DAY IN THE LIFE XII
DIFFERENT STAGES

TERRITORIES

"Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck..." Tony mentally repeated the mantra as he ran blindly through the streets, caroming off of walls and tripping over broken chunks of pavement. Never in his life would he have expected to see anyone take down a Puma as fast as that woman had done. Pumas were the biggest and the baddest synthetics around, everyone knew it. People didn't just smack 'em to the ground with one punch!

Staggering to a halt, Tony fell up against the rough surface of a brick wall, panting for breath as he glanced around to get his bearings. At some point he'd fallen through a bush, scratching his face and hands. Who let a bush grow up in the middle of the sidewalk anyway?

At the moment, Tony was standing on a narrow side street littered with dead leaves and broken branches. The rowhouses to either side were empty-faced piles of brick and stone, the windows gone, and in most cases, the doors as well. Weeds and bushes grew rank in the small squares of soil in front of each house. Tony's deep gasps echoed loudly in his ears as he realized the street was quiet—dead quiet. He couldn't hear any cars, choppers, corporate transports, or people. The only sounds were of insects in the weeds, and the faint noise of distant engines.

Slapping at his jacket, Tony cursed as he remembered Brittany was the one with the guns. He'd been to the company range, yes, but he wasn't allowed to carry—yet. Of course, since he'd been out with Terry, and Terry always took Brittany with him when they went clubbing, it hadn't mattered. But now... he was lost, in the Zone, where everyone carried guns.

The sounds of something stirring in one of the apparently empty townhomes convinced Tony to start moving again. He jogged rather than ran, trying to not look such much like a target, never realizing that even at a slow walk he would have been instantly recognizable for what he was: a lost and lonely corporate asset in over his head.

Coming to the end of the street, Tony stopped at the corner, and took a long look in either direction. The street emptied out into a broad avenue, lined with rowhomes, apartments, scattered stores, and other buildings who's purpose was no longer apparent after 20 years of neglect. Strewn about the street were the rusty brown hulks of some ancient burned-out cars, as well as occasional patches of debris. Tony was fairly sure he'd never seen so much broken glass in his entire life. The street was also deserted, and after a moment's orientation, proved to run east-west, which meant he was saved. All he had to do was follow the road to the river and then the checkpoint bridge.

Creeping along the sidewalk, Terry marveled at how different the Zone looked during the day. At night most of it had been dark, although the club section had been lit-up with all sorts of crazy neon signs and the occasional street light. In the darkness the general look of neglect wasn't apparent, but now...

Tony was used to Neo York, where everything was clean—well, mostly. But the arcologies prided themselves on being sparking examples of corporate power and prestige, and were light-years beyond the crumbling and burned-out ruins that lined this dirty street. He found it quite easy to believe that the Zone was populated only by rejects and runaways, who were obviously unfit to be around normal people like him. Normal people didn't beat up Pumas with their bare hands.

Feeling confident—he'd yet to see another soul—Tony switched from slinking along to striding quickly down the cracked sidewalk. Aside from the psycho-bitch from this morning, so far everything had been pretty cool. Sure they hadn't scored any Zone chicks (which would have been worth major bragging rights back at the arc), but they had gotten Brittany to blow each of them, and Terry had even let Tony suck the Puma's tits for a while. For a six-foot synthetic who could bench-press a motorcycle, Brittany sure turned to into Jell-O if you licked her nipples just right.

Lost in the happy contemplation sex with Brittany, which wasn't that bad if you couldn't get a real girl, Tony was totally unprepared for falling flat on his face. Fortunately he managed to get his hands out at the last minute, but that didn't keep him from mashing his nose hard enough to make it bleed.

"Owowowowowowowow!!!" Tony sat up and blinked tears from his eyes. "Shitshitshitshit!" A brief touch to his face brought a bright-red smear of blood and a wince of pain. "Motherfucker..."

"That had to hurt."

Tony froze. The voice was soft and husky, but deep. It sounded like faintly seductive, like those pleasure synths from Terry's porno collections. Blinking to clear his eyes, he looked in the direction it had come from.

Black synthleather boot with armor plates strapped on. A lot of bare muscular thigh. More black synthleather and vinyl wrapped tight around an impressively-breasted torso. An incredibly thick mane of blonde hair that fell to the waist. Shoulder pads set with studs and rivets. Straps, buckles, spikes, bare skin, lace, and long tapering cat's ears.

A Puma.

Tony couldn't believe it. Here, in the middle of the Zone, he had the fortune to trip over a Puma sitting astride some beat-up bike. He was saved!

Scrambling to his feet, Tony gave the Puma a more thorough once-over. The Puma was leaning over the handlebars of her bike, a thin cigarillo clamped between her teeth. She was resting her chin on her crossed forearms, staring at him with half-lidded bright blue eyes, with an expression on her face that simply dripped with boredom.

Wiping at his nose (and wincing at the pain) Tony gave the Puma a wide grin. He had it made. Pumas, for all their size and scary rep, were all "yessir" and "nosir" whenever Terry or his dad talked to them. Hell, you could get one to come up to your bedroom if you knew how to ask—or so Terry claimed. And here was one just sitting out in the Zone, doing nothing, just waiting for someone to claim her! Wait till he got back and showed Terry what he'd found!

"You! Puma! What's your name!" Tony went for his best authoritative tone of voice, just like the one he'd seen the Puma handlers use.

"Anna." She twitched an ear, causing a series of rings to jingle faintly.

"Well, Anna, I want you to take me to the Neo York checkpoint."

Anna took a long slow drag on her cigarillo and then sat up, allowing Tony a wonderful view of her scarcely tethered breasts. She sure was stacked! Flicking the ash away, she kept her bored expression, while looking him up and down.

"Why?"

Tony blinked. Had the Puma just talked back to him? Pumas don't talk back, they said yes when you asked them a question!

"I want," Tony started out slowly, deciding that this "Anna" was probably a defective model, "you to take me to the Neo York check point. I want to go back home."

Anna's answer was a cloud of smoke and another question. "How much?"

Tony blinked again. "'How much?'"

"Yeah. How much is it worth it to ya? Ass, grass, or gas, nobody rides my bike for free."

Tony found himself speechless. This Puma was daring to hop smart on his ass! She... wait a minute.

"Ass? As in... if I fucked you, you'd take me over to the checkpoint?"

Anna giggled and blew a cloud of smoke in Tony's face. "Maybe. Depends if ya big enough to satisfy... oh, and to be fair, you'd have to fuck my partner too."

"Your..." Tony's mental image of getting it on with not one, but two Pumas was cut short by a hand dropping down on his shoulder.

Tony had seen Brittany lift some pretty hefty stuff from time to time, but had never really thought about what that meant before. The hand on his shoulder felt like a pair of vice grips were squeezing the bones together. The hand then spun him around, almost making him fall again. Tony found himself eye to neck with a second blonde-maned Puma, who looked to be a virtual twin of the first one. This one, however, was cradling a huge rifle in her other hand, treating it like it was some sort of oversized pistol. Tony gulped. He was close enough to smell the Puma's sweat, as well as the fact she hadn't bathed recently. Over that came the sharp smell of gun oil, waxed leather, and the faint tang of vinyl. Tony swallowed carefully.

"Looks kinda small," the new Puma opinioned.

"Small?" Tony stood up to his full height. "I'll have you know I'm five-foot ten and a half."

"No, no." The Puma gave him a predatory grin and dropped one hand to cup Tony's groin. "Small."

"S-small...?" Tony looked down at where the Puma's hand was slowly exploring his crotch. Brittany had never called him small...

"Well, Uni?" came Anna's voice from his back.

Uni shrugged, almost causing her leather bustier to fall open. "Can we sell him?"

"Him? To who?"

"Dr. Ludwig?"

"Maybe. Sure you don't wanna little input first?"

"After last night? Nawww... besides, it would be just a "little" input."

Tony glanced back and forth at the two synthetics, who seemed to have totally forgotten he existed. They were going to sell him? To some doctor?

"Wanna eat him?"

EAT!?!

"Him? Too scrawny. 'sides, we've got food."

"Just checking."

Tony took a slow step to once side. Uni had let go of his shoulder and was now standing over by Anna, as the two debated exactly what to do with their captive.

"Eating him is out."

"Yeah..."

"Sex?"

"Naw."

"Sell 'im?"

"Maybe."

With a sudden burst of fear-induced speed, Tony took off down the street, ducking behind a wrecked car laying on it side, before running as fast as he could for the safety of an overgrown side street. He didn't know about Terry, but he was never, ever, going near a Puma again for as long as he lived.

"Dr. Ludwig?"

"Sounds good, the Doc always needs new parts."

"Cool. Hey... Anna? Where'd he go?'

DREAMLINE

Sandra awoke, opening her eyes slowly, taking in the world around her. The first thing that she noticed was the face on the pillow next to her. It belonged handsome young man, brown hair, blue eyes, still asleep. Drake. Her lover, employer, confident and, well, who knew what else. Theirs was an interesting relationship. He had hired her to find his missing sister, then rehired her to be his bodyguard. Now they were in Hong Kong in an apartment that she would have only dreamed of owning before. It was hers. Drake had given it to her as a gift, of all things, for her to live in or do with as she saw fit.

She rolled over, pushing the sheets aside, sat up on the bed and stretched. Getting up, she threw a dressing gown over her naked body before standing up. She rubbed her eyes, glimpsing at the windows. Morning sunlight was visible through the closed blonds. Looking over her shoulder at Drake, she decided to leave him to sleep. He was probably tired after last night...

Last night. She rubbed her eyes again, noting the half-empty champagne bottle on the bedside table. She picked it up and walked to the kitchen, feeling the thick carpet under her bare feet. It felt wonderful. Her old apartment in the zone had bare floors because the owner was too cheap to get anything else. It made for cold, uncomfortable mornings. The mornings now were different. The warm climate, the deep carpet and the climate controlled apartment made getting out of bed so much easier. Not that she wanted to, on some days.

She put the bottle in the fridge, then walked through to the living room, and then through to the balcony. Each apartment in the building had one. Hers offered an excellent view, given both the height and the location of the building. She looked out over the morning city, bustling with life at the dawning of a new day. This was where she wanted to live now. It was so different from the zone. There was no more living in corners, hiding from the world, scavenging from day to day to get by. It would be different from now.

That's it, she thought. Itís a different life. I've always wanted to be like this. Wanted, accepted, needed and useful to someone. I'm living well, I'm comfortable and with someone who apparently loves me. It's like a dream.

The problem with dreams, however, is that I always wake up at the end and I end up in reality. She looked down at the city, noting the people moving through the streets, the cars in the traffic, the lives wrapped in the buildings. Cold, hard, stinking reality. It sucks.

THE CAMERA EYE

Lee sat in his office in the Mitsumi arcology and stared blankly at the computer monitor. He really should go to his quarters, shower, change, get some dinner... but he was bored and depressed. Shirow was still the Puma Duty Officer, certain unmentionable people were not happy with him, and Lang-Lang and Ling-Ling (his two favorite Lynxes) were off on assignment. Apathy certainly made one lethargic.

Sliding his finger across the touchpad, Lee cycled through a series of windows, trying to decide what to do. Finally, he tapped the "Enter" key, and let his gaze run down the displayed menu. Usual stuff. The menu would let him lock and unlock doors, turn lights on and off, set the environmental controls, and even cycle through the security cameras.

Wait a minute...

Sitting up, Lee selected the security feature, bringing up a new menu that gave him access to the barracks's camera network. There was one in each bunk room, several in key hallways, two in the mess hall, one in each rec room, and two in the showers. With a slight grin Lee started switching camera views...

...the mess hall was virtually empty, except for three of his charges drinking coffee and talking...

...the halls were all empty, except for one Lynx going to her quarters...

...the bunk rooms were mostly empty—not surprising since most of the Lynxes were out on a security detail. Those that weren't mostly seemed asleep. Lee had never realized how lazy his synths were...

...the shower was, of course, empty...

...although the rec rooms weren't, but who wants to watch a Lynx watch TV?

Fuming, Lee went back to the main menu. Maybe he could set it for record or view the logs... or something. Clicking though the options, Lee suddenly stopped, and looked at the current dialogue box carefully. Was it really asking him if he wanted to search the security network?

Looking around—even though he knew he was alone—Lee selected the network option, immediately bringing up a window that displayed all local security camera networks he had access to. There were...

...two.

At the top of the list was LYNX BARRACKS and below that was PUMA BARRACKS. Nothing else of interest... like say... the women's changing room for the company gym?

Of course not. Still...

Selecting "PUMA BARRACKS" resulted in a menu screen just like the one he'd been using previously. With he he could cycle through the same set of cameras, except these were in Shirow's barracks. Pity they didn't put cameras in the Duty Officer quarters, he'd love to know what the little shit was up to—him and his biomechanical love doll girlfriend.

The halls were all a bust, no Pumas there.

The mess hall had a single slender Puma with pale skin and short bluish hair reading a book. Boring.

Two of the barracks were dark, making it hard to tell if anyone was in them. Lee really wanted an audio pickup on this thing.

Shirow, much to Lee's surprise, was in one of the rec rooms, dealing cards to four of his synths. It looked like they were playing poker, and based on the piles of chips, Shirow was losing. Figures. Lee had never pegged him for being all that bright a manager to begin with.

Clicking to the next view brought up the shower room, which was...

Occupied?

That got Lee's attention. A few moments experimentation proved that yes, one could move the cameras remotely and even zoom in. Lee's grin returned, even wider than before.

Currently there were three Pumas in the shower, and Lee felt it must have been his lucky day, as all three were female.

The first was a lithe specimen with longish black hair and a sweet ass. Lee liked how the water ran over her body, she sure was easy to look at...

The second was more muscular, with greenish-blonde hair that fell to her shoulders. Although she had a nice body, and fairly nice tits, Lee really didn't dig chicks with scars, and a touch of the controls brought him to...

Heaven. Short, shoulder-length blonde hair, long legs, perfectly rounded rear, and breasts that had to be seen to be believed. With a start Lee realized he recognized this one... one of the medics... she was always hanging around Shirow... her name was... Mai, May, Mia, Meow... something like that.

Giving a low whistle, Lee cycled the camera in closer. M... uhm... .whatever was just finishing rinsing out her hair, and looked to be getting ready to start soaping up her body. Lee watched as she ran her hands over her arms, her legs, across her flat stomach, to eventually cup a pair of melons that would have keep Lee occupied for hours...

Stopping outside of her commander's office, Rin's ears flicked back and forth as she tried to figure out just what that noise had been. She debated knocking on the commander's door to see if anyone was inside and if her commander was alright, but decided against it. Besides, her tea was getting cold.

NOBODY'S HERO

Gem drew her jacket around her as she stepped out into the street. It was getting colder by the day, and she needed the protection. She headed down the street, her mind set on 93U in the distance. Another night off would mean another night on familiar ground, but tonight she'd somehow gotten tricked into a "date" with Silver, the woman she'd met last time.

She considered skipping the date and heading for the Pit. They had fights on stage there, and she felt like entering. Not for the money; she just needed to beat someone up. She'd been in a bad mood all day, and was wondering when she'd get to cause some trouble.

Gem was distracted from her thoughts of Silver by a brief noise. She glanced around the corner ahead to find its source. A ten-man gang ahead were clustered around something on the ground. Curiosity getting the better of her, she stepped around the corner and strolled casually towards them. One of the gangers spotted her and stepped away from the group. He produced a knife, and sneered at her.

"This is business, kid. Get out of it."

"Kid?" Gem muttered to herself. She glanced past the thug, and spotted the object of their attentions. A tall man was crumpled on the ground between the gangers, bleeding from a gash on his forehead. As he tried to stand, the leader kicked him down again.

"Yeah, kid. Run off, before you get hurt." Gem ignored him, and watched the man on the ground. As he looked up, their eyes met. She recognised the man straight away. His name was Ed, and he called himself an 'enforcer,' which basically meant he was hired muscle. She'd worked with him before; not that he'd remember her. Ed was a good guy; he certainly didn't deserve this.

"Y'hear me?" The ganger yelled and stepped forwards. Gem caught him by his arm and spun around, driving an elbow into his gut and then a backhand into his face. She released him and spun around, driving her fist into his face three more times with lightning speed. The ganger staggered and fell, clutching his broken nose.

"Get her!" Yelled the leader, and five gangers broke off from the pack. She leaped forwards, spinning in mid-air and taking out one ganger with a flying kick. She landed in the midst of the others, and swept around her with a kick that knocked two more away. One of the gangers still standing lunged at her with his knife; when she sidestepped him the other slashed at her, dragging his knife across her armoured jacket.

Gem lashed out with her right leg, hitting one of the gangers in the face faster than he could see. She then dealt him a quick pair of side kicks that sent him to the ground. She stepped away from the remaining ganger and leaned back, adopting a low, half-crouching stance. She brought her left hand up, making a "come here" gesture at the three remaining gangers. Spurred on by his leader, one charged forwards. Gem sprang up and swept her left leg across his head then back again, dragging him to the ground under her knee. She sprang back from him into a crouch as the other two rushed forwards, then leapt up into a flying spinning kick that knocked them both down.

Gem stood and spun to face the gang leader, only to be met with a sharp blow to the head. The leader yanked on the chain in his hand, sending its end lashing at Gem again. She stepped back, dizzied by the blow, trying to avoid the burly leader. He swept at her again, but was distracted by a sudden tap on his shoulder. Looking around, he came face-to-chest with Ed, now on his feet and very angry. Before the leader could react, he struck upwards with a huge uppercut that lifted him off his feet and sent him sprawling.

The other gangers around Ed stepped away in fear of the huge man. Gem glanced around her to see the rest of the gang getting to their feet. She nodded to Ed, who yelled, "Let's go!" He dashed away from the gangers, and caught up with Gem, who had already taken flight.


The two eventually settled down in an abandoned building nearby. Gem looked Ed up and down as he sat on a pile of debris, rubbing his head wound. He was a tall man, handsome in a rugged way and broad-shouldered. He wore a sleeveless armoured vest and thick combat pants. He arms were very muscular, as the gang leader could attest. He had short hair and ever-present stubble.

Ed perched on a pile of debris, his back to Gem, feeling his head wound. "Thanks for the assist there," he said in his gruff voice.

"What were they after?" Gem asked, as she checked the building.

"My bounty," he replied. Gem perked up, and turned to watch him. "I got in a bit of trouble about a year ago with Jinsei." He shrugged. "Minor matters for them, but they can be real pests, y'know?" Gem grunted her agreement as she quietly stepped toward him. "So rather than send any of their own men, they put a price on my head. I've got to fend off wannabes from time to time, but it's no big deal." He paused, and gave a brief laugh. "Heck, it's just like my day job."

Gem nodded as she squatted behind him, his back in reach. She quietly pulled her gun from her jacket. "It's quite a surprise to get a helping hand now and then," Ed continued. "Y'know most people, if they bailed me out, they'd just try and grab my bounty afterwards. But you're not like that, huh? Nice people like you are pretty rare around here," he said, and turned to face her.

Gem raised her pistol, aiming it at his forehead, a carefully neutral expression on her face. "Ah," Ed said as his smile fell. Gem stood in place, keeping her pistol trained on him. "Should'a guessed," he continued and shrugged.

"Nothing personal," Gem said coldly.

"Yeah-up, that's how it goes around here." He continued, his face becoming a wry smile. "It never is personal, just business, y'know?" He shrugged. "Heck, at least it isn't some gang or such. I'd rather it was a nice girl like you."

Gem's gun shook in her hand, as her aim on Ed wavered. Finally, she muttered "Shit," and dropped her pistol.

Ed stood and looked down at her, clearly confused. "What?" he asked.

Gem turned her back to hide her pained expression. "You don't deserve this," she said. When Ed remained silent, she continued. "You're a nice guy Ed, and like you said, nice people are pretty rare these days."

"So since when has that mattered?" Ed asked.

"It does to me," Gem replied. "Around here there's so many scumbags and lowlifes; I'd hate to pick on the one nice guy amongst them."

Ed nodded. "You're alright after all," he said.

"Just get going," Gem said, waving over her shoulder. She heard Ed depart, then sat down. Despite having let a sizeable bounty walk away, she felt good about herself. I guess it's nice to be a hero for a change, she thought.

THE PASS

It would be trite to say the Zero Zone wasnít what sheíd expected. It would also be inaccurate, as sheíd had little idea what to expect of it. Still, much of what Shoko was finding as she explored on her first day in the Zone was a surprise.

Sheíd been correct in anticipating that the buildings would be old and worn, most in varying degrees of disrepair and decay. But what she hadnít anticipated was how much plant life was present. Much of it was wild; ivy and other vines crawling over the surfaces of building, weeds growing out of almost any crack in the asphalt, and shade trees along the streets that had grown far larger than ever intended by the people who put them there, at times almost forming a canopy over the streets that they fractured with their roots. The biggest surprise, however, was how nearly every empty lot and open space that wasnít road had had been turned into cultivated land. Small cornfields, rows of lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables, and even in places fruit trees were in evidence.

Along with all the plant life came unexpected wildlife. Urban animals like crows, pigeons, cats, dogs, and rats sheíd expected to see. Even the farm animals - chickens, rabbits, sheep, and pigs mostly—had been explainable, since they would make for good eating. But what about the deer sheíd seen? Perhaps someone brought some in to add venison to the local diet. But then why not cows, too? Cows would make for milk and beef, a better bet for food than deer she would have thought. Well, maybe there were cows and she just hadnít come across them yet. But then how to explain seeing her namesake, a fox, darting down an alley? Surely nobody had imported foxes for food.

Finally, there were the residents. That many were haggard looking and mostly unwashed wasnít a surprise. What was a surprise was how many of them had guns and/or obvious cyberware displayed. It wasnít long after noticing this that Shokoíd dug into her backpack and hauled out her Remington Stormbreaker and itís holster, and slung it onto her right hip. Apparently, in the Zone one had to make a display of ones combat readiness or risk being a victim. In most places, the fact that she was obviously a security synthetic would be more than enough, but here she found that she felt much more comfortable with the eight plus pounds of her revolver showing at her hip.

As she walked east, she noticed that the building were getting more run down, and the plants were more overgrown weeds and trees than cultivated land. The number of people seen walking around had also decreased. That might be because night was getting close, but a better guess might be that she was leaving the more settled parts of the Zone. Deciding that this wasnít the direction to head if she wanted to find a safe place to sleep tonight. At the next intersection, she rounded the corner to head north—and found herself facing several gang members loitering along the sidewalk, not twenty feet away. Shit.

There were eight of them, of varying ethnicities, all heavily armed and with obvious cybernetic modifications. A Boostergang. Great. They had begun sauntering in her direction as soon as they saw her, making suggestive comments among themselves that she was meant to overhear. They looked relaxed and confident as they approached her, but she noticed their hands hovering near their weapons, and knew that if she turned to run she wouldnít make it back around the corner without taking several rounds in the back. With no choice but to brave it out, she chose to approach them as well, trying to meet them on as equal a footing as possible.

The others had fallen behind the obvious leader, a large and imposing man in an armored duster. His skin was a mass of scar tissue, and his light hair was patchy and wild. A nearly symmetrical pattern of ridges showing beneath his T-shirt suggested badly applied subdermal plating, and mismatched cybereyes gave him a somewhat demented glare. Oddly, his polished silver cyberarms looked expensive and well cared for, a stark contrast to the rest of his modifications. He stopped a few feet from here, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, while his partners spread out in a half-circle around her.

"Hey chica, whatís a pretty thing like you doing here all alone? Donítcha know this is a dangerous neighborhood?" he asked, eliciting a brief round of chuckles from the others.

"Dangerous? No, I hadnít heard that," she replied, as casually as she could muster.

The leaders eyes narrowed. "Well, it is. This is Frankenstein Club territory, and itís very dangerous, especially to anyone walking around without a pass." He paused theatrically for a moment and then added, "Say, you gotta pass?"

"Doubt it. Whatís a pass?"

He smiled and reached into a pocket with his left hand, pulling out a chip of wood that was painted black and red, the same colors that were predominant in the gangs clothing.

"No, mate, donít have me one of those," she said casually.

The leader clucked his tongue in mock consternation. "Nameís Randall, not 'mateí. And youíd better get one right away. Canít cross Frank territory without a pass, yíknow."

Shoko smiled grimly. "Let me guess. If I say 'Oh gee, I didnít know that. Iíll turn around a go right back the way I cameí, thatís not going to satisfy you, is it?"

He shook his head. "Nope. You already crossed Frank territory to get here, and to leave youíd have to cross it again, wouldnít you? And for that you need a pass."

"So how much is a pass?" she asked, then added, "And donít say 'how much you got?í"

Shoko still had some cash in her wallet, tucked into her jacket's inside pocket. But if they saw she had any cash, then theyíd certainly want it all, and she wasnít willing to let them extort that much from her. She still had a couple hundredóAustralian dollars! With a sinking feeling in her gut, she realized sheíd never thought to convert her remaining currency before leaving Sydney. All that careful hoarding of her remaining cash, and now it was little more than colorful scraps of paper if she couldnít somehow get it exchanged. In any event, it sure wasnít buying her way out of this situation.

"Itís not how much you have, itís what you have," he said, alternately eyeing her backpack and her Stormbreaker.

So they wanted barter. No surprise, she thought, most Zoners probably donít have any cash. She wondered if cash were any good here at all.

"So, chica, what do you have thatís worth a pass from us? Or would you perhaps care to work your debt off with us tonight?" If his leer hadnít made his meaning clear, the hip thrusting motions made by some of the other gangers behind him certainly did.

Instead of answering, she unzipped one of the side pockets and extracted the Knucknife sheíd taken off one of the downed Mitsumi agents back in Sydney, and held it out.

Randall took it from her and, pulling it free of its sheath, turned it over in his hands. "Nice blade. Efficient, made for real use, not for show. Itís a start, but your gonna need more than that."

Shoko glared angrily at Randall for several long seconds, then reluctantly dug into her pack again, sorting through what sheíd be willing to give up. Her pack was filled with the survival gear that Hogan had bought her as a parting gift. Since sheíd never told him her real background—that she wasnít a Puma at all, but actually a prototype for the Fox-class, a new and improved security synthetic—he hadnít know that she didnít need some of the gear heíd gotten her. In particular, the LED flashlight and EL lamp werenít needed since she could see in very low light conditions. She reached in a dragged them out.

"Okay, hereís an LED flashlight with solar recharging power cell. Even without a recharge, itís good for several days of continuous operation. Also, a Krill EL lantern. Red light, so it wonít hurt your night-vision much. Same deal with the battery, it recharges from a built-in solar cell and the lifespan is even longer, well over a week without a recharge. The removable hood gives a 180-degree illumination. Happy now?"

He briefly tried both items, confirming they worked, and pocketed them. "Much better, but still not enough, chica. What other goodies you got?"

"Whaddya mean, still not enough!?!" she exclaimed.

"I mean not enough! What part of 'not enoughí donít you understand, puta?"

"Well, Iíll tell you what I do understand! I understand that you intend to try to squeeze me for everything I have," she leaned down, glaring at him. "And Iím telling you thatís not gonna happen!"

Glaring right back at her thru his lopsided cybereyes, he lowered his voice menacingly and said, "You ainít stupid enough to think you can take us, bitch. Even Pumas arenít that dumb. You know how badly we outgun you, and you know you canít win, so youíre just gonna hand over whatever you got until I say itís enough, got it?"

She leaned in even closer to Randall, and decided to lie through her teeth. "No, thatís not how this is going to work. You see, synthetics like me have a limited lifespan, and mine's nearly up. I die soon anyway, now matter what, so I got very little to lose here by fighting it out with you. In fact, I think I might prefer to go out with a bang, you know?"

She thought he perhaps hesitated a moment, and decided to press home her advantage, this time with the truth. "One other thing you should consider: youíre right. I canít take all of you in a fight. But Iíll take at least two or three of you down before you can incapacitate me. And Randall? Even if it means only getting you, I promise you that Iíll go after you first and foremost. Rest assured, no matter what else happens, if you provoke this fight between me and your gang here, you will come out of it dead."

Randall sneered at her, and growled, "I said it wasnít enough, and thatís all there is too it. Scrag you, if you donít like it. I ainít backing down!"

Of course heís not, Shoko realized. Heís the leader. He canít back down to me in front of his gang, not and keep their fear and respect. Lose that, and he loses his authority. He needs an out to save face.

"Fine, you want something more, you can have it," she said, and reached once more into her pack. Pulling out a camp stove, she shoved it into Randallís hands. "No special fuel, itíll burn anything you can stuff into the chamber and set on fire. But thatís the last thing you get off of me. If you want more, then itís over both our dead bodies."

Randall suddenly smiled, admiring the little stove. "That wonít be necessary, chica. This is enough. Youíve bought yourself a pass." He flipped the painted wooded chip to her. "No get moving."

Without another word, Shoko shrugged her backpack, now noticeably lighter, back on and continued on her way, leaving the gang members behind her. She was angry about the goods theyíd extorted from her, even though she knew that it was actually a small price to pay for avoiding a firefight she couldnít possibly have won. Grumbling under her breath, she headed out into the descending twilight, looking for a safe place to hide out for the night. So far, she wasnít much liking her first day in the Zero Zone.


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