"Why did I ever come back here?" Sandra asked herself for the millionth as she ran. Right now, she was ducking between chunks of ruined wall while trying to avoid fire. Her speed was somewhat hampered by the weight of the pack she was carrying, which only gave her another thing to complain about.

She'd gone out to get herself and David some food and cold-weather gear, as well as scrounge up as much ammo as she could. Up until a point, her run had been a success. She was now wearing an army-surplus greatcoat as well as a furry Russian army hat (complete with a chipped enamel red star on the front) and had a pack full of ammo and food. Unfortunately, she was also being chased by a few Jinsei troops who were probably irate at the theft of their supplies.

It was while running that Sandra had decided that, once and for all, she hated the Zero Zone. She hated it from top to bottom. Hated it with every fiber of her being, Hated every rock, every brick, every street, every ganger, every rouge puma, every street-corner scab who was just trying to eek out a living. The fact that the place was now hip-deep in Jinsei troops only gave her a new thing to hate. She had also decided that "herself" was on the list of things that she hated, as she'd given up a comfortable life in HK to come back here to fulfill some stupid emotional longing she'd been feeling.

So now she was running like crazy to get away from the aforesaid Jinsei troops and doing a pretty good job of burning up the ammo that she'd gone out of her way to find. Stupid Jinsei with their stupid Zone invasion. What did they want to get out of this, she wondered. Maybe it was just a creative way to reduce headcount amongst their grossly-over armed so-called "security forces". It certainly was the only tangible result it had generated so far.

Well, time to engage in a little headcount reduction, she thought. Stopping by a chunk of wall, she slapped a fresh pair of clips into each machine pistol. Right. She dashed across the next gap, firing the two pistols like crazy at full auto without even looking at what she was doing. She wasn't aiming to kill or even injure. She was aiming to discourage. She didn't care how many she knocked down as long as they stopped shooting her. The gap behind her, she continued running, satisfied at the lack of reply. She dashed around a corner into an alley, hoping she'd discouraged, or worse, her pursuers.

"Aaaah! Don't kill us!" A pair of voices screeched at her in stereo. Sandra was momentarily taken aback before she realized where it was coming from. A pair of young women were hiding in the alley, clutching each other, looking for all the world like that they were about to crap their pants. One was white, and the other Asian, but between their over-tight clothes and near-ludicrous bustlines, they looked surprisingly alike. Both were probably not even eighteen and were screaming and wailing.

"Will you shut up!" Sandra Shouted. Surprisingly enough, they did. "Right, what's going on here?"

"We were coming home from work!" The white girl wailed. Her shirt had 'Wesley' printed on the over-stretched chest for some reason. Right, she had a name now, Sandra thought,

"And all these guys in army suits came after us!" The Asian girl continued. Her shirt had 'Deviant Boy' on it. Right. Another name.

"And we were all scared!" Wesley continued. "We thought they would try to kill us or rape us or rob us or-"

"Steal your toe rings." Sandra finished. "Right." She sighed. Please don't let it be, please don't let it be...

"It's so unfair!" Deviant Boy wailed. "We came here so no one would boss us around and now there are army soldiers everywhere!" She was practically crying waterfalls.

"All we want to do is be happy together!" Wesley added.

"Wait... wait a sec..." Sandra said. "You came here?"

"We lived in the city." Wesley sobbed. "But we didn't like it."

"Our parents didn't want us seeing each other." Deviant Boy continued.

"We ran away to the Zone." Wesley continued. The way they continued each other's sentences was getting on Sandra's nerves. "So we could live together forever and be free and happy with each other."

"Oh grow up!" Sandra shouted at the top of her lungs. The two shrinked back. "You think you can just run away from all your problems by crawling across some bridge and into the Zero Zone." She seemed to be looming. "You all think it's going to be some magical place where you've got no parents to tell you what to do, no homework, no responsibilities, no pressure to get a job and no need to brush after every meal."

"It isn't?" Deviant Boy looked like she was going to explode into a mass of tears.

"WELCOME TO REAL LIFE!" Sandra shouted. "The Zone is a hard, cold, dark, damp and dismal place! Only stupid, dumb people with nothing better to do then waste their lives away come here! It is a stinking cesspool of humanity! It is the end of the earth! It is the decline and fall of western civilization complete with two-dollar hookers and soya bean hot-dog carts! Get a life you pair of underage, brainless, moronic, inbred, reality-deprived mattress-munching tool fairies!"

At that point the pair of them burst into tears again. "We're going to die!" Wesley cried.

"I'm too young!" Deviant Boy added.

"I want to go home!" Wesley moaned.

Tool. As if she hadn't done enough to them, she was going to kick them while they're down. "You can't." She said, quietly.

"What?" Deviant Boy asked.

"I said you can't go home!" Sandra shouted.

"Well why not?" Wesley asked.

"Because a bunch of big fat hairy gun-wielding tools have taken over the ferking bridge and aren't letting anyone out of here!" She shouted.

There was silence for about a minute as this sunk in. "But that's not fair!" Wesley wailed with an air that suggested that such rules didn't apply to young and beautiful people.

"No, its life. I suggest you learn to deal with it." Sandra said. "Crap happens to everyone. You bought this down on yourselves. It's about time you learned to live with it."

"But... but..." Wesley stammered.

"All I can suggest is that the pair of you find some nice, quiet hole in the ground in a faraway corner of the Zone, hide in it and keep your stupid heads down." Sandra said. Inside she knew what was going to happen. Damn, I'm too nice, she thought.

"But... what if the army men come after us?" Deviant Boy said.

"Look, just go!" She shouted. "They're after me anyway. I'm going to stand here and soak up bullets while the two of you run off and be happy with each other in your pink fuzzy fantasy land, okay? Now go!"

The two of them didn't need any further incentive then her shouting some more. Picking themselves up, they dashed off down the end of the alley, and out onto the next street. Sandra watched over them for a bit, making sure that there was nobody else around. After a minute, they vanished around another corner.

"Yeah, just go." She said as she leaned against the wall, wiping her eyes. "Only dumb, stupid people with no future come into the Zone anyway."

Sara Bryant had been so hopeful. She'd thought that this time she could make it work out. This time she was sure that it could work. She had been a member of Wretch's original Brown Armband gang, back when it was bordering on an army. She'd been a trusted lieutenant, one of the smarter members of the gang who led the rabble that it mainly consisted of. And for a while it'd worked.

Then three people had come through it like a tornado, killing everything in their path. One of them, a particularly angry woman, had wounded her in combat all the time whining about her love life. And the Empress Shion herself had blown up a few more and killed Wretch. So it had fallen apart a bit after that. She'd rallied the surviving members of the gang, and they'd tried to make the best of things. Not easy, given that the gang were now some of the least liked people in the Zone, given all they'd done in past.

Then Matt had come along and taken over the gang. His abilities had allowed them to expand and rebuild, and begin to regain some of their old strength. And it had been good for a while. They'd done well for themselves. Then the crazy woman had come back. Matt had gone out to fight her and never come back. Once again, the gang had fallen apart.

After that, Sara had wound up more or less in charge of the gang. She'd tried to rebuild the gang again, get things together and achieve something resembling its original strength. And they'd been doing well up until recently. Then Jinsei came along. Now she was once again fighting for survival. At least the crazy woman wasn't there this time.

This was the one thing that gave her hope that the situation was salvageable. No crazy woman.

She fired the last few rounds from her Skorpion, then ran for cover. The Jinsei troops had the derelict shopping center that passed for their headquarters surrounded. She suspected that someone had passed along info to Jinsei about the gang and somehow registered them as a top priority threat. At least there were none of the guys in heavy armor in this lot. That would have been too much.

Ducking back into a ruined store, she checked behind the counter. Finding an ammo cache, she restocked her remaining weapons. Not looking so good, she thought. At least we gave it a try this time.

Three other gang members ran into the store, followed by some random gunfire. They all crashed behind the counter, which didn't go down well with Sara. Half of it was because she was underneath them, and the other half because of their dubious personal hygiene. "Will... you..." she grunted out. "...get off me!"

Tom, Dick, and Harry all but tripped over each other to get off her. They were far from the brightest thugs, she thought, but they still had their merits. Loyalty and the ability to shoot straight were key amongst them. Tom liked to set things on fire, Harry liked to break things, and Dick liked to break stuff while commenting about how it was symbolic of the decline of Western civilization.

"How's it going out there?" She asked them.

"Not so good." Dick replied while the other two were still stumbling over each other. "We're surrounded, they have more men and probably more guns too."

"Damn. Not so good." She paused. "Any women amongst them? Black-haired, scarred ones with longcoats?"

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. The three of them looked at each other in a confused way. "Uh... no." Dick eventually offered. Tom and Harry just shrugged.

"Right." She replied as she slapped a fresh clip into the Skorpion. "Let's get out there and kill those bastards."

Following the rest of his squardmates, Umon stormed into the Zone nightclub known as 93 Underground. He'd been briefed on this place, and knew it was potentially one of the most dangerous locations Jinesi would be taking this night, which was why he gave the two corpses in the entranceway—one of a cybered man in a white ruffled shirt and black tie, and the other of young woman in an alcove positively crammed with guns, a second look, just to make sure they really were dead.

Inside the club was spacious, but dimly lit. He activated his faceplate's optics, bringing the lowlight function into play. Instantly things jumped out into green-imaged clarity. The club's patrons were a mix of purest Zone scum and Neo York corporate types—reminiscent of the people they'd seen at the Edge of Night. But here, there was a darker and more edgier element. Here there were 'borgs, skin-jobs, and upgrades, any of which could be a threat to himself of one of his squadmates, Jinsei Protective Gear or not. Keeping a tight grip on his Ares Light Machine Gun, he fanned out with the rest of the squad, pushing the crowd back while Commander Fuse announced the entire area was under Jinsei control.

As expected there was the usual spate of curses, insults, and pleading requests to be allowed to go free. A tall male Puma who stepped forward was gunned down immediately, the burst of firepower causing some collateral damage to the other patrons, but it was all acceptable losses.

While glancing around the Underground's interior, Umon realized there was still someone sitting in a booth near the bar. Raising his weapon, he walked over to the shadowed corner, secure in the knowledge his Protective Gear was tough enough to withstand whatever some unarmed Zone resident might throw at him.

"Jinsei now controls the Zone," Umon stated in a loud, clear voice. "Move to the back of the club and remain quiet."

For a few silent moments the booth's occupant didn't respond. Umon noticed the table held only an empty bottle and a glass, which still contained a small quantity of liquor. "Listen!" he repeated, figuring he was speaking to a New Year's drunk, "Jinsei..."

Commander Fuse turned as Umon's comlink signal disintegrated in a burst of static. He saw the soldier's body crumple to the floor and caught a glimpse of a tall figure before several of his troopers opened fire with their own weapons. As the muzzle flashes illuminated the room he swore slightly under his breath.

The figure was tall, white haired, and dressed in a long gray cloak. And she simply stood there and gave the Jinsei troopers an almost contemptuous look as machine-gun rounds ricocheted from her body. Fuse almost raised his weapon as well, but checked himself. Jinsei had better ways to deal with espers.

*Command, this is Wolf Brigade One. Requesting anti-esper backup.* Fuse pondering telling them the esper was the Empress, and then watched with wide eyes as the woman put her fist through the chest of a second trooper, the Protective Gear shattering like cheap plastic plate. *The esper has been positively identified as Shion Nys, Repeat the esper has been ID'd as Shion Nys.*

For one sick moment Fuse was certain the esper, who amazingly enough looked more annoyed than angry, was going to single-handedly slaughter his entire squad. She grabbed the barrel of one man's machine-gun and bent the entire weapon in two before delivering a backhand that smashed the trooper's helmet, and his skull along with it. All while bullets were literally bouncing off of her.

And then she was gone.

Fuse stared at the empty spot that a moment ago had been occupied by a world-class esper weapon. Three highly-trained soldiers now lay broken on the floor, blood pooling about their bodies.

*Cancel anti-esper backup Command. Send in a medical team.*

Stewart Finlay described himself as a "mercenary anti-armor specialist." Most people would describe him as "an idiot," but he rarely noticed. His appearance was somewhat plain; average height and a slightly muscular build, with long, thick black hair and a scruffy beard. The plain urban cammos didn't help pick him out any; in fact the only distinguishing features of his appearance at the moment were the low-light targeting goggles and the antitank missile launcher he was carrying on his shoulder.

Like many mercenaries he'd been caught in the Zone when the Jinsei troops rolled in. It was a situation he was far from happy with; few had any illusions as to what would happen to them when Jinsei caught up with them. Whatever the corp's plans for the Zone were, most suspected that it didn't involve groups of heavily armed freelance soldiers wandering the streets. So the majority of them had taken up arms and were fighting back.

So far they'd been good at killing Jinsei troops. Not the heavily armored goons that had spearheaded the invasion, but the regular security troops that were providing the follow up. Now Stewart was going to take it up a notch. He stood in the empty upper-story window of a derelict building, watching the street. A Jinsei Armored Personnel Carrier was slowly rumbling down the twilight-dimmed street, packed to the brim with security troops. Its turret-mounted autocannon was a perfect weapon for dealing with lightly armored vehicles, and could happily make minced meat out of any infantry in front of it.

Of course, it was woefully ill-prepared for an attack from above, which is what he was doing. It was a perfect anti-armor strategy; the roof of an APC was one of the weaker facings and usually one of its worst defended. Loading a light rocket into the launcher (he was saving the heavier ones for when Jinsei decided to roll in any heavy armor) he locked his sights on the carrier.

"Range 200 and closing." He said to himself. "Missile locked on. Target speed: 15 kph. Target distance 150 meters. Angle of deflection high, missile armed and ready." He squeezed the trigger. "BANG!"

The missile shot form the launcher, striking the APC just behind the turret. The explosion tore through the APC, ripping the front end of it apart. Troops, many of them wounded, poured out of the back doors, desperate to escape the burning vehicle. They ran around to the other side of the APC, hoping to use it as a shield against the next attack.

"Yeah baby, yeah!" Stewart shouted, before remembering the rest of the plan. Keying his throat mike, he spoke into it. "Hey Vic! Over to you!"

"Thank you!" The voice on the other end replied in a cute way, with just a hint of a British accent.

Vic Hagen described herself as a "professional sniper." Most people would describe her as "completely insane," but if they did she didn't care. She was short, with scruffy blonde hair and disturbing pale yellow-green eyes. Otherwise, she'd probably would have been considered to be "cute." Like Stewart, she was clad in plain urban cammos. Unlike him, she currently was carrying a sniper rifle.

Propping herself against a window, she peered through the scope. Her cybernetic eyes easily compensated for the low light, allowing her to make out the individual soldiers by the APC. Zooming in on one, she focused on the back of his helmeted head.

"Little redshirt, prepare to meet your designated Klingon." She said, then fired. A burst of blood sprayed across the APC's hull, and he fell forward. "There's one guy who won't live to see the opening credits."

"How's it going, Vic?" Stewart asked over the com. "You getting 'em good?"

Vic fired, and another soldier keeled over. "Oh yeah, they're gone. They're solid gone."

Another errant burst of gunfire sent Sora scrambling for cover. He glanced around, but this time no one seemed to have gotten hit. He shook his head and then took aim back down the street. If he was going to buy it here, it wasn't going to be for lack of shooting back.

What had started out as a perfectly executed plan for pacifying the Neo York Zero Zone had quickly dissolved into total clusterfuck. Oh sure, the Wolf Brigade had made short work of the initial opposition, and the hunter-killer cyberdroids were performing quite well, but they couldn't be everywhere at once. Now that the wavefront of the invasion was spreading out into the Zone proper, it fell to men like himself, general Jinsei security troops, to take and hold ground.

Of course, it wasn't like they were totally unprepared. Sora had his Jinsei-issue weapon, bodyarmor, and combat kit. They had light armor, APCs, cyberdroids, some air support, and the elite Wolf Brigade. All the enemy had was a wide assortment of smalls arms, minimal body armor, almost nothing in the way of vehicles, and no air support.

So how come it seemed like they were losing?

Checking the load on his weapon, Sora assessed the view down the street. A burning truck sat there, the flames illuminating the entire block. Intel had said most of the vehicles ran off of an alcohol mix and ignited easily. It looked like they were right. There were bodies scattered in the street, mostly nameless rabble, although a few belonged to fellow Jinsei security.

Glimpsing movement, Sora fired, hoping more to keep whoever it was from firing back than to actually hit anything. He sa crouched near the edge of a burned-out house, surrounded by weeds, trees, and rubble. The rest of his squadmates were scattered amid cover around him, trading fire with what seemed like an entire army of snipers who hid in every nook and crevice in the Zone.

Crawling forward, Sora exchanged his corner of building for the slightly more secure cover of a set of steps. Settling himself, he glanced to one side and noticed the face-down body of a fellow Jinsei trooper. He didn't know the man's name, and based on the bloodstains, could forget about recognizing his face. Even so, he sat there for a long minute, contemplating the corpse, as if trying to come to grips with where he was and what he was doing. Finally, he reached over and picked up the dropped rifle, ejecting the clip and adding it to his own. The rest of the slain soldier's ammunition soon followed. Jinsei had been quite clear about casualties. They were to be recovered if at all possible, and if not, their weapons and gear were to be removed. One couldn't begin to calculate the lose of face and honor if a Jinsei soldier were to be killed with equipment taken from a Jinsei casualty.

As he worked, a chattering roar announced the firing of an APC's turret cannon. Sora had to grin. The rapid-fire 25 mm cannon would make short work of any Zoner to be caught in the open, not to mention what it would do to any building they chose to hide in. Rechecking the load on his rifle, Sora rose and looked over the top of the stairs. Time to show these Zoner's who was really in charge here.

Glancing around the corner of a ragged Darkside rowhouse, Hiroko O'Hara gave the street an appraising glance. She could see soldiers, vehicles, and a few armored stormtroopers. There was also a scattering of bodies—Darkside rabble who hadn't been fast enough, or lucky enough, to get under cover once the shooting had started.

The street was also full of smoke and most of the troopers were backlit by the blazing mass of the now-deceased Dr. Ludwig's chop-shop. The good doctor, better known as "The Mad" by friend and foe alike, had been Hiroko's periodic employer, up until about 15 minutes ago, when a Jinsei stormtrooper had fired his light machine-gun into the doctor's office, killing Ludwig, two nurses, and the current patient. Hiroko had been in a backroom, relaxing with a bottle of home-brew sake and trying to ignore the noises coming from the operating room. The moment the shooting had started she'd hit the floor, grabbed her coat and exited out the back.

Now she was scarcely a block from what had passed as her home and was desperately looking for a way out of a situation that wasn't getting any better with each passing minute.

"Whaddya see? Anything? Or are yer eyes as bad as yer wires?"

Hiroko's eyes, which were featureless chrome, narrowed. She hadn't escaped from Ludwig's alone. Oh no. She had a walking lump of meat named "Payne" in tow. Payne was another of Ludwig's "employees," in his case he put his talents for violence to great use at getting Ludwig's patients to cough up their payments. As usual he was wearing scattered bits of metal he liked to call "armor" and everyone else knew to be glorified sheet metal. He also had roughly 48 inches of hickory stick over one shoulder, which he knew how to put to good use when it was required he hurt someone. Which was one reason why Hiroko hadn't shot him yet.

"Street's full of troops." Hiroko replied, ignoring the last half of his question. "Any suggestions?"

"Fuck." With one word Payne managed to sum up the situation quite well. Amazing.

"I suggest we vacate the premises of our current abode with great speed and sufficient caution as to avoid attracting the attention of the local gendarmes."

Hiroko shook her head. Not only was she saddled with Payne's mindless bulk, but she also had to deal with Ludwig's favorite "muscle," the low-rent street samurai known as "Mutt and Jeff." Which wasn't too bad—they at least had brains—as long as they kept their mouths shut.

Swallowing her initial retort, Hiroko looked over at Jeff, the taller of the two and the one who had spoken. "And how do you suggest we do that." She tried to keep her tone neutral, although speaking through gritted teeth didn't help much.

"Simplicity in itself, Miss Hiroko, we create a suitable diversion with which to cover our evacuation."


A diversion. Sounded simple enough. But what? The troopers out in the street seemed to have itchy trigger fingers and had shown a tendency to shoot everything that moved.

Payne grunted and slapped his stick into his open hand. "I wish I could get close enough... I'd divert some of them bastids."

Cocking an eyebrow, Hiroko spared the thug a withering glance before returning to the building corner. Drawing her pistol, she carefully peered around the edge of the building before pointing her pistol at the assembled troops. Almost immediately her smartgun link went haywire, causing her arm to spasm and jump as the targeting input overloaded the processor.

"damn," she hissed under the breath, dropping her arm. That wasn't going to work. She needed something else. She needed...

"Payne!" she hissed. "Get over here."

"What? What?" He muttered as came up behind her.

"Take a look."

As she stepped back, Payne leaned forward and glanced around the building.

"See anything?" Hiroko asked.

"Yeah, a whole crapload of guys with guns. They ain't doin' much, guess they're regrouping."

"Unhunh," Hiroko uttered noncommittally, while making a "go-go" gesture to Mutt and Jeff. "Perfect time for a diversion you think?"

"Yeah," Payne nodded as he watched the Jinsei troops assemble back into units and load their weaponry. "What da ya have in mind?"

Raising one booted foot to the level one Payne's backside, Hiroko kicked out as hard as she could, while firing her pistol into the air. "You."

The roar of gunfire more than drowned out any comments Payne may have had to the plan.

The sound of something moving around outside made Dawn freeze in place, her attempt to be motionless going so far as for her to stop for a moment. Then she heard it again. Boots on gravel and the guttural sound of low voices. They'd arrived.

She'd already packed her bike with everything she really needed and had only paused for one last check of the cargo trailer she called home. There hadn't been a lot to take, really—she'd grabbed some clothing, a pistol, some water and food, and—most importantly—her Fender Millennium Stratocaster guitar. Now she stood near the door to her trailer, dressed in a simple jumpsuit, her helmet in one hand, trapped inside her own home.


Back when she'd first moved in—which had been while she was still a teenager—the trailer had had two entrances; the double rear cargo doors, and the side access door. With time, the back doors had been blocked off both from outside and in, since she'd needed room for her bed and the woodburning stove. So she'd had a small trapdoor placed at the front of the trailer, to provide a quick escape route. Originally it had been for in case of fire... now she'd need it to escape from Jinsei.

It was only by luck she was here, at home, and not the Underground. Leon, who swore he never got sick, had come down with the flu (blaming it on the Christmas Eve concert in the snow), and Rachel was "nursing" him back to health. Dawn figured in their case "nursing" was an euphemism for mating like mad rabbits. So she'd decided to spend a quiet New Years inside, listening to the Wizz and noodling about on her guitar. And then came the sounds of helicopter gunships and vector-thrust dropships, and gunfire, and explosions, and the Wizz screaming about how the Zone was being invaded—before it had gone off the air.

So she'd packed the bike and gotten ready to leave—only it didn't seem she'd moved fast enough. Now there was someone at the door. Her gun was on the bike, while her razors would only work if the they were unarmored—and at a closer range than she wanted to get. She needed a weapon and needed it now. Sliding her helmet onto her head, Dawn glanced around the trailer's interior, her gaze finally settling on the shape of her battered old Richenbacher guitar. It had been shaped from a solid block of wood, wouldn't take a synthrig, and had been her practice guitar for as long as she could remember. It also weighed a ton.

Gripping the guitar by the neck, she swung up into the air, trying to breathe as quietly as possible as the trailer's side door bounced once and was suddenly flung open. Then a large shape filled the door and Dawn swung her trusty old guitar as hard as she could, putting all the weight and muscle of her 5'10" frame into the blow.

For a moment, just a moment, time seemed to stop, and Dawn caught sight of the soldier's wide-eyed face just before the edge of the guitar impacted—right under the leading edge of the helmet. The shock of impact traveled back up the guitar's neck and made her hands buzz, but there was also a sold, bone-cracking crunch and the man dropped away with even making a sound.

Whipping the guitar back, Dawn paused, listening intently. There was some muffled curses, more crunching of boots on gravel, and then a metallic *ping.*

Not even bothering to think about what she was doing, Dawn swung the guitar again, this time catching the spherical shape of a hand grenade as it passed the door frame and swatting back outside. At the same time, she threw herself to the floor of the trailer as a thunderous explosion sprayed the side of the trailer with shrapnel.

Wasting no time, Dawn sprang to her feet, activating her wires, her nervous system going into cybernetically augmented overdrive. Hurling the remains of her old guitar out the door—just in case—she ran for the trap door at the front of the trailer. With luck her bike was in one piece, and she'd have a chance to escape the madness—if only for a little while.

Hime gritted her teeth as another explosion burst nearby. She'd lost count of the shots, but she knew Nanga couldn't have too many left. To her left she could see Russ, her thin, blond-haired friend waving to her, but couldn't make out what he was saying over the ringing in her ears. She watched as he turned back to the approaching soldiers and ducked back into the shop front he'd taken cover in. Hime didn't need to hear him to take the hint; she scampered away further down the shopping arcade.

She paused in an old fashion store to clear her head. Hiding among the debris of the old mannequins, she could make out Nanga, a solidly built black man with dreadlocks, on the other side of the arcade. As she watched, he fired another round from his grenade launcher, and dashed across the arcade to her spot amid the ensuing confusion.

"You alright?" he said in his deep but friendly voice.

Hime just nodded and glanced around her. The back wall of the shop had half-collapsed, blocking off their escape route. The only way out from here was back into the tiled-off street they'd come from.

"Did you see Russ out there?" He asked, adjusting his dark glasses.

"He's doing fine," she said calmly. "I just hope the kids are alright," she added, almost to herself.

Russ couldn't help but smile at Hime's devotion. Their escapade had started as a simple search. Three kids had wandered away from the church district, looking for excitement. It was already getting dark, and everyone knew they wouldn't be able to find their way back home. Hime, their self-appointed guardian had drafted her two best friends, Russ and Nanga into helping look for the kids - two boys and a girl, none older than six. The three had agreed that it would be an easy matter to find them.

Somehow, they'd walked right into a group of soldiers. The soldiers had simply shot without asking, probably something to do with Nanga's intimidating build and grenade launcher. From there the three had been slowly retreating, trying to lose the soldiers while, at Hime's insistence, still looking for the lost children.

Nanga looked down at his friend. Hime was a Japanese girl with long dyed brown hair. Although unarmed, she showed a measure of confidence and courage in her that impressed him. He knew that, no matter what, she'd find those children. He just hoped they were all alive when she did.

"They're moving again," she said quietly, looking out into the street.

Nanga nodded. "I've only got one grenade left," he said to himself. "Thing is, it's smoke." They both looked at each other and knew what they needed to do. Hime took her place by the window and waited for Nanga's signal. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something.

Another man had stepped out amongst the approaching soldiers. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man with muscular arms. She watched as he sprang forwards and seized one of the soldiers around his neck, holding a pistol on the others. He glanced behind him and yelled out "RUN!"

Hime watched in amazement as the three children emerged from a half-collapsed hallway and dashed down the street towards them. Some of the soldiers turned on them, aiming their guns at the fleeing children. She yelled out "Do it!" to Nanga.

The black man stepped out and fired the grenade launcher. In seconds, the soldiers were blanketed in gray smoke, unable to see a thing. Hime dashed from cover to the children. Behind her, Nanga yelled out "Stay down!" and ran from the store as well.

Seeing his chance, Ed dropped his hold on the soldier. He dived to his right, firing his pistol into the smoke to get the soldiers' attention. It clearly worked; he heard the report of the soldier's rifles, and bullets tore past him as he dashed across the arcade. He ducked as he ran behind a tree that had long since torn up the pavement and made for a mall entrance on the other side.

At the last moment, a bullet tore through his leg, dropping him to the ground. He let out a howl of pain as he fell, barely able to keep a hold of his pistol. The gunfire quickly ceased. Within seconds the smoke cleared, and he found himself facing an entire angry squad of soldiers. Beyond them, however, he could make out Hime, Nanga, Russ and the three children, long forgotten by the soldiers, making their way back to the church district.

A small smile crept across Ed's face. He was out of it now, but at least the kids had gotten away. Even as they took aim on him, he knew he'd done the right thing. At least it wasn't Jinsei.

"Hang on..." He heard one of the soldiers say. "Doesn't this guy have a bounty on his head?"

And then he recognized the uniforms. He recognized the weapons. He recognized the company that had been chasing him for the past three years. Oh, hell.

It was as if the world was holding its breath. In this tranquil garden, there was silence and perfect stillness. He sat quietly amongst the plants he had nurtured for so long, considering the future. For the first time in many years, he found himself troubled. There was little planning to do, day to day, but now things had changed. Everything had changed.

The roof top trapdoor creaked slowly open, interrupting the perfect silence of the moment. The world moved again. Long seconds passed before a blonde haired woman emerged. She stepped up to the old man who sat cross-legged before her. She waited patiently for a few seconds more, then sat.

The pair sat in silence, the woman's face unreadable; the man's a picture of calm. Long moments passed before she finally spoke up.

"Old man..." She began, and trailed off, seemingly unsure how to continue.

The bald man nodded. "You have something to tell me, Nicole?" he said quietly.

Nicole nodded. It was hard for her to accept the reality of the situation, much less break it to her beloved mentor. "It's... Well, the rumors are true," she eventually said.

"About the soldiers?" he asked.

She nodded. "And not just soldiers. People said they saw cyberdroids moving through the streets. New ones, not like the old trash that sometimes makes its way here."

She waited for his response. At length he nodded, and she continued. "It's clear that they're not after any one target. They're spreading out through the Zone. This isn't just an attack - they're invading."

Again, she waited. He scratched his chin in thought, then nodded once more. She swallowed nervously. This was the hardest; the news she didn't want to bring. But she had to. Sooner or later, everyone her would know anyway.

"They're coming here!" She blurted out, her face finally breaking. Tears ran down her face, and her voice wavered with emotion. "They're coming here! They're shooting everything in their path and they're coming here! We're defenseless! We - we don't stand a chance! There's too many children here, we can't protect them all..." She lowered her head, almost ashamed of her outburst.

"My daughter," he said. Her head shot up and she looked him in the eye. "We do not need to fight them. Gather everyone into the church and leave the door open. Leave your weapons here."

"But... We'll be defenseless..." she said.

He nodded. "And they'll recognize that. They will have no need to harm anyone."

Eventually she nodded her agreement. "Come one, we'll need to round everyone up." She stood, having clearly regained her composure, and made for the trapdoor. As she started down the ladder, she turned to the old man. "Come on!" she said. He simply sat still, smiling.

Realization crept across Nicole's face. "You're not leaving, are you? You're just going to sit here?"

Old Man nodded slowly. "People around here look up to you, my daughter. They will trust your leadership. They don't need to be looking to me."

"But you can't..." she began, her eyes welling with tears.

"I like it here," he said, smiling. "I've been here to long to give it up so easily. Please, grant an old man one selfish indulgence."

For a moment, it looked as if she would react. As if she would speak up, or return to his side. But the moment passed. She nodded slowly and made her way down the ladder, bringing the trapdoor shut behind her.

The old man sat in his garden, a smile on his face. He knew that she would do the right thing, and he trusted in the people to listen to her. The future was secure, and there was nothing more to worry about. In this tranquil garden, there was silence and perfect stillness. It was as if the world was holding its breath.

Sitting on the couch in her apartment, Raven watched the screen intently. It was set to a continuous news channel tracking the evolving story of the Jinsei Zero Zone invasion. Of necessity they had no images from within the Zone itself, although the screen was rife with long-distance shots of intimidating armored vehicles and archive images displaying Jinsei's paramilitary might. But there had been a few interviews of anonymous refugees, so there was the beginnings of an idea of the situation within the Zone itself.

Raven had had to throw a minor tantrum to get the news chain piped to her apartment, but her corporate handlers' resistance had been perfunctory. The esper knew they hoped that the information would stoke her anger, should the need to strike against Jinsei arise. This suited Raven just fine.

"What are they thinking?" Came the muttered question from beside her on the couch.

Her current minder in the morning rotation was Lora Doubet, and the cyborg girl was watching the action on screen as intently as Raven was.

Raven turned around. Her expression was intense, dedicated, and angry... it could only be described as 'righteous fury'. When she spoke, her voice was as cold and as hard as a sword blade. "They think they can barge in the Zone, kick people out of their home, kill whoever they want, and take whatever they wish. That's what they're thinking."

Lora sighed, nodding, "Unfortunately, they can do it. Any of the Megacorps could have, I suppose. But Jinsei got there first... But is it really worth their time and effort?"

"They should be asking if it's worth their freakin' lives," Raven spat, looking back at the screen.

"That too."

Raven sighed. "I don't know what they could possibly want, except a bloody nose. Shion thought it might be the land, but what would they do with it? If they try to purge it entirely it's going to take years of guerilla warfare."

"Maybe they're actually prepared for that? That's a scary thought. The thing that amazes me is that any corporation would risk provoking Ran! Either they're idiots, or they've actually got a plan for dealing with him. I don't know what's worse."

Raven shook her head. "They've got to be looking for something specific. The expense of a guerilla war plus dealing with Ran—assuming you even can—outweighs any benefit they could possibly get from liberating the place."

"Liberating? I wouldn't actually use that word in the same sentence as Jinsei." Lora said.

"Gah!" Raven yelled in disgust, waving at the TV, "Jinsei's spin doctoring is starting to get to me!"

Lora suppressed a momentary urge to snicker—this was actually serious, and she didn't want to offend her friend --, "This is pretty despicable, really. If they really wanted to develop the Zero Zone, they could do it in a better way. More peacefully. This is just a land grab... Say... Hmmm... " Lora frowned at the screen in thought.

"Maybe it really is that simple." Lora said quietly. Then more clearly, "If they started to develop part of the Zone in a slower and more peaceful way, then other corporations would get the hint and start moving across the river as well. You'd get a multiple corporate development Zone going that would slowly expand. But Jinsei wouldn't be in sole control. The Zone would probably be added to the jurisdiction of the city or state. But the more that Jinsei grabs before the government starts trying to regulate it, the more they can outright control. They're jumping the gun on the other corporations and trying to crowd them all out of any rights to development. They want the Zone to be a Jinsei property only."

Then Lora lightly ground her knuckles into the side of her head, "Scheisse... I've been living in a corporation too long. I swear, I'm starting to sound like Sanato or Davies."

"You know, that might explain why Jinsei cordially invited the other corporations to go frag themselves by holding their slumming people in the Edge of Night." She shook her head. "You shoulda seen Davies when I asked for access to the news channel. She was, quote, 'seriously concerned by Jinsei's cavalier attitude towards corporate personnel'." She shrugged. "Again, who's gonna willingly go live in a war Zone, though?"

"Who says anyone has to live there? They could just build a major manufacturing center over there. They could staff it mostly with cyberdroids and synths and only have a few personnel that have to cross the river to manage it. Other than the security division, of course. At least at first."

"Even then, it's asking for trouble," Raven said. "People are not going to let this go. The place will get blown up monthly."

"Maybe. But it's like I said. They have to think they've got the resources to do this. And that's what scares me. What if they do?"

"They don't." Raven's words were spoken with a certainty that transcended mere conviction. She slammed her fist into her palm. "They think they do. Everyone does. Everyone thinks the Zone is only full of violent rabble and dirty beggars. Nothing worth worrying about. Just a place to dump the undesirables. But it's not that easy. It's got wizgangs, boostergangs, freelance solos, and a lot of things that are a hell of a lot harder than a Jinsei commando squad, has been in a hell of a lot more fighting, and has a hell of a bigger taste for blood. And I haven't even gotten into the crime syndicates yet. International crime gangs with as much organization as Megacorps. Jinsei's gutting their Neo York revenue stream. They gonna take this lying down? I don't think so." Raven's fists clenched until her knuckles whitened. "It's the mouth of Hell, Lora. And it's got teeth. Big, sharp teeth that hang on like a badger."

Lora looked at her friend in a kind of amazement. She had never seen Raven get worked up in quite this way before. Sure, she had good reason, but still, it was a side of her that Lora hadn't quite seen before.

"You're very passionate about this." There was no sarcasm behind her words, just a statement of fact.

"You would be, too," Raven said, "if jackbooted corporate thugs were stomping all over your home, and you were sitting here wondering if they got to your family, to your friends, and what they'd do to them if they did get them."

"Yeah." Lora looked pensive. Almost sad. "I would be."

*ring* *ring*

For me, this noise spells doom. All my worst experiences begin with the sound of a ringing phone. Actually, that's not true. They begin with me waking up to my alarm clock. They get worse with the phone.

As usual, it's managed to interrupt me doing something vastly preferable, such as eating my lunch, taking a break or staring blankly at the wall. Yes, I do prefer the company of the wall to incoming callers. Meet my tenants, and you would too.

Today, its lunch, naturally. A bit late too, but not surprising given that I had to find Ryosuke again. Ryosuke, one of the building's synths, hasn't been quite the same after a small incident with a former tenant and his unusual fetishes.

Stuff it. It's my job. I lay down the chopsticks without getting even a single mouthful of noodles and pick up the receiver.

"Sarah J. Ferrari, manager."

The noise on the other end is terrible. I hear a low rumbling, and an occasional sort of rasping/rattling noise that defies identification.

"Ah. Is that Mandarin towers in Hong Kong?"

All of a sudden I find myself worried. The background noise has continued, and that rattling is back. The man's accent is funny too, sort of a cross Japanese/Australian. I realize that I've left him hanging for a few seconds, then come to my senses.

"Yes it is. How can I help?"

"Yeah... I'm after room 4101, but I've, uh, lost the number."

"Please hold."

4101. That brings back unpleasant memories. A while back I had the tenant almost evicted, but he miraculously cleaned up his act in a matter of days. The place still looks like a pigsty, but at the very least it's a halfway hygienic pigsty. The tenant himself is a cross between beach bum and wannabe movie star, but at least he stopped hitting on me after I showered him in sludge from his own sink.

I put the connection through. Must have taken a lot for the other guy to find my number if all he had was the block's name. I can't help but wonder just what's so important that he'd want to talk to a washed up surfer for.

Curiosity nags at me. Without thinking, I hit the speaker button, followed by the mute. I'm left with my own hold music as the phone rings in 4101. Checking my clock, it's almost two in the afternoon. Even he's awake by now.

Ah. There's his voice. Hung over as usual.

"Uh... y'ello?"

"Hey mate..."

The caller trails off. The rumbling has died away in the background, but I hear the rasping noise again. It seems to be louder, and also a bit slower. I shrug, and return to my lunch.

"Wonder boy!" 4101 yells. I cringe and almost spill the soup. For an instant, I wonder if I should be listening in on these two. Stuff it. If anyone asks, not that they will, I can cite concerns about the tenant's acquaintances.

"Good to hear you."

"Whassup, man? I haven't heard from you in, what, a year?"

Only the rattling can be heard on the other end. 4101 presses on, undaunted.

"Where you been, man? Still kicking around in Neo York?"


"So what's the news? Why you calling me all of a sudden?"

"Um..." The caller falters, leaving me with the mystery noise. He's called all the way from Neo York just to speak to this dropout? What's gotten into him? I hear him grunt as if in pain on the other end, then he continues. "Just a message. I ain't got a lot of time."

Then I recognized the rattling noise on the other end of the line. I'd somehow ended up in a cinema with Andy last night, watching a pathetically trite gangster film. It was an odd feeling, my gratitude holding back my natural cynicism until I finally (well, fifteen minutes in) had to tell him how bad it was. He agreed wholeheartedly. But in between our laughter during the buddy's painful and dramatic demise, I'd heard that rattling noise. It was the man's dying breath. And here it is again, on the other end of the phone.

I am listening to someone dying halfway across the world on the line to my least favorite tenant.

Oh hell.

"Buddy?" 4101 says. Now his voice is showing some concern. He must have figured it out by now as well.

"Just tell everyone to stay away from Neo York. Especially Rebecca. You know what she's like."

"Yeah, yeah. Why, man?"

I hold my breath, so as to catch every whisper. The caller's voice is fading; it's down to a whisper now.

"Tell the B crew as well. Someone's walked an army into the Zone. Tell them all to stay away."

"An army? What - You all right? What happened?"

There's a long pause on the other end. By now, his rasping breath is filling my world. I can't speak. I can't even breath. I'm listening to this horror and it just won't stop. Then the caller starts again.

"Y'know, you really should tell Rebecca how you feel."

"I - I will."

"Good. Or I'll come back there and kick you."

There is a faint sigh on the other end, then silence. Even the rasping has stopped.

"Buddy?" 4101 says quietly. "Mate? Wonder boy? You there? Wonder boy?"

He trails off, asking for him over and over. I cut the line. The world seems to come back into perspective. I feel cold, like I've never felt before. My whole body is shaking like a leaf. I don't even know this guy, and I just sat in on his final words.

For once in my life, I can't speak. I can't even think. Everything I've just heard is beyond my world. I do the only sensible thing.

I scream.

Gunther Prozen hated the Zero Zone. He hated Americans. He hated Jinsei. And right now, he was at the stage where he was beginning to really hate his job.

He was a mercenary commander by trade. His unit was considered to be one of the best small groups in all of Europe. He'd been hired by a company to go over to the Neo York Zero Zone and retrieve a stolen laptop that contained some sensitive data. The people who had the laptop were considered to be risks, and were to be silenced. Simple. They had achieved the operation swiftly and efficiently. The computer was theirs and the thieves were expiring messily on the floor of some slum dwelling. Simple.

Except that somebody had stolen it from him. They had been waiting for their extraction, when it had been taken from them. Three of his men were dead, killed by the thieves. This in and of itself seemed to suggest that whoever took it were professional rather then simple Zone thieves. Thus he had dispatched his men to locate the thieves and the computer. They could bring the computer back, and do whatever they wanted with the thieves.

Unfortunately, there were complications. The thieves had proven to be good at evading them. They'd been running around the Zero Zone chasing them for several days with no luck. Then, all of a sudden, Jinsei had rolled troops into the Zone. Now his men had to move around quietly and try to avoid them. For all he knew, they could have orders to retrieve the laptop as well.

He'd broken up his unit into smaller teams, who had spread out to locate their objective. In a few minutes, they should be reporting back to him. He suspected that they wouldn't find a thing, but he was still holding out some hope.

From his perch on top of an apartment building, he looked out over the Zone. From up here, he could see Jinsei troops moving through the streets. In the distance he could hear gunfire and the odd explosion. It looked like his men weren't the only one fighting against the Jinsei troops. He liked the idea to a degree. He hated the Zone people and he hated the Jinsei troops. If the two were willing to kill each other en masse, he was all for it.

A beep in his ear grabbed his attention. It was Hadrin, one of his subordinates. "Reporting in, commander," she said in her harsh voice. "Still haven't found the computer or the thieves."

"Understood." He pressed a button to go over to his other commander. "Marcus, status."

"Nothing here, sir," Marcus replied. "No sign of the item or the perpetrators."

"Thank you." He opened a link to both of them. "I want the pair of you to continue your search. For the moment, avoid any conflict with Jinsei troops. If you see Zone residents who you believe to be the targets, apprehend or eliminate them immediately. If you see any Jinsei troops with the item or the targets, eliminate them all and recover. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir," The pair of them replied. Marcus then added. "What if we can't avoid Jinsei troops?"

"Eliminate them." He replied. "A few more dead bodies won't make much of a difference."

Slapping a magazine in place, Shoko watched the ammo readout on her M-100 jump from 000 to 100 rounds., when those Jinsei tools came after the garage, at least she'd have the pleasure of turning one of their own weapons against them. Though not for long, unfortunately. With only two spare clips, she had a total of three hundred rounds. In a real firefight, she'd burn through that all too quickly. Worse, she had no reloads for the under slung grenade launcher; just the six mini-grenades already loaded.

She knew where there was more ammo, of course. The Twins has quite a good stock of both the special explosive-tipped caseless rounds and the 20mm mini-grenades these pulse rifles used. Unfortunately, she didn't dare risk taking the time to try to run down there to get more. Not when Jinsei troopers could show up here at the garage at any time. Besides, they'd probably just want to keep it all for themselves anyway, now.

Placing the pulse rifle on the table, she turned her attention to her suit of complete ballistic armor. It had been hardly more than a week since she'd returned from a combat-mission with Anna and Uni, the CBA and pulse rifle having been the bulk of her payment. The job had been ugly, and she'd promptly stuffed both items in her closet, hoping to never need them again. Now, here she was prepping both items for combat again.

Abruptly, she found herself blinking tears from her eyes. It wasn't fair! Damn corporations had already blown her life apart twice before. Wasn't that enough? Every time she got her life together, started to settle in, they blew it apart. First in Jamaica, again in Australia, and now here! Damn them all. It just wasn't fair...

Taking several deep breaths to calm herself, she wiped her eyes clear and got back to work. Lifting the compactly folded armor onto the table, she tabbed the suits external indicators to life, finding that all appeared to be well with it—batteries good, comms up, air tank and chillcan full, and all sensors and displays functioning. Hardly a surprise; the suit had been brand new when she'd received it, and it had only been used the once. With only one combat mission behind it, the neutral gray ceramic polymer armor still even looked new. Well, except for the scorched spot on the chest where the charged particle beam from a cyberdroids ion-cannon had sent her flying. She could still feel the ache in her chest when she breathed too deeply. Whatever forces Jinsei sent to take the garage, she hoped it wouldn't include any cyberdroids; even her M-100 didn't pack the punch to reliably take one down. She thought about the damage a cyberdroid could do, loose in the garage; how quickly it could kill Ayane and André, Bell and Ken...

Her stomach lurched at the though that she might lose her new friends...her new what was coming. Dammit! Why wouldn't they leave? Yes, the garage was their home, but it wasn't worth dying for! Why couldn't she make them understand what they were facing? This wasn't like defending against a rag-tag street gang. This was a well-trained, well-equipped, experienced military force. Even if the first troops to arrive at the garage were repelled, they'd just come back later with more men and firepower—as much as it took.

They couldn't possibly hold the garage if Jinsei really wanted it, but she just couldn't convince the others of that. She'd tried, but they were determined.

They were going to defend their home to the last, and she was going to defend them. Whatever the cost.

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