His first clear memory is of being chased.

Actually, clear is a an overstatement. Everything was seen through a red haze of pain, his skull clenched in a vise of agony, every running step making flashes leap at the edges of his vision. If his stomach wasn't already achingly empty, the retching agony would have had him spewing it's contents on the roughly paved streets.

He's in the free city of Berlin, anarchist's paradise, but not a great place to be little more than a teenager, alone and hungry.

The air is cool, the evening overcast. Warmth runs through his long hair, down the side of his face, the pain centered in the scalp above his right ear. He doesn't remember how he got hurt, doesn't know who he is or why he is running down this grimy sidewalk. He has a vague feeling that something went wrong, and that's why they are chasing him. Perhaps he was trying to steal from them? Spy on them? It doesn't matter. If they catch him, he knows they will kill him.

He runs on, blood streaming down his face from an ugly scorched gouge in the side of his head. Even in pain, he moves fast. A woman coming out of a shop screams as he runs past, startling her. A white flash of bone is visible in the center of the ghastly wound. The sound makes him stumble as he looks back. Three large men, one of them with the stocky build of ork are still keeping up with him. He's not quite sure how he has been able stay ahead of them this long.

He tries to run faster, but the pounding of his heart is making his head throb and his vision blur in time with the rhythm. He comes to a street crossing as a car pulls up to make a turn. Without breaking stride he launches off of one foot and lands with the other on the hood of the old Daimler-Benz. The hood dents in under his weight, but his next running stride launches off the fender and he lands on the opposite curb. He doesn't pause to consider how high he had jumped with no warning.

He pounds down the twisting sidewalk, a loud crash and shouts erupting from behind him. Then shots. One of his pursuers may have tried to emulate him, and most prudent citizens travel armed these days. He doesn't look back.

The curve of the sidewalk takes him out of line of sight from the altercation, and he slows his pace slightly and looks back. No signs of pursuit. He slows to a jog, and looks for a place to get out of sight. He ducks into a narrow trash-strewn alleyway, then looks back around the corner. Still no sign of them. It looks like he lost them.

He leans his back against the dirty brick wall, scored by decades of acid rain. His lungs are working like a bellows, but he can feel his pulse slowing, much to the relief of his head. He gingerly runs his fingers through the bloody hair, wincing when he encounters the flap of scalp laid back by some unremembered violence. He can feel his knees start to tremble as the shock tries to take hold. He slides his back down the wall slightly, resting his palms above his knees and willing them not to buckle. There is something jabbing him in his pants pocket. He reaches into his pocket to adjust it and recognizes the shape of what he knows must be a cred-stick.

He's wondering how he is so sure what it is when the truncheon strikes him behind the left ear. The stick tumbles unnoticed from his hand into the junk at his feet.

On top of the exisitng trauma, his head explodes into a supernova of light. He tumbles bonelessly to the ground. He is barely aware of the large man standing over him. The lightshow still hasn't faded by the time he is grabbed by the collar of his grubby t-shirt and lifted up, his feet trailing on the damp cobblestones.

He is effortlessly slammed against the brick wall, affording new agony to his head, and the ork's rancid breath washes over him, redolent of sausage and onions. Ironically, the first clear thought in his mind is how hungry he is.

"Well, Clever Hans," the ork rumbles, "you led us on quite a chase. But you weren't quite clever enough, were you? It's not often Dieter misses a shot like that though, but your run is over, my rabbit... you've picked your last pocket."

He feels the ork roughly turn out his empty pockets.

"Hurm. Still being clever, yes? Now, if you tell us what you did with it, I can guarantee that you will feel very little of what will happen next. If you piss me off, I'll make it feel like a century. Now... which will it be?"

His mind feels like it's mired in tar, trying to sort out what is being said, trying to fill in the blanks.The ork takes this for resistance and shifts his grip from collar to throat. The muscles in the hairy forearms swell and he begins slowly, deliberately, strangling the teenager.

The boy's throat closes and he begins to struggle for breath. The need for air evaporates his daze, and his eyes focus on the grinning, tusked face of his murderer. The orks eyes are alight with rare pleasure - he enjoys killing, but it isn't often that his work lets him do it up close and personal like this... to watch the victims last struggles... to watch their eyes fill with fear... and rage? And something else...

In one convulsive move, the boy brings both of his slender wrists up just behind the burly ork's wrists. The sound of the ork's forearms snapping like matchsticks is unnaturally loud in the alley. The boy takes in a shuddering breath like a newborn as he brings both fists back down, fear-driven strength shattering the ork's sternum and driving the shrapnel through his heart.

It took almost five minute to find the credsitck again, keeping his eyes avert from the cooling body. Finally his fingers closed around it. The stick was black plastic with slivery fittings, complete with a coiling dragon logo at the top that seemed somewhat ominous.

The public cred-reader at an automated hotel confirmed that it was a certified cred-stick (Saeder-Krupp corp issue) with a value high enough to make him gasp. He confirmed the room rental and snatched the stick out of the reader before anyone around him could see the balance. He kept the stick balled in his fist as he walked over to the bank of entry doors. The serial number on the cred-stick unlocked the correct door and he stepped inside and locked it behind him.

Once inside he began to relax a little bit. The room was cramped by anyone's standards, with barely enought room for the single bed, trideo/telecomm unit, and tiny 'fresher cubicle. But it was his for the next 24 hours, and that made it a veritable palace to him.

The next morning, he felt considerably better. He could tell he was cleaner than he probably had been in a while. His clothes, though worn, were freshly laundered, and he'd cleaned up the wound on the side of his head as best he could. He was also full of vending machine stuffers and over-the-counter analgesic patches.

The scalp wound was still a worry though. There was no sign of infection, but it looked like it would probably need stitches. He didn't have any kind of identification, and he doubted he had any insurance, so a regular hospital was out of the question. He was able to locate a slightly run-down clinic on the Linder Strasse. The owner looked like a walking advertisement for the preservative benefits of alcoholism, but he let the boy in after seeing he carried a cred-stick.

When the old man asked him his name, there was an awkward pause before he answered the first thing that came to mind "Hans." The old man had evidently done less-than-entirely legal work before, because he read a lot more into that pause than was intended. He dispensed with any further question and led him into the surgical area.

There was no sign of infection yet, so, after clipping away a good bit of the hair, he settled for applying a wide-spectrum anti-bacterial spray, then reattaching the flap with self-dissolving surgical glue. He tried to use a more old-fashioned, and less expensive, stitching gun, but had problems getting it to thread the needle through. He apologized for the delay, then launched into a rant about the high prices of getting medical supplies into the city these days. Hans did not remark, figuring he was being softened up for the eventual bill.

As he finishes, the old man offers to check and recalibrate his cybereyes, in case they had gotten jarred by the impact. Hans declined in confusion, then glanced into a mirror. With a chill of dread, he realized why the old man had made his mistake. In his confusion, he simply handed over the cred-stick when the old man announced the bill. He was looking at the half crew-cut he was now sporting when the credit-stick was placed into a regular terminal with banking connections. The old man noticed something odd when he ran the cred-stick, aside from it's balance. There was an attached file. He looked edge-wise at his patient. The boy was still staring at the mirror and frowning, Ah, young men were so vain these days. I wonder what he carrying around on this stick...?

"OUT!"

Hans jumped at the shout that broke his reverie. The doctor had just ripped the cred-stick out of his computer and hurled it at him. He caught it reflexively as the old man shouted at him, his face mottled with apoplectic fury. "Who the hell do you think you are coming here like this! You bastard! You think I want to be mixed up in this? Get the hell out of here before I kill you myself!"

Hans backed away as the old man ripped open a drawer and pulled out an old, slightly bent bone saw. He turned and ran out of the clinic.

Hans, as he called himself for lack of anything better to use, used the cred-stick to get a haircut and some new clothes. The stylist at the salon took one look at him and did a double take. He just walked up and said "try to make this look good". As she got a closer look at the staples, she chuckled "well I guess getting a hole in your head would justify having a haircut that bad." To even everything out, she had to cut it all to that basic length, as long as it had been, this ended up spiking most of it straight up. At the counter, he saw a display rack of retro sunglasses. He picked out a pair of mirrored wrap-arounds... something called the Gibson look. He paid for it along with the haircut, making a point of making sure that he remained in control of the cred-stick at all times, and that it only went through financial readers.

The clothes were a little more expensive. He was pretty sure, all things considered, that his scalp wound had been from a bullet, and he couldn't count on only getting grazed again. He still had quite a bit of credit left when he visited The People's Self-Defense Armory. It was the closest place he could find in directory assistance, but it was apparently run by some of the local neo-Communists. Politics didn't stop them from charging thoroughly capitalistic prices, he noticed. He tried talk deeper and to act older than he thought he probably was. The glasses seemed to help too.

He picked up a "genuine American" Ares Predator that had probably been produced at a knock-off plant in Slovenia. It didn't really matter because he didn't know how to shoot.. or at least he didn't think he did. Mostly it was for intimidation factor. He had a vague plan forming in his mind, but it would take someone older and smoother than he was. However, he was all he had, so he'd have to wing it.

The clerk balked a bit when Hans, after some thought, picked out some ballistic cloth trousers, a vest with plates, and an armored jacket. "That's a lot of weight there, kid. It's going to slow you down a lot. Better lose the vest or the jacket."

Hans looked at him expressionlessly through the mirrorshades. How did they do this in the movies? "Both." he growled through clenched teeth. He resisted the urge to grind them.

"Hey, okay man, no problem, it was just a suggestion... no offense intended you know... if you don't mind the weight, well, it's your hoop, right?" He raised his hands palms out and spread them to indicate he was not going to argue. Some combat boots with steel toes joined his purchases in the bag he carried back to the hotel. He picked up a few other odds and ends on the way back, including a rucksack and a prepaid mobile phone.

That evening, he renewed the rental on the room and, wearing his new gear, took a trip into downtown Berlin.

Unglaubich! Was a decker bar, or at least it looked like one to Hans. Lots of neon tubing and chrome went into the decor, and almost everyone he saw go in or out had some obvious cyber-jacks. He walked up, trying not to act nervous.

The bouncer glared down at him, until he ran the credstick through the reader, and okayed paying the cover charge. It's amazing, he thought to himself, the difference that money makes. If you have it, you belong - you are a person now. The thought was more than vaguely troubling.

If the outside of Unglabich! was ultra-modern, the inside was ultra-future. The second and third floor levels were made of lucite, with the electrical, plumbing, and air conduits outlined in strings of flashing lights. The circular stairways were outlined in neon tubing that slowly cycled through all the colors of the spectrum. With the fog machines running and the music pounding loud enough to make his bones throb, the whole effect was rather like being trapped in a real-life sim-sense game. He noticed with a start that the wait-staff were all dressed in skin-tight plastic jumpsuits made of some clear plastic material with a liquid cyrstal matrix sandwiched between. The liquid crystal cycled between opaque and transparent in fractal patterns somehow related to the beat of the music. He felt his face grow slightly warm.

Hans worked his way through the crowd, gravitating toward the darker corners of the first floor. The second and third floors seemed primarily reserved as dance space, while the bottom floor was set up with a seemingly random scattering of tables and chairs. Several people were using the tables... some even had decks set up. A couple appeared to be playing strategy games or competitions of some sort. His eyes, however, were drawn to an altercation along the edge of the seated area near where he was leaning against the wall, trying to be unobtrusive. One of the waitresses had been cornered by a customer, a large husky man, whose obviously chromed jacks and pale skin contrasted with his bleached blond and bulging muscles that looked to have benefitted from a bio-sculpt session or two.

Hans was wondering if the bouncers were going to do anything when a slim figure from a nearby table walked up behind the large man and casually kicked his knees from behind, tumbling him to the floor.

"You know, Vladimir," she said in a conversational tone as she stood over him and the waitress flashed a quick smile of thanks and headed off for the bar, "just because everyone knows you are an immature asshole doesn't mean you have to prove it to everyone new that you meet..."

Vladimir climbed to his feet, glaring at her all the while. He took a step forward when she continued, "Do you remember the last time you got into it with me?" He stopped dead.

"If you don't want another email that'll turn your deck into a smoking paperweight, I suggest you behave... that is, unless you like having to etch new MPCP chips every fortnight?"

With a muttered obscenity, he stalked past her and headed for the door.

Hans eased over in that direction. The woman was tall and rangy, dressed in a well-worn leather jacket and pants, and a t-shirt that said Wurtzburg Simsenz in neon script. Her hair was dark with what looked like red highlights in the dim light. Her eyes looked natural, but she had 3 prominent chrome datajacks arranged in a triangle at her left temple. She settled back into her seat and punched a button on her deck's keyboard. The small roll-up vid display resumed scrolling text. She started scanning this again, but looked up as he settled into the other seat at her table. She frowned. "Do I know you, liebchen?"

Hans flushed slightly at the address. He kept his voice even as he tried to assume a business-like tone. "I wish to pay you for five minutes of your time." Her sudden smirk made his blush deepen.

"Listen kid, I don't have time to play games. Why don't you run along and-"

"There is an encrypted file in the root of this cred-stick. I would like you to decrypt it, print it out for me, and keep five thousand for your time."

She raised an eyebrow, but accepted the cred-stick out of curiosity, if nothing else. Her face twisted into a frown after she inserted into her deck, ran a preliminary check, then started working on the file. Her fingers flashed across the keyboard, almost too fast to see. As she worked, she studied him under her furrowed eyebrows. "This is a lot of money for a simple decryption job. You have the funds to cover it, but why not buy your own deck for less than that, load some code-breaking expert system and do it yourself?"

"I'm not good with computers."

She nodded once. "And what's to keep me from taking all the funds off the chip? Or keeping the file and giving you some worthless text files?"

Hans paused. He knew he was being tested, and had a feeling this woman did not suffer fools gladly. "Someone who would do that wouldn't have cared about Vladimir abusing the waitresses, would they?" A little flattery probably wouldn't hurt, either.

She smiled once, faintly. "Not neccesarily, tovarisch. However, the world is a better place with such idealism. I am Magda. The encryption is not very sophisticated. I've got the correct general algorithym worked out. I have a 'soft brute-forcing the parameter combinations until the final result is intelligible. It should be only a few minutes."

"A pity that you will not have that long."

The voice came from behind Hans. He gritted his teeth as he silently remonstrated himself. He had been so focused on Magda, that he had let his awareness of his surroundings fade. Four large men in dark clothing and longcoats had worked their way across the floor, effectively isolating Magda's corner from the rest of the crowd. Hans cut his eyes left and right behind the mirror shades. People at adjacent tables were pointedly looking away or pointedly focusing only on their conversational partners. Nobody seemed to want to get the attention of the newcomers.

Magda looked more annoyed than anything else. "Look, Russiky," her voice dripped with contempt, "I told your employer that while his offer was flattering, I work strictly freelance. Do you understand what I am telling you?"

"Da, bitch" the one immediately behing Hans growled. "I also understand that no one says no to Ivanov." His voice dropped in volume. "Do not underestimate the reach of Vory v Zakone, even in this anarchist hellhole."

Hans recognized the old term for the Russian Mafia. No wonder people were studiously looking away.

"We can make life very difficult for people who are not... cooperative." He glanced down at Hans and smirked. "Or even for their kid brothers."

Magda, while more than willing to needle Hans herself, took exception to this. "That, you toad, is one of my clients. Do not interfere in my business unless you wish me to make your business my business, eh?"

He laughed coarsely and dropped his hand onto Han's right shoulder. In one quick motion, Hans rotated out from under the hand and out of his chair, ending up facing the man. With a growl the thug pulled his left arm back to backhand the impertinent child. Hans dropped into a fighting stance with feet spread and blocked the swipe with a counter-clockwise sweep of his left arm. His forearm struck the bone just above the Russian's elbow, snapping it with an audible crack.

He gasped, cradling his broken arm, staggering backwards, and barking something in Russian. His three companions immediately reached under their coats.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Hans drove forward off his back foot. He lunged forward, his extended fist sinking up to the wrist in the stomach of the closest one. This one folded and flew backwards, his fingers never having even reached the holster. Hans shifted his weight to his front leg, stepped forward, then pivoted away and back-kicked his heel into the head of a second thug, knocking him cold as he drew his gun.

The next instant a fusillade of sledgehammer blows showered his back, driving him to the floor. He heard the distinctive snap of one of the ceramic plates in the back of his jacket cracking down the middle. As he was thrown to the floor, the wind knocked out of him, but nothing worse, Hans realized that the last thug was considerably faster and obviously more dangerous than the others. Poor judgment there, he chided himself, as he went limp and lay still. Fortunately, the poor lighting in the club worked to his advantage, especially after the muzzle flashes.

"That little bastard... I'll blow his brains out myself." The uzi in the last gunman's hands was now covering Magda, who had come half out of her seat, her face gone pale under the flashing lights.

Hans willed himself to hold still even after getting booted in the ribs. From the corner of his barely open eye he watched as the spokesman awkwardly dug a pistol out of a shoulder holster with still-functioning hand. He finally got the safety turned off, but as he started to line it up on the back of Hans' head, the boy launched himself off the floor at the mobster. One hand twisted the gun hand until the wirst snapped, the other grabbed a handfull of the shirt and kept the mobster in front of him as he propelled both of them at the last gunman.

The third gunman, although startled, still moved with preternatural speed. He didn't fire at or through his superior, but did step back out of the path of the bull rush. Hans' legs were still pistoning against the floor as they accelerated. They mostly missed the their target, but the body of his would-be executioner did block his foe from easily bringing the Uzi around for a point-blank burst. Han's right hand flashed out, past a mis-timed block and connected solidly with the man's jaw, snapping his head back slightly. It was like hitting a steel drum, Hans thought. He must be metal underneath...

The first mobster, already sliding deeply into shock tumbled backwards to the floor as Hans let go. The boy's attention fully on the last gunman, his left hand flashed out at the wrist above the hand holding the uzi. Han's clamped down as hard as he could, to keep the submachine pointed away, and cocked his right hand back for another punch. With a sudden snapping noise, a long gleaming spike shot out of the back of the cyborg's right wrist, and he drove it into Han's ribs.

The spike found a seam in the jacket, dug into the vest beneath, but did not pierce the skin. Han's clamped his right arm down onto his opponent's arm and rammed his knee up into the man's midsection, exploding the breath out of him. The man pitched forward and Hans rammed his forehead into the man's face, snapping his nose and spraying blood.

As the man rocked backwards, Hans let go of the arm with the spike and tried to rip the uzi out of the man's right hand. Whether out of instinct or just pure viciousness, the mobster triggered a long burst that ricocheted off the ceiling and walls, setting off a chorus of screams and groans as the spent rounds spattered through the crowd. Hans screamed and the firing was cut off with a screech of metal and plastics. The hand holding the wrist of what had turned out to be a cyber-arm had crushed the casing making the hand short out, spasm, and drop the firearm.

Hans could vaguely feel the other arm slamming the spike into his side through the mostly ruined jacket. Holding on with his left hand, he pounded his balled up right fist into the murderous face above him. His hand went numb after the first dozen impacts, but the cries of the wounded drove him on. After a few seconds, the pounding in his side ceased as he felt the bonelacing separate and shatter under his fist. After a last blow sent shards of cyber-eye casing into the air, he stopped and stepped back numbly. The man was on his knees, but unconscious. The only thing holding him upright was the Hans holding onto his left arm. He let go, having to pop his fingers out of the grooves they had crushed into the cyberlimb casing, and the cyborg crumpled to the ground.

Hans stared numbly at the destruction he had wrought. He flinched and spun when he felt a touch on his shoulder. Magda was behind him, her deck packed up and hanging from a strap on her shoulder. She was wearing mirrorshades, so he couldn't see her eyes right now. That was probably a good thing. "Let's get the hell out of here, okay?"

He nodded.

Magda led him out through a milling crowd of panicing club-goers. Some of the club employees did a double-take when they saw Hans, but a decisive head-shake from Magda warned them off. A back hallway near the bathrooms led to a fire exit and an alley lined with dumpsters. They followed this passage through the block and ended up on a side street near a small gasthaus where Magda said she had a bolt-hole.

Her bolt-hole turned out to be a small, but cluttered efficiency apartment under the attic. The three by six meter space was dominated by a sofa-bed, a large trideo unit, and an elaborate electronics work-bench. She waved him toward the fresher unit in the corner. When Hans looked in the mirror, he realized why people at the club were staring at him. His hands were soaked with blood, almost none of it his own, and there were drying spatters all over his front. He shuddered and quickly rinsed off the worst of it. The knuckles of his right hand were a little scraped up. He pulled a few slivers of metal out. He recognized the chromium finish from the last thug's cyber-eyes.

When he turned back around, Magda had folded back the bed and was sitting on the couch, her deck in her lap. One of the folding chairs under the work-bench had been pulled out and now faced the couch. Hans carefully sat in the chair. He noticed that Magda had a large-calibur handgun sitting on the cushion next to her. It wasn't pointed at anyone, but it was, he noticed, within easy reach.

"Okay, liebchen. Now what's going on?"

He shrugged. "I don't like people putting their hands on me. He tried to hit me. I like that even less."

"And you apparently like getting shot even less."

He shrugged again. He was still a little numb about the whole thing. His back was still throbbing when he shifted so the broken ceramic plates in the jacket would stop poking him.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were an assassin sent to knock off Ivanov's little bagman. Someone who can handle themselves like you do can generally stop confrontations like that before they even start."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, you act like a scared adolescent, then you tear through Ivanov's goons like a dikoted buzzsaw" Her features twisted with distaste."You really suckered them in, but it's a brutal way to make a living, chummer."

Hans choked on his protests, then stopped. What he had done to them was pretty brutal.. but he'd been fighting out of fear.

Magda frowned at him as he grew silent. "But that's not the case is it? You really don't know do you?"

Hans blew out a long breath. "No, not really. I've mostly been acting out of reflex."

"Are you wired up?"

Hans shook his head.

"Hmmm... if you were, it would be easier to assess what you can do. You must be an Adept. I may know someone who can address that. In the meantime, you just need to know how to handle the social end."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, if you act like a scared kid, people will assume they can push you around. If you act like someone who will rip them to pieces, then you won't have to. When Boris put his hand on you, you went from totally passive to full attack mode. He didn't really have time to figure out he was doing something stupid. You need to either escalate slower, or establish your initial boundaries a bit farther out."

Hans nodded slowly, intrigued. She made it sound almost... scientific? Magda shifted on the couch, leaning back, and ran her fingers through her hair, brushing it back off her forehead.

"Part of it is also what my merc friends call 'situational awareness'. You sat with your back facing most of the floor, including the entrance. A real pro will sit so he has all the entrances and exits covered... and if he can't he will use any reflective surfaces or shadows to keep track of who is around him or in his blind spot. You were suprised by those goons, which marked you in their eyes as a harmless amateur - not someone to be taken seriously. If you had done that turn and pivot move as they walked up, it would have marked you in their eyes as someone serious."

"Another piece of it," she continued, "is having the right... hmmm.. an Amerikaner friend of mine called it his 'game face'. If you can face down people who are trying to push you, you can avoid dismembering them, da? It saves in the long run, because if you are always getting into fights, no one will want to deal with you."

Hans nodded, but a question occured to him that he had to ask. "I see your point. But... um, why are you helping me with this?"

She smiled. "Well, for one, that little mess did buy me some breathing room with Ivanov. He's going to think twice about sending another group of thugs to "talk" to me after what happened to Boris and his boys." She saw his confusion, and continued, "Yes, as far as the Vory are concerned, what happened was an effective demonstration. But we are not all mobsters and thugs. Most of my colleagues consider themselves professionals, and that kind of public fracas is nulkulturny - non-cultured - in that society. That's another important lesson - the rules that apply within one society do not always apply in others. The only universal truth is that there are none." She smiled again. The boy was a good listener. Suprisingly attentive, for his age. No... he was older than he looked. Or acted, it seemed.

"Secondly, I enjoy having the chance to tell someone all the things I wish someone had taught me when I was getting started. I made a lot of mistakes... we all do.. but a lot of them were stupid things. I look back and I am embarrassed at my mistakes, you see? No? Heh.. you will. Eventually."

She leaned forward and reached out with her left hand. Her fingertips traced the edge of his ear, down the line of his jaw. "Besides, I like you, Liebchen." She eased forward off the couch, the leather pants rustling against the fabric. Her other hand came up to rest on the other side of his face. She kissed him firmly on the mouth.

Hans woke up confused. He wasn't in the hotel room. He sat up abruptly and looked around the cluttered apartment/repair shop, then saw Magda smiling at him. She was sitting in the folding chair, wearing a pair of panties and a t-shirt, splitting her attention between the muted trideo unit and the roll-up monitor on her deck.

"Welcome back to the land of the living, Liebchen. You had a busy day, so I let you catch up on your rest."

She smiled archly as Hans felt his face redden again. He fumbled around the floor around the sofa-bed, locating his ballistic singlet and pants. The jacket was basically totaled, he could see now, and the vest had large gouges ripped out of it under the right arm-hole. He sighed as he pulled on the vest, but didn't latch it up yet.

"You certainly believe in being well-armored, don't you." She got up and stretched her back. Hans glanced at her and then away.

"Well, I don't like being shot all that much." He shrugged.

"Well, no one does, but not everyone is willing to carry around as much extra weight as you seem to be willing to."

"Not many people seem to have my talent for getting shot." He touched the healing scar above his ear.

"True... at least it doesn't seem to affect your agility... or endurance..." She smiled at him again.

Hans felt his blush deepening despite his best efforts... he grimaced and let out an exasperated breath.

Magda laughed and walked over to Hans, resting her forearms on his shoulders and lacing her fingers behind his neck. She worked the heels of her hands into the tense muscles on the base of his neck and pulled his head forward until their foreheads touched. He noticed that without her boots they were roughly the same height.

"Always so serious, you. I had fun. You had fun. It was good, da?"

"Yes."

"Then what is the problem? I mean.. wait, it wasn't your first... was it ?"

"I... well, i don't know. I think so. Oh hell..."

She leaned back so she could get a good look at his face. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"Sigh... I mean, that right now my memories start with about 3 days ago. I was running, carrying that damn credstick, with the side of my head all torn up and a bunch of goons chasing me. I don't remember anything before that. I don't know where I learned to fight, it just seems to come to me instinctively when I'm threatened. I don't know why I'm stronger than normal. None of this makes any sense to me... that's why I was trying to find out about that file on the cred-stick. One of the guys chasing me implied I had stolen it, or that it was the reason I was shot."

"Wow... that's quite a story. No, I believe you... it just sounds like something out of a lurid sim-sense game or something. Very dramatic and mysterious. You are an exiled prince, no?"

Hans shrugged. He was starting to get used to her sense of humor.

"Well, Prince, lets take a look at that file. The decrypt actually finished a while ago, but we were a little too... busy... to notice."

Hans just ignored that.

"Hmmm... text file mainly.. some attached graphics. Here you go.." She started handing him sheets as soon as they emerged from a laser-printer. "Looks like a mission briefing of some sort. One of these docs is the itinerary for some visiting corporate type... looks like some high-roller from Renraku is attending a conference at the Daimler-Benz building. Is this an extraction or a hit? Ah... here we go. He's a director of the Renraku Red Samurai division.. looks like Daimler-Benz is going for the combat-vehicles contract for the Red Samurai... Interesting. And so.. ah, here it is. Oh, that's nice. Barbarians." her voice went flat at the end.

"What?" Hans noticed her eyes grow hard and her lips compress into a thin line.

"The operation is to kidnap his daughter, who is also travelling with him. She's 12 years old and his only family. If he wants to see her alive again, he has to kill the deal with Daimler-Benz. If he doesn't, they're going to send him a sim-sense recording of them raping and killing her." The last sheet was a high-resolution picture of a young girl in an elaborately-patterned kimono.

"That's despicable!" Hans snarled. It was completely irrational, but his hands were shaking slightly with rage.

"Worse... there's notes from their Johnson. Even if the order does get cancelled, they aren't going to return her. Instead of risking her being able to describe any of them, they are going to make a little extra money selling her to organleggers." Her mouth twisted in distaste.

Hans let the sheet slip out of his hands before he tore it apart. His mind kept picturing the innocent face, screaming in pain as she is cut into pieces to be sold on the black market. His hands twisted involuntarily into claws, then balled into white-knuckled fists. He heard a grinding sound for a few moments before he realized it was his own molars. Magda looked up and flinched away.

"Calm down! This isn't due to happen for a couple of weeks yet. She's scheduled to attend some cultural reception at their Messerschmitt-Kawasaki subsidiary ... they don't appear to be involved though. Looks like someone leaked the motorcade route... hmmm..."

"Can you tell if this is the only copy of the data that those bastards have?"

"I don't think.. no it isn't. The creation dates on all the files are the same. These files were all copied over from somewhere else at the same time."

"Hmmm... will they still do the job if they aren't getting paid?

Magda sighed. "Well, 2 things.. One, you can't back out on a deal once you take the money unless you were lied to. Even if your employer let you live, the fixers would never give you work again. It's professional suicide for a 'runner. Two, this cred-stick didn't have enough money on it to bankroll a job of this magnitude. Either you lifted someone's individual share, or you got the petty cash fund."

Hans frowned.

"Look, I can leave an anonymous tip with Daimler-Benz security. I don't have any contacts there, but we can at least give them what they call a "heads-up", da?"

"How likely are they to take that seriously?"

"Probably not very... unless I include the files themselves... no, wait... Let me see. Oh, this is very not good."

"What?" Hans was picking up on some of her anxiety now, and it wasn't helping his mood at all.

"Some of these resources, especially this itinerary, indicate that whoever is setting this up has high-level sources within Daimler-benz."

"Ah, so..."

"Right. Either D-B security buries the warning because it would raise some serious questions about their own operation, or the mole in D-B can kill it. And even if they can't completely kill the warning, the mole can have the operation delayed or change the location to compensate."

"How about we warn Renraku then?"

"Same issues... some of this data doubtlessly came from sources within the Megacorp. Where do you think the picture of the daughter came from? Maybe someone wants to get her father out of the way."

"Lovely. How about I just warn him directly?"

"I don't think he has a listed telecom code, liebchen."

"Dammit." Frustration was making him even angrier. It didn't matter. He was not going to let this happen, no matter what he had to do.

Magda frowned at him. Honestly, he was a little scary when he got like this. She was not qute sure what she had gotten herself involved with here. She was pretty sure that he had even less idea, though. "Well, I'm not the one planning the operation, so glowering at me is not doing you any good. However, if you can bottle that look and use it next time you get into a situation, I guarantee it will make people unsure of themselves think twice about pushing things with you..." She retrieved her pants from the floor and pulled them on.

Hans shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I just can't accept that we can know all about this and not be able to do something about it."

"Well," she answered philosophically as she laced up her boots, "I can ask around and see if anyone I know has a trustworthy contact within either of the corps."

There was a loud chirp that startled Hans. Magda reached into her jacket and extracted a small phone. "Da... yes. Oh no... Yes. Yes, I will. Thank you, my friend. I will. Immediately." She disconnected the call and looked quickly around the room.

"There is a wild rumor going around that you are a yakuza hit-man who kidnapped me to extract what I know about Ivanov's operations. Ivanov has put a large price on both our heads. We need to leave immediately."

"I can't leave this thing hanging."

"I can do what I can do from anywhere. What can you do to stop this anyway?"

"With this," he picked up the printouts, "I know where and when it will go down." They locked gazes for a moment. Then Magda looked away and started packing up her deck.

"You are really going to try it, aren't you, you crazy bastard? A professional shadowrunning team is going head to head with 2 corporate security forces, and you want to stick your nose into the middle of that?"

Hans paused before answering. He felt he was on the edge of something bad here. "It's more like I have to. Magda, I-"

"No. Shut up. You are a crazy fool, and no matter how good or how strong crazy fools are, they always manage to get themselves killed in the end. I am getting my ass out of town before Ivanov puts a bullet through it, so I won't be here to witness your glorious martyrdom. Sorry." She looked up and he saw that there were tears standing in her eyes.

"I have no intention of - "

Hans was cut off wave of Magda's hand. A small red light had started flashing above the door. She grabbed his head and whispered in her ear, "Motion sensor - someone is in the hallway." The flashing resolved into a pattern of three quick pulses, followed by a pause. "Three heat sources," she whispered.

The flashing pattern continued for several seconds. A second yellow light started to flash. "Someone is trying to hack the maglock," she whispered.

Hans whispered a question as he closed the latches on the front of his armored vest, "are the walls armored?"

"No."

Well, he thought to himself, in the trideo shows they always stand up right against the wall next to the door, so... He got a running start and hurled himself into the wall, arms outstretched, just to the right of the door.

The plaster and wood slats gave way a lot easier than he had anticipated, and he carried the two thugs he collided with through the wall on the other side of the hallway in a blizzard of splinters and plaster dust. Hans rolled backward into a squat. One guy was out cold, the other would never wake up from a broken neck. A large hand closed over the back of his head and hauled him bodily off his feet and back into the hallway.

The hand was attached to a large troll, well over 3 meters tall and massing the better part of a ton. The behemoth was dressed similar to the Vory thugs, in dark formal shirt and trousers under a dark overcoat. Only this overcoat would have been sufficient keep the rain off a family of four. The troll whipped his arm up and down, slamming Hans into the ceiling and floor, alternating.

There was a series of loud bangs from the hole next to the door. Magda had leaned around the corner and was firing the heavy pistol into the troll's side. His other long arm whipped out with surprising speed and backhanded her. She flew backwards into the opposite wall and crumpled to the ground, unmoving.

The floor was holding up better than the ceiling to the battering. Hans got his feet under him on the next swing and braced himself, then twisted out of the troll's grip. He spun around in a combat stance. The troll smiled and aimed a swipe at his head. Hans ducked under it and hooked a round-kick into the troll's knee. The troll didn't even pause, and Hans saw the following upper-cut too late to do anything about it.

The impact was roughly analagous to being hit by a truck. Hans was hurled off his feet and down the length of the corridor. The window at the end was barred on the outside, but that didn't make much difference. Hans felt the world spin crazily for a moment before he realized that he was outside the building. The pavement rushing up brought this realization home to him.

The stunning impact drove all the breath out his lungs and his vision blurred for a moment. Only the thought that Magda was still up there with the troll kept him clinging to consciousness. Still unable to draw breath, he nonetheless rolled to his knees and staggered to his feet. A car honked at him but he ignored it and limped to the door of the gasthaus. In the lobby, a man was holding a gun on the desk attendant. His eyes widened when he saw Hans. He spun and got a shot off before an iron-hard hand gripped his throat and slammed the back of his head into the lobby wall.

Between the vest and the fact that his entire chest was throbbing from the earlier punch Hans couldn't even feel the bullet impact. His lungs unhitched and he was able to get air in with sudden gasps, but he was still pretty shaky. Magda was still up there. He staggered up the stairs, nonetheless taking them two at a time.

He heard some crashing earlier, but it got ominously quiet as he reached the final landing. His breathing was mostly normal by now. When he got to Magda's apartment, it was a shambles. The electronics bench was up-ended and shoved half-way through a wall. The expensive trideo rig was in pieces. Magda was in a crumpled heap, sprawled half on the bed. The troll was bent over her with a large serrated knife. Hans noticed an open ice-chest on the floor nearby, with dry-ice vapors wafting from the open top. Magda was bruised up and bloody, her pants half torn off and her t-shirt cut open down the middle, but she appeared to still be breathing.

"Hey asshole! I'm not done with you yet!"

The troll whipped around quickly, eyes widening. Hans noted that. The bastard pretended to be a lot slower than he really was. That trick would not work again. He watched as the Vory assassin pivoted and brought the knife around into a fighter's grip, parallel to the forearm. He advanced the knife with circular slashes. Hans pivoted away from these, but left his middle slightly open. There! The troll finally reversed his grip and went for a lunge. Hans carefully timed his block, but still barely made it in time. The knife edge of his hand struck the flat of the blade and snapped it off at the hilt. This further surprised his opponent, and gave him time to rotate clear before the follow-up blow. The kick was late and Hans managed to step inside and block most of it with his upper arm against the troll's knee. The impact still drove his feet into the floor and ripped the carpet. He still kept his feet though, and drove a lunge-punch into the troll's midsection. The groin was too obvious a target and too easily armored.

Hans felt ceramic plate crack under his knuckles, but knew the ballistic weave, not to mention the troll's own tough calcified tissue and probable cyberware would dissipate much of the blow. He twisted his hips back the other way and whip-cracked his spine as his arms swapped positions in a lighting-fast reverse punch. That time he felt the troll move slightly backward. As those massive hands reached for him again, Hans leaped backwards and clear. The troll threw his knife hilt to the ground as his other hand rubbed at his stomach. He'd at least felt that last one.

The troll also did not seem to be overly blessed with creativity, either. He stepped forward and tried the same two-punch combo that he'd used to defenestrate Hans earlier. Hans ducked the first one as before, but as the follow-up started; he slipped backwards and rolled onto his back before the hay-maker connected. He did, however, grab the troll's wrist and yank backwards. Surprised at both the move and Hans' strength, the troll staggered forward off-balance. As he rolled onto his shoulders, Hans doubled up his legs and braced himself. As the troll started to fall forward, Hans drove both his heels into the already-bruised midsection and launched the startled assassin into the air. The troll went head-first through the first wall without even slowing. Hans rolled back forward and did a kip-up back onto his feet. He advanced on the half-stunned troll, on his hands and knees in the wreckage of the apartment next door.

Hans punched him hard in the face with one hand, then the other. When the troll reared back and covered his face with his arms, Hans struck downwards at his midsection. He kept up a rain of hard, stinging blows, keep the troll of balance and staggering backwards on his knees. Every time he tried to get onto his feet, Hans would kick him hard enough to knock him off balance again, usually pushing him even farther back. Finally, they reached Hans's goal, at which point he stepped back, got another running start and slammed himself directly into the off-balance troll again. This time the impact carried them through another wall and out into the open space in the middle of the building's stairwell. Hans rode him all the way to the bottom to a bone-jarring impact. The troll stopped moving after that.

Hans staggered back up the stairs one more time. Magda wasn't stirring. He got a wet cloth and cleaned her face. She moaned. He looked aound the wrecked apartment. He found her deck, a little battered but in one piece, under the workbench. He threw some of her clothes in a bag. He slung the deck on one shoulder and the bag on the other. He paused for a moment, then gathered up the scattered printouts, folded them up and shoved them under his vest. Then he picked Magda up and carried her out of there.

After they cleared the gasthaus, Hans stuck to back alleys and stayed out of sight until twilight fell. He found a red-light motel near the Slippery with a desk clerk sufficiently buzzed on dream-chips that he assumed that the semi-conscious Magda was a drunken prostitute that Hans had hired. Hans paid for a full 12 hour stay, which elicited a knowing leer at the implied boast.

Hans laid Magda out on the bed, and put an ice-pack on the puffy bruise covering half her face. She was visibly agitated and kept half-deliriously groping around her. Hans held her hand for a while. Then, on a sudden impulse he moved her deck onto the bed so it was in reach of her other hand. When her hand touched the keys, she hooked her fingers around the edge of it and visibly relaxed.

She woke up a few hours later, on a strange bed, her face cold and clammy from the icepack and her head ready to split in two. One hand was on her deck, the other was being held by Hans, who had fallen asleep sitting up in a chair pulled up next to the bed. Magda, dear, she asked herself, how the hell do you get yourself into these situations?

Hans woke up as she stirred. Half her face was purpling from a massive bruise, and she moved like she was in a lot of pain. He checked the analgesic patches on her fore-arm. She was getting as strong a painkiller as he could get into her legally, and the color-band on the patches indicated that they were still releasing at full strength.

"Well," Magda said weakly, "I suppose I should be lucky to be alive. Remind me to take up body-surfing on the Autobahn. Sounds like a less dangerous hobby." She exhaled sharply as she sat up.

"Look," Hans started, "I'm sorry I didn't get back there sooner. That last guy was faster than he looked, and after he knocked me out the window I had to run back up and I-"

"Out the window?"

"Yeah... that troll had a wicked left. Knocked me right through the bars. I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to leave you up there with that animal, but-"

"Liebchen, my apartment was 4 stories up." She turned a little bit, bad as her back ached, to get a better look at his face in the yellowish light from the nightstand next to the bed. "Did you catch the windowsill or something?"

"No, I was too slow. That's why I took so long." Hans pressed his lips into a thin line and looked down and away. The pain she was in was mainly his fault. If he hadn't-

"So what broke your fall?

"The sidewalk." He shrugged. "Look, I mean it, I'm sorry. If I hadn't screwed up, I would have taken care of him in the hallway and you wouldn't be all busted up." It took him a moment to realize what the sound was. For a second he thought she was spasming or having a delayed hemorrhage from her injuries. Then he realized she was laughing.

"Heh... the sidewalk broke your fall. That's a good one. By all rights you should be in worse shape than me, Liebchen. And stop apologizing. You probably saved my life today. Ivanov was going to make his move eventually - I'm just lucky there was a wild card in the deck when he decided to play his hand." She smiled crookedly at him, then winced as the bruise flexed. "I need to leave town. The Vory are not to be trifled with, and my work for them has allowed me to see a bit too much. I have friends who will put me up, and most of my funds are in Swiss accounts. I see you grabbed my deck... did you by any chance see a small black leather case? It was on the work bench?"

Hans shook his head.

She shrugged. "No matter, I can recompile the utilities on most of those chips. I have working copies of most of my tools in here." She patted the deck almost affectionately. "You grabbed the important part, Liebchen, so stop looking so miserable. I can move anywhere and be back on my feet within a month. The more interesting question is what are you going to do?"

Hans paused. Part of him wanted to ask if he could go with her... but she hadn't really offered that as an option had she? He wasn't even sure if he could be any kind of help in her type of work anyway. Besides, he had some unfinished business. He slid the folded printouts out of his vest.

Magda looked at what he held in his hand and sighed. She might have wanted him to come with her, but he hadn't asked. Besides.. she had a feeling he would find her kind of business a bit too boring... as she would no doubt find the kind of work he appeared to be made for a bit too exciting. Da, she thought, he is going to see quite a bit of that, I have no doubt, And he is so young. I'm old enough to be his... older sister. "I see you are going to continue on that. Very well," she said, assuming a business-like tone, "there is not much I can do to assist you with that kind of job. Actually, the kind of thing I am good at would be getting you the kind of information that you already hold in your hand. I will however, introduce you to some people that I think you should meet."

Hans kept a poker-face as she continued to speak, outlining her logistical contacts in Berlin, and who she knew was good at what. Despite the coldness of her voice, he would later realize, she was giving him a priceless introduction into the Berlin shadows. And if it did cut to the bone, and if one's eyes grew a bit moist behind the mirrorshades, well, that was what they were there for, wasn't it?