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Copyright 1998 by G. M. Sullivan.
Author's note:
This story takes place following the action of "Hybrid Vigor" and "Eschaton Boulevard"
and leads into the events described in "Dying for a Cigarette" and "Phoenix Ascending."
Part Three of Four

16.  Las Vegas, Nevada, August 10, 10:11 PM PDT

It was after ten PM, but the neon and incandescent lights of the strip
rendered the street bright as day.  Mary Lou wandered down the crowded
sidewalk, listening to the ambient music, lost in wonder.  She was so
entranced she could almost forget the distress signals coming from her
apparently 14-year-old body.

She was hungry...starving, in fact.  Running the hundreds of miles from
southwest Wyoming had taken a lot of energy.  She had drunk the last can of
"Power ++" a full day ago and needed more calories.  She also needed a
smoke.  Both her money, never plentiful, and "normal" cigarettes had been
 exhausted back in Baxter.

Scantily clad, sequined women cavorted in front of the casinos, offering $25
in free chips to any who would enter.  Mary Lou knew nothing about gambling
(her father would never have approved), but she was desperate and she was a
bright girl.  It couldn't hurt to try, at least.

She approached one of the women and held out her hand.  "Sorry, honey," the
woman said.  "You're too young.  If you want to try the slots, ask your momma
for a token."

"How old do I have to be?"

"Well, if you look at least 16 I can do something."

"Thanks.  Do you have a cigarette?"

The casino woman looked at the pitiful waif.  ", kid.  Live it up."
She handed Mary Lou a B&H 100.  "Just don't say where you got it.  Need a

"No...but thanks."  Mary Lou wandered off on a long search for a dark alley.

When she found one, she retreated to the deepest shadows and lit the
cigarette with one of her dwindling supply of kitchen matches.  She inhaled
hungrily, overwhelming the paper filter and consuming the entire smoke in a
triple pump.  She exhaled voluminous clouds with each breath while she
concentrated hard.

Her height increased three inches, to five foot six.  Baby fat melted from
her cheeks.  Her breasts and hips filled out slightly, and she felt the hair
in hidden places grow thicker.  She shortened her carrot-top to
shoulder-length, then layered, textured, and arranged it in a more mature
style.  Unfortunately, she could do nothing about her tattered blue
sweatsuit, which was now too small.

Her hunger went from an annoying itch to a raging need.  She had attempted to
add mass, and needed energy to restore the balance.  She felt her ribs
pressing against skin.  A quick search of her lightened pack revealed some
crumbs, but it was hardly enough.  She needed food, and soon.

Leaving the alley, she approached a different casino with same $25 offer.
The woman outside glanced disparagingly at her stained and torn attire, but
forked over the chips without a word.

In the casino, the dream-dust sparkle of lights and wonder redoubled.
Endless rows of video slot machines beckoned in glorious variety,
felt-covered tables of various sorts were crowded with gamblers, and the
possibilities seemed endless.  Her enhanced hearing brought the sound of
briskly shuffled cards, the electronic beeps and whoops of the arcade-like
slots, the hard click of rolling dice.