The Hyde Virus

By C. J. Burch




Chapter One

My name is Angela Dupree. I am a meta-human. The dictionaries, those that are left, say that I am a person who has been altered or changed.

Me, I say I am a person plus. A human being that twisted science has given something extra.

Sometimes the extra isnít a good thing. Take my brothers. The first died of cancer before he was ten. Leukemia killed the second when he was six. The third was so deformed he put a bullet into his vestigial head when he was fourteen.

I was lucky. Like one in every three of my kind I havenít exhibited any of the tumors and growths that accompany genetics run amok, and my durability and strength have been greatly increased in the bargain.

The history books say that we were bred to police and control the races, known as Demi-humans, man kind designed to do the work he was too valuable to do.

The cataclysm that nearly snuffed out life on the planet released us from that responsibility. Now we Metas are free to make our way in the world as best our wits will allow us.

What are we good for? Well, on a good day I can lift a petrol car, though thereís not much I can do with it once I have it above my head, and small caliber gun fire doesnít penetrate my skin, though it leaves one hell of a nasty bruise.

Do I look strong enough to clean and jerk cars and stand up to small arms fire? That would depend upon what you expect. I donít think so, but then Iím biased.

To be more specific, I am five feet eight inches tall. My face is heart shaped. My hair is long, straight and dark. My eyes are a shade darker than my hair.

My body is, as you might expect, muscular, though, I am told I have nice curves and that they are in the right places.

I am still fairly young so my personal history isnít extensive. I was raised on the seedy side of town in a floating city called Neo-Orleans.

My father was an enforcer for a local syndicate and an alcoholic pervert who never believed I was his child.

My mother, who had been an assassin for the same syndicate, died in the middle of a hit that had gone terribly wrong when I was five. After that it was just us and dear old Dad. Lucky us.

I left home after all of my brothers had died and am a graduate of the school of hard knocks. In my time I have been an exotic dancer, a prize fighter, a body guard and a bouncer.

My current gig is bounty hunting, and I fell into that after a couple of wasters, those are the people that live out side the walls of the great cities, gunned down the guy who owned the tavern I worked at.

I chased them out into the wild lands where the monsters dwell and brought them back and collected the reward.

The work was dangerous, but the money was good, and I got to be my own boss. So I stuck with it.

The ancients would have said that Iím a Capricorn. My friends, both of them, call me a cynical idealist. Iím a loner. Iím terrible at relationships. I enjoy a dead art form called Jazz. I like late twentieth century abstract art. I collect ancient books (history, philosophy and science, mostly).

I like to read, sun bathe and work out. My cats are named Plato and Aristotle, and I have spent my life trying to prove that I am not my parentsí child.

Ahh...youíre asking yourself why this woman would tell you all of this.

Iím not sure. A playwright who lived before the world went to hell, Enid Bagnold, said that writing was... "The streaming reason for living...the answer to everything..." including that most dangerous of questions, "Why am I here?"

I suppose it is answers I seek. If there is a typical life I have not lived it. Perhaps by writing down the things I have done and that have been done to me I will understand what I was and what I have become. Perhaps I will understand me.

I wasnít concerned with self understanding when it began, though. I was more concerned with the book I was reading, "Thus Spake Zarathustra", my music, a series of piano solos by Thelonious Monk and my tan, in that order.

I had pulled on a bathing suit and climbed up the stairs to the top of the old Franklin Building, a relic of San Louís better days and my home sweet home, spread my towel on a patch of grass I had cultivated in a roof top planter and lay down and begun to read when the rickety door at the crest of the stairway creaked open.

The shriek ruined "Round Midnight." I pulled my earphones off and glanced towards the door.

A tall, burly man with a generous beer gut dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a leather vest, but no shirt strode out of the doorway towards me. The late afternoon sun glinted off of his sunglasses and his bald dome.

I decided not to pretend that I was happy to see him, "What do you want you leech," my voice was as friendly as a sharkís stare.

The big man staggered backwards as if I had punched him in the mouth, "Angie, why are you so nasty to me?"

"You owe me money," and he did, too. I had ventured into the waste lands out side of the city walls at great peril to my person and retrieved a neo-troll that had jumped bail on him.

After it beat me half to death I finally managed to subdue it, drag it back inside the walls and carry it down to the city lockup. He had yet to pay me for my services.

"Yes," the big man raised a finger as if I had made a good point, "and I am here to give you a chance to earn it and a generous bonus to boot."

"Earn it?" I tossed the book aside and sat up, "Lew, Iíve all ready earned it."

"Yes you have," Lewis Matthews agreed mostly because if he didnít I might pluck his arms and legs off, "but we are a little short of cash at the present."

"How short?"

Lewis gave me the once over and grinned like a pain freak in a burn ward, "Angie have I mentioned that you are a gorgeous woman...a gorgeous beast of a woman with firm breasts, sinewy legs, rippling abdominals, and the face of a goddess?"

"Every time you owe me money. When weíre square you barely notice me."

"Nonsense," Matthews shook his head, "Just this morning Earthquake," that would be Earthquake Smith, Matthews business partner, drinking buddy, and sometimes co-conspirator, "and I were discussing you. We came to the conclusion that you were the perfect synthesis of goose down and steel....soft and hard...gentle and strong...erotic and scary all at the same time."

"To be honest the thought of you and Earthquake discussing me that way gives me the quivering creeps. Hell, the more I think about it the more likely I am to throw up."

Matthews frowned and his untrustworthy features turned sinister, "Most women seem to feel that way..."

Before he could finish the sentence I turned the discussion to more concrete matters, "What is the job?"

"A wayward neo-ogre who flits about town in a late model industrial exo-skeletonÖhe calls himself the Mauler... his real name is Shuk Lug. He got himself arrested on an assault charge awhile back. Earthquake and I bonded him. He missed his court date."

"Do tell."

"We want you to go get him."

I did the math in my head and couldnít figure how I was supposed to make my money back on the deal, "You and Earthquake will pay me right?"

"If you bring him in."

"How?"

Matthews looked like a Neanderthal discussing quantum mechanics, "What do you mean?"

"If you and Earthquake are short of cash how are you going to pay me?"

Matthews shuffled from one foot to the other, "Well, it will hurt some, but weíll manage to scrape together the cash somehow."

I laughed. Matthews was a hell of a lot easier to read than Nietzsche, "Want to try that again?"

Matthews shook his head, "No, no honestly. Weíll find the money somehow. We just need you to go get this guy."

I knew Lewis Matthews well enough to know that any statement he prefaced with the word honestly was a bald faced lie, "Lew," I reached for my book, "All the universe gives any of us is time. Right now youíre wasting mine."

"All right," Matthews shrugged, "The Hell Hounds are looking for him."

The Hell Hounds were the bossí hand picked knee breakers and what passed for a police force in San Lou. If they were looking for Shuk Lug, he had stepped into a steaming pile of dinosaur droppings, "What did he do?"

"We arenít sure. He hasnít been charged with anything new yet and the charge that he skipped on isnít exactly the type of thing one gets sent up the river for."

"It was an assault," Iíve never considered myself a law and order type, but Iíve always felt the authorities should deal harshly with a person who attacks another person. So long as it isnít me.

"He beat up a couple of goofs out in the East End. After that he pounded their car into the shape of a trash can. They both lived. He probably shouldnít have done it, but in the scheme of things it wasnít the crime of the century. He wasnít looking at a long stretch."

"Then what do the Hell Hounds want with him?"

"They ainít saying, but knowing the Hell Hounds it ainít good."

"No," I couldnít disagree with that, "Whatís the deal with you and Earthquake?"

"Weíll give you his address and his picture. If you find him and turn him in weíll split the reward with you fifty-fifty and pay you what we owe you out of our half."

"Why donít I find this ogre myself and keep the reward?"

"You donít have his picture, or his address," Matthews said it like a card shark playing his ace in the hole.

"I admit the picture I can use, but the address probably isnít worth the paper itís written on."

"Maybe," Matthews didnít bother to disagree, "but you have to start some where."

That was true enough, but I wasnít about to split the reward right down the middle if I was going to do all the leg work, "How much are the Hell Hounds offering?"

"Forty-five grand."

I swallowed a tonsil, "Have you and Earthquake bothered to ask yourselves what this ogre has gotten into?"

"For that kind of money we donít care."

Another lie... if Matthews and Smith didnít care what sort of trouble the ogre was in they would have gone after him themselves, "Tell you what Iíll do. Iíll go find this lost ogre, but I take seventy five percent of the pay off."

Matthews pondered a moment then gave me a grin that sent chills down my spine, "Iíve never been able to refuse you when youíre half naked."

"This is the only time you have seen me half naked, Lew, and, trust me, it will be the last."

"Okay," Lew wasnít offended, but Lew was damned hard to offend, "You get seventy five percent but you swallow what we owe you."

"Bastard," I did not smile, but I was willing to take the deal. They didnít owe me more than a grand. I was willing to swallow a grand to rake in more than thirty times that any day.

"Stop it," Matthews pretended to wipe a tear from his eyes, "thatís what mom and dad called me."

"I shouldnít wonder. Okay, itís a deal. You run tell Earthquake Iíll be by for the Maulerís address and photo."

"No can do," Matthews shook his head, "Iím about to begin the search for a couple of morons that ignored a court date of their own. Youíll have to enlighten Earthquake your self when you go by the bonding company for your info."

"Fair enough," I nodded, and asked a question I had nearly over looked, "How did Shuk Lug get his hands on an exoskeleton?"

"He used one when he was working on the loading docks for Hammer Corp. He liked the way it multiplied his strength and saved his pennies until he could buy one. Then he quit. Since then heís worked as an arm twister for any body that would hire him."

That explained that. I grinned none too sweetly, "Now get the hell away from me. Someone might fly by, see us together and assume that I can stand the sight of you."

"Love and kisses sweetness," Matthews turned and strode back to the door and disappeared into the stair well.

I pushed myself off my towel and began to gather my stuff all the while thinking about the Mauler. What could an ogre have done that the city would offer that kind of smack for him?

****

After I packed up my things I walked down to my apartment and changed into a pair of jeans and a grey t-shirt. Then I strolled down stairs, said good bye to our shot gun wielding doorman, walked out to the street and climbed into my battered pick up truck and made my way down to Smith and Matthewsí place of business...S&M bonding.

It was a four story brick building directly across the street from the courthouse in a section of town filled with ancient skyscrapers and modern hovels. The bonding office was on the ground floor and Smith and Matthews lived in separate apartments above it.

A glowing sign over the front door proclaimed that Smith and Matthews were proud to bond "Meta-humans, Demi-Humans, Sentient Plants and Space Aliens."

I pushed the door open and found Smith, all three hundred and fifty pounds of him, leaned over the counter across from the entrance studying one of the cards he and Matthews used to record their customerís essential information.

"Earthquake Smith, my second favorite leech."

"Yeah, whoís your first?" If being called a leech upset Smith he didnít show it.

"Your partner."

"Shows what you know. Iím the leech he aspires to be."

"I stand corrected. Iím here to pick up some information on a sensitive, poetic soul called the Mauler."

"You and the local fuzz. I spent the better part of the morning hiding this card," he waved the card at me.

"How so?"

"The Hell Hounds came in and wanted a gander at the thing, and I was hard pressed to figure a reason to stop them. After all, they run the whole damned city."

"And theyíre armed to the teeth."

"Another point in their favor."

"Did you let them?" I knew Earthquake as well as I knew Matthews. Either one of them would have kissed a spitting cobra on the lips for a dime, but huge reward or not they werenít about to tangle with the Hell Hounds directly. No one was. There was no percentage in it.

A grin split Earthquakeís obsidian features, "Nah, when the Hounds showed up I made another card while Lew bought me some time. I admit I have given out some information, but it has all been bogus. Youíre the only one that gets the straight stuff."

"Youíre too sweet," I strode over to the counter and leaned on it, "Now tell me why our fair city and the war lord that runs her is willing to offer an exorbitant reward for a neo-ogre."

"Funny thing, none of the Hell Hounds are willing to say, but I hear that a hand full of Demi-humans knocked over Hyde Industries a couple nights back."

I whistled. Hyde Industries had their own personal police force and it possessed nearly as many teeth as the Hell Hounds. Any body that tried to raid it must have been deadly serious, "What were they, neo-ogres?"

"And Neo trolls. Still, Hyde security cut them to pieces. Only three got awayÖ our friend the Mauler, another ogre and a troll."

There had to be a connection, but if the Mauler had raided Hyde Industries why would the city offer a reward for him? Normally the city let the corporations fend for themselves, "Why are the Hell Hounds interested?"

"Search me, but theyíre real damn interested. The rest of the bounty hunters in town are giving this one a pass. They donít want to get in the Hell Hounds way."

"You figure Iím the only one crazy enough to cross swords with the Hounds."

Earthquake didnít reply but it was obvious he thought that was the case. He was wrong. For thirty grand Iíd go looking for the ogre all right, but in the end if I had to choose between a head on confrontation with the Hell Hounds and dropping the search. Iíd drop the search.

I was about to tell Earthquake that very thing when a hover car and a gleaming suit of powered armor screamed out of the sky and landed in the street a stoneís throw from my truck.

Earthquake grimaced, "Thatís private heat."

I agreed. The corporations that called the city home out fitted their own private knuckle busters. They didnít stop crime per se, but they came in awful handy when the odd corporate robber baron needed a dirty job done fast.

Some people might have considered corporate torpedoes a sign that San Lou was a lawless town. Those of us that lived there thought they were one of the little quirks that made our home so interesting.

"How much you want to bet this is about the ogre?"

I didnít take the bet. Instead, I studied the hover car. It wasnít one of those beat up pieced together things made from parts of a half dozen salvaged wrecks. It was sleek and clean and black as a piece of coal and as out of place among the thrown together wrecks out side as a tuxedo in a hate metal concert.

A massive, barrel chested man with huge hands, a bull neck, a humped back, powerful sloping shoulders and a wild mop of gray hair climbed out of the car and adjusted the lapels of his suit then strode for the door of the bonding agency. The powered armor followed him like a dog on a leash.

I smiled at Earthquake, "I bet heís coming to speak with you."

"Great," Earthquake didnít sound like he meant it.

The big man pushed the door open, and the powered armor ducked its head so its helmet wouldnít bounce off the transom then stepped in behind him.

The armor was covered with cruel metallic edges and crammed with weapons systems that could have razed the block, but my eyes were drawn to the man that had led it into the bonding company.

He was six inches taller than Earthquake Smith which meant he stood almost seven feet tall. His skin was thick and pale and his eyes were deep set and as wild as a March hare. Two vestigial tusks peaked out of the sides of his mouth, and through his suit I could see that he was filled with powerful, aboriginal sinew. Unless I missed my guess he was at least part Demi and that made him a dangerous thing.

Earthquake Smith, though, wasnít as impressed with him as I was," If you need to bond someone out of the clink you can have a seat," he gestured to a couple of rickety straight backed chairs that stood by the door, " Iíll be with you in a second."

The manís expression soured and he shouldered his way past me, "Wrong answer. Iím not waiting for anything today. Iíve got things to do."

I decided I would hate this man so had Earthquake.

"Youíll wait for me!" Earthquake spoke in a low voice and hooked a thumb in the shoulder harness that held his gun.

The man in the business suit nodded towards the powered armor that loomed over Smith, "See," he said through clenched teeth, "you had to make yourself inconvenient. I hate inconvenience."

Earthquake showed the big man a savage grin, "Iím liable to be more than inconvenient if you keep bothering me."

The man in the suit smiled coldly, "Allow me to introduce my self. My name is Adolphus Hyde. I run Hyde industries. I am very rich and very pissed. A couple of people I own in the San Lou judicial system tell me a fat bastard named Earthquake Smith at a bonding company called S and M bonding bonded an ogre named Shuk Lug. Beyond that they can tell me very little about this ogre which means I need some information from you.

"Now, fat bastard, you have two choices. You can show me all the information you took when you bonded this ogre or I can have my boy tear you and your bimbette here," he jerked his head towards me, "in half and spread your entrails all over this counter."

Iíve been threatened enough that I have become accustomed to it. It goes with being a bounty hunter.

Earthquake Smith, despite the fact that he is a pathological liar and cannot be trusted with money, is a friend, though. And I get pissed when people threaten my friends. Besides, being an intelligent woman, who has spared no expense in her continuing effort to educate herself, I take being called a bimbettepersonally. So, just to make myself feel better, I did something stupid. I attacked a suit of powered armor that could have pinched my head off between forefinger and thumb.

Before the steel plated knee breaker could react. I stepped into him, grabbed his wrist, and pulled his arm away from his side. Then I turned it in a direction it was not intended to go.

The speaker in the armorís helmet crackled with a yelp of pain and it reached for me with its other arm.

I batted my eyes at Hyde, "Gosh, Adolphus, you didnít make your goon bimbette proof." Then I twisted the arm once more until its metal joints shattered.

After I had broken armorís wrist I drove a roundhouse kick into him just above his hips and bent him over. I followed that with a straight right that dented the side of his helmet and sent him reeling to the floor.

In a perfect world that would have been that. The goon in the armor would have been done and Hyde would have been so unnerved he went away and never bothered me again, but I have never lived in a perfect world, and goons in powered armor are never as easily dealt with as that.

The armor rolled over and folded his injured arm across his chest. Then he raised his other arm and activated the machine gun in his forearm.

That was a problem. The gun didnít fire armor piercing shells that would cut me in half, but even normal ammunition if it hit me enough could rupture sinew and shatter bone.

It was time for me to exhibit the agility I had developed twirling about poles in strip joints and get the hell out of the gunís path.

Then I remembered Smith. After I broke the armorís arm I had pivoted so that Earthquake was squarely behind me, and while the machine gun wouldnít kill me it would make a big, sloppy mess of him.

So I took my medicine. The machine gun roared and a stream of white hot slugs tore through my shirt and pounded me through Earthquakeís counter and into the brick wall beyond it.

I slipped to the floor gasping for air and tried to pull myself to my feet but the armorís machine gun rattled again and I was pinned against while the bullets punished my ribs and chest.

The goof in the armor, who apparently was a little peeved with me, pumped lead into me until I couldnít see straight then finally shut off his gun and let its barrel cool while I crumpled up on the floor groaning. At that point the fight was over. I had bitten off more than I could chew and gotten what I had deserved. My ribs were injured, my sternum was cracked, and I wasnít going to be getting up any time soon. That wasnít good enough for the armor, though. I had broken his arm and was looking for revenge with compound interest. While Smith rolled out of the wreckage of his counter and Hyde grinned, the armor strode over to me and pulled me to my knees by the front of my ruined shirt.

Then it back handed me in the face and sent me tumbling to the floor again. After that it kicked me in the side. Then it did it again.

Not being able to do much else I groaned and waited for Hyde to call his monster off me, but after its boot had slammed into me twice more I realized that Hyde wasnít going to call him off. Suddenly, what had started as a good natured punch up became deadly serious, and it scared me. Fear, though, is natureís way of keeping you alive when you are in deep ka-ka. It makes you stronger, quicker and more savage, and because of the adrenaline it poured into my system I was able to clear my head and fight back. Before the armor could kick me again I kicked it in the stomach and clambered to my feet. Then I drove a punch into its chest and followed that with an upper cut into its face plate that loosened its helmet. Before it could shake the cobwebs out of its head I drove a side kick into the middle of its face that knocked the helmet off it and rattled it against the far wall.

The rest of the armor toppled to the floor flat of its back, and I stared down at it like a pedestrian at an airship wreck. There on the floor where the helmet use to be was a coarse, chinless face with tiny deep set eyes, pointed ears, a pigís snout, and wire-like hair. The powered armor was manned by a neo-ogreÖa smallish neo ogre, but a neo-ogre just the same.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Most humans would rather be dipped in molten lead than allow a Demi-human within arms reach of the weapons systems in a suit of powered armor, and I said so, "Damn, thereís something you donít see every day."

Before Earthquake could reply Hyde hit me which would have been no big deal if he hadnít hurt me, but hurt me he did. He drove a left into my kidneys that took my breath. Then he rocked me with another quick left to the side of my head. Before I could fall he grabbed my shoulders and tossed me back into the brick wall. My lower spine took most of the impact and I rolled to my feet with my back cramping and expected Hyde to pull a gun from beneath his jacket. He didnít.

"I keep the armor around for appearances, mostly. Itís easier than leaning on people myself. I can do it when I need to, though. The two of you better tell me where I can find the Mauler before I decide to twist your heads off," Hyde sounded confident for an unarmed man, but he could afford to be.

The way he had tossed me about proved that he was that he was a breed. Part Meta-human and part Demi-human and all bad. That made him even more dangerous than I had initially thought he was. It also meant that Earthquakeís pistol, though it might make him miserable, couldnít kill him.

Smith reached into his shoulder holster, "Itís a mighty stupid white man that tries to win a gun fight with his fists."

I probably should have let Earthquake shoot him, but Iíve never been able to resist a challenge. Where most sane people see a situation that might get them killed I see an opportunityÖ an opportunity to find out how much I can take. Itís a character flaw that has landed me in the infirmary more than once, but without it, I wouldnít be me. Besides, after the way I had handled the armor I was feeling cocky.

Before Earthquake could pull the semi automaticís trigger I yanked his arm down.

"Save the bullet. This guy hit me, and I make certain that everyone who hits me pays for it in blood."

Earthquake put up his heater then motioned towards the door, "Take it outside. Weíve done enough damage in here."

Hyde put his hands on his hips, "Youíre kidding me. Little girl you arenít in my league," he turned to say something else to Smith, but I interrupted him.

I caught him with a hay maker that sent him teacups over elbows through the picture window at the front of the office and into the street. He rolled to a stop next to his hover car then pushed himself to his feet and shook the cobwebs out of his head.

I smiled at Smith, "Sorry about the glass, big guy," and stepped out of his shattered window and onto the sidewalk.

Hyde hunched his shoulders and stared at me as if he was a saber toothed cat and I was a gazelle. Then, instead of cracking wise he charged me. Suddenly I felt better. Powered armor and their guns and missiles can chew me up and spit me out. Metas and Demis I can handle.

I sidestepped him and drove a right into his kidneys. Then I ducked a sizzling backhanded blow and slammed a hook into his ribs. When his hands came down I ripped a straight right into the side of his head and staggered him. He tried to regain his balance and cover up but I was all over him. I drilled two more hooks into his side and rang his bell with another straight right. Then I clipped him on the chin with a short hook that tumbled him across the street and into a rusted out car.

Okay, I admit, by this time I was pretty proud of myself. I had protected Earthquake Smith, one of the two people on the planet I called friend. I had handled a suit of powered arm without getting myself killed, and I had put a Breed that out weighed me by more than a hundred pounds on the ground.

"My legend grows," I chuckled to myself. Then, of course, Hyde, rat bastard that he was, got up.

While I stared at him dumbfounded he pulled himself to his feet on the side of a weather-beaten car. Then, as if to prove the punishment I had poured into him hadnít slowed him down, he ripped its door off and hummed it at my head.

I ducked and listened to the door crash through S&M bonding. Then, like an idiot, I leapt into Hyde and clipped him with a short right. I didnít have enough leverage on the punch to hurt Hyde, though, and he was unimpressed. He caught me by the front of my ruined shirt with one hand then grabbed at my waist band with the other and raised me above his head. Then he drove me into street flat of my back.

After I hit the pavement like a run away truck I lay there wondering if my spine was broken. Hyde picked me up again and threw me into an ancient car. My lower back slammed into the side of the car and crushed it like a beer can. Then I pulled myself out of the dent I had made in the carís metal hide and rolled onto the hood. I was lying there begging my back to stop hurting so that I could defend myself when Hyde dashed over and crawled on top of me. Before I could push him away he clamped both of his ham sized hands about my neck and began to crush my wind pipe.

I was impressed. Being a breed Hyde was a strong ...impossibly strong....stronger than meÖ stronger than any man I had ever met. All of which meant I was in big trouble. I wasnít dead thoughÖnot yet. Long and bitter experience, along with study and practice, has taught me how to fight, and a trained fighter trumps a brawler, even a hideously strong brawler, every time.

I reached up with one hand and with a grip made stronger by terror grabbed one of Hydeís wrists and pronated it breaking his hold. I wanted to break his arm too, but he was too bloody strong. The bones in his wrist wouldnít give way.

He brought his free hand back and prepared to drive it into my face, and I extended my middle finger and my index finger and drove them into the base of his neck in the notch where his throat met his chest. At that point Hyde should have forgotten all about me and grabbed his throat, spat up some blood and gasped for air...except he didnít. Instead, he ignored the thrust to his throat as if it had never landed and drove his fist towards my face.

I rolled my head out of the way and his hand whistled into the carís guts. Before he could free his arm I gouged him in the eyes and pushed him off of me. Then I rolled to one side and came to my feet on the hood. While Hyde pawed at his eyes I drove a side kick into his ribs that sent him tumbling into the street. Then I stepped off of the hood of the ruined car and pushed it into him as hard as I could. The carís transmission screamed like a dying animal before it gave way entirely. Then it leapt into Hyde and crushed him into the side of his hover car.

Hyde cursed and shoved the junker back towards me. I decided I couldnít match his strength and rolled out of its way and watched it skitter across the pavement like a giant squirrel before it slammed into another ancient car and rolled onto its side.

Hyde pried himself out of the side of his hover car and growled at me, "Youíll pay for that, witch."

"Iím sorry, baby," I forced myself to grin at him, "but I donít think I can date you any more."

Wiseacre comments aside, Hyde was probably right. The armor had hurt my ribs and he had hurt my back. Worse, throwing about cars and tussling with a ton of battle armor tends to wear a body down. I was tired.

Hyde, on the other hand, looked as though he had just awakened from a refreshing nap.

But wile I was wondering what sort of wreath Lew and Earthquake would lay across my casket after Hyde killed me Earthquake Smith stepped to his door with the elephant gun he kept hidden in the back, and in his own words, "Blew that white motherís shit away."

The recoil of the rifle nearly knocked Smith on his broad butt, but the bullet that whined out of its business end tumbled Hyde into his hover car.

Hyde bounced off the side of the car like a rubber ball then crumpled to the ground and lay there for half a beat before he struggled to his hands and knees. Then he yanked the driver side door of the car open and pulled himself inside. There was a screaming whine when the car started and it rose into the sky and zipped away towards the north before it disappeared into a forest of ancient towers.

I bent double and pulled a couple of deep breaths into my burning lungs. Then I staggered back to Smith.

"Jesus Angie," he said, shaking the rifle at me, "I thought this thing could even stop you."

"It can," admitting it didnít make me feel any better, "Hyde is a Breed."

"What?"

"Part Meta part Demi."

"I thought those things were a legend."

"Theyíre rare, but theyíre real," and the fact one was involved in my case worried me more than I cared to admit.

Earthquake had other things on his mind though, "Angie," he moaned, "look at my building. Just look at my damn building."

I did. It was a mess, but there was nothing I could do about it except commiserate, "Sorry ĎQuake".

Earthquake shrugged and turned to face me, "You donít look so good yourself. Youíre going to have a shiner pretty soon, and your shirt is DOA."

I looked down and found he was right. My shirt had been ripped to shreds and was baring more flesh than I would have normally shown on the street. If it hadnít been for my bra, Earthquake would have given me a dollar to slip in my garter, "You got an extra t-shirt?"

"Sure thing. Iíll run in and grab one for you in a sec."

"Thanks," I replied. Then I looked on the bright side of the mess I had just made, "Well, if nothing else we have established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a connection between the raid on Hyde industries and your missing ogre."

"That we have. Did Lew talk with you about the Mauler?"

"He did."

"You two agree on a split of the reward?" Sirens began to wail. The Hell Hounds would be arriving soon.

"Yes."

"I donít want to put any pressure on you Angie but Lew and I need our half of that reward to rebuild this place."

I smiled, "Earthquake I have some bad news for you."

Chapter Two

I filled Earthquake in on the deal, and when he was finished whining I took one of his shirts and slipped it on. After I had tied it about me so that it left my stomach bare and did not swallow me whole I picked up the Maulerís information and split just as the Hell Hounds arrived.

While Earthquake explained the ins and outs of what had happened to the gendarme I climbed in my truck and turned it for the East End where, according to ĎQuake, my boy had been living before he disappeared.

Among the genteel the East End is known as disadvantaged. In point of fact it is a slum.

It is where the poor and those made freakish by the radiation that seethes outside the cityís walls live. It is a place of monsters, but not monsters bred by god. These were monsters born and bred of man and the machines he had built. It was our own house of horrors where we could stare at the worst things we had made, and to my way of thinking everyone on the rich side of the city should have gone down there to see what we had wrought, but that was wishful thinking.

The rich never look upon the disasters they leave in their wake. Their consciences canít abide it.

The sun had slipped into the west by the time I was in the East End proper and when darkness came on the night crawlers came out of their dens and cast about its dingy streets in search of money or food or drugs or women.

When I pulled to a stop in front of the building where Earthquake had said the Mauler lived a hunched creature too ghastly for the light of day slipped away from my headlights and disappeared into the shadows.

I watched him go then stopped the truck and stepped out of it and put the key in my pocket.

The building where the Mauler lived was a five story grey stone affair. Most of its windows had been shattered and its front door lay on its porch. I strode to the doorway which smelled of stale urine and stepped into the darkened hall.

The Mauler lived in 2G. I climbed the stairs to the second floor and pulled out my lighter. I donít smoke, but I do carry a lighter. Everyone in my business should. Pay attention and youíll find out why.

After the lighter hissed to life I made my way down the hall squinting at each door until I found 2G.

I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I tried the doorknob. It was locked.

I realize that a law abiding citizen should have turned on her heel and quick marched her way out of that hell hole, but at the moment my need for information out stripped my ethics. I pushed against the door and felt its frame give way. The door swung inward and I stepped inside of the apartment.

To call it a pigís sty would have been an insult to pigs. It was said that after the cataclysm, before they had been allowed into the rebuilt city of San Lou, ogres had lived in huts and caves like savages. Seeing the place where the Mauler lived I did not doubt it.

It smelled to high heaven. The walls were bare and its only piece of furniture was an oversized mattress. There was no electricity, and I could not force myself to look in the bathroom. As for clues to the Maulerís whereabouts, there were none. The first tip Earthquake had given me had come up empty, but I had half expected that.

I had turned towards the broken door and was plotting my next move when a flashlight beam swung into my face. I squinted at the shadowy figure that stood in the doorway aiming the flashlight at me and tried to look charming and harmless.

"Hi."

The soprano reply did not warm the cockles of my heart. "Who are ya? Whaddya want? I got a gun and I ainít afraid to use it."

Getting shot again wasnít going to kill me but it would hurt like hell, and I had been hurt enough, "Iím unarmed."

"Why the hell would anybody come into the East End without a gunÖyou suicidal or something?"

"I hate guns," specifically because my parents had cherished them so, but there was no point in getting in to all of that.

"Why did you break into my place?"

I couldnít see the figure in the doorway clearly, but it was too small to be an ogre. What was more it had a feminine voice, "I thought Shuk Lug lived here?"

"The whole building is my place, honey. I own it."

"How proud you must be," I didnít bother to sound enthusiastic, "Listen Iím going to reach in my pocket but Iím not going for a gun. Donít shoot me," I pulled the photo Earthquake had attached to the Maulerís card and showed it to her, "This is Shuk LugÖ"

"As if I donít know him."

"Iím looking for him."

The woman shrugged then turned her flashlight away from my face. She was a matronly little thing with pink hair and green teeth, dressed in an oversized house smock that nearly fit her. Her gun was a rusted forty five, "Who isnít? Bunch of Hell Hounds rumbled through here looking for him yesterday," she paused to spit, "I told them nothingÖsumbitches."

Hell Hounds were not highly thought of in the parts of town that needed their services most which to my mind told you more about the Hell Hounds than San Louís ghettos, "You willing to talk to me?"

The woman pulled a cigarette out of the folds of her house coat and shoved it in her mouth. I leapt forward with my lighter. Thatís why we all carry lighters. You never know when a contact will need one.

After she lit up she nodded at me, "You willing to pay? It takes money to run this place. Besides, youíve destroyed my property."

I reached into my pocket and pulled out the wad of bills I keep for greedy informants then peeled her off a couple.

She took them, "He hasnít lived here long, and other than his deposit heís never paid. Just before the Hell Hounds arrived he picked up his crap and left."

"Where did he go?"

"I donít know."

I peeled off another bill and the woman grabbed at it, "I donít know where he lives but I know he hangs out with a trollÖbig ugly motherÖhe was over here just the other day. He mentioned something about working at Night Fiendís Palace."

I knew the place. It was in the Strand. I stuffed one more bill in her hand then stated for the door. After I stepped through it my curiosity go the better of me and I turned around, "How did you know I was here?"

The old lady shrugged, "I live down stairs. I saw you come in. Since I hadnít seen you before and you didnít look like a whore, I got curious. What is it you do for a living, anyway?"

"When you think about it, arenít we all whores?"

****

The Strand was a string of shops, clubs and theaters that had grown up next to the River less than five miles from S&M Bonding. Like most of San Lou it was a mixture of the old and the new. Within its bounds wooden taverns stood next to concrete palaces that had been built before the cataclysm, and the richest and the most powerful in town used it as their personal play ground.

The streets were clean and free of the creatures that haunted the alleys of the East End and Hell Hounds patrolled its byways to make certain it stayed that way.

I parked my truck in an alley a stoneís throw from Night Fiendís Palace then strolled to its front door. It was made of red brick and was four stories tall and even at an early hour was turning out enough noise, the kids call it hate metal, to drown out a war. I had been there before with Earthquake and Lew. If I remembered correctly the troll that had stood watch stayed on the bottom floor. He had trouble negotiating the stairwells.

The Night Fiend himself was stationed by the door when I walked up, though. The Troll was nowhere in sight. The Night Fiend was about my height and limped on a clubbed foot. His skin was dark purple and his eyes a strange shade of green. His chin was elongated and pointed and two horns grew out of the top of his shaved head. He was dressed in a tuxedo and leaned on a cane, "Welcome, pretty lady," he smiled at me then eyed my black eye. "Here for the Intimate Butchers I see."

I wondered what the hell he was talking about then caught sight of the poster in the window. The Intimate Butchers was the band that was headlining that night, and from the way they looked I had rather they butcher me than be intimate with me.

The entertainment wasnít my business. I was looking for a troll. I turned to the Night Fiend and discovered that he had been steadily babbling the whole time I was staring at the poster.

"...and of course," he finished a sentence that I hadnít heard him start, "their biggest hit is ĎLove Me Bloody.í"

"Lyrics that made Johnny Mercer famous."

I expected the Fiend to give me a blank stare but he laughed, "Yeah I know what you mean. If I had my way I would have a band with some horns and a piano in it, but what the Hell? You go where the money is."

"Yeah," I didnít have the heart to tell him I didnít care what he did, "To be honest, Iím not here for the band. Iím looking for someone."

The Fiend grimaced as though I had made his ulcer do side straddle hops, "Some one I know?"

"Troll. He works for you. He hangs out with an ogre that jumped bond. Your trollís not in any trouble but Iím hoping he can give me a line on where the ogre is."

"Well, thereís only one troll that works for me so that narrows it down. I hired him last year after he had done a stretch of time. He was an enforcer for a protection racket that put too much pressure on the wrong people," Night Fiend said it as though shaking down the right people was a fine and noble way to make a living.

"Is he inside," I leaned to my left and peered into the belly of the club. Kids with multi colored, spiked hair and nose rings milled about drinking and talking. There was no troll in sight.

"Heís inside all right. He only came on duty a couple of minutes ago."

"Iíll step inside and talk to him," I started to push my way past the Night Fiend but he did not move.

"Do me a favor. Talk with him out here. It will be easier for the two of you to hear each other and I wonít have him standing about in there distracted when he ought to be watching the crowd."

Of course that was nonsense. While the troll was outside talking with me he wouldnít be able to watch the club either, but Night Fiend was the boss. I would play it his way, "Sure."

"Wait here," he turned and stepped inside the club then disappeared into the strobe lights and the noise.

In a couple of minutes nine and one half feet of pale, scaly, hunch backed troll shambled through the door in an ill fitting tuxedo and glared down at me as if I were an entree.

"Hi, Iím a bounty hunter," I had given him my friendliest smile, the one I used to save for table dances, when the world exploded.

By the time I came to my senses I was lying inside of the front window of the coffee house across the street stretched out among over turned tables and chairs. The troll had backhanded me nearly into the next block, and while I tried to shake some sense back into my head he charged across the street towards me like an irate cave bear. It didnít take a genius to see that the Night Fiend had set me up, but I couldnít figure out why. Whatís more with the troll bearing down on me I didnít have time to think. I clawed my way to my feet before he reached me and picked up a table and shattered it across his chest.

The troll ignored the table as if it were a gentle spring rain and threw another punch at my head.

Despite the fact I was seeing double I ducked the punch. Then I held up both hands, "Whoa, Iím not here for you. Iím looking for an ogre."

The troll didnít care. He threw another punch at my head and when I stepped out of its way his fist crashed into the coffee shopís wall and knocked a truck full of shattered bricks out of it.

By the time I had ducked another punch and dodged a third it was clear I would have to calm the troll down before I could talk with him, and I only knew one way to do that. When he coiled to fire another punch at me I drove a right into his kidneys. I followed that with a left to the pit of his stomach that bent him double.

While he was trying to catch his breath I drove a roundhouse kick into the middle of his face and staggered him backwards into a dusty car. He caught himself on the side of the car, but before he could turn towards me I drove a sidekick into his kidneys and tumbled him over the car and across the street into a light pole. While the troll struggled to his feet the patrons of the coffee house poured into the street and began to gawk at the brawl.

The troll took no notice of them. He pulled himself to his feet on the side of the pole, took a step forward and hefted a parked car as if it were made of cardboard. Then he tossed the thing at me.

My first instinct was to jump out of the carís path, but if I moved the car - all three tons of it - would tumble into the people behind me and the carnage would keep me awake at night for the rest of my life. So I had to stop the car. I flexed my knees and extended my arms and managed to hook them on the front bumper when it slammed into me. Then I staggered backwards under its weight and sprawled all over the pavement praying the whole time that the car wouldnít fall on me.

Whether God was listening or I got lucky I will never know, but I am happy to report the car did not pancake me. Instead, after I had absorbed most of its momentum, it crashed to the pavement where I had stood and rolled onto its side.

Needless to say I was sort of proud of myself, but as the old saying goes, "Pride goeth before a fall." I had worked my way to my feet and was still congratulating myself for saving the crowd when the troll scooped a manhole cover in one hand and hummed it at me like a Frisbee. Again, I wanted desperately to dive out of harmís way, but the gawkers behind me hadnít taken the opportunity to beat feet. I had to play target again.

Okay, I hear you, and as inconvenient as it is to interrupt my sterling narrative, I will take the time to answer your question.

"Why," you are wondering, "would a woman raised by a pair of homicidal maniacs put her own tanned, toned body at risk to protect a bunch of people she doesnít even know?"

I would love to tell you my selfless attitude was the result of intellectual maturity and philosophical study, but it wasnít.

I developed the rule I govern my life by when I was old enough to understand my parents for what they were. I call it the Parent Principle, and it works something like this.

In any given situation I think of what my parents would have done. Then I do the exact opposite.

In this case what my parents would have done is hop out of the manhole coverís path and laugh while it ripped a hand full of innocent bystanders apart. So I didnít.

Itís not a sophisticated ethical system, but it allows me to look at myself in the mirror without shame, and thatís about all you can ask of a personal code.

The Parent Principle isnít perfect, though. Sometimes it can lead to bad decisions. This was one of my worst.

The manhole cover hit me like an artillery round and burrowed into my chest, plucked me off the ground and drilled me into the coffee house. I careened through a brick wall, which nearly broke my spine, then an interior wall and finally into the kitchen, where I wrecked the pastry display and tumbled into the oven. When my senses returned I was ever so displeased, but I had a right to be. My ribs were broken. My back was injured and I thought maybe I had a concussion. Strangely enough, though, instead of the ringing sound I normally heard when my lights got punched out I heard an odd hissing noise.

Since the troll was coming to finish me the noises that were rattling about inside my head werenít my highest priority. Staying alive was. I pushed the hissing out my mind and crawled to my feet. Then I smelled it, and understood the hissing.

The damn oven cooked with gas, gas that was spraying into the kitchen and all over me.

By the time the troll arrived I had decided we didnít need fight inside of a bomb, and figured I would reason with him again, "Hold up, hombre. We have a gas leak here."

Maybe the troll thought I was lying. Maybe he just didnít care. Either way, he aimed a punch at my spinning head. I slipped the punch and dove towards the door way so I could get the hell away from the gas leak. The troll, pinhead that he was, stepped in front of me and my shoulder slammed into his waist. I reached out and wrapped my arms about his legs and drove forward towards the door. I broke the trollís balance and sent him staggering backwards, and he reached up with his right hand and grabbed at a light fixture. Then he pulled it from the ceiling.

The light fixtureís wires still fed the coffee house electricity generated by San Louís old nuclear power plant, and, lucky me, they were hot. There was a spark and was a great bang like God clapping his hands followed by heat and flame and pain. I heard myself scream. Then I flipped through the air, and slammed into pavement and blacked out. By the time I shook my head clear I was laying on my side among mangled furniture an armís length from the flaming buildingís shattered front window.

Blood trickled from a cut in my forehead and into my eyes. It took more than a little effort to push myself to my knees.

Earthquakeís Malcolm X t-shirt was in no better shape than mine had been when I discarded it now and my blue jeans were a shredded, smoldering mess. My ribs were exponentially worse and my back was screaming at me too.

When I pushed myself to my feet I damn near tumbled back to the pavement and passed out, "This," I muttered to no one in particular, "just keeps getting better." Then I searched for the troll.

He was on his hands and knees in the middle of the coffee house trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head, and though he did not look good, he still looked better than I felt. In addition to being injured and exhausted, lucky person that I am, I was faced with a moral dilemma. The beams that held the coffee house together werenít going to hold much longer. If I left the troll where he was the shop would collapse upon him and he would be cooked alive, and though he had been doing his utmost to beat me to death I couldnít watch him burnÖespecially when saving him might net me thirty thousand clams. I staggered into the wrecked coffee house.

When I reached the troll I looped my arms about his chest and pulled him to his feet. Then I turned him towards the door. The troll looked down at me puzzled. I tried a smile, "Címon." I guess I was expecting my act of selfless kindness to appeal to the trollís better nature. I forgot that trollís donít have a better nature.

In an instant the look of puzzlement morphed into contempt, then rage. Then he back handed me out of the coffee house and into the street. I expected to pass out when I landed, but I didnít. Instead, I lay flat of my back seeing double. The troll came roaring out of the burning coffee house and drove his heel into the middle of my chest.

My broken ribs buckled and I cried out raggedly and curled into a ball on my side. Then, trying desperately to stay awake, I worked myself onto my hands and knees. The troll kicked me again, this time in the kidneys, and sent me skittering across the pavement and into the side of a dilapidated car.

I rolled onto my back and wrapped one arm about my crushed ribs and forced my legs under me and pulled myself to my knees. Then I tried to stand. My legs decided they wouldnít let me.

While I struggled to pull myself to my feet the troll stalked over and drove another punch at my head. I rolled to one side and avoided it. Then, I managed to roll onto my knees, and drive my fist into the crotch of his pants. Even trolls donít handle that sort of thing well.

He screamed and bent double and tried to swat me away from him, but I pulled myself up the side of the car and drilled a side kick into the same spot I had punched. The impact of the kick rocked the troll backwards and folded him to the pavement where he lay whimpering.

I brushed my hair out of my face and staggered over to him, reached down and hooked my hands in his tusks and pulled his head off the ground, "Now," I fought the urge to whimper myself, "you are going to answer some questions or I am going to twist your head off. If you donít think I canÖ try me," I wouldnít have, thereís that damn Parent Principle again, but the troll didnít know that, "Youíve a friend that calls himself the Mauler. Where is he?"

"I havenít seen him in months."

Iím of the same mind as Samuel Butler, "I do not mind lying, but I hate inaccuracy." The troll was lying inaccurately, "Try again. I spoke to his land lady. She has seen you at his place. Where is he?"

"The Broken Tankard in the South Slum," the troll spat it all out at once as if that way he betrayed his friend less.

"Heís living there?"

"Yes, now leave me be."

"Not yet, why were you trying to kill me?"

"I thought you wanted me."

"Not even close, I told you I wasnít after you."

"Iíve been having trouble with my ears."

I shook my head, but the trollís jaw set defiantly, "Thatís all you get. Kill me if you want. I wonít tell you anything else."

Before I let him go I decided to play a hunch, "You helped Shuk Lug out at Hyde industries didnít you? Youíre the troll that got away."

The troll didnít say anything, but he didnít ask me what the hell I was talking about either, "And youíre as afraid of who ever you were working for as you are of Hyde. What happens if you rat them out, hunh? Will they kill you? Will they kill your family and all your friends?"

The troll didnít answer. I let him go. I had neither the strength nor the inclination to find out who he worked for or why Night Fiend had hung me out to dry. I knew where the Mauler was and that was all I needed to know.

I left the troll lying and staggered to the end of the block on legs that were like spaghetti. After that I turned into the alley where I stowed my truck. I was about to pull its door open when a set of flood lights blinded me.

I raised one hand to cover my face and squinted between my fingers, "Donít move or weíll shoot," the voice was metallic... like a manís run through a speaker. I let my eyes adjust to the glare so I could see who had bushwhacked me.

There were three of them and they wore battered tan and green powered armor. Each of them carried a heavy duty chain gun that fired depleted uranium shells designed to stop tanks, which made them more than powerful enough to blow ghastly holes in little old me.

They were Hell Hounds and, Sweet Jesus, they were worse than Hyde and his security bozo and the troll put together, "Honest," I raised my hands above my head, and hoped my voice didnít tremble, " the troll threw the first punch."

A suit of armor with Captainís bars on it walked towards me with a pair of titanium cuffs that could hold me, "Speaking of punches. You have just volunteered to be the lairís punching bag."

Terror made my heart do side straddle hops, and as much as I would have liked to have said something witty all I could manage was, "Why?"

"We get off on it."

Chapter Three

After the Captain cuffed me the other two strode out of the alley way and back towards Night Fiendís Palace.

When the Captain had a good grip on my arms his jet packs howled and we shot into the sky and turned north and picked our way between the spires of the old city. When you know that something awful is about to happen to you the worst thing you can do is dwell on it. Trust me, I have had some awful things happen to me, I know. It is a much better practice to think of something else rather than dwell on the horrors headed you way. That in mind I forced myself to concentrate on streets beneath me and called out their names when we passed over them.

There was the Strand. In the darkness below us staccato rattling accompanied the muzzle flashes of Hell Houndsí guns. The troll wasnít playing as nicely as I had. After that there was Hegel Street then Academy and Blue Note and Broken Knife and Liberty and Saint Catherineís.

We banked right onto Telfair and followed it across Bierce and Brice and Saint Thomas and Empire before we turned once more and followed Barham to its end where the Hell Hounds tower stood.

It was dark grey and tall and gaunt and thin slivers of light peered out of its blast windows at me like a thousand malevolent eyes.

"People react to fear, not love...they donít teach that in Sunday school, but itís true," Richard Nixon said it and I thought it when I stared at the Hell Hounds lair.

It was a stronghold made to inspire fear and loathing. It had been refined with steel and concrete so that all who looked upon its grim visage knew that the Hell Hounds and the boss who commanded them ran the city of San Lou, and would squeeze the breath out of whoever crossed them.

While we descended upon it I imagined that it was the closest thing to hell on earth I would ever see, and I was afraid...afraid of this place and these men in their powered armor and their weapons. As it turned out, I should have beenÖ

****

After we landed the Captain dragged me into the bowels of the building. Two flights of stairs and an elevator ride later he pulled me into a concrete holding cell with a two way mirror in the far wall.

I glanced at myself in the mirror. I looked vulnerable. Not necessarily because I had been beaten up. Iíve been beaten up before. It goes with the job.

I looked vulnerable because I was trapped in a room with a thug in powered armor who towered over me and out classed me in strength and endurance... and soon he would begin to hurt me. I looked vulnerable because, despite all my strength, I was.

While I tried to control the butterflies in my stomach the Captain closed the door behind us.

When he turned back towards me I held out my hands. "Wait a minute," fear made my voice shrill, "Thereís no reason for violence here. Weíre both after the same thing. My name is Angela Dupree. Iím a bounty hunter and Iím trying to help you out. Iím looking for this ogre named Shuk Lug and the second I find him Iím going to turn him into you."

Before I could get any more manic the Captain drove his fist into my kidneys.

It hurt. It hurt more than it hurt when Hyde hit meÖmore than when Hydeís tin suit hit meÖmore than when the troll hit me. It hurt so badly I didnít think I would be able to stand it.

Part of the reason it hurt so badly was that I was injured, but it wasnít the complete reason. Hell hound armor looks weather beaten and used up, but thatís only because it is used hard every day. Underneath its skin, where it counts, it is rugged. More rugged than any other suit man ever designed, and more than rugged enough to break me into little pieces. All of which explains why I was folding up like a house of cards when the Hell Hound slammed his other fist into my stomach and catapulted backwards into the concrete wall. After I had fallen to the floor and curled up on my side whimpering he kicked me in the stomach. Before I could pass out he wedged his foot beneath me and rolled me onto my back and placed his boot on my throat. Then, he pressed down with a fraction of his strength.

I gagged and grabbed at the boot but it was as steady on my throat as a pillar.

"You arenít going to search for nobody. Youíre going to tell me everything you know about the Mauler then youíre going to go to the infirmary for a few weeks. Then youíre going to go home and pretend you never met me or heard of the Mauler, understand?"

"Whatís the difference?" Hell Hounds or no, after the pounding I had taken I wasnít too keen on the idea of losing the thirty grand, which made me say something monumentally stupid, "If I catch him Iím going to turn him into you. I want the reward. As much as it sickens me to say it we are on the same side."

He laughed at that, "Who says I want to share the reward with you?"

I didnít understand and I said so.

"If there is one thing I canít stand it is a dumb bitch," the Captain pulled his boot off my throat and drove it into the center of my stomach. I rolled onto my side groaning and prayed I would pass out. Deities, though, are a lot like cops. Theyíre never around when you need them. I remained awake.

"See, me and my boys arenít on the clock. Weíre just independent operators looking for an ogre, and we hate competition."

The Captain kicked me in the side when I tried to sit up and put his boot back on my throat.

"Now," he said, sounding like a kid with a new toy. "Youíre going to tell me what you know about an ogre named Shuk Lug or I am gong to kill you real slow, and donít bother lying to me. I had a long heart to heart with the fat son of a bitch at the bonding company after you and Hyde went fist city. After I squeezed him I had another chat with Shuk Lugís land lady. Iíve done my homework. Iíll figure out if youíre lying and Iíll kill you."

Damn the Hell Hound bastard to hell. Earthquake Smith was a pathological liar who could not be trusted with money, but he would never have handed me over to the Hell HoundsÖunless they half killed him. The same thing applied to Shuk Lugís land lady, "Did you hurt them?"

"Not as bad as Iím going to hurt you. Now itís your choice tell me what I need to know or die screaming."

"Maybe Iím suicidal," like most people, being pissed makes me say stupid stuff.

He kicked me again, this time in the chest, and my ribs buckled once more. When I had pulled myself back together he drove his boot into my stomach.

"If it makes you feel any better toots, the fat bastard and the old lady were both hard cases, but they succumbed to reason after awhile. Why donít you? You can save yourself a ton of grief if you tell me what I want to hear."

I suppose he expected me to babble at him after that. I didnít.

Mary McCarthy said, "In violence we forget who we are." Just between you and me Mary was full of crap.

Men like the captain did not forget himself in violence. He found himself in it.

Growing up in the slums of Neo Orleans I had seen his type. They had been pimps and pushers and thieves and gang bangers. They had been dons and torpedoes and bag men and even cops. They had been my parents, and I hated them. I hated them all and swore I would find a way to fight them.

In my own way whenever I could I have. Still, I thought maturity had tempered that oath enough that it would never get me killed. I had been wrong.

Lying on the floor of that stinking cell I felt the old hatred again, and it brought a zealotís oath with it, this Hell Hound would payÖpay for hurting me and for hurting Earthquake Smith and hurting the old lady.

"Times up, speak up or I start in on you again."

I didnít reply. Instead I squirmed beneath him until I could kick at him. After that I drove the sole of my foot into his groin.

He bent double cursing and tried to reach for my hair. I rolled onto my back and drove my feet into his chest flinging him backwards into the door. Then I rolled to my feet and charged him.

I drove my shoulder into him and slammed him into the door. Before he could recover I took a step away from him, and drilled a side kick into the middle of his chest that pinned him against the door again. Before he could duck and cover I kicked him again.

He sank to his knees gasping for air and I slammed my knee into his helmet and bounced it off the wall. When he slid to the floor I drilled the heel of my shoe into his throat, pushed with all my strength and prayed his armor and his neck would give way.

Hell Hounds, though, are harder to kill than roaches. The Captain reached up and drove one hand into the back of my knee and knocked me off balance. While I staggered he sprayed me with the riot control gas they kept in the palm of their armor.

The spray hit me. I went blind and the adrenaline rage had poured into my system ran low...my back cramped and I couldnít breathe.

I was coughing helplessly when the Captain pushed himself to his feet and threw his shoulder into me and crushed me against the far wall.

My ribs splintered again, and my lungs felt as though they would slosh out of my side onto the floor. My legs turned to water. Before I could fall the Captain gripped at the shoulder of Earthquakeís shirt and finished shredding it when he turned me about. He pushed my back against the wall and ripped a punch into my midsection and followed that one with another and then a third. I tried to bend over but he shoved one hand into the ruined shirt tearing it even more. After that, he flattened me against the wall. He hit me in the face and I went limp. He hit me again and Earthquakeís shirt ripped free of me and I tried to crumple to the floor.

The Captainís temper had ruptured, though. I had hurt him and he was going to make me pay, and he wasnít going to let the fact that I had taken more than I could stand stop him.

He hooked a gauntlet about my throat and pulled me to my feet, and pounded at my ribs and stomach ceaselessly while he hissed, "How you like that?" over and over.

He was still hammering punches into me when darkness finally sucked me down

****

"However low a man sinks he never reaches the level of the police." Quentin Crisp was right.

I hated my father with every fiber of my being, but I could say, with pride, that no matter what Dad had been, he had not been a Hell Hound.

The florescent light on the ceiling blinked and finally came into focus. I rolled to my side and stifled a sob.

My old friend the Captain pushed himself away from the steel door, "Iím impressed," he limped over to me and twisted a gauntlet in my hair and yanked me off the floor, "I was afraid I had killed you."

I coughed and the agony in my chest nearly curled me into a ball, "You give up yet?"

The Captain did not laugh. Instead, he turned me towards the two way mirror, "LookÖLook what youíre doing to your self. Why donít you answer a couple of questions and end this?"

I was a train wreck. Cuts and scratches covered me. My face was battered and bloodied and one of my eyes was swollen shut. Earthquakeís t-shirt had been ripped completely from me and my bra, what was left of it, barely clung to me. My sternum was a solid welt and a massive bruise covered my side where my ribs had been powdered. More bruises nearly as ugly as the one on my ribs were forming across my stomach. Every breath I took was a new agony and my respiration was shallow and fast. If I had been forced to guess I would have said that my jagged ribs were chewing at my lungs, and the organs my abdominals covered were damaged and oozing blood, too.

My eye, the one I could see out of, had glazed over and there was the look about me of one who no longer cared whether she lived or died. If I had been able to summon the strength I would have been terrified. As it was I just wanted it to stop hurting. The Captain hooked his index finger in my bra strap and twisted it about. The speaker in his helmet crackled, "Frilly, I would have pictured you for something less girly."

"Looks more like something youíd wear."

The Captain threw me into a wall. I hit hard, but managed to catch myself before I slid down it.

He pointed at me, "You have a chance to save yourself."

I shuddered and gave him a bloody grin, "I donít believe you. I think youíve all ready killed me."

"What?"

"Maybe you got carried away slapping me around. Maybe you had a med-tech check me out while I was unconscious. Maybe Iím dying all ready and youíre running out of time to make me talk. Maybe youíre scared Iíll kack before I say anything."

The Captain slapped me and I slid down the wall. Then he pulled his foot back as if he were going to kick me. Before his foot slammed home, though, he hesitated and stared at the two way mirror.

Slowly put his foot back on the floor, and he knelt in front of me, "I can still hurt you," he said through clenched teeth, "I can still hurt you plenty."

"Stop it, youíre getting me hot."

Chuckling, the Captain leaned forward and gripped at the waist band of my blue jeans and ripped the latch.

What happened next was a phenomenon brought on by traumatic memories from my child hood, and can be described scientifically in three wordsÖI went berserk.

Before the Captain could tear my pants off I screamed like a banshee and planted my feet in his chest and pushed him away. He flew backwards as if his jet pack had roared to life in reverse and slammed into the wall just beneath the two-way mirror and slid to his knees.

Still screaming I pulled myself to my feet, and not caring how much I hurt or how much damage the sudden movement would do to my wrecked body I threw myself at him.

He tried to stand, but I slammed into him like a run away truck and drove him backwards through the mirror and into the next room. When we landed I rolled on top of him and drove punches into his helmet with all the strength I could muster. He tried to throw me off of him but my fist worked like a piston battering his face plate until it warped inwards and gouged at his face. He drove the heel of his hand into my chin and knocked me to the floor with my head spinning, but before he could get up I drilled him in the groin with my heel again.

When he bent double on the floor I grabbed the sides of his helmet with both hands and with a burst of strength brought on by my bout of insanity and twisted it until the armorís joints sheared apart and the bone beneath them shattered. After that I kept twisting and screaming, and only when I was certain he was dead I rolled off of him sobbing and curled up on the floor and passed out. Before the blackness covered me I heard a noise.

Some one was clappingÖ

****

H.L. Mencken once said, "Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man... even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent."

Having suffered the attention of my cityís government I was convinced Mencken had been too kind, but in the words of Earthquake Smith, "Thinking about government is like having sex with a cheese grater. It never stops hurting and it doesnít accomplish one damn thing."

I decided to turn my mind to more concrete matters, and opened my eyes to see where I was.

I was covered by an over sized green shirt that had been buttoned unevenly across my breasts and wore a pair of camouflage trousers hitched about my waist with a cord of rope. I was lying flat of my back on a cot staring up at the light fixtures on the ceiling. The handcuffs that bound my wrists were gone. A heavy brace had been strapped to me to support my back and an i.v. poured into my arm through a needle that could cut through steel. Another tube led from my nose to a glass jar on the floor next to the cot. The jar was nearly filled with discolored blood.

Though my head throbbed and every cell in my body complained about the devastation I had visited upon them I felt considerably better than I had when I passed out. In fact, I almost felt as if I could stand. Some one had put a great deal effort into making me better. Normally I would have been happy. Considering I was stuck in the middle of the Hell Houndís lair I was terrified.

A medi-bot hovered next to my bed and when it turned its camera toward me a voice crackled out of its loud speaker, "Just lay there. Somebody wants to see you."

I wrapped an arm about my injured ribs, "Iím sort of tired right now. Have their people get in touch with my peopleÖweíll do lunch."

The medi-bot turned away from me and a tall thin man with graying hair opened the roomís lone door and strode inside as if he owned it. He did.

He was "The Boss," the ruler of San Lou...He was Tyrus Maxx and could have only wanted to see me about the Mauler, an ogre that I had never met but who had all ready caused me more trouble than my worst enemies.

"If I werenít dead I would stand and salute."

"Thatís all right. You can genuflect while you lie there."

I almost smiled. Everything I knew about Maxx told me he was mucus, but at least he had a sense of humor, "While youíre here I want to talk to you about your Hell Houndís methods."

"Itís not their methods that disappoint me. Itís their results. You were supposed to be babbling like a school girl long before this."

He looked down at me and a chill ran down my spine. There was no emotion in his eyes. They were the eyes of a predator...with all the warmth of a crocodileís stare, and they were focused upon me.

A humorless smile spread across his face, "After seeing the manner in which you dealt with my Captain," he ladled a generous portion of contempt into the word Captain, "I decided I should speak with you personally."

"You were the one clapping."

"I was."

"Gosh what does that say about the state of your soul?" I know I should have turned as silent as a cigar store Indian but being tortured half to death makes me talkative.

Maxx unbuttoned his blazer and dropped into a chair at the side of my cot, "What can I say. It was a great performance. It had everythingÖcomedy, fear, pathos, violence, drama, sex. You should be proud."

The fact Maxx found me entertaining didnít make me feel any more at ease, "I would take a bow, but Iím not sure I can stand."

"You can. We havenít healed you, but we have pumped enough blood, pain killers and stimulants into you to keep you mobile for a few hours."

"I thought my heart was racing because I was scared."

"Not entirely, but you should feel better for a time."

My eyes narrowed, "Why?"

"If you impress me I might let you lead me to an ogre. Assuming I catch him Iíll have my doctorsí work their magic upon you and maybe you will live. If you donít impress me Iíll let nature take its course and you will die."

"I would have pegged you for the type to pump me full of truth serum while I was under."

"Tried that didnít work. You kept muttering, ĎDaddy donít,í whatever the hell that means."

"How do I know I can trust you," I didnít see any reason to open old wounds and let my fatherís ghost lie.

"You canít, but you donít have any choice do you?"

"Why did you spend all that effort breaking me into pieces if you wanted me to lead you to the ogre? I was trying to find him when your goons stopped me."

"Bureaucratic mix upÖa few over enthusiastic Hounds decided they would work the case on their own time and collect the reward. You met them. Well; of course, no secret is safe inside a law enforcement institution. News of what they were doing drifted to me and I came to check on the situation. And what did I find but you being beaten to a bloody pulp? I tried to let the Captain finish his work but you were more than he could handle.

"Itís just as well. When you were still fairly healthy you would have been a wild card. I couldnít control you. Now that Iím the only thing standing between you and the grim reaper I own you," Maxx said it as if he were proud of himself.

I felt the anger that had killed the Captain rise up in me once more, "Maybe I donít care about the ogre any more. Maybe Iím just into revenge. Maybe Iíll hop off of this cot and snap your neck in two places."

"I would die fast. You on the other hand..." Maxx ended the sentence with a shrug, "I admit most of my men have the morality of pit vipers, but they are loyal. After you killed me things would turn quite ugly for you."

I rethought my position, "How can I help you?"

"You know where this ogre that calls himself the Mauler is hiding?"

"I have some leads."

"Which are?" It was the old bait and switch. First Maxx pretends like he will work with me. Then, while my head was swollen with pride he would pry the information out of me by trickery.

I didnít fall for it, "I donít think so. If I talk you wonít have much use for me."

Maxx looked like a man whose king had just been placed in check, "You realize we arrested the troll you fought on the Strand. We could tear the information out of him, but trolls are particularly disgusting when they are cut open. It makes me squeamish thinking about it."

A lie... If Maxx had the stomach to watch what his Hound had done to me he was more than willing to tear the troll apart to get what he wanted. He was talking to me because he needed me, and I knew why.

"You could make the troll talk if he were still alive. Your boys greased himÖwhich means Iím the only show in town. If I donít find the Mauler you donít find him."

"Youíre guessing."

"Itís a good guess isnít it?"

A trace of the anger that drove Maxx bubbled to the surface, "Anything we were going to do to the troll we can do to you."

"Yeah, but now that youíve wasted all those pain killers on me my reaction wonít be as much fun. Besides, Iím probably still fragile enough that I would die before things got interesting arenít I?"

Check became checkmate, and Maxx knew it, "Stop me if I tell you anything you all ready know. The Mauler and a few of his friends hit Hyde Industries in what turned out to be a very well planned operation. Still, they hadnít allowed for the professionalism of Hydeís security. The Mauler and the dead troll and one other survived the encounter.

"Naturally, I was interested as to why a group of Demis would strike Hyde Industries, he is, after all one of their own, and liquor stores are their usual fare.

"Hyde was tight lipped about the whole thing, though, and I would have forgotten about it eventually, but then by happenstance I managed to lay my hands on the third survivor of the raid.

"He was as stubborn as you, though less skilled. Before he expired he would only say that all of man kind was doomed.

"Iím hoping that you can give me the Mauler and he can satisfy my curiosity."

Just because Maxx needed me didnít mean I could trust him, but I was stuck with him the same way he was stuck with me, "All right Iíll strike a deal with you."

"You have no choice."

"I can die, and Iím just spiteful enough to do it, too," Maxx looked as though he hadnít thought of that. I continued, "Iíll go find your ogre. In return you treat my injuries and give me a free pass on your deceased Captain."

"And the reward?"

"Well, of course I get that. I didnít think that needed to be discussed."

Maxx raised an eyebrow, "Have you ever considered a job in the military Angela Dupree?"

"No thanks, I look lousy in armor. Just fix me and give me my reward."

"DoneÖwe have all ready taken the liberty of planting a tracking device in one of your ear rings."

I guessed it was a good thing I liked big, gaudy ear rings, "You didnít implant it surgically?"

"I wanted to but the doctors were afraid it might kill you. We could have planted one subcutaneously, I suppose, but it can be removed as easily as an ear ring. I guess Iíll just have to rely on your good faith and your desire to live."

"How long do I have before the drugs you filled me with run down?"

"Around dawn."

"That wonít leave me with much time."

"It is a little after midnight," I looked at him as if he was out of his mind and Maxx almost smiled, "You are a day behind. You have been in the lair more than twenty four hours."

"Time flies," I pushed myself onto my elbows and after my vertigo had passed I threw my feet over the side of the cot.

Maxx wanted to lean on me a little more before he let me get up, though, "Hell Hounds will follow you at a discreet distance where ever you go. If you try to escape or slip into an infirmary they will kill you in a very unpleasant manner."

"I bet you say that to all of the girls."

****

By the time the Hell Hounds flew me back to my truck and I found the Broken Tankard, the wee small hours were upon the city and I was wondering how much longer my strength would last.

The sight of the Tankard took my mind off my health. It was made of ancient, rusty corrugated steel. It was big enough that ogres and trolls could feel comfortable inside it, and it looked as though it might fall over at any moment.

I stopped my truck down the street and scanned the sky for Hell Hounds. I didnít see any. They were hanging back to let me do my job or hang myself. I didnít know which so I didnít know whether to be grateful or pissed.

Thinking about the Hounds, though, wasnít going to get my job done. I climbed out of the truck and headed for the front door. When I reached it I pushed it open.

The tavern was one big room lit by torches and greasy wax candles. It smelled. It was hot and it was full to bursting with bull necked ogres and roped muscled trolls all of whom stared at me as if I had just stepped into an exclusive club I was not a member of.

The place didnít exactly go silent when I stepped inside. Ogres and trolls are never entirely silent. Itís just not in their nature, but the din moderated itself when I let the big swinging door close behind me and started towards the bar.

I walked across the floor making a show of the fact that I was not afraid until a smallish ogre who was not the Mauler (No, they donít all look alike), stepped into my path and said something.

I didnít bother to listen to him. Looking back on it he could have been offering me salutations. I didnít care. I needed to make an example of someone. When he stepped into my path he volunteered.

Before he finished I back handed him across the mouth. I followed that with a straight right that rang his bell. When his knees gave way I caught him with one hand, lifted him off the floor and threw him into the seething crowd.

The rest of the place got a chuckle out of that and went back to their drinks and conversations. I finished making my way to the bar.

I called it a bar. It was actually a series of up turned barrels covered with two by fours. Behind it a lean ogre stood over a long trough filled with ice and kegs of beer.

The ogre walked over to me and looked at me with eyes covered by milky cataracts, "If youíre going to stay you have to drink."

I ordered a mug of beer then pulled a couple of bills out of my pocket and laid them on the two by four.

He took the money and strolled back to the trough and grabbed a tankard from the stack on the floor then filled it with a noxious looking black brew with a light brown head.

He returned and laid the beer in front of me then gave me a look that was not kind, "Who you looking for?"

I sipped at the beer. "What makes you think Iím looking for someone."

"I suppose you came for the atmosphere."

I took the ogreís point. "Whatís your name?"

"Eshok Lok Luugul Ka Quam. In English it means that which carrion eaters will not swallow. You may call me Buzzard Puke."

I chuckled, "Your parents had a mean since of humor."

The ogre narrowed his milky white eyes and for a moment anger played about the edges of his voice, "The tribe that raised me was precisely what it was made to be."

I didnít see any point in starting an argument. "If you say so."

"I say so," he said it as if he had won a great victory.

"I donít mean to be rude, Buzzard Puke, but how do you see?" It was a little off topic but I was curious.

The ogre chuckled, "Radiation has taken my sight, but it has given me other things that compensate for it. I can sense your presence. I can sense your height and your weight." He inhaled. "I can smell your scent. Very few of my patrons use sun tan oil." He narrowed his eyes, and glanced at my shirt. "You are badly injured." He smiled as if that pleased him. "What is your name?"

"Angela Dupree." I put my beer down and wrapped my arms about the ugly shirt Maxx had given me. The fact Buzzard Puke could peer through it and into me made me uneasy.

"What is it you seek, Angela Dupree?"

"A beer, and a quiet place to reflect upon the contents of my own soul," I know, it was a bald faced lie, but it sounded good. Whatís more it didnít mark me as a bounty hunter.

If the Mauler was there I didnít want him to know I was looking for him until I was ready to collar him, and though I was going to have to mention his name to someone sooner or later I wasnít certain Buzzard Puke was the one to pump for information.

After I replied Buzzard Puke looked as if I had thrown cold water on him. "Do you believe that you have a soul?"

"I believe that every self aware creature on the face of the planet has a soul whether he wants it or not."

"You believe it bestowed upon you by your God?" The ogre emphasized your God as if my God was very different from his.

I hadnít intended to start a metaphysical discussion, but the ogre seemed interested, and I was curious about the beliefs that comforted Demi-humans before they died.

Besides, if I talked with him I might build a rapport with him and if I had a rapport with him maybe I could trust him to tell me about Shuk Lug. "We grow our souls the same way we grow our bodies. Richard Rorty said... Ďthere is nothing deep down inside of us except what we have put there ourselves.í"

A bent ogre at the end of the bar called for another round, but Buzzard Puke waved him away as if he were a bother and a fool, "Then you do not believe the soul is a creation of God given to a body?"

"No, our souls belong to us. We donít belong to our souls."

"Fascinating, then you do not believe that your kind has forfeited their souls and their place in Nirvana."

That caught me off guard. "How did we manage that?"

"By your crimes against all of Godís creation."

"Pardon?" I had read Nietzsche, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Dewey and Russell but I had never read that man had lost his soul.

"You have raped and destroyed and enslaved and crushed. There is no creature that you have touched that you have not pushed to the brink of destruction. There is no corner of the earth that does not bear the scars of your arrogance and bile. For these things there must be a punishment."

The ogre said it with the conviction of a Baptist minister, but that didnít help me see where he was coming from, "There are those that would say the cataclysm that destroyed civilization was the punishment."

"It was the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end."

"You stole that from Winston Churchill."

"I have not said that you were not a remarkable race. I merely point out that you are doomed."

"Buzzard Puke, I have got to admit that I am not following you."

"You have wounded and disappointed and despised the maker of all things for too long. He has forsaken you. He has turned his back on you and with drawn his protection from you. He no longer cares."

"So we have no soul?"

The ogre nodded. "A soul is the most precious thing that God can give his people," he said, "and if he can give it, he can withhold it."

"And what is man without a soul?"

"You are nothing more than an animal to be used and destroyed as the chosen see fit."

"And Demis are the chosen?"

"Indeed," the ogre said, smiling from ear to ear, "You see, Angela Dupree, you understand."

"Buzzard Puke, if what you say is true I may be slain by a Demi without a thought as to the actionís ethics. All humans can be murdered at will like sheep or pigs."

Buzzard Puke nodded and I saw the movement out of the corner of my eye. It was a punch and it was swift and strong and it was aimed for my temple.

I ducked and an ogre wearing a weather beaten, jury rigged exo-skeleton that covered his chest, shoulders, thighs, hands and feet but left his stomach, his biceps and his head bare staggered past me and knocked the bar to the floor. After that he righted himself and drove a back handed blow towards my skull.

I ducked again and thanked God that the drugs Maxx had given me worked. Then I drove an over hand right into the ogreís belly where his suit did not protect him. "Hello Mauler."

The ogre aimed an uppercut at my chin but I slipped it as if he were standing in concrete and dented his suit with a punch to his ribs. I followed that with a left that sprawled him flat of his back on the floor.

"Let me introduce myself," I figured the time for secrecy had long since past, "I am Angela Dupree. Iím a bounty hunter and Iím taking you in."

The ogre looked up at me and smiled which was not the reaction I was looking for. Then my eyes widened and I wheeled about. Buzzard Puke...my subconscious cursed at me. He had distracted me while the Mauler stole to my side, and he would have watched the ogre punch the side of my face in.

When I turned, Buzzard Spit pulled a double barreled sawed-off shot gun out of his waistband and pulled its triggers. The gun roared and the buckshot slammed into me and knocked me to the floor where I lay writhing. My ribs screamed at me so loudly Maxx drugs could not mask the pain and my breath came in ragged rasps.

I tried to roll to my side but my arms and legs were limp on the floor. I could not make them move.

The Mauler loomed over me and raised his steel boot. When he drove it down there was more painÖafter that every thing went dark.

Chapter Four

Thomas Jefferson said, "The art of life is the art of avoiding pain." I could only conclude that I wasnít much of an artist.

When I woke up, I was hanging by a pair of chains that had been looped about my arms, thrown over the buildingís decrepit metal rafters and curled about a hook in the tavernís floor. My feet dangled a few inches above the concrete.

The Tankardís patrons had finished drinking and staggered off into the dawnís light leaving only three of us in the tavernÖme, the Mauler, and Buzzard Puke.

When I opened my eyes, or rather eye, the other was swollen shut, Buzzard Puke stared at me.

"Wouldnít this be an awful way to die? Alone and among those who despise you?"

"Buzzard Puke, youíre going to a lot of trouble to protect an ogre that is wanted by the Hell Hounds." I tried to stay calm, but failed miserably. The approach of dawn meant that all Maxx had done to keep me going would fade away soon and I would be a shattered, helpless wreck, and while death would be a relief the torrents of pain that would pour into me before I died would be a misery I wasnít sure I could bear.

"Securing you was simple enough, and if you imagine that some of your kind will come to free you." Buzzard Puke said "your kind" the way Mozart would have said disco. "You are quite mistaken." He held up the ear ring where Maxxís transmitter had been secreted. It had been crushed flat. "Men rarely travel in this part of the city and when they do they are noticed." He pulled a hand communicator out of his pocket and waved it at me then returned it to its hiding place, "We will hear of your rescuers arrival in time to be certain that they find you quite dead."

The inside of the club still smelled and it was oppressively hot. A bead of sweat ran down the side of my face and soaked into my shirt. I wondered where the Hell Maxx was. He should have moved when the transmitter in my ear ring went dead, "I assume," I nodded at the Mauler, "he works for you."

Buzzard Puke shook his head, "It is not work. It is war, and we fight together."

"War?"

"Yes, the war between your kind and mine...between the damned and the chosen."

A series of sharp pains shot through my side and I grimaced. "What in the hell are the two of you in the middle of?"

"That is not the question," Buzzard Puke replied. "The question is, what are you in the middle of, Angela Dupree?"

That was a pretty good question too, though I was certain I wouldnít like the answer. "Iím just a bounty hunter trying to make a buck."

The answer was truthful enough, but Buzzard Puke didnít like it. His face contorted and he nodded at the Mauler.

The Mauler drove a metal fist into the middle of my cramping stomach.

I gasped and cried out longer and louder than I should have at just one punch. After that, the Mauler slapped me so hard I saw stars.

When my vision had cleared and I had caught my breath another wave of pain cascaded through me and nearly tore me apart. The effects of Maxxís drugs were fading.

The Mauler stepped back and Buzzard Puke was standing before me, "Who do you work for Angela Dupree and why do you come to this place searching for my friend?"

"I work for myself," I said through clenched teeth, "and Iím searching for Shuk Lug because there is a reward on his head."

"That is true enough on its surface, but I must wonder if there are meanings hidden beneath it," Buzzard Puke nodded at the Mauler once more and he threw a couple of punches into me.

I soaked them up like a sponge and the chains that held me rattled and squeaked on the dilapidated rafters.

When my vision cleared I could taste blood in my mouth. Breathing was becoming more and more difficult. I was going to pass out soon and when I did I wouldnít wake upÖever.

Buzzard Puke leaned near me, "Do you believe that there is such a thing as virtue, Angela Dupree?"

That was a tough one. The Sophists thought that virtue and vice did not exist. Socrates believed that virtue was a product of manís reason. Thomas Aquinas believed that a manís virtue was his realization of the purpose God had made him for. John Dewey maintained that virtue was that which enriched the life of the individual and the group.

I believe that virtue is a compact each of us makes with his fellow man. It is a promise that we will treat him with kindness and dignity so long as he treats us similarly. It is that which raises us above the beasts, and whether you believe in a Supreme Being or not it exists. Because without it there is only chaos. "I do."

"There are those that believe that virtue is what the strong deem it to be," Buzzard Puke replied, "but they are wrong. Virtue," he said, as he reached up and grabbed a hand full of my hair, "is that which pleases God, and what pleases God is the destruction of every human being on the face of this planet. There is no kindness for you here. No God will protect you. You are not on the side of the right, and if you do not tell me what I wish to know you will die," he released my hair and stepped back, "Who do you work for? Why do you seek Shuk Lug and what do you know of us?"

As close as I was to death Shuk Lug didnít seem so important. Whether there was a God and whether he would recognize manufactured races like mine and Buzzard Pukeís was, "Buzzard Puke, do you believe we are the product of God?"

Buzzard Puke cupped my chin in his hand, "Not the answer that I sought, but a fair question.

"You humans designed us so that we might go into the black places and do the dark work that frightened you. We were children without a God, but gradually the maker of all things saw how degenerate and loathsome man had become and he frowned on them. Thus there was a cataclysm that wrecked the world and ruined your civilization. Now he smiles upon Demis. It is our age.

"You Metas look like humans and act like humans and for years did their bidding and oppressed us. You have never had a soul."

I didnít believe him. Whether we like it or not Metas and Demis and human are basically the same. The ancient texts I have read say that our genetic material is nearly identical. We all speak the same languages. We all feed ourselves the same way and procreate the same way. We can all read and write and think and dream. We are the same, but I didnít see any point in arguing the point with Buzzard Puke. Instead I asked another question, "I donít see how any of this is going to destroy man."

Buzzard Puke nodded at the Mauler once more and I was forced to play the part of punching bag. Darkness rose up to greet me like an old friend and I reached for it anxiously but it slipped away before I could catch it and left me with my misery.

"I ask the questions. Now, you will tell me of your interest in Shuk Lug."

I had tried the truth and all I had gotten for my trouble was hurt. That left me with one alternative.

Tell a lie that had the patina of truth about it and hope for the best.

I paused for a half a beat and took a breath while I marshaled the facts that I knew and made a couple of guesses. When I was ready I began, "I work for Adolphus Hyde," Okay, that was a pretty outlandish lie to start with, but I was afraid if I told him the Hell Hounds were following me he would panic, kill me, and run for the hills. Itís certainly what I would have done in his place.

The Mauler stepped towards me then stopped dead in his tracks when Buzzard Puke held up one hand, "Tell me more."

"After the Mauler and his buddies knocked over Hyde Industries, "Adolphus Hyde cast about for some people to hunt him down. I applied. He chose me."

"Why didnít he use Hyde Industries Security?"

"Their performance during the theft had not impressed him. They should have slaughtered all of you to a man. He wanted a fresh face on the case. Shuk Lug had all ready been in some trouble. He was out on bond for a punch up with a car and its occupants a couple of months back. I knew the bonding agent that stood his bond. He gave me his address and a couple of names. I talked to some people and here I am."

Buzzard Puke considered what I had told him, "Did Hyde tell you of that which was taken from him?"

"No," I embellished the story with a little truth, "but it has to be something big. The Hell hounds want him as bad as Hyde. I ran across a hand full of them and they tried to beat his whereabouts out of me."

Buzzard Puke reached into his shirt and pulled a silver vial that had been looped about his neck by a leather tong into the light, "This is what they seek."

"Why?" The pain which had poured through me in waves before had settled on me like a fog now and I found myself struggling to speak.

"It is a virus engineered by Hyde industries and designed to attack the human immune system. Symptoms normally occur in two weeks. It is viciously contagious and one hundred percent fatal. Unfortunately, it is more effectively transferred through the oils of human skin than through the air. If you shake the hand of a carrier you will inevitably be infected. If you share a room with him you might survive. That makes its introduction into society a bit more difficult, but not impossible. In the end it will suit our needs very well, I think."

"I donít suppose Hyde tested this stuff on laboratory rats?"

"Of course not," Buzzard Puke laughed at that, "the beauty of this virus, though, is that it is designed to work exclusively on humans. Demi-humans are completely immune.

"By a fortunate coincidence Hyde, hired several of my people to participate in the testing of the drug and though he had sworn them to secrecy..."

"They told you and you had the Mauler and a few friends raid Hyde industries." I couldnít help but interrupt.

"One of them did. Then the raid was arranged."

"Now what?" I calculated the damage that the virus could do if it was freed from its cylinder and a shudder ran down my spine. "Do you infect a human and release him in the city?"

"That was my first thought but it isnít quite as simple as that. Say the virus was released here and the citizens of San Lou begin to die by the thousands. When news of the calamity reached the other great walled cities the humans have taken refuge in they would quarantine San Lou. Nothing would pass into or out of here until the disease had run its course, and since I do not have the means to create the virus anew I would be unable to infect the other cities.

"But if the crew of an airship was infected they would spread the virus to every city on the face of the globe, or, at least, most of them. It would be a most disastrous set back for those of your kind."

I thought for a moment of the air ships that carried tons of cargo and thousands of passengers from city to city and swallowed... hard. The ogre was right.

An airshipís crew would spread the virus among their passengers who would spread it to their families who would spread it to their friends and on and on.

If it moved quickly enough the virus would leap frog through every city on the continent before mankind knew it, and though it might not kill every human on the face of the earth it would certainly stand a better than even chance of destroying civilization...again.

Funny thing civilization. Thomas Bailey Aldrich fancied it "... the lambskin in which barbarism masquerades."

Myself, I only know that no matter how we belittle it, despise it or even dread it, civilization is necessary.

It is the canvas upon which artists paint. It is the ink that fills the pens of poets, and its heart beat is the rhythm that musicians capture in their songs. Knowing that there was no way I could let Buzzard Puke carry that vial out of that tavern no matter what it cost me.

I took a tortured breath and felt the misery in my ribs and back worsen. Then I turned what Buzzard Puke had told me over in my head.

What he had said made it a good deal easier to sort through what I had learned from Earthquake Smith and Hyde and Maxx, and made me understand Hyde.

Being half Demi he hated humanity. Being rich and powerful he had the resources to create his revenge. Still, I had a question, "Why did you bother to steal the virus from Hyde? If he had been in the manís corner he would have never designed it."

"Anonymously I sent emissaries to speak with him about the virusí uses. I was disappointed with his reply. Hyde does not understand our destiny. He is one of us but he cannot lead us. Only I can do that."

Before I could ask what the hell he meant by that Buzzard Puke stuffed the vial back inside of his shirt and turned towards the Mauler, "Hyde is thorough. Certainly this is not the only one he has hired to find the vial, and if she found us others will follow. We will go to the airship port now."

"It will be heavily guarded," the Mauler didnít like that idea much, "the Hell Hounds search for me every where."

"I know," Buzzard Puke agreed, "I would prefer to kidnap a group who works aboard the ships and infect them individually so that we can be certain the virus has a hold on them, but there isnít time for that now. We must go to the air ship port. We will release the vial into the ventilation system and pray it infects enough to be effective."

The Mauler turned to me, "What of her?"

"Twist her head off before Hyde comes for her and throw her in the sewer. By the time she is found mankindís attention will be focused exclusively upon its own survival."

The Mauler laughed as though that were the best thing he had heard all day. Then he stepped over to me and drove a punch into my ribs that made me sob and reached for my neck with both hands.

Somehow, I jerked my head out of his grip and pulled my legs against my chest and hooked my ankles about his throat. Then I squeezed.

The Mauler gagged when my legs cut off the flow of blood to his brain and back pedaled and tried to jerk his neck out of my grip.

The chains that held my arms pulled taut and my ribs and back howled at me. I ignored them and squeezed harderÖthen I squeezed harder still and the Maulerís eyes rolled back in his head.

I squeezed even harder and the Maulerís neck snapped and his legs went limp and his weight yanked at my battered body and made me groan.

After that there was the grating sound of metal shredding and the rafter I hung on, its limits having been exceeded, collapsed. I fell to the floor amongst a shower of ceiling bits and lay flat of my back and groaned again.

Then I released my hold on the Mauler and rolled to my knees and pushed myself to my feet.

I was tearing at the chains that bound my wrists when Buzzard Puke, who had stared at the spectacle before him like a kid in a theater, finally came to his senses and pulled his sawed-off shotgun from his waist band.

I threw myself at him and grabbed the shotgun and pushed its barrels away from me so that when it roared its buckshot would careen off into the tavern.

Buzzard Puke staggered backwards and tried to wrestle the shotgun out of my grip, but even when Iím half dead an ogre is no match for me.

Trolls are dangerous because their bigger and stronger than ogres. The Mauler was dangerous because he wore an exoskeleton that multiplied his strength. Buzzard Puke didnít.

Growling I swept his legs from beneath him and fell on top of him. He tried to wedge his feet between us but he was too ungainly. I slapped the shotgun away and pushed through his defenses.

Then I wrapped one of the chains that bound my wrists about his throat and squeezed until he was still.

After Buzzard Puke went limp and I grabbed the leather tong that hung about his neck and pulled the vial over his head and slipped it about my neck.

Then I rolled onto my back and lay on the floor struggling to pull myself back together. When I could breathe again I finished prying the rusty chains off my wrists.

I had I worked my way to my knees, wrapped my arms about me and stifled another sob when Buzzard Pukeís communicator went off and the front wall of the Broken Tankard collapsed like a house of cards.

The force of the explosion tumbled me through what had been the Broken Tankardís bar and into the sour beer. I looked up at what had once been roof and saw only sky and thick black smoke. I rolled to my knees and turned back towards the front of the tavern.

Through the carnage I saw flying suits of powered armor, lots of them. And though they were still several blocks away I could make out the dusty tan and green markings. Hell Hounds. Now they showed up.

I stood on watery legs. The Hell Hounds stopped and hung in the air like hovering mosquitoes and while a hand full of them split off from the main group and flew west another detachment headed east circling the Tankard so that no one could slip their net.

The rest had begun to float towards me again. I was about to slump back to my knees and wait for them when a thought occurred to me that froze me all the way to my toes.

I could not trust Tyrus Maxx with a virus that could wreck the world.

"The oldest, wisest politician grows not more human... but is merely a gray wharf rat at last," Thoreau said it. I thought it, and from what I had seen of Maxx calling him a wharf rat would have been a compliment. There could be little doubt that if the virus fell into his hands he would immediately plot ways to use it to his advantage.

At first he would threaten the other cities into his service, but if that didnít work he would manufacture the virus and siphon it into war heads and fire it at all who refused him.

It would be the new weapon of mass destruction. It would subject the world. It would kill millions. It would be my fault.

I had found the virus and pried it away from Buzzard Puke. I would be the one that handed it over to Maxx. I would be the one that helped him subject the world. I would be everything I loathed.

It would not happen. Neither Tyrus Maxx nor any one else would lay their hands on the virus. I would find a way to destroy it, even if it killed me.

Desperately, I turned on my heel and staggered through what was left of the Broken Tankard and into the alley that ran behind it.

While I was slipping into the alley there was a flash of light followed by a high pitched shriek. After that there was an explosion.

Above me a shattered Hell Hound disintegrated into a smoking ruin and spun towards the ground.

I stopped, and stood there dumbstruck while another Hell Hound exploded and then a third. Then the Hell Hounds broke formation and began to careen across the sky like feeding bats.

Dropping out of the morning sun onto them were more suits of powered armor, except these were painted a shiny metallic black. Just like the one that had accompanied Adolphus Hyde when he had come to S&M Bonding.

I laughed then bent double when the laughter turned into a hideous cough. I hadnít thought I had seen the last of Hyde, but I had never imagined he had the stones to start a fight with the Hell Hounds.

It was a battle he would not win. The Hell Hounds were a lot better than his boys, but if I was lucky he would create enough confusion to allow me to slip away.

I had started down the alley again when Hydeís hover car screamed out of the sky and banked steeply and set down in my path.

I slid to a stop and bent double gasping for air. Then, I smiled. All at once, my feverish brain had concocted a plan, and to put it in motion I would need a hover car and one of the steel mills along San Louís southern wall.

Hyde, whether he knew it or not, had thoughtfully volunteered his hover car for the job when he landed in front of me.

I forced myself into a staggering run when the hover carís door peeled open and Hyde stepped out of the car with his right arm in a sling where Earthquake Smith had shot him.

In his left he held a gun that fired a fifty caliber armor piercing bullet that could ventilate me with revolting ease.

I assumed that Hyde was going to wave the gun at me and tell me to stop where I was. I didnít give him the chance.

Before Hyde unfolded out of the front seat of the hover car I was upon him. I drove my shoulder into his chest and sprawled him in the seat.

When he tried to pull himself back out of the car I slapped at the gun.

Hyde was just surprised enough to let me rip the gun out of his grip, and it skipped down the street and out of sight.

While I watched the gun hop away Hyde drove his feet into my stomach and tumbled me away from the car and across the concrete.

When I stopped rolling I struggled to my side like a broken wind up toy and rolled to my feet. Then I wrapped one arm about my damaged ribs and faced Hyde.

Being a loud mouthed sort I couldnít resist the urge to chat even though I was in the midst of a slow and grisly death "Adolphus Hyde, as I live and breathe. What brings you here?"

"IĎve been listening to the Hell Hounds communications. When they announced they were going to launch an attack on a tavern in the East End I put two and two together. I guessed I would find the Mauler here."

"He fell down a couple of minutes back and now he canít get up."

"Why arenít I surprised to see you?"

I limped towards him, "I was searching for the Mauler myself."

"I guessed," Hyde sank into a fighting stance, "Did you find him?"

"I did." I could have lied, but what was the point. No matter what I said Hyde wasnít going to give me his car. I was going to have to fight him for it.

"Then you know of the virus?"

"You betcha, and Iím going to kick your ass just for brewing it."

"Do you have it?" Hyde pulled the sling off his injured arm and stretched it carefully.

I was right Earthquake Smith had done no more than bruise him up when he shot him, "Tell me you have it and I might let you live."

"As if! If you really want me dead all you have to do is stand there a few minutes and watch."

"So I see, but the Hell Hounds are on their way. I donít have time to let you expire on your own."

"Poor baby." I strode to within arms reach of Hyde and feinted. He moved to block and I drove a left into his ribs and followed that with a right that landed on the point of his chin and tumbled him backwards.

"I need your car, Hyde." As long as Hyde was tossing ultimatums about, I decided I would try one of my own. "Step away from it and maybe I wonít have to hurt you."

Hyde pushed himself to his feet but did not step away from the hover car, "If you have the virus," he eyed the battle that raged above the Broken Tankard, "I can make you very rich."

I shook my head, "Greed, the last bastion of the truly evil, no thanks."

"Then you have it!" Hydeís eyes widened. "Woman do you realize what you have?"

"Then end of civilization in a metal vial?"

"No."

"Thatís what the Demis who stole it from you were going to use it for."

"Yes," Hyde nodded sourly, "I was contacted by a few dim witted souls. The fact they would exterminate man only illustrates how pathetically stupid they are. What is in that vial is the future of every Demi-human and Meta-human on the face of this planet."

"How will exterminating the human race do any thing for my future?" I slammed another left into Hydeís ribs and followed that with a right that staggered him.

Hyde caught himself on the hover car and landed a backhanded blow that snapped my head to one side and sprawled me on the ground, "Do you think yourself more human just because you look like them? Youíre not. Your genetics bear a much closer relationship to those of Demi-humans than to a humanís. The virus wonít affect you."

I rolled over sluggishly and pushed myself to my knees. Then I fought off the urge to slip back to the pavement, "Pardon?"

"Before man nearly wiped himself off the planet Demi-humans were designed to do the work that humans could not or would not do. The genetic engineering that made them was crude. It produced creatures that were strong and hardy but misshapenÖ bestial. Still, they were useful slaves and were cheaper than robotics. Humans made do.

"Meta-humans, your ancestors and to some extent mine, were designed later after the technology was improved. They were designed on the same template that had built the Demis the technology was better thatís all, and even then it couldnít eliminate the birth defects and cancers that affect most of your children. Demi-humans are your immediate ancestors. The virus will not affect you."

"Holy God!" I thought I might throw up and not because I had been beaten to a pulp either.

As Hyde kicked me in the pit of my stomach, Hyde said, "Man is the most contemptible creature ever to roam the face of the planet, but death is too good for him." He

kicked me again when I rolled on to my back and I nearly blacked out. "I will not use the virus to kill mankind I will use it to enslave him."

I wrapped my arms about my shattered ribs and fought desperately to climb to my knees. Then I coughed and wiped a stream of crimson away from my lips, "I donít understand."

Hyde towered over me, "The virus will never be curable but weekly doses of a drug I am perfecting will control it. After a human is infected he will need the drug to survive. They will have to depend on us for the drug. They will be our slaves."

Hyde pulled himself erect when he had finished as if he had expected me to supplicate myself before him and proclaim him a genius.

I could only laugh. For two thousand years theologians had been threatening us with the devil. It had all been so unnecessary. Men could build a hell with their own hands that would make Satan green with envy, and to my way of thinking Hyde would perpetrate the worst from of wickedness if I allowed him to retrieve the virus.

How much Hyde needed revenge did not matter. His genetics, or mine, did not matter. The genetic make up of trolls and ogres did not matter. We were all built on the same base.

The DNA that controlled the development of each of us, Demi and Meta and Breed alike, was built upon the foundation laid in man. Certainly there are differences between us but in the core of our beings we are all the same. It is as true now as it had been when Lichtenberg wrote, "In each of us there is a little of all of us."

If Hyde could not recognize that fact he was crazy, and he had to be stopped. So I pushed my way to my feet while he was congratulating himself and ripped a right into the center of his belly.

He shrugged it off and scooped me in his arms, and crushing me against his chest.

I screamed and the grating agony in my ribs pulled me down towards darkness, but just as I thought I would pass out Hyde slackened his grip, "Give me the virus I will end your suffering."

I pulled my arms free of him and coughed another wet cough, "Why fight with me, Hyde? Why not go back to your lab and create more of the virus? I canít stop you."

Hyde shook his head, "It takes months to synthesize and now that Maxx is sniffing about me I havenít the time to begin anew."

In lieu of a reply I cupped my hands and drove them forward so that my palms clapped against his ears.

Hydeís ear drums burst at the impact and he let me fall to the ground and pressed his big hands against the side of his head.

I dragged myself to my feet by his coat tail and drove a knee into this crotch and followed that with a hay maker that clipped his chin and knocked him onto his can. While he lay on the concrete I staggered past him to the hover car, threw my self into the driverís seat and coughed up a palm full of blood.

Barely suppressing another sob I wiped my hand on my shirt, gripped at the hover carís controls and threw the ignition switch. Then I pulled back on the stick.

I had owned a hover car for a few months a couple of years ago before I wrecked it and nearly killed myself. The experience had convinced me to stick with cars that traveled along the ground, but for the moment I would make an exception to my rule.

The carís engine coughed once and roared to life. Hyde pushed himself to his feet and sprinted for me at full tilt while the hover car roared into the air. When he neared the car he threw himself at me.

He leapt thirty feet into the air like an over sized kangaroo, and his fingers bit into the metal at the bottom of the hover craftís shattered doorway.

Hydeís weight jerked the hover car to one side and I nearly fell out of the thing, but I wrestled the controls and leveled her off.

Then I put my foot on the top of his head and pushed him back out of the door and began to stomp at his fingers. Hyde screamed obscenities at me and tried to grab at my ankle but I threw the car into a sharp turn that shook him and made him forget all about me.

By the time I came out of the turn he had pried one hand loose from the door frame and ripped into the back seat driverís side door. The door crumpled like a piece of paper in his grip and he tore it open. While He climbed into the back seat I prepared for another turn and prayed it would sling him out of the car.

Then the hover carís wind screen disintegrated and its roof shattered and peeled away and spiraled towards the ground.

A Hell HoundÖ He and his buddies had finished the last of Hydeís boys and were looking for something else to shoot. He had found me.

I coughed another bloody cough, cursed and turned the car again. I was broken in side and not long for this earth. Hyde was stronger than I was, and he was stalking me like an overgrown cave bear. A Hell Hound was trying to kill me.

If I were going to put my plan into action I needed to do it quick.

Chapter Five

Armor piercing bullets ricocheted off the hover car and whined past me. I banked it again and aimed its hood for the southern wall of the city where the steel mills smoldered.

Then I pushed the throttle forward until it slammed into the dash board and listened to the engine scream like a banshee.

For a moment I dared hope I was home free, but then Adolphus Hyde, the rat bastard, hooked his arm about my throat and began to crush my windpipe.

I didnít bother trying to pry Hydeís arm from about my neck. He was too strong for me when I was healthy much less now.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I planted both of my feet on the floor boards, reached out with one hand and threw the hover carís engines into reverse.

The hover car stood on its nose as if it had hit an invisible wall and the Hell Hound flashed past us.

Hyde, who hadnít had the foresight to brace himself for the stop, flew over the seat and past me.

His arm slipped off my throat and over my head and he destroyed what was left of the wind screen before he skipped out onto the hood.

When the hover carís engines finally overcame our inertia and we screamed backwards Hyde turned and clawed at the front of the car and his fingers dug into the hood.

I smiled at him and threw the throttle forward again. The Hover carís engines howled like a wounded animal and belched black smoke and, suddenly, we were screaming forward.

Hyde lost his grip on the hood and rolled towards me. I ducked and he skipped over me and tumbled through the cab of the hover car and out its back window. Where he somehow managed to twist in mid air and secure a hand hold on the back seat.

I toyed with the idea of throwing the car into reverse once more just to screw with Hyde but decided against it. The Hover carís engines sounded like they were in worse shape than I was.

Instead, I aimed the hood for the south wall and hoped she would hold together long enough to get me there.

The Hell Hound, though, had stopped himself in front of me and pivoted about. When the barrels of his chain gun flashed I cursed and closed my eyes and waited for the bullets to tear me apart.

The car shuddered and metal screamed, but no lead found me. I opened my eyes and the Hell Hound slipped out of my path and the ruined hover car whizzed past him and sped towards the southern wall like a bat out of hell.

I checked on Hyde. He still hung out of the back window, and while I stared at him as if he were a specter from one of my worst nightmares, he pulled himself into what was left of the back seat and gave me an evil grin.

I was waiting for Hyde to kill me when he looked past me. His eyes widened to the width of manhole covers and the sinister look on his face was replaced by panic stricken terror.

I turned about to see what had frightened the man that was about to tear me apart and took a deep breath that sent waves of unbearable pain tearing through my broken chest.

Then I screamed and pulled back on the hover carís stick so hard I nearly yanked it out of the floor.

Before us... huge and growing larger with each passing second was an air ship; a kilometer long and twenty five stories high, coated with a light weight bullet resistant skin, full of superheated helium, driven by gigantic light weight turbine engines and full of enough cargo to feed a city for weeks.

It had been quietly working its way towards a landing pad near the southern gate so that it could off load the iron ore it carried to the cityís steel mills when a half dead lunatic woman in a wrecked hover car carrying a would be mass murder appeared in the sky and made a bee line for its side.

Now its crew was standing in its loading bays staring at me and hoping that the hover car didnít penetrate the ships polymer hide when it hit and fry us all alive.

Show me an atheist in deep feces and Iíll show you a good Christian. I prayed as feverishly as a nun on speed and the car stood on its tail like a trained dolphin and tore into the sky.

The side of the airship loomed before me like a great grey cliff and the bottom of the battered hover car slid towards it until it was inches from its skin clawing its way into the heavens.

Finally, just as my prayer ended the nose of the car cleared the side of the air ship and we were in free air whistling straight towards the bottom of a second airship awaiting its turn at the landing pad.

I pulled back on the throttle and threw the stick forward again and Hyde tumbled through the car before he managed to latch on to the hood once more.

The car stood on its nose and I eased the throttles forward and we hurtled down past the first airship and towards the concrete landing pad below.

I pulled back on the stick once more and brought us out of the dive less than fifty feet above the ground. After that, I banked the car and pointed its nose towards one of the steel mills that stood just beyond the airport.

There was no sign of the Hell Hound so I turned back to Hyde. He clung to the front of the hover car trembling.

After all of the high adventure he was more than willing to hold on for dear life and pray I landed the car before I killed us both.

That was good. I was in no shape to wrestle with him any more.

In moments we were passing over the steel millís chain link fence, and ogres in cover alls stared up at the wrecked hover car with the real strange hood ornament dumbstruck.

When we were a stoneís throw from the building where the white hot furnace melted pig iron into steel I pulled the car to a stop then sat her down none too gently.

Hyde pried his hands off the hover carís hood while I crawled out of the driverís seat and took an unsteady step towards me, " My God woman where did you learn to fly one of these..."

I clocked him with a left before he could finish the sentence and knocked him sprawling. Then I gasped when the punch nearly tore me in half.

By the time I had pulled myself back together Hyde had managed to sit up and was staring at me as if I were some one that deserved to die slow.

I eighty-sixed the urge to kick him and charged for the web of metal walk ways that surrounded the screaming furnace.

I coughed up another mouth full of crimson as I ran and spat it out. Then I prayed Hyde would lay there watching my back side recede into the distance long enough to let me do what I needed to do.

Like most prayers it went unanswered. Hyde caught me just as I had stepped onto the walk way that would carry me to the furnace and dove into my legs.

I sprawled across the walk way and rolled over. Hyde loomed over me demanding, "Where is it?"

I put both of my feet in the center of his chest, pushed him off of me and to the ground and rolled over and half crawled, half staggered up the steps to a ramp that ran along side the pear shaped furnace.

When I reached the crest of steps another cough nearly split me and half and spots danced before my eyes. I fell to my knees and cradled my shattered ribs in my arms and sobbed.

Tears were rolling down my face when I pulled myself to my feet on the rail and started towards the furnace once more.

When I neared the furnace the bubbling metal inside of it hissed and screamed at me and its heat was alive and stifling.

I had taken another step towards it when Adolphus Hyde, who had reached the crest of the steps while I pulled myself back together, leapt twenty feet down the ramp into me and sprawled me across the platform.

I landed hard and rolled onto my back and barely squirmed out of the path of a kick. After that I drove my legs into his.

He staggered backwards and gave me time to pull myself to me feet on the rail, but by the time I was standing I was a sitting duck.

My arms were like lead weights now and my legs, which had carried me further than I had dared ask them, were done.

In truth, all Hyde needed to do to end the fight was stand up and watch me fall, but he didnít.

Instead he drove a punch into my kidneys. He followed that punch with another punch into my ribs, and another into my stomach. Before I could fall he back handed me to the platform and kicked me twice just to make certain that I didnít get up.

I spat crimson each time Hyde struck me and when he was finished I lay on the platform gagging on my own blood.

While I lay dying Hyde rifled through my pockets and found nothing. Then he ripped my shirt open and smiled as if he had just witnessed the birth of the Christ child.

I could point out that most men have that reaction when they see my breasts, but I donít think Hyde cared whether I was a man or a woman or a prickly pear bush at that moment.

He yanked the vial from about my neck, and he pushed himself to his feet triumphantly. Then his chest exploded.

Depleted uranium shells tore through him and sprayed me with more gore. He looked down and his eyes widened. Then he fell on top of me.

I coughed another mouthful of blood and rolled my head to one side and spat it out. After that I reached up and pulled the vial out of Hydeís hand and rolled him off me. After taking a second to collect myself I rolled onto my hands and knees and spat up more blood. Then I crawled to the side of the furnace, and pushed myself to my knees and tossed the vial into the molten steel.

When it had disappeared I turned and stared back down the walkway at the Hell Hound that had saved my life and perhaps all of civilization.

He walked towards me. I was sobbing uncontrollably now, as much with relief as pain, and before he reached me I rolled onto my back and finally, thank God, passed out.

****

"He that dies pays all debts," said William Shakespeare. I lived. Apparently I owed someone big time.

I awoke for short snatches before consciousness finally returned to me to stay. It was three days before I could speak and three more before the doctors would let any one see me. When they did Tyrus Maxx was my first caller.

He smiled down at me with all the warmth of a lizard, "We werenít sure which was wrecked worse you or the car."

"Funny manÖI lay flat of my back on a cot with a pair of tubes stuffed down my nose and another in the side of my mouth. A carbon steel needle that could punch through Kevlar was buried in the vein in my right elbow and an i.v. fed into me. A machine I did not understand helped me breathe.

"The car we scrapped. We nearly did the same with you but your heart just kept beating," Maxx shrugged, "You know we had to cut into you with a laser scalpel. My doctors tell me they had to use yards of synthetic tissue to heal the damage your ribs had done to your lungs. They had to pull your spleen too, and they didnít even want to talk about your kidneys. You made quite a mess of yourself."

"And to think I did it all for you."

Maxx laughed and dropped into the chair next to my cot, "Nice try."

I decided to cut to the chase, "Where the hell were the Hell Hounds when I was in the Broken Tankard?"

"They had lost visual on you when you arrived at the tankard and you ear ring was crushed before we could pin point you.

"Still they knew you had been in the block where the Tankard stood when they arrived and guessed that the Tankard was where you would be. It was a good guess."

I would have liked to hit him but I couldnít climb out of the cot, "And my reward?"

"Sorry, you didnít bring me the Mauler."

"I killed him."

"Yes, but I wanted him alive. Youíll have to be satisfied with the fact I brought you back from the dead. Now, why donít you tell me what this was all about?"

If I had thanked Maxx for keeping me alive it would have been hollow. He had to revive me. There was no else who could answer his questions, "Adolphus Hyde had perfected a virus that unchecked would have wiped out mankind but left Demi-humans and Meta-humans unharmed. The Mauler had stolen it."

"I assume the trinket my men saw you throw into the furnace at Hasheen Steel contained the virus."

"How perceptive."

"We moved on Hyde industries after the battle over the tavern. One of his employees erased all the files before we could kill him. Whatever the nature of the virus,it died with Hyde. Still, I wonder why the Mauler would have stolen it from Hyde. They were cut from the same cloth, so to speak."

"Itís a long story. Letís just say that two factions of a movement that wanted man screwed disagreed on methodology," I wished Maxx would go away.

"Sounds like an interesting story. Before you tell it, explain to me why a Meta would get her self beaten to pieces saving mankind."

"Maxx," I stated the most blatantly obvious truth I have ever known, "we are all mankindÖevery one of us."

Maxx laughed as if I were the silliest bitch he had ever seen.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by C. J. Burch

C.J. Burch is a life long speculative fiction fan who has recently turned his hand to writing. This is the second piece he has published on the net.

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