By Jeff Skagen and Rob Rutherford

Like everyone else entering the 93 Underground, Shoko had to check her weapons at the door to get in. It was a testament to the nature of the Zone that the gun check girl didn't even blink at someone carrying a 15mm Revolver and an SMG, but just took the guns and quickly scribbled her a receipt. She did, however, insist on looking into Shoko's backpack before letting her past. Once satisfied it contained only a costume of some sort, she handed her the receipt and casually waved her in.

As usual, the place was noisy and crowded, but since this was a weekend it was even more crowded than usual. Most residents of the Zone didn't work a regular workweek, and so made up most of the weeknight crowd. On weekends, though, a lot more people from Neo York proper showed up, especially slumming corpers blowing off steam after another week of wage slaving. They tended to have a high pain-in-the-ass factor, but they also tipped a lot more generously.

On stage, a naked and all-too-young girl was gyrating to the cheers and catcalls of the patrons. Looking around, Shoko saw no sign of Anna or Uni, which meant they either hadn't arrived yet or they were in the dressing room. Probably the former, since she was rather early, but no reason she shouldn't check and make sure. Besides, she wanted to see what the changing facilities were like here. She'd been stripping with the Puma Sisters for a while now, but strangely this was her first time at the 93U—as a performer, anyway—so she'd never seen the dressing facilities before.

What she presumed was the door to the dressing room was in a shadowed corner to the left of the stage. It would have almost gone unnoticed if it weren't for the burly, white-shirted bouncer standing beside it, arms crossed over his chest and expression as blank as could be.

As she approached, he suddenly held out a hand and said, "Can't go in there, miss. That's the dressing room, not a bathroom."

"Uh, I know. I'm dancing here tonight."

He glanced at her briefly. "I don't know you. Can't let ya in until you've been vouched for."

Shoko sighed. "Fine, will you stick your head in and see if the Puma Sisters are in there? They'll vouch for me."

He shook his head. "That's the girls dressing room; I ain't sticking anything in there. But it don't matter, I've been here the last two hours and they ain't come or gone. I think they're supposed to be here later tonight, though."

"Yeah, they are," answered Shoko, ears twitching. "I'm dancing with them. That's why I need to get in."

He shook his head again. "Sorry, but you'll just have to wait for them to show up."

She briefly entertained the idea of just pushing past him, but even as she thought about it, she knew she was just indulging in idle fantasy. Besides, he was just doing his job, no point giving him a hard time.

"All right," she said, trying to stifle her annoyance. "I guess once I am on the other side of that door, I'll appreciate having some like you out here running interference."

For the first time a recognizable expression crossed his face. Relief. She guessed he'd been more nervous facing a security synth down than he'd shown. No surprise there, he'd have been a fool not to be. "Thanks for seeing it that way," he said with a slight nod of his head. "Y'know, Sylvie or Gordon could vouch for you. If you're dancing here tonight, they'd know, wouldn't they?"

Shoko cocked her head to one side. "Hmmm...not sure. I kinda doubt Anna or Uni would think to mention me, even if they were supposed to, y'know? But hey, you never know. I'll ask Gordon anyw-"

"Just a sec," he interrupted suddenly, waving his hand. "Silvie, c'mere!"

Shoko turned as Silvie moved up beside her. She'd been inside the 93U enough times to know who Silvie was, but hadn't paid her much attention before. Now she took a closer look. Gray-eyed, gray-haired, and so perfectly sculpted that she had to either be a genetic upgrade or a sexdoll. Considering where she was working, Shoko was betting on the latter, though she would have thought a sexdoll more likely to be working up on stage than as head waitress.

"Problem, Jake?" she asked, glancing cautiously at Shoko.

"Not really," he answered. "She says she's dancing tonight, but I never seen her before. Someone's gotta say 'yes' before I let her in."

Silvie turned her attention to Shoko, blatantly assessing her.

"Hi, I'm Shoko. I, uh...just joined the Puma Sisters act. I guess could show you my costume if it would help convince you..." she started to unzip her pack, but was forestalled by a gesture from Silvie.

"Don't bother. I know your part of their act now." She nodded toward the door. "You can go on in."

"Wait," said Shoko. "How'd you know I'm part of the act? Did they tell you?"

"No," answered Silvie with a chuckle, "I've already seen you dance with them."

Shoko threw her a confused look.

"Well, this isn't the only club I'm ever at, after all," Silvie said, then "Sorry, gotta go," as a customer beckoned.

Shoko wondered why someone who spent her entire day serving tables in one club would then head off to another? And where had Silvie seen her at before this? Now that she thought about it, she'd seen her at the Vat once or twice talking to Roy. Was that where Silvie had seen her before?

Still shaking her head, she entering the dressing room. Jake had been wrong about the door not leading to a bathroom. In fact, the dressing room was a converted bathroom. Hooks to hang clothing and costumes from had been screwed into the far wall, as well as some lockers that looked to have been scavenged from a school somewhere. Beside them, a full-length mirror was screwed into the wall. The large counter with mirrors behind it was now being used as the vanity, the sinks having been removed and plastic chairs placed in front so the performers could sit while getting ready. A couple of small desk lamps improved the illumination in front of the mirrors.

There were only a few other women present at the moment. Two were off in a corner chatting quietly, one was changing her outfit, and the last was one, a young girl with a waist-length fall of platinum blonde hair, was sitting in front of the mirrors. Sure enough, Anna and Uni were nowhere to be seen.

Deciding to kill some time, Shoko sat down in the first available chair, beside the platinum blonde, and set her pack down next to her. The girl was so beautiful and so perfectly proportioned that Shoko wondered if she wasn't a sexdoll. She had a selection of makeup on the counter in front of her, and Shoko wondered what she'd paid to get hold of that sort of stuff in the Zone. Pulling a brush out of the pack, she started brushing out her hair.

"Hi, I'm Shoko," she said, when she noticed the girl glancing at her in the mirror.

The platinum blonde looked up at the Puma and sighed. "I'm Silver." She thought for a minute, wondering what a Puma other than the Sisters was doing in here. "Pleased to meet you." She smiled, "By the way, that's April's spot. But that's okay for the moment, she's on stage."

"Oh, sorry, I didn't realize," Shoko answered. "Most the places I've been at so far nobody got particular seats. Heck, The Vat doesn't even have a dressing room to speak of; we just had to change in the storage room behind the stage. So anyway, for future reference, are any of these seats here for guests, or do I just have to grab what's available?"

"The house girls like myself are pretty settled in, and while not assigned we get comfortable in a particular location. Guest dancers like yourself just grab an empty place." Silver looked over at the door, "Of course first timers are usually at least introduced so I can show them around." She looked back to Shoko, "Not your fault, I guess Sylvie was busy."

"Yeah, she did seem a little rushed," said Shoko. "Or, since I dance with them, maybe she thought Anna and Uni were already in here and would do it for her." Knowing the Twins penchant for being as aggravating as possible, she carefully watched Silver's reaction to this news.

"Early? Those two?" Silver laughed, "I think we're lucky when they give us advanced warning before they show up." She regained her composure. "The Sisters play by their own rules."

"I know what you mean," Shoko said, sounding relieved. "You wouldn't believe some of the shi-, uh, stuff I've seen them do. I'm always a little cautious when I admit I'm working with 'em, you know? Never quite sure who they might've pissed off at some point."

Silver nodded, "They've probably pissed off half the Zone at one time of another. But you can probably handle yourself against them, unless it's an entire thrill gang or something. Personally I'd be more worried about pissing them off."

Shoko chuckled as the memory of the Twins fearfully clinging to each other and begging her to not be mad at them sprang to mind. "Actually, that's one thing I'm not too worried about. Just be firm with 'em, and they'll mostly behave themselves. Besides, I seem to do a fair job of not pissing people off too much. Well, except Ayane..."

"Who's that?" asked Silver.

"Ayane? She's my best friend," answered Shoko. "She and her boyfriend run Nine-Tails Towing. She's a nine-tailed Lynx, which is how it got its name. Don't know if you've heard of them, but you can't have missed seeing their big, yellow, noisy-as-hell steam--powered truck around the Zone."

"Oh, I've seen them around, they come in from time to time." She smiled, "They seem like a really nice couple."

"They are. I live at Bell's Motors with 'em. And Ken and Bell, of course." Shoko smile suddenly faded, and she stopped brushing her hair, dropping her hands into her lap. "Only problem is, Ayane's kinda ticked with me right now. She doesn't like my job as a stripper, and she let me have an earful about it. Did you have that problem when you started doing this? Friends or family who didn't approve?"

"I have a friend who doesn't approve." She then smirked, "As for my family, I haven't talked with them in three years."

"Besides as far as jobs in the Zone go, stripping is fairly safe. It beats the hell out of waiting tables, prostitution, or scrounging." Silver added with pride.

"Yeah, it sure does," agreed Shoko, nodding. Reaching behind her, she pulled her tail around and did her best to vigorously brush it out. "Trouble is, Ayane doesn't see it that way. So you're friend doesn't approve, but I gather that she's still your friend, right? How'd you convince her to accept your choice to be a stripper? Or do you still argue about it?"

"Well I didn't give her much choice and we've pretty much stopped arguing about it." She smirked. "Although she also knows that I don't plan on stripping forever."

"Oh?" Shoko glanced at Silver, then sighed. Definitely not a sexdoll. "Yeah, I guess you have to plan for the long-term, don't you? It's not the same for me. I can't tell Ayane it's just temporary. If I start stripping, it'll may well be for the rest of my life."

Silver cocked her head to one side. "Why's that?"

"Well..." Shoko paused her tail brushing and looked at her own reflection in the mirror. "Synths just don't live that long, even when we don't have a built-in termination date—and I don't know if I do or not. A decade from now you'll still have most of your life ahead of you. I'll probably be...gone."

Silver's smile faded upon hearing the sadness in Shoko's voice. "Shoko, this is the Zone. Most people here don't die of natural causes, or expiration dates." She didn't feel like she needed to add an explanation and she certainly didn't seem like the same happy teenager Shoko was talking to moments earlier.

An uncomfortable silence fell, broken by an annoying rapping sound. Shoko suddenly realized it was her, tapping the back of her hairbrush against the edge of the counter. She quickly stuffed it back in her pack, and began pulling her costume out.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to be all gloomy there," she said, embarrassed. She decided she'd better change the subject. "So, if you're not going to do this forever, what are you planning to do after you quit?"

Silver put a finger to her lips, "That is a secret". She gave Shoko a big smile. "I can imagine that you feel somewhat trapped right now. But think about this. Sylvie is a 33S and the head waitress, while I'm obviously an upgrade and I'm stripping."

Having removed her costume from the pack, Shoko began stripping out of her regular clothing. As she did so, she thought about what Silver had just said. "I'm not sure the problem is that I feel trapped, exactly, so much as I feel...well, yeah trapped. But not by the job. I feel trapped between what Ayane wants me to do and what I want to do, you know? Oh hell, I'm not even sure how much I really want to do this. Maybe I'm really caught between Ayane and the Twins. I dunno..."

Suddenly Shoko grimaced. "Geez, listen to me, will ya? I sound like a looped sound bite. Believe it or not, I don't have a one-track mind. I can even actually talk about stuff other than my problems sometimes. Like, you're really an upgrade? Truthfully, until just a minute ago I'd thought maybe you were a sexdoll." She blushed, eyes and ears lowered. "Sorry, I hope you're not offended. So, um... so can I ask what someone who can afford an upgrade is doing in the Zone? Or is that a secret to?"

"Me afford an upgrade? My S.O.B. father maybe, but not me." Silver looked a little bemused. "Besides here in the Zone it's about a expensive to get a full body sculpt as it is to get an upgrade in the city."

"I'm sure that's true, but I was assuming you'd got the sculpt before you ended up in the Zone. Anyone who can—uh, wait a minute. If you can't afford an upgrade, how'd you get one? I gather your father didn't pay for it."

Silver sighed. "Of course my parents paid for it. Its not like they would accept anything less than perfection."

"Oh, I see," said Shoko, uncomfortable with the sudden realization that the young human was likely a runaway. "Then you're a..." she belatedly realized that if the girl was a runaway, she probably wouldn't want to talk about it. "Uh, never mind. Sorry. I ask too many questions, don't I?"

"That's okay. Just don't go running around telling everybody okay?" Silver smiled.

Shoko smiled reassuringly. "No problem," she said as she started to sort out the various pieces of shiny latex that made up her costume. It was the very same one that Captain Hollister had given her to wear for him on her journey to the Zone, and she was pleased to have found a better use for it. "I won't tell anyone. So, uh...can I ask why you're in the Zone now? Coming from a well-off family, it seems like you'd have had other options, even after you...left home."

Silver looked over at Shoko. "Are you surprised that someone like me is living in the Zone? That I'm doing exactly what you're doing? Seems to me Pumas aren't supposed to be strippers any more than upgrades are."

"Well, I don't know about that." Shoko stood up so she could pull on the bottom half of her outfit. "Seems like half the people who buy synths like me want us as sex toys rather than bodyguards or soldiers. Still, I take your point...I think."

Silver nodded then gave Shoko a rather interesting grin, "So which do you prefer, sex or violence?"

Shoko chuckled as she finished pulling on the last pieces of her costume. "Are you serious? Just look at what I'm wearing."

Hands of hips, she pirouetted in front of the young girl. Asymmetrical, the shiny latex outfit covered her right leg but not her left, and Silver couldn't even see at first glance how the G-string thong bottom stayed on - the support straps seemed to only go over Shoko's left hip. Her bushy red tail was threaded through a large brass ring at the top of the thong strap, and another brass ring nestled between her breasts where it held the straining front of her costume together. A wide, red leather belt worn loosely over her hips added a splash of color, while matching knee-high boots and elbow length gloves completed the ensemble.

Finishing her spin, Shoko stretched her limbs out far enough to make her joints audibly pop. "Yeah, I could be wearing body armor or stealth fatigues right now, making a living by selling my combat skills to those who prefer to hire others to commit mayhem in their name. But truthfully, I've just never liked fighting all that much. Don't get me wrong, I'm not like the worlds only pacifist Puma or anything. I enjoy a good fight, just not enough to regularly risk my life trying to make a living at it. So if my choice is sex or violence, I guess I choose sex."

Silver smiled. "I know it may have seemed like a strange question, but where I'm from Puma's are viewed as soldiers and bodyguards first. I always thought the sex was just an added benefit. Until now it never really entered my mind that you and your sisters might prefer the sex part to the violence."

Shoko hesitated a few moments. "Well, Mitsumi certainly markets us the way you view us. As far as they're concerned, the sex is an added benefit, a marketing ploy. I mean, an executive is a lot more likely to buy a bodyguard that looks good and that he can hump any time he wants, right?"

She sat back down and sighed. "As for the issue of which we prefer, sex or violence, I can only speak for myself. We don't all think exactly the same, you know, not even right out of the vat. And just like you, we learn and change and grow from our life experiences. So of course some of us learn to like sex better than violence. Some of us prefer violence to sex. Other may not care for either. And many of us, I'm sure, even find room in our lives for a lot more than just sex and violence. Like, say, friendship. Or love."

Silver smiled softly. It warmed her hear to hear people in the Zone, a place where little old ladies took automatic weapons to shop for groceries, talking of friendship and love. She simply smiled and nodded.

"Silver, you're on!" a voice called.

She got up and headed for the stage door. "If you see April before I do, be sure and tell her I said you're okay." She waved to Shoko right before she hit the stage.

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