The sky over Neo York was clear for once, a relief from the rain and cold of winter. The nights were still chilly, but spring was finally on its way. From her vantage point, Lora could actually hear the late night traffic noise in Manhattan. The sound of elevated trains, ground cars, ducted fans, the occasional horn, and countless millions of people going about their business mixed together into the night air and melded into an indistinct white noise that was almost soothing. A few aerodynes flitting between the towers of the buildings and arcologies were also visible, adding the sound of their ducted engines to the mix. In the Zone itself, it was quiet. Whatever business the various street gangs, Mafia or Yakuza were involved in, they were conducting it with a minimum of fuss at least for the moment.
Lora closed her eyes and enjoyed the relative silence, her waist length hair wafting on the gentle breeze. She sat there with her arms around her knees, and wondered what Matthew was doing that night. Was he lonely? Was he thinking of her? It had been over a week since she had seen him - since they had spent the night together. She had hardly dared think about the possibility of a relationship, physical or otherwise, with anyone since her cybergraft operation. The thought had been in the back of her mind for a long time. Could her cybernetic body actually respond properly to a lover's attentions? All the components were certainly there... Her own explorations had reassured her that everything... ah... worked correctly. But it was still a question that had terrified her right up to the moment when Matthew had taken her to his bed. Then instinct had taken control, and all doubt was forgotten.
"Matthew..." She breathed.
He had been a kind and gentle lover, and seemingly not phased in the least by the fact that his partner inhabited a cybernetic shell. In fact, he seemed to treat it as beneath notice. In all this time, Lora thought, Matthew is the only one who's ever complemented me with kindness. I've always known that my body was designed to be appealing. But I never cared before, never felt good about it before. Just remembering the look on his face when he had called her beautiful sent a thrill through her.
There was a certain amount of irony in her priorities Lora had to admit. Many would consider themselves fortunate to be in her position, having the abilities she had, and having what appeared to be a perfect body. Lora had been accused a couple of times of false modesty, but it was true that she tended to dismiss her looks. It was nice to look good, but knowing the facade for what it was made her skeptical of compliments on her appearance. She often felt as if somehow the compliments were going right over her head and to the designer of her body, even if the person in question was sincere in trying to compliment her personally.
She didn't know exactly why it was any different with Matthew, except maybe that he had never seemed taken aback by her. He'd never shown surprise or the slightest recoil when he had figured out what she really was. Maybe it also had something to do with the Pumas under his care as well. The Pumas liked him and were happy to be around him. They trusted him, and not because they were programmed to obey him either. He treated them like people, no matter that they were artificial and considered property by the company, the government, and most people in general. (Including, if she were to be completely honest, herself as well. She certainly wasn't as sure of that now as she had been. ) He never lied to them, either. That somehow said a lot. She wouldn't have thought it before, but her experiences watching the interaction between the Pumas - and between the Pumas and Matthew - had opened her eyes to a few things. Not the least of which was that emotionally well balanced Pumas, such as the ones under Matthew's care, seemed to be good social barometers. They were good at reading people, even when they didn't seem to realize themselves that they were doing so. Lora hadn't quite realized it at the time, but the trust and affection the Pumas showed to their commander and their openness around him had done a lot to lower some emotional barriers she herself had been holding in place. Shed stopped waiting for "the other shoe to drop" in relation to Matthew and just accepted that he was as genuine as he seemed.
Long ago, before the corporation, the Zero Zone, and some indifferent and even abusive foster parents, before her real mom and dad were killed in the Second Civil War, her family had had a cat. A shorthaired tabby who was a good judge of character, and who had the sweetest disposition towards family and people he liked, even allowing himself to be cradled in someone's arms on his back like a baby. But if he didn't accept someone, it was a good indication that that person should be kept at arms length. She reflected with wry amusement that Matthew would have easily passed the "cat-test". Hell, he had a whole squad of them!
She opened her eyes and looked down at her hands. What lay beneath the synthflesh facade was made of myomer and metal, plastics and fiber optics. But beneath the skin of a normal person, Lora reflected, the actual physical nature of a real flesh body wasn't any prettier. Muscle tissue, nerves and blood. It doesn't really matter what the shell is made of, does it? A body is a body. So mine is made of different materials. So what? Its what's inside that matters in the end. We all wear masks. The outside of a body is just the facade that the inside manipulates to express itself. What animates the shell can make a physically beautiful person ugly and make a homely person the loveliest you'll ever meet. I think Matthew knows that, even if he wouldn't exactly put it that way. And I knew it too. I just had to be reminded of it.
A small red light blinked on her watch, and she sighed inwardly. Time to get back to work. She got up and went over to the stairwell, walking down one level to her "hideout".
When she had first entered the Zone the previous week, Lora had found an old ten story parking garage that had partially collapsed just southeast of Bartertown in the wastes. Half of the structure was gone and most of the stairwells and all of the ramps had been on the collapsed side. Lora herself had used her enormous strength to pull down the lowest landings of the one remaining stairwell that could have been used to get upstairs from the ground. What was left was effectively a series of concrete platforms with no practical way to get up to them - unless you happened to be able to jump up several meters at once. Of course that wouldn't stop a really determined Zone resident or any PK talents capable of levitating, flying or teleporting. But it would discourage casual scavengers. She had set up a bolthole here underneath the topmost level and had a tent set up in a corner away from the wind and weather where there were still some intact concrete walls.
Lora wasn't actually living here though. She was using her expense account to stay at one of the "Family" hotels near the entertainment zone while she was doing her investigation. You had to admit that while it was expensive, the Mafia did indeed run a pretty secure place there.
Here, on the other hand, was where she had stashed some of her more conspicuous weaponry. As well as some other things she thought would be useful but didn't want to carry around or keep somewhere where someone would see them, such as the fuel cell generator and repair kits. If she felt she had narrowed down her search area for the cyberdroid enough, then shed come back and get the heavy stuff. An Otomo laser cannon or Seburo submachine gun would be very useful going up against a cyberdroid, but carrying cutting edge heavy weapons like that around casually would call too much attention to her and would be more of a liability until she actually needed them. Her other guns, an Earthshaker and a Desert Eagle .50, both with smartgun adapters, had already been stripped and cleaned earlier. Now she filled her pockets with other bits of gear: extra ammo clips, flash packs, synthskin patches, and a mini flashlight, among other things.
That the "Zone Slayer" was a cyberdroid of some kind was pretty much a given at this point, and Lora had reported as much back to Sanato after seeing the scene of the latest murder that Dr. Snakeye had shown her. She wondered at Sanato's motives for sending her out to find it, and possibly deal with it. Shiroko-Tsuhi wasn't really in the business of making Cyberdroids. Although the owners of S-T - Daitokuji Financial Group, had some other companies under it that subcontracted to both Jinsei and Gunkoku making specialty parts for the cyberdroids. It was just possible that Sanato was trying to get information on this cyberdroid with the purpose of making his position and his contacts in the Zone of more use to his superiors. Or, if Lora somehow found out who had actually made the thing and brought it back at least semi-intact, S-T might either learn enough to get an edge it could use to develop its own cyberdroid division. Or it could be that S-T would simply sell or barter the information to the competitors of whoever made the thing for a hefty profit.
You could go crazy trying to sort out allegiances and connections in the corporate world. Lora had simply boiled her priorities down to as simple a level as she could. Its killing people. And for once, Im in a position to do something to stop that sort of thing from happening.
She checked the slide action on the Desert Eagle. Slotting the clip in place and chambering a round, she thought, and Im going to do it. Whether I get any good data out of the whole thing for Sanato is beside the point. If I can stop it I will. Holstering the DE under her jacket after checking the smartgun link, she did a similar check on the Earthshaker and after closing the break action gun with a large clacking sound, stowed it in the holster on her hip. One last check of her gear and then she secured the equipment boxes and shut off the light before leaping down the half destroyed garage level by level to reach the ground.
Time to go hunting again.
Nami walked with caution whenever she walked between her home and her job. That is to say, she went from the usual Zoner caution to near combat ready the closer she got to the bar, since the Vat was on the outskirts of Darkside. Although she only had to go through three blocks of what she considered to be really bad territory, that was more than enough. Nami had the permission markers from the local gang to cross their territory but that only made things marginally easier, especially for someone with a missing lower left arm. Predators unaffiliated with any gang stalked Darkside and anything that smacked of weakness drew their attention. She wasn't exactly helpless, even with only one arm. As a Lynx, her artificially enhanced strength could help her get out of many scrapes. And shed learned to modify her combat style to compensate for her missing appendage and re-distribution of body weight. Even so, she had taken to wearing a long cloak clasped in front to hide her disability even in warm weather. It just made things more convenient.
Right now, there wasn't much activity going on. She had passed by one of the gang "checkpoints" a couple of streets back. They had recognized her and offered to share in the homemade whiskey they were sousing themselves with around their barrel fire. She had declined as she always did. None of them had offered to escort her past into Darkside. None ever did. She darted in a pattern down the street that had served her well for awhile now. Moving between the dilapidated and worn out buildings. Sometimes hugging the walls, other times darting out to the middle of the road between them. About a block from the bar though, she stopped, standing stock-still. Listening carefully, her cat like ears twitching back and forth to pick up the maximum amount of sound.
She was hearing a scraping of metal on wood. Programmed combat reflexes took over and she dove to one shoulder into a tuck and roll as crossbow bolt *CHINKED* into the wall where her head would have been a moment ago. Reaching under her cloak, she drew out two small vials, then quick as lightning flicked first one, then the other of the flare igniters on their tops with her thumb and threw them into the alleyway where the offending bolt had come from. There was a satisfying double *WHUMP* as two incendiary explosions from the miniature Molotov cocktails went off amidst much cursing. She didn't think she had actually doused the crossbow wielder, but that would certainly discourage him from chasing her. She sprinted down the street, her cloak billowing around her from the speed.
Something stirred in the road in front of her. She saw it but couldn't react in time. It caught her at the ankles and tripped her. She fell sprawling, and just managed to twist to avoid falling on her remaining incendiary bottles, but that left her flat on her back. Then it was around her, tangling her up so that she couldn't stand back up.
Then her other assailants appeared and pounced. One sitting on her legs and another pinning her right arm, and when he couldn't find her left hand, her shoulder. She heaved, but couldn't gain enough leverage to lift up and fight free.
"Hah! Fuckin A, man! Told ya! Oldest trick in th book, and she fell right for it." This said by the teenager sitting on her legs, grinning down at her. He panted hard and was sweating profusely. Then grinning even wider, showing some missing teeth, he slapped a palm to his head and laughed. "Hah! Get it? Fell for it? Heh HAH!"
"Yeah, yeah, got it." The large man pinning her arms said. He was incredibly strong and Nami couldn't break free of him, a glint of metal on in the night indicated he had chromed cyberarms.
Even though she knew it was likely useless, she screamed out, "Let GO of me!! HELP!"
One of the hands left her left shoulder and for an instant Nami thought she had an opening, but then stars exploded across her vision as an immense impact rocked the side of her head. Stunned, she went limp. Still vaguely conscious, she heard a voice say, "Goddam fucking dolls. Hate em."
From some distance away beyond the blackness of her vision, she heard another voice say. "Careful not to damage the merchandise too much, Bonk. Well, looks we get Dr. Ludwig his spare parts tonight. Say, she's missing an arm. Damn. Well that's going to cut down on the price a bit."
Organleggers, Nami woozily thought, great. Her thought processes were a little scattered, so the next thing that came to mind wasn't her own death, but of something far more mundane. She wished she could explain to Roy why he was going to have to hire another waitress for the Vat. But she guessed he'd figure it out soon enough.
"Here ygo, Skitz. Good work." The leader of the small pack of organleggers tossed a packet at the gangly young man who caught it in midair without using his hands. It floated to his open palm and then he grabbed it and tore it open.
Grabbing the injector, he jammed it up against his arm and pushed down. A hissing sound was followed by a sigh of pleasure from him. "Thanks boss. I was getting a little twitchy there. Heh. How about some more? Hah?"
"Later. You need to stay clear until after we drop this package off at Ludwig's place."
Bonk asked, "Break er neck now or when we get there?"
"Ludwig likes his meat fresh. Wait until were there."
The large man shrugged and moved to stand up, reaching down to grab the Lynx.
The sound of the gunshot echoed off the buildings as Bonk got the most surprised expression on his face. The hand he had been about to grab the Lynx with was missing. The metal stump sparked briefly.
"How about not breaking anything at all tonight? Or better yet, how about I break YOU!!"
The organleggers looked up towards the sound of the voice. A girl standing at the edge of a roof above held an enormous gun pointing at them. Silhouetted by the moon above, her face was in shadow and her hair glowed in an almost white corona about her head.
"SKITZ!" The leader yelled.
"Heh. Got er, boss."
Lora felt the PK gather his strength and release it. Instantly she knew what he was about to do. She jumped off the roof and down toward the street, just as the corner of the building she had been standing on crumbled. Four stories down she fell, landing loudly in a cloud of dust, the hydraulic jacks in her legs taking up the shock as the pavement cracked and spider webbed under the impact.
She stood up quickly just as the chrome armed one named Bonk growled and took a swing at her. Lora leaned back and his fist missed her chin by millimeters. She continued the motion, took one step back, raised the Earthshaker, sighted perfectly along the barrel and made his head disappear.
The pavement around her cracked further and leaped into the night as an invisible wave of force slammed into her and lifted her off her feet. She tumbled head over heels as she heard the PK say, "Heh, HAH! Gonna DO you for that bitch! Bonk owed me money!"
Lora sprang to her feet as quickly as she could, just in time to see the esper disappear from in front of her, she winced as she felt the power signature shift behind her. Without looking, she spun in place and placed a spin kick high up just as Skitz popped back into existence. Her booted foot caught him in the throat. He flipped around once in mid-air and fell to the ground with a wet gurgle and didn't get back up again.
Looking around her, Lora saw the girl still laying in the road, but no sign of the third organlegger, who had apparently decided that his associates weren't worth his own life. She snorted. Typical.
She walked over and kneeled down beside the girl, noticing for the first time that she was a Lynx synthetic. A trickle of blood coming from the hair between her right ear and her temple marred her features. Lora reached over and checked her pulse and breathing and was reassured to find both strong and steady. She reached into one of her thigh pouches and brought out a small bottle of water and a cloth from one of her other pockets. Wetting it down, she began gently wiping at the Lynx's face, cleaning it of dust and blood and letting the evaporation of the cool water on her skin bring her to her senses.
"Cmon, wake up. Its okay. Everything is going to be fine."
Nami groaned in pain as her eyes opened up, looking at the girl above her warily. When Lora offered the water bottle to her, she relaxed a bit, allowing the other girl to help her sit up to take a drink. After a couple of swallows, she said, "Thanks."
"No problem. You live around here?"
Nami shook her head and then groaned. "I work around here."
Lora said, "Where? I'll take you there if you like."
"The Vat," Nami nodded at a point down the street, "over that way."
Lora nodded affirmation and helped the replicant to her feet. As they made their way down the street, she said, "I didn't know the Vat really existed. I just heard rumors about it - that it's a watering hole for synthetics."
"Yes..." Nami glanced at Lora, her ears twitching, "Most people aren't welcome there."
"Ah..." Lora replied, "I really wasn't planning on pressing the issue. It just looked like you had a concussion and I wanted to make sure you got there safe. I'd hate to think I went to the trouble of playing Good Samaritan and have you get kacked on the way when my back is turned."
Nami was silent for a moment, and then extended her right arm. "Thank you. I would be dead now if it wasn't for you."
Lora took the proffered hand, squeezed it briefly and said, "You're welcome. Feels good to get a chance to help someone out like that." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then added, "You know this area pretty well, right?"
"Of course! I come through here every day."
"Well, I've been looking for something - something that's been killing a lot of people in very strange ways. I'd like to stop it if I can. It's not really my job... the stopping part, that is. I'm just supposed to find it and report on it. But my superiors don't have to know that. I could use some help... if you've heard anything about it? Or know someone who does?"
"Oh..." Nami's ears went flat. "That. " She stood still for a moment and then gestured down the block. "C'mon, I'll take you to talk to Roy."
Lora cringed. Shite.. she thought to herself. Ears down was not good. "Ah... sorry..."
Nami didn't seem to hear, but simply started to make her way down the block, hugging one weed-festooned sidewalk. Lora followed, cursing at herself inwardly. How could she have forgotten? No one likes a corper in the Zone, even if they're trying to be nice to you. Perhaps especially if they're being nice. It just got people's paranoia going.
After a short walk in strained silence, they arrived at the end of a line of rowhouses, where Nami seemed to almost meld into the shadows. Lora reflexively turned on her IR filters and saw the Lynx turn down a short flight of stairs that she would have missed completely had she been just walking along the dilapidated street. She hurried to catch up, really beginning to wonder if she might be better off turning around and leaving.
Stopping at the entrance, which was a battered metal fire door, Nami rapped loudly with her right hand. A moment later it creaked open and the Lynx gestured to Lora. "C'mon. It's okay, you're with me."
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