is I know that wasn't me. Or more accurately, I know that couldn't have been me. I'm a synth, and I can't be more than five or six years old, not the twenty-five I look and these memories would require. Which makes me wonder who's they are, and why I have them. It also makes me wonder what else I remember as real isn't, and if I'm actually here or not, and then I realize that way lies madness...

So I don't drink. Well, much. I don't want to miss anything, since if I can't recall what happened I might not be able to figure out if I was really there or not, and that's something I'd rather not deal with right now.

I also avoid romantic entanglements. I'm very glad that I'm not some over-sexed bit of fluff like some synths. I mean, yes, I'm a 25-year old grown woman. I have needs just like regular humans., and if I really need release I have plenty of battery-powered devices that don't talk back, and don't care if I dump them in a drawer. So I don't bother with sex, and don't make a big deal of it like some do. Unless it gets me some extra cash. So I wear the short skirt, and low-cut top, and bend over at the waist a lot. Men are highly predictable.

But that is nether here no there. Right now I'm relaxing in a cool bath, feeling less sweaty, and less sticky than I did a few hours ago. Right now, all is right with the world, at least, until the phone rings.


Fortunately, the bathroom also comes with a phone by the tub, simply so someone could conduct business (or whatever) without shifting out of it. It also means that I can get a few more minutes of peace before attending to whatever stupid needs my tenants have today. "Hello?"

"Hey there, Sarah. It's Sandra here." Well, if I'm going to be interrupted in the tub by anyone, I might as well be interrupted by her. She's my only real friend per se (Or at least the only one who's memories of are mine... But I'm not going to go there because it will probably result in a headache.) as well as sometime assistant to deal with troublesome tenants. "I hope I'm not interrupting you."

I'll let it slip this one time. "No, I'm not doing anything right now. What's up?"

"Uh..." She seems unsure. It must be something important then. "I was wondering if you wanted to have lunch with me. I, uh, just wanted to talk about a few things."

That bodes. "Sure thing." Why not? There's nothing happening here, and company is better then trying to sort out the inside of my head.

Lunch had gone well. Sarah had picked out a rather fancy restaurant that had reminded Sandra of where she'd gone on her first date with Drake.

She'd managed to avoid the 'Few things' she'd wanted to talk to Sarah about. Mentally, she was hoping that Sarah wouldn't notice. "So what was it that you wanted to talk to me about?" Sarah asked.

Tool. Sarah was probably built with an eidetic memory or something. She sighed. "I'm... ah... I'm going back to Neo York for a while." She said, absent mindedly stirring her coffee.

"Back there for business?" Sarah asked. "I know that you've been very busy here. You've certainly spent enough time complaining about getting shot at by the colorful locals."

Sandra smiled. Sarah had a way with words. "No, it's not that."

"It's that guy, isn't it?" Sarah asked.

"Hmm?" Sandra replied.

"You don't have to cover it up. That man who came by the other day was the same man who you were staying with when you were last in HK." Sarah commented. "I got the impression you two were lovers."

"Why did you think that?"

"A bikini bottom with tooth marks on it."

Sandra blushed. "You... you got me there."

Sarah continued. "I noticed that you returned without him, and seemed somewhat lonely, as if you were missing someone. You didn't say anything during our outings, and I didn't pry. Then, he turns up with another young woman, and you begin acting all weird on me, so I think I can figure out there's something going on."

Sandra smiled. "You pretty much got it right."

"Just because I don't have relationships doesn't mean I can't spot them." Sarah stated. "Two young attractive people together, and ripping off each others clothes with their teeth are pretty obvious." Sandra nodded. "So it fell apart?"

"We..." She began, trying to think of a way to put this. "We were involved in a gun battle. Things went badly, we got split up, and I, uh, shot his sister."

"Harsh." Sara replied flatly.

"It wasn't my choice" Sandra replied. "I mean, I didn't accidentally shoot her, I ... It was one of those situations where there was nothing else to do."

"So... you shot her."

"And saved him." Sandra concluded.

"Then you came back here?" Sarah asked, knowing what was going to come next.

"Right. Things didn't go too well after that. There was shouting, and arguments, and the next thing I know, I'm driving to the airport as fast as I can." She sipped her coffee. "I had to get away, and this was the only place I could go."

"Except he came here."

"He claims he was here on business." Sandra said. "He had his daughter with him though, and that other woman..."

"New girlfriend?" Sarah asked.

"Fiancée." Sandra answered.

"Already?" Sarah sounded surprised. "That seems a little... fast."

"Yeah, well that was what I thought."

"So now you're going back to Neo York." Sarah continued, brining the conversation full circle. Sandra nodded.

"I want to go back... I just don't think I'll ever feel right unless I do." She sighed, and then smiled, looking her friend in the eye. "You have been a great help to me, Sarah. You've been there, been someone to talk to, taken me, out, shown me around... everything. You're probably the best friend I've ever had, and I do really mean that."

"Thank you." Sarah seemed lost for words for once.

"But, I think I have to go back... I have to be there, to feel complete, to understand what happened, and put it all behind me. Then, I think I'll be ready to get on with my life." She leaned back in her chair.

"You need to sort things out, and to put some memories to rest." Sarah said. "I think, in a way, I know how you feel."

"Thanks." Sandra replied.

"I'm a friend. That's what I'm here for."

Sandra smiled. "I'll cover the bill. It's the least I can do after subjecting you to my sordid life story."

Leaning back in her seat, Sandra looked out the window as Hong Kong dropped away from her. Things had gone surprisingly smoothly after that. Ling Ling had confirmed Sandra's purchase, and arranged for the weapons to be available to her in Neo York when she arrived. Her few HK contacts had accepted that she would be away on business, and had promised not to call her at strange hours. Sarah had agreed to check the apartment on occasion, just to make sure that it was still there.

Sarah had come to the airport with her to see her off. They'd sat, talked, drunk coffee, and eventually exchanged goodbyes, Sandra trying badly not to get all teary. The walk from the terminal to the plane had seemed longer than when she last left Hong Kong. Maybe it was just that it was at a different gate. She'd sat in the plane trying to keep a straight face, trying not to think about it, just waiting for the takeoff.

Why was it so hard? She thought. She'd left people before. She'd said her farewells to many others. So why had this one seemed so hard. Sarah was a friend, true, but she'd only known her for a short period of time. Sandra shook her head. She had to be strong. What she was doing was going to be hard. She needed to be strong, firm, and resolute. She didn't need to be blubbering now.

She sat back in her seat, and closed her eyes. She'd be home soon. Don't think about it until then.

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