Return to the Marathon Fan Fiction Archive

Title: Why Not? Submitted By:Scifiteki

Joe strode into the bar with the air of one has nothing to live for but the next drink, and knows it. The bar was messy, warm, loud, and full to the brim with people, all shouting and laughing and drinking their hearts out. Off in the corner, a band played bad covers of old twentieth-century songs; the bartender was a big fan of that sort of stuff. Joe smiled. It was just how he liked it. The other bar had been bigger, but there wasn't much you could do about that.

He stood to the side for a moment and leaned up against the wall, looking hungrily at the bar at the other end of the room, filled with enticing liquors of every description. There would be time enough for that sort of thing soon enough, but what he really needed to do right now was to check the news. A thought, and the world around him faded into vague blurs and a different one, a virtual world, faded into focus from nothing.

The gears in his uplink grated painfully against the side of his eye socket, a reminder of what it had replaced. He really shouldn't have had it installed in that shoddy place downtown, the placement was all wrong. Should have saved up longer, really. Oh, that was right. He wasn't making money any more. Oh well. It wasn't a bad model, though; Terabit, long range connection to marsweb, access to most of the news servers, crystal clear visual feed with 500x zoom, digital enhancement. Ugly, though. Looked like someone had stuck the end of a telescope of his ear. That was what all the military models looked like.

The virtual world spun into focus, an angled mess of bright green lines and numbers, tumbling and twirling around in his vision. Another thought, and the kaleidoscopic mess faded into the background, and news servers filled his vision, all spewing information at him, local, interplanet, everything you could think of.

Nothing interesting, though. MIDA had blown up another building in somewhere, nowheresville. Yawn. Happened all the time, in the bigger cities. Didn't achieve a single thing, but they kept doing it. More ivory-tower proclamations from those nutcases on Earth; rhetoric against the MIDA, against the Pfhor, against everyone in sight. More sanitised, propaganda-style news from the front, he didn't trust it one little bit.

The only interesting news story was from one of the lesser-known networks, keener to make their name. Apparently a Pfhor scout craft had breached the supposedly "impenetrable" security cordon around Sol, and made it all the way to the outer limits of Mars space before being blown to little tiny pieces of shrapnel. Interesting. But apart from that, everything was depressingly normal. A quick check of the city networks confirmed what he thought, no interesting, big, work-worthy crimes, as always.

He willed the uplink off, and let the real world shift back into focus. Well, it was time to get that drink, or three. He was bored, out of work and very nearly broke, and nothing seemed like it was going to improve for quite a while, if ever. Brushing the depressing thought of his situation from his mind, he pushed his way through the heaving, noisy crowd towards the bar.

At the bar, he had to shout, and nearly grab the bartender to get his attention. The tender was a fat, sweaty man named Gary, who wore the same "UESG Pussies Go Home!" shirt every day, stained with years of various spills and scrapes so that the words were nearly obscured. Certainly, the shirt had stopped being white a long time ago. A black metallic line snaked from his eye up behind his ear, an uplink. Gary liked to think of Joe as his friend; Joe thought he was an annoying, abrasive excuse for a bartender, but didn't disabuse him of the notion because he got better service, and cheap drinks.

Gary's face lit up at the sight of Joe, his chubby face rearranging itself awkwardly into a smile.

"Hey, Joe, friend!" He exclaimed. "You really need to get a haircut, you know that?"

Joe ran his fingers through his long, shoulder-length hair, frustratedly. That was the thing he hated most about Gary, he never let up about his hair. He'd made the point quite clear that he liked his hair just the way it was, but the words just never seemed to stick, like the sweat that dripped off the curves of Gary's obese face. It was too bad Gary made the only decent drink in town, otherwise Joe would be long gone.

"Yeah, good to see you too. The usual, well-shaken, no snide hair comments."

Gary just laughed, and turned his back to pour and mix the drink before turning back and slamming the glass down on the table. ‘There y'are, one Gary's house special. Enjoy."

Joe mumbled thanks, and stared down at the frothy brown liquid, hunching over the bar. It wasn't that Gary's house special tasted nice. No, if he wanted a good tasting drink, there were many others available. What singled out this particular alcohol was that it was very, very efficient at making him very, very drunk. Nothing else he'd had could match the peculiar mix for sheer drink-to-unconsciousness ratio. Most people didn't like them; getting drunk wasn't terribly fashionable these days. But it suited Joe's particular needs perfectly. Breathing in deeply, he took a deep swig and let the alcohol rampage down his throat and strangle his brain.

He was about to take another swig and send himself well on the way to stupefaction, when a voice cut through his concentration, accompanied by a tap on the shoulder.

"Excuse me?" said a young, enthusiastic-sounding voice.

Joe looked up to see a young, fresh-looking face staring at him, framed by an unruly mess of red hair. Wide, brown eyes stared back at him, and a vacant smile lay beneath them. Joe looked down at his assailant's clothes, an obviously recently pressed collared shirt, traditional pants with a black belt. There wasn't an uplink in sight, not even those new socket-hugging ones. Totally out place in a bar like this, in other words. He grimaced; what did some stupid college kid want with him?

"What do you want?" He grumbled surlily.

"My name's Raeft. What's yours?" The youth held out a hand expectantly.

Joe regarded the hand, but did nothing about it. "That's a pretty odd name, Rayefft."

"My mother gave it to me." The kid said, vacant smile still plastered to his face. "What do you do for a living?"

"What does it matter to you?" Asked Joe with a mix of curiosity and annoyance.

"Just curious," Said the youth, smiling inanely.

"For what it's worth, I'm a P.I." stated Joe, with a grimace. That brought up painful facts, facts that he was trying to bury in a tide of ethanol.

"Oh," said the kid, tilting his head to the side strangely. "Do you come here often?"

Joe laughed. "What, you trying to pick me up, kid? No thanks; I'm not into that sort of thing."

Raeft just looked at him confusedly, his dumb smile relaxing for a second. "No, just asking."

Joe raised his eyebrows. "Well, often enough, I guess. Why?"

The youth just stared at him oddly, the smile reasserting itself on his empty-looking face. "Thankyou," he said, and then turned around and started talking to the person on the other side of him.

Joe turned back to his drink and started sipping it again, letting small amounts at a time slip in to wreak havoc on his brain cells. He was vaguely aware of the Raeft kid walking around the bar, asking various people the same questions. He frowned. Something had struck him the wrong way about that kid. He couldn't quite place his dissatisfaction, but it was there, niggling away at him. Finally, after a few more sips of mind-crushing cocktail, he turned around to see where the youth was now.

He quickly found him, up at the other end of the bar, near the doors. He stood out like a spotlight among this crowd, with his clean clothes and strange manner, let alone his beacon-like red hair. The kid looked like he was making his way towards the exit. Damn! He sat for a moment in indecision, weighing up his short list of choices. Then, making up his mind, he stood and made his way after the youth. It was probably just a silly, intoxication-fuelled choice, but it wasn't like he had anything better to do.

He slapped down a few coins on the bar, not bothering to take the change, before striding out of the bar, into the evening.

Outside, he was immediately reminded of why he had kept wearing his greatcoat. Namely, it was bone-chillingly cold out in the streets. It'd been so for a while; ever since the authorities had decided that there was a infamous MIDA terrorist hiding in this sector, being supported by the, quote, ‘local populace', and turned off the heating until the suspect was apprehended. It was all nonsense, of course, everyone knew that, but that didn't stop them. It never had before.

He looked around the streets for his quarry, his breath white and cloudy against the brisk air. It didn't take long to find him striding quickly down the street to right; the streets were narrow, and not terribly crowded at this late time of day. He was walking pretty fast.

Very fast, Joe found, as he tried to keep pace with him, and stay inconspicuous at the same time, walking through the closed-in, winding streets. In fact, after a while he stopped bothering to try to be inconspicuous and took up a light jog after his quarry. The kid wasn't being very careful about people following him, after all. That was unusual, though. Most people were exceptionally cautious, because of the city's rampant petty crime. Which reminded of his situation.

It wasn't that there wasn't enough crime in this city. Oh, no there was plenty of it. The city was rife with it, absolutely seething with little thieves and miscreants of all description. Most of the money that he made went towards just improving the already complex security system on his office slash flat. The technically illegal magnum in his pocket was also testament to this fact. It was just that most of it was so petty that it wasn't worth paying a P.I for, or was done to people who couldn't even afford his pathetic rate. He did get a lot of requests for hit jobs though, which annoyed him. He was an investigator, not killer.

It was pathetic, really; he was a living, walking cliché. An out of work P.I. Except he wasn't going to get any mysterious jobs any time soon, let alone any job at all. Unless you counted chasing strange kids around the city, which wasn't paying. Briefly, a hope rose in him, born of desperation and more than a little inebriation. He hadn't checked his inbox in a while. Maybe he'd got a job while he hadn't been watching.

He willed up his uplink on half-mode, so he could keep watching the kid at the same time. Cool green lines of an interface swirled into focus, overlayed on the left side of his vision. He willed up inbox. Maybe there would be a job, so he could give up this stupid chase and get on with doing paid chasing people around.

"You have...!" spoke the mailbox's standard, soothing female voice. Joe's hopes soared... "Zero new messages. Thankyou for using CyberMek!" Joe's hopes crashed painfully to the ground. Not even a murder request. Business had better pick up soon, or he was going to have some serious problems. He willed the uplink off and focused back on the chase.

He wasn't as fit as he used to be, he realised. His breath was getting a little laboured, his limbs a little fatigued, not really bad, but he'd been much better once. He'd been a city-level runner, in school. But a couple of years of sitting at a desk waiting for jobs, or sitting in the bar blowing his brain out had eaten into his skill a little bit. It was annoying, but there wasn't much he could do about it. It wasn't like he could go running in the morning, here.

Still walking as fast as ever, his quarry turned off and veered into the slum areas. Joe winced, but kept jogging. The city was pretty bad, but the slums were a nightmare. What was a kid like that doing going to a place like there? He fingered his gun at his side; more than likely he'd have occasion to use it.

It was the smell that hit you first, he noticed. Stinking, fetid air, laced with rotting and decay blasted you and your nose as soon as you walked in. Undertones of various further unmentionable and unthinkable aromas came with it, further confusing your sense of smell. Overall, it was awful place just to stand in, let alone live in.

All around, signs of decay shouted at him, demanding attention. Most of the housing around here that wasn't made of canvas was old community housing that had seen better days a couple centuries ago. Now, they were decrepit, covered in moss, rust, slime and dirt, full of holes and tears. People lined the sides of the streets, huddled over burning oil drums.

Beggars, homeless and twitching, drooling nervesnyth addicts shared the same place, some looking up at him resentfully, most just ignoring him. He'd never realised it was this bad. These people suffered the brunt of the restrictions; most others could afford heating inside. It was sad, really, but that was the way it was. There was just so many! They nearly covered the streets, and Joe had to occasionally pick his way through the crowds. It wasn't very noisy, but he guessed most of these people were either asleep or too cold to talk. Or, in some cases, he thought as he passed one particularly gone nervesynth addict, dribbling and staring into space, not even able to talk.

His target speedily walked a little ways into the slums, navigating through a couple corners before turning off and walking onto what looked like a parking lot, although most of it was obscured by the narrow streets and tall community housing on either side. He stopped at the corner, taking a breather. His breath was heavy, huge white storm clouds billowing out of his mouth. Yes, he definitely needed to get fitter. So, what was a youth with clean, nice clothes doing in the middle of the dirty, broken-down slums? He'd taken Raeft for some silly, rich college boy, not one who'd typically hang around in a ghetto. Well, whatever the reason, it'd probably be interesting, maybe enough so to make up for missing all those house specials.

He stood up and turned the corner, and was confronted with what was probably the reason Raeft was here. The parking lot was the front of an old, decrepit one-story motel, samwiched between two giant old community housings. The motel was just about as cheap, low-rent sort of place as you could have found in the city. Most of the windows were broken, and the lights flickered uncertainly. The neon sign above the front had gone out long ago, and the ‘vacancy' sign had nearly fallen off. He was surprised the owner could charge anything at all for this place.

He was just in time to see the kid walk through the front doors, one of which was missing, and start talking to someone. He squinted, he was hard to make them out at this distance, and closer was probably out of the question. Oh well, he thought. Time to put the other reason I got this stupid, painful uplink to use... With a will, he called up the uplink's feature list and selected ‘zoom'.

Closing his only remaining eye, he let his vision fly in closer to the motel door, until it looked like he was standing right outside of it. Except that it was completely blurry. It was only digital zoom, after all, optical would have been far too cumbersome. He willed on the digital enhancer, and the world suddenly became far crisper and clearer, blurred edges resolving into sharp details. It wasn't perfect, even at this distance, some things remained blurry, and other things were totally distorted; it was only a standard image enhancement algorithm. The AI enhancers were much better, he'd heard, but he'd also heard some pretty odd stories about AIs that got fed up with making pictures pretty.

The kid talked with the motel owner for a little while, before handing over a wad of cash and being handed a key in return. Joe zoomed in on the key; Room 4A. A quick check through the marsweb quickly found a floor plan for this motel, after all, there weren't many motels in the slums. Room 4A was on the right side, up against the side of the hotel. Perfect. Time to do some inconspicuous spying, he thought.

Ducking down the side of the motel, he found the smell was even worse, burning up his nostrils like fire. Looking down, he saw the reason; this side alley had been used as a garbage dump by both the motel inhabitants and those who lived in the community housing next door, and as a result the whole alley was coated in a thin layer of smelly, rotting trash and faeces. Piles of the stuff were everywhere. He picked his way through the gunk carefully but quickly, he need to get to the room before Raeft did in order for this to work.

Down six windows, and... there. The window for room 4A, just what he was looking for. Even better, There was a stack of old, unused boxes piled outside the window, which made for a perfect vantage point. The window was still dark, so presumably he'd beaten the youth to the room. Quietly picking his way through the last piles of squelchy rubbish, he hoisted himself up onto the boxes and sank into the darkness, waiting.

Joe had found, long ago, that the most useful thing to learn for a P.I was how to be still, and melt into the shadow. Not many people knew how to do it properly, it took extreme discipline to stay perfectly still for any length of time. But the great thing was, once you were still and in the darkness, people would totally ignore you. No one bothered to look for things they didn't know were there, so you could effectively become invisible. It was one of the few things he was good at, in fact. So Joe slid neatly into the deep shadows, and became, to any observer, just another feature of the alleyway.

The kid took longer to get to his room than Joe thought he would; maybe he'd gotten lost, or something. He wouldn't have discounted the possibility. So, to while away the time while he waited for Raeft to show up, he wondered who the youth really was, and what he was doing in this part of town. And why he was so... Disconcerting. Maybe he was a cyborg, escaped from one of the government storage houses that officially didn't exist. He'd heard stories, one had escaped and found its way into a shopping complex, where it killed forty people and eventually had to be subdued by the total sterilisation of the place. Never even got a mention in the news, but everyone heard about it.

Or, maybe he was a MIDA terrorist. Maybe even the MIDA terrorist that had got the authorities so excited. Yes, he liked that possibility. The MIDA dealt some pretty freaky, bleeding-edge enhancements and mind-blowing drugs, which would explain Raeft's bizarre personality. And, if Joe managed to haul him to justice, he could get a nice, fat, life-sustaining reward, as well has having these damn heating restrictions turned off. Most people were pretty sympathetic towards the MIDA, but the removal of the heating restrictions would be worth at least a few free drinks. Joe wasn't at all sympathetic towards the MIDA; they'd blown up his old bar. He'd liked that bar. Party-poopers.

He did a brief scan of the police networks for someone of Raeft's description. Whether the kid was a terrorist or escaped cyborg or criminal, he'd be there. Thousands of dishevelled, nasty, or just plain whacked-out faces sped past his right eye, but no one even remotely like his present, non-present quarry. Disappointing, but not necessarily the end of it. After all, the MIDA was famous for their identity reconstruction prowess. They toyed around with some technologies that weren't even near the market; DNA reconstruction, nanite surgery, the lot. Wasn't always effective (Some of the best medical horror stories came from the MIDA), but was still remarkable at times.

Joe was savouring the thought of what he'd do with all the reward money, when the light switched on and Raeft finally walked into the room. The kid was still wearing that nonsense grin of his; it was like it was pasted to his face. He didn't have any luggage at all, which was surprising. He must have some MIDA secret weapons stash elsewhere; the prevalence of the things was legendary. They'd even managed to sneak one on board the Marathon, according to some of the taller tales.

The youth looked around the room, admiring it with his silly smile for a moment, and then he walked into the middle of the room, and started staring at the wall the right, blankly. His eyes flickered over Joe, sitting in the shadows, but he saw nothing, except darkness. What was he doing, wondered Joe? Must be all those drugs they pumped into them in his organisation. He just stood there; shoulders relaxed, beaming still, his eyes totally devoid of any thought whatsoever.

Then the kid did something Joe was not expecting at all. Still staring at the wall, he unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the floor. Underneath, a disturbing sight greeted him. Where he'd been expecting a normal person's physique, maybe with a few ritualistic MIDA tattoos, there was something completely different. Raeft's torso was corpulent and bloated, a fact that had been hidden by the baggy shirt. Thick, purplish veins ran just below the semi-transparent surface of his skin, throbbing and violet. Maybe he'd had some accident, disease, or something, and they hadn't bothered to do reconstruction to the hidden parts of his body. Still, it was nauseating.

If what had happened then was nauseating, what happened next was overwhelmingly sickening. Still wearing that vacuous smile of his, still staring vacantly at the wall, he reached over and dug his fingers into the skin of his left arm. His fingers broke through the skin, and thick, viscous blood came dripping out, sticky and fluid and... yellow? His blood was yellow?

Something about that final detail stirred a terrible memory in him, and he finally realised exactly what it was that Raeft was. No cyborg, no strange reconstructed MLA terrorist. Just to confirm the terrible fears that were rushing through his head, he willed on his uplink and called up the section on the USEC's website on ‘Pfhor Information'. He soon found exactly what he was looking for.

'The Human-Similacrum is one of the Pfhor's vilest, most insidious weapons. From a distance, they look like any other human being, but at closer distance, these features can be distinguished, that differentiate them from any other person.' A diagram flashed up, showing all the recognisable differences between a person and simulacrum. Yellow blood, corpulent torso... Yes, he had most of them. Didn't have a limited vocal capability, or red eyes, though. Maybe the Pfhor had come up with a better make. He read on:

'If you, as a citizen of the UESG, ever come across one of these weapons, you are advised to keep as far away from it as possible, do not try to interact with it or fire upon it. Simulacrums carry within them a deadly payload of explosives that can be strong enough to wipe out an entire city block, and these actions are known to set off these explosives. If you do encounter one, you are advised to go to the local UESC authorities or UESG representative, and report its presence. They will take appropriate steps to contain the threat,'

He didn't bother reading the rest of it, it was mostly contact details. He wasn't about to do that, who would believe him? A simulacrum, in the city? It was a ridiculous concept. Never happen in a thousand years. But, nevertheless, there it was, standing in front of him, rooting around in its left arm. Cold sweat started to run down his forehead as he realised just how close he'd been to total incineration, how close he was to total incineration. One false move and he'd be toastier than a flambé cocktail, his third favourite drink. What could he do?

Well, not much, really. If he moved, the creature would notice him, and then his life would be over very quickly. So, all he could really do was just keep doing what he was already doing, watching silently, and hope this wasn't where the thing intended to deliver its nightmare internal cargo. It didn't seem so, after all it had gone through the bar and done nothing, but Joe's knowledge on the subject of simulacrums was limited. For all he knew, the thing could be trying to find its ‘explode' switch.

The thing dug around its arm flesh a little more, more yellow, gooey blood oozing out of the new opening and dripping slowly onto the floor. Then, finally, it stopped, as if it had found something, and drew it out. The thing that emerged was a small, round sphere, about the size of a fist. The sphere was patterned with a strange, blotchy organic pattern, and it almost seemed to palpitate in the Raeft-thing's hand disturbingly. All over the strange little thing's skin were fine, glowing lines that emitted a sickly green glow. The Raeft-beast stared blankly at it for a moment, ever with its nightmarish grin, then it squeezed the thing hard. The sphere moulded between his fingers, as if it was made of soft rubber. The little thing was repulsive. And then it started to open.

The little device opened like a flower, a loathsome and putrescent one at that, and out of it spilled more sickly green light, shining out of its innards and onto the Raeft-thing's face. The green light played strangely across its face, swirling in chaotic patterns, forming and collapsing and forming again. The simulacrum just stared wide-eyed into it, swaying its head from side to side.

The strange communion between the sphere and the creature went on for about a minute, then the sphere abruptly folded up again and the enervated green light faded away. The thing considered the device with its vacuous eyes for a moment, then roughly shoved in back into the open wound that it had come out of. The lesion closed over, and the bleeding stopped. And then the worst happened.

When he had jumped up on the boxes, Joe had unconsciously placed his heel between the edge of the box he was sitting on. This wouldn't have been a problem, except the boxes had already been sitting there for quite some time in the humid, stinking air, and the nails had come a little loose. And so, all the time he was watching, his heel was slowly drawing the side of the box off, gradually easing the nails from the wood. And right at that precise moment, the nails came just loose enough for gravity to take over and finish the job. So the box lid flew open, unbalancing both him and the box.

Maybe it wouldn't have been so much of a problem if the box had have been full of something soft, like paper. But it wasn't. It was full of very empty, very glass bottles. Glass bottles that made lovely, noisy smashing sounds when they impacted against the hard, concrete ground. Maybe it wouldn't have been quite so bad if Joe, nearly falling off the box, shocked by the sudden interruption of the box, hadn't lost his cool and swore, loudly.


The glass bottles all spilled out, every last one of them, making enough noise to attract the attention of everyone in the neighbourhood, let alone a simulacrum standing in a motel room right next to it. Joe steadied himself on the box, and looked up, but he knew what he was going to see from the moment he spoke. He saw the creature looking right back at him, staring him straight in the eyes, its ever-stable smile somewhat tempered. Yes, he was totally screwed.

He winced. This was not how he wanted to die. Blasted into oblivion, in the back alley of some slum where the air smelt like several generations of people had died in it. No, not at all. He wanted to live to a ripe old age, become a famous and well-respected P.I, and retire to one of those Olympus Mons villages. Except he wasn't going to, because he'd just made a stupid rookie mistake. He closed his eyes, waiting for annihilation.

Annihilation never came. He opened his eyes, and saw the Raeft-pretender still looking back at him, grinning its insane grin. What was it doing? Wasn't it going to blow up? Slowly, surely, it put its shirt back on, buttoning away the evidence of its true identity. Then, cocking its head to the side, it raised four fingers, and mouthed words that were terribly clear to Joe.

"Four minutes."

And then it turned around, and started walking towards the door.

Joe just sat there for a second, shocked into complete insensibility. He was alive. He was not supposed to be alive. By all rights, he should be gone into better places, along with most of the other poor people around here. But he was very much alive indeed. So what did it mean by ‘four minutes'? What was that supposed to...

And then it all became horrifingly, nightmarishly clear to him. So he leapt off the box and started running.

He burst out of the alleyway with the determination of a madman, and veered sharply to the left. He didn't bother to look for the creature, but he knew it would be close behind him. It didn't matter. There was no time to focus on the thing. Just run. He had four minutes.

No, three minutes, fifty seconds. Run, go, now.

He burst into a sprint, pushing against every muscle, urging them to go faster. He'd never run this fast since he was in high school. Did he still have the stamina? He'd better still have it. Otherwise a whole lot of people would die, and he would have done nothing to prevent it. And he couldn't have that on his conscience. The broken-down streets and homeless beggars flashed past as blurs as he dodged around oil drums and sleeping figures. He swore again, angrily. He didn't have time for this.

Three minutes, thirty seconds.

The streets here were ridiculously full. There was people everywhere, sleeping and talking and drooling and generally getting in the way. The sun was going down, but he paid scant attention to it except for the fact that it was getting darker. Didn't all these people have somewhere to live? They should. Ah well, he didn't have time for political musings. He needed to focus, concentrate. Run.

Three minutes.

The street people started to thin out, and the smell that buffet his nostrils started to become less intense. He was getting to the edges of the slums. Lucky the beast had chosen a place relatively close to the edge of the slums. The wind, cold and harsh, slashed against his face, numbing it, sending his hair flying. He ignored it all, focusing on the destination ahead of him. He couldn't let anything distract him from this. Come on, faster, faster!

Two minutes, twenty seconds.

He flashed past a street sign, one of the first proper ones. It said ‘Strauss Boulevard'. Good, he was on the main street. He just needed to follow this up a little ways... The concrete pounded underneath his feet, firm and unyielding. The smell was gone, mostly, but the cold air still whipped angrily against his features, chilling him to the bone. He could feel the first signs of fatigue creeping in, rising over the tide of adrendalin. Come on, he couldn't give in. Still more to go, more to run.

One minute, fifty seconds.

He ducked through an alleyway, which he fervently hoped was Penny Lane. It looked like Penny Lane, but it was hard to tell at this speed. Someone tried to step out in front of him, a mugger no doubt, but he just ran straight into the figure, smashing them off their feet. The impact drove the wind out of his lungs and slowed him momentarily, but he quickly took another breath and kept running. He had no time, no time!

One minute, ten seconds.

He burst out into the street again, and stopped momentarily to catch his bearings. He looked up the street, shit, it wasn't Penny Lane. He'd taken the street three too early. He wasn't going to make it! Spots swarmed over his vision, threatening to take him under, and fatigue bit hungrily into limbs. But he couldn't stop now, not now that he was so damn close! He pushed himself again, digging deep into his last reserves of fear-born energy. Just, keep, running. Push the arms, breath, move the feet.

One minute.

His destination came into view, just ahead. Yes! He was going to make it! All his body was screaming a litany of pain at him, begging him to stop for just one moment, take more than a ragged breath. But he could keep running, just through that door, and then he'd be nearly done! Come on, run, keep running, let the world pass in a blur, breathe smooth. He reached the door, and threw himself into the building. The sign above the door read: "Gary's Old-Skool Bar".

Fifty seconds.

Inside the bar, it was noisy, and far, far too warm for his liking. Grasping for what little energy he had left, he drew in a deep breath and shouted loudly:

"Everyone needs to get out of the bar! It's going to blow up!"

As he'd, deep down, expected; nobody in the bar so much as listened to a word he cried. Heck, if he had been in the same position as them, which he had been many a time before, he wouldn't have listened either. This bar had seen more than its fair share of nutcases, he was nothing special. Except, of course, this time it mattered. Well, there was nothing he could do about these fools. But he could do one thing.

Forty seconds.

He felt a presence at his back, and he didn't need to turn around. It was the creature, no doubt leering its plastic smile. How had it got here so fast? He'd been running his heart out the whole way! It didn't matter. All he could do was the task ahead of him. Which was to ensure the continuity of a good drink in this town. He started to push his way through the babbling crowd, oblivious to their fate.

Thirty seconds.

He reached the bar, and without thinking , he threw himself over it. On the way, he knocked down a few beer glasses, but he ignored it. There would be no more beer glasses here, soon. Gary, predicably, advanced on him, a mixture of confusion and anger on his fat, ugly face. He was shouting something, but between the noise and Joe's sheer fatigue, the words got lost. He paid no attention to them, grabbed Gary by the collar of his much-stained shirt, and started to pull him away.

"Time to go, chum," he said wearily.

Twenty seconds.

He yanked the obese, protesting man through the bar room of the bar, clattering past dirty kitchen equipment. The chubby guy was putting up a pretty good fight, for someone of his sheer grossness. But Joe wasn't in the mood for it, and just kept pulling him out and onto the back alleyway around the bar.

Seven seconds.

Desperately, he cast his eyes around the alleyway, and they came to rest on a huge dumpster, lying up against the side of the back of the bar. Yes, that was perfect. Or, at least, as perfect as he was going to get in these circumstances. He tried to pull the flustered bartender towards safety, but the idiot held his ground, and Joe came away with clumps of dirty shirt in his hands. Well, screw him. He didn't need to save the bastard. He had more important priorities, like himself.

Three seconds.

He threw himself behind the dumpster, curling up into a ball and putting his hands over his ears. This was going to hurt, a lot.

One second.

He screwed up his eyes and waited for the inevitable...

Zero seconds.

Nothing happened. The silence roared around him, terrible and screaming. What was going on?

Minus one second.

Joe lifted his head. Maybe nothing was going to happen? Maybe the Raeft kid had been a really bad practical joker? Maybe he...

Minus two seconds.

The world exploded into blinding light and terrible noise. As the dumpster flew back, pushing him up against a pile of rubbish on the other side of the alley, and consciousness roared away from him, his last thought was:

That damn theatrical bastard!

And then it was dark.

When he woke again, it was very dark, his leg was screaming viciously at him, his hair felt like it was being slowly pulled out, and to make it all better, his uplink was spamming.

It wasn't terribly uncommon, especially when damage was done to the uplink body. And what had just happened was probably enough to do at least that. He was lucky it hadn't done worse. Thousands of images and sounds flashed randomly past his vision, covering the right side of his vision with what was basically colourful white noise. The uplink's delicate cortical interpretation links had been damaged, and now it was very confused as to what it should be doing. So it spammed.

He tried to will the uplink onto standby, but all he got was a little electronic ‘brrtz!' and a sharp pain in the back of his head. Trying harder, he willed the entire uplink off, putting all the mental force he could muster behind it. The uplink briefly protested, making strange static noises, and a sharp, stabbing pain filled the back of his head, but then it gave up and switched off, leaving him alone, silent in the darkness.

Trying to shake off the vague headache that followed, he pondered his situation. He was, with almost no doubt, stuck under a dumpster that was probably also stuck under a huge pile of rubble, his leg was trapped awkwardly and painfully, and worst of all he'd lost another bar. He wasn't setting up a very good trend here. Two bars gone in catastrophic explosions. Where was he going to go now? Assuming, of course, he got of here as more than a cold month-old corpse.

He tried, experimentally to move his leg or his head; both motions were rewarded with even more intense stabs of pain. Well, there was nothing he could do there. So, he just lay back, letting the pain wash through his body in awful, wracking tides of anguish.

He lay in the darkness for quite a while like that, his leg and hair screaming like old hags. He'd almost gotten used to the pain and the darkness when suddenly both went away. With the sound of heavy machinery, the pressure on his leg and hair suddenly disappeared, and his vision, half-gone, was filled with blinding sunlight. A figure stepped over the sunlight, but Joe couldn't see more than a vague, dark shape.

"Ah, you're alive, sir," the figure paused. "You know, you really need to cut that hair."

Joe smiled. He knew that voice. "Yeah, it's good to see you, too." He grunted wearily. "Now, get me out of this damn rubbish."

And then he fell asleep.

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