By Michael Surbrook

David Lam was looking at the largest rat he'd ever seen. It was black and almost obscenely plump, with a naked pink tail and beady black eyes that darted about like the animal had something to hide.

At the moment, the rat was washing its face, its paws a blur as it rubbed nose and whiskers over and over. David stared at it, fascinated. He was sure there were rats over in Neo York, but he'd never thought they could get this big. He figured the rat would give the average cat trouble—which then made him wonder what the typical Zone cat looked like...

The thought of becoming breakfast for a large mean Zone cat made David shudder, sending the rat scurrying. David wanted to scurry himself, but he felt far too battered to do more than slowly crawl his way upright. His head hurt like hell, and the rest of him was a sea of aches and pains. And to think, a mere 24 hours ago he was enjoying breakfast in his Neo York apartment...

Now standing, if a bit unsteadily, David glanced around, taking stock of his surroundings. He was in the corner of a small room, the walls lined with small metal lockers, the floor tile, the ceiling smooth white plaster—now sagging and speckled with mildew. On a far wall the was the words "United States Post Offi.." the rest was obscured by the slow spread of rot.

Taking a step, David winced, and placed one hand to his head. There was a sore spot there, and his fingers came back speckled with flakes of dried blood. Just what he needed to see.

Walking was a chore, but a manageable one, and David managed to make it to what was once the lobby, or so he guessed. All the windows were gone, along with the doors, and the floor showed signs of where any furniture had been forcibly removed. There was also a thick litter of dried leaves, twigs, weeds, and what looked like bits of bone. Swallowing deeply, David decided it was time for him to get to Neo York and as far away from the Zone as possible. Which was—of course—the trick.

Standing in the bright morning sun, David blinked away spots. The former post office fronted onto a brick-paved plaza, which in better days might have been the center for neighborhood shopping and business. Now it was choked with weeds and scraggly trees. The stores and shop lining the plaza showed gaping holes where windows had once been and the rusted skeletons of several cars were scattered amid the brush.

For a long moment David simply stood, looking at the alien landscape before him. Undeniably, he was in the Zone. Back in the Neo York, the world he understood, the world was all brushed chrome, gleaming stainless steel, smooth glass, bright neon... not dirt and rust and mold and mildew and rats so flea bitten the parasites visibly hopped and jumped amid their host's fur.

He needed to get out of here.

But that was the crux of the problem. He really shouldn't have been here in the first place. He had no interest in the Zone, had never looked at it, thought about it, or paid much attention to it. It wasn't part of his life, much in the same way politics, Lace and Steel, and lower New Jersey wasn't part of his life.

His boss, however, had thought differently.

Up until last night, David had worked at SimTech, also known as Simulation Technologies, a software company specializing in computer models. He'd been a programmer, and had been more than happy to spend his time writing code, testing software, and running simulations. That is until Craig had informed him he was going to be going into the Zone to check out some new code. David protested that the Zone was no place for the likes of himself, but Craig had countered that the only other programmer SimTech had with the skill to properly evaluate the software in question was Michael Erica de Normandy, and if David was unsuited for a trip into the Zone, then there was no way a 100 pound albino woman who had trouble with bright lights was going. David, realizing his boss had a point, resigned himself to visiting what he was sure would be hell on Earth.

The trip had been, much to David's surprise, fairly uneventful. They had driven into the Zone in an armored truck, and the little David has seen had been dark and shadow. There hadn't been any blazing bonfires, leering bike gangers, corpse-littered streets, or chromed cyber-monsters just waiting for him to slip up. There had been, however, four dark-clad men with a truck of their own. They had come equipped with a variety of firearms and an armored case with an optical drive inside. David had hooked the drive up to his laptop and started putting the program through its paces while Craig and Brad talked price and payment.

Then the gunfire started.

David never saw who was doing the actual shooting. All he heard was the buzz of a high-volume automatic weapon and the wet sound of bodies being perforated by far too many bullets. The armored truck he'd come in seemed to be a primary target, and David quickly abandoned any thought of hiding in it after the windows were blown to powder. Instead, he'd ducked down and scurried into a side alley, while the one-sided battle raged behind, punctuated by the occasional scream and the dull whump of vehicles exploding.

He wasn't sure how far he'd run, or where he'd run to. All he knew was he'd crashed around for a bit and finally crawled into what had looked like a secure and quiet spot away from the shooting. Then, exhausted, he'd passed out.

So... here he was, alone in the Zone. He wasn't defenseless, he had still had the slivergun Craig had given him. In fact, the pistol was still in its shoulder rig, untouched. He even had an armorcloth long coat on, lined with ballistic panels. Now all he had to do was figure out where the checkpoint was, show the men on duty his SINcard, and he was home free. By instinct, his had went to his pocket, where he kept his ID cards. They were still there, much to David's relief, but...

David stared at the synthleather slipcase with a mix of horror and disbelief. Sometime last night a bullet had smacked into his armored jacket. It has left him unharmed, but it had manged to smash a perfect hole into his ID cards, leaving them bent and unreadable.

Still staring at the broken cards, David slowly slipped to the ground, his legs suddenly unable to support his weight. With no cards he couldn't cross the checkpoint, and if he couldn't cross the checkpoint he wasn't going home, and that meant...

He was trapped. Trapped in the Zero Zone.

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