Pulling the stained T-shirt out of the basin, Shoko grasped it in both hands and twisted, wringing out as much of the grimy and slightly soapy water as she could. Then holding it out at arms length, she let it unfurl. Was it any cleaner than when she'd started? If so, she could hardly tell—well, maybe the stains were a slightly more faded looking than before. After three scrubbings, she doubted it was going to get any cleaner looking. Oh well, it was her "work shirt" anyway, the one sacrificed to every smelly, sweaty, or dirty job that came up.
The problem with Bell's Motors, she reflected, was that all of the jobs seemed to be smelly, sweaty, dirty, or—most typically—all three. The poor shirt had stains from grease, oil, and assorted other automotive fluids from helping out in the shop, dirt stains from weeding the garden, sweat and sap stains from chopping firewood, soot stains from cleaning out the fire pit, and "organic" stains from turning the compost pile as well as feeding and cleaning up after the animals Bell kept.
Throwing the shirt over the clothesline to dry with the rest of the laundry she'd just finished, she grabbed the washbasin and dumped it into the gray water tank that irrigated the garden, and tried to think if anything else needed doing. Happily, most of her chores were taken care of, which meant the rest of her afternoon should be free. A little disappointingly, though, whatever she decided to do, she'd have to do alone. Ayane and André were out in the truck collecting salvage, Ken was in the shop tinkering with an old engine he thought he could get running, and Bell was busy cleaning up the lunch counter.
Still, there were plenty of things to do. She could go hang out at the Vat with some fellow synthetics (a good lot for sympathy), cruise the market (always something interesting for sale), see what's on stage at the 93U (a good band, hopefully), or go tease CK again (always fun)...
"Hey there, Dark Meat!"
Shoko blinked in surprise as the shout broke her reverie. Striding toward her across the yard were the Puma Sisters, in all their blonde-maned leather-clad glory. Too bad she still couldn't tell them apart.
"G'day," she replied as they approached. "You here to pick up your bikes?"
"You betcha," Anna (or was it Uni?) replied. "Kenny-boy said they were done."
"We even brought money!" Uni (or was it Anna?) hefted a small carryall.
Shoko remembered what Ayane had been telling her about the Puma Sisters, and hoped they'd earned the money dancing rather than blowing stuff up. She wasn't sure she wanted to ask.
"So," one of the twins remarked. "Where's they at?"
"Your bikes? They're behind the shop where Ken's working," she said, gesturing. "C'mon, I'll show ya."
The sister's bikes were lined up along with several other recent repair jobs. Like everything else in the Zone, the collection of motorcycles looked as if they'd seen far better days, and were currently hanging on through a combination of wishful thinking and
luck. As for the Twin's bikes, they were easy to pick out. One was labeled "Anna's Dream" the other was "Uni's Toy." At least Shoko would be able to tell them apart...
"Well, there they are," she said. "They look okay to you?"
"Wicked!" one of the blonde-maned Pumas cried. "They look as good as new!"
"So," the other one said as she nudged Shoko's side. "You gotta bike?"
"Not anymore," she said sadly. "I used to have an XT2000, but I had to sell it when I came here. I sure miss that bike."
"Got one you can borrow? We were gonna go out for a test ride."
"Well..." Shoko contemplated the row of bikes. "These mostly belong to other people, but I suppose I could take that one on the end. Ken just finished putting it together a few days ago, and hasn't sold it yet. In fact, you could say I'd be doing him a favor; it needs a good test drive. Still, I really should ask his permission first..."
"Do it! Do it!" Shoko figured it was Anna pushing her towards Ken's garage, since the other Puma was straddling "Uni's Toy." She almost wished they wore nametags.
"Okay! Okay, I'll ask him!" she said, raising her hands in surrender. "C'mon, you guys come too and give him the money. Getting paid will put him in a good mood."
Anna hefted the sack with a grin. "Uni! We're gonna get bikes now!"
Uni bounced after her twin, rubbing her hands together. "The Puma Sisters are back in action!"
Shoko stepped into the shop, the Puma Sisters close behind her. The shop was, as usual, crowded with more bits of mechanical odds and ends then Shoko knew what to do with. Sitting in the middle of the floor was what once was a car of some sort. Ken was trying to bring it back to life by using parts of something like a dozen others wrecks dragged in from the depths of the Zone by 9-Tails Towing. Shoko wished him luck. Seeing no immediate sign of him, she called out "Hey Ken! Where are ya?"
"In here!" came the reply from the adjacent storage room. A moment later he stepped out, wiping his hands on a greasy rag. "What's up?"
"Anna and Uni are here to pick up their bikes." Shoko gestured to the carryall clutched in Anna's hand. "And they brought the money to pay for it."
"All of it?" Ken asked with a raised eyebrow.
"All of it!" Anna announced, undoing the carryall and dumping the mixed mess of bills on the floor. "See?"
With a sigh, Ken rolled his eyes and went down on one knee. Quickly he collected the worn bills together and counted them. "Looks good, girls. Bikes are out back, and keys are in them."
"Just a sec, Ken!" called Shoko as he started to turn away. "I was wondering... you see, Anna and Uni are going to take their bikes out for a test drive, and I was thinking that you haven't given that new bike a shakedown run yet and since I'm done with all my chores, that I might... that is, well, maybe I could take the new bike and go with 'em?"
There was a long pause as Ken mulled over the request. Finally he gave a shrug. "Sure. If you can't break it, I doubt anyone else will. The keys are in it..." He paused for a moment and the pointed a cautionary finger at Shoko. "But don't try and break it, either, you hear me?"
"Of course not!" protested Shoko, feeling both hurt and insulted that he might even think she'd deliberately abuse a bike. Didn't he remember she'd used to own one herself?
"Great! Thanks Kenny!" called Anna, tugging on her arm. "C'mon, let's go!"
Once outside, Shoko took a few moments to familiarize herself with the new bike while the Puma Sisters were starting up theirs.
As usual for Ken's work, it was a pastiche of mismatched parts salvaged from throughout Zone. The engine was a fuel-burner, and looked old enough to have started its life as a pure gasoline-powered unit, although Ken had surely converted it to run on methanol now. Even with the performance hit it would take from that, it looked big enough to have plenty of get-up-and-go. It had a nice pair of headlights, but lacked any visual indicators, like a taillight or turn signals. Oh well, it wasn't like "street legal" meant anything in the Zone.
"Hurry up!" prompted Uni. "I wanna get moving."
"Just a sec!" answered Shoko, straddling her bike. The instrument cluster was simple, if eclectic; a few analog gauges, a digital display, and a small collection of idiot lights. She hoped none of the latter came on while she was driving, as Ken had apparently forgotten to label them.
She nervously twisted the ignition key, and was rewarded when the engine started on the first try. She revved it a few times experimentally, thrilling at the feeling of restrained power under her. One last check, she thought. Idiot lights are dark, gauges all say good things, engine sounds happy, nothing's on fire...
"All right!" she had to shout to be heard over the roar of all three engines. "Let's roll!"
Shoko quickly discovered that twisting and turning through the obstacle-laden streets of the Zone was a very different sort of driving than cutting a throttle wide open on the long, straight stretches of pristine road outside of Sydney. Different, and she had to admit, even more fun!
Truth to tell, a good portion of the thrill came from pushing herself to keep up with Anna and Uni. The two were obviously better bike handlers than she was, and foolishly aggressive in their driving to boot. Potholes, sinkholes, old vehicle wrecks and miscellaneous wildlife; none of it seemed to slow or even faze the Puma Sisters.
But as they headed further south into the Wastes, Shoko began to find it more and more difficult to keep up. She didn't know the territory, never having been this deep into the Wastes before, and it seemed that the further south they went the worse condition the roads and buildings were, making it more and more of an obstacle course. Twice already they'd actually cut right through buildings, and once they'd climbed right over a large, unstable pile of debris from a storefront's collapsed brick facade. She began to wonder if the Puma Sisters had any idea where they were going, although she had to admit they did seem to know the area.
Shortly after turning a corner and nearly spilling as she swerved to avoid a lidless sewer manhole, she decided to face the embarrassment of yelling at them to ease down a bit rather than risk crashing Ken's new bike. Before she could do so, though, they abruptly slowed on their own and turned off the street.
Rusty open gates framed the entrance into a parking lot in front of a cluster of low buildings surrounded by a badly overgrown lawn. As she entered she saw a sign beside the entrance that, despite being somewhat obscured by overgrown vegetation, still legibly read "Midwood High School".
"Heyyy... not bad Dark Meat!" Uni cried.
"Yeah, yeah! You didn't wipe out or nuthin'"
"Uhm... thanks." Shoko wondered if the tortuous route they'd taken had been deliberate, to see if she could make it without wrecking the bike.
"Okay, let's go!" Uni cried, hefting her bike up over her head and making for the front entrance.
"Right behind ya, Uni." Anna lifted her bike and nodded to Shoko. "C'mon, we'll go inside, get somethin' to eat. Hangout, relax."
"Sounds good," said Shoko, carefully hefting Ken's bike onto her shoulder. "Lead on. I can't wait to see your place."
The two Pumas walked through the battered (and disturbingly bullet scarred) front entrance, the doors now no more than battered and dented panels of sheet metal that wouldn't close even if you took a sledge hammer to them. Inside the lobby was strewn with dead leaves, twigs, various empty food containers, and the faint glitter of broken glass. Any windows that had once existed were now missing, leaving gaping holes to look in on the dark recesses of various offices. As far as Shoko could see, these offices were in worse shape than the lobby, with smashed furniture, overturned filing cabinets, and shredded and torn bits of drop ceiling dangling down like some sort of bizarre plant growth. The smell combined water, mildew, and animal droppings into one single eye-watering reek that made her nose smart. All of a sudden she wished for the more earthy (and less disgusting) odor of Bell's compost heap.
Without pausing the two Pumas mounted the stairs to the second floor. "C'mon Shoko, we're going up, where it's clean." A decision Shoko was only too happy to agree with.
Upon reaching the second floor, the Twins set their bikes down to one side in the entrance to a side hallway. Shoko guessed they had the run of the entire school, although most of the classrooms where empty and looked to have been left undisturbed for the past twenty years. Well, it wasn't like two synthetics needed thirty-odd different rooms for much of anything.
Walking down the hall after the Pumas, Shoko found herself passing row after row of lockers. Some had missing doors, others hung open, and a few were closed. And some of those had locks on them. Idly, Shoko had to wonder what was behind the locked doors. What was in there, untouched since the day the owner had left? Clothing? Books? Lunch? That last thought made her realize that opening up some of the lockers might be a very bad idea, so she dropped it.
"Here we are!"
Looking up, Shoko found Anna dramatically posing in front of an open set of double doors. Apparently, the Twins had appropriated the library as their sleeping quarters. Stepping inside, she took a moment to glance around.
After a moment, Shoko had to decide exactly what definition of "clean" was in use. The room was cluttered with an absurd collection of pure junk. Clothing, bike parts, food containers, bottles of water and alcohol, firearms... everywhere she looked she saw more stuff than she'd have thought physically (or mentally) possible for the two Pumas to have collected. Lost in the mess were a pair of bedrolls, a small grill, and a scattering of chairs. Bell would have had a fit.
"Wow," said Shoko, looking the mess over. "You certainly have quite a collection of... stuff here. So, I guess you found all this around the Zone, huh? Ever think of trying to sell any of it?"
"Oh sure," Anna nodded. "We trade stuff with some of the gangs y'know?"
"A little of this, a little of that," Uni pointed as she walked, finally lifting the angular shape of a Jinsei M-100 pulse rifle from the clutter. "Rounds for these ain't cheap y'know."
Anna nodded as she nosed around for her matching rifle. "Yeah! If anyone hires us, we usually ask for ammo in return."
"Or beer," Uni replied.
"Yeah, we get lots of that."
Uni nodded in a blur. "Hyperwhisk Strawberry Blond Super-Styling Mousse is the best!"
"Uh-huh. Hyperwhisk. Right." Looking at their thick manes of waist-length hair, Shoko understood why shampoo might be a priority for them. Still, there were other things she wanted to talk about, if she could manage to get their attention to track on one topic for more than a few seconds. "So, I wanted to ask you guys something. Why do—Say, d'ya think that Hyperwhisk would work on my tail?"
"You bet!" said Uni, nodding again. "It'll make your tail twice as fluffy, guaranteed."
"And it gets rid of tangles!" Anna chirped, making Shoko feel like she'd just walked into a commercial.
"Guess I'll have to get some. The stuff Ken and Bell trade for is pretty cheap. It works okay on my hair, I guess, but you can't imagine how much dust and dirt get in my tail. I always need to lather it like three times before it feels clean, and I just know Bell's gonna yell at me for wasting the stuff if she ever finds out."
"Here, try some," said Anna, pulling a plastic bottle from a battered cardboard box and tossing it to Shoko. "We got plenty."
Shoko blinked at the sight of an entire case of shampoo. "Wow. You're serious about your hair-care, aint'cha?"
"You bet!" Uni said, fluffing her hair dramatically. "Wouldn't you be?"
"Yeah, well, if I had hair like yours I just might."
Pocketing the small bottle, Shoko tried to remember what she'd wanted to ask the twins a few seconds ago. After a moment she shook her head and wondered if they weren't becoming a bad influence on her. She seemed to be getting as scatterbrained as they were...
"Want something to drink?" asked Uni, rummaging in another box.
"Sure. Whatcha got?"
"Let's see... we got Fizz, Prune juice, or Cola Soydrink. Oh, and beer."
"Hmmm, interesting selection," said Shoko. "What flavor Fizz?"
Uni rummaged a few seconds more. "Looks like pink, green, or blue."
"Oh. I'll just have a beer then."
"Here ya go!" said Uni, tossing a can to Shoko. She sat down, pink Fizz in hand, and kicked up her legs on a pile of old magazines.
Shoko sat in the chair next to her and took a sip of beer. It was pale and weak, as disappointing as most of the UNA beers she'd tried. Once again, she found herself pining for a glass of Victoria Bitter.
"You hungry?" asked Anna. "I'll dig us up something to eat."
"Uh... sure, sounds good," said Shoko cautiously. She remembered Ayane telling her rumors about the Twins supposed culinary habits. It was probably a bunch of bull, but just to be safe she decided to pass on any meat she couldn't positively identify.
Much to Shoko's relief, Anna opened up a plastic packing case full of sealed pre-pack. She then fired up a small gas heater and put on a pot of bottled water. "Whaddya want? Soup? Noodles? Stew?"
Shoko shrugged. "They all sound good. Stew, I guess."
"Stew comin' up!"
"Say..." Uni asked slyly, "Wanna go and shoot off our guns afterwards?" She hefted her M-100 suggestively. "We've got some extra ammo."
"Ace! Count me in!" said Shoko enthusiastically. "I could really use some target practice. I got in a firefight the other day and my aim was for shit, even up close. Mind if I use your guns, though? I only got 6 rounds left for this thing," she slapped the Stormbreaker at her hip, "until I go get more from CK."
"Hey, I said our guns. Who'd want to play with some stupid pistol?" Uni slung the massive rifle over into Shoko's hands. "Here, see how that feels."
Shoko winced at how Uni didn't even check the status of the gun before casually handing it to her. Following her implanted training, she immediately checked the state of the weapon she'd been handed—fully loaded, safety on.
Carefully keeping her finger out of the trigger guard, Shoko aimed well away from the Twins, hefted it to her shoulder and sighted down the length of the barrel. Despite never having held one before, the combat skills programmed into her came to the fore, giving the Jinsei the comfortable feeling of something she'd used her entire life. "Triple-ace. It feels great, I can't wait to fire it."
"100 rounds of 10-millimeter caseless explosive-tipped." Anna rattled off while pouring water into several containers. "Grade-A, state-of-the-art military bang-bang."
"Yeah!" Uni thrust a fist into the air. "And it was made for Pumas like us! No one else can handle it!"
"That's always a major plus for any gun in my book," said Shoko, smiling an evil grin. "Which, by the way Uni, is why I carry this particular 'stupid pistol' around. The last nat who tried to fire it knocked herself flat on her ass and nearly sprained her wrist. Maybe it can't cut a car in half like your M-100, but you can't hide that monster under your jacket, either."
"Don't need to," Uni sniffed. "People see us with this, they start runnin'."
"Here," Anna set down a foam container next to Shoko's elbow. "Stew's up."
Shoko quickly set down the M-100 and sampled her stew. "Mmmm, thanks. Nice and spicy."
An uncharacteristic silence fell as the trio began to chow down, broken only by the occasional slurping sound, until Shoko abruptly cleared her throat. "So, I was wondering—why do you do the whole big-guns-for-hire thing? I mean, I thought you two were strippers. Doesn't that pay enough?"
"Heck no!" Anna exclaimed.
"I mean, it's fun and all..." Uni added.
"Oh yeah, I like taking my clothes off in front of people," Anna chimed in.
"And dancing naked in front of a crowd is cool."
Shoko smiled. "Yeah, I guess can see that."
"And we get extra if we go down on each other..."
Shoko blinked at that.
"But the real money is in merc work!"
Anna nodded. "Yeah, those corp guys will pay us in guns, ammo, food, beers, and even cash to do all sorts of stuff!"
"Some of it even without blowin' stuff up."
Shoko pursed her lips, looking thoughtful. "Really. And even after replacing all your ammo, the profit margin is still that much higher than stripping, huh? Huh, maybe I should think about it..." She paused, then snorted dismissively. "Oh, what am I saying—I'm not gonna make my living as a merc! I just don't love combat the way you two do, even if I was made for it. Personally, I'd rather work at one of the Zone brothels than get shot at all the time."
"Yeah... you'd make a good bouncer."
Shoko shot Uni a dirty look, but chose not to comment.
"Enough!" Anna announced, tossing her now-empty bowl out the window. "Let's shoot stuff."
"Right!" Uni pointed out the door. "Shoko, go out back to the range, we'll meet you there."
Shoko quickly gulped the last of her stew down. "See you there."
"The range" turned out to be two antiquated school buses parked nose to tail in front of a tall brick wall. Apparently the Twins used the range a lot, as the busses had been shredded with concentrated weapons fire. There didn't look to be a single window left, the tires were flat (and rotting away), and the paint was now mostly rust. Shoko was amazed the two vehicles hadn't collapsed into piles of junk by now.
Standing in front of the busses was an eclectic selection of school furniture. There were chairs, a few tables, a section of lockers, and about a dozen computer monitors. As with the busses, these impromptu targets were already scarred from gunfire, and at least one of the monitors had a large hole blown clean through the tube.
Shoko looked a bit sadly at the ravaged furniture. Plastic and stainless steel, it had been designed to withstand the ravages of school children for decades, and she wondered if it had ever occurred to the Puma Sisters that it would have made decently valuable salvage if they hadn't shot it up.
A loud clank caused Shoko to turn around. Anna had arrived, toting her M-100 in one hand, and a big green duffel bag in the other. Setting the rifle down, she unzipped the duffel, and began to produce a most amazing variety of firearms.
"We've picked up a lot of crap from gangers and corpies," she explained. "Usually we keep it until we run out of ammo, and then trade off the guns."
"I know what you mean, I picked up an SMG that way the other day. Gonna trade it to CK when the times right. Now lets see what you got."
The first weapon was a large almost organic-looking shotgun. "SPAS-20 autoshotgun." Anna announced as she set it down on the ground. "It's got like six rounds, I think."
The next was even more "organic-looking" with a lot of curves and a stubby barrel. "PN 90. It's got about 25 rounds."
The third was an assault rifle with far more regular lines. "AIWS. It might have a full clip."
"G'darn!" injected Shoko. "Is that a Minimi?"
"Yep, and we got a full box of ammo for it!" answered Anna proudly. "I brought down a few handguns too, in case we wanna do a little plinking later."
"Hey, Dark Meat! Look what I got!"
Shoko looked up in time to see Uni dropping off another duffel bag and holding up a huge rifle with both hands. "Lookie! It's a Styer Anti-Cyborg Rifle!"
Shoko's jaw dropped at the sight of a weapon she never thought she'd even see, much less get to fire. "Well bugger me dead..."
"Er..." Uni's ears went down flat. "No, actually, it's empty. We found it that way and have never gotten any rounds for it."
"I wanna sell it," Anna commented without looking up from loading her weapon.
"No ammo? Aw hell, I would've loved to shoot that thing," said Shoko, admiring the Styer's soft lines. "But why do ya wanna sell it? Guns like that don't come along every day. I say keep it, and trade some of the other stuff you got for some ammo for it."
"And use it on what?" Anna replied as she snapped back the cocking handle on the Minimi. "Damn thing's as long as I am tall and weighs a friggin' ton. They kick like a mule, and ain't worth using on anything but hard targets. And it's not like we gotta punch holes in armor and shit."
"Well... you know what you need better than I do. Just seems a shame to get rid of it." Shoko looked over the assortment of available weapons spread out before her. "So, what do I get to play with first?"
The answer came in the form of a proffered M-100 and the Minimi. "Quality or quantity?" Uni asked.
Several seconds passed before Shoko's hand finally descended to grasp the M-100. "Quality. I just gotta try that pulse rifle first."
"Good choice," said Uni, grinning as she handed over her Jinsei. "Now don't you hurt my baby."
"Hurt it?" Shoko chuckled as she glanced down at the slab-sided hunk of metal in her hands. "How? I'd need power tools to do much more than knock the sights out of alignment on this thing."
"That's right!" Uni's ears twitched. "So be careful!"
Anna, carrying the Minimi, aimed at the pile of furniture and debris, then abruptly lowered her gun and looked back at Shoko. "You're the guest, you take the first shot."
"Oh, okay. Thanks." Shoko walked up to an imaginary firing line just in front of Anna and about 50 yards back of the targets, and brought the M-100 to her shoulder. She briefly wondered if the integral grenade launcher was also loaded, then decided to play it safe and just keep her hands off of it.
Taking aim at a locker's door handle, she gently squeezed the pulse rifle's trigger. Despite her programmed combat training, the powerful recoil came as a surprise and she quickly let off the trigger as she stitched a line of large holes up the locker and then into the side of the bus above and behind it.
"Yikes! I like it!" she cried excitedly. "Kicks more than I expected, though, for so heavy a gun. Oh well, at least my first shot went where I wanted." Sure enough, where the handle had been there now gaped a fist-sized hole.
Bringing the gun up again, she quickly squeezed off several more bursts, systematically destroying a cluster of old flatscreens. "Oh yeah! That's more like it," she said, examining her handiwork.
"My turn!" Anna cried as she snapped the Minimi up to her shoulder. A long burst later and Shoko was looking at a floating cloud of plastic fragments from several disintegrated monitors.
"Whew..." Anna flicked one spent casing away. "That felt good."
The sound of the SPAS's action being worked announced Uni's turn. She fired from the hip, holding the trigger down as she worked the worked the pump, spent shells flying with each deafening blast. The end result was pure destruction as the double-ought buckshot shredded everything downrange. "Gotta love a room broom," Uni commented with a grin.
"All right, my turn again," said Shoko, bringing the M-100 to her shoulder and carefully bracing herself for the recoil. "Let's see if we can't be a little artistic about this." Sighting on a relatively undamaged section of locker, she let loose a stream of bullets, making a roughly circular pattern of bullet holes in its face. Three more quick bursts finished her work.
"It's a... blob?" asked Anna.
"Maybe it's a heart," suggested Uni.
Shoko sighed theatrically. "It's supposed to be a smiley face. Oh well, so much for my budding career as an eccentric Zone artist." Stepping off the firing line, she added "You guys go ahead, I'm gonna swap for that PN 90 and give it a whirl next."
Turning around, she abruptly froze as she caught site of a figure slightly to one side, just behind the pile of spare guns. She had the quick impression of a shortish man with shaggy black hair and a stubbly face, with a tattered red cloak over his shoulders before she snapped her pulse rifle into firing position and cried, "Freeze asshole! Get your hands where I can see 'em! Move for the guns and I'll splatter your guts across the yard!"
The man responded with a slight smile and slowly brought his arms out from under his cloak. His right hand twitched slightly and Shoko gave a cry of surprise as the pulse rife was yanked out of her hands to end up floating in the air midway between her and the stranger.
She recoiled instinctively, then started to grab for her Stormbreaker. "Bloody hell! An esper!"
With a clenching of his fist the man reduced Uni's 'baby" into so many fragments. The reaction from Uni was nothing short of spectacular. With a loud "NOOOOOOOOO!!!" she fell to her knees screaming and wailing at the sky. Anna, meanwhile, had dropped flat to the ground, her arms curled protectively over her head.
Shocked by their extreme reactions, Shoko hesitated, right hand on the butt of her revolver. What could possibly scare the fearsome Puma Sisters this badly? A powerful PK, obviously, but surely if he were that powerful he wouldn't be living like a rat in the depths of the Zone...
"Oh shit," she said softly as realization struck. Her hand fell away from her gun. "Ran."
Ran walked forward slowly, his boots crunching on the shattered debris of Uni's rifle. Shoko noted with some apprehension that small bits of metal and fragments of gravel skittered out of his path as he approached. He stopped before and looked up into her eyes, his expression calm and seemingly serene. Behind him, spent shell casings from Anna's Minimi tumbled away, their faint ringing barely audible over Uni's wailing at the fate of her rifle and Anna's repeated mantra of "can't look, Ran will eat me...".
Reaching up, Ran brushed his fingers across Shoko's face. "Pretty." was his only comment before turning and walking off.
She held her breath as she watched him retreat, heart beating like a wild bird frantically trying to escape a tiny cage. After walking a short distance away, he silently vanished, leaving an almost unnatural stillness behind.
Shoko let out a gasp of relief and almost fell to the ground as her knees threatened to give out. She bent over and breathed deeply until she felt she had a measure of her composure back, then looked at the Twins, both of whom were still as they had been since Ran showed up.
"Hey, he's gone now. We're still alive," she said softly, crouching beside them. "You two okay?"
"no..." Anna whispered. "i think i pissed my shorts."
Shoko couldn't think of anything comforting to say in response to that, so she just gave her a hug, murmured encouragingly and helped pull her to her feet.
"Thanks," Anna replied, looking dazed.
Meanwhile, Uni had fallen silent, still sitting sprawled on the ground, staring at the remains of her rifle.
"Uni? You okay?" asked Shoko. "It's--" she started to say "it's just a gun", but decided that wasn't anything Uni wanted to hear and quickly changed it to, "Better the gun than your life. Think of it as a combat casualty; you had to know it could happen someday."
"But..." Uni's ears twitched and she wiped a hand across her eyes. "But it should've happened in a firefight... not like this..." She gave a plaintive sniff and stood unsteadily to her feet. "Not like this..."
"I know, Uni, I know," she said, giving the despondent Puma a quick hug. "But, if I may, I think you'd better mourn later. Right now, we'd better gather up the rest of these weapons and get back inside. I wouldn't want to still be right here if he changes his mind and decides to come back."
"Oh hell yeah," Anna stated as she started stuffing several guns back in her duffle bar. "I am so out of here."
With one last sniff, Uni picked up the Styer Anti-Cyborg Rifle in one hand, and her duffel bag in the other. Ears flat she made her way back to the school, apparently ignoring both Anna and Shoko.
"Hey, Shoko," Anna gave the Fox a nudge. "Grab some of this will you? Before he comes back?"
"Yeah, no problem," she answered, as she started gathering up the weapons Anna couldn't easily carry. "Boy, she sure loved that gun, didn't she? You, um, you don't think she's gonna blame me for it, do you? I mean, I pointed it at him..."
"Maybe." Anna glanced at Uni. "You're lucky to be alive. Normally Ran just blows people up." Her ears twitched as she zipped the duffle bag closed. "Let's go."
"Great... just great," she muttered, following on Anna's heels.
Before returning to their lair, Anna lead her to a smaller room filled with stainless steel wire-rack shelving, which the Puma Sisters apparently used to store their guns and ammunition. Several more guns lay scattered around on the shelves, although Shoko noticed the Anti-Cyborg Rifle was nowhere to be seen. Apparently Uni hadn't stopped here. After haphazardly depositing her load of guns—the stored weapons didn't seem to be organized in any way—she followed Anna upstairs.
In the library, a flat-eared Uni was sitting in a chair with her back to the door, chugging a can of beer. The Anti-Cyborg Rifle was propped against a bookcase nearby. Beside the chair was an open case of beer, and several crushed, empty cans lay near her feet. Crushing and dropping her empty can, Uni grabbed a fresh one and started in on it.
Shoko began to step forward to say something to her, but Anna put out a hand to block her way and silently shook her head. Anna then walked over herself, grabbed a pair of warm beers out of the case, and tossed one to Shoko. Uni continued to ignore the both of them.
A long, tension-filled silence grew as the cat-eared synths drank their beers. In the time it took Shoko to drink her one can, Uni gulped down another three. Just when she was about to say something—anything—to break the silence, Uni abruptly spun her chair around.
"You owe me a new gun," she stated matter-of-factly.
"I... what? Hold on! How d'you figure that?" protested Shoko. "Ran broke your gun, so he owes you a new one, not me!"
"Yes, but you did point it at him," Anna helpfully pointed out.
"Well, of course I did!" Shoko practically shouted. "What was I supposed to do when I saw a strange man standing behind the pile of guns? I didn't know it was Ran! How could I?"
"Who else do you know," Uni said slowly, "wears a long red cloak around here? Hunh?"
"Well..." Anna started, "There was that one guy..."
"And Ran blew him up." Uni finished.
"I was getting to that." Anna replied defensively.
Shoko shook her head. "I don't believe this! I'm somehow supposed to know it was Ran, because he was wearing a red cloak? Anyone can wear a cloak! Beside, I didn't know Ran likes red cloaks—how could I? I've only ever seen him on shaky telephoto footage taken from a distant news aircar while he rampaging around. I'm supposed to have instantly recognized him from that? Are you serious?"
"Yes," the Twins replied in unison.
Unable to believe what she was hearing, Shoko blinked at them in stunned disbelief. "You honestly think—really, truly, honestly, deep down inside—that I somehow should have instantly recognized Ran and not pointed the gun at him? How can you possibly believe that?"
"Because you're in the Zone." Uni stated.
"And everyone knows there are certain rules to the Zone." Anna added.
"Rule number one. You don't bother Ran."
"He's guy in the red cloak who blows people up."
"Rule two. You don't take the Empress's seat at 93 Underground."
"Or she'll blow you up."
"Rule three. Don't pick a fight with the Puma Sisters."
"Yeah, they're nasty... wait a minute Uni, that's us!"
"Rule four..." Uni paused. "Anna? What's rule number four?"
"Dunno... is there a rule number four?"
"Yeah, there is!" interrupted Shoko. "Rule four. Don't blame Shoko for what isn't her fault!"
"Hey!" announced Uni indignantly. "You just made that one up!"
"Well, I'm sorry!" exclaimed Shoko rather sarcastically. "I guess the welcoming committee forgot to issue me the standard Zone rules pamphlet!"
"I blame Ayane,' Anna stated. "She should have told you. That nine-tailed hussy needs to wake up and stop mooning over André."
Shoko stared at the Twins for several long seconds. She couldn't decide if she should beat her head against the wall or burst out laughing. Finally she just sighed, tipped her head back and began chugging her beer to buy herself a few seconds to think.
Was it really worth the aggravation to try to be friends with these two? They made it so hard! They were selfish, immature, and, for all that she didn't think herself as being especially sharp, she seemed to have more brains than the pair of them put together. And now they wanted her to replace a pulse rifle that she hadn't even broken? How ridiculous!
Enough is enough! I'm not gonna take responsibility for something that isn't my fault, and if they don't like it, then tough! It isn't worth the hassle to try to be friends with them. I'm NOT replacing that gun!
"Well?" asked Uni impatiently, as Shoko finished her beer.
"Okay," she said, crushing the empty can in her hand, "For the sake of argument, lets suppose I agreed to try to get you another pulse rifle. D'ya know where I could find one?"
The Twins glanced at each other. "No."
Shoko rolled her eyes. "Well then, where did you get the ones you had?"
"Uhm... we've always had them. Like forever."
"Like forever. Right." Shoko lowered her head and rubbed tiredly at her eyes. "Okay, I guess I could ask CK. No way in hell he's gonna actually have one, but maybe he can get one or at least hopefully point me to someone who can."
"CK?" Uni's ears perked up. "He's great! He can get anything!"
"Yeah," Anna added, "And I know how you can get a discount!"
Shoko looked suspiciously at Anna from under half-lowered lids. "Uh-huh. And by any chance would this discount of yours be earned by bumping pelvises with him?"
"Oh no," Anna said dismissively, "Usually we just fuck 'im."
"Really?" Uni asked. "I just swallow."
Shoko stared at them with her jaw hanging open, unable to find her voice. Had Uni really just said that? Seconds passed as she tried to come up with a witty retort and failed. Finally, she just gave up and shook her head.
"Right. So anyway, on to the next problem," she said, tiredly dropping into the nearest chair. "Even if I agreed to get one, you realize that a Jinsei pulse rifle is primo military bang-bang, not to be possessed by civilians, and that even if I can somehow find one it would cost a small fortune. I ain't got no way to pay for it. I've got almost no cash and my current paycheck consists of room and board at Bell's."
"Oh..." Uni's ears dropped back down.
"Hmmm..." Anna sat, chin in hand and pondered the question. Shoko almost expected to see a faint wisp of smoke escape from one catlike ear... or, at least, the sound of a gear turning. "Normally I'd sell ya to Dr. Ludwig."
"The Mad," Uni added helpfully.
"But that wouldn't work. If we did that, you couldn't get the gun from CK." Shoko found Anna's logic to be impeccable, in its own weird way.
"Well gee, maybe you could just rent me to him instead," she said, then seeing the look on the Twins faces, quickly added "I wasn't serious!"
"Oh," said Uni disappointedly. "You sure?"
"Hey!" shouted Anna suddenly. "I'm have it! I know how you can get the money!"
"Really?" asked Shoko eagerly. "How?"
"You need a job!"
"Great idea, Anna!" chimed in Uni.
Shoko wondered why she'd bothered getting her hopes up, even for an instant. "That's it? Anna, I'm already looking for a job! You know that! But I don't want to be a merc or Yakuza enforcer. I already do enough backbreaking labor at Bell's as it is, and I don't have many other job skills beyond my strength. So what am I supposed to do?"
"Hey, wait..." said Uni thoughtfully, "Didn't you say something a while back about working in a brothel?"
"Yeah, you did!" insisted Anna.
"Whoa there!" Shoko objected. "I was... well, not kidding exactly, but I wasn't serious about it either!"
"Oh no," Uni said hastily, "I'm not talking about that, I'm talking about you turning tricks on the street."
"Yeah!" Anna pumped a fist in the air. "And we can be her pimp!"
"I cannot believe you two!" cried Shoko angrily, ears flat. "That is insulting on so many levels! What, I'm not pretty enough for a classy brothel? I belong on the street giving back-alley blowjobs to whatever scuzzwad happens by? Well let me tell you two something, I'm more than hot enough to be—what the hell am I saying? I'm not whoring myself for you two, on the street or in a Zone brothel!"
Shoko stopped her tirade to be greeted by the sight of the Twins, ears flat, clinging to each other, eyes wide with fear. "We're sorry!" they exclaimed in unison. "We were just trying to help!" Uni added, while Anna nodded vigorously.
"We thought," Anna started. "That since, well... y'know... and all..." she finished lamely and then looked despondent. "Please don't be mad," Uni said in what seemed to be a sincere tone of voice. "Yeah, please?"
"Oh good grief," Shoko muttered, her anger deflating at the sight of the nearly cowering pair. "Okay, okay. I'm not mad at you, all right? Well no, that's not true. I am still mad, just not enough to yell at you right now."
The Twins glanced at each other nervously, but for once stayed silent.
Slouching tiredly down in her chair, Shoko continued, "So what were you thinking, anyway? I mean, honestly, wanting me to turn tricks on the street for you? How selfish are you that it didn't occur to you to think how I'd feel about that?"
"Well..." Anna started.
"You talked about working in a brothel."
"So we thought..."
"We'd cut out the middle man..."
"And have you work directly for us."
"That way we'd get the money faster!"
Shoko decided that she'd prefer the Puma Sisters to not finish each other's sentences. It was like watching a tennis match. A tennis match that quickly led to a headache...
"Well, as it happens, you wouldn't have made money faster—the going rate at brothels is so much higher that I'm pretty sure even with a middleman, as you say, they still make more money than a street puta. But that's not the point! The point is, there's no way, no how that I'm gonna lower myself to working the streets. I'm not gonna bother justifying that to you, the answer is 'No', so just accept it, okay?"
"Good!" Shoko abruptly hesitated, looking uncertain, then reluctantly continued, "As far as working at a brothel goes... I don't think that's really an option either. It's not that I won't do it, although it wouldn't be my first choice for a job—I can imagine how some of the clientele would treat a synth at a Zone brothel, especially the slumming corpers. But in any event, it don't matter 'cause Ayane would never stand for it. I mean, just think of the fit she threw at the idea of me stripping with you. Can you imagine how much worse her reaction would—hey, wait a minute! Duh! Why don't I just join your act, like we talked about before?"
"Oooh!" Uni jumped up and pumped both fists into the air. "That's a great idea! We could be the Triple Puma Threat!"
Anna nodded in agreement. "And a lot of clubs would pay us big for a show like that! Hot baths and clean clothes for pretty Anna!"
Uni stopped bouncing around to give Shoko a bone-crushing hug. "I could just kiss you!" she cried. And did.
"Hey!" Anna exclaimed. "No fair hogging the Dark Meat!"
"Mmph!" Shoko tried to protest as Uni kissed her, but slouched low in her chair she didn't have the leverage to push her away. A moment later, she was rescued as Anna pulled Uni back.
"Whoa. Y'know, I'm not sure--" she was abruptly cut off as Anna's fierce kiss replaced Uni's. She started to try to pull away, then abruptly stopped as two thoughts occurred to her. The first was that she'd better get used to it since it seemed she would soon be doing even more intimate things on stage with them, and the second was that Anna had a surprisingly agile tongue...
Anna then pulled away, leaving a slightly stunned Shoko sitting in the chair. The Twins gave each other high-fives as Uni shouted "Now let's teach Shoko how to get naked!"
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