by Drea O'Dare

The footsteps rang out in the night, muted by the sound of the honking horns and pounding rain as the mildly acidic drops splattered against the concrete, continuing their onslaught against the once bright colors on the signs and the fabrics hanging in front of the abandoned museum, making the world even more drab and dark.

There wasn't any greenery on this side of town, in the Barrens. The place lived up to its name, with it's stripped down shops and cold uninviting pubs and bars, burning hulks of cars and people running across the streets in their gang colors. There were trolls and orcs and plain old humans, hookers, and thieves, and good people too, though not many of that last group would be out at 2 am on a Saturday night.

Here, among the freaks, she didn't stand out. She was almost 60 years old, and didn't look a day over twenty three, frozen in time, one of the Spike Babies that'd made the cover of Time and Newsweek, way back when. Before everyone had grown horns and fangs and things that went bump in the night started thrashing around and howling as well, forcing people to retreat back into the so called safety of the city. Her natural born silver hair and eyes were covered by sunglasses and a huge floppy hat, her manicured fingers made to look scuffed and gnarled, the fingerless gloves providing little protection against the acidic rain and the freezing wind that broke up the monotony of the crashing thunder and blinding lightning.

A bolt sizzled into existence down the street, the wave of sound rolling over her was palpable, a rushing beast that ran up to, snarled, and passed, all quicker than the eye could follow. She passed the crackling fire of what looked like a '28 Ford something or other, it was difficult to tell, crashed against the streetlight like it was, wrapped around the pole in a deadly embrace.

Since entering into this little contest, her life had slowly spiraled into a chaotic mess - her children had been sent far away, her husband unable to get in contact with her, even her father, screaming into her message box about how the stock crash was effecting the family business, was unable to really find her. She left messages, she picked up messages. The only way to keep in touch with the people who ran this thing was through the Matrix. She shuddered as she remembered hacking into their nodes, even the scanners were Black ice.

There was to be another match up today, between her and a man that she knew very very well. Her old mentor, the man who'd taken her off the street and helped her to become who she was today. And somewhere, out there, he was stalking her, looking for traces of her. Just as she was for him. A trail of smoke curled up from the ground, and she squinted, trying to see the contrast of black on near black grey. The cigarette was still partially lit, even though the rain was pelting the street, the buildings, and everything stupid or desperate enough to be outside.

She turned a corner, the lightning striking again, but bolting through the clouds this time, illuminating the area in a flash as bright as the daylight, and in the center of the street, standing tall and thin and incongruous with the dirt and grime and mud that sloughed off the street and into the gutters, he was placing another black cigarette to his mouth. People were passing all around, hurrying too and from, scurrying like ants, doing whatever it was that passed for fun in their sick sad little lives. Off to her right, she heard a woman scream, and though her skin tensed and the hairs on the back of her neck crept up and itched, she didn't move, her steely gaze flat lined at the drink of water that had poured into existence in front of her.

The scene sped up, then slowed, until the movements of the ants became an underwater ballet, her wires kicking in and hyping up her brain, and she could see that he had twitched his into action as well, as he raised a match with long trembling fingers that struggled to stay slow under the rush of freedom and power that flowed throughout the systems of those that used the wires and their triggers.

The match fused and lit in an eternity, making it's slow way up to his lips, the end of the cancer stick flaring and sizzling as the flame traveled up the tobacco, and the smoke traveled out around it through his nose and mouth, swirling around the hairs of his thin mustache and goatee. He'd always been clean shaven before, she remembered, but he'd become so changed since that time that it didn't really matter. The points of his ears, the long elf features, and the striking contrast of his once again black hair and soft white skin that had always made him handsome, now made him look dangerous. Him, her oldest friend. Now her enemy.

He watched her through the flames, her dark and lithe countenance already moving into the poses of battle, the thick cords of muscle and the hint of plates under her skin - even the millions of dollars she'd spent to make them invisible couldn't hide the edges. She looked less human now then she had all those years before, when he'd taught her how to fight and how to shoot and how to hide. A perfect match. Once.

Her blood sang in her veins. It was too dangerous, he had to know that. What those people saw, in the minutes that ticked by for her and him, were a pair of people moving deliberately, one deeply anonymous, one passingly secretive, both of them of beautiful people, people who tread in these streets out of the need for secrecy rather than because they had to, who could've been anything, and who WERE things, but could never be what they truly wanted. In that way, they were like everyone else. In that way and no other.

The match flicked away, silent and still smoking, the flame snuffed out by a breath from his lips, and the cigarette puffed and sizzled again as he drew another long wheeze into his lungs. He took off his sunglasses, a slow and effortless move, flicking his fingers forward, the challenge writ large in the slow moving crowd. The chrome finished lens that had hid a pair of dark blue eyes began their descent to the ground, arcing through the air over the heads of passersby. The world sped up again as she dove and he leapt, her body moving under the feet and through the legs of the scurrying individuals, pulling off her coat and panting heavily. The hat went, then her sunglasses, and then she stood again, free of the encumbrances, tall and gorgeous and taunt and ready in black leather and white lace, like some kind of elven Emma Peel with more style.

The ants began to scream and run as the two gunslingers drew, her Preds and his Vipers, both gilded and etched, loved beyond all reason, as he'd taught her and she'd learned. They were life, and they were love, and they were your hopes, your dreams, and the only thing that kept you alive after everything else had gone to hell, better than friends, better than lovers, better than any god who might've been listening to your pitiable prayers to let just this one time,or just that one, be the last time that you faced Death in the face and He laughed at you.

She flattened and rolled and came up again, fire and sparks blazing through the air from her twin guns, the shots like cannons firing on a distant battlefield, concentrated bolts of anger and fear. Occasionally the gun would dry fire, clicking uselessly as the Smart Link detected a different target than the one she was aiming for, but people were still caught - when you moved faster than most humans THOUGHT there were bound to be casualties.

He fired back, yelling wordlessly, full of rage and righteousness, holy fury and decades of wanting and waiting and wishing to be the best had run up to this moment. The shots ricocheted wildly, the slivers of metal driving into wood and flesh alike. The herd was thinning out in the street, the rain cut deep into wounds and broken skin, turning the streets red. His immaculate suit was covered with the stuff, but he didn't care, pulling the trigger again and again as he advanced on her. She rushed behind a mailbox, the blue paint chipped and peeling from the metal, hiding herself behind as she reloaded. He poured on the speed then, churning his legs up and down like pistons, and jumped up onto the scant cover, whipping the guns down, looking hard for her face. Her eyes...he had to see her eyes...

And his world opened up into a roaring pain and a flash of blood, fluid filling his ears in reaction to the gunfire, the sounds dampening as the points flashed towards him, and he saw her eyes, wide and sad and tears falling down her cheeks. Then his eyes were filled with the vision of metal, and his time ended, the guns falling from his loose fingers to the ground, landing to either side of him as he fell forwards onto the pavement.

Her world slowed down again until the she could pick out the psychedelic view of a shop front in the full belly of a rain drop as it fell past her nose, standing as she watched him fall, his back hitting the ground first, then what was left of his head, the huge siamese twin holes boring through the places where his eyes had stared out at her, blood pumping in slow pulses out onto the sidewalk, draining down into the cracks, all that had made him human falling down around her in chunks and a drizzle of scarlet.

She stepped over him, the shouts and screams of the people still running for cover and cowering on the street fading from her ears. She sat on his chest heavily, her tears falling down and mixing with the rain, her throat sore and her nose running as she sobbed. She leaned down, and pressed herself against him, whimpering against his still chest, mewling helplessly. Trembling hands reached up and cupped his cheeks, her thumbs sinking grotesquely into the gore. She kissed him, fully, on the lips, and crossed herself, mumbling a prayer through the choked back tears.

She looked around like a hunted, wounded animal, and jumped up running, heedlessly down the street.

The message was waiting for her when she got back to the filth and dirt that filled her rented apartment in the middle of the barrens, her simple bare bones deck flashing.

Congratulations, it said as soon as she opened it, Your next bout is in three days.

She sobbed, helpless to what she'd gotten herself into, and shut down the vidscreen, curling up into a ball in the corner.

©1998, Drea O'Dare - used with permission