Dear Lord, I know we haven't talked much recently, but I wanted to thank You for looking out for me when it really counted. Y'see, I live in the Zone... but You know that, don't You, You being all seeing and all. Anyway, I live in the Zone, minding my own business and my garden, and occasionally taking what I have extra over to Bartertown to sell. It may not be much, but its honest work, and I don't harm nobody by it.
So, yesterday, I was pushing my cart over to Bartertown, having loaded it with tomaters, lettuce, carrots, and other fruits of the Earth, when I found myself surrounded by a bunch of thugs. The Dog Boys, I think they were, low-life Godless scum from over Darkside way. They were dressed in leather and studs and furs, and looked as ugly as any Hittite.
As I'm a gentle God-fearing man, I told them I didn't want no trouble, but apparently they did. One of them pushed me down, while the others over turned my cart, stomping my hard-earned produce into mush.
That was when You looked down and saw me in my plight, and sent Your Avenging Angel to my aid. She fell from the sky with a bright flash, whirling her Sword of Justice about her head.
Now I am not a violent man, but daresay I shed narry a tear for those Dog Boys that chose to stand and fight rather than turn the other cheek. For Your Avenging Angel was a virtual Sampson fighting the Philistines. Her Sword of Justice done cut them clean asunder as she administered Your wrath.
Then, before I knew it, Your Avenging Angel had finished Your work, and returned to the sky from which she came. I was left alone, surrounded by the bodies of the smited, and was able to right my cart, gather the fruits of my labors, and continue my journey to market.
So now, your humble servant does off up this prayer of thanks for sending out your Avenging Angel to save me in my time of need.
It was a slow night in the station. Neo York, ever a busy town, had toned down it's usual noise of murders, muggings, rapes, break ins and the like. Either that, or they were all going on across the river, and thus out of everyone's minds. The people in the zone were slackers who were trying to avoid the system. They deserved most of what they got.
Or, at least, that's how Alan saw it. He didn't like Zone people. It wasn't anything against the population per se, but one of the smallest portions of its population. One of the many groups that made their homes in the zone was those who were on the run from the law. They made a mess in the proper city, and then skipped across the river to escape the consequences. Alan didn't mind them so much when they did that. It was when they were worth a lot of money to him that he didn't like it. He couldn't just haul them in and cut a deal when they did that. Instead, he had to go through a third party.
Fortunately, he had one. Sandra Blackmore, an ex-cop who used to work with him. She'd been discharged after being wounded in action during a botched raid. He'd written the report that lead to that discharge. He hadn't liked her much as an officer. She was too upright, too righteous, too dedicated, too loyal and not malleable enough. It was a shame, because she'd also had a killer body, and probably would have shagged like a minx. But he'd never managed to find out.
Now she was some curb-crawling piece of zone filth, doing freelance assignments. She was called a Street Samurai, but it was a pretentious name for a common or garden rent-a-thug. He'd stayed in contact with her, claiming that he could be a good source of jobs for her. In fact, it'd helped him get an edge over her, one that he was intent on exploiting to its fullest.
He looked at the details in front of him, and sighed. Sandra was going to love this. He picked up his phone and punched in the number. After a few seconds, Sandra picked up.
"What do you want, you tool?" Sandra began. That was her. She'd always made interesting use of the language.
"Good to hear from you too, Sandra" He replied.
"Get off it, you only call me when you need something," she replied. She sounded angrier than usual. This was going to be fun.
"It's a small matter, but I was hoping you could help me with it." He replied. "It's a missing person, and I think you could help me out with it."
"I wish you wouldn't say that" Sandra replied, clearly angrily. "You don't need to sugar coat it for me. Just tell me who the tool is, and I'll plug him or being him in and take my cash."
"Well there are a few problems with that." He replied.
He paused before continuing. "It's a young man called Jake Peloquin. He's done a few naughty things, and has gone to ground over your side of the river."
There was a long silence, then Sandra replied. "How much?" She was very quiet.
"That's the other thing," Alan continued as he thumbed through his diary. "I've been checking through the books. It seems that you've come up a little short." It was fortunate that Sandra owed him money right now. He could get this wrapped up very quietly, and come out fine.
"Right. Just tell me what I need to know."
Sandra trudged through the streets, her coat turned up at the collar, light drizzle clouding her head and shoulders. Of all the lousy rotten days in her lousy rotten life, this was the lousiest and rottenest. If she were doing this job for money, she'd feel... pretty damned terrible. But for nothing, as she was now, it was worse.
Why did this have to happen to her? Why right now? Her life was looking up. In a week and a bit, she'd be on her way to Hong Kong. She'd be spending the next few weeks living in luxury with Drake. What more could she want?
Alan to suddenly die messily and all his records to vanish into a blue funk.
Okay, what else?
To be doing anything but this.
Right. Well, it wasn't going to get any easier no matter how hard she wished it away.
I mean, she could always find some other way to pay Alan off. Or she could tell him to go flute himself. Of course, he could put the word around and... Argh. And she didn't want to tell Drake about it. The last thing she wanted to do was drag Drake into her problems. He had enough of his own without her dumping all her carpet on him.
Well, no use in putting it off. She might as well do it now. She'd hate herself for a while and then get over it. Or get drunk. Or both.
She walked into the squat, stepping over the derelict in the doorway. He stank to high heaven, but it wasn't her concern. Her cybereye compensated for the reduced light inside the building, as she looked for the room she wanted. She knew where it was, but for some reason she couldn't bring herself to go there.
She walked over, and knocked on the door. There was a few seconds pause. "Who is it?" Came the male voice from inside.
"Sandra" she replied. "Can I come in?"
"Are you alone?"
"Apart from a derelict in the doorway, yes."
"That's good enough." Sandra stepped into the room. It was pretty much bare, everything of worth having been stripped out long ago. A couple of upturned wooden crates and a sleeping bag amounted to the only furnishings. The door closed behind her.
"So what's up?" The voice asked.
Sandra turned to face him. He was a moderate sized, if muscular man. His slightly handsome face was clouded by several days worth of growth, while his long dark hair showed several eccentric blue highlights. He was wearing a ragged shirt and pants, with no sign of a weapon.
"I'm sorry about this, Jake. Really" She replied as she pulled out her pistol.
Jake squatted by the river, smoking the last cigarette he had while staring out at the debris that littered the shore, and the city on the other side. "I figured this would happen sooner or later," he said. "I just wish it hadn't been you."
Sandra glared at the back of his head from where she was sitting. The hulk of an abandoned car, wistfully sprayed with mock racing numbers and sponsors logos, its driving days long gone. A shell of what had once been, but now gone forever.
Kind of like her life, really.
"Look, I'm sorry. I just-"
"Don't have a choice, right?"
"Right." Sandra sighed deeply. Several days, Jake had come to her asking for some shelter for a while. Sandra had agreed, surprised that he'd ended up here of all places. She'd helped him find his way in the zone, and now ended up betraying him to keep herself going.
"I just want to know one thing, Sandra," Jake continued. "Why you of all people?"
"What do you mean?"
"Back in the old days in the job. You were the decent one, the clean one, the nice one. The rest of us were taking bribes, or getting our yucks out of high-speed chases or the like." He finished off his cigarette and threw it into the river. "So how'd you end up like this?"
"Don't ask." Sandra replied. "I messed up my life big time, and have been paying for it since."
"Okay, mind if I ask you a question?"
"How'd you end up here?" She asked. "You had a nice, safe job with the force. You blended in with the system. You were happy as long as you could tool around in high-performance pursuit cars and pull the girls. How did you end up on the other side of the river?"
He frisked his pockets for a fresh cigarette. Finding none, he continued. "I quit the force, took to freelance work like you. I was a professional driver, y'see, specializing in high-speed chases and getaways."
"And that bought you over here?"
"I stole the wrong data disk from the wrong guys, plowed my car into a lamp post and then..." He sat back. "I ended up here."
"So the suits want it back, Alan finds out, and he sets me onto you."
He turned around. "So I guess it's time to take me down to the river, right?" He was referring to the checkpoints that separated the Zone from Neo York proper.
"Naw." Sandra replied. "I couldn't do that to one of the few decent people I know."
"Then what?" He asked. "You'll still have Alan hanging over you."
"I've done this before." Sandra replied. "You'll see."
Alan stood at the checkpoint, an armed squad behind him. He'd done a lot of wrangling to get this duty just to make sure that Sandra handed Jake over to him. He normally hated checkpoint duty, but he knew what the money was going to be like for bringing this guy, and his prize, back.
What was taking her so long? He checked his watch. Sandra said she'd be here about fifteen minutes ago. He sighed. She wouldn't bottle out. He knew enough about her to know that she wouldn't bottle out. Sandra needed those debts cleared badly. He also knew she wouldn't try to double-cross him. She was too clean and straight for that.
He was about to check his watch again, when he heard a gunshot in the distance, form the Zone end of the bridge. The ducked behind a barricade, as the rest of the troopers looked around for an unseen enemy. A second later, there was another, followed by a splash.
What's going on? He thought. Don't tell me this is one of those days when we get kamikazes charging across. Damn the fog. The far end of the bridge was hard to see.
"Be ready" He called to the troopers. If it was a Kamikaze run, he didn't want to be here. There was something moving at the end of the bridge, a lone figure.
"Orders, sir?" A trooper asked.
"Hold it" He replied. He took a pair of binoculars from another trooper. He peered through them at the figure. It was a woman, wearing a long coat, with short, shaggy hair. "Hold your fire."
He walked out a little further along the bridge, to meet her where the others couldn't hear him. "Where is he?" He hissed.
"In the water." Sandra replied.
"He wouldn't come quietly." She said, calmly. "He ran for it, instead. I spent ages chasing him down, and then..." She paused. "I caught up with him under the bridge. He pulled a gun on me. I shot him in self-defense. He went into the water."
"I see. Couldn't you have gotten him?"
"That muck?" Sandra asked. "No way. You'd need a diver team to get through that mess. I think he's gone."
"Yeah, well, it's a pity." Sandra continued. "On the upside, I don't owe you any more."
The International Lunar Station got its start in the early 20s, when several experimental cyberdroids were dropped on the moon's surface with a very simple implanted program: dig. And dig they did. The cyberdroids carved out a series of tunnels and chambers according to preprogrammed instructions, and by the time the supply ships had arrived, most of the Station was already constructed.
Naturally, in order to be useful as a place to live and work, the Station would require an atmosphere, so the first inhabitants simply capped off surface openings and started sealing the tunnel walls. Prefab domes were placed over some of the tunnel mouths, external solar panels provided power, and greenhouses and hydroponics stations helped to refresh the air, as well as providing a source of fresh food.
Even after eight years of work, the ILS is far from finished. There are still tunnels to be refurbished, rooms to be dug, and equipment to be installed; but it is not all in vain. The ILS serves as a way station for travelers from Earth and the orbital stations out to Mars and the Belt, and back again. It's not large, but its busy, and there is little time for slacking off and sightseeing.
Standing in airlock number six, Tony slowly checked each seal on his surface suit. Only an idiot went out without double-checking every seal and seam, and idiots didn't last long here at the ILS. It was a slow procedure, but a necessary one, as one missed step could very well spell disaster—and a disaster in the vacuum of space usually meant death.
Next to Tony, his coworker and friend Bryan sealed himself into his suit. Both suits were bright white, lightly dusted with pale gray powder. Moondust was incredibly fine, and try as one might, one never seemed able to get it out of the fabric that made up the outer shell of a surface suit.
Once both men were in their suits, they checked each other for any missed fastenings and seals. It never hurt to be extra careful. That done, Tony cycled the airlock, and once the pumps were done sucking all the air out of the room, the outer door opened.
Outside was a landscape in various shades of gray, mixed with some white, and a lot of black shadows. It was a world brightly light by the sun, and the lack of air made objects stand out crisp and sharp, regardless of distance. With an odd gait that was half a step and half a bounce, the two made their way out of the airlock.
"So..." Bryan asked slowly as the pair hopped over the powdery moonscape, "Where are we going?"
"Over that way," Tony gestured towards the horizon, which was only a mile away.
On Earth, one could have walked the distance, which was maybe a mile and a half, in about twenty minutes, even considering the terrain. But here on the Moon, one had to contend with a surface suit, which weighed in at close to one-hundred pounds of thick fabric, heavy boots and gloves, coolant hoses, and environmental backpack. Even in one-sixth gravity it was tiring to carry that much gear around.
After about an hour of trudging across the desolate landscape, Tony stopped and tapped Byran on the shoulder. "There," he said. "That's what I wanted to show you."
Bryan stared. Tony was pointing at a flat, four-legged thing that looked like some sort of spider covered in gold foil. Nearby stood the flag of the now nonexistent United States of America, while footprints and scattered debris covered the ground around the object.
"And that is?" Bryan asked, feeling he should know the answer.
"A lunar-lander descent stage."
"You brought me all the way out here to show me that?" Bryan threw up his arms and looked at the black sky. "Why me?"
"Because this isn't just any lunar descent stage."
Bryan turned away from the inky-black sky to look over at Tony. "What do you mean by that?"
"Follow me." Without bothering to see if Bryan would listen, Tony made his way down next to the ancient spacecraft, closely examining the landing struts. Bryan, his curiosity overcoming his irritation, followed.
Finally, Tony stepped back and pointed. "There. Take a look right there."
Bryan brushed his hand over one dust-covered strut, revealing a small plaque. "Here Men From Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We Came In Peace For All Mankind."
For a long moment Bryan simply stood there, staring at a sixty-three year-old spacecraft that looked as new as the day it had been made. "This is..." he said, feeling foolish when he realized he couldn't remember the name of the vehicle.
"Eagle," Tony filled in. "This is the Eagle." He pointed into the dust, "And that is where Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. You know, 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind'?"
"'We came in peace for all mankind'," Bryan repeated as he stepped back and then looked up into the sable sky at the blue and white half circle that was the Earth. "What happened to the peace part Tony? Hunh? What happened?"
The hospital room smelled of death, a smell that remained despite the ever present smell of enforced cleanliness. If anything, it only made the death more prevalent in Korey's view. She approached the bed, the door closing behind her and shutting out the sounds of the arguing with it.
"They're... they're still... at it..." The voice wheezed, and Korey knew that the strength behind it was all the man had left to spare.
"Yes, I am afraid so."
"It... is what... they do... best..." said the old man.
Korey nodded and approached him, taking a seat beside the bed. He turned his head, bringing blue eyes that had long since dulled with old age and sickness to bear on her. His hair had been brown at one point, but was now gray and lay limp and lifeless about his head like a halo of disease. The wrinkled skin was gray and hung slack, a further sign of the horrible cancer that ravaged his body.
Without even asking, Korey took the hand in her own and gripped it gently, feeling the odd chill to the skin. It was a chill that had grown over the past week, even as the old man's body had gotten weaker. He had not much longer to live was what the doctors had said. It was a miracle he had lasted this long.
"Please, call me Korey."
He smiled, and she winced inwardly at the effort it must have cost him. "Korey..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I know why you're here."
He raised a hand to silence any questions before they could be voiced. "I knew... known for awhile that you would come. I... have a job for you."
"What is it?"
"In... the drawer," he motioned with his head at the small white and steel dresser drawer placed beside the bed. "... is a letter... I want you to deliver it to Denice..." Another long rasp of painfully indrawn breath, his once broad chest now barely able to push up against the weight of the bed sheets. "Denice Clarrin..."
Pulling the drawer open, Korey withdrew a single brown envelope, the handwriting on it done in a beautifully old fashioned style. She took a moment to admire the penmanship, the only bit of him untouched by the illness, then put it away in her jacket pocket.
The voices from outside rose in volume for a few seconds before subsiding again. The old man sighed, and it ended in a brief coughing fit. Korey got him a glass of water, tilting his head up gently so he could sip it slowly.
"I wish... I wish... that... all could have turned out... differently," he wheezed.
"We all do, at one time or another," Korey whispered, reaching up to brush the hair shaken into his eyes by the coughing out of it.
"Your payment-" But this time, it was Korey's turn to silence him with a gentle 'shhh.'
"Do not worry about it. This one is on me."
She gave his hand one last squeeze before releasing it and standing up. From out of her pocket she withdrew a small vial of clear liquid and poured it into the glass. She added some water and mixed it for a few seconds. He watched her all the while, and when she brought the glass down, he amazed her one last time as he sat up, took the glass from her, and then laid down.
"There was... no need for the squabbling... no need... for the fighting..." His voice became more and more quiet as he spoke. "...all that I built... I would give to those I loved... but only one..." There was no wheeze to his breathing now, merely a fatigue, a final fatigue, that came with well welcomed anticipation.
"But only one..."
Korey saw the sheets rise, fall, rise again, but not so high as it did before.
He turned his eyes, water blue eyes that were suddenly not so filled with pain anymore. "Please... go... take... the letter to her..."
She nodded, the letter a heavy weight next to her heart. He smiled, and then his eyes closed... she stayed a few moments longer, and saw the sleep of a man going to his eternal peace. And then, after one last look, she opened the door, and left.
The young woman sitting across from her, her small size seemingly lost in the large plush leather couch, brushed at her curly brown hair and starred at Korey with blue eyes that were so like the ones she had looked into earlier. Her clothes, a simple blue skirt and light brown blouse, looked rumpled, as though what little sleep she had gotten had been done in them.
"Did... is it..." She stumbled over the words to the question, and Korey nodded.
"Ah... umm..." Her mouth opened and half hearted attempts to speak came tumbling out, but were silenced when Korey withdrew the letter and handed it to her. She knew that Denice knew who it was from, but she told her nonetheless.
"It's from Jonathon Clarrin. He asked me to give it to you." It had to be said, else the silence between them would return, and silence was something that neither of them wanted.
With shaky hands she took the letter from him and held it, starring down at her own name for long seconds before opening it up. From it she withdrew two, large sheets of paper, both covered in the same penmanship as the envelope, and began to read.
The lips moved, speaking silently the final words of a man who Korey could see now was so dear to her heart. Occasionally she laughed, her shoulders shaking free the tears in her eyes, and a couple of times, the tears intensified. Korey handed her a handkerchief, one she accepted gratefully, and Denice dabbed at her face.
Finally, the young woman, girl really, finished, draping the letter with all care on the dark brown oak table before her. Her shoulders shook with unvoiced sobs and her face was pinched with the effort to hold them back. Korey, for her part, simply sat there and watched her silently.
"I should go," she thought. "The money is in the bank account, and she deserves her time alone..."
She glanced about the office, taking in the old fashioned feel it vibrated in it's thick rugs, wooden flooring, the books upon books on the walls, the large desk, and the huge double windows behind it, affording the office a splendid view of the Neo York skyline. It was all Denice's now, this and the multibillion dollar company her grandfather had left her in his will. Or, at least, it will be once it was read after his funeral. Changing his will had been one of the last few things Jonathon had done before his death, placing his company in the hands of his eighteen year old grand daughter, the only member of his immediate family who had loved him.
The only one who had loved him enough to hire Korey to send him to his death painlessly, and peacefully.
Korey stood and walked over, sitting down beside the new President of Old Time Entertainment Inc. Without encouragement, she leaned her head on Korey's shoulder and began to cry aloud, Korey wrapping a comforting arm about her.
Yes, she did deserve her time alone, but for now, before the family that had craved his business so much went after Denice, Korey could spare a few minutes for the girl to get the greatest of her grief out. It wasn't much, but it was more then she had been offered all those years ago.
Morning, 5:00 AM. I awake (first naturally), and am forced to rouse my regrettably inferior comrades so that we may go about our boring, but necessary morning routines. First comes a hot shower in the group bath, and then my squadmates and I dress and gather with the rest of the squads in the mess.
By 6:00 AM we have all eaten, and gather in the briefing hall to prepare for another day of exercise, practice and—of course—duty! With any luck, we'll see some action!
Kommandant Shirow gives us our briefing, and I listen to everything he says, so I won't miss anything important. He sends two squads off to the exercise field—we've been doing a lot of that, and I hope in preparation for something important—one squad off to do maintenance and cleaning—which is a waste of my talents when I get stuck with it—and one squad off as a security detail. We Pumas handle all of the offsite security, and the Lynxes handle all the arcology security. I'm not trying to brag, but Lynxes are just not fit for anything more strenuous—it takes a Puma like me to handle the kind of firefights that develop Outside.
This leaves two squads. One is my squad, and we get split off for various odd jobs, the other is going offsite for some detail or another, which is where I should be. That's where the action is!
After the briefing Kommandant Shirow calls me over and tells me I've been selected for a special duty detail. This is only fitting considering my performance record both in the field and in any combat trials we've had. I've personally accounted for more enemy casualties then some entire squads!
The Kommandant informs me that we will have a special visitor coming though the arcology and that he specifically asked for me! Well, not exactly. Kommandandt Shirow says he stated; "I want your best Puma. It has to be one that is disciplined, alert, and an expert in all fields." Which would be myself, of course.
I salute the Kommandant and go to get my dress uniform. I cannot allow the name and image of the Puma squads to be tarnished by showing up in my bland field uniform!
When I return, the Kommandant is there with the visitor. I am amazed at the size of him, he's bigger than even me! He introduces himself as William Case, and says he's very pleased to meet me. He should be, I am the best, after all. Once introductions are made, we leave on Mr. Case's tour of the building.
Duty Officer Shiow: Sit down, Asuka.
Asuka Puma: Yes, Kommandant.
Shirow: Asuka, do you know you're here?
Asuka: To be debriefed on the results of my special duty detail?
Shirow: Correct. Now, before I begin, let me state that Mr. Case was highly satisfied with your performance, and told me so personally.
Asuka: Thank you, sir!
Shirow: Let me finish. Mr. Brisbane, however, is less than pleased.
Asuka: I fail to see how that is my problem.
Shirow: Asuka! You broke the man's jaw!
Asuka: He startled me!
Shirow: You can't hit people because they startle you!
Asuka: Nein! Nein! Kommandant, I am not to blame for that incident. I was on my guard trying to protect Mr. Case. I did not expect him to paw at me like that! And I definitely didn't mean to hit him that hard. I guess not everyone's as tough as they should be.
Shirow: *sigh* Asuka, next time try to listen to what people are saying. Mr. Brisbane wasn't trying to "paw" at you. Mr. Case had asked him a few questions about Puma constructon, and Mr. Brisbane was trying to use you an example.
Asyka: I am not an example!
Shirow: No... No Asuka, you're not. Dismissed.
Gem leant back from her customary place at 93 U's bar. She was having a fairly good night for a change. She'd just gotten back in touch with Reno, and managed to convince him that she was working for Rachel. She now had a reliable - well, mostly reliable - route for info straight from S-T. Her next problem was what to do with it.
She sipped on her Bloody Mary, lost in thought. Her first step would be to check on the state of the black ops unit, info that Reno would have no problem with. After that, to check up on Nicole...
She almost missed the voice behind her. "Do you mind moving?" it said again. It was a woman's voice, very familiar. Disinterested, gem simply grunted "Nope," and returned to her drink.
There was a sigh, then movement. The barstools either side of her (the only ones still available) were suddenly occupied. She glanced to her left to see a truly ugly sight: Reno, her newfound contact. He had a slightly desperate look on her face as he recognized Gem, and indicated to her other side.
"Bloody Mary, thanks. I brought my own tomato juice," the woman said. Gem slowly turned her head, and let her mouth fall open in shock. Next to her was a young woman in her early twenties. She was short, but very attractive and filled out her white jacket well. She had long blonde hair swept over her shoulder, and regarded Gem with blazing green eyes. A single pearl stud sat in her left earlobe - Gem didn't have to look to see the other was unoccupied.
It was Nicole - the woman who had killed Rachel.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?" she said, seeing Gem's expression.
Gem quickly regained her senses and shook her head. "No. Just... Look like someone I knew." She turned her attention back to her drink, almost lost for words.
"Now that's interesting, isn't it Reno?" she said over Gem. "We were looking for someone who actually does look a lot like me."
"Really," Gem intoned, trying to be smaller than she already was.
"And you just saying that now. Maybe you could help us," Nicole said sweetly. Gem stood to leave, but Nicole returned her to her seat with a gentle push on her shoulder. Gem already knew how heavily she was cybered, and decided not to start a fight.
"Mebee we should leave da babe alone?" Reno said, his voice betraying his anxiety.
Nicole seemed oblivious to his troubles. "It's just that, this person we're looking for is very important to the both of us, and it sounds like you might no where to find her."
"I doubt it, people around here don't know me terribly well," Gem responded. She was over her initial panic attack, and was simply trying to avoid making a scene.
"Oh, she stands out," Nicole said. "I'm sure you can find her. Besides, she's a very outgoing person." Gem cringed inwardly at the description. "Her name's Rachel; she's my sister."
Gem shut her eyes and clenched her teeth. She'd developed a nasty temper of late, and was desperately trying to keep her cool. She seethed inwardly with hatred. After what Nicole had done...
"We'll leave you to it," Nicole said as she stood. Reno hastily followed suit. Nicole paid for Gem's drink, and stepped away from the counter. "By the way," she said turning back to Gem, "Nice earring."
As Nicole and Reno left, Gem's hand flew up to the identical pearl stud she wore in her right earlobe.
Most people thought that the only really dangerous street gangs were across in the river, in that blasted waste known as "The Zone."
They were wrong.
The Zone had its fair share of gangs—in fact some argued that it was populated by nothing but—and while those gangs were violent enough, their numbers, weapons, and vehicles were usually sorely lacking. There were few really big gangs in the Zone, and in the Zone a really big gang meant numbers of more than a hundred or so. Most numbered around a quarter of that, and were armed with whatever second-grades weapons they could scrounge. The same went for their vehicles, which were usually bikes cobbled together from a mishmash of parts to create some sort of Frankenstien's monster of a motorcycle.
The real gangs—in terms of numbers, and quantity, and quality of gear—were found over in Neo York proper. There one could find gangs whose numbers exceeded one hundred with ease, and in a few rare cases some claimed membership of nearly five hundred persons. Granted, any "street" gang with that many people was usually counting people scattered over the entire city, but still...
The Neo York street gangs differed from their Zone brethren in more important ways than just numbers. They often had far better gear, in both guns and bikes, and many had decent quality cyberware. The reason for this was simple—it was far easier to get access to that kind of equipment on the city side then over in the wastes. But availability wasn't the only explanation for the gangs' equipment, the corps helped as well. Many corporations looked on the gangs as an exploitable and expendable resource. It was simple really, give the gangs what they wanted: bikes, guns, or 'ware, and in exchange have them hit a rival corp's property for you. If a corp was really daring, they might hand over paramilitary gear and let the gang have at it. Most corps simply looked on this practice as another form of field testing, and once the weapon's usually limited ammo supply ran out it was rendered useless, so the problem solved itself.
The gangs themselves didn't mind dealing with the corps. Most were fairly violent thrillseekers who were in it for cheap kicks and the chance to commit mayhem. If a corp was going to pay them in guns to do exactly that, so much the better.
In the eyes of anyone who looked at her, Captain Kiyone Puma was a prototypical Puma. She was tall, strong, fast, durable, well-proportioned, and fairly emotionless when on the job (or off). It was these qualities that made her a favorite of Matthew Shirow, especially whenever he needed an business escort. He could count on her to remain calm, cool, and collected, no matter what happened. It just so happened that these same qualities served her well in her duties as a squad leader in the field.
At Mitsumi Neo York, internal security was handled entirely by their Lynx series of synthetics, expect for a quartet of Pumas who were stationed at the main entrance of the arcology. Although armed—mainly with a variety of non-lethal weaponry—those four Pumas served more as an advertisement as opposed to any serious form of security guard. But people came to Mitsumi expecting to see Pumas, and the company was only happy to oblige.
It was offsite that Mitsumi used its Pumas. They were sent to any place Mitsumi expected trouble, or where trouble was occurring, and recalled them once the shooting stopped. Usually a squad—six Pumas—would suffice, although a really bad situation might call for two to three squads.
Captain Kiyone's squad was typical for a Puma security detail. She had four riflemen—herself included—one support weapon, and one heavy weapon. In this case, support was in the form of a Fabrique Nationale Heavy Machine Gun, carried by a gray-haired male named Mesh, who kept the gun's 500-round belt coiled in a specially-designed backpack. The heavy weapon was a 17mm Gunkoku autocannon which was meant more as an anti-material weapon as opposed to something to be used on people—although it worked quite well in that capacity. A black-haired Puma named Mix carried that, and her slight frame belied the ease with which she swung it about.
All six squad members were identically equipped in the standard Mitsumi battledress uniform of long tunic, trousers with spacious bellow pockets, boots and gloves reinforced with light armor plate, and back and breast armor thick enough to stop a rifle round. Each also wore a helmet, which came with a clear face shield and a multi-band radio linkup. The riflemen all carried the impressive Jinesi M-100 pulse rifle. Firing a 10mm round, it packed quite a wallop, and with four extra magazines each, the Pumas could conceivably fire some 2,000 rounds before needing a reload. Mesh and Mix both carried a Desert Eagle .50 as a back up, and all six carried long fighting knives. They were anything but underarmed for any possible conflict.
At the moment, Kiyone's entire squad where riding in the back of a Mitsumi armored personal carrier. They were supposed to be escorting a convoy of Mitsumi products from a manufacturing site down in North Jersey to the Mitsumi arc for distribution. Gang activity was on the rise along the route, and the top execs suspected that someone was encouraging the rabble to target Mitsumi shipments. The Pumas had been sent to lend fire support.
Unfortunately, the escort commander apparently didn't think much of Pumas as a whole and regulated their car to be tail-end Charley. This put them last in line, where their superior firepower was of little use. The commander had, naturally, taken the lead position.
If he'd thought about it, the commander may have reconsidered his decision to put the Pumas in the back. But he'd never get that chance. The lead Mitsumi APC had just eaten two light antitank rockets, which had ripped clean through the outer armored shell to detonate inside the vehicle. Kiyone was fairly sure the commander had died without even having a chance to cry out. The point APC was now a flaming wreck rolling forward under momentum rather than its own power. The lead convoy truck, a massive Ford long-nose tractor hauling paired trailers, had slammed into the back of the APC, sending it skittering to one side, but also crushing in the front of the tractor. The driver had tried to correct his course, but his efforts were quickly in vain as multiple gangers targeted the cab, starring the reinforced windshield white, and riddling the lightly armored cab.
The rest of the convoy had stopped in confusion. The general push was alive with shouts and screams, and everyone seemed to be trying to tell everyone else what to do. The APC Kiyone's squad was riding in had stopped, and the driver was looking back over his shoulder, apparently waiting to see what the Puma squad leader would order. Not everyone at Mistumi looked down on their more famous product.
Kiyone absorbed all this in a mere moment. The stereotype was that Pumas were strong, but stupid. Kiyone was anything but, another reason Matthew liked to have her around. She ran the options through her mind and compared them with her stated mission objectives. Just as quickly she started to issue orders. "Mix, drop the door on my mark. Mesh, cover the drop. All rifles ready grenades." She slid the pump action on her own rifle to punctuate her commands.
Cradling her autocannon in one arm, Mix grabbed the rear gate lever and pulled. It fell to the asphalt with a clang, revealing a cityscape lit by the recently risen sun. The shadows were long, but the sky was clear and the air cool. As Mesh braced the FN-HMG against his hip, Kiyone and the rest of her squad fanned out, the muzzles of their M-100s questing for movement. Since they were at the tail of the convoy they weren't under fire—yet.
There were four APCs acting as escort to the six truck, twelve trailer convoy. The lead carrier was now a blazing wreck sending thick black smoke into the sky. The cracking of the flames was occasionally underscored by the sharp report of unfired ammunition cooking off in the intense heat. Next to it sat the lead convoy truck, it's cab a bullet-pocked ruin.
The APC nearest Kiyone's squad was backing up slowly, while the troops inside fired from open ports set along the side. Made by Gunkoku, the APCs were meant to be used as riot suppression vehicles, not combat craft. They were armored, but not sufficiently to survive the sort of firepower being used against them.
As one all four Pumas slapped their rifles to their shoulders and then hit the stud that launched a 20mm rifle grenade arcing through the air. Their targets were scattered behind parked vehicles and hidden amid shadows along the far side of the street. The grenades were fragmentation rounds, and detonated with series of bangs that sent hitherto unseen gangers flying into the air, their bodies shredded by shrapnel. The chunks of flying metal also shattered windows, pitted walls, and ripped through the unarmored civilian vehicles.
"Mesh! Cover us!"
Dropping to the ground, Mesh planted the HMG on it's bipod and started to strafe the far side of the street. As the sun was behind the buildings that lined it, most of his targets were hidden in deep shadow, so he fired more on instinct than any real sense of accuracy. Bodies pitched out into the street regardless.
The typical ganger, either Zone side or city, didn't wear much in the way of armor. Light jackets and pants were common, since they helped resist what bikers called "road rash," but few bike gangers had anything thicker. A M-100's 10mm round was designed to punch through cyberdroid plating, using it against the gangers was akin to overkill. Kiyone, however, didn't care, as it left her foes just as dead.
Sliding her selector from safe to three round burst, Kiyone motioned for the rest of her squad to follow. She fired as she ran forward, sending bursts into anything that looked like a threat, or might have hidden one. Behind her the rest of her squad followed suit, the heavy thunder of their guns drowning out all other noise for the moment.
Mix paused to brace her cannon, and then with a loud *thoom* fired a single shell into a line of decidedly non-stock bikes. The shell ripped through machines and detonated in a spray of fuel, metal, and high explosive. Screaming, a figure covered in fire ran from the wreckage, getting only a few steps out into the street before Mesh punched three rounds through the ganger's body and sent him spiraling across the ground.
Leading her squad between the APC, which had stopped moving once the grenades had gone off, Kiyone ratcheted the pump action back and forth and launched another grenade into the mouth of an alley. It detonated, sleeting fragments across brick, and silenced the rapid popping of a virtually invisible gunman.
Behind her, Jett stopped at the front corner of the APC and swept her rifle across the side of the street in one long burst. Several cars promptly detonated in mushrooms of orange and red as the explosive-tipped bullets found a fuel tank.
Continuing her run, Kiyone was now passing one of the convoy trucks, which finding the front blocked and with no clear way to back up, had settled for buttoning up. It was now an immobile wall to her right as she covered the several hundred yards that still separated her from the burning wreck of the lead APC.
Seeing that his squad was getting far ahead of him, Mesh stood and made for the stopped APC. He fired the HMG from the hip as he advanced, a feat possible only to those who were beneficiaries of cybernetics or genetic manipulation. Spent shells rained onto the pavement behind him, the ringing of their landing unheard by all.
Seeing that the last of her squad had passed, Jett stopped firing, and moved forward, acting as rear guard. When she passed Darlene, who was crouched between the two trailers, Darlene stepped out and did the same.
Leapfrogging their way up the line of trucks, Kiyone and her squad kept up a constant rain of fire on their side of the street. Their counterattack had come with such suddenness and violence that many of the gangers weren't even aware of what had happened, and those that did were quickly disposed of. Her comlink squawked and sputtered as the troops manning the other two APCs sorted themselves out. Behind her, the APC the Pumas had passed had its back open, and the security troopers were engaging targets on the opposite on the side of the street, backing up the carrier on that flank. That left this side of the street to Kiyone and her squad, which suited her just fine.
The shooting had died down to only the occasional short burst by the time Kiyone had reached the tail end of the lead convoy vehicle. Ahead of that sat the convoy commander's APC, which still burned fiercely as the heat consumed fuel, plastics, rubber, and flesh equally. Ahead of that sat a large truck, the cab and open bed plated with scrap sheet steel to serve as makeshift armor. Over the cab and out the sides poked the barrels of what looked like light machine guns. The would-be armored car gunned its engine and started to make it's way to where Kiyone and her squad knelt.
Mesh, seeing the metal-covered monstrosity, opened up immediately, but found his rounds ricocheting away with a spray of sparks. Jett and the other two members of the fire team added their fire, but the plating, as cheap as it looked, worked far too well.
Before Kiyone could finish her order, the black-haired Puma, braced against the trailer wall, had set her cannon for full auto and was slapping rounds into the truck's armored nose. The cannon was packing AP shells, since the there had been the possibility of facing armored vehicles, and they punched right through the thick plates with no problem. The engine blew apart in the first barrage, sending oil and fuel spraying out in all directions as bits of unidentifiable metal were launched through the air. The windscreen vanished under the combined might of four M-100s, reducing the driver to a red ruin. The gunner on top of the cab managed one short burst before a pair of grenades landed in the open-topped bed. The resulting explosion not only pitched the gunner and his friends out of the truck, but it also detonated whatever munitions were stored back there, blasting the bed of the truck apart with a cataclysmic bang.
The shockwave flatted Kiyone and her squad—a small price to pay considering. Debris rained from the sky for several long seconds, and as the echoes died away it became apparent so had the remaining gangers.
The six Pumas slowly got to their feet, ears ringing from the blast despite the presence of protective helmets. Seeing that the firing had stopped, they spread out, searching for any survivors amid the scattered wrecked cars and scarred building fronts. The sharp report of their rifles marked the discovery of any bikers that were still living. A pair of human security troopers watched as the Pumas completed their sweep.
"Bet the commander will rethink that one."
"Tell that to his ashes," replied his companion, glancing at the blazing ruin of the former command car.
Shoko stood in front of the cabin window—it wasn't round, so she refused to call it a porthole—looking out over Auckland's Waitemata Harbour, wishing she could go ashore and explore the city. But the illicit nature of her presence here meant that she couldn't risk trying to slip through Port of Auckland Customs, which limited her off-ship explorations to the immediate vicinity of Freyberg Wharf. Not Auckland's most interesting real estate. Even leaving her cabin too often carried some risk, lest her face become memorable among the passengers and crew. So she was in her cabin, bored and lonely, and feeling more a prisoner than a guest, not that she was either, really.
At times like this that she tried to remember that her accommodations were far better than she had expected. When she'd bribed Captain Hollister to smuggle her aboard, she'd expected to have to share his cabin, or maybe be put up in some mean little storage space with a cot thrown in. Instead, he'd placed her in a passenger cabin. Later, he'd told her that most oceangoing freighters routinely carried some paying passengers, and were built with appropriate guest cabins. It was a popular way to travel for those on a budget. There were a total of eight such berths on the Victoria Star, of surprisingly generous size if somewhat limited amenities.
She's just turned away from the window when a knock sounded at the door. It was several hours earlier than usual for Captain Hollister to arrive, but she couldn't think who else it might be. She hoped it wasn't him. Not yet, anyway.
Several days back, she had bribed the Captain to smuggle her aboard and take her to Neo York, hoping to hide herself in the Zero Zone there. Most of her payment had been cash, but she'd also had to offer him her services as a sexual companion for the duration of the voyage to close the deal. He'd taken full advantage of the offer, spending every evening—and most mornings—in her cabin since she'd boarded. So far, his interest in her had been limited to sex and the occasional massage, but for a man of his weight and generally poor health, he had a prodigious libido. She hoped he wasn't going to start showing up for some afternoon quickies, as well.
She crossed the room and looked out the peephole. Sure enough, even with its wide-angle lens, Dennis Hollister's balding, obese bulk managed to spill beyond the limits of the peephole's view. But the sight of a bag and a box held in his hands mitigated much of her annoyance at his earlier-than-usual arrival. My new clothes!
Although she only recently showered and was still wrapped in a bath towel, she doubted he would mind if she answered the door that way; in fact, she was sure he would prefer it.
She pulled the door open and smiled her most becoming smile. "Come on in, Captain, dear," she cooed.
"Right, doll. And I keep telling you, call me Dennis."
"Of course, Captain Dennis," she joked.
As he entered, she noticed the sweat beaded on his brow and the stains under his armpits of his white uniform. He must have come straight to her cabin after coming back aboard, without even taken the time to shower first. She contemplated how to ask him to clean up before they got intimate without bruising his touchy ego. She'd have to present it as a sexual come-on, and join him in the shower; he'd appreciate the opportunity to lather her up.
"Here's the clothes you wanted," he said, handing her the bag. "They only had one pair of jeans in your size, so I got you shorts instead of the second pair."
"That's okay," she assured him.
She would rather have kept the money, actually, but wasn't about to start complaining when he'd been nice enough to do some shopping for her. After all, she might need another favor in the future.
Last night he'd casually mentioned that he was going ashore in the morning, so she'd given him a too-large portion of her meager supply of cash and asked him to buy her some additional clothes. In the rush to leave Sydney, she'd come aboard with only the clothes on her back, and hadn't been looking forward to the month long journey with nothing else to wear.
To her surprise, he'd agreed to help her 'as a favor'. She hadn't expected him to, and now worried about how he might expect her to pay back the favor.
She dumped her new clothes onto the bed and began sorting through them. She was pleased with the faux-denim jeans; surprisingly, he'd gotten the size right, though she would have to cut a hole for her tail in back before she could comfortably wear them. The same was true for the khaki shorts. The T-shirts would fit too, although the prints on them were rather bland. Maybe she could spice them up by cutting the midriff's away.
"How did you find all this stuff in my size, Captain Dennis? I'm so tall, I usually have to special order my clothes."
"Easy, doll. There's a Biggie's store in Auckland," he said, then patted his expansive belly. "That's where I get most of my own clothes. I was going there today anyway, so it wasn't any trouble to get you your stuff."
"Well, thank you," she said, bending to give him a quick kiss. "I really didn't want to make this trip with only one set of clothes."
"Hey, I got you something else, too," he said, holding out the mauve box in his hand. "A gift."
"You did? Oh, that's so sweet of you," she gushed with false enthusiasm, certain that any gift he had bought her was really something for himself.
Taking the package, she hefted it. It wasn't too heavy, and the box was that wide, flat shape that suggested it held folded clothing. She popped it open and saw folds of silky purple cloth. Lingerie?
Pulling the contents out, she found herself holding a large cloak of some sort, with a red leather strap with a pair of matching medallions looped around it. Also in the box was a quantity of black latex and a wide red leather belt.
"It's...what is it?" she asked.
"I don't know what its called, but it sure looked good on the mannequin. I figure it had to look even better on a living girl, so I bought it for you," he stated proudly.
Shoko smothered a sigh of relief. If all he wants me to do is play dress up for him, then no problem.
"Go ahead, doll," he said eagerly. "Try it on."
"All right. Um...do you know how it goes on?"
Only the elbow-length gloves were obvious. After a minute or two of fumbling around, they finally figured out how the rest of the latex costume went together. The top wasn't too strange, essentially a bikini top with the front halves separated by a brass ring, supported around her neck and in back. The lower half of the outfit was more unusual. The left half was like a bikini, while the right half was a full legging, except that it left her hip and upper thigh bare. The end result was like a pant leg had been connected to a thong bikini along the inseam. By pure luck, the rear thong of the outfit was connected up with another brass ring that was positioned perfectly for passing her tail through. Finally, a pair of low-heeled boots went on her feet. All in all, the ensemble fit her surprisingly well.
"Oh my god, you look so naughty in that! Here, put the rest of it on," said the Captain, holding the cape and belt out for her.
The wide, red-dyed leather belt—real leather, not synthleather, she noticed—went loosely around her waist. She cocked it at an angle across her hips for a more dramatic flair. Finally, the purple cloak with its high collar and red leather band was clasped around her neck and draped over her shoulders.
She pirouetted in front of the room's full-length mirror, and smiled at her reflection. Naughty, indeed.
"Nice choice, Captain Dennis. I do look wicked in this, don't I?"
"Yeah, you do. You're a wicked little doll," he replied, staring at her as she twirled a second time.
Suddenly, he began fumbling with his belt.
"Come here, doll. I can't wait any longer. Get over here and do me," he said, dropping his trousers and gesturing to the floor at his feet.
Smiling a false smile, Shoko strutted over, knelt in front of him and began earning another day's passage.
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