By Alex Fauth, Kurt Markuson, and Michael Surbrook

(January 2034)

It was a cold winter's day in the Zero Zone. It had snowed last night, dumping a good load across the Zone, choking streets and clogging paths. Under normal circumstances, people would be inside avoiding the cold and not moving around. Of course, since the Jinsei invasion, things had been anything but normal. So instead of staying indoors and keeping warm, people were out on the streets, fighting and dying. Or, in some cases, running.

Sandra Blackmore and David Lam had been doing a lot of the latter of late. Sandra had also done a bit of the first and had been trying to avoid the second at all costs. They had been running from bolt hole to bolt hole, gathering food and other supplies while trying to avoid capture or death. All the while David was still carrying the laptop computer that Sandra had stolen a short eternity ago. Their contact to return the computer to had never turned up. Sandra suspected he was either on the outside and had written the operation off, he was currently a guest of Jinsei's hospitality, or he was lying in a rotting pile somewhere. David had been reluctant to abandon it, given all they'd been through to get it.

The two of them had been trudging through the snow for some time now. Sandra had managed to scrounge up some cold weather gear for the pair of them; she wore an army greatcoat and a surplus Russian army hat, complete with Red Star. David followed behind her, clad in a thick parka. So far, they'd gotten lucky and managed to avoid trouble. David had said this meant they were doing well. Sandra replied that it was just a matter of time.

The pair were skulking along a wall, trying to remain hidden for as long as possible. Ahead was a street corner; sooner or later they would have to turn and risk exposing themselves to whatever was ahead. Finding a hole, Sandra risked peering through. "I want to know what's going to kill me," she muttered to David.

Looking through the hole, she saw what had once been an outside courtyard, probably for some sort of restaurant. A good half dozen or so Jinsei troops were milling around the place. They may have be using it as a staging ground, or as a base camp, or they may have just wanted to get out of the weather. Still, they were in her and David's way. Damn. Time for an idiotic plan.

"David, stay here." She said, quietly. "I'm going to clear us a path past these tools." She gestured towards the wall. "You follow me when I signal and not before."

David nodded.

"Good boy," she whispered, then ducked around the corner.

Keeping her back to the wall, Sandra analyzed the setup. The courtyard wall had four open gaps at pretty even points. Before the final one was a derelict dumpster. Its lid was down and it looked closed. Perfect. The secret to what she was about to do was to run and keep running.

Pulling out her two machine pistols, she burst into a run. Heading up the street, she twisted her arms and head to face in towards the courtyard. As the first gap came up, she sighted on the Jinsei troops. Right. She opened fire, aiming less at the soldiers and more generally towards them. Her smartgun link did the rest, allowing her to get something resembling accuracy. Two men were hit and fell. Not stopping as the wall came up, she held off the triggers for an instant.

Gap two. Fire. Squeezing the triggers again, the guns opened up on the troops. Another pair of troops were hit, but she couldn't be sure if they were down or just winged. She didn't care. The point was to get them pinned down and unwilling to move, not kill them. The latter would be a nice bonus, however. As the second gap ended, she dropped the clips out of the pistols and slammed fresh ones in.

Third gap came up. This was the vital one. By now, they might have figured out what was going on. If they had recovered from the initial shock, then it would be all over for her. If not, she had one more chance at this. Not bothering to aim this time or to see what her shots did, she just fired into the gap and ran.

Reaching the final gap, she leapt up onto the dumpster, then again up onto the line of the wall. Below her, the Jinsei troops opened fire into the empty fourth gap, just as she thought. Leaping through the air, Sandra opened fire again, spraying the troops with gunfire before the two pistols clicked empty. Sailing over the wall, she tumbled and rolled, hitting the ground on her feet, somehow.

The Jinsei commander ducked for cover behind a pile of debris as the trooper next to him was hit. Grabbing his communicator, he shouted; "This is Squad 16 to Command! Come in Command! We are under attack, repeat, under attack. Estimate six to ten gunners firing from cover. We are pinned down and request immediate assistance! Repeat pinned down and request immediate assistance!"

Sandra bought herself up from the crouch she'd landed in, and dusted herself off. Giving herself the quick once over, she found she had no holes that she didn't have already. The gunfire from the Jinsei troops had ceased. They probably thought they were under fire from a whole gang or something by now and were looking for anything resembling cover. Well that didn't go to bad she thought. Now to get Dave out of there.

"Hey you!" a voice behind her called. Turning around she saw a young man, probably no more then 22 or so. He was looked to be of southeast Asian origin, probably a Filipino, and dressed in the sort of wear one usually associated with a Zone gang.

"Yeah?" she asked as he walked up to her. Unexpected ally or just a pain in the date? Only one way to find out.

"You got any weed?" He asked. "Pills? Crank? Coke? Smack? Beetles?"

"Uh... no" Sandra replied.

"Why not?" he asked again.

"'cause I don't use it," she said.

Then he headbutted her, and ran off.

"Tool!" she swore. "You big fat hairy..." Clutching one hand to her aching forehead, she ran after him and crashed into him, shoulder-first. Bearing him to the ground, she wrapped one arm around his neck, putting her whole weight on top of him. "What kind of a stupid idea was that?" she shouted. "Let me get a good look at you, attack me and then run off? What kind of suicidal brainless tool are you anyway?"

"Hughruuughh!" he said, or something to that effect.

"Right. Now in a second I'm going to let you up, and I'm going to shake you down for everything you've got, and then you're going to apologize to me and then you're going to run. You got that?"


"Good boy."

David was still waiting around the corner. He'd heard a lot of gunfire, some of which he assumed was from Sandra, but then it had gone quiet. Then nothing had happened for a while, which made him wonder what had happened. Had something gone wrong? Had Sandra gotten hurt or killed? Was he stuck out here alone now?

He cautiously peered his head around the corner. for a moment, he couldn't see anything. Then someone stuck their head around to peer out. David recognized him as a Jinsei soldier, and also realized the soldier had spotted him. He began to run, before the soldier shouted at him; "Hold it right there!"

David froze. He knew that the Jinsei troops were well trained, wore body armor, and carried assault rifles. Running from one was not a good idea, especially at this range.

"Put your hands up now!" he shouted. "Yeah, where I can see 'em buddy." David suspected he was pointing the rifle straight at him, so he raised his hands. "Now turn around slowly. Slowly... you do anything, I'm gonna shoot!" He turned slowly. The soldier was right there in front of him. He was wearing dull blue-gray body armor, similar to that worn by NYPD SWAT officers, and was carrying a large, menacing looking rifle. His face wasn't covered, and he looked tired, dirty, and angry. He'd probably just seen his mates get killed by Sandra, David thought. He's probably not in any mood to talk right now.

The two of them stood there staring at each other for about a minute. David wondered if he was trying to decide whether to kill him there on the spot or whether he was of some use as a prisoner. "I'm not from around here." David finally stammered out. "I'm actually from the city... I just want to get back home."

"Shut up, you!" the soldier shouted. "I'll decide what's happening to you!" He advanced slowly towards David, so they were almost face to face. He sneered at David. "You're in so much trouble now, boy."

Suddenly his head jerked back as a spray of blood spread across the wall beside him. He slumped forwards, almost landing on David. Looking down, David could see a pool of blood seeping out from his head, with a neat hole in one side of his helmet. He looked around frantically, then saw Sandra at the end of the street. She ran over to him, ducking around each of the entrances, surprisingly not receiving any gunfire in return.

"Thanks for that." David stammered out. Despite being in the Zone with Sandra, he was still not used to seeing people dying in front of him. "I thought he was going to kill me."

"Weren't me." Sandra said, looking at the body. "This guy was killed by a shot to the side of the head. I couldn't have done it. Must have been someone else..." She looked around at the row of empty buildings across the street. "But who?"

Then she noticed something. A figure stepped out of one of the open doorways. It was a woman, rather short and compact with spiky blonde hair. She was carrying a large rifle under one arm. As she walked over, David figured that without the rifle, she'd probably be rather cute. Then he saw her eyes. They were a rather unusual pale green-yellow color, which he found vaguely disturbing.

Sandra grunted something, then spoke. "Well, hello Vic. Haven't seen you in ages."

"You ruined my shot." The woman replied with a vague British accent coloring her voice. "I had them all lined up in there and you went and ran across in front of them."

"Sorry, Vic." Sandra said.

"'s okay." She shrugged. "I still got to gloop what was left, so it's no real loss."

"Umm..." David began. "Sandra, do you know this woman?"

"Sorry, where are my manners." Sandra said. "David, this is Vic Hagen. She's another mercenary like me."

"Pleased to meet you." David said. "And thanks for saving me."

"It's not a problem." She said. "Hope I didn't get his brains all over you or anything." Then she grinned in a rather worrying way that made it look like she was going to bite.

"And this is David Lam." Sandra continued., apparently ignoring what Vic had just said. "I'm looking after him for the moment."

"Ooohh..." Vic said. "Enjoying living with Sandra? She treat you well?" She shot him a sly glance. "You and her friends or gooooood friends?"

"uumm..." Was all he could think to say.

"So how you been?" Sandra asked, seemingly ignoring the way David was nervously glancing at Vic.

"Killing people," she replied. "The usual. Jinsei's making my life a pain."

"Yeah, tell me about it," Sandra replied. "We--" she indicated David. "We're on the run from a whole bunch of evil Euros. We thought we'd ditched them and then Jinsei showed up so we're probably no better off."

"Evil Euros?" Vic asked. "Guys with funny accents in gray uniforms with high-end submachine guns?"

David and Sandra looked at each other. "That sounds like them," David said.

"Especially the funny accents bit," Sandra added. "Why do you ask?"

"I saw a bunch of them a few days back," Vic replied. "Funny accents struck me. Thought that they may kill Jinsei goons so I let them live." She shrugged. "'sides, they had lots of guns."

"Tool," Sandra muttered. "That's them all right."

"They're still after us?" David asked. "I thought you said they'd gone."

"No, what I said was they're probably not after us any more." Sandra replied. "I figured that they'd probably have something better to do with their time, like dodge Jinsei goons. Either that or Jinsei finished the job we started."

"You do something to them?" Vic asked, raising an eyebrow.

"We stole a laptop." David said. "They came after us when we did. We thought we'd lost them. I've still got it. I guess whatever's on it is valuable."

"So much so that they don't want Jinsei to get it either." Sandra finished.

"Ooh. You two got lots of trouble."

"Yeah, well, it's an art," Sandra muttered. "David, we've got to get out of here." She looked around. "There's a chance that someone's running supplies into the zone and possibly smuggling people out. If this is true, then we'd be best to take advantage of it and get out of here."

"I thought that took money," David said.

"I'll manage," Sandra replied.

"Besides, we've got a whole pile of Jinsei gear to trade," Vic added, gently prodding the Jinsei soldier with her foot. "It's a bit messy, but its all good. Well, most of it"

"Right." Sandra said. "We collect their gear then get towards Bartertown. Maybe there we can figure a way out." She looked at Vic. "I'd like an extra gun if possible. You, uh, wouldn't mind helping out for a cut of the gear?"

"Anything you get into will turn into a bloody mess," Vic replied, then grinned. "Cool."

David looked worried.

Rev cursed, rounding a corner as gunfire exploded behind him. "Damn Jinsei pricks," he muttered to himself as he floored the car's accelerator. At least the cops had never bothered to go into the Zone. Jinsei's taking over had really rained on his parade. It seemed like every time he turned around now, there were a bunch of heavily armed goons just waiting for an excuse to blow his head off. Of course, the fact that Rev had been doing his best to hamper Jinsei movements within the Zone, as well as trying to open a supply line into and out of the Zone, probably had something to do with that, he reflected.

And what was he sticking his neck out for? Because his business had all but dried up, for one thing. Most people who needed things moved within the Zone were too afraid to do so right now, what with Jinsei on everybody's case. Jinsei patrols didn't carry much money, but their gear was worth enough that Rev could get by selling or trading armor and guns. There was another reason why Rev was so keen on causing Jinsei grief though, a reason that, ludicrous as it seemed, drove Rev even more than the necessity of mugging Jinsei troops. The corp had invaded his home. Sure, his home was a decrepit ruin cut off from the rest of society, inhabited mainly by the hopeless, with a side of psychos and slimebags, but it where he hung his hat, nevertheless. And he didn't appreciate a bunch of corporate pricks marching in here and telling him what he could and couldn't do.

So he continued to flee from the pursuing Jinsei vehicle, an armored jeep with a machine gun mounted on it. The snow was making for a very difficult chase down the Zone's streets, which were hard to navigate in the best of conditions. Rev had the edge here, he knew. He'd grown up on these streets, knew everything about them. Jinsei might know the layout, but there's only so much you can learn from a map. That was what was going to get the jeep off his tail.

Turning hard, Rev spun his car into a sharp turn. The jeep moved to follow, but they hadn't counted on the loss of traction due to the snow, began to lose control. Rev had driven on these streets in all kinds of weather, and had known how to compensate. These guys were new, though, and they proved it when their skidding jeep slammed into a building. Rev smirked, gunned his engine, and the sleek black compact drove out of sight.

"First things first," Sandra began. "Before we can go charging across the bridge or whatever, we need to know what we're up against. We need to know what Jinsei's got and where it is and how, if possible, we can get past it."

"That makes sense." David replied. "But how are you going to do that?"

"We could beat Jinsei troops up until they tell us," Vic muttered.

Sandra looked like she was considering it seriously for a second. "Naw... too messy and involved. I think I can get us the info if you can give me a minute."

Fossicking through her pockets, she pulled out her battered phone (along with a few scraps of paper and a pistol magazine) and punched in a number. The phone rang for a few seconds before being picked up. "NYPD Inc., Lt. ALan Davies speaking. How may I help you?" the voice on the end said with as much false sincerity as it could muster.

He must be loving this, she thought. Not only has Jinsei taken him off bridge duty, but all the sort of people he dislikes, like me, are stuck in the Zone with no way out. "Hi Allan, it's me, Sandra."

"Ah... Sandra" Alan replied. He was clearly surprised to hear from her. "How's... how's things over there."

"Oh, not too bad," Sandra replied. "My daily routine of fights with all the rogue synths, killer cyberdroids, demented cyborgs, and mass-murdering serial puppy-kickers has been put off by the sudden invasion of a zillion heavily armed goons all of whom seem to be out to kill me. Oh, and I ran into an old friend who is definitely unbalanced and probably insane, who whines when I steal all her kills--" Vic waved in the background. "--so you can imagine how I'm doing. You?"

"Er..." There was a long pause. Sandra had definitely caught him flat. "Good, thanks. What's up?"

"Jinsei positions around the Zone." Sandra snapped off. "I need to know what they've got at each entrance to the Zone. I need numbers, types, equipment, vehicles, if they've got 'droids, if they've got 'borgs, mother's maiden names... the usual stuff."

"Um, I can't do that, Sandra." Alan replied.

"And why not?"

"Because, uh..." He trailed off, clearly looking for an excuse. "Because Jinsei don't like us cops poking around their stuff and looking at what they're up to. They've been downright hostile to us so far and I suspect they'll use any excuse to start shooting."

She sighed. She didn't want to do this but she had to. "I suppose that's fair. I can understand that you would do anything rather then stick your neck out for someone else." He muttered something. "Could I ask one favor though? Given that I'm probably about to die horribly screaming and all."

"Uh, sure..." Alan replied.

"Great!" Sandra all but shouted with buckets of enthusiasm. "Can I speak to Karen just one last time?"

"Uh sure..." There was a shuffling as he passed the phone to somebody.

"Hello?" Karen's voice came on the other end of the line."

"Hi Karen, it's Sandra here--"

"OhmygoditsyouSandra!" She burbled out. "Are you okay? Are you still alive? How are you doing over there? You're not being chased by Jinsei are you?"

"I'm fine for the moment, Karen." Sandra replied. "I need you to do me a very, very big favor."

"Sure thing!" she said, excitedly. "What do I need to do?"

"Go to Alan's desk," Sandra began. "Now in the third drawer on the right hand side you'll find a little black book. In there--"

There was a lot of shuffling, some background shouting and the sound of the phone being passed around. After about a minute, Alan's voice came on the line. "You bitch."

"Yes, yes I am," Sandra replied. "Now here is what we do, Alan. You get the info I want, otherwise I get Karen to go through all your files. And you don't want that now, do you?"

"No." Alan muttered.

"Gooooood boy," she said. "Now you go get me that info, okay. And call me back soon." She hung up, then shoved the phone back into her pocket.

"What was that all about?" David asked.

"Getting intel and dealing with police corruption at the same time," Sandra replied. "We'll be getting a call back soon with the info we need. In the meantime, let's get moving."

Once he was sure that he'd shaken off all pursuit, Rev took out his cell phone and began going through his messages. He usually didn't get any these days, except the occasional one from Keiko wanting to know if he was OK. He never stopped looking though, hoping for some job to come up to break up the monotony of either attacking or running away from Jinsei. Today he had only one message, but it brought a grim smile to his face. Seemed that somebody was looking for a driver, someone brave or crazy enough to try and smuggle something out of the Zone. Putting away his phone, Rev headed for the address given in the message.

"I am soooooo bored."

After a (fortunately) uneventful trip, the three of them had reached Bartertown. The place was looking decidedly more militant to Sandra then when she'd last been there. Before it had been an open ground for trading anything for anything; food, supplies, weaponry, warm clothes, heaters... you name it, odds on somebody there had it. Now the place resembled a gun show more then anything else. Everyone in the Zone wanted guns now above all else, and the traders were more then willing to accept slightly used Jinsei hardware.

They'd swapped their confiscated equipment for extra ammo for their own guns (Including Sandra getting David a few spare clips for his Slivergun), food, and above all else, cash. They would need it for paying off their driver and, if they made it, surviving on the outside the Zone. If they made it.

Now they were standing around on a street corner waiting for their ride out of there. After a few minutes, Vic had decided she was bored, and had decided to tell the whole world about it. "Boooored. Bored bored bored bored bored." Sandra worried about what this might mean. Bored people and sniper rifles rarely resulted in anything good happening.

"Is she okay?" David asked.

"Fine" Sandra muttered. She'd just remembered why she hadn't worked with Vic in ages. Still, beggars can't be choosers.

"Do you have any idea what to do once we get out of the Zone?" he asked.

"None whatsoever. Personally I was hoping that you at least had a place to sleep and that I could crash on the floor or something." Sandra replied. "Sure as heck I don't have anywhere to go on the other side." She'd left Korey's so long ago and never called back or anything. Korey probably thought her dead or something by now. Besides, she'd been a terrible houseguest. "That okay with you, David? I mean, you're okay with a houseguest for a bit?"

"I've been living with you for the last six months, haven't I?" David shrugged. Then he gave Sandra a wry grin, "Provided I still have a place to live once we get out of here. It's not like I've been able to pay my bills."


"That driver better turn up soon. Otherwise I'm gonna start killing people." Sandra muttered.

"You okay?" David asked.

"Oh Yeah. Sure," Sandra replied. "You?"

"Um, good. I guess." David glanced at the sky and then over in the general direction of Neo York. "All things considered."

"Hasn't been easy, has it?" Sandra asked rhetorically. "Living with me in the Zone. I thought by now you'd be used to everything but then Jinsei comes along and... well, we're now equipped with a whole new set of new people shooting at us." She grinned. "I'd like to say that life with me is not always like this, but I'd be lying."

"Unhunh." Sandra she caught a hint of a smile from David.

The arrival of a black sedan interrupted the pair of them. The driver, a long-haired man in his early twenties wearing glasses, leaned out the window. "Sandra Blackmore?"

"That's me." she replied. "I'm guessing you're Rev?"

"Got it in one."

"Took your time getting here," Sandra muttered as she climbed in.

"Sorry. Next time I'll see if they can hold up the war for us," he replied.

"I like you." Sandra turned to Vic and David. "Okay, guys, you're in the back. I'm going to trust the pair of you with firing wildly at anything that tries to shoot us."

"All alone in the back seat with you. What a treat." Vic said and put a hand on David's shoulder. He promptly gave Sandra a look that said "Do I have to sit with her?"

Before he could say anything a burst of gunfire erupted from across the street. A squad of Jinsei troopers had piled out of a jeep and were running at the car, guns blazing. "Everyone in now!" Rev shouted. Sandra slammed her door shut as Vic grabbed David and threw him in the back seat.

"Damn Jinsei tools," Sandra uttered. "This happens everywhere I go." She opened fire with her SMG out the window, just blanket firing the troops in the hope of keeping them down. Behind her, she could hear Vic firing out the window. "David, anyone out there?"

"Yes," he replied. "I think it's the Europeans we took the computer off."

"Tool!" Sandra shouted. "Okay, just fire like crazy at them. I don't care if you hit, just shoot!" She turned to Rev. "Whenever you want"

"Great." He floored the car, shooting away from the battle. Vic continued firing out her window for a moment, before finally stopping.

"Whoever they were, they don't like you," she said casually, to no one in particular.

Prozen stopped firing at the retreating car. They were well out out of range now. Damn it, he thought. And we were so close too. He looked across the intersection to the Jinsei troops who had also been firing at the car. A couple of them were wounded, and they had less men standing then he did. Their jeep was across the road.

The Jinsei commander was still barking orders at his men. Prozen gave a simple hand gesture to his own. As a group, they opened fire on the Jinsei troops, cutting them down in the street.

"Well done." he said, looking over his men. "Now let's get after them. And everyone, don't forget to thank Jinsei for providing us with this loverly vehicle."

Rev looked into his rearview mirror and saw that only one of the jeeps chasing them was full of Jinsei troops. "I try not to ask my clients too many questions," he said, "but who are these guys in the funny hats chasing us?"

Sandra shrugged. "Evil Euros," she replied, "We stole a laptop from them. Aside from that, we don't know much about them."

"Corpers?" Rev asked.

"Maybe," Sandra said, "Could be G-men too. Whoever they are, they really want their laptop back."

"Lovely," Rev said, skidding around a corner, "This ain't gonna make my job easier. Jinsei's got the Zone closed up tighter than a skinsuit, and these Euro pricks don't look like they give up easily."

"You don't know the half of it," Sandra replied.

"Well, I can still get you and your buddy out of here, but it's gonna take some planning. First things first though, let's take care of these morons on our tails."

The Jinsei troops and the Euros had managed to stay on Rev's trail, but their own jockeying had prevented either one from getting too close to the black compact. Rev motioned to Vic. "You, with the rifle. Can you hit their tires from here? That might slow them down."

Vic, glad for the chance to shoot something, smiled and leaned out the window, trying to get a bead on one of the jeeps' tires. She fired, and the Jeep carrying the Jinsei troops began slowing down, its left front tire blown. The Euros, on the other hand, took the opportunity to gain some ground, and opened fire.

Vic drew herself back into Rev's car as bullets began ricocheting off the sedan's armor. "Okay, what now?" she asked.

"Jinsei's off our case for the moment," Rev said, "They can't chases us with a blown tire, but they'll probably radio other patrols in the area. Right now though, we just need to shake these other guys." He turned down another corner, and the jeep carrying the Euros followed. Rev had a destination in mind, though, and then he'd see just how good the other driver was.

To his credit, the other driver was pretty good. He managed to keep pace with Rev through the Zone's twists and turns, and Rev was on his home turf. Rev was impressed, but undaunted. He knew exactly how to lose these clowns, and he'd arrived at the right place to do it.

They had entered a vacant lot, and at the end of it, a partially collapsed building made a sort of ramp. About twenty yards beyond that was an overpass. Rev floored the accelerator and headed straight towards the makeshift ramp.

David's eyes widened as he realized what Rev was about to attempt. "Are you insane?"

Rev smiled. "Why does everyone always ask me that when I do this?" He never batted an eyelash as he sped up the ramp, with the Euro jeep in hot pursuit.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Rev's car sailed through the air, two thousand pounds of machine that was not meant to fly. Yet fly it did, sixty feet to land on the edge of the overpass, Rev quickly spinning the car sideways to keep them from going off the other side.

Rev had to credit the Euro driver, he gave it a really good shot. Unfortunately, he missed the overpass by a few yards, and crashed into the street below. The group could hear the Euros yelling in panic as the Jinsei jeep caught fire.

"Well, that's our cue to split," Rev said, speeding away from the scene. "That takes care of our pursuers for the moment, but we've still gotta get you two out of the Zone."

David was sure he'd never been as glad to be out of a vehicle as he was now. No sooner had Rev let the three of them out at the drop-off point Rev and Sandra had set-up, when he was out of the door, glad to be back on solid ground.

Sandra had paid off Rev, who'd promptly left. Their deal didn't include his getting them across the bridge. Rev was good, and he was brave, but he was not suicidal. David imagined that whatever Jinsei had on the bridge was more then they could handle on their own. He hoped that Sandra had some plan to get past them.

"So what do we do now?" David asked.

"Well--" Sandra began, but was cut off by her phone ringing. "Hang on a second." She pulled out the phone and turned around. "Hello? Oh, its you."

"Sandra, what's--" David asked, but she waved him off.

"Yeah, it's me. What? Yes, yes you do deserve it. Why? Because you're the lowest form of life I've ever met. And yes, that does include all the years I spent in the Zone."

"Who's she talking to?" David asked outloud.

"Maybe it's the voices in her head," Vic replied.

David regarded her oddly for a second, then decided not to comment any further.

"And yes, I am cruel, mean, heartless, and vengeful. So what have you got for me? Uhuh. Yep. Oh, I see. No, not good. Yeah, I can tell you're reveling in it."

"So you two doing anything after this is done?" Vic asked.

"I'm not sure," David replied. "I don't think we've planned it that far in advance."

"I'm sure you two will keep verrrrrry busy," Vic grinned


"Oh, and if this information is wrong and I get killed, I will personally come back to life as a flesh-eating zombie and rend you limb-from-limb!" Sandra finished. "Thank you!" She shoved the phone back into her pocket, and then turned around. "Okay, guys. I have a plan! One question, David. Can you speak Japanese?"

Start a fight near the bridge, Sandra had said. Vic had been all too happy to comply. Starting fights was fun. She liked it. Ending them was even more fun.

She'd started by scaling a derelict building. Its insides were long since burnt out and gutted, although the basic structure was still intact. There was even a roof. Nice, flat, and open with a good, old-fashioned waist-high wall all around it. Perfect to hide behind while sniping.

Start a fight? She could start a fight like nobody else. Except maybe Sandra. There always seemed to be a fight going on near her. Maybe she attracted them. Sort of like clean shirts and ketchup stains. Or carpets and the buttered side of toast.

She surveyed the area around her. Jinsei troops on patrol. The bridge, with command centers, APCs, and, most importantly, Wolf Brigade troops. Sandra and David sulking in a corner. A bunch of guys in gray body armor with submachine guns, trying to be inconspicuous.

She grinned a manic, toothy grin. Start a fight? By the time she was done, she'd have a small war going.

Sandra had considered numerous options for getting across the bridge. She'd immediately ruled out the use of force. The three of them against a whole mess of Wolf Brigade soldiers was suicidal, and that was before accounting David as essentially being a noncombatant. Pretending to be prisoners wasn't a good plan either. She had no idea what Jinsei was doing with the people they captured, and she didn't plan to find out.

After a while, an incredibly hair-brained scheme had come to mind. What she needed in order to pull it off was a pair of Wolf Brigade Soldiers. That in and of itself wasn't easy, given they were all lurking around the bridge in a concentrated mess. So she'd dreamed up a way to lure them out.

Start a fight.

A well-planned ambush, using the techniques she'd been using so far in her little guerilla war and with fire support from Vic, should get a squad of Jinsei regulars pinned down and in trouble. From there, they'd need to call for backup. The nearest available unit was the Wolf Brigade. That way, she could get the two troopers she wanted.

Of course, it was incredibly risky and would probably go horribly wrong. Still, stupid and near-suicidal plans were her specialty.

She'd hidden David with Vic. For all intents and purposes a noncombatant, he was of very little use right now. She really wished she had a truckload of remote sensors and monitors so David could monitor the situation and coordinate the three of them. Instead, they had a few headsets they'd salvaged from the Jinsei squad they took on earlier. Not great, but better than nothing.

One of Sandra's observations was that Jinsei's line troops tended to think defensively. Presumably trained more as security troops than anything else, they had a tendency to stick resolutely behind cover and not move. The ones she'd faced didn't seem to like mobile battles, preferring to remain under cover and hope their enemies went away. This worked well for the most part, but against people like her who tended to run and hide a lot, it had its limits.

Ducking into a ruined building, she spotted a Jinsei squad on patrol. Perfect. Flattening herself against a wall, she glanced out the empty window frame as they passed. "Hey Vic," she muttered into her throat mike.

"What?" Vic replied. There was a crack, and then shouting form outside. She glanced out, to see that one of the soldiers was down, and the others running for cover.

"Never mind!" Sandra shouted back. Leaning out, she fired a burst at the Jinsei soldiers, aiming to keep them down more then kill them. Then, ducking back behind the wall and waiting a second, she fired again, this time from a different window. Keep moving, keep them guessing, she thought. It'd worked so well so far. Ducking as she ran, she dashed to the far end of the room before firing again. A crack, followed by another soldier collapsing, indicated Vic had struck again.

Time to get the hell out of here.

She dashed out the back of the building, darting across the heap of rubble that had once been its neighbor. Scrambling down the other side, she looked around for another place to fire from. A different building, painted a light pink shade for no obvious reason, but now blackened by smoke, grabbed her attention. It'd have a nice view of the street where the troopers were huddled. She rounded a corner, then stopped dead.

Ahead of her were a group of gray-suited soldiers. Some of them looked injured, even a bit singed, and they had nasty-looking submachine guns.


Then she ran.

Between the various battles, the car chase and the crash, Prozen's squad had been reduced to just five men. Besides himself, there was still Marcus and Hadrin, and a pair of nameless footsoldiers. All this and they were still no closer to getting the laptop back. The driver of the black sedan had left them behind while they bailed from the burning jeep, and it had taken them some time to catch up.

Then, as luck would have it, one of them had just appeared in front of him. It was the woman who'd stolen the laptop in the first place, and was presumably responsible for the deaths of several of his men. She didn't have it on her, however, so it was likely that she'd either left it with her companion, or she'd hidden it nearby so she wouldn't have carry it in the field.

"Get her!" He shouted in German. His men charged forwards, so she turned and ran. Ducking behind a wall, she vanished into a nearby building. The squad ran after her, storming through the abandoned structure. Reaching the front end, they were greeted by a hail of fire coming though the empty front windows.

"Down!" He shouted. The squad hit the floor as shots whizzed overhead. "What's going on?"

"Looks like a Jinsei squad," Hadrin replied. "They're in the street, firing from cover."

"Damn," Prozen swore. "She lead us into a trop. Very clever."

"What do we do now, commander?" Marcus asked.

"Only thing we can do," Prozen replied. "Fight our way out."

Vic, David decided, was certifiably insane. There she was, ducking around with her sniper rifle, grinning like a homicidal manic while shooting anything that moved down in the street below.

Check that. She was a homicidal maniac. Normal people didn't giggle, laugh, make birdcalls, or say something about some guy named Oswald being a fag while shooting people in the head. At this rate, she'd probably end up shooting him, just to see what would happen.

Right. He was getting while the getting was good. He'd go hook up with Sandra. Everyone in the world may be currently shooting at her, but at least she was trying to get him out of the Zone. And strangely enough, he felt safer when she was around.

"Hey Vic!" he called.

"Old McDonald had a farm... and on that farm he shot some Gray-coats... ee-aye, ee-aye, oh..." Vic squeezed off a round and then looked over. "What?"

"I'm going to hook up with Sandra." David paused, trying to not make it look like he was running away in fear. "Umm... good luck!"

Vic gave him another of her crazy grins and a thumbs up. "Keep her busy!"

Vic was having a good time. From her perch, she could see everything that was happening below. She could see Jinsei soldiers, desperately trying to pin down their elusive attackers. She could see gray-uniformed baddies trying to chase down both the Jinsei soldiers and Sandra. And she could see Sandra darting from one point to another, attacking both groups, trying to escalate the situation. Every now and then, she'd shoot at anyone who she thought was getting too close to Sandra. Or anything else that took her fancy.

The Jinsei troops had been getting the worst of this deal; there were more of them, but they had taken proportionally more casualties then the gray-suits (or Sandra for that matter). She'd deliberately spared what she took for either their commander or their comms specialist so he could call for backup. After all, that was a part of the plan.

She was considering plucking off another Jinsei mook, when something caught her attention. A pair of men in dark gray armor, each carrying a machine gun, approaching from the bridge end of town. Just what they wanted. She quietly activated her mic. "Hey Sandra," she began.

"What?" Sandra shouted back as she ran, the sound of gunfire in the background.

"Your woofs are here," Vic replied.

"Right," Sandra said. "You know what to do."

"Yeah," Vic finished.

Vic's job was to cripple one (or both) of them inorder to make it easier for Sandra to take down. Of course, she couldn't shoot them in the head, as that wouldn't fit in with Sandra's plan. Fortunately, Sandra wasn't taking away all her fun. She got to shoot them in the thighs, which was, if anything, more of a challenge.

She drew a bead on one of the troopers, watching him move. From up here, with the way he held his machine gun, it was a difficult shot. She had to be precise. "Here doggy..." she muttered to herself as she watched him. There. Perfect.


The soldier collapsed, his right leg crumpling underneath him and dropping his machine gun. His quick-thinking colleague grabbed him, and dragged him behind a wall before Vic could shoot again.

"Hey," she said into the mike. "Mad Elvis number one is down. Mad Elvis number two has left the building."

"What the frelling hell are you talking about?" Sandra replied.

A few attempts at an explanation later, Sandra got the gist of what Vic was saying. A pair of Wolf Brigade soldiers were holed up in a building near her. One was down with a bullet through his thigh as per the plan, while the other was still up and about. Which meant that she had to disarm and disable one-and-a-half well-trained, well-equipped soldiers who just happened to specialize in urban combat.

She couldn't attack them head-on. That was suicidal; their armor could absorb or bounce most, if not all, of what she could throw at them. Even then, it would be rather counterproductive, as she needed them as intact as possible. To make it worse, they were usually armed with machine guns, which as more then enough to cut her down in an instant.

Sandra had developed a plan to take them down, however. It was the sort of plan she specialized in. It was called "doing something stupid yet unexpected."

She burst out from the building she was currently hiding in, emptying the last few rounds in her clip in the general direction of the Jinsei squad. It had the effect of keeping their heads down just a little longer, which is what she really wanted. One of them, feeling brave or realizing that she was out of ammo popped up, only to suddenly keel over backwards. She'd have to give Vic some sort of present when this was all over, she thought.

She ducked into the building that Vic reported the Wolves to be in, using a hole in the back wall. She'd said they were smart enough to stay away from windows, clearly realizing there was a sniper around. Even with their heavy armor, they probably weren't completely invulnerable, as the wounded soldier had demonstrated. So now Sandra had to locate them and take them out.

Well that sounds easy, she thought to herself. Damn, how do I talk myself into these things? She knew the answer, of course. She'd promised David she'd get him out of the Zone. And she was going to do it. She wasn't going to let this go bad like it always did.

Besides, and she hated to admit this to herself, she'd come to quite like David. He was a nice guy, something that had been deeply lacking in her life so far. He didn't seem to have any significant issues, which made a major change from her last relationship. Also, she found there was something strangely refreshing about his naiveté about so many things. She remembered the way she'd had to explain the facts of Zone life to him in detail on their first few days together. The fact that he was rather handsome and (as she had discovered by peeking in on him while he was getting dressed) somewhat buff for a computer programmer.

She'd made one other mental compact with herself. If this went bad, and it meant only one of the could go, then it would be him. She was a fighter, and could survive here. David, well, he didn't belong in the Zone at the best of times, and certainly not in the middle of a war.

There. Peeking around a doorway, she could see the pair of them. The uninjured soldier had his back to her, and appeared to be covering the front door from any attackers. She could see a bit of the injured man, who appeared to be sitting, propped up against a wall. For once, she figured, luck was on her side. Now to take him out.

She slowly moved towards him, not drawing her gun like she normally would, but keeping an eye on both him and the injured man. With any luck, he wouldn't turn or notice her before...

The wounded soldier shouted something in Japanese. Her target suddenly turned to face her.


She ran at him, crashing headlong into his side, temporarily unbalancing him. She grunted in pain as she slammed into the hard armor, figuring she probably did more damage to herself them him. Before he could recover, Sandra grabbed him, wrapping her left arm around his neck, while popping the claws on her right hand out. Before she could strike, however, he recovered and elbowed her in the stomach.

She grunted in pain, but maintained and tightened her hold on him. Despite this, he elbowed her again, and then shoved backwards, slamming her between his body and the wall. Sandra tried to strike with her claws, but was thrown of when her elbow struck the wall.

"Tool!" She shouted as she tried to strike again, only to receive another elbowing. This guy was strong, she figured, possibly cybered. He was carrying his armor and her on his back, and still fighting. He smashed her against the wall again, then snapped his head back, bashing the helmet against her forehead. She felt a sharp stinging pain, and then something wet and sticky on her face. Great. Now she was bleeding.

Despite the pain, she continued her attack, trying to dig her claws into the back of his neck. Another slam against the wall threw her off, her claws skipping off armor. She cursed whoever had designed the suits for making them so damned good. Bulky and anachronistic, yes, but very, very good at protecting the soldier. He slammed her hard against the wall again, almost knocking her out. She shut her eyes and gritted her teeth, wincing in pain, and tried to stab again.

The soldier shouted something in Japanese, which was followed by a loud cracking sound. The soldier shouted in pain (Sandra figured what he was saying was rather universal) then collapsed forward, taking Sandra down with him. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, she dug her claws into the back of his neck. He shouted again, and then died.

Pulling them out, she rolled over onto her back, gasping for breath, and looked up. "Thanks, Vi..." she began and then trailed off. Instead of the grinning maniac she was expecting, David was standing there, looking half scared out of his wits, holding a battered metal pipe in his hand. She smiled. "Thanks David. You... you just saved my life." Behind him, the other soldier was slumped against the wall, the side of his helmet somewhat dented.

He offered her a hand, helping her to stand. "And you saved mine, once," he managed. "I guess we're even."

"Thanks," Sandra smiled, then activated the communicator. "Hey Vic!"

"What?" She replied.

"The two Woofs are down," she said. "What's happening out there?"

"Jinsei and Grayshirts fighting," Vic replied. "Lots of bloody messes."

"Right," Sandra replied. "Can you keep It up for a little longer? David and I have to get dressed."

"Oooohh..." Vic replied. "Don't worry. I fix." She closed the link.

"What's happening out there?" David asked.

"Vic's got the situation under control," Sandra lied, badly. "OK, David. Here's what we're going to do. First up, we're going to learn how to field-strip Jinsei Protect Gear armor."

Vic scrambled across a patch of open ground, dashing from one spot to another. In the distance, the sound of gunfire filled the air. Last she'd seen, the Jinsei troops and the evil Euros were still fighting each other. She was happy to leave them like that. Besides, why interrupt them when they were having so much fun?

She clambered over a brick wall, landing on the other side. There, waiting for her, was Rev and his car. He opened the door, and she leaped in.

"Well?" he asked. "How'd it go?"

"They're on their way." Vic replied. "They need us to break some more stuff. Buy them time, clear the way."

"In other words, Sandra wants us to attack the Jinsei troops near the bridge."

"You got it," Vic grinned.

"Its an insane plan, and will likely get us killed." Rev replied.

"Aren't they the best type?"

Rev chuckled. "Best or not, they're one of my specialties."

"Anyway, I thought you could drive around in some insane way while I srandomly shoot at things. What do you think of that one?" She grinned again. "I got a spare gun or two in here somewhere."

Rev grinned himself. "No need," he said, thumbing the safety off his Ingram, "I've got my own."

By the standards of the Wolf Brigade, Corporal Aida was relatively young and inexperienced. He'd been in the last group of soldiers inducted into the unit before the beginning of the invasion. That wasn't to say he was a rookie by any means; the Wolf Brigade were taken form the best of Jinsei's security forces. Still, compared to some of the others, he was rather fresh.

While most of his unit had been sent to deal with the escalating firefight near their base camp in the Zone, he'd been given instructions to remain at his post. It was an important one; he was assigned to guard the Zone end of the Williamsburg bridge. Currently, it was Jinsei's only way to get men and material in and out of the zone. Additionally, if anyone else wanted to get into the Zone, they'd have to come across the bridge first. So being relegated to Bridge Duty was just as important as rushing off to deal with some attack on the base camp.

About ten minutes after the shooting began, he saw a pair of figures emerge from the camp. They were unmistakably Wolf Brigade soldiers, clad in their Protect Gear armor. One of them was limping, and leaning the other. As they got closer, he could see that both their suits were damaged; being somewhat scuffed and battered. The limping soldier had a blood-soaked bandage around his right thigh. The pair of them approached him at the approach to the bridge.

"Identify yourselves!" he shouted.

The walking soldier pointed to his helmet, tapping on the side of it, then tapped on the faceplate. Aida recognized this to mean "damaged helmet radio." The biggest drawback of the protect gear armor was that it made it nearly impossible to speak and be heard clearly—the mask tended to muffle anything said, so soldiers communicated by built-in radios. They could remove their masks, or even helmets, to speak normally. However, recent experiences in the Zone was discouraging this; the number of Jinsei regulars found dead form headshots was high and the Wolf Brigade had no desire to loose valuable men who'd exposed the only weakness in their armor.

"Faulty radio?" The soldier nodded, then indicated to his shoulder guard. Checking the flash numbers stenciled onto it, Aida recognized them as being form the first unit send in to deal with the firefight. The soldier then indicated to it's fellow's leg. He had apparently been shot through the thigh, probably with a high-powered sniper rifle. Damn, they've found another weakness.

Aida looked towards the far end of the bridge. There was a checkpoint there, but little else. Jinsei couldn't legally set up a base on the city side of the bridge, but it was enough to keep people out. Form there, he presumed that they'd arrange a pickup for these two and their damaged suits. "Go on." He said.

The soldier nodded then proceeded onto the bridge. Aida turned to watch them go, then returned to his duty. Something was bothering him, however. It may have been damage to the armor, or maybe the soldier was wounded. However, he could swear there was something funny about the way he was walking.

Prozen ducked into an abandoned house. Swearing under his breath, he exchanged the empty clip on his gun for a spare. His last spare, he ruefully noted. After he used this one up, he was all out. He'd lost contact with both Marcus and Hadrin, and the few soldiers they had left. He was hoping that at least a few of them were still alive, if only so he could come back and claim this operation was something resembling a success. At the very least, he thought, we can claim that we killed a lot of Jinsei troopers.

He heard shooting nearby; automatic gunfire. After a few burst, it was silent, save for the occasional sound of feet on gravel. He ducked further into the house, looking for cover. Moving silently, he slipped from room to room, looking for something he could use. He'd seen some Wolf Brigade soldiers around. As good as his men were, the Wolf Brigade were better equipped. Most likely, nothing they had could get through their armor. He'd seen an injured pair leave earlier, but he'd thought better then to follow them, particularly with Jinsei reinforcements on the way.

Entering another room, something caught his eye. It was a body. An Asian male, he suspected to be Japanese, lying face down on the floor, He was dead, having apparently been stabbed through the back of the neck. Surpassingly enough, he was naked save for his underwear. Another one lay next to him. He was still alive, but unconscious and tied. His right leg was bandaged, and he appeared to have suffered numerous blows to the head.

Piled next to the pair of them were two heaps of clothing and some other supplies—including several guns. One of them, he noted, was the type of light machine gun favored by Jinsei's Wolf Brigade. The supplies included a medical kit, rations and ammo, none of which would fit his gun. Oddly enough, they all looked fresh, as if they'd just been dumped. Amongst the clothes, he also noticed, was a furry hat, complete with an enamel Red Star on the front. And an army coat.

An army coat and hat like the woman with the laptop had been wearing.

He realized what had happened.

Vic sat in the passenger seat of Rev's car, watching the bridge through a pair of binoculars. It was empty, save for a pair of figures slowly making their way across it. She zoomed in on the pair of them; they were armored, one being supported by the other.

"Well?" Rev asked. "What's happening."

"They're going," Vic replied. "Bye!" She waved her hand.

"Right." Rev said. "No point in hanging around here. Let's get going before Jinsei catches up with us."

Vic put the binoculars away. "You drive good. Crazy, but good. We should do this more often."

"I'm always up for a job," Rev replied, "Just say the word."

The two armored soldiers never made it to the Jinsei checkpoint at the other end. Instead, they ducked off a walkway and down a maintenance access ladder to a side-street near the base of the bridge. Had Aoba been watching, he'd have seen that the soldier with the shot-through leg was faring rather well, even if he was climbing down the somewhat decayed access ladder rather reluctantly. The pair of them arrived at a side street, where an NYPD Inc. car was waiting for them.

Its two occupants climbed out when they saw the troopers arrive. Alan had a decidedly unhappy look on his face. He'd been dreading this day for ages, and was expecting the worst. The fact it was freezing cold and looked like it was about to start snowing again didn't help matters. On the other hand, Karen looked to be bubbling over with glee. The extra coat she had on made her look like a beachball, he noticed. A very fuzzy beachball.

The two Wolf brigade troopers walked towards him. Even though he knew who they were and knew that they were mostly harmless, he still felt intimidated by the sheer size and bulk of the suit. The glare of the red optics in the helmet's faceplate didn't help any. The trooper stopped short just in front of him, and then removed its helmet. Underneath was the shaggy-haired, scarred face of Sandra Blackmore, his one time partner and worst enemy. He was kind of surprised to see her, even though he'd expected it. The armor didn't suggest a female wearer in any way.

"Good to, ah,. see you, Sandra," he began.

"Whatever," she replied. "Hey, David! You can take your helmet off now."

The second trooper nodded, then took of his helmet, revealing a young, long-haired Asian man. He looked relatively fresh-faced for someone from the Zone, Alan noticed. And rather scared too.

"David, this is my good friend Karen McMillain," Sandra indicated to the short, pudgy officer. "She helped us get out of there."

"Pleased to meet you," David said, extending his hand. "And thanks."

"Oh!" Karen said, blushing.

"And this tool is Alan," Sandra added, gesturing dismissively.

"Hey!" Alan shouted. "I did all the work here! I was the one who made all the connections to get you the hell out of there! I deserve something for that."

"You're so right, Alan," Sandra replied. Then she punched him in the face, hard, sending him crashing down to the ground.

"Wad du?" he exclaimed, bleeding from the nose. "You hid me!"

"Yes, Alan, I did," Sandra replied. "And you deserve far, far worse then that, you big, fat, lying, hypocritical tool." She turned to face Karen. "Sorry you had to see that. Alan and I just had to resolve a few things."

"What did you say?" Karen asked still looking dreamily at David.

"Never mind," she slapped her forehead. "Let's just go. You coming, Alan?"

After he'd dropped Vic off, Rev's cell phone began ringing. "Rev here," he said, "What's up?"

"Rev, it's Sandra," came the voice from the other end, "Just thought you should know we made it out. Thanks for the help."

"No prob," he said, "The fact that I helped somebody get past Jinsei should do wonders for my street cred. I'm just glad I didn't have to try and stop you. You're one tough lady."

"My ears are burning," Sandra deadpanned. "Anyway, you take care of yourself."

"Will do," Rev replied, "You take care too. And take care of that Dave guy while you're at it. He's pretty wet, but he seems like a stand-up guy."

"He's." Sandra sounded like she was distracted. "He's going well. Certainly he'll be better once I get him out of Karen's clutches."

"Anyway, I gotta go," Rev said, "Next time you're in the neighborhood and you need yourself a wheelman, give me a call."

"Bet on it," Sandra replied, "See you around, Rev."

"OK," Rev said, hanging up and driving into the Zone.

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