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Unmaking the Man
Jason Hardy

Tuesday, 3:13 pm

"Hey, Prime!" Cayman said, and got no response.

He tried again. "X-Prime!" Still nothing.

"Prime!" The short-legged man didn't react, just kept walking, shoulders hunched, hands deep in the pockets of a tan overcoat. His triangular face was bowed, pointy chin stabbing the base of his neck.

Cayman rolled his eyes, an effect completely lost in the shadows of his brow. "Hey, ALEX!"

The man whirled, trying to appear wary and guarded but mainly looking startled. "What . . ." He saw Cayman and relaxed. Slightly. "Oh, yeah, hi. You're . . . Duster's friend."

"Right," Cayman said. But I won't be much longer if she keeps inflicting people like you on me, he added silently.

"What, ah, what's up? What can I do for you?"

"I've got an opportunity for you," Cayman said. "A chance to slot some carob on the rebar." He smiled inwardly at Alex's reaction - Cayman enjoyed making up new slang to confuse the newbie.

"Carob on the . . .?" X-Prime said slowly.

"A job," Cayman interrupted. "You're still looking for work, right?"

"Yeah, yeah, I am."

"Well, I've got something. Right up your alley - hardware drek. Give me some time tonight, I'll tell you about it."

"Okay. When?"

"Nine. Can you be at the Body Mall?"

X-Prime hesitated. "That's . . . near Glow City, right?'

Cayman sighed theatrically. Alex had a newbie's fear of the radiation from the old nuclear plant. It would take a few runs before he'd start to understand that any one of a thousand possible deaths would get him long before radiation had its way with his body.

"Yeah, it's near Glow City. There's a guy there you need to talk to."

"Okay. Nine o'clock."

"See you," Cayman said and walked away, mentally cursing Duster, trying to decide if he could finally tell her that they were even, and wondering if he should rethink his policy of using the cheapest crew capable of doing the job.

Tuesday, 3:16 pm

Alex tried to hold his head up as he walked away. Cayman made him nervous. He was pretty sure the older man enjoyed mocking him - he just didn't know which parts of the conversation were mockery and which were serious.

Still, though, it had turned out okay, he figured. It was a good time to get work. Not only did Alex need the money, but he had no idea what to do with the time when he wasn't working. He couldn't be a part of legitimate society anymore, but illegitimate society didn't seem quite ready to accept him. By his count, since he lost his job and SIN, the longest he'd ever gone in a conversation without saying something stupid was 10.3 seconds. It had only gotten worse since he came to Seattle. He'd have to endure it for at least two years, he figured, then maybe he could think about going back to Oakland. Maybe.

He shook his head. He couldn't believe he was pining for Oakland. There, he'd been sleeping on a rusty cot in a basement room with a damp, cracked floor. He'd become part-dwarf, been fired when he was framed for embezzlement, and every time he had stepped outside there had been a chance someone would try to assassinate him.

Still, it was more fun than the Barrens.

Duster always tried to convince him he was actually having fun. "Isn't this more fun than Temperance?" she always asked. That one time, when the goons ambushed them, they had barely escaped with their lives, and all Alex could think of was his quiet San Francisco apartment and his bland accountancy work at Temperence Investments, and Duster had turned to him, her pointed ears twitching merrily, and said "Isn't this more fun?" And even though he had stared at her in disbelief, and his mouth started to say "You're crazy," part of his mind immediately thought "Fraggin' right it is."

She had dubbed him "X-Prime" right after the attack. He thought the name sounded odd and said so, but Duster just shrugged and said "Sounds better than Alex."

He wished she was here or he was there. He couldn't go back, though, until Saito's people had forgotten enough about him to take the rumored price off her head. And as long as Oakland was the center of the metahuman's rights movement, Duster wasn't going anyplace else.

He was here, on his own. He hated it.

But it was still more fun than Temperence. And he had work - something to think about besides Oakland.

Tuesday, 9:41 pm

"If you do this right, you shouldn't need a bone saw."

Alex sat with his elbows on his knees, his forehead in his palms. Cayman assumed a concerned expression and swiped Alex's shoulder with the back of his hand.

"You okay? Not feeling sick, are you?"

Alex looked up, perfectly composed. "I'm fine. This is how I listen." He turned to Doc Holiday, who was sitting on a dented metal table, distractedly wiping at a bloodstain on the hem of his white (off-white, really - almost yellow) smock. "Go on."

"I think, honestly, the best tool would be something like bolt cutters. But they'd have to open pretty wide. From what I hear, this guy has thick shoulders."

Cayman nodded. "You got that right." Sitting at Doc Holiday's desk, with his salt-and-pepper hair and heavy jaw, he might have looked like a kindly, wise doctor - except for the tattoos, the jagged scar on the right cheek, and the olive vest packed with ammo.

"Let me show you what you need to do." Holiday stepped toward Cayman. "Roll up your sleeve."

Cayman obeyed. Outside the room, in the Mall, someone screamed in pain, and fifteen other voices, speaking in unity, told him to shut the frag up.

"Now, in a lot of cases, the cyberlimb ends about here." Holiday drew a line on Cayman's shoulder with a black marker. It was barely visible in the mass of faded tattoos. "Here, see, you want to cut right here, on the edge of the metal. Don't catch too much metal; if you do, you'll damage the limb. And if you're too far in toward the neck, you'll run into bone, and trust me, that's not something you want to try to cut. Hit the sweet spot, it should come right off."

"In working order?" Cayman asked.

Holiday nodded. "More or less."

Cayman waved a piece of paper. "And these are the specs?"

"That's the ones," Holiday said.

"This is everything?"

"Everything."

"Because this is a custom job. They sometimes slip things in at the last minute, you know."

Holiday's long, stretched face appeared annoyed, like Death waiting for his victim to finish a cup of tea before departing. "I know. Of course I know. I've implanted more arms than you've ever seen. I know."

"Just checking. Never hurts to check."

"Look, you've got everything you need," Holiday said. "It's not that hard, really. Any body man worth a damn could do it."

"Could you do it?" Cayman asked.

Holiday scowled. "Yeah."

Cayman pointed a thumb toward Alex. "Could he?"

"Do I know him?"

"I suppose you don't."

Cayman had been keeping one eye on Alex, looking for a sign of nerves or qualms or any reaction a normal person would have at being asked to cut someone's arm off. He didn't see anything but Alex's forehead in his hands.

"Can you do this? You okay about it?" Cayman asked.

Alex looked up. His face was suddenly harder, grimmer than it had been when Cayman saw him on the street this morning. He had shifted up to X-Prime gear.

"Yeah."

"You're okay with chopping off arms?"

"As a matter of general principle? No." Alex jerked his head toward the picture of Burt the Toad stuck on the wall under a patch of mold. "That guy's arm? Yeah, I'm fine with it."

Cayman stood, and suddenly he seemed to fill half the room. "When you're dealing with a Yak, it's not a good idea to make things personal. They can make it personal right back, which isn't good. This is business. We're being hired - and paid nicely - to do a job. That's why we're doing it."

"That's why you're doing it," X-Prime said (Alex would never talk back to Cayman). "World would be better if we took this guy's arm off, so let's take it off."

Cayman rolled his eyes. He did that a lot when Alex was around. "World would be better," he muttered. "Save us."

Tuesday, 10:12 pm

Alex - X-Prime, for the moment - walked out of the Body Mall with extra energy. He saw people looking at him, and he glared back. He wasn't an out-of-town, unemployed runner anymore. He was part of the scene. He belonged.

Sort of. He knew that Alex wasn't gone for good. He'd probably come back in the morning, filling X-Prime's head with all sorts of worries and second thoughts about the job. For now, though, he felt confident - cocky even - and he was going to enjoy it.

He walked across the Barrens for a while, experimenting with a strut for a block or two and failing miserably, then sauntering until his destination was in sight. The sign for Crusher 495 blinked red neon, except for the burned-out "u" and "9." Back in Oakland, Duster had told him she thought the owners were careful to ensure that at least a few lights on the sign were always broken. It kept the customers who thought they were slumming happy.

X-Prime nodded at the hostess when he walked by her. She didn't acknowledge him.

The club was pleasantly noisy, a content buzz filling the air. The people who had come to drink so they could forget their troubles had succeeded and were settling into the good-natured stage of inebriation. It would be a few drinks more before they moved on to loud and obnoxious.

He walked up to the scarred but clean bar and slapped his hand on it three times, just like in the trids. And what do you know, a stein of ale flew down the bar and into his hand. He whisked it off the bar, spun on his stool, and lifted the stein to his mouth in one smooth motion. He would have felt really good about himself right then except for his dangling dwarf legs, which weren't quite long enough to reach the stool's foot rest. They'd grown shorter about half a year ago (thanks to that fragging comet flyby), and he still didn't know what to do with them half the time.

He drank, and pleasant haze filtered into his brain almost immediately. He remembered he hadn't eaten in about eight hours, then resolved to drink that much more to fill himself up.

An hour and a half later, X-Prime discovered that a normally simple task like listening took real exertion. Words came out of the mouth of the guy next to him - he was sure they did, he could almost see them sliding off the guy's tongue - but instead of going in X-Prime's ears, they slipped this way and that, and he couldn't seize them. He tried to focus, really tried, because the last remaining logical part of his mind told him he should be listening to what was being said.

"Just got beat up, you know, an incredible job," the guy said. He was short and wiry, bouncing around on his stool like a metal spring. His pointed nose twitched as he spoke. "I never seen nothing like it, he was one big bruise and had a few cracked ribs and fingers, but he was still alive, you see, that's the whole point, he was still alive, conscious even, and he felt every bit of the beating, that's the whole thing, he could feel the pain on every inch of his body. It was like art, that's what I'm telling you, this job was so perfect, it should be in a museum somewhere, except, you know, bruises fade, so it'd be tough to preserve. Maybe take a trid of the guy, but I don't know if that would do the whole experience justice." The guy shook his head. "Simply amazing."

X-Prime noticed that the guy had stopped talking. He tried to focus on his face, but his eyes would only squint, and the only thing he could see clearly was the glass in front of him and the thick, greasy black hair of the man across from him. He thought about trying to remember his name, but that was far too difficult. So he said something and hoped it made sense.

"I'll bet it really hurt."

"Yeah. Yeah. You got that right, chummer. You know what it was? You know what did it? It was the mercury."

"Mercury?"

"Yeah. In the arm. The guy that did the beating, see, he's got an implant. Cyberarm, Yamatetsu, top-of-the-line drek. It's got some of the usual equipment - you know, gun holster, shock pad, all that - but they also put in this hollow tube inside and put a glob of mercury at one end. So what happens, see, is he takes his arm back" - the guy made a fist and cocked his arm at his waist - "and some suction pumps pull the whole glob to his shoulder, then he swings" - the guy moved his arm toward X-Prime's chin in an uppercut - "and the mercury shoots forward, and if he times it right - and let me tell you, this guy always times it right - the mercury comes into his fist right when his fist hits your chin, so you get the punch and it's backed by a pellet of metal moving way faster than the guy's hand. Can you believe this drek? It just lays you out! And it works on other swings, like a hatchet motion, coming down on you, whomp, I'll bet that's how the ribs got broken, the sap was lying on the ground and the Yak comes up with a hatchet swing and the mercury flies forward and pow! Guy's lucky his lungs weren't crushed!"

This was penetrating the haze in X-Prime's mind. He tried to say several things at once, but only three words came out. "Burt the Toad."

The guy slapped his knee three times, his small pupils dancing in the middle of his wide-circle eyes. "That's the guy! That's him! Works for Kawasaga, right? You've heard of him?"

X-Prime tried to smile slyly. In truth, it looked like a corner of his mouth somehow drooped upward. "Yeah. You could say that."

The guy's eyes narrowed. "You know something. Yeah, yeah, I seen that look. You know something! What?"

"Nothing," X-Prime said airly. "Nothing much, really." He paused, milking it, savoring it. "Well, maybe a little."

"Oh, you've gotta tell me. What do you know about this Toad guy? Come on, come on, you're killing me here, killing me. What's happening?"

X-Prime looked one way, then the other, then leaned forward. "The Toad won't be hopping for long." He found that unaccountably funny and started giggling. The guy politely waited for him to finish.

"What are you saying?" the guy finally asked.

"That arm?" X-Prime said. "The one with the mercury and all that? Between you and me, it's coming off."

"Get out of here!"

"No. Really."

"Coming off?"

"Coming off."

"Wow." The guy puffed his cheeks and whooshed out some air. "Wow. Cutting off Burt the Toad's arm. Who's putting you up to it? Triads?"

"I don't know."

"Mafia?"

"I don't know, I said."

"Wait, wait, I've got it. Kawasaga himself. He knows the Toad is out of control, and he's reining him in. That's it, right? Right?"

"I don't know. Really, I don't. They don't tell me that sort of things. I just got a job to do."

"You're going to do it? I'm talking to the man who's gonna cut off Burt the Toad's arm? Unbelievable!" The guy was bouncing on his stool. "How're you gonna do it?"

X-Prime shrugged, assuming a cool, controlled look. "Cleanly. That's all I can say. It'll come off real clean. Still in working order."

The guy threw his head back and whooped. "You're gonna take the arm off in working order? That's great. That's great! It's gotta be Kawasaga, then. Probably wants it back so his investment isn't an entire loss. Get control of the Toad, get some money from the arm, cut his losses as much as possible. That's the only thing that makes sense."

"I don't know. I swear."

"Yeah, yeah, of course you don't. Kawasaga wouldn't want to let that out. Couldn't have people know he was cutting the arm off of one of his own guys. Doesn't look good."

X-Prime suddenly felt troubled. The guy sounded too knowledgeable about all this. Too interested. Had he said too much? Maybe it was time to go home.

"I gotta go home," he said.

"You do? Aw, it's only 2:30. Night's still young. Come on, stay awhile."

"No. I'd - better not." X-Prime stumbled to his feet. "I'd really better get out of here."

The guy accepted this. "Okay, all right. Good chatting with you. Don't always meet good talkers here."

X-Prime nodded. "Yeah. Thanks." He shambled away.

The guy watched him go, running his finger around the rim of his glass, then licking a drop of scotch off his nail. He smiled, grabbed his glass, and raised it in a silent toast. To alcohol, he thought. The greatest tongue-loosener ever invented.

Wednesday, 11:47 pm

The next night, X-Prime was Alex again. The cockiness, the swagger, the attitude had all last been seen at Crusher 495.

Cayman's little speech to the group earlier hadn't helped any.

"A good team's like a body," he'd told them. They nodded. They'd heard this before, plenty of times. "We have to be completely together, working in sync, balancing each other. No part of the body survives alone. You need a brain - that's me, and no smart remarks. Savini's the eyes, Spindle's the legs, Leadhead's the fists. We all work as a whole."

"What am I" Alex asked.

Cayman flicked a scowl. "I dunno," he said. "The appendix, maybe."

The day had gone downhill from there. The night was humid, they'd been on surveillance so long he hadn't had any real food to eat for half a day, and the long coat he was wearing was hot and unbalanced, tilting him to the left where the cutter was sheathed.

The cutter. Every time he thought about it he wanted to pull it out for another look, but simply carrying the thing was enough to get him arrested.

The cutter was two Cougar fineblades mounted on three-foot long handles with bolt cutter action. The blades would open slightly wider than a thick shoulder. If Alex placed them just outside the shoulder joint and pulled them closed with enough force, they would pass through the arm like a falcon cutting through air.

But he couldn't take them out now. He was on the clock.

A few squatters scurried from one abandoned warehouse to another, but other than that the streets were empty. You live in the Barrens long enough, you develop a sense that tells you when to stay inside. You don't develop that sense, you don't live long. Alex was the only person loitering on the street, sitting hunched on a scooter like he was drunk or hung over. He didn't have to do much acting.

Savini's resonant voice came in the headset, sounding like a sportscaster. "He's working the upper body now. Boy is he working it."

"Any signs that he's tiring?" Cayman asked.

"Naw, naw. He's having fun. He may be getting stronger."

"Drek."

Alex half-hoped Cayman would abort, but nothing further came through the transceiver. He reached into his inside pocket and rubbed the grips of the cutters.

Savini came in again. "Okay, the vic's coughing blood. He's meat."

"Conscious?" asked Spindle.

"Yeah . . . ummmmm, wait, wait, he's going, he's fading . . . no. Unconscious. Good for him - he needs the rest."

"The vic's not our concern," Cayman said curtly. "What about the Toad?"

"Checking out his work. Standing over the vic, looking at the cuts and everything and . . . drek! He just zapped him! Vic's body's twitching like a landed fish. That was mean! "

"It's good, it's good, let him get it all out. Then we'll let him calm down. Then he's ours."

Alex appreciated Cayman's confidence, but he wasn't sure that a man who electro-shocked unconscious people for fun could ever be considered calm.

"Okay, okay, he's taking a few steps away. Looks like . . . yeah, his chest is heaving a little. He's breathing heavy. He's feeling all that work he just did. You were right, C, you were right."

"We're set, then. Two minutes, then we go."

In those two minutes, Burt the Toad slowly strolled south away from his victim, who was still lying on the street, unconscious and twitching. The Toad looked like a cube, as wide and thick as he was tall. His face was buried in the warts that earned him his nickname. If he noticed Savini watching him from above, he showed no signs.

He covered a block and a half and then was hit by a taxi.

It was a precision blow, 25 km/hour. Wouldn't kill him, probably wouldn't do any kind of serious damage, but would take him to the ground.

The rest of the plan would take 23 seconds. Leadhead and Cayman jumped out of the back of the cab as Spindle prepared to gun it backwards. They threw looped ropes over Burt the Toad's wrists, pulling them tight, then stretched his arms out by pulling hard against the Toad's considerable strength. Slowly, his arms raised. The butt of a machine pistol poked out of the end of the Toad's arm and loosed a few rounds at Cayman, but his armored vest absorbed them.

Alex pulled his scooter to the curb right after the taxi ran into the Toad, and he ran up just behind Leadhead and Cayman, holding his cutters in front of him, jaws wide. His eyes zeroed in on the shoulder joint. His knees felt wobbly, but his hands were firm.

The cutter was two feet from Burt the Toad's shoulder when the knife blade flashed out of the arm. Alex only saw it as a deep shine in the night, twisting into the rope Cayman held, slicing it easily. Cayman fell backward, and the precious arm was free.

"There's a knife!" Cayman screamed angrily.

"Yeah, yeah," Leadhead said, straining to hold the Toad.

"There wasn't supposed to be a knife!"

"Yet there it is," Savini said dryly. "Hold on, I'm coming down."

Alex jumped backward as the arm came slashing toward him. He parried with the cutter, and the power of the Toad's arm swept the tool out of his hands. It clattered on the street, ten feet away.

Alex glanced at the cutter. Burt the Toad saw it, Alex saw him see it. He feinted toward the cutter then leapt backward, flipping, landing upside-down on his hands, pushing off, landing again on his feet, out of the Toad's range. Duster had tried to teach him a half-dozen gymnastic moves, and that was the only one that had taken, thanks to his newly powerful legs.

The Toad surged forward, raising his arm above his head, letting the mercury drop to his shoulder. Then, suddenly, he stumbled to his right. Leadhead had let go of his rope, and the sudden lack of a pull forced the Toad off balance.

Two voices spoke in Alex's mind. Alex told him to keep moving back; X-Prime told him to go for the cutter.

He didn't know he had made a decision until he was stooping to grab the cutter. He snagged them just as the black tower that was Leadhead ran by, charging the Toad. Alex turned in time to see that the Toad had his balance back and was swinging his arm.

Leadhead saw it, too, and skidded his heels to reverse his momentum. But he was too late. The Toad's arm swung in an underhanded punch. Alex could almost see the fist gain speed as the mercury flew the length of the arm. Leadhead was bent backward, almost falling, when the fist caught him in the stomach. Leadhead's shape abruptly shifted from convex to concave as his whole body collapsed around the Toad's fist. The Toad lifted him more than a foot off the ground, then Leadhead flew back, landing on his back, skidding on the pavement.

Alex was so fixed on the cybernetic right arm that he almost missed the left coming at him in a roundhouse. He ducked, rolled, and thrust the cutters in the Toad's direction, slamming the handles together. The Toad yelped and jumped backward. Alex had sliced the Toad's pants and taken a little skin, too.

Then Cayman was there, behind the Toad, working his kidneys with both hands. The Toad grunted and whirled, leading with his right arm, knife blade extended. Cayman was ready, though, and evaded easily, ducking as the arm passed over his head then leaping forward, leading with his head, trying to tackle the Toad.

He bounced off him like a rubber ball hitting a cinder block.

The knife at the end of the Toad's arm flashed down. Cayman tried to roll but couldn't move fast enough.

Alex got the cutters under the Toad's arm and swung up, catching him near the elbow. The blow was strong, but Alex held on to the cutters this time.

The cyberlimb slid down the length of the cutters, still moving down, but diverted. It dug into Cayman's leg, but shallowly. There was a flap of skin, there was blood, but no real damage.

Cayman got to his feet, Alex drew the cutters back for another blow, Leadhead tried to get to his feet, and Savini finally emerged from the warehouse across the street. The Toad retracted his knife. A gun barrel pointed out instead.

"Gun, gun!" Alex yelled. Cayman took two running steps, leapt, and grabbed the lowest iron rung of a ladder set into a brick wall. He pulled up, bending his knees, getting himself as high as possible. Two shots entered the wall below his feet.

Alex saw his chance. He opened the cutter, aimed the blades, thrust them toward the Toad's shoulder, then pulled them shut, all in one quick motion.

But the Toad was moving, spinning back toward Alex. The blades closed on the limb's armor, and slid off. Alex's hands shook with the force of the impact.

The Toad's foot then caught him in the chest. Alex hadn't even seen him raise it. His breath left him and he fell back.

Leadhead jumped forward, grabbing the Toad's left arm, twisting. Even though Alex was gasping for breath, he still heard something snap.

The Toad roared, pulling his right arm back, squeezing off three shots. Two caught Leadhead in his chest armor, pushing him back. The third hit him in the leg. Leadhead went down.

The Toad's left arm hung awkwardly, his right turned toward Alex, his mouth snarled, his eyes scowled. He drew a bead on Alex's forehead.

Then there was a sharp whip crack, the Toad's right arm jerked back, pulled from behind. His eyes widened, then bulged as a sword, filed to diamond sharpness, swept through his shoulder.

The arm hit the ground with a clatter. The Toad hit with a thud.

Savini, thin and nearly invisible in a black bodysuit, ran toward the suddenly detached arm. Cayman dropped back down off the ladder, moving quickly, but he was too late. A short man, the wielder of a whip and diamond sword, scooped up the arm and ran off.

Cayman turned to Alex.

"What happened? Who was that?"

Alex watched the short, rag-draped man flee with the arm while his stomach dropped to his ankles. He had recognized the face as soon as he saw it, once the Toad fell.

"His name is Cassowary," Alex said. "I was drinking with him last night."

Thursday, 12:15 am

Cassowary wasn't going to stop running until he met his fence. The transaction should only take a minute - drop off the arm, get a credstick loaded with 50,000 Nuyen. Far less than the actual worth of the arm, but the best he could do considering the way he got the item. Still, it was enough to keep Cassowary happy for a good long while.

He didn't look over his shoulder. The wind whistled through the dozens of holes in his moth-eaten clothes. He knew Alex and his crew would be following him. Looking back would just slow him down. All he had to do was get to the fence first.

Tires squealed. Something was approaching from behind, quickly. The empty streets made him an obvious target. He had to get somewhere more public, where there might be a crowd to get lost in.

He ducked around a corner as a few pistol shots whizzed over his head. The car made the turn after him, but Cassowary had already reversed himself, running back down the street he'd just came from. Halfway down the next block, he ran through a geyser of steam into an alley. The car pursuing him hadn't been able turn around in the narrow street and get back in time to see where he went. He might have just bought himself some time.

Cassowary's breathing was labored. The arm was quite heavy - and, in its current state, almost useless as a weapon. Two minutes ago, this arm had made Burt the Toad the most feared Yakuza enforcer in town. Now, it was little more than an awkward club - but a club worth 50,000 Nuyen.

Cassowary ran through alleys as long as he could, only coming out to cross streets. He saw a few cars and street people, but no one gave him a second look.

After four blocks, he hit Novelty Hill Road, not far from Touristville. The farther west he went, the more foot traffic there'd be, the easier it would be for him to blend and disappear. He started to relax, but still ran. A few people looked at him, but then quickly looked away.

A screech of tires from behind him got his attention. He looked over his shoulder, trying to see what kind of car it was, but he couldn't see anything past the wide, glaring headlights.

He didn't want to leave Novelty Hill Road, but the car bearing down on him left him little choice. He veered right as soon as he could.

The car reached the intersection and kept going straight. It was a different car. It wasn't after him.

Cassowary was so relieved he almost slowed to a jog. He could take a left at the next street and get back on track.

Just as the last moment of a sigh of relief floated off his lips, a car ahead of him flashed its lights on, gunned its engine, and surged toward him. It was a taxi.

He didn't hesitate. He held the arm in front of him and ran forward at full speed. He knew his pursuers wanted the arm intact. He knew what they'd do.

At the last minute, the taxi wheeled sharply and hit the brakes, screeching its tires. Cassowary leapt, slid across the hood, then fell onto the street. He was on his feet again almost instantly. He'd feel the bruises tomorrow, but he'd have plenty of cash for painkillers.

He was into an alley again, hoping the taxi didn't see him. This time, though, he wasn't so lucky. The screech of tires followed him immediately.

Cassowary cursed his legs as he pumped them. The car drew closer, Cassowary could hear it, but he didn't look back. Two hundred more feet, then 150, then 100, he'd make it to the other end of the alley and have space to maneuver.

The blow to his back made him think he'd been hit by a cannonball. It caught him squarely between the shoulder blades and he tumbled. He clutched the Toad's arm tightly, protecting it with his body. The pavement tore several holes in his skin as he rolled across it.

When he finally stopped, he tried to get his legs moving, but it felt like he had a two hundred pound weight sitting on top of him. He was stuck, his left shoulder in a shallow puddle, in an alley with 50 years of grime smeared on the pavement. He twisted his neck and saw that the weight was a man with close cropped silver hair, a square jaw, and deep scars beneath grey eyes. His face looked quite angry - until he grinned.

"Got a next move?" he asked.

Cassowary couldn't have struggled if he tried without losing his grip on the arm, which would have made any struggle pointless. He lay silently. He could feel each individual bruise on his body pop up, one by one, as the adrenaline slowly faded. It hurt.

Behind the silver-haired man, X-Prime, the guy from the bar last night, appeared. He didn't look happy.

"Stay back, Alex," the silver-haired man said without turning around. "I'm taking care of this."

"I just wanted . . ."

"I know what you wanted. But you're not fixing anything right now. Stay back."

X-Prime frowned. But he stayed back.

Cassowary wasn't sure if he should to close his eyes to brace himself for the end or leave them open so he could see it coming. He decided to leave them open.

"First things first," the silver-haired man said. Moving quickly for a man of his build, the silver-haired man jerked the arm away from Cassowary and handed it to a slender, serene-looking woman behind him. "Get that secured, Spindle," he said. The woman took it back to the taxi. The silver-haired man still hadn't moved his eyes off Cassowary.

"Now," he said. "Here's what we'll do with you."

Cassowary grimaced. Why'd they always have to talk about what they were going to do? Why not just do it? Shoot him, hit him, run over him, whatever, just do it. He hated the talking.

"I'll give you 500 Nuyen," the silver-haired man said.

Cassowary blinked. He thought about what the silver-haired man said. Then he blinked again.

"Is that fair?"

Cassowary's tongue, one of the few muscles he had that wasn't bruised, found a way to work. "What . . . what for?"

"For your trouble. For giving the arm up without further difficulty. I don't blame you for what you did - I would've done the same, if someone was stupid enough to leak the information to me." X-Prime opened his mouth, but a quick hand gesture from the silver-haired man shut it again. "It's my way of saying 'no hard feelings.' Okay?"

Cassowary couldn't resist. "I was going to get 50,000 for it.'

The silver-haired man pressed the nozzle of his gun deep into Cassowary's temple, right on a bruise. Cassowary winced.

"You were also going to be shot in the head, if Leadhead or Spindle got to you first."

"500 is fine," Cassowary gasped. "Great."

Thursday, 3:35 am

Cayman had told Alex there was one more stop before he'd call the job done. Alex half-expected - more than half, really - that the last stop involved him, the Snoqualmie River, and a significant quantity of concrete. He didn't ask where they were going, or any other question, since Cayman hadn't responded well to any remarks from him except to say that the 500 Nuyen for Cassowary was coming from Alex's portion of the money for the job.

They walked through a weathered wooden doorway beneath a burnt-out neon sign. A few patrons sat around a bar that was a piece of plywood lying across stacked plastic buckets. Most of the customers were asleep. A bartender watched trideo in the back, waiting for someone to wake up and place an order.

Suddenly, Cayman started talking. "You should've known this already. Duster should've told you. I don't like having to play teacher, but here it is. You take in as much information as you can get. You give out as little as possible. You make sure what you're getting is good and complete. You understand?"

"Yeah."

"Yeah, yeah, until you get drunk again. Let me show you something." He pulled out a knife, not quite as honed as the Cougar fineblades on Alex's cutters, but still plenty sharp. Alex reflexively tightened his abdominal muscles, as if that could hinder the blade.

Cayman raised the blade, whirled it a half turn in his hand, and spiked it down into the hand of a man slumped at a nearby table. The man screamed, raising his head. It was Doc Holiday.

No one else in the bar moved.

Cayman turned to Holiday and waited patiently for the screams to subside into whimpers. Then he spoke.

"You were supposed to give me complete specs on the arm," he said evenly. "It would have been nice to know about the retractable knife." He glanced down at the knife sticking straight up, embedded in the table beneath the man's hand. "Knives you don't know about can be a problem." He turned and walked out. Alex tried to make a gesture that said "I'm sorry, I had no idea we were coming to stab you, perhaps I could have done something about it had I known," then followed Cayman out.

Cayman was in mid-sentence, resuming his lecture to Alex. ". . . foolish enough to work with you again. Information is food. Eat all you can and only crap out what's bad. Keep the good stuff inside."

Then he let Alex go home.



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