A Plum Job

59

A Plum Job

"Mother pus bucket", escaped his lips as he hit the dirt and covered his head with his hands. The orange fireball that was, until a moment ago his car mushroomed into the night sky. He sat up and looked at the furiously burning wreck, a tyre bounced away into the night as he remembered the price he paid for the rims. He slapped away the soil and dirt from his black long coat as he regained his feet and stuck a finger through the hole he just found in his suit's double breasted navy blue jacket. He avoided the odd burning remnant as a slow metallic rain fell from the sky. Pieces of his car continued to do their best to separate themselves from their neighbour as he watched it burn.

"Well isn't that just fraggin great", he yelled sarcastically to the air about him as he kicked what was left of the fuel injector manifold back towards the wrecked carcass.

"What else could go wrong"? Never say that, don't even think it! He chastised himself, shaking his head.

First the meet gets blown, the corporate security boys mistake me for a pin cushion, I get shot at, blown up, pissed off and now – "I'm in the middle of bloody nowhere without a bloody car!" he said as he realized he couldn't even get a signal out on the world wide wireless web and arrange a pickup, and the W4 was supposed to be everywhere. The joys of doing biz in the zone.

The more he thought about it the angrier he got. He lit up a cigarette while he thought about what to do next. The no signal message on his phone was displayed just as he suspected it would, if he was going to get out of here tonight he was going to have to hoof it.

If he was asked where he'd wanted to be at this time in his life this place would not be on his list of personal favourites. From all the hands fate could deal, this was by far the most ironic. To end up back in the one place he despised above all else, in the one place on the planet he'd been fighting his entire life to get away from. Convinced as he was that the next time he returned it would be for the last time.

Twenty years later and it seemed it was about to be a self fulfilling prophecy. How that adolescent premonition had hung over him like Damocles himself, ever since he was put back together after the last time he was here. Now, over twenty years later, on the veritable eve of his retirement, greed, revenge and misdirection had bought him back to this place and for what? To be cancelled and forgotten, like every other poor slot who bought it in the zone.

He got his first jobs out here, in this very neighbourhood before it succumbed to entropy. It was on its way to urban necrosis even then, bullet holes and cannon shells catalysing the flat line of that architectural decay. Chips flew off concrete and the walls fell down, destruction followed demoralization. Back then the zone was South Central Las Angeles, then The Long Night came along and the population of the west coast was decimated. Those that were left went east over the Rockies or joined the gangs as they carved new territories out of what was left behind. For those that enforced it, it soon became known as the L.A-D.M.Z then eventually just the zone. Now, the National Guard used the place for bombing practice.

Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive. They all did their biz, those with money lived their lives in luxury behind walled compounds and private armies. The corporations took over the skyline and downtown, now, not even a candy wrapper escaped inspection. Don't even think of walking downtown without a suit. But the Zone, and its inhabitants were left to rot. Eventually even the cops pulled out as they were privatised and reassigned to more profitable markets. Since then the place had gone to hell in a hand basket.

-A plum job, ripe for the picking. What in the hell happened, he thought starting to feel sorry for himself as he took another drag on his cigarette.

How he had patted himself on the back over the years on his ability to find the plum jobs. His seeming luck, only taking on employment after being researched, cross referenced and double checked. Always working the angles between the power brokers; making sure he worked for everyone and showed no favourites. In a business where being shot in the back is to be expected, he always intended to be the last man standing. He planned his actions to allow for that betrayal, always planned for a way out. Now this, the bloody double-cross and to take him back to be murdered in the one place he'd fought all his life to escape.

-Fate it seems in not without a sense of humour, He calmed a little as the nicotine released some of the nervous energy. The adrenaline from the fight with the corporate bully boys and the loss of his flaming car started to wear off a little.

He was the elder statesmen of his trade, a master of his profession, so-crowned by the mere fact of his survival so long within it. For many of his early years he had survived where others simply had not, and he'd been happy to continue the trend ever since. Some had deemed it the luck of the Irish (though he wasn't sure he actually had any Irish blood left in him), others cowardice, but if you asked him he'd say it was wisdom and St Christopher. He knew that nothing was ever worth dying for, either way he was still here and they weren't, always the best way to win an argument.

With the acknowledgment of wisdom, however, invariably was appended the sin of pride, although it seemed that avarice had gotten him into trouble as well on more than one occasion. Pride had been his downfall. Like a pimple-faced punk with a shiny new shooter, he'd been drawn in with the promise of easy money and a pandering of his ego.

"A milk run they said, simple as you please". I should've known better, if it was so simple why the hell did they need my ass for?

A plum job

"A simple pickup in the middle of nowhere", he reminisced in derision as the meeting the night before replayed in his head.

Only a couple more big scores before the final payday then retirement, damn I was that close, that's what he'd been telling himself for the last six months.

He'd been having bad dreams of being broken and lifeless in the middle of nowhere, lying next to a burned out shell of a car, the left overs at the end of someone else's successful run, only so much useless scrap. His 'ware was getting older and whether he wanted to admit it or not he was getting slower compared to new boys on the street. This time he'd retire instead of going the next round of upgrades. The business was his life but he had two choices, get another medium level upgrade and trust to his luck and instincts to keep him in one piece for another year or so; or, retire and lead a comfortable upper middle class life for the rest of his days. Maybe even the ultimate cliché - open a bar. In this business you do retire at forty, before the business retires you. It makes retirement all the sweeter if you actually live long enough to enjoy it.

"The less eyes the better", he said dripping with sarcasm, imitating Mathius his agent.

He'd been with Mathius for the last ten years after a contract went south, and got his last agent killed. Since then he'd been pretty cagey with whom he dealt with on a professional level and much preferred the hands off approach to his contract negotiations. Sure, some times the sweetest deals weren't his for lack of trust in his future employers but at least if another contract went south the line ended with a W4 e-mail account, a throw away phone and no face to face to identify him with. Not even Mathius knew who he was or were he lived and it was just the way he liked it. Reputation was enough in this business, it was a fine line between being known by the booking agents and not known by everyone else.

It was a juggling match, always had been, keeping dozens of corporate factions happy always was. There was always the option of taking it easy and letting one of the mega-corps to take care of him and be a company-man himself, especially now with his reputation in place, but he never did like the idea of being told what to do. He'd always been a generalist; there were times when he was tested, times when his life would've been a hell of a lot easier had he rolled over on his employers. But the easy way wasn't always the best way and now over two decades on, everyone knew he was a hundred percent loyal to those who were paying his check that week. Until they tried to screw him over, but he had a reputation for that too, it had been a long time since it last happened but with the passage of time the tale had become an urban myth in the circles he travelled in.

Still idly investigating the hole in his suit jacket with his finger he realised that it felt sticky and wet. Somewhere along the line he had managed to get hit by something without even feeling it.

"Great, - I'm getting so used to it, I don't even know when I'm hit any more". He mumbled sarcastically as he drew his hand away and saw in the firelight the glistening ruby liquid that stained his fingers.

His sense of humour right now, or what was left of it, was bleeding all over this dishevelled hole. Ruptured hydraulic fluid and blood congealed, mixing with the degeneration that suffused this place in a rank celebration of decay and the ever present march of progress. No way to disguise the aroma that was wafting in the thick air with the actinic scent of a wounded animal, under the jacket his shirt was smeared red in it.

The cigarette was flicked into the air to join the burning car, a slight niggle of paranoia washed over him as he moved off into the darkness. He knew at that point it was going to be one of those days. If they'd gone to the trouble of rigging his car to explode while they sent the company-men to say hello then they meant business. No doubt their failure to succeed in both instances would have been reported already and other arrangements would be made. His night was far from over as round three was about to start.

The stealthy dogs which he knew would be called in to support those who just tried to scatter him to the four winds were all teeth and coiled silence. They wouldn't be suckered by the counter measure of a milk bone. They wanted meat. More specifically his meat and any breeze would spread the scent of it and lead them right to his doorstep.

The dogs of war had changed a little in recent times, now they came in two flavours. The cheap genegineered flesh-and-blood type or the not so cheap aluminium bodied style. On the tracking side of things they were about as efficient as each other, the only real difference being price and reporting style. Even with today's high priced tech toys dogs still couldn't talk but mechanica came armoured.

The first thing he had to do was to remove the stink of death that surrounded him. Stale pheromones, blood and adrenaline left over from his tussle with the corporate cyber samurais were strong enough for him to detect so any dog nose would have no trouble, automaton or otherwise. He had to find a place to hole up for a little while and fix himself up before he worried himself to death.

He stopped walking for a moment, looked around and back the way he had come. The sense of being watched was foremost in his thoughts and considering the circumstances completely justified. He realised then his leg had started to drag a little. The lack of hydraulic pressure was starting to take its toll. He knew the bandage he'd put on earlier was not up to the challenge soon his left leg would be useless; no tourniquet could restrain three atmospheres.

Shiite I hate this place, why did it have to be out here?

If they'd told me where the action was going to go down I would never have taken it on in the first place, walked away like so many times before. Great concept, now only if I could walk!

He was, in one way or another bleeding to death. It was time to do something about that. Moving as quickly as he could through the remains of what used to be a car dealership, he found a place to prop himself against at the top of some ancient metal stairs that gave a good view of both entry points. He locked his left leg into a straight position and attempted to cycle as much hydraulic fluid back into the reservoir as the system would allow. He unclipped his Mini-Med from his belt, rolled it out and took off his suit slacks and the composite soft armour he wore beneath.

Access Bio-Med, Enable Pain Editing, Full Spectrum.

The effect was immediate, he could still feel and touch but every signal above a certain intensity was simply edited out of the neuron stream, like an unwanted bass line. While he couldn't actually bleed to death by being shot in a cybernetic limb it still hurt and pain, while useful, is an unnecessary distraction at the best of times and this was far from that.

Taking the scalpel from the Mini-Med he made a broad I-Beam shaped incision at the top of his thigh revealing the dull malleable metal beneath. Using one of the Mini-Med's spider retractors he forced open the wound at the top of his thigh. He peeled away the artificial dermis. Unlike real skin it was bullet, blade and even fire resistant. The dermis itself was nothing like real flesh, it looked like flesh but when cut into it looked more like a wet, red sponge. There was no cardiovascular system, the skin was self oxygenating and what synthetic blood it used moved more by nanorouting than veins and heart.

Taking out the sculptured soft-pack Densiform armour plate was a simple push and slide procedure to lift it out and reveal the hardware within. He spread apart the artificial myomar fibre bundles to bare the hydraulics beneath and the neat round punctures in the carbon fibre primary.

I knew I should've gone for the titanium and compartmentalised armour options, "But no we'd never need it after the Densiform stopped everything", he said, mocking his own voice. At the time he said it he felt safe in the belief that worn body armour and his own bodies upgraded armour would take care of everything short of a tank round.

-"Damn HVAP ammo", he said to himself as he remembered the day he signed the contract in Chiba. A lot can change in three years. Progress never ends, obsolescence is built in whether planned for or not.

He threw the empty sealant tube away once he was done spreading it liberally across the oozing green fluid bubbling out from the internals of his thigh. Slowly at first, the sealant started to react and over the space of a few minutes it had done its job. The sealant had set hard where the reactants met moisture; humidity in the air was usually enough to do it and close the breach.

He was finished bleeding green. Now for the red, he stripped off the remnants of his suit and long coat and began a thorough pat down of the soft armour and his person. He was looking for breaches in the Densiform armour that his BioMed insisted he didn't have or that he couldn't feel for himself with his pain receptors temporarily being intercepted.

A deep pen-sized puncture had been opened in his torso from where one of the corp boys had gotten too close and managed to get inside the seam of the armoured sneak suit. Probably from the elbow he'd blocked, not realising there was probably a bone grafted titanium blade at the end of it. Thankfully the Densiform had done its job and hardened the moment the kinetics hit it, dispersing its energy. Densiform could still be gotten around but most didn't have the tech, besides when its molecules were in free mode it flexed from the myomar fibres beneath it just like real muscle mass. The dermis would repair itself by morning and the nanos would take care of the rest.

More human than human, isn't that what the 'verts say? He knew he would never have lasted long without his upgrades and he also knew the costs other than Yen that that they had entailed. It was hard enough to get a date as it was in this age of the cut and tuck for under a thousand Yen. Let alone the female persuasion that still saw cybernetic enhancements as something of a social faux pas. His upgrades weren't even obvious ones; the only tell-tales being his weight and bulk. Being a little on the older side of the SOTA curve, his limbs were still considered bulky. Today's models were more streamlined and passed as more the well toned body type as apposed to the Mr Universe look. Still, being on the other side of the state of the art curve had its advantages. While his limbs may have shown his age in the tech toy field his nervous system cyber was top notch and counted for most of his upgrade cash. He had learnt long ago speed was everything. Besides, size still had its uses in the intimidation game too; being two metres tall and one wide still had its advantages.

He knew then the stimulant patch he'd used to keep himself on the edge for the meeting had worn off, allowing cynicism to return to his mind like a familiar coat. It was his questioning doubt, too, that had saved his life more than once; he relied on it and he needed it. It kept him constantly looking for where he could next be screwed over. His doubt had kept him alive through thick and thin. Doubt was asleep at the wheel though this time around or at least dulled by counting zeros. In younger days being offered too much for a job would've been his first warning sign.

So, here he was. Mission failure. Mission, ha! What a joke. There was no mission. The only mission here was extermination! To get him killed with as few resources and expenditure as possible. Well at least if he wasn't to get out of this in one piece he'd make damn sure he'd make it is as expensive as he possibly could before they succeeded in terminating his contract?

He'd finally been set up successfully. He only had one thing left to lose, his life. Since his pride had been rammed down his throat, he was damn sure he wasn't about to give his life up without more of a fight. He slapped another stimulant patch in place while he had the mini-kit open. Thanks to the cocktail of Neuro-chemical uppers and adrenal stimulants now charging through his body he was starting to feel pretty damn good again. They were providing him with enough false fire to convince him he may actually live long enough to enjoy retirement. His mood was certainly not allowing him to roll over and play dead like a good little puppy just yet; there definitely was a score to settle here. Besides if nothing else his insurance clause was definitely going to pay up this time.

"In the case of the employing party, should they conspire to do harm or to actively employ agents against the services of the agent while under contract then contracting party is liable for stipend no less than five hundred percent of initial contract dues and all servicing costs and expenses accrued from such actions". He especially loved that last bit. There was of course a down side to the clause. He'd have to be alive and have proof of the attempt to be able to commence proceedings in The Hague's corporate court. So far so good, but the night was still young.

Their corporate company men may have been fast but they sure were stupid, who goes on contract with their security ID still in their pocket? Jeez have they no respect for this old man? There was only one problem he didn't remember ever having crossed paths with GENTECH before. They had hired him for the exchange but he didn't remember doing anything to them previously to incite their ire.

Well not my concern now is it? Their hardly going to want to talk now I made a mess of their metal boys. It's definitely pay day when I get the hell outta here though. How I love the land of the free, litigation capital of the world, he thought to himself, merrily putting a smile on his face for the first time that night as he started adding together the zeros in his head. Now comes the hard part, actually getting outta here!

He'd rested long enough and was sure the catalyst had properly bonded so he released the retractor and grabbed the millipede clamp. The millipede clamp was too long, so he removed four segments and compared lengths again with the wound in his thigh. Finally happy with the length he carefully aligned the millipede and braced for what was to come next. Even with pain editing in place his left leg gave an involuntary spasm when he released the "spine" of the millipede. Along its entire thirty centimetre length its claw like feet snapped together and formed a suture as tight as a zipper. He tightly strapped the rest of the thigh, stood up and tested his work and was happy with the results. Time to get moving-he'd stayed still too long already. There were too many ways to get surrounded and out numbered if he dug in and recited rosaries.

Devils always found the devout.

Where's Karma when you needed him? The big man always loved a fire fight with big guns and even bigger toys, he'd be right at home right now, going for the high ground waiting for them to come to him! Wouldn't be such a bad idea if he still had his toys with him-he'd be taking that action himself. Oh well, no point crying about it now.

"Now where'd they go"? He said to the emptiness about him. He redressed what was left of his ruined suit and made his way down the metal stairs and out of the ancient servicing yard to the slums of the zone beyond.

His vision occasionally flickered and the image mag was running slow, as well. Probably just a floating short circuit from the rounds in his leg, he ordered the BioMed to check it out any way. The BioMed soft' sporadically chirped in with a reminder his hydraulic pressure was low. It was casually informing him he should be seeking medical advice or at least a qualified servicing agent in its best sultry voice. Unfortunately the supplied address was more than twenty blocks away and his transport was now blazing nicely along with the rest of his favourite toys.

He paused a moment, sniffing the air like a wolf about to howl, acoustics and olfactories both got zip which told him two things; either round two combatants were high-end stealth models or there were no more corporate security agents left to worry about, and the only hardware that remained were mechanica and they had the options package installed. Regardless of what it was that started this whole mess in the first place he still didn't think he was worth the added expense for the high end stealth mod jobs, which meant round two would be tanks or drones or both.

It was like he was the only living thing actually out here. It was empty, no motion in his limited passive range, and no heat signatures that he could detect for at least two hundred meters. Looked like the locals got the idea and beat feet early to avoid becoming part of the action, smart locals.

He was state of the art five years ago and had lived through the intervening period with the reputation of being one of the very best. He knew the tricks; he'd been doing his homework, he'd kept up to date with the new tech as they hit the market and maintained appropriate counter measures to allow him to still play with the big boys. Every year though, he saw his edge being eroded as new tech and new meat hit the streets eager to prove their ability to die for the right price. So he knew he was in trouble if he couldn't detect them easily.

"Where are they?" He said out loud before he realised, his tension had found voice.

He knew they were there; they would have had multiple teams waiting to hunt him. It wasn't just idle paranoia talking. Somewhere out there they waited for him, searched for him, to put him out of their misery. Despite the augmented self confidence the synthetic endorphins were promoting, he knew he couldn't have lost them this easily. He knew he had left too many clues behind, too much fluid on the concrete, sweat on the skin, too much desperation lingering in the air with the "follow me" taint to keep them hunting him down. Adrenaline is good stuff and can save your bacon, but it can also cook it for you too. Shadows, good as they were, were no guarantee of stealth any more versus an inventory replete with polyversal hunter-killer technologies, full spectrum sensor suites and a blooded nose with your pheromone markers on file.

He already knew the cyborgs had under estimated their aged target. Presumed their greater tech, speed and numbers would proffer him up as a quick kill before the onslaught of the cyber gods. They didn't live long enough to learn there is no replacement for knowing the skills instead of relying on downloaded softs. Allowing the code to fight, while seemingly a lot easier, would just get you killed; binary only ever had two options. Yes or no, on or off, alive or dead.

Unfortunately, over confidence is a distinctly human-only trait and the remaining HK drones, lacking human emotions, would not be making the same mistake. The loss of two corporate metal men with all the expense that it entailed certainly seemed to have taught them the error of impatience.

Old age and treachery will beat youth and code every time. The trick here though was to not make that thought an epitaph.

They wouldn't be playing any more, the expense caused by the death and subsequent loss of the company samurai wouldn't be taken by management lying down. Some where out there right now was an operational manager screaming for his blood. Cyber wear is still expensive tech and speed enhancements were the most expensive of all-someone would have to justify it and that news would be taken a lot better if he was dead when that report was made.

Business was still business though. His best chance of survival would be to simply make it too expensive to maintain operations and for GENTECH to try something a little less subtle later on. That would buy him time to talk and set up negotiations. Besides, who ever it was behind the hit hadn't exactly announced their intentions. They didn't give him the chance to talk his way out of it. They had been out for his head; the time for talking his way out was long past. That tact would be needed later when cooler heads prevailed and lawyers did their thing.

He was off to a good start, the life insurance payouts alone for cybered company-men would have sky-rocketed the operational costs for the evening. If he could only keep the momentum going and stay alive, then eventually he would simply be too expensive to continue to throw resources against. Active stealth was the new game in town and this was one game he knew how to stack the deck in his favour.

"So lets play, you bastards", he said. Resolve flooding back through his veins with a rush. He pulled the suits concealed hood up and over his head, and velcro'd the lite plastic one-way veil into either side. His body was now covered head to toe in the sneak suits stealth and electronic invisibility.

Access BioMed. Begin System Diagnostic, he thought slowly so as not to overload the wet wear.

No matter how many times his doc had told him his BioMed could handle full speech via the enhanced lingua softs' he found every once in a while he could still trip up the system by rushing the commands.

The clone gear was good buy. It saved a lot of time from doing it the old fashioned way and plugging into the Medi Comp to run a system diagnostic just to change performance settings.

-POWER CELLS…100

His BioMed responded almost immediately in his favourite female voice, his very own A.I construct conscience, his "live-in" girlfriend, she sounded cute, too. The encephalon wet wear handled all routing services from BioMed functions to data sifting the daily news from the World Wide Wireless Web. "She" handled most information transfers by internal "voice"; of course only he ever heard her. The video link also allowed downloaded video and audio to be piped directly to his cerebellum when needed. Three terra' of A.I construct - the ultimate in self management.

-CAPACITORS…..70

He'd burned some of his reserves to get a temporary performance increase to take out the cybered muscle, thinking that was all he was facing tonight, he knew that his body's bio-neural energy would replenish his capacitors over the next couple of hours, and it was just a matter of time.

-SENSORSUITE SPIKE…TASKING?

Reroute to biologic matrix and simulate

-CLONE GEAR A.I….100

-MOBILITY COMPRIMISE LEFT LEG OPERATING AT SIXTY EIGHT PERCENT EFFICIANCY…TASKING?

Shutdown neural junction twenty two and amphet trickle twenty milligrams, nanorout via haemoglobin and localize.

-SHUTTING DOWN NEURAL JUNCTION TWENTY TWO AT THIS TIME MAY CAUSE NEUROLOGICAL DISFUNCTION AT REINITIALISATION, CONFIRM REQUEST?

Confirmed. He thought he'd worry whether another neural graft would be required after he had stopped worrying whether he'd survive the night. Right now a spasmodic tic in his leg at the wrong time could get him killed.

-PERIPHERAL FIRMWARE….80

-CONTINUE DIAGNOSTIC?

Passive sensor systems?

-PASSIVE SENSOR SYSTEMS ONLINE AND OPERATING WITHIN ESTABLISHED PARAMETERS.

Well that answers that question.

CONTINUE DIAGNOSTIC?

Skip it, Run Custom File, Knee Deep

-RUNNING CUSTOM

He undressed down to his armoured sneak suit. He wiped away any remaining traces of blood with an alcohol swab from the Mini-Meds and pulled the tight fitting hood up that completely hid his face within. He slowed his breathing so as not to overload the IR dam / re-breather and checked his guns one last time before returning them to the protective covered holsters in the suit's chest.

The suit looked like a tight fitting motorcycle one-piece and was sculpted to reflect the muscle mass beneath, only this one was bullet and blade resistant. Its slightly rubberised exterior was anechoic by nature; while not exactly silent, it went a long way to help being so. Also it was excellent thermal insulation. It also had other abilities; fibre optics that were embedded throughout the suit and routed to a central graphics processor. The processing unit linked with the suits final layer and it came alive in sixteen million colour glory. With the best invisibility money could buy, the only thing left to worry about was radar and microwave. But they were actives and could be easily avoided.

Of course he still needed to be careful. There were now two substantial holes drilled across the top of his thigh which wouldn't help his thermal signature. The active dampers in the suit would help, but the craters in his dermis flared like dyspeptic volcanoes against the background of the cool rubble; it wasn't warm blood at thirty seven degrees C that gave him away, but the myomar bundles that acted the same way as muscle fibres. Unfortunately they work best when warm which ran closer to fifty degrees, well at least his series did. The current hot tech is room temperature myomar. It was on this years Christmas list!

He moved along slowly, senses craning for something to detect. He took shelter in the corner of a broken building with only two walls left standing. The walls had at one time been white tiles from floor to ceiling but now most were in pieces and now scattered about the floor like leaves in autumn. Hidden amongst the tiles was the glint of aluminium, all that was left of the shelves of the surgery. The operating table was still visible in the corner bolted to the floor. He'd been here before too, in better days. He'd spent three months on his back with millipede clamps running stem to sternum and a spinal column so badly ruptured it had to be regrown in the clone vats. He remembered this place alright. He'd died in this place once; he didn't want to invite fate to go for the daily double.

Looks like we came full circle, he thought to himself. Maybe realising for the first time why it was he hated the zone so much.

His first serious encounter with old man death had blasted away any illusions regarding the abilities of the flesh. He went into his first contract with just enough credit to his name to buy a minor speed increase and medical insurance. Turned out the latter was the better buy.

Two minutes, a high velocity burst and a close encounter with a Yakuza Katana was all it took to kill the stupid kid he was and set him on the path that would eventually lead to...

To what, to this?

So be it...

Ashes to ashes and all that crap.

His BioMed was still reminding him about the lack of hydraulic pressure in his left leg. The ad-hoc repair that seemed to be successful at the time wasn't complete; the system was still losing pressure. Not as much as it was but noticeable now a little time had gone by. Both arms and legs came with an emergency reserve but if there was any further damage to the system he would have fewer options to play with while waiting for repair. He commanded the system to permit only half the legs normal range of motion - he'd be a little stiff but he needed his systems as operational as possible for when events got up close and personal. Until then, restricted movement would have to suffice. Besides, it was probably just hydrostatic shock that ruptured a seal from when his leg was shot, the cybernetic equivalent of a sprain.

On the wind he could hear the approach of armoured VTOL transports, he could always tell the heavy T-Birds their turbines where slower, more staccato than rhythmic. The T-Birds were still about ten kilometres away but they wouldn't stay that way for long. They were coming in to say hello, someone must have reported in about the samurai.

Then he heard it, he wasn't quite sure what it was at first, the hissing of a steam pipe, left over from the area's long abandoned heating infrastructure maybe? There it was again, or more to the point there it wasn't. The sound was being occulted by something that passed in front of it with an acoustic masker.

Well funded and equipped - sloppy though, the field area needed to be reduced to only a meter otherwise tell tale signs like these gave you away, he pondered. At least his brains still worked and he wasn't just paranoid.

Best estimate puts the sound at about hundred and fifty metres; with his enhanced acoustics he should at least be able to detect the sound of the intruder's motion, especially through this wasteland of twisted steel and rubble. He listened and waited - there it was again more defined this time, he wasn't imagining things.

Their stealth had revealed them, it didn't happen every day. He took solace in knowing that he still had the edge; if they knew where he was, they wouldn't be maintaining a vector where there was a chance he could detect them.

He headed deeper into the zone now. Roads were no longer apparent and signs of human existence became fewer and further between. He hadn't seen any hints of the area being occupied at all - not even the forty gallon drum warming fires that would be expected this time of year. The zone was desolate and lifeless now, every one he knew when he was growing up either moved on or existed now only in his memory. Only now it was twenty years later and the zone now looked like it had been used as a bombing range by the National Guard units on the south side of the wasteland.

Time to end this; he started looking around for an appropriate combat zone, somewhere he'd have an advantage, where he could dictate terms. He found what he was looking for without going far - a large expanse of open ground that may have once been a park, surrounded on three sides by hi-rises that now lay open and barren to the sky, with walls and ceilings destroyed long ago.

The refuse from one of the park's previous battles included craters from mortar or howitzer fire, and the shattered remnants of a long destroyed apartment building. All that was left of the structure was shattered remains of the buildings skeletal internals, with all the floors between missing. The supports were standing like great steel palm trees rising sixty metres into the sky.

The park was more reminiscent of a World War One re-creation of Verdun with great excavated craters every decimetre or so. Only the tired remains of the swings where children once played left any reminder of the park's prior exuberance.

This was good with three sides cut off; their heavy cavalry couldn't come in and paint the town lead, their T-Birds could get in but then they couldn't manoeuvre easily and their fire lines would be hampered, "No strafing runs here". Sun Tzu would've been proud!

The T-Birds were so named in reference to an ancient green flying monstrosity from a kids TV show from early in the last century. The T-Birds only came about in the last few years as fusion power became more portable. With the advent of cheap portable fusion power suddenly every man and his corporation had started playing with concepts of fusion powered atomic levitation.

As the technology improved so did stability until completely computer controlled variants went into production for the domestic vehicle market and highways in the sky became a reality. Fritz Lang's future with the flying car was upon us, so was the bi-polar society of the mega-rich and the ultra-poor that had spawned them.

It would just be a land war, the terrain and sheer volume of surrounding rubble would prevent detection from a distance, just the way he liked it.

He moved among the remains of the park and placed his Israeli fence. Mini sensor packs the size of a stack of quarters with seismic, passive thermal and acoustic sensors on board all in wireless comms with each other. He placed his twelve and moved back to his vantage point. A long abandoned residence on the fifth floor in the centre of the three hi rises. The décor was fitting with a sofa that was faded and stained with something that he didn't want to think about. The ancient tenement was missing a wall that faced the park; there was no longer a balcony or sliding glass wall that the wealth of the building dictated at one point in time. There was nothing left to block his view of the park; he'd have ring side seats - at least for the opening act.

He checked his weapons one more time, Two Walther VMH Heavy Pistols, his favourites. A Banshee-6MGP Mini Grenade Pistol with a variety of rounds; Fragmentation, HEAP and Magnesium AP and two Wacky Tackies. After several years of using the Tackies he was still amazed at an advertising system that would allow endothermic chemical explosive to be labelled in such a childish manner.

The Walther's would be next to useless even with armour piercing rounds versus hardened targets, he just wasn't packing the firepower appropriate for the engagement.

His Walthers were his babies; they'd been in his possession now for almost twenty years. There was very little left of the original guns, maybe the casings. They'd been modified so many times it would be hard in the legal sense to prove the copyright. One of the first handguns on the market back then to fire caseless rounds. No ejector ports meant no shell casings to leave behind with possible fingerprints on them, sure the ammo was more expensive and they seemed to get fouled quicker but it was worth the peace of mind. Also no ejection port meant there was no lost energy removing the shell case so the muzzle velocities were higher. Of course his barrels had been blue printed, diamond plasma and Teflon coated so muzzle velocities where already in the ludicrous range. They were modified to burst fire long ago with cyclic rate so high the third round had already left the muzzle before the gun moved off line from the recoil of the first. But when the recoil hit, you certainly knew about it. She had a kick like a mule. With a 14mm bore she was officially one the last of the heavy hitters, the last of the anti cyborg hand cannons. The presidential decree from the White House a decade ago rescinding the right to bear arms had seen personal weapon calibres fall to nothing greater then 9mm. This was a little disappointing considering the state of modern discreet body armour which could stop most rifle rounds without flinching. So the egg heads of the world concentrated on muzzle velocity, cyclic rates and ammunition design. The Walthers had been kept up to date on all such advancements that the chassis could comfortably accommodate. They were his babies and they had saved his hide more than once.

Oh well, its not about the tools, it's about the talent, as his old Sergeant used to say.

They were still out of range of his passive systems but he knew they were there. He could almost feel them out there; it was time to call the dogs to heel. With any luck their master may even be with them but he doubted it; management rarely took that much interest in this phase of the business.

Time to bring them in, he thought to himself while biting his cheek.

He threw the mini flare into the void and heard it clear as a bell as it struck a steel pipe upon landing and sprung into life, spitting out light and white smoke into the night.

Access BioMed. Re-initialise Left Leg. Run Custom File "Waste High"

-RUNNING CUSTOM

A gentle surge ran through his left leg as hydraulics came back online, he tested for range of motion and was satisfied with the results.

On the wind he heard the scrying dance of the VTOLs as they searched far away for their target. It looked like his employers had remembered his contract's clause as well.

Good, not too close yet. But on their way nonetheless.

His bait had lured its prey and they had reacted, their Jockey's hadn't waited to regroup to come at him in strength. Not so smart; they had foregone all that stealth and traded it for speed in their eagerness to finish off their target. He would take full advantage of such a poor mistake.

"Well this old man isn't gonna be that easy to kill", he said under his breath.

The Tac-Pack buzzed to gain his attention on his left forearm. He looked down at the touch screen's soft display. Something had passed his electronic fence.

-IFF ANOMALY

Track It

Mark and Catalogue

-ANOMALY NOTED. IDENTITY?

Leave it open. ABC It

-ANOMALY ALPHA APROACHING SENSOR GRID

-SENSOR GRID MALFUNCTION. TRIANGULATION INDICES HAMPERED.

"SHIT"!

He couldn't see the heavy autonomous drone yet. He knew it had to be a walker because the rattle of treads leaves a seismic signature the Tac-Pack could gain an ID from, and the terrain was too heavy for any other form of Hunter Killer. He knew it was no light weight for the sensors to go nuts. It had to have jamming gear onboard, maybe even milspec countermeasures to take down the fence so easily.

My day's getting better all the time.

Then he saw even more bad news, whatever it was wasn't alone. Two Raptor-class sensor drones had come in escorting the heavier hardware. These drones though, were lightweights about the size of a garbage can lid, and unarmed. They'd avoided the sensor net by flying over the top of it out of range. They had assumed he'd be in the middle of the grid looking out. The Raptors had split up and gone down either side of the ruined complex playing a deadly game of hide and seek as they manoeuvred in and out of the ruined skeletons of the still standing tenements. Now one of the Raptors had hovered right by his place of concealment scanning in the opposite direction, towards the sensor grid.

The Raptor class of drones were always a pain, now even more so. These two were almost invisible with active camouflage the same as his sneak suit, thermal damping and their aural masking made them hard to find. At range damn near impossible except with thermals, image recognition wet ware and acoustic triangulation, but at ten metres they were hard to miss. Easy pickings.

He mentally commanded the silenced Walther's to burst fire mode and tracked his target till it was dead centre in his optics. They may not be any good for heavier fare but they could certainly take out a sensor drone. He scoped the location of the second drone. Waited for it to pass behind the building on the right, when it was out of sight he opened up on the first. A burst from each gun was all it took to bring the autonomous drone to ground and it became nothing more than electronic scrap five stories down.

He replaced the cannons in their concealed holsters in the chest of the sneak suit and started scanning for the second Raptor. The high pitch whine of the second Raptors main lift turbine could clearly be heard coming up the outer wall of his lookout. The Raptor scanned as it went seeking out the cause of its partner's destruction. He froze, realizing that it was too late; he'd been caught flat footed by the Raptor. There wasn't any other choice but to sweat it out until the Raptor left. He forced himself to relax on the dilapidated sofa and waited for his heart to slow. He began a silent mantra to the cyber gods. Slowly his hand moved to cover the damage on his left thigh and prayed there was no further damage to the sneak suit that he didn't know about.

There was nothing left to do now but pray and wait for the drone to complete its scan and move on. The Raptor hovered into view from below and the whine of the micro turbine filled his mind as it moved further into the decrepit living room. He watched the Raptor slide into the middle of the room with his eyes alone. It rotated in place while he heard the ultra-sound as the drone carried out a topographic scan. Normally using ultra-sound his three dimensional shape would be enough to reveal his presence, but this was what the suit was designed to mask by not reflecting the sound energy projected at it.

He hoped enough time had passed in the few moments since the first drone was destroyed for the cordite from his guns to dissipate. The Raptor continued on and passed by him within a metre. It moved further into the abandoned apartment, hovering at a height of two metres as it levitated down the long hallway and proceeding out into the stair well.

Silent as a cat he moved from the sofa to the wall next to the hallway the Raptor had just moved down. He removed his guns from their holsters and put them behind his back waiting for the Raptor to come back.

The high pitched whistle of missile fire was all he heard in the distance but getting closer, there was no time to think, only to react. He dove onto the sofa and in one fluid motion rolled it over onto him, released his guns and pressed his hands hard to his ears waiting for all hell to break loose. From beneath the rolled-over sofa in his make shift shelter he could "see" through hard pressed eye lids the night turn to day as the room exploded around him. It was too much for the apartment to take with one supporting wall already open to the night. The remaining walls exploded outwards and he, along with the rest of the room fell, to the floor below. There was nothing he could do now but enjoy the ride.

His landing wasn't as painful as he thought it would be and thankfully the sofa rode the fall and landed on top of him once more. He quickly assessed his physical condition, mentally checking each part of his body looking for pain or worse damage to critical systems.

-Access BioMed. Begin System Diagnostic, he thought slowly, trying desperately to control his fight or flight response as it kicked into over drive.

POWER CELLS 100

CAPACITORS 70

CLONE GEAR A.I100

PERIPHERAL FIRMWARE 80

-At least nothing else is broken, he thought sarcastically.

Adrenaline pumped through what was left of his veins, he wanted nothing more than to run for cover, get the hell out of there. Instead he hid underneath a shitty old sofa that provided no further cover than thermal, and felt about as bullet-proof as tissue paper. He breathed deeply and forced himself to calm down, to regain control of himself. He knew full well that fear led to mistakes and he couldn't afford any more of them.

He hid under the sofa, three floors down, each floor failed as the weight of the floor above caused it to collapse, like horizontal dominoes. He waited an eternity for the Raptor to find him or the heavier hardware to blow him up. Minutes passed. He heard the turbines of the Raptor overhead but the sofa muffled the sound so he wasn't sure of the distance. As time dragged he calmed down and busied himself as he searched quietly with his hands for his Walthers, and hoped they landed close by when the floor collapsed. After a time he found one resting under his foot but the other was lost to the rubble around him.

Time stretched on. He waited for what felt like hours but he knew it was closer to ten minutes, each second stretching. He forced himself to move, slowly at first, waiting for the next volley of missiles to rain down on his head. He Made room for himself under the sofa and checked the Tac-Pack's sensor display on his left forearm to see if it was still functional. The slight illumination from its screen was enough to make his face seem luminescent in the near dark. There was definitely a Stalker class Hunter Killer out there on the far side of the park, seismic sensors in the grid had identified it. A Stalker H-K was far beyond anything that he expected to see, they'd usually be deployed to take out cybernetic squads or elite military units. Stalkers were heavily armed and armoured with twin heuristic autonomous logic units, very little survived once targets were acquired. He didn't know whether to be flattered or terrified. As expected he couldn't pick up any traces of the Raptor with the Tac-Pack.

He extricated himself from under the sofa, activated light amp and stayed low as he looked around the wreckage of the room for his second gun. Luck was no longer with him, three floors of rubble had now collapsed onto this one and the compounded weight threatened to continue the process as the floor groaned ominously as he stepped. It was a miracle this floor had stopped the cascade failure at all and he had no doubts about what would happen should it fail with him looking for a gun under almost a metre of rusted iron and plascreet. Now was not the time to get sentimental, with a little luck he might just live long enough to come back and look for it later.

He scanned the park from behind the sofa using only passives, knowing better than to actively scan with so many un-friendlies about. Signals tri-angulation would give away his position in a heart beat. He couldn't see the Stalker but the section of the sensor grid still being jammed told him it was holding position on the far side of the park. The Stalker must be top of the range too for it have active camouflage like his sneak suit. Both thermals and optics read nothing there, as far as his eyes were concerned there was nothing there but empty space. At least now he knew they hadn't actually found him, if they had they'd be parked a hell of a lot closer and still firing!

He went to the stairwell with his remaining Walther in hand and made his way to the bottom floor. In the lobby of the derelict hi-rise he paused to make sure what was left of his gear was properly stowed in the suits compartments and the suits hood was firmly in place. He switched the Tac-Pack to low power mode. It would not do for his stealth to be blown by the illuminated Tac-Pack while he tried to locate the second Raptor. He knew if he disabled airborne sensors he'd have a greater chance engaging the Stalker on his terms.

He moved to the right of the grid and the Stalker as he tried to get distance, avoiding the trap that he had hoped to draw them into. He scanned the sky nervously for the hull down surveillance drone that he knew had to be out there somewhere. Suddenly he felt very exposed; knowing the unarmed Raptor had, indirectly, already come close to getting him killed once that evening already.

It took only a moment to realise he'd been detected. The Raptor had seen him - it must have, some how it had seen past the sneak suit. It had probably sought out a perch on higher ground and gone to low power mode, waited and watched like its namesake. He knew it was the Raptor that had sensed his approach, he just didn't know how. The suit was still operational. To his eyes he was still reading as thermal ambient and his chameleon simulation was still in place. It must still be thermal leakage from the leg or there was more than the Raptor in the area to worry about? If he was important enough to justify a Stalker maybe satellite time had been arranged as well. He didn't need the Tac-Pack to tell him where the Stalker was any more. He could hear and feel the trampled run, as two tonnes of armoured, six legged tank loped towards him at forty kilometres from across the park.

Looks like sneaking away is out of the question?

He dove under the gazebo of an abandoned shop front a few metres away to gain cover from the Raptor and some time to think. Three quarters of the roof was missing but there was still enough left to gain some cover from airborne eyes. Deep in one corner a three metre rubble pile of ancient concrete and reinforcing rods had been dumped. He levered the largest of the rods aside like pick-up sticks to make room. They were braced so he could crawl beneath them in an attempt to camouflage himself in the scattered metal and concrete. The Stalker was getting closer, less then twenty metres now, close enough to hear the whirring of the twin rotary machine guns spinning up their six electrically-driven barrels to a high pitched whine.

He hated C3 triangulation. One unit sees and all the others shoot, without even needing to see you themselves; they'd already proved how effective the system could be with missile fire.

This is where it gets tricky.

The rotaries opened up! Through the wall and into the mound of rubble he was hunkered down in came a continuous lead hose of flesh-shredding flechette. Sparks flew everywhere as rounds powered through the aerated mass of rubble with nothing of consequence to stop the high velocity projectiles. He didn't move when the rotaries stopped their screaming. He could hear the Raptor now, it descended from the building to investigate the rubble in which he was hiding and the flechette-firing animus was on the other side of the wall no more than ten metres away, stalking him, daring him to move as it sidestepped, crab-like, slowly circling to the shop front.

Hopelessly outclassed by the Stalker, about to be discovered by the Raptor, and to top it off he could now hear the resonant hum of the VTOL in the distance increase in pitch as turbines clawed hard at the air while it accelerated towards him.

Obviously somebody told! His sense of humour still worked over time to stop him from losing his cool.

They were closing the box. It was time to do what he did best if he was to get out of this one alive. Slowly he moved his left hand to his holster in the chest of the sneak suit and drew the Banshee MGP. He extended his arm to the fire across his chest and out through the plascreet wall. Only the reinforcing rods still held it together in most places as the flechette tore through it like it wasn't there. He tried hard to move slowly so as not to alert the Stalker, the adrenaline pumped so hard he could hear his heartbeat in his ears.

The Stalker opened up with the rotaries again and filled the collapsing store with the thunderous roar of the twin mini-guns being fired on him from only eight metres as the Stalker moved in to finish him off. Still all that could be seen through the rubble and the ruined wall of the Stalker was the metre long muzzle flash when the mandible rotaries fired.

A train of rounds struck his chest at a low angle and the seemingly soft Densiform of the sneak suit instantly hardened under the kinetic loads. The rounds ablated the photoreceptive layer of the suit and the dull sheen of fresh metal remained. The rounds continued on their way in only a slightly different track and careened into the rubble around him severing an iron rebar with ease. Close enough to touch, he found himself thinking as he watched it in an unusually calm frame of mind. The rotaries spun down and the Stalker, stalked. The armoured suit was becoming streaked with close calls as rounds ricocheted off the Densiform.

Magnesium Armour Piercing, he silently commanded the Banshee pistol.

He could feel the slightest tingle in the gun as the relatively heavy weight rounds shifted location inside the chamber of the weapon.

Access BioMed. Run Custom File, "Up Shit Creek"

-RUNNING CUSTOM

-WARNING - CURRENT CAPACITER RESERVES WILL ONLY ALLOW TWELVE MINUTES OPERATION AT 110

Great, at this rate this'll be over in two! He thought to himself dryly.

The Stalker was moving again, rounding the corner of the building attempting to bring its once more spun-up rotaries to bear on his position. At least when the Stalker fired it revealed itself, its active camouflage having no hope concealing the metre long continuous muzzle flare when they were letting loose their aggravated assault.

"Frag this", he almost yelled over the thunderous roar of the rotaries as they breathed fire again into the quickly disintegrating building he would soon be buried alive in. Rounds were coming in only centimetres above his face as he lay prone. They annihilated everything they touched, nothing was saved, the rounds came through one wall and out the opposite, the room was in constant motion as dust, steel and stone all took on a life of their own.

He threw caution to the wind, with a blur of motion and more than a hint of desperation he hauled himself out from under the debris covered in pulverised concrete dust. It made his sneak suit next to useless as an item of camouflage, a ghost covered in grey dust. When he finally broke free of the rubble he dove the remaining metre or so to the dusty ground at the front of what was at one time a travel agent. He lay there, prone, panting heavily trying to catch his breath. As he stared at the holed 'verts of tropical islands on the wall, the Stalker side stepped its way around the travel agent's front, continually firing into the long abandoned business.

He rolled over onto his stomach and waited for it to show itself. He was betting his reaction time and targeting skills would be the more accurate and faster than an invisible military-grade dedicated hunter killer.

Yeah Right! He thought, dripping with sarcasm. Remind me why I do this again?

Sweat traced a bead down his cheek and into the corner of his mouth. He tasted the desperation that lay in the salty liquid and for the first time tonight was actually happy he was alone. Anyone else would have questioned his sanity about going up against a walking tank with the equivalent of an armour piercing bee bee gun, and he didn't need any one else's doubts right now, he had enough of his own.

The animus rounded the left side of the building and he finally saw the nebulous camouflaged shimmer of the Stalker for the first time.

"Say Goodnight Gracie", he said, as he raised the MGP.

He activated the ultra sound on the Banshee and watched as his optics built up a topographic image superimposed on the chameleonic blur of the Stalker. He aimed for the head, closed his eyes and fired.

The world went painfully white as he forced his head into the ground hoping to avoid the worst of the flaring effect of the round as the magnesium alloy ignited after penetration. He only bought himself a few moments at best before self repair systems kicked in on the Stalker. He didn't need any further impetus to get his ass moving before it was shot off. The night was day while the magnesium alloy burned like a new star within the head of the silently screaming animus, its head baying to the moon in electronic pain. The entry wound sprouting light like some Lovecraftian lighthouse as the Stalker shook its head like a wounded bull trying to remove an arrow from its thick skull.

And run he did, as fast as he could back behind the mini strip mall he'd just taken refuge in, around to the right of the Stalker and out of its firing arc. His own flare comp went into overdrive trying to cope with the effects of his proximity to the mini sun as he turned back to look while he ran. The Stalker was firing sporadically and blindly with the electric powered rotaries screaming like shrieks of pain when not disgorging forth belches of flame and noise. The magnesium alloy had maxed the optical processors of its active camouflage system and burned it out, revealing the urban grey cammo beneath.

One of its front legs tried desperately to dislodge the flaring magnesium from the proximity of its optical sensors like some three-metre spider trying to clean something off its multiple eyes. The Stalkers six legs moving disjointedly and out of sequence as its overwhelmed A.I tried its best to understand the electronic fury of the world it was now forced to perceive. Optical processors fried and tripped out. Secondary circuits had to deal with the heat of the burning magnesium alloy and were faring just as well as it continued to melt all it touched. The main sensor circuits located deep in the skull of the insect like carapace was now slagged beyond any ability to self repair or bypass.

It went still, the A.I's higher functions shut down and self repair systems activated. The optics were null focus and destroyed beyond repair. It took only a few moments for the backup A.I to assess and decide on a course of action. What remained of the primary A.I rebooted while auto repair circuits shut down all visual systems and the Stalker now relied entirely on its remote link to the Raptor for sensory and targeting information. The whole process took less then twenty seconds, during which time the Stalker was motionless. For all intents and purposes dead, while magnesium continued to burn inside the skull of the animus. Meanwhile the Raptor gained height.

Access BioMed, Run Custom File, Knee Deep, still thinking it best to maintain as much reserve as possible.

Crouching low using cover he made as much distance as possible in the ten seconds before turning back and assessing his situation. He saw the frozen Stalker, immobile, and watched for a few seconds to see if it was playing possum. He checked the Tac-Pack on his arm, he saw the electronic barrier was again fully functional and no longer being jammed by the Stalker, further confirmation of its shutdown state. Now it seemed the question was no longer one of survival but of avoidance of whatever remained to hunt him. He started patting down the dust and debris that had settled over his sneak suit and checked any damage that may have done more than just leave furrows in the dull mimetic metal. Close by now he could hear the VTOL and its screaming turbines as it drew closer, doubtless attracted by the fire fight.

One spotter, one hunter, one fire support. Anything else?

He looked back once more and saw the disabled chromed HK animus. The Stalker was still off line, so he crouched low still brushing debris from his suit and made his escape before the VTOL got there.

He was too far away to have any idea about the re-initialisation of primary logic circuits, nor did he react to the buzzing Tac-Pack on his arm as it announced the reactivation of the Stalker's Jammers going broad spectrum. He didn't see the motion of hydraulics as they began slowly moving the four metre long squat animus. He didn't hear the masked electric whir of the rotaries spinning up nor the attention of the Stalker as it turned to concentrate its mandible mini-guns on him from a hundred and fifty metres away.

By the time he heard the sonic booms as flechette screamed forth from the rotaries it was too late. The hypersonic rounds had already eaten their way through his right arm just below the elbow. He watched dumbfounded as the slow motion shower of carbon fibre composite, myomar fibres, Densiform armour fragments, green hydraulic fluid and synthetic dermis passed by his face. The momentum from the rounds propelled him forward, spun him onto his back and accelerated him into the ground, probably saving his life from the subsequent rounds now seeking out his the rest of his body. He watched as the slow motion flight of mini-missiles passed overhead and exploded only a few metres away bathing him in heat and light as flame washed over his prone form.

SYSTEM C#OMPROMISED.

"NO FRAGGIN SHIT"!

He lay there on his back in shock. How could he have been so stupid? He could hear the Stalker running towards his position, and he rolled over, better to see the death that was coming for him. Then he caught a break, he saw the Raptor or more to the point it was close enough to see the thermal signature of its turbine and he went to aim with the Banshee in his right hand and realised that all he held up was an almost surgically removed stump arcing and performing an erratic dance of its own choreography.

He retrieved and holstered the Banshee from the wreckage of his right arm that lay severed on the ground and assessed his options. The Stalker was so close he could hear the rotaries powering down with the absence of a perceived target. It was moving in but it was temporarily occulted by more rubble as it moved for a better firing angle on his last position.

He stood up and moved into plain sight of the flechette animus as it moved into view and swung to face him. It was now no more then three metres away. The Raptor rocketed to a spectator position twenty metres from the arena and hovered, speculative and omniscient, directly behind him.

The Stalker arched threateningly, like an angry spider, its thorax was high in the air while its head stayed low to the ground, rotary machine guns where fangs would be. The Stalker was badly scorched from its ordeal with the magnesium, which had finally expended. A thick line of smoke still erupted from the heat-expanded entry wound just to the left of the forehead as internal components still burned. There were no longer any active sensor emanations from the animus, and the usual red glowing eye clusters where cold and dark.

The two faced each other like ancient gun fighters who had somehow survived the first exchange of fire and were readying themselves for round two. One amputated one blind. Even though he couldn't decipher the radio traffic between the two units he had a good idea what was going on regarding the exchange of sensor information. In fact he relied on it; he just hoped the lag of the Stalker having to reprocess firing solutions would be enough of an edge for what he was contemplating next.

-ORDE#&!RS…?

He scowled in concentration, tracing ballistic trajectories in his mind. Left, right, up. Four moves two kills.

The rotaries began to spin up.

Time to go to work.

The rotaries roared again as he vaulted toward the Stalker, like a light-speed dervish whirling and rolling to vault over the animus as the hyper accelerated flechette sizzled about and beneath his flight.

Too slow the targeting systems of the Stalker traced after him as he silently vaulted over the hunter killer, the trail of bullets exploding like a wake of death into and across the ruined cityscape, near and far.

The optical systems of the Raptor tried desperately to track the amputated, chameleonic blur as it vaulted over the Stalker. An artificial iris retreated into its protective socket as the wake of flechette projectiles tore through its lightly armoured body. The Raptor drone splintered and shattered like china, stealth synthetics ablative to the grim super solid metal barrage of rotary flechette careening into and through it from the misguided, blind Stalker.

-WARNING - BIO ENERGY FEEDBACK ELECTRICAL SYSTEM OVERLOAD. CAPACITOR DISCHARGE REQUIRED

Terrific - what else could go wrong, he thought to himself, realizing that once more his sense of humour was slipping.

He landed hard on top of Stalker and immediately flattened his body upon it as it began to dance and careen, trying to remove the unexpected weight now on its back. He braced himself with his knees and his feet and with his remaining arm retrieved his two wads of Wacky Tackies. He mashed both behind the skull at the neck joint as the Stalker bucked like a wild stallion trying to dislodge him. He released his grip as the Stalker threw him from its back.

Hull down now, he waited for his next moment to spring, he was now several metres behind and hidden from the completely blind Stalker and he looked for somewhere to go for cover for the light show that was to come next.

To his right, the newly arrived VTOL rose above the central ruined hi-rise, a giant hornet with an angry sting, its dorsal and chin turrets searching back and forth like a scorpion's tail seeking prey. Still a hundred metres away, plenty of time, he wanted them to see this, to see what this old man could do to their bright and shiny toys.

A searchlight from the VTOL seared down from above, filling the arena with the artificial blue white sun. Still on wide beam, they hadn't yet found either himself or the Stalker. That would change, time to end this.

He waited for the catalyst to initiate the chemical reaction in the explosive then just stood back and watched the show. The explosive of the Wacky Tackies was a very fast burning one, no huge fireball, just the barest whisper of white smoke as they released their energy. The skull of the Stalker shot forward on its neck, hyper-extending as though it had just been hit in the back of the head by a howitzer shell. At first he thought the skull would continue in its motion but with no such luck while the charges together would split a car in two, they weren't large enough to crack the military armour of the animus. The head hung loosely but was still attached to the rest of the body. He could see the Stalker trying to bring his head up and failed. It was now only able to move it from side to side with a few tens of degrees.

-WARNING BIO ENERGY FEEDBACK

-CAPACITOR DISCHARGE REQUIRED

Oh great!

Next!

He could see the hunter killer clearly, ten metres away from his position as he hid himself behind the lip of a crater. It was raking its head back and forth like an angry bull looking to charge he could clearly see that while the neck armour was blackened it was still in place. It was then he realized that the chrome animus had filled the air with ultra sound in a vain attempt to find him with what was left of its sensors. It no longer had the advantage of the Raptor feeding him sensor info - of course all that would change should the VTOL see him and he was sure the Stalker still had plenty of ammunition.

Time to put you out of my misery!

He once more drew the Banshee Grenade Pistol.

Armour Piercing.

The round slid into place and he aimed at the junction point of neck and torso.

An eye for an eye.

He fired the grenade and watched behind the rim of the crater. The round exploded on the surface of the armoured animus but only a small detonation could be seen. When the smoke cleared the skull was at an odd angle and the whole left side of the neck was missing armour from the junction at the base of the head to the torso but the skull was still in place.

"SHIT"! What's that bloody thing made of?

The Stalker charged blindly.

-TEN SECONDS TO COMPLETE SYSTEM OVERLOAD

For all the sweetness in your voice there are times you really get on my nerves. He thought to the encephalon as it calmly warned him of the shut down of all cybernetic systems when mains power had fried itself.

-DISCHARGE BEFORE OVERLOAD IS RECOMENDED

It doesn't rain….

-NINE …EIGHT

He could hear the hunter killer prowl back and forth its mini-guns still spinning, searching for its lost target. He knew the longer the VTOL hovered above, the closer the other hunter killer teams would come. Time was definitely not with him.

SEVEN …SIX

-EMERGENCY DISCHARGE REQUIRED

I thought I told you to shut it!

Let's see how smart this dog brain is.

He tested the left leg for flexibility.

It'll have to do. There's no time.

The hunter killer's acoustic sensors immediately reacted to the stone as it bounced and ricocheted of the surrounding rubble. The Stalker vaulted towards the disturbance and jumped across the open expanse of the crater near where the stone landed. Ultra sound sensors probed, the emanations flooded the area in sensory energy that he could plainly hear and feel.

-FIVE….FOUR

He vaulted upward from his hiding place in the crater as the Hunter Killer passed above him and took the Stalker completely by surprise. They came together with a metallic crunch; he grappled with the animus mechanica where thorax and armoured carapace head met as he was suspended beneath it.

The Stalker misplaced its front right leg, hunter and hunted collapsed in armoured fury. The Stalker's artificial brain failed to calculate mass, inertia and barely seen terrain correctly due to its unexpected passenger. A confused mass of flesh and steel rolled in dark dirt until it came to a halt like Tarzan wrestling his weekly lion.

-THREE …TWO

The Stalker tried to regain its feet like a spider turned over. He scrambled up the body and locked his left arm in a grapple around the Stalker's already damaged neck. Inexorably he forced the arcing remnants of his right arm into the exposed cleft where the armour piercing grenade struck. He pushed his arm deep into the chest cavity and sought out the sweet spot where the sensors trunk and the artificial nervous system met.

Bingo.

DISCHARGE! He mentally screamed the command to the BioMed, the adrenaline of the moment overriding his previous doubts of the lingua soft's capacity to comprehend his thoughts.

-DISCHARGING

The remaining pain receptors in his right arm tripped, thankfully it prevented his already over-stimulated nervous system reacting to the several hundred volts now arced through what remained of his arm, and passed the into the convulsing animus.

He knew he didn't have much hope of short circuiting the shielded A.I but with luck the nervous system would be fried and next to useless. More importantly the Stalker would no longer be a threat to him. Of course he'd said that once tonight already.

The animus went limp and began to twitch. He removed the stump which was all that remained of his right arm from the smoking, fused mess of data and power conduits that used to reside in the neck of the Hunter Killer. The acrid stench of burnt silicon and metal mixed with the smell of ozone was strong in air. The black smoke wafted in puffs as the Stalkers shielded A.I still attempted to complete it mission. The great shaking manmade monstrosity was almost comical as it tried to bring its no longer functional guns to bear. The Stalker twitched like a newly born doe trying to get to its feet and failing miserably as its coordination left it.

REsu$SURVES Dep$Lleted

RESI(DUAL POWER ROUTED TO BIOMED

AI SYSTEM SUPPoRT ….

P#$###IPHERAL FIRMWARE OFFLINE…

CLON&!GEAR A.I h…IBERNATING…

SENNNNNSORSUITE OVERlasHEATED

BIOLGIC SENSORS AVAILABLE ONLY…

NANOROUTE ANd NEURAL SYSTEM ## AVAILABLE #IN

LOW##$OWER MODE ONLY

I get the goddamned point.

-ORD##ERS?

Hibernate …All Primary …Systems, …..Maintain Autonomic… Nervous System Support, he thought to the BioMed as it waited patiently for him to finish. Even thinking hurt now and the commands came out with staggered pauses.

He immediately felt the power drain from his systems as artificial limbs went into low power standby. He felt heavy and wooden losing his lithe physical prowess; it felt as though he'd been awake for forty eight hours and had just run a double marathon. Exhaustion had already started to overtake him. He hardly had enough meat left in his body to carry his cyber-ware without primary power. It didn't help that he could now see himself as well, the suits active camouflage was no longer functional and he could no longer run a diagnostic mentally with his head-ware down.

The VTOL's spotlight vigilantly traced search patterns across the arena. Beams sharpened to transcendental cones of relentlessness by the thick clouds of dust that spumed across the now extinct melee.

He moved away slowly from the still arcing Stalker and regained his feet standing tall in the now flechette-cratered landscape. Statuesque, he surveyed the scene around him; besides the VTOL he was the only thing left functional in the arena. The final gladiator. The twitching animus trailed a thin line of black smoke like bread crumbs to the night sky telling all and sundry the hunter killer's final resting place.

"Okay. So maybe four moves was ambitious", he murmured to himself looking at the remnants of his severed, smoking arm. That's gonna sting in the morning.

$&&IOLOGIC SENSOR #LOAD

NUERALSYSTEM#MANAGEMENT!COMPROMISED….TERMIN#!##

"Terrific", fell from his lips as all pretence of control left him!

His face screwed into a ball of torture as he was harshly reacquainted with the fullness of unchecked damages that still wracked his broken body. The pain was merciless and screamed at him through every fibre of his synthetic being. Without the aid of the pain editor or nano routing he could no longer ignore the ravages the evenings actions had wrought like a great hammer on the anvil of his body. He fell to hand and knees as the pain overwhelmed him, his mind filled with the electronic noise from fused and destroyed cybernetics. False data filled his senses. It clouded and confused the now barely functional encephalon head wear.

He breathed heavily as he tried to bring the pain under control through sheer force of will and gritted teeth; he roughly fumbled through his Mini-Meds and looked for any slap patches that remained, barely able to see through the tears of pain. He found what he was looking for and slapped two of the clear, morphine laden patches into place under the suit on his neck. He forced himself to calm down and tried to regain some measure of control over the pain. And waited for the few minutes before the slap patches to kicked in. All the while the VTOL was circumnavigating the arena, still looking for him while he hid.

Carefully and with great effort he tried once more to stand, braced his remaining hand on his knee and succeeded after taking two or three unsteady steps. Coming to his full height he surveyed the damage to the battleground of the park surrounding him. Thousands of micro craters now littered the ground; they were arranged in great lines leading right up to the fallen creature's maw. The mini-guns had chewed through everything their hostile projectiles had come in contact with. The flechette rounds had shredded concrete and left their mark. Where ever the rounds had hit soil, they left a crater the size of a clenched fist. The mini-guns still showed signs of sporadic movement as the recoil compensators received latent erratic signals from the dying Stalker.

The Stalker, two flaming Raptors and the destroyed apartment building, all now scrap just more casualties to add to the rest of the ancient park's wrought destruction. All a testament and now silent witnesses to the events of the evening's modern rendition of the gladiatorial games. This time however there was no grand emperor to grant life or death at the whim of the screaming masses. No, that decision had been made long ago by a faceless bean counter who had calculated he was now a risk. A risk too high to be allowed to continue unchecked and a recall was ordered. His recall! It had meant the bean counters had decided it was cheaper to terminate than cover up, not that that was unusual really.

Just sign on the dotted line and all you troubles will be over. His minds eye recreated the scene as the order was given to send out the hunting pack against him.

Not this time though! He had already made sure of that. The resources that had been arrayed against him had been top shelf and if he were to be completely honest with himself he knew he should not have survived the engagements. But with the overindulgence of the morphine, the deadening of the pain cleared his mind to make room for unreasonable overconfidence.

He started tracing the flight path of the angry VTOL as it was still surveying the area looking for him and their lost hardware. Its four gimballed, shrouded turbines were screaming as they took the weight of the heavily armed and armoured hovering APC. Its stubby weapon wings in urban mottled grey. They were sitting out of the side, unfolded, looking like imitation bird wings although completely out of scale to the rest of the craft. Considering the rest of the VTOL the ratio looked closer to a sparrow attempting to fly a brick. But with enough application of throughst even the most un-aerodynamic brick can fly.

Now his only problem seemed to be how would he get inside the T-Bird without being chewed to pieces by it first? He knew GenTech would want to recover their hardware at some time but he also knew he was no longer in any shape to take on any one let alone corporate samurai or teched up soldiers who were sure to be attendance.

Decisions, decisions, he thought to himself.

His Israeli Fence alerted him that the time for choices was over. He checked the Tac-Pack on his left fore arm which showed signs of electrical scorching and the edges of the hard plastic had started to melt. The Tac-Pack indicated that there was another unidentified target closing on the park, the icon cycling through possible target types based on speed and movement characteristics. With the failure of his encephalon head ware he could no longer give mental commands to the Tac-Pack. He had to unclip the unit so he could process the target information with his remaining hand and tagged Target Bravo using the touch screen. Now he knew he was in trouble; normal actions were becoming more and more awkward as his combat abilities where whittled away, his suits active camouflage was still offline and his lack of power was just about to become a serious problem as well.

The T-Bird scried the park looking for him, its spotlight weaving back and forth in front of its flight path like a blind man's cane. Cold light fingers seeking him out like he was an errant bug to be squashed. It was now only fifty metres or so away from finding the ruined Stalker and getting closer by the second.

The manual buzzing on his left forearm alerted him to the insistent Tac-Pack which he casually looked at, expecting more information on the second unidentified. What he didn't expect to see was the immanent failure of his electronic fence due to increased jamming as yet a third unidentified presence had moved into the area. Its existence with a second jamming system was enough to begin to overload the unshielded processing electronics of the fence.

Not good! He thought to himself, eyes widening Ever the master of the understatement.

In his current condition he considered it a god send to still be walking, there was no way by any stretch of the imagination he would survive an encounter with another Stalker right now. He should have never have survived the first one, two more was a guarantee of his failure. There was no bravado left in him. He needed to hide and fast, any moment now he'd be in range of the microwave sensors of the VTOL and he had no doubts as to his suits current capability to handle such energy at so close a range. There would be no hiding then. He needed hard cover and fast if he was to last more than a few seconds.

I don't know what I did or who I did it too but I sure as hell ticked off someone for them to go to so much trouble.

The T-Bird's lights found and fixed upon the second silent Raptor and its scattered remains.

He looked at the twitching animus of the Stalker, rapid seconds racing towards probably the most ridiculous idea he had ever conceived. The T-Bird continued to edge closer and continued to stir up dust and garbage beneath it. The VTOL was only seconds away from the still arcing Stalker.

Here it comes.

Beneath the cover of the gout of dust and debris, he sprinted (or rather made best time) towards the ruined animus, then struggled to get beneath it. Breathing with great gulps and contorted features as the un-edited pain again made it presence known through the morphine. The fear of running across the open ground to the twitching Stalker passed in the following decelerating seconds as he used the last of the still covering rubble to slide under the great grey automaton. Time ground to a halt as the Stalker twitched and was speared by light from the VTOL above as he scrambled beneath it. They wouldn't stop now until he was pig-spit, spat on and served up on a silver platter. All that filled his world was the screaming turbines of the stationary APC above him.

He snarled with effort and the aggressive pain to lift the spasming animus, just enough to give him the breathing room he'd need if he wanted the Stalker to shield him from the active sensors of the VTOL. With a leg shot in the primary and the rest of him on minimal power, not to mention the damage he'd already sustained, he felt like Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Atlas kicked in the nuts.

"Come on guys, not sure how long I can keep this up", he said grunting under his breath as the T-Bird continued to weave its dance in the sky above.

His Tac-Pack was buzzing once more, no doubt wanting to pass on even more bad news. Only this time he was no longer in any position to read the display as it was taking all his effort to just keep standing with the load of the dying Stalker spread squarely across his back. Only four of its legs were supporting any of its weight and the best he could do was lever the Stalker a metre off the ground as its weight began to be too much.

Finally the T-Bird started to descend, what remained of his passive systems could hear the microwave energy flood the area as active sensors scanned for signs of his presence, which thankfully were still being masked by the bulk of the Stalker. Finally his energy levels failed, he could stand no more and he fell to his knees. Two tonnes of Stalker and the inertia of its fall hit him square in the back and drove him into the ground like some misguided pile driver.

Isn't that just typical?

Exhaustion and pain threatened to overwhelm him and he fought back the urge to just close his eyes and give up, put up his hands and call it a day. Resolve slipped away with his consciousness as he finally lost the battle he'd been fighting for the last ten minutes.

GET UP, his mind screamed at him.

He opened his eyes for a moment and from his position on his side under the now dead Stalker he could see the T-Bird. It was picking up great clouds of dust as it moved in to touch down, the side passenger sliding door already opening before the undercarriage touched ground. His eyes closed. He barely comprehended the scene.

GET UP NOW, some part of his mind was still awake and wanted to save his bacon.

He opened his eyes again with great effort and tried to comprehend what he was looking at. He saw two men in urban camouflage fatigues and two metre long sniper rifles that milled about near the T-Bird seemingly at ease as its turbines cycled down. Someone unseen barked an order, the two soldiers moved as though startled by something and suddenly looked busy. One climbed the nearest rubble pile and set up the long rifle in a prone position as he sat and watched. While the other corpor' jacked his senses to the electronics of the rifle and stayed in the gunner's sliding door position of the T-Bird, all he that he perceived of the world was now interpreted first by the targeting software of the rifle as it looked for possibles.

Other boots were only thirty metres away and walked towards the Stalker and his hiding place beneath it. His mind snapped back in an instant as though waking from a dream and realising he was already late for work. He rubbed the dust from his eyes and tried to think what he was going to do now. First he tested his legs to see just how trapped he was under the mass of the Stalker. It took only a few moments to get his left leg free but his right was still pinned from the knee down under the Stalkers rear counter weight/ammo bins and refused to budge. He grabbed a two metre length of steel pipe that was mercifully close to hand and after a few moments of awkward repositioning managed to use the pipe as a lever to free his stiff, impacted right ankle. The ankle had the full weight of the ammo bins land on it, all skin and concealing flesh was abraded away. The ankle itself jammed at an off angle as it was crushed by the weight of the Stalker. After a few moments of testing the range of motion he used a heavy stone to beat a stubborn retaining ring into submission, popping it free with an audible "twang" as it finally gave in and sailed off into the air allowing free if not smooth movement to return to the battered ankle. Now the ankle looked like it came off the worse for wear in a fender bender, most of the flesh was missing from the ankle down and his two hundred dollar shoes were just another casualty. The resilient and lite titanium/aluminium alloy at the joints that the 'ware was made from didn't retain its shape like the Densiform did after it was damaged.

He answered the summons of his Tac-Pack which was still pining for his attention by its insistent vibration alert. Both Targets Bravo and Charlie were now confirmed as two more Stalker class Hunter Killers, they had stopped their jamming and they had taken up station keeping a hundred metres out from the T-Bird circling, at opposite sides of the make shift arena and its personnel.

A power indicator placed in his field of vision through his Cannon Optics told him he had little time before what little reserve that was left was exhausted. Under normal circumstances the tritium power cells usually lasted longer than the cyber ware did. These just weren't normal circumstances.

He looked around for options, tried to come up with strategies in the next few moments to prevent him being seen and that would let him survive the night. He checked the viability of reinitializing the sneak suit and after a brief check he realized the power source had fried when his primary power discharged but the breakers had kicked in on the suit so at least the hardware could still be functional. He rolled awkwardly as much as he could, farther under the dead Stalker to better hide his bulk. He shifted his weight as he rolled onto his stomach and emptied the contents of the Mini-Meds onto the ground in front of him. He looked for any sort of makeshift tool that he could use. Finding the same retractor he'd used earlier on his thigh he rolled onto his back and went to work on the Stalker's access panels.

Using a retractor on an access point that's designed for precision tools wasn't that easy but to his surprise it cracked the panel in only a few moments. He found what he was looking for, wire. Enough wire to make a bridge between the power source of the Tac-Pack and sneak suit. He checked the location of the field tech's boots to see how much time he had and confirmed he didn't have much. Thankfully they were more interested in the burning wreckage of the Raptor at the moment but that probably wouldn't last for long.

With no pliers, stripping the wire of insulation with only one hand and only using teeth hidden behind the veil of the sneak suit had been frustrating to say the least, but it only took a few minutes to make the bridge. Unfortunately he couldn't have both devices working at the same so the Tac-Pack was taken offline to provide power. He crossed his fingers and the sneak suit initialised. The sneak suits damage was starting to become apparent as well with over a dozen furrows etched into the suit from where the optics layer had been abraded away by rounds hitting the Densiform. The clearly visible foot and blackened carbon and myomar of the arm certainly didn't help either. As damaged as it was he still retained roughly ninety percent coverage with what remained of the suit.

He was almost manically ecstatic with the results as the exhaustion and the stress of his situation eroded his self control. Testing his range of motion he noticed static was pronounced with even gradual movement as the bridge flexed. Using the Mini-Meds scalpel he cut a small hole in the seam of the suit to run the wires inside and repositioned the Tac-Pack to the chest holster for greater protection. He checked the location of the field tech's again and saw they were still milling about the Raptor's carcass. He tested the range of motion of his ankle again and was finally happy with the results.

He was no technician, field or otherwise. He only knew basic repairs and hotwires that had occasionally saved his bacon in the past but what he saw next brought a broad grin to his face.

"No, I can't be that lucky", he said under his breath as he started to move aside a cable junction buried deep inside the access panel. The grin just got bigger. Deep inside the panel he saw the Stalker's reserve power cells. Three of them lined up nicely in a row just waiting to be put to better use. How fitting that the Stalker that so nearly killed him would now be used to save his life.

Heres hoping it's not fried, he thought as he reached deep into the access panel and realised that hands that could punch through steel weren't that good at being squeezed into tight places.

With a little cursing and a slight electrical burn he managed to retrieve two of the tritium power cells, their status LED's told him they were almost full so he swung the panel back into place and rolled out from under the Stalker on the opposite side.

Coming to grips with his body's complete lack of energy was becoming harder and harder as the seconds ticked by. Now that he was forced to stand he realised just how slow he had become and walking had been reduced to something more akin to a barely controlled stumble. With effort though, he made his way to the cover of a long burned-out car shell. As he got there his energy reserves finally gave out and both legs failed and he fell, head first into the side of the car as he fell heavily beside it. Breathing hard he once more fought off the wave of exhaustion that threatened to steal consciousness from him and failed.

He awoke again with a start to the pungent smell of burning silicon wafting in the air. Unwanted images flashed before his eyes, all visions of burning and pain from his past. His heart raced as he looked around in sudden paranoia realising he must have passed out once more and had lost track of the Stalkers and the crew from the VTOL. The fear of being discovered constricted his throat and made his mouth dry but there was little he could do about it in the state he was in. He attempted to get up from behind the burned out wreck of the car that he must have propped himself - moments before he passed out again. It was no good - he wasn't going any where in this state. His legs were no longer responding to his commands he was nothing more than expensive immobile scrap at this point.

Relax, he chided himself. And just plain calm down, besides if they'd found me then I'd already be dead so what's left to worry about?

As if to prove the point, no more than ten metres away two more corporate samurai walked by him. Luckily for him they were too involved in their own conversation and they weren't paying too much attention to their surrounds, or else he would've been the quintessential sitting duck. He was at a loss as to what to do next, the excess morphine in his system and the chronic fatigue weren't helping either.

The two tritium power cells clanged heavily against each other in his pocket as he tried to get up once more.

Idiot, if he'd had the energy he'd have smacked his forehead.

Taking the power cells from his pocket he opened the armour panel on the side of his left thigh and removed the burned out ones. They were so badly drained not even the LED indicators were still working anymore. He compared the old cell with its replacement and thanked the cyber gods for standardisation as slid them into place, one into each thigh. Immediately the surge of new power rushed through depleted systems. It was like the junkies rush after loosening the tourniquet and allowing their drug to rush through their veins, flooding their body in unbridled ecstasy. Power, in all manner of the word put him on a high he thought he would never experience again.

His primary head-ware systems were still badly damaged and the neural cyber was still in auto repair mode as the nanos went to work to reconnect damaged and overloaded neurons to the encephalon 'ware. Either way he still had to wait for the damaged neurons to settle down and the new connections to be grown. There was no point dwelling on it, just add it to the list of repairs when he got out of here. He may not have sensors or A.I support but there was still patience and observation to get the job done. Not to mention the still functional hotwired sneak suit. The chances of sneaking out of here, while still stacked against him, weren't impossible if he had a little luck and didn't do anything stupid.

Lets see what we shall see, he thought, adjusting his optical mag to better scope out the landed VTOL T-Bird and checked the sneak suit again for static as he moved. He settled down to watch and wait for everyone to get nice and bored.

He didn't have to wait long; he'd gone to ground again in one of the craters that littered the arena. It was a good spot too, roughly in the middle of the patrol sequence of the two Stalkers and usually out of line of sight as they did their prescribed route still looking for him. These Stalkers weren't camou'd like their first cousin and instead of being escorted by Raptors, each Stalker had a two man cyber team with them on point.

So nice to feel wanted.

The two snipers weren't even jacked in looking for him anymore, relying instead on the sensors of the Stalkers and the landed T-Bird. It had only taken an hour for the corporate soldiers in their urban cammo and smart rifles to drop their guard. They wandered back to the VTOL and start swapping war stories about how bored they'd ever been and where. He didn't have to hear it to know how the conversation went; he'd been there enough times himself.

"Idiots!" He mumbled under his breath.

Slowly but carefully he started to make his way towards them. He avoided the field techs altogether who had finally gotten around to investigating the non functional Stalker. They were now talking loudly about best methods of recovery or whether they should just hold the area till morning to allow the ground teams to pick it up. They were too busy to notice the ghostly silhouette passing fifty metres away in the dark.

It took longer than expected to make his way to the VTOL thanks to one of the samurai teams making chit chat for half an hour with the snipers when they got overly bored with their assigned patrol. The entire time they were talking he was frozen thirty metres away back against one of the ancient concrete palms that was a supporting concrete pillar for a building that no longer existed. The severed arm was behind his back to cover its still leaking thermal radiation. The entire time he was barely breathing to keep his energy levels and CO2 concentrations down so his damaged suit could handle the thermal energy it was trying to soak. It was a longest thirty four minutes of his life.

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't take much to take out the two long rangers' but tonight hadn't been normal by any stretch of the imagination. If the snipers got a radio message off or even worse he mistimed the event then his night was still gonna get a whole sight uglier before he was through. The down side of the sniper's specialization was that it's very easy to get out of your depth when the battle was not of your choosing. He was a close range specialist and always had been. His cyber ware was designed around high speed close combat and even without an arm he was still more than a match for un-amped snipers. If they'd been on their toes maybe there'd be an ounce of pity for them but not now, not after what he'd already been put through. He'd already had enough for one evening and it was about time he got the chance to take it out on somebody, up close and personal like. Speed and surprise were still his best weapons and he'd need to be seriously quick to disable them before they got a radio message out.

So he waited until he knew the moment was right - if nothing else in this business, with age came patience, the right time would present itself, his job was to be ready for when it did. The last five metres were covered at a full sprint, the last step putting him in position for the hip throw and coat hanger combination that cold cocked the first. While the first sniper was still falling to the ground he turned to the next. The second he took out with a quick snap kick to the oversized sniper rifle somersaulting it up and over to land neatly in his hand, he continued its circling motion like a cheer leaders baton and drove the butt of the weapon to intercept the base of the skull of the corporate soldier. The second sniper was unconscious before the first finished hitting the ground. With the two snipers no longer posing a problem he retrieved one of their radio sets and froze, looked, and listened for any hints the alarm had been raised. Satisfied that he wasn't in any immediate danger, he entered the interior of the VTOL, finding out then that it was more than a simple Armoured Personnel Carrier. The two jockeys jacked into the doppelganger hardware told him that.

The two doppelganger stations were mounted transverse to the interior and just behind the sealed pilot compartment facing forward. The stations were humming with power as the direct neural circuits that the jockeys were jacked into transmitted their nervous system responses directly to A.I boosted auto pilots in the Stalkers. The creepy thing was that they rode their mounts with their eyes open as their senses were hijacked by nervous system overrides and replaced with targeting and C3 - Command, Control and Communications data. Their eyes may have been open but all they could comprehend right now was what was being sent to them the sensor links from the Stalkers.

Realising the jocks weren't a threat unless the Stalkers outside had seen him, he returned his attention back to the unconscious snipers. It took only a few moments to load their bodies into the T-Bird and slide the armoured door home.

He didn't waste any time to see if his efforts had worked without his being seen now that he was in the relative safety of the T-Bird. He moved forward to the doppelganger stations and put one of the jocks into a choke hold and waited for the breath to slow and the eyes to close as the jock slipped into unconsciousness.

That's when his attention was drawn back to the radio headset.

"You're not listening to me"! An obviously panicked voice was whispering over the radio link. "He's here; he's inside the fraggin crew compartment"!

"There goes the neighbourhood!" He thought, shaking his head

The jig was up; there was no longer any pretence for being nice. He tried the compartment door already knowing it would be locked tight and of course, it was.

"Open this door, NOW! And you have my word you'll get out of this alive". He yelled through the door but shifted to a softer voice half way through. He didn't want to scare the pilot into inaction. I do NOT have time for this!

It was probably the samurais the pilot was talking to and right now everyone outside would be making a beeline for the T-Bird. He looked around for options which were quickly running out. Then he saw the heavy sniper rifles, then he looked back at the locked pilots door. The thing could shoot through an APC, how tough would an internal door be?

He grabbed the fifty calibre sniper rifle off the floor, it was almost as long as he was tall and he noticed he was standing right beside the second jock that was still active at his consol. So he braced the over sized rifle on hip and the crook of his right arm and sucker punched the jock across the jaw with his left. He felt quite pleased with himself as the jock slumped forward in his station, only his flight straps stopping him from falling face first into his console.

"Last chance, open the door or I'll huff and I'll puff. And I won't be happy when I get in there", he shouted through the armoured interior door.

"I have a gun", was all that he heard in response in response.

He stood to the left of the door and aimed obliquely at the lock points; he'd been in these Birds hundreds of times or ones just like them so he knew the locks where triple points.

Knock, knock.

The first shot rang out like a smithies hammer. The rifle was silenced and there was surprisingly little recoil considering he was hip firing the massive gun. The second and third shots where just as easy, each shot scything through the armour plate like it was hardly even there, leaving a hole the size of a golf ball.

"He's coming through, he's coming fraggin through"! The panic in the pilot's voice was almost hysterical now over the com link.

Jeez, where'd they get this guy?

He grinned like the Cheshire cat as he slung the rifle and used his considerable bulk to kick his way through the deformed door. That's when the pistol shots rang out from inside the pilots' compartment and thudded against the plate armour. He just waited till he heard the click, click, click of the expended magazine before he bashed his way through. The door burst open with one final heave as the shot through locks eventually gave in. He stood framed in the doorway and looked very much the worse for wear for the day he'd had. The pilot fainted, pistol still in his hand.

Well, that was easy.

He dragged the pilot into the main cabin to join the rest of his unconscious crew and went back to the pilot's chair. While not technically able to fly these things he knew enough to get into the air and down again; evasive manoeuvres and fancy flying was another matter.

Within moments the turbines were at speed and the T-Bird started to spew forth dust and debris as it prepared to lift off its near ten tonnes of flying baulk, blinding the field techs still trying to shoot him with hand guns through anti tank armour. The uncomfortably familiar screaming siren's call of high velocity flechette started ringing in his ears again as the two Stalkers opened up with their rotary mini-guns fifty metres away and directly ahead. The rounds rang off the external plate like high velocity hail as he headed straight at them. He looked desperately for the weapon arming switches as the distance closed.

The first hint he had that something was wrong was when the pistol's muzzle came to rest on the back of his head.

"Shut it down". It was the pilot's voice.

I knew it was too easy! He thought rolling his eyes. I gotta stop being so trusting.

He scanned everything in front of him looking for an idea or a weapon. He even considered rolling the VTOL at the height of only twenty metres, and immediately dismissed it, he doubted he'd survive the encounter any better than the pilot would.

"And if I don't"? Was all he could think to say to buy time.

"Then I splatter your brains all over the windshield. - I don't think you're that dumb". There was a hint of menace in the pilot's voice that left no doubt as to his intent

"I guess that answers that then", his hand came to rest on what he thought was the pilot seats pitch lever. As quick as he could he moved all his weight forward hoping to draw the pilot off balance, closer to the seat and reefed the lever. A single shot rang out through the cockpit and hit the ballistic armour glass.

It wasn't the pitch lever. The seat took him by surprise as it dropped ten centimetres onto the right foot of the pilot who began a long scream of pain as his full weight and thirty kilos of ejector seat crushed and pinned his foot.

The Stalkers were no longer under direct jockey control but their A.I was still smart enough to listen to the orders of the samurais, and the two had started to fire their micro missiles on the T-Bird. Their cacophonous explosions erupted around the exterior of the hull as the fat bird vainly tried to fly. He shoved the throttle to the boards in response to the incoming fire.

"One emergency at a fraggin time, PLEASE!" He yelled his anxiety to the unhearing Stalkers.

He still couldn't see the pilot but he could still hear him scream in pain behind him. The pilot scrabbled for the lever that released the seat so he could free his foot.

He didn't wait for a better opportunity this time, with his left arm he bear hugged the pilot diagonally across his torso and used all his cybernetic strength to pin him to the ejector seat. It was all he could think of to restrain the pilot and put an end to the situation. He decreased power and rotated the turbines to bring the VTOL to a stop. The T-Bird hung suspended in the sky circling slowly while his left arm was busy with the pilot.

First he heard the pilots sternum go with an audible crack as the stresses became too much. The pilot was desperate and began shooting his pistol into the back of the ejector seat hoping to penetrate the light padding in the frame. He felt the rounds hit and their kinetic energy shifted him a little in his seat as they imparted their velocity into the sneak suit, but he held fast to the pilot and increased the pressure. Nine rounds left the gun before he heard the click, click of an empty chamber.

The pilot was near unconscious, primal instinct overwhelmed him as he desperately sought breath. His left hand flailed wildly while the rest of his body was still pinned. The pilot's left arm became more frantic and started clawing at the air as life began to leave his body. Until they came to rest on the power control yokes and in reflex started randomly reefing levers until consciousness left him and he slid to the floor.

Multi-colour displays started winking out one by one as the flight computers lost power. His eyes darted left then right as he tried to figure what had just happened as more and more control systems shut down.

"No…no…NO!" His voice cracking as his frustration rose and he beat the top of the dash with clenched fist in a vain attempt to get something working again.

He tried to recover the aircraft, but it was too late. He only had manual control of the turbines, the lift circuits were offline so ninety percent of the T-Birds weight returned with a vengeance. Before he realised what had happened, momentum and gravity had done their jobs. The T-Bird at the height of only thirty metres, headed for earth. He found the switch for the weapon stores and recessed the stubby weapon-wings. He just prayed they were stowed away before they hit something and detonated the stores they contained. He did the same with the undercarriage; it wasn't going to be a normal landing in any way and he doubted having the undercarriage down would make any difference.

With only seconds to react to the barely in control VTOL he gunned the turbines to their stops and aimed the craft for one of the rubble piles close by, he hoped against hope to stop the destruction of the only vehicle that had any chance at all to get him out of this mess in one piece. The mini-gun-firing Stalker duo didn't help; the almost constant ringing of flechette off armoured hull was starting to sound like he was living inside a bell at St Paul's. The missiles didn't do any thing for his nerves either as he wrestled the flying brick to the ground.

The T-Bird came in hot, with far too much speed. It smashed through the apex of the rubble cone he'd been aiming for in a shower of concrete and stone debris as another missile detonated close by. It shattered the armoured pilot's portal and sprayed him in the ballistic glass pellets that were all that remained of the ballistic window.

The next rubble pile he hit while the T-Bird was completely out of control. Somehow it hit nose first and pointed in the right direction at least. It rode the rubble like a ramp to the ground and slid along the flat bottomed hull like an armoured air boat. He heeled the T-Bird hard over to the right, and aimed for the two Stalkers almost directly in front of him now as they continued to fire on the onrushing VTOL. One Stalker was smart enough to get out of the way; the other was collected by the T-Bird and ploughed into the ground as it encountered the hard place. The Stalker was still stubbornly firing even as it was smashed into its component pieces by the mass of the T-Bird grinding it into the bedrock beneath it. After what seemed an age it slid to a halt. Almost forty metres of fresh scar had been ploughed into the zone, showing the T-Birds passage through the rubble after it came to ground.

He just sat there a few moments, his breath almost exploded from his chest as he realised he'd stopped breathing when the VTOL came down. There was no self-control left in him, he just stared out the window wide eyed, not really believing he just survived the landing in one piece. He kissed his St Christopher medal that hung around his neck and looked around as he giggled uncontrollably.

He was brought back to reality with the recommencement of hostilities from the remaining Stalker as once more high velocity rounds started ringing off the hull.

Never a moment's piece! He thought with the smile still on his face, for the first time that night he felt bullet proof.

Going through the check list in his head he prepped the T-Bird for a vertical lift to get his ass off the deck before it got blown up! He found what it was that brought the bird down and powered up the fusion power plant again to get the lift circuits back online. He was gratified to feel the gentle throughm as the plant powered up and flight computers came back online.

The T-Bird lifted off for the second time, and looked decidedly the worse for wear its hull pock-marked by hundreds of rounds that came to grief upon its hardened surface. The armoured shrouds on the four throughst turbines looked tattered like ancient lace. The paint of the hull was either scorched or worn away showing the bare metal beneath. Without any further ado he gained height and sped away into the night, the hiss of missile fire screamed beside him and the dull ringing of high velocity rounds still rattled off the armoured hull.

Bloody Hell! Remind me again why I do this a living?

Five kilometres later he passed over the still smouldering wreck of his car and realized just how far he had come in the last two hours. It may not have been the greatest moment of his career but it would be amongst the most memorable, his right arm alone would remind him of that. He pulled out his phone and placed a call.

"Yeah Cornelius it's me - get up I got some intense contract negotiations for you to do", he paused for the response. "Yeah… - I know its three in the morning…Ok, ok, tomorrow then".

"No I didn't kill anyone", He looked down at the unconscious pilot and smiled as he listened. "You know how it is; occasionally you just gotta blow things up".

"Trust me this one's solid this time", he said, as he patted the T-Bird affectionately. He knew the sensor logs of the two Stalkers would be enough in the corporate court to prove his claim of breach of contract.

He hung up the phone, as he bought the T-Bird in to hover and land near the wreck of his car. He took off a few minutes later after evicting everyone from inside the crew compartment including the pilot. He figured leaving them by its burning skeleton would be enough of a hint as to where their T-Bird had disappeared to. He took off into the night and made his way home, trying to think were the hell he was going to hide the T-Bird.

"Now who do I know who would like to buy a slightly used T-Bird that needed a lick of paint?" he said with a grin big enough to split his face in two.

Now if only he knew who it was he'd pissed off so badly.

A plum job…Yeah right!

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