by John Dodd

It's a dead world, this one, the decay and death roams the streets like a living beast. Here in downtown, the world could end in fire and fury, and unless someone stopped the benefit cheques, no one would notice. These are my streets here, this is my time, here I reign supreme, unchallenged by man or beast, I roam the way looking for the lost and the damned.

My name is Adam, I still don't know my last name, but now I have a reason for wanting it, it has been several weeks since my father died, and in dying, told me who he was. For years I only knew him as Big Guy, and even now, with the evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, I still find it a bit hard to believe.

In the aftermath of the Gorezone, I am swamped by offers of sponsorship by the various companies that were taking an interest in the Gorezone. There were some problems when it was found that I don't work for SLA industries, but most of them assure me that it is not going to be a problem. I am told that I will receive untold amounts of money if I allow my armour to be covered with the garish symbols of the corporations that pay me. It does not sit easy with me to cover the armour gifted me by my father, so I make some enquiries to see if I can enter the competitions without the backing of a sponsor.

After a few weeks, I am given the response that although I could enter without sponsorship, I would not be able to go for some of the larger competitions, as the audience likes to be told what to do. This I find very strange, why would people want to be told what to do, what's wrong with making your own mind up?

I go a-wandering DownTown, back to the streets that I was born to. Maybe here I will find inspiration.

It hasn't changed since last I saw this place, the trash rises ankle deep all around us, sometimes it moves under your feet, a rat or one of the smaller homeless people. Sometimes it squelches underfoot, I'd like to think that it is crap, but some of it catches around my foot like rope, I glance down to see a blue slimy mass on the end of my boot. Entrails, possibly human, possibly not, I'm not a great studier of the insides of the human body. I step out into the road, at least here, there's a reasonable amount of clear space to walk on.

Up ahead is movement, from the side of the alley, I keep walking towards it, in the centre of the road. The sound of a gunshot rings out and I instinctively flatten myself to the floor. The sound of laughter echoes from the alleyway. I know I'm not wearing armour, my action was the right one, but somehow I think that I'm being mocked.

How dare they, what do they know of anything, it's just their damn idiot mentality that prevents them from dropping in the face of gunfire. Laying there on the floor, I suddenly find myself chuckling at that. Would I have dropped in the face of gunfire when I was living here? No, I would have waited till the gunshots stopped, then I would have come out to find out what could be salvaged. With that thought in mind, I get back up again, dusting myself off.

The sound of gunfire again, I find myself kissing ground again, the reflex too strong to suppress when I'm not in actual combat. Again the laughter. This time, I'm not laughing. Up in the blink of an eye, the gun goes off again. Down I go again, Anger shoots up my spine, with a growl, I'm up and running towards the alley. I cover the distance in less than a few seconds, rounding the corner without pausing.


That thought goes with me to the floor as the spring-loaded bar whips across from the wall and hammers me off my feet. You never engage the enemy on his terms, it's the first rule of engagement. He who controls the battlefield controls the battle, never get angry, never lose your temper, be sure of your actions and why you do them. Big G - my father hammered these rules into me over and over again, he continually stressed the importance of thought within combat, not combat within thought.

Three people leap from the alley sides, I jump to my feet again, the pain in my jaw numbed by the sudden rush of adrenalin rushing through me. I meet the first with an elbow strike, I feel his teeth collapse under the point. The second comes for me with a crowbar, while the third waits in the centre of the alleyway. I take the crowbar from him with a deceptive lack of speed, wrapping it around his head before casting him to the floor. I turn my attention to the third, find myself being reminded of that word again.


He, no, she is standing in the centre of the alley with a small pistol pointing at me, I say small because it's about the right size for her hands and she's small. However, no matter what they say, all pistols look to have a barrel like the mouth of a tunnel when you're looking down them. I judge the distance between us, a few metres at most, raise both my hands in supplication and take a step back, she does the natural thing and takes a few steps forwards, keeping the distance between us (so she thinks) fairly level.

She's never shot anybody before, of that I'm fairly certain, perhaps fired it once or twice in the air, but never sighted up on anything that can look back at her with any sort of intelligence. I step back again, she steps forwards a few more steps, the distance is nearly close enough, I'm nearing the end of the alleyway, and her buddies could be waiting around the corner, I take one more step back, and as she steps forwards, I roll sharp and low. She was expecting something, just not that. I come up with the unconscious body of one of her comrades in front of me, I loose the body towards her as I come upright. Panicked by the sudden movement towards her, she fires without thinking, the shot takes her buddy in the hip. She screams and brings her hands to her mouth in shock, the moments diversion is enough for me to step in and smash her to the floor.

Never hit a lady, Big G- my father - Damn it, Big Guy always told me, but be aware, he'd told me with a smile, that a lady is not just something with breasts, nor is it something that happens to be the female of any species. No, a lady is something that not only matches the physical requirements, but also the behavioural needs as well. No lady would be out trying to put bullets in you, no lady would be trying to cut you a new one just for glancing at you the wrong way, these people may hide behind the code, but it should not protect them.

So here I am, standing in the middle of an alley, with three gangers laying on the floor around me, one of them wounded by the zip gun this girl was using. I whip out the mobile and begin to hammer the code for the shivers, then I remember that they'll only look on it as Gangers, and probably won't do anything to help them. This thought stops me, and I redial, accessing my private medical account. FleshWound(tm) are on the scene within minutes, they spend a few seconds bitching loudly about being called out to treat gangers, this was expected, I always carry a few hundred unis for this sort of situation. One swiftly administered bribe and a minute or so later, the three are patched up, and sitting at the back of the alleyway, taped up like chickens.

The lad with the gunshot wound is the first to recover, I've positioned myself so that the light from the street only shines on half my face, leaving the other half in darkest shadow. Big Guy always taught me the virtue of making an impression, I figure that now would be as good a time as any to sort out a few contacts back on the street, maybe these little fish will lead me to the sharks that swim in the cesspool of downtown.

The boy looks up, and sees me standing above him in the dim light.

Recognition flickers across his face, and he blurts out "Azrael!" in a swift choking sound, he obviously thinks that I've kept him alive for a slow and painful death. I smile inside, remembering those first days in Big Guys house.

The other two wake swiftly, a combination of street toughness and good drugs, always a good combination. They all recognise me, and it is that recognition, combined with fear, that compels them to sit quietly while I talk. I explain what I am there for, and ask them for their opinion. This throws them a little, they were not expecting anyone to be making polite conversation. One of them mentions Old man Rufus, I nod, then crouch down, facing them all at their level.

"Understand me" I say quietly "I am here to make a legend for myself, you people have the chance to be part of that legend, but know this, you are all alive because you are young, if you had been older, I would have killed you all without thought or conscience. Do you understand?"

Three mute nods present themselves.

"I will return soon, with your new colours, until then, you are all to remain alive for when I call upon you, your lives belong to me, and I will not appreciate it if you are careless with the gift I have given you."

I take their names, Garrison, Jack, and Anna, and release them from their bonds. Old Man Rufus, I remember the name well, in the days when I lived here, Rufus still ran the corner food store, and he knew when we were stealing, he didn't mind, as long as we didn't take too much. Once a week, he left fresh cans and packets in a box by the rear door, knowing that we could pick them up there. I reach his shop in minutes. He's still in the same place, sat behind his counter, I think the cigarette in his mouth never got smoked, it looks like the same one he had in there all those years ago. He straightens up apprehensively as I enter the shop, his hand going under the counter. I raise my hands automatically, realising that my clothing is far too clean and expensive for this neighbourhood., of course he's going to be suspicious.

He squints at me for a second.

"Yes sir," I lower my hands to my waist, standing there like the guilty little orphan I was all those years ago.
"How are you boy?" As if it was yesterday and not a decade ago that he last saw me
"I'm fine, sir."
"And considerably better mannered than when last I saw you, eh?"
"Yes sir."

The pause between us becomes awkward for a second, he breaks it quite well.

"So, how're you doing these days?"
"Quite well sir, I came to ask you a favour."
"Oh?" he looks slightly dubious.

"I need a sponsor for the Gorezone."

He looks more than slightly dubious.

"What makes you think I can afford to sponsor you?"
"I don't want it to cost you anything, I'm going to pay you for the use of your logo."
He raises an eyebrow "You cracked?"
"No sir, I was reminded earlier about what you did for me when I was young, and I thought it would be a good way to say thank you for all the food you gave us all that time ago."

He waits for a second, then nods silently "Alright, if you're serious about this, I'll not take money from you, that's not my way, if you do well, that will be enough for me."

We talk for about an hour after that, he tells me what's been going on, how things have changed a little, the new gangs in the area, the same old shivers, a little slower, a little dumber, but the same people. Some things, it seems, never change. I take the logo from the front of the shop to get a design printed up, settling for putting it on my right shoulder. It jars with the whole appearance of the armour, but this is just as well, people will notice that something is out of place, then they will look for what is out of place, and that's when they'll see the logo. Perfect.

I enter a few of the lower level events, local GoreZones, small circuit events, the world continues slowly, I begin to acquire something of a name for myself. After a month or so, I receive an invitation for one of the major events, a thirty-person whackdown in the centre of downtown, first one to score an even five kills or failing that, last man standing. There's several named killers, several more unknowns, I glance down the list.

Deity, Ghost, Slaughterhouse, Dragon, Sour Blood, Pagan, Tachi the Reaver, with the possible exception of Blood, they're all A-list killers, there's too many of them for an event like this. Something is wrong here. I check the invitation form, it's from a department called S1, never heard of them. But, that said, I don't know all that much about SLA in general, so it's no great surprise that I've not heard of them. I decide to check it out, if nothing else, I can always bug out and call it even.

I spend the week reading up on what the named killers are capable of, and if they have any known weaknesses. I see that Deity, Ghost, and slaughterhouse are all close up specialists, Dragon is ex Death squad, Tachi is ex War world, Sour Blood is a bad joke. The wild card is Pagan, I've heard things about him, word has it he was once an Operative, everyone thought him dead for a while, whatever the case, there are no other details on him. I begin to form a plan for the event. I have my armour, my weapons, and information, I am as prepared as I'll ever be.

The day of the fight comes all too soon, all the fighters are given a number, and are sent to a location to wait for the beginning of the contest. I make one last check of the equipment I've got with me, sword, armour, scanners, stupid sized high explosive pistol. Yep, that pretty much does it. The timer on my wrist sounds, time to go kill things.

Within a minute, the sound of gunfire is audible from across the zone. This is closely followed by a quiet hum and a sharp crack like the breaking of bone. That would be Tachi's Gauss cannon, a gurgling cry seems to be a good indicator of one nil to him.

I move onto the main walkway that leads above the downtown streets, the gantry is fairly sound, and the boots I'm wearing soften the noise anyway. I stalk across the main road, high above the stone of the ground. To the left of me, a soft noise, I spin, dropping to one knee in firing position.......

The rat creeping across the walkway freezes, our eyes meet briefly, it's wishing for a white flag to wave at me. I uncock the pistol and take the sight off line, moving off into the shadows. I'm beginning to have doubts about this, I'm not suited to this whole stealth thing. There are innocents running around down here, the others will have no compunction about shooting through them, but I have a greater responsibility, I will not be responsible for slaughter. Of course, the paymasters at SLA industries know that slaughter will cause the sheep to watch more, indeed, I can see several of them in the streets below. It doesn't matter that they could be horribly killed by being there, there's a 10c bonus payable to all people who end up on the cameras, and these people will be out on the streets all day for such a bounty.

There's something moving at the end of the alleyway to the south. I activate the modified wraith suit I'm wearing, I know that I now don't leave a heat trace, but at the same time, I can only use this thing for about an hour before the cold will start to get to me. I attach my grapple line quietly to the side of the building I'm on, then draw my sword and wait for a short while as the other contestant wanders up the centre of the street.

It's not one of the names, none of them would be so foolish as to wander so carefree up the centre of the street, presenting a clear target to the world in general. I wait as they pass below me. I drop silently off the back of the walkway, the wire making a quiet whiplash noise as it stops my fall short of the ground. The other competitor spins around, just as I bring the sword down in a combination shoulder to hip and then hip to hip strike. The blade passes through them without any noise. I try to remain impassive as their weapon falls to the floor, split in two, I look at the face through the visor, the young woman behind the mask coughs once, blood sprays through the respirator and she falls, split open like, like.........

God in heaven, what's wrong with me, I'm killing people for money here, that's what this boils down to. I'm nothing better than any of these contract killers.

A shot ricocheting off the pavement next to me reminds me that the others have no such moral compunctions. I spin, drawing my pistol and sighting in one movement. I find myself looking down the barrel of a very large rifle. I throw myself sideways, the round grazes past my left eye, without thought, I send three rounds into the sniper's head. The explosions come down like the wrath of god echoing through the alleys. I don't need to look to know that the shot has killed them. For those of you thinking that I should make sure, the counter on my monitor unit just put me ahead of the rest with two kills, and so unless they're counting the rat who was probably in the radius, I should be alright.

I stop for a second and reach up to my temple, blood is oozing out of a thin cut along the side of my head. I unlock my armour and remove one of the vials there, spreading the coagulant across my hair like gel. Let the media types think what they want, someone taking the time to do their hair in the middle of a fight like this is going to score serious style points.

There's a cry of outrage from several blocks over, that's Tachi noticing the score with displeasure. Bugger him, I've no intention of taking on war world equipment without serious backup. None of us were allowed to bring in specific scanning equipment, but as sure as the rain falls, you can be sure that the professionals have at least some sort of locators with them. The trick here is to be aware of how each pro operates, and make sure that if you do have to engage them, it's not in their field of combat. In the case of Tachi, he's not one for up close and personal, he prefers the ranged hit, all that armour and weapons doesn't make for too good a close range fighter. I've resolved to try and take one name if I can, it makes more of an impression if you get someone who's known.

The cut on my head has healed up, I get up again, grappling up back onto the walkway. Always better to have the high point, it leaves you somewhere to go if you're flushed, being on the ground doesn't. I move across the southern walkway towards the century plaza, it's the largest wide open space in the zone that we've been given. Anything passing through it will undoubtedly be taken down, however, it also means that at least one or two of the pro's and several of the amateurs will be here as well, all of them figuring that they'll be able to spot the others before they get taken down. Silly plan, the way to do it is to wait for one to be spotted, then pinpoint the other guns that are firing rather than going for the easy hit.

Well, so much for my theory, I get to the plaza to find Tachi standing in the middle of the zone, bold as brass. I engage the telescopic function on my visor. He's wearing 217 Arwen armour, it's war world heavy support armour, can easily take anything anyone here has to throw at it. So much for the sense of fair play.

A flicker of movement to the left, there's someone on the roof of the opposite tenement. I ascend to the top of the building I'm on and begin traversing around the plaza, keeping one eye on Tachi at all times. He moves suddenly, sighting on the building opposite me, there's a brief click as the gauss cannon on his back locks into place, then a sharp crack. The round takes the building at the lowest level, there's a low rumble, then dust sprays in all directions as the foundations give way. The building drops like a castle of sand when the tide takes it. I see Tachi's score jump by two, one of them was Slaughterhouse. I hear the low rumble of Tachi laughing as he sees the same thing.

A muttered "whoa" echoes directly below me. I scuttle across the roof, dropping down into the window with weapon raised. The children clustered at the window scream and flatten themselves to the floor. I curse silently and launch myself off the window as the distinctive click of the gauss cannon echoes behind me. The explosion at the window blasts me backwards into the air, I experience a brief second of weightlessness before gravity reminds me that it doesn't like to be bucked. I fire my grapple across to the high rise Shiver station nearby, swinging in to one of the lower levels. Landing awkwardly, I curse as I hear the click again. Then I smile, not a problem here. I turn, smiling at Tachi, who's now looking at me with undisguised hatred in his eyes. I'm on official SLA property, with official SLA personnel inside it, he can't fire the heavy artillery at this building, on the off chance that it damages any of the people within. The bounty that has to be paid for the killing of any official SLA property who are not in the zone as a competitor is exorbitant, and I'm guessing that Tachi won't put himself in the hole for a few hundred thousand just to get me. I don't press my luck, scrambling back around the building to the west side of it.

Up ahead, I see one of the other competitors jumping the gap between the opposite buildings, must be one of the amateurs. I sprint along the ledge, reaching out to the flagpole as I approach the corner. I traverse the corner on the flagpole, landing facing the other building. The other person should be just coming across the roof.....there.

I fire the grapple at the edge of the next building, it impacts with a dull thud. The other person comes over the edge of the building firing at where my grapple landed. I take them down with a single head shot, the body falling to the floor far below. Three down, I hear Tachi roar again from behind me. I reel in the wire, pausing for a second to consider. I look down at the monitor, all the names apart from Tachi and me have two kills, one of the unknowns has two kills, several have one. The field is narrowing, these next few will prove awkward.

I move across to the next roof, a figure detaches itself from the shadows and walks towards me.

"Nice moves." the voice drifts across on the breeze

He's bigger than he appears on the TV, but that could be because the last time I saw him was quite some time back.

Sour Blood.

He stops in front of me, tossing his pistol to the side, extending his hands, palms presented with fingers outstretched in the traditional manner of showing how many times you have been defeated. The correct form is to lower one finger for each defeat you have suffered, he has all his fingers extended.

"Er, Blood?" I begin "you should drop a few fingers there don't ya think?"

He grins, I get the feelings he's heard that more than a few times by now.

I holster my pistol and sheath the sword, waiting for him to make the first move. I don't have long to wait, he leaps to the attack with a thrust kick, I block easily and strike back with a claw strike to his eyes. He blocks and throws one back.

We go like that for a few minutes before we break for a seconds breath. I see him twitch and suppress the urge to grin as he goes into the patented Sour Blood Jackhammer. A howl of agony and two testicles later, he's laying on the floor holding what's left of his nuts. I sheath the sword and sling him off the building. Seconds later, there's a thud and my monitor count goes up by one.

I glance up at the aerial camera viewing me, I figure it's worth giving him some advice, "When they bring him back, tell them to install a new set of moves along with his balls." I grin wolfishly at the camera as I sling his bits off the roof after him. I don't hear the noise, but I figure that I got him with them.

Four down, I'm on the way to winning. I attach the grapple to the side of the building and vault off, landing on the opposite walkway. It has to be said that I do love downtown, the amount of sheer space to hang off and run around on is unparalleled. The monitor says that there's six people left, Tachi, Pagan, and four unknowns. Well, sod taking on Tachi or Pagan, time to go find another one of those unknowns.

I move back around to century plaza, I figure that there's going to be at least one besides bloody war world cheese boy, I mean for gods sake, who turns up to a street fight in artillery proof armour apart from a sizeable coward? Well, philosophy aside, I've got to get back on track, no point cursing the fact that people in this world don't have a sense of fair play.

Tachi is still in the centre of the plaza, now, confidence aside, there must be some reason why he's standing there, in the exact same spot, not moving. I switch back to telescopic sights, he's got one foot on the remains of a light post, the armours absorbing the energy. I scan across to the power unit on the back of the armour, it's damaged quite badly, someone must have got a shot off with something heavy before he got them. Stands to reason that armour like that needs a stupid amount of power to run, a plan forms. Looking up, I see the support walkway crossing the plaza, got to find a way to take his mind off the sound the grapple will make when I anchor it.

I move back onto the Shiver building, he can't fire at me from there, then set the grapple to fire automatically from the side of the building. I move back to the other side of the building and send a volley of shots at him from the cover of the Shiver station, activating the grapple by remote as I do so. The shots impact at his feet, doing no real damage and earning me an irritated glance from him. I smile back at him and he goes back to watching his monitors, waiting for me to move off the Shiver building.

I wait till he's looking away, then move back to the grapple, the angle's not the best in the world for this, but it's the only way I'm ever going to take this guy down. I leap from the station, the wind whipping past me as I lance towards Tachi on the wings of a prayer. Part of me wants to scream in fury, to let him know his doom is coming for him, the sensible part of me clamps down on that impulse hard, if he detects me, he's fully capable of picking me off, even as fast as I'm moving.

The distance between us closes all too fast, I switch the pistol to semi auto and loose off a clip of hi-ex at his feet, it won't damage him, but it might put him off balance. He turns, one foot off the floor as the armour moves to compensate for the damage to the street. I strike him full on, boots into the face plate of the armour. He staggers backwards as I dangle helplessly, my feet numb from the impact, desperately trying to reload the pistol. I hear the click as the gauss cannon locks into place, then a muffled curse, as the armour locks down, the power indicator on the cell at the back goes red, then black. I've still got to move quickly, before anyone else figures out what I've done. I disengage the line and drop to the floor, my feet feeling as if they've gone ten rounds with a blender. I would say I ran over to Tachi, but heroically hobbling is about the best I can manage. I see the armour moving very slowly, I'm guessing that he's using his own strength to keep the thing moving. A hiss of air escapes at the back of the armour, it's the air seals disengaging, he knows he's a sitting duck as long as he stays there. I finish reloading the clip and limp around to the back of the armour, looking at the damage caused to the power pack. With horror dawning, I realise that it's still fully powered, the generator just got knocked off line, tachi must not know what's happened otherwise he'd have re-initialised it by now.

I pick one of the gauss charges off the ammo feed and put it into the hole in the power pack, then start running backwards. I hear the hiss of the armour re-engaging and spin, firing my last clip at the gauss charge. The explosive blast reverbrates through the armour as the charge explodes, setting off the main power cell. There's a muffled roar, either pain or outrage, I can't tell which, as the inside of the armour contains the massive blast. I glance down anxiously at the monitor as the armour continues to burn. A laser sight flashes into life on my chest plate, I can't move at the moment, the pain in my legs is too great. I close my eyes and wait for the inevitable.

The inevitable is taking a long time to get here, I open my eyes again, a hand is before me. I take it and am hoisted upwards. Pagan is taller than me, a lot taller than me, maybe seven feet tall. He looks down at me, then across at the steaming suit of armour that used to be Tachi. I can't make out the face through the helm, although there's something familiar about him.

"I must be getting sentimental." he says quietly, his voice sounding like the creak of the gates of hell. He indicates his monitor, he was on four kills with a clean shot on me, If he'd fired, he'd have got the kill before mine registered.
"Why?" I mutter
"You remind me of something young Azrael, you remind me of me when I was innocent, know this, I had the clean shot on you when you got the woman, and if we come up against each other again, I can afford to show you no mercy, remember that." The auto camera comes down to face us both and he steps backwards. I raise both arms to the sky.


I look at the ratings later, and find that the moment of triumph was watched by over 4% of mort, I'm more than happy with that result. I put my triumph down to what I eat, mentioning Rufus's place as I do so. I call him later.

"What did you have to go and say that for!?" He accuses.

"Do what?" I'm a bit confused by this.

"You mentioned the store on TV you idiot!"

"Eh?" it's about the most intelligent thing I'm going to come up with at this point.

"Sales just went up a few thousand percent, I'm swamped!"

"oh." I stop for a second "I thought that that was the idea?"

"It was, but not this much!" I can hear the smile now, he's not as mad as he's making out.

"We'll get some more people in to help, I'm sure it won't be a problem to get people to work there now." a thought strikes me "In fact, I know the very three people."

Sure enough, Garrison, Jack, and Anna are more than happy to take the job. I acquire properties on either side of the shop for them to reside in when they're not at work, I'll not see my people on the street. Some of their gang want to defect from their current gang and work for me as well. I consider this for a while, it would take some serious money to put some of the other plans I have into action. I put my name of the available for sponsorship list. The fifty offers I get back in the first ten minutes suggests that I might be getting some interest.

There's a limit to how much sponsorship I can fit on the armour, so I limit it where I can, each sponsor is worth a good five thousand a month in straight fees. In the end, I take the money of Power Projects, who built this armour that I wear and are willing to repair it and modify it free of charge. BLA, who will also supply free ammo, and as much of it in as many types as I require. Finally, Excelsior, who created the blade that Big guy gave to me, and are the only people who know the secrets of it's construction. From these, I take no money, only the assurance that they can repair and repower the blade on my request.

I now do at least one Gorezone a week, invariably finishing first, or at least a close second, the money is enough to secure day to day running costs of the other things I am doing. The money that I was left by Big Guy is enough to consider the other project. I have every intention of turning the area I grew up in into something where children don't have to rely on handouts, I have spoken with the department of housing, as long as I pay the rents on the buildings, I can do pretty much what I want with them. I've informed them of the various modifications that I intend to make to the buildings, got the permission to reinforce the backs of the buildings so I won't get any problems from the nasty elements. Also, I'll be able to soundproof the walls so they won't be able to find out that the TV is going to be turned off in most of the apartments.

The modifications take a month, and the best part of half a million creds to fully outfit. During the time that the crews are in renovating the remains of the street, I go and speak to the gangs in the area, outline my plan, tell them what I'm going to do. Some of them go willingly, Garrison, Jack, and Anna all help in persuading the gangs, only two gangs resist the idea, I make a point of outlining what will happen if they continue to resist the idea. I won't pay protection money, and I won't be coerced, I can see that some of them will need more than words to get them to go with the idea.

I return to the house and sit quietly at the table, thinking of a way around this. It occurs to me that gangs are built on violence, they thrive on it, they respect it. If I cannot win them over with words or bribes, maybe the threat of what could happen to them if they try to stop me will be enough. I apply for the contract killers licence, lord knows, the whole pacifist attitude that I wanted to keep is just not a viable option in this world. I find that the only requirement for the licence is a certified number of kills, and a willingness to take the backing of one of the agencies who manages the contract circuit. From there, I'll have to occasionally take assignments from them. However, they won't require that I do out and out wetwork, so anything that I have to kill will most likely have some form of LAD account, and so it's more than likely that it won't end up as murder of innocents.

A small price to pay for the bonuses that it will confer, I sign up with 20-20, and am told it might be a short while before I am called onto the circuit. Fine by me, I go back to the gang leader of the Reds, weapons ready, armour gleaming, and inform them that they've got a week to get out, if they decide to stay, any who oppose me will be slaughtered out of hand. The leader tries to put on a brave face, but when faced with some lunatic who's not only killed several people, but has brought the weapons with him to do the same to you, it's often hard to save face.

The other gangs are out of the picture in less than a few days, the plan proceeds. I sit back in the newly renovated apartments, looking around at what I've done. Will it be enough? Maybe, maybe not, the main thing is not to get caught up in the matter of What If?

Young Garrison is learning well, he's taken a solid interest in fighting skills, I spend a half hour with him most days in between his other duties, showing him the basics of how combat is done. His story is very similar to mine in many ways, his parents both died many years ago, and the only family he's ever had has been Jack and Anna. This has been the first time that anyone has ever taken any interest in him beyond trying to steal his food or his place for the night, I think he's still waiting for the dream to end.

The refit of the apartments goes well, I've installed new furniture and got the gangs to help out with the cleaning and decorating of their places. Each gang is given a single building, they can make of it what they want, but each gang has to take it in turns to walk the streets at night, keeping them clear of problems. The other gangs are on standby should a larger disturbance be found, the other gangs in the area are staying clear, I think that this might just work, the last time all the gangs banded together was the creation of Krosstown Traffic. I hope that this will not end like that, after all, no matter the reasons that they banded together, now they present one of the largest problems in the history of downtown.

I don't know, too many things in the air at once, I need some space from all of this. I've left one of the buildings at the end of the street empty, so that every once in a while, I can get away from all of it, and bask in the glow of what I've created. The apartment is bare, I've stocked each one with only the basics, a bed, a few chairs, the obligatory television, with the added bonus of an off switch. It looks to the people at monitor central as if the tv is still being viewed, however, the power to the main unit will be cut if this switch is activated. Surprisingly, most of the gangers who are living in the blocks are quite happy to leave the tv off and spend time reading and learning things, it's a thing they've never been given the chance to do. In some quiet way, I find it a great comfort that the people could want more than mindlessness.

This evening, I find that I cannot sleep all too well, there is something troubling me, like the calm in the eye of the cyclone. There's something in the air, but until it moves over me, I'm not going to be able to put my finger on it, and by the time I can put my finger on it, I'll be spinning around in the air and the finger won't be much good. Young Garrison pays me a visit with the nightly report.

He stands to attention as I open the door, I've noticed recently how young he actually is, no more than ten years old, the layers of clothing and the dirt made him seem older when he was on the streets, it's often the way. He delivers the report crisp and clear, no more gang activity in the area, no desertions from the ranks, the shop is doing well, and almost everyone has finished the decorating of their building. Three more requests for more paint, several more for additional sheets, two or three people asking if they can bring family members into the project.

I sign off the relevant things that need signing, then turn to look out of the window. It's a half minute before I realise that Garrison is still there.

"Problem, Garrison?"
"No sir." he responds quickly.
"Then what's on your mind?" he squirms a little "Out with it lad, I saw the thought swim past your nose just then."
He smiles self consciously, it's the way I always get him.
"Well sir, some of us, er, that is, er, I mean......."
"All of us," says Anna, stepping from behind him "wanted to say thank you, for what you've done for us."
I smile, turning from the window to face them, the first thing that strikes me is that Anna is not so much a child as a young woman, she's obviously saved some of her allowance to buy something new for today, the gesture in itself is touching. Garrison steps forwards, handing me an envelope.
"Thank you, sir." he murmurs, glancing up momentarily with a smile that lasts almost a heartbeat.
Anna smiles, "one more thing Az."
I look up from garrison to her "yes?"
"Look out onto the street."

I turn back, the four assorted gangs that are living in the street are stood in the street in straight ranks, Jack is standing at the front of them.

"We practised something for you." comes the voice of Garrison behind me.

Jack looks up at me, then turns back and stamps his foot once. The Gang members stand to attention and the shout of "Thank you!" rings out like thunder.

A smile crosses my face involuntarily, I wave down to them, then turn back to Anna and Garrison.

Garrison salutes "We've been getting the movement right for a week now, you haven't been around, so we've had time to practise, we all just wanted to say thanks." He stops for breath "what we've got now, it's not much, but it's more than any of us ever had before, and we don't know if you've ever been on the street like us, but, well, we just wanted to say"
"Thanks" I finish for him "I got the message Garr, thank you, the fact that you've all worked together for this is more than I could wish for."

He smiles, salutes again, then leaves. Anna is still stood at the doorway.
"Can I come in?" she asks quietly.
"Sure" I shrug, "get you a drink?"
"No, it's alright, I'm okay."
She wanders into the room as I close the curtains on the main window, I turn back to find her standing in her underwear in the centre of the room.
"Er?" I should trademark that phrase, I'm saying it far too much these days.

She smiles, there's a touch of fear in her eyes "'s the second part of your thank you." she looks away, unable to meet my eyes.

I crouch down in front of her, coming up with her dress in my hands.

"You don't have to do this Anna, I never put a price on what I'm doing, and even if I did, It'd never be anything like this."

She pushes the dress back down gently, looking up, straight into my eyes, it's not fear in her eyes, it's loneliness, a look I see most mornings when I rise.

"I know I don't have to."

I wake the next morning with a quiet sense of contentment, Anna is still laid in my bed, last night was a revelation, even without the physical stuff, I mean, I've never done that before, although I get the feeling that Anna might have. No, what followed was quiet talking, and just being close to someone for the sake of being close to them, then sleep, deep, refreshing sleep, for the first time in a long time.

I sneak downstairs in a training suit, across to the shop where the dayshift just came on. I exchange the mornings empty pleasantries with the ganger on duty, grabbing several breakfast bits before heading back upstairs. Anna is just getting up as I sneak back into the building. I'm in the kitchen when her small arms circle my waist. I turn, lifting her up onto the side of the cooker.

"Y'okay?" she asks, brushing the hair back from her face.
"I'm fine" it takes me a second to realise that I actually mean it.
"I just don't want you to think that......that."
"What?" I ask softly.
"That I didn't want to, that I was doing it to......" she looks away, anywhere except where I am
I smile with a little more confidence than I'm actually feeling.
"No doubts, No regrets" I say, lowering my voice a touch. Her smile widens a little.
"So, you're making breakfast for me?" she asks.
"Yep" I turn back to the pan and dump some food into it, Anna bounces off the side, landing at my side, her gown lands on my feet.
"How about an appetiser?"

Thoughts of the bacon in the pan disappear faster than peace on Dante.

Later that day, I receive a message from the Contract Directory, it's my first assignment for them, but on a day like this, I feel like telling them to stuff it. The more business orientated side of me realises that this is not a good idea. I'm told to meet the financiers on the edge of cannibal sector one, it's an event commonly known as a blindfold event, for the reason that there's no camera cover, several men enter, sometimes one leaves. I have the names of those who are going in presented to me, and I'm informed that it's no holds barred. I'm carrying all the stuff I would want to anyway, so this is not a problem.

The list of names reads like a who's who of people I've irritated, Pagan, Tachi, Sour Blood, Durell, and me to make five. Standard last man standing rules, anything you find in the zone is fair game. Strange, these events are usually invitation only, I know I'm not a high enough rank to get a position like this.

But fine, bit of a heavy going thing for the first assignment, but there you go, it's not like I expected it to be a kindergarten or anything. The entrance point to CS1 that they've given me is high on the wall, maybe seventy feet in the air. I can smell the death through the air, ancient death, the death of worlds and civilisations lies here. I rappel down into the zone, activating my ecm and cold suits. There's nothing moving in here, it should be a simple matter to find the others in here, just watch for the movement. It's an old trick, you don't actually look for anything, you keep your eyes fixed forward, the periphery of vision should pick up anything that's running around in the shadows. I wish I'd brought a silence for the pistol, unsilenced weapons are going to echo in here like thunder.

A quiet whirring noise draws my attention, a smile ghosts my face, that's got to be Tachi, the idiots still wearing that powered armour, even though it's been proved that it's not invulnerable. It's coming closer to the edge of the nearest building, I draw a line of fire to the edge of the building, making sure not to trigger the targeting laser. The thing rounds the corner.

That's not Tachi.

I stop and take the gun off line, dropping down below the rubble line, peering through the gaps in the wreckage around me. It's about thirty feet tall, and there are.....things falling off it, the smell that pervades the entire sector is coming off it in waves of nausea. There's another whirr from down the central street, not this abomination, something different.

There's a click, followed by the distinct crack of the gauss cannon. I pop up from behind the wreckage in time to see the abomination slammed to the floor by the cannon round. It skids into a building, knocking masonry to the floor like a storm of stone. A second passes and the abomination rises up again, this time, the round takes it square in the head, it goes down again as if poleaxed. Again, a second passes and it begins to rise again. I hear a muffled curse before the gauss cannon cracks again, the round doesn't take it down this time, it was ready for the impact, bracing what can only be thought of as a foot against the damaged building. It rises up like the shadow of death, slowly walking down the road. The cannon cracks again and it staggers briefly, but again, no appreciable damage. I hear a click as Tachi takes the cannon offline and begins to run for it. I wish him luck, that armour of his wasn't meant for speed. I hear the roar of jump jets, maybe I could be wrong, I see Tachi rising into the air to the south, jetting through the cold air to make his way clear. The thing pauses, watching him, then begins to walk after him, calmly, patiently, as if it had all the time in the world.

I wait a good twenty minutes before I move again. I want to be sure that the thing is nowhere near. I find myself regretting it as I try and move, the cold suit has somewhat numbed most of me. This could be a mistake that I might not get chance to put right. I scuttle through the wreckage of the sector, one eye on my motion scanner, one eye on the road ahead. The monitor suddenly goes on line, reporting the death of Tachi. Can't say as I'm too surprised with that. Stupid really, but then, maybe that's the problem with the long standing killers, they get so used to either winning with something or losing with something that they never bother to learn anything new. Tachi always turns up in the superheavy, slow armour, Sour Blood always gets killed using the same move, I wonder if I'll get that way?

A shot smashing off the car next to me reminds me to keep my mind in the here and now. I throw myself low and down, underneath the nearest truck. I've got a problem here, the sniper has to be Durell, which means he's probably using infra red, so the cold suit will keep me safe while I'm under here, but I won't be able to get out of here without giving him a nice, clear head shot.

I wait for a few minutes, my brain racing to find a way out of this, none are presenting themselves, and I'm beginning to freeze up again. The monitor beeps and the problem resolves itself as Durell's lifesigns go black. Marvellous, I roll from under the truck and sprint for the nearest building. A figure detaches itself from the roof of the building in front of me and drops to the floor directly in front of me, a little bit too fast for me to register and draw fire on.

He's definitely a bit bigger now, the new implants covering his body like ritual scars. He extends his hands towards me again, this time lowering one finger.

I nod at the compliment, holstering my pistol. He comes in fast this time, far faster than me, far stronger, the blows land like bullet rounds on my armour, I feel a rib go under the impacts. Damn, I'm regretting giving him the advice. He twitches and goes into the Jackhammer again. I roll under and down, bringing my sword up in the position that I caught him with last time. The boot to my chest catches me completely by surprise. I fly backwards, cursing the day I ever told him where he was going wrong. He moves slowly towards me, savouring the moment, and draws a knife from behind his back, making short slashing motions with it. I groan, reaching down for my pistol. He reaches down, taking my pistol from me and throwing it away, standing high, drawing out the moment again.

His chest explodes outwards and he stands there a moment, looking down in surprise at the space where his vitals used to be. I roll aside just as he falls forwards, coming up with my pistol in my hand. The red dot in between my eyes stops me dead, I can't beat the draw here, I force myself to relax and lower my pistol, I'm going to die here, and I'm going to do it with a little bit of dignity.

"Getting to be a habit, saving you." Pagans voice rasps from in front of me.
I grin, the irony of the situation does not escape me.
He takes the gun off line, I don't even think about trying to bring mine up to get him

"I told you before that I could afford to show you no mercy if we were to meet again, and if this were a normal fight, you would now be dead." He raises a hand to forestall the questions.
"You were asked to be here for this one, it's far beyond your capability at this time, you're just not ready for this." He sits down on the rubble nearby "There is someone trying to do for you and all the things you have done, as I speak, they are about to lay siege to your street and all those on it."

He raises his hand again to stop me. "Don't ask me how I know, or why I'm telling you, all you need to know is that your people need you now, you must go from here, now."

"But the contest, only one of us can leave alive." I stammer, knowing how shallow a statement it is. He raises his hand and disconnects his monitor, on my monitor, his lifesigns go blank.
"Thanks, If ever I can......" He stops me in mid thanks
"No regrets boy, remember?"

I pick my jaw up off the floor where it lands, he points towards the roof and the window to the outside.
"No questions." he orders "Just go."

I launch my grapple to the roof, soaring out into the (and I never thought I would call it this, but) clean air of the mort night. I land near the main camera crew and throw them from their van before they can ask for comment. I race away into the night.

The news van handles like several tons of sewage trying to get out of the toilet rather than down it, but I get it up to a good fifty miles an hour. The street is only a few blocks away, the journey of a few minutes seems to take a few hours. I skid the van into the end of the street to find a warzone confronting me. A few of the people assaulting the street are stood at the end of it, observing the carnage that's being caused, they turn and put on their camera faces as the media van pulls up.

Their smiles don't have time to vanish as I take all three. The noise of my pistol is as inconsequential as the insects in the night air. I stop for a second to see what's going on, there are two gangs, at first glance, the ones that we forced to leave early on because they wouldn't give up on their drugs and violence. Then my training kicks in for a second, they're moving down the street in flanking formation, suppressing with one team while the other one moves forwards.

That's not street tactics, most gangs would just storm the whole street, most of them would get shot to shat, but that's why gangs aren't so much of a problem these days. No, these people are something else. I draw sight on the back of the suppressing squad, leaning into the side of the corner shop. Movement catches my eye and I glance into the shop. Old man Rufus is laying in a pool of blood, very dead, but he's still moving, then I realise that it's not him moving, it's something else. I dart over to the body, rolling him back. The damage to his chest is immense, the round went straight through and struck the person he was trying to protect.


He looks up at me with bright eyes, most of his shoulder is missing, but he's struggling to get up. I flip him onto his back and apply some kickstart to the wound. He shakes his head, grasping at my arm. I reach down with the arm not holding him and take his hand.

"Sor..." the last breath sighs from him.
I lower the body to the floor "No regrets boy, rest easy, you'll soon have company." I whisper to him, knowing he cannot hear me anymore.

I reload the clip and power up my sword. Moving outside, I can see that the fire teams have almost reached the end of the street. I reactivate my shielding suits and move out into the killing ground. The first thing the suppressing team knows of me is when their heavy weapons person goes down in a storm of fire. They turn and spray the street behind them on reflex. I am gone by then. I see them form a circle with the first team and give fire on the whole street. Good tactic, well planned. I stay down in the wreckage of one of the cars, waiting for the fire to stop. A break in the fire, I'm up and running towards the edge of the street. I grapple up onto the main walkway again, watching as they advance down the street, standard two by two cover formation, four teams of four, again, good tactics, sound tactics.

SLA tactics.

The realisation of that slaps me a little. Those of my people still remaining in the apartments open fire on the teams as they advance. Two of the teams turn and fire back, I hope my people have the good sense to get back under cover. I glance round the corner, two teams are advancing down the street still. I dart back, switch the pistol onto full auto, and offer a prayer to a god who doesn't care.

I grapple up to the floor above, now a good five floors above the deck, secure the grapple, then drop down silently into the middle of the street, in-between the two squads. I fire one round at the front squad and without pausing, one round at the rear squad, punching the swift recall on the grappling harness. I shoot up into the air like a rocket as both squads turn, firing. It takes them a full second and five people between the two squads for them to stop firing and wonder what the bloody hell they're doing. A screaming match ensues between the two squads, without benefit of their headsets. I fire my second grapple at the point just behind the rear team, then swing down through the rear squad. The front squad sees me begin my swing and opens fire, tracking me down as I swing through the middle of the rear teams.

The massed fire takes one more member of the rear team before the front team cease fire, I land, rolling to my feet with pistol raised, sword held high. My people see me land, and a massed cry of triumph splits the air. The five people still in the rear teams pause, the indecision written all over their faces. It looks like they were brought here to clean out unarmed (or at the greatest, lightly armed) gangers, most of them teenagers or younger. To be suddenly faced with a very angry and well known contract killer is something completely different and certainly not what they were paid for.

I take the moment to enhance their indecision with a swift burst of heap shells, three people go down, the armour they're wearing no match for what I'm firing, the remainder, front and back, break and run.

I pursue them, cutting one of them off at the knees, shooting the other in the back of the head. The front team is too far away for me to make a difference to them, so I let them go. I move back to the crippled one, giving him a quick dose of kickstart to stop the bleeding. He'll probably live if he gets medical treatment fairly quickly. I make a point of casually informing him of this. He seems willing to talk for the promise of medical attention.

"Who sent you?" I emphasise the question by deactivating the sword and putting the point up his nose.
"Special Assignment."
"Who" I draw the question out, turning the blade slightly inside his nostril.
"We got paid by an operative, he'll kill me if I talk."
Just what I was waiting for, I thumb the blades power on, the left side of his nose disintegrates as the energy function engages.

"Who?" I smile this time, turning the blade off and putting it into the other side of his nose.
"Blood, Sour Blood, he told us you wouldn't be here, he said that you'd be elsewhere for a few hours, all we had to do was come down here and shoot up some brats."
It makes sense, the event I was in was invitation only, someone of his clearance could have got the invitation sorted out. What better way to pay me back for the loss of his balls than to cut off that which is most important to me, my people.

I get up from the guy and walk away, reaching for my mobile to call in the medic I promised. A shot rings out, I reach down to my chest plate, or, more accurately, my neck, there seems to be a large chunk of it missing. Things start to go black as I look backwards to see the person I was about to save laying there with a pistol still smoking in his grasp.

There's a howl from around me and twenty pistols open up from the buildings around me, riddling him with bullets, they may be only small calibre, but they'll still make a mess of unarmoured fools. My legs fail and I drop to the street, my phone dropping from my hand. I hear the scrambling of tiny feet near me, and glance up to see garrison and Anna crouched over me. They are both close to tears, I reach up with my last strength and take both their hands.

"No regrets boy" It's getting dim here, I can feel myself going, I will not give up without a fight "never regret anything, Remember that."

The world goes dark.

- - - - -

It's a dead world, this one, the decay and death roams the streets like a living beast. Here in downtown, the world could end in fire and fury, and unless someone stopped the benefit cheques, no one would notice. These are my streets here, this is my time, here I reign supreme, unchallenged by man or beast, I roam the way looking for the lost and the damned.

My name is Garrison, son of Azrael, I continue the work he began so long ago, it has been ten years since he fell in battle defending us, we have finished the work he started all that time ago. He left instructions in his will for all his wealth to be passed to the people he trusted most, Anna, myself, Jack, and old man Rufus. In the absence of old man Rufus, and jack, Anna and I assumed control, continuing as he would have wanted. We summoned medics to treat him, and they took him away, but we never found him at the hospital they were supposed to have taken him.

In my heart, I believe he is still out there, watching over us, his children. Sometimes, late at night, I can hear Anna talking to herself in her room, it's as if she's talking to something, but every time I ask her what's wrong, she just says nothing and changes the subject.

I've taken over all the other things that he was doing, we get no further trouble from Sour Blood, an investigation into the massacre was launched at the request of someone called Pagan, I think he was a friend of Azrael. I understand that Blood was sent to one of the war worlds to work off his debt to us. I think the charge was conduct unbecoming a Contract killer (for those who find that a bit strange, his crime was that he hired others to do his dirty work, no way for any killer worthy of the name to behave.)

But I know he'll be back, and when he is, I'm sure Azrael will return, for the final battle.

For Judgement.