By Jeff Skagen and Michael Surbrook

[this occurs in October of 2033]

One of the more annoying problems with summer in the Zero Zone was the lack of a reliable water supply. Bell's Motors had much greater water storage than most places in the Zone did—55 gallon rainwater collection barrels were fitted under all the downspouts, and they in turn could drain into a large cistern that had been constructed beside the north wall of the garage—but between drinking, bathing, growing a large garden, raising farm animals, and cooking said animals and produce for a regular lunchtime crowd, it also used quite a lot of water.

Even with careful recycling of gray water to irrigate the gardens, the water supplies built up during the winter and spring were nearly exhausted by the end of summer. Of course, containers of treated water were one of the many sorts of supplies that André and Ayane could arrange to pick up at the entrance to the Zone, but it was expensive to augment their storage that way and so by late summer water rationing was strictly enforced at the garage.

This was why, after nothing but sponge baths for over two weeks, everyone had been thrilled when Bell had decided they had sufficient water on hand to allow a tub of bathwater to be filled this morning. Being low person on the totem pole, Shoko was the last to get use of the bathwater. There was a slight upside to this, though. It also meant she had nobody waiting in line behind her, and so could take some extra time soaking in the tub without being yelled at to get a move on.

Now, feeling clean and refreshed after her bath, Shoko was lying face down on Ayane's bed. She wearing some of her nicer clothes, since on a bath day Bell deferred the dirtiest and messiest chores so as to maintain everyone's 'state of clean' for as long as possible. Her 'nicer' clothes were really just faded faux-jeans and her favorite T-shirt. Nothing fancy, but in the Zero Zone anything not filthy and full of holes was usually viewed as dressy.

Ayane, dressed in a pair of blue-gray coveralls and perched on the edge of the bed, was carefully brushing the tangles out of Shoko's still damp tail. Both had long ago learned that trying to clean and comb something attached to one's own backside was annoyingly difficult, and so mutual tail grooming was a habit they had quickly developed after Shoko moved in.

Of course, Ayane tended to get the better of the deal, having nine tails to Shoko's one, but Shoko didn't mind. She normally relished the time spent in chit-chat and girl talk with Ayane, although at the moment she was enjoying the rhythmic stroking of her tail so much that she'd relaxed almost to the point of falling asleep.

"So," Ayane asked in a conversational tone, "How's life with the Twins?"

Shoko grimaced, hoping this wasn't going to turn into another diatribe against the Puma Sisters, or worse, an argument about her new job. "Uh...fine, I guess" she said. "Just fine."

Ayane tugged the brush through a knot in Shoko's tail. "I still can't believe you decided to strip with them. There's gotta be something better you can do."

Uh oh, here we go. "Like what?" she asked.

"Like anything!"

"Oh c'mon Ayane, it's not like I didn't try to find another job first. I thought I'd make a great bouncer, but apparently nobody else did. Heavy labor? I do plenty of that right here, thank you. Join a gang, or the Yakuza? Yeah, right. Oh, I know, maybe I could be a street sam or a merc, and get shot at all the time. That would be so much better than stripping!"

"Okay, you don't have to get sarcastic," answered Ayane a bit peevishly.

Shoko took a deep breath to calm herself. "Sorry. But c'mon, other than my strength, combat ability and looks, what kind of job skills do I have? Sure, I'm a passably good cook, but not good enough to make a living at it, even if someone would hire me. Really, outside of various sorts of sex work there just aren't that many jobs in the Zone for an unknown, possibly rogue Puma. I mean, that is what people see when they look at me, ya know?"

"Well, I still think there must be something."

"Well, maybe there is," said Shoko, looking back over her shoulder. "But I ain't found it yet, so in the meantime I'm gonna strip, 'cause I need money now. Besides, I realize you don't like me stripping, but I think what really pisses you off is me doing it with the Anna and Uni."

"I don't like either!"

"C'mon Ayane," coaxed Shoko. "Why do you have it in for them? Did they do something to you?"

"Ya wanna know why I don't like them? I'll tell you why. They give synths like me and you a bad name. It's bad enough they go tearing around the Zone the way they do, working for anyone who can pay them in gas, or food, or ammo, but they've got to strip too... and what guy doesn't want to ogle two tall big-titted women with no morals and no sense of shame? And now you've joined their act..." Ayane paused and pointed the brush in her had at Shoko. "And I've heard about what they do to you. C'mon? Handcuffs?" She sighed and went back to brushing Shoko's tail. "So of course, everyone thinks all the synths in the Zone are just like those two. Tall, stacked, stupid, and easy."

Shoko was silent for several seconds. "That's not really fair, you know," she finally said. "They didn't ask to be like that; it's just how they were made. You and me too, for that matter. You may not remember it, Ayane, but I do. We all came out of the vat stupid and eager to please. If we've grown further beyond what we started out as than they have, well, that's great for us, but it's no cause to blame them. They're just doing what they know."

"And you're just encouraging them." Ayane stopped her brushing and sighed in frustration. "Look, Shoko, I talked to Doctor Snakeye once about this, y'know? Combat synths aren't grown stupid, because stupid synths die in combat. And the Twins... well, they aren't stupid, but they sure aren't all that smart. I mean, c'mon, you've talked to them! Sometimes I think they'd only got one brain between the two of them!"

Hopping off the bed, Ayane gestured with the hairbrush. "Look, by joining their act, you're only encouraging them! You... You..." She sighed and then tossed the hairbrush onto a nearby table. "I dunno... Maybe you could try setting a better example for them or something..." She paused and then looked back at Shoko. "Wait a minute. You ever go to the Vat?"

Shoko rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed. "Yeah, I've been in there a couple of times. I've performed there with the Twins, too."

"Did you know their old bouncer died?"

Shoko shook her head. "No, but I'm not surprised. Is this heading where I think it is?"

"Maybe." Ayane grinned, "You wanna go ask?"

Shoko blinked in dismay, her ears drooping. "Ayane, have you seen who hangs around in there? It's mostly Pumas, Lynxes, Nexus 5's and 6's and other combat models. Hell, Crusher's an ex-gladiator! He could rip anyone in the Zone shy of Ran to shreds! And they don't check guns, either. That place got its last bouncer killed, and you want me to take over the job?"

"Troll didn't get killed, Shoko, he died." Ayane's tails flicked back and forth. "He suffered system failure."

"Oh." Shoko stared at Ayane a moment, and then lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize. I just assumed...well, my mistake. But my point still stands. That's a tough crowd in there—if trouble broke out, do you really think I'd be up to policing it?"

"But that's just it, Shoko. The Vat doesn't need a bouncer to keep the crowd quiet, but to be a doorman and keep the troublemakers out." Ayane paused and looked at the bronze-skinned synth. "Besides, didn't you say one that you were tougher than any Puma?"

Shoko looked up. "Well, yeah, a little tougher. And I've got a better combat package, supposedly." She thought a moment, tail twitching. "I guess you've got a point about the Vat, too. It's actually one of the best-behaved places I've been to in the Zone. I've never seen a fight break out there. Maybe it's 'cause we're all synths in there, kind of an 'all-in-the-same-boat' sorta thing."

"And no one's firebombed the place in years."

"Oh, well, that's certainly a rousing endorsement," said Shoko dryly.

Ayane's tails twitched. "Well? Are you gonna go?"

"Uh..." Shoko felt like she had angry butterflies rampaging around in her stomach. She didn't want to quit stripping with the Pumas Sisters—it paid better than any bouncer job would and, truthfully, she was finding all the attention she got while on stage a bit of an ego boost—but at the same time, she also didn't want to disappoint Ayane.

She saw Ayane's eyes narrow as she noticed her hesitation, and quickly blurted "Sure, why not? I'll go down today and ask 'em." What the heck, they probably wouldn't hire her anyway. Nobody else had, after all. She could make Ayane happy by asking about the job, and after they turned her down she'd still have good reason to keep stripping with the Twins. Shoko smiled as the butterflies in her stomach settled.

The Vat. It was partially mythical, that much Shoko knew, and some of the Zone's "normal" inhabitants dismissed it as a rumor. That wasn't true, of course, it did exist, and it only served replicants, or in André's case, really, really, close friends of replicants. Shoko had been here before, both with Ayane and with the Puma Sisters (replicants liked to see sexy women strip just as much as the next sapient organic), but that didn't help in making the neighborhood any better.

The Vat sat at the end of line of rowhouses, in the basement of the building. A battered and scarred metal fire door served as the entrance. She paused and took a deep breath. it was a synth bar, and she was a synth, no doubt about that, but the vat was a rough place, where the Zone's replicants went to be alone and get away from the "nats." For the most part life in the Zone was such that even the "nats" couldn't be too picky about who they lived near or did business with, but the synths still felt the quiet undertone of discrimination. Synths were products, servants and slaves of the nats in the outside world, and even here there were those who didn't intend to let the synths forget it. At times, CK's obvious fascination with her bustline was almost a relief. He didn't stare because she was a synth and thus easy get into bed, he stared because she was stacked, wore short shirts, and tended to bend over a lot.

Taking a second deep breath, Shoko knocked on the door. After a long moment it shifted open and a tall, white haired, well-muscled synthetic stared at her from the gap. "Yeah?"

"Can I come in?" Her fox-like ears twitched, as if to unnecessarily remind him that she was a synth herself. Though they hadn't talked much, she recognized Roy, the Nexus model who did, well, seemingly everything around the Vat from acting as bartender to janitor, as needed. Today he seemed to be doing the job she'd come here to apply for.

Roy stared at her tall form for a moment. "We don't open till three. You know that. Why're you here?"

Shoko shrugged. "Ayane says you're lookin' for a doorman. Or bouncer. Whatever you want to call it. Thought I'd apply for the job."

"Hmmm..." The door swung open. "Come in."

Inside The Vat was dimly lit, as usual. The place was empty, except for herself, Roy, and the one-armed Lynx waitress Nami, who was doing her best to scrub down the tables. A bucket of gray water attested to the diligence she gave her task.

Pulling two chairs off of a table, Roy set then down on the floor. "Doorman, eh?" He looked her up and down again. "You're big enough... and look healthy enough. You a Puma mod, right? How much can you lift?"

Shoko frowned. "Well, I'm not really sure. I can't recall ever trying to lift something and failing." Her eyebrows furrowed in thought. "Heaviest thing I lifted recently was an engine block, when the hoist at Bell's jammed. It was from an old fuel-burner, the kind made out of solid metal, so it wasn't any too light. I carried it maybe thirty feet and I wasn't even near my limits then. The hard part was getting a good grip; it had grease and oil all over it."

"Good." Roy didn't even blink at her assessment of how strong she was. "Combat training?"

"I have the usual range of weapons skills you'd expect a Puma to come with—everything from pistols to grenade launchers. I'm a pretty good shot, but not spectacular. I've only been in real firefights a few times, always with my Stormbreaker. I've at least fired most of the other weapon types at some point or another, except for a grenade launcher. But if I have to be practiced with a grenade launcher for this job, then I'll withdraw my application. I also know how to use most basic weapons, especially blades. Combat knife to Katana, they stuck it all up here," she said, tapping the side of her head. "Again, though, I've never had occasion to actually make practical use of that knowledge and the only blade I normally carry is a utility knife."


Shoko smiled. "That's my strong suit. My combat package is similar to the regular Puma package, but modified for greater versatility and to improve my combat survivability. Also, my strength and reaction times are measurably above stock Puma standards."

Roy nodded. "Sounds good. Ever since Troll died and Crusher left, we haven't seen too many Class Threes. I think they're not as popular anymore. Pumas about as big and strong as we get. That and people too dumb to stay away. Whaddya say? Scared of 'borgs?"

"Um...not usually. I suppose it depends on the 'borg, to be honest. I'd be a fool not to be afraid of some armor-plated psychopath, bristling with guns and razorclaws and reflexes boosted so high he twitches." Suddenly she smiled. "I'd still turn him away at the door, though."

Roy grinned. "Good answer." He turned and looked over one shoulder. "Well Nami?"

The one-armed Lynx put down her scrubbing pad and gave Shoko a slight smile. "Sure. She can help me with the kegs in back."

"There you go," Roy turned back to Shoko. "Well? Want the job? It's not as exciting as doorman for the Underground, but it's steady. And if we can get another one just like you, you two can alternate nights."

"Oh, I like the idea of alternating nights." Shoko leaned back in her chair. "That leaves me enough time to keep dancing with the Puma Sisters, at least part of the time. don't have a problem with that do you? Having a doorman who's also a stripper on the side?"

"Just make sure you flex and show your muscles a lot." Roy grinned. "Show 'em how tough you are." He shrugged and then went on. "Besides, I'm more worried about people trying to get in, not those who are already in here."

"Besides," Nami chimed in, "Anyone who rushes the stage while you and the Pumas are up there deserves what he gets."

Shoko chuckled at the thought. "That's for sure. Actually though, my concern was that you'd think someone might not take me seriously as a bouncer if they knew I was a stripper too. But as long as that's not a concern for you, then it isn't for me either. So, I guess that only leaves me one question. Not to sound greedy, but what's the job pay?"

Roy shrugged again. "Depends on what we take. Unlike the Underground we work more off of trade. I can pay you in whatever I get. Money, fresh food, services, room, board, drink... what do you need?"

Shoko's ears twitched as she thought. "Well...I get room and board at Bell's. Food too. I might take a little pay in drink, but what I mostly need is money or barterable goods. I owe Uni a new gun—an expensive one—and I'm trying to save up enough to pay for it."

"I'm sure we can work something out."

"Well then, I guess I'll take the job."

Back at the garage, Shoko found Ayane chopping and sorting vegetables behind the lunch counter. Ayane waved as she approached. "Well?"

"Good news!" said Shoko, as she perched herself on a stool across from Ayane, elbows on the counter.

"You got the job?" Ayane's tail was twitching excitedly.

Shoko grinned. "I got the job!"

"All right! We need to celebrate!"

"Sure!...uh, how?"

Ayane shrugged, accidentally tossing a carrot to the floor. After carefully looking around to make sure no one saw, she put the carrot back on the counter and washed it in a bucket of water. "Dunno. Ask Bell?"

"Yeah. Maybe she'll cook something special up for dinner." Shoko's tail flicked about as she smiled. "Afterwards, maybe we can go party at the Underground. Do a little dancing, get a little drunk, watch the show—I think Dawn's on tonight. Sound like fun?"

"Oh yeah! I..." Ayane paused and looked at the vegetables in front of her. "Well... I'd like to go tell André, but it'll have to wait. You want to spread the good news?"

"Yeah, no problem." Shoko started to turn away, and then hesitated. Ayane was probably assuming she wouldn't be dancing with the Twins anymore. If she didn't straighten that out now, Ayane would be that much madder when she found out later. But it was so nice to have Ayane happy with her again...

"Shoko?" Ayane had noticed her hesitation.

"Yeah, uh...Andre's with Ken in the shop, right?"

Ayane glanced at the garage building and nodded. "Last I saw."

"Then I'll go let 'em know we're having a party tonight!" she said, heading off toward the garage.

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