ain poured from the sky in sheets of liquid, falling from clouds the color of television tuned to a dead channel.  Streets got watered like gardens, sidewalk weeds the only thing green and verdant in the waking world.  Shifting gray zeotrope images flickered high above, the massive holograms of Fuji Electric and Sony unable to cope with the foul weather.  It was one of those mornings where Layla usually just crawled back under the polyester sheets of her futon and wished it all away.
    She was beginning to regret a lot of decisions lately, and would regret getting up today.  But it needed doing.
    Slowly, she crawled out of the bed, slamming a hand down on her clock radio.  Coffee in the coffee maker, so drink.  Toothpaste on the toothbrush, so scrub.  Get ready for the day.  The day's run.  The daily bread.
    Nagging at her was this sense of something being wrong.  That was normal, on days when she had a run to do, but it felt stronger than most.  More than a general 'this time, I won't make it back' or 'this time, the black ice is gonna get me'.  She felt... wrong.
    Console jockeys couldn't feel wrong.  Feeling wrong was the hate trip, the ego killer, the clumsy death.  Work those dry dreads away, sip the coffee, be ready to move.  Layla was ready to move.
    She grabbed the least unfashionable things she had and put them on, quickly; a flash mix of business gear and casual, showing skin, but showing style.  You couldn't even set foot into the Underwire if you looked like some yup on vacation who wandered into Chiba City.  Style points get you noticed, get you connections.  Nerd points just got you ignored.
    Move fast, stay hot.  Layla grabbed her umbrella, lit up the florescent tube in the handle, and joined the fray.
    Underwire ran underneath the subway.  It was real down, down and deep, stairs so steep the health commission wanted them shut down; not that it would stop anybody from going there.  This was the hot scene, the place where the dance of biz was parlayed, where things got done.  It was where Layla first met Mif.
    Mif had a weird job for her, a burn and run on eight systems, searching for key genetic data.  She didn't know why Layla had to go look for it.  She wasn't much help in getting it, save the few fast ones she'd pull to keep Layla out of hock with zaibatsu security... it was all some task ordered on high by the LoNnet, according to Mif.  The girl practically was religious about it.
    Why Layla, though?  There were plenty of other hackers, ice crackers and freewheeling cowboys and cowgirls.  Layla was a cowgirl par excellence, as she saw herself, and had burned systems like Phribi Zoan and Gaavisoft, but that didn't make her stand out.  She ran bandit runs, burning down pirate archives for the reward money.  That was her primary goal in life.
    But Mif insisted, it had to be her.  She would be rewarded.  The risk was high, the challenge steep.  Layla took the job.  The first few data havens were easy to crack, but the last few... harder.  And the next one hardest so far.  She would be meeting Mif and her companions here, in the Underwire, to go over the final details.
    Descend the stairs, step step.  Open the door.
    The back alley ambiance was maintained with eternal vigilance.  Seedy as hell and about as pleasant.  Upper class cowgirls get the swank places with fine wines and comfortable chairs, but Layla was never interested in pulling hideously rich jobs... they didn't appeal.
    She had to smirk, though, at the newbie bartender's assistant.  The kid was always trying to do something to combat the gloom of the Underwire.  He'd gone so far as to put a vase of flowers up near the vodka... yellow plastic ones, of course, since sunlight was alien to this bar.  You just had to grin.
    Mif was at a nearby booth, in a hushed chat with two companions.  They both looked like hardcore techhead junkies, a combination of chromed goodies on their jackets, trailing wires leading behind their ears and presumably into their brains.  Real by the numbers people.  Layla had a seat, flashed the recognition codes, and the chat was on.
    "Hi," Mif said.  "Um.  These are my friends, Rez On and Da5id..." she said, gesturing to the wireheads.  "They've designed the program to get you inside ParaDox's cores.  Rez On, this is Layla."
    "Like the tune," Rez On said, nodding along.  "She'll get you on your knees, begging darlin' please.  I can appreciate the irony in that, cowgirl.  It took a great deal of math, but you'll find that this is a fire and forget ice breaker," she explained, sliding the chip across the table.  "This is my prodigy, Da5id.  He did the supplementary numbers--"
    "We've met," Layla nodded.
    "Her friends hired me for transport and penetration once," Da5id explained.  "On the Happy World run."
    "I've got a good feeling about this," Mif said, smiling in her cheerful way.  "Everybody knows each other and everything's working well.  Right?"
    "...almost," Layla said.  She was hesitant to bring this up, but... "I think I picked up a virus on the way out of HThompson's memory palace.  Either of you familiar with the Nitemare virus?  It's been ragging on me for the last few days, and really bawbing up my sleep..."
    Dull silence over the group.
    "So Nightmare's made his move already," Rez On said.
    "It... that's the software link of Nightmare," Mif said.  "He's the final waystation you need to invade.  I guess he wants to stop you ahead of time..."
    "Only way to beat it is to wake every hour, so the code doesn't have a chance to mesh with your neural patterns," Rez On said.  "And you need physical movement to do that, so an alarm clock won't cut it.  You got someone you trust to do that for you?"
    Did she?
    "No," Layla said.  "I'll grin and bear it, then.  Work fast and get this over with."
    Rez On flashed Layla a look of warning.  "Nightmare can eat you inside out if you don't stave it off--"
    "I said I'll handle it," Layla said.  "Now what's the details on tonight's burn?"
    "Slot the codebreaker and you're in," Da5id said.  "After that you tangle with ParaDox himself.  He won't be happy, and he's got root jacked up in power on that system.  You'll be in considerable danger, but if you beat him, you've got the genetic code..."
    "What's this shit for, anyway?" Layla asked, leaning back in her seat.  "Nobody's explained why I'm gathering these codes.  What do they make when you put them together?"
    Mif looked hesitant.  "...we don't know," she said.  "LoNnet needs the codes.  She didn't say why.  But it's important for all of us.  Every human."
    "Uh-huh," Layla said, disbelieving.  "Okay.  I'll be back before sundown with your precious cargo."
    Ignoring any requests to stay, Layla pocketed the chip and got up, walking for the door.  She paused, to glance at those ridiculous plastic flowers again.
    Something's wrong, she told herself.  Something's damn wrong and you need to figure it out.
    You need to get on with the hack, too.  Get this Nightmare control loop out of your head, purge your wetware of this garbage... work fast.  Worry about what's wrong later.
    She took the stairs two at a time, pushing by some Nipponese tourist, and went into the street, soaking herself head to toe in the rain.  Regret over leaving her umbrella behind at the Underwire.  Regret over this task she was railroaded into.  Pushing on, though the city streets, heading back to her flat, to her work.
    Cup ramen and Jolt were her dinner.  She was a fine gourmand of fast food; burgers by the double digits, shakes in the nines.  But there just wasn't any time for that.
    The run wasn't really worrying her.  ParaDox was an unpredictable bastard, from the GoTo she had done on the guy, but could be dealt with.  What was she gonna do tonight?  Could go to the clubs, find some guy for the night, do a deal.  Get him to wake her up every hour.  But she didn't want to do that.  She didn't want some one night stand, it didn't feel right, and what guarantees did she have that he'd care enough to stay awake?
    Who did she have that she could trust?  Zelga ran off after the last run.  Said he had unfinished business, probably the cure for his disfigurement.  Poor bastard.  Amy... ugh.  No, Amy was too flaky for Layla to trust her.  And definitely not that bitch Naya, who constantly teased her and mocked her skills.
    Forget it.  Layla didn't need anybody.  She could fill that hole herself and not need
    Flash.  She didn't feel right, cooped up in this apartment.  She should be out and about, under trees and above grass, running free.  Briefly she felt like taking a walk to the park, but considered the rapists and gang bangers and freaks out there and decided against it.  Time to run.
    Layla's deck wasn't any great shakes, but she had the moves with it, that was sure.  She pulled the contact trodes from a peg on the wall, shunting the connections into the black slab of biotech processing.  Spreading the black headband of sensors across her scalp, applying a little paste to keep them there, she took a deep breath, and jacked--
    The Matrix.  The Net.  Online.  Neon green gridlines running from infinity to infinity; the red pyramid of the Fission Authority, the blue towering beast of Microsoft, all the familiar landmarks.  Layla was in the realm of sound and fury, of magic and miracles.  Here her powers ran free, and the cowgirl rode the range.
    Any self doubts and worries smoothed away in tap of the reservoir of the gods.  This was her home.  It was also home to the likes of Nightmare, but she was clever and could beat the dream king.  And she could do it
    --golden flower--
    by herself.  Strange image to float through, but anticipatory hallucinations were common with this generation of tech.  Time to move.
    Layla punched through to the address that was provided by Mif, standing before the unreal clock of ParaDox.  She slotted the clip of Da5id, worming through the unreality, into a new system, and.... ugh.
    Her stomach sloshed into her head.  Her feet felt cold.  What was this place?  ParaDox had totally munged the physics engine of the unreal, warping the senses and distorting time.  Unpredictable bastard, unpredictable.  Like any normal human, Layla figured.  She'd deal with this no--
    Thunder and silence echoed, the Matrix bending itself around the will of another.  Her deck screamed warning signals and errors as her manifestation jerked itself into a new sector, landing in a gridwire of prison cage, an iron mesh of containment-- jack out, get to the eject button, get out, blocked and halted--
    "Pathetic!" ParaDox roared.  "This is the best they could send?"
    Dammit.  Trapped under black ice.  No way out.  Layla glanced around, seeing the twisted visions Paradox had made of time distorted, of reality bent to a little play on words of his own choosing.  Only one recognizable element.
    "Zelas??" Layla gasped.
    Not that she cared to see the freak, since her on again, off again partner and trickster here had screwed her over on numerous occasions.  But he looked like hell.  His avatar all derezzed, munged -- she could see black prongs of black biotech programming piercing the veil of his online existence, shunting coded pain into his meat-body somewhere far away.
    "Good to see you too," Zelas coughed.
    Everything right was wrong again.  Deja vu crept up Layla's spine like the first rising vibes of an acid frenzy.  Flawed and wrong.  Missing elements.  But the same...
    "If you were that easy, I have no problems leaving you for Nightmare to deal with," ParaDox shrugged.  "Let him take your power and claim his dominion.  You're not very impressive."
    "Not impressive?" Layla asked.  Get this guy rolling, tick him off, trick him, get out.  Modus.  "You're no tall glass of water yourself, pal.  In a fair match, I'd win.  Guaranteed and certified."
    "You want a game, then?" ParaDox asked.  "What did you have in mind, Quake or some garbage like that?"
    "Doesn't matter," Layla said.  "Bring it on.  I can take you on myself
    --yellow flowers given to--
    no problems."  A flash again?  Layla grasped for it.  It had to be important...
    "A game of you, then!" ParaDox snarled.  "Find yourself or I have you!  And time ticks.  This is your last chance to win."
    Zelas tried to send her a private message, packets sealed and encoded.  'Remember what you most want to return to,' he said, before the TCP stream died, more rods of black ice shoved through him by an angry ParaDox...
    The hole.  The hole she felt needed filling, the flawed thing, the wrong-feeling thing.  A game in progress.  An important thing.  What did she want to return to?  The missing element taunted her, just out of reach, out of
    --in the garden--
    her hair.  Nightmare's threats.  The waking world.  The world of dreams.  One to keep her part from crossing over.  One to watch over her, but not just on orders.  One who cared.  One who wanted to with nothing expected in return.  The missing thing.  Gourry.  The missing thing.
     He was waiting back in Sailoon. 
     "I've got to go," Layla said, standing inside her prison. 
     "I'm not finished with you, cowgirl," ParaDox growled.  "If--" 
     "I have got to leave now," Layla said again.  "I need to get back to Gourry.  He's going to be worried about Lina.  And I'm Lina.  And I just won your game." 
     And the Matrix collapsed, like the walls of a stage set, crumbling away when the crew was ready to halt the play.  Paradox looked around in disbelief, his reality bubble popping like a flimsy shell... 
     Glass cracked, and shattered.  Lina stepped out of her sphere, a jar at the ready. 
     "Seven down," Lina said, pressing the jar against a stunned Paradox.  In seconds, he was neatly stored.  She screwed the lid back on, satisfied.  "One more to go." 
     Without Paradox to control this world, Lina easily shattered the other prisons, and lifted the sleep enchantment on Dayvid and Amelia. 
     Dayvid rose, blinking.  "Whaa...?" 
     "Time to move," Lina said.  "We're going back to Sailoon." 
Story copyright 1998 Stefan Gagne, characters copyright H. Kanzaka / R. Araizumi.
A Spoof Chase Production.