By Max Fauth and Jeff Skagen
[this occurs in July of 2033]

Paul stretched his arms, yawning slightly. He scratched the coarse fabric of his black skivvy, looking just messy and grungy enough to blend in with the Zone's inhabitants. He trudged along the main street of the entertainment district, surveying the various passersby. Sooner or later, he'd find a good target.

He worked as a member of a black ops team working for Shiroko-Tsuhi as a scout. Their jobs were few and far between these days, and it was good to get out, even if it wasn't exactly on official business. Their second in command, Gordon, had taken half of the team into the Zone for what he termed a 'training exercise.' What this meant is that they found a likely looking victim and hunted them across the Zone, eventually bringing them down. It sounded sick to others but hey, these were just Zoners.

"Found anything yet?" Gordon's voice spoke inside his skull. Paul was the most wired of the team, his head full of all kinds of communications ware. As he pondered his reply, he scanned the street, images from his artificial eye being transferred to the team's monitor, several blocks away.

"Nothing yet... Scratch that." Paul fixed his gaze on an imposingly tall redhead walking past him. The first thing that caught his attention were the catlike ears atop her head that marked her as a Puma class synthetic. He zoomed his optics in on them, and quietly asked "You got that?" to his teammates.

"Crystal clear," came the response from their computer specialist, Minh. "Pretty thing."

"Good find," Gordon added.

Paul turned away and wandered past her, trying not to look like he was staring. As he passed, the last member of their team, Richard, spoke up. "Turn around. Check out her back." Paul did as he asked, and was astounded to see a bushy red tail springing from the base of her spine.

Gordon let out a low whistle as he watched the tail swish to and fro. "Good find."

"I want it," Richard said quietly. "I want it on my wall."

"We're not here for trophies," Paul reminded him as he turned away and headed off down the street.

"I don't care, I want that tail. Besides," Richard mused, "It's not like it's a person."

The cooler night air was helping to clear some of the beer buzz from Shoko's head, which was not necessarily a good thing. She was enjoying her slightly giddy state of mind, and wasn't sure that she was ready to lose it just yet. After all her job hunting difficulties, she'd really felt the need to blow of some steam this evening—and for at least a few hours of drinking and dancing, she'd succeeded. Unfortunately, while her accelerated metabolism let her get drunk more quickly than a normal person, it also meant she sobered up faster as well. Now, as she headed back to Bell's Motors, sobriety was returning depressingly quickly.

As she left the Entertainment District behind, she chose to take the most direct route back to Bell's Motors, which involved cutting through gang territory. A bit chancy, but not too big a risk. She should be able to stay safe by sticking to the boundary between the Shivs and the Cannibals, though such borders tended to be a bit fluid and subject to sudden change depending on either gang's current fortunes.

Hoping to slip through unnoticed, she picked up her pace a bit. Of course, even if a gang patrol spotted her, they'd probably pass on trying to shake down a Puma with a Stormbreaker at her hip. Problem was, she couldn't be certain of that. If there were enough of them, or they were especially well armed, they just might choose to shake her down anyway. She'd already had to choke down the humiliation of having to purchase a "pass" through gang territory once, and she had no intention of ever having to do so again. Admittedly, that had been a heavily-cybered boostergang that had seriously outgunned her, but it had still been humiliating. A security synthetic backed down by a bunch of thugs...

Rapidly rounding a corner, her thoughts elsewhere, she was startled to find herself abruptly face-to-face with a shadowy figure. She leaped back quickly, ready to fight, and then relaxed a bit as the other person did the same, obviously just as startled. An Asian girl, she saw, dressed all in black and apparently alone.

The girl paused, looking curiously at Shoko. She immediately relaxed her pose, looking somewhat disappointed. "It's just a Puma," she muttered to herself. She looked back up at Shoko, completely at ease, scratching her head. "What are you doing out here?"

'Just a Puma'? Shoko's ears flattened a bit at the girl's comment. She'd certainly encountered such attitudes before, but not usually from Zoners, who tended to be a bit nervous around Pumas. Hardly a surprise, since what Pumas they met tended to be either nervously protective bodyguards or potentially violent rogues. But this girl was acting more like a corper. In fact, thought Shoko, taking in her slickly stylish armorcloth jacket and pants, that's probably exactly what she is. Some rich spoiled corper's daughter, slumming in the Zone and trying to pass herself off as a real Zoner...

"I'm going home," she replied, "Not that it's any of your business."

She gestured over her shoulder with her thumb. "The Entertainment District is just back that way," she said, not trying to hide the contempt in her voice. "I wouldn't leave it again, the rest of the Zone isn't at all safe for little corper girls, no matter what you saw on tri-d. Look for the Darkside Lounge or The Edge of Night, they cater to your type."

The girls face was a mixture of surprise and amusement. "Little corper girls?" she repeated, incredulously. She shook her head in amazement. "You've been rogue for a while, haven't you? They don't teach you to talk like that."

"Teach? Try 'program'. And no, they didn't. I came out of the vat as brain-neutered as any Puma," said Shoko, glaring at the other woman. "But I guess a few years on my own have taught me to think for myself, at least a little. So forgive me if I'm no longer a complacently obedient thrall."

Shoko placed her hands on her hips, and took a step closer, towering over the shorter woman. "And as for being rogue, you should be glad I'm not, really; at least not in the way you're thinking of. I didn't run away, I ended up ownerless through circumstance. But most rogue Pumas are fleeing abusive owners. Those Pumas tend to hate and fear nats like you, especially corper nats with attitudes. Like you. If you'd talked to one of them the same way you just did to me, they might well have torn your head from your neck."

The girl raised her hand and slowly counted off her fingers. "One, I'm not a corper." She paused, looking up at Shoko, her face confident. "Two, I've dealt with Pumas before." Her mouth twisted in a small smirk. "Three, I've beat them."

"Didn't you mother teach you not to taunt Pumas?" growled Shoko, ears flattening further. "You may not actually work for a corporation, but you still come form that world, don't you? I'd bet even money you grew up in an arcology. And as for the rest, telling daddy's pet Puma to bend over and let you spank it counts as 'beating' it in only the most literal sense. Or should I take your boast as a challenge, little girl?"

"Who is that with her?" Richard quietly asked, panning his scope over the short Japanese girl arguing with their target.

"Nobody important," Gordon replied. He checked his equipment and patted Minh on the shoulder, before leaving him to join the hunt. "Just hurry up and take the shot."

Richard nodded his consent. He slowly brought his rifle up and sighted the Puma's head in his scope. It was so very, very easy now... He jerked the rifle to the side and suddenly fired, hitting the ruins just behind his target.

"He missed. Deliberately!" Minh reported angrily, watching the feed from Richard's scope on his screen.

Gordon picked up his pace and hissed "What are you up to?" over his communicator.

"It's more fun this way," Richard replied as he tracked his target again.

The girl continued to smile confidently up at Shoko, obviously not at all intimidated by her substantial height advantage. She took at step forward and --

-- a brick in the wall behind them exploded, followed an instant later by the flat crack of a gunshot.

"Shit!" screamed Shoko, quickly diving for cover behind the burnt-out shell of an old sedan. To her surprise, she nearly landed atop the other girl, who'd somehow beaten her there. "Watch it!" said the girl, pushing her away.

Shoko took a position crouched behind the rear wheel, while the girl crouched near the car's front.

"Who the hell's shooting at you?" the girl asked, somewhat rhetorically.

"Good question," muttered Shoko, wondering the same thing. Gangers? No, they wouldn't snipe from hiding. Mitsumi? Last time they found her, they'd gone to quite a bit of trouble to try to capture her alive. Why try to kill her now? Then another thought occurred—could the girl be involved? Could her job have been to get Shoko stopped, make her an easier target? After a few seconds consideration, she dismissed the thought—mostly—as excessively paranoid.

She noticed the girl had drawn her Beretta, and was starting to peak around the edge of the car. "Don't bother," she said. "You won't see him, and you'll just expose yourself. The sound of the shot came after the bullet hit. That was a supersonic cartridge, fired from a fair distance away. Someone's sniping at us with a fairly powerful rifle."

She looked at Shoko in a mixture of admiration and surprise. "Good ears," she finally muttered.

"Well, I can't think of anyone who'd try to shoot at me," said Shoko. "You got any enemies?"

"No one who'd --" She suddenly cut off, thinking of something. She was broken out of her reverie as a second shot passed over the car. "Forget it," she suddenly said back.

"Fine," muttered Shoko, crouching a little lower. "It's forgotten."

She glanced up and down the sidewalk, searching for better cover. Fortunately, her eyes had been designed for an extreme degree of dark adaptation. Useful at night, in a city without electricity. Unfortunately, that just meant she could clearly see the lack of cover available.

"I know this guys trying to flush us out for a clear shot, but I don't see that we have a choice," she said to the other girl. "He's eventually gonna punch holes in us anyway if we stay here. I'm thinking we should make a run for the end of the block. If we can get around the corner, I think we'll be out of his direct line of sight. And if we go together, the odds are better that at least one of us will make it. Whaddya say?"

"Too far for my liking." She glanced in the opposite direction, and spied an open doorway. "In there," she said, pointing it out to Shoko. She inched here way toward the edge of their cover, motioning for Shoko to follow her.

"In three. One, two..."

Richard was just squeezing down on the trigger for a third shot when both women bolted from behind the vehicle's remains. Startled, he tried to correct his aim as he fired but overcorrected, striking the wall just ahead of them. Embarrassingly, he came closer to hitting the Japanese girl than his target, the Puma.

"Missed!" reported Minh, unnecessarily.

Richard didn't waste his breath on retort, but quickly brought his rifle to bear again. Acquiring the Puma in his sights, he quickly caught her pace and shifted his crosshairs to lead the target slightly. Now he had her. Holding his breath, he smoothly squeezed down on the trigger, and...fired, just as she ducked into a doorway.

"Damn!" said Minh, still watching the feed from Richard's scope on his screen. "I couldn't tell. Did you hit her?"

"I'm not sure either." Richard admitted reluctantly. "I might've I caught her side, but I'm not certain. It wasn't a kill shot, that's for sure."

Suddenly Gordan's voice broke in. "All right, listen up. Paul, get your ass behind that building and cover the back door. Richard, switch your sight to thermoptic, see if you can target them through the front door or windows. I'm on my way to join you. It's time to change our tactics."

The girl collapsed against the back wall, briefly catching her breath. She glanced over to Shoko, then suddenly called out "You're hit!" pointing to her arm.

"I noticed," replied Shoko dryly, taking off her jacket to examine the wound. "Right. It's just a graze, it'll stop bleeding on its own in a minute." She picked up the jacket and began to examine it. "Damn, look at this," she said, poking her finger through the hole in the arm. "Doesn't look like the armorcloth lining even slowed the bullet down."

As Shoko pulled her jacket back on, the girl looked around their temporary shelter. It looked like it was a small corner store. The roof had long since caved in, littering the ground with rubble and leaving them open to the night sky. The large window was mostly boarded up and the door was off its hinges and lying in amongst the mess on the floor. She spotted another exit, out to the back of the store, and pointed it out to Shoko.

The Puma nodded her head in agreement. "Yeah, let's get out of here before that yobbo decides to come in after us."

The girl stood up, and hurried over to the exit in a crouched run. She beckoned for Shoko to follow her. When her newfound companion had joined her, she swiftly whisked the door open, but stopped in surprise.

In front of her was a man in his mid-twenties, with short greasy black hair. He was dressed head to toe in black, and held a pistol clenched in both hands. He stared at her in surprise, then suddenly lashed out, striking the girl across the face with the butt of his pistol, sending her staggering back into the room.

"Shit!" screamed Shoko, and leaped to tackle the man before he could shoot. He let out a surprised "Oomph!" as she plowed into him and lost his grip on his pistol. It skittered across the pavement into the darkness as they tumbled inelegantly to the ground and rolled apart.

As she got to her feet, Shoko felt oddly unbalanced. Groping at her waist, she found her Stormbreaker had somehow dropped out of its holster. In front of her, the man had scrambled for his gun and was rolling to his feet. She glanced behind her for her Stormbreaker, only to find her newfound companion bringing it up to aim straight at her.

I can't believe I trusted her, thought Shoko. She threw herself to the side, knowing she'd never make it --


The Stormbreaker went off in the girl's hand, throwing her back and sending her sprawling unceremoniously on her rump. Their new attacker collapsed in pain, clutching his hand; from what Shoko could see, the gun he was holding had practically disintegrated. The girl grimaced as she rubbed her arm, apparently numb from the recoil of Shoko's enormous handgun.

"Nice shot!" called Shoko, then quickly turned to their stunned assailant, grabbed a handful of his hair, and smartly rapped his head against the pavement. "That outta keep him down and out for awhile," she muttered.

A quick and dirty pat down revealed that was carrying neither ID nor other guns, though he did have three spare clips for his pistol and a combat knife in a belt sheath, which she took for herself. When she checked his injured hand, she was a bit surprised to discover a pistol smartlink imbedded in the palm. He wasn't wearing goggles, which in turn suggested at least one artificial eye to display the targeting reticule. She wondered what other cyberware he might have concealed.

Turning back to the girl, she saw her getting to her feet but also still rubbing her arm. "Hey, you okay? Didn't sprain your wrist or anything did you?"

She shook out her hand, wincing slightly. "Think I might have. You can keep this," she said, gingerly handing the gun back to Shoko. She glanced over at their assailant, and her face suddenly fell. "Aw, crap. We've got to go, now!"

"What? Why? Do you know him?" asked Shoko sharply, tail twitching. "Dammit, I just knew you weren't telling me something! Who is he?"

"First, we get moving." She got to her feet, and checked outside. Seeing the coast was clear, she quickly dashed down the back alley, Shoko in tow. "We need to find new cover, and plan ahead. They're not done yet."

"They?" asked Shoko as they ran along. "Who's not done yet? Look, at least tell me—Ah, shit! Fine! We'll find a place to hide first. But then you're gonna tell me everything, dammit!"

The girl gulped and nodded.

The pair of them had holed up in a mostly-intact apartment building. The few occupants scattered at the sight of the hulking Puma virtually dragging her diminutive companion with her.

"Now start talking, kid," Shoko demanded.

The girl paced in front of her. "For starters, my name's Gem. And our attackers are part of a covert ops team from across the river."

Shoko crossed her arms and leaned back, looking doubtful. "So what do they want from us?"

Gem stopped in place, and shook her head. "Nothing. This isn't an op or anything. It's a game hunt. It's something we used to do. Hop across to the Zone, find a good target and hunt them down."

Shoko's ears flattened. "A game hunt? That's disgusting! You mean they just find some poor—hold up!" she suddenly exclaimed. "Did you say 'we'? You're one of them?"

"I was," she replied. "I'm sort of... retired." She shook her head. "They wouldn't recognize me, so they're probably after you since..." Gem trailed off, noticing Shoko's tail angrily swishing behind her for the first time. "You have a tail? What are you?"

Shoko hesitated. "First tell me which corporation you guys work for."

"Shiroko-Tsuhi, and I used to work for them," Gem replied. She sighed, and kicked a small piece of debris across the floor. "I'm ashamed to admit it, but I used to lead these kinds of hunts."

"Ouch," said Shoko quietly. "I guess you weren't kidding when you said you've dealt with Pumas before."

Gem spared her a filthy look, then resumed her pacing. "There'll be at least four of them. That was Paul - their scout. There's the sniper, Richard, and probably a commander and a coms operator. He's coordinating this whole thing."

She looked up at Shoko, her features softening. Her eyes showed a hint of sadness and shame. "If I know Richard, he's not going to give up. He likes--" she eyed Shoko's tail carefully, then awkwardly added "Pretty things."

"Oh, that's just great. Damn tails more trouble than it's worth, sometimes," Shoko grumbled, glancing as best she could at her own backside. "All right, I assume you wouldn't have ran if you could call these guys off, right?"

She watched Gem shake her head, wanting to hate her, but finding it impossible when the girl was looking so abashed. Finally, she sighed, leaned back against the nearest wall, and said, "Aw hell, it took a big leap of trust for you to tell me that. I guess I should return it. All right, a minute ago you were asking about me. What do ya wanna know?"

Gem paused in thought. She eventually replied, "Nothing that's important right now," in a rather cautious tone. "What matters is somehow getting rid of them. Best way would be if we can find whoever's running their comms, but I'm not sure how." She sighed, leaning back against a wall. "He'll be nearby, but I just wish I knew where."

Shoko bit at her lower lip as she considered the problem. "He could be almost anywhere. Okay... he wouldn't want any stray Zoners to stumble across him, right? So it'll be somewhere that's at least a little hard to get to. Also, someplace securable, with doors that can still be locked or something. Hey, wait a minute! Would these guys use aircars to get in and out of the Zone? A rooftop would be easy to access with an aircar and easy to secure. You think he might be on a rooftop somewhere near here?"

"Perfect!" Gem exclaimed. "It's exactly where--" she cut off, embarrassed again. "Well, it's where I'd set up. So the only trick is to find where."

Minh shivered in the cooling, breezy night air, and zipped his jacket partially shut. On his monitor, he was watching the feed from Richard's scope as he used its thermoptic mode to try to locate their quarry, so far without success. "Turn up the gain and focus on the buildings," Minh suggested. "They've probably ducked inside one by now."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." Richard didn't sound happy about it. Minh didn't blame him. Judging the occupants of a building thru its thermal profile was difficult at the best of times, and impossible at the worst. Worse, there were sure to be squatters in at least some of the buildings, putting out body heat of their own, and creating false positives. Luckily, this part of the Zone wasn't too heavily occupied, so most of the buildings were cold. He began noting which buildings looked to be radiating just a touch too much waste heat from the ground floor.

Gordon's voice suddenly broke in on the comm. "I've found Paul. He's unconscious, and his weapons are missing. Well, his gun's here, but destroyed."

"Do I need to call for a medivac?" asked Minh anxiously.

"Not sure yet. Gimme a sec," came the reply. "His hand's hurt, but not badly. Looks like he has a head injury too. I'm not sure how bad that is yet. I've put a stimpatch on him, and I'm breaking out the smelling salts right now. If that doesn't wake him up, we'll have to medivac him out."

Minh swore under his breath. "I heard that," Richard muttered.

"Shut up, you two," Gordon hissed over their secure link. "Fine bloody team we are if we can't bring in a rogue Puma."

"If you hadn't missed..." Minh muttered to himself.

"Can it, he's coming round," Gordon announced, heading off another argument.

Above him, Shoko peered down from the rooftop, paying close attention to her two hunters. She watched as they nodded and went their separate ways—Gordon drawing his gun and searching on foot and Paul back towards the entertainment district, still dazed and shaking out his head.

She grinned and glanced up, looking at Gem on the opposite rooftop. The girl pointed in the direction Paul was heading and nodded.

Shoko nodded back and signaled a quick thumbs up. It had been Gem's suggestion to go back and stake out Paul, pointing out that injured and disarmed, he would almost certainly return to the elusive com operator to sit out the rest of the hunt. On the other hand, it had been Shoko's suggestion to watch from the nearby rooftops, where they had an excellent view and weren't likely to be spotted. Besides, it made following Paul so much easier for her...

From the adjacent rooftop Gem watched as Shoko backed up, then quickly sprinted to the edge of the roof and leaped across the street to land on the roof of the next building over. She should safely be able to follow Paul all the way back to their base of operations that way, as long she didn't fall through any rooftops. Unfortunately, given the Zone's state of decay, that was an all too real danger.

Glancing once more at both her retreating opponents, Gem decided she'd better get moving as well. She quickly followed Shoko's path, wishing Paul wasn't in such a hurry below them. It was easy enough for the Puma to leap from rooftop to rooftop and look good while doing it; she on the other hand had to run up to each and more than once grabbed desperately at the roof's edge to pull herself up. Fortunately Paul hadn't noticed them yet, and she could tell Shoko was about to yell at her for the noise she was making.

Soon enough, it all paid off. They saw Paul turn into an intact, lit building that looked like it had once been a small office. Looking up, they could see the glow of a faint light from the building's roof. The pair glanced at each other, each with a broad grin on their face.

"This is so boring," Richard muttered absent-mindedly over the link.

Gordon sighed and scanned his street for the millionth time. "Keep focus, everyone," he reminded them. He couldn't honestly blame Richard for his chatter. It seemed that after Paul was attacked, they'd completely lost track of the two targets. He kept wondering where they'd gone wrong, but couldn't come up with an answer beyond Richard's first missed shot.

Minh suddenly spoke up, breaking his reverie. "You're not going to find them, you know. If they're locals, they know all the hiding spots."

"Get real," Gordon replied. "They were arguing, so they've probably split up. And there's no way that Puma can hide out here."

"Whatever," Richard replied, and let out a loud yawn. "I'm moving." Before waiting for a reply, he picked himself up and dusted off his armored vest. He stretched out and took up his rifle, resting it lazily on his shoulder before heading downstairs and out onto the street. It was only a short walk back to their base camp, where Minh was keeping the coffee and sandwiches, and he felt like a little snack before he headed out again.

He stopped still, mouth agape as he rounded the corner and caught sight of the building they'd set up in. Above him, breaking into a top-story window right below Minh's position was the distinctive red-tailed Puma they'd been after. As fast as he could, he unslung is rifle and took a quick shot up at his target.

Shoko yelped in surprise as the bullet ripped into the broken window's casement just in front of her. She quickly scrambled off the fire escape and into the room beyond, where Gem had just preceded her. A second shot came up through the window and destroyed the remains of an overhead fluorescent light fixture, dropping broken glass on them. They quickly scooted to the far end of the room, out of sight of the window.

"Crap. I think we just lost the element of surprise," Shoko said dryly.

"C'mon," said Gem firmly, drawing her Beretta, "We gotta find the stairs up to the roof and hit 'em fast, before they can take up a defensive position."

"Right behind you!" Shoko called as she followed Gem out the door.

Across the street, Richard cursed and yelled a warning into the communicator. "They're in the building! Heading to your position!" He slung his rifle back over his shoulder and ran for the building, cursing his luck over and over again.

Gem lead the way up the stairs to the rooftop. She swiftly kicked open the door, but flung herself aside and back into the stairwell. All Shoko could hear was the sound of a high-powered SMG spraying at their position. "Crap. Now what?" Gem asked.

Shoko blinked, a why-are-you-asking-me expression on her face. She hesitated for several seconds as more bullets sprayed around them. "Aw hell," she finally said. "There's nothing for it. We've gotta assault their position before the others get behind us. Gimme some cover fire; I'll go first."

Zipping up her armorcloth-lined jacket, Shoko drew her huge 15mm revolver, crouched and waited until the machine gun abruptly stopped firing. Hoping it was being reloaded, she sprang out the doorway and cut left, staying clear of her partner's line of fire. She was barely out the door when the staccato sound of Gem's Beretta opened up, firing faster than she would have believed the girl could have pulled the trigger.

She quickly spotted Paul and the coms operator crouched behind an old heat exchanger, it's sheet metal siding the only thing close to cover up here. She saw that Paul had found another pistol somewhere, but the SMG the other man was starting to slap another clip into was the real threat.

Her Stormbreaker only held three shots, and she doubted she'd be given time to reload, so she knew she'd better make them count. Aiming as she ran, she pulled the trigger.


Her first shot took Paul in the throat. His body flew back in a spray of blood, dead before it hit the ground. It was a shot she would have been very proud of if she hadn't been aiming for the other man. By now he was racking his first round into the chamber, almost ready to fire. Adjusting her aim, she fired again.


Her second shot was a clean miss. She stopped abruptly and took more careful aim as her opponent thrust his reloaded SMG in her direction, but she already had him lined up in her sights and could feel the rightness of it. Even before she fired, she knew she wouldn't miss this time. She squeezed the trigger and --


Her blood turned to icewater at the sound. Instantly, she realized she'd never reloaded the shot that Gem had fired from her revolver earlier. She looked into maw of the SMG and knew she was about to be ripped to shreds.

Shoko heard two shots ripple off, then more, faster than she thought possible. The SMG was bucking like crazy in his hand, spraying wildly away from Shoko. The sound of gunfire continued behind her as Gem emerged from the stairwell, advancing slowly and emptying rounds steadily into the man's twitching body. Her pistol stopped firing, clicked twice then went silent. The girl slowly lowered her arm, breath shallow, with a panicked expression on her face.

It took Shoko several seconds to find her voice again. "Thank you," she said softly. "You saved my life."

Gem glanced at her, still looking stricken. She took a deep breath, but before she could say anything there was movement behind them. Both Gem and Shoko swung around, leveling their empty pistols at the doorway as Richard emerged. He moved like greased lightning, stretching one arm and placing the muzzle of a combat shotgun mere inches from Gem's face—at the same time as they both aimed for his head.

"Don't bother bluffing, girl," he sneered at Gem, "I saw you empty that gun. Now tell your Puma to back down, or I'll blow your head off."

"You'll be the one getting his head blown off if you don't drop that thing," growled Shoko, cocking the hammer on her revolver.

"You can't bluff me either, cat," he said, nostrils flaring. "I can see into the chambers of that canon of yours, and they're empty. So back off!"

For an instant Shoko thought all was lost. Then she realized he couldn't see into the chamber that was lined up with the barrel, and she smiled grimly. "Even a human like you can't have been deaf enough not to hear it when I was firing this thing a moment ago. How many shots did you hear?"

Richard, looking a bit uncertain, gritted his teeth and said. "Back off, dammit, or she gets it!"

Shoko continued on grimly, "You heard two shots, didn't you? Two nice deep thunderous booms. Now even you can do math that simple, right? Three rounds minus two shots leaves one bullet still in the gun."

Richard, sweat beading on his upper lip, pushed the barrel of his shotgun even closer to Gem's face and told her, "Tell you Puma to back off if you don't wanna lose you head! She shoots me and my finger spasm will still fire this thing."

Gem snorted at him. "What makes you think I can tell her what to do? I don't own her; she's a rogue. You must have watched us before you fired the first time. She was about to try to tear me apart when you started shooting at us!"

Catching her cue, Shoko continued, "That's right. In fact, the only reason I've even put up with this bullshit this long is that she's saved my life and I'm trying to return the favor. Even so, she's still a human and I don't much care for any of you. So here's the deal: I'm tired of this standoff crap, so I'm giving you until I count to three to lower that shotgun, or I'm gonna blow your head off anyway and let her take her chances on your trigger finger twitching. One..."

"Hey, wait a minute!" cried Gem, sounding convincingly alarmed. "At least give him a chance to think it over!"


"Alright, alright!" He slung the shotgun back over his shoulder. Gem breathed a sigh of relief, stepping back from the conflict.

"Now get. And tell your buddies to get as well," Shoko said, not easing on the hammer.

Richard swallowed hard, and quickly fled back down the stairs. The two looked at each other, waited painfully long moments until they guessed he was out of earshot, and then promptly burst out laughing.

"I can't believe you pulled that off," Gem said while gasping for air.

"I can't believe he bought it!!" said Shoko, sounding amazed. "I don't think it would have worked if you hadn't brought up the 'rogue Puma' bit, though. That's what finally tipped the scales."

She popped a spare speedloader off her belt and reloading her Stormbreaker. "God, I can't believe I was stupid enough to not reload my gun right away after you used it, and then even worse to forget it was down a shot. I nearly got myself killed right there."

"Yeah, but what if you had remembered?" asked Gem as she slapped a spare clip into her pistol. "Richard would have heard you fire three shots instead of two, and the bluff wouldn't have worked."

"True, but we still got damn lucky," said Shoko. "So, you know these guys. Are they persistent enough to try to take us out again, or will they run off licking their wounds now? I'm a little worried that Richard still has his rifle and may try to snipe at us again from a safe distance."

"They'll run for sure. This was an unofficial op, so they've got to answer to their boss for losing two men." Gem shook her head, almost wincing in sympathy.

"Might've been better if we shot them, eh?" Shoko asked.

Gem couldn't help but smile. "Pretty much. But let's get our heads down just in case. Besides," she said, turning to Shoko with a grin. "I owe you about a zillion drinks by now."

"I think we both owe each other some drinks," laughed Shoko. "But first..." She quickly trotted over to Minh's body and, trying not to tread in too much of his blood, picked up his SMG. Then she walked over to the small table that Minh's communication gear had been set up on and waved at Gem to join her.

Gem trotted over. "What are you doing?" she asked curiously.

"I wanna give those guys something more to worry about than chasing us," she said. "Where the hell's the transmit button on this thing? Oh, I see it!"

She bent over the mike and keyed the transmitter. "Hey guys, guess who! Just in case you were thinking of coming after us again, I just wanted you to know that I now have a machine gun. Also, I'm about to trash your base station. Now those little radios on your belts don't look too powerful, and I'm guessing you need this big radio here to call into Neo York for your pickup. So the way I see it, you should probably stop chasing us and start worrying about how to you're going to get out of the Zone without cash or ID's. Bye bye, now!"

Behind her, Gem burst into laughter as a protesting squawk burst from the radio.

Stepping back several paces from the table, Shoko brought up the SMG and casually emptied the clip into the com gear, quickly transforming it into so much shattered wreckage.

"Okay," said Shoko brightly, "Let's go get those drinks now!"

"Yes, lets!" agreed Gem, still laughing.

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