By Jeff Skagen and Mike Surbrook

(January 1, 2034, or very soon after.)

There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but boys, it is all hell.
William Tecumseh Sherman

"They're coming."

As if to underscore CK's words, something on the distance detonated with a brilliant flash, quickly forming into an angry yellow and orange mushroom cloud.

For a moment all was quiet, as the inhabitants of Bell's Motors stared at the sight. As the echoes of the explosion died away, they could hear the ringing sounds of metal fragments hitting the ground, the pop of weapons being fire, and the distinctive whistling "crump" of high-energy projectors.

"H--Ho--How many," André finally managed to sputter.

"I have no idea." CK shook his head, triple ponytails flying, his face smeared with grime and sweat. "All of them, I think."

"Oh." Not knowing what else to do, André held Ayane tightly to him, glancing fearfully at Ken, who was doing the same with Bell.

Watching the horizon, Shoko found herself wishing the Twins were here with her. Not due to any deep emotional attachment—the stripping and sex was fun, yes, but it was a shallow relationship, built on mutual lust and a desire for material wealth. Here at the garage was her true family. But, on the other hand, the Twins had an absolute fuck-load of firepower squirreled away in the abandoned school they called home.

"Can we run?" Ken asked, glancing around him.

Shoko turned around to look at Ken, her ears and tail twitching. The garage was his and Bell's life, and couldn't imagine him ever wanting to leave it. But then, no one had ever declared war on the entire Zone before. "Run where?" she asked.

"To the north?" Ken offered lamely, as if he'd realized how his suggestion sounded as he said it.

"We're not running."

Everyone turned to face Bell, who'd uttered her words with a firm conviction that seemed unlike her, unless, like Shoko, you'd seen her cow one of the Puma Sisters with just a look.

"It's simple," she continued, counting on her fingers. "We have three choices. We can run, except there is nowhere to run to. We can surrender, except the radio said they're killing synthetics on sight. Or we can fight." She paused and looked at the circle of faces around her. They were seven, comprised of the five regular inhabitants of the garage—herself, her husband Ken, André, his Lynx lover Ayane, and Shoko—and two refugees from the invasion. Dawn, who'd come in a short while ago, and now stood silently to one side. And CK, who'd just arrived, apparently with most of Jinsei on his heels.

Placing her hands on her hips, Bell stood firm, fixing everyone with a stern glare. "I plan on fighting. This is my home and I don't plan on just giving it up. You can leave if you want, but I am going to stay."

For a long moment everything was quiet. Even the distant racket of war seemed muted.

"What'd want us to do?" Dawn stepped forward, brushing long strands of blonde hair out of her face, surprising everyone with having spoken. "Tell me what it is, and I'll get on it."

"Right." Nodding to the singer, Bell glanced at the glowing horizon. "Shoko, get that CBA you have and put it on. Get all your guns together and put them in the garage. Ken, you do the same. Get all our guns together and put them with Shoko's. CK, you said you'd brought some ammunition, so I want you to make sure everything is loaded and ready. André, you and Ayane start piling tires around the garage. Get Shoko to help you. Dawn and I will gather some food, water, and medical supplies. Everyone got that?"

"Got it," answered Shoko, along with most everyone else. I got it, but I don't like it. This is a mistake. Even if we beat Jinsei the first time, they'll just keep coming back with more men and firepower, until they win. We should be fleeing south, into the Wastes. But then, who am I to tell them to abandon their home? They've lived here more years than I've been alive. I guess leaving isn't so easy for them.

"Well then get to it!" said Bell, clapping her hands sharply.

As the group hurriedly dispersed, Shoko snagged CK's arm. "Here, come with me for a minute. I could use some help with my armor, and you can get my spare guns loaded up before we take 'em to the garage."

"Uhm..." CK glanced from Shoko to the horizon and back again. "Whad'ya got?"

"For guns? Well, a Jinsei M-100 came with the CBA. And I've got my Stormbreaker, of course. Those two I'm holding onto." Shoko almost managed a smile. "I've also recently picked up an Ingram MAC-20 and a Skorpion vz75. Two spare magazines for the Ingram, none for the Skorpion. Other than that, just a few pistols I picked up off a rather stupid go-gang recently. Nothing really special."

"A Skorpion?" CK shook his head as he started walking to his bike. "What a piece of crap."

"Well, I did get it off a go-gang," Shoko replied a bit defensively. "Whaddya expect?"

"Anyway, I got some M-100 rounds. Two full magazines worth I think, but no magazines to put 'em in. And I got lots of ammo for the Ingram. Lots of people use .45 CP y'know. I also brought 9 mm, 7.62, .223, and .44 caliber rounds. The usual stuff." He clapped his hands and smiled up at Shoko. "Let's get to work."

"Right," said Shoko. "Go grab your ammo, and then come meet me in my room. I'm gonna go start getting my CBA on."

"Meet you in your..." For a moment Shoko swore CK's eyes had crossed. Then he stood up straight and took a deep breath. "Right! I'll be up in a few minutes."

Shoko dropped her gaze and chuckled. "Looks like at least part of you is 'up' already."

His face now a bright red, CK turned around and started undoing the straps on his bike's saddlebags. ".45 ACP. .45 ACP," he repeated over and over.

Shoko was still smiling at CK's reaction as she entered her room. She sometimes felt a little guilty about teasing him so much, but she just couldn't help herself—he made it so easy!

The smile suddenly slipped off her face, though, as she looked at the suit of neutral gray ballistic armor nestled in the corner. Propped against the wall behind it was the blackly lethal form of her Jinsei M-100 Pulse Rifle.

What had she been thinking? Her friends, her family, were about to risk their lives fighting for their home and their freedom, and she'd been wasting time flirting with CK instead of getting ready to help them!

Suddenly angry with herself, she grabbed the CBA and tossed it onto the bed. It was in it's storage form, which meant the arms, legs, and helmet had been broken down into their various sub-assemblies and neatly tucked into the main body, leaving the armor looking somewhat like a headless, limbless torso. Popping the chest plate off, she hurriedly began pulling out and reassembling the various components, all the while cussing quietly under her breath.

"Shoko, I got the ammo for your gun! And you won't believe..." CK's voice trailed off as he entered into her room.

Standing there in just her under-armor skin-suit, Shoko glanced over at the fixer, struggling to suppress a smile at the expression on his face. One couldn't wear CBA over regular clothing, as the fit was far too snug, instead you put on a formfitting skin-suit of impact resistant fabric. Considering her build, CK was certainly getting an eye-full.

"Uhm..." CK said intelligently as he eyed the shape of her full breasts, which the skin-suit did nothing to hide. Worse yet, between the chill in the air and the feel of the fabric on her skin, her nipples were obviously standing erect, only adding to the young man's discomfort. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, not at all," Shoko reassured him, the corners of her mouth tightening as she tried not to smirk. Even when she wasn't trying to, it seemed she couldn't avoid teasing CK. She pointed to the beat-up old four-drawer chest that passed as her dresser. "All my extra guns are in the bottom drawer, and all my ammo and spare clips are in the drawer above that. Feel free to have at 'em."

Having something other than Shoko's artificially tailored body to occupy his mind worked wonders for CK's concentration. He pulled open the dresser drawers and removed the guns, laying them out before him, as he dug through his satchel for the right ammunition.

"We don't have much time," he said as he worked. "I don't know long it will be before Jinsei gets here, but we gotta move fast." He finished shoving bullets into a magazine for the Ingram and rapped it against the floor to settle rounds. "Oh, and here, I found I had one of these. Hope it works."

Shoko looked over to see CK holding up a single 20mm grenade for her M-100.

"Ace!" she exclaimed. "Thanks CK!" As she took the proffered grenade, she suddenly smiled, bent over, and gave him a quick kiss. "It's just what I wanted. You certainly know the way to a Puma's heart, don't you?"

"Well, uh..." CK's face flushed again and he quickly lowered his eyes, which only made matters worse as it left him staring at Shoko's tightly-clad body.

Shoko mercifully stepped back and held up the grenade for her inspection. "I'm not complaining, mind you, but why do you even have something like this? Twenty mil grenades, M-100 ammo...seems kinda exotic for streetware. I mean, how many M-100's could there be in the—oh, right. Duh." Shoko rolled her eyes sheepishly. "The Puma Sisters. You stock this stuff for them, don't you?"

"Uh... yeah." CK turned around and starting loading another magazine. "The Twins ask for all sorts of crazy gear. And ammo." He paused and then looked over his shoulder. "Uhm... y'know, dressed like that... you look nice and all, but you really need to hurry. Ken says Jinsei's on its way."

Shoko hesitated a moment. "Yeah, you're right. Sorry." Turning back to her suit, she began quickly putting on the various interlocking segments of her CBA, starting with the boots and working her way up. "It's just..." It's just easier to chat and flirt with you, than to put on this damn armor. If I put it on, it's like admitting that this fight's really gonna happen, and that some of you—my family, my friends—may get hurt, or even killed. That's why I've been stalling. I love you all, and I can't bear to lose any of you, but I don't know if I can protect you all, either.

"It's just what?" asked CK, looking over his shoulder.

"Nothing," said Shoko quietly. "Never mind."

Bell's Garage had a lot of tires. A lot of tires. Even with André, Ayane, Ken, and eventually Dawn helping, Shoko felt she'd moved about a million of the things. And it didn't help that she and Ayane were the ones stuck with lifting the biggest and heaviest ones. Now they were piled around all around the walls of the service bays, forming an impromptu—but rather effective—barricade.

Inside Bell had set up a simple folding table, which was now groaning under the weight of the garage's firearm collection. There was her M-100, Ayane's SPAS-12, André's AR-15, Ken's cut-down Remington hunting shotgun, and a whole host of other guns. All pretty much fully loaded thanks to CK's seeming bottomless saddlebags. Of course, one each gun ran out, that was pretty much it...

"Everyone pick something you like," Bell said and then started placing glass bottles down from a basket she had slung over one arm. "And take one of these as well."

"What's in 'em?" asked CK.

"Napalm. I mixed some gasoline, ethanol, petroleum jelly, and liquid soap together. We'll throw these first and then open fire."

"Good plan," said Shoko, picking one of the Molotov's up. "I'm not even gonna ask where you learned how to make these."

Reaching out, Dawn picked up the Ingram and its spare magazines. Snapping the bolt back she nodded to Bell. "Let's get to it."

Shoko quickly grabbed her M-100 and Stormbreaker back off the table, not that anyone else was likely to try to take either. The pulse rifle she simply slung over her shoulder by its carry strap, while the revolver went into the holster hanging on her hip. She'd discovered that if she let out her belt to the last notch, she could just buckle it over her CBA. The worn old synthleather belt probably looked a bit silly against the sleek ceramic polymer armor, but she could care less since the holster and pouches attached to the belt let her easily carry her Stormbreaker and a good bit of spare ammo.

As everyone grabbed their weapons, checked loads, switched off safeties, and cocked firing bolts, Bell pointed out positions for everyone to take. Ayane and Shoko were on the far ends, while Andre and Ken sat in the middle, flanked by CK and Dawn.

Now all they had to do was wait.

Everyone fell quiet as they settled into their positions, the silence broken only by sporadic bursts of gunfire and the occasional explosion in the distance. Shoko's sensitive fox-ears twitched atop her head as she listened. Still a ways off, she judged, but getting closer...

"Hey," Ken said suddenly, "you won't believe what I heard over the radio."

A brief silence followed, before Ayane finally spoke up. "So, don't keep us in suspense. Whaddya hear?"

"The Empress killed something like a dozen Jinsei stormtroopers over at the Underground."

André smiled. "Good," he said. "About time somebody gave 'em some decent payback."

"Hope she didn't wreck the stage..." Dawn muttered.

"Hey Ken," interrupted Shoko suddenly. "Your truck's parked in back right? Is it fueled up?"

"Yeah," answered Ken cautiously. "Why?"

"Run and start it up, okay? Just leave it idling, so we can make a quick getaway if we have to. Y'know, just in case."

"Where to?" objected Bell. "Jinsei's taking over the whole Zone. There's nowhere to run!"

"Sure there is," said Shoko calmly. "We can head into the Wastes. Can't be much out there to interest Jinsei. Or better yet, swing around the Entertainment District and head for Southside. Not much down that way either, plus that's where Ran lives. Jinsei already got their nose bloodied when they met the Empress, and this ain't even her home. Do you really think they're gonna risk pissing off Ran?"

Bell opened her mouth to speak, but Shoko quickly cut her off. "Look, I know you guys have this 'our-home-or-our-lives' attitude. But take it from someone who's been driven out of her home twice before—it's not worth dying for. Fighting for, yes, but not dying for. A home can be replaced. You're lives can't be. Please, at least keep an escape route available."

Although she was looking at Bell, it was Ken who finally answered "Right" and left to start up his truck.

"Hey!" Shoko called after him. "Grab your wire snips on the way. You need to weaken a section of fence so the truck can get out. Cut most of the fence links right behind two of the support posts, so it won't be obvious, and then aim the truck at the weak spot."

"I'd better go help him," said André, quickly following Ken toward the back of the garage.

Ayane made an exasperated sound and said "What's the point of having the fence if we cut holes in it?"

"We're not cutting a hole in it, we're just weakening part of it. And it's not gonna be obvious, Ayane." Shoko's tail twitched back and forth. "I really doubt these guys are gonna be probing the length of our fence looking for weak spots. I'm pretty sure they're more the blow-through-the-front-gate sort, y'know?"

Ayane reluctantly nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so. Sorry if I snapped at you, Shoko, I'm just nervous."

"I know. We all are."

A nervous silence fell, broken a few minutes later by the Ken and André's return. "Anything happing?" asked Ken as they resumed their positions.

"Not yet," answered Ayane.

Shoko ears twitched and she raised her head a bit. "Um...actually, I'm not sure about that. I think I hear some fairly beefy-sounding engines coming down the street..."

Everyone quickly tensed up and readied their weapons. A moment later, they crouched even lower behind what cover they had as a pair of large vehicles pulled up in front of the gate. Shoko recognized them as Jinsei Ashigaru, a light multi-purpose military vehicle.

"Could be worse," she muttered.

"Okay guys," said Bell softly. "Get ready..."

"...'cause the shit's about to hit the fan," finished Shoko, snapping shut the visor on her helmet.

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